Monday, April 14, 2014

Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

Work in Progress

I have loved my time in the diocese over the last three decades. So, many friends, so many generations, and simply being amazing together. I have both loved and perhaps more importantly liked my fellow travelers along the Way.

The community of St. Francis and beginning with Martin Bell, where I found my way back into the heart of the church.

Cursillo which encouraged and equipped my leadership in the parish and beyond. So many teams and weekends where I've served variously as music director, lay rector, and spiritual director.

Kairos where I've spent considerable time in prison and been fortunate that they've let me out each time. Bathed in grace as I spent those many weekends and following months on the inside with the men in white. Equally blessed to serve women in white on their weekends through cooking and praying.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Farewell Sunday Sermon at Holy Cross

4th Sunday in Lent, Year A, March 30, 2014
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Beloved Sisters and Brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

A friend who teaches religious studies in Chicago, once observed that Samuel was essentially the Billy Graham of his day; and he was adviser to the political leader Saul, who was pretty much the Pete Rose of ancient Israel.

So, Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel. But soon, to quote James Thurber, “confusion got its foot in the door” and then went through the entire “system.” Samuel observed Saul disobeying the explicit word of God, and it became Samuel’s job to inform Saul that God had rejected him as king.
In today’s reading we hear that Samuel “grieved” over Saul. But then Yahweh told Samuel that the time for grieving was over, and that it was time to appoint a new king.
The time of grieving was over, and it was time to move on.
It’s always been interesting to me that the Amish resist certain aspects of “moving on.” I can appreciate their resistance to the inhumane features of “progress,” and their call to simplicity and faithfulness to ancient traditions.
But if they are going to pick a point along the timeline of progress, why stop with the 19th century? Why not go to an earlier period prior to buggies, ovens, cupboards, and battery-operated adding machines?
The operative word here seems to be, as Donald Kraybill so well describes, is the German word Gelassenheit, or “yieldedness” – yieldedness to God’s loving, providing, and guiding will. But sometimes what we see as Gelassenheit is actually just a stubborn resistance to the inevitability of change.
The gospel proclaims an alarming fact about historical movement – that it is in fact what God is all about. The entire Bible hinges on one undeniable reality: that reality is God’s workshop. God doesn’t give Abraham a set of beliefs but an event – a smoking fire pot – and a rite – circumcision. And God gives the Christian church a son – a child born of a woman whose reputation was stained, and reared by a father who surrendered his status as a tsadiq (suh-deek’) or “righteous man.” Yet, this son does not just teach the gospel: he embodies it.
In acting this way, God sanctifies history, making it something to embrace, instead of resist. When Samuel resists, he hears the voice of God directing him to a future that will be better. That future will include David the shepherd boy, and like all shepherds, he is often on the move.
As the author of Psalm 23, David, the shepherd, lies down, is led beside still waters, walks through the valley of the shadow of death, and sits in the presence of his enemies.
David will do whatever it takes to guide his sheep, even as he remembers that Yahweh is his shepherd, guiding him.
Then, another shepherd will arrive. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will be the Light of the World, removing darkness and literally, as we hear in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, removing the darkness of the man born blind. Like Samuel, the disciples and others will “get stuck” because they’ll wonder whose sins have made the man blind.
But Jesus, pushing them into the “Shepherd’s era,” will lead them to see that simplistic correlations from the past – sin leads to curse, obedience leads to blessing – don’t always work.
He will guide them with his light, and when that light is turned on, a few things will happen. First, those who live in that light “try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”
Samuel was stuck for some time in wanting Saul’s era to be the kingdom era, but God gave him a horn of oil to search for the Shepherd’s era. It does no good to apply more and more oil to the old era, God said. It is gone; it is history. We please God by moving on.
We do this too by taking no part in the “unfruitful works of darkness,” but instead by exposing them. Like many, I am deeply saddened by our cultures tendency to gloat triumphally in its victories. I am also saddened by Christians who, instead of lamenting current world affairs; have picked up a new sword of Constantine, a wicked instrument of triumphalism.
We need what John Howard Yoder calls the “politics of Jesus” and what Stanley Hauerwas calls the “peaceable kingdom.” I think that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says it well: “From now on, all that can be said of God’s action in the past or the present must pass under the judgment of [the cross].”
He also says, “God is known in and by the exercise of crucifying compassion; if we are like him in that, we know him.”
These theologians are calling us out of the old era of warfare, the Saul era, into the Shepherd’s era of justice, peace, and love.
This future kingdom is marked by “justice”, a word that seems to have lost some of what had been once been a healthier Christian understanding. It has, as Flannery O’Connor said of another word, “a private meaning and public odor.” Some use the term in the sense of “retribution” – bring them to justice, and some in the sense of “rectification” – give the victims and the marginalized an equal opportunity.
Neither of these senses is adequately Christian. The Christian sense of “justice” is “what is right before God and others.” And, according to Jesus’ own creed, what is “right” is to love God and to love others. In the Christian sense, justice means providing our world an opportunity to love God and to love others.
I think that it’s helpful to hear the words of the apostle Paul, who said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” I think that we might benefit from a renewed commitment to listen to Jesus Christ, to let him be the good shepherd who can dispel the darknesses of war, and bring in the Shepherd’s era.
Peace and justice embrace one another because they will be empowered by love on a day when, to quote Samuel Johnson, “we shall not borrow all our happiness from hope.”
And now I think that I will take a point of personal privilege… for those of you who know, and for those of you who are hearing for the first time, today, I begin to conclude my ministry here at Holy Cross, and in this is my final Sunday sermon. I know that I stand in a long line of former clergy who have been blessed to serve the good people of both Holy Cross and St. Michael’s.
One of the things that I’ve learned during my life’s travels is that it is important to leave a place well, so that you can enter the next place well. I hope that I'll be able to say goodbye to Holy Cross well so that I can arrive in Richmond, ready to hit the ground running, in a few short weeks.
Starting to say goodbye’s has been harder than I expected, and I hope to get a chance to say goodbye to all of you personally.
In the tradition I learned how to be a deacon in, we say prayers as we put on each part of our vestments. As I am putting on my stole, I remember Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew "Take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." My burden serving here, as your deacon, has indeed been light and for that you have truly blessed me.
May you continue to shine with the light of God’s love, to bear witness to God’s healing power, and to welcome every single soul who walks through these doors. With every fiber of my being, I say, “Thank you.”
Be assured of my prayers and love for you, my Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

Thanks be to God!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Pathways to Prayer: A Lenten Series 
Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Trussville, Alabama
by Dn. Steve

Two people are walking along a pathway together. As we watch, we can see the changing relationship between them. Sometimes they talk animatedly together, but at other times they travel in silence. Sometimes they seem to be arguing. At other times they seem close and as in love as any two people. Sometimes they appear to lose contact altogether... but then they are reunited and travel on together.  

Our Christian life is a journey, but it's not a journey that we make alone. As we journey, we have God as our companion. Everything that passes between us and God as we travel our path is what we call prayer. Prayer is the road we travel on, and it is our occupation on the journey.  

However, our prayer can take many forms. Christian spirituality offers not one but many pathways by which to come to God. Each pathway has been formed in Christian communities through the centuries, and each has depth, wisdom, and experience to offer in approaching God through prayer.   

For five Wednesdays in Lent we will explore the why, what, and how of various disciplines of prayer. Each evening there will be child care provided and we will begin with a common meal that will be available between 6:00pm - 6:30pm. The night's program will follow and we will be done by no later than 7:30pm. The facilitators and topics are: 

Wednesday, March 12, Dn. Steve, Prayer 101 & The Daily Examen - will provide an overview of the Lenten series, and then learn about and practice the Prayer of Examen. This a technique described by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises and is a prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect Gods presence and discern his direction for us.  The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see Gods hand at work in our whole experience.  

Wednesday, March 19th, Justin Finch (organist & choirmaster) & Dn. Steve, Taizé - a style of worship with prayer and song that has grown out of this ecumenical community in France where thousands of youth and young adults gather together each summer to live, work, and worship together. Justin has lived in community at Taizé, and is an experienced worship leader. 

Wednesday, March 26th, Elaine Tindill-Rohr & Dn. Steve, Labyrinth - Elaine's gift to our community this Lent is the temporary installation of a Labyrinth. Prayer through walking the labyrinth is a sacred pattern that leads us on a prescribed path to its center and back out again. Walking the labyrinth is a way of praying with the body that invites the divine presence into an active conversation with the heart and soul. By engaging in this walking meditation, we are fully engaging our minds, bodies, and spirits at the same time. 

Wednesday, April 2nd, Amanda Griesdorn & Dn. Steve, Lectio Divina & Centering Prayer - Lectio Divina is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's Word by treating Scripture as the Living Word. Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. Amanda facilitates the Centering Prayer group here at Holy Cross.  

Wednesday, April 9th, Fr. Aaron & Dn. Steve, Community Prayer - exploring and practicing prayer forms from the Book of Common Prayer including The Daily Offices.  

We are all different, and each of us finds some types of prayer more helpful than others. The aim of this Lenten series is to offer participants insights into five types of prayer - five journeys - five pathways.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

Jayber Crow is a novel by Wendell Berry – a Christian who, in his own words, "takes the Gospel seriously” – and it’s told from the point of view of the main character, Jayber Crow, who is a barber in Port William, Kentucky. The setting is the late 1960’s, and as a barber he interacts with a lot of different folks during the course of a day.

One of those folks is a fellow named Troy Chatham that Jayber just struggles to get along with. Don’t know about you, but I’ve run across folks like that every now and then myself.

Now, Troy is an “agriculture as big business” kind of guy, buying up farms and always more concerned with profit than the farmers, and whom Jayber thinks is destroying the land in their county. To make matters worse, Troy has married Mattie, the woman whom Jayber had secretly “admired” for a long time.

So, here we are in the late 1960’s, and as in most of the rest of the country at that time, there are disagreements over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Troy is a fierce supporter of the U.S. government’s policies, including the war. One evening in the barbershop, Troy starts talking about how much he hates the war protesters… and hope you don’t mind but I cleaned up the language a little.

“They ought to round up every one of them sons of (guns) and put them right in front of the (darned) communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”

There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it…

It was hard to do, but Jayber quit cutting hair and looked right at Troy. Then he said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at Jayber. “Where did you get that crap?”

Jayber says, “Jesus Christ.”

Troy responds simply with, “Oh.”

For Jayber, it would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that he didn’t love Troy.

This morning we hear Jesus telling the disciples to turn the other cheek, forgo revenge, give more than what’s required in a lawsuit, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, love the enemy, pray for persecutors, and greet the stranger.

Jesus highlights the surprises that characterize life in God’s kingdom; he challenges the disciples to do the opposite of what seems normal and reasonable.

These are important words for us to hear, some have called them the by-laws of the church, and they were also guiding words for Mahatma Gandhi…

… when writer Louis Fischer visited Gandhi's ashram in 1942 (an ashram is the home of a small religious community), he noticed a picture of Jesus on the wall – the only wall decoration around – with the caption, "He is our peace."

"But you are not a Christian," he said to Gandhi.

"I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew," Gandhi answered.

"Then you are a better Christian than most Christians," Fischer thought to himself.

Gandhi is said to have spent two hours in meditation every day – one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening – for the last 40 years of his life. This became the foundation for all his daily work for justice, independence, and service. Most of his meditation time was in silence, but the one of the things that he always read from was the Sermon on the Mount.

Gandhi was probably the greatest modern Christian "fundamentalist" because he took Jesus' word seriously and strictly adhered to his fundamental teachings of love, nonviolence, and compassion.

Gandhi lived his life according to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and returned to that handbook on nonviolence every morning and every evening. In his private letters, he was puzzled why other Christians didn't do the same.

Gandhi considered these texts the greatest writings on nonviolence in the history of the world. Since he wanted to become a person of nonviolence, he treated these teachings as a basic primer, as the catechism of nonviolence.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

These questions from the Sermon on the Mount get right to the heart of the spiritual life. Why don't we love everyone, everywhere unconditionally? Why not love our enemies, as Jesus said? Why go along with a culture of war? Why not practice "agape" like Jesus and his greatest followers, saints like Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Dr. King?

Jesus is adamant. He wants us to practice universal, unconditional, sacrificial, all-inclusive, nonviolent love. Be like God, he tells us; love everyone on the whole planet. He exceeds the ancient biblical commandment, "Thou shall not kill." He even surpasses Isaiah's call to "beat swords into plowshares."

He leads us beyond anger, despair, greed, fear, anxiety, selfishness, violence, murder, and war, to God's own universal, compassionate love.

With these challenges, Jesus throws down the gauntlet and compares our limited love to tax collectors and gentiles. Tax collectors did the dirty work of the Roman Empire by robbing the impoverished masses and collaborating with military domination. They profited from the sufferings of the poor. This comparison must have shocked and horrified his listeners.

He calls us not to be like them, not to hurt anyone, not to live off the sufferings of the poor, and not to limit ourselves to the narrow expectations of our culture.

He's trying to push us beyond our limits, to the heights of divine love, the highest ideal, the fullest potential of our humanity.

Jesus probably already assumes that we are trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our parents, children, relatives, friends, and colleagues. But he wants us to go further, to love those around the world, especially those who are marginalized and disenfranchised .

Jesus expects his followers to show active, creative love to the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the condemned, the sick, the elderly, the dying, and the enemy.

He's looking for something new and unusual, ultimately the love that nonviolently lays down one's life for those in need.

This call to practice a love that transcends boundaries has always haunted, challenged, and energized me. Even if few can fully live into such love, the call to us to work towards Jesus’ command remains right there in the Sermon on the Mount.

I think it means traveling to places we normally wouldn’t go – soup kitchens, homeless shelters, prisons, death rows, refugee camps, hospitals, conflict zones – and once there, to befriend, love, and serve everyone in need.

I think it means living with a heart as wide as the world. Jesus certainly demonstrates such extraordinary love by serving the poor and marginalized, breaking through his culture, resisting injustice, and laying down his life nonviolently for a new world of love.

This call is worth praying and reflecting on every day. It invites us to examine how well we love others and our enemies, how well we show compassion, how wide we might permit our hearts to grow. What is more beautiful than a life spent offering unconditional, compassionate love toward every living being on the planet? What could be more fulfilling, rewarding, or holy?

… Life is precious. We have only so much time here on earth. I hope more and more of us can begin anew to try to practice this unusual, universal love, this perfect compassion. I think it's our vocation, the reason we were created: to love Christ in every human being, especially in the poor and in the enemy.

If we dare practice this unusual, universal love, I think we will enter the paschal mystery of nonviolence, the divine mystery of love, and be filled with light, hope, and peace. Who knows, we might even learn to love Troy.

Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!