Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Las Hojas y Las Cenizas

Un sermón predicado a la iglesia de San Esteban y la Encarnación, Washington, DC, miércoles de cenizas, el 25 de febrero 2009

Cuando entraron ustedes en la iglesia esta noche, vieron que el espacio era diferente. A lado de la fuente hacia un árbol seco. Inmediatamente, se puso ver otro árbol detrás del altar. Miren la capilla de resurrección. Hay una colección de cuadras de la artista Margaret Parker, que dibuja y pinta muchas representaciones de árboles con ramos sin hojas.

Hace muchos meses, unos miembros de nuestra congregación han estado planeando nuestra observancia de cuaresma. Buscamos símbolos para significar el tema de renovación y crecimiento. Entonces elegimos el árbol. Durante invierno, como este invierno, el árbol está completamente desnudo, totalmente sin protección. Es necesario que el árbol pierda sus hojas a fin de que crezca otra vez.

De manera similar, nuestras almas necesitan quitarse todas las cosas que prohíben nuestro crecimiento en la imagen de Cristo. Envidia, arrogancia, codicia, crueldad: todas estas cosas debemos derramar como tantas hojas, que deben ser recogidos y quemados. Cenizas nos recuerdan que somos como árboles durante invierno—desnudos, puros, vacíos, listos para la primavera del Espíritu cuando podemos producir capullos nuevos.

En unos momentos vamos juntarnos alrededor la fuente para participar en la liturgia de miércoles de cenizas. Nos recordamos allá que morimos en bautismo como hojas del árbol, en preparación para vida nueva. En la imposición de cenizas, dejamos nuestros pecados. En la paz, recordamos que somos conectados a todo la comunidad de Cristo en la que crecimos juntos. Luego, vamos al altar para la comunión, recordando que cuando morimos, siempre resucitamos con Cristo para vivir. Siempre. Amen.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Do We Need Priests?

The following is a summary of the project on which my thesis is based for the degree of Doctor of Ministry. I made the report to the parish of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, DC, on December 18, 2008. The thesis has been completed. I will be happy to answer further inquiries.

Continuing the Dialogue

Reflections on the Parish-wide Conversation,
“Priests: Do We Need Them?”
Fall, 2008

I could not be happier with the way the folks of St. Stephen’s participated in the survey and parish-wide conversation, “Priests: Do We Need Them?” In so doing, you supported me personally in my quest to be a Doctor of Ministry. More importantly, you engaged in a dialogue that is critical to the way we organize for and do ministry in St. Stephen and the Incarnation.

Ninety-three people took the survey online, and an additional six asked to take it manually. At least 70 people completed most of it. Approximately 70 persons participated in the meeting on Sunday, October 12 to view the presentation, hear the results of the survey, and to discuss the place of priesthood in our shared ministry. Forty-three persons turned in written responses to the discussion questions I posed. Those are remarkable figures. I am deeply grateful for your help and participation.

Parishioners regularly register a high degree of satisfaction with our parish life. Of those responding to the reflection questions on October 12, almost everyone had positive things to say about how they felt they were practicing priestly ministry in their lives. Most were quite positive about the way they feel supported in their ministries by the clergy. One may fairly ask if there is any value to pursuing this issue of whether we need priests, or what value ordained leadership has, or whether there is any point in articulating a coherent theology of priesthood when it seems to most people that ministry is working fairly well in St. Stephen’s. To those questions I respond by placing this discussion in several different contexts.

The Discussion in Context

Of immediate importance is the unique context of our “shared leadership model.” When St. Stephen’s went through an arduous and thorough process of thinking through its leadership needs beginning ten years ago, no one could have known the practical issues that would have to be dealt with as various senior wardens came and went and as senior priests accommodated themselves to a system quite different from the standard arrangement in the Church. We have learned some things in the last four and a half years, and we continue to learn. It is clear now, for example, that the senior priest, while in theory having no direct responsibility for parish finances, must in fact be a part of the oversight of fundraising, budgeting, and financial management. This can significantly impact the time commitments of the senior priest. Likewise, in a system that is used to carrying on liturgically and pastorally without direct involvement and supervision of ordained clergy, it can be problematic for clergy sometimes to know who is taking responsibility for what. And when decisions have to be made, it is not always clear who has the authority or the responsibility for making a decision, or how it is to be made. Almost all parish systems operate on some model of “shared leadership.” Rarely is there a single person who has all the authority and all the responsibility for making every decision and for setting the course of the entire ministry. Our particular form of shared ministry, however, necessitates constant communication, flexibility, a high tolerance for ambiguity, willingness to negotiate boundaries and roles, and sometimes a staggering degree of volunteer time, especially on the part of the senior warden, whose responsibilities can be daunting.

One of the reasons for doing this project, then, has to do with the reality that St. Stephen’s, in practicing a ministry that takes lay persons’ gifts seriously, has chosen to create a system that demands deep lay commitment. There is no default position that the clergy, especially the senior priest, is ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of the church. While such an idea of “shared ministry” is attractive and laudable, it depends directly on the willingness of lay persons continually to make major time commitments and very real sacrifices. Furthermore, a priest in such a system, having been trained to exercise leadership in a generally hierarchical structure, finds herself or himself constantly challenged to use a variety of skills—not all of them mature—in exploring and testing what sorts of leadership will effectively move the parish towards its goals. Indeed it is not clear who has the responsibility for guiding the parish towards it goals, or how those goals originate, or who is accountable for monitoring the progress towards meeting them. This is not to say that the “shared leadership model” is basically flawed. But it is to say that it rests on a number of assumptions that have not always been thoroughly understood. And it is not completely rhetorical to ask ,“Do we need priests?” when it is far from certain exactly what priests do that any lay persons cannot do as well or better. If shared ministry is to work, somewhere along the way—better sooner than later—folks involved in it need to know what it is they are doing, how they are doing it, and who is responsible for what.

Not as a part of this project per se, but arising out of this same cluster of questions, the senior and junior wardens, Jane Bishop and Cam Crockett, have joined with Brian Best and me this fall in a set of conversations reviewing the shared ministry model and how it is working. The details of those conversations are not germane to this report, but one of the outcomes of this project has been that we do have a base for seeing more clearly now both what the parish understands priesthood to be about (as practiced both by the ordained and more generally by the entire Christian community). Several things have driven this evaluation. The main one is that we need to make sure that we have a doable and sustainable job for the senior warden. Otherwise the system cannot function.

Another context in which this project needs to be seen is the trajectory of growth of the parish. While that growth is not linear and uninterrupted, it has in fact occurred over the last several years, especially as the neighborhood has changed, the congregation’s demographic is shifting (lots of new babies, for example!), and economic stresses make themselves felt. We have had major decisions to make. Every indicator suggests that we will continue to have more to make. One example is the revisions to our building necessitated by the moving out of the Washington Free Clinic requiring renovating the third floor of the parish house to make marketable office space. Another is the refurbishment of our church school space this year in response to a growing population of youngsters. Another decision, or set of decisions, has had to do with our burgeoning Latino ministry and the need to stabilize financially the clergy leadership of it. Decisions like these are all related to the parish’s possible and actual growth. They are inherently related to the core mission of St. Stephen’s and the way it understands its ministry. My point is that decisions like these will continue to confront the parish and will demand that there be a clear way of addressing concerns and coming to conclusions that is clear, direct, and effective. A complicated, unclear, or unrealistic method of decision-making will impede the parish’s growth and hamper its ability to accomplish its mission.

Yet I place this project in a still larger context. The Episcopal Church began looking afresh at the meaning of priesthood in the 1970’s when the question of ordaining women began to reshape people’s thinking. A number of writers began exploring the meaning of ordination, specifically priestly ordination, arguing that there was nothing about it that prima facie disqualified women. At the same time a number of people working on issues of ministry encouraged the Church to look seriously at the ministry of all the baptized as fundamental to its mission. Interestingly, St. Stephen’s was at the forefront of both these movements. The rise of emphasis on both ordination and total ministry lifted into prominence the question of how the priest is and what the priest does in community. The more the Church has sorted out questions surrounding ordination, the larger looms the question of whether we need priests in the first place. Clearly, the way the Church structures its liturgy and polity, it needs priests. It needs priests because, by delegating to them the regulation of its liturgical life, it has made them essential. It also needs them because to this day they are trained to be leaders of the Christian community. When liturgical life and community leadership cease to be the province of the priest, an identity crisis ensues in which priests begin to wonder whether they have any use or value. In turn, that can lead, as identity crises often do, to unproductive reaction in the form of withdrawal, over-functioning, excessive control, or burnout. Thus the question of what a priest is, what a priest does, and how the priest relates to the larger community of the baptized is not at all minor or incidental to the practice of ministry in the wider Church.

Some things I learned from the survey

The understanding of priesthood among the people of St. Stephen’s does not greatly different from that in the larger Church. Priests are seen as leaders; as ministers of the Church’s core possessions, Word and Sacrament; as guardians and interpreters of Tradition; and as spiritually aware persons who can listen, support, guide, forgive, bless, and heal. (Incidentally, priests in this community are not too frequently seen as healers, judging from the survey.) But priests are clearly not seen on the whole as superior, either essentially or morally, to other Christians, nor as enjoying greater importance than lay persons within the Body of Christ. On the edges, there is on the one hand noticeable clergy dependence, and on the other hand some anti-clericalism. But the great majority of people see priests as valuable and their various responsibilities as integral to the life of the Church. A strong majority see ordination as a necessary element in the life of the Church.

Things you said in the conversation

There were four questions at the end of the power point presentation on which participants were asked to reflect and to talk with each other. One was “if ‘the priesthood of all believers’ means that we all practice Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, how do you practice priestly ministry in your life here and now?” A number of people identified their daily life and work as the context for doing so. A few mentioned their roles in church and their attempts to bring people into the Christian assembly. One respondent wrote, “[I practice priestly ministry] by being a human vessel for the will of God and the interconnected web of existence.” A number of people mentioned that they practice their ministry in their work for justice. Clearly reaching out to housemates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends with sensitivity and compassion is key to Christian practice for a great many people. Others identify particular devotional practices, such as tithing, reading and studying the Bible, and prayer as ways in which they live their ministries.

A second question asked, “How have the clergy at St. Stephen’s supported you in your ministry?” Sermons, teaching, listening, caring, reflecting, were some of the things you mentioned. Offering the community’s rituals, inspiring liturgies, welcoming, and support in times of crisis were other things you noted.

To the third question, “Do we have an adequate understanding of priesthood in St. Stephen’s, you were rather evenly divided between those who said yes and those who said no. A fair number of people answered with qualifications, one way or the other.

About three-fourths of those responding to the questions offered suggestions of next steps that we might take “to deepen our understanding of how all of us, priests and lay people, fit together in the one ministry which is Christ’s.” Suggestions ranged from having more small groups, to occasional conversations like the one on October 12, to prayer groups, to sermons and adult forums. Many expressed a desire not to drop the topic but to continue discussing it. Some saw ministry in either more specific or more generic ways than a limited discussion of priesthood or shared ministry. One suggested that there be a “verdant earth” group looking at ways that we can live more ecologically responsibly.

Where do we go from here?

Almost certainly we shall be looking as a community at our shared leadership model in the near future. That look will no doubt be informed by much of what we have learned about our own thinking in relation to priesthood specifically and to ministry in general.

Those who have some energy around the formation of groups, whether for ecological sensitivity or for prayer or for some other purpose will need to take responsibility for announcing a date, time, and place for such a group to meet and organize. Let others gather around you. We can offer you support and resources in some cases, and the parish office can definitely offer you help in communicating.

Given the interest in the topic, either narrowly or broadly, it would seem to me that we need to look for opportunities to continue the dialogue. One possibility is to use our Fridays in Lent as opportunities to look at some dimension(s) of ministry. Another is to plan next year’s adult forums and other Christian formation opportunities with these issues in mind. A third is to use the resources we have, preaching for example, to address some of these concerns more directly. And a fourth is occasionally to revisit these matters with a special meeting, as some in fact suggested. I could see, for example, an annual “mini-conference” perhaps on a Friday night and Saturday morning, or on another Sunday after the 10:30 liturgy, dealing with some aspect of our ministry together. My concern is that we not have “just another program” that overloads already busy lives, but that we gather to reflect in a way that is directly and clearly tied to the central missional consciousness of St. Stephen’s.

Frank G. Dunn
18 December 2008

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Healing That Cannot Keep Its Mouth Shut

Ministry: Bringing Healing and Wholeness to the World

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Febuary 15, 2009

Text: Mark 1:40-45

If you were to find yourself in the gospel story we just heard, who would you be? The leper? Since few of us have had any contact with leprosy, I doubt that we would relate to him all that quickly. Jesus? Since even fewer of us experience the power to heal miraculously, my guess is that we don’t readily see ourselves as Jesus. Are you an onlooker, curious about what is happening, saying to yourself, “Nah. No such thing. You can’t heal leprosy that way. Man ought to see a doctor.” Or maybe one of the disciples, saying, “Wow! That’s amazing!” Or are you one of the hundreds who heard the newly healed former leper advertising Jesus and wondered if it was true, or if such a thing could happen to you?

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer, just the truth of where the story sits closest to you. But how might we begin to see ourselves if we were to approach the story as a commentary on ministry? What I have in mind is to look at the story through the lens of what it has to say about what you and I might understand about our own ministry as Christians. In fact, I want to make today the first of a series of sermons that look at ministry from various angles. The reason grows out of two experiences I had last year. One was the experience of preaching a series of sermons on Christian practices. I began it in July and continued it through All Saints in November. It was the first time I had done such a thing. It transformed the way I approach preaching. And, if I may say, judging from the number of comments and questions that you voiced to me as we dealt together with some of those topics (discernment, confession, stewardship, proclamation), I would say that those sermons worked to stir up a fair amount of conversation, which is what one hopes sermons in fact might do from time to time. The other experience was the event we shared in October when in a parish-wide conversation as a part of my doctoral program at Virginia Seminary I heard you clearly saying that you wanted to focus more on the issues of the ministry that we share. So I have set myself the goal of looking at least through Easter, and possibly beyond, at the scriptures through this lens: what does this say about ministry?

Now, I have to admit “ministry” is an awfully churchy word. While many of us in this congregation use it easily, it is not lost on me that a good many people simply don’t think of anything they do as “ministry.” If you are in that group, you are not alone. So let’s start with the fact that “ministry” needs a little explaining. To begin with, ministry does not refer to the activity of the clergy. Clergy participate in ministry, but primarily because ministry is something that we all share—and not just those in the Church, but all people everywhere. Ministry is the work we do, the things we say, the activities we engage in, the people we relate to. What makes it Christian, if it is Christian, is not ordination into the ranks of clergy but that it glorifies the God we know through Jesus Christ. The great symbol of the life of ministry, and the effective gateway into it, is baptism. When we are baptized, we join the ranks of those who expressly commit to live the way Jesus lived and minister the way Jesus ministers. That means we practice our ministry—or at least aim to—by making God’s love the focus and motive of all we do. It means that our ministry is transparently one of forgiveness and reconciliation. It means that our ministry has to do with sitting down and eating, literally, with anybody and everybody. It means that we spend considerable energy on getting to know the outcasts and marginal people in society. It means that we pray with some concentration and regularity. It means that we keep pointing beyond ourselves to the God who embraces the whole creation. And it means that we heal.

Healing characterized the ministry of Jesus. There is no doubt about that. While Jesus was not the only known healer of his day, he definitely generated a whole cycle of stories with his astonishing healing. In Mark’s gospel, however, Jesus makes clear—more or less—that healing was tangential to his ministry of proclaiming the Good News, not the other way around. In this healing story, Jesus does what he frequently does when he heals: he brings someone out of a state of isolation and reintegrates them into the community. Healing in these stories is rarely a matter of simply curing a bodily ailment. Jesus’ healing is a way of restoring a person to wholeness. Hence the stories often include a reference to sins being forgiven or faith being involved in wellness. So, if we style our ministry after Jesus’, we will be healers intent on helping to bring about wholeness.

That might seem a stretch for you. Let’s look a bit more deeply into the whole matter of healing. One of the issues that always comes up when we read and talk about The New Testament is how differently people thought about sickness and healing in those days from how we think about them now. In a way we seem to be far removed from the world of exorcism, leprosy, and a number of the things that were current in Jesus’ day. What has happened, more than anything else, is that during the intervening centuries, we have adopted a medical model for understanding healing, and generally (at last in our part of the world) we have approached all sickness and all healing as if they were somewhat mechanical processes that, through medical science, we can manage, at least theoretically. Medicine is valuable, even essential. But anyone who practices modern medicine will quickly tell you how much is trial and error, how much we still don’t know, and how mysterious are the factors that go into a person’s healing. I think of Larry Dossey, a physician who started out several years ago to write a treatise debunking the notion that prayer is an effectual component in healing. In his research, which was honest enough, Dossey confronted evidence that he did not expect: namely, that prayer has a very salient effect on the healing process in countless instances.

There is another kind of healing experience. Let us call it spiritual healing. It includes things like mental and emotional health that certainly have a relationship with bodily health, but are not quite the same as the wellness or sickness of a kidney. They have to do with attitudes, behaviors, life patterns and positions. Sometimes those things can be deleterious for an individual, as for example, we can see in the case of addictions. And sometimes we can be healed of those diseases of the spirit, which almost always leave some mark on the body, too. We take it for granted now. But back in the 1930’s, it was very courageous of many churches, especially Episcopal churches, to house Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. To this day, countless AA and NA groups, and other 12-step programs, find homes within Episcopal parishes because we recognized early on that the church had a vocation to support and engage in the kind of spiritual healing that goes on in AA.

There is a third kind of healing, which certainly overlaps with the latter. And that is what we can call “sacramental healing.” Every week at the end of our 10:30 liturgy, whoever wishes to do so may come to the side altar for prayers of healing and the laying on of hands. For years this has been a major part of my ministry. I cannot begin to tell you in the context of this (or any) sermon all the things that I have learned and experienced through the laying on of hands with prayer for healing. But I can tell you this: lives have been changed, beginning with mine. For something like 500 years, Christians assumed that the Body of Christ (namely the Church) was on this earth to heal as much as Jesus healed. People went to church and prayed expecting to be healed. And record after record indicates that they were. And then what always seems to happen in the church happened. Somebody tried to regularize it so it wouldn’t get out of hand. And the spontaneity fled. The Church might have gained control, but it soon lost a sense of its vocation to be a healing community.

But if something, like healing, is authentic to the life of the Church, it will pop up from time to time, in one form or another. And so healing did. It appeared in charismatic and Pentecostal revivals. It began to appear in the work of individual healers, many of whom conventional rationalists dismissed as charlatans (and some of whom might have been). Gifts of healing began to occur in strange places like in prayer groups of women in The Episcopal Church, led by people like Helen Shoemaker and Polly Wiley, and more recently, Avery Brooke, names that some of you will recognize and some of you know personally.

I believe that what all this is about is the Presence of the Spirit of God in our lives and in our midst. The Spirit eventually breaks down barriers, opens minds, melts stony hearts, and frees captives. It is not opposed to conventional medical healing but rather part and parcel of it. The Spirit, interestingly, is teaching us that healing is not about keeping bodies from dying. It is about making people whole, just as Jesus did. We all die eventually, and the point of the healing ministry is not to forestall death as long as possible. Nor is it to get us to believe that death is somehow a flaw in creation. Rather, the focus of healing is to enable us to embrace our mortality, allowing the Spirit of God so to infuse us that our bodies, our minds, our souls are relieved of all those things we could do to fight our humanity, and thus freed to live as whole human beings as much as possible. Let me say that again: the focus of healing is to enable us to embrace our mortality rather than fight it, so that we can be as whole as possible.

But our ministry of healing is not just a matter of becoming more whole ourselves. Our ministry is to take the healing to what we call “the world.” And by that I mean to the places where Jesus was always meeting God: the deserted places and the streets. When we work for justice, we are engaged in the healing of society. When we act for peace, whether individually or as a part of a mass movement, we are working for the healing of the world. What we might well do is to consider the things we have learned about how healing and wholeness happen in places like our altar, and translate that into the way we live in our work, in our play, in our social circles. A short list of some of those things would include touch, prayer, listening, caring, and being connected. What might happen if we kept those things in mind every day as some of the ways in which we could actually bring about the healing and wholeness of our world?

Most commentators on this passage have spent a lot of words on the question of why Jesus was so insistent that the healed leper and many others not broadcast the healing incidents. That is a good question, and one to which there is no single definitive answer. But another question almost no one asks is what the healed leper said and what others heard. We can only imagine. But I think we can trust our imagination and fairly conclude that the man said something like, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me—yes, I am that leper you knew and shunned. That man Jesus healed me.” And I suspect we can trust our imagination when it envisions a host of people saying, “We’ve got to see this. We can use some of that.” It’s crass. But it’s human. And, in a way, that is what will ultimately heal the world: enough people saying, “Here’s what happened to me.” And enough others saying, “That is what we need, too.” Maybe the proclamation that Jesus was so intent on getting on with was in fact helped by this excited, disobedient, joy-filled man. And it could be sped along, too, when you spread the word: “Have I got some Good News to share. This old world, like this old body, can be whole once more. You can believe it.”

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009