Friday, December 12, 2014

Finding Jesus in the Nearest and Furthest

Dear People of Christ Church,
Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a peace vigil at Medford City Hall in commemoration of the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook Shootings. It was organized by an interfaith group and spearheaded by Grace Church, where my husband is the rector. The vigil was held in the city council chambers, with a long row of empty seats at the head of the room with pictures of each of those killed. For more than ten minutes, children (mostly from Grace Church—kids I know) each took the mic one by one and read out the names of those who had been killed as someone at the lectern shared something about them—one was an avid soccer player, another loved horseback riding, one had moved to Newtown just two months earlier. My son Isaiah (7) took two names, anxiously awaiting his turn and trying to pronounce each syllable carefully.

80-100 of us were gathered—some kids, some parishioners from Grace and other congregations—and I’m sure that at some point in the evening we all teared up at least once. The apparent randomness of the violence—looking at those smiling faces, truly, it could have been one of my own children. I remember where I was when I heard about the shooting—I was in a van in Tanzania, on a pilgrimage/mission trip with Bishop Shaw and several other clergy and lay people from the diocese. Tom got a text from the diocese letting him know what happened, and we all prayed for a few minutes on the way. At that time, it seemed like there would be real energy for reform—that we would not permit our country to be a place where such things happened. And yet, and yet, one study lists 95 school shootings in the last two years (including both college and K-12 schools). That’s once a week. None has been “as bad” as Sandy Hook, but each one is too many.

Yesterday among all the dead, we prayed for Nancy Lanza, too. I imagine her heartbreak, too, in that moment before she was killed that she realized what was happening, remembered when her son was 6 or 7, the same age as those he killed. And of course the violence of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland were not far away. Sandy Hook six year old Noah Pozner could have been my son. Eric Garner could have been my father.

I heard a wonderful quote from Dorothy Day recently, which I can’t lay hands on to attribute exactly, but it’s something to the effect that we are called to love those in need as though they were Jesus. Not because they ought to act like Jesus, but simply because they are Jesus. That’s the trick—to see divinity in places that are foreign to us, to be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to intervene in the gaps between us.

I think some of what seems so hard about seeing Jesus in those who differ from us is that we need God’s grace to do it—we fool ourselves too often that we can do everything on our own, but in truth it’s more complicated than that. We need God’s grace all the time—to find Jesus in the nearest and the furthest.

As always, I’m short on answers and long on meandering questions. Where did you see Jesus this week? In those who are far or those who are near? In both? In neither? As our kids and I talked about on Sunday, what are you doing to prepare a way for Jesus this Christmas?

Blessings,
Sara+

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent Waiting for (Truly) All Lives to Matter

Dear People of Christ Church,
As I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday, this week I continue to feel very “Adventy”—longing, hoping for the restoration of all things in Christ. Our reading from Isaiah on Sunday begged for the intervention of God—“Oh, that you would tear down the heavens and come down!”—the prophet speaks for a people lamenting that even their most righteous deeds are not enough.

There are no easy answers. It’s easy to say “Don’t be racist,” but harder to change the fact that our society still struggles with the legacy of years of inequality and injustice, structures of poverty and prejudice that entrap generation after generation. Yesterday, again, another grand jury chose not to indict another police officer for killing an unarmed black man. Eric Garner’s death was ruled as a homicide, and still, no indictment. As Garner said he couldn’t breathe, did the man choking him realize he was taking a life with his own hands? That one of God’s own beloved children was dying? Did he realize his own belovedness at the time? Did he remember he was created for more than fear?

The reason these grand jury cases are so troubling is that the message is that there is no chance—no chance—to ask if something illegal happened. The job of a grand jury is not to decide whether someone is guilty or innocent; its job is to decide whether there’s a question. The protest phrase “Black Lives Matter” is not to contradict the sentiment that all lives matter; it’s to contradict the idea that Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s (and so many others’) lives don’t. And that’s the message being sent here. In his testimony Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as looking like “a demon.” Wilson was afraid and felt threatened, but this comment exposes the attitude that the black man in front of Wilson did not seem human. That’s not a reasoned, personal decision based on evidence; that’s a response absorbed by living in a world in which certain lives may not quite be worthy. It’s sin, personal as well as communal.

This goes far beyond the question of police training or practice. As I said on Sunday when we dedicated altar linens in Jim Hewitt’s memory, there are great people who are police officers. And it’s not a zero sum—for one doesn’t mean against another. This is about all of us. When we don’t talk about race and racism, that’s on all of us. When we pretend that everyone gets a fair chance in America, that’s on all of us. When we don’t see our brothers and sisters of all races, economic circumstances, and nationalities as worthy of protection—that’s on all of us. We grow up in a society torn by racism—that’s not our choice. But it is our choice to acknowledge racism and its impact on us—or not.

In my sermon on Sunday I talked about waiting for Jesus. Waiting for reconciliation, waiting for justice. This Advent waiting isn’t passive—it’s the kind of waiting, Mark Allen Powell says, that people in love do. Edge of your seat, heart in your mouth, waiting, longing for the one you love to come. That’s the waiting we’re called to in Advent—to wait for Christ as though we could see him coming already. And this waiting for the one we love is about loving those Jesus loves. The imprisoned, the imperfect, the riotous, the weeping. It’s love in action, love in protest, love in reality. It’s love that has the power of God to confront injustice, to know that all of us are created by one God who loves us, a God who will accompany us in difficult conversation and forgive us when we fail.

Blessings,
Sara+

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Wondering what you can do to remember that all lives matter? Check out the Enough is Enough Rally planned at Boston Common tonight at 7pm for the Garner family; stop by the Immigrant Experience potluck that WATCH is hosting at 6:30 (at First Parish); give for gift cards for GLBT teens for our Christmas Outreach. Next week, think about joining our bishop and diocese at the vigil for an end to gun violence on the anniversary of the Newtown School Shooting. There is far to go, and much love to give.

For some fascinating research on the science of prejudice, see this essay on Bill Moyers; for an opportunity to explore your own biases, take the “Implicit Association” Test (there are quizzes both for gender and race).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Thanksgiving Joy and Sorrow

Dear People of Christ Church,
Whenever I send out the e-crier during Thanksgiving week, I always share the litany from the prayer book for thanksgiving—a very theological idea for a secular holiday. This year, though, in addition to my gratitude for my life and our life together in this parish, I’m also carrying a heaviness of heart for our country, for the family of Michael Brown, and for all of the conflict, sorrow, and oppression that we are all enmeshed in in twenty first century America. There are so many wise people analyzing and speaking on this, so I won’t add to the sound waves other than to invite you to prayer and to remind us of our faith in a God who “makes all things new,” who also needs our hands and voices to make justice in the world. Every life, of every person of every color, matters. For an excellent reflection, see this from Bishop of Washington Marianne Budde and Dean Gary Hall of the National Cathedral. Our readings for the first Sunday are about keeping awake; we need to be awake not just to where Jesus is coming, but where we need to bring him.

On a very different note, but yet another question of life and death, I also want to pass on resources for conversations about end of life care. Every year, our own Rob Atwood, a social worker for hospice care and I lead a conversation about planning for the end of life. What kind of medical interventions do you think you want? Who is authorized to make those decisions for you? What hymns shall we sing at your funeral? Answering as many of these questions in advance as possible is one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones. The guide Rob and I put together is here.

Some other resources:

MOLST Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment is a Massachusetts state document that presents clear and concise summaries of choices that are made at the end of life; this is filled out by a patient in cooperation with their doctor

A 2013 WBUR story on home death care has fabulous information. One of the people they interview likens it to the choice for a home birth as not right for everyone, but still a right that everyone has.

The Conversation Project was founded by journalist Ellen Goodman and has locals like Liz Walker and Donald Berwick among their advising team, has great conversation starters and a “starter kit” you can download to get yourself thinking about what you want for the end of your life.

Finally, the Litany for Thanksgiving…
Let us give thanks to God for all the gifts so freely bestowed upon us.
For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea,
We thank you, God.
For all that is gracious in the lives of your people, revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, God.
For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,
We thank you, God.
For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, God.
For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, God.
For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,
We thank you, God.
For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,
We thank you, God.
For the communion of saints, in all times and places,
We thank you, God.
Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and promises given to us in Christ Jesus our God;
To Christ be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.

Blessings,
Sara+

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+