Monday, December 18, 2017

Badges and Sashes

My baptismal certificate is superglued into this prayer book. A gift at my baptism at age 9. It even has the stickers that were on the paper it was wrapped in. As a cradle and professional Episcopalian I have been given or picked up enough of them to keep one in every room in my house. This isn’t my favorite prayerbook, strange printing that it is, thicker than a pew BCP, but shorter and narrower, it does not hold easy, open or closed. Yet I have kept it where I pray at home for many years, mostly because that certificate resides there. Baptism is the primary call to ministry for all practitioners of the way of Jesus. Baptism is the mark and fuel and commission of all ministry. As I was preparing for my ordination to the diaconate This was the prayerbook, that I chose to pray with.

Looking to bookmark the ordination rite I flipped the pages looking for one of the various items that seem to have found their way there. The first one I found was this card. A Girl Scout membership card. It says: I will do my best:
  • to be honest
  • to be fair
  • to help where I am needed
  • to be cheerful
  • to be friendly and considerate
  • to be a sister to every Girl Scout
  • to respect authority
  • to use resources wisely
  • to protect and improve the world around me
  • to show respect for myself and others through my words and actions.
Finding that card full of diaconal applicable promises it seemed like there was some sort of holy witness there, A voice from when I was very young, who are you to be and how shall we live? The last time I wore a sash - oops stole - frequently was in my scouting days. And I have found myself looking down over the last month at this “sash” and occasionally wondering where the badges are.

People of all sorts went out to see John the Witnesser. People made their way through strange territory to find this unusual John. Opponents and the curious. Folks who have sunk their ships of safety and those still well secured. The desperate, the heartbroken, the anxious and the cheerful. People seeking solace in what seems to be an untamed wisdom. Daring to hope for clarity, for release, for salvation. John the Witnesser echoes the demanding job description in our Isaiah lesson today. Bring good news to the poor. Bind up the brokenhearted. Release captives. Comfort those who mourn. The figurative clothes that God offers in our lesson today are the garments of the Isaian suffering servant. Elsewhere it is commanded - put on your splendid clothing, shake the dust off of your feet. Beautiful is the messenger who brings peace, proclaims good news, whose holy arm has comforted the people. People will see what they have not, and hear what they have never pondered.

The title of deacon comes from the Greek word diackonos which means servant, waiter, or messenger. It is suggested that the roots of the Greek word really mean ‘through the dust’. The dust stirred up by a busy servant on ancient floors or the dust created by a messenger on a mission along ancient streets. We currently, and quite unusually, are a congregation with three deacons. Ann, Pat, and most recently myself. Deacons are certainly the oldest clearly named Christian order of ministry. Yet I suspect most people are a bit mystified by the distinctions.

In some denominations, deacons are not ordained, but special appointed leaders. In Catholic and Orthodox and Anglican churches like ours, we are ordained. We have deacons who are deacons for always, such as Ann and Pat - vocational. We also have deacons who are to have deacons hearts forever, but are expected to be ordained to the priesthood after 6 months or more. Deacons like myself who are referred to as transitional. All Deacons all wear the same clergy shirts as each other, and as priests, and most of us, priests and deacons, are officially titled the same - the Reverend. Sort of odd that a tradition that loves extra titles and names for everything (!) in the hundred years since its reinvigoration hasn’t decided that vocational deacons deserve their own additional title. Most Reverend and Very Reverend are already taken. Maybe Rousing Reverend or Bustling or Invaluable.

The focus of diaconal ministry Is fourfold.
  • Servant leadership, 
  • Proclamation of Christ's redemptive love to all,
  • To interpret to the Church the needs and concerns of the world; 
  • To assist Priests and Bishops in their ministries.
Activities that are all rooted in the servant ministry of Jesus. Tasks that are called for by the prophetic word of Isaiah. Duties that are shown by John the Witnesser. Wade in the water. Speak the truth. Point beyond yourself. Shake the dust. I wonder what our most experienced deacons would want this church to know about the diaconate. In the context of real peril Jesus invites all of us to risk being a holy invitation for others. The way is made level by our union with him and all people and by making his actions real in our lives. Our Gospel passage makes it sound like Jesus is standing here with us in this scene beside the Jordan river. Standing with accusers and wonderers and messengers, Just like us. We pray that he may he be born in our hearts this Christmas, and look, he is already here.

What if we did give badges? Injustice undoing, speaking up for the outcast, served a meal. Tried a new prayer practice, gave generously, offered comfort. Dared to try going to church. Looking around at this crowd gathered to hear John the Witnesser: what badges would you award someone else in this scene or someone in the neighborhood? Are there faith practice badges you worked really hard for? What badge do you need some divine motivation to pursue? As we have done throughout Advent when you come up to communion take a green disc, which does look rather like a badge. Invite you to write or even draw the faith practice badge you would award to someone in your life or community. Our badges probably should be imagined, but as long as we are wondering, What would they be?

Beyond the human messiness of our wilderness is a way, a way shaped by Jesus that isn't just thought about, but enacted, performed and fleshed out. God calls us to seek the badges that the prophet of Isaiah and John the Witnesser declare. Reach out to the refugee, listen to the shamed, challenge the comfortable - especially if it is you. Scatter the ancient dust with service and good news. Risk yourself as an invitation to a beautiful someone who stands here among us, someone who is a way we want to call our own.

Let us pray.

Help me to be a beginning to others,
to be a singer to the songless, a befriender of the friendless;
of reconciliation for the divided;
to become a beginning of freedom for the oppressed,
of comfort for the sorrowing, of sweetness for the soured,
of gentleness for the angry, of wholeness for the broken,
of peace for the frightened and violent of the earth.
Help me to believe in beginnings, to make a beginning, to be a beginning,
so that I may not just grow old,
but grow new
each day of this wild, amazing life
you call me to live with the passion of Jesus Christ.


Prayer by Ted Loder

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How to Have a Nick and Lucy Celebration!

1. Reserve a date in Advent.  I know that sounds like an absurd idea to some of you church leaders and volunteers.  However, it is achievable.  Currently, I have been offering Nick and Lucy as a Formation hour event between the services, and is only a feast of treats.  In the past it has been a whole brunch or a dinner with Sicilian-ish and Turkish dishes.  Different settings have different schedule demands, so choose what works best for you.  I have a silly attachment to trying to place it the weekend between the two feast days (Dec 6 for Nicholas and the 13th for Lucia), but it is often the case that the 3rd Sunday in Advent would work better.

2. Ditch the Miter.  Tea cozy headdress does not become typical for WESTERN bishops until after the 12th century.  Nicholas is 4th century.  And Nicholas was a minister in what became the Eastern church.  Where such hats never really appear.  So please, no miter.  I recommend a knit hat and beard combo like the one pictured on me.  There are plenty of plans for this craft online; and folks on Etsy more than happy to sell you one.  Nick costume should be a plain shepherds crook, plain red hat, a beard, a stole or a simpler cope and either an alb or cassock and surplice.

3. Give Thanks for LED. Make a head sized candle wreath.  I make one with a styrofoam ring and ribbon and LED candles.  More crafty folks could make something more elaborate to be sure.  I limit the candles to four because they do get heavy.  Lucy wears an alb with a red sash for a belt.

4. Act! Recruit congregants who have some desire to do a bit of acting.  I have a script for both saints, who both tell their story. These are saints from beyond time who don't know anything about any other legends connected to them.  I invite the actors to read up a bit on their saint, but to mostly follow the core of the script.  Lucia's script is rather imaginative, drawing on some of the other hagiographies of young female martyrs of that era.  Here are two excerpts from the scripts.  I would be glad to share the whole text. 

My home is called Myra. It is warm and sunny, and on the edge of a very large sea. 
My home is near a land called Greece and near a land called Egypt. They might call the place where I lived Turkey. Are we in Turkey or Egypt? Are we far or close? Oh my.
Well, hmm. Let me tell you about myself. I am a Christian bishop. 
When I was a new bishop, the church was a very big secret. It may have been the biggest secret that ever was. It was a secret because sometimes, men and women who followed Jesus, well we could get in very great trouble for being his disciples. Yet we grew and grew and grew because we worked so hard to follow Christ, to love as he loved and serve as he served.

My mother named me Lucia, which means light.  She says we shine like the sun in the deepest darkest nights. My family, we live on the island of Sicily. Is this Sicily? It doesn’t seem like it. Hmm. 
Well at home in Sicily, our family has lived here for as long as anyone can remember. 
And our family is powerful and our family has plenty of everything and anything. There is nothing that we need that we cannot get.  Several years ago, I woke up early on a Sunday morning.  ....Inside I could see city leaders, a neighbor, other servants, someone whom I had seen begging near the market and many people who were comfortable like my family: and then I noticed my Aunt! ...
Then it began – the beautiful sweet singing, the stories about Jesus, who had died and then lived again, the prayers for friends and strangers, even prayers for the Emperor who hated anyone who didn’t worship him.

5. Gather! Find people to bring the following items
  • Candycanes (vaguely associated with the Bishops crozier), chocolate coin candies, butterscotch candies (they look like gold), and an orange type of candy.
  • Oranges sliced into sections.  Oranges are associated with Nicholas for two reasons.  First that they also look like gold coins (round and orange) and because he is the patron saint of sailors, oranges prevent scurvy.  
  • Cinnamon rolls 
  • Sparkling cider.  There isn't any reason besides it is festive and fun and way better than other options.  I have to wonder if I personally increase the yearly sales of sparkling cider because I use it at almost every event. 
  • If you want a larger feast then find avid cooks to bring other foods.  Breakfast pizzas are a nice brunch option.  These don't need to be region specific, I just find that educational and special.  I have had pasta dishes for later meals with Nick and Lucy.
6. Fetch! Get the following items
  • Tall narrow birthday candles.  I like to use the sparkly ones, but that is because the first version of the event involved sparklers.  Amazingly we did not set off the smoke alarm in the nave.   This year one of the candles lit some of the parchment paper on fire, but that was quickly extinguished.
  • Nicholas saint prayer cards from the St. Nicholas Center.  They used to sell an awesome one that highligted his whole ministry and was very international.  Maybe some pressure could bring that one back.  And if I could find nice ones for Lucy I would be so thrilled.  Maybe you know an artist who could craft one.  Anyways, we put  Nicholas prayer cards in the shoes with the candy.
7. Party! Set up the Feast
  • It could be around seated tables or more of a reception style.  This choice also depends on the food you choose.  
  • Put up signs inviting folks to leave their shoes outside of whatever room you are celebrating in.  I make use of teenagers as 'elves' who work on filling the shoes and lighting candles and other tasks that make things run smoothly.  
8. Pray! This is a liturgical style meal.  Older (longer) versions have scripture readings and more music.  One of my core values in liturgical work like this is that the voices are shared.  I MC the celebration, and multiple voices share the leadership voice.  These are divided up by color.  

9. Serve!  Discover a good and meaningful way to serve together at the end of the party.  We make Take Home Paks.  The possiblities vary by community.  However if we are inviting folks to live into the witness of Lucy and Nick, we should help them give it a try.

10. Prep! Make copies, share scripts, find elves.  Publicize.  

So why do I like bringing these saints together?  Read more from the year before.  

If you would like actual scripts and actual programs please just email me and I am glad to share.  What else do you need to know about setting this good thing up??

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Will there be turkey? Discovering we are thanks giving people.

In a church I served in Colorado there were triplets, two girls and a boy, all with fine blond hair. They would listen attentively to children’s chapel and when returning to the sanctuary they would settle in with their crayons at the special child-size desk that can be found in many Episcopal churches. The one you find by turning around, putting your bum on the kneeler, and using the seat as a table. When they were nearly five one of them heard something new.

The priest prayed some of the same words that had been offered every time we gathered at the Eucharist. What he said in the prayer was the phrase ‘the great thanksgiving.’ One of the girls piped up in her everyday voice: Thanksgiving? Daddy, why is he talking about Thanksgiving? Is it thanksgiving? The brother and sister looked at her, so too did almost everyone in the sanctuary. The priest and the deacon paused for a chuckle, and then they continued with the sacramental prayers. The little girl’s tall father leaned over and did his best to quietly explain the connection and the difference. She seemed satisfied. However for the next 5 weeks or so, every time this family was in worship one of the triplets would respond in the exact same way. Thanksgiving? Mommy, or Daddy, why is he, or why is she, talking about thanksgiving? Will there be turkey?

Thanksgiving is a loaded dish of a holiday. Memories of school assemblies singing songs of cultural harmony and celebrating pluralism. Paper bag turkey costumes and the endless mix up of Puritans and Pilgrims. Visions of bountiful concord and weather-blown parades, hopes of perfect and scrumptious tables around which peaceful families might be gathered. Apparently, 85% of Americans partake in this holiday of thanksgiving. Which may make it the most widely celebrated moment we have. It is a holiday that strives to be more than our differences, a celebration of a daydream that in these divisive times seems far far away.

All our lessons for this Thanksgiving service push into our lives with the word of God and ask revealing questions. Have we lived in gratitude? Have we lived as if we know that all is God’s and all goes back to God? And the other way is jogging into a pit of despair? The fall decor and game times only sort of block the darker truths that also come to our tables. Truths about our un-generosity and un-forgiveness and numbing. The trappings only kind of cover the memories of the terror of religious dissenters who risked the wild unknown rather than stay at home. Only vaguely masks the history of the decimation of American Indians. What is it about the holidays that are supposed to be beautiful but somehow seem to bring out the broken in us?

As Christian practitioners, we are to be thanks giving people, week in and week out we celebrate communion, the Great Thanksgiving. That is what those triplets were noticing for the first time. The questions they asked should be our daily question. Are we really thanksgiving? As people who hear Jesus’ invitation to discipleship, we return to the table to hear the questions that Jesus asks us. How are we broken with friend and family and neighbor and stranger? What is Jesus’ measure of gratitude and how can we sow it, reap it, share it in God’s way?

Imagine a moment where a lid has been lifted. In the pot is a holy soup where anxieties and cruelty are lessened, where we breathe deeply and where we know that there is enough. Under this lid there is not boiling fear or frantic loneliness. The soup here is only gratitude. Smells like gratitude, tastes like gratitude.This is what we are called to sow, reap, share. Let us not only pass through thanksgiving. Let us settle with listening hearts around this table with this soup of gratitude all the time. Expand this practice into each day like lungs filled with good smells. Let us make our feast here with Jesus. With candor and simplicity and wholehearted love. For we are thanks giving people. Sow it, reap it, share it. Amen.

Lutheran Episcopal Thanksgiving Eucharist
November 22, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dissolved in Lake Coeur d'Alene

If you have not been to Camp Cross, there is one thing it is helpful to know. You cannot drive into it. There are two options. You could hike a trail and ford a creek that feeds Lake Coeur d‘Alene. Some of you may be old enough to recall hiking into camp along the mile or so of trail. The bridge over the creek washed out long ago, and the state of Idaho has yet to decide it needs to be resurrected. The creek in the summertime is only knee deep, so it is refreshing if also challenging if you have baggage. A few of us are big fans of bringing back the practice of crossing over by hiking in, with or without the bridge, especially for our older youth campers. We like the challenge, the placing of time and sweat between one side and the other.

However, at this time most people get to camp by boat. You are brought to the dock at Loffs Bay and you are loaded onto a large heavy duty barge that we perhaps mislabel a pontoon. As long as I have been here some of us have been talking about the deep holy value of the boat ride. Of how it is a boundary crossing, a clear border between the everyday world of everyday loves and heartaches, and the space apart that Camp Cross very much is. No camp, whether scout or church camp, no camp I have ever encountered has such a complete crossing over. A real way in which the pressures of life and the terrors of brokenness can seem very much thrown into the sea and left behind on the other side of the water.

It is almost impossible to calculate how crucial the Exodus experience is for ancient Judaism and therefore early Christianity. It is the background rhythm of nearly every track of the Old Testament. It is a tune that the New Testament writers are humming and assume you are too. Not the experience itself which is beyond historicity and mechanical proofs. The crossing through the waters is the metaphor of metaphors in our scriptures. Figuratively it brings straightforward images of freedom and cleansing, as well as serious danger and the transitory nature of things. The Hebrew word for waters in this Old Testament passage occurs 575 times. It runs all through the Psalms and is splashed across the Prophets. The exiles in Babylon and beyond asked, ‘Who are we, what is God like’. The answer is that we are people who were set free, by a God whose love and forgiveness are boundless. There wasn’t a checkpoint on the way out of Egypt. No Pearly Gates and Peter absurdly checking the lists of proper and naughty slaves, no hoops to jump through for the very human, certainly sinful people who were caught in the grinding wheels of empire and the gruesome powers of big D death.

Having watched the whole span of human being-ness for years I believe that forgiveness is both a natural gift and something we have to learn to do over and over again. Today's parable is children's chunky book simple. We don’t need advanced degrees to get his metaphor today. Someone is forgiven: endlessly broadly completely. We were slaves in Egypt and caught in terror and we were not asked for our papers at the shoreline. We were set free. We passed through the waters. Freely. And the only proper and faithful response is to become just as forgiving.

People will let us down, we will let others down. Living together can be an adventure in lies and dead ends that seem beyond escape. I don’t know how easy or hard it is for God to forgive. For me, sometimes it is easy and other times it takes years to let go of those moments of slights and ghosting and manipulation. It may even be that I hold the betrayals of the people I love longer than I hold the betrayals of myself. For me the forgiveness doesn’t come so much with cognitive effort, but only with prayers of the heart and time walking with a community is centered on the way of Christ. Trusting what Jesus says about God and about us means that we are living with him on the other side of the shore. We still live in the whole territory of earth and humanity where the garbage heap of demeaning selfishness and big D death resist God’s reign. Yet trusting in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we become free. Free to choose to cooperate with such wretchedness, or not.

Most of the young people who have spent a session of camp with me have been invited to the dissolving of sins. If what I am known for in the long run is an immensely effective liturgical parlor trick, so be it. The counselors cheer when they hear we will be naming our sins before God! Strange! They cheer because this parlor trick feels like it works in a tangible way. In the middle of an evening worship service by the lake, we hand out markers and slips of this paper (holding up a slip). In a variety of ways, we invite folks to take a slip of paper and write on it some grief or sin or brokenness that they need to give to God to dissolve. All those bones of small contention, the self-dislike, the neighbor who is annoying, unforgiveness big and small.

I use the same paper and a bowl of water when I greet Whitman students each August. My sign says dissolve your anxieties. The bowl grows in particles of issues written and dropped in the water. The students always say wow, that feels better. Like a little bit of therapy. However, there is a big difference between the effect in the bowl and the effect in the lake. In the bowl, there are remnants visible. Watery marker and little bits of the rice and starch that make up the quilting stabilizing paper I use for this parlor trick. And in this small stable water, they don’t go away completely. It eventually looks a bit like a witches brew. This is how it is with us. We forgive, but we have bits remain. Which leads us to do exactly what the main character of the parable does. We do not forgive as we have been forgiven.

What happens in the lake, however, is what I trust happens with God. The slip is placed in the living water of the lake and it utterly disappears. Churned up by the winds and the wakes of the boats they simply are gone. So I have the paper slips here for you today. And I want you to take one. Take it and hold onto it until you are near a living body of water. Mill Creek, the Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean. When you find that living water, I want you to take a deep moment of prayer. Imagine yourself crossing through the sea of Reeds, what checklist of tears were you not asked about? Find yourself in the memory of this parable. That moment where you have not forgiven as you have been forgiven. Write something on that slip of paper, and put it in the water. Let it Go.Let it be as it is with God when we confess and make amends. Utterly dissolved.

The forgiveness Jesus offers us in this parable is for the little things we cling to so tightly and the big ones that hover around us like a fog. The forgiveness offered here is as death-defying as hiking across the sea on dry ground. Forgiving as we have been forgiven tramples down all the deception and shaming that the powers that be ever dole out.

I wonder what can be written on that sheet and set into living waters? Jesus asks us today, can you offer yourself or others the same freedom you have been so freely given by God?

Let us pray silently together,
Imagining ourselves with that paper in hand,
Standing on the shore. (Ocean sounds over the sound system.)


St. Paul's Episcopal Church
September 17, 2017
Walla Walla, Washington
Proper 19 Year A Track 1

To donate to the fund to fix the pontoon click here!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Naming Liberty: Moses meets Yahweh

Sitting around the family fire one night Moses wonders about the people he left behind in Egypt. It is the thought he cannot get off his mind.  The meager rations, the broken bodies uncounted. His wife pokes him, Moses, Moses, where has your mind gone? Oh nowhere.  What do you need?

Or maybe there were dreams.  Visions of himself standing before Pharaoh, nightmares of walls of water and chariots pursuing a crowd of refugees. Maybe these dreams were half forgotten and only recalled in flashes during waking hours. I wonder if God had been calling to Moses for many many years. Maybe like many of us Moses turned his head, shook it off, busied himself with the nomadic life, and tried to let it go.

Here in the light of this sacred fire before Moses in today's reading, we learn that God isn’t as concerned about safety and self-preservation as we are. What God desires is trust and even risking one's life for the sake of the well being of all.  What our lessons tell us today is that God unquestionably sees and hears and is aligned with people who suffer degradation, rejection,  tragedy, and terror. And it tells us that God’s salvation works through both our strengths and our weaknesses.

This strange and holy moment of Exodus also gives us a name for God. Sometimes I think the divine self-naming of ‘I will be what I will be’ is a profound statement of philosophical depth. God says God is the ground of being,  the prime mover. There are other times when I think the reply is a little bit obnoxious. When asked your name ‘I am what I am’ is not a helpful reply.

This phrase is what gets squashed into Yahweh in the Hebrew.Think of the reply of 'Iwillbewhatiwillbe' as one word. And in current translations of the Bible this is usually printed as Lord, where all the letters are in capitals, with the o-r-d in smaller capitals.  But this may be more unhelpful than the initial reply.Because in English the word Lord is a title, and in most of our biblical texts the word is a name. It might help to think of Lord being like my grandfather's dog named Sergeant.  He wasn’t an enlisted person with a rank, he was a dog.  ‘Here Sarge!’

Lord is Yahweh which is a name which is the mashed together version of ‘I will be what I will be.’ A sacred, holy, trembling in fascination, and I need to take off my hat and shoes kind of name.  You can try to ignore the angels and the burning bushes and the person in trauma at your feet. You can choose the temptations of comfort and ignorance and falsehoods. God has a name for that too, its name is sin.  Or you can turn around when God calls, get in line with Jesus, and dare to live in Yahweh’s way.

Week in and week out many people in this community offer welcome, feeding and healing space to people who seek liberation from a variety of evils. Yet our lessons today ask a hard question of tired and anxious people.  Is it ALL we are called to do? What does God ask of people like many of us, people of comfort and education, people rather like Moses? Moses’ life story gave him peculiar access and opportunity.  He gives God multitude of reasons why he should be let out of this duty. Yet characteristically, ‘Iwillbewhoiwillbe’ holds fast because God sees and hears and knows the cries and the suffering. God works through even reluctant human agents: creatively and surprisingly.

The rains in Texas and Louisiana and India have swamped the rich and the poor alike, and it has also exposed monumental injustice and vulnerability.  While at the same time there is grace at work in communal action to directly care for and save the stranger.  Reaching out a hand over a boat, throwing your whole self into an emergent situation.   ‘Iwillbewhatiwilbe’ empowers people to stand and speak directly to Pharoah, to step out beyond our comfort zone and to serve for liberty in the middle of this mind numbing chaos. ‘IwillbewhatIwillbe’ lit a fire in the heart of Moses, What spark of grace is God igniting in your heart?  Is there a need for a holy advocate for justice right here, and if Moses couldn’t excuse himself from it, how can we?

A decade ago at a camp on the James River there was a large plastic bin of kittens. At that time there was an effort to bring a compassionate end to the herd of semi feral cats who tore up the dining hall duct work each winter. The camp staff named this litter of kittens biblical names.  Peter and Mary and Goliath.  One calico kitten was named Moses. The young staff didn’t know that a calico kitten was most likely a girl.

I took young Moses home in a cardboard box rather than a reed basket. But as I drove her home I was thinking that I didn’t want to spend her whole life explaining her name. So I sat on my bed with the kitten in one hand and the Bible open to Exodus while I asked what word would work for a name, a word that was at the heart of Moses’ story.  Scanning the text and holding my wild water loving and talkative kitten one word stood out. Liberation. Liberation is the heart of Moses call, his action, his duty. The kitten Moses became the kitten Liberty.  What would your name be if it was what God is calling you to be and to do for his reign?

Will you pray with me?

Light from Light, Creation from chaos, Hope from despair.
Blessed Lord God of the Universe, Listen this day for the groans and yearning of your world,
Listen to our songs of joy and our dirges of destruction,
then in the midst of our stammering, speak your clear word of life
in the name of your Word become flesh our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Prayer adapted from Walter Bruggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wonder Woman Baker: Parables and Outrageous Rising

We don’t know how old yeast is. Safe to say that yeast is much older than mammals, and it is also safe to say that it is everywhere.  All over grapes in the vineyard and on the apples in the orchard.Yeast may have been one of the first microorganisms collected by humans. Bread baking that produces risen round loaves is evident in the archaeology going back over four thousand years. Ancients couldn’t just buy paper packets of yeast like we might use at home.  Our forbearers kept and nurtured something like a sourdough starter.  A lump of wet ground grain can be left in the open air, so that yeast, or as we might say today wild yeasts, will land on it. Yeast is all over the place, ready and waiting.   

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough. If this was the Wonder Woman of this parable (holding up a large Wonder Woman action figure) and she had a bushel of wheat flour, it would be relatively this much (holding a container of a relative volume of cereal). 80 pounds of flour. Now imagine the water or milk and oil and leaven you would need.  Imagine that yeast has done its work and this incredible mass of dough rising 2 to 3 times its original size.  No one person can make that much bread at one time, in one day. Not by ancient methods, just barely at the bakeries here in town.  The volume is outrageous. Which is a clue to us that this isn’t just an everyday story about an everyday person making some bread.

What is the reign of God like? It is like yeast. All over the place.  Unavoidable.  Ready and waiting to rise. And there is this wonder woman, I imagine her more full figured and jolly than this doll.  Hiding that leaven in that grain, not just mixing as it is translated in our reading, the Greek text says she hid it. Like jolly treasures that you cannot separate from all that surrounds it. Outrageous and daring this reign of God is, all over the place, indivisible from you and me and a strong armed baker woman ready and waiting to become bread for the world.

We also heard today about a mustard tree.  Mustard seeds are not really the smallest of all seeds, and neither do they make champion trees.  Mustard seeds are grown here in Walla Walla County. You may have seen their 3 foot high plant with yellow flowers, which you might refer to it as a bush, but hardly a tree.There are varieties that do grow taller, and are woodier, but certainly not a tree for climbing or a packed aviary. Once again the parable leans into the outrageous, garners the attention of the hearers who knew the plants well: Why in the world, what huh? What is Jesus doing with this one?

Jesus is illustrating the reign of God and therefore his mission as a tremendous life hosting tree connects it to that ancient Tree of Life of the garden of Eden, and the one of Proverbs 3 saying Wisdom, she is a tree of life to those who embrace her.  The reign of God is like that holy ancient tree with deep roots and tremendous branches. That in this case according to Jesus, is a mustard one. Mustard seeds which offer spiciness - excitement that opens your eyes.  And a tree that has healing and nourishment in her leaves. Taken together these two parables are not really about bread or mustard, but about Jesus himself.

Who are you we ask him again and again?  Here he connects himself with the Spirit of God, the Wisdom, the Sophia, the Ruach that brooded over the waters, that breathed life into formed clay. Open your eyes, the goodness of the Lord is all around you.  Here Jesus offers himself as a gigantic tree with limbs wide open, with enough bread for all to feast. It is not about the skills or strength of the yeast, it is not about the purity or the solitariness of the mustard seed.  It is about how God’s reign is from the beginning, even older than yeast, and just as much all over the place, hidden in plain sight, very close at hand. The kingdom of God should open our eyes, bring healing and shelter.  God’s reign is ready and waiting to be the agent of transformation with us.

We have treasures and seeds hidden all around for pursuing God’s reign, but how do we join with the wonder woman baker? Today when you leave I invite you to take a cup of cereal from the bowl in the baptismal font. Take that cup full and the small sheet of paper stacked beside the font with you on your way home.Divide that measure of grain into three even groups. With the first group list some gifts, skills, and knowledge that you or folks in this community are really good at or really like doing.  With the second group name places where people gather in the Walla Walla valley. With the third group name needs, real needs of this place and time. Then randomly take one item from each column and imagine like an outrageous baker. Daydream of the loaves we could raise by connecting these three ideas.

Jesus doesn’t say that the wonder baker just mixed the leaven into the flour and then didn’t do anything with it. Unbaked dough is fun to play with, but rather a waste of treasures in the end. So, I challenge you to work with your neighbors to try one of these daydreams. We cannot wait until the new bakery manager comes to activate the yeast that is all around us. There isn’t yeast in those gluten free cereal O’s,  but if you carry them home and leave them out on that piece of paper, even if you cannot see it, yeast will almost certainly show up there.  The reign of God is like a wonder woman baker who tossed yeast all over the place and is waiting with eager longing, calling us with sighs too deep for words, daydreaming about the rising of the children of God.

Let us pray.

May our hearts see through the surfaces
And glean the real treasures of everything that meets us.
May our souls glimpse the infinity
that hides in the simple gifts all around us.
And may we experience each day as a sacred promise
Ready to rise around a heart of outrageous wonder.
In the name of the Holy Trinity, One God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
July 30, 2017
RCL, Proper 12, Year A, Track 1

(I adapted this prayer for the sermon from somewhere else, but given the weeks that have gone by, I am not sure where! The cereal activity adapted from Eric Law in the book HOLY CURRENCIES.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Scouting in Networks: Ballplayers, Search Process, and Seeking Rebecca

Abraham’s servant was given no easy task. The slice of Genesis we heard today doesn’t give this servant a name. Earlier chapters list an important steward of the household as Eliezer, so let’s call him Elle.  Sarah has died, and Issac has come of age. The promise that Abraham’s descendants will number like stars in the sky as a light for all people, this promise seems difficult to win.  There is one son still in the household. He needs a wife.  

Maybe you imagine that Elle has a family himself.  We can certainly believe that his well being is directly tied to the success and failure of Abraham, his master. So Elle must set out, given a critical task with a high chance of striking out. Maybe you have been there.  A faithful employee or family member, given a daunting assignment on which it seems everything depends.

So Elle goes. Journey one week north, turn at the rock that looks like a hat, ford the river, and take the back roads, cross borders and go to Abraham's kindred, who may barely remember his name.  Go there to those people and find a partner for the heir Issac. You cannot go somewhere closer, to some other tribe. Go far beyond your comfort zone to find her, find this prospect who is a stranger of immense hope.  Get permission to bring this stranger back, and then journey again across dark roads and rivers and borders.

Elle begins this critical meeting with a prayer, it can sound a bit like making a wish with a coin, but it is wiser than that. Hospitality to strangers is a critical virtue among semi-settled desert peoples.  It isn’t just a move of kindness, but bringing water to strangers and their camels is an act of justice. Elle and Rebecca are like many servants of God then and now. They journey into the unknown and carry buckets and buckets of water.  Patiently, wisely and, daringly striving for God’s way.

I must confess that I experience a vast amount of sociological and historical distance from this lesson. I don’t have a servant, and neither did my parents or their parents. And then the idea that my parent would send a staff member to go choose my spouse?  Ha. And that the best and frankly only option would be to choose from my cousins? Good grief.  It is not my world. Yet I know we struggle with choosing our own partners wisely. And that sometimes, other people or perhaps algorithms do a better job of choosing well for long term partnerships. There is so much that gets piled into making matches, pragmatic or romantic, personal or professional. Families and legacies, hopes for the future, and heartbreaks in the past all flow into the request of Abraham and the search of his servant.

As many of you know we will be revealing the parish profile soon. We are opening ourselves to the anxiety and vulnerability of searching for a new partner in ministry. There are churches where this is done with auditions and voting.  There are also traditions where congregations and pastors have very little say in matches.  It might be fabulous if there was a computer program that could take all our data and all the data of all the priests who are open to a new call and churn out the perfect prospect.  But there is more to it than that.  There is something about personality and hopes and style that are precious but not reducible to search words and data. This process is a human process, and we have made sure it is a prayerful process. It is daring, revelatory and challenging, while also beautiful and hopeful.

The profile committee, or as some have nicknamed it ‘the sociology committee’ is wrapping up its task, and soon the crucial work will be given to the next committee, the Discernment and Review Committee. Their calling is rather like our friend Elle, Abraham’s servant.  Which is rather similar to scouting, not knots and hikes, but baseball. I was once the sound booth ‘volunteer’ for a large college baseball operation.  I say volunteer in quotes because most of the time I sat in the climate controlled production box and chatted with my friends. I did learn to run the soundboard, all those walk up songs and smashing sounds when a fly ball soars behind the stands, but I only had to do that in emergencies.  What I did more often was show baseball scouts around, and I got to know a few quite well.

I want to share with you two things about the work of baseball scouting. The first is that baseball scouts work basically on their own, but they don’t really. All the Scouts know each other, it is rare to see just one scout show up at a game.  They may serve opposing teams, but the success of the whole sport depends on more teams having good players. These guys are companions on the road, and it is more than just social.  Bill may not be looking for a side winding pitcher, but he knows that Ted’s team is, so when he notices a good prospect he shares his notes and observations. Baseball scouts rely on human networks to do the job right.  

In your search for the next rector there are statistics and search words and profiles and computer programs.  But the chances are that the priest God is raising up for you will be found in our Episcopal kinship-type networks.  I wasn’t looking for a new call when I first heard of Walla Walla. A friend of mine, who is a friend of St. Paul’s, he sent me the information, said I think this is for you.  I replied that looks so lovely with the trees and the creeks.  Nope, leave me alone. I refused the hint more than once. However, he persisted, and here we are.Unlike our Genesis story today, we cannot wait for the perfect person to appear like a fairytale. There is work to do, but the discernment and review will not be done alone it is being pursued with prayer and in large networks who want us to win.  

The second important thing I learned is that the young showboat ‘every ball over the fence’ person, isn’t very interesting if the other skills or the heart is shallow.  Brute strength fades in the rigors of long seasons. Furthermore, no one player can save a team. All the fantastic statistics in the world won’t bless a clubhouse if those stats belong to a person who doesn’t know how to evolve and doesn’t play well with others. What scouts seek are team players who know the game, who are generous and have a willingness to share and learn. All the time, every player on the team, every season and every off season.  We are both scouting and being scouted. 

There is one more thing I learned from baseball scouts that might matter for us in our practice as people called to be Jesus’ ball team.  For all the paperwork and video you can collect, there is something else.  A vibe thing, a chemistry factor, that whole picture beloved-ness that doesn’t show up in spreadsheets.  In our Old Testament replay today, Elle prays and seeks some very specific qualities, but perhaps in the act of prayer itself he invites the mystery of holy compatibility. The match is made quickly, yet in Rebecca the tribe gets something more than the skills listed on the profile.  She is no wilting violet, and she is how the blessing continues and is made real.  It is Rebecca who is the protagonist in the chapters ahead, directing the course of the whole season. She brings the skills, but she also brings something else. That flat out face in the grass diving for the ball devotion to God’s way.

So I have a few questions for us to consider:
  • How are we as Jesus mission teammates, what would a scout learn about us?
  • When God invites you into a hard deed, how do you respond? 
  • Do you pray? Do you reach out to the network?
  • Are you ready to be delighted by the call you didn’t expect but that produces blessings for God’s mission in this place and time?
    • If not, can you pray for the grace to get ready?
Let us pray.

May the forms of our belonging —in love, creativity, and friendship—
Be equal to the grandeur of God and the beauty of our souls.
May we know the urgency with which God longs to partner with us.
May we have the wisdom to enter generously into our own unease
And to discover the new direction this holy searching wants us to take. Amen.

Prayer Adapted from John O'Donahue

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Killer the Seal: Acts of Thecla and Being a Creative Compelling Witness

This is Killer, the stuffed animal seal puppet. You might wonder, why is sweet little guy named Killer.  We will get to that eventually, I promise. First, however, we need to think for a bit about the kind of document that the Acts of the Apostles is.  Outside of the biblical canon, there are Acts of Barnabas, Acts of Thomas, Acts of Rebecca and even Acts of Andrew.  Starting a title with Acts is sort of like putting the document into a section of the bookstore.  If you want a cookbook, go to the cookbooks. For the literary category of Acts, there really isn’t a premade placard for that.  You have to imagine a section somewhere between a spiritual superhero comic book and a telenovela.

The intention in Acts-type document is to invite readers and listeners into a creative and compelling story that inspires heroic faith and teaches virtuous living. We tell fairytales today, fairytales like the Little Mermaid, not because a singing evil octopus is expected, but to help us know that we can resist and defeat evil in whatever form it arrives. Acts-type stories are not told under any illusion of being verifiably 100% accurate, while at the same time they are also deeply and passionately true.

For example, let me tell you about the Acts of Thecla. Thecla is a young woman of means in what we know now as Turkey. One night sitting in her window,  she overhears St. Paul proclaiming the Good News in a home below.  She is so moved by this witness that she goes to him and declares her intention to abandon her fiance and her family and follow him sharing the good news of Jesus. When she returns home to tell her Mother about her change of faith, there is weeping and wailing and her family turning her into the authorities. After more time with Paul and run-ins with the Empire, Thecla ends up in prison and eventually is stripped of her clothing and tied to a post in the Coliseum, to face the public shame of a horrible death.  It is a terrifying moment, but her faith is so strident, and her virtue so self-evident that the wild dog which bounds in to devour her, it snuggles with her.  And the lion who runs toward this tasty treat, simply bows down and licks her toes.

Somehow during this trial in the Coliseum, she is unbound from the stake and Thecla goes running toward the exit. On her way to safety, she sees a pool full of aquatic beasts, and led by the Spirit she leaps in and baptizes herself in the pool of killer seals!  Thecla makes it out of the Coliseum and is reunited with Paul and his companions.  Sometime later she encounters her mother, who had thought she was dead, and after a time of reconciliation and proclamation, her cruel mother comes to believe and follow Jesus as the Christ.  See what I mean by spiritual comic book crossed with a telenovela?

Acts stories are fast-moving adventures, full of danger and amazing grace and extraordinary moments.  Lots of ancient leaders last days are told as Ascensions.  Good men who rose up into the clouds is a classic metaphor for telling that final chapter of the esteemed.  The idea that Jesus is giving up on gravity,  and now soaring past Jupiter  (people have done the calculations) is very much not the point, and contrary to physics.  The Ascension is about letting go of Jesus’ earthly mission and handing it over to you and me. It is a way to say he is no longer here in the same way, but he is still with us.  I think of it as he has been reabsorbed by God’s transcendent life, while in the same breath God gives us the Spirit to empower our part in the holy mission right here, right now.

The Ascension is a life-giving adventure that leads us beyond the everyday and into a deeper and broader reality that is beyond our limited senses.  The ancients knew it was both fantasy and true, maybe we can too.  We will soon baptize young Leo, and I promise there are no ravenous beasts in the font.  We will welcome him into a Jesus movement and a home in God that is life-giving and also surrounded by fierce challenges at every turn.  We will promise to support him in his life in Christ. How exactly will we do that?  What is Jesus calling us to let go of?  What are the lions and pools of killer seals that threaten and defeat us?

When I was in seminary my closest buddies and I would declare dress up days.  One time I decided to go as Thecla.  I had these pale flesh tone leggings and a flesh tone shirt.  I painted a few bloody scars on my face and arms. And I searched the neighborhood for a stuffed seal,  who I of course named Killer. We had been assigned the Acts of Thecla in our core classes at least twice.  Apparently, my classmates didn’t read as much as I did, because all day long I had to tell her story again and again.  I went to classes and meals and probably chapel in that costume, and it wasn’t until dinner time when spouse of our NT professor looked at me in my allusion to naked costume and fake scars and Killer seal puppet and said with joy,  ‘Thecla’!

My seminary was ecumenical, and that meant that I took classes with Baptists and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Jesuits.  One woman I told the story to was a Presbyterian acquaintance named Lucy.  She asked about the costume, and I told her about Thecla and introduced her to Killer.  And she laughed.  Years later when she and I had become friends, and she had been ordained an Episcopal priest she recalled that encounter to me. Lucy told me it was the day she decided that not all Episcopalians were as frozen, flat and boring as she thought and that maybe there was a place for her here.  I was a creative and compelling witness, but I still had to tell the story with my voice.  As self-evident as I thought it was, I still had to use my words to proclaim.

The intention of the Acts of the Apostles is to offer gifts of ways to be a creative and compelling witness in confusing and desperate times.  A vision of the many ways to proclaim Jesus Christ, who lived and loved and died and rose again and ascended into heaven.  Acts shares with us that this same Jesus who has ascended is also breathing and acting in you and me, right here, right now in a way that no timeline can explain. Acts wants to help you dive into the apostolic life, wants you to immerse yourself in the proclamation,  and dare to strive for God’s reign, no matter what.

It is rather like a spiritual comic book to help the church know it has holy superpowers.  It is rather like a romantic adventure to help you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  There may be shades of the fantastic and the silly, but behind the adventure, there are real life or death moments where real people dare to choose Christ, who dare to step up to cruelty and hate in his name.  In the Ascension, Jesus has entrusted us with his mission. The big question today is, how will you act?

Let us pray.
May  we venture safely through every trial,
May our heart be daring, 
May our courage be steadfast,
And may our intention be deeply with you.
Holy Trinity, One God, 
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
World without end. 

May 28, 2017
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Names have been changed to protect the laughing.