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.
The following sermon was given this morning at the annual Renewal of Vows and Blessing of Oils at Christ Church Cathedral.
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.
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
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.”
reminder on the day we renew our vows as ordained leaders in the church.
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.”
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.
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?
made you say yes?
are thinking about that, let me provide a structure for your particular answer.
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.
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
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.
called by God, loved by Christ SO THAT we may understand the power of His
ordained SO THAT I could help spread the light and hope of Christ.
What is it
for you? I was ordained so that…
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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?
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
Everyone knows by now that our Presiding Bishop, the “Royal Wedding preacher,” Michael Curry, is coming to our great diocese for an Episcopal revival on Sunday October 21st. The gospel writers don’t use the word “revival” but I think that was what it was when Jesus preached and fed the 5000. And there was a time when Jesus was not preaching a revival but he himself was in need of a revival. I think that time was the Gospel passage we had last week and I think what happened there impacts what happens in today’s gospel story.
Remember last week Jesus went to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Jesus wanted some down time. And if you read the first seven chapters of Mark’s Gospel you would know why. Jesus goes from Nazareth to Capernaum, then north, then south, across the Sea of Galilee several times. Over a dozen different locations are mentioned. Jesus is on the move. And remember they didn’t have Uber™ in those days. Jesus is walking. His pace matches the frenetic pace of Mark’s gospel – the gospel that has the word “immediately” 56 times in 16 short chapters.
Jesus has to stop and slow down. Amazing things can happen when we stop and slow down. This summer I walked 120 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain with my son Geoff.
It is a pilgrimage with a deep spiritual tradition. Thousands and thousands of people from all over the world come to Spain to take part in it. It was a tremendous experience for my son and me. The first few days we were not rushing, just walking at our normal pace. My son is 6 foot three and we both have long legs. That meant going at our normal pace we were passing everyone. And, staying with the custom, we would say “Buen Camino” to each pilgrim that we passed. But not much more. In the last few days Geoff developed a sore knee. It wasn’t enough to stop us but it did mean we had to walk more slowly. And because we did, we walked alongside other pilgrims and got to hear their fascinating stories. We met people from Korea, Ireland, New Zealand, and England. That only happened because we slowed down.
Jesus is tired. He is in need of a revival. And because he slows down a Syrophoenician woman gets to see him. Her daughter has a demon and she is hoping Jesus will cure her. Remember this woman is not from Israel and Jesus thinks his mission is only to Israel. When she makes her request, Jesus says something very unlike Jesus. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Ouch! Jesus needs reviving.
The Canaanite / Syrophonoecian woman with the dog who eats the crumbs Artist: @ReverendAlly.org/art
She answers, Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. At that exact moment Jesus is revived. He realizes his mission is not restricted to Israel but is to the whole world. He cures her daughter. And his mission is expanded and revitalized.
For those of you surprised that Jesus learned something new, I invite you to check out Luke’s gospel where we are told three times Jesus grew in age, wisdom and understanding. Jesus, fully divine and fully human, had truths to learn.
Now we are ready for today’s gospel and the new place in Jesus’ journey. He arrives in Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was not always called that. It used to be Naphtali and it was the location of great deeds performed by Kings David and Solomon. It was a holy city for the people of Israel. But when the Roman army took over Israel for the Roman Empire, they renamed it. Caesarea means, “Caesar’s town.” Philippi was the name of a Roman Tetrarch. The Romans are really putting it in the face of the Jewish people.
Jesus arrives with a large following. At this point Jesus is at the height of his popularity. We know this because not long ago he had a revival with the 5000 people. He has so many followers now that he no longer knows them personally. He has to ask his disciples. Who do people say I am? And many are thinking he is the one who will drive the Romans out.
That’s the scene. Jesus with his great following is in a place where people are looking for a revolution. Would he lead them against the Empire? Jesus had proclaimed a different kingdom – one of healing, forgiveness, compassion and hope. But I think at this moment he is tempted with a worldly kingdom. Here’s why. Earlier in his ministry Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan. The temptations were about seizing earthly power for himself. Jesus rejected Satan that day but Luke’s gospel tells us Satan left him to return at an opportune time. The battle was not over. Satan was coming back. This is the moment of his return. It does not make sense for Jesus to be so furious at Peter to say, Get behind me, Satan to Peter. He is not calling Peter “Satan.” He actually sees Satan, tempting him once again with the power of this world. At that moment Jesus could have given in and become just another leader written about in history books. Instead Jesus chooses a true revolution – a revolution that changes hearts. A revolution that is still going on as we attempt to change the world through compassion and grace.
And there is another dimension to Caesarea Philippi. The Romans who settled there built temples to their gods. Temples in which sacrifices were performed.
Ruin of the Temple of Pan at Caesarea Philippi
The temple here was to Pan. To Pan, the Romans sacrificed pigs – and threw the remains into the lake, thereby defiling that so that the Jewish people could not drink it. You can understand why the Jewish people wanted the Romans out. When the Romans did that they were following a theology that had existed for thousands of years. Sacrifice animals, sometimes even children, to God so that God might be appeased. “Here God. Take this. And leave me alone. You are a terrible God. Stay out of the life of my family.” In the city of the Temple of Pan, Jesus, consistent with the prophets of Israel, reverses this practice and this theology. We no longer sacrifice to appease God. Jesus, the Son of God, now sacrifices for us. This means we no longer push God away. We now invite God into our lives. We can now ask God to be with us. Jesus changes the world by completing changing the way we relate to God and one another. This is a commitment to a new heaven and a new earth.
I’ll end with a quote that I am praying every day in this time of our revival. It is a quote from a man named Cyprian who lived around the year 100 in Rome. He wrote to a friend and said,
“The world can be a mean and cruel place. But here in Rome there is a small group of people who care about each other. They give whatever it takes to help each other in need. And they are very happy living this way. They call themselves Christian. I think I will join them and try this way for a while.”
With many of you, I am following with interest the controversy surrounding the Chaplain to the House of Representatives, Patrick Conroy S.J. I’m reflecting on it from the viewpoint of someone who was a “guest chaplain” for a day on September 22, 2010. The Congressman from my district (the 22nd in New York) Scott Murphy nominated me for this honor.
The Rev. Doug Fisher, Fr. Daniel Coughlin, and Congressman Scott Murphy, NY.
The Chaplain at that time was Fr. Daniel Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest. He was warmly hospitable to Betsy and me. Before my prayer, which would open the day in the House, Father Dan took us on a tour. When we arrived at the Chapel, knowing Betsy is also a priest, he asked her to say a prayer for us in that sacred space.
Doug and Betsy in DC.
In 2010 our nation was still in the throes of the recession caused by the 2008 crash. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were still raging. And, like now, immigration was hotly debated. In trying to offer a prayer that was more than generic, I wanted to include the unemployed, immigrants and those serving in our Armed Forces. Here is the prayer in full:
Father Conroy seems to be in trouble with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for a prayer he gave in October 2018 as the new tax laws were being debated. In that prayer Conroy asked for God’s blessing, and urged lawmakers to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under the new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” After that prayer, Conroy recalls Ryan saying “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.” Conroy believes that this prayer, and a desire to have an Evangelical chaplain who might be more conservative politically than a Jesuit, were the causes of the request for his resignation (which he gave and then rescinded).
The Rev. Patrick Conroy, SJ Chaplain, US House of Representatives Photo: CBS News
I would argue that my prayer, and that of Father Conroy, stand in a tradition of prayer that is incarnational – praying with a God who “dwells among us.” The Psalmists and Jesus prayed in this way. Their prayers were not abstract. Their prayers were not disembodied.
Consider the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.” So far, that prayer would be OK in Congress. But then it gets political. “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.” In heaven there are no “winners and losers” so it should be that way here too. Jesus is calling for a kingdom where all are fed. Would Jesus get away with saying that in Congress?
At the Continental Congress in 1774, there was a contentious debate over prayer. The decision was to allow it.
First prayer at the 1774 Continental Congress
The Rev. Jacob Duche, an Episcopalian, prayed, “Take them (American states) under Thy nurturing care…detest the malicious designs of our cruel adversaries; convince them of the unrighteousness off their cause.” With that prayer ringing in their ears, the 1789 Constitutional Congress declared that every day they were in session would be opened in prayer. It has been that way ever since.
As one commentator on the Conroy controversy put it: “Taking care of the poor and standing against injustice is part of his (Conroy’s) sacred creed.” I think our elected leaders need to hear that creed. I do. Every day. Do you?