Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sermon: Pentecost 5, 2013: The Land of The Lost

What do Blue Jay's Short Stop Munenori Kawasaki and Jesus have in common? In this sermon we learn what it means to travel to the land of the lost. The texts included 1 Kings 19.1-15a (Elijah fleeing from Queen Jezebel), Galatians 3.23-29 (in Christ there is no male and female), and Luke 8.26-39 (Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac). Besides Munenori Kawasaki, I also discussed this article in the New Yorker about Ittetsu Nemoto by Larissa MacFarquhar. The connections between Elijah's wilderness despair, that of the man possessed by "Legion" demons in Luke's Gospel, and the epidemic of suicide in Japan is worth exploring at some depth.

It's worth noting for you preachers out there that my strangely humorous turn to Kawasaki might have been slightly jarring, but I thought it was important to lighten the mood a bit and introduce the theme of joy, which in an inherent feature of Agape Love. Hard to find that joy in any of the scripture lessons appointed for the day, but it does often appear in other healing stories. I think that it's okay to take the congregation into some dark places sometimes, but you have to take them back home again--you can't leave them there. And all this talk of suicide could be a bit harsh. Sermons should generally be emotionally dynamic, and so going from the bitterness of those desert-depression images to the glory of Kawasaki's home run seemed like a good way to accomplish that, homiletically. It's not a perfect sermon, but it's pretty good for me.

Also influencing this sermon was the hymn "Just as the Deer Longs for the Water Brooks" set to Finlandia (which we sang as the Psalm). That's one of my favourite tunes of all time, and the melancholy mode fit the sermon topic perfectly. On a similar vein, Amy Grant's "Everywhere" was playing as I worked on this sermon last night. I find that listening to music while I'm doing sermon prep is really helpful to get into the desired emotional state, which, in turn, helps me to get the congregation to that same feeling place.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Networked Diocese Roadmap

I prepared this material back in December (2012) as a discussion piece for a committee that was brainstorming around the Our Faith Our Hope Campaign's "Communicating in a Wireless World" mandate. It in no way represents anyone's thinking except my own, and in no way represents the direction our diocese is heading. It's simply what I presented to the committee. I have shared it before on Facebook, and simply never got around to posting it here. There is nothing confidential about it, so I just want to make that clear!

This is a "Prezi"--so you can navigate it by going back and forward in a linear way, at at any time you can manipulate it with your mouse if you want to zoom in or out or take a look at a particular point. Some of this won't make a lot of sense without the audio track of me discussing and talking, but I think those of you who are interested in church and social media will get the point. If the text seems kind of small, that's because this was designed to be projected on a big screen (and it was). I suggest clicking on the little rectangular icon on the lower right to go into full-screen mode. Hit "Escape" to exit out of it again.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Day in the Life....

I know some of the people who read this blog are interested in the occasional "Day in the Life" kinds of posts from parish priests, so keep reading if that appeals to you, but skip it if don't care, I won't mind! This what my day was like....

Henry (3.5yo) came upstairs and Betsy pulled him into the bed between us. We all went back to sleep for a little longer. Betsy got up and went downstairs to work around 6.30. Henry and I kept sleeping.

I woke up and took a shower. By the time I finished he was awake and asking to go downstairs. I took him off the bed (he doesn't like to slide off on his own) and he trotted down to Betsy's office in the basement.

Henry was already mesmerized by Lego: Star Wars. Betsy was making him breakfast. I made myself a quick shake of milk, frozen mango, frozen strawberries, and honey. Not bad, but next time I'll put in a tad less honey.

Biked to church (about 10 minutes away) and set up for the 8.30 Contemplative Eucharist. Put the chairs and some cushions in a circle.

The Contemplative Eucharist begins. Seven people--which is a little higher than normal thanks to a guest. I felt that my Eucharistic Prayers, which I ad lib for this liturgy, were particularly poetic this time. I chalk it up to a good night's sleep the day before.

Discussed the "Messiah Media" project with a co-conspirator. He and hash through several new scenarios for what shape the project might take. New plans are made. Ambitious, very cool plans that aren't ready to see the light of day just yet...

A guest is ready to talk to me--I make coffee for us and then spend five minutes with the Parish Administrative Assistant before sitting down with him. We talk about the "Messiah Commons" project and some other things I'm working on at some length. He's a semi-retired minister with a lot of experience in church planting, missions, etc. I look to him as something of a mentor and am incredibly thankful to be able to bend his ear for an hour about some of the plans I have for Messiah. He gives some suggestions and ideas. At the end of our time he says a lovely prayer over me. We both walk away feeling inspired to redouble our efforts.

The Administrative Assistant and I tackle and work through some problems around things like office supplies, throwing away files we no longer need to make space, and ordering light bulbs (all of which are far more complicated than you can imagine if you have never worked for either the government, church, or an educational institution). We are both pleased to be able to clean out space in the storage room.

My next meeting starts--this time with a possible co-conspirator in the whole New Media Evangelism/Messiah Media projects. we get to know where we are each coming from. He suggests ways in which he can be involved. We problem solve some issues the Diocese would like addressed (such as bettering communications between parishes and helping parishes adopt new communications methods). I appreciate that he has taken a two-hour lunch break from work to drive to meet with me.

I bike down to a pub on Church Street near Bloor to meet with my two-facilitators for the Fresh Start programme. Fresh Start is a two-year training project for clergy in transition into a new parish. They attend a monthly session which has a didactic component (a presentation, basically, about the subject like dealing with conflict in a congregation, negotiating role clarity, understanding parish finances, etc.) and a case-study component (where the group listens to a real-live issue happening to someone in the group and then discuss it. This is a year-end debrief. The three of us agree that Fresh Start is running really well right now and we love our group. We eventually move on to talk about Diocesan Politics, Toronto Politics, vacation plans, and so forth. A good working lunch.

I rush back (on the bike) to Messiah and do a one-hour counseling session with a parishioner. It goes well (obviously I can't say much more than that).

I rush home, get my sail bag assembled, kiss the wife, and then dash out of the door to my bike. I rode down to the waterfront and hopped onto a Tender (Ferry) to the QCYC Sailing Club for the weekly race. This evening it was just two of us. When I race with Stephen we have pretty much the same level of boating competence, so we "co-skipper." But Charles, who was the only member of the team available, is still learning so I ended up being the honest-to-God-and-only Skipper for my first race. It was really great. We even managed to beat a few boats (only one in our division... but I'll take it!). Even better was the fact that by the end of the race I had dialed in and was catching up to the rest of the fleet. During one particular leg I just focused very carefully on proper sail trim and helmsmanship and found that we were beating the two closest boats, which proves that this boat can be a winner if we sail her well. I can't wait to try again!

After "putting the boat to bed" I hopped on the next Tender back to the city-side and biked back up the hill to home. It's a 30 minute bike ride up a gentle incline. It's nice to notice that my "summer legs" are getting back into shape. Bike riding in the summer in Toronto is really one of the best ways to get around the city.

For supper I had some leftover duck and some grilled veggies that Betsy had made for Henry. Betsy and I had a brief chat, watched the end of an episode of Veep, and then headed off to bed. I came downstairs to my corner and wrote this!

A good, full day. I feel like I made yet more incremental progress in the grande project of turning around The Church of The Messiah. Both "Messiah Commons" and "Messiah Media" are really important to the future of the parish (particularly the former), and it's good to be able to sit with people more experienced than I talk through my plans and hear their feedback. The other meetings were important and good in their own ways, as well. But ending the day on the lake is always magical and deeply satisfying! Now it's off to bed!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sermon: Pentecost 3

The stories of Elijah and Jesus resurrecting the dead sons of widows (1 Kings 17.8-16 and Luke 7.11-17) invite a troubling reflection: how do we respond to death, particularly the death of children? What do we say about it, as people of faith? I suggest that encountering the deeply troubling and bitter reality of death is necessary in order to embrace the fullness offered by resurrection and life everlasting.

At the beginning of this sermon I read this poem by Billy Collins:
The Dead

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Here is an animated version of the same poem, read by the author:

Toward the middle of the poem I quote this chunk from the essay "As a Door Nail" in Episcopal Cafe by Donald Schell:
It’s not some irreducible, barely glimpsed idealized essence of my dad that escaped and flew free from the fires of the crematorium. He’s gone, what remains is ash, is dead as a doornail. And the whole of him, the hands I marveled at as a kid when he played Rachmaninoff’s B minor prelude, the face that looked so much like mine and which, in the pictures I’ve got still teaches me to smile, the courageous heart that managed to squeeze almost eighty-seven years of living from a terrifying beginning as a preemie in 1921 and scarlet fever a few years later, the whole of that good man was, is, and will be held in God’s love. I don’t know what it means or looks like but I trust it - God’s initiative, God’s creative embrace that won’t let one vibration of one atom that was him out of the old/new whole of God’s making.

The Gospel writers are so determined that it’s God’s initiative that their preferred language for Jesus’ resurrection is that the Father “raised him up.”

The darkness, the abandonment, the devastation and decay and knowledge that we’re all just in remission and each of us alone faces a ‘moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark’ must sink in, take hold, and be bitterly true. We’re none of us going to make out of this alive. None of us and nothing in us is any match for death. Nothing except the love of God. (source)

Talking about these passages on Saturday at the healing prayer service it was pretty clear to me that the grief evident in both passages is absolutely essential to understanding what God is up to. Attempts to ameliorate that pain by going immediately to the resurrection place--saying something like "he's in a better place"--shortcuts the process in an unhealthy way. Embracing the pain of death is the path toward Kingdom Wisdom. Jesus did it, and so should we. I know it sucks, but there it is.

This is not a sermon I particularly wanted to preach. I don't like thinking about my own death, much less the death of my little Henry. Nor do I wish to remember the deaths of children I saw when I worked in a hospital as a chaplain... but part of the discipline of preaching is accepting the responsibility of preaching the sermon the Holy Spirit gives you, not the one you want.

If you want preaching that is transformational (for the congregation and also yourself) you have to have the courage to go into some dark places in your own imagination. It's tough work. And I've preached many gut-wrenching sermons in the shower that never made it to the congregation. That's healthy, and part of the preaching life. But sometimes that gut wrenching material needs to find its way to the surface and today was such a day.

I'll just mention that the subjective experience of preaching a sermon this "heavy" was remarkable. People were riveted. They listened intensely, and the quality of the reflections and questions offered after the sermon in the "forum" time were top-notch and often quite personal. But after a while the congregation self-regulated all that hard material with some laughter and amusing stories. I've become experienced enough with my congregation that I am very confident that can process stuff like this and find a resolution and balance at the end.

Preaching about the death of children truly sucks--but you gotta go where the Word takes you. In the end I felt really good about this sermon, and it was a beautiful bookend to have the kids choir perform at the end of the service.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sermon: Pentecost 2 2013

Here is my sermon from last Sunday, Pentecost 2, 2013. Bishop Yu was making his annual visitation, so I was thinking about how the Gospel for the day (Jesus healing the Centurion's Slave, Luke 7.1-10) could teach us about the Bishop-Parish relationship. Also on my mind were the brilliantly theatrical Elijah vs. 450 Prophets of Baal passage (1 Kings 18.20-39) and Paul's defensive-sounding opening in his Letter to the Galatians (Galatians 1.1-12).

By the way, Our awesome "Leader of the Readers" had assigned herself to the Elijah reading and decided to dramatize it. She didn't even feel the need to ask me, which is why she is so awesome.

After my sermon, during the response time, there were some really good reflections from people, but I don't feel it's appropriate for me to share those online at this point. Maybe some day. But this week they noted that basically sometimes we are the outsiders, and sometimes we are the insiders, and understanding which position we occupy in which context is important.

A visiting seminary professor paid me the great compliment of saying that our Liturgy of the Word (the first half of the service leading up to the Offertory) was more "robust" than a typical Anglican Church. He was particularly impressed with the quality of the readings, psalmody, and my responsive sermon. Certainly a richer engagement with the scriptural Word has been a priority of mine for the past two years or so.

So it was a very successful visit with the Bishop, and I think it reflected many of the best qualities of Messiah.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

We Think About Charity The Wrong Way

This is a fantastic TED talk about the problems of our attitudes toward non-profits. I've known most of this for a long time, but it's pretty powerful to see the whole argument laid out. This is a huge problem for the church.