Friday, November 30, 2007

Pre Advent Defrag

I stopped in at Revgalsblogpals today to find that the Friday Five was about the things that we disliked about Christmas. It had more respondents that I can remember a Friday Five getting. I don’t think I will play because I don’t want to “out” myself too soon. But it sounds that the Winter Blahs have settled upon my sisters of the cloth.

I know that blah all too well. Curiously I am not in a funk this year. I think having a job after too long unemployed helps. But I think that the later change in the change of the clocks has put off the usual blues that attacks sometime during November. I am fussy now when it is dark when I go to the office and dark when I get home. But the dread is not there.

All clergy know about the November-January depression that often hits a number of parishioners. And those of us clergy who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) try to hold it together through Christmas. We have to deal with more funerals, more marriage counseling, more despondent teens and usually problems in our own families than the rest of the year combined. And this year because Easter is so early, we feel that there is no rest for the weary.

With that said, Christmas is still my favorite of the major feasts. There is a hope in Christmas that is special. It is a celebration of the Incarnation, an embracing of the goodness of human existence that I love. I am sure that this puts me in opposition to Luther who believed in the inherent evil of humanity. But Christmas, I think, points to the Original Blessing of humanity rather than Original Sin. I do not ignore the tendency towards sinfulness of humanity. One needs but try to shop on Black Friday to experience that. I am not naïve in my understanding of our existence. But there is a quality of holiness that Christ brought to human nature in the Incarnation. And Christmas and the preparations for Christmas through Advent help me to see the goodness in others despite the Christmas rush.

I do enjoy the “blue” season or “purple” preparations for the Nativity. The crèche, the changes in the service, the music, the gathering of people who have finally found their way back to church after the summer, and the anticipation that all have. Granted, many of the expectations we hold for the season do not get fulfilled, but each year they are there nonetheless.

Perhaps that is as it should be. Our faith is built on hope—the hope for a better life, the hope for a better future, the hope that the fears that we also hold will not be realized.

My sister clergy at Revgals have “dumped” their grumpiness before the beginning of Advent. It is probably a good sign. We all need to ‘defrag’ ourselves before we head into the next 5 seasons without a breath. My prayer that we can find in all of it the sustenance of Christ’s love and joy in God’s Original Blessing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Feast of Christ the King

This is the final Sunday of the Church year. Next week begins Advent. We call this the Feast of Christ the King. I have been celebrating this feast my entire life and I was surprised that the feast of Christ the King was only instituted in the mid 1920’s in the Roman Catholic Church as a way to fight the secularization of modern society and as a response to the loss of Papal lands in Europe. I expected that this feast originated in the medieval era with its emphasis on the Kingdom of
God, but this feast was the response to the failing of so many monarchies in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. Now, Episcopalians often love this feast because of their close ties with the English crown. But I find this feast difficult. But the readings help us ferret out what this feast is about. This feast is about Judgement--of Christ coming again.

The Jeremiah reading is a prophecy to remind the kings of Judah of what their responsibility was. The chosen people of God had been nomadic herders so the pattern for good leadership was that of a shepherd who cared for the people of their kingdoms like shepherds cared for their sheep. False shepherds were those kings who fleeced their flocks for their own benefit.

The Colossians reading reminds us that Christ is head of all. Paul does not call him King, but he reminds us “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”

But it is the Gospel that brings us up short. Rather than a reading about the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, or perhaps the Transfiguration, the Gospel reading is part of the passion of Jesus. It is the story of the two thieves who are crucified on either side of Jesus. This doesn’t really portray kingship at all in our minds. And it should remind us that the kingship of Christ is not the kind of kingship that we see on the pages of the tabloids these days in our history books.

The kind of kingship or dominion that Christ portrays is not the imperialistic model with which we are so familiar either through the royalty of our present generation, or the history of kingship through the medieval era. The kind of kingship that Christ portrays for us is one that turns dominion and domination principles on its ear for one important reason: The Cross.

Friday night I listened to the Rev. Dr. James Cone being interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS. I have always like Moyers' reporting. We grew up not far from one another in TX. James Cone, the leading African-American theologian who teaches at Union Seminary in NYC, also grew up in Arkansas not far from where Bill and I grew up. But James’ African-American experience of faith was quite different from Moyers or mine.

Cone described the Lynching Tree in African-American culture as having the same kind of transformational qualities as the image of the Cross did in the first century. Now that is not an image that any white person in America wants to think upon. But as I listened to Cone I began to not only understand what he was talking about, but a deeper understanding of the Cross than I have ever had. Like many Christians and I would suggest Anglicans in particular, I have a difficult time with the Cross as the symbol of my faith. I believe Lutherans have less difficulty with the theology of the Cross because of Luther’s clear understanding the transcendent nature of the Cross because much of Luther's theology centered in the Cross. But most Christians don’t have that central understanding of the Cross to know that. In many Protestant churches the cross is the sign of the resurrection, not the suffering.

Lynching, says Cone, did not come about until after the Civil War because slaves were too valuable to be killed indiscriminately. It was after the Civil War when intimidation became the name of the game that lynching became such an act of terror. If we look back to the First century, we can find that same issue giving rise to crucifixion as a way to terrorize the people in occupied lands like Judah. For many of us, the Cross has become such a symbol of love, that we have emptied the Cross of much of its meaning. It was an instrument of terror. It was a statement of failure which today has transcended its original meaning. Because of what Jesus did on that Cross makes the symbol something that transcends its original intent. No longer do we shake in our boots at the sight of the Cross as did the first century Christians. It has become for us a sign of hope, a sign of stalwart faithfulness, a sign of love—the kind of love that calls from us our best, our all. I wonder if the pipe bomb or some other terrorist device will become for future generations the symbol of God’s love for us.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” can also be translated, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your POWER.” This is NOT about dying and going to heaven. The good thief understood that the crucifixion of Jesus had to do not with him being called the “King of the Jews”, it had to do with Jesus’ POWER transcended that of Herod or Caesar. Jesus’ POWER went beyond the domination elements of the Roman Empire or all the empires since. Jesus’ power turns all systems of domination upside down---or as my friend, Pastor Carol Krause says” turns things “right-side up.”

The Cross, the Lynching Tree, even perhaps the pipe bomb remind us that Domination Systems are forces that terrorize can kill the body but not the soul. They can do damage, but they cannot separate us from the love of God.

The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that Kingship—monarchy is not about who is on top. The Feast of Christ the King tells us that our king is not the kind who lords it over us. The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that the real relationship with God is not about the kind of “power over” or systems of living together that dominate some to the advantage of others. It reminds us that Christians cannot be supportive of a nation that lords it over others. The Feast of Christ the King means that our faith calls from us a kind of image of life here on earth that says humans do not have to tyrannize others in order to be safe. So in fact, the Feast of Christ the King comes out being just the opposite that Pope Pius the Eleventh had in mind.

Pius the Eleventh, the pope that started the Christ the King feast, was a fairly reactionary pope. In the early 20th century he saw most things that were modern in his days as threats to his papacy, his control. It is ironic that this Feast of Christ the King which he instituted has become a feast in which we recognizes that Christ’s power turns all other power “right-side up.” It challenges humankind to live in harmony without the age-old system that requires class, privilege, or license. Christ’s kingdom calls for the last to be first, the smallest to grow to the greatest, the poorest to receive the kingdom and the lost to be found. Christ the King is the exaltation of one who was one of the least. The Feast of Christ the King says to us here in Sidney, today that we are chosen but not above others. We are loved but not holier than others. We are saved but not at the exclusion of others. We are blessed but cannot expect to be more blessed than others. And we have a God who calls us to live sharing what we have so that others may live as we live—free. AMEN.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Thanksgiving is not a feast day of the Church. It is a feast that was founded as a harvest festival by presidential fiat during the Washington administration in 1789. It was a time national thanksgiving to God. I doubt if we could get such a day passed in today’s anti-religious climate. It would be declared as a violation of Church and State or some such complaint. For all the religious rhetoric of the present administration, it is interesting that there is more virulent opposition to religion now that I can remember.

Thanksgiving today is more like Church-Lite. It has all the warm-fuzzies of a Christian holiday without having to go to Church, without having to be reminded of our sinfulness, without denominationalism or church-fights. What a luxury!

The original liturgies of Christianity were ones that were celebrated around the family dinner table. The Seder meal from which we derive much of the Eucharistic celebration comes from a thanksgiving meal. It was a meal that celebrated one’s gratitude to God for all one had, all one had received from God’s bounty and especially for the freedom to worship the God of their ancestors.

So the real question is which came first—the thanksgiving or the freedom to worship? And what kind of thanksgiving do we give in such secular times in which our family meal, the gathering of family and friends speak loudly of our gratitude toward a God who provides us with myriads of blessings and yet have a society in which the majority finds no reason to return thanks? We gather as families have done for millennia to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and hope for a future that is rooted in our past. We will offer gratitude even when we don’t always know whom we are thanking. We find ourselves stuffed even when we know there are so many are starving. And hopefully we will have a twinge of conscience.

It is natural to give thanks. It is part of mature human nature to recognize that we all that we have does not come from our own personal talent. At some level we know that most of what we possess is from something or someone beyond us.

Perhaps what we celebrate this Thanksgiving Day is a recognition that we are not here simply because we have evolved into a turkey and pumpkin pie drugged existence. We have evolved into those who can give thanks to the one who began this whole existence. May it be so.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Family and Church

I am presently visiting my family in Texas. It is always fun to be with them. We are not a family that I would call “tight.” But we enjoy those times when we are together. Members of the family don’t interfere in each other’s lives, and we have very different interests. But when we are together, the stories begin to flow.

Today is my mother’s 95th birthday. She is not able to serve as the matriarch any longer because dementia has set in and her ability to speak is impaired. But we will all gather to celebrate her life, have a meal, give gifts and catch up with each other.

I used to think of our family as small. But over the years we have become a blended family with second marriages, adoptions and additions that make family meals buffets rather than sit-down affairs. Mom will be able to hold her great-great-grandson this evening even though her blood will not flow through his veins, there is no less a sense of family.

My family is not especially religious. Some attend, but not regularly. They have always been respectful of my faith but our vocabularies differ. My interests don’t include sailing, horses, oil wells, children or golf. And their vocabularies don’t include words like “justification,” “salvation” or “dish-to-pass.” One faith we do have in common is Cowboy football and there is agreement all around… WE BEAT THE GIANTS!

Small parishes are like families. We gather together for important dates. Some of us are regular in our attendance others come intermittently, but we enjoy each other’s company. We come to hear the stories of our community, the stories about our faith and we share meals with each other whether it be a symbolic Eucharistic meal or pork and sauerkraut. Some of us are born and bred Lutherans, some of us come from all kinds of Christian traditions but we all know that we belong. It is the place we find a spiritual home.

We have matriarchs and patriarchs in the parish, those to whom we look or have looked for leadership. We have those who are welcoming and see to our adoption into the St. Luke’s family. We have those who are keepers of the history and those who see to it that the proper rituals are observed. We have those who are there when things go wrong and those who are ready to rejoice with us when things go right. There are those who nurture our Lutheran heritage and those who are on the edge clamoring for the new theologies that allow us to grow and stay vital.

Like families we sometimes fuss, but the important thing is that the love that has drawn us together is nurtured so that when the fussing is over, we have a community of faith to which we can return. The small parish is the community par excellence in which we can practice our Christianity—living out as best we can the teachings of Jesus. Larger parishes provide an anonymity in which one often does not have to take responsibility for one’s actions. Small congregations like St. Luke’s provide no such buffer. Like the family, there are always some personalities that clash. But this is where we learn the hard part of Christian living—how to live with those who are difficult for us and still maintain our faith. And it is also where we can learn to accept the forgiveness that is so difficult to learn.

Small congregations are more about relationships than creeds and doctrine. And while What we believe is important, it is not any More important than How we live our what we believe. If Christianity is to survive this present millennium, it is not going to survive because of What we believe. It will survive as it has for the past 2 millennia, by how we live out our relationship with God and Christ.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

All Saints--a sermon

All Saints 2007
Nov. 4,
Today we celebrate All Saints. I am thankful that I am not preaching on the day after Halloween. It is always difficult to make the jump from “goolies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night” to giving thanks for the Saints. I had always considered Saints as an important Catholic thing. Growing up in Baptist-rife Texas, I always had to defend the idea of Saints. So it was not difficult to accept a contract to write a series on various saints for the American Bible Society as a way to make a living a couple of years ago. It was also interesting to find that Lutherans had a calendar of Saints too.

Saints are those who have preceded us in life and have become a witness to us of Christ’s life for us. In the Roman Catholic Church there are all kinds of hoops that the cause for sainthood must jump through in order to become a saint. There must be miracles or other such unexplainable occurrences before sainthood may be conferred. In the Episcopal Church it takes a resolution at General Convention, and I would guess something similar is done at National Assembly of the ELCA to have someone added to the calendar. But what does it mean to memorialize Saints?

A friend at bible study this week commented that she had odd dishes of deceased members of the family that she brought out for family meals. It was like the deceased aunt was sitting at the table. It was a presence that kept her connected with those of her family who had gone on ahead.
I have had a similar sense when the name of the donor of the communion vessels is engraved on the chalice or paten. When I have been the supply pastor, I have remembered those persons I have never met but who were, or whose family was enough of a presence in the congregation and remember them in my prayers. It is the sense of being related to those who have gone before.

We remember those whose lives emulate some aspect of the faith life. I have always liked those saints that were a little less saintly than the others. Jerome, the 4th century translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin was evidently a rather fractious individual. His brothers didn’t much like living with him, but because of the seminal work he did on translation he was sainted. Saints aren’t perfect. They often aren’t even holy. They just seem to hold up for the Church some aspect of the faith life that is important.

I have met saints—I met Mother Theresa of Calcutta" .

Her presence was awesome. And while I don’t agree with everything she espoused, I cannot deny that she had the Spirit of God about her.

I have met Desmond Tutu,
the great Anglican archbishop who was leader in the South African Church at the abolishment of apartheid-- who I believe will be a saint one day. His sense of joy no matter the situation radiates. I remember Dag Hamerskjold back in the 50’s and 60’s and the kind of leadership he gave to the world in the name of peace while nurturing a deep and abiding Lutheran faith. All these people keep me connected to my faith—they are ones who lived life to the fullest while maintaining a nourishing faith in God. They did wondrous things not because they were especially blessed by God, but because they used the faculties that God had given them to serve others.

Most of the time we think of Saints as being people not like us, but what a wrong concept! My friend Judy, whom many of you met at my installation, had a boy friend when she was in seminary. Jon Daniels was a fellow seminarian who with Judy and thousands of clergy and seminarians responded to Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to stand as a non-violent witness to the brutality in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Judy and Jon decided to spend their spring semester doing voter’s registration and integrating the Episcopal Church in Selma for they knew that if all the white folk left, the bully-boy police would use the opportunity to wreck havoc on the Black community. Jonathan was murdered by a deputy sheriff while saving the life of a Black girl. It was his death that galvanized the Episcopal Church’s effort to bring an end to the discrimination against Black persons in the South. At that time, about third of the US Congress was Episcopalian and that influence brought together the efforts between Church and State that brought about legislative action that made discrimination because of race a federal offence

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was added to the calendar of saints in the Episcopal Church not because he was any holier than anyone else. Judy can attest to that! He became a saint when he was willing to lay down his life for a fellow human being. As Judy said, Jon did not go to Selma to be a martyr. He went there so that life could be lived more abundantly by others.

Whenever we know those who make living life more abundant for others, we find sainthood. Some of these saints are not even Christians. Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind—his life taught us how to stand fast for peace. Does Christ mind if God is magnified by those who profess a different faith? I don’t think so.

We need these people in the world, in our faith that helps us know what it means to be faith-filled. We need to be connected with those whose lives have mirrored to us the life of Jesus because it is that connectedness that calls us to respond to the events in our lives with the integrity of faith.

Are saints braver than us normal folk? I don’t think so. They may be more willing to address the events of their days with confidence because they know unequivocally that God is present to them. But I think that sanctity has to do with being true to the faith one has been given.

We need the Saints in our lives. We need the link to what has gone before. We need to have that cloud of witnesses at our dinner table. For me to invite Jon Daniels, or Desmond Tutu, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Teresa of Avila, or Joan of Arc, or my friend Sister Lorene who taught me to pray, into my life allows me to see how the Christian life is lived by ordinary persons, people like you and me. It reminds me of the blessedness of the life Christ has invited me to live. It recalls what I have promised in my baptismal vows. It encourages me when part of me would rather choose the easy path.

I hope each and every one of you have special Saints who remind you of what it means to live a Christian life. They may be the formalized ones observed by the Church or they may be some loved one who taught you how to live with integrity. I would ask you to remember those Saints today when we remember those who have gone before us because in remembering them, you will find the strength to live the life that Christ calls us to.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Interviewing, Friday Five

Revgalsblogpals, a blog of women clergy that I follow has a ‘Friday Five' each week. They are usually fun to play. This one on interviews is fairly timely as I have just gone through a calling process.

1. What was the most memorable interview you ever had?

I guess it was my first interview 25 years ago. There were eleven!! interviewing me. One fellow was NOT going to have NO woman priest in HIS church. “Interviewing a woman was a waste of time.” He hurumphed his way through brunch. They seated this man directly across from me. Each interviewer had a question. This fellow slowly came around. He was a patriarch of the church. He was an old insurance salesman. Finally when we got to his question, he asked, “How are you going to sell yourself to our parish?” I said that if they wanted me as their rector that was HIS job. He broke into a smile. They called me the night I was ordained priest and he was the greatest supporter I had. The last thing I did in that parish was to bury that man. I still hold him close to my heart.

2. Have you ever been the interviewer rather than the interviewee? If so, are you a tiger, a creampuff, or somewhere in between?

I have interviewed choir directors, secretaries, parish administrators, education directors and youth ministers and sextons. I am not a tiger but I do ask the hard questions. It isn’t fair not to. To hire someone who is not willing to walk with you through the difficult questions will not always make the best employee.

3. Do phone interviews make you more or less nervous than in-person ones?

I HATE telephone interviews! I am too intuitive and depend too much upon the facial characteristics and body postures of people to understand how to interact with the people who are interviewing to appreciate telephone interviews. People are less in tune with What is said than How it is said in any kind of interview, but telephone interviews are too narrow. When I am interviewing in a parish, I want to see the people and evaluate who THEY are.

4. What was the best advice you ever got to prepare for an interview? How about the worst?
The best advice I got was “be yourself”. It still stands as the best of advice. You need to allow an employer know enough of you to know whether they can work with you. And you don’t want to work for someone who isn’t willing to share themselves in the interview either. The worst advice is for you to try "to manipulate the interview so that you have the upper hand" It is dishonest and comes across as manipulative. I wouldn't hire anyone who tried to manipulate an interview.

5. Do you have any pre-interview rituals that give you confidence?

I try to be prepared with the information about the parish, or the job so that my questions about the position are on the mark. Always an interview is about you interviewing them as much as it is an interview of you by them.

The interview I had for my new congregation was great fun. I had been substituting for them for some time before the interview so we knew enough about each other that we could joke around. They already knew of my penchant for preaching too long and losing my place in the liturgy. I already knew that no one liked to sit in different places. We could bust each other pretty well by the time we got to the interview and so it was quite relaxed. We had a good time.