Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Ten years ago, minus about six weeks, I served as the supply priest for Trinity, Lincoln six days before my consecration as Bishop of Springfield. Today I was there for the final regular scheduled canonical parish visitation of my episcopate. (I have a few more gigs on my calendar: March 7 in Mattoon, the Chrism Mass, the Triduum at the cathedral, May 30 in Cairo, and June 27 back at the cathedral--May 2 is available and not yet spoken for--but the every Sunday routine of my life for the past decade (in a larger sense, for the last 32 years) is at a major flex point.) As much as it could have been in the midst of a pandemic, this morning at Trinity was luminous. We confirmed eight adults, six of them qualifying as "young." My homily had to compete with the sounds of active young children. (I would much rather do that than have no kids in church.) Trinity is one of the exciting points of light in my ministry in the diocese. I took my time getting out of Lincoln because I wanted to give the storm in the Chicago area a chance to abate. I finally hit the road at 12:15, and conditions were much better than I expected, matching "normal" travel time all the way until I got into the alley behind my building, ten feet from my garage, where the AWD YFNBmobile got mired in snow. After a little bit of shoveling, I was able to get it into the garage

I know there are people who actually read this blog, and even make it part of their regular routine. So I feel bad about calling it quits abruptly, but ... I'm calling it quits abruptly. As of midnight tonight, I will be sharing ecclesiastical authority with the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Springfield. They will tend to all the ordinary administrative and financial stuff, along with leadership, mission, and vision. I am required by my mediated agreement with them, after they sought my resignation last October, to confine my ministry to the ordination process, clergy discipline, and clergy deployment. I have told the clergy I am also available for pastoral care as they see fit to seek it. I had hoped and worked for a seamless transition, as is normative, between my ministry and that of my successor. I may be retired on July 1, but I won't feel retired until there is another bishop elected and consecrated. I will retain a sense of burden for the welfare of the diocese until I know it's in the steady hands of a bishop. But circumstances (mostly Brenda's illness, but also the pandemic and my conflict with the Standing Committee) conspired to foil the aspiration of a seamless transition, so we have to embrace the messiness for a season.

So I will enter now a period of transition (a "terminal sabbatical") leading to my full resignation and retirement in five months, at the end of June. The purpose of this blog was to give the baptized faithful of the diocese a sense of having an "ownership stake" in my ministry among them, by sharing the day-to-day shape of that ministry. There are, of course, details that I have not been able to share, but I have tried to err on the side of candor rather than secretiveness. Some, indeed, have protested that I have been too candid. In any case, though, that time is now past. The percentage of my days that I spend doing diocesan work will drop considerably. My life will become necessarily more private. This is as it should be. The purposes for which this blog was begun no longer pertain. So I'm laying it aside as of pressing "Publish" on this entry. I'll still be in cyberspace. I'm on Facebook, usually several times a week, and occasionally on Twitter. You're more than welcome to follow me in those places. My Instagram account is pretty much fallow. I will undoubtedly re-enter the blogsphere again at some point, but I don't yet know what shape that will take or when it will happen.

It has, as they say, been real. Really, it has.

Saturday (St Charles, King & Martyr)

Substantive phone conversations with the rector of Lincoln, the President of the Standing Committee, and the Canon-to-the-Ordinary. Attended the live-streamed memorial service for a former clergy colleague, and continuing friend, with whom I was in serious conversation about coming to the diocese less than a year ago, who died quickly of COVID at age 66. Then, earlier than I actually needed to, but wanting to get out of town ahead of the snowstorm, I packed up and headed south to Lincoln, where I had time to do some significant reading before hitting the sack.

Sermon for Epiphany IV

Trinity, Lincoln--Mark 1:21-28

It’s still very early in the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. At approximately thirty years of age, he left the carpentry shop he had inherited from Joseph, went down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, heard the approving voice of God the Father, and got anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. He formed the nucleus of his band of followers, his disciples—the brothers James and John, and the brothers Andrew and Simon, and according to John’s account, Nathaniel. Now he’s ready to go public in a fresh way, and really get things rolling. He walks into the village of Capernaum, finds the synagogue, and starts to teach. St Mark tells us that the people who were gathered there that day “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes, of course, were their usual teachers, but I’m not going to get into what this little comment implies about the quality or content of their teaching because, for Mark, the emphasis is all on Jesus, and the extraordinary quality of his teaching. He taught as one who had authority. What he taught wasn’t secondary, derivative, a summary of somebody else’s wisdom or insight. Rather, it flowed from the center of his being, from his very essence. It was authentic; it had an unmistakable ring of truth. Jesus’ teaching had authority because he was speaking on behalf of the author. Then Jesus goes on, in effect, to demonstrate the authority of his words by the power of his deeds. There’s a man in the congregation who is evidently possessed by a demon—what Mark calls an “unclean spirit.” Jesus commands the spirit to come out of the man, and in a rather loud and dramatic fashion, it does. And everybody is amazed.

Now, one of the fascinating things about the Bible, particularly a passage from the gospels like this one, is that what we get out of it depends a great deal on with whom in the story we identify ourselves. If you were to put yourself into this scene in the Capernaum synagogue, who would you be? There are only four choices, really: You could be Jesus, you could be an unnamed member of the congregation—one of the amazed onlookers, you could be the man who has an unclean spirit, or you could be the unclean spirit. Right? Have I missed anything? So, I think most of us, out of what we would take to be appropriate humility, would probably not identify ourselves with Jesus. And most of us would probably be equally reluctant to see ourselves as the demon. Given the two remaining choices—the demon-possessed man and anonymous membership in the crowd of amazed onlookers, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of us are going to opt for anonymous membership in the crowd of amazed onlookers. After all, the members of the congregation were good, respectable people. They were normal (and we surely do all want to be normal; we all have our “inner child” that just wants to blend in with the crowd and not be conspicuous). They were trying to do the right thing, showing up in the synagogue. They were paying attention, and really liked this young man who was speaking. And when he was able to kick that demon out of that poor fellow—well, it was nothing sort of amazing; we’ve never seen anything like it. And there’s an added convenience to viewing this story through the eyes of the amazed onlookers: It enables us to sincerely admire Jesus—which is a good thing to do; I mean, who wouldn’t want to sincerely admire Jesus?—but it also allows us to keep him at a safe distance. I’m not the one he’s talking to; I’m not the one he’s touching, because—hey—I’m not the one with the problem. I’m just normal. Keeping Jesus as a safe distance means we don’t have to step outside our comfort zone. We don’t have to change any of our habits or our attitudes or make any life-altering commitments. We can “feel spiritual” without actually being challenged.

But what if I were to tell you that there’s a whole treasure trove of spiritual and practical benefits that is waiting for us, ours for the taking, if we’re willing to stretch a little bit, willing to step out and do something a little…risky?  What if we were to look at this story, not through the eyes of Jesus, not through the eyes of the demon, and not through the eyes of the normal and respectable—if totally amazed—onlookers in the synagogue congregation? What if, instead, we were to set aside our pride, and put ourselves in the place of the man with an ‘unclean spirit’? What would we see?

First, we would be in touch with our own brokenness, our own helplessness in the face of the power of sin and death and evil. We would know our need for a savior, a deliverer, an advocate, someone on our side who is not only more powerful than we are, but more powerful than any challenge we might confront.

Then, we would see a compassionate Jesus whose own heart is broken by the fact that we are “possessed” by a force that prevents us from being the person we were created to be. We would see a righteous Jesus who is justifiably angered by the injustice of our being held captive by the power of sin and death. We would see a powerful Jesus who speaks and acts with an authority that instills terror in anyone or anything that stands on the side of tyranny and oppression, anyone or anything that would seek to “possess” the beloved children of God. We would know the Jesus who is the model for the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories—a lion who is always good, but not in any way tame, not predictable, not “safe.” Most of all, we would know ourselves to have been delivered from that which enslaved us. We would know ourselves to have been set free from that which possessed us. Instead of being chained to the past, we would be able to embrace the future. Instead of being dragged down by guilt or grief, we would be free to organize our lives around hope and purpose.

It all depends on whose eyes we use to read the story.

But the blessings don’t stop there. When we identify ourselves with the man who is demon-possessed and is liberated by Jesus, we not only receive the grace of that freedom ourselves, but our own lives become a blessing to others. When we know ourselves to have been redeemed and made free, we become signs to the world of the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and the world is amazed. The world can “read” our lives—our lives as individual Christians, and our lives communally as the church—people can read our lives and “hear” Jesus speaking with authority and “see” Jesus acting with authority. They can marvel at the power in which God has acted on our behalf, and their hearts can be melted to the same liberating love that has set us free.

It all depends on where you see yourself in the story.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Friday (St Andrei Rublev)

 The day included:

  • Two substantive phone conversations with Canon Evans.
  • A screening interview with a potential candidate for one of our parishes in transition.
  • A mentoring session with one of our postulants.
  • An Ignatian meditation on the daily office gospel reading.
  • Processing a not insignificant number of emails and text messages.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Thursday (St Thomas Aquinas)

Did the finish work on Sunday's homily (Trinity, Lincoln) ... followed up on mission strategy and ordination liturgy planning ... email dialogue with the Communicator on a couple of issues ... otherwise, some emerging domestic concerns diverted me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Wednesday (St John Chrysostom)

The main work of the day was to make a day trip to Springfield for the purpose of attending the closing of the sale of our former home there. Ten years and one day since was closed on its purchase--possibly in the same room; certainly in the same building. Bittersweet. I leveraged the opportunity to do a small bit of shopping at Meijer (of which we are bereft in Chicago), stop by the office for a couple of things, and make a visit to Illinois National Bank to deposit the proceeds of the home sale. Back home (leaving Springfield in accumulating snow, but finding a clear road north of Lincoln) just before 4:30, having had substantive phone conversations en route with Canon Evans and with a priest from outside the diocese by way of pastoral care.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Tuesday (Ss Timothy & Titus)

 Highlights:

  • Started liturgy planning work for March 7 ordinations to the transitional diaconate.
  • Moved the ball down the field re jump-starting the Department of Mission.
  • Attended a one-hour Zoom meeting of my House of Bishops table group.
  • Reviewed materials submitted by a potential candidate for one of our parishes in transition. Arranged for a video interview.

Plus ... staying on top of incoming emails and small administrative tasks. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sermon for Epiphany III

 Christ the King, Normal--Mark 1:14-20

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, as he went down to the Jordan River, along with throngs of his fellow Palestinian Jews, to be baptized by John the Baptist, and he heard the approving voice of the God the Father and was anointed by the Holy Spirit. His response to the Father’s call and the ministry he then gave himself form the pattern for our response to God’s call and the ministry God wants us to give ourselves to. Last week, then, we looked at the compelling story from the Old Testament of the Lord revealing himself to the boy Samuel, and how Samuel came to “know the Lord” and went on to do great work for the Lord. Our experience of Christian worship and service will be dry and lifeless and boring until we also come to “know the Lord” personally, and are moved to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” Call, vocation, ministry—these things have not only personal implications for each of us individually, but communal implications as well—that is, how can Christ the King as a congregation, as a parish family, be ever more faithful in discerning and doing that which God has in mind for you?

Today, as we forge ahead into this post-Epiphany season, the themes of vocation and discipleship continue to dominate our field of view. Mark’s gospel presents us with a pithy and terse but really quite amazing narrative. First, Mark has Jesus walking around Galilee just doing spontaneous public preaching, raising his voice to whomever would listen, saying—and I’m paraphrasing here, of course — “Time’s up. God is about to take charge. So turn your life around and trust me that this is really good news!” In today’s society, he would be in violation of several local ordinances and sections of the civil code, I’m sure, and would probably need more licenses and permits than he would have been able to afford. But he did it. He must have gotten the whole range of reactions from those who encountered him. Remember, he hadn’t started his healing ministry yet, so there was no obvious inducement for people to pay attention. As he drifted off to sleep at night, he must have thought to himself, “This is sure a change of pace from the old carpenter shop.” Here he was, thirty years old, walking away from the only life he had ever known and risking everything, absolutely everything, in order to follow what he knew to be God’s call on his life.

Now, it would be one thing if Jesus did all that and kept it to himself. But he didn’t. He recruited others to join in him in his crazy crusade to talk and act as if the Kingdom of God were really at hand, to talk and act as if God really was in charge. He walks along the lakeshore and sees two sets of brothers—Simon and Andrew, James and John—who are busy plying their trade as commercial fishermen. He says, “Follow me, and I’ll give you something more exciting to fish for; I’ll let you fish for people.” He doesn’t make small talk. He doesn’t invite them to a seminar or ask them to look over a written proposal and get back to him. He just says, “Follow me.” And he apparently means “Right now!” as both sets of brothers quit right in the middle of their commercial activities. They literally drop everything and follow him. Now, those who are of a mind to read a passage like this in a strictly literal sense have seen the scandal that it implies, and have rushed in with rationalizing explanations that make it all more palatable, like that these four disciples had already met Jesus and had extensive contact with him, and he was now appearing on the scene just to close the deal, to say “It’s show time, boys. Let’s go.” Any or all of that may or may not be true, but if we go down that road, we miss the point that Mark is trying impress on us, which is that Christian vocation and discipleship require us—require us as individuals and require us as a church community—Christian vocation and discipleship require us to turn away from all the voices calling us to walk some other path. Christian vocation and discipleship require us to put everything else at risk in answering the call of Jesus to follow him. As we read the gospel account, it sounds like the call of Christ was a crisis for Simon and Andrew and James and John. It’s supposed to sound like that, because the call of Christ is always a crisis, no matter who hears it.

So, what are some of those competing voices? What is it that we need to filter out if we want to hear and answer the call of Christ? Some of this is obvious. Most of us, in different degrees, live somewhat at the mercy of various appetites and urges. It takes discipline to not be controlled by these appetites and urges. The word “disciple” and the word “discipline” come from the same root, and it’s not hard to see why, because discipleship certainly requires discipline. The call to discipleship affects what we do with our bodies. The world tells us our bodies are our own. We need to ignore that voice, because the call of Christ tells us we are slaves to him. The call to discipleship affects what we do with our money. The world tells us that if we acquire it legally, it’s ours to do with as we please. But we need to ignore that voice, because the call of Christ tells us we are stewards and will have to render an accounting. The call to discipleship affects how we use such power and influence as we might have. The world tells us how to get ahead in a competitive environment. But we need to ignore that voice, because the call of Christ counsels us to live not for ourselves alone, but for him who loved us and died for us, and for all those whom he loves.

Like I said, all that should be obvious. There are many examples of Christians having the faith and fortitude to live victoriously in these areas—falling at times, or even often, but each time repenting, receiving the grace of forgiveness, and moving on. But the greater danger, I believe, is more subtle, and more deceptive. More than we are attached to power and influence, more that we are attached to money, more than we are attached even to our appetites, we are attached to respectability. We want others to think of us as normal; not kooky, not eccentric, not crazy in any way, but respectably normal. And in order to be normal, we’re attached to prudence and caution —or what we take to be prudence and caution, at least. And this is our potential undoing, my friends, because discipleship is not about respectability. Jesus died the most unrespectable death any Jew could imagine for himself, but he had crossed the respectability line long before he ever got to the cross.

When Jesus walked up to those four fishermen on the lakeshore and said, “Follow me!” he was not only calling them to leave their present tasks undone, he was not only calling them to leave their jobs and families behind; he was calling them to let go of the idea of being respectable or normal or prudent or cautious. He was calling them to follow the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is not for normal people; it’s for kooks and eccentrics and crazies. St Paul calls it being a “fool for Christ’s sake.”

Now, it’s hard enough for an individual to embrace foolishness for Christ’s sake, but it’s even harder for communities like church congregations. And Episcopalians are probably more invested in respectability than any other variety of Christian! We like to think of ourselves as the very image of establishment, the very definition of normal. And we’re certainly known for our prudence and our caution and our aversion to risk. So, the call of the first four Christian disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is a great stumbling block to all Christians, but particularly to Episcopalians. It challenges us in our tendency to be overly cautious in our ministry and mission. It calls us to repent of being driven by fear or timidity. It challenges us to embrace a radical discipleship that is willing to let go of everything else, to leave business-as-usual behind, to wean ourselves from all our props and sources of supposed security—to risk everything in order to be what Christ calls us to be and do what Christ calls us to do, here in the metropolis of Bloomington-Normal, and throughout central and southern Illinois and to the uttermost parts of the earth. There are no guarantees of smooth sailing. Jesus’ own discipleship led him to the cross. But what could be grander or more glorious than abandoning all pretense of respectability and telling people—through what we say and by how we live—that God is about to take charge, and that’s gospel, that’s good news. Amen.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Thursday (St Agnes)

Once in a while, a day just gets away from me, and this was one of them. A chink of the morning was already blocked out to take Brenda to an orthopedist about an ongoing issue (something they actually call "trigger finger"). I had a list of other things to accomplish, but I just got bombarded by a torrent of emails, about evenly divided between ministry-related things and personal stuff. So most of what was on my list is still on my list. Fortunately, none of it was terribly time-sensitive. To be honest, as I prepare to scale down my operational tempo in only ten days, as a prelude to full retirement at the end of June, my "work"-related to-do list is kind of drying up. While it's nice not to have the stress, it kind of fills me with sadness. One of my recurring monthly tasks is to take a look at my scheduled visitation for the coming month, make sure I'm clear about the service time, and that I've made contact with the priest. I have no visitations scheduled in February, so I had to permanently delete that task. Death by a thousand cuts (not meaning to be morose!).

Given that reality, I think I'm going to take a pass on showing up in this venue until next week. My visitation Sunday is to Christ the King, Normal ... and I expect everything to be, well ... normal. See you on Tuesday.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Wednesday (St Fabian)

  • Communicated by email with the Standing Committee--blessedly, not about a matter of conflict between them and me (still potentially a matter of conflict--just not between them and me!). 
  • Worked with the Communicator in getting some of what she needs for a video project she's working on for me.
  • Various tasks related to the Department of Mission, and jump-starting the Mission Strategy Report process (after a COVID-driven hiatus).
  • Did some refurbishing work on a vintage sermon text for Epiphany IV (the 31st at the Trinity, Lincoln).
  • Did some significant reading.
  • Took a brisk walk on some snowy sidewalks.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Tuesday (St Wulfstan)

Today's "big rock" was an Ad Clerum letter to the clergy on sundry matters, including how to observe Ash Wednesday in a pandemic, some words about the Chrism Mass, which I hope actually happens this year, and a bit about my change in status at the end of the month, as I step back from many of the routine duties of my office and enter a period of transition to full retirement at the end of June. Attended to a couple of small administrative matters, got the ball rolling toward the ordination of a couple of transitional deacons in about six weeks, and had a Zoom meeting with one of our senior seminarians. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

During the last nearly eleven months, clergy and lay leaders have had to up there game in the area of video production, and it's interesting to see the various adaptations they have made. Trinity, Jacksonville has "gotten it" with respect to lighting and good-quality audio. This morning's regular 10am liturgy was both live-streamed and recorded. Besides Fr Brooks, the organist, and YFNB, there was only one person physical present in the congregation, but a great many more, I was assured, watching virtually. Trinity was the first parish Brenda and I worshiped in following the move to our Springfield home in late January of 2011, so, once again, a flood of memories: Fr Mallotke's funeral, a synod Mass, the ordination of Fr Brooks, meetings with the vestry and search committee, and ten regular annual visitations. This is a bittersweet time.

Sermon for II Epiphany

Trinity, Jacksonville--John 1:43-51, I Samuel 3:1-10

One of the forms of play that we all engaged in as children is a guessing game. Something is a secret—usually the location of a hidden object or person. One or more of the players know the answer to the secret and one or more of the players try to guess the answer. Those who know the secret are allowed to assist those who don't by saying "You're getting warmer" if they're moving closer to the goal and "You're getting colder" if they're straying further away. With the help of these clues, the riddle is eventually solved, and the next round begins.

As I reflect on my day-to-day experience as an adult, I'm aware that I am profoundly influenced by variations on this essential children's guessing game. The clues—"You're getting warmer /You're getting colder"—are more subtle, making use of various code words and symbols, but the basic rules of the game are the same. Secrets, riddles, puzzles, cryptic clues, symbolic codes—these are all common tools that grownups use in relating to one another in the everyday world. The game is so ubiquitous that we're usually not even conscious of it; it's just the air we breathe.

So it really shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that we expect God to play by the same rules. We assume that he has scattered clues about himself throughout the universe that we inhabit—in the operation of nature, in the breathtaking order of mathematical principles, in the human capacity for love and sacrifice and honor and the appreciation of beauty, and in a host of other places. Our job is to be observant, to read these clues, and by dedicated effort to peel back the layers of the mystery of God's being. Once in a while, we may get an extraordinary report card from God evaluating our progress: "You're getting warmer—you're getting colder."

I realize, of course—at least I hope—that, in our minds, we know that this is a false conception of the way God relates to us. Unfortunately, though, it's often all too accurate a picture of the way we relate to God. And it's an attitude that can get us into a good deal of trouble. Some of you who are really veteran Episcopalians may remember a fellow named James Pike. James Pike was a successful young lawyer in Manhattan, a nominal Roman Catholic who experienced a spiritual awakening through the ministry of the Episcopal Church. He soon felt himself called to leave his career, go to seminary, and become a priest, which he did. James Pike rose through the ranks, as it were, very quickly. He was a bright, articulate, and personable evangelist, in the best and broadest sense of that term, for Christian faith and practice. In the late 1950s he was elected and consecrated Bishop of California. But Bishop Pike, it appears now, still saw himself as on a search, trying to solve a riddle. He was unable to rest in the fact that his search was over, that the God for whom he was looking had already found him. A few short years later, after scandalizing the church by denying just about every belief we hold, James Pike perished in the Judean desert east of Jerusalem, as he searched for a way to contact the ghost of his dead son. Playing guessing games with God can have serious consequences indeed. We can end up losing forever the very thing we had been searching for.

I guess it's obvious by now that my point is that it doesn't have to be this way! There is an alternative to going through life waiting for God to tell us, "You're getting warmer—you're getting colder." The wonderful Old Testament story of the call of the boy Samuel gets us back on the track, and Jesus's exchange with Nathanael brings us to our destination. Samuel's parents had apprenticed him to Eli, a priest at a local Israelite shrine, shortly after his birth. Samuel grew up, then, almost literally in the shadow of the altar, in the almost tangible presence of God. He knew nothing of searching for God. Quite the opposite: One night as he lay in bed trying to get to sleep, he experienced God searching for him.

"Samuel  . . .  Samuel ...", the voice called to him. Only after Samuel ran to Eli three times did the old priest realize who it was that was calling the boy, and he told him to answer, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." Samuel did not seek and find God; God sought and found Samuel. And isn't it, when we stop and think about it, better that way? Isn't it much more fun to be recruited, to be wooed and courted, than to answer a want ad and fill out an application? I've done both, and it's no mystery to me which one is preferable!

And for the most part, that's the way God prefers to treat us. He took the initiative in creating us. He took the initiative in loving and redeeming us. And he takes the initiative in pursuing a relationship with each one of us. And the basis for all that initiative-taking is God's intimate knowledge of us. The one who seeks us out and finds us is the one to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. When it comes to the basis of our relationship with him, God doesn't play guessing games, either as the secret keeper or the puzzle-solver. The basis for our knowledge of God is God's knowledge of us.

This is made clear for us in St John's account of Jesus' encounter with a fellow named Nathanael. First Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and Philip does so. Then Philip goes and finds Nathanael—a friend of his, presumably—and says, "We've found the Messiah, his name is Jesus, come and meet him!" So Nathanael tags along, somewhat skeptically, until he actually meets Jesus. Jesus greets him in a casual, almost playful, manner that would suggest he already knew him.  Nathanael is mildly perplexed and says, in effect, "Excuse me, have we met?" Then Jesus drops the bomb. "Well, Nathanael, yes and no: I saw you when you were underneath the fig tree."  Now the fig tree in question was not one that was in the vicinity as they had this conversation. But it was one, apparently, under which Nathanael had had some significant spiritual experience. We have no clue what it was, but it was deeply important to him.  And this man Jesus, whom he had never met before, knew all about it.

Don't we melt like putty in warm hands when someone gently and sincerely shows even an interest in, much less knowledge of, our most profound joys and sorrows? Nathanael had one very private tender spot in his heart, and Jesus knew right where it was and touched it. He touched it mercifully and lovingly, and Nathanael knew immediately that Philip had indeed found the Messiah. When we experience that touch, when we know that we are known at the deepest level of our being, we receive the confidence and the trust to respond as a disciple, to become a follower of the one who knows us so well. For Samuel the response was, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening."  For Nathanael, the response of discipleship was, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!"

My friends, Jesus sees us under our "fig trees."  He sees us in the special places, those special people, those events both joyful and sorrowful, in the books and the songs—wherever it is that we bare our souls and lay ourselves open without reservation, wherever it is that we simply quit playing guessing games. If we stop our desperate search for clues that we're getting warmer or getting colder, we can enjoy the knowledge that the God who made us and loves us is always getting “warmer,” and if we just sit still long enough, he'll find us!  Amen. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Friday

Attended and participated in the final session of the regular winter meeting of the Communion Partners, via Zoom. Took steps toward arranging a meeting with the leaders from three Eucharistic Communities that are in discernment about sharing a single full-time priest. Responded substantively to some recent correspondence from the Standing Committee. Did the finish work on my homily for this Sunday (Trinity, Jacksonville). Did a Lectio Divina on the Old Testament reading from tomorrow's daily office lectionary. Exchanged substantive emails from the postulant whom I am coaching in learning to preach; he is coming along very nicely and it is a joy to work with him. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Thursday (St Kentigern)

Attended and participated once again in the Communion Partners winter meeting via Zoom for two hours in the morning. Caught up on a substantial amount of reading. Interviewed another potential candidate for one of our parishes in transition and communicated via email with the relevant search committee. Made arrangements to meet (by video) with the wardens and interim rector of that same parish to refine some of the details of their process. Touched base with Fr Richmond regarding some of the details of my visitation to Christ the King, Normal this weekend. Took the usual brisk afternoon walk.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday (St Hilary of Poitiers)

Once again, attended the morning session of the virtual winter Communion Partners meeting. In the afternoon, I had a Zoom interview with a priest who has expressed interest in one of our parishes in transition. Followed up with an email to the relevant search committee. Beyond those things, I attended to a pastoral/administrative matter in one of our parishes, did cosmetic surgery on a vintage sermon text for Epiphany III (January 24 in Normal), lifted weights and took a walk, and did some task plotting for re-engaging diocesan mission strategy post-pandemic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Tuesday (St Aelred)

Today's first "big rock" was a two-hour Zoom meeting of the Communion Partners (bishops and rectors). This is in lieu of our regular winter in-person meeting, which happens in Florida. Naturally, I'd rather be in Florida, but I'm glad we're still able to have the conference, which is spread out in two-hour segments all week long. The second big rock was a follow-up visit with the oral surgeon who removed a lesion from my tongue last week. (It all looks good--lab report say no cancer.) The office was clear downtown. In order to save money on parking, I took public transit (very easy to maintain appropriate distancing), which took a little longer. Beyond these two things, I was able to craft what I hope is a pastorally-sensitive and substantive email response to a letter I received from the Mission Leadership Team of one of our Eucharistic Communities. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Out the door at 0715, in time to arrive at Emmanuel, Champaign in time for a "private" (limited to confirmands and immediate family) 1015 Eucharist with confirmation and reception. It was a sweet experience, chastened as it was by pandemic safeguards that were over-the-top stringent. I left with some very touching gifts, arriving home around 2:30.

Sermon for Epiphany I

 Emmanuel, Champaign--Mark 1:7-11, Isaiah 42:1-9                                                                                             

Today we keep the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus comes down to the Judean desert, along with hundreds of others, to hear an eccentric preacher named John, and to step into the muddy waters of the Jordan River and be baptized. He wouldn’t have stood out from the crowd. Jesus wasn’t famous yet. He was just an unknown carpenter from an obscure Galilean village. Yet, as we know, by virtue of his identity and by virtue of his destiny, Jesus was not just like all the others who came for baptism. He should have stood out from the crowd.

Even the most skeptical of biblical scholars, even those of no personal faith, whose interest in the New Testament is purely academic, those for whom the crucifixion has no meaning, and the resurrection has no reality—even these skeptics do not doubt the historicity of today’s gospel account. Whoever Jesus was, he did get baptized. The early church was embarrassed by this event because it implied that Jesus was subservient to John, that he had a need to repent of his sins, which is what everybody else who got baptized was doing.

What was embarrassing to the early church is more likely to make us just say, “So what?”  But this is something worth taking a closer look at. There is a larger context into which we must put our understanding of the baptism of Christ. Jesus’ baptism was a critical turning point. Before he went into the Jordan, Jesus was a private citizen who minded his own business. After the event, he was a charismatic public figure whose fame spread rapidly and who eventually became so popular that the civil and religious establishment considered him a dire threat and had him killed. Before the baptism—no preaching or teaching, no disciples, no healing, no miracles. After the baptism—he wears himself out talking to crowds, he attracts a loyal band of followers, and he is constantly healing and casting out demons. From a purely biographical perspective, the baptism of Jesus looms pretty large.

There’s also the larger context of our prayer and worship as his latter-day disciples. We are about to bring down the curtain on that part of our annual cycle in which we anticipate and celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the incarnation of the eternal Word of God. The feast of our Lord’s baptism brings Advent and Christmas to a head, and reveals, as it were, a “mature” savior—one who can actually do something for us, one who can actually be effective on our behalf. It’s nice to sing carols about our “newborn King” and our “infant redeemer,” but before he could become really either a redeemer or a king, Jesus had to grow up. In the Eastern Church, a wet Jesus standing in the Jordan River is the primary image of Epiphany, and rightly so.

A few weeks from now, we will begin that part of our yearly cycle in which we anticipate and celebrate the Paschal Mystery—Christ our Paschal Lamb, the one who is both priest and victim on Calvary, in whose death and resurrection we participate as we renew our baptismal vows and celebrate this very Mass. Our celebration of the Lord’s baptism today helps prepare us for that very important work. We see that the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in his baptism is a model for the inauguration of our ministry in our baptism. When we are baptized, we are baptized into nothing less than the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus. In the incarnation, God shares our human life. In baptism, we share God’s divine life.

This is a simple declaration, but it has profound and far-reaching consequences. It affects our basic understanding of what the Church is, and what our place in the Church is. Jesus’ experience becomes a model for ours. At his baptism, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry. He’s now a man with a mission. In effect, Jesus takes his “mission statement” from the prophet Isaiah:

I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. …he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

And our mission, the mission each of us received on the day of our baptism, is not really anything less. If we need to flesh out the details, we need look no further than our Baptismal Covenant, which we are about to renew together. In it, we promise to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, the community of the Church, the Holy Eucharist, and to a life of prayer. We also promise to work for justice, freedom, and peace; to seek and serve Christ in every person; and to respect the dignity of every human being. That’s our mission; that’s our shared ministry. It takes place in hundreds of thousands of different ways, but that’s the core.

After his baptism, Jesus discovered that his Father had blessed him abundantly, through the Holy Spirit, for the work he had taken on. He discovered his gifts, and he began to exercise his gifts for ministry. And since his baptism and ministry make up the model for our baptism and ministry, that’s what we need to be about as well. For us, the discovery of our ministerial gifts, and the exercise of those gifts, is critical. It is well past time for a flourishing church culture that is grounded in the notion that “all members are ministers.” Yes, I’m a minister, Mother Beth is a minister, but not any more than you are. Our ministry may be more visible, but yours is probably more important. All baptized persons are ministers; all have a ministry. Relatively few have discovered that ministry and begun to exercise it, and to the extent that the church has “problems,” that fact is where most of the problems originate. 

Yet, it need not be so. We need not operate in fear, fear of taking the plunge into ministry. The Spirit rested on Jesus at his baptism, taking the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father approved him: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And if Jesus’ baptism is the model for ours, how can we go without those same blessings? The Spirit also rests on us, my sisters and brothers, and the voice of the Father gives His approval of our ministry. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Friday

Did some fairly significant reconstructive surgery on a sermon text for Epiphany II, toward preaching at Trinity, Jacksonville on the 17th ... wrote a note (by hand, and dropped in the mail) to a colleague bishop who is an old friend and my first boss in ordained ministry 32 years ago, and who is terminally ill at home with palliative care--this was a bit of an emotional wrench for me ... brief email exchange with the Standing Committee ... met by Zoom for a mentoring session with one of our postulants ... since my ministry-related task list for the week was essentially completed, I devoted the afternoon to domestic chores (grocery shopping, preparing for a real estate closing, undecorating from Christmas, tending to Brenda).

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Thursday

  • Reviewed the materials of two potential candidates for two of our open clergy positions. This was not a perfunctory effort, but good faith due diligence, including looking at social media profiles and parish websites. One I eventually determined would not be a good fit for the diocese. The other merited some real-time contact, so those arrangements are in the works. 
  • Made arrangements for one of our seminarians to potentially have a summer internship placement in one of our parishes.
  • Did the finish work on my homily for this Sunday at Emmanuel, Champaign.
  • Took the standard 75-minute walk with Brenda.
  • Read and offered some detailed (and, I hope, constructive) feedback on a draft sermon text from the postulant in a priest-less parish who is doing most of the preaching there. He has the raw gift, so it's a joy to work with him in honing and developing it. 

 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

EPIPHANY

On the road northbound from my Bloomington hotel room at 0815. Arrived home at 1045, and by the time I got the car unloaded (still moving gradually out of my office) and everything stowed, it was time to worry about lunch. The afternoon wasn't satisfyingly productive--checking things off my to-do list--but it was necessarily productive--processing a mountain of email that had hit my inbox while I was on the road yesterday and today. Exercise is a "big rock" in my life these days, as I age, so Brenda and I did get our walk in. I began the process of reviewing the CVs of a handful of clergy from outside the diocese who have expressed interest in one or more of our vacancies.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Tuesday (Eve of Epiphany)

... aaaaand we're back. The last two weeks played out just as I had predicted they would, save that Christ Church, Springfield indeed chose not to meet for a few weeks, so I didn't make my planned visitation last Sunday. Today, I got my work week organized, and handled a couple of pressing items by email. Then it was time to pack and head south, which took place at 11am. Hit my targeted 3pm arrival at the diocesan office, where I puttered for an hour (thee centerpiece of said putting being the signing and sealing of an ordination certificate) before hitting the road again, arriving at St Paul's, Carlinville an hour ahead of the scheduled 6pm ordination liturgy to make Carter Aikin a priest. It all came off quite smoothly, though severely straitened, with only nine people in the church, and singing restricted to the Veni creator and the Sanctus. But we got the job done, and the church will be blessed by Father Aikin's ministry for a long while to come. If I were 20 or 30 years younger, I could have made if all the way back home tonight, but realism dictated that I book a room in Bloomington, from which I am making this entry.

Homily for Carter Aikin Ordination (Priesthood)

 St Paul’s, Carlinville--Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12

In St Matthew’s version of the Annunciation, when the angel appears not to Mary, but to Joseph, in a dream, we read about Joseph’s experience of the Divine Presence as he was called to serve as a surrogate father to the incarnate Son of God. This is a kind of experience that many, or even most, people have at various times in their lives—an experience of a mysterious Presence, a Presence that, upon further reflection, is revealed to be God … Emmanuel, quite literally, “with us, God.” It is also from Matthew that we hear about a similar encounter between the LORD and a group of Persian (most likely Persian, at any rate, according to most scholars)—a group of Persian astrologers (there’s no concrete indication that there were three of them, nor is there any evidence that they were actually kings, though there’s nothing radically wrong with our traditional popular images of them)—we hear today from St Matthew’s gospel about these “Wise Men” or “Magi,” as they are often referred to, who felt an inexplicable invitation and urge to follow a strange and mysterious astral sign to an obscure village an hour or so (by camel, that is) from Jerusalem. But they didn’t really have a whole lot of solid material to go on, despite what we sing, when singing is not considered risky behavior, about the symbolic significance of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We also feel “the presence,” but, like the Wise Men, we often feel like we have very little concrete to go on. Even if we come to a place where we are ready to recognize and name this presence as God, still “God” is such a large concept, an expansive and complex notion, that there are a great many ideas, many of them conflicting, about who God is and what God is like and what God expects of those of us who are “not-God.” It’s easy to feel like we’re in a game of “20 Questions”—Are you all-powerful? (Yes or No) Are you present everywhere? (Yes or No) Do you know everything, even before it happens? Do you love me? Would you get upset if I told a little white lie to my neighbor? etc. etc. etc.

One possible response to the mystery of God is to fall into despair: If God is unknowable, if God leaves so many unanswered questions, if it feels like God is absent, then what good is he? We like to think that God watches over us and protects us, but try telling that to have lost loved ones to a pandemic that we could scarcely have imagined as recently as a year ago. If some get spared but others don’t, then it’s nothing but a game of chance; it’s as if God didn’t really exist. What good is the “presence” that I feel if that Presence neither says anything nor does anything that I can see or hear or understand? I am trapped in my misery. There is nothing available to me but despair.

Another response is to fill in the blanks with information of our own making—as it were, creating God in our image, making God what we would like God to be. Some years ago I heard about a religion called Sheilaism. It had, at that time, precisely one adherent, and her name was—you guessed it—Sheila. Sheilaism was a designer religion worshipping a designer God. I’ll grant you this is a rather extreme example. But it’s only extreme in the degree to which the logic is followed. Truth to tell, you don’t have to scratch the beliefs of even many conventional Christian churchgoers very deeply before you find an impulse to, if not make up a religious system from whole cloth, at least pick and choose various elements from the available options—according to taste, as it were. Left unchecked by any restraints of habit or societal approval, it leads inevitably to a virtually infinite numbers of variations on Sheilaism.

When the Wise Men finally reached Bethlehem, they saw the infant Jesus—the Word made flesh, the Messiah of God, the savior of the world—they saw Jesus with their own eyes. In the western branch of Christianity, of which we as Anglicans are heirs, this moment of seeing with their own eyes is the primary symbol—the “picture that says a thousand words”—of the Epiphany. But the reality of Epiphany is much larger than its symbol. In earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, the subtitle of this feast is “the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The Magi represent all non-Jews, in other words, us! In that moment of face-to-face connection between these Persian stargazers and a little Jewish baby boy, we see the key to our own redemption. For the first time, non-Jews are explicitly included in the promises of God. Through Christ, salvation is available not only to his own people, the Jews, but to all of us who are not born into the house of Israel.

Yet, there is more we can mine from this lode: “Epiphany” means, literally, to show, to demonstrate, to take that which is hidden and make it visible, to take that which is privately visible to the few and make it publicly visible to all. St Paul writes to the Ephesians about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit…” For us, the good news of Epiphany is that God is a mystery but not a secret. God is unknowable, but God has made himself known. Everything we need to know about God, God has told us—revealed, disclosed, manifested. Knowing who God is and what God is like and what God wants from us is not a game of 20 Questions.

We’re here tonight specifically, in addition to keeping the eve of one of the seven principal feasts of the Prayer Book calendar, to ordain Carter Aikin to the priesthood. It is a moment of revelation, of disclosure. It’s an Epiphany. Even though our prayer will be quite focused as we lay hands on Carter—“make him a priest”—there is a very real sense in which we are not confecting something new, but revealing something that was there all along. We’re like a master sculptor wielding a chisel for its last few strokes and those watching exclaim, “Aha! Now we can see what was hidden “for long ages” in that slab of marble: Carter the priest!” Tonight is an epiphany on multiple levels.

Our observance of Epiphany reminds us that we have no need to “design” God to our own specifications of what we think he should be like, what we would be like if we were God. Carter has pledged for the second time now to subject his own theological speculation to the received teaching of the Holy Catholic Church, and to be himself the Church’s voice and example. Indeed, as I’m sure Carter would be the first to acknowledge, if we presume to enshrine our own speculations, we are refusing the knowledge, the enlightenment, that God has graciously given us. We would be like the adopted child who, upon meeting her actual birth parents, and finding them not like she imagined, says, “Oh, no, you can’t possibly be my parents. My father is taller and darker, and my mother’s hair is curly, not straight.” She has the option of not having anything to do with her parents, but she doesn’t have any say-so over their appearance or personality or anything else about them. They are who they are. God is who God is. He has revealed himself to us, and we don’t have the option of sending him back to the drawing board.

Rather, with St Paul, we have the option of saying, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…”—not found, not seized, but given--to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;  that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…”—made known by God, that is, through the Church, not made up by any human mind or any human organization—“…[made known] to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”

Our job—our job as the Church and our job as individual believers—is to ever go deeper into this mystery, to soak ourselves in what God has revealed, and to tease out the implications for each of our lives. The feast of the Epiphany comforts us with the knowledge that God is not aloof and distant, toying with us by creating guessing games and smiting us with thunder bolts if we get the answer wrong, and the feast of the Epiphany challenges us to humbly and gratefully receive and lay hold of that which God has revealed. The saving and life-giving truth about God that God has made available to us is simple and accessible so that any person can perceive it and make it his or her own. But it is also inexhaustible such that the greatest minds, the keenest intellects, among us—in which number Carter Aikin surely belongs—are always called to mine fresh nuggets from its riches and to apply them in concrete and compelling ways to the lives of real women and men and children. Tonight we consecrate Carter Aikin’s ministry to be an ongoing epiphany—exposure, revelation, demonstration—of the glory and love of God to those whose paths cross his. The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come, let us adore him. Amen.