Last week, I received a gift. The gift of an invitation from someone I don’t even know. The invitation wound up as a link in my Facebook feed. The link was to the blog of the Right Reverend Doug Fisher, the Episcopal Bishop of Western Massachusetts. In the post from last Friday, the bishop noted that while the Episcopal Church is very good at inviting people to a Holy Lent (after all, we’ve got words for such a thing on page 264 in the Book of Common Prayer!), we are a bit weak on inviting people to soak up all of the opportunities present within the Great Fifty Days of the Easter Season. The bishop then offered his own invitation to a Holy Easter. I read it and reread it and realized, it was the precise “word from the Lord” I needed to hear. In fact, I shared the invitation at the conclusion of my sermon in yesterday’s liturgies. I share it here to remind myself that I’ve signed on to living Easter as a season and not simply as the finish line to the Lent/Holy Week marathon:
Dear People of God: In the weeks after the Resurrection of Jesus, the apostles overcame their fears, and experienced forgiveness, peace, joy, amazement, and hope. Their hearts burned within them as they understood the scriptures in a whole new way. They ran from place to place, telling the Good News. They were filled with New Life.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to a Holy Easter Season. Take into your souls the words of the angels, “Do not be afraid.” Face your fears. Forgive someone — perhaps even yourself. Allow yourself to be amazed at what God is doing. Read the scriptures and find the God of love. Go on an adventure. Try new things. Get creative. Use your imagination. Expand your horizons. Be joyful — God has a hold on you and will never let go. Tell others the Good News. Practice mercy, compassion and hope. Be on the lookout for Resurrection — in your life; in others’ lives; in this great and glorious world! Alleluia! Amen.
(Bishop Fisher’s blog may be found at: http://bishopfisherblog.wordpress.com)
This has been a wonderfully busy Lent! I didn’t get to everything I wanted to do. “Things left undone” seems to be a perpetual state of church life. On the upside, though, I have been thrilled with all of the ways folks at Trinity Church have read, prayed and served their way through this holy season. Parishioners have been faithful. They’ve been prayerful. They’ve even been joyful (yes, such an attitude IS permissible in Lent)!
Lent can be a slog, though. Five weeks ago today, I stood on a street corner and imposed ashes on any passerby who asked for a smudgy cross and a prayer. Here in Wisconsin, that unseasonably warm Ash Wednesday is a pleasant memory as we contend with January-like temperatures with only ten days remaining in March. The cold, the prospect for snow and the relentlessness of Lent is enough to try the soul — and there’s plenty of Lent left to go.
In a few days the liturgical marathon that is Holy Week will commence with Palm Sunday. I’m genuinely excited. I used to joke that Holy Week is the closest thing Episcopalians have to a week-long revival. Too bad we sometimes view this most sacred week in the Church calendar as something to “get through”. I understand that there are a myriad of details and a blizzard of bulletins. I know there are sermons to prepare and logistics to coordinate. But for clergy, well, to use the parlance of the secular world, this week is the reason we’re in business!
I know everyone “in the real world” has to figure out how to attend liturgies in and around work schedules, vacation schedules, school schedules and everything else that is life. I understand that for many parishioners to be at the liturgies we’ve scheduled means they are leaving things “undone” in the rest of their lives. This is the reality I never, ever want to forget as one who lives in and around church and gets paid for the privilege.
I hope plenty of folks will get to come to worship during the eight days between Palm Sunday and Easter. Goodness knows there are plenty of opportunities to do so. The realist in me knows that people make the decisions they need to make. The optimist in me hopes lots of people will attend and find their lives changed as a result. The pastor in me will be praying for the folks present and absent — praying that this Holy Week the Way of the Cross will be particularly meaningful and the arrival at the empty Tomb a moment of mystery-inspired celebration.
The dust has almost settled from Ash Wednesday. In my own case, that meant a fourteen hour day, with four liturgies at Trinity Church, Wauwatosa as well as a few hours standing on the corner with clergy from other area churches (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic) praying for folks on a street corner in front of our local Starbucks as a part of the grassroots movement called “Ashes to Go”. By the end of the day, our group had prayed for over 150 folks, heard plenty of stories, witnessed tear-filled eyes, held hands of those who were hurting for one reason or another, and had people literally bound up to us with big smiles on their faces, thanking us for our efforts.
I’ve learned over the past several weeks that there are a number of people who have reservations about this practice of imposing ashes out in public. I think some of their concerns are worthy of consideration. Certainly taking an action requires reflection upon the action taken. I’m not so much interested in defending the practice or arguing with folks who have a different view of it than I do. Instead, all of the arguments for/against “Ashes to Go” have had me thinking about other practices that are prominent around parish churches during this season.
At the parish I serve, we are offering an additional mid-week opportunity to worship and receive the Eucharist. We are praying Morning Prayer early every weekday morning. We’ve mailed two lenten devotional booklets to everyone on our mailing list. We are conducting a weekly evening class for adults. I’m teaching a Sunday afternoon class on prayer book spirituality. We’ve got a special Sunday morning adult forum class planned. All of this is in addition to the regular round of weekly liturgies, committee meetings and pastoral concerns that occupy the day to day life of any parish. In the midst of the lenten fast, we’ve got a smorgasbord of activities to feast upon.
Most of the things that are happening “at the parish” are for the benefit of parishioners, even though they are certainly open to the public. My hope is these additional opportunities will nourish parishioners’ spiritual lives and equip them to better serve their Lord in the world about them. Yet, for all of the energy that we will expend through this season, we will remain mostly invisible to the community around us. We will continue to be the red brick building on the corner with the lovely welcome garden. All of this is well and good. But aren’t we called to more? And if we are called (as I believe we are) to “go into all the world”, what does that “going out” look like in a distracted, conflicted culture where religion is consistently pushed to the realm of private devotional practice?
At the end of this season, most of us who work inside the walls of a church building will collapse into a heap at the conclusion of the final Easter Day liturgy. Shortly after that, folks will begin to turn their attention to summer vacations and outdoor activities. By the beginning of June, the average Episcopal Church will enter its summer stasis as planning begins to ramp up for another round of insider activities that will begin in September.
I think instead of arguing about the merits/dangers of “Ashes to Go”, I’m going to figure out a way to stand on some more street corners…to talk with and pray for the folks who pass by. I don’t think such behavior will increase the Sunday attendance at the parish I serve or resolve our budgetary challenges. I’m pretty sure it won’t do much to get people to contemplate their life’s mission or make radical changes in their politics. But it just may plant a few seeds of Good News. I could go for a bit more of that. Seeds out of ashes? Stranger things have happened.
From the Epistle Lesson: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…”
Ordinarily, the Sunday between Christmas Day and January 1st is fairly low key. The gifts have all been opened. Plenty of carbs have been consumed. Some folks are still away visiting family and friends or perhaps vacationing in warmer climes to catch some sun. Others of us are clinging to the last few hours of “the holidays” — trying to squeeze in a bit more family time or rest time before everything ramps up again on January 2nd and we’re off to the races with over-stuffed calendars and endless to-do lists.
But this hasn’t been an ordinary Christmas week here in Wauwatosa. In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve Day, not even two blocks from our doors, a tragic act of violence, in the parking lot of the Village Fire Station, ended the life of Officer Jennifer Sebena. For the bulk of that day, both ends of this block were cordoned off by law enforcement officials. Our parish grounds became part of an active crime scene investigation. We cancelled the early Christmas Eve service because street access to this building was blocked until about 5:30 p.m.
Later on Christmas Eve, thanks to the efforts of several parishioners, we hastily organized, and then conducted, a brief prayer vigil in the Welcome Garden. Fifteen to twenty of our parishioners were joined by an equal number of folks from the community, and together we prayed prayers of grief and hopefulness. We stood in silence in the cold darkness. We sang “Silent Night” as the candles we held in our hands flickered against the wind. Somehow, the image of Mary and the Baby Jesus afforded those of us gathered a moment of comfort in an otherwise comfortless day.
By this past Thursday, the authorities had a suspect in custody. Yesterday, Officer Sebena was buried in the hope of resurrection to new and unending life. As I read about her and the short life she lived, I was moved by her commitment to service. While she had no chance to defend herself on Christmas Eve morning, I have little doubt she would have done anything possible to defend any one of us, the citizens she had sworn to protect and serve. Jennifer’s death pointedly reminds us of the sacrifices made on our behalf by police officers, firefighters, military personnel and others in public service who routinely put their communities ahead of themselves — no matter the cost.
Only two weeks ago our country reeled in shock as the images streamed in from an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. On Christmas Eve, even as we were anxiously waiting for news about Officer Sebena’s murder, we watched reports from Webster, New York and heard about firefighters who, while rushing to do their job, were ambushed by the person who had set the fire.
So today we gather with a host of questions — questions about guns and the pervasiveness of gun violence in our country; questions about domestic violence; questions about mental health care and post traumatic stress disorder; questions about war and the after effects of war on the psyches of the young men and women who fight in them; questions about our responsibility as a society to provide care and support for those struggling to find their way. Lots of questions. Not many answers.
Sometimes, in our telling of the Christmas story, we Christians get caught up in the sentimental sweetness of it all. Mother and child. Angels and shepherds. Cows and sheep.
Our mental images are mostly an imagination-inspired collage of nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. We sanitize it all. We omit the pain of labor. We ignore the danger of childbirth. We expunge from our churchy Christmas narratives the sights and sounds and smells of what it takes to get a new life into this world. There is no moaning, groaning or screaming. No anxiety. No sweat. No blood. The Baby Jesus arrives. Perfectly. Quietly. Without any fuss or muss. Little wonder Christians are rarely scandalized by the absurdity of what our religion claims.
The Christian claim, at least since Paul wrote the churches in Asia Minor a scant few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, is that God entered the human condition — completely and fully.
And the manner in which God chose to make the entrance?
Not with flaming chariots or sky-ripping fireworks or a booming voice from on high. The God of all creation is squeezed into this world through the birth canal, clothed only in the fragile flesh of an infant gasping for a first breath — just like humans have entered the world since the beginning of time.
Mary carried this scandalous miracle in her body. She held that miracle in her arms. She pondered all that had happened to her in her heart. She looked out of that makeshift nursery in a stable cave and stared into an uncertain future. Lots of questions. Not many answers.
The birth of Jesus, the coming of “God-With-Us”, did not end violence or death. The coming of “God-With-Us” did not set aright all of the injustices humans foist upon each other. The coming of “God-With-Us” did not obliterate tyrants and dictators; did not fill every hungry belly, heal every deadly disease or end our human lust for vengeance.
The coming of “God-With-Us”, did show us, though, in no uncertain terms, that God IS WITH US. With us in our moments of grief. With us in our times of suffering. With us in our most searing pain. With us when we feel abandoned. With us when we feel unsafe. With us when we can’t make sense of ourselves, our world, or even God.
The message of Christmas is that God did not shun the frailties and imperfections of humanity. Instead God INHABITED humanity — in a moment in time and for all time. This is the message of Christmas — not simply a Baby in a Manger, but God in the Flesh. As the writer of the Fourth Gospel puts it, “…the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
On Christmas morning, I told the congregation who gathered here for worship that our job as followers of Jesus is to allow Christ to be born in us — to carry the Light of Christ beyond these doors and into a world darkened by fear and anger, violence and death.
We carry the Light of Christ into our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools and our communities. We carry the Light of Christ into voting booths and city halls; homeless shelters and hospitals. We carry the Light of Christ into every conversation we have — whether we name the name of Jesus or not. We carry the Light of Christ into a future where our questions will always outnumber our answers. We carry this Light of Christ in the assurance that this Light shines in darkness and the darkness has not, cannot and WILL not overcome it.
Sometimes our message may seem too fragile — as fragile as an infant shivering against the cold, or a candle flickering in the wind. Sometimes our Good News seems inadequate in the face of all the bad news. Sometimes our words of grace may seem meaningless in a world of gore. Sometimes our hope can be mistaken for denial. Sometimes we are left grasping for faith in the face of accumulating doubts.
But if Christmas teaches us anything, it teaches us that, in the most improbable of ways, with the most improbable of characters and into the most improbable of circumstances, God’s Word comes to God’s world. God’s Word comes, bringing the healing balm of God’s mercy and grace. The Word of God comes, not inscribed on tablets of stone or printed with ink on paper, but wrapped in flesh and blood.
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
(First Coming by Madeline L’Engle)
On December 15, 2012, my dad, Winson Manning, passed peacefully from this life to the next after a five month journey with stage four liver cancer. Shortly before his death, he asked me to officiate at his funeral. It was a request I could not refuse. Here is the homily from that service, conducted on December 20, 2012:
Whenever Winson went on a shopping trip, it was usually carried out with methodical precision. He knew what he wanted. He had a list. He had the layout of the store in his mind’s eye. Even as he ambled down the aisle, he was moving toward his goal with focused attention. Get what you need. Get in line (always the shortest!). Pay. Be on your way. Although he rarely seemed to be in a hurry, Dad didn’t waste any time.
One day a year, though, Winson broke his usual shopping discipline. On that day he would go to store after store with little regard for how much time it was taking. Never mind the crowds. Never mind the hubbub around him. Never mind the traffic, the long lines, the harried people or the crying babies. He would leave the house early in the morning and return after the stores had closed in the evening — usually with both arms full of shopping bags. The day? Christmas Eve!
Yup, Daddy loved shopping on Christmas Eve. He seemed to revel in the confusion and the frenetic activity of last-minute shoppers. For the most part, his annual shopping extravaganza was something done “solo”. If, on the rare occasion he took my sister, Debbie, or me with him, we were deposited back home in the early afternoon so he could continue his mission alone.
Christmas was THE holiday for Winson. The frugality and practicality that defined him 363 days of the year was suspended for the 48 hours of December 24-25. He took great joy (and an appropriate amount of pride) in making sure there were piles of presents under the tree. Dad continued that annual Christmas Eve shopping tradition for many, many years — long after the two children had left home.
As a kid, I could never tell who got more excited about the kids’ toys — the two of us or Daddy. Looking back now, though, I’m pretty sure I DO know.
I’ve shared quite a number of Winson stories over the past few months with friends and co-workers. Daddy and I retold some of our favorite stories to each other (and ON each other!) during the course of my visits to Florida this fall. Over this past week, our family has been telling stories. Lots and lots of stories.
This sort of remembering isn’t simply an exercise in sentimentality. It situates us in a time and place. It helps us gain perspective about who we are and from whence we came. I suspect there will be plenty more Winson stories in the days and months ahead.
I’m pretty sure most of the people in this room have a story or two about him — how you met him, or your first memory of him, or when he shared a funny anecdote, or dropped one of those trademark bits of Winson-wisdom on you. I encourage you to tell those stories to anyone who will listen. Not because Winson needs us to tell them, but because we need to tell them.
Christian folks are ALL about stories! Think about it. This time of year we tell the story of Jesus’ birth. In a few months, we will tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Along the way we will tell stories of Jesus restoring sight to the blind, unstopping deaf ears, making the lame leap for joy and raising the dead to another shot at life. We even tell stories about Jesus telling stories — only we call those stories parables.
Those of us who’ve been around church for any amount of time listen to those Jesus stories over and over — even though we know all the punch lines and have heard all the endings. Those stories comfort and challenge us. Instruct and excite us. Inspire and encourage us.
Winson was the consummate story-teller and a keen observer of life. He was also the first to tell you he thought the best way he could give witness to his faith in God was to go easy on the words and heavy on the actions. Many of our Winson stories likely recall times when he helped us in some way — either through something he did on our behalf directly, or simply when he took the time to listen to us when no one else seemed to have time to spare. The way Dad lived his faith can’t be inscribed on a wall plaque or summarized in a newspaper article. And that seemed to suit him just fine.
I don’t know if Dad ever heard of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived centuries ago in Europe. But I know he would have said a hearty Baptist, “AMEN!” to one of Francis pithiest pieces of advice, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
A verse from one of Winson’s favorite bluegrass gospel songs summarizes this way of LIVING the Good News of God in Christ:
While going down life’s weary road; I’ll try to lift some traveler’s load. I’ll try to turn the night to day; make flowers bloom along the way.
Dad was convinced that actions speak louder than words. I’m guessing none of us would argue his point. But sometimes, we DO need to hear a word, don’t we?
When Jesus gathered with his disciples, just before his death, he offers them some words of encouragement. These words have comforted Christians throughout the centuries. Jesus says to his frightened and confused followers, “Let not your heart be troubled. I go to prepare a place for you…I will receive you unto myself…where I am there you will be also…and you know the place where I am going…”
And then, Thomas (God bless him!) says, “Uh, Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?”
Jesus answers, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
The story we Christian folks tell at funerals is that the end of this life isn’t the end of it all. Death does not destroy hope — even if sometimes the death of a loved one stretches our hope to a breaking point. We keep on hoping though, and not in some anemic, wishful-thinking sort of way either. We hope along with the apostle Paul that, “we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” We say our farewells to loved ones at the graveside, holding as tightly as we can to the hope that “farewell” is not “good-bye”.
Between now and the day when God’s great, unfinished future dawns like the brightness of the sun, we tell stories. We tell the stories of our faith and we tell the stories of those who have lived faithfully. We do our best to walk in the Way of Jesus. We do our best to live in the Truth of Jesus. We do our best to reflect the Life of Jesus. With the eyes of faith, we look toward the day when we will be reunited with loved ones and with our Lord — in the place prepared for us.
I finally figured something out about Winson’s Christmas Eve shopping adventures. That annual retail pilgrimage served a purpose for him. It helped Daddy get out of the day-in-day-out routine of work, kids, bills, groceries, household chores and car repairs. Those shopping trips prepared him to REALLY celebrate the holiday. As it turns out, he brought much more home on those Christmas Eve nights than bags full of candy and games, trinkets and gizmos. He busted through our front door carrying generosity and gratitude; laughter and love.
Today, as Winson’s family and friends, we’re taking some time away from the details of living — the details which, all too often, blind us to the reality that this life, even in moments of difficulty and pain, is a wondrous gift — a treasure to be received moment by moment and day by day. We’re pausing today to reorient ourselves — to remember a man whose life touched most of us here in one way or another. We are pausing to gather strength from each other and our shared faith to face the days ahead. We are pausing to give thanks for a life well-lived.
A few weeks back, while we were sitting out on the front porch, Dad dropped one of his pearls of wisdom on me. He said, “You know, when something comes along that slows you down, you wonder why you were in such a hurry in the first place.” Indeed.
Perhaps the best tribute to the life of Winson C. Manning any of us could offer in the days ahead is to SLOW down and take our time. Amble instead of sprint. Watch the breeze filter through the trees. Listen to the rhythm of the waves at the beach or maybe slip off and wet a line from the creek bank. Hold loved ones close. Tell friends and family we love them. And then? Get up and live!
Live tenaciously. Give generously. Pray fervently. Hope endlessly.
As Daddy would say, “There, that should keep you busy for a while.”