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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

This Guy Again

This letter was written after news broke that the Cathedral Church of St. Peter & Paul in Washington was offering advance tickets to some of its holiday services for a fee of $7. The Cathedral has since walked this back, saying that the $7 is an "optional offering" to defray the cost of the reservation system. 

The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean
The Cathedral Church of St. Peter & Paul, Washington DC

Your Reverence,

Woke up to discover that the Cathedral is once again taking the Internet by storm, and not in a good way. There are arguments underway on both Reddit and Facebook about the Cathedral's decision to charge admission for holiday services, with comparisons to indulgences and pointing out that it puts the Eucharist out of reach of many Washingtonians.

I understand this is not a new thing, but apparently the phrasing is different, or it has just caught the public's attention. While neither I nor those taking part in these discussions have much background as to what led up to the decision, the idea of charging to attend a service is anathema to me and--I suspect--to most Episcopalians. Surely you could find a better way to manage this... such as taking reservations with a standby line to compensate for the inevitable no-shows, or reserving the front half for your members?

I also understand that the Cathedral is also a tourist attraction and can't count on regular support from a lot of the people who come through its doors. However the same is true in New York and--while St. John's does rather aggressively enforce an admission "donation" which is now up to $15--I have never been asked to pay to attend a service. Again they might be able to offer you ideas as I know they issue advance passes for the St. Francis celebration, but--as far as I know--they don't charge for it.

The argument was made that this is for crowd control. Would that we had this problem in most of our churches! And hearing that our "mother church" is once again generating public outrage by its decisions, you aren't doing the rest of us any favors in our effort to get there.

The Cathedral has--right or wrong--claimed a status beyond that of most metropolitans by nature of where it is and the events that have taken place there. With that comes a responsibility in that your actions have implications across the wider church. The Max Lucado incident stirred up a lot of angst for the LGBTQ community, many of whom are refugees from the very brand of Christianity he represents. I was grateful that you acknowledged that in your reply to my message at that time. However, You have once again, in my opinion, been reckless with that responsibility. I work very hard (volunteering) to try to keep my parish's doors open/lights on by trying to convince an increasingly jaded and secular public that the Episcopal Church is a good place to be. Incidents like this just make that work even harder.


Christian Paolino
Diocese of Newark

CC. The Rt. Rev. Marian Edgar Budde, Bishop Diocesan

Sunday, November 12, 2023

A Right-Brained Bridesmaid at the DMV - Sermon for 24th Sunday after Pentecost

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost - November 12th, 2023

Wisdom 6:12–16 | Psalm 70 | Matthew 25:1-13

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we come to know your living word. Amen.

If you woke up this morning before the alarm, feeling refreshed and invigorated, ate a balanced breakfast and then put on the coordinated outfit you’d ironed and laid out the night before, and then got here in time to hear our choir practice while putting your heart and mind in the right place for worship, congratulations, you pass. You can skip ahead to page eight in your bulletin to complete today’s Sudoku puzzle, assuming you haven’t already.

If, however, you skidded in behind the choir… or later… because you or someone in your direct care could not in an entire two-story house find one pair of matching socks, then lean in… I see you.

Our Gospel this morning creates a dichotomy through society between those who have their act together, and those who do not. One group is ready and waiting when the bridegroom arrives, but the others are caught off guard with not enough oil for their lamps. With a somewhat uncharacteristic harshness, Jesus spins a rather bleak ending for them. Their peers, not willing to share, send them off to refuel, and in the meantime the wedding begins without them. By the time they get back, the tardy to the party are forgotten and shut out.

While in reality it’s likely we could fall into either group at different times in our lives, I suspect most of us instinctively saw ourselves in one or the other, and the people who love us would also have a ready opinion about where we would land. And if we do see ourselves in the latter group, it comes across as a stinging rebuke from our Savior.

“So, um what exactly are we to take from this parable?” puzzles Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber, “That we should not rely on others? That we should not give to those who ask of us? I mean, that would be weird wouldn’t it, if Jesus just suddenly took back everything he said about generosity and self-giving and instead gave us a parable about how we should be stingy and self-reliant?”

But, she argues, and I agree, that is only if you assume that Christ intended us to view the outcome of the story as just and meant to be taken at face value. Surely the prepared women were “good” and the unprepared women were “bad” right? I mean, they are called “foolish” right there!

But what if instead of using those terms, we looked at them as not good or bad, but just different? We are big fans of a now-deceased humorist from North Carolina named Jeanne Robertson, whose affectionate name for her husband was “Left Brain”. Left brained people, she explains, are analytical and like things in order. They like to color within the lines and would never think about doing otherwise. They’re happy in that box we’re always being told to think outside of, and will measure it to make sure the sides are all even. Right-brained people, on the other hand, don’t even know where the box is!

Those of you who know me and my other half well, probably have a pretty good idea who in our house would land where. Many of the long-timers have received a binder from one of us with your name on the cover, at a meeting with a clear agenda that started and ended exactly on time. Many of you have also warned… repeatedly… a certain Chaos Muppet that his shoe was untied as he scuttled past, likely about to drop something

In case you have any doubt who is who, I will risk telling you this story. A few years ago, we had appointments to get “Real ID”. I guess what we had before was “Fake ID” although it’s been a long time since old santa-beard here has been carded by a bouncer. In the instructions, they listed what kinds of documents would be acceptable to confirm your identity with enough certainty to earn that little star on your new licence. These were hard appointments to get and we had to drive to Elizabeth in the middle of a work day.

Within moments, we fell into our usual roles because we have the brains we have. One of us breezed through the line, found the Wifi and was soon happily working until his name was called. The other had read the instructions at home and decided that surely a security alarm bill, which, um, HE already had, should count as a statement from a utility… isn’t an alarm a utility? We don’t get a paper bill from Public Service anymore because I struggle with clutter and you can pay it by replying to a text message. And I… okay fine, it was me… don’t want to upset the Green Team by wasting paper. They also wanted “a statement from a bank”. I get a paper statement for long-term care insurance from Prudential even though I’ve repeatedly asked them to email it. Isn’t Prudential a bank? They give out mortgages. But I digress… you can see how we got here.

You can probably also guess what happened when I got to Miss Congeniality at Window #6. My papers were definitely not in order and she was not interested in a debate about it. At that point I lost my usual cherub-like demeanour and went outside to cool off. Much like our bridesmaids, I was shut out and facing the prospect of having to start this process all over.

Fortunately for me, a more sympathetic DMV employee heard all this and kindly told me, “you know, you can go to the library down the street and print stuff out on the computers there.” Excitedly I went there and did just that. One left-brained thing I have done is set up a secure password manager in my phone so that I can get into these accounts anywhere without a lot of memorizing. I found what I needed and queued them up to print… only to discover that they only take cash, and I didn’t have any. “Will it still be there in the printer when I get back?” I asked hopefully. “Probably not.”

Nevertheless I hustled BACK to the DMV to grub some cash. Unlike the stingy bridesmaids, the Wise One (I still have to call him that for four more months, per the terms of the loan) provided me with the three bucks to get my documents out of hock. By some miracle they had not been eaten yet, and in due course I was back on the line. When it was my turn, I saw I was teed up to my old nemesis, and told the person behind me “you go ahead” so I could get back to the nicer one, and this time made the grade.

While waiting for them to process our stuff, I couldn’t help but overhear some of the stories around me. And it made me wonder why we’re content to live in such a dog-eat-dog world, not that much different than the one in which our bridesmaids found themselves. Struggling with the old computers in the library, I had felt bad for the folks I saw trying to apply for jobs and do other tasks because so much of life now requires access to technology they don’t understand or can’t afford to own. What amounted to a minor annoyance to me was a much bigger problem for the young male couple being told a similar problem with ID meant one of them, who is chronically ill, would not be getting SNAP benefits that month. They had taken two buses to get there and weren’t going to make it back before the office closed

So perhaps Jesus was describing the world that is, not the world that should be. By telling us “stay awake” maybe he’s telling us to pay attention to who we are, and what gifts we have, and what we can afford to share, and when to do so. Pastor Bolz-Weber points out that five lamps were probably plenty for the groom--who was also carrying some sort of lamp or they wouldn't have known he was coming--to see where he was going. The right-brained bridesmaids’ sin, if you can even call it that, was not running low on oil, it was focusing on that lack and allowing it to distract them so much that they ended up missing out by trying to do the “logical” thing to fix it. They didn’t know what would happen if they had instead started singing or doing cartwheels or contributing in whatever way they could to the festivities of the groom’s arrival. Awkward, perhaps, but definitely memorable.

And so it can and should be with us. We can’t all be in the choir, as much as George would like that. We can’t all be the treasurer or the Sunday school teacher or write a big check when something breaks. We can’t all preach, either, and right now you may be thinking some of us shouldn’t. Yes, we are different, but in ways that complement and can learn from and sustain each other. If we put together all the bits and pieces we do have and are good at, the family party that is St. Mark’s will continue to shine with more than enough light for ourselves and all those out there in the dark, trying to find their way in.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

"That Red Stuff" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost


Preached at St. Mark's Church, Teaneck, NJ, on July 16th, 2023.

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 45:11-18, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30  

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we come to know Your living Word. Amen.

Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Not a sentence you hear everyday, and the small group of folks that I was sitting with remarked on this and other aspects of the story. Typical commentary on this passage paints Esau as a physical, even crude man, one writer going as far as to compare him to a dog who has little appreciation for the better things in life, like his little brother’s cooking which he describes so eloquently as “that red stuff.” One must wonder if despised was the best possible translation… perhaps disregarded would be more accurate. In the moment, he was hungry, and his brother Jacob had food, and Esau told him what he wanted to hear in order to get some of it. Although life then for most people was considerably harder than what we’re used to, as Isaac’s favorite son, perhaps he was, like many of us who grew up in relative privilege, used to shooting off his mouth knowing Daddy would fix it later.

But this careless exchange was enough to seal his fate in history. Esau’s act is referred to disparagingly by Paul several times. His seemingly rash decision to trade his inheritance for one meal gets him branded as “one whose god is his stomach” … relatable … and his apparent lack of focus on societal expectations and future material security somehow makes him an “enemy of the cross of Christ” … a cross he would have no means of knowing was coming some 1,500 years later, more or less. 

Jacob, by contrast, is described as “a quiet man, living in tents,” which I heard as “an avid reader who avoids getting sweaty or dirty,” but that may be projecting a little. He was also a lot more calculating than Esau. One must wonder what their relationship was like that he would place such a high price on sharing some food with his own twin, who at least appears to be pulling his own weight in the family. Esau apparently forgot about it pretty quickly, but Jacob, whose name literally can mean “he deceives”, stored this away for later when it would prove useful. In a subsequent chapter, he engages in an act of trickery at his mother’s behest to ensure it is Jacob rather than Esau that receives their father Isaac’s blessing from his deathbed, so perhaps it was in character. 

As a result, Jacob is set up as not only the heir to Isaac’s dynasty but ensuring his place in the lineage, outlined in Matthew’s Gospel, that continues from Abraham through some forty generations, to Jesus. As you’ve heard before, inheritance was an-all consuming concern in the culture to the point where people resorted to all kinds of things including incest and murder to ensure the lineage is known and pure, or at least appears to be. So the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith were--like us--not without their flaws.

In our small group conversation, I wondered aloud whether Esau was prone to hyperbole or was literally starving, given the writer made a point of saying he was “a man of the land” and an accomplished hunter. The person across from me piped up, saying that in fact he could have meant it literally, given that someone in our society could have four degrees and still be making $18 an hour. That may sound like a lot until you know that White Castle starts its employees at $15 and probably also provides some free food. I also realized the one telling me this speaks from experience, and then felt like the largely random circumstances of my own relative financial comfort might have made me read this story through the lens of my own privilege.

 As you may have guessed, all of this took place at the church-wide revival meeting called It’s All About Love, which JoAnn, Joan, Marsha, and I attended in Baltimore earlier this week. With a threefold focus on racial reconciliation, creation care, and evangelism, the event was intended to help reawaken our sense of mission and explore what we might do with the gifts we have, both as a parish and within the wider church.

I know it’s a cliche, but I wished I could bottle up the energy in that room and save it for the times when we could use a boost. The preaching, the music, and the wisdom that was shared with us was intended for us to bring back to you, and over the coming months we will look for opportunities to do that. Besides our very charismatic presiding bishop the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, we heard from the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the first out gay person elected a bishop in our church; Julia Ayala-Harris, the first Latina president of the House of Deputies; The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, whose brainchild the event was; and others, some of whom I will mention shortly

But for today, I want to ask you, what aspects of our own birthright are we willing to “despise” for the sake of the Gospel?

In the beginning of the Sacred Ground curriculum, which Canon Spellers also spearheaded, she talks about the Episcopal Church’s legacy as the church of America’s aristocracy and what that has meant in its relationships with black and brown people. As we admire the grand structures of our cathedrals and universities, many of them funded by the philanthropy of the titans of commerce and industry that once graced our pews, can we do so mindful of the cost in terms of labor, much of it unpaid, that made those generous gifts possible? Sarah Augustine, whose roots are in the Pueblo (Tewa) nation, has spent her life working to undo the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery, a papal decree which emboldened Europeans to colonize and subjugate much of the indigenous population of the world. She challenged us to learn about how our investments are still being used in ways that harm vulnerable populations and find ways to reduce that impact.

Brian McLaran’s book Do I Stay Christian? explores the many very valid reasons so many people, including many of our own kids, are doing just the opposite. These include the very public downfall of religious leaders and the bald institutional hypocrisy that is so easy to point out. As we recall our baptismal covenant and strive to live into its mandate of welcome and inclusion, can we do so without smugness when it seems that so many of our fellow Christians seem to have lost the plot?

Theologian Dr. Kwok Pui-Lan shared some sobering reminders from recent news about the urgent warning signs our Earth has sent us about the state of her climate. Even this morning a tornado alert was issued in Morris County. Are we willing to inconvenience ourselves or change the way we do things if it means even an incremental reduction in the harm our activities do to the planet?

And overarching all of this, Bishop Curry exhorted us to remember that--as the title of the conference suggests--love for God and our neighbor should be at the core of everything we do. He quoted Jimi Hendrix as saying, 

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then the world will know peace.”

I marked 20 years since my first visit to St. Mark’s last month. I am happy to the point of tears more Sundays than not for the love and community that we share in this place. There is a new sense of energy and purpose and we have some new faces, for which we are so, so very grateful. But we still have a lot of room. I am not suggesting we should be as careless with the nearly one hundred years’ investment of time, talent and treasure that is St. Mark’s as Esau was with his inheritance, but are we as a faith community willing to--in the words of William Sloane Coffin quoted by Bishop Beckwith in his dismissal blessing--“willing to risk something big for something good,” if it means that those who do not yet feel welcome or invited or even SAFE inside these walls come to know that love as a result? 

I challenge you to ponder these questions in your heart, as those of us who attended have been doing. Think about them and share your ideas with your vestry, the guilds and committees, and ask questions about the groups you don’t know much about, and maybe take a leap of faith and sign up for something new. Or just start a conversation at coffee hour with a person you haven’t met yet. 

As I said, there will be opportunities to learn more about this program and discuss its implications in the days ahead. I hope you will join us and feel some of the joy and new purpose we experienced. We have so many gifts here at St. Mark’s and the latitude to reach out in many ways to the community around us, through our music, our outreach and--most importantly--the opportunities to worship God in ways that help heal the friction between races and cultures and respect our fragile earth. 

As JoAnn pointed out on our trip home, these efforts may be like the seeds the sower was scattering in various places in today’s Gospel, in that some of them may yield fruit and some may not. May we together develop a spiritual green thumb and thus yield an abundant harvest of Christ’s love for one-another and all those we encounter.

Will you pray with me?

O God of wondrous power and still more wondrous love, you who have borne us from chaos to creation, from dry bones to dancing flesh, from death to life: Renew and revive your Episcopal Church, especially as we gather this summer for worship, fellowship, learning, and action. Send your Spirit to set us, our ministries, and our communities ablaze, so that the world might come to see and know us as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement – bold, open-hearted bearers of Good News, repairers of the breach, and stewards of creation who truly look, live, and love like Jesus. We make our prayer to him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit, our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. Amen.