Entering into Passiontide

I am something of an anomaly in the Episcopal Church: a low-church liturgy wonk.  In fact, it is from my deep appreciation for the liturgy as it has been inherited and reformatted into the Book of Common Prayer (1979), that I draw my lower-than-most understanding of the Sacraments and sacramental acts.  It is from my interpretation of Thomas Cranmer’s evangelical zeal, that I find the space to experiment liturgically in the hopes of meeting the needs of a rapidly changing culture.  As usual, however, I’ve digressed.  As a liturgy wonk, I fell like I have a pretty good handle on most of the slang that get used by my brothers and sisters who are more fond of liturgical haberdashery than I, but yesterday, my high-church trained, but growing lower everyday Rector dropped a word that if I had ever heard before, I’d not paid much attention to: Passiontide, which makes up the last two weeks of Lent.2015-04-03 17.54.16-1

Passiontide rose to glory in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was the first Book to have the carry the title, beginning on Lent 5, even though the Passion Gospel was not read until Palm Sunday.  (To be fair, the appointed lesson, John 8:46-59 does tend to highlightthe passion of Jesus, which ultimately led to his Passion.) By the time of the 1979 revision, the term had fallen out of favor, even with the Roman Catholics, and it no longer appears in our text, but for preachers, the reality is that this penultimate week of Lent is our Passion Week.  By the time Monday in Holy Week rolls around, there won’t be much time to meditate on the suffering of our Lord, and come the middle of the week, if you’re anything like me, and I know most of you aren’t, you’ll have to skip ahead and write an Easter sermon full of Alleluias before Jesus has even washed his disciples feet.

As we prepare to read and preach on the Passion of our Lord according to Luke, it might be helpful to live into Passiontide.  Take some time to meditate on the narrative.  Maybe walk the stations.  Spend this week immersed in the Passion of Jesus, as you prepare to share the Good News of God’s self-giving love for all flesh.  As you do so, if you are in the Episcopal Church, you’ll note that choice must be made.  Will you read the Passion beginning with the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14-23:56) or will you choose the shorter version, which skips both the Garden and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:1-49)? This low-church liturgy wonk will be doing neither, choosing to use the rubric on page 888 and lengthening the shorter option to include both the Garden scene and Jesus’ burial (Luke 22:39-23:56).  Whatever option you choose, I pray that as you get a head start on walking the way of the cross this Passiontide, it might be for you the very way of life and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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The Extremes of Love

Every third year, on Proper 23B, we hear the story of Jesus and the rich young man.  You are probably familiar with the story, but as a reminder, a young man approaches Jesus wishing to become a disciple.  After a brief back-and-forth on what that actually means, Jesus invites him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.  The young man leaves disheartened; Mark tells us it is because “he had many possessions.”  Every third year, on Proper 23B, preachers wring their hands about whether or not this requirement was specific to that which was holding this particular person back or the more frightening option, that Jesus was thinking this was a requirement of everyone who followed him.

The latter can easily be argued based on how Jesus’ disciples are  called in Mark’s Gospel.  Andrew, Simon Peter, James, John, and Levi all drop everything: job, family, inheritance, and presumably wealth; in order to follow him.  The former often gets argued based on gut feeling – a feeling that often aligns with the American Dream of getting money and buying stuff, which is less than convincing in the Kingdom politics.  As one who lives in a comfortable home, drives a comfortable car, and enjoys the comforts of good food, decent clothes, and the occasional Apple product, all while giving more than tithe to the building of the Kingdom, I find myself stuck in the dissonance between these two arguments.  I want to think that I’ve dropped everything to follow Jesus, but I know that there is some decent justification happening on the side.

That is, until this morning.  As I read Paul’s great love poem from 1 Corinthians 13, I noticed something I had never seen before.  Paul begins his great sonnet by listing the extremes of the faith life: speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels; understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge; having all faith; giving up all possessionsand handing over the body.  Paul writes that he could take the life of discipleship to its farthest extremes, but without love, it would be useless.  Giving up all possessions makes that list of extremes, which leads me to think that this type of living was being discussed in Paul’s day.  Some must have been suggesting that all disciples called to sell everything and give it to the poor, while others, presumably those who were beginning to realize that Jesus probably wasn’t coming back tomorrow and plans had to be made to sustain the fledgling community that was following the Way, were arguing for a more modest stewardship plan.

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Everyone loves a good faux needlepoint.

Paul suggests that even those who live at the extremes of the life of faith, if they don’t have love, their fruit is rotten.  By including it on this list, the call to sell everything seems to fall into the category of optional observances.  That is to say, it isn’t the rule of faith, but rather the exception.  The rule of faith, at least as Paul sees it here in 1 Corinthians 13, is the extreme of love, about which I will write more in the days to come.

Our Epiphany of the Spirit

Continuing on the Pray, Worship, Serve, Share theme from a few weeks ago, our vestry will gather this Saturday for a half-day retreat.  We will try to use these four gifts to God to model our time together while also looking to see how the elected leadership might help lift up these four practices in the congregation.  One of the ways we can get about this, in a healthy and effective way, is to find out which of these four areas has the strongest pull on our lives.  It is true that every Christian should be engaging in each of these four practices: praying daily, worshiping weekly, serving regularly, and sharing for the up-building of the Kingdom, each of us is also better suited for one over the rest.  Some find it easy to sit for an hour in contemplative prayer, while others find it easy to share the Good News with

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, Paul calls these various skills and abilities, spiritual gifts.  Many are familiar with the idea of spiritual gifts, especially the miraculous ones that seem to cause fear, trepidation, and the occasional fit of envy like healing and speaking in tongues.  Paul’s list, at least the version found in 1 Corinthians, is fairly innocuous: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, and tongues and their interpretation; however it seems clear that there has been some struggle in the community regarding these gifts.  Paul seems to need to tell the Christians in Corinth that no gift is better than another and that nobody has all the gifts.  He is very clear in saying, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Let’s break that down a bit.

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To each – that means everyone. Every. Single. Person. Has received gifts from the spirit.  No one should be excluded for what seems like a lack of spiritual gifts.

The manifestation of the Spirit – this one is interesting. Thanks to the Sermon Brainwave crew at WorkingPreacher.org, I know that the word translated as “manifestation” is from the same root as Epiphany.  It literally means that the Spirit discloses herself by way of the gifts.  Our using the gifts given to us in baptism is the means by which the epiphany of the Spirit happens in the world.  The flip side of that is that when we refuse our gifts, when we sit on our hands and don’t exercise our God given talents, then we are holding back the work of the Spirit in the world, which sounds awfully close to the unforgivable sin to me.

For the common good – These gifts aren’t given to make us famous (contra Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, etc.).  These gifts aren’t given to make us seem like better Christians (contra some Pentecostal teachings on tongues).  These gifts aren’t given to make us jealous, what seems to be a part of the struggle in Corinth.  No, these gifts are given for the common good to build the Kingdom of God.  When each of us is exercising our gifts, the Spirit is made manifest in the world, and the Kingdom of God comes one step closer to being on earth as it is in heaven.

The Most Joyful Thing Ever – a Christmas sermon

The audio recording of my Christmas Eve sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Can I let you in on a little secret?  Just between you and me, I really don’t like the hymn Silent Night.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I don’t really like the hymn Silent Night the way it normally gets sung in Episcopal Churches.  Y’know, like a funeral dirge?  In the parish I grew up in, both Christmas Eve services ended with the whole congregation singing Silent Night.  Everybody would kneel, the lights would dim, and the organist would plod through it like we were marching to to Jesus’ tomb on Good Friday.  Do you know what Silent Night is supposed to be about?  Do you know what Christmas is supposed to be about?  The most joyful thing that has ever happened in the history of the world, ever!  Christmas is about God’s light shining in the darkness, no matter what.

When the Son of God came to the earth, it was a pretty dark time to be a Jew.  Certainly, there have been worse times: the Holocaust, the company Exile in Babylon, the 40 years wandering in the wilderness, but when the Romans are occupying your land and next door to the great Temple of God, have built a palace for the Governor that stands just a few inches taller than your most sacred building, just because they can, things aren’t exactly great.  Luke wants us to understand just how difficult life is under Roman rule, and so he sets the scene for us.  The Emperor Augustus had declared that the whole world should be counted and taxed.  In order to do so, and just because he could do such things, Augustus decided that everyone should have to return to their ancestral hometown.  Such was the power of Rome.  They could pretty much tell you to do anything, and you had to do it.  And so because the Emperor said so, young Mary, great with a child who happened to be the Son of God, joined her new husband, Joseph, on the 100-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Upon reaching Joseph’s family’s hometown, Luke tells us that there wasn’t room for them.  Whether there was no room in the inn because there were just too many decedents of David in for the census, or there was just too much discomfort with the fact that Joseph and Mary hadn’t been married long enough for her to be that pregnant, we will never know.  Either way, the nights that they had to share a barn floor with sheep, goats, and whatever other critters might be living in the hay-lined bed, must have been really, really dark.  Physically dark.  Emotionally dark.  Probably even spiritually dark.  And then, to add injury to insult, the time came for Mary to give birth, and her first born Son, a gift from God for the whole world, was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, a fancy word for a feed trough.

Perhaps the only place darker than the barn where the holy family was staying was the field where the shepherds watched their flocks by night.  The shepherds didn’t have to make the journey to be counted and taxed because they didn’t really count as people.  Women and shepherds were the two types of people not allowed to testify in court.  Shepherds were considered so unclean, that most towns had laws forbidding them from entering the city gates.  In the black of the night, the shepherds faithfully attended to their thankless job when suddenly, the sky was as bright as the noonday.  In the darkest of the darkest places, the glory of the Lord shone bright.  An angel had come to share good news of great joy for all people, that a Savior had been born; that love’s pure light was entering into the darkness of life.

Just as quickly as the night shone bright, it was dark again, and the shepherds, still trembling with a mixture of fear and excitement, decided to run to find the baby, saying to each other, “let’s go see if any of this is true.”  Leaving their flocks behind, they ran, down the hill, through the gates they probably weren’t allowed to enter, and searched the city streets for the barn where they can find the babe, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.  They search, and they scoured, and finally they saw the Christ child, just as the angels had predicted.  They saw with their eyes, and the word Luke uses seems to also mean that in seeing, they believed.  The Shepherds, experienced something amazing in the fields, and they came to Bethlehem to experience the Good News for themselves.  With their own eyes, they saw the Good News for all people, a Savior born for all humanity, the love of God made human flesh, and with joy in their hearts, they returned to the fields glorifying, singing, and praising God.

The message of Christmas is that God loves us so completely that he enters into the darkest places with the light of his love.  This is the best news of all time, which makes the story of the first Christmas the most joyful thing that has ever happened in the history of the world, ever.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another night that God considered deserving of an angel choir.  Christmas is the singularly most joy-filled day of the year, which is why I think, when we get to it, we ought to sing Silent Night standing up, in the blazing brightness of the light of God’s radiant glory, with all the joy we can muster.  Joseph Mohr, the author of Silent Night, knew the joy of Christmas, and wrote it into his song of praise.  He wrote of the brightness of God shining in the darkness, the glory of the Lord streaming from heaven, the angel choir singing alleluia; all because Christ, the Savior is born.  Franz Gruber, who wrote the tune for Silent Night, also knew the joy of Christmas.  He took Mohr’s words of hope and composed a melody in D-Major, the so-called Key of Triumph and Alleluias, for the guitar, in a dance-like 6/8 time signature.[1]  We have an Episcopal Priest, John Freeman Young, to blame for the B minor lullaby that we know hear every Christmas.  The reality is that Silent Night is a song of glory and praise, the likes of which I imagine the shepherds sang as they left the manger side that first Christmas night.

I know that the world is still a dark place most of the time.  There is sadness.  There is fear.  There is anguish all around.  But this is not new, and if God’s pure love could shine brightly on that first Christmas night, then there is no reason why the Good News of Jesus Christ can’t continue to shine in the midst of our self-made darkness.  There is no reason why the annual singing of Silent Night can’t be an opportunity to share the Good News of Christmas: that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to be born in human flesh; to come to know our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, our life and even our death that we might know God more fully.  Silent Night tells the story of joy for all people, that no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter whom you love, God’s redeeming grace is available for you.

Let’s sing out with joy this year.  Let’s blow the roof of this place.  Let’s join with the heavenly hosts and sing alleluia, glory, and praise on this most joyful night, giving thanks that in Jesus, God shows us that he loves us more than we can ever know.  Christ, the Savor is born dear friends, and it is a Merry Christmas indeed!  Amen.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Night

Advent 4’s Peculiar Collect

As has been noted on this blog many times, I’m a big fan of many of the Collects in the Book of Common Prayer.  Each week of the year, along with several special occasions have a prayer that in collecting up the prayers of the faithful also, in many ways, sums of the theme of the day.  This week we will hear the Collect for Advent 4.

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I encourage you to listen to the Collect Call, a podcast from my friends Brendan and Holli as they admirably tackle some to the quirkiness of this particular prayer.

What was interesting to me was the word “visitation,” which immediately made me think of the story for Advent 4, Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, but in doing some digging, I found that it was actually pointing much later in Luke’s Gospel.  Thanks to the late Marion Hatchett (Commentary, 167) for pointing me to Luke 19:44, as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.

“They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (NRSV)

That word, visitation, isn’t just the word for “showing up somewhere,” but instead it is episkope, from which our denomination gets its name, Episcopal.  According to the UBS Greek Dictionary, it can mean “visitation (of God’s presence among men); office, place of service; office of bishop.”  Strong’s, as always, digs deeper “1) investigation, inspection, visitation 1a) that act by which God looks into and searches out the ways, deeds character, of men, in order to adjudge them their lot accordingly, whether joyous or sad 1b) oversight 1b1) overseership, office, charge, the office of an elder 1b2) the overseer or presiding officers of a Christian church”

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It is clear that in this prayer we aren’t inviting God over for tea.  Instead, we’re welcoming him as judge to come and show us the places, deep in the recesses of our hearts, that need to be cleared away to make room for Jesus to enter in with power and might. It is an invitation for God to re-enter our hearts each day, which offers us the challenge to daily choose to live for the kingdom of God rather than for our own selfish desires.

Perhaps in all the challenges of this Collect and the proximity to Christmas, this week is a chance to preach the Collect. Of course, that means not preaching the Magnificat, which is pretty spectacular all by itself.

Advent need not be dour

Before you read my post today, click here and read my friend, Evan Garner’s, excellent post from yesterday.

My Facebook Memories section this morning featured not one, not two, but three different blogposts on my discomfort with the season of Advent.  In 2008, 2010, and again in 2014, I discussed why I dislike this season so much.  It is partly because I find the music to be absolutely dreadful, but mostly because I have such a hard time disconnecting from the wider cultural impact of the Christmas season.  I get that Advent is now seen as “counter-cultural,” but the majority of my Facebook friends who comment on it “not being Christmas yet” just sound obnoxious, and the Good News of Jesus Christ was never meant to be obnoxious.

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So what are we to do with this season that if full of awful music and lessons about the end of the world while the rest of the world is doing the whole peace and joy thing that the Kingdom of God is supposed to be about?  How can the Church be counter the culture of rampant consumerism without the counter the culture of time spent with family, sharing cookies, and trying to make the world a better place?  Maybe we take the chance to preach from somewhere other than the Gospel lesson.  Let Jesus handle the “signs in the sun, moon, and stars” and instead focus on Paul’s summation of what this Seasons of Advent and Christmas should really be about.

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?… And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”

Let’s focus less on whether the altar should be blue or purple, less on whether we should say “Merry Christmas” before Christmas, less on the fact that the twelve days of Christmas don’t actually start until Christmas Day, and focus more on what it means to spend the next month and half rejoicing because Emmanuel has come and will come again to ransom us from bondage to sin and restore us to the everlasting life of peace, hope, and love, to paraphrase the only decent Advent hymn.

The Church doesn’t have to give up on Advent.  We don’t have to stop being countercultural in this season of excess, but we should probably quit the whole Debbie Downer routine and celebrate that for at least 30 days each year, the usually critical of religion world we live in embraces the core tenants of our faith.  We should pray, like Paul did, for an increase in love for one another and for all.  It seems to be what we say Christmas is all about, so why not live it, whether the Church calendar says its Christmas or not.

Neglecting to Get Together

It seems that church attendance has always been a dicey issue.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, in his admonitions on kingdom living as a community of faith, reminds his audience that they should “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This should come as good news to 21st century church leaders who feels disheartened by changing habits of church attendance.  Well, maybe not good news, but certainly it is comforting to know that the struggle is real and has been ongoing since the very beginning.

There has been an increasing trend over the past decade or so in which the definition of “regular church attendance” has changed from roughly 3 times a month to maybe once every 3 weeks.  While there are increasing numbers of people who have left church all together, the reality is that some of the decrease in Average Sunday Attendance simply comes members attending church less frequently.  It seems neglecting to get together has become the habit of more than some.

Church canons have little impact these days.  Unfortunately, they are routinely ignored by clergy and laity alike, but I wonder what would happen if we started to take Canon I.17.3 seriously?  In that Canon, the term Communicant in Good Standing is defined as “All communicants of this Church who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered communicants in good standing.”

What if “good cause” was the only thing that prevented us from attending church?  What if those who are committed to the life and ministry of their local congregation (as many of the once every three week crowd really are) returned to the habit of regular attendance at worship?  There is power in getting together to worship God.  That’s why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews recommends it.  That’s why our Canons define “good standing” that way.  When we gather together to worship God, to sing praises, to hear the word proclaimed, to offer prayers, and to break bread, we are changed – each of us individually as well as all of us corporately.  And every time we are changed more into the likeness of Christ, the world is changed more into the likeness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Church attendance habits matter because the Kingdom of God matters.  Let’s not neglect to get together.