Thursday, December 14, 2017

Self-Identification #2

Yesterday, I wrote about John the Baptist's response to those who wanted to know what he had to say for himself. When asked to justify his peculiar, wilderness ministry, John replied, quoting Isaiah 40, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" In other words, the Baptizer (and those who retold his story) understood his relationship with Jesus to be about preparing for the coming of the Lord and the great leveling of all things that comes with him.

It's hard to read the first lesson for Sunday from Isaiah 64 and not be reminded of another moment in the gospel when Jesus describes his own ministry. It might not be fair to borrow from Luke on a Sunday when we are reading from John, but, when Jesus picks up a scroll in the synagogue and reads these words from the prophet, he announces that they have been fulfilled in the congregation's hearing. These words proclaiming that anointed-one being is being sent to bring the good news of release and healing to God's people are the words that Jesus uses to define his ministry, which means they go hand in hand with those that John the Baptist uses for himself.

Perhaps it's fair for us to make the comparison since Isaiah used both the leveling of the rough places from chapter 40 and the lifting up of the downtrodden from chapter 64 to describe the day of the Lord. John the Baptist is laying down an eight-lane expressway through the wilderness so that Jesus the anointed-one can come speedily and bring release, recovery, and comfort to God's people. The question for us is whether that leveling means the arrival of good news or bad news.

The Lord is coming. The Lord is bringing relief to those who have suffered. The Lord will bind up those who are brokenhearted. The Lord will set free those who are imprisoned. But the leveling of the rough places means the elimination of the obstacles to that reorientation. It means the impediments (literally the "foot-obstacles") along the road are removed. Advent is about preparing for the coming of the Lord by discerning ways in which we wait for the good news and the ways in which we stand in its way.

Hear the words of Isaiah as they come into focus this season. We are not only preparing for a birth in Bethlehem but for the transformation of the world that Jesus' birth represents--a transformation that continues to take place and that reaches its fulfillment at the coming of the Lord. Are we ready for the kind of world that Isaiah envisioned? Are our expectations for the anointed-one based on God's hope for the world? Or are we pretending that God's dreams will conform to our own?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Lucia the Bringer of Light

December 13, 2017 - St. Lucia
Song of Solomon 6:1-9; John 1:9-13

In the liturgical calendar debacle that is the Episcopal Church, today is officially a "nothing" day. It is Wednesday in the Second Week of Advent. Like every day in the year, it has its own readings for Morning and Evening Prayer. And, like the other days in Advent, it has its own Eucharistic lessons, too. The official liturgical calendars from the Book of Common Prayer and Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2009 have no entry for December 13, but the unofficial calendar, Great Cloud of Witnesses, which has been approved for optional use (whatever that means), like its now-defunct predecessor Holy Women, Holy Men, reserves this day for St. Lucy or Lucia, who is often called "the bringer of light." Typically, at St. John's, we don't bother with GCoW, but I've always liked Lucy, and I wanted to remember her witness to us.

Lucy was a Christian girl from Italy who lived in in third century. Like many Christians in that time, she had to practice her faith in secret for fear that she would be tortured or killed by the Roman authorities. Also, like many of her peers who were convinced that the horrific Diocletian Persecution surely meant that the Lord's return was imminent, she wanted to remain a virgin so that she could devote not only her life but her chastity to her Lord. Unfortunately, her parents weren't interested in having a virgin for a child, and they planned for her to marry a pagan. But Lucy, empowered by the Holy Spirit, succeeded in convincing her parents to let her escape the arranged marriage and give the dowry to the poor instead. Her husband-to-be, however, was not pleased at the arrangement, and, when he learned that her Christian faith had gotten in the way of his conquest, he turned her over to the Romans. They demanded that she recant and offer a sacrifice to a pagan god, but she refused, so they ordered her to be imprisoned in a brothel where her consecrated virginity would be defiled. Yet, as legend has it, when the guards came to carry her away, she was so firmly fixed to the spot that even with a team of oxen they could not move her. So they piled up firewood and set her ablaze on the spot. And, as the legend goes, despite the flames, her body would not catch on fire, so they beheaded her with the sword on the spot. She may not have survived this life long enough to meet the Lord at his coming, but her faith enabled her to meet him in the next life.

Do we have faith like Lucy? Do we celebrate the light that has come into the world? Does our faith in Jesus become a light that draws others to the true light?

John tells us that in the incarnation "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." But, as we know not only from John's prologue but also from our own lives, not everyone knew him. All through John's gospel account, the question of faith persists. Who sees Jesus for who he really is? Is he recognized as the Son of God, the light that has come into the world? Do people see his "signs" as more than works of power? Do they see that those signs point us to something bigger? Right here in the beginning of his account, John lets us know that those who believe in his name are given power to become children of God. Those who see that light and believe in it are transformed. Is that us?

The feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ comes on December 25--just twelve days from now. When the date was set, a few centuries after Jesus' birth, no one remembered exactly what time of year Jesus was born. The Annunciation had long been fixed in March since the spring seemed like a good time to celebrate the promise of new life. Nine months later is December, which made for a happy coincidence. Plus, the pagan celebration of the winter solstice was a well-observed habit that the newly Christian Roman emperors wanted to transition from a godless festival into a celebration worthy of the Christian faith. More than that, however, by fixing Christmas near the winter solstice, we are able to see the coming of Christ as the coming of light. The days will soon be getting longer. The darkest part of winter is almost over. You may not be able to see it all at once, but, if you look carefully enough, you may notice the coming of light right around the coming of Christmas.

Lucy is one who saw the light of Christ that came into the world and invited others to see it through her life. She believed in the power of that light to shine in the dark places of life so fully that she was willing to give up her life for it. She believed that the light of Christ meant more to her future than the comforts of a pagan life. Traditionally, Christians in northern Scandinavian countries celebrate this night by dressing a young girl up in a white dress and placing a ring of candles in her hair and inviting her to process into a banquet hall. It's a sign that the light of the world is about to be here. But seeing that light isn't always easy. And it doesn't always come naturally. Will we see it?

The light of Christ has come into the world. Those who believe in his name are given the power to become children of God. Do we see that the best hope for the world and for our lives is found in the light that shines on the darkest corners of the globe and in the darkest corners of our hearts, or would we rather claim the fleeting light of our own accomplishments? Which light is illuminating our lives--the light of Christ or the light of prosperity, the light of power, the light of greed? In whom will we put our faith? In whom will we believe? Beholding the light of Christ means recognizing what God is up to all around us even now. Believing in the one who brings that light means trusting that God's future is the only true hope that we have. That means allowing the lights we are more comfortable with--those of our own creation--to dim and even be extinguished. Sometimes the light of Christ shines dimly on our path--so dimly that one can hardly see it. It can be a scary thing to put down our own light and navigate only by the light of Christ. But there is only one light that will see us through to the end.

Important Background Study

As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I am drawn not only to this week's readings but also to the passage that John the Baptist uses to define his own ministry. In the gospel lesson, when the representatives of the religious authorities ask John who he is and what he has to say for himself, John turns to Isaiah 40: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" It will be the second week in a row in which we will hear those words from Isaiah. Last week, Mark used them to inaugurate the ministry of Jesus through the proclamation of John the Baptizer. This week, John the gospel-writer also uses them but, unlike Mark, he places them on the lips of the Baptist. And all of that leads me to think that, if I want to understand John the Baptist and his relationship with Jesus and their collective role in the season of Advent, I had better spend some time studying Isaiah 40.

In this seminal passage of scripture, God interrupts the course of Israel's history to instruct the prophet to bring words of comfort to God's people: "Comfort, comfort my people! says your God." In this moment, God's words are words of compassion: "Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!" Jerusalem, the capital city of the southern kingdom, was the epicenter of the Babylonian destruction, and the torment that her people had experienced was now over. On behalf of God, the prophet announces that the Lord is near and that the time to prepare the highway through the desolate places so that God and all of God's people can return to the city of Zion is upon us: "Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it."

How does John the Baptist define his ministry? What does John the Evangelist think of this moment when Jesus appears on the scene? How does Mark envision the ministry of Jesus? This is their framework. This is their reference. This is their understanding of what God is doing in Jesus and what John the Baptist is doing to prepare the spiritual landscape for it.

In many ways, the birth of Jesus fits into the gospel as preparation for this moment. Luke's telling of the Annunciation and the journey to Bethlehem and Matthew's story of the wise men coming to bear gifts are all ways of saying that God is showing up in Jesus to bring God and God's people back together. In effect, therefore, we should skip ahead and celebrate what happened in the manger as a prelude to this Sunday's story of the "real" arrival. Of course, that's a terrible idea, and I don't endorse it, but it is worth noting that this Sunday isn't about getting ready for a birth but getting ready for what that birth will enable about 30 years later. That two very different gospel writers--Mark and John--both use Isaiah 40 to inaugurate Jesus' ministry through John the Baptist suggests that the first Christians identified this prophecy as central to the work of Jesus. This is what it's all about.

Don't climb into the pulpit or slide into the pew without taking some time to live in Isaiah 40, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill you with its words of hope.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Trouble with Triangles

This coming Sunday, John the Baptizer will again take center stage, but this time there's an extra layer of conflict in the gospel lesson from John 1. Yesterday, John was proclaiming a message of repentance, and "people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem" went out to see and hear him. This Sunday, however, a different group will join the audience.

In the gospel lesson, we will read, "This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?'" It is the religious authorities--priest and Levites--who send out this delegation of interrogators. They ask all of their questions--Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?--to which John repeatedly said no. Then, further revealing their motivation, they say, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" It is those words, when they acknowledge that they are not seeking an answer for themselves but for those who have sent them, that give this encounter a creepy, disingenuous feel.

Lately, I've noticed the words "asking for a friend" appear on Facebook frequently. In almost every case, it seems that the person asking is being funny--asking an odd question and acknowledging with humor the peculiarity of his/her own question. But, when we use those words for real, when we ask someone a question and refuse to be anything more than a messenger, a rhetorical distance is placed between the person doing the asking and the person being asked. That distance creates an artificial buffer between person asking and the seriousness of request as well as its implications.

As a parent of four children, I know this strategy well. "Daddy, my brother wants to know if we can have a treat after supper," I often hear. "Daddy, my sister said it's ok to make a mess in the playroom. Did you tell her that?" It's human instinct. We use that strategy when we don't want to be on the hook for our own question, our own problem, our own need.

Right from the beginning, the gospel writer is importing the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders into his story. That conflict will carry us through the whole gospel account, and John wants us to see where it started--at the beginning, even from the prologue: "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him" (John 1:11). He wants us to know that the religious leaders never gave Jesus a chance. They weren't interested in seeing for themselves what the forerunner was doing. They didn't want to give any credence to the Baptizer's preparatory movement by showing up at the Jordan River themselves. So they sent a delegation. "Who are you?" they asked. "Give us an answer for those who sent us?"

I wonder whether the gospel writer's implicit answer is "Tell them to come and see for themselves." In fact, a little later on in John 1, when Andrew and the unnamed disciple hear John the Baptist identify Jesus as the "Lamb of God," they ask Jesus, "Where are you staying?" And Jesus' reply is "Come and see."

As long as we're hiding behind someone else's question, someone else's problem, someone else's concern, we'll never get the answer for ourselves. Triangles are sturdy structures. They allow for stability in relationships. They allow us to deflect the real issue and maintain the homeostasis we've enjoyed for a long time. If we want to maintain the status quo of our lives, we'd do well to keep sending other people to ask John and Jesus who they are. But, if we're ready for something new, it's time for us to approach them ourselves.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sharing God's Spirit

December 9, 2017 – The Ordination of a Priest
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:35-38

© 2017 Evan D. Garner

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” Numbers 11:29b

I must admit that I was a little surprised when Worth called and asked me to preach at this ordination. That’s not because we do not know each other well. (He is godfather to one of our children.) Or because I worried that he could find someone better. (Many of you know how highly I think of myself.) I was surprised because it seemed a little risky. He is just getting started in his career as a priest, and there are so many stories and jokes and more jokes that I could tell that could derail the whole thing. The other day, I called him and mentioned that I might make light of recent “family developments” throughout the Anglican Communion or share some of the jokes that we learned when we worked for Robert Wisnewski, and all he could say was, “Are you trying to make me regret this?” I chuckled.

I confess that I don’t actually remember the first time we met. When you’ve been in ministry in the Diocese for as long as Worth has been, you meet and overlap with others at youth events and diocesan conventions and Camp McDowell and sometimes can’t recall when it all started. I do know that I knew Murray, Worth’s brother, before I met Worth. (Happy birthday, by the way. Isn’t it just like your older brother to ruin your birthday?) And Murray was really cool, so surely Worth would be, too. It turns out that they aren’t very much alike at all, but I did get to know Worth by reputation before we started working together. Although I can’t remember the details of our introduction, I do remember that first day of work with particular clarity.

It was long-rang calendar planning day for the staff at St. John’s, Montgomery, which is to say that Worth’s introduction to that parish was a four-hour, mind-numbing, month-by-month planning session that covered every event for the next two years. But, that day, the calendar didn’t steal the show. Instead, it was the book store. After finishing some renovations, St. John’s was preparing to open a little shop where parishioners could buy books and trinkets and religious gifts, and one of our colleagues asked what we should name it. “Name it?” Robert responded incredulously, “It already has a name: ‘The St. John’s Bookstore.’” “That’s no fun!” she retorted. “Let’s think of something creative.” So she began offering one suggestion after another.

Quickly, the tension at the table grew, and Robert’s mounting frustration was evident to almost everyone. It might have been his first day on the job, but Worth didn’t miss a beat. How about “Holy books!” he blurted out with a wry smile on his face. And then the game was on. While our colleague tried to offer serious suggestions, adding to our boss’s consternation, we lobbed out names that only poured more fuel on the fire. The coup de grĂ¢ce came after one of us—I think it was Worth— offered as a possibility “The Book Hole.” At that, Robert put his foot down; our colleague folder her arms in frustration; and Worth and I giggled our way through the rest of the meeting. What a fabulous start to both a working relationship and a friendship! But, more important than that, I got to see, right from the beginning, something special. Worth has a gift for taking a challenging situation and helping us find joy in it. I don’t know whether either of us could have imagined that we would end up here today, but, in that moment, I got my first glimpse at who Worth is as a vessel for what God is doing in the world.

“O God of unchangeable power and eternal light,” we prayed a few minutes ago. I love that collect. It is one of my favorite prayers. “Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.” Those words seem to capture all of our hopes for the church that we love. They place the work of the church squarely in the heart of God’s “plan of salvation.” In them, we boldly ask God to make us vehicles through which the whole world will “see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up,…[that] things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by…Jesus Christ.” It is the ultimate reminder of the church’s business, and, as the collect for this occasion, we use that prayer as the theological lens through which this ordination comes into focus. It is, in effect, the definition of why we are here today.

But ordinations aren’t the only time that we pray that prayer. It doesn’t show up on a Sunday, but every year on Good Friday it catches me by surprise. Right in the midst of our commemoration of the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we pray those words of hope. It is the last of the Solemn Collects, and, as such, it brings the work of the church right back to the foot of the cross. The only other time we pray that prayer is a few days later, during the Easter Vigil, when the story of salvation is retold. After we hear the prophet Zephaniah promise that God will deal graciously with the remnant of his people by saving the lame, gathering the outcast, and transforming their shame into praise, we pray these same words, which means that the glimpse that we get at today’s ordination is the same glimpse we get when we journey from the darkness of the cross into the light of the resurrection.

The question for us, as we look at Worth and the bishop and everyone else who is gathered here today, is whether we can see it. How will God’s plan of salvation—the revelation to the whole world that God is making all things new in Jesus Christ—be manifest in the life and ministry of this newest priest of the church? The “record of God’s saving deeds in history” suggests that it will not be manifest in him as much as through him.

The Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel…and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” The choice of Numbers 11 for an ordination lesson is a curious one. This moment of distributed authority and power is not rooted in celebration but in conflict. At the beginning of the chapter, the people of Israel grumbled against the Lord, and he became angry, so he consumed many of them in the fire of his wrath. But Moses prayed, and the fire abated. Shortly thereafter, the people grumbled again, and this time Moses’ anger was kindled against them. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” he prayed to the Lord. “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor it your sight.” And, just when it seemed as if God’s plan to bring his people into the Promised Land might fall through, God took some of the spirit that had rested on Moses and shared it with the seventy elders, and the journey continued.

The journey toward salvation always continues, and it is enabled not by the bottling up of God’s Spirit but by spreading it among God’s people. God is in the business of meeting us in our trouble and bringing us into hope. God’s plan of salvation means transforming darkness into light. It is the raising up of things which were cast down and the making new of things that had grown old. And we see that plan being accomplished in the church when the church is in the business of spreading the Spirit’s power among God’s people.

Sometimes that makes us nervous. Sometimes God spreads his Spirit upon God’s people in ways that we don’t expect and can’t control. Later in Numbers 11, we learn that when God’s spirit fell on Eldad and Medad, who for some reason didn’t make it to the tent of meeting, and they began prophesying in the camp, a young man ran to report it to Moses. When Joshua, one of the seventy, heard it, he begged Moses to make them stop. And what was Moses’ reply? “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” A true servant of God always wants more and more people to share in God’s Spirit. And a true priest of the church makes that his business as well.

We all know that Worth has gifts for priestly ministry. We all have our own stories from those moments when Worth came alongside us and reminded us that God is in the business of turning darkness into light, of changing despair into hope, of transforming anger and frustration into joy and frivolity. But, if we are only looking for those gifts to remain concentrated in this man of God whom we love, we will never fully see God’s plan of salvation working through him. The sharing of God’s Spirit has led us to this point, but now it must spread out even further. The plan of salvation must continue to unfold, and, Worth, as a priest of the church, is charged with helping others receive that Spirit.

Worth, may God bless you and equip you for the building up of God’s church and the reconciliation of the world through the sharing of God’s Spirit. May God give you the courage to lead God’s people through moments of uncertainty as a vessel through which God’s Spirit flows mightily. And may you always be in the business of sharing God’s Spirit with others so that the world may see and know that God is bring all things to their perfection by Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

John the Religious Nut

During the season of Advent, John the Baptist always features prominently. This Sunday in Mark 1, we'll meet him at the banks of the River Jordan and hear him proclaim a baptism for the repentance of sins. Next Sunday, we'll hear him direct his disciples to follow Jesus, the Lamb of God. Sometimes we forget that John the Baptist had his own disciples, people who were attracted to his wild ways and crazy message. What he did with those disciples is pretty remarkable.

Mark tells us that John ate locusts and wild honey and that he dressed himself with a camel's skin and a leather belt. I'd bet that he had a pretty liberal approach to hygiene and that he figured, like a parent who has taken his kids to the swimming pool, that after dipping in the River Jordan he didn't need to shower all that much. I like to picture him as an intimidating yet charismatic figure who drew large crowds.

Why did they come to see him? He was an outsider who preached a message that God works from the outside in. God would meet his people in the wilderness. God would honor those who left the religious institutions and political palaces of the capital city and, instead, found refuge on the unprotected riverbanks. The means for forgiveness that he offered came through baptism--rejuvenation, replenishment, cleansing--and not through the sacrifices that took place in the temple.

People then and now like an outsider--not everyone, of course, but many. Some like it when their preacher has visible tattoos and piercings. Some like it when their preacher wears faded blue jeans and tells slightly off-color jokes. They like it when their preacher represents God's work from the outside--a real, fresh, unadulterated dose of the Spirit's work. The danger, of course, is that sometimes those outsiders who make a career preaching about how their way is the real way often lead people away from God and toward themselves.

Think of Jim Jones. Think of David Koresh. Think of Marshall Applewhite. Think of the people who were attracted to their outside-in mentality. Jim Jones was a champion of the people. He was a Methodist pastor who preached a fiery message against racial segregation and the exploitation of the poor. Those are good and godly things, but, when the leader takes the place of God, it all falls apart. In the case of Jim Jones, it ended tragically--horrifically--with the deaths of over 900 people. People are captivated by a prophet who invites them to embrace God's power working from outside dominant social institutions like organized religion. Sometime the church needs to hear them, but sometimes the church needs to be careful of them.

John the Baptist, however, was different. "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals." That is the central proclamation of John: there is one more powerful than I who is coming; we are preparing not for me but for him. What does it take to channel all of that charisma and Spirit-given power away from one's self and toward God? It takes faith.

John invites us to join him in believing that there is one more powerful than we. John invites us to be washed of our belief that we can do this on our own, that our success and power come from ourselves. John invites us to embrace the one whom God has sent to bring life to the world--to baptize us with the fire of the Holy Ghost. As we follow Jesus, we discover that, again, that power comes by yielding, by surrendering, by giving up one's self in the service of love. That's a gospel and a savior worth embracing.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Following the Rules

this post is also in this week's newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

I received some strange looks on Sunday when, as soon as the Post-Communion Prayer was finished, the final hymn began. As one parishioner put it after the service, "I was ready to cross myself during the Blessing and wondered if I had fallen asleep and missed it." Like most Episcopal Churches, we typically pronounce the Blessing as soon as that prayer is finished and then, while singing a hymn, process to the door of the church where the Dismissal is offered. Actually, that nearly universal practice is against the rules. In the church, we call those rules "rubrics," which are the directions in the prayer book that tell us how worship is supposed to be conducted. More than customs or traditions, these are expectations, and clergy who violate them subject themselves to ecclesiastical discipline.

In this case, there are several reasons why the rubrics require that particular order of events. The theological link between Blessing and Dismissal is a strong one. We are blessed to go out into the world not to remain in our pews. To separate the two with a hymn not only diminishes that going-forth mentality but also incorrectly attaches the Blessing to what has happened at the altar during Communion. Receiving Communion itself is a blessing, and it needs no other pronouncement. You may have noticed that, for this reason, at the Rite II celebration of the Eucharist the Blessing itself is optional. Also, there are only a few particular places where hymns are allowed to be sung, and the rubrics spell those out. After the Blessing is not one of them. (For more about this, see BCP pp. 406-09.) 

I am, by nature, a rule follower. A strong ESTJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I tend to trust that rules (and rubrics) should be followed first and questioned later. As the list below reveals, however, I am willing to make exceptions. Last Sunday, we returned the Blessing to its rightful place, and, despite my nature, we did so not simply because rules are rules but because there are good reasons to leave it where the prayer book says it should be. Old habits die hard, and it may take us a while to get used to it, but I trust that in time we will appreciate this change. And, if not, we can always move it back (as long as no one tells the bishop).

Here is my own personal list of the top ten other rubrics that clergy and churches ignore. There are others, but these come to mind today. They are not in order of importance or frequency but are generally in the order of the service itself. What others rubrics stick out to you? Why is observing them (or not) important? How do they help us draw us closer to God and closer to one another in unified prayer and worship?

10.       Lectors to be Appointed by the Celebrant (BCP p. 354)
Who knew that this was the case? In preparation for this article, I flipped through the prayer book, and, when I saw this instruction, I scratched my head. Really? That seems awfully impractical. Normally, the rector chooses who will serve as a lector, and I am quite happy to delegate the authority of preparing the lector schedule to our Lector Coordinator. Does the prayer book really envision that whoever is presiding at the liturgy will choose who will read at that service? Fear not: neither Seth nor I intend to tap you on the shoulder and ask you to read as I do not see a change in our practice coming soon. 

9.         Rules Governing the Calendar and the Nicene Creed (BCP pp. 15-18, 358)
I admit that it is inconvenient to schedule a worship service for Epiphany (January 6) when it falls on a Friday. Wouldn't it be easier to transfer that Principal Feast of the church to a Sunday morning, when more people are present? Can't we at least move it back to Wednesday, when we already have a weekday Eucharist scheduled? The answer, in short, is no. Some observances are transferrable, but others are not, and, alas, many clergy (especially bishops) think that they can do as they please, which undermines the common prayer and worship of our church. The rules for what can be transferred are complicated, but the rule governing the Nicene Creed is not: "On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing...The Nicene Creed." The link between reciting this historic statement of our faith and the most important festivals of the church seems pretty clear to me, but a fair number of churches and clergy ignore this rule when it suits them.       

8.         Prayers of the People...Not the Clergy (BCP pp. 359, 383)
Although there is no explicit proscription of clergy reading the Prayers of the People, the clear expectation is that someone from among the "People" will lead them. More than that, the rubrics beg us to compose our own form for those prayers, using the guidelines offered. The six forms that are provided "may be used," but the first and preferred option is for someone from the congregation to compose them on behalf of the people. Although I have heard of colleagues who use this approach, we have not even begun to consider it. Part of me wonders, however, whether the prayers would have more meaning to us if they were written by one of us and not merely recited from the book.

7.         Standing at the Presentation and One Chalice on the Altar (BCP pp. 361, 407)
This is actually two different issues rolled into one for the sake of keeping this a "top ten" list. First, the people are asked to stand as "the people's offerings of bread and wine, and money or other gifts" are brought forward by representatives of the congregation. That is how we do it, but we are in the vast minority of congregations. Most churches bring the bread and wine forward before the offering plates are passed so that the clergyperson setting the table can get a head start. It may be convenient, but this takes away from our ability to see that the bread and wine are also part of what we offer to God. The second issue is the one-chalice rule, which may not seem like much, but visually reminds us that we all share one cup...even if the wine will eventually be poured from a flagon into multiple chalices.

6.         Keeping Silence after the Breaking of Bread (BCP p. 364)
Throughout the prayer book, we are invited to keep moments of silence, but very few of those moments are required. The moment when the bread is broken is among them. Many choirs and organists and clergy rush into the Fraction Anthem without pausing long enough for us to sit in silence, contemplating our Lord's sacrifice. I am thankful that our custom is to observe a long five or ten seconds of silence before continuing with the rest of the liturgy.

5.         Using LEMs Only in Absence of Clergy (BCP p. 408)
Among the rubrics that I appreciate but sometimes violate is the prohibition from lay people serving as chalice bearers when there are enough clergy to do it. Historically, the consecrated bread and wine have been distributed only by those ordained to do so, and, only relatively recently, has that role been shared with the laity. Maybe we need to press that even further. Typically, we schedule the right number of LEMs, but occasionally I will mess up and ask our LEM Coordinator to schedule two even though we have an assisting seminarian or extra clergyperson on hand. Rather than ask a willing volunteer to sit out, I prefer to sit and watch the congregation come forward to the altar rail. Technically, I am wrong to do so, but I am not completely convinced that the other option is right.

4.         Coming Forward while Clergy Receive Communion (BCP p. 407)
I did not know of this rubric until a colleague pointed it out to me when it was ignored in the Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee. The congregation is supposed to come forward for Communion as soon as the clergy and other lay ministers at the altar begin to receive. Actually, the rubric says it even more emphatically: "While the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the Sacrament in both kinds..." At the 10:30 service on Sundays, the choir helps initiate that, but at other times our congregation often sits and waits until the clergy and LEMs have received. This is also the custom at most churches. By coming forward right away, we preserve the sense in which all of us are communing together at the Holy Table instead of separating the clergy's Communion from that of the congregation.

3.         Standing or Kneeling but Not Sitting during Prayers (BCP p. 362)
We stand or kneel to pray, but we do not sit. Usually, the clergy lead this posture by example, but the exception is the Post-Communion Prayer, when the clergy remain standing at the altar. At that moment, the congregation is expected either to kneel or stand, whichever has been their posture throughout the Eucharistic Prayer. Is it easier to sit? Of course it is. But we bring more of ourselves to God when we engage worship with our bodies as well as our lips and ears and minds. Years ago, no one would dream of sitting during any of the prayers, but we are losing touch with that intentionality.

2.         Consuming the Bread and Wine...Or Not (BCP p. 409)
Many clergypeople feel the need to consume all of the consecrated bread and wine while tidying up the altar after Communion. This is not the case. The prayer book clearly states that "the celebrant or deacon, and other communicants, reverently eat and drink it, either after the Communion of the people or after the Dismissal." Long ago, the extra bread was given to the clergyman to take home for Sunday lunch. Nowadays, we consume it reverently. Sometimes we eat or drink it during the service, but often we wait until afterwards. The rule I have established for this parish is that anything more than one sip of wine will be poured down the piscina (special sink for disposing of consecrated wine) and not consumed in church. Otherwise, we set a poor example of responsible alcohol consumption. Also, we do not scatter consecrated bread in the garden for the birds and squirrels and mice and rats. If it is consecrated, it will be consumed.
1.         "Alleluia, Alleluia" Belongs Only in Easter (BCP p. 366)
In many churches, the person offering the Dismissal (presumed by the rubrics to be either the Deacon or Celebrant) will add the words "Alleluia, alleluia" all year round except for during Lent. Actually, those words are only authorized during the fifty days of the Easter season. Why? Although every Sunday of the year is a celebration of the Resurrection, the fifty days of Easter are distinct. Our joy during that time is particular. There are other specific Easter observances that are required in the rubrics, but this is one that is often ignored. We keep those words for Easter not because we want to limit our joy during the rest of the year but because we want to remember the centrality of Easter in the Christian faith.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Transferred Citizenship

Clement of Alexandria - December 5, 2017

When I was a freshman in college, I obtained my first passport. I was going on an overseas trip with a group from Birmingham-Southern. Of course, a passport is quite a common thing, but, when I held it in my hand for the first time, flipped through the pages, and read the fine print, I was captivated by its power. By presenting that little document to a representative of a foreign government, I was demonstrating that the Secretary of State of the United States was asking--perhaps expecting--that representative to give me access to her or his country without delay. A history of political boundaries, military battles, and reciprocal treaties was represented in that document.

I was also fascinated with the part that mentioned that I could lose my citizenship if I ever renounced it in front of an authorized representative of the Department of State. My mind danced through the possibilities. What happens if I renounced my citizenship but did not have a new country to take me in? (This was before the film The Terminal, which explored the idea of a stateless person trapped in an airport.) What if I made a half-hearted, mostly-joking statement about not wanting to be a citizen anymore and it was overheard by the right (perhaps wrong) person. Would that person swoop in, snatch the passport out of my hand, and render me un-nationalized right there on the spot?

Over the last two weeks, royal watchers have been given the delightful news of the engagement of Prince Harry of Wales to American actress Meghan Markle. It is highly unusual for someone in the line of royal succession--even if fifth in line--to marry someone who is not a British subject. Initially, it may have raised some constitutional questions, which were quickly answered long before the engagement was announced (and perhaps before it even happened). Ms. Markle will need to become several things as this marriage to the Prince Harry takes shape. First, there's the question of whether she would remain a foreigner, and it seems that she won't. She is to become a British citizen after the marriage. Also, she must become a Christian and an Anglican at that. She identifies as Protestant but has not been baptized, so the Archbishop of Canterbury is working on that part of the plans. It also gives him a chance to talk about the role of baptism in becoming a follower of Jesus. And that gives me the chance to talk about citizenship in a heavenly kingdom.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, "[God the Father] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (1:13). Imagine how those words sounded to the Christians in Colossae. All around them were signs of the Emperor's reign: statues, banners, soldiers, temples. Yet Paul wanted them to see how they were already transferred into a new citizenship, subjects of the kingship and kingdom of God's beloved Son.

The funny thing about citizenship and national borders is that they are human constructs. Where one nation begins and the other ends is based on an agreement. Sometimes there are geographic boundaries that make the distinction obvious. Other times borders run through pastures, villages, or even houses. My grandmother's house is partly in Shelby County and partly in Jefferson County. She eats breakfast in one and takes a bath in the other. I'm sure the tax assessors have determined exactly how that arrangement should be worked out, but otherwise the differences are more subtle than that. If you're not paying careful attention to the sign that marks the county line in front of her house, you would almost certainly miss it as you walk down the hall toward the bedroom.

Do we miss our heavenly citizenship? The signs can be hard to see. For generations, God's people considered themselves members of God's family. They waited and watched for the coming of God's kingdom in the kind of clear (although perhaps artificial) distinctions that designate earthly kingdoms. Where would the border of God's kingdom be? By what army would those borders be secure? But God's kingdom came when God's son was born in a Bethlehem stable, when he was crucified on a Roman cross, and when he rose from the dead when no one was looking. Because of Jesus, we have been redeemed--purchased, bought, freed--from the kingdom of this world, a kingdom of death, and transferred into the kingdom of that Son. It isn't something we should be waiting to see. It's something that is true here and now.

As a follower of Jesus, what does it mean for you to live not as if you were a part of God's kingdom but as the full citizen of it that you already are? We pay taxes where the tax assessor or IRS tells us to. We vote for local, county, statewide, and national officials. We pledge allegiance to the flag. We carry passports issued by the Department of State. That citizenship is obvious in so many ways. How might our citizenship in God's reign be just as clear? How might we use our money to underscore our participation in that kingdom? How might we use our vote and our advocacy as citizens of God's kingdom? How might we devote ourselves and our allegiance to God's banner? How might we move through this world as bearers of a different mark of identity? In Christ, we are already transferred into God's kingdom. When will our lives reflect that?

Monday, December 4, 2017

Repentance: A Path Into Joy

Repentance is not a journey through sorrow; it is a journey from it.

This Sunday, as we prepare to hear the voice of the prophet crying in the wilderness, we will say some powerful words about the purpose of repentance:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This season of Advent is about getting ready for the coming of Christ--both the birth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago and also his return on the last day. As I preached yesterday, both are opportunities for joy. Yet, in order to receive them with joy, we must forsake our sins. That is the prophet's warning: the Lord is coming, and we must get ready by repenting.

This theology of repentance is reflected in the proper preface for the Eucharistic prayer during Advent:
Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing. (BCP, 378)
 As we are redeemed from sin and death--bought and freed--we find ourselves able to embrace the appearing of the Son with joy and not shame or fear. This vision of repentance is not a journey into pain, struggle, and misery. It is a journey from those things and into joy.

I don't think the Christian community is doing a good job of inviting people to repent. If repentance is a turning around and the product of our repentance is being set free from shame and fear and being filled with joy, we are not asking people to put on sackcloth and ashes. Instead, we are asking people to leave a life of dissatisfaction in order to accept a life of meaning. Maybe it is two ways of saying the same thing, but I hear a big difference between "Repent or the devil will get you!" and "Repent and embrace a life of true joy!"

Still, change is hard, and repentance involves change. Even if it is a self-destructive practice, my tendency is to maintain the patterns I have rather than break free from them and embrace new ones. In many cases, that process of breaking free is too difficult for me to accomplish. I need help. But, in all cases, painful though it may be, the invitation to repentance is an invitation to joy.

I think people are hungry for a life that is free from guilt, shame, and fear. I think people are desperate to replace the cheap carbs of a pointless life with the real sustenance of abiding joy. The gospel message of repentance offers that transformation. Repentance is not scary; it's a relief. May we stop trying to "scare the hell" out of people and, instead, offer them the hope of a joy-filled life.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Good News: The End Is Near

December 3, 2017 – The First Sunday of Advent, Year B
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I think the end of the world needs a better PR firm. We hear Jesus’ words about the sun being darkened and the moon not giving its light, the stars falling from heaven and the heavenly powers being shaken, and we want to run for cover. This season of Advent is as much about preparing for the second coming of Christ as it is about getting ready for Christmas, but I don’t know anyone who tucks his or her children or grandchildren into bed with stories of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I might argue that tales of a bearded man in a red suit sneaking down your chimney are just as scary, but not even my kids are subjected to bedtime stories about the end of the world.

How many of us are as excited about that day when the “Son of Man com[es] in the clouds with great power and glory” as we are about opening presents on December 25? For the first three hundred years of Christianity, no one bothered to celebrate Christmas. In the four gospel accounts, only Luke gives us details about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Matthew mentions it but only in passing. Mark and John don’t bother with it at all. But all four gospel accounts tell us about the end of the world. It may have taken centuries for followers of Jesus to begin commemorating his birth, but, right from the start, his disciples were looking forward to the day he was coming back. There was no hope greater to those who believed in Jesus than the savior’s promised return. And, even if we’ve lost sight of it, there is no greater hope for us as well.

Listen again to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” The prophet prayed to the Lord that he would speed the day when he would show up in power and make himself known to the adversaries of God’s people. The people of Israel had suffered the consequences of their sins for long enough. They had received more than their fair share of punishment. The day of the Lord’s arrival would be a day of victory and triumph for God’s people. The fire and earthquakes that the prophet envisioned were signs that God had come to defeat those adversaries and rescue his people. That was the same hope that Jesus was giving to his disciples in Mark 13, but we’ve become so comfortable and complacent that we’d rather have the world as it is than the world that Jesus and the prophets tells us it will be.

To a first-century Christian, the promised overthrow of earthly powers represented a dramatic change for the better. To a persecuted believer, the thought that God might take control of the situation was among the happiest dreams that one could imagine. During those first three centuries, as the suffering of Jesus’ followers intensified, Christians needed a message of hope. Jesus’ return had been delayed. The day of triumph had been stalled. “Keep watch!” the church’s leaders reminded their people. Remember what Jesus himself said about the fig tree: just as you know that when its branch becomes tender and puts for leaves that summer is near, so, too, when you see these signs of conflict and strife will you know that the Lord is near. No one but the Father knows exactly when that day will be, but do not lose hope. Keep awake. Stay alert. The Lord may come at any moment.

That was and is good news to a believer who is desperate for a sign that the world will not always be the way it is, but what is the message of Advent to a twenty-first century Christian from Decatur, Alabama, who looks and lives like us? What does Advent mean to someone who enjoys not only the freedom to practice his or her religion without fear but also the privilege of being in the dominant culture? What sort of hope does the overthrow of earthly power represent to someone who is that earthly power?

Some of us are suffering just below the surface. We may not live in a place where famine has taken hold of the land. Our home may not be a tent in a refugee camp. But some of us aren’t sure whether there will be enough money left over for food or whether we will be able to make that next mortgage payment. What is the message of Advent to them? Some of us are dealing with a diagnosis that is worse than other people know. Some of us are hiding the truth even from our own families. What is the message of Advent to them? Some of us will have more empty chairs than filled ones at our Christmas table. Some of us lie awake at night worried about a child whom we have not seen in years. What is the message of Advent to them?

Come, Lord Jesus. If you’re a persecuted Christian or a refugee, that is your greatest hope. Come, Lord Jesus. If you’re lost, lonely, or afraid, that is your most fervent prayer. Come, Lord Jesus. If you’ve had more than your fair share of suffering, that is your deepest need. Come, Lord Jesus. But what about the rest of us? Is that our hope as well?

The good news of Advent is that the end will come soon. Jesus is coming to reverse the fortunes of the world. That’s what happened back in Bethlehem, and that’s what will happen when the Son of Man appears in the clouds. All that have suffered will be relieved. All that are downtrodden will be raised up. All that are lost will be rescued. And those who have enjoyed the fullness of the blessings of this life without acknowledging those who have gone without will also have their fortunes reversed. The Lord is coming. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Is that good news for you, or is it a wakeup call?

What does it take to receive the message of Advent with hope? What must we do to celebrate with joy the promised coming of the Son of Man? We must believe that what God is doing through his Son Jesus is good news for us. We must believe that our best future lies not in the riches of the world but in the riches of heaven. We must believe that the power of God, which reigns in the hearts of the meek and mild, is the only power worth wielding. On whose side will we stand—the power of God or the powers of this world? If we want to celebrate the coming of Jesus, we must identify with those who hear the news of his coming with great joy. Like them, we must forsake the ways of the world and embrace the way of God. We must become the poor, the suffering, the outcast, the persecuted, and the downtrodden. We must become those who hope for the change that the Lord will bring. That change is coming, and our Lord bids to stay alert. It is our faith in him alone that allows us to wait with hope instead of fear.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

God is Coming: Are We Scared or Relieved?

Lately, I have been studying Micah. It seemed like a fitting topic for a weekly Bible study that began a few weeks ago and will take us through Advent. There are, of course, the references to Bethlehem that make it feel like a timely text, but it also speaks to the beating of swords into plowshares and of a vision of justice and righteousness that made it feel particularly appropriate for this moment in our society. I didn't know that it would help me get a different glimpse at this week's reading from Isaiah 64 and the season of Advent more generally.

As Micah opens, the prophet speaks of the Lord's coming down from heaven to "tread upon the high places of the earth." The image of the Lord's arrival and the melting mountains and splitting valleys that accompany it is familiar to Micah's audience. That's what happens when God shows up--his power is manifest in the world. But what happens next threw everyone for a loop: "All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel...Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country, a place for planting vineyards...For her wound is incurable, and it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem."

Before this, when a prophet announced the Lord's arrival, it meant victory for God's people. After years of struggle, Yahweh would arrive and rescue his people, delivering them with his might arm. At first, when Micah announced that the Lord was near, people got their hopes up. They were already under threat from the Assyrian Empire. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had either fallen or was close to falling. Micah's words gave them hope...until the other shoe dropped. What he disclosed was that the day of the Lord's coming was to be a day of vengeance upon the people of God for their sins. The destruction ahead of them--the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians and, eventually, the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians--was what happened when God showed up in power.

Nowadays, that's the image of the Lord's coming that we hear and expect. Not necessarily Samaria or Jerusalem's destruction, but the destruction of those who have not been faithful to God. On Sunday, when Isaiah calls to the Lord and says, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence," we get nervous. The so-called prophets of our era have scared God's people into thinking that God's arrival will be terrible, but that's not what Isaiah or Jesus or Paul have in mind. Isaiah speaks of God hiding his face from God's people because of their faithlessness. His arrival represents a time of renewal. The judgment was already enacted as God's people fell victim to the nations that surround them. The predicted arrival of God is a message of hope. The warfare is over. The struggle is finished. Yahweh will tear open the sky and swoop in to deliver God's people from their trouble.

How are we hearing the Advent message of the Lord's coming? When Jesus tells his disciples to "Keep awake" because no one knows when the master is coming, he isn't trying to scare them. He's giving them hope that at any minute the Lord will show up and rescue his people--in this case Jesus' followers--from the persecutions they face. Do we hear his words as a message of hope?

The Lord is coming. That seems clear. If we are on the side of God and God's people, that comes to us as a message of hope. If we are enemies of God and have been oppressing God's people, that comes to us as a deep and terrible threat. How are we hearing it? I don't know about you, but I want to be on God's side. If Jesus' words fill me with fear, maybe, instead of participating in the kingdom that he has inaugurated, I am working against it. It's not too late to switch sides.