Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Crucible of Resentment

Well, it does tend to come all at once.

The "Common Cause" partners are now meeting, venting their heated rhetoric for all who will listen, denouncing The Episcopal Church as the latest anti-Christ. Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh in the midst of a gathering that attacks the Presiding Bishop and commiserates over a sea of grievances now resorts to language that refers to the example of wartime presidents, last stands, and the "lost province." It is all very apocalyptic in tone. Perhaps that's how it feels to the Bishop of Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Akinola, in an extended interview with The Guardian in Nigeria, accuses TEC of resorting to "spiritual slavery" as the latest incarnation of Western imperialism. This is a familiar page out of the politics 101 play book: paint up those you've declared your enemies (i.e. The Episcopal Church, the Church of Canada, et. al.) in the worst way possible and hang on them the weight of responsibility for every ill suffered.

Such is the crucible of resentment.

Schismatic groups are now losing in the courts over their claims on church property, the Archbishop of Canterbury has not delivered with a hoped-for ejection of The Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion, half-hearted attempts to divide the House of Bishops failed, the bullying by a handful of Primates has not born the desired fruit, and so it is now time to take matters into their own hands and prepare to depart while making as much noise and spitting as much bile as possible. Mark Harris notes with illuminating insight the shift that has now occurred in the realignment crowd: the hope for an alternative or even replacement Anglican province in North America is now eclipsed by a repudiation of Canterbury and hatching plans for an entirely new parallel Anglican Communion.

It is tempting to resent them all in return.

I do my utmost to refuse.

The crucible of resentment is a painful place to live and is ultimately injurious to the soul. It is also most un-Christian, and clearly destructive to the life of community.

But, then, I am apparently a heretic, and I've nurtured grudges from time to time, so what do I know?

Suffice it to say that I find it incredibly sad that the new formulation must (once again?) be the result of rallying against a perceived common enemy, punctuated with an overly exaggerated sense of injury, and the construction of colossal straw men to knock down with as much invective as possible. Maybe this is the dark side of our Reformation heritage.

But at the end of the day, this latest barrage brings more to my mind the all-too-familiar visage of three-year-old temper tantrums than a Spirit-inspired image of the Church at prayer.

When this is over (may it be soon), it will be healing to hear what they are really for. Perhaps Jesus Christ? Yes, he's mixed up in this somewhere.

How I long for him to be revealed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On Being Christian

The Schoolyard or the Church? Our choice.

My friend and theologian, Christopher, is never one to mince words. His most recent post speaks to the loud statements issued in the press by bishops and archbishops over the past several days, and I heartily agree with him.

The true Anglican Communion will continue where the Gospel is being proclaimed and the People of God treat one another as Christ would have us: with love, patience, generosity, and a direct and heartfelt honesty.

All the rest is schoolyard politics, if not schoolyard bullying.

And it has worn thin, not being rooted in anything more than hubris.

Time to stop, even for those of us, perhaps especially for those of us who aren't bishops!

Friday, July 20, 2007

For Whom the Church?

Fr. Jake writes of the Church, in reaching out to those beyond our doors, in his most recent post:

Of course, a relationship with the living God is our intended "product." But in this new consumer mentality, such matters seem often to become secondary to rears in the pew.

Does that seem harsh? Maybe it is. Here's my concern; to what degree can we respond to the "felt needs" of those coming through our doors at the expense of "real needs"? As Ehrich puts it; "Religion, while claiming to be in the 'truth' business, seems more concerned with preserving its franchise through selective interpretations of Scripture, resisting science, seeking political allies, and telling congregants what they want to hear."

Let me say it even more radically. I don't think church has much of anything to do with what people think they "want." I think it has everything to do with offering our praise and thanksgivings to God.

Interestingly, this is a sentiment that is not only being expressed in the more liberal wing of "mainline" denominations, but also on the evangelical side of Christianity. Rick Warren opens his bestseller A Purpose Driven Life by discussing this at the very individual level when he tells the story of being approached by a congregant who felt unmoved by a worship service. Rick's reply, in essence, was that it wasn't about how the congregant felt, but about the offering of worship to God.

At the surface, this seems fair enough, but I am left unsatisfied by Rick's response. Is the Church's worship really only about God?

To push the point further into the questions I wrestle with on a regular basis as a parish priest:

Why should anyone remain in a community where their life in Christ is no longer nurtured or deepened? And how can we claim to serve the living God with that which might be dead?

What I forever find arresting is the wonder of God's grace in that it will find other ways to reach others with or without the Church. We are not indispensable. In that sense, then, it's indeed not about us!

Yet it also seems appropriate here to remember Jesus' words to Peter in John:
Do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep.

That is indeed a major piece of what we're about -- feeding the People of God. The sacraments, including the mystery of the Church, are not for feeding God. They are for feeding the human family. We could say that God, outside of the incarnation, has no need for us -- God being God and all that. But the message of Christianity seems to me is that God desires us still, out of love before time. And so we have the incarnation in Jesus Christ. And Christ tells us that we feed him by feeding one another.

So if building vital programs and offering lively, relevant worship, preaching, and service is what it takes to bring others into the life of Christ, to feed God in our neighbor, then that, too, is the work of the Gospel through the sacramental Body of Christ, the Church. We are bread broken and offered just as much as we have broken bread to give to feed those who are hungry. The complaints we might hear about boring worship, an uninspiring sermon, or lackluster program carry weight. We'd best listen to them and discern carefully what the Spirit is telling us in them. We dismiss them at our peril.

At the same time, we must also recognize, in classic Anglican both-and fashion, that ultimately the Church is not about me and my needs, either. That is, in addition to being sure I am nurtured, another major piece of the Church's call is to invite me to offer my gifts -- to empty myself -- for the greater well-being of God's people. I am not merely a consumer of Church, but someone engaged in the life of community. Otherwise, I am not living into my Christian faith, and I am not truly living into being the creature God has made me to be. The whole Church is ultimately about this, too. The Church does not exist for itself, and is called to empty itself for the sake of the Gospel and the world.

So we indeed have an obligation to reach out to others, or -- to use a metaphor found in the gospels -- to throw out a net, and an attractive one at that. It is not enough simply to say, "It's not about you. It's about God." We must recognize that our service to God is inexorably part of our service to others.

Philip Sheldrake writes:
It is vitally important to recover a spirituality of desire.
Befriending Our Desires, p. 7

Another thought came to mind in response to Fr. Jake's reflection: we must be careful when we go out triumphant to slay the beast of consumerism. The culture of consumerism is not problematic because of human desire. The culture of consumerism is problematic because it often fills us up with falsehoods. It responds to real needs with illusory products: with candy rather than solid food, with emptiness rather than substance; and it nurtures greed rather than addressing the authentic desire that can build up and heal the human family.

Yet desire remains, and authenticity to me is the real concern here. "Rears in the pew" is indeed about greed -- the greed of a self-serving institution (a dead Church). Selling a bill of goods merely to bring people in the door is indeed about falsehood. But nurturing authentic relationship with God in Christ is the mission of the Church. And people have a deep desire for that kind of relationship, and the Church should endeavor in every way meet it, advertise for it, appeal to it, and use (and in some ways redeem by God's grace) every good tool that the culture of consumerism offers us to reach others . . . or be made redundant.

The Book of Common Prayer finds the proper balance over this question in the Catechism:
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
p. 855
Prayer and worship for God. Mission -- proclamation, justice, peace, and love -- to meet the true needs and deepest desires of the people around us with God's abundance. Worship nourishes mission. Mission is a form of true worship. We cannot do one without the other.

Indeed, my long circling here boils down to what has already been said:

Our being here as Church for both God and our neighbor is exactly what the Great Commandment tells us!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Unsacramental Priest's Bellyache

Many in the Anglican blogosphere seem to be taking offense these days.

So I will join the crowd and indulge a brief bellyache and issue my own little bullish response to the most recent papal statement, which has caused quite a stir.

Regardless of what the Pope says, I still believe in the sacramental priesthood and that I remain, however imperfectly, a member of that Order. I also believe I serve the Church, despite the reminder by His Holiness that we are not a church. As I pronounced last rites for a remarkable Christian of the community I serve this past week and then shared communion with his loving family, I find the Pope's statement pastorally callous, however rooted it might be in Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

It is the Spirit and God in Christ at work in the "ecclesiastical community" that defines the Church and makes the sacraments valid, not the magisterium declaring proper apostolic succession, nor my personal virtue or lack of same.

I still love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. The path to ecumenical relationship and the persistent dream of reunification, however wistful, is through our incarnate, shared ministries in the community -- not through the doors of the Vatican. But the Pope continues to have my prayers, and unconditional ones at that.

As Tobias Haller writes, he has said nothing new, and that should suffice as an antacid.

There, that's succinct and straightforward as far as bellyaches go. Off to unload the dishwasher.

Update before lunch: The widely circulated AP Report notes speculation but little substance about the motivation behind the Vatican's statement making such a statement at this time.

So we are left with Daniel's incessant question these days: Dooshite? Why?

Maybe the Pope needs a few more questioning three-year-olds around him!

So says this Papa, at least.

Update during lunch: Tobias has risen to the occasion and offered a more in-depth analysis.

Daniel would likely continue to press the question. So do I!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

In Response

. . . to the vitriol that has erupted over the past few days in the Anglican blogosphere, our beloved Tobias Haller has written an admonition, one that we might all do well to follow.

As a warning, he writes:

Anger, offense, luxuriating in one’s own victimization, in being insulted and injured, can be powerful sources of emotional energy. They are stimulant drugs, the energy drinks of the soul; and though they “give you wings” I fear they are the kind with scales instead of feathers. They may help you build up a head of steam, but their addictive quality will lead you to seek for more and more offense, rather than seeking peace, understanding and reconciliation. Revenge, whether served hot or cold, may be tasty but it is not nutritious. The junk food of the soul will leave you empty and exhausted.

Read the rest.

Monday, July 09, 2007

For Special Christians

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour,

Mill Valley, California
on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

July 8th, 2007

Readings for Proper 9

I’m going to do the almost unforgivable today and open my sermon with a joke, and a well-worn one at that. It seems especially appropriate to the theological questions on the table in today’s reading from Hebrew Scriptures, and it speaks to a simple but profound truth of what it means to lead a life of faith.

So please indulge me as I dust this one off. And for those of you who know it, you can recite it with me!

There was a notably devout Christian who lived in a modest home next to a small, babbling creek. During a long drought, the creek almost dried up completely. But, when the rains returned at last, they came with a vengeance, as they often do.

Soon the creek was overflowing its banks and threatening the devoted Christian and his neighbors. He got down on his knees and prayed that God might save him from the rising waters when a knock came at the door. A police officer had stopped by, her cruiser parked outside, and she offered to drive the man to safety. He responded, “No, God will save me!”

In the ensuing hours the waters continued to rise until they entered the lower level of his house. The devout Christian barricaded himself in his upstairs bedroom and was praying fervently when a shout came from outside. He rose to see a boat struggling against the current outside his bedroom window.

“Open the window, we’ll throw you a line and take you safety!” the pilot shouted.

“No, thank you!” the devout Christian replied, “God will save me!”

The rains were relentless and the creek had now burgeoned to become a raging river. Even as homes were swept away nearby, the devout Christian climbed onto his roof and continued to pray fervently for God to save him from the rising waters. During a break in the storm, a helicopter flew to him. As it approached, a door opened and a voice shouted,

“We’ll let down a ladder for you. Come aboard, and we’ll take you safety!”

“No,” the devout Christian refused, “God will save me!”

A few moments later, his home collapsed beneath him, and he was swept away by the waters and tragically drowned.

In heaven, the devout Christian approached the throne of God with an angry question: “God, I prayed to you for hours to save my life! Why didn’t you?”

“My child,” God replied, “I love you and would never abandon you. And, behold, you live with me now forever. But in response to your incessant prayers, I sent you a police cruiser, then a boat, and then a helicopter. . .”
In today’s reading from the Second Book of Kings, we take another page out of the annals of Elisha, whom you may recall from last week has taken up the mantle of prophecy from his mentor Elijah.

Elisha today confronts two men who suffer from their own sense of pride:

The king of Israel who, not so surprisingly, worries that the request for the services of his prophet might be a reason for the powerful king of Aram to pick a quarrel. . . in other words, the king worries it is all about him. . .

And Naaman, the great warrior, who approaches Elisha’s door expecting V.I.P. treatment, and instead is greeted only by a lowly messenger.

Both are so convinced of their own unique and special place in God’s universe that they nearly forget to grasp the grace right in front of them – the king an opportunity to show the power of the God he and his prophet are called to serve; Naaman to be cleansed of his leprosy.

So, let’s cut to the chase. Are you a special Christian? Be honest!

I confess that I sometimes suffer from being one. It’s why I wear the special clothes and the collar and stand up in this special place on a Sunday morning. Being a special Christian is an occupational hazard for me as a priest, and I dare say a great spiritual risk for my heart and soul.

Most of us see ourselves as special Christians at one time or another, especially favored by God, extra gifted by the Holy Spirit. It speaks to our insatiable desire to be first. And the world, as secular as it may get, does nothing to help us. Turn on the television, open a newspaper, or surf the internet, and there are enough messages telling us how important we are (and even how more important we will be) if we buy or own a certain something, or live in a particular somewhere, or hang out with the right someone’s.

Our faith tradition is certainly badly infected with this sort of pride, too. Our shared history is littered with bodies both physical and spiritual – victims of our collective sense of self-righteousness. . . of believing ourselves special in the eyes of God.

Some of our contemporary Christian communities thrive when they posit our special sinfulness and, therefore, Christ’s special grace for us which is best claimed with a weekly visit to the “Temple of Redemption.” Sound at all familiar?

Enough already!

There are many reasons Christ sends his disciples out to deliver the Gospel two-by-two. One may well be that then no one of them can then claim special gifts for success or special grace by virtue of the battle scars from the rejection they might encounter.

And Elisha reminds us today across the bounds of religious and cultural history that God either finds us all special or none of us. That we all have a share and claim on God’s grace or none of do. Elisha may go personally to the nameless widow in distress to lift her up from her shame of invisibility. But he will keep his personal presence from the great warrior to remind him of the folly of self-pride.

While we are each gifted in different ways: some with longer life, others with shorter; some with gifts for gab, others for contemplation; some with music, others with handy-craft; some with large homes, others with small places; some with powerful positions in community, others with quiet and unassuming ones – we are, in a profound and very deep way, treated ultimately by God with equanimity.

And that equanimity is about the infinite love God shows us in Christ and through the Spirit of grace. Another way of seeing this is to remember that we enter this life with nothing, and we depart with nothing – all save the gift of life and God standing at our beginnings and ends.

This is a radical teaching. Make no mistake. If you push it to its conclusion, you discover a strange outcome of Christian faith. The competition ends. We rise and fall together. We are either all sinners of the worst sort, or we are made equally special only by God’s love in Christ, and we cannot earn it, achieve it, or pay for it. At our best, we celebrate this grace we all have been given, and out of love for God and one another, are willing to share it with our neighbors.

But most days we suffer from the self-limitation of our competitive and ever-comparing spirits: judging ourselves against others or against yesterday or against – as often in this part of the world where so many of our needs are met and exceeded – the yardstick of “self improvement.” We are hard wired, it seems, to believe ourselves to be special, to curry God’s extra favor, as though infinite and self-giving love from the Creator of all Worlds was not enough.

At times, we risk rejecting that grace and grasping something far less for ourselves and our brothers and sisters than God wants for us all. But the Good News is that we are often given grace despite ourselves – like Naaman, who at the insistence of no one greater than his own servants, goes down to the river to bathe and is healed. Or the disciples who take so little into the villages and towns as to accomplish nothing, and yet come away with a profound sense of how God is working through the Gospel they have shared – a Gospel that, in a remarkable way, accomplishes everything by restoring life with God and casting out the powers of darkness.

Each week as a community in Christ, we live into this Gospel by setting all of our self-centered striving aside, at least for a moment, when we gather before the altar and take the bread and wine side-by-side with our sisters and brothers: poor, rich, old, young, passionate, indifferent, sad, angry, happy, afraid, joyous. We are no more deserving than they are, and yet no less worthy because of what God has already offered in the way of grace in our lives and in the lives of countless others.

This is one of our primary spiritual practices, and one where we beg for God’s transformation: to set aside our notions and craving to be special. To live instead into the abundant love for us that comes from before time and that stands ever like a blazing light to shine into our broken and wayward hearts. . .

. . . if only we will let it.

Naaman at the Door (portion) by Deborah A. Reeder from Holy Bible Sketch Pad.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Jesus and Company

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour,

Mill Valley, California
on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

July 1st, 2007

audio available

Readings for Proper 8

With so much action this morning focused on Elijah and Elisha as they approach the Jordan, the eastern boundary of Israel, I’m fascinated by this curious verse from our reading from Second Kings: “Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.”

Just who were these guys? These fifty nameless prophets lost to history except to the possible collective name of “Elijah and Company?” I wonder, too, what they might have said to one another as a series of extraordinary sights met their eyes: the parting of the waters, the whirlwind, and the chariot of fire. This text, so emblazoned into our psyches that it affects our language – from the words to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to the almost cliché expression of “taking up the mantle”. . . this text about Elijah and Elisha is filled with the encounters of a wandering life without family, where the other followers become our family, even without a home, at the edges of the tradition and culture.

In its own way, the Jordan River serves the story as the boundary between heaven and earth.

These fifty are like the rest of us, men and women, children and elders, followers of famous figures, part of the crowd pursuing truth and witnessing to what we have seen on the edge. Sometimes we are wayward. Sometimes we are uncertain. Sometimes we are confused by what our leaders are telling us. But we are here, with Elijah and Elisha, at the Jordan River, seeking something great and awesome, watching the passing of the mantle to a new generation of prophecy.

In the gospel we encounter a Jesus this week that few of us want: a Jesus who has, in the words of Luke, “set his face” towards Jerusalem for a final showdown with the religious and political authorities. He is going to confront the powers that be for the ways they have brought misery to the masses, the way they have arrogantly claimed God for themselves but no one else, the way they have maligned the ancient traditions and substituted coldness for compassion, cowardice for courage, and self-righteousness for humility.

It takes no amount of genius to realize how such a confrontation will likely end. The Romans aren’t fools, after all. They’ve shown the world in general, and Israel in particular how rebels and criminals are dealt with. And anything that even remotely threatens the peace or the free flow of tribute to support the sprawling Empire is harshly swept away.

Nor are Jesus' followers and fans fools either, although, like us, they can be foolish in many ways. The Samaritans, outcasts from the greater culture of Israel, take on a special place in Jesus’ ministry. We know the beloved parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. We remember the Samaritan woman at the well who has a profound theological discussion with Christ in the Gospel According to John.

While the Samaritans are friendly to him in most cases, today we hear that they refuse him hospitality. Opposed to the primacy of Jerusalem as the heart of the Temple cult and the seat of Jewish religious authority, the Samaritans are offended by Jesus’ single-minded determination to go there.

His closest disciples reveal their own stress over the direction the movement is taking, wanting to summon wrath on the Samaritans for not allowing Jesus and his followers a respite.

Strain is starting to show in all kinds of ways. We no longer have a kind, soft-spoken Jesus (now did we ever, really?) but one who confronts those who wish to follow him with an edgy, cutting set of pithy teachings. God and the Gospel must come first. First before family. First before kin and country. First before the home.

In the Eastern Christian tradition, as my spiritual director is fond of noting, "water runs thicker than blood." Do you remember your baptism? Many of us don’t. Have you yet fathomed its consequences? We pledged to put God in Christ first. Or, for many of us, our parents and godparents dared to pledge it on our behalf.

This is a bold claim Jesus places on his followers, on all of us. Like Elijah and the company of prophets, Jesus and his companions across the ages are not beholden to deep roots. Baptism leaves us all rootless and even, in a profound sense – especially for those of us. . . all of us. . .who are wealthy in the grand scheme of things – in a profound sense, we are all left homeless.

“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

And we must be prepared, when necessary, to “let the dead bury their own dead.” We are not subject to the past any longer, but to the future with God.

Nor do we spend all our time and energy on saying goodbye, looking back to what we might or could have been.

We put God first, in front, ahead, before all else. And in doing so, any family that might travel with us will see us slowly but surely transformed. Any friends we make or have begin to recognize that we belong to no one, but ever to Someone else.

The Good News today we hear most from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. He reminds an early Christian community and us twenty centuries later that we have been blessed through our discipleship by the Spirit, and we will know its work in our midst by its good fruits. No longer with our identity ultimately found in bloodlines or lineages, we are part of the family of the Spirit now, prepared to seek and nurture all those good things that flow from the heart of God in Christ: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

The waters of baptism do indeed run thicker than blood for us as Christians, and the best works we have known here at Church of Our Saviour and in the greater church and amongst our sisters and brothers around the world witness to that fact.

But where Jesus calls, we must follow. Sometimes through suffering. Sometimes through joy. Often through both at once, and always through grace. That is our lot in life as Christians in community, seekers on a journey, the frequently unnamed but ever present body of disciples and Teacher, Lord, and Savior – perhaps best known collectively as “Jesus and Company,” that community with few roots as the world would recognize them. . .

That community that breaks bread and shares the cup.

That community that revels in water, in song, and claims no ultimate home here.

But only an ultimate home elsewhere. . . in what is not yet fully realized. . .

Home in the heart of God.