Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon for Proper 15

St Timothy's, Salem OR--Matthew 15:21-28

You know how the story goes. It’s the scenario for any number of jokes that have made us giggle and snicker. A genie is trapped in a bottle for hundreds of years. Some ordinary person comes along and, usually without realizing what they’re doing, lets the genie out of the bottle. The genie is grateful, and so offers his rescuer the courtesy of granting three wishes. (Incidentally, I’ve always wondered why nobody thinks to say, “My first wish is that all my future wishes be granted.” That somehow seems like cheating, I guess.) Now, I suppose there are a few genuine jerks out there who would get all bossy and just start barking orders to the genie. But I suspect that most people would at least try to be polite. After all, the genie could have said “Thanks a bunch” and moved on. He’s granting our three wishes out of the goodness of his heart. So we might think to ourselves, Is this a test? What if I ask for something the genie thinks is a bad idea? What if I sound selfish or conceited in what I ask for? Hey, this business of coming up with three wishes is a little more complicated than it might seem.
It’s a bit of a stretch, of course, to compare a genie to God, but in terms of human behavior, there are some interesting parallels. When it comes to letting God know what we want, when it comes to voicing our desires, many of us are understandably inclined to do so only in very general ways, and with a rather restrained demeanor. We realize that God, like the genie, is under no obligation to grant any of our requests, and when he does so, it is purely out of the goodness of his heart. We wouldn’t want to ask for anything that would displease God, anything that might strike God as unduly selfish or foolish or inconsiderate of others, something that might damage God’s reputation with others. And if we would be inclined to at least be polite in dealing with a genie, with God, we want to be more than polite; we want to be reverent. Plus, we’re told by the theologians that God is both omniscient—that is, he knows everything—and omnipotent—that is to say, he can do anything; he’s capable of granting that which it pleases him to grant. So what good does it do to pester or beg? What good does it do to get down on our knees and weep and wail? God knows what we want. God knows what we need. We can’t tell God anything that’s going to qualify as “news.” Moreover, God knows his own mind and God knows his own will, and if he’s going to give us what we want, then we’ll get it, and if he’s not, then we won’t. So we’d best just pray politely—one time is all that’s necessary, really, unless it makes us feel better to mention it twice—and then let it go. Whatever will be will be.
There’s a certain cold logic to this attitude that I will not attempt to argue against. I will only observe that such a way of thinking has the effect of forming us in a faith that seems ill-matched to the reality of the life we live. It seems both toothless and gutless, and it lacks credibility. The depth of human sorrow, the breadth of human suffering, the complexity of human experience—all seem to overwhelm that sort of faith like a tsunami flooding low-lying land. It simply falls short of the task of interpreting and giving meaning to all that goes on in our lives and the lives of those around us. The Ebola virus is slowly but steadily spreading across west Africa, leaving devastation in its wake; the geopolitical balance of power looks more dangerously unstable than it has in a hundred years, when we were just getting going on a world war; a Christian community that has been in Iraq for more than 1800 years has been driven out; thousands of Americans get laid off every month, children get abused every day, and the list could go on. So, shall we add a petition or two to the Prayers of the People and consider everything duly prayed-for? Like I said, there’s a certain logic to that suggestion, but it doesn’t quite seem adequate. It doesn’t bear the freight of our heavy hearts.
This is where Matthew’s account of our Lord’s conversation with a resident of some Gentile territory that he and his disciples were passing through comes to our rescue. Matthew refers to her specifically as a Canaanite, but the point is, she wasn’t a Jew. And, moreover, she wasn’t a male, so Jesus had two very good reasons, in his own cultural and religious context, to ignore her completely, which is precisely what his disciples wanted him to do; they begged Jesus to get rid of her. But she had a request. She had a need. She had a desire. And she was not at all shy or timid about voicing her request: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." We don’t know what that means, exactly. It could mean literal demon-possession, or it could refer to the symptoms of some neurological disorder like epilepsy. In any case, the girl was really in a bad way and her mother was really worried—worried enough to risk making a fool of herself in public, and in the presence of the one who was most able to help her.
His first response is not very encouraging. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." His mission, at this point, was only to the Jews, to his own nation, and not to the world at large. That would come in due course, but not yet. Of course, we know that, because we’ve got the benefit of the big picture. But even if the Canaanite woman could have understood such distinctions, she wouldn’t have been very sympathetic. Her daughter, after all, was severely possessed by a demon and she was terribly worried. So she persists in her pleading, and even gets on her knees: "Lord, help me." I don’t have three wishes. I don’t even have two wishes. I just have one wish, and that is that my daughter be well.”
Again, Jesus tries to flick her away. "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." In other words, there’s a decent and proper order to this business of salvation. You’ll have to wait your turn. The Jews get first crack at it. Then everybody else. So please move along and let me be about my work. But even still, the Canaanite woman doesn’t give in. She presses her case with an imaginative ploy: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." I just want a crumb. I don’t want the whole biscuit, just a crumb. Please help my daughter. At this, Jesus finally relents and gives her what she asks: "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter is healed instantly.
What can we distill from this unlikely exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman? Among other things, perhaps, we learn that God responds to persistent faith. Simple persistent faith. Simple, but not by any means simplistic. The sort of faith that is commended here is not pollyannish. It’s not just “God is so wonderful and I just know he’ll make everything all right so I’m just going to live as if he’s granting my request.” No, the sort of faith that we have modeled for us here is faith that is willing to struggle with God, to wrestle with God, to be completely transparent, emotionally and spiritually. It’s not restrained, it’s not held back, and it may not even be polite, or necessarily reverent. It means saying to God, “I know you know what I need and want, but I’m telling you anyway. I know you’re all-powerful and can do whatever you want, and this is one of those times I would like you to exercise that power on my behalf.” God may or may not grant my wish, but the value for me is in the asking, and in the asking again, and again; the value for me is in the willingness to struggle, to be an open book to God, to let God read me just as I am, and to be aware that he’s doing so.
God responds to persistent faith with compassionate care. The shape of that compassion may not be what we first imagined. In the end, we will know it to be much better than anything we could possibly imagine. If we’re fortunate enough to let a genie out of a bottle, and we ask for three wishes to be granted, the genie is going to take us literally and give us no less and no more than we ask for, even if we ask foolishly or without the benefit of knowing all the facts. God may not always, or even often, grant our specific requests. But what he does grant us satisfies the deep need that lies behind those requests.

And this process of struggling transparently and persistently with God has the effect of forming us in a faith that is robust and resilient. It can weather all sorts of storms and endure all sorts of trials and meet all sorts of challenges.  It has an undeniable effectiveness. It’s on the same scale as our actual life, and therefore has credibility both for us and for those who see us and know us. Praise God! Amen

Friday, August 15, 2014

Sermon for St Mary the Virgin

Delivered in St Timothy's Church, Salem, OR, which is the parish from which I was sent to seminary in 1986.


I could be wrong about this, but, as far as I can tell, this parish has kept the feast of St Mary the Virgin in a manner similar to this for more than three decades. I know it was an established custom by the time I left here to go to seminary in 1986. You have had a long train of guest preachers, standing where I’m standing now, talking about the same general subject that is my job to talk about now, and some of them, I can only imagine, have been fairly profound. I don’t know, but I just suspect that. So, I’ll confess that I’m just a little bit intimidated. What can I add? What can I say that has not already been said, probably better, by one or more of my predecessors in this role?

There are, of course, certain obvious tacks that a preacher on this occasion can take. For instance, I can imagine that there are many sermons being given around the world today that focus on Mary’s unqualified accession, Mary’s ‘Yes’ to the angel’s announcement that she would conceive and give birth to the Savior of the world, the very Son of God, and that Mary’s obedient response is a model for our own response to the various vocations and ministries to which God calls us through his Holy Spirit. Or, perhaps some of those who have come before me have focused on Mary’s song on the occasion of her visit to her also-pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the song that has endeared itself to us in our liturgical tradition, particularly in our Anglican musical liturgical tradition, the song known as the Magnificat, which stands as a bracing emblem of the great theme of God’s reversal of expectations—the humble lifted up as the proud are sent packing, the poor provided for as the rich are deprived. Or, a theme that I’ve been reflecting on myself a good bit lately: Mary as the necessary source of our experience of the transcendent feminine. Many of our contemporaries look to expand the public language we use to speak of God in ways that include the feminine, overlooking the long tradition in the Christian community of finding in Our Lady the archetypal Mother figure that we all need.

These are all worthy areas of exploration, and it would be fun to walk down each of those paths with you. But here’s where I want to go tonight—I want to invite you to join me in looking at Mary as Mother of the Church.

Mary as Mother of the Church. This has at least two dimensions that are worthy of examination. There is both a theological dimension—something that engages our minds, our intellects—and what we might name as a devotional dimension—something that engages our hearts and wills, at the level of piety and practice.

So … let’s get theological, shall we? I hang out in an internet forum with a bunch of people, mostly much younger and more mentally agile than I am, and most of whom already have a PhD or are working on one. It’s actually a wonderful community, and, to the extent that I actually have hope for the future of the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism is general, it’s because of these people that I interact with. But, whenever I participate in the discussion, it’s usually with the disclaimer that I am not, unlike most of them, an academic. I’m a pastor, and what I say is usually heavily influenced by my position as a pastor. So, bear with me as I geek out a little bit theologically; I’ll try not to lose sight of the pastoral angle in what I’m talking about. In the Eastern tradition of Christianity, whether Orthodox or Eastern Rite Catholic, the ubiquitous term used in reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary is theotokos, which means, literally, “God bearer.” Follow the logical chain with me here: the one to whom Mary gave birth turned out to be none other than God himself, so we can properly speak of Mary the bearer of God. Indeed, we regularly sing about Mary as the bearer of God—“thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord”—although I suspect that many whose lips form these words in song are not immediately aware of what they’re proclaiming. And then, for whatever combination of historical and linguistic reasons, the Greek theotokos found its way into Latin as mater dei, the most literal English rendition of which is Mother of God, thus confounding and annoying generations of polemical Protestants and other poorly-informed believers and non-believers alike, who assume that the expression implies that Mary gave birth to all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. She didn’t, of course, but … anyway, Mary is the mother of Jesus, which makes her the mother of the Christ—the Messiah, the Anointed One, who is himself God.

Now, hang all that on a mental hook, but don’t put it too far away, because we’re going to come right back to it. For the moment, though, before we circle back around, I want to draw your attention to the familiar language in the New Testament that speaks of the Church as the “Body of Christ.” We get this exclusively from St Paul, but in multiple places in his writings: Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. It’s a theme he develops pretty profoundly.

So, if the Blessed Virgin is the mother of Jesus, who is the Christ, and if the Church is the Body of Christ, then we can also—as the verbal logic unfolds, at any rate—speak of Mary as Mother of the Church, the Mother of the Body of Christ. Theotokos is also, if I can invent a new Greek word, ekkelesiatokos. Mater dei is also mater ecclesia. Mary is the Mother of the Church, which is to say, inasmuch as “we” together are the Church—this is to say, in effect, Mary is our Mother.

We walk by our Mother’s womb every time we enter the church building and pass the baptismal font, the place from which she gives birth to new cells, new members of the Body. What a blessing it is for St Timothy’s to have had such a robust baptismal piety for so long. That immersion font is such a potent sign to the rest of your diocese, to the rest of the church, of the life God longs to share with us—his own life, bestowed in the waters of baptism, through Mary, Mother of the Church, the mother of us all. This very font greatly aids the point I’m trying to make here, and I’m very grateful!

The only reason we know Mary is because of her motherhood, and the way we continue to relate to Mary is through her motherhood. As a Christian disciple who is “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” but, nonetheless a Christian disciple like the rest of us, and, moreover, a Christian disciples whose vocation is defined by motherhood, Our Lady has a maternal desire, a desire to continue to give birth, the way that she now can give birth, which is through the waters of baptism. She wishes to give birth to new disciples of her Son. Pregnant Mary, our Mother, wants an always pregnant Church, a Church teeming with new life.

This, then, is the way we honor our Blessed Mother, this is the way we, in our generation, and as part of “all generations,” continue to “call [her] blessed”—by keeping the font active, by never letting it run dry or atrophy from lack of use. I have a church in my diocese, way down in what is now a small and thrown-under-the-bus community called Cairo, in the southernmost tip of Illinois, where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi. The Church of the Redeemer there is a magnificent old stone structure, one of the prettiest churches in the diocese. A couple of years ago, we were down to one active Episcopalian at Redeemer, and she was 85. The only reason the doors stayed open is because a handful of Lutherans, whose own church building was falling apart, worshiped there—with Lutheran and Episcopalian services on alternating Sundays. Then the Lutheran congregation disbanded, and most of them continue to worship at Redeemer; in fact, I confirmed four of them a few weeks ago. In the meantime, a family that was once active has come back, and they brought their neighbors, who have two young kids. Last year, those two little ones were baptized, and those were the first baptisms at Redeemer since 1997! I like to think that was a harbinger, that by our reactivating the font, the womb of the Church, the Mother of the Church has focused her powerful intercessions on the Church of the Redeemer. Now, on any given Sunday, there are around fifteen people at Mass. We have scraped together some resources, and, just last Sunday, the first full-time priest-in-charge that Redeemer has had in decades began his ministry. He comes to us from Kenya, by way of Alabama, for which we are grateful, and because those who are left in Cairo are overwhelmingly African American, Redeemer will now have a priest who looks like, not most of the current parishioners, but those whom we hope will be the future parishioners of Redeemer. When I install Fr Muriuki in that cure, my charge to him will be to keep the font busy, because the Mother of the Church wants to be continually giving birth to new disciples of her Son.

Now, I said there was a devotional dimension as well to this business of Mary being Mother of the Church, and I’ll be much briefer about it. As Anglicans, we’ve gotten fairly good, I would say, at opening our heads to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This usually goes along with some very erudite theology, such as we have just traversed in this very sermon. But I think we still have a way to go in opening our hearts. As Mother of the Church, we can assume that Our Lady cares for her children. We would do well to allow her more space—more space in our imaginations, more space in the language of our discourse and our prayers, more space in our prayers—space that gives Mary an opportunity to exercise her maternal care. You know, sometimes you just need your Mom!

Hail, Mary …

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Saturday

Slept in ... lifted weights ... took a very long walk ... journeyed to Belleville to bless the new home of Fr Dale and Deacon Jody Coleman, and hang out with people from St George's.

Tomorrow my vacation beings--much-needed, I might say. We'll be visiting friends and family on the west coast, attending a family wedding in Milwaukee, and hanging out at home: reading, resting, and taking care of the sort of projects that don't get gotten to under ordinary circumstances. May take in a Cubs game or two at some point. So, I'll be going dark in this space (as well as on Facebook and Twitter) until 7 September. See you on the other side.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Friday (St Dominic)

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral. Final prep for Diocesan Council Mass.
  • Conferred with the Archdeacon on a couple of administrative matters regarding property in two of our parishes.
  • Presided and preached at the 10am Council liturgy, keeping the lesser feast of St Dominic.
  • Presided at the quarterly meeting of Diocesan Council. It took two hours, but this is the one where we have vigorous discussion of the draft budget, and today's was particularly wide-ranging and candid. I mean all that in a good way.
  • Pre-arranged meeting with Fr Bruce DeGooyer, who is one of our key players in mission strategy development.
  • Dashed to the McD's drive through on South Grand for a burger, which I consumed in the car.
  • Joined a Commission on Ministry meeting already in progress.
  • Wrote a discretionary fund check to provide seed money for an important Christian formation ministry in one of our parishes.
  • Responded by email to a request for feedback from one of our priests regarding efforts to move away from self-intincting of consecrated hosts by communicants, I practice I am endeavoring to gently discourage.
  • Set in motion arrangements to share our Springfield Current mailing list with The Living Church, so they can use it for a subscription campaign. I heartily encourage subscriptions to TLC. Its aims are completely synergistic with our aims in the Diocese of Springfield.
  • Took a walk around two blocks.
  • Reviewed and approved a request for a Marital Judgment. These always make me uncomfortable, and I would like to more toward encouraging civil marriages, with a subsequent blessing in the church, but that's not a something I want to take on just yet.
  • Took care of a piece of administrivia on behalf of a cleric.
  • Took a phone call from one of our clergy.
  • Conceived, hatched, and partially developed a homily for Proper 19 (14 September), which requires a bit of extra pastoral attention, since the occasion will be the final service at St Laurence, Effingham, which we will then close.
  • Friday prayer: Lectio divina on the OT reading for Morning Prayer tomorrow (Abimelech's comeuppance for the murder of his 70 brothers).
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thursday (John Mason Neale)

  • Customary Thursday morning workout--weights and treadmill.
  • While organizing my tasks over breakfast, took a phone call from the Vice-Chair of the Nashotah trustees.
  • Morning Prayer in the car while driving in to the office (memorized short form, of course).
  • Sent an email to a colleague bishop over a Nashotah-related matter.
  • Reviewed and commented on some proposed "branding" ideas for the diocese. It's time to unify and freshen up our logo and related graphic protocols.
  • Developed, refined, and printed a working text of a homily for Proper 18 (September 7 at St Stephen's, Harrisburg).
  • Lunch at home--leftovers.
  • Met with Deacon Ann Alley and Linda Thomas (St Matthew's, Bloomington), representing the diocesan ECW outreach committee.
  • Produced a rough draft of the liturgy booklet for the synod Mass on October 10. Fortunately, I had a template from a prior year to work with, but it was still time-consuming. It is now in the capable hands of Fr Ian Wetmore and the faithful at St Michael's, O'Fallon, our host parish.
  • Had a phone conversation with the bishop I had emailed earlier in the day.
  • Took a brief walk around the parking lot; rain prevented anything longer.
  • Prepared physically (moving furniture, marking books) and mentally for tomorrow morning's quarterly meeting of the Diocesan Council.
  • Wrote an Ad Clerum (letter to the clergy) regarding the lectionary for the celebration of All Saints and the presence of our sexual abuse prevention training resources (Safeguarding God's Children) on the internet.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Transfiguration

  • Devotions in the cathedral; Morning Prayer in the office.
  • Prepared to preside and preach at the midday Mass.
  • Took care of three hanging pastoral/administrative concerns via email.
  • Attended a regular monthly meeting of clergy associated with St Paul's Cathedral (Interim Provost Tucker, Archdeacon Denney, Fr Franklin, Fr Stormer, Deacon Bradley, Deacon Raschke).
  • Refined and printed a working text of a homily Proper 15 (at St Timothy's, Salem, OR, while on vacation later this month).
  • Took a walk around two blocks.
  • Presided and preached at the cathedral Mass for the Feast of the Transfiguration or Our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Lunch from KFC, eaten at home.
  • Laid out the broad strokes of my address to the annual synod of the diocese on October 10.
  • Attended via email to an ongoing conversation with my colleague bishops in the Communion Partners group.
  • Took another walk around two blocks.
  • In response to a request from one of the editors of The Anglican Digest, I revised, updated, and edited a seven-year old blog post on an Advent/Christmas theme. Look for it, I presume, in the Advent issue of TAD.
  • Responded to three late-arriving emails, and took care of a routine personal organization chore.
  • Evening Prayer in the office.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tuesday

  • Weekly task planning over breakfast at home.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Having heard that my new YFNBmobile will be read for delivery tomorrow, I retrieved the title to the current model from the safe.
  • Briefed the Archdeacon on my weekend activities.
  • First meeting with a potential aspirant to Holy Orders.
  • Took a walk around the block.
  • Responded via email to an invitation for a speaking/preaching gig outside the diocese.
  • Began work on refining the text of my homily for the feast of St Mary the Virgin, at St Timothy's, Salem, OR.
  • Lunch from La Bamba, eaten at home.
  • Follow-up visit to an otolaryngologist, stemming from my "interesting" ear experience the last time a traveled by air.
  • Finished up and printed the sermon I had started working on in the morning.
  • Followed up administratively (via email with some items already in play in preparation for a clergy day in November.
  • Attended via email to some loose ends pertaining to the Living Church Foundation.
  • Followed up via email on a loose end pertaining to the newly-appointed diocesan historiographer.
  • Emailed another bishop regarding a situation that one of his clergy had asked my assistance with.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.