Sunday, July 12, 2015

Not Admirers but Disciples: Sermon for Proper 10B

Proper 10B

Just when you thought it was safe to come to church on another hot and lazy summer Sunday, here we are serving up the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

It feels a bit strange to say, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” [“Praise be to thee, O Christ”] after hearing this grisly story. I don’t remember learning about it - much less coloring pictures of it - back in Sunday School. And I’ve never heard anyone preach a sermon about it. It’s not a nice text. So it’s no wonder that we rarely hear it read in worship or proclaimed from the pulpit.

The word “Gospel” literally means “the good news.” But one of the things that makes today’s Gospel reading difficult is that it sounds like anything but good news. Instead, this tale of anger, resentment, cowardice, revenge, and murder appears to lack any redemptive character.

The story begins and ends with sin. Motivated by lust, Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee and Perea, steals his brother’s wife Herodias. Not one to shy away from conflict, John the Baptist confronts Herod with his sin. This so outrages the new wife Herodias that she wants to kill John. Partly to appease her, and partly to protect John, Herod arrests John and puts him in prison.

The story takes a nasty turn when Herod throws a party. Herodias’ daughter provides the entertainment, and Herod is so taken with her dancing that he does something incredibly foolish: he promises to give her anything she asks for. It’s Herodias’ chance to settle the score. “Ask for the head of John the Baptist,” Herodias tells the girl.

Mark tells us that Herod was “deeply grieved” by this request (Mk. 6:26). He knew that John “was a righteous and holy man” (Mk. 6:20). He knew that the people regarded John as a prophet (cf. Mt. 14:5). But Herod’s grief and his knowledge of John were not enough to keep him from withholding consent to murdering the man whom our Lord called “the greatest of those born among women” (cf. Mt. 11:11 & Lk. 7:28).

A version of this story appears in three of the Gospels. But only in Mark do we learn that Herod “liked to listen” to John (Mk. 6:20). He was drawn to John’s call to repent and prepare the way for the Messiah. But not enough for John’s message to actually take root and bear fruit in his life. No, Herod kept John and his message at a comfortable, safe distance, keeping John locked away when he didn’t want to deal with the truth, and bringing John out when he wanted some intellectual entertainment.

It is an ancient conviction of the Church that the stories we read in the Bible are not just about people of long ago. The stories are also about us. When we read the Bible, the Holy Spirit invites us to see our own life stories reflected in the stories of scripture.

And so we do well not to pass over today’s Gospel lesson too quickly. For while it’s probably not the sort of thing that most of us want to hear, all of us share more in common with Herod than we may wish to admit. For Herod shows us how it’s possible to hear God’s Word and yet allow the cares of the world, concerns over what other people think about us, the lures of wealth, and the desire for comfort and pleasure, to anesthetize our consciences and choke the life out of our souls.

Sure, we may not be responsible for somebody’s murder. We may not share Herod’s moral immaturity. But who among us can truthfully say that we’ve never betrayed another person just to keep ourselves from looking bad? Who among us can truthfully say that we’ve never made a stupid promise and kept it even when we knew that it would hurt someone? And who among us can truthfully say that we’ve never come to church and listened to the Word of God only to walk out the door as though nothing had happened?

Why would we possibly do that?

Perhaps because, like Herod, we like to listen to God’s Word, but we keep it at a safe, comfortable distance lest it make a claim on our lives and challenge us to change. And perhaps we resist being changed because we know that change can be costly.

If Herod is the anti-type of Christian discipleship, the Gospels invite us to see in John the Baptist an example of what it means for Jesus, and Jesus alone, to be the driving purpose of our lives. John was born for one reason: to prepare the way for the One who is the Way. From the womb to the tomb, John pointed beyond himself to Christ. And he did so at great personal cost.

Even now, in different parts of the world, there are Christians who are suffering and dying in the exactly the same way that John the Baptist suffered and died. They are martyrs for the cause of Christ. We do well to remember and pray for them.

Hostile powers targeting Christians for their faith is hardly a unique feature of our time. That’s been true in different times and places ever since Jesus Christ walked on this earth.

One source makes this critically important point crystal clear:

It is a story oft repeated throughout the history of the Church, even to this day. One thinks of Hitler, Stalin, contemporary tyrants in the Middle East, military dictators in South America, and a host more. Christianity may be tolerated as long as it is personal and private, out of the public view and non-intrusive. But when it threatens it is to be exterminated. Often the Church has surrendered its prophetic voice of conscience to secular rulers and governments. Those who have dared announce the kingdom of God in contrast to the tyrannies of men have suffered and died for their faith. 
Neither Jesus nor his disciples then and now are “meek and mild.” Gentle, yes. Compassionate, yes. Loving, always. Yet the gospel threatens and threatened people strike back. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

We are blessed to live in a country in which the chances of any of us suffering such a fate are virtually unthinkable.

However, while we may not get our heads chopped off, if we follow John’s example by taking Jesus seriously, we will pay a price.

Following Jesus will cost us our time, particularly time spent continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. Adhering to apostolic teaching and the pattern of Eucharistic worship in an increasingly secular, post-Christian society is bound to make us look odd. And it will pit us against the hedonism, consumerism, and individualism of our culture.

Following Jesus will cost us our pride, particularly when we make a practice of repenting and returning to the Lord whenever we fall into sin.

Following Jesus will cost us the reputation of being innocuous Christians who don’t want to offend anybody by bearing witness to the uniqueness of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Following Jesus will cost us the illusion that being a member of the Church means hanging out with like-minded, socially, politically, and economically homogenous people, particularly if we seek and serve Christ in all persons, including the poor, the homeless, and the nobodies left behind in our affluent society.

And following Jesus will cost us the safety of keeping our faith a private affair, pushing us instead to find public connections between the Gospel and the pursuit of justice, peace, and respect for human dignity.

I’m reminded of a story about two brothers who lived in racially segregated Georgia back in the 1950s. One of the brothers decided to participate in the formation of a multi-ethnic community. The other worked as an attorney for a prominent law firm. Both were Christians who attended church regularly.

As the multi-ethnic community formed and social pressure forced them into court proceedings, the one brother asked his attorney brother to help them with the legal work. The attorney brother refused, saying that he could lose his job. His other brother reminded him that he was a Christian. The attorney brother responded: “I will follow Jesus to his cross, but it is his cross. I have no need to be crucified.” To this his brother replied: “Then you are an admirer of Jesus, but not his disciple.”

Our world does not need admirers of Jesus. It needs disciples of Jesus. It needs people who are willing to risk their necks for the sake of the Gospel. We need people like John the Baptist who set for us an example of consistently speaking the truth, boldly rebuking vice, patiently suffering for the truth’s sake, and leading others to the salvation offered in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus never promised that following him would be easy. On the contrary, he made it clear that loyalty to him can be a source of division, even sometimes pitting family members against each other (Mt. 10:34-37; Lk. 12:51). Jesus made it clear that any who want to become his followers must deny themselves, take up their cross, and even lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel (Mk. 8:34-35; Mt. 10:38-39; Lk. 9:23-24, 14:27). And he minced no words when he said that the world would hate his disciples because the world first hated him (Mt. 24:9; Jn. 15:18, 17:14).

But Jesus also promised that if we follow him, if we remain faithful to his word, if we lose our lives for his sake, then we will find our true selves and learn what it means to really live. For the crucified and risen Jesus has overcome the darkness and hostility of this world. In the end, the love of Jesus wins. And all who bear witness to that love, including especially those who do so at great personal cost, will receive the crown of life and hear our Lord say: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Episcopal Church bishop says: "God has given us a new revelation"

"God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church."

According to Fr. George Conger in an article written for Anglican Ink, this is what one bishop said about the move towards embracing same-sex marriage in The Episcopal Church.

Regardless of where one stands on this matter, this is a striking statement to make.  

"A new revelation not shared with our forefathers."  

In other words, God has given The Episcopal Church a revelation that cannot be found in Scripture or Tradition, a revelation that Jesus, St. Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers, the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the Anglican Divines, etc., did not have access to.  Because only in our time has God been gracious enough to share it.  And God has given this new revelation only to a select few among all the Christians currently living in the world.

But how do we know this is truly revelation from God?  By what authority and what criteria does a claim to new revelation get checked out and determined to be true or false?  

To his credit, this bishop apparently told Fr. Conger that "we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit" in case it turns out that the majority of bishops and deputies at General Convention are wrong.  What might be the signs that we've got it wrong?  How would we know?

I note that this bishop made this statement in the context of Salt Lake City, a city founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders.  Seeing as Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church, Salt Lake City may strike some as a fitting place for an Episcopal bishop to make a similar claim.

It's possible that this bishop's take on what's happening in The Episcopal Church correctly represents a prophetic vision of how God is doing something new and unforeseen in our time through the actions of General Convention. 

It's also possible that what this bishop said expresses the hubris and false teaching, perhaps even the heresy, of General Convention's actions.

I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Episcopal Church's Current Understanding of Marriage Supports "Sacramental Apartheid"

In a recent blog posting, I noted that an Episcopal priest at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church compared the marriage rite in The Book of Common Prayer to the Confederate flag.  According to this priest, just as the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate that must be taken down, so, too, the Prayer Book's marriage rite is a symbol of discrimination that must be jettisoned and replaced with a gender neutral rite.  

Unfortunately, the harsh rhetoric and loony comparisons continue.  According to a Living Church article, for example, another priest speaking before the Special Legislative Committee on Marriage had this to say:

"It is time to let our yes be yes, and end what is nothing less than de facto sacramental apartheid," said the Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Church, Pasadena, a member of the marriage task force.

It is sad to see such ridiculous nonsense used to justify sweeping changes in the Church's faith and practice.  But at least the implications of the Rev. Russell's language are clear: "If you disagree with us, then you are hateful, ignorant, discriminatory bigots and the moral equivalent of racists and segregationists."  

It is beyond question that racism and bigotry, and endorsing segregation and apartheid, are evil.  The Church cannot and should not tolerate such evil.  So if the Rev. Russell is correct, anyone espousing the traditional, orthodox understanding of marriage as currently contained in the Prayer Book's marriage rite is endorsing the sacramental equivalent of apartheid, and thus endorsing evil.  Such persons should not be allowed to hold positions of power and influence in the Church.  They should not be tolerated.  

If rhetoric like the Rev. Russell's wins the day, it's hard to see how there can be space for diversity and disagreement.  If General Convention goes down this path, difficult days may lie ahead for anyone in The Episcopal Church who believes in and adheres in practice to the theology of the 1979 Prayer Book's marriage rite.

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.