Archive for January, 2008

Who Says Ecumenism Is Dead?

January 31, 2008
Just got back from a regular meeting of our Lutheran – Episcopal Coordinating Committee in Washington, DC. Part of being in a “full communion” relationship with another church is that we participate in such “coordinating councils” to monitor the relationship, answer questions which may arise, and brainstorm ways to strengthen common mission.
At this meeting, we were joined by three Episcopal bishops, one Lutheran bishop (because we have three our four dioceses to their one synod in that part of the country), and the local coordinating committee. “Called To Common Mission” actually encourages the formation of such local “LECCs” but, sadly, there are only a few around the country. This one is quite active and it was encouraging to see how much common mission is taking place in that region.
We also celebrated the Eucharist together daily with an Episcopalian presiding using the Lutheran rite with a Lutheran preacher; and a Lutheran presiding using the Episcopal rite with a Lutheran preacher. This all done in a Roman Catholic chapel of the Paulist Fathers who hosted our meeting!
Who says ecumenism is dead?        

Better Heresy than Schism?

January 25, 2008

It is often said, “Better heresy than schism.” The point is that, while heresy is always a mis-stating, mis-understanding, mis-representing of orthodox (in our case, Christian) teaching, it has always been present — to one degree or another — within the Church. However, since the Church is “indefectible” (meaning that God will preserve it ultimately from error, even if not at any given point in time — which would be “infallibility”) it is better to remain within the fellowship, standing for the truth, than to fracture Christ’s Body once again, making it all the more difficult to discern the truth together and to eventually get on with the mission Christ has given to the Church.

I have some sympathy with this position. While I do believe that the contributions of the Continental Reformers and the theological components of the English Reformation itself were a necessary correction to certain developments in medieval Catholicism, I continue to wonder if it would have been possible to bear patient, heroic, even sacrificial witness to those same truths within the context of the one (Western) Church. Politically, sociologically, it was probably impossible but, theologically, ideally, would it not have been preferable to the continual splintering of Christ’s Body which has been going on ever since?

Certainly, in the microcosm of The Episcopal Church today, I have great respect for the so-called “Windsor bishops” (Canterbury hates that self-designation and prefers “Camp Allen bishops”!) and others who absolutely refuse to compromise their theological convictions, are committed to remain “Windsor compliant” (meaning that they will live by the requests of the Windsor Report) and who yet remain loyal and supportive members of The Episcopal Church.

For surely, while there is much within The Episcopal Church with which they disagree — the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, the blessing of their committed unions, even overseas “interventions” into US dioceses — there must also be much with which they agree — the preaching in congregations all across this land of the Gospel of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ, the celebration of the Sacraments, the corporal acts of mercy, Episcopal Relief and Development, the United Thank Offering, monastic communities, even the Millenium Development Goals (as long as they are seen as examples of, and not identical with, Christian mission). And many, many more things.

No one — primate, bishop, priest, deacon, or committee — can force a conservative Episcopalian to compromise any of his or her deeply held theological positions. (Sadly, I’m not sure the reverse is true.) But conservative Episcopalians can remain within this Church, bear patient, heroic, and sacrificial witness to the truth as they understand it (as “progressive” Episcopalians have done in decades past) and trust God to “sort this out” over time.

I frankly do not believe that our disagreements today even rise to the level of “heresy.” We are not talking about creedal orthodoxy here but about matters of doctrine and discipline which are nonetheless important. But, even if we were talking about heresy, I’m not sure that schism is any better.          

King’s Day

January 22, 2008
We attended Trinity Church, Wall Street, last Sunday for their observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday.  The guest preacher was Dr. James Cone, professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary here in New York.
It was a joy to hear him once again. I read his first book “Black Theology and Black Power” when I was in seminary in the late sixties and it was probably my first introduction to the kind of “liberation theology” beginning to make itself known popularly at that time. He observed yesterday that virtually all of the liberation movements since King’s day — from the women’s movement to South Africa to the Philippines to gay rights — have drawn upon his philosophy of non-violent resistence seen pre-eminently in Jesus Christ himself and, in another context, Mahatma Gandhi… both of whom King sought to emulate.
But Cone’s main point in the sermon was that Dr. King’s name has been appropriated by all kinds of people today — politicians and presidential candidates among them — who would have been (or still are!) actually opposed to his message of justice! All kinds of powerful people show up at King Day events, seeking to identify with this great American martyr who — in reality — continue to impede the kind of progress for which he lived and died!
In short, he warned us against claiming the name of Martin King (or Jesus, for that matter) if we are not willing to pattern our lives after the example of theirs.   Or, in the words of yesterday’s Collect:
“Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever.” Amen. 

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

January 18, 2008

Today, we begin the 2008 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Observed each year from the Confession of St. Peter (January 18) through the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25) the Week of Prayer celebrates its centennial this year. In 1908 the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement held the first “Church Unity Octave” and have prayed “without ceasing” for Christian unity ever since!

Today, Christians around the world celebrate this week with the encouragement of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Why the Week of PRAYER (rather than, say, the week of “dialogue” or “documents”)? Because, in the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper:

“Ecumenical work is a spiritual task and can be nothing other than participation in the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. This means prayer, especially common ecumenical prayer, for the unity of Christians. Prayer will always gather people, in the same way as Mary and the apostles gathered, to pray for the coming of the Spirit which will unite the peoples in one language, and to pray for a renewed Pentecost (Acts 1:13f)” [from “That They All Be One: The Call to Unity Today”]  

Race…in the World and in the Church

January 16, 2008
So, it sounds like staff persons for the Clinton and Obama campaigns have met together and decided to go carefully with this racial business. All of it started when Senator Clinton said something about MLK’s vision requiring an actual sitting President (LBJ) to get the laws passed. Her point was, I assume, vision is not enough…practical, political steps requiring experience must be taken and accomplished.
Senator Obama took some offense at that, apparently feeling that it belittle King’s enormous contribution to racial equality in this country. Now, it seems that both candidates recognize how sensitive this stuff still remains and how race is just below the surface in this country even today. So, they’re backing off a bit afraid of sparking racial tension…and driving Africa American voters from the Democratic Party!
At our recent meeting of Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) we too experienced the sensitivity and volatility of race in our own fellowship. Two of our communions — the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church — have suspended membership in CUIC. The reasons include frustration at the lack of progress we have made together in working toward racial justice in this country together through the instrumentality of CUIC. And, perceived and real instances of “disrespect” shown within our own fellowship. Very painful.
However, the remaining eight communions have committed to a reconciliation process with these great historically Black churches. We have basically suspended operations until the Heads of our Communions send a letter, make personal contact, and participate in a delegation (if invited) to the AME and AMEZ leadership to see if reconciliation is indeed possible.
If it is, we’ll plan next steps together. If it is not, the future of this particular ecumenical configuration is in real jeopardy. Join me in prayers that in this — as in all things — “We All May Be One.”

Hard Work…But Worth It!

January 12, 2008

In the middle to two ecumenical meetings:

Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT-USA), the broadest ecumenical configuration in this nation’s history, met January 8-11 near Baltimore. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Historic Protestant, Evangelical/Pentecostal, and Racial/Ethnic churches gathered to discuss working together on evangelism and domestic poverty. It was quite an amazing event, the breadth of which was symbolized by Orthodox bishops and priests clapping along with the rest of us at worship led by a 12- piece Salvation Army band!

More substantively, we shared our faith journeys and prayed in small groups together. Visited Bread for the World, Sojourners, and an amazing feeding program called “So Others May Eat” (SOME) just blocks from the Capitol in Washington, DC, and wrestled with the differences between evangelism and proselytization at home and abroad. My small group consisted of a Pentecostal bishop, an Antiochian Orthodox priest, a pastor from the Reformed Church in America, a Roman Catholic bishop, and me!

Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC).  Now I’m in St. Louis at a make-or-break plenary meeting of this successor to the old Consultation on Church Union (COCU). Our goal has been full communion between ten Christian churches and intentional work together against racism in this country. We’re not doing too well with either and are here to determine what the future is…or if there is one.

Just when you think we should just give up on this effort, though, you have an experience like we did last night of being hosted by Lane Tabernacle Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and engaging in lively worship with a packed out African American congregation. The worship and hospitality were wonderful and the “rainbow gathering” a glimpse of what the Church (and the Kingdom) ought to look like!

We shall see. This is hard work. But so worth it!  


The Light of His Coming

January 7, 2008

“…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region of death light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16) Yesterday, we concluded our celebration of the Christmas season with the Feast of the Epiphany.  Actually, Matthew is the only Gospel writer who tells the story of the Magi, making their long journey, following the light of a star, to find the new-born king.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has gotten himself into a bit of trouble recently by using the word ‘legend’ to refer to this story! (Although I think he was actually referring to the non-biblical details – such as the number of wise men, their ethnic origins, and the precise details of their visit).

We celebrate the feast 12 days after that of the birth of Christ to underscore the fact that the Bible does not say that they arrived on the night of his birth, but some time later. Even the text says, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.” (Matthew 2:11) House, not stable. Perhaps they finally caught up with the Holy Family when they had returned to Nazareth before the flight to Egypt. Who knows?

The point of the story is clear and today’s Gospel text proclaims it: “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region of death light has dawned.” Gentiles, represented by these Persian astrologers, seekers after truth in a very different context than the Jewish people, found that light and that truth in One who was born to be king – but a very different kind of king than those known to Gentiles or Jews!

Today, one day after the Feast of Epiphany, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Baptism of Christ and, of course, we will observe that festival next Sunday. And there is a real continuity with Epiphany.  Jesus was apparently made known to shepherds and wise men and a number of others from his earliest days. But the beginning, the “epiphany” of his public ministry was his baptism.

At the Jordan River, he was anointed by the Spirit of God. And there he heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17). Immediately after that he was led by that same Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted and only after surviving that ordeal did he begin to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

I was writing about all this on this web log last week when a priest from Sweden named Anna wrote to ask if we believed that these events were only significant in Jesus’ life and ministry or if they were a “frame of reference for each and every person baptized in the Church today.” I said I thought they were both – but she makes an extremely important point.

When you and I were baptized, we too were given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. We pray very specifically for that in the baptismal liturgy and Jesus says that God would never deny the Holy Spirit to those who ask! In our baptism, God says to us also that we are  “Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We too will face temptation, if not immediately after our baptisms as Jesus did, surely in the days and years that follow.

And we too are sent into the world to preach repentance precisely because the reign of God has come near in the Christ event.

That which has happened to Christ must also happen to us. To those who are baptized in his Name.

“…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” That is the message of Epiphany.  But it will only come true if we, like our Lord, live into the implications of our baptismal covenant and hold high in our lives the Light of his Coming.       


January 3, 2008

As we move through the Twelve Days of Christmas, it’s interesting to see that we are still running across the great figure of John the Baptist. The season of Advent makes much of John and the two middle Sundays are largely devoted to his role as the one who ‘prepares the way for the Lord.’

Now, as we work our way through the first chapter of the 4th Gospel – in fact, right after the elegant “Johannine Prologue” about the Word of God becoming flesh – here is John the Baptizer again! “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

And, once again, John shows his humility in the presence of the Nazarene, “This is he of whom I said, ‘after me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” Well, Jesus’ reputation certainly did not precede John’s own so it’s clear that this text means more than it first seems. How could Jesus have “come before” his elder cousin?

The language John uses for Jesus gives us the clue. “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”…the one who would be “revealed to Israel”…the Spirit descending and remaining upon him…and, finally, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

Clearly, in this text, John is identifying Jesus with the Anointed One, the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. The phrase “Lamb of God” is reflective of Isaiah’s language about the Suffering Servant being like “a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep before its shearers is silent” (Isaiah 53:7)

The language about God’s Spirit descending and remaining on Jesus is reminiscent of all the “anointed ones,” all the kings of Israel and especially the great King David, whose literal and figurative successor the Messiah was expected to be.

 And, of course, long before the title “Son of God” took on the qualities of Incarnation and divinity and the Second Person of the Trinity, it simply was one more way for the people of Israel to describe their Messiah and King. (Later, in this same chapter Nathaniel says to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the king of Israel!” John 1:49)

Faithful, prophetic, humble John. He prepared the way for Jesus, he baptized Jesus and, in a sense, “introduced him” to the world. He worked alongside Jesus, constantly pointing beyond himself to the One he believed to “outrank him.”

Finally, John was martyred by King Herod not only because of his own prophetic ministry, but because – no doubt – of his association with the One whose Kingship was never really intended to rival Herod’s, but which certainly called all the empires of this world into question, and continues to do so today!

As we move toward our conclusion of the celebration of this Messiah’s birth and launch once more into a new year, we could do worse than listen again to John the Baptist as he says, “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sins of the world!”