Which Procession Do You Want To Be In?

April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday is also known as the Sunday of the Passion. The story of Jesus’ so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey soon gives way to the Passion Gospel, the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial and execution. It’s called the Passion because the Gospel writers all see this as being the result of Jesus’ “passion,” his love, for God and for his people.
It’s important to know that there were two processions entering Jerusalem on that day. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. While Jesus and his followers were entering the city from the east, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and his legions were entering the city from the west. Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem and its significance would have been well known in the Jewish homeland of the first century.
It was standard operating procedure for the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for all the major Jewish festivals. This was not out of any respect for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects. It was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in Fortress Antonia in case there was trouble. And there usually was trouble, especially on Passover which was a festival celebrating the liberation of the Jews from an earlier oppressor, the Egyptians. There would be trouble on this Passover as well!
By staging a “counter procession” to Pilate’s, Jesus wanted to make a specific point. His purpose was to fulfill the prophecy made by Zechariah that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem in a very specific way – not like King David, in splendor on a white horse at the head of procession of armed men, but “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Moreover, Zechariah tells us what kind of a king he would be:
“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” This Messiah would not be a warrior king…but a prince of peace.
What a contrast to that other procession! On one side of town, Pilate was entering Jerusalem in a display of imperial power – cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets and weapons and banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, and the sound of marching feet – implicitly claiming that the Romans were the rulers of the ancient world. On the other side of town, Jesus and his rag-tag group of followers were trotting into town on foot and on a donkey with children and the poor claiming him as representing the true Ruler of the ancient (and modern!) world – the living and true God!
You and I have been given a choice in life by the events of Holy Week and Easter which we will be rehearsing this week. In short, we have been given a choice as to which procession we want to be in – the procession of the Empire (with all of its promises of wealth and power and success) or the procession of the poor (which calls us – no matter what our station in life — to stand in solidarity with the last and the least, with those whom society has forgotten or wishes to forget – the poor and the oppressed, the old and the sick, those on the margins and those work for peace.) We get to decide which procession we want to be in.
We’re confirming and receiving a couple of people here at Trinity Church this morning. And, as we do so, we will all join with them in reaffirming our Faith and renewing the promises of our Baptism in something called the Baptismal Covenant. Pay attention to the words we will be saying together in a few moments. They are not meaningless words of an empty ritual.
They are a kind of pledge of allegiance… allegiance to the true Ruler of the ancient (and modern) world… and a statement of our intention to live our lives as part of that Kingdom. Think twice before renewing these vows again this morning.
They will determine which procession you want to be in.
And perhaps where you will arrive…at the end of your journey!

 

Lighten Our Darkness, We Beseech Thee, O Lord

April 1, 2014

One of my favorite Evening Prayers in our Book of Common Prayer is one that reads like this: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.” That prayer was written in a time when darkness was much to be feared and people worried about “perils and dangers” which might confront them on a given night, or were concerned that they might die in the night with no time to repent or prepare for death.
But the prayer can also be understood as asking God to shine light into “our darkness,” into the darkness of our minds and to give us true understanding. All three of our Lessons from Scripture this morning have to do with God shining light into our darkened minds. In the First Lesson, God guides the prophet Samuel through a long discernment and elimination process through all of Jesse’s sons before finally arriving at his choice of David to be anointed king in place of the late ruler Saul.
“Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature…” God says to Samuel, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7) God was teaching Samuel how to really see!
And that’s the point of our Gospel lesson today as well. It’s not only about Jesus bringing physical sight to a blind man. It’s also about John’s conviction that Jesus is the light of the world. The long process of Jesus healing the blind man– and the interrogation the man faced after that– is paralleled by Jesus trying to bring spiritual light to the Pharisees who were blind to the fact of who he was and to the truth he was trying to proclaim about God’s goodness.
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” Jesus says (John 9:5) But his opponents are unwilling to accept that and get downright huffy about it, “Surely WE are not blind, are we?” Only to hear Jesus’ withering response, “If you were blind, you would not have sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:40-41) Jesus was willing to be infinitely patient while the man born blind comes to faith, but the smug ignorance of the Pharisees kept them in more darkness than the blind man had ever been in!
Finally, all this is summed up for us in the Epistle to the Ephesians, “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:8-10) “For everything that becomes visible is light. Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)
What does it mean to say that Jesus is the light of the world…and that we are to live as children of the light? Well, we are baptizing and confirming some folks here this morning. And the service we will be using to do that tells us exactly what it means to say that Jesus is the light of the world…and tells us something of what it means to live as children of that light! You and I will shortly join the baptismal candidates’ (parents and godparents) and the confirmand in renewing our own vows in the Baptismal Covenant. We do that every time we baptize and confirm…and at the Easter Vigil as well.
You remember that the first part of this Covenant is a question and answer form of the Apostles’ Creed. “Do you believe in God…I believe in God the Father Almighty. Do you believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son. Do you believe in the God the Holy Spirit…and so on.
The point of that Creed is to remind us that Christians have experienced God in three different ways — as the One who created the whole universe…as the One who became visible and understandable to us in Jesus…and as an ongoing spiritual presence and reality in the world today.
In other words, we actually believe that because of Jesus and because of his Spirit we have become “enlightened” as to what God is really like. When we look at the life and the ministry and the teaching of Jesus…and are informed by his Spirit…God is no longer in darkness for us but in the light. God is no longer completely invisible, but actually becomes visible in Christ. When we look at Jesus, we see what God is like! That’s the first part of our Baptismal Covenant.
And the second part of the Covenant tells us something of how we are to live now that we know that about God. We’re to come to the Eucharist every Sunday to hear apostolic teaching from the Bible, to break bread together, and to pray.
We’re to try to do what the letter to the Ephesians told us this morning (to try to do what is pleasing to the Lord, by doing what is good and right and true) but when we fail, to know that we can tell God we’re sorry and start all over again.
We’re to share our faith with others in words and by the way we live our lives. We’re to seek and serve Christ in other people and love our neighbors as ourselves. And we are to work for justice and peace in this world and respect the dignity of every…single…human being we ever run across!
That’s what it means to live as children of light! And that’s what we are praying those who are being baptized and confirmed…and all of us as well…are going to be doing. Living as children of light in a dark world.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by the great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”
Enlighten us as to your true nature, O God.
And help us to do what is pleasing to you, what is good and right and true.
For only then can we be living in the light; as you are Light!
Sleepers, awake! Rise from the dead! And Christ will shine on you!

 

 

 

Jesus, the Pharisee?

February 10, 2014

One of my responsibilities these days is representing the Diocese of Chicago on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. This is an interfaith organization that has been around for decades and works to see how faith communities can stand together around issues in our city like gun violence and poverty and education. One of the founding members, who still attends meetings regularly, is a 96 year old rabbi named Herman Schaalman.

Herman is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emmanuel (same name as your church!) on the north side of Chicago. He served there for decades and worked with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin and our own Bishop Montgomery and many other religious leaders who were early pioneers in interfaith relations.

One of the things Herman never tires of reminding us is that Jesus was a Jew! In fact, Jesus was not only a practicing Jew, but he was a Pharisee. Maybe not a card carrying member of the Pharisaic party, but he was actually closer to them than to the other parties in 1st century Judaism.

We get the idea that Pharisees were the bad guys, but the reason Jesus gets so angry at them and the reason they are mentioned so often is that they were actually the more progressive, “reformist” party in town to whom Jesus probably felt closer than he did to the Sadduccees or the Zealots or even the Essenes. The reason he got so frustrated with them was because he thought they ought to know better!

We perhaps need no further reminder that Jesus considered himself an observant Jew than the conclusion of our Gospel reading this morning from Matthew. This gospel writer emphasizes even more than Mark or Luke or John the “Jewishness” of Jesus and, in today’s reading quotes Jesus as saying:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until it is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

So, Jesus was a supporter of keeping the Law of Moses. But, like any good rabbi, he was not above re-interpreting the common understanding of a particular law. Later on in this same 5th chapter of Matthew, he enters into a long discourse in which the recurrent phrase is “You have heard it said (in the Law)….but I say to you…” In these statements, he seeks to go the core of a Law’s meaning. And to see what it’s really all about.

Jesus also stands directly in the line of Jewish prophets like Isaiah who were not above challenging the religious establishment’s understanding of the Law with powerful preaching like we heard in our First Lesson today. Isaiah was taking on certain pious attitudes toward fasting, and he says:

You say, “Why do we fast, but you do not see (O God) Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…”

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” (Isaiah 58:3 ff, passim)

I know that you at Emmanuel, Rockford for more than 30 years have taken words like those seriously in ministries like your Soup Kitchens, and the Shelter Care Ministries, and the Jeremiah Development.  And you have done that because you believe that you are following Jesus in doing so. And so you are!

But even Jesus was following in a long line of fighters for justice and peace among his people, Israel.  You and I, as Christians, will claim a lot more for Jesus than our spiritual forebears, the Jews will. But, at the very least, we will claim for him an honored place among the great prophets, teachers, and martyrs of the Hebrew tradition.

That place is at least a starting point for dialogue with our Jewish, and even our Muslim, brothers and sisters. They will honor our conviction that we believe Jesus to be, not only a prophet, but our savior and lord. As long as we honor our common heritage with them as children of Abraham, the ancestor of all who put their trust in the One God.

It’s an honor to be with you today, dear friends. To be with a Christian community that has sought to heed Jesus’ challenge to be salt for the earth and lights for the world. You have put your lamp on a lampstand and, as such, you have let your light so shine before others in this community, that they see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16). Soon you will begin a new chapter in your life together – with the arrival of your new priest – you just need to know how proud we are of you in this diocese. And we look forward to seeing just what the next steps in your journey will bring. It’s bound to be exciting!

 

Missionary Society?

February 1, 2014

Epiphany, as you probably know, is the missionary and evangelistic season of the Church Year. It’s a time of year when we remind ourselves of what we prayed for in this morning’s Collect: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…”

In other words, just as Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John and the other disciples to “fish for people” as we heard in this morning Gospel, so we too are called – by virtue of our Baptisms — to reach out to other people, to share the Good News of God’s love, and to invite them to join us in the communion of Christ’s Church. Christianity, like Islam (and un-like our parent religion Judaism and most Eastern Religions) Christianity… is a missionary religion!

That doesn’t always sound so good to our 21st century ears. Missionaries, for some, bring up images of high pressure, guilt-producing evangelists whether on TV, in pulpits, or in parking lots. And, because we’re a little more knowledgeable and perhaps more honest, about our history as the Christian Church today, we are aware that terrible atrocities have been committed by Christian missionaries in our past…and all of it in the name of Jesus!

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray’ and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible, and they had the land!” So it’s no wonder that “missionary work” or even “evangelism” have become dirty words for many people today – including many who are faithful members of the Church.

But, even if we can convince ourselves that those bad images are caricatures of true mission and true evangelism, and that real mission and evangelism simply mean sharing the Good News that God is Love, and that all people are invited into a relationship with that good God which also entails loving those other people and working to make this world a better place…even so, the work of evangelism is not so easy!

Seems like it was pretty easy for Jesus. He just said “Follow me” and they did! (Actually, it may have been a little more complicated than that. He may well have had a prior relationship with Peter and Andrew and the others, and our story today may just have been a snapshot of that moment when his faithful mentorship of them finally paid off). But, after all, he WAS Jesus!

Yet for us, evangelism – sharing the Good News and getting other people to accept it – is not so easy. Never has been! For one thing, the Church – which is supposed to be the base camp and launching pad for all effective evangelism sometimes gets in the way. The Church can actually be excess baggage that keeps people away from Christ instead of inviting them in. I know you’ve had some difficult times in the not-so-distant past here at Emmanuel and you’re using this interim period to do some much-need healing. Word has it you’re doing really well and the healing and recovery process is well underway.

Please know that you are not the “Lone Ranger.” Almost every congregation I know has passed through times of struggle and trial, argument and disagreement at some point. And that didn’t start with liturgical revision or the ordination of women or gay folks.  Hear again the words of a missionary bishop to one of his congregations in about the year 55:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no division among you…For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…!” Duuu-aahhh! Christians quarreling? Imagine that! And good old Chloe – engaging in some of those parking lot vestry meetings and tattling on the mischief-makers to the Bishop!

Yes, the Church is a flawed instrument, dear friends. Because, in addition to her divine calling, the Church is a human institution made up of human beings like us and, as long as that is the case, it will not be perfect. Not perfect…but it is essential. You cannot be a “solo Christian.” You can believe in God, accept that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, say your prayers, and even be a good person on your own.

But Christianity is, and always has been, a communal affair. Jesus called those twelve disciples as a first order of business. The earliest image of the Church was that of a Body, made up of many members. It was also called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, and a royal priesthood. All of those are corporate images, images of a family (even if it’s sometimes a dysfunctional family!) but living and working together!

So the work you are doing here, during this interim period, is very important. You are doing what bishops and priests, deacons and lay leaders find ourselves doing a lot of the time – you are binding up the wounds in the Body of Christ! You are healing Christ’s Church! And why are you doing that? So that this portion of that Body may be an ever more faithful and effective base camp and launching pad for one of the primary vocations of the Church – mission and evangelism.

For as St. Teresa of Avila once reminded us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.”

That’s real mission and real evangelism, beloved.  And I’m glad that we’re in this…together!

 

 

 

Baptism: Sacrament of Hope and New Beginnings

December 17, 2013

What a great celebration we are having here today! A baptism…confirmations…an ordination…and the Eucharist! If we could just find someone out there who wants to get married, we could just about do it all this morning! And how wonderful it is, that these major milestones are being celebrated during the season of Advent – the season of hope and of new beginnings.

I think one of the reasons we love Advent so is that it is that kind of season. We see hope and new beginnings promised in each of our readings from Holy Scripture this morning: Isaiah promises his exiled people that, when they return home “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom…” (Isaiah 35:1). Hope and a new beginning for his people!

James knows how excited and hopeful his dispersed flock of new Christians are and so he tells them that they must “Be patient…until the coming of the Lord.” As patient as “the farmer wait(ing) for the precious crop from the earth.” (James 5:7) Farmers are all about hope and new beginnings…they have to be!

And Jesus promises his ragtag audience of poor and hungry and weeping and marginalized people (the same audience that flocked to John the Baptist) that – as great at John was – they are even greater in God’s eyes!(Matthew 11:2 ff) Once again – a promise of hope and a new beginning for people who desperately needed to hear that good news!

In many ways, the most important sacrament we will be celebrating here this morning is the baptism. For baptism is, above all else, the sacrament of hope and of new beginnings. When we baptize Jane today it will be in a spirit of hope and of a new beginning. Indeed, this whole congregation will say, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” (BCP 308) That is our hope for her new beginning!

Right after we lay hands on those who will be confirmed today, I will pray “Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at their Baptism. Send them forth in the power of the Spirit to perform the service you set before them.” (BCP 418) That’s our hope for their new beginnings today!

And just after Jonathon is ordained to the transitional diaconate, we will ask God to “make him…modest and humble, strong and constant, to observe the discipline of Christ (that) his life and teaching (may) so reflect (God’s) commandments, that through him many may come to know you and (to) love you.” (BCP 545) That is our hope for his new beginning!

It’s truly wonderful that we are celebrating all of these sacraments here today and that we can see them all together – because they are all interrelated and they all grow out of the primary Sacrament we celebrate today – Baptism! My dear friend, the late Bishop Jim Kelsey of Northern Michigan, had a powerful way of reminding himself (and the rest of us) of that in his office.

While most of us clergy have our walls filled with college and seminary diplomas and ordination certificates and the like, Jim just had one large, beautifully framed certificate hanging on his wall – his Baptismal Certificate! It was his way of reminding us that, in many ways, the most important thing that will ever happen to us is our baptism. Because, as the Prayer Book reminds us, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” (BCP 298)

Full initiation! We need nothing else! Confirmation allows us to own that great reality for ourselves and make a mature commitment to the promises we made, or were made on our behalf, at baptism. Ordination sets apart individuals to “carry on the apostolic work of leading, supervising, and uniting the Church…of preaching the Word of God and administering (the) holy Sacraments.” (BCP 510)

But we’re not talking hierarchy here. The Church is not a pyramid with bishops on the top, priests and deacons next, and lay people on the bottom. The Church is best seen as a circle, with Christ at the center, and all the ministries – lay person, bishops, priests, deacons, pastors, teachers, evangelists, prophets – all these ministries distributed around the circumference of the wheel and all empowered by the grace of God coming to us through Word and Prayer and Sacrament.

So we’re involved in a great work here this morning, dear friends. I’m so glad each and every one of you are here to take your part. As you come to the Table today to receive the very Being and Life of Christ in the Eucharist, remember that the word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” This is our Thanksgiving Meal!

And surely, we have a lot to give thanks for…today!

 

 

Co-Creators of the Future With God

December 1, 2013

I love Advent! Most of us do, I think. Many call it their favorite season of the church year. Part of it is that we love Christmas, and Advent is the season of preparation for that great feast. I love the royal blue vestments (which we will bless today); I love the Advent wreath and the smell of greens in the church. I love the great Advent hymns and the powerful readings from the Bible (especially the Old Testament) which we get to hear during these four brief weeks.

Part of it too is that Advent is, above all else, a season of Hope — The hope of the Jewish people for the coming of their Messiah. The hope of God’s in-breaking into our lives every day in new and exciting ways. The hope of God’s Reign one day coming in its fullness here “on earth as it is in heaven.” All these are Advent themes, and they make for a season of hope, a ‘”theology of hope.” Which, to my mind, is largely what the Christian faith is all about.

We have expressions of hope in all three of our Lessons from Scripture today: “In the days to come,” Isaiah shouts, “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills.” (Isaiah 2:2).  St. Paul agrees, writing some 800 years later: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers,” (Romans 13:11b). “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,” warns Jesus, “Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:36, 44) All proclamations of hope and of expectation!

So, if Advent is a season of hope and new beginnings, what about us? What about us at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, Illinois? Are we all about hope? Are we all about new beginnings? You are an historic church…launching into your Sesquicentennial Year. For 150 years generation upon generation of young people have been baptized and confirmed in this parish. They have learned the story of Jesus Christ and his Church. They have served as acolytes and choristers and they’ve enjoyed youth groups and outreach events.

Hundreds of couples have had their marriages solemnized in this beautiful building. Confessions have been heard, the sick have been anointed with oil. Priests and deacons have been ordained in this church, and at least one bishop who shall remain nameless graduated from Seabury-Western in this church in 1972!

Many of your forebears have had their caskets brought down this center aisle and had their souls commended to God in the same church where they worshiped Sunday by Sunday. And, oh yes, Sunday by Sunday the Word of God has been preached, the Body and Blood of Christ has been received in the Eucharist, and the joyful praises of God have been sung by choir and communicant alike. And, because of all these things, members of St. Mark’s have gone forth from this place to make a difference for good in this community and beyond.

But Sesquicentennial observances are only partly about celebrating the past (though they surely are that). They are about preparing to take the next step into the future. We’re doing a few simple things this morning that indicate that future – blessing a new outdoor sign to point newcomers in our direction; blessing a new Altar, altar cloths, and vestments. Perhaps these are outward signs of the fact that you have a new motto at St. Mark’s – Being in Place; Growing in Faith; and Living from the Center. And that you are refocusing on being and becoming a real neighborhood church, responding to the needs of the local community. I hope so.

We had a wonderful Diocesan Convention last weekend. And Bishop Jeff Lee had some words to share in his sermon which I think may be useful for you to hear…or hear again if you were there! He said, “The theme for this 176th convention is that we are doing a new thing. Actually…I think I‘d rather say, God is doing a new thing. God is always doing new things. Our scriptures, the vast sweep of the contemplative tradition, the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection itself and the sending of the Holy Spirit – they all testify to the truth of it. God is always doing a new thing…”

“…God is the prime mover, the creator and sustainer of all that is or ever will be, and God’s mission is the repair, the restoration, the renewing of that creation…The new thing is God’s project and we who have been redeemed by God’s unexpected action in Jesus…have the staggering invitation to join in God’s mission of making all things new. That’s what we’re for; that’s what all of this is about. There’s a phrase ascribed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to management guru Peter Drucker: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’ ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’ The Christian faith proclaims that God invites us to be nothing less than co-creators (of that future).”

Co-creators of the future with God! Did you know that’s what you were about today? Did you know that blessing new signs and altars and vestments were just icons of the new mission you are being called into? Well, it’s true! And the amazing thing is: you will fulfill that mission by just showing up and doing three “simple” things:

Being in Place

Growing in Faith

 Living from the Center

 

Thanks Be To God!

 

 

 

 

“Zealot” or King

November 27, 2013

There has been a good bit of buzz in the secular press, and even in the religious press, lately about a new book entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The thing about the book which has gotten the most attention, unfortunately, is that it is written by a young, extremely attractive Western Muslim named Reza Aslan. One typically uninformed Fox news interviewer wondered aloud why any Muslim would be interested in writing a book about Jesus!

She was apparently blissfully unaware that Muslims have an extremely reverent view of Jesus, and of his mother Mary, and that the Qu’ran has a good bit to say about them both. Actually, this particular Muslim, religious scholar Reza Aslan, once converted to Evangelical Christianity, but – finding that kind of fundamentalism extremely unsatisfying — returned to a moderate expression of Islam and he remains a practicing Muslim today.

His book, as the title might indicate, depicts a very human Jesus who was living in radical political times. Very few of his findings would be news to biblical scholars today or to most clergy who have received a good theological education in the last fifty years. I rather enjoyed the book, which is extremely well-written, even though (like most Christians) I would want to go farther in my claims about Jesus than this Muslim scholar is willing to go.

But I was struck by one very provocative statement Dr. Aslan makes in the early part of the book. He says: if all you knew about Jesus of Nazareth was one phrase from the historic catholic creeds, you would know all you need to know about him. That phrase? “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Aslan’s point is that the fact that Jesus was put to death by crucifixion at the order of the Roman governor of Judea absolutely cements the fact that he was seen as some kind of revolutionary and as a threat to the occupying power of Rome in first century Jerusalem.

Crucifixion was a favorite form of capital punishment used by the Romans. Jews were not permitted to execute people in that way. In fact, the Jewish exercise of capital punishment (which was usually stoning) was severely limited by the Romans at this time in history. They were a subject people and the Roman government was in charge of keeping the peace and punishing criminals, not the Jews.

You all know that crucifixion was a particularly brutal form of torture and death. It was reserved for political prisoners and part of the drill was to parade them through the streets, put markers above their heads on their crosses, and leave the bodies hanging there for days to send a stern warning to anyone else who might be tempted to challenge the authority of Rome or to preach a message of liberation to her subject people across the Empire.

There are all kinds of hints in today’s Gospel which indicate that Luke was fully aware of all this. First of all, they crucify Jesus between two “criminals,” but the word really means “bandits” and was reserved for Jewish revolutionaries who were not above using violence in their resistance to the Roman occupation of their land. Secondly, Jesus is accused of being some kind of “king” and the inscription on his cross makes that clear. Anyone claiming to be a “king” in the first century Roman Empire was challenging the “kingship” of Caesar and that was a sure invitation to an early demise!

The rebels dying alongside Jesus certainly think Jesus is a king: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:33 ff.) And they ask to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom. They were not talking about heaven here, dear friends. They were talking about a Jewish kingdom free from their oppressive occupiers, the Romans. It is Jesus who reframes it when he says, “Today you will be with me…in Paradise!”

Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say – with Reza Aslan – that if we know that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate – we know all there is to know about him that we need to know. The author of Colossians today has a whole lot more to say about who Jesus is than that – “image of the invisible God…firstborn of all creation…the head of the body, the church…the firstborn from the dead” …and a lot more.

But, on Christ the King Sunday, on a Sunday when we are likely to sing hymns glorifying the kingly Christ and “crowning him with many crowns,” we need to remember what kind of King he was. He was a king who had no place to lay his head. He was a king who hung around with outcasts and sinners. He was a king who fed hungry people and wept over the fate of Jerusalem. He was a king who overthrew the tables of the money changers and, three days later, washed his friends’ feet. He was a king who refused to buckle under to the Roman government. And, therefore, he was a king who “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

Our Collect for Todays says it all: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule…”

Oh, Jesus was a king all right. But a king…like…no…other!

Rekindling The Gift of God

October 7, 2013

Our Epistle today from the Second Letter to Timothy is interesting because it gives us a little glimpse into a later stage in the development of Christianity than some of the rest of the New Testament. We’re seeing here the early Church about three generations old. An older Christian is writing to a younger man and he says,

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5) So, at least three generations of this family have been followers of Jesus and the young man is being reminded of his “goodly heritage” and encouraged to rededicate himself to the same faith – “to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands…” (1:6), the author writes.

This tells us that the early Church was doing the same thing that I do nearly every Sunday. Although the main purpose of a bishop’s visitation is to do what I’m doing here today – celebrating the Eucharist, learning something about the local congregation, trying to encourage and support the clergy and lay people in a parish, often when bishops visit congregations one of the purposes is to assist in “rekindling the gift of God within you through the laying on hands!” We do that in several different ways:

Sometimes bishops baptize new Christians. When we do that, we wash them with water in the name of the Holy Trinity, then we lay a hand on the newly baptized one and mark them with the Sign of the Cross using the oil of Chrism to show that they are now “little anointed ones,” little “Christs,” Christians!

Sometimes bishops confirm young people and adults. We lay hands upon them in that case, praying that the Holy Spirit (which has already been given to them in Baptism) may be strengthened (“rekindled”) through our prayer and through the laying on of hands. Most Christians are baptized as infants and so the vows are taken on their behalf by their parents and godparents – to sort of get them started on the right path.

But, at some point, we have to take these vows on ourselves — Because our Epistle today reminds us that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (I:7). If that’s so, then we need to confess our faith publicly (as Billy Graham used to say!) and to stand up for what we believe – not only because our parents and grandparents believed, but because we do as well. That’s what it means to be confirmed…to “confirm” our faith…and to do so publicly.

Bishops also pray and lay hands on people who have already been confirmed in another denomination, but who wish to join The Episcopal Church, and people who have just reached a point in their life when – for various reasons – they would like the opportunity to re-affirm  their faith publicly again. In each case the intention is basically the same – “to rekindle the gift of God – the Holy Spirit – which is already within them.

Why do we need to do that? Well, because Christians need to have a strong faith today. Of course, the Apostles did too and they asked Jesus in the Gospel today to “Increase (their) faith.” (Luke 17:5). He says that, if they had faith just the size of a tiny mustard seed they could say to a mulberry tree “Be uprooted and planted in the sea” and it would obey them. (17:6).

 Since there is no record of mulberry trees flying around the Middle East in those days, apparently they didn’t even have even that much faith! Even so, Jesus tells them to get on with their work and ministry lest they be accused of being lazy servants of God who expect to be rewarded for doing next to nothing.

But, in some ways, it’s even harder to have faith today. We don’t live in a world where God and religion are taken for granted. We live in a very secular age and in an age when lots of things work against our living a life of faith. That’s why the Church – the Christian community – is so important! Because it’s here that we can learn some of the disciplines that can keep us connected with God – through thick and thin… no matter what… come what may.

It’s here that you learn the stories and the history of your faith – through Scripture read and preached about on Sunday mornings, perhaps in Bible studies, or other Christian education programs. It’s here that you learn to pray – perhaps initially by being immersed in the great Liturgies of our Prayer Book, but later by learning to speak easily and often with your God in prayer and (perhaps even more importantly) learning to listen to that same God in silence and in meditation.

It’s here that you are nourished by the matchless sacramental system of the Church – at all the various turning points in your life – Baptism soon after birth, Holy Communion every Sunday on the Lord’s Day, Confirmation when you become an adolescent or adult, Marriage for lifelong partnerships, Confession when you’ve messed up and want to get right with God again, Healing when you are sick in body, mind or spirit. Maybe even Ordination as a Deacon or a Priest or some specific Lay Ministry here in the Church or in the world.

And finally, most importantly, it’s here that you learn something about how to live in this world – in ways that will be pleasing to God, and also that will make this world a better place. That’s the mission and ministry of this church you and I belong to. Everything we do here is intended to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Thanks be to God that we have Holy Trinity Church to remind us of that fact every week!

The Cost of Discipleship

September 9, 2013

In 1937, the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book which has long been considered a classic of Christian thought. It was entitled “the Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer certainly knew something about “the cost of discipleship” and he was eventually martyred  in Nazi Germany for his faith and resistance to Adolph Hitler. In his book, he makes a distinction between what he calls “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”

“Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross; grace without Jesus Christ.”

Cheap grace is to hear the Gospel preached like this: “Of course you’ve sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” On the contrary –Bonhoeffer’s book makes clear –the real Gospel is about “costly grace. He writes:

“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels (one) to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light!”

Costly grace is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading when he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14) Now, of course, Jesus didn’t mean that literally. Jesus loved his family; and he loved life!

What he was doing there was employing the old Middle Eastern rhetorical device of “exaggeration to make a point!” What he did mean, now that he had their attention, was contained in the next line: “Whoever does not carry the cross… and follow me… cannot be my disciple.” That would have been crystal clear to those original disciples. Crucifixion was a common form of capital punishment reserved by the Romans for political prisoners.

It was a dramatic and public way of warning anyone about challenging the authority of Rome, and Jesus and his disciples would have seen countless unfortunate souls carrying the cross beam of their instruments of execution along the Via Dolorosa and up the hill to Calvary or to the outskirts of Jerusalem. Those disciples knew on that day – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that Jesus was challenging them to follow him to death, if need be. Costly grace indeed!

They could not have been too surprised about all this though. The history of the people of Israel was filled with prophets and sages who had been willing to face imprisonment, torture and even death as a result of remaining faithful and loyal to their God. Our First Lesson today from Jeremiah was written by a prophet who was threatened with those things more than once – from his own people – when he warned them about the consequences of their disobedience:

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand,” (says the Lord) “ so are you in my hand, O house of Israel…I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” (Jeremiah 18)

And Jesus’ original followers got that message. Most of the Twelve Apostles were martyred for their faith. St. Paul wrote the Epistle we read today  from his prison cell, and he was asking his dear friend, Philemon, to defy the custom of his day and to take back his runaway slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” since the former slave had recently become a Christian. Costly grace indeed was being asked for.

Well, what about us, dear friends? How can we tell if we are following a false gospel of “cheap grace” or the real and authentic gospel of “costly grace?” How can we tell if we are paying “the cost of discipleship?” Well, the simplest way I know of is to use the outline we call “the Baptismal Covenant” as a kind of checklist on yourself:

1.       Do you put your whole trust in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

2.       Do you worship that God every Sunday here in church thereby “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

3.       Do you try to resist evil and, when you do fall into sin, “repent and return to the Lord?”

4.       Do you share your faith – in your words and in your deeds – with your family and friends and neighbors and all with whom you come in contact?

5.       Do you look for Christ in other people – especially in those persons where it might prove difficult to find him – so that you can begin to “love your neighbor as yourself”?

6.       And do you do your part to work for justice and peace in this world – treating other people as God would treat them and practicing non-violence (which is the only way to “respect the dignity of every…human…being?”)

Costly grace? Or cheap grace? Grace which leads to discipleship? Or grace which is taken for granted? Well, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us a word of encouragement along these lines. Remember he said that costly grace was “costly” because it challenges us to carry the yoke of Christ. But that it was “grace” because that yoke is easy and its burden is light. I never understood that exactly until I learned that, when two oxen are yoked together, usually one of them is stronger than the other and so he becomes “the lead ox,” he actually pulls much more than his share of the load and so makes it easier on his partner!

In our case, baptism and participation in the Church means that we are yoked to Jesus, and he becomes our “lead ox!” He carries the lion’s share of the load if we will only let him. Let’s join with those who are being received into our fellowship today by making those baptismal promises right along with them and, in so doing, re-commit ourselves to the God to whom we prayed in the words of this morning’s Collect:

“Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord….Amen!”

Jesus Didn’t Come To Found A Church!

July 8, 2013

Jesus Didn’t Come to Found A Church!

While I was serving on the Presiding Bishop’s staff as ecumenical officer, I ran across something called the “Emergent (or Emerging) church.” This is a kind of movement initially started by young, evangelical pastors who were trying to relate to the post-modern, post-Christian, post-nearly-everything-else world of the 21st century, and to discern what – if anything – the Holy Spirit might be trying to say to the churches in our day.

Many of these young people had been involved in big, evangelical “mega-churches,” those big box structures with the full parking lots one can see on the outskirts of most American cities these days. And, they had become disenchanted with all the hype and the manipulation and the “marketing” of Christianity as well as with the notion that the whole Christian faith revolves around nothing  but personal conversion, and being saved from the fires of hell by “accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior!”

They began noticing, as they talked and studied and prayed together, that the Bible really has very little to say about that…when compared to its evolving message about liberation for the oppressed, justice for the poor, and peace and harmony for the whole world! They began noticing that – far from what they had been taught – Jesus did not come to found a Church. He came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God — To announce the ultimate Reign and Sovereignty of God. They began to discover that evangelism and social action are really two sides of the same coin. And, if the Church has a message in our day, this may be part of it!

I think today’s Gospel (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), with Jesus sending out 70 disciples on what looks very much like an “apostolic” mission, may have something to say to all that. Let’s take a look at it. First of all, Jesus sent them out in pairs. That says something about the essential nature of Christian community for our mission. You can’t really be a “solo Christian” and being part of the Christian community is abolutely essential — whether that community is a large one like All Saints or just “two or three gathered in Christ’s name” in a household or a cell group. Community is central!

Secondly, Jesus tells them to go out in a spirit of vulnerability and humility – “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” In contrast to a kind of triumphalist, muscular Christianity we see so much of today, these disciples are to be humble and even vulnerable as they interact with the world. Not to have all the answers, but perhaps at least asking the right questions!

Third, they are to “travel light.” “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the way.” They were to be itinerant preachers and evangelists, not encumbered with a lot of “stuff,” and single-minded in their purpose, not getting distracted.  Well, the Church of today – whether big box evangelicals or gothic mainstreamers – has a lot of “stuff!” And one of the things we are going to have to figure out in a day of economic stress, and changing priorities, is how we are going to deal with our “stuff.” Can it be used for mission and ministry? If not…do we really need it? How do we keep “the main thing, the main thing” in our mission?

Fourth, they are to be peacemakers: “Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace to this house.” There should be a peaceful, centeredness in our Christian discipleship. Whatever situation we walk into, we should bring something of “the peace of God which passes all understanding” with us. In a conflicted society and a violent world, what more important message can we bring than a message of peace?

Next, Jesus tells them that, while they are itinerant preachers and evangelists, they are not to “move about from house to house” but to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.” In other words, they are to build relationships! And sometimes you do that by letting other people serve you! Sometimes, we are to provide hospitality to others, but at other times we need to be humble enough to let others provide hospitality to us! “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you… (and) cure the sick who are there.”

Cure the sick. Healing! Another essential ministry for Christian disciples: we are to bring healing. That may come in the traditional forms of prayer and the laying on of hands or sitting with people bringing counsel and spiritual direction. Or it may entail the healing of society – working to end gun violence, or for just immigration reform, or marriage equality for all God’s people. However we do it, just as it is incumbent upon Christians to be peacemakers, so we are also to become healers.

Then, the last step: “Say to them: The kingdom of God has come near you!” At some point, we have to make the connection that it is God who “has given us the will and the wisdom to do all these things!”

And, just as our evangelical friends have often failed to engage in the work of peacemaking and justice building, so we have often failed to make the connection for people that the reason we are about those tasks is not because they are “politically correct,” because we are in the service of God’s kingdom – we are about the task of cooperating with the Reign and the Sovereignty of God in this world!

Once again, what the emergent church folks are learning is that Jesus did not come to found a Church. Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom, the Reign, and the Sovereignty of God in the world. We need to learn the same thing.

Years ago, the evangelism office of The Episcopal Church put out a rather colorful poster. When you first looked at it, it appeared to be a chalice. But, it was an optical illusion and, when you looked at it more carefully, you could see that it was two faces, in profile, talking to one another. And there were three words beneath the picture: Go…Listen…Tell.

That was an attempt to articulate a simple, but effective, evangelism strategy for Episcopalians. A strategy which, I believe, is based on our Gospel story today of the sending out of the Seventy. Go – outside the doors if this church after we are dismissed at the end of the Liturgy. Go, into your homes and neighborhoods and schools and workplaces this week. And…

Listen. Don’t talk so much, but listen! Listen to your family and friends and co-workers and people you meet on the street. Listen to their pain and their struggles, to their joys and their celebrations. Listen deeply like those first disciples sharing meals in the homes of their new acquaintances. Then…and only then…

Tell. Tell them your story. Tell them about how God helped you when you were going through something like what they are going through. Tell them about how the Church – this church – has been there for you, in the good times and the bad. And then invite them here…

…So that they can discover for themselves the peace which passes all understanding, the healing of body, mind, spirit, and relationships that you yourself have experienced. For, when you’ve done that, they – like those first disciples’ hearers – will know that “the kingdom of God has come near…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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