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."

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 fiancé 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.