Up and out of my office encampment and across the alley to offer Morning Prayer at 0730, then to Hardee's for some breakfast. After a bit of email, it was time to get ready for Fr Gus Franklin's funeral Mass at 11:00. Lots of details whenever there's a liturgy that is not completely routine. Fortunately, funerals are not quite "routine" in my experience. Everything went smoothly, and we gave Fr Gus a good sendoff. A nice luncheon reception followed (with appropriate precautions) next door at the Inn at 835. Then it was time to take Bishop Ackerman to the airport for his flight back to DFW. Back at office, I did the finish work on tomorrow's homily. Can't deny that I was dragging more than a little by then. Seeing people (even through masks) that I don't often see was a really welcome thing (I *literally* "don't get out much"). But I am still an introvert, and the whole experience was taxing. There was enough daylight for a substantial walk, so I took advantage. Prayed the evening office, then went out to feed myself, Most of the evening was spent organizing and stowing yesterdays "vestment bonanza." The cathedral is housing most of them. Some are eventually headed to the chapel at Toddhall. It was a full day.
Saturday, October 31, 2020
Friday, October 30, 2020
Attended to some domestic matters related to my being away for 52 hours. Headed south at 11am, arriving at the Diocesan Center about 3.5 hours later. Unloaded the boxes of vestments that I had picked up at Nashotah House yesterday. Checked in with Canon Evans on a few things. Headed to the airport and retrieved Bishop Keith Ackerman, who is preaching at Fr Gus Franklin's funeral tomorrow at 11am. Got him checked in at the Inn at 835, then headed to the southwest side of town for a haircut. Prayed the evening office in the cathedral, then enjoyed cauliflower crust pizza from Pie's the Limit with Bishop Ackerman, as we spaced ourselves generously in the rotunda. Afterward, spent some time beginning to inventory the vestments. It's quite a treasure trove, as several unexpected bonuses were thrown in.
Thursday, October 29, 2020
The morning and part of the afternoon were consumed by a trip up to Nashotah House to take "delivery" on some vestments that I bought for diocesan use several months ago (they're no longer considered fashionable by Nashotah, but I love them!), but never received because of the onset of the pandemic. Now they're in my car for a trip to Springfield tomorrow. The rest of the day, including well into the evening, with a break for dinner, was devoted to my next-due post on the Covenant blog, in which I try to interpret and put into some context the veery unsettling news of the resignation of the Bishop of Albany. Sorting this out is of more than marginal significance for a diocese like Springfield.
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Two long Zoom meetings: one of a group of five Communion Partner bishops and five ACNA bishops, under the auspices of the General Secretary of the Anglican Communion, to discern together possible paths toward greater trust and communion; the other a (more pleasant) meeting of the "Class of 2011" bishops and spouses. Between those meetings, I worked on my next-due post for the Covenant blog, in which I will contribute to the collective effort to "interpret" the announced resignation of the Bishop of Albany and the events that led up to it. This writing project will occupy much of the next several days.
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
- Composed, edited, and sent an Ad Clerum (letter to the clergy) covering a range of news and concerns.
- Build out my homiletical message statement for Proper 28 (November 15 in Granite City) into a developed sermon outline.
- Attended to a Communion Partners-related tasks.
- Interviewed a former Roman Catholic priest who is interested in exploring reception of his orders by the Episcopal Church.
- Reviewed and approved an application for a marital judgment.
- Cleaned up the minutes I took at last week's Living Church Foundation annual meeting, and the board meeting, and sent them off to the President and Executive Director.
- Took care of sundry other emails and texts "on the fly."
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Up and out of my Effingham hotel room at 0730, arriving at St Mary's in Robinson an hour later, ahead of the planned 0900 celebration of the Eucharist. Since St Mary's is "between priests," they've been reading Morning Prayer on Sundays live-streamed on Facebook, so this was the first time they've been together for the Eucharist since March. So it was an immense privilege to be with them for that. Afterward, we visited outdoors, masked and distanced, for a bit, eventually finding the side of the building that sheltered us from the wind. Back home after the long drive late in the afternoon.
St Mary's, Robinson--Matthew 22:34-46
In Archibald MacLeish’s classic drama based on the Old Testament story of Job, the title character JB frames the terms of an impossible dilemma: “If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God.”
If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God
Hurricanes, wildfires, an out-of-control deadly virus, escalating racial tensions and a toxic political environment all certainly support such an assertion. We can add to this mix all manner of personal misfortune. We all know somebody whose livelihood has been undermined by the pandemic. Where is God when a family needs to eat and pay its bills and can’t do so? At any given moment, somebody we know is dying, or grieving a death. What kind of God allows such sorrow to happen among those whom he professes to love? All around us in central and southern Illinois, there are victims of poverty and racism and various forms of violence. What kind of God allows husbands to beat their wives and a young person walking down the street to be labeled by others as the enemy just because of his physical appearance?
If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God
Sometimes, as we search for answers to these questions, we may surmise that God is somehow testing us. We think of Job, who, according to the story, God allowed to be tested by Satan,
to suffer all sorts of unimaginable loss, just to see whether he would curse God. When horrible things happen, we may think that perhaps God is testing us. Or we may tell ourselves that it’s just part of God’s mysterious will, in a way we cannot explain, and that everything will work out OK in the end. Responses such as these are sometimes the best we can do under difficult circumstances, and I certainly don’t fault anybody for coming up with them. But there comes a point, eventually, when they are intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying. They seem like cop-outs. They allow us to feel like we’re “religious” and “people of faith,” but they give us that feeling at the expense of our connection with reality—or at least with what feels like reality.
Of course, many take what seems like an obvious way out: There is no God. That way, God is neither God nor good. There just is no God. So there’s nobody who’s personally responsible for bad things that happen, and there’s nobody whose job it is to rescue good and innocent people from those bad things. Bad things just happen. Tectonic plates shift. Low pressure systems become tropical storms. The wind just blows; it isn’t capable of caring about what’s in the way.
There is no God.
Or, if you’re fearful of taking the full-blown atheist option, there’s always the variation—it’s called deism: God is out there somewhere, but just doesn’t care. This resolves JBs dilemma by removing half of it: God is God, he just isn’t particularly good. This was a way of thinking that was particularly popular about 300 years ago, and had a great influence on Christians everywhere, particularly in the Church of England—both in England and in the American colonies.
Either of these responses, however—the atheistic or the deistic—leads ultimately to cynicism and despair. It’s just no appealing way to live. Even if one of them turned out to be true, what good would it be? Most of us would rather live with a pleasant fantasy or illusion than with a truth that horrible. It takes us only to hopelessness spiraling downward into purposeless dissipation and despair.
This is an election season, as I’m sure we are more than sufficiently aware! Politicians are being peppered with questions from the media in all forms. The smart ones are adept at not being trapped by a question that poses what seems like an impossible dilemma. Their advisors are constantly telling them, “Look, you do not have to accept the premise of the question.” You do not have to accept the premise of the question. Don’t let yourself be led into a false dilemma. Find a way to turn their question into the one you do want to answer. Make them accept your premise.
My brothers and sisters, today’s good news is that God refuses to accept the premises with which we approach him. God refuses to let himself be trapped by the dilemmas that we pose. Instead, he leads us to answer his questions. We see the pattern for this in Jesus’ interaction with his adversaries in the final weeks of his public ministry. Last week it was in the question of whether a faithful Jew at the time should pay the poll tax to the Roman government. Then there is an episode that we don’t have in Matthew’s ‘Year A’ version; we read Luke’s account of it in Year C. It’s the dilemma about the seven brothers who all marry the same woman, in succession, after the previous bother/husband has died. Whose wife will she be in the world to come? Now we have the narrative climax to a long game of rhetorical cat-and-mouse:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"
Now, there were some 613 distinct statutes in the Torah, the Law of Moses. Whichever one Jesus picked, he risked offending the fans of the other 612! At first it looks like he’s going to take their bait:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.
But, in fact, Jesus refuses to accept the premise of their question. In other words, he refuses to accept the notion that there is indeed one of the 613 that is greater than all the others. He continues:
And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.
This statement by our Lord is known by Christians as the Summary of the Law, and it has a particularly privileged place in the Anglican liturgical inheritance. Our first moral obligation cannot be separated from our second moral obligation. If we love God without loving our neighbor, then we do not really love God. And if we do not love God, then we are not capable of really loving our neighbor. And, for Jesus’ original Jewish audience, the other 611 laws in the Torah were certainly not abrogated by anything he said; quite the opposite: Each of them became a thread in the fabric, a concrete expression of the fundamental duty to love both God and neighbor. As he so often does, Jesus here refuses to accept an implied false dilemma, and instead reframes the question so as to get to its essential meaning without taking the trouble to deal with some messy but secondary issues relating to form and style.
But that’s not all. Jesus doesn’t rest after sliding between the horns of the dilemma his adversaries thought they’d hung him on. He keeps going, and proceeds to best them in their own strategy of posing false dilemmas!
Jesus asked them a question, saying, "What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put your enemies under your feet'? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?" And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.
So, instead of falling into the Pharisees’ trap by answering their question as they posed it, Jesus ends up making them answer his question! Or they try, at least—they are, in fact, unable to answer it, and walk away from the encounter clearly having been defeated.
If we’re observant, we find here a clue to how God deals with us. He refuses to accept the premise of Job’s dilemma, and JB’s modern version of that dilemma: “If you’re God, you’re not good, and if you’re good, you’re not really God.” And in the same way, God refuses to accept the premise of any dilemma that we might put to him. In his loving desire to save us—to save us from ourselves, from our egocentricity, from pride and envy and anger and lust and sloth and greed, and mostly our own sheer stupidity and ignorance—in order to save us from ourselves, God makes us respond to his questions. This is God’s way of—as one might say—keepin’ it real. Amen.
Saturday, October 24, 2020
Let the fourth and final installment of Pastoral Liturgy Seminars from 10-12. After a break and some lunch, I did the finish work on tomorrow's homily (St Mary's, Robinson). Packed for an overnight and hit the road southbound at 3pm, eventually landing at Effingham, where I am spending the night.
Friday, October 23, 2020
The morning was consumed by a visit to a new (to me) ophthalmologist, for the purpose of getting a second opinion about whether my cataracts are to the point where they merit surgical intervention. The answer is, "Maybe, and maybe not." So we're going to wait six months and have another look. Not the clear Ys/No answer I was looking for, but ... "it is what it is." The afternoon was devoted to preparing for the final installment of my Pastoral Liturgy seminar, which is on the calendar as a Zoom meeting tomorrow morning.Squeezed in a late walk before dinner.
Thursday, October 22, 2020
- Attended (and took minutes for) the 2.5 hour annual meeting of the Living Church Foundation (yesterday was the Board of Directors, today was the full foundation ... and we had record attendance precisely because it was virtual).
- Wrestled a homiletical message statement from my exegetical notes on the readings for Proper 28, in preparation for preaching at St Bartholomew's, Granite City on November 15.
- Spoke by phone with a retired priest who has moved into the diocese and is seeking to be licensed.
- Substantive phone conversation with Canon Evans.
- Attended to some routine calendar-related personal organization chores (end-of-month related).
- Got myself organized with respect to a complex clergy deployment situation. Feeling more of a sense of direction now.
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
- Did some cosmetic surgery on an old sermon text for All Saints Day in preparation for preaching at St Paul's, Carlinville on November 1.
- Attended the semi-annual meeting of the Board of Directors of the Living Church Foundation, of which I am the Secretary.
- Met for about 25 minutes with some colleague bishops from the Communion Partners over an emerging matter.
- Drafted the text of what will become a video introduction to intercessory prayer, perhaps destined for appearance on the website of the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer, whose board I serve on.
- Two pastoral care conversations with family members of a priest canonically, but not geographically, resident in the diocese.
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
The big rocks were to craft a developed sermon outline for Proper 27 (November 8 in Carbondale) from the simple homiletical message statement I came up with last week, and to make a shoe shopping expedition--for podiatrist-prescribed "orthotic" shoes (I have "Achilles insertional tendonitis")--in the inner-ring suburb of Norridge. Around those two items, I began to do some prep work for Saturday's final Pastoral Liturgy Seminar, corresponded with a former Roman Catholic priest interested in having his orders received in TEC, attended to an issue with someone in the ordination process, and moved the ball down the field in a Communion Partners-related project I agreed to take on. Squeezed in a walk in the late afternoon.
Sunday, October 18, 2020
On the road at 0730 and in Morton three hours later for the regular 11am Mass at All Saints. Presided, preached, and greeted people from a distance as they left. I do miss the post-liturgical socializing that we used to enjoy pre-pandemic. May it return sooner than we even hope. Some substantive conversation with Fr Dallman, then back on the road for a 4pm arrival back at home.
All Saints, Morton--Matthew 22:15–22
I certainly don’t need to remind anybody here that this is a presidential election year. And I doubt I would get very much pushback if I suggested that “toxic” is a good word to describe the political environment that we inhabit. For my entire life, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have attempted to extend their influence, appeal to voters, and advance their ideological agenda. But the degree of sheer polarization that has dominated our political world for the past several years is unprecedented. Candidates at every level, ordinary citizens at every level, are under immense pressure pick a side and stick to it. “Compromise” is a dirty word, both for the right and for the left.
As a Christian pastor, my larger concern is that this polarization, if not always the full extent of the toxicity—the polarization that characterizes the secular political sphere seems to map pretty neatly onto the Christian community, often without any significant variance from the secular norm ... which is to say, if you gather a group of 100 active practicing Christians and a group of 100 unbelievers or just nominal Christians, the same distribution of political views is going to show up in each group. So, this leads to an obvious question: What difference does our faith make in our political involvement, our political conversation? Does Christian faith even add anything distinctive to how we understand the world? And if not, what, then, is our witness to the world? What is our message to the world in this toxic election year?
Today’s gospel shines some light on this question. It’s a familiar passage: Rather late in Jesus’ ministry, the religious authorities engage in a succession of rather desperate efforts to entrap him into incriminating himself, so they can neutralize his popularity and influence among the people. So they ask him a loaded question: Should a faithful Jew pay taxes to the Roman government, or not? If he says yes, they can portray him as disloyal to his own people. If he says no, they can portray him as a threat to Roman rule. Either way, they win.
But Jesus refuses to be impaled on the horns of their dilemma. He asks for a coin, observes that the image on the coin is that of the Roman emperor, and then delivers the famous punchline: “Render to Caesar that things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And, indeed, it’s all about that punchline.
Applying this to ourselves, then, what can we identify as belonging to “Caesar” such that we legitimately owe it? What obligation does a Christian owe to the secular government? For starters, most of us will agree that we owe obedience to laws that are not in themselves unjust or evil. We may not like certain laws, but we still have to obey them; Jesus himself commands us to. I may not like the tax code, or the way the government spends the money it collects, but I still have to pay my taxes. Sometimes, we may even owe “Caesar” our lives, such as a member of the military in combat, or if we are guilty of wantonly taking the life of another human being.
So, we are under an obligation to obey even bad laws, just not evil laws. Of course, where the line between “bad” and “evil” lies is usually pretty fuzzy, but perhaps such things as the purge of Jews by Nazi Germany or the Jim Crow south telling African Americans to move to the back of the bus can be recognized as evil laws that a Christian need not—indeed, must not, obey.
So, how about the other direction? What do we owe to God that we don’t owe to “Caesar?” For starters, we owe God our ultimate affection and loyalty. This is not merely an option; it’s a debt. And part of this loyalty involves allowing our political involvement to be shaped by the values of the gospel. When we accept the demands of discipleship—as we have all done when we were baptized or confirmed, or when we have renewed our baptismal vows—when we accept the demands of discipleship, we surrender the right to contend in the public square solely for our own self-interest and the interests of those closest to us. To put it more bluntly, we are no longer free to vote just the way we want to. Instead, the water of baptism obliges us to see the world through the eyes of Jesus, who looked on the crowds, saw that they were “harassed and helpless,” and had compassion for them. If there is ever a moment to ask, “What would Jesus do?” it’s when we’re in a voting booth! Letting the gospel inform our voting is one way of rendering to God the things that are God’s.
It’s possible for a faithful Christian to do this while being a full-on socialist or a free-market capitalist, favoring a strong military deterrent or complete disarmament, supporting the war on drugs or supporting full decriminalization of all drugs, in favor of air-tight national borders or unrestricted immigration. Any of these positions can be articulated in a way that is plausibly not just compatible with the gospel but supportive of the gospel. There is no “Christian position” on the proposed constitutional amendment in Illinois to reform the state income tax. I have an opinion, but that’s just Dan Martins, not the teaching of the Bishop of Springfield!
There are some core values of the gospel that must inform the conscience of a Christian, and the political involvement of a Christian: At the center of these values is the conviction that every human being, without exception, bears the image of God, and every human being, without exception, deserves to be treated at all times with dignity and respect. And if that’s the first and great commandment with respect to Christian political involvement, then the second is like unto it: All human life is sacred, from conception to natural death.
This is not a long list, but it covers a lot of territory. So, as you prepare to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God, as you consider candidates and public policies, run all your decisions through these filters: Does Candidate X or Policy Y respect the sacredness of human life? Does Candidate X or Policy Y treat every human being with dignity and respect, seeing in them the image of God? If your intended vote comes through those filters intact, cast that vote knowing that you have been a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus. Amen.
Saturday, October 17, 2020
Friday, October 16, 2020
Spent the morning poring over three commentaries on Matthew in preparation for preaching at St Bartholomew's, Granite City on November 15. It almost feels like a guilty pleasure, so much do I enjoy a deep dive into a biblical text. Beyond that, I did some administrative work in anticipation of the November Diocesan Council meeting, addressed a serious (and sad) clergy discipline issue, conferred with Canon Evans on a handful of matters, and engaged the spiritual practice (at least for me it is) of sitting down at the piano and playing through hymns (from the old hymnal, since it contains many old friends long-forgotten).
Thursday, October 15, 2020
This was a day for just catching up with pretty mundane stuff:
- Did a close reading of a proof of the Michaelmas issue of the Current and caught a few things that needed changing.
- Registered for a mysterious Zoom meeting next week for *U.S* bishops and their canons, with the Presiding Bishop and TEC's in-house counsel. Nobody I've communicated with can imagine what it might be about!
- Attended to various issues concerning parishes in transition and clergy considering coming to the diocese.
- Reviewed the credentials of the bishop-elect of Wyoming and signaled my consent to his consecration.
- Made a few plans for as far away as next Lent.
- Caught up on some deferred reading.
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Attended the weekly Province V bishops meeting, plus a followup phone call with one of them. Wrested a message statement from my exegetical notes for Proper 27. More post-synod phone calls and emails. Things may be dying down a bit on the front. Saw my podiatrist (not encouraging news about my "Achilles insertional tendonitis"). Nice walk with Brenda on the last warm day of the year. Spent the evening in Comcast hell.
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
- Kept up with a mounting and not insubstantial stream of email correspondence with clergy and laity who have, speaking mildly, a "bad taste in their mouths" about how a particular issue was handled at synod.
- Did some deeper-than-usual reconstructive surgery on a "vintage" sermon text for Proper 26, repurposing it for use at St Mary's, Robinson Sunday after next.
- Dealt substantively by email with a clergy deployment issue.
- Attended to a concern from an individual in the ordination process.
- Processed miscellaneous email and text traffic as it came in.
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Up and out of the Doubletree in Mt Vernon in time to arrive at St Mark's, West Frankfort (about 35 miles down I-57) around 0825. Presided and preached, sans any music, for a small but engaged congregation of about ten (decimated by the virus and fear of the virus), under the faithful pastoral leadership of Mother Sherry Black. Then, after taking the "slow road" (IL 37, rather than the parallel Interstate 57) as far as it went, which was just south of Effingham, where I stopped for some lunch, I will arrived at Trinity, Mattoon 45 minutes ahead of a scheduled 2pm general congregational meeting there (about 20 showed up) to discuss the contours of their pastoral hiatus,. It was a productive time. I finally arrived home at 6:00, having taken note of consistently beautiful (in an understated Illinois way) landscapes and farmscapes and townscapes.
St Mark’s, West Frankfort--Matthew 22:1–14, Isaiah 25:1–9
This is, by any stretch, a “hard” parable. It starts out well enough: a king’s son is getting married and the king wants to throw a lavish party for a bunch of A-list guests. But the A-listers all send their regrets, for a variety of reasons, or just don’t show up. So the B-list gets invited, and the only thing you need to do to be on the B-list is be 98.6 and vertical, which means that a bunch of people who would never dream of being invited to a party at the king’s palace get themselves invited to a party at the king’s palace. Everybody is Cinderella for a day. But from there, everything tanks. The king got so angry with the original A-list invitees who had snubbed him that he sends in troops and burns their city down. So ... that’s not very appetizing. But it gets worse. The king is working the room during the party and finds a guy who doesn’t have the right outfit on. If your first thought is like mine, it’s like “Give the guy a break, Your Majesty. He only got the invitation right when it was time to come to the party. And at least he was considerate enough to show up, unlike those other losers whose city you burned down, right?” But the king tosses the guy out on his ear, and basically condemns him to hell. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of any fair-minded person.
Now, the academic community, the critical scholars of the New Testament, do manage to throw us a bone here. Most of them agree that we’re looking at what were originally two completely separate parables—one about the wedding banquet where all the common people get invited to an event they would ordinarily be excluded from, and then another parable about somebody who shows up at a social event inappropriately dressed—when, presumably, he should have known better and had the ability to comply with expectations if had wanted to. Somewhere along to way to Matthew’s gospel getting written down in final form, the two stories got stitched together.
This realization certainly takes a bit of the moral sting out of narrative. There isn’t quite the level of injustice and cruelty that appear to be there at first. But ... still. We, after all, have it the way we have it, with the parables being run together into a single narrative, and we just can’t help putting ourselves in the shoes of that unfortunate fellow who showed up in the wrong outfit, and we wonder whether we might find ourselves in a similar situation—not literally, but with respect to God, because, quite clearly, the king in both segments of the parable is meant to symbolize God.
So, in case we have concerns along those lines, here’s the good news: We’re still invited to the banquet. Yes, the whole thing is an allegory. The king is God, and the king’s son, the one whose wedding is the occasion of the banquet—that’s Jesus. It’s a metaphor that we find in other parts of the Bible—thing of the Book of Revelation and the “marriage supper of the Lamb” in the last chapter. The original A-list invitees, the ones who offer flimsy excuses and never show up—these represent Israel in the time of Jesus. Complacent Israel—“We’re God chosen people, don’t you know? Look how righteous we are.” And the last-minute guests, the B-listers? Well, that’s us ... us Gentiles. So, we’re still invited to the party, and, if we but ask, Jesus himself—the one in whose honor the party is being given—Jesus himself provides us with the proper attire for the occasion.
Jesus does this—provides us with the proper wedding garment—in two ways. First, he does it by, as it were, “lending” us his own outfit. St Paul teaches us in his letter to the Romans that those “who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” or “clothed themselves with Christ.” The technical theological term for this is “forensic justification,” but you don’t need to remember that! The important thing to know is that, as we approach an all-holy God as “miserable offenders,” using the words of our own Prayer Book, we get to hide behind Jesus. The righteousness of Christ becomes our righteousness. We are “covered” by Christ. We get credit for who Jesus is. This is truly a great comfort, if we think about it.
But who wants to live indefinitely in borrowed clothes, right? So, Jesus doesn’t just lend us an appropriate wedding garment; he helps us acquire one of our own. He doesn’t just provide for us forensically; he provides for us actually. By supplying the grace by which we can cultivate such habits as repentance, humility, and amendment of life, Jesus gives us our own, permanent, wedding garment. Possibly the most neglected part of our Prayer Book is something called the Exhortation, which may be used in public worship, but is never mandatory. Still, some of this language might be familiar to some of you: “As the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy sacrament, so is the danger great if we receive it improperly, not recognizing our Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, lest you be judged by the Lord. Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed.” My friends, this—the examined life, the contrite heart, humility before God and others—this is the wedding garment that we need to put on in order to live eternally in God’s nearer presence.
With such a garment, we are able to enter into and rejoice in the marriage supper of the Lamb, the Celestial Banquet. We have a partial description of the banquet in the Isaiah reading this morning:
... a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.
Throughout the scriptures, “banquet” is the principal metaphor for the consummation of God’s redemptive purposes, all that God wants to accomplish in and for the world he created. And that eternal, celestial banquet is prefigured every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist. In the Mass, even under the simplest of circumstances, we transcend time and space and are drawn up into that nearer presence of God. Indeed, even now, let us keep the feast, confident that we are properly attired, even if our clothes are, for the time being, borrowed. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, October 10, 2020
- Did the finish work on tomorrow's homily.
- Attended to sundry emails as they came in.
- Talk a good walk with Brenda.
- Packed and headed south at 3:15 ... dinner in Mattoon ... bedded down in Mt Vernon. West Frankfort in the morning.
Friday, October 9, 2020
- Building on prior work, created a rough draft of a homily for Proper 24 (the 18th in Morton).
- Spoke by phone with a colleague bishop, seeking his counsel on an emergent situation.
- Spoke by phone with Canon Evans.
- Collected questions from the last two sets of General Ordination Exams and sent them to those of our ordinands who will be sitting for the GOE in January. Just to give them a feel for what to expect.
- Wrote a substantive email message to the President of the Standing Committee and the Chair of the Commission on Ministry seeking their conceptual response to a situation that may or may not become concrete.
- Made an Ignatian-style meditation on the gospel reading from today's daily office lectionary.
- Caught up on some reading, both hard-copy and internet.
Thursday, October 8, 2020
- Several email exchanges with clergy and laity around a rather troubling turn of events at synod last Saturday, wherein a proposed canonical change was derailed on a technicality. There is consternation in the ranks.
- Opened a sermon file on Proper 28 (November 15 at Granite City).
- Attended a meeting of the TEC Communion Partners bishops (I have to specify, since we have Canadians now) to take counsel together around a statement in response to the verdict announced against the Bishop of Albany. #IAmBillLove
- Threw together the raw details of next month's clergy conference and send them off to Hannah for her to craft into an attractive piece of publicity.
Less big stuff:
- Initiated the process of arranging to take delivery on the vestments that my discretionary fund has purchased from Nashotah House. They don't need them and we do, so it's a good deal all around. But, because of the pandemic, they've been sitting in Wisconsin for several months.
- The usual mix of miscellaneous emails and texts (no phone calls today).
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
- Attended the weekly Province V bishops meeting.
- Did exegetical work on the propers for Proper 27, in preparation for preaching at St Andrew's, Carbondale on November 8.
- Did *master* planning for sermon prep tasks between Advent and the end of the post-Epiphany season.
- Phone conversation with a colleague bishop.
- Phone conversation with a priest of the diocese.
- Dealt with assorted emails and text messages.
Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Lots of very substantive emails and phone conversations today. Phone call partners included Canon Evans, two clergy of the diocese, and a patient advocate nurse from Anthem Blue Cross who checks in on Brenda and me periodically. Email partners were more numerous, and included one of our postulants, and several diocesan clergy. The sermon prep work I had intended to accomplish fell by the wayside.
Sunday, October 4, 2020
Up and out of my Marion hotel room in time to head east to Harrisburg for the regular 10am liturgy at St Stephen's. Presided, preached, and blessed an aggregate of 93 years of marriage (three couples celebrating anniversaries this week). Acutely aware now that every visit I make is very likely my last time in that place. Bittersweet. Home around 5:30.
St Stephen’s, Harrisburg-- Matthew 21:33–46, Isaiah 5:1–7, Psalm 80:7-14
We’re a month away from a presidential election in this country, and to say that we are collectively “tightly wound” is a huge understatement. One of the sub-themes in the political conversation, both this cycle and throughout the last few decades, is the notion of America being a “Christian nation.” The question has basically been weaponized in social media, as any number of graphic memes and comment threads on Facebook and Twitter will demonstrate. Most of us gathered for worship here this morning are old enough to remember when it was kind of a slam dunk. When I was starting school, a baptismal certificate was considered sufficient evidence of age for registration purposes. I recently watched a movie on Netflix called Greyhound, which starred Tom Hanks as a religiously devout skipper of a troop transport vessel across the Atlantic in the early days of World War II. Some crew members were killed in a torpedo attack, and they were buried at sea, with the captain presiding, using a prayer book that simply presumed that those gathered there were a community of Christians and that the Christian gospel was the basis for the hope in which they were taking leave of their departed comrades. Nobody raised so much as an eyebrow, let alone a protest.
Our society has certainly changed since then. A majority of Americans still profess some version of religious faith, but the most rapidly growing category is made up of those who do not, principally among the young. They are neither Christian nor anything else, but simply ... nothing. “None of the above” is the box they would check on a survey. Sunday mornings are long since no longer considered sacred time in our society, as I can testify every time I spend Saturday night in a hotel and see all the members of traveling youth sports teams and their families—I might add, even during this time of the virus. The collapse of what we used to refer to as “Christendom” has accelerated exponentially within the lifetime of everyone here. And the same applies, of course, in Canada and Europe—only even more so.
In our liturgy this morning, we have three parallel narratives about a grape vineyard, a winery: one in Isaiah, one in Psalm 80, and then Matthew’s version of a parable of Jesus. The Isaiah text is a poem, a song, about a vineyard planted and a winery constructed on a lovely hillside. It starts out cheerfully and then takes a sudden dark turn, as the crop that the grape vines yield fails to measure up to the expectations of the planter. Then there’s a quick pivot, and the vines yielding “wild grapes” are revealed as the people of Israel and the planter as God. He is displeased with them, because he “looked for justice,” and found only “bloodshed.” Now God is going to remove his protection and allow his vineyard, Israel, to be overrun by her enemies.
Psalm 80 tells a similar story, with the vine identified with Israel right away. The Lord takes great care of it; it seems to be his pride and joy. Then, suddenly, “the wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.” The vineyard is burned like rubbish, and the people of Israel cry out for restoration.
The gospel parable told by Jesus is amazingly parallel to both the Isaiah passage and the Psalm, with some added elements: the planter, who symbolizes God, leases out the property to tenants, and then sends emissaries periodically to collect the agreed-upon rent. But the tenants get greedy, and mistreat the owner’s messengers, eventually killing the owner’s own son, who symbolizes Jesus.
So, today’s lectionary readings give us an incredibly rich opportunity to see the same thing from three distinct perspectives. Now, the key to interpreting a parable or parable-like poetry is to identify with one of the characters in the story. Clearly, none of us is the vineyard planter/owner because none of us is God. We’re also not the son of the owner because we’re not Jesus. So, are we the emissaries, the messengers sent to collect the rent, who get shabbily treated? This doesn’t feel like a good fit because we haven’t been treated quite that shabbily. How about the greedy tenants? That’s certainly a closer potential fit. Americans and other westerners—“Christian nation” westerners, that is—can certainly act pretty “entitled,” after all. But it still feels off. We haven’t treated others quite so shabbily as the tenants in the parable treated the owner’s representatives.
What’s left, then? We seem to have exhausted the possibilities. But, if we think outside the box, and include inanimate objects among the possibilities, how about the vineyard itself? Is it plausible for us to identify ourselves ... with the vineyard? In both Isaiah and the Psalm, we see what eventually becomes of the vineyard—it’s destroyed. From the Psalm:
Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?
The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.
And from Isaiah:
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
In the Psalm, we are never given a reason for this devastation. But here’s what Isaiah tells us:
When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? ... For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!
In other words, the vineyard was a disappointment. It did not yield the fruit that the planter was looking for, what he had intended when he made the original investment. The people of Israel are the vineyard, and the Lord is looking among them for justice and righteousness, but all he sees is strife and violence.
In the gospel parable, the vineyard is not destroyed, but the theme of unfruitfulness is also taken up. Jesus says to the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” The Church—you and I—are those to whom Jesus gave the Kingdom. But are we producing the fruits?
Well, in North America and Europe, one might argue, probably not. Why? Because it feels like we are the vineyard that has been abandoned by its planter. We look at a thriving Christianity in Africa and Asia, and can be forgiven for wondering whether the Holy Spirit has abandoned us for those places and left us swinging in the wind. The Church in the developed world is arguably under the judgment of God for failing to bear the expected fruit. I’m not talking about American being under the judgment of God, because American was never God’s people to begin with. I’m talking about Christians in America, and Canada, and Europe.
We might well ask, then, what, precisely, is this fruit that we’re not bearing? Let me suggest three ways that Christianity in the west has not borne the kind of fruit expected by God.
The first is unity. The mission of the gospel is to reconcile, to bring together those who are divided. Yet, if our nation and society are divided, the Christian community is no example of an alternative way. We are conflicted among ourselves, and conflict produces division. Reconciliation is hard and demanding work. It is painful to the core. We have shrunk back from it. We have lacked the moral virtue of courage. And, for this, we are under God’s judgment.
The second fruit we are lacking is that of fidelity. Rather than being a light to the world, we instead conform to the world. We adopt the categories of the world’s divisions and conflicts, and we import them into our life together in the church. One of the realities that I find most disappointing is how the polarization of secular politics—you know what I’m talking about; the extremes run the table, and anyone who’s not on either of the extremes gets chewed up and spit out—the polarization of our secular politics is reflected pretty accurately among Christians. Instead of offering an alternative to the secular ways of seeing things, we just adopt them wholesale. This is a severe indictment.
Third, we lack the fruit of compelling witness. Since we are so divided and so unfaithful, our witness to the world lacks integrity. We are inconsistent. We rightly express deep anguish over the loss of innocent human life through abortion, but we too often remain silent over how innocent human lives—the lives of innocent children—are treated at the southern border of our country. We stand up for the biblical view of marriage as between one man and one woman, but we are completely blasé about divorce, which the Bible says God hates. The list could go on, but those are two of the hot buttons that explain why our witness is compromised.
We can lament that fact that our position in society as Christians is compromised, that we live in a world where an American Navy commander can’t conduct a burial at sea using Christian prayers. We can push back and resist. But ... you know what? That’s a fruitless strategy, because we would be resisting God. You see, we are under God’s judgment. It’s no fun. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but I can tell you we’ll be out of these masks before we’re out from under God’s judgment. We are the unproductive vineyard, and we need to bear the consequences of our cowardice, our unfaithfulness, and our inconsistency. To our comfort, the God who judges us is also the God who loves us. We will have the opportunity to repent, because God is infinitely merciful. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, October 3, 2020
The big event for the day was the 143rd synod of the diocese, which lasted from 0900 until nearly 1230. It was on Zoom, of course, and, from a technical standpoint, the experience was overwhelmingly positive. Inasmuch as any part of the synod might be categorized as "unpleasant," it would have neither more nor less so had we been meeting in person. In particular, the voting was *much* smoother and easier. After some decompressing (it was mentally and emotionally draining), I caught lunch at Chick-Fil-A, ran an errand at my former home (now vacant and on the market), then returned to the office to do the finish work on tomorrow's homily. Lurked a bit on the margins of the cathedral's Blessing of Animals, did a bit of office organizing, took a call from a priest friend from outside the diocese, and finally headed south and east 2.5 hours to Marion, where I'm camped out for the night at the Hampton Inn. Tomorrw:m St Stephen's, Harrisburg.
Friday, October 2, 2020
After spending the morning with various actions under the category of "getting ready," I was out of the garage pointed southbound right at noon. Arrived at the diocesan center in Springfield at 3:45. Then, more getting ready--this time for the Eucharist of the 143rd annual synod of the Diocese of Springfield. It was a fulsome liturgy with a nearly empty church (by intent), but live-streamed (or so we thought at the time) and recorded. Tomorrow, the synod itself. Afterward, I went out and got myself some pizza. Came back to the office for some more "getting ready" puttering, and to camp out for the night.
Springfield Cathedral--Matthew 18:1-5, 10; Exodus 23:20-23, Psalm 91:9-16
The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee is owned collectively by the Episcopal dioceses of the southeastern United States. All three of my children got their undergraduate education there, and Brenda and I were “Sewanee parents” for nine consecutive years, between 1993 and 2002. The university does not impose its Christian and Episcopalian identity on either students or faculty, but neither does it shy away from wearing that identity quite openly. It occupies some very impressive real estate at the top a mountain about forty miles northwest of Chattanooga. All the land in the town of Sewanee is owned by the University, and the University’s Vice-Chancellor is the ex oficio mayor. The town and the campus and the surrounding acreage are referred to collectively as the “domain” of the University of the South. So there’s this quaint tradition at Sewanee, which our oldest child briefed us on as soon as she had spent a few weeks there, that, when you’re driving off the domain, you tap the roof of your car to summon your guardian angel, whose job it will be to protect you while you’re out and about in the world. Then, when you drive through the gate coming back in, you tap the roof again to release your angel to go on a break, because, while you’re on the domain, you’re protected just by being on holy ground; no angel necessary.
Although the feast is not to be found in the calendar of the Episcopal Church, in other western Christian traditions, today is the commemoration of the Holy Guardian angels. It points to the long-held popular belief that every Christian is assigned an angel to watch over them throughout the changes and chances of everyday life. It’s an undeniably appealing concept, which is why it has found its way into so many newspaper comic strips and Hollywood movies and, more recently, graphic memes on social media. We’ve all seen those images of an angel doing a face-palm in response to his charge’s risky behavior.
The scriptural warrant for belief in guardian angels is the last line from the appointed gospel reading for this liturgy, Matthew 18:10. Speaking of the little child whom Jesus had summoned to his side as he was teaching his disciples about the need to “become like children,” Jesus says, “I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” One might also turn to the incident described in the Book of Acts, when Peter is miraculously released from prison and shows up at the door of a home where he knew Christians were gathered. The person who responds to his knock shuts the door right back in his face, because it clearly could not have been Peter, and someone in the groups surmises that perhaps it was “his angel.” Then there’s the passage from Exodus, the first reading in this liturgy, when the LORD addresses the people of Israel, through Moses, saying, “See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and heed his voice.” And, of course, the most straightforward biblical assurance that we are aided daily by angels is the Psalm refrain from a few minutes ago: “He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.”
I’ve got to say ... I don’t find this a matter of first-order doctrine. It’s not a core theological principal. It’s not up there with, you know, the resurrection and the Trinity. I think it’s a wonderful notion, but there are a lot of other points of theology that I would go to the mat for before I’d try to defend the idea that everyone has a guardian angel. Yet, whether we think of guardian angels as an essential part of our belief system, or as not much more than a cute idea, what we can all take away from this commemoration is a renewed confidence in the providence of God. The doctrine of providence affirms the sovereignty of God, that God has a plan and a project, and that project is redemption. To borrow language from one of the prayers in the marriage liturgy, God’s redemptive project is for unity to overcome estrangement, forgiveness to heal guilt, and joy to conquer despair.
When the people of Israel were wandering in the Sinai desert after having been rather miraculously delivered out of slavery in Egypt, they were like a newborn child whose umbilical cord had not yet been cut. They were out of the womb of the Red Sea but had not yet begun to breathe on their own. But the LORD has a plan for them. He tells them what that plan is—to bring them to the place that God has prepared—and he seals that promise with the assurance that an angel—their own collective guardian angel—will go before them to guard them. The angel is an ensign of God’s providential reliability.
My beloved, we in the Diocese of Springfield are, like Israel of old, walking through not just a desert, but a desert within a desert within yet another desert. The uninvited season of Coronatide will not last forty years. But, as long as it does last, our common life is constrained. Our communities are able to have some form of regular public worship, and some have even started to do a bit of singing. But it still doesn’t feel anywhere near quite right. Outdoor coffee hour worked well in some places, but now that the weather has turned, it’s not so doable. And the whole thing is just mentally and emotionally exhausting.
But even without the pandemic, we were already trying to deal with a secular culture that we can no longer communicate with in the ways that have become engrained habits for us. We know we’re on the proverbial “mission from God,” but pursuing that mission is neither easy nor clear. And now—speaking of the secular culture—we’re in an election season and a political environment that can only be described as toxic. Disciples of a common Lord are in each other’s faces over issues that, in comparison to the weight of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can only be considered secondary.
So the commemoration of the Holy Guardian Angels is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that God is working his purposes out. In ways that we cannot even begin to guess at, God mysteriously bends the events of human experience toward the ends of redemption and restoration. The Big Bang from which this redemptive energy flows is the dying and rising of the Word made flesh, the only-begotten Son of the Father. This is what we proclaim and celebrate every time we come together for the Eucharist, an action that even those who are not physically present here in the cathedral can participate in by joining their prayers with those offered here. In so doing, we find that the grace that will see us through the season of the virus is precisely in the constraints we must embrace because of the season of the virus. The grace that will empower us in our evangelistic mission becomes available precisely as we turn our minds, hearts, and wills toward that mission. And the spiritual wherewithal to persevere in respecting the dignity of every human being in the midst of a political season that seeks to draw out the worst in us is never in short supply if we but seek it. Through his Holy Guardian Angels, God is working his purposes out.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Thursday, October 1, 2020
- Confirmed an upcoming visitation with one of our parish priests.
- Printed, signed, scanned, and returned an application for retirement to the Church Pension Fund by a military chaplain who is canonically resident in the diocese.
- Responded to an email from one of our seminarians.
- Built out a homiletical message statement for Proper 24 (October 18 at All Saints, Morton) into a developed sermon outline.
- Responded to another email from another seminarian.
- Opened a sermon file on Proper 27 (November 8 at St Andrew's, Carbondale).
- Read an entire issue of The Living Church. I still have quite a backlog.
- Confirmed plans with the two presenters I have engaged for a Zoom version of the fall clergy conference.
- Took a long pre-dinner walk with Brenda, getting rained on for about the last fifteen minutes. We arrived home just shy of drenched.