Weekly Rector's Notes

There is a long tradition of comparing the Church to a ship on the seas. If we are a ship then Christ Church of the Ascension is suddenly in smooth and open seas with good winds.

For the last three years I have been your rector, and we have been in a rebuilding phase of the ship of Christ Church from within, restaffing, fixing financial reporting and practices, and getting the budget into the black in the process. It has been a process, like all building that involves a lot of work that isn’t visible and more people than is obvious. (This is where I thank Vestries and Staff Members).

Now, as our staffing is coming back to normal, our financial foundation is relaid, and the budget is getting back to stable, my job is changing. When I wrote that last week, it was not a throw away line. It was reality and hope.

Realistically all jobs evolve as work situations change, and with new people and positions in the office, life is changing here. Coordination takes more than just checking my phone as we are rearranging space and calendars, and it will take time for all the dust to settle.

. . . and the Rev. Timothy Watt has come just in time! We are grateful to have Tim with us as we seek to know, love, and serve Christ together. He will be preaching this week and becoming a regular part of the rota as we move forward. His wife Tanya is completing her Master of Divinity degree this year in Virginia.

My role as rector will continue to evolve as we enter into new levels of staffing and ministry. Tim will be leading youth and regularly serving in liturgy to begin with, and his role will grow and settle as he gets on his feet in our parish. But for us and the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain, we are all here as servants and pastors.

The role of priest is both servant to God and servant to a community. As servants of God we adhere to a calling to be, as baptized Christians, faithful to God’s Word, our vows, and the worship and discipline of the church. We read, learn, and teach from the Bible and tradition, maintain professional standards and codes, and lead worship faithfully to form disciples of Christ. As servants to the community, our service is lived in leadership, teaching, and pastoral work.

A pastor is a shepherd. We tend the flock. Pastoral work can often be seen as only caring for the sick or distressed, but it is rooted in whole community care and leadership. We work to call the community, gather, and lead in the direction set by God in Christ. We also care for the wounded and sick, make sure that you are being fed (in Word and Sacrament), and that we are all unified in mind, spirit, and purpose, as much as that is up to us.

Tonight we will have a huge event on the campus of Christ Church. We get to host the three bishop candidates for the Bishop of Arizona. We will gather to hear them answer questions about their view of their vocation, their life of faith, and views of the local and national and international church.

This will be my third time through the Bishop election process here, in Western Michigan, and now here again. I want to share with you that while there are many difficulties in the process to be worked around and solved, the process in my experience has always been one that is soaked in prayer, the work of the Holy Spirit, and passion for the good of the church and the world.

As you come tonight, we get to join in listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in the voices of these three candidates. We also get the additional opportunity to host our diocese here at home. The work of hospitality is one of the few direct commands of Jesus, and it is one where we can display what we believe the church to be and what we hope for our diocese.

Join us in this moment.

Part II

The stranger represents the possibility of the perception of the presence of God. God is always present, and in our stories is revealed to be present in the stranger only after involvement. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus is present because of his being, but he is revealed only after the blessing in the context of the disciples’ hospitality.

This means something devastating about our lives: God is waiting to bless you. God is waiting for you to notice, to respond to, open your heart and home to the stranger.

Jesus’ word, logic, teaching, was consistent. We were created to be God’s image, sons and daughters, put on the earth to tend or steward the creation and each other, bringing release to the captive and freedom to the oppressed, and binding up the broken hearted. We cannot be that if we do not recognize God in those around us.

We cannot enter the Kingdom of God as long as we are caught up in the world of the flesh. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” in biblical idiom. The world of flesh is the self caught up in the base needs of biology, gratifying our perceived needs for sex, safety, and desires. We see rivals, victims, and lovers where we should see brothers and sisters.

The Way of Christ

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards 

Baptism

Our life in faith begins in baptism. The church has taught for two millennia that an ontological change happens in our baptism, that we are no longer a creature separated from God, but through death and rebirth in Christ we are made new, and so is the world that we live in.

This teaching is no longer cool, because we believe strongly in the goodness of people who are not baptized, even who are not Christian. We also know of terrible people who have been baptized! So how can we still make this claim with any seriousness?

First off, baptism is our outward and visible sign of the death and birth as a new creation into Christ. But, even at that, it is still an act of new birth. We must "grow into the full stature of Christ." We are not born fully grown physically or spiritually.

Secondly, once we are baptized, we have citizenship in the Rule of God, but we may still choose to live in God's will or way. We may also continue to sin willfully, but that does not negate the power of baptism, only our refusal of the grace of new life.

We must grow up as little Christ's. As the church, we must bring up Christians in our life of worship, study, and recreation of the world. We see this clearly in bringing up children, but even for adults we may hide our immaturity, but we still desperately need to grow into life in Christ and his community.

The primary tools of our tradition are liturgical worship centered on the sacraments and daily offices, personal prayer, Bible study, and acts of charity and justice. The emphasis placed in each of these areas will vary from other Christian traditions, and these areas listed do not exhaust the tools of God or the church. Some other tools of formation may include rules of life, meditation or contemplation, ecstatic prayer, fasting, poverty, pilgrimage. In my life, I would add parenting and marriage as tools that God has used in my own maturing process.

But these tools are just the ways we live out our life as baptized members of the Body of Christ. Baptism is our birth and identity; from it and its promises flow our vocations and ministries in life and the church.

Jesus was in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, when he turned to one of the minor themes that always confused Peter. “When you are in the market place, greet the people you don’t know. Say hello to the stranger, the orphan, the widow.” Peter murmured and made a note to ask the master why this ridiculous turn. The law held no such command, and it violated common sense.

Who knows what the stranger is doing, plotting, planning, whose side he’s on, how pure she is, what her intentions are? Common sense says, Greet those who matter or who might. Stay where it is safe and honorable. The marketplace is no place to get friendly.

We forget the dangers of the past, safely ensconced in the florescent lights and white tiles of the mall or the supermarket, how the market represented a place of familiarity and danger. People gathered from fields and towns together to buy and barter and sell. A place unregulated by mall cops and set prices. Traveling can only hint in our age of law and order at how unsafe a space could be for commerce.

Yet, it is here that Jesus tells his students to greet strangers. The motif doesn’t end there. His followers will take that theme into their homes and along lonely roads. The saints and writers listed above are no complete list of the tales of wayfarers at the door or beggars along the way.

Unlike tales of warning, such as Beauty and the Beast, these tales were mostly of shifted perception and let to gifts and sacrifices for the stranger rather than curses. In these moments of gifts and roadside hospitality, the stranger is not merely the recipient of greeting, but rather Christ himself come to call the disciple to a different way of life.

A dark night and a difficult choice about letting in the unwanted unknown person in rags. Eventually, the stranger is revealed to be Christ, and the protagonist is changed.

Dallas Willard is one my theological influences. He is difficult to read for some people, but for years his work just felt irrelevant to me. I was asked to go back and teach on one of his books by a friend a decade ago and found a mentor in working out knots I had been trying to untie in my own thinking for years.

Dallas is wonderfully precise in his language. He was a philosophy professor, primarily at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and a Baptist pastor and thinker. He transcended Southern Baptist thought as he centered his work around two primary questions.

How do we become the kind of person Jesus calls us to be?

What is life like in the Kingdom of God?

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 that we are to be a light in the world, a city on a hill, not to be hidden. This week I was reminded that the light we bring, that we are made to bear, and set free to carry, is not borne entirely by any one person.

You may bear the light in music in ways that I cannot, like Ann or Tom or the choir. You may bear the light in prayer or in works of mercy, or in seeking social justice, or in the ways that you use your entrepreneurship to help your employees to flourish and provide for their families.

When we abide in Jesus we are changed from the inside out. We are no longer merely those who see the light in Christ as we do on Sundays or reading the Bible. We become bearers of his light within us, but that may look different from person to person.

In John 6, as we come to the end of the Bread of Life Discourse this week, we have been seeing how Jesus saying “you must eat my flesh and drink my blood,” was not just hyperbole or a mere reference to communion, it is an invitation to deep transformation as we take his life into our life and become to him as he is to his Father.

What does the light look like? That is the thing. We all know where the good is. It may get complicated at times, but we all know that we are to love our neighbors, bless our enemies, forgive sins, restore to wholeness that which is broken. It is the good.

Now you can do the good and not be changed. But being changed makes us good. The light is not something we carry only but become, a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

The very best way to run is barefoot. I have no doubt about this, though you may, and if you read anything about running barefoot, you will see there is controversy.

Your shoes are the problem. Almost all shoes form soft casts around the foot, hindering it from working properly.

Your foot is a beautiful work of architecture, a flexible, cushioned suspension arch that compresses into a solid structure and becomes fluid again and again as you walk or run. It does all this without a conscious thought on your part, unless it fails. Then you pay attention.

The desert is no place to run barefoot. I agree with you there, but while in Michigan I began to experiment with it, moving from shoes to those gloves for your feet, to thin sandals to minimalist shoes. I have run thousands of miles in little more than slippers, or even less.

When I say the problem is shoes, what I mean is that the problem is the way our feet work or don’t work in shoes. They are not allowed to flex, compress, and strengthen properly.

When running barefoot became a big craze a decade ago, a whole lot of people ran outside in less and got injured more. If our feet are so wonderfully designed, what happened?

We simply weren’t ready to run.

I grew up in the golden age of breakfast. Especially breakfast cereal. No one was yet telling us that we should eat a “balanced” breakfast, whatever that meant, nor were we yet sold on whole wheat. I saved up money from mowing grass to buy my own Cookie Crisp, Fruity Pebbles, and Lucky Charms cereals; Frosted Flakes were like a health food.

Do you remember when they started telling us that we should eat a balanced breakfast in Public Service Announcement commercials where they would show a bowl of cereal and then pull back the camera to reveal a glass of milk (more milk), two whole grapefruits, eggs, bacon, and oatmeal? These always came on early on Saturday mornings when we were sitting in front of the television, watching cartoons and eating bowls of milk and sugar the size of small paint buckets. I loved breakfast.

I love breakfast. I actually love all the foods shown in the PSA, except for grapefruit. But my favorite food is cinnamon rolls. My wife makes the absolute best: homemade, warm, yeast-risen, flakey, soft, and soaked in sugary cinnamon-butter. I’m drooling as I type this. She makes them for me on special occasions like Father’s Day and my birthday. But after my last blood test, I probably won’t get another batch unless I’m inaugurated.

A free PSA of my own. Let’s get one thing straight, maple does not belong in a cinnamon roll. I spent seven years in Michigan, where they were somehow convinced that you could add maple flavoring to anything and make it better. But that isn’t true of coffee or cinnamon rolls. Leave the perfect alone. I’m just saying.

The next best thing growing up was when we made toast with Wonder Bread, butter, cinnamon, and sugar. Remember how you judged bread’s quality by how it didn’t get in the way of the peanut butter and jelly? And if it did, you could flatten an entire loaf into a number ten envelope and mail it in with the complaint letter.

You could do that because there was nothing in there to keep it from compressing. White bread is white because we take out all the stuff that keeps us alive. The wonder of wheat is actually in the germ of the wheat. In that little golden cell are omega three fatty acids and nutrients that our cells actually need, but we don’t want what we need. We take the part we need out and throw it away.

Have you ever realized that you missed something really important? Once, I missed a sign that said “Stage Door” when I was walking into a large gathering in my twenties. I have left countless cups of coffee sitting on tops of cars.

We have these moments in our lives when we realize that we have just been stupid. The old Merriam Webster’s definition of stupid:

1:
a: slow of mind
b: given to unintelligent decisions or acts; acting in an unintelligent or careless manner
c: lacking intelligence or reason

2:
dulled in feeling or sensation

3:
marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting

4:
a: lacking interest or point
b: vexatious, exasperating

We are all in moments where we act without thinking. Maybe it is because we are hurried to get somewhere, distracted, or grieving.

There are ways to prepare for life’s stupid-inducing moments. We can slow down, be more intentional, prepare. None of these is going to eliminate moments of crisis or grief, but they can help us to continue to be faithful to Christ in the midst of distress.

“Do you know what else is a dry heat? A nuclear blast.”

We all know the jokes about Arizona, and it is just getting to the point when we can’t joke about it anymore. The summer exhaustion is setting in, and the anger is just simmering below the surface.

Summer discipline in Arizona has to include self-care like water and electrolytes, and stress relief and maybe therapy. The heat can really make you crazy.

The Bible commands a sabbath of rest, a day off every week where you dedicate leisure to God. You could only walk so far, and you could only do the minimal amount of work possible to get to synagogue or even eat. It was a law!

We have sinned. We have moved so far away from that ideal that it seems counter-cultural to even mention it. Some of us can remember when you could not shop on a Sunday.

This discipline of rest does not compute in our cultural version of Christianity, but it runs absolutely in the opposite direction of secularism. Humanity, and especially Economy - that son of Mammon, should never be impeded.

There is a trail that leads from the asphalt in my neighborhood to mountain peaks scattered from Phoenix to Scottsdale and comes within a half mile of my work. It is brutal, dusty, and rocky. I can climb and drop a thousand feet in a run and not peak anything. I have dodged rattlesnakes and been trailed by coyotes along this trail. It eats “rough trail” running shoes like M&M’s.

I love it, and I run it every week. Sometimes I enter from other neighborhoods or take other loops than my own regular turns. Sometimes I run the whole way, and sometimes I walk more than I run. Sometimes I heave. I have broken several toes and right after moving here got stung by a scorpion running in sandals.

It is my happy place, this little brutal stretch of desert. It is sand and rock, slate and sandstone, and broken concrete. It is endless sky, creosote, palo verde, and saguaro, barrel and cholla. It is where my soul goes for deep cleaning.

Sometimes the only time I can run is in the afternoon. Extra electrolytes, caped hat, long sleeves, and patience. When you live in certain parts of town you can watch the rescue helicopters pluck the stupid off the mountains. I have watched them pick people up while I was waiting for my GPS to pick up a signal before a run.

There is a purity to the hot run, a humility that is life and death. You cannot abide pride, or it will kill you. You have to admit and know your limits. You have to ignore what your habits are and still have good habits. It is not too much to say that these things are fatal.

So why run in the heat?

There is a part of every life that is hollow without the experience of the Real. The Real is that which actually matters. The movie Fight Club is an absurdist masculine search for the experience of the Real that matters, but it involves real violence and sex. And it shows the dangers of making a religion or a cult out of its pursuit.

I want to think that everyone wants to experience something Real, something that truly matters, but I am not sure. I know that many people do not seem to experience the Real very often. Take religious life. It can be a honest stripping of everything false that leads us to the Truth, and it can be a true-sounding reinforcement of the lies that lie between us and the Real.

Does everyone want an experience of the Real? There is an elitist view of the world that many of my favorite modernist writers held that basically said no, not everyone wants to or can experience the absolute.

“Walk like an Egyptian” was one of the great pop hits of my childhood. And the video had hundreds of people walking with their arms and legs bent at right angles like the pictograms of ancient Egyptian art. It was obvious and funny at the same time, and I always appreciate dance numbers that have very specific instructions.

As Christians we are a unique branch, the Anglican tradition being neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, but both and neither. We take a certain pride in our position, but that pride is often mis-attached to the worst aspects of our Episcopal church.

For example, I have been told more than once that Episcopalians don’t pray in public or know the Bible. Both of these statements are wrong historically and across the church. They may be true of some shy congregation or ignorant clergy person, but the church is centered around a common prayer book (almost entirely public and written for the express purpose of giving people back a simpler worship and knowledge of the Bible.)

We are Episcopal/Anglican Christians, but our primary affiliation is to Christ not to Canterbury. And as Christians, we have to learn to be Christ-followers, disciples. You are a disciple of Christ if you are a member of our church. Being a member means that you are a disciple.

I know that was repetitive, but it needs to be said repeatedly. We follow Jesus and believe in him as the Son of God. We trust what he taught and try to do and be what he commanded.

Among other things, that means we have to learn to talk like a Christian. We have to learn to speak with truth, love, respect, and blessing.

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