Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Sermon - On the difficulties of our day.

The short-term meaning as well as the long-haul implications of the horrific events of the last few months both at home at abroad continue to unfold and is shaking our nation.

As you know, I normally do not preach from a written text and I do not often address contemporary events directly in my sermons. I am deeply convinced that my role is to preach “Christ and him crucified” (as St. Paul would say) and leave the practical conclusions to be drawn by you as faithful disciples.  In what I am about to say, I want to stress that I speak for myself alone as a leader within the Church and not for the Episcopal Church as a whole.  I do not believe preachers should take political positions in the pulpit. However, sometimes events cry out for the Church to draw out meaning in a plain and direct way. Today is one of those days.

These disclaimers aside, I would argue strongly that the larger issues surrounding the recent mass shootings and the events unfolding in the cities of our nation, demand that we all force ourselves to think reflectively and not reactively. Regrettably, this is very difficult when social media, the toxic nature of present day politics, and countless ideological, soundproof echo chambers make us wonder what’s fact, what’s true, what’s right.

First and foremost, we must refrain from any rush to judgment about what are the “causes” of any of these tragedies. When we do rush to this kind of judgment, we often do little more than reactively push our own political world view front and center.   There is no single explanation for what has been happening, or, I am afraid, will continue to happen.

For example, we know what happened in Orlando last month was a surprise only to those who have had their heads parked snugly in the sand.  Both ISIS, on one hand, and the FBI, on the other, have been predicting something like this for some time.  If it comes as a surprise at all, it is simply because we have been unwilling to accept those realities that made it possible in the first place.

Second, all the familiar ideological positions about both “what brought these situations about” and “what is to be done” need to be examined, re-examined, and examined yet again, to put them in proper perspective.  In some sense, we are unfortunately all blind men and women literally sensing only a portion of the proverbial elephant, and because we lack clear vision we often miss the big picture. 

I urge us all to consider the wisdom of lyrics of the half-century old song by The Buffalo Springfield entitled “For What It’s Worth”:  everybody’s both right and wrong, and that’s the problem.

For example:

Yes. Making private gun ownership far more prohibitive, including ownership of assault weapons, might mean that only 25 instead of 50 people are killed in an attack like the one in Orlando.   The bottom line is, it won’t stop such assaults, because it is not about guns but about ideology.  If guns are less available, in fact, assailants will use other weapons of choice, even something so common as kitchen knife.

Yes. Restricting immigration of Muslims to the United States, as some have proposed, would lower the number of potential “lone wolf” terrorists, often disgruntled individuals who can’t seem to assimilate in America. By the sheer force of statistics, such a measure would lower the number of those disposed to undertake such attacks.  However, such bans on entry into this country wouldn’t do anything to roll back the appeal of ISIS globally and might even radicalize other peaceful, law-abiding Muslims to the extent that we might then have more of a domestic problem among adherents of Islam, who happen also to be U.S. citizens.

Yes. We can understand the Orlando shooting in the context of pervasive anti-gay bigotry. 
No. It isn’t really a matter of progress, or lack of progress, on giving LGBT people equal rights in this country, because such bigotry is far more extensive in the developing world than it is in this country. Some countries make homosexuality a criminal, if not a capital, offense.  For example, a recent Pew Study indicates only a very small percentage of Muslims worldwide countenance gay rights.  And even in the United States, according to the Washington Post citing the same research, “Muslims are less accepting of homosexuality than most religious groups.” But this religious conviction did not cause the massacre. Hate did.

Yes. We have to deal with ISIS and its accelerating worldwide campaign of terror forcefully in ways that will inevitably challenge our basic assumptions and call us to make hard choices between our most cherished values and our demand for safety and security.  
No. There is no easy, or even straightforward and intelligible, set of simple military, political, or legislative solutions, and for the time being the current moral idealism of the millennial generation may be in danger of going the way of our grandparents during the increasingly dark 1930s.

Yes, we can point to the reality of personal and institutional racism that has been part of our society from the beginning. It is undeniable. Even our founding fathers were comfortable with counting slaves, almost all of whom were black as three fifths of a person.
No. No level of racial bias ever justifies the violent taking of life in the name of law and order when less onerous means of enforcement are easily available, most especially when the alleged offenders were not involved in any sort of violent crime. And there is no reason whatsoever, to target individuals regardless of the color of their skin, ethnic origins, or belief systems who have pledged themselves to protect our society.

Before we can adequately address these daunting and often complex issues, we must call for an end of the endless off-the-cuff name-calling and our vilification of the “other” in our political discourse.  We need to move away from our all-too-comfortable habit of seeing the world through the lens of identity politics.  The apostle Paul reminds us continually, none of us are righteous before God.  The way forward, then, requires not so much a new kind of politics, but a bold new way of thinking on the part of all followers of Christ that many of us honestly will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into even attempting.

In short, it involves a deep, almost paradoxical and God-inspired respect for the “other” no matter how much we suspect or have demonized them. Today's familiar gospel lesson of "The Good Samaritan" makes this clear. We must make real the words of our own baptismal vow to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being, not just the ones we like or the ones that agree with us. In the midst of all the chaos and strife our sometimes timid voices may seem ineffectual in the face of what some consider “real danger.” But, the real danger for us as followers of Christ, may not so much be the physical threat we encounter as the very real danger of losing our soul by simply tossing our hands in the air in a spirit of helplessness.

It will take deep thinking and even more profound spiritual self-discipline. Some of us may recall Vince Lombardi’s philosophy that “the tough getting going when the going gets tough.” But our “toughness” cannot merely be more bluster. Each and all of us, like the prophet Amos, must be willing to cry out “enough” and then gird ourselves with the armor of faith to do whatever small thing is in our power to make even a small difference.

In the end, all those little acts of courage will add up. As the Christian faith spread throughout the world one soul at a time, so will the impact of God’s kingdom in our own world if we but take up its cause – one act, one person at a time. In this way, we will begin to build the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

St. Alban's Day - the first British martyr

Saint Alban is venerated as the first recorded British Christian martyr. Along with his fellow saints "Amphibalus," Julius, and Aaron, Alban is one of four named martyrs recorded from Roman Britain. He is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium (modern St Albans) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and his cult has been celebrated there since ancient times.

While little is actually known about the real St Alban (estimated to have died c. 209 – 305 A.D. depending on interpretations), as there is no contemporaneous account of his martyrdom. According to the most elaborate version of the tale found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban met a Christian priest fleeing from "persecutors," and sheltered him in his house for a number of days. The priest (who later came to be called Amphibalus, meaning "cloak" in Latin) prayed and "kept watch" day and night, and Alban was so impressed with the priest's faith and piety that he found himself emulating the priest, and soon converted to Christianity. Eventually it came to the ears of an unnamed "impious prince" that Alban was sheltering the priest, and this prince gave orders for Roman soldiers to make a strict search of Alban's house. As they came to seize the priest, Alban put on the priest's cloak and clothing, and presented himself to the soldiers in place of his guest.

In a chapel east of the crossing and high altar, there are remains of the fourteenth century marble shrine of St Alban. In June 2002 a scapula (shoulder blade), believed to be a relic of St Alban, was presented to St Albans Cathedral and placed inside the saint’s restored 13th-century shrine. The bone was given by the Church of St Pantaleon in Cologne, Germany. St Pantaleon's, like St Albans Cathedral a former Benedictine abbey church that had a shrine dedicated to St Alban, has possessed remains believed to be those of St Alban since the 10th century. It is entirely possible that further relics were acquired by the church in the 16th century at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, when many such relics were smuggled abroad to prevent their destruction.

In the United States, the parish church of St Alban's Episcopal Church, the first Free Church in Washington, DC, was erected on Mount Saint Alban in 1854 using a bequest from a young woman, Phoebe Nourse, who earned the money sewing. St Alban's went on to found five mission churches in Washington, four of which still maintain active congregations of their own. Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC, is located next to the parish church, which preceded the laying of the Cathedral's cornerstone by 53 years. The St Albans School for Boys, which is affiliated with and was established in 1909 soon after construction of the Cathedral began, is also named for the saint.
We wish our sister parish to the east, St. Alban's, Sinking Spring, PA a happy and joyous feast day!

Monday, June 20, 2016


Midsummer, also known as St John's Day, is the period of time centered upon the Summer Solstice, and the Northern European celebrations that have accompanied it. The actual astronomical solstice occurs on or about June 20th each year (the first "day" of summer) while many celebrations take place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures. Some time ago, the Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of the St John the Baptist. The observance of St John's Day begins the evening before, known as St John's Eve.

It is likewise that the Christian Church set the date of Christmas - the day we celebrate the Incarnation of Christ (December 25th). That date is related to the Winter Solstice, which occurs days before. By the 25th of December, we can perceive that the days begins to lengthen. St. John the Baptist’s day occurs a few days after the Summer Solstice when we can notice the days begin to be shorter in similar manner. The choice of the days has to do with the saying attributed to John the Baptist in the gospel of John: “I must decrease that he may increase” (John 3:30). Thus as the days grow shorter we begin to look for the coming of Christ, the Light of the World. Thus, when Christ arrives, the days begin to lengthen again.
Although Midsummer is originally a pagan holiday, in Christianity it is associated with the nativity of John the Baptist, which is observed on the same day, June 24, in the Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches. It is six months before Christmas because Luke 1:26 and Luke 1.36 imply that John the Baptist was born six months earlier than Jesus, even though the Bible does not say at which time of the year this happened.

The Summer Solstice and the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist are celebrated by many Christian denominations. In Sweden, for instance, Midsummer is such an important festivity that there have been serious discussions to make the Midsummer's Eve into the National Day of Sweden. However, many European midsummer-related holidays, traditions, and celebrations are often pre-Christian in origin. They are particularly important in geographic Northern Europe – especially Scandinavian counties where the interplay of light and dark in relation to the seasons of the year is quite dramatic. It is also very strongly observed in Poland, Russia, Belarus, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, parts of the United Kingdom (Cornwall especially), France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Ukraine, other parts of Europe, and elsewhere – such as Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico.

In any event, the coming of the Summer Solstice reminds all of us of the continual cycle of the seasons and the passing of time. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, it is a reminder that we should “make hay while the sun shines” for soon enough, the days will shorten, the cold will return and we will once more depend on our careful stewardship of the summer’s plenty to help us through the darker days of winter. This is still good advice, even though modern conveniences lessen our dependence on seasonal produce - whenever we experience light and joy, we should celebrate and store up so that when "darker" days ensue, we are prepared and ready.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Day 3

Trinity College, University of Toronto – Day 3 of meetings of the Society of Scholar Priests.

For the last two days, the Board of Directors of the Society of Scholar Priests (part of the Scholar-Priest Initiative) has been meeting in the precincts of Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Church of the Redeemer (just up the street) to assess the progress of the society over the last two years and to make some determinations concerning the future of the organization.

One of the things that struck us all is the phenomenal progress that has been made in such a short period of time. What that says to me is that the work for which we have set ourselves answers a need in our respective churches (the Society encompasses The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada) but more importantly is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in fitting our churches for the challenges awaiting us in this century.

The work of the society is built on three pillars or core values:  being rooted in Scripture and Tradition, post-partisanship, and being ordered to right action.  The first of these may seem self-evident as priests of the Anglican way gather to discuss matters of theology and ministry. The second is a little less so. “Post-partisanship” is simply a way to describe how, once we establish our common ground in Scripture and Tradition, that we can learn to “disagree in love.” In other words, that our theological reflections need not always be fully aligned with one another, or, that we can “agree to disagree.” We hold this is a core principle because theology is, after all, our carefully reasoned reflection on the meaning and application of divine revelation – it is not divine revelation itself. Disagreements have been part of the life of the Christian Church from the beginning. The gospels themselves relate how The Twelve had differing viewpoints and how, once St. Paul came on the scene, those differences deepened and almost split the infant Church. The work of the Spirit, however, helped early Church leaders come to a compromise (a dirty word in our day and age) whose result was the spread of the gospel throughout the known Gentile world. Our aim is to recapture that spirit – not to try to find a false peace, but to have deep, reasoned discussions (yes, even arguments) that end not with rancor but with a sense of mutual respect for our differences.

The third core principle is the theme of this year’s annual conference, which begins in earnest later today. It is “ordered to right action.” All the talking in the world is without value if it does not put us on a road to more deeply understand, and so to live, the way of Jesus. Without this third principle, our work leads to mere speculation and empty theories. Our aim to take our deliberations and reflections and see how they inspire and move our ministry in our respective communities of faith – especially parishes. That’s the focus of our mission: to “welcome theology home.” In other words, all of our careful thought, conversation, reflection, and arguments must ultimately lead us to good decisions for the people of God entrusted to our care.

Being a “scholar-priest” is not so much about academic degrees and intellectual niceties as it is about becoming leaders of spiritual communities that reflect deeply on the mysteries of God and how God is working out God’s mission in the world. In that way, members of this society hope to provide the Church with a more profound sense of God’s abiding invitation to bring the world into God’s kingdom. As our conference begins later this afternoon, hold us all in prayer so that we may all return to you a bit wiser, more humble, and better equipped to walk the way of Christ with you.

In the heart of our loving Savior,


Monday, May 2, 2016

"The Episcopal Church welcomes you" - How is that working for you?

This might come as a bit of a shock to you but I think we have come to the point where we need to quit being a welcoming church. We’ve been a “welcoming church” for quite a while now – how many signs have you seen that say “The Episcopal Church welcomes you”? 

“So,” we could ask, “just how is that working for you?”  If you ask me, all the while we have been saying that, we have been experiencing declines in attendance, participation, and financial support. The median age of our membership church-wide has increased (we’re getting older). And just below the surface, most of our members experience anxiety about the future of the Church they have love. So I say, “Give it up! Forget the welcoming stuff.”

Like so many churches, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming Church. We change worship styles, we train greeters and ushers, we wear name tags, we make coffee and bake endless goodies. We go to workshops on hospitality, we put our friendliest people in prominent places on Sunday mornings. But I think we are beginning to realize that we have been misplacing our emphasis. So we’re no longer going to do it.

Here’s what we’re going to do instead. We will become an Inviting Church. That’s different. You see, “welcoming” is a passive activity. It says that we are waiting for visitors and guests to drop by. When they do, we will treat them very well and do everything possible to make them comfortable. We’ll sometimes even be willing to change how we look, and, God be good to us, even who we are. We’ll try new formats that have proven to be more welcoming to new people. We’ll do whatever it takes to have them come back the next Sunday, even if they shouldn’t. But what I have come to understand is that welcoming is about us, not about them.
Come and See what God is doing!

“Inviting” is different. That means we leave the comfort of our parish “comfort zone.” The main activity doesn’t happen in our worship space when people drop in, but in the neighborhood when we go out. Welcoming involves hoping whoever happens to find you will join. Inviting involves sharing God’s specific gifts—made real in our parish—in the world. It isn’t so much welcoming them into our place, but going out into their place and meeting them there.

Even that warrants a significant warning. This cannot be just another gimmick to get people into the church building. This isn’t an attempt to bolster declining membership rolls and make a better parochial report to the bishop. No, it goes much deeper than that. It starts with who God has called us to be the Church, the Body of Christ, the presence of the Risen Lord in our world. It involves discovering our gifts and purpose. And it demands that we join God at work in the world. This isn’t about getting the world into God’s Church; it’s about getting the Church into God’s world.

Making such a radical shift won’t be easy, but we must commit to it. We’ll have to do it in stages, easing folks into it step by step. We’ll have to deal with the fear of something new, the challenge of venturing into unknown territory. But we can do it. It will take motivation, leadership, and constant reminders. But most importantly, it will take total commitment to embrace a new focus.

More and more, we are becoming aware that it’s God’s mission that we are to be about. Everything comes from that—including our identity as Church. We exist as Church only because God has a mission. Our purpose, our very identity, is called forth out of God’s loving care and redemptive activity in creation. We are steeped in God’s mission. We are drenched through baptism into this essential character of God. God is at work in the world, and creates, calls, and equips the Church specifically for that work.

Each parish has a purpose within God’s mission. Each parish has particular gifts. Each parish reveals the life-giving kingdom of God in unique ways. No parish can be everything to everyone. But every parish is something to someone. Who can know God through our worship style? Who can experience forgiveness and grace through our parish community? Who needs the gifts we have to offer? Who can offer gifts we need? By answering these questions, we can begin the process of moving from welcoming to inviting.

To begin, we need to discover our motivation for inviting others to join us. We need to take on this inviting in bite-size pieces, and we need to create an environment that supports our efforts at inviting others to encounter the Risen Lord among us. We may not be sure what the final results will be, but we certainly can be excited to find out.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Rogation Sunday - An Ancient but helpful tradition

Here is the text of May's Liturgy & Life from our parish newsletter, The Angelus.

On May 1st, we will celebrate Rogation Sunday. This Sunday was originally so called because of the words in the Prayer Book gospel for the day: "Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give to you". (The Latin is 'Rogare' - to ask.) In the strictly biblical context, the chief thing to ask for is the spirit of God to enable us to be true children of God. By the 17th century, the old Roman festival of 'Terminalia", or "boundaries", had been adapted by the church and served a practical purpose. In days before survey maps, there were not always clear lines of demarcation between the parishes, especially where there were open field systems. During the procession, boys were bumped on prominent marks and boundary stones, or rolled in briars and ditches, or thrown in the pond to ensure they never forgot the boundaries! The Victorians made it more civilized by beating objects rather than people, in the context of a service and procession.

In the Western Church, processions to bless the crops and to include "beating the bounds", developed from the old Roman rites of Robigalia (robigo: Latin for "rust" or "mould"), when prayers would be offered to the gods for crops to be spared from mildew.

These rogation themes of blessing the fields and beating the bounds were commended in the 1630s by the poet George Herbert, that epitome of English country parsons. He said that processions should be encouraged for four reasons:
  1. Blessing of God for the fruits of the field.
  2. Justice in the preservation of bounds.
  3. Charity in loving, walking and neighborly accompanying one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any.
  4. Mercy, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of our excess.

Today the emphasis has shifted. A blessing on growing crops in fields and gardens, and on young lambs and calves remains. In the agricultural cycle, the main themes are seed sowing and the tending of young plants and animals. While seed sowing is now done all the year round, as is the birth and rearing of the young, it is convenient to fix on one particular festival as the time to remember these before God in a public way. Rogation takes place in the springtime, when there is a renewing of the earth. In our country, it follows Easter, the season of resurrection, usually on the Sixth Sunday in Eastertide. Renewal and resurrection therefore are also underlying themes of this occasion.

We will observe the day at the 10:30 Eucharist by use of The Great Litany at the end of the Eucharist with a procession to the Memorial Garden between the Church and the Parish Hall where we will bless the flora there blooming. If you are a gardener, you are encouraged to bring a package of soil from your garden, seeds, or other elements of your gardening (including tools if you are so inclined) to be blessed for the growing season ahead.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Learning to listen

Truth be known, most of us are not good listeners. Being able to listen, I feel, is a gift. Most of us, while we act like we are listening, are already thinking about what we will say next - or even thinking about something totally unrelated to what I am suppose to be hearing. It is a bad habit that comes from too much stimulation: noisy public places, our busy households, contact television and radio. Hearing without really listening is sort of like learning to speed read without savoring the words I am reading, or like gobbling down fast food without really tasting what I have eaten. I get the gist of what is being said but keep my mind busy with other things. Is this how we encounter the joyful message of Easter???

When I come to the words that Jesus spoke to the disciples in John's gospel about the servant who is not greater than the master, and in the humble station of the one sent on the order of one who is greater, I wonder if Jesus isn't telling the disciples, and me, about the ones to whom we are to listen. I wonder if Jesus is speaking not simply about the way we are to bear the witness that is in us, but also about the sources without which we have no witness.

It is a significant message, these Easter tidings, when one considers with what weight and seriousness we receive the words that come from media personalities and how lightly and glibly we ignore the witness of those we deem less important. It is an especially important message for a church whose leadership has, for centuries, given priority to the words of adult males, dismissing as na├»ve or even ignorant the voices of women, children, the aged, and those whose color - or collar - did not match their own.

Almost from the beginning, the good news of God has been made known to us by those of low station and degree. Shepherds, fishermen, grieving women. Throughout this history, God seeks to teach us that we must discipline ourselves not only for the telling but also in the  listening -- since only after we have truly heard can we tell others the good news we ourselves have received.

It is our place in this Eastertide to listen, to receive the good news of the Resurrection, to open our ears and our hearts, that we, too, may truly hear and so be overwhelmed with the joy of Easter. And only then to speak.