Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sermon for Proper 26

St Matthew's, Bloomington--Luke 19:1-10

I don’t know if you’ve even heard the expression “post-modern,” but it’s a term that has been cropping up more and more over the last several years. Those whose business it is to make wise and penetrating observations about the evolution of our culture have coined the phrase to describe the way people of certain generations tend to think. Post-modernism as a thought process is largely absent from what has been called the “World War II generation”—those who were children during the Great Depression, and a few of whom are still around! It begins to become visible among “Baby Boomers”—that is, my own generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. But in the succeeding generations—so-called “Generation X,” people who are now mostly in their 40s—as well as what many refer to as “Millennials,” young people who are presently in their 20s and early 30s—among these younger generations of adults, post-modernism is not only one visible thread in the fabric, it’s the dominant thread in the fabric.

Without taking the time to describe all the features of the post-modern way of thinking, let me just say this: People who are around my age and older are conditioned by a fairly large dose of scientific skepticism. Therefore we don’t naturally accept spiritual claims and spiritual assertions at face value. We tend to want to see some proof for what people say about spiritual reality. This is the “modern” way of thinking, and has been in vogue for about the past 300 years. The post-modern way of thinking, by contrast, is completely open to a wide range of notions and beliefs about spiritual reality. In fact, there seems to be no end to this openness. Post-modernism is accepting of just about any sort of spiritual claim, with the sole criterion of authenticity being that the person who makes the claim finds it useful or comforting or even perhaps just vaguely interesting.

So, the hallmark of the post-modern generations is a pervasive spiritual restlessness—a deep hunger for spiritual experience and a sense of purpose and direction in life, combined with a willingness to try just about anything. But at the same time, there seems to be a widespread difficulty in actually sticking with something for an extended period. All around us, there is this massive hunt for truth going on, but those who are chasing the truth seem to be alarmed by the possibility that they or anyone else might actually catch it! So often, the assumption seems to be that truth is by nature difficult to find and hold onto.

But while the younger generations are spiritually restless, middle-aged and older Americans are, to a large extent, spiritually deaf and blind. We are heavily conditioned to value such things as personal independence and rugged individualism—the “I did it my way” philosophy of Frank Sinatra’s song. And, as I mentioned before, we are also conditioned to be “scientific” in our attitudes. It seems quite clear to us that any knowledge, any claim about truth—physical, emotional, or spiritual—any knowledge worth having results from, and only from, rigorous investigation. Maybe you’ve noticed how popular certain TV shows are that deal with crime scene investigation. The heroes of these shows are not street cops who rely on instincts and hunches based on years of experience, but, rather, science geeks who solve crimes in laboratories and surrounded by millions of dollars worth of scientific testing equipment.  Truth that can be had too cheaply doesn’t interest them. Only if it’s a scientific smoking gun is it worth taking to court. Oddly, then, for different reasons, these shows appeal both to modernists and to post-modernists.

There was once a fellow named Zacchaeus who was neither a modernist nor a post-modernist, but whose attitude combined both perspectives. St Luke the Evangelist tells us about Zacchaeus, and mentions two very salient facts about him: a) he was a tax collector, and b) he was short, noticeably shorter than the average adult male of his day. The first of these meant that he was considered beneath contempt, a social outcast. The second guaranteed that he was the object of a lot of laughing behind his back. Somehow, Zacchaeus got word that Jesus was going to be visiting Jericho, the town where he lived. He was determined to meet Jesus. It was really, really important to him to meet Jesus. So he did what it took to make that happen. He was willing to risk turning himself into a spectacle, a laughingstock. He climbed up into a sycamore tree along the route he figured Jesus would take, and edged himself out onto the branch overlooking the roadway.

Zacchaeus didn’t have the confidence that Jesus would even give him the time of day, let alone stop for a chat. It was up to him to make the encounter happen, if it was to be at all. Very often, people take a similar attitude in their relationship with God and God’s love. If the encounter is going to happen, they figure it’s up to them to make it happen. We flit from spiritual fad to spiritual fad. We try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, hoping that we might stumble across God in the process, just based on mathematical odds, if not our own wisdom and skill. In the end, though, we are swallowed up either by false pride for having “found” God on our own, or by despair for having failed to do so.

Fortunately, Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus shows us a different path. Indeed, Jesus’ route through Jericho does take him right under Zacchaeus’ perch. At that point, though, everything takes an unexpected turn. It’s time to think outside the box, to draw outside the lines. Not only does Jesus stop and chat with Zacchaeus, he invites himself home with Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus get yourself down from that tree; I’m comin’ to your house right now!”  Zacchaeus had thought he was looking for Jesus. The stunning truth, however, is that it was Jesus who was doing the looking; Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus.

There is a tremendous lesson for us here, whatever generation we’re a member of. It demonstrates to us that God’s love, far from being merely passive and responsive, waiting for us to make the first move—it demonstrates to us that God’s love is proactive—seeking us and pursuing us and finding us. And God’s love is tireless; it even seeks out the “hard cases.” It’s easy to love cute little kids and sweet old ladies. But funny-looking tax collectors like Zacchaeus? Well, that’s a love worth sitting up and taking notice of.

We need to work a little bit to understand just how impressive it was that Jesus publicly announced his intent to invite himself over to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. You see, Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, and not only short, but he was also rich. And it would have been presumed that his gains were mostly ill-gotten. Now, Jesus has already established, earlier in Luke’s gospel, that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, what does Jesus say about Zacchaeus? What does he say for all to hear? “Today salvation has come to this house…”  Wow! It sounds like a camel has just squeezed through the eye of a needle! It’s a veritable miracle, a miracle of God’s proactive love, love that doesn’t wait for us to seek it out, but, instead seeks us out, hunting us down relentlessly, and never giving up the chase.
What a blessing this is, my friends. God’s proactive love means that we can really rest spiritually. Of course, this is the complete opposite of the spiritual restlessness that consumes so many in the younger generations. It’s also the opposite of the spiritual blindness and deafness—a poisonous skepticism and callousness—that consumes so many in the older generations. When we come to terms with just how determined God is to love us, we begin to experience the truth of one of my favorite prayers from the Daily Office, from Morning Prayer on Thursdays, to be specific: “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life, we may not forget you, but…” – and here’s the kicker – “…that we may not forget you, but remember that we are ever walking in your sight.”  To be “ever walking in [God’s] sight”—this is both a comfort and a challenge—sometimes, we would rather not be walking in God’s sight, right?—but even as a challenge, it’s a powerful bit of evidence of Divine love, love in which Jesus seeks us out and invites himself into our hearts, even as he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home, love that we don’t have to climb any trees to find, and which we can never outrun. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Lord's Day (XXIV Pentecost)

Up and out of my Bloomington hotel room in time for the regular 7:30am liturgy at St Matthew's, where we actually had a confirmation at the early service (a relative rarity). At the 10:00 Mass, we baptized a little baby girl and confirmed three young men, all of whom I knew because they were "Michaelites"--attendees at the last two St Michael's Youth Conferences we've had in the diocese. Home around 1:30. Watched the film The Way, in which most of the action takes place on the Camino de Compostela. I'd seen it before, but not since I'd walked the Camino myself. It was powerful the second time. Truth to tell, if the circumstances of my life permitted it, I would go back and start again tomorrow. The evening, of course, was spent watching the Cubs keep the World Series alive, for which I am grateful, though I wish they hadn't chosen to do so by means of a one-run nail biter.

Saturday (James Hannington & His Companions)

Three days to report on here: Thursday was the annual meeting of the Living Church Foundation, most of which was devoted to considering the details of an endowment campaign that is in the early stages. Yesterday I stayed over in New York following the conclusion of Living Church Foundation activities to participate with a small group of friends and colleagues in a discussion of the Anglican Communion and how we might be helpful in raising awareness of the theological principles that can help preserve the highest possible degree of unity across intractable differences of faith, order, and practice. Getting home was complicated, with a forgotten piece of hand luggage, a trip to the wrong airport, a delayed flight, a missed connection to Springfield, and rental car drive that got me home at 3am. Then, as they say of some MBL pitchers this time of year, on "short rest," Brenda and I were out the door at 8am for St Michael's, O'Fallon, where I presided and preached at the funeral for Fr Gary Goldacker. With the help of a robust amount of caffeine in my system, we arrived safely home around 2:00, whereupon I went down hard for a 2.5 hour nap. After regaining consciousness, I put the finishing touches on tomorrow's homily, processed a slug of emails, and was northbound on I-55 byt 7:15. Camped out now at the Doubletree in Bloomington ahead of tomorrow's visitation to St Matthew's.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Wednesday (St Alfred the Great)

On campus at GTS in time to join the Living Church Foundation directors at 9am in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. With a break for lunch with students, faculty, and staff, we concluded our agenda by mid-afternoon, for which I was grateful because I needed a nap! Also processed a bunch of emails. Headed back to campus for 5:30 Evensong, followed by a gracious reception in the Dean's apartment, and then dinner with Foundation members at a nearby Mexican restaurant. A good day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tuesday

Up and out in time to catch the 10:32 United run from Springfield to Chicago, then a 12:55 (1:30 actual) departure for New York-Newark. Sat next to a young woman who had spent the week in Chicago as a cast member (one episode) for a show none of us have seen yet called Chicago Justice. She told me her character is an "angsty teen." After retrieving my luggage I caught the AirTrain to Manhattan Penn Station, and then walked the three blocks to my hotel. After getting partially settled, I caught a taxi to a restaurant more "lower" and more "west" than my hotel and joined five other colleagues from the Living Church Foundation for dinner in front of tomorrow's board meeting. Annoyingly, I'm feeling something "coming on" by way of a garden variety illness--chills, run-down feeling.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Lord's Day (XXIII Pentecost)

Two lovely celebrations of the Eucharist at St Andrew's, Edwardsville, the second including the confirmation of an impressive young man. There is a positive vibe at St Andrew's, thanks in large part to the solid pastoral leadership of Fr Ralph McMichael. Home around 2:30. Rested for a bit, then went for a long walk. I actually wish I could be transported to Spain tomorrow and walk one day of the Camino. It really gets in one's blood.

Sermon for Proper 25

St Andrew's, Edwardsville--Luke 18:9-14

Most of us have probably had this experience. We’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store. We’re just getting a few items, and we’re in kind of a hurry, and our mind is distracted by a million and one other things that we’re concerned about. And then we notice that the person ahead of us looks like they’re buying groceries for a small army—including some high-quality cuts of meat that we normally think twice about buying—and—What’s this?—they’re paying with food stamps. We take a closer look, and see that the customer is a young mother, and it appears that there’s a pack of cigarettes in her purse. “Well…” we think to ourselves, “She has enough money to feed her nicotine addiction, but not to feed her family, huh?” Then we look down and see her six-year old boy wearing the latest fashion-fad footwear, with built-in trampolines or jet engines or whatever it is this month, and our irritation begins to verge on anger. Our own kids have been asking for those shoes, and we’ve said, “No, they’re too expensive.” We think, “Why doesn’t she just get a job and pay for her own food and quit mooching off hard-working taxpayers.” We feel just a little bit proud of our own self-sufficiency. Our nose is pointed just a tiny bit upward, in recognition of the fact that we would never let ourselves sink to such a level, and if this woman would just develop some character, she wouldn’t have to live that way either.

And at the very same moment that we find ourselves despising . . . well, maybe “despising” is too strong a word . . . well, then again, maybe it’s not . . . at the very same moment that we find ourselves despising the woman in the checkout line, we despise ourselves for despising her! We see in ourselves the people to whom Jesus addressed this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, people who St Luke says “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” It’s one thing to think highly of ourselves, to think we’re “all that.” It’s bad enough to be conceited and arrogant, but it’s really over the top, most of us would feel, to look down on those who are not as beautiful or healthy or rich or talented or intelligent or educated or cultured or sophisticated as we are. This was the attitude of Jesus’ audience when he told this parable, and it was certainly the attitude of the Pharisee.

Now, trying to negotiate our way through a parable like this is like walking through a minefield. It’s very tricky. To Jesus’ original audience, right off the bat, the Pharisee would be presumed to be the “good guy” and the tax collector the “bad guy.” It would be like if I were to tell you a story that began, “Once upon a time, there was a bishop and a gangster.” The bishop would right away be presumed innocent and the gangster presumed guilty. We would look kindly on the bishop and sneer at the gangster. But, as we know, in a parable, the tables are turned: The Pharisee turns out to be a scoundrel and the tax collector a hero. And once we figure this out, it’s not hard to make the switch: We praise the humility of the tax collector and sneer at the arrogance of the Pharisee. And therein lies the pitfall, because once we do that, we become guilty of the very offense of which we accuse the Pharisee—trusting in ourselves, that we are righteous, and despising others.

It’s really a very easy trap to fall into. As human beings, we know ourselves to possess free will. We are not always free to act on what we will, but our will is free. Dale Carnegie was fond of observing that time is the great equalizer among people. Both the king and the beggar have exactly 24 hours in a day—no more, no less. The difference between people lies in what they do with those 24 hours. Particularly in American society, we are all about “options” and “choices.” I remember an advertising slogan from the early days of cable TV: “It’s not just more choice, it’s your choice.” And that was long before program guides with numbers that extend up to channel 1800! “Freedom” and “responsibility” are highly-esteemed values in our culture. We are so solidly formed in those values, that we suppose a person can, by the strength of his or her character and will, achieve sufficient virtue to satisfy God’s expectations of the way a human being should live. A well-instructed Christian might know better, but to the people among whom we live and work in this society, it sounds quite reasonable that, if a person tries hard enough, he or she can lead a life that is pleasing to God, a life that earns God’s blessing and favor, a life that deserves to be rewarded. The connection that we don’t readily make, however, is that such a life would be exactly like that of this Pharisee. “I am not like other people,” he says. “I’m upright, honest in my business dealings, and faithful to my wife. I fast twice a week as a religious discipline, and I’m a tither—I give back to God a full 10% of all that I make. What more could God want? I have satisfied all his requirements.” And the minute we make such a statement, we have condemned ourselves. We have tested positive for the spiritual diseases of pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness—or, in a word, sin; sin that is progressive, chronic, and eventually fatal to our souls.

Well, that’s the bad news, at least. But there’s also good news. Just as we know that anthrax is 100% curable if the right kind of antibiotic is administered in time, sin is also 100% curable. But the first step in taking the cure is to open ourselves to the sort of attitude change that doesn’t come easily to most of us. Most of us have had, at one time or another, a parent or a boss or a teacher or a coach or—God forbid!—a spouse . . . who is just impossible to please. Nothing is good enough to satisfy that person. However good our intentions, however honest our effort, there is always something that is not done right, some detail we overlooked, some instruction we misunderstood, and the one little part we got wrong seems to negate the effect of anything we got right. Well, in a way, that’s what God is like. Now, I know that doesn’t put God in a very appealing light, but hear me out. That fact is, nothing we can do is enough to satisfy God. No effort we can make is capable of meeting God’s standards. We can do things that please God, but we can never satisfy Him. The prophet Isaiah says that all our righteousness is “as filthy rags” in God’s sight. It isn’t that the Pharisee was lying about his achievements; we can assume he was telling the honest-to-God truth. It’s just not good enough. Nothing we can do is good enough.

But here’s the deal. God knows. God knows that that His holiness is so infinite, and our sinfulness so profound, that “never the twain shall meet.”  And what God knows, the tax collector in Jesus’ parable also knows. He knew that he dare not even lift his eyes to Heaven. He kept his head bowed and prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And since nothing we can do is adequate to reconcile us to God, and since the only thing that matches the infinity of God’s holiness is the infinity of His love, God has known, from the very beginning, that it’s up to Him to save the day.

And so God has taken the initiative to more than compensate for the inadequacy of our efforts. He made made Himself known to and established covenants—solemn agreements—with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and with David. He sent a series of prophets to make His will known, to announce His holiness and justice, as well as His mercy and loving-kindness. Finally, He took our flesh Himself, in the person of His Son, Jesus. He lived among us, and gave us an example of the kind of life that does meet God’s standards, the only human life that has ever been so lived. In order to reconcile us to the Father, Jesus died for us, and in so doing, defeated death on our behalf. He ascended back to the right hand of the Father, where he now continually intercedes for us, pleading our case.

God is like a judge who imposes a fine on a convicted criminal, then steps down from the bench, and accompanies the convict he has just sentenced to the courthouse cashier, pulls out his own personal checkbook, and pays the full amount. Any effort we can make to reconcile ourselves to God is woefully inadequate. But the initiative God has taken on our behalf more than compensates for our inadequacy.

When this fundamental truth sinks in, what a glorious and liberating realization it is! It becomes the foundation for a genuine humility, with attention focused on God and on others, knowing that life is not “all about me.” It becomes the foundation for a habitual disposition of gratitude, a heart that is constantly overflowing with thankfulness, and infecting others with the same attitude. And, it becomes the foundation for an authentic compassion, an openness to truly “suffering with” others—which is the literal meaning of compassion—that we may offer our suffering and theirs in union with the suffering of Christ for the healing and life of the world. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saturday

Back to the business of diocesan synod at 9am. We got into the weeds a bit with some electoral technicalities, and expended an unusual amount of time and energy on a non-binding stewardship resolution, but we managed to get through the process of amending our constitution and canons with serious but not protracted debate. I am grateful that there were no substantive amendments. We adjourned around 11:30. Since my visitation tomorrow is in Edwardsville, I remained in the area, and devoted a chunk of my afternoon to the new Ben Affleck movie The Accountant. It was a good way to unwind. But I was certainly wound up again by the time Game 6 of the National League Championship Series got underway. If you follow baseball, you know how it turned out, and if you know me at all, you know I'm elated!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Saturday

Out the driveway at home around 10am, arriving in Edwardsville about 75 minutes later. Got checked in and oriented at the Synod venue, then stepped across the street with Brenda for a Mexican lunch. Gaveled down the 139th Annual Synod right on time at 1:30. All went quite smoothly until the very end of today's session, when we entered a bit of a parliamentary quagmire, with more votes being tabulated on an amendment to a resolution than the total of clergy and lay delegates. But we were out of time and had to carry the matter over to tomorrow morning. The Mass was lovely, with afternoon sunlight bathing St Andrew's in a golden glow.

Sermon at 2016 Synod Mass

Votive MassFor the Mission of the Church--Ephesians 2:13-22, Luke 10:1-9, Isaiah 2:2-4

This is what’s called a Votive Mass—that is, there’s no feast day on the calendar, so whoever’s in charge of the liturgy can choose from a variety of different liturgical “themes” listed in the deep “basement” of the Prayer Book—this is a Votive Mass “For the Mission of the Church.” The idea of mission can be a little scary at times. When I was a child, one of the things that prevented me from telling God without reservation that I would be whatever he wanted me to be and go wherever he wanted me to go was the prospect that he might call me to be a missionary in some place where I would be plagued by mosquitoes and have to take quinine tablets and learn how to defend myself from wild animals. And if you’re already uneasy about mission, the situation is not helped by the gospel reading from the Votive Mass for the Mission of the Church. In Luke Chapter 10 we read of Jesus sending out 35 pairs of missionaries, who were supposed to walk into a town, find lodging with whomever would put them up, eat whatever was put in front of them, heal the sick, and announce that the Kingdom of God was very near. Does that sound appealing to you? I didn’t think so.

So, we are understandably resistant to the idea that we, as members of the Eucharistic Communities in the one church of the Diocese of Springfield, are called to be missionaries. We resist in many ways, some active, some passive. One of the ways we resist is by domesticating the missionary endeavor to something that, for the last few decades, Episcopalians have customarily called “outreach.” We collect canned good for a food bank, or help out at a soup kitchen, or collect Christmas toys for the children of imprisoned parents, or write checks to agencies that help those who are hungry or the victims of natural disasters, or any number of other really good and worthwhile things that I’m not suggesting in any way that we back off from, and we comfort ourselves by including all that under the category of “mission.” This sort of social outreach dances around the margins of mission, but, just by itself, never gets to the heart of it. Social work and community organizing do not become mission by being cloaked in beautiful vestments and liturgical ceremonies.

The Prayer Book Collect for Feast of Christ the King, which happens about a month from now, I believe, puts our focus where it needs to be. It talks about those who are “divided and enslaved by sin” being “freed and brought together under his most gracious rule”—the gracious rule, that is, of Jesus the Christ. In our catechism, there’s the question, “What is the mission of the Church?” to which the response is, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.” In Christ. Not by trying to build the ideal society or enact the ideal laws or just spread love all around, but in Christ; through repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, and discipleship in the communion of his Holy Church.

Now, so you don’t think I’m just talking in abstractions, let’s make it concrete. What evidence is there that the peoples of the earth are divided and enslaved by sin? Have you heard about a city called Aleppo, in Syria? Do you know about how the people who live there—or who no longer live there either because they’ve been killed or they’ve fled for their lives—do you know about how the people of Aleppo have been caught in the crossfire of a civil war and have had their lives torn apart? They are the victims of the division of those who are enslaved to the sin the pride, with an assist on the play by envy, greed, and anger. Do you know about the problems arising from the refugees from that conflict, and other conflicts in that part of the world, trying the migrate into Europe? There is division and enslavement to sin on multiple levels. Do you know about Sudan and South Sudan, and particularly the region of Darfur, and the combination of forces that has perpetuated violence there for years on end? Many of the victims there are fellow Anglican Christians, so it starts to get quite personal for us. And I’m sure there’s no one in this church this afternoon who is unaware of the racial tensions in our own country that just won’t seem to go away despite the best intentions of a whole lot of people, driven by a chain of events, each of which seems more surreal than the one before. We are divided and enslaved by sin. The list, of course, could go on. Even within the nuclear and extended families of those present in this room, there is ample evidence of division and enslavement to sin. But I think I’ve made my point.

Into this morass of suffering and anxiety comes St Paul’s message to the Ephesians, the appointed epistle reading for this Votive Mas for the Mission of the Church. The Apostle is speaking to Gentiles who are familiar with Judaism and have experience living among Jews dispersed throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. Strictly observant Jews, of course, have as little as possible to do with Gentiles. To have contact with a Gentile is to become ritually unclean. This is the social context into which Paul is speaking. The verses immediately preceding the passage that we heard read make this clear. “You Gentiles,” Paul says, in effect, “were once on the outside looking in.”  
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Now there’s a description of division and enslavement by sin if there ever was one, right? Paul then continues with a very important part of speech that is not a noun and not a verb and not an adjective but a particular kind of conjunction called an “adversative,” and the most common adversative in English is the word “but.” “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off”—that is, you Gentiles—you who were far off “have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
That image of a “dividing wall of hostility” being torn down is one that I find particularly compelling. Those of us of a certain age can remember what it was like to watch a quite literal and physical dividing wall of hostility get torn down in Berlin. It was an unforgettable moment. As a result of that moment, while I was walking the Camino, I met several young adult Germans who have their entire lives known of nothing but a united Germany, a Germany that, in some provisional measure, at least, has been “freed and brought together” by those dramatic events of 1989.

The gospel we bear is a word of hope—hope for peace and hope for reconciliation among peoples. This is our message, this is our good news, of hope for the world—hope for peace across national borders, hope for peace across racial and ethnic divides, hope for the subsuming of all identities into the “one new man,” the one new person—that is, instead of using race or ethnicity or nationality or any other sort of identity by which to know ourselves and make ourselves know, we embrace the identity of those who have been buried with Christ in a death like his in order to be raised with Christ in a life like his.

Our calling as Christians is to speak these words of hope for reconciliation and peace courageously into the environment of mistrust, fear, suspicion, and anger that surrounds us. The work of this Synod in revising our constitution and canons is ultimately not about technicalities and nomenclature and processes and procedures and policies; it is about nothing other than positioning us more effectively to pursue this very mission of reconciliation and peace.

But we cannot do this, we cannot offer our message of hope to central and southern Illinois, with credibility as long as there are public and ugly divisions among those who call themselves Christians. For this reason, reconciliation is paramount at every level of our common life—within our Eucharistic Communities in this diocese and among the Eucharistic communities of this diocese, within the larger community of Episcopalians and especially between Episcopalians and communities of people who, until recent years, also called themselves Episcopalians, constantly tearing down dividing walls of hostility before they get so tall we can’t see over them. And this is why the work of ecumenism must always be on the front burner. You may have heard about events in Rome earlier this month, events that I participated in on the fringes, where the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury exchanged symbolically important gifts testifying to their ongoing commitment to pursuing the goal of our Lord’s high-priestly prayer in John 17 “that they all may be one.” Before we can speak words of reconciliation and peace to the world at large with full conviction and integrity, we must be able to demonstrate the practice of reconciliation and peace within the household of faith.

All of this, of course, is in service to the bracing and inspiring vision articulated by the Prophets of the Old Covenant, with Isaiah leading the pack in the first reading for this liturgy:
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Amen.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thursday

Up and out of my Nashotah House lodging bright and early at 7:15. Arrived home in Springfield four-and-a-half hours later. Saw my urologist to talk strategy about a kidney stone that was discovered by the CT-scan I had on Monday. Unless it passes first, I'm booked for an outpatient surgical procedure on Hallowe'en. Spent the rest of the afternoon processing emails and developing my homily for this Sunday.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Wednesday (Henry Martyn)

Still on campus at Nashotah House. Morning Prayer and Eucharist at 8:00. During breakfast I caught up with one of our Springfield seminarians, Shane Spellmeyer. Board of Directors met from 9:30 to 12:30. Grabbed a quick lunch in Delafield with fellow director Tom Graves (we were fleeing the meatless-on-Wednesday refectory). Board met again from 1:30, and completed our agenda with time to spare, around 3:30. I took the opportunity to visit the grave of Bishop Donald Parsons, and snap some photos of fall foliage around campus. Evensong at 4:30, followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Delighted to run into my seminary classmate Fr Henry Doyle who was in the area as part of an accreditation visiting team at nearby St John's Northwestern Military Academy. I then had the joy of taking our three Springfield seminarians out to diner at the Red Circle Inn.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

St Luke's Day

Up and out of my daughter's apartment in Chicago around 8:30, heading north. Delayed by a couple of errands, I arrived on campus about 11:15. Huddled for a bit with the Secretary of the Board of Directors, looking what's ahead of us today and tomorrow. Lunch in the refectory with students, staff, faculty, and other board members. Board meeting between 2:00 and 4:15. Then Solemn Evensong for St Luke's Day, followed by dinner for the Directors in the Deanery ... which also happens to be the venue of my on-campus lodging.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Monday (St Ignatius of Antioch)

Lots of driving today. First, to St John's Hospital for a diagnostic procedure (trying to chase down a possible kidney issue), then a mad dash to St Paul's, Carlinville to preside at the Requiem of Sandy Henry, wife of Fr John Henry, the rector. Good to connect with a bunch of people, but a sad context for doing so. Back home to Springfield to drop Brenda off and grab a different selection of vestments, then another mad dash to Mt Zion (east of Decatur) for the burial, but not before being made late by a train stopped blocking a major artery for over 20 minutes. Back home, where I changed clothes, repacked, did a bit of email processing, and hit the road north again, this time to my daughter's apartment in Chicago, where I'm dropping off some of her belongings that were stored at our house, and spending the night ahead of tomorrow's appearance at Nashotah House for a Board of Directors meeting.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Lord's Day: XXII Pentecost

Drove down last night to a Hampton Inn in Edwardsville/Glen Carbon. Headed out from there this morning for the regular 8:15 liturgy at Trinity Chapel, followed by the 10:30 Mass at St Paul's Church, where we had one baptism and several confirmations and receptions. Alton Parish feels like a happy place under the leadership of the still newish rector. And I enjoyed getting back to doing what I do.

Sermon for Proper 24

Alton Parish--Genesis 32:38, 22-30; Luke 18:1-8a

You may know that today is my first day officially off of sabbatical, which began way back on the 18th of June. And the last time I was in Alton was not too very long before that sabbatical began, as I came to St Paul’s to preside over the institution and induction of your rector. Mother Cindy has now been with you here around six months. It has been her privilege, little by little, to be allowed into the lives of the people of this wonderful parish. You have already begun to develop a “history” together. Stuff has happened—stuff that has called for that difficult-to-define activity that we call pastoral care. And as Mother Cindy has attempted to provide pastoral care, she has, along with many of you, had to face once again some really hard, really critical issues of faith and life: How can I have doubts and still believe? Why doesn't God answer my prayers? How come bad things happen to me when I'm really not such a bad person? These encounters always reveal in a fresh way how much the shape of our lives is determined by the difficulties and the adversities we face. It's a universal human experience: We all have problems. Some seem to have more than their fair share, and some seem to have less, but we all have problems. And most of us, at one time or another, find those problems to be a very important element in our prayers. We pray about the things that bother us. We ask God to fix them, to make them go away, or to give us the strength to endure them with dignity.

The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, I think, applies here. We pray, and seek answers to, our personal problems. These usually have to do with matters of health and safety, with household finances, with educational and marriage and career decisions, and the like. We also pray about the things that worry us on a more public and collective level. We pray for the community in which we live, for our nation, for peace and prosperity and justice throughout the world. As Christians, we pray for the church.

We are spending so much energy struggling among ourselves that we are distracted from focusing on the real mission of the church. For more than a decade, as our Episcopal Church has passed through the troubled waters of conflict, many of us have prayed, "How long, O Lord, how long? How long will it be until we can worship you and proclaim your gospel in peace and with a united voice?" But our prayers seem to be unanswered, because the conflicts and divisions continue. After decades of praying for racial reconciliation at a national and local level, we are dismayed to discover just how deep the remaining rift is. How long, O Lord? How long will our prayer go unanswered? Many of you have been bringing the same physical ailments and emotional wounds before the Lord in prayer for years and years. How long, O Lord, how long? 

We can only conclude, it often seems, that all these unanswered prayers are a sign of something terribly wrong. Either God is not really all-powerful, or we're praying in the wrong language, or we don't have enough faith, or something. We assume, of course, that the measure of God's love for us is the degree to which our life is "smooth sailing." If we're living in God's favor, he will smooth out the bumps in the road. So if the bumps are still there, that's a sign that something's amiss. If my prayers aren't getting answered, then God must be mad at me, and if God's mad at me, it must be because of something I did, or failed to do.

I wonder whether human beings tend to project on to God the expectations for ourselves that we are unable to meet. Our natural inclination, of course, among those of us who are parents, is to provide our own children with as bump-free a road as we possibly can. We go out of our way to shield them and protect them from the various hazards of life. We desperately want to spare them from pain and heartbreak. But we can't, of course, and we realize that. But God is omnipotent, so we're told, and so he can spare us, his children, from bumps and bruises, and if he doesn't  . . .  well, that's where we get the idea that something's wrong. We can forgive ourselves, sometimes, for our failures as parents, but we expect more from God. He is, after all, God. We hold him to a higher standard.

In reality, however, I would suggest that God's fatherly care for us is not defined by the standards that we set for it. In many ways, it is more like human parental care than we might think. The ancient and mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with … well, who was it he was wrestling with anyway? It's hard to tell, at first, but by the end of the narrative, it becomes apparent that Jacob is actually wrestling with none other than the Lord himself. This event took place at a watershed moment in Jacob's life. He was about to be re-united with his twin brother, from whom he had parted several years earlier on something less than amicable terms. He wasn't sure what sort of mood Esau would be in, and he feared for the safety of himself and his family. He went so far as to separate himself from the rest of his household, so as not to provide a united target. And it was while he was thus alone, in the middle of the night, that a shadowy figure engaged him in a wrestling match.

Does it seem strange that God would express his love for one of his children by appearing in bodily form and picking a fight with him?  Indeed, it does. The first thing we must acknowledge, of course, is that God was under no obligation to do so. So, even though the experience was a struggle for Jacob, it was an honor, at least, to have God's focused attention for that long a time!  But the nature of their activity—wrestling—is also significant.

I am not a particular fan of cats, but I love and live with one who is, so my home, over the years, has served as a maternity ward and nursery for several generations of felines. I have observed that one feature of feline parenting involves an activity that can only be described as wrestling: wrestling between mother and offspring, and wrestling between kittens. We would probably classify it as “play,” and no mortal wounds are inflicted, but it does have the character of struggle; there are winners and losers.  It is, course, a rehearsal for life outside the comforts of the living room, practice for the real world of the great outdoors.  The wrestling match has a very serious and very practical purpose.

And we realize, of course, that mature parenting resists the temptation to "fix" everything for kids. Mothers and fathers know that, sooner or later, they will have to give their offspring the freedom to make choices that will result in suffering. Hopefully, this takes place in small doses and in a relatively safe environment. And sometimes this means that parents themselves are the ones who are the source of this perceived, and hopefully minor, suffering. What relationship between a parent and a child does not sometimes feel, to both parties, like a wrestling match, a wrestling match somewhat less playful than that between two kittens?!  Yet, to deny children this experience will rob them of the tools which they will need to cope with serious adversity later on in life.

And in this aspect, God's parental care is very much like human parental care. An important sign of God's love for us is that he is available to wrestle with us. I would go so far as to say that a relationship with God that doesn't include wrestling is an immature relationship. Human parents don't wrestle with newborn infants because they're too fragile, and they're not yet capable of learning from the experience. If God avoids wrestling with us spiritually, it may be for the same reasons: We're too fragile and not capable of learning from the experience. Those Christians throughout history whose holiness and devotion was so heroic that the larger church calls them "saints" are invariably experienced spiritual wrestlers. Their walk with the Lord has not been easy or mild or filled with unmitigated joy. They have struggled with God in prayer.

This is the notion behind Jesus' admonition to his disciples to “pray always and not to lose heart,” and the parable he told about the woman who simply pestered a government official until he granted her request. God, apparently, doesn't mind if we pester him—or, to describe it another way, if we wrestle with him! He even invites us to do it!

So what are the qualities of a good spiritual wrestler? Looking at the example of Jacob, I would suggest three:

The first is honesty. Jacob was afraid of his meeting with Esau, and he was honest about that fear. It was the whole reason he was alone on the riverbank that night. It won't do to be anything but brutally honest with God. He knows what's in our hearts anyway, so it's not like we can put one over on him!  It is best to tell it to him like it is. If you're angry, be angry, and don't disguise your feelings with polite piety that you think God wants to hear. Remember who you are trying to impress; he can see right through you. If you're depressed, be depressed. If you're fearful, express that fear, name that fear. And if you’re happy, don't try to restrain your joy; let it all out! A good wrestling match is an honest wrestling match.

The second quality of a good wrestler is vulnerability. Jacob didn't shy away from the fight. He didn't even know with whom it was he was wrestling, at first, but he got right in there. You can't wrestle unless you are willing to take the risk of engaging in the struggle. You can't just circle the ring; you've got to get down on the mat and mix it up with your opponent. Sure, it's a risk, but it's a greater risk not to. 

The third quality of a good spiritual wrestler is tenacity, stick-to-it-iveness. Jacob persisted for hours, well past the point of fatigue. It was the Lord himself who called "timeout" and suggested a way of breaking off the struggle. Tenacity means we don't judge the fruits of our efforts by their short-term results. Too often we quit doing something good and healthy because we don't see any immediate benefits from it. Spiritual growth, whether it's the spiritual growth of an individual Christian, or a parish community, or a segment of the universal church, such as the Episcopal Church—spiritual growth, like organic growth, is rarely a “right now” proposition. There can be long delays between sowing and reaping, between planting the seed and harvesting the crop. If we have the discipline, the tenacity, to stick with what we know is right even when we don't feel any great benefit from it, we will be good wrestlers.

Honesty…vulnerability…tenacity.

Jacob finally agreed to break off the struggle with his divine opponent when he was wounded; his hip was put out of joint. But before doing so, he managed to extract a concession from the Lord—a special blessing, the blessing of a new name, the name by which his descendants would be known: Israel. So Jacob emerged from his night of wrestling with two souvenirs: a wound and a blessing.
We need to know that if we take the risk of wrestling with God, we will be changed by the experience. It will be demanding of all our resources. It will, at times, hurt. But the experience of Jacob tells us, and the words of our Lord Jesus tell us, that the blessing is worth the pain.  God the wrestler is ready in the ring. That's the good news today! God loves us enough to make himself available to wrestle with. There are some hard knocks waiting for us in the match, but we will come out of it stronger, better. Are we going to keep God waiting, or are we going to get down on the mat and mix it up with him? Amen.