Saturday, July 11, 2015

Through God, All Things Are Possible: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedStar Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment, June 24, 2015.)

We are the tools of God.
 
Think about that for a moment. The God of infinite power; the God who created the smallest speck of dust and the grandest galaxy; the God who graced us with hearts to love, minds to reason, and hands to craft – that God needs each of us to complete some very important work.
 
Now I’m not saying that God’s power is limited, and we need to pick up the slack for him. Quite the contrary. We have been given the gift of this planet and the blessings of being joined on this journey by our fellow man – and it is up to us to care for this wondrous creation.
 
But doing so is difficult. Often the challenges appear daunting; sometimes, in fact, we may think they are impossible to overcome. How can we heal or care for the sick under our charge in this place? How can we ensure that all the hungry are fed and all the homeless housed? How can we end the violent acts man commits against man and nation against nation? What must we do to protect our fragile environment and ensure its survival for future generations?
 
Rather than stress over the enormity of these challenges, however, we need to focus on one simple fact.
 
We do not have to do any of this alone. Through God, all things are possible.
 
We already have been given all we need to accomplish these tasks. Our reason; our intellect; our skill; our creativity; our compassion; our love. Each of these is a tool in the toolbox with which God has blessed us to do these things. But using them requires instruction – careful guidance, a gentle hand showing us the way.
 
We do not have to walk that path by ourselves. Through God, all things are possible.
 
The late Harvard University professor and chaplain Peter Gomes reminded us of what to do in difficult times. As he wrote, “What is the response for calamity? Endurance. Don’t rush, don’t panic. What are we to do in calamitous times? We are to slow down. We are to inquire. We are to endure. Tribulation does not invite haste; it invites contemplation, reflection, perseverance, endurance.” Writing further on the recollection by ancient people of God’s work on their behalf, he continued, “They remember … how the Lord delivered them out of these troubles and helped them to endure and bear and eventually overcome them.”
 
So as you go out into your day, remember you do not walk alone. The difficult medical situations, the families experiencing fear and sadness, the stress and exhaustion of your individual challenges – you will not deal with them in a vacuum.
 
The solutions may be hard to find, the answers a challenge to see. But you have a companion, a guiding hand, an inspiration, a cheerleader.
 
For through God, all things are possible.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Whisper of God: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedSTAR Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment on Friday, June 12, 2015.)

With the dawning of each day, we are presented with new opportunities to see God at work – in our lives and the lives of those around us. We see God reflected in the faces of patients and their families, in the doctors and nurses and support staff. We see God in every man, woman, and child. We see God in each magnificent part of nature.

On the metro, on the Beltway, in the crowded lanes of traffic and long lines at the supermarket – everywhere we look, we see God.

But how often, in the midst of our busy and rushed lives, do we stop looking for God and start listening for him?

Often, the perception we have of God’s voice has a very epic Hollywood feel to it. God announcing his presence from a pillar of fire. God speaking from a burning bush. God making a dramatic appearance in a dream.

How often have we dreamed of having our own dramatic encounter with God? Perhaps you or someone you know has. But others may have missed their moment because the chaos and noise within their lives has drowned out God’s voice. Car horns and telephones, arguments, screaming children, doorbells, news broadcasts, television announcers. The chaotic situations that bring people to this very building. There are many distractions that make hearing what is truly important a great challenge.

But in straining to listen for God’s voice over the noises of our hectic, over-scheduled lives, we miss those moments where God can truly speak to us.

We miss those moments where God whispers to us.

Think of a conversation you may have had where there is suddenly a gap when no words are spoken.

Sing your favorite song, and pay attention to that brief moment between verses.

When your eyes open in the morning, ponder that sliver of time before the first thought of the day enters your mind.

Even in something as automatic as breathing, notice the moment between one breath and the next.

It is in these sacred seconds, these moments of quiet, where you will hear that wonderfully blessed whisper – a whisper reminding you that you are loved, you are valued. A voice that says, “You are my beloved child.”

As you depart this morning and go about the business of your day, listen for the voice of God. Listen with your heart, and take notice of those instances of silence and be amazed when you discover it is not silence you are hearing after all.

It is God, whispering in your ear.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Simple Gesture for Our Pets Means So Much More

Shortly after 4:00 this morning, our beloved cat Smokey - a moody, temperamental, independent, but very loving lady who was just shy of turning 19 - passed away. After living a remarkably long life, it had become obvious in recent days that time was growing short for her. She had accomplished all she wanted (as much as any cat could want to accomplish in life), and more and more of her time was spent looking for quiet places to rest. My wife awakened me early to tell me the end was at hand, and together the two of us sat with her, stroked her fur, and held her as she quietly and gently slipped away.

In 45 years, this was the first time I had experienced death. I had not been with any of my family members who have died, and another much-loved pet who passed away last summer had chosen her moment when she was outside the house and away from us. Any death is a loss, as those of our pets have been for our family, but Smokey's has been particularly impactful. My wife and I first picked her up at the animal shelter on the day we returned from our honeymoon, and she has been with us every day since then. She has been as much a symbol of our marriage as our two children, marking the passing years, changing homes, and exciting developments in our lives.

In thinking about these deaths, though, I continue returning to something my wife did for each of our cats when we realized the end was near. In both instances, she took them to the bathtub, gave them each a long and careful bath, wrapped them in a towel, and held them close for as long as possible. In a way, these were much more than baths; they were expressions of love and her special way of anointing them.

Just as the three women went to the tomb that Easter Sunday to lovingly anoint the body of Jesus after his death, my wife lovingly took similar steps with our cats before theirs. Christ's time here was seemingly finished, but the love of Mary, Martha, and Mary extended far beyond that Friday at the cross. The simple gesture by my wife for our beloved pets demonstrated our love for them, a love that continues beyond their time with us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Shoulders of a Seminarian

In the days that have passed since my most recent visit home to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, I've been thinking a great deal about the inestimable value of the human shoulder. I'm not normally given to pondering the mysteries of the human body, but a profoundly emotional moment at the altar rail during the Eucharist pushed musings on shoulders to the fore.

At an altar I have visited countless times in my life, I knelt to receive the bread and wine - and almost immediately I was overcome by emotion, to the point that I cried. Yes, part of it was the feeling of being back in a place that means so much to me, one that was a root from which grew the person that I am today. More than that, though, it was the feeling I got while kneeling at the rail - the sensation that the hands of those I knew in that church, men and women whose friendship and support sustains me today as well as those who have long since passed on and are now the subject of wonderful memories, were all placed on me. All at once, in that moment, they each laid their hands on my shoulders, silent, unheard prayers of blessing and encouragement from those who were and continue to be guides and companions, at moments great and small, in my journey to the seminary.

Shoulders are of great significance in both the Old and New Testaments. They were used to carry water jars in Genesis 2 and sheep in Luke 15. They have borne the burden of man's laws in Matthew 23 and the weight of Assyrian oppression in Isaiah 14. And they carried the weight of messianic power and responsibility as prophesied in Isaiah 9. Throughout history, we have put our shoulders to the wheel; Isaac Newton said that success in his life was only the result of "standing on the shoulders of giants;" W.H. Auden said that "every American poet feels that the whole responsibility for contemporary poetry has fallen upon his shoulders."

In the months since beginning my first year at seminary, I have seen the true power and significance of shoulders in my friends and classmates. They have been a place for them lay their heads at stressful moments. They have been the landing point for many tears of frustration and anxiety. They have been a support for those recovering from brief moments of physically frailty and pain. More than anything else, however, they have been a place to receive arms thrown around them in joy and celebration as we have each shared in the many wonderfully profound and Spirit-filled moments experienced each day.

Our natural inclination is to view shoulders as necessary for carrying weight or bearing burdens. For me, that is a glass half-empty; shoulders carry so much more. They carry the love of friends and family; they carry the hopes of our church; they carry the dreams for our future. And as I learned first-hand at the altar in that small, beloved country church, a hand on a shoulder is a sign of blessing from all those whom God has chosen to weave into the thread of our lives.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Fifty Years On, the Lessons of Selma are Still Being Learned

I was not born in Selma, Alabama, nor did I live there (although I was married at the Episcopal church there, in 1996). I did not take part in the Selma to Montgomery march, being born five years too late. I was not there to express outrage at the discriminatory tactics taken by Sheriff Jim Clark to block blacks from exercising their constitutional right to register to vote. I did not witness the brutality of the state police against the marchers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was not able to mourn the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson or James Reeb.

But as I sat in a theater today watching the outstanding and powerful new film "Selma," I wept - and my tears encompassed all the sorrow and outrage that, while missed in March 1965, are just as real and just as raw for many today as they were 50 years ago. Equally present, sadly, is the need for many to learn the lessons of justice and reconciliation that are strong threads running through what Dr. King called "the moral arc of the universe."

There is much that has changed. In just two generations, the racial slurs that I can recall one of my grandfathers using in front of me, even in my very early years, have been replaced by the joy of two young daughters who have friends based on love and the ability to share good times together and not upon skin color or background. My wife and I have taught them the importance of honoring and respecting the equal worth of every man, woman, and child. We have talked to them about the important rights prayed and fought for by men like Dr. King, John Lewis - a personal hero of mine and someone I am honored to have met - and millions of other men and women, and why they should be remembered.

Despite all we have done, however, how do we find the words to explain why people like Michael Brown, Wenjian Liu, and Rafael Ramos die so needlessly? How do we talk to them about why there are so many people in the world who have a difficult time accepting and loving as easily as they do? Why have they been taught to forgive and yet see others who cannot, who will not, accept, nor love, nor forgive?

On Christmas 1957, Dr. King delivered a sermon on love and forgiveness that I think is very applicable. He said,

This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath. the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God's image is ineffably etched in being. Then we love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God's redemptive love.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, as we remember those who were and are oppressed, those who struggled and fought and fight still, who lived and died so that the future might be born anew, all in the name of equality and justice, I pray that the Pettus Bridge is remembered not only as a symbol of how many steps we as a nation have walked, but how many miles we still have to go. May the lessons of Selma go on, and may the bridge serve as a tool for crossing the divide that still exists and bending the moral arc completely back to justice, equality, and reconciliation.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Best Source of Seminarian Pastoral Support? Other Seminarians

Throughout my journey of discernment over the past seven years, I have been blessed to have some amazing men and women - mentors, guides, and counselors - placed in my path. Some have taken just a few steps with me, others have walked many miles by my side. As  result, my life - my personal walk to Emmaus - has been richly blessed.

Now that I am well into my first semester as an Episcopal seminarian, I have been confronted with something new, a place my path has led me that is far from my comfort zone - vulnerability. For an admitted Type A who lives by lists, deadlines, and the certainty of those things in life of which I can be certain, the feeling of vulnerability, of being exposed and uncertain, is something for which I have no answers. And I would be lying if I said that it didn't scare the hell out of me.

The many hours of study, classwork, tests, exegesis papers, and translation are exciting, challenging, thrilling, and exhausting - and shared by all. Multiple daily opportunities for community worship are strengthening the bonds I'm building with the amazing men and women with whom I am sharing this experience. But despite all of this, of being in the same foxholes and trenches of formation with many other folks, talking about my vulnerability is something that I didn't initially want to do for fear of - you guessed it - making myself even more vulnerable.

My upcoming clinical pastoral education (CPE), a 12-week chaplaincy program next summer required of all seminarians, is something that had struck me particularly hard. My biggest fear grew out of the fact that, because I am such an emotional person, I would not be able to hold my emotions in check. Being in the moment with people when they most need prayers and support is something very important to me - but I'm worried that I will become too deeply involved in those moments of death and grief that many friends have experienced as part of their chaplaincy terms. Hearing stories of comforting husbands who have lost wives and parents who have lost young children moved me to tears - and made me wonder if I could be strong enough to do it.

And in the midst of this struggle, of wondering whether I would be able to keep it together for those who were in the midst of losing everything, I was embraced by my community. I was reminded of the good moments that are just as much a part of CPE as the sorrowful ones. I was reassured that emotion at a moment when others are emotional would be a blessing at those times when those in need are longing to be met in their moment. And I was reminded that I now have a new family that will be with me in my moments of need, of sorrow, of joy.

There have been days recently that have left me exhausted and feeling incomplete, a beaten traveler left on the side of the road to Jericho. It is at those moments that one Samaritan, then another, and still another, pass by and find me laying there - and without hesitation, they stop to bandage my wounds and get me back on my feet.

God knows what He is doing. When I wasn't sure it was me that He was calling to ordination, He knew what He was doing. In my moments of doubt, He knows what He was doing.

And in surrounding me with men and women who understand, who are walking the same three-year path of seminary, and who have been blessed with immeasurable pastoral gifts, He definitely knows what He is doing. My journey to Emmaus continues, carried aloft on the love, prayers, and support of my seminary family.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Shema Yisrael: A Story of Shabbat

For quite some time the statement "Shema Yisrael. Adoshem Elokeinu. Adoshem e'had." has been part of my email signature block. The phrase, which, loosely translated, means, "Hear, O Israel. God is our God. God is one and unique," embedded itself in me after reading Elie Wiesel's Open Heart a few years ago. Now, as an Episcopal seminarian studying Hebrew, the phrase is even more significant for me - the beginning marker of a highway on which I will learn to read the Old Testament not through modern translations and filters, but through the eyes of those for whom it was written thousands of years ago.

Five years ago, Amy and I attended a Shabbat service at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, an experience that I blogged about at that time. When I started at Virginia Theological Seminary last month, I was delighted to see another Jewish congregation, Beth El Hebrew Congregation, directly across the street from campus. My love of interfaith education and experiencing the religious customs of others once again kicked in, and a group of friends from VTS and I joyfully made the trek across the highway for last night's Soul Shabbat.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the voice of God calling.

The word "soul" in the title of the service was no accident, because that's exactly where it hit me - and there were more than a few tears shed. There was something almost indescribable in the sudden,  jarring realization that I wasn't just attending a Jewish service - I and all of my friends sharing the experience with me were being pulled back through the centuries to the very roots of our Christianity. The history of the Jewish people - of repression, of tragedy, of exile - is our history, and yet despite all that they endured, Judaism remains a faith of hope, a faith of joy, a faith of celebration. And the Shabbat, to flip that last phrase, is a celebration of faith.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the call of your past.

I so enjoyed watching the joy on the faces of my friends as they each experienced in their own way the wonder of what was happening. For one in particular, it was quite literally a transformative moment - an instance in which, as she said later, she suddenly felt reconnected to her own call after months of feeling separated from it.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the call to return to your beginning.

And the music - mournful, reflective, joyful. It literally ran the gamut, and as a result so did my emotions. The cantor's singing of Stephen Richards' "R'tzei" (a video of another performance of the song is linked here) brought me to tears (and made me question, just for an instant, whether I am too emotional to be a priest, since I am moved to tears so easily). And a rendition of this poem, with music playing just below the voice of the speaker, was equally moving:

Ein Li Eretz Acheret (I Have No Other Country)

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face


I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes


I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


I won't be silent because my country
has changed her face.
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes


I have no other country
until she will renew her glorious days
Until she will open her eyes


I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the songs of your past, and your present, and your future.

It was a beautiful evening, with wonderful conversation after with the Rabbi. I left feeling renewed, relaxed, and centered, and with an urge to experience more of Judaism as a way of strengthening the foundation of my journey toward the priesthood.

It truly was Shabbat Shalom - a peaceful Sabbath.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two Trains Running ... Right on Schedule

 

As much as I love drama, particularly those plays written by the masters of the 20th century, one of the great challenges for me (and, I assume, any other reader) has always been pulling the emotion and life of plays off the page. Reading "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is a far more challenging task when trying to combine dialogue and stage direction in your mind to achieve a picture of the action. The saving grace is finding that one perfect production that forever lingers with you and gives you the emotion and life you're seeking and can carry over into future readings.

The Round House Theatre's current production of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" is one that will most definitely linger with me for a long time to come. In advance of seeing a performance this past weekend, I obtained a copy of the play and read it. This was my introductory foray into Wilson's work, and I enjoyed it immensely. The one thing missing, however - as expected - was the humor, drama, sadness, and intensity contained within the story. My reading of "Two Trains" was gratifying, but I knew it would be reinforced by seeing it live, when I could live the play.

And was it ever reinforced.

I'll start with the staging and sound design. The diner owned by Memphis is set in an area of Pittsburgh slowly being abandoned by its residents and demolished to make way for the future. It's one of the final links to the past for a deeply-rooted community of residents, and you expect to see it run down. Scenic designer Tony Cisek successfully achieved that, but it had an even more powerful and personal impact on me - it was a glimpse into some forgotten part of my past, reminiscent of old buildings and diners I've visited in my life, places struggling to survive but still somehow managing to hang on, and hanging on in my memory. And sound designer Matthew Nielson did an outstanding job in selecting just the right music to accentuate the story and the scene transitions. There is a particularly effective use of Aretha Franklin's "Take a Look" that comes at a particularly poignant moment of the story.

In many plays I've seen over the years, there have typically been one or two exceptionally strong actors and a few other ones that are "okay" and provide the underlying support. Not so with "Two Trains;" every single actor delivered powerful performances, and like a great cathedral whose weight cannot be supported if one stone is removed from an arch or buttress, I cannot envision seeing Round House's production stand up if one of these actors was changed. After three hours, you leave feeling as if they are interlocked and are crucial to supporting each other.

Jefferson Russell (Memphis) does a wonderful job in coming across as a man cynical enough to think that things won't change, but hopeful enough to dream that one day they will.  KenYatta Rogers (Wolf) is absolutely hysterical as the local numbers runner and resident ladies man. Michael Anthony Williams (Holloway) gives a great performance as the wise and somewhat cynical voice of experience - almost the play's version of a Greek chorus. Frank Britton (Hambone) does a lot with very few lines, and makes his character come alive as an even more tragic figure when sitting silently at a table lost in his own world. Ricardo Frederick Evans (Sterling) gives a great reading as an outspoken ex-con looking for a way to make a quick buck, but who matures over the course of the play into a man whose thoughts and actions are with others in mind, rather than himself. And Doug Brown (West) does a wonderful job as a man who has seen it all and, even with a hint of exhaustion from life, keeps on going.

And then there's Shannon Dorsey (Risa). With every other character in the play, we are given just enough insight to know a bit about their backgrounds - Memphis came from Mississippi and is divorced; Sterling has just gotten out of prison after serving time for a bank robbery; Holloway makes a living occasionally painting houses; West was a gambler before opening a successful funeral home; Hambone is a tragic figure who becomes permanently scarred because of not receiving payment for a job he had performed; Wolf has seemingly always run numbers. 

But we don't have that same background about Risa; we know she has faced some tragic circumstances, but we don't know what. And for that, I have to single out Dorsey for her performance. With so little background to go on, Dorsey creates a character who is defiant and independent in one moment and scared, lonely, and withdrawn in the very next. Her facial expressions and reactions when she doesn't have any lines are just as funny or heart-tugging (and sometimes more so) as when she is speaking. 

My only regret is that the play ends May 4. In retrospect, I would have loved to have seen it earlier in the run to be able to take in another performance. If I'm lucky, I may still. But if you have a chance to catch "Two Trains Running" during this final week of its run, do so - just leave a seat for me.

And kudos to the Round House Theatre team and everyone involved with the production. It's performances like the one I attended that will keep people coming back to the theater for years to come.

Monday, April 28, 2014

What Would Jesus Do, Governor Palin? Certainly Not What You Did...

Dear Governor Palin:

Let me quickly share two passages from the Gospels to set the context for this post.

Mark 1:8. "I will baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Luke 22:61. "And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, 'Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.'"

I will quickly note here that I speak only for myself, an independent who is firmly rooted in his Episcopal faith. In my view, in your haste to corrupt the first passage above to suit your purposes before the National Rifle Association, you have cast yourself as a denier of Christ in the vein of Peter. Mind you, you are not on the same level as the first among the apostles, nor would I ever attempt to put you there. But by twisting one of the sacraments of the church purely for applause, you are belittling and denying the importance of that sacrament - and by denying that importance, you are denying Christ.

And that is disgraceful. You were raised in the Assemblies of God church, one ordinance of which is - according to the Website of one Assemblies congregation - a belief in a baptism of complete immersion in water, because that was the way Jesus was baptized. And while you profess now to be a non-denominational Christian, your very words are a corruption of the very faith in which you were raised.

Think a moment about what you said (perhaps a moment longer than you thought about it before you spoke these words): "Waterboarding is our way of baptizing terrorists." Waterboarding and baptizing. Drowning and blessing. Torture and rebirth.

Are these synonymous in your mind?

Do I worry about terrorism? Of course. Have I seen first-hand - as have millions of others across the U.S. and around the world - the devastating impacts of terrorism? Absolutely. Have I forgotten that Jesus lived in a time of persecution, murder, and horrible brutality at the hands of the Roman Empire and yet still managed in his own life to seek out and forgive his enemies? Absolutely not.

Just as I would pray for my family and friends, I pray for my enemies. And I pray for those for whom reconciliation and peace are difficult to find. Yes, Governor, for a moment of applause that has created sadness and anger among many, I will pray for you.

In his life, Jesus wept. He saw death, disease, violence, and oppression, and he wept. Shouldn't we strive for a higher standard and a higher goal as Christians - as members of the human race - to do things to make Jesus smile?

I would share with you this final prayer, a prayer of reconciliation written by Larry Reimer. Governor, it is my prayer for you today.

O God of peace and healing,
We come before you feeling powerless to stop the hatred that divides races and nations.

We come before you saddened and angered by the denial of human rights in our land.
We come before you with wounds deep in our hearts that we long to have healed.
We come before you with struggles in our personal lives that it seems will not go way.
And we pray Lord, How long?
How long to peace?

And we hear, "Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
How long for racial justice? "Not long, because no lie can live forever.”
How long for our wounded hearts? Not long, I call you by name, you are with me; you are mine.
How long for our struggles? Not long, for my grace is sufficient. I hold you in my everlasting arms beneath which you cannot fall.
How long for the healing of what is broken inside and all around us? Not long, for we shall overcome, together in partnership, human holy partnership, we shall overcome.
AMEN.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Choice of the Episcopal Church: Prosperity, or the Poor?

 
According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel appointed for today is Luke 12:13-21, which reads:
 
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
 
Knowing that, it was particularly disturbing to read in today’s New York Post that Trinity Wall Street’s rector, The Rev. James Cooper, and the parish vestry are moving forward with plans to construct 296,000 square feet of new church offices, meeting rooms, and residential space just behind the main sanctuary (presumably at the corner of Rector and Trinity Place, if my memory of that part of lower Manhattan is correct). Even more disconcerting was when I read that Rev. Cooper forced out members of the vestry opposed to his plan and replaced them with allies who are working with him to see the project through.
 
While musing about this, a friend pointed out an earlier article from the April 24, 2013 edition of the New York Times that covered the revelation that, after years of hiding certain financial data from the public, Trinity was forced - as a result of lawsuit filed against it by a parishioner - to reveal that they are sitting on assets totaling more than $2 billion. To put that in perspective, the value of their assets is somewhat on par with the 2013 state budgets of Wyoming ($3.4 billion) and Delaware ($3.7 billion).
 
Now of course I recognize the fact that assets are not the same as cash-on-hand, and it also doesn't take into account any liabilities. But out of curiosity, what is the church doing with the revenue generated by their assets? According to the Times,
 
It reported $158 million in real estate revenue for 2011, the majority of which went toward maintaining and supporting its real estate operations, the financial statement indicates. Of the $38 million left for the church’s operating budget, some $4 million was spent on communications, $3 million on philanthropic grant spending and $2.5 million on the church’s music program, church officials said. Nearly $6 million went to maintain Trinity’s historic properties, including the main church building, which was built in 1846; St. Paul’s Chapel; and several cemeteries, where luminaries including Alexander Hamilton and Edward I. Koch are buried. The remainder went into the church’s equity investment portfolio.
 
The statement also apparently shows that the rector makes a salary of $1.3 million.
 
Nowhere in the article do we read how much the congregation contributes in terms of tithes, so I can only base my comments on what is presented here. Regardless, I question: where is the spending for those in need? Where is the money to house the homeless? Funds for feeding the hungry? Support for employment programs?
 
Are these programs included in the "philanthropic grant spending"? If that's the case, why is spending on that $1 million less than what is spent on communications? And does an individual parish need to spend $4 million on communications - which seems particularly ludicrous in light of the fact that the total expenditure on communications in the FY 2013-5 budget of the entire national Episcopal Church is just under $9.1 million.
 
In a letter to the members of Congress from the Episcopal Church in 2011, regarding proposed cuts in the FY 2012 budget, the Church wrote, "The Episcopal Church urges you to find budget solutions that do not further burden poor and vulnerable populations in the United States, refugees and displaced populations, or impoverished communities around the world. Funding for programs that serve the poor and vulnerable sustains and saves millions of lives at home and around the world and, particularly in times of economic struggle, it must not be cut."
 
At the 2012 General Convention, a resolution was passed in the House of Deputies directing the sale of the Episcopal Church's headquarters in New York as a cost-saving measure; it was voted down in the House of Bishops. At the time, Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce said, "It is fiscally irresponsible to demand immediate sell ofa building without knowing where you're going, knowing if the economic climate is right. (The Rev. Dan Webster posted a good rebuttal to this general sentiment at Episcopal Cafe.)
 
Should Trinity Church - or the national church, for that matter - take to heart the words in today's Gospel, or is the Gospel being forgotten in some quarters? Are we about the Gospel message - feeding, clothing, and sheltering the poor, eliminating the margins for the marginalized, and sharing the Good News of Christ - or are we about property, buildings, money, and assets?
 
Where are our priorities?

After mulling all of this over, I planned on posting right away - but thought better of it and sent it to a friend to read through for her thoughts.  The articles and my thoughts raised some other points in her mind, and (with her indulgence) I'll include them here as they merit strong discussion.  I certainly don't have the answers - but I wonder if many focused on property and investment growth would in the church would have these answers:

1) Trinity's position has the potential to allow them to do much good in the world - but also to corrupt the view of what is adequate and necessary.  Right now, based on these articles and their own comments, they seem lost in the "worldly muck" of budgets, balance sheets, and investment portfolios.

2) The reference to "philanthropic grant spending" shows the church has lost sight of the meaning, beauty, and reward of Christian language and replaced it with Wall Street-speak.

3) One of the parishioners has referred to the new construction as symbolically wrong.  Here, I'll directly quote my friend: "What does this say in action about our church?  And also, very importantly, what does it symbolize?  How do we teach the world through our actions that we are a church of a beautiful liturgy and gorgeous church buildings but that our life is not centered upon things but upon loving the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden?"  (Emphasis is my own.)

4) Again quoting, "How do we prioritize lifting up others? How do we DO it?  How do we SHOW it to others?"

In my reaction to all of this, one area in which I failed was prayer - prayer for the rector and vestry that they will recognize the perception of what they have chosen to do. Prayer for those who were removed from the vestry, or chose to leave, rather than face this future that has been set for Trinity. Prayer for the congregation which, as I know from my own experience, can be torn apart by decisions such as these.  But most importantly, prayer for those in the community - those whom the church may be supporting already, and those who may not receive support because of other financial obligations.

Yes, prayer for all of these - and prayer for discernment: discernment of who we are as a church right now; discernment of who we are as God's chosen; and discernment of how we put worldly considerations aside and choose God and what God would have us do.