Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Recognizing Blessed John, Evangelist

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after Christmas includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Children whose birthday comes within two or three days of Christmas may feel that there’s not quite enough pixie dust to go around, that their birthday gets lost in the shuffle. Our parish patron, Saint John the Evangelist, may be familiar with that feeling, since his day in the Christian calendar is December 27. As important as he deserves to be to us, and much as we like parties, our patron saint doesn’t get much attention in Williamstown on the 3rd day of Christmas.

So we’re at least giving him a nod, and the Church helps us remember him by appointing as the Gospel for the 1st Sunday after Christmas the sublime words of the preamble to his Gospel, a portion known as the Prologue. His mystical prose celebrates the Word become flesh, and John’s first gift to all who hear these words is his insistence that the divine Word “was in the beginning with God” and “all things came into being through him.” It is as if the Word is the womb through which all creation is birthed. John personifies the Word, and so paves the way to conceiving a holy Trinity of divine being. Christians hear that “the Word was God” and instinctively think of Jesus Christ, in whom that Word is made flesh. At the same moment, to minds and memories shaped by the Hebrew Bible, “the Word” evokes the Spirit of God, more precisely the spirit of Wisdom, said by some biblical authors to have been present with God at the creation as Lady Wisdom. John the Gospel-writer sets the stage for God to be revealed as having dynamic facets—including the feminine—and we’ll see these strands of thought woven more intentionally into the concept of the holy trinity.

Well, there is a nod to blessed John, our patron. Where would we be theologically, without him? Thank God we have him, his voice, his witness. “No one has ever seen God,” insists John. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus the Word made flesh comes among us, the true light, full of grace and truth, to show us reality. What in English is Word in Greek is Logos, also translated “reality”.

The 4:00 Christmas Eve service here opened with an exchange between the indefatigable Lucy and a pensive Charlie Brown, who enjoys Christmas well enough, but is not satisfied until he learns what it is all about, what it is for, what is real about it. And Lucy, of course is fully up to the challenge.

This brief skit appeared to be well enjoyed, perhaps because it invited everyone to channel their inner child en route to hearing a few adult words attributed to American essayist (and Williams College grad, class of 1867) Hamilton Wright Mabie (and found for us by Barbara Kourajian): “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love…”, words spoken simultaneously by Lucy (Celia Twomey) and Charlie (Bill Wootters). There couldn’t have been a Lucier Lucy than Celia, or a Charlier Charlie than Bill.

I think we do our patron saint proud when we seize moments like that for re-examining, reconsidering how Jesus, the Word made flesh, is full of grace and truth. We did it last Sunday afternoon in a homegrown Christmas pageant unlike any we’ve done here before, featuring a touch that reminded me of Sesame Street, when the camera pans to the old fellows up in the balcony, with their salty commentary on life below. Not that I’m calling Joyce Lincourt and Tom Nicholson old, mind you, but every so often one of them would stop the action of the pageant to engage the cast in gentle cross-examination, grilling the shepherds on why ever they would want to play the part of stinky shepherds when there were parts like kings with crowns and angels with wings to be claimed. Our children, answering this kind of question, gave their own comments on what’s real to them in the Christmas story, creatively coached by Chris Bolton.

Speaking of shepherds, that 4:00 service was visited by the Sheep Family (known to us as the Torres family, plus Aodhan). As the shepherd, Sloane richly, plainly, retold Matthew’s story of the holy birth, punctuated every so often by that little chorus of baa-ing sheep.

And speaking of animals, have you taken a good look at our crèche at the altar? Have you noticed the species diversification going on there this year? Yes, that is a rat at the manger. And no, you’re not imagining it, a zebra has made it to Bethlehem (though, from a distance, he resembles Eeyore the donkey… but don’t be fooled). What has happened here? Actually, just what you might expect when Laurie Glover and Adrienne Wootters are put in charge of setting the crèche.

Could it be that this too is quiet tribute to John the Evangelist, that we envision such full breadth of the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ? At a time when our minds are fixed on the civil unrest and violence in South Sudan and Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership in South Africa, let that zebra remind us of the great continent that is home for many tens of millions of Christians—and let that zebra remind us to pray daily for the Church in all embattled societies, that Christians may bear witness to the Prince of Peace.

As for the rat… Williamstown writer Elizabeth Kolbert has a fascinating (and sobering) piece in the current New Yorker about the phenomenon of sudden global catastrophe, the extinction of species not on the gradual model advanced by Darwin and his associates, but the kind of calamity that might be caused by any of a number of factors. Geologists can point to signs of such swift extinction in certain parts of the fossil record. The slamming of an asteroid into the ocean bed off the Yucatan Peninsula may have caused the last such catastrophe. Carbon emissions appear to be accomplishing the next one.

Kolbert interviews a geologist who sounds quite confident that when this happens, the rat is the likeliest species to stand to gain from it all. The rat has, after all, followed the human species to every known spot on the planet, including some that human beings have chosen not to settle in, but rats have.

Let the one at our manger remind us to keep so praying, and choosing, and living that we may see and make the very best choices that this fragile earth and its shimmering ecosystems require of us.

I have one more facet of Christmas 2013 to report. St. John laces his Prologue with images of light, calling Christ the true light which enlightens everyone—a breathtaking claim that we haven’t paid enough attention to, preferring as a species to consider our own tribe or family or denomination or party enlightened, and others benighted. Darlie and her dad, Eric, pulled the plug on that narrow way of thinking in their duet on Christmas Eve, singing of how children the world ‘round see the Christ child having the same color skin that they have, in perfect expression of God’s universal love, the true light that enlightens everyone.

Well, it wasn’t yet night on Christmas Eve when I started lighting candles. Among the notes I left for myself last year (for this year) is one that said, “Don’t under-estimate how long it takes to light the candles.” And just a couple of weeks ago, a family in the parish gave us a full set of battery-powered candles for windows, with attractive pewter-finish bases, and I decided to place them in the upper room and porch windows.

Starting in the northeast corner of the upper room, I tightened the bulb in one lamp: it wouldn’t stay on. I went to the second: it wouldn’t come on. Likewise, of seven candles not one remained lit: some would come on, but immediately go out when moved. Others would come on only after being moved and, I’ll admit it, roughed up a little.

I will tell you what happened next. I will tell you this as a penitential act. I swept all seventeen candles into several nearest waste baskets. I will tell you that it felt therapeutic to do this, to draw a bright line in the growing dark.

After the 4:00 service, Joyce came over to me. “What became of the new candles?” she asked, innocently. Brazenly, I told her. “But we tried every one of them just yesterday,” she said, “and they all worked fine.”

What followed was a recipe for humility. Sheepishly, I reached for the nearest trash barrel that I could recall using in my purge, and pulled out one candle. Joyce twisted the bulb and it came on. And stayed on. So with a second. And a third. The fourth and fifth, too. The sixth one resisted for a brief moment of utter relief to me, then took. With the seventh one working, I saw what had to be next: wastebasket diving on the feast of the holy nativity.

It was the apostle Peter who asked Jesus, “Lord, are we to forgive someone as many as seven times?”

“Don’t stop there,” Jesus replied. “As many as seventy-seven times!” I’m thinking now that this flexibility may be required of us in our handling of things, not only people.

“The light shines in the darkness,” sings John our patron. And my darkness did not overcome it. Even when I let my doubts and my darkness speak to me, Lady Wisdom did not leave me to my own devices. Her role, like that of the other John, John the Baptist, was to bear witness to the light. Blessed John, evangelist, by his use of the word, makes witnesses of us all.

Christmas Gone Right

Scripture for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day include Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

There are so many things that can go wrong at Christmas.

Batteries may not be included.

On that heavy long box holding your new bookshelves may appear the words,”Some
assembly required.”

Jesus, Joseph, Mary, or any one or more of the three kings may drop out of the
pageant for any of a surprising number of reasons, alarmingly late in the

The most blatantly self-congratulatory Christmas letter of the season may prompt you
to write your own, and you’re stuck on the paragraph where the hamster dies.

The roast may roll to the floor, and the dog gets it before you do.

The people you want most at your table may be unable to come.

That gift you most wanted to give may have been out of stock, or lost in shipping,
or the wrong item was sent.

That gift was available, did arrive, but does not please the person you give it to.

You may fall short of what you expect of yourself—no, you will fall short of that,

What you expect of others may be more than—and other than—they’re able or willing
to meet.

These little sketches of what can happen at Christmas really don’t deserve the adjective “wrong”, do they? Each is an example of the rule that life is what happens while we’re making plans. And each is witness to the beatitude that needs to be a link from Jesus’s sermon on the mount, Blessed are the flexible, for they shall figure it out (and perhaps create, along the way, an equally wonderful, even a finer, outcome).

What does deserve to be called Christmas-gone-wrong is when our Christmas makes no connection with Jesus Christ. If his story doesn’t shape our celebration, then our plans are headed in the wrong direction. If we don’t take into account the actual Christmas story told by Luke and Matthew in their Gospels, then we’ll fail to receive the actual gifts he has for us:

Courage to address what we’re afraid of

Wisdom to know when it’s time to move on

Hope to strengthen and steady us for our journey

Openness to the full wonderous range of life

Those are the actual hallmarks of the Christmas Gospel.

Courage is the response of faith stirred up by the angel who persuades Joseph to tear up the divorce papers and stay the course to wed Mary, this ill-timed pregnancy notwithstanding. “Do not be afraid,” again the angel’s message this time to shepherds struggling, like us, to make sense of the ways of God in the dead of night. God is at work within us, among us, beyond us, in ways that will cause great joy for all people, promises the angel. Courage is the response of faith to this promise.
Wisdom is for making the very best choices we can, in the light of that promise. It is by wise listening that Joseph steps back from the edge, by brave listening that Mary ponders these things, and together they choose the guidance God sends them, to leave their homeland to save their lives for the sake of the mission entrusted to them.

Hope replenishes their strength on their way as refugees. What else can keep a family together as they move from the known and familiar into the other, the unknown? And what is it Emily Dickinson said? “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all.”

Openness to the whole full wonderous range of life: isn’t that how Jesus shows his Messiahship? There is a radical equality at work in a story that makes shepherds just as important as kings, and makes the Savior of the world as subject as the next person to imperial tax regulations, hotel occupancy, and the paranoia of a violent king. The Christmas Gospel introduces us to a savior who takes it all in, takes us all in, embraces all, serves all: and that is the divine likeness that waits to be freed and shaped and commissioned in us.

Courage. Wisdom. Hope. Openness. Keep track of these links, as you consider the connection between your Christmas and his nativity. Recognize that Jesus Christ is the giver of these gifts. Welcome the privilege, the blessing, of being on the receiving end of his grace, because you are. Embrace the responsibility each Christmas brings to renew the promise of baptism, to let the divine likeness, the image of God in us, rise.

Catch the Back Story

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

How are you doing with Christmas? Everything falling into place nicely? Everything falling apart? These final days of Advent, the home stretch, are they feeling more like that highway of redemption we heard the prophet Isaiah promise, last Sunday—the one with all the rough places made smooth, and no dangerous beasts allowed anywhere near it—or are these final throes more like a washboard stretch of back road that could rattle your teeth out?

Joseph and Mary are having a rough time of it. Their times are out of joint. Pregnancy is not expected during a couple’s engagement, at least not in conventional village life in the first century. Or, put that differently, when things get out of order like that, tongues wag in village life, unforgivingly. Mary is brave, and Joseph is generous, but there are embarrassed mothers in both households, outraged fathers, and critical aunties weighing in with judgment, advice, and demands. Can’t you imagine the kinds of things that got said? And all that is part of the back story of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Think of it.

Mary is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” But wait, isn’t there a monumental chasm between “found to be with child” and the explanation “from the Holy Spirit”? Isn’t it holy hindsight that allows those two statements to be presented as one? Matthew tells his story in a way that admits how hard it must have been to cross this chasm of effect and cause, the actual causeway the holy family must walk, because it takes an angel being sent from headquarters to convince Joseph to tear up the divorce papers: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”

And all of that is part of the backstory of the birth of Jesus the Messiah: “in this way,” he says, this happened. Matthew makes no effort to shield the holy family from the public disgrace they would encounter, no effort to shield us, his perennial audience, from the requirement that our theology be gritty enough to welcome this Christ who rises from these origins. In time, theologians, bishops, emperors and queens would argue (and kill one another) over the burning question whether Jesus Christ has one nature or two, and would split hairs of language and reason to justify raising higher the walls of division that fallen human nature keeps falling prey to building. But whatever we say or think or believe about Jesus, his humble, complex, and bumpy origin must shape our understanding of him, of ourselves, of his mission, and of ours. At its most frivolous, Christian theology gets distracted asking how many angels may dance on the head of a pin. At its most foundational, theology hears and echoes the angel’s message: Do not be afraid, and here is why—Emmanuel, God is with us.

Matthew will continue telling the Christmas story, and will not shield the holy family or us from the ruthless tyranny of King Herod. The angel urges Joseph and Mary to not fear, but urges them also to listen, and to leave their homeland to save their lives. Even before his birth, Jesus is identified with children who don’t fit the cookie-cutter model. Immediately upon his birth, he joins the millions of displaced persons who must migrate to escape ethnic cleansing. He is no stranger to the experience today of a million-and-a-half Syrians escaping civil war, the many millions of immigrants from Latin America, driven by economic need, and the displaced people of South Sudan in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia.

And in the context of this nativity story, we fret over Christmas menues and that box of ornaments we can’t find? Let’s not. Let’s make choices that will free us to pay attention to where and how Emmanuel, God-with-us, is on the move.

Most of us will remember Bishop Abraham Nhial, Bishop of Aweil in South Sudan, who visited us in May. Originally one of the Lost Boys who escaped the terrorists set loose by their own Khartoum government, Abraham made his way to America, completed college and seminary, and was swiftly ordained a bishop, one of the youngest in Anglican history.

You may know that a coup was attempted in South Sudan last week. Outshadowed by the violence in neighboring Central African Republic, the disturbance in South Sudan hasn’t gotten much coverage as yet. The situation is confusing. What’ s known is that President Salva Kiir (of the majority Dinka tribe) fired Vice-President Riek Machar (of the Nuer tribe) in July. Since then, tensions have been mounting. Fighting began last Sunday. Five hundred have been killed, most of them soldiers, and seven hundred injured, many of them civilians. Fourteenn thousand have sought refuge in the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba. Bishop Abraham sent his international friends this message on Tuesday:

Dear all,

I would like to inform you all that there was fighting in Juba, South Sudan for the last two days. And yesterday President Salva Kiir announces in South Sudan TV that a group around his former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar were the ones attempting to make the coup but they failed. Also, many of our politicians have now been arrested in Juba.

I am not sure how true the President announces because politicians are politicians but what I know is the President and former Vice President have political differences.

As I am sending you this email to pray for us, we already lost 12 people, more than 130 people are wounded, many people are still missing and many people are displaced. No one believes what has happened in South Sudan because South Sudan is a nation just come out from the longest sufferings but our politicians have already forgotten what we went through, very sad.

Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers, so that we can celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ peacefully. God bless you all!

Bishop Abraham Nhial

And then on Thursday, a second message came from him:

Dear all,

I want to thank you all for your prayers. Your prayers did change things in Juba. Praise the Lord! But, I want to ask you all to continue praying for the people of Bor town who were attacked last night and they are now scattered. I believe that even though our beloved nation is in conflicts God is in control and this conflict will soon come to an end. Pray for our leaders to be guided by our God so that they make wise decision.

Also, you all have been concerned where I am now, I celebrated early Christmas with my family in Kenya and I was to go back to South Sudan on December 18 but this conflict broke out in Juba. I was to go back today to South Sudan but I was told that there are no flights operating from Juba to Aweil. Also, my beloved pastors advised me not to come now. I thank them for their love and concern they have for me. So I am here in Kenya with my wife and children. We are safe but my heart is with people in South Sudan.

Moreover, we, four Bishops of the Anglican Church and a pastor from the Presbyterian Church (Dinka and Nuer) went today to meet with South Sudanese Ambassador Majok Guandong in Kenya to discuss how we can talk with South Sudanese who are living here in Kenya especially Dinka and Nuer not to fight themselves because this recent fight in South Sudan is not about Dinka and Nuer. It is about politicians.

Therefore, the out come of the meeting is that I am going to Kakuma Refugee Camp to talk and pray with our people there. I will go tomorrow if possible. One Bishop will go to Nakuru to talk and pray with South Sudanese there, another Bishop will go to Eldoret and two Bishops and a pastor will remain in Nairobi area for talk and prayers and they will be joined by Ambassadors on Sunday.

Please may you, your family, and your Church join us on this coming Sunday on December 22 to pray for peace, wisdom to our leaders, those who lost their lives, and families affected to be comforted by God. Please keep me your prayers and all the Bishops so that we can deliver God's message to His people at this time. Thank you all for your prayers. God bless you all and Merry Christmas.

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Abraham Nhial

Yes, Bishop Abraham, we do pray—and we will keep praying— for you and your family, your Church and your nation, including all who are dispersed in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia. We pray for your government leaders and for our own, that all who are elected to leadership will honor and serve that trust. As a guiding star pointed shepherds and kings to the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, may his light shine through you and your Church, and through us and ours, that the promise of redemption will be realized in reconciling love stronger than all ancient divisions, and that we be freed to know and tell the Christmas story for the healing of our unsettled world. All this we pray in the name and the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela Stirs Us Up

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 3:1-12

The death of Nelson Mandela has flashed across the night sky of a darkened world like a comet with a great long trail of light behind it. Even when the stars in the fields of heaven are outshown by such a brilliant showing as Comet Madiba, we know that our attention will, after a while, return to the ordinary and the mundane; our eyes will return to watching what is worthless (to quote the psalmist), and our hands will be tempted to build walls that exclude and to build fortunes not for sharing. Civil wars and tribal violence, partisan bickering and self-indulgence will again darken the world’s sky. But, oh my, what a luminous spirit showed itself in that man’s relentless smile, illumined by deep humility, courageous patience, and vigilant commitment to justice. If we’ve heard correctly the teaching of the physicists, that energy is not lost, will be changed but not ended, then we’ll keep the light we saw reflected in his eyes, his way of seeing the world and its needs, his insight into human nature and its capacity—our capacity—for reconciliation.

Given the extensive media coverage of Mandela’s death, the retelling of his life story, our ability to virtually attend his memorial service, file by his casket, go to his state funeral, it’s certain that we’re just about at the point where there’s nothing new and fresh to be said. But that’s not going to stop preachers from wanting to reflect on this man’s life, today when purple gives way to pink in the Advent scheme, a reminder that the incarnation of God in human flesh is for the brightening of all life.

I want to ask you to recall with me a few details we’ve heard in these past few days. Each conveys the power of God’s incarnation in human experience. Each challenges us with questions, this Advent.

10,052 days. The period of Mandela’s imprisonment, most of it on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. 10,052 days sealed away in a prison where the white government tried to isolate its most threatening political enemies, Mandela among them because he headed the African National Congress, identified by our own American government as a terrorist group trying to overthrow South Africa’s legitimate—and intensely anti-Communist and deeply racist—government. 10,052 days in which moral authority in South Africa shifted Mandela’s way, until his nation needed him not confined but freed, to channel his people’s anger as no one else could, to the peaceful outcome of black majority rule.

10,052 days, Nelson Mandela’s perpetual advent season of preparation. He recognized what incarnation required for the Word to be made flesh and be full, not of vengeance and recompense, but full of grace.

One letter every six months. That’s all he was allowed to write during the early years. The Pretoria government was that afraid of the power of his words, and that intent on depriving him of the relationships that for him incarnated love and replenished strength.

Eight feet by eight feet. The dimensions of the cell where Mandela lived most of those 27 years. Room only for what mattered most: a bed, a toilet, a wash stand, a ledge for a precious few allowed books and his journals. Eight feet by eight feet: about enough room for the digging of two graves, one in which to lay to rest the old Mandela no longer free, the other to let go of the future Mandela who would not be just what he had imagined, or when, or how. And atop both these graves to be himself in the present moment, discovering day by day how to pay attention, how to order his ways, how to find new ways to teach, to organize, and to ultimately practice the art of revolution.

These details of his story stir up for me some Advent questions.

10,052 days in prison, most of them alone in a cell, all of those days the training ground for a miracle. And do you and I resist even short periods of solitude and silence for opening ourselves to God? And then wonder why our lives seem aimless, restless?

If you could write only two letters a year, how would you use them? To whom would you write first, and second, and third? As Advent moves us closer to Christmas, we try to do everything, provide for everyone, communicate with many friends and family, party with many… What one or two people do you most want to reach?

Eight feet square, a cell is a powerful symbol of simplicity. Even in such a small space, a person will demonstrate humanity: will put one’s unique mark on how that space is used. What space in your life most needs simplifying? How might a new embrace of simplicity enhance our humanity?

There’s one more detail from the big story that I’d like to lift up today. Massachusetts was among the first government pension funds to disinvest from South Africa’s apartheid marketplace. To what standards of social responsibility are we holding ourselves accountable, these days, in our investments?

Among many lessons we may learn from Nelson Mandela’s life story is how only hindsight can reveal what was really happening in all the thousands of our days (especially our hardest days), in those few square feet of our influence, and in the battles we fought and the reconciliations we allowed. Until the more spectacular moments of revelation play out before us, we may not realize that things just weren’t always what they seemed. Think of that magical scene from the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, a turning point for post-apartheid South Africa thanks to then-president Mandela's public show of support for the predominantly white national team, a gesture that became a transcendent moment in the country's transformation to multi-racial democracy.

To call a moment like that iconic is to remember that the purpose of a classic painted icon is to be a window into the deepest reality of heaven. Hindsight gives us the paints and the brushes and the canvas needed to create icons, windows into the real. Matthew’s Gospel today gives us an example of how hindsight reveals reality. John the Baptist has been imprisoned unjustly by King Herod as a revolutionary. Unlike Mandela, John will not be released alive, and he seems to know this. He sends his disciples to confirm his hope, that Jesus is the Messiah, the liberator long-awaited by Israel and by the world. Jesus answers by directing them to practice a little hindsight. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind are seeing, the lame walking, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor, my people, are the passion of my preaching. Consider the evidence, then let all that fulfilment tell you what is real and true.” John has turned people’s hearts to God, as the best of the prophets do; but the way Matthew paints this iconic moment, Jesus is the real revolutionary, channeling the justice and lovingkindness of God to transform church and state, rich and poor, the teachers and the taught, female and male, free and slave, young and old, Gentile and Jew, Ethiopian and Syrian into the unprecedented equality of the Kingdom of God.

Two thousand years later, Christian scripture continues to urge us to be patient. Jesus’s revolution engages all generations in what Mary describes in her Magnificat as God’s scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty. It is a longterm engagement, God in it with us for the long haul. Sometimes the movement seems to be losing ground, though we know that often things are not as they appear. And there are leaders in this movement who stir us up and cause us to sing Hallelujah in everlasting joy. We celebrate one today.

(Eugene Robinson’s op ed piece, “The Conscience of the World” was helpful to the preacher. It appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on December 7. 2013.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Armed with Light

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Both Christians and Jews display a certain ambivalence about the western Gregorian calendar. It’s good enough to do business in, but to assert spiritual identity we want a timeframe that has a divine foundation under it.

So our Jewish neighbors celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the autumn, and we Christians observe Advent in a more wintry season. Catch the images of darkness—they tumble out of the collect of the day, and are reinforced by our New Testament readings. Advent comes in the season of shortening days, and stands in contrast to Lent, the season of lengthening days. Darkness figures in all this, but even more is the value of light extolled. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is much about light, celebrating the inexhaustible supply of oil that lit the lamps of the Maccabees, a story representing the bottomless abundance of the grace of God. When the early Christians wanted to claim a time in the secular calendar to celebrate the sacred act of God taking on human flesh—the quintessential Christian story of the amazing grace of God-- they chose to colonize the old Roman festival of Sol Invictus, December 25th, the celebration of the unconquered Sun God. Light rules!

Darkness gets us into all sorts of mischief. We go bump in it. We go not gently into it, because of an inherent fear of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, a fear we seem to come by honestly as vulnerable human beings. Darkness, implies the apostle, is when people drink too much, not to mention nocturnal debauchery and licentiousness, or, for the less adventurous, quarreling and jealousy. Matthew has Jesus reach into the treasury of Hebrew (or Roman) proverbs to lift up the obvious: If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Which is to say about the darkness: it is the mischievous dangerous time for not-knowing because it is the time for not-seeing.

Thomas Edison greatly expanded our sensory curfew, and in time our great-grandparents mounted electrical devices on lamp posts and automobile fenders to penetrate the night. But a century later the grid is perhaps our most insecure national security risk, and nothing is more apocalyptic and soul-chilling than a city going dark, whether the cause is a tidal surge or a cyberterrorist hacking-in.

The young see their way clear to a vibrant night life as being essential to quality of life. While the night is still young to them, their elders have traded in the day for a cuddle under the goosedown, and a good book. Or just a good book.

Let’s not forget how last Sunday’s Gospel caught the moment when Jesus, from the gathering darkness around Golgotha, absolved his adversaries because they did not know what they were doing. Piercing our moral darkness, our spiritual aimlessness, is the first item of business on the agenda of Advent, as the season teaches us to pray, Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness , and put on the armor of light… that in the last day, when Jesus shall come again, we may rise to meet him in life immortal.

Armed with light, we are to see what is true and know what we do. In the poet Michael Hudson’s words, “The Son of Man has come and comes again, unfailing advent of unending grace; we tell the stories so that we may see the character of Incarnation’s face…The Son of Man has come and comes again to seek the deluged and the left-behind; we watch and wait and hope to recognize the face of Jesus in the present time.”

Recognition is the prize of Advent. Discovering just where the pearl of great price is to be found (and where it is not), recognizing when it’s time to beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, shopping lists into mission plans, convert obligations of the season into opportunities for the Spirit—that’s a successful Advent season, sparing us the distraction, exhaustion, and distress of wasting this short season engineering a perfect Christmas, as if such a thing existed or would be good for us if it did. Christians go counter-cultural and insist that we walk through Advent season preparing our hearts and homes to welcome the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ; not run through the month of December counting down the number of shopping days, the debit card balance, and our own store of peace and goodwill.

On earth, the daily news darkens as nations sink into senseless violence. In far-away places this Advent, chaos grips entire cities and countries caught in civil war. In other distant places, this season, countless people are left with nothing after the chaos of severe weather has swept over them, and their government fails to help them. Our own government fails to help bridge the widening gulf between rich and poor, expecting nothing more from the privileged while forcing the disadvantaged to get by with less and less. As our apocalyptic Gospel puts it so plainly today, one will be taken and one will be left.

The anguish of Advent fits us not as a license for kvetching and hand-wringing, but as spark and kindling of recognition, awareness, welcome of what we most need on this fragile earth: a leadership of heart, an open and sacred and fearless heart that in the time of Matthew’s Gospel writing was conveyed in the longing for the Messiah. In our democratic age, also ironically a time of deep disillusionment about democratically elected leaders, we sense that we ourselves must learn to become the Hanukkah oil. We ourselves—no one community or tribe or denomination or party, we ourselves in the widest sense of people of good will willing and able to cooperate together—we must learn to welcome the grace, the messianic energy of God, cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

Canon Pam Mott draws our attention to author Ronald Heifetz’s notion of needing to have a sacred heart for leadership. "The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself. The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain your innocence and wonder, your doubt and curiosity, and your compassion and love even through your darkest, most difficult moments. Leading with an open heart means you could be at your lowest point, abandoned by your people and entirely powerless, yet remain receptive to the full range of human emotions without going numb, striking back or engaging in some other defense... Without keeping your heart open, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to fashion the right response or to succeed or to come out whole."

The sacred heart, the open heart, brings to mind all that is Jesus: his Word, his action, his Passion, his promise to abide in each believer’s heart and to be the pulse of the servant community, the outreaching love the world needs.

It is through the sacred heart, the open heart, that Jesus leads us to find our own paths of leadership. Armed with light, we are to see what is true and know what we do.

(The first quotation is from Michael Hudson’s “Songs for the Cycle: Fresh Hymn Texts”, page 4. The second is from “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, page 227.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Faith Restores Us

Scripture for the Last Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

We’ve just heard the Good Friday Gospel. At the early service this morning, wind shook this place as on the day of Pentecost. But it is November!

And November is a month that slips through our fingers like fine sand. Couldn’t you swear that it was October last week? And all that separates us from Christmas Day is one short month… one long list of hopes and expectations that outpace our resources… and no shortage of stress.

To mark this pivotal point in the calendar—when the approaching holidays bring their mixed promises of jubilation and exhaustion, when the weather swings cold, the days grow short, and the landscape spare—the Church gives us in its calendar this day, Christ the King Sunday, to give perspective on all those claims these next thirty days will place upon us.

The Collect of the day suggests that perspective. That is the role of the Collect of the day, Sunday by Sunday: to invite a way of hearing and seeing the Word that has been chosen for that day, the several portions of holy writings placed before us like steaming cloths at a spa, to open our pores and lose the grime and relax our grip, and emerge… improved!

You could say that the collect of the day asks for what we already have, or, better put, asks for the help we need to more fully become what we receive. That’s right in keeping with the purposes of holy scripture: to bear witness to what God has done for us and given to us, and to whet the appetite to welcome that action and gift of God, and, welcoming it, to internalize that gift so as to learn how to take our part in the great chain of giving that bears the likeness of God.

So today, with almost the brevity of a tweet, the collect acknowledges that the peoples of the earth are divided and enslaved by sin. Then is announced how God responds, freeing and bringing together people, all peoples, under the most gracious rule of Jesus Christ, God’s beloved agent charged with the task of restoring all things in himself.

If you’re a fan of Antiques Roadshow, as I am (though it’s the British version that I enjoy—there’s something too serious and chilly about the American version, little charm to it)—still, either program acquaints us with restoration: it’s the gentle application of tender lovingkindness, best achieved by humble means, like cleaning a painting with human spit, just the right enzymes to clean paint and not dissolve it. It’s expensive because it’s labor-intensive (and how much saliva can a restorer produce at one sitting?), but the value of the creation rises dramatically when restored… there’s the thing. Perspective on what you think you can afford to pay for renewal of that rather lovely but grimey old painting of great-great Uncle Thomas’s landscape along the Hudson needs to take into account how restoration changes a picture’s value, not just its appearance.

What is the mission of the Church? The Prayer Book’s catechism answers, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Unlike the restoration of a painting, where appearance is the concern, the restoration of people has unity as its purpose. And, if the analogy holds, our greater unity—with God and with one another-- will enhance our value in the great scheme of things, the role we take in God’s great chain of giving.

I don’t believe that theological language improves with the number of syllables required to make a word, but somehow I find it fits us well to call this human restoration by a slightly longer name: reconciliation.

At the micro level, the Church pursues its mission as any one person is helped to welcome and feel the thoroughgoing forgiveness of God. The Church’s mission begins, says our Book of Common Prayer, with the complete pardon that sets a person free from whatever has separated or bound him or her from God and from other people. Experiencing the sureness of that pardon is the purpose of confession, and the Prayer Book contains a brief service called “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.”

At the macro level, the Church imbedded in the world pursues its mission as it models finer ways of dealing with human divisions, finer than the zero-sum game, finer than sinking in the quicksand of partisan reaction, finer than vengeance and retribution. Think of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s championing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s approach to healing a nation once divided and enslaved by sin. Think of how it took international persuasion, much of it rising from people of faith, to dismantle apartheid.

That the peoples of the earth are to be freed and reconciled in Jesus Christ is meant to be good news. But if there’s an imperial edge to that message, what’s to keep it from becoming bad news? Two thousand years out, and Christianity comes in two thousand denominational flavors now—all capable of competition as well as reconciliation. And more of a quandary when we honestly humbly acknowledge that Christianity is one religion among many on the stage of this fragile earth, and not necessarily one that’s known for praying well with others.

Here is where the apostle’s letter to the Colossians comes to us as special gift on Christ the King Sunday. St. Paul sings a hymn of sheer gratitude for all the reconcilings that he had experienced himself, converted not from one religion to another, but from the ways of violence and zero-sum partisan reaction to the treasuring of an open heart expressing allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

Hear again his effervescent language: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the image of the invisible God… and in him all things hold together…he is the beginning… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

There is all that to be thankful for! And Paul’s witness says to us, “All this is yours! God has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light of Christ. It is for you to become more fully what you receive.”

As Christians committed to work on that lifelong goal, we’ll do well if our witness to the lovingkindess of God in Jesus Christ is expressed in terms of all we are grateful for. Thanksgiving, gratitude, appreciation should smooth the rough edges and still the sharp judgment that may characterize an imperial Christianity that never did fit, and most surely no longer fits a post-imperial world.

It is for the higher values of cooperation and reconciliation that our faith restores us.

As we take our bearings on Christ the King Sunday, we take to heart the call to reconciliation.

As holidays come that came from Christian origins, we’re grateful for how familiar the roots of these holy days are, and welcome this year’s opportunity to pray well with others who may not have inherited that appreciation. May we find ways to let this Advent season prepare us all for celebrating in spirit and truth, and not get steam-rollered by seasonal stress. Let’s celebrate in ways that help reconcile a wealthy nation to its responsibility to feed all its hungry people, and hold accountable to the common good all whom we’ve called to public office.

As we have faced painful memories again in recognizing the passing of fifty years since the assassination of a President who summoned us to ask what we can do for others, hear the call to pray and work towards the reconciling of divisions in this nation now, fifty years later, starting with the most ingrained of them, the fierce resistance to gun control, with its idolizing of antique language in our Constitution, and its refusal to see that new occasions teach new duties.

Christ the King Sunday presents perspective gained from a king who made peace through his perfect practice of non-violence. He laid a foundation for reconciliation in his prayer, pardoning his persecutors because they did not know what they were doing.

In these days of our holiday celebrations, let us know what we are doing, and so celebrate as to reconcile. In this season of deep divisions in our nation, let us pray for grace and courage to know what we are doing as citizens and as people whose faith restores us
for the higher values of cooperation and reconciliation.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Obeying God

Scripture for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost includes Haggai 1:15b-2:9; II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

That Gospel is no more about marrying than the Garden of Eden story is about gardening, or Jonah and the whale about fishing.

But, just like those other stories, this one is about obedience. What is required, to obey God? Adam and Eve flunked that quiz— Jonah, too, just couldn’t get the hang of it—both old stories declaring it’s indeed a very old story that we human beings find obedience to God a mighty challenge.

Adam and Eve refused to believe that God would put them in such a lush garden only to tell them that some of that luscious fruit right within their reach wasn’t for them. What kind of God would that be?

Old Jonah refused to believe that God would send him, a bona fide Hebrew prophet, to preach repentance to those heathen in Nineveh—as if God would give a fig for anyone but the chosen people. What kind of God would that be?

So there’s a good question worth asking: What kind of God are we called to obey?

The Gospel writers keep calling out onto center stage the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, religious types straight from the central casting department of established religion. They’re called out to blurt out bad answers, and to tease out good answers, to that question, What kind of God do we have?

A wonderful thing about these characters is this: once you get beyond their first-century religious chatter, their attitudes are easily recognized as timeless and universal. These are Jews, but these are also Episcopalians and Methodists, Eastern Orthodox and Southern Baptists—and while I’m not on firm ground saying this, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are also Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. They represent what people do in response to the call to obey God: We find varying ways to attempt obedience, then we grow so attached to those ways that we take issue with others and with how they attempt obedience. We come apart over it, fracturing the bonds of unity. We wield our diverse viewpoints and practices as if they were weapons of war, not tools to build a kingdom of God.

It’s against a background of religious controversy, denominational rivalry, and sectarian violence that the question becomes urgent: What kind of God are we trying to obey?

In today’s installment from Luke, the spotlight is on the Sadducees. Their position was that there is no resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees, by contrast, affirmed resurrection. Before there was such a belief, Israel believed that one lives on in one’s children and in their memory. That was the old time religion, and that’s what the Sadducees believed.

What they do in their questioning of Jesus is to try to push belief in the resurrection right into the realm of absurdity. They try to make it seem ridiculous.

The thing is, from what little we know about the Sadducees, we see that the writings they held sacred were the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Law of Moses. It is into that ancient code that they reach now to ridicule resurrection. They dredge up a provision from the Book of Deuteronomy, directing that if a man were to die without children, his brother was obligated to take the widow as his wife and have children by her. When this cumbersome system worked, it ensured the perpetuation of property within the immediate family and provided security for the brother’s widow. This law expressed the old-time religion’s belief that we live on through our children.

So these Sadducees ridicule their own belief, as they slash and burn the doctrine of their rivals. (This is where the devil loves to get in and work mischief.) There’s something awfully ironic about this, isn’t there? The law on which they base their conundrum was meant to protect widows; instead, their attitude demeans the widow, treating her as property, a pawn on a patriarchal chess board. That all this is triggered by an odd case study in marriage makes the net result feel all the more, well, ironic.

It’s not a bad instinct, to turn to marriage for an answer to the question, What kind of God are we obeying? Read the prophets and see how the relationship between God and Israel is described as a marriage. And if there is one spiritual value that dominates the Hebrew Bible’s vision of God, it is “hesed”, faithful lovingkindness. That is God’s chief attribute, the key to Jewish theology, Jewish ethics, and Jewish tradition. Isn’t that the missing ingredient in the Sadducees case study?

When the officiant in an Episcopal liturgy addresses the congregation gathered to celebrate and bless the marriage of a couple, he or she declares that holy matrimony “signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.” And there’s more: Holy Matrimony is intended by God for the couple’s mutual joy. Other purposes are intended: help and comfort, nurturing of children… but the first is joy. And that is for sure a missing ingredient in our kinky case today. Which makes one wonder if faithful lovingkindess and joy aren’t closely related.

“So that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” insists the apostle in his letter today; that’s the purpose of obedience, that’s why to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us.”

The faithful lovingkindness that is God’s “hesed” carries people through crisis. The prophet Haggai reports the promise of God, “For I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear… Not even when I shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land, and all the nations…”, yet more proof that the prophets watch the same evening news that you and I watch. And yearn for the same just peace.

Opposing that justice, defiling that peace, breaking faith, destroying trust, fracturing unity, is the attitude that people can belong to anyone other than God. Jesus answers the cynicism of the Sadducees by declaring that no one but God can own this widow. And what does it mean to own? To hold in faithful lovingkindness.

Students of the origin of words tell us that at the root of “obey” is a Latin verb “to hear”. To obey the God of “hesed” is to hear the Spirit who abides among us wherever hesed is practiced, the Spirit that renders fear unnecessary. Freed from fear, we obey by hearing and welcoming God’s claim upon us in faithful lovingkindness, God’s call to consider and do what such love invites, what such love requires, and to delight in what such love gives

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Seeing the Vision, Hearing the Voice

Scripture for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4; II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Our snapshot of the prophet Habakkuk catches him at his watchpost, on the rampart, the walkway up top of the fortress wall, where a sentinel can keep an eye on approaching enemies.

Our video clip from Luke’s Gospel shows a rich tax collector, Zacchaeus, up in a sycamore tree, perched above the crowd that has gathered to hear the itinerant preacher Jesus deliver his latest parable.

You might say that neither of these fellows has his feet firmly planted on the ground. Each has climbed to gain advantage. Each earnestly, urgently, needs to see what’s next in life. Habakkuk and Zacchaeus are on a mission to reconnoiter the future. Until each man sees and hears the reward for his vigilance, his openness, his courage, he lacks the guidance he needs to put one foot in front of the other.

These are stories of people being honest about their needs, being proactive to meet them, and finding God immediately responsive. These are great readings full of encouragement for all of us who feel drawn to work on our spiritual practice!

I can so easily relate to Habakkuk. Everywhere he looks, his nation is on the skids. They feel stuck in a God-awful paralysis of leadership. Wrongdoing is everywhere. Everything they’ve counted on is shutting down, falling apart, in trouble. Hear his frustration—feel his helplessness: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”

Habakkuk is the right prophet to have on our ramparts as we in this country anticipate the next bout of partisan tantrums, the next season of threats to pull the plug on government. “Why must we see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before us; stife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” It’s as if Habakkuk watches the same evening news you and I watch!

Instantly, God answers the prophet. Well, not quite instantly: first, Habakkuk must climb to the ramparts. Wallowing in the kvetching around the campfire won’t help him: he must choose to gain perspective. Up he goes, and it’s there—and I’m going to say that that watchpost is prayer—there God answers the prophet, honors his honesty, encourages his failing courage.

“Write what you know is true. The vision: make it plain, tap it out on your tablets so everyone sees it: write it as you blog, tweet it to your followers. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.” Imbedded in this universe is the heavenly demand for justice on earth, that God’s will be done here as there, ancient wrongs be set right, the jackasses be held to account for their actions, peace to all through all of good will. Take courage! It’s worth waiting for—it demands working for. And that work starts within each of us: let the righteous live by their faith, let their spirit be right within them.

This vignette from Habakkuk’s experience speaks volumes about God. God is less than a heartbeat away from our struggles. Closer than breath itself, to our longing for vision. Ready to honor honesty, reward patience, encourage climbing to a place of perspective, and there appear and answer. Habakkuk’s story is all about prayer, not prayer as escape but prayer as engagement.

Let’s catch up with Zacchaeus. He too has climbed to a place of perspective. Honesty, patience, and courage describe him, too. We can imagine a verse of our psalm on his lips: “I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments.”

Of all the personalities, of all the professions, of all the powers-that-be there on the streets of Jericho, Jesus chooses to invite himself to the home of Zacchaeus. Jesus will not be put on display as a token guest at a fancy dinner party in the home of a pious churchman. He will sit at Zacchaeus’s table,maybe just the two of them, the Son of Man and the tax man, or maybe on their way home, they’ll attract a whole tableful of dissident, subversive, open-minded, open-hearted people—the type that won’t hesitate to climb a tree, that will dare go out on a limb, to see and hear, and to speak and do, what is urgently needed.

Jesus chooses well. He knows who he needs (though it’s pretty clear that he needs everyone) and he knows how to call all sorts, from all walks of life, to follow and to lead. In this befriending, Jesus learns what no one else had guessed: despite the stereotype of the tax collector, Zacchaeus stands ready to help people generously. He has little to do with organized religion, but his spirit is right within him, and he’s ready to demonstrate that rightness by bold and gracious sharing of what he has.

This is a great Gospel for a day when we’ll gather-in our pledges to support the life and work of St. John’s in the world. Plus we even have the tree!

Zacchaeus climbing his tree reminds us of Habakkuk climbing to gain perspective, to see the big picture, to recapture the vision; so we might relate to Zacchaeus’s story by recognizing that the tree we’re called to climb is prayer—honest, patient, open-hearted prayer.

And with today’s in-gathering before us, the tree we’re called to climb is also stewardship, the sharing God calls us to do to express the love that answers the love of the answering God. As prayer releases us from our own grip, to receive God’s love, prayer also frees us to practice generosity. It’s worth noticing that the sermon Jesus gives, right on the heels of meeting Zacchaeus, is based on the parable about the nobleman who entrusts some of his wealth to his servants, to invest for profit while he is gone.

If there is one more truly important height from which to gain perspective—in addition to Habakkuk’s rampart and Zacchaeus’s sycamore-- it is Alexander’s precious perch in the arms of his parents, his grandparents, his Godparents, and this church community where he will be baptized in just a few moments. Foundational to his trusting that he is held close to the heart of God is his being held tenderly, firmly, faithfully in the arms of those who are privileged to care for him. Nothing will equip him better to have a place of perspective to climb up to in later life, than being treasured as he is now. Nothing will orient him better to having his feet firmly planted on the ground than his gaining the twin gifts by which the vision of God is seen and the voice of God heard, the gifts of roots and wings, which an old saying insists are the lasting gifts parents can give their children, the lasting gifts their church can give them, as well: roots and wings.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Saying No to Casinos

Scripture for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Joel 2:23-32; II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

I hear I missed three fine stewardship sermons, last Sunday. That’s what happens when you miss a Sunday here—you miss a lot!

My sermon today is about stewardship of a different kind. I want to talk to you about casino gambling, specifically about a citizens’ initiative petition to repeal the casino deal struck by our legislature and our Governor, a deal that the great majority of Massachusetts voters have not been allowed to vote on.

It is the purpose of the petition to provide that opportunity by a referendum article on our state ballot in November of next year, 2014. To achieve that, 69,000 bona fide signatures need to be gathered and verified, by mid-November of this year.

You may have noticed on your way in, this morning, that our vestibule has been rearranged to provide a place for you to sign this petition, if you are of a mind to do so. I’ll offer some coaching on signing that petition, before we’re done today.

First, a word about motivation. And then a word about our freedom to hold diverse opinions within the Body of Christ.

Motvation. Left to my own devices, I might not have risen to the challenge of tackling this harvesting of signatures here. Even though I was deeply disappointed by the eagerness of our Governor and the compliance of our legislature in sealing the casino deal, I might have been satisfied that the process of situating three regional casinos in the Commonwealth requires each host community to vote up or down the specific proposal for their community.

Or, to put that in Gospel terms today, I might have been quite willing to play the part of the Pharisee, stand by myself here in the Berkshires, and pray thus, “God, I thank you that we are not like the people of Springfield: desperate for jobs, yearning for urban renewal, eager to see good times roll by increased public revenues.”

That attitude, which could have been mine, would not have been worthy of anyone who believes in the concept of a commonwealth. That attitude, isolationist and short-sighted, was not going to go unchallenged by our activist Bishop of Western MA, whose see city, Springfield, is to be one of those three host communities. But over his dead body.

And not Doug Fisher alone. Far from it. In fact, the real firebrand at Diocesan House, on this issue, is our Chief Financial Officer, Steve Abdow. You’ll see that he is one of the ten first signers and sponsors of the petition. They are part of a diverse coalition of public health, municipal, family, and religious leaders who, along with concerned citizens from all walks of life, believe that predatory gambling destroys families, communities, and cultures. There, in a nutshell, is motivation.

And you now know that we are summoned by our Bishop to think not just our own thoughts but to consider what is known about a complex subject. You may not need persuading on this subject. You may hear what I have to say this morning and not be of a mind to sign this petition. Differing opinions and viewpoints are essential to the exercise of democracy. And, of all places, we who live in the Commonwealth of MA should k now (from our own tortured colonial history) that our deepest and truest wealth resides in freedom. Having clergy tell parishioners how to vote ought to be especially unacceptable in this Commonwealth. And that will be worth remembering if the coalition is successful in getting onto the ballot next year a repeal of the casino deal. Then, moral debate will doubtless reveal our diversity, and we will respect that diversity. For now, the question is simpler: Is casino gambling in three regions of Massachusetts a statewide issue that all voters should have the chance to decide?

If you say, as I do, that the answer to that question is Yes, then let’s sign the petition and call it a day.

But that would mean missing a golden opportunity to start considering what casino gambling represents. Carlo Rotella, a faculty member at Boston College, wrote an op ed piece that the Eagle picked up from The Globe. “I will sign the petition… because I’m convinced that casinos are bad for just about any community. It’s in my narrow self-interest to try to stop them even if nobody’s trying to build one in my town—if they’re bad for the state, they’re bad for my family.”

And, for most of our history, illegal. From 1930 to the late 1980s, they were legal only in Nevada and Atlantic City; but starting in the 90;s, they began entering the mainstream of American society, with the full support and sponsorship of the very same state governments that had outlawed them. In the report “Why Casinos Matter”, prepared by the Institute for American Values, the authors report that “Table games catering to high rollers have largely given way to slot machines catering to middle and low rollers. Casino gambling as a once or twice a year vacation has largely given way to casino gambling as a once or twice a month or once or twice a week pattern of life,” as most patrons live within 70 miles of a casino.

This report advances 31 propositions about the casino industry. Five pertain to slot machines, and I want to read just their titles.

1. The new American casino is primarily a facility filled with modern slot machines.
2. A modern slot machine is a sophisticated computer, engineered to create fast, continuous, and repeat betting.
3. Modern slot machines are carefully designed to ensure that the longer you play, the more you lose (“mechanical pickpockets”, Fiorello La Guardia called them).
4. Modern slot machines are highly addictive.
5. Modern slot machines are engineered to make players lose track of time and money.

Which segues easily to a few more propositions:
That casinos depend on problem gamblers for their revenue base, estimates running from 38% to 55% of their take.

That problem gambling is more widespread than many casino industry leaders claim (they estimate 1%; more reputable estimates say 15-20% are in some stage of addiction). And problem gambling affects families and communities as well as individuals.

The industry views young people (21-35) as their future. In some ways, they’re primed for gambling: since childhood, they’ve tapped buttons and tracked images on screens, spent money with a swipe of a debit card, played video games, and lived on social media—a soft target for Internet gambling, the next frontier for legalized gambling.

We need to remember how gambling has become legalized: the other fellow in our Gospel today is the tax collector. Rather than turning to him for an answer to revenue shortfalls, state governments have opted for what some say is a quick and painless fix. But here are four more propositions to consider:

1. The benefits of casinos are short-term and easy to measure, while many of their costs are longer-term and harder to measure.
2. Casinos extract wealth from communities.
3. Casinos typically weaken nearby businesses.
4. Casinos typically hurt property values in host communities.
5. Because of these reasons, state revenues from casinos are a regressive form of taxation paid by residents who are least able to pay it.

Other effects are worth taking into account, especially rises in crime and government corruption. While we were on Martha’s Vineyard last week, a banner headline in The Globe reported that Caesars Entertainment, one of the biggest in the business, will be dropped from a casino venture at Suffolk Downs “due to grave doubts that the international gambling giant would pass its mandatory state background check.” Oops!

What’s stunning about this is that it comes less than three weeks (now two) before voters in East Boston and Revere decide the fate of the casino proposal in their area. Talk about putting the cart before the horse! These communities have been bellying up to the bar with Caesar’s for two years now—and now the bottom falls out.

Closer to home, Springfield’s City Council President has asked the chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for advice on how the city can replace MGM if that company fails the state’s background check. Who will match that $800 million project MGM has proposed?

Can anyone tell me: Whatever happened to due diligence up front?

What’s good about these embarrassing developments is that Massachusetts is growing a reputation as the toughest US jurisdiction in which to qualify for a gambling license. What would be better is if we have the courage to just say No, and find more honest ways to deal with our revenue shortfall and our statewide need for more jobs, good jobs. It won’t be just in the licensing process that we’ll need a tough and ready strong arm of the state to protect us: the public will need protection from the very business practices that will generate revenue for the state—and that is a conflict of interest that we’d be smart to avoid.

Enough, already. If you’re a registered voter in Massachusetts, I hope you’ll consider signing the petition. No surprise: there are tight rules to follow. I’ll mention three:

Sign on the clipboard that corresponds to the town you live in (if there’s no clipboard for
your town, we’ll start one
Sign legibly (note to self) in ink, using your name as you think it appears in your town’s
voting list (no need to fill in ward and precinct)
Use the address that matches, no post office boxes allowed

And say a simple prayer of thanksgiving for the freedoms we enjoy in this country, including this one, standing up for ourselves—and one another—against companies and politicians offering us a bad deal.

Carlo Rotella’s op ed piece “Saying No to Casinos” appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of The Berkshire Eagle.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Grateful for the Word

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

This will be a sermon about gratitude, because I have two fresh and rewarding experiences as a preacher that I’m still unpacking. And, yes, this should be a sermon about gratitude because that spiritual power pulses like the heartbeat of Luke’s little story.

I have never worked as hard on a sermon as one which required me to write and deliver just half of it. That may sound cryptic, though some of you know that I’m talking about a gig Diana and I shared, a week ago yesterday in Brooklyn, where The Rev. John Denaro was installed (“instituted”, in the language of the Prayer Book; we secretly called it John’s coronation) as Rector of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Parish in Brooklyn Heights.

Etched in our memories is an evening at Spice Root where, at dinner with John and Joel, John invited both Diana and me to be the preachers at his service, in one sermon. In forty years of parish ministry, we’d never heard that request before. The invitation, he said, reflected the nature of his friendship with us both; of course, we were touched… and instantly challenged to imagine the outcome. How would we construct a shared sermon? Whose role would it be to do what?

Let me tell you what we did. In two long conversations with John, one by phone and one over another meal, we took notes on all that it meant to him to receive and accept this call to serve a congregation that in several real senses has risen from the ashes. The yoked names of the parish suggest a merger in the past, and a church merger requires passing through the refiner’s fire. The thumbnail version is that the St. Ann’s buildings had been sold and Holy Trinity’s massive facilities came to house both congregations—until disaster struck, not in the form of a fire (as you might expect from the story line) but a prolonged and nasty conflict around leadership, which shuttered the place for years. Until 9/11, when remaining parishioners threw open the doors of the church as a relief center. Out of the ashes of that devastation, the parish began to reform itself.

So here is what we did with our sermon. We opened with repartee that had fun with the question of what a rector is called to do, playing with the questionable assertion that a rector is the parish’s CEO. In John’s case, we wondered if that might mean Chief Entrepreneurial Officer, or Chief Entertainment Organizer (both fit him well, but that last one drew both laughter and applause).

Then I sketched some major themes of John’s vision for the parish’s outreach to its wider community: “Connect with need” is his mantra.

Diana then had a heart to heart with Joel, offering perspective on being the rector’s partner. You may recall that when a priest is instituted as Rector, parishioners present objects that symbolize their shared ministry. Diana selected a few choice objects for Joel, including a roll of duct tape for when he might want to let it rip but knows he shouldn’t, to be placed over mouth, then breathe through nose until calm.

A verse of Psalm 37, sung that afternoon, reminded us to trust God. “In doing so,” Diana said to Joel, “you will be a grounded and steady refuge for John. Your heart’s desire in safeguarding the happiness and security of your personal relationship will also safeguard the happiness and security of this parish,” she said. Watching her high in that pulpit, hearing these words, I felt such gratitude for her and for the truth she was describing.

Then we brought you into the sermon. John had suggested to us that we talk about some of the ways in which St. John’s reaches out to its wider community. He implied that he’d like to import some of those to Brooklyn. I sketched our valuing the presence and ministry of college students, our experimentation with worship, our longstanding commitment to invest 10% of our pledged income (over and above diocesan assessment) in outreach beyond St. John’s, and from there it was a natural segue into our annual medical mission trip to Latin America.

Diana then carried the ball of arts and music, focusing especially on ways we invite parishioners and guests to use these physical spaces to feed the spirit, including art shows and the creation of contemporary Lenten stations of the Cross. We know John’s keen on projects like these. She then described the stunning phoenixes of the Chinese artist Xu Bing, still (briefly) on display at MassMoCA, utilizing debris and broken bits and artefacts from the controversial demolition of hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, in her words, “each piece informing, supporting, and complementing all the other pieces into a whole that is overwhelmingly larger than life—just what a parish is called to do for itself and for the world.”

Finally, each of us issued a charge of Godly advice, I to John and Diana to his congregation, including his family and friends. Diana reminded them that installing a rector is not a spectator sport, but a team commitment to give him what he needs to do what they have charged him to do, learning to think from the perspective of abundance, not scarcity.

I urged John to recognize that each of his tasks, especially the pesky ones, is opportunity to honor the incarnation of God in human flesh; at the same time, that he must keep sharp his skill at discerning whether it is his hand needed on the plow, or someone else’s. I also urged him, as he institutes what is new, to get his people to clarify what already constitutes the genius of their parish, so that both old and new are treasured and fulfilled. That echoed a Gospel reading, earlier in the service, to the effect that training for heaven requires a stewardship that values and uses both the old and the new.

I said there are two recent experiences in preaching that prompt my gratitude, because each seems to have gone well. The second requires us to relocate to the activities room at Williamstown Commons, where I lead a monthly eucharist. In recent months, I’ve come away from such services feeling as if I were bombing, just not connecting with residents. My hunch: that I needed to prepare, whereas the fact is that it’s hard finding time to do that for the three monthly services I lead in area facilities.

So, last Wednesday morning, at morning prayer and on my way over to the nursing home, I found myself praying, “Help me find, help me give.” What I hadn’t noticed was that I was leaving the office a few minutes earlier than I usually give myself to drive there, which allowed me to set the table, sit down and stop moving about, and say hello to people as they entered. A bunch of little things seemed to be conspiring to help me see and hear, find and give.

For one, I chose to remain seated for the first half of the service. Each person in that circle was in a wheelchair, so remaining in my chair allowed eye contact in a fresh way—such a simple choice I’d either not noticed or forgotten. It also suggested conversing, rather than conducting, and that relaxed me to hold this Gospel we have heard today with a more open hand.

We decided, those residents and I, that the other nine people in the story made a beeline to Dunkin Donuts. After all those days, months, years of separation from the community—living outside the town, crying out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever anyone approached them—they were ready for whatever constituted normalcy.

Jesus’s charge to show themselves to the priests probably could have gone unsaid—or gets said for our benefit—for they knew well that only the priests could issue them the equivalent of a green card, a certificate of healing that would allow them to work and to live in town.

What is clear is how important this story is as a sign of the power of God’s kingdom. And what is so significant is its message that God’s mercy, God’s grace, can be recognized for what it really is only by gratitude. Not that God is limited to heal only people who know what’s happening to them, who know what accounts for their healing. No, God works healing far more generously than we can explain: embedded in the wondrous organism that emerges from a mother’s womb are capacities to heal and repair, to resist and overcome infection—to the extent that we may take healing for granted. Nine out of ten do, it would seem.

All ten people are suffering from leprosy, perhaps especially its social isolation, its endless shaming and alienation. They seem to raise one united chorus of voices as they call across the vast gulf, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Later, just one solo voice is heard to praise God. And though all ten got what they wanted, only this one receives more than he had dreamed of asking for: the priests have certified the others healed and fit to return to work and to community, but this one receives Jesus’s declaration of salvation.

The story emphasizes its own surprise: This man is not a member of the established church of his day. Jesus calls him a foreigner, marveling at his faith, expressed through gratitude. Southern Baptist bible scholar R. Alan Culpepper puts it this way: “Ten were healed, but only one recognized the healing for what it was. Is healing simply the natural process of nature or a sign of God’s love? In retrospect, are the opportunities and experiences that prepare one for greater challenges simply chance or evidence of God’s providence? Who can fathom the ways in which God works in human experience?”

Today, we bring Cecilia and Francisco to the font. What will happen there? I mean, what beyond their receiving certificates of baptism. For what good, and to what end, is their baptism?

So that they will begin-- surrounded, aided, supported-- the spiritual tasks of recognition: recognizing in their own experience the love of God. Perceiving deeper meaning in what moves within and around them. Seeing the need of others, as Jesus sees, even at a great distance. Finding faith in its purest form, gratitude. Giving thanks, giving attention, giving awareness. Receiving Jesus’s declaration of salvation. Realizing opportunity to become the blessing of God.

At the Institution of a Rector

A Sermon in Two Voices
at the Institution of The Rev. John Edward Denaro
as Rector of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Parish, Brooklyn, New York
5 October 2013
The Rev. Peter Elvin (voice A) and Ms. Diana Elvin (voice B)

A: So what do you think about John stepping from Priest-in-Charge to Rector?
B: Out of the frying pan into the fire?

A: Priest-in-Charge sounds so powerful: does anyone ever say a Rector’s in
B: Not that I recall. Priest-in-Charge sounds hierarchical, almost militant.
“Rector” seems so well-behaved, vaguely academic, Trollopian…

A: The dictionary says its root is the past participle of the Latin “regere”, to rule..
B: Who knew? But don’t they call this a service of Institution? Is John
becoming an institution?

A: And is that supposed to sound powerful? Sounds more like something
powerful happens to him…
B: Let’s hope it’s not like when the White Witch in Narnia turns a creature
to stone…

A: Or even worse: makes him a Chief Executive Officer…
B: Is that what a Rector is? A CEO?

A: Are we sure that’s not Chief Entrepreneurial Officer?
B: That’s John. Or Chief Entertainment Organizer?

A: You heard about that Barn Dance? There won’t be many dull moments
around here…
B: Or Chief Ecumenical Operator? John’s sharp on interfaith dynamics.

A: How about Church Environment Overseer?
B: John certainly values the dynamics of group and community values. He’ll
model well.

Voice A

Because he leads by example. How long does it take a total stranger to discover that John enjoys people? Has a playful sense of humor? That he has bright, inspiring energy (the kind that makes us ask, ‘Where does he keep getting it?’)? And that he respects people, appreciates the privilege of the pastoral union, and gets the concepts of team building and leadership?

Ask John, and he’ll say that the teamwork enjoyed here manifests the energy of the laity (and, I’m sure he would add, the talents of his committed staff members). But the fact that we’re all here today says that your energy and John’s energy make good chemistry together. There’s so much to celebrate, that both you-the-people and he-the-priest (as well as he-the-bishop) feel so ready to upgrade this relationship and render it longterm. “People here are so good, so open-hearted and responsive,” John tells us. And, you know, that describes John, too. Like wise Solomon in our first reading, John listens to Lady Wisdom, learns without guile and imparts without grudging.

John’s aim is to see that you see your own strength as a community in Christ. Wisely, John knows that you and God already have a good thing going; that he is to deepen, strengthen, help God evolve and harvest that good. And speaking of strength, the spiritual organism of this parish has proven itself versatile in its many adaptations in its history, a real Comeback Kid, familiar with change and death and resurrection and amazing grace.

John speaks of downtown Brooklyn as the Crossroads to Everywhere. Even we in the Berkshires know that Brooklyn is more than a happening place: Everyone wants to live in Brooklyn, “The Coolest City on the Planet”! Consider the dynamism around you in this boomtown. Conversion, even if its common reference is housing, conversion is a ready-made concept for use here in Brooklyn! We hear that in the market for homes, there’s a keen appetite for homes with a past, places that exude history. St. Matthew’s language comes alive here in a real Brooklyn way: if training for the kingdom of heaven requires valuing what is old and what is new—this is a dynamic you know about. And here we are in a holy house redolent with history, situated to embrace and help play is role in the renewal of community all around you.

In the dynamic mix of old and new, the old is on display in our liturgy (and its setting), yet requires the new to connect us to the world. The old is treasured and taught in our “family values” of those Holy Habits your Bishop made the compass of his creative ministry in the Diocese of WMA, and I’m sure he’s teaching them here, too: Personal prayer, Bible reading, generous stewardship, weekly eucharist, sharing your faith, service in outreach—habits that help us engage with the living God who uses these very commitments to strengthen us in love that is new every morning.

John’s dream for this parish is that you connect effectively with your wider community, extending and expressing your mission beyond these walls. John cites your 10th anniversary 9/11 observance as a rich example of your outreach, and even though I’ll bet John was much engaged, he makes it clear that that was you caring for your neighbors. As commercial and residential expansion and gentrification sweep through your neighborhoods, what shapes will your caring for neighbors take?

When John looks at these impressive but demanding buildings, he knows they have a mission, that they are alive with possibility, and sees what he calls “a community commons”, a place for all, a venue for considering what world it is you occupy, and how you and your neighbors thrive—or do not thrive—in that world. “Connecting to need” is his mantra. You’re doing it, through your monthly outreach mitzvah projects, and your Sunday sandwich program.

There is a fire in John’s belly, and there is a fire in yours. Watch out, Brooklyn, for we are here today to celebrate countless ways, some known and many more not yet, in which you will honor that flame of love, let it shine, let it draw people to you, let it warm hearts and wills.

Voice B

Joel, as Peter and I considered your participation in this day, we realized that the words John chose from Psalm 37 are a good guide for both of you: “Take delight in the LORD, and he shall give you your heart’s desire. Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.”

This day formally celebrates a new relationship between John and this congregation, but we all need to remember that John is John because you are you. If you are like most of the other life partners of clergy I know, you will be happy to cruise just under the radar, breaking the surface every so often in your own unique way, but your role is not to be diminished: your role is not to be diminished, and you are not to be diminished.

Clergy households have to balance on a tightrope: you will probably know much more than you will ever be able to do anything about directly, because you won’t be involved directly. You will witness what’s going on in the parish, and you will live with John’s professional challenges and opportunities but, as the saying goes about the traditional mother-of-the-groom, you may have to “smile, wear beige, and keep your mouth shut” more often than not. From time to time, you may feel like a man without a parish, or perhaps I should say, a man without this parish. That’s OK. It’s still worth it.

You are a person of integrity. You are intelligent and kind. Your moral compass points True North. You welcome and enjoy people of all kinds. You know how to play and how to play into the human condition.

I don’t think you’ll have any trouble doing what the Psalmist instructs and trusting this parish and trusting God. And in doing so, you will be a grounded and steady refuge for John. Your heart’s desire in safeguarding the happiness and security of your personal relationship will also safeguard the happiness and security of this parish.

But just in case you need reminding, I have a couple of “symbols of institution” for you, too:

• You already have the magic wand I gave to you when John was called to be interim priest. Don’t forget that contains unlimited wishes. Be careful what you wish for…
• Next, a roll of duct tape (when you just want to let it rip but know you shouldn’t). Place over mouth and breathe through nose until calm.
• Next, a stick of insect repellent, to try to ward off the occasional sting or bite from people who may slide down the evolutionary scale to release their inner arthropod, from time to time.
• And finally, anytime you want it, an infusion of joy (or at least perspective) from me to you that will remind you over and over how fortunate you are to be in this whackadoodle, exhausting, privileged position along with John.

Voice A

John, am I divulging classified information if I say that some of your very best sermons are written in Williamstown, at your branch office, Tunnel City Coffee? If we were just a little smarter, maybe we’d figure out a way to do sermon sharing…

My point is that for years now, John and Joel have been part of the community of St. John’s, Williamstown. When John asked the two of us to preach, he suggested that even though our two parishes have very different contexts for ministry, there are some patterns of outreach at St. John ‘s that he wouldn’t mind importing to Brooklyn.

But first, our setting at St. John’s. Our 1895 stone building is perhaps one-quarter the size of yours here, and decidedly rustic by comparison. We’re situated at the heart of the campus of Williams College, in a town of 8,000 and a whole lot of gorgeous bucolic greenspace.

It’s our great fortune at St. John’s that we enjoy all the generations, in part because of where we’re set, in part because our parish (spearheaded by members who are faculty, staff, or alums) has a passionate appetite for welcoming students both to worship and to lay ministry.

We employ a halftime youth minister, we experiment (a lot) in worship (both the parish eucharist and alternative services for families and kids) and are committed to breaking the sound barrier. I mean the one that either keeps families with preschoolers from feeling at home, or ensures that they will feel welcome.

For 35 years, we’ve taken 10% of our pledged income and aimed it outwards in support of many mission partners (local, national, global). This voluntary commitment beyond our assessment has helped save us from our more anxious selves, kept our eyes on the prize, and made its impact on parish culture.

All but one of the past 12 summers, an intergenerational medical mission trip to Latin America has staffed and supported surgical and dental clinics in under-served places, gotten missioners doing things they never imagined doing, and spawned a few careers in medicine and public health, and—the other side of the blessing-- acts like leaven in the parish.

Voice B

John has expressed admiration for our Williamstown parish’s emphasis on ministry through the arts. It is a ministry of art, music, and performance that features talented parishioners as well as invited guests to use our physical spaces to enhance the spirit through outreach to the community and deepening relationships within the parish family. I know that John looks at the talent in this place and has similar hopes for St. Anne’s and Holy Trinity.

In thinking of how to describe the exponential benefits of the concept, I am reminded of the Chinese artist Xu Bing whose “Phoenix” exhibition has been on display at our local Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Xu Bing has constructed two enormous phoenixes, one male and one female, that hang 20 feet in the air in a football-field sized gallery. Each one weighs 12 tons and is about 100 feet long from nose to tail feathers. They are constructed out of debris from politically controversial construction sites in Beijing: shovels, gates, hoses, motor housings, hard hats, steel beams, canisters, rusted saws, twisted pieces of metal, concrete slabs, whirly-gigs, and so on. The art is partly a political statement about the demolition of historic hutong neighborhoods that left hundreds of people homeless. Left alone on the ground, the debris and broken bits are nothing but junk. But Xu Bing’s phoenixes rise from rubble into a cohesive whole, outlined in hundreds of tiny LED lights, each piece informing, supporting, and complementing all the other pieces into a whole that is overwhelmingly larger than life—just what a parish is called to do for itself and for the world. Just what this parish has the capacity to do. Consider the passage from Matthew that we heard today:
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Xu Bing’s phoenixes are scheduled to move from Mass MoCA to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine here in New York, if engineers can figure out how to suspend 24 tons from the rafters. I hope every one of you can experience the impact of that art in a sacred space. It will inspire you.

At our parish, we have a special events coordinator on the staff, himself a composer and instrumentalist. Jimmy coordinates and oversees art shows that can be hung in the church itself or in two parlors newly renovated to accommodate gallery space. For several years now, lining the interior windows of the church nave, we have installed unique and contemporary Stations of the Cross created for Lenten meditations—each year artists interpret the stations, accommodating a different centralizing theme, kicking off each opening with a Mardi Gras celebration on Shrove Tuesday, complete with King’s cake, New Orleans-style muffuletta, and a lot of bead swinging.

Many guest artists augment both worship and community outreach by sharing their talent, world view, and works of art. It takes time, creative thinking, and thoughtfulness to keep the stream of artistic expression alive, but we are committed to keeping at it. You, too, are in a neighborhood rich with possibility.

Voice A

John, here is my (and I dare say our) charge to you, as you become Rector of this historic and changing parish.

Keep paying attention to your long-standing passion for people at the borders, migrants at our nation’s borders, neighbors at the margins of society here in Brooklyn, parishioners at the periphery of parish life. Keep reaching out, creatively and boldly, to people at the borders.

As you pursue your vision of this parish’s connecting to its wider world, continue building alliances that will encourage and inspire and feed you and build partnerships that will strengthen your people.

Keep letting the Holy Spirit overshadow you as you read God’s Word and preach to God’s people, so that Christ the living Word may reach the minds and hearts of many who will come here seeking inspiration in an age of disillusionment.

Recognize each of your daily tasks, especially the pesky ones, as opportunities to honor the Incarnation of God in human flesh; but keep sharp your skill at discerning whether it is your hand needed on the plow, or someone else’s.

As you institute what is new, help your people clarify what already constitutes the genius of this parish, so that both new and old are treasured and supported and fulfilled.

Voice B

I invite everyone, including John’s family and friends, to stand.

Installing a new rector is not a spectator sport; it is a team commitment. John has promised to be a faithful leader, working hard to guide you, challenge you, steward your resources, create informed and compelling liturgy, and hold your feet to the spiritual fire of the Gospel. He can do that, but not alone. He needs a legion of lay ministry backing him up.

Give him what he needs to do what you have charged him to do. Give him yourselves—your service, your commitment, your time, talent, and treasure. Be honest. Be respectful. Bravely and simply pay attention to your neighbors’ needs and relate to everyone as if they have already reached their best potential. In other words, set an intention and a precedent for becoming a mature, open, and compassionate community. Keep celebrating strength and resources among yourselves and allow yourselves to become what God has so graciously given you. Think from the perspective of abundance instead of scarcity, and you will astonish yourselves, believe me.