Heal my blindness

In case you weren’t aware, the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas is in the midst of a leadership transition. These transitions occur from time to time, but until you experience it first hand, it’s hard to appreciate how stressful the transition is. So it seems appropriate today that we encounter lessons from the Bible – the source of our understanding of ourselves – about leadership transition and transformation.

We – the some 10,000 members of the Diocese of Kansas – do not all see this transition through the same lens. We each bring our unique experience, expectations, concerns, and blind spots with us to this transition. Some of us – like Samuel – may be grieving over the loss of a leader of 13-plus years, or perhaps we’re just frightful of what the future holds. Others of us – like Jesse – are already lining up likely successors in our mind’s eye. Yet in this story about the anointing of David, Samuel – despite his grief – is open to the Lord’s intervention and direction through the entire search process. Would that we all were so open to the Lord’s intervention and direction. It’s a good thing that we have such stories to remind us of our inclinations, and to help us keep those inclinations in check. All the same, even if we are more like Samuel, there is no guarantee that we will have perfect vision.

We, like Samuel, will have a parade of potential leaders presented to us; and like Samuel, we – for a variety of reasons may be inclined to say, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”[1]

This inclination to see what we want to see in outward appearance, and the difficulty of looking at the heart, can lead us to jump to conclusions and make hasty assessments. If we take nothing else away from this story, we need to appreciate that discerning our future leadership cannot be rushed, and that this process of discernment bears little resemblance to our political electoral processes. In our process of discernment we need to try to suspend our expectations and our anxieties, and trust that God will guide this endeavor if we are willing loosen our grip on the reins and give our Creator the lead.

All this said, the Standing Committee of the Diocese is being quite deliberate and intentional in giving the Lord the lead, even as we structure a process to guide the search and calling of our next bishop. The process we are using reflects best practices learned over centuries of experience, and has been tested and tweaked for decades to good effect. Nonetheless, the outcome will only be as good as the intention and vision we bring to it.

So the question remains, will our vision permit us to see beyond the horizons of our own understanding, and to consider something we may have never seen before? Or will we like the disciples in John’s unique story of the man born blind presume we know the cause of his blindness? In this story, Jesus uses his disciples’ and our own blindness to reveal a new way of seeing the kingdom of God. He uses spittle and dirt, the building blocks of Creation to create a new vision. To outward appearances this is most strange, but to the son of the Creator, and to those who recognize him as such, this is not too strange. Yet this act and the timing of it raise a divisive question. The question of Jesus’ divinity becomes a cause of disagreement among the religious. Between those who because of a lack of vision declare, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath;”[2] and those whose vision allows them to ask, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”[3] Ultimately, it is the man who was born blind who has the vision to come closest to the truth, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”[4]

In these two stories, separated by centuries and miles, we can see similarities between David and the man born blind. David was excluded from Samuel’s sacrifice and sent into the fields because he was the youngest and – at least in his father’s eyes – the least likely to be king. The man born blind was not included in the mainstream of society because of the presumption that his blindness marked him as a sinner. Yet both David and the man born blind, despite the judgment of others are the ones judged by the Lord God as worthy visionaries.

As we seek ways to transform our lives, our community, or even discern the call of our next bishop let us not be blinded by the judgment of others or even our own presumptions. Instead, let us acknowledge our tendency to see too narrowly, and offer this tendency in sacrifice before this altar. Then as we are fed with the body and blood of our Savior, let us ask to see with Jesus’ eyes so that like the man born blind our vision may be transformed into something new.

[1] 1 Samuel 16:6

[2] John 9:16

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., v. 33

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What are you thirsting for?

What are you thirsty for this morning? Another cup of coffee? A little more basketball? Perhaps something a little more profound and fulfilling?

This morning, we encounter two very different stories of thirst. Which one resonates with you?

In the first, we find the people of God wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula, where they are whining and complaining about their thirst. I don’t mean to be dismissive of their circumstance. It is very real, but so is their reaction to it. To my ear, their reaction to their circumstance reflects a sense of powerlessness, a sense of their recent enslavement. They have not yet entirely shaken the bonds of their time in Egypt. They do not yet see themselves as whole – or fully alive.

While thirst is the apparent theme of these stories, there is another less conspicuous connection. This less conspicuous connection binds these stories together across the intervening centuries. The connection is one of place. You see, the setting of the story from John’s Gospel is very near the beginning point of the entire exodus narrative. It is near the plot of ground that Jacob – the one we know also know as Israel – has given to his favorite child Joseph – the one who will be sold into slavery in Egypt.

But oh my, how the intervening centuries of geopolitical intrigue have changed the attitudes and opinions of the people of God. No longer are this land and its inhabitants seen as holy. Now these people are seen as apostate, impure, unworthy of being the people of God, even though they worship God and follow the Torah. So intense is the disdain for these people that no self-respecting Jew would venture into this place.

And then there is Jesus. Once again, he troubles the waters and the minds of the self-righteous. While others would wander miles out of their way to avoid Samaria; Jesus takes the shortest and most direct route home, which takes him and the disciples through the heart of Samaria.

This is where we find a tired, hungry and thirsty Jesus this morning; flouting custom and common wisdom because he wants to cut to the heart of the matter. He wants his disciples to see that no one – even the most besmirched – is beyond the life-giving waters.

There are all sorts of red flags and righteous taboos involved in Jesus’ unorthodox encounter with this woman of Samaria, but frankly I think they are distraction from the essence of the story. Suffice it to say that by ignoring the taboos, just as he ignores the directions to avoid this land in the first place; Jesus – by taking a chance – creates the opportunity for a holy encounter that could not happen otherwise.

To begin the conversation, Jesus presents himself as thirsty beside Jacob’s well, as one in need of what Jacob and this woman have to offer. In doing so, he begins to draw her toward his own life-giving well. Within the span of a few verses, the woman realizes that she is the thirsty one; she is the one asking for Jesus’ water. Admittedly, she doesn’t yet fully comprehend it all, but she will.

At no point in this conversation does Jesus belittle this woman, even as he acknowledges her circumstance, the conversation is affirming of their common ground. The register of Jesus’ voice enables the two of them to enter into a non-threatening give and take that enables this woman to recognize the opportunity and invitation that is before her. Jesus’ tone of voice invites her to accept the invitation and to become the first Samaritan preacher of the Gospel. It is her proclamation of the good news that vouches for this Jewish stranger; as a result the city invites him and the disciples in.

In this season of Lent, where are we so encumbered by the taboos of our collective sense of righteousness that we avoid taking chances, those short cuts that will lead us to the heart of the matter? What is the heart of the matter? In my mind it is the ways in which we isolate ourselves or others because we believe that we or they are not worthy. It is the ways in which we deny that we need others and the presence of the Divine in our lives. It is the ways in which we believe we are self-sufficient.

In all these ways, like those whining and complaining in the desert, we deny ourselves and others the opportunity to become “a spring of water gushing up eternal life.”[1] Where and why have we capped the wellspring? This is our work in this season, to name the hurt, the thirst, and the debris in our lives that impedes the flow; and to hand it over to Jesus so that we are restored to the life-giving and thirst quenching spring of our Baptism.

[1] John 4:14

Harvest Letter, Spring 2017

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. [1 Peter 4:10]

During this period of transition, the Council of Trustees is very mindful of the abundance of gifts and giftedness that are spread throughout the Diocese, and we give thanks for your stewardship of this abundance. The Council is intentionally cultivating this attitude of gratitude and abundance, and we invite you to join us with the same intentionality.

Our nature may incline us toward anxiety during periods of change, but we can choose a different path. We can harness and re-direct the energy behind our anxiety using it and the change of circumstance as an opportunity for growth. This is a model of stewardship that builds upon our inherent giftedness.

It is this model of stewardship and giftedness that informed the Council of Trustees’ reflection upon this period of transition, which led us to articulate the following theological statement.

We, the Council of Trustees, believe in and trust the God-given gifts that abide in the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. During this season of transition, we will not be fearful. Directed by the Spirit, together we joyfully walk with Jesus the road ahead.

This statement is not a piece of PR fluff tossed out as a sound bite to make us feel better. Rather it states the guiding principles the Council is bringing to bear on its work. Our prayer is that it becomes infectious and spreads to all parts of the Diocese.

The Council’s thinking in developing this statement was deeply affected by the concept of Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) as adapted by the Episcopal Church and Episcopal Relief and Development into a method of working named Called to Transformation.

The distinctive features of Called to Transformation are that Jesus is at the center of the work, and the work embraces the belief that individuals, groups and communities have the gifts necessary to address the circumstances around them. 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that each of us are given different gifts to serve the community of which we are a part, the body of Christ working together.

As for how all this relates to us, this period of transition finds the Diocese in a place rich with opportunity for imagination, inquiry, and discernment. However, if we’re honest with one another, more than a few of us see it as a challenge that needs to be fixed quickly. We need to be fully aware of the pull of this inclination, and simultaneously choose to resist it in favor of the prayerful stewardship of our gifts.

In this we need to work together intentionally and collegially to put Jesus at the center of this period of imagination, inquiry, and discernment as we embark upon this search for the 10th Bishop of Kansas. This work will not set the course of the Diocese permanently; but it does invite us to align our work with the deepest realities of whom we are: God’s people, followers of Jesus, and bearers of the Holy Spirit – the faithful stewards of our giftedness.

Yours in stewardship of God’s gifts,

Foster+

Much Beloved Children

I’d like to share with you the story of two very different children. While they were very different, they were from the same family, and they were both much loved by their parents. Though they were both much loved, their differences affected the ways in which their parents responded to them.

The oldest child was an easygoing rule follower, an unquestioning and unhesitating complier. If told to go, this child would go, not asking why or for how long. Such compliance and obedience made this child easy to like and live with. His parents were grateful for having a relatively easy child; however, this child was far from perfect.

As he grew up, he continued to be easy going and to follow the rules, but he was reluctant to take responsibility for his actions. As a matter of fact, he was inclined to throw others under the bus when he found himself in trouble. On three different occasions, he allowed someone he loved to face peril so that he could stay in the good graces of the authorities – the rule makers. Some might argue that this child lacked principles or moral courage in the face of adversity. Yet this child remained much loved.

The younger child had a vastly different relationship the rules, and he too was much loved. This child, rather than being an unquestioning rule follower, was inquisitive and curious; he was forever asking why, and how can this be. Sometimes he drove his parents nuts with his questioning; nonetheless they appreciated the intelligence he exhibited, and they loved this child very much – even as they rolled their eyes at his incessant questioning.

Because of his curiosity and questioning, this child grew to love the wisdom of the rules; and he appreciated the moral compass they provided him and those he loved. As this child grew up the rules became a guide to examining and reflecting upon seeming contradictions, and in this the rules shed new light or insights on puzzling dilemmas.

The younger child was also far from perfect. He wasn’t always able to connect the dots, especially when the dilemma or idea was particularly confounding; but he was open to listening and considering other views. Still, the younger child – like the older – was cautious; he was not a risk-taker.

It would delight me if these much loved and imperfect children remind you of people you have known; and it would be even more delightful if we were able to judge them on their merits, even as we acknowledge their shortcomings. As the collect for the day petitions God, “Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways ….”

The two children of God I am speaking of today are not brothers. Indeed, they are from vastly different generations, and one is the descendant of the other. They are the Abram and Nicodemus of our lessons today.

Abram, the compliant rule follower, is happy to go wherever the Lord his God directs him. Yet we read less often about the times he imperils Sarai his wife by allowing powerful men to think they may have her. In each case it is God’s intervention that protects her while Abram collects the payoff. Abram is not exactly a paragon of faithfulness as far as Sarai is concerned.

The second child, Nicodemus is a Pharisee. If we take seriously the biblical caricature of the Pharisees as the bad guys, Nicodemus is not to be trusted. Yet here he is, visiting Jesus under cover of darkness, because he knows that Jesus is from God. His curiosity has gotten the better of him, he wants to understand what to make of this new teaching, he wants to reconcile it to the law – the rules he knows and loves.

These two imperfect children of God, recognizing the presence of God in their midst, are trying to honor and understand this presence as best they can. They are seeking to bind themselves fast in relationship with their God. In this they both succeed in being faithful, despite their shortcomings.

By the time the first child responds to God’s command to sacrifice his child Isaac, he is un-haltingly faithful and as a result becomes the paragon of faithfulness we know as Abraham. God makes this imperfect opportunist a blessing for all the families of the earth.

And Nicodemus? On the day Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus will violate the rules he loves by making himself impure the day before the holiest day of his year –Passover. He will do this by retrieving Jesus’ body from the cross, anointing it with oil and spices, wrapping it and placing it in a tomb. Nicodemus will do this even amid his confusion over how it all works because he knows Jesus is from God, and above all Nicodemus loves God.

Abram and Nicodemus are paragons of imperfection, the embodiment of all that it means to be limited human beings. Yet each, in his own way, with his own gift is seeking to be faithful in what God has revealed to him because each knows himself to be much loved.

In this season of Lent, Abram and Nicodemus are examples for us as we acknowledge our own shortcomings; not so we can beat ourselves up over them, but so that we can look beyond them and see more clearly the graciousness with which we are much loved. It is only in accepting this love that like Abram and Nicodemus we can be faithful stewards of this grace.