What Can Love Do?

Holy Eucharist for Sunday, Proper 25, Year A
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI

Matthew 22:34-46

The culture of Jesus’ time and place, much like our own, was no stranger to the perils of partisan conflict. Today’s gospel opens in the middle of an argument between two established schools of Jewish thought: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

These two communities offer alternative interpretations of Judaism, in much the same way that different denominations offer alternative interpretations of Christianity today. Additionally, because there was no “separation of church and state” in the ancient world, the Pharisees and Sadducees also functioned as something like political parties in Judea. Imagine, if you will, a messy situation where The Episcopal Church functions as the primary meeting of the Democrats, while the Southern Baptists set the platform for the Republicans.

The Sadducees were a smaller group of wealthy elites who centered their worship on the sacrificial rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. Theologically, they accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as divinely inspired and authoritative. They did not believe in destiny, angels, or an afterlife. Politically, they sought friendly and peaceful relations with the occupying Roman government.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a somewhat larger group of the lower classes. Their worship emphasized the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis. In addition to the five books of the Pentateuch, Pharisees also accepted the oracles of the prophets, collections of wisdom literature, and the oral interpretations of rabbinical scholars. They believed that moral purity would reform their national life and convince God to send the Messiah, an anointed king who would liberate their people from foreign occupation and influence. The Pharisees went on to form the foundation of Judaism, as it is practiced today.

Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were both thoroughly Jewish movements. As joint religious denominations and political parties, they advocated competing agendas for “God and country” in Judea during the time of Jesus.

Our gospel reading for today begins as Jesus is ending a debate with one member of the Sadducee party. A nearby Pharisee, a legal scholar, listens with great interest to this argument. “If Jesus is obviously opposed to the Sadducees,” he thinks, “then maybe he is a member of our party?” With this question in mind, he decides to put Jesus to a little theological test about the Jewish Scriptures.

“Rabbi,” he says, “which mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is the greatest?”

Jesus responds by ushering his interlocutor into the heart of their shared tradition by referencing the Shema.

The Shema, in Judaism, is the foundational faith statement of monotheism:

“Shema Yisrael:” (Listen, O Israel:)

“Adonai Eloheinu,” (The Lord is our God,)

“Adonai Echad.” (The Lord is ONE.)

This declaration of oneness represents not only the heart of Jewish tradition, but the heart of reality itself, as Jesus and his fellow Jews understand it: That, beneath the unfathomable diversity of beings and events in the universe, is Sacred Oneness.

Mystics, from many different religious traditions, affirm this Oneness in ways that are remarkably similar to one another. Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, Rumi, and Meister Eckhart all describe a state of Non-Duality that includes and transcends all separations: self and other, left and right, light and dark, spiritual and secular. Spirituality, it seems, is the art of unifying opposites in transcendent wonder.

Neurologists have identified those parts of the human brain that allow us to lump together separate objects as parts of a unified whole. Their studies of dedicated monks and nuns have demonstrated that those parts of the brain are particularly active during periods of intense meditation, thus explaining those experiences of peace and unity that mystics have tried to express for millennia.

Physicists, in their study of the beginning of time, have likewise affirmed that the universe seems to have had its beginning in a Singularity of time, space, matter, and energy that exploded some 13.8 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event to which we now refer as the Big Bang.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in today’s gospel makes reference to this same Sacred Oneness at the heart of reality itself. The only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness, Jesus declares in the words of the Torah, is Love.

The greatest commandment in the Torah, according to Jesus, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” These words, adapted from Deuteronomy 6:5, appear in the Torah immediately after the verse which lays out the Shema for the first time. “The Lord is one,” Jesus says in effect, “and the only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness is love.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. For Jesus, love is not just the sappy feeling sensationalized in pop songs and rom-coms. For Jesus, love is not something you feel, but something you do. Love is action. Love is a verb.

This creates a problem: How does one show love to Love Itself? What could mere mortals possibly offer to a God who, by definition, already has and holds everything in the tender embrace of the Divine Self? The answer, according to Jesus, is simple: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment comes from the Torah as well, from Leviticus 19:18. It comes on the heels of Moses’ teaching about vengeance: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment to love one’s neighbor speaks directly to the problem of partisan conflict, which was as active in Jesus’ day as it is in our own. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa (who has worshiped in this very church), said similarly, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

The commandment to love receives its most explicit and biting explication later in the New Testament, in the first epistle of St. John, chapter 4:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Brothers and sisters, I put it to you today that the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor are not separate, but a single commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Way of Love moves at heart of everything Jesus said and did in his life on Earth. In the venerable words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.”

Notice that neither Jesus nor John, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Archbishop Tutu, neither the Torah nor the Presiding Bishop puts any provisos or exceptions on their joint commandment to love.

I am as aware as each and every one of you that we have the misfortune of living in a moment when love seems more powerless and the people of this country seem more divided than ever.

What can love do when our elderly and most vulnerable neighbors are being stalked by an invisible predator that steals the air from their lungs while their families watch in horror from the other side of a reinforced glass window?

What can love do when the beautiful bodies of our black brothers and sisters are left bleeding in their beds and on the streets, full of bullet holes?

What can love do when temperatures rise and songs of praise to the Author of Life are silenced at the rate of a species every single day? What can love do?

Brothers and sisters, this is the very question that I put before this morning: What can love do?

The answer we give to this burning question is the only response that God is interested in hearing from us. It is the only offering we can make that is worthy of the name Worship.

Love, in all its living and active forms, is the embodied reality that has the power to overcome all the partisan divisions of Jesus’ day and our own. Love is the only appropriate response to the Sacred Oneness that gave birth to the universe.

Let us return to the biblical exhortations of St. John the Beloved, in chapter 3, verse 18 of his first epistle: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we go out into the world this week, let us honor that Sacred Oneness. In the words of St. John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we catch ourselves in the mirror while shaving or brushing our teeth, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we relate to family and friends, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we interact with coworkers and classmates, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we converse with neighbors and enemies alike, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we read the news headlines and prepare to head to the polls next week, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I close, once again, with these memorable words from Presiding Bishop Curry, which he borrowed from Jesus, who borrowed them from the Torah of his ancestors: “Brothers and sisters: love God, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it… love yourself!”

Your Greatest Gift is You

Preaching on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI.

Click here to read Luke 2:15-21

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.

By Ozma1981 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9986942

Of Rocks and Pointy Hats

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…

When God Smacks You in the Head

I’ve been wanting to write more about my recent transition from the Presbyterian Church to the Episcopal Church, but a hectic schedule has not allowed. Hopefully, I will get to that soon. I’m sorry for leaving my readers in the dark, but living life has taken precedence over documenting it.

The transition process has been full of providential coincidences, deepening relationships, and a profound sense of finally settling into a church tradition where I can feel at home.

I have had a steep learning curve in my new job as parish administrator at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek. I’m grateful that the community there has been wonderfully welcoming and patient with me as I learn how to juggle these new responsibilities. I have desperately needed to learn the administrative and financial aspects of church life, which this job allows me to do. Knowing about these things will make me a much stronger presbyter when I (hopefully) return to that role in a few years. I believe I am exactly where God has called me to be for this moment.

At the same time, this new season is not without its own pain and anxiety. First of all, I am still grieving my previous call as pastor of North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I had hoped to remain in that position for much longer than I did. Even after I came to the realization that I was not a Presbyterian, I was determined to stay on for the sake of serving that amazing group of people. Unfortunately, the financial realities made it impossible for me to continue in the call.

Second, the reality has begun to sink in that I am taking a substantial risk by hopping between denominations like this. The Anglican commitment to the historic episcopate (a theological commitment I have come to agree with, btw) means that I will have to re-enter the discernment process for ordination. The process will take several years. And there is the possibility, however slight, that a bishop might look at my situation and not decide to move forward with ordination. My priest assures me that this, while technically possible, is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the fear sometimes keeps me up at night. I felt it acutely this weekend at the Diocesan Church Development Institute (DCDI), where clergy and parishioners from two Michigan dioceses gathered to learn about helping members grow spiritually, live together in community, and nurture transformative change. I was thinking about how much I love this when the terror struck that I might never again be able to invest my whole life in pastoral ministry, as I have for the last decade.

But God is not without a sense of humor.

Today’s epistle reading at the Daily Office was from 1 Peter 5:1-11. St. Peter writes as an apostle, bishop, and priest (presbyter, translated as “elder” in the NRSV) in the Church. He exhorts the leaders of the Church “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it not for sordid gain but eagerly.” (1 Pe 5:2)

I heard the following words as if they were spoken directly to me in this moment:

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pe 5:6-7)

And I then I read the following as a promise:

“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Pe 5:10)

As one trained in the arts of biblical exegesis and church history, I am fully aware of the dangerous situations that arise when one inserts one’s personal desires and fears into the text of Scripture. Furthermore, I know how church bodies work and have come to trust in the process of discernment that happens with the bishop in concert with relevant committees. There are no guarantees that I will ever become a priest in the Episcopal Church. Even if I do, the path will not be short or easy.

But the promise I hear in this text is that my life is destined to reflect God’s “eternal glory in Christ” and I will be given whatever manna I need to make that journey safely. I write these words from a place of faith, knowing that those same old fears are likely to reassert themselves in the next few years, days, or even moments. May God grant me the grace to trust the promise, even as my own heart screams in terror.

Last night, I was venting these fears to my wife at some length (ad nauseum, she might say). I eventually paused to go say Evening Prayer. Reaching down to get a hymnal from the bottom shelf, something must have shifted. There was a noise on the shelf above me and a sudden, stinging pain in the back of the head. I turned around to see what had fallen and hit me… it was my ordination certificate.

PCUSA Ordination Certificate.JPG

Resistance

Love is our resistance.
They’ll keep us apart
and they won’t stop breaking us down.
Hold me.
Our lips must always be sealed.
The night has reached its end,
we can’t pretend,
we must run…

“People who say they follow a poor, itinerant savior who came to bring good news to the poor and freedom to captives have elected a president who speaks contemptuously of women and people of color, and whose election has sparked celebration by the Ku Klux Klan and outbreaks of violence and harassment against Muslims, Jews, Latinos, women, immigrants and LGBT people.

Christians who voted for Trump may claim policy or economic reasons for having done so. But by electing a man whose words and actions support and incite hatred and violence, the church has failed the country, and we have a lot of soul searching to do.” -the Rev. Gay Clark-Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, the Episcopal Church

Click here for more details on how this resistance will look for the next 4 to 8 years, from Gay Clark-Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church.

Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff: Benedictine Monasticism and the Sanctification of Time

In early 2014, I realized something needed to change in my life.

I was regularly working twelve to fourteen hours a day, sometimes going a month without taking a single day off. I had a moment of clarity while sitting in my office at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. At first, I felt proud of myself for being such a hard worker, but then I thought, “Wait a minute, this is insane. Who does this?”

After returning from my second trip to the emergency room with stress-related illness, I decided that I needed to find a better sense of balance in my life. I thought, “Who understands balance and rhythm? Monks! I wonder if there’s a monastery somewhere near me?”

A Google search revealed that I lived a mere forty-minute drive away from St. Gregory’s Abbey, an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. Without even calling home to check with my wife, I called and booked a week-long retreat in April.

That week changed my life. Sitting in the abbey church, I felt quiet on the inside for the first time ever. I had long felt an attraction to contemplative Christian spirituality, but had never given myself permission to stop long enough to try it.

The first insight I gleaned from the Benedictines is a different conception of time than I had previously held. To quote the British sci-fi series Doctor Who:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”

I had presumed that time is a line, progressing inexorably from Point A to Point B. As one who exists on this timeline, my goal was success: asserting my powers of will to make the timeline go in the direction I wanted.

What I learned from the monks is that time is actually a circle, or perhaps a spiral. Making the daily rounds of the Divine Office and the Mass, we keep going around and around, returning to the same point in the liturgy again and again. It wouldn’t be all that far-off to say that the Eucharist itself is a form of “time-travel”, wherein the Church in finds herself gathered around the table with Christ and his Apostles at the Last Supper. Saints and angels from all of time and space gather with us in the Paschal mystery. Likewise, the hours of the Divine Office are often called “the sanctification of time.”

The goal of history in this circular vision of time is not success, but faithfulness. We return to the same points again and again. We cannot go forward without going around. This is very much in-tune with the circular rhythms of the natural world. Day follows night as the planet rotates. We pass through the lunar and seasonal phases as we go around the sun, year after year. The monks mark the passage of time with prayer, pausing to feel the earth twisting and turning beneath their feet. They return to the hours of the Office and the Mass in order to renew their conscious contact with the Source of motion. It is their faithfulness to this daily rhythm that makes them monks.

Between the hours, the earth continues rotating and revolving. There are periods of work and rest: guests need attending to, meals need to be prepared and eaten, dishes need to be washed, buildings need repair, books need to be written and read, library shelves need to be dusted, leaves need to be raked, snow needs to be shoveled, but the spiral rhythm remains constant. A symphony is just a jumbled mess of noise without the pauses and rests between the notes.

This is the first insight I learned from my time with the monks at St. Gregory’s. It has changed the way I approach my life at work and at home. Time is not a line, but a spiral. The goal is not success, but faithfulness. One can only move forward by going around.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to step away from this computer screen and go recite one of the Hours.

PAX

The Baptismal Covenant

Fr. Randall Warren drew our attention to the Baptismal Covenant during last Sunday’s sermon at St. Luke’s. You can read the Covenant by clicking here or by flipping to page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer (if you’re one of those old-fashioned people who still remember how books work). This brilliant summary of the Christian faith was born from the womb of liturgical renewal in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since its inclusion in the the 1979 Prayer Book, Episcopalians have “fallen in love with it,” according to Fr. Randall.

Reading and reflecting on the text later that day, it occurred to me that this brief Covenant provides a helpful starting point for thinking about the way the Church practices its mission in the world.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

We begin by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. This is our way of saying that faith begins, not with us, but in God. And God is not a monolithic entity but a community, a network of relationships, between divine persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) that we collectively refer to as the Trinity. This is how Christians are able to say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:16). A single person can be loving, in the adjectival sense, but Christians believe that God is love, in the active sense. God is relationship. To borrow a phrase, “God is a verb.” God happens.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

The place where God happens is the Church.

Of course, the Church is not the only place where God happens. All communities and relationships reflect, to one degree or another, the relational nature of the Trinity: friends, families, societies, ecosystems, even the gravitational relationship that exists between planets and stars. God meets us in all of these places, but the Church is the particular community where human beings are invited into a special covenant relationship with each other and with the Triune God through the person Jesus Christ, who is present with us in the Scriptures and the Sacraments.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Relationships are never easy. Relationships are raw. Intimacy strips away our fig leaves and exposes all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we come into the Church, a network of relationships that spans all of time and space, and is itself enfolded into the network of relationships that is the Trinity, we come as we are, with all our baggage in hand.

Standing in the light of Christ’s perfect humanity, we are confronted with the fact that we, in our selfishness, behave in ways that are less than fully human and lead to broken relationships.

The good news is that God refuses to break up with us, even when we try to do so with God and each other. God is like a mother in a department store whose toddler is throwing a tempter tantrum. The child screams, “I hate you!” And God adjusts the purse strap on her shoulder, takes us by the hand, and says, “You can hate me if you want to, but I still love you. Come along now; it’s time to go home.”

Christ dares us to get honest about our shortcomings. Christ invites us to begin again… and again… and again, knowing we are bound to fail. Success is measured, not in how many times we fall down, but in how many times we get back up. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Recovery is about progress, not perfection.” Salvation is a journey, not a destination.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

The result of this continual falling down and getting back up is that we grow in confidence that we are fully loved and accepted, no matter what.

This is big news.

This is big news in a world where a person’s appearance and performance are analyzed and judged with ruthless scrutiny. This is big news in a world where the “worth” of a person or an ecosystem can be quantified and calculated with dollar signs. This is big news in a world that prizes whiteness, maleness, and straightness. This is big news in a world where “might makes right” and “the best defense is a good offense.”

The absolute and unconditional love of God is big news because it renders irrelevant all the noise of news broadcasts and the temptations of commercial advertisements in between. People who know they are loved don’t need those trappings. People who know they are loved don’t fear what others fear. People who know they are loved by God have found something worth dying for, and therefore have something to live for too.

Love changes everything. Love makes the world go round and turns it upside down. Love wins. This is big news. It’s worth sharing. It needs to be said. The rest of world needs to hear it.

The Church is a community of people who have been changed by God’s love and try, to the best of their limited ability, to embody that love in the way they treat others. Evangelism is a “show and tell” enterprise… in that order. We do our best to show love first, and when the world asks us why we love so radically, then (and only then) we have earned the right to talk about Jesus.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Some Christians have mistakenly conflated evangelism and proselytism. They think the proclamation of the good news means arguing with people until they see things from your point of view. They think their job is to bring Christ to the world, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that Christ is already present in the world. Christ is in that homeless person, that sex worker, that meth cook, that terrorist, that presidential candidate. Christ lives in them and loves them at the level of their true self, which is deeper than all their problems and insecurities. They don’t see it, most of the time, and neither does the rest of the world. That is why most people falsely identify with things that are less than their true selves: appearance, occupation, possessions, criminal record, diagnosis, disability, race, national origin, political party, etc.

What breaks the spell of these false selves is when we enter into a relationship with someone who treats us as though we are Christ because, at a certain level, that is exactly who we are. The role of the evangelist is to help us realize this truth in ourselves and live it out in relationship with others in the Church and the world. So, in the end, all evangelism is simply Christ loving Christ through Christ.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is what it looks like to seek and serve Christ in others, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and to be the Church on Earth.

When we do this, we can expect the powers-that-be to get angry. Proclaiming the truth that God loves everyone completely, equally, and unconditionally is a direct affront to the lies they peddle. Bishop Gene Robinson once asked me, “If you aren’t getting in trouble because of your faith, is it really the Gospel you believe?”

Striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being will undoubtedly put us at odds with this world system of domination and manipulation. When we march on the picket line, write to an elected official, volunteer at the shelter, let go of an old grudge, bring a casserole to a sick neighbor, or sit through another committee meeting, we are turning the world upside down.

The same holds true for those who teach, heal, practice law, raise kids, run for office, work the McDonald’s drive-thru, or greet customers at Wal-Mart. You are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world and the work you do, when undertaken with this Baptismal Covenant in mind, is the ministry of the gospel.

And here’s the really amazing thing: it works.

When we begin to practice these promises in our lives, the world will take notice.

People are spiritually hungry. They intuitively sense that something is wrong with the way things are, but have no idea how to remedy the situation. Sadly, centuries of Christian dogmatism and judgmentalism have led many to believe that the Church has nothing to contribute. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

The Church’s mission begins and ends in love because we believe that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) Our Baptismal Covenant begins with the perfect love of the Triune God at the heart of reality and quickly ripples outward in concentric circles, embracing us, the Church, and the whole universe in the everlasting arms.

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

(Reblog) God Loves Chutzpah

“Jesus doesn’t need any more admirers — he needs disciples willing to get into some Gospel trouble on God’s behalf.”

Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson at All Saints Church, Pasadena
Celebration of Ministries Sunday, September 22, 2013.
Readings: Amos 8:4-7 and Luke 16:1-13.

For more about the work and witness of All Saints Church visit our website: http://www.allsaints-pas.org | Follow us on twitter @ASCpas

(Reblog) On gay bishops, what a difference a decade makes

By Bishop Gene Robinson

Reblogged from the Washington Post:

Twenty or 30 years ago, most Americans would have told you they didn’t know anyone gay.  By that, they would have been claiming not to know anyone who openly and proudly disclosed their sexual orientation – and certainly not in the ranks of the clergy.  Now, is there any family in America left who doesn’t know some family member, co-worker or former classmate to be gay?  And once they know someone gay, know their relationships and their families, people are simply not willing to believe all the awful things said about us – especially by religious institutions.

Every denomination, no matter how clear and unwavering their condemnation of homosexuality and homosexual relationships, is struggling with this societal and religious issue.  A substantial majority of Roman Catholic laity in America now support marriage equality – a momentous step beyond mere acceptance of homosexual people.  Mormons and evangelicals are softening their language about gay people at a minimum; some are reassessing their traditional stances and moving toward greater acceptance.

Religious institutions of all stripes are asking this big question:  Could the church have gotten it wrong in using a few verses of scripture to condemn homosexual people, just as it got it wrong about using isolated verses to justify slavery and the denigration/subjugation of women?  More and more religious people and institutions are moving toward a “yes” in response to that question.  The church has misunderstood God’s will before, but over time, we get it right.  I believe that this is one of those moments.

Click here to read the whole article