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.
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.”
A few weeks ago, Bishop Alan Gates of the Diocese of Massachusetts and I signed an Amicus Brief on behalf of our dioceses joining 85 other religious organizations in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Yesterday Alan and I joined with Episcopal City Mission in supporting Centro Presente in a witness at Boston City Hall. We heard from immigrants here in this country through Temporary Protection Status (TPS) and from their children.
The Rev. Arrington Chambliss, Executive Director of Episcopal City Mission, Bishop Fisher, Bishop Alan Gates of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Photo: D. Fisher
These are two separate political issues relating to immigration, but my participation in both is rooted in one theology. Biblical imperatives about welcoming the stranger abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Here are just a few:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19: 33-34).
If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you (Leviticus 25:35).
You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9).
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matthew 25:35).
Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7).
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:1-2).
At a prayer service before going to City Hall, Natalie Finstad of Episcopal City Mission described a key aspect of the early Church as she understands it from the book Transforming Mission by David Bosch.
“The nature of the early Christian mission manifested itself from the new relationship that came into being in community. Jew and Roman, Greek and barbarian, free and slave, rich and poor, woman and man, accepted one another as brothers and sisters. It was a movement without analogy, indeed a ‘sociological impossibility.’ Small wonder that the Christian community caused so much astonishment in the Roman Empire and beyond. In fact, the Christian community and its faith was so different from anything known in the ancient world that it often made no sense to others.”
“They (immigrants here through TPS) are our neighbors and coworkers. They’re members of our faith community. They own homes and businesses. Taking this protection away these young people and family members will not make our community safer. To the contrary, it’s going to introduce chaos.” (Cristela Guerra for The Boston Globe)
Chaos. Ten-year-old Gabriela Martinez of Leominster contrasted her dreams with chaos. She told the crowd that she wants to teach English as a second language to help immigrant families. She said that she doesn’t want to see families destroyed or divided. “In order to accomplish our dreams, our parents and family need residency, not just TPS,” the fifth-grader said. (Boston Globe)
Much of recent theological reflection has centered on finding out what God is up to in the world. We have a dynamic God, a community of divine Love always active, and not confined by, the church’s walls. I see God acting in the work of Amy Grunder, Director of Legislative Affairs for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). We had a long conversation in which she said she needs more allies in Western and Central Massachusetts. I see God acting in the testimony of Centro Presente and in the support of Episcopal City Mission and continuing collaboration of our two Episcopal dioceses. And, I see God at work in our Church, The Episcopal Public Policy Network is following these legislative developments closely and provides us with everything we need to advocate.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has given us a working definition for the 21st century. “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.” Some of the change will come about if we resist the forces of chaos and become the community God intends for us to be.
The Bishop’s Christmas Eve sermon given at 10 PM in Christ Church Cathedral.
Don’t you love the Gospel for Christmas Eve? Written by Luke, it is an iconic story, a world-changing story, a story that touches the soul. I will happily preach about it in a moment but first, I want to look at a line from the Gospel we read tomorrow on Christmas Day from the Gospel of John. Since you decided to move the service up one hour – from 11 pm to 10 pm – that gives me plenty of time to preach on two gospels, right?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The darkness did not overcome the light, but the light didn’t overcome the darkness either. Preacher Scott Johnston puts it this way:
“I struggle with this verse because I want them to declare that when the light comes into the world it obliterates the darkness. It takes the bleak mid-winter with every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every horrendous travesty, every evil plan, every god-awful life sucking disease, and tosses the whole mess into the cosmic trash bin. I want the light to arrive and I want it to win, and win big.”
The light came into the world and 2000 years later there is a lot of darkness. We know that so powerfully in 2015. But we have been given a promise – by God no less – that the light is here and darkness will not overcome it. Maybe, that is enough. Later in this liturgy we will turn out all the lights and sing “Silent Night” while holding candles. It will be more dark than light. But as we hold those candles and sing that hymn, I pray we know – we really know – that God is with us no matter what here in the real world and not in an abstract world.
That truth is what brings us into tonight’s gospel. “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. That was the first registration and was taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” It reminds us of a line that comes up a couple of chapters later in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus and his cousin John are adults. We are told who the emperor is, who the governor is, who the king is, who the high priests are “when the word of God came to a man named John in the wilderness.” These are crucial details. It is Luke’s way of telling us this is not a fairy tale. This is not “once upon a time.” In history, in the real world, God was present. The light was coming not in heaven but on earth. God was not present in a vague way but in a human being. That presence was not to be restricted to Jesus but was to be a presence, a light in the darkness, for all of us.
The Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins puts this world-rattling insight into three lines of poetry:
“In a flash, at a trumpet’s crash,
I am all at once what Christ is
Since he was what I am.”
Christ was what I am. If that is true, then we need to look to who Christ is to know who we are. And it just so happens that tonight’s gospel gives us lots of insights into that. This birth story sets the themes that play out through the life of Jesus and beyond into our lives. Let’s look at three of them.
The census required that everyone go back to the hometown of their father to be counted. For Joseph and the very pregnant Mary, that means going to Bethlehem – a seventy mile journey. When they get there, “there is no place for them in the inn.”
Now there are dozens of theories about what this means and to go into all of them would have required that this service start at 9 and not 10. But I am intrigued by one commentator who says that if all of Joseph’s family had to return to the ancestral home of Bethlehem, then his brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts were all in town. But no one came to their aid. No uncle, seeing the almost-ready to give birth Mary, said “hey, take my bed. You need it a lot more than I do. I’ll sleep outside by the manger where the animals eat tonight.” Again, we can speculate forever about why no one did this. Perhaps it was because Mary was pregnant and not married? Who knows? But what we do know is Jesus will later say in Matthew’s Gospel (I know I’m intermingling gospels here – don’t tell the bishop): “I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Could it be he understood that from his birth story? Jesus tells us what we are to do to be truly human, to be a light in a dark world: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The shepherds give us another hint as to Jesus’ mission – and what it means to be human. Shepherds were not highly regarded in the society of that time, but just the opposite. To use modern terminology – they were “lowlifes.” And yet the angels bypassed the Emperor and the Governor and give the scoop about salvation and a whole new way of being to them. Doing that, the “outsiders” have been brought within the people of God. The baby Jesus would grow into an adult Jesus who would do the very same thing – including tax collectors and sinners, women, the poor and the marginalized. That was unimaginable in those days. One of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, puts it this way:
“The newness that God did at Christmas was to send into the world this Jesus who is beyond our imagination, who brought healing and grace everywhere he went, who forgave and transformed and called people out beyond themselves to a newness they could not have imagined.”
In another soul-gripping story from the life of Jesus, his cousin John who is in prison sends friends to ask Jesus: are you the one, the Messiah? And Jesus says tell him what is happening here. “Blind people are dancing. Lame people are walking into freedom. Lepers are being invited back into the family. Dead people are being given new life. There are poor people having their debts cancelled. All around there are people starting over in freedom and courage because God is doing a new thing.” God is healing and restoring and liberating and reconciling because the light has entered the world and the darkness could not overcome it.
St. Augustine Church, Prophet Isaiah by Raphael
And one more of many connections between the birth story, the mission of the adult Jesus, and our lives now. The angels who appear to the shepherds sing a hymn that is an echo of a hymn in the book of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:3). The prophet Isaiah who lived 600 years before Jesus will be incredibly important in his life and message. You all know – too well – that in many of my sermons I use a quote from a Bruce Springsteen song or a baseball story. They are my “go to resources.” The “go-to” resource for Jesus is Isaiah. He quotes him more than anyone else from the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah. The one who tells us: “Look, you who serve your own interests…and oppress your workers…the fast I choose is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.” That is one of dozens of passages about social justice and the rejection of violence. Isaiah is Jesus’ spiritual hero. Isaiah is on Jesus’ personal Mount Rushmore.
Isaiah also says “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” I always thought Isaiah got the order of that movement wrong. He goes from flying to running to walking. Shouldn’t it be walking to running to flying? Isn’t that what we are called to in the spiritual life? Maybe. But perhaps the spiritual life and real life are the same thing. Sure, sometimes we soar. We have “Paul on the road to Damascus moments” of incredible insight and connection to the living God. And we know about running – it’s Christmas in America – anyone feel like they have been running the last few weeks? But walking, and not fainting – that’s huge for living in a world where the light has not obliterated the darkness. Walking and not fainting because we believe every day that the darkness will not overcome the light. Walking and not fainting because we follow Jesus “who was what I am” and leads us on a mission of mercy, compassion and hope.
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, invites us to be part of the Jesus Movement. And the Jesus Movement is determined to change this world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it. 2000 years ago the Jesus Movement, building on the Isaiah Movement was born. We are part of that. The Light is in the world. When Barack was president, and Charlie was governor, and Michael was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the word of God came to you and me. The darkness will not overcome it. Amen.
Just a few days ago I was at the National Cathedral in Washington DC for the installation of Michael Curry as our new Presiding Bishop. I can’t possibly express adequately the enthusiasm that is running through our Church. Michael is the first African-American Presiding Bishop and the first ever to be elected on the first ballot. He is dedicated to social justice AND to growing our church. He says he is now the CEO of the Episcopal Church – the Chief Evangelism Officer. Michael is inviting all of us to join the Jesus Movement – a mission to change this world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for it. I’m still on a spiritual high from that liturgy at the National Cathedral so if I start talking too fast, tell me to slow down.
And I have a great love and admiration for our outgoing PB, Katharine Jefferts-Schori whom many of you met three years ago around the corner at the Mass Mutual Center when I was ordained a bishop. I will always remember a sermon Katherine gave at General Convention this summer. She was preaching on the story in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is told a twelve year old girl, the daughter of the synagogue leader, has died. Jesus immediately goes to the bedside of the girl, takes her by the hand and says “Talitha cum” which means “Little girl, get up!” Immediately the girl got up and began to walk.
As Katherine retold the story she reinterpreted “Talitha cum” to have Jesus shout: “Get up girl! You’re not dead yet!” Katherine then applied that to the Episcopal Church. “Get up, Church, you’re not dead yet!” We have had turmoil within and an increasingly secular society without, but we are not dead yet. Not only are we “not dead”, there are signs of abundant life, resurrected life.
Those signs of resurrection are here in WMA and our future is bright IF…Brothers and Sisters, it is a big IF. IF we allow God to be God. The God we believe in, the God we meet in the Old and New Testaments, the God we meet in the person of Jesus, the God we experience in the Holy Spirit, is a God who is constantly creating, constantly imagining and reimagining, constantly moving through death into new life.
It can’t get much clearer than the Book of Revelation. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…See, I am making all things new.” Here’s the good news. The newness is not just taking place in heaven. It’s taking place here…on earth. “See the home of God is among mortals.” This is not “fluffy spirituality.” It is not abstract. “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them and they will be his peoples.” And God is on a mission to wipe out all the “deathliness” and suffering of the world. You see, God is agreeing with Michael Curry! The Jesus Movement is on a mission to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for it.
Let’s break away from Christianity for a moment and go east. I don’t know a lot about eastern spirituality directly. Maybe, someday. Most of what I know about it comes from the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton and the Franciscan Richard Rohr. Rohr tells us Buddhist wisdom says “Thank God for impermanence. Thank God for constant change because it sets us free. It sets us free from constantly being bound by that which is passing away.” Buddhists acknowledge that “pain is inevitable, but suffering lies in clinging to that which has died.”
There are some dimensions of our church that are dying. And we suffer when we cling to them. At one time they were new and part of God’s plan. But now their mission is over and it is time to pass through death into the newness of resurrected life, into the life of God’s endless creativity and imagination.
One of our churches closed this summer. Several others are closing or considering closing. These decisions are made prayerfully and with a willingness to look at reality. I am grateful to our senior staff – Steve, Pam and Rich- and to the leaders of these parishes who are doing the hard work of transition. And I am grateful to the neighboring parishes that are actively welcoming members of these churches into their faith communities and appreciate the gifts they bring. The buildings close but the church continues. The Jesus Movement rolls in a new way.
Let’s turn to some glimpses of God’s newness among us. One of the highlights of my year was ordaining three new young priests and welcoming a fourth newly ordained from the great state of Idaho. They bring an energy, excitement and a fresh perspective. I remember doing that 35 years ago. And now I want to listen to them because there are certainly some things God is calling us to see that these old eyes are not seeing. To take advantage of their wisdom, and that of several young and dynamic lay people, I am forming the “Young Leaders Council to the Bishop.” We will meet from time to time to see how we might be church for the 21st Century which is already 15 per cent over.
And I invite you to do the same. I’m blessed to look out at you- faithful and wise leaders of our churches. I encourage each one of you to seek out young people (under 50) in your parishes and start incorporating them into leadership, which may or may not look like a vestry. And, when they meet resistance, support them. Turn to those who say “we never did it this way before” and with love and kindness and respect convey that we need to let God be God. Let God express imagination and creativity.
There is another expression we need to avoid. And we clergy are often the guiltiest of using it. When someone wants to try something new, we say “oh, we did that before… In 1987… It failed.” Maybe it was an idea ahead of its time. Maybe there is a new context. Maybe we aren’t hearing the idea correctly.
You see, people like me who remember when President Kennedy was shot, are desperately needed in our churches – more than ever. But one of our big jobs is mentoring. Inviting in the next generations to bring their own special gifts.
Let’s bring the gospel to new places. Like laundromats. Do you know about the Laundry Love program? You will learn about them later today. We have at least three of them in WMA.
Let’s bring the gospel to new places like our streets. I didn’t walk those 175 miles for exercise. I did it to bring the faith out of the church building and into the places where people live and work. And it wasn’t me just bringing the faith, I received the faith. I was inspired by so many who are working for Jesus’ Mission of Mercy, Compassion and Hope. Later we are going to hear about our urban mission to Worcester. I know many of our parishes have done the 20 minute walk north, south, east and west from their buildings and have re-imagined their ministry based on what they found. I might be wrong, but there might be more community outreach going on through our parishes than ever before. You will hear about a few of those parishes in videos later today.
One of the awesome blessings of my walk through the diocese was meeting with community leaders, including police captains and sheriffs at jails. I learned so much. Including staggering facts about the heroin addiction that is crippling New England. Some of you are engaging community leaders in conversations about what churches can do. God bless you. This is Matthew 25 work for today’s world. “I was addicted and you cared.”
Let’s bring the Gospel to new people. Theologian Brian McLaren asks “why do denominations assign leaders to buildings when they should be sending them to populations?” In WMA we are taking that question seriously. We are actively engaged in ministry with veterans, immigrants, Latino populations, to the addicted and the incarcerated. It does not look like traditional parish ministry but it does look like God’s imagination at work.
How about bringing the Gospel to old places with new people? I’m thinking of our college campuses. There are 32 of them in WMA with 130,000 students. Now some outstanding campus ministry is already going on, but not nearly enough. Some of you were around three and a half years ago when I told this story in the “walkabouts” leading up to the election of a new bishop. Or the “Hunger Games” as my kids called them. When our youngest child Gracie was a freshman at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA her spring break was just two weeks before Holy Week. When I was taking her back to school at the end of the break, she said “dad when will you or mom pick me up for Easter?” I said, “Oh honey, you have classes right through Good Friday and you need to be back in class on Monday morning. You know your parents are both priests. There is no way we can drive 4 ½ hours to Carlisle and pick you up and drive you home on Good Friday and make that nine hour round trip on Easter Sunday after services.” She was disappointed but understood. We kept driving and when we stopped at a traffic light in Carlisle, she said “There’s the Episcopal Church…Where I will be sitting all by myself on Easter Sunday morning.”…We figured out a way to get her home for Easter.
Is there a college campus near you? How are you reaching out to those young people? Remember, most of them – the vast majority of them, unless like Gracie a P.K. (preacher’s kid), have been raised with no religious experience at all. They are not looking for a church to go to because they have probably never been in one. “Church? Hmm… I think when I was around ten my cousin got married and I was in this building with candles and windows with paintings in them.” But that might be to our advantage. College is all about learning new things, new experiences. It is about rebelling against your parents. What could be more radical, more “out-there” than discovering life in Christ? And I bet that discovering could come through service to the community because young people love to volunteer for worthy causes. We have an opportunity here, beloved of God, if we can tap into God’s imagination. Lawrence House is one such example and you will be hearing about that later on.
It is great to be a believer, a Christian, an Episcopalian in 2015 because the imagination and creativity of God has given us social media. The word “gospel” means “good news.” John’s Gospel tells us “in the beginning was the Word.” We are in the communications business and God has given us more tools than ever before. Let’s use them! That stroll I took through WMA had 100 times more impact because Vicki Ix, the best communications director anywhere, got the word out on the website, Facebook, twitter, Instagram and traditional newspaper and TV outlets. I know, I know. I have the luxury of a full time professional communications director to do this work. I invite you to tap into God’s imagination to see how you might take advantage of social media to proclaim good news. Someday we will all see Jesus face to face and we might say “Jesus, I know I promised in the Baptismal Covenant to proclaim the Good News in Christ and I’m sorry I did not reach as many people as I hoped. It was so frustrating.” And Jesus will say “But I gave you Facebook!”
Here is one last area for God’s creativity for this Convention address. I have not covered nearly all of them. That is the all-important area of social justice. I have been inspired by multitudes in this dimension of the Gospel, some famous and by some oh so grassroots. One of the famous ones is the theologian Walter Bruggemann who writes about our Revelation passage: “I saw a new Heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. The future is not a private, individualistic future. It is a new epoch in the history of the world.” Here is a key line for us church folk. “The church knows that the old earth cannot be sustained.” That’s right. I’ll add the old earth that burns fossil fuels without limit cannot be sustained. The old earth that does not allow refugees and immigrants to move away from war torn and gang-infested and impoverished areas of the world cannot be sustained. The old earth where a gun culture in the US is allowed to run wild cannot be sustained. The old earth where one per cent of the population takes in the vast majority of the wealth cannot be sustained. The Church of the New Creation God knows this. The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, knows this and when he said it he was called too political. The Episcopal Bishop of Western Massachusetts knows this and has been called too political. But friends, know this, the anti-casino bishop, trying to catch up with the imagination of the God of the prophets and Jesus, is going to double-down on social justice issues. Because I can’t honestly say I believe in the God of the Old and New Testaments if I do anything else.
There is a prayer we all say at the Easter Vigil and we say it at ordinations which means I got to pray it four times in the last six months. It speaks to our situation in the church and in the world, and expresses our never-ending hope in the promises of the living God.
“O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on you whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”