Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon: Dangerous and Peaceful

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (October 18, 2015).
Readings: Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Ps. 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Heb. 5:1-10; Mk. 10:35-45.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sermon: Where was Jesus?

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 21, 2015). 
Readings: 1 Sam. 17:32-49; Ps. 9:9-20; 2 Cor. 6:1-13; Mk. 4:35-41.
The phrase: "covered in the spilled blood of their friends and family" is a quote from Doug Perdue & Jennifer Berry's article "In an hour, a church changes forever," Charleston Post & Courier, June 19, 2015.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Nine Resolutions That Won't Rescue the Church

The day after last week's Ascension Day release of "A Memorial to the Church" on the web site, the Rev. Jonathan Grieser wrote about why he won't be adding his name to the list of the memorial's endorsers:
I want to spend my time and energy in following where the spirit is blowing, into new ways of being church, new ways of encountering Jesus, and new ways of connecting with those who are seeking spiritual meaning. If the institutional church can be transformed to do those things, fine, but I’m not going to be fighting that battle. There’s too much else at stake.
Though I am one of the co-authors of the memorial and resolutions ("editor" or "suggester" may be more accurate terms than "co-author", in my case), I can't begrudge Grieser his position one bit. He writes about the work his church has been doing on the ground in his city, partnering with others both religious and secular to organize against yet another judicial failure in yet another police killing of an unarmed black man. In the face of matters of such import, what's the point of worrying about the institutional church?

While I don't think that means he shouldn't sign on to the memorial, I think the thrust of Grieser's argument is mostly right. In Salt Lake City in June and July, about a thousand lay and clergy Episcopalians will sit in conference rooms and exhibit halls, taking three days longer than it took God to create the world to take a good hard look at The Episcopal Church. But with the exception of the conversations we'll be having around the report from the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, little of what happens there will mean much to church congregations.

That includes these resolutions: even the one on church planting, even the one on congregational revitalization.

That doesn't mean these resolutions aren't worth passing. I wholeheartedly believe they are. Focusing resources on planting churches offers the opportunity for future graduating classes at some of our seminaries to relearn a skill mostly lost in our denomination. Focusing resources on congregational revitalization can expand the exciting work started by the Mission Enterprise Zone grants over the last triennium. But even with the millions of dollars the resolutions suggest deploying for such efforts, they will take many years to bear fruit.

The other resolutions are a lot more technical in nature but in brief they clarify a variety of church governance issues in a way that increases transparency and accountability in our governance, and eliminate one of our church's most opaque governance structures, the provinces. These too are worth passing because they impact the way we as a denomination act collectively. Good governance is part of good stewardship, and it's worth phasing out or reforming practices and structures that no longer serve the church or that engender confusion and distrust.

But the fact is that no piece of legislation, no matter how finely crafted, will save the church. Nor will any memorial or open letter save it, no matter how persuasively its authors make their points. Fortunately we Christians believe that the work of salvation has already been taken care of. Instead our task is to respond as a redeemed people, that is, in the words of the memorial, to:
  • Recommit to reading scripture, praying daily, gathering weekly for corporate worship, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom, knowing that engaging in these practices brings personal and corporate transformation;
  • Share the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed, including learning how to tell the story of how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, even and especially to those who have not experienced true transformation;
  • Pray and fast for the Holy Spirit to add day by day to those who come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace;
  • Encounter Jesus Christ through loving service to those in need and through seeking justice and peace among all people.
This is the hard work of discipleship. At the very best the work of General Convention will clear a few obstacles, maybe offer a few new tools - and it should do those things! But the practices the memorial enumerates...General Convention can't make any of those things happen. These are the works of a people with hearts aflame, continuing in the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and the prayers, with God's help.

Oh, by the way! It's not too late to sign your name to the memorial. Just send your name to Please indicate whether you are a bishop, deputy, alternate, member of the official youth presence, or, best of all, an interested Episcopalian.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

These Bones

No one told us what to expect when we picked up my mother’s ashes from the crematorium.

The taxi turned into the parking lot at the top of the hill, across from the Chinese cemetery. Some chickens pecked around in the grass. The funeral director led us around to a table on the far side of the building, and then they brought her out.

She was in what looked like a large lasagna pan. She was fine dust, some ribs, an arm bone. The heat of the oven had broken her skull into three pieces.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel came uninvited into my mind. No, I said to myself. No.

We said no when they asked if we wanted to keep her teeth, to melt down the gold fillings. They took the tray around the corner, and in a moment we heard a whirring like a coffee grinder. They made a funnel out of newspaper and poured the dust into the urn. The funeral direction said he would take the ashes to the embassy to be certified for travel, and would drop them off at the apartment tomorrow.

The day before, Easter Sunday, Dad, Colin and I walked behind the hearse, coughing on exhaust fumes as it trundled the few hundred yards from the funeral hall up the hill. Dad asked them to turn off the gospel music blaring from the radio. On a portico outside the crematorium, we laid white flowers on the casket.

“Alleluia, Christ is risen,” I choked out, somehow.

“The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia,” said my father, brother, and assembled friends, uncertain.

I don’t believe any of this, I thought.

That night I had a nightmare that I had forgotten the sound of my mother’s voice.

On the flight home I stowed her securely under the seat in front of me and watched Frozen.

Six months later, before we buried the ashes in the churchyard, I stood with a wheelbarrow and shovel putting dirt back into the hole. We had it dug to a double depth, so Dad’s ashes could be there too, when the time comes, but it was a bit too deep. We were to gently lower the urn into to the grave and even with my long arms it was too deep for that to happen. I added a few inches and hoped for the best.

In the end it made no difference. Dad and I knelt in the gravel, guiding the urn down. But I lost my balance and fell, the heavy urn pulling my arms down into the grave. My forehead slammed into the gravel. The urn stayed upright, the lid secure. I stood up, sheepish and trembling, my sleeves muddy. Mother Suzanne touched my shoulder.

“You’ve taken her as far as you can,” she said.

In December, as I prepared to switch phones, I found a voicemail from February. Amiable, about nothing, like our conversation the night before she died, before anyone had an inkling her heart was already betraying her, and in a few hours would suddenly give out. “Have a good day,” she signed off.

I entered this Holy Week, the liturgical anniversary of her death, with unease. But it was so much better than I expected - I was just glad to be in an identifiable place. Last year I boarded a plane Maundy Thursday morning and got off Good Friday at midnight a world away, spending the meantime in a great nowhere tunnel in the sky.

This Easter Vigil I spent with the clanging of bells rather than drinking scotch and telling stories and drafting a funeral liturgy I thought my non-religious mother could live with, for lack of a better term. This Easter instead of saying goodbye I said hello, bringing a glass of wine from Easter brunch out to the grave. I sat in the sun, liked some alleluias on Facebook, sent some emails.

At a Thursday night Bible study the other week we read the passage from Luke where the risen Jesus appears among the disciples in Jerusalem and shows them his wounded hands and feet, the gash in his side. Teresa asked us who in the story we identify with. The only characters to choose are the unnamed disciples and Jesus. Everyone picked disciples.

“Come on,” Teresa said, “doesn’t anyone identify with Jesus?”

“Ok,” I said, “I do. Today is the calendar anniversary of my mother’s death. And I’m grateful not to be able to re-feel things about that day, the splitting headache, the nausea. Today can’t be more different than that day for me. Some good things have happened. I have a new and interesting kind of relationship with my dad, for one, and that’s a gift.

“But look at Jesus here. He’s resurrected but still wounded. The world did something to him that resurrection can’t undo. I’m back, in a way, too. But I’m not the same.”

Last Saturday I found myself crying in the final scene of Die Walkure. Wotan, king of the gods, stands over his daughter Brunnhilde. For complicated Wagnerian reasons he has had no choice but to place her unconscious body, living but no longer immortal, on a high rock.

The music lasts far longer than strictly needed for the action in the stage directions to occur, so for a long time Wotan gazes at his beloved daughter, delaying as long as possible the moment when the flames rise, she will be hidden from his sight, and he will go back into the world.

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says to Mary Magdalene. But how hard it is to let go and turn away.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

These bones, ground to dust, buried in the churchyard?

No. Maybe. I don’t know. I'll just keep saying the creed.

But. Love is patient, love is kind, love never dies. Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things.

Love, believe this for me.

This is a participating post in the Acts 8 Moment BLOGFORCE challenge, which asks, "Where have you experienced resurrection this Holy Week and Easter season?" Participation in the BLOGFORCE is open to anyone who's interested, just follow the link to learn how.