Sunday, October 10, 2010

Episcopalians Must Tell Our Stories

Here is an approximation of the homily that I gave this morning at St. James Langhorne Episcopal Church.

Proper 23 Year C
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

...your faith has made you well. Luke 17:19b

So who are the Samaritans, and why should we care? And what does it mean that faith makes us well?

Samaria was the capital city of the ancient Israelites in the Northern Province. After the first exile, Samaria lost its central status. Samaria became a trade route. Multiple cultures traveled through, and these cultures influenced the theology and practice of the Jewish Samaritans. Over time, their faith evolved into something not quite Gentile but not quite Jewish, either. (Source: Oxford NRSV Study Bible, 2001 ed.)

Of course, one person's evolution is another person's apostasy. Jews, evidently, generally looked down upon the Samaritans. Mark's Gospel takes a dismissive attitude of the Sam-tans. In the Gospel according to John, the Samaritans who encounter Jesus just don't get him. (But then again, hardly anybody "gets it" in John.)

Luke, however, has a perspective unique in the canonical gospels. Several times, Luke uses the Samaritans as examples of true faith. The most famous instance happens in Chapter 10 in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man is injured by the roadside. One after another, the passers by ignore him. When the Samaritan sees him, he goes above & beyond to help. In contrast to the do-nothing pious members of the church, the Samaritan is the compassionate hero of the Parable.

In Luke 17:11-19, the Samaritan also plays a featured role. Note, by the way, that the story takes place in an undefined location, somewhere between Galilee and Judea. You might say that it occurs in a "middle" zone. Bearing that in mind, here's the story in brief: ten lepers approach Jesus asking for help. In scripture, "Lepers" is a broad term that includes anyone with a serious skin condition. Because of the Jewish preoccupation with cleanliness, lepers were frequently banished from the community and cannot return until so authorized by a rabbi. (Oxford)

Jesus instructions them to go to a rabbi, and they obey. Their encounter with the rabbi happens outside the text, but the result is that they are proclaimed clean. The presumption is that, now that they are healed, they can reenter the community. (Oxford) Among the ten, only the Samaritan returns to thank and praise Jesus. Jesus tells him to go about his business, closing with the enigmatic statement, "Your faith has made you well."

Returning to the original questions...for those of us who consider ourselves Episcopalians, I think that we are like the Samaritans. We, too, are Middle People - not Roman Catholic, not Protestant, not Evangelical - something in-between. We've heard criticism from both sides: our RC friends like to refer to themselves as the one true church and call us, ahem, Catholic Light. Incidentally, I've decided to embrace this label: I aspire to a faith that doesn't take itself too seriously, walks in the light, and is light enough to rise all the way to heaven. On the other side, our evangelical sisters & brothers ask, over and over, are you saved? I don't have a good comeback to this one; I just have to be content standing between the theological crossfire, not unlike those Samaritans.

What does it mean for Samaritans/Episcopalians that faith makes us well? There's the obvious cause-effect interpretation: asking for mercy + obeying Christ + thanking/praising Christ = healing. We Christians can't go wrong with such a formula. I suggest another implication - it's about the importance of community. Remember, as mentioned earlier, becoming "clean" ends the quarantine and reinstates a person into the Jewish/Jesus community.

In modern times, the community of the faithful assemble in a church. That church community can be local, regional, national, and/or international. For the moment, I want to focus on the parish level.

During the past few months, I've visited churches around the Diocese. Sadly, quite a few of them are struggling financially and attendance wise. There are many reasons for that, but I deeply believe that we can reverse that trend. Here's where we can learn from our evangelical friends: we need to make a more concerted effort to market ourselves. We have to tell our story. We have to be a little less gentile Anglican and a bit more evangelistic, proclaiming not just the Good News of Christ but the good news of belonging to a church family.

When I first began coming to St. James in 1999, I didn't know anyone. It took me years to develop the habit of attending weekly services, build friendships, and develop a comfort zone. It didn't come easily, because there was virtually no one of my age cohort present. Many times, I felt like an island representing an entire generation! By the grace of God and the kind people of St. James, I stuck it out.

One family that befriended me Dan Ahern & Kathy Coon, as well as their children Emily and Zachary. In 1999, they lost their home to Hurricane Floyd. They went through hell, but they persevered. Fast forward a few years to Easter 2006, I think. One of their parents - I don't remember who - had been on the prayer list for some time, battling an illness. That parent lost the battle and died about a week before Easter.

At the St. James Easter Vigil service, I sat a few rows behind Dan and Kathy. The first half of the service is solemn, taking place by candlelight. Then, there's a transition point when the somber mood of Lent/Holy Week ends, and we celebrate the resurrection. In that triumphant moment, I caught a glimpse of Dan and Kathy turning to look at each other. They smiled. It was only a flash, but I would swear that they exchanged sorrow, relief, joy, and a profound intimacy that only comes from years of sharing. Most of all, I saw new life. The suffering and defeat lifted; something new was born.

For me, their faces gave new meaning to the Resurrection. And it wouldn't have happened without spending time in that church, getting to know Kathy & Dan, learning their story, and worshipping with them at the Vigil. Had I not known them and known their story, I would have missed that flash of the Holy Spirit.

Christians have a duty to do compassionate works, especially to the stranger in need, as the Good Samaritan did. We must also proclaim the Good News, bearing witness to Jesus through word and example. In the modern world, attending Anglican/Episcopal worship services doesn't sell itself like it once did. The believers must be a little more outspoken about what liturgy means to us.

We should never let resurrection get old!

We have to get better at inviting others to participate in a faith community. We must find creative and compelling reasons to get folks out of bed on Sunday mornings. In short, we must tell our faith story. Such storytelling is not simply recalling the past life of Jesus; it is also a way to keep Jesus alive in the here in now. It is therefore an act of faith...the faith that will make us well.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Donovan Returns, and Why We Care So Much

Last week, the Philadelphia Phillies clinched the Division Title and home field throughout the postseason...hooray! The excitement brews in South Philadelphia with people wearing Phillies hats & jerseys everywhere you look - lately I've seen more Shane Victorino jerseys in S. Philly than Italian flags. And yet, listening to the sports talk radio and television shows, all you see and hear is that the Eagles host the Washington Redskins and our former QB Donovan McNabb. The amount of attention that the Return of Donovan story gets borders on obsession.

Why do we care? Why should I care? The answers have to do with the ancient human practice of telling stories. Camp fire tales are probably as old as human civilization itself. They are fun and dramatic ways in which communities recount great feats: slaying of beasts (think Beowulf), making long journeys over treacherous ground (such as the Exodus), just to name two. The stories embody and perpetuate what is important to that group. In the modern world of hard-core sports fans, the local team IS the camp fire story of that community.

I'm a fan of pro baseball and football. I love to see the strategies that coaches use and then see how they play out on the field. It's also fun to follow a team over the years and observe how it builds the franchise. By following a team season after season, you get to know the players & coaches, see them perform on the big stage, and develop an affinity for them. When the TV showed the locker-room celebration, I not only felt happy for them but felt like I was part of it. Of course, this feeling of the team as an extended family, this faux intimacy, is part of the illusion that the sports and entertainment industry cultivates intentionally.

As much as I enjoy sports, I have to admit that I spend more time following this stuff than I should. Overall, our entertainment-dominated media puts way too much emphasis on these games, especially in the Philly market. What is the big deal?

The answer, in part, involves identity. There is a natural human instinct for people to congregate and form groups. Sports is another reason for people to do what our sociological instincts want us to do: form communities with a distinctive identity. In this town, Eagle green and silver color our jerseys. We have our Eagles chant, our multi-million dollar stadium ("the Linc"), and long-standing rivalries with the Cowboys, Giants, and Redskins.

Sometimes, however, cogs get thrown into our elaborate group identities. Enter Donovan McNabb, second pick of the 1999 NFL draft. The man had a great career as an Eagle, a far better career than any other quarterback drafted that year AND better than the vox populi choice, Ricky Williams. The Eagles had multiple winning seasons with McNabb behind center, consistently reached the postseason, won a half-dozen playoff games, and reached one Super Bowl. But - and this is a big "but" - they never got there and won it all.

Donovan has his flaws. He can be frustratingly inaccurate, throwing balls at receivers' feet or into the deflecting hands of defensive lineman. McNabb has always been a streaky player, and when he's in a bad streak, his throws are painfully off target. He is not and has never been an ideal fit to run a West Coast, quick-release offense, a style that his Eagle coaches prefer. Besides the on-field deficiencies, his off-the-field interviews leave some people cold. He veers away from the tough-guy, buck-stops-here, win-at-all-costs cliches. Instead he'll make cryptic and somewhat aloof statements that, when dissected by the media, can be described as passive aggressive and unbecoming of a leader. And once again, perhaps the biggest indictment against him is that he has yet to win a Supe. These are legitimate criticisms.

However, these concerns are not the full story. Never getting into trouble with the law or with the team, McNabb was a model citizen in Philly. He didn't take himself too seriously and was known to joke around on the sidelines, even in the huddles during the game, keeping he and his teammates loose. Some people interpreted that as immaturity, but that explanation doesn't jibe with his body of accomplishments. The guy often played hurt, most famously one year in Arizona he played an entire second half with a broken bone. His work ethic and training regimen was widely recognized as exceptional. Can anybody seriously question his toughness or his commitment to performing at a high level?

I respect McNabb and rooted for him as an Eagle. At the same time, I'm glad the organization decided to trade him. It was best for everybody that he get a fresh start elsewhere.

All week long, McNabb's return to town has been the big sports story, even overshadowing our clinching baseball team.

So why is this so damn important to so many people?

McNabb has always been a controversial figure in this town. His erratic performance on the field and distant personality off the field are contributing factors. But I believe that the biggest reason people don't like him is that he did not suck up to the fans. He would not tell us, game after game, how we are the greatest fans in the history of the Milky Way Galaxy. He did not crave the limelight. He didn't become "one of us," brandishing a football in one hand and a cheese steak in the other. Instead, he simply did his job with 100% focus and determination, otherwise keeping to himself.

Supposedly, he is sensitive to criticism. That may be true, but my reaction is whopdie-freakin-do. Earth to fan base: the Eagles drafted him to play quarterback. He's not the Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army. He's allowed to have normal human emotions and express them publicly from time to time. His $100 million salary doesn't mean that he's no longer human. The man played his heart out, but for whatever reason, the team never won a championship with him. Surely that's not all his fault. Surely it's not because the man didn't prepare hard enough. We cannot seriously believe that if he spent more time buying us drinks at Chickie & Pete's that we would have gone all the way.

While I do not deny his desire to win, I suspect that he does not derive his sense of self from the outcome of a game. McNabb is a professional. His relationship with Philadelphia was professional. I can understand why fans don't love him and prefer a different QB... although the Kolb/Vick saga is another story for another time...but that is no reason to hate McNabb, no reason to act uncivilly towards him, and no reason to talk/write about his legacy ad nauseam. And it's certainly no reason to join the "Boo Donovan" parade scheduled before Sunday's game.

I think that the unspoken sin of McNabb is that, holding the most visible position in Philadelphia sports, he did not affirm our illusion that sports matter. Furthermore, we harbor an unreasonable and unprovable belief that McNabb - personally - never delivered us the title we deserve. He never wrote the final chapter in our community narrative: we are champions.

I can't help but wonder: is there another way that we can feel like champions? Must our sense of self derive from the blocking and tackling, the ups and downs of an NFL season? More pointedly, must we have enemies to boo, villains in the form of division rivals and former players?

The desire to love, to be loved, and to feel important - these are totally appropriate and natural. The enjoyment of sports, I think, is a healthy excuse to build camaraderie, especially in a blue-collar town like Philly. We love the visceral action that football provides. We love the excitement and the drama; I think it's fair to say that we need the story. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to be part of something special.

You know where I'm going with this! ...As an aspiring minister, I have to wonder how else can we make meaning for ourselves. I wonder if a spiritual community can tap into these needs, and if so, how. Maybe the church can learn a lot about how to serve the people by listening to these sports dramas such as the McNabb controversy. If we (the church) listen and observe ourselves (the sports fans), apply our imaginations, and pray for the Holy Spirit, perhaps the church can grow its flock.

Perhaps we can find new ways to tell our story as disciples of Christ, and also make new stories as an energized community, living as Christ taught us.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land

Moses said, "I have been a stranger residing in a strange land."
Exodus 2:22b.

A stranger is just a friend I haven't met yet. -Will Rogers

Most of my life has been relatively safe and sheltered living in Bucks County, PA. The past three years, I spent most of my time as a student at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

School is over and reality has returned. I decided that it's time to get an extended taste of urban life and experience God's people in a major city. Accordingly, this month I've traded gentile suburbia for the atty-tood of South Philadelphia.

My new pad is a row house not far from Broad Street, the Boulevard-y north-south road that runs through the heart of the city. The neighborhood is 99% Caucasian, Italian, Roman Catholic, and working class. Kids play on the sidewalk under the supervision of chatty moms and grandmas parked on their front steps. Some folks are friendly; others stick to their cliques and keep to themselves; still others give you the eye that says "you, you're a stranger."

They are correct: I am, indeed, an interloper. The only roots I have in this community are the friendships with my roommate and my roommate's dog. One never knows what the future will bring, but I don't expect to live here long term.

Their reaction reminds me of the stares that I get when I first enter a restaurant. You know the feeling? People look at me blankly for a moment and - I believe - their brains run through a series of questions: do I know this person? Do I find him attractive? Will he interfere with my dining experience, ie will he be loud and obnoxious? Is he dangerous, someone of whom I need to be wary?

Once these questions are answered a split-second later, the onlookers return their attention to their meals and conversations, and I (plus whomever accompanies me) blend into the ambiance.

There's nothing nefarious about this progression. It is a natural, momentary, and unconscious reaction. I do it, too. The point here is not that we should stop "checking out" whomever enters our field of vision. Ignoring folks is mildly rude at best and downright foolish at worst. Rather, the point is about awareness.

Being in a new environment makes me aware of my own reactions to "strangers." I would like to be more intentional about the expression on my face when I look upon someone for the first time. Am I making eye contact? Do I see people as strangers or possible friends? Am I at least hinting a smile or making some expression of welcome?

Am I watching out for the stranger in a strange land? Or for that matter, am I actively seeking to find Christ in all peoples?

I'm excited about the chance to live among strangers - and future friends - in South Philly. It's a long way from the bucolic hills of Central Bucks, but it's not far from God's people.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Late August brings out the spiders. Drive across a bridge between PA and NJ at night, and you'll see more webs between the beams than stars in the sky. This arachnid handiwork is both wondrous and creepy - beautiful from a distance, but you wouldn't want to get stuck there.

Reflecting on these magnificent creations...and cheesy Biblical tie-ins...the following passage comes to mind:

"And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell." Matthew 5:30

What is the "right hand" for you? What self-created "webs" entangle you? How do we free ourselves from getting stuck?

One part of my life that sometimes bogs me down is conflict. Conflict is not in my comfort zone; instead, my default mode is harmony. I generally want to get along with people and want them to like me. Taken to an extreme, such tendencies can make me a "people pleaser;" the other side of that coin is "nice guy." Whether we say tomato or too-mah-toe, the point is that conflict often catches me off guard, and arguments tend to stay with me for a while.

As a result, I replay arguments in my head long after the fact. Of course, I perform far better on the home turf of my imagination where I make one irrefutable point after another; in other words, I win!

Certainly, the competitive drive is an instinct that promotes achievement, growth, and success. My theological, political, and economic philosophies all rest upon the inherent human desire for freedom and opportunity.

And yet, I've got to remind myself that, as a Christian, my mission in life is not to win arguments. My directive is to follow Christ. Among other things, that means keeping my ego in check.

I believe that my web is a focus on WINNING the conflict rather than WITNESSING for Christ within conflict.

Cutting off the sin of pride - that's not easy, especially for a privileged straight white male like me. It's going to take lots of practice with active, calm, open listening. Would love to hear how other people keep their egos in check.

To repeat earlier questions: What webs catch you? How do you sever the arm that got you there? How do you keep your pride behind Jesus rather than in front of him?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Do it now!

After a month-long blog hiatus (Blogaitus?), I'm feeling very "now."

"Now" occurs in time and space, the dimensions of a universe created by God.

We live and die in now.

This "now" will never happen again...unless you have a time machine, which is a whole other post.

I have some work that I've been putting off, and putting off, and putting off some more. But when I am still, I hear a voice in my head, a voice that has been forged by the advice, wisdom, training, and support of many good people over many years. None of us grow in a vacuum - we are molded by our environment. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a loving family. In my schooling, from nursery to seminary, I've had excellent teachers across the board. They taught me to be responsible, make tough decisions, and trust the outcome. When I listen to this voice, I cannot escape one feeling, cannot deny the one powerful idea that rises to the top.


If you're reading this, maybe you have something in your life that you have delayed, something you need to face but would rather not. Something that, when you drift off to sleep, bubbles in your subconscious and sours your dreams. My consolation is to assure you that you are not alone. I'm a procrastinator in recovery, and other people struggle with "P" as well.

My prayer is that God loves us, period. We can live into that love by trusting our capacity to face what we need to face. God will love us before, during, and afterwards. Once it's over, we'll feel a whole lot better.

El futuro es ahora.
The future is now.

Let's do it now!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ordination of a Friend

Today, my good friend, the Rev. Stephanie Mitchell, was ordained to the Priesthood in the Diocese of Oklahoma in the Episcopal Church.

I had the honor of attending the ordination ceremony as well as her first presiding Sunday, both held at St. Luke's in Bartlesville, OK. As usual, Stephanie acquitted herself throughout the weekend with grace and good cheer. No doubt in my mind that Stephanie has the integrity, compassion, intelligence, poise, focus, and heartfelt spirituality to make an outstanding minister.

Her friendship is a profound blessing to me. God's speed, Rev. Mitchell!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Don't Believe in Rock Stars

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and rock stars... I don't believe in any of them.

Please understand that I'm using the term "rock stars" loosely. Granted, I am hardly a fan of popular music. My grandfather was a professional jazz drummer and my father's all-time favorite performer is Sinatra, so I guess it's in my blood to favor jazz & classical. However, I am not just talking about musicians; more broadly, I have an issue with personality cults.

Every human being who has ever lived has been just that - a human being. That means we are vulnerable. We have emotions. We are flesh and blood, and to dust we shall return. We use the potty, except perhaps for a stubborn four-year old nephew of mine. We are fallible and make mistakes. There are limits to what we know and what we can control.

We know this, and yet we as a society continue to demand a perfect front. We're so eager to find that perfection that we buy into those highly-polished images of performers, models, politicians, clergy, and anyone who frequents the media.

We need to remind ourselves that we've already had a messiah, one known by the initials JC.

Check out this excerpt from the insightful How to Love, the 2009 book by Gordon Livingtson, M.D. Here Livingston discusses narcissism:

Self-absorption linked to ambition describes the personality of many politicians. The higher the office, it seems, the more candidates are required to present themselves as paragons of wisdom and virtue. They become repositories of our best hopes that someone will emerge to take care of us, vanquish our enemies, and by their inspired leadership bring us together in a safe and happy world. To promise such a thing requires a self-confidence bordering on the delusional, which explains why the underlying narcissism of many of our political stars whom we reward with our votes and with whom we eventually become disillusioned when they fail to fulfill their exaggerated promises and our unrealistic hopes. (HTL, 11)

Having worked for a member of Congress for ten years (James Greenwood, PA-8), I have been on the periphery of important and powerful people. So I've seen a few behind-the-scene dynamics. I've learned that, contrary to the scandal and cynicism which pervades news coverage, many of our public servants are just that - public servants. Running for office requires lots of unglamorous hard work, as well as the courage to risk public rejection and failure. Some of our public officials truly have the integrity & conviction as advertised.

On the other hand, we are in no danger of a hypocrite shortage.

The point is that ALL of our public figures - entertainers, political leaders, reporters, and high-profile business people - are fallible human beings. They are not immortals whose mere presence should stir us into a frenzy. "Take up your cross and follow me" was an invitation to discipleship from a certain Rabbi. "Buy my CDs and follow me on tour" doesn't bear the same gravitas, nor does "Hit the campaign trail and I'll give you a government job."

Rock singers, U.S. Senators, Bishops; they have their message. The really good ones have really important messages that excite us. I'm all for inspiration. But let's not confuse the divinity of the message by deifying the messenger.

Let's save our passionate devotion for the real savior. For me, that savior is JC.

Julius Caesar? Jimmy Cagney? Jimminy Cricket? No, I'll go with Jesus the Christ.