People of the Prayer Book

This week, our professor provided us with two questions, only one of which had to be answered.  Because of how things are assigned, one person does the “lead” post, and everyone else responds to what they’ve written.  The lead poster has 500 words to answer; the follow up responses are limited to 300 words.  I absolutely adored the first question this week, but the concept of answering it in 500 words was laughable.  The lead poster apparently agreed and answered the other one, but I wanted to get into the first question in a space where there’s room to respond.

The question(s) is:  Wasn’t it wonderful to read in Alexander how Cranmer gave us the ‘classic shape’ of the Prayer Book which has lasted for over 450 years? Doesn’t it make you proud to be an Anglican? Back in the day the Daily Offices, the Litany, the Eucharist, the Lectionary and the Psalter were all in regular use in Anglican Prayer Books all over the world. However, pull any ’79 Prayer Book out of a pew rack today and you will see a very slender section of soiled pages in the 300’s which, for the most part, are the only pages being used today (I’m not sure of the pagination in other Prayer Books, but I am confident that the phenomenon is the same). This, of course, is the side effect of the successes of the move to weekly Eucharist and the change to the Revised Common Lectionary. But can we really call ourselves Christians of the Prayer Book tradition when so little of the Prayer Book is actually in use? This difficulty raises two questions in my mind:
a.  Is there really a future for the Book of Common Prayer?
b.  Do the contents of the Book of Common Prayer need to be revised so that the Prayer Book we have is filled with material we actually use?
Please support your answers and if you reply ‘yes’ to question B, then please provide your proposed additions and deletions.

There are several assumptions in the question, particularly as made by someone in a large church, but without a parish of his own.  As a college professor at two colleges, Fr. Moroney makes himself available as a “supply” clergy – to help out smaller parishes without clergy, or to substitute for an absent or ill priest – celebrating the Eucharist Mass on Sundays.  In the instance of my church, our most common service is actually Morning Prayer, and we switch between Rite I and Rite II regularly.  Additionally, we have been trying out different services at different times of the week, to see if we can serve the community with a non-Sunday service, using the Compline, Evening Prayer, and even the Noonday Prayer rite.  When you are without a priest, you tend to use more of the Prayer Book, I think, but interestingly, not those sections of the Eucharist service, because that can only be done with a priest.

The other thing is that we tend to make things easier for the average parishioner anymore.  Our Sunday bulletin contains not only the Ordo (order of service), but also puts the responsive Psalm in, as well as the three Biblical lessons, and the version of the Prayers of the People (there are 6 forms) being used that day.  It essentially ensures that if the congregation follows from the beginning of the particular service being done, the only other things they will have to have are the bulletin and the hymnal, and they won’t have to be flipping pages around the book to get everything done in the service.  It’s a convenience, but it doesn’t mean that those sections are ignored.

Other portions of the Prayer Book are not meant for daily, or even weekly use – services for baptism, marriage, ordination, etc. – these are all important within the life of the church, and having them in a place easily accessed and referenced is wonderful, but those pages are not going to be referenced all the time.  The Prayer Book is not just a book for the organization of services, but of the Church year itself, as well as being a book from which we can teach about the particular methods we use in the practice of our faith.  As someone currently working on getting a new believer baptized, I am grateful for all the book contains.

As with every church, certain portions of the Bible are emphasized.  For instance, Pentecostals emphasize the Pentecost, speaking in the Spirit, and the Great Commission.  Then on another end of the spectrum, I know of a church that took a verse about serpents, and they have snakes that attend their services regularly.  I can’t talk – we have a dog in regular attendance at ours.  However, the Prayer Book itself is absolutely rich with Biblical passages, and the majority of our services come straight from the Bible.  It’s just organized in the fashion we choose to worship in.  So, while we still need a Bible for the lessons (generally printed in the bulletin, so you don’t have to have a Bible if you don’t want to), everything in the Prayer Book is based on Biblical passages.

Because we are a people who enjoy tradition, I think the Book of Common Prayer will continue to be in use and useful for a long time to come.  There are, of course, arguments over specific wording to be made, but I think the contents are quite good.  I wouldn’t want to see the Eucharist service separated out into its own little booklet, because I think people would miss the opportunity to discover the gems of the Prayer Book that are not often used, but can be used individually, or corporally, as needed or wanted.

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Apostolic Tradition

So, homiletics is complete (my first B – not happy).  The classes now focus on liturgics and church music, both of which are completely fascinating.  In the process of reading about the apostolic tradition, it occurs to me – and isn’t part of the assignment on which I only have a maximum of 300 words to write) that Christ had 12 apostles.  There were many schools of thought from the time Christ spent here, each focusing on different things.  He left us the Holy Spirit to guide us, and yet, the Church (capitalized as the Catholic Church kind of took over the western world for quite a long period of time) focused on a monepiscopate (On The Apostolic Tradition, 2001, Stewart-Sykes), a singular source from which over a thousand years of Church history, liturgy and tradition followed.

Why did we do that?  I think it eventually got straightened out by Luther and Calvin and the rest of the Reformers, but why would we narrow things down to one path, when Christ left us with 12, each going to different places, cultures, having traditions of their own, which would obviously affect the way in which people worshiped.  I think Paul had a lot to do with how things were organized.  And the fact that he did so obviously helped the spread of Christianity, but what would Christianity look like if he hadn’t reigned in practices he thought shouldn’t be included in the religion?  Would we now be more or less unified than we currently are?

I think it would be safe to say that Christ brought us a way of life, but Paul brought us a religion.  The question is, does the religion reflect the way of life?

Blessed Christmas

Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we know your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

St. Thomas Aquinas gave me a different perspective on the Christmas story this year.  According to Jerome and Origen, Joseph was not at all suspicious that Mary had committed adultery. He knew Mary’s purity and had read in Isaiah, Chapters 7 and 11 that a virgin would conceive:  “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  He had also known that Mary, like himself, had descended from David. Hence, it was easier for him to believe that the prophecy had been fulfilled in her than that she had fornicated with another.

In looking at the story in Matthew, we know that “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'”  A man who believed he’d been cheated on wouldn’t be afraid – he’d be angry.  And so, considering himself unfit to live together with such holiness, he wanted to put her away, divorce her, secretly.  He thought himself unworthy.

We know from today’s gospel in Luke that Joseph followed the angel’s advice, and agreed to be a dad to a child whose heavenly Father couldn’t participate in the physical life of His child.  Joseph and Mary, as husband and wife, traveled to be registered in the census.  To keep things easier in the day of the census without computers, one was obliged to travel back to the town of their family, where the ancestral records were kept.

Now we generally skip reading the genealogies in Luke, Chapter 3:23-38 and Matthew, Chapter 1 for several reasons, but you’ve seen them – listing the names of people you either don’t recognize or may have the barest familiarity with is a bit dull; the names are difficult for modern tongues to pronounce; and if you compare the two sections, there are differences, which have confounded scholars for centuries.  Some believe Luke was providing the genealogy of Mary rather than Joseph, but Luke begins the list with Joseph, so there’s still the conflict.

Many of you know that my dad was hugely into genealogy, having traced his paternal line back to 9th century France.  His work on our family’s genealogy was renowned, to the point that he was the genealogist for the Sons of the American Revolution in Florida.  Of course, as with my mother’s habit of getting me involved with her projects, Dad did too, emailing me bits and pieces of information, and asking me to find more evidence, books online, or lending libraries which had material and might be willing to send particular books to him, or if I was very lucky, one that would send him just the pages he needed.

When conflict arose in a person’s genealogy, dad would look at the circumstances and people surrounding the person in question.  So let’s do that here, but let’s go back and look at the Israelites at the time of King David.  God had provided them with law, and with judges and with prophets, but the Israelites wanted a King.  God told them that He was their king, but they were quite certain that while they worshipped God, they needed a king for the everyday and mundane of life, as well as for keeping up with the Jones – or the Philistines and Amalekites of their day.  God, through Samuel, warned them against a human king, but they would not listen.  And God knew that the consequences of these actions would lead to nothing but heartache for His chosen, but He allowed them the choice.  He first gave them Saul, and ultimately determined Saul to be unworthy.  Samuel, guided by God, set David on the throne, setting up a line of succession that one day, God, Himself, would have to fulfill.

And Isaiah told them about the darkness, the heavy yoke they were choosing, the armies that would be over them.  But as we listen to him, with our present, Christian perspective, we hear the prophecy of the one God will send, with new ears:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.

            This census – this genealogical master source of its time – carried utmost importance for the chosen people.  And while there is little doubt Mary was also of David’s line, it was Joseph, Jesus’ human dad, who provided the lineage trusted by so many.  He overcame his fear of being unworthy, and trusted in God’s plan, most likely praying constantly that he was doing the right thing by God’s Son, teaching Him properly, being there for the human experience Jesus came for.

Can you imagine being responsible for raising God’s son?  And in the very first instance, the place where He would be born, Joseph must have felt like a complete failure.  They were traveling, dusty, tired, sore from the trip.  Mary had gone into labor, and because of the census, all the inns, hotels, bed and breakfasts were completely booked.  Joseph was running out of time, and needed to get Mary to somewhere to lie down to deliver the Son of God.

What if one of the inn keepers had been moved differently?  Wally was an awkward and shy child who belonged to the church kids club. It was time to hand out roles for the Christmas play, but what role should the teacher give Wally? She decided on the inn-keeper. It was an important role, but required Wally only to shake his head and say one line “Sorry, we’ve no room.” Wally grinned from ear to ear when he learned of his important role and he couldn’t wait for the big night.

It arrived soon enough, and the play was proceeding according to plan. Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem and come to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked on the door and it opened to Wally. “Please sir, do you have a room we could take?” asked Joseph. Wally shook his head and replied. “I’m sorry, we’ve no room”.

Now the boy playing Joseph was a particularly precocious child, and while the script called for he and Mary to turn away at this point, Joseph decided to exercise some dramatic license. “But sir” he said to the innkeeper, “My wife is about to have her baby and we need somewhere to stay. Couldn’t you find us a room?” Wally’s face went white – this was not planned for! – and he paused for a moment before repeating his line. “I’m sorry, we’ve no room.”

“But sir” replied Joseph, “We’ve traveled such a long way and we’ve nowhere else to go and my wife is very tired. Surely you can find us somewhere.” Wally bowed his head, shook it sadly and said, “I’m sorry, we’ve no room.” Forlornly Joseph and Mary started walking away. Wally, now fully into his role, felt shamed and saddened. A tear trickled down his cheek. Then his voice was heard calling out. “Wait! Please come back. You can have my room.”

It may not have been according to script, but at that moment Wally gave perfect expression to the Christmas story.  But maybe God had other plans for Mary, Joseph and His Son – maybe He wanted them somewhere accessible to the shepherds, where young and old alike could come as His star provided the birth announcement, and the angels sang, inviting all to visit the new family.  Joseph and Mary found room at the stable, and the Baby found his first bed in a manger.  The King had arrived, and yet, He would be nothing like what the Israelites expected.

From their perspective, they assumed that the mien and mantle of a heavenly king would be the same as one from a human king.  They had forgotten the perspective Isaiah had given them:  “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool”.  Footstools aren’t generally thought of as being fancy, but rather utilitarian.  So for the Son of God, the rightful heir of King David to lay in a manger, people should have known to anticipate something completely contrary to what they were expecting.

History will judge us by our legacy.  From the perspective of history, no other individual has had the impact on the world that Christ had.  And whatever part Joseph played in shaping the human child Jesus became, he, also, had an impact on that history of the world.

When we, too, are afraid that we are not worthy of whatever God is calling us to, let’s remember that that’s not up to us.  From God’s perspective, He has already judged us worthy, because He sent us His Son to redeem us.

Lord’s Prayer

Well, by now, you’ve probably read something in the news that the Pope wants to change the wording in the Lord’s Prayer.

On the one hand, people I know are saying, didn’t Christ give us that prayer?  Doesn’t He outrank the Pope?

On the other, there’s an interesting article written a few years ago that brings up that Christ’s language was Aramaic, which was then translated into Greek, which then went into Latin, and the vulgar languages.  According to documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls, there might be a point to this.  It indicates that a more accurate translation of “And lead me not into temptation” might be “Don’t allow me to enter into wrong thinking or testings”, thereby putting the onus of temptation on man, and not on God.

So, thoughts?

(Boy do I miss my dad at times like this.)

Writing a Sermon

It’s really rather funny, as I read all of these texts and articles and books on how to write a sermon.  The most useful about the process, for me, thus far has been Eugene Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot.  Not because I particularly like his type of sermon (narrative), but rather because he goes through the process of how one gets from a sermonic idea to writing a sermon.  And I laugh, because I have a very particular process.

First, I read the lessons from the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.  We’ll be beginning Year B with this coming Sunday, starting the year with Advent.  In this way, we work our way through the Bible every 3 years.  The lessons and psalms are matched, so we generally have an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading.  So, I start with the readings.  If there is a passage I’m unfamiliar with, or want to get better insight, I take a look at some exegesis of that passage – what’s the literary style, the historical context, the cultural context, the specific words being used, and where else within the Bible do some of those specific words appear?

Generally, I’ll let all that percolate for a day or two, and then, depending on the time of year, I’ll do one of two things:  take a shower (as opposed to a bath, where I can take a book or writing materials), or mow the lawn.  Neither of these, of course, are conducive to being able to write anything down – my normal method of figuring out what I’m thinking.  It causes my mind to play with ideas, without writing them down, until I finally reach the “Aha!” moment, where it all comes together, and I can go, sit and write down the sermon.

Personally, I like to think that my conversations with God, along with inspiration from the Holy Spirit comes into play here, but either way, those are the two areas where those conversations are most likely to occur in such a way as to inspire the sermon.

My method works for me.  I’m quite certain that others like the outlining, crafting, cut/paste method used by so many preachers until they have put together a sermon word by painful word.  Likely, they are much more talented than myself.  But that’s okay.  As long as I don’t bore myself to tears, the congregation should be at least marginally pleased, or irritated, or thoughtful, or fired up, etc.

Christ the King Sunday

One of the saddest passages I’ve ever seen is today’s Gospel.  Many look at it as part of the apocalyptic literature, telling of an end-time judgment, but it’s put here in Matthew’s Gospel among other parables about judgment for a reason.  It’s certainly a parable, by dictionary definition, for it is a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson, and it’s a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison or analogy.

But what makes it sad is Christ’s description to both the sheep and the goats.  Looking at what He said to the sheep:  “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

On the one hand, the blessed, the sheep, asked “when” they had done all these things – and yet, they didn’t recognize God within the people they helped.  They helped because they were good people, and like the Samaritan, recognized their neighbor.  They were judged worthy, to take their inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world.

On the other hand, the cursed, the goats, asked “when”.  They had done none of these things, because they didn’t recognize God within the people they passed by.  They were the Pharisee, claiming goodness, but their actions did not match their words.  They were cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Neither group recognized God within the hearts of those in need, but one group followed the greatest commandment as instructed by Christ, and one group didn’t try to find their neighbor.

There’s a story told of a young monk asking an older monk, “Father, if God is infinitely merciful, how can he deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom?” The older monk answered, “Why do you keep turning your head from side to side?” The younger monk replied, “Because the sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won’t leave me in peace.” “Then you’ve answered your own question,” the older monk laughed. “God doesn’t deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom. Some simply cannot bear the light, any more than you can bear the light of the sun.”

So let’s see if we can find our sunglasses, and look at this passage in another way.  We know from the last few weeks of these judgment parables, that everyone is waiting for Christ’s return.  With this parable, we know that Christ will return as King to sit in judgment upon those who have been waiting.  Let’s examine our two groups again – the blessed and the cursed.  Based on the criteria Christ sets out in this parable, the judgment is based upon how we have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner while waiting. In this parable the community’s time of waiting is changed from a useless passage of time to a redefinition of community in the care of the neighbor, and from worry about the “when” of the coming of the Son of Man to the realization that the “when” has already taken place in the face of the needy.

And here is the answer to whether we are ready when the bridegroom comes, when the master returns.  Christ has made us aware of the least of us among society.  He described the values and practices of those who participate in the Kingdom of Heaven in the Beatitudes.  He tells us:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And Christ has told us what to do.  Not only has he given us the Great Commandment, he gave us this parable, which clearly describes the “least of these”, not once, not twice, but four times within the same parable!  And still, we have difficulty in walking our Christian talk.

A little girl once asked, “If God is inside of me and is so big, why doesn’t he break through?”  Why doesn’t the grace and love of God break through in the way we speak, in how we act, in the many times we come in contact with others.  God has chosen to work in and through us who are called to be a part of the Body of Christ.  But he gave us free will as well.  We can choose to let God act through us, to be His hands, His voice, to treat the least of our society as we would treat Christ.

The phrase “the least, the lost, and the last” has often been used in sermons that talk about those we should be taking care of.  That’s a pretty amorphous description though.  So, if we want to be like the sheep, care for those Christ has told us to care for, for as He said, as we have done to the least of these, so have we done to Him – where will we find the least?

And with that one question, we have made ourselves goats.  We are looking for Christ, in order to treat Him well.  We’re not looking to fulfill the Commandment, but rather trying to find the “when” did we see Him and not care for Him.

So is the answer that we try to see God in every person we meet?  Do we try to be a good neighbor?  Or do we, like the little girl suggests, let God break through and act through us?  Do we recognize the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, right now?

The sheep would seem to have little interest in relationships dictated by the terms of “social justice” or “evangelism,” which so often turn people into objects and abstractions. The relationships the sheep pursue, in contrast, locate them right in the middle of the least ones themselves, where the King Himself is.  For these, the Son of Man is not still coming. He is already here.

And when Christ the King comes to sit in judgment, will you be among the sheep, or among the goats?

 

As For Me

“I do not know you.”  That sentence reverberated in my head, over and over and over again.  “I do not know you.”  Could there be anything more devastating than knowing – you’re going to die.  There will be no eternal life.  How do I even justify my existence?  Is there penance enough?

God is outside of time.  What if I ask to be a cautionary tale to others?  What if, upon hearing my story, even one person ensures that they stay awake, aware?  I may not be chosen to live eternally, but I can help others to do so.  Oh, Lord, will you use my folly to save others?

Now we don’t know that that’s where this parable comes from, but what if it did?  It is devastating to be rejected by the bridegroom, because His word is final. The rejection is made even worse by Christ’s reputation for love and generosity.  It would have been so easy to please him! Why didn’t they do so?  Why don’t we do so?

Matthew’s Gospel tends to talk more about judgment than the other Gospels, and separating things – the wise from the foolish, the wheat from the tares, the fish in the nets.  There are a couple of chapters that include what are known as the judgment parables, and today’s Gospel is one of them.

Scholars vary in their understanding of what the oil in this parable represents.  If the thrust of this story is that we must be prepared with oil for Christ’s coming, what’s the oil?  Luther said that it’s faith.  Others have identified it as piety, good works, or a personal relationship with the Lord.

One approach to understanding the what the oil is, is to examine the context—both the narrow context of this particular parable, along with the series of four parables and then the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel:

In the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave (24:45-51), the faithful slave is the one found at work when the master returns. Being prepared—having oil—means working faithfully for the Lord.

In the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), the faithful slaves wisely use the resources entrusted to their care. Being prepared—having oil—means practicing good stewardship, having good ecological practices, carefully managing your time and money, being generous to those in need, proclaiming the Word.  The possibilities there are endless.

In the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), which is a parable after this one, the Son of Man rewards those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner— all of which corresponds nicely with what Jesus identified in this Gospel as the greatest commandment—to love God and your neighbor (22:37-40). Being prepared—having oil—means generosity to those in need.

So now this parable.  As we discussed a couple weeks ago, weddings at that point in time were actually about the celebration.  Today, we refer to them as wedding receptions.  Often, the bridegroom would begin at the house of his bride, and the wedding party would process to where the celebration would be taking place.  One of the things to keep in mind is that the five wise bridesmaids were rewarded, even though they didn’t share the oil they had with their sisters.  We might think the wise bridesmaids were acting selfishly, but they are instead acting with wisdom, particularly for their time.  It is far better that they use five torches to illuminate the pathway of the Bridegroom for the entire distance than to use ten torches at the beginning and thereby to risk having to walk in darkness at the end.  We can see lots of metaphors there.

In the wider context of this Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which covers two entire chapters on its own, gives us great insight into Christ’s expectations. Being prepared—having oil—means obeying Jesus’ teachings.

This parable speaks pointedly to those who have become Christian through an initiatory event, be that conversion, baptism or confirmation, without requiring a corresponding growth in discipleship. A good beginning is not yet a race well run, as all children today learn from the Tortoise and the Hare.

These stories in Matthew also generally include choices for both the wise and the foolish, and a delay in the master’s return.

Matthew addresses the delay in the coming of the bridegroom because people during that time believed that Christ would return “soon”.  The problem is, our concept of “soon” and God’s concept of “soon” are apparently very different things.  And people were beginning to question – why hasn’t Christ returned?  Where is He?  So Matthew uses a common idiom – the bridegroom is delayed – something that was not an unusual occurrence, and one that everyone could understand.  The problem again, is that definition of “soon”.

The concept of “hurry up and wait” is well known to those in the military.  Believe it or not, the military is part of the government, and the government isn’t always efficient.

“Standby” is a “preparatory command.” Usually the order to standby alerts a unit that it will “soon” receive some kind of marching orders, like “standby to launch.”

Unofficially, it’s used to tell junior members to be ready and wait. Often, troops find themselves waiting for long periods of time because of logistics or command indecisiveness.

Said sarcastically, “standby to standby” means that a unit is waiting to wait some more.  “Hurry up and wait,” also said sarcastically, pokes fun at the military’s propensity to perform tasks quickly, and then sit idly for long periods of time.

Like the military, being prepared, and then sleeping when you had the opportunity was a common occurrence.  Both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids in this parable fell asleep.  Staying awake can be used as an idiom for being aware or being prepared.

I’d like you to imagine yourself back in the first century of the common era.  You’re a Roman citizen, fairly well off.  You wear the best silks against your skin, are fairly well educated in the “classics”, can speak both Latin and Greek.  You’ve just kissed your newly cleaned child, breathing in the scent of the oils used to keep his skin in good condition, and sent him off with his nurse.  Now is a time when you can relax with your light evening meal of bread and dates, figs and a bit of meat, wines impeccably matching.  Life in your city was perfect.  You glance out the window, only in that split second seeing Vesuvius before being frozen in time, dying in superheated gasses and volcanic ash.  The explosion of Mt. Vesuvius was so sudden, the citizens in both the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were perfectly preserved in time, as we’ve seen in magazines (National Geographic, May 1984).  The saddest part is that these people didn’t have to die. Scientists confirm what ancient Roman writers record–weeks of rumblings and shakings preceded the actual explosion.  An ominous plume of smoke was even clearly visible from the mountain days before the eruption. They simply needed to be aware.

Now, living life aware or being “awake” does not mean that you have to forego sleep.  It means that you need to be vigilant.  Like these bridesmaids, if Christ returned tomorrow – would you be ready?

Let’s take a glance at our Old Testament lesson.  Joshua was clear with the Israelites – you either choose to serve God, or go wherever you want to go, away from the protection of God, to live and serve elsewhere.  We recognize that it wasn’t really a choice for the chosen people, but that was Joshua’s point.  You guys already chose, but you’ve forgotten to be aware that you made that choice.  You’re not living up to your choice.  And it’s the same thing for us – once you make that choice, be it through baptism, confirmation or conversion, you need to live up to it.  You need to walk your talk, because lip service is not going to cut it.

Now, the other thing that Joshua did was set up accountability for the people who made the choice.  “You are witnesses against yourself that you have chosen the Lord, and to serve Him.”  It’s our responsibility to help each other stay on that path, to walk the talk, and continue to grow.

Twenty centuries ago there was a different kind of preacher by the name of Paul. And when he came to the end of the road he did not write his memoirs in a villa on the Riviera. He sat in an old Roman jail waiting to have his head chopped off. The only stocks and bonds he had were stocks for his feet and bonds around his wrists. And he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”  Like Joshua, Paul made the decision that “as for me”, I will serve the Lord.

That phrase, “as for me” has history also within our own American past.  Patrick Henry fired a verbal shot in an old church in Richmond that was heard around the world. It was on March 20, 1775, during a time when history moved rapidly.  The pacifying men of the time were trying to work out a compromise of peaceful coexistence, so to speak, with George III.  But Patrick Henry was fed up with appeasement, and he saw no sense in further negotiation. He said, “I don’t know what others will do, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

The die was cast and the Rubicon was crossed, and all bridges were burned and retreat was impossible. There wasn’t any uncertainty about where Patrick Henry stood. He cleared the air and stated the issue. There weren’t any third dimensions and middle ground. Such a speech is awfully out of date in this fuzzy day of wooly thinking when experts in double talk, in the art of almost saying something specialize in a straightforward way of dodging the issue.  That was not Patrick Henry’s way – no one doubted where he stood, because his yea was yea and his nay was nay. And while his contemporaries were going around their elbows to get to their thumbs, Patrick Henry decided that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. His speech must have shocked the school of propriety, but he detonated a charge that blasted tyranny from our shores.  We have to wonder if, in his classics education, he knew about Joshua.  “As for me” makes a statement of not only belief, but of action.

We know that we have chosen to follow God through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.  Yet we also know that if we allow ourselves to coast, to sleep, to be unready, we may be like the unprepared bridesmaids, or the people of Pompeii.  Our oil may be very low.  Are you and your household going to serve the Lord?

The last thing we want to hear is, “I do not know you.”  So this week, as you go through your daily routines, find ways to be aware of God in what you’re doing.  Our lessons point out the variety of ways that God has spoken to us, teaching us how to maintain an awareness of Him.  Pick one thing.  How are you going to serve the Lord this week?

The Comfort of Prayers

Good morning.  Please open your prayer books to Page 332.  This is part of a Eucharist service that is rarely used anymore, but words that are certainly worth reading and remembering.  (If Bob’s here, read the following aloud.)  HEAR what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.  COME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.  God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  HEAR also what St. Paul saith.  This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.   HEAR also what St. John saith.   If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

(Otherwise:)  Silently, read the words that come after “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.”

Keep those words in mind this morning.

Today’s Old Testament lesson has the Israelites stopped at Mt. Sinai, and Moses is up talking to God.  He’s been up there over a month already.  Aaron is working to try to keep the peace among a people we would swear have ADHD as a whole.  It hasn’t been that long since God brought them out of Egypt, after hearing their cries of distress and prayers for deliverance.  And yet, they’re bored; they want something tangible to worship and make sacrifices to, to revel in festival.  They create a god of gold and forget the God who delivered them.

God’s anger in the face of such faithlessness was fierce, and He was ready to destroy them all, but Moses prayed.  He acknowledged what God had done for them, and reminded Him of the great leap of faith the people took in following him out, across a sea and into the desert.  He reminded God of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the last of whom He renamed Israel, and whose descendants were now having such a problem with fidelity to their God.  And he begged God to forgive them, to remember His promises to their ancestors, and turn aside His wrath.  And God changed His mind.

    If anyone sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

In our Gospel reading, there’s a man being thrown into outer darkness because he didn’t wear the right clothes!  Or, if we read it allegorically, because he showed up, but he didn’t really participate with his whole heart, soul, strength and mind.  Maybe he came for the food.

How many of us look for the latest fad, latest gadget, latest iPhone, and worship at the altar of consumerism and technology?  When was the last time you actually participated in a conversation, the whole way through, without checking your messages, texts, tweets, etc.?  Well, here perhaps that’s a little more common, given our lack of cell signals half the time.  But if we do that to other people, are we guilty of the same thing the man without a wedding robe is?  Are we truly participating in our conversations with God?

Perhaps we’re too focused on the latest headlines – I looked up just a few last night:  Firefighters face strong winds in historic California blazes; Hepatitis Outbreak; California State of Emergency – hmm, perhaps we should be avoiding California.  Bomb threat sparks panic at La Guardia Airport; Xi Tightens Grip on China; Tesla fires hundreds.  So, just five headlines, and we have fire, disease, terrorism, despotism and unemployment.  Well, comparatively, losing your job doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?  And yet, we still have our worries about keeping a roof over our heads, feeding our children, helping our neighbors – particularly those whose houses burned down in this last fire season, or the guy who sells Kettle corn in Stein’s parking lot, who lost his entire rig.

I’d ask you to remember the words of Paul this morning:  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

So our prayer lists have grown longer.  But we have to wonder, where is God?  Is he hearing our prayers?  Last week we learned that God still speaks to us.  That we merely need to learn how to listen, and trust.  And trust in the face of such disasters – that’s hard to do.

I read some facts that an elementary school teacher discovered after 9/11.  Maybe this will give you a different way of looking at things.  The four flights could accommodate more than 1,000 passengers, yet there were only 266 aboard. None of the people who called a loved one on the hijacked planes mentioned that passengers were panicked, nor was there any screaming in the background.   Although the work day had begun in New York, and more than 50,000 people worked in the Twin Towers, only 20,000 were at their desks. The other 30,000 were delayed in unexpected traffic snarls, subway delays, commuter train delays – including an entire train from New Jersey stalled at a malfunctioning traffic light.  More meetings than usual were scheduled outside of the building.  It kept 30,000 people from their desks.

That’s a lot of coincidences.  Now, we know that God has given all of us free will, and you’ve all heard me talk about energy and matter being interchangeable states of being.  God loves us in whatever form of being we are, so why did He help guide so many people to be away from the Towers that day?  Because He created us, and we are His children.  Our lives matter to Him.  And while we mourned the loss of the 3,500 children He took home with Him that day, He mourned the loss of the 19 who chose to reject Him that day for all eternity.

    This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Now, many of you heard me complaining about a story I had to read last week for school, but eventually, the author got to the point.  The main character was so consumed with her own thoughts of depression and the troubles in her life, she didn’t have room in her thoughts for anything or anyone else.  The preacher in the story told her to turn to Christ, as Christ requested us to do, to find rest in Him, to share the burdens with Him and allow Him to give her strength.  We’ve all experienced times when we are weary, tired of the world, sick of what man can do to his fellow man.  That soul-sickness can only be healed by the Divine Physician.  We must actually rely on that strength when we feel weak; we must listen for God’s voice and be guided by it.  We must know that we are not alone, as the Psalmist said in Psalm 23.  And sometimes, we act as God’s hands, and help others find their way out of depression, weakness, addiction – we know that there is contentment in Christ, and company even when we are completely alone.  But we also need to recognize that as humans, it’s never a one-shot “immunization”.  Whether we, ourselves are the ones who are soul-sick, or someone else, we need companionship and encouragement to reinforce the decision we make to turn towards God, and away from the destructively consuming thoughts of depression, shame, addiction, and darkness.

Paul reminded us this morning:  Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

So why did we begin this morning with The Comfortable Words?  Well, when the earth was flat, and all the world was Catholic – okay, so maybe not that long ago.  Confession of sins and absolution provided by the priest were extremely important to the people.  You thought about what you were going to do, because at some point, you’d have to ‘fess up to the priest, and sometimes, his assignment of penance before absolution was brutal.  But it gave people pause; it made them think about their own actions, their own thoughts, and their sins.  It made them think about whether they wanted this on their conscience.  And while confession is still a sacrament in the Anglican Communion, it is one not often used.  Our confession is congregational, non-specific, and our absolution as granted by God is a blanket absolution for everything.  We don’t really have to examine what we do too closely, don’t have to think – what would God say, or perhaps more embarrassing to us, since we know in that amorphous way that God knows our sins, what would the priest think if they knew…

But when the Church of England, and other Protestant churches were organizing, people were still used to the idea of confession, and needing true absolution for their sins.  They weren’t sure, given that they no longer had the authority of the Pope behind them, that they were truly being absolved of their sins.  They worried, and in worrying, filled their thoughts with things just the opposite of what Paul talks about.

So the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1549, when the first Book of Common Prayer was written, Thomas Cranmer decided that we needed to emphasize God’s grace.  While people were worrying if their works were enough to get them into heaven, Cranmer reminded them, through the words of the Bible, that God’s love was a grace provided to us, deserving or not.  God had already provided us with the path to Him:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  That belief, our clinging to the promises of God, is the comfort Cranmer felt was necessary to remind us of.

I recently read a story that actually came out in The Anglican Digest many years ago. A bishop parked his car outside an old downtown church and saw the elderly priest of that church sitting outside on a bench. The bishop walked up to the elderly priest and asked if he could talk with him for a few minutes. The priest smiled and nodded. Then the bishop sat beside him and told the following story:

Quite some time ago now a small group of rather boisterous young louts, fresh from an afternoon’s drinking session, were walking past a little church. One of them drew the attention of his companions to a notice on the door, listing times of confession. Amid raucous laughter he suggested, “Why don’t we have a bit of fun? Let’s make a list of the worst sins we can think of and then draw lots as to who should go in and confess them. It’ll be a lark seeing how the poor old priest reacts.”

I’ve got a better plan, jeered a companion. Seeing it’s your bright idea, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is. I bet you $20 you don’t have the guts to do it. The young man tensed a bit but rose to the challenge. “Right,” he said, “let’s get working on the sin sheet.”

It wasn’t too long before the young man emerged from the church beaming, brandishing a slip of paper. “Well I’ve won the bet,” he said. “Here’s proof I’ve been to confession.” What’s that? asked his companions. “It’s my penance, handed to me by the priest himself.” What did he say? the others asked. “He didn’t say anything, just handed me the slip.” Well, said one, have you done your penance? “Don’t be silly. I don’t go for that nonsense,” he replied. Then I don’t pay you your $20, said his challenger…

The young man went back into the church, reading the priest’s note as he went—Kneel before the crucifix at the altar and repeat ten times: All this you did for me and I don’t care. “That’s no hassle,” he thought, making his way to the chancel. He reached the crucifix and knelt down. His eyes took in the nailed hands and feet and the infinite sadness in the eyes, then moved to the text below: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

He began his penance: “All this you did for me and I don’t care. All this you did for me and I don’t care. All this you did for me and…” About an hour later his friends, impatient, went into the church to find out what he was up to. They found him at the altar rail sobbing profusely.

“Well, that’s the story,” said the bishop. “Except for two things—I was that young man and you were the priest” (adapted from The Anglican Digest, Lent 1990, 10-11).

When we truly turn to God, when we show up at the wedding feast in proper attire, when we turn off our electronics and listen, when we pay attention, we realize that God has not left us to ourselves.  We have to be willing to put our burdens down at the Cross, to be filled with the strength God has promised us, to rely on God, stand back up and go forth to do God’s work.

COME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Janet’s Repentance

Ugh.  I didn’t think I would ever dislike another author as much as I dislike James Joyce, and I was correct, but not by much.  The last few chapters of George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance” (modified version) actually made up for the first 23.  However, I’m still of the opinion that she could have written the entire story in 10 pages, and still gotten the same message across.

All of that aside, it occurred to me:  there are a couple of things here that would be interesting to look into more:

The Doctrine of Signatures is the belief that the shape/color/texture of a fruit, flower or herb will tell you what something is good for, or for curing. It’s a medieval belief, that continues through to this day, even though it has been proven that that only works for *some* things, not all. However, it was a common belief in Victorian times, so the whole concept of Dempsey taking his mother for a walk among the cucumbers becomes really creepy. On the other hand, Mr. Tryan sits and looks over a cabbage garden, and while it is known that cabbage looks like a head (and has recently been shown to be beneficial for memory), at that point, it was known to be good for consumptive coughs.

The language of flowers is a Victorian invention, and according to George Eliot’s biography, she was quite familiar with both botany and the language of flowers. When Janet was in the throes of depression, sitting in front of a garden with cistus flowers – cistus implies imminent death. The holly at the gate of “Holly Mount” symbolizes domestic happiness.

It would be interesting – at some point when we have nothing else to do, of course – to go through the book and catalog the various flowers and vegetables used to see what Ms. Eliot might be saying through her copious use of those particular descriptions.

Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

As you know, over the next few weeks, I’ll be providing some sermons that don’t go along with the liturgy, and I do appreciate your indulgence for my class.  I’ll make sure to post links to reflections that pertain to the liturgy or sermons from Karen on the web site, so you won’t miss out.

Today, we’ll be discussing the passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, beginning at Verse 5:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Paul is pointing out here that Christ emptied himself of his Divine status, of wisdom and power that He could have exercised, in order to lower his status to that of a servant, a slave – the lowest position in society.  He set aside His Divine prerogatives and incarnated Himself as man.  This didn’t deny His deity in any way, but rather, gave us an example that Paul held out to the church at Philippi to emulate.

Now if you’re like me, that’s a really intimidating example.  Christ, in serving mankind, prepared by praying, studying and being baptized.  He healed the sick, fed the hungry and preached the gospel.  He selected people to learn from Him, so that His ministry for God would continue long after He was gone, training them for the day when they would take over for Him.  He gave them clear instructions with the Great Commission, and He had them practice, sending them out two by two, while He was still there to supervise.  Then He sacrificed His very life for entire world, taking our sins onto His shoulders to reconcile them with God and prepare a place for us when we choose to follow Him.

The thing is, if you allow yourself to be completely overwhelmed with Christ’s example, you’ll never be able to follow Him.  But if you choose to follow Him, then start small.  Choose one thing.

For instance, you might choose to prepare yourself, as Christ did, through prayer.  There was a  young man who had gone to Wednesday night Bible Study.[1]  His Pastor had shared about listening to God and obeying the Lord’s voice. The young man couldn’t help but wonder, “Does God still speak to people?” After service he went out with some friends for coffee and pie and they discussed the message.  Several people talked about how God had led them in different ways.

It was just after 10:00 when the young man started driving home.  Sitting in his car, he just began to pray, “God, if you still speak to people speak to me. I will listen. I will do my best to obey.

As he drove down the main street of his town, he had the strangest thought to stop and buy a gallon of milk. He shook his head and said out loud, “God is that you?” He didn’t get a reply and started on toward home. But again, he thought, buy a gallon of milk. The young man thought about Samuel and how he didn’t recognize the voice of God, and how little Samuel ran to Eli.

“Okay, God, in case that is you, I will buy the milk.” It didn’t seem like too hard a test of obedience. He could always use the milk. He stopped and purchased the gallon of milk and started off toward home. As he passed 7th Street, he again felt the urge, “Turn down that street.” This is crazy, he thought.  It’s my own mind playing tricks on me, and he drove on past the intersection. Again, he felt that he should turn down 7th Street. At the next intersection, he turned back and headed down 7th. Half jokingly, he said out loud, “Okay, God, I will”.

He drove several blocks, when suddenly, he felt like he should stop. He pulled over to the curb and looked around. He was in a semi-commercial area of town. It wasn’t the best but it wasn’t the worst of neighborhoods either. The businesses were closed and most of the houses looked dark like the people were already in bed. Again, he sensed something, “Go and give the milk to the people in the house across the street.” The young man looked at the house. It was dark and it looked like the people were either gone or they were already asleep. He started to open the door and then sat back in the car seat. “Lord, this is insane. Those people are asleep and if I wake them up, they are going to be mad and I will look stupid.”

Again, he felt like he should go and give the milk. Finally, he opened the door, “Okay God, if this is you, I will go to the door and I will give them the milk. If you want me to look like a crazy person, okay. I want to be obedient. I guess that will count for something but if they don’t answer right away, I am out of here.”  He walked across the street and rang the bell. He could hear some noise inside. A man’s voice yelled out, “Who is it? What do you want?”

Then the door opened before the young man could get away. The man was standing there in his jeans and T-shirt. He looked like he just got out of bed. He had a strange look on his face and he didn’t seem too happy to have some stranger standing on his doorstep. “What is it?” The young man thrust out the gallon of milk, “Here, I brought this to you.” The man took the milk and rushed down a hallway speaking loudly in Spanish.

Before the young man could leave, from down the hall came a woman carrying the milk toward the kitchen. The man was following her holding a baby. The baby was crying. The man had tears streaming down his face. He began speaking and half-crying, said, “We were just praying. We had some big bills this month and we ran out of money. We didn’t have any milk for our baby. I was just praying and asking God to show me how to get some milk.” His wife, in the kitchen, yelled out, “I asked him to send an Angel with some. Are you an Angel?”

The young man reached into his wallet and pulled out all the money he had on him and put in the man’s hand. He turned and walked back toward his car and the tears were streaming down his face.  Now he knew that God still answers prayers.

So in that example, there are several things to focus on.  The man made the choice to start listening for God.  He prayed, and then trusted that God was guiding him.  He humbled himself, knowing that he would look like an idiot, but still trusting that God had a plan, and he was the tool God was using to fix this particular problem, whatever it was.

Now there are many ways to serve, but they mostly fall into three main categories.[2]  The example before exemplifies charity – responding to an immediate need or problem.  When the fire burned down the apartment building in town, all of the churches got together and responded to the immediate needs of the tenants.  We, along with the Methodists, provided vouchers for food, temporary housing and gas.  The Baptists used their large spaces to begin gathering and separating clothing and household goods.  Many of the community churches provided transportation for the donations coming in from all over town, and taking people to hospitals to visit those that were injured.  Still others made sure the firefighters were taken care of.

Advocacy, the second way to serve, emerges from charity in that we work and speak on behalf of others with the goal of changing social or political conditions.  The Episcopal Church in Montana has been very active in helping folks get to know people in groups that are typically discriminated against.  We’ve got a problem in some areas of Montana with groups that don’t want “their” kind around.  And in speaking out, the Episcopal Church itself has been targeted, with St. James in Bozeman just last month being vandalized with images of swastikas on their signs and property.  There will be persecution at this level of service, but we have the perfect exemplar who reminds us that the only response worth giving is love.  We all know Roxie and Connie, and apparently the vandals chose a weekend when the deaconate school was meeting.  St. James covered all of the graffiti within an afternoon with pink hearts carrying words of love.  And they recommitted to advocating against racism and bigotry.

The third area of service is justice – working to change systems and processes that create conditions for poverty or limit self-determination.  We all have opportunities to work in this area, depending on what our interests are.  The diocese and the national church have multiple opportunities for volunteers.  You just have to choose what you want to do.

In all things, God provides us with free will.  We don’t have to do anything to improve ourselves, serve our churches, our communities, our nation, or the world as a whole.  But Paul is asking us to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to fulfill our baptismal vows, to forget about status and being embarrassed or thought of as crazy.  He’s asking us to humble ourselves because we love Christ, and to serve God’s creation here on Earth.

That Great Commandment that Christ gave us changes the reason we do things.  Laws of the Old Testament were kept out of duty.  Christ asks that His laws be kept out of love.[3]  And in that love, we provide an example to others.

Aristotle said, “you are what you repeatedly do.”  Service ought to be a habit, not an act.  Rick Rigsby[4], the man who wrote “Lessons From a Third-Grade Dropout”, which I highly recommend, by the way, pointed out that his father left the house every morning at 3:45 to go to his job as a cook.  When his wife asked him why, he said, “Maybe one of my boys will catch me in the act of excellence.”  He wanted his sons to go on in life, and achieve, but to always remember that “you make sure your servant’s towel is bigger than your ego.”

Remember the reason you serve.  Remember Christ’s reason for serving.  And remember God’s promise that because of Christ’s humility and obedience, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Let us pray:  Father, allow me to serve others with a joyful heart; never keeping score; always giving; never expecting to receive. Allow me to give of myself, to give of my talents and of my goods, to give of my time and of my energy, to give of my heart and of my soul. Help me remember to allow others to give to me when I need a helping hand.  Assist me in understanding the needs of others, never criticizing, never demeaning, never scolding, or condemning.  You have been so gracious to me, always loving, always forgiving, always restoring; never gloating over my defeats, even when I have been so wrong.  Father, keep a condemning spirit far from my heart and  further from my lips. Allow me to serve others as You serve, with gentleness, compassion, and tenderness, never diminishing the worth of another, choosing to extend mercy to the brokenhearted, like You have repeatedly shown it to me.  Amen.[5]

[1] http://www.gmu.edu/org/mnu/test1.html

[2] http://sermonsfrommyheart.blogspot.com/2014_09_01_archive.html

[3] https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/gods-kingdom-is-of-servanthood-revd-martin-dale-sermon-on-servanthood-127246

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGyKmiySTv8

[5] https://pushingjesus.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/a-prayer-about-serving-others/