Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not Right Or Left

A senior priest I once knew said something like, “If the Church were to really follow Jesus, the Church might be smaller.” This idea, I am sure was not original to this priest, but it presents an interesting if unoriginal thought. The claim and demands of the Gospel are radical. Jesus says the Kingdom is at hand and we are to live as if it is here. Jesus says give up everything and follow. Jesus says tomorrow will take care of itself, so don’t live in fear and anxiety. We have never quite lived up to these freeing, but radical ways of being.

The Church longs for Jesus’ way, but we allow ourselves to falter as we contemplate the implications. Ultimately, we waver because most of us receive much we like from the present order. Jesus’ offer for individual and corporate transformation is easy to reject, if you are relatively content with the way things are.

I think the far-left of our Church desires to be seen in particular ways. I think there is a desire to contort the faith into something that is palatable. “It is not so much that I buy into Jesus, but I am a worker of just things.” The content of the faith is seen as suppositious nonsense in these circles, and priority is given to righteous action.

The far-right acts out of an anxiety about perception as well. They tend to cling to some notion of the faith as received, yet are held captive by it. Fear about what is touted as the decline of “traditional morality” forces this camp to become entrenched. I also wonder if it is about power and status. I sometimes detect a certain fear about the loss of prestige and prominence. The antidote is a rigid, dogmatic approach in these circles.

The real cure for what ails us is the Gospel. Christianity hinges on being in relationship with Christ. It is in Jesus, we find the acceptance God offers us. Our acceptance of Jesus and his way puts us at odds with the present order. We must respond and act in the world in Christ’s name.

So, the “right” is right. This faith of ours rests upon the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, the Christ. But, we don’t build walls around what God desires to reveal to the world.

So, the “left” is right. We go into the world to transform it. We seek to transform the world into the Kingdom of God, the one that Jesus spoke of. Otherwise, we have a small society for the preservation of justice and ethics.

Friends, the Church shrinks because we are not making a compelling case for her purpose, and helping people know what we have. The Church shrinks because we are not clear and unified in our Gospel mission. I pray we stop the chaos and put our hands to the plow and never look back. We can do it, together.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Disciple

The day I returned home from my first year of college, my maternal grandfather was waiting on the front steps of my parent’s home. He stood there with his shock of receding white hair. His pants hiked up about 2 inches above his waist beyond what is advisable, if you know what I mean. His hands rested on his hips as a sign of his expectation of my arrival.

We greeted each other there, on the front steps with a handshake, and sat down on the steps. We spent a few minutes discussing the events that had transpired, since we last met. Our time together, this time, was different in that we related in a new way. We interacted as adults. Those moments came to a close with my grandfather recognizing the condition of my shoes. He rose and departed only to return with his shoe polish kit, and he polished my shoes. When he finished restoring a fine sheen to my shoes, I left to attend a party of friends returning from college also.

The next morning my grandfather was gone. He had had a fatal heart attack after his morning cup of coffee. We wouldn’t have more opportunities to relate as adults. Then and even now, I wonder what we might have to say to each other. I wonder what opportunities I have missed by virtue of his absence. I wonder what advice he might have for me. I wonder what wisdom I will never receive. I should have spent more time as a disciple at his feet. The barriers of youth can be high indeed.

Barriers come in all forms. The Mary and Martha story is one of barriers. The barriers to sitting at Jesus’ feet were very high for Martha. It is true that she had much to do. She is engaged in the task of providing hospitality for her house guests. Her tasks are culturally prescribed. Women, in Jesus day, were expected to be providers of hospitality. Men were expected to be the students, sitting at the feet of a teacher.

Martha is troubled at the behavior of her sister. You see, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus as a student. Mary is ignoring her culturally dictated role. The problem is not that Mary is leaving Martha to do all the work. The problem is that Mary is ignoring her cultural and religious obligation. She has rejected her cultural obligation and has claimed the role, traditionally the preserve of men. This is what Martha doesn’t like.

Perceptive Jesus understands her plaintiff complaint. Jesus has a response. It is the same response he has for the lawyer from the Story of the Good Samaritan. In the Kingdom, the new coming Kingdom of God, cultural prescription is irrelevant.

What we are talking about is being a disciple. Jesus is saying that there are no fundamental, culturally prescribed barriers to being a disciple. Being a disciple is always the better part, and that being a disciple is possible, simply as a function of being a child of God.

The bell rings for the start of class. The teacher takes his place. There is more than enough room. You don’t have to sign up. You just have to show up. The Good News is there are no prerequisites required, and the only barriers to attendance are self-imposed.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Samaritan

Yesterday, we encountered Jesus at his best in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus debates with a lawyer, grounded in proper interpretation of the religious code of the day. The beginning point is recognition of the absolute claim that God has on us. Wrapped up in that claim is the obligation we have to be in relationship with one another.

The point of the story of the Good Samaritan is that love of God and love of neighbor are inextricable. The example of the priest and Levite passing by on the other side highlights the human tendency to not live fully into the demands of faith. The priest and Levite give priority to their sense of maintaining the purity piece of the law, while ignoring the fuller implications. It is not enough to avoid the things that bring risk, a bloody victim on the roadside, because honoring God, in practice, means embracing the other.

There are countless ways we encounter individuals as being other. We are divided along many lines. We know ethnic differences, socioeconomic differences, class differences and ideological differences. The differences apply pressure resulting in isolation. We want to be with others that look like us, and think like us. The Gospel does not support our isolation.

Our categories and efforts to compartmentalize mean, I suspect, little to our Creator. God is often most visible in the person I experience as being most different. The Samaritan transcends all the barriers to engagement, and provides real care for the man beaten by robbers. The Samaritan cares in the way that God cares for us.

It is in concern and care for the other, we often discover the care and love, God offers us.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Rest And Ready

Collect for Saturdays

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested
from all you works 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.

The collect above is the prayer from Morning Prayer, recited on Saturdays. It speaks of Saturday as a day of rest and preparation. I suspect preparation for our Sunday worship is something we don’t think about very often.

Before the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, Eucharist was regular, but infrequent. Our ancestors took the reception of the sacrament very seriously. In fact, during the colonial period, those that desired to receive communion prepared for it by meeting with a priest. A communion token was issued to mark the fact they were to receive.

This seems a bit extreme to our current sensibilities. Yet, we would do well to engage in introspection, as we contemplate the reception of communion on the morrow. Are we ready and open to accept the tangible matter of Christ’s ongoing presence? Are we in right relationship with God and our neighbor? Do we intend to lead the new life offered us?

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Way Forward

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, he responds to pressure being applied from clergymen to be patient. He responds to calls to slow down with the response, “if not now, when?” Looking back on the civil rights movement, the question is a good one. Racial justice was nonexistent, and it took unswerving leadership to create a shift in the hearts and minds of the American people. As people of faith, we recognize that our hearts and minds, by virtue of the claim the Gospel has on us, are always in need of a shift toward transformation.

The Church is somewhat different, it seems. The Church operates within the American landscape and faces various limitations and protections via law. However, the Church answers to a higher authority, that of the will of God. The Church is free, through whatever internal, applicable process and within the framework of law, to organize itself. Ideally, the Church does this seeking the wisdom and will of Christ.

Being a member of a Church is a choice to associate. Together, we rely on commitment and a willingness to stay together. That means working together to resolve issues that divide us. Whatever side of whatever issue you are on, withdrawal is counterproductive and deadly. I wish we could be as adamant about maintaining relationship as we are to claim the moral high ground, whatever side we hold on divisive issues.

We risk further damage to the unity of the Body of Christ.

I want us to maintain the conversation that we might discover the reconciling will of God. No faction or perspective holds a lock on that will. The proposed covenant is not perfect in detail, but it holds the promise of ongoing dialogue. These are uncharted waters. But at the end of the day, I hope we do everything, within reason and our power, that Christ’s prayer to the Father be answered, that we may be one. If not now, When?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bishop Wright @ Synod

My friend Father Jones over at posted this yesterday. Bishop Wright makes several good points. Overall, I am comfortable with the idea of the communion as a family, gathered around the table.

My only question has to do with the denial that the Anglican Communion is a “loose federation”. In terms of governance, it seems hard to argue that the various national churches have functioned as anything but a “loose federation”. I am left to assume that Bishop Wright means this type of independence is counterproductive to our common life.

As Anglicans, we are heirs and members of a reformed catholic tradition, and we should take that very seriously as we seek to fulfill our Gospel mission. We should take into account the perspectives of our sisters and brothers, around the world, when we act. Still, I am nervous about the proposed covenant as a vehicle to express our catholicity.

N.T. Wright Remarks at Church of England Synod

Thank you Mr Chairman. Tom Wright Durham 004.
It’s always worrying for a Bishop of Durham to find himself in York during a thunderstorm. (laughter then applause).
Once upon a time four college friends decided to share a house. ‘Great idea’. ‘We’ll have a ball’. ‘It’ll be terrific’. And for the first few weeks it was. But gradually little niggles start to creep in. Jim is forever playing loud jazz at 4 in the morning. Jane keeps yelling at the others every time she has a work crisis. John never washes the bath out and Judy leaves smouldering cigarette ends in the kitchen – and eventually they look each other in the eye and say you know we need some house rules. ‘Rules, what do you mean rules – this isn’t the army, we’re free, we’re friends’.
But no we do need some rules because we want to live together. So they agree no loud music after midnight, no bad temper, no mess in the bath, no fag ends in the kitchen.
And then, the next week, there’s the jazz at 4 in the morning, again, and Jane marches down the hall and yells at Jim, and then we’re into it. ‘You said you wouldn’t yell at us any more’ – ‘well you said you wouldn’t play loud music at night any more’. Now what do we do?
The house, is the Anglican Communion. We share a table. We are not just friends living down the street. We are not a loose federation. Living in this house matters enormously to millions of Christians far more vulnerable than us. We thought we had some kind of agreement, and four years ago it turned out we didn’t. The events of 2003 and since demonstrate conclusively that our present framework simply isn’t working and so we have a process, designed to enable us to stay in the house together.
This Synod voted massively in February ’05 to go with the Windsor Report and in principle with that Covenant Process. We shouldn’t renege on it now. We are not being asked to sign a blank cheque. The Covenant isn’t a list of rules or dogmas. It’s a commitment to a way of working together when we hit problems. Particularly the problem of which differences make a difference and which differences don’t make a difference. Because Synod it simply won’t do to say ‘Oh we have to live with difference, some people like the smell of cigarettes when they are cooking and others don’t so get used to it’ or ‘at least we’re being ‘open’ about our different musical habits so that should increase our trust, shouldn’t it. Nor will it do to say ‘we haven’t done this sort of thing before.’ Friends, we have never been this way before. Lambeth, ACC, the primates and the Archbishop all said, ‘please don’t do that’ and one province said, ‘actually we are going to do it anyway’. That hasn’t happened before.
Anyway, remember the seven last words of the church ‘we never did it this way before.’ Come on guys. Saying we have never had a covenant before, so we should be suspicious of it now, is like saying that if God had meant us to fly he’d never have given us the railways. (laughter) Yes, the bishop of London has a point on that* but we’ll… (laughter and applause)…and do you know, the historical point yes, Hooker and Travis (refers to an earlier speaker’s example), nice scenario. What happened forty-five years later? What happened sixty-five years later? It didn’t last. They needed a larger framework. The idea that classical Anglicans were into this tolerance and inclusivity of our contemporary sort, just think of Hooker and Jewell, just think of Laud and Cousin – they hammered out articles of belief, and liturgies and insisted on adherence to them. Let’s not indulge in romantic fantasy about our past. Let’s challenge it if you like but don’t project. And Synod don’t please be fooled by the extraordinary idea that Archbishop Rowan has left us on our own so that we can show how good we are at decision making by rejecting this proposal.
As was said in the Guardian yesterday, read Archbishop Rowan’s letter at the start of the paper. Read his invitation to Lambeth, where he states that acceptance of that invitation carries a willingness to work with the Windsor Report and the Covenant proposals. The Archbishop is leading the Communion in this way. We should be so lucky as to have an Archbishop like we’ve got, and for us in Synod (applause) for us in Synod to vote (applause) for us in Synod to vote against it would be a vote not for autonomy but for anarchy.
And don’t pass it grudgingly. Once there was a college principal who was ill in hospital and the vice-principal went to see him. ‘Principal’, he said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news.’ ‘The good news is that the governing body voted to wish you a speedy recovery and a swift return to your duties. The bad news is that the motion was passed by 12 votes to 11 with 3 abstentions.’ (laughter) Synod, let’s not do that to Archbishop Rowan, Thank you.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Sunday after Sunday, well-meaning clergy around the world ascend the pulpit or go to the broad step, and seek to preach. After the service, those same clergy stand at the door of the church, and greet worshippers. Pleasantries are exchanged, and some offer the clergy a brief comment about the sermon. Sometimes, the feedback is very specific. Sometimes, the feedback is very general. This has me wondering. What are we really looking to receive from a sermon?

I know what I am trying to accomplish, as a preacher. The texts for the day speak. My hope is to articulate, in a compelling way, the meaning of the text.

Part of the task is translation. The Bible contains various types of literature. In the Bible, we have history, poetry, letters, and let’s not forget, Good News. Our challenge is to become clear about the way these ancient writings are applicable in the present. As Christians, we claim the Bible is the foundational story. So, we seek to engage the Bible seriously, and the unique truth claim it has on the Church.

Hopefully, we find our efforts as the Church validated and authenticated in the scriptures. As we seek to be faithful, how and what we do should be based on biblical principles. This is, of course, a double edged sword, because there are those times when we are not living up to the biblical vision. Then, we are called to repentance and to amend out lives to the normative vision provided through the Church’s engagement with the Bible.

That said, we of necessity, continue the translation. We have to wrestle with issues of intent which transcend the peculiarities of a particular text. For instance, Jesus embraces and heals lepers. Lepers were seen as sinners and were to be avoided. Who are the lepers of our age? Surely, we are called to minister to the untouchables of out time, and not just seek to embrace lepers.

The Gospel and the preaching of it are intended to produce action. The author, Edward Abbey, said something like, “a kind deed is worth more than all the books in the world.” The Bible calls us to act.

We do not always like the demands that the Bible makes on our lives. Some of those demands create discomfort. The challenge to the present order is real and great. It is too easy for us to dismiss the preacher that makes those demands clear. She is an idealist. That is not practical. The faithful preacher cannot be deterred.

In my first parish, someone at the door of the church told me that he did not like one of my points. I remember my reply. “I did not say it for you to like it.” He said that he would have to think about that. And that, my friends, is the appropriate response to a sermon.

Friday, July 6, 2007


Spring and summer bring many different things. It is the time of green grass and blooming flowers. Baseball is in full swing. Many of us look forward to the rest and respite of a holiday. This list would not be complete without a tip of the hat to weddings. Spring and summer are wedding season.

A wedding is like much anything else, where people are involved. Weddings can be fun, joyous celebrations. Weddings can be appropriately serious. Anxiety and stress can also be part of it. Ultimately, it is really the couple and their families that set the tone.

Expectations have a lot to do with it. Every person involved, bride, groom, parents of both and friends, comes to the occasion of a wedding with some expectation of what makes a “good” wedding. These expectations have shifted and developed through history.

For much of human history, couples married themselves. Before the Church became involved, families gathered to witness a couple making promises to each other. The Church did not become fully involved, until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was then that clergy became responsible, in an official way, for the institution of marriage. Up to the 12th century, weddings took place on the steps of the church building. It was not until the 13th century, that priests presided, in a way we would recognize, over the marriage service. So, for the last 800 some odd years, marriage has been the sacramental “property” of the Church.

For roughly the last 450 years, Anglicans have had a prescribed form of the marriage service in the form of the BCP. The BCP more or less dictates the form that weddings take, just as it does Baptisms, Eucharists, Confirmations, and Burials. Ordination is a subject for another day. It is the BCP that provides the structure, the priest swears to uphold at ordination. Yet, the priest faces pressure, from those with expectations, which have little to do with the discipline of the Church.

The “wedding industry” has informed the expectations of many couples and their families. Brides have been told over and over that the wedding day is “her day”. The implication being that a bride should get what she wants. Unfortunately, a sentimental aesthetic, and not the sacramental and theological underpinning of the Church, drives many of the desires of the bride and groom. This leaves the parish priest to set parameters, which often make him or her seem uncooperative or rigid.

In my opinion, the “wedding industry” is partially responsible for the undoing of marriage. The “wedding industry” sells the perfect day from a particular perspective. The implication is that the wedding day must embody a certain romantic quality to be good. The backside of this sales job is that couples are lured into believing, this is what a marriage is about.

The Church seeks to uphold the idea that marriage is about commitment. In the marriage service, the couple, in their vows to one another, promises that their relationship hinges, not on romance, but on the kind of love that is a product of the will. The Church teaches that good and bad will come, but commitment endures. The hope is, in the Christian community of husband and wife, a couple will learn something about the way that God loves us, through their love of each other.

The Church is in the marriage business, not the wedding business. Weddings are joyous, life giving celebrations, when the couple is clear that the wedding is a means to an end. That end is the willed and committed love of one another, supported through the grace and love of God.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Sunday Sermon

Luke 9:51-62
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Thoughts about the Gospel and the point of the Sunday sermon:

In life, certain things are primary and others are secondary. For an alcoholic, AA meetings and staying sober are primary pursuits that hold the key to the rest of life. An alcoholic must stay sober to truly be in relationship with others and even God. It is not that God is not there for an alcoholic; it is that the alcoholic must put “spirits” away to embrace the Holy Spirit. Staying sober is the key to life, for those suffering from the physical and spiritual disease of alcoholism.

For Jesus, the journey to Jerusalem and his faithfulness, in the midst of what awaits him there, is the key to our faithfulness. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection come to a head in Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus encounters individuals that articulate a desire to follow him, and He welcomes them, but they cannot make the journey- primary. Each of the individuals, in the text, places something before following Jesus, and Jesus is clear that following is primary.

We hear Jesus’ words, and feel that they are insensitive. We need to think more about the context. In Jesus life, death and resurrection, real life is offered to us now, and eternal life is promised as well. So when Jesus says, “leave the corpses with the corpses”-(my emphasis), He is on the journey, and is calling us to follow on the way. Jesus’ way promises that we will not be corpses forever, but will be raised to life with God.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sadness and Regret

The current copy of Episcopal Life arrived in the mail, just yesterday. It includes some interesting articles about the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, a mission in Uganda for orphans and a group of scholars, including my New Testament professor from General Seminary, Deidre Good, discussing the Gospel of Judas. All that aside, I am still thinking about a letter on the final page of the publication. It is an opinion piece by the retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, Bishop Swing.

Swing speaks about Martyn Minns and Peter Akinola, two of the primary leaders in the “Anglican” movement opposing and threatening ECUSA- “Their aim is not to reform the Episcopal Church or to set up a permanent parallel authority. They intend to become the sole authorized Anglican presence in North America. The other side of the coin is that they intend for the Episcopal Church to be cut off from the Anglican Communion and set aside.”

This assessment by Bishop Swing is not his analysis. He is clearly repeating what the Minns and Akinola crowd have said themselves. This forces me to think about content and politics.

There are certainly real issues that lead people of faith to disagree. Some of these issues, particularly those around human sexuality, are especially difficult. Some find the scriptures to be very clear on these issues. Some argue that the overarching message of the Bible seems in conflict with a few particular passages. On all fronts, some argue that the Bible alone is the sole authority, and others seek a mediated dialogue with the scriptures. Some seek a definitive type of authority in the governance of the Church, and some are tolerant of more ambiguity.

These are all developing edges for the Episcopal Church, and we are not alone, as Christians, in this. The point is that the Minns and Akinola crowd are not seeking resolution or reconciliation. They are seeking to leave with as much of the property of ECUSA as they can take with them, and replace the existing church.

The word reform implies, rightly, that the Church could always be more faithful. The Church could always live closer to the foot of the cross of Christ. At various points in history, the Church has erred grievously, and most certainly will again. The Church has endured, because people of faith have worked to reform her. We can’t just dispose of an historic expression of the faith, because we disagree.

Historians and biographers of Martin Luther have detected a certain melancholy in some of his writings as an older man. Scholars argue that the reformation itself fractured the Church, beyond Luther’s wildest expectations. A similar melancholy has been pointed to in Cardinal John Henry Newman, who swam the Tiber for Rome. Some biographers postulate, later in his life, Newman missed the generosity of Anglicanism.

As an old man, I do not want to miss an Anglicanism that no longer exists.