Toward a Completed Project

This past Saturday was, thankfully, a rather unusual one for me.  TKT and I left Foley at about 7:15am en route to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Panama City, Florida (about 3 hours away) to attend the funeral of the Rev. Ray Wishart, a Vocational Deacon who was killed when his bicycle was struck by a tractor trailer on Monday.  There really is no good way to get from Foley to Panama City.  US98 runs a straight line between the two cities, but with approximately eleventy billion stop lights and 123 miles of beach traffic on a summer Saturday morning, that didn’t seem like the best route.  Instead, we traveled nearly 50 miles (each way) out of our way to save probably an hour’s worth of driving.  From the Baldwin Beach Express to Interstate 10, we got off onto US331 near Defuniak Spring in order to turn south toward the coast.

331

For what felt like 20 miles, we drove through a construction zone that actually and coincidentally made me think about this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  For miles upon miles we passed half-built bridges, over grown, almost complete road beds, and broken down silt-fence.  Some areas had construction equipment parked nearby, while others seemed like they hadn’t been touched, or even thought about, for years.  I quickly began to wonder if the great 331 highway expansion, presumably to create a new hurricane evacuation route, was the road construction equivalent of Jesus’ cost of discipleship rant.

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'”

Like Federal road construction projects, the life of faith is a never ending journey toward a completed project.  With fits and starts, we do our best to honor God’s grace in our lives by living lives worthy of the gospel.  Jesus wonders if we have counted the cost, but like any life-long continuous improvement project, how can you really know?  What if when you are trying to build that new bridge, the piling hits bedrock, or worse, an old, unmapped mine shaft?  What if the landowner at mile marker 32 won’t give up her property without a fight?  What if the demons of you past come back to haunt you with regularity?  What if your newly maturing faith puts you at odds with your work or your family?

It is impossible to know the full cost of a project that won’t be finished in your lifetime, which is why we take these words from Jesus to by (hyper)parabolic.  Knowing the full cost isn’t what Jesus is suggesting, but he would have us know that like any construction project, the cost will be high, and you better put aside some money for overages.  Otherwise, when the hard times come, and they will, you might find yourself unable to finish the project.

What True Religion Looks Like – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon for Proper 17C on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it below.


I was visiting with a parishioner this week who is the proud owner of a Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian t-shirt.  The list was supposedly put together by the late comedian, Robin Williams, and it contains some great lines.  “Male and Female God created them; Male and Female we ordain them.”  “Free wine on Sundays.”  Perhaps the most important thing on that list is “No snake handling.”  One of the great things about the Episcopal Church is that if you asked 100 Episcopalians to list their top 10 favorite things about the church, you’d get 100 different lists.  My list, for example, would include some very nerdy things like the fact that on a fairly regular basis we get to say prayers that have been prayed by Christians for hundreds of years.  The Collect for Proper 17 happens to be one of those prayers.  It is first found in the Gelasian Sacramentary, a book of prayers compiled somewhere around the year 750.  That’s close to thirteen-hundred years ago!  It has, of course, been translated, edited, and updated through the years, but by and large, the prayer that was being used in 750AD is still being prayed to this day.

It is easy to tell that this prayer is old because it uses a word that is very unpopular these days; asking God to “increase in us true religion.”  The original version simply asked that God might increase in us religion, but during the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, decided that he needed to be clear that we weren’t praying for more of the bad religious practices of the Pope in Rome, but the true religion that he was in the process of creating.  Over the years, as the Reformation played out in ideological battles and actual wars, the idea that religion as a set of things you do gave way to the idea that religion as a set of things you believed. Religion these days means a systematic understanding of God and the Church, which doesn’t seem very exciting, honestly.  It is no wonder, then, that today we find a growing group of people who wish to call themselves spiritual, but definitely not religious.  Spirituality seems to be about the things we do, the prayers we pray, and the practices of faith, while religion has become associated with closed minded ideologies of right versus wrong, true versus false, and us versus them, and so, when we pray this day for an increase of “true religion” it can sound kind of silly.

I’d like to propose to you, however, that there is a reason that this prayer for an increase in religion has stuck around for more than twelve hundred years.  If we look at what the word religion meant in the year 750, what we are praying for is not so much a set of ideas to believe, but rather a relationship into which we enter.  According to religious scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, religion originally meant “faith [as a] living, subjective experience including love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, trust, a way of life, an attitude toward the divine or nature, or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”[1]  If we are praying this morning not for our particular set of ideas about God to be better than the ideas of the Baptists or the Lutherans, but instead for an increase in awe, worship, and trust in the God who calls us to a particular way of seeing and feeling the world, then this prayer makes a whole lot more sense.

If we are going to really pray for an increase in true religion, then we ought to understand what that particular way of seeing and feeling the world looks like.  Thankfully, this week’s Lectionary is rife with examples.  Beginning in the lesson from Sirach we hear that true religion means a life of humility.  To have too much pride is to walk away from God, the author notes, because pride was not created by God. To see the world the way God sees the world is to put ourselves in the proper perspective that God is God and we are not.  That lesson recurs in this morning’s Gospel passage, which reads like an Emily Post guide to table etiquette.

As Jesus looked around that dinner party, why do you suppose he felt the need to offer these correctives?  Every dinner party he had ever attended would have been the same.  The host would sit at the center of the head table, and as dinner was being served, guests would jockey their way to sit as close to the host as possible.  The closer you were at table, the closer you were in life.  It was while reclining at the dinner table that business deals were made, marriages were arraigned, and proverbial backs were scratched.  Maybe it was the fact that this dinner was at the home of a leading Pharisee and the guest list was full of religious people that made Jesus snap.  This jockeying for position isn’t the way to follow God.  Instead, Jesus tells the guests that they should take the lowest seat; suggesting the radical idea that in the kingdom of God humility is prized over power, prestige, and pride.  The same is true for his message to the host.  To invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind meant not only to invite those who could not invite you back, but it also meant to invite those who couldn’t scratch your back in business or politics.  When the table was surrounded by the least and the lost, there were no deals to be made and no political capital to invest.  Instead, the meal would be about fellowship, companionship, and a glimpse of the kingdom of God.  True religion means living with humility and caring for all of God’s children.

Finally, the lesson from Hebrews offers the most comprehensive teaching on what true religion really looks like.  As the letter comes to a close, the author lists all sorts of different ways to live out the life of faith: continue in mutual love; show hospitality to strangers; remember those imprisoned and tortured for their faith; keep your marriage vows; don’t fall in love with money; be content with what you have; follow the Godly example of your leaders; give praise to God; do good; and be generous.  The list can sound daunting, but it really all flows forth from the first word, “let mutual love continue.”  Instead of using agape, meaning self-sacrificing love and the usual word for love in the New Testament, the author chooses to call us to philadelpia, brotherly love.  As fellow disciples of Jesus, we are all adopted into the family of God as brothers and sisters.  We are a family, whether we like it or not.  Like any family, we will have our ups and down, but ultimately, we are created to love one another.  Sometimes, family is easy to get along with. Oftentimes, family is that long estranged cousin who finally comes to visit or that problematic nephew who can’t seem to stay out of jail, but no matter what, true religion means loving, caring, and supplying for the family of God.

It may be an old prayer.  It may even seem outdated, but the fact of the matter is that when we pray for an increase of true religion, we are praying to be more like Jesus; to see the world as God sees the world; to love our sisters and brothers the way God loves them; and to bring forth the kingdom of God right here and right now.  That’s a prayer I can say with integrity and I hope you can too. Take this prayer home with you, say it every day this week, maybe even twice a day, and keep your eyes open for where God might be inviting you to increase your true religion by sharing his love with a world that desperately needs it.

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: … increase in us true religion … and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

A collect for our times

On Sunday morning in Episcopal Churches around the world, celebrants, on behalf of their congregations, will ask God “the author and giver of all good things” to, of all things, “increase in us true religion.”

true-religion-label

Religion is a rather unpopular word these days.  According to the good folks at Pew Research, “The phrase “spiritual but not religious” [SBNR] has become widely used in recent years by some Americans who are trying to describe their religious identity. While Pew Research Center does not categorize survey respondents in such a way, our surveys do find that the U.S. public overall appears to be growing a bit less religious – but also somewhat more spiritual.”  If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?

Marion Hatchett tells us that this Collect is first found in the Gelasian sacramentary from roughly 750.  During the English Reformation, it took on new life when Thomas Cranmer edited it to ask God not merely for an increase in religion, but an increase in true religion (Commentary, 191). This made all sorts of sense in the 1540s and 50s as the English Continent was at war because of the perceived flaws in the religious practices of the Bishop of Rome as opposed to the true religion of the Reformers.  As years went by, however, the tendency to associate religion with action waned, and as Diana Butler Bass notes in her Christianity After Religion, by the 17th century, religion was more about a system of ideas and beliefs about God, such that by “modern times, religion became indistinguishable from systematizing ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, “us” versus “them” (97).  If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?

Continuing with Butler Bass, I would like to suggest that this prayer is, in fact, not outdated, but rather a perfect collect for our times as we redefine what it means to be religious away from a  system of beliefs, but a way of living one’s life in devotion to God.  Drawing on the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his 1962 Book The Meaning and End of Relgion, Butler Bass suggests that in contrast to the modern understanding of religion, the Latin root, religio, actually refers to “faith – living, subjective experience including love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, trust, a way of life, an attitude toward the divine or nature, or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”  If, on Sunday morning, we are praying not for our particular set of ideas to be better than the ideas of the Baptists or the Lutherans, but instead for an increase in awe, worship, and trust in God who calls us to a particular way of seeing and feeling the world, then sign me up.  In fact, I’d bet we could get a lot of SBNRs to join us in that prayer.  It is, I would argue, the perfect collect for our times.

Losing philadelphia

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Stevie Williams in Philadelphia’s Love Park

“Let mutual love continue.”

In the Greek it is only three words long, but it might be the most powerful homiletical imperative ever written.  Scholars squabble quite a bit about the origins of the Letter to the Hebrews.  While it was initially attributed to Paul, by the turn of the third century, Origen was already questioning if Paul had actually written it.  While it is often called a letter it really reads more like a sermon or even a series of sermons.  It is thought to be addressed to Jewish Christians living in the Diaspora, but even that can’t be known for sure.  Yet, despite all of the uncertainty over its authorship, style, and intended audience, it is still one of the most powerful texts in the New Testament Canon.

Unlike most of the other New Testament letters, the “Letter” to the “Hebrews” is written in a much more general style.  It speaks not so much to the particularities of a church in a time and place, but serves a theological backbone for the Church catholic that will continue to grow in the 1900 years since its writing. As the “Letter” comes to a close, the author begins to offer short reflections on the life of faith; exhorting his hearers to continue to live following The Way, despite the persecution that has been, is ongoing, and will continue to come, and it can all be summed up by this three word Greek sentence that opens our Epistle lesson this Sunday, “Let mutual love continue.”

That love that the author writes about is different from the love we hear about most often in the New Testament.  Instead of admonishing us to agape, self-sacrificial love, the author invites us to philadelphia, brotherly love.  We are to love our fellow disciples as if they are our sisters and brothers.  As Bryan Whitfield noted in a 2010 commentary on this text, “We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.”

In a world where there is a church designed to meet every possible whim and fancy of ecclesiastical taste on every street corner, this idea of treating our fellow disciples as brothers and sisters is fairly foreign.  Rather than seeing the church as a family with which we stick through thick and thin, more often than not these days, if something doesn’t tickle our fancy in our church anymore, we pick up and move.  Sometimes the reason for leaving is theological, but 99.9% of the time, it is adiaphora – things indifferent.  Whether you are no longer in love with the preaching style, the musical style, the choice of Tawny Port over Welch’s Grape, or the ongoing open question about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, our inability to “let mutual love continue” has created a culture in which there is no longer philadelphia in most churches.  Rather, we simply pick up our ball and go home.

The persecuted Church of the turn of the second century didn’t have that luxury, and, I would argue, neither should we.  Instead, let mutual love continue, learn to live in disagreement and find God in discomfort, and remember, that even when the music changes, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The Invitation to Table Fellowship

invitation

The most oft ignored rubric in the Book of Common Prayer might also be the most important.  Unfortunately, it is mired deep in the “Additional Directions” of the Holy Eucharist portion of the Prayer Book, near the bottom of page 407.  “While the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the sacrament in both kinds.  The bishops, priests, and deacons at the Holy Table then communicate, and after them the people.” (emphasis mine).  Whether I am in a seminary chapel, Diocesan liturgy, or Sunday morning worship, it is clear that neither celebrant nor the people know this particular rubric and the power of its intended imagery.

In order for the reception of the Eucharist to be a communal act, it must all be done together.  When the congregations watches as a single person, who has already spoken more than 90% of the words of our common prayer, receives a choice piece of bread and an unsullied sip of wine, something about the communal aspect of the Eucharist is lost.  the Holy Table is the place where we all gather as sinners redeemed to be nourished and blessed by the Body and Blood of our Savior.  We come to the Table whether we are 6 months or 106 years.  We commune next to this with whom we disagree politically and theologically.  We receive from those whom we have hurt and from those who have hurt us. We come, all of us, desperately in need of God’s forgiveness and blessing.  The act of Holy Communion is the living out of Jesus’ message to both guests and hosts in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

And it all starts with an invitation.  For all the liturgical variety now available to us in as a people of Common Prayer, there is but one singular authorized invitation to the Lord’s Table.  The words are the same in Rite I and Rite II, and there is no provision for anything different in Enriching our Worship.  Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, the Prayer Book directs the following action: “Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation The Gifts of God for the People of God. and may add Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

This is not to say that this is the only invitation you might hear in an Episcopal Church, the Iona Invitation is growing in popularity, and might actually do a better job acting as an invitation, motivating people to live out the rubric on page 407 by coming forward, making the reception of the Eucharist a communal act for all four orders of ministry.  It is a true invitation because it actually invites people to do something rather than to simply stare at the now consecrated elements of bread and wine.

This is the table, not of the Church but of Jesus Christ.
It is made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time or ever before,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because the Church invites you;
It is Christ who invites you to be known and fed here.

It isn’t Prayer Book authorized, so I can’t suggest you use it this Sunday, but my Bishop uses it, so I’m thinking we can try it here.  A true invitation to the Lord’s banquet, where we gather as one to receive what we all need.  Y’all come.

A Complicated Teaching

By and large, Jesus tends to stay on message throughout the course of his three years of active ministry.  Whether in parable, teaching, argument, or aside, his message tends to be about the immanence of the Kingdom of God and the preparations one should make for its arrival.  There are times, however, when you dig down into the nuts and bolts of what Jesus is actually saying and things get complicated.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one such occasion as we hear Jesus flip flop a bit on the question of motivation.

In his teaching about table manners, Jesus suggests that guests choose a lower seat so that when we are invited higher, we might be honored in the sight of everyone.  Pausing only to turn his attention to the host of the dinner party, Jesus then tells him to not invite people who can invite you in return, but instead to invite those who are often left off the invite list.  Of course, anyone who has hung around religious circles much realizes that the question of motivation is ever present.  We shouldn’t follow Jesus to get out of hell, but there are plenty of churches that preach that message.  We shouldn’t do good works to earn God’s love, but there are plenty of sermons that imply that very thing.  We shouldn’t take pictures of people who don’t look like our congregation in order to make the website more diverse, but, well…

Read as a whole, the message of Jesus on the topic of motivation can be complicated.  Do we sit lower in order to be invited higher?  More often than not, we will find ourselves still seated in that lower place when the meal is all over.  Do we invite the poor who cannot repay us?  Absolutely, but that probably doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also invite the rich and the middle class who need to know the love of Jesus as well.  In the end, I find that balancing my motivations is of utmost importance.  As that great theologian Ice Cube once said, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.”  Or in Rite I language:

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If you are volunteering in that ministry because your mother told you to 50 years ago or because it is where there is power to be had or because it is the group in which to see and be seen; well, you probably ought to check your motivation and find something else to do.  If you are engage in ministry to make yourself feel better, to get your face in the newsletter, or to make your neighbor feel guilty; thou has already wrecked thyself.  If, however, your motivation is love of God and of neighbor, then it doesn’t much matter if you are the President of the Standing Committee or locking up after a parish potluck, your name has been honored where in matters – in the kingdom of God.

Honor and Shame

If it is possible to imagine, the differences between the context of Jesus in 1st century Palestine and me in 21st century America seem to be even wider than two thousand years and six thousand seven hundred miles.

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Image from USAGeo.org

The amount of change that has occurred in the world even in the last 50 years is enough to render the past a totally foreign place, let alone 2,000 years.  Anyone who has traveled knows that the amount of change that happens between getting on a plane in Alabama and landing in Jerusalem means a steep learning curve on the other end.  So it is that when we open the Scriptures and read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we are reading it through a glass colored darkly.  We can understand the story only in part.

Take, for example, the power of the honor and shame in the world in which Jesus lived.  As Asbury Theological Seminary’s Dr. Ben Wetherington notes in reference to Paul’s ministry, but with application to Jesus’ life, “The honor and shame culture Paul lived in was far different from contemporary Western culture and its values. “Honor” and “shame” in this context do not primarily refer to feelings of honor or shame, though feelings would be involved, but rather to being honored or disgraced in public.”  The goal of any point of argument in the culture of Jesus’ day would be to find a way to shame your opponent in order to bring honor to your point of view.

Which brings us to the tail end of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus has healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath day, much to the ire of the religious authorities, and in the brief spat between them, honor and shame plays a big part.  Jesus honored the woman by laying hands on her and setting her free from her affliction.  The leader of the synagogue tried to shame her, the crowd, and by extension, Jesus, by suggesting that they came to the synagogue with bad intentions, seeking to be healed rather than to honor God on the Sabbath.  Jesus shames the leader by suggesting that his rules are merely man made and enforced only at his own convenience, in order to honor himself.

Luke tells us that when the dust settled, Jesus’ opponents were “put to shame,” and the crowd rejoiced at “all the wonderful things he was doing.”  We miss something in the NRSV’s translation of the Greek which literally reads that the crowd rejoiced at honored things he was dong.  As tensions grow between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be, honor and shame will play a large role, and it would behoove the preacher to take a moment to understand the power of honor and shame in Jesus’ time in order to preach the story 2,000 years and thousands of miles removed.