Thursday, June 25, 2015

Episcopal Bigotry: Prayer Book's Marriage Rite Compared to Confederate Flag

Even before the 78th General Convention officially started, things got interesting.  According to a Living Church article entitled "Prayer Book Discrimination?", an open hearing of the Special Legislative Session on Marriage included some forceful comments in favor of clearing the way for gender-neutral language in authorized marriage rites.  

One speaker took aim at the Prayer Book's marriage rite as follows: 

“How long are we going to allow documents like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is explicitly discriminatory?” asked the Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. “Demands for the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate, to come down have been heard. … It is time to remove our symbol that contains language of discrimination.”

So just as the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, the rite for "The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage" in The Book of Common Prayer is a symbol of discrimination.  Just as we need to take down the Confederate flag because it perpetuates bigotry, we need to do away with the Prayer Book's current marriage rite because it, too, perpetuates bigotry.  

Fr. Matt Marino hits the nail on the head about this over at The Gospel Side:

The dean from Buffalo actually equated the language of the prayer book marriage rite (lifted directly from another "hate document," the bible) used in a church in which 3/4 of our diocese' have same-sex commitment ceremonies to the racially motivated murder of nine faithful Christians assembled in their church to study the scriptures?  That is patently irresponsible, thoroughly insensitive, and wholly unexplainable to my African American friends.

I would add that if Fr. Mebane is correct, then every time a clergy person has used or will use this marriage rite to preside at a wedding, he/she has been or will be actively discriminating against persons created in the image of God.  This violates the Baptismal Covenant promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to respect the dignity of every human being.  Such clergy persons commit sin for which they should repent.  And as proof of amendment of life, they should forswear ever again using this marriage rite.  

Not only that, but if Fr. Mebane is right, clergy who use the Prayer Book's marriage rite are not only sinning.  They are also running afoul of the the Episcopal Church's non-discrimination canon:

"No one shall be denied rights, status or access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, disabilities or age, except as otherwise specified by Canons" (Canon I 17:5). 

Using the Prayer Book's marriage rite is therefore grounds for disciplinary action.

And if Fr. Mebane is right, then we have a conundrum to address regarding the theological warrant for marriage included in the Prayer Book's marriage rite.  That warrant reads as follows: 

"The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee" (BCP, p. 423).  

If Fr. Mebane is correct that the marriage rite is a symbol of bigotry, then we are faced with two unpalatable options.  

The first is that the opening exhortation is a lie.  God did not establish the bond and covenant of marriage between one man and one woman in creation, and Jesus did not adorn this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  So in addition to committing the sin of discrimination, clergy using this marriage rite have also been blaspheming by publicly proclaiming a lie about God and Jesus.  

The second option is that the opening exhortation truthfully represents what God did in creation and what Jesus did at the wedding in Cana.  In which case God inscribed bigotry into the very order of creation, and Jesus endorsed that bigotry at the wedding in Cana.  But if Jesus endorsed bigotry, then he was a bigot.  And if Jesus was a bigot, then Jesus was a sinner.  And if Jesus was a sinner, then he could not possibly be the Savior.

What Fr. Mebane said can easily be dismissed as ridiculous.  But that doesn't necessarily mean such ideas won't be taken seriously and acted upon by deputies and bishops at General Convention.  

Lord, have mercy.

Monday, June 22, 2015

St. John Chrysostom: Living With Security

"Living With Security"

Commentary on Matthew 7:24-27

Whereas his teaching has up to now largely focused on the future kingdom, its unspeakable rewards and its consolations, now he shifts his focus to the present life, its current fruits and how great is the strength of virtue within it. What then is its strength? It is living with security, not being easily overcome by any of life’s terrors and standing above all those who treat others maliciously. What could be as good as this? For not even the one who wears the royal crown would be able to furnish this for himself. 

But one who pursues the way of excellence can have this stability, for that one alone is possessed of this equilibrium in full abundance. In the crashing surf of the present circumstances such a one experiences a calm sea. This is amazing. It is when the storm is violent, the upheaval great and the temptations continual that such a person is not shaken in the slightest. This is not a way of living that applies to fair weather only. For he says, “The rain came down, the floods came, the winds blew, and they beat against that house. And it did not fall because it was founded upon the rock.” 

 In referring to rain, floods and winds, Jesus is speaking about all those human circumstances and misfortunes, such as false accusations, plots, bereavements, deaths, loss of family members, insults from others, and all the horrid things in life about which one could speak. Jesus says that a soul that pursues the way of excellence does not give in to any of these potential disasters. And the cause of this is that this soul has been founded upon the rock. 

 Now “rock” refers to the reliability of Jesus’ teaching. For his commands are stronger than any rock. They place one quite above all the human waves of life. For the one who guards these commands with care will excel not only over human beings when treated maliciously but even over the demons themselves in their plots. – St. John ChrysostomThe Gospel of Matthew, Homily 24.2 

Source: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Ia: Matthew 1-13, edited by Manlio Simonetti (InterVarsity Press, 2001), pp. 156-157.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Jeremy Taylor: "We have a great work to do ..."

“For we must remember that we have a great work to do, many enemies to conquer, many evils to prevent, much danger to run through, many difficulties to be mastered, many necessities to serve, and much good to do, many children to provide for, or many friends to support, or many poor to relieve, or many diseases to cure, besides the needs of nature, and of relation, our private and our public cares, and duties of the world, which necessity and the Providence of God hath adopted into the family of Religion.”

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday Homily 2015

Sometimes the truth of the Gospel hits home at unexpected times and from unexpected persons.  

Take what happened a few years back at an Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta [source].  It was Holy Week, and the congregation was staging a dramatic enactment of the Passion Gospel.  After the reading was announced, the lights dimmed and red-robed participants moved into their places around the church.  A ten-foot-tall wooden cross, draped with a blood-red stole, towered at the top of the chancel steps.  Even the children fell silent.

The drama was coming to its dreadful conclusion.  Jesus stood at the front of the cross, his head bowed, as players leapt to their feet from the pews, screaming out, “Crucify him!”  It’s all part of the story we know so well.

But then something unexpected happened.  After the brutal cries of “Crucify him!” had echoed throughout the church, a strange, new, and unscripted voice cried out: “Oh my Lord, no!  Don’t kill my sweet Jesus!  You’ve got to stop!  You can’t kill my sweet Jesus!  O Lord, make them stop!”

A homeless woman had wandered into the service with no clue about what was going on.

A parishioner later told the rector: “I tried to tell her that it wasn’t real.  But I realized that, for her, it was.”

There’s an important sense in which that homeless woman is our best guide for grasping the meaning of Good Friday.  Because it’s true: this story is, indeed, all too real.  And it’s not something we can safely relegate to the past.  We can’t take comfort in the knowledge that these gruesome events happened almost 2,000 years ago. We can’t pass the buck off to Pilate or to the Jewish religious leaders or to the Roman soldiers.  For the truth is that all of us are responsible for Jesus’ passion and death.  No one is innocent.  

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Yes, you were there.  And so was I.  The whole world was there at that moment, at the focal point of history, the intersection of time and eternity, when the nails were hammered into hands and feet and the broken body of Jesus was lifted high up on the cross, and he died, forsaken.  

What happened that day to Jesus is the direct consequence of human sinfulness.  We all share in that sinfulness.  It cannot be blamed on any one person or group.  Sinful humanity crucified Jesus.  

St. Francis of Assisi speaks to each of us when he says: "It is you who have crucified him and crucify him still when you delight in your vices and sins" [source].  In countless ways, we continue to sacrifice God’s love on the altar of our selfishness.

One author puts it well:

“When we ignore the homeless on our doorsteps, we fail to care for Jesus Christ himself.  When we eat our fill while others starve, we steal nourishment from Jesus Christ himself.  When we stir up hatred against the vulnerable or fear of those who differ from us, we alienate ourselves from Jesus Christ himself.  In other words, Good Friday is the chief exemplar of a pattern of sinful behavior that we continue to this very day.”

Good Friday bursts the bubble that protects us from seeing what the consequences of our sin really look like.  It looks like the Incarnation of God’s love nailed to a cross.  And when we see Jesus nailed to a cross it’s like looking into a mirror.  We see our own reflections staring back at us, rightly accusing us of crucifying the only Son of God, abandoning him to a painful death, doing away with him so our self-indulgent appetites and exploitation of other people go unchallenged.  If we really look into that mirror, we see the depths of our need for healing and redemption.

But just as important as facing the truth of how much damage sin does to our world is Good Friday’s call to embrace an even greater truth.  And that is the truth of God’s extravagant love and mercy.  

Jesus gave himself over to death on the cross, not out of anger, and not because he was coerced to do so, but because of his great love and compassion for a sin-sick humanity.  God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son, that through His Son’s suffering and death our sufferings and deaths might be redeemed for eternal life.

Many years ago, a therapist told me: “If you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it.”  Something like that is happening on Good Friday.  To heal our sins, God in Christ had to feel our sins.  In order to heal us, in order to atone for our sins, God had to fully experience the consequences of our sins through the suffering and death of Jesus.  

On the cross, Jesus experienced the full weight of suffering caused by the sins of the world.  All of the misery, heartbreak, and infidelity; the poverty and starvation; the treachery and lies; the violence and bloodshed; the bone-crushing pain of sickness and disease; the greed, exploitation, and injustice; the loneliness; the feelings of abandonment; the fear of death - all of the suffering of every single person who has ever or will ever live in this broken world came crashing down upon the crucified Jesus like one great tidal wave, crushing him, and leaving his dead body hanging on the cross.  

Stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, Jesus took the full brunt of the world’s darkness, death, and violence upon himself and, by the power of love, transformed them into light, life, and peace.

By the cross of Christ, God has abolished our sins, acquitting us and declaring us righteous.  By the cross of Christ, God has made peace where once there was strife.  By the cross of Christ, God has bridged the canyon that separated us from knowing the joys of his love.  By the cross of Christ, God has embraced the totality of our humanity - including suffering and death - in order to guarantee our passage from death to life.  By the cross of Christ, God has redeemed the world.   

This same Jesus who was nailed to the cross continues to reach out with arms of love to you and to me - inviting, welcoming, forgiving, healing, and commissioning us to go and embrace a broken and hurting world.  

For by the power of the cross we are saved.  By the power of the cross, we are changed.  And by the power of the cross, we are sent forth to share God’s love and mercy with a world starving for forgiveness, hope, healing, and salvation.

“And so we glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world” (BCP, p. 281).

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sewanee New Testament Professor Slams Bishop N. T. Wright

The University of the South (Sewanee) recently awarded an honorary degree to N. T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop of Durham, prolific author, and current Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary's College with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Dr. Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament at Sewanee's School of Theology, will have none of it.  In a blistering letter to the editor of The Sewanee Purple, here's what Professor Holloway wrote:

I am writing to express dismay at Sewanee’s recent awarding of an honorary degree in Theology to Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham and now professor of New Testament at St. Andrews University in Scotland. I am the current professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at Sewanee, and Wright’s receiving an honorary degree during my tenure is a professional embarrassment. Some of the readers of this letter will know Wright as an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights and a vociferous critic of the Episcopal Church for its progressive stance. I find Wright’s position on these matters offensive and harmful. It is an affront to the School of Theology in general and to its LGBT community and its allies in particular. 
But that is not my complaint here. My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science. 
To be fair, Wright was voted his degree under a previous administration before I became professor of New Testament. And he was voted that degree when he was simply another conservative Church of England prelate of the sort we used to court. (A few of these are still in the pipeline!) But a number of things have changed. Not only are there a new administration and a new NT professor, but Wright has since retired as bishop and found a job at an under-funded Scottish university anxious to attract young full-fee-paying American Evangelical men questing for old-world cultural capital. My only consolation is that the embarrassment of Wright’s honorary degree was overshadowed by the even greater debacle of the stridently propagandistic Eric Metaxas, who was tapped to speak at this semester’s convocation. Sewanee seriously needs to rethink is honorary degrees. I am afraid that after last week they will bring a little less honor. 
Paul Holloway
Professor of New Testament 
The School of Theology 
The University of the South

Setting aside the caustically contemptuous and intolerant tone of the letter, as well as its open hostility to Christian orthodoxy, here's the gist of what Professor Holloway says: "N. T. Wright disagrees with my views on particular matters and he represents theological positions that contradict my own.  That offends and embarrasses me.  Therefore, Wright is not a real scholar and he doesn't deserve an honorary degree." 

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in logic to see how silly this "argument" is.

Nor does it take a genius to see that if Professor Holloway's letter makes the rounds among moderate-to-conservative lay and clergy graduates of The School of Theology, they just might decide to send their money to other institutions.  I'm aware of persons who have made just that decision before this letter was even written.  This letter will simply underscore that they made the right decision.  And there are others for whom Professor Holloway's letter may be the straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to financially supporting The School of Theology.  I doubt that's the outcome the Sewanee administration had in mind when they issued the invitation for Bishop Wright to speak and receive an honorary degree!

Since I posted on this story yesterday, Fr. Peter Carrell of Anglican Down Under has offered a most worthy response to Professor Holloway's letter in a posting entitled "N. T. Wright dismissed as 'little more than book-a-year apologist.'"  Here's a money quote:

It is very surprising that Holloway misses the point of Wright's role in NT scholarship which is to generate fresh discussion of familiar texts. Wright's singular achievement is to make us think again - critically! - about what we read in the NT. Looking at Holloway's professional career I don't think that is going to be said about him! His output is of a different kind, and that is fine. But fifty year's from now students will still be examining Wright's writings for their doctoral theses and Holloway's works - like most NT scholars that ever lived - will be in a dusty corner of the library.

Read it all.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dorothy Sayers on the Incarnation

"[Jesus of Nazareth] was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be 'like God'—he was God. 

"Now, this is not just a pious commonplace: it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile."

Hat Tip to TitusOneNine

Thursday, December 25, 2014

St. Bernard of Clairvaux: "A physician is coming to the sick"

"A physician is coming to the sick, a redeemer to those who have been sold, a path to wanderers, and life to the dead. Yes, One is coming who will cast all our sins into the 
depths of the sea, who will heal our diseases, who will carry us on his own shoulders back to the source of our original worth." 

- St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent 2014

RCL Year B

Click here to listen to the sermon.

I think the Owen family has finally gone Louisiana native. Because just over a week ago, we made the best batch of chicken and sausage gumbo we’ve ever attempted.

The gumbo took lots of preparation. In fact, it was really a two day affair. It started out on a Friday. I prepped a whole chicken with a homemade brown sugar rub. I then put it on the Big Green Egg to smoke it with apple wood chips for a couple of hours. After removing the meat, I made a rich chicken stock with the bones.

Then the next day, my wife Julie made a perfect roux. It was just the right color: a nice, dark chocolate. I gathered and cut up the onion, bell pepper, and celery. I seasoned the chicken with a special rub, and then browned the smoked sausage from the Farmer’s Market in a cast iron skillet. And then the ingredients were put together in just the right way at just the right time, simmering away on the stovetop during the afternoon hours to let all those flavors blend together into a culinary masterpiece.

That gumbo took hours of preparation. But the end result was so wonderfully good that it was worth every minute.

Think of how much of our lives revolve around the time-consuming tasks of preparation. We’re always getting ready for something. And that’s particularly true at this time of the year during the stretch of 3-4 weeks after Thanksgiving until Christmas. There are parties to attend and parties to host, and all of the house-cleaning that requires. There are meals to plan, cook, and serve. Students have final papers and exams coming up, and teachers are working hard to finish their lesson plans. Choirs and church musicians are rehearsing for Lessons & Carols and Christmas Eve services. There are decorations to pull out of storage to make our homes festive. We have Christmas trees to set up, decorate, and to try to make cat-proof. Some of us have December birthdays to celebrate. And still others have weddings that will take place shortly after the New Year.

In these and so many other ways, this “holiday season” is a time of preparation. We have to think ahead. We have to make plans. We have to be organized. We have to pay attention. We have to do certain things to be ready lest we miss out on the joys that await us.

This time in the life of the Church called Advent is also about preparation. We are preparing for the coming of Christ. And we hear this theme of preparation sounding in our scripture readings for today.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” proclaims the prophet Isaiah. Make things ready for the coming of the One who announces that sins are forgiven and those who have been cast away into exile can now return home. Get ready for the coming of the One whose judgment rights all wrongs, whose tender mercy heals the brokenhearted, and whose steadfast love enfolds the lost, guiding them back into the fold.

Get ready, Isaiah says. God is coming. We need to be prepared.

We hear a similar call at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. Citing the passage from Isaiah we’ve heard this morning, St. Mark opens his Gospel by saying: “Prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). Get ready because Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world, is on the way.

So how do we go about this work of preparing the way of the Lord?

One writer wisely notes that the root meaning of the word “prepare” helps us out here. The word has two parts: pre-pare. “Pre” means “before,” and it speaks to the ways in which we anticipate or expect something that’s coming in the future. Like I was anticipating the taste of last weekend’s gumbo. “Pare” means to trim or to cut. Like using a paring knife to trim the vegetables and cut away the fat from the chicken I threw into the gumbo, the work of preparation involves paring or trimming things out of our lives.

Paring things out of our lives to make room in our hearts and souls for what’s coming: that’s what Advent is really all about. And so the work of preparation is really another way of talking about the spiritual work of repentance.

To prepare for the coming of Christ, we must repent. And repentance is not just something we do in penitential seasons like Advent or Lent. For in our baptisms, we promise to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304). Following Jesus as Lord and Savior involves a daily lifestyle of repentance. It’s a 24/7/365 commitment.

Repentance literally means “to turn around.” It’s all about turning away from the wrong path and on to the right one. It’s about choosing a new life, returning our gaze to God, changing the direction of our lives in order to receive the salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ [source].

To do that, we have to face the truth of our lives: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have to rightly recognize the damage that sin does to ourselves and to our relationships with God and other people. And when we see the truth for what it really is, repentance calls us to pare or cut those things out of our lives that separate us from God.

So to prepare the way of the Lord, to make space in our hearts and souls for the coming of Christ, we need to do the work of self-examination. We need to pinpoint those areas of our lives where we’re stuck in our sins and where we resist growth and change and then open them up to God’s transforming grace and love.

Over 250 years ago, two students at Oxford University started a small group that met on a regular basis for fellowship, support, prayer, and Bible study. And in their private devotions, they used a set of questions for self-examination to hold themselves accountable as disciples of Jesus Christ. Their names were John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement and priests in the Church of England. Here are just a few of the questions of self-examination that John Wesley used each day to do the work of repentance. As you hear them, I invite you to reflect upon your own life.

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am?
  2. Am I honest in all of my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard?
  4. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
  5. Am I enjoying prayer?
  6. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  7. Do I disobey God in anything?
  8. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  9. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  10. Is Christ real to me?

Honestly engaging questions like these can be time-consuming and difficult. And if we’re serious, it can push us out of our comfort zones, challenging us to face realities about ourselves that we might not necessarily want to know or deal with.

But just like we can’t make a good gumbo if we don’t know the ingredients we need or how to rightly prepare them; and just like we can’t host a party if we don’t first clean the house, plan the menu, and set the table; we won’t be ready to receive the coming Christ if we don’t know what’s blocking the doorways of our hearts or do the work the helps make us receptive to him.

So this Advent, may we examine our lives: the things we do, the things we think, and the things we say. May we be honest in acknowledging the ways in which our thoughts and deeds fall short of the mark of God’s holiness. And may we trim back or cut out anything that stands between us and Jesus, knowing that with God’s help, our work of preparation insures that when Jesus comes he will find in us a mansion prepared for himself.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Integrating God's Intensified Ethic and God's Love: Jesus vs. the Pharisees

The Pharisees, they looked at Jesus, they could not get their theological imaginations around the notion that Jesus could both actively intensify God's ethical demand in our lives on the one hand, and on the other hand reach out aggressively in love to the biggest violators of that intensified ethic. They concluded if Jesus is reaching out aggressively in love to the violators of that ethic that he must not be stressing the ethic. Because they're stressing the ethic and they want to have nothing to do with the violators. But Jesus is aggressively reaching out in love, fraternizing, inviting himself into their homes, eating with them, preaching the kingdom of God, focusing his ministry mostly on them, for the very express purpose of recovering them for the kingdom. Where others didn't care that they were drowning, Jesus cared. And he reached out aggressively in love to bring them. 

The Pharisees couldn't put those two together. How can you love and at the same time follow God's intensified ethic? Jesus said those two go together beautifully. Because it's precisely because of God's intensified ethic people are put at risk if they don't obey it. And we want as many people as possible to inherit God's kingdom. So we ought to integrate those two in the church and not try to separate them. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Comfort and Hope in the Face of Death: A Sermon

Last week we celebrated All Saints’ Sunday, the day set aside for remembering that great “cloud of witnesses” to our faith we call the communion of saints (Hebrews 12:1). We baptized infants, welcoming new Christians into our fellowship. We remembered family members and friends who have died. And we celebrated the reality that in Christ we share communion with the whole family of God – both the living and the dead. As our Prayer Book affirms, all of God’s children are “bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise” (BCP, p. 862). And so all who belong to God are not lost, even when we are parted from them by death.

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows how challenging it can be to really believe this. Our Prayer Book says it well: “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death” (BCP, p. 507). Some days are better than others. And depending on where we find ourselves in the process of grieving, our loss can sometimes feel overwhelming.

St. Paul is no stranger to the struggle with loss and grief. For in this morning’s Epistle lesson, we hear him offering words of comfort and hope to grieving Christians who belong to the church in Thessalonica.

Thessalonica was a port city of considerable size and with great political and economic influence. It was a center of the Roman imperial cult. It was filled with temples dedicated to the Greek gods. And as one writer notes, “on a clear day one could … see Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods, rising high into the heavens across the harbor.”[1] It must have been a majestic sight!

When Paul writes this letter, the church in Thessalonica is less than a year old. So these are very young Christians who are struggling to affirm their identity in Christ in a pagan culture hostile to their faith. Everywhere they go, pagan gods and the pagan lifestyle renounced in baptism confront the Thessalonian Christians. It’s hard to live in a world in which temptations to idolatry and immorality are constantly thrown in your face.

But while the Thessalonians may be young in their faith, they’re also resilient. Paul alludes to a persecution they endured. And he praises them for holding fast through trials and suffering.

But there’s a problem. Some of the Thessalonians have died. We don’t know if they died in the persecution or due to other causes. But we do know that these deaths have shaken the faith of these Christians in ways that perhaps even persecution did not. It’s a very human thing, isn’t it, that we can endure so very much, but losing people we love cuts to the core of our hearts.

Add into the mix the fact that the Thessalonians believed that Jesus was returning at any moment to set all things right, and the stage is set for a crisis. These early Christians fully expected that they would experience the Second Coming in their lifetimes. It could be today or tomorrow, or next week, next month, or next year. But Jesus’ return was imminent. It’s much easier to endure the sufferings of persecution when you believe that your liberator will soon arrive. But when loved ones start dying and there’s still no sign of Jesus’ return – what were they to make of that? Were their loved ones forever lost?

It may not be easy for us to put ourselves into the mindset shared by the Thessalonians. For not many Christians today live each moment expecting the return of Jesus. Yes, we believe it when we say in the words of the Nicene Creed that Jesus “will come again in glory.” That is a core tenet of our faith. And it is the foundation of our hope for the future fulfillment of God’s purpose for the world. But that’s probably not on our minds when we’re going about the daily tasks of life.

Even so, there are parallels in our experience with the confusion and grief of the Thessalonians. There are times when we, too, experience life’s changes and chances in ways that burst the fragile bubble of our self-sufficiency and shake the foundations of our faith. Times when pain and loss catch us off guard, perhaps even overwhelming us.

It’s precisely at those times that Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are not dead letters from a distant past, but words that are “living and active” and true (Hebrews 4:12). They are addressed not only to Christians who lived almost 2,000 years ago, but to Christians in every time and place. They are addressed to you and to me.

Here’s what Paul says to us:

“My friends, we want you to understand how it will be for those followers who have fallen asleep. Then you won’t grieve over them and be like people who don’t have any hope. We believe that Jesus died and was raised to life. We also believe that, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. … Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, 18).

Paul’s words of comfort stand in stark contrast to the views of his day. As one writer notes, “In face of death the pagan world stood in despair.”[2] The words of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus are representative. “There is hope for those who are alive,” he wrote, “but those who have died are without hope.” A popular epitaph on tombstones of the day sums up the prevailing attitude: “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.”[3] Such were the rather Stoic attempts in that day to stave off the fear and grief that surround the reality of death.

By contrast, Paul wants us to live without fear and free of the weight of grief. He wants to reassure us that those who have died remain in God’s care. And so he lays out a vision of hope in which death is no longer the final end, but rather the doorway to new life.

“We believe that Jesus died and was raised to life,” Paul says. That’s not just one belief among others, an interesting opinion, or a conviction that’s nice to affirm but that doesn’t really affect anything or anyone else. Because if the belief that Jesus died and was raised to life is true, if God really raised the dead Jesus from the grave with a body that is no longer subject to disease, death, and decay, then something akin to overturning the law of gravity has been unleashed into the world. Death is no longer a one-way, dead-end street. And every person baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection shares in His victory over death.

So what happens to persons who die in Christ? Paul addresses that concern by using the metaphor of falling asleep. This is so very important, because it reassures us that those who have died are not lost or annihilated. Just as sleeping persons are temporarily separated from the activities of waking, conscious life, persons who have died are separated from the activities of bodily existence. They are at peace in the presence of the Lord. And with all the faithful departed, they await the last great day when all who believe in Christ are bodily raised from the grave into a new creation that knows nothing of suffering, sickness, death, or decay.

St. Jerome summed it up so well when he wrote:

“Thus when we have to face the hard and cruel necessity of death, we are upheld by this consolation, that we shall shortly see again those whose absence we now mourn. For their end is not called death but a slumber and a falling asleep. Therefore the blessed apostle forbids us to feel sorrow concerning those who are asleep, telling us to believe that those whom we know to sleep now may hereafter be roused from their sleep. And when their slumber is ended, they may watch once more with the saints and sing with the angels, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men of good will.’”[4]

Following the lead of St. Paul and St. Jerome, when we remember loved ones who have gone before us, we can do so trusting that they are safe and at peace. We can be confident that God will complete the work begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus by eradicating mourning, crying, and pain. And we can live in the joyful expectation of reunion with those we love but see no longer.

[1] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 147.
[2] William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians Revised Edition (The Westminster Press, 1975), p. 203.
[3] Gorman, ibid., p. 160.
[4] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament IX: Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, edited by Peter Gorday (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 87.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Love God, Love Neighbor: Sermon for Proper 25A

Click here to listen to the sermon.

A Sunday school teacher was discussing the 10 commandments with her 5 and 6-year-old students. After explaining the commandment “honor thy father and thy mother,” she asked: “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” One little boy answered: “Thou shalt not kill.”

God’s law leaves nothing out. When we look in scripture, and particularly the Old Testament, we find commandments that cover almost everything in human life. It’s incredibly detailed and comprehensive. So if you’ve ever thought that having 10 commandments was challenging, consider the fact that in Jewish law there are 613 commandments!

That list of 613 includes “positive” commandments instructing persons to do certain things, and “negative” commandments to refrain from other actions. And actually, not every rabbi agreed that 613 was the correct number of commandments. There could be more than that, or less. And even where there was agreement on the total, many did not agree on the actual list of commandments to include among the 613.

To make things more complicated, some rabbis maintained that all 613 commandments were equally authoritative. Picking and choosing among the commandments, or ranking them from the most important to the least, would have been seen by these rigorist rabbis as undermining God’s authority. God’s law is not a cafeteria or a drive-thru window!

Another school of rabbis made a distinction between “heavy” and “light” commandments. Obedience to “heavy” commandments was absolutely binding and non-negotiable. Few would have disagreed, for instance, that commandments like “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”, or “You shall not murder” would fall into this category. But with “light” commandments there could be some wiggle room. Of course, not everyone in this school of thought agreed on which commandments were “light” and which were “heavy.”

So it’s against this complicated background of debate and disagreement that Jesus’ enemies confront him with a final test. “Teacher,” they ask, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36)

They’re hoping to trip Jesus up by forcing him to give an answer that will either embarrass and discredit him or turn the people against him. It’s a “no-win” situation. But that doesn’t deter Jesus from giving a confident answer.

According to Jesus, the first and greatest of all of God’s commandments is this:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

Coming straight out of the book of Deuteronomy, Jesus cites the Shema as the most important of God’s commandments. The Shema is the basic creed of Judaism. It’s the most important expression of the monotheistic essence of the Jewish religion. Recited twice daily with morning and evening prayers, the Shema lies at the heart of Jewish spirituality. It’s the anchor in the shifting sea of life’s changes and chances. It’s the grounding of faithful obedience. And it’s the compass that points hearts and minds to the One who alone is the source of all that was in the beginning, is now, or ever shall be.

The Shema says: love God with every fibre of your being. Love God with everything you own. Love God with every hope and longing that fills your heart. Love God above all things in this world. Love God as though your life depends upon it, because it does. Let nothing and no one else step into God’s place. It doesn’t matter how you feel. Love is not primarily about feelings. Love is about doing. It’s about faithful obedience. So love God by obeying God’s will with everything that you do, with everything you have, and with everything you are. That is the greatest commandment.

Jesus could have left it at that and probably hit a home run. But instead he wades deeper into the waters of possible controversy by adding another commandment to the “most important” list.

Once again quoting scripture, Jesus says: “And a second is like [the greatest commandment]: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Leviticus 19:18).

Everything intended by all of the commandments in the scriptures, and everything proclaimed by God’s prophets - it’s all summed up in these two commandments. It’s all fulfilled when human beings love God and love others.

Love God. Love others. That’s what gets at the heart and soul of God’s holy law.

By summarizing God’s law in this way, Jesus gives us a touchstone for determining whether or not our love for God is genuine and true, or whether we’re simply going through the motions. Jesus gives us a way to discern whether or not we are living lives of authentic discipleship. And it all hinges on how we treat other people.

A passage from the first epistle of St. John the Apostle hammers the point home:

“But if we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see?” (1 John 4:20 CEV)

“How can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see?” How, indeed!

By linking love for God with loving other people, Jesus grounds our faith in the messy, busy, complicated stuff of everyday life. This means that following Jesus can’t be reduced to attending church on Sundays (as critically important as that is!). Following Jesus is not just about worshiping God. The real test of discipleship comes with what we do during the rest of the week.

As one deacon said when dismissing the congregation after Mass one Sunday morning: “Our worship is over, now the service begins. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Now the service begins. For loving and serving the Lord can’t be separated from loving and serving other people.

So what does that look like?

It looks like everything that happens in our lives every single day.

How we respond to the driver who cuts us off in traffic. The words we say in response to someone who hurls an insult at us. How we deal with persons who interrupt us when we’re trying to get something important done. What we do when a beggar asks for money. How we deal with the impulse to fire off something nasty on Facebook or Twitter. What we say to the telemarketer who interrupts dinner. How we deal with our feelings of frustration when we’re running late in the morning and trying to get the kids out the door to school. How we respond to someone who expresses religious or political views we find troubling or even offensive. And on and on and on it goes.

Several times each year when we renew the Baptismal Covenant, we promise anew to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbors as ourselves (BCP, p. 305). Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Even difficult persons. Even mean persons. Even persons who irritate us and make us angry. Even persons we don’t like and would prefer to avoid.

It’s as if our Baptismal Covenant is saying:

“Treat every person you meet as though he or she is Jesus Christ.”

“Even when it’s initially hard to see, look for Christ in them. Don’t stop looking, because he’s there.”

“Serve Christ in them, even if you don’t feel like it.”

“Love them as Jesus loves you by being generous, patient, and kind.”

Every interaction with another human being gives us a chance to practice our faith by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Each person we encounter during the day - starting with our families - offers an opportunity to love others as Jesus loves us. We can be grateful that everyone we meet, no matter how nice or nasty, helps us grow closer to Jesus.

One of the saints summed it up when he said: “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me’” (St. Josemaría Escrivá).

Of course, it’s an understatement to say that all of this is challenging. Following Jesus can be difficult. Becoming holy is hard. We’re not always going to get it right. We will make mistakes. We will sometimes respond to others with selfishness instead of love.

But every time that happens we have yet another opportunity to put our faith into practice by repenting and returning to the Lord. We can always ask for help. We can always say to someone we’ve hurt or let down: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. How can we make things right?”

And we can give thanks that the call to love God and to love others is not something we do on our own. We do it together. We do it as members of the larger St. Luke’s family. And by God’s grace, we are helping each other grow more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

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."