Thanks for taking time out in a busy life to reflect with me on one of the many dimensions of Christmas.
This Advent much of my prayer has centered on the very different spiritual approaches of John the Baptist and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, knowing that we need both approaches.
John is the austere prophet who calls us all to, “Repent.” That is the way to get ready for the Messiah and the coming reign of God. Be honest about the darkness within ourselves and within our society so we can take in the Light of the World when he comes.
Mary, after her initial fear at encountering the angel Gabriel, is exuberant. In the midst of her pregnancy when she greets Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, she proclaims “My soul magnifies the Lord, and rejoices in God my Savior.”
I’m reminded of a story told by another preacher about the rehearsal for the Christmas Pageant. The seven year old girl playing Mary is told, “Here, in the back of the church, you will be told by the angel you will bear God’s Son. Then, you go down the aisle to the front of the church to greet Elizabeth and you say, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The little actress looks intently at the director and says, “Ok. I can do that. Just one question. How do you want me to go down the aisle? Should I walk or should I fly?”
In the Scriptures, after Mary magnifies the Lord, she recognizes that God is transforming her AND the whole world.
How was Mary being transformed? Perhaps the answer lies in that word “magnifies.” God acted in her life and Mary “magnified” it. She thought about it. She prayed about it. Later, the night Jesus was born, shepherds came to her with news from angels. We are told “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The same thing happens when the young Jesus teaches in the temple. “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.”
We all know about magnifying. We know about dwelling on something that happens. Many years ago, our children had a book called THE HURT. It was about a little boy who was hurt by the words of another in school. Those words did hurt. But he kept thinking about them. Soon the “hurt” became a physical thing – a “blob” which filled his room, took up all his space. Eventually he talks about the hurt with his parents and it begins to shrink.
We all know how to magnify things. Perhaps we could join Mary in magnifying the many ways we are abundantly blessed. We could dwell on those realities until they fill our lives and transform us.
The spiritualities of John and Mary are very different. But we need both. And I believe they both come together in this powerful prayer by the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan. It is sometimes called the “Advent/Christmas/Epiphany Credo.”
It is NOT true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss. THIS is true – for God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
It is NOT true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction of the earth. THIS is true – I have come that they may have life and that abundantly.
It is NOT true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever. THIS is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of Peace.
So let us enter Christmas in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage – Jesus Christ, the Life of the World.
Thank you for all your dedication to Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. Thank you for the time, effort and love you put into the Episcopal Branch of 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. Thank you. Your work and prayer means so much.
In June I was at the Tri-annual gathering of deacons throughout our country which was being held in Providence. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was there and, as always, he rocked the house with his keynote address. At one point he was talking about St. Paul and how everywhere St. Paul went with the message of Jesus, there was a revolution. The crowd was riveted as Michael brought that revolution of love and resurrection to the present day.
He started shouting out, as only Michael can, to the bishops in the gathering. He would shout out the name of a bishop and say “can you imagine what a revolution would look like in …and then names the bishop’s diocese.” He did this for several bishops –“Bishop- name- can you imagine what a revolution would look like in – name the diocese.” The he gets to me. “Doug, can you imagine what a revolution would look like …wait, there is already a revolution going on in Western Massachusetts.”
When I die, please put that on my tombstone.
Michael never did go on to describe what is
revolutionary about Western Mass. That leaves it open to me to speculate what
he meant in this convention address.
Could it be the day to day commitment you all make
to following Jesus? Could it be the hospital visits, the hours of sermon prep,
the choir rehearsals, the bible studies, the pastoral counseling, the millions
of prayers you say privately and publically, the loving care of church
property, the reaching out to the lonely or hurting neighbor, the generous
financial commitments you all make to the mission of the church? Faithfulness
in this era is revolutionary. You inspire me.
Here is some other revolutionary activity in Western Mass. This is not an inclusive list. You will see other examples in the videos throughout the day.
In Western Mass, we dare to go where the people are and where the need is. We have chaplains to the Appalachian Trail – because if people are coming from around the world to walk from Georgia to Maine (or some part of it) you know they are searching for something.
We go to the challenged Main South neighborhood in Worcester through our Walking Together ministry – addressing the opioid crisis and addictions through Twelve Step programs, providing counseling and getting people the help they need, which includes a lot of prayer. And, sometimes, it includes saving lives with Narcan.
Our chaplains for the Women’s Correctional facility in Chicopee and to the Worcester House of Corrections fulfill Jesus’ revolutionary statement; when we visit the imprisoned we visit him. And we do that in another way with Reconciliation House in Webster – a facility for men coming out of jail with addiction issues.
Some revolutionary ideas are simple – like gathering veterans for lunch. A number of our churches do that once a week. Together we serve 500 vets every week. Some of those vets are doing fine and they come for the companionship. Others are literally living under bridges. And some suffer from PTSD and Moral Injury. I’m studying both those afflictions and I invite other church leaders to do so as well that we might listen with understanding and compassion. It is where our church is called to be.
There are many other revolutionary ministries that change lives like Lawrence House, outdoor liturgical communities, Laundry Love and others you will hear about in this convention.
But perhaps Michael Curry was referring to the revolution of his Revival with us last year. It was a phenomenal day with our celebrations in Pittsfield and Worcester – marked by inspirational music, witnesses to our faith and of course Michael reminding us that “if it is not about love, it is not about God.”
That revolution was not a one day event. We followed up on that day in many ways with Revival Year 2. And one of the lasting effects of Year 2 is a new spirit of collaboration in our diocese. For Easter Vigil this year, all the churches in the Berkshires got together in Lenox for one glorious service. The Church was packed and we had baptisms and confirmations and receptions. And then in Pittsfield on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, over 100 people from many different parishes gathered to put together 20,000 meals (yes, 20,000 ) for the hungry.
I invite you to consider continuing the revolution
of Episcopal churches working together. This is not about mergers or closing
churches. It is because we are stronger together. And it is a lot more fun.
Christ Church Rochdale, Grace Church Oxford and St. Thomas Auburn are doing
this right now. In the last few years the churches in Chicopee, North Grafton
and Sutton, Wilbraham, West Springfield, Greenfield and Turners Falls have come
together with their neighbors and it all looks like Resurrection.
A great example of this is the Small Church Summit
which has had two very successful meetings of devoted followers of Jesus who
have come together to share the challenges and opportunities of being small
As a sign of my commitment to collaboration, how
about this idea? For any neighboring parishes that want to do this, I volunteer
to walk from one parish to another, ending with Evening Prayer, a meal and a
discussion as to how those two parishes can work together. After all, you are
in walking distance of each other!
Another collaboration that came out of revival is our Pilgrimage Project. Members of our Diocesan Council called every church in WMA and asked them about a ministry they are particularly good at. They range from food pantries to farmer’s markets to Celtic liturgies and many others. If your parish is considering a new ministry and want to know how to do it, you are invited to a Pilgrimage to one of the parishes that is already doing it. It is part of an ancient tradition – go to a holy place and grow in mission and spiritual depth. Those holy places are right here in revolutionary WMA. You will hear more about this in the next issue of our diocesan magazine.
I’m excited to announce here that Bishop Mark Beckwith is our new Missioner for Spirituality and Leadership. Mark brings great gifts to our diocese. He is spending time in our congregations, preaching and teaching.
This is all part of a big commitment we all have to parish renewal. In past Convention Addresses, I have invited us to “double down” on social justice, and to “double down on prayer.” Let’s add to that “double down on parish renewal. We have a whole range of ways to make this happen. Already 10 of our parishes have done Renewal Works, 5 are enrolled in the College for Congregational Development. One is doing Natural Church Development. 7 parishes are working with Peter Swarr and Sue Schneider in “Explorations into Christian Leadership.” And we have 11 coaches to work with parishes leaders to fulfill our hopes and dreams for the holy mission Jesus has given us. If you want to know more about any of these programs see Pam Mott. Yes, let’s double down on parish renewal.
Let’s collaborate with Episcopal Churches and with the Lutherans, Congregationalists, Methodists and anyone else that wants to share prayer and mission. Recently I was at a meeting with other “heads of churches” brought together by the Mass Council of Churches.
We told stories of parishes working together across denominational lines. One example is that this year we are merging our popular Leadership Day with the UCC’s “Super Saturday” where there will be dozens of workshops that can be helpful to any UCC and Episcopal church and there will be a few particular to our Episcopal Church. When so much in our world is coming apart, we are coming together.
Michael Curry has given us a clear definition of the Church. I mentioned it earlier. “We are the Episcopal Branch of 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.” Could our humble efforts at that be what he means by revolutionary?”
Religious scholar Thomas Cahill has written several books about key moments in the history of Western Civilization and how different communities contributed. He wrote The Hinges of History series, and The Gifts of the Jews. Twenty-five years ago he wrote, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. He tells the stories of how monks formed communities of peace and prayer, with farms to feed the poor displaced by the many wars. Monks spent their lives copying the bible by hand to preserve God’s word for future generations. Without the efforts of the Church, what was known as the “Dark Ages” might never have ended.
The Church responded to the needs of the time. We have not always. When the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in 1860, they said nothing about slavery or the impending Civil War.
We now have another “hinge of history” moment. We face a climate change crisis. And as the monks saved Western Civilization, it is our challenge to save the earth. Listen to the words of our Michael Curry and Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Archbishop Jackelén, head of the Church of Sweden:
“…the link of unprecedented climate change to human action rests now on insurmountable scientific evidence. In human societies, these climate changes compound social injustices, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us. Yet the burdens are not borne by humans alone: acceleration in the disappearance of species of plants and animals underlies the intertwined struggles of all life on Earth, and the destructive exploitation of resources leaves a diminished planet for all time to come.”
A Call to Join in the Care of Creation From The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Church of Sweden (Lutheran)
These religious leaders go on to say, “We claim the deep resources of our Christian faith to meet this challenge. We worship a God who created all that exists, who rejoices in its flourishing and blesses its diversity.”
They issued a call to action which involves: advocacy, education, prayer and collaboration. That sounds like the work that our Margaret Bullitt-Jonas has been doing for so long.
Now I invite us to make a commitment to joining her in this earth saving work. One way to do that is for all our clergy and lay preachers to make a commitment to preach about creation care. And to do so in the spirit of Michael Curry who says, “We acknowledge the dire urgency of this moment not through the lenses of despair, but through lenses of hope and determination.” We will be providing resources on how to do this.
We have a public health crisis of gun violence in our country. Over 100 people a day die from gun violence in our beloved USA. Our diocese is acknowledged by the network called Bishops United Against Gun Violence as a leader in this cause.
One of The Episcopal Church’s top priorities is racial reconciliation. Our Beloved Community Committee is working hard at education about white privilege. Several of our churches had services marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in our country. They came from Ghana where we have a companion relationship. Friends, we have a long way to go in this work before we can be anywhere near revolutionary, but we are committed.
And we have a long way to go in being revolutionary in standing with immigrants and refugees – check all the references in the Bible about “welcoming the stranger” for why we do this. A shout out to Grace, Amherst for their embrace of a refugee family and for their support of the Congregational Church as they provide sanctuary for Lucio Perez, a father of four who has worked and paid taxes here for over 20 years. I went to the ICE offices with several UCC ministers and a rabbi to advocate for him. Thank you to our many churches that have signs saying “immigrants are welcome here.”
The mission before us is daunting which is why we need prayer and one another. Rachel Held Evans, a wonderful young Episcopal writer who died all too soon this past year, writes “The only way to work for justice in a sustainable way is to be rooted in the nourishing soul of contemplation and community.”
When we do that, really do that, we recognize God’s presence among us. And here I want to thank our brothers and sisters who tell me I am too political. They tell me we should be about saving souls. In my heart I believe this work IS about saving souls. But I do thank you for faithfully calling us to a life of prayer. If we lose our center in Christ, our work for creation, addressing gun violence, welcoming immigrants and refugees, promoting racial reconciliation becomes about power instead of following Jesus who has merged loving God and loving neighbor.
A few weeks ago a video about a boy anxious about school and what his parents did about it went viral. They dressed him up as a different super hero every day.
I think St. Paul would like that video because he had a similar idea. He told the early Christians to “put on Christ.”
Galatians 3:27 “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
Ephesians 6:10 “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God.”
Romans 13:14 “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”
And 75 times we are told we are “in Christ.”
Prayer, deep, sincere prayer leads to a resurrected life. We know this from theologian Bruce Springsteen. You knew I was going to get Springsteen into this address somewhere. In “My City in Ruins” he sings:
Now with these hands,
with these hands, with these hands, I pray Lord.
I pray for the strength
I pray for the faith
I pray for your love
I pray for the strength
I pray for your Love
And then he sings “Come on, Rise Up.” Eleven times. “Come on, Rise up.”
You see, praying leads to resurrection – for our souls, for our society, for God’s creation.
My spiritual director often says to me “Doug, you are capable of more than you think you are.” And I say to all of us in the revolutionary diocese of Western Massachusetts – “We are capable of more than we think we are.” And if you don’t believe my spiritual director, believe Saint Paul, who in his second letter to Timothy wrote, “We have not been given a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love and power.”
We say that every time we pray Evening Prayer. It’s 9 am but let’s pray these words.
“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”
As summer fades into fall, we are always taken aback by the sudden changes in color, the cool mornings and warm afternoons. Western Massachusetts is some of God’s most beautiful earth – from the Blackstone to the Housatonic. We are observing Creation Season with ecumenical partners all over the world. It is a time for gratitude and for conversion.
We are slowly waking up from our denial about climate change. Young voices are calling to us to do now what will profit the world we will leave to them. Like many I have been moved by Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who captivated the UN, sailed across the Atlantic to avoid the carbon exuded by airliners, and who speaks for an entire generation. This young voice and many others are calling the adults in this world to act – to give climate justice pride of place in the long global to-do list. And a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6b). Thunberg in no child, but neither is she, by our standards, a person with power. Yet, she is using her voice in a way that is moving hearts and changing minds. It’s time for the adults “in charge” of things to get with the program. We have limited time now to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s time to move from “business as usual” to a new mode of awareness and activism.
For months now young people have done monthly school walk-outs to witness to the urgency of climate change. On September 21st our young people are leading a global climate strike. They are asking adults to leave their places of business and their homes and to join them. There will be events for seven days all around the world to highlight the plight of the earth and share problem-solving platforms and strategies.
On Friday, September 20, Springfield folk can participate in the Climate Strike Solidarity Vigil 12:30 PM, Court Square. Later that day in Northampton, join the Climate Emergency March for a Just Future will start with a march at 4:30 p.m. from Sheldon Field, Northampton, followed by a rally at 5:00 p.m. at City Hall. Our Missioner for Creation Care, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, will speak at both of these actions. Visit globalclimatestrike.net and you’ll see that there are strikes scheduled in Greenfield, Williamstown, Pittsfield, Worcester and more!
I will be at the fall meeting of the House of Bishops that day. Bishop Marc Andrus and I are organizing a public witness in which the whole HOB leaves our meeting at 1 pm on Friday. We will walk across the bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will speak.
Not everyone can leave work. If you can’t join the strike locally or in Boston, why not make September 20th a day for personal climate action?
Have you joined sustainislandhome.org? This platform helps each household to track and reduce its carbon footprint.
September 20th will go down in the history of this movement as the day adults walked away from the important in deference to the urgent. It’s time for us all to have their backs – the youth who lead this movement and will live with the consequences of our inaction. Be part of the Global Climate Strike and be a witness for the earth, our fragile island home.
Homily at the September Requiem for Those Who Died By Gun Violence
Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash
When you gathered in June, (I believe it was the first of these monthly Requiems for victims of gun violence), you spoke the name of Meaghan Burns in this sacred place. She is one of Western Massachusetts’ own. I confirmed her five years ago at St. James in Greenfield. She went on to serve her country in the Navy. She was stationed in Virginia. On the night of her death she went out to dinner with another sailor who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. As they left the restaurant, the ex-boyfriend shot them both dead and then turned the weapon on himself.
Friends, the Body of Christ is bleeding. The public health crisis of gun violence is exactly that – a crisis. A clear and present crisis. It is not far away. It is here. And it demands a response on so many fronts. Including that of faith communities. Bruce Springsteen has a song about gun violence called “Forty One Shots.” One of the lyrics is,
“We are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.”
The Body of Christ is bleeding. In a few minutes we will say the names of 1000 of the more than 3000 people who died last month in gun violence in our United States. As we do it, we are doing what faithful women did 2000 years ago at the cross of Jesus. They were going there in sorrow, to bear a witness of love to the one who was dying.
In one of those gospel accounts about the women at the Cross, there is a man with them -the one called the beloved disciple. With his dying breath, Jesus says to Mary, his mother, “Behold your son.” To the beloved disciple he says, “Behold your mother.”
When Jesus does that, he unites all of humanity in the blood of the Cross. We are truly brother and sister to each other. When we say these names, we are naming our brothers and sisters. We are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.
And what happened after they went to the cross and after they went to the tomb? What happened after they spoke the name of the dead? The dead one appeared to them and they launched the greatest mission of mercy, compassion and hope that the world had ever seen. Their baptism in the water and the blood inspired multitudes to say that the world cannot stay the same. They refused to say, ‘it is what it is.” The world holds the possibilities of transformation, of new life, and of a new way of being. Or as the royal wedding preacher Michael Curry constantly reminds us, “if it is not about Love, it is not about God.”
I have a wonderful spiritual director. Sometimes I go to her feeling discouraged. And she says to me “you are capable of more than you think you are.”
Photo: M. Tuck
Now we say the names of the victims of the public health crisis of gun violence aloud. We go to the place of the dead. We acknowledge them as our brothers and sisters. We state clearly that the Body of Christ is bleeding. And that we are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood. And perhaps we will hear the dead whispering back to us. “You are capable of more than you think you are.”
For those interested in doing a similar service, click here to request an updated list of names each month.
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?
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.