Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Preacher's Study - All Saints, Year C

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2013, or observed on Sunday, Nov 3)

William H. Petersen

                                     Contextual Considerations

The festival of All Saints is the last major feast day of the liturgical year. It has been particularly beloved by Anglicans, perhaps because of its origin in the British Isles before migrating to Rome and becoming by the eighth century a set feast on November 1st for the entire western church. It is the only festal day of the medieval sanctorale (apart from persons named in the New Testament) to have survived in the calendar of the English Reformation.

In modern times, the continuing significance of the day is attested by the 1979 American BCP and the 1985 Canadian BAS. In setting forth the calendar of the church year, both books make special note that, though the day falls invariably on November 1st, it may be celebrated on the Sunday following. This exceptional rubric affirms, first, that the observance is principally a feast of Christ according to the rule for all Sundays, and secondly, it tacitly recognizes that most people today do not or cannot attend weekday liturgies. Thus, to highlight its importance, the feast is, for all intents and purposes, transferred to the Sunday following.

For Anglicans, as well as for others who have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, the observance has been further enriched by provision of a three-year cycle of readings for the day. Thus, we are not limited every year, as was previously the case, to only a single set of lections, viz. Ecclesiasticus (“let us now praise famous [sic] men”), Revelation (“the multitude...standing before the Lamb”), and Matthew (the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount).

As the final major feast of the sanctorale, the observance of All Saints provides a fitting culmination of the liturgical year as well. The festival in itself provides a vision of the corporate nature of salvation, indeed implied by Christ’s resurrection, but in this celebration the Paschal Mystery reaches toward its full manifestation. The petition of All Saints is best realized by Charles Wesley’s hymn Love Divine: “Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee: changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

All Saints, as a watershed moment, also marks a conclusion of the liturgical year. The atmosphere, indeed, the focus and content, of the lections for the seven Sundays following All Saints day are exclusively eschatological as befits the primary emphasis of Advent at the start of the new liturgical year. It is only on the Sunday before Christmas that the focus begins to change from an emphasis on the full manifestation of God’s reign, transitioning at the last moment to an incarnational focus on the Nativity. There will be more about an expanded understanding of Advent in weeks to come.

                                     Reflection on the Lections

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18. Apocalyptic vision rather than prophecy is the strategy of choice for writers, inspired or otherwise, when dealing with matters that do not safely allow explicit reference. This passage from the beginning of the second part of Daniel (ca. 165 BC) is a fair representation of the genre. Here, however, the passage is truncated to emphasize two items pertinent to All Saints: an affirmation of the ultimate triumph of God’s reign against its foes or any powers inimical to it and, secondly, as a reference to Israel’s regard for God’s “holy ones” who will see this victory. Among Christians, the Orthodox have outshone others by holding up in liturgical observance and iconography the sanctity of figures from the Hebrew Scriptures. There is some value in putting this before contemporary western Christians, if only as a homiletical aside or contextualization.

Psalm 149. Older translations of this psalm (“Let the saints be joyful with glory,” vs 5) go far toward explaining why it was traditionally appointed when only one set of lections was provided for All Saints’ Day. However, it remains a mystery (and not one of the good kind!) why the entire psalm is still indicated for Year C. The implied or explicit glorification of violence in verses 6-9 is totally inappropriate to the day. It is strongly recommended, therefore, that these imprecatory verses not be read, much less sung, but that this gradual be limited to verses 1-5.

Ephesians 1:11-23. This passage aptly sets forth the Pauline theology of the Church as the Body of Christ (referenced also in the collect for the day: “one communion...in the mystical body”). Here the promise and power of the resurrection for the human community and, indeed, the whole creation is made explicit in the communion of saints, whether among and between those who have gone before and the church present or to come. This not only gives occasion to the preacher to set forth the doctrine of All Saints Day in a “true and lively” manner, but also to bring the missional aspect of the celebration into focus: as love – even across the chasm of death – is the bond of life, so faithfulness in living the vision is vital for those who celebrate the feast.

Luke 6:20-31. Here the Year C reading for All Saints provides an almost singular instance in the liturgical year when the injunction to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us is publicly proclaimed. Whether in the contemporary global context or in national or local situations, the preaching opportunity presented here is not to be missed. This passage as a whole, of course, contains the Lukan version of the beatitudes (and woes) from the so-called Sermon on the Plain and, as such, provides a wealth of formational emphasis for what goes to make up sanctity or what must characterize the “holy ones” of God, that is, all those baptized into the Body of Christ.

William H. Petersen is Emeritus Dean & Professor of Bexley Hall Seminary, Columbus, OH. An Honorary Member of APLM Council, he is Consultant to the Ecumenical Office, Episcopal Church Center, NYC, and Founder & Convener of The Advent Project, North American Academy of Liturgy

The painting pictured at the top of this post is “Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter. Her work is available through http://www.eliserittergallery.com/

Friday, October 25, 2013

Immediate Belonging

Immediate Belonging

Juan Oliver

“…though arguments aren’t always better for being ended, they are always better for being addressed.  …what arguments do show …[is] that behind nearly all taste squabbles are value disputes.”[1]

Allow me to suggest that behind our current arguments about our crisis in numbers lays a dispute about values.

Imagine Phillip saying to the Ethiopian eunuch, either, “Sure, why not, let me sprinkle you right now. Don’t even get off your horse!” or,  “Sorry, you are an Ethiopian eunuch,  --it’s out of the question!"  Instead they traveled together and talked, back and forth, about Scripture. I do not know of a better image of the process by which people come to belong to a group. Yet it is truly ironic that the story Phillip and the Ethiope is often trotted out to protest against precisely that process. Then we complain about decreasing pledges.

As Celeste Gardner recently pointed out in APLM´s listserv, one should not approach a person (or parents of one) with a ready made answer to a request for, say, baptism.  Did Phillip and the eunuch talk about what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, the Church Catholic? Probably, though I think, not in those terms.  Did they talk only about the eunuch’s feelings?  Or did they talk also what Jesus and his community meant to Phillip and his people, and what that community was all about?  Were there objections, back and forth as the two tried to frame individual meanings and meanings-shared-in-community in a new Ethiopian eunuch’s synthesis?  For unless the Ethiope at least began the process of constructing meaning for himself out of the conversation, the process failed, remaining only indoctrination.  So, bless Phillip for providing, as Celeste called for, “…the framework in which the community engages each other in conversation and discernment.” 

Such a framework –a structure for coming to belong—is totally absent in most Episcopal churches today.  Never mind that congregational development expert Arlin Rothauge found that congregations with no intentional path to belonging do not grow in numbers.  Never mind that people struggling with Christianity (if not a vaguer itch for spirituality) absolutely need and want the attention offered in this process.
Today it is more common to find just the opposite of the Ethiopian’s journey. A vignette:

Sally and John just had Thomas, their first born.  They have not been to church in almost twenty years, but feel a vague interest in getting Thomas baptized. They call Mother Trish, who, just out of seminary, is of the opinion that since we are all God’s children, there must be no obstacles to baptism. “Oh how wonderful, congratulations on your new baby!  --When would you like to hold the service?” she says to them.  They set a date convenient to the parents, family, and friends.  They say goodbye and hang up. Trish feels good about herself for “including them.”  Sally and John are pleasantly surprised that this was as easy as ordering from Amazon, but a little bewildered at how little attention they received.

Unlike Phillip and the eunuch, Sally and John have no journey with the community into which they are grafting their child. They do not get to meet other congregants. They do not have the slightest chance of making meaning-in-community out of Thomas´ baptism. Beliefs and patterns of understanding are not mutually explored.  The art of conversation is left unexercised and, as a result, Sally and John have no idea of what of who we are as the church, or what this means to them in their lives. They are not given even a chance to grapple with core questions that are foundational to us as a community.  At best, they might, years later, say something like “What? I never heard such a thing! Jesus is GOD?”  At worse they will leave after the baptism and never be seen again, like a bridegroom leaving the bride after the wedding reception.

Why is this so prevalent in our church today? The ´79 BCP (and the ’85 BAS) stress the church as the community of the baptized. So it is a bit bewildering to find ourselves, 34 years on, falling again and again into Trishism.  Would you adopt a child into your family or marry into your spouse’s family without a long process of conversation?  What is making us assume that such a process of conversation is unnecessary, unwanted, even threatening?

It strikes me that it often stems from our particular cultural context.

The Religion of Consumerism.   The rites and rituals of consumerism shape the world in which we find ourselves. From the mass media creation of artificial desires, through the conferring of identities based on what purchases, to the treatment of everything as a commodity to be sold and bought, our world is one in which individuals are formed expecting to get what they want when they want it.  If they can’t, they are, by definition, losers at the game, for the moral of the story is, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” 

Perhaps we tend to assume that belonging, too, should be immediate, depending only on the individual’s decision and similar to the decision to, say, become a Costco member.  It is not.  Costco calls you “member,” but in fact, you are just another client.  Anthropologists never cease to point out that there’s a whole lot more to the process of belonging to a group than individual initiative: things like community conversations, marking ritually the stages of belonging, and transformation of both the individual and the community and much more.

How is it then, that we are so easily tempted to ignore the process of belonging?  I believe, with Shawn Strout, that we have fallen into the wrong ecclesiology: our theological understanding of what the church is, and what it is for, is seriously flawed.

The church is not a self-service store.  In this world of immediate availability and the immediate satisfaction of desire, the church community naturally feels that it must provide whatever is wanted, by whomever, at all times.  Pastoral care is reduced to the caricature of pleasing people.  Church leadership comes down to corporate management techniques.  Church structures are expected to include employers, employees, and purchasers of services. That, however, is not a theologically accurate description of the church. In fact, it is an Anti-church, for it is a community serving a consumerist culture – the culture of Mammon, and you cannot serve him and God at the same time.

Nowhere in our theology does it say that we are a store, or even a service- for-payment. The church of Jesus Christ is not a club into which a person decides to enter, paying dues (pledges) to pay a staff (mostly clergy) to receive a service (liturgy, visitations, etc). It is not even, primarily, an institution. Yet in the consumerist anti-church, it is not rare for people to see the local congregation as the local franchise of an international corporate chain. 

According to our Prayer Book, we do not welcome people into our store, but into the “Family of God.”  “Newcomers” are not customers. They are our relatives. From another theological angle, we are adding limbs to our Body.  Since when is your leg the purchaser of your brain’s services?  Wrong image!  From yet another angle, we are a New Jerusalem – a city, a community of people in relationship to each other.

Therefore, even before developing its institution to organize ourselves, the Church of Christ is a Family, a Body, a City. People are brought into familial relationships with other Christians through a rite that mimics birth. We should take responsibility, like Phillip, for accompanying the person (or her parents) through a process of gestation, dying to the old self and emerging with a new self, born again through interaction with our family. Sadly, the “included” fall for “immediate belonging” only too often, not realizing that, like Sally and John, they are being disempowered with a big smile and a welcome hug.  

“But Juan, I do not have time to do all that with each newcomer!” I already hear the cardinal Rector say.  The good news, dear cardinal Rector, is that this is best done by your staying out of it.  Even if “newcomers” instinctively make a beeline for the priest, the fact is that the kind of conversation I am calling for is best led by trained lay members of the parish. There, in a group setting characterized by confidentiality and growing trust, people can explore together what it means to belong to Christ in community.   Such a process is a gift rather than a barrier.

Salvation in a Body.  Shawn Strout reminded us in our listserv discussion that, “Baptism does not save us individually.”  I would add that it saves corporately.  It is tempting to hope that God will heal us only individually, one-one-one, leaving our relationships unaffected. But it´s not reality!  It is an illusion to think that our relationship to God can improve regardless of our relationships to others. For being is relational.  Ayn Rand aside, we cannot be individuals without being in relationships.  In the consumerist anti-church the relationships among members are expendable. What matters is the number of (interchangeable?) pledging units.

If the Church is the New Jerusalem, where God dwells with people, the very fabric of relationships that constitutes the church is called to be the green shoots of the Kingdom that we expect every time we say the Our Father.  If the local church cannot be seen (yes, like a city on a hill) as hope-inducing evidence that a better world is possible, it is not the true church, no matter how many crosses we slap on it.  Who knew?  Perhaps our crisis in numbers is a crisis in the way we treat each other.  I suspect that if we worked on our intra-ecclesial relationships more people might be curious enough to see what makes us tick.

Core questions
Still, within this Family/Body/City there are some shared understandings (not without disagreements – we are a rambunctious family) about serious questions like,    
·      Who do we say Jesus is in relation to us and to the Godhead?
·      What, exactly, was his good news, for which he was arrested, tortured, executed?  
·      How does he live on, and what is his relationship to us the rest of his Body, the Christian community?
·      Flowing from that, What do we think the church of Jesus Christ is or is supposed to be?  
·      What does God gather us for, and what does he send us to do?  
·      Then, flowing from that, How are we to organize ourselves for this?  and from that,  How shall we incorporate new members into our community?

The sequence of steps is important! If we start with the latter questions, we end up misunderstanding the former, or worse, betraying them and our family. Look:

·      We have to grow in numbers so we can meet our budget.
·      Therefore, we should make belonging immediate and simple, upon demand.
·      To do this, we should organize ourselves to welcome people who want to join us, without obstacles.
·      God gathers us so people who want to join us can have a group to join.  God sends us out to find more people to join us.
·      The church is therefore a member-making business, with a central administration and local branches – a spiritual Costco.
·      Jesus lives on in our central administration, i.e. in the clergy, through ordination. We can only access Jesus through clergy.
·      Jesus´ Good News was his own life. He talked a lot about himself and his message: The Kingdom – God is going to be Lord of your individual heart. 
·      The death of Jesus had nothing to do with his message. It was a huge mistake, Judas´ fault.
·      Jesus is important because he was very close to God. God is very far away.

Beyond here, folks, there be dragons.

In sum, there is a serious weakness in contemporary American Anglican reflection on sacraments and ecclesiology:  the tendency to boil everything down to individual initiative. Married to a commercial model of the Church and its mission, this consumerist ecclesiology undermines any attempts to build community, and to reflect and act like one, while ignoring our relationships with each other.   This is the genesis of the anti-church, which cannot die soon enough.

Juan Oliver is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001.  

This post is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of OPEN, the online journal of APLM.

[1] Adam Gopnik. The Table Comes First. (New York: Knopf, 2011).  pp. 107-108.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Preacher's Study - Year C, Proper 25 (30), 2013

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 27, 2013)

Maylanne Maybee

I see Sunday’s gospel reading in Luke 18.9-14 as a continuation of Jesus’ parables of prayer, flowing from his response to the disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  In “the Lord’s Prayer”, Jesus teaches his followers to pray to God by asking earnestly for daily bread, for the coming justice of God’s kingdom, for forgiveness, and for release from overwhelming suffering and grief. 

In the chapters that follow, Jesus goes on to tell stories about asking for bread with the same persistence as one would wake a friend for a loaf of bread, about searching with the same relentlessness as a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, asking for justice with the same determination as a widow who is ready to poke a judge in the eye. 

In today’s parable, Jesus is telling a story about debt.  Two people are standing in the temple in the position of the Jewish daily prayer of praise and blessing and thanksgiving. 

The tax collector stands at the back, weighed down with the debts he has placed on the backs of others.  He appears to be a tax collector with heart, caught in his profession for reasons we don’t know, but aware of its burden on others and on himself, aware of the great chasm his tax collecting places between him and God. 

The Pharisee is also weighed down – by the burden of debt he feels he owes to God, by the heaviness of his spiritual practice of tithing and fasting.  We don’t know whether he is a Pharisee with heart or not.  We know only that he is grateful for what he has escaped in life and for what he has achieved through his own strength of character.

Both will experience gratitude upon leaving.  The Pharisee will leave grateful that life has sheltered him from resorting to theft, or adultery, or, God forbid, tax collecting, and that he has succeeded in his regime of self improvement – but with no experience of God’s generosity, or kindness, or unexpected hospitality.  The publican will leave, “going down to his home” with the huge relief that comes with the cancellation of debt, with gratitude for God’s gracious act of forgiveness.

One prays from the outside, listing his actions and achievements, almost as a colleague or equal of God.  The other prays from the inside, acknowledging the state of his being and the great distance it places him in relation to the Holy One.  Grace is given to the one who was open to receiving what God longs to give freely – “justification”, or mercy in the form of restored relationship that wasn’t earned or deserved.  

I would seek to connect the biblical theme of debt with our experience of it in today’s world – personal debt, global debt, ecological debt.  How did we help to bring it about?  How does it affect us? What do we do in our lives to alleviate the burden of imposing or incurring debt? Are we caught in professions that impose debts on others?   Do we try to justify ourselves by our enlightened use of time or money, by our relief at being born on the right side of the tracks?  Or do we stand side by side, sinners and saints alike, and ask God for help to get out of this mess?

Our baptism invites us into a community that shares a continuing journey of resistance to evil, repentance and starting over again.  Through the breaking of bread and the prayers, we seek and find forgiveness, right relationship with God and one another, and new life.   What difference does it make that we are baptized when we “go down to our homes”? 

Maylanne Maybee, a member of APLM Council, is an Anglican deacon serving in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land.  She is Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies, a national theological school based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, that prepares women and men for ministry in the diaconal tradition of the Anglican and United Churches

Picture at top of post: Sieger Koder, Trusting – the Closeness of God