Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Homily

Springfield Cathedral--Luke 2:7

During the first nearly eight years of my time as Bishop of Springfield, Brenda and lived in a spacious home in Leland Grove, as some of you know. It had four bedrooms, including a former master suite, bearing that title before the current master suite was developed over the garage. I can’t say we used those bedrooms very many times, other than when our children and grandchildren were visiting us at Christmastime, but it was nice to be able to say, at least, “We have a guest room,” and we did, in fact, use the former master suite a few times for people other than family. Now, of course, we live in a 1500 square foot apartment that has three rooms that are classified as “bedrooms,” but only one actual bed! So, on those rare occasions when we want to have overnight company, they stay up on the third-floor apartment, our daughter’s, where there are all of two beds.

Yet, not having a guest room doesn’t necessarily prevent the exercise of hospitality. Have you ever had the experience of making arrangements to stay with friends or relatives, and arriving—perhaps in time for dinner, or at least some late-night conversation in the family room—and then being shown to your bedroom? You settle in, look around—although it may not dawn on you until the next morning—you realize that you’re not in a guest room, but in a child’s bedroom. There are posters on the wall, toys in a pile, clothes in the closet, all belonging to a child whom you realize is still very much an active member of that household—and, apparently, sleeping somewhere else. It makes you stop and think. No one, least of all a child, enjoys having their domestic routine disrupted, and being told that something they think of as their own is not quite 100% their own. Your comfortable night has come at the cost of somebody else’s inconvenience.

Of course, there’s a pecking order. If the anticipated guest is somebody special, we make allowances; we go to great lengths to make that person welcome and comfortable, even if it involves considerable inconvenience. I still remember an episode of the PBS TV series Upstairs, Downstairs from the ‘70s, when the Bellamy family entertained King George—or was it Edward? I can’t remember! —the Bellamys had the King and the Queen at their home for dinner. They inconvenienced themselves, and their household staff, in a big way. If it had been Uncle Bill from Canada dropping in for a visit, there wouldn’t have been quite so much rigmarole.

I don’t really know anything about the state of the hospitality industry in first century rural Palestine. In most movie depictions that I’ve seen, Bethlehem looks like an inauspicious collection of low-lying and tiny houses made of rough-hewn stone. There was certainly no neon sign that flashed the letters H-O-T-E-L. There wasn’t even a hanging wooden shingle that advertised the location of an “inn.” But there was apparently some sort of commercial enterprise—perhaps just a room or two in somebody’s home—where a traveler might expect to find lodging. Whatever this place was, there was somebody in charge of it. Now, perhaps whoever that person was just didn’t want to be bothered, but if we take St Luke’s account at face value, he had simply let out the available space on a first-come first-served basis, so when Joseph came looking for a room for himself and his wife who was about to have a baby, the innkeeper just followed standard operating procedure. “Sorry, we’re full up. No vacancy.”

And who can blame him? It’s the same message any of us would expect to get if we pulled off the interstate and drove up to a Hampton Inn without a reservation on a weekend when the Cornhuskers Guild is having its annual convention. “No Vacancy” means no vacancy, and we wouldn’t hold it personally against the desk clerk who gave us the bad news. We would just thank him and ask directions to the Motel 6.

Fiction writers over the centuries have been inspired to speculate in any number of ways about the character of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of the Son of God. Did it weigh on him? Did it haunt him the rest of his life? Or did he never have the slightest inkling of the cosmic magnitude of the event he made happen? For my part, however, I wonder about that innkeeper. Let’s grant the assumption that the spaces he had for rent were indeed taken. But what about his own personal living space? Now, we wouldn’t ordinarily expect a hotel desk clerk to make such an offer. But what if he had known? What if he had known the true identity of his prospective guest? Do you suppose he might have found a more appropriate place than a barn for the incarnation of the eternal Word of God to make his entrance into the world of time and space? Do you suppose he might have been willing to inconvenience himself some? Might he have asked, say, his twelve-year old daughter to give up her room for the night?

Of course, the innkeeper didn’t know. He was operating at a disadvantage, and we should cut him some slack. You and I, on the other hand, have all the advantage of hindsight. We know who it is that is knocking on our door tonight. It’s the One by whom and through whom all things were made, the light that no darkness can overcome, the perfect visible image of the invisible God, the infinite made finite, the eternal made temporal, the great made small—Jesus, Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. Do we have room for him? We know who he is, but the question remains, and is all the more pressing precisely because of our knowledge: Do we have room for him?

Can we make room for Jesus in our affections? Can we love him above all others? Can we grant him access to the innermost chambers of our hearts, even as he draws us into his own heart? Can we make room for Jesus in our minds? Can we yield to him our intellectual autonomy, and let our minds be formed by the mind of Christ, and delight in the truth that he proclaims? Can we make room for Jesus in our wills—our decisions and actions? Can we let Jesus have a say in our finances? Can we listen to his advice about our relationships, our sexual behavior, and even our politics? Can we make room for Jesus tonight? Are we willing to allow him to inconvenience us, to change our routine?

The innkeeper of Bethlehem can be easily excused for turning non-yet-born Jesus away. Our excuse isn’t so good, because we know exactly what we’re doing. One of my favorite poets of Christmas is Robert Herrick, who wrote in seventeenth century England. He wrote poignantly about making room for Jesus:

Christ, He requires still, wheresoe'er He comes,
To feed, or lodge, to have the best of rooms:
Give Him the choice; grant Him the nobler part
Of all the house: the best of all's the heart.

Tonight we have an opportunity that the desk clerk of the Bethlehem Super 8 didn’t have. We know who it is that’s knocking on our door, asking for a room. I’m going to let the truly immortal words of Bishop Phillips Brooks articulate our response:

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tiding tell;

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

Merry Christmas, and Amen!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Up and out of my Effingham hotel room at the quite reasonable hour of 0815, having already had time for Morning Prayer and email perusal in my room, in order to arrive at St Thomas', Salem half and hour ahead of their regular 0930 liturgy. I presided and preached (as "supply" this time, since they're in transition)--again, with everybody observing very strict pandemic protocols. Afterward, we had a short plenary meeting into order to get the same conversation going in Salem that I had already initiated in Mt Vernon and Centralia involving a vision of a shared future for those three relatively proximate congregations. I was back home right at 4:00.

In view of the impending holidays, when routines get trampled, I'm going to go dark in this space for a couple of weeks, until January 5 (the evening wen I expect to be ordaining Carter Aikin to the priesthood in Carlinville at a very small "invitation only" service). My plan is to be at the cathedral on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Next Sunday I have a bye, and January 3 may or may not see me at Christ Church, Springfield, depending or whether they decide to be meeting then or not.

Sermon for IV Advent

 St Thomas’, Salem--Luke 1:26-38, 2 Samuel 7:4,8-16, Romans 16:25-27

Many of you are probably familiar with the comic strip Dilbert. I read it every day. It seems to capture the realities of work life in corporate America in a deliciously cynical way. A while ago, I read an interview with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and he is indeed a cynic of the first order. He’s a cynic even about himself, and without knowing it, he’s become an influential theologian—a PR man for the Christian doctrine of original sin. Adams seems a pleasant enough fellow, and obviously has a great sense of humor, but he has a very dark view of human nature. He sees very clearly that every person has a streak of fundamental dishonesty and selfishness that is often repressed but is always itching to come to the surface. Dilbert is so popular, I would suspect, because a great many people share Scott Adams’ cynical outlook on life. Cynicism is rampant in our culture.

And one of the fruits of cynicism, quite often, is hedonism. Hedonism exalts the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain to preeminent status. Life becomes an endless search for the perfect anesthetic—the perfect antidote to the pain caused by human dishonesty and selfishness, the longest-lasting physical and emotional high. So we have expensive hobbies and expensive toys and expensive medications, both legal and illegal (though the illegal ones are rapidly becoming legal!). We run ourselves ragged trying to make enough money for our hobbies and toys and medications, and then we run ourselves ragged using them, all in the hope that we will thereby be spared the necessity of looking deeply into our own hearts and souls and really seeing what’s there—or, more significantly, what’s not there. We are looking to anesthetize ourselves from the despair—indeed, the cynical despair—that we experience when we consider our careers and relationships and health and finances.

Now, you might be thinking, cynicism and hedonism are not the only possible responses to the pervasive reality of dishonesty and selfishness. And you would be right. There is an alternative. It’s activism. There are always those who look at the dishonesty and selfishness, and the social ills that result from dishonesty and selfishness, and instead of joining with Scott Adams in proclaiming everybody to be a “weasel” at heart, or going out and buying a new SUV, they decide to roll up their sleeves to “do something” about the problems they see. They may do volunteer work, or found an advocacy group, or run for the school board. They are determined to work longer and harder and smarter than whatever it is they’re struggling against: poverty, illiteracy, racism, sexism, crime, pornography, abortion, drunk driving—whatever. This response certainly seems nobler, more righteous, more optimistic, and more practical. In the end, however—and maybe this is my own cynical streak showing through—in the end, cynicism and hedonism still triumph. We can only hold our finger in the dike for so long.

Cynicism, hedonism, activism—what do they all have in common? They are all responses to dishonesty and selfishness . . . and they all functionally atheistic, they all leave God out of the equation. Cynicism and hedonism treat God as if He’s absent, or at least looking the other way. Activism treats God as if He’s incompetent, powerless. All three of them have effectively “given up” on God. It is distressingly easy for us to get impatient when God doesn’t “fix” things right away. We look at natural evil—earthquakes, floods, epidemics—and wonder how a loving God could allow a million people across the world to have their lives cut short suddenly by a rampant virus. We look at social and political evil—corruption, tyranny, religious persecution, terrorism—and we wonder what the very concept of justice means when the “bad guys” so easily get away with their “bad deeds.” We look at personal evil—lying, cheating, stealing, fornicating, committing adultery, abusing drugs—and we wonder why we are unable to keep ourselves from doing things we know full well are destructive and stupid and will only get us into trouble. And we wonder these things because God is God, and we’re not. God knows more than we know, and God sees more than we see. We are limited by time; God is beyond time, eternal. We are limited by space; God is everywhere—omnipresent, as the theologians put it. Because we’re not God, we wonder. And we doubt.

So it is an unspeakable blessing for us, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, to be allowed to stand alongside a young Jewish girl getting ready for her wedding day, as an angel appears in her presence and makes her privy to some very important information about what God is up to by way of relieving us of our impulses toward cynicism and hedonism and activism. And, thanks to St Luke, you and I are also now privy to the same information. Gabriel greets Mary and says, in effect, “Gosh, what a lucky girl you are!” Mary just looks at him, perhaps with the faintest of smiles, as if to say, “I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about, but why don’t you run along now and let me get back to work.” So Gabriel has to get more specific, and he just lays it all out—everything about being come upon by the Holy Spirit and being overshadowed by the Most High and getting pregnant and having a baby who will grow up and reclaim the throne of David that had been vacant for more than 500 years, and establish a kingly rule that would have no end.” “Oh,” she says, “Why didn’t you just say so. Now I get it.” Well, not exactly. In fact, her actual response is even more astounding than that: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." No cynicism, no hedonism, no activism, just obedient openness to what God is doing. God is keeping His promises.

Way back in the Garden of Eden, in responses to the original acts of dishonesty and selfishness, God promised to do something, to fix things, to make everything all better. He didn’t reveal the details of His plan, but He did make a promise. And through successive covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses and David, God pursued His plan of salvation, His plan of redemption and healing and reconciliation and restoration. All that, we might say, constituted the beginning and the middle of the story. St Paul, as he writes to the Roman church, refers to it as “secret kept for long ages.” With the Annunciation, however, with the appearance of Gabriel to Mary, we are now at the “beginning of the end.” God is about to fulfill His promise to redeem His creation.

The angel told the Blessed Virgin that the son she would bear “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."  Since she was a woman, of course, we can’t say how thoroughly Mary had been instructed in the scriptures, but if she was familiar with the second book of Samuel, she knew of the prophet Nathan’s oracle to King David:

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.

Neither Nathan nor David, in all likelihood, realized the form in which this promise would be fulfilled. They probably conceived of something rather more literal, but a good bit less wonderful. In fact, the promise made by the Lord to David through Nathan was fulfilled in the angel Gabriel’s mysterious announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And as a result, there is no longer any foundation for cynicism or hedonism or activism or any other strategy that gives up on God. God is neither absent nor incompetent. Rather, He is so “present” in our lives and in the world that He’s difficult to see because there just isn’t anywhere God is not! The Annunciation brought this fact home to Mary in a huge way, because God was now present, physically, in her very womb. Her pregnancy was a sign to her not to yield to cynicism or hedonism or even activism—there was nothing she had to “do” other that simply let things happen.

Mary’s pregnancy can have the same sign value for us, if we will let it. The incarnate Christ is “God with us.” Not just God merely around us, in the general vicinity, but God in us and among us and through us. God is no less present in our weaknesses than in our strengths. God is no less present in our disappointment than in our gratification. God is no less present in our sorrow than in our joy. Even error and deception bear the mark of God’s presence, because there is no falsehood that is not the distortion of a truth. Even human dishonesty and selfishness bear the mark of God’s presence, because nothing is evil in its own right. That would make evil too real, give it too much power! That which we call evil is merely the gross distortion of that which we call good. God is not too proud to use our very sinful and rebellious behavior as the means of sneaking His grace into our lives. The good news of the annunciation is that God is present in and through all things. There is no room for cynicism. There is no room for hedonism. There is no room for activism. There is only room for faith: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Saturday (O Radix Jesse)

Attended to domestic concerns (chores and errands) until it was time to pack for an overnight and a 3pm southbound departure. Arrived at Effingham's Hampton Inn about 7:15, having prayed the evening office in a rest area, dinner from KFC drive-thru south of Kankakee, and gas in Mattoon. Once I was checked in and unpacked, I grabbed a vigorous 5,000 steps, just to get me to my daily goal. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Friday

 

  • Did the finish work on this Sunday's homily--which included sending a copy off by email to a Marine officer who will deliver it as he presides at Morning Prayer with his family ... in Okinawa.
  • Perused my backlog of Christmas sermons, and selected one that can be convincingly refurbished for use this year at St Paul's Cathedral. Both the top contenders worked the "room in the inn" theme, so that's what I'm going with.
  • Attended a 75-minute Zoom meeting of the House of Bishops "Table 10," with the Bishops of Spokane and South Dakota, and the Assisting Bishop of Long Island. The Bishop of Southwestern Virginia and the retired bishop of Arizona are part of this group as well, but circumstances conspired against their attendance.
  • Did an Ignatian meditation on the daily office gospel reading for the day ... plus the usual afternoon walk with Brenda.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Thursday

The first major project of the day was the drafting of my regular "column" in the Springfield Current that will appear around Epiphany. The second was working through a stack of Advent Ember Day letters from our postulants and candidates, and responding to each. In addition, I worked some more with the postulant whom I am coaching on learning to preach (he's coming along quite well), and read and responded to a detailed report from one of our interim clergy on the parish he is tending to.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Wednesday

 Big stuff:

  • Finished the pastoral letter on tithing, diocesan assessments, and giving to the national church. It's now up on the website.
  • Carefully perused the materials of some aspiring potential candidates for one or more of our parishes in transition.

Smaller stuff:

  • Participated substantively in a theological discussion among authors for the Covenant blog. I'm sometimes intimidated by the group because the majority of them have PhDs and are way more current on their reading than I am. But sometimes I feel like I've got "skin in the game" on a particular subject, and this was one of those occasions.
  • Administration and pastoral care via sundry emails.
  • Descended into the customer service hell of Comcast and Ameren (the actual phone function on my phone had stopped working, and the gas was inexplicably shut off at our Springfield home, which is, praise God, under contract, but the inspector couldn't do his work). Both issues were successfully resolved, but not before I used my *entire* vocabulary.
  • Long walk and Bowflex workout.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Tuesday

 Big rocks:

  • Attended a 2.5 hour meeting of about 50 bishops with executives of the Church Pension Group. There was no big breaking news. They're just seeing to their PR needs among the leaders of their constituency--not just doing the right thing, but being seen doing the right thing. CPG is a complex entity. Not only to they operate their core business, which is clergy and lay pensions, but they also run the health insurance plan for church employees (contracting with Blue Cross and CIGNA for plan administration), a property/casualty insurance company, and a publishing company.
  • Made substantial progress in the drafting of a pastoral letter to the diocese on the subject of financial support: parishioners of parishes, parishes of the diocese, the diocese of the "national church." Things aren't always as simple as they seem, and there's some serious theology involved. I hope have the letter live on the website sometime tomorrow.

Smaller rocks:

  • Wrote a congratulatory email to the bishop-elect of Chicago, in whose new backyard I will be planted as a retiree. I'm hoping for a good relationship.
  • Kept an appointment with my dentist to follow up on something suspicious they spotted on an exam three weeks ago. I have a referral to an oral surgeon.
  • Processed new emails as they arrived. I'm a little bit compulsively attached to "inbox zero."
  • Took Brenda on a long walk because some work on the gas lines in our basement was sending her into an agitation zone.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Third Sunday of Advent

Broke camp in my office lodging. Morning Prayer in the cathedral. Continued the gradual project of moving items from office to home. After a stop at Hardee's drive-through for some breakfast (I have to say, for a fast-food joint, they make exceptional biscuits and gravy), I was on IL-29 through Rochester and Taylorville to Pana, then down U.S. 51 through Vandalia and Sandoval and finally to Centralia. I am going to really miss driving through central and southern Illinois countryside as part of the regular routine of my life. Arrived at St John's-Redeemer a full hour ahead of their regular 1130 Eucharist. Presided and preached in an exceedingly disciplined environment with regard to COVID precautions. Afterward, there was a relatively brief meeting with the Mission Leadership Team (everyone masked and spread out all over the nave) to discuss their future in a post-Father Baumann world, which will arrive soon enough, though we don't know when with any precision. I was on the road again a little past 1:00 and home (with Popeye's chicken in hand for dinner) around 6:30.

Sermon for III Advent

 St John’s, Centralia--1 Thessalonians 5:16-28, Psalm 126

Back in the early and mid-eighties, in the years just before I went off to seminary, I was deeply involved, as a lay catechist, in the preparation of adults for baptism and confirmation. It was a pretty intense process, and it was our habit to take each year’s crop of candidates on a brief retreat—a fasting retreat, actually—in the middle of the Paschal Triduum. We would leave for a nearby retreat center right after the conclusion of the Good Friday liturgy, and bring them back into town mid-afternoon on Holy Saturday, where everybody had just a few hours to recharge before coming back to church for the Easter Vigil, when the baptisms would take place.

I still have an image burned into my memory from one of those years. We were on our way to the retreat, just a couple of blocks from the church. I was in somebody else’s car, not driving. I happened to glance up at a marquee promoting a hotel restaurant and lounge. All it said was, “It’s Friday, so party hearty.” Now, mind you, I had just come from the intense and emotionally demanding liturgy of Good Friday, with the dramatic reading of the Passion and the Veneration of the Cross. My mind was on helping lead a retreat and on the Vigil liturgy 24 hours later.

“It’s Friday, so party hearty.” My first reaction was one of revulsion mixed with sadness mixed with a little bit of superiority. How could anyone think of “partying hearty” on Good Friday? But then I remembered another Good Friday a few years earlier, when I was in college, and exploring San Francisco for the first time. In effect, I was “partying hearty” on Good Friday.

What this incident, and my subsequent realization, illustrate for me, is the profound and uncomfortable disconnect between our “religious” lives and our “real” lives. For too many of us, things like Good Friday—or Epiphany, or the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, or, for that matter, the Third Sunday of Advent—are what happens in church but have no meaningful relationship with day-to-day reality in the world. Inside the church, for those who are there, it’s Good Friday. But when they walk out of the church, or at least when they drive off the parking lot, it’s Friday night, and time to party hearty.

Consequently, we have difficulty knowing what to do with the approach of religious festivals—like, for example, Christmas. We have a better idea of what to do with the secular season known as “the holidays,” but let’s face it, it isn’t really Christmas anymore. I heard a commercial recently sung to a familiar tune, but the words were “We wish you a happy holiday, we wish you a happy holiday…”. So, we have some inkling of what to do with “the holidays,” but Christmas throws us for a loop. For the most part, we’re indifferent toward the approach of Christmas, or bored by it.  And as for the actual approach of the consummation of our salvation, the glorious return of our Lord and Savior, we hardly give it a second thought. We just party hearty on Friday night.

This sense of disconnection between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the temporal, is probably rooted in a number of complex causes. I would speculate, however, that a big part of it is because we lack a vivid understanding of the enormity of what God has saved us from. The great colonial Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards was known for being able to paint such a vivid picture of the pains of Hell that his listeners would break out in a sweat even on a cold winter morning! I don’t propose to do anything like that even if I were so gifted, but we could do worse than, from time to time, taking stock of just what we have been delivered from through the mercy and grace of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Without Christ, we are under the iron grip of sin and death. Without Christ, we are drowning in dysfunction, depression, and despair. Without Christ, we have no hope and no future, and no reason, other than basic instinct, to even draw our next breath. We might also do well to focus some attention on the splendor of what God has saved us for: As the title of a popular book from some years ago suggests, we have been saved to live a truly purpose-driven life. God’s mercy and grace, including the gift of faith, have set us on a trajectory for the ultimate fulfillment of desires so deep we don’t even have words for them.

So, when we fully appreciate just what it is that God has done for us—what He has saved us from and what He has saved us for, then a lot of things begin to make more sense. Christmas makes a lot more sense. Easter makes a lot more sense. Advent and Lent make a lot more sense. And if we pay close attention, even the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost takes on a beauty all its own. But what really starts to make a lot more sense are all the passages of scripture that call us to be joyful, to live lives that are dominated by uncontrollable joy. St Paul, through his letter to the Thessalonians, tells us to “rejoice always.” Always. In whatever circumstances. Even in the midst of a viral pandemic that will soon have taken 300,000 lives just in the United States in the last nine months, and which greatly restricts the way we live our lives.

In the western liturgical tradition, this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is referred to as “Gaudete”—or “Rejoice!” Sunday, because of the fixed opening hymn in the old Latin rite. The Psalmist sings today “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Actually, only if we are fully conscious of what the Psalmist is singing about, only if we are fully aware of just what the great things are that the Lord has done for us, does St Paul’s admonition make any sense. Only if we are aware of the height and the breadth and the depth of the Lord’s mercies showered on us do we have chance of not laughing off the notion of rejoicing always. John the Baptist tells us that the Best Man in a wedding rejoices greatly on hearing the voice of the groom. He was, of course, referring to himself as the Best Man and to Jesus as the groom. Even though Jesus’ arrival on the scene meant that his own public ministry was at an end, even though he would only decrease, and Jesus would increase, John was able to rejoice because he was aware of the magnitude of what God was going to accomplish through Jesus. When we fully appreciate just what it is that God has done for us, joy become an authentic expression of our lives. We realize that joy is the fitting response, the only fitting response, to the approach of Christmas, and the approach of our salvation. The theme of this “Gaudete” Sunday makes sense.

I have a feeling that the “party hearty” attitude encouraged by that hotel sign that I saw nearly four decades ago had less to do with authentic rejoicing than it did with people anesthetizing themselves from the depression and despair in which they lived their lives. Even though those of us on our way to a retreat were subdued and a little somber, I think we knew more about rejoicing than the “Friday night” crowd. The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Saturday (Our Lady of Guadalupe)

Attended to domestic matters until 1pm, when it was time to pack for an overnight and head south. Arrived at the Diocesan Center around 5pm. Prayed the evening office in the cathedral. Went to the newly-opened Portillo's (the drive-thru was mobbed) for dinner, then to Meijer for an errand. Scanned the items that had accumulated in my physical inbox. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Friday

 

  • Went down yet another technology rabbit hole, this time in arranging for an alternative to Gmail. In due course, and as I begin to disengage from my diocesan email account, I will appropriately make known (not by announcing it in a blog!) a new personal email address. It's not that I hate Google; I just don't want to be quite as interwoven with them as I'd gotten.
  • Took care of a couple of modest pastoral-administrative matters via email.
  • Did the finish work on this Sunday's homily,
  • Finished up my "thank-you" calls on behalf of Nashotah House.
  • Did a Lectio Divina on tomorrow's daily office Old Testament reading from Isaiah 8.
  • Late-in-the-day "touch base and catch up"  conversation with Canon Evans.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Thursday

Absent the pressure of a burgeoning task list (see entries from the last two days), it was easy to lose most of the morning to a technology rabbit hole (migrating from Google Chrome to the Opera browser as a strategy for avoiding the pop-up ads I've been plagued with of late). So far so good. I did, however, manage to do some moderate surgery on a vintage sermon text for Advent IV in anticipation of deploying it at St Thomas', Salem before breaking for lunch. The PM was more productive (even extending into the evening)--I drafted the text for my next catechetical video in the "Seven Habits" series, which I hope to complete before I leave office. On a fine December afternoon, there was, of course, a walk, though Rosehill Cemetery, where one of my predecessors, Charles MacLaren, the third (and last) Bishop of Illinois, is buried. (When the dioceses of Springfield and Quincy were created in 1876, he remained with the Diocese of Illinois, which shortly thereafter changed its name to Chicago.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Wednesday (George Franklin Seymour)

I was speaking recently with a priest who is discerning a potential call to ministry as a bishop, and remarked to him very prosaically that one of the contrasts between the life of a parish priest and the life of a bishop is the month of December. I have found it every year to be my quietist month, save for the one that I'm on vacation. So, as I remember remarking last year at this time, my ministry-related to-do list is in ebb stage, so I'm filling more of my time with domestic concerns. That said, I did so some major and final work on a post for the Covenant blog scheduled to appear on Holy Innocents Day, read through the psych eval of one of our ordinands, communicated to the Lambeth Conference apparatus that they will need to transfer their invitation to my successor, made another "thank-you" call to a Nashotah House donor, and did my final "macro" sermon preparation task planning exercise--literally for the remainder of my episcopate. That is sobering.

Today is the anniversary of the death of George Franklin Seymour, the first Bishop of Springfield, and therefore my predecessor ten times removed, in 1906. He laid the foundation for much that we still enjoy in the diocese, and I feel like I stand on his shoulders. His ministry and witness were heroic, and I would not be unsupportive of the development of a proper "cult" venerating Bishop Seymour. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Tuesday (Immaculate Conception)

Some days it feels like even a very few tasks result in a quagmire of unproductivity. Other days, a number of action items that at first feels totally aspirational evaporate like morning mist. Today was one of the latter. I selected an agenda from the possible candidates that I thought would be challenging, but found myself mostly through it by early afternoon, so there was time for a long walk and some household chores. While my nose was to the grindstone, however, I had a nicely substantive phone conversation with Canon Evans and made some significant progress in the various clergy deployment irons we presently have in the fire. Also attended to a matter in connection with my membership on the Nashotah House corporation.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Second Sunday of Advent

Out of the garage southbound at 0645. Presided and preached the regular 0930 liturgy at St Christopher's, Rantoul. There were only five bodies in the room, but several more "attending" via Facebook Live. Back home around 1:30.

Sermon for II Advent

 St Christopher’s, Rantoul --Isaiah 40:1–11, Mark 1:1–8                                                                                                 

As are many of you, I’m a member of the Baby Boomer generation. When Baby Boomers were young children, they couldn’t build schools fast enough to keep up with our mushrooming numbers. After two years at one school in the Chicago suburb of Addison, shifting demographics had me being moved to a new school for the third grade. Indeed, the whole neighborhood was new, and the streets around the school were not even paved yet when the school year began. And as an eight-year old boy, of course, I would much rather have spent my days watching the heavy equipment work on the streets than be indoors learning cursive! First, the graders would level the street surface. Then dump trucks would deposit a layer of gravel, which would promptly be tamped down tight by steam rollers. Meanwhile, forms were laid for the curbs, and cement trucks poured concrete into the forms. When it was dry, the forms were removed, and different dump trucks arrived and put down a layer of asphalt on top of the packed gravel. And there, at last, was a respectable street. I managed to file all that information away in my third-grade brain just from what I could see coming in the morning and leaving in the afternoon over a few weeks in the fall of 1958.

Many decades later, while visiting the Diocese of Tabora in Tanzania, I got to observe the construction of a road heading west from the city of Tabora to the smaller city of Urambo. It was being built by Chinese contractors, using a mix of Chinese and Tanzanian labor, in return for the Tanzanian government signing over some valuable mineral rights to China. The quality of construction wasn’t even up to the suburban Chicago standards of the 1950s, but it was a vast improvement over the rutted dirt roads that continue to be the norm in that part of the country.

Of course, over the last ten years, as I’ve driven the federal and state highways and county roads of central and southern Illinois, there has been nary a trip that did not involve some form of construction delay. Because of the hot summers and cold winters in the midwest, highway maintenance is an ongoing project. By the time the last stretch of road is fixed, another one is ready to be resurfaced, and the cycle begins again.

For those who are the heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, thinking about roads leads organically to reflection on the circuitous route—without an actual road to guide them; only a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night—the winding route taken by the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the Sinai desert to freedom in the Promised Land.

Centuries later, the descendants of those desert wanderers walk a more organized path, as they were taken from Jerusalem by their Babylonian captors along the royal highway—this time through a different desert--into the city of Babylon. And then, the next generation took that same royal highway on their return to Jerusalem, in order to rebuild its walls and restore its temple. As they approached the holy city, they literally walked through the “cities of Judah,” which are mentioned poetically in today’s first reading—“Say to the cities of Judah: Behold your God!” It is this context of road building and road traveling that informs how we understand this familiar reading from Isaiah, chapter 40. Just as the cities of Judah had been the first to absorb the Babylonian invasion, so now they are the first ones to see Israelites returning from exile and reoccupying their ancestral homeland. They are the first witnesses of God’s powerful and victorious acts of redemption and restoration. The prophet is instructed to “comfort” the people of God, to speak words of comfort to Jerusalem. Well, the ultimate act of comfort is to announce that God is retaking possession of his chosen people and their destiny.

John the Baptist, whom we encounter in the gospel reading, bases his whole schtick on Isaiah, and Isaiah 40 in particular. John very deftly paints himself into the picture. He calls for repentance on the part of the people, the descendants of those who had traveled the royal road through the cities of Judah to be the harbingers of God’s saving action—he calls the people to repentance with an eye toward obedience. Obedience is part of the foundation of the roadway—the packed gravel underlayer—that John’s ministry is announcing.

The season of Advent focuses our attention on the preparation of a road—a road on which the gospel of Christ can enter human experience, a road on which comforting good news can reach those who have been traumatized by tribulation, by oppression, suffering, and persecution. This road is constructed individually by believers, and corporately by the people of God, through the practices of repentance and obedience. Repentance is sometimes dramatic, a decisive 180-degree change of direction. There are circumstances when that’s what repentance needs to look like. More frequently, however, I suspect that the repentance required of us takes the form of constant, daily, small mid-course course corrections, kind of the way we handle a steering wheel as we drive down a road, never simply holding it in a fixed position, but always making small adjustments to get us where we want to go.

Obedience can be a little more complicated than repentance. Sometimes, the path of obedience is clear, and when it’s the clearest is usually when it’s the most undesirable and difficult—or, at the very least, inconvenient. I recently saw a graphic meme on Facebook that posed the question: “How has being a disciple inconvenienced you lately?” That’s not a bad question to ponder!

Advent has dual themes—once might even say conflicting themes. It offers us hope and expectation and joy. Advent culminates in our celebration of God pitching his tent among us in order to rescue us. But Advent also offers repentance and, finally, judgment. The prophet in Isaiah is called to speak words of comfort to God’s people. But that comfort doesn’t arrive instantaneously, all at once. The debt has been paid, and then some. But it takes a while for the redemption to be realized. The road to salvation, redemption, passes through judgment. Judgment is a way station on the road to comfort. So, we embrace Advent in its contradictory complication. Through active repentance and obedience, in the light of judgment, we build the road on which the gospel of Christ comes to us and speaks words of comfort. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Saturday (St Clement of Alexandria)

Indulged in a "slow" morning ... did the finish work on tomorrow's homily ... did a Bowflex workout and took a long walk ... prepared an annual accounting (in an Excel spreadsheet) of personal and ministry-related mileage in the YFNBmobile for the diocesan treasurer ... attended to some tasks related to my continuing members on the Nashotah House corporation.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Friday (St John of Damascus)

 Big rocks:

  • Worked on editing and revising a paper I am writing with a colleague bishop, as part of an ongoing Communion Partners project.
  • Descended into the hell of customer service with Zoom regarding a billing issue. Of course, as a big tech company, Zoom is not really set up very well for this sort of thing. It was inordinately time-consuming. However, there was a surprising amount of progress.
  • Identified, approached, and secured the acceptance of a cleric to full an unexpired term on the Commission on Ministry.

Lesser rocks:

  • Dealt with the usual array of email-generated tasks requiring an array of responses.
  • Took delivery of my new iPhone (which I would rather not have had to buy, but I'm a victim of planned obsolescence), and got it set up and running.
  • Took a brisk walk on a lovely afternoon.
  • Spent a "Holy Hour" in contemplative prayer in our domestic oratory.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Thursday

Spent most of the morning working through a tall stack of email-generated tasks--responding to people administratively, pastorally, or both. After lunch and couple of errands, I wrote a prayer for the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer website, concerning the governmental transition that our country is in. Then I worked on a long letter to canonically resident clergy and lay delegates to synod concerning an awkward moment in the 2020 synod a couple of months ago. There is often a small needle that needs to be threaded in order to satisfy the demands of both justice and charity. The letter will no doubt give offense to some, but I believe it serves the interests of transparency and accountability.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Wednesday (Channing Moore Williams)

  • Attended briefly to some Nashotah House corporation work.
  • Reviewed and commented on another sermon draft from a postulant whom I'm coaching in learning to preach.
  • Responded at some length to a message from the Bishop of Tabora. Followed up with some related administrative tasks.
  • Responded substantively to a message from a potential candidate in one of our parishes in transition.
  • Reached out by email to confirm this Sunday's scheduled visitation to St Christopher's, Rantoul.
  • Did some cosmetic work to "contemporize" a sermon text for III Advent, in preparation for visiting St John's, Centralia on that occasion.
  • Kept a phone appointment with yet another potential candidate for one or more of our clergy vacancies.
  • Did a Bowflex workout and took Brenda on a long walk (through the nearby cemetery where one of my predecessors, the last Bishop of Illinois and the first Bishop of Chicago, is buried).
  • Laid out a fairly detailed sketch of my next-due post for the Covenant blog (about the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, for appearance on that feast day, December 29 this year).

 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Tuesday (Nicholas Ferrar)

The morning was devoted to getting a 60,000-mile service performed on the YFNBmobile. While that was happening, I get my daily step quota in, and then some. The afternoon (beginning late) featured a Zoom meeting with the Standing Committee (for a change, not to discuss conflict, but to talk about more uplifting things). After that, I was feeling kind of drained, and not firing on all cylinders. There was a phone conversation with Canon Evans, a bunch of late-arriving email, and some coaching on sermon preparation with one of our postulants who is being forced to learn to preach "early" because he often finds himself a Worship Leader in a presently priest-less community. Then I had to turn my attention to replacing my phone, because it's no longer holding a charge. It's over four years old, which is a venerable age in smart phone years. #plannedobsolescence