Friday, November 25, 2022

Thanksgiving Greeting from the Rector of St. Luke's

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Even as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we face a world that is torn by strife - a vicious war of aggression in Ukraine, continuing political division in our own nation, new threats of viral respiratory infections among the youngest and oldest members of our society.

While over the last two years, we were advised to limit our gatherings to closest family and friends , this year, we will be able to see one another in ways we have missed and learned to cherish. For this one thing, we must be thankful.

While we face difficult challenges in an unstable economy, and uncertain public health environment, a world order that is in turmoil, we must realize that these things are not new to our human experience. The Scriptures tell stories of challenges faced by humanity, and the nation of Israel in particular. The one constant in all these stories is the constancy and faithfulness of our God.

If we would but stop and pause to look around us, we see the work of God's mission everywhere: in the generosity of volunteers caring for the poor and the hungry; in the efforts of diplomats and world leader to work together on climate change; in our families as we see our children grow, as the child Jesus did, in wisdom and grace.

As Priest and pastor of St. Luke's Church here in Lebanon, I am particularly thankful for the commitment of so many of our parishioners, who throughout this most challenging time, have continued to foster their growth as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. By your prayers and support, you provide not only for your own growth but continue to support the work of God's mission in our wider community. You make clear that even in difficult and challenging times, that the church of Christ persists, and the work of the Gospel continues unabated.

With your support, St. Luke’s continues its programming for children and youth as we discover again how to learn alongside one other as well joining together for prayer and fellowship. Online bible studies and webcasts of our live worship services continue the work of reconnecting members of our parish family even as it extends that family beyond the confines of immediate Lebanon area.

Clearly, our current challenges have done little to stifle our community's dedicated service to the poor and others at the margin of society, as we continue to support the work of organizations like Lebanon County Christian Ministries financially, and when possible with our volunteer energies. These and other programs give abiding witness to the values of social justice and reconciliation that are essential to the mission and ministry of all communities of faith.

Most especially, I am grateful for our community’s quiet and constant witness to the gospel - the good news of Jesus - that lies at the core of our life together – whether we gather as Christ's Church in person or in our ZOOM rooms!

The Book of Common Prayer, along with Holy Scripture, lies at the heart of our tradition, and bids us daily to turn to God with truly thankful hearts so that

we may show forth God's praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, as we give up ourselves to God's service, that all people may come to walk before God in holiness and righteousness all our days.

This we can do surrounded by a great throng of family and friends or even just with those with whom we live. So, we continue to give God thanks and praise regardless of the size of the crowd that may gather.

On behalf of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, I urge you to take some time to count your blessings, even as challenging times continue, and wish you and yours, a safe and very Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

To Heal the Broken-hearted

By a rough count with a fading memory, I attended at least twenty wakes and funerals by the time I turned twelve. It was not until much later that I realized that many of my contemporaries did not share my experience. For them, waiting in lines at wakes was not a sought-after activity.

I went mostly because my parents went. They went because their elders went. They did not go because others forced them into it but because it was simply “What we do.” This is how we show up for one another. How we honor relationships. This is how we get through the pain and help others get through theirs.

The list of those mourned eventually grew to include those close to me – my “Uncle Leo” (not my uncle but my mother’s second cousin’s husband) to whom I grew exceptionally close. Not long after was my “busza” – my great grandmother – the last of her generation. Then there was my own godfather “Corky” who died prematurely by today’s standards from of a type of heart disease that we soon discovered ran in my dad’s family. And just a year later, my Aunt Ginka (her name was really Genevieve), Corky’s sister. Again, neither were really uncle or aunt but were my dad’s first cousins with whom he grew up under the care of their father, my great-uncle Martin (whose funeral was one of the first I remember). Through all this I became intimately familiar with the layout of the two funeral homes used by both branches of my family.

For many people these days, attendance at funerals has become fraught and, sometimes, impossible when the pandemic limited the number of mourners allowed to gather (if at all). Some memorial services were put on hold and yet remain uncelebrated. As the celebrations became less possible, we began to realize how much they really matter.

Ritual is what humans do to help each other navigate the ambiguities of our uncertain lives. For Episcopalians, the Rite of Christian Burial helps point us to the promise of eternal life. It uses the sad occasion of the death of someone we love to remind us that in Christ, there is always the promised vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. The services act as a counterpoint to the grief we feel. It doesn’t take it away, but provides a hopeful, forward-looking ritual.

Our tendency sometimes is not to walk through the grief at all, but to avoid it at all costs. The funeral rites in Book of Common Prayer stand in marked contrast to an increasingly popular to hold a “celebration of life.” What this developing custom fails to acknowledge is that it is backward-looking – entirely focused on the past. Remembering is good, but because we still live in the world, we must be able eventually to move into our own future.

We live in a culture that does not want to consider, even briefly, termination, with an end that is “full-stop.” Our culture seeks to deny the limits of our physical nature and existence and the limits of time. Perhaps that is why we crave 24/7 availability, open stores on days usually reserved for family celebrations (like Thanksgiving) and keep people working late on Christmas Eve. It urges us to alter our bodies surgically rather than allow them to show signs of age. In a culture of limitless consumption, it becomes easier to ignore the fact that our time on this earth is limited.

When my father spoke with me about his own obituary, he made it clear that he didn’t want to “pass on” or be “called home” or “join the angels.” He wanted a simple statement telling people that he died. Perhaps his comfort with this idea was because of his constant exposure to it as a younger man. This experience left him, and me, with the understanding that while sad, and sometimes tragic, death is inevitable – that it is a part of life.

It is probably true that no one wants to be at a funeral. It means that in that place there are people whose hearts have broken. Too often, we feel pressured to “say the right thing,” trying to make things better – which seldom happens. What is a bit easier (though uncomfortable) is simply showing up – being there – without words but with hearts wide open with empathy and love. Our presence makes a difference because there is kinship in knowing that we are not alone in our suffering.

This work is part of our mission. To heal the brokenhearted – or at least to open ourselves to the possibility that God can use us to work God’s healing. During this month of remembering and giving thanks, let us think about how we, individually and as a parish family can become part of this great and necessary work.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Giving - The Hallmark of Discipleship

Hallmarks - a series of marks on precious metals - have been used in western civilization since the 1300s. The word itself is from the 15th century when craftsmen went to Goldsmiths Hall in London to have their products analyzed and marked, a practice that continues today. There are three elements in a hallmark, two of which are of particular interest for our consideration: the maker’s mark and the purity mark which declares the quality of the metal. For disciples, giving is a “maker’s mark,” because, when we give a part of what God has entrusted to us, we acknowledge that God is the ultimate owner of all we have. Secondly, our giving is the “purity mark,” since it can reveal the quality of our financial discipleship.

Giving begins with receiving – the experience of grace. In his extended teaching on giving in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul never once uses the normal Greek word for money. Instead, he uses at least fifteen different Greek expressions, the most common being charis, the word for grace. For example, Paul speaks about ‘the grace of giving’ in 2 Cor 8:7 when he challenges the Corinthians to match the generosity of the churches of Macedonia. For Paul, their poverty, their joyful, sacrificial generosity, and obedience to the apostles are signs of God’s grace at work. Interestingly, he does not talk about the amount they gave but of the nature of the grace that was given to them (2 Cor 8:1–3). Thus, giving becomes the hallmark of discipleship since it bears the maker’s mark of grace – our recognition of God first giving to us.

But how much are we to give? Because giving acknowledges God’s ultimate ownership of all we have, our giving must be a lifestyle priority. To be truly biblical it  must be from our “first fruits.” This kind of giving can help release us from the chains of materialism and consumerism. When Jesus said, for where you treasure is there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21) he was teaching that money not only reveals our hearts but also shapes them. The discipline of giving draws us closer to Jesus and releases us spiritually in many areas. When we give freely and generously, we can sense that we are co-operating with God in God’s mission and enter more deeply into “the joy of the Master” (Matt 25:21).

Casual, low-level, un-prioritized and unplanned giving fails to do this and can have little lasting meaning. Such giving lacks the character of the manifold grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who gave all things for us (2 Cor 8:9). To quote Henry Drucker:

Trivial giving…does not diminish our pool of self-regard embodied in our material wealth. The only way to do that is to give in a way which is calculated to have a major effect. This must be, for each of us, a large gift. Such giving is difficult. In this act we disenthrall ourselves by overcoming our slavery to possessions. We demonstrate that there are values in the world more important to us than our own selfish aggrandizement. True giving is an act of self-liberation. It becomes one of the major achievements of our life.

Our gifts, then, must be in proportion to all God has given to us (Deut 16:17; 2 Cor 8:12). Some call this “sacrificial giving.” Others call it “sacramental giving.” But whatever we call it, it must be something that genuinely makes a difference in our lives. If at the end of the week or month, someone returned to us what we have given in this way, cash in hand, would it make a material difference to us? That measure tells us if we are giving of ourselves – or merely from our excess.

The heartbeat of our Annual Membership Campaign is a vision of the kind of transforming generosity that forms an integral part of our discipleship as we resource our role in God’s mission within our community. Our reflection starts with what Dan Hardy calls ‘the generative generosity of God.’ There is no contradiction between the needs of the poor and the concerns of worship. The generosity of God’s people can readily accommodate both, since the two go hand in hand. Genuine experiences of grace that we have in worship can lead us to genuine love and care for others (Deut 14:28-29).

God desires us to be more greatly conformed to the image of Jesus daily. While humans are often selfish or self-seeking, giving sacrificially is a significant way in which we can be transformed into the image of Jesus, who gave everything for us. In this way, we fulfill our duty as Christ’s disciples by reflecting his life – his total, self-giving love – to the world.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Faith formation should be a conversation, not a lecture

Most of us wear several hats in our daily activities. We may be children and parents and spouses simultaneously. We’re coworkers, neighbors, friends, and citizens, exercising these diverse roles all in a single day. We’re believers with convictions but also can entertain openness to other points of view. Few of us are not just one thing at any time. We play more than one role that is important to us. We don’t drop out of this collection of identities when we actively engage in any one of the others.

Among the roles I play are counselor, administrator, writer, public speaker, worship leader, and teacher of the church. I do not cease to be any of these while performing as another. In fact, it is fundamentally as a pastor that I write and speak. Family and close friends roll their eyes should you ask if I ever stop being a pastor for five minutes. Long before I completed seminary and was ordained, I was in pursuit of any moment that I could express my deepest convictions about faith. It was almost inevitable that conversations would end up on some topic concerning the church. It’s a wonder, really, that I managed to have real friends growing up!

After a lifetime of fascination with mystical realities and attempts to express them, I find myself asking another question that has often eluded me: What is the church really for? Surely this inquiry should have more deeply engaged me earlier. I must admit that not asking this question sooner in life has had unavoidable consequences. Not only did I subject my unwitting companions to lessons and rituals they may not have wanted, but also, in religious settings where I was fulfilling a duty to present the faith, I doubtlessly taught what I myself had absorbed: that life in the church is like spinach—necessary, nourishing, and not to be scraped off the plate just because you may not care for it.

Church can be presented in many ways, not all constructive or useful. Its teachings and rituals can be a bludgeon to get those who misbehave in line. It can be wielded as a form of control, inciting fear, guilt, or dread. Think of the “Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz,” when a voice that deep, threatening, and mysterious bellows from behind the curtain, spouting smoke and fire. It can be hard to do anything but kowtow. Many sit in pews or in classrooms hearing church leaders proclaim what’s what in just such a voice. Some of us buckle and obey. Others run for the exits.

Some time ago, I realized that carrots work better than sticks. I tried to entertain softer and more appealing methods of instruction. Wise mentors convinced me that humor is acceptable, and storytelling is a must. A teaching or admonition might better be offered as an invitation, not a dictate. A pastor might better shine a helpful lantern on the road ahead rather than march the community forward at the point of a gun. As odd as it may sound, faithful teaching might better be viewed as kindly guidance on the journey, not a litany of rules laid down to stumble and ensnare.

I hope you’ve had pastors who used teaching in this gentler way. I hope preachers you have heard have beckoned more than barked. I hope your relationship to God and church has been shaped and sweetened by wisdom, discernment, and invitation. I really do hope your life in the church hasn’t been a long, abusive slog through commandments and pronouncements that seemed to gag you and take away your freedom. If you’ve suffered at the hands of your pastors or teachers and have not been aided in your quest for God and guidance, please let me apologize on behalf of the church.

Some of us may find this kind of open-endedness uncomfortable. Dominating religious space with the dictates of doctrine and “eternal truth” is much easier! But this way of leading and learning is a way to make our relationships and roles as parents or pastoral people and more real and honest. Choosing persuasion over dominance does not diminish the truth. In fact, it makes it more plain and fuller of possibility than either party might have suspected at the start.

Because, after all, what is the church for? Not to preserve some holy deposit of faith in a sacred vault, untarnished by the ages. Teaching the faith is meant to lead us into the persuasive and compellingly attractive presence of a God who is the fullness of love and compassion. Dominating spaces doesn’t make the case for such a God. Inviting people to walk with us, however, just might.

I invite you to take up the task of continuing your Christian formation. Get inquisitive about your faith and your relationship to God. Try our online bible study. Look over the reading list of suggested titles on our website. Join a reading group. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Listen to recordings of the homilies preached in our church or others on line. You just might hear a word that brings you closer to The Word - Jesus. Christian formation is a life-long endeavor, and we are here to help you find The Way.

Monday, August 1, 2022

It is not an option

An interviewer once asked Dr. Billy Graham, “If you could eradicate any problem in America, what would it be?” Dr. Graham answered very quickly and very directly as he replied, “The racial division and strife in our nation.” Why would this issue stand so central for one of the most prominent Christian voices in our society? I would like to suggest several reasons why racial reconciliation must be at the front of our agenda as a faith community.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes clear, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). By its nature, racism divides. It does not exist merely because of social differences. Racism is not a social issue or a cause. Because it is rooted in the human heart and has an impact on all human relationships, it is a theological and spiritual issue. Therefore, the Church must lead the way in every reconciliation effort and set the standard for spiritual and social healing in our communities and in our nation. Moreover, because it effects human relationships, failure to confront it infects us with its evil impact, no matter how great or small.

Racism, simply put, is hatred toward someone whom God created – there is no other way of looking at it: it is the belief that someone is innately superior to another individual whom God created simply by existing. Such prejudice toward someone whom God created is a blatant offense against God in whose image every human being is made. It is a sin.

Holy Scripture instructs us why we must all be involved in this work of racial reconciliation:

  • Racial Reconciliation confronts and defeats hypocrisy. Romans 12:9 says, “Love must be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good.” God loves all whom He has created, and He encourages us to do the same. Reconciliation confronts and defeats divisions among people based on the differences in color or culture.
  • Racial Reconciliation confronts and defeats self-righteousness. Romans 2:11 says, “There is no favoritism with God.” Believing that one race or ethnic group is better than another is a form of self-righteousness.
  • Racial Reconciliation encourages the body of Christ to freely obey the Great Commission. Mathew 28:19-20 says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” The word “nations” always used in Scripture to indicate ethnicity.
  • Racial Reconciliation encourages the body of Christ to obey the Great Commandment. John 13:34-35 says, “I give you a new command: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Hate for another or prejudice against another has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus.
  • Racial Reconciliation honors God’s design. Acts 17:26 says, “From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live.” By His own design, God created all of humanity to stem from one man’s blood.
  • Racial Reconciliation honors God’s redemptive plan. Revelation 5:9 says, “And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed people for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.’” God’s redemptive plan includes people from every ethnic group.
  • Racial Reconciliation honors God Himself. John 3:16 says, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” God’s act of love was for the world, not for one race.

As the bearers of Christ’s image on earth, reconciliation is not merely an effort to be made – it is a high calling that we must live. The apostle Paul declares, “Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us.” On this one of the collects used in the Church’s Daily Office is instructive:

O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(“Morning Prayer,” BCP, p. 100)

When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we realize that working for racial reconciliation is not an option. Full stop.

Friday, July 8, 2022

"I am not a racist . . ."

“I am not a racist.”

I cannot count how many times that statement was part of a conversation about this difficult topic.

Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans share a common origin, they are all brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God. When this truth is ignored, the consequence is prejudice and fear of the other, and—all too often—hatred. Where there is fear, racism is possible. Where there is ignorance, racism is possible. Where there is misunderstanding, racism is possible. Where there is in equality, racism is possible. The list can go on.

Racism comes in many forms. It can be seen in deliberate, sinful acts. In  recent times, we have seen bold expressions of racism by groups as well as individuals. The re-appearance of symbols of hatred, such as nooses and swastikas in public spaces, is a tragic indicator of rising racial and ethnic animosity.

Extreme nationalist ideologies insinuate themselves in American public conversation by xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission (“what “we have left undone,” BCP, 360), when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.

Racism can often be found in our hearts—in many cases placed there unwillingly or unknowingly by our upbringing and culture. As such, it can lead to thoughts and actions that we do not even see as racist, but nonetheless flow from the same prejudicial root. Consciously or subconsciously, an attitude of superiority can be seen in how certain groups of people are vilified, called criminals, or are perceived as being unable to contribute to society, even unworthy of its benefits. Racism can also be institutional, when practices or traditions are upheld that treat certain groups of people unjustly. The cumulative effects of personal sins of racism have led to social structures of injustice and violence that makes us all accomplices in racism.

We continue to read headlines that report the killing of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement officials. In our prisons, the number of inmates of color, notably those who are brown and black, is grossly disproportionate. Despite the great blessings of liberty that this country offers, we must admit the plain truth that for many of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing wrong, interactions with the police are often fraught with fear and even danger. At the same time, we must reject harsh rhetoric that belittles and dehumanizes law enforcement personnel who labor to keep our communities safe. We must also condemn violent attacks against police.

With the positive changes that arose from the civil rights movement and related civil rights legislation, some may believe that racism is no longer a major affliction of our society— that it is only found in the hearts of individuals who can be dismissed as ignorant or unenlightened. But racism still profoundly affects our culture. In short, it, in any form, has no place in the Christian heart. What can we do now and in the future, to rid the beloved community of God of this sin?

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Divine Consigliere


I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,

to be with you forever.

(John 14:16 - The Gospel Lesson for Pentecost)

In our culture, we call upon advocates to offer support to those who feel they are not being heard, to ensure they are taken seriously, and to assure that their rights are respected. We also understand that an advocate should help people to access and understand information and services available to them. I am afraid that this understanding is a bit too narrow to understand fully the role of “The Advocate” the Jesus promises us in the Father’s name.

Now, I hope that no one takes offense at what I am about to say, but a slightly different term may give us a more fulsome understanding of what was meant by the term advocate in Jesus’ day – and just what Jesus promises to his disciples then – and now.

I am a big fan of “The Godfather” films (I, II, and III!). Maybe because when I was growing up, we heard a lot about the “Gambino’s,” who had an active branch of their extended crime family in Western New York. Who knows?

Anyway, in the organization of these “families,” a pivotal figure is the consigliere (counselor). A consigliere is an advisor to the boss (usually an attorney), with the added responsibility of standing for the family’s interests in important meetings both within family and with others. The consigliere is a close, trusted friend and confidant, a sort of elder statesman, one of the few in “the family” who can argue with the boss. Consequently, this figure is often tasked with challenging the boss when needed, to ensure that proposed plans are foolproof. In most depictions, the consigliere is dispassionate and devoid of ambition as he dispenses advice.

The important part here is the responsibility the consigliere bears for the interests and internal integrity of “the family.” In this sense, Jesus might, in today’s culture, refer to the promised gift of the Spirit as a sort of consigliere. Think about it: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Consigliere, to be with you forever.” What better promise? Someone to watch over the family of the Church, whose only concern is its benefit, its well-being, its continuing existence. Someone who can “argue with the boss” and makes sure that plans are carried out well. Thus, the Spirit’s role is not merely to advise but to act decisively whenever the well-being of the Church and its members are at stake. The boss’s consigliere wields tremendous power and holds everyone trust. Isn’t that what the Holy Spirit does?

Maybe, I am stretching the metaphor too far, but I think there is merit here.

In Western Christianity, we often “over-emphasize” the role of Jesus in our faith life. There is no surprise there. Christmas and Easter are our favorite holydays. The beginning and the end of the mortal presence of Jesus among us. They are easy to understand and to imagine – something we can lay our hands on. But the Spirit – that’s another thing all together.

By contrast, Eastern Christians (e.g., the Orthodox Churches) focus on that more elusive divine person. Their chants and icons personify the mysterious quality of the Spirit that can be as elusive as the odor of the copious amounts of incense used in worship. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” It is that ethereal nature that makes us uncomfortable. We want to pin God down, control when and where we meet God. But this is not possible once we realize that God’s presence is everywhere and that we “cannot tell where it comes from” or even where it will lead us.

What is comforting is that this ghostly reality has the power of a consigliere – that what surrounds us are not mere wisps of smoke but an energy with the power to enliven, to protect, to transform with a divine mandate to do all that is necessary to reconcile a broken world to its Creator – a task entrusted to us by Jesus. For this purpose, that Spirit showers us with gifts, each given for the sake of the larger work.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it is more important than ever that we exercise these gifts to support one another as the Spirit leads us to new endeavors. How can you employ your gifts to help us Begin Again! in the days ahead? As activities increase, St. Luke’s remain in need of many hands to make its work light: Altar Guild, acolytes, choir members, ushers, ministers of hospitality, outreach workers, Christian formation helpers, nursery attendants, only to name of the few that can help us recover the momentum we had before the pandemic struck.

Vestry is even now considering new ways that St. Luke’s can meet the challenges out new context presents. Stay tuned for more ways in which we will see our gifts manifest themselves in our community.