Saturday, December 29, 2012

Going Home

This weekend I am back at Ascension Memorial Church. Today I officiated at the funeral of a longtime resident of Ipswich. Although she was not a member of the parish, it was good that we could provide a place for her family and friends to grieve, to give thanks for her life, and to hear the Good News of God's love incarnate in the Christ Child. Tomorrow I will preside and preach at the parish's two celebrations of the Eucharist.

What I felt today and what I expect to feel tomorrow is, besides the joy of being with friends, is almost the feeling of being at home at Ascension. Almost, because I am not really a member of the parish, but a visitor. But almost, because, after spending four months there, the community has become a part of my life, as have the other congregations I have served. As a parishioner said to me some thirty years ago, priests and parishioners get inside one another's hearts. Sharing life together in a congregation changes us - if we let it. I'd like to think that there are a few people whom I have helped to follow Jesus more faithfully over the course of the past forty years. I know that there are many parishioners who have helped me to be a more faithful priest. And when I am given the privilege of going back to a parish, it is a bit like going home, for it is a return to one of those communities which, like my childhood home and family, helped me to become who I am. Even as the locum tenens - the place holder - the place, the people, have a place in my heart. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Great Rummage Sale

Early in her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle refers to Bishop Mark Dyer's comment that every 500 years the Church has a rummage sale, cleaning out structures and theological ideas that no longer serve the Church's sharing in God's mission. The book group here at Ascension is reading Tickle's book, after having read Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith in the spring. I expect there to be lively discussions in the book group of what ought to be in the rummage sale and what should be essential in the emerging Church. Before the first meeting of the group, I have several ideas about what might be emerging as the rummage sale goes on.

I see theology moving from talking about God using the language of the creeds to relational language. While it may have been helpful in the 5th century CE to talk about the Son as being of one substance with the Father, that language doesn't work so well in the 21st century. When the Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus said, "The Father and I are one" (10:30), we don't need to understand that as being of one substance. We can talk about that unity in relational terms, focusing on the love which bound Jesus to the Father.

I see the medieval understanding of the Atonement having fewer adherents as other understandings become more widely accepted. I am a particular fan of James Alison's work in this area and of Douglas John Hall's, but there are others who have proposed other alternatives to the substitutionary theory that has dominated theology since the 11th century. The singulars focus on sin of the substitutionary theory is being replaced by a broader and more relational way of understanding Jesus' death. Hall sees Jesus as God's representative to us and our representative to God, which I find much more helpful than the language of substitute.

I see Church structures becoming much less hierarchical, with networks of relationships becoming more the norm. Oddly, we in the Anglican Communion are already seeing the growth of networks that have become more important than the Communion's formal structures. The downside of this is that these networks may turn into conservative and liberal enclaves with relationships across the diversity of the Church withering. The upside is that these networks can bridge geographical boundaries in ways that formal structures generally don't.

I see the Church having a great openness to and appreciation for other faith traditions and for non-religious movements that share the Church's commitments to peace and justice. In a wedding sermon last week I spoke of the couple's awareness that we are one people and their commitment to work for the good off all the world's people.

Finally, I see the Church embracing its identity as a participant in God's mission of reconciliation and transformation. Not the only participant, to be sure, but perhaps the only one that is conscious that it is God's mission in which it shares. Without the triumphalism that has marred its witness in the past, the Church can proclaim what it discerns God to be doing in the world. Even though some saw it differently, I saw the embrace of the Millennium Development Goals by the Episcopal Church as just such a proclamation that God is at work achieving those goals.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grace Alone

Halfway through the adventure at Ascenison I realize that much - all? - of my preaching has been about grace. That is not at all surprising as my being at Ascension at all is wrapped up in several gifts. 
  • The gift of the sabbatical grant from the Lilly Endowment
  • The gift of a grandchild that prompted our retiring on the North Shore
  • The gift of collegiality in the North Shore Clericus where Brad and I became friends
  • The gift of welcome by the people of the parish
  • Most importantly, gift of our life in Christ
There is, of course, another reason why grace has been the focus of my preaching. We are constantly tempted to believe that we have somehow earned God's love and we need regular warnings about falling into that trap with all that that involves. When we think we've earned God's love we are very likely to judge others as undeserving of that love. We are also likely to become more concerned about avoiding various sins than about abiding in Jesus. God has not called us to judge ourseleves or others, but to love ourselves and others.

Some of the conversations that we have been having here during this sabbatical have been about how the parish can become more open to the gifts of new people. I put it that way because I think that much of the talk about hospitality in churches focuses on how we share the great things we have with others. It is true that we have much to share, but every visitor and every new member is a gift to be received with respect and thanksgiving. Respecting the gifts that others are means that we don't see them as solutions to whatever problems we have in the parish. Receiving them into the community as gifts from God, we leave them free to discover how their particular skills and experience might be offered for the strengthening of our common life.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Relational Faith Communities

Many members of Ascension Memorial Church read Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith this spring and attended his lecture at Ascension in June. One of Cox's assertions in the book, one with which I agree, is that we are moving from an understanding of faith as acceptance of certain beliefs about God to an understanding of faith as a relationship of trust in God. One of Ascension's parishioners recently raised the important question of what Ascension Memorial Church might look like with this new relational understanding of faith. In the book Cox gives examples of communities that are more relational in their understanding of faith, and even though the contexts of these communities are very different from ours, we may be able to take some clues from them. 

Engaging with the world: relational faith leads us into the world as we share Jesus' love for the world. While the relationships we have with one another are important, the Church is called to share in Christ's work of reconciliation in the world.

Reading the Bible as a transforming story: rejecting the fundamentalists' literal reading of the Bible, we can read the Bible, as Christians in Latin American base communities do, with a focus on how the biblical stories help us to make sense of our lives and invite us into a deeper relationship with God.

Living with diversity and ambiguity: as we move away from an understanding of faith as acceptance of certain beliefs about God, there will probably be greater theological diversity within our community and a greater willingness to live with ambiguity.

Embracing our marginal status in society: as Church membership becomes less and less socially important, we have the freedom to become a more intentional community of disciples of Jesus. 

Are these the only marks of a relational faith community? Certainly not, but I offer them as a beginning for the discussion.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

John 3:16

When I asked this past Sunday if anyone could tell me what John 3:16 said, I was pleased that one of the Eucharistic Ministers could recite the entire verse: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, do that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life."

I think that verse is key to understanding the Gospel according to John. Although the Synoptics are certainly about how God's love was made manifest in Jesus, John makes that the explicit focus of his account of the Good News. It was and is in the sending of the Son, the word made flesh, that God's love for the world has been revealed. Although some translators want to make this verse about how much God loves the world, the Greek word translated as "so" means "in this way." God's love is, I believe, infinite, beyond measure, and the point of John 3:16 is the manner in which that love has been expressed.

I have been pleased in the month that I have been worshipping each week with the people of Ascension Memorial Church that they understand that our life together is a gift, that it is all matter of Grace, of God's unconditional love for us and for the world. That gift, of course, challenges us to love the world as God does, to minister as Jesus did to one another and to the least, the last, and the lost.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Staying Put

The congregation at Ascension Memorial Church is a wonderful mix of members whose families have belonged for generations and members who have joined in the past few years. What I have sensed in the few weeks that I have been at Ascension is that there are not many pew-hoppers, people who are unable or unwilling to make a commitment to what the Benedictine tradition calls stability. When we are willing to stay put, to commit ourselves to belonging to a community even when it isn't comfortable, God has a better chance at transforming us.

Nearly fifty years ago I spoke to a wise friend about how unhappy I was in my current situation and said that I was thinking about moving. He cautioned me about using the "geographical cure," suggesting that I would take my problems with me because I would take with me the person at the core of those problems - me. I didn't move and over several months things got better as I began to face some truth about myself.

Years later, when I was fired from a job that I thought was the perfect one for me, I was ready to move from Buffalo home to Massachusetts. Our daughter changed that when she asked why I needed to look for the perfect job elsewhere when I could find a pretty good job in Buffalo and not have to uproot her and her brother from their friends and the schools they really liked. As we stayed put I realized that the community of clergy and lay people that I had been privileged to join in Buffalo was the community that would help me to grow. Stability in that community was the commitment that God was calling me to make.

If we keep running away when life in community become uncomfortable, when we hear a sermon that doesn't quite agree with our own understanding of the faith, or when people we don't like join the community, we put an obstacle in the way of God, making it just a bit more difficult for God to work to transform us. That won't stop God, but it might take quite a bit longer for us to discover and enjoy the blessings that God has for us.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Slowing Down

It certainly wasn't the boldest and most prophetic act to preach on slowing down on the second Sunday in July, but since my colleague Brad Clark had preached on showing up the previous Sunday, it seemed the right thing to do. The sermon wasn't only about slowing down, but about what we can get to do when we refuse to make hasty decisions. We get to ask an important question. Not "What would Jesus do?" but "What does Jesus want me to do?"

Of course we can never answer either question with absolute certainty, but we ought to be able to make a humble attempt at discerning what out faith requires of us in the many decisions we make every day, and, having discerned, act. Not only is there a chance that if we don't act no one else will, but there is the much more likely consequence of inaction, a missed opportunity to share in God's transforming work in the world.

Several years ago a parishioner asked me to help him discern whether or not he had done the right thing during an encounter in a supermarket. He had been in the checkout line and the customer in front of him was giving the young lady at the cash register a very hard time. The young lady was being very patient with the customer, but my parishioner could see that it was upsetting her. When it was his turn to check out with his cans of cat food, he asked the young lady, "Would you please gift wrap them?" For a moment the young lady looked confused, maybe even angry, and then she broke into a broad smile.

What does Jesus want us to do "to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us?" The Swiss philosopher Henri Amiel urges us to "be quick to love and make haste to be kind" and, I would add, be always ready to forgive.