Friday, December 24, 2010

Atheists and Incarnation

Sermon for Christmas, 2010

It is striking to me this year just how odd the incarnation is. Odd as it is this time of year when we proclaim peace, and yet the commercial world comes to life with frenetic, stress-filled activity – all the more pronounced as the economy begins to find its feet again. Reassuring when at last our government ratifies a treaty that will take another step towards dismantling the dangerous legacy of the Cold War. Odd as we Christians gather to pray to the Christ Child while some of our more vociferous atheist sisters and brothers see Christmastide as a critical time to make more public statements – from billboards along highways in New York to a recent entry by Ricky Gervais on the Wall Street Journal blog – about how crazy some think we really are. Odd indeed that the story of a little baby born in a small town in Judea two thousand years ago – an image at face value that might be a little bit sweet and comforting – becomes a source of discomfort. Reassuring that the incarnation still means something – even to those who most heartily deny it any value or meaning in our post-enlightenment, post-Christian, post-modern, post-industrial, post-everything world. Odd that our messages of joy are lifted up at this time even as we know some whom we most dearly love face considerable suffering, trial, and even death. Reassuring that Jesus was born into this, too.

We Christians have wrestled with the oddity of the incarnation for as long as we’ve called ourselves “Christian.” The stories of Luke and Matthew and the theologizing of John are not finished bits of history or well-studied, carefully weighed measurements of empirical science. They reflect communities of Christians wrestling with the meaning of Jesus Christ and the stories that surrounded him; how he touched and continued to touch generation to generation the lives of people on spiritual pilgrimage. Atheists are right to refer to them as “myth,” but we understand it as myth in the very best sense of the word. They embrace one of the deep mysteries of our faith – a profound sense of “God with us” in the muck and straw of our stabled lives, in the fleshy, fallible and sometimes stinky nature of human existence. . .God with us in our best moments and – perhaps even more importantly – in our worst. We have wrestled with the oddity of a God who needed to be changed from soiled swaddles, vulnerable to disease, tyranny, and all the uncertainties every human being faces – so much so that our key doctrinal statements, our ancient Creeds, had to very clearly establish that Jesus was born of a woman and yet fully divine. It’s an offense to the ancient philosophical ideals of a perfect, unassailable God. It’s an offense to the elevated humanism of a parallel but equally ancient understanding of a godless, ultimately meaningless life. Together, they form a dualism that haunts us – a dualism that threatens to divorce us in our own hearts and minds from our bodies, that threatens to split the “spiritual” from the soil and grime and sensuality of this life, that puts God “out there” somewhere – either in the gaps of our knowledge (however vast they are!) or in some lofty, incredible heaven that defies logic and reason. Neither are big enough ideas to contain our God. Nor are they real enough.

The incarnation resolves this dualism – in fact, shatters it completely with the cries of a newborn, a newborn God, a newborn Reality that pulls the star dust and messiness of our lives into a cosmic womb and births it anew infused with divinity from before time. If at the one end of our Christian journey stands the cross with Jesus’ arms outstretched to a world in love, then at this end, we behold Jesus as a fragile embodiment of that same love. Fragile, because he is vulnerable to our cynical hearts and our tendency to dominate and control what we don’t understand. This divine love beholds all of our wanton, craven, messiness and embraces it – the cats outside my office fighting as I write this, the impatience of today’s line at the coffee shop or the grocery store, the homeless begging for a place at table, our irritation with our short existence, our impatient imperfections; our great art, our science and history, our civilizations, our cherished family stories, our striving for something magnificent in a capricious universe. This divine love beholds all of it and then deigns to be born into it, to become one with it, to embrace it so utterly that even God is somehow changed for us from a philosophical abstraction or a thundering, primitive caricature of a deity into an embodied, transformative presence that lives and acts in the very substance of our lives.

Our quibble with atheistic utterances that “God does not exist” is an old one rooted in incarnation. I don’t believe in the God they don’t believe in either. God does not exist as a provable, measurable thing, like a chair, or a desk. God is. God is the root of is-ness, says the birth of Jesus to me. Our humanity is because God has embraced it so utterly that every reality is part of God’s reality now. We can’t measure God empirically not because he is an absent watchmaker as our American deism would have it, but because every measurement itself is predicated on an assumption of reality that is God. Without God, there is no measuring stick. In fact, we Christians say, there would be nothing to measure. There would be nothing without God.

And so, Christmas reminds us, we are, too. More than mere existences, we are. We are touched by the divine hand much more than the outstretched reach of Adam to a bearded deity as in Michelangelo’s depiction of the old story in the Sistine Chapel. We are touched from head to toe, from birth to death, from virtue to foible, by a God who loves us so much that nothing would be left untouched. Our faith, then, is that our evolving lives are constantly and consistently infused with this blessing, so much so that our life – whether we choose to recognize it or not – hinges on this love, and there are no words adequate to describe this dependence, and no suffering, no pain, no work of humanity or crash of the cosmic dance can utterly break our bond with this God who is born into us, our DNA, our bones, our ancestry, our past, present, and our future.

Faith in incarnation is not belief in an abstraction, but an embrace of the fullness of reality – known and unknown – a reality that is God in Christ’s. The myth of our gospel narratives is a re-telling of this truth that reflects who Jesus is for us: the heart of all that is, the heart of all we truly are. Not one word goes forth from us, not one action, without having been touched by our God. Not one pain passes God’s notice or goes unfelt or unrecognized. Not one stumble, not one failing, not one joy or truly precious, cherished moment.

The birth of the Messiah is God’s first, great reminder to us and all Creation that we are loved. “Full stop,” as Desmond Tutu would say. Body and soul, spirit and flesh, creature, child, healthy and infirm, rich and poor, remembered and forgotten, saint and sinner, long gone and yet-to-be-born – a love that is perfected as it is whispered in the quietude of an infant sleeping and the eyes of wonder of a holy mother, the watchful gaze of a devoted father, the reverent observance of shepherds, animals, and angels – a love that is preparing to overturn everything we thought that was – even death itself – and recast the Cosmos and all our being yet again, for a God who has loved us into life, into being itself, and that we will never be alone.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hands to the Plow

Jesus, the Anglican Communion, and LGBT Pride Day

Sermon for Proper 8
RCL Lectionary, Year C

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 / Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 / Galatians 5:1, 13-25 / Luke 9:51-62

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 27th, 2010

The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California


Jesus, in good rabbinical fashion, offers us a series of shocking sayings today – sayings to shake us, his followers, out of our complacency. Sayings to awaken us to the bracing message of the Gospel. While he turns his face stubbornly towards Jerusalem ( much to everyone’s consternation and distress) he holds up a mirror to us, a mirror that reflects back to us our reluctance, our second-guessing, our hesitancy to live into the fullness of his message, of his Way.

We wrestle, as followers of Christ, with the same things Jesus’ would-be followers wrestled with. We have obligations – obligations to family, to tradition, to institution, to the pressing needs and concerns of our worldly lives. We spook easily at change, we blanch at difference, we resist the challenge those outside our doors pose to us, we seek safety in what we know and fear what we don’t. Jesus deliberately shakes up his hearers and us, shocks us out of our comfort and into a vulnerable, itinerate place – the place of ongoing journey, the fragility of raw humanity on a dusty road, even staring into the face of darkness, death, and dissolution. Only in that way will we “get,” both literally and figuratively, the Gospel. Only in that way, he reminds us, will we fully find God.

Some of you might have heard about our most recent Anglican dust-up. After a series of dueling Pentecost Letters, The Archbishop of Canterbury recently dismissed representatives of The Episcopal Church from Anglican Communion ecumenical councils as a consequence of our consecrating an openly lesbian Bishop in Los Angeles. This led in turn to an uncomfortable conversation between our Church's Executive Council and the Communion's Secretary General. Just where are we and who are we now as The Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion? No one’s quite sure just yet. We’re well into uncharted territory, and clear answers are hard to come by.

As if that weren't enough to mull over on its own, our Presiding Bishop was visiting the cathedral in Southwark in the Church of England in recent weeks, when she was instructed by the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to not only provide evidence of her ordination status (despite her numerous previous visits), but was told to refrain from wearing her mitre, her pointed bishop’s hat, during the liturgy, because the Church of England is in a very fragile state at the moment as they consider yet again the consecration of women bishops.

Coming at such a raw time for everybody, you can well imagine the result was an ugly all-to-public episode in trans-Atlantic ecclesiastical diplomacy that has become known as "mitregate.” It brought great embarrassment for many in the Church of England, and provoked appeals to 1776 on this side of the Atlantic! Our Presiding Bishop, to her credit, was quite courteous about the whole affair while in England, though upon her return she publicly noted the silliness of the reactivity over the episode. Then she moved forward with her service to the life and mission of a Christian people. But such is life in the Anglican Communion these days. While reactive leadership worries over who’s wearing a mitre and who isn’t, about who’s sitting on which council and who’s being consecrated where and how, while officials attempt to mop up a rude public relations mess and pundits and bloggers like me wax eloquent. . . while the general public roll their eyes over those silly Christians at it again, there are millions across the Communion in dire straits financially, experiencing maddening hunger and debilitating disease, and Creation groans while oil gushes in the Gulf.

It would be too easy to start scoring points against the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, for indulging in irrelevancy – especially in these days of the World Cup. Maybe this is some great ecclesiastical showdown on the world stage. Perhaps we could say The Episcopal Church has scored one goal for being dignified in the face of such rudeness, the Church of England for being so unspeakably insensitive, nil. The crowds are screaming from the stands and the feelings are running high. We could leave it there and call it game over, but that would be too easy. Truth be told, Rowan Williams is in an untenable position, and we are, too, and it’s only half-time.

The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury must oversee and we help fund a nineteenth- and twentieth-century institution, the Anglican Communion, that was built largely on the foundation of gentlemen’s agreements between English and North American bishops – yes, all men, all white – beginning at the height of the British Empire. With the freedom of colonial states in Africa and the explosion of evangelical Anglicanism and rising leadership in those countries; with monumental social, philosophical, and theological change in the West and a shift to more democratic principles of church governance here, the old way of Communion just doesn’t work anymore in a diverse Body.

Our Presiding Bishop puts it this way in a recent interview : we are like a great family in which the teenagers are at last growing up. We no longer, in old colonial fashion, turn to (papa?) Canterbury or gentlemen’s agreements to make it right. The institution, with all of its inherent inertia, its enthrallment with regulations, traditions, and old scores, hasn’t kept up with the times and now must leap somehow -- perhaps blindly or at least clumsily -- into the uncertainty of the twenty-first century. The Body of Christ is moving on to serve a rapidly changing world. How will we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem? Will be like Elisha daring to follow Elijah to the boundary of the Jordan? Will we pick up Elijah’s mantle when he departs? Will we dare ask for a double-share of the spirit of prophecy? These questions in the face of deeply conflicted times must keep Rowan Williams awake at night sometimes. I hope so. They would me. "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," after all.

But there is good news. For while bishops and officials quarrel over crumbling ecclesiastical edifices, the Gospel’s mission continues. I think of the House of Bishops in the Church of Tanzania, who hold that their church's communion with The Episcopal Church hangs by the barest thread because of our inter-provincial disagreements over human sexuality. Yet here we are at Church of Our Saviour, in partnership with Ibihwa parish on the ground in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, supporting primary education for fifty children – many of whom have lost their parents to AIDS. The politicking of bishops matters little in such circumstances. Abstract theological disagreements over human sexuality quickly become irrelevant, when education means a future for a vulnerable life amongst people struggling with unimaginable tragedy and abject poverty.

Closer to home, I think of our youth returning from a mission trip to help with the Appalachia Service Project. I think of our ongoing ministry with the hungry in cooperation with Our Lady Mount Carmel – all theological and ecclesiastical differences aside. I think of the work of the wider Episcopal Church just in Marin County, from a developing food pantry in Contempo Marin to our partnership with numerous churches and organizations in Marin City to start the Hannah Freedom School, a literacy program for at-risk students in Marin City.

Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The Church that focuses on institutional preservation for its own sake is about the spiritually dead burying their own dead. When doing it the old way is the only reason for being, we lose sight of who we are called to be and we engage in a half-life focused on death. But when we re-set our gaze forward as a people on mission for the sake of the Gospel -- a people who are walking the way of the cross, who are putting our hand to the plow of the kingdom of God and not looking back, we regain our lives in Christ. The real Anglican Communion is not found in the formal structures of Lambeth Palace or in the tired strife between bishops and archbishops. The Anglican Communion where Jesus lives is where “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It’s in the places where sleeves are rolled up for mission and justice prayerfully meets compassion, where suffering is relieved and the hungry are fed, where sacramental, embodied partnerships are giving life rather than fighting over abstract ideas and the inconsequential nature of steeples and mitres.

Then there’s Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired cleric from the Anglican Church of Uganda. Bishop Senyonjo inherited the faith of nineteenth-century English missionaries, along with all the Victorian values they brought with them to the British colonies of Africa. But then came to his door a hidden class of people in Uganda, gay and lesbian, fearful for their lives, living in shame for their sexual orientation and in some instances their clandestine loves. Bishop Senyonjo and the church he served had taught that such as these belonged somewhere in the list of vices we hear today from Paul’s writing: outcasts and sinners surely, condemned by the Christian Gospel. But Bishop Senyonjo listened with compassion to their stories in the light of a loving God “from whom no secrets are hid.” And over time, he began to hear in his gay and lesbian sisters and brothers and in their relationships the fruits of the Spirit that Paul also identifies in the same passage: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruits of the Spirit stood in stark contrast to the encultured suspicions and hatreds of homosexuality in the greater community, ranging all the way up to proposed laws in Uganda – supported by the Church, I might add – to make homosexuality a capital offense. Bishop Senyonjo was converted in a profound way, and, setting his face towards Jerusalem after his beloved Christ, came out as a straight advocate for these hidden and oppressed voices in his Church and homeland. As a result, he and his wife found themselves cut off from his pension, receiving death threats, and severed from a Church to which he had devoted his life and love. Yet he persists, taking his message all around the Anglican Communion. Why? Maybe he has heard today’s Gospel, too, the call of Christ to move forward in God's love, even if it's toward into a crucified place.

For Jesus, the “Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head,” does not travel alone, but travels with the outcasts and those proclaimed sinners by the wider society. He dines with the unclean and the ritually impure. He talks with women publicly and touches the leper. He hangs out with those proclaimed righteous and unrighteous alike. He faces down the pettiness of self-righteousness and the insularity of the powerful and the narrowness of the traditional. This is Jesus and his new family of the Kingdom on the move, walking towards a crucified place if need be. He is with our sisters and brothers walking this day in the fortieth annual Pride parade in San Francisco, a community of men and women recovering from society-inflicted shame, continuing to struggle for their rights to discern their unique path with God and to seek and celebrate the blessing of the Spirit in their most cherished relationships. Many in that parade have left the Church for obvious reasons. Some have remained by grace and bear with hope the institutionalized second-guessing much of Christianity continues to offer.

Theirs has inspired the struggle of a Church like The Episcopal Church that has recently opened our ears and hearts to their lives and stories. . . and made them our own. This is no longer about our ministry to LGBT people, but about our ministry with them. Like a family coming together out of the closet, this is no longer about "them," but about "us." We journey together towards Jerusalem and through a crucified place, thrown off ecumenical councils, punished by The Archbishop of Canterbury and our sister churches in many places and ways, on the receiving end of cries of heresy and bearing the umbrage of many at home and abroad. In two generations we have taken bold steps that leave us a minority – albeit a growing minority – in the greater Christian world, and we have yet further to go. For instance, it was only last summer that for the first time transgendered members of our Church were able to speak publicly about who they were and what they have experienced in the Church on the floor of our governing bodies. We have yet to settle the controversial questions of marriage and blessings in the context of our traditional liturgies. We are tangled in lawsuits as a few of our sisters and brothers attempt to depart the Body and try to take the property with them. An expensive courtroom battle becomes a painful, woeful recourse when the Family of God cannot live with difference. We quarrel just as the apostles did on the road to Jerusalem. But Jesus walks on – his face is set – leading us on just the same.

Jesus’ call to us today is one of mission above institution. In God’s kingdom our goodness of our institution is measured only as far as it serves the Gospel, only as far as it brings healing in grace, only as far as it is willing to set aside complacency for the rigors of relationship, only as much as it is willing to make tradition live for a new generation, to reinvent the old way of doing things for the needs of those who are with us in the holy present, and those who come after us in the hopeful tomorrow.

Are you challenged by this Gospel? I am. We all are together. But we are reminded in our hymn this day, that old hymn, with an ancient idea that stems from Jesus teaching now nearly twenty centuries old: the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. It is not a foundation made of cement or stone. Nor is it a foundation of portfolios, stocks, and savings accounts. Nor is it a foundation of old traditions bound up in pretty places or enshrined in canon law. It is a foundation of humanity and divinity made one in Christ – crucified by the world and raised again by God, and breathing ever new life among us in the Spirit.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Primus Contra Pares?

It has been a very rude couple of weeks in Anglican Land, indications that there is a level of desperate grasping settling into some quarters: a quest for control rather than honest engagement.

What took the cake -- er, mitre -- was the pressure placed on our Presiding Bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury's office to provide documentation of her ordination status and to refrain from wearing the symbols of her office while visiting Southwark Cathedral in the Church of England. This suddenly and inexplicably had become "policy" for our Primate following her numerous similar visits (and those of her predecessors) with no such requirements. True to form, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was courteous about the whole thing. But the discourtesy directed at her appears to many on both sides of the pond either a petty, misogynistic display of power or else a diplomatic blunder of the first order. Lots of coverage on this over at Episcopal Café.

Update: A solid five days after the media coverage began, an "official" explanation from Lambeth Palace is made public. What an embarrassment this has caused the ABC.

Then came Canon Kenneth Kearon's visit with the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church within the past 24 hours, where he was confronted with insightful, direct questions about all the recent efforts to marginalize The Episcopal Church in various bodies of the Anglican Communion. Lelanda Lee posted tweets on the discussion that ensued, while Lee Crawford offered to these questions the kind of embodied witness true understanding demands.

Update: Katie Sherrod, a member of Executive Council, offers a vivid, telling account of the conversation with Canon Kearon.

I don't know what kind of advice The Archbishop of Canterbury is receiving these days -- but if it's advice to generally irritate The Episcopal Church and make himself look petty, then it's working. The best that can be surmised is that his office is under considerable stress while the Church of England is trying yet again to settle the matter of women in the episcopate and where attempts to control the behavior of other provinces of the Anglican Communion is proving (rightly in my view) elusive. Oddly enough, I imagine most of the de facto members of the Church of England could hardly care less -- either about women bishops in their own Church or who gets consecrated in other churches of the Communion. While they live in the twenty-first century, the hierarchy of their established church seems stuck in retrograde -- perhaps moving back towards the nineteenth.

So much for Primus inter Pares (first among equals). This whole effort appears to style The Archbishop of Canterbury's office as some kind of impoverished magisterium. And, to paraphrase Bishop Marc Andrus, impoverished magisteriums (or Empires, or what have you) tend to attempt to control what they can, even if it is the inconsequential and ridiculous. Perhaps the new mode of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relationship with the Communion is "Primus contra Pares." It would better encapsulate the increasingly overt conflict between hierarchy and equality that we are now witnessing. And -- in no small irony -- it echoes the confrontation between divisive imperial social structures and the unifying Gospel to which Paul (of all the apostles!) points in this week's reading from Galatians.

The test for us is to remain dignified in the face of less-than-Christian behavior. Kudos to both our Presiding Bishop and our Executive Council on this score in the days of the World Cup:

TEC: 1
ABC: nil

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Seeking Meaning

Searching for God's deep meaning in the current Anglican tangle of difficult disinvitations and painful uncertainty, sometimes poetry is more healing than prose.

As always, Tobias Haller rises above, this time in a moving elegy that -- with an economy of words -- points us in the direction to which we are all called.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Two Anglican Bishops on LGBT Rights

Bishops Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda offer up their pastoral perspectives on the ongoing life struggles of our LGBT sisters and brothers around the world. Both bring their own experience of being marginalized and threatened to their witness.

They remind us that theology is hollow if it is not worked out in the real, incarnate lives of God's people; that it is in humble, loving engagement with one another that our hearts, minds, and lives are transformed by the Gospel.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Engulfed in Oil

How poignant our son's first-grade work becomes in these dark days of big oil:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Heremeneutics of Power

Both Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop, and Marc Andrus, the Bishop of California, read the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost Letter through hermeneutics of power -- colonial, imperial, and ecclesiastical -- and find it much wanting when held up against the Gospel and the story of Pentecost.

I find their perspectives remarkably clarifying: the sort of grace we so need during a time of conflict.

We live in great concern that colonial attitudes continue, particularly in attempts to impose a single understanding across widely varying contexts and cultures. We note that the cultural contexts in which The Episcopal Church’s decisions have generated the greatest objection and reaction are also often the same contexts where women are barred from full ordained leadership, including the Church of England.

As Episcopalians, we note the troubling push toward centralized authority exemplified in many of the statements of the recent Pentecost letter. Anglicanism as a body began in the repudiation of the control of the Bishop of Rome within an otherwise sovereign nation. Similar concerns over self-determination in the face of colonial control led the Scottish Episcopal Church to consecrate Samuel Seabury for The Episcopal Church in the nascent United States – and so began the Anglican Communion.

We have been repeatedly assured that the Anglican Covenant is not an instrument of control, yet we note that the fourth section seems to be just that to Anglicans in many parts of the Communion. So much so, that there are voices calling for stronger sanctions in that fourth section, as well as voices repudiating it as un-Anglican in nature. Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism; rather, diversity in fellowship and communion does.

We are distressed at the apparent imposition of sanctions on some parts of the Communion. We note that these seem to be limited to those which “have formally, through their Synod or House of Bishops, adopted policies that breach any of the moratoria requested by the Instruments of Communion.” We are further distressed that such sanctions do not, apparently, apply to those parts of the Communion that continue to hold one view in public and exhibit other behaviors in private. Why is there no sanction on those who continue with a double standard? In our context bowing to anxiety by ignoring that sort of double-mindedness is usually termed a “failure of nerve.” Through many decades of wrestling with our own discomfort about recognizing the full humanity of persons who seem to differ from us, we continue to work at open and transparent communication as well as congruence between word and behavior. We openly admit our failure to achieve perfection!
The Bishop of California:
The [2008] Lambeth Conference was explicitly advertised as a non-legislative meeting; indeed we voted on nothing. However, lo and behold, through a non-transparent “consensus building” process, the bishops present (and so, in Archbishop Rowan’s thinking, the Communion) have affirmed the three moratoria put forward by the Windsor Report.

Here it is also important to note that the Windsor Report itself has been reified and given the status of a central Anglican document of faith and order, not by the test of time and use, but by the Archbishop and those who agree with him saying so.

When an Empire and its exponents can no longer exercise control by might, an option is to feint, double-talk, and manipulate. Such tactics have been in the fore with Archbishop Rowan since the confirmation of Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. The deployment of the Windsor Report and the manipulation of the Lambeth Conference, as cited above, are prime examples. The archbishop’s Pentecost letter is the most recent example.

In the Pentecost letter, it looks like he is disciplining errant provinces of the Communion, while only a little concentration shows that the underlying goal is to assert his power to be the disciplinarian. Archbishop Rowan is intent on a covenant with punitive measures built in. The bishops of the Communion expressed their distaste for a punitive covenant, and so the archbishop has stepped up to be himself the judging authority he has been unable to build into a covenant.

Other examples in the Pentecost letter:

  • All three moratoria are supposedly to be attended to, but the packaging of the letter on the Anglican Communion website makes it clear that it is Mary Glasspool’s consecration that has galvanized the archbishop into action.
  • The archbishop says that primates of disciplined provinces are free to meet together. Surely these primates do not need the archbishop’s permission to meet together. This is another example of promoting the illusion of the archbishop’s power.
  • By taking offending provinces out of the conversation with ecumenical partners, the archbishop subtly implies that such conversation is dangerous and contaminating, exactly as was done with Bishop Robinson and LGBT voices in general at the Lambeth Conference.
That this is Archbishop Rowan’s Pentecost letter, given the layers that are not meant to draw us into more and more limpidity, but rather to obscure, I am saddened by such an offering from a theologian who has produced work of great profundity and luminosity in the past.
I think the message is pretty clear. As far as The Episcopal Church is concerned, the Windsor-moratoria-covenant game is up.

And not a moment too soon.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Does it Really Matter?

Jim Naughton offers a clarifying piece over at Episcopal Cafe today:

Reflecting on Rowan Williams’ letter wasn’t a worthwhile use of my time; writing it was not a worthwhile use of his. The issues at stake have become so trivial—We are not debating right and wrong, we are debating whether there should be trifling penalties for giving offense to other members of the Communion.—that to engage them at all compromises our moral standing and diminishes our ability to speak credibly on issues of real importance.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have to make a decision about whether to accede to the archbishop’s proposal—and I suppose I think that we shouldn’t because it would only encourage him to make other such requests—just that whether we accede or not make very little difference to the world, to the Communion, to our ecumenical partners, to our church, or even to a Communion news junky like me.

Which is why I was of no use to the reporters I spoke to on Friday afternoon; because, God bless them, they had to write stories based on the mistaken notion that all of this stuff still matters, and increasingly, it does not. In attempting to ram through a covenant that marginalizes the laity and centralizes authority in fewer hands, Rowan Williams has unwittingly made it clear that the governance of the Communion is as nothing compared to the relationships within the Communion, and the relationships are beyond his control.

I can't imagine this being more clearly stated. The fact that The Archbishop of Canterbury has very limited authority to act is not a problem, but a blessing. The Communion, after all, is not the domain of prelates, as some would have it, but a fellowship of churches made up of millions of people in real, embodied relationships around common mission. And that common mission is not fundamentally about who's ordaining whom, but about who's fed, healed, and nurtured in the grace of God. This is what we have to offer a world in need, and what our leadership is called to nurture.

The rest is largely window dressing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Measuring Consequences

The Archbishop of Canterbury has just delivered his Pentecost letter to the communion, which commends careful reading. Simon Sarmiento over at Thinking Anglicans offers the appropriate links along with the summary press release.

There will be plenty of response, to be sure, from all sides, but here are a few thoughts I offer upon initial reflection:
  • This letter includes what many have been waiting for:the long promised "consequences" in response to the election and consecration of Bishop Mary Glasspool in the Diocese of Los Angeles. My critical mind notes that her name is the only one explicitly mentioned in the letter. That is a study in and of itself. It elevates her, however subtly or unconsciously, as a scapegoat, while bishops who have repeatedly violated jurisdictional boundaries (also in violation of the Windsor moratoria) remain personally unnamed. This scapegoating, this objectification, risks only feeding the trolls and says nothing about Bishop Mary Glasspool's gifts for this office or the discernment of the wider Episcopal Church in consenting to her consecration.
  • Another troubling aspect of the letter to me is that it continues to empower and validate the self-proclaimed Global South in their meetings separate from the rest of the Communion. I am somewhat puzzled how this may best be reconciled with Archbishop Williams' call for more Communion meetings that he appears to believe would be reconciling. The separate Global South gatherings are, at least from this vantage point, manifesting the balkanization that is widening the chasms, rather than bridging them. The Global South has been seeking validation for their actions through recognition from Canterbury for a long time. Now, they are getting more of what they want.
  • There will be a great deal of ink spilled on the proposed "disinvitation," but I suppose there are far worse consequences. Mark Harris over at Preludium, and Andrew Gerns over at Episcopal Cafe and related comments make a number of astute observations on this front. After all, what kind of Pentecost involves "disinvitation?"
  • My critiques notwithstanding, I think the letter bears out what one colleague said in conversation at General Convention last summer: The Windsor process, however flawed, is the only formal game in town. For the Archbishop of Canterbury's letter, this is clearly in evidence, as Windsor is the measure he employs to draw the consequences, however unenforceable they may be due to the limits of his office's power to govern individual provinces of the Communion.
  • Where I do see a great deal of hope is the letter's appeal to the processes of dialogue -- conversation, engagement at a personal and embodied level around our experiences shared and differing, rather than the more abstracted and more easily abusive dependence on legislating or reporting. Real conversation to reach some mutual understanding is about moving beyond the formal games and into something that may well be more incarnational, and indeed more profoundly Christian. The Indaba conversations at Lambeth 2008 helped begin an unfolding blessing of the Spirit that might have been better undertaken prior to any Windsor reporting or covenant generating -- perhaps long prior to the unsettled controversy over Lambeth 1998 I.10 and whether or not it really resolved, via a pseudo-legislative process, the "mind of the Communion" on human sexuality. But that, please forgive my indulgence, is what we like to call in America "Monday morning quarter backing" on my part. The Archbishop of Canterbury lives in the less-than-perfect world like the rest of us, and must make the best he can of the hand (or pass, if we continue with the American football metaphor) he has received.
  • I am grateful for his careful words and recognition of the limits of his authority to "fix" the situation. I am thankful for his acknowledgment of conscience at work in some of our more controversial decisions. I am glad for the recognition -- healthy, in my view -- that each Province must decide for themselves what they can conscientiously undertake. My optimistic side sees these as early fruits of the Indaba process, a sign that the Anglican Communion might be starting to turn a corner.
  • For our part in The Episcopal Church, I pray we will continue to be more just to the most vulnerable, and yes, chaste (there's that pesky word again!) -- that is honest and acting with integrity in our response.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Summing Up. . .

. . . my week in the blogosphere. Ah, how the classics still speak to our day!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More on Chastity

Having tired of attempting to engage with abuse from anonymous commentators over at Titus One Nine, I will dare here to draw in some background text to further support my reflection on a more expansive understanding of chastity.

One classical Christian text on chastity is from St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, esp. III.12-III.13 (page numbers here are from my recently purchased copy of the 400th Anniversary Edition published by Eremitical Press).

While Francis’ treatment of chastity clearly begins with chastity’s recognizable technical definition of sexual purity, his opening on the subject in III.12 includes this lovely and undeniable springboard into wider meaning: “Chastity is called honesty, and the possession of it honor; it is also named integrity, and the opposite vice, corruption. In short, it has its special glory to be the fair and unspotted virtue of both soul and body ” (121-122).

Francis articulates the need to pursue chastity even while in the married state, even while enjoying sexual pleasure with one's spouse! The conclusion to be drawn is that there is much more to chastity, then, than merely the container (in this case, marriage) of sexual relations. Francis argues chastity demands a context of moderation and avoidance of abuse (123). This I interpret to mean abstaining from the realm of domination and control, which are arguably forms of abuse, however subtly they might be employed.

Late in the same section, he articulates the necessity of chastity for “all classes of people,” as chastity is inexorably linked with holiness and cleanliness of the heart (124) and he references three distinct parts of the New Testament to support his argument. To amplify Francis’ point further, I would add Jesus’ teaching that it is the heart from where all relational vice and violence come, as in Matthew 15:18-20. Chastity, Francis clearly argues, is not simply a matter of sexuality, but fundamentally and most importantly involves the human heart and the quality of all its relationships.

In III.13 (125-126) Francis takes this yet further by asserting that loss of chastity is possible even outside of sexual relations. A quote he attributes to Basil through John Cassian may very well be at the root of a teaching on chastity I was offered by a celibate monk: “I know not what belongs to a woman, yet I am not a virgin.” The implication is clear – it is possible for even the assiduously celibate to be unchaste. There is, simply put, much more to chastity than sex.

Again, I will concede there are disagreements in the wider church at present over what constitutes chaste sexuality. I might even dare to quibble with Francis on what defines chaste sexuality. But that is not at all to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. By Francis’ standards, the underlying -- and more important -- virtue of chastity is found in its direction for all forms of human relating, and that is relating not through abuse (domination, control) but rather through the purity of love, integrity, peace, etc.

Ad Hominemed

For me a bracing study this week in the blogosphere, though to be fair, I knew what I was getting into.

The third chapter of the Letter of James has proven a most excellent and humbling road map again, as it has for many across the ages:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Babel and Big Oil

From a Pentecost Sermon, and with prayers for those battling the slick these days in the Gulf of Mexico.


Lest we think God “fixed” us as a human family, neutered our pride in the primordial story of the Tower of Babel. . . the story continues to stand for a world still very much a part of our lives – one with which we are very much mixed up, whether we are still sorting out the mess brought upon us by the economic and financial crisis, or filling up at the gas pump as we all must while wrestling with our driving addiction to the black goo.

The Tower of Babel is as old as the human family is, and God, it seems, still comes down and shatters the tower, scattering us in our collective arrogance. The disaster in the Gulf, of course, is now all about finger-pointing between juggernauts like BP, the federal government, Transocean, and Haliburton. The fishermen scream for their livelihoods while shop owners, hotel managers, and environmentalists all together sing a chorus of pain even with the trauma of Katrina still all too fresh in their minds. We are like the people who built the Tower now scattered by our own different tongues and agendas while the black crude leaks into our hearts, threatening to poison us with our own arrogant tacit or explicit insistence on drilling deeper, faster, and more profitably. And who pays for the cost of the failed Tower of Babel? We blame big oil. We blame technological advancement. We blame lobbyists and inept politicians. The truth that virtually no media outlet will tell you is that it literally is no one’s fault. But, as we are in the process of discovering, the resulting mess, much like our economic crisis, now is most assuredly everyone’s responsibility.

But lest you think I’m just going to beat up on our shared secular arrogance, The Tower of Babel was very much part of the story of the institutional Church across the ages. Make no mistake. Think of the historic crusades and heretics burned at stakes, of popes, kings, and princes assuming totalitarian control over belief. We consider the dangers of declaring and judging what is orthodox – what is right teaching – and what is heterodox or wrong teaching – and then declaring our divine authority over the fates of other human beings. If that isn’t the arrogance and pride of Babel, I’m not sure what is.

We must consider the tired refrain these days in old ecclesiastical institutions like The Episcopal Church, where the old isn’t working so well anymore, our institution is struggling with too much expense, too little revenue, too little flexibility in an era of rapid change. We look at our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers struggling with yet another dreadful scandal built on a tower of power and control not unlike Babel’s. We look at our so-tired struggle with the wider Anglican Communion over sexuality – sexuality, you see, is far easier to fight over than the dreadful hungers and disease of a suffering world. We tried to build our own Tower of Babel in the heyday of Empire and in the post-war boom, and now some of us in the wider Church wring our hands and even go to battle over whether or not our Tower to God may be “going out of business.” But I say maybe the reality is that the God who abruptly ended the Babel building project is very much in our midst putting our institution as it was out of business. Why? Because, as Jesus taught us, in order to have new life, we must die to our old selves. In order to be in the business of the Gospel, we have to set aside our obsessions with the business of preserving an institution. That was a lesson of Easter, after all.

And the good news, the Gospel of Pentecost, is that God does not leave us babbling there at the foot of our crumbling edifices. For our Acts reading for Pentecost points us to a new primordial story that redeems the toppling of the Tower of Babel, and ushers in the new life of an ever new and renewed Church – not merely an institutional church mind you, but a new and ever renewed church born of water and the Spirit. The story of the Spirit coming amongst the disciples in Jerusalem centuries ago is about the birth of this new community – not one built on “too big to fail,” or “bigger, faster, better,” or even the hubris of demanding we all be or believe the same way, but built upon the diversity of the human family itself. Diversity is no longer a simple, harsh cure to our arrogance, but an avenue to the renewal of life, by the ways in which it undoes and remakes the old order – the way in which all is made new. And it is so crazy that we might be declared drunk on the wine of life, like the first apostles were. Yet it is only morning!

Is it not the Spirit’s unbounded wonder these days that we talk about diversifying our economy rather than relying on a handful of juggernauts to sustain us? Is it not the Spirit’s wisdom to suggest that the abundant energy around us demands a diversity of approaches rather than the singular dependence on drilling harder and deeper for more crude? And is it not the Spirit’s work that when communities like ours embrace our wide variety, our diversity of gifts, we grow, despite the declines of the larger institution?

And if you find that a little bit to “out there” to grasp, just look around you. Where today do you find community as wide-ranging as ours, where people young and old from every walk of life gather together in the generosity of common prayer and share from a common cup and a common plate. Where we break bread, splash water, and celebrate the new life we are offered by our unpredictable but ever-loving God. Where we are cured of our hubris not simply by the toppling of our Towers, but by the simple proclamation that our God in Christ lives. And how do we know that’s true? Not through simple deduction or force of saying it over and over. We know, because we see the many fruits of the Spirit in our lives, each in our own way: we feel the hope, we follow the thread of love. Even though it is often buried by all our concerns and worries, it breaks out of the tomb again. It blows among us, and alights upon us as a dove bringing promise of renewal. It is the challenge our diversity and difference brings into our midst that breaks through the stone of our hearts and causes us to offer our myriad diverse gifts and sing praise together in unison.

This Church, this Body in the Spirit, is the new community. It is the new creation after the ending of the Tower of Babel. We all know in our hearts the juggernauts that are “too big to fail” will indeed collapse now and in the future. We all know our empires will continue their cycle of rising and falling. We know that our dependence on oil will and must come to an end. We know that no institution, even a church institution, lasts forever. But the hope is what we celebrate this day – a promise not just for us, but the promise of the Gospel for all of the human family – for all of creation – in all of our glorious, abundant diversity of gifts. The gifts of ingenuity and imagination that the Spirit brings – gifts that will conquer the oil slicks and renew our common economic life. A Spirit that will restore health and justice to the planet and to our shared peace. A Spirit that will re-build our community for a new day, start our community afresh as it did to the scattered peoples gathered in Jerusalem that Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago. The Spirit that will wake us up to become the creatures of God we are called to be: each unique individually, but together, an image of our wonderful God who is creating new, diverse life for all eternity.

A Catalog of Names

It's amazing how many names one can garner for oneself in parts of the Anglican blogosphere in a matter of hours. Here are a handful thrown indirectly and directly at me on just a single thread:

1. Humpty Dumpty
2. Revisionist
3. Gnostic
4. Heretic
5. Deconstructionist

I am sincerely glad I don't live in the sixteenth century. Otherwise, I might be on a cart right now headed for a rather unpleasant barbecue!

Or perhaps these days, such monikers should be worn as badges of honor.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Chastity

From a reflection just published at Episcopal Cafe:

Having spent an increasing amount of time in conversation with married couples in recent years, the most commonly destructive dynamic in any relationship I have found has to do with a failure of chastity. But I don't mean sex outside the marriage. By chastity in marriage I mean the challenge of setting aside the stubborn drive to control or change person we most cherish. When couples learn this, the effect in their relationship and family is simply astonishing. Anxiety and anger levels drop almost immediately. There is a renewed simultaneous sense of freedom and connection. Spouses allow their partners to grow. Parents allow their children to seek accountable maturity. Needs are articulated. Resentments are set aside. Rather than using or abusing the relationship to change others, the relationships by themselves become transformative. Everyone is changed.

Update: Kendall Harmon responded to this essay over at Titus One Nine.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Climbing a Masterwork

Beethoven: Piano Sonata #21 in C, Op. 53 "Waldstein"

Richard Helmer
performed live at Church of Our Saviour Mill Valley, California
May 8, 2010
The Waldstein has been my small mountain for a while now. And sometimes, you just have to climb those small mountains, even if you're not sure you're ready.
It was a blessing to play this for such a sympathetic and loving audience. There is more work to be done, but I feel grateful to have gotten this far with this immortal masterwork.
Herr Beethoven keeps me hard at it!
Photo from the performance by Terry Peck
Grotrian piano provided by JB Piano, San Rafael, California

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Matter of Growth

I commented on this thread at Episcopal Cafe earlier today on the subject of church growth. Frankly, the subject is starting to wear quite thin on me, because it so often turns to matters of institutional preservation, which is not only deadly dull, but I am increasingly convinced deadly spiritually.

Standard congregational development schema I was taught to appreciate involve the transitions between various sizes of parishes -- family, pastoral, program, etc. The jargon goes on from there, and leads. . .well, where? Nowhere much in my view, and many of our leaders are left scratching their heads and wondering why. We often talk about "cultural change" in our congregations as though it is somehow divorced from and devoid of the language of the Gospel, which is not simply about system theories or whatever else is hot right now, but about the mysterious transformation of the human heart and transformation of the human family by God's loving grace and our active embrace of that through prayer and service to others.

I write this all with a straight face. I am a child, both literally and figuratively, of the institutional church. I am beholden to it at present both by vow and income, and I indeed wish to see it thrive and flourish. But it will most certainly not by navel gazing and hand-wringing, nor by romanticizing the blip of high mainline attendance in the 1950's, from which we are still declining. . .or perhaps a better word is recovering, as we move towards a more real place in a world where people are free to seek out spiritual community that nourishes their hearts, minds, and being.

I'm all for congregational development, building the church up and all that. Just ask anyone in the parish I serve. Our numbers right now are good and modestly improving, though, not because we've been good congregational developers and I've taught the theory well, but because we've identified the tangible spiritual needs in our community and have begun the hard work of addressing them. Because we've identified gifts in our community for leadership and ministry and empowered them. Because I've struggled to set aside the egotistical notion that I, as parish priest, can "save" the church and at times have managed to get the hell (literally and figuratively, again) out of the way.

At the end of the day, a lot of congregational development writing and talk is about ego -- feeding the ego by possessing "how to grow a church" through specialized knowledge or methodology. Or feeding the ego by romanticizing a supposedly greater past. Or feeding the ego by projecting current trends in a straight line and claiming we have control over the future, or at least some special knowledge about it. Or feeding the ego because "my family and I depend on this job." None serve us or the Christian Gospel at all well. We need to stop if we are to move forward. Idolatry is one way to talk about our egotistical obsessions. Idolatry is one way to talk about much of our chatter over church growth.

Growth is not the goal here. It is only the natural, God-given outcome of living faithfully into Christian mission. And growth has a great deal less to do with numbers than it does with the vibrancy of ministry and the freedom of the Spirit to move in community.

Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth:

No one wants to join a community wringing its hands and navel gazing over its own demise.

Nor does anyone want to simply become a number to prop up a flagging institution.

The real questions we need to be asking are those like these:

Are we endeavoring to be faithful to the Gospel and to our God?

Does our institution serve our mission of Christ Jesus to transform hearts and reflect God's work in the world? Or do we distort our mission to serve the institution? This is a simple (but not easy) matter of correctly ordering the carts and horses.

Are people finding spiritual nourishment, hope, and empowerment for ministry and service in their communities both within and beyond the walls of the Church?

If these criteria are being addressed with intention in people's real lives and grounded experience, growth of all kinds may very well follow. If they aren't, institutional death is a natural outcome.

We all fear death of institutions we love, of course. But at the end of the day, and indeed in God's gracious reign, we are not children of the institution.

We are God's children. We are people of the resurrection. And that's what truly matters, even as we face decline in many places.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Dear Johannes

Johannes Brahms:
Sonata for Piano and Violin
in G Major, Op. 78

Tiana Wimmer, Violin
Richard Helmer, Piano

Recorded live at Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California
May 8, 2010

Friday, April 02, 2010

Just Another Good Friday

Delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Sermon Audio Here

It is on the one hand just another Good Friday, and the world goes on its own way, mixed as it is with news good and bad. Employment reports this day give certain hope that the worm of the global economy is beginning to turn, though there still is a long and difficult road ahead for many. Haiti and Chile continue the long and difficult process of climbing from the rubble, stench, and death of natural disaster. War machines bring more violence to Gaza as Christian pilgrims gather for this holy day in Jerusalem, Jewish families continue to celebrate Passover, and faithful Muslims labor to rebuild civil society in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church this Holy Week face the specter of a holy institution roiled by scandal, shaking the very foundations of ancient hierarchies just as it shakes the hearts of the faithful and their trust in their leadership. It’s tempting to fall into the old Protestant pastime of knocking Catholics for their failings. But we pray this day as we have always prayed on Good Friday, asking God to graciously behold this family – this family for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed – this family not over and against that family over there, but this one family of our common humanity, bound as we are together by the cross. So the pain of the Roman Catholic Church this day is our pain, too. Even if it is at one level only the garden variety sin of pride laid bare – the revelation in the cross that our ecclesiastical institutions can pain our beloved Christ just as much as any sharp nail or piercing spear.

Meanwhile, we know in our community and families that death is near for some of us. That pain is the greatest reality right now for others. That some of us struggle to keep our homes and to find work. That some of us are exhausted by the sheer weight of the realities that face us both here and now and beyond those doors when the Good Friday services conclude.

Would that Good Friday meant a final end to the cycle of corruption and scandal and violence and pain and death that continues in the human family, and for that matter the groaning of all Creation. But the present realities of the world and the strains and fractures and pain we each bring in our own way to this place this day only highlight that Christ’s crucifixion for us is fully present in this moment, in our midst, in our lives. . . in the depths of our very hearts.

For centuries, we have struggled to make sense of this visage, this cross, the self-offering of our beloved Savior to a most gruesome and tragic end: An end that is as visceral as it is spiritual, as anchored in the harsh realities of pain as it is elevated to the giddy heights of symbol, as centered in a passing moment as it is eternal.

But why do we need it? Why do we need a cross, a Messiah who dies, and a God who dares to look into the very face of our worst imaginings and most wicked machinations? The answers are as perhaps as numerous as we are:

I suppose if we believe in a wrathful God, angry with us for our sinfulness, we need a Messiah who pays the price for our reconciliation.

If we believe humanity has been enslaved by sin, evil, and death, we need a Messiah who offers the ransom for our souls to restore us to life.

If we find ourselves oppressed, we need a Messiah who liberates us; if we are ourselves the oppressor, we need a Messiah who confronts us, who bodily stands between us and our victims in God’s name.

If we believe in a loving God wooing us back from our deep tendency towards self-serving grasping and wanton destruction, we need a Messiah who stretches out his arms on the hard wood of our cold hearts, breaking them open and drawing us back to God’s life-giving heart.

If we believe in a God wanting to restore the miracle of Creation, even to draw it into greater glory, we need a Messiah who gathers the sap and DNA of our lives, who joins with the dance of consciousness, earth, and stardust as we all do each day and every day, who knows the scorching power of the noonday sun and the piercing reality of metal, and the saltiness of our blood.

Good Friday and the breadth of our Christian tradition contains all these perspectives and more: the mystery of the cross is not so much in our trying to understand Christ’s passion; but that through it, God understands ours: our suffering, our mendacity in our conflicted loyalties, our divided hearts that make us at once a people who shout “Hosanna!” and a mob that yells, “Crucify him!” Who knows our pain, our life, and our death. Who knows our oppression and our freedom. Who knows our loves and our hatreds.

It is in the cross of Jesus that the suffering of humanity, and even the pain of all creation, is fully embraced by our Creator, is embodied in the divinity made one with fragile flesh, in the precious grace of a life freely offered so that all might live.

As contemporary theologian Christopher Evans puts it: “On the cross Jesus completes his embrace of the human condition and of fleshly existence all the ways down, for all sorts and conditions, once for all in every time and place.”

The cross stands forever. Maybe not because God needs it so much as we do. It stands in the face of our scandals and conflicts, in the midst of our violence from our accidental to our most willful, in our sufferings and in our unmet needs. It stands in the Church that has failed us countless times, in our relationships where we have learned the bitterness of betrayal, in our despairing laziness and unwillingness to commit; in our goal-oriented, task-driven lives where we have learned that we are not really in control. It stands as witness to our impending death and the decay that always dogs us.

And it says to us that God knows all this, too. And not only understands it, but embraces it, becomes one with it, gives up every conceivable purity to be God amidst the violence in Gaza, the God at the Seder, the God rebuilding the impossibly broken, the God sorrowing over scandal as victim and struggling leader, the God who is unemployed and underemployed, the God who is homeless, the God who struggles to move the best of each of us forward, the God who labors to restrain and even transform the worst in us. Our God, this God, this God of the cross, who ate and sang, who prayed and talked, who bleeds and dies as one of us, so that even our greatest tragedies and our worst imaginings are not beyond the reach of grace, of love, and the hope of renewal.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Heads in the Sand

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
RCL Lectionary, Year C

March 21st, 2010
The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California

by The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

Audio here

The author of John really hangs the offense at Mary’s lavishly over-the-top action today around Judas’ neck – seeming to overload the argument with the accusation that Judas was a thief, stealing out of disciples’ common purse. Maybe the author pushes the case against Judas hard because there’s something uncomfortably familiar about Judas’ words and perspective, something uncomfortably like a mirror in his reaction to Mary’s outrageously expensive act. 300 denarii, the value of that pound of nard, was worth one year’s wages for a regular worker of the time, after all. It would be akin these days to buying Jesus a six-figure high-end sports car or setting him a lavish catered dinner at the Outdoor Art Club. Would we be offended if such an act were planned? Of course we would be, just like Judas.

Judas’ words reflect our own judgments about the way things should be in the world, and, indeed, the church. How we expect things ought to be and with some good reason – our own thievery aside. We have to wonder regularly if our operating budget leans too heavily on maintaining an institution, from staff salaries to upkeep, and whether or not we allocate enough to serve the poor. We have to wonder from time to time if lavish liturgy – the rough equivalent of our regularly breaking an expensive jar of ointment over Jesus’ feet to honor his work among us – is a scandal when there are people who appear regularly at Camino Alto and East Blithedale begging for a few dollars just to eat their next meal.

The question before us this day is the question that hits Judas straight between the eyes. Is this Jesus who accepts such a lavish gift the Messiah we expect? Maybe not. Judas’ expectations are so poorly met by Jesus’ actions that Judas takes great offense – so great an offense that he is drawn headlong into acts of betrayal infamous in the Christian tradition. But who felt betrayed first? Honestly, I think Judas did.

As we all do when our God in Christ fails to meet our expectations;

When our prayers don’t get answered the way we want them;

When Jesus fails to show up the way we think we need him;

When our best and most loving plans wander into chaos or down dead-end alleys;

When our expectations of even those we most dearly love are uprooted by the harsh realities of disappointment, failure, and betrayal.

It reminds me of learning recently that one definition of expectation is “planned resentment!” I carry that teaching around with me every day, and quote it probably more often than necessary. When disappointment and betrayal come knocking, which they do, this teaching is a touchstone that reminds me I am not in charge, and I most certainly am not God.

As a Christian community, we are about to run headlong into the climax of Lent. With Holy Week around the corner, our expectations about what should be are about to meet what will be in the cross. All the disciples will follow after Judas in their own way. Peter will deny Jesus three times. Others will simply run silently and hide out of fear as Jesus, along with every expectation of what a Messiah should be, is hung up to die.

It is Mary of Bethany, oddly enough, who is remembered among the ranks of the faithful, faithful as she is to this fragile savior who offered her wisdom in the midst of a capricious and unpredictable life, who raised her brother from death when all hope was gone. This Mary who threw all caution to the winds and gave her most expensive gift to this man who is about to die. This Mary who would be laughed off Wall Street, Main Street, and perhaps even out of our pews at times for her lack of proportioned reasoning or her impoverished management of risk; Who scandalizes every conceivable expectation that we might have about the way rational followers of Jesus are supposed to behave.

The poetry of the prophet Isaiah this morning talks about hyenas and ostriches – strange images of the deserts of our souls where laughing cynicism can rule and we are tempted to stick our heads in the sand. For it is our mysterious and often inscrutable God who says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And that new thing will defy every possible expectation that we have. Our lack of perception is in part about unmet expectations, unanticipated turns in the road of life, the unplanned contingencies of our fragile humanity.

Oddly enough, this is what Mary blesses with her scandalously lavish act in today’s Gospel. It is what we bless each Sunday as we gather to break open the fragrant vessels of our expensive hearts over the Lord’s feet. . . As we honor his saving grace, though we can scarcely understand it except in hindsight, by only looking backwards over the experiences of our meandering, unpredictable lives.

Jesus asks his most intimate disciples and us, his followers, to set aside our narrow expectations about the way we think things should be, and instead embrace the abundance of God’s grace given to us in the way of the cross. To hold our concepts of order lightly while we embrace the ironies of a God who gives up life so that all may have it; Who defeats death by dying; Who overturns evil by capitulating to it; Who upends poverty by scandalizing the prosperous; Who subverts oppression by humbly offering self as servant, as slave; Who brings new life not to the carefully planned but to where there is sacrifice and offering, transformation where ordinary water is sprinkled, wholeness where hearts are broken like bread, a new family where a cup is shared amongst strangers.

It is near the end of the Lent. Time to take our heads out of the desert sands of our expectations and perceive that our God of life is indeed about to do a new thing in our midst.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ungracious Straining

The Episcopal Church's consent to Mary Glasspool's election as bishop suffragen in Los Angeles is raising the expected eyebrows while celebration is coming from many quarters. I celebrate while remembering the sober caution against the tendency of both press and controversy to distort Canon Glasspool into the narrow headline box of "openly lesbian bishop." She is rather an enormously qualified and gifted bishop-elect, a gift to the church, and yes indeed presents a gracious challenge to the narrow phobias, brinksmanship, and bigotries that continue to roil the Anglican Communion.

In truth, the fuss now is not about Mary Glasspool. It's about us as a yet unperfected Body struggling with our own shadows. Thankfully, Christ is with us in the struggle.

Lambeth Palace, meanwhile, has issued a most patronizing statement in response to the consent:

It is regrettable that the appeals from Anglican Communion bodies for continuing gracious restraint have not been heeded. Following the Los Angeles election in December the archbishop made clear that the outcome of the consent process would have important implications for the communion. The Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion reiterated these concerns in its December resolution which called for the existing moratoria to be upheld. Further consultation will now take place about the implications and consequences of this decision.

But is this "gracious restraint" from Lambeth Palace? More like "ungracious straining."

With the sieves and distortions that often come with the quest for eccesiasiastical control, I am reminded of Jesus' admonition to us all, Scribes and Pharisees that we can so often be:

For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! - Matthew 23:23-24
Mark Harris, Tobias Haller, and Father Jake all offer, as always, great insight.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Bit 'O Chopin

Amazing what can be done these days simply with an iPhone and a piano!

I recorded this Chopin prelude this morning just as a technical check-in. The piano's an old Packard in our parish choir room literally on its last legs (one leg is to be replaced later this week) but I enjoy giving it a workout pretty regularly. For me, mostly Beethoven and Brahms these days, while Chopin keeps the chops progressing.

Op. 28 No. 3 has always associated itself in my mind with waves at the seashore. May date back to its use in the soundtrack for a seaside scene in a BBC dramatization of Persuasion I watched years ago. At any rate, it's been part of my warm-up for a long time.


Friday, March 12, 2010

A Pastoral Paradox

What kind of a watchman am I?
Far from the heights to which I aspire,
I am constrained by my weakness.

And yet — the one who created me
and redeemed me and all humanity
can give me, even in my unworthiness,
some grace to glimpse the whole of life,
and the skill and ability to speak of what I see.

So it is for the love of God
that I do not spare myself in preaching.

- Gregory the Great
(remembered in the Episcopal Church on March 12)

icon written by Br. Tobias Haller, BSG

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Thought for Deep Lent

The unfolding saga in the Diocese of South Carolina, one of the latest flash points of controversy in the Episcopal Church, generated a lot of comment at Episcopal Cafe this day in an article posted by Andrew Gerns. Proposed resolutions coming up at their specially postponed diocesan convention ring simultaneously of both the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries -- the former with its dueling claims of sovereignty and power, the latter smacking of secessionist fervor that helped lead to the American Civil War. The icing may be longstanding disputes within The Episcopal Church over the return of Catholic piety and liturgical practices. All are age-old battles that don't seem to fully die with time -- elephants in our shared living rooms that, if not cast under the light of self-awareness, tend to run the show when tensions rise.

In the midst of such complex historical and cultural roots fueling an ongoing fit of crisis, there's a lot of traffic and numerous accusations crossing the Mason-Dixon line from both sides these days. Amidst all the suspicions and unwillingness to wade deep into the messy business of relationships--which is what obedience is really all about, including our much vaunted doctrine and discipline as a Church--I am left to wonder how easily we all like to wear our grievances like a cloak, even when the Prince of Peace calls us to set aside such burdens for the sake of the Gospel.

So which, then, is a better Lenten discipline:

Lines in the sand or setting aside grievances in the quest of deeper relationship?

Monday, January 18, 2010

First Miracles

Sermon for the Second Sunday after The Epiphany
RCL Lectionary, Year C
Isaiah 62:1-5 / Psalm 36:5-10 / 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 / John 2:1-11

January 17th, 2010
The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California
Audio available here.

There is so much material to work with in today’s readings, it’s hard to know where to begin. We first might be tempted to talk about marriage – the theme of our Hebrew Scriptures lesson and the setting for Jesus’ first miracle. We might wonder if there is anything here to inform what is unfolding these days on the other side of the Golden Gate, as one of the most important religious, civil rights, and institutional debates of our time begins in federal court. Our tradition holds up the wedding in Cana in our marriage liturgy as a rare example of Jesus’ blessing on matrimony. But it is odd that we hold it up in this way. The story doesn’t have Jesus active at all in the marriage proper, and instead he is much more concerned about the party afterwards. Rather than counseling the bride and groom, he seems much more preoccupied with jars for water standing empty. Perhaps our seeming preoccupation with marriage and gender are not so much Christ’s concerns as our own.

No, there is something much deeper going on in today’s readings than an argument about marriage, who gets to wed, and who doesn’t. And that deeper something speaks to us more when we consider the shadow over us all this week. . . as horrific images and cries come from our sisters and brothers in Haiti following one of the worst natural disasters in recent years. The water of today’s gospel is much less about a wedding and much more about the thirst of those who have had no water for days; for the hunger for comfort in lives that are broken and lost; for the desperate men, women, and children seeking loved ones amongst the rubble of their homes.

At the heart of the devastation in Haiti is the age-old question of theodicy. . . the broad question of why God apparently allows, or even as some people sometimes claim, causes bad things to happen – even horrific things. It was a question that Isaiah is in the middle of addressing in today’s prophetic words composed for a people in exile – a people. . .God’s people even. . . who seem to have lost everything that made them God’s people: their homeland, their roots, their temple, the very heart of their heritage. It is also a question John’s early Christian community wrestled with as they were turned out of the synagogues and their roots and heritage in Judaism were profoundly questioned. It is a question these days on the streets of Port au Prince amidst incalculable and unspeakable thirst, hunger, and pain. What is left, and where is God? It is the first question of faith, a question we all hold as we gather together in God’s name; a hard question that must be lived most of all by those of us who claim a loving and gracious God.

We could resort to the widely declaimed Pat Robertson solution this week, which is to simply blame the people of Haiti for bringing God’s wrath on themselves for pagan ways past and present. It’s an argument beyond the odious, and – for my money – I frankly have far less use for a wrathful God than a negligent one. But there are subtle ways we still take up Robertson’s apparent theme, like the much more secular articles I read yesterday pointing to the shoddy construction and widespread corruption in Port-au-Prince as root causes for the disaster. These were cited as reasons that an earthquake roughly equivalent in power to the Loma Prieta quake can take tens of thousands of lives in Haiti rather than a few dozen as it did over twenty years ago in the Bay Area. Then there is the natural tendency to blame as I heard two people doing as they discussed the situation in Mill Valley’s downtown yesterday. . . to blame simply out of our frustration that decades of international aid and political support have not born the fruit we expect. But then, blame -- however justified -- is a favorite American pastime these days, and it does nothing to relieve the suffering, restore the lives, or salve the broken hearts of our sisters and brothers who face a nightmare at which most of us can only recoil. Blame is, quite frankly, an easy way out in the face of questions of theodicy, for it can let us off the hook for our shared responsibility, and it quickly forgets that our lives are profoundly interconnected. Blame is a manifestation of judgment. And as Jesus reminds us elsewhere in the Gospel, when we judge, we only judge ourselves. And Jesus has one command for us when it comes to that kind of judgment, whether we are widely known televangelists or lesser-known priests and parishioners at Church of Our Saviour: Don’t indulge in it.

Perhaps a better answer to this question of theodicy is tucked away in today’s gospel, and whispered in Isaiah and held close to Paul’s heart in his Letter to the Corinthians: and that answer is that we have a God who lives not on high, but right in the middle of our humanity. We don’t get a God who, like Superman, shields the faithful from our vulnerability or swoops in to fly us out of harm’s way. Nor do we get a God who deliberately shakes the earth and wields indiscriminate death like the angry spirits of old. Instead, we get our God in Christ, who embraces our suffering, who brings water to the thirsty and food to the hungry and calls us to do likewise; who blazes trails through our devastations to bring us the balm of compassion, who weeps with us on the streets of death and shows up even at our feasts when the wine has run out. A God far less interested in severing us from our heritage than rebuilding it. A God who weds us in baptism. A God who defangs death by rising again after accompanying us through the darkest valleys. A God who raises us up when we have fallen beneath the rubble of this life. A God who draws hope out of suffering and joy out of sorrow. A God who confronts every evil from without and within and transforms its consequences into grace.

When Jesus shows up at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, and performs his first miracle in the Gospel of John, he is not merely proving himself to his new disciples or saving the party. . .or conserving the institution of marriage for that matter, whether of the first century kind or the twenty-first century kind. Jesus, the living Word of God, instead is speaking through action to the very heart of who we are as a Christian community and as a human family. He is redefining not only marriage, but every other human relationship and institution, from our most intimate to those that are economic, political, national, and global.

The water, poured into the jars of purification, are for John’s gospel community and for us the water of baptism, which Jesus transforms into wine, the great Eucharistic symbol of his blood – and not just his blood, but our new blood, the blood of the new family of God, a blood that makes us one with one another and with our sisters and brothers suffering this day in Haiti and around the world. The new wine that is saved for last, the blood that ushers in new life in the face of all our suffering and death. The blood that binds us to one another in grace, and casts aside the divisions of judgment and blame and replaces them with the bonds of a shared heritage of justice, hope, and love.

Today, as we baptize Liberty Carter, we welcome her into this new family, this new family where Jesus, in our shared story this day, demonstrates to us that water indeed runs thicker than blood; that baptism resides at the very center of who he is and who we are now, and who we are in the process of becoming. Liberty is not guaranteed any more than the rest of us a life without challenge or suffering, but she will be endowed with the spiritual gifts that will see her through the hardest days: gifts of the baptismal life like those Paul discusses with the Corinthians today. . . uttered wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, healing, fidelity, discernment, and tongues that will permit Liberty to articulate the deep language of her heart and interpret the heart speech of others. The gifts of the Spirit that will fill her soul when the vulnerabilities of this life threaten to empty it, that will remind her of the abiding presence of Christ when all else fails. The gifts of the Spirit that give her a claim on us, her new family, every bit as much as we have a claim on her in God’s name. The gifts of the Spirit that will call her to compassion – to be Christ’s eyes and hands in the face of suffering. The gifts of the Spirit that will lead her to carry her cross and follow after the Holy One. The gifts of the Spirit that will allow her the freedom to look at death without succumbing to fear, and rise again with God in Christ.

This is the promise of our baptism, the promise of the water made into wine, the new blood of God’s new family, the first miracle of our journey with God in Christ Jesus, reflected in that first miracle at the wedding in Cana. And it’s first miracles like this one that we trust are happening now amidst the devastation of Haiti, as boots hit the ground and the aid arrives, as compassion unleashes not distant condemnation, but present, struggling generosity; as the Haitian people themselves usher in first miracles in which the thirsty taste the water of new life and begin to rise from the rubble to reclaim and rebuild their God-given heritage. For we know this story as the story of the Gospel, and we live it in Christ’s love no matter where we are. It is the story of our own transformation in the Word of the Living God, and it begins with that first miracle of baptism, and stretches all the way to the final miracle – the miracle of resurrection for the new family of God.