Monthly Archives: November 2014

Awake & Listening

Preached by James for the First Sunday of Advent:

“And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

This week, some of us have been trying to do a better job of listening to the voices of black people. This has less to do with how racist we may or may not consider ourselves, or how many black friends we have, and everything to do with how white people publicly engage the conversation on race. Last Monday, when a Grand Jury declined to pursue charges against the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson Missouri, the volume on a conversation about race in America which has been going on for some time was once again amplified by demonstrations of prophetic witness. We remember that the biblical prophets proclaimed their message by acts of public theatre and spectacle, taking to the streets with strange, symbolic gestures meant to disturb the routines of photobusiness-as-usual into seeing something true. This week, the prophetic witness and theatre has included box cut placards, multi-racial assemblies of attentive listeners, chanting, fire, the stoppage of traffic, a 150 mile march to the state capital of Missouri, an attempt to derail the Macy’s parade and interrupt Black Friday shopping. The voice of prophetic protest has been amplified by tweets, posts, blogs, hashtags, shares and likes, by awkward conversations over Thanksgiving dinner, on public transit with strangers en route to rallies, and in the Facebook comment threads of friends of friends.

The voices of this conversation are not only being amplified for their own sake. They are amplified, in part, as an address, at least one of the objects of which is us. They are amplified, in part, for the sake of witnessing to white people about black experience in America. Now, when we are addressed, in any kind of situation, we have a variety of responses at our disposal. Imagine two people sitting face to face in conversation. One of them is sharing a story about something that has been very painful. How do we know that the other one listening? There are certain signals we might pick up on to know that the listener is engaged. She might lean in, she might nod her head, at certain points she might repeat certain key phrases, or ask clarifying questions. All of these cues send the message of being heard and supported. Similarly, we’d know if the listener was disengaged. Her eyes might be cast down to the floor, her arms crossed, her comments disconnected or dismissive. She might simply be silent. From her cues we might think that the listener feels defensive, uncomfortable, attacked, or ill-equipped to respond.

If we magnify these dynamics to the public sphere, we’ll note that we’ve seen signs of both engaged listening and willful disengagement in the past week. We’ve seen police embracing protesters and we’ve seen police lined up in a barricade to prevent peaceful assembly in public arenas. We’ve seen folks complaining about having their shopping interrupted by peaceful protest and we’ve seen mall employees leaving their work behind to join in. We’ve seen white folk wade into conversations that make them uncomfortable, we’ve seen white folk get defensive, and we’ve seen white folk silent out of fear or dis-ease or a sense of this not being a conversation they’re a part of. We’ve seen white folk with their eyes down to the floor while their black brothers and sisters speak about their pain.

When faced with the voice of witness, and complaint, and pain, the way we choose to engage matters to our life in God. Isaiah does not cry to God this morning for immediate peace or silent presence. Isaiah calls on a God who can turn the world upside down. Isaiah calls on God to rend the heavens, topple mountains, and rouse fire strong enough to boil the sea. Similarly, we spend lifetimes of worship singing to a God whom we wish would draw nearer to us, whom we wish would speak more clearly in our midst. Yet what do we do when God does speak? How do we respond when God’s word unsettles us, strips us of our comforts, or shows us a truth about our lives that we’d rather not see? When God speaks of pain in the world, of systems that stifle some lives while rewarding others, do our bodies lean in to hear more, or do our eyes drop to the floor? Is our posture towards God defensive or engaged?

For a long time we’ve been used to hearing the story of black lives in America as one of Exodus. We’ve heard of black history as one of breaking free from systems of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation in the same way the Hebrew people were delivered out of Egypt. I wonder if this is the narrative some white people have in mind when I hear questions about what more black people could want having already come through the victories of abolition and desegregation. While I can imagine a great many other things that black people may want to be delivered of, it also seems to me that the conversation at hand is not only about Exodus, but also about apocalypse and eschatology. Apocalypse is a word of Greek roots which speak of uncovering that which has been hidden, eschatology is speech about the end of the world as we know it. The current conversation about race in America is apocalyptic in the way it uncovers a reality which can too easily remain hidden: incarceration rates for black men which are triple the national average and disproportionate to the rates of black crime, prosecution of drug-related charges which are disproportionate to the rates of black drug traffic, and story after personal story of experience of racial profiling by those in authority. In apocalyptic speech, veils are lifted revealing greater, clearer realities beneath the business-as-usual we’ve been conducting. In the unveiling, God’s power is disclosed, and God’s preference for the disadvantaged is made clear. In eschatology, we hear of the end of our world and the beginning of God’s. In black voices, we hear a hope of ending one world in which empowered black bodies inspire dismissive suspicion, and the beginning of a new one where they inspire solidarity and respect.

Jesus has one word of advice for apocalyptic end times: keep watch. It makes a certain kind of sense. When the familiar world we’ve known changes, when the curtain is pulled aside to reveal ugly truths and patterns of privilege which can only pass away in the light of God, when the things that have made us strong in the past are shown to be weaknesses, vigilance is key. Keeping watch as if the lives around us depended on it is key for learning the new patterns of power and leadership in the kingdom of God now dawning among us. The opposite of keeping watch is sleepy satisfaction. When we get accustomed to a world that keeps us comfortable we risk blindness to a new way which is being revealed. I want to leave you with one practice for keeping watch this week: talk with someone different from you about race in America. Maybe the difference is between white and black. Maybe it’s the difference of thinking race is an issue worth protesting and thinking that it’s not our argument to enter. Maybe it’s a difference of opinion about how to best proceed. Whatever the difference, engage the conversation fully, and in person. It may be that you find yourself up against something uncomfortable, something difficult to articulate, something painful. It may be that you have the opportunity to uncross your arms, lift your eyes up from the floor, and lean in closer to listen for more. If you do, you will find yourself nearer to the God who comes to dwell among all of us, the advent of justice and true peace.

Feed us with justice

Sara preached this sermon on the Feast of Christ the King, her farewell Sunday at St. David’s. 

Now we have come to the end. As I was working on this sermon I thought: this is, among other things, the end of the illusion that I can find adequate words to convey what I want to say. So be it.

We are at the end of the church year, the end of the yearly cycle through Jesus’ life. The cycle begins again next week with the first Sunday of Advent, the anticipation of Jesus’ coming among us in human form, a baby.

We are at the end of our reading of the Gospel of Matthew. Next week, you’ll all gather in this place and begin the Gospel of Mark. Know that the first Sunday of Advent is almost always the darkest, rainiest day of the year. Don’t blame me. You’ve been warned.

It’s the end of the year and the end of years. When I came to St. David’s I thought of myself as a transitional leader. I thought I’d stay three to five years. And yet, here I am, five years, six months, and 13 days later.

There is so much I will miss about this place. So much. We don’t have time for me to tell you. Here are a few random bits from the past few days. First, I got an email from LeRoy Goertz, our artist-in-residence. LeRoy wrote to tell me how much he enjoys setting up the table for kids to exercise their creativity back there after Sunday school. He added: “If you get bored up there like during your sermon, please consider coming to the back and grabbing a pencil and drawing.” Thanks, LeRoy, but I think I should be up here.

Also this week, someone stopped by the office and shared with me that every single week—and this has been going on for several years—when I begin the Eucharistic prayer and hold out my arms, her son leans over and says: “Sara looks like a bat.” Every single week. I didn’t know.

I came here to be part of what I affectionately called the Saint David’s Adventure. I left a good-sized, stable, comfortable parish to come to this place, which was kind of dark and empty despite the outstanding efforts of a determined, faithful bunch. I was not supposed to leave my former parish, I was supposed to stay there for 20 or 30 years. That farewell sermon was on what we often call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the fourth Sunday of Easter. I’d had several parishioners tell me that a good priest stays with their flock forever, and they didn’t understand how I could leave. The gospel for my last Sunday was about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and the bad shepherd who is only just passing through.

This parting is a different kind of adventure for me into uncharted territory. It is strange to leave when I am feeling so full of love and gratitude, and when I don’t know what God has in store for me next. It would be easier if I were responding to a call to some other parish that desperately needs me. But that’s not the case; I simply have the conviction that it is time for the St. David’s adventure to proceed without me, and that the end of the Church year is the time to end my ministry among you. The fact that this is my choice does not mean that I am not sad and anticipating a huge sense of loss myself over the next few Sundays. If you feel that loss, too, know each week that I’m out there somewhere, thinking of all of you, praying for you, and missing you.

I know that many of you are concerned—maybe even anxious—about what will happen next. Long ago a I met with a professional coach who taught me to replace words like “anxious” or “worried” with curious. Not “I’m worried about this or that,” but “I’m curious….” Aren’t you all curious about what will happen next at St. David’s? I know I am!

I wanted to have a time of feasting and celebration last night—and you surpassed all of my expectations—because I knew this day would be hard. And sad. And good. It’s an adventure. Later, we’ll say some prayers together to mark this final goodbye.

Today’s reading from Ezekiel and today’s gospel both call us back, away from our own sadness and curiosity about the future to the work at hand. It may seem to some of you that the work at hand is all about developing a parish profile, getting on with the business of creating a 2015 budget, calling a new rector, and managing the parish in the meantime. This may be true but the real work at hand is the work of welcoming God’s reign—r e i g n—in our midst. The kingdom is in our midst because God is in our midst, all the time. The kingdom is in our midst whenever we seek Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, and the naked. The God of Ezekiel promises to seek out the lost, to bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. Jesus reminds us that our job is to partner with God in that seeking out, healing, and strengthening.

About the fat and the strong, God says “I will feed them with justice.” I love that image: I will feed them with justice.

givinghandsThe traditional interpretation of this verse is that the fat sheep—those who have been complacent in their comfort while neglecting the suffering of others, probably similar to the goats in Jesus’ final parable—are the ones who need to be fed with God’s justice. But what if all are to be fed with justice? To the weak, God’s justice comes in the form of rich mountain pastures. To the fat, strong sheep, God’s justice comes as destruction, and death of behaviors that oppose God’s shalom.

Our calling as Christians—your calling as Christians in this place—is to feed one another with justice, to nurture one another with the shalom of God, God’s righteousness, God’s justice.

A few months ago I was talking with a prospective new building partner. She said she had always had a dream of opening up her own kindergarten. I said: “Here at St. David’s we want to be a place where dreams come true.” (Remember that, Profile Committee!) Each of you has made my dreams for this church come true. I like to think that God’s dream is of a rich feast of justice, with everyone at the table.

One of the things we do best in this place is feasting and celebration. Remember that. Feast often. Every week, we do it at this table. I hope that week after week you will experience every Eucharist as a feast of justice that sends you forth into the world proclaiming Good News of healing and transformation. Welcome to the kingdom. Welcome to the adventure.

Stand Here Beside Us!

Sara preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday. Our worship opened with the community praying and singing the Litany of All the Saints.

Almighty God…give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.

slide-5-communion-of-saintsI love this feast day. (Yawn. She says that every year, about so many feast days.) But it’s true. I was officially welcomed into the first church I joined in Portland on this day in 1986. I love the saints, the great cloud of witnesses. Questions about saints are among the most common I get from people new to the Episcopal Church, and I love to answer those questions. And I’ve done many baptisms on All Saints Day, all of which come with special memories.

All Saints is one of four baptismal feasts in the Church year. Now, I always ask this and I’m going to ask One   Last   Time: who can name the other three baptismal feasts in the Church year?

As I said to a group of parents and godparents two weeks ago, baptism is a sacrament of vocation, it is a sacrament of identity, and it is a sacrament of belonging. It is a sacrament of vocation in that it is like ordination for all Christians. When our previous bishop, Bishop Itty, was ordained in 2003, the preacher (former presiding bishop Edmond Browning) talked about what a grand event it was, the Episcopal Church at its ceremonial best, and how it was going to be in all the papers the next day, and he was right. Then he reminded us that really, we should make an equally huge deal with every baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of our vocation, our calling to be followers of Jesus.

But…enough about baptism! I know you’re all waiting to learn who the Saint of the Year is. Lindsay, may I have the envelope please…..? [Drumroll]

This year’s Saint of the Year is….every single one of you!

  • The 2009 Vestry who took a huge risk and said sure, we’ll spend all our savings and we’ll let you try any crazy stuff you want. You’re the saints who stand here beside me, beside us.
  • Those of you who came last week or this week for the very first time, when walking through the doors of an unfamiliar church can be a daunting task. We hope you’ll stand here beside us.
  • The children being baptized on this day: Marion, Lucia, Matilda, Theo, Clara, Jane, and Eleanor. Stand here beside us.
  • Their parents and godparents who stand with them and behind them. Stand here beside us.
  • All the people who have shown up week after week for a whole month or a year or a decade or half a century to pray and share blessed and broken bread, stand here beside us.
  • All of you who make all of this possible by offering your time and your treasure, you who have filled out pledge cards already and you who will fill out pledge cards this morning, stand here beside us.
  • The altar guild, ushers, readers, Eucharistic ministers, prayer-sayers, Coffee-makers, bread bakers, clay shapers, tambourine shakers, and all those whose presence and work is part of our worship each Sunday, stand here beside us.
  • The choir and musicians and our astoundingly talented leader, Ben, stand here beside us.
  • The piano students, artists, music teachers, therapists, dancers, stilt-walkers, preschoolers, fiddlers, pickers, yoga practitioners, saxophonists and cellists who grace our building with their presence, stand here beside us.
  • Those who teach Sunday school and those who learn, those who help out and those who hang out, nursery moms, dads, kids, and staff, stand here beside us.
  • Jumble-sale planners, pricers, writers, drivers, sorters, buyers, sellers, bakers, takers, sign-makers, and miracle-makers, stand here beside us.
  • Money-counters, check-writers, bill-payers, room-schedulers, building cleaners, leaf-rakers, weed-pullers, kitchen towel-washers, and fridge-cleaners, stand here beside us.

These—including all the ones I’ve forgotten—are the saints-with-a-small-s who may or may not ever be remembered for what they’ve done but they will always stand here beside us. Every community is built—continually building—upon the great cloud of witnesses, the royal priesthood of which each one of us is a part.

Baptism, as I said earlier, is a sacrament of belonging. Think about “Stand here beside us” as both a prayer of belonging and an invitation to belonging. Standing beside one another is how we belong. On this holy day, we promise to stand beside Eleanor, Jane, Clara, Theo, Matilda, and Marion as they grow into their Christian identity and vocation.

When Amy and I first talked about Jane’s baptism I asked whom she and Sarah had chosen as godparents. Amy said: “we don’t want godparents because we think of the whole community of St. David’s as Jane’s godparents.” I invite all of you to think of yourselves as godparents, to these children and to one another. Stand here beside us.

Baptism is a sacrament of identity. Baptism is how we become Christian. Christians have had a bad name for the last forty years or so. Some might argue we’ve had a bad name since the Crusades. I’ve always refused to cede the C-word to Christians who don’t speak for me in the press or in the public square. I am a follower of Jesus as much as anyone else. And so are you. Here’s an exercise. It’s going to make some of you squirm, I promise. Turn to the person sitting next to you, or in front of you, or behind you, and practice saying “I am a Christian.” And then turn to the person on the other side of you and say it. When someone says it to you, say “Hey, so am I!” or “me, too!” Just do it. We won’t tell. (I do know that a handful of you are Jewish or Buddhist, and that’s okay, too. Here’s your chance to claim that out loud.) Okay…now go.

So how do you live out your identity as a person of faith and a follower of Jesus? When we celebrate baptism, we celebrate a sacrament of vocation. As I hope my local All Saints Litany shows, our vocations as followers of Jesus differ from person to person. The bones of this calling are spelled out in our baptismal covenant, the covenant we will affirm together in a moment. As we renew our baptismal covenant, think about what flesh you will put on those bones. How will you stand beside us as one of the saints of God?