Saturday, June 25, 2022

Don't let being "right" distract us from love

I am not sure I believe it, but I am told that when I was a kid, I was known to wander off in strange directions and disappear. Can you believe it?

Well, if such a thing did happen I am sure that I never considered myself lost…just curious.  Like the time as a kid when my family went to the Washington National Zoo and I wanted to see the white tigers, which was fine except that my family was over by the giraffes.

So, it’s a little ironic that my vocation is one where distractions are all part of the job, and I am happy for it---It’s one of the things I love about priesthood! People drop in. People start spontaneous conversations on-the-fly. People have crises. People get sick or have needs that need to be addressed. People have ideas or concerns or stories they just want to share. But this is not the problem.

Our Gospel and our Epistle today are both lessons in the kind of spiritual and emotional resistance that can distract us from living and doing the heart of what Jesus calls us to be as we follow him.

In the Gospel, Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, which means that he is headed for the cross. He is going to Jerusalem to die. He is going to the cross.

As Jesus nears a village, he sends some disciples ahead as an advance party. The village refuses to welcome Jesus because they believe that the center of worship is not the Temple in Jerusalem but some other mountain. James and John are so incensed by their apparent stubborn error that they want Jesus to call down divine punishment on the town.

But Jesus won’t play. He tells them that despite everything you may have heard, this not how God’s kingdom works. So, they move on.

Then someone else runs up volunteering to follow Jesus, but he has no clue about what that will cost. Jesus warns him that even wild animals have more worldly security than God’s son. Notice that we don’t know if this person turned away from Jesus or came along anyway. I wonder what he chose?

Two other people each want to follow Jesus, but they first need to fulfill some family duty. Nope, says Jesus, proclaim the reign of God now. Nothing else matters. Jesus says you can’t plow a field while looking backwards.

Luke’s Gospel today shows Jesus starting a down a new path. Jesus had been gathering followers and doing amazing things but now he is headed towards Jerusalem. He is going to do what God sent him here to do. Reconcile the world to God…and die on a cross.  Of course, we know what that death means and that it will be followed by resurrection. But at that moment, all anyone knows is that he is going to Jerusalem and things will get serious.

Jesus is confronting the tendency all humans have when they respond to God with a “yes, but….” Yes, I’ll follow you but only if you worship on my mountain or look, dress, and act like me and my people. Yes, I’ll follow you, but first let me take care of business first. Yes, I’ll follow you but first I have to say good-bye. Yes, but; yes, but; yes, but. It is a litany we are all familiar with.

Saying a simple “yes” to Jesus will mean that we will set aside, even for a moment, our resistance to God. And the chief way we resist is when we try to mold God in our image, according to our preferences, and then judge people’s faithfulness accordingly.

In the Epistle, the Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Galatia, that they have a new liberty as followers of Jesus. They are no longer bound by whatever rules, traditions, prejudices, and barriers that they lived with before they followed Jesus. But he cautions them not to let their newfound liberty become an occasion for sin.

They want to follow Jesus, and yet their Christian community is in conflict because they not only can’t agree on how to do that but they also berate and belittle each other for not following Jesus ‘their way.’

Paul tells them that instead of eating each other alive, they are to love each other. Instead of taking on the divisive spirit of their old life, they are called to put on the gifts of the Spirit. He tells them that the fruits of the Spirit-- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control-- are so central that there is no law against it! It is how we know that we are being changed from the inside out as followers of Jesus!

Paul says that instead of devouring one another, they are to love each other. Instead of taking on the divisive spirit of their old life, they are called to put on the gifts of the Spirit.

What’s important, it turns out, is not that they always win every argument but that they love each other, especially the ones they most fervently disagree with!

This has been another very tough month this week, hasn’t it?

We have seen in two Supreme Court rulings the most divisive issues of our day kicked back into public play—guns in a time of violence, and the hard questions of beginning of life care and women’s autonomy. For fifty years, like it or not, we thought we knew where we stood… now, like it or not, everything is now in play.

Chuck (left) and Andrew
at my ordination to the
diaconate in 1982.

And as I process all this news, you know who I miss right now? My best friend from high school who died a few years ago from cancer, his name was Chuck Redfern. He was a Baptist pastor, a graduate of an evangelical seminary, a former journalist, and a writer. He and I went to the same Baptist youth group in high school.

On some things we agreed: we both were deeply committed to following Christ; he was an avid environmentalist, active in his local town government; and he worked hard to serve the poor and the outcast.

But where we disagreed… hoo-boy! Not only was he Baptist and me Episcopalian, that was the easy part! In secular lingo, he was fervently pro-life, and I am functionally pro-choice in a via media kind of way, especially because of my experience in health-care, I just don’t think a bunch of male politicians and preachers ought to be seeking to control how women manage their health and their bodies, and until we make the same demands on ourselves as men as we do with women, then we should just, well, step back. 

Plus, my experience as a Chaplain in a Roman Catholic hospital and serving on their Biomedical Ethics team and studying medical ethics at West Virginia University gave me first-hand experience in the knottiness of the issues as I was required to apply The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare in a real world, real time setting with real patients often making impossible decisions on the fly. The more I worked on this on a daily basis, the more I saw the wisdom of the Episcopal Church's nuanced position and approach. (Read more here.)

Needless to say, we debated that one… a lot!

Chuck and I tended to see eye to eye on guns and gun-control, if anything, I might have been more hair more conservative than he on this point, at least from a policy standpoint. But he was opposed to same-sex marriage especially in the church, and I am in favor of full marriage equality in both civil and church settings. 

He wasn't afraid to take on his own "tribe," as he called them, either.  He wrote a book called "The Intimidation Factor," about how right-wing politics and personality cults centered around both preachers and politicians were, in his view, ripping the heart out of the evangelical movement.

The thing is, even as we disagreed, we could talk and more importantly… we could listen deeply to each other.

Chuck saw Scripture through an evangelical lens. I see scripture as God’s word mediated through the church’s tradition and read by the faithful endowed with reason.

And yet… very often when I had a tough choice and needed clarity, it was he that I would pick up the phone and call. And when he was struggling with his cancer and the loss of his voice, or some pastoral issue in his congregations, I found myself answering the phone or an email from him.

I honestly don’t know how he’d feel this week after the Supreme Court ruling… my hunch is that while he’d agree with it most of it, neither would he rub my face in it. Although I'll bet he would point out the internal contradictions and the pastoral and everyday ethical implications. My experience of him is that he would understand the pain, the hurt, and the confusion being felt right now by many. He was that kind of a guy.

Because Chuck taught me, over and over again, where the heart of the matter was… Jesus.

The thing that the Church must witness to right now is how to find our unity, and our wonderful diversity, is grounded in Christ. If we really want to show, as the song goes, that they’ll know we are Christians by our love, then we must in fact practice that love and give up the world’s corrupt dead-end need to “own” our opponents. I believe that the Church has a responsibility to model to society how to live a life of on-going loving reconciliation especially on the toughest issues.

Yes, we do get distracted, and, like a certain young boy at the zoo, we wander. We from thing to thing, looking for what feels good or interesting or novel. We especially get distracted by the things which stir up our passions the most. We are by nature competitive, and we love to win, and that can be a distraction, too! And we get distracted the most when we start to believe that only people who act like us or agree with us or vote like us are somehow the true church.

Following Jesus means reorienting how we think, how we connect, and how we relate to one another. As our focus becomes more and more on what God wants for us—to love neighbor, to listen for God in prayer, to live intentionally and ethically—then we will find our built-in resistance falling away. Then we see our hand-made intellectual and political silos crumble as we gather before Jesus and with each other at his table. 

Yes, following Jesus will transform our ethics and that will affect how we interact with society, and probably even how we vote—but probably not in the way we expect! Because, as both Jesus and the apostle Paul both teach us, our transformed ethics is first, last, and always grounded in love. That is the main thing that we need to keep the main thing. Let’s never get distracted from that!

So, when we gather at the baptismal font and the communion table, remember what unites us is Christ. Through his ministry and teachings, his death, resurrection, and ascension, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is giving us the grace of a unity grounded in love. Let’s never be distracted from that. 

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Here is a link to the bulletin for the Third Sunday after Pentecost  at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater

Here is a link to the Scripture readings.

Here is a link to a video of the sermon.

Here is a link to a video of the liturgy.


Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Ongoing Work of Casting Out Evil

Don’t you wish sometimes that you could just gather up all the evil in the world and just dump it into a rocket-ship and fire it into the sun or something? A few weeks ago, I asked this very question in the e--newsletter column right after another public mass-shooting… the one at the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo in May. Today, we are still processing the shock of a public shooting Thursday evening at a pot-luck supper at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of having to speak to this violence over and over again.  I hate having to repeat myself. But the persistence of evil and the recurrence of gun violence seems to find its way into every corner of our society, even an Episcopal parish, not so different that our own, having a pot-luck supper.

Back in May, as it happens, I talked about how Jesus confronted evil in the Gospel appointed for today. Whether that is a “God-incidence” or not, I don’t know. But I am going with it.

The gospel today we just heard is all about what Jesus did for a man who was possessed by demons and it sure seems like Jesus bundled up all that evil and sent it away! Right into a herd of swine who then ran headlong into the water to drown. After yet another mass shootings, and news everyday of some kind of violence, hateful language and controversy, I sure would like to do as Jesus did and send all this evil far, far away!

We Episcopalian Christians take evil seriously. Every time we baptize someone, the candidates, or their parents and sponsors, have to answer two questions: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” And: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

Yes. We Episcopalians really and truly believe that these evil powers, these demons, are real and wreak havoc in our world. Most people scoff at such an idea…or at least whistle as they pass the graveyard… which is fine until a guy who dresses up his anger in political non-sense takes a semi-automatic firearm into a nightclub and shoots over a hundred people, killing forty-nine. Or until a guy who decides to call himself “death to traitors” kills a member of parliament in the UK. Or until a guy stalks and murders a young singer before a concert. Then evil becomes very real, doesn’t it?

The spiritual powers that rebel against God and corrupt and destroy the creatures of God show themselves mainly through fear and hatred.  These are not just emotions, but a spiritual state.

And it is very easy to be tempted to confront evil with more evil…to pile on fear in response to fear, to dish out prejudice in response to prejudice, to meet violence with violence. But Jesus shows us time and again in the Gospels that if you want to fight evil and win, we must do the things that evil hates.

Jesus does that in today’s Gospel. When confronted with a madman who screams at and threatens people, who throws himself to the ground and roams among the dead in a cemetery. Instead of doing some sort of violence against the man, Jesus confronts the evil…through dialogue!

Jesus says, “What is your name?” And the man can’t even answer. The demon within him responds, “Legion.” A legion was a Roman military unit, terrifying in its power and the number of heavily armed soldiers who could overrun another army or a country. What possessed this man was not a simple fear, or a hatred of a single thing—the demon that ripped this man’s life apart and separated him from all society was a whole constellation of fears, they manifested in hatred of life itself, and even when the Life of the World invited him to life, he cried out, “DO NOT TORMENT ME!”

People rightly respond in horror and revulsion to the awful events like last week’s and people typically use many names for the evil that we witnessed: “terrorist,” “foreigner,” “self-hater.”

But this time, not so much. When a 70+ year old guy who comes to pot-luck suppers and the occasional church service shows up with violent intent, we are speechless. It defies the neat categories.

Jesus sees this in the man in today’s gospel. He says his name is Legion, because the things that drove him to tombs in Gerasa, two thousand years ago were beyond counting, let alone understanding. At least until he confronted Jesus, the incarnate love of God, who stood calmly before the face of evil.

Jesus was not distracted by the evil but sees it for what it is…He even dialogues with it. Notice how Jesus stays laser-focused on healing the man possessed instead of playing evil’s deadly game. The demons can’t take it. They flee from the man and away from Jesus into that herd of swine.

What drove these demons out of the man…what made life unbearable for the evil Jesus faced…was the power of Jesus’ love that made these demons want to take up residence somewhere else. Jesus was doing the things that evil hates!

So, what I said before in May I say again today. Jesus is teaching us that if you want to cast out demons, do the things that evil hates.

Evil hates justice and thrives on division. Seek reconciliation. 

Evil loves it when we are silent about injustice and marginalize the poor. Speak up and work on behalf of the oppressed and outcast. 

Evil drives us to be selfish and care only for ourselves. Cast out evil with compassion.

Evil wants us to be alone and cut off. Drive evil crazy with your prayer, your trust in God, and your life in Christian community.

Evil flourishes when we hate in God’s name. If you really want to cast out demons, love.

Evil feeds on our resentment and our list of wrongs. Cast out evil. Forgive.

Evil wants us to focus on scarcity. Fight evil. Be generous.

Evil grows when we get caught up in anxiety. Cast out a demon. Let go of needing to control every outcome.

Evil needs violence—in every form, physical and emotional—so fight evil and live peaceably.

Evil says we need to arm ourselves to the teeth in the face of fear— so let’s fight evil and look it in the eye.

More than one person has called me naïve and silly for saying this. But time and again, I have seen evil head for the hills every time we dare to do the things that evil hates, just as Jesus shows us, in his unflinching encounter with a legion of demons and on his journey to the cross. Jesus had God’s power and God’s authority which allowed him to confront evil on God’s terms. By simply living and doing what he was called to do; by teaching, healing, and being a companion to the outcast he did all the things that evil hates…he drove evil crazy! They wanted to run away! When Jesus was crucified, it looked as if evil won. But in fact evil was defeated. Forever.

We saw it in every candle lit, every rainbow flag flown, every act of love, every grieving person hugged and cared for, ever frightened person embraced. Once again, one man chose to do unspeakable evil. And once again, when the chips were down, thousands upon thousands chose to do the good.

I hate to keep repeating myself. But sin and evil has this way of replaying their greatest hits over and over again. I want to take the arm off the record, to hit the pause and reset buttons. To send all the evil in all the world off in a rocket-ship, far, far away.

The Good News is that God has already beaten us to it! Jesus has already defeated evil and put death to flight on the cross and in his resurrection. And when we do as Jesus told the man he healed to return to where we live and “declare how much God is doing for us,” we are demonstrating that no matter how much hate, how much violence, how much cynicism and fear is out there, we have, through our baptisms, the Eucharist. and the power of the Holy Spirit in this community, the power cast out evil in wonderful, surprisingly practical ways of compassion, holiness and calm.

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Here is a link to the bulletin for the Second Sunday after Pentecost  at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater

Here is a link to the Scripture readings for Trinity Sunday

Here is a link to a video of the sermon.

Here is a link to a video of the liturgy.

 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The vastness and closeness of God

In 2008, Fr. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, said that the vastness of the universe means it is possible there could be other forms of life outside Earth, even intelligent ones.

When I mention this to folks, the first response I get is “Wait. The Vatican has an observatory?”

This seems more than a little ironic given that little falling out between the Inquisition and the astronomer Galileo 500 years ago.  Actually, the Church—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant—has supplied the scientific community with physicists, astronomers, and all kinds of researchers for long time, many of them ordained, since the beginning of what we now call “modern” science. But that’s not the point.

Basically, this Jesuit priest said that it is okay for Roman Catholics (and the rest of us) to believe in aliens. As Admiral Pike will someday say to Captain Kirk, “I am relieved!

This is not just esoteric speculation. The question is really this: now that have a hint of how vastly big and how vastly small creation is, is God really bigger than Creation?

I am no scientist, and I don’t play one on television, but knowing that we have the technology to see to the very edges of the universe and measure its size, at the very same time we can use colliders to measure the smallest particle we can imagine, which was unofficially named after God, what Fr. Funes said begins to make sense. God is greater than all creation and the more we see the vastness of creation, the more we see the majesty and power of God.

Okay. So, God is very big. Does that make God incomprehensible?

Well, except for God’s grace and for the fact that we humans are wired to inquire, that would be “yes.”

God has always been incomprehensible by any ordinary standard. Justin Martyr, that seeker for the truth who died in about 167, said that anyone who thinks God can even be named is “hopelessly insane.”  And yet we still seek.

Would it surprise you, you who routinely and daily live with the benefits of chemistry, physics, microbiology not to mention also live under the shadow of a global pandemic and what we used to call “The Bomb”, to hear how a 14th Century English mystic once contemplated both the very big inside the very small?

Dame Julian of Norwich was an anchoress who lived in a private monastic cell attached to an English Cathedral when she had visions, or “showings” of God. One of those “showings” concerned happened when she contemplated what she saw inside a walnut. She saw all of God and God’s creation contained in that little shell. To see the vastness of God in something so small ought to appeal to us who know the wonder of DNA and marvel at pictures taken from an orbiting telescope.

Rather than be overwhelmed by God’s sheer size, Blessed Julian found love. Toward the end of her life, she penned this short but profound exchange: “Would you know your Lord's meaning?” she asks. “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.”

We can seek and ponder and reason…and we should because we are wired to inquire… but finally we discover that God is always shown best in relationship.  This is where our evangelical friends, have it right, along with sacramentalists like us: what really changes us is our relationship to God who comes to us where we are and touches us as we are, at the point of our deepest need.

There are people, some of whom are of a scientific mind, and even some religious folk, who proudly wear the badge “skeptic”, who tell me that the Trinity is incomprehensible. To which I say “yeah…and…?” 

I might also reply “tell me again about the multiverse….?” You know, the idea that there are multiple universes that exist at the very same time? Besides the fact that it makes for interesting science fiction, it shows us that Christians aren’t the only ones in the cosmological marketplace where apparently contradictory truths can co-exist at one and the same time.

And how about the mathematics that underpin not only modern physics but also chemistry and astronomy…what is the basis for that? About a decade ago, Scientific American spent a whole issue debating the assumptions—and implicit acts of faith within them--behind the high-level mathematics that undergird the advances we take for granted. The funny thing about physics is that when you drill down deep enough not only do our perceptions change, but the line between fact and faith becomes pretty darned blurry. The more we unravel the mystery, the more mystery there is.

And that to a person of faith, as Archbishop Rowan Williams once said to evolutionary biologist, and famed atheist, Dr. Richard Dawkins during an Oxford debate, is a beautiful thing.

The Trinity, the Christian doctrine that says that the oneness of God is expressed in a trinity of persons and a unity of being, tells us some things about the very nature of God. I'll name three:

First, God is complex to the point of unknowing.

Second, God is by definition relational and that means interactive; and

Three, God is by grace knowable.

The God of the whole vast universe, who made heavens and earth, is also the One who walked the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. The God whose Spirit moved at the beginning of the universe and brought it forth, either by word or by big bang, is also the Holy Spirit who animates our hearts. And as vast as creation is, God is this close!

We are able to measure how big and how small creation is using the tools that see down to the sub-atomic level and also galaxies far beyond our own; but there is no limit to how close God is to us.

Of course, we can only know so much, and often we distort or trivialize what we do know about God. We can hyper-focus on that one truth that makes God real to us … and in our fervor risk turning that truth from liberation to oppression. That’s how heresy happens: you take one truth and follow it out to its own illogical conclusion.

The Pop Atheists claim there is no God based on the folly of those who do awful things in the name of God, which, of course, says nothing about God, but a lot about us…and the prophets described that observation first and in greater detail.

Similarly, the folks who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” take the truth that we are all spiritual and have the capacity to inquire and to know God and assume, therefore, that there is nothing that the community of faith, ancient liturgy and scripture can teach us. To which I reply, if we cannot see the farthest galaxy or the smallest atom alone, without the help of others; if we cannot learn and fight disease alone; then why should we think that knowing the depths of God in the depths of human experience is a thing we can do all by ourselves, without tools and without help?

In all this…skepticism about religion, doubts about God, anxiety about our future…the common element is the human one. What really worries—and turns off people—is not God (nor science) but the messiness of human relationships. The politics, the meanness, the unpredictability, the irrationality, the selfishness—the sin—of humankind, is really what gets in our way. Blame it on God, if you like, but the problem is us.

The Trinity, which we celebrate today, tells us that our complex God is at once relational, knowable, and intimate. 

The Holy Trinity is, for me, my spiritual "LaGrange Point" where life hangs in the gravitational pull between science, spirituality, and lived experience. 

And I love that we start our season of “ordinary time” between now and Advent—where we drill down into the nuts and bolts Christian living by learning (and doing) the teachings of Jesus—by first contemplating and celebrating the wonder, complexity, and simplicity of the Holy Trinity.

God knows that we are limited and that we can only know so much. We can’t get away from the fact that the universe is vast and yet our brains can only fit under a baseball cap. But the Trinity tells us that remarkable truth that God is not so distracted and entranced by the bigness of creation to forget about us. That is why God comes to us in ways we can understand and know and touch; in the incarnation and person of Jesus; in beautiful things both small and vast; in redeeming relationships; in prayer and silence, in music and art, in science and meditation; in broken bread and poured out wine; in companionship and service to others; in birth, cross, and resurrection.

The Trinity reminds that the very bigness of God is as close to us as our hearts.

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Here is a link to the bulletin for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater

Here is a link to the Scripture readings for Trinity Sunday

Here is a link to a video of the sermon.

Here is a link to a video of the liturgy. 

Here is a link to a sermon by Bishop Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island (web link).


Tuesday, June 07, 2022

It’s Inside Baseball… except when it’s not!

It’s a triennial event. Every three years, as we get ready for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, some issue, some resolution, some controversy will come up that burns up the internet airwaves and vies for the attention of clergy like me, convention deputies, and other church geeks. 

Whether or not these “hot issues” make any difference to everyday Christians… well, that’s another question.

This year’s edition of the “Hot Button Issue” comes in the form of a resolution from the Diocese of Northern California that, if approved in both the House of Deputies (laity and clergy) and the House of Bishops, would remove baptism as a prerequisite for admission to Holy Communion. There have been learned responses from eminent scholars, theologians, and preachers (lay and ordained) on both sides. And the arguments are very “inside baseball.”

As near as I can tell, the rationale behind this resolution (and I am summarizing here) is either “hospitality” (i.e. “don’t turn aside guests and inquirers who present themselves at the communion table”) or “evangelism” (i.e. “don’t make baptism a barrier to the Good News.”)

The twenty-two theologians and church historians who have written a letter opposing the motion says (and, again, I am summarizing here) that in unlinking baptism from communion means that there is essentially nothing to get initiated into. Communion, they remind us, an action of the Christian community into which the faithful are initiated. Baptism is the Sacrament of Initiation. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Christian community. 

The debate has devolved--as these things usually do-- into side issues, the main one being what we mean by "people" when we say in the liturgy "The Gifts of God for the People of God." That somehow, when we address the baptized at the Eucharist as the "People of God" that that makes other people who are not baptized as lesser people, or something like that. 

And then there is the whole question of whether or not folks outside the confines of the Episcopal Church even know or care about what we're doing on Sunday morning anyway. As one colleague said on social media, "Given the state of evangelism, until people are knocking down the doors to come into our churches, I am not sure what the argument is about."

But I digress.

As I write this, I honestly can’t predict how the next General Convention will vote. Whether the proposed resolution passes or not, I know two things for sure: Initiation is hard work. And Christian community is matter of intention.

To me, the resolution is both well-meaning and unhelpful. In trying to be the most pastoral, to me it misses the pastoral mark in several ways.

To become a follower of Jesus in community assumes a certain intentionality. And our Prayer Book reflects that. In fact, the baptismal rite in our Prayer Book assumes that the norm for the baptized to be adult converts to the Christian faith. It’s just that we baptize more babies than adults because we assume that Christian families in Christian households and congregations will raise up Christian children.

Whether the person first receiving Communion is a child or a grown up, the task of the community is formation and an increasing sense of inclusion into the community of faith and the life as a follower of Jesus.

Having said that, my pastoral practice has always been to communicate the Sacrament to anyone who presents themselves to me at the Communion rail, or for that matter, the hospital bedside. I am certain that over the course of nearly forty years of ordained ministry, I have at one time, or another given communion to someone who was not baptized… say, an adult who was raised in a tradition that only practiced believer’s baptism but left that tradition before it occurred and then found his or her way into an Episcopal Church. Or a person who never encountered a church before and was simply doing what everyone else in the room is doing. There are thousands of stories like this and more, and I am sure I’ve encountered folks who are living them out, knowingly or not. 

So what does one do when, as priest, one meets or pastors such a person? 

My own practice has been that when I find a congregant who is not baptized, I will care for, teach, and invite that person to baptism, preparing them along the way, and asking them, once they enter a process of catechesis, to refrain from communion until after their baptism. I have baptized enough older children, young adults (teens and college aged), and adults to know that this process, while time-consuming, works. The process of initiation is not instant gratification. It is a process of building relationship between God and the person, and between the person and their Christian community.

To the charge that not communing such a person is somehow not inhospitable, I reply that it is apex of hospitality to meet people where they are, to listen to their story, invite people into conversation, especially when that conversation is as central as a person’s relationship to God, their neighbor, and themselves. To have that conversation is to invite a person into a process of reflection, prayer, and community, and to walk with them through that whole journey.

I am, frankly, perplexed by the argument—put forth by some theologians that I have profound respect for—that baptism is a barrier to communion, because it short-circuits initiation as part of the process of full inclusion. To be fair, I think that for many in this debate, the argument that baptism must precede communion sounds and feels an awful lot as if we are in the business of checking one another's papers. Kind of like this:



One thing for certain, initiation happens. 

Over the years, I’ve joined enough organizations… from workplaces, to organizations that train and certify chaplains, to volunteer fire and EMS companies, to local community theaters and choruses, and, yes, even churches… to know that every organization on the planet, every place where humans gather in groups, have rites and processes of initiation. Even something as informal as a Twelve-Step group, has a process to welcome new people, identify appropriate leaders and mentors, and to establish group norms to assure the safety and anonymity of their members. And these processes are not instantaneous.  We in the Church aren’t any different than that, even as a community founded upon the free, unconditional, unbounded grace of God.

A significant amount of textual real estate in the New Testament is spent on sorting out what it means to be a part of Christian community. The Epistles are filled with congregations working out this question. Even the Gospels, growing as they do out of various Christian communities have their own take on what it means to be a follower of Jesus in community. Sometimes they err on the side of grace (as with the inclusion of Gentiles into what started out as a Jewish sect when the Church was very young) and sometimes the communities require discipline or correction (as when Paul admonishes these early Christians to not let their liberty become an occasion for sin). Christian community is always a work in progress.

I suspect that the two halves of this argument are a side urging order and a side urging charisma. Which is a good thing! Because Christian community always experiences the tension between charisma and order, and it is in that tension where the Holy Spirit lives!

So, what about Communion?

Every Sunday, I stand before you and make this invitation: “In the Episcopal Church, all baptized Christians are welcome to receive Communion. This is Christ’s table and you are all welcome to it.”

When there are events (like weddings or funerals or the Big Holy Days) and where there may be people present who don’t how “we” do things, I give a brief instruction, including how to participate even if one wants to opt out of communion.

You want to know the funny part about my standard invitation? I wrote that little script many years ago, when I was working in Catholic Healthcare as a Chaplain in a hospital run by a community of Catholic nuns. The invitation I recite came in reaction against the experience of being excluded from Communion in that tradition!

In those days, I would go to many churches and clergy groups to talk about pastoral ministry at my Catholic hospital, and this put me in situations where I attended Roman Catholic Mass but was unable to receive because I am not, in their view, in full communion with the Bishop of Rome (ie, the Pope). I often heard a little spiel (I don’t know if they still do it) talking about “our sad divisions” and as gently as possible discouraging non-Catholics from receiving at their altar.

My weekly invitation that you hear is a deliberate reversal of that standard announcement.

So, while I follow the Episcopal Church’s official line on “open communion”—that is, Communion is open to all the baptized, I am equally committed to baptism as full and complete initiation and I believe that the Church’s normative practice is that communion grows out of baptism.

I also believe that other oft-overlooked rubrics require are important guidelines, too. Like the so-called “disciplinary rubric,” which requires us to be at peace with one another when we present ourselves for Communion, and that people who are at enmity with one another might do well to refrain from receiving until they are reconciled.

Speaking of which, I notice that the proponents of the resolution also seem to drive around the uncomfortable fact that communities don't just welcome people. They also live together, and they set norms for each other as to what is appropriate behavior and the consequences for going outside those boundaries. The aforementioned Disciplinary Rubrics are a case in point. (In nearly forty years of ministry, I have never invoked these myself. But a foundational story growing up in my household was my parents account of how in the late 1950's during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, my family's parish priest in northern Virginia once invoked these when he was confronted by a parishioner who on Sunday morning loudly objected to receiving Communion alongside a person of color.) The implication is that being in communion means being in relationship with a community and in that relationship there is at once accountability and amendment of life.

Since the time of the Apostle Paul, the long tradition of teaching in the church reminds us not to take lightly the significance of sharing Christ’s Body and Blood in community; at the same time, we are equally admonished by our Lord and the Apostle not to lay on each other any unnecessary burdens. And, finally, we are reminded in scripture not to turn the gracious liberty that we have been granted in Christ into an occasion for sin and pride.

All along the way, I keep before me something Pope Francis said not long ago, “who am I to judge?”

Which is why, I repeat, that as a practical matter, I have never refused to communicate anyone who present themselves to me at the rail (or who requests communion at the bedside). Neither in my nearly forty years of ordained ministry have I had to invoke that very long, very specialized disciplinary rubric. I will not check your papers or ask for your bona-fides.

I might urge and encourage you to be reconciled to your sister or brother, or to be sure that you are spiritually ready to receive the blessed Sacrament, I may even invite you to the sacrament of confession, but none of these are the same thing as refusal. If you are not baptized, I will certainly invite you to take the step of both coming into relationship with God in Christ and being baptized into His body, the Church, and in any event to remain in fellowship with the community and to present oneself for prayer and blessing.

At the same time, I get nervous with we start invoking modern, post-enlightenment ideas of ‘rights’ or modern ideas of ‘privilege’ on to the pastoral act of taking, blessings, breaking, and sharing the bread and wine of the Eucharist in Christian community. Because Christians are not solitary creatures, and our liberty in Christ is not a ‘right’ (in the political sense) but a grace. Christian community is a community of people living under grace who seek to follow Jesus Christ as his friends and apprentices.

The way we are fully initiated into that community is through baptism. Our communion is a sign that we have all chosen to continue in this community, this portion of the body of Christ, together. In any event, we walk this journey as followers of Jesus and any claim that we have to be a part of that community is through God’s grace. The process that we take to become apart of a given community can teach us a lot about what it means to listen for and respond to God and to live a faithful, abundant life in community. 

The particular conversation at this moment may seem like, and may in fact be, “inside baseball,” and whether or not this particular resolution passes this summer still leaves an important question before us and every follower of Jesus: how do we know and follow Christ with the people God has given us in this community at this moment? How do we become apart of the community of Christ’s followers, friends and apprentices? How are we accountable to one another in ways that lead to charity and growth? 

The answer may be as simple as an act of faith, and as mysterious as life together in Communion.

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Baptized into Christian Community

A few years back, a Christian cartoonist named Cuyler Black came out with a line of funny Christian greeting cards called “Inherit the Mirth.” The cover of each card contained one of his single panel cartoons imagining a silly (sort-of) Biblical scene, with a clever greeting on the inside. One of my favorites was titled “John the Baptist as a Kid” and it showed a boy standing next to a bathtub filled with water. He is holding a very wet cat, and next to him were a dog and a parrot, also dripping wet and looking very confused. An exasperated Elizabeth  says from another room “Honey! For the last time-- stop doing that to the pets!

I chuckle every-time I think of this cartoon because while John the Baptist appears nowhere in today’s lessons, it summarizes very nicely the challenges of living in a household, raising a child, all the while attempting to raise that child with a cogent, useful, and authentically held Christian faith.

Needless to say, I am still living in the glow of this new things called “grandparent.” And I hope I never lose that sense of awe and wonder. All it takes is a little smile from a certain little baby and I get all mushy inside. But this is not a new feeling… I’ve had it with my own children… as well as awe and pride at the people they are today. Part of the “mushy” is that I am getting to know this brand-new person who doesn’t know how to be anything but her complete, honest, direct, vulnerable self. And we are already watching Josephine grow… already a distinct personality, but how she will be in the future is a mystery still to unfold.

By bringing her to this community to be initiated into the Church, into the Company of Christ’s people, we are saying that not only will Josephine be a full part of the Church, she will be fully a part of us… not just her immediate family and friends, but the family and household of Christ’s people in all time and everywhere. We are also making a commitment that we… all of us, family, friends, congregation, the community of the faithful… will do everything we can to help her come to know God in Christ and herself as a follower of Jesus and to become a disciple… that she will live her life as a friend and apprentice of Jesus Christ.

The thing is that she will be attending the toughest, most transparent… and the most awkward… Church School there is. Not the one in this parish… although I know that Miss Mary can’t wait to have Miss Josephine join the crew! No, I mean the one in her home. It will be there that she will learn all the wonder and the love and all the possibility, hope, and security of a family daily learning how to be a family. And she will learn firsthand that Jamie and Johnny, her first teachers in the faith, are imperfect, have bad days, and don’t always have all the answers. In about ten to thirteen years, you parents will be begin getting feedback on all those gaps. (Don’t ask me how I know this!).

But that’s okay because we know that by baptizing babies like Josephine that Christian people are all the time raised up in Christian households. Not perfect, but faithful in an everyday kind of way.

Now, if you parents are smart, you won’t try to do this alone or on your own. Just as you will trust teachers to teach, and coaches to coach, and doctors and nurses to do their thing, you will also take part in a community like St. John’s to accompany you, support you, guide you, and show you the practical nuts and bolts of being a person of Christ.

So Josephine… welcome to the Jesus Movement! To paraphrase our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, Welcome to St. John’s branch of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement!

Welcome to the Movement that received the gift of the Holy Spirit as it came to Jesus’ first followers on Pentecost. That Spirit took a frightened pack of disciples and empowered them to become a brazen bunch of evangelists and ministers who shared the Good News of Jesus with people who were far off and those who were near to their Jewish faith, including people from all over the known world. People who spoke all kind of languages, had all kinds of customs, and all kinds of traditions.

As I’ve said, this baptism that we are about to do is not simply an event to be recorded in the baby book. It is the beginning of an amazing journey of faith that will require time, attention, and intention. Take the time to pray with your child, from grace at the table to nighttime prayers. Share the stories of faith, not only from the Bible or a book of saints, but from your own faith journey (including the questions you struggle with) and the people you admire. Teach her to hang in there, even when things get rough, confusing, or are not according to plan. As you teach Josephine about respect, reliability, doing her chores, manners, showing up for practice, and all the rest, don’t forget to show her also the rituals of the life of faith, and how to look for God in the everyday.

This may come as a shock to you, but as you do this work as a parent, you won’t have to have all the answers. You just have to model that you too are developing those very same seven-fold gifts of the Spirit that we will soon be praying that Josephine will experience. So, show her your own inquiring and discerning heart, take a deep breath and show what it takes to have the courage to will and to persevere, take the time every day to share the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works, especially as you see it unfold in this little person whom you present today for baptism. Because you are—all of you—growing on your faith journeys together.

They call Pentecost "the birthday of the Church" (and I understand that there is cake after Church in coffee hour!) So imagine, the Holy Spirit saying to all of us "welcome to the Church!"

Because what we are doing today is also an object lesson for the rest of us on how to be a Christian community. No Christian is a solitary Christian. So here's what we do. We pray together. We dare to have the courage to be vulnerable. We are discovering that it is okay to trust God while not having all the answers. We show up and are together, even when things are confusing, strange, uncertain, or (gasp!) boring. Because how we choose to be a community of believers together demonstrates how to be faithful to each other, our children, our grandchildren, our neighbors, the community, and the members of our households.

Pentecost was not the only time or the only way that the Holy Spirit arrives. God’s spirit is still present in a mighty way. For when we encounter nothing less than the presence of God in the people God gives us in all their variety, we come to know that we cannot limit who God is and how God acts, no matter how we might try. We who follow Jesus and have been baptized into his Church are called to act on our love of God as much as those first disciples were called to share God’s love. We are to share the love of God freely, without trying to limit who God might love.

All of us from Josephine, our newest member, to those who remember when this congregation first gathered more than fifty years ago, and everyone in-between, we all share the same call: we are to take this Good News that God loves us, and share that gospel in our deeds as well as our words with everyone we meet, and as we leave our worship, going in peace to love and serve the Lord (Alleluia times 3!), we are empowered by nothing less than God’s Holy Spirit, who meets us where are and by grace transforms us into Christ’s people, the people God made us to be. 

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Here is a link to the bulletin for the Feast of Pentecost at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater

Here is a link to the Scripture readings for Trinity Sunday

Here is a link to a video of the sermon.

Here is a link to a video of the liturgy. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Surprise! It’s the Holy Spirit!

What do you think happens when you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Whenever I ask that question, I get some interesting responses.

Some people expect power: a sense of personal, internal, and emotional empowerment that compels them to overcome all kinds of things—evil and temptation within themselves and in society itself.

Some people expect a kind of personal or material prosperity that comes as divine reward for making all the “right” decisions at all the “right” times—which in itself is seen as kind of divine blessing.

Some people expect a kind of moral steadfastness that comes from never giving in to weakness; by always adhering to the right moral standards in every situation and with a kind of moral certitude that knows when everyone around them is living up to God’s way of doing things—and when they’re not!

Some people expect that they will have, thanks to this new gift of the Holy Spirit, insight into seeing things that no one else sees, a kind of spiritual super-sight that pierces through the blindnesses of our particular age, and that they will somehow rise above temptation and be able to control every outcome.

Awesome stuff, huh? And what if I told you that almost none of this is what is, in fact, promised by the coming of the Holy Spirit? Would you be surprised? I am! All the time!

Because time and again, I have learned (or more precisely been shown, because I am particularly slow learner in such matters) is that what the Holy Spirit brings us will rarely be what be what any of us expects.

If you don’t believe me, go back to the start of Jesus’ ministry when he prepares for his public ministry by forty or more days of fasting and prayer in the desert (Luke 4:1-13). He is met by Satan who offers him three things: material and personal satisfaction (Luke 4:3 - bread for his hunger); personal power (Luke 4:6-7 - leadership over all the kingdoms of the earth); and spiritual pride (Luke 4:9-11 – a desire to bend God to our will). All of these could easily be mistaken for immense spiritual gifts… and they just might be… just for the Wrong Side!

Popular literature shows us this truth all the time. The Faust legend (which is portrayed in such works as The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even The Little Mermaid) shows us someone seeking immense spiritual and personal power, and who sells his or her soul to the devil in order to get it. In the Lord of the Rings, we see what happens to the poor hobbit Gollum as he seeks to possess the “precious” ring. In the Star Wars saga, especially in the original middle trilogy, we see the results of Anakin Skywalker’s desire (as with all those caught up in the Dark Side) to control and direct the Force instead of living into it. In an upcoming TV limited series based on the graphic novels, Moon Knight, it is the villain who wants to eradicate all evil everywhere by bending all people he encounters to his perfectionistic and inflexible will, while the hero seeks to live life under grace, which is a more ambiguous, intuitive path.

Jesus shows what it means to live life in the Spirit in John 8:1-11, where Jesus is tempted to join in the righteous condemnation of a woman caught in adultery but instead turns the tables on her accusers by challenging the angry righteous men to look at themselves and their own sinfulness before casting their stones at another.  In the same way, Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well precisely at the point of her deepest need while bridging the chasms of race, culture, tradition, and gender that stood between them (John 4:1-42) in order for her to know the love of the Messiah.

The gift of the Holy Spirit will surprise us time and again! Look at what the Apostle Paul says about the surprising work of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

The Holy Spirit turns our expectations of what it means to be faithful upside down! Instead of becoming more strident in our certainty, we are invited to humility. Instead of being more rigid in our actions, we are given the power to be more gracious. Instead of deciding who is more righteous, we are given insight into the needs of others. Our understanding of perfection changes from a persistent judgement (of ourselves and those around us) to a growing compassion and appreciation for the people God has given us. We are given the grace to begin to see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet.  

Rather than reinforce all our prejudices, assumptions, and biases, the promised gift of the Holy Spirit transforms us precisely because God surprises us.

This coming Sunday, join us as we look for, find, and celebrate the surprising ways that God the Holy Spirit meets, challenges, and changes us as we celebrate the birth of the Church, baptize a new member into Christ’s Church, and renew our own baptismal vows!

 

 

 

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Come, Lord Jesus, and quench our thirst!

There is an old saying in journalism circles: if you want to know the truth of what going on, follow the money.

It doesn’t take a bloodhound to follow the money in today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Silas are making their way through Philippi, when a slave girl with powers of divination sees them and announces to everyone within ear-shot that these two men are “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

For some reason, this really annoys Paul, even though this is exactly why they came to Philippi in the first place! Maybe Paul does not believe in advertising, or maybe her words disrupted whatever his plans were. Whatever! Paul stops and performs an exorcism that silences the girl and frees her from demonic possession.

As great as it was for the woman to be healed, her owners were nonetheless very unhappy. Remember—follow the money! The slave woman’s abilities were a lucrative source of income which is now, thanks to Paul's exorcism, gone! So, they have Paul and Silas locked up.

Follow the money… and you’ll discover where people’s hearts are all the time. Here a woman is restored to wholeness, healed from her demon, and freed from slavery, and all anyone cares about is the money!

I pause here to note that you never seem to hear the religious charlatans throughout the ages, who love to take people’s money under revival tents or on television screens talking about this passage. But I digress.

When Paul and Silas are thrown into jail, they pray and sing hymns all through the night, when all of a sudden an earthquake hits and causes the prison doors to pop open! The jailer assumes that the prisoners must have all fled and is about to take his own life, when Paul stops him from harming himself, saying, “Look! We are all still here!”

What frees Paul and Silas, and what will lead others to faith, is not the money but an earthquake. It is not the idea of sudden riches that changes hearts, but the awareness that God is present to us even at the moments that shakes us down to our very souls.

The sudden terror of the earthquake, and the guard’s fear of being blamed for even a failed jail break, gives way to the recognition that these Christians are truly care for him. He is astounded by Silas’ and Paul’s compassion for him, their jailer. Before you know it, the jailer and his family are baptized and are added to the ever growing church described in the Book of Acts.

In John’s gospel today, Jesus is praying. It is Maundy Thursday, the night before his crucifixion. He knows he has been betrayed. He knows he faces execution at the hands of the Roman Empire. Oddly enough, Jesus never follows the money, even as one of his followers is bribed to betray him. No, instead of worrying about himself and what lies ahead Jesus prays for his disciples. And he prays not only for his immediate group of followers and friends, but he prays for all of us. Jesus prays, “… on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. … So that they may be one, as we are one.”

Jesus is taking the long view. He is looking far, far ahead as he prays for you and for me, and for every Christian in every place and in every time.

Jesus’ prayer for us meets up with the prayer that makes up the final words of Holy Scripture: “Come, Lord Jesus!” In the Book of Revelation, the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” But the prayer is also invitation. Let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who would take the water of life as a gift from God come. The prayer is not only that Jesus will return to us, it is also a prayer—and an invitation—that we will come to him! Come, Lord Jesus!

I don't know about you, but I am very grateful for Jesus' prayer for us, especially these past few week which have rough indeed!

I think that we are living through one of those pivotal moments when we wonder if it is possible to hear the voice of God. Between successive mass shootings, in a grocery store, in a church, and in a school, and the apparent helplessness of our leaders to come to useful solutions, not to mention the Monday-morning quarterbacking by people who weren’t there, or who playing to their constituencies, it is clear that today, we are a people who are feeling very thirsty, very hurting, and very lost.

And you know what is really troubling to me? That there are good people of good faith who won’t even come together to talk to each other constructively about how to address this because they fear the people with the money. We are left looking on as our corporate wheels spin as we bury our dead.

You know what we learn when we follow the money? That we are as a culture spiritually thirsty.

Never has Jesus’ invitation in the Gospel of John more important—and more needed!

As Jesus’ people, we hold the pitcher of living water. Can we invite the thirsty to come? Are we willing to let “anyone who wishes” to take the gift of the water of life? Can we find ways to listen and dialogue and problem solve together without falling into our silos of blame, shame, and fear?

I worry that too often the Church mimics the world’s division and pain instead of ministering to it. The truth is that the world is in too much pain to keep doing this. We can no longer continue to hold people – faithful, seeking people – at arm’s length from the waters of life! Now is the time to open the floodgates of God’s unconditional love and mercy!

The time is now to cry out with one voice, as John the Divine does in Revelation when he implores Jesus to come! Revelation shows us a picture of the world where God is in charge and all people everywhere who are gathered before Christ are loved, known, valued, and cherished, and where our petty differences fall away before the throne of the Lamb.

The invitation on this Last Sunday of Easter is to allow ourselves to be shaken open by the Holy Spirit, just as the earthquake opened the doors of the prison in Philippi, and loosed the chains on all those in the prison. More than that, we are called to be the earthquake that opens people’s hearts and loosens their shackles holding them in fear that turns into anger and rage. The world is in desperate pain and too many hurting people are deeply thirsty for hope, direction, presence, and love.

In Christ, through our faith and baptism in the Spirit’s power, we are unbound, our shackles have dropped away, we are shaken loose so that we might be a word of hope and comfort to those who are  those people who make the waters of life, the waters of God’s unconditional love and mercy, truly and honestly available to all persons.

The first words of the Bible are “In the beginning God…” and the last words in the Bible are “Come, Lord Jesus!” We are created to be God’s people in God’s world, and we are sent into a hurting world to proclaim, baptize, and teach the love of Christ, hearing and meet the deep longing of all the people God has given us. And the best part is that the prayer we prayer has already been answered. The promise of the Ascension is that Jesus is with us, even through all the troubles and uncertainties we experience. He is always with us … even to the end of the age... ready to quench our deepest thirst! 

As we pray, so we affirm: Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

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Here is a link to the bulletin for the Seventh Sunday of Easter at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater

Here is a link to the Scripture readings for 7 Easter C.

Here is a link to a video of the sermon.

Here is a link to a video of the  liturgy.