Monday, April 27, 2015

Good Shepherding

Scripture for the 4th Sunday of Easter includes Ezekiel 34:1-10; I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

I’ll bet you won’t be surprised to hear that this Sunday is nicknamed Good Shepherd Sunday. While there are plenty more scriptural references to sheep and shepherds than those we’ve heard today, we don’t need more to highlight the importance of shepherding as a real winner—at least in the ancient world-- in conveying the nature of care. Real, genuine, authentic care.

That care is fearless, keeps the wolf at bay, seeks out the straying and lost, values the individual. The good shepherd risks life and limb to deliver this care. It’s no wonder that this metaphor holds strong in both the Hebrew Bible and in Christian scriptures. It trains us to dare believe that it describes accurately and indelibly the nature and passionate purpose of God.

Equally clear, especially in the hands of old Ezekiel, is how the metaphor calls us to practice this very same care. It pleases us, to recognize God in the shepherd’s caring. It pleases God, to recognize the shepherd’s caring in and through us.

And what delights me about this metaphor is its cross-species reach. This will be a good moment in our Easter focus on climate change and creation care to remind ourselves that the vows of Christian baptism embrace not only care for the human species, but for the whole of the created order.

The baptismal covenant expects of us agreement to enter and extend God’s ever-fresh reconciling, restoring, renewing of all creation, the whole shimmering web of life. We do this work by showing in our lives what we profess by our faith. We heard St. John nail it in his letter: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Listen to these expressions of our baptismal profession:

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.”

We pray for those about to be baptized: “Send them into the world in witness to your love.”

Immediately upon a person’s being baptized, we pray, “Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

And wherever the contemporary creed from Iona is said, Christians are called to the front lines of creation care: “…though we are sometimes fearful and full of doubt, in God we trust; and, in the name of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves, in the service of others, to seek justice and live in peace, to care for the earth and to share the commonwealth of God’s goodness…”

So let’s get back to those sheep. I have lived a sheltered life, when it comes to sheep. I know little first-hand about them. I do know that they have a reputation for not being the brightest bulbs on the Ark. I know that in the quest for using the Internet to enhance communication between human beings and other sentient beings, a touchscreen network is being designed for intelligent animal species to communicate directly with humans and each other. Pioneers on this frontier used a TED talk to introduce this idea that the Internet can be used to communicate with the many remarkable beings with which (with whom?) we share the planet. (Imagine getting an e-mail from your cat.) Cockatoos, dolphins, octopuses, great apes, parrots, elephants have all been identified as likely communicators. But I haven’t heard sheep mentioned in this regard.

I know that on one memorable Easter Sunday we invited a lovely family of shepherds from Pownal to bring their lambs to church, where, as you’d expect, they fascinated everyone. From that day I have declined every opportunity to eat lamb. If I ever do relax that discipline, there’s no one I’d rather buy lamb from than the Barsottis of Longview Farm. They run their business as a CSA, the wider community supporting a farm, enjoying its accomplishments, sharing its risks. They insist on feeding grass to their sheep, not grains. When one of their ewes died giving birth, the Barsottis raised the twin lambs, bottle-feeding, diapering, and giving them free range of the first floor of their house, until they were strong enough to join the flock. (And we keep searching for effective models of Christian formation? Here’s the prototype.)

From here out, I only think I know that while the default mode for goats is to scatter when they graze, the instinct of sheep is to cluster, more often than not. They just need occasional help doing that centering (and who among us does not?), hence the roles of shepherds and of sheep dogs—and if we had more of a cross-species version of Jesus’s sheep and shepherds parables, who knows what images of God (and of our own mission) those dogs might give us?

I think I know that shepherds in the Middle East liked to give names to their sheep. Perhaps that endearing practice works better with small flocks than with large industrial sheep farms. If Danielle and Adam Busby in Houston were challenged to find five excellent names for their recently born quintuplets—Olivia, Ava, Hazel, Parker, Riley, five girls, two of them identical twins—well, you get my point.

And yet is there anything more personal than one’s own name? The quintessential story about this truth is St. John’s Easter Day narrative. First at the tomb that morning, while it was still dark, courageous Mary Magdalene comes to anoint Jesus’s body, and finds the great stone rolled away from the grave. She runs back to where the not-yet-apostolic band of men are huddled in fear and blurts out what she has seen.

Two of them run to see for themselves, and apparently Mary runs that route one more time, for she is there in the story, at the grave, after the men leave. She is weeping, and through her tears she sees two figures in white, sitting on the ledge where Jesus’s body had briefly lain. They ask her why she is crying. Through her sobbing, she expresses her bewilderment: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Suddenly, something draws her to turn around. He is present to her. She doesn’t recognize him, as he asks her the question of the angels: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” He appears to be calling her to her senses—not away from her emotions, but into them and through them, asking her, inviting her, expecting her to look deeply into the reality of the present. To see him as he is, to recognize the encounter they’re having for what it is, to occupy the precious present.

It takes time. Through the scrim of her tears, she still cannot see clearly who this is. And perhaps there is so much changed about him, given the (literally) hell of a week he has just had. Then he utters this one word that wipes the fog from the glass: “Mary!” Hear the exclamation mark. Instinctively, naturally, like a seedling turning toward the light of the sun, she responds, “Rabbouni (Teacher)!” Again, hear the light punctuate the darkness. And recognize the pattern: the risen Christ encounters the individual person in his or her bewilderment, and in that meeting of Spirit conveys the knowing (You will never have to explain to me, he says, the impact of the kind of week you’re having—I know!) and does this conveying simply calling you by name. It’s all you need to hear.

Faith is not so much about seeing as it is about hearing, says Mary’s story. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” but heard in the Word made flesh, heard best by name, and by a known voice. No accident, that there is a common Latin root for two verbs, to hear and to obey.

We are blessed today to hear two known voices. One belongs to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, accomplished poet, and widely read blogger under the name The Velveteen Rabbi. She wears well. And anyone with such respect for the importance of worn spots in life is no stranger to the Easter story. In fact, Rabbi Rachel and her husband Ethan have sat in these pews on more than one Easter, and I will never forget the experience of reading her posted reflections on worshiping with us, a beautiful piece of appreciative inquiry. I hope to always remember also the richly engaging Passover Seder when Diana and I were guests at Rachel’s and Ethan’s table.

A second known and treasured voice belongs to The Rev. Dr. Richard Spalding, Chaplain to all at Williams College. I’ve known Rick for just a bit more than the fifteen years he has served at Williams. Diana served on the search committee that brought him to Williamstown, and I’ll confess I took an early opportunity to meet Rick on his then home turf in Cambridge. It took so little time to discover in him a trusted, open, and steady colleague and friend.

These two speakers have much in common. They are highly and deeply respected. They are adept at climbing over walls that could separate, and, like good shepherds, they know how to center communities of people. They do not come to us today as experts on the subjects of climate change and creation care. They are not here to present information that we don’t already have, but to name and probe the lived experience for ordinary people who are discovering themselves called, more and more, to be good shepherds in daily life.

Diane Ackerman's book "The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us" was helpful in preparing this sermon.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Holy Momentum

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 4:32-35; I John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

This Sunday has often been called Low Sunday. After a full church on Easter Day, the Second Sunday of Easter can look like the day after the Second Coming. Like in the movie “Left Behind,” we who are left in church on this Sunday wonder what has become of all those good people we welcomed last weekend? And we have a hunch they haven’t all been raptured.

Our Bishop, Doug Fisher, has called us out of that head-scratching mode by calling all the parishes of Western MA to make this Momentum Sunday. Retire the sad old nickname Low Sunday. Momentum Sunday it is: forward in the strength and grace of the resurrection.

How we are doing that today is by launching an Easter Series of education and encouragement under the heading, “Climate Change and Creation Care”. Whatever you make of the science and politics of climate change, creation care is at the heart of what you and I sign up for whenever we renew our vows of holy baptism. The baptismal agreement is to enter and extend/promote/serve God’s new covenant of reconciliation, restoring, renewing all creation, the whole shimmering web of life. And, as the collect of the day puts it, we do this work by showing forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.

Listen to these words of our baptismal profession:

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.”

We pray for those about to be baptized: “Send them into the world in witness to your love.” Not send them into the church… or send them back to bed to hide under the covers… but into the world.

Immediately upon a person’s being baptized, we pray, “Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

And wherever the contemporary creed from Iona is said, Christians are called to the front lines of creation care: “…though we are sometimes fearful and full of doubt, in God we trust; and, in the name of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves, in the service of others, to seek justice and live in peace, to care for the earth and to share the commonwealth of God’s goodness…”

We are very fortunate to have Bill Moomaw with us this morning, to help us launch this series. Its purpose: to sustain us as we inquire and discern, to encourage us to will and persevere.

The Moomaw Family coat of arms must have the verb Persevere on it. Bill’s life’s-work has shown a model and set the pace for what he asked of the senior class at Williams in 2013, when he was honored with a Bicentennial Medal from his alma mater. “Create a social and economic momentum to change the destructive path the world is on,” he urged. “Be mindful of the implications of how and what we all do affects the planet. Do what you can personally… lead by example.”

Six years earlier, Bill’s work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, under the aegis of the United Nations, placed him in a circle of people who would be startled to learn that they were sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U. S. Vice President Al Gore.

Our Bishop’s call to make this Momentum Sunday recognizes and celebrates how Jesus led by example, and gets us inquiring and discerning what sort of momentum, what kind of movement, our Lord set in motion.

Our readings today are peppered with pointers and clues. First, as we have seen in our Collect, it is a movement into reconciliation. Our Prayer Book Catechism teaches that the mission of the Church is to restore all people (and we have seen already the scope of our baptism including the restoring of all creation) to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Our first reading from the Book of Acts shows the social and spiritual movement of Jesus to be one of great power and grace rooted in the knowledge that it is not we who own the earth, but God. And it is not the building of our own wealth that demands our primary allegiance, but strengthening that commonwealth the Iona Creed names, a fellowship that cares for its members (especially its most vulnerable) while caring equally for neighbors outside that fellowship, indeed, says John, the whole world and therefore all that is in it (especially its most vulnerable).

Our second reading from one of the letters of John shows the movement Jesus has created to be one of radical respect and high regard for matter, for the outward and visible, for what is inquired into and discerned by the senses that recognize, the mind that weighs and comprehends, the heart that can feel reverence, repentance, responsibility and joy. Matter and spirit move together in this new creation launched by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

And our Gospel insists that this is not a movement either based on or furthered by fear. Jesus moves to open locked doors, to breathe new life into God’s people and God’s creation, and to make his wounds known to us so we will see and believe that he is already at work ahead of us, around us, through us. Transparency, freedom, inspiration, confidence are all traits and powers of his movement.

These are not the powers and traits of a victim mowed down by a movement stronger than he, or a passive soul caught in some unalterable downward spiral. Holy Week is not the story of someone struggling against death and finally giving into it. The emphasis in all four Gospels is upon Jesus’s death as a free act. Jesus was not killed. He died. He gave up his Spirit, purposefully. He knew himself to be Spirit expressing itself through body. He had learned how to let his Spirit control and guide the total reality of his person.

Those words aren’t mine, though I agree with them. They come from Holy Week meditations by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Scotland. He finds fault with the view that Jesus was a victim, because that encourages us to believe various victim theories about our own nature, including how we think about our death.

What we learn from Christ, he says, is not that death happens to us, it is not a submission to something we can do nothing about. “That is not what we learn from Christ and those who have lived with something of his courage,” Holloway writes. “For them life becomes something that they live, not something that simply happens to them. Death itself becomes a free, personal act… It is the final act of a person who controls his life. According to our Lord’s example, death is something we can freely choose, indeed must choose, because it corresponds to the reality of personality as free spirit. Death has been defeated and robbed of its sting, and is something we can now make our own. This is what he did. His last word (from the cross) was a giving back to God of that life which had come from God. ‘Father, into thy hands I return my spirit.’ This was the way of Christ, the free man, probably the only really free person, the only really complete person. So his death, as well as being a great and awful tragedy, is yet a triumph of the spirit, because it is controlled at every point, not by the human actors in the drama (those roles we played in reading the Passion Gospel, two Sundays ago), not by the executioners, by Pilate, by Herod, by Annas and Caiaphas; nor even by the very action of his own body with its cells and molecules, but by his own spirit. By freely choosing death and going through it obediently to the end, he reversed the tragedy of all dying.”

I readily imagine an objection to this business of choosing death: Doesn’t it condone suicide? Not if you’ve been catching the frequency of the word “freedom” and “free”, words that do not describe the state of mind and heart and will in a person who kills himself not in an open embrace of dying, but in a tragic attempt at escaping life—rejecting, rather than returning, the gift of life.

But my oh my, doesn’t that open up doors down corridors of another sermon, where we should probably go some day, but not today. Today, we consider the movement Jesus opens through his death and his rising. And we consider the environmental movement towards caring for the earth. In neither case will it serve the world well to see Jesus as a passive victim, or ourselves as victims.

What will help is to grasp the freedom we are given, and, inspired and guided and sustained by the Spirit we are given, step up to the passion our world needs of us.

The passion of Christ—his life, his death, his resurrection—is all about choices freely taken, decisions freely made, the body guided by the Spirit. This is the stuff of the great fifty days of Easter culminating in the Day of Pentecost, a season also known as Spring, such a right time to consider Climate Change and Creation Care.

Richard Holloway's words are taken (and paraphrased just a bit) from his book "The Killing: Meditations on the Death of Christ," Morehouse Barlow, 1984.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

Scripture for Easter Day includes Isaiah 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

Once a month, I go to each of the two nursing homes here in Williamstown, to celebrate communion with a hardy little circle of residents who have come to what the activities calendar calls Episcopal Mass. Seldom is there an Episcopalian to be found in either circle. Some come because they’re drawn by the promise of a mass, and they know how to respond when I lead off with “The Lord be with you.” Others seem drawn by the promise of a church service, whatever its flavor. The prevailing wisdom is that there are no denominations in the foxholes: We are one in the Spirit, and no one asks to see our union cards.

On my March visit to Sweet Brook, I expected to see the usual set-up of a table and a row or two of chairs at the near end of the dining room. Instead, I saw a staff meeting going on there, while at the far end there was a semi-circle of residents. I thought to myself, “Humph. Looks like they aren’t expecting me.” Then I spotted one familiar face and then another, convincing me that that was the Episcopal Mass, movable feast version.

Always, even when attendance is at absolute low tide, we sing a hymn to start and to end. I asked if someone wanted to pick the hymn. Foster, who never misses a service, Foster (who would turn 103 that next Sunday), Foster called out a hymn number. I could tell it wasn’t #93 (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”), and it wasn’t #4 (“Amazing Grace”). No, it was #61, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

This being the 25th of March, I said back (with a touch of surprise), “A Christmas carol!” To which Foster replied, “No, it isn’t.” At that moment, my better angel put his finger to my lips and I said nothing. Why argue with a 103-year-old who wants to sing a Christmas carol in March?

But my self-conscious angel blushed, stealing a glance over my shoulder to see if that staff meeting was still underway. It was. “Sheesh, Elvin: you’re going to lead nine really elderly people in singing this a cappella?” As if reinforcing this worry about appearances, I noticed the activities director had quietly left the room.

“Why not?” I heard myself think. “Besides, if I don’t start this carol, Foster will—and if I lead, I can choose a range I can sing in.” So off we went, and in just seven seconds we were in Bethlehem, beholding the birth of the King of angels.

And I couldn’t help but smile. I noticed others in the circle were smiling, too. I’d lost track of that staff meeting, except to wonder if they too were smiling.

Suddenly, it came to me what day it was. March 25, nine months to the day from December 25. March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel (the fellow in blue in that window in our east aisle) appeared to Mary, telling her she would conceive and bear a son, and would name him Jesus. He would be great, and would be called Son of the Most High, bringing to earth a kingdom that would have no end.

And when Mary protested that this just wasn’t the right choice, she wasn’t yet married, hadn’t even known a man’s touch, Gabriel answered, “Nothing shall be impossible with God.”

The Prayer Book appoints a prayer to be offered on the Feast of the Annunciation: “Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection…”

And here we are. Some are present today because they have been brought here by his cross and passion. On Maundy Thursday, they allowed their feet to be washed as a lesson in servant ministry. Good Friday, they spent time considering the enormity of God’s all-embracing love. In the Easter Eve Vigil, they renewed the vows of their baptism.

Some may be present today for other reasons, like family unity, curiosity, or outright bribery.

But here we are, making our responses to the call, “O come, all ye…” Come, you who wonder what to make of the claim of his resurrection. Come, you who are confident in the assurance of his resurrection. Come, you who resist the possibility of his resurrection. And here we are, one way or another, because of the glory of his resurrection.

If “glory” feels like it’s more a first-century than 21st-century word, perhaps “joy” is what fits the pull of this day. The joy that was breaking out in that circle of smiling elders, the joy that lights up Christmas, is the power at work today, the power that is the pulse of the heart of God. For nothing shall be impossible with God.

Joy that, no matter how hard some may try, God’s love, God’s reconciling love, God’s all-comprehending love, God’s fully forgiving love, cannot be killed. For nothing shall be impossible with God.

Joy that was the prize and the goal that Jesus saw always before him, and for the sake of that joy endured the cross, its shame and its cruelty. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, teaching us to lay claim to the central gift and power of God: Joy that is born of love, raised by love.