Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Rainbow Funeral

The following is a homily I shared for a friend and a parishioner at St. Peter's, Salem. Friends asked me to post it. I was going to do that anyway, so here it is.

Robert Salisbury

Many of you know me as being a somewhat outspoken and activist priest of the church. If you know Bob Salisbury  you will know that he was also an outspoken activist. In his chosen profession as a teacher, he cared for and provided advocacy for young people from every walk of life, but especially kids who had to struggle with their intense anxieties over sexual identity. I think this is one of the ways in which Bob and I first “connected”. 

From the outset, he heard me preach the inclusive church, a church where the love of God we proclaim is for all; without regard to sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, class, or any other category humankind likes to organize us into. For as God cannot be put into a box, neither should human beings be pigeonholed. We are all one blood. We all hope, fear, live, rejoice, suffer and die like all others. As an old Arabic saying puts it; “The color of God is the color of water.” Human beings are 55-65% water. We’re all made up of the same substance as God.

Even before I came here, I liked to organize my thinking around the biblical phrase that Jesus used at the cleansing of the Temple; “My House shall be called; ‘A House of Prayer for ALL People’”. This phrase comes to us in turn from the 56th Chapter of the prophet Isaiah. When both the foreigner and the eunuch asked the prophet where they stood within the salvation plan, Isaiah proclaimed against much biblical teaching in Leviticus, that we are indeed “A House of Prayer for ALL People”. Thankfully that phrase took hold during my time here at St. Peter’s, and continues to be front and center right up until this day.

Being a “House of Prayer for ALL People” meant that there is room in the heart of God for the likes of Robert Salisbury, for Paul Bresnahan for each of you and for the likes of all in the human family whatever and whoever we happen to be. Like the time when my son told me he was gay, I told him; “I love you exactly for you are and for whoever you become.”

In Christian terms, then, “The Good Shepherd” we proclaim is the one who lays down his life for ALL the sheep, and not just some. And what a crew those sheep happen to be. Just look around at who you are. Good heavens, just take a good look at who I am. This is worth laying down one’s life for?

Yes, “The Good Shepherd” thought so. They all followed him to up Jerusalem, rich and poor, common fisherfolk, tax collectors and prostitutes, the lame the halt and the blind, the outcasts of all sorts; he was their Shepherd. He is our Shepherd, and more besides.

One phrase in today’s Gospel that both Bob and I especially like is the one in which Jesus says in a somewhat cryptic way; “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Just who those “other sheep” were supposed to be is not made clear, but it becomes apparent as we live forward into our own history. For as efforts are launched to exclude one group or another from the embrace of God, we realize this cannot be justified theologically, because Jesus died for all without exception. 

Catholicity requires us to be catholic...or shall I say universal. Jesus was the first catholic...or shall I say universalist. You do know that the word “catholic” means “universal”, do you not? For it was for all that he gave his life, and for him there were no exceptions. It may take a while for the rest of the world of faith and politics to “catch on”...but I thank God this church has said “Yes!” As Jesus has said; "Yes!"

The cover photo on this bulletin captures the essence of Robert Salisbury for me. All fun, always ready for a party, a bit mischievous, and above all, a heart as big as the love it bore. We will miss him.

Bob loved literature. He loved the Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas, and of course, he loved Shakespeare. When I searched my memory for a good soliloquy or poem, none immediately came to mind. Then it came to me; the sonnets! I searched them through and came upon the one Darren Cosgrove read a few minutes ago. Sonnet 19. How like Bob, I thought.

Yes, Time will do its work, and no creature on earth will escape his ravages. But Bob’s love for you cannot be deadened.  As God’s love cannot be ended, neither can Bob’s. It will live forever. 

Our hearts have been filled to the brim with the “Big Man’s” love. That’s because he knew deep within that whatever the rest of the world may think or know, God’s love here includes everyone. There are no exceptions.

The Bard’s words speak well, then;
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, 
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
What wondrous love is this? For not just in verse but in fact and in truth, Bob’s love is every bit as much alive today as it was when he laughed and cried with us throughout his time with us here.
So then as Robert’s priest and friend let me proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. We come to the Lord’s Table to celebrate God’s Love. As Bob loved a good party, let’s not underestimate the Greatest Party of All yet in store of all Bob’s loved ones. The Table at which he feasts today is a Table we share with him too in this church, the church Bob loved very much. Won’t you feast with us there? You do know you are all welcome here. One by one we will all be gathered there with him and all others we love...oh and My God what a party that will be!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fr. Paul

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Goodbye~A Prayer at the End

At the end of my time with the good people of St Gabriel's in Douglassville, PA, I told them "Goodbye", an ancient English prayer.

Fr Paul

My dear friends, the moment has come for me to say to you; “Good bye”. As I told you in the last Messenger, so I say to you now; to say “Goodbye” is not to say I’m leaving you; it is to ask a prayer.

Look at the word. Study its etymology; its source and derivation. It comes to us from an older English word which we can trace back to around 1470AD; the word is “Godbwye” or to spell that out more completely, it means;

It does not mean I’m leaving you. It means “God be with you”. It is my prayer now. Like the time I left David or Michael at their college dorms, knowing that never again would it be the same, just like that driving those many, many miles home again with my eyes full of tears; as I said to my sons, whom I love with all my heart, so now I say to you; “May God be with you.”

This is my prayer as we now come to this last Eucharist and this last Baptism during my time here with you. John Dodson and his family have become close to me. We have shared many a chuckle, and many a perplexity, and a few tears. All of which is called life. I have likewise come close to many of you, yes even in this short 15 months together.

So too, I must say to you and your family; “Goodbye” which is to say, I pray for you in exactly these terms; “God be with you”. 

What better way to be with you on my last Sunday here than to Baptize these Children?
Benjamen and
I pray that God may be with them too.

But let me hasten to add what I mean by that. I mean this for you as parents, you as Godparents and Sponsors and you as the gathered of God in this place today; I mean this:
God is love

You must love these children with all your hearts, all your souls, all your mind and all your strength. That is who God is. God is Love. You cannot say you love God unless you love these children and unless you love one another. And if you want to love God, then begin by loving one another. 

Note that the scripture recognizes the many difficulties in the business of love.

In the Gospel we heard just a few minutes ago we heard of the sinner woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her hair while weeping from the very crest of sorrow. What wondrous love is this! Yet the Pharisee questioned in his heart why this Jesus would allow such an outrage. Certainly if he knew what sort of woman this was and that she was a sinner, he would have prevented her from touching him in so intimate a way as this. Instead, Jesus told the woman she was forgiven. Then those who were at the table with Jesus got all bent out of shape again; “Who is this who thinks he can forgive sins? Only God can do that.” True enough, but Jesus did not tell the woman he forgave her. He told merely her that her sins were forgiven.

Yes, “Its complicated”. I know its complicated. Love is complicated. Forgiveness is almost incomprehensible and impossible were it not for the presence of God in our lives. But then loving God with all of our heart and soul, and mind and strength...that takes everything we’ve got. And loving one another takes a little more. So get on with it. That’s the work of the people of God; to love one another. This is our “liturgia”, literally, the public work of the church.

We also heard in the first lesson of Jezabel and Ahab and their plot against poor Naboth the Jezreelite. Not much love there! That Jezabel and her husband the King were in cahoots to steal away Naboth’s vineyard, an ancestral inheritance that had been in the family for hundreds of years. How could Naboth let that go? So the King just took it.

Oh well, we’re all sinners in one way or another. There is much we’ve done and continue to do which, if we really loved Jesus would bring us to our knees where with our tears, we too would wash his feet with our sorrow.

This my last message to you; at the foot of Jesus and at the foot of the cross let us love one another like we love these children
Benjamen and

I know you folks love me. You know I love you. Therefore you must love God. You must therefore love one another. Oh and, one more thing, you must love your new priest too. Just to make sure I go on record; you must love your new priest with all your heart all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength. Got that?

And Goodbye. Remember what that means? It is a prayer; how does it go?

Now let have some fun and baptize these kids.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Paul

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reversing the Decline

The Progressive Church in Comeback Mode

The Decline

For years we've been in decline. The mainstream churches are a sorry lot. For the entire span of my professional ministry which now spans over 40 years, the numbers are not encouraging for those of the "standard brands" churches.

In the meantime the Evangelical Right Wing seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. The "Progressive Church" as I like to call ourselves, are mystified by the phenomenon. The "Conservatives" renounce science, liberals, and the LGBT community and at times sounds like a bastion of bigotry and judgmentalism. The more exclusive they become, the more people seem to be attracted to the far right. Amazing! Conversely, the more inclusive we become, the fewer folk seem to be attracted to us.

The Right Wing has command of the airwaves and make outrageous statements regularly that make those of us in the mainstream recoil in incredulity. How can intelligent people buy into such a vision of America? It is a puzzle.

In the meantime we close churches. When I was first ordained, my diocese hired somebody to study how many congregations we should plan on closing. The study came back with a number of 65 out of 188 congregations which teetered on the brink of viability and sustainability. 

To me, it seemed almost as if we were committed to our own decline. We seemed to be planning on it.

Hitting Bottom

This I instinctively renounce. In fact, I have served in smaller congregations most of my life but while I served them, they all experienced modest growth. I feel like I've been swimming against the current all my professional life.

New Member Ministry

Years ago I stumbled across a model for New Member Ministry which I have used in four different congregations. Because of the effort leadership teams and I put into place, we did see modest gains in each congregation. In very brief and succinct terms a New Member Ministry model consists of a five step process which is managed by a congregation. Those steps are as follows; 
     Visibility: What can we do to raise the visibility of our congregation? Web sites, blogs, Every Door Direct Mailings, creative use of newspapers and so on...all of this will raise the visibility of the church.
     Greet: Sharpen the skills of your congregation in greeting newcomers. Make sure you get the names addresses, emails, and phone numbers of those visitors who seem to have some interest in the congregation and contact them as soon as possible; the same day as the visit if at all possible. 
     Orientation: Establish a Membership Committee whose responsibility it is to follow up on each new family and individual and figure out together what the best and most appropriate follow up would be.
     Incorporation: At some point within six months of the first visit, someone should probably "pop the question"; "do you want to be a member?".
     Apostolic Call: Your work is not done until you commission everyone in the church; new and long standing member alike for mission and ministry in the world.
Remember that the church exists to organize its life around the needs of the people in the world.

A Membership Drive!

Last summer it occurred to me that perhaps we should have a Membership Drive! Much in the same manner of public radio and TV, I wondered if the Progressive Church could actually hold a membership drive. We developed a model for such a drive in my most recent congregation (St. Gabriel's, Douglassville, PA), and we did in fact enjoy significant growth. At the end of a six month drive, we netted 27 new families and individuals and also saw significant growth in pledging.

For years, we've been calling this effort our annual "Stewardship Drive". I submit to you, when we use the word "stewardship", a certain instinctive resistance raises the hair on our necks, because we know the subject of money is the inevitable bottom line.

But when we use the word "membership", we understand that it includes more than giving. We explained it this way. 
Membership is comprised of three main dimensions: Work, Pray and Give.
     Work: To do the work of God requires us to organize our lives around the needs of people; young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, and so forth. The work of God is to provide a healing touch to those who are sick. It is to seek justice for those who are oppressed. It is to provide hope for those who are near the edge of despair. 
     Pray: The prayer of the Church is to gather week by week and share in the sacred meal of Jesus with his friends. It is to practice the presence of God in daily prayer and meditation and share with friend and stranger alike the Good News of God in Christ.
     Give: To make provision for God's Church we are invited to give in proportion to what we have received from God. Some give 10% in response to the biblical mandate to tithe. Some give 5% and call it a modern tithe. Some give more. Some give less. In any case, we give in proportion to what God gives us. 


The church is in decline. But it needn't be that way. There is no reason why we in the Progressive Church cannot reverse the decline and commend the faith that is in us. It will take imagination, courage and just plain hard work. But we need to stop the hemorrhaging. We have too many jewels in the inner cities of our world and within the near suburban ring. These precious church buildings need to be gathering places of those with human needs.

The human needs have not gone away. Justice is still far, far away. The poor are very much at our doorsteps. The time is short. Let's get our mojo back. Reverse the decline! Grow! Hold a Membership Drive!

This summer I plan to write up a fuller elaboration of this idea. I shared it with the clergy of the Diocese of Montana in April of this year. I have been invited back to share the idea further by touring the Diocese and sharing this model with vestries there. But for now, thought I'd share this much.

God save the Church!
Fr. Paul

A Resurrection Story from Way Down Yonder

For Ron

It is Ron Barton's birthday today, and Ron is a good friend. Ron is from way down yonder in Shreveport, LA so for a bit of down home folklore comes this story. Heard it from a fabulous raconteur years ago.
Here's my rendering.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Jesus, Judgement, The Nation & the Poor

The Judgment Seat of Christ
And The Poor

When you enter the great west doors of the Gothic Cathedrals of France,  and God willing, that’s exactly where some of us will be in a few short weeks, you will be greeted with a scene of the Last Judgment above those massive portals. It is a dramatic scene; with Jesus seated on the Throne of his Glory separating the sheep from the goats; the sheep rejoicing to be embraced by the love of God, the goats separated and to be in torment forever!

It is a sobering scene. As the throngs of faithful enter these great cathedrals, we cannot help but be reminded that as God is our Judge, so Christ is our Advocate. But it is that manner in which Jesus makes his judgments that makes all the difference.

This is how Jesus judges the nations of the earth.

Tell me if you will, what are these great sculptures about? On what scripture passage are they based? I was fascinated by the lectures describing the sculpture and the architecture of the cathedrals that this one critical piece of information is not mentioned.

If we remember how Jesus began his ministry in his own home town, we will remember that he said; 
“I have come to bring good news to the poor”.
~Luke 4:18
Then at the end of his ministry we hear these words; 
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ 
~Matthew 25:31ff

So important is this passage to our understanding of the Judgement of Christ, that it has become carved into the very entryway to the great Cathedrals of Europe.

How then does Jesus judge the nations? Obviously on the basis of how well or how badly we treat the poor. It is easy to forget this one simple fact. Somehow we got the message over the centuries that Judgment involved matters involving someone’s notion of sin. Somehow the sins became defined as mere personal habits; good ones as well as bad ones. And indeed the care and love of the self is one of the great challenges facing each and every one of us, and will continue to be up until the last day of our time on this planet.

But what I find fascinating is that this did not appear to be the primary concern of Jesus. All we have to do is look at what Jesus did. He went to all the towns and villages of Galilee and beyond. There he taught all who would listen to him. He sought out the poor, the sick, the outcast, as well as the rich and common folk like ourselves. He treated them all alike; with the abundant love of God and with the power of his healing touch. 

There is no doubt though that the biblical witness stands in clear solidarity with the poor and the sick and those who are dying or even dead. Just look at the two stories we have before us today in our lectionary cycle.

In the lesson from the First Book of Kings we have a story of the prophet Elijah, a figure in the biblical narrative that prefigures Jesus in many ways. He comes at the behest of God to Zarephath and meets a poor widow there and asks her to bring him something to eat. The poor thing was in the process of gathering a few sticks so she could go home, feed her son, and since this was to be their last morsel of food and oil, they must then prepare to die. But the prophet Elijah said, no feed me first and I promise that your jar of meal and your jug of oil will not give out. And so it was. 

Then her son died, and the widow’s lamentation would rise to God in the ears of the prophet and with exquisite pathos she says; “What have you against me you man of God that you would bring my sin to remembrance and cause the death of my son?” The prophet revives the woman’s son and then we are all left to wonder at the power and grace of God in making provision for us both in our poverty and even at the hour of our death.

Likewise in the story of Jesus with the widow of Nain; the crowd in the village; no doubt a crowd of rich and poor and just plain common folk were all in a state of agitation over the death of the widow’s son. Again how cruel! That God would take a child from his mother. Jesus cautions them all not to be afraid and armed with the power of God, revives the young man. While cautioned not to, fear seized the crowd again because it was clear to them all that a prophet had arisen among them and God’s grace and God’s power was given to the poor widow and her son.

Thus from these two stories, and much more, we learn of God’s concern for the poor. In fact the word “poor” occurs in the scriptures 213 times. The Judgment of Christ as presented in Christian Art on the great west doors of the Cathedrals of France is a reference to this great concern of God in the person of Jesus; “Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

The nations are held in judgment. So are we all. But it is not about trivial matters of of sin. Everyone here is in recovery in one way or another from some kind of personal “thorn in the flesh”. And for these matters I am convinced we are forgiven particularly when we confess our sins, negligences, and offenses before God.

What causes Jesus the greater animus when it comes to our Judgment, is how we treat those who are in need; the poor, the elderly, the young, and all those vulnerable in our midst.

It is not the fashion in France, Europe or even among our own countrymen to go to church as was once a matter of course. I believe that is because we may have forgotten to “be” the church for the sake of the world. Many had forgotten what the sculpture on the great west doors of those cathedrals referred to.

It has been said that during one of the many famines in France, Marie Antoinette is reputed to have said “Qu’ils mangent le brioche”; “let them eat cake”. The callous sentiment helped to inspire the French Revolution and the rejection of the Monarchy, and the uprising of the peasants. How far France had come from the glorious times of Charlemagne when a somewhat fairer distribution of wealth assured that at least, the poor would not starve to death. The monarchy had come a very long way, from a time when the welfare of the people was paramount to a time when the people starved at the doorway to the Palace at Versailles.

Now we can read the Bible for ourselves. We can now see the biblical concern for the poverty of the widows and their children, we know of the compassion of God for the death of their children, we know of God’s abundant power to provide for us both in our poverty, in our illnesses and even in our death.

The nation and the world we live in is now is filled with poverty, injustice and warfare. It is our sacred mission to speak frankly to this nation and to this world about the suffering of God’s people. We must tend to the poor, heal the sick, bring justice to the oppressed, and peace where there is warfare and violence. Not an easy task, I’ll grant you.

It was not an easy task for Paul and the early church as they travelled the world over to bring the Gospel of Peace to a war torn world, and a world that ground up the poor at the hands of the oppressor’s rod. The church confronted Rome and all the powers and principalities of the time to speak up for “the least of these”. 

This is now the challenge facing us. When the church regains its sense of mission again, to bring Good News to the Poor as was the mission of Jesus, then we will become the salty presence we must be for the sake of the world. We must issue this challenge to the church, the nation and to the world.

I can hardly wait to see for myself the great west doors of the Cathedrals of France. There, Jesus is waiting on us, seated on the Throne of his Glory. He is our Advocate and our Judge. Time is short, lets get on with it. We’ve go work to do! 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fr. Paul