Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Up and at 'em in Champaign in time to preside and preach at the 8am liturgy at the Chapel of St John the Divine. Then back to the Hilton Garden Inn to retrieve Brenda and have a quick by delicious breakfast. Reprised my role at the 10am Mass, this time with six confirmations, two receptions, a solemn procession, and drop-dead gorgeous choral and organ music. During communion, the choir sang a setting of the text from the baptismal liturgy, "We receive you into the household of God ....". I had never heard this text set to music before, and it nearly moved me to tears. After the coffee hour, I met the the vestry for about 20 minutes, imagining together some strategic possibilities for mission-driven use of the chapel's real estate footprint.

We journeyed back to Springfield, had about an hour of downtime to rest, then headed to the Diocesan Center for a two-hour meeting with 10 of our twelve Canterbury pilgrims for June, most of their parents, and our chaperones, for a pre-pilgrimage formation meeting, the first of two. This is going to be a great pilgrimage group, and I'm starting to get really pumped. But for the moment, I am plum worn out, and looking forward to a day off.

Sermon for Lent IV

Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign--I Samuel 16:1-13, John 9:1-13, 29-38; Ephesians 5:6-14

We are now only three weeks away from Easter. The Church’s principal celebration of our Lord’s resurrection is, of course, the Great Vigil of Easter, on the night before, and, in many places, with an ensuing party that extends just into the small hours of the morning. At the Easter Vigil, there are ideally baptisms—infants and children, to be sure, but especially adults. There are a lot of very good reasons to reserve most or all adult baptisms to the Easter Vigil; the Prayer Book implicitly assumes as much. So it’s only fair to ask: Why make such a big deal about it? Why have these baptisms on such a public occasion? Why celebrate them on such a grand scale?

When baptisms are completed, it’s customary in many places for the celebrant to walk around the church sprinkling the congregation with water rom the baptismal font while the choir or the whole congregation sings an appropriate text, of which there are several, about water or new life or resurrection or the divided waters of the Red Sea. One might ask, once again, Why all the fuss? Isn’t this just liturgical overkill? Aren’t we making the proverbial mountain out of the proverbial mole hill?

Now, the reason I even bring up the subject of baptism at all is simple, but perhaps not so obvious. The season of Lent, which we are currently in the middle of, is not about giving up coffee or beer or meat or coming to church on a weeknight. It’s not even primarily about feeling sorry for our sins and promising God we’ll try to do better in the future. It may legitimately include all those elements, but that’s not what lies at the heart of the season. At the heart of Lent lies baptism. That’s the reason Lent was invented. In the ancient church, all baptisms were reserved for the Easter Vigil. Most of the candidates were adults who had completed a three year process of Christian formation. Lent was the home stretch of that process. It was a season in which the community of the faithful would pray with special intensity for those about to be baptized, and, as a sign of solidarity and support, to fast and pray themselves. There was a universally understood deep connection between Lent and the celebration of baptism at the Easter Vigil that somehow faded and disappeared during the Middle Ages, and that’s why the whole thing has seemed like an innovation to veteran Episcopalians in the 30 years or so since it was introduced.

These early Christian communities, for whom Easter baptisms constituted the highlight of their year, understood four passages from St John’s gospel, three of them being extraordinarily long, as being especially potent with baptismal significance, densely packed with interpretive meaning. When the three-year ecumenical lectionary was compiled in the decades following World War II, these passages from John were appointed to be read on the last four Sundays in Lent, Year ‘A’. Two weeks ago, we eavesdropped on a nocturnal conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who learned about the necessity of new birth through water and the Holy Spirit. Last week, we met the Samaritan woman at the well, who discovered Jesus to be the source Living Water welling up to eternal life—a baptismal sign if there ever was one. Next week, we will encounter Jesus’s close friend Lazarus, dead for three days, but called out of the tomb alive, still wrapped in his grave clothes, by the sound of Jesus’s voice—a powerful sign of the Eternal Life of which baptism is the entrance portal. Today, we hear the dramatic account of a man who, though blind from birth, receives the gift of sight from Jesus.

Please note the instrumental means Jesus uses to heal this man: He makes a paste of mud with the dust of the ground and his own saliva and smears it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash it off in a particular pool. It is a very sacramental act on Jesus’s part. He could have healed without even speaking a word, let alone by employing such material means, but he chose not to. The result, of course, of Jesus’s sacrament-like action, was that the blind man could see. He could perceive the presence of light for the first time in his life.  

And here’s the tie-in with baptism: One of the euphemisms for baptism in the early church was “illumination.” Christians often referred to themselves as the “enlightened ones.” That may sound a little arrogant to our socially and politically sensitized ears, but they weren’t trying to assert their inherent superiority over anyone. They were just announcing their faith that Christ is the light of the world, that they have received that light when they were united with Christ in baptism, and that it was their aim to live and walk in that light. As members of the church of Jesus Christ, we are children of light.

Of course, it is possible that even my making that simple statement may be raising your anxiety level. Maybe you don’t remember your own baptism, and you would be hard-pressed to describe any difference it has made in your life. You certainly don’t feel “enlightened.” Maybe you do remember your baptism, and your reaction is the same. You didn’t see any flashes of light or hear any voices. No dove came and landed on your head. So why all the hype? Why can’t we get back to some old-fashioned Lenten guilt? What’s the big deal, anyway?

This must be how the young David felt after the prophet Samuel anointed him King of Israel. King Saul had been, in the eyes of God, misbehaving, and the Lord told Samuel that he was going to raise up a new king. So he said, “Go to the house of Jesse the Bethlehemite, and take your flask of oil with you, and there I will tell you which of his sons I have chosen to replace Saul and become the next King of Israel.” So Jesse lined up the seven oldest of his eight sons and presented them to Samuel. At first glance, there appeared to be several likely candidates in the group. But as he looked at each one, Samuel never got the green light from the Lord to proceed with the anointing. So he said to Jesse, “Is this all you’ve got?” To which Jesse replied, “Well, there’s David, the youngest, but he’s out in the field looking after the sheep while we’re all here.” “Go get him,” Samuel says. So they went and got David,
who was still just a boy, and not, by any ordinary human estimation, a viable candidate for the throne. But when Samuel looked at him, he finally got the divine nod he was waiting for, and out came the oil, and David was anointed king.

Now, if you and I were Hollywood script writers, we would have the young king David immediately gather a band of followers and head straight for Saul’s headquarters, picking up throngs of loyal subjects along the way. Saul, when faced with such a demonstration of the popular will, would politely abdicate on the spot, and the reign of David would begin. But it didn’t happen that way. It was several years before David began to function in the role to which he had been anointed. He had to endure trials and tribulations which would bring him to within an inch of his life several times.

Saul did not go anywhere politely. It took his death in battle to make way for the popular acceptance of David’s rule. During those intervening years, David must have been tempted many times to think, “What a crock this all is! I could have been happy tending my father’s sheep, but now I’ve got lunatics throwing spears at me and hounding me all over the countryside day and night. I wish Samuel had called in sick that day instead of coming over to anoint me. Who needs it? What the big deal about being a king, anyway? Certainly nothing that I can see!” What can we say about this crisis of expectations? Being a king doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Being baptized doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

I am old enough to remember the tail end of what is known as the “McCarthy Era” of the 1950s. I can recall a sensationalized TV documentary special broadcast during that time entitled, The Spy Next Door. The concept was what is known in the intelligence trade as a “sleeper.” The Soviets would recruit a couple who could look and act and speak just like typical Americans, and then “plant” them as John and Mary Suburbanite, minding their own business, working, going to church and PTA meetings, leading a Cub Scout pack, and generally blending in. Perhaps they even came to enjoy their false life, and think, “What’s the big deal about being a spy? This is a piece of cake.” Then, at an opportune moment, they would suddenly receive a coded message from Moscow, and they would be “awakened” from their “sleeper” status and ordered to provide some strategic information that they would presumably then have access to. They were, in fact, Soviet spies all along, but they did not function in that role until they were awakened at the proper moment. At that moment, it became a very big deal indeed.

As we know, being a king eventually did become a big deal for David. He politically unified the nation of Israel, established a capital at Jerusalem, and founded a dynasty that lasted hundreds of years. There is a footnote to the account of his anointing that is easy to overlook. Perhaps David wasn’t even aware of it at the time, but the author tells us, “...the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” Something big apparently did happen that day at Jesse’s house. It was more than oil that Samuel poured out over David at that anointing. More than David or anybody else knew. It only became evident, fully revealed, much later.

My friends, baptism is to a Christian what anointing at the hands of Samuel was to David. A popular euphemism for baptism at times has been “christening.”  What a powerful word that is when we stop and think about it: When we are baptized, we put on Christ. We are “christ-ened—en-christed.” Our life is bound up with his and his with ours. It is also an anointing, an anointing with the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who “came mightily upon David” at his anointing. We may not feel the power of that mighty coming right away. It may be years—years of struggle and doubt, perhaps—before we see the fruit of the indwelling Spirit. But the “sleeper” has been planted. The baptized Christian may blend in with the world, doing what the world does, thinking the way the world thinks. But one day, at the opportune time that only God determines, the order will come: “Wake up! I’ve got something for you to do, a service for you to perform.” And the soul on whom the Holy Spirit came mightily in baptism years before becomes a combatant in the battle to extend the Kingdom of God.

After the man who had been born blind was healed, and gave his testimony before the Jewish authorities, and then met Jesus again, able to look at him for the first time, there was a poignant exchange between them. Like the Samaritan woman last week, he wanted the right thing, but wasn’t exactly sure why. Jesus says to him, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” The formerly blind man shows faith, but lack of understanding, when he responds, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Then Jesus provides spiritual enlightenment to go along with the physical enlightenment that he had already delivered: “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” Can’t you just see the light bulb click on over this guy’s head? Now he “gets it.” He simply says, “Lord, I believe,” and then he worships. His vision was now 20/20, in every respect. He had moved from darkness to light.

In three weeks, at the Easter Vigil, as the Church throughout the world adds to the offspring of Abraham by celebrating the sacrament of Holy Baptism, you and I will have the same opportunity for growth in our sight. We will have the chance to lay hold, once again, of the fact that we have been “en-christed,” christened, that we have clothed ourselves with Christ, that we have been anointed and that God’s Holy Spirit has come upon us mightily. We may even hear the coded message that we’ve forgotten to even listen for, as St Paul quotes an ancient hymn in his letter to the Ephesians: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

Amen.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday (John Keble)

A very welcome slow-start morning at home. (Few thing make me feel rested more than a slow-start morning.) Lifted weights, then walk a brisk four miles outdoors. For some reason, I felt ten years younger on the walk. Had a spring in my step the whole way. Attended to some household chores in the afternoon. Then loaded up and headed east on I-72, Brenda with me. In Urbana, we paid a visit on our friend and Holy Trinity, Danville parishioner Marti Coffman, who has hit a bit of a bump with her health, but is in wonderful spirits. Then we met up with Fr Sean Ferrell and three members of the Chapel of St John the Divine vestry and, together, we toured a student housing facility operated by the Presbyterian campus ministry foundation. The leadership at the chapel is trying to plan strategically for the best use of their real estate assets (which are formidable), and are gathering ideas. Brenda and I then enjoyed a wonderful meal at a Chinese restaurant with Fr Sean and his wife Kiezha. Looking forward to tomorrow's Refreshment Sunday visit to St John's.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday

  • Brief devotions in the cathedral, Morning Prayer in the office.
  • Took part in a conference call with several others regarding an important but not emergent issue regarding the summer camp for children and youth that the diocese sponsors on an ecumenical basis with the ACNA Diocese of Quincy.
  • Attended by email to an important clergy deployment issue. Hopeful that this situation will turn into a very exciting development.
  • Prepared for the meeting I will have on Sunday afternoon with the youth and chaperones who will join me on a pilgrimage to Canterbury in June.
  • Lunch at home. Leftover chili. Yum.
  • Further developed the rough broad strokes already laid for next Wednesday's Lenten series program in Decatur.
  • Let and participated in an informal meeting of the Nashotah House Board of Trustees via conference call.
  • Put some meat on the bones of my homily for Lent V, to be delivered at Trinity, Yazoo City, M--one of my two DEPO parishes.
  • Friday prayer: Lectio divina on the daily office Old Testament passage for tomorrow, which was Jacob's farewell conversation with Joseph before his death in Egypt.
  • Attended briefly to some administrivia and personal organization matters.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thursday (Charles Henry Brent)

  • Customary Thursday morning weights and treadmill workout.
  • Discussed a couple of administrative matters with the Archdeacon and the Administrator.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Sorted through the accumulated hard-copy debris on my desk, discarding some and placing others in the to-be-scanned pile.
  • Tweaked, refined, and printed a working version of my homily for this Sunday, at the Chapel of St John the Divine in Champaign.
  • Lunch from Hickory River, eaten at home.
  • Made air travel, car rental, and lodging arrangements for Easter Week (not to be confused with Holy Week), during which the Class of 2011 bishops (and spouses) will be meeting in Albuquerque for some continuing education, and then to Appleton, WI for the consecration of Matt Gunter as Bishop of Fond du Lac. There were lots of options, and it was time-consuming, and, yes, I need to figure out how to delegate this sort of thing.
  • Hand-wrote notes to clergy and spouses with nodal events (birthdays, wedding anniversaries, ordination anniversaries) during the month of April.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Dinner from Subway, eaten at my desk.
  • Attended a special meeting of the cathedral Chapter. Discussed with them the transition process that will conclude with the call of the next Provost. By statute I have seat, voice, and vote on that body, so I took my place and participated in the general discussion of some financial and administrative concerns. There are some talented and dedicated people in that group.
  • Home close to 9:30.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wednesday

A day of travel, mostly. Up at 6:30 to finish packing and be ready for the 8am bus from Camp Allen to George Bush Airport in Houston. All went smoothly; no delays or anything odd. Two hour layover in Dallas, which afforded time for lunch at Chili's. Wheels down in Springfield right on time at 4pm. Home long enough to kiss my wife, pet the dog, change clothes, and head to Decatur for my regular Wednesday Lenten teaching gig. Home about 8:45. Partially unpacked, but the bulk of it still awaits me. Looking at a tight and demanding schedule the next four days.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Annunciation

... and there was evening, and there was morning, the fifth day of the Spring 2014 meeting of the House of Bishops. Read about it here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third Sunday in Lent

Go here for the scintillating details of Day 3 of the Spring 2014 meeting of the House of Bishops.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thursday (St Cuthbert)

A day of travel and reconnection. Left from SPI on the 6:45am departure to DFW. After a very brief layover, an annoying maintenance delay, and a short flight to Houston, I cooled my heels for two hours by grabbing lunch at the airport Marriott before joining a van load of bishops headed for Camp Allen, a conference center operated by the Diocese of Texas near the community of Navasota, about 50 WNW of Houston. Checked in, got settled, visited with some colleagues, did some reading, took a brief nap, went to dinner with a seminary classmate who lives nearby, visited more with colleagues as they arrive for the spring meeting of the House of Bishops, and processed a few emails.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

St Joseph

  • Task organization and prioritization at home.
  • Morning Prayer in the office (the cathedral was being looked at by lighting contractors).
  • Prepped for presiding and preaching at the midday liturgy.
  • Took care of some administrative detritus regarding the cathedral and the Canterbury pilgrimage.
  • Fleshed out and printed my working notes for tonight's Lenten series presentation in Decatur, as well as next week's, since I'm going to be gone the entire time between them. 
  • Presided and preached at the Mass for St Joseph's Day--a feast always of special meaning for me, asI was consecrated a bishop three years ago today.
  • Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
  • Reviewed the General Ordination Exam results for one of our ordinands. This involved reading the original questions, reading the candidate's essays, and reading the evaluations of the readers. Made some notes on my thoughts and included them in an email to the Archdeacon and the chair of the Commission on Ministry.
  • Scanned or otherwise processed a hefty pile of hard copy in my inbox. It is now free and clear--a rare sight that will not last long.
  • Drove to Decatur, attended Mass, shared some supper, and made my presentation on Baptism & the Catechumenate (part of the series, Unpacking Lent).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tuesday (St Cyril of Jerusalem)

Although I rather badly needed a day off, I knew it just wasn't in the cards, given the number of items on my task list and the fact that I'm flying to Texas Thursday morning for House of Bishops. So I created the illusion of a day off by not donning clericals and going in to the office. Most of what I do during the week can be done with an internet connection and a telephone, so I worked from my favorite recliner. Dealt with a stack of emails on a range of issues, worked on my sermon for Lent IV at St John's Chapel in Champaign, worked on the next two Lenten series presentations in Decatur, and participated in a conference call with senior staff at Nashotah House. I also voted, learning in the process of preparation for that act that I can practically throw a stone from my back yard into the next congressional district. Thank-you, gerrymandering.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday (St Patrick)

A grueling and demanding day, with my poor introversion taxed to the max. But I came home with that "good kind of tired."
  • In the exercise area of our finished basement by 7:15--weights and treadmill.
  • Two hours later, after a shower and breakfast, off to the cathedral/office complex with Brenda.
  • I do fewer funerals now since I changed the color of my shirt three years ago, but my instincts said to get there 90 minutes early even though I didn't have a specific agenda for being there that early. My instincts served me well. There was stuff to do at every turn.
  • We had a capacity congregation at St Paul's Cathedral for Fr Roderick's funeral, with a fine turnout of diocesan clergy, plus priests and deacons and a bishop from the Diocese of Quincy (ACNA), and some ecumenical dignitaries as well. The music was splendid. As always, the Prayer Book burial office simply "worked"--it bears the freight that needs to be borne on such occasions with surpassing loveliness.
  • Burial was at Oak Ridge Cemetery about three miles north of the cathedral. The gravesite has a clear sight line to Lincoln's Tomb, which would have pleased Keith immensely. We did was needed to be done, difficult as it was, and returned for lunch, with the venue spread around various parts of the Cathedral and Roundhouse facilities. I finally got home around 3:30, and pretty much collapsed.
  • In the evening I worked on this week's Lenten series presentation, processed some emails, and organized my work for the next couple of days.

Funeral Homily: Fr Keith Roderick

St Paul’s Cathedral, Springfield

My brothers and sisters, it has been roughly somewhere around a hundred times that I have risen to give a homily at a funeral during the course of my ordained ministry. It’s never an easy thing to do, but I must tell you that I have rarely approached the task with as much personal sorrow as I do today. Today I am among you as one who mourns with you.

On Tuesday morning, when MaryBeth and Susannah discovered that Keith was gone, their hearts were broken. When the chain of phone calls brought the news to Archdeacon Denney, his heart was broken, and when he then called to notify me, my heart was broken. It was a dark day. Hearts were broken all over town, and before long, all over the world. But of all the hearts that were broken, we need to remember that the very first to break was the heart of God himself. The One who knit Keith Roderick together in his mother’s womb, the One who knew him to be fearfully and wonderfully made, was himself heartbroken when that fearfully and wonderfully made body suddenly stopped working.

So, among the many potential meanings that we might ascribe to Father Roderick’s passing, one that is not available to us is, “It was just God’s will. It was just his time to go and the Lord called him home.” It sounds very pious and strangely comforting to say stuff like that, but we’re settling for way less than the fullness of the truth when we do. The God whom we worship is the God of life, and no death, under whatever circumstances, is God’s will. The very notion of death is itself contrary to God’s will. Death is God’s enemy. That’s why we have strange buildings like this to gather in, buildings that have no earthly practical use whatsoever. They are a sign to us of God’s victory over death in the resurrection of his Son Jesus, the Christ, from the dead.

You may rightfully question that statement I just made with the evidence that every day the obituary page is refreshed with new names and faces. If death has been defeated, why is it still claiming new victims? This is where the virtue of faith is rather helpful. As you know, we’ve had a particularly nasty winter in the midwest this year, as well as in a lot of other places. As I drove across the fields of central Illinois to a meeting in Urbana a couple of days ago, the weather was very spring-like. I could see bare ground, with only a few scattered patches of stale leftover snow. But the groundcover is brown, and the trees have neither blossom nor leaf. The corn and soybean fields are turned over, but lying fallow. Yesterday felt rather wintry again, and it may yet snow again this season before it’s all said and done. But winter, my friends, has been defeated—this particular winter, at any rate. We may not yet see consistent evidence of that defeat—it didn’t feel like it yesterday—but we can nonetheless proclaim it confidently, in faith. In the same way, Death has been defeated. We may not yet see consistent evidence of that defeat, but we can nonetheless proclaim it confidently, in faith.

On Ash Wednesday, Fr Roderick graciously welcomed me to preside and preach at the midday liturgy here in the cathedral. He himself sat in the congregation, and came up with everyone else to receive the imposition of ashes. I’m fairly certain that was my last personal interaction with him, when I signed his forehead with an ashen cross and reminded him of his mortality, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Little did either of us know on that day …  Yet, today—strangely in Lent but not of Lent—today there are no ashes, and it’s another sign of the cross on Keith Roderick’s forehead that we are reminded of, the one made in his baptism. We are surrounded by symbols of baptism and resurrection—the Paschal candle, the holy water bucket, flowers. In his baptism, the mortality that Keith was born with, symbolized by the Ash Wednesday cross, was overshadowed by the resurrected life of Jesus into which he was baptized.

There’s a great deal we could say about Keith Roderick today. He has been a son, a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father-in-law, and a grandfather. He has been a pastor and priest, standing where I’m standing now, doing what I’m doing now, probably more times than I have. He has been a teacher, scholar, and administrator. He has taken his share in the councils of the church by serving as a leader among the clergy of this diocese and the Diocese of Quincy before that. Through his passionate and compassionate advocacy on behalf of persecuted minority Christian communities, he has forged a network of relationships that extends internationally and ecumenically. For my own part, I have known him as a priest who served this cathedral congregation, as well as St Andrew’s in Carbondale, with gentle humility, never very far from letting a smile brighten his face and thereby the hearts of those around him. What an utterly sweet disposition! And I have known him as a valued colleague whom I’m enjoyed just checking in with before making my way across the alley to my own office after saying my morning prayers here in the church. These are among the aspects of Keith Roderick that we now miss, and will continue to miss for a good long while.

But I suspect that, today, of all the things we might say about Keith, the one that is most important, maybe not to us, but to him, is that he is baptized, that he is showing up at the wedding banquet wearing the proper garment for the occasion, clothed in Christ, literally Christened. Yes, from his perspective, that might be the only thing that truly matters at this moment. He was born again by water and the Holy Spirit, as we heard in our Lord’s teaching to Nicodemus only yesterday. And while the fullest expression of the sacramental action may not have been completely enacted in his particular baptism, the meaning of the secondary ritual elements is implicit in the primary act of water touching skin, so we can say with confidence that he was, in the words of our liturgy, “sealed with the Holy Spirit” and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” He bears on his brow the invisible sign of the Crucified One who is also the Risen One, and therein lies Keith’s hope.

And therein lies our hope as well, because those of us who are marked in the same way, who also bear on our foreheads not only the ashen cross signifying our mortality, but the invisible cross signifying our union with Christ in his defeat of death, have a special treat in store for us.

We are shortly to offer the sacrifice of the Mass specifically on Keith’s behalf. In so doing, we are “pleading Christ” for him, saying to God the Father, “Don’t look on that ashen cross of mortality; look on that invisible cross of victory, and recognize a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” And as a sign that God has heard our prayer, he will return the bread and wine that we offer on this altar—God will return that offering to us as the Body and Blood of his Son, given for the life of the world. And so, when we reach our hands across the communion rail, we are reaching into Heaven itself. When we come to the altar, Keith is there with us, being nourished with the same heavenly food that feeds our own souls. We will have “holy communion” with the Blessed Trinity—the God who made us in his love and saves us in his grace—and also with Fr Keith, and all those who have been branded with the sign of the cross and gone before us in faith under that banner. Blessed, praised, worshiped, and adored be Jesus Christ—on his throne in Heaven, in the holy sacrament of the altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people, and may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them. Amen. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Second Sunday in Lent

While I was scheduled to be at St Christopher's in Rantoul this morning, the events of this week dictated that I should beg their indulgence so I could be with the people of St Paul's Cathedral. Addressing parishioners who have suddenly lost a beloved and highly-regarded pastor can be tricky, but I would say that grace abounded. There was a very sweet spirit of mutual support in this time of grief. Presided and preached at both regular liturgies.
After some down time at home, including a nap. we headed back to St Paul's for the visitation. The turnout was enormous, which speaks well of Fr Roderick.

Returning home again, I zeroed in on finishing my homily for tomorrow's funeral, on which I had made good progress late last night. I got the last words of a rough draft entered right as it was time to departed to a gracious dinner engagement to which we had been invited while at the visitation. It's good to get off the hamster wheel occasionally and engage in lively conversation over good food.

Back home a little past 9, whereupon I refined and printed the sermon draft I had earlier completed. All is in readiness.

Sermon for Lent II

St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield--John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-8

My friends, as you know, it is always my joy to worship with you at St Paul’s and share the word of God with you from this pulpit. But it will not surprise you, I’m sure, when I say that I would give nearly anything for it to not be under these circumstances. Keith Roderick was my esteemed and beloved colleague and friend, and I already miss him terribly. Father Roderick was a devoted and humble priest and pastor for this cathedral congregation, who accomplished a great deal in the one year, plus a couple of weeks, that he served you. My heart breaks with yours at the effect his sudden departure will have on the life of the cathedral parish. May we all hold one another very close in our hearts during the days and weeks ahead.

As tomorrow we lay the mortal remains of Keith Roderick in the embrace of the earth, in the joyful hope that we have in Christ of the resurrection of the body, our prayers will make mention of his entrance “into the land of light and joy” and his taking “a place at the table in [God’s] heavenly kingdom.” Alongside our grief at this week’s news, and our anticipation of tomorrow’s burial, we have the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, which direct our attention to this very theme, the theme of entrance into the Kingdom of God.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem. He comes to Jesus at night, as if wanting to avoid the public spotlight. We're not given very many details, but it seems reasonable to speculate that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in response to a deeply-felt personal need to find out for himself just who Jesus is, to find out whether Jesus might be the one who can relieve the deep spiritual ache, the deep spiritual hunger, that he is experiencing, but which his prominent position keeps him from discussing openly.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus reads between the lines and understands Nicodemus to be asking, “How can I get in on whatever it is you have? How can I enter the kingdom of God?”

This is just one version of a universal question, perhaps the primal human concern, a question and a concern that rises to the top of our hearts and minds at a time like this. In the sixteenth chapter of Acts, the Philippian jailer, speaking to St Paul, puts it, “What must I do to be saved?”  Others have said, “How can I find the meaning of life?”, or “How should I behave?”, or “What happens after I die, and is there anything I can do to affect my fate?” There are as many versions of this question as there have been inhabitants of this planet, but they're really all the same question. How can I enter the kingdom of God? 

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees, as we know, were avid students of the Law of Moses. A Pharisee would be inclined to believe that one enters the kingdom of God through a kind of moral perfection that can be attained by carefully studying and learning what God requires of us and by persistent striving to live by these requirements.  This approach is not unique to the Pharisees, of course. It represents a broad popular consensus, among many professing Christians, as well as among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and the adherents of most of the world's religions, from the most sophisticated to the most primitive. But if we pay attention to the scriptures, and to the mainstream of the Christian tradition, we know any plan to enter the kingdom of God by means of human moral perfection is guaranteed to go awry. We cannot do it. We're doomed from the start. St Paul tells us in the third chapter of Romans that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Yet, at times, particularly in the late Middle Ages, it has seemed to the Christian faithful as though the Church indeed does teach that we earn our way, we qualify, for entrance into the Kingdom of God on the basis of our good works. So, in the great turmoil that we now call the Protestant Reformation, there was a quite justifiable reaction against this notion. The Reformers condemned the idea of “salvation by works” as a distortion of the gospel. The real good news, they claimed, is that God offers us salvation freely, on His own initiative. He invites us into His kingdom, not because we earn it, but because He loves us.

Of course, it’s possible to go too far in the right direction, and many, I fear, do so when it comes to just what it means to say that God infinitely loves us. It's one thing to sing, as a well-known hymn puts it, that God accepts me “just as I am.”  But it's quite another to suggest that God is content to leave me there, just as I am.  “How I am” is the problem!  “How I am” is what led Nicodemus to interrogate Jesus about entrance into the kingdom of God. God accepts us just as we are, but He's not interested in letting us remain in that state. To believe that those who enter the kingdom of God are the passive recipients of God's universal and non-discriminatory acceptance distorts what the Protestant Reformers were trying to say. It is tantamount to belief in what the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It's a kind of salvation that certainly has no need for the Son of God to die on a cross.

So, if salvation is based neither on our activity —qualifying by obeying a set of rules, nor on our passivity—simply accepting a gift with no strings attached, the question remains: How does one enter the kingdom of God? 

The first clue that today's liturgy supplies us with is found in the Old Testament character of Abraham. Abraham was living quite happily and prosperously and, as far as we can tell, inconspicuously, in the land of his birth, minding his own business, when the Lord “said” to him, in whatever way the Lord says things, “Abram, I want you to fold up your tent and pack up all your belongings and gather up your household and move —about 500 miles to the southwest, to a place called Canaan. In that land, I am going to make of your descendants a great nation, a nation that I will bless, and through which all the nations of the world will themselves be blessed.”

Now, in no place are we told that Abraham was particularly qualified for this honor. Nowhere are we told that God was paying Abraham back for some good deed, or even a lot of good deeds, that he had done. God simply chose Abraham for God's own reasons. But neither was Abraham passive, like a puppet on a string. Abraham responded to the Lord with trusting faith, trusting faith, moreover, that was demonstrated by concrete behavior: he indeed did pick up and move to Canaan. He obeyed God. And in the process of obeying God, Abraham was changed. As a result of his obedient faith, Abraham was transformed in his inner being. St Paul says that this faith was “reckoned” to him—credited to his account, so to speak—as righteousness, as being just, as being in proper relation to God. From our New Testament vantage point, we would say that Abraham was granted entrance into the Kingdom of God. 

In today's passage from St John's gospel, we get another clue, another insight into this whole mystery. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You've got to be born from above, born anew, born all over again, get a fresh start. You've got to receive from the Holy Spirit a new lease on your life with God.  You've got to turn your eyes to the Son of Man lifted up—lifted up on the cross, lifted up in resurrection from the dead, and lifted up in ascension to the right hand of the Father. In a word, Nicodemus, you've got to be transformed. God does the transforming, but it happens in you, and you've got to let it happen.”

My friends, we can say that the kingdom of God is like a limestone quarry, from which the materials are being dug for the construction of a great cathedral. One piece of limestone is taken and left just as it is, because it's going to rest in an obscure corner of the foundation where it will never see the light of day or feel the admiring gaze of a human eye. The piece next to it, identical in every respect, is chosen to form the intricately carved crucifix that will be set in the reredos behind the high altar. This second piece of stone did nothing to earn or deserve such a glorious destiny, but before it can take its prominent and honored position, it must be born again. It must be transformed through submission to the skilled and patient chisel of the master stone mason. It is to that master stone mason that we comment Fr Keith tomorrow, because we know that, having already been marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism, his proper destiny is to reign with Christ in glory. God so loved the world—that is, every person in the world—that he gave his only begotten Son—which is to say, his very being, his very self—that whoever believes in him—whoever responds to him with the obedient faith of which Abraham is an example—should not perish, but be transformed within by being born again by water—the water of baptism—and the Holy Spirit, and thereby have eternal life, which is to say, entrance into the kingdom of God. 

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday

  • Left the house around 9:15 to pick up some dry cleaning, get gas, and head east on I-72 for an 11:00 engagement in Urbana.
  • Met with one of the finalists for the vacant rector's position at Emmanuel, Champaign. Then lunch with the candidate, the candidate's spouse, the Rector's Warden, and the Chair of the search committee. 
  • Back on I-72 westbound a little past 1:00.
  • Met the Archdeacon at a the mortuary where Fr Roderick's body is being held. We offered general supervision and technical assistance as two employees, who do indeed know what they're doing. vested him in alb, stole, and chasuble, as befits the burial of a priest.
  • Attended to a small bit of pastoral administrivia right when I arrived home, then did my regular Bowflex routine before heading out on a brisk four-mile walk on a beautiful early spring afternoon.
  • Spent part of the evening attending to some Nashotah-related flotsam and jetsam.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday

Another day consumed by funeral-driven triage:
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Looked in on Bonnie in the cathedral office just to see how she was doing. It's been an inordinately stressful week for her.
  • Through many dangers, toils, and snares, we completed the liturgy booklet for Fr Roderick's funeral on Monday. The problem lay in the fact that neither the diocesan office nor the cathedral office is accustomed to producing such things--complicated by the fact that my Mac doesn't always play precisely nicely with everyone else's Windows devices, and the process for downloading service music graphics files from Church Publishing is the most counter-intuitive piece of technology I have ever encountered. There was probably a more elegant way of doing what we did if we had time to master the learning curve, but Sue was able to take a ZIP drive to the printer down the street a little past noon. Jeesh.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Made phone calls to a couple of non-Episcopal clergy who had long relationships with Fr Roderick to invite them to places of honor at the liturgy on Monday.
  • Called MaryBeth Roderick, just to check in pastorally, and cover a couple of detail questions.
  • Drafted a charge to the yet-to-be-formed committee of the Nashotah House board whose mission it will be to present a nominee to the trustees for election as the next Dean and President. It's now be vetted with the other officers of the board.
  • Attended to a couple of small and blessedly normal administrative matters having to do neither with funeral planning nor Nashotah House. Amazing.
  • Met with the two wardens of the cathedral, just to get on the same page in approaching the "life goes on" aspect of a leader's departure. Neither of them signed on for this, but I believe they will rise to the occasion.
  • Met briefly with J.B. George, cathedral organist and choirmaster, regarding some details of Monday's service.
  • Prayed the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary in my office. Stayed there to offer Evening Prayer.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Thursday

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Spent time in the cathedral office helping get this Sunday's service bulletins into printable condition. 
  • Returned to my own office and left a string of voicemail messages for various people, all stemming in one way or another from Fr Roderick's sudden passing.
  • Made some quick administrative decisions on matters that were presented to me.
  • Finished radically revising the homily I had already prepared for this Sunday (to have been delivered somewhere else), placing my message in the context of the week's stunning developments.
  • Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
  • Aside from some minor interruptions (like going to get a duplicate for my disappeared driver's license), I spent the afternoon getting the funeral liturgy booklet 98% ready to print. It will actually be a quite lovely service. Keith deserves a good sendoff.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wednesday (St Gregory the Great)

  • More or less still reeling from the shock of yesterday's news ... and still trying to keep upper respiratory crud at bay.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Spent some time with Bonnie, the part-time secretary in the cathedral office, just talking through some emergent issues. Since it was Fr Roderick's habit to personally prepare the Sunday service programs, I had to poke around his computer to retrieve and edit the documents for this Sunday and send them over to Bonnie.
  • Prepared the chapel for the 12:15 Mass.
  • Took care of some administrivia via email.
  • Devoted the rest of the morning to bringing into final form my notes for tonight's Lenten series presentation at St John's, Decatur (the series is called Unpacking Lent).
  • Went to the chapel for the midday Mass, but there were no takers.
  • Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
  • Remained at home to work there through the afternoon. Spent most of it pulling together a rough draft of the service booklet for Fr Roderick's funeral liturgy. In parish ministry, I was rather adept at this sort of work, but I've grown rusty. I got it done, though.
  • After attending to a couple more administrative matters, I hopped in the YFNBmobile and pointed it east toward Decatur. Attended the Mass, enjoyed a bite to eat, and delivered myself of about a 45-minute talk on the historical origins of Lent.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tuesday

I had plans for today, but sometimes plans have to be laid aside. At 8am the call came informing me of the sudden death overnight of Fr Keith Roderick, the Provost of St Paul's Cathedral. Keith was a beloved and esteemed friend and colleague, and I am bowed low with grief. Most of the rest of the day was consumed with processing this news one way or another--informing cathedral staff and lay leaders, informing the diocese, going to see MaryBeth and Susannah and the others gathering in their home. On top of all that, I'm coming down with something, so the shock and grief of Keith's passing combined with a body not running at full strength combined for a real gut punch. I did manage to make a few stabs toward a sermon for Sunday, when I will be at the cathedral to help them through this horrible bump in the road. Grace will abound, I know.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Sunday in Lent

So ... I got home from my Toronto trip around 12:am, having rented a car in Chicago because my flight from Toronto was delayed three hours and we landed at O'Hare about the same time my ride to Springfield was pushing back from the gate. I am always cognizant of the fact that, while a Sunday parish visitation is routine for me, it's always a big deal for the parish ... a once-a-year big deal, so I'm pretty much committed to moving heaven and earth to make sure it happens. 

Dropped the rental vehicle off at SPI this morning, which is handily right on the route to Pekin, where I celebrated the First Sunday in Lent with the people of St Paul's Church, including the Great Litany sung in procession, one of my favorite things to do. Particularly enjoyed getting to spend some time with Bishop Donald Parsons (ret. of Quincy), who is a regular communicant at St Paul's. 

Sermon for Lent I

St Paul’s, Pekin--Matthew 4:1-11

On the first Sunday after the Epiphany each year, we are with Jesus as he meets John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River and is baptized. Then we follow him around Galilee as he begins to go public with his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing, and attracts a band of followers. But we have skipped over something very important, something quite significant. The first Sunday in Lent each year offers us an opportunity to go back and pick up that missing piece. Right after he was baptized, and before he began his public ministry, the gospels tell us, Jesus was “driven by the Spirit” into the Judean wilderness, for the express purpose, it appears, of being tempted by Satan.

Actually, the temptations take place not all throughout our Lord’s retreat in the desert, but at the very end, just as he’s about to re-enter the real world. The Evil One tries to capitalize on the acute sense of need that anyone who had been alone in the wilderness for that length of time would undoubtedly feel.

The first of these needs is pretty low on the hierarchy—if you think of “low” being the “most basic”—of human needs, right above the need for oxygen, the need for immediate personal safety, and the need for water. I’m talking about the need for food, the need—well, at this point, we can probably call it a desire—the desire for a good meal, for a warm loaf of freshly baked bread. “You’re hungry? Just turn these stones into bread.” The devil tempts Jesus to meet that need, to satisfy that desire, in a gratuitously inappropriate way.

The second temptation is more psychological in nature. It appeals to the innate human desire for recognition. “Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you. Everyone will see you! You’ll be famous overnight!” How we long to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to be known.

The third temptation is almost spiritual. “Fall down and worship me and all the kingdoms of the earth will be yours.” We may not all aspire to world domination, but we do all want some measure of control over our lives, some power to influence our own future.

Satan is a smart cookie in the way he goes after Jesus, and in the way he goes after you and me. He appeals to our sense of need, our perception of desire and longing. Indeed, the very way we think of God and the place where God dwells is couched in terms of our felt needs. What does the expression “Heaven on earth” or “earthly paradise” conjure up for you? Probably some tropical resort where the weather is always perfect and we are constantly waited on hand and foot by a staff of very attractive servants whose only desire is to satisfy our every whim.

There was once a poor working man who took his young son to the wealthy part of town on a Saturday morning, set him down, and said, “Look around you, son. This is the only heaven there is. Do whatever it takes so that you can someday live here.” This man was utterly consumed by his sense of need, his perception of being deprived, his experience of unfulfilled desire. And he was doing his best to pass all the baggage of discontent on to the next generation. That much in itself is reason enough to pity the boy. The really ironic and profound—almost tragic—element in this story, is the limited vision it communicates. The fact is, there are probably countless hundreds of places on this earth that are many times more appealing and attractive and wonderful than the wealthy residential neighborhood to which the man took his son that Saturday morning. So not only was he encouraging the boy to define himself according to his felt needs, he was defining the needs way too narrowly!

The fact is, our vision is woefully limited. We are prisoners of our own finitude. What we would consider heaven-on-earth would not even qualify as a waiting room for the real thing. When I was 19, having been born in South America, raised in the Chicago area, traveled to Europe only a year earlier, gone to college for a year in southern California, and about to embark on a month-long visit back to Brazil, I was with my family visiting some old friends of my parents in the borough of Queens, New York City. These people had a son who was about my age. He and I started to compare notes about travel experiences. His notes were very short: “I went to Connecticut once.” Now, the truth is, living in New York City, he didn’t feel at all deprived by never having been out of the metropolitan area. But I was stunned by what a limited, constricted vision that gave him.

This is what Satan was counting on in his wilderness confrontation with Jesus. His hopes were pinned on Jesus having a limited vision, a vision limited to his own sense of need. Instead, Jesus’ response to the Tempter challenges us to see our felt needs in the light of God’s plan—God’s plan not only for us individually, but for the entire created order, to understand our desires as threads in an infinitely larger fabric—the fabric of God’s creative and redeeming and sustaining activity in the world he has made.

The essence of the Devil’s strategy with Jesus was to persuade him to take the “cheap and dirty” route to the accomplishment of his mission. In the old Roman empire, it was said that an emperor could stay in power as long as he provided the people with “bread and circuses.” Jesus, in his wilderness temptation, was offered the opportunity to adopt the same strategy. The Jewish people were expecting and waiting for a messiah who would be a popular liberator, a revolutionary leader who would throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus could have gone this route. When he was tempted to turn stones into bread, it was more than the satisfaction of his own hunger that was at stake. It was the hunger of the people for “bread” that gave this temptation its appealing edge. Rather than being the messiah he knew he was called to be, Jesus could have been the messiah the people thought they wanted. The odds of success were higher, and it was a lot easier than getting crucified. But he said No to this temptation.

Jesus could also have descended even further, and pandered to the basest instincts of the people—in other words, “circuses.”  The temptation to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, only to have the angels catch him at the last second, offered a route to instant celebrity. He would have been the Jerry Springer of first century Palestine! Again, it beats dying on a cross, any day of the week. Jesus said No to this temptation.

The third temptation is the most subtle. It employs the nearly irresistible logic of  “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Instead of standing in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who criticized the establishment from the position of outsiders, Jesus is tempted to sell out to the system, to go over to the dark side, to become part of the social and political structures it was his job to challenge. It would be a very smooth career path, there would be a great many personal rewards along the way, and—who knows?—maybe he could even use his power and influence to accomplish something positive before the end of his days on earth. But Jesus said No to this temptation.

Jesus said No to all three of these wilderness temptations because he realized that the whole messiah business was not about his needs, or even about visible success. It was about humility, and obedience, and suffering, and—eventually—death, in order to accomplish God’s purpose of rescuing mankind from the iron grip of Sin and Death. There was no nobler purpose, there was no higher calling, than this. To allow his own sense of need to distract him from this vocation would have led to the ultimate tragedy of human history.

As baptized Christians, you and I have embraced the holy vocation of discipleship. We are followers of Jesus. His destiny becomes our destiny. And his life is an example for us. It is our calling to participate in his redeeming work, to share his sufferings that we may also share the power of his resurrection, to be the Lord’s faithful servants as He carries out the plan of salvation. When we understand the life of faith, the life of relationship with the living God, as primarily about getting our needs met, we will be tempted to take the quick and dirty route to success, to pander to the felt needs of others, to enslave ourselves to human social structures. We will be tempted to interpret our unmet needs and our unanswered prayers as evidence that God has abandoned us. This will lead to irritation, then bitterness, and, ultimately, despair. But we can say No to these temptations. When we understand the life of faith, and our relationship with God, as primarily about vocation and ministry and servanthood and the cosmic purposes of an infinite and loving God, we have access to such grace as will enable us to transcend the limits and constrictions that circumstances seem to impose, and lead lives of patient faith.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday (S. Perpetua & Her Companions)

Busy and full day with my new Canadian friends (and a couple of old ones), as well as the Bishop of Dar es Salaam, whom I met in Canterbury in 2012, at Wycliffe College in Toronto. In the evening, we expanded our circle to include leaders of the Anglican Communion Alliance, a network of laity and clergy advocating for historic faith and practice in the Anglican Church of Canada.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Thursday

A day of travel and meetings. Caught the 6am United flight to Chicago, then an Air Canada flight to Toronto, where I am a guest of a meeting of some of the more communion-minded bishops-with-jurisdiction in the Anglican Church of Canada. It's a time of stimulating conversation, punctuated by prayer, the renewal of old friendships and the making of new ones. I'll fly home Saturday late afternoon.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Prepared for my role as celebrant and preacher at the 12:15 liturgy.
  • Interacted with a handful of folks via email over the sudden death yesterday of a Nashotah House student.
  • Laid the foundation for each of the five Lenten teaching series presentations I'll be giving at St John's, Decatur.
  • Framed the infrastructure for the first of those sessions.
  • Took some time, along with the others in the office, to watch the removal of two very diseased trees from the front of our property along Second Street. We're fortunate they haven't already fallen on somebody.
  • Re-engaged the movie-editing learning curve, but discovered in the process I still have some re-recording to do of the last session of last year's Lenten series.
  • Presided, preached, and imposed ashes at the 12:15pm cathedral liturgy. About 30 were present.
  • Updated my contact information on the 2014 Canterbury pilgrims. We have 12 youth and four chaperones (including YFNB) signed up to go. Composed and sent them all an email message. It's time for us to begin forming community.
  • Plotted and scheduled the several preparation steps connected to the sermon I will deliver on Ascension as a guest preacher at Christ Church, Fitchburg, MA.
  • Plotted and scheduled several tasks pertaining to getting ready for this year's Chrism Mass.
  • Attended to a specific Nashotah House-related tasks.
  • Left at 4:30 to go home, retrieve Brenda, and head out to Decatur, where I presided, preached, and imposed ashes at the 6pm liturgy at St John's. Back home around 8:20.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

St John’s, Decatur

Well, it’s good to be back. Of course, I was just here on Sunday, and I have a repeating engagement in the parish hall on the next five Wednesday evenings. So let’s cut to the chase. It’s Ash Wednesday, and we’re here to say we’re sorry for our sins, and to begin a journey of repentance that will take us up to Holy Week and Easter. We’re here to acknowledge that we chronically fall short of God’s call to us in what we say and do, and in what we fail to say and do. As a result, we’re stuck. Sin is like signal interference between us and God. Our ability to hear God’s continuing invitation is less than “loud and clear.” We can’t be the people that we are created to be. 

Of course, the events that Lent prepares us to reconnect with—the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—are the remedy for what ails us. In the meantime, then, perhaps it will be helpful to know our enemy a little better. Behind each individual action that we take or fail to take that we might label as a “sin,” there is an underlying predisposition—an attitude of the heart, a habit. These attitudes and habits make up the reservoir, the well, from which individual acts of sin are drawn. The Christian tradition has classified these attitudes and habits under the ominous label “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Let’s take a look at them.

First, I’ll give you a mnemonic device—pale gas. P-A-L-E-G-A-S. Seven letters, one for each of the seven deadly sins.

The first of the seven is Pride, and Pride, in turn, is the root of the other six. Pride is also sometimes known as Vanity. We might think of it as the “operating system” in which the others are “applications.” Pride is the impulse to dethrone God and put ourselves in his place, to make ourselves the measure of all things, to seriously believe that “it’s all about me.” Maybe you saw the Dear Abby column from a couple of days ago. There was a letter from a young woman who already had a daughter and is now pregnant with a boy, and just couldn’t wrap her mind around having a boy, because she had always imagined herself the mother of “four little princesses.” She was, in fact, being prideful; she was worshiping her own fantasies about herself. Pride is the illusion that we are ourselves the source of our own accomplishments, our own successes. Pride leads to behavior that is egotistical, or arrogant, blind and deaf to the presence or needs of others. Pride provides the oxygen that the other six deadly sins breathe. Without it, they could not exist.

The antidote to pride is humility.

Next is Anger. (Remember, pale gas—this is the ‘a’ in ‘pale.’) So, we’re not talking about the emotion of anger, the feeling of anger. Emotions are things that happen to us; we can’t control them, so they can’t be sinful. Anger as a deadly sin refers to what we do with the emotion that comes our way. If you insult me, and I get angry and punch you in the nose, the sin lies not in my angry feeling, but in what I did with my angry feeling, namely, punch you in the nose. The problem is, sometimes it feels really good to be angry, and we want to hang onto that feeling. Haven’t you ever been really mad at somebody, but they’re all full of smiles and saying nice and endearing things to you, and you just can’t be mad at them anymore? At first, it’s kind of frustrating, because you don’t really want to let go of the anger. That’s where the sin is—when we nurse our anger as if it were a flickering flame, when we carefully feed it and stoke it and keep it going. Holding a grudge, they say, is like taking poison and expecting somebody else to drop dead!

The antidote to anger is the virtue of patience.

Next up is Lust. There are a lot a parallels to anger here. A feeling of sexual attraction is not in itself sinful. (If it were, none of us would be here!) Rather, like with anger, it’s what we do with the feeling that counts. If we nurture an inappropriate attraction, and feed it with fantasies, that’s giving in to the sin of Lust. When we objectify another human being, and see them only as a source of sexual gratification, that’s giving in to the sin of Lust. Of course, when we engage in sexual relations outside the covenant of marriage, that is also Lust. Ironically, prudery is actually a distortion of Lust. There’s a legend undoubtedly with no basis in fact, but instructive nonetheless, about St Anthony and a band of his disciples encountering Lady Godiva riding around town in the altogether. His disciples shielded their eyes and complained about what a scandal it was. St Anthony just calmly said, Did not her beauty delight your eyes?—and moved on. He was able to notice the attraction, to not be a prude about it, and then to move on, and let it go.

The virtues of chastity and temperance are the antidotes to Lust.

Now we come to Envy. Envy happens when we surrender to feelings of resentment of someone who is more fortunate than we are in some way—financially, physically, socially, intellectually, or even spiritually. When we try to “keep up with the Joneses,” that’s Envy. When we take delight in the misfortune of somebody who seems more blessed than we are, that’s Envy. When we’re obsessed with having the coolest car, or the most updated kitchen, or the most thoroughly-stamped passport among our group of peers, that’s Envy.

The antidote to Envy is the practice of meekness, being habitually self-effacing.

P-A-L-E-G is for Gluttony. Gluttony happens when we don’t respect our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, when we fail to understand our bodies not as property, but as something that has been entrusted to us, and of which we are stewards. Of course, Gluttony typically manifests itself in over-consumption of food or alcohol.  Merely enjoying food and drink is not Gluttony—food and drink are among the joys and blessings of life—but eating or drinking to the point of sickness, or to the point of compounding sickness, is. When we lose control over our appetites, when we become enslaved to them, that’s Gluttony.

The spiritual practices of fasting and abstinence are the best antidotes to Gluttony.

The second ‘a’ is for Avarice, which is not a very familiar word, and which might be better expressed as Greed, but if we did that, we’d lose Pale Gas, and what fun would that be? Now, we sometimes think of Greed and Envy as the same thing, but they’re really not. Envy is when I’m resentful over what somebody else has. Greed is when I’m discontent with what I do have, no matter how much I have. Greed is when we accumulate things just for the sake of possessing them, way beyond any need we might have, or even any sort of rational desire we might have. Most of the time we associate greed with financial or material wealth, but it doesn’t have to be just that. We can be greedy about the number of ‘likes’ we get on a Facebook status, or the equivalent on Twitter or Instagram. We can be greedy about recognition—awards and accolades, books, movies, recordings. We can be greedy about the kinds of trees and shrubs and flowers we have in our yard. Hoarding is a form of Greed. We can be greedy about nearly anything.

The antidote to greed is the practice of generosity, regularly giving away from that which we might otherwise be tempted to accumulate.

Finally, Sloth. Generally, we associate Sloth with garden variety laziness, but there are a great many ways in which we can be slothful without appearing lazy. Yes, an inordinate tendency to indulge in rest and recreation to the detriment of work and other responsibilities is certainly Sloth. But, I would suggest, just as prudery can be a shadow of Lust, so an exaggerated work ethic can be a shadow of Sloth. We can be slothful in our duty to maintain our physical and mental and emotional and spiritual health while hiding behind the demands of a job. We can be slothful in observing the commandment to “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy” when we keep our nose relentlessly to the grindstone. We can be slothful in love, when we take those around us, those who form the support structure of our lives, for granted. And we are all vulnerable—but especially people who do what Fr Swan and Deacon Coventry and I do—we are all vulnerable to Sloth in the performance of our spiritual hygiene and discipline, diligence and attention in saying our prayers.

The antidote to Sloth is the habitual practice of attentiveness.

So there you have them, the Seven Deadly Sins. They’re deadly because, left unchecked, untreated, they draw us away from the love of God, which is, just in itself, the very definition of Hell. But note that, for each of them, there is an antidote. Very often, sin is most effectively resisted not by direct opposition, but by the cultivation of virtue, something positive. So, instead of bracing ourselves this Lent against Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, and Sloth, perhaps we would do well to concentrate our attention on Humility, Patience, Temperance, Meekness, Fasting, Generosity, and Attentiveness. Just a thought!

May you have a blessed and holy Lent, and to that I will now formally invite you.

Amen. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Shrove Tuesday

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Talked with the Archdeacon about some minor administrative matters.
  • Took care of an administrative chore in connection with the Putnam Trust.
  • Spoke by phone with a representative of ACS, with whom we are considering entering into a database management agreement. They have several Episcopal dioceses as clients, and we need to get into the 21st century.
  • Spoke by phone with Bishop Donald Parsons, retired of Quincy, now canonically resident in Springfield.
  • Refined and printed a working script of my homily for Ash Wednesday--12:15 at the cathedral, 6pm at St John's, Decatur.
  • Did the same thing for my Lent I sermon, to be delivered at St Paul's, Pekin.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Hand wrote greetings to clergy and spouses with milestone events in March.
  • Dealt with a small bit of Nashotah House business.
  • Got to work in some detail on my Lenten teaching series, set to begin a week from tomorrow night and continue on the four successive Wednesdays, at St John's, Decatur.
  • Took care of a routine personal organization chore.
  • Processed the hard copy in my inbox. Lots of scanning. Generated a few tasks from what I found.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Up at a rather ungodly hour to check the results of overnight weather, thinking that I may have to blow off the driveway. It turned out to be less than half an inch, so I just pushed it off with a blade of a snow shovel (no lifting). We were "wheels up" (so to speak) at 6:22, en route to St John's, Decatur to preside and preach at both liturgies: 7:30 and 10:00. Confirmed three adults at the later service. Given the threatening conditions, attendance was pretty good. Home a little past one.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

St John's, Decatur--Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24:12-18

Remembering all the places I’ve lived, and the times I’ve lived there, I’m amazed at the variety I’ve seen. When I was a young child growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950s and 60s, I always wore a white shirt, tasteful tie, and dark suit to church every Sunday. All the boys my age—even as young as first grade—did the same. We wore real leather shoes that you can polish, usually black. By the time I was in Junior High School, this code was liberalized a bit, and I would sometimes wear a sport coat or blazer over a shirt, with dress slacks, and no tie. We would never have dreamed of addressing an adult by their first name—it was always Mr or Mrs or Miss So-and-So.

By the time I went to college, things were different. This was a function of both time and place. It was the tail end of the ‘60s and the early ‘70s, so a certain spirit of rebellion was in the air. But I was also now in California—the land of beaches and blondes and surfboards and an endless of summer of casual attire. I began to make it a point to not dress up for church. And a lot of my peers, apparently, were making the same point. And when I officially became an adult, children didn’t start suddenly calling me “Mr Martins.” To most people, young and old, I was just “Dan,” like I’d always been. And during our “Bohemian years” in Oregon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, that trend pretty much continued. I wore a tie for work, but Sundays were casual.

Perhaps it was the influence of the Reagan presidency, but things seemed to take a conservative turn in the mid to late ‘80s. But then again, I was no longer on the “left coast,” but back in the heartland—first in Wisconsin, then in Louisiana. When I was a seminarian intern in a parish near Milwaukee, I reverted to my childhood practice and put on a coat and tie each Sunday, and shined my shoes on Saturday night. And Louisiana, of course—along with the rest of the Deep South—is something else entirely. By that time, I was really dressing up for church—much like you see me now! And hardly anybody just called me “Dan.” But more to the point, when I looked out over the congregation, the great majority of men were in coats and ties, and even if I hadn’t been a priest, I would have at least been “Mr Dan” to anyone’s children but my own, and they all would have responded with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” when conversing with me. Believe it or not, that’s the way some people still live.

Then I came to central California in the mid ‘90s. I remember the first time I was around my new parish church for a wedding, and noticed that a majority of the gentlemen arrived in polo shirts and other forms of open collar, and it struck me that I was back in the land of ‘California Casual.’ And it’s not just a matter of attire, or forms of address. It’s a lifestyle, an attitude. California culture wants whole world to be an extension of our family room and den and deck. Many churches make a point of the preacher getting down from behind the pulpit and just looking people in the eye—even before that became more common even in historic formal churches. Many of the same churches feature music that sounds pretty much like what the people in the congregation listen to on the radio or their iPod during the rest of the week. It’s all part of California Causal, and nowadays, as we know, it’s not just limited to California.

Well, I’m not here to be “Bishop Manners” and lecture you on the decline of etiquette. On the Day of Judgment, it will be a matter of indifference whether men wear ties or women wear earrings or anybody has shoes that can be polished. Fashions and cultural expectations come and go. I think it’s possible, however, to take California Casual just a bit too far, and that is when we try to make God conform to the same set of expectations. It’s tempting to try to domesticate God, to scale God back to a manageable size, to turn down the volume of His voice to that of a living room conversation, to put the glory of God on a dimmer switch so we don’t have to shield our eyes. We’ve taken off the coat and tie and the uncomfortable shoes, and we’d like God to do the same, to just kick back and go with the flow and hang out. That’s a God we feel we could relate to, because e really wouldn’t demand very much of us, and we wouldn’t have to change.

When the apostles Peter and James and John had a vision of Divine Glory on the mountaintop of Christ’s transfiguration, that glory was wild and untamed and undomesticated. It was at ear-splitting volume and retina-burning brightness. Peter wanted to contain it. He wanted to put it in a box suitable for shipping and handling, a bottle to which a tap could be attached, letting a little bit of glory out on an as-needed basis. "Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." 

The problem we run into when we domesticate God, when we impose on him the lifestyle of California Casual, is, as you might guess, essentially spiritual. It can take one of two different forms. On the one hand is spiritual arrogance. When we think we’ve got God securely contained in a box that we can carry with us wherever we go—well, that’s quite a head trip! “Psst! Over here. Wanna take a peek at the glory of God?” You’ve probably run into Christians who think God is under contract with them to perform miracles on demand. “Are you sick? Here, God will heal you through my prayer. It didn’t work? Well, there must have been something wrong with your faith. Got marital or financial difficulties? Here, let me pray for you. What, nothing’s better? O ye of little faith!”  This is just spiritual arrogance. On the other hand, in contrast to that, is spiritual laziness. The spiritually lazy just keep on making messes with their lives, thinking that surely God will come along and clean up after them. They re-write the Lord’s Prayer to say, “Our Grandfather who art in Heaven.” A father might call us to account, maybe even hurt our feelings. But a grandfather will just give us a Tootsie Roll and pat us on the head and tell us to be good.  In either case, though, whether we’re spiritually arrogant or spiritually lazy, a domesticated God behaves himself and does what we want him to do.

We would do well, at this point, to notice that Jesus does not take Peter up on his offer to build a booth, a tabernacle, a monument to what was happening in the Transfiguration. He’s nice about it—he doesn’t scold Peter or call him stupid or anything of the sort. He just ignores a question that betrays a profound misunderstanding of what was going on. Peter and James and John had just had an unmediated encounter with the glory of God. It was, to be sure, a temporary encounter, but it was a moment of indescribable brilliance and transcendence. This was not God-in-a-box. This was not farm-raised glory. This was wild and undomesticated Divine Splendor. The appropriate response was not to memorialize it with a monument. The appropriate response was the one these disciples made a moment later after they heard the voice from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."  Matthew tells us that, “when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.” When the disciples heard this, they were filled with awe. Awe—holy fear. There’s nothing casual here. There’s nothing informal or folksy about this encounter. Finite creatures are in the presence of an infinite Creator, and the appropriate response is for them to fall on their faces and be filled with holy fear.

Holy fear is indeed the appropriate response to a vision of Divine Glory. The “California casual” lifestyle and attitude wants to contain God, to keep an eye on him in the family room or deck so he doesn’t get into the sort of mischief that might mess up our lives, that might force us to look at ourselves honestly and maybe even make some changes. But when the apostles expressed their fear and fell to the ground, Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, what are you doing that for? It’s no big deal. Get on up and shake hands with Moses and Elijah. Let’s all sit down and have a drink.” No, it’s only on his invitation, his “permission,” actually, that they, and we, are allowed to rise and “have no fear.” It is not our inherent right, or an inherent part of the nature of God, that we should not fear him. And this is what distinguishes the “holy fear” I’m talking about here from an unhealthy sort of morbid fear. Holy fear is an attitude of reverent awe toward God and the things of God. Morbid fear is a sense of dread, of abject fright, a sense that God is just itching for an excuse to send us directly to Hell without passing “Go” or collecting $200. That’s not what I’m talking about. God is on our side. God loves us and longs to be in relationship with us. In fact, God loves us so much that he voluntarily laid aside the fullness of his glory in order to become incarnate as a human being. But he did not give it up entirely, and now Jesus has returned to his position of glory at the right hand of the Father.

So something is wrong if our spine doesn’t tingle just a bit at the thought of being in God’s presence. Behind the altar here at St John’s is a box called a tabernacle. Inside the tabernacle are bread and wine that have been consecrated in previous celebrations of the Eucharist. They have been prayed over and set aside. We believe that, in such action, they have become the very Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why there’s a lamp burning perpetually in front of it, and that is why we genuflect—literally, “bend the knee”—when we approach it. We are expressing appropriate holy fear at being in the Real Presence of the Holy One. Someone from a Christian tradition that does not believe in such sacramental Real Presence once commented, “If I believed what you believe, I would be crawling on my knees all the way up the center aisle of the church!” It makes one think, doesn’t it?

As many of you know, my wife has a twelve-year old Border Collie named Lucy. As we’ve worked over the years to turn Lucy into the kind of dog that Brenda wants and I can enjoy living with, we’ve applied the notion—and it’s all based on canine psychology—that a dog is eager to please the humans it lives with. Sometimes, if I’m not getting my point across using an ordinary tone of voice, I have found it effective to “growl” or “bark” my commands to Lucy. This gets her attention by reminding her that she has good reason to fear me, because I’m the Alpha Male, the leader of the pack. But neither Brenda nor I want a dog who is terrified of us. Our definition of a “good dog” is one who is active and spirited, but who has a “holy fear” of Brenda and me, and longs to please us in everything she does. We want her to be excited about being in our presence, to be confident that Brenda loves her, and to never forget that in our will is her peace! I’ll let you ask Brenda how well that’s worked out in practice, but you can probably see where I’m going with this analogy. God wants us as his children to be active and spirited, but to have a holy fear of him, and a surpassing desire to please him in all things. He wants us to have such an exalted understanding of what it means to be in his presence, that we are tempted to fall to the ground at the mere thought of it. He wants us to rest in his unshakable love for us, and to never forget that our experience of perfect freedom flows only from serving him. May we enter the season of Lent with these thoughts in the front of our minds. Amen.