Thursday, August 21, 2014

Racism, healing, and providence in the real world

Dear People of Christ Church,
On Sunday in my sermon, I was wrestling with the idea of God’s providence—God has a redemptive plan and will give us what we need—and the idea of our freedom, a crucial aspect of the gift of human life.  The idea of God’s will sometimes can seem like it conflicts with our will.  This came up in the context of the story of Joseph, forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery, as he ascends to the heights of power and ultimately saves their lives when famine strikes. How does God allow terrible things to happen to people? If God was planning for him to be powerful and wealthy, couldn’t God have just as easily have prevented him from getting thrown into that pit in the first place?   Does the positive outcome outweigh the suffering?

So, too, with our Gospel on Sunday—Jesus behaves terribly toward a Canaanite woman looking for healing for her daughter—he calls her a dog. In response, she bests him—even the dogs get the crumbs, she snaps. BAM.  Even Jesus needs to be converted sometimes.  Was he testing her? Treating her cruelly to see how she’d behave? I don’t think so. Jesus’ encounter with her shows us that even the Son of God can be transformed, that transformation is essential, like freedom, to what it is to be human.

Jesus was transformed—he was pushed out of his previously narrow assumption of what he was called to do. Joseph was transformed—he forgave his brothers for their violence, and saw God’s hand in the world around him.  God was working there, but I reject entirely the notion that God intended the events that lead up to them. Our world is a place where God dances—but it’s not always God’s choreography from the beginning. 

I can point to all kinds of places I need to be transformed, and this week, I’m particularly aware of where our country needs that grace, too.  A study was released on Tuesday  that said that 37% of white Americans believe that the shooting and protest in Ferguson, MO raises important conversations abut race.  80% of African Americans think so. So, just for the record, let me say: The events of the last ten days raise important issues about race. Our country is an amazing experiment of seeking equality, democracy, and fairness (see my July post about patriotic humility). There is a lot that we get right. But the evidence at how we think about difference, and how people of different races are treated in the courts and in law enforcement, makes it clear to me that we’re not all there.

God’s providence means that there will be reconciliation, there will be salvation. But, like Jesus and the Cannanite woman, like Joseph and his brothers, we have to take some risks around vulnerability and truth-telling. What could we do at Christ Church to more faithfully embody God’s healing for this world? Where does God’s providence lead us in fighting racism and confronting prejudice?      

I’ll close with a prayer I found from the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska, and their anti-racism work:

God, Creator of all things, we come broken with a heart that has been torn like Jesus on the cross, the cross that draws together your children of many colors.
You know our suffering.
We ask in Jesus' name that you heal your people.
Where there has been unearned advantage because of the color of our skin,
give us courage to repent and to fight the injustice and sin of racism.
Holy God, who created all colors of people, allow us to honor your light in every soul.
Help us to see you in one another, to hear your voice in all people, and to work to end racism in our church, our communities, and the world. Amen.

Blessings, Sara+

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Church in the world: Anchored but open

Dear People of Christ Church,

Back from vacation, I'm glad to be settling back in with you, but so aware of how much changes. I was almost to Wyoming, where Jim Hewitt grew up, when I got the news that he died. I was so, so sorry to hear it. Jim was the junior warden (working with Marcia Luce as senior warden) when I began at Christ Church 9 years ago, and his unfailing sense of generosity, respect, and overall kindness covered my many errors in leadership as a relatively new priest. I remember one particularly tough call (the circumstances of which now escape me, so I assume it turned out fine) when, as senior warden, Jim looked at me with a kind of devilish glint in his eye and cheerfully declared, "Well, you're the CEO!" Which of course I wasn't, but his confidence in me made me much more brave than I felt at the time.

That's the magic of church; we are here, not because we are the same, but because we are one. Most of American culture is constructed on the assumption that you want to be with people who are like you; you watch either Rachel Maddow or Glenn Beck, and never the twain shall meet.  In church, we have the latitude to be a bit more creative.    Jim taught me that in a profound way.

Church is changing, the world is changing.  St Paul would have been incredulous at the notion that churches would own large buildings and pay their clergy to preach, teach, fundraise, and run them like non-profit organizations.   In the late nineteenth century, Frederic Fales would have been shocked that in addition to English, we also had services in Luganda (St Peter's Ugandan) and Spanish (Missionary Church of Christ) all held under the same roof, with French thrown in once in a while with Mission Maranatha's occasional rentals.  Fifty years later, Francis Webster would have thought we were crazy to let a secular organization use our east lawn for an environmental education program-you didn't have to create meadows at the turn of the century. Fifty years after that, George Ekwall, rector from 1930-1960, would think that a man on the altar guild was an April fool's joke (nevermind women instead leading the service!).

But church is a living, breathing, recreating thing. It's a thing that's dying and a thing that's being raised.  Churches aren't intended to be fortresses against the scary world outside. Instead, we're called to be as porous as we can-not to say "yes" to every whim, but to look at a broader sense of our mission and our gifts, to look around ourselves and be rooted enough to be open.  It's Episcopal Churches in St Louis holding prayer vigils for Michael Brown and for peace in the city. It's Good Shepherd, Watertown, hosting a kids' craft table at the farmer's market. At the same time as we are anchored in the eternity of God, we are also called to look around us at the world as it is now.  I'm grieving Jim but I also know that he's still part of the same holy Church as I am. He's returned to God's eternity; I just catch it like a hummingbird flitting just out of the corner of my eye.  But I know it's still there.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
(Romans 8: 38-39).

Amen, Amen.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Prayers for Listening

Dear people of Christ Church,

This week, I'm praying for the Middle East, for listening there and listening everywhere. Wednesday's Daily Office reading had the story of Jesus weeping for Jerusalem, which felt particularly poignant given the heightening of conflict that's erupted in the last week. Scripture tells the story of the people of Israel-those descended from Jacob, whom we're reading about in our Old Testament lessons this summer.  Jacob wrestling with the angel is a far distance from rockets fired into Gaza.  

As Christians, we are given a place to stand that offers us some resources. I heard a story once about someone asking Ghandi about what he thought about Christianity and he said something to the effect of "I think it's great. Christians should try it out!" The not-so-subtle critique there being that his own enacted philosophy and practice of nonviolence were more consistent with the teaching of Jesus than those who follow him. Ouch. Non violent change is slow, impractical, and expensive. But practically, it is the only thing that can actually work. Trouble is, so often in politics and global conflict it seems that violence is the only way. This is a deadly thing to be so confident about.

I heard an interview last week on my way to church on the show, On Being, about the religious founding of our country. Yes, absolutely, it was founded on Judeo Christian values-I can share that perspective with the Hobby Lobby.   The difference, though, and the founding attitude I think we need more of now (notably apart from the desire to impose our beliefs on others) is humility. Steven Waldman said that the major difference between religion in public life now is that we no longer have a sense of humility about our nation. We can get this wrong. We do get this wrong. Often! In America the Beautiful, we sing our prayer for God to "mend [America's] every flaw" because there are flaws. How are we, as a country, treating the most vulnerable? How are we coming to the aid of those in need, in our own borders and out of them, and in the boundary in between? Not very well, right now.

Along for peace in Israel and Palestine, pray, pray, pray for a sense of humility to enter our conversations. In my sermon on Sunday I was thinking about how our failure to be in relationship with those whom we differ is the source of so much conflict-if you're not in relationship, you can't listen. The Hobby Lobby isn't listening to scientific research about birth control, and the Supreme Court isn't listening to women. A border patrol agent almost by definition can't listen to the child who's just turned himself in. Listen, listen, listen.  

And pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  
...Prayer for the Human Family, BCP 815



PS: For some good witnessing to the power of presence, see how St John's Episcopal Church in McAllen, Texas, is aiding asylum seekers in partnership with Episcopal Relief and Development.  Also for a nice rendering of Earth and All Stars, which we sing this Sunday in the praise of the Lord for boiling test tubes and knowledge and truth, see here.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

We are Here! Wild Goose Festival 2014

Dear People of Christ Church,

Last week, my family and I drove 925 miles (and, again, 925 back) to the Wild Goose Festival, our second time joining other Christians and questioners for a four day festival of "justice, spirituality, and music." Thankfully this year we came out of the Cherokee National Forest with no wild tow truck stories as we did last year! I'm not sure how many hundreds of people were there, but it's kind of a pop-up Christian community of campers, speakers, and musicians, with a combination of Episcopal progressivism and evangelical Jesus-fervor. Wild Goose is a good example of how Christians of many different stripes can learn from each other.

Some of the speakers were big names, both in the Episcopal Church (music workshop with Ana Hernandez) and in the wider world, including, a rousing altar-call to social justice sermon by the Rev.William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. I also heard Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners talking about racism as America's original sin. Most of the time, though, I hung out in the "Carnival" tent. It was hosted by the Carnival de Resistance, a crew of poets, dancers, artists, and activists. Also academics: Jim Perkinson talked about American white supremacism and how living in inner city Detroit and learning from the African-American community there had saved his soul. Ched Myers, whose work I've long been interested in, talked about the Christian invitation to love our watershed, not just change our light bulbs because we ought to.

From their welcome sign:
We wish with our bodies to contradict claims that civilization has made about how necessary its gifts are to a life well lived and again to playfully produce, if not proof, some early evidence that a life of another stripe might be realistic, even necessary.

In addition to all of these great ideas and discussions, The carnival space felt liturgical. At the end of one session we wandered into, we were invited to greet each other with this: "We are here! We are here!" which would not have been out of place (maybe without the puppets and face paint) here as we pass the peace on Sunday mornings.

We are here! This is the human interaction that says, "I see you, and yes, we are here. We have been created for more than buying and selling. We have been created to see each other." We are here! We see each other! We remember! We remember, not just each other, but everyone. Poor people in Detroit whose water is getting shut off. New immigrants, whether or not they have the correct paperwork. People you disagree with. Women who have lost their right to their full health care benefits. We are all here. God made me. God made you. Before we're supposed to "witness" God's love to each other, God invites us to witness the Other in the first place, see each other at all. Jim Perkinson pointed out that the beginning of the Gospel-the beginning of the Gospel, that we so often remind ourselves is "good news"-is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. The cry is the beginning.

All of this raises the question: how are we seeing each other? How do we see each other here at Christ Church, as well as those not within our doors? How do I live out these values in my comparatively comfortable life? What was great about the Carnival tent was the shimmering, holy joy of finding a way to live differently: the bean bag toss game "Cleanse the Temple" to remind us of Jesus' invitation to faith without commerce, the puppets, the parades, the anti-clock tower that asks, "Do you have time or does time have you?"

I imagine-I hope!-I will spend some more time thinking about this. One of the talks I went to was called "Slow Church,"   about how very, very long it takes to establish yourself in a community and to listen to what the community needs, to respond authentically to those who are there and where God might be leading not necessarily with more programs, but with more attention. As we finish our ninth year together rand enter the tenth, I am grateful for all of you traveling together with our little carnival!


(For a longer reflection on this, and to see pictures and links to all the speakers, look at my post on my own blog.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Holy Ordinary

Dear People of Christ Church,

This Sunday, we continue our long sojourn in what the church year calls "ordinary time." Get used to the color green-you'll be seeing a lot of it. We don't call it ordinary time in the bulletin-instead we count Sundays after Pentecost (also: "ordinary"=counted after Pentecost, not just plain). Sunday, after Sunday, after Sunday, all the way to Advent. We mix it up in our liturgy somewhat-we switch the service music (the fixed parts we sing every Sunday, like the opening hymn of praise, the Sanctus, Holy, Holy, Holy, and the short piece of music we sing at the breaking of bread at communion) in the fall, for a bit of variety-but otherwise what you see this Sunday is what you'll get. 

For the last two baptism Sundays, I've made the same comment about how all major Christian holidays, from Christmas to Pentecost, are a story of God coming close to us. The church year starts with Advent, with our preparing for the birth of Christ. We continue with Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. In each of these, there is an aspect of God's overture to come near; to be born with us, to be in the desert with us, to die with us, to overcome death with us.  The Sundays of Pentecost don't quite have that magic. If the actual feast of Pentecost-that rush of wind and riot of language-is the romantic union of a soul with its maker, then these days of Pentecost are the next day, when the cat pees on your meditation cushion and you forgot to get vegetables for dinner.  You know in your mind that God is no less present at those times, but wouldn't it be nice to have a little of that Easter magic again. You might even settle for Epiphany.

Last week I went to an interfaith Buddhist celebration and was reminded, again, of how I become a better Christian when I engage with those of other faiths.   I spent half my senior year of college in India and spent a little time at a Hindu ashram when I was there, and remembered the amazing discipline of Eastern monasticism.  Just the visual image of the monastic robe and bowl raises the question-how am I being faithful, day after long day, Sunday after green Sunday? It's easy to believe in God in the magic of Christmas. It's even pretty easy, (if not always pleasant) to believe during Lent, when we confess our sins and try to amend our lives. Easter?  Piece of cake! But in July?  In mid-October?  Have you every wished someone a happy nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost? 

This is not a scolding go-to-church-over-the-summer message.  The Gospel is sweet and joyful news, not sour and condemning. We heard on Sunday how God created us and all of creation and named it good, and God rested. We need to rest, too. But what I wonder about the invitation that the Buddhists I met last week seem to honor so well is that there's an ease in the discipline of their faith. That doesn't mean it's easy, but that there's some sweet spot of vocation where who they are meets what they're doing.  I wrote about vocation in this space last week-and I think something there is the invitation of these neverending green Sundays. God doesn't always have to meet us in flashy explosive moments, and we don't have to try so very, very hard all the time either.

Instead of inviting you, readers, into some big new adventure or challenge, for a change, this week my question for you is this: what's easy right now? What does that joy tell you about God's desire for your life and where you're headed? 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Vocations of Gladness: Ten Years In

Dear People of Christ Church,

This week, I've been thinking about vocation, defined in such a lovely way by Frederick Buechner as "the meeting place between your deep gladness and the world's deep need." Over the weekend, I attended our diocese's ordination for the diaconate. I serve on the diocesan Commission on Ministry, the group that works with the bishop when candidates apply for ordination, so two of my advisees were getting ordained, along with Rachael Pettengill, who has worked as an intern at Grace Church, where my husband serves, and as the Protestant Chaplain at Tufts.   Even Isaiah wanted to go, since Rachael has taught his Godly Play Class at Grace. 

It was a big service-the church has 9 new deacons, who in January will all be ordained priest. What was especially neat was that the ordinations for our diocese were at Emmanuel Church, Boston, where I served for a year as an assistant before coming to Christ Church.  So a lot of vocations came together for me that morning, as a member of the diocese as well as mother and priest, all leading up to my ten year anniversary of my ordination (today, as a matter of fact).

Processing in to the church, I remembered the feeling of being so new to the work of the church. Ten years ago, I'd just moved to Boston, had only been married for less than two years, and had no children. Though I loved the way living in New York City had made me feel like I was part of something bigger, I didn't miss the low level of stress that came with Manhattan's constant buzz or the way my very traditional seminary made me feel like such a misfit. Now, I came into that space having launched into a wonderful and strong ministry with you at Christ Church. I walked with my son, whom I couldn't have imagined at that time. I've recovered from seminary-pretty much!-and I have been blessed beyond imagining in this work.  

Emmanuel Church is cavernous-you practically need binoculars to see the altar from the back. Entering in, you're engulfed by a sense of sacred space-on Saturday, with two bishops and 20 other priests and 9 ordinands, it was big. Entering in while your 7 year old walks at your side and you remember how it felt the first time you entered a church as a clergyperson, sacred space doesn't just engulf you, it slaps you in the face and punches you in the stomach at the same time, leaving you reeling and out of breath. (For another piece I wrote about priesting and mothering, in the context of church hospitality, see my blog post.)

Most often, of course, the sacred nature of our lives doesn't come quite so forcefully. The usual life of a Christian is more Road to Emmaus ("...So, I guess that was Jesus") than it is Road to Damascus ("Holy @#$,  it's Jesus!"). While we sometimes get knocked off our horses, more often you have to do the work of attentiveness and patience, watching and waiting. Sometimes you have to squint so hard to see God you close your eyes and pretend you're somewhere else. At those times, it's totally fair game to complain-the psalms are a great resource for complaint (at least 40% are legitimately categorized as lament, in which the petitioner prays for God's deliverance in anger, sadness, despair).

What is always true, though, is that vocation is in the context of the world as we know it. Your vocation is not to be found later, it's to be found where you are right now. Your vocation at this time might be preparing for something else-going to school, for example-but that doesn't make it any less than what you are called to do right now. 

How do you understand your vocation? Do you feel like you chose it, or did it choose you? Caring for a sick parent or spouse is a vocation born out of the depths of love, not always gladness. Caring for children is a vocation, but for every time you gaze lovingly on a sleeping child, there might be three nights they refuse to be still long enough to let you get any sleep at all. Just because God wants you to do it and your deepest gladness is part of the story doesn't mean that you will always feel glad  about it. 

Leaning into summer, where is God calling you? Where does your gladness meet God's love and longing for the world?


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Holy In-Between

Dear People of Christ Church,

This week, our place in the holy in-between time after Ascension continues. I spent the better part of last week's piece in this space outing myself as a potential heretic, and I suspect there will be more of that today. I felt really challenged on Sunday in our kids' sermon in trying to figure out how to teach about the Ascension; it can be 100% true even if it didn't happen exactly that way. Mostly I settled on talking with the kids about their experiences of having been left behind-we've all had times when we felt unmoored, left without our bearings and familiar supports. That's certainly how the disciples felt.  Our feelings of being left behind are not the whole story-even when the disciples felt that Jesus had abandoned them-again!-they still knew that he loved them. We have their example of being faithful even in the midst of grief. We have their example that it's not faithless to grieve in the first place.

At the same time, what came next was probably not what the disciples had in mind. Pentecost is a riot of fire and language; all the disciples hear each other speaking in different languages, and a crowd comes to hear them "speaking of God's deeds of power." The crowd is not free of dissent, however-others "sneered," and accused them of being drunk. It always makes me laugh that Paul defends them from this accusation by pointing out that it's 9:00 in the morning. No, he says, it's what the Prophet Joel said would happen-the Spirit would be poured out on everyone, and everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.

This Sunday, we're going all the way with the Holy Spirit; with, if not literal tongues of fire, some extra celebration and some extra languages to hear. Rev. Christine from our Ugandan partner church will read the Gospel in Luganda after I read it in English, and different parishioners will lend their linguistic skills from Aramaic to Haitian Creole. We'll have Steve Taddeo and friends bring the jazz and have some extra smoke from incense AND we're baptizing new baby Raven Fintzel, who's just started coming with mom Kat and dad Andrew. It's a good month for baptisms-Noah Hobin will go on the fifteenth.

As Jesus ascends it's his entry into transcendence, holy "no" to being defined by the might-makes-right-world. Death no longer has power because Jesus has confronted death and come through the tomb on the power of love.  Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to be with us, to continue his work and givce us power to share in it. I read parts of Maya Angelou's Poem, Still I Rise, at the 8:30 service last week to bring us, just for a moment, into that sense of determination and wonder. No matter what comes, whether torture or scorn, fury or abandonment, insult or injury, in Christ we are defined by the power of God's holy love. This Sunday, the power comes crashing down on our heads, thanks be to God, and alleluia!