Monday, October 6, 2014

Musical Interlude with U2: "October"

And the trees are stripped bare 
Of all they wear
What do I care? 

And kingdoms rise 
And kingdoms fall 
But you go on 
And on ...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wolfhart Pannenberg on a Root Cause of Church Decline

In the wake of Wolfhart Pannenberg's recent death, a clergy colleague shared a brief excerpt from the great theologian's 1991 book An Introduction to Systematic Theology:

If theology does not properly face its particular task regarding the truth claims of the Christian tradition, then it easily happens that the clergy of the church are the first to become insecure and evasive about the message they are supposed to preach. When they become doubtful about the truth of the gospel, they will tend to replace it by other ‘causes,’ and the believers will be disturbed, because they no longer get to hear in church what they rightfully expect to be taught here.

Replacing the Gospel with "other 'causes'" - sadly, that could end up being an epitaph for mainline denominations.

I agree with my clergy colleague who said that Pannenberg here gives both a reason and an antidote to church decline.  

For more, check out Philip Clayton's obituary for Pannenberg.  See also Michael Root's 2012 essay for First Things entitled "The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Virgin Mary is Necessary to Salvation

It has long been a tradition at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge to transfer certain Feast Days of the Church Calendar for observance on Sundays, and that includes the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.  Since I became rector of St. Luke's in January 2013, and with the bishop's permission, we have maintained that tradition.

Below is my sermon from today for St. Mary the Virgin.  I decided to touch on why the Virgin Mary is necessary to our salvation, and how our salvation hinges on the consent of this poor Jewish peasant girl.

When I turn my thoughts to the Virgin Mary's response to the angel Gabriel, it never fails to inspire awe.  Truly, she deserves our veneration and deepest respect.

Mary & Child Icon Sinai 13th century.jpg

"Mary & Child Icon Sinai 13th century" by Unknown - Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai (Egypt) / K. Weitzmann: "Die Ikone". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a kid, I had virtually no idea who the Virgin Mary was. She was all but invisible.

In the Methodist church of my childhood, for example, I cannot recall a single time that St. Mary the virgin mother of our Lord Jesus Christ was the focus of a sermon or a Sunday school lesson. We used the Apostles’ Creed on Sundays, so she received a kind of ‘honorable mention’ in our worship. And every Advent we had the largest outdoor Nativity scene in town. But there was never any attempt to directly talk about her significance for the Christian faith and life. It was almost as though she didn’t exist.

The same thing was true at the boarding school I attended. Even though we had mandatory chapel services each school day for the four years I was there, the Virgin Mary never once showed up. In fact, I don’t recall hearing anything about any of the saints during those years.

That’s really sad. For in a world hungry for beauty, truth, moral integrity, and spiritual transformation, the saints provide concrete examples of what it looks like for one’s very being to radiate the love and mercy of God. They serve as role models that can inspire all of us to obedience and faithful discipleship.

Of all of the saints of God, that is particularly true of the blessed Virgin Mary. If we were to name some of the qualities that set her apart as special and unique, we could cite things like prayerfulness, humility, joyful submission to the will and word of God, and absolute loyalty and devotion to Jesus.

It’s precisely because of these qualities that Christians have honored Mary going all the way back to the earliest days of the Church.

And Holy Scripture celebrates the special place of Mary in the story of the Christian faith. 

Both St. Matthew and St. Luke testify to the Church’s conviction that Jesus was born of a virgin mother. The Gospels also tell us that Mary - along with many other women - played a vital role in meeting Jesus’ needs during his earthly ministry. On that dark day at Calvary, as Jesus died in agony on the cross forsaken by most of the male disciples, Mary was there keeping agonizing watch over her precious child. Mary was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit transformed fearful disciples into bold witnesses to the resurrection. From beginning to end, Mary was there bearing witness to the virtues of faithfulness, obedience, courage, and perseverance.

We also know from St. Luke that Mary was the first person to say “yes” to God’s plan to bring Jesus into the world.

Think for a moment of other biblical stories where God calls somebody (usually a man) to do a great work. Typically, the man offers one of the following responses to God:

“I’m not smart enough!”

“I don’t have a good speaking voice!”

“I’m just a boy, I can’t handle this!”

“I’m not worthy!”

Time and time again, God gets an earful of excuses and false humility.

By contrast, how does the teenage, unwed, virgin Mary respond to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah, the Savior of the world?

First, overcome with awe and wonder, she asks a question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answers her question, telling her that God’s power will overshadow her and that with God, all things are possible.

And so how does Mary respond? Does she try to pawn the offer off on to somebody else? Does she complain about how unworthy she is, or how afraid this makes her feel, or how this is something she’s simply too young to handle?

No. Instead, Mary responds with some of the most memorable words in all of Holy Scripture:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Without further questions, without bargaining, and with tremendous courage, Mary voluntarily and completely submits herself to God’s will. It’s an act of courage that forever stands as a supreme example of what it means to be faithful and obedient to God.

Let’s pause for a moment and imagine what would have happened if Mary had said “no” to God’s plan for salvation through Jesus. What if her fears about what her fiancĂ© Joseph and everybody else would think about an unmarried young woman getting pregnant had determined her response? What if Mary had refused to cooperate with God?

Let’s be clear: if Mary had said “no,” then Jesus would never have been born. And if Jesus was never born, if the Second Person of the Trinity had never become fully human, then he could never have died on the cross and been raised from dead. And if the death and resurrection of Jesus had never happened, then we would still be dead in our sins with no hope for life beyond the grave.

Without the Virgin Mary, there is no Jesus. That means the Virgin Mary is necessary to salvation. That’s how critically important her consent to God’s plan was.

Of course, someone might object and say, “Oh sure, Mary could have said ‘no,’ but then God would have found somebody else to bring Jesus into the world.”

But that completely misses the point about the awesome mystery at work here!

The God we meet in the Bible doesn’t force salvation on anybody. Yes, God always makes the first move. But God also respects our free will by allowing us to respond without coercion.

Just as God chose the people of Israel, God chose Mary. God chose a young girl who was an absolute nobody in her society to conceive and give birth to the Lord of all creation. And it was all contingent on Mary’s consent. 

Just imagine: the future destiny of the world hung in the balance between the simple “yes” or “no” of a poor Jewish peasant girl!

If Mary had said “no,” that one little word would have slammed the door shut on the world’s hope for salvation. But thanks be to God, Mary said “yes.” And by saying “yes,” Mary rightfully deserves our veneration and our highest respect.

The 19th Century Episcopal priest William Porcher DuBose put it well when he wrote:

“Christ was born not merely out of the womb but of the faith and obedience of his Virgin Mother.”

In the face of a life-shattering proposal that would forever alter the course of world history, Mary believed God. Even though she couldn’t even begin to understand how all of this would work out, she trusted that God would take care of her. She trusted that God would work wonders through her son. By trusting God, Mary put her life and the life of her unborn child into God’s hands in a way that said, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

Words fail to express the great mystery God has wrought through this willing servant. For in the Virgin Mary’s womb, God came into union with humanity, making it possible for our sins and infirmities to be taken into the Divine Life for healing. And so she who was a little lower than the angels has been exalted far above all principalities and powers ever to make intercession for us. She is the victorious leader of all who strive for holiness of life.

And so it is right, and a good and joyful thing, that we should give thanks and show the deepest respect for the Virgin Mary, whose willingness to conceive and give birth to Jesus made the Incarnation and our salvation possible.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Remember Christian Soul

That today and every day you have

God to glorify.

Jesus to imitate.

Salvation to work out with fear and trembling.

A body to use rightly.

Sins to repent.

Virtues to acquire.

Hell to avoid.

Heaven to gain.

Eternity to hold in mind.

Time to profit by.

Neighbors to serve.

The world to enjoy.

Creation to use rightly.

Slights to endure patiently.

Kindnesses to offer willingly.

Justice to strive for.

Temptations to overcome.

Death perhaps to suffer.

In all things, God's love to sustain you.

from Saint Augustine's Prayer Book

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fr. Tony Clavier on "the essence of Anglicanism"

In a brief essay entitled "The Anglican Way," Fr. Tony Clavier lays out his understanding of "the essence of Anglicanism." "None of these elements," he's careful to note, "are in themselves the exclusive property of our tradition, but taken together they express what our church - with a small c - has sought to be at its best.  As such these elements are always aspirational rather than accomplished ideals."

According to Fr. Tony, there are three elements comprising the essence of Anglicanism: sanctified time, sanctified space, and sanctified worship.  Here's what he says about each of them:

1. Anglicanism is a church of sanctified time. It embraces the rhythm of life of the community expressed in the annual calendar, and seeks to sanctify days, weeks, months and the year as it notes and observes times and seasons, festivals and fasts. It’s rhythm of worship is tied to this calendar, and expressed in the lectionary, daily offices, rites and ceremonies involved in births, comings of age, marriages and deaths. Time sanctified, as in the sounding of Herbert’s bell, as the ploughman stops work for a moment to acknowledge that his being is blessed by prayer and praise: church bells sounding, filling the very air breathed with God’s sound, heard by the community as men, women and children go about their lives: time sanctified in silence broken by the voice of prayer which never ceases. 
2. Anglicanism is a church of sanctified space. It embraces the land, dividing it into dioceses with mother, cathedral churches, and parishes also with mother parochial buildings, solemnly set aside and blessed, made holy by the prayers of the faithful, by Word and Sacrament and sacramental rite. It aspires to embrace the lives, occupations, joys and tragedies of the people who live within its bounds and calls, sets apart and authorizes ministers in what ever Order, to pastoral care and involvement in that context. Those who actively participate in the worship of the church, whose names are noted in lists and forms, constitute that pastoral ministry to the community, led by bishops, priests and deacons, the indelibility of whose apostolic callings symbolizes the indelibility of the baptismal vocation. 
3. Anglicanism is a church of sanctified worship. It seeks in common prayer, to unite the voices, spoken and imagined, of those in sacred time and space, in disciplined and thus liturgical forms, in praise of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in adoration, supplication and confession, supremely in the Eucharist and then in various forms of common prayer. To that end it seeks the beauty of holiness, corporate lives made holy by use of beauty in word and song, ceremony and rite, art and architecture, vesture and adornment whether simple or elaborate. It dedicates buildings and parts of buildings to God the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit, or to the Trinity, or to holy men and women whose lives have been cause for veneration and emulation in their several ages and generations. These dedicated spaces symbolize and effectuate the vocation of the creature to adore the Creator, as the church on earth participates in and is aided by the worship of heaven.
In each of these ways the church lives into its vocation to tell the whole world of the Coming of Jesus, and is obedient to his commandment to preach, baptize, celebrate the Eucharist and to be his instrument of peace, justice and mercy, in simple obedience until he comes again. It is a vocation suitable to all places in all times, and depends not on what the world terms success or failure, but simply on obedience.

Read it all.

There's much more that can be said about Anglicanism as a unique expression of Christian faith and practice (see, for example, the collection of essays in The Study of Anglicanism, Michael Ramsey's The Anglican Spirit, and James Griffiss' The Anglican Vision). But Fr. Tony does an excellent job of succinctly laying out the basic aspirations of Anglicanism at its best.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Groaning for Redemption: Our Resurrection Hope

The epistle reading assigned for today in the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper 11A is a very powerful passage  Here's an excerpt:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:18-25).

In an article entitled "You Do Not Groan Alone," Courtney Reissig draws on the 8th chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans to offer a moving reflection on pain and suffering.  Beginning with the experience of losing a child, Reissig paints an uncompromisingly realistic portrait of life in a fallen world while also faithfully proclaiming the Gospel hope.  Here are some excerpts from her article:

It doesn’t take long for us to look around and realize that in many ways everything in this world is screaming for redemption. ... As we watch loved ones reject Christ and make a wreck of their lives, we grieve and groan for God to make things right. Every pain-filled cry from our created bodies screams that this is not how it was supposed to be. Every bitter burial of a loved one is a groan for the dirt in the ground that swallows us up to push forth new life in the new creation. Every wrinkle, loose skin, gray hair, and aching back reminds us that this old body needs complete restoration. We are all longing for Christ’s final consummation of all things with every feeble breath we take.

But our groaning is not the final word. The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will one day raise our ailing parents, gone-too-soon children, and cancer-ridden spouses, friends, and family members (Rom. 8:11). Through our suffering we are made like him and assured that we are his children. The Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies on that last day (Rom. 8:16-17). ...

Living in a world that is groaning for redemption is hardly easy. It requires more than we have to give at times. The very Spirit who brought Christ from the cold, dark grave will do the same for us. And when we don’t have eyes of faith to see as clearly as we ought, he intercedes on our behalf. So while we live in this broken world we have hope. Not that it will be easy. Not that we will always feel able to endure. But that this Christ, who will make all things right one day, is sustaining us and making us like him in every gut-wrenching sorrow.

Read it all.

Reissig reminds us that our hope as Christians does not consist of sloughing off our bodies and leaving behind God's creation to spend an eternity of disembodied bliss in heaven.  On the contrary, the Christian hope is a resurrection hope.  We express that hope every time we say, in the words of the Apostles' Creed, that we believe in "the resurrection of the body."  And we affirm that hope every Sunday when we say, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that "we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."  

Our hope for redemption includes our bodies and all of the physical world.  It's about the marriage of heaven and earth as a new creation.  That's what we have to look forward to.  Our souls and bodies groan for this future.  And thanks be to God, that future has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Henry McAdoo: What is Anglicanism?

"[Anglicanism] is a liturgical and sacramental and devotional religion for everyday use by committed people. It is deeply aware that the individual is responsible for living his own life and doing his own decision-making in cooperation with the grace of the Spirit. Yet he is an individual who is a member of the eucharistic fellowship of the baptized and he is called to live 'the new life' of the imitation of Christ in the company of his fellows to whom he owes the duty of love. It is alive to the demands and the difficulties which being human makes on the vocation of 'walking in newness of life' but it is aware too that at the heart of this threefold duty to God, the neighbor and the self, is 'the mystery which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.' Always the strictness of discipline, the care of observance, and the affectivity of devotion are centered on 'the new possibility' which is there when the Life recreates lives through faith and repentance."

~ Henry R. McAdoo, First of its Kind: 
Jeremy Taylor's Life of Christ (1994)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"I Remember When You Were Jesus": A Lesson from Vacation Bible School

Here at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, we recently had our annual Vacation Bible School.  About 90 children attended (twice as many as last year!).  And scores of teens and adults assisted.  It was a truly extraordinary experience that brought people of all ages together for a common purpose. 

As the rector at St. Luke's, it fills me with joy that our VBS touches the lives of children well beyond our parish and day school, welcoming them like Jesus welcomed them, taking them into our care and blessing them with the love of God.

On the last day of VBS, a little boy walked up to me and said: "I remember when you were Jesus."  It was one of the most precious things anybody has ever said to me.  And as I continued to think about that little boy's words, it hit me that every single person who gave their time last week for these little ones was being Jesus for them.  What a powerful reminder that what we do and what we say to others really matters. 

So go forth to seek and serve Christ in every person you meet.  Because you never know.  Someone you've reached out to with a loving word or deed just might look back one day and say: "I remember when you were Jesus."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Musical Interlude with Coldplay: "Midnight"

In the darkness before the dawn
In the swirling of the storm
When I'm rolling with the punches and hope is gone
Leave a light a light on 

Millions of miles from home
In the swirling swimming on
When I'm rolling with the thunder but bleed from thorns
Leave a light a light on
Leave a light a light on 

In the darkness before the dawn
In the darkness before the dawn
Leave a light a light on
Leave a light a light on

Thursday, May 22, 2014

J. R. R. Tolkien: "The one great thing to love on earth"

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. ...  There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires." 

Monday, May 12, 2014

David Bentley Hart: "The limitless beauty of being"

I may be something of a superstitious romantic myself, but it seems to me that one's meditations on the world's contingency should end more or less where they begin: in that moment of wonder, of sheer existential surprise .... It can be a fairly taxing spiritual labor, admittedly - it is, in the end, a contemplative art - but one should strive as far as possible to let all complexities of argument fall away as often as one can, and to make a simple return to that original apprehension of the gratuity of all things. From that vantage, one already knows which arguments about reality are relevant or coherent and which are not, whether or not one has the conceptual vocabulary to express what one knows. In that moment of remote immediacy to things - of intimate strangeness - there may be some element of unreflective innocence, even something childlike; but any philosophy that is not ultimately responsible before what is revealed in that moment is merely childish.  That sudden instant of existential surprise is, as I have said, one of wakefulness, of attentiveness to reality as such, rather than to the impulses of the ego or of desire or of ambition; and it opens up upon the limitless beauty of being, which is to say, upon the beauty of being seen as a gift that comes from beyond all possible beings.  This wakefulness, can, moreover, become habitual, a kind of sustained awareness of the surfeit of being over the beings it sustains, though this may be truly possible only for saints.  For anyone who experiences only fleeting intimations of that kind of vision, however, those shining instants are reminders that the mystery of being as such occurs within every encounter with the things of the world; one knows the extraordinary within the ordinary, the supernatural within the natural.  The highest vocation of reason and of the will is to seek to know the ultimate source of that mystery.  Above all, one should wish to know whether our consciousness of that mystery directs us toward a reality that is, in its turn, conscious of us.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rob Bell's 'Oprahfied' Theology

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, best-selling author Rob Bell shares his theological vision.  Compared to what BC at Catholicity and Covenant describes as "the mystery of Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection" and "the great drama of the Paschal Mystery," Bell offers a "spirituality" that is at best a sad, bland, and boring substitute.  And as Andrew Wilson writes on his blog, this interview "is probably a far better reductio ad absurdum of so-called 'progressive' Christianity than anything I could write myself."

Check it out:

Here are some of the "highlights":

Oprah: What is the soul?
Bell: It's the thing that keeps telling you there's more.

Oprah: Your definition of God?
Bell: Like a song you hear in another room, and you think, "Boy, that sounds beautiful but I can only hear a little bit.

Oprah: What does prayer mean to you?
Bell: Prayer to me is usually one word, which is, "Yes.  I'm open.  What's next?"  That's what it is.

Oprah: What's the lesson that's taken you longest to learn?
Bell: There's nothing to prove.  All that's left to do is enjoy.

Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Bell: That you can say "yes" to this moment, and you can experience a joy that can't be put into words.

Oprah: The world needs ...
Bell: ... all of us to wake up.

Oprah: I believe ...
Bell: ... that we're going to be fine.

Oprah: Heaven is ...
Bell: ... here and now and then and there and at hand and among us and upon us and available and real.

Oprah: My favorite thing to do on Sunday morning is ...
Bell: My thirteen-year-old son and I will often go surfing.

Monday, April 21, 2014

St. Ephrem the Syrian on Jesus Christ the Conquerer of Death

The following is an excerpt from an Easter homily by St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373).

Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.

Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong-room and scattered all its treasure.

At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude of men.

He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead.

Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all.