Monday, June 25, 2018

Setting Sail: Interim Times of Being Still and Waking Up

When I was 15 we were in the middle year of being stationed in San Antonio, Texas. It was the sixth move of my life (⅓ of all the moves thus far). I thought we had driven to the other side of the world, Texas can be like a whole other country. Leaves stay on the trees until March, and then they all drop at once and resprout promptly. Chicken fried everything, big hair, monogrammed leather backpacks, and I was aghast at the volume of blatant racism and classism. I thought I was miserable, But when I look back it becomes clear that I was just fine. I was just 15, in a stage of intense transition In a unique place and in a complicated time. I had friends and activities and only the mildest crisis’. But I couldn’t see that tumult and strangenesses and intensities were normal. I only knew what I believed and that was that I didn’t like it there, and I wanted to get away.

From an advertisement in the back of a magazine, I found my destination. I begged and pleaded to go to sailing camp. Three weeks in the Caribbean learning how to sail and scuba and so on. 6 teens and two adults on a sailing yacht in a small fleet of other boats much the same. When I hear this gospel lesson My first gut response is - how is Jesus sleeping in a boat under sail in rough seas? I imagine the yacht we were on How I would have to stick my head up above decks every few minutes When I was cooking - my most common duty - when I was cooking And we were under sail I would have to stick my head up above deck and take a few breaths To keep from getting sick. So I have an whaaaa?!? response to Jesus snoozing on this boat. The disciples are amazed that the winds obey him I am amazed that he could sleep.

They got on a boat on purpose. In the dark. Going across the water, to a foreign land. I feel that this week. Having driven clear across the country, from Eastern Washington to South Jersey, In some ways I have gotten on a boat in the dark to cross the sea to an unknown land. I have the distinct idea that there are plenty of things I can figure out, and a multitude of things that I don’t even know to ask. On that boat there were four girls. Myself, Wren from Georgia, Amy from California, And Niko who was from Japan, her parents were Japanese and Asian Indian. The strange part of the communication wasn’t with Niko. It was with Amy from California. Niko would have to translate between us. Four young smart capable women speaking the same language But not communicating. Only later did I realize the issue. I didn’t know how to speak Californian, yet. 

I know I don’t know how to speak South Jersey. However, after over 15 moves in my life, I have shown that I am good at acclimating, figuring things out, asking questions. However, I am also human and I don’t know what I don’t know. I will need your help as I dive into the life of this place and parish. I have been in parish ministry for over 20 years, And leading in an interim parish for nearly 3 years, However, I have only been a priest for just over a month. My lower case p priesthood is an old sailor, My capital P priesthood is a brand new sail, But some people think that a new priest has more juice. That is silly, but I will take it.

Interim ministry is rather like a summer camp session. We begin a new session this week - let's call it Grace sailing camp. There are 4 focuses which are like ports of call that we will wander through HERITAGE CONNECTIONS MISSION LEADERSHIP. My number one task is to be your caring, competent and curious pastor. My number two task is to help you make a good match for your next settled pastor. Maybe an Interim Rector is the summer camp director, a settled pastor rather like the school principal. Some campers who go to camp exhibit maturity and abilities well beyond their years, and others well, regress. Most camper, however,r do a little bit of both and ae are mostly themselves, if also a better version of themselves. Having left all the pressures and norms and masks of their everyday life on the shore, they are more free to be really themselves. In my life I having spent a significant amount of time serving at Girl Scout camps and Episcopal camps And I can tell you that we want campers to come to camp to try on being their best self so thoroughly that when they go home the new habits have become one with their whole life. I love Interim ministry because it gives us space to leave behind the old familiar stains And to try fresh things, to become revived people. Lifting anchor and sailing with courage and candor toward your next era of mission and ministry.

My Interim ministry mentor says he comes pre fired. I like to think of it as being the captain of a summer sailing camp session. We are on a boat, on a cruise. We are not where we were and we may not know exactly where we are going, But we are going somewhere I will care for you on the journey, and the session will come to an end. As long as we are here, we are going to make it work. Try some new foods, clean the decks, let some weights go, take on some wholehearted ways to be the church in this day and age. My top duty is to be your caring captain. My task is to get you to your next port.

I drove all the way across the country with two cats to start a new call in a place I had never really been before and what was nauseating me this week was the news and the stream of shameful terror across my social media. Every cry in the night is a stormy dark sea of complicity and discombobulation. How is this us? Revelations this week about the treacherous dehumanization of migrant Latino/a families: my mind swims in desperation and my heart panics. I feel myself at night in rough seas looking for a rescuer to bring me peace.

Mark is the shortest and most urgent of the Gospels. The last line in the most ancient version is for Jesus’ followers to meet him in Galilee Where it all began. What the end of this Holy Gospel says is you are not done. You have only begun. Go back to the start Read and hear this good news with the insight and revelations of the whole journey. The whole witness lays plain the awful twistedness of us-ness And that Jesus comes to that storm he comes and is words of truth and compassion. He comes and is rest and stillness. And he gets up. The word in the lesson for wake up is the same as the one used for Jesus’ resurrection.

We are always in a storm. We are always headed into an unknown future. Jesus is awake and he is up and he is with us. The whole shipload. The attentive and the lazy and the brave and the illinformed. Jesus was at rest for those of us that need to hear that there is a respite from the storm. Jesus wakes up because he is with us as we wake up, act up, love love love. This simple story about a boat and a storm is a Jonah allusion: the Hebrew story that the earliest Christians seem to have been the most attached to. Jonah is in a ship with people he doesn’t know and to calm the storm he gives up his life, or so it seems. Jonah was no Disney prince. He didn’t want to save the people God sent him to save. He got mad when they repented because he didn’t like those people at all. Jonah is the perfect example of an imperfect disciple. God calls us to love and care for everyone, whether or not you like it. Mark’s episode today isn’t as much about a boat and a storm As it is about how big and broad and powerful the love of God is for the whole world.

The disciples and Jesus were on a boat going to the other side, to be the strangers. Scripture itself says there are only two directives that can stand all by themselves. Love God as much as God loves us, love all people as much as God loves us, because we were once the lost and last and lonely and the least. God was with us and rescued us from oppression and exile. God raised Jesus from systematic injustice and twisted broken cruelty. The answer to the question about who is this Jesus that even the elements obey him is this: He is God who made heaven and earth and loves all and cares for all and will rescue all from every storm we can stir up; and this same God who the elements obey has called and invited and told us to do likewise, like it or not.

Jesus is here on the cruise with us, Helping us see how and what we need to be. Be compassion, even when we don’t like it. Be speaking truth to power. Be still enough to listen to strangers whose life and ideas we cannot begin to comprehend. Jesus is with us on this journey. Showing us in real time that we can trust that God’s lifegiving love is in the water and the wind and the sails and the boat and the food and the neighbor. God’s love is what is in charge.

Let us pray. 
Gentle us, Holy One, into an unclenched moment, a deep breath, a letting go of heavy experiences, of shriveling anxieties, of dead certainties, that, softened by the silence, surrounded by the light, and open to the mystery, We may be found by wholeness, upheld by the unfathomable, entranced by the simple, and filled with the joy that is You. 

Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey

Prayer by Ted Loder

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dancing Hippos and Earthly Swamps

In January of 2017, a Nile river hippo was born prematurely at the Cincinnati zoo. She was named Fiona after the Shrek character. Thanks to the regular videos shared by her caregivers, and she became a viral star as she learned slowly how to be a hippo. I have to confess that I don’t usually find hippos to be cute or interesting. But this baby hippo with her struggles and motivation caught my attention.

In the animated film Fantasia hippos were dressed up in tutus, Which was funny because, at an average of 3000 pounds, they are no ballerinas. The word hippopotamus basically means river horse. Which is interesting because genetic science has revealed That the name is somewhat backward. A hippo isn't a water horse, it's a land whale. Sometimes we, and our institutions can feel like that. Like a whale trying to live on the land.

Fiona the hippo was not born knowing how to be a hippopotamus. There are ways in which she does, and many ways in which she does not. All of which make darling videos. Likewise we human beings are born into the world both knowing how to be human and very much not knowing how to be human. We who try to follow Jesus we don't begin knowing how to do it. Neither did the church begin churchiness knowing how to be effectively churchy.

One of my favorite poems about churchy things is by TS Eliot and it's called ‘The Hippopotamus’. The poem describes a hippo in the mud, seeming so firm and formidable but pointing out that this is just an everyday creature of flesh and blood. This hippo in the swamp is contrasted with an ideal church, a kind of a Platonic shape of a church. One that could be the elite church, the part of our life that dresses up in starched white layers and polishes brass (thank you altar guild). Yet it could also be the ultimate church, the one that is the Eternal now, the Reign of God. Poet Eliot hints that there are moments in the life of being the Church where it seems like this hippopotamus sprouts wings and soars, when the earthen church meets heavenly church. Moments where the complications are shed and we can feel the echo of the eternal now as weightlessness.

However, where the hippo lives and breathes and is its full blessed hippo-ness is Is in the swamp. The real church of Jesus wouldn’t need to exist If life were not all kinds of metaphorical swamps. Trying to follow Jesus isn’t always soaring. Most of the time it is grounded, right here in all this abundance and its decay and its bittersweetness. Recently I was reading about Martin Luther King, Jr’s expectations When he took the call to pastor a church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was finishing up his doctorate and the real glory in the Black church of his era was not academia, But a prestigious pulpit and pastorate. So he took the call in a viciously segregated place and time to a rather polished and never revolution rousing church. He went to Montgomery expecting to have a quiet enough life and ministry to finish his dissertation, while also building a name for himself as an excellent preacher and good pastor. He didn't go in expecting to become the leader we know. Dr. King didn't arrive knowing how to be a civil rights movement leader, he didn't accept the call knowing how to be the prophet and healer and provocateur. He didn’t seem to have even an inkling of who God was calling him to be. I would never put myself in the same league as him, but I can feel some sympathy with that story. It can seem that the experience of calling and being called Whether Episcopalian or Baptist, Is a little bit like hippos dancing. Inelegant and firmly rooted to God’s intention by gravity itself, compelled to keep moving even if like gravity we don’t really understand it (or like it).

The Pauline letters bear witness to a church that doesn't know how to be church yet. That loose association is so far from the organization that we connect with the word church That current scholars write about it as the Jesus movement. Language which is supposed to ground us in the energy and intent and underdog quality of the first Jesus follower gatherings. This early church-ancestor, the one that Paul is involved with in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians is a huge mess. Wanting to soar, but being people making their way with God through a swampland of competing commitments and challenges. They do not know how to do this church thing yet. Likewise Paul is following his call even if he doesn't quite know how to guide them through this yet. Part of the reason that the Epistles continue to speak to us - even with all their unsystematic qualities, their written on horseback style, and their culturally bound difficulties - is that they continue to compel us because we are still a Jesus movement that doesn't quite know how to do this love each other and the whole world mission yet. Rather like a baby hippo learning how to hippo. There are bursts of harmony where we know the love of Jesus, and we feel the burdens lift but there are also moments that are heavy with the chains of injustices. And it is both of those moments that keep us trying and learning and striving to be a people formed by Jesus. We are not dancing hippos because we practiced very hard. We are dancing hippos because we are filled and empowered by the grace of God.

As many of you know this is my last Sunday as part of the staff here. And Saint Paul's letters to the various churches are a place to start thinking about what our relationship is going to feel like going forward. It may be similar to Paul’s relationships with the churches of the letters, in that I will be far from you. It will be different in that I will not be telling you what to do. It expect it to look like my relationships with all the churches I have served. I will remain your friend who interacts and celebrates and mourns and feasts when we can. I will remain someone in prayer with you I'll remain curious about what St. Paul’s is doing and not doing. I will answer factual type questions such as where did you buy x or where did you store y. I will help as I would help anyone who asks. But I will be absolutely useless if you want me to stick my nose in and tell so and so how they should run things. I am deeply grateful for this community and all we have shared, both the brilliant laughter and the way we learned to dance together through the muddy complications. The best thing I can do is to be a friend, rooting for you, and caring for you as we all dance wherever we are.

The muddy streets of frontier era Walla Walla have been paved but they're all around us in new forms of instability and struggle. And at the same time the life giving liberating love of God is sprouting from the messes we encounter. Love is rising for the lost the last the least and the loneliest. It is emerging for the learned and the legendary as well. It is the swamp itself that calls to us to be creative witnesses and performers of God’s Love In Jesus’ name. Questions about church and character and power and process are all over our readings today and they are as old as religion itself. And God’s answer is hardly ever what we expect, so can we trust the mystery of God? Can we trust gravity? Let us seek to be surprised and moved by God’s intention, let us keep reaching for the heavens and learning to embody these hippo land whale bodies with the love of Jesus, right here in the beloved and blessed swamps both near and far.

Let us pray. 

Gentle us, Holy One, into an unclenched moment, a deep breath, a letting go of heavy expectations, of shriveling anxieties, of dead certainties, that, softened by the silence, surrounded by the light, and open to the mystery, we may be found by wholeness, upheld by the unfathomable, entranced by the simple, and filled with the joy that is you. In the name of the Holy Trinity, One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, World without end.


Prayer by Ted Loder
June 10, 2018
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Walla Walla, Washington