Monday, July 25, 2011

"Nascar, teach us to pray..."

I've had my giggle over Pastor Joe Nelms' prayer to open yesterday's Nascar race--if you haven't seen it, it's a nice "joy-break" in your day.

But the prayer--humorously--makes me ask, "What should we pray for? And how should we pray for it?"

Because, secretly, I like this prayer. 

I like that it's specific. 

I like that it's--so far as I can tell--honest. 

I like that it's said in the language of thanksgiving for all God's gifts. 

I like that it's an homage to Talladega Nights, one of my favorite movies with another similarly memorable prayer.

I like that it encompasses everything from the personal to the global. 

I can't remember who taught me that when we want to learn how to pray, we should begin with things that are simple, perhaps even trivial, but honest.  If we want to find a parking spot, we should pray to find a parking spot.  If we want our nasty co-worker to get what's coming to her, we should pray for that.  We might feel more virtuous if we prayed for world peace, but praying for world peace, frankly, might not be honest for us--world peace would require significant change in how we handle difference in the world, and that change would be unpleasant for most of us.  So pray for what is true.   Parking spots.  Petty revenge. GM parts and Sunoco fuel.  There's plenty of precedent for this in the psalms, which frequently pray for the destruction of our enemies. 

And then, when we have trained ourselves to pray for what is honest, expand.  Move from parking spots up to "Lord, help me have a difficult conversation with my loved one." Still honest.  But a little less trivial.  Pray for the nasty co-worker to have a conversion experience, rather than justice.  Maybe it will open the door to compassion on our side too.  Stay honest.  And expand to thanksgivings--what are we grateful for?  What is the "smoking hot wife" in our lives that we want to celebrate?  Again, don't worry about being shallow--just be conscious of your gratitude.

Over time, maybe we'll take another leap towards selflessness.  Praying for others, and not just ourselves--still honestly.  Giving thanks for experiences that have taught us, even if they were unpleasasant at the time.  Praying for the ability to change and grow so that praying for aspirations like world peace will be honest. 

But for now, I give thanks for my church, my apartment, my "smoking hot" husband and my son. I give thanks for the people I work with every day, and pray for consolation for the people in Norway who have suffered the loss of loved ones.  I pray that people who commit violence in the name of their religions truly see what they've done someday.  And I pray that the Vestry meeting tonight will go well.  In Jesus' name, Amen. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Consider the artichoke...

My homily from July 17, 2011

Jesus tells us elsewhere in the Gospel to “consider the lilies of the field” as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Given the gospel parable today about the weeds and the wheat, (and giving credit to Jonathan for coming up with this idea) I invite you today to “consider the artichoke…” 

Jonathan grew up in a family in which artichokes were weeds—they are thistles, after all. A fresh artichoke never made an appearance at his dinner table in Monmouth, Illinois, and if there were canned artichokes available they were something to be avoided. I grew up believing artichokes were a delicacy—an opportunity not just for a tasty treat, but for the exciting grown-up feeling pyrotechnics of lighting the candles beneath the fancy little butter-melting dishes my mother got for their wedding. 

So who decides what a weed is, and what is desirable? What was a thistle in the eyes of Jonathan’s parents was a delicacy in the eyes of my parents. Dandelion greens are trendy in salads—but not on lawns. Time and place seem to have something to say about how a weed is only a weed in the eyes of the beholder--Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” 

There was an interesting article in the Times sometime in the last week about how certain invasive species are being sort of repurposed into food; lionfish, which are eating the native species of fish in the waters of Florida are being hailed as a substitute for grouper, which is being overfished; the same is true for Asian carp in Lake Michigan—they’re being promoted as a tasty and eco-conscious substitute for Chilean sea bass.

In the parable, the weeds are very clearly bad—sown by the devil, and all that. But I think there can be a more generous reading when we put ourselves in the parable, that doesn’t deny that there is evil, but gives us a healthy skepticism about putting ourselves in the place of God. 

“The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

Last week we had the parable of the sower, and who we are in the parable was pretty well explained: we were the dirt. This week it’s a little less clear—are we the wheat? The weeds? The slaves? What is clear is who we are not: we are not the reapers. We are not the ones who are called to discern what is a weed and what is grain. 

And the fact that the weeds are mixed in with the grain need not be proscriptive for us in discerning every time we meet someone, “Gee, are you a weed?” Good and evil, weeds and wheat, are mixed in the field, and that is true within each one of us. There is no person in this room who is pure weed, and there is no person in this room who is pure wheat. We’re mixed. 

And might that cause us to be more forgiving of ourselves? I know what some of my own personal weeds are. I don’t like them. I’ve tried to uproot some of them—that tends not to be effective. I don’t mean to say that we should just tolerate our sins and our fault, but there comes a time when we have to have faith that even if I cannot overcome my sins and failings, God and the angels can. And when it is harvest time, they will separate out the bad from the good, OR, maybe it will become clear that what I’ve always thought of as weeds are really more like artichokes, and that although they have thorns and thistles, once you pull them off, inside there’s a really tasty heart.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Prayers for a departing Rector

I wrote these for our celebration of Andrew's ministry in May; we may or may not use them again on July 31, his last Sunday, but thought they'd be a good model for anyone who is in the position of celebrating the ministry of someone who is leaving a congregation. The concluding prayer is adapted from the BOS.

Prayers of the People
Gracious and loving God, we give thanks for the ministry of the Rev. Canon Andrew Mullins as Rector of the Church of the Epiphany for the last 13 years.  He is retiring, but his ministry here will continue through the lives he touched while serving here.  Let us join in prayer with all those who have found a glimpse of divine love in Andrew’s ministry as pastor, priest and teacher. 

For all the strangers and newcomers he welcomed, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
For all those he has baptized, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
For the children who have been educated at the Day School he founded, and in the Sunday School he supported, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
For those he visited when they were sick, sad, or lonely; and for those in crisis who came to him for his wise counsel, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
For all those he has married, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
For those he has comforted in their grief at the death of a loved one, and for the resurrection and hope he has proclaimed in the midst of grief at funerals, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
For all those who have found aid through his commitment to Epiphany’s outreach to the world, especially those at our Homeless Feeding Program and the Carpenter’s Kids in Mlowa Barabarani, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
For the wider church, and his contributions of time and talent to the Diocese of New York and the Anglican Communion, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
And most of all, for the vision he had of a church that could thrive and flourish and be a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, have mercy.
A time for prayer, either silently or aloud
Almighty God, we thank you for raising up among us faithful servants of your Word and Sacraments.  We thank you especially for the ministry of Andrew Mullins among us, and the presence of his family here.  Grant that both he and we may serve you in the days ahead, and always rejoice in your glory, and come at length into your heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Leadership: harder than it looks

I am as liable as anyone to hear the evening news and exclaim, "But how could they possibly do that?" about the actions of any number of politicians, businesspeople, and clergy. 
However, as someone who will shortly be in a more significant leadership (and management) role as priest-in-charge at Epiphany, I am growing far more charitable in my expectations of other leaders.  Hard decisions are not clear at the time (or even in retrospect sometimes) and change is not easy to achieve when it comes down to the dollars and cents, the personnel on the ground, and a desire to treat people with dignity and not wound them willfully. 

Liberal Episcopal blogs have been up in arms for the last week about a situation in the Diocese of Nevada involving a (now former) priest named Bede Parry.  He was a former Roman Catholic priest received into the Episcopal Church by now Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in 2004 after two years of discernment.  During that discernment period, he revealed that he had inappropriate contact with a late adolescent at a summer camp in 1987; police did not prosecute the case, but he left his monastery and entered psychological counseling.   He and his previous monastery are now being sued over other alleged incidents of inappropriate touching with late adolescents prior to 1987, incidents which evidently he did not reveal to the Diocese of Nevada during his discernment.  He has resigned his orders in the Episcopal Church, and no longer serves as an Episcopal priest. 

The current Bishop of Nevada issued a statement regarding the events, the timeline, and emphasizing the absolute imperative of keeping children safe.  He also distinguished between pedophilia, the attraction to very young children, and adult attraction to 16 and 17 year olds.  Bishop Edwards also pointed out that the decision to ordain Bede Parry required approval from not only Bishop Katharine, but also the entire Commission on Ministry, all of whom were aware of the 1987 incident, and determined that based upon the psychological testing conducted by the Diocese, and the previous 15 years of behavior in which no incidents were reported, Bede Parry was not a threat.  There have been no allegations of misconduct during his time as an Episcopal priest.

But the blogosphere doesn't want to accept this.  They want Katharine Jefferts  Schori and all levels of Church bureaucracy crucified for having made this decision.  They assume it was the wrong decision--one that they themselves would never have made. 

I'm not so sure.  Leadership means going beyond our knee-jerk reactions and to get the best knowledge we can about situations and people so that we can act wisely.  The easiest thing in the world to do with Bede Parry would have been to reject him out of hand--but the Commission on Ministry in Nevada decided to walk deeper and no doubt confronted some of their own fears and assumptions in trying to see Christ in their neighbor, and understand if redemption and change are really possible--and if we say we are Christians, then we believe they are.

Ultimately, it may have been the wrong decision, if for no other reason than that Bede Parry did not disclose the other incidents.  With that information, the COM and bishop might have come to a different decision.  Or they might not have--but impugning the motivations of the Bishop and the COM and assuming this a decision that was made lightly or without thorough discussion seems falacious.  It's hard to make decisions in the real world, where everything comes in shades of gray.  It sounds to me like the bishop and COM did the best they could to hear the will of the Spirit--and that situations like this are precisely why the institutions of the church are so important, because they allow for collective wisdom rather than decisionmaking by a single person. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A frustrated Jesus looks for comfort

Always, always, always be suspicious when you see that there are a couple verses omitted  in a scheduled reading on a Sunday, particularly in the Gospel, because if they’re omitted, it’s probably because there’s something objectionable in them, and if there’s something objectionable in them, then it’s probably something interesting.   It’s probably something that requires explanation—something that the collators of the lectionary are afraid that you’ll hear out of context and be offended or angry or confused by.  They don’t trust the congregation, and they don’t trust the clergy to address whatever it is that’s odd.

I trust you.  And I trust myself. So here’s what is missing from the Gospel text today, coming right after the line, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

“Then [Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.  “Woe to you, Chorazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida!  For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.  And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?  No you will be brought down to Hades.  For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.””

And only then does Jesus move on to talk about how this message (which was omitted in the lectionary today) has been hidden from the wise and intelligent, and been revealed to infants. The passage as whole doesn’t make sense without it, because otherwise we don’t know what Jesus is referring to as his message.  

So in the briefest of explanations for the part that was omitted,  Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are all Jewish cities and villages in Galilee where Jesus preached and healed—they are the ones to whom Jesus is preaching woe, because he doesn’t believe that they have accepted his message, despite all the healings and signs he has done.  Tyre and Sidon are Canaanite cities on the coast—not Jewish places—and they are who Jesus is saying are capable of believing his message. Sodom we know—sort of— as an Old Testament city that God destroyed for its sin, though the sin in question was not what our language refers to as sodomy but rather a lack of hospitality, and the epitome of divine disaster befalling a city. 

So now that you’ve heard the whole passage, and a little explanation, what does the whole thing mean? What is the good news in this tale of woe and disappointment and frustrations that then suddenly ends with what we know as the “comfortable words”:  "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

I have a friend who is at many levels a very successful Lutheran pastor in Queens—he’s got a thriving congregation, he’s a good preacher, and if he’s a little bit of a curmudgeon, it only adds to his charm.  But he occasionally says jokingly that he “aspires to a ministry to furniture and dishes.”  By which he means, that ministering with people in the church is really hard—they don’t do what you want them to do, they don’t respond the way you want them to respond, it doesn’t matter what deeds of power you do in front of them, they have their own ideas and go their own way.  Furniture and dishes, on the other hand, stay where you put them, can be arranged beautifully, and need only dusting and polishing to stay perfect.  (I might add that it is evident from the condition of some of our furniture and dishes at Epiphany that we do not emphasize our ministry to them over our ministry to people…)  I would think the same could be said of anyone whose vocation involves working with people:  physicians and health care workers with their patients; politicians with their constituents (and vice versa); lawyers with clients; economists with the general populace….  People don’t always do what you expect, or what you can clearly see is in their best interests. 

Jesus was a far more successful pastor than my friend in Queens, but it seems to me that he’s having his furniture and dishes moment.  Jesus is frustrated that his real world ministry with real people is proving more like herding cats than herding sheep.  Jesus did not come to minister among furniture and dishes, he came for the salvation of all humanity, and humanity in the 11th Chapter of Matthew is not responding the way he wants them to.  He’s confronted with the realization that he is not succeeding the way he thought he would.  That the gospel he is preaching, which he believes should be infinitely compelling, is not.  

Jesus is frustrated at the beginning of the passage by how he and John are perceived as opposites, and equally too extreme for most people.  It’s almost like the story of the Goldilocks and the 3 bears.  About John the Baptist, Goldilocks would say, “This prophet is too holy.” And about Jesus, “This prophet is not holy enough.” And there’s no third choice in the middle where “this prophet is just right!”  Jesus despairs that neither John’s message of strict asceticism nor his own message of welcoming sinners is moving people.  He had hoped to have his message heard by all; but today he realizes that he just can’t please these people, and he may need to redirect his message. 

Then Jesus gets to the woe sayings to the cities.  According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has done incredible things in these towns—he’s healed the sick, preached the Sermon on the Mount, even literally raised the dead—and still his disciples are being persecuted.  The residents of the towns are happy with things the way they are; very comfortable, thank you, with their religious life, and don’t need to introduce a new element of following Jesus into their routines and traditions. No wonder he’s disappointed at the intransigence of the authorities and bulk of the population.  But these are the towns where his message was supposed to work; the Canaanites in Tyre and Sidon were not supposed to be his audience—but they may end up being the people who respond best to the Good News.  To me, this part of the passage is all about losing our sense of entitlement and recognizing our own resistance to change.  Where are we feeling entitled and satisfied, like the people of the towns Jesus had done all the signs in, and are therefore resistant to hearing and seeing the Gospel when it comes into our midst?

Together, these passages stand as a warning against grounding ourselves in earthly notions of success, and against assuming that failure is permanent.  Today Jesus feels like he has failed.  Jesus does not ultimately fail.  But he doesn’t succeed during his earthly lifetime in a way that, say, the people who preach the prosperity gospel today would recognize.  His message does not move the rich or powerful, or change the political system, or bring him honor during his lifetime. In the long run, death does not have the last word, salvation does come to the world, but perhaps it’s not as clean and simple as Jesus himself had expected, and there’s a whole lot of disappointment along the way.  But even here, in the midst of his despair, Jesus is able to give thanks for what he is finding: if the people of Bethesaida, Chorazin and Capernaum are not going to hear his message, then the people of Tyre and Sidon, the infants, will.  And he will still be offering his embrace to all those who—like him—carry heavy burdens and are longing for a new yoke.  

Preachers are known for preaching to ourselves and Jesus is, in all the Gospels, a powerful preacher. It occurred to me this week for the first time that in the comfortable words—and the verse before them about Jesus and the father knowing one another so intimately, perhaps Jesus is preaching to himself.  He’s preaching the message that he needs to hear. He is laboring, and he is heavy laden, and as the Father is in him and he is in the Father, he can in some sense come back into himself and be refreshed.  He labors under the yoke, and it is feeling heavy and so he stops and reminds himself that he isn’t laboring alone. He’s yoked to us.

Today I want to take Jesus up on his invitation to come and be refreshed.  I want to take his yoke upon me, and learn from him, and find rest for my soul.  He says his yoke is easy and his burden is light—sometimes true, sometimes not, in my experience—but perhaps it is when the yoke does not feel easy that I must realize that it’s because I’m pulling away from him; I’m making it harder on both of us by going in the wrong direction.  And if there are times today—and I’m sure there are—when Jesus again looks at the church, or the world, and despairs, I want to run into his arms and say, “Yes, it was worth it, and it is worth it.  Thank you.”  The comfortable words are not just comfortable and comforting for us, they’re comfortable and comforting for Jesus, because they’re the renewal of our relationship with one another.  It brings Jesus joy to have us come to him, to hear our praise and thanksgivings, to dwell in us as we do in him, and to help shoulder our frustrations when we are burdened by them, as we shoulder his frustrations when he is burdened.