Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Light is Coming...

Merry Christmas from Father Prime!!  Here's hoping you and yours have a very blessed Feast of the Nativity!  Do you want to know my favorite version of the Christmas story?  Here it is:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
John 1: 1-5

There is no manger. No cattle. No star. No shepherds. There's not even Mary and Joseph. For the writer of the Gospel of John there is only the Word. For the good news of John's whole Gospel, and the good news of this Christmas Day is summed up in this passage we just heard:  The Word through which all things came into being loved us so much, that it became human, taking on our fragility, our sadness, our joys. In this Christmas story there is only the Word, Jesus.

This, I'm not ashamed to admit, is my favorite Christmas story.  Because while the manger and the cattle and Mary and Joseph add something special, something we all can relate to, this story is not concerned with anything except this: the Word of God became human. Nothing else matters. And with this action God has changed the course of history; humanity and God are reconciled. Our story has become God's story, and vice versa.

John's Christmas story echoes the creation story in Genesis.  Just as God breaks through the darkness of chaos and says, "Let there be light," here the Logos, the Word, is the Light, the Light of all people, the Light of life, and it shines in the darkness. Jesus shines in the darkness. That is the Christmas message: the light of the world has stepped out into the world.

It is a world that we know can be a very dark place.  Notice that John does not say that the light comes to destroy the darkness, to dispel it.  The light merely shines in the darkness. But the good news John gives us this Christmas story is that Jesus, the light, is right there in the middle of the darkness, shining, standing beside us, holding our hand through whatever life may throw at us. And the darkness, John says, does not and will not overtake the light. There will always be darkness in the world.  The darkness of Isis in Syria and Iraq.  The darkness of racial tension and violent acts against young black men in Missouri, Staten Island, and Cleveland.  The darkness of young gay and lesbian men and women who end their lives because they are bullied and tormented because of who they are.  The darkness of hatred and violence in our Lord’s homeland.  Yes, there will always be darkness.  But the good news in the Christmas story given to us by the Fourth Gospel is that the darkness cannot and will not ever win.  Not ever!  It may not feel that way most of the time, but no amount of darkness in this world can destroy the Light of God, the Light of Christ.  Because the Christ Light, the everlasting light, the light that burned during those first moments of Genesis, has come into the world, and through his life, his death, and his resurrection, the powers of hell have vanished, death has lost its sting, and all things, including the darkness, are reconciled to God.

Christ comes into our world so that that same light might shine in us, that we may share that light with friend and stronger alike. Can you imagine a world where each of us knew with certainty that the Christ light shines in us?  Can you imagine a world where we actually treated others as though the Christ light shines in them too, especially those who have never been told that such a light is in them? There's a story about an old monk whose monastery was run down.  The community was splintered, and he didn’t know what to do.  So he visited an old rabbi, said to be the wisest man in the village. The monk asked the rabbi for guidance, some kind of help to save the monastery.  The rabbi's response:  the Messiah is in your midst.  The old monk was shocked.  He took the news back to his brothers.  Not knowing which of them could be the Messiah, the brothers treated each other, and everyone that visited that old monastery, as though each was Christ himself.  And the community thrived.  I suspect that that is the Christmas hope, that the same light that broke through the darkness may be the light we let shine in our own lives, the light that we actively seek out in the face of the Other, whoever that may be.  And each year on this day that hope returns.  It is the hope that that light may be born anew in us, so that we may transform this darkened world.

Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the light of the world, has come to earth so that we may all know the love of God, so that we may share that love with the world.  Emmanuel. God with us. Still with us. So come, let us adore him. Let us adore the light of the world. Let us adore the light that shines in the darkness, the light that shines in you, me, and them. Come, let us adore him. Christ the Lord. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Ministry of Presence

Years ago I served as a hospice chaplain, and often we would toss around the term "Ministry of Presence" to describe one of our visits.  Considering that I was on a nursing home team, meaning that I would generally be visiting folks who didn't even know I was in the room, this was a standard response.  Most of the time I said that I exercised Ministry of Presence whenever I walked into a room to find a non-responsive patient and read some Scripture and left after 10 minutes.  That sounded like Ministry of Presence to me.

But as I have continued in my call and have dealt with all of the expectations of ministry--most of which are self-inflicted--I have struggled with this term.  As a colleague once asked, "How do we actually know if we are doing our jobs?"  That's a damn good question.  And in the end, we don't have any barometer for figuring that out, not like crunching quarterly numbers or having a review from a superior.

And so the first time I heard the term Ministry of Presence, I thought it was just something that we throw around when we've run out of other options; after all, as the minister, aren't I expected to have the right answer?  Aren't I expected to fix people of their emotional and spiritual problems?  If someone asks me how well I'm doing my job, shouldn't I be able to quote them all the people whose lives I have very clearly impacted?

That, it seems, is not how ministry works.  Worrying about whether or not I am making a difference is like my own version of Luther's Terrified Conscience.  Luther worried over and over again about whether or not he was saved, concluding that we are ultimately saved only by the grace of God.  If we worried about how we might save ourselves, Luther said, we would never be satisfied.  And the same, I've discovered, holds true for my constant worry about whether or not I'm actually being an effective minister.  But do you know who really taught me that?

This little girl.  Casey has been with me through most of my journey in ministry.  She accompanied me to seminary in New York--and boy, does she have stories?!--and she goes with me to my current church each day.  One day, after we came home from what was a really tough day, I sat on the edge of my bed, feeling defeated and beaten up and worrying about whether or not I was really doing my job.

And then she walked in.  She sat about five feet away from me, neither wagging her tail, nor pawing at me.  She didn't make a sound, simply sitting there, looking at me.  After about 30 seconds of just looking into each other's eyes, I finally figured it out.  THIS is what Ministry of Presence is about.  It's not about being able to fix someone's problems, nor is it about having all the right answers.  It's about just being right there, letting the Other know that they are loved.  Casey sat there, looking at me, and while she didn't say anything, I knew what she was trying to convey:  it's ok, brother, I love you.

Sometimes that's all it takes.  Being Christ to someone else often means simply giving them a shoulder or a hand.  Often it means not even having a word to say.  Often that's all God asks of us, to just be there for someone, and not necessarily to do something for them.

Too many times I see church leaders who are so concerned with DOING, rather than BEING.  When we focus on doing we get overwhelmed, we start to worry about whether we're doing enough, and we get stressed and burn out.  When we focus on being we are more attentive to the needs of the Other, and we can create a space where the Other feels cared for and loved.  Casey doesn't bother with doing, and that's why she's such a great pastor.  As one of my seminary professors once said, "Your dog is the most centered being on this campus."  Can't argue with that!

Casey knows who she is and is content with just being who she is.  What would happen if we were like that?  What would happen if we were more focused on being, rather than doing? Not only would we be less stressed, but we would be more authentic, with ourselves and with the Other.

So I hope you have the opportunity, especially in this quiet season of Advent, to exercise Ministry of Presence.  I hope that you have the chance to remind someone that they are loved, not by some quantitative measure, but just by being there and being who you are.  In the meantime, I will continue to hold up my dog as my greatest inspiration for what ministry really looks like, hoping I can be the kind of pastor that Casey is.

Casey exercising her Ministry of Presence to a UK student during Finals Week.


Monday, December 8, 2014

A Christian Response

You’ll notice that the tagline for this blog is “Wishing & working for a world transformed.”  While that tagline works well with the title of this blog (Father Prime) and comes from the first line of issue #1 of Marvel’s Transformers comic that debuted 30 years ago (“It is a world transformed…”), I sincerely wish that it were a world transformed.  And the past two weeks have shown why. 

I am speechless with the recent news out of Staten Island that the police who killed Eric Garner were not indicted.  No, I don’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak.  But as a Christian I believe that all humanity is united as children of God, that that’s what Jesus came to show us.  Eric Garner was my brother.  So was Michael Brown.  What I fail to understand is how anyone who calls him/herself a Christian cannot be outraged by the death of a brother or sister.  The only image that pops in my head is the image of Jesus standing there, watching his children kill each other, and weeping. 

Yet there is also something else that has been at play in my heart and mind in the wake of the recent news:  I am more and more acutely aware of my own privilege.  I’m a heterosexual, cisgender man.  I’m white.  I’m from a small mountain town where my family, while not wealthy, got by with relative comfort.  And while I was the only Episcopalian in my school and was sometimes mocked for it, I am a Christian and have been afforded all of the “benefits” that that label affords.  I have a comfortable job—I write this blog from a cozy chair on the third floor of our cathedral—and besides the bills for my phone and the house I rent, I have no great financial responsibilities.  Based on all of the labels that I carry, my life is really, really good.  So why care about low-income black men who are killed by police, or a Muslim teenager run over by a car displaying anti-Muslim rhetoric in Missouri, or a young gay boy who killed himself after endless bullying for being who God made him to be?  Why should I care?

Because that is what Jesus would have me do.  The wandering rabbi that I call my Lord did not look upon people with labels.  He ate with tax collectors and the worst kinds of sinners (Matthew 9: 10), he healed Gentiles, even those who he himself did not initially welcome (Mark 7: 27), and, when faced with an adulterous woman who should rightfully be stoned to death by the laws of her day, he called the one without sin to cast the first stone upon her (John 8: 7). 

Here’s the thing about being a Christian:  it’s about more than just Jesus!  Yes, Jesus is our Lord, and yes Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, but it is up to us to be Jesus’ hands, feet, and heart in the world right now!  The earthly form of Jesus of Nazareth is not walking through the door anytime soon, and so it is up to those of us who have the audacity to say that we are his followers to carry on what he set out.  The tired adage of What would Jesus do? is not enough.  That mindset leads us to say, “Sure, Jesus would do this.  But I can’t.”  If that’s the case, then maybe this Christianity thing isn’t for you.  If you cannot see the Other as your brother or sister, if you cannot bring yourself to care for the least of these, if you are satisfied with the economic and social disparities in this country, if you can’t take Jesus’ words seriously, then maybe you shouldn’t call yourself a Christian.  We look at the frustrations and sadnesses of our world and say, “It is the way it is.”  Jesus did the same thing in his time and said, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”  See the difference?

So what can Christians do?  Pray.  And work.  Saint Augustine of Hippo once said, “Pray as though everything depended upon God, work as though everything depended upon you.”  Pray for peace.  But when we are faced with the opportunity to act, we must act.  If Christians are not on the frontlines fighting for equality for our brothers and sisters, fighting for an end to the labels, an end to the disparities, then who will?! 

Maybe if enough of us did just that, showing the world that the kind of love shown to us by that baby whose birth we claim to honor in two weeks’ time, then maybe, just maybe, we really can transform this world. 

Until then, I leave you with this prayer from page 823 of the Book of Common Prayer.  It is the prayer that I used for the concluding collect of the Prayers of the People this past Sunday.

O God our Father, whose Son forgave his enemies while he was suffering shame and death:  Strengthen those who suffer for the sake of conscience, especially in Ferguson, Staten Island, and all areas of civil disparity; when they are accused, save them from speaking in hate; when they are rejected, save them from bitterness; when they are imprisoned, save them from despair; and to us your servants, give grace to respect their witness and to discern the truth, that our society may be cleaned and strengthened.  This we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ, our merciful and righteous Judge.  Amen.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Where I Found God

On Sunday a parishioner and I were talking about my “Call Story.”  She said that she just loved Call Stories, but we both noted that Episcopalians don’t often share them.  Well, here is mine.

Twin Oaks Farm, Bedford, VA

The house in the picture above is called Twin Oaks.  Nestled underneath Sharp Top Mountain in Bedford, VA, it was the homestead of the Hatcher family.  The last of the Hatchers, Barbara, was a dear family friend, and when she passed away in 2004 she willed Twin Oaks to my Aunt Meredith, the oldest of the four Mitchell children.  And while Aunt Mere lived in Milwaukee, making it a daunting task to care for a farm, she accepted Barbara’s generous gift, and at Thanksgiving of 2004 Twin Oaks became the gathering place large-scale Mitchell get-togethers.

Two years later my dad and I returned to Twin Oaks, making it a tradition that this be the place for Thanksgivings every other year.  It was a regular family gathering, and while I was both excited and slightly anxious to begin my career as a baseball coach—I was working as assistant coach and assistant sports information director at Pikeville College—there wasn’t anything crazy going on in my personal life. 

And then it happened.  Aunt Mere asked me to do the prayer for Thanksgiving dinner, which was something I often did at family gatherings (most likely because I have no problem speaking in front of large crowds).  I closed my eyes and gave a routine blessing, making sure I did not mention Jesus for fear of offending any of the non-Christians that were around the table.  I don’t know what I said, but I remember the feeling that washed over me that afternoon.  It burned in my chest.  And it said to me, “This feels good, doesn’t it?  THIS is what you should be doing.”  I barely said a word at dinner.

After the meal I went outside, looking up at the mountains and saying over and over again, “Are you sure?”  I was a mix of frustration—“why didn’t you let me know this when I was in college?!”—and fear—“can I really do this?!”  I sat with those feelings all weekend, and when I returned to Wise County shared them with my priest.  And the rest is history. 

But this blog post is not so much about my Call Story as it is about Twin Oaks.  It is about all those places in our lives where we meet God in all of God’s crazy shapes and forms.  There has been something magical about Twin Oaks.  For starters, Aunt Mere, after learning that it was at Twin Oaks where I first felt “The Call,” somehow stumbled upon an 1892 edition of the Book of Common Prayer in the attic.  It was funny because so many Hatcher men had been ministers, but none of them were Episcopalian!  And as the years have gone by Twin Oaks has been a sanctuary, separated from the craziness of the world and free of television, cell phone reception, or internet (though this year wireless was available—not a good idea!).  Members of our family come to Twin Oaks and lay down all of the everyday problems that plague us in school or at work.  It refreshes us.  It binds us with Barbara’s family, as well as members of our own that are long gone.  It is a holy place.  It is a thin place.

This year the magic was palpable.  My cousin Maggie got engaged to her wonderful boyfriend Rob at Twin Oaks over the weekend.  And because she was the first grandchild to get engaged after the passing of our grandmother, she got to have our dear Mimi’s ring.  And as we gathered for dinner my dad played a cassette tape (remember those?!) of my great-grandfather singing hymns of thanks.  As the voice of one of my heroes filled the room singing “Bless This House” and “For the Beauty of the Earth,” I teared up.  I knew God was in that space.  God has always been in that space. 

It is likely that this was the last Thanksgiving that our family will spend at Twin Oaks.  Aunt Mere will be putting the house on the market, and the grandchildren will be scattering in even more directions in the coming months.  Times change.  But the love of family does not.  We may not see each other at Twin Oaks in the future, but there will be other thin places, other spots here and there where we feel the overpowering love of God and the love of family.  Who knows?  Perhaps our lives will be transformed in those spaces, as well.  Just as my life was transformed at Twin Oaks in 2006 and Maggie and Rob’s lives this year. 

 The Mitchell Family at Twin Oaks in 2013.

Everyone deserves a Twin Oaks.  Everyone deserves that place of nourishment, refreshment, peace, and love.  My family has been fortunate to call Twin Oaks such a place these past 10 years.  I don’t know what the new place will look like.  But wherever there is love, I know there God will be also.  So where is your Twin Oaks?  I hope that in the coming days and weeks you and those you love find yourselves there.  Maybe you’ll even run into God like I did!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Redefining Kingship

"For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me."  -Matthew 25: 35-36

One of my favorite philosophers is Homer…Simpson.  This eternally middle aged man from Springfield is full of nuggets of wisdom…and donuts.  One of my favorite teachings of Homer occurred during a time when he inexplicably found himself floating down a river in a cheery-picker.  With no visible way out and his daughter Lisa calling for him as she ran along the shore, Homer clasped his hands and looked up to heaven.  “I’m not normally a praying man,” he confessed, “but if you’re up there, please, save me, Superman!”

Homer "praying"

I think that the words of a man far wiser than me are appropriate for this final week of the church year.  Yesterday marked the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in what we often call Ordinary Time, which is also referred to as Christ the King Sunday, or, in some churches, Reign of Christ Sunday.  The historic reason for such a day is that this is the last Sunday of our church calendar, and so we exit the year with a reminder of Christ’s kingship over all of creation, over time and space, forever and ever, world without end. 

But what do you think of when you think of the kingship of Jesus Christ?  What images pop in your head?  What exactly does it mean for us to have Jesus as our king, and what does it mean for Jesus to be our king?

For some, I’ve noticed, it’s like Homer, who clasps his hands in his hour of need, looks up to heaven, and calls out for Superman.  After all, isn’t that what a king is suppose to do?  Isn’t a king suppose to save his people, rescue them, protect them from the enemy? 

It’s easy to think that way.  But if we really listen to Jesus as he tells this parable in Matthew’s gospel we hear a very different definition of kingship.  In this parable, which is meant to invoke images of the final judgment, the king—Jesus—tells those gathered before him that he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison.  And those who fed him, gave him something to drink, welcomed him, clothed him, took care of him, and visited him are blessed, and those who did no such thing are not so blessed. 

Does this sound like any king you know?  Does this sound like the soverign that rules over the universe?  Hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison?  Doesn’t sound like any king I know or can think of?  And that’s the same reaction the king’s assembled subjects have in the parable.  When did we see you in those states, they ask.  When could we have possibly offered you help?  You!  Our king!  For them the idea of seeing a king in any of those states, all vulnerable, all wounded and weak, is antithetical to the very idea of sovereignty, of what a ruler should look like.  The king’s response:  you saw me in those states when you saw anyone else in those states.  When you helped them, you helped me. 

And here is what makes our Lord Jesus Christ unlike any sovereign that has ever ruled and will ever rule.  This is what makes the Gospel so radical.  The very principles of nearly every single civilization that has ever existed are turned on their respective heads in the person of this Jesus.  Kings are seated on thrones in palaces, they eat at banquets and are clothed in splendor.  Not this Jesus.  Not this king.  He rules from the gutters.  His clothing is tattered.  He covers himself with a newspaper when he sleeps on the park bench.  He reaches his hand out to us and asks us to help him.  This, brothers & sisters, is our lord Jesus, our king.  And we encounter him every single day.

"Homeless Jesus"

Our king is not some kind of Divine You Up There, distant and unknowable.  Our sovereign is not like Zeus, Poseidon, or any other deity that came before, sitting on a cloud far above us pitiful humans.  Our Lord is not a superhero who swoops in and rescues us from the muck that we get ourselves into.  The power and the majesty of Jesus Christ is that his kingship is about relationship, relationship with the people that he loves so much.  Because it is in such relationships that we see him, that we praise him. 

Do you want to see the face of Jesus?  Go outside and walk around until you come to a “street person.”  Look that person in the eyes.  That’s Jesus.  Our king and sovereign Lord is known to us in the sorts and conditions of every human being, especially those that are so very easy for us to forget and ignore.  To serve them, to respect their dignity, to love them is to bring our king the kind of praise and worship that he deserves.  It is the kind of praise and worship that he commands of us. King of Glory.  King of Peace.  We WILL praise thee.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Elizabeth of Hungary, Fran McCoy, & the Goats

“What’s wrong with goats?!”
-5 year old Joe

Today we celebrated the Feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the 13th century princess and philanthropist who has been remembered for her care and nurture of the poor.  She sewed garments to clothe those in need and fished with the common folk in order that they might be fed.  She is a beautiful example of Christian charity and love to the “least of these.”

The Gospel reading for St. Elizabeth today was the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew.  You know the story:  At the end of the age the Son of Man will separate the righteous from the evil just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  It’s an image of the Final Judgment that many in Jesus’ time would have understood fully. 

Which brings me to 5 year old Joe.  In 1989 my little home parish of All Saints, Norton (VA) called its first female rector, The Rev. Fran McCoy.  Fran would be a fixture at that little parish for 19 years, the longest tenured rector in the history of All Saints.  She brought new perspectives, stretched the congregation when it needed stretching, and preached with abandon, while offering the most pastoral presence one can image from a priest.  She was our pastor in every sense of the word.

(L-R:  The Rev. Joe Mitchell, The Rev. Preston Mitchell, & The Rev. Fran MccCoy)

The first sermon Fran preached (or one of the first) revolved around this story, the sheep and the goats.  As we filed through the line at the narthex at the end of the service, 5 year old Joe came up to his new priest and ask straight up, “What’s wrong with goats?”  You see, 5 year old Joe remembered his mom driving home on the backroads and seeing goats on the hillsides and commenting how much she loved goats.  So, he wondered, what was so wrong with the goats?

Fran didn’t have an answer then.  But the years passed, and 5 year old Joe became 28 year old Joe, newly graduated from General Seminary and on the verge of being ordained a deacon at little All Saints.  Fran was there that day, and after the liturgy was over and the bishop blessed the food, Fran—who had retired and moved on from All Saints—spoke up.  “Joe,” she said in that commanding voice, “you once asked me after a sermon what was wrong with goats.”  Everyone laughed.  She continued.  “I can tell you now that your job is to go and take care of the goats.”

Such simple words, yet they were powerful in their simplicity.  The ministry of the deacon is a ministry of service—one that I have learned a great deal about from my two favorite deacons, Paula Ott and Preston Mitchell.  That same spirit of service I carry with me as a priest.  But the service is not just to the goats, not just to those who the world might label as unrighteous.  The service is to all God’s children, all the sheep, goats, and everyone in-between.  And Fran McCoy did that.

As a little kid I wasn’t sure what to make of God or this whole business of church.  I knew I loved going to church on Sundays, knew that I loved to serve at the altar and read the lessons and prayers.  Yet as a teenager I struggled with what I was really meant to do.  Was there a next step after being confirmed?  Should I “feel the Spirit” flowing through me like some of my charismatic Baptist friends talked about?  Was I missing something completely? 

And so I experimented.  I prayed in different ways, even taking the Muslim posture of sajdah when I served as an acolyte during the Eucharistic Prayer.  I would pray with my arms out, intently, almost as if I could force God to come down upon me.  It must have made folks in the pews nervous.  Yet all the while Fran let me do it.  She let me explore my faith, ask questions, and grow.  At 13 when I asked her what I was supposed to do next she suggested I preach a sermon (First Sunday of Christmas).  A few years later she encouraged me to become licensed to serve the chalice and lead Morning Prayer on Sundays when she wasn’t there.  And when I came home from college she often asked me to help her out by serving in any number of roles.  She tended to me.  She cared for me.  She saw something in me that I could not see.  Not yet.  And when the time came for me to ask what I needed to do to go to seminary she said simply, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that since you were 5!”

The call to serve, to tend and care for one another is not limited to those who wear the collar.  It is given to us all in our baptismal covenant—“seek and serve God in all persons…love your neighbor as yourself…respect the dignity of every human being.”  We are called, every one of us, to care for the sheep and the goats alike.  We are called to nurture them, to feed them, to tend to them, to empower them.  We are called to see in them that which they may not be able to see themselves.  We do so by the grace of God, knowing that God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 

So thanks be to God for Elizabeth of Hungary, who cared for the least of these.  Thanks be to God for Fran McCoy, who nurtured a curious little boy and brought him to the full stature of the priesthood.  Thanks be to God for all of you who tend and care for both the sheep and the goats. 

P.S.  The answer to 5 year old Joe’s question:  the same thing that’s wrong with the sheep—absolutely nothing!!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Take a Risk For the Kingdom

This sermon was preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington on the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost.  The Gospel reading for the day was Matthew 25: 14-30.

On Saturday, November 15 the Diocese of Lexington held its second annual Ministry & Gifts Fair at Emmanuel Church in Winchester. It was a great celebration of the new and exciting gifts being offered by our diocese from the coalfields up to the river.  But as I headed home yesterday I wondered:  what if the diocese had decided not to have such a sharing of gifts?  What if we had stayed home, keeping our gifts to ourselves?  What if we had said those same 6 tiresome words 'we've always done it this way' and resisted any new ideas being presented?  Blessedly, the diocese did none of these things.   
But have any of you ever heard that phrase, 'Weve always done it this way'?  They say those are the last 6 words of a dying church.  Because those words are symptoms of a toxic, fearful disorder that  holds us back from seeing what new things God is doing in our lives.

The parable that we hear today in Matthews gospel speaks to this.  It was a reality in Jesus day, just as it is in ours.  We often refer to this story as the Parable of the Talents, yet another of Jesus tales that are meant to paint a picture of what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Here he says that it is like a master who gives his servants talents to take care of while he goes on a journey.  It should be noted that Jesus is not talking about talents in the way that we know the word--like one's ability to sing or dance--nor is he talking about money.  The Greek word used is talanton, which is a unit of measurement, roughly equivalent to 113 lbs.  Think of it like a scale for balance.  And it only appears here in Matthews gospel, most likely because Matthew was a tax collector and wouldve used such a scale in his own work.  So here the master is giving a very big measurement of something to each of his servants.  Some theologians have suggested that that something was silver.  A talent of silver would be worth roughly $500.  One servant receives 5 talents, another 2, and another 1.  The first two servants both invest their talent, doubling their amount, and they are rewarded.  The third does nothing with what his master gives him.  He doesnt invest it, he takes no risk at all, and while the master does still get his original talent back, he chastises the servant for not being more proactive with what had been given to him.

The third servant was a victim of weve always done it this way.  Scholars like William Barclay have said that the third servant represents the scribes and Pharisees, those in Jesus time who had been given the gift of Gods law but had sought to hoard it, to hold onto it, even when Jesus, the living embodiment of the law, was standing right in front of them.  They, like that servant, refuse to take a risk for fear of losing what they already had.  The chastisement of the servant's attitude in the parable is thus Jesus own chastisement of their fearful attitude, the attitude of weve always done it this way.'  They lack adventure and risk. They squande the gifts given by the master.   

The talents that are in this parable may not be talents in our modern sense, but they are gifts.  And so this parable speaks a very real truth, that God gives each of us gifts.  The amount does not matter-- notice that the master does not speak more highly of the servant who made 10 talents than he does the one who made 4.  So the amount does not matter, what matters is what we do with those gifts.  The first two servants did something with what was given to them.  They didnt know what was going to happen.  It was a risk.  It was scary.  What if they failed?  What if they lost what the master gave them? Yet in spite of the risk, they stepped out in faith, and look what happened.  The third servant, however, takes no such risk. 

There is a sentence in this gospel reading that is difficult to hear, one that I myself wouldve preferred we skip because its so hard to understand.  But we Episcopalians do not skip hard passages, we tackle them head-on! Jesus says, For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  It sounds really harsh, as though Jesus is going to take away what little we have.  But what Jesus is saying is that the only way to really keep a gift is to put it to good use, to work with it.   If we leave it alone, we will inevitably lose it. It would be as though we never received it in the first place. It'll be an insult to the one who gave it to us in the first place.  Just sitting there, useless, pointless. Jesus is calling each of us to use whatever we have for the good of others and to the honor and glory of God, inside our own churches, yes, but especially out there in the world.  Sometimes its a risk.  Sometimes it means stepping out in faith and doing something that we never considered doing before.  It's scary.  And yes, there certainly are those moments when we find it easier to just say, "No, weve always done it THIS way.  And we're going to continue doing it THIS way!"  It's always easier to give in to our fears of the unknown.  But thats not what Jesus is calling us to do in this parable.  Jesus understood that fear is the corrosive thread that runs through every fiber of our being.  It can cripple us.  Jesus is calling us today to action, to not give in to fear and hoard our gifts--our talents, if you will--but to take the risk in offering them up to the good of others and the glory of God.

So what gift has God given to you, brothers and sisters?  What have you been entrusted with from the master?  What will you do with it? Dont just sit there.  Dont bury it.  Use it.    Take a risk for the kingdom of God.  You might find yourself doing something that you never thought possible.  Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2014

God is Love...Period!

What if I told you that love really was the most powerful force in the universe?  What if all that stuff about “God is love” was actually real? 

Prior to this past Saturday I had only officiated at one wedding since being ordained.  That wedding was at a country club in town, and while I am happy to say that the couple is still together (meaning that I’m still batting 1.000), there was a part of me that wished I could perform such a ceremony in our cathedral.  This past Saturday I got my wish, and I could not be more blessed.  This couple—pillars in our church community— has been together longer than I have been alive!  And while they were already legally married, they were seeking the blessing of their union by God and Holy Mother Church.  Who would not feel blessed to participate in such a celebration of love?

Michael Miller and Tom Yates are the kind of couple that are just perfect for each other.  Time and again their story has consisted of goodbyes, of the uncertainty that they were actually meant to be together.  Yet God continued to bring them together, over and over and over again.  Eventually the two got the message and have built a life together.  That life has enriched our church community, from Michael’s singing to Tom’s exceptional cooking.  They are here every Sunday, sitting in their familiar pew on the pulpit-side of the nave, and they are one of those couples that everyone knows.  And everyone loves. 

In June of 2011 I was sitting in a comedy club on 23rd street in New York City when the comic stopped his show to announce that marriage equality had been passed in the Empire State.  My girlfriend and I were almost in tears as the audience in the club erupted in applause.  This was something that meant a great deal to both of us.  We had people we both loved dearly who would now be permitted to legally marry.  Our own relationship was transformed by the news.  It was monumental!  And almost instantly the Episcopal Church took action.  One New York bishop allowed his clergy to perform marriages immediately; another said that none of his clergy would be permitted to do so; while still another would not allow them until our General Convention approved a new service.  That approval came in 2012, and in the Diocese of Lexington (KY) we began performing such ceremonies this year.  Michael and Tom are the first such couple to have their union blessed here at Christ Church Cathedral!

There are those who will see this post and think that I was wrong to preside over Michael and Tom’s blessing.  There are those who will think that they, and I, are on the fast track to hell, that what happened on Saturday was nothing short of an abomination in the eyes of God.  Maybe they’re right.  Maybe their God does think it’s an abomination.

But that isn’t the God I have come to know.  The God I know is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who, I might add, never said a single word on the issue of homosexuality or marriage equality.  The God Jesus spoke of is a God who loves us unconditionally and invites us to love one another in like fashion.  This God tells us that those who are persecuted are blessed in the kingdom of heaven, that those who have been considered lowly are, in fact, being lifted up.  This God tells us that love is the greatest force in the universe, love of God and one another, and that if we abide by that simple command then we will have accomplished all that God has asked of us.  That is the God that I know.  It is the God that I serve as a priest.

If sin is defined as that which draws us away from God, then love cannot possibly be a sin because love is of God.  Michael and Tom exemplify that love.  So do Liz and Rebecca.  And John and Tait.  Holy Scripture teaches us that we were made for each other, for relationships, because it is in loving relationships that we experience the love of God.  Adam and Eve.  Abraham and Sarah.  Jonathan and David.  Scripture shows us that the blessing of God is present in the love shown between two of God’s children. 

I pray that couples everywhere will see the photo above and know that God blesses all kinds of love.  Michael and Tom have the kind of relationship, the kind of trust and love that I hope one day to have with someone.  It is the kind of relationship that we all deserve to have, the kind that God very clearly blesses.  Thanks be to God for Michael and Tom and the love that they share! 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Politics & the Church: What Do We Do on Election Day??

When I was in seminary I started a Christian Formation class at my field ed church called Episcopal Church 101.  Most parishesincluding the one I now servehave such inquirers classes.  On one particular day I was talking about the roots of the Episcopal Church, namely the ugliness of the Tudor dynasty and the beginnings of Anglicanism.  It is one of the ugliest, bloodiest periods in all of human history, let alone the history of the Church. 

After talking about Henry VIII, Edward VI, Bloody Mary, Elizabeth I, and all the people who died under eachs regime, a woman got up from the group and started to leave.  I cant take this, she said.  I thought you were going to talk about the history of our church.

I am, was my response. 

Im sorry, she said.  Its just too ugly and mean.  Its too political.

The woman left the room before I could tell her that the ugliness, the meanness, and the politicization are all part of what it means to be the Church, especially a part of the Church that was formed during such political turmoil.  Like it or not, the Church is and always has been political.  But what exactly does that mean?

In some parts of the country, especially where I grew up, pastors are more than happy to take to the pulpit and let their flock know who the proper candidate is, who might be Gods pick for a particular office.  Many times this has little to do with the actual candidate and more to do with his or her political party, especially if that party has close ties to the pastors own denomination. 

Still, there are also the voices that say that, given the Churchs historic role in the bloody history of politics and war, that pastors today should remain as neutral as possible.  Politics, they say, have no place in the pulpit.  They insist upon the separation of church and state to the degree that hardly anything thats actually happening out in the world is shared.  It is not the place of the Church to get involved in politics, they say.

But imagine if we as Christian leaders followed either one of these patterns.  If we were the kinds of leaders who told our parishioners who to vote for then we are no longer preaching the Word of God but the Word of Joe (or whoever).  At that moment we cease being shepherds walking with our flock and become herders trying to force the flock into a pen that is the same shape and size as our own political allegiances.  However, if we are completely neutral then social justice and the true work of the Gospel will never be accomplished.  What if the Episcopal Church had remained silent following the death of Jonathan Daniels?  Odds are we would not have been at the forefront of social change for African Americans (and subsequently women and LGBT folks).

So what are we called to do as pastors when it comes to politics?  What message are we meant to send to our parishioners on this Election Day? 

Firstly, we cannot preach our own politics from the pulpit.  I am a priest in a church that is filled with Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, and everything else.  Yes, my own politics sometimes clash with folks in the pews.  As one of my mentors once put it:  Do you know what separates the liberals from the conservatives in the Episcopal Church? Answer:  the altar rail!  In my congregation is a young woman who works on a campaign for a Democratic candidate while an incumbent Republican congressman sits a few pews over from her!  This is the beauty of the Church, that Gods house is big enough to fit every single person and every single view inside.  Yet it is not my job to speak openly from the pulpit about whether that Democrat is the better candidate or that Republican.  I am called to be a witness, not to sway voters.

That being said, we cannot be completely silent.  To be the Church means to be paying attention to the world.  There is no difference between the two.  We who are called to be leaders in the Church are called to raise awareness among our parishioners and encourage them to make their voices heard, even if their voice is not the same as ours.  When the rights of human beings are being denied, we are called to raise that up because it is a human issue, not a political issue.  When war ravages Gods people we are called to pray for peace, no matter how angry we may be, no matter how impossible peace may seem.  I have sat through too many church services where there is no mention in the sermon or the Prayers of the People of the needs of Gods world outside our own doors.  When human voices cry out for justice and healing, we cannot turn a deaf ear.  In my last year of seminary several students rallied together and marched with Occupy Wall Street.  Decked out in our black cassocks, many of us gave interviews with New York City news outlets and told them that we were not there to take sides, merely to let everyone know that the Church is paying attention.  When Gods people cry out, we must pay attention.

So what is this clerics advice this Election Day?  Its pay attention!  Get out there and vote!  But vote with both your heart and your mind.  Dont vote just because your pastor said that Candidate X is a good Christian.  Vote for issues that are important to you.  Dont be silent, thinking that the Church has no place in politics.  Make your voice as a Christian heard!  Go vote!  

**Father Prime apologizes for the lateness of this post but hopes his brothers and sisters who still have time will get out there and vote!**

Monday, October 27, 2014

Being Good Enough

When I played college baseball our coach had a saying:  “Don’t ever let good enough be good enough.”  No matter how good things were going he would always tell us to never be satisfied.  Sometimes it got comical. 

After a fall doubleheader, in which we split with a much better team, we came off the bus ecstatic.  The previous year we had won a paltry four games (losing 29!), so one could understand our excitement.  But Coach was not pleased.  “Don’t be satisfied with just winning one game.  We should've won them both.”  He then proceeded to tell us that we shouldn't be satisfied until we won the conference, and then not until we won the College World Series, and then not until we won every single game, and then not until we won every single game by the 10-run rule.  We couldn't help but laugh. 

Coach never really lived down that moment, but his mantra to never let good enough be good enough stuck with us.  In the sports world it’s not a bad mantra.  It pushed us to be better today than we were yesterday, to be better tomorrow than we are today; in fact, that attitude led me to have what is without a doubt the best pitching season of my life.  We didn’t win the conference that year, or the World Series for that matter, but we improved dramatically, and we were happy with that.

But in my two short years of ordained ministry I have wrestled with this concept.  As a Christian, and especially as a Christian leader, I wonder exactly when I should be satisfied.  When is good enough really good enough?

In his book The Grasshopper Myth Pastor Karl Vaters addresses this issue.  A non-denominational pastor, he had been schooled by the Rick Warrens and Joel Osteens of the world who had said that the goal of every small church should be to transform itself into a mega church.  The goal is more people in the pews, as many as you can get (and, subsequently, more money in the plate).  Pastor Karl tried this approach; he developed newcomer ministries, increased his own hours at the church, and even built a new, giant auditorium for all the folks who would be coming through those doors.  And it worked!  For a while.  Eventually Pastor Karl burned out.  Attendance dwindled, and the pastor took a sabbatical and wrestled with that very concept of ‘good enough’ until he came back and realized, quite simply, he was a small church pastor.  And that was good enough.  It was good enough for him, for his congregation, and, most importantly, for God.

There is the old saying about things they don’t teach you in seminary.  This is one of them.  As one of my colleagues commented in a clergy gathering, “How do we know if we’re really doing our job?”  That’s a great question!  I've walked away from pastoral visits and wondered if I actually did enough for the person I just visited.  I've worried whether or not a sermon that I had hoped would inspire anyone would actually have a lasting effect.  How do I really know if I’m succeeding at my job, at my call?

What is our barometer of success?  What does success look like?  In sports it’s easy.  Stats simply do not lie, and wins and losses make it pretty clear. In the Episcopal Church we have a necessary evil called the Parochial Report, which lists how many members we have, how many came to Christmas mass, and how many folks we baptized and confirmed in the last year.  Are we meant to use that to measure success?  But if that’s the case, do we count a year when we did not grow in numbers as a failure?  Is that Christian way of measuring success?

Jesus said nothing about Parochial Reports.  And none of us took vows at our ordination to “Fill them pews, people!” (as George Carlin’s Cardinal Glick says in Dogma).  So when is good enough really good enough? 

I wonder what would happen if we focused less on the quantity of our ministries and more on the quality.  When one church says they grew by 30% last year maybe our response should be ,”That’s great!  Thanks be to God!” rather than “That’s great!  What can we do to be like them?”  Instead of asking our colleagues, “What’s your ASA (average Sunday attendance)?” maybe we could ask them, “What’s one of the most life-giving ministries that y’all are offering?” What would happen if we knew that we were already good enough for God as we are?

It’s stewardship season, I know.  And we all have the Great Commission to live into, to make disciples of all nations.  So we can’t exactly escape the need to address issues of money and parish growth.  But Jesus said nothing about growing OUR church, but rather THE Church.  And there is a difference.  The former often focuses more on quantity, while the latter focuses on quality.  Remember what the prophet tells us, that God’s ways are not our ways.  Perhaps that means God’s standards, God’s means of measuring success are not ours, either.

Maybe we too can focus more on quality than quantity.  We might find, as we focus less on how much money we have and who isn't coming to church, that God is continually providing grace among those folks who are already with us.  And that grace is all sufficient, after all.

We do not have to impress God.  And whether we average 30 people on a Sunday or 300 God is still glorified.  If we recognize that fact we may find that we don’t have to continually worry about being better tomorrow than we are today, that we who are ministers can sleep easy at night knowing that what we do matters, even if we don’t have a means by which of measuring success.  We may find that God is already doing amazing things among us.  We may find that, as far as God is concerned, we are already good enough.  And that’s good enough.