Sunday, December 31, 2017

Jesus = Something that's Going on Eternally

This year, the 7th day of Christmas falls on the first Sunday of Christmas. The Gospel appointed for this Sunday is John 1:1-18. Here is a reflection on that passage by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury:

It's a slightly strange way to start a Gospel you might think. We expect something a bit more like the beginning of the other Gospels: the story of Jesus's birth perhaps or his ancestry, or the story of Jesus's arrival on the public scene.
But at the beginning of St John's Gospel what St John does is to frame his whole story against an eternal background. And what he's saying there is this: as you read this Gospel, as you read the stories about what Jesus does, be aware that whatever he does in the stories you're about to read is something that's going on eternally, not just something that happens to be going on in Palestine at a particular date.
So when Jesus brings an overflow of joy at a wedding, when Jesus reaches out to a foreign woman to speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation to her, when Jesus opens the eyes of a blind man or raises the dead, all of this is part of something that is going on forever. The welcome of God, the joy of God, the light of God, the life of God  all of this is eternal. What Jesus is showing on Earth is somehow mysteriously part of what is always true about God.

And that's why it's central to this beginning of John's Gospel – that he says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't swallow it up. How could the darkness swallow it up? If these works of welcome and forgiveness, of light and life and joy, are always going on, then actually nothing can ever make a difference to them.
And that's why at the climax of this wonderful passage, St John says, the Word of God, the outpouring of God's life, actually became flesh and blood. And we saw it  we saw in this human life the eternal truth about God. We saw an eternal love, an eternal relationship; we saw an eternal joy and a light and a life.

So as we read these stories we know that nothing at all can make a difference to the truth, the reality, they bring into the world. This is indeed the truth; this is where life is to be found. And this explains why at the end of St John's Gospel, he famously says that if we tried to spell out all that this means, there would be no end of the books that could be written.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Jesus = How God Brings His Love to Bear

Austin Farrer
For the sixth day of Christmas, here is something from Austin Farrer (1904-1968), one of the great Anglican theologians of the 20th century. He was a friend of C. S. Lewis and gave the eulogy at Lewis' funeral.

How can I matter to him? we say. It makes no sense; he has the world, and even that he does not need. It is folly even to imagine him like myself, to credit him with eyes into which I could ever look, a heart that could ever beat for my sorrows or joys, and a hand he could hold out to me. For even if the childish picture be allowed, that hand must be cupped to hold the universe, and I am a speck of dust on the star-dust of the world.

Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men. Love is the strongest instrument of omnipotence, for accomplishing those tasks he cares most dearly to perform; and this is how he brings his love to bear on human pride; by weakness not by strength, by need and not by bounty.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Tortured Wonders Restored

Trinity Episcopal Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin
On the fifth day of Christmas, here is something from Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels by Rodney Clapp:

`           The Anglican poet George Herbert, in his eloquent way, got it just right. We are together and each of us “once a poor creature” simply lost and self-destructing, yet also “now a wonder” remembered and revisited by the Spirit. We are a wonder tortur’d in space/Betwixt this world and that of grace,” the grace of a new heaven and a new earth, of creation whole in all its parts. Christian spirituality, then, is spirituality for tortured wonders.
(p. 23)

The incarnation acknowledges that the human being is a creature of great value that has been seriously wrecked–but insists that (unlike a wrecked automobile) neither the whole nor any part of it can be rejected or forgotten. Even damaged, bent, and distorted, the human being retains inestimable worth: as a whole and in its parts.
(p. 38)

In Christ God assumes or takes humanity into God’s self. Orthodox Christian spirituality denies that humanity, whatever its powers and aspirations, can save itself from its own wreckage, its own self-destruction. Yet it is true humanity, or humanness, that will be saved. The original creation, though marred in and by sin, will not be tossed away and forgotten, as a potter might trash inferior clay and move onto a new and different clay pit. Nor will God forget about the human project altogether. . . . Humanity will be assumed and resumed, restored to its pristine wholeness and reset on the path to the maturation and fullness of that wholeness.
(p. 40)

Tortured Wonders is a fine book on spirituality in light of the Incarnation. That means, among other things, that it takes seriously the essential fact that we are bodies.

Here is the whole poem by George Herbert (1593-1633) from which the title of Clapp's book is taken:


BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart ;
As wat'ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face :
Nothing performs the task of life :
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God ! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life : dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief :
With care and courage building me,

Till I reach heav'n, and much more, Thee.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

On Rachel's Lament and Not Looking Away

Peter de Francia
The fourth day of Christmas is the Feast of Holy Innocents rooted in the story of Herod’s slaughter of baby boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to annihilate the infant Jesus as recounted in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also a reminder that many little ones continue to suffer and die due to hunger, disease, neglect, abuse, and violence.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest famous for her preaching preacher and author. Her blog, GenerousOrthodoxy, is a fine resource. The following is taken from one of her sermons, Monsters at the Manger. In the sermon she refers to another sermon preached by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Lucic, at a church in Sarajevo during the siege and bombardment there in the 1990’s:

The priest’s final words were, “Jesus teaches us that human judgments are not the last judgments, that human justice is not the last justice, and that power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power”

How can we believe this? How can we go on singing “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns,” in view of the fact that the monsters continue to devour our children with undiminished ferocity?

The Christmas story is anchored to our lives and to the wickedness of this world by the grief of Rachel, “weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The authors of Scripture did not turn away from the unimaginable suffering of children. God the Father did not turn away. Jesus did not turn away. We see in his death on the Cross and Resurrection from the dead the source of our conviction that “human judgments are not the final judgments, that human justice is not the final justice, and the power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power.” But we must keep Ivan Karamazov’s protest in our minds every day. The nativity story might as well be about reindeer and snowmen for sure, if it has nothing to say about the small victims. I believe that by putting Rachel’s lament at the heart of the Christmas story, Matthew has shown us how to hold onto faith and hope until the Second Coming. Only as we share in the prayers and the laments of bereaved families, not looking away, can we continue to believe that the savior reigns even now in the faith and tenacity of Father Lucic and all those who continue to stand for humanity in the face of barbarity. Only by attending to the horrors of this world can we continue tossing the words of that great eighteenth-century hymn-writer Isaac Watts;

He comes to make his blessings known
Far as the curse is found
(Hymn, “Joy to the World”)

For only a faith forged out of suffering can say with conviction that the angels and monsters will not coexist forever, that Muslims and agnostics and Christians and Jews will be drawn together in ways we cannot yet imagine, that the agonies of victims will some day be rectified, and that the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ will be the Last Word.

Here is a performance of a boys' choir illustrating the tragic reality that a child dies every three seconds around the world:

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Jesus = the very face of God

We continue to commemorate the mystery of the Incarnation on the 3rd day of Christmas:

Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance tells about how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation–and they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see Jesus is to see the very face of God."
William Placher, Jesus the Savior, p. 21 (quoting Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, p. 55)

There is a phrase associated with two of the greatest Anglican thinkers of the last generation, Michael Ramsey and John V. Taylor: ‘God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all’. What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition, in so far as we can ever speak of a ‘definition’ of the mystery.

It is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting Joy. . . Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God's life 'translated' into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work.
– Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 57

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Jesus = Peace

The 2nd day of Christmas is the Feast of Saint Stephen, deacon and first martyr of the Church. Stephen's last words before he died were a prayer for those who were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (see Acts 7:54-60). Thus, he proved himself a worthy servant of Jesus Christ who commanded, "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28) and who himself prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace and sing of peace on earth, good will to all, let us serve him as Deacon Stephen did by embracing the daily witness/martyrdom of peaceableness. Here is something along those lines from Gregory of Nyssa (335-386):

He is our peace, who has made both one. Since Christ is our peace, we shall be living up to the name of Christian if we let Christ be seen in our lives by letting peace reign in our hearts. He has brought hostility to an end, as the apostle said. Therefore, we must not allow it to come back to life in us in any way at all but must proclaim clearly that it is dead indeed. God has destroyed it in a wonderful way for our salvation. We must not, then, allow ourselves to give way to anger or bear grudges, for this would endanger our souls. We must not stir up the very thing that is well and truly dead, calling it back to life by our wickedness.

But as we bear the name of Christ, who is peace, we too must put an end to all hostility, so that we may profess in our lives what we believe to be true of him. He broke down the dividing wall and brought the two sides together in himself, thus making peace. We too, then, should not only be reconciled with those who attack us from without, we should also bring together the warring factions within us, so that the flesh may no longer be opposed to the spirit and the spirit to the flesh. Then when the mind that is set on the flesh is subject to the divine law, we may be refashioned into one new creature, into a man of peace. When the two have been made one we shall then have peace within ourselves.

The definition of peace is that there should be harmony between two opposed factions. And so, when the civil war in our nature has been brought to an end and we are at peace within ourselves, we may become peace. Then we shall really be true to the name of Christ that we bear.

When we consider that Christ is the true light far removed from all falsehood, we realize that our lives too should be lit by the rays of the sun of justice, which shine for our enlightenment. These rays are the virtues by which we cast off the works of darkness and conduct ourselves becomingly as in the light of day. Then, when we refuse to have anything to do with the darkness of wickedness and do everything in the light, we ourselves shall also become light and our works will give light to others, for it is in the nature of light to shine out.

But if we look upon Christ as our sanctification, then we should keep ourselves free from all that is wicked and impure both in thought and in deed and so prove ourselves worthy to bear his name, for we shall be demonstrating the effect of sanctification not in words but in our actions and in our lives.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Isaac of Nineveh for Christmas

One of my favorite figure of the early Church is Isaac of Nineveh, aka, Isaac the Syrian (613-700). For Christmas Day, here is a selection from one of his sermons. Of course, Isaac would affirm that his exhortation is not just for Christmas. To be a Christian is to seek to make all of one’s life rhyme with the life of the life of One whose birth we celebrate this day.

This Christmas night [Christ] bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;

This is the night of the Most Gentle One 
Let no one be cruel;

This is the night of the Humble One 
Let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy 
Let us not revenge;

Now is the day of Good Will 
Let us not be mean.

In this Day of Peace 
Let us not be conquered by anger.

Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.

Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.

This present Day casts open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.

Today the Divine Being took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the seal of divinity.

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him!

More Isaac the Syrian: The Challenge of a Merciful Heart

Friday, December 22, 2017

Does God Pass Gas? A Christmas Meditation

When our oldest daughter, Sara, was a little girl of around six, she took ballet. I sometimes drove her to ballet lessons in our old Volkswagen Beetle. Once, as Sara pulled her seat belt and shoulder harness on, it made a slight hissing sound. This prompted her to observe with a giggle, “It sounded like the car passed gas.”*

Being the kind of dad I am, I replied, “I thought it was you.”

“Dad, I don’t do that anymore.”

“Sara, honey, everyone passes gas.”

“Yeah, I guess so. But God doesn’t.”

“No. Probably not. But, I expect Jesus did when he lived on earth.”

“Dad, they didn’t do that back then!”

I assured her that they did and that such has always been part of being human and having bodies. From there I offered a brief lesson on the wonder of God creating and delighting in our bodies. And how God affirmed that delight by becoming a body in the person of Jesus with all the usual things that go with having a body. Including passing gas. The fact that God not only made her body, but took on a body himself meant that her body – all of it – was beautiful and blessed. Even if it was sometimes kind of funny.

God "abhors not the Virgin's womb" we sing in the carol. God abhors not the messiness of mere humanness. As Rodney Clapp observes in Tortured Wonders:

In St. Augustine’s estimation, the human is “an intermediate being,” created and poised between the beasts and the angels. . . Godlike in some regards, animalistic in others, we can find our intermediate being incongruous, mysterious, and self-contradictory. It can appear monstrous as well as wondrous, and sometimes it is not easy to tell which.

It is central to the Christian confession that Jesus Christ entered and embraced our intermediacy. A truly Christian spirituality, then, must not flee from earthiness. It will make some sense of and help us inhabit our in-betweenness. In other words, we are spiritual creations not just in our churches and dining rooms, but in our bathrooms and on our sickbeds. Christian spirituality comprehends not only the sparkle in our eyes but the grime under our fingernails.
p. 177

A traditional Christian spirituality . . . insists on embracing our physical creatureliness entirely, from head to toe and in between. The spiritual and the scatological meet and, however odd, are not at odds. This spirituality, sweats – and breaks wind. But Christian spirituality also takes the body more seriously than does postmodern spirituality. The body in all its physicality is real. It is not merely a sign or instrument to be manipulated for surface effect. It is a true, honest body inside as well as out. It is a body so true and central to human being that it will, transformed, be borne into eternity.
p. 188

Similarly, Charles Williams:

The body was holily created, is holily redeemed, and is to be holily raised from the dead. It is in fact, for all our difficulties with it, less fallen, merely in itself, than the soul in which the quality of the will is held to reside; for it was a sin of the will which degraded us.

Among other things, this means that to truly celebrate the miracle of Christmas:

·         we cannot treat or think of the body  ours or others'  in all its earthiness as something ugly or repulsive. The Incarnation affirms the fundamental goodness of being human with all our vulnerability and awkwardness. There is no human body, however unusual, and no aspect of authentic human experience, however mundane, that is not blessed and honored by the divine enfleshment.

·         we cannot hope to fully engage the divine while ignoring our embodied neighbors. This is true in general. It is also true in worship. Christian worship is an embodied, full-sensory affair involving the embodied members of the body of Christ gathered together.

·         we cannot neglect the bodily needs of our neighbors.

·         we cannot pretend that hurting another body is ever other than sacrilege.

·         we cannot pray for someone without "putting skin on our prayers" by doing what we can do to tend to the need ourselves in the name of Christ in whose name we pray.

A good Christian axiom, taking the Incarnation seriously, might be: “Don’t try to be more spiritual than God.” It is an axiom worth remembering as we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. Merry Christmas.

*This story is shared with Sara’s permission. She is now 35

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things

Annunciation Window, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin
It has become traditional this time of year for some clergyperson or theologian to confidently declare that “modern” people can no longer believe in such a thing as the virginal conception (virgin birth) of Jesus. It goes against the way we know things work.

The virginal conception does seem preposterous. But, it always has. It’s not like people in the past had no idea how babies get made. I expect Joaquim and Anne found it preposterous when their daughter first tried to explain her pregnancy. I don't believe glibly in the virginal conception of Jesus. I've had and will have my reservations, questions, and doubts about this and other aspects of the Christian Creed. But, I figure once you believe in something as preposterous as resurrection or that God loves you and desires communion with you; you're in for a pound, you might as well toss in the penny.

But, preposterous as the virginal conception sounds, I find other Christian teachings more preposterous and harder to accept given how we know the world works:
  • Jesus is the measure of all things? The turn-the-other-cheek guy from Nazereth who got himself crucified?
  •  I must love my enemies and pray for them, repaying evil with good?
  • I must receive every stranger as though he or she is an angel sent by God.
  • We are expected to live nonviolently in such a world as ours? Peace is always better than violence?
  • Humility is a virtue? Patience?
  • Self-control is better than self-indulgence?
  • Forgiveness is always better than revenge or resentment?
  • God desires mercy, not sacrifice?
  • Money is "unrighteous" and dangerous to my soul? That my best investment is to give as much of it away as I can?
  • Love, joy, and peace are REAL?
  • God delights in the world and so should I?
  • God will restore all things to the goodness for which they were created?
  • All people are created equal? Including the weak, the feeble, the handicapped, the vulnerable, and the poor? Is there any other "truth" that is less self-evident or more easily contradicted by reason and scientific evidence? The closest I can get to that is we are, all of us, equally created in the image of God, equally loved by God, and equally the objects of Christ’s redeeming. It’s still pretty hard to believe from a purely empirical perspective.
  • My salvation is wrapped up in my care for the least of these?
  • We will be judged based on things like the above?
Heck, believing that the Mystery at the heart of it all chose to become incarnate in a particular time and place from a particular girl named Mary without the usual male contribution is a relative piece of cake. In truth, most of the time I am only able to entertain these other preposterous things precisely because I believe God has done something so preposterous as being born of the Virgin Mary for us and for our salvation.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Margaret of Antioch & the Dragon of Sexual Harassment

In the Cathedral of St. Paul the Apostle, Fond du Lac, we have a statue of St. Margaret of Antioch. It is a beautiful, award-winning work of art. St Margaret is not well known these days. It is possible she never actually existed. But, her legend was very popular in the Middle Ages (legends, actually, since there are multiple versions with varying details).

I've been thinking about Margaret in light of the proliferation of stories of women sexually harassed, assaulted, and abused by powerful men. Hers is a story a woman's courageous and powerful resistance to the unwanted sexual advances, and eventual violence, of a powerful man (and the demonic character of his behavior).

Here is a version of the legend.

Margaret was born near Antioch of Pisidia located in what is now, Turkey. Her father was a leading priest of a pagan cult. Her mother died in childbirth and Margaret was raised by a nurse. Her nurse was a Christian and under her care, Margaret became a Christian. With that, her father disowned her. Margaret continued to live with her nurse and tended her sheep.

When she was fifteen, Margaret was noticed by Olybrius, the pagan magistrate of Antioch and the surrounding area. He was infatuated with her beauty. He made sexual advances toward her which she rejected. Unable to have his way with her, he had her arrested and charged with being a Christian which was illegal. She was threatened with death if she did not renounce her faith in Christ (or submit to Olybrius' sexual demands). She refused to either recant or submit. He then had her tortured. Still, she stood firm, even through grievous torment. Finally, he sentenced her to death.

The night before her beheading, Margaret prayed for strength and courage. An angel was sent to encourage her and gave her a wooden cross to hold onto. The angel left and, clinging to the cross, she continued to pray. Then, demon appeared to her in the form of a dragon. The dragon attacked and attempted to swallow her. Standing firm, Margaret held up the cross as the dragon demon tries to consume her. The beast choked on the cross, spit her out, and died. Then, Satan, himself, appeared to Margaret saying he had done all he could to defeat her, but her faith and courage had defeated him. With that he disappeared.

The next morning, Margaret of Antioch strode to her martyrdom as a victor with her head held high, singing and praying.

As I said there are many versions of the story. This is my retelling. And there are many similar stories in the Church of women who refused unwelcome sexual advances. It is almost a genre unto itself (see 11 Saints Who Endured Sexual Abuse). In each of them, a woman is pressured sexually or attacked by a powerful man or men. In each the woman resists.

There might be problematic elements to these stories. But, like other stories of female saints, they do extol female agency in ways that were not common in their wider cultural context. Margaret would decide for herself whether and with whom she would have sex. She resisted the sexual harassment of a powerful man. For the sake of classic Christian virtue. For the sake of her own integrity.

What of Margaret’s tormentor? His behavior is not excused or explained away.  We might interpret the vision of the dragon as reflecting his beastly behavior. If he, himself, is not inherently a dragon-demon, he has surrendered himself to a beastly abuse of sex and power. In classic Christianity, we all need to resist the dragon of lust. And faithful Christians have historically, through honest self-examination, guarded against it in thought, word, and action. But, when that dragon is combined with the dragons of other deadly sins like pride, malice, envy, etc., particularly in those with power; it becomes something worse. 

Lately, we have been made aware of just how common that is. Some powerful and famous men have been revealed to be very much like the dragon that tried to consume Margaret in their sexual ‘consumption’ of women. Some of them have paid a price in loss of job and reputation. Others have yet to. Stories like that of St. Margaret remind us of classic Christian virtues and remind us whose side we should be on when women are sexually harassed or assaulted by men – however famous or powerful the man is, however inconvenient it might be politically or personally for us. Men, especially, need to examine our own collusion and be prepared to call other men out when when their words and behavior is degrading or harassing or worse. And we need to support women when, like St. Margaret, they speak out and resist.
If you would like to read a poetic version of St. Margaret's story, here is one from the 13th century

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Centered on Jesus V: If Christ is King . . .

This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast in 1925 in response to the
rise of secularization, atheism, and communism. The Soviet Union had been founded recently in 1917. It
Window above the High Altar
of St. Paul Cathedral,
Fond du Lac, WI
is significant that 1925 was also the year that Benito Mussolini established a Fascist dictatorship in Italy. Both Communism and Fascism expected people to give their highest allegiance to their nation and its government. Pope Pius rightly recognized this as antithetical to Christianity. 
For Christians, citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Jesus Christ is the only king or ruler to whom allegiance is owed. Anglicans and others adopted the feast as a regular reminder of that allegiance.

Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom "was not of this world" (John 18:36). By that he did not mean that his kingdom was simply 'otherworldly' having no earthly or political implications. He meant it was 'other than the way of this world' and its kingdoms and nations which rule through coercion and violence with the threat of pain and death. Otherwise, his followers would have fought to keep him from being handed over. But, Pilate recognized Jesus as a threat to the political system and had him executed as one claiming to be "King of the Jews" (Mark 15:26, Matthew 27:37, Luke 23:38, John 19:19).

The earliest Christian affirmation was, "Jesus is Lord" (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 10:9-13, Philippians 2:11). It was a politically charged assertion. Jesus was Lord/King. The Emperor, who also claimed that title, was not. Neither was Rome nor the idea of Rome. And neither was any other god or gods. Jesus alone was Lord/King. The refusal by early Christians to pledge allegiance to the Emperor got them into trouble.

Claiming that Jesus Christ is Lord or King remains a radical claim. And it continues to raise questions about where our true loyalties lie. While Communist and Fascist regimes overtly demanded that their citizens give their highest allegiance to the nation, all nations in the modern era (since about 1650) have more or less encouraged, cultivated, and trained their citizens to adopt such allegiance as primary. Other allegiances  like allegiance to Jesus Christ and the Church – have been minimized, side-lined, subjected, or co-opted. And many Christians have a difficult time distinguishing one allegiance from the other. This is true in the United States of America as much as anywhere else.

I once saw a woman wearing a disturbing t-shirt that illustrated the confusion many Christians seem to have concerning their loyalty and emotional attachment to their nation and their loyalty and emotional attachment to Jesus Christ. It was a white t-shirt that had JESUSAVES written across the front. I believe he does. But that was not the only message on the shirt. All the letters were blue except for those in the middle – USA – which were red. So, it looked like this: JESUSAVESIt was a telling icon of the confused syncretism of many Christians in America. Who saves? Jesus? The USA? Or, are the two so emotionally entwined in our imaginations that we can't tell the difference? It is an illustration of Stanley Hauerwas' assertion that for many Americans, the nation is their true church. For many Americans, America is the social body to which their ultimate allegiance is pledged regardless of what religious affiliation they formally claim (see The End of American Protestantism). This confusion of loyalties is not just an American thing. It is a danger in most, if not all, nations. Christians would do well to disentangle this confusion in their hearts and guard against it.

Patriotism is not necessarily idolatrous. A distinction must be made, however, between holding dear and celebrating the particular culture and history of a place/people on the one hand and the sort of nationalistic exceptionalism on the other hand. 'Christian nationalist' is an oxymoron. Christians should be wary of appeals to patriotism and suspicious of those who use its appeal to shepherd them in one direction or another that compromises their first loyalty to the way of Jesus. If Jesus Christ is the King, our citizenship and loyalty is elsewhere (Philippians 3:20). We are always and everywhere strangers and foreigners on the earth seeking a homeland, the City God has prepared for us (Hebrews 11:13-16). Though we live under the temporal authority of governments of earthy nations, our allegiance is to that City and the coming kingdom of God. We seek to not be conformed to this world (see Do Not Conform Any Longer to the Pattern of This World), but rather to live according the the shape of that kingdom. We live, now, in anticipation of God's will being done on earth as in heaven (Matthew 6:9-13). We get some indication of Jesus' kingdom priorities in in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Gospel Lesson appointed for the Feast of Christ the King (Matthew 25:31-46). 

Christians need to beware of the temptation to confuse loyalty to King Jesus with loyalty to other entities – including Uncle Sam – who would claim the kind of emotional attachment that belongs to Christ alone. Our allegiance is to Christ the King. We pledge allegiance to that king every time we recite the Nicene or Apostles' Creed. All other allegiances are secondary and should be held lightly. Jesus alone is our hope and security. 

The Feast of Christ the King is a helpful reminder to Christians that their allegiances lie not with any government, nation, party, ideology, leader, or flag. Rather, it lies with Jesus Christ and his Church. It also reminds us that no area of human life, private or political, lies outside the concerns of the King and the responsibility of his followers.

Here's a bit from Pope Pius XI:
If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.
(Quas Primas, 33)

Collect for the Feast of Christ the King

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

See also:

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How Big is Your Church?

A sermon preached on All Saints Sunday

Has anyone ever asked you, “How big is your church?” When I was rector of a church, I would get asked that question a lot. I never got asked questions like 

How faithful is your church?
How generous is your church?
Does it attend to the real problems in the surrounding community?
Does it love and support its children? It’s elderly?
Are strangers welcome?
Does your church care about the poor?
Are the people there merely nice or do they love with costly, genuine love?
How prayerful is your church?
Are the members of your church gentle with one another?
Are the members of your church free to be honest? Genuine?
Is forgiveness and reconciliation practiced at your church?
Is your church the kind of place that encourages you to believe in God?

It seems to me such questions are at least as important
as how many people are counted as members
or how big the budget is.

Today, we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints. In the collect we just prayed we acknowledged that God has knit us together with the saints in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord. If that is the case, one answer to the question about the size of your church is that it is as big as the multitude of the saints, that great cloud of witnesses that surround us. And that is true no matter how many people show up on a given Sunday. Take comfort in that.

But, don’t become complacent. Those same saints, that great cloud of witnesses, urge and encourage us to run with endurance the race that is set before us and follow them in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that God have prepared for those who truly love him. “Ineffable joy” – joy beyond our imagining, more joy than can bear unless we are made able to bear it, more joy than we can express. As we hear in the passage from 1 John, “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him. We will be like Jesus in his resurrection joy.

What might that look like? In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus offers the Beatitudes, which might point us in the direction of entering into some of the joy and tasting and seeing the Lord is good as we just hear in the Psalm. The beatitudes might also offer a way of measuring the church differently from adding up numbers.

There is a new translation of the New Testament by theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart has made an interesting choice in translating the Beatitudes. Instead of the familiar “Blessed” he has “Blissful.” I’m going to use that this morning because it points to those ineffable joys that are promised to those who live in the way of Jesus. It reminds us that this is the way of the saints who have run before us in pursuit of the blissful life.

Blissful are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Is this a church that is poor in spirit?
Are we encouraged to let go of the illusion of self-sufficiency
and to recognize their own neediness?
Most especially our need of God,
but also our need of one another?
And are we committed to assisting those who are poor in the usual sense?

Blissful are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.”
Is this a place where mourning happens?
Traditionally this has been understood to mean mourning
for our own failure and sin,
our own inability and unwillingness to love as Jesus loves.
Is this church a place where we are encouraged
to mourn our sin individually and corporately?
Is repentance practiced?
But also, is this a place where people are permitted
to mourn the hurt, heartache, hardness of life?
Or do we try to slap a smiley face on everything?
Is this a place that mourns with those who mourn?
Is this a place that mourns the very real suffering in the world around it?
Does its mourning provoke action to address that suffering?

Blissful are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.”
Is this a church where meekness is encouraged? Gentleness?
Is humility, modeled on the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, typical here?
Are members willing to set their agendas and preferences aside
for the sake of others?
And are we committed to engaging those who are inherently meek
due to their weakness

Blissful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”
Is this a congregation of people who hunger and thirst for righteousness?
Is holiness encouraged and pursued?
Is righteousness understood to be about right relationship with God
and right relationship with others?
Is this a community that hungers for and seeks to live
in anticipation of the kingdom of God
in which there will be perfect harmony?
Is this a community that knows what the LORD requires:
to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Blissful are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Is this a church where mercy is practiced and received?
Are we patient with one another?
Do we bear one another’s burden?
Do we bear the burden of one another?
Do we practice the art of forgiveness?
Do we seek to understand one another?

"Blissful are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Does this church encourage and cultivate such single-hearted devotion to Jesus Christ
that our hearts are aligned with his
and that every decision is made with the intention
of being drawn deeper into his heart?
Are members encouraged to purify themselves
from all that keeps them from following Jesus
in his way of pure mercy and peace
in obedience to his Father?

Blissful are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”
Is this a church that knows and lives the art of reconciliation?
Do its members seek peace?
Do we resist the society's indulgence in anger, resentment, and vengeance?
Its fascination with violence?
Do we know ourselves to be agents
of God’s ministry of reconciliation in the world?

Blissful are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Though we live in a time and place
where real persecution for righteousness' sake is unlikely,
are people formed in this church
such that they at least seem odd or peculiar to their neighbors
because of the way they act, talk, and live?
Are members encouraged to go against the flow?
To question the status quo?
To recognize that what passes for wisdom in this world
is often foolishness in the light of God's wisdom?
And is this a church that is engaged with members of the body of Christ
in parts of the world where believers are truly persecuted on Jesus’ account?
Does it pray for, support and encourage those sister and brothers?

There are lots of ways to assess the health of a church.
Most of them have little to do directly
with the kinds of things that can be counted, weighed, or measured
in the usual sense.

Still, a church that is growing in the ways that matter
is likely also to grow in the more conventionally measurable ways.
Increasing attendance can be nothing more than ecclesial obesity
or it can be a sign that the Holy Spirit
is moving among the members of a church,
birthing new life and drawing new people
who desire to be a part of such a community
and the resulting love, truth, and joy.

A bigger budget doesn’t necessarily indicate spiritual health,
but a growing budget can be a reflection
of a spirit of generosity, commitment, and thanksgiving.

Let me be clear that, as your bishop,
I hope and pray for growth
and want to see our numbers increase.
Any church worth its salt of the earth and light of the world
ought to be growing in tangible ways
precisely because it is growing in the ways that really matter.
Let us recommit ourselves to becoming more and more
the kind of people and kind of church
that can answer "yes" to the above questions.
That is the way of Jesus.
            It is the way of the saints.
                        May it be our way.

How big is your church?
How blissful is your church?
How blissful are you?