Sunday, February 19, 2017

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Out the door and on the road with Brenda a little before 7am. It was quite foggy all the way to Salem, which made driving stressful but only slowed us down negligibly. We arrived a little past 9:00 ahead of presiding and preaching at the regular 9:30 liturgy at St Thomas'. We duly kept the feast, enjoyed a fried chicken luncheon and the exemplary hospitality of the that Eucharistic Community, and were homeward bound just past noon. By this time, the fog had finally burned off, and the return trip was all sunshine.

Sermon for Epiphany VII

St Thomas', Salem--Matthew 5:38-48

I don’t know how many of you are on Facebook or Twitter or follow internet news sources, but, if you are, you don’t need me to tell you what a turbulent world was and is represented in those places in the run-up to and since the election last November. The level of passion—some might call it hysteria—from all political directions, the degree of polarization, is like nothing I have seen before in my 65 years, and like nothing I would have ever anticipated.

Now, my own social media footprint is mostly among Christians of various stripes, but there are several non-Christians in my networks. And so I find it interesting, at least, that, when it comes to the tone of rhetorical discourse about secular politics, I don’t see any appreciable difference between my Christian and my non-Christian contacts. Christians are not only not immune to all of this, but their Christian identity seems, most of the time, to not make a discernible difference in the way they conduct themselves, and this I do find greatly disturbing. More than not, I see the church getting coopted by and sucked up into the structures and values of the world rather than thinking with a distinctively Christian mind and speaking with a distinctively Christian voice. We serve as amplifiers for the political noise that is around us instead of offering something noticeably different. Instead of being salt or light or a city on a hill—perhaps you remember those images from the gospel reading Sunday before last—we are largely invisible and irrelevant.

The secular political realm is driven largely by a concern for rights—constitutional rights, statutory rights, God-given rights, or whatever. We’re obsessed with making sure our rights, whether real or imagined, are respected. The political and cultural environment encourages us to define ourselves by categories that should only be used to describe, not define—things like race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any number of other factors. When we are driven primarily by a concern for rights, especially our own rights, we begin to understand ourselves and represent ourselves according to what distinguishes and divides, rather than what unites and reconciles. We have settled for a very technically precise notion of justice—an “eye for an eye,” as the Levitical code puts it—rather than for the deep justice and righteousness that wells up from the loving heart of God.

And, ironically, what we end up with when we settle for mere technical justice, justice based on one or more of the many identities by which we are invited to define ourselves, is at best a wash, and arguably no net increase in actual injustice. There is little or no amelioration or respite from tyranny or oppression or degradation or dehumanization or marginalization, or anything. In the language of the collect for Christ the King Sunday, which I am finding very useful on many occasions other than on that feast day, humankind is “divided and enslaved by sin.” Isn’t that the distilled essence of our political life in this country—divided and enslaved by sin?

By this point, you’re probably hoping that this is indeed a good news/bad news story, and I’m happy to reassure that it is. So here’s the good news: We have, as Christians, the resources that can enable us to change the conversation, or, at least, to change the way we participate in the conversation. We’re still working our way through the Sermon on the Mount on these Sundays after Epiphany, and today we come to a section of that sermon that the New Testament scholars call the “Great Antitheses”: “You have heard that it was said, X, but I say to you, Y.”
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This is where we get the expressions “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile.” When I looked at this passage to begin preparing to preach here today, I was struck by how deeply both of these phrases are rooted in the way we speak English—people who have never opened a Bible in their lives would be familiar with them, even if they couldn’t tell you where they came from. Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile. We might paraphrase this material into something like, “If people insult you, give them your mother’s name so they can insult her too. If someone steals your credit card number, give them the three-digit security code as well. If someone sues you for $100,000, offer to settle for $200,000.”

Does this sound very compatible with a culture whose motto is “I have rights, therefore I am?” No, not at all. It sounds like something that threatens to undermine and subvert such a culture, something that might very well turn it on its head. The world defines justice as the extension of rights. But Jesus stands among us today as says, “But I say to you …” Jesus invites us beyond rights and beyond technical justice and beyond mere righteousness to something higher and deeper and more transcendent, to a place where the walls of division and the chains of slavery to sin can be shattered. When we push through the demands of mere justice and righteousness and into the territory that Jesus invites us to occupy, we tap into the saving power of God to break the bonds that enslave us to division and sin.

By way of illustration, let me give just one example of a conspicuous failure to lean into this teaching of Our Lord. Most of you are aware of the tremendous conflict that has engulfed the Episcopal Church over about the last fifteen years. People who had worshiped together in the same pews and at the same altars 20 years ago found themselves on the opposite sides of nasty and protracted lawsuits in the secular courts. It was a terrible witness to the world. Tens of millions of dollars have been squandered in legal battles over real estate. Neither those who have remained in the Episcopal Church nor those who have moved on can claim to have clean hands; some of both have been both plaintiffs and defendants. It will be at least a century, I would imagine, before our descendants can look dispassionately on this time in the church’s life and begin to piece things back together. Tremendous damage has been done. At least two or three times during that cycle of litigation, this passage from Matthew has come up in the Sunday lectionary, but we can be forgiven for wondering whether anybody was paying attention. “But I say to you, if someone occupies your church, offer them the parish hall as well. If someone sues you for your checking account, include your savings account in the settlement. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What if … what if?

I’m enough of a believer in divine grace to hope that such a dark blot on our past does not have to rule our future. I have enough faith in God’s redemptive purposes to hope that the church throughout the world may yet lay hold of the truth that the only identity that matters is the identity we receive in baptism, where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. When we operate in that identity, we make ourselves available to effectively announce to the world the coming of the Kingdom of God. We don’t even have to do anything, actually, if we’re truly operating in our baptismal identity, we just have to be, and the Holy Spirit will close the deal. In our common life in Christ, we can be a channel of hope that there is a better way for men and women and children to get along with one another in community. We become witnesses that there is someone who can bridge gaps that appear unbridgeable—because there is power in weakness, there is gain in loss, there is victory in surrender, and there is life in death.

Jesus constantly invites us to a quality of life that is more wonderful than we even know how to ask for, more splendid than we can even imagine. That collect for Christ the King that describes the human condition as “divided and enslaved by sin” goes on to voice the petition that we might be “freed and brought together” under the “most gracious rule” of Christ our King. This is precisely what today’s liturgy calls us to. May we be desperate enough to accept the invitation. Amen.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


The centerpiece of today's agenda was the regular quarterly meeting of the Diocesan Council, so I arrived at the office-cathedral complex around 9:15 to make preparations for the Eucharist and take a last-minute look at council-related business. We celebrated a votive Mass "For the Nation" at 10am, which seem appropriate given the general level of political angst in the air these days. The council meeting itself was the first under the new canons, which pare down membership considerably. I think I can safely say it was an unusually productive and fruitful meeting. We amended the 2017 budget to fund some new ministry initiatives about which I am quite excited. Following the meeting I had lunch with the two co-chairs (and thus far only members) of the Department of Mission, newly-configured as the canonical heir to the former Department of General Mission Strategy. We discussed some possibilities for fully staffing the department (one more layperson and two clergy) and began the work of developing a format for the now canonically-mandated Mission Strategy Report to be filed annually by each of the Eucharistic Communities.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday (Janani Luwum)

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Crafted and sent a substantive email to the Bishop of Worcester (Church of England), whose diocese also has a companion relationship with the Diocese of Peru, and who will be traveling there shortly.
  • Sent an email note of condolence to a lay leader who has suffered a death in the family.
  • Took a substantive phone call from one of our clergy.
  • Took a brisk and longish walk on an unseasonably warm winter morning in search of some inspiration for a blog post that is due for Covenant. I believe I found what I was looking for.
  • Began working on the aforementioned blog post.
  • Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
  • Got sucked into a technological/administrative quagmire trying to help Brenda access her healthcare provider's online portal for finding things like medical records and lab results. It was time-consuming. Eventually I had to resort to last century's SOP of physically going by their office and receiving hard copy. Frustrating.
  • Got back to work on the Covenant post. Didn't quite finish, so it's a work in progress.
  • Took a substantive phone call from one of our seminarians.
  • Friday Prayer: Ignatian meditation on the gospel selection from today's daily office lectionary (Jesus on "What is the greatest commandment?").
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thursday (Martyrs of Libya)

  • Extended treadmill workout.
  • Took a scheduled phone call from the Bishop of Missouri, informing me of an event in St Louis that may be of interest to people in our diocese.
  • Attended and participated in the semi-annual meeting of the diocesan finance committee.
  • Entertained the active deacons of the diocese in our home for lunch and a vigorous discussion of diaconal ministry.
  • Returning to the office at 3p, I scanned and otherwise processed a formidable stack of hard copy items.
  • Reviewed the psych exam reports on a couple of our postulants.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wednesday (Thomas Bray)

Spent the first part of the morning at home, working with Brenda to get ready to host the deacons of the diocese for lunch tomorrow. Then I accompanied her to a doctor's appointment, after which there was just enough time to drop her off back home and head to the office-cathedral complex and prepare to preside and preach at the 12:15 Mass. We kept the lesser feast of Thomas Bray. I drove down to Subway, grabbed a meatball marinara, and brought it back to my office for a working lunch. Processed a bunch of email and prepped for the afternoon meeting ... which was an "examination interview" with a candidate for the vocational diaconate. It's been more than a dozen years since we've had one of those in the diocese, during which time the national canons have changed, so we're having to sort of invent the wheel. So I gathered three deacons of the diocese and the three priests with whom they work (one of whom was absent due to illness) for a wide-ranging conversation with the candidate. I think it's a model that we can continue to develop. When we were finished, I cleaned up some odds and ends, ducked into the cathedral to pray the Angelus, then headed home an hour or so earlier than usual because of tomorrow's event. Later in the evening, I did some sermon work--repurposing an older text for use a week from this Sunday, and beginning a fresh process for preaching on Lent V (April 2 at St Andrew's, Carbondale).

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tuesday (Ss Cyril & Methodius)

  • Weekly task planning at home, MP in the cathedral.
  • Sent out email reminders about a couple of important meetings this week.
  • Reviewed in detail a slew of documents (agenda, financial statements, evaluation materials) pertaining to the afternoon's scheduled conference call meeting of the Nashotah House Board of Directors. Otherwise prepped to chair the meeting.
  • Lunch from China 1, eaten at home.
  • Chaired the regular bimonthly conference call meeting of the Nashotah board.
  • Took a brisk walk down Second to South Grand, west over to Spring, then up past the north end of the capitol, and back down on Second. Because exercise has to become even more of a priority for me.
  • Finished, refined, and printed the draft I wrote week before last of a homily for Epiphany VII, this Sunday at St Thomas', Salem.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
  • While eating my dinner at home, a phone call from a senior warden reminded me, with horror, that I was supposed to be meeting the the MLT of one of our parishes about 70 miles away. The event had escaped my normally steel-trap system. I was mortified, because I inconvenienced several people and meetings like that are very difficult to schedule. Trying not to beat myself up too much.