Thursday, June 24, 2010

Companions on the Way of the Cross

"Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem." (Luke 9:51)

While we may not like it - do not like it - we Christians are called to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross. Luther was right in rejecting the dominant theology of glory (theologia gloriae) and embracing the theology of the Cross (theologia crucis), but we are more likely to agree with Luther in theory than in practice. We may sing, "In the Cross of Christ I glory," but we are slow to embrace the demands of the Cross. We are reluctant to join Jesus in the place of humiliation. We are reluctant to accept the humiliation of the Church.

This is particularly true of Christians in the United States where we very much wish that the label that Jesus applied to the disciple community, little flock, wasn't true of our congregations. We want to be seen by the world as big and successful. We have ignored the admonition of Paul in his letter to the Church in what was then the world's super-power:

Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity. (Roman 12:2, Phillips translation)
We have let the world's ideas of success seduce us into believing that bigger is better, that a mega-Church is more pleasing to God than a faithful congregation of twenty-five. Margaret Mead was right when she said, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. It’s the only thing that has."

And so these little flocks of faithful Christians are companions on the Way of the Cross. Companions, those who share bread, the Living Bread of the Eucharist and the Bread which is the Holy Scriptures. (In the tradition of Lectio Divina the meditative reading of Scripture is described as Feasting on the Word.) There is no room here for a privatized Christianity, we are fellow travelers, pilgrims together.

This is true not only for those little flocks who gather Sunday by Sunday for the Eucharist. It is also true for the whole Church - we are companions with people we will never meet this side of the Last Day. We are companions with people we like and with people we don't like, with people who share our convictions about important matters and those who don't, with people who embrace theologia Crucis and with those who cling to theologia gloriae. Following the Christ is, after all, a messy business!

When Jan and I lived in England, I was often struck by the realization that the Scriptures that I read and prayed in the Daily Office were the ones that friends back home were reading and praying. We were companions in spite of the thousands of miles between us. One Sunday, after we had returned to Massachusetts and I had been ordained as a presbyter, I was driving to preside and preach at one of the congregations in our area ministry. As I drove, I found myself praying for the other congregations in the area ministry, and then for other congregations - Baptist, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Assembly of God, United Church of Christ, Methodist - as they gathered for worship. Found myself praying because what was happening to me was a gift and not some good work that I was doing.

This coming Sunday, June 27, will be the last Sunday that I spend as Rector of Saint Matthias Church. I have been blessed in more ways than I know by this congregation's sharing of its journey with me. The journey has not always been an easy one. Some of our sisters and brothers left the parish because of serious and important disagreements - and maybe some trivial ones as well. Others have joined us during these years and have enriched our life together. We are a smaller congregation than we were ten years ago, more of a little flock, and our dreams of becoming bigger have not been realized. But we have been what matters most, companions on the Way of the Cross, and we will continue to be that forever. Deo gratias!

Education, Health Care, and National Security

Recently I heard a retiree say that she was moving from New York to escape the high taxes. I am sympathetic to that, but it raises again for me a question about tax policy in the United States. I have long believed that services that were of vital interest to the nation ought to be completely or chiefly paid for with federal tax dollars. I would put health care and education in this category because I think both are matters of national security. When most people lived their lives in or near the community where they were born, it might have made sense to pay for education and health care locally. With such a highly mobile population, it makes no sense to leave these vital matters to localities. When someone is raised in a community or a state where public education is inadequate and moves to another state, it is the other state that will continue to bear the burden of that inadequate education in ways to numerous to mention. Or when a child grows up with inadequate health care and then as an adult moves, it will be the new community and state that bears the cost of dealing with the poor health of that person. Until we decide to fund the lion's share of these vital services at the national level, we will continue to have regional health care and educational inequality. And that is a matter of national security.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Failure to Communicate?

In February 2008 the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice, "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective." Much of the lecture dealt with the question of a possible recognition of some elements of Islamic law in England. Prior to the lecture, Dr. Williams said in an interview on BBC that the adoption of certain elements of Islamic law "seems unavoidable." That comment, perhaps more than the lecture itself, was labelled by Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola as “most disturbing and most unfortunate."

Reflecting on  that now almost forgotten controversy and on recent comments about the "American exceptionalism" of the Episcopal Church, I was reminded of a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is failure to communicate." I think that one of the central problems within the Anglican Communion is our seeming lack of awareness of the contexts in which others in the Communion are living. Was Dr. Williams not aware that any positive comments about Islamic law would not be well received by Anglicans who experience that law as oppressive in their own countries? And if he was aware, how did he communicate with Archbishop Akinola and others that his positive remarks should be understood as contextual, as appropriate in the English context, and not as in any way applicable in the context of, for example, Nigeria? And how aware was Archbishop Akinola of the English context and of the nature of the relationships between Christians and Muslims there?

Actions taken by the Episcopal Church during the past ten years have not been well-received in many churches of the Communion. In some places they have been seen as creating serious problems for relationships between Anglicans and other religious communities. To some extent, I see the problem as a lack of awareness - what one might call a lively awareness - among leaders in the Episcopal Church of the contexts of others in the Communion and how this church's actions might have an effect on them. I see also an apparent lack of awareness in other churches of the Communion of the North American context, the context in which the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada seek to live faithfully.

The challenge to the member churches of the Communion is not only to cultivate a lively awareness of the contexts in which other churches seek to live faithfully, but also to communicate with other churches in ways that honor that faithfulness. What might have been the response from other churches if the Episcopal Church, before it took controversial actions, had assured other churches that we understood that our actions might have a negative effect for many of them, but that the actions seemed right to us in our context, and that we were committed to supporting them as they dealt with those negative effects? I am not so naive to believe that any statements of that sort would have been universally received as enough to maintain unity in the Communion, but I do believe that such statements, far better than statements after the fact, would have been an indication of the Episcopal Church's deep desire to remain in relationship with all the churches of the Communion.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Too Many Voices

In the Gospel reading for Sunday, June 20 we hear Jesus ask a man who had demons for his name. The man replied, "Legion." There were as many as 5,000 soldiers in a Roman legion, and the man's response suggests that there was a cacophony of voices in his head. Too many voices - like too many cooks - san lead to confusion, even disaster.

We live in a time of many competing voices - in politics, in ads, in the Episcopal Church. It seems that everyone has the Truth about something that is very important. Like the man with the Legion of voices competing for his attention, we may want to turn off all the voices, to find, as Elijah did in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures for June 20, the place where we can hear the still small voice, the sound of sheer silence, the place where God can speak to us.

That desire is real and important. We need to find places and times of silence, but we also need to listen to at least some of the voices all around us. God has a funny way of speaking to us through others, even through - or perhaps especially through - those with whom we disagree, those whose voices we would like to silence, or at least ignore. Listening to those voices may well lead to revelation. Rowan Williams, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, said that revelation for God's people is not simply about new information, but about new information that transforms us. Revelation is Good News.

A few years ago I was talking with two friends about how we listen for God's voice in our congregations. As we talked I shared a story about a discussion of human sexuality that had taken place in our congregation soon after the confirmation of the election of Bishop Gene Robinson. I described how angry one of the older conservation members had appeared as other members disagreed with him. One of my friends then said something that was a revelation, something that changed me. She suggested that this man - and perhaps others - was grieving for the loss of a church in which his opinions would be greeted not only with respect but with agreement. I began to see that sympathy for this man's loss did not require agreeing with him about human sexuality. I hoped that, recognizing his loss, I might be able to have a better relationship with him. Sadly, through my fault as much if not more than his, that didn't happen. But my friend's insight changed me a little and has made me a bit more sensitive to the grief of others as the  Episcopal Church changes. I can support those changes without dismissing those who disagree, those who mourn for the loss of the way things were in the Episcopal Church.

That conversation with my friends was a time and a place where for a moment I could hear the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice of God.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

An End to Debate?

On another blog I posted a comment about my hope for the Anglican Communion:
I understand that there are many in the Communion who are upset that TEC acted on its discernment about the election of two bishops and has made some allowance for dioceses to act on their discernment about same-sex relationships. I don’t expect - nor do I think most Episcopalians who share my convictions on this matter do either - that other Anglicans will accept TEC’s actions as consistent with Anglican teaching. I continue to accept that TEC may be removed from the Communion because of actions which I fully support. What I had hoped for - perhaps naively - was that we could continue to be in communion with one another in spite of this serious disagreement. We have managed that with disagreements about other unresolved issues - including the ordination of women - and I hoped that we could live with this disagreement as well. In that hope there was no insisting that others accept TEC’s actions as good, no demand that any member church recognize Gene Robinson or Mary Glasspool - or Katharine Jefferts Schori - as bishops. There was only the hope that we could continue to work together as Anglicans, sharing our common commitments in mission, and engaging in a continuing conversation about human sexuality.
This brought the following comment from a conservative cleric:
TEC has ceased the discussion and ended the debate by its actions.
The fact that the debate goes on on that blog and elsewhere calls this cleric's assertion into question, but the cleric is right that for some Anglicans the discussion is over. In fact, for some Anglicans any serious discussion of human sexuality never began. The Episcopal Church did not end the debate. Some Anglicans decided to respond to our actions by withdrawing from the discussion, but that was their decision and not ours. Our actions did not create the reactions of others, and adults don't blame others for their own decisions. In the words of President Andrew Shepherd, "We have serious problems to solve and we need serious people to solve them."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Is One To Do?

Over at the Covenant blog  I posted some comments in a thread, "You Can Be Right or You Can Be in Relationship"  The thread was started by a priest for whom I have great respect, Fr. Nathan Humphrey, and his post is well worth reading. Here is part of one of my posts:
I disagree that those of us in TEC who want to remain in relationship with siblings with whom we disagree are demanding that our “vision of biblical interpretation and discernment is considered right and good” by others. No one has to agree with me to remain in relationship with me.
A few hours later someone responded to my post and began with these words:
You are insisting that the rest of the communion change its teaching such the status of homosexual sex is not part of the adiaphora of the Church.
Aside for the fact that the sentence is badly written, something which is true about many of the sentences in my posts, this brother in Christ has misunderstood or - could it be? - willfully mischaracterized my position. Reading such comments I wonder if it is possible for Anglicans to have reasoned conversations about sexuality or any other controversial issue.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Picture Is Worth....

Thanks to Jim Simons at Three Rivers Episcopal for what Jon Stewart might call a moment of Zen.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Over at Preludium Mark Harris has posted a thought-provoking piece, What Makes the Episcopal Church so "Special" in the Archbishop's Eyes? I think Mark is right and that there is something very odd about the decision of the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion to dismiss only representatives of the Episcopal Church from the various committees that the Archbishop mentioned in his Pentecost letter. That decision raises a question about whether the problem is violating the moratoria recommended in the Windsor Report or something else. Perhaps, as Mark suggests, the real problem is that the Episcopal Church broke an unwritten moratorium by electing as its Presiding Bishop and Primate a woman. Misogyny is not a stranger in the Anglican Communion - nor in the Episcopal Church - and it seems to me that there are some fairly clear links between sexism and heterosexism. Patriarchy dies hard and at least some Patriarchs (Primates?) may want to keep women and LGBT sisters and brothers in the kitchen and in the closet.

It's All Grace

From time to time I have serious problems with the shorthand that people use for Paul's central theological point. Justification by faith can be misunderstood and people can fool themselves into thinking that it is their faith that justifies them, thus turning faith into another work. While Paul did himself use that shorthand ("justified by faith in Christ" in Galatians 2:16), we need to guard against pulling the phrase out of the larger context of Paul's theology. In Romans 3:22-24, we can read a fuller exposition of Paul's understanding of Paul's understanding of justification: "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

All have sinned. It's all Grace.

In the Lord of the Rings there is an interesting reflection of the theology of Grace. During the long and difficult journey to Mordor and Mount Doom, Frodo Baggins comes to see that his unwelcome travelling companion, Gollum, is more like him and other hobbits than he had originally thought. Although Smeagol's humanity had been corrupted by his love for his Precious - and by the evil of the Dark Lord who forged that ring - Frodo could see in Gollum the vestiges of the humanity of Smeagol. Having sought to be more by stealing the ring from his cousin, Smeagol had become less than fully human.

The same thing happens to us when we sin and fall short of the glory of God. Perhaps, like Adam and Eve, we want to become like God, or, again like Adam and Eve, we let someone else do our thinking for us, but whether our sin is pride or sloth, it corrupts our humanity and alienates us from God and one another and the creation. And there is nothing that we can do about it.

Grace happens.

Although we can never justifiy ourselves, never reconcile ourselves to God or one another or God's creation, God can, has, will. It's pure gift with no strings attached. All we have to do is accept the gift, surrender to God's love, trust Jesus. That sounds simple, even easy, but surrender is difficult for us. We want to earn our way, to be deserving of the gift, perhaps even to yield to the temptation to thnk of ourselves as better than others because we've been saved. But if have been saved, one of the things that we've saved from is the arrogance of thinking that we are better than other sinners. And one of the things that we have been saved for is community with other sinners, not only those who are receiving the gift of Grace, but also all those who have yet to surrender to Love Incarnate.

The Germans have a word for it - as usual. It's mitsein, being with. The glory of God, as Irenaeus asserted, is humankind fully alive. We see that glory in Jesus, but it isn't about talents or gifts or abilities but about relationships, about being with, about mitsein. Jesus reveals to the world that God is an accompanying God, One who desires to be in relationship with us, One who, I believe, wants to be God only in relationship with us. Created in the image of God, reconciled by the Cross, we are given the Grace to live in right relationship with all creation. It is the gift that we need to accept and unwrap and enjoy. It is the gift that Paul was pointing to when he wrote to the community in Rome:  "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God...." (8:19) In the words of the African-American poet June Jordan, "we are the ones we have been waiting for."

The Final Four

I decided last week to use my final four Sunday sermons at Saint Matthias Church to lay out what I think are four essential characteristics of the Church. I think that the four are clearly discernible in the texts for the Sundays in the Revised Common Lectionary, although one could draw other characteristics from the texts. On this past Sunday, reflecting on the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, the sermon was about the Church as a Community of Welcome.  God willing and the creek don't rise,  the three remaining sermons will be about the Church as a Graced Community, the Church as a Listening Community, and the Church as a Community of Companions on the Way.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Presiding Bishop Responds to the Archbishop of Canterbury

In a Pastoral Letter to the members of The Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has commented on the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost Letter to the Anglican Communion.

I think Bishop Katharine's letter expresses very clearly two characteristics that I have always believed to be written into the DNA of Anglicanism: the ability to hold in communion members with profound disagreements on important matters; and an awareness that we may be wrong in our reading of Scripture and our discernment of the Spirit. This latter characteristic is, perhaps surpisingly, affirmed, at least by implication in the Articles of Religion. Article XIX states, "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith." Anglican humility would suggest that this assertion can be made about all Churches, including our own and the other member Churches of the Anglican Communion.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Bishop of California Responds to the Archbishop of Canterbury

Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California has posted on his blog,  Bishop Marc: on contemplation and living for justicea response to Archbishop Rowan's Pentecost letter. There have been comments from many people about the Archbishop's letter, but I find the brevity and clarity of Bishop Marc's response refreshing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why Not Leave?

A question was posed recently at Mark Harris's blog Preludium to those who support the blessing of committed same-sex unions and want the Episcopal Church to remain a member church of the Anglican Communion:
Why not following the leading of the Holy Spirit you are hearing and sever ties with those who do not hear the Holy Spirit saying this but indeed its opposite?
While I have stopped arguing with people about same-sexuality (see The Discipline of Silence), this is a question that deserves an answer. I can see two reasons to stay in communion with those with whom we disagree about this issue.
  1. They are sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we share a common tradition within the Church. While we disagree about what it means to be Anglicans, we all are. But beyond this admittedly absract connection, many Episcopalians have friendships of long-standing with Anglicans who disagree with them about same-sex relationships. Those friendships are of great value and we are unwilling to abandon them.
  2. I am aware that I might well be wrong about same-sex unions. I have come to my convictions about them through study, prayer, and conversation with other Christians. I don't think that I'm wrong, but I am honest enough to admit that possibility. Remaining in communion with sisters and brothers with very different convictions about the issue holds out the possibility that I will discern the Spirit's leading more faithfully and see where I am wrong. Having remained in communion with Episcopalians who aren't pacifists, as I am, has been a very good thing, good in ways that I don't even see. I trust that reamining in communion with Anglicans who are convinced that I am wrong will also be a very good thing.
I continue to pray that the Anglican Communion will find a way to live with diversity of convictions on this issue as we have on other ethical issues. I am not naive enough to think that this is likely, but I live in hope.