Charge to the Pastor

photo-3Charge to the Pastor by the Rev. Laura Everett

Installation of Rev. Gregory Morisse as Senior Pastor

Plymouth Church in Framingham MA, United Church of Christ

Sunday October 19, 2014

“I have but one single charge to give you. One only, because it is first of all, and comprehends all. My brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ. Among this dear people, with the sentiments of the grandest Apostle, determine to know nothing but Jesus Christ. As you walk these streets, truly say, “I live, nevertheless Christ liveth in me.” As you stand in this sacred place with all boldness say to the people, “In the cross of Christ I glory.” Christ! My brother. Daily, hourly mediate upon Him. Begin every morning with Him, and let the evening dew find you where the morning glories left you. Study to know Christ- feed upon Him, breathe His spirit, digest His words, and be completely absorbed in Him. Be sure before you undertake anything that you are in Christ. Never open a book, nor speak a word, nor perform a duty, until you are sure that you are in Christ. Abide in Christ, and make His spirit and example your whole armor of life. I charge you to be completely filled with Christ, because then you will be perfectly equipped for your work.”

So charged the Rev. E. E. Lamb to the Rev Joel M. Seymour at his installation over the Congregational Church in Brooklfield, MA on October 7, 1873. Rev. Lamb was so convinced that this charge to the pastor was true that he recycled the text and gave the same exact charge to a different pastor again the next year to a Rev. Charles R. Seymour, at his installation over the North Church in Newburyport MA, on October 8, 1874.

My Brother Gregory, we stand in a long line of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts and ministers of the Gospel in every age who charge one another to faithfulness as they take on leadership for the Church. What you do here, in this place, is utterly predictable and totally unique, an ancient practice made new again and again. We inherit the same joys and perils. And to do this work well, to lead well: “I have but one singe charge to give you… my brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ.”

For here is the danger: You can get filled with other things. Other gods can creep in and become Lord of your life. Your calendar can become lord. Your full church program year can become lord. Your busyness and your strategies and your plans can become lord. You can lean on your own impressive understanding. You can be lured into believing that productivity is the same as faithfulness. And you, in particular, run the risk of being so productive and thorough in your ministerial duties that even Jesus Christ himself can’t get a meeting on your calendar until Feb 16, 2015 from 6:45- 7:15pm between the Governing Council meeting and Fall Fair planning team. Gregory, for you to lead well, you must allow yourself to be led by God. You must do what you need to do so that you are on the firm foundation, for all this is first Christ’s work. “On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.” I charge you to guard your time and energy and heart so that you may be filled with Christ.

Presbyterian pastor Euguene Peterson warns, “Before long we find that we are program directors in a flourishing business. We spend our time figuring out ways to attractively display god-products. We become skilled at pleasing the customers. Before we realize what has happened, the mystery and love and majesty of God, to say nothing of the tender and delicate subtleties of souls, are obliterated by the noise and frenzy of the religious marketplace.”(173) “I have but one singe charge to give you… my brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ.”

For some of us, to empty ourselves so that we might be filled with Christ is an unlearning. St Mary Oliver of Provincetown writes “I know a lot of fancy words. I tear them from my heart and my tongue. Then I pray.” To be filled with Christ, you may have to unlearn some things, tear some words from your tongue. I know your Plymouth Church Covenant boldly proclaims since 1701 that you will be “doers of the Word and not only hearers.” Which is all well and good and necessary in a world convinced the intuitional Church cannot bear the gregarious love of God, but guard yourselves that you are not moving so quickly do-ing that the Word of God cannot be heard in you as you wiz by to the next program. We live in a highly competitive state, in a town with lots of ambition, in a time when the Church is anxious, and that stew of anxiety prods us to do, do, do. Brother Gregory, I charge you “Never open a book, nor speak a word, nor perform any duty, until you are sure that you are in Christ.”

For us who pastor, when first we are in Christ, there is such joy and satisfaction in this work. Rev. Lamb again said in his charge: “In your chosen labors you will have nights, but he will give you glorious mornings; you will have frowning storms, but He will span them with rainbows; you will have thorns, but the blessed Husbandman will plant flowers between. Through all the drudgery and suffering of your work He will so dignify it, that you would not exchange this pulpit for imperial grandeurs.” This work is good and holy and glorious when we are set right. Brother, I charge you above all else, before any work or worship or program begins, be in Christ Jesus. The rest will sort itself out.

A blessing upon you this day, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God Mother of us all. Amen

Bruce Springsteen as storyteller #TheologyOfBruce

photo asbury park     These are my notes from a March 8, 2014 workshop at the “UnQuiet Day” on “Bruce Springsteen: Prophet of Hope” with Bishop Douglas Fisher, Episcopal Diocese of Western MA, and Canon Rich Simpson. More information about the UnQuiet Day is here: Rich’s excellent sermon is here: You can see some of the tweets from the day by looking at #TheologyofBruce
     I’m going to invite us to dance, because you’re killing me to play Bruce loud and not dance. Now, the invitation is to try to be embodied. If this terrifies you beyond death, go pretend to get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom. But I want to offer you this, Episcopalians you are the ones who taught me to use my body in worship, to cross myself, to bow, to kneel. You are the ones who help me bring my whole body to worship. I think you can do this. You’re not Baptists. Dancing won’t lead to something else, I promise.
      Remember as Bruce says ‘It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”
Kill the lights, cue “Dancing in the Dark.”
     Remember the trick to dancing is to move as if you are not anxious about how you look. You look better dancing if you’re not paying attention to how you’re dancing. and if you Close your eyes and no one can see you. Thank you. you are very brave.
     I come to you about Bruce, authentic Jersey Girl.  I can beat any of you at Skeeball if you want to play for money.
     After my senior prom, I borrowed my Mom’s burgundy Chevy minivan and headed down the Jersey Shore. I wore a brown dress to prom because I was deep and brooding. And it was the mid-1990s. If I could have found a plaid flannel dress I would have. We stayed up all night, had breakfast at 2am at a 24 hour diner, either the Rockaway Diner or Paul’s Diner, all gleaming silver. A place where you could get a plate full of disco fries, french fries covered in cheese and gravy for 3 dollars- it could fuel hours of conversation.
     After the prom,  we drove from The Skylands to Seaside Heights. You may know Seaside Heights from the MTV show Jersey Shore. It’s just as trashy now as it was then. We called it  Sleezside. It was an entire town, a stocked pond of teenagers full of hormones and Yuengling beer.
     I pulled my mother’s minivan up to the motel, The Flamingo. The “O” had fallen off the sign, so it just read “The Flaming.”  Two stories of doors open into a courtyard, with kids hanging off the railing, peering over a slightly green swimming pool. We had each paid something like $50 dollars each for a share of a bedroom.
     You know, a couple of marriages came from that senior prom. Tim is a cop, Maria is a teacher. They’ve got a kid and a dog and a condo in Red Bank that they can’t quite afford. A couple of those guys died young, drug overdoses. A few made it back from Afghanistan, but walk around dead. Many stayed in the NJ that formed us. And some of us left.
photo laura     I learned to love Bruce in part because I know his New Jersey, because he tells a story I can relate to, even if I didn’t live it.
      “Hey little boy is your Momma home, did she go and leave you all alone, oh no. I’ve got a bad desire. Oh Oh Oh I’m on fire.”  My hope in flipping the gendered pronouns is to hear how creepy this song is more clearly. If we were doing a boundary awareness class today or Safe Church training, some of Bruce’s songs would be our example of what not to do. I want us to take his music for what it is, and let it be what it’s not. I remember in seminary watching a professor try to make the case for Clement of Alexandria as a proto-feminist. Twisting and contorting, it didn’t quite work. At the outset, I want to give this disclaimer- I don’t think Bruce is great on women. The women in his songs have underdeveloped interior lives. Full grown women are reduced to “girls in their summer clothes.” They serve as the arm-candy for the men around them, “put your make up, on do your hair up pretty” or   There’s a little bit of the Virgin Mary/ Mary Magdalene dynamic where the women are either saints in Mary’s kitchen, or Roselita or Wendy being lured outside for the night or ending up in Maria’s bed. There’s not a ton of in-between. Frankly, it’s a little like Scripture- the women are there, but just barely and not very well developed when they make it into the story. Bruce is a Dude! I don’t think we can press him to be more than he is. But there’s a larger story, a story of devils and dust, of death and resurrection, of the promised land that I still believe is worth telling.
     Bruce may not be able to help us to think clearly into the full humanity of women, but I do think he gets us a lot. Bruce is really, really good on the interior emotional life of men, especially men who are being pushed aside as the world around them changes. He’s explored racial violence, police brutality and racial profiling in 41 Shots. He’s pressed us to think about returning veterans in “We take care of our own.” He pointed an anxious america to the humanity of gay male AIDS patients in “The Streets of Philadelphia.” He helps us process our grief following 9/11 and then Hurricane Sandy in “My City of Ruin.” And so much of Bruce’s songwriting invites us to think about class differences and economic injustice in America.
     I believe Bruce has cross generational possibility- My hometown, “Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown.” When I was preparing for this event, the Massachusetts Council of Churches 25 years old intern said “Why do a day on the theology of Bruce? Why not someone more contemporary, like Mumford and Sons?” But we don’t get the alt-rock, troubadour revival of Mumford and Sons without Bruce. Show me a hipster band or singer songwriter that doesn’t cite Bruce’s “Nebraska” album as a major influence. We don’t get the Decemberists, or Bon Iver, or St. Vincent, or Beck, or the Avett Brothers, or Ockerville River, or Neko Case without Bruce. And we don’t get Bruce without Pete Seeger or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin. We even see passing on of tradition within the E street band, as Clarence Clemmons’ solo were played on the last tour by his nephew. We are in the company of saints, an apostolic succession of rock history and Bruce is very clear of his place in the stream.
     I think Bruce has enormous cross generational possibility that could teach the Church something about collaboration across the generations. He both reaches back and looks forward in ways that ought to feel familiar to the Church. This is the same guy who records the Seeger Sessions as collaborates with the guitarist Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. Morello is 49- Bruce is 64. Morello first subbed for Steve Van Zant in 2008. If you’ve not heard Morello and Springsteen play “The Ghost of Tom Joad” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, please do so immediately. Bruce is omnivorous in his music consumption too. At a concert last week in New Zealand, Bruce covered the New Zealand singer Lorde’s song “Royals” which just won song of the year at the Grammys. Lorde is 17.
     I learned of Bruce from my parents. I’m a second generation Bruce fan. My vinyl record of “Greetings from Asbury Park” first belonged to my Dad, who was raised in NJ. Bruce is just a year older than my Dad. Rick and Mary Everett are like something out of a Springteen song. (Tell the story of their meeting)
     Bruce is a cross-over figure: as someone who works on issues of Christian unity, between divided parts of the church, I have special admiration for those who stand in-between worlds. Bruce is an affluent straight white male who can still reach a working class demographic with his music. There’s sometimes a tension between the more liberal politics of Springteen that reach out ahead of where his middle-american fan base is.
      Bruce is story teller, a patron saint for preachers and evangelist. I think he can teach us lots about what makes for a good public narrative.  Hear Bruce’s own words about storytelling “…First of all, everybody has a memory when you were eleven years old and you were walking down a particular street on a certain day, and the trees—there was a certain wind blowing through the trees and the way that the sound of your feet made on the stones as you came up the drive and the way the light hit a particular house. Everyone has memories they carry with them for no particular reason and these things live within you—you had some moment of pure experience that revealed to you what it meant to be alive, what it means to be alive, what the stakes are, the wind on a given day, how important it is, or what you can do with your life. That’s the writer’s job…to  present that experience to an audience who then experience their own inner vitality, their own center, their own questions about their own life  and their moral life…and there’s a connection made. That’s what keeps you writing, that’s what keeps you wanting to write that next song, because you can do that, and because if I do it for you, I do it for me.” Can you hear the Gospel truth?
     For me, and maybe for others, Bruce teaches us a certain way to be adults. Messy, messed up, hopeful, human adults: In his words “Adult life is dealing with an enormous amount of questions that don’t have answers. So I let the mystery settle into my music. I don’t deny anything, I don’t advocate anything, I just live with it.”
     For Bruce, storytelling is a discipline: 2005 VHI Episode of Storytellers Bruce said “”Over 30 years, you internalize your craft, and the mechanics of storytelling becomes like a second language,” Springsteen says after singing The Rising. “You speak without thinking, like a second skin you feel with. So you pray to the gods of creativity and aliveness that you remain awake, and alert, and in command of your senses, so that when the moments arrive, you are ready.”
     There’s intention and craft to his performance: From a 2005 interview with British Novelist Nick Hornsby (High Fidelity, About a Boy): “There is a presentation and I think being aware of the fact that there’s a show going on is a good idea (laughs) (2). I think it fell into some disrepute when the idea of the show became linked to falseness in some fashion, which is a superficial way to look at it. It’s actually a bridge when used appropriately. It’s simply a bridge for your ideas to reach the audience. It assists the music in connecting and that’s what you’re out there for. I think if you do it wrong, you can diminish your work, but if you do it right you can lightly assist what you’re doing. It can be an enormous asset in reaching people with what might be otherwise difficult material.”
     What makes his story telling work? Let’s build a list:
 (the group gave ideas about what makes Bruce a good storyteller, things like authenticity, the particulars of his stories but the universality of his themes, honesty about how hard life is…)
      Let’s examine why Bruce’s storytelling works:
(at this point, we break into groups of 4-5 to closely examine Bruce’s lyrics. We had worked with the text of about 15 songs) Here’s an example:

Un-Quiet Day: Bruce Springsteen, Prophet of Hope  Saturday March 8, 2014  #TheologyOfBruce

Exegesis of Bruce

Your group’s task is a close read of Bruce Springsteen song lyrics as you might study a section of Scripture.  Imagine you are preaching or teaching with this “text” and answer the following questions:

  1. What is your thesis? What is the main message this “text” is trying to communicate?
  2. Where do you hear the “Good News” in this text?

IF I SHOULD FALL BEHIND (1992) Album’s version

  1. We said we’d walk together baby come what may
  2. That come the twilight should we lose our way
  3. If as we’re walkin a hand should slip free
  4. I’ll wait for you
  5. And should I fall behind
  6. Wait for me
  7. We swore we’d travel darlin’ side by side
  8. We’d help each other stay in stride
  9. But each lover’s steps fall so differently
  10. But I’ll wait for you
  11. And if I should fall behind
  12. Wait for me
  13. Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true
  14. But you and I know what this world can do
  15. So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see
  16. And I’ll wait for you
  17. If I should fall behind
  18. Wait for me
  19. Now there’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead
  20. There ‘neath the oak’s bough soon we will be wed
  21. Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees
  22. I’ll wait for you
  23. And should I fall behind
  24. Wait for me
  25. Darlin’ I’ll wait for you
  26. Should I fall behind
  27. Wait for me

Released on Lucky Town in 1992.

The song was played frequently during The Seeger Sessions Tour. Thanks to for the lyrics. 

Is it rude to seat latecomers later in the service? Or is your church just being clear?

My Twitter feed (@RevEverett) was all aflutter when I posted a picture from a worship bulletin and wrote:


I was out of town for Christmas Eve this year and visiting a church out of state, which shall remain nameless. I suspect many people in the pews were not regular parishioners at this particularchurch.

While I made it to church on time, I read these words about how “latecomers” with be handled and turning off cell phones as insinuating that the big threat I posed was a disturbance. Perhaps I read these as a defensive newcomer, but they landed with a thud that implied my late arrival would disturb their precious performance. I am thankful for a GREAT twitter conversation that clear, kind directions can help newcomers find their way through unfamiliar practice. Read Peacebang’s ( @Peacebang) thoughts here: Yet,  I did not experience the bulletin notes as clear, kind directions but rather warnings against disruptive behavior.

Almost nothing in this service gently and tenderly initiated the unfamiliar into the practices of the community. The cues about which worship book to pick up were given through three letter codes  with no secret decoder ring (Perhaps you’ve seen these before? BCP= Book of Common Prayer, LBW= Lutheran Book of Worship, GtG= Glory to God, the new Presby hymnal, TFWS= The Faith We Sing, Methodist. Every tribe has ‘em). The Christmas Eve sermon started with the preacher listing off all of the things that had been going on in the parish in the month leading up to Christmas as examples of how busy we all are- total insider baseball about internal parish committees. When we got to The Lord’s Prayer, I habitually marched along saying “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” while others around me prayed for debts and debtors.

For the record, this church’s website proudly proclaims “We are a welcoming congregation!” Most churches claim this. Being welcoming is a skill that can be learned and a discipline that must be practiced every time we gather for worship. I’m an itinerant preacher, practiced in showing up to unfamiliar congregations. If I struggled with joining in this service, I suspect others did too. For those of us practiced in church, things that are familiar to us are totally foreign to many.

What is the fundamental orientation of our bulletins and our service? Is it designed for those already on the in? Are we giving clear and kind directions about how to participate in the particular rituals and practice of the community? It is not safe to assume that people know what it means when your bulletin says “Doxology.” If your bulletin includes text that says “The Lord’s Prayer (debts, debtors),” you are assuming that people know the text of the Lord’s prayer. And I love your liturgy, my dear Episcopal sisters and brothers, but your  words that cue up the offering are secret code known only to you and leave the rest of us scrambling for our wallets as the ushers start walking towards us!

Especially on “high holy days” like Christmas Eve and rituals with many new people (weddings, funerals, baptism, bar/bat mitzvahs), religious communities have an additional responsibility to look at their liturgies and bulletins with the eyes of a visitor. I am convinced that being an ecumenical and/or interfaith pilgrim to other services, intentionally putting ourselves in the position of a guest, helps us look at our own practices with new eyes (my blog post on “Ecumenical Awkwardness as a spiritual discipline” is here:

In the twitter conversation about the bulletin notes, the very wise Ruth Graham (aka @PublicRoad) tweeted:

“is it really so offensive to provide guidance to make things run smoother? Clarity’s kinder than opacity.

Guidance in and of itself isn’t offensive, but tone and orientation matter. For whatever reason, this church on this night wasn’t communicating kindness or clarity about how to participate*.

How do you assess if your bulletin and liturgy give sufficient guidance to visitors?

* I do think some of these questions and struggles are particularly Protestant and reflect a sensibility that to be fully present in worship is to participate in each and every part of the service. In my (limited) experience, Orthodox Christians have a totally different sense of how to participate in worship. But that’s a blog post for another night…

Unprepared: A Sermon on Luke 21: 5-19

Sunday November 17, 2013 at West Parish of Barnstable, United Church of Christ

The 1717 meeting house of West Parish in Barnstable (can you see the green tarp on the roof?)

The 1717 meeting house of West Parish in Barnstable (can you see the green tarp on the roof?)

Luke 21:5-19 // When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

We were trying to be reverential. Heads were bowed, hands were clasped in prayer. But somewhere, deep in the background you could hear the light clink of glass hitting glass and the hum of a far off a vacuum cleaner. With our eyes set on the floor below us, I could see a little bit of glitter from the night before still sticking to the shiny, waxed floor. It’s not always easy to be reverential when your trying to have a Sunday morning worship service in a banquet hall. But that’s where Grace Church of the Southern Berkshires met for worship after the wall of their church fell in. Let us pray…

It is not lost on me, and I suspect not on you either, that we’re studying a text about buildings falling down while sitting under the green tarp over your roof in the oldest congregational meeting house still in use today. For the record, I didn’t pick this text! This lesson from Luke is assigned today in the Revised Common Lectionary, the series of Scripture readings that move over a 3 year cycle. By following the Revised Common Lectionary today, we are hearing the same text that many other Christians around the world are studying as well.  We are also approaching the end of the church year, and the beginning of Advent. During this time, the Scripture readings get darker, more foreboding. They talk of the end times. They talk of the trials and tribulations to come for Jesus’ followers. As the days get shorter and the light fades for us in the Northern hemisphere, the readings also turn darker as we wait for the light of Christ to enter the world.

Luke tells of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This story is set on around maybe Tuesday of Holy Week- Jesus has already entered the city on a donkey, is still teaching and preaching while the leaders look for a way to arrest him.  The days of his trial and crucifixion are coming soon. Jesus is giving some final instruction to his followers about what the days ahead will be like.

The people around Jesus are talking about the beauty and impressiveness of the Temple- “adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” Jesus sees a teaching opportunity. Jesus says in verse 6, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” We are not just talking about a few stones tumbling too the ground, but every, single stone. When the Gospel of Mark tells this story, the disciples exclaim “What large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1) The historian Paula Fredriksen notes that the outer court of the Temple could hold 400,000 people. The Temple is massive. The Temple was impressive, grand, an evocative place to worship and remember the sovereignty of God.  Standing in that court, Jesus said “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The parishioners of Grace Church in Southern Berkshires saw the stones of their house of worship thrown down. Grace Church is actually a merger of two congregations, St. James Episcopal Church of Great Barrington and St. George Episcopal Church of Lee. They’ve had done the hard work of joining into one parish.  But before they merged, on July 31, 2008, the rear wall of St. James collapsed. The stones fell onto the priest’s car, a priest that had just arrived at the church 8 months earlier.  St. James was founded in 1762 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, back when western MA was considered a foreign land.  It was the oldest church in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and they were proud of those stones laid down in 1857. Those stones that soaked in the prayers of the faithful since before the Civil War; stones that withstood snowstorm after snowstorm; stones that stood long enough to see the same people baptized and buried and their children baptized and buried; stones that had been held together by the mortar of a faithful community- those blue lime stones came tumbling to the ground.  After the stones came down, there was a hole you could see straight through in the back of the church.

When Jesus tells the people that the stones of the Temple will come tumbling down, they get nervous. I have sympathy for these people. Jesus speaks of massive upheaval, even more massive than the falling down of a single limestone church. Jesus tells of earthquakes, famines, plagues, arrests and persecution. Jesus tells of the Temple falling, the tearing down of the thing that’s supposed to represent the most stability in their lives. The Temple was the dwelling place of God for a people who had been in exile in a foreign land.  The Temple was stable, holy, massive. And now Jesus says it’s all coming down? The people want answers. They want a timeline.  They want a meeting with the architect. And probably the buildings and grounds committee and definitely the town historic buildings commission. They want to attend to deferred maintenance. In Verse 7, they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” They ask, Jesus, could you give us some advanced warning? Could we put up some scaffolding and make some repairs to hold this off a bit longer? Could we prop it up with beams until we can complete our capital campaign? Could we cover it over with a tarp?

Worship at Grace Church in the banquet hall

Worship at Grace Church in the banquet hall

After the stones came down at St. James, things chaotic and utterly predictable began to happen: the town inspector declared the church uninhabitable, which made sense given that there was a giant hole in the wall. All the non-profits and twelve-step groups and community organizations that had been meeting in the church scattered. When a few parishioners finally snuck back in a month later, the brown paper bagged sandwiches were still on the parish hall tables from the community youth theatre group. In the months that followed, they worshiped in a conference room of a local hospital. They considered offers from neighboring UCC congregations to share space. They moved around, packing up the communion ware each Sunday and storing it in the trunks of parishioner’s cars. In the end, they ended up selling the building, and renting space in a banquet hall, which is where I ended up guest preaching 5 years after the wall fell in. Jesus said to those gathered with him at the Temple in Jerusalem, “this will give you an opportunity to testify.”

But we are unprepared, the disciples wail! We are so used to thinking our preparedness will save us. I am supremely guilty of this myself- that foreboding sense that if I just read more, just study more, just research more, I’ll be ready for whatever comes in our unstable world. But our devotion to preparedness is a bit of a national mania in a country that gives us such television shows like Doomsday Preppers about those stockpiling for the end of the world, and shows like Extreme Couponing about those stockpiling toilet paper ,10 for a dollar. Do you remember the push to prepare for Y2K?  As Americans, we think preparedness is an ultimate virtue. Shoot, in America, 75% of people wrongly believe the Bible says that “God helps those who help themselves.” . And no doubt, some preparation is good and life saving. You who live near the chaos of the ocean know better than any that listening to the warnings to evacuate during a storm can save lives. But I think in this, Jesus is pressing on something different, not our practical preparedness but our ultimate trust.

When I read this passage for the first time this week in our weekly small staff bible study, I honestly felt like I had never heard Luke 21:14 before in my life. Ever. I have no recollection of this line of scripture. It is so thoroughly and totally countercultural. Here is Jesus, talking about the unfathomable that the giant stones of the Temple will fall even as he points to the destruction and rejection of his own body. After talking about all the hardships that are to come for Jesus’ followers, Jesus says “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.”  Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. And it’s even more strongly put in the original Greek.  In the Greek, the verb is an imperative: “Put it in your hearts not to prepare your defense.”  It’s a command. How can Jesus make such demands on a scared people who may just be losing everything that gave them stability and security? In verse 15 Jesus promises, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  Jesus invites those who can hear him, don’t anchor your faith in these stones, but in the one who rolls away the stone.

Three weeks ago I got to preside at communion touching the pewter that our forbearers used in 1863. To the young child and her grandmother coming forward for communion, I got to offer the very same cup of the new and everlasting life that was offered to generations before them. I love our traditions, too.

But clinging to our pewter and our roofs and our flood insurance and our 1857 Gothic stone churches as if they are God will not save us.  Yale Prof & theologian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in his 1984 book The Vindication of Tradition:  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”

This is your opportunity to testify; I’ll give you the words and wisdom. In Luke, Jesus isn’t saying, “look for the silver lining when the stones come down.” It’s not a glib faith that looks for the good when everything around you fails. Jesus isn’t that smug. But he does say: “this is your opportunity to testify.” To say and live what you really believe, deep down. To practice that our faith is not in our buildings, but in our God.

You know this. It is built into the DNA of this congregation. Your ancestors did not sit in jail in London for the freedom to build a new building. Your ancestors didn’t sit in jail, didn’t labor across the ocean, didn’t survive New England winters in order to have a pretty building. The buildings were the tool for, not the same thing as, the worship of God. Our buildings are important, sometimes even critical for ministry, but they are not the same thing as the faithfulness that Jesus invites us to.

After the stones came down at St. James, something new was unearthed outside the walls of the old gothic church. At Advent that year, some church members went down to a local organic farm to make Advent wreaths with the Sunday School kids- which they had to do at a farm since they no longer had an inhabitable church.  One of the children said, “wouldn’t it be great if we had a farm to feed hungry people?” And they started to imagine. Gideon’s Garden started out as 1/3 of an acre of donated land on that organic farm. First it was just the church children growing a little bit of food for fun. Now it’s the Sunday School kids, local kids who come afterschool, a summer program with teen mentors and now the children of the migrant farm workers.

Gideon's Farm

When I visited in September to guest preach, they had expanded the farm to 3 acres, with all of the food grown by the children going to the local WIC program and food pantries.  There are more people connecting with the church through this garden than ever came through the stone arches of the sanctuary. When the stones came down, Jesus said “Thiswill give you an opportunity to testify.”

I don’t know what’s ahead for our country, or our church, or your roof, or for any of us tomorrow. All I have is this strange promise from Jesus inviting us to relax a bit, to stop our frantic preparations, to  “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I will give you words and wisdom.” I think that is the promise that our forbearers in the faith clung to as well.  May this promise be the rock to which you cling through the storms ahead. Amen.



Fairweathers: welcoming newcomers to the bike path and church


bike traffic jam

70 degrees and sunny is to the bike path what the 7pm Christmas Eve service is to Church. Those of us who are on the path and in the pew at other times are going to need to learn how to be more hospitable.

A few days ago, the weather was just perfect for Boston. The sky was bright and clear, with only the tamest of threats of an afternoon storm. The roads were dry and trees had not yet dropped their leaves on the path. It was a perfect day to ride a bike and the people were.

I pulled up to an intersection to find a ten bicycles back-up just to get across the main road. The jumble of cyclists and pedestrians trying to find a sense of order echoed the lightly organized chaos of lining up for communion. On long stretches of straight paths, the hierarchy of bike commuters shakes out, with the faster cyclists in the front. But  the intersection was a mess, out of the optimal order from fast to slow. I attempted to patiently wait my turn behind others who I knew were slower than I. The kids in front were slow to get going. Only about 5 cyclists and a handful of pedestrians made it through the intersection before the light changed. The rest of us would wait.

As the light turned yellow, an older cyclist still wearing the white foam helmet that ceased being made after about 1989, buzzed around me on the right. “Fairweathers” he muttered.

He sped off before I could respond. I am not a Fairweather, I wanted to yell. I ride in Boston in January, you jerk face, traffic law breaker, you. But he was gone. And I was lumped in with this cyclists who only came out when the roads were dry and the sun was shining.

There’s a smug superiority we tolerate from those who got here first. We make up words to identify the occasional visitors to our sacred spaces “C & E Christians” (i.e. Christmas & Easter), “fairweathers.” We grumble when they don’t know what hymnal to pick up when we use our secret coded church acronyms in the bulletin, or what the words are to “The Lord’s Prayer.” We snarl when they don’t stay to the right on the bike path or signal a left turn.

Those of us who got here first are the ones obliged to create a hospitable space. Remember, the goal is bicycle evangelism. Calling other cyclists fairweathers doesn’t make me feel like I am a part of the community of bike commuters.

So what if there are C & E Christians? At least they went to church! And treating them like fools for not knowing the secret liturgical handshakes or knowing how to line up for communion is a sure-fire way to keep them only coming twice a year.  Who cares that they are fairweather cyclists? They are on the road, increasing the volume and visibility of cyclists for us all, even for that one day. Be nice to them. Shepherd them along. Teach them how to line up at an intersection as if we were Dutch. I know they slow you down. They slow me down too. But be a gracious host, NICELY say “On your left” and model good cycling manners as you pass on the left. Maybe speed and your connivence are not the most important thing here. Someone lead you to the good life of bike commuting, be gracious enough to lead these first time riders.

Consider smiling to the newcomers. Maybe even say “Hello, nice day for a ride. Where are you going?”  We get on our bikes to get out of the hermetically sealed bubble of a car commute, so smile and say hello to your other cyclists. Ask the person who is sitting in “your” pew, “Tell me, do you live around here?” We who have been on these roads and pews before bear the unique obligation, dare I say duty, to act as ushers for the occasional fairweathers and invite them to ride all year.

Quick and Dirty: Ash Wednesday

This morning before work, I joined our pastor and another parishioner from Hope Central Church to offer the imposition of ashes at our local subway station. It is an awkward thing to stand on a street corner in Boston.

I blessed two bicycles and a sick dog. Don asked for prayers for his sobriety as he walked to yet another AA meeting. Dulcie, Gloria, and Juanita all asked for ashes on their foreheads. I stood for a photo taken by a commuter who said “this is great. Thank you for being here.” Dry ashes stick to the oily foreheads of teenagers on their way to English High School. Dry ashes mound in the wrinkled skin of old men who can only afford the free newspaper. But before the commuters, we blessed the subway station cleaning crew.

As a fellow parishioner Angela observed:

“The first to receive were those who worked at the subway station. In a capitalist society, religious practice becomes a privilege.”

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not Ashes to Go is savvy “liturgical evangelism’ or cheap grace. I too would prefer the luxury for all of us together to sit for an hour in community to hear the full readings and participate in a full liturgy. But for some, the time and freedom to be in a church for an hour is in fact a luxury. Ashes to Go not about convenience, but about outreach to those who will not or cannot walk through the doors of our churches. What we offered was not for those of us inside the Church already, but for those without a spiritual home.Yes, our prayers with commuters, subway employees and the subcontracted cleaning crew may have been quick and dirty compared to the beautiful liturgies of Ash Wednesday, but so are we. We are dirty. Lent is dirty. And so is the man who cleans  from the subway station the garbage that all the rest of us mindlessly leave behind. The least the Church can do for him is show up in his space rather than presume that he always enter our space. While the wages of those who clean up after us may be unjustly low, their lives and work are hardly cheap.

Let us pray:

Almighty and merciful God, you hate nothing you have made, and
forgive the sins of all who are penitent; create in us new and contrite
hearts, so that when we turn to you and confess our sins and
acknowledge our need, we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness,
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Ashes are marked on the forehead with the following words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Hospitality like Massachusetts Highways

A sermon for the Central Massachusetts District of the New England Conference, United Methodist Church  Worship Revitalization Conference, 1st UMC Westborough, Saturday Feb 2, 2013

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. ~ Luke 4: 21-30

As soon as she picked up her fork, I knew. She grabbed the fork the way you might pick up a wrench from a toolbox. All four fingers wrapped around the top and her thumb tucked underneath the metal, her whole hand around her fork in a tight fist.  She pushed the tender asparagus from the back of the place forward. When she reached the edge of the place, she last stabbed the food, and with little flick of the wrist, picked it up and moved it towards her mouth. I looked closer and the cloth napkin was still on the tablecloth, not placed gently on her lap. She’s never been to a place like this before.

Phillip asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And the Ethiopian Eunuch replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ How can I unless someone guides me? Will you pray with me…

Everything seems to be going fine. He spoke nice and loud. Even the ladies who sit defiantly in the back row could hear his words. He read very well, I couldn’t hear his accent at all! And he chose such a lovely passage. Jesus’s reading in the synagogue seems to go very well for a time. Maybe we’re even given Luke’s guess at what makes for a good sermon: first the people are praising Jesus’s generous words, or translated another way, “smooth words.” But then it gets a bit more interesting. He asks them some pointed questions. Jesus is the guest preacher, the itinerant who rides in from outta town, shakes it up and then gets outta Nazareth. By the end of the Lectionary passage, the people are trying to run him off a cliff. Beneath those smooth words, Jesus prodded them to consider that the Spirit might just show up beyond the bounds of their tightly proscribed community.

Our work today is audacious goal of changing Church, in seven hours. It says so, I read it on the registration form. 7 hours and we’ll be movers and shakers, transformed by excellent preaching, compelling worship, informative workshops- no pressure anyone. I am grateful for the exceedingly strong Methodist conviction that the Holy Spirit can find her way out Route 9 even if I can’t. We are tasked with revitalizing worship. And yet, somehow at a Methodist revival, you’ve invited a Congregationalist pastor and ecumenical bureaucrat to break open the word and say something profound that will spur you to make change in your community. Here is the truth: my expertise is in going to worship, not planning it. I cannot guide you to building a better worship service. What I can tell you is what it is like to be a guest. Most Sundays, I am visiting some congregation somewhere around Massachusetts, trying to connect all these denominations and congregations who are convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than what divides us. I may get a bit of liturgical whiplash going from Methodists to Episcopalians to UCC to Armenian Orthodox and back again, but I am a professional church visitor.

Almost by definition, we are insiders. We are the kind of people who know what an introit is. We are the kind of people who know to laugh and nod knowingly when someone makes a joke about hearts being strangely warmed. We are the kind of people that go to conferences on worship on a Saturday, filled with ideas of how to rearrange the pews and add drums and encourage meaningful participation. We are the people who hear what’s going on in Caperneum and want to try it at our church. I hear that the First United Methodist Church of Caperneum has a worship service at 6:37 on a Tuesday with an upright bass, a video screen, liturgical dancers, and a labyrinth. Maybe if it works in Caperneum, then it’ll work in Shrewsbury and Tewksbury and Sudbury. We are the well-meaning people in the synagogue who ask Jesus “Do here also in my hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” But Jesus presses us. He asks more of us. He asks us to look again with the eyes of an outsider.

The faithful worshipers in the synagogue get angry when Jesus starts to push them beyond their familiar space. Jesus tells them the stories of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian and the prophet Elijah interacting with the widow at Zarephath, which I think is out past Winchendon. It’s not the hometown crew, but the outsiders that has the good view of who is invited to worship this God who keeps extending invitation to the furthest of outsiders.

Carlo Rotella, a Chicago native transplanted to Boston wrote this week in the Globe: “If you live in the Boston area and you’re not from around here, you receive frequent reminders of your non-belonging.” You should just know that route 9 starts in Boston south of the Mass. Pike and then crosses north of it somewhere in the wilds of Framingham. You should just know that 128 is the same thing as 95, except when it’s not, and for extra inaccessibility sometimes 128/95 North is also Rt 3 South. You should just know that while 495 ought to be a North/South highway, it starts moving east in Bolton to the North and Franklin to the South. You should just know that Suffolk is actually north of Norfolk County. And if you can even pronounce it, you should just know that Worcester has a Lake Quinsigamond, a Quinsigamond community college, Quinsigamond avenue and Quinsigamond village … no two of these four places are anywhere near each other! You should just know that the ‘H’ is silent in Amherst and Needham. And in Boston, You should just know that East Boston is actually North, the North End is just a little north of Southie, Southie and the South End are two different places, but Southie and South Boston are the same thing and both Southie and the South End are further north than Dorchester (h/t Rev. Hank Pierce). You should just know to sit during the postlude.

You should just know what a postlude is. How could a stranger know, unless someone guides him? This is the danger with our worship services. You should just know how to pronounce Leominster or Worcester or intinction or apocrapha or Caperneaum.

We keep talking about the rise of the religious ‘nones,’ people who have no religious identification and yet we aim to invite these very people to worship that requires presumed knowledge. We genuinely want to be “seeker-friendly” but we’re filled with bits of code, frequent reminders for your non-belonging. It’s not road signs that say Stop! Do Not Enter! but the absence of signs. Things you should have known. Cues you should have picked up. Napkins placed in your lap and your fork held gently with just your fingers as you delicately pick up your bite.

The transplant Rotella writes “But if you live anywhere long enough, the way of life there, the lay of the land itself, will sink into you.” The way of life sinks in. The roads without road-signs become familiar. You do it a few times, and you know how to get to Logan without looking at your map. And it becomes oddly hard to give anyone else directions. It’s not malice or anger, it just familiarity. That’s as true about knowing how to drive to the airport as it is about how to go to church. It doesn’t matter if your worship bulletin has a helpful note instructing guests to use “trespasses and trespass against us” or “debts and debtors” if you don’t even know the words to the Lord’s Prayer in the first place! Printing the words of the Doxology means nothing if you don’t know what a Doxology is and what tune it might be set to or that there’s some secret choreography where the entire congregation turns towards the cross? And this strange ritual about passing plates and putting money that’s cued up without much explanation? I’ll be so bold to say that every time we take the offering without testifying about what an offering is and why as Christians we give back to God, we fail to teach our children and our guests how to follow Christ. We invite newcomers back to coffee hour in rooms mysteriously named after the faithfully departed with no indication of where those rooms are, and then wonder why they can’t find their way. Where are our missing road-signs? How could they know unless someone where to teach them?

What breaks us out of this sinking familiarity is something new. Someplace new. I have come to believe that ecumenical awkwardness is a spiritual discipline. We see our own worshipping community with new eyes when we go somewhere else for a bit and see how much is presumed. You will learn many good and important things at this conference today. You may even want to try some new ideas at home. And you should. But to see how strangers experience our worship, you yourself have to become a stranger. Go somewhere else. Worship in another tradition. Ask the people in your congregation who were formed by communities other than Methodist churches what they find strange or confusion.  We have to become as strangers to look at our own worship and see how we are preventing people from participating. Jesus turns their eyes to Sidon and Syria. He tells stories of when God shows up in outsiders and unexpected places, implicating the good people in the synagogue who have sunk into their familiar ways of being community. Luke writes “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.” You would have thought that Jesus took the American flag out of the sanctuary on the fourth of July, they were so angry.

Sometimes it takes us going to another community to be as a stranger to see worship with a stranger’s eye, and sometimes it takes a brave stranger in our midst to help us see what we presume. The church where I am a member was full on Easter Sunday. After the bread was broken, the wine poured, the prayers recited, our pastor said “Come, for all things are ready.” And the servers reverently and mindfully walked forward to pick up the bread and the cup. From about 10 pews back, a young woman rushed forward, first in line. Her face was flushed. She looked like she had been crying. All the polite people in the first nine pews had not even stood up yet and formed orderly lines to receive. How could she know, unless someone guides her? All things are ready, the pastor said it! But it wasn’t quite true. But she was ready, even if we weren’t. May the Holy Spirit make us so bold to move to the altar too. Amen.