Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Psalms for Lent: Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday:  Psalm 51
#Psalm51 a model for confession: Hold nothing back, seek God’s mercy, and radically trust God. What troubles your spirit (disorients you)?

Thursday after Ash Wednesday:  Psalm 1
#Psalm1 sets forth a simple world of right leading to prosperity and wrong leading to doom. Is this your experience of how the world works?

Friday after Ash Wednesday:  Psalm 13
#Psalm13 laments a disoriented life. Have you ever felt forgotten by God or been tormented by confusion or grief “day after day?”

Saturday after Ash Wednesday:  Psalm 32
#Psalm32 testifies that sin blocks relationship with God. What keeps you from finding God as your hiding place and being embraced by mercy?

[Note: I am using Walter Brueggemann's The Message of the Psalms as a resource. In this book Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. I've skipped the orientation psalms (except for tomorrow) and amusing disorientation psalms for the first pasrt of Lent and then switching to psalms of new orientation as we approach Easter.]

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Lent & Holy Week at Home Resources

A resource from myself and Epiphany Esources for observing Lent and Holy Week at home.  This year with daily "tweet" on a psalm.

Lent & Holy Week at Home

Monday, February 08, 2016

Lent: Listening in the Fog

Hearing the story of Jesus' transfiguration in church yesterday gave me an insight into Lent, what it is
and is not about.  Here's the piece that spoke to me:

While [Peter was offering to build shelter for Moses, Elijah and Jesus], a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a vice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

Too many of us still think of Lent as a time to sharpen our piety.  Do something else or take away something that is "sacrificial" (I'm not sure if ice cream really counts) either to remind you of Jesus' sacrifice (again, I'm not sure even chocolate will do it) or the enhance your life of prayer or service to others.

The transfiguration story tells me that Lent is about the cloud overshadowing us to the extent that we are at least a bit afraid, and then struggling with the command to listen. If want to improve your prayer life during Lent its best not to be about more words, but fewer, even  none.  It's about listening.

And not just listening, but listening in the fog.  Fog is powerfully disorienting.  It can be scary to drive in the fog.  It is something we avoid whenever we can.

Ironically (at least for me), the song we sung before the gospel reading yesterday was this:

I want to walk as a child of the light; I want to follow Jesus...
In him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike...

I will admit this is not my favorite song. I will also acknowledge that it is a favorite of many.  For me it is far too facile.  I do, indeed, want to walk as a child of the light, and I do believe that Jesus in glory is the essence of light, but it is also my experience that following and seeing and listening to Jesus mean being overshadowed, walking in the fog, walking through the fear.

In its origin Lent was the final time of preparation for those to be baptized at Easter.  I love baptism; I cherish my own, unremembered, baptism.  One might say (and be correct) that baptism brings clarity to our lives:  an extraordinary promise of love everlasting ("the bond that God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble").  But having been gifted with this clarity, as on the mount of transfiguration, we have to go back out into the world, and the fog goes with us.  Where I was yesterday we did not read the optional continuation of the story, where Jesus returns from the mountain to find the disciples he left behind lost in a situation with which they could not cope.  They left the fog on the mountain only to walk into the fog in the valley.

This fog is our struggle to walk in the way.  We shouldn't be surprised by it. Even our baptismal liturgy recognizes this reality by having us renounce all evil and sin one minute and then promising that whenever we sin we will "repent and return to the Lord."  The juxtaposition of those seemingly opposite things is an example of the fog through which we must walk, but more importantly in which we must listen.

So my advice this Lent?  Just this:  listen.

Monday, February 01, 2016

TEC & the Anglican Communion

Several people have asked me to comment on the recent Primates' Meeting and what they had to say about The Episcopal Church's participation in the Anglican Communion.

I have to be honest and begin by saying that following my 15 and 17-year old nephews in Avoca Tiger's sports is far more important to me these days than what a bunch of self-important and self-empowered bishops have to say about anything (even if they do call themselves by the ridiculous name of "primates."

Nevertheless, I think that only two things important came out of this meeting.

1. TEC is still part of the Anglican Communion, and at this point a full and equal partner no matter the suggestions made by the Primates.  The Primates have no legal or canonical standing to decide anything.  The legal and canonical body is the Anglican Consultative Council, which meets in April, and at which three members of TEC will be present. This body only, of the four "Instruments of Communion" (another ridiculous name), can act.  It is not at all clear, however, how they can act on the Primates' proposals, since they are unprecedented.

2.  Our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry emerges as a significant player on the Anglican world stage.  All reports are that he not only handled himself well, he threw some confusion into the mix because he earnestly loves Jesus and is convinced that the actions the General Convention have taken over the years in regard to lgbt issues or not only right, but scripturally and theologically based.  Cudos as well to the President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Jennings, who has made it clear we are not going backwards even while we stay vitally connected to the rest of the Communion.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese had the best comment about this whole mess:  "Only in the Anglican Communion would curtailing attendance at committee meetings be thought of as a punishment."  No one has suggested that companion dioceses relationships end (alas, my diocese has none at the present time), nor the good work of Episcopal Relief & Development throughout the world (always done through the local diocese) be temporarily suspended.  Those are the places where the real work of the Anglican Communion happen.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program:  Go Tigers!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Standing in Line at the Muddy River

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (the Baptism of Jesus), January 10, 2016:  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

          About three years ago I was watching a video with a confirmation class in which a very cool dude took us on a quick tour of Holy Land sites.  I’ve never been myself so I was quite interested also.

          The longest scene was at the supposed site of Jesus’ baptism.  The guide took us down some stairs to the water and walked right into it.  Before I could react, the teenagers let out with an “Eeeewww! Gross!”

          The water was very muddy.  Aside from that, it did not look like anything I had imagined or seen in movies.  It was muddy (and it apparently is muddy most of the time) and it was narrow.  It looked more like a deep spot in a creek.

          The consensus of the teenagers was that they would never be baptized in that water, and they were somewhat impressed that Jesus did.  “He must have wanted to get baptized pretty badly,” one of them said.

          He must have wanted to get baptized pretty badly.  Well, yes, and that instinct was not just about the water.  Jesus’ decision to be baptized by John in the muddy river was a significant decision, and marked a turning point in his life, dedicated to solidarity with the whole of humanity.

          Think of the people who had probably gathered there (and Luke seems to be telling us that there were a large number of people).  Who was there?  Probably not the very religious, or the political elite.  Both of them react negatively to John, and the political elite eventually removes his head.
          No, I think at that river were mostly people who had nowhere else to go.  They were sinners or the impure, or those labelled as sinners or impure, who had been cut off from mercy by all the regular channels.

          And Jesus, coming upon them and observing them, made a decision.  He got in line with them to take his turn.  He did not choose to stay aloof from this crowd of desperate, guilty, wounded, struggling people.  He got in line with them.

          I think we often hear the words said over Jesus—You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased—as an indication that God was pleased with how he had grown up and that he was now ready to deliver the message for his divine Father.  What if it was getting in line with the desperate that pleased God?

          Martin Smith, an Episcopal priest and one of my favorite writers, puts it this way:

God is well-pleased precisely in Jesus’ self-emptying assumption of our identity….In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering Heart and Self before God….Can you feel and see yourself as part of that crowd of humanity in the muddy water…and experience the entry of Jesus into our condition, into our needs?  He chooses to plunge into it and make it his own.[1]

          Now we gather here as people who have also been baptized, although, I suspect, none of us in a muddy river.  In fact, most of us cannot remember our baptism at all.  But it is crucial that each of us develops what I would call “a baptismal memory,” not as in a photograph, but as in a spirituality, a way of being in relationship with God and with one another.

          Our spiritual baptismal memory is best formed by the experience of the baptism of other’s, and that is precisely why we only baptize publicly, when the whole mass of the parish is present.  We actually baptize individuals, but the rest of us have this baptismal memory of which I am speaking formed and re-formed.

          Most crucial are the words said to us in the Spirit after our baptism, just as those words spoken in the Spirit over Jesus were so crucial to him.  They are no exactly the same, but they may as well be.

          We say, as we anoint the newly baptized with holy oil, You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. 

          These profound words echo what is happening in the story of Jesus’ own baptism.  They proclaim (and claim) Jesus’ solidarity with each and every one of us, for all time, no matter what.  The seal cannot be broken even if we think we have broken it.

          The instructions for Holy Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer are just as explicit:

Holy Baptism is full initiation into Christ’s Body the Church.  The bond which God establishes is indissoluble.[2]

          We are baptized into Christ, marked as Christ’s own for ever into an indissoluble bond.  This means also that we are joined with Christ’s solidarity with all of humanity.  Baptism is less about individual salvation than it is about universal solidarity with humankind, and not just the humankind of our choosing.  Former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was fond of reminding us that

Baptism catches us up into solidarities not of our choosing.[3]

          Our baptismal memory is of us standing in line with the desperate, the suffering, those seeking understanding out of their sickness or grief, all those in need of mercy for the flaws all of us master over time.  We are all waiting with Christ in line for the muddy river, for in the muddy river is our peace, our hope, our joy, our life.

[1] Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1991), pp. 9-10.
[2] Prayer Book, p. 298.
[3] He was quoting former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.  I do not know the origin of the quote.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Our Brave Delight

Merry Christmas to all!
I have always found great inspiration in our hymns.  In some ways I think of our hymnals as our best theological reflection on the reality of relationship with God, companionship with Jesus, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

This year a phrase caught my attention early on and has stuck with me.  It's from "Angels we have heard on high."  You miss it if you sing the "popular" version, but not in the version of our hymnal.

Angels we have heard on high, singing sweetly through the night.
And the mountains in reply, echoing their brave delight.

"Their brave delight."  Christmas is about stirring up in us our brave delight.

Despite the spelling, "delight" does not necessarily have anything to do with "light."  It shares the same root with the word "delicate," which until only relatively recently had a negative sense about it.  Both words, delight and delicate, have to do with something that is pleasing, a reveling in something that is enjoyed.

What about this sense of the word delight is "brave?"

Most of all, I take the word "delight" to be the opposite of cynical or pessimistic.  Now we live in a world where it is so easy to be cynical and/or pessimistic that it is a state of being without thought.  It has become a "natural" response to take very little at face value, to trust nothing but one's own mind and senses.  I do not suppose that this way of being is anything new, but it does seem to be increasingly dominant in our time.

It takes courage, bravery, to be delighted, especially in times of cynicism, pessimism, fear and anger.  It takes courage, for example, to delight in another human life simply for its being, especially to trust that being is "made in the image of God" no matter what else seems true.  We do not tend to start with delight upon seeing another.  Our delight tends only to come when it is clear the other has something for us, can answer positively the question, "What [about you] is in it for me?"

I am reminded of a quote a parishioner gave me many years ago which I have somehow been able to keep.  It's by a woman named Marjorie Kelly.  It's from sometime before February 1992.

We are caught, today, in the ethics of a machine:  the ethos that names any imperfection a failure, a breakdown, a defect.  In the pursuit of perfection we reject all who are powerless, unattractive or impaired.  Worse, we disown those parts of ourselves that feel helpless, ugly and incompetent.  In the ethics of the machine there are only two states: perfect and imperfect.  Perfection is the ultimate. Everything else is bad, faulty or wrong. This is a good definition of tyranny.  And it is [thus] this tyranny under which we live our lives, our work, our personalities, our bodies.

It occurs to me on reading this quote, that the author is also describing how the word "delicate" became a negative word--a journey from its original life as a synonym of delight to its current life as a synonym for weak.

The "brave delight" of the angels was in announcing to people (shepherds) who counted little, a birth full of imperfections, but which, in spite of those imperfections, and quite possibly because of them was the birth of God with us.  The baby had nothing to give us except his life.

In the midst of our life, 2,000 years later, it is still brave to delight in this baby, indeed to delight in anything just because he, she, it, or they is/are.  It is brave even to believe that is precisely how God works.  Delight first (other wise known as grace) and in spite of (and, is it possible, even because of) our imperfections.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Advent Church...What if? Part III A Place Where Shame and Fear are never Ultimate

I have always loved the Advent preface for the Great Thanksgiving (Eucharistic Prayer) from The Book of Common Prayer:

Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

So much of the world believes that the church is where you go to learn how to be afraid and ashamed and the only way to be able to live without them is to conform to a certain formula of belief and to follow the rules.

Those of us who are equally certain that this is not the case often have a hard time articulating this alternative, subversive message.  It is as if we are hedging our bets, just in case the formula and the rules is actually the right way.  We are especially leery of the Bible in this regard, since the message it contains is often mixed, and, besides, those who tout the formula and the rules seem to have their biblical arguments down pat.

We need confidence in the message as we have received it.  That means we also need confidence in talking about shame and fear.  This is important because we often handle the shame and fear thing by dismissing it from our vocabulary.  Reality tells us, however, to dismiss shame and fear as not really existing is to ignore reality itself and render our message virtually meaningless.

So here is how we stay on track with a message that is actually very good news.  First of all, shame and fear are real emotions that everyone has from the most obviously virtuous to the most obviously not.  If we try to run away from these feelings or find some way to suppress them they only become stronger and uglier and they very often turn into anger at and hatred of self and/or others.

Our message is not check your shame and fear at the door because you have no need of them.  The message is bring them inside with you and meet the God who is not ashamed to be your God (Hebrews 2:11 & 11:16) in spite of the things of which you are ashamed, and whose consistent (biblical) message is, "Do not be afraid" (a phrase that occurs at least 31 times in the New Testament).

What does God do with our shame and fear?  The authentic Christian story is that he absorbs it and offers us a way to live with it.  That way is not complicated. It is not a way of conformity and following the rules.  St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the 2nd century, put it this way:  "The glory of God is a human being fully alive."  The glory of God is for a human being to live free from the shackles of shame and fear.  St. Paul also said it simply in his Letter to the Romans: "Nothing...can separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8).

There is no if, and, or but about this message.  There is no shame or fear that God cannot absorb and turn into love and freedom.

The question is, if it is that simple, how come the world does not know this truth that sets us free?