Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Conservatives Sour on Palin

I'd not previously heard of Rod Dreher until I saw him earlier this evening on CNN's "Larry King Live." I was impressed by how civil, thoughtful, and articulate he is. In case you're not familiar with him, it helps to know that Dreher is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, a contributor to The American Conservative and to National Review, and a BeliefNet blogger who was initially fired up by McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his VP running mate (saying he shared her conservative social and religious values).

But Dreher made it very clear on Larry King's show tonight that his support has changed - big time. A few of the reasons why are spelled out in his BeliefNet piece entitled "Palin Debacle on CBS Evening News," and also in his piece entitled, "The 'Let Palin be Palin' dodge." While going sour on Palin hasn't converted Dreher to voting for Obama, he told Larry King that he can no longer vote for McCain.

Dreher isn't the only conservative who has defected on this (or who is at least raising troubling questions, even if he/she may still vote McCain/Palin). For a sample of conservatives questioning or openly castigating the Palin pick, see David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Richard Cohen, Kathleen Parker, and David Frum. There's also this YouTube video showing Newt Gingrich and George Will weighing in (Will calls the choice of Palin "an avoidable gamble").

Setting aside some of the snide remarks about religion, it's fascinating to see some social and religious conservatives essentially in agreement with a hardcore atheist like Sam Harris on the Palin pick.

October 1 update: In a rather testy interview with the Des Moines Register editorial board, John McCain characterized conservative Republicans who are uneasy with his choice for VP as "Georgetown cocktail party" people, suggesting that they are (a) out of touch with real Americans, and (b) that they merely call themselves conservatives.

October 8 update: In an interview today, David Brooks said that Sarah Palin "represents a fatal cancer to the Republican Party" and he decried her anti-intellectual populism.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Lancelot Andrewes

Today is the Feast Day for one of the great Anglican divines: Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). Here's how Lesser Feasts and Fasts (Church Publishing, 2006) characterizes his importance within the Anglican tradition:

Lancelot Andrewes was the favorite preacher of King James the First. He was the author of a great number of eloquent sermons, particularly on the Nativity and the Resurrection. They are "witty," grounded in the Scriptures, and characterized by the kind of massive learning that the King loved. This makes them difficult reading for modern people, but they repay careful study. T. S. Eliot used the opening of one of Andrewes' Epiphany sermons as the inspiration for his poem, "The journey of the Magi:"

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a Journey, and such a long journey:
The way deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

Andrewes was also a distinguished biblical scholar, proficient in Hebrew and Greek, and was one of the translators of the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible. He was Dean of Westminster and headmaster of the school there before he became a bishop, and was influential in the education of a number of noted Churchmen of his time, in particular, the poet George Herbert.

Andrewes was a very devout man, and one of his most admired works is his Preces Privatae ("Private Devotions"), an anthology from the Scriptures and the ancient liturgies, compiled for his own use. It illustrates his piety and throws light on the sources of his theology. He vigorously defended the catholicity of the Church of England against Roman Catholic critics. He was respected by many as the very model of a bishop at a time when bishops were held in low esteem. As his student, John Hacket, later Bishop of Lichfield, wrote about him: "Indeed he was the most Apostolical and Primitive-like Divine, in my Opinion, that wore a Rochet in his Age; of a most venerable Gravity, and yet most sweet in all Commerce; the most Devout that I ever saw, when he appeared before God; of such a Growth in all kind of Learning that very able Clerks were of a low Stature to him" (p. 396).

The compilers of Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001) add this: "His theology is much marked by patristic and Eastern Christian themes, and his preaching shows a particularly 'high' sacramental doctrine" ( p. 111).

You can read sermons, prayers and other writings by Bishop Andrewes here.

The following is one of my favorite prayers that he wrote (those of you who pray the office of Compline in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer will recognize it):

I will lay me down in peace
and take my rest:
for it is Thou Lord only
that makest me dwell in safety.
Into thy hands, O Lord,
I commend my spirit,
for Thou hast redeemed me,
O Lord Thou God of truth.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sunday is Not the Sabbath, Part 2

Consulting Scripture and The Book of Common Prayer, I've written previously on why Sunday is not the Sabbath. After recently reading a couple of posts on other blogs ("Sabbath/Day of Rest Changed to Sunday"and "The Changing of the Sabbath From Saturday to Sunday - Catholic Authority in Action"), I think this is a topic worth revisiting.

This time, I'll let Shannon Johnston address the matter. When he was rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Tupelo, MS (he is now the bishop coadjutor for the Episcopal Diocese of VA), Shannon wrote a parish newsletter article entitled: "Now Hear This! 'First' is Not the Same as 'Seventh.' 'Feasting' is Not the Same Thing as 'Abstaining.' Sunday is Not the Sabbath!" [The Cross and Crown, 7/21-7/28/2002]. Below is an excerpt.

Obviously, the "Sabbath day" is rooted in Jewish worship and law. Since the Hebrew Scriptures are part of our faith, Christians are free to observe the Sabbath - not under law but through choice. But, so choosing, it is to be kept on Saturday. The Sabbath is defined as a "day of rest," and thus is inextricably bound throughout all Holy Scripture to the seventh day of Creation - when God rested from all He had done. Scripture is equally clear that Sunday is the first day of the week, and that when the first Christians gathered on Sunday, they were not keeping the Sabbath, but were commemorating the Resurrection; they were not observing the Day of Rest, but rather, the Day of the Lord.

The Sabbath is also the day set apart for Jewish worship, not just rest. Likewise, Sunday is the day Christians have set apart for worship. Is it not natural and appropriate, therefore, to think of Sunday in like terms as "sabbath"? Of course, the parallel of worship is clear, but Sunday is not so much a ‘day of rest’ (implicit in "sabbath day") as it is a day of celebration. It is the day of recreation, being especially mindful of that word’s origin, re-creation, which is what Jesus did for us. We may indeed ‘celebrate’ and renew by resting, but we may also do so by feasting and (for want of a better term) merry-making. … Sunday is a feast day for Christians; it is not a day of "abstinence." …

What the Sabbath and Sunday have in common is that they are the days specifically set apart for particular attention to our relationship with God. But the essential character, "psychology," and theology of these two days is fundamentally different.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Desire for God

As part of the preparation for going on pilgrimage to Israel with twenty other priests/pastors, we have been asked to read the first several chapters of Martin L. Smith's The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture (Cowley, 1989). Reading the first chapter entitled "Pausing at the Threshold" this morning, I was struck by a section that I think others might find helpful as well.

Many of us have never received any encouragement to recognize or honor within ourselves the desire for God. The expression seems too sublime to be applied to the faint movements of our own spirit. To speak to most others about having a desire for God would cause embarrassment and even invite ridicule. No one talks like this in "normal" life. But it is not merely to protect ourselves from the patronizing skepticism of others that we tend to cover up spiritual yearning. Most of us have an inner voice which is cynical about the reality of our own religious experience. In a secular climate we have become our own oppressors, adept at disparaging and discounting the movements of our own hearts. One of the results of praying is a gradual healing of these patterns of self-devaluation, and liberation from those inhibitions that cripple our capacity to honor ourselves as men and women of God. You may be only in the very early stages of this healing, but right now it is possible to begin to break the habit of pinching off the buds of new life within yourself. ...

But does the desire for God originate within ourselves as a spontaneous reaching out of the human spirit? A breakthrough of faith occurs when we recognize that our desire for God originates not in ourselves but in God. It is God who gives, kindles and fuels the desire for God. What we feel as our desire is the effect of God desiring to be desired, knowing that our responsive desiring will bring us to life. Those who give themselves entirely to the response to God, whom we call mystics, come back from their explorations and tell us that they discover in the end that our desiring is all God's doing. We love God's own loving that flos from God, gathers us up in its movement, and returns to God, bearing us along! Of course as beginners we don't know that yet. But since in the community of Christ we are learning to depend on one another to make sense of life and the spiritual journey, we can accept this ultimate discovery in faith and take it to heart as just what we need to hear now as beginners. ... God's initiative is at work here, grace is active in drawing and inviting you to deeper intimacy with God. Trust the truth of this. It means respecting and cherishing this impulse to investigate prayer all the more. As a desire coming from deep within yourself, it is wonderful. As a gift and stirring of God, it is holy (pp. 9, 10-11).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

God's Justice

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
RCL, Year A, Proper 20: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!”

If we could tally how many times we’ve said, heard, or thought that, I wonder if we’d be able to count high enough.

Parents of young children in particular know what I’m talking about. Just like apples don’t fall far from the tree, our kids say the same things we did when we were their ages. “Sissy got more than me!” “But Jack has one of those and I don’t!” “I’m the only one in my class who’s never been to Burger King!” It’s almost as if a sense of justice as fairness is woven right into our DNA.

As another way of talking about fairness, many of us think of justice in terms of giving people what they deserve. If you’ve done something bad, for instance, you should be held accountable. Which often translates to mean that you should pay for it – if not in cash, then by having something bad happen to you in return. This kind of justice, notes one theologian, “is when a bully gets bullied, or when a cheater gets cheated, or when a liar is discovered.”
[1] Furthermore, if you work harder than someone else, you deserve more compensation than the other person. And if you’ve done something good and praiseworthy, you deserve to be rewarded for it.

Doing what’s fair and getting what we deserve: that’s how our society tends to think of justice. But today’s Gospel reading seems to be challenging our taken-for-granted view, at least when it comes to that fulfillment of God’s purposes Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven.

In the verses prior to today’s reading, Peter asks Jesus a question. He’s noted that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. And he wants to know what sort of compensation they will receive for the sacrifices they’ve made. “We’ve left everything to follow you,” Peter says. “What do we get out of it?” (Mt. 19:27, The Message). That’s a question of justice. And in response, Jesus tells the parable of the kingdom we hear today.

Early one morning, a landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard for “the usual daily wage” (Mt. 20:2, NRSV). The landowner does the same for other idle but willing laborers at 9:00, 12 noon, 3:00, 5:00, and right up to closing time. Everybody who wants to work gets a job with the promise of a living wage.

But things go sour at pay time. Those who worked all day long receive the same pay as those who worked for only one hour. To those who worked long hours in the heat of the day, equal pay for unequal work seems blatantly unjust. In our society, those angry workers might haul the landowner into court, suing for fair compensation. And could we really blame them? Doesn’t it seem right that those who work the hardest deserve the greatest reward for their labors? Doesn’t it seem fair that if you work for only 1 hour you don’t deserve the same pay as someone who’s worked for 12 hours?

And yet, in response to the angry workers who feel unjustly treated, the landowner replies: “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt. 20:14-15, NRSV).

According to Jesus, the generosity of the landowner best exemplifies justice in the kingdom of God’s sovereign, saving rule. And so Peter’s concern for what he and his fellow disciples are going to get out of following Jesus misses the point. It’s not about what we do and what we get in exchange for what we do. It’s about what God does. And what God does can’t always be squared with our merely human conceptions of justice.

Could it be that God cares more about being generous and merciful than about giving people what’s coming to them? Is it possible that there’s more to the Gospel than insuring that people get what they deserve? A couple of examples from other parts of scripture suggest that the answer to these questions is “yes.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus touches on the impartiality, generosity, and mercy of God’s justice when he says: "This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty" (Mt 5:45, The Message). And so Jesus counsels his disciples to “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Mt 5:48, The Message).

And then there’s God’s response to enemies. Surely it’s only fair that they get the retribution and condemnation they deserve. Jonah certainly thinks so. How dare God forgive those pagan Ninevites! But instead of responding by cursing or killing them, the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that God responds to enemies by sending Jesus to die for them (cf. Romans 5:8-10).

Seen in the life and death of Jesus, God’s kingdom justice turns our taken-for-granted understanding of justice on its head. God’s kingdom justice doesn’t always seem fair because it means giving people precisely what they do not deserve. And that, my friends, is called grace. We can’t earn it, we never deserve it, but it’s there for us all the same. And why? Because the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ looks upon each and every one of us with tender mercy and compassion.

God’s justice is not about fire and brimstone. It’s not about whisking the elect to the safety of heaven while the rest of humanity and creation get
left behind to suffer the tribulation of chaos and violence. God’s justice is gracious and merciful. God’s justice is about mending what is broken, healing the sick and wounded, overcoming despair with hope, reconciling the estranged, and consummating the marriage of heaven and earth. That is God’s gracious will for you and for me and for all of creation

God reveals this gracious will to us most fully in Jesus. For in Jesus, we see that no matter how far down into the pit we may have fallen – no matter what we’ve done or left undone – we get the same response from God as the most virtuous of the saints: an invitation to a place at the table in God’s kingdom, a place where we belong, a place where our wounds are healed and our relationships restored.

We can’t earn it or do anything to deserve it, but the invitation is there all the same. And if we accept and act upon that invitation, it will transform our lives.

So regardless of how little or how much we’ve done in giving of our time, talents, and treasure for the spread of God’s kingdom; regardless of what kinds of sins we’ve committed in thought, word, or deed; regardless of whether we’ve been in church on Sundays for most of our lives or are showing up for the first time in a long, long time – we’re all in the same boat. We’re all in desperate need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. In Jesus, God invites us all to receive that love, mercy, and forgiveness, and to let the truth sink deep into our hearts and into the marrow of our bones that each and every one of us is precious in God’s sight. Indeed, God invites us to dare to believe that we are worthy enough for Jesus to give his life so that we may live.

May we respond by accepting that invitation, and then by living as generously and graciously toward others as God lives toward us.

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 67.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Turning Aside to the Miracle

While attending a two day orientation for the upcoming October pilgrimage to the Holy Land I am privileged to be a part of, I was introduced to the poem below. It was written by Welsh poet and Anglican priest R. S. Thomas (1913-2000). It speaks so well to this time in my life.

The Bright Field

by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, not hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Confusing Our Politics with Sports

James E. Bowley is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. When it comes to the failure of our current politics, his letter to the editor published in today's Clarion-Ledger hits a nail on the head.

I hate this season of the year, which comes almost every fall, but especially every fourth year when we choose our president. I hate it because America has its games confused.

For a football fan, what could be better than the promise and possibility of the coming fall, of crushing the conference rivals and winning the championship? Unfortunately for Americans our political parties, our leaders, our pundits and far too many of us look at the November election the same way. We think one team will win and one will lose, and the winners will take all and the losers will just have to wait till next season.

Football and many other games have one winner and one loser because that is the way the games were designed. But our system of government is not such a game, and the rules of our great nation were not written to end with winners and losers. Our Constitution was written so that "teams" and individuals would have to face each other with their best arguments and then work together to make their best compromises and agreements. Why? Because our political game was designed for the benefit of all, so that victories could come to as many people as possible.

However, that's not the game I see being played this political season. Watching the campaign commercials and the conventions, I get the idea that we are on two sidelines of a gridiron, and come November one side will win, and the losers will be shamed and ground into the dirt, if possible.

I learn by watching that the other team's candidate is responsible for everything bad in my life and he will bring about more of everything bad.

And the situation is even worse on the blogs and talk-shows. They misunderstand the game.

Americans are not split into two teams in a zero-sum game of governmental power. We are all on the same American team and all the leaders we elect are leaders for that same team. During campaign season especially we should remember this.

True, both presidential candidates spoke a few kind words about each other in their nomination speeches. But both of them also went on to misrepresent the other's positions, and both of their speeches were surrounded by hours and days of bashing by other speakers. I wish each candidate had chosen a person from another party for their running mate.

I wish John McCain and Barack Obama would have appeared at the other team's convention to show respect and a promise of cooperation after November, no matter what happens. I wish there were a McCain-Obama ticket.

If we treat our November elections as if they were Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State, then we have utterly defeated ourselves. This is not the United States of Republicans or Democrats, This is the United States of all Americans. In the game of politics, all of us are supposed to win. We do have real enemies. They include recessions, injustices, foreign threats and dwindling energy supplies. We need to conquer them. But we can only do it well together. When we don't work together on one team we fail, even as the Republicans and Democrats failed last fall to even begin to address our immigration crisis.

I challenge Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, Roger Wicker and Ronnie Musgrove, and all the other players and sponsors to rise above politics as a football game and to show us how to be Americans.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Meeting Jesus on 9/11

It's uncanny the way in which the Daily Office readings sometimes speak to or interact with a day's events.

Today, of course, is the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since we've been preparing for a noonday 9/11 memorial service, the images from that day were on my mind when I went to chapel for Morning Prayer. The gospel reading from John appointed for today puts us right in the middle of the story of the death and resuscitation of Lazarus. Given the anniversary we mark today, this part of the reading carried extra resonance for me:

Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:21-26 NRSV).

With the memories of the sights and sounds and feelings from that terrible day at the forefront of my heart and mind, it's rather jarring to hear Jesus say to the grief-stricken Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life." But even in the very midst of the horrors of death, Jesus is present with the kind of calm strength and resolve we see in icons of Christ Pantocrator, affirming his lordship and victory over evil and death.

I can't make sense of the evil, death, and destruction unleashed seven years ago today. But in a way that also transcends my ability to fully comprehend, the Jesus that meets us in the pages of the gospel according to John holds out the promise that even the unspeakable events of 9/11 will be healed and redeemed.

9/11 Sermon

I preached this sermon on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 (which happened to fall on a Sunday). On this seventh anniversary of that terrible day, I post a revised version of it here in honor of both the living and the dead who suffered that day, in thanksgiving for the heroic and selfless sacrifices of firefighters, police officers, EMTs and paramedics (and countless others), and in the conviction that the Good News of Jesus Christ shines a light of hope that this world’s darkness can never overcome.

Book of Common Prayer lectionary, Year A, Proper 19
Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:5-12; Matthew 18:21-35

During the course of a year, few days are widely associated with extraordinary events. It's true that we have our personal and family remembrances, including birthdays and anniversaries. And as a nation, we have holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. But as important as all of those days are, they don’t pack quite the emotional punch of 9/11.

September 11, 2001 will always be the day when America was attacked. It will always be the day when 3,000 people died. And it will always be the day that set off a series of events that, for both good and ill, are shaping the course of world history. In the four years that have elapsed since that awful day, so much has changed. And paradoxically, so much has remained the same.

We continue to grapple with the same question: Why do some people in this world hate us so much that they’re willing to kill thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and themselves in the process? Many answers have been given to that question – some simple, some complex. But none of them proves satisfactory, for none of them can heal the wounds inflicted by 9/11 on our nation’s soul.

As we remember the awful events of this day four years ago, a remembrance made so much heavier by one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history, we hear God’s Word speaking to us through the words of Holy Scripture. And those words appointed for this particular seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost speak against anger, wrath, and vengeance. And they speak for forgiveness.

I think it’s fair to say that today’s word of the Lord is a dissonant word. It’s a hard word. And perhaps for some of us, it’s a word we’d rather not hear. Even after four years, to warn against anger and to counsel forgiveness in the face of terrorism seems almost ridiculous if not cruel.

Is it really possible or even desirable to forsake anger and wrath in the face of such malevolence? Is it really possible or even desirable to forgive those who perpetrate such unspeakably vicious actions?

Those are not merely philosophical questions. They’re as real as the pain and loss that friends and relatives of the 9/11 dead continue to feel to this very day.

And yet, here we find ourselves in church saying, “Thanks be to God” after the Old Testament warning against anger and vengeance, and then standing in reverence and praising Christ for telling us that his followers cannot set limits to the scope of forgiveness.

From the Sermon on the Mount to the crucifixion, Jesus consistently teaches our responsibility for showing mercy and practicing forgiveness, even and especially towards our enemies. It’s what Jesus did. And in our baptisms, it’s what we promise to do, too.

But let’s face it. Few of us are naturally disposed to be as generous as Jesus. It’s much easier to nurse grudges and harbor resentments. And often for reasons that seem perfectly justifiable.

But we Christians are called to a higher standard. It’s a standard we find in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says: “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” (Matthew 5:48 REB). Part and parcel of that boundless goodness is found in Jesus’ willingness to forgive even those who tortured and crucified him.

Part of the problem with all of this is the misconception about forgiveness in our culture. We’ve all heard the saying, “Forgive and forget.” That’s often taken to mean that forgiveness is the same thing as forgetting. Well, that’s hogwash! And besides, in the case of 9/11, forgetting would be morally wrong.

Christian forgiveness is not about forgetting. Christian forgiveness is about how we remember.

Remembering is central to what we Christians are all about. That’s why we gather every Sunday. We gather to remember. We gather to remember who God is: the One who creates and loves us, who calls us into relationship with Him, and who expects us to treat others with love and justice. We gather to remember who we are: creatures made in God’s image who have fallen into sin and death, and who too often choose to continue in the way of sin and death. We gather to remember the sorrows and the joys of our world, our community, our church, and our lives. We gather to remember the cruel, savage death by crucifixion of a first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus. And we gather to remember the resurrection of that same Jesus from the grave.

The key to forgiving past acts of grievous wrong is the context in which we remember them. If we were to remember 9/11 in the context of an angry, vindictive mob, that would shape us in a particular way. But that’s not what we’re doing, is it? No, today we remember 9/11 in the context of Christian worship. We remember 9/11 in the company of the baptized as we hear God’s Word in scripture and give thanks for Christ’s death and resurrection by celebrating the Holy Eucharist. And so we remember 9/11 in the shadow of the cross and through the open door of the empty tomb.

It’s sometimes said that the world changed on September 11, 2001. Viewed through the lens of the New Testament, that statement is false. The world did not change on a September day in 2001. The world changed almost 2,000 years ago, sometime around the year 33 A.D., when Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day.

As Christians, it is imperative that we remember what happened on 9/11, not in the light of this or that political ideology, but in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For only in the context of the story of Jesus does the story of what happened on 9/11 have any redemptive meaning. And only in the light of the One who is the light is it even thinkable that we can find release from the oppressive weight of fear and anger and live, instead, in the newness of life that only forgiveness makes possible.

So today, we remember 9/11. We remember the airplanes crashing. We remember the towers crumbling. We remember the heroism of firefighters and police officers. We remember that resistance to terrorism is ongoing and imperative.

But we remember it all in the context of our faith. For our faith boldly and even defiantly proclaims that through the cross of Christ, God turns tragedy, death, and despair into joy and eternal life.

And so today, as we remember 9/11 in the context of Sunday – the Feast Day of the Resurrection – we join with the communion of saints around the glorious truth so resoundingly affirmed by St. John Chrysostom: “Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is liberated!”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Martyrs of Memphis

Today on the Church calendar, we remember Constance and her companions, or the Martyrs of Memphis. You can read about them here and here.

Also, check out the wonderful icon of the Martyrs of Memphis written by the Rev. Tobias Haller.

Another fitting memorial is the following sermon by the Rev. Eilene Warwick, a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2002

Today we celebrate the feast of Constance and her companions, the Martyrs of Memphis. One Hundred and Twenty Four years ago a group of people became known as the Martyrs of Memphis. Ironically, these people were survivors of the Civil War, or as we in Mississippi call it the War between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression. However, the folks in Memphis simply called it "the recent unpleasantness". Who were these people?

Constance's companions were Amelia, Thecla, and Hughetta - all nuns in the Anglican Community of Saint Mary housed in Memphis. The nuns were sent to Memphis from New York in 1873, to establish a school for girls - it is not known if they experienced a culture shock or not - but they managed to establish the school. According to newspaper accounts, this "band of women" were well educated;they were strong women; they were women of culture, grace, and refinement; they were extremely well qualified to teach the daughters of the South in the art of social conversation - music, manners and refinement - and "loveliness of character." They had their job description cut out for them!

In August of 1878, the city of Memphis was struck by a second epidemic of yellow fever - the first attack of this viral disease was in the Summer of 1873 - which the Sisters of Saint Mary survived. Sisters Constance and Thecla had returned to Peekskill, NY, for a little well deserved R.and R. when they received news that once again Memphis was struck by another epidemic of yellow fever. Upon hearing this news they left at for once for Memphis, stopping only once in New York to arrange for money and medicine to be sent South.

The question will always be asked, "Why did these nuns return to a hopeless and helpless situation????"

Perhaps they were marching to the beat of a different drummer as our God was drumming the cadence. They were acting out the true essence of Christ's love, showing us that people hear what you do, much more than what you say! Bad news travels fast, so they say! In the year 1878, the news of the day traveled by word of mouth, Pony Express, news papers, railway, and steam boats. As slow as it was, people did communicate the news. However, we must remember there was no satellite coverage in 1878, no news helicopter buzzing around the city, looking for a window of opportunity to land on the copter pad and interview the stricken. There was no NBC Nightly news with Tom Brokow reporting the confusion as people fled the city, leaving behind only death and dying. There was no Fox-News with Brit Hume reporting the news - fair and balanced and unafraid. There was definitely no Larry King Live, interviewing the Rev. Mr. Charles Carroll Parsons before his untimely death caused by yellow fever. Without the presence of the "Media Moguls," the stories were told with a striking contrast.

One account reads: "There were crowds fleeing in terror, escaping by horse back, carriages, wagons, carts, and even on foot. Men, women, and children hurrying to escape to a higher, cooler, drier climate where the mosquito-born virus was not present."

Don't you think this sounds just a little too familiar?

The following is a direct quote from a memoir written by Morgan Dix, sometime Pastor of the community, published in 1896: "A few brave souls, with equal resolution, speeding into the valley of death; men and women of the medical profession, nuns and clergymen helping to assist the dying, hospital nurses, and the calm-faced "daughters of the Lord" seeking to bring Christ to His despairing people."

Members of this talented and gifted community did the best they could under less than ideal conditions - 5000 people died - 45,000 lived! It was truly a miracle that 45,000 people survived the epidemic when you stop to think they survived without one of the world's safest and least expensive pain and fever medication - ASPIRIN - which by the way was not discovered until 1897, nineteen years later.

In addition to these courageous Nuns, we must also add the name of The Reverend Mr. Charles Carroll Parsons who died September 7, 1878, as a result of the epidemic. Reverend Mr. Parsons portrait hangs in the Parish Hall office at the Chapel. It is important to note that his grandson, great-grandchildren, and great, great, grandchildren were members and are members of this Chapel parish community today.

Following the Civil War, Mr. Parsons was confirmed and ordained. He became Rector of St. Lazarus Parish in Memphis. It was at this time he married the grand-daughter of the Johnstones, who built the Chapel of the Cross. A good friend of mine has this unique saying - "Let me say this about that." So let me do just that.

As I read and study the history of the Martyrs of Memphis, I see a definite parallel between the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, and the downed plane in Pennsylvania. How? The heroic rescue attempts, the colossal pain and suffering of both events will be with those who lost family and friends as a result of the attack and also as a result of this devastating disease for the remainder of their lives. For the rest of us who were more distanced from both events, the memories will forever chill our hearts and imprint our minds.

Today's Gospel reading from Matthew concerns the togetherness of Christian community having borne witness to holy things and the response of the community to stay connected in the event of disaster - whether it be 124 years ago or one year ago. Looking back in perspective, it also concerns how we treat each other as the body of Christ - and how we as a community treat those whom God brings to us!


Sunday, September 7, 2008

John McCain's Henotheism

“My country saved me.”

John McCain said that last Thursday night in his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

I generally steer clear of politics on this blog. That’s not only because I believe that God is not a Republican or Democrat, but also because I have no desire to throw myself into the partisan mosh pit (the blogosphere can be brutal enough!). But I haven’t been able to get McCain’s statement out of my mind. I think it’s worth a look.

I’ll begin by saying that I’ve always admired John McCain. Sure, he’s not perfect. And I disagree with him on any number of issues. But his record of service to our country speaks volumes about his integrity. Flaws and all, he’s a fine American and a good public servant.

Listening to his speech last Thursday night, I thought that he did a powerful job of recounting his war service, his time as a POW, and his return home. That experience is hard for any rival to top! And in telling his story, he summarized his conversion from selfishness to service with the words that stick with me: “My country saved me.”

Given what we know about McCain's record and the way he consistently talks about serving our country, I don't think it’s stretching things to hear the statement “My country saved me” as an essentially religious statement. Because for McCain, there is no object worthy of higher loyalty than the nation.

“My country saved me.” This is a good example of what Reformed theologian H. Richard Niebuhr called “henotheism.” Lonnie Kliever (drawing on Niebuhr) describes henotheism as a form of faith in which “some social unit (family, nation, church, civilization, or even humanity) fulfills the function of god by conveying value to and requiring service of its members” [H. Richard Niebuhr (Hendrickson Publishers, 1977), p. 88]. In McCain’s case, that social unit is the United States of America.

In short, McCain’s acceptance speech revealed him to be a person whose faith takes the henotheistic form of nationalism.

Could this be one of the reasons why McCain “is uncomfortable — and some critics say unconvincing — while talking about his personal beliefs,” and in particular with talking about his personal Christian beliefs? After all, “Jesus is Lord” and “My country saved me” don’t fit together very well. The Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” relativizes all other loyalties – including loyalty to nation – by making them subservient to Jesus Christ as the only Lord and the only Savior. (As an evangelical maxim puts it: Jesus is either Lord of all, or he's not Lord at all.) But from what McCain says, the nation served that function for him.

Loyalty to the nation as the highest good and as a functional god: that could be McCain in a nutshell.

If that’s true, it could also be one of the reasons why he has been a politician with integrity and why he might make a good president. Indeed, one could argue that embracing the henotheism of nationalism is a necessary prerequisite for keeping the oath of office as president of the United States. The nation simply has to be the first priority in all things if you are the Commander-in-Chief.

Be that as it may, I think that all Christians should be wary of offering their uncritical support to any political candidate. And especially when candidates go out of their way to try and show the public how important religion is to them (and this applies to all politicians – Republicans, Democrats, Independents, etc.). Regardless of who we plan to vote for, perhaps we should do so with dovelike innocence and serpent wisdom.

Ironically, the henotheism of our politicians and their attempts to reassure voters of the sincerity of their Christian faith may be a sign that secularism rather than Christianity is the real driver behind the wheel (even when the candidates in question happen to be self-professed evangelicals).

I’m reminded of Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann’s insightful analysis in this regard. It’s a lengthy passage, but worth quoting (and reading) in full. Here’s what Schmemann says about secularism and religion:

[Secularism is] a world view and consequently a way of life in which the basic aspects of human existence—such as family, education, science, profession, art, etc.—not only are not rooted in or related to religious faith, but in which the very necessity or possibility of such a connection is denied. The secular areas of life are thought of as autonomous, i.e., governed by their own values, principles, and motivations, different from the religious ones. Secularism is more or less common to modern civilizations everywhere, but the particularity of its American brand, the one which concerns us here, is that in America secularism is not at all anti-religious or atheistic, but, on the contrary, implies as its almost necessary element a definite view of religion, can be indeed termed "religious." It is a 'philosophy of religion' as much as a 'philosophy of life.' An openly anti-religious society, such as Soviet Russia or Red China, cannot even be called 'secularistic'! Religion there is an enemy to be liquidated and all compromises with it may at best be temporary ones. But the characteristic feature of the American culture and 'way of life' is that they simultaneously accept religion as something essential to man and deny it as an integrated world view shaping the totality of human existence.

An American 'secularist' may be a very 'religious' man, attached to his Church, regular in attending services, generous in his contributions, punctual in prayer. He will have his marriage 'solemnized' in Church, his home blessed, his religious obligations fulfilled—all this in perfectly good faith. But all this does not in the least alter the plain fact that his understanding of all these aspects of his life—marriage and family, home and profession, and ultimately his religious obligations themselves—is derived not from the creed he confesses in Church, not from his professed belief in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God become Son of Man, but from 'philosophies of life,' that is, ideas and convictions having virtually nothing to do with that creed, if not directly opposed to it. One has only to enumerate some of the key 'values' of our culture—success, security, status, competition, profit, prestige, ambition—to realize that they are at the opposite pole from the entire ethos and inspiration of the Gospel. ...

But does this mean that this religious secularist is a cynic, a hypocrite, or a schizophrenic? Not at all. It means only that his understanding of religion is rooted in his secularistic world view and not vice versa. In a non-secularistic society—the only type of society Orthodoxy knew in the past—it is religion and its values that constitute the ultimate criterion of one's whole life, a supreme 'term of reference' by which man, society, and culture evaluate themselves, even if they constantly deviate from it. They may live by the same worldly motivations, but they are constantly challenged by religion, be it only by its passive presence. Thus the "way of life' may not be religious even though the 'philosophy of life' certainly is. In the secularistic society it is exactly the opposite: the 'way of life' includes religion; the 'philosophy of life' excludes it.

Acceptance of secularism means, of course, a radical transformation of religion itself. It may keep all its external and traditional forms, yet inside it is simply a different religion. Secularism, when it 'approves' of religion and gives it a place of honor in social life, does so only inasmuch as religion itself accepts becoming a part of the secularistic world view, a sanction of its values and a help in the process of attaining them. And indeed no word is used more often by secularism in its dealing with religion than the word help. 'It helps' to belong to a religious group, to be identified with a religious tradition, to be active in the Church, to pray; 'it helps,' in short, to 'have religion.' And since religion helps, since it is such a useful factor in the personal and social life, it must in turn be helped. Hence the remarkable success of religion in America, attested to by all statistics. Secularism accepts religion but on its own terms; it assigns religion a function, and, provided religion accepts and fulfills that function, it covers religion with wealth, honor and prestige. 'America,' writes W. Herberg, 'seems to be at once the most religious and the most secular of nations. . . . Every aspect of contemporary religious life reflects this paradox: pervasive secularism amid mounting religiosity . . .' [
Great Lent: Journey to Pascha 2nd Edition (St. Vladmir's Seminary Press, 2003), pp 108-109; emphasis in text].

Read in light of Schmemann’s analysis of secularism and the “usefulness” of religion, John McCain’s confession that “My country saved me” is a refreshingly honest, non-pandering statement of where his ultimate loyalty lies. And for that, I applaud him.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On the High Seas of Life

A quote from Elder Amphilochios that is all the more fitting in the wake of Hurricane Gustav (and bearing in mind that more bad weather is coming).

We are on the high seas of life, sometimes there are storms and at other times calm. God's grace does not leave us. Else, we would have sunk, if he had not held us up.

The Crux of the Christian Faith

He is Risen!

What is expressed in these few words is the very crux of the Christian faith. One may debate exactly what one means by this affirmation - how he is risen, in what sort of body, and so forth - but without the resurrection of Jesus there is not much to Christianity. It becomes merely one more probable philosophy among others. The teachings of Jesus are good, but by themselves they are no more than that. Loving one's neighbor is always good, but without the resurrection it is little more than a helpful practice. Going to church together may keep the family intact, but without the resurrection the church itself cannot hold together. ...

The center of what the Creed says about Jesus is the resurrection. The resurrection is not just God's affirmation that this one who was crucified is indeed God's Son. It is not just a final miracle among many showing the power and authority of Jesus. It is the very heart of the gospel! ...

Since the early Middle Ages, Christians have dwelt so much on the cross and the suffering of Christ that the message of his victory has been eclipsed. Jesus Christ is not only the victim of Good Friday; he is also the victor of Easter Sunday! The one we follow and serve is not only the crucified One; he is also the risen One. HE is the victor over death and evil, and it is in his victory that we too are victors.

Justo L. González, The Apostles' Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 54, 55, 56-57.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Collect for Vocation in Daily Work

Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 261