Turning Prayer Into Action

I wish that I could say that I was shocked by the shooting on Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

I am deeply saddened by the senseless deaths of innocent people who had sought only to seek the presence of Christ and join together in worship and fellowship.  I am deeply grieved by the deaths of children in particular, in what should have been a safe place for them.

However, I cannot say that I am shocked.  After Columbine and Aurora, Orlando and Las Vegas, Newtown and San Bernardino and Charleston and many, many others, I am, sadly, no longer shocked when these mass shootings happen.

The fact that mass shootings no longer shock me is, I find, testament to the problem.

Whenever one of these shootings happens we offer our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, we look for the motive of the shooter, we debate whether the gun was obtained legally or not, we dig into the mental health history of the shooter, we tell the stories of some of the victims and then we move on with our day to day lives until the next shooting.

It has almost become rote.  We know what will be said by all of the participants.  We know the steps, we know the words.  We can almost move through it without truly engaging.

I participate in a lot of Baptisms.  One of the parts of the Baptismal liturgy that gets less attention than the Baptismal Covenant is the renunciations.  I have been thinking for the last day or so about the middle renunciation.  The person being baptized or their parents and god parents make this renunciation “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

We don’t think a lot about what that means.  But I have come to believe that one of the ways that the evil powers of this world corrupt and destroy the creatures of God is by convincing us that there is nothing that we can do about the violence that seems to be growing exponentially in our country.

We are heading into the season of Advent, the time in the Church year when we are called to pray and to act to prepare the way for the coming of the kingdom of God.  I can state with absolute certainty that in the kingdom of God people are not shot in churches or schools or movie theaters or concerts or any of the other places that have been venues for violence.

I will be spending this Advent praying for discernment of how to effectively act to bring our nation closer to the kingdom of God.  I ask that each and every one of you commit to joining me in this.

I will be sending out a reflection each of the first three Sundays in Advent.  I invite you to join with me in reflection, discernment and prayer.

I do not yet have an answer about what we can do, but I renounce the evil power of this world that tells us that there is nothing that we can do and that we must just accept the escalation of violence in our world.

I do know what I said in my sermon at our Convention Eucharist just over a week ago, “…worship is what inspires us to action to be the face of God in all those whom we encounter.”

I do know that without action, without love made visible through action, the words of our prayers are noisy gongs and clanging symbols.

I think about our own Bishop Brent in the aftermath of World War I.  He was horrified by the needless slaughter of so many people in the war. He walked around the battlefields of France and brought back to Buffalo fragments of French cathedrals blown apart by German shelling. He put the fragments on the walls of the cathedral to remind people the terrible cost of violence (the fragments are still there today). He wanted people to be surrounded by these fragments as they prayed at our cathedral, believing that God would inspire action to respond effectively to this violence.

What emerged from that prayer was the first step toward the World Council of Churches, a forum for unity and peace of almost all Christians. We have in our midst an example of the practical power of prayer.

I invite you now into a time when we engage in the practical power of power.  I invite you to join with me in discerning how we turn our prayers into action in our own time.

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The Power of Community

Sermon at the Eucharist of the 180th Convention of the Diocese of Western New York

Preached at St. Andrew’s, Buffalo October 27, 2017


I am standing in this pulpit this evening with a little fear —not because of my audience—

I know I am surrounded by friends—but because all around me are the symbols and reminders of a great churchman who has shaped my priestly vocation and the life of our diocese and the world-wide Church.  This pulpit is HOLY ground.

I am referring to the fourth bishop of our diocese, Charles Henry Brent, who once served this very St. Andrew’s congregation as its curate, who later consecrated this church building , and who went on to found what was to become the World Council of Churches of the whole world.

Brent was a very high churchman who love the liturgy and the ritual of the Church.  He had the misfortune to first serve this diocese in the late 1880’s under our second bishop, Arthur C. Cox, who was a very, very low churchman, and also very anti-Roman Catholic, even in public.

At one service Brent dared to put candles  on the altar of this congregation—at a time when that was thought to be a “Catholic” innovation in our Protestant Episcopal Church—and when Bishop Cox was shocked to see them, he told Brent on the spot, ”You’re fired!”

Brent, of course, had the last laugh. He left Western New York and moved to Boston saying, “I did not set such store by candles, as I did by my rights as a priest.”

The candlesticks you see set on this altar tonight are the very same candlesticks for which Brent was fired.  I am wearing Brent’s vestments and we are using his chalice and paten on the altar this evening.

But the reason Brent is my hero has nothing at all to do with candlesticks, vestments, or fancy chalices.  He is my hero because we share a great commitment to the power experienced when two or three are gathered in Christ’s name—the immense power of being in community.

The power of this very St. Andrew’s community is an example of this, for all of us.

It shows how a community can change the world.

In many ways St. Andrew’s is a snapshot of the wider church—-the diocese of Western New York and the diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, and beyond.  It has had its glory days, and it has had its darker days.  If you need an example of resurrection, here it is all around us.  In any given week, here is a sample of what goes on here and in the building next door, the Bishop Brent House.:

Four weekly Eucharists, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline.

Supper is served to anyone and everyone who comes in after the Sunday evening Eucharist.

There is a spirituality group for developmentally disabled adults.

There is a Pentecostal Group, One in the Spirit, who share this space with St. Andrew’s.

The Buffalo University Heights Arts Association holds events here throughout the year. Brent House hosts the offices of the Western New York Anti-Violence Project, a queer women’s writing group, the Spectrum Transgender Group, the Stonewall Democrats, and a monthly poetry reading group.

The congregation has opened its doors to welcome the community into dignified, beautiful spaces that honor the work these groups do.

But what thrills me the most about all this activity is how it flows from this sacred space for worship, where the act of corporate prayer is practiced with a faithfulness that is full of joy.

Last fall, on my visitation here on a Sunday, I preached and I celebrated in the morning and then I came back in the evening AGAIN to preach and celebrate and confirm, and so I was pretty depleted when I returned. But when I walked in at 5:30 at the end of that long day, I could hear the sound of Mother Ellen Brauza and her husband Walter Brauza praying evening prayer together in the chapel (as they do every Sunday)—two people doing the work of ensuring that the voice of prayer is never silent.

That buoyed me up, that sound inspired me for the service to come.  At 6 pm we had a congregation of 40: an entire University of Buffalo fraternity chapter was here, worshiping together. Three people came forward to be confirmed.

The whole congregation stayed for a spaghetti supper cooked by Mother Ellen.

To me, this was a vision of the future of the church: Prayer, Commitment, outreach, good food.

It is this tapestry of liturgical life that feeds our souls, enabling us to deal with the anxieties of our times.

The is a tradition that goes back to the very earliest church in Roman times—the burgeoning Christian communities in Corinth, in Philippi, in Ephesus—communities of faith gathering for an encounter with the Divine.  Just as the Eucharist transforms the ordinary things of this world—bread, wine—into the real Presence of Christ, so we, by joining in community, are transformed from solitary individuals into a vibrant cohort, from one to many, from the singular to the corporate body.

One body, one spirit, one faith, one baptism.  These words, written by Paul to the Ephesians, sum up what happens all the time in our Diocese—from Youngstown to Olean, from South Buffalo to LeRoy—and in our neighboring diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, from Lake City to Osceola Mills, from New Castle to Erie.  We gather to bless, break, eat; we sing God’s praises in canticle and psalm; we worship the Risen Lord—not for our own entertainment, but for nourishment, not for solace only, but for renewal, that grace—God’s spiritual energy— may make us one body, one spirit, in Christ, to serve the world in God’s name.

The goal of our worship is not to get to the coffee hour, nor to a feeling of self-congratulation that “There I have done my duty for the week.”  No, worship is what inspires us to action to be the face of God to all those whom we encounter.

It was in the 1960’s that the Liturgical Movement finally prompted many denominations to encourage the full active participation of all lay people in the Eucharist as a way to make mission begin.  It led to our 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  The American Center of the Liturgical Movement was St. John’s University in Collegeville Minnesota, not far from Lake Woebegone,  where I taught for 17 years and where the liturgical movement influenced me as much as Bishop Brent has.

The key thing about this movement that shaped me was that it connected worship to social justice in a very concrete way.  It encourages all of us—laity and clergy—all of us to take the gifts with which we are blessed tonight—bread, wine, Christ’s real presence—and use them to build up the body of Christ OUTSIDE the doors of our churches.  The liturgical leaders said, “Worship is the School of the Lord’s service.”

They took seriously the idea of equipping ALL of us—that is you and me—for ministry. They underscored what we say in the post-communion prayer: ”And now, father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do—to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”

Now, not everyone today and not everyone back in the 1960’s agreed with the notion that worship is the springboard to social action.  Among the fiercest critics was Sister Antonia McHugh, president of the college of St. Catherine, founded by IRISH nuns, and a college that was a neighbor and rival of St. John’s.  Sister had no use for the GERMAN monks who had established and populated St. John’s, nor for their liturgical movement.

In one of her speeches Sister sniffed:

“The Liturgical Movement centered at St. John’s, which aims to diffuse social charity through increased lay participation in the worship of the church is something with which I will have nothing to do.”

Sister went on:

“The thought of connecting the psalms with socially activated prayers is too irritating to be considered.  The whole commotion is doubtless of German origin.”

But I believe that this commission of prayer AND action, that we have been given, is the  call of God, and the call of the prophets, and it  has been heard by so many down through the centuries, by the Apostle Paul, by Martin Luther, by Queen Elizabeth I, by Charles Henry Brent, by Katharine Jefferts Schori, by Michael Curry—and through the grace of God given to US in our communities of faith, by you and by me.

“The harvest is plentiful,” our Gospel  reading tells us. At this time of year, when we pass the farm stands overflowing with produce, as we think ahead to Thanksgiving feasts, we can envision bounty and plenty, our tables and our pantries laden, more than enough to see us through the coming winter.

The harvest IS plentiful all around our diocese.

Think about what your congregation does: Some excel at welcome, some at outreach, some at feeding the hungry, some at teaching children to read, some at caring for the bereaved,  some at resettling refugees, some do many or even all of these things. And we  encounter  God’s grace  in many things in this diocese, and then we use it to cook, to teach, to sing, to study the Bible, to nurture youth, to feed and clothe and empower.

What matters is that we are constantly reminded and encouraged that we are surrounded by God’s grace—as naturally as the air we breathe.  Each of us is given grace according to the measure of Christ’ gift.

And the WEB of grace is that invisible network that binds us all together and enables us to do far more together than we can ever do alone.  This is what the Web of Grace looks like: the power of community in ACTION.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” our Gospel says. I parish after parish we see workers emerging, people who have been energized  and are ready to do God’s work in the world.

Tonight I ask all of you, faithful and hard-working Episcopalians  of this diocese:

Will you be a laborer who makes vision become reality?

Will you proclaim the good news and teach and heal?

Will you translate the energy and strength generated by our worship into real action that will sustain our diocese for the generation to come?

Will YOU use the power of community to change the world?

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The Noble Art of Music

This is the homily I preached at a service of celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation & the installation of officers of the Western New York Chapter of the American Guild of Organists at Westminster Presbyterian Church on September 17

This October 31 we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant of Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, so it is appropriate to open with the immortal words of Luther himself:

Beautiful music is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given to us.

Whatever theological differences any of us may have with Martin Luther, coming from our various denominational viewpoints, we can all agree on that.

Long before I became an Episcopal bishop, I learned to play the organ.  I still play to this day, and I have to say, my fingers are itching to be at the keyboard of this magnificent Westminster organ.  I have restrained myself, though, to allow musicians more skilled than I, to make beautiful music this afternoon.

But to get back to Martin Luther: Many of us will agree with Luther’s comment on another important topic.  Luther writes:

Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven!  Thus, let us drink beer!

Our divergent theologies would also agree with Luther when he tells us this:

I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.  Music drives away the Devil and makes people joyful; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like.  Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.

When we think about Luther it is easy to focus on the noisy world he created:

  • Pounding those 95 Theses into the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg
  • His proclamations that shook the world as he challenged the medieval church: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
  • His own boisterous, argumentative personality.  We as Episcopalians, who developed out of the Anglican tradition, are well aware of Luther’s arguments with Henry VIII, goading and baiting him through pamphlets and sermons, the Tweets of their day.
  • The one hymn by Luther that everybody knows, the muscular and dynamic, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” (And before you grumble about war horses, remember this statement from the great choral director Robert Shaw to his singers when they complained about singing too-familiar works for the umpteenth time.  Shaw said, “For some people in the audience tonight, this is the first time they are hearing this music.  For some people it is the last.”)

But the more I think about Luther and music, the clearer it is to me.  Without Luther, this would be a silent world.

We know the background: “Next to the Word of God,” Luther says, ‘the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”  To know Christ’s salvation, Luther said, should make us joyful, which should, in turn, cause us to sing about it.

As Luther democratized the church, so he democratized music, introducing strong, simple, melodies, often folk tunes, the chorales, that could be sung in their own language by an entire congregation.  How silent our churches would be without congregational singing! Just as stained glass taught those who could not read the basics of their faith, the great hymns focus on texts and Scripture and teach us what we believe.  We must not lose this tradition of great hymns.  From those simple chorales sung in churches came the magnificent chorales and oratorios of the devoutly Lutheran Bach, and also Handel.  How silent the world would be without them!  Can we imagine Christmas without Messiah, Easter without the passions and masses of Bach?

Close your eyes and open your ears and think: Can we imagine a world without the polyphony of Paslestrina, the sacred music of William Byrd, the lark ascending of Thomas Tallis, a world without choral evensong in the Anglican tradition, such as we are privileged to hear this afternoon, a world without “Fairest Lord Jesus,” traditionally sung at the end of every concert by the Lutheran choir of St. Olaf College? The world would be an Ice Age of silence.

Many of these composers and their beloved works are Luther’s musical descendants who focused on the emotional power of music, its ability to affect hearts and minds, its education and ethical powers.  Luther gave us a culture of listening that enriched the contemplation of religious practice and touched the soul.

The art of music was brought down to earth, and while it would be simplistic to attribute this all to Luther, one critic comments that “it is undeniable that it would not have happened without the debates about faith, devotional practice and personal responsibility that the Reformation inaugurated.”

Luther’s fellow reformers, Calvin and Zwingli, dear to Presbyterians, were much less enthusiastic about music than Luther, concerned that it was too secular and would hinder worship.  But I invite you to imagine this: In Zurich, in the Old City, stands the Grossmunster, the onetime Catholic cathedral where Zwingli preached to bring the Reformation to Switzerland.  He stripped away the organ, the religious statuary, the art, the ornamentation, leaving the space austere, and some would say cold.  Yet today you can stand on the ancient cobblestones, outside the Grossmunster as the sun is setting over Zurich, and hear a glorious carillon from the twin bell towers, iconic symbols of the city, a cascade of joyous music that, in Luther’s words, “can calm the agitations of the soul.”

Thank God for this gift of music that brings us so close to the Divine!




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