Stir it Up

“Renew in these your servants the covenant you have made with them at their Baptism…”

“Defend, O Lord, your servant with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your  Holy Spirit more and more…”

“May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you…”
(BCP, 309-310)

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I remind you to stir up the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. – 2 Tim. 1:6

It has been said that in the 1979 Prayer Book, Confirmation is a liturgy in search of a theology.  While that is mostly a true statement, given the major changes that the Baptismal service underwent, the reality is that something is happening when the Bishop lays her hands upon a lay person who has come to make an adult profession of faith.

The generic collect at the time of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation as well as the specific prayers for Confirmation and Reaffirmation each, in their own way, mirror the prayer of Paul for his disciple turned Christian leader,  Timothy.  With full recognition of the work already begun by the Holy Spirit, Paul prays that Timothy himself might “stir up” or “rekindle” the gift of God, that is, the Holy Spirit, that was given to him by the laying on of hands.

It happens first in Baptism, it happens again at Confirmation, it is possible again and again during Reaffirmation, and it is the goal of every Ordination service: that the Holy Spirit might come with power and might to empower every disciple for ministry.  What is interesting about these words from Paul, however, is that he isn’t praying for the Holy Spirit to rekindle itself in Timothy.  Instead, Paul encourages him to stir it up with himself.

The work of following Jesus is not passive.  A disciple does not just sit around, hoping that the Spirit will do its work within one’s own soul.  Instead, having received the gift of grace and empowered by the Spirit through the laying on of hands, every disciple, from the very young to the very old, from the average layman to the Presiding Bishop, must take it upon him or herself to do the work of spiritual growth through the reading of the Scriptures, daily prayer, evangelism, and acts of service.

Pray for your Leaders

The Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Track 2 Psalm, and the New Testament lesson for Sunday seem to be tied together thematically.  Or at least they seem to be related in this heightened political season in the US.  So much of the rhetoric around the American Presidential election has to do with caring for the poor.  The right suggests that the best way to care for the poor is to invest in businesses so they can hire more employees, pay them better wages, and lift them out of poverty.  This is a good theory, and certainly there are many business owners who do their best to take care of their employees, but it seems that even in the days of Amos, it didn’t always work.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been those who “trample the poor” and “sell the sweepings of wheat.”  To them, the word is clear, “God will not forget how you treat the poor.

On the other hand, the left suggests the best way to care for the poor is to create safety nets that keep them from falling through the cracks.  This has its merits as well, and the latter half of the Psalm for Sunday seems to indicate that it is the will of God that we care for the poor through charity.  “[God] takes up the weak out of the dust * and lifts up the poor from the ashes.  He sets them with the princes, * with the princes of his people.” Though as we have seen in this country, when the responsibility for safety nets left the confines of the Church and became the government’s responsibility during the Great Depression, it became susceptible to fraud and pork spending.  Who indeed is like the Lord who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the earth?.

The battle lines having been drawn between right and left, the American public has been convinced that we exist in a zero sum game.  One side agrees that to invest in business means to leave the poor to fend for themselves.  The other says that to offer safety nets creates a culture of laziness that kills the economy.  Both are, of course, wrong.

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So what are we to do?  We who live in this world of competing goods, how can we ensure that somewhere in the midst of all the rancor and wrangling, we are living up to the call of Jesus to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and those in prison?  Aside from revamping the US tax code to return to the Church these responsibilities, our task is, as Paul tells Timothy, to pray that our leaders make wise decisions and live lives of godliness and dignity.  Thankfully, the Book of Common Prayer has all sorts of prayers to help with such praying.  Here’s but one example, a Collect for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Pray for your leaders today, and everyday, for it is right and acceptable to God.

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.”

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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.

The Invitation to Table Fellowship

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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.

Offertory Sentences

I wasn’t born under the stark regime of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, so I don’t have that nagging desire to keep odd things from it like the falsely named “Installation of a Rector” which is really called “An Office of Institution of Ministers into Parishes or Churches.”  I’m not overly fond of the latent sexism in Rite I language, though I do think that the penitential tone of Cranmer’s Eucharistic rites are worth hearing from time to time.  I do, however, have one bit of the “old Prayer Book” that I wish the church would have held on to.  The 1979 Book of Common Prayer removed my favorite offertory sentence from its suggested list.  In the 1928 Book, after this great rubric: “Then followeth the Sermon.  After which, the Priest, when there is a Communion, shall return to the Holy Table, and begin the Offertory, saying one of these Sentences following as he thinketh most convenient” comes a list of no less than 16 choices.  Second on that list, having survived since Cranmer’s first Book in 1549, comes words from Jesus recorded in Matthew 5, “Let your light so shine before [others], that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father [who] is in heaven.”

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I love that Offertory Sentence, and have used it all through Epiphany season, but as the calendar moves to Lent, it is time to pick another one, and I’m thinking about going beyond the suggestions of the Prayer Book again, this time from Deuteronomy.  In Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, we hear what sort of Offertory Sentences the Lord requires of those who are entering the Promised Land.  Ignoring the potential for a killer stewardship sermon for the time being, what we hear is the rehearsing of salvation history, and a reminder that everything we have is a gift from God.  It might be a bit long to memorize, and tough to turn into a second person directive, but these words are so very important as we enter the Season of Lent and take stock of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s dream for us.

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.

Let us with gladness bring before the Lord the first of the fruit of the everything that God has given us.

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.

Don’t be Anxious

One of the most popular phrases in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is “Have no fear.”  It occurs most often in those moments when fear is the most rational emotion available.  When an angel appears in your bedroom, it always comes with “Have no fear.”  When Jesus who was dead miraculously enters your locked room, he says, “Have no fear.”  When the boat is sinking, when the bush is burning, when life is crashing in, “Have no fear.”

I think the modern day equivalent is “Don’t be anxious.”  We live in a world that is built upon anxiety: real and contrived.  Advertising works by creating anxiety in order to relieve it.  “Did you know that more than half of men over 40 have some sort of erectile dysfunction?  Cialis is here to help.”  The 24 hour news cycle exists because post 9/11 we are anxious for breaking news and quick answers.  “We have no idea where this plan disappeared to, but we’ll spend the next 72 hours in a flight simulator offering speculation and conjecture.”  As Baby Boomers reach retirement age, the constant fluctuations of the stock market is a sure and certain source of anxiety.  Even sports, created to a source of leisure are now rife with anxiety.  Last season, when the Packers started 1-2 and their offense was finding little success, quarterback Aaron Rogers took to the airwaves with a simple request.

His words are wise, and our Collect for Sunday invites us to take them to heart as we ask God to grant us the ability to “not be anxious about earthly things.”  This is one of those prayers that I wonder if we really mean it.  I wonder if the congregation is praying along as I say the words or if they are leaving me out on a limb before God.  “You can pray that, Steve, but we’re so conditioned to anxiety that we’re kind of happy where we are.  Haven’t you watched the news lately?  There is plenty of earthly stuff to be anxious about.”

I get it.  Life in the kingdom doesn’t mean life on easy street.  There will still be hardships: medical concerns, financial woes, job stress, family issues, you name it; but God walks alongside us, with a hand on our shoulder, saying, “R-E-L-A-X.  Don’t be anxious.  Have no fear.  I am here.”

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.

On Keeping the 10 Commandments

This isn’t a post about whether or not the 10 Commandments should be displayed in state or federal courthouses.

This isn’t a post about whether or not Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, is off his rocker.

This isn’t a post about whether or not this bumper sticker tencsticker is a poorly digitized violation of the second commandment.

This is a [perhaps too analytical] post about whether or not, in light of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the disciples of Jesus should keep the 10 Commandments.  Spoiler Alert, the answer is yes.  During Lent, we’ve taken on the practice of starting our Sunday liturgy with the Penitential Order Rite I (BCP, 319).  We aren’t reading the Decalogue, as we have in years past, but we do hear the Summary of the Law every week.

“Here what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:  Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  and the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 22:37-40)

According to the Outline of the Faith: The Catechism, the 10 Commandments teach us two things: our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbors (BCP, 847).  According to Jesus, our main task as disciples is to love God and love neighbor.  By the transitive property, it seems then that keeping the 10 Commandments enables us to follow Jesus’ Commandment to love.  Turning again to the catechism, we see the inverse of my logic on page 848, “Since we do not fully obey [the 10 Commandments], we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.”

Failing to keep the 10 commandments is a failure to love God, love our neighbor, and at least in the case of Commandment 4, it is a failure to love ourselves.  A failure to love is a failure of discipleship, ergo, Christians should keep the 10 Commandments.

Failing Lent

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Lent 2 is a challenging one.  Once a prayer for heretics and schismatics, that they might be delivered from their errors and return to the Church catholic, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer it takes on new life.  Marion Hatchett, in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, notes that “In its new context as a Sunday collect it refers to those who have abandoned the practice of Christian faith” (174).  In the 35 years since the 79 BCP was approved, I think this collect has taken on an even broader meaning.

According to a January 7th article in the Washington Post, somewhere between 25 and 30% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions have already failed at the one week mark.  Roughly 45% have quit by the 3 week mark.  Extrapolating that data to Lenten discipline, by the time Sunday rolls around, we will be 10 days into Lent, which means that nearly 1/3 of us will have already quit or failed our Lenten practice.  A night out calls for a glass of wine, I get it.  11″ of snow in north Alabama meant you didn’t run for a week, sure.  Morning Prayer out of the BCP is really hard to juggle for one person, and it just plain feels weird, I know.

Shocking as it may be to believe, Homer Simpson has been wrong before.  Failure at least means you tried, and that’s a good thing.  On Sunday, when we pray for all who have gone astray, maybe we’ll be praying for you.  Maybe it’ll be a chance to start again at deepening your relationship with God.  Maybe it’ll be a new invitation to a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  Maybe it’ll be a chance to experience the grace of God that forgives all our sins, all our failures, all our mess-ups.

Bring your goof-ups and your slip-ups and your failures with you to church this week.  I plan to.  That way, the Collect can be an invitation for all of us into God’s unending mercy.