Category Archives: Theology

Sunday Morning at Home

It’s very strange to be sitting in my den at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning!

The past two days, northeastern Ohio received a considerable about of snowfall – nearly 20″ in our area.  This is not large for some areas, but for us, at the end of the winter season (with the municipalities run out of road salt), this is a load!  Three local counties, including our own, either ordered or requested that people stay off the roads — emergency traffic only.

So, like our neighbors the United Church of Christ congregation, the Foursquare Gospel chapel,  the Lutheran parish, and others … we canceled our morning services.  (An evening service is as yet undecided.)

For a clergy person, sitting home on a Sunday morning doing nothing is bizarre!  In a few minutes, my wife will probably get up — we will read the Daily Office together (which we do every other day of the week), and then we will watch one of the Sunday morning TV news-and-talk shows (probably CBS’s Sunday Morning).

This is, I suppose, how many of the 80% of Americans who don’t attend religious services spend their Sunday mornings.

I have to admit that I can understand why people would prefer to laze about, relax, not jump out of bed, shower, shave, down a quick cup of java, and rush off to church.  (To say nothing of getting the kids out of bed on yet another morning….)  Yes, I can understand that.

And yet, I don’t understand it, because right now for me there is something missing.  The fellowship, the music, the liturgy of Holy Communion, the sense of connection with God and with men and women who share that connection … that’s what’s missing.  An easy morning with the television and the newspaper simply cannot take the place of that connection.

Sunday morning at home just doesn’t compare with Sunday morning at church!

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Called to be Wells: Sermon for Lent 3, Year A

Lessons for today on the Episcopal version of the Revised Commonly Lectionary are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42.

The story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John is very funny! It is a joke! The only problem is that you have to be a first century Palestinian to appreciate it. We have to put ourselves into the life of a first century Palestinian to get the point of John’s story

We have to put ourselves into a desert frame of mind. The first century Palestinian who first read or heard John’s gospel knew that water is precious. It’s very hard for us to know that. Streams that overflow their banks rather frequently criss-cross our area. One of the Great Lakes is just 30 or so miles north of us. We are surrounded by ponds and if you dig a whole just a few feet deep it will fill with water while you’re back is turned. It is even difficult for people in our country’s desert Southwest to appreciate. In Las Vegas they build artificial lakes with fountains that shoot water 26 stories high. For them and for us water is accessible merely by turning on a tap.

Not so when Jesus had his encounter with the Samaritan woman. To him and to her, and to John’s first readers, water was precious.
We not only must become for century Palestinians to appreciate John’s humor, we must become first century Palestinian Jews. They would have been steeped in the lore and cultural traditions of their place in time. They would have been schooled by their rabbi’s in the history of their people. They would share certain cultural biases. They would know, for example, that a rabbi like Jesus would never converse with a woman, let alone ask her for a cup of water and risk being touched. No rabbi could be touched by a woman other than his spouse. No Jew, for that matter, would converse with a Samaritan. We first century Palestinian Jews hate those people! When we were taken into exile in Babylon they stayed behind! They build a sanctuary on Mount Gerazim and abandoned Temple worship in Jerusalem! They even reject the book of Deuteronomy! We just won’t have anything to do with them!

We first century Palestinian Jews also know about wells in the desert and what can happen at them. We know for example that at a well like this one that John describes Isaac met Rebecca and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Jacob met Rachel and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Moses met Zipporah and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! And we know what happens when people get married — there’s a feast! So we appreciate the tension this scene implies.

And now, of course to fully appreciate the situation John describes we must be not only first century Palestinians, not only first century Palestinian Jews, but first century Palestinian Jewish Christians. We Christians have learned not only what the rabbi’s taught, but we have learned the stories of Jesus. We know about Jesus and wedding feasts! We know what happened when Jesus went to a wedding party in Cana in Galilee. We know that water became wine… and we know that the wine at another feast became the Blood… and we know that the Blood is the Living Cup from the one who here calls himself the Living Water. It’s all the wonderful circle of meanings within meanings that we know about that the woman in the story does not. And that, after all, is the nature of humor! It’s irony and it’s farce!

John’s Gospel story is a joke! But it’s not an inside joke… it’s a joke we’re supposed to share! Like all good jokes it’s better when it’s shared. That’s part of our mission to share the good news, to share the humor.

That’s what the woman at the well does. Jesus gently teaches her who he is, leading her to make this discovery. Now let’s be clear about something. This woman is not, despite what you may have heard in Sunday school or other church settings, a simple person. Jesus does not condemn her or even suggest, by saying that she has had five husbands, that she is a sinner! She may have had a culturally legitimate reason for her multiple marriages. She may have been the subject of what is called Levirate marriage in which a woman is taken as the wife of her husband’s brother if her husband dies and they have no children. This was the basis of the question which some Sadducees once put to Jesus about the woman who had seven husbands; whose wife would she be in the afterlife. Perhaps the woman at the well had had a similar hard life. That’s all Jesus says to her, that she has had a hard life. And in doing so he leads heard to discover who he is.

At first she believes him a prophet and so she asks him a perfectly legitimate question. She is a Samaritan; he is a Jewish prophet. The paramount difference between them has to do with where one may worship; so she asks him about this issue. It is his answer to this question which finally leads were to recognize him as Messiah. When she does so, she runs into town to share the good news with her neighbors; she is one about the first evangelists! Later, the people of Sychar come out to the well and learn for themselves the good news that the savior of the world is among them.

Meanwhile, those bumbling idiots, the disciples come back from wherever they’ve been. John makes a parenthetical remark here which is itself a humorous one. He notes that none of them asked Jesus why he is talking to a woman or why he is talking to a Samaritan; they are used to this guy doing strange and unexpected things!

So now we can see the humor, we can see the irony, and we begin to appreciate the metaphor of the well where these people have discovered the one who is the Living Water. It is a metaphor which will be used by many as the Christian centuries progress. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that spiritually all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” What St. Bernard meant is that we encountered God when we dig deep into our own hearts for it is there where God has poured his love and spirit as St. Paul wrote to the Romans in today’s epistle lesson.

John Sanford is a modern Episcopal priest who has also used the well image to describe the spiritual life in what he calls The Kingdom Within. In doing so, Sanford recalls his childhood on farm in New Hampshire. At some time during his childhood his parents became wealthy enough to afford to add electricity and modern plumbing to their home. A deep artesian well was dug and an older well was covered over. A few years later Sanford uncovered the old well hoping to do drink from it, only to discover that it was bone dry. He learned that a well of that kind is fed by hundreds of tiny rivulets along which seep a constant supply of water. As water is drawn from the well, water moves along these rivulets, keeping them clear and open. When the well is not used, these rivulets close up. Sanford suggests the human soul is such a well that we must continue to draw from it, from the spirit and love which God pours into it to keep our spiritual lives from drying up.

Another modern theologian who uses the well image is Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest from Lima, Peru. Gutierrez has written a book entitled We Drink from Our Own Wells about his work in his community. In it he borrows from St. Bernard and writes,

Bernard of Clairvaux put it so beautifully when he said that when it comes to spirituality all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” In … the process of liberation …, we live out the gift of faith, hope, and charity that makes us disciples of the Lord. This experience is our well. The water that rises out of it continually purifies us and smooths away any wrinkles in our manner of being Christians, at the same time supplying the vital element needed for making new ground fruitful.

Sanford uses a similar image when he writes that the living water of God flows into us and out of us into the community around us.

This is our calling: to be wells into which the living water of the love and spirit of God flow, flow up, flow over, and flow out into the community bringing forth new and fruitful growth.

The Vestry and I have been on retreat the past couple of days wrestling with our role and our responsibility as leaders of this church community. We are beginning to develop a corporate vision of what ministry has given us by our God, what mission we as a community of God’s people have in the secular community around us.

I believe that our ministry, whatever it may be, centers here at the altar where we share the foretaste of God’s eternal feast, at the altar which is a well where we share the Living Water, but it does not occur only here. Each Friday afternoon a few of us gather for the Stations of the Cross. We have been using a pamphlet written by Clarence Enzler entitled Everyone’s Way of the Cross. In it Christ speaks to us saying, “Seek me not in the far-off places. I am close at hand. Your workbench, office, kitchen, these are altars where you offer love. And I am with you there.”

At work around the tables and desks of your office, there are you gather with people just as the Samaritans and the first century Palestinian Jews gathered at their community wells. At school around the desks and work tables, there you gather with people just as they gathered at community wells. At home around your kitchen and dining room tables, there you gather with people to share of God’s abundant bounty just as they gathered to share to gift of water from their wells.

That is our mission: to call people together to share God’s abundant Living Water, to dig deeply into our own hearts to tap into the spirit and love which God continually pours out into them, to allow that Living Water to flow, to flow over, and to flow out into all the people around us. We are called not merely to gather at a well, but to be a well … a well overflowing with blessing for the community around us, “because (as St. Paul wrote) God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Amen.

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An Arid Holy Week

As one reads through the Psalms in the course of the Daily Office Lectionary, different images, analogies, and metaphors come and go, escape notice and then grab your attention. The psalm used in the Daily Office of Evening Prayer on Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent this year contains such an image. In Psalm 119 at verse 83 is this statement, “I have become like a leather flask in the smoke….” (BCP 1979, p 770) The King James Version renders this, “I am become like a bottle in the smoke,” and the New International and New Revised Standard Versions use “wineskin”.

An old commentary from the 1890s explains the image this way:

As a wineskin out of us hung up among the rafters of the roof grows shrivelled and blackened by the smoke till it almost loses its original appearance, so the Psalmist is growing emaciated and disfigured by suffering and sorrow till he can scarcely be recognized. (Alexander Francis Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, Cambridge University Press: 1895, 1901, p. 718)

It might not be our image today, but one must ask “What does this image evoke for us in the 21st Century?” Surely we are not unfamiliar with the sense of being dried up to the point of cracking, hard to the point of no flexibility, parched to the point where moisture is the only hope.

What makes you dry up? What hardens you? What parches you? Do you know what it is that leads you into such a condition?

These are good questions for reflection as we complete this season of Lent.

For the Psalmist, the source of “moisture” which would cure his smoke-shriveled condition was God’s Law, the Lord’s statutes. The Commandments were evidence of God’s loving-kindness which would revive him (v. 87).

For us the “cure” is Easter, the great festival of the Resurrection, the promise of New Life. The dryness of Lent will end with the great feast of Christ’s Empty Tomb. Cries of “Alleluia!” will sound again and like a long drink of cool, refreshing water will revive our spirits.

But as the old saw says, the night is always darkest before dawn and in the liturgical cycle of the church year, the driest time is right before the most refreshing.

Holy Week, with its round of services recalling, reenacting, and retelling the worst events of history, its stories of betrayal, of unfair trial, of torture, and of death, must be lived through. We cannot fully appreciate the reinvigorating refreshment of Easter unless we experience the fullness of Holy Week.

Palm Sunday, if weather permits, those at my church will once again walk with our Lord as he triumphantly enters to the city of Jerusalem; our Procession of the Palms includes the grim reminder that that parade ended not in enthronement, but in execution and death as we walk through the Old City Cemetery adjacent to our church property. Maundy Thursday, when we recall how Jesus and his friends celebrated the commemoration of liberation and religious identity which is the Passover, reminds us that that feast was Jesus’ Last Supper. Good Friday, with its long meditations on the Crucifixion, Jesus’ “seven last words”, and his grizzly death, always raises (particularly for children) the question, “What’s ‘good’ about this day?” And Holy Saturday, with its deathly quiet, the tomb sealed shut ….

Like a wineskin in the smoke, indeed! By the end of Holy Week we are shriveled, dried up, exhausted, unfit for much of anything … and then there is Easter!

This year we will begin our Resurrection celebrations with an evening offering of the Great Vigil at 7:00 p.m. after sundown on Holy Saturday and continue with an early, simple eucharist at 8:00 a.m. on Easter morning, and then the Festival Eucharist at 10:00 a.m. Our parish’s brass quartet will play at the Festival Service. Whatever the weather, the day will be bright and brilliant and refreshing!

A Lutheran pastor blogging on the internet has offered this reflection on Holy Week and Easter:

I hate holy week. And yes, I’m a pastor. I really hate Lent too. No other time of the year do I feel more depressed; no other time of the year do I feel less motivated to do anything worthwhile. I go through the motions. I get my sermons done (barely) and I do the liturgy. Why this is I do not know. But I hate holy week, and the reason is, I have discovered after five years of this, is that no other time of the year do I really come face to face with the unbelieving human demon that I am like I do during Lent, and especially holy week. So I hate it. I am depressed, because I see that I am not pious. I cannot keep the fast. I cannot pray more fervently like I know I ought. I am weaker than weak. I have no discipline. I think that God does this to me on purpose, because if I got through Lent and observed every jot and tittle of Liturgical tradition, I would really be tempted to boast about how pious I was.

I love it because it makes me thirsty for Easter. I do not love the resurrection any other time of the year as much as I do after Lent and Holy Week. It is a refreshing message. It is like a drink of cool water after a hot and dry stint in the wilderness. My faith is not in vain. The things that I am doing week in and week out are not futile and meaningless, even though to the mortal eye it seems that way. The Resurrection of Christ validates everything we do, say, and think as pastors, as Christians, as parents, as anything. Because if Christ lives, and is not buried in Palestine, but lives and breathes and blood runs through his veins and his heart beats like mine, then I also know that His Word is powerful, because it is not the Word of a dead person, but it is He Himself speaking. I know that the Sacrament that I distribute every week is not just ordinary bread and wine, but His true and living Body and Blood. I don’t know what I would do if we didn’t celebrate Easter every year. So for this, I love Holy Week.

So hate it, or love it … Holy Week is vital! Join your parish family for the full range of services which prepare us for and celebrate the greatest gift of God to humanity. Be a part not only of Easter morning, be a part of Holy Week.

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A Sermon about Nicodemus

I haven’t posted anything for quite awhile … life after Christmas got very complicated and very busy. But I’m back in some sort of groove now and here’s the sermon I preached on the Second Sunday in Lent (February 17, 2008). The Gospel lesson for the day (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A) was John 3:1-17, which recounts Nicodemus’s night-time conversation with Jesus about rebirth.

Fire. For just a moment, before we delve into the story of Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, I want you to think about fire. Close your eyes and imagine a fire and listen to how one professor of mythological studies describes this archetypical element:

It fascinates and frightens, warms and scorches. Too little and we die. Too much and we die. It sings, dances, plays, inspires, destroys. It purifies and consumes. In a burning bush, it marked the presence of God. In a volcano, Pele surges into raw life. Among the flames in a smithy, Bridgid and Hephaestus craft wonders of magic. Around ancient hearths, food was cooked, deities worshiped, songs sung, tales told, babies birthed, the sick and dying comforted. Ancient ritual originated in dance and drumming around sacred fire. In many cultures, a new day is born at sunset and nurtured in firelight — by the time dawn arrives, the day is already old. Fire hides in trees and hides in stars, and most of all, hides in hearts.

So writes Dr. Kathleen Jenks, Professor of Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. (Fire: Sacrality & Lore)

The Jewish culture of First Century Palestine was one of those cultures in which “a new day is born at sunset and nurtured in firelight.” A child of that culture, Nicodemus’s coming to Jesus by night isn’t a coming at the end of the day, but a coming at the beginning of the day: our Gospel Lesson begins, as does the story of creation, in darkness and God brings forth light! Nicodemus starts a new day in the dark, seeking enlightenment.
This is such a familiar story, isn’t it? Nicodemus coming to Jesus to ask … well, we aren’t really sure what he came to ask. The conversation we heard today is like many in John’s Gospel, only partially related and set out in a way to make John’s point. In this instance, the Gospeler seems to be underscoring the mystery of salvation!

Some have argued that the detail about Nicodemus coming in the night is meant to show that he was afraid of discovery by Jews hostile to Jesus and his mission. (Cf. “Commentary” in The New Iinterperter’s Bible [Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995]: “Nicodemus hides his seeking under the cloak of night.” Vol. IX, p. 548.) Others argue that a nighttime conversation underscores the seriousness of the conversation. William Barclay, in his famous commentary, writes: “The rabbis declared that the best time to study the law was at night when a man was undisturbed. Throughout the day Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people all the time. It may well be that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he wanted an absolutely private and completely undisturbed time with Jesus.” (The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975, p. 124)

Budolf Bultmann, the famous German Lutheran Bible scholar, in his commentary on this gospel offers a similar comment: “There is no indication that his coming by night was occasioned by his ‘fear of the Jews’ (19.38). It is more likely that this is intended to show his great zeal, in the same way as nocturnal study is recommended by the Rabbis….” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1971, p. 133 n. 5)

Bultmann, however, argues that John’s principal purpose in relating the nighttime setting is an “intention of creating an air of mystery.” He writes: “The nocturnal setting and style of the dialogue … give the whole passage an air of mystery, which is developed in a three-fold sense as the mystery of rebirth, the mystery of the Son of Man, and the mystery of the witness. But above all an air of mystery lies over the whole passage, because Jesus only speaks of the Revealer in the third person and never discloses himself by an [I am]-saying.” (Ibid., p. 133)

Perhaps the most mysterious thing Jesus says in the whole passage is his insistence that one be born “from above.” (3:3) This puzzles Nicodemus as much as it puzzles us. The Greek term used by John to relate Jesus’s words is anoqen (anothen), an ambiguous word which can mean “from above” or “from the beginning” or “again”. Nicodemus assumes it means “again.” But Jesus makes it clear that it is the first meaning that he has in mind when he reiterates his insistence in different words: “[N]o one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (3:5, emphasis added.)
So, you may be wondering why I would choose to begin meditating on this week’s Gospel Lesson with a reference to the element of fire. I admit that it may seem a bit odd inasmuch as Jesus does not mention fire he mentions water and he mentions the wind (i.e., the air), but he does not mention fire. But we enter our reflection on this gospel with fire because Jesus insists we be born of Spirit. The recently introduced Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church contains this precis of the Biblical symbolism of fire:

While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions. The prayer of the prophet Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. This event was a “figure” of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah,” proclaims Christ as the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus will say of the Spirit: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself. The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions. “Do not quench the Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Profession of Faith, Section Two, Chapter Three, Art. 8, Para. 696, “Fire,” footnotes omitted.)

The same point is made in Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary when it states that “fire is a symbol of Jehovah’s presence and the instrument of his power.”

The last sentence in the Roman Catechism is a quote from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians: “Do not quench the Spirit.” For Paul, fire was the very image of God’s Spirit. To the Corinthians he wrote that the Day of the Lord would “be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each [person] has done.” (1 Cor. 3:13, NRSV) To the young bishop Timothy he wrote, “[F]an into flames the spiritual gift God gave you….” (2 Tim 1:6, New Living Trans.)

So this is what Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born of water and the fiery Spirit of God.” No wonder Nicodemus was confused. Nicodemus is as much a child of Greek culture as of Jewish … the Greeks had established in the “scientific” understanding of his world the idea that the Cosmos was made up of Four Elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Everything was made up of combinations of these four primal ingredients, except when those elements were “opposites” and did not mix. Earth and air did not mix; fire and water did not mix. So Jesus answer to Nicodemus is really no answer at all – it was simply an impossibility and so his answer simply raises more questions! “Be born of water and fire?” Seen through the lens of the ancients’ understanding of the Four Elements, what Jesus asks is incomprehensible! Fire and water cannot be combined…. What is he talking about? “How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus.

In my pre-ordination life as a litigation attorney one of my specialties was handling questionable fire cases. I learned a lot about fires, fire suppression, fire investigation and so forth. One of the things I learned is that there are certain fires against which water has no effect. In fact, there are fires which burn so hot that water actually fuels them – the addition of water to such fires, rather than dampen them, causes explosions!

This is was what Jesus seems to be looking for … the fire of the Spirit combined with “living water” resulting in something explosive and uncontrollable … a transformative rebirth, the creation of a “new human being.” That’s probably not what Nicodemus wanted to hear!
John doesn’t tell us how old Nicodemus was, but this leader of the Jews hints at his age when he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4) Thus, the tradition has grown up that Nicodemus was an old man. For example, in his book What is Regeneration?, the Chinese evangelist Witness Lee writes, “Nicodemus was an old man of perhaps sixty or seventy years of age.” No wonder he asks Jesus in disbelief, “How can these things be?” (3:9) Nicodemus needs to remember his ancestor Abraham.

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is a short one, the first three-and-a-half verses of Genesis, chapter 12. Let me read it for you again:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Our reading, for some reason, leaves off the last sentence of verse four: “Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.” Can you imagine starting all over at age 75? Packing up everything you own, including your nephew and his family, loading it all on the family camel, and setting off across the desert for some unknown new land? Now that’s what I call being born again. How did Abram arrive at this renascence? Did it happen all at once? Perhaps not…

Abram was a native of the ancient city of Ur. An article in the December 2001 National Geographic speculated, “He may have worshiped Sin, the god of the moon and Ur’s chief deity.” The author wrote: “I wondered if, somehow, Abraham’s reflections on the moon god had led him to the idea that the world is governed by one God.” (p. 106) Abram’s rebirth (marked by the change of his name to “Abraham”) may have been a gradual thing.

That’s the way fire is sometimes. Coals may smolder unseen; embers may burn unnoticed. That’s the way Christian rebirth is sometimes, too. Someone once wrote about the way a few famous Christians came to their faith:

Noted evangelist Billy Graham says that he can point back to a definite time in his life when he experienced conversion. But his wife, Ruth, says that she grew gradually into the faith and can point to no definite starting point. Her experience is similar to the testimony of Count Von Zinzendorf to John Wesley. When Wesley asked him if he knew when he was saved, he replied, “I have always been saved!” A very famous churchman’s reply to the same question was, “I was saved nearly two thousand years ago, on a hill called Golgotha, outside the city of Jerusalem.” And this is the main point of the biblical witness: Our Salvation was accomplished nearly two thousand years ago in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one true Son of God. The meaning that this past event has for us today, our response to that event, and our willingness to believe is crucial for us. It doesn’t matter so much when we come to believe as it does that we believe.

It is this coming to belief, to faith, instantly or gradually, that Jesus seems to mean when he insists that we must be “born again.”

The author of the annotations to this Gospel Lesson in The New Interpreter’s Bible makes the point that “the use of the phrase ‘born again’ … has become a slogan and rallying cry” which repeats Nicodemus’s misunderstanding. That author writes:

By codifying the expression “born again” and turning it into a slogan, interpreters risk losing the powerful offer of new life contained in Jesus’ words. Nicodemus and the reader are intended to struggle with the expression “born anothen” in order to discern what kind of new birth is at the same time birth from above. In that struggle of interpretation, the reader is called to listen to all of Jesus’ words in this text, not just a few of them. As the reader moves with Nicodemus and Jesus through this dialogue and into the discourse, a fresh and fuller understanding of “born anothen” emerges. “Born anothen” is complicated to interpret because its language and its promise transcend conventional categories. It envisions a new mode of life for which there are no precedents, life born of water and the Spirit, life regenerated through the cross of Jesus. If interpreters turn “born again” into a slogan, they domesticate the radical newness of Jesus’ words and diminish the good news. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol.IX, Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995, p. 555, emphasis in original.)

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” said Jesus. (3:8) What kind of fiery transformation we may experience, whether a spontaneous combustion or a slow smoulder, isn’t up to us; it’s up the Spirit who does what she chooses.

So, “let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29) Amen.

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A Prayer

At each morn and end of day,
To God I sing the same refrain;
Each day I vow and each I pray
That in God’s presence I’ll remain:

“God of all light, God of all dark,
Lord of the night and of the day,
Enwrap my will, enclose my heart;
Never from your love let me stray.”

Yet, Lord, from you I wander still,
I turn my back to your decrees;
I know it wrong, my sinful will,
And so I fall upon my knees:

“God of time and eternity,
Lord of the endless realms of space,
Sov’reign of earth and of the sea,
Enfold me within your embrace.

consuming-flame.gif“God of the storm, the rushing air,
Transcendent Lord, yet loving Friend,
Who, though distant, is always there,
From the beginning to the end.

“God of my innermost desire,
Lord of my world, my life, my soul,
God of all might, O holy fire,
Consume my sin and make me whole.”

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Sermon for Proper 28C: A Bright, Brand New Day

 Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 28C, texts:  Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-9

If you’ve ever been here for the “Midnight Mass” on a Christmas Eve, you may have noticed that when we sing Silent Night, as we traditionally do at the end of that service, I don’t sing. It’s not that I don’t like Silent Night; I do! It’s a lovely carol. Perhaps it’s because I like it too well. The reason I don’t sing it is that I can’t sing it. It’s one of those songs that, for some reason, “tugs at my heart strings.” I get a lump in my throat and I just can’t sing!

Perhaps there are songs that are like that for you. Another one that always gets to me is one written by the Irish folk singer Phil Coulter during that time of terrible conflict in Northern Ireland which the Irish, with characteristic understatement, call “The troubles.” I don’t know when I first heard the song, but I do remember that I just started weeping when I did so … and after that I simply avoided listening to it. I love Irish folk music, but if I would get an album with that song on it, I’d make the player skip the song (unless, of course, I felt like crying for some reason).

Earlier this year, my wife and I were in County Clare, in the town of Doolin, which is called “the capital of traditional Irish music.” We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast run by Bev and Adrian O’Connor, and Adrian is a guitarist and folk singer. One evening we went to a local hotel-pub to listen to him sing and, of course, he sang Phil Coulter’s song and there I sat with tears streaming down my face.

I don’t know exactly why this song gets to me, but it does. It’s called The Town I Love So Well:

In my memory
I will always see
the town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball
by the gas yard wall
and we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain,
running up the dark lane
past the jail and down behind the fountain
Those were happy days,
in so many, many ways
in the town I loved so well

In the early morn
the shirt factory horn
called women from Creggan, the Moor, and the Bog
While the men on the dole
played a mother’s role
fed the children, and then walked the dog
And when times got rough
there was just about enough
but they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside
was a burning pride
in the town I love so well

There was music there
in the Derry air
like a language that we could all understand
I remember the day,
when I earned my first pay
as I played in the small pick-up band
There I spent my youth,
and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me
For I’d learned about life
and I’d found me a wife
in the town I loved so well

But when I returned,
how my eyes were burned
to see how a town could be brought to its knees
By the armoured cars
and the bombed out bars
and the gas that hangs on to every breeze
Now the army’s installed
by that old gas yard wall
and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and guns,
oh my God what have they done
to the town I love so well

Now the music’s gone,
but they still carry on
though their spirit’s been bruised never broken
And they can’t forget
for their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again
For what’s done is done,
and what’s won is won
and what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray
for a bright brand new day
in the town I love so well

This song came to mind as I was contemplating our gospel lesson today. I thought that Coulter’s sentiments about Derry during “the Troubles” would probably ring true for anyone going through the kinds of things described by Jesus in today’s reading from Luke. And, if you’re following the daily office lectionary, as my wife and I do in our daily prayers, you know that we’ve been reading the same sorts of things in Matthew’s Gospel every day, as well. What must it have been like to live through “the Troubles,” what must it be like to be living through the conflict in Iraq, or to be living through the terrible destruction in Bangladesh caused by Cyclone Sidr?

Two events in my life this week also made me think of what it must be like to witness such cataclysms if one takes a somewhat different view of Scripture than we do in the Anglican tradition. The first event was channel surfing. There I was flipping through channels and I landed on the Eternal Word Television Network, which is certainly one of the more interesting offerings on cable in today’s world. There was one of the priests who regularly appears on that network holding forth in a program called A Crash Course in Catholicism. “This looks interesting,” I thought; so I watched for a while.

His presentation was a sort of PowerPoint thing with informative slides. At first he went on for a bit about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and Islam, and then he began comparing the Roman tradition to Eastern Orthodox on the one hand, and western Protestantism on the other … and one of his PowerPoint slides popped up saying that the Roman church teaches that the Bible is the “inspired, literal, infallible, and inerrant” word of God. “What?” I thought, “I didn’t know that’s what the Roman Catholic Church teaches!” I know that Southern Baptists hold that view and some of the other more conservative evangelical sects, but not the Romans! That certainly isn’t what the catholic tradition has taught down through the ages, at least not the catholic tradition represented by the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church.

The other event was a conversation with my local Presbyterian colleague. He was telling me about once having had a staff member, his Sunday School superintendent, who had been reared in a church which followed what is called “dispensationalist theology” – these are the folks who believe in “the rapture” and “the tribulation” and all that sort of stuff. That isn’t what Presbyterians teach, nor is it what Anglicans teach, and he was telling me about how he had to reign in this Sunday School teacher.

Part of our conversation got me to wondering how someone with that sort of Scriptural view would understand events like “the Troubles,” or the Iraq war, or even a natural disaster like Cyclone Sidr or Hurricane Katrina. Have you ever noticed that the folks who hold a literalist view of Scripture tend to focus only on the scary bits of Scripture, like these words of Jesus today or the parts of the Book of Revelation? And have you ever noticed how they seem to be somewhat negative people? I guess it would be no wonder if you thought every conflict, every disaster, might be the beginning of the end.

But such an outlook overlooks what is said in the prayer that we began our worship with today. Turn with me to page 236 of the Book of Common Prayer. Each Sunday we begin worship with a prayer, called a “collect” which is the “proper” for the day. This Sunday, being the Sunday closest to November 16, the prayer book calls us to offer Proper 28, which begins with these words:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….

We should underscore that word “all” … because therein lies the antidote the negativism encouraged by a literalist, inerrantist misconception of Scripture. If one reads, marks, learns and inwardly digests all of Scripture, one knows that the Bible includes many kinds of literature, including poetry and even fiction, in addition to history and prophecy. And one would be familiar with other sorts of visions, not just the scary ones – visions such as that which we heard today from Isaiah, that vision of a time when “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard … or the cry of distress,” when the lion and lamb will feast together, and no one will be hurt again. When, in Phil Coulter’s words of hope for the town of Derry, there will be a “bright, brand new day.”

When one reads, marks, learns, and inwardly digests all of Holy Scripture, one learns that conflict and disaster are not the end, no matter what may befall us, there is always “the blessed hope of everlasting life, … given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”


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Preaching Extemporaneously

I did not post sermons for October 28, nor for November 4, because on both occasions I did not preach a prepared sermon.  In fact, I would have to say that I did not preach at all.

On October 28, I did what I called “a factual instruction” on tithing using some of the elements set out in my posting here of October 19.  I witnessed to the fact that my wife and I are tithers and what that means for us, and I invited the congregation to join us in dreaming what might happen, what could happen, what would happen if every parish household tithed.

On November 4, I preached briefly, extemporaneously on the meaning of All Saints Day, tied it to the democratic nature of our denominational polity, and invited those present to ask questions about the way we live together as a church.  It was an interesting experience, especially given the secular media’s coverage of recent events in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Preaching extemporaneously is always a dangerous exercise, and often a scary experience…. I’m usually surprised with what comes out of my own mouth and, frequently, when I think I’ve been simply struggling to say anything of value … that’s when I get some the greatest compliments about my sermon.  Go figure!

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God Is a Nag! (Sermon for Proper 24c, October 21, 2007)

What is this parable about? Jesus told this parable to his disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart;” at least that’s what Luke tells us this parable is about. But I’m not so sure this is a parable about prayer.

Does Jesus really mean that we are supposed to nag God? Is that what it means? Does it mean that if we harass God enough, if we beg long enough, if we keep asking for something often enough, God will finally give in and give us what we want?

I don’t think so. I think this is a parable about something else and the key to what it’s about is found in a phrase in our lesson from Jeremiah that is also repeated in the Second Letter to Timothy. Twice in this short piece from Jeremiah, the prophet writes (on God’s behalf) “the days are surely coming…” And the author of this letter to a young bishop giving him advice on how to do his ministry uses the phrase “the time is coming.”

Could this parable be about the time, the days that are coming?

There are two clues in Luke’s Gospel that it just might be. The first is a missing word!

Our Gospel lesson today comprises the first eight verses of Chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel. But the people who edited our book of eucharistic lessons left our the very first word. Your bulletin insert, which copies the lesson as shown in the reading book, indicates that the first word of verse one is Jesus … but it’s not! The first word in the eighteenth chapter of Luke is Then.

When a lesson, a paragraph, a sentence begins with the word then, that usually suggests that the words that come before it are nearly as important as the words that come after it. So we ought to look at Chapter 17 as we try to make sense of this first story in Chapter 18, don’t you think? If we did that, we’d discover that Jesus tells this parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow in the context of a conversation with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees have come to Jesus and asked him a question. “Jesus,” they said. “You’re a smart guy. Perhaps you can tell us. When is the Kingdom of God coming?” Jesus’s answer is typically ambiguous, at least in the Greek Luke was writing in. Some translators say the Greek words in Jesus’s answer mean, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a personal thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that the individual is spiritually growing or spiritually mature. Other translators say the Greek means, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a community thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that our relationships one with another and with the world around us are spiritually authentic. Of course, the beauty of New Testament Greek is that it can and probably does mean both of those things!

So Jesus tells the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God is, in some sense, already here. Then he turns to his closest associates, the disciples, and says, “But it’s also not here yet….” And goes on to warn them that they really don’t want to be around when it arrives! The “day of the Son of Man,” says Jesus, is going to be really unpleasant. And then … then is when he tells this parable.

This isn’t a parable about prayer at all … it’s a parable about the Kingdom of God which Jesus ends with a question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

But the parable must have something to do with prayer! So let’s consider two questions. First, how does God answer prayer? Second, why do we pray?

Note that my first question is not, “How do expect God to answer prayer?” I can tell you that … we take it for granted that God is going to answer our prayers in the way we have packaged for Him. We give God multiple-choice test with three answers: “Yes,” “No,” or :Wait.” We do that every time we make a petition, as we will do in our prayers of the people in a few minutes:

“God, there are some people who are sick and need to be comforted and healed. What’s your answer? Yes? No? Later?”

“God, there are some people in danger because of that stupid war over in the Middle East. Keep them safe, OK? What’s you answer? Yes? No? Later?”

“God, there are some people who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Shield them in their joy! What’s your answer? Yes? No? Wait?”

Of course, we only ever acknowledge it when God says “Yes” to our prayers. I was recently with a friend whose mother just came home from the hospital. We were talking about what a miracle that was because she had been very ill and not expected to survive. “Isn’t it wonderful,” he said, “that God answers prayers? Praise God for that.”

I wondered if he would still have said “Praise God” if God’s answer to the prayers for his mother’s healing had been “No.”

But God doesn’t answer our prayers with a “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait!” God’s answers in another way … but before I get to that, let’s consider the other question.

Why do we pray?

We do not pray to tell God about something God doesn’t already know. We do not pray in order to give God advice. We do not pray so that we can convince God to do something he wasn’t going to before.

We pray to conform our will to God’s. That was what Jesus taught his disciples when they asked to teach them to pray, “Thy will be done.” That was the prayer he exemplified in his own life, especially in the Garden at Gethsemane when prayed, “If it is possible let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but thine.”

And that, the reason we pray, the confirming of our lives to God’s will, is why when God answers prayer the answer is most often not “Yes,” or “No,” or “Wait.” The answer is most often “You”:

“God, there are some sick people who need comforting.”
“Oh … You! You take care of them.”

“God, there are some people in danger in that war.”
“Oh … You! You find a way to work for peace.”

“God, there are some people who are hungry.”
“Oh … You! You feed them.”

“God, there are some people having birthdays.”
“Oh … You! You go celebrate with them!”

Which brings us back to the parable.

A way to understand parables is to ask ourselves two things. Where is God in the parable? And where are we in the parable? In this parable, there are two characters. Which one is God? Is God the unjust judge who has no regard for anyone not even himself? That doesn’t seem very likely, does it? So that must mean God is the widow seeking justice. And if God is the widow, then that must mean ….

Prayer is about God transforming our lives. And like the widow seeking justice, God can be something of a nag until that happens. But if we go to God constantly in prayer, and if our prayer is made with the intent that we seek to conform our lives to God’s will, then the question with which Jesus ended the parable will be answered in the affirmative. We will be people of faith.

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Get Going! Sermon for October 14, 2007

The following is the sermon I will preach tomorrow (Sunday, October 14, 2007):

The experience of being a candidate for the episcopate is over. Episcopalians in Nevada selected another nominee and so the journey for Evelyn and me is ended. It was a good journey, a voyage of discovery. We learned things about our home state we might never have known. We met and formed relationships with interesting people, one of whom is the new bishop of Nevada. We discerned things about the church there and about ourselves. We grew and we changed, and that is the most important thing.

It really does not matter that I was not elected bishop. That was never the guaranteed end of the journey, as I kept cautioning all of you. No end of any journey is ever guaranteed. But what is guaranteed is that along the path of every journey we will learn things, we will find new things, we will meet new people. Every journey is a voyage of discovery and an opportunity for growth and change.

The people of God in exile in Babylon were on a journey – not one they took voluntarily, but nonetheless a journey. They had a choice about the journey, as every traveler does. They could sit at the side of the road or they could move on. If they had chosen the first alternative, they would die. The Babylonian conquerors would have killed them. End of journey! No learnings, no discoveries, no growth. Just death.

Their journey did not end when they arrived at the place of exile elsewhere in the Babylonian empire. In truth, it had just begun. About 4,000 important Jewish men and there families were moved from Jerusalem and its environs to various places near the city of Babylon, perhaps 18,000 people or so in all. They originally expected their exile to be short, but Jeremiah the Prophet, who wrote to them the letter described in today’s Old Testament reading, suggested otherwise. He expected it to be at least 70 years in length and perhaps as long as seven generations. So on behalf of God, he wrote them some advice.

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

In a word, Jeremiah’s (and God’s) advice is simple: “Get on with your lives. Don’t just sit there and stagnate. Move forward.” In other words, the journey continues, continue to journey. And, again, the people of God had a choice about the journey. They could sit or they could move on. And, again, the consequences of sitting would have been the same: no learnings, no discoveries, no growth. Just death.

This is also the lesson we can take from today’s story in Matthew’s Gospel. This is not a parable, a story told by Jesus with some esoteric meaning we have to dig deep to find. This is simply the report of one of his many works of healing, but in it we find again the message that it is the journey, not the destination, that holds promise.

Remember what happened. Jesus was traveling through the countryside and encounters a group of ten lepers who call out to him. Rather than simply wave his hand or do some bit of what might look like magic, he says to them “Go show yourselves to the priests.” This, of course, meant that they had to make a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was in accord with the Jewish law which requires that a person afflicted with a skin disease and therefore considered “unclean” and an outcast, must be examined by and certified by a priest as healed before they may re-enter society.

The thirteenth chapter of Leviticus sets forth the regulations and instructions on how a person with any form of skin eruption was to be handled. Such a person was to be taken to one of the priests for examination to determine if the eruption might become an infectious skin disease. Such an eruption made on ceremonially unclean, so after the first such examination the person would be placed in isolation for seven days. Then another priestly examination was performed. If the problem had cleared up, the priest would perform ritual cleansing lasting another seven days, an animal sacrifice would follow, and then the priest would issue a pronouncement that the formerly infected person was now clean. It was this procedure to which Jesus sent the ten lepers, but it was not this procedure which worked the healing. It was the journey which worked their healing. As Matthew tells us, “And as they went, they were made clean.” And one of them, the Samaritan, discovered something … he learned who Jesus was and that the destination was not as important as the journey, so he turned away from his intended path to the Temple and made his way back to Jesus, to give thanks and perhaps to learn more.

The lepers, like the People of God taken to Babylon, had a choice to make. They could sit at the side of the road or they could move on. If they had chosen the first alternative, they would die. Their disease, or its complications, would have killed them. End of journey! No learnings, no discoveries, no growth. Just death.

Most sermons that I have heard or read about this story from Matthew’s Gospel focus on the need to give thanks and make a hero of the thankful Samaritan. There is nothing wrong with that focus and I believe we all need to examine our own consciences from time to time to ask whether we have given sufficient thanks for the blessings we have received during our life’s journeys. However, today I want to focus not on the cured Samaritan leper’s thankfulness, nor on our own. I would like to focus our attention on the lepers at an earlier time in the story and on the People of God in exile in Babylon. I want to look at them at the point where they had to make their decision to move, their decision to get on with life, their decision to be on the journey not just sitting at the side of the road. And I want to suggest to you that that is precisely the point where we at St. Paul’s Parish are and where we have been for some time … and that we have to make a decision. We have to decide whether to get on with life’s journey or continue to sit, as we have done for years, at the side of the road doing nothing but getting closer to death.

“Wait,” you will say to me. “We haven’t just been sitting here. Since you became our rector nearly five years ago there have been lots of changes at St. Paul’s.” True, we’ve fiddled around with a lot of stuff in the past few years. We’ve changed service times and Sunday School schedules, and changed them again, and yet again. We’ve added music to services and taken music away. We’ve altered the content and shape of the liturgy, and we’ve changed it again. We’ve redesigned the bulletins, and we’ve re-redesigned them. We’ve added a midweek service and we’ve moved it around. We’ve fiddled around a lot.

But all our fiddling has been done while we sat at the side of the road! If you’ll pardon a rather graphic image, I think what we’ve been doing is nothing more than sitting like lepers picking at the scabs on our sores. Why do I think that? It’s simple … every Sunday morning I’m required by the canons to record the attendance showing two numbers in particular – how many people were here and how many communions we served. Every year in January, I’m required by the canons to add all those figures up and average them and fill out a form for the national church. And every year we compare those Sunday morning figures and those annual averages to what was recorded and reported during prior years … and do you know what? For years … many, many years … more years than many of us have been here … those figures haven’t changed! Oh, they may go up a little, or down a little at times, but for the most part over the course of years those numbers have remained stable, static, unchanged and unchanging. St. Paul’s just sits at the same level, at the same place at the side of the road.

And there are other figures and other reports which show the same thing … Annual pledges – Every year, about 100 households in this congregation make pledges (which means that about another 100 don’t!) Every year, those 100 households pledge just about the same level of anticipated giving. Every year, based on those pledges we adopt a budget and except for things we have no control over, like insurance premiums or diocesan assessment, that budget stays the same. In the five years that I have been here, we have not given the staff any sort of salary increase. In the five years that I have been here, we have not hired a new staff person. In the five years that I have been here, we have not increased our budget for outreach or social ministry. In the five years that I have been here, we have not spent a dime on evangelism except in 2005 when I applied for and got a special grant from the diocese to try a direct mail campaign for a few months. In the five years that I have been here, for many years before that, our pledged support of the spread of the Gospel and our budget to do God’s work in Medina have remained stable, static, unchanged and unchanging.

Living things … including living and lively churches … do not remain stable, static, unchanged and unchanging. Living things … including living and lively churches … are like the People of God in Babylon or like the lepers sitting at the side of the road. They make a choice: sit and die, or move, change and live. Living things … including living and lively churches … chose to get moving, chose to change, and chose to live.

We are going to make that choice. St. Paul’s is going to get moving. St. Paul’s is going to live. St. Paul’s is going to grow. And that means St. Paul’s is going to change.

I suspect that when the People of God hit the road for Babylon, it was painful. I suspect that when the People of God began building homes in Babylon, it was painful. I suspect when the lepers got up from where they were sitting and moved their disease-riddle bodies, it was painful. I suspect that when St. Paul’s starts to move, to grow and to change, it will be painful.

No .. That’s not true … I don’t suspect it … I know it will be painful for some. And I know that some will not like the changes and some will complain.

In another story from the Gospels, Peter complained when Jesus told the disciples that their journey would take them to Jerusalem and probably to his death. Jesus rebuked him, and demanded that Peter recognize that his complaining was standing in the way of God’s work. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said to him. Those are some of the strongest words in all of scripture, spoken to a man we know Jesus loved with all his heart. It was painful for Peter, but the work of the kingdom of God is serious, and Peter and every disciple of Jesus Christ has to learn to lead, follow, or get out of the way. I imagine one or more of the lepers also complained when their comrades prodded them to do as Jesus commanded, but their complaints did not deter the others and complaints will not deter St. Paul’s from following Jesus’s commandments either.

“Go,” he said to the apostles just before he ascended to Heaven. “Go and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Go … healing and life and blessing are found not by sitting at the side of road, not in being static and unchanged and unchanging, but in the journey and the challenges it presents. “Go,” said God to the Jews in exile. “Go,” said Jesus to the lepers. “Go,” he said to the apostles. “Go,” he says to St. Paul’s, Medina … and we are going to get going!

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Prophetic Book Titles?

I was sitting in our parish library eating lunch with my wife  …. we do this nearly everyday – she takes her lunch hour from work, drives through McDonald’s and picks up a couple of their grilled chicken Caesar salads, and joins me at the church office.

Anyway … I was sitting in the library eating lunch with my wife and looking at the order of the books on the shelves.  Sometimes it seems to me that the order of the titles are quite humorous, but today I wondered if three book titles taken together might be speaking a word of warning from the Almighty!

There on the shelf, in this order, were these titles:

The Church as Moral Decision-Maker
Countdown to Disaster

“Lordy!” I thought. “When the church gets into this morality thing too heavily, it almost always ends in disaster, and disasters frequently result in deaths. I wonder what is going to die when we finally sort out our current moral dilemma.”

I am, of course, thinking about the current kerfluffle in the Anglican Communion about the full inclusion of gay-lesbian-bisexual-and-transgendered human beings. 

To be honest, this is not something that I think about on a daily basis.  I’m not GLBT, so it isn’t a personal matter to me.  I think about it when someone brings it to my attention.  Yesterday, the women’s book study group asked me to join them and try to explain the conflicts to them.  (A newer member of the congregation had been reading the secular newspapers’ accounts of our Anglican spat … always a dangerous activity!)

From their comments and questions, it became clear to me that they (like many others) seem to believe this “thing” started in 2003 with the election of Gene Robinson to be the Bishop of New Hampshire.  “Good Lord!” I said, “No!  This goes back many many years.”

Others believe it started with Lambeth 1998 and the (in)famous Resolution 1.10.  Also, No!  If this current conflict can be laid at the foot of any official action of the church, I would suggest it be laid at the feet of Lambeth 1968!  The bishops at that conference wisely noted that there were (and are) GLBT (well… they said “homosexual”) human beings in our communities (secular and ecclesial) and that the church was going to have to deal with that fact.  They suggested a process of study and listening and discernment.

It seems to me that the churches of North America followed that advice and, having done so, more than 30 years later found themselves at a place in their corporate lives where the American church could be comfortable electing and confirming the election of a partnered gay man as bishop and the Canadian church could be comfortable offering to bless the committed relationships of partnered gay men and lesbians. 

Did the rest of the Anglican Communion do so?  Did those who are now critical of the North American churches for “failing to follow Lambeth 1998″ follow Lambeth 1968?

Was Lambeth 1968 acting as a “moral decision-maker” in recommending that process of discernment, and was that recommendation the start of a “countdown to disaster”, and is that countdown going to end in the “death” of the Anglican Communion as we know it?

The conservative evangelical archbishops of some provinces on the African continent, who have banded together and called themselves CAPA (“Conference of Anglican Provinces in Africa” I think is what that stands for, although it doesn’t include all of the African churches), are calling for the cancellation or postponement of Lambeth 2008.  They want the Primates to meet in emergency session, to adopt an “Anglican Covenant” (presumably the version authored by Abp. Drexel-Gomez and his “drafting group”), require all provinces to sign on to, then reschedule Lambeth, and only the bishops in signatory provinces would be invited.  Alternatively, I presume, they will boycott Lambeth.

Either action would mean the end of our loosely-held-together family of churches.  No longer could we claim to be united by “bonds of mutual respect and affection” (although, I have to admit I wonder if we can claim that now).  It would be the “death” of the Anglican grouping of churches.  Something would take its place, of course, but it would be something very different.

These are the things that looking at a shelf full of books and reading their titles makes me think about …. maybe I need to take the afternoon off.

 I think I’ll do that.

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