Sunday, October 23, 2016
Two lovely celebrations of the Eucharist at St Andrew's, Edwardsville, the second including the confirmation of an impressive young man. There is a positive vibe at St Andrew's, thanks in large part to the solid pastoral leadership of Fr Ralph McMichael. Home around 2:30. Rested for a bit, then went for a long walk. I actually wish I could be transported to Spain tomorrow and walk one day of the Camino. It really gets in one's blood.
St Andrew's, Edwardsville--Luke 18:9-14
Most of us have probably had this experience. We’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store. We’re just getting a few items, and we’re in kind of a hurry, and our mind is distracted by a million and one other things that we’re concerned about. And then we notice that the person ahead of us looks like they’re buying groceries for a small army—including some high-quality cuts of meat that we normally think twice about buying—and—What’s this?—they’re paying with food stamps. We take a closer look, and see that the customer is a young mother, and it appears that there’s a pack of cigarettes in her purse. “Well…” we think to ourselves, “She has enough money to feed her nicotine addiction, but not to feed her family, huh?” Then we look down and see her six-year old boy wearing the latest fashion-fad footwear, with built-in trampolines or jet engines or whatever it is this month, and our irritation begins to verge on anger. Our own kids have been asking for those shoes, and we’ve said, “No, they’re too expensive.” We think, “Why doesn’t she just get a job and pay for her own food and quit mooching off hard-working taxpayers.” We feel just a little bit proud of our own self-sufficiency. Our nose is pointed just a tiny bit upward, in recognition of the fact that we would never let ourselves sink to such a level, and if this woman would just develop some character, she wouldn’t have to live that way either.
And at the very same moment that we find ourselves despising . . . well, maybe “despising” is too strong a word . . . well, then again, maybe it’s not . . . at the very same moment that we find ourselves despising the woman in the checkout line, we despise ourselves for despising her! We see in ourselves the people to whom Jesus addressed this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, people who St Luke says “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” It’s one thing to think highly of ourselves, to think we’re “all that.” It’s bad enough to be conceited and arrogant, but it’s really over the top, most of us would feel, to look down on those who are not as beautiful or healthy or rich or talented or intelligent or educated or cultured or sophisticated as we are. This was the attitude of Jesus’ audience when he told this parable, and it was certainly the attitude of the Pharisee.
Now, trying to negotiate our way through a parable like this is like walking through a minefield. It’s very tricky. To Jesus’ original audience, right off the bat, the Pharisee would be presumed to be the “good guy” and the tax collector the “bad guy.” It would be like if I were to tell you a story that began, “Once upon a time, there was a bishop and a gangster.” The bishop would right away be presumed innocent and the gangster presumed guilty. We would look kindly on the bishop and sneer at the gangster. But, as we know, in a parable, the tables are turned: The Pharisee turns out to be a scoundrel and the tax collector a hero. And once we figure this out, it’s not hard to make the switch: We praise the humility of the tax collector and sneer at the arrogance of the Pharisee. And therein lies the pitfall, because once we do that, we become guilty of the very offense of which we accuse the Pharisee—trusting in ourselves, that we are righteous, and despising others.
It’s really a very easy trap to fall into. As human beings, we know ourselves to possess free will. We are not always free to act on what we will, but our will is free. Dale Carnegie was fond of observing that time is the great equalizer among people. Both the king and the beggar have exactly 24 hours in a day—no more, no less. The difference between people lies in what they do with those 24 hours. Particularly in American society, we are all about “options” and “choices.” I remember an advertising slogan from the early days of cable TV: “It’s not just more choice, it’s your choice.” And that was long before program guides with numbers that extend up to channel 1800! “Freedom” and “responsibility” are highly-esteemed values in our culture. We are so solidly formed in those values, that we suppose a person can, by the strength of his or her character and will, achieve sufficient virtue to satisfy God’s expectations of the way a human being should live. A well-instructed Christian might know better, but to the people among whom we live and work in this society, it sounds quite reasonable that, if a person tries hard enough, he or she can lead a life that is pleasing to God, a life that earns God’s blessing and favor, a life that deserves to be rewarded. The connection that we don’t readily make, however, is that such a life would be exactly like that of this Pharisee. “I am not like other people,” he says. “I’m upright, honest in my business dealings, and faithful to my wife. I fast twice a week as a religious discipline, and I’m a tither—I give back to God a full 10% of all that I make. What more could God want? I have satisfied all his requirements.” And the minute we make such a statement, we have condemned ourselves. We have tested positive for the spiritual diseases of pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness—or, in a word, sin; sin that is progressive, chronic, and eventually fatal to our souls.
Well, that’s the bad news, at least. But there’s also good news. Just as we know that anthrax is 100% curable if the right kind of antibiotic is administered in time, sin is also 100% curable. But the first step in taking the cure is to open ourselves to the sort of attitude change that doesn’t come easily to most of us. Most of us have had, at one time or another, a parent or a boss or a teacher or a coach or—God forbid!—a spouse . . . who is just impossible to please. Nothing is good enough to satisfy that person. However good our intentions, however honest our effort, there is always something that is not done right, some detail we overlooked, some instruction we misunderstood, and the one little part we got wrong seems to negate the effect of anything we got right. Well, in a way, that’s what God is like. Now, I know that doesn’t put God in a very appealing light, but hear me out. That fact is, nothing we can do is enough to satisfy God. No effort we can make is capable of meeting God’s standards. We can do things that please God, but we can never satisfy Him. The prophet Isaiah says that all our righteousness is “as filthy rags” in God’s sight. It isn’t that the Pharisee was lying about his achievements; we can assume he was telling the honest-to-God truth. It’s just not good enough. Nothing we can do is good enough.
But here’s the deal. God knows. God knows that that His holiness is so infinite, and our sinfulness so profound, that “never the twain shall meet.” And what God knows, the tax collector in Jesus’ parable also knows. He knew that he dare not even lift his eyes to Heaven. He kept his head bowed and prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And since nothing we can do is adequate to reconcile us to God, and since the only thing that matches the infinity of God’s holiness is the infinity of His love, God has known, from the very beginning, that it’s up to Him to save the day.
And so God has taken the initiative to more than compensate for the inadequacy of our efforts. He made made Himself known to and established covenants—solemn agreements—with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and with David. He sent a series of prophets to make His will known, to announce His holiness and justice, as well as His mercy and loving-kindness. Finally, He took our flesh Himself, in the person of His Son, Jesus. He lived among us, and gave us an example of the kind of life that does meet God’s standards, the only human life that has ever been so lived. In order to reconcile us to the Father, Jesus died for us, and in so doing, defeated death on our behalf. He ascended back to the right hand of the Father, where he now continually intercedes for us, pleading our case.
God is like a judge who imposes a fine on a convicted criminal, then steps down from the bench, and accompanies the convict he has just sentenced to the courthouse cashier, pulls out his own personal checkbook, and pays the full amount. Any effort we can make to reconcile ourselves to God is woefully inadequate. But the initiative God has taken on our behalf more than compensates for our inadequacy.
When this fundamental truth sinks in, what a glorious and liberating realization it is! It becomes the foundation for a genuine humility, with attention focused on God and on others, knowing that life is not “all about me.” It becomes the foundation for a habitual disposition of gratitude, a heart that is constantly overflowing with thankfulness, and infecting others with the same attitude. And, it becomes the foundation for an authentic compassion, an openness to truly “suffering with” others—which is the literal meaning of compassion—that we may offer our suffering and theirs in union with the suffering of Christ for the healing and life of the world. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Back to the business of diocesan synod at 9am. We got into the weeds a bit with some electoral technicalities, and expended an unusual amount of time and energy on a non-binding stewardship resolution, but we managed to get through the process of amending our constitution and canons with serious but not protracted debate. I am grateful that there were no substantive amendments. We adjourned around 11:30. Since my visitation tomorrow is in Edwardsville, I remained in the area, and devoted a chunk of my afternoon to the new Ben Affleck movie The Accountant. It was a good way to unwind. But I was certainly wound up again by the time Game 6 of the National League Championship Series got underway. If you follow baseball, you know how it turned out, and if you know me at all, you know I'm elated!
Friday, October 21, 2016
Out the driveway at home around 10am, arriving in Edwardsville about 75 minutes later. Got checked in and oriented at the Synod venue, then stepped across the street with Brenda for a Mexican lunch. Gaveled down the 139th Annual Synod right on time at 1:30. All went quite smoothly until the very end of today's session, when we entered a bit of a parliamentary quagmire, with more votes being tabulated on an amendment to a resolution than the total of clergy and lay delegates. But we were out of time and had to carry the matter over to tomorrow morning. The Mass was lovely, with afternoon sunlight bathing St Andrew's in a golden glow.
Votive Mass: For the Mission of the Church--Ephesians 2:13-22, Luke 10:1-9, Isaiah 2:2-4
This is what’s called a Votive Mass—that is, there’s no feast day on the calendar, so whoever’s in charge of the liturgy can choose from a variety of different liturgical “themes” listed in the deep “basement” of the Prayer Book—this is a Votive Mass “For the Mission of the Church.” The idea of mission can be a little scary at times. When I was a child, one of the things that prevented me from telling God without reservation that I would be whatever he wanted me to be and go wherever he wanted me to go was the prospect that he might call me to be a missionary in some place where I would be plagued by mosquitoes and have to take quinine tablets and learn how to defend myself from wild animals. And if you’re already uneasy about mission, the situation is not helped by the gospel reading from the Votive Mass for the Mission of the Church. In Luke Chapter 10 we read of Jesus sending out 35 pairs of missionaries, who were supposed to walk into a town, find lodging with whomever would put them up, eat whatever was put in front of them, heal the sick, and announce that the Kingdom of God was very near. Does that sound appealing to you? I didn’t think so.
So, we are understandably resistant to the idea that we, as members of the Eucharistic Communities in the one church of the Diocese of Springfield, are called to be missionaries. We resist in many ways, some active, some passive. One of the ways we resist is by domesticating the missionary endeavor to something that, for the last few decades, Episcopalians have customarily called “outreach.” We collect canned good for a food bank, or help out at a soup kitchen, or collect Christmas toys for the children of imprisoned parents, or write checks to agencies that help those who are hungry or the victims of natural disasters, or any number of other really good and worthwhile things that I’m not suggesting in any way that we back off from, and we comfort ourselves by including all that under the category of “mission.” This sort of social outreach dances around the margins of mission, but, just by itself, never gets to the heart of it. Social work and community organizing do not become mission by being cloaked in beautiful vestments and liturgical ceremonies.
The Prayer Book Collect for Feast of Christ the King, which happens about a month from now, I believe, puts our focus where it needs to be. It talks about those who are “divided and enslaved by sin” being “freed and brought together under his most gracious rule”—the gracious rule, that is, of Jesus the Christ. In our catechism, there’s the question, “What is the mission of the Church?” to which the response is, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.” In Christ. Not by trying to build the ideal society or enact the ideal laws or just spread love all around, but in Christ; through repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, and discipleship in the communion of his Holy Church.
Now, so you don’t think I’m just talking in abstractions, let’s make it concrete. What evidence is there that the peoples of the earth are divided and enslaved by sin? Have you heard about a city called Aleppo, in Syria? Do you know about how the people who live there—or who no longer live there either because they’ve been killed or they’ve fled for their lives—do you know about how the people of Aleppo have been caught in the crossfire of a civil war and have had their lives torn apart? They are the victims of the division of those who are enslaved to the sin the pride, with an assist on the play by envy, greed, and anger. Do you know about the problems arising from the refugees from that conflict, and other conflicts in that part of the world, trying the migrate into Europe? There is division and enslavement to sin on multiple levels. Do you know about Sudan and South Sudan, and particularly the region of Darfur, and the combination of forces that has perpetuated violence there for years on end? Many of the victims there are fellow Anglican Christians, so it starts to get quite personal for us. And I’m sure there’s no one in this church this afternoon who is unaware of the racial tensions in our own country that just won’t seem to go away despite the best intentions of a whole lot of people, driven by a chain of events, each of which seems more surreal than the one before. We are divided and enslaved by sin. The list, of course, could go on. Even within the nuclear and extended families of those present in this room, there is ample evidence of division and enslavement to sin. But I think I’ve made my point.
Into this morass of suffering and anxiety comes St Paul’s message to the Ephesians, the appointed epistle reading for this Votive Mas for the Mission of the Church. The Apostle is speaking to Gentiles who are familiar with Judaism and have experience living among Jews dispersed throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. Strictly observant Jews, of course, have as little as possible to do with Gentiles. To have contact with a Gentile is to become ritually unclean. This is the social context into which Paul is speaking. The verses immediately preceding the passage that we heard read make this clear. “You Gentiles,” Paul says, in effect, “were once on the outside looking in.”
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Now there’s a description of division and enslavement by sin if there ever was one, right? Paul then continues with a very important part of speech that is not a noun and not a verb and not an adjective but a particular kind of conjunction called an “adversative,” and the most common adversative in English is the word “but.” “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off”—that is, you Gentiles—you who were far off “have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
That image of a “dividing wall of hostility” being torn down is one that I find particularly compelling. Those of us of a certain age can remember what it was like to watch a quite literal and physical dividing wall of hostility get torn down in Berlin. It was an unforgettable moment. As a result of that moment, while I was walking the Camino, I met several young adult Germans who have their entire lives known of nothing but a united Germany, a Germany that, in some provisional measure, at least, has been “freed and brought together” by those dramatic events of 1989.
The gospel we bear is a word of hope—hope for peace and hope for reconciliation among peoples. This is our message, this is our good news, of hope for the world—hope for peace across national borders, hope for peace across racial and ethnic divides, hope for the subsuming of all identities into the “one new man,” the one new person—that is, instead of using race or ethnicity or nationality or any other sort of identity by which to know ourselves and make ourselves know, we embrace the identity of those who have been buried with Christ in a death like his in order to be raised with Christ in a life like his.
Our calling as Christians is to speak these words of hope for reconciliation and peace courageously into the environment of mistrust, fear, suspicion, and anger that surrounds us. The work of this Synod in revising our constitution and canons is ultimately not about technicalities and nomenclature and processes and procedures and policies; it is about nothing other than positioning us more effectively to pursue this very mission of reconciliation and peace.
But we cannot do this, we cannot offer our message of hope to central and southern Illinois, with credibility as long as there are public and ugly divisions among those who call themselves Christians. For this reason, reconciliation is paramount at every level of our common life—within our Eucharistic Communities in this diocese and among the Eucharistic communities of this diocese, within the larger community of Episcopalians and especially between Episcopalians and communities of people who, until recent years, also called themselves Episcopalians, constantly tearing down dividing walls of hostility before they get so tall we can’t see over them. And this is why the work of ecumenism must always be on the front burner. You may have heard about events in Rome earlier this month, events that I participated in on the fringes, where the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury exchanged symbolically important gifts testifying to their ongoing commitment to pursuing the goal of our Lord’s high-priestly prayer in John 17 “that they all may be one.” Before we can speak words of reconciliation and peace to the world at large with full conviction and integrity, we must be able to demonstrate the practice of reconciliation and peace within the household of faith.
All of this, of course, is in service to the bracing and inspiring vision articulated by the Prophets of the Old Covenant, with Isaiah leading the pack in the first reading for this liturgy:
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Up and out of my Nashotah House lodging bright and early at 7:15. Arrived home in Springfield four-and-a-half hours later. Saw my urologist to talk strategy about a kidney stone that was discovered by the CT-scan I had on Monday. Unless it passes first, I'm booked for an outpatient surgical procedure on Hallowe'en. Spent the rest of the afternoon processing emails and developing my homily for this Sunday.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Still on campus at Nashotah House. Morning Prayer and Eucharist at 8:00. During breakfast I caught up with one of our Springfield seminarians, Shane Spellmeyer. Board of Directors met from 9:30 to 12:30. Grabbed a quick lunch in Delafield with fellow director Tom Graves (we were fleeing the meatless-on-Wednesday refectory). Board met again from 1:30, and completed our agenda with time to spare, around 3:30. I took the opportunity to visit the grave of Bishop Donald Parsons, and snap some photos of fall foliage around campus. Evensong at 4:30, followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Delighted to run into my seminary classmate Fr Henry Doyle who was in the area as part of an accreditation visiting team at nearby St John's Northwestern Military Academy. I then had the joy of taking our three Springfield seminarians out to diner at the Red Circle Inn.