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.