Archive for March, 2012

Mary’s “Fiat” – Let It Be…

March 26, 2012

You’ve probably heard more than your share of sermons on the Annunciation over the years since your parish church is named after this great event and you will have celebrated it on your Feast Day and also heard the story read again toward the end of the Advent season, around Christmastime each year. Thinking about it this time, in the context of our happily confirming and receiving five new people into the Episcopal Church today, I was struck by how Mary of Nazareth is a kind of model, or paradigm, for the spiritual journey so many of us are on.

 First of all, she was a young person. Most scholars think she may have been sixteen years old or so when all this began to happen to her. Adolescence and young adulthood are formative times for us, as we grow up. A time of differentiating ourselves from our families of origin, thinking about what we will do with our lives, beginning to see ourselves in relationship with the wider world. That’s why our ministry to, and with, young people is so important in the life of the Church.

Lots of people make their decisions about a life of faith during those teenage or college age years and the Episcopal Church – for reasons I’ll mention later – is well positioned to be there for those young people at that critical time in their lives. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate our young people, as best we can, into the life of the parish. Listen to their hopes and dreams and expectations of the Church. And try to include them in decisions which may affect our church’s future.

The second thing to note about Mary’s story is that God initiated the relationship with her. Luke’s Gospel tells us that “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town inGalilee calledNazareth…and he came to her and said ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26, 28). Although we sometimes talk about ourselves as “seeking God” or “finding God,” it’s really more accurate to say that God is seeking, or looking for, us. God finds us rather than us finding God.

 Our seeking or finding God really has more to do with opening ourselves to recognize that God is already there, and always has been, than it is “discovering” a God who somehow prefers to be hidden. One of our intercessory prayers in the Prayer Book tries to hold this process together when we “…ask your prayers for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him. Pray that they may find and be found by him.” God is always the initiator of the relationship!

 But Mary, like many of us, did not come into a relationship with God easily, or without struggle. The text says that “…she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (1:29). There must have even been some fear there because the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary…” (1:30). Fear is not an uncommon response when we first start thinking about coming into a relationship with God.

 Who is this awesome Creator of the universe? What is this God like? What does God want of me? Will I be worthy? Am I going to be asked to do something “holy” (like, become a missionary or something?) Am I going to have to change the way I live my life? Am I going to become weird? Some kind of “religious fanatic?”

 Well, Mary is indeed asked to do something great for God. But first she is assured that she is perfectly acceptable to God “just as she is.” “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (1:30). The most real thing about God is that we do not have to be afraid.. The most real thing about God, according to one of our Psalms, is that God is “gracious and full of compassion, long suffering and of great kindness.” (Psalm 103:8)

 And apparently that assurance gives Mary the courage to continue to ask questions, “How can this be…” (1:34) she asks the angel. And, of course, who she’s really asking is God? One of the things I always have to convince people of is that it is OK to question God! That’s one of the treasures of the Episcopal Church. It is a church in which it is OK to ask questions, and even to have doubts. And to be open and honest about that, instead of pretending.

 God gave us minds to think as well as hearts to love, and most people whose faith endures over the course of a long lifetime have many times questioned God, even been angry with God…and certainly had to wrestle with periods of doubt. That’s really how our faith becomes strong. As long as we are willing to really engage the questions and to do the work necessary to look for answers. You aren’t the first one to wrestle with this particular question in the life of faith. Others have walked this path before you. Be open to their wisdom as you seek answers for yourself.

 Which brings Mary to her final steps in this spiritual pilgrimage (abbreviated perhaps by Luke’s telling of the story, but which may have unfolded over some time). She is assured that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (1:35). In other words, God is indeed asking you to do a great thing. Literally to bear God’s Son into the world. But you will not have to do it alone. God will be with you along the way, and God will give you the strength to bear what you have to bear, and to do what you have to do. That’s apparently what Mary needed to hear for she is now able to say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (1:38). Mary’s “fiat”…Let it be.

 And that’s really what you and I are being asked to say today. These confirmands and those to be received into this church, yes, but also each one of us who will today renew the vows of our baptism. Some of us have walked the way of Mary, in one way or other – we may have begun our walk as a younger person…we may have had times when we lost our way, questioning God or our own worthiness or our own faith…we have all had many questions of God…and some of us still do.

But the fact that we are here today means that, somewhere along the way, God has drawn us here. God’s Holy Spirit has “overshadowed” our lives in some way. And we are beginning to believe that, like Mary, we too are being asked to “carry Christ into the world,” to bring him to birth…in our own lives and in the lives of others.

 All that remains is for us to say, with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Pause) And that’s what we are going to do…right now!

House of Bishops’ Spring Meeting

March 22, 2012

As noted by Bishop Lee in his latest video blog, we have just returned from the Spring 2012 meeting of the House of Bishops in Texas. It was a well-balanced agenda, consisting of retreat times in the morning and business sessions in the afternoon.

It is always humbling and encouraging to hear colleagues in the House take leadership and provide meditations and sermons at these meetings. This time Tom Shaw spoke of spiritual discipline; Michael Curry on the proclamation of the Gospel; Porter Taylor on pastoral care; Katharine Jefferts Schori on governance and leadership; Julio Holguin on mission.

In each case, these bishops wove their own stories, as a kind of personal testimony, into a presentation of their insights on each topic. Deeply moving and powerfully done.

In the “business” sessions, we considered a new canon on accountability for bishops — a canon on the reconciliation or ultimate dissolution of a pastoral relationship between bishop and diocese. This is a long overdue addition based on a similar canon dealing with the relationship of priest and congregation.

We put some restrictions on ourselves in the use of social media in the midst of our meetings. No “tweeting’ or ‘blogging’ in the midst of debates or executive sessions. No use of pictures or direct quotes outside the meeting without expressed written consent of those being photgraphed or quoted. “New occasions teach new duties” with respect to new technology.

We discussed a possible way forward with the proposed Anglican Covenant, particularly with the difficulty it seems to be running into in the Church of England and with Rowan Williams’ announced retirement. There may be a way for us to signal our ongoing commitment to relationships within the Anglican Communion short of either unreservedly endorsing or dismissing the proposed Covenant. We shall see.

With the exception of guidelines for our own internal work as a House of Bishops we, of course, can make no ultimate decisions on these matters on our own. This must wait until General Convention when both Houses are gathered together for the exercise of business. This church values the voices of all her people — lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.

We made some modest changes in the so-called “Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight” agreement which allows diocesan bishops to invite colleages in to serve as bishop “visitors” to congregations which may be in serious disagreement with the diocesan on some particular matter. There is an attempt here to assure “theological minorities” within the Episcopal Church that they have a valued place within it and that their voices are necessary as part of the life of this church an its ongoing discernment.

In all cases, the conversations and debate were held with a minimum of rancor and a maximum of careful listening and valuing of one another. We have come a long way from the days when some defined the House of Bishops as “dysfunctional.” I am mightily impressed with the younger and newer leadership in the House (including our own diocesan!).

Keep General Convention 2012 in your prayers. July 4 will be here before you know it!

“Spiritual But Not Religious” – Not All Bad

March 12, 2012

It seems strange to have the story of Jesus’ Cleansing of theTempleread on this 3rd Sunday of Sunday in Lent. We usually think of it as coming in Holy Week, toward the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, right after the Palm Sunday story, the so-called “Triumphal Entry” intoJerusalem. In fact, that is where Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story – setting up the conflict between Jesus and the authorities which eventually led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion later that week.

 Contemporary NT scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan even write about “two processions” coming into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday – one from the east and one from the west. From the west, Roman cavalry and foot soldiers followed Pontius Pilate into the city to make sure there were no violent uprisings inJerusalemduring the Jewish celebration of Passover. And, from the east, a rag tag bunch of pilgrims and peasants cheered as Jesus rode down theMount of Oliveson the back of young donkey. What a contrast! And what an obvious set-up for a conflict of world views!

But John, the Gospel writer we are following today, for his own purposes, has this event happen early in Jesus’ ministry. His gospel has Jesus going toJerusalemseveral times during the course of his three year public ministry rather than only once at its conclusion. And John is interested, not so much in the conflict between Jesus and the Roman government as he was between Jesus and his own religion’s leaders!

 A complete outsider to the power structure of the Temple, Jesus issues a challenge to the authority of the Templeitself that quite literally shakes it to its foundations. By throwing the money changers out of the Temple,  and letting loose the sacrificial animals, he throws the mechanics of Templeworship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one its most significant feasts so that neither tithes nor sacrifices could be offered that day. The implication is that Jesus is claiming authority to challenge the supremacy of the Templebecause his whole life bears testimony to the power of God in the world. The Kingship, the Reign, the Sovereignty not of theTemple, but of God alone!

 Now, none of this should be interpreted as meaning that Jesus was advocating the superiority of some new religion called Christianity over the old religion, Judaism. Jesus was an observant Jewish male who traveled to Jerusalemregularly for the major holy days. Jesus taught and observed the Ten Commandments we had as our First Reading this morning. No, Jesus’ challenge was to the authority of a dominant religious institution in Judaism – the Temple and temple worship – not because he’s anti-Jewish – but because he stands in the long line of Hebrew prophets like Amos and Jeremiah who challenged a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God. (see New Interpreter’s Bible; Volume 9, page 545)

 And that, dear friends, is where all this begins to apply to us!

We hear a lot today about people, and not only younger people, describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For many of them that means that they believe in God, may admire the figure of Jesus, pray from time to time, and believe in some kind of life after death. But they are not terribly interested in what we sometimes call “the institutional church.”

 They perceive us as being hopelessly out of touch with the contemporary world they live in. They shake their heads at our “church wars” over changing liturgies or the ordination of women, or the place of gays and lesbians in the church. And they wonder why we spend so much of our time, money and energy on maintaining church buildings and church governance structures that don’t seem to have very much to do with Jesus or with his primary message to the world!

 Well, there may be a certain simplicity, or even naivete, in that kind of critique. Very few movements can survive, over time, without a certain institutionalization. You need some kind of structure to pass the message on from generation to generation. But, if we are going to take the message of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel seriously, we need to recognize that he is challenging – not only the Temple-centered Judaism of his day – but the “over institutionalization” of the contemporary church…in our day!

 Over the last 65 years or so, we in The Episcopal Church (and most other mainline denominations) have built up some pretty elaborate structures of diocesan and national church bureaucracies and staffs that we can simply no longer afford. We have pretty strict rules and regulations about how worship is to be conducted in an Episcopal Church. And we have an amazingly complicated process through which men and women have to move in order to be ordained. All of these things are being questioned and are, in some sense, up for grabs today.

 I don’t think we have any idea what the Church will be like 50 years from now, or certainly by the year 2100. I know it will look very different from the Church we live in today. And we can either be fearful of that kind of change, and resist it with all our might. Or, we can be open and flexible to see indeed “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” in our time. We have to be willing ask ourselves where and when the status quo of religious practice has become frozen, and therefore closed to the possibility of reformation, change and renewal. The great danger is that we in the contemporary church, like the leaders of the religious establishment in Jesus’ day, will fall into the trap of confusing the authority of our own institutions with the authority of God.

 During these 40 days of Lent when we journey with Jesus in the wilderness, I invite you to be open to embrace whatever it is that God is up to in our day. I invite you to join us in this season of discernment – for surely not everything that is “new,” or claims to be of God, is of God. But I do believe God is calling us into a kind of new reformation in our day. And if we are to be faithful to that calling, it will require us to be open, to travel light, but to ground ourselves ever more deeply in prayer, study, and mission.

Because, as long as we are grounded in God, we need have no fear of changing times or changing circumstances. For it is God alone that we serve. God is our rock…and our salvation!