Thursday, September 22, 2011

Walkabouts in the Diocese of New York

The priests' listerve of the Diocese of New York has been mildly abuzz with a discussion of our upcoming election of a Bishop Coadjutor. The Committee to Elect a Bishop presented a slate of five candidates, to which have been added two additional candidates by petition.  However, the Committee has decided not to allow the candidates by petition to participate in the official "walkabouts" whereby candidates are able to appear before regional groups of the diocese, articulating their vision for the episcopate, and respond to questions.  The bulk of online commendary is in favor of allowing all candidates to participate, a position I am writing to agree with and expound further in the hopes of changing the collective mind of the Committee.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a individual who nominated one of the candidates who was selected for the final slate by the Committee; but I write today as a priest of the diocese who hopes to serve a bishop whose election is upheld by the whole diocese, and whose election is not tainted by feelings that the process was unfair. 

The event of an Episcopal election is one where we affirm seeing the Holy Spirit at work. The Holy Spirit has given this diocese seven candidates (so far) for Bishop Coadjutor, and if the Holy Spirit makes the process a little more messy than we might like, then we need to respond with flexibility.  One of the hallmarks of the Holy Spirit is that she draws us along paths that are unexpected and challenging.

The walkabouts are not a canonical requirement--they are a means through which the Committee decided to allow for face to face engagement between members of the diocese and the candidates for bishop. So it would be a change in policy, not a suspension of a canon, to allow all candidates to participate.

At first, allowing candidates who are nominated by petition to participate in the walkabouts appears to be an act of generosity on behalf of the Committee--they will potentially have greater exposure and a larger platform to share their vision for the diocese than they might have otherwise.  I know and admire both candidates who have been nominated by petition, and I would like to be able to see them in the context of the other episcopal candidates so that I can better envision them not in their current roles but in the role of a potential bishop. 

However, it is also holding them to a more rigorous standard than they might encounter encounter in a set of alternate walkabouts.  Standing in front of the diverse members of this diocese for seven three-hour sessions spread over four days is a daunting task, and probably a very good initiation into the life of a bishop of this diocese. 

Delegates--particularly lay delegates, but also clergy delegates--have many claims on their time, and it would be far more efficient to attend a single walkabout than two walkabouts.  If delegates felt they only had time to attend a single walkabout, no matter which they chose, they would be missing the experience of a rich group of candidates, one of whom might ultimately be their bishop. 

I pray that we may see the seven candidates not divided into "the committee's candidates" and "the petition candidates" but as a single group: they are the candidates for Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of New York, and one of them will be elected to serve neither the Committee nor just those who signed a particulat petition but as bishop of the whole diocese.

The official walkabouts are for the whole diocese, and as such are the best location for our future bishop to engage with his or her people so that the people can make an informed choice and hear the will of the Holy Spirit.  For that to happen, all the candidates need to be present, so I pray that the Committee will reconsider their position.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I am Epiphany

Our wonderful Youth Group made this video to introduce people to Epiphany--check it out! 

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Honest Labor of Faith

A sermon for Proper 20 A on Matthew's version of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

In your mind’s eye, put yourself on the playground in elementary school. It’s time for PE. Kickball is the activity. The teacher has chosen two team captains, and they’re picking teams. Do you get picked first? In the middle? Second to last? Or were you last?

Who got picked last in elementary school? In my school it was the kids who were small, unathletic, and unpopular—particularly girls, though there always were the boys who got chosen after all the girls who were particularly picked on. You could be unpopular, but if you were strong and athletic, you got picked earlier (that was me). And you could be lousy at sports, but as long as it was one of your friends who was doing the choosing, they wouldn’t leave you to be chosen last because they knew it was humiliating. 

Now reread the Gospel lesson about the laborers who are being chosen at various times during the day. If you had a vineyard that needed tending, who would you choose first? Probably the strongest, right? It’s what I’d do. Once the first few groups get chosen, who is left behind? Who is that 5pm group? Probably the frail, the old, the sick, the disabled—maybe even a few women who needed to work? Some of them were probably people who couldn’t have worked for a whole day, even if they’d been chosen at 6am. But finally the owner of the vineyard comes to them, and hires them, too. Imagine being the feelings of being chosen last on the playground magnified a hundred times, and tie into it the pressure to feed your family. Imagine the relief when you finally did get chosen. 

 And then he pays them “the usual daily wage”—enough for someone to feed their family for a day. It is what they need; perhaps not what they have earned—the laborers who have labored all day are quite clear about that. Those who were chosen last have not earned it. But it is still what they need, and the landowner, in his generosity, chooses to give them the full wage.

Why does the landowner keep coming out to the marketplace and hiring more workers? It’s not at all clear in the parable, but consider this interpretation: perhaps there was just too much work to be done for it to be completed by those who were hired first. Later in the day, the landowner realized he needed more workers, so he hired the next group. And on and on. Even with only one hour to go, a few more hands might make all the difference. 

 That sounds like a parable about the church as well as the kingdom of heaven. Those who have labored all day are strong and vital and necessary to the growth of the vineyard. And they need to be thanked. So if you’re one of the first people “hired” at Epiphany—thank you. Good news: by God’s grace, you are being given salvation for your faith. So are the people who have been “hired” more recently—or who maybe haven’t/won’t/can’t work as hard. By God’s grace, they are also being given salvation. But the vineyard needs all its laborers, and I don’t think it’s quitting time yet, so there are still people who haven’t yet been hired yet. There are people here who are among the first; and there are people here who were hired during the middle of the day. But no one here has been chosen last. Even if this is your first Sunday here, you’re not being chosen last. Because our work is not yet done—every pew is not yet full—the Good News has not be shared as widely as it needs to be—there are still poor and hungry people living on the streets—there is so much to be done! And we need more laborers to do it.

“Why are you standing here idle?” asks the owner of the vineyard. “Because no one has hired us,” comes the reply. Because no one has asked them to work. How many people in this city would like to be invited into a community like Epiphany, to be asked, “Do you want to work? Do you want to labor in Christ’s vineyard?” To me, laboring in Christ’s vineyard means to work—hard—at being a Christian. To learn, to study, to show compassion, to love, and to give thanks. I believe that there are people who do want to be asked—who need to be asked—to do this work, but don’t know how to begin their labor. And there is no advertisement or website or blog that can compete with a friend’s invitation. 

And like the parable, people are hungering for the honest labor of faith. People are broken, people are afraid they don’t have enough to provide for themselves spiritually. They have been left behind by old institutions and alienated by people who would not let them work because of their perceived frailty. And left to themselves, they turn to books and self-help and a variety of things that are not bad in and of themselves but which are no substitute for the rough and tumble and depth of a real church family, where people love you and argue with you and there are things you love and things you hate and somehow it all ends up being more than the sum of its parts because of Christ’s presence. 

You should only make that invitation if you believe that this community is a place for all of those things—leaning and compassion and love and thanksgiving. But if you do believe it, ask with confidence. Remember how it felt in elementary school when you were finally chosen—what a relief. Someone wants me. I have my team now, my community, I know where I belong.

This Sunday, since it’s homecoming, is an opportunity to remind yourself of all the ways in which people at Epiphany do work in the vineyard. They’re not all for all of us—working a full day does not mean belonging to EVERY committee and every ministry at Epiphany. But it’s a chance to learn what other people are doing, and hear about how Epiphany is laboring in our portion of the vineyard. Listen to what pastoral visitors do. Talk to Janette about the challenges facing our homeless feeding program these days. Learn from our youth group about what Christian life is like for teens and tweens today. Go to the choir and music table and get a flyer on our concerts and invite friends to come share in God’s gift of music. Find out what the Altar Guild does—one of the least noticed but most crucial ministries in this parish. And if that’s a vine that you’d like to try tending… let them know. The harvest really is plenty here, and the laborers really are.. I wouldn’t say the laborers are “few” but I would say that the laborers are “just barely enough.”

And finally, at the end of the day, everyone gets paid the same. Everyone is loved equally by God. Which is hard. We like to believe we’re special—and we are special!—but so is everyone else.   

Jonathan and I conceived Nathan through in vitro fertilization, and on the day they implanted the two embryos in me Dr. Chung handed me a photograph of the two embryos in the petri dish just before they had implanted them. He pointed out that one had six cells and the other one had eight cells, and then proceeded to explain that the one with six cells was actually more advanced than the eight celled one because of something about how the cell walls looked. Or something. Anyway, when I was along with my picture of my potential children, I was struck by what an amazing privilege it was to see a first baby picture long before birth and long before an ultrasound. But it was also fascinating that I felt like the doctor was already telling me that one was better than the other. So I looked at the picture and said aloud, “I love you both the same.” I didn’t care if one had more cells than the other, or if one was more “advanced.” They were my hopes, the answer to my prayers, and I loved them.

God loves us all the same and we are God’s hopes, and the answer to God’s prayers. Whether we’re first or last, we are God’s beloved children. God never gives us less than we’ve been promised, and we’ve been promised salvation. So let’s go to the vineyard, and let’s get to work.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A sermon for the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

This passage from Romans is my good news today: that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord, who is the Lord of both the dead and the living. That all those who died ten years ago today belong to the God who loves them, and their lives were—and are—precious in his sight. It’s the faith that inspires the words of a hymn like “O God our Help in Ages Past” which we’ll be singing at the end of the service today:

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. 
Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.

The hymn, the biblical texts, the good news again and again: God is our help, our shelter, and our refuge; for yesterday, today and the future. It’s also the hymn I played and sang upon entering St. Paul’s Chapel on September 13, 2001 when we opened it for the first time to begin the relief efforts there that lasted so many months. I walked into the strange stillness of that room—a tiny bit of dust was the only sign of what had happened, and the noise from the pile was cushioned by the walls—and Lyndon Harris and I lit the candles on the altar. Then I took up a hymnal from a pew, went over to the piano and sat down, and I played and sang with Lyndon all six verses of O God our Help in Ages past. IT was a way of hallowing the space and rededicating ourselves to our faith in the Christ who knew what it was to suffer—and there was so much acute suffering going on in our city and our nation in those days—but who also was the incarnate reminder that in death life is changed, not ended, and that resurrection follows death. And it articulated my faith in a way that I couldn’t myself at the time—I was beyond words, unsure of what I was feeling, but the suffering and faith experienced by Isaac Watts nearly 300 years ago inspired this text that leapt through the centuries to become my words, my faith, for an event completely unimaginable to the author. When we finished singing, we got to work—bringing food, coffee, listening ears and participated in the national—and international—witness of strength and courage and self-offering in the face of a tragedy of such a magnitude.  

I really don’t want to preach about forgiveness today, even with it being the focus of all three Biblical texts. Who am I to talk about forgiveness when I didn’t lose a spouse or family member or close friend? And is ten years really enough for wounds to heal enough to begin to even hear the word? And most of all—how do you talk about forgiveness in the absence of any repentance or apology on behalf of those who sinned?

But I’m a priest of the church that follows Jesus Christ, who cried out “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” from the cross, and who taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Sometimes God leads us places we don’t want to go—and if we only believe in the words we pray when they are easy, then why are we here? So today we hear a gospel that commands us to forgive: not just seven times but seventy seven time. Are we really to forgive as many as 2,977 times?

Feeling my own limitations this week, I sought a definition of forgiveness from an expert. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the book, No Future Without Forgiveness in 1999 after his experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and spending time with Rwandan genocide victims and survivors—and perpetrators—of terrorism in Northern Ireland. He speaks—to me—as one having authority when he says the following: 

“In forgiving, people are not being asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.” (No Future Without Forgiveness, pg. 271.) 

When I consider forgiveness as “drawing out the sting”, as picking off the bee sting that is still injecting poison into myself long after the bee is dead, then it becomes something that I remember I want. In that sense, forgiveness has nothing to do with the sinner—the bee is dead and gone—and everything to do with the healing of the one who is offering forgiveness. And that sounds like something we need. Ten years on, as a culture and nation, we have not healed. We are still suffering, and we are still dying. And if forgiveness was about the perpetrators, about redeeming them in some soft and fluffy way, maybe we would be right to scorn it. But if it is about our own healing, if we need to forgive not for them but for us that sounds like today’s Gospel. God is the judge—not us—and we show mercy not because it helps the other (although it may) but because it helps us. It allows us to heal, it allows us to stop being poisoned by other people’s sins, and it allows us to step forward on a different path.

And that does not depend upon the perpetrators or their representatives. Archbishop Tutu again: 

“Does the victim depend upon the culprit’s contrition and confession as the precondition for being able to forgive? There is no question that, of course, such a confession is a very great help to the one who wants to forgive, but it is not absolutely indispensible. Jesus did not wait until those who were nailing him to the cross had asked for forgiveness. He was ready, as they drove in the nails, to pray to his Father to forgive them and he even provided an excuse for what they were doing. If the victim could forgive only when the culprit confessed, then the victim would be locked into the culprit’s whim, locked into victimhood, whatever her own attitude or intention. That would be palpably unjust.” (No Future Without Forgiveness, pg 272)

God is just. And our salvation does not depend upon the people who sin against us. It depends upon God alone, the God who is the God both of the dead and the living.  

The living continue to live: I was reminded of that last night—and in the days preparing for this sermon—preparing for the blessing of the civil marriage of Dinushka de Silva and Nikkya Martin, which I did last night. I was preparing for the pain of this morning, and the joy of last night at the same time, and that seems to be to be a lot like most of life; there is always joy somewhere, even in the midst of suffering and tragedy. And it made me reflect upon how that is true even for September 11, 2001 for me, because that’s the day I met Jonathan, my husband. I showed up at Chelsea Piers, where they had set up a huge triage facility and operating theater and we were setting up chaplaincy for that, and he was there. He recounts that when I arrived, I immediately took charge and set him home—I told him at what time to return. But in the haze of the day, we noticed each other, and it meant a lot later to each of us that we truly saw each other on that day. 

Under the shadow of thy throne thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone, and our defense is sure.