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Every year, congregations in The Episcopal Church prepare parochial reports, which are then compiled by dioceses and submitted to the national headquarters in New York City.  And sometime later in the year, the church issues its membership statistics.  Like many of my clergy colleagues, I’m concerned that our parochial reporting is not an accurate reflection of growth and vitality in today’s church.  Yes, across the nation, weekly Sunday worship attendance has decreased, but that doesn’t mean that The Episcopal Church is in decline.

Like many other aspects of American life, patterns of worship are shifting.  In a cathedral with vibrant weekday worship, education and programming, as well as weekly podcasting of sermons, choral evensong and The Dean’s Forum, does average Sunday attendance accurately measure our life?  When we look at indicators that are out-dated and incomplete, and we feel bad about ourselves.  Accountability and evaluation are really important tools in organizational growth and vitality, but it’s time for a new dashboard.  My friend and colleague Sam Candler, Dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta, once suggested that we should measure “average weekly touch.”

Let’s consider the following:

  • Average weekly worship attendance (let’s count all of our worship services during the week and not just Sundays because lots of people don’t get to church on Sundays but they do show up at other times during the week);
  • Podcast audience and website visitors;
  • Attendance at weekday concerts, lectures, classes, labyrinth walks, prayer meetings, support groups, bible studies, workshops and retreats;
  • People served in our hunger and homeless programs, volunteer hours spent in our community gardens and neighborhood schools, and parishioners who show up for community organizing meetings; and
  • Pastoral connections such as, hospital and nursing home visits, pastoral counseling sessions, newcomer conversations.

I’ll bet we’ll see more vibrancy and growth than we realize.  We talk about shifting paradigms in organized religion.  It’s time that our evaluation tools and measurement indicators catch up.

However, I’m pleased to report that in 2013, Trinity Cathedral had an average Sunday attendance of 376 (average weekly attendance was closer to 450) and nearly 300 pledging households.  And, this coming Sunday, we will present 20 individuals for confirmation and reception in the Episcopal Church.  It feels vibrant to me!

 

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Living Waters on The Way, Tracey Lind, Camino de Santiago, 2009

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Lent - John 4:5-42

I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account is one of them.   The story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved.  It is a story about the beginning of a love affair, a relationship that exemplifies St. Paul’s familiar words, “To see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12)  

In John’s Gospel, both a nameless Samaritan woman and Jesus are confronted and exposed, accepted and affirmed, nourished and quenched, welcomed and received, known and loved.  Through our Lord’s brief encounter with an anonymous, lonely woman, God is revealed as an unbounded and indiscriminate lover and seeker of souls.  Read the rest of this entry »

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In a recent sermon, Sam Candler of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta spoke of his desire to rescue and salvage Christian vocabulary.  Sam is not alone in that pursuit.  The language of Christianity is in such a state of crisis, says Marcus Borg, that “it has become a stumbling block in our time.”[i]

From my own pastoral experience, I know this to be true.  So often, people tell me that they simply cannot believe all those things that Christian doctrine teaches.  They don’t believe in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, much less the ascension.  They don’t understand words like atonement, justification, salvation, or even grace.  They’re not convinced that there is a heaven or a hell, and the idea that Jesus died for our sins is a huge obstacle for many seekers and believers.

This past week, a friend called.  She asked me what I was doing?  When I told her that I was writing a sermon about sin, she responded, “I don’t believe in sin.”

I think that “sin,” a familiar and widely used religious word, is one that could benefit from some rescue and salvation. We say that it’s a sin to steal, murder, tell a lie, dishonor one’s parents, or cheat on one’s spouse.  We also say that it’s a sin to let the last piece of apple pie go uneaten, and when something tastes or feels really good, we exclaim that it must be sinful.  The dictionary defines sin as: “An offense against a religious or moral law.”  The Book of Common Prayer defines sin, as “The seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” (p. 848)

St. Augustine said, “Sin is energy in the wrong channel.” In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul asserted that sin was missing the mark or “falling short of the glory of God.” (3.23)  I think Paul Tillich said it best: sin is “the personal act of turning away from that to which one belongs.”[ii]

I’ve always understood sin as a state of estrangement that separates one from God, other people, the rest of creation, and one’s own self.  Perhaps that’s why Leonard Cohen once sang, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”[iii]  Estrangement can be a lonely place.

Since the earliest of times, human beings have been fascinated and intrigued with the origin of sin.  Some believe that we are born in a state of original sin, that it’s part of our human DNA.  Others argue that we choose to be sinful.  The truth is that we are not really sure from whence our sinful state originates.  But, there comes a time in the course of life when we ask St. Paul’s probing and perplexing question: Why do I do that which I ought not to do, and why don’t I do that which I know I should do? (Romans 7:19)

My short answer to that question is that we – individuals, institutions, communities, and nations – fall out of step, out of balance, out of sync, out of harmony with God, the world around us, and ourselves.  We are not mindful or attentive to the presence or intentions of God and so we turn away from what Tillich called “the ground of being,” and we become estranged or separated from that to which we belong.

Think about a time during this past week when you said or did something that you regretted, or when you didn’t say or do something that you should have, when in the words of the prayer book, you might “have sinned in thought, word or deed by things done or left undone?” What was going on in your life?  What were you thinking or feeling?  How were your home life, work life, and prayer life?  Had you been eaten well; were you getting enough exercise or sleep?  My hunch is that you were not being mindful or attentive to your relationship with that to which you belong: God, the people around you, and perhaps yourself.  If you had been, you probably would have behaved differently.

As I said on Ash Wednesday, I start off each morning intending to be mindful throughout the day, but by midday, I’ve mis-stepped, mis-spoken, mis-acted, or mis-thought at least once.  The truth is that we all fall into sin because staying mindful; keeping in right relationship is hard work.  That’s why the baptismal covenant doesn’t say, “If you fall into sin…” It says, “Whenever you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord?”  God assumes that because we are not perfect, we will fall out of mindfulness and right relationship and into sinfulness and estrangement; so when it happens, we are encouraged to not deny it, or beat ourselves up for it; but rather, we are invited to acknowledge our human imperfection and loneliness, turn around and once again get mindful, grounded, attentive and intentional about our relationship with God, neighbor and self.

This morning’s lectionary readings explore the relationship of mindfulness and sin.  The book of Genesis tells us Adam and Eve fell into sin by not being mindful of their right relationship with God.  When they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, they forgot what God expected of them, and were expelled by God from the garden.  Some call this punishment for the sin of disobedience.  Others say it was an essential part of God’s plan of creation, insisting that Adam and Eve needed to leave the garden in order to become fully human, like birds being pushed out of the nest by their mothers in order to learn how to fly, or children leaving their parents’ home in order to become adults.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of human beings growing up, leaving home, and returning – all the while falling in and out of right relationship with God, neighbor and self.

Enter Jesus.  According to the apostle Paul, Jesus is the second Adam who overcame the human temptation to sin.  He gave his unblemished, perfectly mindful life as a ransom for all the rest of us sinners, and thus redeemed and saved humanity from our fallen state of depravity and estrangement.

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury wrote an 11th century treatise that canonized this doctrine of Jesus’ life and death.  Because Adam and Eve sinned, humanity was eternally condemned.  God, the divine judge, wanted to redeem a fallen and sinful humanity, and therefore, sent Jesus, his perfect and blameless son, to make restitution, accepting punishment on our behalf by dying for our sins. Thus, God could forgive and restore us without diminishing the Divine honor.  Anselm’s theory of substitution atonement, which asserted that God actually sent Jesus into this world to die for our sins, depended on the belief that God’s honor, perfection and integrity would be compromised if divine forgiveness was offered without restitution.

Not all Christians understand the human condition or Jesus’ mission on earth this way.  Certainly, Anselm’s contemporary, the French theologian, Peter Abelard didn’t agree with him.  Abelard rejected the notion of original sin.  He thought sin was created by human choice and could not be inherited.  He argued that each of us have to bear responsibility for our own sins.  Abelard saw Jesus as a victim of human sin and yet understood his willingness to die as the ultimate act of God’s unconditional love.  For Abelard, restitution was not required for forgiveness; remorse was sufficient.

In the end, Anselm won the debate and Abelard was declared a heretic.  And, while Paul’s Letter to the Romans still holds a central place in the Christian canon, the debate about sin continues.

This morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew speaks of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as he wrestled with Satan, the great tempter, about how he would carry out his ministry without falling prey not to Sin (with a capital S), but to the temptations of ministry: convenience, manipulation, magic, and abusive control.

I often try to imagine Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  In fact, I can still recall sitting on a rock in the Judean desert, looking out over that forlorn landscape, visualizing in my mind’s eye what it must have been like to sit there not just for an hour, but for forty days and forty nights.

To sit for more than a month alone, in the wilds, exposed to the elements with only your thoughts, dreams, visions, and nightmares – that’s a lot of time to spend with one’s self, one’s own demons and temptations, and the ground of one’s being.  I bet that Jesus spent a lot of that time in prayer: talking, arguing, pleading, probing and listening to God.   When his vision quest was over, Jesus emerged, weakened by hunger but strengthened by both divine grace and his own mindfulness, able to resist the tests of the Tempter and prepared to demonstrate the unconditional love of God in a world filled with pain, disease, poverty and oppression.  To stay grounded and mindful, throughout his ministry, Jesus returned to the wilderness to spend time alone in prayer with God.

So back to the dilemma of human sin: if sin is a lack of mindfulness, a separation or estrangement from God and the world, then grace is the getting it together again.  The challenge is how to stay mindful in all the complicated moments and messes of our lives.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to stay mindful all of the time, but I do think we can work at mindfulness through the practice of prayer.

Recently, a member of this congregation too me that it would be helpful I would share about my daily prayer practice.  It’s really fairly simple.  When I have my morning coffee, I imagine that Jesus is sitting across the table from me.  And then I begin a conversation with him as if I’m talking with a friend.  I tell him what’s on my mind; I remember those who have asked for my prayers; I share with him my plans for the day; I ask for his help in staying mindful, engaged and connected to the source of my being and to those around me; and I finish with the Lord’s Prayer.   As I go though the day, I invite Jesus to accompany me into my meetings, conversations, emails, and visits.  And then, if I don’t fall asleep too quickly, I try to review the day with Jesus, recalling both my grace-filled and less-than-gracious interactions, giving thanks, seeking forgiveness, asking for blessing, and closing with the prayer our Lord taught.  When I do this, life is pretty good…no matter what happens.  When I don’t, life gets out-of-sorts.  I guess you could call it falling into sin.

So friends, there you have it – a little salvaging of the short but very big religious word “sin.”  We can discuss and debate it origins and nature for days on end without coming to absolute conclusions.  In the end, I think Tillich was right: sin is essentially estrangement from “the ground of being.” So, as we begin this season of Lent, this time of renewal, I want to suggest that you be intentional, attentive and disciplined about your daily prayer practice.  For prayer keeps us mindful and connected to “the ground of being,” and that is both preventive medicine and a remedy to sin.


[i] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, p.1

[ii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Part III, Chapter 1, p. 46

[iii] Leonard Cohen, The Sisters of Mercy

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Happy New Year!  That’s right.  I’ll say it again.  Happy New Year!  I’ve finally concluded that Ash Wednesday is my New Year’s Day.

The essence of Ash Wednesday lies in the collect of the day:  “You hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.”  The rest is commentary.

God hates nothing in all of creation.  God loves it all – even those creatures that we don’t like.  However, God doesn’t always like the way we humans behave in and towards the creation.  In fact, God wants us to mend our ways.  The worship of Ash Wednesday, the readings, prayers, and the ashes help us understand what this amendment of life is all about.

The prophet Isaiah said it very directly:  The people cry: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  God responds: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?  Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?’

The fast that God wants and expects is not a shallow apology, insincere remorse or pompous piety.   The fast that God wants and expects is a mending of the tear in our individual lives and in the very tapestry of creation.  That’s what God wants!

God doesn’t really care if we give up sugar for Lent.  God wants those who cut sugar cane and labor in sugar factories to get a living wage and be treated fairly by their employers, even if it means that the price of sugar goes up for the rest of us.

God doesn’t really care if we give up alcohol for Lent.  God wants to us to take care of our bodies, our brains, and our souls; and I don’t think that God wants us driving around drunk and putting the lives of others in jeopardy, or being abusive to those around us because we abuse alcohol. So if we’re drinking too much, then God wants us to deal with that, and maybe Lent is good time to begin with Ash Wednesday marking “the first day of the rest of our lives.”

God doesn’t really care if we give up Facebook or Twitter for Lent.  God wants us to stay connected with one another, but would really appreciate it if we made sure to stay connected with God.  And perhaps, God wants us to have more face-to-face conversations with each other.

God doesn’t really care if our names are displayed on donor plaques, but God wants and needs us to give generously of our time, talent and treasure to God’s work in the world.

God doesn’t really care if we if walk around with ashes on our foreheads, but God does want us to remember our connection with creation: that we are part of the humus, the good earth, the dust of creation.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”  If having a smudge of ashes placed upon our foreheads helps us make this connection, then this act of contrition is pleasing in God’s sight.

What does God expect of us?  Simply put, God wants us to make ourselves available to be reconciled in Christ: to be made whole and put back together.  God wants us to be righteous – that is, in right relationship with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. 

What does God require of us?  God wants us to turn around in order face God anew and remember our rightful vocation as stewards and caregivers of God’s precious creation. We have the awesome responsibility for serving God by caring for God’s earth.  This is our particular calling as human beings.  It is a sacred vocation, and we need to remember it.

Ashes mark our frail humanity, our connection to this planet, and our relationship to Adam and Eve who were symbolically formed out of the dust of the earth, molded out of the clay by God’s hands.  Ashes are mentioned throughout the Bible.  In Genesis, we hear our forefather Abraham say, “I who am but dust and ashes.”  Tamar, after she was raped, put on ashes in mourning.  Job, as his life fell apart, put on the ashes of grief.  Almost all of the prophets speak of ashes and dust.  It is right and good that we mark our foreheads with ashes to remind ourselves that our God is here – ready, willing and able to receive our repentance, our anger, and our grief – and to offer in return divine forgiveness, comfort and love.   

As a people, we need to return to God.   We need to remember and be mindful of the pain and brokenness in our own lives, and that of our families, friends and communities.  We also need to remember and be mindful of the pain and turmoil of our nation, our world, and the rest of God’s creation.

Ash Wednesday is about remembering or being mindful: remembering and being mindful of God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder that everything we do and say has an impact on somebody else. 

The prophets writing thousands of years ago said it well.   God calls us to a fast – a fast of making justice, loving-kindness and walking humbly with God.  And if we take these steps,  “we shall be like a watered garden, our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, we shall raise up the foundations of many generations, and we shall be called “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets” (Isaiah 58:12).  If we live the fast of God, then we shall feast. 

On Ash Wednesday, we pray a litany of penitence.  Like on Yom Kippur in Judaism, each petition acknowledges an element of our broken and wounded soul.  In praying this litany, we confess that we have not loved God, our neighbors and ourselves with our whole heart, mind and spirit.  We acknowledge that we have sometimes not heard the call to serve.  We admit that we have been unfaithful, prideful, hypocritical, and impatient.  We disclose that we have been self-indulgent and exploitative.  We declare that we have been angry, envious and dishonest.   And guess what – it’s true.  The truth is that, like the collect for Ash Wednesday, sometime during the past year, we have been sinful and wretched, and that we need to be forgiven and made whole.  In short, on Ash Wednesday, we will plead that God “create and make in us new and contrite hearts.[i]

I for one am grateful for Ash Wednesday – the opportunity to get down on my knees and say, God, please let me start over.  Please give me a second chance.  And once again, mark my forehead with the seal of your cross so that I may remember from whence I came and where I am going.


[i] “Collect for Ash Wednesday,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 264

_MG_8625HideAndSeekLast night Trinity Cathedral hosted our annual Shrove Tuesday Party.   This year we chose a Mardi Gras theme (most appropriate for 7 degree winter weather).  Instead of pancakes, we had gumbo, jambalaya (meat and vegetarian), and cornbread, jelly donuts and kings cake.   We had masks and beads, and we ate and danced to the music of eight-o’clocker Bob Gref’s band, The Dixielanders.  Because of the extremely cold weather, we couldn’t use the Cathedral Hall, so we gathered in the cathedral itself.  Colorful round tables were set, the band used the altar platform as a stage, and the dinner buffet was in the east transept.  But we had one challenge: where would we play our annual game of Hide-and-Go-Seek?

Our Hide-and-Go-Seek tradition started on a Shrove Tuesday many years ago.  Walking through the promenade, a parishioner asked me: “Is it all right for kids to be in the cathedral tonight?”  I agreed to investigate the situation.

I walked in the cathedral and found a group of young boys playing Hide-and-Go-Seek in the shadows of the nave.  The pulpit was the countdown location, and the altar decorated with Mardi gras beads and paper peace doves had been designated home base.  Off to the side was an adult stewarding the Labyrinth by candlelight.  I sat down next to her, stared at the Labyrinth, glanced at the altar, looked at the boys and said: “Now, this is my idea of church.”  She readily agreed, and before I knew it, I was up on my feet to join the game of Hide-and–Go-Seek.  A younger boy squealed with delight: “Look, Dean Tracey is playing.  Get her.”  The next thing I knew I was “It” – up in the pulpit counting to ten and then running through the darkened nave chasing after an eleven old child.  A few minutes later, parents began to wander in looking for their children.  One-by-one, they too joined the game.  Eventually, there were about ten kids and five adults playing Hide and Go Seek in the holy space on the night before Ash Wednesday.

Later that evening, I remembered the game’s homecoming cry, “All ye, all ye out in free,” which in old English means, “All who are out come in for free.”   I thought to myself, this is what the church is all about.  In fact, this is the good news of the Gospel.  All who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the outside, on the margins, on the edge are invited to come in to a place of safety, a place called home – for free.

Last night the kids and I had to decide where to play the game since the Nave of the Cathedral was not available.  We marked the boundaries and then determined that the High Altar should be home base.  “Why?” I asked, and one youngster shouted, “Because that’s where God lives in this church.”  Then we decided that the Baptismal Font should be the starting point.  Again, I asked, “Why?”  And another youngster answered, “Because that’s where we begin our lives in the church.”  And off we went for a rousing game of Hide-and-go-Seek.

With the homecoming cry of “All-ee, all-ee in free,” the altar as home base, and the baptismal font as the starting point, I’m convinced that not only is Hide-and-Go-Seek a good game to play on Shrove Tuesday, but I’m beginning to think it’s a sacrament – a visible sign of God’s invisible grace in this old cathedral.

Samson the Cat

Shall I tell you who will come

To Bethlehem on Christmas Morn,

Who will kneel them gently down

Before the Lord, new-born?

One small fish from the river,

With scales of red, red gold,

One wild bee from the heather,

One grey lamb from the fold,

One ox from the high pasture,

One black bull from the herd,

One goatling from the far hills,

One white, white bird.

And many children — God give them grace,

Bringing tall candles to light Mary’s face.

This Spanish Christmas carol, set to music by Ruth Sawyer, Jimmy Webb, my friend Eleanor Robinson, and probably other composers speaks to a missing link in the Christmas story.  The storytellers neglected to mention some of the characters that were in that Bethlehem stable on a cold, December night.  The Bible’s version of the story includes:  Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the angel Gabriel, the shepherds, King Herod, the Magi, and the heavenly host.  Everybody knows that there was also an innkeeper, a donkey, some sheep, and a few camels.

As the words of this Christmas carol suggest and as many pageant costumes attest, there were others present at the birth of Jesus.  If all the characters and details were included, the Christmas story would be far too long to fit into one book, and there wouldn’t be any room for our imagination.

Over the years, I have conjured up other characters, the one who never made it into the written story.  They came to the stable, witnessed the birth of Jesus, and gave what they could give.

Take for instance, Samson the barn kitten.  He belonged to the Innkeeper, but he had to live in the stable.  There was no place for him in the inn.  On the night that Jesus was born, he was sleeping on a pile of hay.  When Mary and Joseph came into the barn, he hid behind a pile of wood and watched everything from out-of-sight.  After the exhausted new parents laid Jesus in the manger and fell asleep, Samson snuck up to the little baby and purred.  He brought Jesus a little piece of string.  Then, he lay down close beside the baby and kept him warm.  On that special night, I think Samson offered the kind of hospitality and generosity that Jesus taught for the rest of his life.

In this book, I will tell you the story of Christmas from the perspective of some of those unsung characters that watched in shadows and helped in the night.  In the first section, there are short stories for young children that can be read on a grown-up lap by the Christmas tree.  In the second section, there are stories for children at heart, stories that can be read by older children or grown-ups after the younger ones have fallen asleep.  In the third section of this book, I offer some new ways to think about this old holiday.   I’ve also included the words to some of my favorite Christmas carols in hopes that you might teach them to the children in your life.Perhaps, you’ll be inspired to write your tales of Christmas and add your own characters to the nativity scene because Christmas is one of those stories that is simply too good not to be not be told over and over again in all kinds of ways.  By the way, I hope you’ll consider trying a 10RH holiday season.

You can check it out at Trinity Cathedral’s website: http://www.trinitycleveland.org.  Print copies will be available soon.

Rust Belt Christmas

Rust Belt Christmas – Tracey Lind

Every year I go looking for my Christmas sermon.  For nearly three decades, my sermon search has become part of my annual holiday tradition.  My brother might say it takes the place of our childhood tradition of looking for yet unwrapped, but carefully hidden Christmas presents.

It’s not like my sermon is ever really lost; I haven’t misplaced it; I just don’t know where to find it.  I’ve always found it, often in some pretty odd places like an abandoned house in a run-down neighborhood or a discarded Christmas tree on a New York City sidewalk.  I’ve become aware of it sitting by the bedside of a dying woman or in a maternity ward waiting with a teenage mother in labor.  I’ve unearthed it in holiday lights, newspaper headlines, music, film, poetry, and art.  One year, I came across it while reading a letter from a former youth group member serving in Desert Storm.  And if I’m honest, like many of you, I’ve found the essence of Christmas in a sentimental card or sappy Hallmark ad.

This year my Christmas sermon actually found me, not once but twice: first, in the memory unit of a nursing home, and then in a doctor’s office.

Last Thursday evening, I attended the Christmas party in the memory unit of Judson Park, the retirement community where my mother lives.  I joined the holiday festivities with some fourteen of my mother’s companions, their caregivers, and a small handful of what I like to call “designated daughters and sons.”  We are the ones who live near-by and frequently visit this little peculiar world of aging with memory loss.

My mother’s peers are a fascinating group of women and a handful of men who, in their prime, were doctors, dentists, lawyers, nurses, therapists, college professors, business executives, sales clerks, homemakers, civic volunteers, and church leaders.  And now, because of dementia and memory loss, they live in a small and protective world, vulnerable and dependent on the care, compassion and respect of others.

Last Thursday evening, after a long day of pastoral visits and a poignant memorial service in another retirement community for a member of the cathedral congregation, I walked into the unit singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and then offered hugs, kisses and season’s greetings all around.  My mother looked up, smiled and greeted me with her usual: “Where did you give from?” And as usual, I responded: “Mars,” and sat down next to her.

For the following thirty minutes or so, we sipped wine and coffee, ate cookies and brownies, opened bags of candy and ornaments prepared by local school children, and listened to Christmas carols and sentimental holiday music played on the piano by a delightful Jewish cantor.  I even did a line dance with some of the staff as my mom and her friends looked on and laughed.

With the evening coming to a close, the pianist began the familiar refrain of “Silent Night.”  I put my arm around my mom and started to sing, and so did she.  I glanced around the room at this little community of women and men who probably could not have told you what they had eaten for dinner, and most of them were singing or humming as well.  I saw two other daughters and one son with arms around their moms, and I realized that we all had tears in our eyes.  For here we were: adult children holding our vulnerable, elderly mothers in our arms as they held us when we young; middle-aged children laughing, singing and playing with our aging mothers who now see the world through the eyes of a child; grown-up children helping our mothers eat cookies and drink from their cups in the same way they helped us when we were little.

In the singing, feeding and holding our vulnerable mothers, we – their daughters and sons, the fruit of their wombs – were given permission to be vulnerable.   After all, they were still our moms.  The roles were reversed, but the honesty, vulnerability and grace of love remained.  There we were – authentically ourselves in this time and space none of us ever thought we would be.  As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable.  But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…To be alive is to be vulnerable.”[i]

Christmas is about vulnerability.   God dared to come into the world in the most vulnerable way possible – a newborn baby.  No matter how you understand or explain the complexity of this mystery we call the incarnation, Christmas asserts that the very character of God is revealed in a naked, needy, dependant, gurgling, grubby, smelly, sometimes happy and sometimes cranky, vulnerable baby.  The infant Jesus had no more ability to care for himself than any other newborn baby, severely disabled adult, or old person with memory loss, but that is how God chose to come among us on that first Christmas.  In Jesus, God became vulnerable so that we would have the courage to be vulnerable and have compassion for the vulnerable among us.

The next morning a friend asked me about my Christmas sermon.  When I said that it would be about vulnerability, she looked at me like I was out of my mind and replied, “I don’t want to be told to be vulnerable.  That’s scary.”

For many, if not most of us, the idea of vulnerability is scary.  We’ve been taught just the opposite.  We’re supposed to be strong, capable, and in control.  You know the messages:  don’t let them see your vulnerable side because you might get hurt, embarrassed, or rejected.  Don’t make yourself vulnerable because you might appear to be weak, stupid, and out of control.  Unfortunately, we learn it from our parents, our teachers, our playmates, and our colleagues.  We pick it up on television, in the movies, in politics.  You name it – the message is clear.  It’s not safe to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is actually a great sign of courage.  The word “courage” comes from the Latin word cor, meaning, “heart.”  In Middle English, courage meant to speak the truth of one’s mind or one’s heart.  According to bestselling author and research professor Brené Brown, courage is, “all about putting our vulnerability on the line.”  Based on years of narrative research, Brown has concluded that, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.”[ii]

In the incarnation, God cultivated love by becoming vulnerable, and making the Divine Self deeply seen and known, speaking his mind and sharing her heart with a weary world.   In Jesus, God appeared on earth as the most vulnerable creature imaginable so that we would take him into our hearts and be equally courageous and vulnerable, and then to courageously care for the vulnerable among us, those with whom God is pleased to dwell.

The morning after Mom’s Christmas party, I awoke with a fever, cough, and headache.  It got worse over the weekend, and Monday found me sitting in an urgent care doctor’s office explaining to a stranger that I had to be well by Christmas Eve.

At the end of our visit, with prescriptions in hand, I thanked her and asked what was she doing for the holiday.  She smiled and said, working, so her Christian colleagues could have the day off.

Chatting for a few more minutes, we realized that we actually had many friends in common through Greater Cleveland Congregations, our local interfaith organization.  “Well, at least we got a nice holiday gift in the expansion of Medicaid,” I quipped as she was leaving the examining room.  She abruptly turned around and said, “Without Medicaid, my family would be bankrupt and I wouldn’t have a life.”  Then closing the door, she began to tell me how important Medicaid was for her severely disabled child.

Like any proud parent, she took out her I-Phone and showed me photos of her eleven-year-old daughter Maddie who can’t walk, talk, or feed herself.  I asked if she could see.  With a thoughtful smile, she responded, “Just a little. At night when the lights are low, and I get her ready for bed and say goodnight, she smiles, and I think she can see me.”

I thought to myself, that’s how I feel at Christmas.  I know that bad things happen to good people, that we don’t always get what we want or deserve, that when we offer ourselves fully, we might get rejected, and when we have the courage to make ourselves vulnerable, we might get hurt.  But every year, on this holy night, no matter what’s going on in the world or in my own life, when we darken the cathedral, light the candles, and sing “Silent Night,” if I look carefully, I see the face of God, if I listen closely, I hear the voice of God, and if I make myself vulnerable, I feel the love of God enter my heart and be born anew.

And that is my Christmas prayer for each and every one of you.  May you look carefully and see the face of God in those around you, may you listen closely and hear the voice of God in those around you, may you make yourself vulnerable and feel the love of God enter your heart this Christmas, and then may you have the compassion and courage to speak out and care for the vulnerable ones with whom God is pleased to dwell.


[i] Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (North Point Press, 1995)

[ii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham Books, 2012)

Good Morning.  I am The Rev. Tracey Lind, Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and Co-Chair of Greater Cleveland Congregations.  GCC represents more than 20,000 people, from 40 congregations and 13 schools in Northeast Ohio.  GCC co-founded NEOMEC – the Northeast Ohio Medicaid Expansion Coalition.  Many NEOMEC members are here in the audience today.   GCC thanks each and every one of them for organizing since last February to expand Medicaid in the State in Ohio.  GCC thanks Governor Kasich and every legislator who has used and is using his or her power and influence to get Ohio to this moment – when the Controlling Board will vote to either to expand Medicaid or not. 

Those who would be covered by the expansion are not abstract numbers, but are real people: our neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and yes, members of our congregations.  Those who would be covered by Medicaid expansion include:

·      A friend of one of our GCC members.  She is a 55-year old woman, who lost her job, can’t find work and lost her health insurance. She has chronic depression, but can’t afford psychiatric visits or her medication.  This resulted in a near lethal suicide attempt and a very expensive hospital stay.

·      A health care worker who takes care of a GCC member.  She earns slightly less than 100% of the Federal Poverty Level.  Her untreated migraines are threatening her employment.

·      A GCC family – a member of my congregation – two tax-paying, self-employed adults, with a child, who simply cannot afford health insurance.  Their financial resources were taxed to the limit by a huge emergency room bill resulting from an allergic reaction to a bee sting.

God calls us to “love thy neighbor.”  To love thy neighbor is to know thy neighbor.  And we know our neighbors.  GCC has talked to thousands of people. They either have family members, co-workers, friends or neighbors who suffer because they cannot afford health insurance.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said,  “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”  On Monday, the Controlling Board of Ohio has the power to love thy neighbor

Let me close with a story about using your power to love thy neighbor.  Laverne Barnes lived in Boston without health care for 15 years.  She joined GCC’s sister IAF organization, Greater Boston Interfaith, to use her power to lead a statewide coalition that won the first universal health care bill in the United States.  With her congregation, Roxbury Presbyterian Church, Laverne collected hundreds of signatures to pass the law.  After the legislation passed, she started to feel severe pain.  She said to herself: “Well, I now have health insurance; I should go see a doctor.”  As soon as the doctor examined Laverne, he rushed her into surgery to correct a blockage in her intestine – a life threatening condition.  When she awoke from anesthesia she saw her pastor standing at her bedside.  She smiled and whispered the words, “Thank you.”  He knew right away. Laverne was not smiling because he came for a pastoral visit.  She was thanking him for using his power to be on the front lines to pass the health care law that saved her life.

To the members of the Controlling Board, this is your moment.  Please, use your power to love your neighbor, to love us, and to love the great State of Ohio.  May God smile on you!

Money

 

A Sermon Preached on September 22, 2013 at Trinity Cathedral on Luke 16:1-13

This morning’s gospel passage from Luke is one of my favorite parables because you can’t just skim it.  You have to read or listen to it carefully and then let it sink in.  In a contemporary rendering, it goes like this:

There’s an investor who had a diverse portfolio with holdings in real estate, insurance, venture capital, and yes, a little payday lending on the side.  He had a manager to take care of his business affairs while he spent summers in Maine and winters in Florida.  The manager didn’t work hard or perform well, and some would accuse him of skimming off the top or adding a little extra commission for himself now and then. But, he knew the business: the investments, the holdings, and the outstanding loans.

Tax season came around and the investor’s accountant saw that there was a discrepancy in the books.  While she had not ascertained exactly what was happening, there was enough evidence for the IRS to demand an audit.  This made the investor both angry and anxious.  So he called the manager and told him that he was going to cancel the management contract, and that he was coming to town in a week to meet with him and review the accounts.

The manager knew the game was up.  He had to act fast in order to cover his back and ensure some sort of financial security for his future.  He realized that he had ruined his reputation and would not be able to get other investments to manage.  He didn’t have other skills, he couldn’t imagine getting a decent job, and he was scared of the possibility of prison.

This was a guy who lived by his wits, not by what he actually did, but by what he was able to manipulate.   Lying awake in the middle of the night, he had a brilliant idea.

The next morning, he called on those who had outstanding and overdue loans.  Representing his boss, he said to a few tenants, “Your past due rent is $2000. However, in order to avoid the costs of eviction and the inconvenience of an empty apartment, I’ve convinced the owner to make a deal with you.  Just pay $1000 now and then stay current in your rent.”  To a small business owner who had borrowed seed money, he said, “Your $10,000 line of credit is overdue, but I’ve persuaded my boss to give you more time, so just make it 4,000 and we’ll call it a day.” To delinquent customers of the payday lending scam, he said, “Your loan of $500 is due – make is $200 and I’ll see to it that you’re free and clear.”

Naturally, since most of them were over-extended and living on the edge of financial survival those in debt to the investor were thrilled, but they now were also indebted to the manager who had come to their rescue.

When the investor arrived for the meeting, the manager was able to present a much better looking set of accounts.  The investor commended the manager.  Why?  What had he done that deserved applause, you might ask?

The answer is quite simple.  When the first discrepancies came to light, the manager showed enough talent, creativity and determination to turn even failure to his advantage.  While we don’t know if he lost the management contract, Jesus tells us the investor was impressed with his shrewdness, and that the guy clearly made friends with those who were indebted to him.  Jesus lifted up this scoundrel as a model of discipleship – not because of his honesty and integrity (or lack thereof) but because of his ingenuity and initiative.

Jesus told the story of a sleazy and dishonest guy to help us understand that money is a complicated but necessary aspect of life, and that it’s good for us to be smart, astute, sharp, on the ball – in short, shrewd in our financial dealings.  If we translate the teaching of this parable, we can conclude that there is nothing wrong with bargaining for the best price on a car, getting a number of insurance quotes, negotiating for a lower mortgage interest rate, taking advantage of tax deductions that are allowable under the law, investing wisely in 401K’s and IRA’s, and picking an honest and capable and shrewd financial advisor.

Money is not inherently evil, but Jesus wants us to use it wisely.  In fact, recognizing that we are stewards of all that we have on this earth, including our money, Jesus said that it is our moral duty to be shrewd but honest and honorable as we manage our financial resources and relationships.  And following the example of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and became Pharaoh’s manager in Egypt, it is especially important to learn how to be smart stewards so that we, and others, might survive during hard times and lean years. My hunch is that many of us, over the last few years, have learned this lesson – perhaps the hard way.

As a trustee of the Episcopal Church Pension Fund and its $10 billion portfolio, I am profoundly aware that I have a fiduciary responsibility to the clergy, lay employees and members of our church.  If we were not shrewd (but ethical) investors, there would not be enough funds to ensure a decent retirement for those who faithfully serve the church and thereby weaken the ranks of ministry for years to come. Truth be told, the pension assessment that congregations pay is not enough to ensure a decent retirement for those who have served God and God’s church; it has been because of astute and shrewd investing that the Fund is able to keep up with the cost of inflation.

The vestry, staff and governing committees of Trinity Cathedral recognize that we have a fiduciary responsibility to you, the diocese, the wider community and future generations to preserve the property and conserve the resources entrusted to our care.  And so, we monitor our investments, investment managers, spending policies, programs, operating revenue and expenses, pledges, pledge fulfillment, and real estate costs; and we make course adjustments as needed.  In fact, we are in the midst of a very careful review of our assets – our real estate, endowment and ministry, seeking to discern how we can be good and faithful stewards and servants of Christ, ensuring mission-driven financial sustainability over the long run.

As people of faith, each of us is called to demonstrate the same kind of ingenuity and initiative as the scoundrel in this morning’s gospel reading, but we are called to do it with integrity and honesty, and for the good and wellbeing of God’s commonwealth.  If the church was really shrewd in the procurement, allocation, investment, and stewardship of its resources, just think about what could happen.  This kind of astuteness and initiative fuels the community development movement that is helping to rebuild our cities; it is at the heart of faith-based organizations like Greater Cleveland Congregations; and it is the work that The Trinity Cathedral Vestry is doing right now.

We need to say “thank you” to every member of the Vestry and the governing committees of this Cathedral for the many hours of volunteer time they are giving of themselves to ensure that we are on the right course for our future. In fact, I would like to ask right now if you are a member of the Vestry or one of those committees to stand and let us thank you. You work really hard and I want to say in the presence of this congregation, I am profoundly grateful to you for your leadership, courage, hard questions and dedication to this effort.  You are a blessing to Trinity Cathedral, to past generations, to us and to those yet to come.

Jesus said, “Make friends with your money.”  I understand this to mean that we are called to be generous with our resources.  Over the summer, I read a book by Adam Grant entitled, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.  The author, who is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business, suggests that there are three kinds of people: takers who strive to get as much as possible from others; matchers who aim to trade evenly; and givers who contribute without expecting anything in return.  Grant argues that givers actually come out ahead in the end.  Thus, by being smart or shrewd with our money, we can increase our wealth, not just to increase our standard of living, but also (and maybe more importantly) our standard of giving.

Jesus observed the limits of wealth when he remarked that when our money is gone – not if it’s gone – we will still have friends in the eternal homes.  You’ve heard the saying: “You can’t take your money with you to the grave.”  Our wealth will do us no good after we die, and there’s no amount of money we can pay to gain entrance into eternal life, for God’s grace is absolutely free.  So knowing that wealth is going to be of no use to us in heaven, we should manage it shrewdly, use it wisely, and give it generously on earth, hopefully leaving behind a thoughtful inheritance for the people and places that matter.  If every member of this congregation remembered Trinity Cathedral in our wills, we would ensure that the endowment built by the generosity of our ancestors would grow into perpetuity.

Jesus often talked about money.  He talked about it more than he talked about sin, sex, heaven or hell.  In fact, our Lord talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus proclaimed, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he was saying something really important about our relationship to wealth.  It’s like a heart monitor by a hospital bed or a dashboard on a car.  Our relationship to money is an indicator of our spiritual health and wellbeing.  And if we want to stay spiritually healthy, we can’t allow money to become our master.

Perhaps, some of the prosperity preachers are right.  God doesn’t want us to be poor; God wants us to become prosperous, but God does not want us to be controlled or enslaved by our prosperity, but rather to invest our prosperity in the Commonwealth of God.

In Jesus, God shows us how to find prosperity, even in the midst of scarcity – how to turn water into wine, feed the multitudes, throw a great party, multiply our talents, search for lost coins, give to the poor, and invest in the kingdom.

“No,” says Jesus, you cannot serve both God and money; but “Yes,” says our Lord, you can use your money in the service of God, and I expect you to do so, being as creative, ingenious and shrewd and honest as possible.

To those who are fortunate to have much to invest in God’s Kingdom, great things are expected – entrepreneurship at its best.  If you have a lot, then use it as wisely, creatively and shrewdly as possible.  “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

And, if you have a little, do the same.  The truth is that most of us are entrusted with a little rather than a lot.  But, “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”

Let us be faithful in what we have, let us be shrewd but honest and faithful stewards.  Let us wisely manage our money, let us generously share it, and let us not be enslaved by it.

 

I plan my summer reading list throughout the year.  I put them on a special shelf in my study, and when the long days of summer arrive, I devour them – one after the other.  This year, my summer reads seemed to fall into several categories of fiction and non-fiction.

FAITHFUL LEADERSHIP AND STEWARDSHIP

Leaders Make the Future - Bob Johansen, Institute for the Future

Ever since I heard him at the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, I have appreciated Johansen’s framework of the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) and its implications for the Episcopal Church.  In this new book, Johansen offers ten leadership skills that he believes are important for leaders in the VUCA world, such as maker instinct, clarity, dilemma flipping, quiet transparency, rapid prototyping, and commons creating.   They resonate with me.  Read and it and let me know what do you think?

Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead  - Sheryl Sandberg

In her book, which is a combination of memoir, observation, and coaching, the COO of Facebook offers some really good insights and advice for women in the world of work.  I did feel like it was more applicable for younger women and those who are mothers.  But I got a lot of it, and I encourage my working sisters to read and talk about it.

Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success  - Adam Grant

Louis Alloro of SOMO introduced me to this book.  The author offers an interesting analysis of organizational leaders, suggesting that there are three kinds of styles: takers who strive to get as much as possible from others; matchers who aim to trade evenly; and givers who contribute without expecting anything in return.  Grant, the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business, argues that givers actually come out ahead.  It’s an interesting perspective on the stewardship of personal resources.

Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership – Laurie Beth Jones

I have enjoyed this day-by-day inspirational guide that applies the words and actions of Jesus to executive leadership.  It even has some exercises.

Faith in Leadership - Robert Banks & Kimberly Powell

If Max DuPree writes the forward, then I have to read the book because I think Max DuPree has wonderful insights about leadership, and he’s a furniture guy like my dad and my father-in-law.  This is a book about how people actually combine their faith and their public leadership.

Asking – Jerold Panas

This little book is “a 59 Minute Guide to Everything Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Know to Secure the Gift.”  I read it and then went out and raised a major gift for the cathedral.  It works!

BOOKS THAT GIVE A SHOUT-OUT TO TRINITY CATHEDRAL

It’s a “must-read” on my list when Trinity Cathedral is featured in a book.  This year, Trinity has been featured in three books:

 The New Rules of Marketing & PR (4th Edition) - David Meerman Scott

Scott decided to add a case study about a faith community in this edition, and he featured Trinity Cathedral, especially the way we use social media and how we link our website, podcasts, weekly electronic newsletter, facebook and twitter feeds.  Hats off to our communications team.

Speaking Faithfully – Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson

Our former Communications Consultant and her business partner at Canticle Communications teamed up for a concise but thorough book on how communications is the essence of evangelism, and they make reference to Trinity’s communications and evangelism strategy.  Congratulations to Rebecca and Jim.

How to Design Our World for Happiness - Jay Walljasper
In his new e-book, subtitled A Commons Guide to Placemaking, Public Space and Enjoying a Convivial Life, Jay Walljasper, the former editor of Utne Reader, continues to explore the importance of the design and accessibility of public space and “third places” in American cities.  One of the case studies features the ministry of placemaking is the piazza we call Trinity Commons.

COMMUNICATIONS  AND EVANGELISM

Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age - William Powers

I met Bill on Cape Cod this summer.  Bill is a journalist who left his position with The Washington Post to work and live in a saner environment.  In this New York Times bestseller, Bill explores the evolution and development of communications technology through the writings of the great philosophers of history including: Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, and Thoreau.

Faithful Generations: Effective Ministry across Generational Lines - John Mabry

Rabbi Bruce Freidman once said that clergy work with multiple generations of a family at the same time, and they don’t always see eye-to-eye so we had better understand generational differences and dynamics.  John Mabry examines the five current generations involved in the church:  GI builders generation, the compassionate silent generation; my transformative baby boom generation; the so-called authentic gen x/y’s; and the connected millenials.  I wonder what will come next.

 When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is not Enough – Lillian Daniels

Writer and UCC pastor challenges both church and society in her new book about being both spiritual and religious.  I must say that, like her last book, I found myself nodding in the affirmative on almost every page.

 Will our Children have Faith - John Westerhoff

Once I finished Daniel’s book, I returned to one that had been collecting dust on my bookshelf, and I was once again provoked and encouraged by Westerhoff’s words to the church.  Our children will only have faith if we pass it on.  The challenge is how to do it.

JESUS

I read three books about Jesus this summer: one commentary and two novels.

 Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography - Bruce Chilton

This is a fascinating and controversial attempt to construct a cohesive biography of Jesus’ life.  Grounded in years of biblical, linguistic, historical and archeological research, Professor Chilton challenges some deeply held notions about Jesus’ parentage and its impact on our Lord’s life, ministry and theology.  I was particularly intrigued by what he had to say about Jesus’ birth and the impact that it had on his life and ministry.

 Liars Gospel - Naomi Alderman

This novel offers four mini accounts of Jesus’ story from the perspectives of his friend Judas who lost his faith, his mother Mary, the High Priest of the Temple who was trying to keep the peace of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, and the rebel Barabbas.  It’s a great read by a Jewish author that encourages each of us rethink this foundation story of our faith.

The Testament of MaryColm Toibin

This book was short-listed for the 2013 Booker Prize and was a short-lived Broadway play.  It’s an incredible portrait of Mary and the story of Jesus from her perspective.  Frankly, I would love to see it performed on stage.

MEMOIR AND BIOGRAPHY

The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls

This was my favorite read of the summer!  Hard to believe that it’s a memoir and not a novel, but I think that Jeanette Walls’ childhood story is fabulous.

Goat Song - Brad Kessler

I sometimes get the romantic notion that I want to be a shepherd.  Brad Kessler actually became a shepherd.  When I finished the book, I ran out to buy some fresh goat cheese.

Mountains Beyond MountainsThe Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer - Tracy Kidder

O.K.  So I’ll never be as committed, courageous, and maybe as crazy as Paul Farmer, but reading his story narrated by one of my favorite writers is absolutely inspiring.  I hope to meet both Farmer and Kidder someday.

FICTION

And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini

I procrastinated about reading this novel by the author of The Kite Runner.  I couldn’t face the pain and violence.  But And the Mountains Echoed is a beautiful story of love, commitment, and family ties that cross three continents and several generations.

 The Book Thief - Marcus Zusak

My spouse Emily has been begging me to read this book for years.  And she’s absolutely right.  It’s an incredibly well-written book about by-standers and up-standers in Nazi Germany.  Now, I think everybody should read it.
Oh yes, I read a few romances and family epics not worth the mention.

 

 

 

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