Archive for October, 2009

Alfred the Great and Ecumenism

October 26, 2009

It’s interesting that we celebrate this minor feast of Alfred the Great at this ARCUSA meeting when at least some of our discussion on immigration and other moral issues have to do with the Church’s role in society and in interaction with the State!

 Alfred was King of the West Saxons in the late 9th century, and born at a time when the Anglo-Saxons were under constant threat from the Danish Vikings. Eventually, he not only managed to save his kingdom from annihilation, but he proved to be quite a statesman and a scholar in his own right. Among his accomplishments were the first English attempts at civic planning, and some of the first translations of Latin texts into the Anglo Saxon vernacular. So, he not only saved his people from the Vikings, but helped to revive and save their culture as well.

 No wonder our Prayer for today speaks of him coming to the throne “that he might establish peace in a ravaged land and revive learning and arts among the people.” No wonder the First Lesson from the Wisdom of Solomon is addressed to “kings and monarchs” and counsels them to “learn wisdom and not transgress…(for) the multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world, and a sensible king is the stability of any people.” (Wisdom 6)

 Well, we would look at that somewhat differently in our democratic, essentially “anti-monarchial” system of government, treasuring as we do a clear separation of church and state (for some awfully good reasons!). Yet surely our attention must be drawn to our Lord’s own words in today’s Gospel about the importance of firm foundations, of building presumably not only our personal, but our societal, houses on rock rather than on shifting sand. 

 Clearly one of the fruits of the ecumenical movement, over the years, has been our ability to make “common cause” and speak to the “powers that be” with a more-or-less united voice on some of the great social issues which confront us in the world today. We don’t agree on everything, of course, and part of the reason for dialogues like this one on “Ecclesiology and Moral Discernment” is so that we can understand one another better and perhaps find more areas of convergence than we had once thought…or at least appreciate our differing perspectives when such agreement cannot be found.

 But the churches made a witness together (albeit unsuccessfully) in the run-up to the war in Iraq and evangelicals were quoting catholic teaching on what is, and what is not, a “just war” in some circles!  We do share common concerns about immigration policy in this country. And the broadest ecumenical table every assembled in this land – Christian Churches Together in the USA – made up of Catholics and Orthodox, Historic Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, predominantly Black churches and para-church groups like Bread for the World and Sojourners – have crafted a joint statement on Domestic Poverty together and we spent one of our meetings bearing common witness about that concern on Capitol Hill in this very city.   

 Yes, it is important for the churches, sometimes in tandem with other faith communities to seek to be a kind of “soul’ for the nation, without overstepping our bounds and using whatever power or influence we have left in inappropriate ways to force our religious convictions on others.

 Both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury have expressed their concerns, in various ways, about the secularization of Europe, and have wondered about how the Church can regain her nerve and speak a word of truth in that kind of environment. Although ostensibly more “religious” as a society, some of those same trends are evident right here in the United States and it is not too soon for us to begin asking ourselves those same questions. And, hopefully, asking them together!

 Alfred’s specific contributions toward justice and peace in his day would not be ours today. But surely the words of the Psalmist chosen for this feast day challenge us to work together in finding out what those contributions might reasonably be:

 “Happy are those who fear the Lord

and have great delight in his commandments…

The righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

It is good for them to be generous in lending

And to manage their affairs with justice…

They have given freely to the poor,

And their righteousness stands fast for ever…


Let’s hope so!


Synod: Diocese of Quincy

October 17, 2009

We gather, as the church in Synod, on the Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, an heroic figure in the life of the early Church. He was only the second bishop of Antioch in Syria and had a long episcopate there. But early in the 2nd century, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, he was arrested by imperial authorities, condemned to death, and transported to Rome to die in the arena.

 This was a familiar strategy for the Empire. By being tough on the leaders, the government hoped to terrify the rank and file. Instead, Ignatius took the opportunity to encourage his flock, speaking to groups of Christians in every town at which they stopped along the way on his final journey!

 When the prison escort reached the west coast of Asia Minor, it stopped before boarding ship, and delegations from several Asian churches were able to visit Ignatius, to speak with him at length, to assist him with items for his journey, and commend him to the grace of God. In response, he wrote seven letters that have been preserved – five to congregations which greeted him on the road, one to a congregation which would greet him in Rome, and one to St. Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna, and a disciple of the Apostle John.

 It is from these letters that we learn most of what is important to preserve about Ignatius’ legacy – 1) the importance of maintaining Christian unity in love and sound doctrine (he warns them against factionalism in the church and against the heresy of Docetism, which taught that Jesus was not fully human, but only divine; 2) the role of the clergy as a focus of Christian unity, 3) Christian martyrdom as a glorious privilege.

 You and I can probably sign on to, and celebrate, the first two; but have a little problem with the third – martyrdom! I guess that’s why the Church has selected the Readings we heard today from Holy Scripture. Jesus reminding us of the fact that our lives are like that grain of wheat which, if it remains a single, unplanted grain is not worth very much; but, if it “dies,” it bears much fruit. (John 12:23-26) Dying to self in order to live for others!     

 And then St. Paul’s famous testimony, read at virtually all of our funerals, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

 Both Jesus and Paul are reminding us of something Ignatius took for granted – that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to us! Being unfaithful is much worse. And living for something greater than ourselves is what, in many ways, makes life worthwhile! Most all of you know that the word “martyr” does not only mean one who loses one’s life for the Faith, but that it also means “witness” – the kind of witness made by heroes and heroines like Ignatius who were willing to give it all for the sake of the Gospel.

 Many people today in the Church fear, not so much personal, individual death, but the death of the Church itself, as we have known it and loved it over the years. The Presiding Bishop herself said earlier this month that, on the heels of General Convention, “we are in a paschal moment” in The Episcopal Church today.  But she also went on to ask,

 “Will we discover resurrection or will we stay holed up in the tomb? We have opportunities to be creative and collaborative – we can’t be preservers of turf or maintainers of the status quo. That is, I believe, to remain in the tomb. We can be celebrants of the spirit behind the law, the life-giving, creative law that the Jewish people know as Torah.  We can experience the grace that comes of loving God and our neighbor, and not being afraid.”

 And both Bishop Katharine and the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, made these observations about the new Executive Council which I believe can equally apply to this Synod meeting, to the annual Convention of the Diocese of Iowa, and other such gatherings taking place around our church this fall:

 “We are together…embarking on a journey to serve God’s people and God’s creation across this planet…The decisions we make as a body will impact the lives of people far beyond this place or this church. I think the biggest question before us is what will occupy us…where will we spend our energy?…We live with a vision of the reign of God, the kingdom of God, which last time I checked had not been fully realized; therefore we have work to do in the name of Jesus.” (Jefferts Schori; Oct. 2009)

 “What if…(this)…Council (this Synod) created a truly spiritually based Christian community together, based on relationship and understanding of each other’s gifts?

What if we understood and embraced the vision of our forebearers, and then took a look at that vision in light of our realities today? What if (we) prayed hard together and were able to discern what we are being called to do at this time in the life of the church? What if we figured that out together and then what if we did it?” said Bonnie Anderson.

 What if we figured it out together? And what if we did it? What if we really embraced the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Faith which St. Ignatius confessed and was willing to die for? What if we figured out how that Faith needs to be lived out today? And what if we did it? (Pause)

 “Be deaf,” Ignatius wrote, “to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld; (who) was really raised from the dead.”

 And on another occasion, he wrote, “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist and to praise him…break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality…” And finally he said, “Flee from schism as the source of mischief…Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

 Well, we are gathered as lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons in Synod on this day, my dear friends. And surely Jesus Christ is present – in Word and Prayer and Sacrament…here in the Church Catholic.

 Let us seek to be that spiritually based community, praying hard and trying to discern what we are being called to do at this time in the life of the church, having confidence… with Jesus, Paul, and Ignatius that

 Nothing! No…Thing…will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Jesus and Divorce

October 4, 2009

  “Some Pharisees came, and to test (Jesus) they asked him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” (Mark 10:2)

 Well, first of all, the Pharisees did not need Jesus to instruct them about divorce.  The very first verse of the 24th chapter of Deuteronomy makes it perfectly clear how easy it was for a Jewish male to write a certificate of divorce and put aside his wife. It doesn’t give any instruction about how a woman is to free herself from an abusive relationship or a loveless marriage arranged by her family, but the text is *real* clear about how easy it is for a man to get rid of his wife!

 No, the Pharisees did not need to be instructed by Jesus about divorce laws. They were experts in the Law. There is much more going on in this passage than that!  This is a familiar pattern in the Pharisees’ attacks on Jesus. They confront him publicly with a tough question, such as why he does work on the Sabbath, whether or not one should pay taxes to Caesar, or what he thinks about John the Baptist; and, in doing so, they hope he will make a mistake and give them a legal reason to discredit him, or even worse.

 In this case, the context is clear. The Essene (or Dead Sea Scrolls) community had formulated their opposition to divorce on what the king should do in his own life. They knew that royal marriages and divorces were politically dangerous and so they, like Jesus, appealed to Genesis, to God’s original intention for marriage, to argue against divorce. And John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, who had perhaps spent some time with the Essenes, had been arrested and eventually executed for criticizing the king (Herod Antipas) for divorcing his wife precisely to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.

 So, behind the Pharisees’ “innocent” question about divorce lurks the mission and ministry of John the Baptist and just what Jesus thought about all that. He would have to answer this question at his own peril!  So Jesus does was he so often does in these verbal battles – he answers the question *with* a question! “What did Moses command you?” They give the correct answer, but Jesus pushes them beyond the legalistic answer back to God’s original intention.

 According to the very first book for the Bible, God intended married people to be permanently joined in marriage so no human tradition can claim authority to override that intention. If indeed married people become “one flesh” as the text says, divorce would be like trying to divide one person into two. And that can’t be God’s desire. But the point is, Jesus comments were not intended to create some kind of new legislation about marriage and divorce!

 Instead, he blasts the Pharisees for cooperating with the hard-hearted, one-sided system of divorce which seems clearly to favor men’s rights over women’s. He could not be accused of breaking the Law because his views coincided with the Essenes, and others, who were stricter in the interpretation than even the Pharisees. On the other hand, he has sided with John the Baptist’s dangerous views of the marriage between King Herod and Herodias!

The point is, Jesus wants to insist that God’s original intentions for human beings take precedence over other provisions in Mosaic Law. He is not intending to create some new legalistic system to deal with the painful realities of marital discord and the fact of divorce.     

Unfortunately, the Church has not always has been as adept as Jesus at avoiding the whole divorce business! Twenty years after this conflict with the Pharisees’ Paul tells the Corinthians that it would be OK for a Christian whose non-Christian spouse had divorced him or her to re-marry. In principle Paul was opposed to divorce, but he was trying to find a pastoral provision, sometimes called “the Pauline privilege!”

 And the Church has been struggling with this ever sense! How to balance the high view of the permanence of marriage taught by Jesus with the painful realities of troubled marriages and the possibility of divorce?  Some churches have created elaborate systems for determining when a marriage may be declared null and void. While some churches today are experimenting with creating rituals for divorce to provide a way for the church to stand with divorcing couples in an attitude of prayer.

 The Episcopal Church has been in a number of places on that continuum, but our canon law today attempts to live in the tension by affirming the life-long intention of marriage, but providing space for a pastoral approach which honors people and allows us to enter into their pain and walk together toward reconciliation when possible, forgiveness and healing when it is not.

 I am absolutely convinced that we are close to the Spirit of Jesus in this approach. That Spirit is so beautifully described in our Second Lesson today from Hebrews: “It was fitting that God…in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For the one who sanctifies and those who are (being) sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrews 2:11ff)

 So, by treating marriage as grounded in God’s love, Jesus removes it from the realm of law. His original hearers, like so many out there today, viewed marriage as a contract. So, like any contract, it could be voided.  Jesus wanted to challenge that casual attitude about marriage but, unlike the Essenes, he did not think new laws or legalistic systems would create the kind of relationships God intended. Legalism is contrary to the Spirit of Jesus.

 Nonetheless, the challenge he lays down for us and the questions he poses about a hard-hearted treatment of divorce, on the one hand, and a casual attitude about marriage, on the other, are still crucial for our reflection today.  Not because we want tough laws, or canons, against divorce, but because we seek to make Christian families today what God yearns for them to be.