Friday, December 16, 2011

The Ember Days: Praying for the Ministry of the Church

Friday, December 16, 2011

Today is one of the Winter Ember Days.  The Ember Days happen near the transition from one season to another four times a year.  They developed as times of penitential prayer at these seasonal changes in a society which was largely rural and agricultural.  The impulse was simply to offer to God the work of the season ahead, beseeching God's blessing.  They date back to at least the 5th century.

No one knows exactly why, but from their beginning they were also thought of as appropriate times for ordination.  So today, if you look in our Prayer Book for prayers for this day, you will find them as prayers "For Ministry," and, of course, in our day we know that means the ministry of all baptized people, not just the ordained.

Nevertheless, this is a good time to pause and pray for the ordained among us, for those preparing for ordination, and for the continued raising up of people for the ordained ministry.

So I ask your prayers for our Bishop, Prince, as well as our retired bishops, Jack and William.
And I ask your prayers for myself, for John, our deacon, Mary Ann, the rector of St. Stephen's, and for the other clergy who are part of our community:  Sandy Cordingley, Phil Schaefer, Peter Peters, Carolyn Lumbard, and Dennis Wienk.
And I ask your prayers for Cheryl Frank, who is in the process of applying to be a postulant for ordination, having been nominated by myself and your Vestry.
And I ask your prayers for Michael Laver, who is in the discernment process, working with a committee of folks from both Two Saints and St. Stephen's.

Thanks, and I will pray for you and your ministry, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

St. Lucy's Day: In the Middle of Advent, Looking for the Light

Today is special in our house this year because we have our own "Lucy," the dachshund who joined our household back in February.  But Lucy has always been a favorite saint of mine. I've never known exactly why. It has been sort of an intuitive thing, but it may be clearer this year.

Lucy's name means "light," and it is no accident her feast day is on December 13. In the old Gregorian Calendar, this was the shortest day of the year.  After today, even though we have a lot of winter yet to come, the light begins to take back the night.  So, especially in northern Europe, this was a very important day, a day of hope.

In Scandinavia today, children will bring their parents breakfast in bed, some of them (carefully!) wearing a wreath of lighted candles (I suppose most of them are electric by now).  Last night they will have written "Lussi" on their doors and hung a picture of the saint. In ancient times, this was to announce to the demons of winter and the night that their brief reign was over.  "Lucy fires" are lit this evening as another sign that the light is triumphing over the darkness.

Lucy is my companion, I guess, whenever I am looking for the light.  Here, in the Middle of Advent, feeling oh so far behind, not sure when I'm going to have time to Christmas shop, feeling more unprepared for the liturgical celebrations ahead than I have for a long time, I have need of Lucy's light to help me see the One who is coming, whether I am ready or not, and he is coming with Good News.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Occupation of God?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2011: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

            I wonder if we could think of John’s setting up camp to prophesy and preach and baptize as a kind of first century “Occupy” movement.  “Occupy Bethany,” or “Occupy the Jordan.”
            I see similarities.  John was not out there doing his thing with anyone’s permission or authority. He didn’t seem to care about authority at all, except perhaps for how it was abused.  He certainly was not fond of either the political or religious leadership of his day. He had choice words for both, words that eventually got him murdered by King Herod II, with a little help from Salome and her devious mother.

            His general message was that something was not right about how people were living their lives and he warned that change—repentance, he called it—was absolutely vital for the future of a society that lived up to the ideals of its founders (not to mention God).

            I will confess that I am not as knowledgeable about the Occupy movement as I should be.  This fall has not leant itself to my exploring a new thing.  But I am intrigued by it and generally supportive of it.  Furthermore, I suspect Jesus is too.  The Occupy folks make me wonder, which is always a good thing.  Mostly I wonder what it means to believe passionately that the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in this country and around the world is nearing crisis proportions.[1] Or perhaps we’re already at the crisis point and that’s what the Occupy folks want us to wrap our minds around.

            I also wonder, however, what many of us do with the dilemma we are in.  Many of us, like it or not, have a dependency on Wall Street.  Our 401(k)s or 403(b)s do.  The endowment of this parish, and our diocese, and the Episcopal Church certainly does.  So if we support the Occupy Movement, are we biting the hand that feeds us?  Do we need to find a different way to be fed?  Or does the hand that feeds us simply need some radical reform?[2]  These are all important questions—vitally important, and as people of faith, we ought to be having conversation about them.  Again, I suspect Jesus wants us to do so.

            I also wonder how the church relates to Occupy.  I received the newsletters from a couple of our churches in the diocese recently that had fashioned a graphic that said, “Occupy the pews of your Episcopal Church.”  Clever, but I don’t like it.  At least I don’t like it unless I know those parishes are also having deep conversation about the issues raised by the Occupy Movement.  I checked—they’re not.  It seems to me this is just another example of the church exploiting others for its own benefit.  It’s another reason for a group of people who are largely alienated from the church and highly mistrustful of it to remain so.  It’s not helpful at all.  

            I like some of what Brian McLaren[3] is writing about the Occupy Movement and Christian faith.  In a blog post near the beginning of the movement, he admits that he is kind of uncomfortable with the word “occupy.” It sounds aggressive to him. But he says this in reflection after he spent a day with some Occupiers.

As we walked along, I kept thinking about Jesus' use of the term "kingdom of God." …. Like "occupy," kingdom of God” was a dangerous term for a nonviolent movement. It borrowed the language of the Roman Empire whose pax was maintained by slavery, militarism, public torture, and frequent executions (i.e., crucifixion). It was overtly provocative—bursting out of the private sphere of spirituality into the public world of kings, lords, and laws. It threw down a gauntlet before the powers that be, challenging their legitimacy with a higher authority.

If I had been around, I would have counseled Jesus against using the term.

[Like with the choice of the word “occupy”] I'm glad I wasn't consulted. It's rather obvious now that Jesus knew what he was doing. "The occupation of God has begun" might inspire the same fear and hope among people today as "the Kingdom of God is at hand" inspired in the first century.[4]

            “The occupation of God has begun.” I like that.  And I think the prophet Isaiah would have liked it.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

            That “year of favor” of which Isaiah speaks is the biblical “Year of Jubilee.” Every fifty years Israel was to set things right economically.  All property returned to its ancestral owners, all Israelite slaves freed, slavery being how the poor got used by the rich in those days.

            Jesus was so fond of this message that he used it as his inaugural sermon at the synagogue in his hometown,[5] a story we hear every St. Luke’s Day.

            This good news for the underdogs announced, indeed, the occupation of God.  “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he said about this passage from Isaiah.  Jesus himself was the occupation of God, if you think about it.  Maybe more on that Christmas Eve.

            Whether or not you agree with the tactics of the Occupy Movement, you have to admit as a Christian, that the gross inequality in this country that has ballooned over the last decade has to be addressed.  Do we really believe as followers of Jesus that it is the inherent right for those who are rich to get as rich as they possibly can even if it means that the poor get poorer, the unemployed stay unemployed, and the vast majority of children in this country lose any hope at all of anything approaching the “American dream?”

            A quote from a book of Advent meditations that I am using says it very nicely:

Like it or not, the moral economy of God is not predicated on the necessity of poverty for most and riches for some.[6]

            We need to talk about this, and we need to take action, even if it is not exactly the kind of action of the Occupy Movement.  Or maybe it is.  But I am absolutely confident in this: Jesus wants us to do something.

[1] In 2009, total US household wealth was held 63.5% by the top 5% of the citizenry (35.6% by the top 1%).  The bottom 80% held 12.8%.  Median net worth in 2007 was $143,600 for white Americans, $9,300 for Black Americans, $9,100 for Hispanic Americans.  Between 1979 and 2009 , the top 5% of Americans saw their real incomes increase 72.7%.  The bottom 20% shrunk 7.4%.
[2] In a 60 Minutes interview on December 11, 2011, President Obama pointed out that, unfortunately, very little that anybody did to cause the 2007-2008 crash was illegal.
[5] Luke 4:14-21.
[6] Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, Let Every Heart Prepare (Morehouse, 1998), p. 29.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent Begins: The End is Near

There is probably not anything more un-Episcopalian than standing on a street corner proclaiming that the end is near. Unlike in some Christian circles, the end times is not a significant topic of conversation among us.  To be perfectly honest, I am not particularly unhappy about that fact.

Yet here we are at the beginning of Advent and, at least at the beginning of this season, we are asked to reflect on what we mean when we say "Christ will come again." I said yesterday at the Eucharist that we read "end time" texts from the Bible and assume the news they bring is bad.  Jesus is coming back and this time he's angry.  We say every week in the Nicene Creed, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead..."  No matter which way you try to spin it, judgment sounds painful.  Do any of us not have aspects of our lives that will be judged harshly?  I suspect not.

When St. Paul considers this reality in the eighth chapter of Romans he realizes something very important.  He says

Who is to condemn?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  Who will separate us from the love of Christ?

His answer is, "Nothing."  The one who will be our judge is first our lover, the one who prays for us always, whose life was an offering which took in the life of the whole world.  Our judgment will result in our freedom. We have nothing of which to be afraid.

We sang a contemporary Advent hymn at the end of the late Service yesterday which can have the last word (the second verse):

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?
Life from death, and from our rendings, realms of wholeness generate?
Take our fears, then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew:
Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.
Dean W. Nelson (b. 1944) (from Wonder, Love and Praise, #721)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Takin' It To The Streets: Highlights From Our 80th Diocesan Convention

by John Clinton Bradley, Lay Delegate

Bishop Barbara Harris preaching from Two Saints' pulpit.
The 80th convention of the Diocese of Rochester took place on November 11-12. It began on Friday afternoon with a procession from the Hyatt to St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene. Our sanctuary was filled (overflowing into the balconies) for the convention Eucharist. The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in The Episcopal Church, preached--urging the church to re-vision itself as a movement rather than an institution.

Back at the Hyatt, we perused exhibits about ministries occurring in each of the six districts of the diocese. Our parish showed a Right On School display.

Later Friday evening, delegates enjoyed an informal dinner with entertainment provided by each district. The Rochester district was well represented by Harmonically Yours from St. Stephen's.

Formal business sessions were conducted on Saturday. We cast ballots for several offices. The Rev. Mary Ann Brody was elected to the Disciplinary Board.

We also voted on ten resolutions. Dr. Marilyn Wienk, chair of the Public Policy Committee, introduced Resolution G, which called for the withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. The resolution was initially defeated, but was later reconsidered and amended to call for a withdrawal of troops as soon as possible. The amended resolution passed.

Bishop Prince Singh gave his annual "state of the diocese" address--calling for us to become "authentic spiritual activists."

Chris Cleveland, vice-chair of Diocesan Council, presented the report of council. The proposed 2012 diocesan budget proved to be somewhat controversial. Several delegates expressed concern about how the decision was made to eliminate the diocesan youth missioner position. A significant minority of no votes were voiced to the budget.

Two task forces are working on crucial diocesan financial concerns. The first is addressing the apportionment formula by which parishes financially support the diocese. The second is evaluating the supplemental health insurance benefit the diocese provides to retired clergy and their spouses.

The rector was appointed to three committees for the coming year--Nominations, Constitution & Canons, and Resolutions. He will chair the Resolutions Committee.

My modest contribution to convention was to edit a video of greetings from other bishops--including Bill Burrill, Jack McKelvey, Gayle Harris, and Steve Lane. Most of the clips in it were shot by Bishop Prince Singh on his iPhone while attending the House of Bishops meeting in Quito, Ecuador, last September.

It has been my privilege to serve as one of your lay delegates to convention during the past three years. (Our other two lay delegates are Sharon Nelson and Walt Kannapel.) I am not standing for re-election because I believe that other members of our parish should have the opportunity to take part in regional assemblies and diocesan convention. I encourage you to consider offering yourself for this post.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Greetings to Our 80th Convention

John Clinton Bradley edited this video for diocesan convention. Most of the clips in it were shot by Bishop Prince Singh on his iPhone while attending the House of Bishops meeting in Quito, Ecuador, last September.

Monday, October 31, 2011

All Hallow's Eve

By the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins

Most people love Hallowe'en, or at least they did when they were kids.  Some Christians are "opposed" to it because of its pagan roots, and its supposed origin in worship of the Devil.  To participate in it is to participate in "occultist" activity.

Well, here we have a problem.  Christian tradition, especially its worship (including the liturgical calendar), has deep roots in two sources:  the Jewish tradition of the time of the apostles and pagan practices throughout the ages.  Christians have a long, long history of adopting and adapting pagan practices.  All Saints' Day is a case in point.  Many northern European cultures had a day at this time of the year (often considered the first day of the new year) when the dead were said to communicate with the living.  Christians' ongoing relationship with the dead (what we call the communion of saints) meant that it naturally gravitated toward these celebrations even if it could not adopt all of the practices associated with it.  Voila, All Saints Day.

Dressing up in costumes is fun.  Of course, we want to avoid costumes that are racist, or that promote violence.  Those are contrary to our values.  Halloween is not a day off from upholding the dignity of every human being.

Hallowe'en and All Saints may be a very good time to have a conversation with young people about evil and death, since we do seem to dance around its edges as part of our celebration.  How can that conversation go? Lots of ways, but here are three basic talking points:

  • We participate in evil when we choose to do injustice, choose not to make peace (reconciliation), and when we refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves (and that includes not loving ourselves).
  • We all do these things from time to time and God is always ready to forgive us if we can be honest about what we have done.
  • Jesus came to struggle against evil and death and they appeared to win when he died on the cross.  But he did not stay dead. He came back from the dead to proclaim that evil and death had been defeated once and for all.  Any power they have after he was raised is temporary.

If you have this conversation, you just might get a question about the devil, and even hell. Is there really a devil? Is there a real hell?

Good luck. This is tricky ground.  It is easy just to say "No, we don't believe in these things," but that is too simple an answer.  Here's my answer.

I don't know if there is a real devil.  I do know that there is real evil in the world and that I am often tempted to participate in it.  I also have experienced evil that could not be explained simply by human will (someone choosing to do bad).  We do not know where this evil comes from so sometimes we speak about the devil, or Satan, as its source, giving evil a name and a place (hell).  Whether or there is a Satan or a Hell, we know this:  Jesus has conquered them.  At Easter we sing about Jesus smashing the gates of hell so that no one has to stay there any longer.

There are lots of things in this world to be afraid of, lots and lots and lots and lots. And it is OK to be afraid of them.  But they cannot take you away from God. When you were baptized, the priest put oil on your head, made the sign of the cross and said, "Nicole, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever."  You are chosen by God. You are a saint. Nothing can change that, that's how strong God's love is.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mutual Obedience: Listening to Love

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost:  Matthew 22:34-46

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

            I’ve never been sure just what the test was.  There was only one answer Jesus could have given, only one thing he would have said.  He said what, as a Jewish man, was on his lips at least twice a day.  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (JPS translation).

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

            It was and is called the Shema, from the first word in Hebrew translated “hear” or “listen.”  Over the centuries it became the beating heart of Judaism.  It is what is written on a tiny scroll inside the mezuzah on Jewish doorways and in the tefillin, boxes held in the hand and worn on the forehead during morning and evening prayers.  If Jews have anything like a creed, this is it.

            There is nothing else Jesus could have said.  It was as natural to him as breathing.  Perhaps the lawyer was testing to see how far Jesus would stray from the tradition.  He did not stray an inch, well, maybe an inch, because he did two things to the Shema.

            First of all he changed a word.  Deuteronomy 6:5 says that you shall love God with all your heart, soul, and might.  Jesus says

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

            Scholars do not seem to make a big deal about this change.  I think it’s huge.  Love God with your mind!  What a concept. God does not want me to turn off my brain in order to love him, God wants me to turn it on.

            And then Jesus does another thing.  He couples the Shema with something that had never (so far as we know) been coupled with it before.  He said,

And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

            That is Leviticus 19:18.  Jesus equates the two, and in doing so, turns the worship of the One God on its head.  You cannot be said to love God without loving your neighbor.  Justice and spirituality are inseparably linked by Jesus here.  Many of his followers, right up to this day, have sought to tear them back apart.

            But Jesus said, “Be devoted to God and be devoted to your neighbor.”  Everything else has to be understood in the light of this double love.

            But what does it mean?  What does it mean to love God? What does it mean to love neighbor?  The Benedictine monastic tradition has an answer that reaches back to the beginning of the Shema.  Shema!” “Hear!” “Listen!”

            The Rule of St. Benedict in fact begins with this word.

Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them the ear of your heart.[1]

That’s a lovely metaphor, “the ear of your heart.”  Benedict goes on

This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God…

            Obedience is not our favorite word, but it is, perhaps, the fundamental vow of monastics.  For us, “obedience” tends to mean doing what you are told, and we do not always like to be told what to do.  I include myself in that we, ask any bishop I have served with.

            But to monastics, “obedience” means something different.  Obedience is fundamentally the commitment to listen.  And that is literally what the word means.  The root Latin word of the English word “obey” is “audire,” to hear, or to listen.

            For monastics this obedience is due not only to whomever is in authority over them, it is also due one another.  Benedict writes in chapter 71 of his rule:

Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the prioress or the abbot, but also to one another, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.[2]

Benedict entitles this chapter “mutual obedience.”

            I have found over twenty-one years of preparing couples for marriage that the most important skill I need to check on and help with is listening.  Virtually all of these couples thought as they were preparing for “the big day” that their love would last for ever.  It will not, I tell them, if you do not very intentionally listen to each other.

            Listening, as Benedict and Jesus have shown us, is a fundamental building block of love, which is what I think Benedict would say mutual obedience is.  Mutual obedience is love.

            We are entering a few weeks of listening, and I hope that in doing so, our love for one another will increase.  Members of the Vestry are visiting members of the parish.  Their primary purpose is to listen. They will have questions, but ultimately even they are not all that important.  They are there to listen.

            Now all of us have trouble listening, especially in this day and age when we are surrounded by noise and stimulation and hurrying.  To listen you have to be quiet, you have to be focused, and you have to be patient.  All these Vestry members will not get listening right all the time.  Feel free gently to coax them back on the path.

            We are also entering a conversation about worship. There will be sessions next weekend and again on November 13.  We are going to exercise the discipline of listening in those sessions.  We are going to practice what Benedict calls mutual obedience.

            It may very well be that both in the Vestry visits and our Worship Conversations, that some hard things will need to be said.  That’s perfectly fine.  We cannot claim that we have re-established Eden here at 17 South Fitzhugh Street.  But as there is an obedience in listening there is also an obedience in telling.  We must remember that we are speaking to the ear of someone’s heart.  I can disagree with something that is going on. I can even be downright unhappy about.  But I need to voice that disagreement in a way that can be heard, which means I don’t get to set aside compassion just because I am unhappy.

            Here's the starting point:  We all love God. We have different ways of expressing it, although our common way is this Eucharist.  I believe we all love this community as well, and want what is best for it.  Let us over the next month listen to one another, let us be mutually obedient to one another, let us love one another, as we are loved by our good God.

[1] From the translation of Sister Joan Chittester, O.S.B. in The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages (Crossroad, 1992), p. 19.
[2] Ibid., p. 176.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Carpe diem octavum

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Philippians 3:4b-14

            Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of our ministry together. Today I begin my eighth year as your rector.
            As I was thinking about this particular anniversary it came to me that this is a particularly important one.  In the Bible, seven is an important number, beginning with the seven days of creation.  After that almost any time the number seven appears in the Bible something about God’s continuing creativity is going on.  God is doing something in order that something new or astonishing can happen.

            Some examples:  In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are seven days to the feast of Passover, and the Year of Jubilee—the forgiveness of debts and return of land—is seven times seven years.  In the New Testament, seven basketfuls of food are gathered after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the first deacons number seven, and the Book of Revelation is full of sevens.

            As Christianity develops, there are seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, and seven joys and sorrows of Mary.

            More important to me is not so much these sevens, but what happens next: eight.  Eight is not an important biblical number, except in that Jewish males are circumcised on the eighth day of their birth.

            But the number eight does come up in the writings of several of the early church fathers.  Christian worship—the celebration of the Eucharist—gradually moves from Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the seventh day, to Sunday, the day of the resurrection, or, as it came to be called, the Lord’s Day.

            Sunday is the first day of the week, of course, but that is not what these early writers called it.  They called the Lord’s Day, “the Eighth Day.”  They said, for one, that the first day was the day of creation. The eighth day was the day of the new creation.  The eighth day was when things really began. The eighth day, if you will, was the first day of the rest of your life.

            Think of it in terms of circumcision on the eighth day. A Jewish male is not given a name until that day (we call the remembrance of Jesus’ circumcision, “Holy Name Day”).  On the eighth day, a Jewish male’s identity is sealed, both as a Jew and as an individual.

            OK, so this fits into some thinking I have long had.  For the last thirty years, the average length of service for a rector has gradually been decreasing.  It is now a little under seven years.  I was in my first parish twice that long and I have become an advocate (with many others) for the return of longer tenures, perhaps not the 40+ years of Dr. Winnie at St. Luke’s, but certainly more than seven years.

            I think it takes seven years for a priest and congregation to really come to know each other well, to trust and love each other, establish a corporate identity, and truly be ready to take on some hard stuff.

            If I am right, then we are at that place.  In some ways we are now ready to do the work we are being called to do.

            Which is not to say that we have not been working hard together. We have.  But really tackling the hard stuff, messing with the potential of a real reshaping of this parish for the future?  We’ve talked about it; we’ve glimpsed it; we’ve done some good preliminary work, but we have a long way to go.

            So I am here to say to you today, let us seize the eighth day.  Carpe diem octavum!

            Or, in the words of Paul this morning from Philippians, in my paraphrase, “Let us press on to make the power of the resurrection our own, because we live in the confidence of who we are, brought together and sealed in relationship by Christ himself.”

            Or, in the words of an old folk song that became an anthem of the civil rights movement, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”

            Carpe diem octavum!  Let us seize the eighth day! Let us press on! Keep your eyes on the prize!

            After seven years I still cannot tell you exactly where we are going. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the last seven years trying to figure that out, but I have pretty much decided that is not my job.  That is something we must discern together, with the confidence that God is our companion.

            There are four things right now of which I am sure.

            First of all, I am sure that our mission statement holds true as a statement of who we are and what our values are.

Together, as people of God, in companionship with Jesus, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be…A healing place for souls…A school for justice…And a welcome table for all.

            Second, I remain convinced that the way we express these values together is in sacrificial acts of hospitality, generosity, and compassion.  Hospitality is still Job One.  And what is another word for “hospitality? Justice.

            Those two things are work we have done and must continue to do.  Now here are three things for the eighth day. 

            First, I am going to get personally involved with children and youth ministry here.  I want to play a more active role in the spiritual lives of our young people.  I will need help and I ask you to ask yourself, how can I help make this a better place for our children and youth?  Let me know the answer!  My first step: I have invited young person in sixth grade or up to supper at my house for some fun, getting to know each other and dreaming.

            Second, I am going to convene a conversation about our worship. It is time to do some evaluation and to ponder ideas of what works and what doesn’t work with young people (here I’m talking twenty and thirty somethings) in other settings.  I hope as part of this conversation we will talk about this space and the challenges it brings us.  I  will be producing a resource for the conversation which will be in your hands by October 16th, and which will include dates and times for the conversation—there will probably be several opportunities to try to catch as many people as possible.

            Third, your Stewardship Committee and Vestry have decided to do an “Every Member Visit” as part of our stewardship emphasis this fall.  Each of you will be offered a visit by a Vestry member and a partner.  The primary purpose of the visit is relationship building, and giving each member of the congregation an opportunity to have a “one on one” conversation with a member of the Vestry. 

            We hope those conversations will be hopeful ones.  “How do we continue to move into a thriving future?”  The conversation will not be primarily about money unless you want it to be.  You will be given a pledge card, and you will be invited by the Vestry member to join him or her in sacrificial generosity to the parish.  You will not be asked to hold out your arm for a proper twisting.

            As we have begun to plan for this Every Member Visit, and as I worked on this sermon this week, I found myself renewing the excitement with which I came here seven years ago.  I opened my first sermon to you from 2004. It wasn’t half bad!  Here’s the last sentence:

In all that we do in the months and years ahead, let us remember Jesus Christ raised from the dead, let us give thanks to God for God is good, and let us build, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a community of love and hope which is good news to and for the world.

            I think we have been doing that, with fits and starts, joys and sorrows, good decisions and bad ones, the arrival of some very fine people and the departure of others.  We have not been perfect, but we have, for the most part, been faithful.

            A thriving community of love and hope still lies in our vision.  In seven years we have built a relationship that is strong. Now let us seize the eighth day, the day of new creation, new identity and renewed purpose. Let us press on and keep our eyes on the prize!  Carpe diem octavum!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Bishop on the Firing Line

Bishop Walter Righter died yesterday at the age of 87.  He was best known for having been accused of heresy in 1995 by ten other bishops for having knowingly ordained a non-celibate gay man, Barry Stopfel, in the Diocese of Newark where he was serving as Assistant Bishop.  Walter liked to quote former Presiding Bishop John Hines, "A bishop's job is to keep his church family on the firing line of the world's most desperate needs and to learn to accept the exquisite penalty of such an exposed position."  When his moment came, Walter stood on that line and accepted the penalty.

Walter was a kind, grandfatherly-type of man who was also tough as nails.  He had been Bishop of Iowa for many years (1972-1988) before he went to assist in Newark.  I didn't know him then, but I suspect he was a natural in that mid-western, rural setting.  There was nothing pretentious about Walter.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited the Diocese of Iowa in 1981, and Walter managed to convince him to pick up a piglet and pretend to give it a kiss.

Walter's trial was a watershed moment for the church. Conservatives were frustrated that they had not been able to get General Convention to stop the ordination of openly lesbian and gay people, so they decided to turn to the seldom used ecclesiastical court system.  The previous charge of heresy against a bishop had been made in 1923.  The court that convened ruled that there was no basis for a charge, that the "core doctrine" of the church was not in question, and so a trial never actually happened.  The hearing in Wilmington, Delaware in 1996 was a dramatic moment, however.  I was privileged to be present.  Interestingly enough, it was the first time I met Bishop Jack McKelvey, then the new Bishop Suffragan of Newark, and Walter's chaplain for the trial.

To me, Walter was the epitome of the change that occurred in the Episcopal Church in the 1980's and 1990's. He was no trained theologian or biblical scholar (which is not to say he wasn't a very smart and shrewd man).  He was no new-fangled, elitist liberal who was trying to make over the church into his own image.  He was just an honest, everyday Christian and Episcopalian, who loved serving Jesus.  And in that service he learned that inclusion trumps exclusion every time.  He knew love and faith and hope when he saw it, and could not deny it based on a couple verses of scripture.

I loved Walter Righter and I am proud that John and I counted him and his faithful wife Nancy as friends.  Rest in peace and rise in glory, Walter. Enjoy the feast at the welcome table.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Certainty is Still Killing Us

Sermon preached on September 11, 2011 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene. A shorter version of the sermon was preached at Christ Church, Rochester at Evensong on September 10.

One of the things I did when I was on vacation in August was clean out my files at home. Thirty years of accumulated paper. Frightening. But I found some old jewels, of course, which was worth the time.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1986, I went to a conference at Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina. It was called “Convivencia,” a Spanish word meaning “co-existence.” Its sub-title was “Learning to Think Globally and Act Locally.” I went mostly because Verna Dozier was going to be there and it was there, in fact, that I began to be gifted with her friendship.

I don’t remember much about the conference, but in my old file on it was an article we had been given to read that had been published earlier that year. Its title was “Alternative to Terrorism: Siding with the World’s Poor.”

I sat on my office floor and stared at that article for the longest time. We knew about terrorism in 1986. It didn’t just fly out of the sky in 2001. Or blast its way onto the scene in 1998 with the embassy bombings in Africa. I know that shouldn’t amaze me, but it does. It’s like in my mind—and probably in some of yours—the word “terrorism” had never been uttered before September 11, 2001.

In fact, the article begins,

It is astonishing how quickly we’ve begun to accept terrorism as a permanent part of the international landscape. Astonishing because there is a fairly painless (and fairly obvious) alternative.[1]

The alternative the writer had in mind was smarter and more just foreign aid policies. It’s a well-argued piece and I think the writer was probably correct, but nobody took him up on his ideas. That’s not what I want to talk about this morning, though. I just wanted to share the revelation in that moment of discovery that there was a time before 9-11 that led up to it, and that there were alternative ways to negotiate our place in the world, alternatives that we did not take. Today I want to talk about an alternative we people of faith need to take for the future.

John suggested to me Friday that he wasn’t sure about coming to church today. He didn’t want “to re-live all that.” We still have grief and anger and anxiety to work through in this country in regards to 9-11; our work there is not done. I don’t know about for you, but for me I know what John was talking about. Remembering that day brings up emotions that are still amazingly raw. Perhaps I will never shake the horror of not knowing where my spouse was and being unable to communicate with him. All I knew was that the Pentagon was between me and where he was headed for work that day, and rumors abounded of bombs in other places in Washington, DC, including the subway on which he traveled. And I spent all day long with people in the same situation. In horror of what was happening to other people and might be happening to you Maybe you never get over that.

I am relatively sure that if Jesus were to give us advice today on how to move forward, he would say something like what we just heard him say from the cross, “Forgive them.” Or even worse, his most radical commandment of all: “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

I imagine that many of us have a reaction to those words, especially in relation to 9-11, similar to the man who asked Jesus what more he had to do to win eternal life. Jesus said, “Sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me.” We are told, “But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.” The man could not live up to Jesus’ demand that he let go of what controlled and defined his life (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-25).

My observation is that Americans are still very angry and even more anxious and, unfortunately we are taking it out mostly on each other, mostly across political divides. I am not surprised by this anxiety and anger. It isn’t just about 9-11, of course. It’s about a world that is changing faster than most people can keep up with. So many of the old certainties are disappearing. Anger and anxiety are natural in a climate like the one in which we now live, and nobody has a right to tell people they shouldn’t be angry or anxious.

But somebody has to tell them there is an alternative. There is another way. And Christians ought to be first in line doing this work. It is our charter. We do not exist for any other reason. But we have been timid. A large portion of us have capitulated to the mood altogether and are constantly reinforcing it, playing the role of civil religion. Of course, God wants America to be the most powerful nation on earth. That is God’s destiny for us. Others of us know the right answer. We can hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies,” but we also know how deeply unpopular that would be as an action plan, so we are quiet.

Our timidity has not served us well, however. The decline in the mainline Protestant denominations in the decade after 9-11 was significant. The Episcopal Church was average. Our Average Sunday Attendance declined 19% between 2000 and 2009. Remember how our churches were full in the days following 9-11? Did anyone notice? They didn’t come back.

We don’t have to be timid, however. We Christians certainly know the way out of anxiety and anger. It is forgiveness. It is reconciliation. It is the hardest work of all, “Love your enemies.”

For me the biggest single refutation of the belief that this is a Christian nation is the fact that none of our leaders is capable of saying any of these words. And yet they are the words of Jesus, and he meant them for these hard times. We don’t get a pass because 9-11 was so horrific. Reconciliation must be the work we do in response. Vengeance is not an option for Christian people.

I believe that with all my heart, but, I confess, I could be wrong. And I say that because if we are called to fight an enemy in order for this reconciliation to happen, it is this: certainty. The enemy is certainty. Now that may sound like a very strange thing for a religious leader to say, but I will say it. The enemy is certainty. Faith and certainty are not the same thing, in fact, they are really opposites if you think about it. Faith always entails risk. Faith always encompasses mystery that remains stubbornly unresolved.

In my office cleaning I also ran across an article I had torn out of a Newsweek, dated May 23, 2005. It was an opinion piece by George Will. Now I’m pretty sure I have never quoted George Will in a sermon, even though he is a fellow Episcopalian. But this was an extraordinary piece of writing. It was entitled, “The Oddness of Everything.” Here is how he ends the piece:

The greatest threat to civility—and ultimately to civilization—is an excess of certitude. The world is much menaced just now by people who think that the world and their duties in it are clear and simple. They are certain that they know what—who—created the universe and what this creator wants them to do to make our little speck in the universe perfect, even if extreme measures—even violence—are required.

America is currently awash in an unpleasant surplus of clanging, clashing certitudes. That is why there is a rhetorical bitterness absurdly disproportionate to our real differences. It has been well said that the spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure you are right. One way to immunize ourselves against misplaced certitude is to contemplate—even to savor—the unfathomable strangeness of everything, including ourselves.

We people of faith know what to do—with no chip of certitude on our shoulder, we are called to love, forgive and reconcile. It’s time we were about that work in as loud a way as possible.

And who knows. If we start being who we really are and doing what we are really called to do we might experience the paradox of, yes, being very unpopular, but also being incredibly attractive.

[1] From an article printed in a long defunct newsletter called New Options, the editor of which was Mark Satin, who presumably is the author of the piece.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Episcopal Rochester Urban Ministry 9/11 Remembrance

Living with War And God's Dream of Peace
 9/11 Vigil Vesper Service

All are welcome to join in solemn observance of the 10th anniversary of the violence of September 11, 2001.

Saturday, September 10th at 6 p.m.

Christ Episcopal Church
141 East Avenue, Rochester

Speakers: The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene and Ms. Fatima Bawany, Islamic Center of Rochester.

"Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you." 2 Corinthians: 13:11

Friday, August 26, 2011

And I mean to be one too

On Wednesday evening Dr. Pamela Chinnis died. I fear that many Episcopalians do not know who she is, which is a tragedy. She was one of the great shapers of the Episcopal Church in the late 20th century.

Pam was the first woman elected as President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. She served the Conventions of 1991, 1994 and 1997. This may seem like not a very big accomplishment in the 1990's, but remember that women were not seated as deputies to General Convention until 1967. That means six Conventions later, one of them is elected President (she was elected at the end of the Convention in 1988). She had served as Vice-president of the House in 1985 and 1988.

In the late 1960's, Pam and others emerged as strong voices promoting the ordination of women. Several of these came out of the Diocese of Washington, where Pam was a member of the Church of the Epiphany (To prove it's a small church, her rector of many years was Edgar Romig, who was best-buddy to John Harmon in World War II. Edgar's brother, David, was pastor of Downtown Presbyterian for many years). I was fortunate to know many of these women: besides Pam, Verna Dozier, and Sally Buckley (there were others--my apologies for not remembering names well this morning). Pam was President of the Episcopal Church Women in 1976 when the ordination vote occurred and insured that organization's strong support.

To say Pam was a faithful Christian and Episcopalian is to make a vast understatement. She was gracious beyond the telling, but she also had a backbone of steel. She was supportive of lesbian and gay people in the church long before that was popular, and her commitment to our full inclusion never wavered. She was extraordinarily well thought of among African-American Episcopalians and was one of the primary encouragers of the House of Bishops to do its work on racism that resulted in the Pastoral Letter of 1994, "The Sin of Racism."

I submit that when the history is properly told on the late 20th century Episcopal Church, which may take yet another twenty years or so, Pam Chinnis will be found to have been one of the guiding lights, equal to any bishop or other ordained person who might be named, including her beloved friend and colleague, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning (with whom she is pictured above). I pray that the remembrance of her life and deeds will not fade away, so that she may be for generations to come one of whom it is said and sung, "They were all of them saints of God--and I mean, God helping, to be one to."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Faithful Servant, Faithful Friend

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Gilliatt died Tuesday, August 16 at the age of 67. She was Associate Professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she had taught since at least 1984. She was also a faithful servant to the church and a faithful colleague and friend to me and to many, many others.

I served with Cynthia on the Board of Integrity USA 2000-2003, although I had known her many years before then. She was a faithful priest and baptized Christian who happened to be a lesbian when it was a very difficult time in the Diocese of Virginia (much less the larger church) to be so. She was always an activist, but always loyal. I believe in as much as she encouraged that paradoxical spirit in others, the Diocese of Virginia has been able to move remarkably far forward. As one who has always served in dioceses where it was relatively easy to be openly gay, she is one of my heroes.

Cynthia had a wonderful wit and she loved golf just a little less than she loved Jesus. She will be missed. When the history of the inclusion of lgbt people in the Episcopal Church is written, her name should be written in gold.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Some Facts & Thoughts About Marriage

Some Facts and Thoughts about Marriage

The Very Rev. Michael W. Hopkins July 17, 2011 A Work in Progress

What is the Biblical Witness?

  • Male/Female pairings in contract/covenant are certainly supported by both Testaments, although the norm is multiple wives, which is never clearly disallowed (except for bishops!).
  • Prohibition of adultery one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:14). Men could divorce a wife for any reason by the time of Jesus. Women could not initiate divorce. Jesus forbids divorce except in cases of adultery (Mark 10:2-9) and seems to support monogamy (as most Jews had done by his time).
  • Wedding imagery has some importance in the New Testament: the Wedding at Cana as the setting for Jesus’ first miracle (John 2), Jesus identified as the bridegroom (Matthew 25), Jesus’ words about divorce (Matthew 19), the image of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5) and the husband awaiting his bride in Revelation (19:7, 9).
  • Instructions for husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 and Colossians
What Happens at “the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage”?

  • Two people are marrying each other. The priest is primary witness of the marriage, but it is not correct to say that the priest is “marrying” the couple.
  • The priest pronounces a blessing on the marriage, which in no way is required to make the marriage valid.
  • All this is done in the context of a “normal” Liturgy of the Word and Eucharist (ideally).
  • The priest also provides a service to the state and to the couple by signing their marriage license, thus making the marriage legal. In New York State, religious leaders may preside at weddings and sign marriage licenses. There is no mechanism for their certification.

What does it mean for two people to marry each other?

  • In the church’s language they are making a covenant with one another and with God. The terms of this covenant are contained in the vows. The Prayer Book also says that there are three purposes for this covenant: Mutual joy, Help & Comfort, Procreation (Generativity).
  • The 1928 Book of Common Prayer gave no purpose for marriage in the rite, but the earliest Prayer Books cited (in order): Procreation of Children, a Remedy for sin and to avoid fornication, and mutual help and comfort.
  • I tend to talk about fidelity, mutuality and service.
  • In the language of the state, the couple is making a legal contract that accords them a series of benefits.

What are the potential obstacles to marrying two men or two women?

  • In terms of the Bible and the Church’s tradition, one has to take the stance that revelation is continuing with the lead of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Marriage rite in the Prayer Book uses male/female language and says “Christian Marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God.” (p. 422).
  • The Canons of the Church say “Holy Matrimony is a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman” [I.18.2(b)].
  • A resolution of the 2009 General Convention, however, says, “That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church.”
  • The Prayer Book also says “For special days of fasting or thanksgiving, appointed by civil or Church authority, and for other special occasions for which no service or prayer has been provided in this Book, the bishop may set forth such forms as are fitting to the occasion” (p. 13).
  • A rite for the Blessing of Same-sex Unions will be considered by the 2012 General Convention. This is being prepared by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. Their work will have no bearing, however, on the definition of marriage.

What are some positive reasons for the church to marry couples of the same-sex?

  • The Episcopal Church has been on a forty year long journey with lesbian and gay people, who most people recognize, have always been members of the Church. In particular, we have been witness to their relationships and can testify that they are marriages in every sense of the word except for their common gender.
  • Christian response to outsiders in the early life of the church are instructive. The Ethiopian Eunuch asks, “What is there to prevent me from being Baptized?” (Acts 8:26-40) Peter accepts Cornelius, a Gentile, as a full member of the faith. “Who was I to hinder God?” (Acts 10 & 11).
  • We have come to believe that the difference between homosexual and heterosexual is not a difference between “unnatural and natural” or “sinful and holy” or “dysfunctional and normal.” The distinction is much more like the distinctions made by Paul in Galatians 3:27-28. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are capable of holiness in just the same way that heterosexual people are.

Do we believe marriage is a sacrament?

  • Marriage is “another sacramental rite.” In our tradition it is proper to call only Baptism and the Eucharist “sacraments.” Marriage as a “sacramental rite” flows primarily out of the vocational aspect of Baptism.

What is required of the Clergy concerning Marriage?

  • First of all, the Canons make it clear that no clergyperson is bound to preside at any marriage (I.18.4).
  • Criteria must be met: one member of the couple must be baptized, there be no coercion, that both parties may legally be married and understand marriage to be lifelong (a “Declaration of Intent” must be signed to this end).
  • Pre-marital counseling must be done.
  • At least thirty days must pass.
  • There must be two witnesses.

What about divorce?

  • The Canons say “When marital unity is imperiled by dissension, it shall be the duty, when possible, of either or both parties, before taking legal action, to lay the matter before a Member of the Clergy; and it shall be the duty of such member of the Clergy to act first to protect and promote the physical and emotional safety of those involved, and only then, if it be possible, to labor that the parties may be reconciled.” (I.19.1)
  • Re-marriage is allowed when there has been a legal annulment or divorce and the Bishop has passed judgment on the marital status as well. Nearly all second marriages are granted no matter what the cause of the divorce. Written evidence of annulment or divorce must be obtained.

What is going on culturally in a marriage?

Ah, now there’s the question!