Archive for the ‘Church Life’ Category

Suffering, Submission, and Servanthood — Really?

September 23, 2018

I’ll never forget one of my most humiliating moments as a parish priest…and there were many! It was “stewardship Sunday” and I was preaching about the need to give sacrificially, to remember that the tithe (10 percent of our income) is considered the standard in the Episcopal Church, and to remember the needs we all knew we had in our congregation. After the service, an elderly woman – faithful and longtime member – came up to me said:

“I’ll try to do better, Father. I’m working toward a tithe, but it’s hard to make ends meet. But I really will try harder…!” Well, of course, I could feel my face redden. I hastened to assure her that she was doing just fine and that my words had not been directed to her, or people like her, but to those in our parish who quite obviously had plenty in the way of material wealth and yet likely put less than she did in the plate each Sunday.

Well, that was…awful! And I vowed to be more careful in how I framed my stewardship sermons in the future! But it did serve to remind me that often our sermons, and even our readings from Scripture, can be heard by the faithful – and certainly by newcomers — in ways that they were, in all likelihood, not intended to be understood by the preacher, by Jesus, or by the authors of the Bible. I think of that especially today as we listened to Lessons about suffering and submission and servanthood.

In the Wisdom of Solomon we hear of the Suffering Servant who carries out God’s will by his suffering. In the Alternative Reading from the Old Testament this morning the prophet Jeremiah speaks of being led “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter,” (Jeremiah 11:19) which the first Christians heard as foreshadowing the death of Christ. The letter of James tells us to submit ourselves to God. (James 4:7) And, in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 9:35) Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Now, those of us accustomed to hearing words like these in church perhaps understand that Suffering Servants like Jeremiah were prophets of non-violent protest when they spoke of not resisting or being like a gentle lamb led to slaughter. James was taking on the wealthy and privileged in his community who could well afford to learn about submission to something greater than themselves.

And Jesus was chastising his self-serving followers who were vying for privileged positions on his right and left hand and who had yet to learn the lesson about washing one another’s feet when he spoke of being last of all and servant of all. All good lessons for us!

But what about those in our midst who have had no choice in their lives but to suffer, to be led like a lamb to the slaughter? What about those who have been taught that “submission” to authority is the only way to stay alive? “Be a submissive woman or a submissive slave in order to show your submission to God.” What about those who know all too well what it is like to be last of all and servant of all – because that’s been their lot in life from the day of their birth? What about them?

Perhaps we all need to remember that, when we hear suffering servants like Jeremiah being led like lambs to the slaughter, they were not above also showing flashes of anger in words like these: “But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously, who try the heart and the mind/ let me see your retribution upon them, for to you, I have committed my cause!” (Jeremiah 11:20-21)

Perhaps we need to remember that the same James who counseled submission to God also wrote, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” That shows some initiative on our part in our relationship with God…not only submission.

And perhaps we need to take special care to remember that the One who counseled being last of all and servant of all lived that reality out in his own life, not because he had to or because it was his lot in life, but because he chose to!

This is the son of God we’re talking about here who (as Paul writes later): “….though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” (Philippians 2:6-7) Jesus relinquished power in order to empower others!

Again, none of this is to say that non-violence, or submission, or servanthood, are necessarily bad things. Our hymns and lessons celebrate that today. They’re all part of our Christian vocation. But so is righteous anger! So is resistance to submission (even submission to God sometimes – as Moses and the prophets sometimes show as they dared even to argue with God as part of their very prayers lives!). And so is the refusal to settle for being last of all and servant of all – unless you have chosen that Christ-like role – not because someone put you in that place!

 

We just always need to be sensitive, dear friends, as to how our sacred words may come across to others. We need to be careful to put things in context and not assume that our religious language and our “God talk” is immediately accessible to people of all backgrounds and all experiences.

And through our sermons, and our teaching, and by the way we live our lives, we must be ever-vigilant so that we do not make it harder for people to fall in love with God rather than easier.

Because we have become part of the problem…rather than part of the solution!

 

Was Ever Another Command So Obeyed?

August 19, 2018

The seven little verses we had as our Gospel reading today are arguably the most controversial and hotly debated ones in the whole of John’s Gospel! The debate, of course, is about just what is meant by Jesus talking to his followers about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood!” John tells us that some of his original audience “disputed among themselves” about it. And we’ve been “disputing among ourselves” about it ever since!

Generally, Catholic scholars have taken the text quite literally and cannot understand how anyone could miss the clear Eucharistic significance of these verses. In medieval times this approach morphed into complicated Aristotelian formulations about just “how” the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist could be Christ’s flesh and blood.  One idea was that of transubstantiation which understood the physical attributes of the bread and wine remaining the same, but the inner “substance” being transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  This was an attempt to rein in some kinds of popular piety with people having visions of “bleeding Hosts” and all kinds of other rather unpleasant manifestations. But it didn’t do much good! Those things continued.

Protestant scholars mostly rejected any sacramental understanding of this passage and preferred to interpret it as meaning “accepting Christ”, his very Being and Life, into one’s heart by faith and becoming one with him. “Those who…abide in me and I in them.” So, unfortunately, a lot of the debates about this passage have been clouded by 16th century theological positions and arguments that Jesus, and even John, could not have possibly known – or cared less – about!

What both these approaches miss is the fact that these verses occur only in the last-to-be-written, most “spiritual,” most theological of the four Gospels – the Gospel of John. This book was written seven or eight decades after Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead. All four Gospels were, of course, written after the fact and each of them reflects something of the life and experience of the first-century churches in which their authors lived. But this reaches a high-point in John’s writing. He and his church community had decades to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, to participate in the great sacraments of the church, and to try and figure out their significance.

John is also a master story teller. Virtually every account in the book has two or three levels of meaning he wants to convey. Even the miracle stories are called “signs,” indicating that they point beyond themselves to something else, something even greater. We also need to be reminded that John does not tell about the institution of the Eucharist at all in his account of the Last Supper Jesus had with his friends.

There is no Breaking of the Bread or sharing of the Cup at their last Passover meal in John.  All the emphasis is on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet as a sign of his servanthood…and theirs. This chapter, this 6th chapter of John which we are reading over these summer Sundays, is John’s way of talking about the Eucharist, the Eucharist he and his community celebrated together, and how they had come to understand it.

Historically, Anglican scholarship has been reluctant to get sucked into the debate about just “how” the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist become Christ’s Body and Blood. We have tried to hold together the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrament (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace) with the Protestant understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal, a reenactment of that Last Supper Jesus had with his friends.  The sentences of administration in Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer make this very clear. When the priest administered Communion, instead of what we say today, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of heaven,” the lines were these:

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” The first sentence was very Catholic (The BODY of Christ); the second very Protestant (Take this IN REMEMBRANCE…and feed on him IN THY HEART BY FAITH…with Thanksgiving).

Queen Elizabeth the First, who was no mean theologian as well as being a superb politician, may have put it best when asked to explain how she understood all this:  She replied, “Christ was the word that spake it. He took the bread and brake it; And what his words did make it; That I believe and take it!” Isn’t that wonderful? It’s a very experiential view of the Eucharist!  Whatever Jesus meant at the Supper on that last night…that’s how I understand it!

I guess that’s always been my view. I have received the Eucharist regularly for well over half a century. Sometimes daily, often several times a week, rarely less than weekly. And my testimony is that this is surely more than a play-acted meal. And these Elements more than merely bread and wine. Because of the One who first instituted it, and because of the centuries of faithful disciples passing along this tradition, when we participate in this action we surely encounter the Risen Christ…we know not how.

Perhaps the brilliant liturgical scholar and Anglican Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix put it best:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. (We) have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination…; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc — one could fill many pages with the reasons why (we) have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christ(ianity), (we) have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei-the holy common people of God.

YOU!

 

 

 

 

 

I

No Hate, No Fear!/ Immigrants Are Welcome Here!

August 17, 2018

We gathered under the slate gray, early morning skies in front of the Veteran’s Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa. The “we” was just under a hundred members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a social justice advocacy group in the forefront of the “resistance movement” in this Midwestern farm state.

Our reason for gathering on this particular day was to protest a visit and speech by United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  He is, of course, the “top cop” of the Trump Administration responsible, among other things, for executing the “zero tolerance” policy that has separated immigrant families on the  southern border, reversing his Department of Justice’s position that federal law protects transgender workers from discrimination and releasing “License to Discriminate” guidance, and who indeed has spent his entire legal career opposing and actively undermining voting rights for minority citizens.

As we assembled, familiar chants began to ring out:

No Hate, No Fear/ Immigrants are welcome here! No Hate, No Fear/ Immigrants and welcome here!

 

Tell me what democracy looks like!/This is what democracy looks like!/ Tell me what democracy looks like!/ This is what democracy looks like!

 

No Hate In our State!/ No Hate In our State!

But there were some new ones as well:

Hey Jeff come on out!/ See what Iowa’s all about!

and

Hey Jeff, What’s it gonna be?/ Kids in cages or Democracy!

After most everyone had arrived, a pretty good sound system began blasting out a little Aretha Franklin, the sound track of many our lives, the civil rights activist who had just died the day before.  R-E-S-P-E-C-T was what she sang, and Respect is what many of our number demanded!

Next came six Latina dancers, beautifully arrayed in traditional gowns, adding more life to the crowd before one of them moved to the speakers’ podium in her role as spokeswoman for a domestic abuse shelter for immigrants. She was followed by an African American woman who is a leader in ICCI, a young man recently incarcerated who spoke of the horror of America’s criminal “justice” system, and an even younger man from the Democratic Socialist Party who framed some of what we were protesting in the larger context of unbridled capitalism and greed.

After the speeches we moved toward the lobby of Vets Auditorium and tried to enter to deliver a letter to General Sessions. Security saw us coming, slammed and locked the thick glass doors of the entrance. Some of our number in the front of the march — a older woman about  my age, flanked by two young adults, one man and one woman — began banging on the doors as we all chanted.

No Hate!/ Stop Sessions!/ No Hate! Stop Sessions!

That was enough for Security to call for some back up from the Des Moines Police Department. After a few more chants and the reading of our letter to Sessions, we peacefully retreated from the building. Some went on to another venue to deliver our message to Iowa Republican headquarters and Governor Kim Reynolds.

Our message was simple: the U.S. Attorney General is charged with enforcing our nation’s laws as well as ensuring the fair and impartial administration of justice for all people. Time and time again, Jeff Sessions has proven that he is unable, or unwilling, to fulfill his impartial duty as Attorney General. We call for the removal of Jeff Sessions and for an investigation into Sessions’ actions, not for, but against justice.

The struggle continues!

 

 

The Gospel Truth

July 29, 2018

As most of you know, we use a three-year lectionary for our Sunday readings in church. In Year A we read through the Gospel of Matthew; in Year B we focus on the Gospel of Mark; and in Year C we read Luke. The Gospel of John is read on special occasions, during Holy Week and Easter and at other times.

This is Year B so we are reading Mark, but because it’s the shortest of the four Gospels (only sixteen chapters!) we often supplement it to get through the year with readings from the Gospel of John such as we have today and will for the next several weeks. Today, we focus on the Feeding of the Multitude or the miracle of the loaves and the fish.

The four Gospels are not just simple biographies of Jesus. They are theological statements about just who this Jesus is! And each of them has its own perspective. Matthew is the “Jewish Christian” gospel. He sees Jesus as the New Moses and as the one who brings the New Law down from the Sermon on the Mount.  Mark is best known for “the Messianic secret” where Jesus seems to want to keep his messiahship a secret and seldom admits to that title. Luke is the Gentile gospel where Jesus reaches out to all people, not just to just to those who share his Jewish roots. There is also special concern in Luke for the poor, for healing, and for women and children.

John is the most “spiritual” and “theological” of the four gospels. Jesus is seen, from the very first chapter, as the Word made Flesh, the Incarnate Son of God who seems almost to be above the action as it plays out and is always in charge – even from the Cross! John is also a master of symbolism and multiple meanings to many of his stories. Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in today’s reading about the Feeding of the Multitude (John 6:1-15)

On the first level, this is simply a story about Jesus feeding hungry people. He was being followed by a large crowd and, by the time they reached the top of a mountain, it was time for dinner! The disciples notice this and are panicking about how to provide food for them all. Andrew points out that there was a little bit of bread and fish to be had, but that certainly wouldn’t be enough to feed them all. And yet, it was somehow!

The second level of meaning might be called “the Jewish understanding” of this story. It was getting close to Passover time, and the author of John’s gospel is quick to point that out. This miracle was going to have something to do with their Jewish heritage! Of course, the Passover hearkens back to Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the desert. And the desert was where, among other things, the people were fed with manna from heaven, a similarly “miraculous feeding” miracle which saved their lives from starvation.

But there is more to it than even that. We’re told near the end of the story that, after the feeding had taken place, the people “were about to come and take (Jesus) away by force to make him king.” (John 6:15) Why in the world would they do that? Moses wasn’t a king. And other prophets were purported to be miracle workers and they weren’t kings. Yet there was a popular understanding that, when the Messiah finally came, he would usher in the new age with a great banquet – a Messianic banquet. We hear about it in Isaiah:

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:6-7) Well, the loaves and the fish may not seem like such a lavish banquet, but with Jesus standing on top of that mountain, perhaps with the sun shining behind him, and a multitude of people being fed…it was close enough. This was a banquet, so perhaps Jesus was the Messiah.

Then, of course, there is a third level of the miracle itself. Whether one believes that the lad’s five barley loaves and two fish were miraculously multiplied, or whether the boy’s generosity in sharing softened the hearts of the crowd to break open their own backpacks and share with their neighbor, some kind of miracle happened that day — as they had so many times throughout Jesus’ ministry.

Finally, the fourth level to this story developed over time in the early church. Because the Last Supper became such a central part of Christian history and worship and because that highlighted other times Jesus was made known to his disciples “in the breaking of the Bread” (such as on the Road to Emmaus and sharing breakfast with his disciples on the beach after the Resurrection) this feeding miracle began to have Eucharistic significance. It’s often pointed out that Jesus follows the same four steps here as he did at the Last Supper – he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the people. Take, bless, break and share. The same thing he did at the Last Supper. The same thing we do each week at this Eucharistic banquet!

We’re going to be hearing a lot about the Eucharist — what John calls “The Bread of Life” — over the next several weeks in our Sunday readings. Our story today introduces the 6th chapter of John and most of the rest of the chapter follows the Bread of Life theme.

So, in summary, the Feeding of the Multitude, the Feeding of the 5,000, has at least four levels of meaning for us. First, Jesus fed hungry people and so should we. Second, Jesus stands in a long line of Moses and the prophets which will eventually lead to him being understood as the long-awaited Messiah, God’s Anointed One.

Third, however we want to understand it, the overwhelming testimony of the Gospels and the early church is that Jesus was a “miracle worker.” He did things no one had ever done before!  And finally, when Jesus fed people (like he does every Sunday for us here in the Eucharist) he didn’t just slake their physical hunger…he fed them spiritually as well!

Four levels meaning. Which one should be choose? Well, actually, in John you don’t have to choose. He always means two or three things at the same time! Such is his genius as an author.

Truth can have many levels of meanings…and still remain absolutely true!

 

 

Prayer and Action

July 15, 2018

You know, sometimes when I am preparing a Sunday sermon, I never get past the Collect of the Day! Some of these Sunday prayers in our Prayer Book so rich, and many are very ancient. Our one for today goes back to at least the 10th century. And they often contain as much spiritual wisdom and insight as the Scripture Readings which follow!

The Collect’s theme for today is prayer and action, and the relationship between the two. We prayed: “O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them…” The first part tells us the primary purpose of prayer — that we may know and understand what things we ought to do!

I’m afraid we too often understand prayer as telling God something we want done for us. We ask for forgiveness, we pray for others, we pray for ourselves. Sometimes it’s as though we think of God as some kind of heavenly Butler, just waiting around to fulfill our every need. But the truth is, prayer is not meant to change God’s mind. It’s meant to change ours!  We pray so that we might know and understand what things we ought to do!

That means that a good portion of our prayer time each day needs to be spent in reading and meditating on the Bible and other spiritual books, and in quiet and silence, learning about God and listening for God’s gentle direction and guidance for our lives. That’s prayer too! So that we can know and understand what things we ought to do.

Secondly, our time spent in prayer and worship is meant to recharge our spiritual batteries so that we can rise up from our knees and get about the task of doing what God wants us to do out there. As the Collect says, as we know and understand what things we ought to do, that we may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them!

Our First Lesson today (Amos 7:7-15)) describes the prophet Amos following what he understands as direction from God in confronting the king who was oppressing his people. Amos has such confidence in his vision of the plumb-line that he even takes on the court-appointed priest, Amaziah, who tries to stop him from carrying out his mission.  He says, “O seer, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary…”

But Amos says, “I am no (professional) prophet; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, (but) the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos prayed first, and that gave him confidence to follow through even in the face of opposition.

Today’s Gospel (Mark 6:14-29) tells a similar story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom at the hands of another king, Herod Antipas. We know that John was a man of prayer because Jesus’ followers once wanted him to teach them how to fast and pray like John the Baptist had done for his disciples. John fasted and prayed in the desert so that he would have the grace and power to speak truth to power and challenge Herod, not only to clean up his tangled marital relationships, but to stop oppressing his people and keeping them in poverty.

And finally, St. Paul begins his Epistle to the Ephesians (1:3-14) today with words of prayer, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” He goes on to say that “…he has made known to us the mystery of his will.” Why? So that “we might live for the praise of his glory!” Again, Paul counsels prayer so that we might know and understand what things we ought to do, and then have grace and power to accomplish those things!

It’s become quite fashionable these days for politicians when confronted with the now-commonplace incidents of gun violence, or some other devastating human tragedy, to say that they are sending their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. This, whether or not it seems likely that said politician has uttered a serious prayer in decades! In recent months, some of those victims and families have suggested that the politicians keep their thoughts and prayers to themselves and get about the business of doing what we elected them to do:

And that is, to find solutions to these problems – whether it’s the scourge of violence, the immigration mess, or the increasing gap between rich and poor here and around the world, or environmental concerns which threaten the planet. I must say I have some sympathy with those sentiments! Keep your thoughts and prayers to yourself! And get about the business of solving the problems!

Of course that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray for victims and survivors! But if we think that is all we need to do, that pious utterances and assurances on cable news networks absolves us of our responsibility to be about the hard work of making this world a better place, then perhaps we had better pray again. And to pray this morning’s Collect:

“O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them…”

So, spend your prayer time this week more in listening for God than talking.

And then, rise up from wherever it is that you pray, knowing that you have the grace and power to accomplish whatever it is that God wants you to do.

For that is God’s promise!

 

 

Shattering The Silence

May 22, 2018

We marched, singing, to “Shattering Silence,” a limestone and steel structure on the west grounds of the Iowa Judicial Building. This powerful piece commemorates the 170th anniversary of the landmark 1839 Iowa Territorial Supreme Court ruling that prohibited the enslaved Ralph Montgomery from being extradited to Missouri after he failed to raise the $550 he promised to pay to buy his freedom. We thought it was an appropriate place to share our witness.

The Iowa Poor People’s Campaign was about the task of Shattering The Silence Around Systemic Racism in Iowa. After a  period of testimony and song, we made the following commitments to each other and to our state. I commend them to you as a way of combating the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny so present in our land today:

  1. I won’t be silent when I see racial profiling on the street, at the store, at my workplace. I won’t be silent when I hear racist speech at home, at church, at work, at clubs. I won’t be silent when stand  your ground laws are passed to justify murders.
  2. I won’t be silent when immigrant families are torn apart. I won’t be silent when asylum seekers are treated like criminals. I won’t be silent when people seeking the promise of freedom are called animals.
  3. I won’t be silent when indigenous women are murdered and missing. I won’t be silent when land is taken and exploited from sovereign nations. I won’t be silent as 28.3% of American Indians and Alaskan Natives live in poverty.
  4. I won’t be silent when voter suppression laws are passed. I won’t be silent as over 52,000 people with felony convictions are disenfranchised in Iowa. I won’t be silent when people are turned away from the polls.
  5. I won’t be silent when hostility and hatred are aimed at Muslims in and beyond my community. I won’t be silent when there is a ban on refugee resettlement. I won’t be silent when people are persecuted because of their religion.

Will you join us in “Shattering The Silence?”

Pentecost At Spirit Lake!

May 21, 2018

Mary always felt better when she could be with his friends. True, all of them except the young one John had deserted him in the end. But she understood that. She’d been afraid too. And she wasn’t even in immediate danger from the Romans like they were. In any case, he’d told her just before he died, “Behold your son.” And to John, “Behold your mother.” So, clearly, he wanted her to be part of them. He was taking care of his mother!

She really would have preferred to stay in Olivet which is at least a little distance from where it all happened. But, as they gathered there, it was clear that Jerusalem was where Jesus had wanted to go, and Jerusalem was where they must re-assemble as well. So, they crept in, over the course of a couple of days….individually, sometimes two by two…and began meeting in that same upper room where they had celebrated Passover.

Now, it was the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, fifty days after the ceremony of the barley sheaf during Passover. It had originally been a harvest festival, marking the beginning the offering of the first fruits. She’d always loved its celebration as a child…and so had Jesus. So, she accepted their invitation to be together that morning. There were other women there in addition to his brothers and, of course, the Twelve (and they were 12 again now, with the addition of Matthias – who had, in any case, never been far from their assembly.)

They had just begun to dance…and sing the Hallel – “Hallelujah! Give praise you servants of the Lord; praise the Name of the Lord” Psalm 113:1 – when the wind picked up. It first whistled and then howled through the streets of the old city. And, even though they had been careful to secure the door, suddenly the shutters rattled and blew open. Strangely, there was no rain or fog as one might expect with the wind, but sunshine – bright glimpses of it, illuminating every face around their make-shift “altar table.” But they were too caught up in their praise dance to worry about open windows now! And the volume of their singing only increased over the noise of the wind:

“Let the name of the Lord be blessed! Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your Name give glory! How can I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation…Praise the Lord, all you nations; laud him all you people!” (Psalm 113-117 passim)

It was their custom, during the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) to gather the poor and the strangers, as well as the priests and the Levites, for the communal meal which was the highpoint of this great agricultural feast. It was a way of recognizing their solidarity as people of the Covenant, across all the natural divisions and inequities of life. Rich and poor together!

And so, people in the streets were from all over the Mediterranean world. But their racial and ethnic diversity was no barrier to understanding God’s praise that day! She had no idea how it happened, but no matter in what language God’s praise was being spoken or sung, everyone heard it. Everyone “got it!” All of them from east to west, from the different traditions, ethnic Jews and converts.

And, when the praises began to abate, Mary saw Peter slowly walk to the open window and, flanked by the other Eleven, he said, “People of Judea, and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you…and listen to what I say…” (Acts 2:14)

Well, that may not be exactly how it happened on the first Pentecost. But it must have been something like that.  Clearly, something momentous must have happened to transform that ragtag group of frightened disciples into missionaries and evangelists.

And that “something” had been promised by Jesus shortly before he died. He had said that something called “the Advocate” would come. He called it the “Spirit of truth” and said that that Spirit would guide them into all the truth. (John 15:26 passim) Their Pentecost experience must have felt something like that.

In fact, Pentecost felt like another story they had been told since they were children — The story from the Prophet Ezekiel about the “dry bones.” At just the point when their religion and their faith was about at its lowest ebb, dry as dust, God was expected to breathe new life into those bones, to raise them up, and to renew the people of God.

“That’s what happening today” they must have thought. This must be the time when “our sons and our daughters will prophecy, our young men will see visions, and our old men shall dream dreams. For surely, this day, God has poured out the Holy Spirit…and all of us will be prophets!” (From Acts 2)

ear friends, we’re inheritors of that Pentecost promise. If that rag tag group of frightened disciples had not been turned into missionaries and evangelists, you and I would not be here today.  So Pentecost is important! But, let’s not just give thanks for that first Pentecost after Easter. Let’s pray today for a “new Pentecost!”

Let’s pray for a new Pentecost when languages and race and ethnicity are no longer barriers to receiving the fullness of God’s blessings. Let’s pray for a new infusion of God’s breath, God’s spirit into those whose poverty or situation in life makes them feel like those dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley. Let’s pray that our sons and daughters will prophecy, that our young men will see visions, and our old men still dream dreams!

Let’s pray today for God to pour out that same Holy Spirit upon us here at St. Alban’s… throughout the Diocese of Iowa, The Episcopal Church… upon the members Anglican Communion of which we are a part…and indeed on the over 2 billion Christians around the world who are our sisters and brothers by water and the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray for that!

In fact, we’ve already prayed for that – in this morning’s Collect. Let me offer it once again with what I’ve said today as background: “Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of the Holy Spirit:  Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

Prayer Book Revision: The Time Is Now

March 7, 2018

One of the items to come before the Episcopal Church’s General Convention this summer is a decision about whether or not to move forward with the process of revising the Book of Common Prayer 1979. The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has put forth two options:

Option One: to begin the costly and painstaking process of revising the current Prayer Book. The study, work, trial use, etc would take nine years (three triennia of General Conventions) therefore likely resulting in the adoption of a new Prayer Book in the summer of 2030.

Option Two: to enter into a season of deeper exploration and study of the riches of the 1979 BCP postulating that we have not begun to explore the theology and implications of this Prayer Book and that should be undertaken before actual steps of revision would begin.

I am one who believes the nine-year journey into actual revision should begin this summer. While Option Two has a good bit of support, even on the SCLM, it seems to me too timid and too little to do in response to the rapidly-changing church and world in which we live. If we have not sufficiently explored the riches of the ’79 Book in nearly forty years, it is unlikely that we will do so over the next triennia or two.

My liturgics professor in seminary in the early 1970s predicted that, one day, there would be a “Society for the Preservation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer” just as there was a SPBCP 1928. Prayer Book fundamentalists exist in all times and in all places! His insight seems prescient today.

Many of us have worked long and hard to introduce, celebrate, and live by the baptismal ecclesiology and more catholic rites of the 1979 BCP from its adoption, sometimes suffering the consequences from those who resisted such emphases. In fact, our current Prayer Book has changed this church, mostly for the better, in countless ways over these last 40 years.

It took 50 years to replace the 1928 Prayer Book with the current one. It will be just about the same length of time to follow the proposed timeline and replace the ’79 Book with BCP 2030. Yet, the pace of change in theology, the use of language, and societal norms have moved in a much-more accelerated pace than one could have imagined from 1928 to 1979.

The time to begin the process of revision…is now!

A New Reformation?

March 4, 2018

It seems strange to have the story of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple read on this 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” into Jerusalem. 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.

 

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 to Jerusalem several times during the course of his three year public ministry rather than only once at its conclusion. And John was interested, not so much in the conflict between Jesus and the Roman government, as he was between Jesus and his own religion’s leaders!

 

Even though he was a complete outsider to the power structure of the Temple, Jesus here issues a challenge to the authority of the Temple itself that really 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 Temple worship 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 Temple because his whole life bears testimony to the power of God in the world, not in the Temple. The Kingship, the Reign, the Sovereignty not of the Temple, 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 Jew who (according to John) traveled to Jerusalem regularly for the major holy days. Jesus taught and observed the Ten Commandments we had as our First Reading this morning – including the first two about worshipping God and God alone, and not making anything (even the Temple) into an idol!

 

No, Jesus’ challenge was not to Judaism itself, but to the authority of a dominant religious institution within Judaism – the Temple and temple worship. And he did that – not because he’s anti-Jewish (how could he be?) – 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)

 

A religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God!

 

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 – who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For many of them that means 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. Yet, many of these folks are very generous with their time and talent and treasure given to causes they believe in and often in direct service to the poor themselves.

 

Yet 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!

 

Now, surely there is a certain 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.

 

And there’s nothing wrong with beautiful cathedrals like this one built to the glory of God – and maintaining them once they are built! But I think the average seeker might be forgiven for observing that we don’t look much like followers of a poor, itinerant Jewish rabbi today. So we need to keep ever before us what the church is for!

 

Because, if we’re 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 failures of the church…in our day!

 

Over the centuries, we Christians have allowed ourselves to be divided up, often over political rather than theological differences, into tens of thousands of competing denominations. We spend way too much of our time competing for an ever-decreasing membership base by trying to demonstrate that our way of understanding God or worshipping God is better than theirs!

 

We have often locked ourselves only into fourth century ways of talking about God in our historic creeds and liturgies while failing to look for new language and new music which might actually be able to convey the God we have experienced to a new generation of seekers and searchers who desperately hunger for something of that same experience, even if they are not always fully conscious of that hunger themselves.

 

I don’t think we have any idea what the church will be like 50 or 100 years from now. I expect it will look very different from the church we live in today. We can be either 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 our religious practices have 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. And that, my friends, is what it means to worship an idol!

 

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. You have wonderful opportunities to do just that in your readings from “The Good Book Club” and discussing passages from Luke’s Gospel (and your own faith) over the soup suppers as well as in the amazing outreach this Cathedral is involved in these days.

 

Michelle Crouch’s teaching on health, leading up to Krista Tippet’s conference on April 12, as well as Mary Hogg’s study on the great figure of David provide yet two more opportunities. And the Lenten Organ Series on Wednesdays invites you to encounter God through the beauty of sacred music

 

I invite you to take this Lenten season of discernment seriously – 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 and to travel light, but at the same time to ground ourselves ever more deeply in prayer and in study and in mission.

 

And Lent rolls around every year to remind us that, 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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let Love Be Genuine

February 16, 2018

The days are evil.  A dysfunctional Congress (whose work was complicated by a meddling Administration) failed to pass even one bill on immigration — even one which included protecting the Dreamers while enhancing “border security” both of which a majority of Americans approve and which a bipartisan committee had proposed. Thousands of undocumented immigrant families remain paralyzed by fear.

A deeply troubled young man, with a long history of unstable behavior, was able to purchase a high-powered rifle three days after he was expelled from high school and slaughter seventeen students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. No matter how you count the number of school shootings in this country just this year, this one was one too many. Young people are afraid to go to school every morning — afraid for their very lives.

A new breakthrough in the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections, particularly in the presidential election of 2016, includes the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three separate entities for conspiracy to disrupt these same elections. Proof positive that such interference did indeed occur and, whether or not there was any active collusion by the Trump campaign, that this investigation is far more than any kind of “hoax.” Some of us now wonder if we can trust the outcome of any elections in 2018, 2020, or beyond.

What are we to do?

There are many proposals, strategies, and actions out there designed to take on one or more of these vexing issues. Given the divisive political climate of the day — fueled by politicians and the media as well as the Russians — few of them hold any real promise of success at least in the short term. We are hopelessly divided on immigration, gun control, and electoral politics. Perhaps a better question in these Lenten days is

How shall we live?

Christians, and other people of faith, are called to model a completely different lifestyle and set of priorities than those we see played out in the halls of Congress, the mean streets and schools in our neighborhoods, and the vicious world of international “relations.” There are many texts which attempt to describe this lifestyle. Here is one that  has always spoken to me:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit,serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:9-18)

For now…just for today…let this be all you worry about accomplishing.

It will make a difference.

And tomorrow…

Some of these decisions will turn into proposals…strategies…and actions.

But, just for today…

Let love be genuine.