Saturday, February 20, 2010

Checking in a Week after Priestly Ordination...

I am still slightly off the ground but I’m able to walk tall, and can accomplish simple tasks. There is still some emotional and spiritual lability that everyone I talk to says is to be expected. I am still occasionally bursting into laughter and, tears, song, and find myself both with excess energy and deep fatigue in close proximity.
When I was made a deacon I had a sense that a room in my house had been professionally cleaned: where there had been an accumulation of old ideas and arguments   about whether I should or shouldn’t get ordained, get closer to or farther from the church; all that had been swept away and there was a simple icon in the middle of a new room that said “Deacon.”
 At the deanery meeting last week during our check-in time I said that I felt like one wall of my house had been taken away and hand there were professional workers laying new foundations. When I explored that image later it let like it was a house in the neighborhood where I lived as a child. I feel like there is a new structure as well as a great grace building in my old neighborhood, and I feel youthful delight in seeing what will take place.
I have wanted to be a priest since I was almost 23. So over 40 years with the same dream or conversation or argument or recurrent thread going on. I used to joke that it was a kind of spiritual herpes, occasional outbursts at inconvenient times. And now that conversation is closed and a new one begins. Again there is a feeling of spaciousness and freedom as well as a tentative quality of quiet questioning in this new beginning.
What kind of a priest am I called to be? I go back and over the 40 years of conversation, consider books and articles I’ve read in the last few months and lively talks with new and old friends and is still leaves me with this wide question.  How do I love God and my neighbor and myself as a minister of the Word and Sacraments in this time and place? 

This sounds seriously high-minded but is actually quite basic, pointing to specific questions: do I wear a black shirt, do I clean up my language, can I be as open as I have been in the past with my opinions? In what way am I a servant or savant?  How am I a prophet or a poet as a priest? How does this jibe with my rampant codependency, my need to be needed, my fragile and occasionally overblown ego, my calorie count?  What does my new rule of life  need to account for?
Paradoxically, one of the things I know for sure is that I shouldn’t think about it too much. I’m talking this out this morning (with my major-cool voice recognition software) to share it with the online community, old and new friends who share the journey, but most of this morning I’ve been rambling around the house and garden cleaning up, wiping down, stretching a little as I go, bringing a little order to a little chaos -- and as I do that ideas and feelings and old memories and new projections come into focus and fly away again. And all the while I get things done.
So after documenting my sobriety, tenacity, methodical nature and mature sensibility (before I go too far) let me note that I keep being surprised by how happy I am to be a priest!  Something in me keeps breaking into dance, singing scraps of songs from old musicals, feeling very thankful.
Let me leave you with this: one person said of my first mass: it was “a tentative Eucharist, like a wedding night!” I’ll take that as a fair comment and an accurate one. I did feel shy and amazingly eager and ready, the absolute joy of being able to participate in that moment in that manner! I still do. 
So now it is noon on a Saturday morning  in Australia and I’m going to walk down the street and with a good book and get a good lunch somewhere. I wish you well.

Bishop John's Sermon should be shared!

A sermon on the occasion of ordination to the diaconate of Alan Kelb and Thomas Leslie and the ordination to the priesthood of Bethley Sullivan and Robert Whalley.

Today is a great day in the life of this Diocese. We are here to make 2 deacons and ordain 2 priests. The variety of ministries to which they are called by God reflects clearly the changing face of the Diocese and the changing needs of church in the 21st century.

Thomas has completed his theological education at Trinity College, and will serve as assistant curate here at the Cathedral. At the same time he is working at Cathedral College, building and strengthening relationships between School, parish and Diocese. His path is perhaps the most conventional of all of our candidates.

Alan is travelling on the apprenticeship model of training, championed so successfully in our neighboring Diocese of Bendigo by Bishop Andrew. Alan has significant ministry skills and experienced gained over many years. He will continue to supplement his theological education as he serves as a deacon. His ministry will continue in the parish of North Albury and he will continue to work as a chaplain at Wangaratta High School. He will be an important bridge between community and church.

Bethley was originally ordained to the vocational diaconate, and has provided honorary ministry in the parishes of Alpine and Beechworth.  I received advice from the examining chaplains who had worked alongside her that they sensed that she was being called from diaconal to priestly ministry; which I must say was a bit of a surprise to Bethley. After due process that sense of vocation was affirmed, and she is today being ordained priest for honorary service as priest in charge of the Beechworth Parish. Ordination in the fullness of life and honorary service represents an important transition in the models of ministry obtaining in the Diocese of Wangaratta.

The least conventional path to ordination has been followed by Rob. A sophisticated theologian, with wide experience in theological education and chaplaincy, Rob has journeyed with the church for most of his life. But ordination never seemed to be the way. When it was right for him to explore, it wasn’t right for the church. And when it was right for the church, it wasn’t right for him. In the end the hound of heaven caught him, and we are blessed that the catch was effected here. Rob is my chaplain, and is rapidly making himself invaluable in facilitating the Episcopal ministry I exercise. In addition he has become for us the champion of lay education, and is dreaming all sorts of exciting programs into existence.

Four very different people. Four very different ministries.  For the reality of today’s church is that the conventional or paradigm notion of ministry as full-time stipendiary ministry in the parish context is no longer the only way of understanding ministry in the church. The face of the church is changing rapidly as is the landscape in which the church is called into being. The very nature and place of the ministry of the church is in the process of change, and it’s not yet clear what the future will look like.

Some things are clear. Conventional stipendiary parish based ministry, whilst till central to the life of the church, is already not the only form of ministry. An increasing diversity of models is likely to reflect our desire to connect with a rapidly changing world. We are all called to discover a new place for ourselves in the new landscape. The harvest is still plentiful – the labourers need more sophisticated tools to bring the harvest in.

Despite our changing sitz im leben, we can make some general observations about leadership in the church.

In the first place it needs to be said clearly that the call to ministry is the call of GOD! God takes the initiative and we respond. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Each and every account that the bible offers of the call to ministry follows this pattern.  Isaiah’s call, or Jeremiah’s ordination to suffering or the calling to mission of the seventy. Ministry is not our private possession. Ministry is not something we control for our private benefit. I go cold in side when I hear the imperial claim to my parish or my ministry. Ministry in the church is the ministry of Christ in the world, to the world and for the world, and God calls us to the inestimable privilege of taking our part in this ministry. Ministry is gift and privilege, but never possession. We take our place by the grace of God alone, and not by our own merit.

It follows that God calls us as we are, warts and all, and uses us. “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us.” We don’t need to pretend to be what we’re not. We don’t need to claim for ourselves competencies we don’t have. We don’t need to be envious of the gifts, skills or achievements of others.  We don’t need to advance ourselves at the expense of others. For God calls us as we are, and sets us in our proper place in Christ’s body. The ministry of the church is, then, interdependent and the very being of the church is interdependent.

What then can we say about ministry of leadership in the church? What does it look like? What are its inherent characteristics? How can I recognize if it’s authentic? At a level these are hard questions to answer. In a sense leadership is as varied as the infinite variety of people    God calls to the task, and the infinite variety of situations in which they are called to operate. We can nevertheless make a couple of general comments.

A good leader in the church is one who proclaims the word of God with authority in the community in which the leader operates. Of course we must resist the temptation to play God – our human limitation needs to be frankly acknowledged. But we need not ever be apologetic – the kingdom of God deserves to be proclaimed with a shout and not a whimper. The leader is called to proclaim with authority by word and deed the good news of God in Christ in the ever changing context of the world. In his customarily profound but Germanically opaque manner, Hans Kung puts it this way:

Something like an interpreter, simultaneously representing yet independent of the ‘general will’, (the leader) emphasizes the cause, the one needful thing, for which the community is, not only on behalf of this or that individual but to the (big or small) world, with energy, tenacity, intelligence and imperturbability.

Models of leadership are ten a penny. There’s lots of useful stuff to be found to help us in our task, not the least in the terms of modern secular management theory. But we do need to remember always that the church is not a small business, or even a multi-faceted franchise operation with the bishop as Ronald Macdonald or Colonel Sanders in the centre. I don’t want to be too pious here – modern theories of management can and do provide useful insights.

But the paradigm model of leadership in the church is self-giving, loving service; and the paradigm leader is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. So if anyone should be great they should be servant of all and slave of all, just as the son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

There are clear implications for us leaders in this. The role of loving service, the call to compassion is a costly call. It requires us to surrender power and security. It compels us to operate beyond our comfort zone, on the risky ground of faith and in the landscape of the other. It exposes us, as nothing else exposes us. It lays open our vulnerability. And so we can easily retreat as a means of self-protection. We can claim power. We can put on the uniform of professional competence to maintain safe distance between ourselves and the risk of the other. We can use piety as a weapon of control. There’s a terrible ambiguity in the ministry of leadership that we need to acknowledge. It can either open us up to or shield us from God’s reality.

There is one more important point to make. Leadership in the church is as much about being as it is about doing. Of course there are myriad tasks to perform. But mere task efficiency does not make a good leader in the church.

Some few years ago now the late Monica Furlong wrote these memorable and wonderfully politically incorrect words in a letter to an Anglican priest and spiritual director called Ron Swain

I am clear what I want of the clergy.  I want them to be people who can, by their own happiness and contentment, challenge my ideas about status, about success, about money, and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs.  I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare, to refuse to work flat out (since work is an even more subtle drug than status), to refuse to compete with me in strenuousness.  I want them to be people who are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who can face the emptiness and possible depression which often attack people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied.  I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it is, as I want them to be people who have faced the problems of prayer.  I want them to be people who can sit still without being guilty.

This might be a charter for idleness. Or it might be a vision of one at peace with self and with God, and so fully available for the joy and the struggle of ministry. As we ordain Alan and Thomas and Bethley and Robert, may we and they carry this vision of ministry with us as we continue to celebrate the everlasting joy of the Gospel in the places in which God plants us?

For Christ’s sake.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon as for the Transfiguration 13 February 2010

If I made a list of ten films guaranteed to make me cry, Billy Elliot would probably be in the top four. This 1990s movie about an English lad who wants and needs to be a dancer is really all about God-given identity and vocation, and innocence and sustained endurance - the good kind that comes like Auden’s idea of poetry from “raw towns” and “busy griefs, is “a way of happening” that has the passion to lift hometown and neighborhood up into a praiseful parade, redeeming them all as it goes along. Billy Elliot’s passion for dancing does that with his family and his community, and the movie always makes me cry. I never saw the musical theatre version when it was around (tickets were way too expensive), but I bought the CD last year. It’s a little bit “Sir Elton John meets Social Realism,” and there’s no great overture, but there is a wonderful song that comes in the scene when Billy sees the local dancing teacher telling her not-terribly talented troupe: “Girls,All you really have to do is shine!” And that’s good advice in light of the scripture for the Eve of the Transfiguration. “All you really have to do is shine!” Moses shines when he talks with God on the Mount Sinai, Jesus shines when he’s talking with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of the Transfiguration. But I want to focus on how it is for Peter and Paul, how they reflect the light of Christ, and how it transforms their lives and ministry over time. And I want to talk about the Virgin Mary as well. Three kinds of witness, responses, that shine.

In the Gospel of Luke, Peter sees Jesus shining dazzling white on the mountaintop and, even though he’d like to build a structure, to stay with the glory, he follows Jesus down to Jerusalem. And on the way he begins to learns how very much he needs to know and how much he needs to change.
In following that light, he ends up seeing all the places where he is dark, shadowed, in need of discernment, wisdom, more light. Two quotes: Years ago a gifted and intuitive healer told me, “If you ask God to make you whole, God might show you all the places where you’re broken! And Simeon Stylites, a saint of the Eastern church, said that often the first gift of the holy spirit is tears. Putting those together, you can see where Peter’s path will take him, down the mountain into the messy middle of his life, to do all the work he needs to do to get it right. To quote a poem:

Simon, to be called Rock;
You start out like a sandstorm on a winter day
All your aspirations blown so far from home,
Currenting between firm understanding and vague denial
All before the dusty hope that you might apprehend it all

What you might learn is your own failure;
Humility, contingency and the need to start again.
Only then the presence of faith
combusts all your grainy ways into
Something you never could have known.

But it takes time, numerous failures, with more and more good and public reasons for humility. Poor St Peter! If he had a theme song it would be that great Gerry Lafferty song from the 70s, “And If you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time.” Peter just keeps getting it wrong ‘til he gets it right, and finally he gets it just right.

For Paul, Christ comes as a blinding insight. Different from Peter, much of Paul’s task seems to be focussing on unlearning all those clear cut laws and commandments that kept him on the straight and narrow for so long, seeing their value anew in the graceful light of Christ. In the letters to the Corinthians particularly, Paul sees two things: first, that life in Christ calls for boldness, gracecalls for new freedom and faith in a bright and growing assurance; in the hope that if you call out, in all your insufficiency, in all your need, God will answer. It might take time, it might leave you in the dark for awhile, but by grace you will find you are changing, from following dead laws to living new life, from outer and inner darkness to renewed and inspired insight, from glory to glory, to finally see face to face, to know as we are known, to come home.

But the second thing for Paul is that this homecoming parade bring us together to be members of the body of Christ; leaves us linked by love with people of different viewpoints, traditions and trajectories, histories and hopes: all on their way to wholeness, to healing, to homecoming in Christ as well. So the balance of Paul’s ministry is to respect the differences and find the harmony that we all get home in the end.: blending the clarity of the personal experience of grace with the vivid complexity of the church, the community of we who are called in Christ! It’s the oil and vinegar in the salad of the spiritual life! So those are the ways of Peter and Paul.

As I remember, the 14th century book the “Cloud of Unknowing” has a threefold formula on how you might meet God in prayer. The first would fit Peter: you push upward, beyond what you think you know, beyond who you think you are, into the cloud of unknowing where God waits to surprise you. The second mode is more for the Paulists amongst us: you press down, leaving behind what you’ve done and who you were, pushing down on the cloud of forgetting, letting the history go so God can meet you anew.

Either of those models for a prayerful pilgrimage might work for us sometimes, and there is a third way as well. The author of the “Cloud” says, and I paraphrase mightily here, “If all else fails, just say, “Here I am, as I am, right, now. Please help!”

The Virgin Mary might be a model for that simpler way. Asked to say, “Yes” to the deepest creativity coming into the world, through her, opening her to be and to bear a blessing and a gift to the world. She replies first with a quick question, “How can this be?” Then with an elegant response, “Let it be to me according to your word.” You can phrase it differently, “Yes, I am your servant, helpmate, handmaid, I am here for you! Yes”

But that third way is the prolepsis, really the overture to the Luke’s Good News, making up the major themes, giving you the music, foreshadowing what will come. It’s the new creation’s opening act as the parade of faith picks up momentum with room for everybody in all their varieties of response: faith as process, faith as freedom to let God be God, faith to take part in the great adventure, and faith to let God take part in you!

Three Saints, holy people of God, and together their styles of response over time turn out to be a kind of three part harmony. Yet there is a greater music to listen for, over and under and within every note. Sometimes we can hear it clearly. First, the great cadences of the creator: “light and dark, wet and dry, mineral, vegetable, animal, humankind.Yes, it is very good!” Then a wholly human voice in the very middle (the most real one, the one that defines everyone) full of clarity and charity: “Yes! light of the world, daily bread, forgive us as we forgive, you are my friends, this is my body given” and in the midst of the music a breathing, silence and containing all silence and sound, all connection, all media of meeting. The breath of our breath, the relation of love. Yes.

But we’re not there yet, for there is more room, room just for us. For there is a place, a need, a calling for you, for me, for everyone of us to step up and tell out with all our heart and mind and soul the story of our life with God, with all the particularities and poetry, with all the pain and passion, need, nature and nurture we can muster, to stretch out like Peter Paul and Mary, and sing along with everybody else, with all the graceful music of the full symphony of the Trinity and all the choirs of heavens; to stand up, dance if you like, and sing out your life as best you can. And even if we don’t sing that well, even if we’re clumsy dancers, by the grace of God, it really doesn’t matter much, all we really have to do is shine!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, Anniversary of Black Saturday

On the Friday before last, I drove Bishop John to meet with members of Christ Church, Marysville. I had not been in that part of the diocese and was again struck with the particular beauty of northeast Victoria.

But when we came into area around Marysville I saw the remnants of Black Saturday and something more: the scars of the fire in counterpoint with the signs of new growth and recovery: dead trees cut and stacked along the road, old wreckage and new construction, blackened trunks with green shoots. It was like seeing the wreckage of a great war, but a somewhat scarred survivor in the foreground, going on and doing what must be done to build again, sharing a strong smile and showing broken teeth.

I joined the bishop at the ending of his meeting with the members of Christ Church and I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s definition of style: “Grace under pressure.” You could see these people have been through a tribulation and trial, and you could see that they were still going on. They might have been down, but they weren’t defeated by the tough times. There were some very gracious people there doing some very good work.

The lessons for today have to do with endings and beginnings, and doing good work in tough times. The prophet Isaiah is given the task of speaking God’s word to the people of Judah after Kong Uzziah has died. Over the 40 years of his rule, Judah and neighboring Israel had lived in peace and expanded in power and prosperity. But within a generation Israel and Judah will be completely destroyed; within a decade conquering armies of will make a vassal state and move images of Assyrian Gods into the temple at Jerusalem. Isaiah sees the nation he knew coming to an end, and his call is to watch and pray and speak at a time when people shall be taken into exile, the land will become a desolation. He lives in the midst of trying times, with the death of the old and with a new hope as well. For he is assured there will be a resurgence, renewal, unexpected birth, like the fragile green growth that comes from the stump of a burnt tree.

In the Epistle, Paul defines himself as one who has been born “out of time,” as the least of the apostles, yet - like Isaiah - he sees a saving truth in a trying time. Paul has found that this Jesus, whose followers he has persecuted and presented for trial, that this Jesus is the Christ, the holy one of God: and Paul’s former understanding of the law and the prophets, of what is required and what is right or wrong, has been terminated, put to flight by the dark death and the new light that comes to all humanity in the revelation of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, making all who participate in it part of a new creation. Both ending and beginning.

In Luke’s Gospel we move into new territory with Jesus. No longer in his hometown synagogue, he’s teaching from a boat on a lake, gathering crowds on the shore, making new disciples, and opening them up to new understandings, new ways to stand in relationship to God and neighbor. Then he turns to his disciple Peter. “Put out into the deep water and let down your net for a catch.” Jesus says, and Peter says...

Let’s detour for a moment. One of joys of the Gospels accounts of the early Christian community is the deep honesty and the great candor in the way the disciples are pictured, those assembled friends of Jesus. With all appropriate respect, they are such a mixed bunch! Often concerned with personal power and wrong priorities, misunderstanding Jesus, they often serve as wonderful examples of how not to do it! What tremendous humility and honesty they must have had to hear their stories being told over time, as the community grew, as legends and letters were folded into the growing self-understanding of the community of those on the way of Jesus, of the church. When I read the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ dealing with his apostles, I often think of the bumper sticker, “Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet!” It gives me hope. What examples they are that the wisdom of the way, followed over time, will bring us home!

So Jesus tells Peter to take the boat to the deeper water and prepare for a big catch, and he responds, “Master, we’ve worked all night, with no fish, with no luck.” But he follows Jesus’s lead and he is overwhelmed by the size of the harvest. It is too big for his boat! His reaction is so similar to Isaiah’s some 400 years before. “Go away from me, [literally,“Get out of the neighborhood”] Lord I am a sinful man!” Can you imagine what’s happening here? What would it be like for Peter? His friend and master is the Lord! Imminence and transcendence staring you in the face! The universe is bigger than we know!
And Jesus calls him to prepare for a another big fishing expedition, to join in the new creation, the great harvest of hope, to bring all people to the kingdom of God!

In each of these encounters, for Isaiah, Paul and Peter; a person comes up against God’s proclamation of a larger life, and is renewed in a kind of death: the death of culture and kingdom for Isaiah; the death of Saul’s understanding of law and custom, as he is renewed as Paul the apostle to the outsiders. For Peter, is is the death of occupation and, perhaps, a loss of self-identity (who he thought he was), leaving all that behind to follow Jesus unto a new way, a greater bounty, a life unbelievably large. For each of them, to take a journey tied up with toil and trouble and grace and growth and life and death and resurrection. Those fiery moments that break you down and, by God’s grace bring you through to be part of a new creation. It is not easy.

Last night I shared a meal with Deb and Paul da Silva, and Daniel too, and over tea and dessert at their table we talked about Black Saturday and what followed, and they told me about the prayer and thanksgiving service here at Christ Church: how in the midst of pain and tragedy and trauma, a celebration of courage and compassion, the community came here to remember.

We come here, we bring others here, people come here, when the air gets close and life is difficult, and there is threat of fire or famine or flood and the radio is noisy and we need it most, we come here with our possibilities, and potentials and problems to be with Christ, to remember Christ.
and in the midst of that, even more improbably, we come here in the midst of it all, with something larger than life in our heart, we come here to celebrate, to make Eucharist! And that is right!

For in the journeys of Isaiah and Paul and Peter, of so many witnesses, saints and martyrs, and most fully in the life of Christ; we come to see that God has sewn his thread deep into the fabric of humankind, tight into the texture of everyday life, into the midst of all new beginnings and dead ends, miraculous births and tragic deaths, into earth, air, fire and water, drawing it all together until history is fully saturated with the grace that abides in eternity. It is not easy and we need to pray, in the words I recall so frequently,"that God will keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, lest we grow hard."

But in the end we join in the Eucharistic banquet because we are the Eucharistic banquet. The feast of grace and love that we recollect today is built by God’s grace in the broken flesh and spilled blood of our own tragic tales and tough times, our incomplete lives and unfinished journeys. All washed clean here in the font of Christ’s love. It is always here and always now to give us hope and help us on the way. For God is hidden, waiting to be discovered, in both the pain and the glory, in the good times and bad, failure and fullness; waiting to be discovered here in this painful and glorious opportunity for compassion, grace and redemption in the middle of it all.