Monday, November 04, 2019

Remembering Bishop James Montgomery

The first time I walked into the office of Bishop James Winchester Montgomery I was anxious.  I was seeking to re-enter the ordination process after leaving it in another diocese. The leaving had been unpleasant, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would let me back in.  I had received, however, many assurances that Bishop Montgomery would be welcoming.

I hadn’t taken any chances.  I asked several clergy from the Diocese of Chicago (I think it was five) to write me a letter of introduction.  It was the first thing he said to me:  “Well you certainly have some fans among my clergy.” I wasn’t sure if he thought that was a good thing or a bad thing, but then came that famous Jim Montgomery smile, and I knew that all would be well.

Bishop Montgomery died on Wednesday, October 23, 2019, in the 99th year of his life and the 58th of his consecration as a bishop.  I am sad, but I am also grateful, for this man came into my life as my bishop and pastor precisely when I needed both.

It took more time for “all to be well,” you see.  My first attempt to re-enter the process came up with a “no” from the Commission on Ministry of the Diocese of Chicago.  I remember the day he told me.  He was visiting All Saints’ Church, Western Springs where I was doing field work as part of my middler year of seminary.  He had taken a chance on me and let me re-enter seminary even though I was not officially in the process yet.  I was devastated to have been told “no,” and he was a pastor to me.  Among words of comfort, he told me that I would get a second chance in a year.

By the time I was ready to be ordained in 1989, Bishop Jim had retired, but his presence at that ordination filled me with joy.

There is a book by the late Robert Hovda called Strong, Loving, and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy.  It is a book I learned much from, but even more from a man who exemplified each of those words not only in his presiding at liturgy but in his exercising his office as a bishop.  He was at liturgy always present to the moment, clearly devoted to and loving of what he was doing.  You knew this was something he took as a privilege and a responsibility, that he believed the words he said, not in an arrogant way, but a confident and humble one.

I am grateful beyond words for having known him and for the influence he has been on my life both as priest and as child of God.

The picture is a favorite of mine. I was Bishop Montgomery's chaplain at the Seabury-Western Seminary graduation in 1987 (at the end of my middler year). Waiting for the service to begin, we are clearly reacting to something funny that has just happened.  There's that Jim Montgomery smile!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Let Us Arise

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Canaseraga and Good Shepard Church, Savona on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 2019 (Proper 23C):  Luke 17:11-19.

           This healing story of the ten lepers seems pretty straightforward.  The point is clear, isnt it?  Be grateful, say thank you, especially to God.  Luke the Gospel writer could have easily ended this story the same way as he did the Parable of the Good Samaritan:  Go and do likewise.

           So, this ought to be a short sermon.  The Tenth Leper came back to say thank you to Jesus, Jesus was clearly pleased.  Go and do likewise.

           But wait.   This is more than a morality tale about being appropriately grateful to God for his many mercies and blessings.  It is, in fact, another step on the journey to Jerusalem and the undoing of a worldand a religionbuilt on fear.

           A group of lepers had sought each others company, the company of misery.  They are the walking dead, cut off from society, allowed to beg only if they keep their distance.

           Begging was probably their intention in their shout to Jesus.  Master, have mercy.  He gives them a strange command.  Go, show yourselves to the priests.  Yet, the priests were part of the system which condemned them to this life of misery.  They were also the only ones who could get them out of it; but what good could they do now?  But they obeyed because that is what lepers did.

           On the way, they notice their skin has mysteriously cleared up and suddenly their obedience to Jesus command has real purpose.  The priests can now restore them to the life they had lost.  Let us not judge the nine who continued on their way. They were simply doing what they were told and exercising the only option they had to reclaim their lives.

           One of them, however, was different.  He was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner. The priests would do nothing for him.  When he had been a leper, it had not much mattered that he was also a Samaritan.  In a world where everything was either clean or unclean it was one strike and youre out. The second one did not much matter, which means it also did not much matter if only one of the strikes went away.

           So the tenth leper had nowhere to go.  But he was clean and he was grateful and he was drawn to the man who had given them the strange command. Maybe if he cared about lepers he would also care about Samaritans.

           So he expresses his deep gratitude as one who has nothing to lose. He falls at Jesus feet and declares not only his gratitude but acknowledges the presence of God.  Jesus says to him, Your faith has made you well, which from the Greek could just as easily be translated, Your faith has saved you.

           Full stop.  What was the act of faith that saved the tenth leper?  Is the implication that the other nine were not made well, not saved? As tempting as it is to say, Yes, I dont think that is the right answer.  They were, in fact, healed, and despite his asking where they were, Jesus knew where they were.  They were doing what he told them to do and what their religion told them to do if they were to be restored to the community as clean.

           So what was the tenth lepers act of faith?  Saying, Thank you?  Yes, surely that is a part of it.  Gratitude and faith are inseparable.  We people of the Eucharistthat word which in Greek means Thanksgiving”—know that.

           Was his act of faith believing and declaring that in encountering Jesus he had encountered God?  Yes, that is part of it also.

           But there is one more part, and it is the one that came first.  There was a moment when he and the other nine realized they were clean, and he stopped, realizing that it didnt matter, at least not to the priests to which they were heading.  And he must have thought to himself, Where can I go?  And then came the act of faith.  I can go back to Jesus.  He knew not only that he ought to say thank you.  He not only knew that he had encountered the presence of God.  He dared to believe he would be accepted.

           This story is for all of us who have been led to believe that we were not acceptable to God, and have dared to believe otherwise.  We who have staked our lives on the conviction born in our experience that the religion of Jesus Christ is not a religion of division and fear, but faith and gratitude.

           And this is our song.

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
full of mercy, love, and power.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
he will embrace me in his arms;
in the arms of my dear Savior,
oh, there are ten thousand charms.

Let not conscience make you linger,
not of fitness fondly dream;
all the fitness he requireth
is to feel your need of him.

Let us arise and go to Jesus,
he will embrace us in his arms;
In the arms of our dear Savior,
oh, there are ten thousand charms.[1]

[1] Hymn text by Joseph Hart (1712-1768).  The last verse is modified to the first plural.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

A Lesson on Hope from the Exotic Marigold Hotel

Sermon preached at St. Mark's Church Penn Yan, New York on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 7, 2019:  Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

           A favorite movie of mine is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  The manager of the hotel is a na├»ve young man; at times he is inept, but he is always enthusiastic.  At several points in the movie he says,

In the end all will be well,
And if it is not well, it is not the end.

           It is a message about hope, of course, and it hits the nail of hope on the head because hope in the short-term is often elusive.  When it comes to hope, we must learn to play the long-game.

           Three phrases in the readings this morning are good examples of playing the long-game of hope.  The Gospel reading gives us the phrase, twice, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (vv. 9 & 11).  That is the message the seventy disciples are to proclaim on their mission trip.  But more than proclaim, it is also the message that they themselves are to experience and help others experience.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God is not some abstract notion.  It is something to be on the lookout for, noticed, and experienced.  Walter Brueggemann says of the kingdom of God,

God is about to bring well-bring into the world that will displace the kingdom of Rome and every other exploitative power. … This good governance is displacing the governance of defeat and despair that is sponsored by Rome or any other [combination] of ruthless power and oppressive money. …We can trace the emergence of that new governance [in] the life of Jesus.[1]

           The Gospel gives us another long-game phrase from the lips of Jesus when the seventy return. Do not rejoice in the power you experienced on the road, he says, but “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20).  This is not meant to articulate a belief that no matter what happens in this life there is “pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by.”  It means that God’s love and mercy are things we can count on now and forever.

           And lastly we have from Galatians a message from Paul that is basically, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”  “A new creation,” he says, “is everything” (v. 15).  Again, a long-game view of hope.

           Now none of these things have been achieved, although they are all glimpsed from time to time, and even experienced from time to time, enough so, that they remain strong promises for us.  They remain for us “the hope of things unseen,” or Christianity would have died out a long time ago.  We learn to play the long-game in faith because we have seen who God is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The kingdom of God has come near to you.
Rejoice that your names are written in
A new creation is everything.

           Having said this, it is not enough, of course. All is not well among us, not well with violence, with hateful prejudice, with greed, with anxiety, and the exploiters of anxiety.

           So what do we do? We have this long-game hope, on the one hand, and on the other hand, our experience of a very different, broken, alienated, competitive world.  The current state of our national government, continued regular instances of gun violence, the less than dignified treatment of those seeking asylum in this country from a dangerously chaotic Central America, the Middle East in tension and outright war from Syria to Iran to Yemen.  How can we play the long-game in this dangerous short-term which testifies less to hope than to despair?

           Three things:

1.    First of all, I have to hearken back to the epistle for Independence Day from the Letter to the Hebrews (11:13-15), which said,

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country.

It is vitally important to be alert, to know that we never reach perfection, that we strive always in our life together for something better. This means being honest about our flaws, the ways we fall short of God’s dream for us. Brueggemann says,

We belong to a tradition that notices, that exposes, that insists, that tells the truth about failed reality, failed reality in the neighborhood and in the larger world. … Right in the midst of the [struggle], we make insistent claim for better.[2]

2.    The second thing we long-game hopers can do in the short-term is to act in concrete ways to participate in God’s transformative mission in the world.  Hope is grounds for action, not passive waiting. So the disciples are sent out with specific instructions, and they report back, “Hey, this stuff works!”  Then Jesus says a very odd thing:

I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. (verse 19)

Brueggemann says,

This is not a mandate to handle snakes!  It is rather to say that the power for life given to the disciples will be authority to make life possible where death seems to have the last word.  The demons want to negate life, want hate to win, want fear to prevail.

Disciples of Jesus refuse this way of death.

3.    Lastly, again to Paul,

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (verse 10).

On my way home from church in Rochester most Sundays I would travel through the intersection of East Avenue and Goodman Street. For many years there were a handful of people on that corner holding signs protesting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I stopped once and talked with a man I had seen there most Sundays.  “How long will you keep doing this,” I asked.  “Until the war is over,” he said.

We live in a “me first” world, and any act for the common good, from which I get no reward, is a radically Christian act.

           So we are called to play the long-game, with the unshakeable vision that

The kingdom of God is near.
We can rejoice that our names are written in
A new creation is everything.

           We live in a world that does not share those values, and, in truth, we struggle with them ourselves, because at times the long-game seems way, way too long.

           But Jesus and Paul give us short-term ways to keep on keeping on in the long-game:

Be critically alert, and be honest.
Act daily in ways that transform death to life.
Work for the good of all.

           Interestingly enough these perfectly align with three of the promises of our baptismal covenant:

We will persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we sin, repent and return to the Lord.

We will seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.[3]

           Short-term ways to play the long-game of hope.

In the end all will be well,
And if it is not well, it is not the end.

           It is rather, the time to be disciples.

[1] Brueggemann, p. 178.
[2] Brueggemann, p. 180.
[3] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304-305.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Our Alpha & Omega Stories

You can listen to the sermon preached yesterday, May 19, the 5th Sunday of Easter, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, here

Wednesday, May 01, 2019


Like most people growing up I had many coaches, and I was lucky enough to have some very good ones who managed to teach me more about life than about whatever athletic endeavor we were playing at.  But there was only one man who I only called "Coach," and who I could never in my adult life get myself to call anything else.

And the heck of it is, he wasn't my coach in the strict sense, because he did not teach me athletics.  When I was in junior high, I signed up to be a manager for the wrestling team at Avoca Central School.  I'm not sure why, but I think it probably had to do with the fact that I was not a basketball player (the two sports have concurrent seasons), but I felt like I had to do something.

And so I met Walter Peterson.  I was terrified of him.  He was big and loud and demanding.  He actually got on the mat and wrestled.  I also knew that sooner rather than later he was going to discover that I was not wrestling material and that meant my helping with the team would not have a long life.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong.  I mean he did discover that I was not going to be a wrestler, but he also sensed, I think, that I needed to belong, and he watched me closely enough that as I grew he discovered I had other gifts that could serve his program.  I was an organizer, so he had me keep close tabs an supplies and the care of equipment.  I was his recorder in the weight room, making sure the refs were giving his boys a fair deal.  I made sure each home match was video-taped.  And, most importantly, when he was in charge of the sectional tournament, he had enough faith in me to let me run it, as I did many tournaments for him.

He was always Coach.  That came out of the deep respect I developed for him, and the respect he gave me back.  When I coached my own summer track team I tried to emulate him.  And the sense that creativity comes out of mutual respect has served me well all my life.

He wasn't perfect. He could be fiercely competitive, ornery, and stubborn to a fault.  But he always loved fiercely too.  His family, and his wrestlers, which sometimes included those not destined for the mat.

Coach Peterson, Coach, died this past Sunday after a long struggle with ALS.  It was a grossly unfair disease for him to struggle with, a wrestling coach losing control of his body.

I am grateful for him, more than these words can possibly say.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Here We are so Drawn

Sermon preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath.

           Jesus speaks three times from the cross in John’s Gospel.  They are more than words, however.  They are actions.  They accomplished something in the moment, but they ring across the ages to speak to us and compel us, also, to action..

           The first words Jesus speaks from the cross are directed at his mother and the one who is called the Beloved Disciple.

To his mother: Woman, here is your son.
To the disciple:  Here is your mother.

           These two are the only followers of Jesus left with him.  The others have all fled.  I want to notice one thing about them:  they do not have names.  Neither of these characters have names in John’s Gospel.  Now we assume we know their names:  Mary, of course, Jesus’ mother, and the Gospel writer John himself, who most people assume was the Beloved Disciple.

           But John does not tell us these names, and I find that very odd.  Why not?  Why not speak the name of Mary, and why not identify yourself as the Beloved Disciple?  It has to be a deliberate choice John has made. Why?

           I think it is because John wants us more easily to imagine ourselves in these roles. We might recoil from the presumption, but I do think we can imagine being the two people who care so deeply for this man that we will not leave him, despite the horror and the danger.  And I think we can imagine being the two people about whom Jesus cares so deeply, so as to refer to them with affection, “mother,” and “beloved.”

           I know on Good Friday we are “supposed” to identify with the mob that calls for Jesus to be crucified.  We are the sinners in this story, and, indeed, we are.  But I believe the Gospel also invites us to be the beloved in the story.

           I said that Jesus does more than say three things from the cross, he does three things.  And what he is doing here is very important.  He is creating that new community of love that he promised, the community of the new commandment, to “love one another as I have loved you,” and “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

           In essence, in giving his mother and the disciple whom he loved to each other, Jesus is creating the church—not the institution, but the communion, people, to use this gospel’s language, who abide in God and who abide together in love.

           Jesus then says, “I thirst.”  And he receives some sour wine on a sponge lifted up to him with a branch of hyssop.  In his thirst Jesus is showing us his humanity in union with ours.  But there is more than the sheer physicality of the moment.

           “Thirst” is one of the major metaphors from John’s Gospel.  Jesus provides living water, so that no one need thirst.  “How can he do such a thing?” people ask.  He is showing us right here on the cross.  Jesus is thirsty humanity, thirsty for union with our Creator.  This is a thirst for abundant life.  “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly,” he has said.

           We seek that abundant life in so many ways on our own.  Through human relationships, through an accumulation of wealth, through social and political commitments that fool us into believing we are on the right side, and sometimes through addictions that make us feel temporarily better.  But none of these things work.

           We must know that our thirst for God is absolute, and we must drink from the well of God’s love without restraint.  Jesus wants us to know we are God’s beloved, but he wants us to know it as if we were the parched woman or man in the middle of the desert with no oasis in site, or as if we ourselves were on the cross, thirsty in the depth of our being, helpless to have that thirst slaked any other way than by crying out to God.

           And Jesus is showing God’s thirst for us.  He is the word made flesh, in his body speaking God’s thirst for the love of you and of me.

           And then Jesus says, “It is finished.”  But, again, not just words.  He says “It is finished,” and “gives up his spirit,” in Greek, paradoken pneuma.  Literally, “gave up his breath,” but again we know this is about more than the physical act of dying, when someone breathes their last breath.

           We could just as easily translate those words, “He handed over the Spirit.”  In his last breath, he knows he has accomplished the purposes of God, to give God’s very Spirit to God’s people.  And we might remember that conversation with Nicodemus, near the beginning of John’s Gospel.  It is time for God’s people to be “born from above,” “born again,” “born of the Spirit.”

           And we might also recall words from that great opening chapter of John.

And to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God, who were born not of flesh, nor of human will, but of God.

           There is much more coming from the cross than the simple transaction of salvation.  God is angry with sinful humankind—Jesus dies to satisfy that anger—and we are saved when we accept this act.

           No, a union, a communion, flows from the cross, a communion that calls us together in a new family, satisfies our thirst, however deep it may be, and hands over the Spirit of Truth and Love, enabling us to live out his new commandment.

           Jesus had said, not once, not twice, but three times, “When I am lifted up I will draw all to myself.”  And here we are so drawn, drawn into a new way of being with one another and with God.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I am about to take a journey . . .

[This a quote from James Baldwin.  I offer it for your journey through the end of Lent and Holy Week].

I am about to take a journey, and this is a journey which I always knew I would have to make, but had hoped, perhaps, certainly had hoped, not to have to make so soon.  I am saying that a journey is called that because you do not know what you will disclose on the journey, what you will do with what you find or what you find will do to you.

James Baldwin 6/30/1979, from a letter to Jay Acton of Spartan Literary Agency.