Thursday, December 25, 2014

Boundary Crossing

[Sermon from Christmas Eve 2014]
To me, Christmas is a time for stories – maybe the best time for stories.  I remember, as a little boy, sitting in my family room on Christmas Eve.  The grown-ups were waiting to go to Midnight Mass, having a few drinks and telling stories – some old, some new, all filled with joy.  In my memory, those loud, cascading stories were followed by my mother standing up and reading the story, that grand story we just heard, the story of Mary and Joseph crossing Judea to reach a stable, and angels crossing heaven and earth to reach the shepherds.  For all I know, it was a one-time thing, my mother deciding one year that the revelers needed a little reminding of what the holiday was all about.  But in the memory of my heart, we did it that way every year.
So, since Christmas is a time for stories, I want to tell you three stories tonight.  Two of them may not seem to have much to do with Christmas, but hang with me for a few minutes.
Here’s story #1.  A couple of weeks ago, two parishioners, a married couple, were driving south on Holmes on a dark December night.  They had come to about 75th Street when suddenly they saw something in front of them and had to swerve to miss it – a figure walking in the street.  The person was dressed in dark clothes and wearing a hood, and the couple had nearly hit her.  Recovering from the shock, the wife remembered that in the back seat, she had a reflective sash like nighttime joggers use.  So the couple circled back around to meet the person one more time and offer the reflector. 
Getting out, the wife greeted the person, a middle-aged African American woman, and said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but we nearly hit you as we came by.  We’d like you to have this,” she said, handing her the reflective sash.  “Why were you walking in the street, anyway?” 
The woman replied, “I just got off work, and I’m walking to the bus stop.  The sidewalk is so broken up, it’s not safe in the dark.  But neither is the street, I suppose.” 
The wife offered to drive her to the bus stop, but the woman said it was only a couple of blocks away.  Then the husband said, “Well, where do you live?” 
“39th and Woodland,” the woman said, “but you don’t need to do that.” 
“What are cars for?” the husband asked, with a smile. 
Now, behind his smile, the man was a little worried.  Working as a hospice nurse, he’d gone to see patients in the Ivanhoe neighborhood several times, and he remembered someone advising him it was best to come in the early morning “because then the junkies are still asleep.”  But the man and his wife drove the woman home anyway. 
Things were quiet for a while, but as they crossed Troost, the boundary of Kansas City’s racial divide, the woman started narrating the journey.  She told about how she and her husband had lived in their neighborhood 15 years and how pleased she was to see it making a recovery now.  She talked about raising their kids there and how their next-door neighbor is her husband’s best friend.  She talked about the storefront community center on the corner and how proud of it she was – how it had become the center of the neighborhood’s life.  Dropping off the woman at her home, the couple found their perception had changed.  No longer did they feel they’d crossed a boundary into a foreign and foreboding place.  They’d simply crossed into a different neighborhood – and began a relationship along the way.
*   *   *
Here’s story #2.  On Monday, I was blessed to join literally scores of St. Andrew’s people serving at the Free Store downtown.  As you know, this was much more than a meal and a clothing distribution for poor people.  The guests were welcomed into the cathedral for live music and a chance to get warm.  They were brought into the large parish hall for lunch, where volunteers took their orders and brought them plates filled with ham, turkey, potatoes, dressing, corn on the cob, green beans, and other delights.  Sitting at each table were members of our Order of St. Luke, there simply for the ministry of pastoral listening and presence.  After lunch, the guests came downstairs to shop at the Free Store for coats, hoodies, socks, gloves, and a host of other items. 
Among the volunteers at the store were a few of us there just to hang out and talk with people.  It was in one of those conversations that I met Kevin.  Kevin could be my brother – about my age, about my height, about the same amount of gray in his hair.  Where the similarities stopped was with his hands.  I shook Kevin’s hand, and it didn’t feel right.  His fingers were red and swollen, and the skin was cracked and peeling.  He said he’d felt embarrassed at lunch because the volunteer sitting at the table had been looking at his hands – dirty as well as damaged.  I asked what had happened, and he explained it was frostbite.  He’d gotten frostbite, Kevin said, because he lives in the woods. 
“In the woods?” I asked, thinking I’d misunderstood. 
“Yes.”  He said he camps under a rickety lean-to with a few other guys – not nice guys, guys who steal your stuff and, in Kevin’s words, “abuse” you if you fight back.  He said he had everything he needed to stay warm – a new thermal sleeping bag and plenty of blankets.  But, he said, “It’s only good if you can stay dry.  That’s how I got frostbite.” 
I asked him what he needed, and he said, “I need a tent – and I need to get away from the guys in the camp.  I don’t pretend my problems are anybody’s fault but my own,” he continued.  “I have screwed up over and over again.  But I can’t make any better choices where I am.  I need to get free.” 
Now, I was there to listen, and offer pastoral presence, and refer people to the human-services agencies that were there to help.  I was just supposed to let Kevin know that God loves him, that people at the Free Store value him as a human being, and that someone from ReStart or the United Way could help him find a place to stay.  But Kevin is a loner; he wasn’t going to avail himself of that help, and I knew it.  So I arranged to meet him later that afternoon, just the two of us; and I went to go buy him a tent. 
Now, I have no delusions that the tent is anything but a short-term solution to a web of problems I can’t begin to untangle.  It may or may not have been the “right” thing to do; but because I crossed that boundary, at least Kevin was dry as it rained that night.  Maybe the next night, too.
*   *   *
Here’s story #3.  Two thousand years ago, an unmarried couple on the move came into a city where they didn’t know anyone.  Because of the crowds, they camped in a cave next to someone else’s animals, in hay that no doubt hadn’t been mucked out anytime recently.  She was very pregnant; and as bad luck would have it, the baby came that night.  Nine months earlier, the young woman had been visited by an angel who’d crossed a boundary between heaven and earth to let her know the boundary-crossing had only just begun.  This was not just an inconvenient pregnancy with the worst-timed delivery ever.  This was the ultimate in boundary-crossing:  This was God-With-Us, divinity in the flesh. 
God had looked at that young woman, and the millions of other nobodies like her; and God said “yes” before Mary ever got her chance. 
God said, “Yes, I will do what I’ve never done before.” 
God said, “Yes, I will take the risk to become one of you.” 
God said, “Yes, I will put myself into the drama of salvation, and propel the story in a way that Israel’s kings and prophets could never have imagined.”  
God said, “Yes, I will heal the separation between you and me, between you dear, unruly, broken people and I who formed you in love; and I will forgive whatever awfulness you decide to perpetrate on me.” 
God said, “Yes, I will cross the boundary between the common and the holy, and I will redeem even the dirtiest straw, and the vilest cross, into a throne fit for a king.” 
God said, “Yes!  I will be made flesh, and I will move into the neighborhood, and I will save you from the inside out.”
*   *   *
There are no guarantees when you go and cross a boundary.  Once you’ve committed the trespass, you can’t step back and undo it.  You don’t know what’s coming when you drive into a distant neighborhood or promise to meet someone whose behavior you can’t predict.  But with everything I have, I believe Jesus would say, “Yes, cross the boundary anyway.”
And on Christmas, when angels break into the shepherds’ silent night and the entire heavenly army resounds with God’s praise – on Christmas, I believe Jesus would say, “Begin that boundary-crossing with the boundaries of your own heart.” 
If this service tonight is just an obligation, a nod to tradition or the family’s demands, then Jesus would say to you, “Surprise!  In prayer and song, in bread and wine, I am here.” 
If this night feels empty, the joy of Christmas buried deep under layers of pain and heartache, then Jesus would say to you, “I know that pain, and still – I am here.” 
If the angels’ news feels old and tired; if faith feels like nothing but a nice ritual with nice people in a nice building, then Jesus would say to you, “Let me rock your world – let me rule your world – because I am here.” 
To each of us with longing hearts, Jesus says, “I have crossed the boundary; I have come to stay; I have said the words you can’t take back – I love you.” 
So what do you say?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Let's Get Busy

[Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014]
I have news to announce this morning:  Jesus is coming to Kansas City. 
What – you don’t believe me? 
Maybe you’re thinking something like this.  “OK, Fr. John, we get it that this is Advent, and we’re preparing ourselves for the coming of the baby in the manger.  ‘Let every heart prepare him room,’ and all that.”
Well, let me ask you for a little willing suspension of disbelief this morning.  If it were true that Jesus is coming to Kansas City, what would you do?  I’m reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers of all time:  “Jesus is coming.  Look busy.”  I have a hunch that might not be a sufficient response.  So, if you knew that Jesus had booked a flight to arrive at KCI and was planning to drive up under the porte-cochere just before your favorite service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, what would you do?  What should we do to get ready?
Let’s see what kind of preparation our readings today might suggest.  In that beautiful passage from Isaiah, we hear the prophet proclaiming comfort to God’s people.  And they needed a little comfort at that point.  They’d been in exile in Babylon for decades, after a long period of national decay ending in conquest.  Up to this point in the Book of Isaiah, the prophet has been proclaiming God’s judgment on Israel and Judah – especially judgment on the religious and political leaders – for failing to honor God, failing to care for the poor and powerless, failing to practice the fundamental commands to love God and neighbor.  As a result, the prophets have said, the nation will be lost, for “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9).  But now, the prophet writing from Babylon hears God’s call of comfort instead: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2).  We can take comfort in God’s promise of comfort, but we have to remember the brokenness and judgment that came before it.
In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist helps us put things in order.  John speaks as one of the Old Testament prophets and brings their message to completion.  He stands as the fulcrum between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, the tipping point moving salvation history from promise to fulfillment.  He reminds his audience of that beautiful promise from Isaiah – that God is working toward delivering us into a new habitation, God’s own kingdom.  But John also offers the first part of the prophet’s message – the call to turn our hearts back toward what God desires for us.  Divine comfort doesn’t just come like a candy bar from a vending machine – hit the right button, and there it is.  Divine comfort comes from having moved through our own hard stuff first – the times we miss the mark, the times we put ourselves first, the times we play small and fail to live into the amazing personhood God has in mind for every last one of us. 
Echoing the prophets, John the Baptist reminds us what God’s path truly looks like.  In Mark’s Gospel, the account ends just after John tells what he knows about this coming savior.  But if we continue the story in Luke’s account, we hear people asking the kinds of questions we might ask John, if he were standing here in his animal skins, his fingers dripping with wild honey.  What exactly are we supposed to do to get ready?  Well, John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11).  Government officials must not abuse their power.  In other words, love the people around us – whether we like them or not. 
So as we’re getting ready for Christmas Day, loving people intentionally might be a good plan.  It’s all about those guiding principles of Christianity:  love God, love neighbor, love one another.  Think about the Confession we’ll offer in a few minutes.  Now, in the past week, we’ve each done a hundred things, or not done a hundred things, that we probably should confess to God, asking forgiveness.  But when we come to the General Confession (which many of us have said so many times we barely hear it anymore), what sins do we actually confess?  Only two:  “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”  Discipleship comes down to practicing love.  Not feeling love – that’s a whole different thing, a wonderful blessing that comes from following Christ and living in love, but hardly a guarantee. 
Getting ready to meet Jesus means loving people, and loving people means constantly repenting.  Now, by “repenting,” I don’t mean saying, “I’m sorry.”  I mean what the word means in Greek: metanoia -- changing our heart, changing our mind, changing our path always toward the true north of God’s purposes and desires for us.
That change is a constant process; it is the journey of discipleship, and it takes a lifetime, by definition.  One way we do it is by looking for ways God might be asking us to help prepare the way of the Lord, ways we might help level the uneven ground and make the rough places a plain.  We can do that as individuals and as a congregation.  First, let me tell you an individual’s story – an “Andrew moment” one of you shared with me. 
You might remember, a couple of weeks ago, I asked you to tell me your stories of people putting flesh and bones on love, like Andrew bringing his brother Peter to meet Jesus – small moments that can change lives.  Well, here you go.  A parishioner was trying to sell something on Craig’s List, a wheelchair lift that goes on a van.  Surprisingly, there was a response very quickly.  The person selling the lift was suspicious because honestly you never know who you’re dealing with on Craig’s List or what they really want.  So the parishioner sent a text to learn more about the buyer. 
“Are you a car dealer?” 
“Are you planning to resell it yourself?” 
“Tell me about your situation.” 
“Well,” texted they buyer, “it’s for my daughter.  She can’t walk.” 
And the parishioner saw an open door.  He called the buyer and shared with her that someone in his family had also been disabled and couldn’t walk.  They talked and talked … and, in the end, the parishioner gave the woman the wheelchair lift, free – with the “stipulation” that she pay it forward with an act of love to another stranger.
So that’s one example of the kind of thing John the Baptist might encourage us to do on an individual level.  When the Holy Spirit comes knocking on your door, open it up and take the risk to walk through to meet someone … and love him or her.
Here’s an example on a broader scale – another way we can do our part in leveling the uneven ground and making the rough places a plain so the glory of the Lord might be revealed.  Since August 9, and especially vividly in the past few weeks, we’ve seen our society’s brokenness and separation related to race.  That chasm has been present all along, of course, but the death of Michael Brown and all that’s followed, including the death of Eric Garner in New York, has made that chasm harder than usual to ignore.  There are so many manifestations of the racial divide in our society, from economics to politics to religion.  Thankfully, there are also many efforts underway in cities across the country to bring people together to work for healing.  In our city, Fr. Marcus is involved in a project to bring together civic leaders, clergy, educators, police officials, and others to talk openly about how we can heal racial divisions in our own context.  Those leaders will gather this Tuesday at 6 p.m. for a public conversation; you’ll find information in the bulletin on that. 
But there’s one manifestation of our racial brokenness that we can confront even at the micro level of our own parish.  I believe it’s actually among the deepest roots of the racial thicket.  It’s communication – or, more precisely, the failure of communication.  Deep down, most of us don’t have any idea how to talk about race. 
I’ve had some fascinating conversations over the past few weeks as people shared their frustrations and fears about race.  Here are some snippets of what I’ve heard.  One person said, “I understand people are angry about Ferguson and the grand jury’s decision – but I don’t understand what the protesters really want.”  Another said, “I don’t think I’m a racist, but I’m afraid if I say the African American community needs to own some of its problems, then someone will see me as a racist.”  And another said, “I don’t know how I’m even supposed to talk about race with a black person without offending them.”  Those are hard statements, but they’re real.  And we don’t do ourselves, or Jesus, any favors by sweeping them under the Jewell Room rug.
So I’m working with a few parishioners to put together an opportunity for us to hear difficult questions about race and discrimination, asked and answered in love.  I don’t know yet exactly how this will look, but I’m imagining something like listening in on a private conversation between a couple of parishioners, one black and one white.  The questions might include:  Why has Ferguson sparked the fire it’s sparked?  What do the protesters really want?  Why can’t white people see the injustice that people of color see?  What’s it like to be pulled over for “driving while black” in the wrong neighborhood? 
And more fundamentally:  How can we name race as an issue, and confront it honestly, without fearing we’ll offend someone?  How can we “speak the truth in love” and thereby “grow to become in every respect the mature body … of Christ” (Ephesians 4:15)?  How can we go beyond being careful not to offend anyone and actually deepen love through conversation?  How can we be God’s partners in preparing the way of the Lord – lifting up the valleys and lowering the mountains, leveling the uneven ground and smoothing the rough places that divide us, so that the glory of the Lord might be revealed?
Jesus is coming.  Let’s not just look busy.  Let’s get busy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thoughts -- and prayers -- on Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri, is tragedy, writ small and large.  It began with the cascade of events from Aug. 9:  petty theft, quickly escalating violence, and the death of a teenager.  And from that first tragedy, a human life cut terribly short, seep so many others:  Breaking news guaranteed to divide, whichever way the grand jury’s decision had gone.  A crowd gathered in mistrust.  Police in riot gear.  Clouds of tear gas.  Gunfire in response.  Police cars set ablaze.  Windows smashed.  Businesses looted.  And now we wonder: Can that community live again?

Even before the grand jury’s decision was announced last night, Michael Brown’s family asked for healing, not hatred:  “Channel your frustration in ways that will make positive change.  Let’s not just make noise; let’s make a difference.”  But then came fire and smoke.

Watching the coverage of Ferguson, I’m sure a least some people were asking these two questions:  Where is God in all this, and what can we do?

Where is God?  God is in the streets of Ferguson.  God was weeping with the Brown family as they relived their pain.  God was standing with the innocents caught in other people’s violence, calming their fear.  And God was standing with the police, calming the fear of those trying to restore order in a broken situation.  When we know tragedy, Jesus willingly enters in to help us heal and to point us toward kingdom hope instead.

And that’s the answer to the second question: “What can we do?”  We can live in hope.  Fr. Marcus has been working with a group of clergy here in Kansas City, modeling prayer and proclamation as the response to discord and division.  He and others in the group are organizing an opportunity for people of this city to speak love into tragedy – a dialogue involving community and neighborhood leaders, clergy, educators, police officers, and others who understand that we can, indeed, do something.  We can let the Word take flesh in us and engage in holy conversation, allowing fears to be spoken and heard on both sides and looking for ways to build trust and common purpose in our community.  That conversation will happen sometime next week.

We can also pray.  I ask you to do that, to unite in prayer for reconciliation in our communities and across our nation.  Just imagine what might come if we took even a fraction of the energy spent on 24-hour news and social-media commentary, and channeled it into prayer and presence for the healing of division instead.

And we can remember.  We can remember that Jesus reigns as king even when we see chaos.  We can remember that he is working to reconcile the brokenness around us.  Had we not been celebrating the feast of St. Andrew a few days ago, we would have offered this prayer for Christ the King Sunday.  It reflects our hope:

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.  (Book of Common Prayer 236)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sent for Love Stories

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 23 – celebrating the feast of St. Andrew.]
Well, hello!  It’s really good to see you.  I’ve missed you and missed being with you in this stunning space.  I missed being with Deacon Bruce Bower for his ordination a couple of weeks ago.  I’ve missed my colleagues, whom I think I owe about a hundred lunches to begin to say thank you for all they’ve borne these nearly four months.  I am deeply grateful to Mtr. Anne and Fr. Marcus and Dr. Tom and the staff – and to Steve Rock and Mary Heausler and the other leaders who’ve carried the ball while I’ve been gone. 
So having been gone for almost four months, I’ve got a lot to say; so I hope you packed a lunch.  Well, no, not really – but this sermon will be just a bit longer than usual.  Don’t worry, though.  Rather than trying to pack months of study and reflection into one sermon, this morning I want to tell you three love stories.
The first is the love story of our patron, St. Andrew, whom we celebrate today.  In the Gospel reading, we heard the account of Andrew’s call and his response.  We don’t get much detail from this story; and what we do get is wrapped in hints and mystery, typical for John’s Gospel.  We know Andrew was one of John the Baptist’s followers; and we know John had told them directly that Jesus is the Son of God, not John.  So Andrew and another disciple approach Jesus, who asks them a question – the question God asks each of us on the path of discipleship:  “What are you looking for?” (1:38).  Well, their reply is odd:  What they’re looking for is where Jesus is staying.  It seems like they’ve totally missed the point.  But in a deeper sense, maybe they’re seeking what many of us are seeking.  They want to know where they can find the God who takes flesh and “move[s] into the neighborhood,” as The Message puts it (John 1:14).  He’d moved in – the Son of God, in the flesh – so, practical Andrew wants to know where to find him.  And Jesus gives an amazing response to that question, “Where can I find God?”  He simply says, “Come and see” (John 1:39).  So they do.  They come and see the truth that unfolds for us over the next 20 chapters of John’s Gospel: that Jesus is the Son of God and that through believing, we may have life in his name (John 20:31). 
That’s stunning enough – not bad for an afternoon’s conversation.  But the story doesn’t stop there.  After spending time with God incarnate, who’d just moved into the neighborhood, Andrew does something crazy.  He leaves.  Think about it:  If you’d spent the afternoon with the Son of God, would you walk away?  What’s Andrew thinking?  Why would he take the risk that Jesus might move on to a different neighborhood without him? 
The story doesn’t tell us, but let me hazard a guess.  When something extraordinary happens to you, what do you want to do?  You want to share it with people you love.  Andrew has found the love of God in the flesh.  He’s spent the afternoon in the kingdom of heaven.  So he wants to share it with someone he loves – his brother.  “Peter, I’ve found the messiah, the anointed, the one who brings God’s kingdom to life on earth!  Because I love you,” Andrew says, “let me show you the love I’ve found.”
There’s love story #1. The next two love stories come from stops along my sabbatical journey.  I visited nine congregations that are taking a “both/and” approach to church, embodying both traditional, inherited expressions and fresh expressions of church, one way or another.  So, what’s a “fresh expression of church”?  Well, like all church life, fresh expressions look different from one place to another.  But here’s what unifies them:  They are “form[s] of Church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.”1  And they come into being not by church professionals implementing some one-size-fits-all, flavor-of-the-month idea but by engaging with the people themselves, the people you hope to reach – listening to them, serving them, modeling what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and thereby bringing Jesus to life among them.  So you might think of fresh expressions as church from the bottom up, not the top down.
So here’s love story #2, from Boston.  Several years ago, people at Boston’s Cathedral of St. Paul realized there were folks living and working in the cathedral’s downtown neighborhood who weren’t part of any spiritual community – the spiritually homeless, as we’ve called them here.  Through a long series of one-to-one connections, endless coffees, and deep investment in people and their stories, the priest and several others built a community – a community largely of young downtown professionals, but one that also includes street people and others on the edge.  That’s love.  Their community, the Crossing, developed a worship style authentic to the people there and embracing of all who come into it.  That’s love, too.  But the cathedral’s leaders have also shown their love by allowing the Crossing largely to map out its own course, even sharing power with the Crossing’s Council, which acts as a mini-Vestry for the community.  The cathedral’s dean and Vestry have said to the spiritually homeless in their neighborhood, “Because we love you, we’ll take the risk to share power with you.”
Here’s love story #3, from Tewkesbury Abbey in England.  Christians have been worshiping there for more than 900 years; so as you might guess, tradition runs deep.  And the Abbey’s inherited form of church is stunningly beautiful, for a lover of Anglo-Catholic liturgy.  Incense, Sanctus bells, gorgeous vestments, chanted Gospel readings – and all in a medieval Gothic space that lifts your heart to heaven.  Well, within walking distance of the Abbey is a housing project.  People I spoke with in the project described feeling so intimidated by the Abbey’s ancient building and by its worship – truly scared of its majesty – that they could never build any kind of spiritual relationship there.  As the vicar told me, “The Abbey does transcendence by the bucketload, but immanence?  Not so much.”  So instead of expecting people in the housing project to come to the Abbey, the Abbey has gone to the project.  It bought a small house in the neighborhood as the missioner’s base.  She and a small group from the Abbey spent many months getting to know people, building relationships with families there, serving free meals, offering small blessings like treats left in mailboxes.  Together, over time, they’ve formed a worshiping community that meets in the neighborhood school.  It doesn’t feel like Abbey worship, but everyone there knows it’s the Abbey’s ministry.  And they feel blessed by that, because they feel the love of the people involved.  In word and in deed, the Abbey has said to the people of the housing project, “Because we love you, we will join you, and we’ll grow in love together.”
So, what do these three stories tell us?  At the risk of putting a song in your head you probably won’t be hearing Dr. Tom play this morning, the key is this:  All you need is love.  Now, at the beginning of a conversation about strengthening the Church’s mission in the world, that statement is silly and simplistic.  But at the end of the conversation?  It’s simply the truth, whether we’re in an inherited expression or a fresh expression of church.  As followers of Jesus Christ, love is our sole purpose.  Everything we do must enable it and reveal it.  We are to be love, with flesh and bones on it.  Without that purpose, what are we?  Just a membership society in search of a reason to live.  But with that purpose – to love God and neighbor and one another – with that purpose, we are apostles, sent to make God’s love real.  As the question was for Andrew, so it is for St. Andrew’s:  We have to ask ourselves, “Because I love God and love God’s people, what will I do?”
Well, because I love God and love you, I will show you that love, and I ask that you show it, too.  How?  I’ve got a couple of ideas.  Here’s one outward-but-usually-not-so-visible way – in our stewardship of the resources God has given us.  Because I love God and love you, my pledge for 2015 will be more than 10 percent of my take-home pay.  I ask you to see your pledge commitment in the same light – as a way to live love out loud. 
But don’t stop there.  I would ask you, all of us, to make a pledge to God that we will follow the lead of our patron, St. Andrew.  I would ask you to take on this commitment: to create one “Andrew moment” this week and every week.  What’s an Andrew moment?  It’s a small act, a spark, a catalyst for a larger reaction – like Andrew bringing Peter to meet Jesus.  An Andrew moment happens when you see the face of Jesus in someone, or notice the Holy Spirit doing something around you, or touch the majesty of the Creator of heaven and earth; and in that moment, because you know that love, you decide to be the love of God, in the flesh.  So I’m asking you to let God send you to someone to make love real.  Someone inside or outside the congregation.  Every week.  Make that part of your pledge.  And let me push my luck and take it one step further by asking you a favor:  Report your Andrew moments back to me.  Send them in.  Tell me your love stories, your moments of making love real, and I’ll share them anonymously with the congregation. 
I believe, with all my heart, that God is constantly sending us in love.  Sometimes it’s subtle, like the nudge Andrew got in the Gospel story; sometimes it’s loud and clear.  But God is always sending us in love.  That’s what the word “mission” means; it’s what “apostle” means – being sent.  We are apostolic not just because we have bishops in apostolic succession; we are apostolic because you and I are apostles, asked over and over again to take God’s love and make it real to someone else.  We are Andrew in the here and now. 
As people smarter than me have said many times before:  God’s church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission has a church.  And I’m looking at it.  The Church isn’t just the clergy, or the staff, or the Vestry, or the leaders of ministries.  I’m looking at the Church, the embodiment of God’s love, in the face of every one of you.  Yes, you.  I’m looking at a room full of apostles.  As the reading from Deuteronomy puts it, “The word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart...” (30:14). 
This is a call we can answer.  Followers of Jesus have been making God’s love real for 2,000 years now, and God is longing for you to play your part in today’s version of this divine love story.  For how are people “to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him” – in word and in deed?  “And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are ... those who bring good news!’” (Romans 8:14-15)  Indeed – how beautiful are you!
1. Goodhew, David; Andrew Roberts; and Michael Volland.  Fresh! An Introduction to Fresh Expressions of Church and Pioneer Ministry.  SCM, 2012.  75.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 10: St. Mary's County, MD

My sabbatical ends in a matter of hours, so just in time -- here's the last installment of my video blog.  The last visit, to St. Mary's County, MD, was unique in that this fresh expression of church is a collaborative effort among three parishes.  Here's the video text:

When you go to a church founded in the 1630s, tradition takes on a whole new meaning.  That's the situation in St. Mary's County, Maryland, nestled at the bottom of a peninsula between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, a place of picturesque lighthouses and fabulous crabcakes.  People in St. Mary's County take their history seriously.  The first Maryland colonists landed there in 1634 aboard ships like this one at St. Mary's City, the first state capital.  The churches I visited are part of this landscape of deep roots:  Trinity, in St. Mary's City, dates from the colonists' landing and sits on the site of the first capitol building, now reconstructed across from the churchyard cemetery.  St. George's, in Valley Lee, was founded in 1638 and still features box pews, though the doors have been removed.  Even comparatively new Ascension parish, founded in 1951, installed half-box pews in order to tap into this rich sense of history.  Some families have been worshiping at Trinity and St. George's for more than two centuries now. 

Along with revering tradition, the parishes of Trinity, Ascension, and St. George's are also hearing a call to connect with people whose families haven't been Episcopalians for 200 years.  A group of young adults and families from these parishes has led an effort to figure out how to do church in new ways.  Initially, they wanted to bring some changes to inherited worship on Sunday mornings -- expanding the musical repertoires, using different prayers, making the experience a little more relaxed.  But that impulse soon turned outward as the young adult leaders saw an opportunity to connect with other people who wouldn't be likely to venture into these traditional worshiping communities.  And thus was born Gather Eat Pray -- a collaborative fresh expression sponsored by Trinity, Ascension, and St. George's.  

Gather Eat Pray meets in an art studio in Leonardtown, a somewhat more urban area of St. Mary's County but only minutes from the three sponsoring churches.  In a place known for historic church buildings, the young adult leaders wanted to find a space that felt open and inviting to people who had no experience with liturgical worship, or whose experience of church hadn't been good.  The art studio presents its own challenges -- fitting kids and adults into relatively small rooms and occasionally tripping over paint cans -- so it may not be the ultimate solution.  But in it, Gather Eat Pray creates a warm, intimate experience of worship around God's table, with all sorts and conditions of people -- the tall and the small -- helping to lead worship.

The community's life is still taking shape, including a new gathering, Thirsty Theology, at a local bar.  And there are plenty of growing pains, both for the new worshiping community and for the sponsoring parishes.  The three churches are working on an agreement to form a Multi-Parish Council, a body to help coordinate shared ministry and to unify some of their administrative work, perhaps sharing staff positions.  Being the Church in new ways is never easy, particularly when you're trying to collaborate on both spiritual and temporal affairs.  But the leaders of Gather Eat Pray, as well as the leaders of Trinity, Ascension, and St. George's, are working hard to follow what they see as the Holy Spirit's lead, building on the depth and richness of the communities they've known to bring a new community into being.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 9: Richmond, VA

Here's my next-to-last sabbatical video -- St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, and its fresh expression, Center.  What a fabulous place for someone who loves history to get to visit....  The video text follows:

Inside St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond is a plaque honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  During his presidency, Davis was a member of St. Paul's, as was Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  In Richmond's Civil War museum at nearby Tredegar Iron Works, you find the altar book used at St. Paul's during the Civil War, with a hand-written edit praying for the president of the Confederacy rather than the United States.  The church's beautiful stained-glass window depicting Paul before the Roman Emperor is said to be an homage to Jefferson Davis and his imprisonment after the war.  But as you make your way to the parish hall and pass the portraits of St. Paul's rectors, you find Jack Spong, arguably the most famously liberal Episcopal cleric of the 20th century, who served here before being elected bishop of Newark.  Clearly something shifted at St. Paul's several decades ago, making it a contrast presence in the old Confederate capital and a leading force in Richmond's evolution.

What hasn't changed about St. Paul's is its identity as a missional presence to its neighborhood -- located literally next door to the halls of power, the Virginia State Capitol and Supreme Court.  For a long time, St. Paul's has taken its call very seriously to be not simply a downtown church but a church for downtown.  More than 100 years ago, it began offering a weekday lunch-and-sermon series during Lent.  Now that's grown into a nearly year-round commitment, with a civic forum through the fall and jazz lunches after Easter.  In addition, St. Paul's is known as a trendsetter in ministry with the poor.  It hosts a weekly feeding program, and its model for school partnerships has been adopted by more than 100 other Richmond faith communities.  In addition, St. Paul's simply but beautifully offers its space for busy downtown people to stop and connect with God any day of the work week.  Clearly, serving the people of the neighborhood is deep in St. Paul's DNA.

So as Richmond's downtown began a renaissance in the past decade, St. Paul's reimagined its downtown mission to include the people returning to its lofts and apartment spaces.  The rector, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, decided to call a priest specifically as missioner to the downtown population -- the Rev. Melanie Mullen.  Borrowing methods from community organizing, Melanie and her missional team built a network through personal relationships both within St. Paul's and in the downtown community.  The team listened to people downtown and heard a longing for two things: intentional contemplative space and authentic community.  And so Center has taken shape.

Center begins with a worship gathering in the church's Atrium, because Melanie's team heard people wanting an intimate, less churchy space.  A single musician plays, maybe on violin or flute, and the group hears both a Bible reading and a poem or other spiritual text.  Then the participants have time on their own -- maybe lighting candles, or walking a labyrinth, or meditating with an icon.  Then the group gathers again to discuss where their personal explorations led them.  They offer prayers, led by a cantor; share the Peace; and move to the next room for a simple meal of soup, bread, and wine.  It's eucharistic with a lower-case "e" -- not Holy Communion, but certainly holy community.  It's a small gathering, usually a dozen or so.  But as one Center participant told me, the weekly time with God and with each other lets them breathe in, so the Spirit can send them out again, empowered to make life that much holier both for themselves and for the Richmond community into which they're sent.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 8: Manchester, England

My sabbatical isn't finished yet, but my time in England is.  Here's the story of St. James and Emmanuel in Manchester, and its fresh expression of church, Abide.  The video text follows....

Manchester, England, isn't a typical tourist destination -- an industrial city, best known in the States for an incredible English football club.  Honestly, I didn't see anything while I was in Manchester, other than the neighborhood I was there to visit -- Didsbury, in the southern part of the metro area.  Didsbury definitely has its own vibe; and like the parish I visited in London, Didsbury reminds me a lot of Brookside -- doctors, lawyers, business people, and their families enjoying beautiful homes, cool coffee shops, and great restaurants ... with one noteable exception.  I think sombody misunderstood what the "K" in KFC is supposed to stand for.

Didsbury is also home to the parish of St. James and Emmanuel.  Maybe I was homesick, but I could see a lot of St. Andrew's in St. James and Emmanuel.  It's definitely a "big tent" kind of place, but they express that unity-in-diversity with a collection of smaller tents instead.  First, there are the two churches -- St. James, the original, whose building dates from 1236; and Emmanuel, the "modern" church carved out from St. James' parish in about 1850.  On a given Sunday, here are some glimpses of what you'll find (scenes of worship)....  So there's evangelical prayer and praise, Holy Communion from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, a Taize service -- and even Eucharist in medieval St. James with the liturgical texts projected on a screen.  Just try to categorize this parish.  I dare you.

Along with a deeply Anglican understanding of holding diverse traditions in holy balance, you also find a commitment to mission at St. James and Emmanuel.  And, true to form, that missional calling manifests itself in diverse ways.  The seven-year-old parish center uses flexible, shared space to house kids' groups, community meetings, church offices, private parties, church events, and a weekly ministry of shelter for asylum seekers.  A renovated narthex will house a coffee shop and weekly Youth Cafe, giving kids a safe place to hang out and get help with homework.  The old rectory provides office space for seven local charities.  The church's school forms hundreds of young minds and hearts, and a second building will soon double the school's reach.  The rector, the Rev. Nick Bundock, describes the parish's identity in terms of Jesus' parable of the mustard seed.  That story's not just about the size of the seed; it's also about what that seed produces: a great bush with many branches to shelter the birds around it.  As Nick puts it, "A church has to create space for the birds of the air to nest in its branches."

But what keeps mission from being just one good work after another is a Christian community where mission finds its roots.  And that's the story of Abide, the "missional communty" of St. James and Emmanuel.  Several years ago, Emmanuel began a Sunday-evening service mostly for 20- and 30-somethings, but worship was all it was.  In fact, the gathering had become fairly unhealthy, with new people feeling put off rather than drawn in.  Three years ago, the Rev. Ben Edson received a call to morph the Sunday-night service into a fresh expression, a community rather than just a worship service.  Now Abide meets twice a month -- on a Tuesday, for dinner and conversation; and on a Sunday night, for worship and time at the pub.  Many of Abide's members also follow a rule of life called the Five Rhythms of Grace, a set of commitments that remind me of the promises of our Baptismal Covenant.  Everyone I spoke with said Abide's most important gathering, by far, isn't the worship; it's the Tuesday-night dinner.  There, the community breaks bread together, hears stories of other disciples trying to follow Jesus' path, and supports each other in following a rule of life.  Hmmmm ... sounds like church after all.  It's not rocket science; it's a group of people helping each other live lives that face outward.  Everyone agrees this "missional community" is a work in progress, and that's OK. At this point, the work that it's doing is vital: creating a community strong enough to proclaim the kingdom of God well beyond the church's walls.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 7: London

Welcome to London and St. Barnabas Church!  I've never seen a congregation with this kind of laser focus on mission.  By the way, the image above isn't from the fresh expression of church -- it's a normal Sunday morning at St. B's.

Here's the text, if you prefer it that way:

Coming to London, what does an Episcopal priest want to find?  Old stuff.  And London does not disappoint.  Whether you're touring the Houses of Parliament, or worshiping in Westminster Abbey, or marveling at St. Paul's -- seeing something a thousand years old is nothing around here.  Old lives next door to new.

We've seen a pattern like this in these sabbatical videos -- traditional, inherited expressions of church alongside fresh expressions.  And walking up to St. Barnabas Church in North London, in a neighborhood that reminds me of Brookside, you think the pattern might continue.  But St. Barnabas fits few Anglican patterns, as it turns out.  People here talk about where a church is "up or down the candle" on the scale from high to low, from Anglo-Catholic to evangelical.  You might say St. Barnabas is at the bottom of the candle, not only evangelical but deeply charismatic, too.  Worship there included several prayers for spiritual healing, words of prophecy, prayer languages, hands in the air -- and no apologies.  St. Barnabas intentionally holds together the false divisions between being rooted in Scripture, being welcoming with the Sacraments, and being open to the Holy Spirit's sometimes radical activity.

They're also clear about where this evangelical and charismatic identity leads them: outward.  As their vision statement says, St. Barnabas is about nothing less than "transforming lives and changing the world."  These are people who are sent -- apostolic, in the true sense of that word.  Mission is literally plastered all over the walls at St. Barnabas.  They support people across England and around the world promoting the Gospel.  They belong to "missional communities," small groups that study, pray, and listen to the Spirit sending them out to change the world next door.  And now, St. Barnabas has outgrown its traditional space -- a space that doesn't really communicate an intimate, personal relationship with God anyway.  So last week, the building went on the market.  St. Barnabas is now on the move into the largest commercial space in its London neighborhood.

But before that, four years ago, St. Barnabas went on the move to a less glamorous setting:  a London housing project called Strawberry Vale.  The Rev. Helen Shannon -- a long-term member who heard God's call to ministry with the poor -- began this missional journey herself, moving with her family to Strawberry Vale to practice the deeply incarnational ministry of getting to know people and showing them God's love.  They left cards and treats in people's mail slots, offered free meals at the community center, put on children's and parent groups, and spent hours simply listening.  Over time, more St. Barnabas members joined her, some also moving there; and hundreds more were praying for the effort.  Now it's grown into Church@Five, a weekly gathering of worship, conversation, and a meal -- very important in a place where food poverty is a real issue.

So, in a place with a deep commitment to mission and a worship style most Episcopalians wouldn't even recognize, where's the "both/and"?  Where's the inherited church and fresh expression of church side by side?  You can see it in the way worship works at St. Barnabas and at Church@Five.  Though it looks very different to most of us, Sunday morning at St. Barnabas is fairly traditional in the sense of who's doing the talking or singing and who's doing the listening.  As it's been for centuries, those in authority stand up in front of the gathered community and share truth, as they see it.  So St. Barnabas is traditional in the sense that the people up front send God's message, and you receive it.  At Church@Five, the order of worship is basically the same, but it feels very different.  The congregation gathers in groups around tables.  They pass the baton of authority, with Strawberry Vale residents co-leading worship with Rev. Helen and offering the beginning prayer.  The sermon is led by a pastor, but it's not just given:  Preaching is a shared event, with table conversations and discussions with the whole group about the day's reading and how it relates to your life.  And then, of course, there's the food, binding the community by breaking bread together.  The beauty is that this mixed economy of church works.  Whether it's Sunday morning at St. Barnabas or Sunday afternoon at Church@Five, both approaches fit the context to which God has sent them.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 6: Tewkesbury, England

From England, home of dubious wifi connections, comes post 6 of my sabbatical journey.  This is from Tewkesbury Abbey and its fresh expression of church, Celebrate.  I'll add the video text soon....

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 5: Seattle

Here's the fifth stop of my sabbatical journey -- beautiful Seattle, home of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its 5 p.m. Community.  The video text follows....

Seattle is a place of abundance and beauty. Our first stop here was the Pike Place Market, where Seattle farmers, butchers, fishmongers, and craftspeople have been selling their goods since 1907.  You walk in, and you’re immediately struck by the fish – maybe literally, if you happen by when the guys are throwing the daily catch to each other.  But that’s only the start.  You can find nearly anything here, including the world’s first Starbuck’s, apparently a postmodern pilgrimage site.    Of course, Ann and I also had to take in the beauty of this city and the mountains and the sound with a trip up the Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair.  The landscape is simply stunning, especially on a clear day – which the natives instruct you to report never occurs.

In the midst of this beautiful city, near the Space Needle at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill, sits St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Perhaps it’s no accident that it, too, exudes a sense of abundant beauty in its soaring space and rich Anglo-Catholic liturgy.  That Anglo-Catholic ethos is all about the fact that, in God’s eyes, matter matters – and so it should for us.  So in the liturgy, every movement is intentional; every adornment has meaning; every minister takes his or her role deeply seriously.  Incense rises with parishioners’ prayers.  Sanctus bells mark moments when the assembly’s prayers join with those of saints and angels.  Long silences follow the readings and the sermon.  Russian icons offer windows onto the divine.  And if all this seems a little over the top, too bad.  This is who St. Paul’s is.

St. Paul’s knows its identity and its role in witnessing that identity to the world.  In a recent renovation, the iconic red doors were replaced with glass, and the narthex was opened up visually to the hundreds of people who pass by each day.  As neighbors look in, they see a different iconic image:  the baptismal font, source of new life for Christians and for all of God’s world.  And because matter matters to God, the earth and its people must be lovingly cared for.  Not surprisingly, it was the Anglo-Catholics who brought the Good News to Victorian slums, in word and deed.  And at St. Paul’s, parishioners have dinner with homeless people in the church basement each month.

That same Anglo-Catholic ethos shapes the 5 p.m. Community, St. Paul’s fresh expression of church in the basement.  The candles and vestments and incense aren’t much different from what’s used upstairs.  Even the music is nearly all from the hymnal or other standard sources.  What’s different is how worship happens.   The gathering’s arranged in a diamond shape, with the lectern on one end and the altar in the middle – so worshipers can’t help but look at each other.  That’s intentional, and it supports the “shared homily.”  The presider offers some initial thoughts and asks a question or two to get people thinking.   But the people take it from there, offering their own reflections on the readings or the art they’ve witnessed.   Seasonally, artists and performers offer their work as the second “reading,” so the homily might reflect on a painting or a dance as much as on Scripture.  It’s a fascinating combination of structure and improvisation.  Like the rest of St. Paul’s, the 5 p.m. Community is unapologetic about who it is but deeply welcoming of those drawn to the mystery it reveals.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 4: Portland

Here's stop 4 of the sabbatical journey -- St. Andrew and All Soul's Episcopal Church in Portland.  The text is below, if you prefer the story that way:

Portland may not be quite as hip and funky as the series Portlandia makes it out to be, but it’s close.  Even the pancake houses offer free-range this and vegan that.  You find literally scores of local breweries, nearly as many as the coffee shops.  I can personally vouch for the lovingly restored movie palaces featuring amazing burgers and craft ales, as well as the food trucks that gather in several neighborhoods. If you find yourself downtown, look for the Egyptian couple with the shwarmas and falafel – amazing.

But at least one of Portland’s districts is definitely not Portlandia, and that’s North Portland.  The city guide in the hotel room describes many neighborhoods, but you barely find a mention of North Portland, roughly a fifth of this city.  It’s long been a working-class area, and urban gentrification hasn’t made its way there yet.  The diversity is great, and so are the challenges of poverty and homelessness.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church has served North Portland for 119 years now, with three buildings on a busy block.  As the church has seen its neighborhood change, it’s also gone through its own difficult years, especially recently.  As of two years ago, about 15 people were worshiping here on a Sunday – nearly all over 70 – and the worship music was a parishioner playing his accordion.

Today, the church has new faces and a new name:  St. Andrew and All Souls.  Almost two years ago, the Rev. Karen Ward came here with a prayer group of about 10 young adults.  Well-known in emerging-church circles for her success planting Church of the Apostles in Seattle, Karen’s following a different model here.  From the start, this combined community has had both a traditional, by-the-book Eucharist, as well as an emerging liturgy on Sunday mornings.  At the early service, the organ leads God’s praise; at the late service, it’s a singer with a guitar and a percussionist.  The sermon or conversation about scripture also includes “open space” time, when worshipers light candles, have a cup of coffee, or meditate with icons written by a church member.  It’s definitely a work in progress, but both the traditional service and the emerging service are growing, with 40 to 50 people now worshiping here on a Sunday.

But the growth isn’t just about liturgy; it’s also about the Spirit uniting the congregation’s gifts with the needs of the community.  In Portland, the music-and-arts scene is huge.  So St. Andrew and All Souls is welcoming artists and performers to use its generous spaces, as well as offering a summer arts camp for kids in the neighborhood.  The church’s food pantry continues its long history of serving hungry neighbors.  And there are plans to turn the old library building on the corner into a neighborhood coffee house.  It’s about redefining what the “parish” of St. Andrew and All Souls really is.  Certainly, some would say it’s the congregation and its properties there in North Portland.  But Karen Ward would say the parish is North Portland itself, because this is the only Episcopal congregation there.  The story of St. Andrew and All Souls will be this transition – seeing itself through a missional lens and deepening its connection with the people God gives it to serve.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 3: Denver

Here's installment 3 of the sabbatical video blog, from the Cathedral of St. John and the Wilderness in Denver.  A fascinating place with amazing worship, both traditional and fresh....

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 2: Austin

Ann and I just wrapped up a visit to Austin, Texas, for continuing education and reconnection with our best friends from seminary.  Enjoy!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 1: Boston

We’re back from Boston, the first of our nine visits to congregations raising up fresh expressions of church alongside their traditional worshiping communities.  We spent time with people from the Cathedral Church of St. Paul (and the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which is merging with the cathedral), as well as people from The Crossing, the cathedral’s fresh expression.  Check out the video here:

Or, if you prefer just the text, here you go….

Like the Episcopal Church itself, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston is a study in contrasts under the big tent.  It’s not just “a traditional congregation raising up a fresh expression of church alongside it.”  St. Paul’s is a fresh expression of “cathedral,” truly “a house of prayer for all” (its vision statement).  There’s a traditional 8:00 a.m. spoken Eucharist; there’s a choral Eucharist at 10:30; and there’s a Eucharist in Mandarin in the early afternoon that brings in as many as the 10:30 service.  And there is The Crossing, the fresh expression of church I’m studying here.  In First Corinthians, St. Paul writes about “becoming all things to all people,” so that he might “by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22).  That is the Cathedral of St. Paul.  On a typical Sunday morning, about a third of the congregation are people who are homeless – and when it was cold or rainy, they used to spend their days inside the nave, camped in the old wooden pews.  Now that the pews have been removed as part of the Cathedral’s renovation, they’ll have to make different arrangements.  Still, their place in the cathedral remains, with homeless people serving regularly and normally in the life of the congregation (including on its parish council).  That, in itself, is quite a fresh expression of church.

The cathedral is in the midst of a major interior renovation, and that project has opened the door to a “both/and” nobody was looking for.  Multi-million dollar renovations need multi-million dollar funding sources, and that kind of a capital campaign just wasn’t going to happen at the cathedral.  But up the street and over the hill sits another Episcopal church – the parish of St. John the Evangelist, one of the few Anglo-Catholic congregations in this diocese, with incense, bells, statues of saints, and six side chapels in a medium-sized worship space.  St. John’s membership had been dwindling for years, and it couldn’t sustain itself.  But the value of its downtown Boston property just kept growing.  Now the cathedral and St. John’s have merged, meeting both churches’ needs (the sale of St. John’s property will go a long way toward funding the cathedral’s renovation) and opening a new missional door.  If the cathedral is supposed to be a house of prayer for all, says the Very Rev. Jep Streit, cathedral dean, that should include people looking for very traditional Episcopal worship – smells and bells included.  How will the two congregations work out the details of incorporating some Anglo-Catholic liturgy into a low-church cathedral?  Stay tuned. 

And how does a fresh expression of church work in this context?  For The Crossing, both of the following statements are true:  It’s not about the worship, and it’s all about the worship.  Clearly, liturgy matters to The Crossing.  Isaac Everett, liturgical arts coordinator and de facto community leader, would say that liturgy is what shapes us most.  And that’s true for good and for ill, both in the carefully crafted language of the BCP and in unwritten code.  Isaac and others on the liturgy team put in hours each week crafting the celebration so its energy can flow without the distractions that come from sloppy preparation.  And the worship is authentic – life-giving and unifying in the way it welcomes all around God’s table.  And yet, when some priest from Kansas City shows up asking questions, the message comes through loud and clear:  It’s not about the worship; it’s about the community, because the worship springs up from that.  You can’t re-create this experience, no matter how many hours you might spend in careful planning and rehearsal.  The liturgy is not plug-and-play.  It’s the voice and heartbeat of the Holy Spirit in this place, among these people, discerned through careful, holy listening – both in The Crossing’s earliest days and in each moment of its ongoing creation.

(And here’s a special old-school extra, not included in the video:  The first night in Boston, like many tourists before us and many more Bostonians, Ann and I sat at the U-shaped oyster bar of the Union Oyster House, watching the high priests of mollusks preparing the evening sacrifice and sending it up the dumbwaiter for hungry diners upstairs.  It’s an art form, preparing oysters on the half shell, and it’s been happening at this shrine since 1826.  It is said that Senator Daniel Webster held court at this very U-shaped bar, eating up to six half-dozens of oysters in a sitting and washing down each round with a tankard of brandy and water.  It doesn’t exactly sound like a model for healthy eating, but Webster managed to help guide the nation for decades, fighting – and collaborating – with people like senators John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay.  Maybe our leaders today should spend more time eating oysters and drinking brandy together and less time yammering on cable news.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sabbatical vlog, Sept. 1

The sabbatical journey begins day after tomorrow, and I'll be posting a video blog as we go.  My wife, Ann, and I are studying nine Episcopal and Church of England congregations that are raising up fresh expressions of church alongside their continuing, traditional expressions.  As Jesus said, everyone "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" (Matthew 13:52).

The fun begins here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Drop-By Authenticity

Enjoying the freedom of vacation on Sundays, I’ve been dropping by churches of different “brands.”  Now, I freely admit that a single visit can’t capture the fullness of any church community.  But I also know that the experience of a single Sunday morning forms the strongest perceptions for any visitor – whether it’s someone doing serious church shopping or someone just curious about what those strange people down the street are up to.  If I were in the visitor’s shoes, I’d be looking for authentic community – people truly connected with God and the people around them.
Three Sundays ago, I worshiped at Christ Community Church in the Crossroads.  This campus of Christ Community (an Evangelical Free church) follows the same pattern of worship as the other two I’ve attended, but the venue and the neighborhood shape the specifics.  In the Crossroads, the venue is The Gallery, an art space with folding chairs and rolling room dividers.  Works by a local artist hang on the walls, and the church participates in the First Fridays art walks through the Crossroads, inviting Sunday-morning visitors to come back for music, food, and art.  The worship feels intentionally simplified: a single musician singing and playing guitar, the pastor in jeans offering a (long) teaching sermon from a music stand, no altar or other liturgical furnishings other than the art that hangs there seven days a week.  There are no worship handouts, just screens on the wall.  In addition to music and preaching, the people share Communion – and it was made very clear the meal was available to those who had already made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ (nonbelievers were invited to use Communion time to ask Jesus to reveal himself).  The pastor engaged me as I left, as did a couple of other people; and I came away feeling that I’d visited not a cool art space but a spiritual home.  It felt real (and cool).
Two Sundays ago, I worshiped at Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield, Mo. – my home parish.  It did, indeed, feel like home; I’d spent 22 years of my life worshiping there (sometimes more faithfully than others).  But I tried to imagine what a visitor might notice.  The building is historic, one of the first churches in Springfield; the original part of the worship space dates from 1870.  So it evokes both the beauty and the baggage of “traditional church” – lovely stained glass, beautiful old wood, fixed pews, long distances between the worshiper and the body and blood of Jesus at the altar.  The liturgy is traditional, too – no smells and bells, but plenty of vestments, candles, crosses, and processions.  A visitor might or might not connect with that, but it’s exactly what the room was designed for.  Interestingly, the sermon compensated for any distance that the liturgy or the room might have imposed between a visitor and God.  It was an ironic shift from the week before:  In the Crossroads, the young pastor in jeans and an untucked shirt stood near the worshipers and tried mightily to make 37 minutes of teaching about the day’s scripture seem cool and casual.  At Christ Episcopal, the seasoned priest (well past retirement age) in vesture and a zucchetto shared his heart in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, speaking from his own experience of clinical depression.  The Anglo-Catholic father absolutely made the experience authentic; and I imagine a visitor that morning would have known, deep down, that he or she could be welcomed in that community, warts and all.  It felt very real.
Today, I worshiped at Jacob’sWell in Kansas City, one of the early success stories of the emerging-church movement in the U.S.  Jacob’s Well has been written up many times, and for good reason:  They’ve created a very vibrant community of mostly young adults in the Westport area.  In fact, this fall Jacob’s Well will celebrate its 15th anniversary – making it basically an “emerged” church, I suppose.  The worship experience strives for the ancient-future feel you often see in emerging churches – an old building, complete with pews and stained glass, playing host to a five-piece rock band and filled with young people in shorts and t-shirts, sipping lattes and singing words from huge projection screens.  The pattern of worship was almost exactly the same as at Christ Community in the Crossroads – and not so different from what we offer in our “old fashioned” liturgical churches, too:  Music, welcome and announcements, more music, a long sermon rooted in scripture (this week including Prayers of the People), quick Communion (whose two-minute prayer of consecration began with the Sursum corda – “The Lord be with you; and also with you; lift up your hearts…”), a benediction, and music to send you on your way.  As intended, it felt old and new simultaneously, and I could imagine a visitor tapping into the “both/and” experience easily.  I also could imagine the visitor delighting, as I did, in watching the people hugging each other before worship began and the parents tossing their babies in the air to the beat of the music, reveling in the joy of that community’s life.  It felt very real – though I do wish someone would have welcomed me by engaging me in a conversation at some point.
This is no great insight, but it’s true:  Authentic community comes in all shapes, sizes, and liturgical flavors.  There is no recipe for creating it, other than taking people seriously – those making up the body of Christ in that place, those sidling up to it on a visit, and those living in the neighborhood the church is supposed to serve.  Like other things less holy, you know authentic community when you see it.  And when you do, you’re blessed to find the Body of Christ feeling that real.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Off to School

Yesterday, I walked by my neighborhood school as I listened to Morning Prayer on my phone.  It was the first day of classes in the Shawnee Mission district, and I happened by East Antioch school during “the parade”:  Tiny people, kindergartners and first graders, bearing backpacks that seemed big enough to tip them over, strode purposefully with moms and dads and siblings down the sidewalk.  The tiny ones looked confident and strong; I’m not sure what I’d say about the moms and dads.  I remember that strange mix of anxiety, sadness, and joy on the first day of school.
Fifteen years ago, Ann and I walked to our neighborhood school, Robert E. Lee Elementary in Austin, Texas.  It was Kathryn’s first day of kindergarten.  She must have had one of those overwhelming backpacks, but what my memory conflates from hundreds of other walks to school that year is me pushing Kathryn and Daniel in a double stroller – she was small enough she still fit in, while Daniel at 3 just loved the ride.  She was so ready for school, I couldn’t feel sad.  For both kids, the times of these transitions have always just seemed right.
Tomorrow, Ann and I will drive with Kathryn to Kirksville, to move her into her first house and her last year in college.  Granted, it’s a nine-month rental, but it’s still the next good step in breaking away.  This is a different move than the other times we’ve taken her to college:  She’s refinished some furniture for her new bedroom; she’s packed pots and pans, measuring cups, and dishes; the most exciting pre-college purchase this time was a stock pot (“Soup!” she squealed).  She’s nesting.
One week from today, Ann and I will drive with Dan to Manhattan, Kansas, for his first semester at K-State.  Again, the time’s so right for him that I don’t feel sad.  He’s excited about his classes, not to mention his freedom.  He has a good network of friends already in place, and Canterbury House (Episcopal Campus Ministry) will be a second home and great source of free food.  And yet, as we set out on the road next week, I feel sure that, in my mind, I’ll be driving the double stroller instead of the van, running fast up and down the sidewalk’s little hills at each driveway, relishing the kids’ squeals of delight.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Worshiping With the Enemy?

If you’re a Kansas City-area Episcopalian, you may remember our local version of the Great Schism, when Christ Church in Overland Park left the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas and became an “Anglican” church (which it always had been anyway).  That was a terribly painful time for Christ Church members nine years ago – a time of division and loss, a time of focusing on differences among people who had been family for years.
Aug. 3 was my first Sunday of vacation.  On vacation Sundays, I always like to visit churches whose approaches to worship I don't usually get to experience.  From a more crass perspective, it’s also a chance to check out the competition.  So, in the pouring rain, I drove to 91st and Nall to worship in a church I’d never attended, neither in its Episcopal nor its “Anglican” manifestation – Christ Church. 
In several ways, it felt very much like St. Andrew’s on a Sunday morning.  About 200 people were gathered in a beautiful, traditionally designed nave.  In the pew racks in front of me were copies of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer (1979), and the Hymnal 1982.  The crowd was a little younger than ours, but not tremendously.  The liturgy was Holy Eucharist, Rite II, using Eucharistic Prayer A.  The Collect of the Day and the Prayers of the People were straight from the BCP
In other ways, it felt more like St. Andrew’s on a Saturday night.  The feel of the liturgy was a lot like Take5, though a few steps further down the path of informal and accessible worship.  All the music was “contemporary” (whatever that means) praise songs, with the lyrics projected on two screens.  The lighting changed during the music to spotlight the performers.  The congregation trailed in as the small band played a few songs before the welcome and announcements.  The presiding minister wore street clothes, putting on a stole for the Eucharistic Prayer. 
Of course, there were some differences that we might not want to import into Take5 or Sunday morning:  a single scripture reading, a 30-minute sermon, and lots of references to substitutionary atonement (Jesus dying on the cross to make satisfaction to the Father for humanity’s offensive choice of sin).  And then there was the difference I enjoyed least:  Other than formal greetings when I walked into the building and at the Peace, no one engaged me.
But what struck me was the fact of our unity even in our choice for division.  If you'd plunked an Episcopalian down in that liturgy knowing none of the back story, he or she would have sworn it was an Episcopal service of Holy Eucharist.  I had no feeling of worshiping with the enemy.  It felt more like being with family members whose choices you don't understand, like a Union soldier watching his brother practicing Confederate military drills.  We’d been trained in the same traditions; we’d just chosen to focus on what divided us instead.  Civil war – family conflict – is always the hardest.
             So I gratefully received the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist at Christ Church Anglican on Sunday.  Was it Jesus’ body and blood?  Was the sacrament “efficacious”?  I’ll leave it to God to sort that out, but I have to say:  It certainly tasted familiar.  It tasted like unity.  As Jesus prayed for his followers, so he yearns for us:  “Holy Father, protect them … so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).