"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reformation Day

In many Lutheran churches, yesterday was Reformation Sunday and today is Reformation Day which is the celebration of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses and the beginnings of the 16th century Reformation.  At seminary, we are close partners with Trinity Lutheran Seminary and we live as two seminaries but one community.  By and large we make few distinctions; taking classes together, worshiping together, hanging out together, sharing our lives together.  It is a wonderful example of an ecumenical relationship.  I have learned a lot from my Lutheran friends and professors; it's been especially helpful in forming my understanding of Anglicanism.  This year I've been especially honored to be the Sacristan for the Trinity Lutheran (sort of a one-person altar guild) and to be deeply involved in the worship life of the community.  I would highly recommend to anyone who thought about going to seminary to check out Bexley Hall because of our relationship with Trinity.

I love this community and the people Lutheran, Episcopalian, and other who are among it.  But I won't be celebrating Reformation Day today in chapel.  It is far too celebratory and self-congratulating and I think it does a disservice to the depth of grace, spirit and humility which the Lutherans I know usually exhibit.  The medieval Roman church was undoubtedly corrupt and overly concerned with its temporal power and wealth.  It also created a two-tier society split between the holy people(clerics, monks, nuns, etc) and everyone else which was structured so that the lay people suffered and struggled in order to support the holy people who interceded with God on behalf of the society.  At its heart, the Reformation was an attempt to break that two-tier system and open people's eyes to Jesus' message that God is present and available to everyone and anyone; it was an attempt to allow everyone to be a holy person.  For that, we should be thankful and honor the efforts of those who came before us.

But the Reformation was also the introduction of a terrible Schism, a wound, an amputation in the body of Christ.  And set it a precedent that continues to this day so that whenever some group within the church is aggrieved it feels justified in just leaving and setting up shop somewhere else. It has led to the atomization of our church and of our culture to the point where our faith tradition(s) have little to say to the larger culture except maybe "sorry for the mess we unleashed."
Protestantism Explained (h/t Bosco Peters)

So I won't be celebrating Reformation Day today.  However, I will still be loving and living with my Lutheran friends and working together for the Gospel.  I will still celebrate what our different traditions have built here in this seminary community and I will keep invitng others to join us here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Faith = (Matt11:5) + (Matt28:19-20)

Let's start with a pop quiz; why did God become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth?


Most likely, your answer is something along the lines of "he came to save us from our sins," or as the Nicene Creed puts it;
For us and our salvation he came down from Heaven

Fair enough, but what then are we to make of Jesus' earthly ministry? Does it have value on its own, meaningfulness, apart from the Passion? Does it stand apart or is it entirely an act of prophetic drama meant to give shape for interpreting the Easter story? In other words, is the life of Jesus just one long slog to the cross or is it also something more?

I am prompted to ask this, because, well, it hasn't really ever come up and that strikes me as odd. Confused? Well, let me give an example. When John the Baptist is in prison, his disciples come to Jesus and ask if he is the One or should they be looking for another. Jesus' reply is "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (Matt 11:4-6, NRSV)

If Jesus life and ministry on earth is only a foreshadowing of his Passion, then these acts of Jesus are only signs pertaining to him and don't necessarily have any claim on us. And despite the claims of many Christians, I don't really believe that they do not have a claim on us. It is inconceivable to me that they could not. Now, if one spends a lot of time hanging out with St Paul, one might get the impression, that the only thing really going on is an overwhelming concern for the eschaton (the full emergence of the kingdom of God on Earth, the second coming, etc) and thus our only concern is that we orient ourselves to Christ right away.

But Paul is living in an anticipation of the imminence of the eschaton. Which is why when you delve deep into some Reformation treatises and confessions who are all very much influenced by the Epistles of Paul, you get them saying things suggesting that all human effort is bound to be wicked and promote evil, so maybe it's better not to try too much – Jesus will take care of it. By these lights, all that matters is the possession of faith (though how exactly one comes to possess it is a matter of some debate). Fast forward a couple of millennia and it is obvious that the urgency under which the Apostle Paul labored may be appreciated in another light. Our task, it seems is to figure out how to live faithful lives in the hope but not the imminent expectation of the eschaton. What do our lives look like if we begin living without fear, if we begin living as though the kingdom had come?

Because if Jesus really is just a lamb sent for the slaughter, then why bother telling anyone about it? Why bother with disciples and teaching and all the rest if we weren't meant to do something with those words and examples?

Canon Addendum – Does the Bible deserve a second volume?

I was talking to a priest friend today and he brought up the use of non-biblical readings during the Eucharist. Generally, this isn't something I've seen done much in Episcopal Churches. This is because, no doubt, the Book of Common Prayer doesn't give that as one of the options. It just says that the one or two lessons as appointed are to be read. That the lessons are from the Bible is only implied in the rubrics. No doubt there is likely a rule, rubric or canon somewhere that makes this explicit, but I don't know where it would be off the top of my head. Anyway, as this friend said, he had done it in the past but that one time he had received a very negative reaction from a parishioner and so he had been reluctant to do it again and now is out of the habit.

But anyway, this got us talking about what we might include in a Bible Volume 2. I said I thought Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail should definitely be added to scripture. (Here, a confession; at the Baptist/UCC church I once worked at we did read from King on the Sunday closest to MLK day. As I recall I even preached on it.) So this got us wondering about what criteria we would use to create a Canon Addendum. I think this would be a fun project, and definitely one I'll add to my post-seminary interesting-to-do-list. But I am interested in the input from anyone who might read this as to what readings you would want to put in an expanded canon. Feel free to reply here with your thoughts – I promise I'll give you credit when I write the bookJ

Besides the above mentioned MLK item I would also suggest:
St Patrick's Letter to Coroticus.
In it Patrick speaks passionately of the cost of discipleship and tries to address how we are to live as Christians in a wicked world

Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus. I re-read this regularly and have never come across anything that speaks so powerfully about the nature of faithful, servant leadership

T.S.Eliot's poem The Waste Land. Eliot's great poem is an extended elegy highlighting the futility of human striving

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Preaching the Word

The parish I'm at recently had a world cafe event as part of a process of community discernment.  I've been playing with Wordles as a fun way to bring out everything the community shared that night.  so just for fun, I decided to input my last 6 or 7 sermons into the wordle generator and I feel pretty good about the result, shared below.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sermon on Isaiah 25:1-9

I preached two versions of this sermon, once at St John's Church and again on Tuesday at Trinity Lutheran/Bexley Hall seminary chapel. This is the one preached at chapel.

I used to be in the Navy, a long time ago,
on a submarine.
That was during the tail end of the Cold War and my boat carried missiles
with nuclear warheads on top,
enough atomic bombs to wipe out about 150 cities the size of Columbus.

I have no doubt,
that had we been told to do so,
my crewmates and I
would have unleashed our arsenal
without hesitation,

though to be honest
we never really talked about it.

To reflect on that time
for me now
is an odd mixture;

of pride in service,
shame at my callousness,
fear at the realization of what evil I could do, nostalgia for the people and experiences of youth, and deep, deep thankfulness
that I was never called upon to kill another person.

when I hear in Isaiah
the exultation in destruction,

I cannot help but wonder about
my own preparedness
and willingness
to utterly destroy the cities of those whom we named enemies.

Isaiah writes;
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.

What I see in those words
is something akin to
the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,

and I want to rebel against them

and disdain any connection
between such devastation
and the works of God.

And yet,
if we are to understand
our God
and our world,

we must come
face to face
with a God who is both creator and destroyer.

In this scripture,
(and throughout the Bible, really)
we listen to the testimony
and the witness
of the biblical authors
as they reflect upon
the intersection of an all-powerful God
and a suffering world.

most of us here aren't as quick as the Israelites
to see the hand of God
in the horror of war.

But at the same time,

I think we would be wise to acknowledge 

that an active God,
a God alive to our world
and present within it

might sometimes

use destructive power
for the building of God's kingdom.

Our lives are full of the clearing away
of old practices and patterns, and
the destruction of
habits and places of comfort.

Probably like many of you,
Coming here, for me, involved
More, or less
the complete demolition of my old life

to answer God's call to serve God's church 

I left my job,
my friends,
my home,
my sense of security and
a myriad of plans long laid down.
Trusting God is often like that,
Faithfulness is looking at the devastation
And seeing a construction site.

And you need to move a lot of dirt

to lay solid foundations.

Our lives are predicated

on the need of each and every one of us
to be willing to break apart our selves in order that
we might strip away all the barriers and stumbling blocks to faithfully living out Christ's gospel.

And the congregations to which we will be called to serve

are no different.

One thing that has become clear to me in
the 2 1/2 years I have been here,
is how profoundly this community is broken up every year.

In fact, the very essence of this community 

is predicated on the need to break us apart
year after year.

To be alive, 

(and as the Body of Christ,
we are called to be alive),
is to undergo constant
and repeated change.

I suspect most of us
are drawn to a theology of Incarnation,
a theology
of the creative goodness of God,

So much so
that we might be fairly accused of
being Resurrection People.

But as a Bishop reminded just last week, 

"only dead things get resurrected."

So the truth of it is, 

that we as individuals,
as seminaries,
and as churches
have lots of structures,
literal and metaphorical,
that may need clearing away.

Perhaps most of us 

would prefer to
spend time in our
citadels of self-justification,

but as in Isaiah, 

as well as at Jericho,
God's gonna bring them tumblin' down.

Right now, though, it is our time

It is our opportunity.

our opportunity 

as a community
to take a look
at the structures we have built and live in.


we are where God needs
and wants us to be
at this time
and in this place.

But even if we are, 

the story continues to unfold;
the needs of God's people
and God's world changes
so that
we must occasionally
take stock of what we have made
to prepare for its unmaking

Christians, really, 

are a pilgrim people,

we must never become too comfortable
settling in just one place.

To build the foundations of faith,
it is necessary,
not sometimes,
but always,

it is necessary to demolish 

what had once occupied the terrain,
to clear away the old and
make way for the new.

So, as hard as it was for me to hear the joy in Isaiah's voice, 

to share in the exultation of destruction,

Isaiah also says these words;

O LORD, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

Isaiah looks upon the destruction of the city and is joyous because he sees that in its place, on that mountain

the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.


The death of the city is the means of the defeat of death itself.

Because when Isaiah says;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.

The good news 
that there are no more aliens,
no more strangers

They are gone;
And not because they've been wiped off the earth,
or destroyed.

But because the strangers have been made part of us,
and we of them,

together we have been gathered into the people of God, 

the body of Christ.

For you have done wonderful things(Isaiah writes), plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

God has a plan for us, 

a hope for us,
a dream for us.

And God's plan 

isn't some mechanistic blueprint for our lives
God's plan
Isn't the inescapable tragedy of fate.

God's plan

God's plan is

a gift
of possibilities,
of opportunities.

No, our lives aren't programmed, 

They are blessed

blessed with gifts, 


Gifts to be discerned

and handed back to
God who gave them to us
in order that a world of justice,
and mercy
might arise.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Reports of the death of the Episcopal Church have been greatly exaggerated

I spent a couple of days at a Board of Trustees meeting for the seminary where I am a student.  As an institution, we face challenges, but I also feel that the institution is being largely honest with itself and is doing the hard work of discerning its call and marshaling its resources to answer that call and finding partners to make its mission possible.  I can also say that I have experienced it as a place lively with the Holy Spirit and an experience that has been life-giving and transformational for me.

But as in any group of Episcopalians I have ever been in, there is no shortage of people engaged in hand-wringing laments about the future of the Episcopal Church.  On one hand they're right, the church they knew and loved is passing away.  But in the most fundamental way, they are so wrong.  A church embodying our ethos, our traditions, our theological diversity - our charism - isn't going away any time soon.  How do I know this?  Well, for starters, I know this to be true because I get to spend my days surrounded by faithful persevering people who love the Episcopal Church and are determined to share that love with others.

But also because, all across our church territories, there are amazing groups of people doing amazing things as they live into and live out the gospel.  I know this first hand, because I have never been a part of a parish that wasn't a growing, dynamic, multi-generational, spirit-filled congregation.  The church in which I was catechumenized and baptized had a habit of seeing challenges as opportunities and continues to draw in new people and new energy for a multi-faceted ministry.  My "home" parish is a place that continues to impress me, a kind of place where the significant problem is how to have enough space for all the kids in Sunday School or creating enough plots in the community garden.  It is a place blessed with people of great gifts who seem to continually appear and step-up just as they are needed.  And my current parish is an actual manifested miracle.  By all rights it should have closed years ago, but it is the little parish that could and doesn't let fear get in its way as it works for justice, peace, and reconciliation in a pretty tough neighborhood.

And because almost anyone who might actually read this likely attends one of these churches - it is because of you that the Episcopal church, in its essence, will not cease.  I don't think we're necessarily the best church (Well no, I do, though we have loads of things we could improve upon).  But it is a church that has a place in Christ's body and a role in Christ's work.

Is it likely to shrink?  Maybe a bit more.  But I know lots of people eager to be entrepeneurial ministers, people eager to remake the church and re-enliven it for a new century.  People who take seriously our existence as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (our proper denominational name) and aren't content to just provide palliative care for dying congregations.

Episcopalians can fairly be said to be people focused on a theology of Incarnation, people focused on the creative goodness of God.  We are Resurrection people, but as Bishop Waynick of Indianapolis reminded me this week, "only dead things get resurrected."

Monday, October 3, 2011

Where does Authority lie?

I'm still reflecting on ideas of reorganization currently in the air in the Episcopal church blogosphere.  I don't have any answers or schemes to offer, I really just want to work out theologically what it all means.

When Jesus walked with the disciples it was pretty easy to figure out what was right. 
            James “So Peter, I was thinking such and such about predestination”
            Peter   “James, you’re totally off base”
            James “Oh Yeah, well let’s ask Jesus – he always has the right answer”

Authority always rested with Jesus.  But after Jesus ascended he was no longer bodily available to sort out the questions and disagreements among the apostles; but, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them while he remained with the father.
“When, however, the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth”. (John 6:13)

But how do we discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Well, it’s a little hard to tell how the earliest church determined this, but it becomes pretty clear by the 3rd or 4th century that church imagined the authority of Christ through the Holy Spirit resided in those who were seen as the inheritors of the ministry of the Apostles, namely the bishops.  And so, as the great controversies raged, it was councils of bishops, mimicking the Jerusalem Council in Acts, who gathered to hammer out the boundaries of Christian belief and practice.  The Nicene Creed, recited weekly by many Christians today, is the work of just such a council.  It was also out of the work of bishops and councils that the canon of scripture was judged and debated and finally decided.  The Bible was the creation of the Christian community and not the other way around.

Fast forward a thousand years to the late Medieval period and we find that the authority of bishops is being questioned because so many were openly corrupt and greedy; enmeshed so deeply in worldly affairs that their spiritual responsibilities were neglected.  The Protestant reformers looked to an authoritative voice from the institution of the Church, and found it hollow.  If, they thought, we cannot rely on the church to aptly represent the authority of the Holy Spirit, to what are we to turn?  The answer that seemed obvious to them was the Bible.  The Bible represented the witness of Israel and the earliest Church, and being an ancient document, it carried great weight.  It was seemingly unencumbered by the accretions of a millennia of Church interpretation and possible corruption.

But for the Church today, the bible as the authoritative voice of the Holy Spirit can be difficult.  There is no such thing as a plain reading of scripture, as the Reformers claimed.  It is a complicated and often confounding work, full of contradictions.  Its witness carries the weight of tradition and it is a valuable standard to weigh our own witness against, but it is not straightforward and so to find the spirit within it requires interpretation and discernment.  Who is to do that work?

In our churches today, at least in Western culture, we seek the Spirit not just in the Bible, and not just from ordained leaders, but also from the whole of god’s people through representative and democratic assemblies.  In the Episcopal Church, the highest authority is not the Presiding Bishop, but the General Convention.   To me this makes a lot of sense.  We are a people of God, a royal priesthood who do not require any mediators between ourselves and God because we are Christ’s body and Christ is the mediator with the Father.  But we are only the body as we gather.  You can’t be a Christian all by yourself; you can only do it in community.

So as we look at ways to restructure and reorganize ourselves as the Church we must be careful, I think, to ensure that we retain the ability to discern where God is calling us as a whole church.  History has shown that relying only on institutional insiders can lead us astray.  We have also learned that the Bible is not an owner’s manual and that as Church we are not called to recreate the 1st century, but to walk with the LIVING Christ and share his message of hope in our century.  But democracy alone is also insufficient; we must also remember that democracies easily give way to tyrannies of the mob.  I would call for a structure that is nimble and able to take advantage of modern communications technologies in order to bring as many voices to bear on a question as possible, but also one that can step aside and deliberate in prayer and reflection.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is the bishop for?

Episcope is the Greek word for Bishop and apparently people a long time ago thought Episcopal Church sounded more high-minded than Bishop's Church, hence the name. Of course, if you've read much history of the colonial and post-revolutionary origins of the Episcopal Church one might think that picking a fancy name like Episcopal might have been intentional to keep the riff-raff out. We sometimes still get accused of that, but most Episcopal churches I've visited these days are decidedly middling, and not composed of social elites. But I digress. What I really want to talk about is bishops themselves. Given the name and all, they must be important and since we're talking about restructuring the church figuring what they do (or should be doing) seems important.

So, what is the role of bishop? Well, let's start with first principles and look to the Book of Common Prayer itself. If you're not an Episcopalian and you're still reading this, the Book of Common Prayer (or BCP) is really the heart of the matter for all things Episcopal/Anglican. We don't possess a confessional formula and we hold no doctrine developed outside of the first seven church councils. We are church that doesn't look to build windows into people's souls, but we are a church that seeks commonality in prayer and worship. The BCP is the source and pattern of that prayer and worship and so it is what binds us together.

Anyway, back to what is a bishop. Well, the catechism says this (FYI, NOT the same status as the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church)

    Q. What is the ministry of a bishop?

    A. The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his
    Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor
    of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of
    the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act
    in Christ's name for the reconciliation of the world and
    the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to
    continue Christ's ministry.

And the ordination service of a bishop says this:

    You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the
    Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of
    the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and
    deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all
    things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the
    entire flock of Christ.

Let's break it down.

    1. The bishop has a specific area which he is responsible for, the diocese.

    2. The Bishop's role is to maintain the integrity of how the faith is shared and communicated within that diocese

    3. At the same time, the bishop is expected to make sure that peer bishops are also maintaining the integrity of the faith in their dioceses

    4. The bishop is to call leaders within the diocese to facilitate the work of Christ in the world.

    5. The bishop is to call people whose primary ministry field is not the world, but service to the church itself (i.e, the ordained)

    6. The bishop is to teach, to strive for reconciliation, to evangelize, to be a caregiver and a good role model


So, the Episcopal church imagines the bishop as someone who is intimately connected with his own area of oversight and care, yet also one who looks out to the wider church in order to be colleague and mentor to peer bishops. I read recently that the Bishop of Virginia has so many congregations that it is a stretch to get to them all once every 3 years or so. How on earth could we expect someone to fulfill such a role to so many places and people? Obviously, it isn't possible, and so as diocese have developed over the years, they have created structures and layers to sorta-kinda make it work. They've created bishop's staffs, diocesan officers, deaneries, convocations even assistant bishops. For some reason, the diocesan structure of the church largely follows the same geography of the secular government. If the US Congress saw fit to create a state of Ohio, then the church also created a diocese of Ohio. Unlike the US, as some as the states filled in, the dioceses split into smaller units to keep the bishop closer to the people. Ohio is a good example, now being split into two dioceses. One might imagine that this splitting would have continued n order to keep bishops closer to the people but that isn't what happened. And largely that is because at one time, the rate of growth of parishes was not as great as the rate of growth of the various layers and structures, so that the cost of diocesan offices became a barrier to right-sizing dioceses.


That's more or less where we are today. But now, the church isn't growing – its declining. But similarly, the layers and structures aren't declining nearly as fast. Thus the cost of maintaining the Episcopal structure, relative to the size of the diocese is effectively going up. Its going up so much, that some dioceses talk of merger because individually, they can't maintain the cost of the layers that separate the bishop from the people. Being a contrarian, it seems to me that if we are to have the episcopy envisioned by the catechism and the consecration service of the bishops themselves then we need to align the layers and structures with the number of people served. I don't think we should have fewer bishops (i.e, dioceses) I think we should have less staff and MORE bishops in smaller dioceses. I think it might also be wise to align our structure around metropolitan areas and not states; the political borders of the US are irrelevant to the spread of the gospel. I don't know what the right size of a diocese should be, but I like the number forty – it's very biblical and manageable. Forty parishes seems about right for one person to deal with.


Bishops aren't princes of the church, they don't need palaces and retinues. They need to be getting out amidst the people for whom they are to serve and lead directly and not by proxy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What is this Church thing anyway?

 There is some conversation going on in the Episcopal Church interwebs right now about the structure of the church (see here).  Mostly what’s driving this discussion, and frankly, most of the discussions about the “future of the church” isn’t a serious rethinking of our ecclesial theology, but rather a serious rethinking of our checkbook and what it can support.  And as much as I can appreciate coming to terms with financial realities, it still doesn’t seem that economics should drive our reflection on the church, what it is and what it does. 

A bigger question for all of us is, what exactly do we mean we say something like “the church?”  Avery Dulles wrote a neat little book called Models of the Church which has been very helpful to me in thinking this through.  Basically, he describes several models; the church as…
                 ·         An institution
                 ·         The mystical body of Christ
                 ·         A sacrament
                 ·         A herald
                 ·         A servant
The correct answer is C, a sacrament.  No, just kidding, the correct answer is all of the above.  But in thinking about how the church goes about doing these things it is helpful to make distinctions because to my mind there can be a helpful distinction between the church as an institution and the others.  And in our current discussion it is the institutional aspect of church that is the cause of so much handwringing.  If all of our structure fell away tomorrow, the gathered people of God would still be the mystical body of Christ, a sacrament, a herald and a servant.  And, to be honest, in short order it would reconstitute itself as an institution. 

 So let’s just set aside some idea that we’re ever going to NOT be an institution.  Any movement that desires to maintain the integrity of its founding impulse will erect an institution to do so.  And as for me, protecting the integrity of the message of hope in Christ’s life, death and resurrection is important, so I’m willing to accept an institution as the cost of doing so.  And more importantly, I am willing to pledge myself to that institution and hold it accountable to the integral message it exists to serve.

 So, the question before us is, how do we structure our institution so that it can best serve its role of maintaining the integrity of the gospel as it empowers and equips the baptized to be the body of Christ, a sacrament, a herald and a servant?  When we say we want to be “missional” or whatever the latest buzzword is; isn’t that what we’re talking about?

In other words, how best can we support one another to be Christ in the world?  We need the structure that best serves that purpose in our culture at this time.  The church of 50, 500, or 1500 hundred years ago isn’t the model (though there are things to learn from them) and the church in Tanzania, or Vanuata, or anywhere else isn’t the answer either (though there is much to learn there too).  With any luck, I’m hoping to address some aspects of this question over the next few days; thinking about what kind of institution might best fit our theology and ecclesiology and maybe even thinking about where our checkbooks (does anyone still use checks?) might fit into all this.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Do not Fear those who kill the body

I apologize for being neglectful.  Classes have begun again and I am settling into a new, and very full, routine.  I have several ideas for entries backed up, but other things are a priority, though I will get to them as soon as I can.  Below is my sermon from last Tuesday nights's community eucharist preached at the seminary.  The occassion was the commemoration of Sts Boris and Gleb, saints in the Orthodox tradition.  Sadly they aren't included in the Episcopal Church's calendar of saints, but as assistant Sacristan I successfully lobbied to include them this year.

The sermon

Boris and Gleb were princes of the Kievan Rus, sons of Vladimir the Great.  The chronicles blame their brother, Sviatopolk the Accursed  for plotting their assassination. Boris learned of his father’s death after he returned from battling eastern invaders.

Boris had been the heir-apparent  And when he learned that his brother had taken the throne, many urged him to replace Sviatopolk, but Boris said, "Be it not for me to raise my hand against my brother.  Now that my father has passed away, let him take the place of my father in my heart." Regardless of having stepped aside though, Sviatopolk insisted on having Boris executed and plotted to kill him.

Gleb, who didn’t know yet that his father had died, was sent for by Sviatopolk who pretended that their father was gravely ill and asking for Gleb.  Gleb rushed to his father's death bed.  On the way, their other brother Yaroslav learned of Sviatopolk's treachery and urged Gleb not to meet him. But that night, while praying, Gleb too was murdered.

In the gospel reading from Luke tonight we hear Jesus say; “do not fear those who kill the body.”  

But if you’ve ever read any Russian history,  you will know that killing your brothers/uncles/cousins/fathers was the, more or less, standard methodology for determining leaders.  I suspect then, that fearing those who might kill you was, generally, a key survival strategy, along with its corollary – kill those who might kill you before they get the chance. 
So, it is not their murders,  but Boris and Gleb’s rejection of this accepted reality that really stands out and marks their martyrdom. 

Boris and Gleb were most likely pagans at birth and into their early childhood at least.  Their father Vladimir had ordered the conversion of his kingdom a couple of decades earlier as part of marriage treaty with the Byzantine emperor. 
And that two princes would have taken their new faith seriously enough to make such consequential decisions in the face of a powerfully conflicting social paradigm is, to me, remarkable.  Over and over again in the story from Luke,  throughout the gospels overall really, is the message to not worry. 

“Do not be afraid”  that could almost be Jesus’ catchphrase. 
(Often followed, of course, by “you of little faith.”) 

But the reason Jesus keeps telling us this  isn’t because belief in God is a magical formula to prevent bad things from happening,  but because this life is full of bad things happening all around us.  
Jesus is reminding us though, that fear is a perversion of the abundance which God gives us, because what mostly drives our fear is loss-loss of perceived security or safety, loss of our illusion of control

I’m pretty sure when Jesus says that the poor and mourners are blessed it isn’t because they’re in the midst of joyous abundance but because in their vulnerability and deprivation their illusions of control are ripped away and they are closest to the realization that in the final analysis all we have is God.  There is nowhere else to place our trust and our hope.
And what we begin to sow here, in this life, is the plant that will be our existence in the next. 
"Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” 
What we do and how we live, here in this life creates the path whose trajectory will carry us, or not, into the new kingdom. 

Boris and Gleb, at least in this one moment as told in their hagiographies, knew this.  To believe in Christ demands that we do as Christ, otherwise we’re just hypocrites.

Do not fear those who kill the body.

We may not believe ourselves to be as bloodthirsty or savage as 11th century Russian nobles, but at the heart of our society and our culture lies the very same fear. 
Generally, I would say that the fear of being killed is a kind of national obsession.  Polls continue to show large majorities of Americans believe that violent crime is out of control even though crime rates have gone down significantly and steadily for three decades;  and fear of terrorism has been a demon goading the national psyche for nearly ten years now, marshalling a massive response that has fundamentally altered our way of life.  I don’t wish to detract from the terrible tragedy of the events of 9/11 or minimize the very real possibility of terrorism, but in truth the potential danger of terrorism isn’t very high – more people will die in automobile accidents this month than were killed on 9/11. 

But we too seem to believe, like those Russians that the best strategy to vanquish our fear is to kill or eliminate our potential enemies before they have a chance to harm us.  Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of deaths have resulted from our retaliatory wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

What is the cost of our fear?  

How far are we willing to go to vanquish our fears?

Much like Sviatopolk the Accursed, America maintains a posture of aggressive defense that is psychically unhealthy and spiritually deadening.  And not just as a nation on the international stage, but as individuals as well.   At most school bus stops, parents outnumber kids because of fear.  At the airport, we must tolerate high levels of personal invasiveness because of fear.  Even much of what passes for Christianity in America is fear based.  Drive out of Columbus on any interstate you come across billboards shrilly telling you to REPENT.  Accept Jesus!  Not because Love is the only way, but because if you don’t you’ll be punished!

We are a hard-hearted people.

Do not fear those who kill the body.

I don’t think that God really desires anyone to be a martyr, but martyrdom can be the consequence of the Christian confrontation with Evil.  And our willingness to engage in this conflict, truly understanding what the consequences could be, is at the heart of our calling as Christians, and especially as Christian leaders. 

Now I don’t think too many of us will ever be called upon to lay down our lives for our faith.  But of course one never knows.  Last week we remembered the Martyrs of New Guineau, and one among those missionaries who died was Harry Dott, a student who walked the same halls, sat in the same classrooms and even worshipped in this very chapel – like us.  His memorial plaque is right over there.

Nevertheless, I do think that we are being called at this time to be martyr-like missionaries of God’s love to a fearful people.  What are we willing to give up to take Christ’s message of hope to a fearful people? 

What price are we willing to pay?  Not to set aside our fear, but to embrace hope in the face of fear.

How much of ourselves are we really prepared to give to this calling? 

Martyrs almost always have a chance to escape their martyrdom, if they choose.   They only need abandon their faith and seek the false security the world offers.  Most of us here have discerned a call to priesthood.  And according to the prayer book the ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church. 

To represent Christ and his Church. 

Pondering such a responsibility should give us all pause.  It is easy to forget in the midst of discernment processes and diocesan beauracracy, that we are taking on the staggering responsibilities of being pastors to God’s people.  And that means a great deal more than the ins and outs of daily parish administration.

This calling that we claim is something marvelous and noble.  We are called to make of our lives a sacrament, to be a visible sign of God’s grace.  We are called, like Boris and Gleb, to hold up the norms and expectations of our culture to the light of Christian Truth.
Like Boris and Gleb, it is up to us to take our faith seriously enough to make decisions and take actions in the face of a powerfully conflicting social paradigm.

What we do matters!  What we do and say has consequences.  And those consequences are of cosmic importance, souls literally hang in the balance. 

We must be apostles of hope, of healing, and of peace to a hard-hearted people gripped by fear.  We must grab the hands of any who will offer, bend the ear of any who will listen,  stand firm with any who are oppressed or intimidated and everywhere and in every way proclaim good news.

 Ministry is hard, standing with people in the most emotional moments of their lives is hard, teaching the faith in a doubtful world is hard.  Preaching is hard.  This is no easy task we’ve signed on for.  The best priests I know have a kind of gentleness but also a durable toughness about them that undoubtedly was cultivated in some rough ground.  We too must be willing to work the rough ground.  We must be willing to sacrifice status and standing to do what is right.  We must be willing to choose love and reconciliation when every fiber of our being calls for hatred and revenge.  We must be those people willing to stand before the self righteous crowd and ask “who amongst you will throw the first stone?”

We must not be afraid.

Friday, August 12, 2011

To be a citizen

The riots in London by now are old news.  Hordes of people, mostly young people, pillaging stores and destroying neighborhoods apparently for the mere sport of it.  The Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Church of England) spoke in Parliament in response to the riots and said something that I too have been thinking for a while, but he said it much more eloquently than I would have.

"Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions – asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens."

Educating citizens and not consumers.  I worry about an educational system seemingly single-mindedly focused on economic utility.  I often hear and read about efforts to make our students more competitive and more useful to employers.  And I will concede that students who are illiterate and innumerate can be a drain on society as complex as ours is, but economic utility as the primary criterion of our education system creates only people who will fit into the system we've created.  It doesn't foster the imaginativeness and creativity to create new and better systems or to respond to unanticipated crises.

I'm pretty sure that my purpose on this Earth is not just to use up as much stuff as I can before I do.  Consumption is a result of my life, not its purpose.  I am a consumer - I need to eat, I like to wear clothes and live within 4 walls and a roof - but I am not just a consumer.  Greed isn't just a sin on a list, it's an unhealthy and ultimately destructive way of life.  The financial crisis that began in 2008, the recent American debt crisis, outr lack of political civility, and these riots all seem to me to be of a piece.  They are the fruits of an excessive focus on ourselves and our personal desires divorced from the needs of community and the capabilities of our world to provide.

Consumers grasp to fulfill for themselves.  Citizens seek the greatest good for the civitas, for the community, in which they live and work.  How do we go about building a society that values citizenship over consumerism?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Vacation stuff

We were away for the past week, visiting family in upstate New York.  My in-laws have a very beautiful home and they are gracious hosts so it felt like a week in the best BnB imaginable, even the dogs get pampered there.  I really like my in-laws, they are truly wonderful and loving people.  I especially admire my father-in-law, who started out on the second shift in a factory and through perseverance and hard work, has managed to move into the highest circles of executives at the large multinational corporation where he has worked for nearly 40 years.  Despite their success, they remain in essence the people they were and have not been drawn into a life of lavish consumption. 

While we were there, we met their neighbors.  They have two small children around the same age as my daughter and the kids loved playing together.  My daughter called their house the "park" because they had every imaginable plaything available.  they had a bouncy house, a water slide, a big play structure, bikes, scooters, electric cars, a basement playroom and I'm sure more.  Talking to the mother, I learned they were planning for an in-ground pool soon.  And though they were perfectly nice people and friendly and welcoming to us, I couldn't help but be bothered by the abundance of stuff.

Maybe it was envy.  It would be nice to have those kinds of resources.  Who hasn't imagined winning the lottery and what you would do with your new found millions?  We ourselves used to have a bigger income.  Right now, our income is about a third of what it used to be before seminary, and I do hope this is a temporary period and that I can find gainful employment on the other side of this.

But in lots of ways our lives are much richer now than they used to be.  Things are tight, but we aren't really wanting for anything.  I wish we could save more and put some away for retirement, but our day to day needs are met.  I think I am probably more contented now than I have ever been.  Partly that's the simplicity of our lives that allows us to focus on the really important stuff, partly its directing my life towards fulfilling my calling.  If I could wish for anything for my daughter, it wouldn't be a bouncy house or pool (thought they are fun!) but to know she is loved, that she has a part and a role in life, and that real happiness comes as a gift to be received and cannot be bought.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Killings in Norway

Reading about the killings in Norway was heartbreaking.  My sympathies and prayers, admittedly insufficient, go out to all who died and to those whose loved ones and children were killed.  It saddens me even more to learn that the killer based his actions, at least in part, on his Christian faith.  A police spokesman Deputy Police Chief Roger Andresen would not speculate on the man's motives but told a news conference: "He describes himself as a Christian, leaning toward right-wing Christianity." 

In reading the story of Jesus it's hard to find justification for ever intentionally causing another person harm.  I also know that there's plenty of counter-examples in the Bible, but the trajectory of the overall story, culminating in Jesus, is about coming to accept that the ways of humanity, ways that are broken and destructive,  are ultimately self-destructive and counter to the divine will of wholeness and healing.

This young Norwegian man, who visited so much destruction upon his neighbors, is sadly mistaken about how people should settle their differences and live together with integrity.  Sadly he is also likely suffering from some form of mental illness.  Mental illness is also a part of the broken-ness of our world.  If we, as Christians, seek to follow Jesus and to live as he lived then we should seek reconciliation and not retribution, empathy and not judgement.  As hard as it might seem to us,we need to find a way that holds him accountable that isn't just our desire to wreak our vengeance upon him.  We must treat him with sympathy even though every part of us calls out for hatred, and find a way to include treatment to restore him to wholeness rather than a way to diminish his humanity even further.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Brain science & baptism

I read this article in the Atlantic magazine recently about the latest research into the brain and how it works.  The article asks some interesting questions about the intersection of the criminal justice system and our evolving understanding of how the brain works and suggests that rather than a punitive, backwards looking approach, we would do bettert to adapt a forward-looking, therapeutic approach to crime.  Fascinating stuff, but where my mind went was to ponder what all this had to do with baptism.

That's right, baptism.  Something I have long struggled with is trying to come to an understanding of what occurs in baptism.  Baptism is the central rite of Christian life.  I feel lucky to have been baptized as an adult so that I can remember what it was like to experience it and I could go on and on about how it changed my life.  And as a hospital chaplain, I've been privileged to baptize a handful of people.  In my gut I could sense that something was happening, but I struggled to name what that something was.

but this article gave me something that has proven very helpful.  A centerpiece of the article is research that suggests, very little, if any, of the choices we make are truly free.  Rather they are driven by unconscious motivations formed through of web of genetics, family systems, and cultural conditioning.  Reading this, I immediately thought of Paul, writing in his letter to the Romans about not being able to do the things he desires to do, but doing instead that which he abhors.  who hasn't had the experience of getting in their own way and choosing to do things we know are wrong or, at least, questionable?

All of which led me to the thought that maybe in baptism, we introduce the Holy Spirit into the mix of unconscious drivers of our actions.  This article reinforces for me that how and where we grow up matters.  Baptism alone isn't enough to make us "good" Christians.  Like DNA, it gives us potential but for potential to turn into talent, it must be honed and exercised.  This is one of the reasons that we cannot be Christians all by our selves, we must hone our Spirit in community and practice our faith so that it becomes a strong driver in our psychic mix.

Obviously this isn't a well drawn out theory, but its a start and feels like something I can work with and it fits with our modern understanding fo how our bodies and minds work.