The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

Maybe I’m growing up.  Maybe three summers at Sewanee are taking their toll.  Maybe I’m just getting soft.  Whatever the reason, I found myself advocating for a return to reading the Passion narrative in its properly assigned place in the Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy.  I honestly couldn’t believe my ears were listening to my own voice.  After years, almost a decade of vocal opposition to the conflation of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I was arguing to go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” in a matter of minutes.  Someone should check my temperature.

Of course, this return to 1979 Prayer Book prescribed normalcy (The 1928 BCP has Lent 5 as “Passion Sunday” on which the Passion was not read and the Sunday next before Easter as “Palm Sunday” on which the Triumphal Entry was not read, but the Passion was) won’t be without some added drama.  Prior to the 10am Family Service, we’ll begin 8 blocks from the church at the corner of US-98 and AL-59.

We still may detour around First Baptist. ;-)

We still may detour around First Baptist. ;-)

In the good Sarum tradition (Hatchett, 224) we’re going to make a big deal about the Palm part of Palm Sunday, before making a big deal about the Passion part of The Sunday of the Passion, which will most likely have the effect of making the Passion feel that much more strange, which I’m beginning to think is the point of it all.

Holy week makes no sense.  That God would die on a cross as a traitor to Rome, having been handed over by one of his closest disciples, makes no sense.  That through that death on a cross, God would defeat death makes no sense.  That three days later he would be alive again, able to walk through walls yet capable of being touched by his disciples, makes no sense.  Going from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” doesn’t either, and I’m beginning to realize that’s OK.

Part of what makes us human is the desire to follow God.  Part of what makes us human is the desire to follow the devices and desires of our own hearts.  In the course of our daily lives, we go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” and back again more times than many of us would like to admit.  The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday makes that point clear.  We are sinners seeking after a merciful God.  We shout “Crucify him” by our actions while crying out “Lord save me!” with our lips and in our hearts.  As Paul says, we do what we don’t want to do and don’t do what we want to do, and yet God is faithful, full of compassion and his never-ending love will never end.  That’s the good news of Palm/Passion Sunday.

2 Ears to Listen and 1 Mouth to Speak

two ears one mouth

Me, back when goatees and small glass were cool. OK, they were never actually cool.

It has been pointed out to me, more than once, that I have two ears and only one mouth.  The suggestion being that I should listen twice as much as I talk.  I get around this by having 10 fingers, so I can type five times as much as I listen and ten times as much as I talk.  I like this plan because I’m not a great “off the cuff” speaker, but I’m a fairly decent writer who can orate my thoughts once they get down on paper.  What does any of this have to do with Palm Sunday?  I’m glad you asked.

In the Old Testament lesson appointed for Palm Sunday, Year B, we hear these words from the prophet Isaiah.  “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens–wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.”  Two ears and one mouth.

Those who profess to speak on behalf of God, whether as prophet, preacher, teacher, or simply disciple, are first and foremost those who listen for God.  So often we set about the work of talking and forget about the call to listen.  God desires a listening heart.  He desires to share his will with the world, but in order to do so, we have to listen to his teaching.  We do that through prayer and the reading of Scripture.

The Bible is the account of God’s interaction with humanity from the beginning.  It is a story about his love for his creation, and about how he hopes to restore the world to his perfect will.  In it, we find advice on how to live in the Kingdom by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6.8); by loving God and neighbor (Mt 22.37-39); by serving the least (Mt 25.40); and by repentance (Acts 2.38).  Through prayer, the listening kind rather than the talking kind, we learn God’s will for us in the specificity of our lives.  We might find him calling us to reach out in ways we had never expected or to talk to those we had never even seen before.  Through listening, we grow in understanding, and in time, we may be called to speak a word.  That word, spoken through one mouth, must always start with two open ears.

3 Reasons Why I’ll Vote FOR on Five #BuildBaldwinNow

Numbers.  I suppose it makes sense that a property tax referendum would come down to numbers.  They’re well rehearsed by now.  Baldwin County has seen 25% growth over the last decade.  We are #1 in growth in Alabama and somewhere between the 9th and 14th fastest growing Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States.  100 Portables are already in use, with another 350 or more looming on the horizon right next to a caravan of U-Haul vans.  For $12 a month, the cost of a large pizza, we can meet the needs of a growing populace.  Whether we’re talking $200M or $1B in total revenue or 2nd highest or 97th out of 135, there are numbers everywhere.  If there is one thing I learned about numbers while studying Business Administration in undergrad, it is that you can make them say whatever you want, which is why I’m not basing my decision to vote FOR on five on numbers.  Well, except the number 3.  Here are my 3 reasons to vote FOR on five as a father, a person of faith, and a citizen of Baldwin County.

Reason 1: I’m a father

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This is FBC.  She is a Kindergartner at Foley Elementary School, the largest Elementary School in Alabama with more than 1,400 students.  Lunch service starts at 10:30 and continues for 3 hours.  Bathroom breaks have to be scheduled because there aren’t enough facilities to accommodate the number of students now enrolled.  She is getting a great education at Foley Elementary School, but it can be better, and God forbid she end up in a portable classroom down the road, those things scare me to death.  As a father, I want what is best for my children, and a sustainable funding plan for growth is best.  I want FBC, and every student at Foley Elementary School to have every opportunity for success.

Reason 2: I’m a person of faith

The last sentence in Reason 1, segues nicely into Reason 2: I’m a person of faith.  Specifically, I’m an Episcopalian, more specifically, I’m an Episcopal Priest.  At the core of our faith rests a series of eight questions called The Baptismal Covenant.  Three questions deal with our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The last five spell out what we believe to be the basic building blocks of discipleship: fellowship, teaching, breaking bread,  prayers, holiness of life, repentance, evangelism, good works, loving our neighbor, and seeking justice and peace.  I believe this property tax referendum is a matter of seeking justice.  I want what is best for my daughters, but I also know that I am called to seek what is best for all people, especially the 71% of FBC’s classmates who are living in poverty.  Without a sustainable and equitable funding source, Baldwin County schools will fracture, and those who have will prosper while those who have not will fall further behind.  If this vote fails, it will incentivise areas like Fairhope and Gulf Shores, where money, time, and energy are abundant, to create their own school systems, which will pull money out of the Baldwin County Board of Education’s coffers to the detriment of poorer communities like Bay Minette and Elberta.  I believe that part of the foundation of a just society is high quality public education for all people.  Without it, the bottom rung of the ladder to success will draw further and further away from the students who need it the most.

Reason 3: I’m a citizen of Baldwin County

There is no doubt that good schools make good communities.  People are moving to Baldwin County for many reasons.  Snowbirds tend to come for low property taxes (even with the 8 mil increase, we will still be among the lowest) and a high quality of life. Those who come to work to support that high quality of life come here because jobs are prevalent and the schools are among the best in the nation.  Without a sustainable funding source, our schools will begin to lag behind.  It’ll happen slowly, but it will be inevitable that overcrowded schools will produce a low quality education.  As word gets out, growth in the county will slow, the economy will shrink, schools will get even less funding, and the cycle will continue until we’re once again the Redneck Riviera of years gone by, while scratch our heads and wonder what happened to the glory days of the early 21st century.

I want better for my county.  I want every child to have a chance for success.  I want my daughters to attend high quality, safe schools.  I will vote FOR on Five on March 31st.  I hope you will too.

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His Mercy Endures Forever

The portions of Psalm 118 selected for use at the Liturgy of the Palms are a perfect choice.  The bookend of verse 1 and 29 which are the same phrase, repeated verbatim, make it an ideal Psalm for the Triumphal Entry.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

The second half of that phrase includes one of my favorite words in all of Scripture – hesed – which is translated as mercy, but means something even fuller and richer than that.  This word speaks to the steadfast love of God, a love which is from everlasting and will continue on forever.  It isn’t just that his mercy endures forever, but that his steadfast love, his never-ending compassion endures for ever.  It is a double promise: never ending love that will never end.

It’ll sure look like it has come to an end.  In the course of the liturgy, it’ll take mere minutes before the hesed of God dies on the cross.  In the life and ministry of Jesus, it’ll be just a few days before the people will reject the mystery of God’s steadfast love for the security of the Pax Romana.  Like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, grumbling against God and Moses and wishing for the good old days of slavery in Egypt, the crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover feast will seek out the stability of slavery over the vulnerability of freedom.

How often do we make that same choice?  We choose the comfort of our own selfishness or our own victim-hood narrative or our own self-righteousness over the perceived insecurity of God.  Yet the promise of God is love that lasts forever: a never ending love that will never end.

Hosanna!

As my children get older, the time we spend listening to CDs of children’s music grows shorter and shorter.  I can’t say I’m that sad to see this particular era of their lives go away: listening to “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” on repeat can get a little monotonous; but still, like every phase in their young lives, there is some wistfulness for the way things were.  That, and the ever repeating HSK&T has merely been replaced by “Shake it Off” or some other bubblegum pop song.  There is still one CD that gets lots of airtime in Mommy’s Car, the surprising combination of Fisher Price’s Little People and Sunday School Classics.

Featured on this album are such classics as “Arky, Arky,” “Father Abraham”, and Give me Oil in my Lamp (Sing Hosanna), which our Music Minister, JKT, has declared “a perfect Palm Sunday song.”  I’m not sure of that, but this is the “perfect Christian song lyric video.”

Sunday School songs are full of teaching opportunities, and “Give me oil” is no exception.  The word that makes up most of the refrain, a word we will hear repeated during the Liturgy of the Palms this Sunday, Hosanna, is one of the Church words that we use, but I wonder how many people actually know what it means.  The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines Hosanna as “(Heb. ‘O save now!’ Greek form of the Jewish cry used in the procession of the Feast of the Booths (Ps 118.25-26).  In the New Testament it is associated with the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).”  Bibleworks translates it as “Save, we pray!”

Hosanna is a cry of a people totally dependent upon God.  It’s use in the Festival of the Booths serves as a reminder of the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness when food and water came from the hand of God alone.  Hosanna, Save us, we pray, is the cry of a people who realize that it is only by the hand of God that salvation is possible.  It is a peculiar cry for those of us who live in ease in 21st century America; a people who often forget that our gifts aren’t the result of our own hard work, but rather, the effect of God’s saving grace poured out upon us.

Every Palm Sunday we are reminded that Holy Week is the story of God’s saving love for us.  We cry out, “save us,” and God does so, even as moments later we cry out “crucify him.”  The irony is that the cross, a torture device inflicted on God by humans just like us, is ultimately what saves the world.  Hosanna indeed.

All People

Thanks to Bishop Spong, Marcus Borg, Rob Bell, and others, there seems to be a growing universalist trend among moderate to liberal Christians these days.  I’m a long-view universalist, in that I tend to believe that at the final judgment, when everyone has the chance to experience the overwhelming love of God, no one will be able to choose to walk away from it.  As Bell more succinctly put it, “Love Wins.”  While universalism isn’t a new theological concept, there has, over the past 100 or so years, been subtle liturgical changes which have invited it into our common prayer.

A recent example can be found in Enriching our Worship I where in Eucharistic Prayer I it substitutes the word “all” for the more traditional “many” in the Institution Narrative.  “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins” (p. 59).  In the notes, the SCLM explains their decision, “The use of ‘all’… in the institution narrative emphasizes the forgiveness of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity… New eucharistic prayers in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church us ‘all’ rather than ‘many'” (p. 77).

The prime example,and one timely to this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, is the third Prayer for Mission in Morning Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

This prayer was written by the Rt. Rev. Charles Henry Brent and published while he was Bishop of the Philippines.  It certainly doesn’t assume that everyone is getting into heaven simply because God loves them, but it does take Jesus’ promise in John 12:32 very seriously.  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  Unlike the gymnastics the SCLM has to do in their notes, the underlying Greek word here is very simply the word for all or everything or in common parlance: all the things.

As we approach Holy Week, the magnitude of Jesus’ death will come into focus.  We should take time to consider that Jesus died for me, and for you, but more so, he died for all (2 Cor 5:15).  As Bishop Brent’s Prayer for Mission suggests, this realization should be our motivation to share the good news far and wide, to let the whole world know of God’s saving love for all people, everywhere.

What is the Mission of the [D&F] Missionary Society [of the PECUSA]? #Acts8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This week marks the third and final question in the Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Mission and Structure Challenge.  You can click to read the various posts on Question 1, on the Congregation, and Question 2, on the Diocese.  If you are specifically interested in what I had to say on the subject, you can read “What is a Congregation?” and “Why the Diocese.”  As always, the question has two parts.  First, What is the mission of the (Domestic and Foreign) Missionary Society (of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America) or whatever you currently insist on calling it? And second, How should it be structured to serve its mission?

Episcopalians tend to sum up our mission in one of two ways: via a bumper sticker or via the Catechism.  Our Bumper Sticker mission is quite simple.

We are a community of faith whose mission is to welcome everyone into our midst.  The living out of this mission is very congregationally dependent, of course.  It would be hard for the Church-Wide Structure to welcome people, though I guess a coffee bar at 815 2nd Ave. in Manhattan would be a start.  There is also an insidious side to this particular mission.  Welcome assumes that someone has come to us, that they’ve arrived for worship on Sunday morning, for Bible Study mid-week, for the food pantry which is open one Thursday a month.  Whatever reason they’ve come, they problem with this motto is that they’ve come to us.  In the Nicene Creed, which we recite every Sunday, we say that we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and to be apostolic means to be sent.  So we have to be about something more than welcoming.

We turn then to our other go-to mission statement, which sits atop page 855 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Again we find ourselves in a sticky situation where this mission is grand and noble, but it has to be lived out locally.  The best that the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (the legal name of The Episcopal Church) can do is not impair the work of restoration by doing, saying, or publishing something stupid.  Where The Missionary Society (the in house term for that long title above) gets its mission comes, I believe, in the next question in the Catechism

Q. How doe the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love.

It seems to me that this is the mission of the Church-Wide Structure: to enable Common Prayer, to support the proclamation of the Gospel, and to promote through education, advocacy, and study; justice, peace, and love.

The structure should support that mission with staff teams focused on Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music; Lifelong Christian Formation; Theological Education; and Advocacy.  Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music would work to meet the ever changing needs of local congregations, develop liturgical resources, and compile musical resources in a way not unlike Common Worship in the Church of England.  Lifelong Christian Formation would serve to enhance education in the Church by developing curriculum, vetting independent resources, training lay leaders, and support lay schools at Episcopal Seminaries.  Theological Education would serve to bring together the 11 Episcopal Seminaries under one umbrella to ensure that the diverse needs of the Church are met in the education of clergy.  Finally, Advocacy would serve to support justice initiatives on the local, national, and international levels as approved by General Convention with the support of the PHoD.  Since the TREC report, the conversation about the merits of the Presiding Bishop serving as CEO rather than some sort of Executive Director.  Honestly, I’m not sure what the right answer is as a lot of it would depend on the person elected as Presiding Bishop.  Either way, it would seem to me that the best way to structure The Missionary Society would be not too unlike that proposed on page 13 and following of the TREC Report:

Executive Council

Presiding Bishop
“Chief pastor, spiritual leader, principal local and international representative, and prophetic voice of the Church”

Chief Operating Officer              Chief Financial Officer          President of the House of Deputies
Serves as Mission and Vision Strategist
(Could be the same as VP of Advocacy)

VP of Liturgy & Music     VP of Formation Officer     VP of Theological Education    VP of Advocacy
Call these what you want, they serve as department heads of the four areas of mission with staff members serving to fulfill the Strategic Vision and Mission cast by General Convention in consultation with the PB and the PHoD.

It certainly isn’t a perfect model, but perhaps it is starting place as the Church seeks to be a good steward of resources in support of its mission to restore all people to unity with God and one another through prayer, worship, the proclamation of the Gospel, and advocating for justice, peace, and love.

Serving Christ

Thanks to the Holy Spirit and scheduling conflicts, we’ll be baptizing three people at the 10am service on the Fifth Sunday in Lent.  I can hear the grumbling from my Anglo-Catholic friends, and while I agree baptisms on Easter would be preferred, I think a baptism smack in the middle of Lent works just fine, especially on Lent 5B.

Here’s what Jesus says about discipleship in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Here’s what the Baptismal Covenant says, at least in part, about discipleship, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”

The life of discipleship is a life of service to Christ and neighbor.  Jesus tells us that plainly as he approaches the cross, and the Church makes it equally clear for those who would come to be baptized in Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection.  So what does it look like to serve Jesus?  Like I said on Monday, it is about loving our neighbor so much that they are compelled to ask why.  Serving Jesus looks like caring for the poor through food pantries, homeless shelters, and advocacy.  Serving Jesus looks like caring for the middle class by teaching them that the American Dream isn’t the be all and end all, that he who dies with the most toys still dies, that life is more than soccer games, good grades, and eating dinner in the car.  Serving Jesus looks like challenging the rich to share their blessings with those less fortunate, to give generously to the Church, and to take good care of those in their employ.  Serving Jesus looks like reaching beyond our selves to ensure that the whole world can see and know that Jesus Christ loves everything and everyone he created.

A 21st Century Jeremiad

After many, many, many months of procrastination, I have finally started the research phase of my DMin Thesis, “William Reed Huntington Meets Brian McLaren and The Episcopal Moment.”  One of the reasons I was so slow to begin was that the first book staring me in the face wasn’t one I wanted to read.  The American Jeremiad was recommended by a member of the Sewanee Thesis Committee who suggested that perhaps the narrative of a changing world was nothing more than an old wive’s tale, based on the founding narrative of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the theory posited by Sacvan Bercovitch, author of The American Jeremiad.  I’m 25% through the book now, and I just don’t buy it.

What I have found interesting is the word in the title that I had never heard before, Jeremiad.  According to Google, a jeremiad is a long, mournful complain or lamentation.  Bercovitch expands that definition to include not only lamentation, but the promise of restoration of God’s chosen people.  His argument is that America, or at least the Massachusetts Bay Colony portion of it, was founded on a belief that America was God’s new Promised Land, that the early settlers were chosen by God to bring about the End Times, and that any suffering they encountered was simply God preparing them for their future glory, and he bases it on a series of sermons, preached over the course of three generations on the Old Testament lesson appointed for Lent 5B, Jeremiah 31:31-34 (hence the name Jeremiad).

Like I said, despite what I said yesterday about Rabbi Friedman’s theory of foundation story, the American colonies were too diverse for me to believe that to this day, all of American society is built on some sermons by early preachers/civic leaders on Massachusetts Bay. (And I don’t think this opinion is merely the result of my overwhelming dislike of all things New England).  The fact that Jeremiah 31 is scheduled to be read this Sunday does have me thinking about what a 21st Century Jeremiad might look like.

Most American preachers have long since given up the idea that American prosperity will bring about the return of Jesus, but we are very accustomed to the idea of the New Covenant, written upon our hearts.  When we look at the world around us, we realize, very quickly, that it is not the way God intended it to be, and yet we know that in Christ, we find the fullness of the Kingdom of God living and active not only in 1st century Palestine, but through his Church, empowered by the Spirit, to this very day.  Not only in America, but around the globe.  The 21st century Jeremiad, the promise of restoration even in the midst of pain and hardship, thanks to the power of the internet is an international promise as well as an international call to repentance.

The world is once again flat.  Overindulgence in America creates climate woe in Africa.  Political hardship in the Middle East creates an immigration crisis in Eastern Europe.  The ubiquitousness of Social Media creates violent reactions in non- or anti-globalization cultures.  The Jeremiad of the 21st Century is a call to read the law written upon our own hearts and to live it, to set an example of justice and peace for the people around us, and to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world at large.  It is not less idealistic that it was when Jeremiah spoke his now famous words, but it is likewise no less the call of God to his faithful people.

We wish to see Jesus

If I’m honest, there are several things I wish Jesus had never said or done.  In last week’s Gospel, for example, did he have to bring up the snake on a pole?  Did he really need to curse the fig tree for not having figs out of season?  Did he have to call the Syrophoenician woman a dog?  And why didn’t he just let those dang Greeks meet him?

Jesus’ response to the request of the Greeks sends such a bad message to the Church.  He gets all theology-y.  He gets all closed in with his small group.  He gets all my-God-and-me-y what with the voice from heaven that sounds like a thunderclap.  Rabbi Friedman says that you can tell a lot about a church  based on its origin story.  If it began out of conflict, it will be forever defined by conflict.  If it began to serve a specific need, it will continue to do so, often to a fault (see most congregations built in post-WWII suburbia).

The Church universal has this high-profile, high-friction encounter between Jesus and the Greeks as part of its birth narrative, and for 2,000 years we’ve had to work against it.  This non-engagement by Jesus is the foundation of the Gnostic heresy which plagued the Church for hundreds of years.  It is the subtle background to every church that chooses to be the frozen chosen rather than engage with the community around it.  It is one of those moments when we shouldn’t forget the larger context of Jesus’ ministry.  We can’t ignore that he spent 3 years meeting with the outcast, the oppressed, and the needy.  As disciples of Jesus, we should respond to “we wish to see Jesus” with “come and see.”

We should be out and about.  We should be present to the needs of our communities.  We should be showing people Jesus in our actions before they even ask to see him.  We should, as the Turkey Take-Out folks say, “love them until they ask why,” and then be prepared to show them Jesus, the reason behind every good work, every act of charity, the very impetus to love.

You’ll see Jesus better standing outside.