Holy Inheritance: A Sermon on Mark 10: 17-33

Holy Inheritance:Sermon on Mark 10:17-33

Sunday October 11, 2015 Bethlehem Covenant Church, Worcester MA

(Preacher’s note: This sermon was also an experiment in crowd-sourcing stories from friends and strangers on social media)

Every family has stories of inheritance.IMG_7648

Every family has stories of inheritance: some are beautiful tales of priceless gifts, some are tormented by inheritances that we wish we didn’t receive, inheritances that came because someone died too soon, inheritances that burden us. And some of us had families that couldn’t love us like they should. Instead of inheriting a watch or a chair, we inherited a a legacy of pain.

William inherited his grandmother Faye’s 1917 typewriter and a folio of unseen manuscripts, betraying a secret vocation as a writer that never saw the light of day.

Pete inherited his grandmother Mary’s cufflinks that she received the day she graduated from nursing school, a sign of her greatest accomplishment. To the young 16 year old inheriting these cufflinks, she gave Pete an expectation that he would accomplish great things, too.

Hannah inherited her grandfather Hans’ name, a man who died just before she was born. What would she have learned of her namesake if she had met him?

Marty inherited his grandfather’s wallet. In that slim wallet were his driver’s license, his Hertz, TWA and a hotel charge card, tokens of an ordinary life spent on the road before he died of a heart attack at 52.

Liddy inherited both her parents’ pension accounts, with a fair amount of money but a heap of grief- accounts full since both parents died way too young, before the could spend down their retirement savings, before they could meet their grandchildren, before they could even rest from their labors.

The only thing Fred ever inherited was a TV/VHS player, but he only inherited it because his friend Willis died of AIDS.

Sarah and Diane both inherited jewelry, nothing particularly special, no resale value, really. But passed down, again and again, with layers of stories coating the ceramic beads and glass crystals where one might hope that diamonds would be.

Marian and her siblings where disinherited as a predator got a hold of her father’s finances in his ailing final two years.

We all have these stories- ask one another at coffee hour. Wendy inherited her father’s unflinching honesty. Kevin wraps himself in his grandfather’s red wool flannel shirt. James inherited his Grandma Lucy’s gravy recipe on a single folded piece of yellow paper. Bruce puts on his mother’s jade cross. Liza inherited singing show-tunes at full volume. Karl inherited his great-uncle’s love of baseball. Abbi inherited iris bulbs from a neighbor, as his body struggled and he could no longer tend his garden.

And as for me? I’m waiting to inherit my grandmother’s recipe file. She is adamant, adamant that she will not share her recipes until she is dead.

We’ve heard the stories, maybe even lived the stories of greedy cousins, manipulating siblings, warring relatives, unscrupulous caregivers who trick the dying in order to inherit wealth. We’ve heard the stories, maybe even lived the stories of uneven inheritances, leading to generations of anger and resentment.

A friend recounted that when the grandmother died, she arranged for her resources to be divided between five adult children- some receiving 40%, others receiving 0%. As my pastor friend presided at the funeral, anger and jealously leaked over the pews and puddled onto the floor. Five years later, the adult children still aren’t talking to one another.

A young man kneels before Jesus and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Inheritance is a tricky thing. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What is behind that question? This young man, is he asking “How do I get eternal life without having to work for it? How do I get the good stuff for nothing? How do I get a free lunch?” Or is he asking as an outsider, as a stranger, how do I become part of this family, of this people, this?

In order to inherit, something must die.

In order to inherit, something must die.

And this is a man yet unwilling to let some things die.

Jesus presses him, pushes him- go and sell what you own, give the money to the poor, come and follow me.

This is a complicated passage of Scripture, a story that shows up in three of the Gospels. The church has argued about this for generations: Should we read this literally? Is Jesus actually saying that the wealthy cannot enter heaven? Or is it a metaphor?

However you read this passage, I am convinced our inheritance as children of God works like this: None of us are native born; all are adopted children into the family of Christ. None of us inherits more; all are equals as children of God. And there is enough for all.

And the first born of all Creation, Jesus, the Good Teacher, is doing some serious teaching here. Jesus sounds stern, harsh even. It’s tough love. Jesus is on the path, on the Way and inviting others to follow him. The rich young man wants to follow but is unwilling to leave behind what drags him down. He wants to be made well, but is unwilling to change. We want to be made well, just as long as we don’t have to change. We want a more just society in America, just as long as we personally have to give anything up. We want a more inclusive church, just as long as the new people act like us.

The key for me is in verse 21. Jesus looked on him, loved him, and invited him he had to change. Not pity, not anger, not resentment, but love. Jesus loved him. Jesus loved the rich young man so much that he invited him to change. Because it’s mighty hard to follow the way of Jesus when your feet are shackled with what holds you back.

Now maybe its not many possessions or overwhelming wealth that’s holding you back like the young man, holding you down. Maybe there’s something else in your life that needs to die. Is it concern about what other people think? Is it an inheritance of addiction? Is it a mythology of stories upon stories of how you’d never amount to anything that keeps you tied to the floor? Is it anxiety that you will fail? What is the thing you need to divest from that holds you back from life abundant, that thing you are so afraid to change?

This place, this church is an inherence. You have a great legacy of faithfulness in this place. But you didn’t build this church, the people before you did. You didn’t create this community, the saints before you did! You inherit this faith for a season. But even in this inheritance, there are some things that need to die in order to follow Christ. There are no more Swedish millworkers moving to Quinsigamond Village. How will you ensure that there is a faith, not a building, but a faith for the next generation to inherit? I don’t know what needs to be buried for you follow Jesus along the way, but maybe you do. Maybe you’ve inherited some things that no longer serve you.

As Americans, we inherit things that prevent us from the full freedom for all to live life abundant as equally dignified children of God. We inherit a history of systemic racism, discrimination against women, and just about every new immigrant group. We inherit a history and a legacy built on the taking of tribal lands and the uncompensated enslaved labor on which this new country grew up. This inheritance sticks to us, clings to us, not like an old chair you inherited from your great Aunt that you can just leave at Goodwill and be done with, but this inheritance has seeped into our soil. Our American inheritance sits in every living room, hangs in every closet, burrows into every heart, where some of us started this life having inherited 40%, and some of us began with nothing. This church sits here in Worcester on land owned and entrusted to the Nimpuc people nearly 350 years ago. And even as we looking into Columbus Day tomorrow, we remember that after the King Philip’s war of 1676 the same Nimpuc people, fellow humans, equally dignified children of God, were captured, rounded up, removed from their land right here in Worcester, and forced onto Deer Island in Boston Harbor, without sufficient provisions, food or clothes. All but 1,000 people died.

If we stand on this land, we inherit this legacy. We inherit this too. No ones hands are clean. And there are some things we must leave behind to follow Christ.

To follow Jesus, we are asked to give away the things that lead us to death in order to be healed- this is our holy inheritance.

The young rich man who comes before Jesus, drops to his knees along the side of the road before he asks his question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Each time someone falls to their knees before Jesus and asks to be made well in the Gospel of Mark, a healing occurs. What is if this is a story of healing?

This is the promise at the end of the passage beginning in verse 29: Jesus invites us to leave behind that which drags us towards fear and scarcity, and be liberated to join him on the Way. We are invited to be healed not just for some far off promise of eternal life, but right here, right now. This age AND the age to come.

Sometimes, the things we inherit heal us.

Jin Min inherited her mother’s strong will. Sarah’s hands now look like her mother’s and her grandmother’s. Bert took what little was left of his grandmother’s finances and bought Stanley Waterford cook stove made in Ireland, that each of his children remembers warming their home. Meredyth inherited her father’s bread-baking skills. Alan inherited his grandmother’s painting and the stories she told about each figure in the scene. Ellery inherited her grandmother’s silk scarves that didn’t seem to go with anything until she was much older. Michael inherited his mother’s Bible and the note on the inside said, “these are some things that money can’t buy…”

Some of us will never inherit any material thing. But there is an inheritance, a holy inheritance in Christ that money cannot buy, not amount of wealth or possessions can possess. We are offered, again and again by Jesus, the holy inheritance of being adopted as children of God. Amen.

“Spirit enough for the wilderness”: a sermon on memory and nostalgia

“SPIRIT ENOUGH FOR THE WILDERNESS” Sermon for the 100th anniversary of



Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Every time we tell the story, the peaches get sweeter. Once upon a time, my Great-Aunt Josephine was flying back to the United States from her childhood home in Italy. And like any good auntie, she had stuffed her pockets full of good things to eat, enough to get her home and enough to share. But the security guards at the airport stopped her. “Can’t take those agricultural items out of the country, m’am.” No amount of arguing changed their minds. No offers to share her peaches would persuade the guards. Here she was, being sent away from her home on a ten-hour flight where all she’d have to sustain her were plastic airline Dixie cups of pale cut fruit drowning in a sickening sea of sugar water. My aunt shouted in Italian back to my cousins in the security line:

Manga! Eat! Eat quickly!FullSizeRender

And so they did. Faster and faster as the line moved forward, eating those perfect peaches before they were taken away!

We ask one another, do you remember? Do you remember how sweet those peaches were? Like ice cream, right? No, no, like honey! The flesh so ripe that it pulled away from the pit as soon as you bit in, juice running onto your hands and down your chin. And the color! Like a sunset, yellow fading to orange to deep red at the core. The sweetest peaches you’ve ever seen, as big as your head and perfectly formed. They’ll have those peaches in heaven. Or was it nectarines? Or apricots? It coulda been apricots…

“The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

“If only we had basturma! We remember the lamb we used to eat in Cilicia for nothing, the apricots, the pomegranates, the labneh, the khanum budu, the choereg, but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Memory will sustain us, but nostalgia will choke us.

We are in the wilderness, right now. The nature of the Church in North America is rapidly changing. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the country. Less than 25 % of Massachusetts residents attend a religious service at least once a week. Denominations and traditions do not signify what they used to. 44% of Americans will change their religious identity at least once in their lifetime, and that number is on the rise. Increasingly, if people attend a church, they attend it 2, maybe 3 times a month, and they are slower to commit to membership, if at all. People are joining less churches, less social clubs, less civic organization, less cultural institutions, less bowling leagues, less Kiwanas, less Nights of Vartan chapters, less Ladies Aid Societies.

And maybe even more profound for the Church, more and more people in our broader culture feel like they have deep spiritual connections and commitments, but do not choose to affiliate with religious institutions. We look out, and all we see is scrub brush and desert.

We are in the wilderness. Moses hears the people weeping, longing for their homeland. They remember a time when the food was abundant, when the pews were filled, when there were so many children that we needed to build a new Sunday school wing. A few months ago, I visited a church in Pittsfield. Back when the church was full, they built on a big new 1960s Sunday School wing and it was filled! When I visited in 2015, they were raising money to tear down that 60’s addition because it no longer serves them. The addition took up too much money in the budget to heat, with a long staircase it wasn’t physically accessible to everyone, and without the classrooms full, they just didn’t need the space. The faithful thing for them to do was to tear it down. A parishioner at the church asked me “Why are we the only ones who have to change?” Where are the days of milk and honey and peaches the size of your head? So many churches are struggling to adapt to a changing culture. Our broader culture does not prop up church membership any more. The wilderness is wide and we’re all in it.

Wilderness is a place of testing. The Hebrew Bible scholar Frank Yamada writes “The wilderness, which becomes a metaphorical place of God’s testing in the Bible, is the locus for both human and divine difficulty. This harsh setting challenges both the Israelites and their God.” As Yamada says, the wilderness is a place that challenges both God and God’s people.

We are in the wilderness and in this time of testing. And in the wilderness, in the desert, we sometimes see mirages. Our vision gets distorted. You hear it with the Israelites. In the wilderness, they are remembering their former meals, big banquets and abundant feasts. Except that never happened. In the wilderness, they forget their former suffering and distort their memory for a sort of nostalgia of a time that didn’t exist. Memory will sustain us, but nostalgia will choke us.

Memory reminds us of hour God delivered us in the past. Nostalgia takes that memory and simplifies it, runs it through an Instagram filter to a hazy sepia picture where we miss the complexity, obscure the failures, forget the worm in the center of the peach. Nostalgia chokes us because it is not real and can never be attained again.

The Israelites are nostalgic for a banquet that never quite happened. The pit of that peach gets caught in our throats, and we can never quite taste such goodness again.

But memory, memory sustains us in the confusion of the present time, remembering how God delivered us out of Egypt. Memory sustains us when death lurks all around, remembering how Jesus Christ was raised from the tomb. Memory invites us to draw on the resources of the past, but not to be bound by them. You have done this. Your parish has done this. When it did not serve you anymore to lead services in Turkish, you changed. When your name did not reflect you anymore, you changed it. When you wanted to make sure you connected to your heritage, you added a little classical Armenian into your liturgy in the Lord’s Prayer. You have shown yourselves to be a faithful people who can change and adapt, trusting God to remain constant.

In the wilderness, we get small and anxious that we will not have enough. We remember, maybe mis-remember, former times of abundance and fear we will never see them again. The people are weeping, and Moses is stuck. Moses says to God “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” Maybe you’ve felt this burden too. Maybe you who have pastored, served on parish council, taught Sunday school, led the Ladies Aid Society, maybe you’ve felt the wilderness. Maybe you who have shown up to week after week to sing in the choir, to lead music ministry, to make sure there is coffee and something sweet, maybe you too have felt the scarcity of the wilderness. In the wilderness, we get anxious that there are not enough material resources and then we get anxious that there are not enough spiritual resources.

Moses, who has led the people into the desert, worries he cannot lead the people out. The weight is too heavy, as if the well being of each of the pilgrims rests on his shoulders alone. But it is not weight alone to bear. We are reminded that it is God, not Moses, who created each of these people. We are reminded that it is God, not Moses, who directs their path through the wilderness. In a place of scarcity, Moses pleads with the God of Abundance.

And what does God do? God redistributes the spiritual wealth. God tells Moses, “Go, gather the elders and the leaders of the people and bring them to the tent of meetings.”

Now, maybe I’m just reading this like a Protestant, but it sounds to me like God is calling a congregational meeting. Go and gather the people.

And when they gather, what happened? The Spirit is poured out on all of them. Verse 25: Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied .

In the anxiety of the wilderness, God takes the resources present, the elders and leaders already with them, and blesses them for shared service. You longtime members of this church, this is your legacy which only will live on if you share it. You new members, you who join event today, this is your adopted heritage, remembering that in the Body of Christ, none of us is native born, all are adopted. Members and guests and friends of Armenian Memorial Church and the whole body of Christ, we are the all the people blessed by the Spirit in the wilderness .

There is so much Spirit, that it falls onto the people outside the gathered. There is so much Spirit, that it blesses and empowers not just those who are authorized, but on people back at the camp, who no one expected.

There is Spirit enough for the wilderness. Not just for one person, but for all the gathered. When we serve the God of Abundance, there is enough.

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to pray for you. I am no Moses, but as your sister in Christ, I want to bless these gathered people on behalf of the Church:

Gracious and loving God, you have shown your faithfulness in the generations of Armenian Memorial Church. A people who could have been dead, have risen. A church that might not existed, has stood firm. We praise you for the names known to us and the names known to You alone. Number each name and write them in the book of life.

This day, we ask for your blessing upon this congregation. As you did with Moses and the Israelites, take Your Spirit and spread it wide. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His spirit on them!”

We claim you again this day, a God of Abundance. When we see scarcity, remind us of your generosity. When we get stuck in the desert, remind us of your provision. When we get small and fearful, assure us of your generosity. When nostalgia of ‘what used to be,’ clouds our vision, clear our eyes for the path you have ahead of us. When we are stuck in the tomb of Holy Saturday, take our hands and guide us to Sunday.

You guided our ancestors out of Egypt, you led our foremothers and forefathers to this place, you endured the suffering of the cross to rise on the third day, Holy One , send the Spirit of the living God to dwell among us. Bless us. Anoint us. Pour your spirit out upon us that we might all be prophets. In the name of Christ, I bless you. Amen. 


“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost

“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost

Christ Church United & Lao United Church of Christ, Lowell MA (Special thanks to Host pastors Ted Rasakham and Peter Lovett. During the multi-cultural, multi-generational service, we sang two Gullah songs “Kum Ba Yah” and the amazing “Open the Window” arranged by Elise Witt.)

Sunday May 31, 2015

Let us pray…

Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.

This is not an easy story of our faith. I fear we have domesticated the story of Pentecost. We’ve made this story understandable, easily-consumed. We call it the birthday of the Church, with sweet pink birthday candles flickering atop the heads of the disciples. We’ve removed the chaos, the fear, the confusion, the unmistakable scent of singed hair. But make no mistake, Church, the day of Pentecost was chaos.

The disciples, left alone after the ascension of Jesus, have gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The town is full of visitors, tourists for the holiday. There’s no room at any inn. And as the disciples huddle together, the Spirit swoops in. No knocking, no polite entry. Forcefully, violently, without invitation or warning, the same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, enters without asking. It must have been chaos. Were there chairs knocked over? Did glasses shatter as they hit the stone floor?

We tend to envision the Holy Spirit like a gentle dove, but this scene seems more to me like a wild turkey let lose in your living room.

And then, as if a wind that breaks into your home, envelops the room, hits you in the middle of the chest and knocks you down isn’t confusing enough, then fire appears? Fire appears. Fire appears, splitting, cleaving into tongues of fire, alighting atop of each head? We sing “Breathe on me, breath of God…” without being prepared for the Spirit we are inviting.

Perhaps we’ve made Pentecost become so familiar, so safe, so far from that pent-up wild bird Spirit because we think it is too darn hard to follow the Spirit and learn a new language.

“Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.”  Or , in the New Revised Standard Version, “4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

It took 26 years, but the Spirit gave them the ability. Vernetta Canteed was on the bible translation team for 26 whole years before the American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament, printed in the Gullah language. It took 26 years and generation upon generation- because Gullah was discredited for a very long time. People said it wasn’t a real language. People said, it was just broken English. People didn’t recognize the rich mix of West African and indigenous languages coming together through the enslaved Africans sent to work the rice farms of the South Carolina lowcountry and Georgia Sea Islands. It took generations and generations and 26 years to publish the New Testament in Gullah. And when that Bible was finally published in 2005, Vernetta Canteed said, “That’s the first time I heard God talk the way I talk.”

On that day of Pentecost, God talked the way Vernetta talked.

How many of you are bilingual, or multi-lingual? You are our tutors. You are our guides. We will need you to teach the rest of us. You know how to translate. You know how to stand, maybe uneasily, with your feet in two different worlds.

You know the thrill of hearing you own first language in an unexpected place, in line at the grocery store. You know the struggle of having the exact right word in your mother tongue, but not knowing how to say it in English. You know the attentive skill you develop to listen carefully, to pick up cues and hints beyond the words themselves. You know the comfort of being lost in a strange place and hearing a stranger ask, “Necesitas ayuda?” Do you need help?

You who speak Lao, and French, and Cambodian, and Spanish. You who speak Arabic, and Swahili, and American Sign Language, and Gullah. We need you. The Spirit needs you. The Church needs you, because we are all going to have to learn new languages if the Church is to be embodied in this emerging culture. You all have a major university just down the street, with students from around the world. There are now whole generations of youth and young adults who do not know the Church’s language. They do not know the language of our denominations- and do not care about the difference between a Congregationalist and an Episcopalian. They do not know what the chancel is or where the narthex is or even what the doxology is. They have not been formed by the language of the Church.

I think, our job isn’t primarily to teach them our language, but to learn theirs, so that we can help them hear God speaking in their own language. How will this community learn the language of your neighbors?

When the parish of St John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton listened carefully to their neighbors at Smith College, they heard the students say that they were hungry and they were anxious, especially during finals. So now, twice a year at the end of the fall and spring semesters, St John’s Church cooks up thousands of pancakes, hundreds of pounds of bacon, serves gallons of coffee to weary, nervous students at their Midnight Breakfast during Finals Week. My message isn’t that you should put on a midnight breakfast too, or set up a “Rent-a-grandparent” but that these churches went and listened carefully to how the students in their neighborhood named their deepest needs and sense of the holy- they went an learned another language.

In the Gullah translation of Acts 2, we get the long list of places where people came from before arriving in Jerusalem: Galilee, Mede, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia.

And then, the Gullah translation has this glorious, short sentence. “We All Mix.” We all Mix, say it with me, Church. We all mix. Acts 2:12-13 “De people all been stonish an all mix op, so dey beena aks one noda say, ‘Wa dis mean?’ Bot some oda people been mek fun ob dem dat bleebe pon Jedus, say ‘Dem people don drink tommuch wine!”

That mix makes people nervous, confused. You know it. When this great glorious, unimaginable diverse unity happens, the crowds think that the believers in Jesus are drunk.

The day of Pentecost was chaos for the participants and confusion for the crowds. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at living with chaos and confusion. I want to pin it down, smooth it out, make order, make sense. The Pentecost story resists our efforts to make it plain- There is fire burning and wind blowing, but the wind doesn’t blow the fire out. There are people speaking in languages from tribes of people that have extinct for 500 years! There are all sorts of people learning how to live together, listen to God together.

Maybe God is bilingual. As Christians, we pattern our lives on the life of Jesus Christ, the one who was both fully human.

Maybe God is multi-lingual, speaking throughout time and Creation as the Creator, the Child, the Spirit.

Maybe God is beyond our language, and the best we can do is make like the writer of Acts and humbly say God is like the wind, God is like the fire.

For this is the truth of Pentecost, it is scary and chaotic to follow the Spirit. It’s dangerous and unpredictable. Following the Spirit asks of us than we can ask or understand.

I do not know how to make sense of what happened on the Pentecost day, but I do know this: God is at work in the chaos. God is invested in a diversity of people and languages, not privileging one over the other, but listening to each. God so loved the world, and so desired unity for the Church that when the day of Pentecost arrived “We all mix.” Amen.

Digging Holes: A Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

Digging Holes: A Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

Sunday November 16, 2014, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Grafton MA

Matthew 25:14-30 

gala and bone

{before digging}

       This the parable of Gala the anxious puppy dog: In a town far away known as Boston, a girl and her dog moved into a home with the girl’s older sister. The dog named Gala was an anxious pet, but the owner didn’t know why or what came before. She was adopted from a shelter. When people saw her on the street, they’d ask “what is she?” but none of us really knew. Maybe a little terrier? A mutt, a sweet, anxious mutt. She ate her food too fast, as if afraid that other dogs would steal it from her. She wore her self out chasing the trains, as if she’d never get another chance to be outside. Most of all, she buried her bones. Any time someone would give her a bone, she hid it somewhere in the house.  I found a bone in the recycling bin. My sister found one in the bathtub hidden under a bath towel. We found bones in the garden under my blueberry bush and bones in the house wedged between the cushions of the couch.  When you gave Gala a bone, she would happily chew it for about 2 minutes, then something changed, like a light went off and she remembered that someone, somewhere, sometime soon might take it. And off she would go to dig a hole in anything she could find to bury her bone. Let us pray…

      This Parable is not an easy text. Your pastor is very wise to invite a guest preacher today! Wailing and gnashing of teeth is not a good sign. Whether this story is Good News depends a bit, I think, on how you approach the parable and who you think is playing what role.  This parable goes by many names. It depends on whom you ask. For generations it’s been known as “The Parable of the Talents.” Some more modern scholars have thought of this as “The Parable of the Righteous Slave.” 
     In this parable though, Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey with the intention of returning. Matthew 25:14 reads, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” We know the property ultimately belongs to the master. The slave entrusted with 5 talents, traded and made 5 more. The slave entrusted with 2 talents, made 2 more. But the third slave, in verse 19 “But the one who received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” The first two are rewarded, the 3rd slave is berated by the master and cast into the darkness. 
      There’s a way in which this parable feels to me as much descriptive of 1st century Palestine as our current American economics where the rich get rich and the poor stay poor and the gap between increases exponentially. Income inequality in the US is at the widest gap between rich and poor since 1928. The standup comedian Louis C.K. tells this joke, which I’d play for you if not for few choice words that aren’t appropriate for Sunday morning sermons…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0rSXjVuJVg

He says:

“You ever get so broke that the bank charges you money for not having enough money? I’m broke, man. Bank calls me up and says “ Hi. We’re calling to tell you you don’t have enough money.” I know. She said, “Sir, you have insufficient funds.” Whoa, that’s a good way to put it too, I agree with that! I find my funds to be grossly insufficient. Thanks for calling. Why are you mad at me? How is it something that’s hurting you? She said, “Sir you only have $20. You can’t just have $20.” They charged me $15, that’s how much it costs to have $20. 
 Louis CK goes on… 
“I was telling the joke in Orange County California before a rich audience all looking at me with their boat tans and their golf shirts and their penny loafers, They’re all looking at me like “Well, yeah. You were financially irresponsible, you have to pay the price.  Frankly, don’t see why you’re angry about it. The bank has the right to accrue a fee, clearly.”  That’s how different it is to be rich, than it is to be poor, because when you are rich the bank pays you for being rich. If you have a lot of money they give you money because you have a lot of money. You have so much money that we should give you some. Here! Take more money! Take the $15 bucks this broke guy used to have.”
           The 1st slave with 5 talents gains 5 more, and also gains the one talent from the 3rd slave. The rich get rich and the broke get broker. If this is the message of the parable, then the Master stands in for an exacting God who will judge us for what we have done with the talents entrusted to us. The parable is a reminder that what we have is not ultimately ours, but like each slave, we will have to account for the ways we spent or expanded the talents God entrusted to us. 
            Maybe you remember the 1984 David Mamet play or the 1992 film version Glengarry Glen Ross, a cutthroat parable of four real estate agents over two days trying to outsell each other. In the film, Alec Baldwin played Blake, brought in by the office owners to motivate the four real estate agents. In the film version, and again with fair amount of choice words that I won’t quote this morning, Blake tells the real estate agents how the economy of the office works
“… ’cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is – you’ve got, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. “Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now?“
I would also like to declare at coffee hour after church that "coffee is for closers" and prevent anyone who didn't turn in their pledge card from having a cup. // (this is a joke)

I would also like to declare at coffee hour after church that “coffee is for closers” and prevent anyone who didn’t turn in their pledge card from having a cup. // (this is a joke) 

     We read the Matthew parable as Americans who are deeply immersed in a particular economic system. It’s hard to get outside of that. There are winners who get the Cadillac, and losers who get fired. There are servants who are welcomed into the joy of their master and slaves who get cast into outer darkness. There are investors who double their investment with credit default swaps and short sales and bundled assets, and there are those who hide their meager savings under their mattresses and fall further and further behind. Our distorted economy is so pervasive, our current economy has so clouded our eyes that it’s hard to read the Matthew parable in any other way than as confirmation of solid investment strategies and a systems where in order for there to be winners, there must be losers. 

        And yet, this is not the economy of Jesus who came to bring good news to the poor and set captives free. The economy of Jesus is a continuation and expansion of the Sabbath economics of the Hebrew prophets, continuing the prophetic declaration of the Jubilee year when debts are forgiven and the enslaved are set free. The economy of Jesus is one where all are fed, and clothed, and welcomed to the banquet table. 
       We need not have just one interpretation. Parables are designed to be expansive; they invite more interpretation, more meanings, more good news. The Collect from the Book of Common Prayer we prayed at the beginning of the service invites us “to hear [Scripture], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” This one takes some digestion. Perhaps another way to read this parable is to see the context of abundance and focus on the third slave. 
            It’s not immediately clear from the text alone how much money we are talking about here. What’s a talent anyway? For the ancients, a talent was first a unit of measure for commercial weights. In the Bible, a talent becomes a unit of value, and it’s this parable that gives us the English word “talent,” meaning gift or skill. But for the 1st century economy, a talent was an enormous amount. New Testament professor Carla Works writes, “A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money.” Even the slave who only receives one talent is entrusted with the equivalent of 20 years wages. The context of this story is abundance, not scarcity. To read this parable with the conviction of God’s abundance and Jesus’ then allows us, as author Ched Myers writes, to “read [the parable] as a cautionary tale of realism about the mercenary selfishness of the debt system.” 
            And therein lies the massive leap of faith for us: to live and work and rest and gather as if we live in the context of abundance and reject the “mercenary selfishness of the debt system.” Each of the servants has more than enough, way more than enough. With this parable, Jesus subverts the economics of self-preservation, of selfish gain, because there is enough, more than enough for all. In the context of abundance and Jesus’ subversion, the third slave becomes “the servant who refused to play the greedy master’s money-market games, (and) the hero who pays a high price for speaking truth to power (Matthew 25:24-30)—just as Jesus himself did.” 
      But we dig holes; we bury that which has been entrusted to us to share and enjoy. We get small and selfish, and put fences around our stuff and shout like toddlers “mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.” Our eyes are so clouded by our economic system that tells us there is not enough for everyone. But our faith and our tradition offer another way. There is enough if we share. There is enough if we do not compete with one another where some win Cadillacs and others lose their job. There is enough because God promises there is enough.  Your church knows that there is enough. You completed a capital campaign! There is more than enough. 
      But we still need to read cautionary tales of distorted economies and people digging holes to caution us from doing the same.  This is the parable of the anxious church in a town far, far away. They buried their congregation in a hole in the ground.  They took that mythical, hazy congregation from 1965 when all the Sunday school classrooms were full, the choir was bursting with each section full.  Back when the pastor was tall, straight, white, and male and 35 years old with 40 years of pastoral experience with a wife who wanted to lead the women’s luncheons and two children who adored Sunday School, and they buried it in the ground. They dug a hole so wide you could fit in the entire bell choir, the organ, the good silver and all those beloved hymnals that that other pastor tried to get rid of. They dug a hole so deep that you could fit all the pews that that other pastor tried to get rid of. They crammed all of what they remember of being the highpoints of 1965 into that hole. They buried their ideal church in a hole in the ground, forgetting that even at the peak of mainline Protestant membership in 1965, the kingdom of God was not quite at hand, not everyone was thriving. Civil rights protesters were being beaten in Selma, anti-war protests are drawing tens of thousands, the Vietnam war rages, Watts riots, people are dying along the India/Pakistan boarder, Hurricane Betsy kills 76 in New Orleans, women and people of color not fully human in the eyes of many.  But somehow, this distorted vision of the good old days that never really were, got thrown in the hole for safe-keeping. What will Jesus think of such perfectly preserved church that only people from 1965 want to attend, if he returned now? This treasure is not ours friends, none of it is ours. 
"Uh, no? I didn't go digging in your garden again. Why do you ask?"

“Uh, no? I didn’t go digging in your garden again. Why do you ask?”

We all dig holes. Our dog would rather hide the bone and forego enjoying it or sharing it, than risk the possibility that someone, somewhere, sometime might take it. She is so scared that she digs holes to bury her treasure. Shelter-dog syndrome, they called it. She was inadvertently trained to believe there’s never enough. It’s a condition of scarcity, but we serve a God who vows abundances. But it is hard! It is hard to believe that there is enough when you can’t pay off your car. It’s hard to believe there is enough when your hours are cut again, when you can’t afford the sports and activities fees for your kid at school, when you are worried you’ll never get out of debt, never own a home, never be able to retire. But there is enough for all.  Ched Myers wrote “Discipleship thus means forsaking the seductions and false securities of the debt system for a recommunitized economy of enough for everyone.” Everyone. Even you and me and other anxious people who dig holes and bury that which has been entrusted to us. There is enough. Amen. 

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: http://www.diocesewma.org/unquietday/ Rich’s excellent sermon is here:  http://rmsimpson.blogspot.com/2014/03/meet-me-out-in-street-bruce-springsteen.html 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 http://www.springsteenlyrics.com/ 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: http://www.peacebang.com/2013/12/28/is-it-rude-to-seat-latecomers-later-in-the-service/ 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: http://www.fteleaders.org/blog/entry/ecumenical-awkwardness

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…