Archive for December, 2009

An Improved Anglican Covenant

December 19, 2009

With the release of the final draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant, we hear many criticisms being leveled already. While not perfect, this is as good as we’re going to get and I’d like to point out two positive improvements in this draft text.

First, it makes clear that the potential signators of this Covenant are the Provinces of the Anglican Communion. This Covenant is not intended for breakway, so-called Anglicans who wish to sneak in through the back door by signing on to this document. If they are prepared to go through the normal procedures and apply for membership through the Anglican Consultative Council, they are free to do so. But, simply signing on to the Covenant will not regularize their status as members of the Anglican Communion.

Secondly, individual dioceses, synods, parishes or individuals will not be permitted to sign on to the Covenant in any official way. Certainly, anyone may endorse it and pledge to live by its principles (which I myself am happy to do). However, this is but a symbolic gesture. The purpose of the Covenant is to give shape and cogency to the 38 Provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion — not to create some new “confessional document.”

I believe some kind of Covenant is necessary in our time. True, it is a development in our life, just as the four “instruments of communion” have undergone a process of development over the years. Some think it is a positive development and support it; others that it is a negative development and oppose it.

Now, that we have the final text, let the conversation and the debate begin anew!

Prophecy and the Churches

December 14, 2009

Advent 3C – Trinity Cathedral.

I said last Sunday that I believe John the Baptist had a two-fold ministry as he sought to “prepare the way” for Jesus. He was both an evangelist and a prophet. Last week I spoke of John’s evangelism. Today I want to speak of his prophecy. First of all, it may be important to remind you that prophecy in the Bible has little, or nothing, to do with foretelling the future. The Old Testament prophets only predict the future in the sense that they often say “If you do this, thus and so will happen.” Or, “if you do not do this, you can expect the following results!”

So, looking back at it through the lens of history, we can see that consequences often followed certain actions or inactions and it looks as though the prophets were predicting specific results. They weren’t. They were not “foretelling,” they were “forth-telling.” Telling forth, or speaking out, in God’s Name.  And so it is that in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist thunders, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3).

And even though Luke generalizes the message by addressing it to “the crowds that came out to be baptized by him,” we know from the other Gospels that John’s primary audience were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes. They were the ones who would have been most likely to say, “Why are you calling us a ‘brood of vipers?’ We’re descendents of Abraham!” John assures them that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!”  The point was not whether they were descendents of Abraham, but were they living like descendents of Abraham?

A tree is not judged by its roots, but by its fruit (Caird, St. Luke, page 73) so John says, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

He then goes on tell them what “good fruit” looks like! To share clothing and food with those who have none. To be honest in your business dealings. Not to be violent. And look who he’s talking to! Tax collectors who, of course, were not IRS agents in those days, but Jews who had sold out to the Roman government and collected exorbitant taxes from their fellow Jews, often pocketing the difference.  The soldiers John addresses are not “regular army,” Roman soldiers. They were paid mercenaries who were body guards for the tax collectors.

It’s so important to remember, when we hear fiery words from the prophets of either Old or New Testaments that these prophets were speaking on behalf of an oppressed people! The Jews had been enslaved in Egypt and, centuries later, carried off into Exile in Babylon! The prophet Zephaniah, in our First Lesson today, was just beginning to see his people return from that Exile and so was able to say, “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.  And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” (Zephaniah 3). Yet, by John the Baptist’s time, another oppressor had arisen. Roman armies occupied what we now call The Holy Land, and the Jews were at their mercy.

John the Baptist’s vision was one of world-wide and imminent judgment. The woodsman was ready to raise his axe for the first stroke, the Palestinian farmer ready to toss crushed stalks of wheat into the air with his wooden shovel so that the heavier grain could fall to the ground, while the lighter chaff was blown by the wind, later to be gathered and burned. One mightier than John was coming to inaugurate that judgment with the fire of the Holy Spirit. And John the Baptist knew he was not worthy to untie that one’s sandals. “The coming crisis would see the mighty overthrow of ancient wrong, the settling of accounts on the basis of strict justice.” (Caird, ibid).

With all these harsh words, it may come as something of a shock for us to come to the last line of today’s Gospel, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news? Yes! Not perhaps for the occupying Roman powers-that-be, not for the collaborating tax collectors and the mercenary army. But good news for sure to the poor! To the oppressed! To the last…and the least! For soon, very soon…all would be set right!

So, there are really three themes in John the Baptist’s preaching: fiery prophecy; concern for the poor and the oppressed; and preparing the way for Jesus. I’ve often thought that today’s churches often mirror one or more than one of these theme. Some churches are all about prophetic advocacy – speaking “truth to power” as it is sometimes called, as churches seek to speak out for justice in the marketplace and in the wider community.

Some churches emphasize direct services to the poor. We see examples of this almost daily in our community as the Salvation Army and Churches United and other church-related ministries provide Christmas baskets or Angel tree gifts or provide shelters for the homeless to get out of the cold at night. And some churches major in prayer and praise and in introducing people to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their relationship with him.

I think The Episcopal Church, at its best, tries to balance all three of these emphases, so dear to John the Baptist’s heart. The Lambeth Conference of Bishops, and the General Convention of our church, has adopted the following “Five Marks of Mission” as a way of defining who we are, and of offering a challenge to us all to balance all three of John’s themes. The five marks are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

In this Advent season, and as we begin together a new year, I would invite you to think about ways we can fulfill all these Marks of Mission together here at Trinity Cathedral.

I think that would make John the Baptist…and Jesus…happy!

Preparing the Way

December 6, 2009

Advent 2-C. Trinity Cathedral.

 Because the season of Advent is, among other things, a season of preparation for the festival of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, the two middle Sundays focus on John the Baptist whose life and ministry have always been seen as “preparing the way of the Lord.” Luke tells us that John was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah as a “voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’.” (3:4-6)

 Luke is taking a little liberty with the text here because what Isaiah actually wrote was not “a voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way…” but “A voice cries…: ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” (Isaiah 40:3)  In other words, the voice is not in the wilderness…the people are! And they are hoping that God will make a straight path for them to return from Exile and be restored to their land and to Jerusalem!

 That’s consistent with our First Lesson today from Baruch who is usually understood to be Jeremiah’s personal secretary and scribe. This portion of his book is also talking about the return from Exile in Babylon and he too is confident that after having been carried “away by their enemies…God will bring the (people of Jerusalem) back…carried in glory, as on a royal throne.  For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” (Baruch 5:6-7) So this is really about Israel returning from the “wilderness” of Exile in Babylon.  

 But it’s understandable that Luke would focus on a “voice” crying in the wilderness because he knew that’s where John the Baptist lived, and it was from the wilderness that his voice rang out. We don’t know much abut the early life of John. Our canticle today (itself taken from Luke’s Gospel) is the song his father sang in thanksgiving for his birth. It was a hymn of dedication too as Zechariah sings, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” (Luke 1:76)

 Some scholars believe that John (and perhaps even Jesus himself) may have spent some time with the Essenes in the monastery near the Dead Sea. They too used ritual cleansing and baptisms of repentance symbolizing the forgiveness of sins, and it may be that John adapted that custom of baptism from them for his own  use.  But prophets and mystics, holy men and holy women, have often sought out the desert, the wilderness, as places of preparation and of prayer.

 I spent part of my sabbatical some fifteen years ago in the desert, taking two courses at St. George’s College in Jerusalem, one of which was called “the Desert Course.” We spent the better part of a week in three jeeps with a Bedouin guide tracing the ancient pilgrim routes across the Sinai, spending some nights in sleeping bags on the desert floor and other nights in Orthodox monasteries. There is something about the desert!  The silence is profound, especially in the middle of the day when no one or no thing is stirring. And the clarity of the night sky – with no artificial lighting and no pollution – is such that you almost feel you could reach up and touch the moon and the stars!  

 The very fact that you know you could die in a matter of hours without adequate water and shade from the sun makes it very clear how utterly dependent we are on God. I remember once scrambling out of the noonday sun, finding shelter under a huge stone jutting out from the side of a hill, and feeling the temperature drop about 20 degrees just getting out of the sun. It gives a whole new meaning to biblical passages describing God as “the Rock of our salvation!” That desert rock felt like my salvation from the heat!

 So, we’re told that “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” (Luke 3:2-3). That means he lived just east of Jerusalem and north of the Dead Sea. And it was from this place of silence, complete dependence on God, and crystal-clear night skies that he heard the voice of his God, calling him into ministry.

 I think John’s ministry was two-fold really. He was an evangelist and he was a prophet. They’re not the same thing, but they are connected. I want to focus on his role as evangelist this week and perhaps his role as prophet next Sunday.

 John the Baptist was an evangelist because he preached Good News. The good news that God is, that God is in charge, and that God was about to do a new thing – that “all flesh (would soon) see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6). He also knew that it was not his role to convert people or to save them. That was up to God. His role was to “prepare the way,” to create an environment in which people could encounter God, and be encountered by God, so that God could do the converting!

 I’ve often thought that this is our task too, as evangelists. We’re not called to convert people. We’re called, as the Church, to “prepare the way,” to create environments in which people today can encounter God, and be encountered by God. So that God can do the converting.

 Maybe you don’t think of yourself as an evangelist. But, as Bishop Scarfe suggested here last Monday night, on St. Andrew’s Day, we’d better start taking our responsibilities as evangelists seriously if we don’t want The Episcopal Church, and other Christian communions like us, to disappear in another generation or two. Our researchers tell us that The Episcopal Church, like other mainline denominations, may be in a state of “systemic decline.” A recent report from our office of Congregational Development in New York says,

“It is easy to look at the unadjusted membership trends for The Episcopal Church and say that the sky is falling.  But to do so would be irresponsible and inaccurate. A more sober look at the statistics (membership and attendance) reveals that we have reached a plateau of sorts – from which we can either slide into a new decline or begin growing again.  The problems facing The Episcopal Church are daunting due to the nature of our main constituency. As long as we are a predominantly white denomination with aging, affluent, highly educated members, growth will be increasingly difficult.

 There is hope, however, because The Episcopal Church is attractive to people brought up in other religious traditions and to unchurched seekers, and statistically The Episcopal Church is the healthiest denomination in the mailine. But it will require more than business as usual to expand into other constituencies (such as new immigrants and the unchurched). It will take new churches and a new openness among our existing parishes. It will take having something to offer newcomers that changes lives. Clearly, we need more vibrant healthy churches. But growing as a denomination will require systemic changes, so that the average losses…might turn into…average gains. Even tiny gains across a denomination of 7,300 churches would produce growth of a kind that we have not seen since 1966.”

 Well, I share all that to convince you that we do indeed need to be evangelists like John the Baptist. It begins by inviting people, our families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, to share the life of Trinity Cathedral!  It’s not our job to convert these people. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit!  Our job, as evangelists and as congregations, is to create environments and opportunities for the Holy Spirit to do that work of drawing our sisters and brothers into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ!

 John the Baptist “prepared the way” for Jesus. He made his path a little more level, the crooked road a little straighter, and the rough places a little smoother for Jesus. Can we do that? Can we make Jesus’ path into the minds and hearts of our families, friends, and neighbors a little easier by the kind of community we build here? By the vibrancy of our worship, the quality of our caring for one another, and by the kind of lives we live?

 Advent is a good time to think about things like that. St. Paul told the Christians in Philippi that he was confident…”that the one who began a good work among (them would) bring it to completion.” (Philippians 1:6). John the Baptist had that same confidence in God.

 I wonder, do we?