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.


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?


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 ( 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

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.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Fall 2014 Education

Dear People of Christ Church,
Today I’m super excited about plans for fall Tuesdays for all ages—as we did last in Lent, Erin Jensen is graciously leading a program for kids concurrent with the adult program. We’re adopting the same format as worked well last Lent, with groups meeting at 6pm for everyone to eat dinner together, and then kids and adult separating from 6:40-7:30. Then we rejoin for Eucharist at 7:30 for those who want to stay, and welcome group 2, a second adult module that begins at 8pm after the service. The 8pm group will again be facilitated by Anna and Victoria, and my partner for the earlier group will be Heather Leonardo.

But what is the program? God, dirt, and love: Five Conversations about Things that Matter. Each week we’ll have a different topic and begin with readings from Scripture or other writings to begin with, and then explore what their meaning is in our own lives. The schedule, so far, is:
9/30: Spirituality + Church
10/7: Creation + Place (all ages together for the early group)
10/14: Family + Relationships
10/21: Peace + Justice
10/28: Money + Stewardship

The kids will be doing a similar program, but with some activities around the topics in addition to the Bible study. Erin Jensen will lead the program for school aged kids, and we’re hoping to offer some more nursery-like care for the younger ones.
 One of the things vestry has been working on is discerning around different opportunities for us to be in deeper community with each other—to go beyond coffee hour (great as coffee hour can be, of course). I got the idea building on last fall’s group, which read the book Free: Spending your Time and Money on What Matters Most—and was thinking about, exactly, we do build our lives around what’s most important.

How can church be a place of nourishment and grounding, rather than just another thing to compete with already-full lives of kids’ sports and work meetings? What are the places you love, the dirt that calls you and makes you want to care for creation because you love it, not just because you ought to? What makes our families and partnerships tick? What does Scripture say about the relation between God’s love and human love? How can we honestly engage in financial decision making, to share our resources in important ways but also enjoy the fruits of our labor? 

I know what my questions are—what are yours? Each group will have leaders, of course, but the content and direction of the conversation will be different for each group. See you then!


Friday, September 12, 2014

Forgiving Again

Dear People of Christ Church,
Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
77 times.

Peter, here, in the Gospel we’ll read this Sunday, thinks he is going after the gold star. He knows Jesus is a big fan of forgiveness—so, he thinks, I’ll just suggest some wild number of times to forgive, and he’ll be impressed with me.  As usual, Jesus blows him out of the water—not 7, but 77.

How many times do I have to forgive.  How many times do I have to feel the tightening in my throat, the stinging in my eyes, the sense of exposure. How many times, again and again. 13 years later, now, and probably 23, 10 years from now.

Today, the thirteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, how many times do I have to tell the story.  My first day of seminary. Living 2 ½ miles from the World Trade Center, the chapel bells ringing and ringing. How many times remember the blue of the sky, how many times grieve war without end, today as President Obama commits the US more deeply into strikes against militants in Syria and Iraq.  How many times forgive. Not just terrorists, not just politicians starting wars, not just myself, for feeling like I’m not doing enough to work for peace. How many times.  How many Saturdays will Sue and Jose and Norm and friends stand on Waltham Common keeping vigil for peace, as wars turn into other wars.

Yes. I am tired of remembering and tired of forgiving.
Forgetting, of course, is not an option. Last year in this space  I complained about the “Never Forget” slogans about 9/11/01—nobody’s forgetting that it happened.  Maybe, though, we are forgetting about the long work of mourning and forgiving, and the way that forgiveness means living differently.  Maybe we’re forgetting about that initial drive not to be defined by the attacks themselves.   My seminary classmates and I were all gallows humor in 2001—you HAVE to have another piece of pie, because otherwise “the terrorists win”—you have to go to the movies, buy some beer, finish your ten page paper— or “the terrorists win.” There were many examples.  President Bush at the time said we should go shopping—unfortunately he wasn’t kidding.

“The terrorists” is not a moral category. Violence, however, is. The “powers of evil that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (as the Baptismal Covenant puts it) is a moral category, too. And violence does win when we respond to violence with violence.  That’s the whole point of the cross—it becomes the way of life because Jesus lived, and died, in peace and love.  Only the full, self-emptying love of God can overcome death.  Difficult to translate into foreign policy, for sure, but what’s the alternative?   More death? Today President Obama said Americans never give into fear. But it is not fearless to march into another war.

The call to peace is complicated. It’s messy. The way is not always clear. In our own lives and in the world, we have to tell the story again and again. We forgive again and again. We get angry again and again. But in the labyrinthine ways of the will of God, our spirits do come closer. We can live into the power of Christ that transforms the world through love. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “hate is too great a burden to bear.”


Friday, September 5, 2014

Chasing Newness

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week, we’re back to our regular schedule at 8:30 and 10. It’s been nice to have a more relaxed pace on Sunday mornings with just one service, but I miss our 8:30—it’s quiet and contemplative and I pray so well with that shape of liturgy! We’ll bless backpacks and laptops and lunch boxes and whatever else you bring—prayers for new beginnings and new endeavors.

A lot is new, but a lot is the same. Still, there is a spiritual quality to newness. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth that whoever is in Christ is a new creation. In the book of Revelation, the fantastical vision is of a new heaven and a new earth. In Ezekiel, God promises a new heart and a new spirit. Why do we need all this newness? Aren’t things fine the way they are?

Yes, yes, and no.
Putting my son on the school bus to 2nd grade this week, I was vividly aware of how much everything changes, and fast. Next fall his sister will be on that bus with him—to kindergarten—how I became the parent of school aged children already is anyone’s guess. I have a front row seat to everything new in their lives, but there’s plenty new in my life, too, and yours, I’ll bet—new presences as well as new absences. Not all the new is shiny and compelling; sometimes it’s raw and tender. When someone we love dies, we change, too. There’s newness of tragedy, too, when we thought the world was safe and it turned out not to be. The stray bullet out of nowhere and the tumor that doesn’t shrink both bring their share of newness, a kind we’d never wish on anyone, nevermind seek for ourselves.

I wonder, too, about the newness in ourselves that we don’t notice. Our brains are primed to crave novelty—we want new stuff to buy, new stuff to look at—the pleasure-centers in our brains light up and crave that kind of transient newness again and again. We can be insatiable. But it takes more sustained attention to seek the spiritual newness that, I think, is more like what the apostle Paul and the prophet Ezekiel are talking about. What’s the newness that comes when you let go of a fear? What’s the newness that comes when you make a commitment, the newness that comes out of faithfulness over time or learning something about yourself you’d never seen? What fears have you released over the years? What anxiety over status or appearance or the judgment of others have you let go?

What is the new, really new, that you’re looking for? Something more solid than novelty, but a good and life-giving change? Let me know what you’re thinking about, and let’s talk about how we can support each other in those ventures. I’m still planning for October Tuesday education, so give me your ideas.

But still bring your STUFF that brings newness on Sunday… your new diaper bag or lunch box (daughter Adah has one with a transformer on the front with flashing lights for eyes). The gear might not change your life, but it’s still fun.


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+