Cuba – An Inspiring Church

I recently traveled to Cuba. Here are a few of my impressions:

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Easter Message

Homeless Jesus Sculpture

Homeless Jesus sculpture outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, NY.

The one place we won’t find Jesus is in the tomb. He needs us to meet him out in our world and see him in our brothers and sisters. I urge you all to seek Jesus in the faces of everyone you encounter. Jesus is reflected in all of us.

You can find him in the faces of those you love and hold dear.

HJ1You will also find him, as the new sculpture of Homeless Jesus outside St. Paul’s Cathedral reminds us, in the faces of the homeless and hungry, the lonely seniors, the exhausted young parents, the worried unemployed, the stressed-out teenager.

If you seek the risen Jesus, just look around you.

Our challenge as Christians is to seek and respond to this Jesus, the Jesus we can find in the faces of everyone we encounter if we just look for Him. That is what Easter is all about in the here and now.

I will be celebrating Easter at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral this weekend at two services:

  • Saturday, April 4 – The Great Vigil & First Mass of Easter at 7 pm
  • Sunday, April 5 – Easter Day at 11:15 am

St Paul’s Cathedral is located at the corner of Church and Pearl Streets in Buffalo. All are welcome.

HJ5 HJ3

 

 

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Finding the Unexpected Jesus in Hard Times

This is the sermon to our clergy at the Renewal of Vows Service on Holy Tuesday, March 31, 2015


JesusSir, we wish to see Jesus.

I know we’ve all preached the sermon — I certainly have — or we’ve all said to our parishioners: You have to come to services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. You won’t understand the joy of Easter unless you’ve been through the pain and loss and darkness of the crucifixion.

As clergy, we know this. I know you are all making this week as meaningful as possible for your congregations and yourselves. It is a truism of life, particularly of the Christian life, that we have to endure the dark times to come into the light. The times of struggle are the times when we learn. We are tested and tempered by life’s difficulties and we emerge stronger.

Speaking to the public outside St. Paul's Cathedral in Buffalo on a recent dreary day.

Speaking to the public outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo on a recent dreary day.

I had that thought in mind the other day when I read in the newspaper that Buffalo was tied with Seattle for first place on the “dreariness index,” which measures gray, wet weather.

If struggle begets success, then after this bitter winter, we ought to be in line for an absolutely glorious summer and a beautiful autumn. We’ve paid the price.

The idea of passing through a dark time to get to the light has been on my mind lately because I’ve sensed a feeling of dreariness and weariness among us. This was reinforced last week at the meeting of the House of Bishops, when so many of the formal presentations and the informal conversations had to do with what’s wrong in the church these days.

Many of the conversations, both at the House of Bishops and here at home, center on the idea that we’re all being asked to live a life for which we were never prepared. My fellow bishops tell me the episcopate is nothing like what they expected it to be. It’s a completely different job. From priests I hear over and over again: Nothing we studied in seminary prepared us for what the church looks like now.

If seminaries really want to teach students what they’ll need to know in parish ministry, they’ll offer courses in Plumbing and Electrical 101. They’ll offer courses in finance so we can negotiate the complicated financial deals that are necessary to make a parish self-sustaining these days. Or they’ll offer courses in entrepreneurship and how to be an NGO so we can effectively use our buildings and our capabilities in partnership with our communities to provide the services our neighbors need.

It’s no wonder we feel the world is slipping out from under our feet. The expectations many of us had when we went to seminary no longer apply:

  • That we’d always have full-time jobs
  • That we’d be on a steady upward trajectory to larger parishes
  • That the world would listen to what the Church had to say.

None of those statements is true today.

Look at the disciples in our Gospel reading today. Some Greeks come and tell Philip: Sir, we wish to see Jesus. What does Jesus do? Instead of taking time to meet with them, he launches into a teaching about what is going to happen when he is gone. The disciples don’t know what to make of this riff about seeds of wheat falling into the earth and dying.

The disciples and the Greeks aren’t seeing the Jesus they expected.

We have all heard sermons — we’ve all probably PREACHED sermons — about the disciples not understanding what Jesus was talking about. Because we know the end of the story, it is easy for us to say that the disciples should have understood what Jesus was saying. (Of course, WE would have!) However, we should put ourselves in their sandals for a minute.

When Jesus called the disciples to follow him, they might have thought they were following a prophet or a wandering teacher. They may even have suspected he was the Messiah.

But they really had no idea what they were being called to DO. They didn’t know what it was going to mean to follow Jesus.

  • They were asked to converse with Samaritans, which was scandalous.
  • They were asked to go out two by two to talk about God — which was uncomfortable and challenging.
  • They were asked to deal with large crowds and small children, for which they had no training.

 

By the time Jesus is telling them that the Son of Man must be lifted up and tells them to walk in the light until the darkness comes, is it any wonder they aren’t sure what he means?

They saw Jesus arrested and brought to trial, and few of them could find the courage to stand witness at the crucifixion. They could not have imagined that — despite their fragile faith and their fear — they would receive the Holy Spirit and preach the Gospel to the ends of the world. None of this is what they expected to see.

When we answered the call to ordained ministry, we also had no idea what we were signing up for.

We have to do things that we never thought we would have to do, and learn new things all the time. We are constantly being called out of our comfort zone.

Like the first disciples, we are increasingly being called to proclaim Christ to a world that doesn’t know him and in which there is plenty of competition. Like them, we will have to be strong and courageous and make it up as we go along. Like them, we aren’t sure what Jesus is going to require of us next. All we can do is trust that he knows.

We are getting ready to stand at the foot of the cross, but — unlike the disciples — we know the end of the story, and we know it doesn’t end at the cross. From here we go to the empty tomb and to Pentecost, and from there to all the corners of the world.

Like the first disciples, we are being sent away from what we know and out from what makes us comfortable. Like them, we will have to share Jesus with people who have no idea what we are talking about, some of whom are actively hostile to our message.

A lot of what we do is the boring tedium of parish ministry: renegotiating the copier contract … hoping the sexton remembers to refill the paper-towel dispensers … proofing the bulletins … praying that the lectors have been adequately prepared to read the lessons on Sunday. We spend our days managing details. That’s not what we expected to be doing. But as I think of it, Jesus’s disciples spent a lot of time doing unglamorous, mundane tasks too: reserving the room for the Last Supper and hiring a caterer. Making sure there was a boat on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus wanted to cross to the other side. Lining up that donkey for Palm Sunday.

What we do — and what they did — in these routine tasks is this: We are preparing the way of the Lord. We are setting the stage so Jesus can do what he came to do. We are making it possible for others to see Jesus. That is holy work.

On Pentecost we will read from Acts about how the disciples were gifted with the ability to speak in many languages, the better to spread the Good News. Like them, we will have to learn new languages. For some it might be the ability to communicate in English with someone whose life and challenges and burdens are foreign to anything we know.

Like the disciples, we will have to learn to worship in new ways and translate our teaching and our practices to different cultures. Like them, we will have to step outside the doors of our familiar worship places and find new sacred spaces: at Starbucks, in a college lounge, in a bar, at a retirement community, in a coin laundry, in a park.

As challenging as that is, we know that is where Christ has sent us and that the Holy Spirit goes with us.

Jesus’s entire ministry was about stepping into places where he wasn’t welcome, saying things that surprised or angered people, turning their expectations upside down, and inviting them into a place where many of them were not sure they wanted to go. That’s our ministry too. We won’t find Jesus in the tomb, or in the comfortable, familiar places. We will find him in the most unlikely places, and that’s why we have to go there. And the Jesus we see there may not be the Jesus we expect, but it likely will be the Jesus we need.

At the House of Bishops meeting I was speaking with my friend Marc Andrus, the bishop of the Diocese of California. He directed me to a line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He acknowledged the difficulties of the journey, but said that it is faith in our ability to change that gives us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.

He said:

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

That creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born is exactly the conflict we are engaged in today.

Do Not Be Afraid Event Photo

The 4th of five Do Not Be Afraid conversations — this one held at St. James Church in Batavia, NY.

One of the gratifying aspects of the House of Bishops meeting was discovering that we are ahead of the curve on many of the issues that perplex my brother and sister bishops.

  • Our conversations on race — the “Be Not Afraid” sessions — address one of the hardest topics of our time.
  • Our cooperation with the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania is a model that many other dioceses are watching.
Photo of GC Deputations

Gathering with the bishop and deputation of the Diocese of Northwestern PA is just one of the ways in which our two diocese are forging a working partnership.

  • Our conversations about restructuring — are of interest to dioceses that realize the old way no longer makes sense.

These are all works in progress. We don’t know how they are going to turn out. The important thing is that we are doing something, not just talking about it. Sometimes this feels like repairing the plane while we’re flying it, and that’s something else for which we were never prepared.

Creative TurmoilWe are involved in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born. This is the work for which we were called to ordained ministry.

The Greeks who approached Philip wanted to see Jesus. We became priests and deacons and engage in lay minisry because we want to see Jesus. Now we are discovering that the way to see Jesus may be different from the way we anticipated, and the Jesus we see may be different from the Jesus we expect. The important thing is that we look … and that it’s still Jesus.

In a few minutes we will renew our ordination vows and consecrate the chrism. These oils are used to heal and to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit. Even in our dark times the Spirit is with us, providing grace moments on our dreary days and inspiration on our weary days.

At the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA, it is the custom on Wednesday of Holy Week — the most austere week in Christianity — to serve rich, flaky, hot biscuits that have been dipped in melted butter. The reason: to remind us that Jesus is coming. To remind us, as we go through the darkest days in our Christian calendar, that what awaits us at the end is resurrection, not burial; love, not hate; life, not death. A genuine civilization struggling to be born. And it is to this exciting, terrifying task that we are called. This is what gives me hope: What we are giving birth to is a place where we all, more clearly, may see Jesus.

Amen.

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Sermon for the Celebration of Two Firsts

I delivered this sermon at the Celebration of Two Firsts Honoring both Absalom Jones and James Theodore Holly, which was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Two Firsts Photo

With friends at the Celebration of Two Firsts. St. Paul’s Cathedral, February 14, 2015

It is good to be with you on Valentine’s Day, a day that is dedicated to a celebration of love. I assume that everyone here has taken care of chocolates and flowers and dinner reservations.

There are lots of stories about St. Valentine, most of them based on fairly sketchy information, but one that appeals to me is that Valentine was arrested in the year 269 for successfully converting people to Christ and was martyred — beheaded! — after he tried to convert the Roman Emperor Claudius to Christianity.

Valentine, therefore, is one more example of someone committed to Christ, used by God as an instrument of faith. Today we pay tribute to two of those people, whose words and accomplishments remain models to us as we struggle to live in a conflicted multi-racial society.

In that society this last year there have been both high points and low points.

One of the high points is the movie Selma, which revisits that key moment in our history, reminding those who were there of the pain and pride of that event, the 1965 voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. … and tells the story anew to our younger people who need to hear the history, to know where they came from, to know how hard-fought the battles were.

And the low points have come in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the resulting anger at justice delayed and justice denied, the belief that black lives do not matter, that the inability of people of color to breathe the air of freedom and justice is not a concern to much of white America.

Map of MississippiYou know that this is a matter close to my heart because of the way I was brought up. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Mississippi, in a deeply segregated society, where I could not go to school with or be friends with or worship with people of color. It was at my grandmother’s dining table, where she invited guests both black and white, that I first began to understand how wrong that was, how much poorer I was for having been denied the richness of knowing and working with people of color, and of how that made no sense in what was supposed to be the Kingdom of God.

Since God works in mysterious ways, it may not be surprising that the two figures we celebrate today — Absalom Jones and James T. Holly — have ties to two cities that are important to me. I want to believe that God brought me out of Mississippi and ultimately to Philadelphia and Buffalo, and that there is some symmetry at work there.

Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones

We know the story of Absalom Jones — born a house slave, sold to a store owner in Philadelphia, where he learned to read partly by studying the New Testament. He bought his freedom, and he began to attend St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where his evangelism efforts greatly increased the number of black members.

That was too much for the white members of the congregation, who wanted to segregate the black members in an upstairs gallery without notice. When ushers tried to remove the black congregants, they walked out.

Subsequently Jones and others built a church that was admitted to membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and Absalom Jones became the first black deacon in 1795 and the first black priest in 1802.

His church — St. Thomas, in Philadelphia — grew to more than 500 members in the first year. Don’t we all wish we had Father Absalom’s gift for evangelism! I’d like to know his secrets for bringing more people into the church!

He was “an example of persistent faith in God and in the Church as God’s instrument” [LFF, p.158].

William White

William White

I want to draw your attention to a great historical footnote here — please indulge me, as you know my first career was as a teacher of church history. The bishop who ordained Absalom Jones as deacon and priest was William White.

In the days just after the end of the War for Independence, the Church of England almost disappeared from the American colonies. Money that the English church had sent to support its churches in the colonies was immediately cut off. The churches here were no longer part of the structure and support offered by the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer was immediately unusable — it held up the King of England as the head of the church, which was unacceptable for colonies that had just thrown off British rule. The churches were isolated, disconnected, no one was in charge.

But it was William White who stepped forward in that hour to save what would become the Episcopal Church.

After a series of three “conventions” in the 1780s, the newly independent Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America created, by 1789, a constitution, canons, and an American Book of Common Prayer.

The primary architect of these foundational documents was William White of Philadelphia, the Chaplain of the Continental Congress and later first Bishop of Pennsylvania and Presiding Bishop. He is described as “brilliant, diplomatic, adroit and gentle … respected and loved by all in the young church.” [Cynthia McFarland] So much of what is great and right about the Episcopal Church can be laid at the feet of William White: our structure, our understanding of ecclesiastical authority, our polity.

And it was this far-seeing, brilliant priest and bishop who took what was then the bold step in 1802 of ordaining as deacon and priest that young African-American, Absalom Jones.

He did this in the context of a new nation where slavery was still legal … where the Constitution counted a slave as only 3/5 of a person. I can imagine there was as much dismay about the ordination of Absalom Jones as there was the first time we ordained women or gay people in our own time. Yet Bishop White recognized God’s call to Absalom Jones, knew that his prophetic voice must be recognized, understood the importance of diversity among the clergy, and identified him as the preacher and teacher who was born for such a time as that.

Again we are hearing a story of faith by someone who was acting as an instrument of God.

James Theodore Holly

James Theodore Holly

We turn now to James T. Holly, the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church. He spent most of his church career in Haiti, but he has ties to Western New York. We know that he lived in Buffalo in the 1850s and worked as a school principal. I’m grateful to the Rev. Bill Wipfler, who wrote his master’s thesis on Bishop Holly and has brought forth detailed information about him that will enrich our archives.

Augustus Frank, Jr.

Augustus Frank, Jr.

You know that Western New York was an important region for the Underground Railroad. Slaves seeking their freedom made their way here hoping to cross the river to Canada.

You may not know that the earliest abolitionist organization in the nation was founded just south of here, in the village of Warsaw, in 1833 — even before such anti-slavery strongholds as Boston did so. And the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing slavery, was passed by Congress thanks to the tireless efforts of Rep. Augustus Frank Jr., a native son of Warsaw.

Holly would go on to found the organization that is now the Union of Black Episcopalians. In 1861 he led a group of African-Americans settling in Haiti, the first black republic, where they hoped to live free of discrimination. There he paid a terrible price: His wife, his mother and two of his children died in the first year because of disease. He stayed, with his two surviving small sons, to “speak of God’s love to a people who needed to hear it” (HW/HM].

He was ordained bishop of Haiti in 1874 at Grace Church, New York City, not by the mainstream Episcopal Church, which refused to ordain a black missionary bishop, but by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church.

He became the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church, and later was also bishop of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic.

Arthur Cleveland Coxe

Arthur Cleveland Coxe

I am proud to say that one of my predecessors — Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe, the second bishop of Western New York — was a co-consecrator at his ordination.

Under very difficult conditions Bishop Holly confirmed hundreds of Episcopalians, raised up dozens of Haitian deacons and priests, trained physicians, and oversaw the creation of mission stations, churches, chapels and schools in Haiti. He doubled the size of his diocese. Twice in 15 years the main church in the capital, Port-au-Prince, burned, and twice he had it rebuilt.

Today, the Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church. [84,301 members in 2013, per episcopalchurch.org, “Baptized Members by Diocese”] The Diocese of the Dominican Republic is making major strides in a nation that is 78 percent Roman Catholic. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholicism_in_the_Dominican_Republic]

These accomplishments are in no small measure the results of the groundbreaking work by James T. Holly, another leader of steadfast faith who acted as God’s instrument.

And now we turn to today. In this season of heartache over the state of race relations in our country, what are we doing to heal and reform … how do we respond to the events of Ferguson and Staten Island, and the discrimination here in our own city, reported in the pages of the Buffalo News? How do we address the sin of racism and confront the fact of inequality in our city and our nation? What would Blessed Absalom and Blessed James say to us today?

On January 1, 1808 — the day that, by act of Congress, the importation of slaves was outlawed in the United States — Absalom Jones, well-known as a fiery orator, preached a sermon at St. Thomas, Philadelphia, in which he enumerated the ways that slave importers, owners and overseers had oppressed and tortured fellow human beings: stuffing them into airless holds of slave ships, where the prospect of jumping overboard to swim for home or to face death “in a watery grave” by drowning was a preferable alternative to “their impending misery”; “all the different modes of torture, by means of the whip, the screw, the pincers, and the red hot iron.”

“Inhuman wretches!” he exclaimed. “Though you have been deaf to their cries and shrieks, they have been heard in Heaven. The ears of Jehovah have been constantly open to them. … he has come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors.” Importation of slaves was banned in 1808, but slavery itself was still legal until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

How do we make ourselves instruments of God today in delivering those who suffer at the hands of their oppressors? How do we listen with the ears of Jehovah? We are taking a number of steps:

  • Recently I joined with Bishop Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo in a historic joint pastoral letter on the future of our region and the need to expand the voices at the table and insure that the new prosperity in Buffalo extends to everyone in Western New York.
  • On Wednesday, as a result of that joint letter, Bishop Malone and I met with Mayor Brown. He has asked us to work closely with him on issues of reconciliation and to publicly sign a “Buffalo Opportunity Pledge.” . He has asked me to be his guest when he delivers the State of the City Address next Friday, which I will gladly do to show that our diocese is a willing partner with the city in dealing with issues of inequality and racism, and we are eager to align our resources with the city’s to meet the needs of Buffalo’s citizens.
  • Starting tomorrow, we will conduct a series of conversations that I am calling “Do Not Be Afraid: Five Fears Facing the Episcopal Church in Western New York.” Before we can take the next steps on strengthening existing connections and building new relationships, we have to be honest about some of the things we are afraid of.

The purpose of these conversations is not to seek answers but to share with each other and find common fears, common strengths and common questions.

I hope we may draw on the inspiration and courage of our “Two Firsts,” Blessed Absalom and Blessed James, as we begin these conversations. The conversations are only the first step in bringing our region and ourselves into closer alignment with the Kingdom of God. We look to Absalom and James as examples of perseverance, patience, fearlessness and determination as we work for deliverance from captivity and bondage.

We have focused a lot today on the “Two Firsts,” but I want to close by talking about some ways in which our hope and prayer is that we may not be the first but that we may be the last. We seek God’s power and the public will to change our world and our society and ourselves so that no one need suffer again what so many have suffered for so long.

  • Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by law enforcement officers without provocation. No more men of color should die this way. Let them be the last. 
  • In Cleveland, the 14-year-old sister of Tamir Rice was tackled by police, handcuffed and placed in a squad car when she ran to the aid of her 12-year-old brother, who had been shot to death by police. No child should be treated that way. Let her be the last. 
  • The women and children who today are victims of human trafficking, who have been sold into sexual slavery. No one of any race, creed or color should be condemned to this life of hell. Let them be the last. 
  • The men of color disproportionately incarcerated. Our nation represents 5 percent of the world’s population — and 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population, overwhelmingly men of color. [The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.] No young man should grow up just waiting for his time in prison. Let them be the last. 
  • The adults and children who go to bed tonight hungry or cold. In a nation of abundance, no one should be without the basic elements of a decent life. Let them be the last. 
  • The children who live in poverty in our region, described as the most segregated in the country. No child should grow up without dignity, without financial security, without hope for the future, without enjoying the sunshine of opportunity. Let them be the last. 
  •  The parents of young men and women of color who worry whether their children will come home safe at night. No parent should have to wonder whether children will be assumed to have done wrong because of the color of their skin. Let them be the last.

In the words of Absalom Jones, from that same fiery sermon preached on that day in 1808:

We implore all these blessings and mercies, only in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And now, O Lord, we desire, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, ever more to praise thee, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: The whole earth is full of thy glory. Amen.

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Change & Transformation

I delivered the following sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday, January 25, 2015. I believe its message applies widely to our diocese’s many congregations and even to us in our own personal lives.

Good morning, and welcome to this celebration of the Conversion of Paul and the annual meeting of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I believe that what I say here speaks also to other parishes today.

The story of Paul’s conversion has to be one of the most colorful and dramatic in the Bible.

Just listen to it! Here is Saul — Pharisee, defender of the faith, staunch supporter of the status quo, who has been out persecuting followers of Jesus and feeling pretty darned proud of himself. He locked them up, he voted the death penalty for them, he pursued them to foreign cities. Those early followers of Jesus learned pretty quickly: You can run but you can’t hide from Saul.

Except.

And until.

Except and until that day when he is headed to Damascus to persecute more Christians, and suddenly comes a blinding light, brighter than the sun, and Jesus’s voice from heaven asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

It stops Saul dead in his tracks.

As you well know, my wife Carmela and I lived in Rome, Italy for five years before we moved to Western New York. There we worked at the American Academy, and I also at the Anglican Center in Rome. In addition, I was also priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rome, just a block from the house where the Apostle was under house arrest. So you see it seems that I cannot get away from St. Paul. Every Sunday I would walk back from the church to the American Academy past the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Inside that church hangs the painter Caravaggio’s great masterpiece “The Conversion of Paul.” Hundreds of people would be lined up outside the church to go in and see the painting, and I would take my place. It is such a dramatic scene they couldn’t resist seeing it and neither could I. Looking at that great painting what you see is brilliant light streaming from a dark sky … and on the ground, Saul is writhing, covering his eyes, suffering from a major dose of shock and awe.

All around him are his traveling companions and their horses. Take a good look at the horses. They are rearing, pawing the air, their eyes are rolling, they are in sheer panic. I think Saul has a lot more to fear from the hooves of those hysterical horses than he does from Jesus. He’s at the risk of being kicked or stomped to death. Talk about being outside your comfort zone!

Notice what Jesus says to Saul: “It hurts you to kick against the goads.”

It hurts you to kick against the goads. What does that mean?

A goad was a prod or stick that herdsmen used to guide oxen in the right direction. It had a metal tip that poked the oxen when they strayed from the right path. Sometimes the oxen would resist, and they’d kick at the goad, only to discover that when they did, its jab was even more painful.

So in kicking against the goads, they hurt themselves even more.

What Jesus is saying to Saul is: When you try to resist me, you hurt yourself even more.

Relax, Saul, Jesus is saying. Don’t rebel. Accept me. Follow me. Hear my call. Work with me.

What tender, forgiving statements from Jesus to a character who has done everything to hurt Jesus and his followers!

The story behind the story here is that Jesus is telling us: I can use even the most unlikely people … the people who disagree with me, the people who are angry with me, the people who persecute my followers. All of them can have their hearts turned, their eyes opened, their thinking changed. And sometimes we have to go to unpleasant, uncomfortable places for that change to occur.

It’s a good lesson for all of us. Sometimes when I am dealing with people who disagree with me and are absolutely sure that they are right and I am wrong, I want to interrupt our conversation and sit down and read them this passage from Acts and see whether we can learn from it and consider whether both of us need to have our eyes opened, each in our own way.

So it is appropriate that St. Paul is the patron saint of this Cathedral, because cathedrals are often highly politicized places where there are strong differences of opinion, people are convinced that they know what God wants, and it can be hard for one side to acknowledge anything good about the other side’s position. Imagine what it must be like to be a member of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or the great St. John the Divine in New York City.

It sounds like it could be a little like Congress and the White House, doesn’t it?

It has been seven months now since Father Will came to St. Paul’s as your interim dean, and although I never doubt that the Spirit keeps us moving, if anyone needs evidence, just look around you.

  • At this difficult time in our national life, as we re-examine racial prejudice, we hear the voice of an African-American preacher helping us to understand what the events in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island mean to us as Americans and as Christians.
  • As we as a Diocese look for ways to align ourselves with our region as Buffalo turns around, Dean Mebane’s commitment to social justice has been a significant factor.
  • He has given a clearer identity to the three services here at the Cathedral, turning the 9 a.m. into a contemporary music service that is very different from the spoken service at 8 a.m. and the choral service at 11:15.

All of these are the appropriate roles of an interim in helping you, the congregation, to disengage from the previous era, which was a good era but a different era … to learn that you can, indeed, try new things, worship differently, listen to different voices, see the world in a different way. Sometimes all this has felt uncomfortable and unpleasant, but we walk through the hard times with hope for what lies on the other side.

That’s exactly with Saul learned when that blinding flash of light and the voice of Jesus overcame him. Saul was transformed into Paul — evangelist, spreader of the Good News, the one who took the faith in Jesus Christ beyond the Holy Land and into the wider Mediterranean and into all the world.

So you all have been having your own “road to Damascus” moments over the last seven months — in slow motion, perhaps, a little less dramatically than Saul did — no panic-stricken stallions here — but nevertheless, you have been opening yourselves to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, new approaches.

That is what an interim is all about.

But you are not alone.

All around our diocese, congregations are in the same situation you are. They are confronting change and transformation. Some of them are seeking new clergy leadership. Some of them are facing the fact that they can no longer afford full-time clergy leadership and need to consider new ways of doing church, partnering with other congregations. Our other large congregations — Trinity, Buffalo and Calvary, Williamsville — are wrestling with their own challenges, doing the hard uncomfortable work that is necessary for growth and health.

It is a time of change and transformation for everyone in this diocese and across the Episcopal Church. So if you begin to think you’re alone, let me assure you: You’re not. It is an anxious time, just as it was for Paul, who had to figure out what to do and how to do it once he had literally “seen the light” and was inspired to follow Jesus. Being in transition is the new normal.

Here are some things you might consider doing in the new normal:

  • First, you can pray for the health of this congregation. When Paul was recovering from his blinding experience, a disciple named Ananias came and laid hands on him to help him regain his sight. I invite you to pray for yourselves as a congregation that your vision be clear and your thinking straight.
  • God called Paul “an instrument of mine to carry my name to the Gentiles and the kings and sons of Israel.” It wasn’t about Paul, about what he needed or what he wanted. It was about Paul’s role as an instrument of God. And so is your transition. It is not about what each of us needs as an individual. You are here to be instruments of God, to do what is best for the whole cathedral and its role in Buffalo and in the diocese. Let Paul be an inspiration to you.
  • Let your patron saint be an inspiration to you in another way. Paul spent a lot of his time mediating quarrels among the churches he established in Greece and Turkey. He would feel right at home here at St. Paul’s, which remains anxious. People blame the unhappiness on the leader — “If we just get the right person, everything will be better” — but leaders come and leaders go and unhappiness lingers. There is still work to be done here as you develop constructive ways to sort out differences, and focus on what is best for the whole congregation.
  • Be proud but humble. I love this cathedral. I am pleased with the strides this congregation has made. I am grateful to the clergy and the leadership and so many of you are my friends. You are a strong and smart cathedral family, and you are accepting of different ways of worshiping, of doing ministry, of serving the wider community. You have added 18 new pledging units. You have demonstrated to yourselves that you can disconnect from one style of clergy leadership and reconnect with another … which should give you confidence that you can do it again when your permanent dean is called. That’s the proud part.
  • Now here’s the humble part: We need to be uncomfortable sometimes as we discover together what it means to love and serve our Lord in new circumstances.

Uncomfortable? Uncertain? Of course. And those are exactly the circumstances in which Paul found himself after he regained his sight and began to follow our Lord. He was shipwrecked, he was imprisoned, he was beaten, he was reviled, he was threatened with death, he was chronically ill — and he changed the world. Some say that after Jesus, Paul is the most significant figure in the Bible. He turned a small Mideastern religious sect into a faith that transformed the world.

Two years from now we will celebrate the Cathedral’s 200th anniversary. I can think of no better way to mark that historic event than with a vibrant vision for this Cathedral, and a new commitment to the world around us.

Paul was joyful, we read in today’s Epistle, that new believers glorified God because they were in this Kingdom work together. Let that be your charge as we move forward with our work: together. That new people come to Christ because of you, what you do here, and the leadership you raise up. Just as it did in the work of Paul, may the light of the Gospel shine through our work here.

AMEN.

Posted in Current Issues, Hope for Future, Leadership, Miscellaneous | 4 Comments

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Inspires our Future

Myself & Will Mebane at MLK Scholarship Breakfast January 19, 2015

The Episcopal Diocese of Western New York has participated in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this holiday weekend in a number of ways: Youth, clergy, and laity have worked in social service projects in Niagara Falls and in Medina as a public witness to social justice. Clergy, including me, have joined in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Breakfast in Buffalo on the morning of January 19, and many gathered at the Diocesan Ministry Center on afternoon of January 19 for a screening and discussion of the film “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”

In this Diocese we are beginning now a series of conversations for all on racism and segregation in our region of Western New York, We are asking the question: “What actions can we take to break down walls and wedges of separation.” Some have asked me why our diocese has embarked on this course of action.

On this day to honor Dr. King, I answer those questioners by providing you a few excerpts from Dr. King’s great “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” This seems appropriate for this occasion when “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is being viewed.

Dr. King was arrested several times, and it was during one such period of incarceration that he composed his eloquent “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” of April 16, 1963. It was a response to the urgings of white church leaders in Birmingham that blacks should negotiate and be patient and not protest or resist the wedge of segregation in any way.

Passages from Dr. King’s letter of 1963 speak to the Diocese of Western New York in 2015:

  1. “…segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality….segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things….Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
  2. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress …comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
  3. “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white Church and its leadership.. Of course there are notable exceptions…..But despite these notable exceptions I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed by the Church.”
  4. “ I hope the Church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the Church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle….If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands….”

MLK-Day-2014As a diocese which inhabits the most segregated metropolitan region of our nation, Dr. King’s words give us the heart to address our fears, the courage to engage in a process of self-examination, and the hope that the Spirit will be with us as we engage in the work of struggling to build the Kingdom of God in this our land. God bless us as we undertake new tasks of conversation, analysis, action, healing and reconciliation.

Posted in Current Issues, Diversity, Miscellaneous | Leave a comment