"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

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jesus on line 2

A couple of months ago I made a terrible mistake. I signed up to receive messages from the House of Bishops/House of Deputies email list-serv. Officially, I'm a kibitzer which means I can read the messages but I'm not able to post them. I suppose if I really wanted to add something to the conversation, I could email someone I know who is a deputy and ask them to post it for me. People do that once in awhile. But that's too much trouble really and besides anything interesting that might show up on the listserv is usually already on a blog somewhere and I can just go there and add my two cents if I'm really compelled to do so. But I think what really gets me is why the "leaders" of the Episcopal church have this odd kinda closed/kinda transparent communication medium? Why not just set up a Facebook group or a blog on the (newly updated) Episcopal church website?

So why was it a mistake, you might ask? Well, mostly because it's comprised of the same kind of rapid reaction, entrenched positions that characterize the rest of what passes for communications on the internet these days. Frankly it's not very heartening. I feel really bad saying that. Most of the people I've met who are deputies (and bishops) are really genuinely good people who care deeply about the Church and God's mission. But I know it can be hard to transcend the cultural biases we are surrounded by. I'd really like to see General Convention deputies engaged in substantive, gospel rooted conversations, and I suppose somewhere that's going on with some of them, but it for certain isn't on the list serv. Actually, I'm not really sure our culture knows how to have a substantive dialogue or even a real debate anymore, but its sad to see the Church trapped in that same paradigm.

I read something recently about ways churches might try to appeal to today's frenetic, always connected culture. One of the suggestions was to allow people to comment in between the readings during worship and then try to craft the sermon around what they say. I'll be honest and say that I'm not so sure that spending even less time preparing for sermons and worship will really help. I'm part of a transitional generation. I'm pretty well plugged in, heck I helped create this modern world as an engineer at Intel, but I also remember a life with rotary phones when "long distance" was a big deal. When I spent a year in Australia when I was 17, I only had actual letters to connect me to home. I think in that whole year I had one phone call with my parents. Not to be a curmudgeon, but there was something invaluable about being apart and on my own that I'm sad to see lost.

So while, I'd like to open up the conversation that Church Leaders are having to more of the church members, I don't want to see the Holy Spirit correlated to the latest Twitter Trend. Christ lives within his people, in the Church, maybe we can find the better balance between listening to our own voices and listening for THE voice.

MLK Sermon

This is the text of my sermon delivered this morning at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in honor of Dr King.  Our reading was Ephesians 6:10-20.

icon by Tobias Haller
There is some debate over who wrote Ephesians
as well as debate over whether it was actually meant for the church in Ephesus or not. 

But, whatever the specificity of the original context, it seems clear to me that Ephesians is marking a turning point in the thinking of the early Church.

Christ’s imminent return drove the fervor of the early apostles,
but, in Ephesians, is beginning to be seen as not an event to be looked for on every cloudy day.

Rather, it is something whose occurrence may be in some far future. 
Here, we begin to see the Church settling in for the long haul and
turning its focus away from a kind of ascetic preparation for the eschaton and
towards a sober reflection on the infusion of Christ into the mundane affairs of daily life.

We are reassured that Christians are involved in the unfolding of God’s mystery, God’s plan of reconciliation and
that the vehicle of God’s reconciliation is to be the Church’s witness to Christ’s passion with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Two thousand years of waiting later,
I wonder to what extent we can possibly understand the deflation
and doubt
that surely crept its way through the church as the first generation of believers died. 

Surely they wondered,
could Jesus’ promise of return been wrong? 

How much longer Lord, how much longer?

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day,
and the night before he was murdered,
Dr King gave a speech
where he talked about how he had narrowly avoided death several years before when he was stabbed in the chest in a New York City bookstore. 

He ended that speech by saying this;
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Just as in Ephesians,
the people whom Dr King was addressing were anxious about promises still unfulfilled.

we remember Dr King as a great man
and a national prophet,

but on the day he was murdered, we should remember that many people were impatient with non-violent protest and civil disobedience. 

Violent Revolution was on the minds of
many who proclaimed
that only bloodshed could cleanse the nation of the sins of racist oppression. 

Their answer to the question, how much longer, was… not much, not tomorrow but today.

Righteous anger and the desire to inflict justice on the corrupted and debased is a natural inclination. 
It is only human to seethe at injustice.

And that it is so, so should be a warning to us.  For as it says in today’s reading;
“our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness”

Ephesians speaks of standing up against the wiles of the devil,
and it may not be especially popular here,
but I want you to know that I believe there is a force loose in the universe,
a power,
a will ……opposed to God. 

And that that power, however you name it,
is deeply insinuated into humanity such that, try as we might,
all our systems
and governments
and organizations,
all of our creations are tainted by it.

The struggle for justice has expanded greatly since Martin Luther King, Jr died. 

Prophetic voices still challenge our self-understanding
and our identity as a people. 

Our churches are mired in conflicts over the inclusion of homosexual persons in the full life of the church,
and more recently,
our churches have struggled to find their voice in the conflict over economic justice.

Those engaged on the front lines of struggle

and those whose lives have been spent in waiting also ask,
how much longer Lord, how much longer? 

People on different sides of these arguments, driven by their own sense of right-ness, withdraw to their own corners,
defying the unity of the body of Christ.

Our impatience,
our need to ask how much longer,
shows both our yearning desire to see God’s reconciliation
and our willingness to forgo God and implement our own solutions.

How much longer?

It is not now and will never be in our power to answer that question. 

We humans are confronted and bedeviled with systemic evils that thwart God’s desires
and God’s will for us, that we would be reconciled to one another
and to God. 

But Ephesians and Dr King remind us that we are in this for the long haul,

that we in the church are participants not only in a struggle here on earth, but also in a cosmic one that transcends our understanding.

What are we to do then?  
Are we to silently accept the injustices of the world and just wait for God?

Not exactly,
because the incarnation means,
I’m pretty sure,
that God intends that we, God and us, should stand against injustice together. 

It is not just the death of Jesus that lays claim to us
but the life of Jesus as well,
the example of Jesus’ ministry and the lessons of Jesus’ teachings. 

And the life of Jesus says that we are not to ignore injustice,
not to ignore oppression
and not to ignore suffering. 

God has solutions for these problems,
for all the problems of the world in fact,

but those solutions can’t be implemented at the point of a sword or with the barrel of a gun. 

Nor can they be implemented with hateful words or vindictive rhetoric.

But only with the armaments that God has given us,
the Gospel,
the Holy Spirit
and the Word, which is Christ.

God is delivering God’s people from the powers of fear, death, violence and injustice

and we are to be the witnesses to these things.

Dr King said;
the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“I know you are asking today, How long will it take?...

…I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." How long? Not long.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Church, state, secularism and religion

While working in the seminary office today I was recycling and came across a recent copy of the magazine from Trinity School for Ministry, which is an Episcopal-(ish) seminary in Pennsylvania. In it there was an article that talked that described the movement of secularism from a kind of ecumenism towards a kind of modern day paganism. I've tried to find a link, but the school seems to be a bit delayed in putting their materials online. I thought it was an interesting observation and thesis. With the Presidential election coming up and many in the Republican nomination contest explicitly forming their policies in religious terms, it seems that the perennial question of American church-state relations is in no danger of going away. Personally, I wish that Congress would've just established the Episcopal Church as the official expression of Christianity in America (hey, we built a national cathedral already!), but I digressJ. The General Ordination Exams I just completed had two questions relating to church-state relations on it as well, so it seems to be in the air around me a lot. So, since I've already written it, here are my thoughts on the issue as prompted by GOE question 5.

In any society, the exercise of power is predicated upon the assumption of authority. That is, society legitimates the inherently oppressive exercise of power over some members of society on behalf of the civitas only if that power is exercised by an entity with properly ordained authority. For example, a police officer may only use force against another member of society when acting in his/her officially sanctioned role, otherwise their acts are considered criminal. The issue of authority then, in our culture, is the backdrop to understanding issues of Church-state relations. At one time, most people assumed that all legitimate authority in our nation was derived from God. Such a notion is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence which speaks of rights as being inalienable because they are given by God.


In a society which understood all civic authority as being endowed by God, it made sense to provide a privileged perch to God's representatives, the Church. The Church was understood to have a legitimate claim on the life of the civitas, so that things like establishment and, later, tax exemptions could be justified as the sacrificial offering of the community to the God from whom the civic authority derived.


However, that understanding of the source of authority for civic life has been under sustained challenge for quite some time. There isn't a clear consensus on the underlying reasons for this. I would suggest though, that divisiveness of the Church itself, with the ever multiplying diversity of denominations and independent Churches is a significant factor. If one looks to God's proxy, the Church, to offer an authoritative foundation for civic life then what one is likely to find is a confusing series of contradictory pronouncements. An unclear and confused claim to authority is unequal to the task of legitimating the use of power in our complex society.


For much of the history of Christianity in the West, its place as an established part of the social structure has meant that western culture(s) are deeply Christianized. The notions of human dignity and human rights as currently understood are the direct inheritors of the Christian tradition. That peace should be the natural state of things, that government should act both justly and mercifully, that the least amongst us should not be oppressed but assisted – all of these are ideas formed and developed in the Christian imagination and ideas that would not be so prevalent had the Church not long enjoyed a privileged place in society.


However, the flip side of that is that the Church, having in some sense fulfilled its mission to make a society more aligned with the Gospels, retreated into a place where it has seen its mission as protecting the status quo. The long held place of privilege has lulled the Church into a false sense of its place in society. Like a child whose parents hover and over-protects, our privileged position has insulated us from the consequences of our own self-destructive tendencies. We have not needed to seek out the unity of all people to God and to each other, because there has been little institutional upside in doing so.


To really begin to live out our mission and calling as Christians in the world will force us to stop looking at the ways in which we are different and instead focus on what it is that brings us together. If we are ever to once again be an effective voice for God's vision in society, we should be rushing to discard all of the trappings of privilege that have held us back and eagerly embrace the ways in which we can come together with a singular voice. I am under no illusion that this would be busy, but until we can find unity within the body, we will not be able to reclaim our rightful place of authority.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hello Again + sermon from today (with video!)

It's been a while since my last post (2 months!) and its not for a lack of things on my mind but a lack of time to ruminate and write about them.  There was a real crunch at the end of the semester, and then the General Ordination Exams (GOE's) to prepare for and Christmas, etc....  I've been busy and the blog is more for fun than a real discipline at this point.  Good news though, I have very little on my schedule for the rest of the month and a very light load for my last semester, so  I am hoping to have more time to think and write.  I already have a backlog of things from school I want to rework and post so to my three loyal readers, there will be more to read soon!

BTW, if you're interested in what this year's GOE was like, check out the blog Crusty Old Dean by Tom Ferguson, the Dean of Bexley Hall Seminary

Sermon from the Celebration of the Baptism of Jesus
Given 8 Jan 2012 at St John's Episcopal Church, Columbus, Ohio

I love Mark’s gospel, it is my absolute favorite.  In it Jesus moves relentlessly, heedlessly even into his ministry, he’s all in and almost always goes “immediately” from one place to next.  You can almost feel the urgency as Jesus takes up his work  – Mark’s gospel isn’t polished, or even particularly well written, it’s the first century equivalent of video shot with a cell phone.  It’s a little rough and choppy but it’s too compelling to ignore.

So Mark’s gospel begins right here, at the baptism of Jesus.  There aren’t any shepherds in a manger, or wise men; not even a precocious adolescent mocking his parents for not understanding him.  No, in Mark’s telling Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of the story – this is the moment of incarnation when God and world combine in some mysterious and miraculous way that is going to change everything forever.

Mark tells us that John has set up in the wilderness where he is washing away sins in the river Jordan. 

That his baptism of repentance is in the Jordan River is important.  This is the river that the Israelites had crossed after wandering 40 years in the desert generations before and in his baptism John is inviting any who are willing to cross again out of the wilderness of sin and alienation from God and into a renewed life as the people of God. 

And people apparently thronged to go see John, to hear what he had to say and walk themselves into the Jordan and back into the promised land, just as their ancestors had done.

But, I think that what we really need to be asking ourselves is why; why would so many be willing to walk for days into the desert to be immersed in the Jordan and symbolically re-enter the promised land?

Why does it matter?

We know that first century Palestine was a place of tremendous social conflict and upheaval, Greek ways and Greek ideas were popular and increasingly influential.  The Roman Empire had just recently established political and economic control.  This clash of cultures bred conflict over the meaning of Israelite identity, conflict between Greek and Roman ideas and traditional Hebrew ones.  Surely, the question of what does it mean to be the people of God was at the forefront of many people’s minds.  Maybe they asked themselves, “Is our covenant with God capable of leading us into the future or does it only pull us back into the past?”

Does God matter?

John’s answer was a resounding yes.  John said yes, our covenant matters, look at the things God has done for us, repent of corrupting ways and hold fast to what is true and honored. 
But John’s message isn’t some call to return to an imagined golden age.  Because just as John is recalling Israel to its age old promises, he is also pointing the way forward.

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…

I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit

What you are doing here, John says, is important, but it isn’t the end – there’s more.

Does it matter?

Isn’t that really one of the questions facing us now? 

Is our faith relevant in today’s world? 

Does it draw us forward; or
does it hold us back or
does it even matter at all?


One of the privileges of being a hospital chaplain is that every once in a while I get to baptize someone. 

Our church has a beautiful baptismal rite and the baptismal covenant is a centerpiece of the Episcopal understanding of faith, but in the hospital, it’s a much simpler affair. 

Usually very simple, a prayer over the water contained in a small bowl, an invocation of the Holy Spirit and then the three-fold application of water onto the baptized, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

My first ever baptism was for a little boy, just a few weeks old, named of all things, Israel. 

It was late at night and Israel’s parents and grandparents gathered around, the nurses there too, as we prayed for him and baptized him.

Like almost everyone I’ve baptized, he died shortly afterwards.

Does it matter?

Like the ancient Baptist whose name I carry, my answer is also yes.  Very much yes.

Baptism is most assuredly not some kind of protection against pain, suffering, or death.  It is not a testament of one’s perfection or an acknowledgment that you have everything figured out or even that you are in some way “right with God.”

I was baptized as an adult, and I remember someone asking me just beforehand if I was excited.  And my honest answer was no.  In fact I was scared, afraid of what God might ask of me.

And the years since then have confirmed to me that I was right to be scared because faith has led me places I would never have gone, it has forced me to confront things about myself I would rather deny.

Does it matter?

In all of the gospel stories, it is the baptism of Jesus that marks the beginning of the work that that takes Jesus to Easter.

Like John and Jesus’ contemporaries we live in a world where our identities, as Christians, and as Americans are in flux.  There is no generally accepted way to be who we are, no mold to fit ourselves into.  This is a great and tremendous freedom, but also the cause of great anxiety.  The old solutions don’t work, the old patterns no longer lead to expected results.  We may feel cheated, or lied to.  Isn’t that the anger that drives our political lives?  Isn’t that the fear behind so much hand-wringing about the wider Church?

In the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit enters human life in a new way.  Jesus’ life provides the model of our own, a life based on love for neighbor, willingness to give of oneself, and an ability to focus on the here and now and not get bogged down by the past nor immobilized by the possibilities of the future.  A life that transcends our fears.

Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of something, not the end.  For Jesus it is the beginning of a profound ministry and life whose meaning still echoes for us two thousand years later.  In the incarnational moment of Jesus’ baptism, God and we transcended our covenantal relationship and forged a new unity whereby we can know God’s surpassing love and God can know our pain and fear.  In Jesus’ baptism, God and we embark together on something new and mysterious which is moving towards a complete and unalterable joining together in the fulfillment of the new kingdom where the heavenly city and earthly city become one.

And our baptisms are also not endings, but beginnings.  It is the beginning of our lives with Christ, in baptism we are immersed within Jesus and remade.  Of course you can turn away, but baptism is a promise that God won’t, not ever.

That so many in this congregation are willing to step beyond themselves to address issues like inadequate housing, food security, homelessness, hunger, education, unequal distribution of resources id, to me, a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in this community.  It is evidence of the working out of our salvation.

And baptism is a sign of our salvation, but we are wrong if we think that salvation is something that just happens to the dead.  Because salvation is the outpouring of grace in our lives, each and every day.  In baptism a seed is planted that if tended, and cared for, grows into something mighty that spreads out into our lives and touches others.

If I had to answer why baptism mattered to the child Israel, I would say it is this.  He was not some imperfect creature who needed a spiritual cleansing, but in his baptism, the lives of all of us present there were changed, marked forever and God broke in in a way that could not have been possible otherwise.  And the same is true for allof us who have been immersed in Jesus, touched with the water of baptism, by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Does it matter?

Yes, oh yes, it matters.