Thursday, September 27, 2018

Thursday (St Vincent de Paul)

Back to Austin (Texas) today with Brenda for a family wedding. Going dark in this venue until Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Wednesday (Lancelot Andrewes)

In addition to the still-daunting (but gradually shrinking) task of settling into a new abode, I invested some significant time and energy toward developing the liturgy program for the synod Mass, and responding to the usual daily flow of emails. Some semblance of normalcy is in sight.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tuesday (St Sergius)

Gradually transitioning into the new routine. Prayed both the morning and evening offices in my living room, hitting both for the first time since the moving disruption began. Still pretty much in settling mode (today's milestone was that we are now out of all boxes that don't have books in them). I did, however, manage to process of few ministry-related emails and attend to some small administrative tasks. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Lord's Day (XVIII Pentecost)

Up and out of the Hampton Inn in time to attend the 10:00 liturgy at St Luke's in Dallas (this upon the recommendation of the Bishop of Dallas). As it turned out, my colleague the Suffragan Bishop of the Arctic was the preacher. Afterward, he and I went out to lunch with the Priest-in-Charge, Fr Mark Anderson, and his wife, Mary. (in the small world department, Mary is from Lodi, CA, which is where Brenda lived when I met her, and where we were married, and just up the road from Stockton, where I served as rector for 13 years). It was a delightful time. I then headed to DFW, where I arrived well ahead of my scheduled 4:20 departure to Chicago. All went normally, and I arrived "home" (I still have to put it in quotes because it feels so strange) around 8:45. Lots and lots to do still by way of getting settled.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Saturday (Philander Chase)

Last day of the RADVO conference in Dallas. The morning keynoter was N.T. Wright, sometime bishop of Durham, eminent biblical scholar, and widely published author, both in academic and more popular circles. His assigned topic was simply “the sacraments,” and he did a magisterial job of teasing out a coherent sacramental theology from, of all places, the passage in Numbers about the spies Moses sent to spy out the Promised Land. It was an exhilarating talk. This was followed by a panel discussion on the general subject of ministry, and was staffed by many of the luminaries who had been presenters at the conference. Finally, we concluded with a grand (the organ and choral music at Incarnation is particularly ... grand) celebration of the Eucharist, at which the Bishop of Honduran presided and the Bishop of Tennessee preached. After grabbing a taco lunch near my hotel, I spent the afternoon answering emails and taking care of other items of both personal and professional business. Dinner was at the home of one of the staff members of the Diocese of Dallas, attended by whatever CP bishops were left in town, and various others who had been part of the conference.

Friday, September 21, 2018

St Matthew

Back at the Radical Vocations (RADVO) conference, a Communion Partners-sponsored event at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. Mass for the feast day in a “chapel” that is larger than any of the churches in the Diocese of Springfield. The morning keynoter was the Revd Dr Oliver O’Donovan, who spoke on the task, art, and craft of preaching, Breakout groups followed, but I found myself so waylaid by people whom I know in real life, people who I had previously known only in cyberspace, and people whom I had never met before, that I never made it to any of them. I broke away around 1140 to head to the Lakewood Country Club, where the Communion Partner bishops and a handful of rectors, had a private lunch with the Archbishop of Canterbury. I think I can safely characterize it as positive and productive as we head toward the next Lambeth Conference in 2020. Then back to Incarnation and more impromptu meetings until evensong at 5:00, followed by a dinner at which the bishops were asked to spread themselves among the table and generally be available to attendees. The conference is geared toward young people who are discerning or considering discerning a vocation to ordination. The after-dinner speaker was Bishop Tony Burton, rector of Incarnation, who shared his own path to ministry. Then the bishops gathered once again to debrief from our meeting with Archbishop Welby and take counsel about future endeavors. I cannot fail to note what a joy it is to be around so many Episcopalians who are orthodox in their faith, including so many who are so young. It gives me a measure of hope for the future of this church.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Thursday (John Coleridge Patteson)

Up and out of the Hampton Inn in downtown Dallas in time for an 0830 breakfast with the other Communion Partner bishops, including our “Gracious Restraint” Canadian colleagues. It was a time of sharing and planning ahead of tomorrow’s luncheon meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. We concluded around 1030. I spent the middle part of the day back in my room with emails, phone calls, and other assorted small tasks. At 4pm, up to the Church of the Incarnation for conference registration, and vesting with other bishops, as we were invited to enter in procession for solemn choral evensong. The service was elegantly rendered in the finest Anglican tradition. The Presiding Bishop was the officiant and the Archbishop of Canterbury preached. There followed the opening lecture of the conference, delivered (to a still packed huge church) by Dr Stanley Hauerwas, retired of Duke Divinity School, a widely-published author and highly-sought after speaker. I concluded the evening with some Texas BBQ with four of the six other members of the Springfield contingent at this conference.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Wednesday (St Theodore of Tarsus)

A day of travel and getting caught up on stuff not related to moving. Caught a Lyft at 0345 for a 0515 departure from O’Hare to Dallas. Why so early? Long story, and I don’t have the energy to tell it at the moment. Anyway, I was checked in at the Hampton Inn in downtown Dallas a little past 0900. Walked to a nearby spot for some breakfast, then back to my room for a shower and a couple of hours of sleep. Then it was on to a thick stack of emails, phone calls, and related tasks. It’s a series of minor screw-ups that got me here so long in advance of the conference that doesn’t begin even informally until tomorrow morning and formally tomorrow evening. But the time was well-spent. If I had stayed home longer, I would only have been unpacking boxes. Real life goes on, and today I was forced to attend to it.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Lord's Day (XVII Pentecost)

If you read my last post, you know why I've been absent from this space for a few days--moving. Our worldly possessions--many more than we actually need, apparently--are now shoehorned into a 1500 square food Chicago apartment. Cardboard boxes and wrapping paper are strewn everywhere. The bedroom and the master bath are essentially in working order, and the living room is habitable. The kitchen is far from such a state. But all will be well. In the meantime, real life goes on. Yesterday evening, just a few hours after the last item was unloaded from the truck, Brenda and I drove down to Effingham for the night, then on to St Mary's, Robinson for a scheduled visitation. They are a small community, but immensely devoted to the Lord and to one another. It was a joy to celebrate the Eucharist with them. We headed back north after the coffee hour, and arrived in our north side neighborhood right around 3:00 pm. This will take some getting used to.

Sermon for Proper 19

St Mary's, Robinson--Mark 8:27-38

Many, perhaps most, people in the world spend most of their time trying to get their immediate physical and emotional needs met—water, food, shelter, somebody to love and be loved by. A lot of us, though, have the luxury of turning our attention to what might be called the “big questions”—Why am I here? Why is the world the way it is? Why is there so much suffering? What does it all mean? What am I supposed to be doing or not doing? And when this life comes to an end, what, if anything, happens next?

Now, I’m going to assume that virtually all of us who are in this room this morning, and virtually everybody in the churches I visit from one Sunday to the next, do pretty much have their immediate physical and emotional needs satisfied. Sure, all of us do suffer, if not right now, then in the past and in the future. But precisely because our immediate physical and emotional needs are usually met, we assume that, in our quest for answers to the “big questions” of life, we start from our present relatively comfortable position, and then move onward and upward from there. We don’t think in terms of having to give up any ground in our comfort and security in order to chase down the meaning of life. When a football team is on offense, and it’s fourth down, and they’re out of field goal range, they’ll surrender possession and punt the ball in order to not have to play defense with a dangerous field position. Nobody wants to lose ground.

This is how the apostle Peter, and his colleagues, his “teammates,” thought about what they were up to as disciples of Jesus. They were a small band, but Jesus had lots of followers. If it were all happening today, he would have maxed out on Facebook friends and become a “public figure.” He would have so many followers on Twitter and Instagram that he would be considered an “influencer,” and all sorts of companies would be trying to get him to wear their gear when he takes a selfie.  He was getting more and more famous, and soon he would also be getting more and more powerful, and the promised Messiah would reign over Israel, expelling the Roman occupiers, and the present small band would have prestigious positions in the new administration, and when the TV series about the “successful” Jesus comes out, there’ll be flashback scenes from the humble beginnings of the original “Jesus movement.”

Then Jesus spoils it all. He shatters the dream. He rains on the parade, big time. Right after inducing his disciples, with Peter in the lead, to clearly state their faith that he is the Messiah, and they have visions of their future elite status dancing in their heads, Jesus delivers a gut punch:
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.
Talk about sucking all the air out of a room. Of course, Peter can’t stand the idea, and begins to act like a campaign manager whose candidate has suddenly wandered seriously off message, and it’s his duty to rein his man back in. Jesus is having none of it, though, and smacks Peter down like a boss: “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter had crossed a line. He was not a senior campaign official, or a chief of staff. He was a disciple, and disciples belong behind the one whom they are following. The “Satan” part was just to make his point crystal clear.

For Peter and the other disciples, there would be no glorious ascent from comfortable obscurity there in Caesarea Philippi to glory in Jerusalem. You see, the cross was blocking the way to that happy ending, first for Jesus, then for the disciples as well—some of them, including Peter, literally. And so for us, finding the answers to the “big questions,” learning the meaning of life, figuring out suffering, “finding your bliss,” seeing the face of God … it doesn’t just build on the material comfort and security we’ve already got and then keep moving in the same upward direction until we achieve the goal. We don’t get to punt; we don’t get to keep our field position. What we get to do is let go of everything we’ve got. What we get to do is embrace loss. What we get to do is make friends with becoming a nobody and having nothing. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”

On Fridays at Morning Prayer, and on Monday in Holy Week at the Eucharist, we encounter this magnificent collect: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

The way of the cross, the way of life and peace. This is a way that entails total surrender of everything that we might hold dear. It means giving up some things that are, in fact, inherently destructive: vices that enslave our bodies, the satisfaction of exploiting other people’s weaknesses just because we can, the ego gratification of always acting in our own self-interest with no regard for the common good, the impulse to resort to violence, whether physical or emotional, in order to assert our desires, and the need to control, both people and situations. All that is difficult enough. But the way of the cross also demands that we lay aside, at times, things that may in themselves actually be good, but are not the greatest good. We’re talking here about professional and career success, material wealth, social esteem, family reputation, anything that may stroke our ego and lure us into the sin of pride. To put it bluntly, following Jesus, which cannot be anything other than following him in the way of the cross, means writing God a blank check, giving God permission to break into our lives and rob us blind.

So the question on the floor, my friends, is this: How much do we want “life and peace?” How badly do we really want answers to the big questions of life? Because getting to that goal probably means allowing ourselves to be sacked by the opposing team’s defensive line. Our invitation today is to take up our cross and follow Jesus. The late New Testament scholar Reginald Fuller explains this image of taking up our cross as allowing ourselves to be “branded” by Jesus, the way cattle in a herd are marked by the brand of the rancher to whom they belong. The words “marked as Christ’s own forever” from our baptismal liturgy come to mind here, and in that context they are words of comfort and hope. But in the context of today’s liturgy, that have a more sober connotation. Taking up our cross, living under the brand of Jesus, requires us to surrender all autonomy and all self-assertion, in exchange for the lasting joy of being truly human, of knowing ourselves fully, of seeing God and not turning to dust. Like the song says, “The world behind me, the cross before me. No turning back, no turning back.” Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tuesday

It's time to share some personal news. Brenda and I are in the process of moving ,,, this very week, in fact. We are going to make a home in an apartment in the three-flat building that we bought with two of our children earlier this year. The reason has to do with some health and family issues that I will not give the details on in this platform. Suffice it to say that it is a prudent and well thought-through decision, and I have the sympathetic concurrence of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Springfield in making it. The plan is that I will "telecommute" most weekdays, consolidate appointments and meetings on Fridays and Saturdays, when I will be in the office in Springfield, make my Sunday parish visitation, and return to Chicago on Sunday afternoons. It will be a challenge, but I am expected it to work. 

So, our household is in full-on moving mode, which affects my daily activities in a major way. Nonetheless, I did spend some time in the office today, polishing up this Sunday's homily (St Mary's, Robinson), working a bit on the November clergy retreat, and fleshing out an article for the Covenant blog. I also presided and preached at the midday cathedral Mass, a votive "For the Nation," appropriately enough, given today's date.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Lord's Day (XVI Pentecost)

Back now from another luminous visitation to my DEPO parish--Trinity in Yazoo City, MS. What an utterly gracious group of people and an engaged Christian community. They truly "own" their position on the edge of the Mississippi delta, with all the suffering and dysfunction that has plagued that region. They are *in the neighborhood.* I am blessed to be their delegated pastor. Preached and presided in the church between breakfast and lunch in the parish hall. After Mass, we hit the road and braved I-55 all the way home, arriving at 9:30.

Sermon for Proper 18

Trinity, Yazoo City, MS--Mark 7:31-27

Most of you are familiar, I suspect, with a text from St Matthew’s gospel that has come to be known as the Great Commission. Jesus has gathered his followers on a mountaintop in Galilee some days after his resurrection, and he tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” These were the marching orders of the infant church, and they continue to be our marching orders two thousand years later.

We talk a lot about evangelism these days in the Episcopal Church, which is a good thing, because, not too long ago, we didn’t even like talking about it. That’s a baby step in the right direction. But we’re still not very good about actually doing it. And it’s more difficult at this moment in time, in our culture, than it has ever been since Jesus gave the Great Commission. When many of us were young, you could at least count on most people having some default disposition in favor of Christianity. Not everybody went to church, but most everybody had a particular church that they didn’t go to! Now, our society is getting more secular by the minute, and the kind of claims that Christians tend to make—in fulfillment of the Great Commission, actually—much what we say as Christians is understood by some of our neighbors literally as hate speech.

What keeps us going in this challenging environment—what should keep us going, at any rate—is the notion that we, as the Church, are stewards of good news. Something very precious has been entrusted to us, something that can be a game-changer, a life-changer, for women and men and children who have an ache in the pit of their stomach, wondering who they are, why this world is the way it is, how they’re supposed to be behaving, and what, if anything, comes next. What we have to share is the knowledge that every human being is created in the image of a God who loves them to the edge of the universe and back, that God has intervened in this broken world and is about the project of making new things that have grown old, of restoring all people to unity with himself and with one another in Christ, that the Spirit of this God gives those who follow him the grace to be able to cooperate with this redemptive effort that God is pursuing, and that what we have to look forward to is an eternity of joy in God’s unfiltered presence. If this is all not good news, then I don’t know what is.

The Great Commission tells us that Jesus wants us to hear and know this good news, to understand and internalize this good news, and to speak and share and explain this good news to anyone who has an interest and will listen.

But, like the man in today’s gospel, we are “deaf and dumb”—I know one is supposed to say “mute” nowadays because “dumb” has developed other connotations, but—what can I say?—I like the alliteration of “deaf and dumb,” so that’s what I’m going to say. Besides, sometimes, when it comes to our ability to communicate the good news, “dumb” may actually be pretty appropriate! We are like this deaf mute we meet in Mark’s gospel, because we are unable to hear completely the good news of who Jesus is, and because we are unable to hear it, we are unable to effectively speak that same good news. And, probably also like the man in this story, we find this inability to hear and speak the gospel a source of shame and embarrassment.

Up to this point in Mark’s narrative, the disciples are also “deaf and dumb.” They simply do not “get” Jesus. We can understand the man in the story as a symbol of Jesus’ followers at that point in the evolution of their discipleship. They were attracted to Jesus. They were curious about Jesus, and had a sense that the best was yet to come. They were hugely impressed by Jesus as a worker of miracles, both in healing people of disease and exercising authority over the forces of nature. And they were, to a significant extent, loyal to Jesus. But all of this rested on the assumption that Jesus was going to get more and more famous, and work increasingly spectacular miracles, and ultimately become a political savior for the Jewish people, kicking out the Roman occupiers and setting himself up on David’s throne. The disciples figured they were in line for some important staff positions in the new administration.

And the deaf-mute is also symbolic of us as well. There’s a program called Renewal Works that surveys Episcopalians about their experience of spiritual growth. When a parish goes through Renewal Works, the leadership gets a report that sorts the members—not by name, just by percentage—sorts the members of the parish into four categories: those who are exploring life in Christ, those who are growing in their life in Christ, those who are deepening their life in Christ, and those who are centered on their life in Christ. As you might imagine, the great majority of parishioners, usually to the dismay of their clergy, fall into the first two categories—exploring and growing—and very few in the other two—deepening and centered. Usually only someone who is centered in Christ is going to answer the call of the Great Commission and become an effective evangelist.

As we know, then, Jesus heals the man who is deaf and dumb. Interestingly, he doesn’t do so quickly and with apparent ease, as is the case with many of his miracles. This one seems to require some serious focus and effort; Mark tells us that Jesus sighed as he restored the man’s hearing and his ability to speak.

Soon after this incident, in Caesarea Philippi, the disciples, with Peter as their spokesman, finally confess truly who Jesus is—the Messiah, the Son of the living God. They have apparently heard the gospel with clarity, and now they make the first baby step toward being able to speak the gospel with clarity. This is a turning point that sets them on a path toward Jerusalem and the cross, and then, following the resurrection, to professing him with the bold confidence—the enviable bold confidence that we read about in the book of Acts.

So, how can we join Peter and the other disciples on that journey? How can we draft in the wake of the deaf and dumb man whom Jesus enables to hear and speak clearly, and find a way to follow the Great Commission with joy and effectiveness?

I read an article recently that compared contemporary educational methods with what used to be the norm before around 75 years ago. Some of you who are old enough may remember at least hearing about school kids having to “recite” their lessons. They would be called on to stand at their desks and answer questions put to them by the teacher, or literally recite a memorized text. This has long since not been the case. But the article I read suggested that because kids no longer have to do this, there is an epidemic of college and graduate students who are not being able to read books and listen to lectures and then synthesize that material, make it their own, express it in their own words. They have literally not “learned their lesson.”

This offers us a clue about how we might become better hearers of the word of God and more effective speakers of the word of God. It’s a matter of “learning our lines.” Another expression we don’t hear as much anymore is “say your prayers.” Doesn’t that suggest a child’s bedtime ritual, in which the prayers are pretty much the same night after night? Even devout Christian parents tend not to teach such things anymore. But may I recommend something that I think has a track record of getting the job done here? I’m talking about the Daily Office, the forms for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer as we have them in the Prayer Books that sit in the pew racks in front of you right now. I can give you personal testimony that making a habit of the Daily Office is a “tried and true” method of “reciting our lessons” and “learning our lines” toward the end of becoming able to hear the good news so we can faithfully speak the good news. The Daily Office soaks, washes us, immerses us in the language of scripture and puts prayers on our lips that get to the heart of matters concerning our relationship with God that we could never come up with on our own. It enables to “pray together” with the Christian community across time and space.

If we are faithful in “saying our prayers” over the course of a lifetime, we will find that Jesus is faithful to us, opening our ears and loosening our tongues for the work of mission and ministry in a world that very much needs to hear good news. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Saturday (Nativity of the BVM)

Spent most of the day with Fr George Woodliff, rector of Trinity, Yazoo City, and his wife, Jill. They drove us down to Jackson to take in the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which is ... powerful. Seeing an actual KKK robe in a display case was chilling, making me feel like I was seeing Evil itself on display. The evening was spent having dinner and conversation with Trinity's vestry.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Friday

Breakfast with the Jenkins in picturesque St Francisville, LA. Then on the road (U.S. 61) north to Yazoo City. We stopped for lunch in historic Vicksburg, and then took part of a self-guided walking tour of the downtown area. One of the stops was Christ Church, which, the sign said, held services every day during the siege by federal forces during the Civil War. Eventually, we arrived and got settled in at the Hampton Inn in Yazoo. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Thursday

A day of travel, driving (sometimes through intense rainstorms, courtesy of tropical storm Gordon) from Memphis, TN to St Francisville, LA. Enjoying some life-giving reconnecting with old friends Bishop Charles and Louise Jenkins. Tomorrow, back north a bit to Yazoo City, MS.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Wednesday

Writing tonight from a hotel room in Memphis, to which Brenda and I drove today, Our eventual destination is Yazoo City, MS, where I have a DEPO visitation at Trinity Church this weekend. But we're expanding the trip to swing down to St Francisville, LA and spend a night with our old friends Bishop Charles and Louise Jenkins. Bishop Jenkins was the rector to called me to be his curate at St Luke's, Baton Rouge in 1989 when I was first ordained.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Tuesday

  • Usual weekday AM routine. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Did just a smidgen of work on my next-due post for the Covenant blog.
  • Edited, refined, printed, and scheduled for posting my homily for this Sunday (Trinity, Yazoo City, MS).
  • Dealt with an administrative issue pertaining to one of our closed parishes, the building of which we yet need to deconsecrate.
  • Attended to some liturgy prep for next month's annual diocesan synod.
  • Moved the ball down the field on prep for the November clergy conference.
  • Lunch from La Bamba, eaten at home.
  • Devoted a substantial chunk of time, thought, conversation, and prayer to a particularly vexing issues in one of our Eucharistic Communities. This concluded with a sent email that may or may not have contributed to a resolution.
  • Another session of synod liturgy prep.
  • Another session of clergy conference prep.
  • Worked on my homily for October 21 (celebrating St Luke's Day at St Luke's, Springfield), reviewing my exegetical notes and formulating a homiletical message statement.
  • Took care of a couple of quick administrative chores.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

The Lord's Day (XV Pentecost)

Up and out of our hotel room in Litchfield in time to arrive at St Andrew’s, Edwardsville at 0830, ahead of their regular 0900 Sunday liturgy (summer schedule). Preached and presided at the Holy Mysteries with these fine folks. They are holding up well during a pastoral hiatus that looks like it may be winding down.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sermon for Proper 17

St Andrew's, Edwardsville--Deuteronomy 4:1-9, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Our common story as the Christian people is, of course, rooted in the story of our spiritual forebears, the Jews, the people of Israel. Our first reading this morning, from Deuteronomy, has Israel on the east bank of the Jordan River, getting ready to make the crossing into the land that God had promised to them. Their leader, Moses, knows he is about to die, and will not be making the crossing with them. What we heard this morning is a section of what was possibly the most important speech, the most critical pep-talk, of his entire life. Up until that point, the Hebrew people had been a nation without a land, a people without a piece of real estate that they could call their own. For more than an entire generation, they had been nomads, living in tents, always on the move. Before that, they were slaves. Now everything was about to change. They were going in to take possession of the Promised Land. They needed to learn a different way to live. Moses, in his final act of leadership, wanted to help them create a clear national and ethnic identity. During their wilderness sojourn, the people of Israel had indeed come to know God—Yahweh, the LORD—as a living reality, one who guided and directed, and with whom communion and fellowship is something to be desired and sought. But that was in the desert, where they literally needed to be guided day by day. Now they were going to live in settled towns and villages, tending crops rather than gathering manna every morning, pasturing their herds and flocks in the same general area rather than being constantly on the move. They needed to learn a new way to live, and Moses was right there with the prescription—which was the Torah, the Law of Moses.

Moses saw the Torah as God’s gift by which to accomplish the goal of creating a new national identity for Israel, a means of constantly reminding the people who they are and to whom they belong. The Torah consists of outward public and private observances—613 individual statues, to be precise. They govern a wide array of concerns, ranging from corporate worship to healthcare to criminal justice to family relations to social and civil relations to economic order to sexual behavior and even personal diet and hygiene. Each of the 613 individual laws was intended to help shape and form the people into a community that “walks with the Lord,” that continues to rely on the Lord for provision and guidance and direction, just as they had done during the forty years in the wilderness. Far from being an oppressive yoke around their necks, the people were encouraged to see the Law of Moses as a veritable gift of life, straight from the hand of a gracious God. Listen to Moses’ words to the people:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them...Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' …make them known to your children and your children's children.
Well, as you know, the people of Israel settled the Promised Land. Years and decades and centuries passed. The Law of Moses was successively “forgotten” and “rediscovered” several times. Some of the leaders of Israel were faithful to the Lord and led the people in His ways. More, however, were unfaithful, and led the people astray. There were periods of peace and prosperity, but longer periods of great political and social and military turmoil. Eventually, about 500 years or so after they had crossed the Jordan, Israel was once again largely a landless nation, as they found themselves in exile, only to have a remnant return a couple of generations later and re-establish the capital city of Jerusalem. During the rising and falling of their national fortunes, the people of Israel—the Jews—engaged in an ongoing struggle over how, or how not, to adapt the Torah to the changing circumstances of their existence. In the process, their understanding of the Torah tended to become rather brittle, rather mechanical, exceedingly legalistic. Layer after layer of “expert” opinion on the interpretation of the Law of Moses piled themselves on top of one another. In time, this collection of interpretation and explanation began to weigh more than the actual law itself. People got caught up in these secondary matters of interpretation and lost their focus on the laws themselves and the intent behind the laws. This gave rise to various classes of professional Torah scholars and teachers—such as priests and scribes—as well as “parties” within Judaism. These scholars and teachers and parties all offered conflicting viewpoints, and the Torah came to be seen as an end in itself, rather than a means to a holy end. Keeping the Law correctly in every detail became more important than knowing God and pleasing God and having fellowship with God, which was the whole reason for the Law in the first place.

Then, some 1200 years or so after the giving of the Law of Moses, Jesus appears on the scene. In one incident, he engages the dry, brittle, legalistic handling of the Torah that had become so prevalent in Judaism. Some scribes—members of a professional class of Torah teachers—notice Jesus’ disciples failing to observe one of the secondary interpretations of the Torah that had become standard ritual practice, and they take Jesus to task for it. Jesus wastes no time in condemning their hyper-technical approach to the Law:
There is nothing outside a person which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a person are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. 
Now, as Christians, we need to be very careful not to read this passage in isolation from the rest of scripture. Yes, Jesus excoriates the scribes and their allies. He calls them “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs”—some pretty strong language. But he does not condemn religious practice itself. On the contrary, Jesus faithfully observed it. He was circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the temple on the fortieth day of his life. He accompanied his parents on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for religious festivals. He participated in synagogue worship while living and working in Galilee. Indeed, the Last Supper, at which he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, was a Jewish ritual meal. Jesus was an observant, religiously practicing Jew during his entire life.

You know, the word “religion” has a bad name in some Christian circles these days, but I would contend that this is undeserved. I think we can safely say that Christian religious practice is an effective means to the end of fellowship with God. The particular things we do that would come under the category of the practice of religion are intended to help us know God better, to walk with Him and follow Him. They are channels of light and life. We make it a priority to come together for corporate worship on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, because the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our hope. We keep the seasons of the liturgical year—the feasts, the fasts, and the ordinary times—because doing so constantly drills us on the essentials of our faith. We say our daily prayers at regular times because we know that God is present in and works through the mystery of time. We fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, and we keep the other Fridays of the year as days of special devotion, because we know that in fasting and prayer God speaks to us and leads us. We examine our consciences and confess our sins regularly because only by receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness can we grow closer to Him. Just as the Law of Moses formed the people of Israel and gave them a sense of national identity, so the practice of Christian religion forms us as the Church and gives us a sense of Christian “ethnic” identity.

Can these good things be abused by latter-day “scribes” and “Pharisees”? Yes, and they can be and have been and continue to be. I once had a newly confirmed adult—a college professor, no less, a smart guy—ask me on the very day of his confirmation: “OK, now what are the rules?” Clearly, he thought of the practice of religion not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. But, as we know, just because something can be misused doesn’t mean we should throw it out. Rather, we should discipline ourselves to use it properly, and teach others to do the same. Christian religious practices can be misused. But they are also the very means of grace, and we embrace them with joy and expectation that they will facilitate an encounter with the Holy, that they will escort us into the courts of the most high God. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Saturday (David Pendleton Oakerhater)

Caught up on a short stack of ministry-related emails during part of the afternoon, but the day was mostly devoted to household errands and projects, plus a long walk. Culled closets and took a sizeable load of seldom or never worn clothing to Goodwill. Then, after dinner, packed for an overnight and headed south as far as Litchfield. This puts us about halfway to tomorrow’s destination of St Andrew’s, Edwardsville.