Saturday, May 25, 2013

Speaking the truth to Power and Money!

Go Down Moses!

In a few more minutes from now, we will baptize Logan and Makenna Franey. Last week, we baptized four youngsters and today we will baptize two more. If I had my way, I’d baptize as many kids and adults as I could get my hands on almost every Sunday of the Christian year. It is especially appropriate to baptize folks on Pentecost as we did last week, on All Saints Sunday in November, on the great Feast Day of the Baptism of our Lord in January, on Easter Eve and on the occasion of a visit from our Bishop.

As Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church; a time when the Spirit of God fills our lives and thus the church is born, so now we come to the great feast day of Trinity Sunday. 

On this day we celebrate the great mystery which is in the Name of God. 

In the former instance, Moses was minding the flock of his father in law Jethro, just passing the time of day as it were, when he happened upon a mysterious sight. There before him was a burning bush and yet it was not consumed. It was on fire, yet it didn’t burn up. 

“What’s this?” Moses mused.

God answered from somewhere deep within Moses’ heart. “Take your shoes off Moses. The very land on which you are standing is holy ground. I have seen the sorrow and the suffering of my people in slavery. I want you to go and tell old Pharaoh ‘Let my people go!’”.

Moses reasoned with himself; “What then shall I tell the people? Who are YOU. What is your Name. “Every god has a name. Who then are YOU? 

God said; “I AM. That’s who I AM.”

Moses and God spoke together and began a dialogue which we continue up to this day. It is a dialogue of the inner heart. The "I am" who I am is always in conversation with the "I AM" of who God is. You see, it is a conversation of the inner heart. It is a conversation born out of the discovery of "Being" itself. I discover that I am. If I look deeply enough, I discover that God IS too. 

Yet having established the obvious is not enough. There is something to be done about the fact that God IS and so am I. God and I both have noticed that there is suffering, oppression and injustice. And when God in my inner heart notices such a thing God wants me to do something about it. God wants me to go to Pharaoh and tell him; “Let my people go.”

But, like Moses, who wouldn’t be afraid of going to Pharaoh and telling him to release the foundation stone of his economy? Who wouldn’t be afraid of going to the power holders, and the money holders of any age and telling them, “Let my people go”? Telling the truth to power and to money is a terrifying challenge. Look what happened to Jesus when he spoke to the money holders in the Temple precincts!

When God’s people suffer from the rod of oppression, my heart will not be silent. God’s heart will not be silent. And we must then be on our way to Pharaoh. We may resist doing so out of our fear. Pharaoh will resist complying with the mandate for justice. He will not give up without a fight. Power and money will resist mightily against the call for justice.

But God will make known the way and the truth and the life, there is no possible way to make your way to God if you are the agent of suffering and injustice, and somebody must be willing to say so. 

“Go down Moses; and tell old Pharaoh; ‘Let my people go!’”

That’s why God’s flames burned within the bush where Moses stood without consuming its leaves. This is why God’s flames burned over the heads of the disciples at Pentecost. This is why God’s flames of loving justice burn within our hearts today. It is to catch our attention. It is no magic trick. It is God’s heartache over the suffering of God’s people.

Does your heart not ache with God that so many suffer in the throes of warfare, poverty, unemployment, crime, natural disaster and disease? It is bad enough when we suffer from the caprice of nature. “The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (Hamlet 3:1) as the Bard would say cry out to our hearts and our prayers. Yet so much suffering is caused by the print human hands. 

Do you not want to speak up to Pharaoh?  Are you looking for a place to speak your heart or God’s heart? Then follow the money. Speak to power. That will guide you to where God wants you to go. God has seen the suffering of his people. So have you. Look at inner city Philadelphia or Reading and ask yourselves; “What’s this? What is this suffering?”

Why not just give everybody in America a good job with full benefits. Surely if we can bail out banks too big to fail, we can put our own people to work...don’t you think?

Life is a prayer obviously. We’re always speaking to our own hearts and in our own hearts and to the hearts of others. God’s heart is within and among our hearts. Calling us again and again to go to Pharaoh.

My prayer is a conversation with you much like I do every Sunday. No need to bow your heads or close your eyes when you pray, especially when we pray out loud like this, or when we are alive to God and our brothers and sisters. If I were to pray in this moment I might begin to use some of the words of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan who speaks widely in ecumenical circles; a wonderful prayer for Trinity Sunday:

“O God your name is veiled in mystery, yet we dare to call you Father, your Son was begotten before all ages, yet is born among us in time, your Holy Spirit fills the whole creation, yet is poured forth now into our hearts.” ~Richard Rohr

I like that prayer for this day. You have created us. You have redeemed us. You fill us with your gifts of the spirit and fill us with your wisdom. And now you speak to us and say; “I have noticed the suffering of my people. Go to Pharaoh and tell him; ‘Let my people go’”.

When I Baptize Logan and McKenna today, I will ask them as I ask you to seek justice and to respect the dignity of every human being. You and I must go to Pharaoh to make possible the Dream of God in which we can “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” ~Micah 6:8

This is not just a fanciful dream. It is a fire burning in the bush, and God tells us to take the shoes we’re wearing and remove them because the very ground we’re standing on is holy ground. 

God wants us to see what he sees. He wants us to see the suffering of God’s people. He wants us to go to Pharaoh and tell him “Let my people go!”

On this Memorial Day weekend we remember those who have paid a dear price for our freedom and who had the courage to speak up to the power of an oppressor of another time. We have come to another time in our Nation’s history where more is to be done to bring justice to the poor and to the suffering. It will be a different kind of struggle. It will be a different kind of warfare. So much of the suffering of our people is now from a place that presents itself to us in many disguises.

Seems funny when even Congress notices that Apple and Google pay next to nothing in taxes. The British Parliament is beginning to catch on to the same phenomenon there. You and I pay our taxes. Why not them. Yet, it's all perfectly legal. We voted for our representatives. They voted for the tax code. Mmm! Something fishy is going on in our democracies.

But there is plenty of time for all that. For one thing I do know, someone will go for God and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go. Right now, lets get on with something to gladden our hearts. Lets baptize Logan and Makenna in the Name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen

Fr Paul

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Wonderful Pentecost!

What a Wonderful Day!
Pentecost 2013

This is an important day for these young people and their families. We have three baptisms this morning and another half a dozen youngsters who will receive their first full official holy communion. Also we can now say with joy that as of July 1st you will have your new rector with you: Fr David Green. And we can also say with some sadness that I, Fr. Paul will also be leaving within a few short weeks. Sad to say both Bishop Paul of the Diocese of Bethlehem and Bishop Tom of the Diocese of Massachusetts are experiencing significant health problems.

But it is still a Wonderful Day...filled with the wonders of God. By now we know that all of us are constituent parts of the Glory that is God’s. In our Baptism,  Communion, Confirmation and Ordination; each occasion marks how important each of us is in the eyes of God. We are more than equal in God’s eyes. Each one of us is infinitely precious to God. You are worthy of forgiveness; a fact that is good news indeed. But you are also of such value to God that you are worthy of eternal life! How wonderful is that!
That has been my message to you since I came here. And this is the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus. You are forgiven! You are the beloved of God who shall live forever. Your eternal life begins in your baptism. Your eternal life is nourished by the Holy Eucharist; that communion with God which we celebrate each and every Sunday in this church.

Pentecost is important to us for another reason. It is the birthday of the church. It has been fifty days since Easter. The word Pentecost means “fifty days” and it was an important feast day of the Jewish People in the Ancient Near Eastern World. The Feast marked a celebration of the giving of the Mosaic Law which of course marked the birth of the community of Israel. Thus God gives birth to that community on earth dedicated to the service of God and God's people. That community on earth will from then on organize its life around the needs of humankind.
The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples that first Pentecost. There was a mighty rush of wind. Each disciple was filled with the Holy Spirit and then they were able to speak intelligently in languages that people from all over the world could understand.
So too in a few short weeks 10 of us will be on Pilgrimage to France and we will hear language which has quite a different sound to us; like these words from today’s Gospel;
17 l'Esprit de vérité, que le monde ne peut recevoir, parce qu'il ne le voit point et ne le connaît point; mais vous, vous le connaissez, car il demeure avec vous, et il sera en vous. 

“This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
Because the spirit of truth is within you, you know how important God’s Church is to all of us and especially to these children which the church blesses today with Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. 
The Church, like any family, has to be constant in its effort to reach beyond itself both in love and with something as practical and real as money. Lets face it, if your family is like mine, it always seems as if there is more month left at the end of each check. Why should it be different for the church? It always seems to be that we’re a bit short of cash just like every family I know. Why would God’s Family be any different?
That’s why we conducted what we called our Summer Effort last year. Thankfully because of your generosity we raised just over $21,000 and we were able to balance our budget at the end of last year. This after staring a $40,000 deficit in the face when I came here. How wonderful that your generosity made so much possible.
As you can well imagine we need to stretch a bit this year too. We have a deficit again, but not as daunting as last year, still, it is not to be taken lightly. Add to that, there are some improvements necessary in the Rectory to make welcome your new Rectory family. The bathrooms and the kitchen need some updating, and we can do most of the work ourselves, but there still is the cost of materials.
Taken together, we estimate that we will need another $25,000 to meet our financial requirements this year. Therefore allow me to announce our Spring and Summer Effort this year. Cindy and I have promised $500 and your Vestry has promised $5000. So we’re well on our way to our goal.
We need100% participation. If everyone kicks in something extra, we can certainly make our goal of $25,000. Some of us can afford to give more, some less, but the point is for all of us to give what we can. And remember this; It is not so much the amount of the gift that counts but the amount of love that goes into the gift.
This is a wonderful day! Pentecost! The birthday of the Church! Baptism for three babies! First Communion for half a dozen more young people! Preparing for a Pilgrimage to France! A Spring and Summer Effort to make provision for God’s Church.
This is all God’s work. God’s work is worth doing well. This is God’s church. God’s Church is worth giving of ourselves to the fullest measure of our ability.
Speaking of God's work, I can tell you of one of the most important five minutes of my life. I had been summoned to the principal’s office. Yikes! Let me preface what I am about to say with a conversation I previously had with my guidance counsellor. I’m sure many of us can tell horror stories about such encounters. Algebra was nearly the death of me. I loved languages, but algebra! My marks were mediocre. So the guidance counselor told me to forget about college and set my sites on a trade school. Enter now the conversation with Mr Craddock, my principal. He said I understand you want to go to college. “Yes, sir”. I understand you want to be a clergyman. “Yes, sir”. Then listen to me, young man. If you promise to me that you will work as hard as you can to bring your marks up, then I’ll promise you that I’ll get you into the college of your choice in the Province of Ontario. I applied myself, and got those better marks. I got to college. A whole new world opened up to me then. That was in the winter of 1962-1963! It was because somebody believed in me that I began to believe in myself. And that has made all the difference. This is God's work!

These youngsters we bless today with Baptism and First Communion deserve more than just smiles and well deserved pride. They deserve our faith, the kind of faith that will make ample and generous provision for their continued nurture in the knowledge and love of God. They need to know we believe in them. We need to know that God believes in us. God needs to know that we love his church. So, remember to give what you can to make provision for these children and their church, these children and your church.
Thank you, Fr. Paul

Sunday, May 12, 2013

God Exists! I can Prove it!

God Exists! I can Prove it!
"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you”
I’ve never told you that I can “prove” the existence of God! But now that we are drawing near to the end time of our relationship as priest and congregation, I must tell you that I have proof that God exists.
It came to me at a clergy conference many years ago when John Coburn was our Bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Bishop Coburn has a very special place in our hearts since it was during his episcopacy that Cindy and I met and fell in love and got married. He officiated at our wedding along with my first boss, The Reverend Chester Porteus. He blessed our rings and was very kind to us. Cindy was Roman Catholic at the time and Bishop Coburn assured us both that she could enjoy all the privileges and responsibilities of full membership in the Episcopal Church without actually going through the mechanics of being “received” into this branch of the church. The bishop understood large Italian families.

For example, Cindy’s mom came to my office one day during our courtship and asked me what we Episcopalians believe in anyway. I told her that we believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. She looked surprised and said; “You believe that?” I showed her the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer and explained to her that we recite the creed every week when we say Mass. That seemed to satisfy her.

Cindy’s dad was another story. I knew it bothered him that his daughter wanted to marry me. In his mind, there was only one church. So we went for a long walk one day and he was looking for the right words. Finally, he said to me, “I don’t like my daughter getting married outside the church.” I hesitated, stopped him dead in his tracks, looked him straight in the eye and said to him; “The day you start going to church is the day I’ll take your objections seriously. Until then, you have nothing to say.” That was pretty nervy on my part! While I don’t think that satisfied his reservations, he did hold his tongue on the matter, and he still doesn’t go to church. His daughter and I do, and so does at least one of his grandchildren.

But lets get back to the “proof” for the existence of God. As I say I was at a Clergy Conference in the Diocese of Massachusetts. We were in Falmouth on old Cape Cod in the off season in the early spring. There was still a chill in the air and I remember that there was a session with the bishop, and clergy morale at the time was a bit low. There was some grousing about this and that and I was growing impatient with my colleagues. Clerical “thumb sucking” as I call it is unbecoming to the church and the clergy, and I always want to scream out; “get on with the work, people!” But  I held my tongue then. 

But Bishop Coburn’s eyes twinkled and he stood in front of us smiling like the proverbial Cheshire cat and he said; “I can prove to you the existence of God”. The room felt silent. Were our ears deceiving ourselves? This is the Bishop of Massachusetts, formerly the President of the House of Deputies, the man who engineered the passage of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Ordination of Women through the legislative process of the General Convention. No mean feat! And here he stood, claiming he could prove the existence of God. This should be interesting. We were all ears.

There was a long silence, when someone said; “Go on!”

The Proof

He said; “It is quite simple and quite obvious. If the wife of a priest can believe in God after all she knows about him, then, by God, you know there has to be a God!”

The room erupted with laughter. After all, the Bishop had to deal with plenty of clergy and their spouses on a regular basis. All the saints and sinners among us. All the celebrations and joys as well as those tragedies and dilemmas that confront the human condition on a regular basis. 

Cindy and I have been through plenty of life. And so it is in that same spirit just last Monday Cindy said to me; “I rewrote the prayer for the search committee this morning around 4am.” We’re both in the habit of waking up around 4am with something stirring deep inside. Cindy knows plenty about me. And still she loves me and she loves God. And, by God, she believes.

You may be interested in what she wrote. It is only slightly different from the prayer for the search committee that's we have been using now for some time. Let me read it to you:

Almighty God, giver of every good gift: Look graciously on your Church, and so guide the minds of those who shall choose a rector for this parish, that we may call a faithful priest, who will care for your people; and, in turn we your people will care for our new priest and family. Together we will equip and support one another for our ministries while remembering to be open to your will and that of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

You will notice here that Cindy added several key phrases, firstly; “that the people in turn will care for our new priest and family”. And that phrase is key. This congregation is a caring congregation and sometimes it is important to remember that someone should check on the wife of a priest from time to time. Someone should wonder, how is she doing. After all, Bishop Coburn is right...if she can believe in God not only after all she know about him, but also what she knows about congregations, good God then you know that there is a God.

Cindy added another key phrase; “while remembering to be open to your will and that of the Holy Spirit.” The priesthood is a way of life. It is a calling. It is not a job. You and your priest together form what Paul calls the Priesthood of all believers. You are not hiring somebody to work for you. You and your priest together are listening to the still small voice of God within, you’re waiting on that moment when you “know” that the Holy Spirit has moved within you and then, and only then you cast your vote for a call or for any major initiative in ministry you share.

This is what your Search Committee and Vestry have done. And because they have acted in this way, God now has the possibility of working with you to support one another in your ministry together. And what a wonderful gift that is when you can discern the call of God at this particular moment in time.

The Feminine Dimension of God

There is a feminine dimension to our spirituality. God is not just “A Mighty Fortress”, God is also the Child of Mary Mild, the Mother of God as she is called in Orthodoxy. Even in creation God is said to have created us in the image of God “male and female”. And the Holy Wisdom of God “Sancta Sophia” as she is called in the Eastern Church comes to us in the feminine form.

It is interesting that in so many cases it is the Grandmother who brings a youngster to know something of God. Fathers, Mothers, and Grandfathers can do so too...but how interesting it is to me as a priest of the church to record the number of cases I’ve seen where it was the Grandmother’s nurture, the Grandmother’s love, and her fierce no nonsense discipline that formed the spiritual values, ethics, and joy of a child in knowing and loving God.

When I think of the existence of God, I cannot help but think of my Grandmother and her love for me, and my undying love for her. And so too my wife. My soul-mate. 

The Social Dimension of God

There is a social dimension to our spirituality as well. In our Baptismal Covenant we say that we will respect the dignity of every human being. compare and contrast that with current events. This week we’ve seen tragic events in which young women are treated with exquisite cruelty on Cleveland’s West Side. And even in the Air Force an officer in charge of protecting women from assault has himself been charged with the very crimes he was supposed to be protecting women from. There are, of course, other matters effecting the social well being of women. Equal pay for equal work is still a promise yet to be realized. A woman’s free right to be sovereign in her own body is even now a matter of controversy and debate. For much of the world of faith women are called to bE second class citizens or subservient.  If you think for a moment that Cindy is prepared to “submit to the authority” of her husband, then you don’t know Cindy. Our love and our life is a partnership not a hierarchy. 

If I were to wish my wife and other women a Happy Mother’s Day, it is more than sentiment, flowers, or a meal out in a nice restaurant. We are all united in the challenge to work for the deepest respect and love for all women...a respect for equal rights under the law and robust protection from those who would abuse or assault them.  We are called to respect the dignity of all human beings.

And to imagine what it was like for Mary to bring the Holy Child to birth, to nurture him, love him and even discipline him. And then at last to hold him in her arms as he is taken down from the cross, that final and ultimate love to hold your child in your arms when it is all over...and then to know she believes in God!

There it is in Michelangelo’s Pieta; one of the most heart rending sculptures in Western Art. The Mother Mild holding her son in her arms, now a lifeless form after so much hope and healing and so many miracles. Yet on the cross, he died an excruciatingly painful and shameful death. There were no miracles then, there was only the brutality of a crucifixion.

And yet somehow she believed in God even before the Resurrection! The love she bore for him in her heart is God’s Grace in Believing. On Mother’s Day or any day, it is the Grace of God’s love and our love for one another that gives us faith that our loved ones live with God both in this life and in the life to come.

So to my wife who believes in God even after all she she knows about me; and to Mary the Mother of God who even after all her sorrows believed in God and to the tireless, indefatigable love of a million moms and particularly those gathered here today; Happy Mother’s Day and thank you for believing. You are the proof that God is!

Friday, May 03, 2013

A Membership Drive!

A New Idea!

In so many ways this is a new idea for Episcopalians. We’re so used to infighting and membership loss over the past half century or so that it seems all we know how to do is loose members.

But now we have a whole new church. We are increasingly an “inclusive” church. We are taking our mission and ministry much more seriously. We’re organizing our church life more around the idea of justice and human need that ever before.

I believe it is time for a spiritual awakening for us. 

In April of 2013 I led a Clergy Conference in the Diocese of Montana for a good friend Bishop Brookhart. We had a wonderful time there and +Frank has invited me back to Montana to tour the Diocese. He wants me to share with the vestries of his diocese a lifetime of experience with Evangelism. I bring with me the idea of a "Membership Drive for the Episcopal Church". We've been wringing our hands about a loss of membership long enough. Let's try being a bit more positive about the possibilities.

The Community Context is the core of a Membership Drive. When a congregation organizes its life around the needs of its community, it will prosper and thrive. Then when that same congregation commends its faith to the community and intentionally invites its neighbors not so much to "go" to church but to "be" the church, it will enjoy a new growth in its spirituality.
I've spent a lifetime developing a model and a technology for this work. During the decade of Evangelism I wrote "User Friendly Evangelism". Now, I'm developing what is an essentially a new idea. 

A Membership Drive!

So now that I am planning to retire for yet a third time, I may be available to share a lifetime of learning with others. 

May God prosper this wonderful church we love so much. May God prosper the “Progressive Church” also embracing all human beings, also courageously facing human suffering and injustice. This is exactly what God would want to see his church doing.

Fr Paul