Friday, July 31, 2020
Thursday, July 30, 2020
Wednesday, July 29, 2020
- Another three-hour House of Bishops meeting, which, once again, required preparatory reading. In both plenary and "table group" conversation, we discussed the advisability of creating broad leeway for liturgical experimentation in response to the pandemic. Read: "virtual communion," which, IMHO, is a complete non-starter. The notion did not get a warm reception. A majority also approved a statement on the involvement of federal law enforcement personnel in local disturbances in Portland and other places.
- Had a substantive phone conversation with Canon Evans.
- Attended to straggling loose ends pertaining to my agreement with the Standing Committee (now released), clergy deployment issues, "elections & appointments" issues, and the still-in-formation racism study task force.
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
The big rock: A three-hour House of Bishops meeting via Zoom, which required some reading in advance of the meeting.
- Refurbished a "vintage" sermon text for use in Tazewell Parish on August 9.
- Nailed down the last open spot (that can be presently filled--still looking for a historiographer) in the Elections & Appointments universe.
- Attended to sundry texts and emails as they arrived throughout the day.
- Toward the end of the day, had a tele-medicine appointment with one of Brenda's providers.
Sunday, July 26, 2020
St George’s, Belleville--Romans 8:26-34, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
As you may know, I was raised in a Christian tradition that placed a high value on memorizing scripture, and being able to cite book, chapter, and verse, and all of this beginning at a very young age. One of the verses that I committed to memory, and was of some encouragement and comfort to me as I grew up, is Romans 8:28, which includes the words, “All things work together for good…”. These words often helped me take a long view of things, when the short view wasn’t very appealing. Of course, I remember my mother pointing out to me that this phrase isn’t the whole verse; it’s not a blank-check promise that everything will automatically turn out OK for everybody. There’s some qualifying language: “For we know that all things work together for good, to them that love God, to them that are called according to his purpose.” (This is, of course, the language of the King James Version, which is how I memorized my scripture.)
Anyway, adding the bit about “lov[ing] him and [being] called according to his purpose” is an improvement, at least insofar as we’re interested in an accurate understanding of what St Paul is trying to say. But I would suggest that the Revised Standard Version gets us even closer still to where Paul wants us: “God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” This offers us a vision of God as the one who is “operating” and those who love God and are called according to his purpose—which would, presumably, include the community of those who have been reborn in Christ through the waters of baptism—God is operating and those who love him and are called by him are “co-operating” with God in bringing forth good out from and in the midst of conditions that look to us like anything but good.
The whole notion of God operating to bring forth good and people cooperating with God in that project is an immense comfort, because our experience in this life is, at best, a mixed bag—a mixed bag of bane and blessing, pain and pleasure. As we contemplate our sorry state, as we try to salvage some meaning and fulfillment from the challenges and the sorrows that surround us, we instinctively look to the past for clues to the great mystery of our existence. The future, after all, is unknown, and the present is unclear. So we look in the only apparently available direction—backwards. We look to the past for clues to the meaning of what we’re experiencing in the present. Am I being punished or rewarded for something I did? Did my parents make some colossal mistake in raising me such that I turned out the way I did? Is what I’m going through the fulfillment of some ancient prophecy? Did I forget to take my medication this morning? Is it something I ate, or some chemical I was exposed to before I was born? Particularly as we age, and as we slowly but surely acquire a past that is rather longer than any future we might have in this world, our inclination to interpret the present through the lens of the past becomes even stronger.
In fact, you and I are handicapped because we’re living our lives with only a partial map of the reality we inhabit. We are prisoners of time. We are bound by the dimensions of past, present, and future. We cannot conceive of any other way of being. We are by nature incapable of seeing reality the way God sees it, from the perspective of eternity—eternity, where there is only “now,” and no “then,” where there is no past or future, strictly speaking, but only an eternal present. Can you imagine how seeing reality from God’s point of view would change our interpretation of our experience? Can you imagine how viewing our experience through the lens of eternity would give us wonderful new insight into how “God works for good with those who love him and are called according to his purpose”?
Well, here’s the good news: Christian faith offers us just that sort of opportunity. Walking with Jesus as his disciple, and walking with our fellow disciples, gives us a completely new way of seeing and interpreting our experience, which is that the clue to the meaning of the present lies not in the past, but in the future—in Eternity to be completely accurate, but from our perspective, the future. If you feel that your life, if you feel that the whole of human existence, is devoid of meaning and purpose, it could be that you’ve been looking in the wrong place, looking in the wrong direction. The clues we’re looking for lie in the future, not in the past.
You have, I’m sure, had the experience of reading a suspense thriller novel, or watching a suspense movie, for the second or even third time. It can be an enjoyable experience. There are details that you may have missed the first time, or elements of the plot that become clearer and make more sense. You can focus more on matters of artistry and craftsmanship like camera angles and lighting and scene editing and dialogue. But there’s nothing that can duplicate the experience of seeing it for the first time, when you’re engrossed in the actual story. Subsequent viewings—or readings, as the case may be—are more of the head and less of the gut. We may enjoy it even more than we did the first time, but as the story unfolds, we have a lot less anxiety. Why? Obviously, it’s because we know what’s going to happen, we know what comes next. Most importantly, we know how it turns out. We know whether the ending is happy, tragic, or just unsatisfying. Second- or third-time viewers can relax in a way that a first-time viewer never can, because they know how the story turns out.
This is essentially what Jesus is trying to get across to us in what we might call the “parables of expansion”—the mustard seed, the leaven, the pearl of great price. Don’t judge a mustard seed by its present size, which is miniscule. Judge it according to what it will become—an expansive and hearty tree. Look to the end of the story, not the beginning. Yeast look insignificant when you add them to flour and water, but an hour later, it is evident that they are significant indeed. Look to the end of the story, not the beginning. The treasure hunter impoverishes himself in order to acquire a particular pearl. But he knows that he can eventually sell that pearl for many times what it cost him. Look to the end of the story, not the beginning.
This is, of course, also St Paul’s point as he writes the passage that includes Romans 8:28:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Both the pithy language of the parables and the exalted prose of the epistle to the Romans accomplish the same purpose—they both give us God’s eternal perspective. When we look for meaning only in the past, it can be depressing because there’s an awful lot of suffering in the past. I’m talking about my past and your past, and humankind’s collective past. If we look to the past to interpret the present, we are left consumed by anxiety and uncertainty—and this is certainly no way one would want to live! With faith in the one who foreknew and predestined us, and with God working for good in and with us because he has called us according to his purpose, we are able to live with confidence, hope, and joy. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, July 25, 2020
Friday, July 24, 2020
Thursday, July 23, 2020
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Highlights and lowlights:
- Attended the regular weekly meeting of the Province V bishops.
- Made yet more progress on "elections and appointments."
- With a series of email exchanges, got a little closer to the goal of forming a task-force to look into any patterns of racism in the life of the diocese.
- Responded at length to some questions from an individual in the ordination process.
- Arranged a meeting next week with a potential candidate for one or more of our communities in transition.
- Did some loose-end tying in the nearly-ready-for-publication agreement between the Standing Committee and me in resolution of our long-standing dispute.
- Attended to sundry administrative details.
- Took a long and aggressive walk.
Tuesday, July 21, 2020
The main things:
- Opened a homiletical file on Proper 22 (prayer, identifying the propers and pasting them into a document, making initial notes after a careful reading.
- Met for an hour with Fr John Thorpe, new interim Vicar of St Michael's, O'Fallon--just a routine introductory talk-through between bishop and pastor.
- Initial get-to-know-you meeting with someone at the very beginning of the ordination discernment process.
- Moved the ball a few more yards downfield in lining up "elections and appointments."
Sunday, July 19, 2020
Redeemer, Cairo --Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Romans 8:1-25,, Psalm 86
I grew up in Illinois—nearly as far away from Cairo as you can get and still be in the same state—in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Then I moved away fifty years ago to go to college and graduate school in California. Then I lived in Oregon for ten years, Wisconsin for three, Louisiana for five, back a different part of California for thirteen, and Indiana for three, before finally coming back to Illinois when I was elected Bishop of Springfield. There were a lot of nice things about returning to the state I grew up in, of course. But I was shocked and disappointed by one, at least, and that is how thoroughly corrupt Illinois politics and way too many Illinois politicians are. Corruption is hard-wired into the political culture of this state. It’s so much part of the environment that it goes largely unnoticed. But after being away for five decades, I noticed. It hit me like a brick wall. This gives a lot of us an uneasy feeling, but nobody seems to know quite what to do.
But it is not only political corruption that feed our uneasy feelings. The first spring that I spent back in Illinois, in 2011, this very community of Cairo was almost destroyed by flood waters. Only a decision by the Corps of Engineers to flood some farmland in Missouri instead saved Cairo. And now ... now we’ve got not a localized flood but a worldwide pandemic of a virus that has killed 7,000 people in Illinois in less than five months. So we are keenly aware of evil in the natural order, and a voice deep in our hearts says, "This is wrong! It isn't supposed to be this way! If God is God, why doesn't he do something about it?"
But we don't need to even think about the coronavirus or the possibility of a catastrophic flood in order to come face to face with our uncomfortable awareness that something is just not right. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, all we need to do us look into our own church communities, and we are confronted by that reality. We have all, at one time or another, looked for authenticity and found hypocrisy. We have all looked for depth and found shallowness. We have all looked for love and sincerity and found selfishness and manipulation. We are keenly aware of evil right within the fellowship of the church, and a voice deep in our hearts says, "This is wrong! It isn't supposed to be this way! If God is God, why doesn't he do something about it?" The garden of life is full of weeds—everywhere at every level. Why can't God just make them go away? We're like the author of Psalm 86, in whose words we prayed just a few minutes ago: “The arrogant rise up against me, O God, and a band of violent men seeks my life ... Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate you may see it and be ashamed.”
And we're like the farmhands in today's gospel parable of the weeds among the wheat, who, as soon as they saw the unwelcome intruders sprouting along with the good grain, wanted their master to do something about it, to authorize them to rip the weeds out of the ground right away.
We can readily empathize with St Paul when he writes about the "whole creation ... groaning in labor pains" while it "waits with eager longing" for the revelation of God's finished work of redemption. We are annoyed and impatient with living in this interim time between the promise and the fulfillment, between the engagement and the wedding, between the down payment and closing of the deal. We're impatient precisely because we've had a glimpse of the finished product.
Within the memory of the Christian community, handed on from generation to generation, is the knowledge of the crucified and risen Christ fixing breakfast for his friends on the beach. And within the present experience of that same community, the same risen Christ is sacramentally present, fixing breakfast for us at this table. Within the memory of the Christian community, handed on from generation to generation, is the knowledge of the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended with power on the assembled disciples and enabled them to proclaim the gospel with confidence and authority. And within the present experience of each of us who has been reborn in the sacrament of baptism, the same Holy Spirit is alive and empowering us to carry out the ministry to which we have been called.
We have these glimpses of the kingdom of heaven, of "the glory that will be revealed,” and on the basis of the little bit that we've seen, we want to see it all! We want God to do something, to rip off the veil and reveal the full glory of his kingdom right now! It is to such holy impatience that the parable of the weeds among the wheat is specifically addressed. The weeds in this case are probably something called darnel, which is a plant that looks very much like wheat during all the stages of growth, until near the end, when the actual head of grain appears. The field laborers are impatient and focused on the present. They want to attack the darnel as soon as they see it. But the farmer is patient, and takes a longer view. He knows that if he tries to get rid of the darnel right away, a lot of good grain will probably be lost in the process. He's confident in his ability to sort the wheat from the weeds at the proper time, and he's content to have an "ugly" field now in order to maximize his yield in the end.
The farmer reminds us of God's patient disposition toward his work in our world. There are, indeed, weeds in the garden. God knows that. There are weeds in the natural order, weeds in the social and political order, and weeds even in the community of the church. But God also knows that to pull all the weeds right now would put the wheat—which includes us, presumably—at risk. God is patient—a patience, I might add, which may sometimes frustrate us, but which, more often than not, works to our benefit. God's patient forbearance means that we have to live with political corruption and floods and racism and deadly diseases and everything else that falls short of the glory of his kingdom. But it also means that those of us who sometimes look and act more like darnel than wheat have the space in which to repent and produce the fruit that we know the farmer will be looking for at harvest time.
So let us give thanks that God takes a long view, and that he's confident in his ability to sort the wheat from the weeds at the proper time. Those who make wine and beer and cheese will tell us that patience—the ability to resist the temptation to rush the process—is what distinguishes a mediocre result from and excellent one. The quality of what we have glimpsed but which is not yet fully revealed, the glory of things as they shall be, is founded on God's patient forbearance with things as they are.
You and I can respond in one of two ways. We can remain steadfast in our impatience—"If it can't be perfect now then I don't want it at all.” If we make this choice, we plunge ourselves into a lifetime— indeed, an eternity—of bitterness and disillusionment. Or, we can share God's own outlook. We can adopt his patient and forbearing attitude as our own. In doing so, we can rest in the knowledge that we are who we are, and God is who God is. We will, to be sure, continue to "groan" with the rest of the created order as we await the day of the Lord, the fulfillment of all that has been promised. But in the meantime, we live lives of hope and confidence and joy in the glory which we have glimpsed, the glory that will be revealed.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, July 18, 2020
Friday, July 17, 2020
- Juggled several ongoing email threads--pastoral and administrative, laity and clergy.
- Selected and invited five persons to join an ad hoc anti-racism study task force. One has accepted. Awaiting the other responses.
- Spoke at some length by phone with a colleague bishop, by way of personal check-in.
- Made progress toward re-jiggering a formation plan for a diaconal ordinand. This sort of thing has been made significantly more complicated by the coronavirus.
- Spend a "holy hour" in front of the Blessed Sacrament in our domestic oratory.
Thursday, July 16, 2020
Wednesday, July 15, 2020
The big rocks:
- Regular one-hour meeting of the Province V bishops.
- One-hour interview of a priest from outside the diocese who is interested in joining us. I would like to have him.
- Cosmetic surgery on a previously-used homily for Proper 12, preparing it for use on July 26th at St George's, Belleville.
- Ran out to Staples for a printer cartridge. Got to have the office necessities.
- Quick Zoom meeting to take care of a bit of administrative business pertaining to receiving a priest back into the Episcopal Church.
- Drafted an amendment to the diocesan canons that I believe is salutary, and sent it to some potential proposers.
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
The big rocks:
- 65 minute meeting with the Standing Committee. Now we have not only an agreement in concept but an agreement on language. We still await a "clean" version of the agreement from our mediator, however. There will be a press release when it's all said and done.
- 60 minute meeting with Canon Evans. We talked about diocesan assessments and parishes in transition, with brief attention to an emerging potential discipline issue.
The smaller rocks:
- Prepping for the two meetings referenced above.
- Responding to a thick stack of email messages that built up over the weekend and on my day off. Many of them required only a short response--but there were a lot.
- More tangible progress on the "elections and appointments" front.
Sunday, July 12, 2020
St Thomas’, Salem--Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Romans 8:9-17, Psalm 65:9-14, Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13
One of the petitions that we sometimes use in our liturgy during the Prayers of the People is offered on behalf of “those who do not yet believe, and those who have lost their faith.” There is, to be sure, a certain note of faith and optimism in this petition, because we say “those who do not yet believe.” But if you’ve ever prayed that prayer intentionally on behalf of a specific person, then you know that it’s often more an act of the will than an act of faith. The classic example of this in Christian history is St Monnica, who prayed constantly for her son Augustine over some twenty years before he finally came to faith. Others have prayed longer, and gone to their graves without ever knowing the joy of seeing their prayers answered. Such heartfelt and extended prayer can easily seem . . . well, wasteful—wasteful of the time and spiritual energy of the person doing the praying.
But there are other examples in our experience of time and resources poured out in ministry for which there is no immediate and proportional payoff. A concerned young man reaches out to befriend an “at risk” teenager, hoping to provide some structure or stability, to be a role model, only to have those efforts persistently scorned or rejected. It seems like such a waste of goodwill. A middle-aged woman makes it a practice, in response to what she feels as a call from the Holy Spirit, to visit nursing home residents regularly and frequently. Yet, she experiences them as largely incapable of understanding and appreciating what she’s doing. It seems like such a waste of consecrated obedience and holy intention.
These scenarios certainly cause us to admire those who invest their lives with so little promise of return on their investment, but they also make us anxious. And our anxiety in turn, if we listen to it, tells us what we really value, what we really consider worthwhile and important. As members of this twenty-first century fast-paced society, you and I are conditioned to place an extremely high premium on efficiency and economy in our lives. We have computers that are ever more capable of multi-tasking, because we demand the same thing of ourselves, and for good reason: The demands on our time and the demands on our money are exploding. Yet, our resources are finite, and we are oh-so-aware of their limits. So we’ve got to be efficient, we’ve got to be economical, just to survive.
Now, with this dose of reality on the table, let’s try to overlay some theology on it, and see where the lumps are. In some sense, all theology is ultimately analogy. That is, we take experiences from our life in this world, and we make statements about God: “God is like…this or that.” Most of the time, doing theology by analogy serves us well. Most of the time—but not all. And one of the ways we can go astray is if we attribute to God the same qualities of efficiency and economy in his expectations for us as we have for ourselves.
Today’s familiar Parable of the Sower reminds us that God’s notion of what is efficient and economical is much different than our own. “A sower went out to sow,” Jesus begins the story. Picture a Middle-Eastern farm worker with a pouch slung over his shoulder, grabbing handfuls of seeds and tossing them, without very much precision, in every direction as he walks through a field. Now, as we hear this parable, we need to understand that Jesus wants us to identify him with the sower, and that St Matthew, the author of this material, wants us to identify the seed that Jesus is scattering with everything that we associate with the Christian message, particularly the essential core of our proclamation, summarized in such liturgical phrases as “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” or “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
So we have this image of Christ scattering the seed, making his way methodically through the field of human life and experience, tossing the good news of God’s redeeming love in every direction, without too much concern for precision. Some of those seeds fall on the hardened soil of the path, and are eaten by birds without ever having the chance to sprout. Hearts that are hardened by sin and shame and regret and bitterness have a difficult time receiving God’s unconditional love. But the sower keeps broadcasting the good news anyway.
Some of the seeds fall into shallow soil, and sprout quickly, but there’s nothing for the roots to grab onto, so they wither away just as quickly as they sprouted. Some people respond to the proclamation of the gospel, but never count the cost of true discipleship, and they fall away from Christ. Yet, Christ keeps on scattering the seed anyway.
Some of those seeds fall in areas where there are already a lot of other plants growing. The older plants have a head start and choke off the growth of the new seed. Sometimes people respond to the gospel, but are distracted by competing priorities, and neglect to eat from the green pastures and drink from the still waters that the Good Shepherd leads them to. Still, the sower continues to scatter the seed—relentlessly, wastefully, inefficiently, and uneconomically.
And, of course, many of the seeds fall onto rich and fertile soil. They go on to germinate and sprout and grow and bear abundant fruit. Two thousand years after Christ walked this earth; his Church exists in every country on every continent. Millions upon millions of men, women, and children have found life and hope and peace as a result of putting their faith in him and coming to the living water of baptism, given without price, and quenching their thirst eternally.
I suspect that theology-by-analogy might never have led us to a God who takes the extravagant risk of sowing the seed of his word everywhere—in all places and among all people. God scatters the seed of forgiveness everywhere, without regard to who might be around and in the mood to repent and receive the gift. God scatters the seed of reconciliation everywhere, without stopping to notice whether the combatants have laid down their arms. God scatters the seed of vocation everywhere, even when nobody is willing to listen to his call and follow that call. God scatters the seed of hope everywhere, even in places where despair seems to have a chokehold. God scatters the seed of glory everywhere, even when the only thing visible to the naked eye is misery and squalor. God scatters the seed of his word in all types of soil, including those that are virtually guaranteed to waste the seed. But there’s more. The Psalmist reminds us that God not only plants the seed, but waters it: “You visit the earth and water it abundantly.” And St Paul reminds us that God also tends the newly-sprouted plants through his indwelling Spirit.
What encouragement this gives us! St Paul, writing to the Romans, but speaking to us as well, teaches us that, as Christian disciples, we are, as he puts it, “in the Spirit.”
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
With this knowledge, we can be confident that our faithful efforts, wasteful and inefficient as they may seem, are not in vain. Wasted energy is the veritable power supply of the Kingdom of Heaven! The prayers of a wife for her unbelieving husband, a young man extending himself for an at-risk youth, visiting nursing home residents who are unresponsive—these are all more precious than gold in God’s sight. God takes the extravagant risk of sowing His word everywhere—wastefully, and without very much regard for precision. The prophet Isaiah tells us that it’s all a matter of perception:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not again but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purposed, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
So be it. Let’s keep scattering the seed. Amen.
Saturday, July 11, 2020
Friday, July 10, 2020
Thursday, July 9, 2020
- Wrestled with my exegetical notes for Proper 13 (St Andrew's, Edwardsville) until they yielded a homiletical message statement.
- Hosted a Zoom meeting of clergy who ar assigned to parishes. We had a discussion about how to think of mission during Coronatide as an opportunity and not only a challenge. We plotted a future course of action. Stay tuned for details.
- Based on feedback from the editor of the Covenant blog, made some alterations to the draft post I submitted only a couple of days ago. I knew it needed some work, and was grateful to have some specifics pointed out.
- Handled the usual spate of emails, text messages, and phone calls throughout the day.
Wednesday, July 8, 2020
- Attended the weekly Province V bishops meeting It was kind of a dark time, in solidarity with the Bishop of Indianapolis, who is black, and within the territory of whose diocese an attempted lynching occurred in a state park over the weekend. She is understandably traumatized.
- Had a smattering of phone conversations with various diocesan clergy.
- Made some solid progress in the "elections and appointments" front.
- Caught up on a substantial amount of deferred reading (articles, blog posts, the book I'm working through).
- Attended to a small administrative chore.
- Tried to process as many emails as possible as they came in, so as not to let them pile up.
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
- Usual AM routine, begun in the back yard, just because it was so nice out in the early morning.
- Began to deal with a newly-reappearing clergy discipline issue. Never a pleasant thing.
- Reviewed and tentatively responded to a revised proposal from the representative of a para-church organization that was going to conduct the fall clergy conference that has now been hijacked by other pressing issues. Trying to re-set how they might still help us.
- Attended to a small but of Communion Partners business.
- Attended to some tedious administrative details around reinstating a priest who left the Episcopal Church several years ago while canonically resident in the diocese and who now wishes to return to TEC and serve in another diocese. It's necessary to please those who are the stewards of fine details.
- Usually when I rework an old homily it's mostly cosmetic surgery. The one from 1996 that I'm planning on using the Sunday after next needed to be torn down to the studs and completely rebuilt. (A lot of cultural context has changed in 24 years, but the basic homiletical bones were solid.)
- Collated the dozen-plus responses I got when I opened up a series of seminars on pastoral liturgy that begins this Saturday, created a Zoom meeting, and sent out the link.
- Arranged Zoom interviews with two potential candidates for our many (more than two) vacant clergy positions.
- Built out the broad strokes that I sketched last week for my next-due post on the Covenant blog into a developed essay. Groping toward an authentically Christian response to issues of social justice in a highly-polarized political environment.
- Evening Prayer with Brenda.
Sunday, July 5, 2020
St John’s, Decatur
Matthew 11:16–19, 25—30, Romans 7:15–25
Before the end of March, the name “Coronatide” became a bit of widely-used slang among liturgical Christians to refer to this “season of the virus.” When Illinois entered Phase III of the governor’s re-opening schema (we’re now in Phase IV), I started talking about us being in “Stage 2” of the season of Coronatide. We still have to keep our distance from each other, we still have to wear masks most of the time that we’re indoors, and—most sadly, in my opinion—we still can’t assume that it’s safe to sing together when we’re in church, but ... at least we’re here! And what a blessing that is! This is now the fifth Sunday in the last six that I have made a parish visitation, and even under these straitened circumstances, it has been a source of deep joy to once again be with the people of God on the Lord’s Day.
Over the last nearly four months, we have been watching everything that happens get politicized at warp speed, and COVID19 has been no exception. There’s what we might call the dominant narrative: wash your hands obsessively, stay home as much as you can, and when you can’t, wear a mask. And if you’re over 65, by all means, just double down on all of the above. But there’s what we might call a “minority report”: This virus is pretty much like the regular flu, only on steroids, there’s no need to panic, no need to shut down the economy, and certainly no need to shut down churches. Let’s all just be like Sweden and take a chill pill. Before long, though, both of these narratives hardened into a rigid “orthodoxy” of either the left or the right, an orthodoxy that has zero tolerance for any form of questioning or dissent.
So, as I got ready to preach today, and looked at the readings, I found it instructive to compare either side of the kind of polarization we’re seeing to what Jesus suggests is the oppressive regime of the “scribes and Pharisees.” Here’s the context: the basic religious text of Judaism in the time of Jesus was the Torah, what we would call the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Law of Moses. But, over the centuries, a great deal of secondary interpretive literature had grown up that elaborated on the Law of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees considered themselves experts and keepers, not only on the Law of Moses, but on all the secondary interpretive literature. Think of the Torah as the U.S. constitution, and think of all the laws that have been passed by Congress, and all the decisions issued by the Supreme Court, as the domain of the scribes and Pharisees. It was very complicated, and there were innumerable ways that an ordinary Jew could get it wrong, even while trying very hard to get it right. In Jesus’ opinion, the tradition of the scribes and Pharisees was impossibly oppressive, like the competing narratives about the coronavirus crisis. One false move, one wrong “like” on Facebook, and the entire weight of whichever side you offend comes crashing down on you. Jesus referred disparagingly to those who subjected themselves to the regime of the scribes and Pharisees as “this generation.” It’s like a revolution that constantly refines itself into something purer and purer until it eventually consumes its own. We can see this in the French revolution of 1789, the Russian revolution in 1917, the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Arab spring of a few years ago, and now, in a mostly bloodless way, in the polarized orthodoxies of our society, around COVID-19, around racism, or whatever.
How can people of Christian faith respond? We respond by however we behave toward that which is really real, that which is of ultimate importance—spiritual reality, or—we may as well just say it—God. Inasmuch as we act toward ultimate reality out of our learned sophistication, out of our position in “this generation,” as Jesus used the expression, we will end up subjecting ourselves to the oppressive regime of the scribes and Pharisees. We will find ourselves in a state as bizarre and convoluted as St Paul describes in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Romans:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
What’s the alternative, then? The alternative is to flip the script. We can turn our backs on “this generation.” We can refuse the yoke of the scribes and Pharisees. Instead, we have an opportunity to identify with the “little children” that Jesus refers to in his spontaneous prayer:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
When we act out of our inner “little child,” rather than our faux-sophisticated egos, we become disciples. We become disciples who learn from their Master, the Master who says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” And in doing so we put ourselves in the way of experiencing his “easy” yoke—“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now that’s a slightly deceptive statement that Jesus makes there—I mean, not that Jesus is being deceptive, but it’s easy to misunderstand. The obligations of discipleship are actually, just in themselves, more difficult than the “yoke of the scribes and Pharisees.” Following Christ is not a walk in the park. What makes Jesus’ yoke “easy” and his burden “light” is not that their demands are easier than those of the scribes and Pharisees, but that they are more bearable. They are more bearable because of who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who meets our deepest needs and satisfies our deepest longings. Jesus is our light and our life, our hope and our wholeness. The yoke that Jesus lays on us, in the greatest of ironies, brings us rest.
To bear the yoke of Christ is to know rest in the center of one’s being.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, July 4, 2020
Friday, July 3, 2020
- Conceived and partially developed my next post for the Covenant blog (something on how Christians might engage issues of justice without adopting the vocabulary and categories of our polarized secular politics).
- Took a deep dive into the latest literature about the safety of singing in church. There are lots of conflicting opinions from seemingly competent and reputable scientists out there. Still deferring to an abundance of caution, but felt secure in lifting the ban on outdoor singing.
- Crafted what I hope is a careful and well-intentioned response to a petition I received earlier in the week from some of the clergy of the diocese politely demanding that I take certain actions about the recently heightened national awareness of systemic racism. It can be found here.
- Prayed the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary.
- Put some finishing touches on a plan for seminarian financial aid for the 2020-21 academic year.
Thursday, July 2, 2020
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
- A morning full of Zoom meetings--8:00-9:45 (a group of bishops from the U.S, Canada, the Church of England, and two African provinces, discussing a reconciliation initiative that will remain on the "down low" for a while) and 10:00-11:00 (the usual Province V meeting).
- Since my brain was pretty well fried at the point, I set out with Brenda on an extra-long (1 hour, 45 minutes) walk.
- Late lunch from leftovers.
- Did cosmetic surgery on a "vintage" homily for Proper 10 toward the end of making it usable on July 12 at St Thomas', Salem.
- Did a detailed analysis of the Eucharistic Communities that are or will soon be in transition, as well as a catalog of potential candidates in play that might fill those vacancies. Shared this with Canon Evans by email. There are more vacancies than candidates at this point. We have our work cut out for us.
- Cleaned up my computer desktop, a routine regular maintenance chore.
- Attended to some small administrative and pastoral matters.
- Evening Prayer with Brenda.