The Enneagram is a tool that has helped me more than any other. It recognizes and numbers 9 (“ennea” = “nine”) different personality types and offers a path to understanding, to acceptance, and to transformation. If you’re unfamiliar with the Enneagram, I do not recommend that you take an online test to determine your number. […]
The biggest mistake contemporary believers often make when reflecting on the mysteries of the Christian faith is to relate to them, either as mere historical events that took place in the distant past, or else as mythical fables that never really took place at all.
This mistake keeps us tangled in the weeds of history, arguing about things that may or may not have happened as they are written and handed down to us today. Viewed through such a myopic lens, the Bible becomes either an infallible textbook in competition with the findings of modern science, or else a highly questionable compendium of ancient thought. The Sacraments become mere memorials that mark us as adherents to a particular religious tradition. The Church itself becomes just another dated institution, devoted to a particular set of dogmas and morals, and having no existence outside the buildings and budgets sustained by its members. Theologically, the imprisonment of the mysteries of the faith in cells of history or mythology leaves people of faith with no real choice except empty secularism, on the one hand, or radical fundamentalism, on the other. Either way, the dismissal of the Easter mystery causes us to miss out on the eternal power Christ’s resurrection has to transform our lives today, for this world and the next.
St. Paul shows us the way out of this intellectual quagmire in tonight’s reading from his epistle to the Romans. He asks the Roman Christians, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
This is a brilliant question. Implied in it is the conviction that the death of Christ is not an historical event, but a present reality. The word baptize, used by Paul in this text, comes from the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse” as one would soak dishes in a sink or a baby in a bathtub. What Paul says here is that the Sacrament of Baptism, more than just a memorial of past events, “soaks” us in the ever-present reality of Christ’s death on the cross. The scattered fragments of our lives and deaths are gathered together and joined into one, through Christ’s life and death, in Baptism. This is an important truth to consider because it gets at the central mystery of the Christian faith and illuminates the central predicament of every human life on earth.
We humans live in a state of detachment from the world around us. When we are born on this planet, each of us begins the long process of dissociating our identity from our mothers and families. The goal of all childhood is to grow up and leave the nest in which we were raised. With the increased privilege of adulthood comes increased responsibility, and with that an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness.
We earn the right to become masters of our own destiny, only to discover early on that we are actually poor masters, indeed. We find ourselves driven by unconscious impulses in our own minds: rage, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, vanity, and arrogance. And then we discover that we are simultaneously trapped by those very same unconscious forces at work in the world around us. These forces lead to the inevitable breakdown in our relationships. We go on living lives of “quiet desperation” in isolation from one another, failing to understand what is truly going on within ourselves. St. Paul right names the cause of our predicament when he tells us that we are “enslaved to sin.”
Sin is something of a loaded term in today’s society, as it has been for millennia. Religious people are often quick to use that term when pointing out the faults of others, so the rest of the world has learned to tune out the message whenever “sin” is mentioned.
With that in mind, I intend to be very careful about how I use the term sin in this message. Put simply, sin is our address; it is where we live. Sin describes the state of broken relationships between each one of us and our neighbors around us, between our conscious thoughts and our unconscious motivations, and between our souls and our Creator. There is not a person in this room whose life is unaffected by this breakdown in relationships. We did not choose it, we do not want it, but we cannot get free of it. As St. Paul tells us, the present reality is that each and every one of us is “enslaved to sin.”
But this is not the whole story. Even though we find ourselves in a state of broken relationships, we also sense within ourselves a deep connection with each of these things. Our very existence depends upon our relationship with one another, our inner thoughts, nature, and God. The fact that we are aware of our predicament is the first step toward resolving it.
The Church teaches that God has become one with our human nature in Jesus Christ. The gap between divinity and humanity was first crossed at Christmas and continues throughout Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus opens eyes that are blind, ears that are deaf, and tongues whose songs of praise have never been heard. To the hungry, Jesus offers bread. To the lonely, Jesus offers welcome. To the guilty, Jesus offers amnesty. To the oppressed, Jesus offers freedom. To those who are dead, Jesus speaks wonderful words of life. All of these things Jesus did in his thirty-odd years on earth, and he does them still in our lives today.
One would think that people so bereft of the inner and outer necessities of life would gladly welcome such gifts from the Source of Life himself, but the stories of Holy Week demonstrate that this is not so. The revelation of pure divinity in a human life exposed the lies and the futility of our emotional programs for happiness that we construct for ourselves. Rather than risk the journey into freedom that God offers in Christ, the powers of this world reacted with swift vengeance to silence the voice of God-in-the-flesh. We learn again each Passion Sunday and Good Friday how this world-system treats those who challenge its power. Better a familiar slavery, they say, than an unknown freedom. The death of Christ on the cross was the sad-but-inevitable result of his life on earth. Yahweh told Moses at Sinai that no human could see the face of God and live, but our forebears declared the opposite to Jesus at Golgotha: that no God would be allowed to expose the true face of humanity and live. If this were any other story, it would end there as a cautionary tale about the fate of those who dare to challenge the way things are, but this is not just any other story; this is the Gospel.
What happens next makes highly appropriate the coincidence that Easter Sunday should happen to fall upon April Fools’ Day this year. The ancient fathers and mothers of the Church were fond of portraying the events of Holy Week and Easter as Christ’s elaborate practical joke on the devil. They chuckled as they told the story of how Christ tricked the devil into killing him and then sprang his trap, destroying death from the inside out, like a Trojan Horse that was ushered into the bowels of hell itself. St. John Chrysostom writes:
“Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.”
Easter is Christ’s April Fools’ prank on the devil. Just as Good Friday revealed how brutal we are, Easter Sunday reveals how we ridiculous we are. God, faced with human evil, is as patient, loving, and resolute as a mother faced with her toddler’s tantrum. Just as there is nothing a preschooler can do to lose his mother’s affection, so there is nothing we can do to out-sin the love of God.
Friends, this is good news for us as we begin our annual Easter celebration. Despite our best efforts, we have utterly failed in our effort to silence the voice of Love in the face of Jesus Christ. We did our worst, but all of it together was not enough to stifle the power of God’s love. Despite our best efforts, we are still loved. In the words of the ancient Easter Troparion:
“Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and, upon those in the tomb,
Friends, these are not simply historical events that we remember tonight, nor are they mere mythology to stir our imaginations to good behavior. As Father Randall is fond of reminding us: “Christianity is not a religion about being good so Daddy will love you.” No, the mystery of Easter is a present reality in our lives today. As St. Paul told the Roman Christians, so he tells us today, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Baptism, like all the Sacraments, is a mystery that unites the scattered fragments of our lives to the one life of Christ. In Baptism, our old lives of sin are buried and we are raised to the new life that God intends for us. In Baptism, God’s love in Christ is made real to us. In Baptism, even our deaths take on meaning because they are vanquished by Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection.
Living as a Christian in the world today, I continually find that Jesus Christ gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not available to me through other, more rational means. Encountering the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church as unfathomable mysteries, I have discovered time and again that they are means of grace through which God continues to speak to me, day after day. In those all-too-frequent seasons when I labor under the burden of doubt or despair, it is you, the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who call me back with laughter and tears, with words of encouragement and challenge, to the one life of the risen Christ who still dwells in our midst.
Friends, I thank you for this gift and ask your fervent prayers for me, and I offer mine for you, as we journey together toward the discovery of all God offers us in Christ, both now and for eternity. Amen.
It was my great honor to be invited by my dear friend, Rev. Rachel Lonberg, to preach this week at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo. The language and flow of this sermon are quite different from my usual practice, as I was speaking in a multi-faith context. I welcome the creative opportunity to express my values in a different way. Enjoy!
Breath is a funny thing. It happens all the time, whether we think about it or not. Our body simply knows how to do it. Most of the time, we take it for granted, even though it’s even more essential to life than food or water (or even iPhones or Facebook). But do we ever really pay attention to it?
I’d like to invite you to join me in a little experiment for a moment.
Try to sit up straight, as comfortably as you can, with your feet flat on the ground. Close your eyes if you like, but it’s not strictly necessary. Now, just pay attention to your breathing.
Don’t try to control or force it. This is not about deep breathing; just the regular rhythm that’s happening all the time. Imagine yourself riding your breath, as if you were a surfer on the ocean.
Notice the feeling of the air as it passes through your nostrils. Notice the movement of your chest or shoulders as the air fills your lungs. Notice the expanding of your abdomen as your diaphragm draws the atmosphere into your body.
Now, let’s just sit with that for a bit. Just keep riding the unconscious rhythm of your breathing.
After a while, you will probably begin to notice other things as well: little noises in the room, twitches or pains in your body, thoughts popping in and out of your head. These are all perfectly normal. Don’t judge them. Just keep gently bringing your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing. Let everything just happen. Don’t try to empty your mind or stop yourself from thinking. Just let the thoughts come and go. Imagine you’re sitting by the side of a river, just watching the boats go by, and each thought, sensation, or noise is just another little boat. Just watch it go by while your attention is on the river itself, and the river is your breath.
Just sit with that awareness for this moment.
When you’re ready, you can open your eyes again (if you had them closed). What did you notice about yourself during this exercise?
Some people describe themselves as feeling more relaxed peaceful. Some notice little irritations or discomfort in their bodies or environment. I often notice, just after opening my eyes again, that lights and colors seem brighter or more vivid than they did before.
What do you think would happen within you if you were to practice this for five minutes a day or longer, maybe even working up to twenty minutes?
A lot of research has gone into that very question over the past two decades. Many self-help books have been written about mindfulness or meditation. Studies have demonstrated that those who practice this exercise on a regular basis report decreased stress, anxiety, and emotional reactivity. At the same time, they report an increase in memory, focus, and cognitive flexibility. Therapists who practice mindfulness report an improvement in their counseling abilities.
I think all of these things are very good and true, but I also think there is a deeper significance to mindfulness practice that goes beyond the findings of clinical psychologists. Mindfulness, I think, brings us into a greater awareness of reality in the here and now.
The goal of mindfulness, as I understand it, is not to stop our thoughts and feelings, but to stop our identification with our thoughts and feelings. In an age where Twitter has reduced people to seething balls of opinions, mindfulness brings us back to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. Our True Self, if you will, has roots that go much deeper than the surface of our Ego. Mindfulness brings us into conscious awareness of that True Self.
Philosopher of religion John Hick points out that all the religious and spiritual traditions of the world bring their practitioners on a similar journey. This journey is conceived and expressed in different ways: Salvation, Enlightenment, Liberation, Recovery.
What they all have in common is that they present us with a problem and a solution. The journey on which they take us, according to Hick, is a journey from a self-centered way of living to a reality-centered way of living.
I would extend Hick’s observation beyond the bounds of traditional religious practice as well. We can see the same kind of journey taking place in the late medieval and early modern ages with the advent of the Scientific Revolution.
Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, in 1543 CE, published a manuscript On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. In this book, Copernicus set forth this radical idea that the sun was the center of the solar system, while the earth and other planets revolved around it. Now, this theory was not original to Copernicus; it had been formulated before by many different astronomers around the world. However, it was Copernicus who rediscovered the idea of a heliocentric solar system for Western Europe.
The Copernican model challenged the prevailing orthodox view at that time, which declared unequivocally that the earth was stationary, while everything else in the universe revolved around it. Copernicus’ views were ridiculed and rejected by powerful religious and political forces. These supposedly heretical ideas called into question the power of a social system that was upheld by politics and religion. The thing that caused Copernicus’ detractors to tremble in fear was the thought that they might not be the center of the universe, after all.
The Copernican Revolution and subsequent development of the Scientific Method represent the gradual eclipse of traditional doctrine by rational observation in the matters of the physical sciences. Reason has not replaced religion entirely, but has caused it to adapt and grow in new ways.
If we take John Hick’s model of spirituality as a journey from self-centered thinking to reality-centered thinking, we can accept the Copernican Revolution as a scientifically ‘religious’ event. We can also understand it in terms of mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness practice brings us to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. It shows us that we are not the center of the universe, but merely parts of a whole.
On the one hand, such a realization is threatening to any who identify themselves by their power, possessions, or privilege. On the other hand, it also has the potential to be profoundly liberating to those who are willing to open their minds.
Just think of the images that have been beamed back to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope for the past three decades. These photographs are like sacred icons to me. In those galaxies and nebulae, I see a beauty that is so vast and so ancient that I seem like a speck of dust or a wisp of smoke in comparison. On the other hand, I realize that the same cosmic order that gave rise to that beauty exists also in the atoms of my own body. I am as much a part of them as they are of me. Together, we are the universe. Observing those images with my eyes and contemplating them with my brain, I feel both small and great at the same time. No matter what happens to me in this life, the beauty of the cosmic order will remain untouched and continue to give rise to new forms in the future. That is my basis for faith, hope, and love, and it feels like freedom.
There is freedom to be found in the practice of mindfulness, but it is far from obvious to those who persist in identifying with their egocentric thoughts and emotions. The past century has brought us an increasing (though still incomplete) awareness of the diversity and dignity of creation. This awareness has inspired some among us to stand up for equality and the rights of our fellow beings. The struggle for women’s suffrage and civil rights have given rise to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter today.
We have made some progress, but our work has still just begun. Just as in Copernicus’ time, powerful forces are reacting strongly against the advancement of equality. As some step out and speak out for equality, there are others who decry their message as “a War on Christmas… a War on Traditional Marriage… a War on America… A War on White People… A War on Men…”
Those who have benefitted from an unfair distribution of power and resources are afraid that their loss of privileged status is an attack on their very identity and existence. In mindfulness terms, they are continuing to identify with socially constructed categories like race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, or religion.
I say “they” but I really should say “we” because I stand before you today as a beneficiary of almost every possible category of privilege that can be identified. I am a white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, male, American, and Christian human being. The political and economic structures of this country were set up by people who look like me and for people who look like me. I receive an unfair amount of privilege over and against my fellow human beings, simply because I was lucky enough to be born this way. I speak this morning to anyone who shares my privilege in any of the categories I just named. Even as members of the species homo sapiens, we occupy a privileged position of power over the other species and environments of this planet. The United States espouses the philosophical ideals of equality, but too often fails to live up to them in practice. Our privilege is a crime against humanity and, in the language of the Christian religious tradition, a sin against God.
While we are not personally culpable for the misdeeds of past generations, we are nevertheless responsible for doing our part to reshape the present for the sake of future generations. The task before us is to “check our privilege” in our dealings and interactions with those who do not possess a fair share of power and resources at the table. Our threefold mission, like Copernicus, is to let go of false-yet-convenient models of the past, to realize that we are not the center of the universe, and to take our place as parts of a great and beautiful whole. We can never hope to make anything “great again” because reality itself has never ceased to be great, and never will be. Its greatness is simply there, to be observed. All we have to do is open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to become aware of it.
I believe that mindfulness meditation, like we have just practiced, is one tool that we can use in cultivating this awareness of our inherent greatness. We can check our privilege, not by flagellating ourselves in guilt for the sins of the past, but by being fully present in this moment with our fellow beings. We can check our privilege by showing up, being still, looking compassionately into one another’s eyes, and listening attentively to the pain that has been caused by centuries of oppression.
Over a century ago, the members of People’s Church did just that as they sat and listened to Sojourner Truth preach from the pulpit of this congregation. By practicing mindful awareness today, we will find ourselves once again in the great company of prophets like Nicolaus Copernicus and Sojourner Truth, that great communion of saints who have made the journey from self-centered living to reality-centered living. We cannot change the mistakes of the past, but we can check our privilege by practicing mindful awareness today and so lay the foundation for a better tomorrow.
May it be so. Amen.
There is a vastness,
in the cosmos
that defies imagination.
I stand in awe
and within it.
Something inside me
for the same greatness,
to be made real
in my short life
on this tiny planet.
All I have,
and all I am,
is a product
of this vastness,
It sustains me,
even when I forget
and take it for granted.
I can find the strength
to let go
when others forget
and take me for granted
I remember this
in moments of peace,
that I might remember it
in days of stress,
and thus be freed
does not come from me,
did not begin with me,
and will not end with me.
It never has,
and never will.
Preaching on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI.
Your greatest gift to the world is you.
Do you hear me in that?
Your greatest gift to the world, the Church, or your family is you.
This is an important truth that we are in grave danger of losing in the world. We live in a world that measures the “worth” of human beings in terms of the money they earn, the possessions they own, the positions they hold, or the degrees on their wall.
In a negative sense, this world judges people based on categories like race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We dismiss the ideas of our fellow human beings because they come from someone of a different political party or religious tradition. We project all our self-hatred and insecurity onto people who live with a disability, mental health diagnosis, or criminal record.
When we meet new people at cocktail parties, our first question is usually something like: “So, what do you do?” I would be far more interested to ask, “So, who are you, really? What makes you tick? What thrills/hurts you? What brings you enough hope to get out of bed in the morning?” (And that’s probably the reason why I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties…)
Truth is always inconvenient. Someone has said, “The truth will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.” As broken people living in a broken world, we are not predisposed to face the honest truth about who we really are. We are afraid that we are nobody, or that we are so ugly, stupid, and boring that no one could possibly love us, if they were to see us as we really are. So, we hide. We try to cover ourselves with the paltry fig leaves of our accomplishments and failures, thinking that we have successfully tricked the world into believing that this nobody is somebody, but secretly fearing that the truth about our inner nothingness might one day be found out.
Brothers and sisters, I come to you this morning with good news that these deep fears of ours are entirely unfounded. Beneath the tattered rags of the false identities we have constructed for ourselves is not an ugly emptiness, but the glory of the Divine Image that has been revealed and redeemed for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord. Today’s gospel recalls the eighth day after the Nativity, when the infant Messiah was brought to be initiated into the community of God’s chosen people through the rite of circumcision. Today is the day when the name of Jesus was first spoken out loud to the world.
There is tremendous power in a name. Names tell us something about who we are. Doctors put a lot of energy into diagnosis: accurately naming an illness in order to treat the patient. Parents know that if you raise a child, calling names like “bad, stupid, ugly, and worthless”, that child will grow up believing those things about him/herself and acting accordingly. In the Bible, names are of the utmost importance: the patriarch Jacob is given the new name Yisrael, meaning “he wrestles with God” after struggling all night for a blessing from an angel. Avraham, the exalted ancestor of Jews. Christians, and Muslims, is so-named because he is “the father of many nations.” Jesus names his disciple Petros because he is the “rock” upon which the Church will be built.
In today’s gospel, our Lord is given the name Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, which means “salvation, deliverance, or liberation” because he is destined to free God’s people from slavery to sin. The name of Jesus was not an arbitrary label attached to this person after-the-fact, but was first whispered into the Blessed Virgin Mary’s heart at the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel. At that time, the angel said of Jesus:
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 NRSV)
The Holy Name of our Lord is a statement about who Jesus is. Behind and beyond the rough exterior of an uneducated, working-class carpenter, born in the parking lot of a Motel 6, in a backwater town of an occupied country, deeper than all of that: we can see with the eyes of faith the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
As millennia have gone by, the Church has continued to ponder the full meaning of Jesus’ identity. Bishops and theologians have met repeatedly in great Councils, endlessly tossing the question back and forth while the answer eludes them. After two thousand years, all the Church can really say is that the mystery of Jesus’ identity is a question that can never be answered. He is fully human and fully divine in a way that transcends human understanding. Anytime people have stood up and claimed to have the final solution to this problem, the Church has been quick to tell them they are wrong. Christian orthodoxy is not a matter of holding tightly to unquestionable answers; Christian orthodoxy is a matter of standing in reverent awe before unanswerable questions.
Even after all these years, the unanswerable question of Jesus’ identity continues to haunt and bless the Church on earth. We can never claim to fully understand it, but we can give testimony to our experience of it. And we express this experience in poetry, story, ritual, and song: that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, eternity has become embodied in time, heaven has taken up residence on earth, and divinity and humanity are now one.
Jesus reveals the mystery of his identity to us by entering into full solidarity with the human condition. In today’s gospel, Jesus enters into solidarity with the people of Israel through the rite of circumcision, which Jews today call a bris. The closest equivalent to this rite of initiation in the Christian tradition is the sacrament of baptism, which Jesus would also receive later in life, at the hands of his cousin John.
In baptism, we Christians receive our identity. That is, we learn who we really are in Christ. The water is an outward and visible sign of the washing away of the false identities we construct for ourselves. In the Church, we are no longer presidents or panhandlers, no longer grad students or gangstas, no longer trust-fund babies or crack babies, no longer doctors or drag queens. In baptism, all of these constructed identities are washed away: “We renounce them.”
In baptism, we are stripped of our fig leaves and stand naked before our Creator.
And this, brothers and sisters, is the Good News: that underneath the stained and tattered rags of ego is not the ugly nothingness we feared. In the moment of baptism, we stand beside the font, dripping and shivering like a toddler fresh out of the bathtub, and hear the voice from heaven saying to us what it said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son (Daughter), the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)
Brothers and sisters, this is the truth about who we really are. This is the truth that God reveals to us by taking on our humanity and dwelling among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I dare you today to allow this truth to soak into the marrow of your bones. Allow it to transform you from the inside out. Allow it to turn upside-down the way you look at the world.
In baptism, Jesus liberates us from all our false, constructed identities. If you wash away everything you have, every one of your accomplishments and failures, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been said about you, what would be left? Only a mysterious voice from heaven saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved.”
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Jesus gives us eyes to see it. Jesus gives us the ability to see ourselves and our world through the eyes of God. This is how St. Paul is able to say, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)
This is why we make the promise, in our Baptismal Covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being”. We promise this because Christ is in all persons and every human being has an eternal dignity that deserves to be respected. You reflect the image and likeness of God in a way that is utterly unique, that has never been seen before in all of history, and never will be again. Without you, and without each and every person around you today, some small part of God would remain unknown forever.
And that is why I tell you today, brothers and sisters, that your greatest gift to the world is you.
Yesterday, I was privileged to offer a workshop on Gregorian chant and Benedictine spirituality for an adult education class at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo, MI.
I briefly introduced the history, practice, and spirituality of Gregorian chant and led the group through a singing exercise. Q&A follows.
Thank you to Rev. Rachel Lonberg and the good folks of People’s Church for this opportunity to share a spiritual practice that is so near and dear to my own heart!
A recording of the 43 minute session is posted below.
Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church of Paw Paw, MI.
There are two great mysteries that are central to the Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles. As mysteries of the faith, they cannot be proved by philosophical reasoning, but can be experienced directly and expressed through intuition and imagination in the stories and practices of our tradition.
The first is the mystery of the Trinity: we believe in one God who exists co-eternally as three persons, traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The main thing we learn from the mystery of the Trinity is that God is relational. God exists, not as a monolithic object in space, but as network of relationships between individual persons. It would not be too much to say that God is a relationship. This is how Christians are able to say, in the words of 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”
The second great mystery is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we are gearing up to celebrate during Advent and Christmas. Christians believe, in the words of John 1:14, that God “became flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ. In other words, God is one of us. Jesus Christ, according to the Church, is both fully human and fully divine, at the same time. According to the mystery of the Incarnation, everything Jesus is, God is. Jesus Christ reveals the Divine to us. If we want to understand what God is like, we look at the human person Jesus.
These two mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are central to the Christian faith. They are also central to understanding today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25.
In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells us a story of the Final Judgment. At the end of the age, the Son of Man (literally “the Human One”, Jesus’ favorite title for himself) will come to Earth in all his glory and divide the people of the world into two groups. One group, whom he calls “sheep”, and another, called “goats”. The “sheep” will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” while the “goats” will “depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The basis for this final judgment, contrary to what we tend to hear from popular “evangelists” in the media, is not a test of theological doctrine or church attendance, nor is it a question of whether one has received the Sacraments of the Church or “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” The basis of this final judgment, according to Jesus himself in Matthew 25, is how we treated the most vulnerable people among us in this life.
Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
With a look of confusion on their faces, the righteous ask when it was that they did all these things, and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
What Jesus says here is firmly rooted in the central mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation.
From the mystery of the Incarnation, we learn that God is fully human, so Jesus asks us, “Are you fully human?”
From the mystery of the Trinity, we learn that God is relational, so Jesus asks us, “Are you relational?”
Much of the imagery that Jesus uses in this story comes from chapter 7 in the book of the prophet Daniel, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In that chapter, Daniel has a vision of four empires, which he envisions as vicious monsters that destroy and devour people with their violence. But then, Daniel says, “I saw one like a human being (literally “a Son of Man”…get it?) coming with the clouds of heaven.” And this “Son of Man” will repeal and replace the monstrous empires with the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. And Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.”
According to Jesus and Daniel, this is God’s ultimate vision for the human species: for a truly human kingdom to replace the monsters and empires that have the power on earth for now.
So, how did we get into this sad state of affairs? What happened?
Well, the Gospel tells us that our Triune, relational God created a relational universe and invited human beings to take our part in harmonious relation to the whole of creation, but we were not satisfied with this gift. We humans wanted to be the center of our own little worlds. We were ambitious to become gods, but became monsters instead. We destroyed and devoured one another in our lust for power, and set up exploitative systems that oppress our fellow creatures in the name of “law and order”.
God kept trying to reach out to us, to show us that there is another way, but we were unwilling to listen. So, God “took on flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ, showing us that to be fully human is to be fully divine. Jesus loved us, bringing healing, wisdom, and forgiveness into our midst.
But we were still unwilling to listen. Clinging to our old delusions of grandeur, we rejected Jesus and turned on him with all the monstrous might of imperial power. We crucified and killed this God-made-flesh in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up.
But Jesus wouldn’t take No for an answer: he rose from the grave on Easter morning, conquering the power of death and hell, and declaring peace and forgiveness to his deniers and betrayers.
After his resurrection, Jesus gathered his community of followers once again and breathed into their hearts the Holy Spirit, the very presence and power of God. Jesus made the Apostles into little incarnations of the Divine.
These Apostles were sent out to say and do the same things that Jesus said and did: gathering communities of lost and broken people, blessing the little ones, teaching, healing, forgiving; baptizing, confirming, and ordaining, human beings to be the hands and feet of God in the world.
These gathered communities, the Church, gradually spread and grew to the ends of the earth, continuing the Apostles’ mission, right up to this very day in Paw Paw, Michigan, where we have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit as the apostolic people of God in this place and time.
All of us have come here today to hear God’s Word and be fed with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, to give thanks, to pray, to give, and to be sent back out into the world, that we might take our part in the advancing kingdom of heaven on earth, saying and doing the very same things Jesus said and did when he walked among us in the flesh.
We are called upon today to live as citizens of the kingdom of the One who is fully human (and therefore fully divine).
This kingdom of heaven-on-earth is advancing here and now, just as Jesus and Daniel said it would. The kingdom’s advance is not always readily apparent, but it is real. In every age, women and men have risen up to demonstrate to the monstrous empires of this world the truth that there is another way to be human. We call these people “Saints”. But saints are nothing more than further examples of what life in this world could be, if we would but set aside our selfish, ego-driven agendas and pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth.
The marching orders of Jesus, our commander-in-chief, are clear: Feed the hungry, slake thirst, welcome foreigners, care for the sick, and visit incarcerated criminals.
The quality of our spirituality (and our divinity) is measured, not by our religious observance or theology, but by the quality of our relationships with hurting, broken, and vulnerable human beings, without stopping to ask whether they are worthy. This is what it means to live in this world as citizens of the kingdom of the truly human one, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, which is our clear and present hope.
Jesus asks these things of us, not because they work as effective policy in this world, but because they are right. Jesus asks these things of us because they make real to us the presence and power of our fully human and relational God. As a bonus, this strategy happens to make God real to others, as well.
Jesus asks these things of us because the kingdom of heaven is real and advancing across the broken terrain of this Earth. In every age, the saints of God have taken their place in this kingdom, living on Earth as if they were already in Heaven. Today, we are invited to take our place in this kingdom as well.
Our God is relational, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you relational?”
Our God is fully human, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you fully human?”
To the extent that we can answer Yes to those questions, we can honestly say that we are living in the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, and we are finally fulfilling humanity’s oldest and greatest ambition: To become divine.
This is now the umpteenth time I have tried to write this article and started over. It always ends up being too long, too abstract, or too complicated to communicate its message effectively. We’ll see if this one works, so here goes…
What I want to do here is set out, as plainly as possible, the convictions that led me to the point of being confirmed in The Episcopal Church. This is a risky career move for me. I have served as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for several years. Being confirmed by the bishop is regarded by the Presbyterian Book of Order as an “act of renunciation”, whereby my ordination in that denomination is rendered null and void. In other words, confirmation was a point of no return for me. If things didn’t work out, I could not simply turn around and seek another pastoral call in a Presbyterian congregation. Therefore, I had to be sure that this was the right move for me.
And I eventually came to the conclusion that it was.
My journey to The Episcopal Church began fifteen years ago, during my senior year at Appalachian State University. I had recently fallen out with the charismatic fellowship that I had attended through my undergrad years. I loved the immediate experience of the divine that the charismatic movement emphasizes, but became disillusioned with the theological narrowness and lack of scholarly depth I found there.
I knew I loved liturgical worship, based on my experience of the Jewish Siddur and semi-regular attendance at Roman Catholic Mass, but each of those traditions presented me with a theological gap I could not cross with integrity. Around that time, I picked up a copy of The Book of Common Prayer from a local religious bookstore and fell in love. I visited the local Episcopal parish and finally felt like I had found what I was looking for.
At this point, I had already set in motion my plans to attend an evangelical seminary in western Canada. While there, I would meet, fall in love with, and marry a woman who was preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Her little congregation welcomed me with open arms and quickly adopted me into the family. It wasn’t the church I had planned on joining, but I figured it was the best way to support my new wife in her ministry.
There’s a lot that I will skip over at this point, for the sake of brevity, but I eventually joined my wife in the Presbyterian ministry. I figured the Reformed tradition was “pretty close” to Anglicanism and intended to make the best of things as an unusually high church Presbyterian. The nineteenth century Mercersburg theologians, John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff, were most helpful to me in this endeavor. I considered Mercersburg theology my “Rosetta stone” for translating what I believe about the Gospel into terms that Reformed Protestants could understand. At the time, I thought the differences between Reformed and Anglican Christianity were mainly cosmetic and political in nature, but I eventually came to realize that those surface variations overlie two related-but-distinct theological structures in the hearts and minds of believers.
In academic terms, the primary difference between the Reformed and Anglican traditions is ecclesiological. Translation for those who speak plain English: Presbyterians and Episcopalians have very different ideas about the definition of the word Church.
To illustrate the difference, let’s look at a particular passage of Scripture that has great import for Reformed and Anglican Christians alike, but is interpreted in vastly different ways by each of the two traditions.
The passage in question is Matthew 16:13-20:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Presbyterians and other Reformed Protestants come from a confessional tradition. Christians in the Reformed tradition believe that Simon Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the “rock” on which Christ builds his Church. The Church, according to Reformed theology, is the spiritual fellowship of all believers who make the same confession of faith in Jesus Christ and are thereby reborn to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Roman Catholic theologians, on the other hand, are adamant that the “rock” referred to in this passage is Peter himself, whose name translates literally as “rock”. They have gone so far as to carve the words of this passage into the dome above the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City: “TU ES PETRUS”. This passage forms the bedrock of Roman arguments for Apostolic Succession and Communion with the bishop of Rome as essential marks of the Catholic Church.
Anglicans, in true via media fashion, have declared that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Catechism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer describes the apostolic nature of the Church as consisting of “the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (p.854). We affirm the importance of Peter’s confession, but also acknowledge that person-to-person fellowship with the apostles themselves (through their successors, the bishops) forms a vital part of our communion with the Catholic Church.
Concerning Peter himself, Anglicans see him as a spokesperson and stand-in for the rest of the apostles. We stand with Eastern Orthodox Christians and early patristic testimony that the bishop of Rome deserves a certain honor as primus inter pares (“first among equals”) in the collegial fellowship of bishops, but does not exercise “universal jurisdiction” over other dioceses or bear the charism of personal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra.
For Anglicans, the importance of the episcopal office is firstly sacramental, not governmental. The bishop, as a successor to the apostles in college with other bishops, is a symbol of the unity of the Church across space and time. At confirmation, baptized believers make their public profession of faith in the presence of their bishop and receive the laying on of hands as a way of expressing the unity of the Catholic Church as God’s means for extending the kingdom of heaven on earth and transmitting the anointing of the Holy Spirit within the ecclesial community. For the same reason, bishops are further entrusted with the ministry of ordaining priests and deacons.
Anglicans, along with Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, insist that exercise of episcopal ministry within the Church must be personal because God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ is likewise personal. About this personal quality, and its importance to the Christian gospel, I will say more in the next article…
Dear Superfriends and Blogofans,
Thanks so much for keeping up with me on this blog. I haven’t been very good about updating it this year, for reasons I will get into shortly. Today, I am resolving to begin again in this new season of life.
So, here’s the story:
It has been a year of dramatic, repeated, and painful transitions for me. In the last quarter of 2016, I reached the conclusion that I needed to leave my pastoral position at North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I loved that congregation and they loved me back. Serving them was never easy, but those three years were the happiest of my life so far. The main reason for leaving was financial. The congregation was running out of money. Even though I kept accepting pay cuts, they were still allocating a higher and higher percentage of their budget to my salary. The situation was untenable and leaders, ordained and lay, were quickly burning out. After much thought, prayer, and consult, I decided that leaving was the right thing to do.
One bright spot in this transition is that I decided to take the opportunity to join The Episcopal Church. This is something that has been in my heart for the last fifteen years. I “married into” the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I have served for several years, and have happily pastored two fantastic congregations with them. I have been honored to serve at my presbyteries and the General Assembly. My decision to leave has nothing to do with conflict or disappointment with that denomination. I leave with only gratitude in my heart for the PC(USA) and the wonderful people who worship and serve there. The issue is that my core theological framework has always been Anglican, which is related to (but also distinct from) the Reformed tradition. There are certain theological convictions that I have come to hold dearly, for which there is simply no room in Reformed thought. More on those in a future article.
In March of this year, I started a new job in Community Development & Parish Administration at an Episcopal parish in nearby Battle Creek. This was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. For the first time, I was working as a staff member at a larger congregation, I was getting an immersive experience of daily life and ministry in The Episcopal Church, and I was seeing congregational life from an entirely new perspective. I learned more about finance and administration in seven months than I had in my entire life to that point. I got to do intensive research on church growth and discovered, to my great surprise, that there is actually some really fantastic research on the subject.
But all was not well. In the space of a few months, it became clear that the parish needed a trained and experienced bookkeeper more than it needed a community development person. My gifts and skills make me ideal for the latter, but I struggled to keep up with the former. The rector was concerned about parish finances, I was miserable, and my family was worried about me. I was not a good fit for the position and the position was not a good fit for me. Once again, leaving seemed like the right thing to do.
I struggle to convey just how disheartening it is to realize, twice in one year, that the church where you work is better off without you. Imagine the scene in Isaiah 6, when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!”
Now, imagine if God were to respond, “Thanks, but no thanks.” That’s pretty much what it feels like.
Since the end of September, I have been unemployed. I had a couple of irons in the fire, even an offer to teach college again, but those have fallen through.
Not all has been doom and gloom, though. I am investing all of my time and energy into my primary vocation as husband and father. I take care of the family and the house. I have had more time for my children than I have in years. The house looks better than it has in a long time. I am eating healthier and running six miles a week. I’m even learning how to cook, and discovering that I’m pretty good at it!
I am also looking forward to my confirmation in a week and a half. In that moment, when the bishop lays hands on my head, I will cease to be a Presbyterian pastor and will become an Episcopal layperson. This is the point of no return: my Presbyterian ordination will be nullified without any guarantee of ordination as an Episcopal priest. Imagine a circus act where an acrobat has to let go of one trapeze before the next one arrives. It’s a terrifying prospect, but it seems like the right thing to do. Here’s why I think so:
When I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, I was asked the following question:
“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture calls us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”
If asked today, I would have to answer that question in the negative. My study of the early Church fathers and mothers has brought me to a fundamentally different understanding of the Church than the one expressed in the writings of John Calvin, the Westminster Catechism, or even the lovely Confession of 1967. There is much in these works that is good, but the differences between their ecclesiology and mine are substantial enough that continued service as a Presbyterian pastor would be a compromise of integrity. I will write more on this later.
At least six months after my confirmation, according to canon law, I can begin the process of discernment for the priesthood. The process can be expedited (at the bishop’s discretion) for those who were previously ordained in another tradition, but formation will still take several years, and there are no guarantees.
Some have suggested that I not take the risk to my career, but I think it would be the height of hypocrisy and cowardice if I were to claim to believe certain things about the apostolic nature of the Church and the authority of bishops, but refuse to reexamine my personal sense of call in the light of what I have come to believe. If am truly called to the priesthood, God will make the way clear. If not, some other ministry will emerge.
In the meantime, these new circumstances afford me an opportunity to live more deeply into the Benedictine principles that have given my life structure for the past several years. St. Benedict teaches that God is to be found in the most ordinary places and activities. Each day, I pray as many of the liturgical hours as possible and try to center my direction of the household on humility, gentleness, consistency, flexibility, hospitality, and sensitivity to others’ needs in my endeavor “to be loved rather than feared.” (RB 64:15)
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I can honestly say that I don’t hate what I am doing right now. I am finally coming home to The Episcopal Church. Tending the hearth is the single biggest contribution I can make to our family life, even more than a steady paycheck. Who knows whether my example might even present a helpful antidote to the toxic masculinity that is running rampant through our society right now?
My most pressing concern for the moment is whether this arrangement will be fiscally sustainable for us. I am prepared to take on part-time work, probably in retail, if we get desperate for cash.
In the long term, I hope I get the opportunity to make use of my ministry gifts in some meaningful way, whether I am ordained or not. Until then: Ora et Labora.
Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church in Niles, Michigan.
Every now and then, I come across an article online that describes a “scientific experiment” on the effects of prayer. Typically, these are conducted in a medical setting, where one group of patients has a group fervently praying for their recovery, while another group (called the “control group” in scientific circles) does not.
The “results” of these experiments tend to vary widely, depending on who is conducting or sponsoring the survey, but the central idea remains the same: if the recipients of prayer have a significantly higher rate or speed of recovery than those who were not prayed for, then religious people get excited that they have finally disproved the denouncements of atheists. If, on the other hand, there is no significant difference in recovery between the groups, secular humanists get excited that they have finally disproved the superstitious practices of people of faith.
One might think that I, as a member of the Christian clergy, would be rooting hard for the first result, but the truth is that I find both of these reactions equally unsatisfying. In fact, I find the entire idea behind this kind of experiment to be utterly absurd. I say this because I think experiments like this miss the whole point of what prayer actually is and what it is for.
This kind of test treats prayer as if it is a form of magic: effecting a favorable outcome of natural events through supernatural means. Even worse, it treats God like a cosmic vending machine: I put my money in the slot, press a button, and get the treat I want. I never even think about the vending machine unless I want something from it. Even then, I don’t think about the machine itself very much unless it breaks down, and fails to give me what I asked for. It’s fairly obvious that my relationship to a vending machine is inherently self-centered. And it’s not hard to see that a relationship to God in prayer, based on the same principle, is an inherently self-centered spirituality.
St. Paul talks about the subject of prayer quite a bit in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians. But first, a little bit of back story…
The passage begins with a reference to an interpersonal conflict that is going on in the Church in Philippi. The major players are Euodia and Syntyche, two prominent members of the Church. They have reached an impasse in an argument. We, the readers, know nothing of what this argument was about. It might have been a difference of opinion on some important theological or moral issue, or it might have been as petty as a spat over the next potluck. Pastoral experience has taught me repeatedly that church conflicts often run the gamut between these two extremes, though typically, the loudest fights tend to happen over the most trivial of issues.
We don’t know what the issue was in this particular case, but things had gotten bad enough that Paul had to get involved. What I find most interesting about his response is that he does not address the issue itself at all, but scoots past it to care for the souls of the people involved in the conflict.
Paul says to them, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”
This is an interesting turn of phrase. On the surface, it looks like a general call for two people to find a way to agree with one another, but there is a deeper reference here as well. The words “same mind” should remind the readers of this letter of the same phrase, which appeared two chapters earlier:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
What St. Paul is trying to do here is coax these Church members to think outside the box of their self-centered conflict and re-orient their lives around the Gospel. This is the central point of all Christian spirituality: to move us from a self-centered way of living to a God-centered way of living; to see ourselves and our lives through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul says it again in the passage we heard from today, urging the members of the Church to “help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”. He sees these sisters, Euodia and Syntyche, not as opposing parties in a debate, but as co-laborers for the Gospel of Christ. The question, for Paul, is not “Who is wrong?” or “Who is right?” in this situation, but “Who are we in Christ?” Paul is encouraging his readers to look at their situation, not from a self-centered point of view, but from a God-centered point of view.
So, how do we do this? How do we shift from our usual, self-centered way of living to the God-centered way of living? How do we begin to look at ourselves, our lives, and each other through the all-encompassing lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
St. Paul tells us how, and this is where prayer comes in:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Here we can see Paul’s understanding of the purpose of prayer. Prayer, for St. Paul, is not about getting the things we want from the cosmic vending machine. Prayer takes the joys and concerns of our life and reorients our lives around the story of God’s creation, redemption, and sanctification of the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
When we pray, our circumstances might very well change for the better, but that is not the ultimate purpose of prayer. Prayer changes us. Prayer leads us to look at our lives from a different point of view. Prayer leads us from a self-centered way of living to a God-centered way of living.
We practice this kind of prayer every Sunday in the liturgy. We are fed on a steady diet of Scripture and Sacrament, we name before God the various joys and concerns of our lives, we confess our failings and shortcomings, and we offer ourselves to the service of God in the world. But this is not just an activity for worship on Sunday. We need to be doing this every day in our own lives.
If you don’t have a regular spiritual practice outside of Sunday worship, I encourage you to start one. Take time every day to talk to God in prayer and listen to God in Scripture and silence.
There are many ways to do this. Devotional books and pamphlets abound, and they can be found online or in any bookstore. Personally, I use a more formal pattern of prayer called the Daily Office, which comes to us from the Benedictine monastic tradition. A form of the Daily Office can be found in The Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer, which is published by the Presbyterian Church (USA). For those who are technologically inclined, there is an inexpensive app available for iPhones that follows this pattern. Just do a search for “PCUSA Daily Prayer” in the App Store. How you do it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it in some way that makes sense to you.
And I can tell you from firsthand experience that it works. Prayer works. It certainly has worked for me. It may or may not change my circumstances in the way that I want, but I know for a fact that prayer changes me, and I believe that prayer has the power to change you too.
My prayer for each and every one of you this morning is that you will find in this practice a new perspective on life, and that you will begin to view yourselves, your lives, and your world through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.