- At home: organized tasks for the week and the day. Scanned the blogscape, left a substantive comment on one.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral (after conferring with the Archdeacon on a range of issues).
- Looked in on the Dean, who professed to be "85% there" after his weekend bout of illness.
- Took care of a relatively minor but time-sensitive administrative chore on behalf of one of the priests of the diocese.
- Addressed another relatively minor but time-sensitive Nashotah-related concern.
- Via text message, arranged a phone date with the Dean of Nashotah House.
- Refined, edited, and printed a work text of my Ash Wednesday homily (I'll be at the cathedral).
- Lunch at home--leftovers.
- Dashed off a short article for the next issue of the Springfield Current.
- Kept my phone appointment with Dean Peay at Nashotah. We talked for about 30 minutes.
- Saw to a few details concerning two upcoming trips: to North Carolina next week for a House of Bishops meeting, and to north Florida in early April for a Communion Partners (bishops) meeting.
- Dealt by email with a fairly substantial stack of miscellany: condolence note to a colleague bishop whose wife just died, question from a layperson in the diocese, question from a priest in Sri Lanka (yes, my reach is global), question from one of the editors of The Living Church, small but of administrative detritus leftover from the clergy retreat.
- Further refined the draft job description for a diocesan Director of Communications.
- Devotions in the cathedral, looked in on the Pancake Supper, EP (short-form) in the car on the way home.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Sunday, February 26, 2017
St John's, Decatur is one of those Eucharistic Communities whose "8:00 service" is at 7:30. If I aim to arrive 30 minutes in advance (which is indeed my aim), and it's a 45 minute drive from my house to St John's ... well, you do that math. It was tempting to drive over last night and get a hotel, but that seemed a little decadent. In any case, it was a fulfilling visit, with wonderful music at the later liturgy, a couple of adult confirmations, and some time spent with the adult Sunday School class, which is studying The Screwtape Letters. We were back home a little before 1:00
St John's, Decatur--Matthew 17:1-9
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and have lived once again in the midwest for the last ten years. But most my adult life has been spent on the west coast, in California and Oregon. Perhaps the principal feature that distinguishes the midwest from the far west is that the midwest is mostly flat, especially central Illinois, while hills and mountains abound in California and Oregon. Living in the flatness of the central time zone, it’s easy to forget what a lift to the spirit it can be to get some elevation and be able to look out over a few hundred square miles.
I think this is a virtually universal human aspiration. We use the expression "mountaintop experience" as a metaphor, a figure of speech for any experience that either thrills us or moves us emotionally or gives us an unusually clear insight into some aspect of our own lives, an experience that gives us a "birds-eye view" of where we've been, where we are, and where we're going.
On this last Sunday after the Epiphany each year, the liturgy invites us to celebrate a mountaintop experience. Jesus took Peter and James and John and climbed what the gospels describe as a "high mountain,” though no other identification is given. Once they were at the summit, they enjoyed a birds-eye view of the entire region of Galilee.
It must have been breathtaking.
Mountaintop experiences. Your favorite team winning a championship after a cliffhanger of a game—like the seventh game of the World Series, in extra innings, just to choose a random example! Or, falling in love. Performing or listening to a special piece of music. Taking a trip to a place you've always fantasized about. Seeing a long-lost friend or relative for the first time in twenty years. These are the truly special moments of life, to be remembered and treasured.
Peter and James and John and Jesus got more than a great view, however, on their mountaintop experience. Jesus's appearance changed. He glowed, not with reflected light from some other source, but from within, with an inexpressible glory that revealed him unmistakably as the messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. And while this was going on, the disciples saw two other human figures with Jesus, holding a conversation with him, figures whom they recognized as none other than Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest heroes of Israel. And as if all this weren't enough, they heard a voice booming from heaven, confirming their impression that, although they already knew Jesus was special, he was a lot more special than they thought. Peter and James and John were having a spiritual mountaintop experience of monumental proportions.
You and I, of course, were not privileged to be there on the mountain with those three lucky disciples. But virtually all of us have had, at one time or another, some kind of watershed spiritual experience. When I was a teenager, my church youth group went on retreat a couple of times a year. These were not the traditional sort of silent retreat, but were filled with lots of games and recreation, lots of community among peers, and a good dose of solid teaching on what it means to live as a Christian. The group always came back, as it were, "higher than a kite.” We were ready to conquer the world for Christ! Many adult Episcopalians have had a similar experience with Cursillo, coming home fired up with the love of Jesus, ready to live the "fourth day" like it's never been lived before. Others have had spiritual mountaintop experiences in the context of worship: Midnight Mass on Christmas eve, or the intensely moving liturgies of Holy Week and Easter, or maybe the contemplative restfulness of Evensong sung by a well-trained choir.
After Peter and James and John heard the voice from heaven, they decided they'd had enough mountaintop experience for one day, thank-you very much. They were filled with holy fear and awe at what had transpired, and they made the only response that seemed appropriate: they fell to the ground and hid their faces.
Very often our mountaintop experiences put us in touch with truths—truths about God, truths about ourselves—that demand a similar response. Very often there is some wrestling, some agonizing, that needs to take place while we're at the summit, before we can go back into the valley with our faces aglow with the glory of what we've seen. I often wonder what happens in the mind and heart of a presidential nominee on election night, when it becomes clear that he has won. After more than a year of hard work, and several years of planning, and against some formidable obstacles, one person has been elected President of the United States. I would wager that, even as the Secret Service tightens its net of security around him, and the aura of the presidency begins to descend on him, most presidents-elect have experienced a moment or two of humble fear and awe at what is to come, moments in which he feels like falling to the ground and hiding his face in the presence of the terrible, though magnificent, burden that will shortly be his to bear.
While they were on the ground—the evangelist doesn't tell us how long they were there—Jesus approached his three disciples and touched them gently and spoke to them reassuringly: "Get up and don't be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw ... Jesus alone. Only Jesus. The outward vision, apparently, was over. Moses and Elijah were gone, as was the bright cloud that had enveloped them. The disciples no longer heard the heavenly voice. Jesus looked like his usual self again.
But because of their experience, the inward vision of Peter, James, and John was clearer than it had ever been. They knew Jesus in a way they had not known him before. They had received a revelation of insight into the nature of Jesus's identity and the nature of their relationship with him. With their vision re-focused, they were ready to leave the mountaintop and go back into the valley, changed and empowered not to avoid what was there, but to engage what was there.
The experience of Peter and James and John on the mount of the Transfiguration provides us with a pattern by which we can understand and assimilate our mountaintop spiritual experiences. There are four elements of that pattern that I want to briefly point out.
First, they followed Jesus onto the mountain. If they hadn't climbed the mountain in the first place, they wouldn't have seen what they saw. When opportunities for us to be with Jesus present themselves—whether in the form of retreats, study or prayer groups, or just being in church for Sunday and feast day worship—we need to avail ourselves of them, or we will miss out on what God has for us.
Second, once they were on the mountain, then they were gifted with their special revelation, their moment of insight. They had a glimpse of the very glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus wants to share that glory with us too. My observation is that, for most of us, such revelation of divine glory indeed comes in glimpses. Perhaps, in his mercy, he knows that to allow us to gaze uninterruptedly would be too much for us to bear. So when those fleeting moments come, savor them. Treasure them in your heart. Re-live them in your prayers. They are a wonderful gift.
Third, the disciples fell to the ground in reverent and holy fear. A good test for whether a mountaintop experience is really of God is if it humbles us or not. If we don't at some point feel the urge to fall to the ground and cover our faces, then we might question the origin of what we experience.
Finally, when the vision was over, they saw Jesus only. Their vision was clarified. "Jesus only" was not only a description of what they saw, but a motto for their lives. With that knowledge, they didn't try to remain on the mountain. Real life is lived, not on the mountain peak, but in the valley. What happened to them on the mountain gave them the strength and the power to engage whatever it was that lay waiting for them in the valley. It sustained them until their next mountaintop experience, on Easter morning as they gazed on the empty tomb. We would do well, living in the valley as we do, to feel Jesus' hands gently touching us, to hear his voice reassuring us, and to make "Jesus only" the motto for our lives. Baptized into his dying and rising, our lives our hid with God in Christ. We are not strong apart from his strength, we have no hope apart from our hope in him, we have no boast save in the cross of Christ.
My friends, the valley of Lent awaits us. But today let us sing our alleluias and exult in the rare air of the mountaintop and bask in the ineffable glory of God made visible in the face of Jesus, our savior and our lord. Alleluia! Amen.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Pedal-to-the-metal for six solid hours between leaving home at 8:30 and returning there at 2:30. Prepped for an attended a the beginning of Commission on Ministry meeting, met privately with one of its members during a break, met with two of our postulants before and after their interviews with the commission, and then pinch-hit on short notice with a suddenly-ill Dean of St Paul's and presided at a funeral there at 1:00. There were no major hiccups in any of this, for which I am grateful, but it was stressful, so I arrived home weary and hungry. The main accomplishment of the rest of the day was 90 minutes on the treadmill.
Friday, February 24, 2017
- Kept an 8:30 appointment with a photographer at the diocesan office. It seems time to consider a new round of official portraits.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Emailed the senior warden of one of our Eucharistic Communities with a list of date on which I am available to meet with their Mission Leadership Team,
- Talked with the Archdeacon on a broad range of substantive issues.
- Tightened, tweaked, and printed a working script of my homily for this Sunday at St John's, Decatur.
- Performed surgery on the text of an Ash Wednesday homily from several years ago in preparation for using it next week at the cathedral.
- Attended the Mass for St Matthias' Day in the cathedral chapel.
- Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
- Made airline and hotel arrangements for attending the Bishops Class of 2011 annual continuing education time the third week in April.
- Hand wrote greetings to clergy and spouses with nodal events (birthdays, wedding anniversaries, ordination anniversaries) in March.
- Attended to a routine monthly personal organization chore.
- Friday prayer: Found YouTube performances of hymns that celebrate Our Lord's Transfiguration, which is observed liturgically this Sunday.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
I've been absent from this venue because I've been at the annual pre-Lenten clergy retreat, and there was no wifi in my room. The retreat was splendid, conducted by Fr Andrew Mead, lately rector of St Thomas', Fifth Avenue in NYC, who offered meaty reflections on three Psalms (27, 51, and 112). When things concluded yesterday after lunch, I brought him back to Springfield with me because he's a huge history buff and a fan of Abraham Lincoln, so Springfield was the place he needed to be. I took him to the Lincoln home and the Lincoln museum, and then drove him to STL this afternoon for his 3:05 flight home to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. I got home around 3:30, rested a bit, and then spent quality time with the treadmill. Processed some email and snail mail along the way.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
Out the door and on the road with Brenda a little before 7am. It was quite foggy all the way to Salem, which made driving stressful but only slowed us down negligibly. We arrived a little past 9:00 ahead of presiding and preaching at the regular 9:30 liturgy at St Thomas'. We duly kept the feast, enjoyed a fried chicken luncheon and the exemplary hospitality of the that Eucharistic Community, and were homeward bound just past noon. By this time, the fog had finally burned off, and the return trip was all sunshine.
St Thomas', Salem--Matthew 5:38-48
I don’t know how many of you are on Facebook or Twitter or follow internet news sources, but, if you are, you don’t need me to tell you what a turbulent world was and is represented in those places in the run-up to and since the election last November. The level of passion—some might call it hysteria—from all political directions, the degree of polarization, is like nothing I have seen before in my 65 years, and like nothing I would have ever anticipated.
Now, my own social media footprint is mostly among Christians of various stripes, but there are several non-Christians in my networks. And so I find it interesting, at least, that, when it comes to the tone of rhetorical discourse about secular politics, I don’t see any appreciable difference between my Christian and my non-Christian contacts. Christians are not only not immune to all of this, but their Christian identity seems, most of the time, to not make a discernible difference in the way they conduct themselves, and this I do find greatly disturbing. More than not, I see the church getting coopted by and sucked up into the structures and values of the world rather than thinking with a distinctively Christian mind and speaking with a distinctively Christian voice. We serve as amplifiers for the political noise that is around us instead of offering something noticeably different. Instead of being salt or light or a city on a hill—perhaps you remember those images from the gospel reading Sunday before last—we are largely invisible and irrelevant.
The secular political realm is driven largely by a concern for rights—constitutional rights, statutory rights, God-given rights, or whatever. We’re obsessed with making sure our rights, whether real or imagined, are respected. The political and cultural environment encourages us to define ourselves by categories that should only be used to describe, not define—things like race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any number of other factors. When we are driven primarily by a concern for rights, especially our own rights, we begin to understand ourselves and represent ourselves according to what distinguishes and divides, rather than what unites and reconciles. We have settled for a very technically precise notion of justice—an “eye for an eye,” as the Levitical code puts it—rather than for the deep justice and righteousness that wells up from the loving heart of God.
And, ironically, what we end up with when we settle for mere technical justice, justice based on one or more of the many identities by which we are invited to define ourselves, is at best a wash, and arguably no net increase in actual injustice. There is little or no amelioration or respite from tyranny or oppression or degradation or dehumanization or marginalization, or anything. In the language of the collect for Christ the King Sunday, which I am finding very useful on many occasions other than on that feast day, humankind is “divided and enslaved by sin.” Isn’t that the distilled essence of our political life in this country—divided and enslaved by sin?
By this point, you’re probably hoping that this is indeed a good news/bad news story, and I’m happy to reassure that it is. So here’s the good news: We have, as Christians, the resources that can enable us to change the conversation, or, at least, to change the way we participate in the conversation. We’re still working our way through the Sermon on the Mount on these Sundays after Epiphany, and today we come to a section of that sermon that the New Testament scholars call the “Great Antitheses”: “You have heard that it was said, X, but I say to you, Y.”
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This is where we get the expressions “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile.” When I looked at this passage to begin preparing to preach here today, I was struck by how deeply both of these phrases are rooted in the way we speak English—people who have never opened a Bible in their lives would be familiar with them, even if they couldn’t tell you where they came from. Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile. We might paraphrase this material into something like, “If people insult you, give them your mother’s name so they can insult her too. If someone steals your credit card number, give them the three-digit security code as well. If someone sues you for $100,000, offer to settle for $200,000.”
Does this sound very compatible with a culture whose motto is “I have rights, therefore I am?” No, not at all. It sounds like something that threatens to undermine and subvert such a culture, something that might very well turn it on its head. The world defines justice as the extension of rights. But Jesus stands among us today as says, “But I say to you …” Jesus invites us beyond rights and beyond technical justice and beyond mere righteousness to something higher and deeper and more transcendent, to a place where the walls of division and the chains of slavery to sin can be shattered. When we push through the demands of mere justice and righteousness and into the territory that Jesus invites us to occupy, we tap into the saving power of God to break the bonds that enslave us to division and sin.
By way of illustration, let me give just one example of a conspicuous failure to lean into this teaching of Our Lord. Most of you are aware of the tremendous conflict that has engulfed the Episcopal Church over about the last fifteen years. People who had worshiped together in the same pews and at the same altars 20 years ago found themselves on the opposite sides of nasty and protracted lawsuits in the secular courts. It was a terrible witness to the world. Tens of millions of dollars have been squandered in legal battles over real estate. Neither those who have remained in the Episcopal Church nor those who have moved on can claim to have clean hands; some of both have been both plaintiffs and defendants. It will be at least a century, I would imagine, before our descendants can look dispassionately on this time in the church’s life and begin to piece things back together. Tremendous damage has been done. At least two or three times during that cycle of litigation, this passage from Matthew has come up in the Sunday lectionary, but we can be forgiven for wondering whether anybody was paying attention. “But I say to you, if someone occupies your church, offer them the parish hall as well. If someone sues you for your checking account, include your savings account in the settlement. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What if … what if?
I’m enough of a believer in divine grace to hope that such a dark blot on our past does not have to rule our future. I have enough faith in God’s redemptive purposes to hope that the church throughout the world may yet lay hold of the truth that the only identity that matters is the identity we receive in baptism, where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. When we operate in that identity, we make ourselves available to effectively announce to the world the coming of the Kingdom of God. We don’t even have to do anything, actually, if we’re truly operating in our baptismal identity, we just have to be, and the Holy Spirit will close the deal. In our common life in Christ, we can be a channel of hope that there is a better way for men and women and children to get along with one another in community. We become witnesses that there is someone who can bridge gaps that appear unbridgeable—because there is power in weakness, there is gain in loss, there is victory in surrender, and there is life in death.
Jesus constantly invites us to a quality of life that is more wonderful than we even know how to ask for, more splendid than we can even imagine. That collect for Christ the King that describes the human condition as “divided and enslaved by sin” goes on to voice the petition that we might be “freed and brought together” under the “most gracious rule” of Christ our King. This is precisely what today’s liturgy calls us to. May we be desperate enough to accept the invitation. Amen.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
The centerpiece of today's agenda was the regular quarterly meeting of the Diocesan Council, so I arrived at the office-cathedral complex around 9:15 to make preparations for the Eucharist and take a last-minute look at council-related business. We celebrated a votive Mass "For the Nation" at 10am, which seem appropriate given the general level of political angst in the air these days. The council meeting itself was the first under the new canons, which pare down membership considerably. I think I can safely say it was an unusually productive and fruitful meeting. We amended the 2017 budget to fund some new ministry initiatives about which I am quite excited. Following the meeting I had lunch with the two co-chairs (and thus far only members) of the Department of Mission, newly-configured as the canonical heir to the former Department of General Mission Strategy. We discussed some possibilities for fully staffing the department (one more layperson and two clergy) and began the work of developing a format for the now canonically-mandated Mission Strategy Report to be filed annually by each of the Eucharistic Communities.
Friday, February 17, 2017
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Crafted and sent a substantive email to the Bishop of Worcester (Church of England), whose diocese also has a companion relationship with the Diocese of Peru, and who will be traveling there shortly.
- Sent an email note of condolence to a lay leader who has suffered a death in the family.
- Took a substantive phone call from one of our clergy.
- Took a brisk and longish walk on an unseasonably warm winter morning in search of some inspiration for a blog post that is due for Covenant. I believe I found what I was looking for.
- Began working on the aforementioned blog post.
- Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
- Got sucked into a technological/administrative quagmire trying to help Brenda access her healthcare provider's online portal for finding things like medical records and lab results. It was time-consuming. Eventually I had to resort to last century's SOP of physically going by their office and receiving hard copy. Frustrating.
- Got back to work on the Covenant post. Didn't quite finish, so it's a work in progress.
- Took a substantive phone call from one of our seminarians.
- Friday Prayer: Ignatian meditation on the gospel selection from today's daily office lectionary (Jesus on "What is the greatest commandment?").
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
- Extended treadmill workout.
- Took a scheduled phone call from the Bishop of Missouri, informing me of an event in St Louis that may be of interest to people in our diocese.
- Attended and participated in the semi-annual meeting of the diocesan finance committee.
- Entertained the active deacons of the diocese in our home for lunch and a vigorous discussion of diaconal ministry.
- Returning to the office at 3p, I scanned and otherwise processed a formidable stack of hard copy items.
- Reviewed the psych exam reports on a couple of our postulants.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Spent the first part of the morning at home, working with Brenda to get ready to host the deacons of the diocese for lunch tomorrow. Then I accompanied her to a doctor's appointment, after which there was just enough time to drop her off back home and head to the office-cathedral complex and prepare to preside and preach at the 12:15 Mass. We kept the lesser feast of Thomas Bray. I drove down to Subway, grabbed a meatball marinara, and brought it back to my office for a working lunch. Processed a bunch of email and prepped for the afternoon meeting ... which was an "examination interview" with a candidate for the vocational diaconate. It's been more than a dozen years since we've had one of those in the diocese, during which time the national canons have changed, so we're having to sort of invent the wheel. So I gathered three deacons of the diocese and the three priests with whom they work (one of whom was absent due to illness) for a wide-ranging conversation with the candidate. I think it's a model that we can continue to develop. When we were finished, I cleaned up some odds and ends, ducked into the cathedral to pray the Angelus, then headed home an hour or so earlier than usual because of tomorrow's event. Later in the evening, I did some sermon work--repurposing an older text for use a week from this Sunday, and beginning a fresh process for preaching on Lent V (April 2 at St Andrew's, Carbondale).
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
- Weekly task planning at home, MP in the cathedral.
- Sent out email reminders about a couple of important meetings this week.
- Reviewed in detail a slew of documents (agenda, financial statements, evaluation materials) pertaining to the afternoon's scheduled conference call meeting of the Nashotah House Board of Directors. Otherwise prepped to chair the meeting.
- Lunch from China 1, eaten at home.
- Chaired the regular bimonthly conference call meeting of the Nashotah board.
- Took a brisk walk down Second to South Grand, west over to Spring, then up past the north end of the capitol, and back down on Second. Because exercise has to become even more of a priority for me.
- Finished, refined, and printed the draft I wrote week before last of a homily for Epiphany VII, this Sunday at St Thomas', Salem.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- While eating my dinner at home, a phone call from a senior warden reminded me, with horror, that I was supposed to be meeting the the MLT of one of our parishes about 70 miles away. The event had escaped my normally steel-trap system. I was mortified, because I inconvenienced several people and meetings like that are very difficult to schedule. Trying not to beat myself up too much.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
It's always a tonic to drink in the intense liturgical spirituality of Holy Trinity, Danville, where we once again were dazzled by the organ playing ot Tom Harrigan, even though he was in Florida! That postlude on "Come, thou fount" was a barn-burner. #karaokemass
Holy Trinity, Danville--Matthew 5:21-24, 27-30, 33-37, I Cor. 2:1-9, Ecclesiasticus 15:11-20
Just a few short weeks ago, New Year’s resolutions were in the forefront of our consciousness, but now, barely six weeks into the new year, most of them are long forgotten. In another two-and-a-half weeks, Lent will begin, another occasion that invites us to make a resolution, to change our behavior in some way. And by the time Easter arrives, about the same length of time from Ash Wednesday as we are now from the beginning of the year, a good many of those resolutions will have fallen by the wayside as well. We’re talking about habits here, trying to make the practice of a virtue or the avoidance of a vice something we do automatically, without thinking about it each time.
It’s hard to do. Bad habits are exceedingly difficult to break and good habits are exceedingly difficult to form. Whenever I make my confession, which I try to do at least before Christmas and Easter each year, the content, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t change that much from one time to the next. The list of things I’ ve done that I ought not to have done, and things I’ve left undone that I ought to have done, stays pretty much the same.
For instance, I don’t know if there’s a week that has gone by that I have not said or done something out of anger. Angry feelings are not sinful, but angry behavior is. You may possibly catch a glimpse of that anger on some occasion, but probably not, because I tend to reserve it for those whom I love most dearly. Of course, by the grace of God, my expression of anger has its limits; I don’t, for example, get physically violent. Others are not as controlled as I am. There are, as you know, men who beat their wives and teenagers who join gangs and take part in drive-by shootings and revenge killings. These things we have laws against and try to control, because society has a stake in the safety of its members. But they are, at the root, expressions of anger.
Now I am not laying one of my besetting sins before you just to be lurid or to call attention to myself, because I am not unique. You also have your besetting sins. They may not be the same as mine, but you have them. Forty years ago, during a presidential election year, Jimmy Carter gave a bit of publicity to the sin of lust, when he confessed to an interviewer that he sometimes had lust in his heart for women other than his wife. He was ridiculed to a great degree for that admission, but only by hypocrites, because he spoke for millions of other Americans who do, in fact, entertain and nourish lust in their hearts, a good percentage of whom allow those lustful thoughts to become lustful actions. The latest statistics, I guess, indicate that Americans commit adultery, actually, a little less frequently than had been supposed, but even those who are “technically” faithful do smaller things that injure marriages and harm families, and we have the divorce statistics to prove it. In our enlightened age, of course, most states no longer have laws against adultery. But we certainly have a mountain of books and seminars and videos and counseling hours devoted to preventing or healing the damage that we inflict on marriages by the things we say and do.
Anger, lust … while we’re making a list, let’s not forget plain old dishonesty. There is a group that conducted tests some years ago in various cities by leaving wallets and purses and luggage unattended, but secretly observed, in public places. A good percentage of the items were returned intact, and that was considered good news! Still, however, more of the items were stolen than were returned, which does not say much, I’m afraid, for the moral values of our society. We really do not trust each other, and for good reason, because we’re not trustworthy. In order to have any kind of functioning society, we have to have lawyers and contracts and audits and the right to sue and, of course, police departments.
Laws against murder and robbery and theft and wife beating and fraud and forgery and false advertising, not to mention books and tapes and seminars aimed at strengthening human relationships, are good and necessary things. They protect the innocent by sheltering them from some of the consequences of anger and lust and dishonesty. But do they really address the problem, or do they merely treat symptoms? If I have a headache, I can take a strong pain reliever to make me feel better. But if my headache is caused by a brain tumor, what have I accomplished? If I see that a wall in my house has a crack in it, I can plaster and paint over the crack, but if the crack is caused by a foundation that is settling, what have I accomplished?
Treating symptoms while ignoring the cause of the symptoms is bad medicine and bad home maintenance, and Jesus warns us today against getting into that kind of bad habit. On the surface, what he says seems unduly exaggerated. Jesus suggests that if I call one of my fellow members of the church a “fool,” I am violating the spirit of the commandment against murder as surely as if I stab him through the heart. It does seem a little far-fetched to us. It seems obvious that making a sarcastic remark to a colleague at work has a much different consequence than walking into the office with an automatic rifle and shooting everybody. But what Jesus is saying is that both of those acts, although they bear very different fruit, spring from the same root. They are symptomatically very different, but they are signs of the same disease.
Jesus also suggests that entertaining lust in one’s heart is tantamount to violating the commandment against adultery. Again, that strikes us as a little bit overly dramatic. But Jesus’s point is that when we take that moment of appreciation of another person’s attractiveness, and savor it and nurture it and allow it to turn into lustful contemplation, we are indulging the same sin that also expresses itself in full, though inappropriate, sexual union. Different fruit—but the same root. Different symptom—same disease.
Jesus also tells us that a casual deceit,—I’m not, after all, “under oath,” I haven’t “sworn by” anything—Jesus says that a “little white lie” is as morally significant as felony securities fraud that bilks thousands of retired people out of their life savings.
Once again, it seems exaggerated, but Jesus is trying to get us to see that the two acts are branches of the same tree. One is a mere twig, and the other a massive limb, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind.
Different branches—same tree. Different fruit—same root. Different symptoms—same disease. Laws and contracts and marriage seminars treat symptoms, but they don’t reach the underlying disease. My main problem as a human being who wants to be in a right relationship with my maker and judge, is not located in the things I do. Sins, in the plural, are among the things I do. I have said things in anger, I have entertained lust in my heart, I have told lies. But this is not where my problem lies. The things I do, the sins I commit, are the symptom, not the disease. My problem lies not in what I do, but in who I am.
Who I am is: a sinner. I am not a sinner because I commit sins; I commit sins because I’m a sinner. It is not inconceivable to me that, over the course of my lifetime, I could make restitution and atonement for the particular sins I’ve committed. I can take care of the symptoms. But I could never, in a million lifetimes, do anything about the disease, about the fact that I am a sinner. And unless the disease is treated, I’ll just keep on sinning, long after the batteries in the Eveready Bunny have run out of energy. I am helpless to treat the disease. For that, I need the Great Physician. I need Jesus.
The whole of the Christian life is about facing this fact and taking the cure. That’s what the sacraments are about. That’s what bible study is about. That’s what preaching is about. That’s what our ministry to one another is about. That’s what weddings and funerals are about. It’s all about saying, “Lord God, I am a sinner and I am powerless to do anything about it. In your mercy, come and save me. Show me those things in my life, even those good things in my life, that are separating me from you, and give me the courage to seek you above all else. If it is something as close to me as my right eye or my right arm, give me the strength to pluck it out or chop it off. Let nothing come between my soul and your love.”
When we can pray this prayer, consciously or sub-consciously, every day, we are giving our consent for the treatment of the disease. Those of you who’ve ever had surgery know that before they wheel you into the operating room and put you under, you have to sign a whole bunch of consent forms. Jesus, the Great Physician, requires our ongoing consent for him to continue treating the disease of sin. That constant movement of consent-giving is what constitutes growth toward spiritual maturity. As we heard in today’s epistle reading, St Paul had to take the Corinthian church to task for their complacency in this department, for their lack of spiritual maturity. You should be at the point where I’m giving you solid food, he tells them, but I have to treat you like small children and give you milk instead.
I’m afraid that St Paul, were he addressing the “Danvillians” rather than the Corinthians, might, nevertheless, have the same message. My friends, Christian people at all levels have got to shake out of our lethargy. We feel good when 50% of our active members show up for Sunday worship, but that’s horrible! It should be 110%. But Sunday attendance is itself only a minimum. Real spiritual maturity, authentic consent for the treatment of the disease rather than just the symptoms, includes regular “continuing education” in the things of the Lord. The days of Christian education being over when one is confirmed are long gone. Everyone needs to be in a class or a study group or some other form of regular disciplined instruction until your mortal body assumes room temperature. That includes clergy, by the way; continuing education is critical, for both priests and bishops. We also need to all be engaged in daily, disciplined, personal prayer. We also need to be involved, as our talents and abilities indicate, in ministries of service within the church and in the world. Sunday worship, study, personal prayer, and ministry—this is the diet that the Great Physician prescribes for what ails us. Anything less is merely treating symptoms.
I can’t think of a better note on which to conclude than the bracing, straight-talking words of “Yeshua ben Sirach”, the Greek-speaking Jew who wrote the apocryphal book called Ecclesiasticus, from which we heard today: “[God] has placed before you fire and water: stretch our your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.“ To merely treat the symptoms is to choose death. Jesus invites us to treat the disease, and choose life.
Saturday, February 11, 2017
Home, unpacked, showered, rested, and repacked before heading out to the Hampton Inn in Champaign ahead of tomorrow's visitation to Holy Trinity, Danville. Fr Evans and I landed in St Louis right at noon, after having been in transit since 4:30pm yesterday, central time. Yesterday's time in Arequipa was immensely fruitful, beginning with a productive conversation with a priest from one of Peru's other diocesan partners (Worcester in Church of England), a tour of the two Anglican schools in Arequipa, a marvelous lunch with our Peruvian hosts and our C of E friends at a restaurant situated on a trout farm, with an opportunity for serious conversation with area vicar Fr Carlos Quispe, and a wonderful and open conversation with Bishop Alejandro Mesco, who, while he continues to live in Arequipa, now has the remit of planting a church in Cusco, taking care of a region north of Lima, and fostering spiritual and liturgical formation in the diocese. Fr Mark and I came home with some concrete ideas for furthering our companionship with the Diocese of Peru.
Friday, February 10, 2017
Packed and checked out in time for a 0930 pickup to the airport. With Lima's horrendous traffic, the 12 mile trip took the better part of 90 minutes. Nonetheless, we were in plenty of time for our 1250 departure. We were met in our a keeper by nearly the full contingent of local clergy, including Bishop Alejandro and Vicario Carlos. They took us to La Casa Hogar San Lucas, where we spent a delightful couple of hours with the children and staff. We can check into our hotel and enjoyed a little bit of downtime before being transported to Cristo Redentor for a pretty serious conversation about the parameters of the companion relationships between Peru and both Springfield in Worcester. This was followed by a late dinner for everyone at a restaurant near the hotel.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Foreign travel and the lack of routine have prevented me from keeping up in this venue on a regular basis. Father Evans and I arrived in Lima early Monday morning on a redeye flight and, mercifully we're given the rest of the day to rest. It is, of course, summertime in South America, and the weather in labor is unusually warm and humid. Yesterday, we met a priest and three Lake people from the diocese of Worcester in the Church of England, which has a long-standing relationship with the diocese of Peru. We gathered with them and a handful of our Peruvian hosts at the Cathedral for a presentation on the current status and future strategy of the diocese of Peru. Weekend enjoyed a lovely lunch in the garden of the cathedral deanery. The rest of the day was spent with informal visiting and dinner with our British friends.
Sunday, February 5, 2017
After a morning celebrating the Eucharist with the people of St Thomas, Glen Carbon, a tasty potluck, and a lively discussion with their Mission Leadership Team (our new canonical language for Vestry), I'm biding my time for a 7pm flight to DFW, and then a red-eye to Lima. Looking forward to ongoing relationship building in the Anglican Diocese of Peru.
St Thomas', Glen Carbon--Matthew 5:13-20
Most of you have heard me say before—many times, perhaps—that we are presently living through the death rattle of the era—a long era, an era that has lasted more than a millennium and a half—an era in which Christianity was the dominant force in western civilization. Those of us who are middle-aged or older have witnessed a significant deterioration in the relationship between church and society just within our lifetimes. Of course, we can debate the causes and effects, the dangers and the opportunities, presented by this fact, but that’s not really where I want to go in this sermon, at least not directly. I bring it up, however, because it is precisely the relationship between church and society that Jesus is talking about in the fifth chapter of St Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus says that the church is the “salt” of the earth. In ancient times, salt was not thought of primarily as something that raises your blood pressure, but, rather, as an invaluable preservative and flavor enhancer. Because of salt, people could enjoy a year-round supply of meat and other perishable foods, and it all tasted better to boot! So the salt metaphor is a pretty good one because, for most of our civilization’s history, the church has been a preservative agent and a flavoring agent; the church has been the very fabric of society. Our task today is more challenging, because it falls to us to discern how we are to be “salty” within a very unstable social context.
Jesus also says that the church is to be a light. Darkness intimidates us because it conceals danger. We can’t see where the hazards are. But when the lights are turned on, danger evaporates. We can see the chair that we might otherwise stub our toe on, or the deer crossing the highway that we might otherwise hit. When we come upon an accident, or roadwork, on the highway, a State Police or Illinois Department of Transportation vehicle is almost always there with an unmissable flashing arrow, letting everyone know where the problem is and pointing traffic to the way around it. What is hazardous in the dark is harmless in the light.
In a similar metaphor, Jesus says that the church is like a lit-up city on a hill, a beacon that travelers can see for miles around. If you’ve ever driven at night on any of the main roads leading from Utah into Nevada, you have seen the impression that a lit-up city on a hill—or in a valley, for that matter—the impression that light can make. The Mormon reserve of Utah gives way to a riot of light emanating from the gambling establishments of Nevada. Now, this doesn’t mean we should be installing blackjack tables and slot machines in the parish hall, but the church’s calling is to make the same sort of impression on the darkness of the world, to serve as a beacon, a point of reference by which people can order their lives, or at least recognize the disorder of their lives. I have discovered that even those who do not claim to be religiously observant, or even many of the mockers and despisers of Christian faith, are, deep down, glad that somebody is religious. They might not ever care to darken the door of a church themselves, but they would by no means want churches to disappear. I would probably bet that, even in this relatively small parish, there are those on the rolls whose money the Treasurer sees regularly, but whose faces are rarely or never seen. It’s almost as if those of us who do engage in outward religious practices do so not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of all those others as well, those who don’t want to join us, but are glad we’re here. We are, indeed, a city on a hill.
We are light.
We are salt.
We have always been those things. We just can’t keep on trying to be those things, however, in quite the same way that our parents and grandparents of the last forty or fifty generations went about it. They did it by acting as the gatekeepers, the pillars, of the culture. The church was the establishment, and anyone outside the church was also on the margins of society. For good or for ill, we no longer enjoy that position. But our mission is the same. Rather than pursuing that mission as part of the establishment, we now do it by challenging the establishment.
We are at odds with the mainstream culture itself, but we can now be a counter-culture, an alternative society, a microcosm, a working model, of the Kingdom of Heaven which it is our job to announce. In a society where the rule is to be greedy and exploitative, we can be loving and just. In a society that gets things done through violence, we can be effective through peacemaking. In a culture that is obsessed with rights, we can be obsessed with servanthood. Among a generation that honors a self-serving sexual ethic, we can be incorrigible rebels and honor the virtue of abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within it. With neighbors and friends who twist even Christian faith by bending it to the force of every desire, we can be dangerously subversive by adhering to the revealed faith of our forebears, the faith once delivered to the saints.
Being subversive in this way, living as counter-cultural rebels, as guerilla fighters for an alternative society—as salt, light, and a city on a hill—takes great resolve. It is a demanding vocation, because there are great many forces that will try to distract us from it. If journalists and historians were our only sources of information, our minds and imaginations would be consumed by the torture and beheading of Christians carried out by ISIS, by Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews, by the Gulag prison camps of Siberia, the killing fields of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the rampages of the Vikings and the Huns and legions of unnamed marauders. We would be emotionally numbed by the incidence of divorce, and out-of-wedlock births, and abortion, and spousal abuse. It would be difficult to escape the conclusion that the human race is on a terminal course toward self-destruction, which would leave us with cynicism and self-absorption as two of the most viable coping strategies. Everything’s going to crash and burn anyway, so why not grab for the all short-term gratification we can while we can. Why not just go bungee-jumping, both literally and figuratively? I was channel-surfing one day and came across several young men in their twenties—presumably with many good years ahead of them—defying death by jumping off a cliff into a fog bank that lay over a Norwegian fjord. Now, they were wearing parachutes, but still . . .
In my estimation, their behavior is a symbol of the cynicism and low-grade despair that is rampant in the mainstream culture, the culture to which the church is supposed to be an alternative. Indeed, the message of Jesus, recorded for us by Matthew, is that through the life of the church, God shows the world an alternative to its own self-destructiveness. Through our being salt, through our being light, through our being a gleaming city on a hill—that is to say, in our worship, in our prayer, downstairs in the parish hall during coffee hour, in our Bible studies and small groups, in the way we live our lives in offices and studios and classrooms and shops and stores—we announce to the world that ISIS and Hitler and Stalin do not have the last word—the Lord of hosts has the last word. Cancer and depression and disease in general do not have the last word—the God who healed all manner of disease through Jesus has the last word. The spiritual disintegration that leads to dysfunction and divorce and abortion and abuse do not have the last word—the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit who gives life and health and hope has the last word.
The very existence of the church, the very fabric of our life together, is subversive of the despair and cynicism of our society because it gives people a reason to hope. We are a neon sign that points to the fact that God is not through with the world yet, that the redemption of creation is still a work in progress, that the “fat lady” has not only not sung yet, she isn’t even on the stage, that God is our hope and our salvation and is worthy of our trust. So keep that lamp lit and let it shine. Let it shine.
Friday, February 3, 2017
Thursday, February 2, 2017
- Thursday morning weights and treadmill. MP at home. In the office around 10:15.
- Processed a short stack of emails.
- Revised, edited, refined, and printed the text of my homily for Epiphany VI (Holy Trinity, Danville on the 12th). This got pushed up because I'm going to be in Peru all next week.
- Attended to a small administrative chore.
- Wrote a note of condolence to a friend outside the diocese whose mother has died.
- Attended the cathedral chapel Mass for this feast of the Presentation.
- Lunch from McD's (the one on South Grand and Fifth, since the MacArthur location is now closed), eaten at home.
- Devoted most of the rest of the afternoon to taking my Easter VII homily (the 19th in Salem) from the "developed notes" stage to the "rough draft" stage.
- Dealt by email with a pastoral question raised by one of our parish clergy.
- Made air travel and car rental arrangements for a Communion Partners (bishops) meeting in early April.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepped to celebrate and preach the midday Mass.
- Responded by email to a request for advice from one of our parish clergy regarding a pastoral matter.
- Attended to some of the details of a slowly-developing set of travel plans for a visit to our companion diocese of Tabora (Tanzania) next July.
- Began the work of major surgery on the text of an old homily for Epiphany VI en route to repurposing for use at Holy Trinity, Danville on February 12.
- Spoke by phone with Fr Evans, who is accompanying me to visit our other companion diocese of Peru next week.
- Spoke by phone with another of our parish clergy about an emerging pastoral/administrative concern in his congregation.
- Reported to the cathedral chapel for Mass, but found that Fr Wells was vested and ready to roll. Obviously a communication mixup, but, no worries, I just stowed my alb and came back to be part of the congregation, keeping the lesser feast of St Brigid of Kildare.
- Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
- Got back to work on that sermon for Epiphany VI, emerging with what might pass for a rough draft.
- Followed up by email with a priest from outside the diocese who is looking for a new call. There's not much that we have in play at the moment.
- Took some time to make Amtrak travel arrangements for Brenda to visit our kids in Chicago next week while I'm in Peru.
- Turned my homiletical attention to Epiphany VII (February 17 at St Thomas', Salem), fleshing out my simple message statement into a detailed outline.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.