"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.