Confused language

It’s been almost 15 years since I started posting the text of my sermons on a blog. It’s been more than 5 years since the congregations I’ve served have had the ability to record audio. We’re still ironing out the kinks in video recording at Christ Church. The intent of each has been to allow those not able to attend Sunday services to be a part of it. In my tradition, at least theologically, the sermon isn’t the pinnacle of the service, but in survey after survey, we hear that what keeps people coming back to church and what they look for in their clergy is good preaching. So, since we can’t have the Eucharist celebrated in every living room every Sunday, we share what we can.

With each successive technological advancement, we’ve gotten closer to sharing the fullness of the sermon experience. With just the text, we lose all kinds of cues that the person in the pew can use to interpret what’s being said. [This is especially true of blog posts which raise hackles like yesterday’s did. Many of y’all were not on board with any kind of critical reflection on the practice of wearing red on Pentecost.] With audio recording, one can at least hear some of the nuances of delivery, but so much of communication is non-verbal a lot is still missing. With video, we can see those non-verbal cues, but even so, we miss the energy in the room and the shared experience of the homiletical event. Even those who are sitting in the nave in a Sunday morning can interpret the sermon in vastly different ways.

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The confused nature of communication that we experience on a daily basis has its origin story in the Tower of Babel, which is an optional lesson for the Day of Pentecost.  One need not believe that this myth is the actual story of how various languages came to be to understand the truth that the confused nature of language has been a challenge to the human condition since we first began to communicate in something other than tonal grunts.  In fact, one could argue that the source of much of the interpersonal strife in our world, outside of larger fights over power, money, and privilege, is based in our inability to communicate clearly with one another.

Part of the task as Christians who aren’t readily gifted with the Spirit-fueled ability to speak clearly in any language is to work to speak and hear one another with clarity so as to avoid, as best we can, those moments of misunderstanding that lead to hard feelings, anger, broken relationships, and sin.  As a writer, a preacher, a husband, and a father, I can tell you, this work is a full-time job.  So, dear reader, in a variation on the words attributed to Saint Francis, let us seek to understand and to be understood, for such is the way of love, dignity, and respect.

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Pentecost Kitch

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall a discussion once held in one of my liturgics classes.  We were talking about manual actions and the celebration of the Eucharist and the difference between anamnesis, the active remembrance of an event in the past, and mimicry, the acting out of that remembrance.  For example, as we remember the death of Jesus in Rite II, Prayer A (Expansive Language Version), the Celebrant says, “Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  It is unhelpful, yet, unfortunately not uncommon, for the celebrant, standing behind the altar, likely within sight lines of a cross, to also extend his (let’s be honest, it’s often dudes doing this) arms in a kind of pantomime of words being said.

 

These kinds of things tend to happen when we are either a) uncomfortable with the power of our words, or b) unsure what to do with them.  When talking about Jesus offering himself on the cross, these words have deep theological impact, and they can make us really uncomfortable.  So, we take the attention away from the words and put it on ourselves.  A similar thing happens at the fraction, when, in language that is foreign even too many priests, we talk of Jesus as the Passover, but often deflect it by way of a huge fraction motion.

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This is an ad from a Community Church. So, it isn’t just Episcopalians who are guilty.

There is no place that this tendency to pantomime away our discomfort is more apparent than on the Principal Feast which we will celebrate on Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.  Now, I’m not here to be a buzzkill over the wearing of red or the decorating of your nave with doves and flames.  I get that we need to make worship available to all of our senses, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.  I would, however, caution clergy and their worship committees to be careful in making those choices, and to think theologically about why they are being made.  Are the dove kites going to enhance worship that day, or make it easier for us to avoid how little we [want to] understand the power of the Spirit.  Is encouraging folks to wear red a symbol of our unity in the Body of Christ or simply a photo opp for the congregation’s Instagram account?  Is the tradition of having the Acts lesson poorly read in many languages in any way edifying, or is it meant to keep us distracted so the preacher can preach yet another sermon on Jesus’ commandment that we love one another?

The active remembrance of the foundational stories of our faith is vitally important.  Too important, in fact, to be reduced to kitchy reenactments.  So, feel free to wear red this Sunday to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, but as inheritors of that same Spirit, also be ready to hear the powerful story of the Advocate’s arrival with power and might upon the disciples gathered in prayer.

What is your Reward?

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Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up.  Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!”  They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day.  We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent.  I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years.  While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.

I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms.  Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her.  We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!”  I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.

It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about.  I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list.  Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work.  I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition.  Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.

I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others.  To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning.  Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off.  Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed.  “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”

In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer.  As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you.  The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.

The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity.  Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all.  May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent.  Amen.

In the Quiet – a Christmas Day sermon

For all the pomp and circumstance of Christmas Eve, I have to think that maybe these quiet Christmas morning services are really what it’s all about.  Like Linus, standing alone in the spotlight, reciting the Christmas story, this morning’s service eschews all the glitz and glamor that has come to be associated with Christmas simply to focus on what is important – what is real.

“For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Amidst the twinkling lights, the torn paper, and the Carpenter’s Christmas album on repeat, this morning we pause to give thanks for a rather inauspicious birth that forever changed the world.  Mary and Joseph were nobody folk from a nowhere town.  They were forced to travel, against their will and despite Mary’s being great with child, in order to be counted in a census that was meant only to add to their tax burden.  They were late to arrive, and left to spend that most important night in a feel stall.  Lo and behold, it was time for the baby to be born.  As Jan Funk so wisely suggested in her Advent Devotion from a week or so ago, last night was anything but quiet.  Birth suites, no matter how finely appointed or carefully named by marketing experts, are still places filled with struggle, pain, noise, and of course, blood, sweat, and tears.

Now, we find ourselves in the morning after.  Mom and Dad, worn out from the long day that is past, are likely doing as little as possible.  Sleep when the baby sleeps, is as good advice now as it would have been back then.  As they try to rest and take stock of what is next for this little bundle of joy that came without an instruction manual, I’m guessing there were long periods of silence, interrupted only by Jesus’ need to eat or the cattle’s desire to move about.  In the silence of this morning’s service, perhaps we can find ourselves in that feed stall, alongside the holy family, in awe of what God is up to in this tiny, fragile, child who, in eight days, will be named Jesus, Hebrew for God saves.

Last night, as the Shepherds watched over their flocks, God entered the world.  In the darkness, on the margins, in the midst of turmoil, God showed up to save the world.  Today, and every day that follows, we are invited to live into that salvation.  We are invited to sit in the quietness of the morning after and to listen for the still small voice of God.  We are welcome to sit beside Mary as she ponders all of what has transpired over the last nine months in her heart.

As we sit with Mary, it seems to me that our reading from Isaiah comes into focus.  As we look upon the newborn child who will grow up to show us the way of justice and righteousness, it would behoove us not to get too lost in the fragility of this baby boy.  Rather, we who know the fullness of the story of Jesus who will be called the Christ, should use this moment of quiet reflection as an opportunity to remember our call as his disciples to be about the work of the Prince of Peace.  In this time of refreshment and renewal, we should be steeling ourselves for another year of working toward the dream of God.  The zeal of the Lord brought our Savior into this world on Christmas night, and that same zeal calls us ever forward, striving ever toward the Kingdom of Heaven, where every human being is treated with dignity and respect, where love never fails, and where joy is freely given to all.  The zeal of the Lord bring with it good news of great joy, my friends, for unto us is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

We all feebly struggle

A friend of mine from seminary is fond of saying that it is through our hymns the we best articulate our heresies.  His particular point of interest was in the Christmas hymn, “Hark! The herald angels sing” and the line, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see,” which bears the weight of the 2nd century gnostic heresy.  Gnosticism was built on the idea that creation is evil and God is good, and so Jesus couldn’t have actually been both God and human.  Rather, either the Christ was a lesser god that had been sent to earth, or that he was God, veiled in flesh, but not actually incarnated.  Anyway, it fits the meter and is a classic hymn by Charles Wesley, so we sing it every Christmas, without fear.

Another example comes around on All Saints’ Sunday when we sing “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” in the midst of “For all the saints, who from their labors rest.”  While not quite rising to the level of heresy, this line tends to add to our misunderstandings about sainthood.  It probably actually means that while we continue to struggle on earth while those who have gone before rest in God’s eternal glory in heaven, but the popular understanding of sainthood has been so muddied by Roman Catholicism that it tends to feed this idea that saints are some sort of other worldly Christians, the likes of which we will never attain.  It is not uncommon for me to be talking with someone about sainthood, be they a regular church-goer or totally de-churched, and they will bring up the need for verifiable miracles, beatifications, and canonization.  These are the things of news stories, as we hear about Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa making their way through the process of sainthood after their deaths.

The reaction to this often goes one of two ways.  Some are in awe of the faith and good works that have been done by people like Mother Teresa.  “We feebly struggle, but they in glory shine” indeed.  They are enamored with their religious celebrity and wonder if they could even be half the Christian these saints were in their lives.  More often, the response is confusion.  They’ve read the stories of Teresa’s struggle with doubt or know about John Paul’s role in covering up the child abuse scandals, and wonder how anyone could think of them as better than any of the rest of us.  The most critical response to the concept of sainthood is often tied in with a very popular reason for not going to church these days, “They’re all just hypocrites anyway, preaching one thing and living another.”

My response to this criticism is to admit, readily and fully, that we all feebly struggle.  Whether we are talking about Saint Francis, Mary Magdalene, Howard Surface, or Mary Jo Cook, the life of faith is for all of us, a daily struggle.  As Mother Becca said last week, every morning, as foot hits the floor, we must make the choice to follow Jesus.  That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect, far from it, but it means that as we feebly struggle, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to redeem us, and the Father’s love to sustain us.  The church is full of hypocrites, and the communion of saints is full of them too, which is why we set aside this Feast of All Saints, to give thanks to God for the grace that carries all of us sinners.

We are living in an era in which the news is full of famous men who claim to follow Jesus but seem to have become famous mostly because they are doing terrible things.  Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression.  Violent misogynists and anti-Semites have become the famous men of our time, and it is the work of the Church this All Saints’ Sunday that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on the righteous and godly women and men who have lived the struggle and “have perished as though they never existed.”

See, what makes you a saint isn’t the amazing things you do, but rather what God is doing through you.  In the New Testament, when Paul writes about the saints, he uses it as a synonym for disciples.  There, he doesn’t even mean those who have already died in the faith, but rather all who have ever sought the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.  While it is the custom here at Christ Church to list, by name, the saints of this parish who have died in the past year, the list of saints properly includes all of us as well.  In a deeply counter-cultural move, we name as saints not only those whose names are written on monuments or carried in the news, but also regular folk who have lived their lives in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

The reality of All Saints’ Day that the Ecclesiasticus lesson names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have lived in the faith of Christ.  It is especially our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, and those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven.  In a world that prefers to name the infamous, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy examples those who might have become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.

For we who remain on earth, sometimes feebly struggling to follow the Way of Love, All Saints’ Day is a chance to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Gospel.  As Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, so All Saints’ Day challenges us to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world?  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity?  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  With God’s help, these choices must be made daily, if not hour by hour or minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” puts it, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”  Dear saints of God, as we walk through the struggle of this great ordeal together, what will you choose?  Will you choose sainthood?  Will you choose blessedness?  Will you, with God’s help, choose the Way of Love in Kingdom of God?  Amen.

What makes a saint?

Some 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, the common understanding of sainthood is stilly mostly influenced by Roman Catholicism.  We might vaguely know about the need for miracles, or that the process involves steps like beatification and canonization.  These things often cloud the broader understanding of what actually makes a saint.  Rather than it being about religious celebrity or those who have made significant impacts or even those who were martyred for their faith, in the New Testament, sainthood is simply a synonym for discipleship.  When Paul writes about the saints, he isn’t even necessarily talking about those who have died in the faith of Christ, but rather all who have sought the kingdom and its righteousness.

A seminary classmate of mine was fond of saying that our hymns best show our heresies.  This was usually in response to that line in “Hark! the herald angels sing” that invokes the gnostic heresy when it says, “veiled in flesh, the godhead see.”  “For all the saints,” one of the classic All Saints’ hymns might not tip-toe into heresy, but it certainly exacerbates our profoundly misunderstood theology of sainthood in the line, “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”  Even those saints that we honor with specific feasts like Francis, Nicholas, or Mary Magdalene feebly struggled from time to time.

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The saints of God

The life of faith, the only qualification necessary for the title of saint, is a daily struggle.  It requires us, as Joshua challenged the tribes of Israel, to choose this day whom we will serve.  Will we seek after the Kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world.  Will we subscribe to a theology of God’s abundance or fall into the trap of our own scarcity.  Will we look at the world in love or fall back in fear?  These choices must be made, with God’s help, daily, if not minute by minute.  As another classic All Saints’ hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” says, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

Dear saints of God, what will you choose this day?

For ALL the saints

It is time for my annual plea for my Episcopal readers to petition their bishops for the use of the old Book of Common Prayer All Saints’ Day lectionary.  I do this not because of my general disdain for the RCL, which I readily embrace, but because, quite honestly, the Ecclesiasticus reading is just too good to miss, and as one of few Protestant denominations that holds the books of the Apocryphal to be sacred texts, we shouldn’t forego an opportunity to read from it.

What makes a random lesson from a random book worth writing the Bishop for?  It is because we need a vibrant and deep understanding of sainthood in times like these.  Our news cycle is full of stores of famous men, mostly because they are doing terrible things.  Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression.  Daily, we endure an almost constant barrage of the names of men who are famous for doing despicable things.  Violent racists and anti-semites have become the famous men of our time, and it seems reasonable that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on those who “have perished as though they never existed.”

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It is the custom here at Christ Church to hold a service of choral evensong on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day.  During the service, a necrology is read.  There, in the midst of sacred space, in the middle of our worship of Almighty God, we pause to remember those whose names are not written on monuments or carried by the news, but regular folk who have lived their lives seeking the Kingdom of God.

You see, the reality of All Saints’ Day that Ecclesiasticus names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have died in the faith of Christ.  It is our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven.

In a world that prefers to name the infamous men, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy exemplars those who might become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.