Category Archives: Christianity

Worshipping as the whole body of Christ

I was trying out a new search engine the other day. Actually, it was a digital library, and it is pretty cool. You should check it out. It’s part of the Digital Library Project, and is called HathiTrust Digital Library, and it has some great texts available. As I was satiating my curiosity about their holdings, by searching for random topics, I did a search for the term “Anglican.” One of the texts that popped up was Anglican Church Architecture  with some remarks upon ecclesiastical furniture by James Barr, architect, published in 1842.

As I skimmed it’s pages, my eye was caught by an earlier illustration. It was a floor plan, and a good example of some common elements one is likely to see in village churches in England.  Take a look:

Haseley Church, Oxon.

Haseley Church, Oxon.

I wonder what you notice about the lay out?

When I looked at it, the first thing I took note of was the tower, and the porch which serves as a main entrance to the church building. I noted that the font is located at the entrance of of the church, and that the pews are shorter at that side of the nave to accommodate it. I noticed that the vestry (vesting room, not the group of people that we name by the term) was sort of tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought. The position of the reading pew (B) right in front of the pulpit (C) struck me as interesting, but indicative of a particular time frame; my understanding is that the clerk would sit there and lead responses during the service.  Then I noticed the pews that were sideways at the front of the church, around the pulpit. But there were also pews running sideways in the chancel area. Generally speaking (assuming there aren’t transepts) pews oriented that way tend to indicate the presence of a choir. But, in my experience, the choir is almost always seated in the chancel area. So where would the choir sit here?

Then I noticed it on the key. Letter H. Referring to the pews in the chancel. Do you see it? Children’s seats.

Now, when I brought this up to Anna, she had the same initial thought that I did: perhaps they had a boys choir. But then I thought that it would make more sense, even if it was a boys choir, to actually refer to it as the boys choir or even just choir. Also, the word children has always been inclusive of both sexes, so add to that the fact that at this date the Church of England would not have had children’s choirs consisting of boys and girls. So, could it be that the chancel area was reserved for the seating of children?

What would be the possible benefits of this?

Folks who study congregational development and children nearly universally suggest that children sit toward the front during the service so that they can see the action. Perhaps that was part of it. Sitting in the chancel would’ve given the children a good view of what happened in both the liturgy of the word and during communion. There may have been another benefit, in that, while they would be able to hear the sermon because of their proximity, being positioned behind the preacher may have made the noise from fidgeting and the occasional whispered comment less likely to carry into the nave.

Still, I was curious. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. So, I started to dig a bit. I ran across another, modern text: Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900. I searched this book, and found several references to children. In discussing the design and renovation of congregations in England during the 19th century, he notes that of the parishes in this region “Most had seating for the congregation provided by open benches rather than box pews; some had stalled chancels but for children rather than choristers [...]” (page xxiii). In another text, I saw reference to a parish church that was renovated in in the 1680′s and put small box pews in the chancel for children.

All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.

 

Who, really, is our neighbor?

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan, Vienna Austria.

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan, Vienna Austria.

Studies have demonstrated that one of the ways our minds work is to save information or store an impression of places that we’ve been, particularly places that we spend a lot of time, such as rooms in our home, offices, perhaps our churches, and so forth. If it weren’t for this ability to store the memories of places we frequent, we would experience every entry into a space as though it were the first time.

This familiarity, while saving effort and preventing us from overtaxing our minds, also leads to the phenomenon of missing small changes in our environments. A book or magazine is moved, someone replaces a lamp, chairs are at different angles, or perhaps something more pronounced has occurred, like a room sporting a fresh coat of paint. Such changes may escape notice when we initially enter a place with which we are intimately familiar, and only enter our awareness when our attention is drawn to a particular detail.

There seems to be a similar phenomenon that occurs with stories with which we are familiar. We allow the details to fade out, because we remember the overarching narrative. We know what the point of the story is because we have heard it over and over again. The problem with this shorthand understanding of meaning, particularly when dealing with one of Christ’s parables, is that we can internalize incomplete or false understandings. When approaching a parable of Jesus, no matter how familiar, it is important that we listen to it with new ears, and seek to allow Jesus’ instruction to form us, as it formed his original listeners.

Although we can no longer assume everyone in our culture is familiarity with the parables, it is safe to assume that people who regularly attend church, especially those who attend church in liturgical traditions such as ours, are familiar with many of them. And of all the parables, one of the most well-known is that of the The Good Samaritan. And I would be willing to suggest that for many of us the point of the parable of the good Samaritan is that we are ourselves to be Good Samaritans; in other words we are to be good people, kind people, people who treat folks well and help those in need. And we’re not wrong.

This is indeed laudable, and is I would say part and parcel of forming a Christian character. But there is more to this parable than a calling to be kind. The call to kindness does not exhaust its meaning. Instead, it is a challenge to us from a few directions: a challenge not only to be merciful, but about those to whom we should extend mercy, and from whom we are willing, or should be willing, to receive it.

We tend to focus on the content of the parable itself–and rightly so–it is important, and it clearly strikes against some universal human tendencies. But while the content is important, we need to remember the context. As Walter Brueggemann writes “The question at the beginning is: eternal life. The answer at the end is: Mercy. [...] The story functions to change the subject away from life with God to life with neighbor. [...] Jesus’ story changes our life-question by plugging us into a world of violence. The subject is a street mugging, which seems far from eternal life. the great gospel questions are worked out midst the concreteness of brutality and nowhere else, brutality we work on each other, brutality we observe but in which we are, by our humanity, implicated” (Bruggemann, “A Zinger that Changes Everything, “ The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, 7).

It takes place in the context of violence. People will often make comments about Jesus and his teaching that reveal their evaluation of him as naive; that they believe he sees the world through rose colored glasses, that his teachings are nice, but not practical: “That Jesus, isn’t he nice. Love everyone… that’s a nice idea, too bad it won’t work in the real world.” But Jesus is not naive. He wasn’t whipped and nailed to the cross because he was ignorant of the human condition. This parable begins in violence, and it’s intended to show us how to live as disciples in the midst of a violent world.

The man is beaten and left in a ditch. Here comes the priest, and then the Levite–both of whom the listeners may have expected to help–only for them to see the man, and pass by on the other side, the implication being that they go out of their way to cross the road and avoid him. Their reaction highlights a failing we have all likely experienced, the tendency to allow our priorities to be turned on their head, for our closely held values to be eclipsed in the moment.

It can be hard… we talk about tyranny of the urgent, but there’s also tyranny of the trivial. Or at least, of the less important over what is of greater importance. Most things in life are fundamentally not emergencies, and yet we act as though they are, to the extent that sometimes we miss the actual emergency. Scholars debate whether the purity codes had anything to do with the fact that both the priest and levite avoid the man in the ditch, but regardless of the specifics, the parable implies that whatever they were doing was enough for them to avoid fulfilling the great commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They saw… and they passed by on the other side, leaving the man to his fate.

In contrast, a third person passes by and sees the man, and responds in a completely different way. Jesus’ listeners, like us, would’ve been trained to listen for the third example, the “rule of three” being a common device. Perhaps they already had in mind who it might be who would keep the spirit of the law and offer aid to the man. A Pharisee perhaps. If a respected priest and a respected levite passed by, perhaps a Pharisee (and remember, they were well respected), someone who devoted themselves to the study of the Law, would give aid.

But the third person, the one who offers aid, isn’t a better follower of the Law. At least from a Jewish perspective, he’s not a follower of the law at all; he’s a despised Samaritan. The priest and the levite are said to have seen the man. But then they avoid him. They haven’t really seen him. They looked at him, but they did not see themselves in him. In contrast, the Samaritan truly sees the man, sees his plight, and is moved with compassion and empathy, which motivate him to give aid.

And this reality brings us to the second issue the parable highlights: We often don’t really like to consider who our neighbor is. It is about who we should offer aid to, and the fact that we are called to extend mercy,

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man [...]” Jesus asks ”The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)

but it is about much more than that as well. When we ask who our neighbor is, we are not only challenged about extending mercy to all–a proposition that most Christians would at least claim to strive for–but also about who we are comfortable extending mercy to us.  One commentator on this parable noted that it might be better to call it the Parable of the Man in the Ditch. Everything in the parable points to the fact that everyone involved, save the Samaritan himself, is Jewish. How might Jewish people of the day have felt about the idea of receiving mercy and charity from a Samaritan?

When we interpret this parable only as though we will always be the ones in a position of offering aid, we miss a good deal of the point. The parable is to help us recognize that the one who has mercy, and the one in need of mercy, are our neighbors–that is, everyone. But when Jesus says to the man presenting the question “Go and do likewise” he is saying to him “go, and be willing to learn, even from a Samaritan, how to be a better follower of God.” And beyond that: “Go, and be willing to receive mercy, even from one you would have called unclean.”

We have probably all asked ourselves if we’d be willing to extend aid to anyone in need, and we’ve likely recognized Jesus’ challenge to do so. The question for us as we leave here with today, I believe, is this: From whom would we be uncomfortable receiving mercy? The answer to that question will present to us a new area of our lives that is ready for the scrutiny of the gospel.

The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan

And while I don’t know about anyone here specifically, I can say that our society, our world, has a lot of work to do in this area.

This is one reason I like to contrast the two renderings of The Good Samaritan that I’ve included in this blog post. In the one above, the Samaritan is a pleasant figure, and the whole scene is presented beautifully. In contrast, the image to the right presents the Samaritan as a Quasimodo-like figure, almost grotesque, and it depicts in a visual way the visceral negative reactions Jews of Jesus’ day would’ve had to receiving aid from a Samaritan, to being told that a Samaritan was their neighbor, and that they were therefore commanded to love them as a central tenet of their faith and obedience to God.

How would he have felt, that man in the ditch (assuming he was conscious), to be laying there, praying for help, to see his people, first a respected priest, then a levite, pass him by. Cross over the road to avoid him. Only to then be helped by a despised Samaritan.

Who is our neighbor? Who would we rather not receive aid or care from? Who do we fear appearing vulnerable with? Who is grotesque to us?

This morning (July 14, 2013), when I got in the truck to come to church, the first three stories on the news dealt with this type of division.

The first related to the court case out of Florida, where George Zimmerman was found not not guilty. I learned about the verdict last night when social media blew up with thoughts and opinions. Reading them, I was all the more grateful not to have a television, and not being tempted to listen to the thoughts of the talking heads. I know there are diverse opinions right here in this room about the case–I’ve talked with some of you about them–and I don’t need to get into that. None of us were in the neighborhood that night, and none of us were (physically) in that courtroom or the jury’s deliberation room.

That said, I don’t think anyone can honestly deny the deep divisions highlighted by this case. The anger, frustration, alienation and sadness that stands like a chasm between many of us in our society. The verdict reminded me of a picture I saw on a Facebook friend’s wall, maybe six months ago. He’s the pastor of a black church. In this picture many of his congregation’s adult members (it could’ve been all, or it could’ve been a quarter, I don’t know, but it was a lot of people) were wearing hoodies, and the caption read “do we look suspicious to you?”

That is illustrative of alienation, anger, and sadness .  It’s undeniable.

As a pastor friend of mine (@rev_david) from Texas put the question: “Who was Trayvon Martin’s neighbor? Who will be George Zimmerman’s neighbor?”

Who is our neighbor? Who will we be neighbor to, and who will we allow to be neighbor to us?

The second story was about the death of seven UN peacekeepers in Darfur, a region of Sudan that where the people have endured a genocide.

The third was about bombs going off outside of mosques in Baghdad Iraq.

Who is our neighbor? This question echoes across the whole earth among all people and in every nation. Divisions may not be punctuated by IED’s and RPG’s everywhere, but people still suffer and people still die all over the world because of our inability to see the truth of Christ’s teaching. A teaching that stems not from naiveté, not from looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but from reality. The reality of human sin. The reality of alienation. The alienation of humanity from God and from one another.

I’ve mention Canon Andrew White to you before. He’s the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. He shared the following comment this morning:

We prayed and hoped for less violence but in the past 12 hrs it has only increased. Scores have been killed in post Ramadan parties, the terrible thing this time is that most of the killings this were directed at the Sunnis and their Mosques. Adding to the fact that we are in a Civil War. Today we look with churches around the world at the story of the Good Samaritan. We ask the question “who is my neighbor”. My neighbor is the other Sunni, Shia, Christian. (Help us Lord to live as one)

The question: “Who is my neighbor?” is always relevant because we always need to be reminded.

How do we get beyond this division? I don’t have a magic formula–and how I wish I did–but I believe we have to start with the small things. We can start where the Samaritan did, with really seeing the man in the ditch and being moved with empathy and compassion. We can start with seeing ourselves in others and seeing them in us.

We can start with actually being neighbors in the more general sense, for one. Recognizing one another in everyday interactions. Saying hello, helping each other in small things, building up the muscles of fellowship to handle the weight of greater adversity. As Wendell Berry writes in The Art of the Common Place:

For a human, the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and one’s self as a neighbor within it. I am sure that virtues count in the neighborhood–to “love thy neighbor as thyself” requires the help of all seven of them–but I am equally sure that in a neighborhood the virtues cannot be practiced as such. Temperance has no appearance or action of its own, nor does justice, prudence, fortitude, faith, hope, or charity. They can only be employed on occasions. “He who would do good to another,” William Blake said, “must do it in Minute Particulars.” To help each other, that is, we must go beyond the coldhearted charity of the “general good” and get down to work where we are.

The great task given us in this parable is nothing less than that of getting down to work where we are, and with the people God has placed in our path, and in whose path we have been found. Amen.

Preparing to preach on Revelation

I’m reading Richard Bauckham’s book “Theology of the Book of Revelation” along with a few others as part of my reflection and study for my ongoing series on Revelation.

The book is very good, I’ll say that up front. If you want to learn about Revelation, you should buy it.

But in particular, I was struck by his discussion of the seals, the visions accompanying them, the content of the scroll which only the Lamb could read and the two witnesses. Specifically, Bauckham does a great job explaining that the judgements pronounced are warning judgements meant to bring humanity to repentance. Of great importance is the fact that *judgement does not meet with the desired outcome* and so the seven thunders–most likely further judgements against the earth–remain unimplemented.

Instead of judgment, it is the witness of the Church–the preaching of forgiveness and grace–that results in repentance for those who *do* repent, with the final judgement on the whole earth being meted out to those who fail to repent.

What is key in this is the representative nature of the two witnesses. Whether one accepts them as actual prophets returned for this role (Moses & Elijah or Enoch and Elijah, two traditional understandings) or in a purely metaphorical sense, they stand for the witness of the Church:

“The content of the scroll is not that faithful Christians are to suffer martyrdom or that their martyrdom will be their victory: these things are already clear in 6:9-11; 7:9-14. The new revelation is that their faithful witness and death is to be instrumental in the conversion of the nations of the world. Their victory is not simply their own salvation from a world doomed to judgement, as might appear from chapter 7, but the salvation of the nations. God’s kingdom is to come not simply by saving an elect people who acknowledge his rule from a rebellious world over which his kingdom prevails merely by extinguishing the rebels. It is to come as the sacrificial witness of the elect people who already acknowledge God’s rule brings the rebellious nations also to acknowledge his rule. The people of God have been redeemed from all the nations (5:9) in order to bear prophetic witness to all the nations (11:3-13).

This is what the story of the two witnesses (11:3-13) symbolically dramatizes. Two individuals here represent the church in its faithful witness to the world. Their story must be taken neither literally nor even as an allegory, as though the sequence of events in this story were supposed to correspond to a sequence of events in the church’s history. The story is more like a parable, which dramatizes the nature and the result of the church’s witness.” (Kindle Edition, Location 1061)

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First world problems…

For those who haven’t noticed the phenomenon, there’s an internet meme about “First world problems.” These are problems that aren’t really problems, or at least, they are things that only become problems when you don’t have issues of real gravity to concern yourself with. Here are a few examples:

  • Lack of clean drinking water = a real problem
  • Lack of your favorite bottled or flavored variety = first world problem

Make sense? Here’s another:

  • Lacking access to life saving medical care = a real problem 
  • Lacking access to, or resources for, butt-cheek augmentation = first world problem

Here’s one more:

  • Being oppressed/jailed/tortured or killed because of your faith (such as Christians in various parts of the world) = a real problem
  • Google choosing to run a “doodle” about Cesar Chavez rather than one about Easter = definite first world problem

Here’s the offending image:

google_chavez

I like it artistically, as it’s one of the more serious doodles they’ve done.

Out of curiosity, I looked back at the doodle archive, and the only example of an Easter doodle I found was from 2000, and it looked like this:

easter_logo

Notice the prominence of bad pastels and fertility symbol-ish eggs? Nary a cross or empty tomb to be seen. And guess what: who cares? Christians certainly shouldn’t. Google is not a Christian organization, it is a public business. Certainly there are Christians who work at Google.  Larry Page and Sergey Brin both have a Jewish background. I don’t know how active they are religiously, but that doesn’t matter: Google is made up of a lot of people and serves a lot of people with diverse views, why the heck should they start promoting a particular faith? And more than that, what makes American Christians in particular take offense that this year’s doodle wasn’t related to Easter? As though a doodle would be a great religious statement.

I’ll tell you what I think, I think it’s related to what Walter Percy writes about in his novel The Moviegoer as “certification.” Here’s what he says about it:

“She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”1

I think what Christians are looking for when they get up in arms about crap like this is simply this: they still want the culture to do the heavy lifting for their personal faith. Not only that, but for many, the dulcet tones of a faith-affirming culture–even if that faith is incredibly superficial, as it usually is–can keep the boogeyman of doubt at bay. But I have news for those of you who maintain belief: it’s up to you, not to society, and that’s a very good thing.

Besides, Google has done a lot more to help Christians (and everyone else) through their digitization projects. For example:

And while Google can’t take credit for other projects, such as the digitization taking place at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai or at the Vatican’s Apostolic Library, its efforts have certainly advanced the cause of making knowledge more available, including a large number of texts that are relevant to Christianity and western cultural heritage more broadly.

So, all this is to say, folks getting bent our of shape about Cesar Chavez (a Christian by the way) being honored instead of bunnies, eggs or Jesus: suck it up, gird your loins, and move on.

 


  1. check it out for yourself []

Called to Extravagance

Sermon Notes for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8

The big news in the Christian world last week was the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. Some have asked why I, as an Episcopal Priest, and we as Anglicans/Episcopalians, should care. Fundamentally, we care because Francis is the newly elected leader of over a billion of the world’s Christians. We also care because, unlike many other non-Roman Catholic Christian traditions, Anglicans have, at least since the time of Queen Elizabeth (see Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England) and certainly in our more recent dialogues, recognized the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while rejecting universal jurisdiction. All of which means, Anglicans are in the position of honoring the Pope, while simultaneously upholding the principal of autonomy and conciliarism (when we’re at our best).

This is in great contrast to the position of some other traditions, such as the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, and a number of staunchly Reformed denominations, which specifically refer to the Pope–or the office of the papacy, if not the person–as Antichrist. Such language is a vestige of the polemics of the Reformation era and is unsurprising, when you consider the high tensions of the time. Consider how frustrated Martin Luther was with the actions of the papacy, most especially actions such as selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther was so frustrated with what he viewed as the excesses of the papal court, that he wrote the following in On Christian liberty:

The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness” (Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty).

In his frustration, Luther both echoed and foreshadowed criticisms of the papacy, and the church more generally.

Many of these criticisms, over finances, buildings and so forth, are familiar to us, not only because they’re regularly hurled at the Roman Catholic Church, but at churches of all denominations. And there are times the accusations are all too true. At other times, they serve as evidence of a sort of miserliness which seeks to avoid responsibility for one’s neighbor by calling from some disembodied and disconnected “church” to provide social services or resources. I’m sure many of us have either heard or even voiced criticisms of the church for spending this or that amount of money on buildings, items for worship, or salaries and so forth. In many cases, these criticisms are overblown, but they are also understandable from the perspective of history.

In this area of concern, Francis has already begun to make a name for himself, as he has done things such as pay his own hotel bill, retrieve his own bags, and ride in the bus with his fellow cardinals, rather than taking one of the papal cars. This is all in keeping with the way he seems to have conducted himself in Argentina, eschewing the Archiepiscopal Palace and instead living in a simple apartment, and refusing a car and driver, to instead ride public transportation. The facts that such actions have been so warmly received indicate a degree of legitimacy to the complaints of the way in which churches have used funds and of the way in which Christians and Christian leaders have conducted themselves.

But as we celebrate simplicity, we need to remind ourselves not to slip over into the easy and selfish mode of being tightfisted with money and other resources. Ours is not a God of scarcity, but plenty. This was the dynamic of the conflict set up in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the disciples about multiple facets of generosity and appropriate extravagance.

Mary of Bethany

Mary of Bethany

Jesus returns to Bethany to the house of Martha and Mary. While there he and the disciples dine with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. In the course of dinner Mary comes forward to Jesus, takes a pound of perfume or fragrant ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.

There is an undeniable oddity and awkwardness to this situation. As one commentator put it, you might think of this as the sort of uncomfortable over-the-top emotional display that puts everyone else on edge. The disciples would have additionally been uncomfortable with this kind of display between a woman and a man. Beyond these elements of discomfort, there is the issue of the value of the ointment. Check the size of any perfumes or colones in your house. Do any of you have 1lbs bottles? This was extravagant; a sign of abundance.

In the midst of this, the contrasting actions of Mary and Judas are held up: Mary, giving far more than would ever be expected or considered appropriate. Judas, voicing the concerns of an overly rigid culture and faith. An uncomfortable part of this lesson is that many of us would likely respond similarly. Not simply because of the amount of perfume, but because of its cost. When the house is filled with the fragrance, Judas blurts out: “why wasn’t this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John, of course, tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned for the poor, but he does highlight the bizarre excess of what Mary has done.  300 denarii was a year’s wages for the ordinary laborer. I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall plopping down a year’s wages on a single thing.

Jesus’ response to Judas’ challenge, “leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” serves to highlight the proclamation Mary’s actions constitute. Of all the disciples, it is Mary of Bethany who understands what is about to transpire in Jerusalem, and responds accordingly. On the opposite pole stands Judas, who, of all the disciples, not only can’t understand Jesus’ mission, but comes to actively reject it and betray his Lord.

Jesus’ statement, that she had brought it so that she might keep it for the day of his burial, clears up any confusion about whether this was some act of welcome–such as washing the feet of a traveler–or some other strange form of a normal act. Instead, we are informed that Mary of Bethany is anointing Jesus for burial: the time really is at hand.

In this sense Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene stand as bookends of the passion & resurrection account: Mary of Bethany, who recognizes what is to transpire beforehand and seeks to prepare Jesus for the grave, responding to the extravagance of the gift of his life, with the most open-handed gesture of giving and thanksgiving she could imagine, and Mary Magdalene who becomes the Apostles to the Apostles, proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.1

It is upon this note of extravagant giving that our lesson turns: Jesus’ giving of himself, the dramatic offering it inspires in Mary, and finally, the acts of abundance to which we are all called as Christians.

You see, some have seen in Jesus’ rebuke of Judas, a justification for poverty: You always have the poor with you. The poor are always going to exist, so soothe your conscious and move along.

No. That’s not the message of Christ.

The point of this interlude is to emphasize Christ’s coming work on the cross, but also to emphasize the appropriate type and degree of response from Christ’s people: complete and utter extravagance and giving. In other words: The poor will always be with you, and you will always be called to give beyond what the world finds reasonable. The poor will always be with you. Where Christ’s disciples are, there the poor will gather.  Where the poor are, Christ’s disciples must gather, so that God’s extravagant love can be appropriately proclaimed.

You will always have the poor,

You will always have the sick,

You will always have the grieving,

You will always have the lonely,

You will always have the widow,

the orphan,

the elderly.

You will always have neighbors,

You will always have

people to love,

to pray for,

The need to seek forgiveness

The opportunity to offer it.

You will always have the assurance of salvation.

You will always have Christ with you. And the chance to share the good news with others.

This is the extravagant gift of God, and we are called to respond in kind.


  1. It should be noted that the Latin tradition has conflated Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the repentant woman of Luke. Greek tradition maintains they are three distinct individuals and protestants move between two and three. []

Obedient death » Peter Leithart | A First Things Blog

Just so folks don’t confuse Anselm with a fundamentalist/Modernist/Western Protestant.

What Anselm is talking about here is worked out by Rowan Williams in “Christ on Trial” and “Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel” where, if I can paraphrase, he details how the appropriate way to view the crucifixion is as simultaneously the greatest single condemnation of human sin and evil (that is, human beings could not bear the presence of the Righteous One in their midst, and so sought to cast him out and kill him) and, by grace, the means of humanity’s redemption as God foregoes retribution in favor of forgiveness, thereby commending a stance of forgiveness out of gratitude to humanity as a whole, toward one another.

This is why I find the reading from Wisdom (Wisdom 2:1, 12-24) that the Book of Common Prayer gives as an alternative first reading on Good Friday so integral to a proper understanding of the day:

“‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.” (vs. 12-15)

It’s a shame the RCL excluded it.

At any rate, some good thoughts from Peter Leithart:


“Anselm is commonly charged with portraying the Father as a sadistic child-abuser who demands a death from His innocent Son. In a 2009 article in The Saint Anselm Journal, Daniel Shannon argues that Anselm says no such thing, and that in fact “God did not compel the innocent to suffer nor compel Jesus to suffer and die for humanity.”

He bases this conclusion on Cur deus homo 1.9, where Anselm endorses Boso’s distinction between “what Christ did because of the demands of his obedience” and “the suffering, inflicted upon him because he maintained his obedience.”

The first refers to those things that the Father commands the Son; the second to the consequences that follow from that obedience. “Obedience did not demand” suffering and death in the sense that the Father never commanded Him, “Go and die.” Rather, because He “maintained truth and righteousness unflinchingly in his way of life and in what he said,” his life led by an irresistible logic toward death. Anselm sums the point this way: “He underwent death of his own accord, not out of an obedience consisting in the abandonment of his life, but out of an obedience consisting in his upholding of righteousness so bravely and pertinaciously that as a result he incurred death.” The Father instructed Him to die in the sense that “He gave the instructions as a result of which He incurred death.”

As part of his argument, Anselm denies what critics often attribute to him when he says that a man who never sinned would not be “under an obligation to suffer death” and it would not be “at all appropriate (nequequam aestimabis convenire) for God to force a creature . . . . to be pitiably afflicted, in spite of an absence of guilt.” Anselm’s answer to the question, Why did Jesus die? is that His courageous obedience led him into a deadly clash with the Jews, and he willingly went to death rather than shrink back from the way of obedience. Anselm comes out surprisingly well by NT Wright’s criterion of “crucifiability.””

Obedient death » Peter Leithart | A First Things Blog.

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Mourning the Loss of what was never ours: Lenten Ashes and Easter Light

Ash_CrossIt’s strange to consider that we will shortly be entering the season of Lent. Strange because time seems to be moving at such a rapid pace. Where did 2012 go again? 2011? 2010? But strange also because I believe we were thrown into a spirit of mourning even as we prepared for the celebration of Christmas.

When we heard about the deaths of the children of Newtown Connecticut, the bitter taste of ash and the sting of loss and grief punctuated the coming remembrance of the first advent of Grace in flesh. Of course, there have been mass shootings before, all too common in fact. But less common than the more widespread murders that darken the streets of our cities and towns throughout each year. The Newtown massacre brought home to us the senselessness and the human loss of all of these tragedies, I believe, because of the clear-eyed innocence of the victims.

It was in the context of thinking about Lent and Lenten mourning that my mind was drawn back to Sandy Hook and to several other tragic and challenging events in the parish and larger community. How is it humanly possible to deal with such things without simply becoming cynical or jaded, by becoming more and more heartless, less and less willing to feel? Or, alternatively, how to we deal with such horrendous events when they occur in our own lives when the options aren’t so much to be wracked by pain or close ourselves off from feeling, but rather, to be wracked by pain and never move out of it, but linger within it allowing pain to stagnate into bitterness and harsh anger?

Lent is an ideal time to reflect on this struggle. Consider the Collect for Ash Wednesday, and its unflinching take on the human condition and God’s mercy:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (BCP, 166).

Unsurprisingly, given the way we tend to think about Lent, this collect reminds us of the universality of sin, our need for repentance and God’s readiness to forgive. What stands out to me more this year than in the past, however, is one word: wretchedness. Most of us have an idea of what sin is, and even more than a few guesses of particular sins we’re probably guilty of. But wretchedness? That’s a term we don’t hear a lot, particularly outside of the insult of hearing someone–perhaps in an old movie–referred to as a “poor wretch.” But this collect calls on us to acknowledge our wretchedness, meaning that it must be something that characterizes all of us in some way.

The primary meaning of the term is “deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind.” That seems to describe the human condition particularly well, especially after such tragedies.  But recognizing the fact that we can be afflicted, dejected or distressed is only part of the story. The other aspect is that there is hope. We lament our sins and profess the truth that God “doth forgive the sins of all who are penitent,” while we acknowledge our wretchedness in the context of the hope of forgiveness and the reign of Jesus Christ, that is, because of the foundation of all Christian hope.

There is a transition that has to occur, from feeling sorry for ourselves or even bitter toward God because of our afflictions, toward a spirit of thankfulness for the good that we have experienced. There’s no doubting that this is much more difficult to do than to write about, but it is nonetheless a necessary change if we are to truly live in hope.

In his book Mending the Heart, which we read for our Advent series, John Claypool recounts the alternative responses he wrestled with following his little girls death, the road of gratitude or the road of resentment:

It came to me that Laura Lue had been part of my life in exactly the same way. She was a gift, not a possession. My mother’s words reverberated in my mind: ‘When something is a gift and it is taken away, you use that occasion to give thanks that it was ever given at all.’

That was the moment I decided to take the road of gratitude out of the valley of the shadow of grief, rather than the road of resentment. To this day I believe that gratitude is the best of all the ways through the trauma of loss rather than a spirit of entitlement. It does not in any way eliminate the intense pain and frustration that always accompany the work of rebuilding one’s life in an entirely different context, but it does take away the feelings of anger and the conviction that a terrible injustice as been done, and it opens the way for thanksgiving. Gratitude also deepens our sense of trust, for we begin to believe that the One who gave us the good old days can be trusted to give us good new days as well (Mending the Heart, 66).

It reminds me as well of Plutarch who in a letter of consolation to his wife upon hearing of the death of their daughter, writes movingly of not avoiding her memory or reminders of her:

 I cannot  see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind. Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymene who said, ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’ She avoided and shuddered at every reminder of her son. In general, nature avoids everything that causes distress. But in the case of our child, in the degree did she proved to us a thing most lovable to fondle and  look at and hear, so the memory of her must abide with us and become part of us, and they will bring us a greater quantity and variety of joy and sorrow (Plutarch, ”Consolation to His Wife,” The Art of the Personal Essay, 18).

What Claypool and Plutarch have in common is an effort to remember rightly. That is, to appreciate and recall the joys and blessings they enjoyed during the lives of their daughters, and to avoid the corruption that bitterness brings. The pain of bitterness, brought on by a refusal to accept stewardship as opposed to possession, corrupts and permeates even fond memories with the sting of malice for injustice. Now, the loss of our loved ones, or other challenges and limitations we may face can certainly be unjust, but we have to learn to let go of a proprietary feeling toward others and toward ourselves, for we do not even belong to ourselves, but our very lives are a blessing from the Almighty.

This is very much a Lenten reflection for the Lenten season. Lent is a time of letting go. We often think of it as a time to make resolutions, to sacrifice this or that favorite thing, sometimes in an effort to reform our lifestyles and sometimes as a sort of sacrifice and reminder for the season. But Lent is about letting go of more than these things. In the end, Lent is about reflecting upon the passion of Christ, seeing his obedience and willingness to pour himself out, and coming to a place of Christ-likeness. Lent is the season when we strive to have all the dross consumed.

Lent is about learning to let go of what was never ours to begin with–including our selves–so that we can welcome and receive hope and so that we can be truly thankful for every good gift, and most especially for that gift that is eternally ours, proclaimed so loudly on Easter morn.

 

 

The Wideness and the Wildness in God’s Mercy

Sermon Notes: 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Luke 4:21-30

I mentioned in last week’s sermon that the reaction to Jesus’ words wasn’t quite foreshadowed by the verse that the lectionary selection stopped on, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:21). In reflecting on today’s Gospel, it’s not surprising that one person I heard comment on these readings said “Jesus just picked a fight!”

I would offer qualified agreement with that statement. Jesus is picking a fight, but not a direct one, with the people of Nazareth (though not only them–with us as well).  To understand what Jesus is doing here, I believe it will be helpful to consider a few things that can highlight important aspects of Christ’s interpretation in Luke 4:23-27.

I was recently reading a review of a collection of interviews that has been brought together about the late author Madeline L’Engle (an Episcopalian, by the way). The reviewer mentions that L’Engle suggests in one of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that a piece of art can “know more than the artist who created it” (read the review here). L’Engle writes:

When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.

When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get our of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer (page 24).

In other words, an artist, when obedient, comes to *do* more than the artist can do. The artist is  called beyond themselves to accomplish something true. This reality is not limited to artists, but applies to each of us. We are all capable of bearing witness to things that are better, greater, more true than we could create or conceive on our own. Indeed, we are capable of it even when we don’t understand intellectually what is happening.

We are called to an obedience which draws us beyond ourselves, away from the comfortable sins we often believe to be stable virtues. We are called to a way of living which recognizes that in the end, it is God who sets the parameters of what we ought to do and who we ought to be.

L’Engle begins her reflection on artists being called beyond themselves with a discussion of the Virgin Mary, where she states that “Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding–that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of–there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand” (p. 22-23).

If this is true, if we can be obedient without understanding, if we can hear the call without knowing from whence it comes, then we have to recognize that any one of us regardless of belief could become a witness to the ways of God. We have to be careful with this, it’s true, but we also can’t deny that this is a biblical reality. Consider, for example, that Cyrus of Persia is called the anointed of God, despite the fact that Cyrus did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and despite the fact that he likely didn’t have a special fondness for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, when Cyrus destroys the Babylonians and grants the exiles the freedom to return to their homeland, he is honored as the anointed instrument of God, who accomplished much more in the grant narrative of history than he could have known (Isaiah 45:1).

A modern example of someone with no connection–as far as I know–with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the Gospel of Christ, who was nevertheless instrumental in what I can only describe as a witness to the love of God, to the sort of action that God calls us to. A person who was a sort of modern day Cyrus, enabling the travel of many Jewish people. This time though, it was a travel away from their homes, but toward safety.

Chiune Sugihara is named by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a group of gentiles who stood in various ways, and gave assistance to Jewish people during the horrors of the Holocaust. Sugihara became the Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in 1940. In defiance of his government he issued visas that allowed thousands of Jewish families to escape, through Russia, then to Japan and on to various countries in the West. One article states that:

From July 31 to Aug. 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night, writing visas.

The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.

It is estimated that Sugihara’s visas saved as many as 6,000 Jewish people in the midst of WWII, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there are as many as 40,000 people alive today because of Sugihara’s actions.

In one sense what Sugihara did was very simple: he wrote and issued documents. He put pen and stamp to paper. But in another sense what he did required something dramatically important: he got out of the way! He knew what was right and he did it.

What about your career? Get out of the way…

What about your standing among your countrymen? Get out of the way…

What about possible danger to your own life? Get out of the way…

He knew what was right, and he did it, and his actions have had an importance far beyond paper work, and even far beyond the immediate impact. Six thousand refugees have become forty thousand people alive today, including the first Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholar.

Do what’s right and get yourself, and everything else, out of the way.

In reality this is the fight that Jesus is picking with the folks listening to him in that Synagogue in Nazareth: get yourself out of the way. Listen, really listen to God;hear what he is doing.

As Christians we have to be honest and acknowledge a troublesome history of interpretation of this text, as though somehow Jesus’ examples indicate that God has moved on from the Jewish people, that his message is no longer for them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Both examples are of prophets whose primary ministry is to the people of Israel. In this respect, they are like Jesus. They are like Jesus also in the fact that their ministry and the love of the God they testify to is not bound by human boundaries or nationality. 

The message of Christ to the people of Nazareth is simply this: The promises are being fulfilled, but they are not promises to you alone.

Jesus calls them out on the fact that they want some special sign, some deed of power because this is his home town. That sense of specialness is part and parcel of the sense of specialness that would wright others out of God’s plan of salvation.

Indeed, it’s the same sense of specialness that led Christians to wrong write the Jewish people out of God’s plan, as though God had turned his back on them.

The promise is for all people, and Jesus is showing that it has always been so. God’s care for a gentile widow and the General of a hated enemy demonstrate the wideness of God’s love and care, a wideness of divine love embodied perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ.

We’re called to get out of the way. To be grateful for the grace of God, and get out of the way so that grace can shine through us and be a beacon to others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to do what is right, and share what is right with others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to be witnesses to, not sole proprietors of, God’s grace. We are called to recognize that God’s love is for anyone and can work through anyone, and we’re called to testify to whose love is being displayed in such moment.

The final verse of the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” expresses this well:

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

In this Holy Eucharist which we share, this service of Thanksgiving, pray that we may all offer our lives in thanksgiving to God, and rejoice in the goodness of the Lord and hear the words of the Apostle in a new way:

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21 , BCP 102).

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy by Beverly Hills All Saints' Church Choir on Grooveshark

When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity | Christianity Today

I appreciate the point of this article very much. At the same time, I don’t think old-line traditions, especially ones with horribly ossified institutions such as the Episcopal Church, should sit back and give thanks that our worship has not been juvenilized–we have a lot of work to do to make sure the structures of our church and the way we make decisions, and the very tasks we pursue, do not become positively geriatric.

The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”

After worship, some members of the church sign up for the next mission trip, while others decide to join a small group where they can receive support on their faith journey. If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”

Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were regularly found in youth groups but rarely in worship services and adult activities. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith. In any case, white evangelicals led the way.

via When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity | Christianity Today.