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.

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My Prayer

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

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


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