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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

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The wisdom of infants

Sermon notes
Proper 9
July 9, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Audio: The audio is from the 10:30 service. Since I only use notes, the sermon as preached varies somewhat between services, and from the text.

“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matt. 11:25).

This saying of Jesus’ has been seen as enigmatic by some interpreters because of the strand of thought relating to knowledge being purposefully hidden by God, or people’s eyes being made unable to see. As is often the case, Jesus is turning several common expectations on their heads with his teaching. And turning them on their heads not only for ancient people, but for us as well.

First consider the positive elements of the statement: God is revealing something to infants. Not literally infants–or at least not solely to literal infants–but those who share something in common with infants. Later in this gospel after all, Jesus will tell Peter that the truth which he confesses in calling Jesus the Son of God is the fruit of divine revelation.

But what characteristic of infants could Jesus be commending? There are a lot of things we could say about human infants, but if we look at human babies and reflect on what makes human babies distinct from other mammals, I think we can come close to what it is that Jesus is commending to us as his disciples.

The basic truth of our infant existence is that we are utterly dependent upon others. Defenseless little people whose heads are much too large, limbs are much to weak, and whose balance is initially nonexistent. Other mammals walk within hours or days, the length of time it takes us to walk, let alone become self-sufficient is measured in months and years.

But if we can stretch the idea of knowledge to include not only consciously acquired information, but “hard-wiring,” then we can see that infants are acutely and instinctually aware of their vulnerability and dependence. All the default settings of little humans are wired toward connecting with momma, and daddy, and the other family members they’ve heard in utero. The sense of smell is heightened and the smell of mom and the direction of milk is impressed upon those little psyches, as is the instinct to suck, or to cry when hungry, or wet, or confused.

Basically, we come into the world instinctively knowing nothing so firmly as our need for someone else.

I believe it’s precisely this sense of need that Jesus finds to be missing from the wise and intelligent of that age–and often our own.

If we consider who was considered “wise” or “intelligent” in the ancient world and in the context of first century Judaism, it was precisely those people who had committed themselves to study of the scriptures, or who had been educated. We can relate to this, I believe, since we still, despite some differences, consider education to be a marker for both wisdom and intelligence, if not things that completely overlap.

For Jesus to thank the Father for hiding “these things” from the wise and intelligent, he’s offering thanks that those who have been educated are having a harder time seeing things for what they are than those who have not been. Even though he says “thank you” I half wonder if thanks is the proper term for the sentiment Jesus is expressing in the first part of this statement. I don’t think Jesus particularly wants the wise and intelligent to continue–ironically–in their ignorance. But he does want them–he wants us–to come to grips with the limits of our own ability.

It is precisely those who are considered wise and intelligent who are acting, in a negative sense, like children: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds'” (Matt. 11:16-19).

In other words the inability of the learned to discern the work of God that is before their eyes–and their propensity to decry it–is a testament against the viability of their wisdom. In effect, their wisdom, being false and deceptive, has become foolishness, while those who are not expected to be wise, but who recognize their dependence, have had the truth revealed to them.

This demonstrates that when Jesus praises the “hiddenness” of the truth, he’s overturning other common expectation. Many apocalyptic teachers–those who spoke about the last things that were to occur–taught that knowledge of these last things was hidden from everyone who lacked specialized knowledge or revelation. In contrast, Jesus tells them that they will find their rest–an eschatological term–in him. In other words, God has “hidden” the truth in plain sight, and is available to everyone. Those who would see it only have to cast off the assumptions that prevent them from seeing it. As one commentator put it:

“children have not yet received any schooling; they still have to be initiated into the world of adults.  The smallest of them are called by Jesus, who is Wisdom incarnate, to come to him … and learn from him. They are particularly suited for his interpretation of the Torah, while the wise and the intelligent are hampered by the knowledge that they already have” (Weren, Studies in Matthew’s Gospel, 45).

“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus says. In other words, wisdom is proven by it’s ramifications. True wisdom is to recognize the truth of Jesus’ message and to see him for who he is.

This is good news for us. Far from being a strange and obscure command, to become like little children and enter the kingdom of heaven requires very little of us. It’s simple. As Jesus tells Martha when she complains about Mary: only one thing is needful. That one thing is the recognition that we need Jesus. This is the “better part.”

Jesus’ prayer continues as he says “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). The good news is that Jesus has chosen to reveal the Father, to reveal the heart and reality of God to us all. No one is left out. As one of the collects for mission in Morning Prayer puts it, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” (BCP 101).

To be embraced by Christ, to lay our burdens down at the foot of the cross is to recognize and to receive the revelation of Christ’s words, “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28, KJV, part of the “Comfortable Words” in Rite I, BCP 332).

What we find, in other words, is the good news that taking up the yoke of Christ entails a lessening of our burdens rather than an increase of them:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30).

Thank God for the grace of God to recognize that we’re never really any less dependent than we are the day we enter the world. We need one another, and more so, we need God. And thank God that in Jesus, we find what we need to carry on.

 

The Dishonesty of “Bivocational Ministry” | Part 1 – David L Hansen

A big amen to my fellow School of Theology grad Pastor David Hansen on this one:

Simple logic would suggest that when we say “bi-vocational” we mean someone who is living into two of these vocations, two of these life-giving, joy-filled callings.

But we don’t.

When we say “bivocational” the most common meaning is someone who has (1) vocation that gives them life and joy and (2) a different job that gives them a paycheck.

Notice: Not a second vocation. A job. A paycheck.

That’s what we most often mean by suggesting bivocational ministry: “Do this ministry that is your vocation. And then go find a paycheck doing some other job.”

There are exceptions to this – people who genuinely live into the vocation of congregational ministry and a second vocation. That is a beautiful and also a rare thing.

There are also people who faithfully serve by having a job that pays (which they may or may not enjoy) while also serving in an unpaid or underpaid ministry position. And that is also a wonderful thing when (1) the individual knows full well what they are getting into and (2) the congregation is honest about what is going on.

But that is not what usually happens.

Source: The Dishonesty of “Bivocational Ministry” | Part 1 – David L Hansen

His Holiness Pope Francis: Why the only future worth building includes everyone | TED Talk | TED.com

Evangelism of the weird – Covenant

Good thoughts on the necessary weirdness of the Christian faith by Father Jonathan Mitchican:

This past Epiphany, I blessed chalk during the Mass. It was the first time our parish had engaged in this particular practice. Each person who attended was given a piece of chalk to take home with them, along with a set of instructions for scrawling the formula for a blessing over the doors of their homes: “20+C+M+B+17.” It was a strange thing to do. People in the neighborhood would later stare at our doors and wonder. It made no sense to the world. Many people thought it was weird.To that I say, good. It is good that Christians are weird. The weirder we can be, the better.We in the West live in a culture in which Christianity is increasingly alien. Despite the fact that much of our cultural understanding of things like human rights and social responsibility is still loosely based on a Judeo-Christian ethic, our societies in America and Europe have become increasingly secular and hostile to Christian faith. Our culture’s priests today are celebrities and scientists (and the celebrity scientist is the most prized figure of all — witness the recent controversy over Bill Nye’s new show). Our houses of worship are football stadiums. Our creeds are sound-bite versions of political platforms delivered over social media and cable news.

Source: Evangelism of the weird – Covenant

Driven by the Spirit

Sermon notes for 3 Easter, 2017
Scripture: Acts 2:14a, 36-41

What drives our actions as Christians?

I don’t mean what drives our actions as human beings, full stop. I think we can probably arrive at a number of acceptable answers fairly quickly when we reflect on that. We’re driven by wants, needs, appetites, fears, frailties, sins, hopes, dreams, virtues and so on. That’s true of everyone.

But what drives our peculiarly Christian actions?

Is it our conscience? Perhaps in part. But what inspires our conscience toward particularly Christian actions in situations where acting like every other human being who is not like Jesus would be so much easier?

I love the movie Inside Out, and its depictions of emotions. I love it even more because it gives me a chance to use one of my favorite words: homunculus. A homunculus is a tiny person. In philosophy the term is used to describe an idea that there is a little person or persons in our heads who drive us around like biological robots–at least in a manner of speaking. In various psychological and philosophical theories it’s used as an example that poses the problem of infinite regression. If there’s one little person in our heads, then who’s in their head, etc.

In Inside Out there are a series of little homunculi who drive characters in the film around. Each one represents an emotion. They stand at a console in the character’s heads, and work together to operate the person. It’s quite brilliant. But only as a metaphor or analogy. No one who worked on the film, I presume, believed there were actual little people in our heads. They even admit that they had to leave some things out. They show the emotions, but not reason. Reason was in early drafts of the script. If I remember correctly, one of the writers said they had the idea of having Reason thrown out the window by Anger. But it didn’t work. They had to leave it with just the emotions. And it works. The film is, I think, a fantastic way to visualize emotional development, and the way our emotions drive or prompt us to certain actions. But emotions do not and cannot explain everything about us. They don’t explain our reason or our logic. Oddly, I’m not even sure emotion is a good descriptor even of the deeper aspects of things like love, commitment, hatred and so on.

There is more driving us.

What drives us as followers of Christ? What pushes us beyond our emotions, beyond our reason, beyond our simple human capacities?

In our lesson from Acts, we hear more from Peter’s sermon after the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. Peter is laying it all on the line to his listeners. You remember last week, he pointed out that they had crucified the Lord. The crowd and religious leaders with the “lawless” folks–that is the gentiles, the Romans–had conspired in such a way that Jesus, an innocent man–more than that: the Messiah–had been executed. Peter reiterates the charge in today’s portion:

“‘Therefore let the entire House of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” (Acts 2:36-37)

Peter doesn’t pull any punches. He nails them again. “This Jesus whom you crucified…” This isn’t a compliment sandwich. Peter isn’t following the accepted patterns of how to get a crowd on your side. Jesus. An innocent person. Crucified. And you, Peter says to his hearers, are responsible. And yet they don’t respond with anger. Miraculously they respond with regret. “When they heard this, they were cut to the heart.” Actually, they’re responding with more than regret. This is conviction. This is repentance. “What should we do?” they ask.

They want to know, given the charges against them, what should they do? What can they do?

Peter tells them. And the amazing thing is this: before they are even told what to do, and what will happen when they follow the Apostle’s instruction, the work of God is already manifest in them.

Repent.

Be Baptized–every one of them–in the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s what they can do. And when they do, Peter tells them, they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit is already at work. We know the Spirit is at work with Peter and the other Apostles, including, by the way, Mary the mother of Jesus. It descended on them like tongues of fire and a mighty wind. It was hard to miss. But something inspired the hearers as well. They were cut to the heart. They wanted to make amends. They wanted to repent, they just didn’t know what that entailed. Peter tell them.

Their actions, from before the time when they converted, was prompted by the Holy Spirit. Did all of them convert? We don’t know. We do know that scripture tells us 3000 were converted in a single day. We know that some among them at least, were convicted enough to ask Peter what they needed to do. That was evidence of the work of the Spirit. And for those who were Baptized, who died with Christ and rose with him, they could look for more of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

That’s what drives us as Christians. That’s what drives our peculiarly Christian acts. They’re inspired. We’re inspired. We’re filled with the breath of God, and we act accordingly.

Consider: the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism at the beginning of his ministry. The Spirit descends upon the apostles and empowers them to preach and teach in ways they never imagined. The Spirit speaks to the hearts of the listeners and prompts remorse and repentance. The Spirit animates the Christian life.

God breaths out, we breath in. And we go to work.

Repentance is a beginning.

–That frees us from bondage to the past, while encouraging us to redress wrongs.

Baptism is a beginning.

–In it we are buried with Christ, and Christ now lives in us.

—In it we receive the Holy Spirit

Receiving the Spirit is a beginning.

–Not an end point or an end goal, but a beginning.

—A beginning that equips us to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ.

—-To follow the great commandment to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

—–To fulfill the mission of the Church “to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ” (BCP 855).

We don’t talk about the work of the Spirit enough. Especially as it is the Spirit that Jesus promised to send us as a comforter, an advocate. Because it is the Spirit that intercedes for us with sighs and groaning too deep for words when we cannot articulate our needs or concerns ourselves.

When human language fails us: There is the Spirit.

-When human love fails us: There is the Spirit.

–When human capacities of any sort fail us in our efforts to follow Jesus: There is the Spirit.

We see the work of the Spirit in this selection from Acts: The Spirit indwells the apostles, the Spirit inspires the preacher, the Spirit works in the hearts of the hearers, the Spirit inspires repentance, the Spirit is the gift of repentance in Baptism, the Spirit then works the work of God in and through human beings who become agents of the divine calling.

And what does this agency of God accomplish in us?

The Catechism tells us “The Holy Spirit is revealed as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ” (BCP 852).

It is in growing in the likeness of Christ that we become able to be reconciled with one another. We must be reconciled to God first, and as we are drawn closer to God, and we receive the gifts of the Spirit, we are equipped to fight the alienation that separates us from one another, even as we are being drawn together by the love of Christ.

The Holy Spirit, in other words, is not only the animating force of the Christian life, in doing this, the Holy Spirit becomes the animating force of God in the Community of God’s people. It is not a whim that the Church follows the discussion of the Spirit in both the Nicene Creed and in our Catechism. Community itself is a gift of the Spirit. It would not endure without the Spirit, even as we would not endure in the Christian life without the comfort, advocacy, and intercession of the Spirit in our own lives. As Peter says of the entire gospel: “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39). God does not call people to a life of solitary faithfulness, without encouragement, without assistance, without bearing witness to the faithfulness of others. God calls us together. And this too is the work of the Spirit.

By the Spirit we are called to repent, to follow, to bear witness to, to imitate. And all as we gravitate toward one another, becoming Christ’s body in the world, becoming members of the collective Body of Christ, existing within the body, even as Christ lives in each of us. As John’s gospel recounts Jesus saying “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

So what drives us to the peculiar actions that characterize the Christian faith? The Spirit drives us, as the Spirit drove Christ into the wilderness, and beyond.

And as the Spirit’s work was revealed in the solidarity of Christ with us, descending upon him in his baptism, where he threw in his lot with sinful humanity to “fulfill all righteousness,” so too does the Spirit drive us to unity and solidarity with God and with one another:

We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation (BCP 852).

The Spirit is at the center of our Christian lives. The presence of the Spirit is a witness to the promises of God. We really shouldn’t shy away from talking about it. After all, it is the Spirit that prompts us in all these things.

The God that most Christians worship is evil

David Bentley Hart (left) receives the Michael Ramsey Prize from Archbishop Rowan Williams.

David Bentley Hart lowers the boom  in this wide-ranging podcast interview. From a discussion of the way an understanding of salvation that consists in being saved from God rather than from sin and death makes God into a capricious and wicked idol, the reasons Process Theology is philosophically incoherent (basically it makes God into a god or demiurge rather than the ground of all being in perfect plenitude). Also discussed are the reasons the idea of inherited guilt is based on a mis-translation of Romans 5, the fact that it is fundamentalists and not the hellenistic influenced Christian (and Jewish) intellectual tradition who are thinking like pagans, and worshipping a Zeus-like figure. Great stuff. As always, Hart is erudite and to the point. Enjoy.

[Edit: I thought I’d include this great quote. Hart and his interviewer and discussing their struggles with illness, and how this is reflected in a sensitivity and moral outrage in the suffering in the world, Hart says:

“…I think there is a real problem that we have to deal with in the way that most of us have become accustomed to thinking about God. We preach the gospel of the love of God in Christ as a solution to the gospel of the wrath of God in the Father, for instance. It is, at the end of the day, the way it’s construed, the way it’s spoken, the way it’s preached, fundamentally contradictory. And I don’t blame those who reject it. I think that if the choice is between say, a principled atheism and many forms of Christian belief, that the atheism is closer to a true picture of the Christian God because at least it’s a belief in a reality that doesn’t include the petty despot who predestines some to eternal perdition. But the other thing is just a critical and scholarly concern too… that’s sort of a trivial thing, but I just translated the New Testament for Yale… in translating the New Testament I became somewhat indignant actually at the history of translation that one’s fighting against. In part I mean just the traditional translations which with the best will in the world followed theological orthodoxy in their time and place. And many people who are considered authorities on what, say, Paul taught, learned some Greek in seminary and they learned to translate certain words according to the dogmatic tradition which has determined a lot of translations for 500 years, and more than that actually, even the translations into Latin in earlier centuries. But then there are the modern translations like the New International Version which go out of their way to impose readings on the texts that clearly aren’t there in the Greek in order to make them conform say to certain Evangelical understanding… The New International Version for instance imposes readings that are clearly false.”]

Crackers & Grape Juice Episode 34–David Bentley Hart: All Creation Afire as a Burning Bush.

This Jesus God raised up…

Sermon notes for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017
Scripture: Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Peter, full of the Spirit (and not drunk at all), speaks to the crowd: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

We are witnesses still.

Like those who cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, hopeful about the future, we are witnesses to hope and to the fact that sometimes we hope for the wrong things. Many of those who greeted Jesus waving palm fronds seem to have been hopeful about a new military leader, a royal claimant who would kick out the Romans as the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees) had expelled the Seleucid armies before them. Tired of being the push-me pull-me of the Near East, the Jewish people hoped once again to gain their independence.

But Jesus was insistent that his Kingdom is not like other kingdoms. It is not begotten in war, and cannot be conquered. It will have no end. Those folks with the palms, their hope was skewed, but they nevertheless witnessed the fruition of God’s promise to give them a kingdom not trodden under foot by any oppressor. To reveal an enduring reality impossible to thwart: the dominion of God in this world.

So Peter calls them witnesses.

We are witnesses still.

Like the crowds who called for Jesus’ crucifixion, we have witnessed the petty and idolatrous pull of power and the simple avoidance of discomfort that animates systems to crush those who, for a multitude of reasons, find themselves crossways with a bureaucracy and culture that cares little about truth, little about the human, little about hearts, and much about keeping things as they are. It doesn’t matter what bureaucracy you pick. Fill in the blank. Some are more obvious in their idolatry of comfort, ideology, or purity, over people, but all human systems breed people who, like the Temple leaders who told Judas to “see to it himself” rather than to accept his returned blood money, and Pilate who told the Jewish people to “see to it” themselves, and who cynically pursued the trial of Jesus as a means of bolstering his own power and position, going so far as to symbolically wash his hands, as though he could remove the guilt of sending an innocent man to death. As though he were not to discover, like Lady MacBeth, that the stain of blood on one’s hands cannot be expunged by any natural water. Like a character on the Shakespearian stage, we can imagine similar words for Pilate: “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” (MacBeth, 5.1.41-43)

But the spot will not come out. Pilate’s hands are not clean.

Neither are ours when we sacrifice the innocent, the weak, the wounded, the frail, for the fleeting glory of worldly power, or the simple avarice of self-aggrandizement, intellectual comfort, or worldly goods.

As Rowan Williams has written:

“the more we seek—individually, socially, and nationally—to protect ourselves at all costs from intrusion, injury, and loss, the more we tolerate a public rhetoric incapable of affirming our mortal uncertainties, errors, and insecurities, the more we stand under Ezekiel’s judgment for ‘abominable deeds’—the offering of fleshly persons on the altar of stone” (Williams, “Hearts of Flesh,” in A Ray of Darkness, 35-36).

In other words Jesus is a threat because he calls out power, and demonstrates its emptiness. He does not need to defend himself because his power is as different in scale and in kind as black hole is from a ripple on a lake. It’s impossible to escape the judgement of the judge who goes on trial, the King who rules and pronounces forgiveness from a cross, because it calls out the fact that we as a people will do anything to hide our weakness, especially ridding ourselves of those who remind us of it.

Pilate wasn’t the only offender. Peter preaches to the crowd and says “you crucified and killed [Jesus] by the hands of those outside the law.” Pilate and the Romans were outside the teaching of the Torah–the Law–being gentiles. This is not a charge that should be seen as specifically raised against the Jewish people, as has far too often erroneously and with horrible consequence been taught.  Instead, it’s a pointing out that if the Law had penetrated the hearts of those who were called to internalize it, they would not have demonstrated the priorities they did. This is an issue prior to the question of whether they were willing to give up the popular conception of the Messiah. Peter is highlighting the expediency that attended the calls for Christ’s crucifixion.

So Peter calls them witnesses.

Because any one of us can look and find examples of such failures in our society and in ourselves:

We are witnesses still.

We are witnesses, surely, of the failings of our society, and undeniably of our own failures and the ramifications of sin in our own lives. Many of us have witnessed cruelty, more than a few have inflicted it from time to time, sometimes unwittingly.

We are witnesses as well to the fact that we have been wounded and harmed by others. I do not believe any of us wound that have not been wounded. None of us are unscathed.

And yet, this is not what Peter is actually calling the crowd, or us, to bear witness to. Or at least, that’s not the whole story. It’s not a very attention grabbing story either, unfortunately. “People are Bad” isn’t exactly a man bites dog headline.

Yes, many people worked for the execution of Jesus. And all of us are implicated because it is human sinfulness that bears the ultimate blame. But Peter calls the crowd witnesses of something specific:

“This Jesus God raised up….”

In other words, the crowd to whom Peter speaks, they are witnesses of the fact that in the face of everything I listed and more, God raised Jesus from the dead.

And we are witnesses still.

Like Thomas–I hesitate to call out his doubts as all that distinct from those of the other disciples, so let’s call him Thomas the ill-timed–like him, we are invited to examine the wounds in Christ.

And why would that be?

Because of everything I listed.

Because those wounds demonstrate that God did not come to earth to skate on through. It wasn’t something to check off of a list. The wounds of Christ bear witness to everything that happened before Easter morning. God will wipe away every tear. But the tears are still worth crying.

I said on Palm Sunday that the Cross is important for those who have experienced oppression, that the blood of Christ is important for those who have suffered. To unpack that a bit more, people who have borne the burden of human sin in their flesh and in their psyche should not be expected to identify with a sanitized man-God that would be more at home in b-movies whether religious or sci-fi, than in the real world of human sin and frailty.

I think that’s all true. But there’s more.

All of us are wounded in our lives. I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t. If you’ve escaped unscathed thus far, please talk to me after church, I want to know your secret.

We are witnesses to our own wounds. To our own pain.

And we are witnesses that the God who created us in the divine image, saw our woundedness, and that Christ, who is the exact imprint of God’s nature, the Word made flesh, became flesh fully. Including by bearing the marks of human sin. And God raised Jesus from the dead. His body, his flesh, was given new life. But a new life that redeemed all that came before. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side….”

Just as the cross is redeemed be God to change from a sign of horrendous agony, death, and an exhibit of human wickedness, into a sign of hope and life, so the wounds of Christ are transformed in the resurrection, and are redeemed. They are no longer signs of defeat, signs of evil’s triumph. They are instead the signs of identity, markers of solidarity, and their place in the story is re-written to be a testimony of Jesus’ triumph in the face of the anti-trinity of sin, death, and the devil.

The message for us in this Easter season, is that it is not only our souls that God redeems. God has come for all of us, and for all of each one of us–body, soul, and mind. The crowd that Peter spoke to were witnesses of this fact, of this most dynamic power of the resurrection.

“I saw the Lord always before me…” I saw the wounded Lord, always before me. “I will not be shaken…”

We are witnesses still.

The other wall…

I’m seeing a lot about the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the case about to go before the SCOTUS. The background of the case regards grants given to non-profit tax-exempt schools to improve the safety of their playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran School applied and, I read, their application ranked 5 out of the thirty-something received, with 14 grants available. They were rejected because Missouri, like 38 other states, has a Blaine amendment in its constitution that forbids the direct funding of religious institutions. These amendments are a relic of an attempt to add such an amendment to the US constitution. Part (though not all) of the motivation for these amendments was anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant sentiment at a time when public schools across the country were basically Protestant parochial schools and often centers of “Americanization.”

The case is interesting for a number of reasons, and touches on several issues I’ve been reflecting on for some time.

First the main issues that people are writing about:

  • Can a state constitution go beyond the United States Constitution in restricting something, in this case, can a state constitution more narrowly define what constitutes establishment. I don’t know if it will have direct bearing on the case, but this reminds me that the Tennessee constitution had a provision that forbade clergy from holding elected office, which was found unconstitutional in 1978 (the last state to have one).
  • Related to the first, is it religious discrimination or does it burden free exercise to exclude some tax-exempt/non-profit organizations from such grants because of their religious identity.

I think these questions are worth asking. The list of Amicus Curiae over at the SCOTUS blog  is very interesting. Most of the briefs seem to have been filed in favor of Trinity Lutheran, but it is interesting that some of the religious ones where not. Reading the briefs on both sides is informative.

I’ve always had some ambivalent feelings about religious organizations taking tax money. I was nervous about President George W. Bush’s office of Faith Based Initiatives because of the reality that accepting money always gives a person or organization a real or percieved degree of control. As one of my friends used to put it “you take the man’s money, you play by the man’s rules.” I’ve heard enough about the mixed bag having a church on the national register of historic places, for example, to say nothing of more contentious issues.

Which brings me to the underlying issue that I think is at play in our society: the proper role of Churches and other non-profits. Whenever issues like this come up on line (another hot button is the clergy housing allowance exclusion) there are always people who ask why churches shouldn’t be treated like businesses. The short answer is that churches are not businesses. Most churches are small. They were granted tax-exempt status not because they were religious, but for the same reason other non-profits were: they are intermediate institutions in society that are cooperative in nature and that, ostensibly at least, work for the common good. Because of this, our society determined that it would be wrong to burden voluntary associations made up of tax payers, whose missions and goals benefit society, with another layer of taxation.

The long and short of it is that, as a Christian, I would almost rather churches paid taxes, to rid ourselves of as much of any sense of beholden-ness to the state as we can. On the other hand, as a citizen, I actually do think these intermediate/mediating institutions are extremely important, especially in a society which is polarizing along too many lines to count (geography, generationally, racially, and certain economically).

 

For Trinity Sunday–John Donne, Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God

Trinity Woodcut

Trinity Woodcut

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Prayer, Relics, and Miraculous Hope

What started out as a “last throw of the dice” to save the Anglican Communion has succeeded–at least for now. One would think there would be some thanksgiving, but instead there is lots of frustration and outrage. I can understand and respect the frustration that those present at the meeting might have felt as they left–reconciliation when parties are at an impasse usually leaves all sides a little worn and tired, and often, a little bit frustrated–in the sense of not getting what they would want in a “perfect world” of their own design. Reconciled, at least initially, may not mean “happy,” though one would hope it might mean the twinkling of a deeper, growing, joy.

But, I suppose upon reflection, frustration with the discipline leveled at The Episcopal Church is understandable and predictable, both from Episcopalians who do not like the idea of being disciplined at all, or perhaps at being singled out1, as well as from those observers–conservative Episcopalians or members of any number of extramural Anglican bodies in the US, or Anglican provinces around the world–who hoped for the more radical discipline of expelling The Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion (though lots of folks are incorrectly reporting–or at least headlines are leading people to believe–that this was the result).

So what were the results of the meeting?

First, I think it’s important to note that, despite our tendency to think about ourselves first, the Primates talked about more than The Episcopal Church and sexuality. With that being said, I will talk about other aspects of the Communique at the end of this post. The Primates were forced to release the portion of the communique dealing with the Episcopal Church early, on Thursday evening, separate from the final communique, because of fears it would be leaked and would be subject to spin from whatever media outlet or blog managed to get ahold of it. This despite the fact that the media blackout at this meeting was much better than in the past.

The vote to expel the Episcopal Church failed. So headlines that say The Episcopal Church has been suspended or expelled from the Anglican Communion are simply false. If you read that claim in the body of an article, I might suggest you just put it away and read something else, since it’s likely they’ve gotten a lot of other details incorrect as well.

The way I summarized the portion dealing with the Episcopal Church was this:

We won’t be called on by the teacher, and we’ve been told to stand in the corner, but we haven’t been expelled from the school.

Functionally, what this means is that the Episcopal Church has been (or the Primates have asked that the Episcopal Church be) suspended from full participation in certain committees of the Anglican Communion. The limits spelled out actually continue and put a time frame on an already existing indefinite limit that prevented Episcopalians from being involved in international conversations representing the Anglican Communion to, say, the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. Indeed, at St. Joseph’s and in the Diocese of Tennessee, we are familiar with one priest that this earlier suspension in 2010 directly affected, The Rev. Carola Von Wrangel, who was the interim for a time at the Church of the Advent in Nashville, and who visited St. Joseph’s in her ministry capacity with Food for the Poor.

This earlier suspension was possible because these are appointed positions and being “suspended” effectively means that the person doing the appointing–usually the Archbishop of Canterbury–simply doesn’t appoint certain people to those bodies.

The new limits are more involved, being related as their are to a body called The Anglican Consultative Council. It will be up to this group to determine how or whether to adhere to the Primates statement.  The exclusion specifically relates to the ability of Episcopalians on certain international commissions within the Communion itself, and asks that Episcopalians not vote on any doctrinal or polity (structural) decisions. As one of my friends, and former professors, who has a very different take on this meeting than me (believing that the primates have overstepped their authority) put it, “in a purely consultative body, there is no distinction between voice and vote.” He brings up an interesting point. Related to it is simply that there have traditionally been very few actual votes taken at these bodies. They’re more tasked with dealing with specific issues, or crafting consensus statements than they are taking up or down votes, especially on doctrine or polity.

Finally, The Rev. Winnie Varghese, a progressive priest from the Diocese of New York with whom many at General Convention became familiar with through the mellifluous tones with which she announced “The vote is open… the vote is closing…. the vote is closed…” made the comment that “Only in the Anglican Communion is not serving on committees for a time considered a real punishment.” I don’t really want to make light of some peoples’ frustration but… OK… yes I do. This needs to be placed in context. There are a lot of people who would enjoy being excluded from committees. Let’s be honest.

All of that said, I think these actions were significant. They are unheard of. And while people may get frustrated with the Primates–fundamentally a teaching body and not an executive or judicial structure–taking such action, I think, absent some sort of spelled out mechanism for dealing with disagreement, these sorts of things are going to remain ad hoc. I think the decisions were hardly surprising, except insofar as they were able to actually come to an agreement at all. I sort of hope that our Presiding Bishop, when he said this was not the result we expected, actually meant this was not the result we hoped for because, honestly, I don’t know how we could’ve expected anything less, short of the meeting simply breaking down, given the last decade of statements etc… from the Communion on these matters, and the previous actions taken to remove Episcopalians from dialogues. Indeed, on Tuesday of the week of the Primates meeting, when a friend asked for my thoughts about the meeting, and what I thought was likely, I indicated that, at the very least, the earlier limits would remain in place, and that there might be some other mechanisms the Primates would have to limit the involvement of The Episcopal Church on some committees etc. I don’t consider myself prescient, so I tend to think it was a predictable response.

What does this actually mean?

My conviction right now though, given the factors in play ahead of time, is that this is a tremendously good outcome that says much about Justin Welby’s gifts in the area of reconciliation, and speaks volumes for his leadership abilities–including the ability to surround himself with good people.  

I say this because of the fact that even having another Primates Meeting, or ever having another Lambeth Conference (the decennial global meeting of Anglican bishops), was in question prior to this meeting. Welby spent the first 18 months of his Archiepiscopate visiting the provinces of the Communion and talking with their primates. The fact he was able to get them all to the same table again was a huge victory. The fact that they remained there until the end, with one exception (the Primate of Uganda), and even that Primate affirmed the desire that all the churches of the communion remain together, stands in stark contrast to the predictions of boycott or walkout that plagued the meeting beforehand and during. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of some particular retirements either. There has been significant turnover among the primates, and, as anyone who has dealt with organizational dynamics knows, sometimes it’s better to deal with a contentious issue after certain personalities have left the stage, especially when they had toxic relationships with one another that would blow up efforts at consensus building.

I think the results–at the very least, the willingness to stay together in a Communion–however parts of the Primate’s statement chafe–are a witness to the power of prayer, and I commend those who planned the meeting. There were a number of steps that struck me as establishing a fruitful atmosphere for such discussion.

First, having the Community of St. Anselm praying for the meeting throughout the deliberations. This is a new monastic community established by Archbishop Welby at Lambeth Palace a few years ago. The prior is Anders Litzell, who grew up in the Swedish Pentecostal church, and came into Anglicanism through St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn Il. while a student at Wheaton College (I think this may have been when Bishop Matthew Gunter was rector there). He was later ordained in the Church of England. His ecclesial journey is in some ways emblematic of the community, which has, as part of its core identity and purpose, the coming together of Christians of various denominations and backgrounds:

In addition to the presence of the Community of St. Anselm, there were consistent calls for prayer from members of the Communion (through a better use of the internet and social media than we have seen in the past, I might add. There were even prayer resources posted). Added to the foundational presence of prayer, were items–relics if you will–to inspire holy remembrance. Reflection on where the Anglican Communion came from, on the faith of those who have taken the gospel to all corners of the world in all times. These two items included the top of Pope St. Gregory the Great’s crozier, thanks to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, alongside the book of the gospels given by St. Gregory to St. Augustine. All of this strikes me as very thoughtful and organized.

To top it off, given that one of the main thrusts of the meeting had to be reconciliation, having Jean Vanier, one of the founders of the L’Arche community, be one of the presenters, was a great way to get folks thinking about the hard work of community and communion.

Prior to and during the meeting, people were predicting a walkout by as many as fifteen of the thirty-eight primates. During the meeting there were stories written about frustration and supposed machinations in the structure of the meeting intended to “keep conservatives apart,” so they couldn’t communicate with one another or stage a protest. Those reports have subsequently been revealed as false, rejected even by some of the most conservative people present, such as Archbishop Foley Beach, of The Anglican Church in North America (a church that some hope, will one day either replace the Episcopal Church as the legitimate representative of Anglicanism in the United States or at least, be recognized alongside the Episcopal Church).

Without some sort of discipline coming out of the meeting, I believe the Communion would likely have fragmented–or at the very least, would’ve remained frozen in conflict. If the Communion had broken up, North Americans wouldn’t suffer appreciably physically–though I think The Episcopal Church would be spiritually impoverished without our Communion connections–but in other parts of the communion there would be real physical consequence to those broken relationships. I don’t think standing in the corner (especially when part of those limits have already been in place for years) is too high a price to pay to prevent that. Doing so also provides for continued engagement on precisely the topics folks are most concerned about. Break relationship completely, and there’s no means to gain a hearing.

The most important decision

I believe the most important decision of the gathering, and the one upon which all else hinges, is the unanimous decision the Primates made “to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ,” as well as their efforts to look “at what that meant in practical terms.” This was the most important decision, and in some ways the most surprising in its unanimity. While it’s true that there’s a three year window during which, following the next General Convention, many primates are probably hoping the Episcopal Church will walk back its decision on marriage (which I don’t think is going to happen) and that other provinces, such as Canada, Scotland, and Aotearoa and New Zealand, will decide not to follow suit (which they probably will anyway), that three years also gives us time. It gives us time, I pray, to find what Archbishop Welby talked about–a means of “disagreeing well,” and moving ahead together.

I do want to note some appreciation for our Presiding Bishop. I disagree with Bishop Curry on a number of issues, but, despite not being in 100% agreement with him, I think we should be thankful that he represented us at the meeting. No offense meant against our previous Presiding Bishop, but I believe Bishop Curry’s manner of expressing his faith is one that could more fruitfully engage with the other primates. I also think that he was able to express the positive reasons behind the actions The Episcopal Church has taken as a body, not in terms of capitulation to culture, but, in the best cases, as part of what many within our body have discerned to be faithfulness to Christ. I think this is a reality that those of us who aren’t completely on board with the changes have to deal with respectfully and thoughtfully. Just as when the people asking for recognition of their relationships are not seen as part of a plot to destroy western civilization, but rather as brothers and sisters in Christ, it changes our perspective, so too does it change the dynamic of a conversation when we recognize that a brother or sister who disagrees with us claims they’re holding their position out of loyalty to Jesus. That’s the place where I believe good conversation and debate amongst Christians has to begin.

Episcopal News Service released an article that contained a portion of Bishop Curry’s remarks prior to the vote:

Before the Jan. 14 vote, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry told the primates gathering Jan. 11-15 in Canterbury, England, that the statement calling for the sanctions would be painful for many in the Episcopal Church to receive.

“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome,” Curry said in remarks he later made available to Episcopal News Service. “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he added. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”

Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

“The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.” {Read the whole article}

 

How have people been reacting?

With anger, frustration, and hurt, or with exasperation that more wasn’t done. Others have been more temperate. Below are a collection of responses from people in significant positions, or whose response I thought was just well written:

The Rev. Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church (the person who chairs the larger of the two deliberative bodies that make up General Convention), wrote a response in which she reiterated the limits of the Primates authority, the commitment that General Convention would not go back on the decisions that have been made, and that she would attend the Anglican Consultative Council as planned, and intends to “participate fully.” She expressed her appreciation for the Primate’s condemnation of homophobia, and of the criminalization of homosexuality, but shared her concerns for LGBTI community, particularly in Africa. {Read it all}

Bishop Matt Gunter of Fon du Lac, someone who supports the actions of General Convention in regard to marriage, but who would otherwise not generally be called a “progressive,” wrote shared his response on his blog, writing in part “It is important to note that this is not about whether or not the Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion. We are. That has not changed. Rather, this is a recognition of the deep disagreement with the decisions we have made. I have argued more or less in support of the position taken by the Episcopal Church. I still believe we are on a faithful path. But, I take seriously the strains this has put on our Communion. It is possible to believe that one is right while accepting that acting on that conviction might come with consequences. And then to accept the consequences.” {Read it all}

Bishop Daniel Martins, of Springfield, (Bishop Dan preached at St. Joseph’s a few years ago when the House of Bishops met in Nashville), writes “The Anglican Communion is absolutely vital to our identity as Episcopalians. It calls us out of ourselves and our time-bound and place-bound needs and perceptions. It resources our life of worship and devotion as we drink from the font of accumulated centuries of Christian experience long before the gospel even reached these shores. Our communion with the ancient See of Canterbury is the primary means by which we connect to the great Catholic tradition, the historic episcopate by which we remain faithful to the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (language from our Baptismal Covenant). Without the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church would be just one more obscure boutique American sect. It’s not an optional extra, but is of the essence of who we are.” {Read it all}

Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, my own bishop, writes the following:

“The Primates of the Anglican Communion concluded their meeting today with the issuing of a Communique dealing with a wide range of issues, including climate change, the rise of religiously motivated violence in many places of the world, and the need for child protection measures in all the churches of the Communion. They committed themselves and the churches of the Communion to the evangelical proclamation throughout the world of “the person and work of Jesus Christ.”

But there is no doubt that matters of human sexuality, in particular the 2015 action of the Episcopal Church in changing its marriage canons to make possible the marriage in the church of same-sex couples, dominated the discussions of the Primates. Members of the Diocese of Tennessee should be cautious in reading the headlines in the media. “Addendum A” of the Communique outlines the actual steps to be taken as a result of the Episcopal Church’s action at the General Convention this summer. Members of our church will no longer be appointed to represent the Anglican Communion in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues. They should no longer be appointed or elected to standing committees of the Communion, and in internal bodies of the Communion our representatives will not take part in decisions about matters of doctrine or polity.

Some members of our church will be surprised at these developments, or wonder at their sense or logic, yet they were foreseeable in terms of previous developments and outcomes over the past decade and a half.” {Read it all}

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s brief response is shared in the video below, but I encourage you to watch the longer video in which he reflects on some of the background and context as well, which is included later in the post:

In the media and on the internet, responses have run the gamut. Theologian, The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner has written about the meeting in First Things, saying:

The extraordinary meeting of world Anglican leaders, organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has ended after five days of prayer and deliberation. The meeting’s outcome, articulated in a statement released Friday, has surprised many. When Archbishop Welby called for the meeting of Anglican Primates last September—the Primates are mostly archbishops who head their respective churches—the press billed the gathering as a “last ditch effort to save the Anglican Communion.” Others, claiming inside knowledge of the goings on in Welby’s circle, ominously reported that he was ready to “dismantle” the Communion altogether, in view of intractable divisions among its members. And it is true: Welby presented the Primates with a series of possible ways forward for Anglicanism, that included a radical loosening of relationships.

As it has turned out, however, the Primates decided (“unanimously”) to stay the course of the Communion’s established order, indeed to strengthen that ordering and to maintain the ecclesial commitments that lie behind it. {Read it all}

Some have argued that the results of the meeting, and the consequences announced in the Primates Communique is nothing less than sheer hypocrisy (see Jonathan Merritt’s piece in the Atlantic: The Hypocrisy of Anglican Church’s Suspension of the Episcopal Branch ). I deal with some of Merritt’s critique below in my annotations on the Primates statement itself.

Others have pointed out some of the problematic tones taken by criticism of the Primates:

Memories of this paternalistic and monochrome view of Africa returned as I observed the response of some members of the Episcopal Church to the recent meeting of the Primates. I have listened as we lambasted “the Africans” as if they form one country that spoke one language and shared one view of the world: apparently, uninformed bigotry.[1] We have pretended that they are not a multi-cultural continent with the same mix of good and bad that is indicative of all societies. I must say this as plainly as possible: If Korea, Japan, India, and China shared a similar view on human sexuality would we blame — implicitly and explicitly — “Asian” culture? Would we speak about them as a monolith? Would we assume that they are unthinking and “behind” America and the West? This smacks of cultural imperialism. It is cultural imperialism. {Read it all}

Others, have called out the rancor that seems to be infecting many responses. The Rev. Canon Robert Hendrickson, of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, writes:

“The Episcopal Church – this supposedly high-minded and elevated form of rational Christianity – has succumbed to the nastiest abusiveness of fellow Christians.  Whether it is the veiled racism of referring to “the Africans” or the copious use of various forms of the word “bigot” or casting the acts of the Primates as devious and underhanded – we are reacting in ways entirely out of proportion to the sanction that we have received.” (Read it all)

Hendrickson’s closing is perhaps the best word I’ve yet seen on the matter: “So let’s take a breath and heed Psalm 37, ‘Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.'”

I would encourage folks to watch the video of the post meeting press conference, as well as Bishop Curry’s more in depth response, and then read the Communique in full below.

 

A longer interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry following the Primates meeting:

The Primates Communique, with my comments bracketed and in bold italics:

Continue reading


  1. People have rightly pointed out that the Windsor Report, which in some ways laid the foundation for much of what has transpired since, even though it has not been adhered to completely, condemns the crossing of church boundaries by bishops from one province into another, such as that which happened with the establishment of The Anglican Mission in America (Originally Rwanda, now… well, it’s complicated), The Convocation of Anglicans in North America (Nigeria), as well as various parishes sponsored by Kenyan, Ugandan, and various South American provinces, which have mostly now joined together into the Anglican Church in North America. I suppose the argument of the border crossing bishops would be that they are not now actively crossing borders, the division now being maintained wholly by the choice of Americans. There is a bit more meat to the charge of hypocrisy related to the criminalization of homosexuality in some African countries, with the support of some Anglicans. But the situation is not exactly the same, because, on the one hand the Communion is dealing with official legislative actions by The Episcopal Church, while on the other it is dealing with opinions and political positions taken by individual Anglicans, which, while including some clergy, it still pretty far out of the scope of something one would discipline a province for. The one charge of hypocrisy that does, in some ways, ring true, has to do with the Anglican Church of Canada, which is not so far removed from the Episcopal Church. The answer to why The US has been disciplined and the Canadians have not, to my mind, is related to the same issues that lead some folks to say that you should claim to be Canadian and not American when you travel abroad. People have a chip on their shoulder about what they perceive–whether rightly or wrongly in any particular situation, as American arrogance. []
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