Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Sunday

In Protestant circles, today is known as Reformation Sunday, for it was on this very day nearly five hundred years ago—on October 31, 1517—that a monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany to protest the sale of indulgences. Luther didn’t mean to start a new Church. He was simply trying to reform the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that he loved. But as things turned out, this day marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Reformation Sunday is not on our liturgical calendar as Episcopalians, but the special affection I feel for Lutherans compels me at least to tip the hat in their direction today. Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a paraphrase of Psalm 46, sometime between 1527 and 1529. Some have called it “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” We sang it this weekend in my parish to give thanks not only that God is indeed a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing, but also to honor the life, witness and ministry of God's faithful servant, Martin.

While it took almost five hundred years, even the Vatican has now admitted that on the main thing Luther was right: we are saved by grace alone, period. Good works flow out from the free gift of grace, not the other way around. We cannot earn or buy the salvation that Christ offers us as a free gift.

The movement that Luther began in continental Europe took hold in a variety of ways in Great Britain. Some resisted change entirely—wanting to stay as close to Rome as possible. Some wanted to follow the Germans, both Luther and his fellow reformer, Philip Melanchthon. Eventually there emerged still others who thought that Luther had not gone far enough, so they looked toward Geneva and the work of John Calvin. Eventually the Calvinist faction in Britain came to be known as the Puritans (because they wanted to purify the Church) and it was some from this group that set sail for a new world, to places like Plymouth Plantation and beyond.

The ferment of those varied and diverse responses in England gave birth to a “middle way” that came to be known as Anglicanism, and the particular shape of that “middle way” continues to influence those of us who are Episcopalians to this very day. We are a denomination that strives to be both catholic and reformed. I usually tell people who come to us from other denominations that we lean toward Rome in our worship practices and that we lean toward the Reformers in our understanding of Scripture, authority, and theology. Mostly that is true, even if the whole truth is messier than that.

But overall, for nearly five centuries now, we have tried to hold that middle ground. In some ways, the challenges our denomination has faced over the past decade are directly related to the ways the Reformation unfolded in England: we don't insist on conformity in doctrine or worship. We are comfortable (more or less) that this "middle way" we seek encourages theological and liturgical pluralism. On our good days, we are able to cherish and celebrate and give thanks that we are bound together in Christ in spite of our disagreements. And other it makes us all a little crazy with each other. (Either way, we are called to love one another.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” (Children of Light, Children of Darkness.) To which I would simply add, "Amen!"

It has been said more than once that if you want to know what Episcopalians believe, then come and pray with us. We are not a dogmatic Church but that doesn't mean (contrary to what some say!) that we don't believe anything. But our beliefs flow out of our personal and corporate prayers.

There is an entire section of prayers in The Book of Common Prayer that I commend to all in these last days before the midterm elections, whatever your denominational affiliation may or may not be.

There is a prayer there for our country
. (BCP 820) Among other things, that prayer asks for God to bless us with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners and to save us from violence, discord, confusion, pride, arrogance and 'every evil way.' It also asks God to fill our hearts with thankfulness in days of prosperity and "in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail."

There is a prayer there for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority. It is important to pray this prayer not only when we are happy with the current incumbent of the office but always. I don't know if this is a recent historical development or not but I heard liberals during the Bush Administration say, "he's not my president" and I hear conservatives during the Obama Administration say, "he's not my president." Both were and are wrong. We pray for the President whether or not we agree with his policies, because he is the duly elected leader of us all, and because every President needs our prayers.

There is a litany for Sound Government. My favorite part of that litany is that after praying for elected leaders, and judges and officers of the courts the prayer gets to the very heart of a democracy by asking God "to teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens..." (BCP 822)

There are prayers for local government, for members of the armed forces, and for those who suffer for the sake of conscience. And there is a prayer there for an election, which goes like this:
Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives, that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Pharisee and the Publican: Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

For twenty-two weeks now—over the course of five months—Luke has been slowly and methodically inviting us to tag along with Jesus and the disciples as they make that 120 mile-long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Over these past few weeks their conversation has turned to prayer.

Two weeks ago we heard about the healing of ten lepers in the region between Samaria and Galilee. As you may recall, only one of the ten returned to say, “thank you.” (And he was a Samaritan!) And then, last weekend, we heard Jesus speaking about persistence in prayer as he called our attention to a widow in search of justice.

It seems to me that much of what passes for prayer in the church is just plain anemic. Sometimes we pray as functional atheists: we pray because we know that is what Christians are supposed to do. But deep down we aren’t really sure we expect much to happen, either in the heart of God or in our own hearts. But Jesus invites us to take note of that persistent widow and to imitate her determination and courage in our prayer lives.

That doesn’t mean we will always get exactly what we asked for. I sometimes joke when I am asked to pray for good weather or a Patriots victory that I’m in sales, not management. But underneath the joke lies a more serious point. We are all in sales; not management. Ultimately God gets to be God. We can and should offer prayers of intercession and petition with persistence, but there is always a shadow side to such prayers, because if we aren’t careful it can start to be like we are telling God how to do God’s job!

So we can and should keep praying for that friend who has inoperable cancer. But the answer to that prayer may not be a miraculous cure; it may be the courage and trust to die well and with fewer regrets. Or we may pray that God would send an angel to guard over our friend in her time of need. But the answer to that prayer may be that God means for us to go knock on her door and hold her hand so that she will know the love of God through us in her hour of need. Such answers are not always the ones we want, but they may well be the answers we get. They are not evidence that God wasn’t listening; only perhaps, that we are not.

Today, this extended teaching about prayer on the way to Jerusalem continues as we read further from the eighteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel:

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Keep in mind that these words are addressed to religious people—to us! (Atheists don’t tend to pray unless they find themselves in a foxhole in the heat of battle.) It is we who need to watch out for the temptation toward arrogance and self-righteousness. There are two important phrases that set up this parable that we do well to linger on for a bit. First, Jesus is speaking to those who “trust in themselves.” As Christians, we are called to put our trust in God. But especially as North American Christians, this gospel narrative runs counter to the boot-strap culture that surrounds us. We are told from a young age that we are in control of our own destinies. We are taught that if we work hard we’ll get ahead (and the implication is that those who are not “ahead” must not have worked hard enough.) It is a narrative that creates a hard-hearted world, a world without mercy.

But an alcoholic struggling with addiction knows that she can’t trust in herself—she has to let go and let God. A teenager battling with depression knows he can’t trust in himself. Still, the narrative persists and it’s a hard one to combat. This doesn’t mean we need to beat ourselves up or that we are unworthy of God’s love. It simply means quite literally that God alone is worthy of our trust. That saying that “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t in the Bible; it’s Ben Franklin. The Bible says that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

The second phrase worth noting is where this attitude of self-trust takes hold, it is almost always accompanied by a tendency to regard others “with contempt.” I first became aware of the science of micro-expressions in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Since that time I have become a fan of the television show, Lie to Me. The show is a bit contrived, I admit. But the science behind it—based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman—is intriguing to me. Whether or not we are particularly good at reading faces, we probably all have some experience with this. Fear, surprise, excitement, joy—and yes, contempt: all of these emotions are difficult, if not impossible, to mask. And therefore even when our words and our best efforts to wear a mask are in full force, our faces betray what we are really feeling. They tell the truth.

Contempt is a pretty big one. Ekman says that a couple going through marital counseling can overcome just about anything except contempt; that if you feel contempt toward your partner things are probably too far gone to fix. My own theory is that contempt comes not from a place of superiority as it may initially seem, but from a place of deep insecurity. Those who despise others and tear them down almost always are themselves very vulnerable and broken people. But they wear that mask of superiority, and every now and again we glimpse the contempt they feel for others, for the world, but perhaps at the deepest level for themselves.

So Jesus calls this Pharisee out. He’s praying but the way he’s praying has nothing at all to do with real prayer, because authentic prayer, like faith, is about love of God and neighbor. If we have no need of God (because we trust ourselves) and if we have no love for our neighbor because all we feel for him is contempt, then prayer is nothing more than a show. So the parable we heard today is meant, I think (as all parables are meant) to paint a picture that invites reflection. It’s meant to provide us with a kind of window to see how the problem isn’t just some first-century Pharisee’s problem but a temptation all of us must face. True prayer—of course, is about confession and humility and vulnerability—traits that are apparent in this parable in the tax collector. (Or as the older language of the sixteenth century put it, the “publican.”)

Humility is a tricky one, especially for Christians. I’ve known (and perhaps you have, too) persons who know this story intellectually, even if it hasn’t really taken hold in their bones. So they develop a kind of “fake humility.” Clergy can be notoriously good at this. You compliment them, but instead of saying (as a normal person would) “thanks…that means a lot,” they say something like this: “well, it’s not me, it’s THE LORD working through me.” Ugh! Yes, of course it is. But sometimes people say it sounding a lot like a Pharisee; like “I’m supposed to be humble but really, isn’t it just wonderful how much the Lord so enjoys working through me?!” (And why is it that they can’t acknowledge that maybe the way the Lord works through people is to make them particularly good at certain things, bestowing gifts for which the best response is gratitude, not false humility?)

In any case, the point is that of course Christians are all for humility; it’s just a tricky one to navigate because sometimes very arrogant people masquerade as humble. But if you spend some time with them, usually their faces will eventually give them away.

Here’s the thing though: this tax collector in Jesus’ story clearly isn’t faking it. He knows that he needs to put his whole trust in God. I wonder if the word vulnerability isn’t helpful here; not as a permanent substitute for humility, and not as a synonym but nevertheless as a way to re-think true Christian humility. Vulnerability is a lot harder to fake. Vulnerability is about knowing we really do need help: knowing we need God and our neighbor. What if Jesus is inviting us to allow our prayer to take us deeper into our own vulnerability?

This would take us back where we started: our trust, when rightly placed, is with God, because life is precarious. And the truth is: much of it really is beyond our control. Of course there are healthy and unhealthy choices, wise and foolish decisions we can make in our lives. Of course we sometimes have to lie in the beds we’ve made. But we are not masters of our own lives. We are servants. And sometimes the line between having it all together and having it all fall apart is a rather thin one.

And I think that most of us, at a very deep level, know this. Some of us are better than others at juggling sixteen balls but the seventeenth reveals it’s all a trick, and whether it’s the seventh ball or the seventeenth or the twenty-seventh that finally brings everything crashing down, in the end we are exposed as “mere humans.” We are all in the same boat; we are all vulnerable creatures of God. But when we fall into the trap of "thanking God that we aren't like so and so" we deny that truth, and miss the whole point of what prayer is for.

Gratitude. Persistence. Humility. These will take us a long way toward developing a more mature approach to prayer, an approach that recognizes our complete and utter need for God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s forgiveness—and above all, for God’s love. And when we recognize our own need for all of those things, we may ourselves become a bit more merciful and graceful and forgiving and loving in the ways we view others.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Holy Matrimony

Most clergy, when talking amongst themselves, will admit that they prefer to officiate at funerals over baptisms and at baptisms over weddings. This surprises many people at first who would probably reverse the order entirely: weddings, baptisms, funerals.

But the reasons are pretty simple, I think, and they have to do with chaos and control on the one hand and theology on the other. While people have definite ideas about funerals, most funerals (at least the ones that I officiate at) are still held in church (rather than in the funeral home) and most people are grieving enough to let go and be ministered to rather than trying to orchestrate everything. Even more importantly, The Burial Office goes to the very heart of the Christian faith. When we speak of Christ's Resurrection - when we sing our Easter alleluias (even at the grave!) - we are declaring who we are as Christians and what it is we believe; namely that nothing in all creation (not even death) can separate us from the love of God.

In Holy Baptism "we are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever." This Sacrament knits us together as members of Christ's Body, the Church. This holy joy we celebrate with water and oil is, admittedly, sometimes tempered with flashing cameras of over-eager relatives who are often unaware that they are part of a worshiping community and not "paparazzi." Even more annoying are those more interested in magic than the sacramental life: when people tell me that they "better get the child done 'just in case'..." I assure them that I am not a fire insurance agent. Sometimes they just ignore me, but occasionally they pause and begin to reflect on the kind of God they are professing to believe in. Then we begin to have a far more serious conversation about outward and visible signs that convey an already present inward and spiritual grace. Then we can begin to have a far more serious conversation about how Baptism is an initiation rite into something, the beginning of a journey; not an insurance policy.

But weddings are notoriously harder to get a handle on, even theologically. Many of our most cherished traditions come from medieval feudal society; not religious practices. (Case in point: the father "giving away" the bride.) And too often people get sucked into over-focusing on "the day" rather than on what it means to begin to build a life together--on what will happen the next day and the day after that. The media and the wedding industry have also made it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to offer the Church's blessing on a couple as they begin their life together in worshipful ways. And far too often there are all kinds of other dramas playing out: divorced parents who will not speak to their ex-spouse's new spouse; in-laws with different religious traditions or political values; and even on occasion the simple fact that parents are not sure the partner their child has chosen is "good enough" for their baby.

If you aren't really into drama (and I'm not) then it becomes pretty easy to understand why clergy rank these three in the order they do.

Lately, though, my attitudes have been changing. I'm sure part of it is age and I am actually mellowing quite a bit as I get older, like cheese or wine. And I'm sure another big part of it is that more and more couples are resisting parental pressure to do a "church wedding" if it doesn't mean anything to them. So I do far fewer weddings these days than I did even a decade ago; but in most if not all cases I am asked to officiate because people do really mean to ask for God's blessing.

I also think there is a pastoral dimension in my change of heart: more and more of the weddings I do these days are not for strangers, but for people I've watched grow up. I feel connected to their lives.

I've never really been the kind of priest who feels weddings MUST be held in the church building. But lately I've been reflecting more and more on what a gift it is when they are not. The Church likes to talk these days quite a bit about being a witness in the world--and yet most clergy (including yours truly)are far more comfortable leading worship in a familiar building than outdoors. We forget St. Francis, preaching to the birds; or John Wesley, out in the fields. More and more I've come to appreciate that sometimes the right place to invoke God's blessing is in fact on a holy hill, or on a sandy beach, or out in a field where the cattle are lowing.

Yesterday I co-officiated at just such a wedding on a brisk and windy, yet still gorgeous autumn day in New England in Groton, MA (where the picture above was taken.) Moreover, it was an interfaith affair: my co-officiant was a rabbi. The bride was one of my confirmands fourteen years ago when I was a young associate rector in Westport, CT. Actually she was the youngest of three kids, all of whom I was able to lead through confirmation. The middle child--this bride's older sister--tragically died of cancer when she was sixteen. All those years ago, I stood with the family as she died and then officiated at her funeral.

Yesterday I had the extraordinary opportunity to reconnect with this family on a much happier day in their lives. I felt like it was a chance to close the loop. It was a beatiful and holy privilege, truly. On top of all of that, the commitment of both groom and bride to finding ways to honor both of their faith traditions rather than reducing them to the "least common denominator" was refreshing. Thank God for the internet and google documents and the ability to edit, re-edit, and re-edit some more! But in addition to words familiar and important to me as a Christian priest, there were also prayers in Hebrew and of course some breaking of glass.

I stayed on until dinner was served and it became clear to me that people got it: not just bride and groom, rabbi and priest, but those gathered there felt somehow connected to The Holy One, known by many different names. In a world where religion so often divides, we glimpsed something radically different: a liturgical experience in its rich diversity that nevertheless was able to unite. It was a thin place where heaven and earth touched and that was palpable.

Weddings can still be hard, and some are much harder than others. And most are much harder (and far more expensive) than they need to be. Even so, I find myself giving thanks today for the privilege of this work to which I have been called, holy work that brings me closer to the sacred mystery of human love, in which every now and again we glimpse Divine Love.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:1-8)

Jesus speaks in today's gospel reading to the disciples (i.e. the Church) about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. It is not easy, when life has you down, to follow that sage counsel. We forget to pray and we can, all too easily, lose heart. So as he is wont to do, Jesus tells a pithy story to help them (and us) to remember.

I suspect we all know that widow. She has nothing BUT persistence on her side. Literalists of every stripe get nervous with allegorical leaps that compare God to this "unjust judge" but this misses the point. Parables are not always, or even usually, intended to be read allegorically. They are meant to make us say "aha!" They are meant to make us smile, and even chuckle. They are meant to wake us up.

So I suppose that it is possible to imagine the widow in this parable as an old lady, maybe played by someone like Katharine Hepburn in her later, On Golden Pond years. But I have another film in mind here and wonder about the persistence of Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich. Or maybe Sally Field in Places in the Heart?

Whether or not that works for anyone else, it seems to me that much of what passes for prayer in the Church today is way too anemic, pious, and "spiritual." (And by spiritual I mean heretical: I mean gnostic; I mean disconnected from the real world of widows and judges and bankers and teachers and nurses.)

Whenever Jesus talks about prayer, he takes us deeper into the world with all of its glory and all of its pain: he invites us to pray in more earthy, determined, raw ways. He encourages us to pray like we mean it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky

Today we remember Joseph Scherescheweky: Bishop, Missionary to China, and Translator. Here is his brief biography from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating The Saints.

Joseph Schereschewsky...was born on May 6, 1831, of Jewish parents, in the Lithuanian town of Tauroggen. His early education was directed toward the rabbinate, but during graduate studies in Germany, he became interested in Christianity through missionaries of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, and through his own reading of a Hebrew translation of the New Testament.

In 1854 Schereschewsky immigrated to America and entered the Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh to train for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. After two years, he decided to become an Episcopalian, and to finish his theological studies at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, from which he graduated in 1859.

After ordination, and in response to Bishop Boone’s call for helpers in China, Schereschewsky left for Shanghai. Always facile in languages, he learned to write Chinese during the voyage. From 1862 to 1875 he lived in Peking, and translated the Bible and parts of the Prayer Book into Mandarin. After Bishop Williams was transferred to Japan, Schereschewsky was elected Bishop of Shanghai in 1877, and was consecrated in Grace Church, New York City. He established St. John’s University, in Shanghai, and began his translation of the Bible and other works into Wenli. Stricken with paralysis, he resigned his see in 1883.

Schereschewsky was determined to continue his translation work, and after many difficulties in finding support, he was able to return to Shanghai in 1895. Two years later, he moved to Tokyo. There he died on October 15, 1906.

With heroic perseverance Schereschewsky completed his translation of the Bible, typing some 2,000 pages with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand. Four years before his death, he said, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.” He is buried in the Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo, next to his wife, who supported him constantly during his labors and illness.

I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted. What a witness to the faith!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The One Who Turned Back

Yesterday's Gospel reading, from Luke 17:11-19, continues to be in my thoughts and prayers on a gorgeous Columbus Day in New England. I ruminated on it all last week and preached a sermon on it this weekend (three times) but in many ways it's the kind of text that speaks for itself, and so it is the text itself that I am posting here--as much to remind myself as anyone else of the importance of gratitude to the spiritual life. It goes like this:

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

When he saw them, he said to them, Go and show yourselves to the priests!

And as they went, they were made clean.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

Then Jesus asked, Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?

Then he said to him, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

William Tyndale

On this day, October 6, 1536, William Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in Brussels. His crime? Translating the Holy Bible into English.

It may not seem like a terribly radical idea, but it was. A few years ago I read a book I highly recommend by Benson Bobrick (isn't that a great name?) entitled Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. Tyndale gets his own chapter which is simply titled, "Martyr."

These words from Bobrick's prologue:
In the beginning was the Word and that word was Hebrew and Greek. In the fourth century, it was translated by St. Jerome into Latin, where in the form of manuscript copies it was reserved unto the medieval clergy to dispense as they saw fit. That period of scriptural exclusion endured for a thousand years, until it was shattered by the translation of the bible into the vernacular. Of the vernacular translations, none would compare to the English in moral stature or literary power.

And no one contributed more to that effort than Tyndale; it's estimated that 80% of his work ended up in the King James Bible.

That is just astounding, when you stop to think about it.

More astounding still is that it didn't get him fame and fortune; it cost him his life.