cjbanning: (Symposium)
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
So goes our Confession of Sin, the prayer with which we began this service, which is structured to begin with confession and end with thanksgiving. It’s a familiar prayer to us, because it also appears in the mass, either at the beginning in the Penitential Order or before the Offertory as part of the Prayers of the People. Following the direction of St. Paul’s exhortation, we turn to God for forgiveness and absolution before approaching the Lord’s Table in the Eucharistic liturgy.

Amos had a vision of God setting a plumb line in the midst of the people of Israel, a weighted string used as a vertical reference line, metaphorically speaking a standard for judging their moral correctness at a time when their failure of that test was very much a foregone conclusion. So too are we as Christians called to a holiness we are fundamentally incapable of keeping through our own power. Thus the inescapable necessity of our confession and subsequent absolution.

When the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer were working on the revised confession of sin prayer for the Rite II services, they chose to make explicit that the standard we were failing to meet was that of the greatest commandments identified by Jesus in today’s gospel passage: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

The first of those commandments would be one well known to Jesus’ audience, especially to the expert in the law who questioned Jesus. It’s a quote from the Torah book of Deuteronomy and appears in the Shema Yisrael--the one which appears in the Gospel According to Saint Mark, the first phrase of the shema is quoted as well:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
To love God with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s strength, and with all one’s mind means to love God with one’s entire person -- physical, mental, and spiritual. But what does it mean to love God, in practical terms, when God’s very Being defies the very possibility of our comprehension? After all, as Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote long ago, si comprehendis, non est Deus -- “if you understand, that isn’t God.”

We live in an age where there are almost as many different, warring understandings of Who and what God is -- or isn’t! -- as there are people to hold to them. As a consequence of religious freedom and a long list of social factors, the diversity of opinion which exists on questions of ultimate reality and the sacred is truly unprecedented.

Over the last month and a half, we have listened in our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures to stories of how different understandings of the divine quite literally warred with each other, often with massive amounts of violence involved. The way the story is told, it’s almost like a sporting event. There’s the home team: Elijah, Elisha, Amos. And there’s the away team: Ahab, Jezebel, the priests of Baal, Amaziah. When our team “wins” we’re supposed to cheer; when “their” team scores a goal we’re supposed to hiss.

But is it really supposed to work that way?

Jesus’ answer to the lawyer in our Gospel reading today might suggest otherwise to us. The Samaritans were a people who held a different theological understanding than did the Jews of Judea, different in a way which seems small and trivial to us but which was the world to the Jews and the Samaritans themselves. You might remember the Gospel we heard two weeks ago, in which Jesus was refused entrance to a Samaritan city “because the face of Jesus was set toward Jerusalem.” The disciples wanted to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” but Jesus turned and rebuked them.

And now, a mere chapter later in the Gospel According to Saint Luke, Jesus uses a Samaritan as the example of the ideal neighbor, even above the puritanical obedience to the Jewish purity laws found in the refusal of the priest and the Levite to make themselves unclean by touching blood. Jesus is asked what is necessary to inherit eternal life, and the answer doesn't seem to presuppose that theological correctness is any necessary prerequisite.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is asked, and answers: the Samaritan. The Muslim. The Hindu. The Wiccan. The Buddhist. The Scientologist. The Daoist. The Satanist. The Mormon. The atheist.

Amos said to Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son,” denying “that he belonged to the class of professional prophets; his vocation is due to the personal intervention of the Lord.” God is not limited to expressing truth in those places where we already expect to find it. All people are among God’s children, for whom Christ lived and died, and the work of the Holy Spirit can be found in all peoples and places.

Furthermore, the deep spiritual and philosophical insights of those of other faiths, or of no faith at all, can often be used to deepen and enrich our own Christian understanding and spirituality. For example, the descriptions of an intellectually compelling “Zen Catholicism” put forth by the Roman Catholic monk and priest Thomas Merton in his writings on the intersections of Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism played a crucial role in my own conversion to Christianity.

Our proper recognition of those elements of truth and sanctification found in all faiths ought not, however, be allowed to lead us into the sort of theological relativism in which Christianity is merely “true for us” and one faith is just as good as other.

When I finish this sermon, we will stand up and affirm our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the creed of our baptismal covenant which we renewed just two weeks ago as we welcomed two new members into the Body of Christ. We will say “I believe” with confidence, pride, and thanksgiving, as is good and right. These are the truths, however we may understand them, that God has revealed to us through the person of Jesus -- who identifies Christself in the Gospel According to St. John as the “way, the truth, and the life” -- and through the writings of the Holy Scriptures and the traditions of Mother Church. We affirm these tenets boldly and without flinching.

To do otherwise would be to give in to the dangerous idea that religion is little more than personally meaningful -- or, at best, communally meaningful -- ritual and theology a discipline without a subject. That is the fatal quicksand which threatens to consume our “Spiritual But Not Religious” age. Our ultimate commitment must always be to the radical power of eternal truths and self-consuming love.

But it must be to truth and love even above tradition or doctrine. And those ends are always best served when people with different understandings can come together in humility, admitting that we each but “see through a glass darkly,” to teach and learn from each other without animus or coercion; to challenge the beliefs of others and have our own beliefs be challenged in turn, amidst a welcoming environment of respect and toleration; to love and serve one another as neighbors, as full citizens of the Kin-dom of God.

All people who seek truth and love with sincere hearts are on the same team, and that team is God’s team even if its members might not agree on just Who God Is -- or isn’t. Indeed, in many ways a devout member of a different faith, or a principled person of no faith, can be said to be doing the will of God much more perfectly than can a lackluster Christian.

Saint Paul writes that he and Saint Timothy have prayed without ceasing for the Christians in Colossae “asking that [they might] be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that [they might] lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to [God], as [they bore] fruit in every good work and as [they grew] in the knowledge of God.” So too ought to be our own prayer for ourselves! For all of us, no matter what our religion or lack thereof might be, have plenty of room to grow in our knowledge of God.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the old joke about a group of people who, having passed from this world into the next, are met by St. Peter at the pearly gates for a tour of heaven. As the tour goes on St. Peter takes them through the Baptist section of heaven, where everyone is giving glory to God in fully staid dourness, and the Pentecostal section, a crazed ecstatic frenzy of dancing and speaking in tongues, and so on. They come to our own Episcopalian section, with is an elegant dinner party with fine wines and exquisite food. As they come to a certain group way off to themselves, St. Peter draws the group closer and whispers, "Now, for this next group, we need to be really quiet. They are the Catholics and they think they're the only ones here.”

I repeat this joke now not in order to single out our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and siblings for criticism. Indeed, I would argue that it grossly misrepresents actual Catholic doctrine on the subject. But I repeat it because there is a sense in which we are all -- Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative -- guilty of acting as if we have an exclusive monopoly on salvation, of falling into the sin of thinking we have found the formula -- the words or the actions or the beliefs -- by which one can alone properly solicit the grace of God, that only we have gotten it right. When we do that, we idolatrously place our own conception of God in front of the infinite and ineffable reality of Who God Is.

And so, truly sorry, we turn to God and humbly repent, and ask that for the sake of God’s Holy Begotten One, Jesus Christ, God might have mercy on us and forgive us; that we might delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, to the glory of God’s Name.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City during the Celebration of Christmas Lessons and Carols on Jan. 1, 2012 C.E.

Genesis 3:1-15
Isaiah 40:1-11
Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

So here we are, the Eight Day of our voyage through the (relatively short) season of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name. “When the eight day arrived for the child’s circumcision, [the child] was named Jesus.” This, the first shedding of Jesus’ blood, stands of course as a prefiguring of the Cross. It also stands as a powerful testimony to the truth of the Incarnation, that God became fully human, suffering out of love all the pains and frailties that we suffer out of sin.

We know that we are subject to injury, to pain, to illness, to temptation, and ultimately to death because of sin, because of our own turning away from God’s Love. The account of the Fall found in the Book of Genesis expresses this important truth in figurative terms. Yet Jesus was without the stain of that sin, and still Jesus’ blood was able to be shed, first at the circumcision and ultimately at the crucifixion.

Just as “in the free, overflowing rapture of [God’s] love, God makes a creation that is other than [God]self” (Jürgen Moltmann) in the Genesis accounts, in the Incarnation our loving God empties Godself, taking the form of a slave.

Think of the sacrifice! The omnipresent Christ becoming limited to a single human body in a single place; the omniscient Christ needing to learn and grow as human children do; the omnipotent Christ made weak and helpless. And then, on the eighth day, well, you know.

Fiction writers from Anne Rice in Out of Egypt to Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ have written novels trying to imagine what that sort of experience for the young Christ would have been like as Christ “grew in size and strength” (Invlusive Bible) and “increased in wisdom and in years” (NRSV), as two different translations of Luke 2:40 put it. There is no definitive answer to that question, of course, but we should not be surprised that so many authors’ pens have been inspired by the powerfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, confronting and conquering the worst of our human natures-- fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and perhaps, as in The Last Temptation, even lust--out of love rather than out of sin.

It’s true that here in the western Church we are more likely to talk about Jesus having two natures, one human and one divine, united in one person--what’s called the Definition of Chalcedon--while our siblings-in-Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy are more likely to speak of the humanity and divinity united in a single nature. But the underlying core doctrine--that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine--represents a central orthodoxy for the entire Church catholic in all her branches: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant alike.

But . . . so what? Hopefully I am my own harshest critic, but I can just imagine a hypothetical parishioner sitting in their pew, going, “Well, it was fun, reading lessons and and singing Christmas carols, but then we had to let the theology geek get up and talk.” Well, that hopefully fictional parishioner would be in good company: no less a personage than the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther himself once wrote: “What is it to me that Christ had two natures?” He did not, of course, mean that the doctrine was altogether unimportant, but his comments represent a tendency we sometime see in some parts of Christianity to view the Incarnation as a mere prerequisite to the Cross, something God had to do in order to accomplish the plan of salvation just as it might be necessary for a high school student to take Algebra I before she can take Algebra II. Roger Olson speaks of it as a “rescue mission”: “its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This,” Olson says, “does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.”

Richard Rohr writes of the Incarnation as “God [. . .] saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of [God’s] Son in our midst. [. . . A]ll questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever—and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation.” Rohr reminds us that for St. Francis, St. Clare, and the community they led at Asissi, “incarnation was already redemption.”

Earlier I mentioned the Definition of Chalcedon, the formula we in the western Church use to grasp as best as we are able the holy mystery which is Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity. The full text of the definition as composed at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 of the Common Era can be found on page 864 of your Prayer Book, albeit in incredibly small type, but part of that definition--and I’m tweaking the translation a bit here--states that Jesus is “truly God and truly human, of a rational soul and body, of one being with the One whom Jesus called 'Abba' according to the divinity of Christ, and of one being with us according to Christ’s humanity.”

Let’s say that again: by virtue of Jesus’ humanity, we are one in being with Christ. We share Christ’s essence, Christ’s substance, Christ’s being. Talk about a weighty message!

So when Mary and Joseph bring their infant child to be presented at the temple, in a sense it is all of humanity which is being presented before God. When that infant’s blood is shed according to the covenant made with Sarah and Abraham, all of humanity is bound in a New Covenant. And when that child is given the name Jesus--meaning “the LORD brings salvation”--that becomes our name, our promise, our truth.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
As preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, at their Morning Prayer service on the 8th of August, 2010. . . .

Proper 14 (Sunday Closest to August 10), Year C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Many of my friends, including all of my housemates, are members of a nearby congregation operating under the Brethren in Christ, so most Sunday evenings I find myself worshipping with them at their weekly Public Meeting. Their style of worship there is fairly different than ours here; sometimes it seems that they think it is more important for sacred music to be loud than pretty. It’s really not at all my style of worship at all, really, and at times I find myself more alienated than uplifted.

Back during Lent, I was at the public meeting, and I’m surrounded by these energetic figures, fellow twenty-somethings who are just exploding with their love for Christ, and I’m left completely cold. And then I was blessed to look over to my right and I see a married couple I know, about my age, and on the husband’s lap is their then-eight-month-old daughter, gleefully smiling and clapping.

Holy Scripture talks about the hardening and softening of hearts. I think that’s the best way of describing what happened: the Spirit softened my heart. Seeing that baby girl take such innocent joy in worshipping the Lord helped me recenter my focus away from my own own nitpicks about the theology of the lyrics or the aesthetics of the melody, and back towards God.

When I got home, I got on my computer and posted a status update to my Facebook: “Cole Banning has been inspired by the faith of a child.”

It got me thinking about what that means, the faith of a child. The phrase is of course biblical: Jesus tells us in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that it is a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is it, exactly?

Often it seems we use it to mean a totally uncritical acceptance, belief without doubt, so-called “blind faith.” But that’s not what happened in the case of Baby Lydia. Her faith was far from blind. Instead, it was a response to what she saw and heard in front of her. Even as a baby, even prior to her acquisition of language, she was able to recognize the goodness of God’s creation and respond by giving praise to glory to God in the simple ways available to her, by participating in our worship, in what our Psalm today calls “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

I wonder sometimes where that notion of a child’s faith being blind or uncritical comes from. I’m not a parent, but one thing I know about children is that they’re constantly questioning. It’s an iconic image: the young child, incessantly asking “why?” Why this? Why that? And when given an answer, responding to that answer with the question “why?” and if one is willing to answer that too, once again meeting the answer with “why?” unto infinite regress. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” This is not an uncritical faith but rather a faith which seeks to learn, to grow, to challenge what it is told.

In our epistle reading, the author of Hebrews talks about the great faith of Abraham and Sarah and their family. I think that Abraham had the faith of a child. When we think about Abraham, we tend to think about his obedience, obedience which was important and a right and goodful thing. But I think we can appreciate the passage from Hebrews best if we remember that Abraham’s faith was larger than just obedience, a relationship with God that consisted of more than just Abraham following commands.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, there is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which the Torah tells us God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. The Torah also tells us that Abraham argued with God over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah: he negotiated, bargained. “Will you save the cities if there are 50 righteous people to be found?” “Will you save the cities if there 45?” “What abouty forty?” Talk about the faith of a child! I’m reminded of a child at a cookie jar: “Can I have a cookie, Mommy? Can I have two cookies? Three? Three and a half?”

Abraham, while always remaining obedient to the will of God, was at the same time willing to challenge God, to question God, in his attempt to understand God’s will.

Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson whom Isaiah also mentions, wrestled with the angel of the LORD at Penuel. When God revealed Godself to Moses, the descendent of Abraham and Sarah and the great leader of Israel who only saw the promised kingdom from afar, Moses too argued. He said, “I don’t think I can do this, God.”

And God said, “Okay, I’ll send your sister and brother with you to help you.” That’s dialogue: a process which consists of both give and take for both persons involved.

Moses constantly negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Israel. Indeed, we think of Sinai as this place where God’s will was committed to human beings, but it’s instructive to remember that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Sinai before he brought down the Decalogue: they had a lot to talk about up there.

Isaiah writes: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” The underlying metaphor in the Hebrew is that of a law court: Israel is standing trial for its sins. But it presents us with a call to enter into dialogue with God. The Inclusive Bible translates the line as “Let’s look at the choices before you,” while it is rendered in the New American Bible as “let us set things right”: this dialogic encounter with God opens an opportunity for a process of self-discovery that allows us to set order to the way in which we live our lives.

This then is, I think, the picture of authentic Biblical faith which Scripture provides us: a relationship with God which is primarily experiential, rooted in our encounter with the divine: in prayer, in service, and of course in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood -- back next week!

Thomas Merton reminds us that “faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.”

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff makes a similar point when he writes that “[f]aith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from the outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others.

“Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling -- the heart, the intellect, and the will.” “Close quote.”

I think this type of response, described by Boff, is the type of response which Jesus describes in our Gospel reading today, being “dressed for action” and having our “lamps lit,” making our treasure in heaven by our works of mercy and charity, through our voluntary poverty. So too in Isaiah when God tells Israel, and us, to cease evil and learn to do good; to seek justice and rescue the oppressed; to defend the orphan and plead for the widow.

This Wednesday is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Now, Clare is my favorite capital-S Saint because she’s the patron saint of television, which makes her in an indirect sort of way the patron saint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Clare, who ran away from her aristocratic family to join Saint Francis in his example of God-devoted poverty, also models for us the Gospel call we’ve heard read today.

But let’s be frank: the type of response we hear called for in today’s readings, that we see in the life of Clare, is not one that can come out of obedience alone, a response only to the mere commands of a perceived spiritual authority. All the threats in the world will do no more than compel us to do -- reluctantly -- the very least of what is called of us.

And that’s not good enough. Isaiah tells how the Israelites’ offering of sacrifices and their keeping of festivals brought no delight in God, for the people had turned away from God’s will in spirit.

The radical commitment we’ve heard described is only possible through being transformed by the Spirt so that we may abide in the love of Christ Jesus. This transformation is the legacy of our baptism, but it is not a free ride. Neither is it some massive mystical revelatory encounter where Jesus appears and sets all our doubts to rest. God knows I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it’s not necessary.

No, instead it takes active participation, both by us and by God, in an authentic encounter grounded in the activities of our everyday lives: coming to church on Sunday, listening to Father and meditating on his words--without necessarily always having to agree with them; praying and reading Scripture throughout the week; performing service for all our sisters and brothers and siblings here on planet Earth through our works of mercy and justice-seeking social action; engaging in conversation and discussion with other members of the Body of Christ--a process which should begin at coffee hour but not end there.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.

My hope and prayer for us, therefore, is that we may be inspired by the incredible faith of those who have gone before us that we may be empowered to follow the examples of the matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, and saints: that of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, of Clare and Francis, and -- perhaps most of all -- of that annoying little child, incessantly asking . . . “Why?”

Amen.

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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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