cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2013.

Psalm 36:5-10
Isaiah 62:1-5
Canticle 11
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

This is the collect for the commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrated either on April 4 or January 15:
“Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last; Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
The collect uses the term prophet to describe the Rev. Dr. King because King filled in the twentieth century the function which in ancient Israel was held by the prophets: acting as an intermediary between God and the people.

Isaiah Ben-Amoz was a Jewish prophet who preached in Judah in the eighth-century B.C.E., but the book of the Bible which bears his name was probably written by many different authors over the course of two centuries. Scholars divide the book into three main parts: the first consisting of Isaiah’s prophecies and material added by his 7th-century disciples, the second addressing the Jews of the Babylonian Captivity in the mid-sixth century.

The third portion, known as Trito-Isaiah or simply Third Isaiah, is the portion from which our first lesson and canticle were taken. It is a collection of poetry, probably itself composed by multiple authors shortly following the return from the exile of the Babylon Captivity, prophesying “the restoration of the nation of Israel and a new creation in God's glorious future kingdom” (Wikipedia) to “a Jewish community in late sixth century Judah struggling to rebuild itself” (The Inclusive Bible).

The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem was one of hope for the Jews who had witnessed the destruction of their beloved, sacred city and its temple. It would be a chance for the sovereign authority of the Jewish God to be established once and for all and for both the righteous and the wicked to receive their just desserts. This, of course, is one of the functions of a prophet: not only to relay God’s displeasure with the inequities of the people, but also to provide them with a motivating vision of the fulfillment of God’s Will. For the Rev. Dr. King, this motivating vision was of course his “dream” of a nation where children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, a world marked by racial reconciliation, economic justice, and active peacemaking. For the Jewish prophets of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., it was the New Jerusalem.

In a Hebrew Scripture reading this morning, the biblical author(s) use the image of a bride to describe the New Jerusalem and its special relationship with God the Creator and Ruler. For us Christians, we cannot but help but view this image through the lens of our traditional understanding of the Church--one, holy, catholic, and apostolic--as the Bride of Christ. For we remember that just as in the biblical conception of marriage the spouses leave their parents to cleave to each other and become one flesh, so too has Christ, in the mystery of the Incarnation, come to us from God the Parent to cleave to humanity and become one flesh with us.

We are the Bride of Christ. We are the New Jerusalem--right here, at the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City. We are the builders of the Kin-dom of God.

It is of course true that without the amazing free gift of God’s grace, we are utterly powerless in the face of sin and death. This is simply good theology, the clear and constant teaching of the Church across the ages, from Saint Augustine of Hippo to the Protestant Reformers. But it is just as true that with the free gift of grace we are empowered to act as God’s agents in building the kindom. This, too, is the clear and constant teaching of Mother Church. Saint Augustine wrote an entire book called De Civitate Dei, or The City of God, in which he put forth both a theology of history and a challenge to human society to pursue what he called the City of Heaven.

As St. Teresa of Avila famously wrote, Ours are the eyes with which Jesus looks compassion on this world, Ours are the feet with which Jesus walks to do good, Ours are the hands, with which Jesus blesses all the world.

We are the hands and feet of Jesus because we have been mystically incorporated into the very Body of Christ through the sacrament of our baptism. Just as Jesus transformed that water into wine back at the wedding in Cana, so too has Jesus transformed us into new wine, to go out and get the world drunk on the good news that Jesus is Lord.

Because that is what the power of the Holy Spirit is like. Remember the disciples on the day of Pentecost: the crowd saw them, speaking in tongues, and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

This is a message of hope, but it is also a message of awesome responsibility. What does it mean for us who have been taught by Jesus to pray for the coming of God’s kindom, that the will of God may be done on Earth, to put our actions behind those prayers? To not only recite those words, but to live them? To heed the prophetic voices of our generations--and to be those voices for others? To work towards a world marked by peace and by justice--instead of war and division? To receive the love of Christ, our collective spouse, and to transmit it to each other?

During this time of transition, it is an especially good time for us to reflect on what, precisely, is the role the Spirit has in mind for us in the coming of the kindom of God. What is our congregational charism?

Whatever it is, I know one thing: so long as we are always seek to be motivated by love, we cannot go far wrong. As I was driving home from work this morning, I was listening to On Being on NPR and thinking to myself, “I really need to come up with a conclusion to the sermon I’m giving in two and a half hours.”

On the radio program, poet Elizabeth Alexander read from the poem she had read at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. “What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance,” she read.

And that’s pretty much what it comes down to, isn’t it? One might find Alexander’s poetry trite--I remember not being particularly impressed with it when I heard it back in 2009--but it’s impossible to disagree with the sentiment. Jesus’ resistance notwithstanding, perhaps the Blessed Virgin Mother knew what she was doing when she caused the ministry of Jesus to be initiated at that wedding in Cana, amidst a ritual focused on love and covenant. Because the reasons the image of the Bride of God has remained so powerful across the ages doesn’t have anything to do with notions of gender or sexual orientation, with headship or submission. It’s about love and covenant.

Amen.
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 during our service of Morning Prayer, this twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, the disheveled spaceship captain and smuggler Malcolm Reynolds, who had lost his Christian faith in an interplanetary civil war, kneels down in front of a statue of the Buddha while disguised as a woman and mockingly says, “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket.” This comment is, I think, evocative of the discomfort both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have with petitionary prayer. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion about selflessness and self-sacrifice and love of neighbor? How could we possibly make that fit with getting down on our knees and giving God our grocery list of needs and wants?

That sentiment might only be intensified over these last few weeks as so many so relatively close to us find themselves without their homes or livelihoods. When they have lost so much, we might be wary to bring our own petty wants before the LORD. I think this is what prompted one of my friends to post as their facebook status:
I don't care if your electricity is restored, please stop praying
- God
I should note this was almost immediately after the hurricane, before the utter seriousness of people going weeks without power made itself clear. But when I objected that I couldn’t imagine God ever saying “please stop praying,” no matter how superficial the subject of the prayers might be, I was told, “but it was still funny.” I’ve listened to friends complain about their mother-in-law’s habit of praying for finding good parking spaces, or their sibling’s prayers for the success of his business. Countless times I’ve encountered critics pointing to two groups of fans of rival sports teams, or rival political candidates, praying to the same God that their respective team will win, as if that was nothing more than an absurdity.

It would be wonderful if we were all perfect people whose only desires were high-minded, for world peace and an end to global poverty. But we’re not perfect people; we’re human beings, our very nature wounded by the reality of sin.

But that’s okay. Because that’s where Jesus Christ, who is a perfect person, the only perfect person, comes in. And because of this, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This refers, of course, to our ultimate hope, that we will come to share in Christ’s resurrection. But it also applies to all of our little hopes, our petty desires, our secret wishes, our hopes for the future. We approach God as who we are, wanting what we want, and it is a good and rightful thing to put those needs and desires before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. We trust in Jesus to wash us clean.

For me the best example of this is found in Psalm 137, in which the psalmist prays that the heads of babies might be dashed upon the rocks. Clearly, this is not a righteous desire for a person to have. But given the historical context of the psalm, amidst the Babylonian captivity, it is arguably a very human one. And so Scripture provides us with this example set among many examples of how to pray of a person in their human brokenness reaching out to God from within that human brokenness.

The great Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The God who took on our human nature and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mother in order to suffer a painful death on a cross wants to be invited into our suffering, our longing, our weakness. Don’t get me wrong, God is present with us in our suffering whether we extend that invitation or not, whether we are aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t appreciate being given the invitation anyway.

These are the dynamics at work in our Hebrew scripture passage this morning.

By many standards, Hannah had a comfortable life, with a husband who loved and supported her. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She wanted a son--a daughter wasn’t good enough!--in order to keep her husband’s other wife from mocking her.

And so, as is good and right, she brought her desire before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. And “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD.’”

No doubt Penninah too prayed to the LORD, asking God that she might earn the love and favor of her husband which had been given to Hannah instead. And yet, unlike Hannah, Penninah did not receive what she had asked for. Indeed, there is a story found in the Jewish midrash which provides a fate even worse for Penninah: “Hannah would give birth to one child, and Peninnah would bury two; Hannah bore four, and Peninnah buried eight. When Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah feared that now she would bury her last two children.”

God did not give Hannah what she asked for and deny Penninah because God loved Penninah any less than Hannah. Nor was it because Hannah knew some special way to pray in order to ensure the result she wanted, to force God’s hand. No, it’s just that, in this fallen world, it’s a simple fact that we don’t always get what we want, no matter how hard we pray, no matter who we are.

And no matter what the Rolling Stones might say, neither do we even always get what we need. Every fifteen seconds, a child dies from hunger-related causes somewhere on Planet Earth. That’s a problem worth praying over. But prayer alone isn’t going to the solve the problem.

Prayer is not a magic spell or a letter to Santa. God is not a genie in a bottle.

Hurricane Sandy did not hit the shores of our region because people didn’t pray hard enough. Nor was it to punish the godlessness of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. Barack Obama was not re-elected President because God likes Democrats better than Republicans. Nor was it to pave the way for the Antichrist, as Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries suggested before the election.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against this type of superstitious thinking in today’s Gospel passage. The earliest written of the four canonical gospels, St. Mark’s gospel was probably written in the immediate wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple, the center of Jewish life and religion. Like a flood-displaced North Jerseyan or our Texan pastor, the Jewish community found their very world turned upside down and inside out. Part of the evangelist’s task, then, was to help them understand how to make sense of the significance of this sort of event of seeming apocalyptic proportions in terms of their Christian faith and practice. And Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Jesus warns us against those who come in the name of Christ and yet lead many astray, the pastors and pundits who would turn hurricanes into instruments of a wrathful God and elections into the first phase of the apocalypse, who would have us make a false choice between religion and science, who twist and pervert our faith so it stands in opposition to the God-given gift of human reason, who use our scriptures and traditions as weapons with which to bludgeon.

Hurricane Sandy hit our shores because a tropical storm came in contact with a cold front which intensified it and propelled it towards our region. Barack Obama was re-elected President, for better or worse, because he received more votes in the electoral college than did his opponent.

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Christian prayer is not--or at least should not be--an attempt to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want. Instead, it is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God. But equally important is the fact that we need to be open to being transformed ourselves when we pray. This is the very essence of prayer.

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: (Default)
This is the text I preached off of for the children's sermon at both the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Church of the Ascension. As you might imagine, the actual sermons I gave were significantly different than each other, as a result of having two somewhat different audiences.

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, which was on Tuesday. Most of the time we celebrate one saint at a time, or maybe two or three or a certain group of people, but on All Saints’ Day we celebrate ALL the saints. Does anyone know how many saints that is, how many saints there are all together?

Well, there were twelve disciples, right? And Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ mom and dad, so that’s at least fourteen. What other saints can you think of?

What about the saint we usually celebrate with a party at the beginning of next month? He wears red and sometimes likes to give presents to kids.

In this book [hold up Holy Women, Holy Men], there’s a couple hundred different saints that we celebrate at different parts of the Church year, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You know what that means, the tip of the iceberg?

Icebergs are big blocks of ice, right? And when they float in the water, you can only see a little piece of them floating on top of the water--most of the ice is underwater, where you can’t see it. The people in this book, and all the saints with “Saint” in front of their name, they’re the tip of the iceberg--the part that’s easy to see. But what makes an iceberg such a big deal is all that part that’s under the water, that you can’t see but is still there. With the saints, we call that entire iceberg--all the saints put together--the “communion” of saints.

In the passage [X] read from the Revelation, which is a very weird book from the very back of the Bible, St. John the Divine--there’s another one!--talks about a “a great multitude [that means ‘a lot’] that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

We don’t actually know how many saints there are, but there’s a lot of them, probably in the billions. That’s a lot of saints, isn’t it?

What do you think you need to do to become a saint?

Do you think saints make mistakes sometimes?

Did you know St. Nicholas punched somebody? He was at a big meeting of all the Church leaders, and they were trying to work out the Trinity--the relationship between God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Somebody said something he disagreed with, and he got so mad that he just punched the guy. That wasn’t a very good thing for him to do, was it?

Will you pray with me?

“Lord, we thank You for Your saints. We pray that we may be inspired by their example, so that we may join them in Your Presence. Amen.”
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Proper 14 Year A

Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

I want to tell you a story about an Italian teenager named Chiara Offreduccio. Chiara was the oldest daughter of a wealthy nobleman, engaged to a man of wealth, destined to a life of pleasure and leisure--until she heard the teachings of a local preacher, who spoke of the need to live a life of simplicity, in voluntary poverty, and to serve the poor. She ran away from home and became an important leader in the new movement started by that local preacher.

The town was Assisi, the year was 1212, and the name of the preacher was Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, better known to us as St. Francis. We recognize the contributions of Chiara to the Church this Thursday, when we celebrate the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi.

The life of St. Clare of Assisi exists as a shining example of the Franciscan values of simplicity and care for the poor. Yet we must remember she was able to live such a life of saintly virtue only by defying those authorities which her 13th-century culture claimed to have rightful power over her: her father, her promised husband. To be accounted righteous under that culture, that Law, it would have been necessary for her to submit to those powers. But Clare knew there was a higher righteousness she was called to obey, one which made no distinction between male and female, leading her to write the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman.

For first-century Jews, the Law by which their “righteousness” would be judged would have been theMosaic Code, the rules set down in the Torah. It’s this desire to be counted as “righteous under the Law” which leads the priest and the Levite to pass by the bloodied man in the street in Jesus’ famous parable, for touching such a man would have rendered them ritually unclean. And thus it was left to a Samaritan--a heretic!--to respond in a neighborly way and render aid.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds that Jewish culture, the culture of the priest and the Levite, that for them too, there was a higher righteousness, a righteousness of the heart, of faith. Now there are many, especially among our siblings-in-Christ of a more Calvinist persuasion, who would have us believe that all St. Paul is saying is that people who “believe in” Christ go to heaven, and people who don’t go to hell. But I think St. Paul’s message is far more beautifully challenging than that.

St. Paul writes: “if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.”

The heart--Greek kardia, from which our English word “cardiology” derives--was not the seat of intellectual activity for St. Paul’s audience. That would have been the mind--the psyche, from which we get “psychology.” Of course, neither was it simply an organ pumping blood through the body. Instead, it represented a person’s will: the volitional faculty that made a human being capable of self-determining, the center and seat of spiritual life. This suggests to me that “believing in one’s heart that God raised Jesus from the dead” is less about the intellectual assent to a checklist of propositions about Jesus of Nazareth than it is about allowing one’s actions to be ruled by the power and compassion of the Risen Christ, allowing ourselves to be transformed by grace--that amazing, unearned gift which is the birthright of every Christian by virtue of our baptism--to make our lives a living testimony to the compassion and power of the Lord alive in us, paving the way for our salvation here on Earth: our right relationship with God and with God’s church.

Similarly, for a Christian in St. Paul’s time to “confess with one’s lips that Jesus is the Lord” was a radical act likely to result in alienation from family and outright persecution from society at large. It was to announce oneself not answerable to the worldly powers which sought to control and oppress, but to the one Lord, Jesus Christ, and Christ’s teachings of love of God and neighbor. Such a Christian would be actively living out their principles in a powerful and dangerous way.

For us in twenty-first century America, in a world of Christian privilege and cultural hegemony where every U.S. President for as long as any of us here can remember has at least nominally been a Christian, where we probably get many of our Christian holy days off of school or work, to merely announce our self-identity as Christians falls far short of what St. Paul had in mind; indeed, in many ways it represents its very antithesis. Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop here in the Episcopal Church, has spoken of what she calls “the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”

Jefferts Schori later clarified her remarks by noting, “If salvation is understood only as ‘getting right with God’ without considering ‘getting right with all our neighbors,’ then we've got a heresy on our hands.”

What it would look like for this parish of the Church of the Ascension, here in Gloucester City, to occupy as radical a place in our twenty-first century culture as did the early Church in the first and second centuries, or the community of Sts. Francis and Clare in the thirteenth? What would it look like for us to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord in a way which lives up to the true depth of St. Paul’s challenge? To proclaim a Jesus who stands in challenge to a twenty-first century “righteousness of Law” which seeks to divide us according to gender or race instead of unite us in one Body, tells us to fear the stranger instead of to love them as neighbor and as sibling, values the worth of a human being by the size of their house, their checkbook, or their pocketbook, instead of extolling the value and dignity of every human person as a beloved child of God Almighty, made in the divine image?

Mike King, a progresssive evangelical author and blogger, has written about two models of evanglelization. The first he calls believe-behave-belong: "If we can just get people to believe the gospel, they will begin behaving properly, and eventually they can belong to our churches." But King suggested that a different model exists, belong-behave-believe, where "evangelism happens quite naturally when we are entrenched in faith communities that are actively caught up in cooperating with God’s compelling work of restoration--restoration between people and God; between people and their own brokenness; between people and other people; and restoration of all creation. As our God invites us into the divine fellowship of the Trinity [King writes], so we should invite people to join us in community.”

Some of you here today are visitors to this church. Some of you have come to see me preach. Some of you have come only to hear me preach. I hope I have communicated to all of you that you are welcome here--today, next Sunday, next month, whenever. Chances are, I haven’t as well as I could have, so let me reiterate it now: the Episcopal Church welcomes you.

Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever else you go to church, whatever you believe or don’t believe, whatever you have done or may do in the future, the Episcopal Church welcomes you. As slogans go, it’s not particularly profound or sexy, but at its heart it represents the crux of what it means to be Christian. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all.

It’s a challenge that all of us who are baptised members here at the Church of the Ascension--we who are listed in the collective, right on the front of our bulletins, as ministers in this church--need to live up to. We have been sent to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world--and, as Clare’s mentor Francis famously said, to, when necessary, use words--so that others may say of us that verse from the Book of Isaiah which St. Paul quotes: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Living our lives so as to be counted righteous under the Law is safe, comfortable, risk-free. It is not easy to go against the teachings of our parents, our culture, our worldly authorities, the logic of empire which has co-opted much of Christianity. It is tempting to want to play it safe, to not want to leave the safety of our boat. But as our gospel passage this morning demonstrates, to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear is to sink for sure. It is only by marching ever forward, leaving safety behind us and exposing ourselves to risk, embracing the truly radical option represented by the righteousness of the heart, that we will be empowered to do what the world tells us is impossible.

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.

cjbanning: (The Bishop)
I'm without a computer right now, so I'm not really upset about these not getting written; it's just the way things are. But for some reason this Sunday's took a hold of me, so here it is. As Elizabeth would say, written as if preached on the day (June 13).

Proper 6


1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

The Church is a community of plurality, billions of people--many races, many genders, many sexualities, many nations, many ideologies and political viewpoints, many denominations and theologies--who are united, through the sacrament of their baptism, into a single Body, the mystical Body of Christ, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The God we worship is a God of plurality, three in One, three Persons in one Being: Adonai, Messiah, and Chokmah. Jesus is a man of plurality, fully God and fully human. The paschal meal which we share today is a meal of plurality: to all outward appearances mere bread and mere wine, but in its most fundamental being it contains the Real Presence of Christ Jesus.

It is appropriate, then, and perhaps shouldn't be too surprising, that our Scripture is a book of plurality: many books, written by many authors from many different times and historical contexts, testifying to many different understandings and experiences of the divine, uniting into one canon, the book, la biblia, the Bible. Any single viewpoint would be far too limited to be able to contain the multi-splendored nature of God; the multitude of inconsistencies and incoherencies which run througout Scripture, from the two competing accounts of Creation onwards, give necessary testimony that no collection of words could ever contain the fullness of the divine. This richness is sadly lost to those who would approach Scripture as a single discrete text by a single divine author, using the various prophets and evangelists merely as secretaries taking dictation.

Our Lectionary exploits this truth about Scripture by juxtaposing these various voices within the context of the praise, worship, and study which is the Liturgy of the Word, typically--as in this week--a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a reading specifically from the Psalter, a reading from the Epistles, and a reading from the Gospels, but modified sometimes so as to fit the needs of various points in the church year. (For example, during Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the Revelation of St. John the Divine.) Sometimes, we walk away from this juxtaposition struck by the unity of the message running like a thread through disparate portions of Scripture; sometimes, the passages stand in critique and challenge to each other.

This week we see in our Lectionary passages several distinct perspectives on the moral order of the universe, perspectives which speak to different moments in Jewish thought, each which their own historical context which it is important for us to understand. While many of the psalms in the Psalter are attributed to King David within the text itself, modern scholars tend to see them as the product of many different authors--a microcosm of the Bible as a whole, so to speak--most of them probably written some time after the Exile, for liturgical uses. The Books of Kings was probably compiled around the same time, sometime in the sixth century B.C.E., from earlier historical material. It is not surprising, then, that to a great degree the two works share a common worldview as to the nature of good and evil in the world.

Central to understanding the moral order operative in the Psalter and in the Books of Kings is realizing that our notion of an afterlife as punishment or reward for a life ill- or well-lived did not yet exist in the times in which they were written. Sheol for these Jews was a shadowy half-existence more akin to oblivion than to our notions of Heaven or of Hell; indeed, there is some evidence of the Jews thinking of the soul as being utterly consumed and obliterated within it. The Hebrews thus looked to the more-or-less direct intervention of God, working through prophets like Elijah, through nature, and through history, to upkeep the moral order, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, within the confines of an earthly lifespan.

Throughout the Psalter runs the faithful conviction, held both in good times and in bad, that righteousness will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished. Psalms of celebration exalt the way in which those rewards are enjoyed today; psalms of lamentation nonetheless are firm in their insistence that it will come tomorrow. Note that a critical element of this moral order is the destruction of one's enemies; not only will those who are faithful to God be raised up and exalted, but those who persecute God's faithfull will be laid low. God "hates all those who work wickedness," abhors "the bloodthirsty and deceitful," and "destroys those who speak lies"--and the Psalms positively relish in that destruction, unapologetically revelling in the misfortune of others and viewing it as evidence of a just god at work in the world. "Love your enemies" is not a message which one finds in the Psalter, at least not on the surface, nor is the unconditional love of God for all people and races.

Around the second century B.C.E., however, a new paradigm began to emerge in Jewish thought, in response to the Maccabean exile and a growing frustration with God's tendency to side with those with the larger armies, and a belief in the resurrection of the dead, that the faithful--defined as those who upheld God's law by keeping the Jewish purity laws--would be rewarded in a future, messianic age in which our bodies would be restored to life and made immortal. One of the sects which held this were the Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, the temple priests, who denied the resurrection. Acts 23:8 reminds us that “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three." The Sadducees were religious conservatives who interpreted the Torah literally; the Pharisees were religious liberals who democratized Judaism by transferring authority from the priests to the people. While the Pharisees are attacked throughout the Gospels for their legalism, they were in fact less legalistic in most ways than the other Jewish sects in favor during the time of the life of Christ.

Jesus was, of course, Christself a Pharisee, at least insofar as Jesus' thought and teachings can be situated within the context of any particular school of Jewish thought. Perhaps this is why Jesus' spends so much time criticizing them, holding them to a higher standard because they have already glimpsed some small glimmer of the truth.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus eats at the home of another Pharisee, Simon. Simon, like Jesus, believes in the resurrection of the body; he recognizes the hope of a resurrected life. This is a point they agree on, a common starting point in their paradigmatic understandings of the universal moral order which unites them as they break bread with each other, Simon eager to learn from Jesus as Teacher. Yet Jesus nonetheless presents a fundamental challenge and correction to Simon's understanding.

Simon's belief in the resurrection only pushes the earlier Jewish understanding of God rewarding good and punishing evil onto a future afterlife; it is still, essentially, a bribe for being good, a celestial equivalent to a mother telling her children she'll buy them ice cream if they behave at Grandma's. The fundamental system of accounting, so to speak, which we see operative in the Psalter and in Kings has not been changed. But when Jesus forgives the sins of the woman kissing his feet, Jesus explodes this calculus, turning Simon's world upside down in the process.

Jesus presents instead a vision of a world where we do good and act justly not because we hope to earn some type of reward, whether in this life or in heaven--what craven people we must be to need to be bribed to do the right thing! Jesus shows us a world where we do not avoid evil because we are afraid of a Hell where we will be mercilessly punished forever for our sins. Jesus shows Simon the possibility of a still third moral order, one in which we act lovingly not in hope of some reward but because we are filled with love, because that is our authentic response as Christians to Jesus' redemptive Presence. Broken free from the calculus of reward-and-punish, we sing praise to God not to incur divine favor, but because our mouths cannot bear to be silent; we pray to God because our hearts will not be still; we do the work of God because our hands cannot bear to be idle.

May it ever be so for all of us.

Amen.

4th Easter

Monday, 26 April 2010 03:19 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

"The Lord is my Shepherd," the psalmist writes, "I shall not want." These words may not seem to describe our lives today: we are constantly wanting. The new video game console which is faster, better, with better graphics and cooler games. The pair of shoes on half price at the mall. The fast food cheeseburger which all by itself constitutes half your recommended calories for the day. We are a culture which is constantly wanting, but--as the immortal Rolling Stones song tells us--we "can't always get what [we] want, / But if [we] try sometimes well [we] just might find / [we] get what [we] need."

So unless the psalmist lived a much luckier life than any of us here--where "luck" is measured by a standard of egoistic hedonism--we have to assume the psalmist meant the statement "I shall not want" not as a description of an operative state of affairs but as a moral imperative, the "shall" in "I shall not want" being the same "shall" as in "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." The psalmist, like the Rolling Stones, is reminding us that we get what we need.

God provides for our needs. To explain how God provides for our needs, though, the psalmist turns to the metaphor of a shepherd. Jesus expands on this metaphor in the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist (as well as in the synoptic gospels), and St. John the Divine references back to it in his account of the apocalyptic Revelation provided to him. When we consider the metaphor further, we might gleam some further understanding of why and how we live in such a crazy world where our desires so often run counter to the reality which we find.

Think of the life of an ordinary shepherd. She wakes up early, takes the sheep from wherever it is the sheep might spend the night, in stables perhaps, and she leads them to the "green pastures" where they are set loose to graze. And that, my sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is where all the trouble begins.

Because grazing sheep get into trouble. They need to be protected from predators, but also they need to be kept from wandering off and getting lost. Think of the sheep in Jesus' parables; they're constantly getting lost or otherwise in trouble, so that the shepherd must leave the flock behind and search for them. It's enough to drive our poor shepherd insane. But sheep need to be free to graze.

And as it is for sheep, it is even more so for people. God is raising a flock of free-range souls; the freedom of our wills is a gift from God, but so too is it a consequence of our being a reflection of God, the imago dei, created in the divine image.

God could, in God's divine omnipotence, order the universe such that our desires and our daily bread were always in harmony; God could run God's Creation like a well-oiled train station. But God chooses instead to allow us to exercise our freedom, recognizing in God's omnibenevolence that as the greater good. As Baptist theologian Roger Olson notes, "God is in charge of everything without controlling everything." Such are the actions of a good shepherd, or for that matter a good parent--or a good God.

The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the importance of the doctrine of free will thusly:
Only in freedom can [a person] direct [themself] toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within [a human being]. For God has willed that [humans] remain "under the control of [their] own decisions," so that [they] can seek [their] Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to [God].

Hence [a person's] dignity demands that [they] act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. [A person] achieves such dignity when, emancipating [themself] from all captivity to passion, [they] pursue [their] goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for themself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since [humans'] freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can [one] bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each [person] must render an account of [their] own life, whether [they have] done good or evil.
This is simply a reaffirmation, in somewhat--ahem--nicer terms, of the doctrine as articulated at the Council of Trent:
If any one shall affirm, that [the] freewill [of human beings], moved and excited by God, does not, by consenting, cooperate with God, the mover and exciter, so as to prepare and dispose itself for the attainment of justification; if moreover, anyone shall say, that the human will cannot refuse complying, if it pleases, but that it is inactive, and merely passive; let such a one be accursed.

If anyone shall affirm, that since the fall of Adam [and of Eve], [the] freewill [of human beings] is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing titular, yea a name, without a thing, and a fiction introduced by Satan into the Church; let such an one be accursed.

If any one saith, that it is not in [the] power [of a human being] to make [their] ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of [Godself], in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less [God's] own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let [them] be anathema.
If a person's dignity demands on their part a free choice not forced by external forces, however, then any attack against their freedom--whether by church, government, or culture--is an offense against that dignity, a sacrilege against the imago dei itself.

Our duty, then, is to oppose those structures in the world which would act to undermine the agency of our sister and brother and sibling human beings: sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism. We must stand in solidarity against that which would diminish the autonomy of the oppressed and downtrodden, against ideologies of fear, of hatred, and of control. We must not allow the voices of any people to be silenced. For the most fundamental freedom of all is the freedom to simply be who we are, who we are called to be by Christ: female and/or male and/or intersexed and/or genderqueer; gay and/or straight; white and/or of color; Jew and/or gentile. "I am woman, hear me roar"--the first line of the 1972 Helen Reddy song "I Am Woman" which became an iconic catchphrase for liberation and empowerment-- is a phrase we make fun of nowadays, but it bespeaks the truth that this freedom is not always easily won, and its exercise often transgressive. Sometimes merely demanding the right to be ourselves, and to speak with our own voices, can be radical in itself.

I am reminded of the radical freedom commended to us in the homilectic exhortation of Saint Augustine: "Love, and do what you like." The truth is, it is not possible to do one of these things without the other. Authentic freedom is always necessarily rooted in love, and authentic love is that which fosters freedom. And that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is within the love, which is boundless and abundant, of Christ the Good Shepherd for the flock which is humanity, that we find our most perfect freedom. Freedom from sin, freedom from fear, even freedom from death itself, but most fundamentally the freedom to be ourselves--all of these are the consequences of God's grace, of we and our robes being washed in the blood of the Lamb and made stainless.

Alleluia.

3rd Easter

Sunday, 18 April 2010 09:45 pm
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

"And one was a doctor," goes the hymn, (#293 in the 1982 Hymnal, full lyrics) "and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; [. . .] And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast." There are many different Saints in today's readings, too, and in many ways they are as different from each other as the Saints in the hymn.

There's Saint Paul, who started out as Saul of Tarsus, persecuting Christians, but was transformed when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus to become not only the writer of the largest chunk of the canonical Christian Scriptures, but to make voyage after voyage planting new churches and uniting the existing ones in the message of the Good News of Christ.

There's Peter, the Rock of the Church, who dropped everything when he saw Christ, put on his clothes--because he wanted to look his best for the Risen Christ--and swam to Jesus. Today's Gospel reminds us that Peter was called to martyrdom, hung on an upside-down cross, that it was an essential part of his vocation as the Rock of the Church to be at odds with the powerful in his society

There's Nathaniel, whom you have to feel sorry for. Who here can tell me anything about Nathaniel? (Wikipedia tells me he is identified with Bartholomew, one of the Twelve who is, really, not really any less forgettable.) I'll have forgotten he was even in this story by next week. I have the deepest respect and admiration for the Nathaniels of the world, those people who do the hard work of just being where they are called to be, doing the hard work, and getting none of the glory.

There are the sons of Zebedee and the other disciples, who are not even given names.

Once again this week, I find that I am a Thomas.

Thomas looks around at what he has on hand; he finds himself in a fishing boat. Rather than viewing the fishing boat as a distraction to the path in Christ he is called to follow, he uses the boat to bring himself to Christ--and he brings with him fish to eat, given to him through Jesus' power, so that he and Nathaniel and Peter can share a meal with Jesus, to break bread and share this time together as a Church, and to partake in the goodness of creation.

Last week, Thomas insisted on being able to see and touch the physical body of the Risen Christ. This week, he brings Jesus fish to eat. For Thomas, the Risen Christ is a not a spiritual ruler of a distant land, but someone who is always and already deeply enmeshed in the physical world of Creation. Tradition tells us that Thomas was a builder by trade; he was a man for whom the physical was never unimportant, who would have known intimately about the goodness of creation.

Tradition tells us that Thomas, like Peter, was also martyred, dying as he lived, immersed in that physicality.

Scripture does not adjudicate between these approaches. It is a good and rightful thing for St. Peter to put his clothes on and swim to Jesus; it is a good and rightful thing for Sts. Thomas and Nathaniel and the others to take the boat to Jesus and bring the fish with them. The Church in its earliest beginnings has thus been called to be a Broad Church, to encourage a diversity of worship and a diversity of mission. There is room in the Church for Pauls and Peters and Nathaniels and Thomases, for both Marys and Marthas.

It takes all types to make a Church.

The Church takes all of these approaches and fashions them into something greater than any of them individually: something which is, in its unity, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Think of the image from the Revelation to St. John the Divine: millions and myriads singing together for the greater glory of God. I don't imagine they all would take the melody line. That would be a weak sort of song for so many voices--sort of like singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" when you have the resources for Handel's "Alleluia Chorus"--or rather for something which would be to the Handel as the Handel is to "If You're Happy and You Know It." No, that level of beauty requires harmony, difference complementing itself. Harmonies within harmonies, even, exploiting the fact that we are all different: we are sopranos and mezzo-sopranos and contraltos, tenors and baritones and basses.

Jesus' command to Peter is, "Feed My Sheep." Jesus' command to Nathaniel and Thomas and the unnamed disciples is, "Bring some of the fish that you have caught, and come and have breakfast." Jesus' command to Saul is "Get up and enter the city." Jesus' command to Ananias is, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. Go in and lay your hands on him so that he might regain his sight."

What is Jesus' command to us? How do we discern where we, individually, fit in within the Church?

We know that any command we might receive will only be a futher refinement and elaboration of the two greatest commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." So we must ask ourselves how, given our unique skills and abilities, our own unique temperaments and interests, our own unique connections to the world around us, how best we are able to live out a love for God and for each other and for ourselves. What is it that we love to do? What are we good at? What do we care about?

Of course, sometimes we are called to things we are not very good at--so that we may become better, or that we may learn humility, or just because somebody needs to do it and there is no one else. Often we are called to do things which we don't necessarily want to do, exactly, as Ananias at first did not want to heal Saul. But we recognize, at those times, that there exists a need, and that God has put us there,

What needs do you see in the world around you? How can you work with your sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ to fill those needs?

If we each live out our lives in full response to the answers to these questions, answers which will in all likelihood be different for each and every one of us, then the Church's mission will be complete--not complete in the sense of finished, not yet, but in the sense of being full, having no lack in its present-day efforts to build a just and peaceful Kingdom. This is not a fairy-book fantasy: with the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with God's prevenient grace, it is not only possible, but imperative. It is the mission of the Church, and each of our own individual vocations acts to support it.

And so, my dear sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, I return to the words of our hymn: The Saints loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and Christ's love made them strong; and they followed the right for Jesus' sake the whole of their good lives long. And there's not any reason--no, not the least--why we shouldn't be saints, too.

Alleluia.

2nd Easter

Sunday, 11 April 2010 12:32 am
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

The second Sunday of Easter is my favorite Sunday in the entire liturgical year. Part of the reason is because the message it gives us is not simple to decipher or easy to hear; it challenges us, invites us to engage the story of St. Thomas just as Thomas engaged the physical body of the Risen Christ: fully, critically, and reverently. Even now, years since I've come to terms with this Gospel story (although my relation to it is still changing, never static), the challenges which it gave me in the past serve to enrichen and deepen my response to it in the present.

These are the words of Jesus the Christ to the doubting St. Thomas: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

In a world where ignorance and uncritical thinking are commonplace, where religious intolerance is rampant and fanaticism begets horrific violence, these are challenging words. It seems, after all, like the absolutely last thing this world needs is more uncritical belief without evidence.

But as I've reflected over this Gospel passage over the years, these are also words that have come to bring me much hope and joy. Imagine all the things Jesus could have said, but didn't. Jesus could have cursed St. Thomas, just as Jesus had cursed the fig tree which had not born fruit out of season. Words of reprimand, of condemnation, of anger or disappointment, could have followed. Jesus could have berated St. Thomas for his lack of belief.

But none of those things happened. Instead: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

But the truest, deepest source of joy isn't just that we aren't, say, damned to hell forever for our doubts, for our unbelief--as if we could ever possibly imagine such a thing of a loving and just Creator. It's this: that when Thomas reached out for a deeper, relational connection with Christ, to see and touch and feel Jesus, the Risen Christ appeared. We are not required to hold blind faith, to believe without seeing. When we need Jesus, when we ask for Jesus, Jesus shows up. Every time, without fail, just like Jesus did for St. Thomas.

Well, maybe not just like. If you expect Jesus to show up bodily in front of you, to give you a chance to put your fingers in Jesus' side, you're probably going to be disappointed--probably. I suppose I can't rule out the possibility completely--but if it happens to you, you're probably best off not telling me about it. If you're looking for some grand supernatural violation of the natural order of God's creation, you're going to be disappointed; at best, you'll get a violation of the established rules as we currently understand them. And if you expect "proof" for some set of propositional truths, to the exclusion of some other set of propositions, some final demonstration that you're right and everyone else is wrong, you're almost certainly going to be disappointed. Faith, at least as I understand it, doesn't work like that.

"First of all," writes the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in his book Liberation and Ecology, "comes the experience of mystery, the experience of God":
Only afterward does faith supervene. Faith 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 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.
This may well be the purest description of my personal theology as has ever been written; I know that ever since I first read Boff's words, in 2004, they have been written on my heart. And I cannot think about the story of St. Thomas without thinking of them.

Jesus' appearance to St. Thomas did not put an end to the possibly of doubt or disbelief. Imagine what we might wonder were we to find ourselves in Thomas' shoes. Is it really Jesus--and not, say, Jesus' identical twin? Could it be a trick with mirrors, or a delusion of the mind? Can we be sure that Jesus really died, and wasn't resuscitated by some scientifically-explainable process (and never underestimate the ingenuity of scientists in constructing explanations, it's what they do)?

Jesus' appearance to St. Thomas did not make these questions impossible. Instead, it made them irrelevant. Because in that moment, the reality of Christ's presence transcended all necessity to explain how or whether or why.

But if we cannot expect the Risen Christ to show up bodily in our living rooms and instruct us to touch Christ's wounds, then how, then, can we experience Christ in the modern world as twenty-first century postmoderns? How do we have the type of experience St. Thomas did? Where do we find this sacred mystery? Primarily, we can do this through the Sacraments, the outward and visible signs of inward, invisible grace--and most especially the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, where we receive Jesus Christself into us in order to strengthen and renew our identity as Christ's mystical Body. We encounter Christ communally and relationally, through our relationships with others, our work for justice and works of mercy: we see Jesus in the face of the stranger who is the least of our sisters or brothers or siblings. And also in solitude and contemplation, through prayer and sacramentals--but like with Thomas, our engagement with Christ must necessarily begin with our engagement with our community, in our challenging and being challenged by our sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ.

All of these things sustain us and make possible the type of holistic faithful response Boff talks about. They don't prove some truth claim and disprove some other; they don't have to, because what they're doing is far more important. That we know Christ is so much infinitely more important than that we know that Christ exists. That we know the Caretaker-God is so much more important than that we know the Caretaker-God exists. That we know the Spirit is so much more--well, I think you get the idea.

I don't always know what to do with all the belief-language in the Bible, especially the New Testament. I may never come to terms with it all completely. I don't speak or read Greek, and I don't speak or read Hebrew. So I don't know which words the Bible authors were using when my translations use a form of "faith" or "belief," and I don't know what those words would have meant to them, what nuances of meaning might be present, when what is being discussed is belief--which is to say, trust--in a person, or propositional belief in a fact, or perhaps even some other type of belief in something else entirely. I don't know to what degree belief and faith would have been thought of as synonymous or differing concepts. These are interesting questions, not because we must necessarily remain bound to the the understanding of the saints of two thousand years ago, but because they provide resources upon which to draw in our attempt at constructing, in enriching and deepening, a theology which is liberatory for all people today while rooted in our shared history.

I have no doubt I will one day learn at least some of these answers. Already I know more than I did a year ago, which is more than I knew five years ago. But in the end, I don't think that really matters, because in my heart I know that mere beliefs don't have the power to save, and never could. Christ, the person whom every one of us has the opportunity to know and befriend, is the One who saves.

Thomas rejected holding a truth claim about Christ in favor of knowing the Christ, feeling and touching and seeing the Christ. And Jesus showed up. Jesus always shows up. Jesus tells us that Thomas' type of faith isn't the only type of faith which is valid or acceptable to God: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." This is no doubt an important corrective to the temptation to judge the faith of others, to declare it too uncritical, too simple, too uninformed or unenlightened. But I firmly believe--I cannot but believe--that those of us who are called to the faith of St. Thomas are blessed, too. How can we not be, when Jesus always shows up?

I love the second Sunday of Easter because it is this truth--that Jesus shows up, that Jesus always shows up--which fills me with joy like no other New Testament message can. The story of St. Thomas speaks to me so powerfully on a personal level, it is his story which fills me with hope like no other New Testament story can, because in Thomas I find a vision of a mature, questioning, critical faith which is not thwarted, but rather manages to find its fulfillment in Christ's Presence.

Jesus shows up. Jesus always shows up.

Alleluia.

1st Easter

Sunday, 4 April 2010 07:44 am
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Elizabeth is going back and writing her unpreached sermons for all the Sunday's she's missed ever since we both fell off the ball back in Advent. I'm not quite that ambitious, but I do want to get back into the habit, even if this sermon is only about 2/3 of the length I wanted it to be. :(

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

1st Easter

We are a resurrection people.

Note the plural, and just as importantly the collective form: we are not resurrection persons, a "resurrection me" plus a "resurrection you" plus a "resurrection her." It is only communally, in the collective, in the unity of our identity as the Body of Christ, that we are able to fully respond to the resurrection of the Head.

The Scripture passages today speak to this truth. The Easter story is, at least superficially, of course a story about Jesus Christ, about Christ's resurrection. Yet it is a curious fact that, post-Crucifixion, the Gospels spend relatively little time on Jesus Christself. Jesus has already done the job which the Christ was sent to do. It is the Church's job now to continue the work Jesus has already put into motion.

The focus of the Gospel narratives thus shifts dramatically to the experience of the disciples. In today's Gospel passage, we receive the reaction of the women to the empty tomb, experience their confusement, their bedazzlement, and their ultimate understanding, as we relate to them and, later, to the male disciples as the stories' new protagonists.

During the Easter season, we read from the Acts of the Apostles, the only book in the Bible aside from the Gospels and Revelation to actually include Jesus as an explicitly present character. I know that come the Easter season, I always experience a moment of cognitive dissonance when I hear a lay reader read "And Jesus said. . ." from the pulpit. Isn't that the sort of thing which gets read by the priest, from the pulpit or after a Gospel procession? I forget that the Risen Christ has a story to be told, too, and--appropriately enough--the Risen Christ speaks through everyone.

Yet in the passage from Acts assigned to this Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian year, Jesus does not speak. It is St. Peter, the rock upon which the Church--one, holy, catholic, and apostolic--was established, who speaks. We've jumped ahead to a point past the Ascension, past Pentecost, as St. Peter reaffirms the commision of the Church. Once again, the important part of the Easter story isn't what Jesus is doing, but what Christ's Church is doing.

Pentecost is often called the "birthday" of the Church. The truth is that the building of Christ's Church is a process which spans all of human history and which still has not come to its fullest fruition. Pentecost is an important milestone in the history of this community--more of a coming into adulthood than a birth--but it is laughably obvious that Easter is, too. Easter transformed the Church from simply being the disciples of a man, each with her or his own individual loyalties to Jesus, called by Jesus one or two at a time, to a single community united in joint celebration.

And so we gather here today. Like the disciples who hurried back to Jerusalem after meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus, we gather together with our sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ to proclaim the Easter promise.

This is Easter: this gathering, this congregation (remember "congregation" is merely a noun form of the verb "to congregate"), this reunion of friends, this in-coming of family.

This is the paschal mystery: that having suffered a painful death on the Cross and descended into hell, Christ is risen and present with us here and now, and every day and everywhere, wherever two or more disciples are gathered in Jesus' name.

Three years ago--Easter Even 2007, to be exact--I was baptized into the Christian faith, in this church [or: in a church like this one], before this congregation [or: before a congregation like this one]. Obviously, it was a momentous occasion in my personal faith journey, but it was also a momentous occasion in the life of the Church, as the Body of Christ grew by--well, by more than just more one new member, as across the world new Christians were being welcomed into the Church through the sacrament of Baptism at Easter Vigil services, following the traditions of the early Church in the second and third centuries of the common era. Last night the process was repeated across the world.

"Through baptism on Easter," the Reformed writer Harvey Smit writes, "the new convert participated in the consummation of the Lord's passion and entered into the new life as a Christian sealed in Jesus' resurrection." Let me say that again: "participated in the consummation of the passion." Easter is not a passive day, something which happens simply because the Sunday following the full moon following the first day of spring has finally rolled around on our calendar. Easter is our active engagement and full participation in the life of the Body of the Christ. It is coming to church, reading and listening to holy scripture, receiving and being sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ. It's having a conversation with other members of our parish family in the coffee hour afterwards, and welcoming newcomers and visitors. It is reconciling oneself with God and one's neighbor. It is loving others as oneself. It is working for peace, and for justice. Outside of this context, the story of the Resurrection of Jesus becomes simply, to use the controversial words of Bishop David Edward Jenkins, "just a conjuring trick with bones."

If that were the case, we would indeed be (to use St. Paul's words from today's Epistle reading) "the most pitiable of the human race" indeed! But, St. Paul tells us, "in Christ all will come to life again": we who have been crucified with Christ share equally in Christ's resurrection.

And so, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with St. Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, St. Paul, the evangelists, and all the saints; with the matriarchs and patriarchs, angels and archangels, and the entire company of heaven, we proclaim, as one Church and with one voice: "Alleluia! Christ is risen." [Congregation, if they're paying attention: ""The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."]

Alleluia.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
Baruch 5:1-9
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Today, St. Luke's Gospel introduces us to the very first Christian evangelist: John the Baptist. Our lectionary readings today are a good example of how we as Christians read John "back into" the Hebrew scriptures, as the fulfillment of messianic promises found in Baruch, in Malachi, and in Isaiah (among other places). And when John went out to be a voice in the wilderness, we can be sure it was with an understanding that he did so with this tradition at his back.

But what does it mean to be a voice in the wilderness?

The way St. Luke begins this passage might give us a clue: preaching in the wilderness means preaching independently from, and in opposition to, the established nexuses of power. John lived in a world where power ruled, and St. Luke tells us who specifically wielded this power: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas. And the list isn't restricted to one type of power, either: it includes the Roman emperor and his governor, local kings, and Jewish religious officials. Plenty of opportunities for John to ally himself with someone powerful who could offer him protection.

But instead, he went out into the wilderness, where he was free to speak truth to power.

That phrase, "speak truth to power," is one deeply rooted in the living out of the Christian vision, coming to us from the Quakers, who used it in 1955 as the title for a pamphlet advocating a new approach to the Cold War. It has since been taken up as a rallying cry by many of those who would tear down the hegemonic superstructures which prevail in our world: by Marxists and anarchists, by feminists and anti-racists. It is a call to be genuinely subversive in our approach to the kyriarchy, to the predominant cultural forces of--among other evils--plutocracy, patriarchy, and imperialism. The mountains and hills of our world must be made low, and the valleys filled. Liberation of a profound sort needs to happen.

Part of that means recognizing the immense cultural hegemony that Christianity enjoys in the United States and across the globe. Even as many Christians decry the commercialization of the Christmas holiday, for example, it nonetheless works to fashion the narratives of many non-Christians' lives into a form which is deeply rooted in Christian practices and forms in a way it is simply not possible for them to escape. Reflect for a moment on the following series of questions, adapted from a list by Lewis Z. Schlosser:
Can you be sure to hear music on the radio and watch specials on television that celebrate the holidays of your religion?
Can you be sure that your holy day is taken into account when states pass laws and when retail stores decide their hours?
Can you be sure that when told about the history of civilization, you are shown people of your religion who made it what it is?
Can you easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention only to people of your religion?
Can you be sure that when your children make holiday crafts, they will bring home artistic symbols of the Christian religion (e.g., Easter bunny, Christmas tree)?
Can you, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people of your religion most of the time?
Can you be sure that your children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence and importance of the Christian religion?
Can you be fairly sure when you hear someone in the media talking about "God" that they are talking about your god?
Can you be sure that people are knowledgeable about the holidays in your religion and will greet you with the appropriate holiday greeting (e.g., Merry Christmas)?
Can you remain oblivious to the language and customs of other religious groups without feeling any penalty for such a lack of interest and/or knowledge?
Can you display a Christmas tree and/or hang holly leaves in your home without worrying about your home being vandalized because of your religious identification?
How many of these questions are we Christians able to answer "yes" to? How often do we take being able to answer "yes" completely for granted?

How often in our evangelizing do we attempt to preach from a position of power, to ally ourselves with the Tiberiuses and Pilates, the Herods, Philips, and Lysaniases, the Annases and Caiaphases, of our time? How often do we use our control of culture as a weapon against those who are already powerless in our attempts to save souls and gain converts?

In some cases, even a small reduction of Christian privilege and supremacy can even get disingenuously painted by some as persecution--note the so-called "War on Christmas."

Reflect upon the words of the canticle prayed by John's father, Zechariah:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship God without fear,
holy and righteous in God's sight
all the days of our life.
This is what messianic expectation meant to people in the time of John. Baruch contains a similar sentiment: "so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God." Safely--not comfortably, not easily, not without sacrifice. Just safely. These were women and men frequently in fear for their lives.

How foreign to our experience as Christians today! Although there are of course still Christians on this planet who are genuinely persecuted (and let us continue to pray, with Baruch and Zechariah, for their deliverance), there are few of us here today who can say that we have ever known what it is like to be afraid at all, yet alone afraid for our lives, to worship our God in our way--because our way is dominant, unmarked, theway.

But what can we do about this situation? What can speaking truth to power look like today? I don't have a simple answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts.

Living out John's version of evangelizing in the twenty-first century requires giving up our privilege as best we can in our own trips "to the wilderness." It requires forming bonds of community with the disenfranchised, helping those who have been silenced speak for themselves. It requires fighting, always, for social justice.

Note well: John didn't turn his back onto the world. He went out to the wilderness, yes, but he used his position in the wilderness to preach, to teach others that there was an alternative to the world of the rule of power in which they lived. Speaking truth to power is an engagement with culture, with society, with the world, not a withdrawal. It requires a genuine, full encounter with the world in all its broken fallen-ness. And when we do this, we find there may be allies in places we at first might find it strange to find them. American--or any other--culture is not a monolith. Even as it indoctrinates us in hegemonic discourses of power so to is it the scene for opposition, resistances, and subversions. Often these are the parts of our culture we are taught to fear: the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, so to speak. As the writer Salman Rushdie once noted, "the music of freedom frightens people and unleashes all manner of conservative defense mechanisms."

On that note, let me quote the rock and roll theologian Sid Vicious: "Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.”

In some--and let me stress nonviolent--sense, John the Baptist didn't let them take him alive, either; we know that his practice of speaking truth to power ultimately would cost him his head. But it won him, and us, so much more.

Of course separating genuine subversion and change from cooptation is a process that requires serious discernment and thought. Chaos and disruption merely for the sake of chaos and disruption are no more creative than is the order they seek to disrupt. We need to be rebels with causes, to channel our anger and frustration into social justice reforms capable of empowering others and building genuine, loving communities across the borders of race, gender, and class. We need to engage the world critically, always looking for allies, for points where genuine connection and subversion can happen, but also ever cautious of the forces which seek to control us in ever so subtle ways. We need to pray the prayer of St. Paul in today's passage from the letter to the Philippians: "that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best."

It'd be so much easier if we could accept simple binaries: either live in the world or reject it. But, alas, my siblings in Christ, we cannot.

But today's lectionary readings remind us that that act, John's speaking of truth to power, was and will always be a necessary prerequisite for the Christmas experience, for messianic fulfillment of any kind. By speaking truth to power, we prepare the way for Christ.

Rock on.
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
So, my friend Elizabeth has started a practice of writing "unpreached sermons": what she would say if she were preaching that Sunday, even though she isn't. I've really been inspired by the practice, and want to take it up in the new liturgical year as an intellectual/devotional exercise. So, while I'm obviously not licensed to preach in the Episcopal Church in this universe's reality, if I were to give a homily today, this would be it.

My goal is to have it finished by the Sunday it'd be preached on if it were going to be preached, so I can then compare it to the other sermons I'm exposed to that day: Fr. Nathan's, Nate Hulfish's (which is the odd one out in not following the liturgical cycle), and, of course, Elizabeth's. Then I can see how the trains of thought are similar or different. I expect them to be very, very different, even though Fr. Nathan, Elizabeth, and I will be preaching on the same texts.

1st Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

So, on this, the beginning of a new liturgical year, all of the readings are about endings. Which makes sense, of course; it's also the beginning of Advent, a season of anticipation, a time when the Church waits for the coming of Christ, as figured in the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas, but also as figured in Christ's "second" coming: the coming again in glory. Advent is the time of the year when we look to the future.

And so, in the passage from St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus directs the attention of the gathered crowd to the eschaton, to the end of the world as we know it. The evangelist has Jesus begin by prophesying the destruction of the temple, an event which to St. Luke and his community must have seemed apocalyptic in its importance, and then goes on to remark on other signs of the end times: signs in the sky, and upheaval upon the Earth.

Now, obviously, a great deal of time has passed between St. Luke's time and our own, and a whole lot of history has happened in between. Empires have risen and fallen. Entire continents have been discovered by peoples previously ignorant of their existence. Human beings have set foot on the moon. The "time of the Gentiles," as St. Luke has Jesus call it, has lasted nigh-on two thousand years.

But even in the time when St. Luke was writing his gospel, it had already begun to become obvious that the notion of an imminent eschaton, of an end of the world that was just as likely to be twenty seconds in the future as two thousand years or more down the road, was already quickly becoming untenable. In the passage immediately preceding today's assigned gospel passage, St. Luke has Jesus say to the people:
"See that you are not deceived, for many will come, saying 'The time has come.' Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end."
A paradigm shift had already taken place, ushering in a worldview focused not on waiting for the end, but rather on living in the time in-between. And now, living in the 21st century, it seems much less clear that the eschaton will ever be an event within history, taking place this Tuesday or next Tuesday or indeed any Tuesday or any other day ending in -y.

But, then, what is the use of all of this talk about the end of the world? Is there any value that we can collect from Jesus' lesson of the fig tree? Is there even any point at all in thinking about the eschaton?

The answer, my dear sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is a resounding "yes."

Stories need endings. What if we ended the old fairy tale with Red Riding Hood in the stomach of the wolf, or still on the path picking flowers? What if the prince were still out searching for the foot that would fit into the slipper of glass or gold? What if Snow White and Sleeping Beauty simply slumbered on? Without endings, we don't have stories at all; simply chronicles, mere listings of events. Endings are what allow us to take chronicles and fashion out of them a narrative, to deduce a moral. They are, as John Gardner put it in The Art of Fiction, "not simply the end of the story, but the story's fulfillment."

How we end the Christ story, then, is no idle question, even if it concerns events which exist only in the unrealized future, as the hope and dream of a human people. How we end the Christ story has powerful implications as to how we live our lives in the here and now, for the ending to that story has the power to transform the very meaning of what we choose to do in the present.

For some, the second coming of Christ can act as an excuse to defer dealing with our problems and our neighbors' problems on a systemic level, for surely Christ will take care of them when Christ comes. All that's important is that we hang in there, following God's commandments until either we die or the Rapture happens, whichever comes first. If we succeed at that, we win the game, and if the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket, well so be it, as long as we faithfully executed our own duties to spread the Gospel and save souls, as long as we've spent that time doing our works of mercy, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, as Jesus directed us. "Politics," the desire to engage power and wrestle it out of the hands of the oppressors, can become a dirty word.

This type of worldview has the ability to produce powerful saints: the Dorothy Days and Mother Teresas of the world, the St. Clares and the St. Francises, those who trust in God to take care of the big picture and go about living out their vocation by performing one small service after one small service, feeding the hungry one person at a time. "How the final solution will be brought about is in God's hands," wrote Day in 1959. "The immediate solution will always be the works of mercy."

These types of women and men are called to an important vocation, and their example is one which should inspire and uplift us, and thus holds in it the power to change the world. But it is naive, I think, to think that it can change this sick and fallen world all on its own, and to wait for Christ to have wrought these changes is to put God to the test over what can be performed by human hands.

Where would the Catholic Worker movement be without its newspaper, its attempt to remake the world, to shake it up even beyond the streets of New York City, to change society as a whole radically and fundamentally? We cannot forget that even as the fight for social justice is personal, so too is it political. It requires--as Day and Teresa and Clare and Francis all knew full well--an engagement with the world: rewriting laws, shifting cultural norms, changing the way we as a society use language by coming up with new vocabularies. Setting the example as Christians who love one another and care for our neighbors is an absolutely necessary prerequisite, but it is a beginning, not an end. We cannot rest on the laurels of our works of mercy. We must lobby; we must demonstrate; we must protest; we must agitate; we must vote and encourage others to vote; we must educate. We must not only feed the hungry, but also work to end hunger. Not only visit those in prison, but reform the prison system.

We must, as Mahatma Ghandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world. We must make social justice happen.

There's another way of telling the end to the story of Christ's involvement in the world, a way of telling it in which it is not a mere deus ex machina where the benign God arrives and sets everything right because we are too depraved to do it ourselves. It is an eschatology that's focused not on messianic expectations in a distant future, but an ongoing rebirth in the here and now: not a realized eschatology nor an unrealized eschatology, but an eschatology continually in the process of being realized. And we're the ones who are doing the realizing. The story of Christ's return, the lesson of the fig tree, the promises made to the Hebrews, these stories are important because they fill us with joyful optimism in telling us that a redeemed world is possible, to allow us to be a forward-looking people, but it falls to us to be active agents in the world's redemption.

It is not only Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, not only Christ, of one Being with the Parent God, who is called to "execute justice and righteousness in the land" in the apocalyptic vision of the Christian Church, to be the "righteous branch" risen up for David. It is the Church itself, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It is all of us. We are called to change the world.

The coming of Christ is not an event which exists solely in the past, in a Christmas night millenia past, or in the future, in a triumphant, rapturous return. The coming of Christ is, instead, a constant process which is always going on, a continual revelation of God through Christ and Christ's Spirit as God works in and through the world. The liturgical calendar recognizes this fact as each year we wait anew for Christ's coming in the season of Advent, and celebrate it anew in the season of Christmas. And we, the followers of Christ right here in this room and throughout the world, we the Church, we who are the Body of Christ, we are the agents, the vehicle of that coming.

Amen.
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"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

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