November 26, 2023
Gem from Jim+
Thousands of years ago, the people of Israel wanted a king. They had been ruled by “judges.” But other nations had kings. And those nations seemed to do better in battle. At the same time, economic forces had led to accumulation of wealth, and safeguarding that wealth required a more centralized form of government. So when the Ammonites threatened Israel, Saul led Israel to victory in battle and was proclaimed king. 1 Sam. 11:14-15. It hardly is surprising, therefore, that the people of Israel viewed the promised messiah as a protector and national leader who would restore Israel as a great nation. Imagine how shocked they were when Jesus was crucified by the Romans under a sign that called him “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Not the messiah they expected. And, far from a king in their understanding.
Yet, circumstances in the early 20th century prompted a renewed vision of Jesus Christ as king. World War I, the supposed “war to end all wars,” had shattered humanity’s faith in its ability to coexist peacefully and securely in the world. Millions had died. Monarchies had fallen. Borders had been redrawn. Despair displaced hope.
The world yearned for harmony, order, liberty, and peace, but was convinced that they were beyond human capability. So it began to appreciate again that Jesus Christ could be a source of what human endeavor alone could not deliver. And what better image for Christ’s relationship to the world could there be than as a king. Benevolent, yes. Wise, yes. But also powerful and able to bring about success where humanity had failed and failed so miserably.
Therefore, in 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ was added to the liturgical calendars of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches. And today it is “unofficially” celebrated in many Episcopal churches on what is officially The Last Sunday after Pentecost. The collect for the day expressly recognizes the rule of Christ, “the King of kings,” and prays that God:
Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. Does the state of the world today remind us that human effort alone is insufficient to heal our world and realize God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? Perhaps, it is time again to see Christ as our king, an unyielding force for goodness and order, an eminently wise leader and guide, and a protector and companion whose power knows no match. After all, the crucified Christ was raised on third day, conquering sin and death once and for all.
November 12, 2023
Gem from Jim+
Who are we? What makes us Episcopalians? What unites us and identifies us? The answer should not be too surprising. We worship together, and, in particular, we worship from our Book of Common Prayer. As the Church has stated, “We, who are many and diverse, come together in Christ through our worship, our common prayer.”
The Book of Common Prayer has been at the core of our tradition since 1549. And it is the primary symbol of our unity and identity as Episcopalians. This is why our worship is so important. This why we strive for excellence in our liturgy. And this is why all of us are expected to be engaged participants, rather than mere spectators, in our services of Holy Eucharist.
Let me add that excellent liturgy also is a prerequisite to growth and development of a congregation. Imagine how we would react if we came to a church for the first time and experienced sloppy execution of the liturgy, a disengaged, distant congregation, a mediocre choir, a lame sermon, or just a failure to acknowledge our presence and affirmatively welcome us. Most people visiting a church for the first time decide within the first few minutes whether they will come back a second time. Therefore, whether we approach our liturgy with intention and attention is consequential. And if our worship defines and identifies us, it deserves our best efforts.
Our liturgies are fixed and informed by the Book of Common Prayer under the oversight of the bishop. We do not make it up as we go along. The bishop is the chief liturgical officer of the diocese, and all clergy are emissaries of and responsible solely to the bishop for the conduct of liturgy in their churches. That is a responsibility Jo and I take very seriously.
The deeper significance of worship as our identity and unity also reminds us that so much else of what we think of as church never should create division or discord. Nothing should splinter the unity we achieve in our common worship experience. That is true not only within our parish, but also within the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which we are the only member in the United States.
Every Church of the Anglican Communion worships from a book of common prayer that reflects our common theological and liturgical traditions. The particular language may vary according to local culture, but none of us attending a church of the Anglican Communion anywhere in the world could fail to recognize the common meaning and structure of our liturgies. We do, indeed, all come together in Christ in our worship, a basic fact that supersedes any and all differences we may have.
October 29, 2023
Gem from Jim+
A few weeks after we moved to Destin, I was scrolling through Facebook and was startled to see a post warning me of an explosion at a nuclear power plant in or near Destin. The accompanying photo of smoke rising over a beach in the distance was almost convincing. Almost. But still we called Jo’s brother-in-law, who had retired recently as an engineer at a nuclear power plant. He confirmed that there was no nuclear power plant in or near Destin. But this is the age we live in. “News” is disseminated via social media. And we are on our own. No one else is fact-checking. No one else is source-checking. We often are at the mercy of complex, mysterious algorithms that decide what we see with minimal, if any, regard for its accuracy.
Yet, as I noted in my sermon last week, we have a duty as followers of Christ to be informed and involved. And in the current social media environment, that is no mean feat. What if I had shared or reposted the Facebook post about the nuclear plant explosion in Destin? It appeared on its face quite credible. We were familiar enough with the area to be skeptical and fortunate to have a ready source for accurate information. But how many others would accept the report at face value and continue to share and repost it. How many would have feared for the safety of friends and relatives in Destin? How many vacationers would have cancelled or changed plans to stay away from Destin? How many would have changed their minds about the safety or desirability of nuclear power generation? All because someone – and who knows who that someone could have been – married a contrived photo to a fanciful, but thoroughly inaccurate report and posted it on social media. Sadly, the Internet is rife with rumors, misinformation, and disinformation, some of it quite deliberate to mold and galvanize public opinion in disruptive, destructive, or self-serving ways. And, notably, social media platforms are almost completely insulated from legal consequence for the content they publish.
Fortunately, though arguably diminished in the age of the Internet, streaming, and social media we still have some news media that are accountable and take their responsibility for accurate reporting seriously. Newspapers, broadcast stations and networks, and cable networks still employ editorial staffs and standards and practices departments. They rely on sources known to be credible (even if anonymous) and typically require multiple sources before reporting anything as factual. And whereas the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press accords them considerable protection from governmental intrusion, they enjoy no absolute insulation from liability for the content they publish.
Nonetheless, we need to be mindful of the differing perspectives of various news media. God gave us memory, reason, and skill to take them into account. But as hard as it is to do, we might consider reading, listening to, or viewing news from news media that see things differently than we tend to see them. We do ourselves and our country a disservice by simply reinforcing our political, ideological, and even theological predispositions, rather than considering that other points of view may have some merit. We compound the harm when we take the next step, diminishing and demonizing any person or media who dares disagree with us. The political and theological polarization of the world today is largely a product of our living in news spheres uninhabited by opposing or challenging views. Let’s pray it is not too late to reverse that trend.
October 15, 2023
Gem from Jim+
We all awoke Saturday morning to the staggering and heartbreaking news of war in the Middle East. It already has taken a horrific toll on both sides. And we learned early this week that a pilgrimage group from St. Paul’s in Daphne had been evacuated safely from Tel Aviv to a location farther from Gaza near the Sea of Galilee. Everyone was safe, and they were seeking flights back to the U.S. at last report. Let us continue to pray for their safety, for an end to the violence, and for all the victims of this tragic war and their families.
Taking sides in this latest conflict between the nation of Israel and Palestinians factions is problematic. We might readily condemn the resort to violence by Hamas. But we also cannot avoid considering the fraught relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, the Episcopal Church is a founding member of the Churches for Middle East Peace, which has recognized the “legitimate cause of the Palestinian people in seeking an end to the decades long occupation and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.” Despite the Church’s support for Israel’s right to exist, one might perceive its sympathy for the Palestinian’s plight as somehow antisemitic or, more accurately “anti-Jewish bigotry.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The historic bond between the Church and our Jewish sisters and brothers is genuine and unassailable. After all, Jesus himself was an observant Jew. His apostles were Jews. His first followers were Jews. He taught in the Temple. His Bible was the Old Testament. We read from the Old Testament in our services first as an acknowledgement of our historical continuity with the Jewish people and their history. The Church itself formed out of the Jewish community and synagogues of Jerusalem and Judea. Understanding the Old Testament also enables us to better understand the New Testament. The four evangelists, as well as Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John, who wrote the letters, were Jews whose theology and religion were formed by the Hebrew Bible, which often is alluded to in their writings.
Notably, the Episcopal Church warns us to eschew “supersessionism” a “pernicious theological doctrine” popular in some Christian circles that “the Church has replaced the people Israel as God’s chosen people.” It often accompanies the notion that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. However, Scripture shows Jesus was very popular with the Jewish people, so much so that the Jewish religious leaders had to have Jesus arrested in the dark of night. In that vein, we might remind ourselves that even the Jewish religious leaders at the time of Christ had no authority to order crucifixion. That was reserved to the Romans.
Therefore, however we might view the ongoing conflict and violence in the Holy Land, we should anchor our perceptions in a sound theology and history. And remember that our baptismal covenant to “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity every human being” leaves no space for anti-Jewish bigotry.
 “The Episcopal Church calls for prayers for peace in the Holy Land,” Office of Government Relations, the Episcopal Church, October 7, 2023, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ogr/the-episcopal-church-calls-for-prayers-for-peace-in-the-holy-land/ (accessed October 9, 2023.
 The Episcopal Church, “Christian-Jewish Relations: Theological and Practical Guidance for The Episcopal Church
(2021), see https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ministries/ecumenical-interreligious/interreligious-relations-guidelines/ (accessed October 10, 2023).
September 17, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
For the past few weeks I have been haunted by memories of 9/11. The sound of the fighter planes out of Eglin have sounded exactly like the sounds of the fighters providing air cover over Washington on 9/11. And like the memories of the afternoon President Kennedy was assassinated and of the events surrounding the devastating flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the memories of 9/11 are vivid and lasting. On November 22, 1963, I had been in Mrs. Mitchell’s fourth period junior English class, when the reports from Walter Cronkite were patched into the school PA system announcing the shooting and subsequent death of the president. At the end of the day, I walked back to the band room to pick up my horn. The first person I saw was Janice Brandon, another band member. And I said, “A lot has happened since we last saw each other.”
On the Saturday after Katrina, Jo and I were having lunch at Macaroni Grill in Austin, where we had evacuated and helped set up the chaplaincy presence in the Austin Convention Center, where some 5,000 other evacuees from New Orleans had taken refuge. The television screens in the restaurant were showing the ongoing rescues in New Orleans, and I was struck that those easily could have been our neighbors in dire circumstances, while we sat here unscathed enjoying lunch and a glass of Beringer Pinot Noir.
On 9/11, we had walked from our pied a terre just below DuPont Circle to our office at MPAA in the block above Lafayette Square directly north of the White House. When we entered the building we saw several staff members with stricken looks on their faces in Jack Valenti’s office. The then iconic president of MPAA had flown 51 combat missions as a B-25 pilot in World War II and initially had no inclination to let some terrorists close down MPAA’s office that day.
Fearing that the city would be closed down, we just wanted our car out of the parking lot, so we could drive home to the eastern shore of Maryland. But in the 45 minutes it took us to drive the eight blocks from our office to our pied a terre to pick up the dog, the first tower fell, and with it any hope of driving the 100 miles to our home. Finding a parking place in front of our building, we would hunker down there for several days glued to our television. Walking down the middle of a totally deserted Connecticut Avenue after eating a hamburger at a miraculously open Fuddruckers that evening is a vivid and haunting memory.
Memories are powerful. They should be. They are a gift from God, who blessed us with memory, reason, and skill, as we recite in Eucharistic Prayer C. Jesus knew that vivid memories were powerful when at his final meal with his apostles, he broke, blessed, and shared bread, calling the bread his body and telling his disciples to “do this in memory of me.” Which, of course, we do every Sunday in gathering for the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, in each Eucharistic Prayer a paragraph or more is called the anamnesis. As amnesia is to forget, then anamnesis is specifically to remember. But the heart of our remembrance is the act of breaking, blessing, and sharing. Jesus left us something visible and tangible to lodge in our memories. And our image of Jesus at the last supper is familiar, relatable, and indelible. In it, we remember Jesus’ passion and death–and that on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, conquering evil and death. Jesus wanted to be certain we knew that the day will come when our memories give way to reality as we, too, gather with Jesus at the great heavenly banquet, sharing in the feast of eternal life.
August 20, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
In my recent sermon on the “glass ceiling” in the Church, we deferred further reflections on the considerations that have led the Episcopal Church and other denominations to remove the bars on the ordination of women. Now let’s fill in the blanks. The controversy over women as priests and pastors has dogged a number of denominations, so understanding some of the arguments and considerations that have informed the issue is important.
First, two reasons women have been marginalized lack merit. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the fact that Jesus was male typically is trumpeted as the reason women may not be ordained. But this is a myopic view of Christ that owes its power to the patriarchal cultures that formed the Church’s traditions since the first century. We may say in describing the incarnation that Jesus was made man. And, indeed, he was. But we never Jesus say was fully divine and fully male. We say he was fully divine and fully human. And humanity includes both males and females. Jesus also was Jewish. Should that mean only Jews may be ordained? Or only Aramaic-speaking Semites? The same may be said for Jesus’ redemptive act on the cross. Did he die just for men’s sins. Or are women saved as well?
Another argument against the equality of women also relies on an ancient understanding of human reproduction that today seems ludicrous. Women in the old patriarchal cultures were seen only as the vessels that carried children during their gestation. That is why a child’s father’s lineage was the sole determinant of one’s proper ancestry and legitimacy. Only the father’s DNA formed the child. But, of course, we know now that both women and men contribute to the genetic make-up of a child, placing women in equal status with men in the process of reproduction. And discrediting this ancient argument against the equality of women.
We might note, too, that Paul was quite direct in stating that men and women enjoyed equal status in the eyes of God. Why not also in God’s Church?
Furthermore, the involvement of women in the early Church was substantial and amply reflected in Scripture. Women were missionaries, preachers, and teachers. They presided over the shared meal that evolved into our celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Luke mentions a number of female followers with the apostles, including Mary Magdalen (Lk. 8:1-3), and Mark notes that some of the same women were witnesses to Jesus’ trial (Mk 15:40-41). In Acts, women are portrayed in vital roles in the spread and development of the early Church (Acts 9:36-42; 16:1-15). Nor should we ever discount the significance of Mary, who said “yes” to the angel, and Mary Magdalen who was the first to see the resurrected Jesus and announce the resurrection to the male apostles (John 20:11-16).
One must wonder then why anyone could seriously contend that women should be marginalized in any way in the Church today.
 Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”)
 Elizabeth S. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, a Feminist Historical Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York, Crossroad, 1989).
August 6, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
My article promised on the Stained Glass Ceiling will appear in a subsequent Gem. However, here is more on Women’s Ordination.
July 29 – the Feast of St. Mary and St. Martha – marked the 49th anniversary of the first women – the Philadelphia Eleven – ordained as priests in The Episcopal Church. And in preparation for the observance and the larger 50th anniversary in 2024, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has created resources for liturgical commemorations which we hope to use.
All Saints in Pasadena, California, plans to mark July 30 as Philadelphia Eleven Sunday. A document that includes not only historical background but also special collects, readings and a litany that can be used in worship services will be available.
The 11 women – Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeanette Piccard, Betty Schiess, Katrina Swanson and Nancy Wittig – together are referred to as the Philadelphia Eleven.
The women were ordained by three retired bishops: Colorado Bishop Suffragan Daniel Corrigan, Pennsylvania Bishop Robert L. DeWitt and West Missouri Bishop Edward R. Welles II, who also was Swanson’s father.
A documentary about the 11 women and their ordination in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Church of the Advocate is in final production.
The ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven prompted an emergency meeting of the House of Bishops, at which the members – many of whom favored ordaining women as priests – declared the ordinations irregular and urged the church to wait for the 1976 General Convention to vote before any further women’s ordinations took place.
At that convention, the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops adopted a canonical amendment barring discrimination on the grounds of gender, paving the way for women to be ordained under canon law. The House of Bishops also recognized as valid the ordinations of the Philadelphia Eleven, along with four women ordained in September 1975 in Washington, D.C., requiring only that they participate in a liturgical “act of completion.”
From an article in Episcopal News Service –by Melodie Woerman, former communications director for the Diocese of Kansas.
The 11 new priests faced strong opposition from traditionalists. Many in the church considered the female priests to be renegades. In a prolonged battle, the church hierarchy sought to have the female priests’ ordinations thrown out as illegal under canon law. The women successfully argued that their ordinations were “irregular” but not illegal. Many of the 11, including the Rev. Alison Cheek, took up pastoral duties. The in 1974 she was the first woman to administer the sacrament of Communion in an Episcopal parish at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, during the first Communion service led by a female priest in the Episcopal Church.
Technically, the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion was Florence Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained on January 25, 1944, by the bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong, in response to the crisis among Anglican Christians in China caused by the Japanese invasion.
July 23, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
My law school class was the first class at Tulane not to have to take a course in Roman Law. Roman law was important because the legal system in Louisiana – and most of the rest of the world beyond the British Empire – was based on the Roman legal system. It would become the basis for the Napoleonic Code in France, which in turn was the model for the Civil Code of Louisiana, which still exists today. And it dawned on me in reading the from Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome that maybe I should regret my lack of better exposure to Roman Law. Because Paul, notably a Roman citizen, speaks of “the spirit of adoption.” And adoption is a legal process, as much in Rome then as it is today in the United States. So what was Paul saying to his audience with the metaphor of adoption? And that is where some understanding of Roman adoption law is helpful.
First, under Roman law, the father had absolute possession and power over his family, including, of course, his son, and that relationship never ended. A son never came of age. Adoption in those circumstances both dissolved and then reestablished a powerful and consequential relationship. The process was as dramatic and as impressive as any religious liturgy. First, the father, using scales and copper, had to symbolically sell and buy back his son twice, before finally letting the sale go through the third. Then the father’s power was over his son was broken. Then the adopting father had to go to a magistrate and make the case for the transference of the son to his power. Then the adoption would be complete. The entire process had to be conducted in the presence of seven witnesses, who would be available to swear that the adoption was genuine. Which was essential given the consequences of the adoption.
All rights in his old family were lost, and the adopted son gained all the rights of a natural son of the new family. He became heir to his new father’s estate, just as were any natural sons. His old life was wiped out completely, including any debts. He was the son of the new father in every respect. His past lost all relevance.
That is the context in which Paul says we have a spirit of adoption and are children of God. And this is what his readers in Rome would have understood:
- We leave behind completely the spirit and control of our evil human nature, which no longer has any power over us. And God assumes power and control over us.
- In the process our debts are cancelled and forgotten. The evil in our hearts and our sins are annulled and retain no power over us.
- We become heirs of God’s riches and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.
- We inherit Christ’s suffering, but also his life and glory.
In simplest terms, Paul would say we leave our past behind and become part of a new family, God’s family, with all attendant obligations and benefits. In this adoption the Holy Spirit is the guide and the witness. All we need do is accept the Holy Spirit’s guidance. As Paul says:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
July 9, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
Relationships always challenge us to maintain them over time and troubles as we encounter the changes and chances of this life. Last week the Washington Post published an extensive story about the relationship between tennis greats Chris Evert and Marina Navratilova, now 68 and 66, respectively. So often they would begin a tournament in a clubhouse with 128 contestants, only to find themselves the last two on the day of the finals. From there they almost found friendship unavoidable. They shared a common experience few would ever know, an intimate rivalry derived from intense competition and every possibility of animosity and antagonism. Sometimes it got the better of them. But by the time their careers ended, “their rivalry was so transcendent, it had become a kind of joint accomplishment.” When each recently was diagnosed with cancer, their first calls were to the other. As the author of the article observed,” Friendship is arguably the most wholly voluntary relationship. It reflects a mutual decision to keep pasting something back together, no matter how far it gets pulled apart, even when there is no obligatory reason, no justice-of-the-peace vow or chromosomal tie.” The blessings they became to each other are a lesson worthy of Scripture with a “who knew” dimension. And it’s a great read.
We all must admit that relationships are a recurrent theme in our lives. They come in all shapes and sizes. The most immediate typically are family relationships. And we all have learned that a common gene pool offers no guarantee of a harmonious relationship. Similarly, marriage vows provide no assurance of lives lived happily ever after. Then we have myriad relationships with friends and acquaintances, which have no formal structure, connection, or guidelines. And, finally, the most challenging relationship, our relationship with ourselves. And, of course, whether we know or understand it, all of us are in relationship with God, who asks only our love.
If we discern a theme in the Scripture readings for this Sixth Sunday after Pentecost it would be relationships. In the reading from Genesis, we hear again how Isaac found his wife Rebekah. The Song of Solomon is a Biblical homage to romantic love, though also interpreted as the relationship of God to the people of Israel and of Christ to his Church. The Gospel reading refers to the relationship between Jesus and God the Father and their relationship to humanity. And, Paul, bless his heart, dredges down on his relationship with himself – that relationship none of us can avoid and that has spawned thousands of self-help tomes and a thriving mental health industry.
Now the simplistic and obvious lesson from Scripture is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. And a key element of love is trust. Laban trusted God to find Isaac a wife. Rebekah trusted God when she left her homeland to marry Isaac. The beloved in the Song of Solomon beckons his love to trust his love and come away with him. Paul trusts God to rescue him from himself. Jesus says come to me, trust me to give you rest. Trust that my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. And yet life often seems oppressive and wearisome. But then it is to those who are weary and burdened that Jesus promised rest, if we just come to him. Not such bad advice.
Sally Jenkins, “Bitter Rivals. Beloved Friends. Survivors,” The Washington Post, July 3, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/interactive/2023/chris-evert-martina-navratilova-cancer/.
June 25, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
We might be familiar with the term “the three Abrahamic faiths.” And the reading from the Book of Genesis designated for today in our lectionary sheds great light on that term. Abraham had borne a son by his wife’s slave Hagar. Later Sara, his wife, had borne him son, Israel, despite their advanced age. The line of descent from Abraham through Israel became the people of Israel, known today as the Jewish people. From that line diverged the followers of Christ, thus forming the Christian religion, also, therefore, considered an Abrahamic faith.
But what is the third faith that traces its roots to Abraham and, necessarily, his offspring? And this is where Hagar enters the picture. In Genesis we learn that Abraham had cast out Hagar and her son at the request of Sara, who was troubled that Hagar’s son might remain in the line of inheritance from Abraham. God had assured the reluctant Abraham, “[F]or it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” Later, God also would tell the distraught Hagar again that God “would make a great nation of him.” His name was Ishmael, and that nation would become the nation of Islam.
Legends abound about Ishmael. The Jews believe Ishmael was the ancestor of some Bedouin tribes in southern Palestine. The Islamic tradition believes he settled in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. He is considered a messenger and prophet and possibly an ancestor of Mohammed, the Arab prophet who established the religion of Islam.
We might view Hagar dimly as the concubine of Abraham. But she was a slave and could not refuse Sara’s insistence that she bear a child by Abraham. She had no power or status and likely was perceived as worthless, an opinion of herself that she could only embrace. And yet, God’s angel calls her by name. And Hagar herself would name God:
So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’ (Genesis 16:13)
El Roi means the God who sees. And, again, when God saw her and heard the voice of Ishmael, God sent the angel to their rescue.
Paul uses the story of Abraham and Ishmael as an allegory. Hagar and Ishmael were slaves. As slaves, they are also slaves to the Law, meaning in that context Torah and its myriad interpretations. Ishmael also was the product of human impulses, Sara’s impatience and effort to game God’s promise that Abraham father a nation despite her age and presumed inability to bear a child. Yet, Paul sees Sara as representing God’s new covenant in Jesus Christ, in which God’s grace rather than the Law guides our behavior, suggesting that love is more powerful than the law. Notably, the Law came down to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which is located on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, the land of Ishmael’s Arab descendants, which only bolsters Paul allegory. And the law of Islam is expressed in Sharia law with its various schools and multitudes of interpretations, not unlike Torah Law. To end on a note of irony, some conservatives, who have been most uneasy with Islam, fearful of Muslims, and leery of Sharia law, now are reaching out to conservative Muslims for support of anti-LQBTQ+ political views. Friends become enemies. Enemies become friends. George Orwell is smirking in his grave.
June 11, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
In my Gem on March 12, I concluded with the question “What are we to do?” about our seeming inability as a culture to confront and resolve difficult issues. And I promised to continue with further reflections.
Since then we have seen “two Irishmen that don’t drink” negotiate a legislative compromise to extend our nation’s debt limit and reduce some future government spending. Looking behind the headlines, however, reveals that two natives of Louisiana, one a congressman, the other a member of the executive branch, were instrumental in the moment-to-moment negotiations that facilitated the compromise. What enabled them to communicate in a civil and respectful manner? They could compare gumbo recipes. They could negotiate on their cell phones while dropping their children off at day care. In short, the found common ground. They saw the similarities in their lives and interests. It provided a foundation for developing a relationship of trust and mutual respect that was essential to reaching agreement on deeply divisive issues. And it is a lesson to all of us.
Disagreement over political and theological and all sorts of issues are part of life. But we still have to live together. And this can be much easier and more comfortable even in the midst of controversy of any sort when we maintain our focus on what is common to us as human beings. It may not be gumbo or children or even cats or dogs or meatloaf recipes. We all shop for food. We all seek a house to make a home. We all have mirrors to show us our clothes fit and might even be stylish. We all want a better world for the next generation. We all prefer peace to war, harmony to conflict, freedom to repression, justice to partiality, truthfulness to mendacity, courage to cowardice, virtue to vice, and order to chaos. And we all are children of the same God, and we all are blessed with memory, reason, and skill. And Christ resides in everyone’s hearts, whether we or they acknowledge and appreciate that or not. No less than two partisan public servants in a fierce negotiation, we should be able to establish a common foundation of respect.
That may take intention and effort. Many of us harbor strong feelings and deeply-rooted commitments to our views on any subject. But standing alone on the high cliffs from which we shout our positions across an empty canyon is little more than the product of pride and vanity and an arbitrary and unwarranted certainty that slips us across the line from righteousness to self-righteousness, from honesty to hypocrisy. That’s what Jesus condemned roundly and frequently in his ministry. Just ask any Pharisee.
Also last week, a presidential candidate remarkably side-stepped self-righteousness and destructive judgments of those with differing views, stating that “I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice any more than I want them to judge me for being pro-life.” When we demonize those with whom we disagree we foreclose any opportunity to find the common ground that will enable us to bridge the gaps that separate us. We prevent the formation or maintenance of relationships that not only enrich our lives, but also enable us to appreciate and respect other perspectives and to find compromise and consensus when necessary to keep the wheels turning.
May 28, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
In April of 1979, I was in the green room of the NBC Today show waiting to be interviewed by Tom Brokaw about the pending deregulation of cable television. As a representative of the National Association of Broadcasters I was fully prepared to lay out the panoply of catastrophic consequences to humanity (and the broadcast industry) if cable were deregulated. A young NBC production assistant asked me if I thought NBC would survive. I expressed due confidence that NBC was big enough and smart enough to weather the onslaught of a deregulated cable television. And, of course, as I write this on Monday morning, the last hour of the NBC Today Show is wrapping up. And NBC now is part of Comcast, which owns not only a broadcast network, several cable networks, and numerous local television stations, but also cable television systems throughout the country, Internet service, a streaming network, and Universal Studios. Today, the United States still is served by 1758 broadcast television stations, which typically are available on streaming services, and many of which operate their own local news streaming services, to say nothing of apps offering access to local news, weather, sports, and other information.
Why do I mention this? If you heard (or read) my sermon last Sunday, you might recall that the theme was not to worry about the current decline in religious participation and belief. We are simply in a time of dramatic – and arguably necessary – change, another reformation of the Church, which typically has occurred every 500 years. Yes, it is at times unsettling, disappointing, discouraging, and disorienting, but like NBC and the broadcast industry, we should have confidence that the Church in time will adapt and thrive. After all, Jesus told Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18).
But just because change is necessary and inevitable hardly assures us that it ever will be easy. Change in the Church strikes at deeply held beliefs, entrenched traditions, and time-worn habits and customs. The process of reformation takes decades. And throughout the process, we must remain mindful that we should not disenfranchise those who find change unpalatable. Our form of worship, our liturgies, are an essential element of our connecting with the divine. Putting that vital connection at risk through hasty, seemingly arbitrary, or unexplained changes would lack compassion and defy common sense.
Furthermore, in our Episcopal Church, our worship defines our identity as Episcopalians and never should be tampered with rashly or injudiciously. Therefore, we have a process that involves a minimum of six years of review and consideration by the triennial General Convention of the Church before any change in our prayer book can be approved – and it often has taken much longer.
Nonetheless, we know that resistance to change would be foolish. And we can take confidence in the fact that our House of Bishops has become younger and more diverse than ever, as has the House of Deputies (lay and clergy). They bring a variety of experiences and perspectives, but with a deep and abiding respect for our tradition as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And unlike NBC and the broadcast industry, which are merely human endeavors, but still survive, we enjoy the involvement of the Holy Spirit to show us the way forward, reformed and renewed.
May 7, 2023
Would we be surprised to learn that the structure and governance of the Episcopal Church closely resemble the structure of our country’s government? Both our country and our Church are governed by a constitution that establishes their processes for making laws, or canons as the laws governing the Church are called. The constitutions of the United States and the Episcopal Church provide for a bicameral legislative body. The U.S. Congress consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church consists of two houses, the House of Bishops and a House of Deputies that includes both lay and clergy deputies elected by their dioceses. In both Congress and the General Convention, the legislative process includes hearings conducted by legislative committees at which interested persons testify and provide information. And in the Congress, both the House and Senate must approve bills for them to become law, and in the General Convention resolutions must be adopted by the House of Bishops and House of Deputies.
Is this a coincidence? Both the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the Episcopal Church were adopted in 1789. And both the Church and the nation were intentionally distancing themselves from the English monarchy in the wake of the Revolution by embracing more democratic values and approaches. Furthermore, the legislative processes in both cases rest on notions of representative government and on an openness to a diversity of voices and opinions to discern the proper course of action. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church meets every three years. In the interim, the Executive Council, consisting of four bishops, four priests, and 12 lay persons, elected by the convention, is responsible for oversight of the affairs of the Church, including the execution of the policy and programs adopted by the General Convention. The Church also maintains a professional staff primarily located in New York city.
Beyond establishing the organization and administration of the Church, the Constitution and Canons of the Church include provisions governing the role of the presiding bishop, the Book of Common Prayer, worship, the ministries of the Church, and the discipline of bishops and clergy. For example, the General Convention must approve any change in the Book of Common Prayer (over two conventions), but also may authorize for trial use revisions to the Book of Common Prayer and supplemental liturgies that may be used in addition to the Book of Common Prayer.
The basic organization of the Church reflects the balance of authority between local diocesan bishops and the clergy and laity. Each diocese is semi-autonomous, headed by a bishop with oversight of the congregations in his or her diocese, but subject to the Constitutions and Canons of the Church, as adopted by the General Convention. Each diocese also elects a Standing Committee that serves as Council of Advice to the bishop and assumes ongoing oversight of the diocese during periods when no diocesan bishop is in place in the diocese. Individual parishes are similarly governed with a rector or priest-in-charge working with a parish vestry. The clergy are responsible for worship and spiritual matters, whereas the vestry is the legal representative of the parish with respect to the property of the parish and its relationship with its clergy.
Copies of the Constitution and Canons are available from the Episcopal Church website. And Jo+ and Jim+ always are interested in and happy to respond to any questions.
March 26, 2023
a gem from Jim+
We begin today a series of Gems from Jim+ and Bon Mots from Jo+ providing instruction and information on the liturgy and history of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, as envisioned as a Next Steps in last year’s visioning process.
My favorite – and, likely, the most used button on our television remote is…the mute button. Few things can be more exasperating and stifling as noise, especially when it is unanticipated or unwelcome or, worst of all, unceasing. No wonder Realtor.com in each listing includes not only assessments of flood and wildfire risk, but also the risk of noise pollution. No wonder Congress passed the CALM (Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation) – you can’t make this stuff up – Act directing the Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules that “require commercials to have the same average volume as the programs they accompany.” And how can we forget the Four Seasons hit song, Silence is Golden? And what can be more deafening than absolute silence. Sometimes our hearts and minds and bodies and souls demand silence. So does the prayer book.
After all, the prophet Habakkuk (Hab. 2:20), exhorts us “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” And Psalm 48 says “We have waited in silence on your loving‑kindness, O God, in the midst of your temple.” While Psalm 62 reminds us that “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Nearly every service in our prayer insists that we sometimes pause in silence so God to speak to us, both personally and corporately, without distraction even in the midst of worship.
So, when Jo or I pause at some moments in the service, we have not lost our place (except sometimes). We usually are observing the rubric (direction) in the Book of Common Prayer that allow or dictate silence at that point in the service, as follows:
- Silence should be observed in the sanctuary before the service begins, as a courtesy to those who wish to take the opportunity to pray and prepare for the service.
- Silence may follow the exhortation, “Let us pray” before the Collect of the Day. The purpose of the Collect is to “collect” the prayers and formally place them before God.
- Silence may follow each of the readings from Scripture to allow for personal reflection.
- Form II of the Prayers of the People includes a time of silence after each prayer.
- Silence may be kept after the invitation to confession to allow time for contemplation of our particular sins before the prayer of confession begins.
- A period of silence must be observed after the presider breaks the bread prior to communion.
- We typically observe a time of silence after communion for personal reflection on the real presence of Christ within us and among us.
Each of these observed silences enable us to come to God as the individuals we are and hear what God may be saying to us even in the midst of the corporate prayer in our worship as a community. They should not be lightly squandered.
FCC, “Loud Commercials on TV,” https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/loud-commercials-tv (accessed March 20, 2023).
March 12, 2023
a gem from Jim+
One benefit of attending our diocesan convention is meeting people from other churches. A gentleman I met from a nearby church, but originally from Australia, made a discouraging observation. When he told people he was from Australia – which was obvious from his accent – they immediately assumed he surfed and drank lots of beer. He does neither. But when he attempted to dispel their stereotypical perceptions of him, people were so locked into their misimpressions that they simply did not listen. He made the same observations about political discussions. Once it became clear he disagreed with someone, they would neither listen nor even engage. They just shut down.
This is the tragedy of the political polarization that is strangling healthy discussion even among friends, families, and acquaintances. We would rather walk away from the conversation, grasp our singular views even more tightly, and then have the audacity to pray that our political party or ideology or self-interested positions will prevail. Or maybe we are just reluctant – even frightened – to risk a relationship with a friend or acquaintance or even a relative with whom we disagree. So we simply shy away from discussing politics and issues of public concern because it keeps our conversations safe. And if we do dare drift into discussions about politics, we be sure we are among those with whom we agree before we say too much. Or we deflect or change the subject. Or we pretend to agree, or if not to agree, to at least not to disagree. Even suggesting that we might agree to disagree can be a stretch. Yet, in our hesitance to acknowledge our differing views, do we honor or dishonor our relationships with friends and family?
Maybe I am young and naïve. Well, at least, naïve. But I continue to believe that we all agree on much more than we disagree. We just need to remember that. In particular, we might, as followers of Christ and Episcopalians, focus more on our common citizenship of the Kingdom of God. Before we are Democrat or Republican, before we are conservative or liberal, before we are fundamentalist or evangelical or progressive, before we are Episcopalian or Catholic or Baptist, before we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, before we are a tinker, a tailor, a soldier, or a spy, or a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or a king, before we are a Ph.D. or a G.E.D., before we like cats or like dogs, before we cheer for the Yankees or the Mets or even the Red Sox, we all are followers of Christ. We claim to embrace and prioritize Christ’s message of love and compassion, of peace, justice, and mercy. And we honor Jesus’ words that “all the Law and the prophets” hang on loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That we are united in that citizenship that gathers us around the Eucharistic table as a community diverse yet united.
As a Church, Episcopalians have confronted and grappled with challenging issues successfully. And we have done that via lengthy, robust debate, discussion, and discernment, mindful of our identity and tradition, and open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Were there moments of rancor and bitterness, hyperbole and hostility at times? Of course. Sometimes the sinner in us prevails. But when all was said and done, issues were resolved, decisions were made, and the Church went on to live with unity in diversity, essentially intact and avoiding wholesale division.
Issues and differences cannot be resolved in silence. They can be ignored. They can be hidden. But they remain flimsy hidden seams held together only by inattention and avoidance. What are we to do? (to be continued)
February 26, 2023
a gem from Jim+
I was shocked to discover that a bi-partisan, equally divided committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, known as the Select Committee on – of all things – the Modernization of Congress, actually accomplished something, an outcome all the more unlikely because any action by the committee required a supermajority vote and because its mission was to fix Congress. Furthermore, the 2020 election and January assault on the capitol exacerbated the antipathy between Republican and Democrat members of the committee, which included several election deniers. Just how this committee against all odds got things done is a hopeful and instructive tale for all of us, as we struggle with division and conflict in our institutions and families.
The apparent impossibility of getting anything done required “radical creativity.” One writer noted that “basic practices you would use to prevent anarchy in any kindergarten classroom were not being followed in Congress.” So what did they do?
- They started with a bipartisan planning retreat and hired a single bipartisan committee staff, as opposed to the usual separate Democrat and Republican staffs.
- After the events of January 6, 2021, they held a confidential ZOOM meeting expressly to explore together the impact of those events on each of the members and how it affected their work together. They brought in a professional mediator to facilitate the discussion. Cellphones and other distractions were put aside. And the committee members listened to one another as they described and explained their actions on January 6. There were jaw-dropping revelations.
- They abandoned the familiar format of committee meetings with the majority on one side and the minority on the other. They instead sat around a table with Democrats and Republicans intermingled. They abandoned the five-minute limit and order of speaking based on tenure. Members could speak as they felt moved to speak.
- The committee met for dinner together every few months.
- They exchanged cellphone numbers, which required an unusual level of trust in an environment where leaking cellphone numbers could be a nuisance and a divisive tactic.
Consequently, they all began to appreciate that they all were human beings who had been involved and affected by a traumatic event. And they became curious about each other.
The committee adopted over 200 bipartisan recommendations, many of which have been implemented. With the start of the 118th Congress in January, the committee disappeared. But its legacy is a lesson in how good intentions and positive effort can accomplish radical and miraculous things.
 Amanda Ripley, “These radically simple changes helped lawmakers actually get things done,” The Washington Post, February 9, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/02/09/house-modernization-committee-bipartisan-collaboration-lessons/ (accessed February 20, 2023).
February 12, 2023
A Gem from Jim+
Two reflections on Scripture and its place in our lives struck me last week. The first was from the late eminent Biblical scholar Marcus Borg:
The Bible is a human product: it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not how God sees things.
(https://www.overallmotivation.com/quotes/marcus-borg-quotes/) But don’t we consider the Bible “the word of God.” How can that be a human product? In my view, Scripture is a collaboration involving God and humanity. God created us and tasked us as stewards of creation. We are God’s hands on earth. If God’s words were to be recorded and published, we had to be God’s instruments in the process.
But at the same time, every human being involved was inspired by God to convey God’s message. People always have been curious about God, and God has responded not only by choosing an entire race of people to reveal God to creation, but using individuals – prophets, sages, saints, and, necessarily, even sinners – to undertake the step-by-step process of disseminating God’s word to humanity.
Consider what was involved in the compilation of the Bible. After all, the Bible is more than a book. It is more like an entire library. The stories, the musings, the revelations and realizations, that formed in people’s hearts and spurred them to share them, had to be remembered and recalled. Their recollections and thoughts had to settle solidly into the memories. Ultimately, they had to be reduced to writing, reviewed, edited, and redacted. Then their writings had to be further reviewed, often translated, and ultimately selected for inclusion of the Bible. Every step of the process was a human process, but an enterprise that achieves legitimacy through the constant presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Bible is a historic collaboration of the human and divine. And, can we really deny that it tells us how God sees things?
The late Fred Buechner put it this way. He called the Bible
a great, tattered compendium of writings, the underlying and unifying purpose of all of which is to show how God works through the Jacobs and Jabboks of history to make himself known to the world and to draw the world back to himself. (Now and Then, 1983).
And as much as the Bible is a work of God and, thus, the Word of God, it is still a work requiring the collaboration of humans.
That means, in Buechner’s view, that it tells us about ourselves, as well:
The Bible, as he presented it, is a book finally about ourselves, our own apostasies, our own battles and blessings.
How often do we see ourselves in the many compelling and revealing stories of the Bible? Jesus was the only person in the Bible who was not a sinner. From Adam and Eve’s fall in the garden of Eden to Peter’s denial of Christ before the crucifixion, the great stories of Scripture reveal even the most righteous and heroic of us as sinners. And yet God has used us to convey the revelation of God to humanity and creation. That to me bespeaks the power of the Holy Spirit in the compilation of Scripture and, perhaps, one of the most striking and enduring miracles in human history.
January 29, 2023
Last Sunday’s sermon reflected on the Kingdom of God and the challenge what Jesus said poses for us in the 21st century. If we are to create the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven and if Jesus was speaking not to us as individuals, but as a people or nation, how do we go about this? The Jews of Jesus’ time expected Jesus, as Messiah, to lead a successful, but necessarily violent revolution against the present kingdom, namely Rome and its emperor and the Jewish kings the Romans appointed and controlled. But Jesus never preached violence as a means to any end, and it is a cardinal principle of our faith that the means always must be consistent with the end. Fighting for peace fails that test miserably. But we still are obliged to bring heaven to earth. And that poses numerous questions.
How do we as a nation do this? We never were intended to be a theocracy, in which God actually is considered the sovereign. As is said on the golf course, we must play it as it lies. And we find ourselves in a constitutional republic with a well-established framework for determining how we govern ourselves as a nation. Notably, however, we claim to be a government “of the people, by the people.” Our obligation is at least to participate not only as individuals, but also as communities of people, as envisioned by our constitution and laws. And to empower a government that is guided by our values as followers of Christ, which I typically enumerate as love, compassion, peace, justice, and mercy. Those are the values that will prevail in God’s Kingdom, and they are the beacons that should enlighten our political decisions.
The more difficult issues arise from the fact that we have not yet realized the Kingdom of God on earth. It is well and good to say that fighting for peace is unacceptable, but in a world of Hitlers and Putins and the Taliban and terrorists, among others, what are we to do? Do we refuse to take up arms, regardless of the consequences? Do we refuse to counter violence with violence, even in the defense of ourselves or others? Or, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis, do we plot to kill a tyrant, recognizing that what we are doing still is evil? Bonhoeffer before he was executed by the Nazis accepted his guilt and the evil inherent in plotting to kill Hitler, but he relied expressly on the mercy of God.
Or do we accept that we may compromise the values of the Kingdom of God in recognition of the sad reality that the Kingdom of God may be near, but it has yet to arrive. Then again, how do we bring about the Kingdom of God if we continue to compromise its values?
In similar vein, we confront a philosophical conundrum. What if we measure the rightness of our behavior by asking how the world would be if everyone behaved as we did. Are we obligated to behave rightly in this way when we know that many people will not be acting accordingly?
Jesus never said it would be easy. But God gave us memory, reason, and skill. And Jesus left us the Church and its tradition and teaching to form our consciences and equip us to address these difficult decisions. And he left us the Holy Spirit to inspire and empower us in our discernment of how we should act as followers of the Christ who proclaimed the Kingdom of God. And what we all must do is continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
January 1, 2023
The birth of Jesus was not reported to the elite or even to a whole community yearning for the deliverance by the Messiah. The first announcement was to shepherds.
What says so much is that shepherds were a rather disreputable group, primarily because their consuming and grubby work prevented their abiding by the ceremonial rituals and meticulous rules of cleanliness for orthodox worship.
They were simple, common folk. No red carpet to roll out. No retinue of dignitaries to extend a welcoming hand. No fanfare. No guard of honor. Just shepherds guarding their flocks by night. God sent his son not to the rich and powerful. Not to the righteous and religious. But to the outcast and lowly. This foreshadows the Jesus who routinely showed great affection and preference for the poor and forgiveness and mercy to sinners.
It is the humble, not the haughty, who will really hear the good news. It is the obedient, not the reticent who will do as the shepherds did and seek with haste the child lying in the manger. It is those who trust the angels and glorify God.
December 18, 2022
The first Christmas carol I remember singing is Silent Night. But my young mind never paused to appreciate the profound meaning of the first four words of that timeless carol: Silent night, holy night. The world was hushed when Jesus was born. It was paused in a moment of holy silence. In that deafening silence, holiness beyond our understanding entered the world. And it reveals to us that holiness best enters in silence as did the Holiest of Holies in that manger in Bethlehem on that silent night 2000 years ago.
This should be no surprise. Psalm 62 reminds us that, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” And the prophet Habakkuk(2:20) prompts the earth to be silent before the Lord in his holy temple. Jeremiah in his Lamentations (3:26) states that “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Indeed, says Peter, “a gentle and quiet spirit … is very precious in God’s sight.” (1 Pet. 3:4). I n quietness and silence we create gateways for the divine. Which is why silence always has had a prominent place in our traditions of worship and prayer.
In our service of Holy Eucharist, we often pause in silence after the readings to let God’s Word speak to us as individuals. We pause in silence when invited to confess our sinfulness to recall and acknowledge our own sins. We observe a holy silence when the celebrant breaks the consecrated bread to contemplate the real presence of Christ among us.
Spiritual practices and forms of prayer involving silence also are central to our tradition of prayer. What we call contemplative prayer involves clearing our minds and waiting and listening for the voice of God within us. After all, God desires a real relationship with us. All of us pray to God, and God listens. But how often do we become silent and actively listen to God? How often do we create a quiet and receptive space in our hearts and invite God to speak to us?
What could be more wonderful, but what could be more frightening? Do we really want to hear what God wants to say to us? As fearful souls, we might remember that invariably in the great stories of the Bible, when God or God’s angelic emissaries’ approach, their first words tell us not to be afraid. Indeed, how can we fear the presence and promptings of the God who created and loves us? And often God, aware of our resistance, will speak to our hearts silently. What we might call subliminal messages to our subconscious realms that will sustain and guide us as they function silently in the background.
Still, setting aside times for silence requires intention and discipline. Silence is a challenge to the culture that surrounds us and the demands of our daily lives. Religious orders like the Benedictines engender silence through rule and isolation from society. But in the midst of lives pummeled by packed calendars and unrelenting work schedules and to-do lists, finding even a moment for silent prayer and reflection, finding a moment to set aside all distractions and open our hearts to let God in and hear God’s words for us is no easy task. And yet those who have made the time typically find that it stokes their hunger for more time alone connecting to God in this uniquely powerful way.
Yet, if our best friend were knocking at our door, we would not hesitate to let them in and open our homes and hearts and ears to them. And God, our creator and redeemer and sustaining and inspiring spirit who resides in us never stops knocking. God always is seeking to get our attention and draw us into his image. Our silence opens that door. And lets God tinker with the inner workings of our soul. So, may Silent Night remind us that it’s in the silence holiness will visit us.
December 4, 2022
Last Sunday on the First Sunday of Advent, we observed the beginning of a new Church year. Throughout this Church year, the Sunday Gospel readings will come from the Gospel according to Matthew. It recounts many of the events in Jesus’ life, but with a distinctive perspective, purpose, and emphasis. So what might we say about the Gospel according to Matthew that will add depth to our understanding of the readings we will hear most Sundays in Church year 2023.
The primary purposes of Matthew’s version of the Gospel were dictated by the context of the time. The break between the Jews who followed Jesus and those that did not became heated and bitter in the late first century. Thus, we will see considerable emphasis on convincing Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, who fulfilled the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). But we also will see how it addresses the needs of the Jews who had withdrawn from the synagogues and become a new, separate community that lacked an identity and an understanding of their new way of life as followers of Christ.
At the same time, these fledgling Christian communities lived in a region dominated by Roman occupation. Rome controlled viciously and effectively the political, economic, and military structures, even to the point of forcing a theology that considered the Emperor divine. So early Christians necessarily were developing their own counterculture with its emphasis on love, prayer, inclusion, mercy, and service. Therefore, more than anything else, the Gospel according to Matthew is teaching and instruction, not only to explain Jesus as Messiah to the Jewish community, but also to reveal Jesus’ story and teaching to the newly-formed communities of his followers. Notably, Matthew was particularly concerned with the development and practices of the Church as it became a true institution that formed the core of Christian life.
Therefore, we should not be surprised to see Matthew going to great lengths to show in great detail that Jesus was a descendent of David and that many events of Jesus’ life were foretold by the prophets. We also would expect to see Matthew show Jesus as the true king in contrast to the alleged divinity of the Roman emperor.
Matthew does all this in the form of an ancient biography. He uses a chronological series of important episodes in Jesus ‘life, but does not purport to be an eyewitness account. We hear very little about Jesus until he begins his ministry. We hear nothing about his favorite food or favorite color. We know nothing of his behavior as a teenager. But like any good biography in the first century, it tells us what we need to know about Jesus’ deeds, teaching, and death to understand who Jesus was and what he taught. It provides us with enough about Jesus to know his was a noble and righteous life we should honor and emulate.
In fact, what Matthew did was collect and systematized Jesus’ teaching in five blocks: The Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:1-48, 6:1-34, Mt. 7:1-29); The Duties of the Leaders of the Kingdom (Mt. 10:1-42); The Parables of the Kingdom (Mt. 13:1-58); Greatness and Forgiveness in the Kingdom (Mt. 18:1-38); and The Coming of the King (Mt. 24:1-51, 25:1-46). We should recall, too, that Matthew was written in a time in which few books existed. Copies could be made only by hand. Learning had to be committed to memory. So Matthew arranged his text in a way that is easy to memorize, typically in threes or sevens.
This is what Matthew wants – to learn from the story of Jesus. This year is our opportunity.
November 27, 2022
Here are a few notes to supplement our instructed Eucharist on November 13:
† The vesting of priests and other ministers long has been the custom in the Episcopal Church, reflecting our historical connection with Jesus’ apostles and adding a beauty to the ritual that acknowledges God as the source of all beauty. The long white garment is the alb. It typically is worn by both ordained and lay ministers at Eucharistic services. The term “alb” derives from the Latin alba, meaning white. It was the common undertunic of Greeks and Romans in the Fourth century. The alb may be girded with a cord called a cincture. The stole, worn over the shoulders of a priest, is the distinctive vestment of the clergy, a symbol of their authority. The sleeveless outer vestment is called a chasuble. It, too, derives from the outer garment of Greeks and Romans and, like the stole, reflects the liturgical color of the season.
† The liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, shaped originally by the practices of the Jewish synagogue and the formal Jewish meal, and the private and later public worship of the early church, has taken many forms. But the ancient core of the service has remained constant, consisting of reading scripture, taking the elements of bread and wine to the altar, an offering of a prayer of thanksgiving over them, the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the bread and wine.
† For millennia in the Jewish and Christian traditions, music has played a vital role in worship. Often music conveys meanings and feelings that words alone fail to communicate. Music speaks to the heart and soul, as well as to the mind. Thus, it adds dimension to our expression of faith and generates a deeper understanding of liturgical texts. Hymns, anthems, solos, and instrumental music can create ambiance and atmosphere that sets the tone for worship. Singing hymns also brings us together and heightens our sense of community.
† The notion of community is very important. Because the Holy Eucharist is liturgy. And liturgy is derived from the Greek words for “work” and “people.” It is, thus, the work of the people. Liturgy draws us all together in worship and reflects our understanding of God – and our understanding that words alone are insufficient to express what we know and believe about God.
† The literal meaning of Gospel is “good news.” The Gospel might best be considered “theological biography,” consisting of history remembered and history interpreted. These stories from Christ’s ministry were recited orally in the First century church. But as the generation that witnessed Jesus life on earth began to pass away, the stories were reduced to writing.
† The Eucharistic prayer is introduced by the sursum corda, meaning “lift up your hearts.” It is a dialogue signifying the joint action of the priest and the congregation in the Eucharistic prayer. We exchange a greeting and lift our hearts, a gesture symbolizing our connection with the Divine. And we acknowledge the rightness of our praising and thanking God. † The custom of giving a blessing at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy stems from a period in the Middle Ages when very few of those present at the liturgy received communion. In our time, when very few people present at the Eucharist do not receive communion, the practice of giving an additional blessing to that received in the act of communion itself appears superfluous. Still, there is great beauty in the moment. A blessing is a means of imparting God’s vision for our lives. Because we will be sent into the world to do God’s work, this final pronouncement of God’s blessing or vision is a fitting prelude to the dismissal.
October 30, 2022
We keep mentioning our Book of Common Prayer, and for good reason. It is the primary symbol of our unity as Anglicans and our identity as Episcopalians. It has been at the core of the Anglican tradition since the 16th century. It is the most significant and precious book on our bookshelves after the Bible. And given its prominence in our tradition, controversy often swirls around it, especially when changes in the prayer book enter the discussion. Just ask anyone who recalls the adoption the current (1979) prayer book, after 51 years using the 1928 edition. But where did it come from?
The title should give us a hint about how it came to be. In the 16th century, as the Reformation was taking shape and gaining momentum and the Church of England making its turn away from Rome, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, compiled the original Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It was intended to provide a common form of worship suitable to Catholic and Protestant sympathizers alike in England and to establish uniformity in liturgy where none existed. Notably, it included the Holy Eucharist in English for the first time. All liturgy previously had been in Latin, as it remained in the Roman Catholic Church until Vatican II authorized use of the vernacular in 1962.
In 1552, Cranmer composed a second edition of the Book of Common Prayer, which tilted more towards Protestant theology and worship. However, in 1553, Queen Mary, vehemently opposed to Protestantism, abolished the Book of Common Prayer, and Cranmer was burned at the stake as a heretic. Queen Elizabeth restored the use of the Book of Common Prayer in 1559, and in 1662, under King Charles, the prayer book again was revised and made mandatory in the Church of England. The 1662 prayer book remains to this day the official prayer book of the Church of England.
In the wake of the American Revolution, the Church of England in the new United States split from the English church and became the Episcopal Church. And in 1789 it adopted the first American Book of Common Prayer, including prayers for the president rather than the king. Our prayer book was updated in 1898, 1928, and 1979, the most recent edition which we use today. Translations into Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole are now available. What is striking about the Book of Common Prayer is its basic uniformity and consistency across the 46 churches of the Anglican Communion. Among our favorites is A New Zealand Prayer Book, used by the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada, adopted in 1985, draws significantly from our 1979 prayer book. And even in England, the 1662 prayer book has been supplemented by Common Worship, which provides an enhanced array of liturgical materials geared to the seasons of the church year. Whereas they each reflect differences in language and culture, they include the same array of services and prayers and in much the same form that we find in our prayer book. Even allowing for language barriers, all of us would feel at home in any church in the Anglican Communion. So in many ways, we continue to express our unity even in the midst of diversity.
October 16, 2022
I was struck the other day by some statements about Scripture on a morning television program that in my opinion missed the mark. The subject was the politization of abortion, but let’s leave the politics aside and focus on the Scriptural and theological issues that caught my attention.
The speakers seemed to agree that abortion was not a matter of concern at the time of Christ. However, it was surprisingly common. And a seminal document reflecting the teaching of the apostles and now regarded as the first catechism of the church explicitly condemned abortion stating “you shalt not kill a child by abortion, nor slay it when it is born.” (Didache, Chapter 2, paragraph 2.) This also reflects and is consistent with the writings of the early Church and, arguably, some passages of Scripture. These condemnations of abortion appear to be based on the view that life begins at conception. The context of the times also might have discouraged any practice that would tend to limit the population. In a largely agricultural economy, workers in the fields were essential to survival of a people, and abortion would be an impediment to expanding the labor pool.
Speakers on the program also suggested that we should focus exclusively on what Jesus said, the “red letter sections” that quote Jesus’ words. No less than Thomas Jefferson espoused this approach. We might admit that Jesus’ failure to condemn a common practice during his time on earth is significant, but that conclusion hardly requires that we disregard all of the Gospel except Jesus’ own words. If we believe, as we do, that the Bible is divinely inspired, then discounting the parts of the Gospel that do not portray Jesus’ words, would suggest that other parts of the Bible may not be divinely inspired.
Nonetheless, looking only to quotations from Jesus’ words does present a fascinating question concerning the reliability of what appear to be actual verbatim quotations from Jesus. We need only look to the Gospel according to John, which presents some very lengthy discourses from Jesus. Could John, for example, even as a witness to those statements, have remembered them verbatim or even in a paraphrased recollection, when he wrote his version of the Gospel decades after the fact? Does this mean we should be suspicious of Jesus’ words in Scripture?
Hardly. None of this should diminish the truth or reliability of one word of what Jesus is reported to have said in Scripture. Sometimes Scripture may report what Jesus said with considerable accuracy. Other times they may just as reliably have expressed the truth of what Jesus taught or who Jesus was, but with no expectation that the words were verbatim reports of Jesus’ words – or even that Jesus said them. What is important to remember and what sustains our faith in Scripture is our appreciation that the early Church community had time to reflect on who Jesus was. The writers of the Gospel long after Jesus walked on earth could rely on what written records existed, as well as their own recollections and those of others who were first-hand witnesses of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. They came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, was divine, was the Son of God. They had come to understand his ministry, his preaching and teaching. Therefore, the words attributed to Jesus would have expressed reliably the truths of his life and teaching. And all this would have been vetted extensively when the New Testament was compiled and canonized, a process no less divinely inspired than the actual words Jesus spoke.
October 2, 2022
Priests have been part of the Church since the Third Century, when bishops delegated their authority to provide day-to-day pastoral support to congregations to “presbyters.” The presbyter then would be responsible for “teaching and preaching, administration, and sacramental ministry, under the oversight of the bishop.” That remains the core of our work as presbyters (“priests”), much of which is very visible to the congregations, such as presiding at the Holy Eucharist, conducting Bible studies, providing pastoral care, and officiating at weddings and funerals. But much of our lives and work as priests is less visible. So let me offer a few random insights into less apparent aspects of our work and experience as priests:
We are never “not priests.” In any relationship with a parishioner, we are first their priests. Which means we never become Facebook friends with current parishioners. Which means whenever and wherever we are with a parishioner, regardless of setting or occasion, we are at work. We have to be “on,” mindful of what we say and hear. And a second glass of wine is not an option.
Similarly, our public behavior reflects on our parish, the Church, our faith, and the priesthood in general. The priesthood is a “great trust and responsibility,” and we must live our lives as “a wholesome example” to our people and community.
Our authority as priests derives from the bishop. We work with, but not for a church’s wardens and vestry. In our “teaching and preaching, administration, and sacramental ministry” we are under the oversight of the bishop.
We have the authority and privilege to proclaim God’s forgiveness to a repentant sinner and send them on their way unburdened by their past sins and restored in right relation with God. We can bless, exhort, and excommunicate (i.e., deny communion), but exorcism requires the express consent and direction of the bishop.
We are tasked with instructing our congregations in Scripture, in the teaching, doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church, and in stewardship, as well as in the ministry of all baptized persons. Our duties also include preparing people for Baptism, Confirmation, Reception, Reaffirmation, and Marriage.
Much of our time is devoted to administration, as we are responsible for supervising all staff and volunteers.
We are required, too, to maintain a Registry of Baptisms, Confirmations, Marriages, and Burial, as well as record of all services, and share the responsibility with the Vestry of assuring all required reports are properly submitted to the Diocese and Episcopal Church.
And because we need a Sabbath like everyone else, but work on Sunday, we try to avoid parish work at least one day a week, but never on Sunday.
Being a priest is a great gig. And we hope it shows.
September 18, 2022
What struck me most among many striking things in the ongoing remembrance and celebration of the life of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has been the recollection of her deep faith in Jesus Christ. And, officially, she was “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” Thus, she not only was head of state, but also head of the Church.
That combination of authority over church and nation was repugnant to our founding fathers. That was made explicit in our Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion like the Church of England and guarantees us the free exercise of our religion. The experience of oppressive state religion and severe penalties for prohibited religious practice were too fresh in their memories to leave religious freedom to chance. They also realized that even our young nation was already pluralistic, harboring not only Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, but also Jews and Muslims. Thus, despite current popular sentiments to the contrary, they never saw the United States as an expressly Christian nation. But they did see us as a Godly nation (“In God we trust”), and many provisions of our foundational documents reflect Christian values.
But when we hear the emerging strains of so-called “Christian nationalism,” we might ask whether that is either patriotic or Christian? Christian nationalism envisions a nation governed by Christians according to Christian religious doctrines and dictates. This can seem an attractive idea for Christians, and, in reality, the overwhelming Christian predominance in our population and in our government offices has resulted in our being de facto, if not constitutionally or legally, very much a Christian nation in our laws and practice. But an effort to establish Christianity as a state religion and impose supposedly Christian laws on everyone would be something else. And it poses challenging questions for us as Christians.
We believe deeply in our faith and its values. And it would be convenient to live in a nation that subscribed to our values and ethical dictates. On the other hand, we are citizens and patriots of a nation that has embraced religious liberty. Here are four considerations that might inform our musings:
- When governments secure the blessing of religion to legitimate their laws and policies, and/or religions secure the power of government to enforce their moral edicts, history suggests that religious oppression is the likely outcome.
- Patriotism generally is considered a virtue in Christian morality (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” Romans 13:1), but purely national interests always must give way to our faith and obligations as followers of Christ.
- We will always gain insight by placing ourselves in the position of a religious minority. Indeed, white Christians now constitute less than 50 per cent of our population.
- Our faith be so compelling that it should stand on its own without need to be propped up or propagated by a purportedly secular government.
What do you think? We would love to know your musings and reflections.
September 4, 2022
Tomorrow is Labor Day, the national holiday celebrating the social and economic achievements of American workers. As one of the collects in an Order for Compline acknowledges we are sustained by God’s “unfailing providence” and in our common life “depend on each other’s toil.” (BCP 134) This is something we all know, but it rarely is the subject of deep reflection. We just take it for granted without realizing that we are incredibly dependent on God and others in our communities for our lives and sustenance –recent disruptions in the supply chains of some necessities of life and comfort notwithstanding. Still, as followers of Christ, we might consider that this is something important to our lives and prompts some serious moral contemplation. And, happily, we need only turn to our prayer book for some worthy insights into several of the more prominent issues.
In the collect for Labor Day (BCP 210), for example, we acknowledge our life in community:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives.
Consequently, whatever our personal motivation may be, our work never is for us alone or for our personal enrichment, but for the common good. This also suggests that we all must work because we all necessarily and inevitably are part of a community that depends upon each of us to do our part. Nonetheless, we recognize that for any number of valid reasons (e.g., age, youth, illness, infirmity), a few may be unable to work and should not be expected to work, but still may enjoy the benefits of the community’s labor. Drawing the line can be difficult, but if community is to have meaning, everyone in the community who is willing to work deserves its support.
Similarly, all are due a “proper return” for their labor (BCP 210). If community is to mean anything, then only a “living wage” should be considered a proper return. No one should be expected to work for the community’s wellbeing without some assurance that their basic needs will be met by the community. By the same token, huge wage disparities must be viewed with an eye towards any injustice that might result. Again, this may impose some difficult calculations on the community, but that is no reason to shirk our responsibilities as a community.
Another dimension of labor in community is providing avenues for every individual to identify and develop their particular, God-given talents and skills not only for the benefit of the community, but also for fulfilment of their own “rightful aspirations.” (BCP 10) The community should embrace the freedom of self-determination, eliminate invidious discrimination, and offer the opportunity for everyone to gain the knowledge and hone the skills that will enable them to be an authentic asset to the community – and to be a child of God who has developed rather than squandered the gifts and talents God has given them.
One final note about labor. The creation story notes that God rested on the seventh day, teaching us that rest is a basic human need. We need Sabbath, a day to set distractions aside, a day to let God in through prayer and worship, a day to give our minds and bodies a break. As essential as labor is, all work and no play is a poor play. It denies who we are no less than failing to work as we are gifted and able.
August 21, 2022
One of the sharpest distinctions between the Anglican/Episcopal tradition and the Roman Catholic tradition involves Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, these distinctions never ought to obscure the considerable areas of agreement between the two traditions. This all comes to mind because last Monday, August 15, was a day on which both Episcopalians and our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers celebrate Mary, albeit in slightly, but significantly different ways.
In our Episcopal calendar, we observe the feast of Saint Mary the Virgin. On the Roman Catholic calendar, August 15 is the feast of the Assumption of Mary, which celebrates the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven. Notably, the Roman Catholic dogma that Mary was assumed bodily to heaven was proclaimed in 1950 by Pope Pius XII ex cathedra, meaning the pronouncement is considered infallible and that belief in the Assumption must be accepted by Roman Catholics. It is one of only two historical incidences that are widely accepted as instances in which a pope spoke infallibly. The other was the proclamation by Pope Pius IX in 1854 that Mary was conceived without blemish of original sin, known now as the Immaculate Conception. Thus, in the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary enjoys a very special and very unique place among the saints of the Church.
For Episcopalians, the belief that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven remains only a pious opinion, as does Mary’s perpetual virginity. Neither belief is essential to our faith. The Anglican tradition finds a lack of support in Scripture for these beliefs. And embracing them is further complicated by our reluctance to accept the infallibility of the pope, a doctrine that underlies each of these declared aspects of Mary’s life.
Nonetheless, Mary is considered highly esteemed among the saints and an object of veneration, as she has been since the time of the apostles. Her humility and obedience as the mother of Jesus remains a most powerful example for all. So, for us, August 15 is celebrated simply as the feast of Saint Mary the Virgin. And it is listed in the Book of Common Prayer among “other major feasts of the Church.
Her prominence in the life of Jesus, as set forth in Scripture, is common to both traditions, and revered by both. According to An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, Mary’s presence in Scripture includes “her betrothal to Joseph; the annunciation by the angel that she would be the mother of the Messiah; her visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; the birth of Jesus; the visits of the shepherds and the wise men; the presentation of Jesus in the temple; the flight into Egypt; the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old; the wedding at Cana; an occasion when Mary and Jesus’ brothers asked to speak to him while he was speaking to the people; the crucifixion when Jesus commended her to John, and the meeting with the apostles in the upper room after the Ascension.”
As recognized in the ongoing dialogue between the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches, “The scriptural witness summons all believers in every generation to call Mary ‘blessed’” And that is something we can agree on that only can draw us closer to together.