Saturday, January 28, 2017

God tells 'em outright

What does God require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. 

In 1862, at the age of 24, George W. Haigh responded to the call from Abraham Lincoln to shore up Union troops in the Civil War. He joined the 24th Michigan Infantry Company D, composed of men from Wayne County. The 24th Michigan Infantry participated in several key battles of the Civil War, most notably the battle at Gettysburg. Known as the bloodiest battle, all the troops, on both sides of the conflict, incurred a 73% casualty rate. George survived the war and went on to live another 58 years. He was on the very first Vestry of Christ Church along with his brother Richard. George died in 1920 and in 1923 two parishioners designed and made the stone baptismal font in his memory. When this church was built in 1949 a special nook was created in the entrance way to hold the font. Today it stands as a reminder of who we are as Christ Church, a people with a long history of responding to the needs of the world, living an active faith, grounded in our baptismal identity to do justice, love kindness, and be humble. 

Mary Jo Searles was born in 1936 and raised in Christ Church. She dedicated her life to a variety of social justice causes including education for women and girls in this country and abroad. She served on the Vestry multiple times. Her last tenure on the Vestry ended in 2012. During her life she was active in every aspect of parish life and her impact is still with us, whether we are aware of it or not. Mary Jo fought Non-Hodgkins lymphoma for years, but succumbed to a brain tumor in April of 2014. The funeral liturgy that she created for her service revealed her values: a reading from the Q’ran that honored our interfaith heritage in Dearborn and Christ Church; a pause in the liturgy while Sean played Widor’s Toccata on the organ, because she loved the organ; and a Eucharistic prayer that used expansive language to describe God and human beings revealed her passion for equality and justice. We have created a new baptismal font that lives in the sanctuary in her memory as one who was humble enough to do justice with loving kindness.

These two saints of the church hold up for us the values of our Christian faith and remind us of who are as Christ Church in Dearborn. One could look back through these past 150 years and find many others, then and now, who are just like these two, people who exemplify for us what it means to be the living body of Christ feeding people in mind, body, and spirit because we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. 

Whether one lived in the years surrounded by the unrest of the Civil War and the role slavery played in defining faith, or the challenges to morale following WWW I or post WWW II and the struggles to unify and rebuild this country as well as this new church, or one lived in the 1960’s in the era of civil unrest over racism, or whether one lives now in an era focused on equality for all marginalized people regardless of religion, race, or gender, we here at Christ Church have played an active role in the lives of people of faith and in the Dearborn community. We have a long history of being involved, invested, fearless leaders who take on challenges and over come them. It’s a history we can be proud of. 

Our reading today from Micah supports this understanding of how we are to live as people of faith. This reading is set up as if it were a courtroom with God as the witness and the people are the jury. In this reading God asks a series of rhetorical questions of the people, all aimed at getting them to think about what it means to be a people of faith. In the end God simply tells them outright. God says that God is not expecting a particular type of sacrifice, God is expecting a particular type of person. God is interested in the integrity of one’s personhood. God is looking for people who will do justice, live with humility, and love kindness.

To be a people of justice and to live a life of integrity is defined for us in our baptismal covenant and by Jesus; we are to love God, love self, and love others by respecting the dignity of every human being. This is two-fold. It means we stand up and refute injustices and we work to enable greater justice. But we do this with humility. Humility does not mean being passive, nor does it mean being silent, it means being willing to learn, to grow, to deepen one’s understanding and to do so respectfully, all the while never diminishing the value of another human being.

This too is the heart of the Beatitudes in the Gospel reading. The beatitudes speak to what it means to live as a person of faith. The Beatitude’s describe how life is when one is faithful. 

Dearborn is a unique community. We’ve struggled through a history of deep racism to become a model interfaith community. We are not without our challenges, but we are facing those challenges. We dig deep, we strive to learn, to aim to be a people of faith. We are a community of many faiths. And each faith teaches us the same essentials: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. 

At 150 years old this faith community has risen to the occasion many times and overcome challenge after challenge. We are here today keeping alive the passion of our ancestors who worked to make the world a better place by loving God and one another. The soul of this parish is maturing, growing in wisdom from the lives of those who have come before us, sustained by the kind of humility that encourages wisdom and the ability  to continue to learn and grow, and fortified by an inherent sense of loving kindness. We are here today because of the tenacity and fortitude of our ancestors who never gave up. We are here today because of each of you. We are an amazingly creative vibrant committed community of people who care for one another and for the world around us. We are not just sustaining a church, we are building a future for our children and our children's children. This is the legacy we inherited and the legacy we handing on.

We are, and always have been a community centered church, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit. 

A reflection on Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12 for Epiphany 4A

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Hope, the nourishment of life

I have always been interested in the how the body works and fascinated by cellular biology in particular. Perhaps, if I were going to college now, I would study epigenetics, which looks at how life’s stressors change one’s DNA, altering what is passed down to subsequent generations. These are not changes to one’s actual DNA code, but rather they influence how our genetic material functions by triggering what part of one’s gene’s get activated or not to fight off physical or mental disease. For example, scientific evidence shows that people who have been subjected to trauma, like starvation, incur changes in their genetic material which is passed down to later generations, possibly causing obesity.

Instead of becoming a scientist I’ve spent most of my life as a parish priest. However, I think that in many ways this vocation is directly linked to my ancestors. Rooted, perhaps, in some spiritual transference of inspiration from my Mormon pioneer relatives who took great risks crossing oceans and prairies, leaving behind family and friends, to live a life of faith.  Many of my great grands however ended up struggling with divorce, alcoholism and depression because they were isolated and cut off from their families of origin. Likewise, it may be no coincidence that I’ve become a parish priest who studies Murray Bowen’s Family Systems theory, which looks at the emotional processes of intergenerational families and how the stressors of one generation play out in the behavior and health of subsequent generations. One might say that I study an emotional and spiritual form of epigenetics. 

One thing I have learned is that who one is and how one behaves is not predetermined by the past. One can decide how one lives and the influences on my physical and mental health. If I do the work to take care of my self, exercise, meditate and pray, eat well, and learn about the kinds of influences that trigger unhealthy reactions in me, I can find greater balance and not succumb to the impulsive remnants of my ancestors trauma that trigger disease.

All of this reminds me of a class I took in seminary called “The Plunge.” In this class groups of people went off to churches around the country, worshiped with them, studied their history and reflected on their current attitudes and behaviors and then reported back to the class as a whole. We were asked to think about and reflect on the idea that each parish has a “soul.” The parish’s soul reveals the defining character of the congregation, it’s practices and behavior, the stories it remembers about its history and the emotional tone of the congregation. Its kind of like looking at the epigenetics of a parish - how does the past influence the present? 

Christ Church has a relatively long history, compared to other Episcopal Churches in this country, many of which were started in the 1950’s. With our long history we have lived through good times and challenges. In the first fifty years parishioners struggle to find a priest, to have enough families, to have enough money, to have a place to worship. Then we stabilized with the growth of the automobile industry and with an influx of people moving here for jobs. The 1950’s and 1960’s are seen as glory days, when the church was booming with people, when Christ Church was the center of the community. Here men came to help grow their careers by forming business relationships and working to literally build a church. Here women came to find social connections, joining committees, doing fundraising, making friendships that have lasted a lifetime. And children grew up here, serving as acolytes, attending dances and socials and making friends. Christ Church was the hub of community life.

Now Christ Church is smaller, like almost every other church in this country. But we are still a bustling community centered church with our doors open every day and our halls lively with people coming and going. 

Through out our history our strength has always been feeding people. We are called Christ Church for a reason. We are part of the living body of Christ in our world today - doing the work that Jesus did to feed people in mind, body, and spirit. Jesus was always eating and feeding, he was always tending to the hunger’s of this world, the physical hungers and the spiritual hungers. 

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus calls the first of his disciples. These fishermen drop everything to come and follow him. Jesus speaks into their deepest spiritual hunger and invites them to consider what it will take for them to thrive. These fishermen know about hunger and feeding people. Because despite literally feeding people with fish, all of them are still hungry for something more. Jesus calls into that hunger within, into that deep place of yearning. Following Jesus is not a comfortable thing to do. Following him does not take these disciples into a place of ease and plenty. Following Jesus takes them, and us, into a place of risk and challenge, to break out of the patterns of the past that could determine one’s future and into a new place of hope and vitality.

Each of our readings this morning speak in a similar way - that following God takes one into a new place. Not an easy place, but even in the challenges, it is a place that feeds people with hope and light and life. Our outgoing President, a man who often leaned into his faith to guide his work, said, “Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, to work for it, and to fight for it.” (Barak Obama)

I think the primary DNA material of Christ Church, of this church, is hope. Its in our DNA because of our ancestors built this place to be big and strong so it could have a vibrant future. They were not deterred by the muddy roads and economic challenges of 19th century Dearborn. No, they had a vision. 

Hope is in our spiritual bones and blood because of the name our ancestors chose for this church. We are Christ Church, the living hands and heart of Jesus, God’s hope for the world. We are not a people of blind optimism. We are a people of faith, built on the faith of our ancestors, built on the love of God in Jesus. Our heart beats with courage and vision and the willingness to work. We are Christ Church. It’s who we are because we are a community centered church. Its how we live because we feed people. 

And as Christ Church we can be the light that forges into the darkness of uncertainty, leading the way once again, like our ancestors did, building a brighter future, while feeding the world with the love of God.

a reflection on the readings for Epiphany 3A

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hearts Wide Open

The night sky, over an abandoned field outside of Ft. Worth, Texas, seemed to go on forever, the darkness broken only by the twinkling stars above and the distant glow from a large white tent. Several hundred people, more or less, filtered into the tent and sat down on wooden folding chairs. The dais, a makeshift wooden platform only a few inches high, focused our attention in one direction. I have no idea who the speaker was, some itinerant Christian preacher man who railed about Jesus and the need to be saved. Come up now, he cried at one point, come with me, make Jesus your personal savior. Who knows why, but I went with him, along with some other people, to a smaller tent where we sat again. I remember sitting with my eyes closed, listening, trying to be present to a place deep inside myself. And there, in the far recesses of my being, I had the comforting awareness that I didn’t need to be there. Jesus was already part of me and I was already part of Jesus and I did not need this moment to make that fact real. While others around me appeared to be healed, one person suddenly able to walk again, praise the Lord! Another apparently cured of an illness, praise Jesus! I sat still and knew that God was with me, had always been with me, and would always be with me. 

Come and see, Jesus says. Come and see. 

I’ve forgotten lots of things in my life, especially things I did when I was a teenager. But some memories remain, indelible, even though their impression, their impact changes as time goes on. This experience use to tell me that Christianity was just a bunch of narrow minded hypocrites, and altar calls were phony stage pranks manipulating people who were desperate for hope. But over time its come to mean something else, an awareness that God works in every moment of life, even something that one might shun as ridiculously phony, seeking to transform us and invite us to bring forth God’s purposes.

Still, living a life of faith is not always easy. Despite what I felt that night, so clear and sure, I have had many doubts in the 45 years since. I have suffered so deeply and known others who suffered so intensely that I have truly wondered if there is a God. How could there be a God when there is all this pain and evil and anger all around? How could there be a God when everything seems to collapse and the world as one knows it seems to be disintegrating? How could there be a God in the midst of the blatant injustices that prevail through out time? How could there be a God that allows the horrors of this world to exist?

And yet, how could there not be a God? A God who suffers with. A God who weeps. A God who never gives up. A God who is always searching for the person, the community, the place through which God can work and God can change the world. Not control it, nor punish it, nor narrowly define it, but transform it, over and over.

The servant in Isaiah sings a song. In four verses this servant sings about being an obedient follower of God who becomes lost, a failure, and then becomes renewed; with a greater understanding of what it means to be the vessel through which God seeks to change the world, to be God’s hope.

Come and see, the goodness of the Lord. 

God sings to each of us in our time and place, reminding us that every act we take to make a difference in the world can have larger, deeper implications than we will ever know. One small act of kindness may trigger a chain reaction around the world, because the potential for transformation is real. 

On this weekend when we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. we are reminded of his call to become a beloved community. To live with an awareness, the potential everything one says and does may reveal God’s love and hope in the world. To avoid angry reactive language, to avoid name calling, blaming, and shaming. To speak the truth in love. To respect the dignity of every human being. To be clear that the values and the principles that guide one’s life are built solidly on nonviolence grounded in the love of God. The arc toward justice doesn’t bend by itself, we bend it, shape it, direct it. 

We bend the arc by feeding hungry children with Blessings in a Backpack, providing a space for food to be stored and backpacks to be filled and people to gather and do this work together, building the beloved community. We offer the space and in so doing we are making a difference in the world. 

Feeding hungry families with good food, providing the substances for daily meals as well as all the ingredients for healthy holiday meals, we are changing lives, feeding bodies, helping our sisters and brothers. Every item you bring to church to feed people contributes to making a difference. 

Knitting or crocheting prayer shawls and lap blankets makes a difference. This year we gave away 13 prayer shawls at Christmas time to people who would otherwise have no other Christmas gift. Five went to women and men at Henry Ford Village at the Wednesday Eucharist and 8 were given away on Christmas morning, here at Christ Church. Each stitch, each shawl, each prayer, makes a difference, lifting someone’s morale, gifting them with love and hope.

The plaza that offers water to humans and dogs, and a place to sit in peace, a respite for thirsty people, hungering for nourishment in mind, body, and spirit. Our property, building and land, is one way we reach out to the world around us journeying with those who say to us, come and see. Come and see what the League of Women Voters is doing. Come and see what Creating Hope International is doing. Come and see what is happening with the SCHOOL project in Liberia. It is not just about waiting for someone to come to us, but to follow Jesus it’s mostly about how we go out into the world around us. Come and see Jesus says.

Supporting the ministries of Mariner’s Inn to help alcoholic men sustain sobriety and regain their purpose in life, makes a difference for individuals and families and even whole communities. Sobriety is not possible without faith and the moment to moment awareness that there is a higher power that has one’s back. Our prayers and our time and resources support this ministry. Come and listen to what David Sampson, CEO of Mariner’s Inn has to say at the adult forum this morning.

Because our purpose as a community centered church that feeds people in mind, body, and spirit, is formed in baptism, named and called to be Gods love; and with hands and hearts wide open, helping God save the world with hope. 

A reflection on the readings for Epiphany 2A: Isiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Choosing Hope

Bill and Jody were a parishioner couple in the first church I served as a Rector. Bill was perpetually grumpy in a charming kind of way and Jody was consistently cheerful. They had been married a long time, raised four kids. Jody was the chair of the altar guild so she and I spent a lot of time together, not just preparing for worship, but outside of church as well. I knew her kids and her grandkids. Bill was diagnosed with lung cancer but it was slow progressing and he was managing okay. So it came as quite a shock when I got a call one day that Jody had suffered an aneurism and was in the ICU. I rushed to the hospital and learned that she was on life support and the doctors were certain that she was brain dead. Bill was devastated. Over the next week their children and grandchildren came in to town. One granddaughter had to be flown in from Iraq and a grandson had to come from Afghanistan, but thankfully the military gave them both leaves to come home. We gathered more than once around Jody’s bed and prayed. I baptized a grand baby in Jody’s hospital room so she could be “present” for that baptism. We planned her funeral and prayerfully prepared to take her off life support. 

The oddest experience of that week however was a dream I had the night after Jody’s aneurism. In that dream my phone rang and when I answered it Jody was on the other end. I still remember how clear her voice was, how absolutely Jody like it was in its inflection and in her laughter. She said to me, “Pastor Terri, I just wanted to let you know that I am okay. I’m fine.” 

I relayed this dream to Bill and to her family. None of us interpreted that dream to mean that she was going to revive and live. We all knew that the dream meant that wherever Jody was, she was fine. And, that in true Jody form she wanted all of us to know that she was fine and for us to be comforted by her once again.

Consciousness is an interesting concept, informing how we perceive the world around us and how we behave as a result. Dr. Robert Lanza, a stem-cell researcher, has created a theory called biocentrism. One aspect of the theory states that consciousness does not die when the physical body dies. Consciousness exists before the body and continues to exist after the body dies. Consciousness is an integral part of the universe, existed before there was a universe, and may be the means by which the universe was created and holds together. Some people use this theory to explain the existence of God.

Certainly Genesis, Isaiah, and the Prologue to the Gospel of John all speak of a consciousness that existed before creation.  Genesis describes it as God meets the formless void and through God’s imagination God structures the void into order:  night and day, animals and humans. Isaiah calls this consciousness  “the servant.”  In Isaiah the servant of God is a concept of justice that God reveals to humankind as our “calling.” Being a servant means being one who enables God’s justice to manifest in time and place. In the prologue to the Gospel of John this consciousness is called “the Word.” In the incarnation the Word has taken on human flesh, Emmanuel, Jesus, and now the Word lives in each of us.

In our reading this morning from the Gospel of Matthew we hear that in John’s time baptism was for forgiveness of sin. With Jesus’s baptism, God is doing a new thing. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh is called “beloved.” Through the Word Incarnate, through the word in human flesh, God is transforming all creation through love and grace using human beings to be the agents of transformation.  Experiences and opportunities that transform us are always a matter of perception and how we allow them shape our conscious understanding of ourselves and the world. 

So, in this Season after the Epiphany, in an era when fear is being thrust about as if it should be the dominant state of being, I can choose to be otherwise. I can choose how to center my being and where to focus my conscious state of mind. I can focus on trusting in the ongoing action of God’s living Word, expressing itself in and through people who are willing to speak about a reality that is motivated by love. I can engage with people who will challenge fear by witnessing to hope.  I can choose to be creative instead of stuck. I can choose to be playful instead of staid. I can choose that which is generative instead of that which is deadening. I can choose to believe in mystery.

Did Jody really speak to me in that dream? Did her conscious state of being reach into my unconscious state with the intention of assuring me and her family that she was okay? I choose to understand the dream this way, that Jody was literally speaking to me. Which opens up for me a reality that exists in dimensions beyond what I can literally see or feel or even fully understand, a mystery in grace and love.

If there’s any truth to the biocentrist theory and any substance to our faith and belief in God, then it may mean that we have more influence on our lives and the future of the world than we think we do. It means that how we choose to see the world can literally influence how the world is.

It means that if one prays for peace, for grace, for God’s justice, then those prayers will influence the world and move creation a little closer to that reality. There is the potential that the actions of just one person can impact the lives of many others. Just one person, the servant in our reading from Isaiah, Jesus in our Gospel reading, you or me, just one person becoming the living Word of God can shift the universe and everything can change. That idea centers me, anchors my anxiety, leaves me hopeful. Because the transformational work of God, begun before time, continues to speak into our world, calling human beings to rise up in love, tending to the broken places, loving one's neighbor, and building the beloved community. Choosing hope means feeding people in mind, body, and spirit; it's transformative, relieving the world of its hunger and filling it with love. 

a reflection on the readings for the Baptism of Jesus, Epiphany 1: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

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