Archive for the ‘The Episcopal Church’ Category

On The 25th Anniversary of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Des Moines, Becoming A Cathedral

November 18, 2018

After I was elected bishop of this diocese in 1988, for the next couple of years I spent Christmas Eves and Easters away from my family. This, because in the tradition I was raised in, the Bishop was expected to be in his Cathedral on those high holy days – especially for Easter. And, in Iowa, the Cathedral just happened to be located three hours east of where the bishop lived and worked – Trinity Cathedral in Davenport!

That Cathedral had been established there for all kinds of good reasons. Iowa’s first bishop, Henry Washington Lee, had lived there and started the missionizing of Iowa from that base of operations.  Trinity was only the second church built specifically to be an Episcopal cathedral west of the Mississippi River.

But, as the state developed and the capitol was eventually established in Des Moines, it made sense for the Bishop of Iowa to live here, in the geographical, political, and eventually economic center of the state. Yet the Cathedral remained in Davenport!

Not only because of the slight inconvenience of those first Christmases and Easters spent away from home, but because St. Paul’s had functioned as a kind of “stand in” cathedral for many decades, hosting Diocesan Conventions and diocesan gatherings of different kinds and because St. Paul’s had a history of the kind of good liturgy and great music associated with cathedral churches, I began to wonder about moving Iowa’s cathedral here.

When I floated the idea there was some support –and some resistance! — here and also, of course, at Trinity, Davenport!  Here, because of a concern that “the diocese” and even “the bishop” might exercise too much control over St. Paul’s. In Davenport, obviously, because they had become quite accustomed to being the cathedral after 121 years!

But, because of the support of Dean John Hall of Trinity and Michael Barlowe who was rector here at the time and — I might add — a little politicking on my part, in 1993 we were able to pass a carefully-crafted Canon at Diocesan Convention entitled “Of the Cathedrals!”  Section 1 reads:

“The Convention of the Diocese of Iowa hereby acknowledges Trinity Church, Davenport, and St. Paul’s Church, Des Moines as the Cathedrals of the Diocese. Trinity Cathedral is recognized as the historic site, and St. Paul’s Cathedral as the liturgical center of the Diocese.” With that, we joined the Diocese of Nebraska and the Diocese of Minnesota – and a few others around the country – as dioceses with two functioning cathedrals, for similar historical reasons.

My experience and dream for a cathedral church had been formed and honed by the years I spent as Canon Residentiary at St. John’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Florida. That great Gothic church sits in the middle of downtown Jacksonville.

When The Rev. Bob Parks (later Rector of Trinity Church, Wall Street) was Dean, there had been a move to relocate St. John’s out in the suburbs thereby joining the “white flight” which was taking place out of the inner city in those days.

Bob fought that impulse and the congregation eventually recommitted itself to stay in the city as a witness to Christ’s healing and constant presence. Today (and when I was there) St. John’s boasts three senior citizen high rise apartment buildings, a nursing home, a cutting edge ministry in the heart of the inner city called Urban Jacksonville, and Jacksonville Episcopal High School.

Since I left, they have added a preschool serving the downtown area and serve a Friday Café luncheon in partnership with a local Culinary Institute frequented by business people and others from the downtown area. St. John’s is a vibrant presence known and respected by many in the city – church folk or not.

Well, the times are different today.  Government money is not as available to partner with churches and other non-profits which agree to sponsor and support such senior housing and nursing home projects. Church-related high schools and colleges are fewer and farther between.

But cathedrals still have special vocations and responsibilities today, as they always have, and as you no doubt heard from Gary Hall who knows a thing or two about the subject, having been Dean of Washington’s National Cathedral – one of our Church’s finest legacies.

I believe cathedrals should have a special relationship with the bishop and the ministry of the entire diocese in which they are located. Our family made St. Paul’s our church home during my years here. I was able to preach and preside at the Eucharist on most Christmas Eves and Easters as well as at a midweek service in the chapel from time to time.

When Mills House was undergoing some much-needed sprucing up, we enjoyed the hospitality of St. Paul’s as we officed here for a few months and Dean Barlowe and I even talked about the Diocese selling Mills House and building a second story over the office wing, having the bishop’s office down here… until we learned that structurally that would be impossible.

I believe that cathedrals should offer the best contemporary liturgy and music possible, reflecting — as far as they can —  the best of the spirit and style of churches across the diocese in which they are located. They should be models of good liturgy, great music, worship and prayer.

Cathedrals should offer a ministry of hospitality, not only to diocesan conventions and state-wide meetings, but a place all members of the diocese should feel is their “church home” when they are visiting or working in the “see city.” In Jacksonville, St. John’s offered a daily Eucharist presided over – not only by the Dean and Canons – but by visiting clergy from across the city.  Parishioners and non-parishioners alike attended those services.

When – as is so often the case – cathedrals are located in an urban center, they should be part of the city itself and active in ecumenical and interfaith witness when they occur. When that “see city” happens to be – as it is here – the state capitol, cathedrals have a special role to be a voice for the Church speaking truth to power, be that the governor, the state legislature, or the judiciary.

Cathedrals are often impressive church buildings offering a visual statement of the majesty of God and forming part of the beauty in the landscape of the city. But Jesus warns us about being too caught up in that aspect of our life in today’s Gospel,

“As (he) came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’” (Mark 13:1-2). The transitory nature of earthly monuments!

Some attention will always need to be paid to bricks and mortar, and there is much to be said for visual witnesses to the presence of God in the city. But the heart of a cathedral, like any Assembly of God’s people, is our commitment to the Risen Christ and our witness to him! As the author of Hebrews wrote:

“…since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:20-25)

Hearts in full assurance of faith…holding fast to the confession of our hope…provoking one another to love and good deeds…meeting together and encouraging one another

Those are the marks of any Christian community, not only a cathedral.

But surely a cathedral is called – in a special way – to hold them high.

Thank you for being willing to rise to that challenge 25 years ago. And let me encourage you to find new and even better ways to carry it out over the next 25.

I’ll see you on the 50th!

 

 

From Where Is Our Help To Come: A Vigil

October 31, 2018

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” This verse from Psalm 121 formed the text for a powerful reflection by a young rabbi, the first woman to head an historic Iowa City synagogue, as she spoke to some 250 of us gathered for a vigil on the University of Iowa campus. We were there to remember 11 faithful Jews slaughtered at their worship in Pittsburgh and 2 African Americans gunned down at a convenience store in Louisville.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” she said again. “Jews and African Americans need help in this country today, my brothers and sisters. Where is our help to come from?” She knew perfectly well that the next line in the psalm is “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

But, as a line from the contemporary song she led us in at the close of the service reminds us: if God is to build this world in love, WE must build this world in love. We are the hands and feet of the Holy One in this time and in this place.

The vigil service was hastily put together, as were so many across the nation, but scores and scores of people of all ages, races, faiths and no-faith walked through the light rain to stand with our nation’s Jewish and African American communities in their grief and to pledge our support.

A Muslim woman, well known in Iowa City and head of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, officiated at the entire service after beginning with an appropriate reading from the Qur’an.  Community members lit thirteen large votive candles while the names and brief remembrances were read for each of them.

The Mayor of Iowa City spoke, actually quoting the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a recent sermon in reminding us that the only solution to our problems was Jesus’ Summary of the Law “Love God, Love your Neighbor (and, while you’re at it, Love Yourself).” An African American couple who lead a local community effort known as the Johnson County Interfaith Coalition spoke of their fear that, when their young children grow up, they will still be hated…and killed….because they are Black.

Token notes of solidarity came from our two state senators and lone Democratic congressman, apparently too “busy” to make it to the vigil in person.

And one of the most powerful reflections came from a leading community activist and Presbyterian minister who began by acknowledging his concern as a “tall, white, privileged, Christian male” that he could have anything meaningful to say in such a gathering.

“My tribe has had it all — wealth, power, privilege. But my tribe is dying. And people who look like me are very afraid. Yet death throes can be dangerous. Be careful, my friends, my tribe is dangerous.” It was a moving moment of contrition, confession, and lament. A humbling moment of truth telling.

Yet, there was hope in the service — hope in the haunting and ancient Jewish music and chant; hope in the Muslim readings, hope in the Christian prayers. And, most of all, hope in our commitment to stand together and not to be afraid to act.

A white-bearded rabbi, dressed in the black hat and suit of Eastern European Jews passed out “mitzvah” cards with a half a dozen “good deeds” we could do, indicate them on the card, and send them back to him to forward to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; good deeds done that these lives might not be lost in vain.

We concluded with a contemporary Jewish song, led by the young, blonde, European rabbi, complete with her guitar as we lit candles and held them high aloft, pledging to build this world in love…that God may build this world in love.

Let us no longer leave the most vulnerable among us, asking the question, “From where is our help to come?”

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?”

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!