Archive - Aug 2018

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August 28th

Hineni and Seeking to Please God

At the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I heard various singer-songwriters talk about being part of songwriting circles. They introduced various songs as ones that had started as a response to a songwriting prompt. I thought about how much I would enjoy being in a sermon writers circle following the same sort of idea. It would be easier because most of the sermon writers I know have a weekly prompt called the Revised Common Lectionary.

When I returned from the folk festival, I contacted a few close friends who I thought would be interested and we set up a little group on Facebook. It was partly for this group that I wrote my recent blog post, Humbly Confessing our Participation in Abusive Systems of Power.

As the summer winds down and my wife and I begin discovering what it is like to be empty nesters, we went to the beach Saturday afternoon followed by an early dinner at a local clam shack. While I was waiting for the meal to be ready, I checked Facebook and found a discussion about my blog post.

One of my friends asked a question I was struggling with in my blog post and a question that we all need to be asking ourselves, how do we as members of cultures that allow things like this to happen respond?

I’m not sure there is an easy answer. Part of the answer in the Episcopal Church was to have a Liturgy of Listening at General Convention. I encourage everyone to check out that liturgy.

In the online discussion, my friend mentioned the Hineni prayer. I don’t know that prayer and went out to find more about it. The first version I found was from Velveteen Rabbi. (What a wonderful name for a blog!). The blog posts links to a more traditional version of the Hineni prayer. Another version I found was at A New Translation of the Rosh Hashanah Hineni. Others link to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.

Since I took Biblical Hebrew this summer in seminary, I thought I’d try to find it in Hebrew which led me to A Chazan Sings: Hineni. This, in turn, led me to Hineni He'ani Mima'as, which then led me to Piyyut and finally to trying to find various
Readings and Prayers for Jewish Worship in the Biblical Studies software I use. (If any of you know any good sources for such readings and prayers online, please let me know.) I also read briefly about Jewish Prayers in Jewish Prayers and Liturgy 101

All of this also reminds me of the Merton Prayer

I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing

One of my hopes for the sermon writers circle is to find people that I could engage in discussions with about my sermons and other people’s sermons. Hopefully, I can use my blog and social media to make some of these discussions more broad based.

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August 25th

Humbly Confessing our Participation in Abusive Systems of Power

I am not preaching this Sunday, but if I were, here is a draft of what I would say.

May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, o Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

If I have sinned against any of you knowingly or unknowingly, by things I’ve done or things I’ve failed to do, please forgive me.

As many of you know, I am currently a seminarian seeking to become an ordained priest in the holy catholic and apostolic church. So, the recent news about the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church in Pennsylvania has weighed greatly on my mind. How do we respond to a church that allows this to happen? I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook dealing with this.

One post that particularly jumped out at me was a link to an Op-Ed in the New York Times, I Stood Up in Mass and Confronted My Priest. You Should, Too.. The man spoke about going to church and hearing his priest say the church has to change. The priest began to move on and the man jumped up and asked, “How?”

The priest responded with what felt like a bureaucratic answer. At the end of the service, the priest spoke with him.

the father looked at me and said the most honest thing I’ve ever heard in a church: “You and I have no influence.”

He was right. And if congregants like me have no influence, and if parents like me no longer feel safe and comfortable bringing our sons and daughters to make Communion, then the Catholic Church is beyond redemption.

Fr. Jonathan Slavinskas, a Roman Catholic priest serving in the Diocese of Worchester, MA wrote a powerful Facebook post about how the scandal affects him from the viewpoint of putting on the priest’s collar.

He talks about the great responsibility that the collar represents, the suspicion it generates, the grave sin it now represents for so many people. He talks about questioning why he should stick around. He talks about not wanting to wear the collar because of the shame of what it represents to so many people and the weariness of dealing with it.

He then went on to talk about a woman asking if he were a Catholic priest. She wanted him to anoint her dying brother and the comfort he was able to bring to her and her family. He reminds us all that the collar is not about us, it is about Jesus. He speaks with great humility.

It reminded me of a priest I know who starts off the Divine Liturgy asking for forgiveness. It was based on his words that I asked your forgiveness at the beginning of this sermon. I was copied on an email he recently sent to a friend. He ended it with, “I remain your unworthy pastor”. We would all do well to show some of his humility.

How do we respond to the scandal in the church? Do we have any influence? Is the church beyond redemption?

Today’s Gospel offers us some insight:

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Jesus doesn’t back down and responds, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Many of the discipled turned away and then Jesus asked the twelve if they would turn away also. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

You and I do have little influence on the church structures, but that isn’t what matters. We are called to abide in Jesus and trust in God’s influence. We will not change the church. God will.

This is not just a passive thing, the “thoughts and prayers” that are so often derided in political commentary today. This is putting on the whole armor of God with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. This is praying in the spirit without ceasing.

This is adopting a spirit of humility and recognizing that we, ourselves, participate in structures of power that harm others. Like well intentioned priests in a broken ecclesiastical power structure, we participate in systems that perpetuate racism, sexism, and a raft of other “-isms”.

The first steps in dismantling these systems is recognizing our own culpability and the powerful narratives that support these systems. We can then begin to change these narratives by turning away from the gratifications they offer and turning towards the gratifications of humbly abiding in Christ.

Let us pray in the spirit without ceasing. Amen.

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August 19th

Writing and Thinking - Fiona's First Day at Simon's Rock

There were times around the dinner table when my eldest daughter would say, “I think I feel a blog post coming”. It was the world they grew up in, a world where we talked about life, education, religion, politics, music, poetry, and grasshoppers. These discussions helped shape all of us.

Now, my daughters are scattered. The eldest is currently working a doctorate at Doshisha University in Japan. The middle is building a community of artists around Boston and the youngest has just started at Bard College at Simon’s Rock at the other end of the Massachusetts.

Besides the discussions around the dinner table, we have sought to give all our daughters educational opportunities to nurture and develop a lifelong love of learning. They have been brought up in families where this lifelong love of learning is multigenerational. It is in their DNA.

At the break of day Saturday morning, Kim, Fiona, and I set forth from our home in Connecticut. I am working on a Masters of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific. So, as my wife and youngest daughter mostly slept, as I listened to The Vocation of Anglican Theology by Ralph McMichael on my Kindle. What is theology? How important is it for theology to be systematic or critical? What makes a theology ‘Anglican’? How do we think about other forms of theology? Reformed? Roman Catholic? Eastern Orthodox?

It isn’t so much about learning new information. When did St. Augustine of Hippo live? it is about being transformed by what we learn. What will Fiona learn at Simon’s Rock? How will it change her? How am I being changed by my studies at CDSP?

We went through all the check-in processes and then started moving Fiona into her dorm. We had a great lunch together and then headed off to the opening convocation. The sky opened up pouring down tears of sadness as parents prepared to say goodbye to their children and tears of joy at the prospect of the adults these students would become.

The students went of to their first writing and thinking workshop and the adults stuck remained in the auditorium. I whispered to my wife that the kids would probably have a better time that we would. I suspect that many of these students are apples that have not fallen far from the tree and their parents would love writing and thinking workshop.

To my pleasant surprise, the adults were given the opportunity to do a little bit of a writing and thinking workshop themselves. I thought and wrote about education. I will need to write a paper about this for the Postmodern Christian Education class I’m taking this fall. What is my theology of Christian Education? My current teaching philosophy? My learning goals for the semester?

These are great questions. Some I have clear thoughts on, others are more vague. I am influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. My thinking follows the shape of a rhizome; interconnected without a clear starting point or endpoint. My goal is transformation, and I’m open to being transformed into something unexpected. I hope my daughters are seeking similar transformations.

Later in the afternoon, we all returned to Fiona’s dorm to finish off the unpacking and say our goodbyes. Fiona spoke about a poem they read, which Miranda immediately recognized, Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day which ends asking,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I look forward to seeing Fiona’s wild and precious life unfold at Simon’s Rock. It made me think of Robin Williams telling his students, Carpe Diem, Seize the Day. It is my hope that Fiona will seize the day at Simon’s Rock. It is my hope that Fiona will “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” as Thoreau says in Walden.

At the end of the day, (yes, another metaphor our schedule gave us), after we left Fiona at college, we headed off to visit my father in a nursing home. Much of his short-term memory is gone and he’s had a rough few days. We got there and one of my brothers was visiting with him. Despite his health issues, he was lucid and coherent. We had a pleasant discussion, often returning to the same topic. In the background there was another patient who simply repeated “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella. It had the feeling of a strange absurdist play being performed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

On the way home, we received a text message from Fiona about “Air Traffic”. We didn’t have the context and weren’t sure what to make of it. We found out it was a reference to the book, “Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America” by Gregory Pardlo.

It is hard to face our mortality, even if it comes simply in the reminder to seize the day. It can be harder to face the mortality of our parents, especially if our relationship with our parents is complicated, like Gregory Pardlo’s was with his father. Do I see Gregory’s father in my father? Do my daughters see Gregory’s father in me? These are perhaps some good questions for us all to think about but may also be beyond the scope of this blog.

This morning as I was preparing for church, Fiona messaged me asking my opinion about St. Augustine of Hippo. It is hard to go into details over Facebook Messenger, especially without knowing the context. I noted his important role in church history and his writings about grace. I am reading Christian Theology, An Introduction by Alister E. McGrath. McGrath focuses on Augustine’s view of grace, salvation, and original sin. He contrasts this to Pelagius in an either/or, black/white sort of way. It reflects a common view in Christianity that talks about Pelagianism as heresy. However, it seems like often both sides views are exaggerated. I think about the great quote from the Pope in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, “In our obsession of original sin, we too often forget original innocence”.

Fiona and I are also very interested in the Eastern Orthodox church and there is a lot we could explore on various Orthodox views of Augustine, but this is more than long enough already.

Now that my daughters are all off in different locations, I wonder to what extent we can have some of the old dinner discussions in longer form online posts. I am wondering if others want to join in.

What are you thinking? What are you writing about? What are your reactions to these thoughts?

August 17th

The Bread of What Sort of Life?

Here is the audio of the sermon I preached at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Hamden, CT on August 12, 2018:

The Bread of What Sort of Life (rough cut)

Below you will also find the text as prepared for delivery.

I would like to thank my good friends who provided feedback, both as I was writing it and afterwards. I hope to discuss some of their ideas in a follow up post, if I can make the time.


“I am the bread of life”. How many of you have heard verse before? If you were in church last Sunday, you probably heard it. How many of you have heard it so many times before that it has lost much of it’s meaning?

Last Sunday, I was at a folk music festival and went to a small church in upstate New York. “I am the bread of life” was written over the arch leading up to the altar. It was part of the appointed readings for last week. It is for this week also.

Since I was in New York, I didn’t hear what was preached here, but I suspect it was similar to the sermon I heard there, talking about freshly baked bread, about being hungry, maybe even about feeding the hungry. I’ve also read other people’s sermons which were about freshly baked bread.

If I wanted to play it safe, and not worry about repeating what was said last week, I could preach on other parts of the Gospel lesson or one of the other readings. Yet the folks who put together the lectionary thought this was important enough to repeat two weeks in a row, so I’ll expand a little bit on the verse.

As I think about this verse, I split it into three parts. “I am” … “the Bread” … and “Life”.

The phrase “I am” is very important in scripture. It is how God responds to Moses when Moses asks God’s name. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself seven times with phrases that start off with “I am…” The final phrase is “I am the true vine”, which was the Gospel the last time I preached here. “I am the bread of life” is the first of these phrases. In these phrases, Jesus is linking himself back to God and Moses on Mount Horeb.

So, if you were to start a sentence with the words, “I am”, what would you say? Who are you - really? I was thinking about this as I was listening to folk music last weekend. One of the songs that jumped out at me was “I am the one that will remember everything”. It is about orphan refugees being trained to become child warriors. How much are we like orphan refugees, living out painful lives and being trained to deal with that our pain by bringing pain to others? To borrow from a different song, how much are we “living like a refugee”? How much are we remembering painful parts of our lives and perhaps causing pain to others? How much are we like “the least of these” that Jesus talks about, like “the others”, whomever the others might be?

In another song, Dar Williams has a response, “I am the others”. How is God calling us to treat others?

When we talk about “the bread”, we are reminded about manna. Manna is referenced in both last week’s Gospel and this week’s. Remember, God gave manna to the Israelites as they wandered and complained in the wilderness. This continues the discussion from last week, where Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”.

Are we coming to God and to church primarily to have our needs met? Are we seeking some sort of wealth that prosperity gospel preachers talk about? God does want our needs to be met, but God has a much greater understanding of what our needs really are. God wants so much more for us. This leads me to the final phrase part of the quote. “Life”.

What sort of life are we looking for? For ourselves? For our church? What makes you feel really alive? This takes us back to the stories of David we’ve been hearing about over the past few weeks. God took David, that ruddy son of Jesse who’s been out tending the sheep and makes him king of Israel. God defends David from his adversaries. David shows his gratitude dancing before the ark of the covenant even though his wife derides him for this. God has provided for David greatly, but David wants more than is appropriate and seeks out physical intimacy with Bathsheba.

I want to be clear here. What David did wrong was not seeking physical intimacy. Unlike some conservative preachers, I believe that physical intimacy is another wonderful gift that God gives us. What David did wrong was to seek physical intimacy at the expense of others. We don’t know what Bathsheba really thought. The bible is woefully lacking in exploring the thoughts and desires of most of its female characters. This reflects a larger issue of men generally failing to respect what women want. It reflects the overarching issue of power imbalances.

This isn’t just an issue of Biblical times. We still hear it today. As one political media personality put it, “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Power continues to be misused today, and it’s not just politicians. In April, the founding pastor of Willows Creek mega-church resigned amidst sexual abuse allegations. At General Convention this year, the Episcopal Church had a powerful Liturgy of Listening in response to issues of abuse and harassment in the Episcopal Church.

Last week, we heard about Nathan confronting David of his great sin, and I’ve longed to hear people confront some of our leaders today in the same manner. Perhaps the closest we are to such prophets are ones who use the #MeToo hashtag.

I suspect if we really look closely at our lives, there have been times that we have been taken advantage of by people misusing their power … AND … I suspect that we have all taken advantage of other people by misusing our own power. Sometimes, we’ve probably done this without even knowing it. I believe it is something we should always be keeping in mind when we confess our sins.

This week, we hear more about David. He gets the news that his son has died in battle and laments, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” I won’t go into Absalom’s history. It is, like so many of the stories in the Old Testament, complicated. Yet I will say that I cannot imagine the pain and grief of losing a beloved child. It is hard enough to lose even a pet.

How do we respond to such pain and grief? For David, and I suspect most of us, there are things that are more important to us than our own suffering, even than our own lives. - “Would I had died instead of you”.

One year ago today, Susan Bro’s daughter Heather Heyer was killed at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cannot imagine her pain and grief. Yet she is calling on people today not to respond with violence. On top of that, I can’t imagine the pain that drives people to hate other people because of their skin color.

Yet I did just read a story that helps me understand a little bit. Ken Parker, an ex-neo nazi put it this way, “I had gotten out of the navy, it was hard getting a job and it was really easy to blame it somebody else, you know people with darker skin.”

This is, I believe, can help us understand today’s gospel lesson. The crowds were asking for physical bread. They were looking for food, just as people are looking for jobs and better lives today. Jesus was talking about something much deeper.

You know, there are these quizzes on Facebook: Would you be willing to live in a haunted house with no modern communications for a month for a million dollars? Todays lesson asks a similar question: Would you rather have a life time supply of bread or have someone love you enough to be willing to suffer and die for you?

Ken Parker’s story continued on to encounter Jesus, the bread of life, when he befriended a black pastor and turned his life around, being baptized and received into a predominantly black church.

Today’s epistle takes it the one step further. It says, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands”. Why is this? It isn’t simply because stealing is wrong or that maybe we need to be doing our fair share of the work that needs to be done. The epistle tells us it is “so as to have something to share with the needy”. That is where we experience the joy of Christ. The epistle ends with “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

This is where we experience true joy, where our lives are most full, when we are living in love, imitating God, and sharing with those in need around us.

In a theology group on Facebook the other day we were asked what sort of church events other than the worship services did people ‘feel the spirit’. I mentioned Dinner for a Dollar. I believe it is in helping with things like Dinner for a Dollar that we are especially close to being imitators of God, living in love, that and deeply experiencing God’s love for all of us.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Amen.

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