Sunday, December 31, 2017

First Sunday after Christmas Day

"Slept in" in my Glen Carbon hotel room until 7am (20 minutes later than I'm out of bed on a weekday) and was put together and in the parking lot at St Bartholomew's, Granite City by 8:15, ahead of their regular 8:45am Sunday liturgy. Presided and preached (alongside their Vicar, Bishop Tony Clavier), visited with the people for a bit afterward, and then headed home, arriving a bit before noon. Shoveled off a thin layer of snow on the driveway before heading out to lunch and shopping errands with Brenda. Back in this space on Tuesday, following the holiday.

Sermon for Christmas I

St Bartholomew's, Granite City--John 1:1-18

Science was not my favorite subject in school. In a time when graduation requirements were different than they are today, and with different college entrance requirements, I got through high school with only one year of science—tenth grade biology. In college, I had to take a year of what they called Natural Science, which was essentially “Science for Dummies.” And my lab course in college was Astronomy, which met one evening per week for one trimester. It may be possible that I remember only one thing from that year of Natural Science, and it’s from the portion of the course dedicated to Physics. I’m talking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Entropy. I think the principle of entropy impressed me then, and continues to impress me, because it’s so evidently true. Entropy acknowledges the fact that order will always tend to dissipate into chaos. I’m sure a physicist could cite more sophisticated examples, but on the level of ordinary experience: An untended garden or orchard or field will revert quickly to the natural landscape of the area. You can turn a patch of desert into an oasis, but if you turn off the water, the desert will take over. You can make a clearing in a jungle, but if you put away your machete, the jungle will take over. You can pave a road and erect a building, but if you don’t maintain them, they will be absorbed back into the natural landscape.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is what makes life itself so amazing, though, because life itself seems to fly in the face of entropy. In order for there to be life, there has to be a high degree of order, and no chaos. Atoms have to be bonded to one another to form molecules (see, I know some chemistry too!), and molecules have to be organized in some incredibly complex ways in order to bring into existence even the simplest microscopic organism, and then allow it to reproduce itself. A living human body, for example, depends on a staggering number of coordinated electro-chemical processes working—if not perfectly, then at a minimal level that is still astoundingly complex—literally just to stay alive from one minute to the next. If the systems that supply oxygen to the brain break down just for three or four minutes, there is irreversible damage, leading quite shortly thereafter to death.

So it seems that Life snubs its nose at Entropy. But does it really? Well, if you talk to a creosote bush in the Mojave Desert that is estimated to be some 12,000 years old, you might answer Yes. But most of us are not creosote bushes, and there is some irony in the fact that, the longer we live, the more acutely aware we are of the impermanence of our lives. Some six and a half weeks from now, we will gather for the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, and we will hear those sobering words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Entropy claims its prize in the end. One by one, those coordinated electro-chemical systems shut down. Now, one could argue that our bodies then become a meal for other, lower, forms of life. Or you could point to the fact that, by the time we return to dust, most of us will have reproduced ourselves at least once. But that’s hollow comfort when you’re the one whose body is conspicuously heading that direction!

So, at best, it’s a draw, a stalemate, between Entropy and Life. Life goes on, but Entropy claims every individual. Eventually, even that 12,000-year-old creosote bush will succumb, and be used as some really great kindling for somebody’s campfire. Reproduction is an ingenious counter-attack on the part of Life. It keeps the battle going, but it doesn’t win the war. It’s still a stalemate because the only kind of life we know is derivative life, life that is borrowed, life that is inherited from our parents and their parents before them, and which most of us manage to pass on before we ourselves become food for bacteria.

This is precisely where the Christmas season becomes good news. More precisely, this is where the mystical prologue to St John’s gospel becomes good news. In speaking to us about the eternal Word of God—the Word now made flesh and dwelling among us—John says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In him was life. Christ inherited human life from his virgin mother. But that she indeed was a virgin mother tells us that he also brought with him a sort of life that comes from somewhere else, from a dimension of reality where the Second Law of Thermodynamics has no authority. In his birth, Jesus introduced a new element into the equation of human life and experience. “In him was life.” Not derivative life. Not inherited life. Life in himself. Complete life. Abundant life. Eternal life.

For the first 39 years of my life, I heard about the Grand Canyon, I saw pictures of the Grand Canyon, I even saw it from 35,000 feet while flying over it in a plane. But I had never stood at the rim and looked down at the Colorado River with my own two eyes. My knowledge was second-hand, derivative. Then, in June of 1991, I went there and I saw it. The pictures were great, but nothing compares with the experience. Now my knowledge of the Grand Canyon is first hand; I have knowledge “in myself.” It’s not borrowed or inherited. The difference between my prior knowledge of the Grand Canyon and my present knowledge of the Grand Canyon is only a small portion of the difference between the human life we inherit from our parents and the eternal life that is ours in Christ. The life of Christ is the sort of life that overcomes all that the world puts in its way. The life of Christ is a light that shines in the darkness, and fully penetrates that darkness. In the end, his life overcame even the cross. He breathed his last; his brain was deprived of oxygen. His body was taken down and placed in a tomb. Time for Entropy to do its thing, right? Wrong! “In him was life.” And that life overcame everything in its path.

It continues to do so. And it’s available to us. When we are baptized we begin to partake of that life. When we say our prayers, and reach out in love to others, and take our place in the communal life of the Church, and especially when we receive Holy Communion, we nurture that life. Yes, our bodies will be eaten by worms. Entropy will claim what belongs to it. But it will be a hollow victory, because we now have life in ourselves, because we are in Christ, and Christ has life in himself. Can there be anything more important for us to do than continue to live in the power of that life, and become the light that shines into a dark world?

In the world to come, they’ll have to rewrite the physics textbooks, because a certain law is scheduled to be repealed.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Saturday

I may be too old for this. Left the house right before 5am, headed for the airport in St Louis. Boarded an 8am flight to Dallas, that left 20 minutes late. Got to my connecting gate at DFW just in time to board a 38-minute hop up to Oklahoma City. Got a taxi to All Souls' Church, arriving about an hour ahead of the 2pm scheduled funeral Mass for Bishop Bruce MacPherson, who was a saintly man, a strong shepherd-leader. Our most recent relationship was mutual service on the board of the Living Church Foundation, which he chaired until very recently. Bishop MacPherson died of an unusually acute iteration of leukemia, only about ten days after being diagnosed, and only a few months after "clean" blood work. We're all scratching our heads. We gave him a good sendoff. Shared an Uber ride with the Bishop of Dallas back to the airport, and, when we had both cleared security, we had dinner together. Back to Dallas (another very short layover), back to St Louis, back to Lot A, where I had left my car (and after waiting too long for the shuttle in single-digit temperatures), and on to my room at the Hampton Inn in Glen Carbon, arriving around 11:30. Did I mention I might be getting too old for this?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Saturday (St Thomas Becket)

More Monopoly in the morning--a completion of the drubbing by my nine-year-old granddaughter that began last night. Fortunately for my ego, she and her sister and mother were the last of our holiday house guests, and they set a course back toward there Minnesota home around 2:15. Brenda and I then began the slow process of putting the house back into its just-the-two-of-us mode of being. I leave at 0-dark-thirty tomorrow morning for a day trip (believe it or not) to Oklahoma City for the funeral of a colleague bishop, Bruce MacPherson, with whom it was my honor to serve on the Living Church Foundation board, and as a Communion Partner. The plan is for me to arrive back at STL late Saturday night ahead of my Sunday visit to St Bartholomew's, Granite City.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Holy Innocents

More Monopoly, which is proving to be a great bonding experience with the granddaughter, so ... priceless. But I did make it onto the office for a bit: financial administrivia, conferring with the Archdeacon on various balls in play, refining and printing my homily for this Sunday (St Bartholomew's, Granite City), and putting vestments left in my office is disarray after the Christmas Eve liturgies back into some semblance of order. Also attended the midday Mass for the feast day. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

St John

  • Processed email at home.
  • Engaged a vigorous treadmill workout.
  • Accompanied our Minnesota daughter and her two daughters on a visit to the Lincoln Museum. I've been there so many times I feel like an unofficial docent! 
  • Attended to a significant and yet unresolved administrative/pastoral matter with a substantive email. Sometimes it feels like pushing a glacier uphill.
  • Located a sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas from a prior year and reworked it for use this Sunday at St Bartholomew's, Granite City.
  • Now that we are down to just three houseguests, I was able to begin to restore some regular order to the house. Much more yet to do.
  • The highlight of the day had to be playing Monopoly after dinner with the daughter and granddaughters. I'ts been decades since I've played, and it was great fun.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

St Stephen

Starting to ease gently back into a working routine. With family still around, I didn't make it into the office today, but did attend to several issues by email. We'll ramp it up a bit more tomorrow.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Lazy morning. We have a houseful--three of our own offspring, two spouses, and three grandchildren. Brenda and I slipped out a 9:45 to head across town to St Luke's for their regular 10:30am liturgy We duly kept the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and confirmed one adult to add to everyone's joy. Wonderful post-liturgical repast of Corsican beef stew, Filipino egg rolls, and empanadas. Back to lazing around the house with the family through the afternoon before heading to the cathedral for the 5:30 Mass, where I preached. After some more family time at home, back to St Paul's for the "Midnight" Mass, where I preached and celebrated. Hodie Christus natus est.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve Sermon

Springfield Cathedral

What do you want for Christmas?  Haven’t we heard that question a lot in the last few weeks? Haven’t we asked that question a lot? Sometimes, the answer is quick and definitive, and sometimes it’s slow and vague. I’ve often answered, when asked that question by my wife or children, “All I want is your love and respect,” and I haven’t been completely sarcastic in saying that. Then there’s the occasional politician or beauty pageant contestant who gives the obligatory “world peace” when asked what they want for Christmas.

What do you want for Christmas? What do you really want for Christmas? Ah, well, if you ask it that way, if you want me to actually think seriously about my response, then some different answers begin to emerge. And they depend on how we’re already doing in life. If we’re usually hungry, and live from unplanned meal to unplanned meal, then food is what we want for Christmas. If we’re living on the street or under a bridge, secure shelter is what we want for Christmas. The same goes for warmth and clothing. If we’re lonely, what we want for Christmas is a friend to waste time with, and perhaps even love. If we’re feeling directionless and rudderless in life, then what we want for Christmas is a clear sense of calling and vocation. If we’re among the walking wounded, either physically or emotionally, then nothing would brighten our Christmas more than health and healing. If we have a keen sense of our own smallness and insignificance in a vast universe, then we have no more powerful desire than to have some contact with the Transcendent Other, the eternal, the holy—we crave some vision of the Divine, a glimpse of the face of God.

Now, when I open my gifts tomorrow morning, whatever they may be, I’m going to grin broadly and say “Thank-you” for whatever I get, and I will be sincerely grateful. After all, you have to play that hand you’re actually dealt. So, it might be profitable to also ask the question, What is God’s gift to us at Christmas? Regardless of what we might want, what is it that God actually gives us? “God,” of course, is a malleable concept, and that’s why it’s a concept most of us like, because we can define it so many different ways, one of which is bound to suit us. Traditional Christian liturgy and theology has a particular way of talking about God. Non-traditional Christianity offers some alternative language. Judaism, Islam, and the great Asian religions each speak of God in a distinctive manner. Yes, the great majority of people are fond of the concept of “God.”

Yet, at the same time, in the deepest places of our hearts, we have little use for “God the Concept.” God-the-Concept doesn’t have a lot of hope or encouragement to offer us in our hunger and cold and vulnerability and woundedness. God-the-Concept is of scant assistance to us in our desire for a loving relationship with another person, or direction and confidence in life, or a personal relationship with a personal Transcendent Other. My friends, this is my joyful news to you on this holy night. This is God’s gift to us on Christmas: Christmas assures us that God is not a concept; God is not an idea, an abstraction, a theory. Tonight, God is a baby, born not just somewhere “far, far away and long, long ago,” but in a particular place—Bethlehem of Judea—and at a particular time—during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria—born not of some abstract mother, but of a particular woman—Mary, from Nazareth, the wife of Joseph and the daughter of Joachim and Anne; in a particular stable in a definite place, not to be confused with the one next to it, with particular animals, and not others, and particular smells. This baby is dressed in particular clothes and laid in a definite manger on real hay, not conceptual hay.

This is what is known in Christian theology as the “scandal of particularity.” It’s virtually the exact opposite of “God the Concept.” It takes seriously the reality that God is God and we’re not God. It recognizes the fact that God is not invented or designed by human intelligence, God is not a mere reflection or projection of our insecurities and desires and hopes. God is a definite God, who has this kind of nature and not that kind of nature, who does and says this, and not that. This is all another way of saying that God is in the details—God is in the concrete details of our particular fears, our particular loneliness, our particular woundedness, and our particular hunger for direction and vocation. God’s gift to us at Christmas is simply that He is who He is. The particularity of God is a scandal because we have to play the hand we’re dealt, we have to come to terms with the God who is, not the God we would invent.

And when we drop our resistance, and embrace the scandal, we begin to live. We’ve all made a move like that at least once before—no exceptions. We made that move when we were born. For nine comfortable months, we were the guest of honor in our mother’s womb. It was a pretty good life. Then, one day not of our own choosing, everything changed. When the doctor or midwife cut the umbilical cord that was our only previous source of oxygen and nutrition, we had to make a decision to embrace the new reality and breathe on our own, or else perish. We’re all here today because we embraced our own personal scandal of particularity, and chose life.

Tonight, God is a baby, a particular baby, and not some other baby. This is God’s gift to us. Only one question remains: What is our gift to God at Christmas? What does God want for Christmas? God wants me. God wants you. The response that would warm the heart of God this night would be for each of us to offer Jesus our mind, our heart, and our will; to let Jesus into our past to heal old wounds, and into our future to provide direction and vocation. Receive the gift and become a gift. Merry Christmas, and Amen.

Sermon for !V Advent

St Luke's, Springfield--Luke 1:26-38

These last few days, the last week before Christmas, is the peak period for the arrival of Christmas cards in each day’s mail. I enjoy them, but I don’t enjoy all of them equally. Even a trite, unattractive card containing a short hand-written note from someone I know personally is much more valuable to me than an elegant and beautiful card with a printed signature from someone who knows me only as a customer or potential donor.

And as I think about my feelings around Christmas cards, I’m aware that I sort all the mail I get throughout the year, whether at home or in the office, by a quite subjective and emotional standard. A “good mail day” is when there’s an envelope with a hand-written address. These go immediately to the top of the stack and I feel kind of excited and eager as I open them. What’s actually inside the envelope may be good, bad, or indifferent, but at least I know that somebody has something to say to me, person to person, a message that a zillion other people aren’t getting duplicates of.

A disappointing “mail day” is when all the items have an address label, or some sort of fancy bar code above my name. What’s inside may be important, or even exciting, but it’s impersonal, just another of a number of envelopes that were dropped into the mail as a bundle, neatly sorted by zip code and organized with rubber bands.

Of course, nowadays, most of my mail is actually email, but the same rules apply. Most of the actual spam gets filtered out before I even see it, but there’s still lots of mail from companies that I’ve done business with in the past and probably will in the future, so I don’t tag them as spam, but which I don’t really want to hear from several times a week. Those messages usually get deleted as a batch, without being read, because I want to focus on the ones that are actually substantive and important.

When Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was governor of Syria, and Herod king of Judea, a young woman named Mary, living in a village called Nazareth, received a highly personal and highly important piece of “mail.” The sender of this mail was God, and the message was so personal and so important that he sent it “special delivery,” by means of an angel called Gabriel.
In fact, the message was so personal and so important, that it wasn’t even written down — Gabriel was himself a “living letter.”

In this case, the impressiveness of the message was matched by an appropriately impressive medium. And Mary herself responded accordingly. Only a cold and faithless heart could have done otherwise. Sure, we have great admiration for Mary because of her faithful response to Gabriel’s message. We venerate her as higher than the Seraphim and more glorious than the Cherubim. But we think, given the same circumstances, given an equally personalized and attention-getting package, we would have done the same: we would have responded as she did. I doubt that there is a man, woman, [or child] in this congregation who, if on the receiving end of an angelic visitation that conveyed direct orders from Almighty God — or even a polite request — if any of us got a message from an angel, we would all salute and say “Yes, sir!” right?

But what if  …  what if the news of the Annunciation, the news that Mary would be the mother of the Messiah, had come by means of bulk mail, with an address label and a bar code above the name? What if it had been caught in a spam filter? What might Mary have done then?

Now, I have a pretty healthy imagination, but I’m not going to try and answer that one. This much I can say, however:  If Mary had gotten her annunciation by bulk mail, at least, then, we would feel like she is playing in the same league we play in. At least her message from God would be packaged the same way we feel like ours are. That is to say, it really wouldn’t be all that special. It really wouldn’t be very important or very personal.

Is this not so often the way we think of God’s call on our lives? Mary and the other heroes and heroines of the Bible get their personal assignment from God special delivery, but ours comes bulk mail. It isn’t really personal. It isn’t really particular. It’s just a general invitation to just somehow be on God’s side, but in no specific way. We don’t have a sense of being given personal, concrete, marching orders in the army of God’s kingdom.

And the response we give to this invitation that we perceive as general and vague is equally general and vague. We respond just enough to fool ourselves and others into thinking that sure, we’re on God’s side, answering God’s call. But deep down, we know that something’s missing. We’re nibbling around the edges, but never really sinking our teeth into what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ. We may know people who appear to be taking a full bite of Christianity, people whose relationship with God seems as real and as vital and as natural as their relationship with the members of their own family. We keep them at arm’s length. We’re not sure what to do with such people.

On one level, we’re envious. They behave as they believe. They act as though the gospel is actually true: that God did take human flesh in the person of Jesus, that Jesus did die and rise from the dead in order to reconcile us to God, and that the liberating and life-changing power of the Holy Spirit is available in the worship and work and witness of the church. We’re envious. We’d like that peace and confidence for ourselves. But too often, our envy is expressed in suspicion. They’re weird! They’re fanatics! They’re … you know … “religious.”

When I was in high school, I had a good friend who knew of my Christian commitment. He once told me, “Martins, I wish I could be half as religious as you are.” I don’t remember how I responded, but I remember thinking, “Well, you could be. It’s not a matter of passing a test or winning a lottery. It’s just a decision.”

Mary’s call from God came special delivery. And she did two important things in response. First, she accepted the message unconditionally: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She was humble and she was obedient. Our call from God looks like it comes bulk mail, but there’s nothing to prevent us from saying “Yes” to it, no matter how unspectacular it may be. There’s no law against imitating Mary’s humble and obedient response.

Second, Mary told somebody about her call, about her special assignment. She went and visited her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a special assignment of her own, as the angel had informed Mary — to be the mother of the Messiah’s setup man, his warm-up act, John the Baptist — and if it had not come special delivery like Mary’s, it was at least first class. So Mary shared with another human being the fact that she had said “Yes” to God. It’s important that you and I do the same. We cannot say Yes to God privately and then act like it’s no big deal when we’re around other people. It is good for us to let others know that, as the song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It holds us accountable to our decision.

You know, I’ve gotten some pretty important messages in letters that were addressed with stick-on labels. Some of them have even contained money! So let us not make too much of the distinction between Mary’s package and ours. God calls each one of us as particularly and as concretely as he called Mary. Our assignment may not be as obviously critical as hers was, but God nonetheless calls us each by name and has a unique assignment for us in the economy of his kingdom.

Mary was pronounced “blessed” by Elizabeth, first, simply in recognition that she had been chosen by God for an important assignment: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” But a moment later, Elizabeth calls Mary “blessed” a second time: “Blessed … is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” This time, Luke the Evangelist uses a different Greek word for “blessed”, one with a much stronger and more specific connotation of joy — the kind of joy that comes through participating in God’s redemptive activity in human affairs. Mary was blessed by her call, but still more blessed by her response to that call — by her faith, by her belief, in the authenticity of that call.

We are all blessed today, because in the power of the Holy Spirit acting through the gathered church in the sacrament of baptism, we have been graciously called by God into his service. My call is personal and it is important. So is yours. Between that call, and the experience of true joy — serene, peaceful, confident joy; not mere happiness, but true joy — between God’s call and our experience of joy, lies our response. Will we decide to be obedient? Will we share that decision publicly? What a truly merry Christmas we might have if we do. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Friday

  • In the office at 9:00 for a meeting with the Archdeacon and the President of the Disciplinary Board.
  • Spent the rest of the day at home, where, since it is an odd-numbered year, we are gradually acquiring a houseful of descendants.
  • Engaged yet again the process of trying to cobble together an agreement to create the Geographic Parish of McLean County.
  • Edited, refined, and printed my Christmas Eve homily.
  • Lectio divina on the daily office OT reading for the day.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

St Thomas (O Oriens)

  • 90 minutes on the treadmill. MP while cooling down.
  • Task planning and some email processing over breakfast.
  • In the office around 10:15. Conferred briefly with the Dean.
  • Conferred briefly with the Communicator on an ongoing project.
  • Wrote and sent an email to a priest whose ordination anniversary this is.
  • Worked on my homily for Epiphany I (January 7 at Trinity, Lincoln). Brought it from the "message statement" phase to the "developed outline" phase.
  • Hand-wrote a note of condolence to a colleague bishop who has suffered the death of a close family member.
  • Prepared the contents of a ceremonial binder with parts of the Christmas Eve liturgy that are proper to the Bishop--large print for aging eyes being the guiding rubric here.
  • Attended the Mass for the feast day of St Thomas, which is the 28th anniversary of my own first Mass.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Cooperating with the Dean in a videography project in support of the cathedral's social media footprint. It involved donning an alb, stole, cope, and mitre; holding a crozier, and swinging a thurible. I'm eager to see the results.
  • Attended to an ongoing bit of pastoral/administrative business. It was a time-consuming slog, but important.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Wednesday (O Clavis David)

  • Usual weekday AM routine. MP in the cathedral.
  • Dashed off an email note to a priest celebrating an ordination anniversary today.
  • Got to work editing and refining the text of my homily this Sunday.
  • Stepped out for a healthcare appointment.
  • Spoke by phone with one of our clergy over an ongoing pastoral/administrative matter that continues to be vexing.
  • Back to that Advent IV sermon work.
  • Lunch from TG, eaten at home.
  • Got back to the office and inadvertently got myself consumed in a personal organization project which was not at all urgent, but didn't require much mental or emotional energy, and was kind of fun in a nerdy sort of way. It would have eventually needed doing, but certainly not today. It took some time, though. That happens once in a while.
  • Spoke by phone with my ELCA opppsite number, Bishop Roth.
  • Wrote my notes to clergy with nodal events in January.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tuesday (O Radix Jesse)

  • Task planning over breakfast. Took a little extra time at home to prepare staff Christmas gifts for delivery.
  • Brief consultation with the Archdeacon on last week's "black swan" matter.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Attended to some administrative details of a matter related to a couple of our clergy.
  • Stepped out for a meeting with my personal financial advisor (who is conveniently only a block away).
  • Began deconstructing and old homily for Advent IV toward the end of reconstructing it for use this Sunday at St Luke's, Springfield.
  • Pulled pork lunch from HyVee, eaten at home.
  • Met with the Dean in preparation for our mutual participation in the two Christmas Eve Masses at the cathedral.
  • Took a phone call from one of our clergy.
  • Got back to that sermon prep task I'd started before lunch.
  • Conferred with the Archdeacon again, this time on another matter.
  • Conferred by email with the rector of a Eucharistic Community that I will be visiting in early January.
  • Followed up with a bit of Forward Movement board-related business.
  • Rummaged through old Christmas homilies (this is the 29th Christmas Eve on which it has been my joy to preach), and found one that I can re-purpose for use at Springfield Cathedral this year.
  • Responded to a request from a worthy cause for a contribution from my discretionary fund.
  • Read and responded to an Ember Day letter from one of our postulants.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Third Sunday of Advent

Because of the unexpected "black swan" event of the past week, my visitation schedule was altered slightly. Today I headed out at 6:45 to cover the 9:30 liturgy at St Thomas', Salem and the 11:30 at St John's, Centralia, along with some conversation with each congregation. Home a little past 4:00. Since my dance card was already open on Advent IV, I was able to push today's scheduled visitation to St Luke's, Springfield to next Sunday.

Sermon for III Advent

 St Luke’s, Springfield--John 1:6-8, 19-29

If you’re at all like me, you probably get most of your news these days from the internet. On my laptop, I have a browser tab open to what they call a “news aggregator.” I tell it what topics I’m interested in and it feeds me stories from dozens of different sources. One of the topics I’ve told my news aggregator to be interested in is Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular. There’s a consistent theme to what shows up in my feed: Christianity in general and Anglican Christianity in particular are both in severe decline in the “developed” world—North America and Europe. Both are doing better in Africa and Asia, but, where we live, it’s one grim report after another.

I actually hear a similar story as I visit the churches of the Diocese of Springfield. People are anxious about shrinking membership and advancing average age. If we were to put both of those statistical trends on a graph, it would be pretty clear where the lines lead, and it’s not to a happy place. “How can we get more of ‘them out there’ to join ‘us in here’?” is what I hear over and over again. Is it better youth programs? Adding more “contemporary” music? Better signs? Better website? I have these conversations all over the diocese, and they’re being had all over the Episcopal Church, and, actually, all across the “brand name” lines among Christian communities. We live now in what is surely a “post-Christian” society. Christianity no longer enjoys the perks and privileges that it did for most of our nation’s history. It’s no longer a social expectation to belong to a church, and it’s certainly not, at the present time, in any way “cool.” And if you scratch the surface of the anxiety in church communities, even the ones Episcopalians are envious of, the ones with rock bands and smoke machines and coffee bars in the lobby, it’s quickly apparent that the concern is not about failing in our mission, but about finding more people who can share the financial burden, so we don’t just go “out of business.”

So, in many places, we seem to have adopted a strategy of calling attention to ourselves. In the parish where I was rector in Louisiana 25 years ago, we produced a video about our church and had it copied on hundreds of VHS cassettes, put them in plastic bags, and hung them on doorknobs in the neighborhoods surrounding the church. In my next parish, in central California around the last turn of the century, we produced video ads and paid for them to run on various cable TV channels. And that’s just a couple of examples from my own direct experience, but there are hundreds of other ways churches have tried to call attention to themselves. Some are kind of clever and creative—I like to think the stuff I was involved with fell into that category, but, I must admit, they didn’t really produce any results to speak of—some efforts at calling attention to ourselves are clever and others are kind of silly and boring. But what they all have in common is that they say, “Hey, look at us! We’re doing XYZ!”—whatever you think distinguishes your church from all the others, or from the experience of just not going to church.

But today we encounter the example of John the Baptist.  John was certainly an attention-getting figure, with his strange clothing and strange diet and strange behavior. If you were in the same neighborhood with John, you certainly weren’t going to miss him. John’s job was to prepare the way for Jesus. He was just the warmup act, not the main event. And our little snippet from the Gospel of John this morning reminds us that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus specifically by not calling attention himself, but by calling attention to Jesus. What we witness in this passage is that John is, in effect, put on trial by the religious authorities of Judaism: “Are you Elijah?” they ask. And John answers, “No.” “Are you the Messiah?” Again, “No.” John always points away from himself and toward Jesus. In fact, if you see a painting or an icon that represents John, chances are you’re going to see him pointing to Jesus. It’s what John was born for, and it’s what he did.  “One is coming after me,” John says, “and I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes, let along fill his shoes.”

Is there an example here for us? If we look at the places in the world where Christianity, Anglican and otherwise, is thriving and growing—both in our own “post-Christian” culture and in areas where the faith is “younger” than it is here, where the good news of Christ was planted more recently, places like Tanzania, where we have a companion relationship with the Diocese of Tabora, where people from Springfield have visited—when we look at these places, the common factor we discover is the habit, the unfailing and deeply-engraved habit, of calling attention to Jesus, not to themselves. Thriving churches point to Jesus: It’s not about us and all the great things we have to offer, it’s about Jesus, and who Jesus is, and all the great things Jesus has to offer.

When we call attention to ourselves, we end up boring the world around us with our irrelevance. Imagine how we look to people, with our tens of thousands of different Christian “brand names,” squabbling amongst ourselves for turf. In September, the bishops of the Episcopal Church met for several days in Fairbanks, Alaska. One of the things I learned on that trip was that, during the 1800s, when Christian missionaries were working heroically to bring the gospel to the native peoples of the Alaskan interior, the various Christian bodies soon realized that none of them had the resources to have a presence and work to plant to church in every village. So they did something that was pretty rare in those days: they agreed among themselves to divide the territory. The Anglicans went to some, the Presbyterians to others, and so forth. And it worked! The interior of Alaska became virtually 100% Christian within a few decades. They didn’t point to themselves; they pointed to Jesus. When we point to ourselves, we unintentionally sow seeds of skepticism and cynicism. We lose touch with the point of what we’re doing, and we fail miserably in our mission.

When we make it a habit to call attention to Jesus, we end up being what we’re supposed to be as the Church. Our job is not to change the world, but to announce that God is in the process of changing the world. Our job is not to land the plane of the Kingdom of God, but to be the runway lights for that plane. Our job is to live with one another in love and faithfulness so that we show the world what the Kingdom of God is going to look like when God himself lands the plane.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday

  • Task planning at home; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Proactive pastoral check-in by email.
  • Began the process of gathering my thoughts, and making some notes, on my next-due Covenant blog post. This is going to be a substantial essay. It took the rest of the morning.
  • Except that I did leave a bit on the early side in order to drop by McD's and be home at noon to meet an electrician. That also took a while. Back in the office at 2:15.
  • Booked travel to Houston in January. I've been invited to preach at a Choral Evensong during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the cathedral church of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter (a sort of non-geographic Roman Catholic diocese that worships using language from the Prayer Book tradition in particular and music from the Anglican tradition in general).
  • Scanned and otherwise processed accumulated hard copy.
  • Prayed the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, followed by an earlyish Evening Prayer.
  • Left the office at 4:15 to go home and get a treadmill workout in before dinner.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thursday

  • 90 minutes on the treadmill. Morning Prayer while cooling off.
  • Task planning over breakfast. Such things ebb and flow. While December tends to be a busy month for parish clergy, my experience as a bishop has been the opposite. Were it not for the urgent matter that consumed yesterday (and much of today), I would be down to that list of "when I can get around to it" tasks.
  • In the office, brief consultations with the Communicator and the Archdeacon. Some light email processing.
  • Left a voicemail with the Chancellor of another diocese who has some technical expertise in the clergy discipline canons.
  • First get-to-know-you interview with a lay communicant who wishes to test a vocation to Holy Orders.
  • Met with one of our clergy, who both does supply work around the diocese and has some pre-ordination technical expertise that is potentially helpful in an ongoing matter.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Signed and sealed ordination certificates for two transitional deacons who are serving in another diocese and will be ordained to the priesthood there on my behalf.
  • More emails, phone calls, and conferences about yesterday's Big Development.
  • Wrote congratulatory emails to clergy celebrating ordination anniversaries over the next three days.
  • Short form EP on the way home.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wednesday (St Lucy)

Some have teased me over my seeming passion for personal organization and non-procrastination. (For example, when I have to give a from-scratch Sunday sermon, it's a six-week process of incubation and development.) Well ... today is the reason I endure the teasing. A piece of certified mail arriving in the office late yesterday afternoon looped me into a situation that consumed my entire morning, and much of the afternoon. The fact that I'm basically on top of my routine work means that I can absorb black swans like this and not go into meltdown. And, no, I can't say anything about that certified mail. I did manage to get a little bit of other work done, though even some of that was focused on a different iteration of the same genre of issue that consumed most of the day. Sent a couple of emails acknowledging ordination anniversaries, and brought some clarity to my gestating homily for the Baptism of Christ (January 7). With gratitude, I was able to pray both the morning and evening offices, in the cathedral. Rarely has it been so essential.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tuesday

  • Daily and weekly task planning (and email processing) over breakfast, as well as some blog reading.
  • Since we had an electrician scheduled to come by at 10, I got to work on my day at home. Morning Prayer in my recliner.
  • Took care of a bit of personal healthcare business on Brenda's behalf.
  • Via email and Doodle poll, attended to a piece of General Convention-related business.
  • Took care of a bit of pastoral/administrative business via email.
  • Met with the electrician. Problems solved or on the way thereto.
  • Spoke by phone with a colleague bishop about an individual in the ordination process. Then headed to the office.
  • Prepared to preside and preach at the midday liturgy.
  • Consulted with the Administrator around a relatively minor technical issue that is not altogether clear.
  • Presided and preached at the cathedral Mass, keeping the lesser (and less-than-official) feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
  • Chinese lunch from HyVee, eaten at home.
  • Edited, refined, and printed a working text of my homily for this Sunday, to be delivered at St Luke's, Springfield.
  • Drafted, printed, signed, scanned, and emailed a formal letter of invitation to the Bishop of Tabora to come and visit us next June. It's already been mostly worked out informally, but he needs something formal to begin the arduous process of getting travel documents from the U.S. State Department.
  • Refined and edited the draft of my next video presentation in the Marks of Discipleship series. Sent it off the Paige for her to get working on it.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent

Shared in Word and Sacrament with Fr Ian Wetmore and the good people of St Michael's, O'Fallon at their regular 9:30am liturgy. This was preceded by a teaching opportunity with attendees at their adult education class, wherein we discussed the morphology of Advent. (No worries, I didn't actually use that word until the end of the time.) After the Mass, there was a bake-sale-on-steroids, and I dutifully left with a pound of purchased cookies.

Sermon for Advent II

St Michael's, O'Fallon--Mark 1:1-8; II Peter 3:8-15, 18

I and those of my generation are children of the space age. Many of you are of that same generation. When a manned space mission was launched, all three television networks interrupted their regular programming and showed it live. We grew up familiar with the voice of mission control saying “T-minus 47 minutes and counting” or “T-minus sixteen minutes and holding.” We got worried when the countdown was “holding,” because it meant there was a problem, and sometimes the hold lasted several hours or even a day. It was as if time stood still, and we ached for the gratification of hearing the final countdown—Ten-nine-eight-seven…and down to “We have liftoff.”

But the idea of a “countdown” leading up to an eagerly-anticipated event is not something new with the space age. Many of you are probably familiar with the tradition of the Advent calendar. Every day during Advent a little door opens up, or a space is uncovered, revealing some church symbol or biblical prophecy that points to the coming of Christ. The Advent calendar unmistakably says, if not in so many words, “Christmas is coming.” It is a countdown to December 25. But it also keeps those who use it focused on the spiritual themes of Advent, which are waiting, hoping, and preparing.

In calendar time, then—whether it’s an Advent calendar or just an ordinary one—there are now three more weeks and one day until Christmas. The countdown is under way, and it’s always “counting,” never “holding”! I’m sure here at St Michael’s, preparations are already underway. Perhaps the choir is beginning to rehearse special music for Christmas Eve. I would bet that the Altar Guild has planned for poinsettias and greenery with which to decorate the church. Many of you have no doubt made travel arrangements for yourselves or loved ones. Some of us have already done a good bit of shopping and meal planning, and that sort of thing. Even in the midst of the world’s generic “holiday” frenzy, Christians are—subliminally, at least—Christians are aware of an ongoing countdown, a climax toward which all these preparations are aimed.

So that’s “calendar time.” In what we might call “cosmic time,” nobody except God knows exactly where we are in the countdown. All that the Christian faith reveals to us is that life is indeed one long countdown to the end of reality as we know it. The present scheme of things is temporary. It may end tonight; it may go on for thousands of years longer. But it’s temporary. As we have seen over the past several Sundays, from a faith-filled perspective, the end of history is something to look forward to with hope and joy, but it is intimidating nonetheless. As long ago as the lifetime of St Peter, there were those who were getting antsy about what seemed like an interminable delay in the second coming of our Lord. They were eager for it to happen—right now! Peter wrote and reminded them that any delay in the end of this present age and the inauguration of the world to come is purely for our benefit:
The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish…
And when the forbearance is over? Peter writes,
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. 
OK, with that in mind, I, for one, am very grateful for the forbearance!

So there’s calendar time, cosmic time, and also liturgical time—church time. It’s Advent, and John the Baptist— the forerunner, the way-paver, the advance man, the harbinger, the dominating symbol of “mid-Advent”—What’s he up to, anyway? St Mark’s gospel tells us that
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 
John’s preaching and people’s lives are changing. They’re confessing their sins and getting baptized. They’re repenting. John says, in effect, “I’m just the warm-up act. The main event is coming right behind me and—take my word—it’s something you’re going to want to be ready for.” There was a countdown in John the Baptist’s ministry. There wasn’t a precise clock, but it was definitely “T-minus not-very-much and counting.” There was a sense of urgency. Ignition and liftoff were imminent. The more aware we are of the nearness of Christ—whether we’re speaking chronologically, cosmically, or liturgically—the more aware we are of the approaching arrival of Christ, the more irresistible becomes the urge to repent. The nearness of Christ naturally evokes a response of repentance.

What is repentance? Repentance is a change of mind that leads to change in behavior. If you’re in the habit of voting Republican, but realize one day that you really do believe that government should be the key player in solving social problems, and start to vote Democratic, that’s repentance. If you’re a fan of—dare I say it? the Chicago Cubs, but come to believe that the St Louis Cardinals are more worthy of your attention and support, and you paint your house—which was previously blue with red trim—you paint your house red with white trim, that’s repentance. Just an example, mind you—it could work the other way as well! Now, repentance often also leads to a change of heart. But it’s the change of mind and change of behavior that are closer to the core of repentance. Actual change of heart often brings up the rear, arriving on the scene after change of mind and change of behavior have already settled in.

The sort of repentance that Advent evokes is not necessarily breast-beating sorrow. We misunderstand repentance if we identify it with a dramatic and emotional display of contrition. Still less is repentance a matter of hating oneself, or wallowing in shame. Rather, repentance springs from the same place that we get a desire to please someone whom we respect and admire and perhaps love. When a child cleans up her room or empties the dishwasher because she knows it will make her mother so happy, and there is joy for her in the prospect of her mother’s happiness, that behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a student puts extra effort into an assignment because he is just in awe of his teacher, and there is joy for him in the prospect of making that teacher proud, such behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a soldier—or, around here, I guess I should say Airman!—when a member of the armed forces gives extraordinary attention to duty out of an overflowing admiration for the leadership of his commanding officer, and the thought of pleasing that commanding officer is a source of joy and pride for him, such behavior springs from the same place that gives birth to repentance.

Christ is coming. The countdown is proceeding. And when he comes, we want him to be pleased with us. We want him to find us at our posts, doing our duty, fully prepared to greet him, and filled with joyful hope. So we repent. We repent by taking inventory of our lives, by naming and turning aside from all those things that might divert our attention from him, so that when the countdown reaches T-minus zero, we will not be afraid or ashamed, but will rejoice to behold his appearing. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Saturday

Spent the morning moderating a conversation between two deacons, three priests, and a candidate for the vocational diaconate, the purpose of which was to assess the academic preparedness of the latter. The unanimous verdict was in the affirmative, and, pending the consent of the Commission on Ministry and Standing Committee, we look forward to ordaining Chris Gregory on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul next month. Putting around at home, subjected myself to a vigorous treadmill workout, and, after dinner, made tracks in the YFNBmobile for O'Fallon, where I am ensconced at the Hilton Garden Inn ahead of tomorrow's visitation to St Michael's.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday (Immaculate Conception)

  • Always angling for greater efficiency in the planning and execution of my life and work, I am habitually promiscuous when it comes to personal organization software. I've just decided to make another move, which consumed a chunk of time at home last night and another chunk this morning. This may be about deeper psychological issues, but it will take a shrink to sort that out. Anyway, I got a late start to the actual work day.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Consulted with the Administrator briefly.
  • Continued to joust with technology.
  • Prepared, sealed, and signed a certificate appointing Father Andy Hook as diocesan exorcist. He has background, interest, and training in this area, and I am grateful for his availability to embrace this ministry. Of course, like the members of the Disciplinary Board, Dean Hook, I'm sure, hopes he never has to act on these newly-conferred credentials. But it's wise to be ready. The "elemental spirits" of universe that revel against God are real.
  • Joined a video conference of the Forward Movement board.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Emailed some clergy with upcoming ordination anniversaries.
  • Hand-wrote notes to accompany checks to some the outreach grant recipients approved at the last Diocesan Council meeting.
  • Scanned and otherwise processed the contents of my physical inbox, a routine chore.
  • Spend a "holy hour" (not actually an entire hour, but a substantial portion thereof) in the presence of Christ as he is manifest in the Blessed Sacrament.
  • Attended to a piece of personal business.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Thursday (St Ambrose)

  • Began the day with about 90 minutes on the treadmill. Morning Prayer while I was cooling off. Task planning over breakfast. At the offce around 9:45.
  • Attended to some fairly low-level General Convention-related business.
  • Cleaned up my computer desktop. Routine maintenance.
  • Stepped out for a personal meeting.
  • Took a phone call from one of our rectors about an ordination-process issue.
  • Attended to a Gnosis issue (we *will* be victorious!).
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • More work with the Gnosis issue. Incremental success.
  • Off to another personal meeting.
  • Took my homily for Advent III from "developed outline" to "rough draft."
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Wednesday (St Nicholas)

  • Task planning at home. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Conferred with Paige briefly on a website issue.
  • Hand-wrote a note of condolence to a colleague bishop whose wife suddenly died last week.
  • Began a round of telephone tag with one of our clergy.
  • Organized sermon preparation work for the Sundays after Epiphany.
  • Spent a good chunk of quality time with two excellent commentaries on the Gospel of Mark in preparation for preaching at Trinity, Lincoln on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 7. I relish opportunities to do this sort of thing, not only for however it helps my preaching, but just to be able to get deep into the weeds on a particular biblical passage. Tonic for the soul.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Shopped for and ordered staff Christmas gifts.
  • Reviewed a proposal from Ancestry.com to digitize, at no cost to us, whatever nodal life event records we have in our archives, plus those of the cathedral. Discussed the proposal with the Dean.
  • Read the latest newsletter of the Illinois Conference of Churches.
  • Read newsletters sent by a couple of our Eucharistic Communities. (So, yes, if you send them, I read them.)
  • Consulted with the Administrator (who is the goddess of all things pertaining to insurance) and then proceeded to apply online for Medicare, Part A. I guess this is a rite of passage, or sorts. I feel older, but not necessarily wiser.
  • Drafted the text of what, God willing, will become the third video installment in the Seven Marks of Christian Disciples series. This one is on "The Narrative Arc of Scripture." In less than 800 words!
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tuesday (St Clement of Alexandria)

  • Weekly and daily task planning at home.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Reviewed some items of administrivia with--appropriately enough--the Administrator (whose path, between travel, holidays, and illness, has not crossed mine it what feels like a very long time).
  • Got into the weeds with the Archdeacon on an ongoing pastoral situation. Left a voicemail in consequence of that conversation.
  • Got to work on further revision and editing of my homily for this Sunday.
  • Left at 11:30 to take Brenda to a dental appointment. Afterward, we grabbed lunch from the *other* Taco Gringo in town and brought it home to eat.
  • Returned to the sermon prep, concluding with a printed text in my car and e-versions scheduled to post online Sunday right when the liturgy begins at St Michael's, O'Fallon.
  • Got through to the Bishop of New Jersey to ask him to act on my behalf with respect the two of our transitional deacons who are working in his diocese and who now have Standing Committee approval for ordination to the presbyterate.
  • Composed and sent a substantive and formal email to the chairman of the Commission on Ministry, with the President of the Standing overhearing, a request for action on their part that will move the ball down the field in the case of a former Roman Catholic priest who wishes to be received as a priest in TEC.
  • Via email, took care of some substantive Communion Partners business.
  • Emailed the Treasurer and the Chair of Finance on a matter of financial administration.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

First Sunday of Advent

Great start to Advent with the folks of St John’s, Centralia. Important discussion afterward with them and some of the Redeemer Lutheran congregation, who now use the facilities at St John's at an earlier hour but will soon lose the supply pastor, about a linked relationship in shared services, with Fr David Baumann as pastor and priest to both, but maintaining both individual and congregational identities in TEC and ELCA. Trying to live into the aspiration of the sign.

Sermon for Advent Sunday

St John's, Centralia--Mark 13:24-37

When Brenda and I were first married, we lived in a small carriage house apartment in downtown Santa Barbara, California. In the house next door to us, at the beginning of our time there, was a couple whom we never got to know more than in passing. Yet, we actually knew them better than they wanted us to, perhaps, because they fought—they fought often and they fought loud. When they really got going, it was not uncommon to hear dishes being smashed. They eventually moved, presumably to separate locations. Maybe they just finally ran out of dishes!

I would hope that, for most of us, dish-smashing fights have not been a part of our domestic experience. Yet, virtually all of us have behaved in ways that could be fairly described as destructive. Through things we have said or done—or left unsaid or undone—we have destroyed parts of the hearts and souls of other people, usually the very people whom we love, and who love us, the most. And when we behave destructively, it’s almost always because we’re angry. So when we hear in the scriptures about God destroying something or threatening to destroy something, it’s not unreasonable for us to suppose that God is motivated by the same forces that move us to act in similar ways—namely, anger and vengeance.

Today’s selection from St Mark’s gospel is one such passage. We hear about the sun and the moon going dark, and stars falling from the sky. This explains why, when the Leonid meteor shower made its every thirty-three year appearance over this part of the country back in the 1830s, people thought it was Judgment Day, the end of the world! If God is going to do something as drastic as destroying the sun and the moon and the stars—which is, in effect, to destroy the earth—then he must be really upset about something!

This knowledge that God seems to be in a lousy mood leads different people to different responses. Some of us might instinctively scramble to find out just what it might take to appease God. What is it, we ask ourselves, that we might do or say that would buy him off, settle him down long enough to cut us some slack? We’re willing to do what it takes, mind you, but not any more than that. We’d prefer to lowball God, if possible, and not “spend” any more of ourselves on his behalf than we have to. After all, we’ve got real lives to live, and can’t afford to be perpetually distracted by trying to keep God happy. So we try coming to church more regularly, or being more generous with what we put in the offering plate. We resolve to say Grace before meals, or maybe even pray a little bit at bedtime. Maybe these measures will be just enough to deflect God’s destructive anger some place where it won’t do us any harm.

Others among us—those with a little more native courage, perhaps—others among us determine to confront God directly, to look him in the eye and shake our fist defiantly, and say, “This isn’t fair. I haven’t done anything to deserve being treated this way. So do what you will with me, but I’m not going to give you the time of day.” This may strike us as blasphemous, of course, but in a way, it’s more honest, and has a certain amount of integrity, in comparison with the “minimal appeasement” strategy.

Most people, perhaps, would prefer to simply not deal with God’s destructiveness, and whether or not it means that he’s angry, so they just ignore the question altogether. Table the motion. Take it up at the next meeting. In the meantime, there are things to do and places to go and people to see. The only problem is, for those of us who come to church, the season of Advent doesn’t let us get away with such an attitude. It smacks us across the head and says, “Wake up! Pay attention! God is about to do something important, something you won’t want to miss!”

The real issue, however, may be that we have invested too much energy in trying to make God over in our image. We assume that God is destructive because he’s angry, but is that necessarily true? Or could there be another explanation? Consider the observations of the seventh century English monk and historian, St Bede, as he comments on this passage from Mark: “The stars at the day of judgment will seem to be dark, not by any failure of their own luster, but in consequence of the true light throwing them into the shade.” You see, in Mark’s apocalyptic vision, the failure of the heavenly lights is accompanied by the appearance of our Lord Jesus in his second coming, on clouds, in power and great glory. The destruction does not exist for its own sake, but serves a greater end. A near contemporary of St Bede was St Methodius, a missionary to the Slavic peoples. He writes about the same passage from Mark’s gospel: “It is usual for the scriptures to call the change of the world from its present dire condition to a better and more glorious one by the idiom of ‘destruction.’ For its earlier form is thereby lost in the change of all things to a state of greater splendor.”

Herein lies the key to finding some reason other than God’s anger to account for God’s destructiveness. In the Book of Genesis, we learn that an essential element in God’s nature is his creativity. He made the world and called it “very good.” God is One-Who-Creates. He makes things. He builds things up. Destruction is not central to God’s character. From numerous other passages of scripture, we learn that it is also part of God’s essential nature to love. God is One-Who-Loves, one who delights in being in what the philosophers call an I-Thou relationship, a one-to-one personal relationship, with the beings he has created in his own likeness and image, human beings.

I love the way the old Prayer Book put it, in the absolution following the General Confession in Morning Prayer: “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live...” This beautifully sums up the creative love of God, and leads us to the same conclusion that St Methodius comes to—that God destroys in order to make room for new construction.

Some of you have been to St Matthew’s up in Bloomington. We had our synod Eucharist there just a few weeks ago. If you’ve seen St Matthew’s, you know it’s neither a particularly old nor a particularly new building. It was constructed around 1958, in what has been called an “A-frame Gothic” style of architecture. Yet, St Matthew’s, as a parish, was already nearly a hundred years old in 1958. They had a beautiful old stone church in downtown Bloomington that they had worshiped in for decades. Generations of children had been baptized, grown up, gotten married, had their own children baptized, and buried their parents in that place. It was full of precious memories of weddings and funerals and Christmas Eve and Easter morning services, of beautiful music and God’s word compellingly melting the hearts of sinners toward his love. It was a holy place.

Yet, for a combination of good reasons, it was destroyed. It was subjected to the violent ravages of a wrecking ball. To some who witnessed that event, it must have felt in a small way like the sun and the moon and the stars were going dark. Yet, such profoundly disturbing destructive behavior was not engaged in at all in a spirit of anger. There was no vengeance or wrath or vindictiveness associated with it. Rather, that beautiful church building was destroyed in order to make possible new construction, for the holy space in which the Eucharistic Community of St Matthew’s worships this very morning, the holy space that has been now touching souls and moving hearts with an acknowledgement of the majestic beauty of God for nearly sixty years. And none of this would be possible, save for the violently destructive ministry of the wrecking ball on those few days in 1958.

And the experience of St Matthew’s Church in Bloomington is but a tiny microcosm of the vision of God’s violent destruction of reality as we know it at the end of time in order to make way for his construction of reality too wonderful for us to even imagine it, thousands of small ways that give shape and substance to our ordinary daily experience. The life of faith in and with our Lord Jesus Christ is a life of perpetually dying with him that we may live with him, a life of continually submitting ourselves to his loving ministry of destruction—the destruction of sins and illusions and attachments that impede our relationship with him—all this in order that space may be created for him to be the entrepreneur and developer of our hearts, to creatively construct in us a temple to himself, to make us shine with his own glory such that the sun and moon and stars no longer matter because they have been downsized and outplaced by the One True Light. As we yield ourselves more and more to the wrecking ball of Christ, he frees us and enables us to focus our energy not on fear and anxiety over the loss of what is being destroyed, but in joyful anticipation of that which is being brought into being, that which is being made new.

My prayer for all of us this Advent season is that we will allow the Holy Spirit to clear the debris from our hearts and build in us a mansion prepared to welcome our Lord Jesus when he comes.

Maranatha.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Friday (Nicholas Ferrar)

  • Got a little bit of a late start to the morning due to late arrival home last night.
  • Task planning and Morning Prayer at home.
  • Took some time with Brenda to work through a health-related planning issue. In the office just past 10.
  • Consulted with Paige briefly over a Gnosis issue.
  • Got to work on notes to clergy celebrating birthdays and anniversaries in December. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries done by hand-written note; ordination anniversaries, since there is such a plethora in December, scheduled to be done by email.
  • Conferred briefly with the Dean on a couple of things.
  • Dealt by email with a scheduling issue.
  • Lunch from China 1, eaten at home.
  • Quick email to the Church Pension Group over a technical issue.
  • Attended to an unexpectedly emergent pastoral/administrative issue.
  • Refined and printed my homily for this Sunday, to be delivered at St John's, Centralia.
  • Via consultation with the Archdeacon, perusal of the canons, and email, moved the ball down the field with respect to an ordination-process issue.
  • Performed surgery on an old sermon text for Advent II, in preparation for preaching at St Michael's, O'Fallon.
  • As part of my Friday prayer practice, spent some time at the console of the cathedral organ playing through Advent hymns. My attention was arrested by hymnic petitions that we be "released" from our sins. So often we understand ourselves as sinners to be responsible for casting off our sins, and, indeed, we should repent actively. But we are also profoundly captive to our sinful impulses and incapable of liberating ourselves, which is why we need a Savior.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.