Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Wedding

I confess that I did watch it. The hype has been a bit much, I thought; but they did meet at St. Andrew's, after all--where I, too, met my soul mate. It has been fun seeing familiar places with all the coverage, places important in my own "courtship." In any event, however, I'm a preacher, and I thought the sermon was pretty good. I especially like the line about how marriage should transform, not seek to reform. In fact I may steal it...

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day it is today. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.Many are full of fear for the future of the prospects of our world but the message of the celebrations in this country and far beyond its shores is the right one – this is a joyful day! It is good that people in every continent are able to share in these celebrations because this is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope.

In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.

William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

And in the Spirit of this generous God, husband and wife are to give themselves to each another. A spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this; the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.

It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. And people can dream of doing such a thing but the hope should be fulfilled it is necessary a solemn decision that, whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.

You have both made your decision today – “I will” – and by making this new relationship, you have aligned yourselves with what we believe is the way in which life is spiritually evolving, and which will lead to a creative future for the human race.

We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril. Human beings are confronting the question of how to use wisely a power that has been given to us through the discoveries of the last century. We shall not be converted to the promise of the future by more knowledge, but rather by an increase of loving wisdom and reverence, for life, for the earth and for one another.
Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform as long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:

“Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon.”

As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.

As we move towards our partner in love, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is quickened within us and can increasingly fill our lives with light. This leads to a family life which offers the best conditions in which the next generation can practise and exchange those gifts which can overcome fear and division and incubate the coming world of the Spirit, whose fruits are love and joy and peace.

I pray that all of us present and the many millions watching this ceremony and sharing in your joy today, will do everything in our power to support and uphold you in your new life. And I pray that God will bless you in the way of life that you have chosen, that way which is expressed in the prayer that you have composed together in preparation for this day:

God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage. In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy. Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Dr. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
29th April 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Erring on the Side of Dignity

Curtis Almquist is one of the brothers at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, where I am part of the Fellowship of St. John. He preached a sermon four years ago that was recently re-released on the SSJE web page. You can read it here.

For me, this is the key paragraph:
I’m reminded of my own experience this past December around Christmas.  I was at a shopping center where I passed by someone who was collecting money and supplies for needy children and their families.  I had several sacks of purchases in my arms.  I passed by this collection point and made no contribution.  The person overseeing this collection station called to me, and made several rather-badgering comments to me about why I should be contributing to this worthy cause.  I simply passed by, a little offended, mostly saddened, and I made no response to this person.  What he did not know was the sacks in my arms were supplies and gifts for poor children and their families in Tanzania and Kenya, where several of us brothers traveled on mission just after Christmas.  That was our plan.  I was on a mission.  This other man – a good soul, undoubtedly – simply did not know that he did not know that I was already on a mission.  And I would say we’re all on a mission and we don’t usually know the full story of one another.  It seems to me we should err on the side of dignity as we look on one another as they make their own way.
In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to "respect the dignity of every person." Curtis is right, there is so much we don't know, not only about the mission work others do but in general about what makes "the other" tick or where her deep wounds are. Much is beyond our understanding. We are tempted to think that what we are doing is the most important, and sometimes even the only work. Christian congregants are particularly susceptible to this temptation.

And because of that, we need to learn to see each other in ways that "err on the side of dignity." We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Something to work on during this Easter season, I think.

With God's help.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Land

I have been asked by several people, since my last post about Bishop Suheil, about some helpful reading materials on sorting through the issues of the Palestinians and Israelis. As someone once said, on the really tough stuff the goal is not to "simplify" but to "complexify." I have found this to be true here. There are historical (and whose history do you trust?), political (in this case often blinded by ideology), economic and religious issues all intertwined here. (See a post I made during my trip to Jerusalem in January 2010 here.) There are no "good guys" and "bad guys."

That said, three books I have found very helpful in shaping my own views, which are still "in process" are offered below. I'd be glad to receive other helpful suggestions from readers of this blog. I'm planning to do some re-reading of these books over the summer and perhaps offer some kind of discussion group that focuses on the Biblical and theological aspects of this in my parish for the Fall 2011.

I first read this book by Fr. Elias Michael Chacour, a Palestinian Christian and Archbishop of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church, when I was in seminary (1985-1988). While it's an old book I still find it helpful because it is a first-person narrative: Chacour lived in Palestine when it was still Palestine: he was born in 1939 and tells the story of what it was like to be evicted from his home in 1948. He is a peacemaker, and it's a compelling read.

Tom Friedman covers the political side of things in a thorough and I think balanced way. To cover politics you also need to learn some history, and he is helpful in this regard.

This book was on the reading list when I traveled to Israel over a year ago, to St. George's College. There was a LOT of reading and to be honest I skimmed this more than read it at the time. But it is very good and I want to re-read it much more closely over the summer; it includes more of the Biblical and theological reflection that interests me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

It is customary for Episcopalians to send our Good Friday offerings to the Diocese of Jerusalem, a custom I am proud to say that St. Francis Church honors. That custom, however, became more important and more real to me when I spent some time in that diocese, and prayed in that cathedral, just over a year ago. While there I was privileged to meet Bishop Suheil Dawani, shown above.

For those who are not aware, Bishop Suheil, a Palestinian, has been denied a residency permit by the Israeli government. He has been accused of selling Jewish lands to Palestinians but no evidence has been offered and Bishop Suheil has been denied his day in court. It's been handled bureaucratically; in denying him his permit he cannot do his job. This is not a new thing, but a fact of life, for Palestinians from all walks of life. It is never right, but it seems particularly egregious in this instance. There is a good article on this subject on the website of Episcopal News Service. I encourage you to pray for the Church in Jerusalem, where it is becoming more and more difficult for Christians to live--at least mainline Christians. Perhaps one of the most important things I learned from my time in the Holy Land is that the extremists seem to dominate the conversation on both sides. Historically Christians in general, and Episcopalians in particular, have helped to provide a moderating influence by building trust and working for peace. I hope that we can spread the word about what is happening; I've heard nothing at all about this from the mainstream media. (Too busy covering royal weddings I guess.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011


There’s an old Gary Larson cartoon that I have always loved. (I so miss Gary Larson!) God is in the kitchen “cooking up” the world and looking like He’s having fun doing it. There are all kinds of ingredients to sprinkle over the planet (which is in a pot cooking on the stove)—birds and trees and reptiles and light-skinned people and medium-skinned people and dark-skinned people. But the “spice” that God is holding in his hands says “jerks.” And the bubble over God’s head says, “just to make it interesting…” Click here to see the image

A few years ago I read a book published by the Alban Institute with the title: Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior. The target audience was pastors. The fact that you have to write a book that counsels pastors to never call their parishioners jerks is evidence that they are, on occasion, tempted to do so. Sometimes in the midst of our own disappointments (and fears) we clergy are tempted to see those who stand in our way or who hurt or disappoint us as “jerks.”  Clergy give up a lot to go to seminary and to be ordained and their families are often asked to give up even more. Usually they have a fairly clear idea of what they hope they can get the church to look like. And so they come out of seminary and a bishop puts her hands on their head and then they go out and try to make it happen. Along the way, however, you will bump up against resistance, some of it in its healthier manifestations and some of it not so much.  

In his little book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds seminarians who are training to be pastors that it is a privilege we should never take for granted to live among other Christians. He recalls the loneliness of St. John on the island of Patmos and of St. Paul in prison and of prisoners and the sick in our own time. Christian community is a great gift, he says. And the only proper response to such a gift (even when we believe that people are acting like “jerks”) is to be thankful. Bonhoeffer reminds us that our sister or brother is a person who has, like us, been redeemed by Jesus Christ. Expecting them to be perfect or to fulfill our ideals or to meet our expectations is not of God. And so he writes:

…our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us; I must meet [my brother or sister] only as the person [s]he already is in Christ’s eyes.

He goes on to quote Luke 9:46: Jesus and his disciples were making their way to Jerusalem when an argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest.  Bonhoeffer says that no Christian community ever comes together without this thought emerging as a seed of discord, and that it is enough to destroy any community. He insists that it is necessary for every Christian community to face this enemy squarely by naming it and then dealing with it. 

It is simply a fact that every congregation will include stronger and weaker persons: wise and foolish, gifted and less gifted, more and less devout. That great diversity of persons can become a temptation for us to talk about one another or to stand in judgment of one another, and even sometimes to begin to think that those who don’t “get it” are “jerks.” Sometimes we tear others down in the mistaken belief that it will raise us up. Bonhoeffer simply reminds his readers that each and every person is a cause for rejoicing and for serving

Tonight’s liturgy takes us to the very heart of this truth. There is nothing here that the most beginner Christian doesn’t already know. This novum maundatum - this “new mandate” to love - is in truth just a reiteration of a very old commandment. It’s the same in both testaments of the Bible and summarizes all the law and the prophets. Love one another. Some days it is hard for us to remember this, however, and most days, it is harder still to live it. But when we do, we go to the very core of what Jesus taught, and who he was and is as our crucified and risen Lord. St. Paul, too, as you no doubt recall, said that the essence of what it means to be Church is to be a kind of laboratory where we can practice patience and kindness and gentleness with one another: faith and hope and love all abide, but the greatest of these is love.

M. Scott Peck offers a re-telling of an old story that he calls, “The Rabbi’s Gift,” which I think is relevant to what this day is all about.

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in a decaying house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy years old. In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore."

So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, "the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"

"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off-off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

Sometimes we grate on one another’s nerves and step on one another’s toes. Vestries, staffs, choirs, altar guilds, mission committees, Church School classes, confirmation classes - all have to deal with this fact of our humanity, and no part of this or any congregation gets a free pass. People can be annoying.
But never call them jerks. We are privileged, you and I, to share this journey of faith with one another, a communion of saints, a fellowship divine. This holy night, in this holy week that comes at the culmination of this holy season brings us back to the heart of the matter: we are called to live as a holy people. We are commanded to love one another. We are called to treat each other the way Christ treats us: with kindness and affection and mercy and gratitude. 

And when we do that (with God’s help!) the Church lives more faithfully into its vocation to be salt of the earth and light of the world. We become like that monastery, like a field of dreams, like a magnet that attracts people in, sometimes they don’t even know why. But of this you can be certain: where love and charity are, there God is.

What I'm Learning

The Christian Century, an ecumenical journal that I read regularly, has an ongoing series called “How My Mind Has Changed” written by semi-famous theologians. 

While I am not a regular reader of Esquire Magazine, I recently learned that they have a similar series called, “What I’ve Learned.” I became aware of this circuitously, when a high school friend of mine posted a link to the U.S. Naval Institute blog, to a piece written by a U.S. Marine who recently left active duty service after eleven years. He is the one from whom I learned about the Esquire Magazine series, because his piece was also entitled What I've Learned. I want to share a portion of that blog with you, which goes like this:

Chapters. (and why a father is always right)
On the last afternoon of my active duty service I met my old man for a drink.  We sat in deep couches in a familiar bar and ordered the old fashioned.  We first toasted the great naval service of which we had both served, and next the adventure that I had just lived.  We sat in that bar for hours and told stories of the great men we knew back then and how I wish the VA would cover the Propecia prescription for my hair loss and finally did what it is a father and a son do after one has come back from war and the other had already been, which is change the subject and talk about mom. 

And at some point that afternoon, I can’t be sure exactly at which time, I looked at my dad, who had flown three tours in Vietnam and whose one Marine son had fought in Afghanistan and whose other in Iraq, and asked him what he was thinking about just then.  He told me he was thinking about life’s chapters and how important it is to recognize when they start and when they finish.  He told me to enjoy this moment. And that was all he said.

During this Lenten season I’ve been thinking a lot about this very same thing, which I guess is why the words struck me. Earlier this week we continued the "college tour" thing with your youngest son, a stark reminder that we are nearing a new chapter in our life together that is sometimes called "empty-nesters." 

And as we navigate this ending of one chapter and the beginning of a new one, I too am trying to pay attention to my life: to enjoy, and even savor, each moment. This Holy Week is my fourteenth at St. Francis. I guess what I’ve learned (or "am learning") is that we never move through Lent, or Holy Week, or Easter the same way twice, because our lives are like an ever-flowing stream, and time keeps rolling along. 

Where we are in the journey matters, and we can only be where we are. This is not a profound insight, I realize; it's just true. But it has profound implications worth being mindful of. The journey--as Nelle Morton once put it, is home. 

I used to believe (rather foolishly, I now realize) that after ten or fifteen years in one place you'd more or less have it "figured out." That has not proven to be the case! The chapters continue to unfold even when you don't physically move, and congregations (as it turns out) are a lot like families. People come and people go. These days I look out on Sunday mornings and see sleep-deprived parents trying to make it through worship with little ones who are energetic and I think: "don't blink!"  

What I'm learning is to pay attention to the sacred nature of each moment. This Holy Week is not about reproducing some golden Holy Week of the past, or about figuring out how next year will be "better." It's about letting God break into this chapter of our lives with new and abundant life, to offer gifts of faith, hope, and love on these days.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palms and The Passion

I know that for many of us, this transition from Palms to Passion feels abrupt, and perhaps doesn’t even make sense. In fact, I’ve been reading a preacher’s blog this week that is “Against Passion Sunday.” In part, this is what was posted: 

I am thinking of starting a campaign to bring back Palm Sunday, without the additional observance of Passion Sunday. Palm Sunday was always one of my favorites growing up as a preacher's kid, and it was all about the palms--and a lot of them. It was celebratory and festive when, as child, I got a chance for a hands-on worship experience and a glimpse of what royalty could look like.

So the argument goes…

Whether or not it has merit, it struck me how nostalgic the writer was for those festive and celebratory days when she was a child. Some of the comments in agreement with this post were a little self-righteous, I thought, particularly the person who wrote: “we do the Passion today because a majority of people are too lazy to come back on Friday, but they are not too busy to go out to Outback…” (Alright, so the internet may not be the place to have a serious theological conversation!) 

I wasn’t privy to the liturgical discussions that the editors of The Book of Common Prayer had back in the mid-1970s when they recommended this change. Maybe they did say, “hey, we better squeeze the Passion in with Palm Sunday because everyone will be at Outback on Good Friday.” But I seriously doubt that. And regardless of whether they “caved in” or not to modern “realities” I think it would be a bad idea to go back to those “good old days”—for theological reasons. While it’s true that the move from Palms to Passion does feel abrupt, I think it has been made to feel more abrupt than it really is because we have misunderstood the little parade we just reenacted. In short, I don’t think it is supposed to be “merely festive and celebratory and a glimpse at royalty!”  (If you want that, there is going to be a big wedding across the pond in two weeks to meet those needs!) So I want to try to say a word or two about what I see as a deeper political and theological connection between Palms and the Passion Narrative, a connection I think we do well to try to discern together if we mean to make sense of this holy week. 

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “who is this?” The crowds were saying, “this is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”  The whole city was in turmoil. In Greek, that word is the same one from which we get the English word “seismic.” Matthew suggests that the whole city was “shaking” – even trembling.  Those are never words that mayors like to hear, whether we are talking about literal seismic shifts or the more metaphorical kinds. 

Estimates of the population of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day run around 40,000. But on high holy days like Passover, as many as 200,000 pilgrims would travel to Jerusalem—five times the normal population. Think about cities when they host the Olympics or the Super Bowl and you begin to get some sense of the electricity, the buzz. But add to that the political context of Roman occupation. This isn’t a Thanksgiving Day parade; it’s a political rally. Think Tiennemann Square or Tahir Square or a million person march on The Mall in Washington and I think we get closer to the tensions that go to the heart of this day. Now add to that tinderbox the religious dimensions: the meaning of Passover itself and the messianic hopes of Second Temple Judaism and the yearning for a Son of King David to save Israel. Those cries of "hosanna" can not be separated from that social and political context.

In their book, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg imagine another parade across town: a display of Roman imperial power, as Pontius Pilate rides into the city with horse and chariot and shining armor and the brass bands playing John Philip Sousa marches. (Well, maybe not so much the Sousa!) That’s where the festive royal parade really is: a display of Roman imperial power, a flexing of political muscle. Because the Roman authorities are worried that a riot might break out as these pilgrims gather to remember that old, old story of the Exodus: a story about how the bonds of Pharaoh’s oppression were loosed and the captives went free. If people start to see the connection between Pharaoh and Caesar, they might start telling old Caesar to let God’s people go! Think of the little drama playing out in Libya these days and I think we get a better sense of what Jerusalem under Roman occupation may have felt as Jesus comes riding into town.

What is he doing exactly? Mocking? Counter-demonstrating? Singing “We Shall Overcome?” Reminding his people that Passover isn’t just a remembering of the past, but a challenge to all misuses of power and authority in every time and place? The whole city was seismic! And politicians—especially politicians whose authority is being questioned—worry about angry mobs. They tend to want to squelch angry mobs. They call it “keeping the peace,” but it’s really about keeping order and the powers-that-be often confuse the two. 

Jesus comes to bring lasting peace with justice that exposes the Pax Romana for what it really is.  During this Lenten season we’ve remembered people like Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who knew that, and lived that. Each of them discovered the costs of discipleship when they stood for the gospel and against the powers of this world. 

But there is a temptation for Christians, particularly North American Christians, to turn this day into something that is merely individualistic and “spiritual” – something that has nothing to do with the worlds in which we live and move and have our being: to turn it into a nice “celebratory and festive parade.” But I think when we do that we distort its true meaning. Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem, I think, asking his disciples to look for and work towards the New Jerusalem. And quite frankly that scares those who have a stake in the status quo of the old Jerusalem. You and I are called, as present-day followers of this Jesus to look toward the new Washington, DC, the new Cairo, the new Bengazi, the new Worcester. And that may put us at odds with the dominant culture.

Last weekend I went to a Shabbat service at Temple Sinai, a going-away event for their rabbi, who is retiring after twenty-five years there. Included in the prayers was one that I want to close with today, from the Reform Jewish Prayerbook. It’s a prayer for Shabbat, but I think it also works as a prayer to carry with us into this Holy Week. Perhaps it even helps us to glimpse some connections between the Palms with the Passion, as Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem as King of kings and Lord of lords. As we shall see, it doesn’t take very long at all for the authorities to respond. 

Let us pray: 

DISTURB US, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency. Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans. Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred; Wake us O God, and shake us from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears; Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of Your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice and reality. Disturb us, O God, and vex us; let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action. 

Baruch atah, Adonai, m'kadeish Ha Shabbat

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Sanctuary in Time

Last night I spent my second Friday night in a row welcoming Shabbat with Jewish friends, this time at Congregation Beth Israel with some of the members of this year's confirmation class from St. Francis. (Last Friday night I was at Temple Immanuel for their rabbi's retirement service!)

What struck me anew is how differently Jews think of "Sabbath" from our Puritan Christian ancestors - or at least the version of Puritan Sabbath-keeping that has been passed down.  As I said to one of our confirmands last night, I'm always struck by joy when I welcome Shabbat, not generally a charism for which our Puritan forebears were known. Christian Sabbath-keeping tends to be characterized by the list of things one is not supposed to do. I know that is often how Christians perceive Jewish Sabbath-keeping as well, and even as legalistic. But the liturgy, at least, is characterized by a sense of welcoming Sabbath and of a profound awareness of what a gift it is.

I am reminded of the great Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), who taught that Shabbat is "a sanctuary in time." (See The Sabbath: It's Meaning for Modern Man) Here is an important excerpt from that book:
One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word kadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: "And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy." …The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Lately, I have not been very good at sanctifying time. It has been a busy Lent for many reasons, some of them beyond my control. These last two Friday nights have been a "word of Adonai" for me--like a 2x4 hitting me over the head. Last night after I returned from worship I sat with some friends to watch the Red Sox lose again. As I sat down in my friend's living room, I felt so exhausted I thought I would fall asleep right there. Our culture doesn't tend to value rest, but our bodies cry out for it.

This, from The Book of Common Prayer, on this Saturday morning. I hope to be more intentional about living this prayer during the Fifty Days of Easter that lie beyond this upcoming Holy Week.
Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your work and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Life Together

Here is an excerpt of what I shared on Saturday at St. Luke's Church in Worcester, in remembering the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into an educated, upper-middle class family, and grew up in the suburbs of Berlin. His father was a professor of psychiatry and neurology. In 1924, he matriculated at the University of Berlin to study theology. Nine years after that, in 1933, Hitler was appointed German chancellor. Bonhoeffer spoke out at the time—he was just 27 years old—to criticize the German public for wanting a “leader” who was sure to become a “mis-leader.” As the established Church capitulated to Hitler, Bonhoeffer refused to be part of it. So he accepted a call to pastor two German congregations in London. 

In 1938, he was making plans to visit Gandhi in India when he was asked to take charge of a Confessing Church Seminary, an “illegal” seminary, in Finkenwalde. He could have stayed in London, or he could have gone to India. Instead he went home because, as he would later put it: “The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility.”  Good German churches with good Lutheran theology and good German hymns had failed to produce enough good Christian leaders—ordained or lay—who had the courage to stand up to Hitler. Too many respectable Christian people in Nazi Germany chose to flee from responsibility. Bonhoeffer took a stand. 

It was in this context that Life Together emerged, written for that underground seminary in Finkenwalde. He also wrote some lectures there on homiletics, collected in a book called Worldy Preaching that I came across when I was working on my D.Min. My favorite line in those lectures is the practical advice he offers to young seminarians about sermon preparation. He tells them they should choose their text for the following week by Sunday afternoon or Monday at the latest and begin working on it by Tuesday. It should be concluded at the latest, he says, by Friday. “The usual sermon prepared on Saturday evening reveals an attitude that is unworthy of the work. Twelve hours’ work on a sermon is a good general rule.” (WP, pg. 121)

He also says in these lectures on homiletics that “the source of the sermon is nothing other than the existence of the church of Christ. The authority and content of the sermon are determined by this fact.” And then come these crucial words: 

Everything hinges on the question of what the gospel is. Is it inspiration, education, conversion? Certainly it includes all these things, but all under the one goal that the congregation of Christ might become the Church. I preach because the Church is there, and I preach that the Church might be there. (WP 112)

This brings me to the question that I want to raise with you today and hold before us as we continue our travels through this day: what does it mean to be Church?  What kind of ecclesia—that is what kind of Church—is required to raise up Christians who are able to unmask, name, and then confront, evil? What kind of Church understands what our life together is for, understands the costs of discipleship, understands and lives that in its ethical practices and witness in the world? What kind of Church makes preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ possible?

For my money, the whole book is worth the effort for one notion; Bonhoeffer insists that the Church is “not an ideal but a divine reality.” Far too often, he notes, a whole Christian community can break down because it springs from a wish dream. 

The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.  (pg 26)

So what does Christian community look like if it is not a wish dream, not an idealized caricature of a bunch of pure Christians holding hands and singing Kumbaya day after day? 

Bonhoeffer begins by reminding us that it is a privilege we should never take for granted to live among other Christians. He reminds us of the loneliness of St. John on the island of Patmos and of St. Paul in prison and of prisoners and the sick in our own time. Christian community is a great gift, he says, and the only proper response to such companionship (even when people are driving us crazy) is to be thankful. He encourages us to remember that our sister or brother is a person who has, like us, been redeemed by Christ. Expecting them to be perfect or to fulfill our ideals is not of God, but the Evil One. 

Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us…I must meet [my brother or sister] only as the person [s]he already is in Christ’s eyes.

Often when Christians start to talk about community we become starry-eyed idealists. But there is not a sentimental word in this chapter--or indeed the entire book. In fact, Bonhoeffer says that the one who is looking for some extraordinary social experience from Christian community which he or she has found nowhere else in one’s life is to bring “muddled and impure desires” into the Christian community. 

As the chapter comes to a close, he notes that “there is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his life.” But if and when that happens, he says, we should view such experiences only as a “gracious extra”—as a bonus. We must not make any claim on such experiences as normative and we must not live with other Christians for the sake of acquiring them. “It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood but solid and certain faith in brotherhood that holds us together…we are bound together by faith, not by experience.” (30)

Now perhaps this sounds like much ado about nothing to you. Isn’t this the goal: to build communities and congregations that faithful, life-giving, and mission focused? And shouldn’t they feed us, sustain us, and bring us happiness along the way?

If parish ministry has taught me one truth it is that Bonhoeffer is onto something extremely important in this chapter, and time and again I confess that I have returned to it as a pastor, especially when my own “wish dream” for my diocese, or my congregation, or my lectionary group, or my family starts to overtake my gratitude for what is...I think, is that Bonhoeffer is onto something quite profound here for what it means to be part of a Christian community, which is not about fulfilling our own ego needs, but about sharing the work of ministry with other sinners like ourselves.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Shabbat Shalom

I spent this Friday night at Temple Sinai in Worcester, a wonderful Shabbat celebration to say goodbye to their rabbi for the past twenty-five years, Seth Bernstein. (Next Friday night I'll welcome the Sabbath at another Worcester synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, with our confirmation class.)

One of the prayers we prayed tonight really hit me, and I share it here; a prayer I think that people of all faiths could learn to pray together. Shalom Shabbat.

DISTURB US, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;
Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.
Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;
Wake us, O God, and shake us
from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears;
Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of Your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice and reality.
Disturb us, O God, and vex us;
let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber;
let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.
Baruch atah, Adonai, m'kadeish Ha Shabbat

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More Bonhoeffer, from Letters and Papers from Prison

As previously posted, I have Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the mind, and look forward to commemorating his life this Saturday at St. Luke's in Worcester. These words, written 21 July 1944 to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, still seem profoundly relevant to the challenges we face today. 
During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religious but simply a man, as Jesus was a man - in contrast to, shall we say, John the Baptist. I don't mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. I think Luther lived a this-worldly life in this sense... I'm still discovering right up to this moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. by this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings but those of God in the world - watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf Jer 45!)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, who gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him: Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
I was first introduced to Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my twenty-first birthday, quite literally. Growing up in the Church, I had never before heard his name. When I turned twenty-one at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (where I was spending my junior year of college abroad) I was given a copy of Letters and Papers from Prison by a German pastor who had studied at the University of Tubingen, in Germany. Jorg was at St. Mary’s College in St. Andrews working on a PhD. That year was important in my own faith journey, a time when I was beginning to test out and verbalize my own sense of call to ordained ministry and Jorg was a good friend whose insights I greatly valued. In the book, he inscribed these words: "For to live in the world without God, with God: Just a piece of theology on the way to the truth which He will show. Jorg. St.Patrick’s Day, 1984."

This coming Saturday, April 9, I'll have an opportunity to reflect on Bonhoeffer's life and witness at St. Luke's Church in Worcester with two colleagues. Readers of this blog who are "local" may be interested in joining us, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.