It Couldn’t Possible Matter, but It Does: The Superficial and the Silly in Liturgical Life

One of the perennial discussions that comes up at this time of year is a discussion of the liturgical color of Advent – should we don the traditional purple or move to using (what some term Sarum) blue.  There have also been the seemingly requisite complaints that such a discussion is a waste of time and steers us away from more pressing concerns.

I have always thought that liturgical churches and particularly those with a robust Sacramental life do a disservice when they avoid discussion of those external markers of parish identity.  The forms and manner with which we engage in worship necessitate a considered and well-thought-out approach to each aspect of our worship life.  A robust life of worship and adoration is one in which gestures, movements, colors, hymns, and more each have a defined part of the whole fabric of common life.

It is easy to make an idol of such things – I have watched with a mix of amusement and horror as discussions of where and when a sub-deacon holds the paten during mass went into a toxic overdrive.  Yet, to not have some understanding of the form and function of varying aspects of liturgy creates a scenario in which a group of people gathers with only a vague sense as to why they are gathered at all.

Worship is first and foremost worship – it is the lovingly rendered adoration of God.  Worship that is attentive with out being pendantically punctilious gives space for all to enter the space with both a sense of their first purpose for being together as well as the grace to focus on the essentials when things seem to go wrong.  It is often when things go “wrong” that the character of a worshiping community is revealed.  Are people gentle with each other when mistakes are made?  Can the congregation see the error yet not be distracted from their focus on God?

This grace comes with practice – great musicians can “go with the flow” when they have made patient study of source material and have practiced again and again.

When we study and seek to understand the forms of the rite we are better able to understand the deeper teachings of the shape of the liturgy.  In a tradition in which we believe external things (bread, wine, and water) communicate essential deeper truth we are bound to the study of the externals of our common life.  While a discussion of color might go deeply awry when its primary concern is the attractiveness or lack thereof of the choices that same discussion might become profound when its focus is on the deeper revelation of the choice.

Might a discussion of purple or blue for Lent not rest so much on what an individual or a congregation likes but on what the deeper meaning of Advent is?  Could a congregation benefit from a discussion of the themes of repentance that purple might communicate with its obvious connection to Lent?  Could the same congregation be enriched by a focus on the Marian themes of Advent (and the frequent use of blue for Marian feasts)?

divine_liturgy_serbian_monasterySo much in parish life is not so much about the conversations themselves but about the way in which we engage the conversations.  In a tradition that spans broad, low, and high (whatever those might mean nowadays) practice and theology there is enormous value in establishing and understanding those elements of our common practice (or where we diverge).  These external markers help shape and mold parish identity and congregational ethos.  They also mark in particular ways both the shifting of the Church year and those things which are so essential that they never change.

This year, our interim dean, Fr Patrick Malloy has been leading a parish-wide discussion on Sunday mornings about liturgy, tradition, and Sacramental theology.  The parish hall is jammed with people every Sunday who are yearning to learn more about the tradition and our Anglican identity within the Catholic spectrum.  They are coming for discussions that range from the biggest of big pictures (what is a ritual) to the most focused of topics (why do we chant).

This focused attention on the externals of our common life has given people a deeper insight into the core mysteries of our faith.  For example, a discussion of the use of the lavabo leads to a discussion about the connection between our ritual and the temple rituals of the Jewish people.  This leads to a discussion about the Jewish elements of our faith more broadly and those things which we find in our faith that are direct inheritances from Judaism.

A discussion of the commixture and the placing of the fermentum in the chalice after the consecrations leads to a discussion of the nature of bishops and the connection of each celebration of the Eucharist to another – and to a discussion of the role of a Cathedral in the Sacramental life of the diocese.

Patient attention to our rites is a rich engagement with the mysteries of our faith as we find points at which we can more deeply enter the respective ways in which Christ continues to offer himself for us and is present with us.  This is an ongoing process of deepening our engagement with the worship of the ages – with those who have come before and to whom the Holy Spirit gave inspiration.  We enter the realm of holy mystery and immerse ourselves in the seemingly superficial so that new insight might be found at a deeper level.

The trappings – the décor – can be a distraction if we see them only with the superficial eyes of the faithless.  Faithful people are trained to see more at the heart of everything.  This is a sacramental imagination that finds divine promise ready to come forth from the most common of moments.  Meaning-making happens at a number of levels and a well-executed liturgy can be like a dance or any other work of art in which something of the Creator is revealed in the lovingly crafted work.

This kind of revelation does not happen by happenstance – though some may come and be transfixed by unfolding beauty.  There is a kind of deeper learning that happens though when we have taken the time to investigate and dwell in the mysteries to which we are heirs so that we find fresh life in the well-worn habits of the heart.

Perhaps we do lose focus when we get caught up in endless discussions of superficial markers of our common life – yet when approached with grace and joyful reverence we might find ourselves taken anew with the passion of a God who reveals himself in the mundane and the routine.

Robert

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Waiting on God: Advent and Violence

A sermon preached at the 8:00, 9:00, and 11:15 am Masses at Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver on the Second Sunday of Advent.

Sermon audio may be found here.

When I was growing up, I stayed at my grandmother’s house quite a bit. She was a Roman Catholic of the old type – there were paintings of the Last Supper and of Mary around the house. There were copies of religious tracts around and she had pictures of Jesus with children, of Jesus with his disciples, of Jesus doing all manner of things – surfing and snowboarding I think.
What I remember most though about the décor was the crucifixes everywhere. In every room there was a least one and usually more than that. Her theory was that no matter where you looked you should see a crucifix and be reminded of the Passion of Christ. This may explain my fondness for Lent.
crucifixionAfter a while though, each of those images of the crucifixion blended together – you just didn’t see them anymore because there were so many. Jesus’s suffering became a kind of generic wallpaper and the overwhelming power of God’s self-offering was lost in the clutter of the repetitiveness of the image.
As I sat down to finish my sermon for today, I had all of my notes in order, a sermon full of sound teaching and theological rigor was just about ready to print. I took a short break and opened my Facebook page and there, at the top of the page, was the following headline, “San Bernadino gunman shoots 20 people.”
This, of course, comes on the heels of the shootings in Colorado Springs which came just after the Paris attacks which happened after the downing of a Russian jetliner and the attacks in Nigeria and Mali.
On and on the news seems to go. One day follows another and one mass tragedy follows another.
These tragedies, one after the other, have become part of the wallpaper of our society. Those many images of the crucifixion in my grandmother’s house did not lose their power because of their ubiquity. The crucifixion never loses its power.
It was just so common that I was no longer shocked by it.
Now, as daily tragedies unfold, I wonder if we are losing our ability to be shocked – to be horrified – by the violence of the day.
It has become so common that it is the macabre Muzak of our culture – the background noise of a nation at play that is too distracted to be shocked and too stimulated to be aroused by daily horror.
Over the last 1,004 days there have been 994 mass shootings in America. Repeat. There have been more mass shootings in the United States this year than there have been days in the year.
A mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot in one incident. 994 mass shootings in 1,004 days resulting in 1,260 deaths and 3,606 injuries. This is all according to the Mass Shooter Tracking website – that such a site exists is an indictment of our whole culture.
This does not count the general level of gun violence in this country. So far this year, guns have claimed 12,183 lives. 24,654 people have been injured.
The crosses are hanging all around us now – bodies broken, lives taken, and dreams shattered. This is not an exercise in statistics. Each of those numbered from the first to the twelve thousand one hundred and eighty third is a beloved child of God.

 

What number would Jesus find acceptable?  When would there be one too many for Jesus?
Perhaps Shannon Johnson, who died protecting Denise Paraza in San Bernadino would have been one too many?
Perhaps Nicholas Thalasinos, who just renewed his wedding vows with his wife Jennifer would have been one too many?
Perhaps Bennetta Bet-Badal who fled Iran in the face of religious extremism only to be killed in San Bernadino – perhaps one too many?
Perhaps Garrett Swasey, a campus police officer, who arrived early on the scene in Colorado Springs. Perhaps Victoria Soto or Anne Marie Murphy who both died saving children at Sandy Hook elementary. Or perhaps one of the twelve girls or eight boys murdered there.
Which one of them would have been one too many for Jesus? When would he have said, “Enough?”
It would be easy to look away – to believe that we, like Pontius Pilate, are not guilty because we do not do the deeds ourselves.
I’m not a politician – I don’t know the political answer. I’m not a law enforcement official – I don’t know the enforcement answer. I’m not a mental health professional – I don’t know the psychological answer.

 

But I am a Christian. I am baptized. And I know this – there is no collateral damage in the loving embrace of God – God counts none as dispensable thus he sent a son who would be a ransom for a captive world – for a lost and sinful people.
This Advent we wait. We wonder at the coming of Christ.
The first line of our first reading today could not be more appropriate as the prophet Baruch cries out, “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.”
Sorrow and affliction have staked their claim on us in the midst of so many tragedies. Yet we look with longing eyes toward the beauty of the glory of God revealed under a star in a manger.
Facing the chaos and rage of a fumbling creation – Christ enters not taking up arms to defeat the enemy but lying in the arms of his mother disarming hatred with love. Undoing anger with mercy. Releasing the hold of death by triumphing over the grave.
The way to the revelation of the glory of God was paved by the call to repentance as John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness. The path was being made straight and the rough ways made smooth as John called the people of God to follow him so that all might see the salvation of God.
He called those who would know God to repent and to be baptized into new life. We have pledged ourselves to this work of repentance and reparation. The coming of Christ among us was not only an act by which the Son of God looked like humanity – but an act by which humanity might more closely resemble the Son of God.
This is the heart of baptism – that we become children of God and heirs to the promises of Christ and are welcomed into his ministry.
In our baptism we promise a number of things.
We promise first to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness which rebel against God. We promise next to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We also promise to strive for justice and peace – to persevere in resisting evil, and to repent and return to the Lord.
Now is a time when we must renounce Satan – when we can say with boldness that the violence which is destroying the beloved of God is a work of the Devil.
Justice and peace are not soft words that we use to indicate the mildness of a baby in a manger – they are God’s claims upon the hearts of the faithful, the children of God, that we might have the courage to stand firm even as the Devil marches toward us as remember our promises, when we said over and over again, “I will with God’s help.”
It is with God’s help that we are called to name, renounce, and reject the works of the Devil – to stand firm in love.
At a funeral this past Friday, I listened to a reading from Romans which read, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”
The Creation waits with eager longing looking for the children of God to stand up – to let the glory of Christ shine forth in our lives and witness.
This is Advent – a season of waiting. We wait. Our communities wait. Our states wait. Our nation waits. Those who weep, those who mourn, and those who fear wait for they have had enough. Enough of blood. Enough of tears. Enough of Death. Enough.
Advent is here. It is a season of waiting. We wait for God to take action for the healing of the world – we wait for God to say, “Enough!”
God is waiting for us to as well. He is waiting for us to say, “Enough.” He too is waiting for the revealing of the children of God. He knows that this is Advent – and He waits.

 

Robert

We Believe? On the Limits of Inclusion

There is a discussion going on in a couple of places right now about whether or not it is appropriate to omit the Nicene Creed at Sunday services – setting aside the rubrical and historical notes for a moment the most troubling thing to me about the discussion is the notion that it is “inclusive” to omit it.  There are those who have gone so far as to call its use “bullying.”

This is where the notion of inclusion loses all fixed reference to reality.

In order to be included in something then something must have some sort of definable shape, belief, boundary, norm, or pattern.  The notion that if we recite the Creed on Sundays then we are excluding someone somehow misses an essential point – excluding them from what?

For all the talk about inclusion in the Church the sad thing to me is that this has become a cheap thing – we are too often not including people in anything more challenging, life-changing, or controversial than a New York Times subscription.  The only thing the Church includes anyone in is in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – the mystery at the heart of the Creed.

We are going to have fewer and fewer people enter our churches over time who have any formation in the basic teachings of the faith or exposure to the claims we make about Jesus Christ.  For those who have questions – ask away.  For those who doubt – doubt away.  For those who have trouble believing – please do continue to wrestle.  Yet, there are those coming through our doors, aching in our communities, weighing whether to accept an invitation – and they are not weighing an invitation to stale cookies and bad coffee.  They are weighing an invitation to something that upends who they think are, who they know others to be, and has reknit the very essence of Creation.

We are welcoming them to the joy of salvation.  Whether we recognize its lyrics or not – the Creed is a salvation hymn that expresses the movement of the Spirit over generations of the Church and lays out the shape of God’s interplay with humanity in past, present, and future.  This is a salvation that has been proclaimed from cave to cathedral through tragedy and triumph.  It has been sung of and whispered about.  It was fought over and debated.  Word of it is handed to us to pass on to those who come afterward.

Do I believe every word?  Do you?  Does every visitor?  It doesn’t matter.  I am not an ecumenical council.  I am not the canons.  I am not the Prayer Book.  I am not any of these things and neither is any one church nor any one visitor.  We can only be clearly, openly, audaciously honest about what we proclaim as the inheritance of faith – an inheritance wrestled over and debated over time and through the ministry and working of the Holy Spirit.

Part of belonging – being included – in an institution that finds its pattern and being planted before the foundation of the world is that it is bigger than us.  It claims things that we do not comprehend.  If it did not then I don’t suspect that it would be terribly compelling.  This mystery is what we are being included into – not into our local church.  Not into a denomination.  Not into a coffee hour.  We are being called to find our place in salvation history – in the unfolding power and promise of Christ.

So we say, again and again, “We believe.” It is an aspirational statement.  It is a claim.  It is a hope.  It is even a lament – a lament because we lose part of who we are when we say it even as we know that we are being caught up in a new identity that will shape and mold our being.  It is beautiful in its binding simplicity and its ever-unfurling complexity.

We say it together because we hope it’s true.  We long for it to come to pass.  We know its promise and yet we still ache.  We hope, and long, and ache and we believe.

Robert

For a good, thoughtful look at this I recommend Fr Chris Arnold’s blog http://www.fatherchristopher.org/blog/on-the-nicene-creed-in-the-liturgy/

The Gift of Joy and Wonder

Recently, Karrie and I adopted two young boys.  We have been in the adoption process for some time yet the news still came as a surprise (which we received while on vacation in Tibet).  We got home and two days later were meeting the amazing birth family.  Our life has been a bit topsy-turvy since then – yet in a wonderful way.  I have not really had the chance to write or even time to reflect it seems as this rather dramatic change in our life has unfolded.  Yet, over and over again, I have found myself touched by one particular thing – the fresh joy with which children view the world.

There is a tiredness to life that sets in over time.  Perhaps it is jaded-ness or perhaps it is ennui – whatever one calls it the result is the same.  Life looks less like living and more like enduring.  Having these two boys come into our lives has reawakened some sense in me of God’s redeeming work – has opened the eyes of faith.

Those of us who work for the Church professionally often find ourselves caught up in its turmoil and strife.  We become fix-it men and women – rather like those political hacks who get hired every four years to handle some problem or another.  We are expected to fix things and to get things done so that the Church or our church might persevere for a time longer.

This is all well and good, I suppose.  There are real problems that need tending and significant issues to be fixed.  Yet, I find myself wondering, if Jesus called children unto Himself so that new eyes and fresh life might come into the midst of those too weary to behold the life and light of the world.

I am perpetually amused (and even sometimes a little annoyed) by the barrage of questions the boys have.  Why are we going this way?  When will we be there?  Did you see that semi-truck?  It’s blue.  Why is it blue?  Where is it going?  Isn’t it neat?

On and on the questions and amazement go.

When did we stop asking questions?  I suppose we wanted the questions to stop because they annoyed us so we began making proclamations instead.  I think God would rather that we ask amazed questions rather than make exhausted declarations.  I think He would have us wondering aloud at the beauty of it all.  I think Jesus welcomes children because we adults get too tired.

If the Church is not the home of wondering questions – of even annoyingly persistent ones – then I am not sure what it is really for.  Those new to us will have questions.  Those who suffer will have questions.  Those who lose and who are lost will have them.  We will all have questions and we will all long for a place of new hope and new life.

Children see the potential of the world and of life.  They understand that what is spread before them is limitless horizon – they are ever on the cusp of revelation’s promise.  We adults, trained in scientific methods, enlightenment notions, and rational discourse are supposed to find firmness of purpose and possibility in what we see and know.

boy-wonder-1Yet, children know the world is suffused with possibility and its seams are pulling apart because latent grace is yearning to break free.  They see within tree and grass and tide and even within terror that more is there – more is just waiting to be held and beheld for the first time.  They step forward boldly because they are aware that something is calling and that love will hold them fast as they reach out for more.

At baptism we pray for children baptized as follows:

“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

It is only in a world of wonder (a world where true joy may be found) that Jewish carpenters (and us along with Him) are raised from the dead.

Crucial to the life of the newly baptized is the hope that they will receive the gift of joy and wonder.  My prayer for the Church is that we can recapture wonder – that we can live with such joy in our salvation that those we love and those we meet might find us asking questions, delighting in discovery, and ever on the cusp – at the horizon – of God’s unfurling and unending love.  May we be convinced that Love is holding us fast even as we are drawn to reach for more.

Robert

Considering Abortion: Dialogue and Dignity in the Episcopal Church

One of the inescapable and salient truths that comes across in Laudato Si, the Pope’s recent encyclical, is the powerful interconnectedness of the created order that is imprinted into the very fabric of creation. A loving God calls us to respond to his generosity with generous love and care for the whole order of creation not only as a way of passing on creation to those who come after us but because an inherent dignity is conferred on that order through God’s self-giving. We are to see in the world around us something created for delight which is to be delighted in and not simply exploited. Creation is an expression of God’s love that is to be received with reverence and treated with grace. This interconnectedness demands something of us.

I have read the work with a mixture of joy, shame, and awe. I take joy in this Pope’s willingness to put the moral force of the Church behind an issue with global and historic ramifications. I am awed by both the simplicity of his approach and the clarity of his thinking. I have been shamed in contemplating my own complicity in the degradation of creation and in pondering my own too frequent lack of action.

Yet another piece of the encyclical triggered complex feelings. A little acknowledged portion of the encyclical reads, “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”


Like so many, I have long been conflicted over the Church’s response to abortion. I once found myself in the company of those from one side who would use terms like “holocaust” to describe abortion. At other points I have found myself vigorously defending the right to choose and decrying the incrementalist encroachments on that right that have become so routine in so many places.

Yet, just when I think that I have settled what I believe, some deep seated unease returns. I have been generally unwilling as a priest to broach this issue. I know people who have terminated pregnancies. I know they do so for reasons that are complicated, painful, and distressing. They are people of faith and goodwill who long to follow Christ in an imperfect world.

I have had few qualms about speaking openly about my belief that the death penalty, torture, and exploitative labor practices are crudely and cruelly sinful. Yet I have come short in talking openly about abortion except with close friends and colleagues. Reading the Pope’s clarity has made me question that reticence. I can’t comfortably not have the conversation when the fundamental theological question is one of interconnectedness and our care for the vulnerable.

Many have been quick to praise Francis for his forthright declarations on the dignity of creation. It seems that we must be just as willing to hear his message with regard to the dignity of the unborn as well.

This is not an easy proposition in the Episcopal Church. We theoretically have taken Bill Clinton’s maxim of “safe, legal, and rare” to heart. Yet there is a general assumption that being pro-life is primarily the province of the retrograde and the reactionary. I’m simply not sure that clear division can exist in a Church that takes strong positions on dignity in many forms. When we speak so clearly on the fundamental dignity of LGBT folks, on labor rights, on environmental justice, on immigration policy, and countless other issues, we may need to welcome the voices of those who would call us to consider the unborn among those deserving of our commitment to their protection.

Interconnectedness and dignity may call us to be open to voices that speak for those without a voice.

This may take a wide range of forms and we would be ill served if we allow a zero-sum mentality to dominate our dialogue on this. For example, here in Colorado, many conservatives vehemently opposed the open availability of contraceptives to teens. Yet, from 2009-2013, there was a 40% drop in teen pregnancies and a 35% drop in abortion statewide. This was a success from a public health point of view. It was also a success if one goal is to reduce the overall number of abortions.

We cannot separate public policy and effective sex education from these questions. If we are going to deepen an understanding of human dignity we need to open the conversation up as widely as possible. Our primary concern can’t be the control of women’s bodies but for the kind of thorough public education and policy that makes abortion a rarely needed option. Legal solutions are not the only ones available to us nor is dualistic thinking going to help us arrive at a place where abortion is considered only as a needed option in extreme cases.

If we are going to take interconnectedness and dignity to be firm foundations in our public theology then we are going to need to have an honest, open dialogue on abortion that breaks open our desire for simple answers. A comprehensive, consistent ethic of life – of care and compassion from life’s first stirrings and beyond – should make this conversation one that we are humbly determined to engage.

I can’t say what my thinking about the legalities of abortion will be in five years or in ten. I can say with confidence that I will be disappointed if we haven’t engaged the issue with the eyes, heart, and hope of faith. I don’t expect us to find clarity any time soon but I do hope that our openness to ask the questions and to listen to voices we might rather ignore may help grow in faith, hope, and love. This is one challenge of interconnectedness – we need one another to ask hard questions, seek faithful answers, and to hear the still small voice speaking freshly.

Robert

One Lesson from China: Belief in a Post-Something Society

Sometimes I get asked what I would do if I was not a priest. In all likelihood there are two options – the first is an academic path in which I imagine teaching modern Chinese history – teaching post-Mao Marxist ideology or the like. The second option might be for Karrie and me to run a bed and breakfast or hostel in the foothills of the Himalayas, Yunnan province, in China. We’d serve a range of staple backpacker foods and meet folks from all over the world through the day. Having spent a good bit of time over the last decade or so visiting, studying, and traveling in China and talking with experts and cab-drivers alike I have developed a sense of what living in a post-something society looks like.

In China, there is a palpable sense of the desire for more. For some it is more money, for others more stability, for others it is more connection. Yet, across the country more is longed for. The old spiritual and philosophical infrastructure was torn apart by the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution and the ascendancy of the economic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. A century or more of instability, starvation, and humiliation led to a country that was ready for a little pragmatism after the paroxysms of revolution, war, and more.

The Cultural Revolution, in particular, laid waste to much of the essence of Chinese culture. Old thought, old ways, old architecture, and more were destroyed, purged, and burned in a decade of psychosocial and political upheaval.  It’s difficult for us to imagine the costs of the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese economy and education ground to a standstill and countless cultural artifacts, religious sites, and historical treasures were destroyed.  

It was a complicated period but perhaps no more complicated than McCarthyism or the Draft Riots or other points in our own history when we needed to find enemies and conspiracies.

Yet, as Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao’s death, he came with a simple premise. The government would maintain order and provide economic growth. Its legitimacy would rest on results not ideology. What happened next was an almost unbelievable economic miracle that continues to change China from day to day. Each year I go back and it feels as if another decade of economic change has gone by. Yet each year something else happens too – I talk with young people who wonder aloud, more and more frequently, “Is this all there is?”

When Mao purged Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity from the public consciousness it primed a reinvention of Chinese identity.  As material progress unfolds and the emerging generations are further and further removed from the political chaos of their parents’ generation and the mass starvation of their grandparents’ there is a desire to reconnect with what is most essential to human identity and specifically Chinese identity. 

Temples and churches are full of young people asking the most basic questions and even Chinese propagandists are talking of the Chinese Dream – something deeper than ideology or practical economic gain. 

Christian history in China is bound up with particularly cruel violence and conflict: the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Taiping Rebellion all shaped the way Christians are viewed in China. After the second Opium War, the Summer Palace was burned and looted. Cultural treasures were hauled off from across Beijing by a force of British and French troops. The great French novelist Victor Hugo, writing to a friend, was unsparing in his report: “All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One plundered, the other burned. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits—before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. ”

The complex feelings many Americans have toward Islam now because of 9/11 resemble the emotions that some Chinese have about Christians. For the Chinese, the events of the 1860s are present in their collective memory in much the way that Americans recall the Civil War.

Yet Christianity thrives in China. “By my calculations,” writes one Chinese scholar of religion, “China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon” (Fenggang Yang, Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule). “It is going to be less than a generation,” Yang writes, “Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change.”

 

Chinese Christians kneeling outside South Cathedral during a standing room only mass.

 
I truly believe that a similar, if less ideologically orchestrated, shift is underway in the United States. We are witnessing in a generation the erasure of a host of assumptions about what is or is not essential to our identity. Assumptions about racial and gender identity are superficial manifestations of the unseating of cultural norms and conventions. The place of religion in our society is changing as well – its norms and conventions are being undone. Fundamental shifts are happening at a pace that is jarring because it is happening at the new speed of communication – change is happening at the pace of rapid-fire text messaging rather than that of lovingly crafted letters.

A cultural revolution is underway here that is being powered not by a centralized authority but by our collective acquiescence to technological and consumerist desires.  The impact, however, will be long felt and devastating.  There are pockets of resistance and a general sense of unease yet I suspect that the harm will be done before we realize it has happened.  Look at the way education is being treated now as a commodity and students as consuming customers for some insight into what is happening broadly in our culture.

In some ways the change is barbaric in its pace and intensity. When the walls of Rome fell I wonder if those watching saw it as simply one more incursion in a series of them? I doubt there was there a decisive moment when they said, “Oh, we’re in the Dark Ages now.” I tend to think that little by little dramatic changes in succession are lost in a wave of significance and insignificance alike. There’s a shifting of the terrain and you look about and realize that the world moved as you glanced away.

The world is moving around us.  There is no shortage of blog posts, books, and essays on what manner of post-something society in which we now find ourselves.  Yet the fundamental search for truth and identity remains fixed.  We are a people who seek pattern and meaning even as our sources of stable authority and measures of validity change.  We still search for fixed points though even as we distrust meta-narratives.
One noticeable thing in Buddhist temples in China is the discomfort with proper ways to show respect in religious places. Some Chinese enter them knowing exactly what to do – they bow and offer incense and prostrate in precisely the right ways. These are older folks who learned these things in a way that was deeper than memory and outlasted the petty virulence of the Red Guards of the 60s.  Custom and meaning are inhabited in a way that lasts beyond change and revolution.

Younger Chinese come in with less certainty but more earnestness – they arrive hoping to find something there. They are not sure what to do, they bow and look out of the corner of their eyes and wonder if they’re doing it right. They offer incense but aren’t sure how much to offer. They prostrate but can’t quite figure out how many times is the right number of times. Yet they are coming. They are coming because they know there is more in a culture that longs for more. It’s counter-cultural and it’s counter-intuitive and yet it’s happening across China.

Unfolding around us in the United States is a great leveling – a cultural revolution.  Things which had been raised up are being cast down and yet I truly believe that all things are being brought to their perfection. We are being called to offer something ancient to a culture that is losing its accumulated and inherited sense of depth, beauty, and meaning. Fascination with self, celebrity, and status are going to wear thin though and we are going to look up from screens.  We are going to look into the mirror and ask, “Is this all there is?”

It’s happening now – it’s happening all around us. People are nervously coming into our churches, unsure how to act, uncertain as to why they are there, and yet they know there is more. In so many places we are a Church built for the generations of the certain – built for those who know the stories yet who disagree on the moral or the authorship or the details.

Many of our churches are places that reinforce the story as we like to tell it – massaging details for those who found the story lacking punch or promise at another purveyor. Yet the generation that is coming will not have heard it at all. They won’t come with preconceptions or the like – they’ll come with faint stirrings or with dreadful certainty that there is more. Are we equipped and ready to tell the story wholly anew?

Can we be the place that stands with faith and hope in the desert as the oasis when the thirst sets in?  What looks like collapse now for the Church is not really collapse – it is a return to nomadic faith – a faith that preaches to those outside the walls who find that living within them comes at too great a price. We are being given the chance to drink and offer living water as hosts at the well. 

The Church’s stability of the last fifty years has been bought at a high price as we have too often leased integrity for political collusion and social comfort. Our home won’t be the security of civilization much longer for the civilized world will have little use for us. An empire of distraction can’t really abide a source of truth.

As surely though as young Chinese are finding their way back after the leveling of Maoist excess and the apparent triumph of economic determinism – so too will we be asked to explain who we are and why we exist. We will be asked about our great promise – and we can really only have one answer.

We are the Body of Christ living, loving, and learning in such a way that people see more in us. I believe that is the moment for which we are being readied. We are being prepared for a time of wandering, a time of gathering, a time of story telling when we will gather not reflecting on where we were, where we once called home, but relishing the journey together as Jerusalem beckons again. 

 Along the way, people will come. They will hear songs of faith and see acts of compassion and they will come. They will see miracles and simple signs of love that will be remarkable for they will be real and not cropped on screens and filtered.  They’ll see our imperfection and our hurt and our questioning and they’ll come because they will hurt, and question, and be tired of Instagrammed perfection. 

They’ll be sure there’s more and we will be wise, in our camps outside the walls, to receive them with open arms for they will change us and they will be our future and hope for they will call us to share Christ anew.

Robert

Of Papal Encyclicals and Charleston: Mutual Responsibility and the Body

This past two weeks I have spent much time with Chinese Christians. I have marveled at their faithful perseverance and creativity in the face of political and cultural pressure. So it was with incredible sadness that I read of the news of the murder of nine innocents in a South Carolina church. Just as I was pondering and imagining the powerful interconnectedness, indeed the interdependence, of gatherings of Christians upon one another I read of the rending and tearing at the heart of a Christian community by debased hatred.

Of course, on the same evening as I read this news I read another piece of news that was heartening and reiterated our connectedness. Pope Francis released his long anticipated encyclical on our stewardship of the environment, connection to God, and our mutual responsibility. Many are viewing this as simply a declaration on he environment – it is dramatically more than that. It is an emphatic sermon on our God-given identity and promise rooted in a sacramental truth – a grace-filled revelation – that explores our true and holy ideal.

In reading these two pieces of news I could not help but wonder what their common thread was. It is simply this – God gives and we take.

God gives us diversity and we debase the image of God.

God gives us creation and we grind, tear, and rip that gift to pieces.

God gives us sustenance – in creation and one another – and we take until we are distorted by gluttony as our own image is bloated beyond recognition and distorted with inhuman desire. That desire may be for status, belonging, or purity as we establish that others are clearly lower than us. That desire may be for wallets, bellies, and homes crammed beyond our needs or hopes and yet we know ourselves blessed because more is ours.

Others become the means to an end. With no end in sight we decide that the ends of the earth and the ends of others are simply he cost of a well-deserved life. So nations plunder nations. People stand by as rights and dreams are pillaged. Though it all we benefit from diffuse responsibility and slyly differentiated aspirations. Each of us says, “Well, that’s the way it is, I suppose.”

Environmental and Social responsibility are lost in the midst of varied and shifting daily pressures. Yet our aspirations cloud and obscure the fact that our aspirations are the burden of too many others. It’s no long bit of algebra to see in decaying neighborhoods and drained aquifers the same drying up of the pools of richness and diversity that God intends to feed, nurture, and nourish all of us. Yet a virtual kleptocracy has evolved which steals the very future of generations for the immediate social and political gratification of the few and of the moment. 

The sacramental generosity of God is not intended to draw us into a vampiric or parasitic relationship with our world or one another. We are called to offer our selves, our souls, and bodies in the very recognition that we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs and yet God pours upon his his very Body to mold, feed, and call us to holy being. We respond not by taking and taking without end but by laying before the throne of grace gifts to be changed by divine Interplay. As we are changed we go out to love and serve – to use the gifts of God for the people of God.

We are faced with the breaking of the Body and respond with the whole coming together of a Body blessed by Resurrection power.

As Christians we are not given dominion but utter servant hood. We are given not the mantle of nobility but the yoke of obedience. That obedience is a call to see in one another our end and hope – our brothers and sisters are not to be exploited, ignored, nor debased. Our natural world is shot-through with holy perfection. Neither is to be our tool but our guide. In them God’s longing and purpose is unveiled. We are called to holy interdependence and mutual care. Our care for one another and for the natural world are measures of our dependence upon the revelation of the Holy Spirit – can we care for and be guided by the easily dominated or quickly ignored?

Over and over again Jesus uses those denied and despised to demonstrate the generosity and love of God. Can we do the same? Can we let the holy healing of the many and the whole lead us? Can we depend on the vulnerability of a diverse creation to break open our fictitious belief that we are in control?

We depend on one another.  We depend on Creation.  We depend on God.  This is Christian liberty.  This is Christian privilege.

Robert

A Message Signed with Blood: A Sermon on the Martyrdom of 21 Christians in Libya

A Message Signed with Blood

A sermon delivered at 8:00, 9:00, and 11:15 masses at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver on March 1, 2015.

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” Mark 8:35

They were seized from villages in Egypt.  Some of those captured were even fishermen like the first disciples to be martyred.  A video camera was set up.

The terrorist declared that this was “A message signed with blood to the Nation of the Cross” and thus fell the knives that sent 21 martyrs to their reward in Libya.  They were put on display for mockery and derision.

Their captors demanded that they recant their faith – that they deny Christ.

Their videotaped murder was designed to frighten Christians everywhere – to shock the sensibilities of the civilized world.  It was a message signed with blood.

Yet it is a message we have received before.  It is a mockery we have known.

When Pontius Pilate had Jesus crucified, he placed a sign above his head that sarcastically hailed him “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Christians have since placed the Latin acronym of this sign — INRI — on our crosses ever since but it was always a mockery.  It was a message signed with blood.

This latest message, sent by ISIS, was sent to the Nation of the Cross.  It was sent to those of us who worship at the foot of the cross, who are marked by its reality, and who wear them with pride.

I suppose though that my question is this.  Why should Christians even wear crosses?

Christians have worn the symbol on their chests and emblazoned it on their banners for two millennia. But the cross is nothing more than an instrument of torture used to kill criminals, cow a populace, and execute a Jewish leader named Jesus.

Why would a Christian display a cross with pride? The cross is an insult. The cross is the thing that humiliated and killed the Son of God.

Really, the cross does not belong on the Christian; the Christian belongs on the cross.

Christians hold fast to the truth that the cross was intended for us – the punishment for sin.  Yet, Christ allowed himself to be placed upon it and took with him the sins of the world.  It was for us and it was born by the Son of God out of divine love.

4-1-Glory-in-the-CrossThis is why the nation of the cross holds it up; and the cross is meaningless if it is no longer a reminder of this painful, mocking fact. In this season of Lent, as we make our way toward Good Friday, we are mocked.

It is when Christianity has forgotten this fact, forgotten this shame and mockery, that we have lost our bearings and committed our deepest sins. It is because Christians forgot what the cross meant that they were able to paint it on their shields and march to the war, seize empires, and hold Inquisitions.

Christianity is a strange and paradoxical faith, and the Cross is at the heart of it.

The glory of the cross and of our faith is precisely in its King’s shame. It is nonsensical and it is beautiful.  It is easy to mock.

If Christianity forgets this, it forgets its very self.

The barbarism of ISIS will find itself undone, as every terrorist and petty tyrant in our history has been, because we are a faith that is defined by mockery, that is marked by blood, and that is forged in derision.  We are the nation of the cross not because we are willing to wear it but because we are marked but it.

It is a message signed with blood to those marked by blood.

Jesus’s Blood has bound us together – all of us into that life and death – in him all things are held together.

When asked what his reaction would be if he saw an Islamic State militant, Beshir Kamel, the brother of two of the martyrs in Libya recalled his mother’s response.

“My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven,” Beshir said.

As the Church – the Body – we are called to strive for the world around us – for that Blood was shed for it. To bring all we know, love, and hold dear into the same family – to plead for God to open eyes everywhere.

As the Cross is lifted up for all to be drawn to Christ, we are now part of that labor of reconciliation and love.

Our Catechism says the mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Reconciliation is more than repairing wrongdoing. Though it is that. It is more than apology, reparation, or renewal – though it may be all of those.

Reconciliation is the restoration of all things in the Blood of Christ as we see and know that all of the human family is brought together in outpoured Love shed for all.

We, by that Blood, now may too call out “Father, thy will be done.” For Christ’s life was lived with this one purpose – that we might be drawn nearer to the Father in faith and hope – that we might know ourselves, by Blood, as a new family.

We know something of Calvary. We have walked the path of shame. We have shouted “crucify” as he pleads “Forgive them.”

From the coliseums and catacombs of Rome.

From the gulags of Soviet Russia to the slums of El Salvador.

From spears wielded at a Shogun’s command in medieval Japan to an assassin’s bullet carrying a Klan’s hate in Memphis.

From James killed with sword to Stephen stoned to death.

From Saint Peter to Saint Sebastian.  From Simon the Zealot to Charles the Martyr.

From Saints Lawrence, Lucy, and Thomas Becket to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero.

From the very Cross of Christ to the desert sands of Libya last week there is indeed – there is indeed – a “message signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross” – and that message is this, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Father forgive.

Forgive.

A New Tabernacle: A Home for Homeless and the Host

This morning, we announced a new partnership to provide housing for those who are most vulnerable in our community.  At our parish conversation about the partnership I talked about the way we welcome the homeless in our midst as being directly tied to the way we worship.

The Cathedral is committing to the work of a new Tabernacle – we will create a place of safety for the Body of Christ.  It is imperative that we who seek Christ’s Presence see him revealed in those too easily ignored.

adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposedEvery celebration of the mass is an act of faith in which our eyes see with the soul’s longing for God.  The way we encounter those in need is as much an act of faith.  Christ is revealed to faithful eyes.  It is easy to scoff at the Body of Christ veiled beneath the form of simple bread.  It is just as tempting to scoff at the Presence of Christ in someone who is too easy to dismiss because of poverty.

Yet, beneath the surface, waiting for faithful eyes to see, is new life – is the source of our salvation.  In the Eucharist we receive Grace upon Grace.  In serving those most in need we receive grace as well – we find that the space of relationship becomes hallowed ground where new life is born.  In those relationships we find ourselves broken open and reformed with the gold of sympathy and genuine love filling in the cracks.

Whether we see or not, that grace, that genuine Presence is there – God’s promise is alive.  Yet it is in receiving that Communion fires in us new hope.  It is in reaching out our hand in love to one whom others avoid that hope breaks us open for grace to find a home.  Beneath lowly forms God makes Himself known.

Each Sunday, as Communions are administered, I kneel in my stall.  This morning I was powerfully struck that I was kneeling before the Christ at the Altar and I was also kneeling before the Body of the Faithful who came by one by one.    The Christ before whom we kneel would, I think, welcome us kneeling before one another on occasion as we see within each other grace swelling and shining forth.

In our parish conversation, one of our most dedicated volunteers, related that hers is a ministry of small things.  She provides newspapers to the women who stay with us on Monday nights.  She hands out aspirin, makes coffee, folds pillowcases, and more.  She also mentioned one powerful act of love (which she would not claim as such).

She talked of rubbing lotion onto the feet of the women – many of whom are on their feet all day long.  I couldn’t help but be transported back to the moments when costly oil was being rubbed on the feet of Jesus.  I could not help but think of the complaints of the money about to be spent on “expensive” housing for the homeless – a waste surely?

So often, the eyes of faith see a chance for love where others only see a need to be met and in those moments, adoration begets adoration, and love begets love.

As Saint John’s embarks on this partnership, we are announcing to the congregation, the city, and the diocese that we place our ministry with those most in need at the very heart of our congregation’s life and witness.  It is at much at the center of our life as the Tabernacle.  This project will announce that something crucial and life-changing is happening here at Saint John’s.  Something glorious is happening in the heart of the city and in our hearts.

Saint John’s Cathedral is physically a large building.  By its presence, it symbolizes both the glory of God and of the Church. The money and talents expended on the building are a tangible manifestation of our longing to honor God and to meet God in the beauty of holiness.  By consecrating part of our property for ministry with the homeless we are meeting Christ in another way –in a way that is as beautiful as our worship.

Nothing will give me greater joy in ministry here than elevating the Host at Mass and looking just past it and seeing, through the Cathedral’s open doors, a project rise that will mirror the action at the Altar.  The Body will be held with love and will be Present among us in the way it always is – changing and challenging those who see with faithful eyes.

Robert

Must All Episcopal Bishops be Elected? A Modest Proposal

For one reason or another, bishop elections have been on my mind lately.  With the news out of Maryland, the coming election of a new Presiding Bishop, and the Dean of the Cathedral here in Denver being a finalist in Southeast Florida’s election I find myself wondering about the efficacy of all episcopal seats being elected ones.

As I look at the needs of the Church in the near future, it seems that a certain flexibility may be required in how we call bishops in the Episcopal Church.  I wonder if every bishop need be an elected one and if every bishop’s office need be full-time.

My thought is this.  If we were to retain elections for all diocesan bishops but allow the naming of suffragan and local bishops by diocesan bishops we could create a certain flexibility that does not now exist in our current process.  More than flexibility we could also allow for more direct engagement with bishops and have the kinds of bishops named who might not otherwise be elected.

As we prepare to enter an election cycle in our nation, the issue of primaries and general elections comes to mind.  There are candidates who would be excellent presidents who simply are not the kind of people we elect in our processes.  Take, for example, the excellent Indiana Senator Richard Lugar.  He is a brilliant diplomatic mind and good senator who represented a kind of politics that is lost in our electoral life (he was dislodged from office by a much lesser candidate in a primary).  Senator Lugar ran for president ever so briefly but never got the kind of necessary name-recognition or generated the steam to be elected.

A comparison to national politics is imperfect but illustrative.  Senator Lugar would, without a doubt, have had all of the skills and the temperament to be an excellent president – but he was ill-suited to be a candidate.

bishop-miterIf we were to retain elections at the diocesan level, those bishops could be free to name a less “flashy” or conventionally “attractive” candidate to a local area or to a suffragan position where they could prove their talent and skill and be a more complete candidate later for a diocesan position.  We could call pastors, theologians, organizers, and more who are doing innovative and spiritually rich work and give them a chance to grow and serve not because their work is the most “attractive” or because they lead “significant” parishes but because it is essential to sharing the Gospel in a changing world.

The kinds of candidates who could be named could be the kinds of candidates who do not, currently, represent the “norm” in our elections.  Whether because they are younger, minority candidates, women, are in relatively unknown ministries, or simply aren’t that “charming” – there are a number of reasons that they might not be “electable” but would still be excellent bishops.  In this way, we could take a chance on a different type of leadership and lay the foundation for those candidates to emerge later at the diocesan level.

This would have the benefit not only of raising up different kinds of candidates but do so in a much more cost-effective and responsive way.  In a diocese as large as ours, in Colorado, one could easily see the value of appointing a local bishop for areas simply too far away to be regularly seen by our bishop (who works mightily to do this work).  It would also allow for those local bishops to be not full-time bishops but perhaps be serving local rectors.  In this way we could recognize the local needs of an area and find those with specialized gifts to pastor those areas.

This could happen in a number of ways.  The simplest may be for the diocesan bishop to have the wherewithal to appoint a new bishop subject to the approval of the standing committee and, of course, consents from the House of Bishops.  There are other, perhaps more convoluted ways to do such a thing, but if part of the goal is flexibility then creating many more hoops to jump through would not be all that helpful.

With this plan, a diocesan bishop could also appoint missionary bishops to work in underserved areas to look for ways to creatively plant and grow churches.

Of course the flexibility that this would create in the episcopacy would transfer to the flexibility we could use at the local level.  As we look for ways to spur creative engagement with our communities it would be enormously helpful to have bishops who know their locales in a more intimate way and who can offer guidance and support that is informed by closer relationships and partnerships at the local level.  Moreover, they will be formed in, perhaps, a more recent church climate and may better understand the realities of the current day.

There are a host of questions that such a shift would certainly raise but it seems worth the conversation.

At the end of the day though, a bishop is called not because we want management but because our local parishes are extensions of a bishop’s ministry and each Altar is an extension of the bishop’s.  However we choose bishops in the future, my hope is that we can view the relationship as a Sacramental one first and a managerial one far below that primary unity.

Robert