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May 19, 2013
The Feast of Pentecost
Leave-taking from the parish
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The Feast of Pentecost, when we honor the gift of the Holy Spirit, has had a timely way of weaving itself into my life. On this day in 1964, when I was 13 years old, I was confirmed. On this day in 1982, when I was 31 years old, I was ordained a priest. And on this day in 2013, now that I am 62 years old, I part company with you.
The Holy Spirit is with us at all times, of course, but when we invoke it on special days - like baptisms, weddings, ordinations, and today - I believe that the Spirit responds, and becomes particularly active. When we bring open hearts and a faithful intention to these moments, something stirs within us, among us.
I have felt this movement vividly over the past weeks, as I have been preparing for this day. The Spirit has been stirring me as I have taken leave of one group after another, as I emptied out my office, as I have read your stories of what we’ve shared in the many cards and letters you’ve given me, and especially on Friday night as you overwhelmed me with that unbelievable party. I’m still stunned.
My heart is stirred with gratitude for the generous love and support you have always shown me and my family, as I bounce from memory to memory, from things we have accomplished together to births and deaths and precious small moments of intimate connection when time has stood still. I am privileged to have been allowed into those times.
I am stirred to wonder about my future - how will what I have done find new expression as I move into a dramatically different life? But I’m also wondering the same about you. How will the Spirit take what you have experienced over the last 30 years and more, and guide you to new expressions of who you are?
Recently I’ve had many conversations with many of you that have gone something like this: “Brian, thank you for bringing this or that into our community.” Then I say “But I didn’t do it alone. We did these things because of who we are.” Then you say “Yes, but it wouldn’t have happened without you.”
Well, this can go back and forth forever, like the chicken and the egg, but I get the last word! So today I’d like to point out some qualities that are now imbedded in the DNA of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church - in you, that is - and wonder about where they might take you next.
First, you are diverse. Some of you are confident in your faith, some are happily seeking, and others are deeply skeptical inquirers who don’t know what you believe. You are straight, gay, lesbian, transgendered, adopted, single, married, partnered, and of many races, ethnicities, and ages. You know that this is God’s church, God’s altar, and every child of God belongs.
Over the years your diversity has embraced a Jewish congregation, a Coptic Orthodox church, an Urban Indian congregation, Zen Buddhist teachers, Hindu chant, and now, Lutheran and UCC pastors on staff. You worship like meditative monks at 7:30, informal family at 9, tasteful traditionalists at 11:15, and bicultural compadres at 5pm.
Second, you are survivors - no, make that “a people who thrive in adversity.” You not only endured 16 years of an adversarial, punitive bishop; you used that time as an opportunity to stand up and come into your own, reaffirming the most important things. You came through an arsonist’s fire, pulling together and becoming stronger than before. You were the only Episcopal congregation in this country who undertook a capital campaign and major construction project during the worst economy since the Great Depression. You’ve got a lot of nerve.
Third, you are builders. 62 years ago, you created a new mission on a dirt road and alfalfa fields in the wilds of the North Valley. Recently, you created a new mission of your own in the Village of Corrales, now a parish of its own. You started up a Contemplative Center, with prayer groups, conferences, and retreats. You were among the founders of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center for the Homeless. You created a unique form of liturgical music at 9:00 that takes the best of contemporary ensemble playing and delivers it with heart and soul. And you built this house of worship and the Ministry Complex next door.
Fourth, you are leaders. In your 63 years, you have nurtured 23 people - 10 of them women - towards ordination. 2 became bishops, 2 became the bishop’s Canon to the Ordinary, and 1 was the 1st native New Mexico Hispanic priest of the diocese. And right now, 3 more are up and coming. You’ve always known what a deacon is, and always had at least one, doing what deacons are uniquely called to do. Dozens of Lay leaders initiate and run ministry groups with authority, some of whom have been here less than 6 months. Having once been pariahs, a number of you are now taking over the diocese!
Finally, and most importantly, you are seekers. This can be quantified through the array of spiritual programs and groups and retreats and pilgrimages you generate, more than any other parish I’m aware of. But this dimension is far more than anything that can be quantified.
People walk in here and know it is a holy place, a place suffused in prayer. Your worship is deep, immediate, and real. It is normal here to have several trained spiritual directors who are companions to dozens of seekers, and to utilize a Discernment Guild that is already central to the spiritual work you have in transition. You may not know how unusual all of this is, ironically, in the church.
Now clearly, it has taken many people, a whole village, to develop these qualities. One person cannot, and has not, done it alone. And these qualities will go forward with you into your next chapter. You can’t help but be yourself. And you will attract a leader who is attuned to these qualities, who will partner with you to express them in new ways.
So my message today is this: in the transition ahead, rely upon these qualities to see you through. God has given you these gifts, and you already know full well how to use them. So use them in the next year or two of transition.
As a diverse community, bring in all the variety of voices and experiences to hear the Spirit. You have wisdom and strength in diversity. Trust it. When disagreement and problems arise, don’t worry, and don’t be in a hurry to resolve it. Those tensions are a part of what happens when diverse points of view come together, and because of them, an unforeseen, better path will open before you.
As survivors and thrivers, enjoy the relative chaos. Like sailors during a storm, lash yourselves to the mast and laugh at the wind and the rain. You’ll come through just fine.
As builders, create a good transition. There will be plenty of time later to make plans with a new Rector for your future, so for now, be present to what is before you, and craft a good transition. Be creative, patient, and true to yourselves.
As leaders, don’t wait for someone else to determine what will happen next, or when or how it will happen. Be leaders to yourselves, and together with God and your bishop, shape your own becoming.
And as seekers, entrust it all to God. The Spirit has always been in your hearts, in your midst, in all that you do. God will not fail you, but will, in fact, guide you exactly where you need to go.
You need only to be like a canoeist, gliding down the river, through rapids and doldrums, danger and peace, but always attentive, awake, occasionally making adjustments in direction or pausing on the banks to consider the next move. The water, the Spirit, will do the rest. You don’t need to force your way downriver.
At this fork in the river, we part company, each of us about to round a bend that will take us into territories that neither of us can yet see. We’re both a little nervous, but I hope that like me, you are also excited. And I hope that you are willing to trust in God’s Spirit, who stirs the depths this festival day, in order to empower and guide us into new life.
St. Michael and All Angels
Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2013
I have been stunned by the story of three women in Cleveland who escaped captivity this week after ten years. I can’t wrap my head around that kind of imprisonment. While stories such as that tend to be extraordinary, the experience of prison is more common than we realize. In 2008, approximately 1 in every 31 adults was in prison, on parole or probation. Some of us know the experience of sitting in a jail cell. Others of us have found ourselves in prisons of our own making—perhaps without ever realizing that we are there. We get caught in prisons of fear, striving to be perfect, anger, resentment, jealousy, despair, the list in us goes on and on…yet something in us longs for freedom.
It may be that whatever prison we find ourselves, we first discover freedom through song.
Fred Craddock tells about preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr.’s church. As he moved to the pulpit to read the gospel, Joe Roberts, the pastor, began to sing. Just as Fred opened his mouth to say his first word, Joe started singing, “I feel much better now that I’ve laid my burden down.” Then he sang some more. The associates started singing, the musicians went to their instruments, the piano, and the organ and the drums and electric guitar, and the people started singing.
Fred is standing there with his Bible, waiting. Suddenly, he realized that he’s the one up front. He started clapping his hands and singing. Then everybody stood up and started clapping and singing and Fred said it was just marvelous. Then at a certain point, Joe Roberts, put his hand out, it got quiet, and everyone sat down. Fred started preaching and he said he could have preached all day. Afterward he said to Joe, “Well, that kind of shocked me a bit. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.”
Joe said, “Well, I didn’t plan to.”
“Then why did you do it?”
Joe said, “When you stood up there, one of the associates leaned over to me and said, ‘That boy’s going to need help.’” (from Craddock Stories, p. 128 by Fred Craddock)
Do we have any idea the power music has to set us free? We are bound by so many things—our self-image, our schedules, our desire for more stuff, our inability to forgive, our preconceived ideas, our fear of letting go…
The story in Acts begins with a young slave woman who is possessed by a demon. This demon enables her to tell fortunes and makes her owners a lot of money. After she publicly confronts Paul and Silas for several days, Paul has enough and casts the demon out of her. This could be a happy ending. But now that the woman is free from her affliction, her owners are angry. Most people can be quite decent and hospitable until you begin to mess with their economic interests. Rather than acknowledge that their financial interests have been threatened, the owners talk about Paul and Silas being a threat to their city, to the town’s way of life. They manage to get the crowd worked up enough to beat Paul and Silas and have them thrown in jail. The liberators have now become the prisoners.
What do we do when we find ourselves in prison?
Paul and Silas prayed and sang.
When we are waiting for God to act,
I can think of nothing better to do than
to pray and sing.
You may remember my commitment
three weeks ago to listen to Bobby McFerrin
sing The 23rd Psalm every day for a month.
Hearing and singing those words each day
has a powerful impact on me.
It reminds me that it is God who sets me free.
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass says,
“You cannot imprison the word of the Lord.” (Wait for singing to end)
The Acts story gets interesting. God responds to the prayers and songs with an earthquake. The foundations of the prison are shaken, the doors open, and chains are unfastened. Knowing what happens to jailers who allow prisoners to escape, the jailer awakes and draws his sword to take his life. Having keys to another person’s jail cell doesn’t make us free, just as iron bars don’t make a prison. The jailer realizes that he’s been in bondage and he asks Silas and Paul what he must do to be saved. He’s also asking what he must do to be free. The jailer and his family are baptized and he throws a party to celebrate his newfound freedom/faith.
The Christian life is marked by songs in the night. When we are in darkness, when it seems there is no way, songs begin to rise to the surface from some place deep inside.
As I read this story in Acts, I remembered the story of another prisoner. Some of you will remember that in the early 1980’s some people were taken hostage in Beirut over several years. Much of the time these hostages were alone. They spent a few years chained to radiators in small rooms of buildings in Lebanon. They were blindfolded much of the time and beaten on occasion. They were never sure as the days turned into months and then years, whether they would live to see family and friends and freedom again. One of the hostages was Ben Weir, a Presbyterian pastor and teacher.
Early in his captivity, Ben was blindfolded and isolated. One evening he imagined that the sun had set and he thought of the hymn, “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.” He said he felt vulnerable, helpless, lonely…and tears came to his eyes. Then he remembered the promise of Jesus that he would be with us always. Soon Ben thought of another hymn: “All praise to thee, my God, this night…” He found that his tears were then prompted by gratitude and a sense of companionship and intimacy.
Ben wrote: “As darkness became complete, I found myself recalling one hymn after another. Of some I could remember several verses, and where there was a gap I could improvise. Of others I could only remember a phrase or two. I was surprised to see how many came to mind.” (p. 31) He sang the great historical hymns of the church. He sang gospel tunes and children’s songs and Christmas carols and Easter hymns. For Ben, each hymn communicated some aspect of the Christian life and faith that were meaningful to him. (from p. 52 of Hostage Bound, Hostage Free by Carol and Ben Weir)
What are some of your favorite hymns? How many can you sing from memory? What hymn would you sing in a prison cell or in a hospital room or in some dark night of the soul?
For many people, singing or listening to the music of our faith changes things. For Israel, singing helped rebuild Jerusalem. For Paul and Silas, it opened the doors of the prison. Singing didn’t open the doors of Ben Weir’s prison, but it changed him. He moved from fear to consolation…from despair into hope. Through singing the faith of the church, he was reminded in a deep and profound way that he was not alone.
Anne Lamott tells of her journey from a life of drug and alcohol addiction to faith in God. On weekends, she would travel from Marin City to the flea market where all kinds of ethnic food could be found. This was a favorite hangout when she was hung over or coming off a drug binge. If she happened to be there on Sundays, she could hear the music coming from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church across the street. From time to time she would gather her courage to stand in the doorway and listen to the music. She says, “it was the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open.” Eventually, she took a seat off by herself and the singing enveloped her. She said, “Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down the all boundaries that kept me so isolated. Standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.” (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott, pp. 47-48)
When we sing, we find a freedom that we didn’t know possible. Sometimes we are the ones released from bondage. Sometimes those around us are released. We never know how powerful the songs can be until we sing them. We never know who is waiting for liberation until we open our mouths and the song emerges. We may not realize that God is in us—a song waiting to be sung.
Music takes us where words can never quite go. We sing our wonder, hope, longing, joy, prayers, sorrow, despair…we sing our faith. We sing our lives. The music that we sing each Sunday enables us to go back into the world.
The songs of our faith have the power to set us free, no matter how secure the prison. The songs of our faith remind us that when all else has failed, “you cannot imprison the word of the Lord.” God’s power will not be diminished by human chains. God will not be confined to prisons of our own making. God’s power is written on our hearts through song. As we sing the songs of faith, we find ourselves free.
May 5, 2013
The 6th Sunday of Easter
Integrate the Teachings
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
It is a strange coincidence that during the last month of my time with you as Rector, we have had readings from that section of the gospel when Jesus is also taking leave from his friends. Since his resurrection, Jesus has come and gone, as I do from time to time. But now he is really going, and not coming back, as is true for me.
Some of you have asked will I be worshiping here; or coming back to do weddings, blessings, or funerals? Will I continue to be in touch personally or via email with anyone who so desires? Will I link the parish to a blog or website where I post written or audio files?
The answer to all these is no. Part of the reason for this is so I don’t complicate things for the new leadership that will be here. But it’s for me, too. I really need time to turn the page and see my life and vocation in a new context, among new people, outside of this role I have inhabited for so long with you.
So in these weeks, Jesus and I are preparing to depart. The scene from the gospels is the Last Supper, right before Jesus is arrested and crucified. In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus said to them "Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; but where I am going, you cannot come.”
When Jesus spoke this way, his friends probably replied “For 3 years I’ve come to rely on your preaching and teaching and spiritual guidance. What will I do without that?” Some of you have said something along these lines to me in the past weeks. It’s hard when you’re about to lose a relationship that nourishes you in a way that none other quite does.
In today’s gospel Jesus responds to this concern. He says "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
I hope this will be true for you, too. Everything I have taught and preached and talked with you about over our time together - hopefully you have internalized it enough to not be dependent on me continuing to say it. Hopefully whatever is useful in we have shared will have taken root in you, and is now being watered by the Spirit. And if not, there are other teachers, other books, other guides who say the same things.
But at some point, when the teacher leaves, when the books have all been read, it comes down to you and the Holy Spirit. This is when integration happens, when you internalize, on your own, what you have learned from others.
How do we do this? At any time of our lives - not just in this instance - how do we make real the words we hear in scripture, in poetry, or on retreat?
You know how it goes. We are affected when we hear things like this:
Blessed are the pure in heart; have no anxiety about anything; the kingdom of God is at hand; love everyone without reason, for we are all one; blessed are the peacemakers and those who thirst for justice; you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free...
These words are beautiful when we hear them, but as long as we don’t integrate them into our daily life, it’s like it says in the letter of James - If any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
We try to remember what is important. And so we write it down in journals, we post it on sticky notes on the mirror, we assiduously take notes when we attend a class, we keep mementos that will help us remember peak moments. But then we turn around, and forget what we were like in the mirror God once held up to us.
To use another metaphor - it’s like eating a delicious meal: satisfying at the time, but then we’re hungry again a few hours later. Why, if we don’t internalize the teachings, even if we were to hang around Jesus himself for several years, it would be the same: “Ah, the Sermon on the Mount. That was a nice meal...Oh dear, I’m hungry again.” Look at his disciples. They were with him 24/7 for 3 years. But they kept forgetting.
Knowing this, Jesus assured his friends I will send a helper, an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will come to you and teach you everything, and lead you into all truth. This is the key. On our own, it is very difficult to integrate the teachings we so long to live. Like the disciples, we all need a helper of some kind. That helper, after all the teachers and books and sermons and retreats, is the Holy Spirit. And the great thing is, this helper is within us.
And how do we learn from this teacher within?
If you are a person of faith, if you are sincerely open to God, if you ask for God’s help, then, I am convinced, the Spirit honors your intention, and goes to work. Whether you feel or know that the Spirit is moving in you doesn’t matter in the slightest.
When you pray, you can be confident that there is a kind of partnership, a silent dialog, going on all the time. As St. Paul said the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
So the Spirit is within, and helps us if we call upon this help. But most importantly, it is when we really try to live out the teachings of our faith in our daily life that the Spirit’s work of integration really takes place. This is where we become doers of the word, and not hearers only.
When we find ourselves angry at another person and choose to turn from resentment to understanding, the Spirit helps us integrate the teaching of forgiveness. When we are restless and impatient, and we choose to turn from distraction and try to settle in to God’s presence, the Spirit helps us integrate a sense of God’s peace. When we anticipate the worst about our future but then determine not to live in fear, the Spirit helps us integrate the reality of faith.
Some say “have confidence in yourself.” That’s good, but I would also say “Have confidence in the Spirit within you.” If you open your heart to God, and if you ask for help to be a doer of the Word in your everyday challenges, then you will find that the Spirit does come to your aid. In this partnership, God is working at least as hard as you.
Be confident in, and patient with, God’s slow work in you. You will come to know that purity of heart that Jesus called blessed. You will experience more joy and more heartache, which are both a part of the depths that God takes us into. You will love more cleanly, more freely, as Christ did. And you will learn how to move from anxiety to the peace of God that passes all understanding.
You’ve heard it all by now - Jesus’ teachings, how to pray, the possibility of waking up to the divine dimension here and now, our unity with all people, and the call to serve - and if you haven’t heard it, you will, in due time. With all that you hear, and with the Spirit within, you already have everything you need. It is up to you and the Spirit to make it real.