Friday, June 25, 2021

Taste and see that the LORD is good. But is he safe?

I am more than a bit baffled by what seems a sentimental, domesticated, and naïve understanding of God, Jesus, and the Church as the body of Christ, and, therefore, of the Eucharist. God is perfect love and truth, perfect goodness and beauty. That perfect love, truth, goodness, and beauty is more awesome and wilder than Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, or a powerful summer thunderstorm. If you think about it, it is daunting to imagine being in the presence of such given our own unlove and untruth. And yet, we believe God desires to draw us into the divine Presence and make us able to bear it. Making us able to bear that Presence—and even participate in it—is no small or comfortable thing. God is not just a warm bath of affirmation. God is a consuming fire prepared to burn away the dead wood of our sin (all that is unlove and untrue) making way for new growth or to melt us down and draw off the dross, refining us into the glorious beings of freedom, love, truth, and peace we are meant to be. That is why “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). As C. S. Lewis famously wrote of Aslan/Christ, he is good but that does not mean he is safe.

I think here of Annie Dillard’s famous dissuasive to supposing God is tame, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sun- day morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some- day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming into God's presence, particularly to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically, as we move through the eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The one into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God.

Though it is not often read these days, an exhortation before the rites of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer reads, in part:

if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves care- fully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord. (BCP, p. 316)

The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar, drawing closer to the eucharistic mystery. At intervals in the dance, we stop to acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness, and ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts that we may perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy Name … and we dance a little closer. We sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion, each of which asks again for mercy – closer still. Then, after hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, receive the promise of forgiveness, and exchange the peace, before dancing yet closer to the altar of the Prince of Peace. And on it goes—acknowledging God’s presence as holy (the Sanctus) and asking for forgiveness (the Lord’s Prayer). In every case, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the One with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of forgiveness and healing. And yet, by God’s amazing grace, we are invited and encouraged to draw near with confidence “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16)—a confidence that avoids presumption because it is born in baptism and trusts that the one who demands our transformation, loves us beyond our imagining.

More here: Baptized Into Eucharist

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Whose Table is it? Who is the Host and Who the Guest?

Altar, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Plymouth, Wisconsin

The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States have voted to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a push by conservative bishops to deny communion to President Biden and other politicians because of their support for legalized abortion. I am wary of criticizing another traditions application of the logic of their teaching. I will only say I think it unwise and I suspect that it has less to do with the logic of Roman Catholic teaching (the Pope has cautioned against such a move after all) than it has to do with the peculiar dynamics of American politics and culture war mentality.

The actions of the Roman Catholic bishops have prompted a larger discussion in their church and in others about the nature of the Eucharist. In particular, the question “Whose table is it?” has been raised. But, the answer to that question is less simple and less straightforward than some memes and soundbites suggest. Whose table it is depends on who is the host and who is the guest.

The ultimate host of the Eucharistic Feast is God, the mutual giving and receiving that is the Holy Trinity, manifested in Jesus and his self-sacrificial way on the cross. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of one who wills to reconfigure us in his own cruciform image.

But there is a penultimate eucharistic host, namely, the Church, the body of Christ itself, re-membered in mutual communion. If the Church is the penultimate host of the Eucharist, who then is the penultimate guest? Paradoxically, it is again God. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ, the Church, is both guest and host, and the divine Host is also the Guest.

We invite (as our guest) the Holy Spirit to “descend upon the gifts that they may be the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.” Because the Guest is nothing less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God.” We pray to be sanctified so we can faithfully receive this Host because, as Chrysostom writes, it is more awe-inducing than Elijah calling down fire from heaven in his contest with the priests of Baal for the Church to dare to call down the Holy Spirit upon the altar of the Eucharist.

It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is most often the guest at the table of others rather than the host. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered, hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the radical, life-altering expectations of Jesus. Likewise, as ones who have been incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our guest is and the expectations that Guest places upon the community that seeks to accommodate him.

As host and servant of Christ, the Church is the “steward of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1). And therefore, the Church has a stake in how the Eucharist is celebrated and administered. The altar is also the Church’s table because God has so authorized the Church.

Is it not marvelous, this mutual hosting? That God is both Host & Guest while empowering the Church to also be guest & host of the same feast is one way God invites the us to participate in the life of the Trinity which is itself mutual giving and receiving, hosting and guesting. It does raise the question, though. What does it mean to be good guests and good hosts?

Next: Taste and see that the LORD is good. But is he safe?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Can you imagine what it would be like to have a messenger of God show up in your room and speak these words to you? (Luke 1:26-38)

I love this painting of the Annunciation by 20th century African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner. I especially like the way the angel Gabriel is represented. Rather than a man with wings, here we have a beam of light. It has about it something of the eerie mystery that I expect comes with such an encounter with the Holy. It reminds me of the way C. S. Lewis represents angelic beings in Out of the Silent Planet (writing after Tanner painted, but as far as I know unaware of this painting). Except that in Lewis’ telling, the “eldila” appear slightly off kilter  but this is because it is our world that is askew being bent by sin.

I also appreciate that Mary looks more like a young Mediterranean peasant girl than in most renditions. There is a gritty realism to it. She looks like maybe Gabriel woke her up to greet her in God’s name. Her bed is unmade. And she really looks like she is perplexed and pondering what sort of greeting this might be.

And what a greeting it is, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” What an affirmation of God’s care and delight. Insignificant though she might have been considered in her society, God notices and cares. However unimportant she might have thought herself to be, God delights in her. God favors her. It is the word we all long to hear.

But there is more to God’s favor than affirmation. When the God Mary knew through the stories of her people favors someone, it involves a call. God favored Abraham. God favored Moses. God favored David. God favored the people of Israel. The affirmation in every case was accompanied by a call to participate in God's mission. And so it is with Mary. No wonder she pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

And the part she was being called to play in God’s mission of redemption was daunting indeed. Which is why the other part of the initial greeting is just as important as the affirmation and call of God’s favor: “The Lord is with you.” Much is being given to Mary and much is being asked of her. But the one who has favored her is also with her to give her strength to see it through. And nothing will be impossible with God. The angel continues, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Still, the angel – along with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven – awaits her reply. Will she dare to receive this word in her heart? Will she dare to conceive this Word in her womb? With Mary’s response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” human willingness is freely united with the will of God. Perhaps Tanner is right to have Gabriel beaming perpendicular. Perhaps in this one moment, in this room, with the response of this young woman, hope and history rhyme, heaven and earth are in sync, and the world is unbent. And the Baby she will bear will be the Unbent One, perfectly embodying the peace and joy of God’s favor.

The story doesn’t end there of course. Mary’s role in the story will get complicated. There will be confusion and heartache. But the Lord will be with her along with God’s favor.

And so it is with us. Given her role in the story of our salvation, Mary is particularly favored and we honor her for that. But Mary is also considered the prototypical disciple – the elder sister of all believers. If she is, then we should be able to hear the word she heard as being spoken to us as well. What if we knew ourselves to be addressed every morning with, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” and “Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.”? If what Christians believe about Mary’s son is true, then that is precisely what God is saying to you and to me each day. Whatever else the voices around us or within us are saying or not saying, God has declared his favor toward us in being made flesh. In spite of the bentness, in spite of sin and brokenness, God is with us and has addressed all that is bent in the world and in us.

As with Mary, God’s favor toward us is also a call to mission – to love God and to love and care for one another, to be bearers of forgiveness and healing. And, as with Mary, all the angels in heaven rejoice when we respond, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.

Today is the Feast of Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231). She was an impressive woman and I encourage you follow the link to read about her. Elizabeth came from a remarkable family. Her brother, Béla IV (1206-1270), was king of Hungary. He was himself a devout and faithful Christian who eventually became a Third Order [lay] Franciscan. He also uttered one of my favorite lines.

In 1241 the Mongols invade Eastern Europe. When it became clear they were headed for Hungary, King Béla gathered his nobles and ordered them to call up their knights and others so he could lead an army against the invaders. But the nobles balked. Everyone knew by then that the Mongols were invincible and the nobles feared going to war with them. They argued that the king should surrender and let the Mongols have their way. The king responded, “The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.” He challenged the nobles to ride with him for the honor of Hungary. And they did.
I like King Béla’s response, “The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.” I remember it frequently in these challenging days for the Church. Echoing King Béla, I can say, “The fate of the Diocese of Fond du Lac is in God’s hands; being as faithful as I can be in leading the diocese into faithfulness is in my hands. This is true for the leaders, lay and ordained, of any congregation. There are forces at work over which we have no control that make being church difficult. But we do have control over our own faithfulness. Though we hope fuller faithfulness will lead to growth, that faithfulness does not guarantee measurable success. The fate of the Church is in God's hands.
The Mongols did in fact annihilate the Hungarian army in the Battle of Mohi and devastated the country before their unexpected withdrawal in March 1242. But Béla, escaped and survived after the defeat and was able return to the throne and lead Hungary for many years.
The fate of the Church is in God’s hands. Faithfulness is in ours. That is not fatalism. I will continue to do what I can to help congregations thrive and grow. And I will encourage members of the diocese to be faithful disciples and witnesses. We are accountable for that faithfulness. But the fate of the Church is in God's hands.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

"Therefore, I will now allure her" – a Sermon on Hosea 2:14-23

Hosea 2:14-23

What kind of God have you gotten yourself mixed up with?

In the prophet Hosea, we have the God of Israel making a spectacle of himself as he pursues his wayward love. Israel had continually done him wrong, two-timed him, cheated on him. And yet, here he is saying, Therefore, I will now allure her.” I will now allure her. What kind of self-respecting God is that?

I wonder what the other gods would have thought (imagining for a moment that they existed.)

Marduk: I wonder what he sees in her. She’s not all that good looking. She certainly is not wealthy like the Great Babylon where I am worshiped. I’d have dumped her long ago.

Zeus: I like to play around like any other god, but this is ridiculous.

Anat: They say love is blind, but this is too much. At least my Lord Baal has the decency to have a goddess like myself as his consort. But Yahweh insists on consorting with this ragtag people, Israel, even after they have spurned his love over and over. You’d think he’d get the hint.

Here is Yahweh, shamelessly gone courting, inviting Israel to go on a sort of second honeymoon, back to the desert where it all began. He wants to recapture the spark that had existed between them. “Therefore, I will now allure her.” “I will speak tenderly to her” – whisper sweet nothings in her ear. In the presence of such public displays of tender affection and relentless love in spite of all, the other gods are too embarrassed to exist and they fade away.

Hosea lived in distressing times. The reign of the great king Jeroboam II had just ended. Jeroboam had reigned for 40 years during which Israel had enjoyed a golden age that rivaled that of Solomon’s. But, in the midst of prosperity, there was an internal rot. Injustice and oppression were rampant. Their worship of Yahweh was diluted as the people chased after other gods.

The prophet, Amos, had warned of a coming day of reckoning. Soon after Amos had gone back to dressing sycamore trees, Hosea picked up the refrain. Hosea also warned that Israel’s unfaithfulness would have consequences. Israel was headed for destruction and, this time, God was not going to intervene. Sure enough, it was not long before the Assyrian Empire invaded and conquered Israel. All appeared to be lost. Perhaps God would finally abandon Israel.

But Hosea has another theme – on the other end of Israel’s unfaithfulness, misery, and affliction is God's relentless love. Hosea learned this the hard way through personal experience. He was married to a woman with the unfortunate name of Gomer. Gomer proved to be an unfaithful wife, an adulteress. It is unclear whether she merely committed adultery in the conventional sense or if she served as a temple prostitute on behalf of one of the Canaanite Gods. But it is clear that she was not faithful to Hosea – just as Israel was not faithful to Yahweh. Hosea lived with the heartache of that betrayal, but he also learned from it. He came to a deeper understanding of God's faithfulness despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.

Though Israel would suffer the consequences of her unfaithfulness, Hosea knew that God was in the suffering with her and would be on the other end of it. The Valley of Achor, which means “affliction,” would be made a door of hope.  God had told Hosea to name one of his children, “Lo-ruhamah,” which means “No Pity” to demonstrate Israel’s dire predicament. Here, he is promising that there will be pity. Another child was named, “Lo-ammi,” which means “Not My People” to demonstrate how seriously God took Israel’s infidelity. Here, God is promising that he will yet say, “You are my people.” And the people will respond, “You are my God.”  God would not give up on Israel.

God even promises that Israel will “know the LORD.” The knowing referred to here is not a matter of head knowledge only, but an intimate knowledge born of deep experience. It is the language of intimacy. The Hebrew word for “know” used here is the same word used in Genesis where Adam “knew” Eve. There used to be a euphemism for intimacy – to know someone “in the biblical sense.” “And you shall know the LORD.” The double entendre is not accidental. God desires – and promises – intimacy with us beyond our imagining.

“Therefore, I will now allure her.”  God is like a long-suffering husband romancing his faithless bride back to his love.  “Therefore, I will now allure her.”  God will play the bridegroom once again.

It should come as no surprise that this is the language Jesus uses of himself. He is the bridegroom, come to allure Israel. It is no accident that his first miracle is performed at a wedding feast. The feasting that was typical of his ministry might very well have been enactments of the wedding feast to which all are invited. Jesus, with his twelve groomsmen, went about romancing Israel in a long wedding procession toward Jerusalem and the cross. Demonstrating once again there are no lengths to which God will not go to demonstrate his love.

“Therefore, I will now allure her.”

By the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to allure, to romance the world.  We need only pay attention.

He allures us through the Scripture. The Bible has been called a collection of love letters from God.

He romances us through creation. The lift in your heart at the first taste of spring points to the one who is our Eternal Spring. Walt Whitman, in his poem, ‘Song of Myself’ refers to a blade of grass as

. . . the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,

that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Jesus allures us through prayer. In her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, Julian of Norwich – woman who knew what it was to be loved by and to love God, wrote,

We shall by his sweet grace in our own meek continual prayer come into him now in this life by many secret touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feelings measured out to us as our simplicity may bear it.

Jesus allures through our relationships with others – friends, relatives, strangers. God is present in every encounter with another person inviting us to draw near to him through loving others.

Jesus allures us in the Eucharist. I heard the Eucharist once described as the kiss of Christ. No matter how much someone says he or she loves us, a hug, or kiss, or pat on the shoulder makes it real. You can hear in a sermon that God loves you. Receiving the Bread and the Wine, you can feel it.

Jesus allures us in the story of our own lives. We need only pay attention.

God in Christ continually allures us – wooing us into a people – we who were no people are now a people as 1 Peter says, quoting Hosea. And, of course, Paul calls the church the bride of Christ. We gentiles, who were no people, have been incorporated into the great love story of God and Israel – which points ultimately to the love story of God with all creation. And with each of us in it. However often we are as unfaithful as Gomer, God is yet more faithful.  His love is unrelenting.

What kind of God have you gotten yourself mixed up with? This kind:

A God who is alluring.

A God who is alluring you . . .

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Aunt Jemima, Redskins, Confederate Statues, etc.

It is embarrassing to admit, but when I was very young, we referred to the large nuts in a can of mixed nuts as “n----r toes” and when I first learned “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” the next phrase we used was “catch a n----r by the toe.” I have spoken to enough people to know that this was not just a peculiarity of my family nor was it unique to Indiana. I suspect many white people 60 years old and older can remember things like this. It was a sort of thoughtless, which is not to say innocent, racism.

When I was still quite young, we suddenly began calling the larger nuts, “Brazil Nuts” and when we did eeny, meeny, miny, moe, we caught a “tiger” by the toe. I do not remember any conversation about this, though there might have been. It would have been during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. I suspect that that movement awakened a different moral awareness that led my mother and father and others to reassess some of their language. I am proud of them that they did. To be fair to my folks, I do not remember ever hearing them use the N-word or words like it to refer to another human being or group of human beings. Still, I am grateful to the Civil Rights Movement for enlightening our consciences further.

I suggest that the things like renaming Aunt Jemima syrup, renaming some sports teams, and even the removal of some statues is on a par with reforming some of our vocabulary in the 1960’s. We know of course that racism did not end then. Its legacy continues. We are being called again, by a new iteration of the Civil Rights Movement, to further our moral awareness and sensitivity. We are being challenged to a deeper engagement with and response to the legacy of racism. It was not a matter of whether or not
those using the N-word to refer to Brazil Nuts thought we were being racist or intended to be. The word was racist and was offensive. So are things like Aunt Jemima, the Washington Redskins, the Confederate Battle Flag, and Confederate statues.

Most – most – of us would not want to go back to using the vocabulary in my first paragraph. We recognize that it was wrong. We would not say that changing our vocabulary was political correctness run amok. Rather, it was a response to an awareness of the offensiveness of certain words and a desire to not be racist. It was based in a desire to live what we claimed – that we believed all people are created equal and are worthy of respect and justice. Most contemporary Americans believe this, or at least want to believe it. And most of us want to live it. More and more of us are recognizing that we are not there yet. We can be grateful to those who today have taken up the mantle of advocating against racism and racist systems and who are inviting all of us to higher moral ground.

Ending racism, which is more deeply embedded in our social, political, and economic structures than we might want to admit, will take more than changing our vocabulary or removing racist names and symbols.  But whether we want to admit it or not racism is also embedded in our imaginations. And our imaginations are shaped by such symbols. If we do not want racism to shape our imaginations, one way to move in that direction is to remove them from public display.

See also:

The Heritage of Racism – a Baseball Analogy

Why "Black Lives Matter"

Justice, Wild Justice, and the Plague of Racism

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Heritage of Racism – a Baseball Analogy

There was once a baseball game between Team A and Team B. Team A had an extensive Spring Training. Team B, on the other hand, was made up of players who had never been allowed to play the game and were not allowed Spring Training or any other practice before the game.

In the first three innings, Team A had all the latest equipment while Team B had no mitts and no cleats on their shoes. Furthermore, when they were at bat, Team B was only allowed two strikes, while Team A was allowed the customary three. No walks were granted Team B for any reason. The umpires were hired and paid for by Team A and were overtly biased in their favor. The strike zone was much more generous for Team A’s pitchers. Close calls and calls that were not even close went against team B. And any time a Team B player hit a home run, he was ejected as soon as he crossed home plate. And any Team B player who complained about any of this was also ejected.

After three innings the score was Team A: 32, Team B: 3.

Before the fourth inning, each team got all new players. But the score remained. Team B received acquired gloves but still no shoes with cleats. Team B batters could earn a walk after six balls but not if the batter was hit by a pitch. And Team A pitchers regularly aimed pitches at Team B batters. The umpires were still paid for by Team A and heavily and obviously biased in its favor. Team B batters were no longer automatically ejected for hitting a home run but any Team B player who complained about a bad call was ejected.

After six innings the score was Team A: 51, Team B: 14.

Before the seventh inning the players for each team were again replaced by new players. But the score still carried over. Now both teams had access more or less to the same equipment. and the rules were the same for each. But the officials still seemed to favor Team A.

At the end of the eighth inning the score was Team A: 62, Team B: 19. The players of Team B again protested the uneven score and the bias of the umpires. The current players of Team A responded, “Why are you complaining? None of us was playing during the first six innings. It’s not our fault the score is so uneven.” And, “It’s not like a close call never goes against our players. We don’t believe the officiating is all that unfair. In any event, we’ve had to earn every run we have scored.” And, “Sure, Team B players matter. But all players matter. After all, at the end of the day, we’re all playing for the same league.” But the score remains unfairly lopsided and the biased officiating continues. 

I am sure this analogy can be improved one way or another (feel free to offer suggestions). It does not, for example, capture the real physical, emotional, and psychological violence of racism. But I hope it gets at the reality that for generations the deck has been stacked, often violently, against one “team”. From Jim Crow and lynching, to Red Lining and unequal access to the G. I. Bill, to unfair policing and courts, Black Americans have had multiple, often deliberate, obstacles placed between them and success. 

Many of the most egregious these injustices continued well into my lifetime. Even the history is recent history. It is undeniable that this has led to exiting inequities in opportunity and the accumulation of wealth. Playing with the analogy a bit more, one can acknowledge that not every player on each team is equally talented or has put in the same individual effort but the fact remains that we are in a situation in which one team has had and continues to have unfair advantages resulting from a history of inequality and abuse. And it is not all past. 

I don’t have a simple solution to address or redress all the resulting disparities. But a place to begin is for members of “Team A” – White Americans – to acknowledge the disparity and recognize that we benefit from the score having been run up even before we entered the game. At the very least we can begin with the officiating.

Here is a brief video laying out the actual history the above analogy attempts to portray: