Archive for February, 2008

Perspective from Rome

February 24, 2008

An extremely productive trip to Rome last week. The Presiding Bishop’s Canon and I spent some time with the clergy of the Convocation of North American Churches in Europe at a conference/retreat center called the “Palazzola” across the lake from the Pope’s summer residence and overlooking the Vatican in the distance.

They are a great group of clergy, spread out from Paris to Geneva to Munich to Rome and beyond. And I was once again convinced that, in spite of the fact that we have two Anglican jurisdictions in Europe (the Church of England and us) there is a real need for the American-based Episcopal Church to have a witness there. We need to cooperate with our Church of England colleagues (and with the Old Catholics, Lutherans and ecumenical partners there) but our perspective is an important one, I think.

Meetings at the Vatican were warm (if clear and direct) and we found once again that the Roman Catholic Church deeply cares about the Anglican Communion and wants us to find a way through our current difficulties. We heard this from Cardinal Kasper from Bishop Farrell from Fr. Don Boland and others.

The presenting issue may be human sexuality, but what they are most concerned about is ecclesiology — what does it mean to be “church” and what kind of global ecumenical partner do they really have? That’s the question we need to be wrestling with.

They know that the Lambeth Conference cannot “fix” all our problems, but they await it with great anticipation for some sense of where we are headed. For my part, I hope as many bishops as possible will be present, that we can avoid divisive legislation, but that we can spend extensive time in prayer and discussion and sustained work on the Anglican Covenant.

I believe that is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s desire as well. Now, if we can just keep the crazies (on all sides) from sabotaging it…!   

Going to Rome…

February 16, 2008
This web log will be a bit silent for a week or so, but don’t think I’ve given up! I’m off to Rome this week to spend a little time in retreat with the clergy of the Convocation of North American Churches in Europe, and then a couple of days of meetings at the Vatican.
I particularly look forward to spending some time with my old friend, Fr. Don Boland, and Cardinal Kasper, for whom I have such respect. I will be without internet connections for the next week, however.
But, look forward to sharing what I learn and experience upon my return!
Lenten blessings to all…   

Punishment to Justice to Mercy

February 15, 2008

Our Lessons from Scripture today form part of an interesting trajectory we can trace through the entire Bible. A trajectory one might identify as moving from punishment to justice to mercy. One of the more disturbing parts of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is this threat attached to the Second Commandment about worshipping idols:

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6)

This idea of the “sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons” sat somewhat uneasily with Israel’s idea of a just God. You can see that hinted at in our Psalm today, “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand? For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared…O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; with him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” (Psalm 130:2-3, 6-7)

Indeed, by the time of the Prophet Ezekiel, we get teaching like this one which leads into our First Lesson today: “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live.  The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.  But if the wicked turns away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die.” (Ezekiel 18:19-21)

So, here we have a kind of “fair is fair” justice with the sinner suffering the consequences of his or her own sin and not punishing the children for it. And we even see mercy beginning to show itself in the possibility of forgiveness after repentance being offered.

Jesus, of course, takes it even further in the Gospels by saying things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:38 ff).

So, we have a kind of compassion and mercy shown here, so that sinners do not even get what they deserve but are recipients of God’s grace and God’s mercy. In the words of Frederick Faber’s great hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea/ there’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty/. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good/ there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.”

However, lest we get too comfortable with all this, we also need to recognize that Jesus holds us to an even greater standard, in some respects: “You have heard it said…You shall not murder…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…If you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say, You fool, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21 ff)  

Jesus looks on the heart and into our intentions, not only to our actions and behaviors.

That means we need to look into those same hearts and intentions before too quickly absolving ourselves of any sin.

We’re all sinners. And we will all stand before God for judgment. It’s just good to know that the sin we will be confronted with is our own sin – not those of our ancestors.

And that the judgment God will render…is always tempered…by mercy! 

Temptations…then and now

February 11, 2008

Whenever I read the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, I am transported back to the days of my sabbatical in the Holy Land in 1994 which I think I’ve spoken of from this pulpit before. I spent part of that time in the very Judean wilderness we heard about in the Gospel reading this morning.

The desert in which Jesus spent some forty days, fasting and in prayer, begins just outside the city of Jerusalem.  In fact, it is positively startling to drive, or walk, a total of a few miles from Jerusalem’s city center…to crest the top of a little hill…and find yourself gazing out into some of the bleakest and most dangerous countryside in the world. 

This particular desert is not miles and miles of snow white sand drifts like you sometimes visualize it.  It is bleak, barren, rocky ground, so hot and dry that you must wear a hat at all times and drink water constantly in order not to dehydrate and suffer heat stroke in a hurry. I can remember the Dean of St. George’s College in Jerusalem telling us all to “drink water, drink water” whenever he saw any of us yawning, fearing that we were beginning to dehydrate before his very eyes.

A person can die in a couple of days in the desert unless you can find shade and drink plenty of water.  My assumption is that Jesus fasted from solid food for forty days (which others have done, before and since) but not from water. 

During those days of fasting and prayer, Jesus – as a relatively young man, by our standards, but in those days it may have seemed more like mid-life – struggled with just what his life and ministry were going to look like.  He had inaugurated his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan by John, and immediately felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an extended retreat, to take a mini sabbatical, to get some perspective on his life and to seek fresh energy for what lay ahead. As we all know, he had to wrestle with several primary temptations, according to the Gospel writers.  Anglican New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, summarizes it this way:

“The struggle is precisely about the nature of Jesus’ vocation and ministry. The pull of hunger, the lure of cheap and quick ‘success’, the desire to change the vocation to be a light to the world into the vocation to bring all nations under his powerful rule by other means – all these would easily combine into the temptation to doubt the nature of the vocation of which he had been sure at the time of John’s baptism. If you are the Son of God…” the tempter says.

“There are many different styles of career, ministry, and agenda that Jesus might have adopted.  Messiahs came in many shapes and sizes.  It was by no means clear from anything in the culture of the time exactly how someone who believed himself to be the eschatological prophet, let alone YHWH’s anointed, ought to behave, what his programme should be, or how he should set about implementing it.  Finding the way forward was bound to be a battle, involving all the uncertainty and doubt inherent in going out into unknown territory assumed to be under enemy occupation.” (Wright’s Jesus page 458) 

  The enemy, in this case, was not the Roman Empire or Jewish religion gone wrong, but Satan himself!  It was likely this decisive battle in the wilderness to which Jesus was referring when he said, later in Matthew, in the context of the Beelzebul controversy “…how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man.  Then indeed the house can be plundered!” (Matthew 12:29) In the wilderness, Jesus tied up “the strong man” – his Adversary.

I don’t know what temptations you are facing in your life. But, if you’re anything like me, they may not be so different from the ones Jesus faced – in degree perhaps, but not in kind. The pull of hunger, the lure of cheap and quick “success,” the desire to control others. Most of us eat too much and drink too much. We are tempted to take short cuts to whatever “success” story appears to be out there for us. And we certainly fall into patterns of domination and control – often of those closest to us.

And the tools we have to confront those temptations are pretty much the same ones Jesus had as well. Being attentive to God’s word…refusing to put God to the test…worshipping and serving God and God alone.  You may not be able to take a mini sabbatical or even make a Lenten retreat this year. But you are entering more fully today into the holy season of Lent.

Like Jesus’ experience, it is a forty day period of fasting and of prayer. A time to listen for God’s word…a time to stop testing and challenging God…a time for worship and for service.  I hope you’ve taken on some spiritual disciplines which can help you do some of those things.  The Ash Wednesday Liturgy told us what some of those disciplines are, and it’s not too late to begin today if you haven’t already!  Self-examination – looking inside oneself.  Repentance – turning away from destructive behavior and thoughts. Prayer – for strength and direction. Fasting – in order to give. Self-denial – so that others may have enough. Reading and meditating on the Scriptures – to teach you how to do all this.

I invite you then, once again, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent this year by embracing those disciplines. May our prayer this Lent be the prayer of the Psalmist. A prayer which, no doubt, Jesus himself prayed during his Lent, his forty days in the wilderness, during some scorching days and freezing, lonely nights:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God…

And renew a right spirit within me…

Cast me not away from your presence…

And take not your Holy Spirit from me…

Give me the joy of your saving help again…


And sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.”


(Psalm 51:11-13) 

The Fast God Chooses

February 8, 2008

Our First Lesson today from the Prophet Isaiah is the wonderful “alternative reading” for Ash Wednesday! The traditional one is from Joel and talks about “blowing the trumpet” and “proclaiming a solemn fast” and about “priests, weeping between the vestibule and altar” because of the sins of their people.

This reading tells us what kind of fast actually is pleasing to God! “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

But what has that to do with fasting, you may ask? What has that to do with Lent? Sounds like some of that “social justice” agenda the Presiding Bishop is always talking about! No, it’s the kind of “social justice” agenda God is always talking about! And, God’s people – from Moses to Isaiah to Jesus to the Church — and to this very Lenten season.

You see, fasting is related to “abstinence.” It is about “giving something up” for God. Because God is more important to you than “stuff.” And, believe me, my dear friends: 

If you loose the bonds of injustice, you’re going to have to give something up!

If you let the oppressed go free, you’re going to have to give something up!

If you share your bread with the hungry, you’re going to have to give something up!

If you bring the homeless poor into your house, you’ll have to give something up!

If you see the naked and cover them, you’ll have to give something up!

If you stop hiding from your own kin, you’ll have to give something up!

And that…is fasting!

But, if you’ll do those things, if you’ll engage in that kind of fast, Isaiah assures you that, “…your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:8-9)

Yes, God will say, “Here I am” because you will have learned the truth of what Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 10:13).

You will have learned what it means to put new wine into new wineskins.

And God will be pleased!



“What” to do in Lent…and “How” to do it!

February 6, 2008

One of the hallmarks of the Episcopal Church – and Anglicanism in general – is the emphasis we place on the public reading of Scripture in the context of corporate and liturgical prayer. Some traditions have put more emphasis on the personal reading of Scripture. Others stress Bible study done in small groups. And we’re certainly not opposed to such use of the Bible! In fact, we could probably use a lot more of those things. And in fact one of things we’re invited to do in Lent is to engage in “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”


But our strong suit has been on the daily public reading of Scripture in community. So in this chapel and in many other congregations and cathedrals and seminaries and monastic communities we schedule the Daily Office of  Morning Prayer to be prayed in church, in community, day in and day out. By our observance of the church seasons and the major and minor feast days, we read yet more Scripture in the context of the Holy Eucharist. And it’s in this rich interplay between prayer and the Bible that we believe we most effectively can “hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.”


The Liturgy for Ash Wednesday gives us an excellent example of this interplay between prayer and the Bible, between the liturgy and the Scriptures. The Lenten Invitation tells us “what to do” to observe this Holy Season. Today’s Gospel tells us “how to do it.”


After a brief summary of the history of Lent, the invitation is extended: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.


So, our first Lenten discipline is “self examination and repentance.” This is a season to spend some time looking into our own hearts and souls and minds. And, when we discover things there which may wound the heart of God, to repent – to turn around and go in a new direction, to start over again. But Jesus, in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, cautions us, “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”


In other words, our self examination and repentance is to be done privately, in the silence of our own hearts – not publicly, to impress others. The Church encourages us – especially in Lent — to take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation or confession, but even there we unburden our souls to God in the presence of a priest…but quietly and anonymously, not in order to impress someone else.


Secondly, we’re to observe the season of Lent by giving renewed attention to prayer. But Jesus says, “…whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”


That doesn’t mean we should never come to church or engage in liturgical prayer, but it does mean that our deepest and most intense periods of communion with God in prayer may well come in the silence and solitude of our own “monastic cells” wherever they may be… our own prayer corners or places of solitude. And again the caution is never to make a show of our worship or our prayers to impress others.


Next, fasting. That means simplifying our lives by giving up something in solidarity perhaps with the poor of this world who have so very much less than we do. But “…whenever you fast,” Jesus reminds us, “do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”


This has little or nothing to do with our custom of marking our foreheads with a cross of ashes on this day, but the self-serving, prideful posture of the pharisees among us who want everyone to know just how strict they are…and how hard they are trying to please God! I’ve often said that, if you think you will wear the cross of ashes with a sense of pride, you should wash your face before you ever leave the church. If you are just a bit embarrassed to be marked with the sign of Christ’s cross in this way, you should most certainly wear them all day long – and maybe even to bed, as a spiritual discipline!


Finally, the Church invites us to self-denial. This is not some masochistic, self flagellation but a discipline of knowing how to say “No” to yourself in some little things so that you will have the strength to say “No” to yourself when it really matters! A way to link fasting and self-denial is to estimate the amount of money you save by your fast and give the money to the poor.


And again, Jesus says, “…whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…so that they maybe praised by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”


So, these are our marching orders for Lent, dear friends – “what we are to do.”   Let’s just be sure that we pay equal attention to “how” we carry them out. In the final analysis…that’s all Jesus really cares about anyway!