Comfortable Words

It may seem morbid or a sign of the slow decay of Episcopal relevance, but I am of the opinion that the Burial Office is the best thing the Episcopal Church has to offer the world.    Its language is beautiful, though I think those who find the pronoun usage in the various anthems to be troublesome have a salient argument.  It balances well the tendency to err too far to one side or the other between “this should only be about Jesus” and “this should only be about the deceased.”  Even the rubrics, which yes, we should read and abide by, help make an Episcopal burial service an opportunity for reflection, prayer, and celebration.  For example, the requirement that the coffin “be covered with a pall or other suitable covering” ensures that whether prince of pauper, every soul buried from the church is brought in under the cover of their baptismal gown.  As and aside, for which I am well known, I have seen, on occasion, the use of the Episcopal or American flag as “other suitable covering”  I can understand the impetus for this, but would argue against so as to expand beyond “prince and pauper” to include “priest and solider” as well.  All are the same in death, for, as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “whether we live or, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

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Astronaut Gene Cernan’s burial at St. Martin’s Church, Houston, TX. Note the pall covering his coffin

If you were reading Sunday’s New Testament lesson and the middle portion sounded familiar to you, it is probably because you have attended an Episcopal Burial service sometime since 1979.  Romans 14:7-8 is an option among four anthems in both the Rite I and Rite II services.  Often strung together as one long anthem, said in procession, these words at the opening of the Burial Office set the tone for the rest of the service to follow.  These are words of comfort.  These are words of hope.  These are words of resurrection.  These are, in the parlance of our Rite I Eucharist, “Comfortable Words” meant to place the hearts and minds of the bereaved in the hands of the resurrected Lord through whom we all have access to the Kingdom.

In a world that seems to be disintegrating around us, these words might come just at the right time this Sunday.  With a major earthquake in Mexico, the 16th anniversary  of 9/11, Charlottesville, and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma weighing heavy on our hearts, it seems prudent that we hear these words from Paul and have the Burial Office brought to mind.  In the same way that, in death, all of us come to the altar under the garment of baptism, so too, in life, we are all here on earth because of the gift and grace of God.  As Fitzmeyer puts it in his Anchor Bible Commentary, “This passage implies the service of God in all things, and it is the basis of life in the true Christian sense.  In life and in death, the Christ exists to Kyrio, i.e. to praise, honor, and serve God” (p. 691).  So, whether we feast or fast, whether we keep the Kalendar or honor everyday as a Feria from God, our lives are to be lived under the banner of our baptism, to the honor and glory of God.

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A Season of Hosannah

With the 1979 Book of Common Prayer came a restoration of a few original language words.  A quick perusal of the 1928 Book, shows that, in comparison, the 1979 version is mildly obsessed with the word “alleluia” (which means “praise God”).  Take, for example, the Invitatory in Morning Prayer:

1928 Book of Common Prayer
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.

1979 Book of Common Prayer
Lord open our lips.
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

Except in  Lent, add Alleluia.

When the word “alleluia” didn’t appear with regularity in our Common Prayer, there wasn’t much need to expressly eliminate it in the penitential season of Lent.  These days, however, it appears with regularity in the Daily Office and in the only Fraction Anthem prescribed in Rite II.  As such, congregations have begun to make more and more display of the elimination of the word “alleluia” during Lent.  In my on parish, our Shrove Tuesday event includes decorating alleluia confetti which get “buried” under the altar until the three-fold proclamation of Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.  Alleluia, indeed.

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All of that to mention that Palm Sunday often begs the question, “Why can we say ‘hosanna’ in Lent?”  This question always warms my heart because it means that people are paying attention to the liturgy, and noticing how it is different week to week and season by season.  It is a good and fair question, since the prevailing understanding of “hosanna” has it being somewhat analogous to “alleluia,”a word of praise.  While it is used in a similar fashion to alleluia, hosanna’s root meaning gives it a different connotation: one that is perfectly suited for Lent, and one that makes it a word we might want to hold onto through November 8th.

Hosanna’s etymology is from two Hebrew words that mean “save us, we pray!”  This phrase is found in Psalm 118, a portion of which is assigned for the Liturgy of the Palms, and is associated with the Festival of the Booths, a harvest festival during which the stalks of 4 grains are waved and God’s praise is sung in thanksgiving for a bountiful crop.  The festival itself shows this deep double meaning of praise and need.  It is only by God’s provision of rain, sun, and seasonable weather that the harvest can be plenteous, and so praise is given when once again, God has heard our prayer of hosanna, “save us, we pray!”

As the season of Lent draws to a close, another contentious election season is in full swing.  I plan to keep “hosanna,” a word of hope, promise, and praise, on my lips and close to my heart in the coming months as a reminder of the joy that comes in accepting God’s promise to save the world through his Son.

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.

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday

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

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

We still may detour around First Baptist. ;-)

We still may detour around First Baptist. 😉

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

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

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

Get your Ash in Church

I have been openly critical of some of the recent marketing attempts by Church leadership.  Thankfully, my friend and colleague, Adam Trambley wrote a reasoned response to the 2013 Episcopal Church marketing debacle so that I could just be snarky on Facebook, but honestly who thought this was a good idea?

Anyway, in recent years there has been an up and coming trend called “Ashes to Go” in which clerical and lay representatives from congregations set up shop at a busy intersection, outside a popular coffee shop, or near a subway entrance and engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday for those who are too busy to be bothered to come to Church on one of the very few days of obligation remaining in our overly scheduled culture.  This post will not weigh the merits of Ashes to Go because honestly I’m conflicted about it.  On one hand, I think the notion of getting outside of the church walls and engaging in guerrilla liturgy is a good and noble thing.  On the other, I think that the imposition of ashes is a sacramental symbol that can’t be done in isolation from the rest of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday and it loses is value outside of a community of faith.  That being said, there is no way Ashes to Go would work in Foley.  There is no central hub of walking activity.  Everyone is in their own cars going to their own jobs.  Unless I figured out a way to rain down ashes like confetti at the corner of AL-59 and US-98, it’d be a fruitless endeavor, no matter how well I tied up the liturgical quagmire into a neat bow to make sense of it in my own brain.

So it is that I’ve fallen in love with what seems to be the Council of Trent to the Ashes to Go’s 95 Theses, a movement summed up by this great button that you can buy from oldlutheran.com.

The Liturgy for Ash Wednesday is, to my mind, a uniquely powerful one.  It is our habit, those of us who attend the Holy Eucharist with regularity, to approach the altar rail ready to receive the body and blood of Jesus in the species of bread and wine.  We are entrenched in the pattern of coming forward, kneeling (for most of us) at the altar rail, and reaching out our hands to obtain “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” and “the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”  On Ash Wednesday, that experience is very different.  We come forward.  We kneel (most of us).  But we don’t hear the common words.  We don’t taste the familiar elements.  Instead, we feel the cold scratching on our forehead as roughly ground palm ashes mixed with oil are smeared across our brow as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  It is an arresting experience, so different than what we’re used to, and very much needed in a world that moves, as my Rector would say, “at break neck speed on the road to no where.”

One can’t have that experience without stopping for a few moments, without stepping out of the passing lane and taking a pause.  It is the one thing that even the best expression of Ashes to Go can’t offer, the intentionality of changing the normal pattern of just one day in order to hear the voice of God as he speaks through the Church.  I get that some simply can’t step out of the patterns of life, and for them, I’m glad Ashes to Go exists, but for the rest of us, honestly the 99.9% of us who can take the time to stop for 30 minutes and invite God into our hearts and onto our foreheads, I say, “Get your Ash in Church.”

If you’re in Foley, join us at 506 N. Pine Street at noon and 6pm.
A nursery will be available at 6pm.

Poured out for Many

Each post this week will focus on the biblical account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  Today’s reading is from Mark 14:12-25 (NRSV).

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”   So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him.  Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’  He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”   The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.   When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve.  While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me-one who is eating with me.”   They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?”   “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me.  The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”   While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”   Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.  “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” 


 

There has been some debate in high thinking theological circles about the Eucharistic Prayers we use.  Specifically in question is a portion of the Institution Narrative which we have here in Mark’s account of the last supper.  As Jesus shares the cup with his disciples he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”  In our liturgical texts, we tend to mash these words with Paul’s version from 1st Corinthians, which gives us the well known, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”

The subject of the debate is the word many, polos in Greek.  Many is troublesome for some people because it sounds exclusionary.  Honestly, it is exclusionary, but the fact of the matter is that the Greek word seems to clearly indicate many but not all.  Smarter people than me might be able to tell us why, when The Episcopal Church published Enriching our Worship in 1998, they decided to forego the ancient tradition of “many” and instead use the word “all” in all three Eucharistic Prayers and both Eucharistic Forms.  My gut says that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music didn’t like the exclusive nature of many, so they simply chose to change it, which I think misses the point of what is actually happening in the story of Jesus’ Last Supper.

You see, many includes a whole lot of people.  Those who were at the table with Jesus, part of the many who would drink from the cup of the new covenant and share in the forgiveness of sins, included Thomas, who in just a few days be uncertain if he could really believe that Jesus had risen from the dead; Peter, who in just a few hours would find himself denying that he even knew Jesus, let alone was one of his closest disciples not once, not twice, but three times; and, of course, Judas, who in only a few minutes will dart out into the darkness of the night to finalize the arrangements of Jesus’ betrayal to the Jewish authorities.  Many includes a lot of people who have failed in a lot of pretty significant ways.  Judas will take his own life before the night is over, but he drank from the cup, and I believe found his way into heaven.  Peter will come back to the faith, be the rock upon which the Church is built, die crucified upside down for his faith, and I believe found his way into heaven.  Thomas will, as legend suggests, take the Gospel all the way to India and die there at a ripe old age in the year 72CE.  Whether he died of old age, from an arrow accidentally misfired by a fowler, or as a martyr at the hands of soldiers (all ways Thomas is said to have died), I believe he found his way into heaven.

Many is a troublesome word, but it is the word that Jesus used, and, quite frankly, its meaning is a lot wider than most of us are really comfortable with.  As night falls and the events of Good Friday come swiftly upon us, we’ll find that the many from whom Jesus’ blood was poured out will include a criminal crucified beside him and the centurion and his detachment who took part in the crucifixion.  Many doesn’t mean all, but it sure comes awfully close.

Jesus Christ is Lord – a sermon

UPDATE: the audio is available on the Saint Paul’s Website.

There were some technical difficulties this morning, and I’m still not sure I’ll have audio to post. This week will be full of posts, so rather than wait and inundate my dear readers, I’ll go ahead and post the text of the sermon now, and hopefully update with audio tomorrow.

I’ve always had trouble with Palm Sunday, or as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer actually calls it, “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.” It is such a disjointed day, trying to capture in about an hour of liturgy, two of the major highlights in a week filled with non-stop action. Some of you remember when it wasn’t such a hodge-podge. Back when the 1928 Prayer Book was in use, the day may have been “commonly called Palm Sunday,” but following the long tradition of Cranmer’s 1549 Book, there was nothing Palm-y about it, unless you were the rare soul who spent two-and-a-half-hours attending both Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, and even then, you only heard the Triumphal Entry Gospel lesson. By the 1970s, people had stopped giving up their entire Sunday morning to attend interminably long church services. For most, the Sunday before Easter was like any other, only with a slightly longer Gospel lesson: The Passion was read, a sermon was preached, bread was broken, and everybody went home ready to take a few days off before returning on Wednesday for the Stations of the Cross. Meanwhile, liturgical historians had stumbled across fourth century evidence of ancient parades on the Sunday before Easter, in which people waved Palm Branches and remembered Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Thinking that we should do the cool things people did in the early Church, they added the Liturgy of the Palms to a service that was really about the Passion Gospel, and voila, we’ve got the disjointed mess that is “The Sunday of the Passion [colon] Palm Sunday.”
In an attempt to ease the messiness, several years ago Keith and I decided to take Holy Week seriously as a whole week. We fudged this service just a bit by pushing the Passion Gospel to the very end, making it the transition moment from our shouts of “Hosanna,” to the week-long struggle that will end with shouts of “crucify him!” No matter how much fudging we do, however, the liturgy for Palm Sunday is still, in my opinion, a disjointed mess. Like Jesus riding two donkeys at the same time in Matthew’s Palm Sunday account, we attempt to straddle the majesty of the King of kings parading into Jerusalem and the “so-called” King of the Jews being whipped, beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross. As I once again struggled with this awkward balancing act, I went back the lectionary and found myself drawn to the Philippians lesson for two compelling reasons. First, it reminded me of the hymn, “He is Lord,” which we sang every Sunday after communion in the somewhat charismatic parish of my youth. I can still see Father Bill standing behind the altar, arms raised high in the air as we sang, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Second, and more importantly, this beautiful mid-first century hymn about Jesus the Christ can help us embrace today’s weird mix of joy and sorrow.
We hear this lesson from Philippians 2 fresh off the high of rustling palm branches and “all glory, laud, and honor.” Jesus is the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In other Gospel accounts, he’s named the King of Israel. On Palm Sunday, Jesus had everything he needed to take over the Temple, overthrow the Chief Priests and mount a battle against the Romans. He was at the height of his power and authority, but he knew that military might was not his calling.
“Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” Despite his followers’ claims, the Pharisees’ fears, and Bible sub-headings to the contrary, Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is really anything but. Imagine the scene as Jesus clumsily rides into town on a too small, still nursing female donkey with her foal in tow while a mish-mash of country-folk shout out “hosannas” as they throw their dusty coats and some broken down palm branches on the ground. This parade has nothing on the one happening across town as Pilate enters on his warhorse, surrounded by chariots and pomp. Especially during Passover Season, the Roman’s exploited their power through taxation, coercion, and military might. On the contrary, Jesus “emptied himself,” giving up all worldly authority he could rightfully claim in order to fulfill his destiny.
“… He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” Here’s our moment of transition into Holy Week. In a world where humility is seen as a sign of weakness, even here in what seems to be his most glorious moment, Jesus submits himself to God’s plan for salvation, preparing himself for the ultimate act of humiliation on Good Friday. Jesus won’t just die, he’ll be spit upon, dressed in purple robes and openly mocked; he’ll be scourged, whipped, and beaten; he’ll be dragged through town with a heavy wooden beam across his shoulders, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, and raised high up in the air for the whole world to see. His death is one of the cruelest and most degrading in the history of public executions, but it is there, in the depths of his humiliation, not at the height of his triumphal entry, that God lifts Jesus up to his rightful place of honor and glory.
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Deep within one of the oldest hymns of the Church, we find the most ancient creed that Christians have, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Not Lord as the Romans used it, as in master and slave, but Lord, as in God. Jesus Christ is God. In his crucifixion, Jesus proves his obedience to the will of the Father and is granted the very name of God, YHWH, which a devout Jew like Paul would never utter, choosing instead to call him Lord. Jesus Christ, who alone is both fully God and fully human, through torture, humiliation, and death is raised up to the very throne of God so that we too might one day gain our inheritance as beloved children.
As we embark on this week, this Holy Week, it is helpful for us to remember that Jesus’ place as King of kings and Lord of lords didn’t come in some fancy parade, but through a most gruesome one. As the days go by this week, as the controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leadership becomes more and more intense, I encourage you to ponder Jesus’ unwavering devotion to his Father’s will. In a world that is not that unlike first century Jerusalem, where humility is eschewed for power and authority, I hope you’ll recall Christ’s example of self-emptying love. Whether you are here with us at every service this week, or reading along through the morning emails, my prayer is that you will take a few moments each day to consider Jesus’ mighty acts of humility, and on bended knee, confess and give thanks that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Amen.