Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let the Reader Beware

It's an old story, but the much maligned text, John 14:6, keeps resurfacing in various places in the realm of Anglican discourse -- too often in the hands of those who would hold The Episcopal Church as a whole and our Presiding Bishop in particular as somehow heretical or, in the words of one bishop, "deficient" in our Christology; that unless we take "No one comes to the Father except through me" in its most universalizing and exclusive meaning, we are not being faithful Christians.

I waded into a discussion about this at the HoB/D listserve earlier in the evening, after re-reading John 14 and the verses that come just before it.

In principle, context really matters in this case, even if we sidestep debate about what the "historical Jesus" said or didn't say, and confine ourselves fairly narrowly to the internal integrity of the Fourth Gospel.
Here's a more expanded version of what I posted to the list:

I am puzzled that conversations around John 14:6 often do not reflect more often that the verse is a direct response to Thomas's very pressing and somewhat personal question: "How can we know the Way?" The passion of the question seems to stem from an understandably fearful reaction to the foretelling of Peter's denial and Jesus' imminent death and departure.
The question posed also appears characteristic of Thomas, as he cuts through dense theological language to seek more tangible truths. The lead up to his encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20 is among the most well-known stories in the Fourth Gospel and serves as an expansion, if not the apex, of his seeking role.
Moreover, in chapter 14, Jesus is in conversation with his followers, not the unconverted. He is, even in the profoundly theological and sometimes other-worldly narrative of John, addressing a reasonably specific audience of disciples. And Jesus concludes his answer with verse 7, appearing to respond directly to Thomas not in a globalizing, but rather a personal sense: "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

Taken in the broader context of John, this seems to be Christ speaking lovingly to the Johannine community of believers as they wrestle with doubts and their identity in a time of conflict. And, as so many have written (Bill Countryman's The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel is but one wonderful example), it is a statement more broadly given for Christians undergoing conversion, struggling with a journey of deepening faith -- a pilgrimage even -- through the sacramental life, moving into the tensions of a deeply personal and, at the same time, communal relationship with God in Christ.

To therefore use 14:6 in isolation as a litmus test for the orthodoxy of "believers" or an exclusive, narrow theological statement about how God's salvation works (through the Church only?), strikes me as bringing violence into an inspired text -- a passage, chapter 14, that seems intended to be more pastoral than polemical, and to bring comfort to a community of disciples in distress.

After all, it opens with these words, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. . ." (14:1)
Do we really dare, given this context, use it to trouble the hearts of others?

At the end of the day, John 14:6 comes alongside words that are fundamentally meant to edify the Christian community, to draw us into the holy mystery of Christ speaking through the gathering of the baptized around the eucharist, and to bring us along further together in the journey of discipleship.

Yes, it says Christ is central for us as Christians in our knowing God. But anything more universalizing or triumphalist than that may be presuming too much, and brings meaning to the text that I'm not sure is intended.
Such mis-use, as we have seen for too long of John 14:6, is a warning to all of us about proof-texting our own unarticulated agendas with scripture snippets stripped of context.
While I've said nothing really new here, it always bears repeating that scripture has been used for both good and ill by Christians over the centuries. We make spiritual, and indeed moral choices in how we interpret and use our holy texts.
Let the reader of the Word beware.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Blessing Righteousness

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California
The First Sunday after Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord

January 13th, 2008

Audio will be posted soon.
Welcome to the other side of the holidays. Back into the thick of things we find ourselves, in the midst of a roaring storm last weekend (and I might add heroic efforts ranging from keeping vigil with the emergency generator to showing up and worshiping by candle light!) I’m actually a little sorry to have missed the great adventure here, but I was off with family in Texas seeing my brother married and starting off himself on a new great adventure.

Christmas to me seems like an age ago, how about you? It’s nestled somewhere between grand liturgies and harrowing hikes with a four-year-old through a vast concrete airport. Many of you are back at school, back at work, back to the usual routines with heightened pressures as the economy slows and the market tide rolls back for a time. Budgets have to be worked and re-worked, paperwork is looming as the tax forms arrive, jobs are starting to shift, which adds a whole new level of anxiety. Ballot instructions roll in for Super Tuesday, the airwaves are filled with pundits and politicians hard at it into the wee hours. The great Anglican mess rolls on with fresh news of the first inhibition of a schismatic bishop in a neighboring diocese, and half a world away, our sisters and brothers in uniform still risk their lives trying to bring order in troubled places. Back into the thick of things is the world and Church, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must be nagged a bit as we are after every Christmas: did it really usher in a renewed righteousness in the world, or are we back where we were in late November, no better off with a Messiah than without one?

Regardless how we might answer that question, we are all agreed that we remain very much in a state of needing grace. We gather here this morning to seek blessing as we often do: a bit more grace, please, for our busy, sometimes harried lives, a breath of spiritual refreshment before plunging back into the work of tomorrow. We expect Christ’s arrival to mean our baptisms have finally “taken,” that we have a shot at breaking through the challenges of this life, a chance to at last relax and finally realize our longstanding hope that peace has finally come to our hearts, the Reign of God has at least arrived for us and our children.

In a way, so does John the Baptist in today’s Gospel.

It’s hard not to expect something a little bit more dramatic between John and Jesus at the River Jordan – something a little bit more dramatic than an esoteric conversation about the necessity of it all. In a curious way, we’ve been trying to get the two of them together for several weeks now. John’s conception is followed by a remarkable encounter between Mary and John’s mother, Elizabeth. John’s father, Zechariah, is struck dumb until the child is born. Jesus is born amidst the declarations of angels and the star and the magi appear. We have also sprung forward on occasion as decades later John appears at the Jordan River and foretells Christ’s coming, the light that the darkness cannot overcome, warning off those who expect an easy redemption with fiery words. We might capture a mental image of him now fully grown, wild-eyed, dressed in his odd animal skins, living on the edge.

In the snippet of the story we hear this morning, the two cousins, the teacher and disciple, must surely have met with something more than a simple discussion over who gets to do what in the River. Might the two have embraced like old friends, perhaps; might they have shed a tear as two spiritual firebrands compare notes about shaking up the towns and villages; perhaps they laugh about innocent childhoods lost to time and the challenges of mature adulthood with all of its risks of failure?

But no, Matthew only offers us the glimpse of a few brief words that remind us of what John sees in Jesus, and Jesus almost demands baptism “to fulfill all righteousness.” For us and for the earliest Christians a profound mystery is in the imperfect prophet baptizing the person we call the Son of God. John means it when he says he rather needs Jesus to baptize him. Like us, John recognizes that he’s the one who needs the grace.

But we are patiently reminded, as the Spirit waits to appear, that Christ’s Gospel reverses what we expect. For this is the Jesus who will wash his disciples’ feet and calm their quarrels with an admonition that the greatest will be the servant of all. This is the Jesus who will say strange things like the least is the greatest in the Kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

This reversal of expectations is true even for John the Baptist, who has predicted the coming Messiah with a passion that rouses the crowds. His life is built around the hope of Christ’s appearing. But when Jesus emerges and utters his first words as a grown human being in the Gospel of Matthew, he upends the prophet’s world-view. As he will spend his ministry doing. To be clear, if Jesus were to suddenly appear here this morning, he might not seek to teach from the pulpit or administer communion. He might rather sit and listen among you. He might demand that we bless him.

And where would that leave us? Dumbstruck perhaps? Hesitant, for sure.

Fulfilling righteousness has little to do with our power to influence outcomes in our own lives or the lives of others, nor does it really have to do with acquiring some cosmic sense of our own failings. Most importantly, fulfilling righteousness may not have much to do at all with our craving God’s blessing. Instead, it has much more to do with the times when we seek out Christ in our midst and live into our deeper need to bless him in one another. Of setting aside our impatient desires long enough to allow God’s grace to act through us, to allow the action of the Spirit in our imperfect midst.

We cannot, through the vanity of our own efforts, grasp or attain righteousness. We can only bless righteousness, baptize it, fulfill it by serving the One who came to serve wherever we find him. It’s a potent message for us who strive continually to be better, to work to deserve God’s blessing. Like John standing at the River Jordan expecting Christ to winnow, burn the chaff, wash us with a spiritual fire, perfect us, we might be a little bit surprised at a Christ who says, “No, you baptize me. Bless me, you imperfect, beloved children of God. For only in this way will the righteous reign of God begin.”

So that is our task today as we move through our usual routine, renew our baptismal covenant, say the prayers, come forward to table and receive the cup and bread broken. We bless God in Christ and then risk repeating that action over and over again as we leave here to serve: to serve without being perfect or fully capable, or even fully equipped to handle the problems, challenges, and fears the world will bring us.

For our capabilities, busy-ness, resolve, politics, and problem-solving abilities are not at issue in today’s Gospel. Only God’s grace is. For righteousness fulfilled welcomes the Spirit, and perhaps when our clattering desires and impatient endeavors quiet for a moment, perhaps when we learn to bless Christ in our midst rather than anxiously await his blessing, the sky will open, the Spirit will descend, and we, too, will hear the voice of God proclaiming:

“This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


It has already been widely discussed in the blogosphere that late on Friday, the Presiding Bishop inhibited John-David Schofield from functioning as bishop in the Episcopal Church. He has two months to recant abandonment of communion in this Church, or face a possible deposition by the House of Bishops.
Mark Harris and Tobias Haller sum up the situation with great insight. Much of the response, ranging from the Primate of the Southern Cone to Bishop Iker of Fort Worth states the obvious. Some of it, in my view, is just stuff and nonsense.
At the end of the day, it really matters very little what they say or think. What matters now is the internal integrity of the communion of the Episcopal Church, for that is the communion over which our canons have jurisdiction. John-David Schofield might equivocate and Presiding Bishop Venables may say we have no power over him. But now a process must be followed, with the quite possible end of declaring a see vacant so that the life of the communion of this church may continue, and those who remain Episcopalian, the true Diocese of San Joaquin duly formed by this Church through an act of General Convention, may claim what is rightly within their stewardship and jurisdiction.
And the integrity of communion matters, not because it is perfect, but because communion is about that root word, community, which means how we remain accountable to one another in the context of the greater body.
In this sense, it seems a clear boundary violation has occurred, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is doing what good, differentiated leaders do when this happens: she is stewarding, along with our bishops in collegial relationship, the boundaries of this Church.
With this in mind, it seems to me a number of things are clear:
  • Whatever ontological identity John-David may claim as "bishop," no bishop, and no clergy for that matter, function in the Church without the consent of the body. As other bloggers have noted, we clergy all serve under license. That's how we are held accountable to the greater community that, through our overseers, ordained us and gave us standing in this communion. Even laity are accountable to the communities in which they serve. That is part of what it means to live in community.
  • Vows do matter, even when they are to the imperfect. John-David Schofield and a number of clergy who follow him may regard The Episcopal Church as heretical or disagree with its decisions, either recent or longstanding. They may, by moving to the Southern Cone, believe they are protecting their personal piety and perceived faithful integrity from whatever they believe we, as a Body, have done incorrectly. But that's not the issue. The issue is that they made ordination vows to the discipline, doctrine, and worship of this Church. And John-David in particular agreed to honor the boundaries of collegiality in the House of Bishops, and no other. To actively place himself, as bishop, under the jurisdiction of another House and Primate appears to me and many others to violate these vows, and means risking the privileges and responsibilities of ordination in this Church, including stewardship of any property that is held in trust for this Body in San Joaquin.
  • Accountability matters, as John-David is only likely to discover more profoundly in the coming months. If he ducks accountability for trying to grab at privileges and property he has already publicly forfeited, he could well force the only option then left to The Episcopal Church: court action.
  • In the context of this question, all the rest about human sexuality, Lambeth 1998.I.10, the consecration of the bishop of New Hampshire, and upholding the "faith once delivered to the saints," is simply a smoke-screen for bad behavior in community, a bucket full of red herrings. That is what I mean by stuff and nonsense.

Our Presiding Bishop has been succinct, direct, and collegial in her approach to this situation, a display of true leadership at a time when naked power and property grabs by bishops and archbishops risk making us all a laughingstock. It's a grim time, but there is something refreshing in leadership that draws clear boundaries and takes responsibility for consequences that are measured, in line with the internal integrity of this Church community, and shared in careful discernment.

So now John-David can claim martyrdom or superiority by numbers all he wants. It really doesn't matter.

While there is no place for us to impugn anything about his faith in Christ, the truth is, we are all accountable for our own behavior in community. We make decisions we hope out of a place of inner integrity and then accept the consequences with some humility. That's a simple matter of transparency and vulnerability in right relationship. It seems to me the Gospel has a great deal more to say about this than personal piety, doctrine, righteousness, or beliefs.

And it strikes me that a fundamental misapprehension about this is very much at work near the heart of the present mess.