Friday, November 21, 2014

To Be the Body of Christ

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week, it was a pleasure to distribute the thank you notes written on Sunday in response to Sarah Staley’s stewardship talk, which you can see here. Many of the notes were general in nature—thanks to all who make the church “go”—from altar guild to readers to building maintenance to children’s education—so even if you didn't receive a personal one in the mail, please know that it matters that you are here.

It matters—and not just because of what you do, but because being the church is a less and less common endeavor. The results of a nationwide study of Episcopal Congregations were published this month, and the news for our denomination is not great. The median Episcopal parish had 77 people in church in 2003, which then dropped to 66 in 2009, and dropped to 61 by 2013. People just don't go to church as much anymore.

Over the last ten years, the average Sunday attendance of Episcopal Churches has declined twenty-four percent. We can point to all kinds of things outside ourselves to explain why this is the case. Sports are taking over every family’s life, not just those who want to go to church. All households are impacted by the change in work expectations, where we’re all attached to our digital tethers 24 hours a day. And that’s those of us fortunate enough to be employed and to have time “off” in the first place. There’s no end to work or homework, or anxiety. To claim, then, that one ought to make it a priority to sit in a 115 year old building for an hour every Sunday—every Sunday?!?—when the rest of our lives are so chaotic sounds pretty crazy. Isn't it more compassionate just to stay home and take a nap? Can’t you pray from the couch? Is God worth praying to if God can’t find you there?

In some ways, this is the “time” version of the piece I wrote last week about how important it is to give our money to the church. Spending time and money are both ways to signal our commitment. I said last week I give money to church because church helps make me who I am. I’m fed, supported, loved by God. That’s true for time, too, but when it comes to actually showing up for church, the reverse is also true; me going to church makes the church who it is.

The church needs everyone not just to fill seats, but to be faithful to the vision God has for us, a substantial part of which is being together, bodily. One thing I was struck by in the thank-you’s was that several people thanked each other for being an inspiration to them—you are teaching each other to be faithful. When each of you show up, it makes it easier for the others to do that. For you to hear each other’s voices, to smile at each other’s kids, to laugh when the sound system malfunctions. To celebrate at baptisms and marriages, and to mourn for the dead. There are plenty of things that your church community needs you to do, but the most important thing is just for you to be. Church is on a human scale. We can enrich our community with all the blogs and facebook posts in the world, but we still need to be in the same room together.

Christ Church has been growing steadily over the last ten years—there was a big jump between 2006 and 2008 of 15%, and then from 2008 to 2013 another 11% of growth. That’s pretty fantastic…only 25% of other congregations have had similar growth. But for it to keep going, you need to keep going. You are smart, dedicated, loving and faithful. You come from all different backgrounds and live in all different kinds of households. You are the Body of Christ. Thank you.

Blessings,
Sara+

Friday, November 14, 2014

Why, Exactly, Give to Church

Dear People of Christ Church,
This past Sunday we had our first speaker as part of our stewardship series. These three Sundays of November we imagine what it would be like to be fully offer ourselves—all that we are and all that we have—to God. Maureen Fowler gave us a wonderful beginning in inviting us to think about the barriers that keep us from giving our gifts. Everyone was invited to write their responses to the talk on slips of paper throughout the pews, and we gathered them in a (confidential) offering basket to be blessed with the food for Grandma’s Pantry and our gifts of money for the work of the church.

As you all know, we haven’t distributed pledge cards yet, the idea being to first spend some time thinking and praying about what we will give. In her talk (which you can watch here), Maureen talked about how when tithing was first created, there were no 5 K races for breast cancer. There was no Land Trust or Community Day Center. There was no fundraising for mosquito nets to fight malaria or subsidizing children’s education. There are a lot of things you can give your money to. And, arguably, a la Matthew 25—when Jesus says “when you did it to the least of these you did it to me”—when you give to all of these other fantastic things, you are most certainly saying yes to that call to serve God in others.

So the question you may have asked yourself is why, exactly, giving to church is a good use of your money. The parish heating bill is $20,000. Do you really want to be part of that? As well as we’re growing at Christ Church, parishes all over the Episcopal Church are in decline. Are our pledges propping up a dying institution? Maybe you’d come closer to God staying home and praying in silence. Maybe you’d come closer to the Jesus who is in solidarity with “the least of these” going out into the world and giving to every person on every street corner who asked you to. What kind of positive investment is this, really, apart from all the spiritualized “shoulds” and “oughts?”

Like anything, your answer may not be my answer. But here’s one idea. The reason I give a ton of money to church is that I think being part of church makes me who I am. Being part of a church cultivates in me the vision to see the people on the street who ask for money. Being part of church gives me the vision to see why giving to care for God’s creation is part of practicing my faith. Being part of church helps me to be nourished in ways I didn’t even realize I was hungry. I wonder if giving to church makes it possible for you to be who you are, too.

Being part of church makes it possible for me to make a bigger impact than I could on my own. I can’t invite a yoga class for trauma survivors to meet in my living room, but REACH has organized one to meet in our parish hall every Monday for eight weeks. I don’t want to host an anger management class in my own basement, either, but here on Tuesday nights there’s one that has met for five or six years. I can’t be home every Friday morning to hand out food for seniors or diapers on Saturdays, but my parish pledge goes to that work.

I can’t celebrate the Eucharist by myself—no “Take, eat, this is my body given for you,” eucharistic as sometimes it felt when I was nursing my babies. Practically, I also give to church because when I come to hear Sarah Staley talk about holy gratitude next week, I want the heat to be on, and it falls to all of us to help make that happen. I give to church because no matter where God and I may find each other throughout the week, knowing we will meet at a place and time makes it that much more likely I can meet God in all places and times.

Blessings,
Sara+

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fully Alive, to Joy and Grief

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week, of course, I’m still reeling a little after Bishop Tom’s funeral on Saturday, which was just marvelous. You can find the text of Brother Geoffrey’s sermon here. One of the things that I have long loved about being an Anglican is that our worship is actually intended to accomplish something—at Holy Week I always talk about how we do the last week of Jesus’ life, with foot washing and prayers at the cross and celebration of the resurrection. It’s not an abstraction. The funeral on Saturday, too, did what it was supposed to do.

We laughed at stories like Tom telling a visitor to the monastery who asked about it that he was the only one wearing a cross because he was “monk of the month.” We cried when we sang “King of Glory, King of Peace,” Tom’s favorite hymn. We cried when the silence seemed to stretch forever when Brother James, who was to begin the Prayers of the People, just couldn’t speak.

We shared in the Eucharist that is the Body and Blood of Christ who unites us and in whom we find our peace, in whom, the dead are not dead and we all rise to life again. We cried—again—when the brothers sang the Song of Simeon—“ Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised/ For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see.”

And so he is set free, and so are we.
There’s a really important tension to hold when we stand in the middle of life and death. We can say that Tom is set free, along with all of those names we printed in the bulletin on Sunday for All Saints Day, and believe that he is free and sees the glory of God face to face. We hold that reality in one hand. We treasure that promise that Jesus Christ has gone before us and by the grace and miracle of God defeated the power of death. In our other hand, we hold the reality that life is a wonderful, astonishing, and precious gift. In its messiness and mud as well as in its joy and laughter, life is a gift. To welcome death as also a gift is not to diminish the importance of our course on earth—holy as the dying was, the living was holy, too.

Brother Geoffrey quoted the second century bishop Irenaeus of Lyon—“the glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Fully alive includes grief as well as joy. For now, I’m trying to take my time for both.

Blessings,
Sara+

Friday, October 24, 2014

From Fear to Trust

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week, I wanted to pass on part of our food for discussion from our Tuesday group. Heather Leonardo passed on the poem from Marilyn Sandberg for our conversation about church and spirituality.

When They Revolutionize the Cocktail Parties
Marilyn Sandberg

“Hello, what are you afraid of?”
“Death.”
“Me too.”
“When you hear a Mahler symphony?”
“No, when I wake up in the night.”
"Me too."
“Nice meeting you.”
“Same here.”

The stark simplicity of the scene is riveting; how often do we hear something earth shattering and then sweep it under the rug with polite chatter? It would, for sure, be quite a revolutionary cocktail party if we were this honest with each other.

That question, of course, brings me to church. When is church more like a cocktail party than a revolution? Is that really what God wants for us in community? In my sermon on Sunday, I was talking with you about how we are made in the image of God—that we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but that we belong to God and are invited to live from that holy knowledge. This is something that our former bishop Tom Shaw, who died last week, so exemplified. His security in his identity as rooted in God made space for others to live from that reality as well. ;His life was an example of holy living, but also holy dying; he never pretended that everything was “fine.” But even when it wasn’t “fine” in the usual sense, when he was dying and there were no more treatments, it was all still good. He lived in full view of the gift of his 69 years, often remarking how much better it had all turned out than he expected. If you didn’t see his video meditation on the end of his life, please do look for it here:
Tom talks about his gratitude and, sure, his desire to live for another 25 years, but he talks about his trust in God. One of the reflections left on the page of SSJE, Tom’s monastic community, used the expression of how we can allow fear to “melt into trust.” When do you long for your fear to “melt into trust?” What is that moment like?

On Tuesday I felt this so powerfully as we gathered for our Eucharist after our education. My kids don’t usually come, since with a 25 minute drive home it’s way past their bedtime once we’re finally done, but since it was a vestry night for their dad, they got to come along with me. During the service Adah, just turned five, was totally losing it—no matter how many times I asked her to be still, she was crawling up the pulpit and down the stairs, making faces and laughing during our quiet reflection time. I love seeing your kids enjoying themselves (even, yes, sometimes in “inappropriate” ways in church) but when I have to lead a service, it’s much less endearing when it’s my own kids I want to have under control. So I was a bit distracted and cranky, trying to extend us all some compassion. I am surely thankful for the grace extended us by the other 10 people gathered!

In any case, I had a “fear melting into trust” moment during the Eucharistic prayer. Finally understanding that it was truly not possible for Adah to control herself at 8:00 on a school night, I scooped her up and had her on my hip. I’m used to holding her, of course, but with two arms! When the time in the prayer came for the elevation of the bread and wine, of course, I shifted her over—and I’m strong, but 40lbs is a lot of pounds on one arm. Holding her, though, and holding the bread on the other hand and saying those words “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you,” I had a knock-your-socks-off moment of realization—This. Is. True. And I trusted it—trusted God, and that moment, and my parenting, and my kid and the marvelous and strange journey it is to be a parent and a priest, sometimes at the same time. And, with Tom, I give thanks.

Blessings,
Sara+

Friday, October 17, 2014

From the Margin, Against Casinos

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week, our Gospel brings up the question of "Church vs State"—Jesus is tested by the Pharisees and Herodians about whether or not to pay their taxes. Disarming the debate, he famously looks at the coin and declares that it's got Caesar's face on it, so they can give it back to Caesar. Those things that belong to God, they go to God.
I’m increasingly aware that we vote in just a few weeks, and there are some pretty important ballot initiatives on the table. The rubber of faith and our politics is about to hit the road.

It seems worth it here to mention a difference that I think is important to keep in mind when we think about politics and church. There's a difference between being partisan and political. We get into all kinds of hot water when we are partisan—supporting particular candidates or political parties—and not just because of our IRS status, which would be on the line in that case. Being political, however, is just part of what it is to be human.  Politics is all about power—who has it and who doesn't. As Christians, our task is to look for those who have less power and stand with them. This is basic "What Would Jesus Do" stuff—prostitutes and tax collectors and widows and orphans. We're on their side.   People of faith can disagree with integrity with each other on how to solve particular questions of power in society (immigration, social welfare, etc.), but advocating on the side of those on the margins just isn't up for debate.  I’m reminded of the Stephen Colbert quote—"If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it." Ouch.

In any case, there is certainly a moral dimension to all four questions, but I’m particularly concerned about the questions on earned sick time and casino gambling in Massachusetts. There is currently no job protection for those who need to miss work to care for themselves or a sick child, parent, or spouse. The ballot initiative also protects time spent attending to the effects of domestic violence on themselves or a dependent child—this is really important!

For people of faith, I think the gambling question is potentially trickier. Well, actually, it's not. But it seems like it is. When it comes to "social ill" issues, I’m usually on the harm reduction side of the equation; let’s not legislate people's bad behavior. Gambling is quite different, though—it isn't just about individual choice, it’s about how it creates a whole social climate and feeds a predatory industry. In the clear words of Doug Fisher, bishop of Western Massachusetts, "Jesus came to bring Good News to the poor. Casinos are BAD NEWS for the poor. We follow Jesus." In state after state, the promises made by gambling advocates that they create jobs are repeatedly shown to be wildly overestimated. Every quarter spent on a slot machine is one quarter not spent at a local business. It appears to be a "done deal" that Massachusetts will be the latest state to adopt casino gambling, but it's not. Every voter has the power to say that this is not in our best interest.

From a more traditionally moral standpoint, do I have a problem with gambling in itself? This is probably the moment to admit that after my family met some card playing kids at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut last week the first thing my son did when we got home was to get out his piggy bank to buy a set of poker chips like the ones he played with there. I’d make a bad Puritan. A multi-million dollar casino backed by organized crime folks, however, isn't a bunch of kids with plastic coins. Massachusetts could be the first state where the citizens repeal a deal that politicians have made in favor of gambling. Let's do it!

For the full text of the bishops' statements, see here.

Blessings,
Sara+

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Church for the World

Dear People of Christ Church,
Thanks to everyone who came out for our domestic violence month service on Monday! It was incredibly moving, and we’ll leave out our candles that were lit on Sunday. There were around 25 people there—a mix of Christ Churchers, folks connected to REACH, our partners in the event, and neighbors from around town who had never been to a service before. It’s always hard to measure the impact of things like that. I’d rather have just two people who walked away amazed and comforted than 100 people who were there but not that interested—and by that measure, it was great. For a follow up, we’re having a brown bag lunch at Christ Church next Wednesday at noon for those who want to talk more. Please see below for some other great events REACH is organizing this month!

It’s hard to measure our impact as church—I can’t remember who said it, but there’s something about how a church is the only organization that doesn't exist solely for the benefit of its members. We are called into community for the benefit of the world, and that’s quite different from calculating our worth in cost benefit analyses of dollars and our own personal positive feelings. What is at stake is the good news of God breaking into the world—and that’s much, much bigger.

The good news of God in Christ broke into the world when someone said to their pastor after the service on Monday “That woman was telling my story, too.” The good news of God in Christ breaks in when—I am not exaggerating—the heat is on on Sunday, even when the oil bill has been tremendously high, but you, dear souls, pay your pledges, so the water in the baptismal font doesn't freeze. The good news of God breaks in when someone says, “Wow, I never thought I could feel this comfortable in church. Thank you for being so welcoming.” Each one of you reading this has had a part in making that good news break into the world. When you put your last five dollars in the plate, when you came to church that one time even though you didn't feel like it—these commitments that bring us beyond ourselves are part of how God helps us show up for each other. It’s how God’s work gets done even in our little grudging lives—and how God sometimes even, ever so little, opens our hearts more and more to each other’s love.

The church has always existed to be a counter cultural organization—the powers and principalities have always said that might makes right and our importance comes from our power over others and not our faithfulness. In today’s culture, though, the culture against which the church has always tried to be “counter” is even—um—counterier. We can’t rely on a general assumption that people go to church, and therefore will set up the life of a community around that. In the name of pluralism, I’m fine with that—I don’t want to live in a world where a traditional Sunday Christian practice is upheld at the expense of other traditions. I do, though, want to be part of a church that calls us into being part of God’s mission, in offering us substantial ways to wrestle with God’s desires for our world and God’s whispering in our lives. How can Christ Church be that for you? Where does God want you to go? How can the rest of us support you in that?

Blessings,
Sara+

Friday, October 3, 2014

One of these things is not like the other one

Dear People of Christ Church,
In his letter to the Church in Rome, Paul tells the people, “weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.” This week, in preparing for two very different liturgical events, I’m mindful of how broad our task is in being the church. On the one hand, we have a children’s sermon on Sunday and blessing of the animals. In church. All your dogs and birds and snakes and lizards are welcome to come to our 10am service. We did it for the first time last year as part of the liturgy, and it was great. For those pets who might not be ready for church, photographs and stuffed animals are welcome to join in their place. Our celebration this Sunday is in observance of the feast day of St Francis, October 4. He renounced a life of wealth and power in favor of a joyful simplicity, going into the wilds outside Assisi, so full of the Gospel that he preached to the birds. It will be quite a party!

At the same time, I’m preparing for our service the next day, for domestic violence awareness month. We have several speakers coming from REACH (www.reachma.org) to share personal and practical perspectives, and our own Anna Jones will be preaching. The service will be broadly ecumenical—your Roman Catholic as well as your non-faith practicing friends will be comfortable—so please come and invite everyone. Domestic violence has been much in the news lately with the NFL players’ conduct and the recent one year anniversary of the murder of Waltham resident Jennifer Martel, but those high profile cases only highlight the reality that many struggle with every day, no matter what’s going on in the media. 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic violence. 1 in 3 women who are murdered in the US are killed by their partner. Our culture is not doing well.

It’s strange to do something so serious so close to something that’s so, frankly, frivolous, with an arguably tenuous connection to the actual ministry of a decidedly un-frivolous saint. And maybe that’s an appropriate reticence, to acknowledge that one of these things is not like the other one. At the same time, I’m watching allegations and recriminations swirl at my seminary, General Theological Seminary, the Episcopal seminary in New York. General is the seminary that tries to be the most traditional and the most historic, while cautiously being open to the world and the inclusion of women and GLBT persons (which the other “traditional” Episcopal seminaries have not). Eight faculty members announced a strike, suspending teaching and saying they couldn't work with the dean and president. The board, in response, “accepted their resignations”—though they didn't exactly intend to resign—and so the accusations continue. No classes are in session, but lawyers on all sides are getting down to work.

General Seminary was not a particularly good fit for my desires for theological education; I didn't “enjoy” my time there, though I am grateful to have had three years to live in New York City. I have some fond feelings, as I was married in the chapel (the current dean was in my class, as it happens, and organized the potluck for the reception), so am not unaffected by the conflict. I don’t think it’s a simple labor issue of betraying striking workers, but I also think the dean has some reconciling to do. Collaboration wasn’t exactly part of our curriculum. Still, a la Romans, it’s possible to hold two different notions in our hearts and minds simultaneously. I can say that General was not a good fit for me, but I still hope for its future. I can say that Kurt, my friend and the dean, made some bad decisions, but ultimately was trying to adapt to a changing world—and General Seminary, in my option, has a lot of adapting to do so I’m cautiously on board with that. Maybe ironically, he did too much work trying to adapt the seminary to a changing world and not enough work adapting himself (a full media rundown can be had at www.episcopalcafe.com).

In the meantime, as always, we pray for a lot of things. We pray for those experiencing and healing from domestic violence. We pray to have the grace and power to support them, pray that we can be part of creating a world where violence is never overlooked. We pray in thanksgiving for God’s creation and for all the furry and scaly friends that call us home. And I pray for General, too, especially for the students who need to get back to work.

Blessings,
Sara+