Gems from Jim+

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 But we also will see how it addresses the needs of the Jews who had withdrawn from the synagogues and become a new, separate community that lacked an identity and an understanding of their new way of life as followers of Christ.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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.