Sunday, August 26, 2007

Year C: Proper 16 (26 August 2007)

Note: St Anne's uses the Revised Common Lectionary. This is one of the rare occasions when the appointed gospel reading is entirely different from the one appointed by the original 1979 BCP lectionary.

C: Proper 16 (2007) Luke 13:10-17

I haven’t been in the Diocese of Northern Indiana long enough to have a reputation for anything, but in my former diocese of San Joaquin, I was considered the font of all knowledge when it comes to liturgy. I’m not exactly sure how I acquired such a reputation, but I was stuck with it nonetheless. Some may even have thought of me as a bit of a “liturgy geek,” and I know that the term “rubrical fundamentalist” has been applied to me at various times. (Rubrics are the “fine print” in the Prayer Book that give various instructions about how things are to be done.) But if I’m a liturgy geek and a rubrical fundamentalist, then I have a fairly mild case of the disease, because there are those with full-blown symptoms much more impressive than mine. I have a book on my shelf that offers detailed ceremonial prescriptions for every conceivable contingency—how to celebrate the Eucharist when the Bishop is not present, when the Bishop is present, when the Bishop is present in the room but not at the altar, when a bishop other than the diocesan bishop is present, when an archbishop or primate is present, and on and on and on.

Of course, even ordinary lay Episcopalians care about certain liturgical details, and use churchy jargon in ways that make perfect sense to them, but leave outsiders scratching their heads—Rite One, Rite Two, what parts of the service are sung and what parts are said, special practices during Advent and Lent, and the like. To many outsiders, both Christian and non-Christian, it can easily seem a little much; it can seem like “religion” getting in the way of “faith.”

This seems to be something like Jesus’ point in the synagogue encounter we read about today in the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he sees a woman who has symptoms that look like what we would call osteoporosis—she can’t straighten up. We’re not told that she even asks for his help, but he simply says to her, “Woman, you are healed from your infirmity.” Then he lays his hands on her, and she immediately stands up straight. Pretty impressive, huh? The congregation in the synagogue evidently thought so; it certainly wasn’t what they were expecting when they showed up for worship that day. But the ruler of the synagogue, the head guy, was miffed because, you see, what Jesus did was a violation of the rubrics—indeed, to apply our Episcopalian terminology to the situation, it was a breach of canon law. It was the Sabbath, and you’re not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and what is healing somebody from a disease if not work, right? But Jesus comes back with, “Look, get a grip here, people! [I’m paraphrasing slightly!] Every one of you at least feeds your animals on the Sabbath day, and here we have a child of God who’s been cursed with this disease for eighteen years, and you want to make her wait a day because it’s a violation of the rubrics? Come on, get real!” To borrow one of Jesus’ sayings from another context: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”

Now, we intuitively agree with Jesus in his condemnation of “religion” for its own sake—this is not one his “hard sayings” such as we dealt with last week. No, this is one we are easily on board with. Yet, there are those—I think we can safely say there are many—who would want to take it a step further and have a very casual or even dismissive attitude toward formal and outward religious practices such as corporate worship, especially corporate worship that uses liturgical forms, and especially liturgical forms that contain such things as rubrics! There are those who automatically and instinctively devalue spiritual disciplines and sacred objects and symbolic actions, the keeping of special days and seasons. And then there are those who not only dismiss and devalue such things, but condemn them outright. One could think here of the Puritans who had such a stormy relationship with our Anglican ancestors three and four hundred years ago. (The Puritans, you know, didn’t even celebrate Christmas.) One might also think of some of our evangelical Protestant friends, for whom much of what we do in our worship seems either baffling or foolish or just plain boring. And then there are those who are inclined to let values that they may describe as “compassion” or “justice” trump any other concerns, and for whom liturgical texts and rubrics are matters of trifling importance.

So we have a bit of a paradox here, an apparent contradiction. As Anglicans, we have a liturgical and spiritual tradition that is rich and complex and, at times, quite detailed. We have rubrics! But within that very tradition, we have this gospel story in which Jesus’ own words and actions can be seen as granting a license to take the whole tradition very lightly, or even to ignore it. Well, as is the case with so many aspects of our Christian experience, the truth is found not in opting for one polarity of the other, nor is it found in splitting the difference between the two, but in maintaining both polarities, both ends of the tightrope, in their full integrity. We can be faithful to our tradition—even the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer!—and still live in the spirit of what Jesus reveals when he heals the woman in the synagogue. A balanced Catholic Christian perspective sees religious practices—like, for Jews, keeping the Sabbath, like worship and prayer and fasting and abstinence on certain days—we can see all these things as signs, shadowy counterparts, of heavenly realities. For example, when we honor the Sabbath principle of stepping aside from our routine of work on a disciplined and regular basis, we are allowing God to prepare us for the eternal rest that he promises his people in Heaven. When we are faithful in our attendance at corporate worship on Sundays and Holy Days, we are opening ourselves to the sort of communion with God that is our destiny, that to which our souls are naturally bent and inclined. When we practice abstinence and self-denial on Fridays and during Lent, we are walking the way of the cross, we are allowing ourselves to be conformed to the example and image of Christ. Saying our daily prayers and making our confession and keeping Lent, and other such religious practices, put us in mind of the sort of training an athlete or a performing artist undergoes in preparation for a contest, even as we are preparing to receive the crown of life on the Day of the Lord.

Of course, the important caveat to bear in mind is that these religious practices, wholesome as they may be, are means to an end, and not ends in themselves. They are intended to make us holy, not to make us proud of our accomplishment. Today’s gospel incident rightly teaches us to regard them precisely as vehicles toward a destination and not the destination itself. Nonetheless, religious practices, liturgical texts, and even rubrics(!) can be invaluable means to a very important end—that is, the salvation of our souls. Like they say about tradition, religion is a tyrannical master but a most excellent servant. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Year C: Proper 15 (19 August 2007)

This is my homily for my first Sunday as Rector of St Anne's in Warsaw, Indiana.

Luke 12:49-56
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Several weeks ago, as I began to think about my first Sunday at St Anne’s, and begin the process of “sermon formation,” I looked at the lectionary to see what the readings would be. Imagine my horror when I encountered these words of Jesus from St Luke’s gospel: “I came to cast fire upon the earth … Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division…” My heart sank! This was hardly the sort of unifying, uplifting, celebratory material I might have hoped for on my first Sunday in a new parish. But, I might as well tell you right now, because you’ll discoverer it sooner or later anyway, I’m committed to playing the hand that I’m dealt, and the hand I’ve been dealt features Jesus talking about conflict and division.

Of course, even without the unique context of this being my first Sunday with you all, these words of Jesus would definitely come under the category of what are sometimes referred to as his “hard sayings.” I mean, once in a while, Jesus comes up with something that just makes us gulp, and we say to ourselves, “Ooh, not so good. Why’d he have to go and say that? It’s going to be tough to explain that one to my skeptical non-Christian friends. Ouch.” Talk about parents being estranged from their children specifically on account of loyalty to Jesus just doesn’t square very easily with our image of him as…well, you know…a nice guy, someone who’s all about peace, all about reconciliation. This is definitely not the Jesus we’re familiar with!

So, let’s take it apart, and see what we might be able to salvage, shall we? First, the context: Jesus utters these words in the middle of what is, in Luke’s gospel, a travelogue. Jesus and his companions are on a trip—a long journey from Galilee, which was their home turf, on foot, to Jerusalem—roughly the distance from here to the Michigan state line. Right after his transfiguration—when Peter and James and John got a preview of his future glory—Luke tells us, Jesus resolutely “set his face” toward Jerusalem, the venue of his final battle with the Evil One, the place where his entire life purpose would come to a head. Jerusalem was where he would—to use the slang of the Country Western culture—“get ‘er done.”

Let me be even more blunt: At this point in Jesus’ ministry, the cross is beginning to dominate his personal radar screen; the cross is always in view. This was not a prospect that he relished—not in the least. But he knew that the cross was his destiny, and at this point, he just wants to get on with it. He just wants to “get ‘er done.” This is the “baptism” to which he refers, and by which he is “constrained until it is accomplished.” He can’t get it out of his mind. In the Jewish mindset of his time, crucifixion was not only a painful way to die, but an exceedingly shameful way to die. The Law of Moses says that anyone who is hung on a “tree”—and being nailed to a wooden cross was understood as the equivalent—anyone who is hung on a tree is “cursed.” But Jesus did not let that deter him. As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews puts us, he “endured the cross, despising the shame.” It is the cross, and nothing but the cross, that is consuming Jesus’ emotional energy. He’s a man with a mission, and he’s ready to get on with it! Jesus has the cross perpetually in view.

But here’s the deal with the cross: We talk about it being our life and our salvation. We talk about it being “the way of life and peace.” We talk about an “instrument of shameful death” being transformed into a sign of victory. And that is all completely true, but not … not if Jesus is the only one who “owns” it, not if Jesus is the only one who picks it up and carries it. The cross only “works”—it is only effective on our behalf—if we make it ours as well. Jesus invites us to take up our cross daily and follow him. And when we do so, he will lead us eventually to Calvary, even as he was led to Calvary carrying his cross. It is the vocation of the Christian people to walk the way of the cross with Jesus, to have the cross perpetually in view.

When Bishop Little—believe it or not, more than a year ago now—first approached me about the possibility of coming to Warsaw, I asked him, “Is it a beautiful church? Will it make my heart sing?” (For better or for worse, such things are important to me.) He assured me that, yes, St Anne’s is a beautiful church. After the Search Committee team that came to see me in Stockton last January returned from their trip, they sent me a thank-you note on one the cards that I’m sure you’ve seen, the ones that show this altar. Right away, my eyes were drawn to this large crucifix, and something resonated in my heart. Last April, when Brenda and I visited Warsaw, seeing this crucifix in person confirmed what I had felt when I saw in pictured in a card. Along with a couple of other features of the worship space at St Anne’s, the crucifix started my heart singing. So, how very appropriate it is that, on my first Sunday as your Rector, the gospel reading should be about Jesus not being able to take his attention off the cross, and, by implication, about our privilege and duty of walking the way of the cross with Jesus! At St Anne’s, the cross is literally ever before us, perpetually in our field of view, on our radar screen, a vision that constrains us even as it constrained Jesus—a vision of healing through suffering, of redemption through sacrifice, of victory through surrender, of life through death. This is indeed the mystery of our faith, and how blessed we are in this parish to have it before us in such a compelling way.

Now, when we walk the way of the cross with Jesus faithfully, one of the risks to which we expose ourselves is the disruption of our relationships—even our primary familial relationships—because people will sometimes not understand the choices we make, the priorities we embrace, the values by which we live as a result of our loyalty to Jesus, because they do not always conform to the values and priorities of the world around us, the dominant secular culture. In fact, if our commitment as Christians does not disrupt our relationships in some way, we should probably re-examine the integrity of that commitment!

But…part of the “deal” with the cross is that, not only do we share the suffering of Christ, we also share his victory, we share his glory. Yes, the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, but he did it with an end in mind, he did it “for the joy that was set before him.” And, as we know, his end is also our end. The joy that was set before him is also the joy that is set before us. His motivation for despising the shame of the cross is also our motivation for despising the shame of the cross. And, just for good measure, we are cheered on, and prayed for, by an innumerable “cloud of witnesses,” those who have walked the way of the cross before us, and received the crown of life.

So, as it turns out, this gospel is, after all, quite auspicious for the beginning of this new chapter in the life of St Anne’s and in the life of my ministry as a priest: It invites us to keep our eyes perpetually on the cross, to “despise the shame,” to become a community of support when our primary relationships are challenged by our commitment to Christ, and to experience the victory toward which the saints who have come and gone before us in this place are urging us on toward. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Year C: Proper 10 (15 July 2007)

This was the sermon I delivered at the conclusion of a thirteen year ministry at St John's in Stockton, California.

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Luke 10:25-37

I would be ignoring the proverbial “elephant in the living room” if I were to not pay direct attention in these next few minutes to the fact that we are today on the cusp of a transitional moment in the history of St John’s, in the lives of the members of St John’s, and in my own life, and Brenda’s. Fortunately, the reading from Deuteronomy provides a virtually perfect text in which to anchor our hearts and minds as we, together, process this moment of transition in our lives.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is about a transitional moment. The ancient people of Israel have escaped horrible slavery in Egypt, by the grace of God and under the leadership of Moses. But they then spent an entire generation wandering in apparent aimlessness in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. Now the time has finally arrived for them to cross the Jordan River and take possession of the Promised Land—the territory that had been deeded over by God to their ancestor Abraham and his descendents. But they were entering uncharted territory, and in more ways than one, because Moses, their long-term leader, was not going to be making the trip. He was allowed to view the Promised Land from the lofty height of Mount Pisgah, but the Lord made it clear that Moses was a short-timer, and that it would be his lieutenant, Joshua, who would lead the people across the Jordan. So the bulk of Deuteronomy consists of what amounts to Moses’ valedictory address to the people, giving them detailed instructions about how God wanted them to order their lives once they ceased being nomads and took up a settled existence in a particular place.

So it was a time of anxiety for the people. Moses they knew. They gave him a hard time occasionally, and not everybody was always cooperative in following his leadership, but at least he was a known quantity. Joshua they weren’t so sure about. He was untested. There is an obvious temptation under such circumstances, a temptation toward constant and anxiety-driven talking—the good Old Testament word for it is “murmuring.” There’s a temptation to act—a great deal of pressure on leaders to just “do something”—but not necessarily in a disciplined and thoughtful manner. This sort of anxious running around leads inevitably to a sort of “paralysis by analysis,” with ever-escalating tension and uncertainty over what the right course of action is. What is it that God wants us to do? How is God trying to lead us? Moses gave voice to the fears of his people this way: “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?...Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?”

Now, I certainly don’t have the audacity to compare myself to Moses in any way, and I will leave it to others to say how much these last thirteen years at St John’s bear any resemblance to wandering in the wilderness, so there are some clear limits to the parallel I’m trying to draw. But there is very shortly going to be a leadership change at St John’s—first from me to Father Gubuan as Interim Rector, and then from Fr Gubuan to whomever it is that the Lord has already called to become the 27th rector of this historic parish. In addition to grief, there is an understandable amount of anxiety and uncertainty floating around. What is it that God wants us to do? How is God trying to lead us? “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?”

Moses’ response to this sort of high anxiety was direct and simple: “The word is very near you.” Things are not really as complicated as they seem. The task at hand is not as daunting as it appears. The right thing to do is not all that difficult to figure out for those who really want to. In Moses’ own words: “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. … But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

If I may be bold enough to ride the coattails of Moses in this moment, my valedictory message to the community of St John’s is, “The word is very near you.” Yes, there are lots of questions that need to be asked during this time of transition, and some of those questions may actually need to be answered! There are some decisions that the leaders of this community will need to make in the task of discerning what God calls St John’s to be and to do, not only in this time of transition, but in the years and decades that lie ahead. (And in this regard, don’t forget that I’m not the only short-timer; everyone here today is ultimately a short-timer at St John’s. God willing, and in the event that our Lord’s return should be delayed further still, there will be Christian worship taking place on this hallowed ground long after we have all entered the world to come.)

So, yes, there is work to do. But the main work that needs to be done is not obscure; it’s not difficult to figure out. In the case of St John’s the “very near word” is found in the vows of our baptism, the promises by which we once bound ourselves to serve God faithfully in his Holy Catholic Church. In those vows, we promise first to remain faithful to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles. The teaching of the apostles is summarized in the creeds of the Church. They are not optional. They are not subject to change by any lesser authority than a council that is representative of all in the world who profess and call themselves Christians. It isn’t that difficult to discern what constitutes fidelity to the teaching of the apostles.

The fellowship of the apostles is represented by the community of the Church. What God calls the people of St John’s to do is to remain faithful to him by remaining faithful to one another. You are cells in the body of Christ. You are for one another. The people who irritate you the most in this parish are the very people who are most for you, and vice versa. That may not be the news you most want to hear, but, hey, I’m a short-timer! Stick with each other; you need each other, and not just the ones you like, and not even just the ones you know. Hard to do, maybe, but not hard to figure out.

In our baptismal vows, we also promise to continue in “the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.” It’s no mystery what this is referring to. The “breaking of the bread” is an ancient euphemism for the Eucharist and “the prayers” is an ancient euphemism for what we would call the Daily Office. The Mass and the Office are the respiration and heartbeat of the Church’s life. Neglect them at your peril—not just your individual peril, but your collective peril, the peril of the institution. Be disciplined about your life of worship and prayer. Everything else the Church does flows from those sources.

We have also vowed to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Evil and sin present themselves to us in a variety of different forms, but ultimately it’s a matter of pride, the root of all other sins. Pride and egotism—self-centeredness—can do untold amounts of harm in any community, including a church community. It is so easy to be snared by our egos; it’s like falling off a log. The Evil One can foil the best of intentions by appealing to the egos of those who have such intentions. Therefore, repentance is an ongoing project; it never ends this side of Eternity. I’m not talking about breast-beating self-flagellation here, and not even tears and hugs and apologies so much—though such things are often part of the picture—but, cultivating the habit of simply turning away from Path A—the wrong path—and toward path B—the right path. It’s not complex. It’s difficult, but it’s not complex. We can figure it out. The word is very near us.

Finally, we have a set of three baptismal vows that have to do with mission: We promise to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,” to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our neighbors] as [ourselves], and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” There’s a tremendous amount here, and we don’t have time to unpack it in detail. But it isn’t anything that a ten-year old shouldn’t be able to figure out intuitively: Our actions have to be consistent with our words. If we say we believe that Jesus is the Son of God and savior of the world, then that’s good news that we will not keep to ourselves. If we say we believe the every human person is created in the image of God, then we’d better treat every human person as if they are made in the image of God. And if we say we believe that the God whom we serve is the “author of peace and lover of concord,” a God of justice and righteousness, then we will make his priorities our priorities in everything we do. Pretty simple, huh? Not easy, but not hard to discern, not hard to figure out. There’s no mystery here.

As Moses is with the people of Israel on the brink of entering the Promised Land, he not only reminds them that the word of God is very near them, he gives them reassurance with these encouraging words:

“The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground; for the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers.”

Well, as we’ve established, I’m no Moses. But I don’t see any reason why I can’t copy his example as I stand here with you on the brink of a new chapter in the history of St John’s, a leg of the journey on which I will not be joining you. I haven’t been taken to the top of Mount Pisgah to view the Promised Land for St John’s, but I can tell you with confidence that God’s plan and desire is to bless and prosper the ministry of this parish! I can tell you with confidence that “the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight” in those who came before you in this place. And I can tell you with confidence that the 26th rector of St John’s will be watching you from afar, with an abundance of love, and filled with gratitude for the privilege of being yoked with you here in the ministry of the gospel for these past 680 Sundays. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.