Address for Pentecost 8 by the Seminarian

After our worship this morning Fr. John is going to have a presentation of all of the most important resolutions that were passed this year’s General Convention, but at the risk of stealing his thunder, I want to speak to one issue in particular which was discussed in Austin this week: the possible full revision of the Book of Common Prayer. The General Convention had set up a “media hub” online, where anyone could watch the deliberations of the church while they were happening. This was my first time watching General Convention events unfold, and as I expected, there was a lot of energy around Prayer book revision, from people on all sides of the issue. The House of Deputies spent over a half hour debating whether or not they wanted to add 60 minutes to the discussion time for prayer book revision. The people were ready for a debate and argument, and we heard impassioned arguments on all sides.
There are no doubt many aspects of the 1979 Prayer book which could be improved or shored up, but the energy behind Prayer book revision at the convention was primarily around how to address God. The revisionists have two primary concerns, and the first is this: God is immaterial, and therefore God is without gender. That being the case, the liturgy of the church should reflect this teaching in its language for God. So instead of saying “God and His people,” we would say “God, and God’s people.” The Lord’s Prayer could be rewritten to begin, “Our Parent, who art in heaven…” Words that would need to be swapped out or deemphasized include “Father, Son, King, Lord, etc.” The second reason for the necessity of these revisions is that all people are made in the image of God. So it stands to reason that God is like all of us people, so we should not use words that make God “seem male.

The revisionists do have a point, and it may be possible to expand our selection of Biblical images for God in liturgical worship. However, gender neutrality (or gender expansiveness) is not the sole or only criterion which should be considered. Dr. Kara Slade and Father J. Wesley Evans, along with the help of many other contributors, submitted to the House of Bishops entitled, “A Memorial to the 79th General Convention.” I would commend each of you to read the Memorial in its entirety, for the point of this sermon let me simply read the second paragraph:

And I quote, “The Episcopal Church affirms the Baptismal promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching” (BCP 304) as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Therefore this teaching ought to be reflected in our liturgy. We affirm that the Christological titles found in the New Testament are integral to the Gospel. While some of these are experienced negatively in the world because of human sin, we affirm that Jesus redeems that which is abused. The dominion of Jesus Christ is not analogous to these concepts as they operate according to the logic of the world. Instead, it subverts them. It is good news for all people that Jesus is the Lord, the true King who upholds them and overturns abusive powers.”

The words of our liturgy, derived from Holy Scripture, and the words and prayers given to us by Jesus are sacred words. While the liturgy is open to revision, we must always keep at the front of our minds its power to transform and change us. We cannot simply intellectually evaluate all of its words as if they were on the level of any other mere human speech. The liturgy is not merely words, but also the place where all of God’s people hear the Word of God, offer worship to God, and are transformed to go out into the world to continue God’s work on earth.
My point in bringing this up is not only to hash out the merits or demerits of this argument for revision, but to more importantly point out in how our theological imperative for revision is lacking. When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1979, there were two core theological issues at play: our common identity as Christians is found in Holy Baptism, and the centrality of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In all of the “pro-revision” discussion there was quite a bit of talk about gender and identity, but there was no change in our theology or our understanding of any core doctrines driving this change. Rather, the claim is to adjust the language of liturgy in order to more easily accord with what the Church already teaches and believes. And if that is the case, then perhaps what we need is catechesis, and not revision. Before any kind of revision is possible, we need to be clear about who we are and what it means to be the people of God, what it means to be the Church. Who are we as God’s people? What are God’s plans for us and how can we live into that?

Today’s epistle reading is a beautiful summary of what it means to be the people of God, of what it means to be the Church. This passage gives strong support for the doctrine of prevenient grace, which is a divine grace that precedes any human action. Hear the emphasis in these statements: “as he choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” And again in the next verse: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” The focus is on what God is doing, and not on human action. Ultimately God is sovereign over all that is, and is in no way dependent on anything from any human person. Here it is shown that sin is not pardoned merely on the account that we are sorry for our sins and repent (though repentance is important). No, the primary vehicle for redemption and forgiveness is given “according to the riches of his grace which he lavished on us.” This is God’s abundant love pouring out on us, not because we deserve it, but because God choose us. Indeed, God choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.

We might also have some difficulty with prevenient grace from and intellectual angle. For example, if God choose us from before the beginning of the world, then that seems to imply that there are others (perhaps non-Christians, or those who leave the faith) who were not chosen by God. It could be construed that if one is not chosen by God then there is nothing they can do about it. In order to avoid the incorrect reading that God is capricious and possibly cruel, we have to consider two points. First of all, this passage says nothing about damnation anywhere. This is a letter from Paul (or more likely someone else writing in Paul’s name to a Christian community). This is insider language, about the identity of God’s people. This is about who we are as God’s people, who we are as God’s Church.

To extrapolate that the opposite of lavish grace must be what is given to other people is reaching for something that is not presented here. This is not about damnation for non-believers. We can know this if we pay attention to the wording. “Just as he choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Christ is the lens through which we understand our election. This is the same Christ who told the repentant thief that he would be in paradise, the same Jesus who told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Being chosen is not about being better than others. We are redeemed through Christ’s blood, and we are called to live as God’s disciples in the world, loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are also called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus, bearing humiliation and shame for the sake of our Lord should we be called to do so. Our Christian duties are given to us by God, and to whatever degree we participate in God’s plan for us, we must remember that before our will to do anything, it was God’s will that for us to be adopted as His children through Jesus Christ.

That is who we are Christians, and it is ultimately the entire reason or existence itself. The epistle is talking about issues of cosmic and eternal significance. Whatever a group of laity and clergy in Austin Texas do about any issue pales in comparison to the ultimate, foundational truth of this epistle. We need to be united in prayer around the core of our faith before we are in any position to revise our words of prayer.

As it turned out, our bishops are not going to allow the Book of Common Prayer to be revised at this time. They have implemented a compromise position, where a much smaller budget will be allocated for the creation of some new, optional liturgical resources (possibly similar to Enriching our Worship), but the Book of Common Prayer 1979 is to be retained in its entirety. The day may come for a complete revision of the Book of Common Prayer, but today is not that day. Too much emphasis was placed on issues that divide. We will never all agree on everything, but if revision of the prayer book is to be successful, then we to begin not with divisive issues, but with what we all share. We are all God’s children, destined for adoption through Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world.

Sermon for Pentecost 7 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Coming off of Independence Day last week, a couple of interesting facts about our Church’s history, strike me as significant. First, it is interesting that the majority of Anglicans in the eighteenth century were Tories, loyal to the British Crown, and as a result the Episcopal Church became much smaller than it would have been, because so many of those our number fled to Canada during the Revolutionary War. I must admit that we found ourselves on the wrong side of that particular issue.

A second, more important fact is that our own Anglican heritage, the history of being started as an established state church, has always made the Episcopal Church a little bit less willing to buy in completely to the American institution of the separation of Church and State. Our own brand of Christianity, had grown used to being not only the dominant religious expression but the official state church, not only in England, but in places like Virginia and South Carolina until well into the nineteenth century, decades after the separation of Church and State was officially established in the first amendment. This is an historic fact which is much overlooked, and tends to surprise people when they learn of it.

While eventually even the longest holdout, Virginia, disestablished the Episcopal Church, our church maintained an unofficial status as the quasi-established church of our own country until well into the 1960s. This is why almost every president of the United States, despite his affiliation prior to taking office, has attended the Episcopal parish closest to the White House; this is why there are still a great many state funerals and semi-official national events which take place at the National Cathedral (technically, the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and this is why the Episcopal Church has historically sent more military chaplains around the world with our troops than any other religious body, despite our relatively small size.

All of this is by way of introducing a question, which I am not smart enough to answer, but which should give us food for thought. At risk of sounding like one of those eighteenth century Tories who had to run off to Canada, I would humbly pose the following question: Is there not some place where there ought to be interaction between the Church and the State? Is there a way in which citizenship and Christian commitment can be held together, such that we are not “religious creatures” at church and at home and “political creatures” on Election Day and in front of the daily news broadcast? Can the fact that we are Christians impinge upon the fact that we are Americans, and even inform how we behave as members of the body politic?

In all events, it seems that the Prophet Ezekiel thought so. God told the prophet “I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.” A nation, a political body which had been chosen by God, required a voice of religious and moral truth to get it back on the straight and narrow, as it were. Though our own nation is not “chosen” in the same way as ancient Israel was, we are nonetheless blessed by God with a great degree of freedom, prosperity and peace. Is it so far beyond the realm of possibility that the Church might from time to time fulfill the prophetic role of speaking the truth in love to power, that the powers and principalities of the world might become more faithful to the will of God?

This is dangerous territory, not only because it makes the separation of Church and State murky, but because there are plenty of good, faithful Christians whose political ideologies are significantly different my own, for example. I suspect that if a poll on hot button political issues were to be taken in our own parish there would be a great deal of diversity and disagreement on most issues. So, I want to avoid suggesting that there is a clear Christian imperative which should make the Church’s stance on every policy and piece of legislation obvious. There are those that believe that such clarity is always possible and obvious, and that’s fine, but I’m not one of them. As it happens, I receive much more pushback due to not commenting on every political issue that arises than on preaching from a political stance with which one might disagree. I take it as a point of pride, though others may not see it this way, because I try to recognize that in the great majority of issues du’jour, I truly believe that Christians of good conscience can, in fact, disagree.

What I do want to suggest, though, is that none of us can possibly entirely divorce himself from Christian principles when she exercise her civic rights and responsibilities. The founding fathers of our own country established a system where an official national church would be impossible, but they also firmly believed that the Hand of Divine Providence, the Will of God, had some role to play in our common purpose as a nation. In truth, they probably didn’t see as strong a distinction between the life of the soul and political life as we sometimes think they did. The biblical worldview, epitomized by Ezekiel and the other prophets—who spoke the Word of God to the kings of the nations, including their own nation, Israel—saw no such distinction as being absolute.

For most of us this means that we don’t need to set aside our Christian principles when we enter the ballot box or the public square. We have a valid perspective to contribute to the commonwealth, to the governance of the land we share with so many people of various creeds.

For others this might mean a task somewhat more in the mode of Ezekiel’s, namely the prophetic task of calling a nation back to God or to His Will on a given issue. Often, and most fruitfully, this is accomplished when there is some degree of consensus among Christians on said issue. Even when this is the case, though, it will lead to rejection. God said as much to Ezekiel, and I think that Jesus was getting at the same phenomenon when he told his apostles that a prophet is without honor in his hometown. This danger was more apparent in the days of the Roman Empire and even today under more severe regimes in certain parts of the world. It can happen here at home as well, though, and Martin Luther King was as good an example as any of a prophet who had to undergo rejection and dishonor.

Ultimately, the prophetic task, if it truly be prophetic, will be toward the end of establishing the principles of the Kingdom of God: the sick are healed, the poor are given Good News, life is affirmed rather than death, and brethren live together in unity. These are neither conservative nor liberal principles, they’re Christian principles.

In any event, I think that what we learn from the prophetic gift of Ezekiel and others is that there is not so strong a distinction between being a countryman and a coreligionist. We need not be sometimes Christian and sometimes American. Rather, the former and primary identity helps shape the latter. It is, in the final analysis, impossible to distance ourselves from the values which Christ and His Church instill in us in order to be secular patriots or something like that. We need not hesitate to pray for our country, and sometimes, like Ezekiel, we need to recognize when it has gone astray.

It’s probably good that we are free from the complications of having a state church, and it might even be good that the Episcopal Church’s de facto status as the quasi-State Church has eroded over the last half century. That reality might actually give us more moral authority and the ability to speak the truth when it becomes necessary. Even so, let us remember in the wake of Independence Day that as Christians we have not only the right but the responsibility to let our values and our status as Children of God bear upon every aspect of our lives, including the solemn task of citizenship. We must take on this task without the kind of hubris which claims that any of us knows God’s will any better than our sister brother, but rather with the humility that accompanies the recognition that each is, in his own way, trying to live faithfully in service to the Will of God as he understands it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon for Pentecost 3

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I wonder how many of us have been through a situation similar to Jesus’ in the morning’s Gospel. Our Lord was, let’s be honest, causing scandal, and his family was afraid he’d gone mad. I think that the first time my parents learned that I wanted to be a priest, they thought I’d gone mad. Such is the case, sometimes, when we follow the will of our heavenly Father. When Jesus’ family finally approaches, Jesus’ response is not especially polite:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

One wonders how Jesus’ family—the mother and father who raised him and the kinsmen with who he grew up—felt about this. One suspects they’d feel horribly betrayed!

This is certainly a shocking story, though I think it has something to tell us, and he may be something which some of us are unwilling to hear. Even though I joked about my parents probably thinking my choice of vocation to be madness, I am blessed in that they never stood in the way of what I felt God was calling me to do and who God was calling me to be. This is not always the case. I didn’t know how fortunate I was that my mom and dad found it entirely appropriate that I should move off to a college 1,500 miles away, or live in the big scary city (that’s New York, which is big, but honestly not scary) afterward. They never told me I couldn’t go hang out with missionaries in Pakistan or cross the border from Israel into some of the more “iffy” parts of the Palestinian Territories. I was more or less an adult, after all.

These are extreme examples, but I have heard stories of family expectations seriously impeding a young man or woman’s development into the kind of person they feel God wants them to be. Going off to college? That’s madness! Choosing to live somewhere besides the family property? Madness!

I don’t mean to suggest that we have no responsibility to honor the expectations and hopes of our elders. I do, however, mean to suggest that parents and other family and friends need to respect the potential vocations of their loved ones. When I say “vocation”, I don’t mean profession, but rather calling. Perhaps God is truly calling a son or daughter into a life which takes them far away. Perhaps God is calling that child to an endeavor we might think is irregular at best or foolish at worst. The trick is to help that loved one discern God’s call and support them when they’ve made a prayerful decision.

The risk in not doing so is to be either purposefully at odds with God’s will or uncomfortably convicted by Jesus’ assessment of his mother and brothers when it’s too late to say “I don’t understand, but I support you.”

We know that in Jesus’ case, reconciliation was effected. Our Lady was present at the cross, keeping her vigil, surely knowing that as horrible as it all seemed her son was following the Will of his Heavenly Father. None of us is as gracious as the Blessed Virgin, though, so we must be all the more reticent when we may be dissuading or manipulating somebody against God’s will for them. When we’re conscious of this pitfall and prayerful in our response, we not only avoid a great deal of grief. We are able, at last, to see just how unexpectedly God can work through loved ones and circumstances we never would have imagined.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.