Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Becoming a Welcoming Congregation

Here are some excellent suggestions for becoming a welcoming congregation from Neal Michell, the Canon Missioner for Strategic Development in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, TX. They complement Lutheran pastor Chuck Hazlett's statement of radical welcome quite nicely.

Good, quality programs in a church can be helpful, but there are times when more is required than simply having a quality program. This is particularly true when it comes to being a welcoming congregation.

Many growing congregations grow, not because they have a particularly excellent newcomers ministry – although that helps. Many congregations grow because they are, quite simply, welcoming congregations. They are aware of the newcomers in their midst, and they have a value of “welcoming the stranger.”

The suggestions for becoming a welcoming congregation are not so much programmatic as they are values that individuals can embrace. Here are seven:

  1. Remember the Rule of 3 to 1. The Rule of 3 to 1 is this: talk to three newcomers on any given Sunday for every one regular person that you talk to.
  2. Pass off the new person you’ve just met to someone else. Don’t just greet someone and say, “It was nice to meet you.” Introduce them to someone else. Let your newcomers connect to as many people as possible.
  3. Introduce yourself with a question. Many people don’t like to talk to newcomers because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves by mistaking a long-time member with a newcomer. An easy way to get around that fear is to introduce yourself, “Hi, my name is ________. I’ve been coming here two years. How long have you been coming to this church?” This open-ended question doesn’t presume that the person you’re speaking with is a newcomer or a member. It allows them to reveal either.
  4. Don’t monopolize the priest. Most newcomers really would like to visit with the priest. I once visited a church where the line to talk to both priests was about twenty-five people long. So, I left rather than wait to visit with the priests. They need to be available to greet the new folks. The priest is one of the greatest evangelistic tools that the church has.
  5. When giving directions: Take, don’t point. When I go to Academy Sports Goods, I’m always so impressed when I ask directions, the customer service agent never points me in the direction where I need to go. This person usually walks with me until I get to the department that I’m looking for. In most of our churches, this kind of personal assistance only takes a minute. Don’t point them in the direction of the Nursery, take them there. It is so gracious.
  6. Have a positive attitude about your church. If you’re not excited about your church, nobody else will be, either. A positive attitude is infectious.
  7. Don’t just meet, Invite. That is, don’t just say hello to the newcomer; find out what his or her interests are and connect that person with an appropriate activity or person in the church, such as, ministry, small group, Sunday School class, Bible Study, etc.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tornado Relief Benefit Concert a Success

The Tornado Relief Benefit Concert featuring (among other acts) my band Rubrixx was a great success. We raised over $2,700 for persons affected by the April 4 storm (funds to be administered by Lutheran Episcopal Services of Mississippi). And as the photo shows, everybody had a great time.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Who is Welcome Here

I recently came across this declaration written by Lutheran pastor Chuck Hazlett. It’s a powerful statement of radical welcome that also dovetails nicely with what it means to take the Great Commission seriously.

Who Is Welcome Here

I want it to be of public record that those of different skin colors and heritage are welcome here.

I want it to be known that those who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol (whether they are recovering or not) and their families are welcome here.

I want it to be known that women and children are welcome here and that they will not be harassed or abused here.

I want it to be public record that in this congregation you can bring children to worship and even if they cry during the entire service, they are welcome.

I want it to be known that those who are single by choice, by divorce, or through death of a spouse are welcome here.

I want it to be known that if you are promiscuous, have had an abortion, or have fathered children and taken no responsibility for them, you are welcome here.

I want it to be known that gossips, cheats, liars, and their families are welcome here.

I want it to be known that those who are disobedient to their parents and who have family problems are welcome here.

I want it to be of public record that gays and lesbians and members of their families are welcome here.

Let it be public knowledge that “we are justified by the grace of God, which is a gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 3:20).

We offer welcome here because we believe that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:8). That’s us. Christ did not die for us after we showed signs of “getting it all together.” Christ loved us and still shows love to us while we are yet sinners.

Sinners are welcome here. Sinners like you and me, like our neighbors. Let us not condemn the world, but let us proclaim to a broken and hurting world God’s forgiveness and grace.

I want it to be of public record that since we are a sinful people that we will not always be quick to welcome as we should. Let us be quick to admit our sin and seek forgiveness.

May God give us the grace to welcome and forgive one another as Christ has welcomed and forgiven us.

Hat tip: Brian P. Stoffregen's Exegetical Notes for the Ascension of Our Lord

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Resurrection-Shaped Answers

On this Orthodox Easter Day, it seems appropriate to offer the following reflections from a defender of the bodily resurrection of our Lord:

"The worldview questions, when posed to the early Christians, elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers. Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the new world which began at Easter and which has embraced us, in the power of the Spirit, in baptism and faith. Where are we? In God's good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed, though at present they are prone to suffering and decay and will one day die. What's wrong? The work is incomplete: the project which began at Easter (the defeat of sin and death) has not yet been finished. What's the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it; this will be accomplished through a fresh act of creative grace when Jesus reappears, and this in turn is anticipated in the present by the work of the Spirit. What time is it? In the overlap of the ages: the 'age to come', longed for by Israel, has already begun, but the 'present age' still continues. This correlates, obviously, with the redefinition-from-within of resurrection itself which we have already explored."

- N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), p. 581.

Want to learn more? Then read the book.

Christos anesti!

Khristus anahgrecum!

Khris-tusax agla-gikux!

Krishti U Ngjall!

Khris-tusaq ung-uixtuq!

Kristos tenestwal!

Crist aras!

El Messieh kahm!

Kristos haryav ee merelotz!

Xristosi banuytashtch'ey!

Hristos voskrese!

Khrystos uvaskros!

Helisituosi fuhuole!

Pchristos aftooun!

Kristus vstal a mrtvych!

Kristus er opstanden!

Christus is opgestaan!

Christos tensiou!

Kristo levigis!

Kristus on oolestoosunt!

Christos t'ensah em' muhtan!

Kristus nousi kuolleista!

Le Christ est ressuscite!

Taw creest ereen!

Kriste ahzdkhah!

Christus ist erstanden!

Christos anesti!

Ua ala hou 'o Kristo!

Ha Masheeha houh quam!

Krisztus feltamadt!

Christ is risen!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Orthodox Holy Saturday

Today Hades cries out groaning:

"I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary. He came and destroyed my power. He shattered the gates of brass. As God, He raised the souls I had held captive."

Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord!

(Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Orthodox Good Friday

"Today is hung upon the Tree, He Who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A Crown of thorns crowns Him Who is King of Angels. He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery Who wrapped the Heavens with clouds. He received buffetings Who freed Adam in Jordan. He was transfixed with nails Who is the Bridegroom of the Church. He was pierced with a spear Who is the Son of the Virgin. We worship Thy Passion, O Christ. Show also unto us thy glorious Resurrection."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury Reflects on Lambeth Conference

Rowan Williams offers his thoughts on the history and purpose of the Lambeth Conference, including the upcoming meeting July 16 thru August 4. Here's part of the transcript:

"At the heart of the whole Anglican Communion is relationship. We have never been a body that is bound together by firm and precise rules and that is often, as it is at the moment, a matter of some real concern and some confusion in our life as a communion.

"We don't want at the Lambeth Conference to be creating a lot of new rules but we do obviously need to strengthen our relationships and we need to put those relationships on another footing, slightly firmer footing, where we have promised to one another that this is how we will conduct our life together. And it is in that light that at this year we are discussing together the proposal for what we are calling a covenant between the Anglican Churches of the world. A covenant. A relationship of promise. We undertake that this is how we will relate to one another; that when these problems occur, that this is how we will handle them together, that this is how advice will be given and shared and that this is how decisions and discernment can be taken forward.

"That is a very a big part of what we will be looking at this year but it is not everything because no covenant, no arrangement of that sort is worth the paper it is written on if it doesn't grow out of the relationships that are built as people pray together and share their lives together over tow and a half weeks. And to try and underline, we have also decided that this year we are going to begin the Lambeth Conference with a couple of days of retreat, of quiet prayer and reflection. There will be addresses. There will be a lot of open space and open time where people can just be alone with God, to think deeply about what they want from the conference and perhaps have the opportunity to talk quietly with one of two others about their hopes and fears.

"What I would really most like to see in this years Lambeth Conference is the sense that this is essentially a spiritual encounter. A time when people are encountering God as they encounter one another, a time when people will feel that their life of prayer and witness is being deepened and their resources are being stretched. Not a time when we are being besieged by problems that need to be solved and statements that need to be finalised, but a time when people feel that they are growing in their ministry."

Dealing with Our Sinful Condition

So often we ask ourselves and one another a very tormenting question: How can I deal with my sinful condition? What can I do? I cannot avoid committing sins, Christ alone is sinless. I cannot, for lack of determination, or courage, or ability truly repent when I do commit a sin, or in general, of my sinful condition. What is left to me? I am tormented, I fight like one drowning, and I see no solution.

And there is a word which was spoken once by a Russian staretz, one of the last elders of Optina. He said to a visitor of his: No one can live without sin, few know how to repent in such a way that their sins are washed as white as fleece. But there is one thing which we all can do: when we can neither avoid sin, nor repent truly, we can then bear the burden of sin, bear it patiently, bear it with pain, bear it without doing anything to avoid the pain and the agony of it, bear it as one would bear a cross, — not Christ's cross, not the cross of true discipleship, but the cross of the thief who was crucified next to Him. Didn't the thief say to his companion who was blaspheming the Lord: We are enduring because we have committed crimes; He endures sinlessly... And it is to him, because he had accepted the punishment, the pain, the agony, the consequences indeed of evil he had committed, of being the man he was, that Christ said, 'Thou shalt be with Me today in Paradise...'

I remember the life of one of the divines, the story of one who had come to him and have said that he had led all his life a life that was evil, impure, unworthy both of God and of himself; and then he had repented, he has rejected all evil he had done; and yet, he was in the power of the same evil. And the divine said to him: There was a time when you lapped up all this filth with delight; now you perceive it as filth and you feel that you are drowning in it with horror, with disgust. Take this to be your reward for your past, and endure...

This is something which all of us can do: to endure the consequences, to endure the enslavement which is ours patiently, humbly, with a broken heart; not with indifference, not with a sense that as we are abandoned to it by God, then, why not sin? But taking it as a healing perception of what sin is, of what it does to us, of the horror of it. And if we patiently endure, a day will come when our inner rejection of sin will bear fruit, and when freedom will be given us.

So, if we can, in all the ways we can, let us avoid sin in all its forms, even those sins which seem to be so unimportant, because the slightest crack in a dam sooner or later leads to its bursting. If we can — let us truly repent, that is turn away from our past in a heroic, determined act; but if we can do neither of them — let us carry humbly and patiently all the pain and all the consequences. And this will also be accounted one day by the Lord Who in a folkloric life of Moses, in response to His angels saying, 'How long shall you endure their sins' — the sins of the Jews in the wilderness, answered: 'I will reject them when the measure of their sins will exceed the measure of their suffering'.

Let us therefore accept the pain as a redeeming pain, even if we cannot offer it as pain pure of stain. Amen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Limits to Living the Questions

This brings back memories of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Nothing quite like this happened to me, but there were cases in which patients pushed back against my (mostly feeble) attempts to offer comfort and direction. Those incidents served as powerful reminders that my questions and my answers are not as important as something - or Someone - bigger than all of us.

This excerpt from ER takes on the whole "postmodern" idea that religious faith is about living the questions without any discernible answers that make a claim on our lives and our loyalties (beyond what each one of us individually fabricates for ourselves – your answers, no matter how different or incompatible, being equally "true" as mine). There is an important place for questions and doubts within a living religious faith. But this dying man's response to the chaplain suggests that a non-committal, subjective approach to religious faith is largely a luxury of the healthy and the prosperous.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Be Perfect

Today's meditation from Forward Day by Day is worth reading:

Matthew 5:38-48. Be perfect.

This is one of those sayings of Jesus that, on the face of it, seems incomprehensible. How can we possibly be perfect? Imperfect is surely what we most profoundly are. In fact, we are perhaps a shade too quick to affirm (under the guise of offended humility) the absolute impossibility of our own perfection.

Jesus himself knows our human frailty better than most, and he does not mock us.

So what can this possibly mean? Context is important. Jesus is speaking here of love of neighbor. He is not urging us to a kind of legalistic purity, but to whole-hearted love-rooted in our relationship with God our Father. This radical love knows no limits, extends beyond boundaries of family and nation, even to our enemies. Christian love is not a matter of deciding who is "worthy." We have been loved beyond any deserving; we are to love others the same way.

Perhaps this commandment is a promise as well. After all, St. Athanasius reminds us, "Christ became what we are that he might make us what he is." The more we live into God's love for us, the more we will be able to love with his love. "Be perfect," Jesus says, "as your heavenly father is perfect."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Tornado Relief Benefit Concert

It all starts exactly one week from now. Join us for this worthy cause. We're going to have a blast!

A Tornado Relief Benefit Concert will be held Friday April 25th from 6:00 - 9:00 p.m. at St. Philip's Episcopal Church, 5400 Old Canton Road in Jackson, Mississippi. Bands featured are Rubrixx, Passenger Jones, and the Red Hots. The public is invited, admission is free, and donations for tornado relief will be accepted. 100% of the money raised will be distributed to those affected by the April 4 storm in Hinds, Madison, and Rankin Counties through Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi. Bring blankets. Coolers and chairs are welcome.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Heresy is Boring

I just came across an intriguing quote from British theologian Kenneth Leech:

The rejection of paradox and ambiguity is the characteristic of heretics in all ages. Heresy is one-dimensional, over-simplified, and boring. It is straight-line thinking, preferring a pseudo-clarity to the many sidedness of truth, tidiness to the mess and complexity of reality. Orthodoxy by contrast is rooted in the unknowable.

The author of the article did not cite the source for this quote. Feel free to share that info if you know the source.

Son's Gonna Rise

Cool tune by Citizen Cope. Picked it up at Happening #67 last weekend in Tupelo.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Anglican Centrist Bishop

I've written about the work of N. T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham in England, a number of times on this blog.

Quite often, he's characterized as a conservative evangelical, perhaps, in part, due to his high view of the authority of Holy Scripture, his forceful arguments in favor of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his opposition to gay marriage. For many, that places Wright squarely in the camp of the Anglican Right.

On the other hand, Wright also employs historical critical methodology in his biblical scholarship. And he's on record as opposed to the war in Iraq, champions the cause of Third World debt relief, and affirms the need to address global warming. That may sound like it places Wright squarely in the camp of the Anglican Left.

The truth is that Wright cannot be so neatly labelled.

On the contrary, Wright's work explodes the binary logic and polemically exclusionary rhetoric governing the ideology of the Left-versus-Right divide. It opens up other possibilities that are faithful to both the historic faith of the Church and to the Church's prophetic engagement with issues of peace and justice. And so the more I get to know Wright through his writings, the more I find him to defy the easy categorizations of "Left" versus "Right," and the more I come to admire and respect him (even when I don't always agree with him). And the more I come to think of him as an Anglican Centrist bishop.

There's an interesting article that touches on all of this over at the website for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. It's entitled: "Wright challenges conservatives, liberals: Bishop of Durham refuses to marry religious beliefs with political trends." Here's an excerpt:

Bishop N.T. Wright spends a good deal of time explaining to admirers that they misunderstand him.

To those impressed by his rigorous, evangelically-inclined biblical scholarship, he must explain that "conservative" convictions regarding the interpretation of Scripture do not, in his case, translate into support for the foreign policy of President George W. Bush.

"I often meet people in this country who tell me, 'I love your books on Jesus. I really enjoy your work on Paul. But how can you criticize our president because God has raised him up to bring justice to the world?'" says Wright, the prolific author who is also the Bishop of Durham.

To liberal Christians who cheer his opposition to the war in Iraq and his advocacy of greenhouse gas restrictions, he must break the news that he parts company with them on issues such as gay marriage, and wonders whether their politics shapes their faith, rather than their faith shaping their politics.

"I think, for example, that some people oppose the idea of a bodily resurrection because it is part of a 'center-right' package in this country," Wright said. "And if you believe in a bodily resurrection you are in with people who believe other things that you don't believe. Part of my job is to constantly uncouple these assumptions. I think we just have to start with first principles on each issue."

Be sure to read it all.

Hat tip: A Pilgrim on the Canterbury Trail.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Clergy Collars, Barriers, and Boundaries

In response to a previous posting on my perception of shades of ambivalence among clergy colleagues concerning appropriate versus inappropriate times to wear the clerical collar, one commentator notes that "one priest I know said he doesn't wear his collar lots of the time 'because it creates a barrier.'" I, too, have heard this. And if I'm not mistaken, it may be one of the reasons why some ordained Protestant ministers never wear clerical collars.

As I continue to think about this, I wonder if there are wider implications to the sense that wearing the collar "creates a barrier" than just the laudable desire to maintain connections with the laity. In other words, does the thinking behind the rejection of wearing the clerical collar "lots of the time" play into other ways of rejecting the differences between clergy and laity? Does it play into ways of rejecting differences among clerical orders?

For instance, does the fact that only priests and bishops can celebrate the Holy Eucharist create a "barrier" with deacons and laypersons? (Is this a reason why some within Anglicanism press for lay presidency at the Eucharist?)

Does the fact that only bishops can ordain and confirm create a "barrier" with priests, deacons, and laypersons?

And for that matter, does the fact that only licensed lay ministers may serve as chalice bearers create a "barrier" with the non-licensed who may want to serve in this capacity?

Or what about the fact that, according to canon law (if not actual practice), only the baptized may receive the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Eucharist? Does that create a "barrier" with the unbaptized that should be broken down by embracing communion without baptism?

(There are many other examples of the point I'm making, so let your imagination run freely.)

To put my point into focus with a question: is it possible that we are confusing the distinction between barriers on the one hand, and boundaries on the other?

Off the top of my head, it seems to me that barriers are meant to keep some people out and others in, thus establishing a rigid "us-versus-them" dichotomy and an "either/or" mentality. Boundaries, by contrast, are about defining self in relation to others, thereby maintaining a connection in which similarities and differences are nurtured and honored. Barriers tend to be exclusionary in an absolutist and ridid way. Boundaries are inclusionary in a principled, normative, and flexible way.

I readily acknowledge that there's a serious dimension to the concern about creating "barriers." Clergy are, after all, set apart from, but not set above the laity. And that's about boundaries, not barriers. Which means that there's no sense in which clergy are "better than" laypersons. We have different callings and different roles to play in the Body of Christ. And all of us - laypersons, bishops, priests, and deacons - are indispensable to the health of the Church.

It seems to me that confusing the differences between boundaries and barriers, we risk setting aside or even destroying the uniqueness of what makes us the Episcopal Church as opposed to something else.

Why Wear the Clerical Collar?

Since my ordination to the priesthood, I've occasionally noticed shades of ambivalence among my clergy colleagues about the appropriate times and places to wear the clerical collar. I've not heard anyone suggest that it's inappropriate to wear it on Sunday mornings or during the week's "working hours." But when it comes to social occasions - such as an after-hour's cookout with the men's group at the church or an engagement party or other festive event in a parishioner's home - the unspoken rule seems to be: "Don't be caught dead wearing a clerical collar!"

I can't quite put my finger on what's behind all of this.

Is it because some of us feel embarrassed to be seen out and about in a collar?

Are we worried that we're sending a negative message, that it's a turn-off, a party-pooper? And why would that be the case?

Are we making too sharp of a distinction between when we're "on the job" and when we're not, sort of like when the MacDonald's worker gets off work, he/she changes out of the uniform before hooking up with friends? (Of course, the ordination vows are always in effect, no matter what you're wearing.)

And are we losing opportunities to bear symbolic witness to the presence and concern of the Church in times and places that might otherwise miss that witness?

As these kinds of questions turn over in my mind, I find the following reflections by a Lutheran pastor relevant:

Wearing the collar reminds me of my calling.

For the first couple of years of my ministry, I didn't wear it, except on Sunday morning. Not that I would forget what I was doing, but when I wear my collar during the week, I am reminded of the seriousness of the office of the ministry.

The criticism is that those of us who wear their collars, all the time, take themselves too seriously. Some have even asked me if I have clerical pajamas. I would argue that those who don't wear theirs take themselves and the office that they hold too lightly.

The pastor who was here as the vacancy pastor reminded me of the symbolism behind the clerical collar. I think it fits; so I will share it. The pastor wears his black clerical collar for two reasons. First, the black shows to the world that the pastor too is a sinner, dead in his trespasses and sin. By himself, a pastor is nothing. But, secondly, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, the words that come out of his mouth should be as white as freshly fallen snow. When people see that collar, it reminds them that God is present and pastors are His representatives.

Yes, some people will feel uncomfortable with it. Pastors who wear their collars may make some people nervous. Others will be turned off because of the individual problems with the Roman Catholic Church. Most people would agree that our society, and our church has lost a sense of what it means to be reverent. So much in our society is dumbed-down. Pastors who wear their collars remind the world that there is nothing wrong with tradition as long as it leads people to Jesus. That is what the office of the Ministry is all about- leading people to Jesus.

Most people don't have a problem with a soldier or policeman who wears his uniform. When people see the officer in their uniform, it reminds them of what they are all about. Should not pastors stand out in the crowd? Should not a pastor remind those around that God is present? I believe that wearing a clerical collar does just that.

I'm inclined to agree.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Worship Works

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
RCL, Year A: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

“I hate church!”

At least that’s what I said to my mother when I was about 8 or 9 years old.

Part of it was the contrast between Saturdays and Sundays. Saturday mornings were filled with Looney Toons, Land of the Lost, Pop-Tarts and Captain Crunch, and all while dressed in pajamas. Sunday mornings were completely different. That’s when I had to put on dress clothes – you know, slacks, button-down shirt, a clip-on neck tie, and a navy blue blazer. That’s the equivalent of a strait jacket to little boys. Once we were all dressed, we went to the Methodist Church. I fidgeted in the pew during the 45 minutes sermons, eating mom’s hard candy and enacting battles for the fate of the world between my superhero action figures to pass the time.

But the worst of it was the first Sunday of the month – Communion Sunday. That’s when we got not only a 45 minute sermon, but also an extra 30 minutes for everybody to go to the altar for crackers and grape juice. It took forever. I just knew that I would die. “O God, please save me from this!”

That attitude changed dramatically when I went to a Presbyterian school. Early in my freshman year, I attended an evening communion service. It was a small group of about 10 guys, including the chaplain and one of the teachers. We gathered around a table by candlelight. We sang songs accompanied by acoustic guitar. We read scripture aloud. The chaplain spoke briefly on the gospel reading (I never knew a sermon could be less than five minutes long!). And then we prayed prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving over real bread and real wine. We passed the broken bread to each other in the name of Jesus Christ, and we did the same with the chalice of wine. And somehow, in a way that I was unprepared for and did not expect, I felt as though I was in the Upper Room, seated with the disciples sharing that final meal with Jesus. I felt my heart burning within me as the bread and the wine passed around the table. My eyes opened.

Something so familiar from my childhood – and previously so dry and boring – as Holy Communion “clicked” for the first time in my life. Gathered around that table, I recognized the presence of the living Christ in broken bread and wine. And to this day, I look back upon that Eucharist as one of the spiritual turning points of my life.

I can imagine that Cleopas and his companion in today’s Gospel reading had a similar experience of being surprised and jolted into a new way of seeing things and persons that had become all-too-familiar. After all, they knew Jesus. Perhaps they had followed and lived with him. And so, no doubt, their connection to Jesus was not that of a young boy’s boredom in church. Theirs was a connection of friendship and zeal. They had pinned all of their hopes for the social and political emancipation of Israel from Roman occupation on this Jesus. And in Jesus’ crucifixion, their hopes had been decisively dashed.

It was a no-brainer: everybody knew that the Messiah does not die at the hands of Israel’s enemies. Quite the contrary, the Messiah conquers Israel’s enemies! Therefore, Jesus cannot be the Messiah.

Jesus’ death on the cross proved that his disciples had been utterly wrong. Everything they had lived, worked, and hoped for was a big lie. So with the heaviest of hearts, Cleopas and his companion begin plodding their way to the small village of Emmaus outside of Jerusalem.

Along the way and out of the blue, the risen Jesus joins them. Perhaps the depths of their grief keep them from recognizing him, but they haven’t a clue that it’s Jesus. So they proceed to tell him what’s just happened in Jerusalem as if he doesn’t already know. They share their loss and dashed hopes. And then Jesus – still incognito – begins to weave the story of Holy Week into the grand narrative of Israel’s hope for the redemption, not just of a nation, but for the whole of creation. As he breaks open the scriptures, it starts making sense, this whole business about the Messiah having to suffer and die.

It must have been exciting to hear familiar passages of scripture in a completely new and fresh light. Cleopas and his companion clearly want more, and so they invite the still-incognito Jesus to supper. And that’s when something they weren’t prepared for and didn’t expect happens. Maybe it was because they had seen him do it before, but something about the way this stranger touches the bread and says the blessing brings it home. Like scales falling from their eyes, Cleopas and his companion suddenly see – really see – this stranger for who he is. It’s Jesus! It turns out that what the women had said is true: he really has been raised from the dead.

Almost as soon as they recognize him, Jesus vanishes from their sight. But their encounter with the risen Jesus in the reading of scripture and in the breaking of bread transforms their sorrow into joy and their dashed hopes into a deeper, richer and stronger faith in a God of surprises who does the impossible, turning the world upside down by overcoming death and decay with incorruptible life.

The story of the walk to Emmaus underscores a truth of the Christian faith that goes all the way back to the first disciples, a truth that we enact every time we gather on Sunday morning. And that is that the we discover the most sure and certain means of encountering the surprising, challenging, and reassuring presence of the risen Jesus in scripture and the breaking of bread, in Word and Sacrament, in the worship of the Church.

It’s true that God can and does touch us in many ways. God is not limited to the confines of the Church. But the experience of the faithful for almost 2,000 years testifies that the risen Christ consistently touches and changes lives in powerful if often imperceptible ways when scripture is read and interpreted in preaching, and when bread is broken and wine shared in remembrance of his death and resurrection in the Holy Eucharist. These changed and empowered lives show that worship works.

In addition to my own experience of that candlelight Eucharist, there are many other examples of this. Take, for instance, something that happened over a decade ago. Many of you remember the burial service for Princess Diana. During that service, I vividly recall Tony Blair’s reading of 1 Corinthians chapter 13, the apostle Paul’s soaring hymn on the virtue of Christian love. We’ve all heard that passage read so many times at weddings and funerals that it may wash right over us. But this was a reading of scripture unlike most I’d ever heard. It was passionate, yet focused and restrained. It drew out the core of the passage’s meaning. Somehow, the Spirit orchestrated the words read by Blair and God’s Word into an outward and audible sign of God’s healing and restoring grace. It was a public reading of scripture that connected God’s Word with a grief-stricken nation and world. And it was a reading of scripture that opened space for the risen Christ to speak a word of hope.

My friends, reading scripture in worship works.

But the examples hit closer to home. I think of something my daughter said when she was only about 3 years old. After receiving communion and returning to the pew, she said to her mother, “Momma, I want some more Jesus.” A little 3-year-old girl had encountered the risen Christ in the sacrament. And in her own childlike way, she knew she had encountered the risen Christ. And she hungered for more.

My friends, sacraments work.

Or what about the child who recently complained that she didn’t like coming to St. Andrew’s for worship (because, she said, “It’s boring”), but then was so captivated by the Palm Sunday processional and the enacted Passion Gospel that when the congregation shouted out “Crucify him!” she whispered to one of her parents, “Are they really going to do that to Jesus?” Suddenly, this child was invested in the story of Jesus. It mattered in a way that perhaps it never had before.

My friends, liturgy works.

The list of examples could go on and on. And I’ll bet that if you reflect on it for a moment, at some point along the way in your journey, it’s probably happened to you, too.

It can be overpowering. Perhaps most of the time, it’s far more subtle. Occasionally, we may even find it dry and boring. But over time, week after week, the Church’s worship in Word and Sacrament does its work. It binds us closer to each other as one Body of Christ. It reminds us of who we are and to whom we belong. It brings us into the transforming presence of the risen Jesus. And in the midst of life’s changes and chances, the worship of the Church drops down an anchor, allowing us to rest secure in the eternal changelessness of God’s love.

Friday, April 4, 2008

40 Years Ago

Forty years ago today, one of the greatest American public theologians and civil rights leaders was gunned down by an assasin's bullet. The video shows the conclusion of his last sermon, delivered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on the eve of his murder.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Episcopal Life Ad Invites Congregations to Leave for Rome

There’s an incredible advertisement in the April 2008 edition of Episcopal Life. It’s on the bottom right-hand side of page 8. Here’s what it says:

THE ANGLICAN USE SOCIETY in America in communion with the Holy See of Rome offers to Clergy, Religious and Laity of the Anglican Tradition an information booklet explaining THE PASTORAL PROVISION, the canonical instrument that has made possible their reconciliation with the Holy See as units of common identity which preserve their Anglican heritage of liturgy, hymnody and spirituality.

In other words, an official publication of the Episcopal Church includes an advertisement from an official Roman Catholic organization that invites Episcopal congregations to leave the Episcopal Church and become Roman Catholic. As part of the package, the Episcopal priests of those congregations will be ordained as Roman Catholic priests, even if they are married. Those congregations and clergy will also be allowed to "retain certain liturgical elements proper to the Anglican tradition."

Episcopal Life is running this ad while our Presiding Bishop is deposing Episcopal bishops for their schismatic actions.

My friends, you just can’t make this stuff up!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Here's Jesus: Deal With It

The recent posting by Fr. Tom over at "The Anglican Centrist" is a very fine follow-up to my more restrained posting over there and on this blog. Fr. Tom gives both support and homiletic bite to my use of Luke Timothy Johnson's work as warrant for asserting that it matters whether or not one believes that Jesus was really raised from the dead.

Here's a snippet from his posting (in which he's drawing on an Easter sermon based on John 20:1-18):

Dead people stay dead, right? We know this. It’s medically impossible for someone dead three days to “come back to life”. It just doesn’t happen…so there must be a rational explanation.

“Obviously”, people say, “someone is telling tales to make a sage into a Savior, to make Jesus, who was a great religious leader, or prophet, or guru into something much more.” Do you suspect they’re making this up? Stay with me because on close examination of this story it’s obvious they aren’t.

If they were inventing this, would they say, “Jesus is risen from the dead….as a gardener”?! No. If they were weaving a myth to elevate their guy Jesus from sage into Savior they’d make him look much more impressive, wouldn’t they? They’d include angelic trumpets and timpani, with great shining heavenly lights and Handle’s Messiah in the background. That’s how people would stage-manage such an event if it were up to them. But it’s not. Instead Jesus gets mistaken for a gardener.

Why is that? Because Jesus, alive from the dead, is the last thing these people expected to see. EVERYONE knows dead people STAY DEAD. Mary does. Look at her thought process. The tomb is empty… so the only rational explanation is that grave robbers have stolen his body. Jesus is standing right in front of her… yet she’s can’t assimilate that fact. The only rational explanation is “Wow, that gardener sure looks like Jesus!”

And the fact that it’s Mary telling the story is another mark of authenticity. Here she is bearing authoritative witness, and yet, in that society she has ZERO credibility. Not only is she a woman, but she also has a history of mental illness and demonic possession. She’s crazy! She’s not credible. If John were inventing this story he wouldn’t imagine including her in it.

The only conclusion is John’s not making this stuff up, but scrupulously telling the story AS IT HAPPENED, in all its embarrasing details and implausibility. In fact, the utter implausibility of the resurrection is the very POINT of it! OF COURSE it’s impossible! People don’t rise from the dead… and yet… here’s Jesus. Deal with it.

Read it all.

The Faith of the Church

I’ve just started reading a great little book by Latino Methodist theologian Justo L. Gonzalez entitled The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). Divided into thirteen chapters, it provides historical and theological background and context for the different articles of one of the most universally used creeds within Western Christendom. There are also helpful questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. This would make a great book for a small study group.

What Gonzalez says about the connection between the Apostles’ Creed as a statement of the Church’s faith and the personal faith of individuals is worth sharing:

[The Apostles’ Creed] is not so much my statement of faith as it is a statement of the faith of the church through the centuries – a statement that shapes the identity of the church, much as the Pledge of Allegiance shapes the identity of the nation.

There is a story about a young Orthodox priest who told his spiritual advisor that he had difficulties with some of the statements of the Nicene Creed.

“Recite it anyhow,” the advisor replied.

The young man came back after a few days, again declaring that he could not in good conscience claim to believe all that the Creed said.

“Recite it anyhow,” the older man insisted.

This went on for several weeks, until finally, exasperated and confused, the young priest asked, “Why do you insist that I repeat the Creed, when you know there are in it some phrases I don’t really believe.”

To which the elderly adviser replied: “Because it is not your creed. It is the Creed of the church. When you recite it you are not directly saying what you believe. You are declaring what the church believes. And you are declaring yourself part of that church, no matter whether you believe every point of doctrine or not.”

The same is true for each one of us when it comes to the Apostles’ Creed. Were I to write my own creed, I would probably leave out one or two phrases and add some others of my own. I might find it easier to delete the phrase about the virgin birth. And I certainly would want to add something about the social responsibility of believers, about the place of worship in the life of the church, and a number of other items. But when I recite the Apostles’ Creed I am declaring myself part of that countless multitude throughout the centuries who have found their identity in the same gospel and the same community of believers of which I am now a part – a multitude that includes martyrs, saints, missionaries, and great theologians, but where in the final analysis all are nothing but redeemed sinners, just as I am (pp. 8-9; emphasis in text).

A few things stand out for me in this passage. First, the advisor’s insistence that the young Orthodox priest continue reciting the Creed, even though he was sure he didn’t or couldn’t believe it all, says something important about what it means to be a Christian in a liturgical and creedal Church. Evangelical Christian and social activist Jim Wallis puts it well (and I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never individual.” It’s less about “me and Jesus” and more about “we and Jesus.”

One of the real benefits of finding personal faith within this larger context of the corporate faith of the Church is that others can carry me along the way when I’m not sure where I’m going or how I’m going to get there. Writing about the recitation of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this:

When I say, “We believe …” I count on that to cover what I cannot believe on my own right now. When my faith limps, I lean on the faith of the church, letting “our” faith suffice until “mine” returns. Later, when I am able to say, “We believe …” with renewed confidence, I know that I am filling in for others who are indisposed for the time being, as they filled in for me. My decision to say the creed at all is a decision to trust those who have gone before me, embracing the faith they have commended to me [The Preaching Life (Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 71].

I suspect that, at different times in our faith journeys, many of us share Gonzalez’s desire to add or subtract articles from the historic creeds of the Church. Perhaps that’s because, like the Orthodox priest, we’re not sure we believe every single bit of what the creed says. Or maybe it’s just the opposite. Maybe it’s because we are sure of what we believe, and the creeds don’t even mention things we wish they included, such as articles about Jesus’ teachings, his table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, his love for the poor, etc.

Fair enough.

Even so, perhaps we can still affirm that, while statements of faith such as the Apostles’ Creed are not perfect, they are nonetheless necessary and sufficient for summarizing the core of the faith, even if there are other important aspects that need to be highlighted as well. And so, in imperfect ways, these statements of the Church’s faith keep our individual, subjective preferences in check so that, when it comes to the core, we’re all on the same page. In that way, the creeds not only guard the faith of the Church, but also protect and promote the unity of the Church as well.