Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sabbath Rest

Getting ready for vacation, I am reflecting on the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath: It's Meaning for Modern Man
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." There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.
This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place--a holy mountain or a holy spring--whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.
When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time. When at Sinai the word of God was about to be voiced, a call for holiness in man was proclaimed: "Thou shalt be unto me a holy people." It was only after the people had succumbed to the temptation of worshipping a thing, a golden calf, that the erection of a Tabernacle, of holiness in space, was commanded. The sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last. Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses.
While the festivals celebrate events that happened in time, the date of the month assigned for each festival in the calendar is determined by the life in nature. Passover and the Feast of Booths [Sukkot], for example, coincide with the full moon, and the date of all festivals is a day in the month, and the month is a reflection of what goes on periodically in the realm of nature, since the Jewish month begins with the new moon, with the reappearance of the lunar crescent in the evening sky. In contrast, the Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon. Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space.
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.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Paul's Letter to the Church in Rome

The following is a slightly revised version of the manuscript for the sermon I preached on June 26, 2011, at St. Francis Church in Holden, MA 

Anyone who has ever tried to read one of those famously long, un-punctuated run-on sentences from one of St. Paul’s letters can tell you how hard he can be to understand. As a preacher, I find that Paul presents a further challenge: in contrast to Jesus in the Gospels, Paul sounds more “preachy”—not necessarily in the positive sense of that word. Jesus told parables and stories; Paul makes complex theological arguments. He tends to be more abstract, rather than concrete. 

Reading these letters is like reading someone's mail, and the only way to find meaning is to do some detective work, by uncovering the stories behind the texts that were obvious to the first hearers of those letters.[1]

A further challenge for us in trying to understand Paul is that we tend to see him across the chasm of the Reformation. It makes a difference in how we “see” Paul, if we view him through “Protestant” lenses or “Roman Catholic” lenses. This is especially true about Romans, and we can get stuck there—essentially re-arguing those big Reformation questions—which were important at the time but may not be the most pressing questions the Church is facing today. How then, might we open ourselves up to try to meet Paul again for the first time, in order to truly hear “good news” in an epistle like Romans, from which the Revised Common Lectionary has us reading over the course of next twelve weeks? What would it take for us to put on a different set of lenses, and try to re-situate Paul in his own first-century context, and to try to see him again as a faithful Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin?

Toward that objective, let’s begin with Paul’s hometown of Tarsus. Think about the impact of place on your own life, especially during your most formative years. It makes a difference whether you grew up in a small town in northeast Pennsylvania or the south-side of Chicago! How has that particular place shaped the person you are today, and left its mark on you? How does it continue to shape the way you see the world? Tarsus no doubt left its mark on Paul. It was at the crossroads between the eastern and western worlds, making it pretty cosmopolitan. Located near the Mediterranean, it was a thriving place where hard work was rewarded. And it was a kind of "college town." We might say that you can take the boy out of Tarsus, but you can’t take Tarsus out of the boy; and it seems clear that Paul remained pretty comfortable with multiculturalism, was extremely hard working, and was also highly educated. [2]

Paul also alludes in some of his letters to a recurring problem; what he calls a “thorn in his side” that stayed with him his whole life. Scholars have long speculated about what that might have been, often telling us much more about themselves in the process than about Paul. (Most of us deal with our own “thorns,” so projection is easy enough to understand.) But it seems to me that a theory at least as credible as any I’ve read is that perhaps Paul suffered from chronic malaria, since malaria was rampant in Tarsus. The recurring symptoms would have included profuse sweating and fevers and vomiting and severe headaches that would have come and gone over the course of Paul’s entire lifetime. We can’t know for sure, but as a theory it reveals a “shadow side” of being from Tarsus.[3]

If I were to give you a quiz today, and ask you about Paul’s “conversion,” my bet is that most of you would tell me something about the story we get second-hand from Luke in Acts: Paul became a changed man on the Road to Damascus. He had been persecuting the Church, but then he had this dramatic encounter with the risen Christ. He was blinded, but then he saw. He repented, and then became a Christian; going on to then write all those letters, including Romans. 

But when Paul tells us about his faith journey in his own words, in a first-person narrative in the eleventh chapter of Galatians (1-17) —his autobiographical version turns out to be a lot less dramatic than Luke’s story. After his encounter with the risen Christ, he tells us that he went away to think and ponder and pray about what had happened to him for three years. He then emerged to have a heart-to-heart with Peter and James in Jerusalem, and then he goes away for another fourteen years before beginning his public ministry. The point here is simple—it’s not that you can’t integrate these stories, but rather that Luke tends to focus on the dramatic event (and we do too)—while Paul’s own story seems to focus on the lengthy period of discernment and trying to sort it all out and live into it.[4]    

Even if there was a sudden, dramatic turn—an “epiphany” that occurred at a datable moment in time—conversion happens over a much more extended period of time. For today, my point is simply to remind us that Paul was a complex figure, and even when we think we know him, he may deserve a second look. There’s always another angle into the story. Some of us may love what we think we know of him and others of us may not. We may have a favorite letter of his, or an idea we’ve latched onto as going to the heart of the gospel he proclaimed—or we may have already dismissed him as a misogynist. But Paul seems to have been a far more elusive and enigmatic character, even in his own day. I think we gain something by owning that and stepping back a bit. If we can keep our eyes and ears open over the course of these next few months, we may learn something new.  

Paul was a “church planter.” He would go and start a new congregation in a place like Corinth or Thessalonica and then organize them into house churches, educate them for ministry for a year or so, and then move on to the next city where he would do the same thing all over again. From time to time he’d correspond with these communities and send along his greetings and pastoral advice, especially when things started to get out of hand. Paul had a lot of experience with church conflict. All of his other letters in the New Testament were written to congregations that he knew, and that knew him; and you see this in the informal parts of his letters when he says things like, “tell Chloe I said hey!” 

Romans is different, though. This letter was probably written from Corinth, but it’s addressed to people that Paul had not met before, although he does tell them he would like to get there someday and thinks about doing so often. (See 1:11-15) Clearly, Paul knew something about the Church in Rome and they knew something about him. Even so, Romans is a kind of letter of introduction; some scholars have even described chapters 1-8 as Paul’s “theological last will and testament.” Paul is telling them how the gospel has changed his life and changed the way he sees the world; and he is suggesting some ways that it might change them also.  

Enough, for now, about Paul. What about the people at the receiving end of this letter, living in first-century Rome: the imperial, administrative, and economic capital of the world? Think Washington, DC and New York wrapped up into one. The people who came to be followers of Jesus there, setting up small house churches composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, still lived and worked and were educated in this Roman context. They were shaped by that context. The Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians there coexisted in a rather uneasy relationship that often involved misunderstanding and stereotyping of the other group. 

First-century Jews had been taught to divide the world into basically two groups: Israel, i.e. God’s chosen people, and everybody else—the nations, the goyim. Usually the “everybody else” tended to be bigger and stronger nations like Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and most recently, Rome. When you tend to divide the world into “us” and “them” and when you are weak and they are strong, that brings with it a whole worldview that is hard to let go of. Gentiles also tended to divide the world into “us” and “them” but the lines were drawn very differently. For Gentiles, the world was divided into civilized people, who were cultured and educated, and barbarians (which literally means ‘bearded’) who were not. That latter group included, but was not limited to, Jews.[5]

So imagine for just a moment what it would be like to be a member of one of those first-century house churches in Rome: a congregation consisting of people shaped by each of these competing worldviews. Imagine Darius, a “civilized” Gentile- Christian who has been raised to look down his Roman nose at those uncultured barbarians, sitting at a brown-bag lunch and eating his totally un-kosher prosciutto on ciabbata bread sandwich. Next to him sits Moshe, whose grandmother would be turning over in her grave if she knew he was sitting next to goyim swine. Imagine them and their family members trying to plan the menu for the annual parish picnic, make decisions together on vestry, or choose music for worship, and you are quickly relieved of any na├»ve sense that the early Church was free of conflict where everyone sat around holding hands and singing “kumbaya! 

Diversity (in the first and twenty-first centuries) holds within it the seeds of radical transformation, to be sure. But working through old prejudices is difficult and challenging work and we should never underestimate the very real challenges that these Christians in Rome faced. When Paul tells the Church in Rome that there is no longer Jew or Greek, he means it; but he’s talking to people who know just how hard it is to live into that reality.

Paul’s theology is not the abstract systematic theology of a tenured religion professor—not that there is anything wrong with that! Paul’s theology is always contextual: scripture, reason and tradition intersect with a particular context, in this case those house churches in first-century Rome. He is a pastoral theologian; his theology is more like “theological reflection” that is rooted in the everyday challenges of congregational life, of trying to live into the call to be “in Christ.” The language and metaphors for this reflection are rooted in Paul’s life as a faithful Jew, trained as a Pharisee. (Remember that for Paul, “the Bible” means the Old Testament, period; not the gospels which would be written later and not these letters of his which it would be hard to imagine he saw as on the same level as “the Law and the Prophets.”)

"Romans was written to be heard by an actual congregation made up of particular people with specific problems.”[6]  As we continue to listen in on Paul's letter to them, we might work to see beneath the words to those real people. Paul reminds them, and us, of the love of God—and that nothing in all of creation can separate us from that love. He challenged them, and us, to confess that “Jesus is Lord” and then to live that way.

[1] See Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, to whom I am profoundly indebted in this sermon.
[2] See here, too, Borg and Crossan.
[3] Borg and Crossan.
[4] See Brother Kevin Hackett’s sermon at:
[5] See A. Katherine Grieb’s The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness. I am also profoundly indebted to Dr. Grieb for many of the thoughts and ideas of this sermon.
[6] Grieb.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Alms For An Ex-Leper

Do you remember the scene above, in Monty Python's The Life of Brian? The part of the dialogue that most intrigues me goes like this: 
Ex-Leper: Okay, sir, my final offer: half a shekel for an old ex-leper?
Brian: Did you say "ex-leper"?
Ex-Leper: That's right, sir, 16 years behind a veil and proud of it, sir.
Brian: Well, what happened?
Ex-Leper: Oh, cured, sir.
Brian: Cured?
Ex-Leper: Yes sir, bloody miracle, sir. Bless you!
Brian: Who cured you?
Ex-Leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I'm a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood's gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! "You're cured, mate." Bloody do-gooder.
Brian: Well, why don't you go and tell him you want to be a leper again?
Ex-Leper: Uh, I could do that sir, yeah. Yeah, I could do that I suppose. What I was thinking was I was going to ask him if he could make me a bit lame in one leg during the middle of the week. You know, something beggable, but not leprosy, which is a pain in the ass to be blunt and excuse my French, sir.
It's just a silly movie, and I know some find it sacrilegious. But underneath all of that, there may be a semi-serious theological point here...

Do we wish to be well? Healing requires a response in us. The leper can't let go of his old life as a beggar because it's all he knows. He's still defined by his illness.

I wonder about the patterns in our own lives that continue long beyond the time when our various ailments and wounds require them. And what it takes for us to just "let it go?"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Audio Sermon from Feb 14, 2010

Last Epiphany Sermon, Feb 2010

This is a bit of a test. For the past couple of years a member of our parish has been recording all sermons and saving them on disks, but we had not been posting them on our website. The link above is the first mp3 file posted on our website, a sermon I preached about sixteen months ago. (Alright, so this is no big deal to those who have been doing this for years, I realize...still, it's a step forward for us!)

For a long time, I've been posting sermon "manuscripts"--knowing full well that reading sermons and hearing sermons are two different things. Now we have a chance to offer folks both options.

Clicking on the link above should be the first of such offerings. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Evelyn Underhill: Steward of God's Mysteries

Evelyn Underhill was born in Wolverhampton, England on December 6, 1875. She died on this day, June 15, 1941. One of the readings appointed for this day to remember and celebrate her life comes from St. Paul's First Letter to the Church in Corinth, the fourth chapter, verses 1-5. Like St. Paul, this woman of faith was no doubt also a "servant of Christ, and steward of God's mysteries."

In her own words, from The Spiritual Life: 
The spiritual life is a dangerously ambiguous term; indeed it would be interesting to know what meaning any one reader at the present moment is giving to these three words. Many, I am afraid, would really be found to mean ‘the life of my own inside’ – and a further section to mean something very holy,  difficult, and peculiar—a sort of honours course in personal religion—to which they did not intend to aspire.
Both these kinds of individualist—the people who think of the spiritual life as something which is for themselves and about themselves, and the people who regard it as not something for themselves—seem to need a larger horizon, within which these interesting personal facts can be placed and seen in rather truer proportion. Any spiritual view which focuses attention on ourselves, and puts the human creature with its small ideas and adventures in the centre foreground, is dangerous until we recognize its absurdity. So at least we will try to get away from those petty notions… many Christians are like deaf people at a concert. They study the programme carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the quality of the music, but only really hear a phrase every now and again. So they have no notion at all of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which our lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of the Eternal God.
She goes on to say that "there are plenty of things in our normal experience which imply the existence of that world, that music, that life" - including, for example, "the disclosure of the mountain summit, the wild cherry tree in blossom, the crowning moment of a great concerto…" 

As her biography in Holy Women, Holy Men rightly states, this was indeed her great contribution to spiritual literature: "her conviction that the mystical life is not only open to a saintly few, but to anyone who cares to nurture it and weave it into everyday experience."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Come, Holy Spirit!

The following is an extended excerpt from the Pentecost sermon I preached at St. Francis Church this weekend. The full manuscript for the sermon can be found here.
The familiar Pentecost story comes to us from the second chapter of Acts, but there is an alternative narrative that comes to us on this day from the seventh chapter of John's Gospel, verses 37-39... 

John’s story is told in the future tense: it’s about the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises he will send after he has been glorified, after he has finished the work he came to do. 

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths—in Hebrew, the Feast of Sukkoth. Originally Sukkoth was a harvest festival, like Thanksgiving. But it also became a time for Jews to remember the central narrative in their life together: the Exodus, and particularly their forty-year sojourn through the Sinai Desert. There they had begun to learn how to put their whole trust in God’s grace, one day at a time. There they had begun to learn that God would be faithful to the Covenant, even when they were not. Building those booths, or tabernacles, was a reminder of what it was like to be a people “on the move”—a people who lived in tents. Our Jewish friends celebrate this festival to this day, often building dwellings in the back yard of their homes where they eat their meals and sometimes even camp out. 

For John there is a word-play here as well. In the opening chapter of John’s gospel, he puts all his cards on the table when he speaks of the Incarnate Logos: the Word that has become flesh to dwell among us. Literally, that word for dwelt among us is “pitched tent” among us. That verb form is the same as the word tabernacle in today’s reading; these “booths.”  John is putting his readers on alert that on this the last day of this great festival, we should pay close attention to what this Word-tabernacled-among us is going to do at this festival of tabernacles. 

One of the liturgical practices that occurred on the last day of this festival was a kind of parade. As I imagine it in my mind’s eye it would be something like a Palm Sunday procession: the priest would lead a procession of the whole congregation to the Pool of Siloam and draw water into a golden vessel. People would be singing and scripture would be read, perhaps words such as these from the prophet Isaiah: 

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. (Is. 12:3) 

And then the water would be carried to the temple and poured into silver bowls around the altar. To people remembering their time in the desert, water is a very powerful metaphor. And even to people who have never spent time in the desert, we all know that water means life. An absence of rain at this time of year and there are no tomatoes and cucumbers in August. The right combination of both water and light is crucial: and Sukkoth is all about both water and light. It is written in the Mishnah (the oral traditions of the Torah) that “whoever has not seen the joy of drawing water has not experienced joy in his life.” This festival was about that joy, and about God’s abundant blessings.

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. This metaphor reminds us of that encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at the well, where Jesus tells her that he is the living water, and those who drink the water that he offers will never thirst again. 

What comes next is important, though, and the punctuation is tricky in Greek. In fact, scholars have been arguing about it since the second century. It’s unclear in Greek: is Jesus is saying that he is the river of life? This would ring true and fit in nicely with that conversation he had with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

But he may be saying something much more radical than that, and in fact there is a very strong case to be made for the more radical reading agreed upon by the translators of the NRSVout of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water. Not just out of Jesus’ heart, but out of the disciples’ hearts—out of the hearts of ordinary people like you and me shall flow rivers of living water. 

What if you and I are called to become rivers of life, and to allow these living waters from God to flow through us and into our homes, our faith community and the world around us? Wow! But I think it is precisely what John’s Gospel does mean to say, not just in this obscure little text, but from those very first words about the Word that has tabernacled with us until the hour when “it is finished” on the cross and he is glorified, until he sends the Holy Spirit—who will do these amazing things. If the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father and if we are in Christ, then we participate in the Divine life. That, Jesus says, is what the Holy Spirit is sent to do.  

Isn’t that scary? But of course even though John tells the story differently, it’s what Luke is getting at as well. It’s what this Feast of Pentecost is all about. Amazing things begin to happen when the Holy Spirit shows up. People like Peter, who was a bit of a screw-up before, is now equipped to do “infinitely more than he could ask or imagine.” Persecutors of the Church, like Saul, are transformed into committed disciples. Ethiopian eunuchs and Roman soldiers start finding their way into a community where women and men have an amazing story to share. Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. 

Now I know we don’t feel like that every day. Sometimes we feel parched and tired and weary. Sometimes we lose hope. Sometimes we feel like sinners who are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. But the Spirit comes to blow through us, bubbling up inside of us to heal and renew and strengthen and comfort and prod and transform us. The Spirit comes like wind and like fire, and yes like rivers of living water: to lead us into all truth and health and joy and peace.  

Marianne Williamson has written these words, sometimes incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela. Some of you may remember them from the film, Coach Carter. I think they have everything to do with these words from the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel, and with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves: who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Civil Marriage and Holy Matrimony

This past weekend I had an occasion to officiate at what I think has been an underutilized liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer, found on pages 433-434 - "The Blessing of a Civil Marriage." The couple were married by a Justice of the Peace six months ago, and then asked me to offer them God's Blessing, and the Church's Blessing. And then they had a wonderful party in our Parish Hall afterward that was far simpler and freer from stress than many wedding receptions I have attended.

The Church has been trying to figure out, in a post-Christendom context that is increasingly pluralistic and multireligious, what exactly marriage means. This includes, but is not limited to, marriages between two people of the same gender. It is rare these days, for example, for me to officiate at the wedding of two Episcopalians. At the very least, most weddings are ecumenical occasions, and more and more they are interfaith events: the non-Christian partner may be Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or Jew, and is increasingly "none."

At the height of Christendom, in the high middle ages in Europe where Church and State were inseparable, the Church took over the marriage business. But it is increasingly clear (wherever one may stand on the particular issues of our time) that there are two aspects of marriage. The first belongs to the state.One might in fact file all of these legal issues - taxes, property, inheritance, etc. - under the rubric of "Civil Marriage." But the fact that a couple can file their taxes jointly has very little to do with the sacramental aspects of marriage, and it feels increasingly odd to me that as a priest I am considered a "civil servant" when it comes to signing marriage licenses.

Most people that I know have come to accept the premise that all couples deserve these same legal rights and the accompanying responsibilities that go with them. Whether couples go off to a Justice of the Peace or license a friend to officiate for the day seems to me an appropriate way to cover these civil matters, particularly for people who have little to no connection to a faith community. I strongly disagree with my fellow Christians who feel they should be able to "legislate" their own morality about marriage when it comes to these basic civil rights.

What I did this weekend was to add something more to this "Civil Marriage." By gathering the community together, and giving the couple an opportunity to make their vows more publicly and within the context of a faith community, and by hearing readings from Holy Scripture, and with the blessing of their rings, we focused on what it is that I think the Church ought to be involved in when it comes to marriage. And of course, as also happens at more "traditional" weddings, the gathered friends and family of the couple also made promises to support them in their life together. And then we offered prayers and a blessing upon their life together. It was remarkably similar to most "weddings," but there was no marriage license for me to sign since that had already been taken care of. Because one of them was a Muslim, we did not celebrate Holy Communion. But if both members entering this holy covenant had been Christians, then it would have been totally appropriate for us to also share that Sacrament together.

We might call what I am describing "Holy Matrimony." It's the part of marriage the Church does have a stake in; the part that is sacramental. Among Christians, there are and will continue to be disagreements about who can enter into this covenant and what it entails. Some clergy would not be willing, for example, to officiate at the exchange of vows between a Christian and a non-Christian. And some clergy would not be willing to officiate if the couple both happened to be men, or both women. But we might have a more helpful and intelligent conversation about these matters if we could be clearer about what it is we are arguing about.

I live in a state that recognizes (civil) marriage rights for all people. And I happen to belong to a denomination that is increasingly open to offering God's blessing on holy matrimony to all of God's children who seek it; we'll see how that all unfolds at the next General Convention in 2012. While I recognize that there will continue to be (strong) differences of opinion here, it seems to me we could all benefit by getting clearer about making these distinctions. We might then be able to have an honest conversation about the fact that Biblical faith has little to no awareness of our Christendom notions of marriage, and that those on the religious right who argue for "traditional" marriage are not defending the Bible (as they suggest) but medieval European cultural and social norms. (Watching the recent "royal wedding" was a reminder to me of precisely this point.)

I expect to continue to use the more familiar liturgy for marriage for the foreseeable future, especially for those who are connected to the faith community and desire to be married in the Church. But I wonder if in the "emerging church" it might be helpful to begin to move toward this pattern that I was involved in this weekend; a pattern more familiar in many other parts of the world. I think, perhaps a bit naively, that we could find relatively broad consent in distinguishing between state and church interests, and our inability to do this to date is part of what has kept us from having the right argument. If we could further agree to leave civil matters to the civil authorities, then I believe that would allow the Church to focus on what we do best: pray for God's blessing, see in the covenant of marriage an icon of God's love for the world, and join together in the wedding feast that follows, as Jesus did all those years ago in Cana of Galilee.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


This Sunday after the Ascension, before Pentecost, is an in-between time; a waiting time. Christ has ascended, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t yet shone up. And so we wait. And we pray: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit.

I found myself, in pondering this prayer during the past week, thinking about some of the waiting times in my own life. Perhaps you will identify with some of them:
  • Do you remember waiting for the first day of school—for kindergarten—with a mixture of hope and fear? More appropriately at this time of the year, can you remember counting off the days until the last day of school, waiting for summer vacation to begin and longing for lazy summer days of wiffle-ball and sand castles and long bike rides and kick-the-can?
  • I remember waiting, after graduating from Wallenpaupack Area High School thirty years ago, with that same mixture of hope and fear I felt in elementary school as I thought about moving from a small town to attend college in a big city: saying goodbyes to friends I’d known my whole life and wondering what my life would be like apart from the life I’d known forever, waiting for that next chapter to begin and wondering, and trying to let God carry my anxiety.
  • I can remember waiting for my wedding day, and waiting for each of my two kids to be born—counting the days. I remember waiting to hear about each job I’ve held—especially this one, as Hathy and I waited for the search committee to decide, to make a decision, even if it was no; praying it would be yes. While it feels a long way off, I can imagine waiting for retirement...
  • Many of you have waited to hear back about test results, and I've been at enough bedsides to know that there is also another kind of waiting—waiting for death.  I pray that like our patron, Francis, that when death comes for me it will come like a sister or brother, like a friend who is not to be feared.
There are times of waiting in every season of our lives. I imagine these last ten days of Eastertide as something like some of these other “waiting times:” a time of expectation; a time filled with no small amount of anxiety and fear about what comes next. Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.

We worry, or at least I do, through transitions that life will not go on—that somehow we will never be comforted. Change can be scary, and it brings with it a sense of loss and a sense of anticipation. But there is also that experience of powerlessness, the kind that makes us realize we have no choice but to “let go, and let God.”  

Notice what the disciples do in the first chapter of Acts, after Jesus leaves at Bethany: they went back to Jerusalem, to the room upstairs: Peter and James and John and Andrew and Philip and Thomas and Bartholomew and Matthew and James and Simon and Judas and some certain women. (Luke doesn’t seem to remember all of their names; maybe there were just too many of them to list! Or maybe Luke was a sexist pig who doesn’t think their names are important enough to list; except of course Mary, the Mother of Jesus.) Either way, these women and men devoted themselves, constantly, to prayer. They prayed and they waited.

We can do that; we need to do that in times of waiting, in times of transition, in times when it is unclear what the future will bring. The liturgical calendar is not an end in itself, of course. It’s a guide that helps us to reflect on the journey of faith. It helps us to reflect on how God is at work in our lives and the life of the Church and the life of this world. These last ten days of the Easter season—this time between Ascension Day and the Spirit’s arrival on Pentecost—is a time for prayerful waiting.

Wait for the Lord,” the Psalmist teaches us to pray. “…be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)  And again:
    I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
      my soul waits for the Lord
          More than those who watch for the morning,
          More than those who watch for the morning.  
                                                                                                (Psalm 130:5-6)

We try to wait with wide-open eyes and with ears that hear. We wait for God to send that Spirit of Comfort, the Counselor, the One who will lead us through all seasons of change toward deeper truths and new insights: that Spirit who gives us strength and courage for facing whatever challenges may come our way. In order to embrace the new we have to learn to let go of the old. We have to navigate our way to a new “normal.” By God’s grace, in part what times of waiting can teach us is that God is always about doing new things. And that God will never leave us comfortless. What we pray for, as we mature in faith, is not that everything will stay the same, but rather, that our times of waiting will lead us to new places and to new insights and new possibilities. Those, I think, are gifts the Holy Spirit brings—whether She comes like a mighty wind or as a gentle breath. 
Come, Holy Spirit…breathe on us, breath of God…and fill us with life anew. Do not leave us comfortless. Come and empower us for the work of ministry. Come and renew us, and renew the face of the earth. In the meantime, help us to wait: sometimes expectantly and patiently, sometimes pacing back and forth with our blood pressure rising. But always trying, with God’s help, to more and more put our trust in You, the One who has created us from the earth, in You, the One who has redeemed us through Jesus Christ, in Your, the One who sustains us through Her very own breath. Amen

Friday, June 3, 2011

Rather Fond of TEC

I belong to a Facebook Group called "People Who Are Rather Fond of The Episcopal Church." I really like the stuff that the administrator, Chris Yaw, posts, including one that I received today, which is shared below.
With Ascension Day upon us, and a bit of time to pause before the end of the world (phew, spared again!), we have a God-given reprieve to consider that part of our heritage that puts less weight on notions of Rapture and Apocalypse and more weight on the present suffering and our high calling to do something about it.
Harold Camping is just the latest in a long line of doom and gloom preachers who gather adherents not because of their faultless hermeneutics, but because of their appeal to our longing for home. This would have us standing on the holy mount where Jesus ascended doing nothing but looking up, awaiting a promised return. After all, 'that’s what the Bible says!' Researchers note that during periods of rapid change, fundamentalism frequently gains popularity. The world is spinning faster, more capriciously, and who doesn’t want control, certitude, and surety? There is an appeal to a ‘Home Sweet Home’ for which many people are willing to pay a high price.

However, instead of endlessly parsing Revelation for a way out, what is greatly appreciated about the Episcopal Church is its emphasis on John 17 (this Sunday’s Gospel!), which promises eternal life right now. We need not await the eschaton to be with Jesus, which means my posture is not one of standing around looking up for a divine escape route, but to look out, where Christ is calling us. The Episcopal Church reminds me that a much more central message of Jesus is to ‘go ye’ into the world to do the work of Our Lord, to heal, feed, clothe, and reconcile. We have only precious moments before check-out time. Let us have the courage to look out at a mission field that longs for workers, not straining our ears to hear Gabriel’s trumpet, but the cries of the hungry, naked, and hurting whom we have the privilege to serve.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Justin Martyr

Today we remember the life and death of Justin, Martyr at Rome in 167. His biography in Holy Women, Holy Men begins with these words:
"Toward the middle of the second century, there came into the young Christian community a seeker for the truth, whose wide interests, noble spirit, and able mind, greatly enriched it."
I engage in a lot of conversations with people who love the Church, especially clergy, who worry a great deal about the future of the Church. Yesterday in a lectionary study group that is important to my own ongoing learning we stated it clearly however: the Church and Christendom are not synonyms. In fact (as has been well-documented!) we are in the midst of the end of Christendom, or as some prefer to call it, "Constantinian Christianity." The Church's privileged status in western culture has come to an end, or is at least very near the end. But the Church existed before Christendom and will continue beyond it, albeit in different forms. The Church is not about the "structures" of Christendom but about being the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to do the work that God has given us to do. That mission will continue long after Christendom is dead.

What will the future Church look like? Some have said it will look a lot more like the early Church, pre-Constantine. I hope that whatever it looks like, that we can more intentionally focus on attracting people like Justin Martyr. To do so, however, means helping the Church itself to become more open to truth wherever it may be found, more interested in the questions, more engaged with the world, and more willing to move over and share authority. A "dumbed down" Church will not ever be enriched by those who, like Justin, are seekers of the truth, with wide interests, and noble spirits, and able minds.