Of Bibles, Blessings, and Twitter Outrage

On Sunday, this tweet from the National Cathedral appeared in my feed. There was an immediate response from many who found it and the event it was depicting deeply problematic. Conversation about its significance and appropriateness began immediately and unlike so many such twitter controversies, it has not died down 2 days later. NPR picked up the story as well.

I was deeply troubled by the original tweet as it stated the Cathedral was “blessing the official Bible of the Space Force.” There are serious questions here about what this blessing says about the Episcopal Church’s relationship with the United States and its military, some of which I may address on another occasion. What caught my attention however was the phrase “the official Bible of the Space Force.”

I know little about how the Space Force has developed since President Trump announced its creation; in fact, I assumed it was little more than one of those things the President is prone to say that seem to have little basis in reality. Apparently it is a thing. But I had a number of questions. This official Bible was apparently to be used to swear in all commanders. That raises questions about the role of religion, specifically Christianity in the creation of the military hierarchy, and what role, if any, people who aren’t Christian would have in that hierarchy. Are there also “official” Torahs or Qurans for commanders who might be Jewish or Muslim, or for that matter, what provision is made for people who claim no religious affiliation?

While space has been militarized since the beginning of exploration, the creation of a Space Force seems to me to be a qualitative leap beyond what has occurred to this point. I imagined Space Force conquerors claiming planets as US territory following colonization patterns familiar from past centuries, with missionaries coming behind, Christianizing alien races as the Church of England followed the Empire as it colonized the world and Franciscans and Dominicans accompanied Spanish conquistadors.

The NPR article provides a bit of background and walks back the tweet’s inaccuracies but at the same time introduces some other astonishing and troubling details. The Bible was donated by the Museum of the Bible which is itself mired in controversy regarding its questionable acquisition of items and its ideological perspective. And then there is the prayer that was read at its blessing:

“Almighty God, who set the planets in their courses and the stars in space, look with favor, we pray you, upon the commander in chief, the 45th president of this great nation, who looked to the heavens and dared to dream of a safer future for all mankind.”

There are complex issues involved in occasions such as this. The blessing was performed by Bishop Carl Wright, the Episcopal Church’s Suffragan Bishop for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries. He oversees chaplains in the Armed Forces, Veterans Administration, and federal prisons. It’s important work and I’m grateful for the Episcopal presence in all of those places. I wouldn’t second-guess any action he took, especially considering I have no direct experience in any of them.

At the same time, I think this event and the reaction to it reflect a much more important issue in the life of the Episcopal Church. Since the founding of the US and the Episcopal Church, we have been the quasi-established Church. It’s no accident that we have a “National Cathedral” that is the site of state funerals like that of George H.W. Bush as well as inaugural prayer services. The difference between this event and the widespread fawning among Episcopalians when President Obama attended Inaugural service es at Episcopal churches is more a matter of degree than of kind.

The fundamental question is this. How can we as a church minister in and to institutions that are deeply oppressive, violent, unjust, and militaristic even as we also seek to call them to account? The blessing of a Bible that will be used in a commander’s swearing-in ceremony implicates the Episcopal Church in whatever command decisions he or she might have to make.

As the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian becomes smaller every year, and as the Episcopal Church itself continues to decline in numbers and influence, it will incumbent on us to develop a public witness that is at once faithful to the Good News of Jesus Christ and recognizes the pluralistic reality of the world in which we live.  We must also acknowledge that the people among whom we minister in those institutions are also struggling to negotiate multiple identities of their own and competing claims for their allegiance. While they are doing this, they are also working with people who  are struggling in the same ways and are often coming from very different religious and cultural backgrounds.

What would it be like if the Episcopal Church, instead of reaching back to traditional symbolism and language or adopting models from established churches, explored new religious forms that recognized the complexity of the world in which we live and sought to honor and strengthen the religious commitments, not just of Episcopalians, but of people who reflect the diversity of America’s and the world’s religions?

All of this requires much greater nuance than is possible in 280 characters.

Jesus’ Baptism and our own: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, 2020

In our liturgical calendar, today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Saying that probably doesn’t help orient many of you to what is going on in our worship. The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. It brings the Season of Christmas to an end. It’s a feast that celebrates God making Godself manifest in the world and especially in Jesus Christ. Traditionally, the church has focused on three specific events in Jesus’ life on Epiphany: the coming of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and Christ’s first miracle in the Gospel of John—the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana.

The first Sunday after the Epiphany focuses on the second of these three events: Jesus’ Baptism. Each year, we hear one of the gospels’ versions of the story of his baptism by John. It is also one of the Sundays when it is especially appropriate to baptize and to bring into the body of Christ new members.

Reading the story of Jesus’ baptism on a day when we also celebrate the sacrament of baptism prompts us to think about what our baptisms might mean in light of Jesus’ own baptism. But Jesus’ baptism is not our only source for early Christian baptism. There is also Paul, for whom, as he writes in the Letter to the Romans: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”—so baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If you were to set the three different versions of Jesus’ baptism that we are given by the synoptic gospels, it would be very easy to see the different ways the gospel writers shape the story to reflect their perspectives on the meaning of the event and its significance for the person and ministry of Jesus. They differ in many small but significant details.

Looking only at Matthew’s version, as we are today, we can still detect some important themes that we will note repeatedly as we work through the gospel this year.

One thing to note is the important role of John the Baptist for Jesus’ ministry. For Matthew, Jesus’ proclamation and ministry is a continuation of John’s. Both preach the coming of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist will make appearances later in the gospel. There are occasions when others think Jesus is himself John the Baptist.

Remember that this is the first time we’ve seen Jesus as an adult in the gospel of Matthew, the first time we’ve seen him since the family’s return from Egypt after fleeing Herod. So Matthew’s depiction of this story is very important. What first impressions does he want to give us of Jesus?

He tells us that Jesus came to John in the wilderness. Jesus wasn’t just wandering by. He had come a long distance. He had come to John for this, to be baptized by John. But John refuses to do it. He says Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insists, and says something very interesting: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus seems to be bringing John into this event, sharing with him in its enactment, and together, Jesus seems to be saying, they are fulfilling all righteousness. We might even say that it takes both of them, willingly participating, to fulfill all righteousness.

Righteousness is a complex term with many meanings in scripture. For us, it’s one of those old “religious” words that we never use except when we’re in church or talking about church; if anything, when it is used in popular culture it’s a synonym for amazing or cool. So we don’t know quite what it means. Earlier, Matthew described Joseph as a “righteous” man when he plans on quietly ending his relationship with Mary—he’s acting in accordance with Jewish law. We might regard it as both inner disposition and a matter of outward practice. But perhaps the most important element in it is obedience to God. Jesus is signaling here that both he and John are obeying God, seeking to live according to God’s will.

In Matthew’s telling of the story, it is that shared obedience, the willing participation of both John and Jesus in the event that leads to the confirmation of Jesus’ identity. As he comes out of the waters of the baptism, the voice from speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

 

I’m not sure many of you know why we baptize people, especially infants. I doubt very many of you believe that unbaptized babies will burn in hell if they die—even the Roman Catholic Church has rejected the traditional doctrine of limbo. And we have so internalized American values of self-determination and freedom when it comes to religion that the idea parents might make a religious for their children has come to be regarded by many as parental tyranny.

Yet here we are. Out of some sense of obligation, or tradition, we will gather around the font again. Often, there’s a powerful bond of family that tugs us to bring our babies to the font, whether or not we quite believe in it all, we’re doing it for our parents or grandparents.

It’s tough to be a parent today. Young families are juggling jobs and daycare; struggling to make ends meet in a changing world and changing economy. We wonder and worry what sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit from us—whether the planet we live on will even be inhabitable in 50 or 75 years. We can’t do it on our own. I’ve been fascinated to see how many people have come to Grace Church in the last couple of years, moving here to be closer to their children and grandchildren. That’s not just about being closer to family, it’s about helping out, providing childcare, helping raise the next generation. I’ve also seen the struggles of those parents, single moms especially, who don’t have other family members to turn to in difficult times.

For parents to bring a child to the font, is a recognition and admission that they can’t do it on their own. These beautiful children, miracles of life and of God’s creative power, are at the very beginning of their life’s journey. None of us knows what lies in store for them, what challenges and possibilities they will face. Baptism brings them into the body of Christ, the fellowship of the faithful, where we all commit to helping them grow into their full stature as children of God.

For those of us who are observing this rite today, baptism is also a powerful reminder of who we are. There’s a sense in which we are like these babies, brought to God’s grace by power beyond ourselves, our salvation dependent not on what we might do or choose, but only through God’s love.

We can’t do it on our own. We can’t make it on our own. Baptism reminds us that we aren’t lone individuals making our way in the world. We are enmeshed in a network of relationships, and baptism grafts us into the body of Christ. Baptism is the means by which God reaches out to us, draws us into God’s loving embrace.

In a way, all of us here are like John and Jesus today, coming to the waters of baptism in obedience to God’s call, trusting in God’s grace. And like Jesus, of whom the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;” in baptism we are all marked as Christ’s own forever, embraced as God’s beloved children. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Worshiping the King of Peace in a warring world: A Sermon for Christmas 2, 2020

Happy New Year! Was it only five days ago that we were celebrating the New Year, full of hope for what new possibilities a new year and a new decade might bring? Our celebrations may have been tempered a bit by the realities of all that is taking place around the globe and here at home—the horrific fires in Australia that have devastated the continent, its unique flora and fauna, and led to those images of people huddled near the ocean, waiting for transport away from the devastation. Continue reading

The Creche and the Word: A Sermon for Christmas 1, 2019

Today is the first Sunday of Christmas. You know that there are 12 days of Christmas, and that those twelve days begin, not end, on Christmas Day. Christmas continues right up to the Feast of the Epiphany—although in many places, Christmas decorations remain in the church until February 2, which is Candlemas, or also the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple. Continue reading

The Word tabernacled among us: A Sermon for Christmas Day, 2019

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

I love the contrast between our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. The early service on Christmas Eve is full of noise and excitement. Last night the church was almost full, with families, and children who were full of anticipation of the presents under the trees back home. They could hardly contain their excitement. Each year, I invite them to come forward and join me at our lovely creche, and I engage them in conversation about the story represented by the creche, and its meaning for our lives and our faith.

Then, at 10:00 pm, there’s a very different mood. Excitement still, but the mood is shaped by the beautiful music provided by the choir, organ, and instrumentalists as people gather in the nave. Both services end in darkness as we sing “Silent Night” with candles lit in a darkened nave. Finally, the bells peal the joyous sounds of celebration and we go out into the darkness, our hearts filled with joy.

Christmas Day is very different. In some years, though not now, we might come to church in the glorious, dazzling light, of sun shining on snow. The brightness of the sun corresponds to the glory of the gospel reading we hear each year, the first verses from John’s gospel.

This gospel reading offers a vivid contrast to the story we read each year on Christmas Eve, Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. While Luke moves us in panoramic style from the powerful center of the Roman Empire to one of its obscure and distant corners, the village of Bethlehem, as the characters mentioned change from emperors and governors to a pregnant woman and a band of shepherds. The story ends in stillness and quiet, with Mary pondering all that happened and the shepherds returning to their sheep.

John’s gospel begins with an even wider view than Luke’s. Instead of setting the context in the Roman Empire, John expands out even further, to the beginning of time and the origins of the universe. He draws our attention not to how or where Jesus was born, but to the God who created all that is, and the Word through whom everything was created.

John begins with a panoramic view of the universe: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. But from that vast eternal scope, he focuses in on us:

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The incarnation is a great mystery of our faith, something that we should ponder and treasure in our hearts, something we should puzzle over, ponder. More than that. The Word connects us with God because our words, our thoughts are attempts to approach and understand the Word. By thinking, reflecting, struggling to understand the meaning of the Word become flesh, there’s a way in which our thinking itself makes Christ present in our minds and in our lives.

You may find all this very abstract. It is, but John doesn’t stop there. He goes on. The word became flesh and lived among us.

With this verse, John brings us back to Bethlehem, to the reality of the incarnation. Literally the Greek reads, “and the word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” While John likely wants us to think of the tabernacle that was the symbol of God’s presence to the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s also the case that we are to think of Christ being among us, “living among us” in a temporary, make-shift way, like a tent. That is to say, the word took on frail human flesh to be like us.

This paradox, this mystery is quite beyond comprehension. The Word taking human flesh. St. Augustine captures the paradox in one of his sermons on this text for Christmas:

“He so loved us that for our sake He was made man in time, through Whom all times were made; was in the world less in years than His servants, though older than the world itself in His eternity; was made man, Who made man; was created of a mother, whom He created; was carried by hands which He formed; nursed at the breasts which He had filled; cried in the manger in wordless infancy, He the Word without Whom all human eloquence is mute.” — St. Augustine, Sermon 188

John goes a step further. For John, this infant, this tiny human creature, incapable of speech, vulnerable, utterly dependent on others for life itself, this infant reveals God’s glory to us.

 

So we are back in Bethlehem, back in the confusing paradox that God became incarnate in a very ordinary way, in the poorest of circumstances, in the weakest of all human forms, a baby. And it is in that paradox, that we see God’s glory. For John, it is the same paradox as the cross, which he almost always refers to as the glorification of Christ. What he is telling us is that in these moments of weakness, we see God’s majesty and power.

To see and know Christ, the Word, in the babe in a manger, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ in the cross, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ, to taste Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast, is to see and know God’s glory.

May we experience, may we see and know the glory of God today, in our lives, and in the world around us, in the Christ made flesh in a manger and as we kneel at the altar. May we know and believe the mystery of our faith, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s love for us, today at Christmas, and throughout our lives. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singing with Mary: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2019

Familiar carols, a beautifully-decorated church, our excitement and joy at the celebration of Christmas. It’s almost enough to take us away from the troubles in our lives and the troubles in our world—climate catastrophe, impeachment, refugees, endless wars and other conflicts.

Almost, but not quite enough. I was reminded of how very different the Bethlehem of 2019 is from that portrayed in the familiar carol by the nativity scene the artist provocateur Banksy produced this year. He calls it the “Scar of Bethlehem.” It shows Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus huddled in the shadow of the concrete wall that separates the Palestinian from the Israeli sides of the town; the light above the manger provided not by a star but by a hole in the wall made by a mortar shell. Today Bethlehem is hardly a town of peace; it suffers from the violence and terror of occupation and intractable conflict.

Our world, today, a creation groaning from the pains of evil inflicted on it by human greed, carelessness, and neglect; a world suffering from endless conflict; Our nation is deeply divided politically; with the gap between the few haves and the many have-nots widening daily; , the crushing burdens of medical and student debt affecting individuals across the generations; racism, America’s orginal sin continuing; The Church, the Body of Christ is torn apart by political and theological conflict.

In this world, in this place, we gather to celebrate again the coming of God to us, in human form, weak, tiny, vulnerable.

We have heard the familiar story, sung familiar carols and with them are brought out of the present day to our memories of Christmases past, but also, all the way back to that first Christmas. We sing in imitation and echo of the angels’ “Gloria in excelsis!” We come, kneel, and worship as the shepherds did, and if we pause for a moment, empty our minds of everything else that worries us or occupies our thoughts, we may, like Mary ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts.

But if we ponder too long, we may be reminded of the deep wounds in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. We may grow weary, our hearts may grow cold; our despair deepen. If we ponder too long, we may want to avert our eyes, walk away, overcome by the weight of the world. Our pondering may have us contemplating the abyss, the fear, the helplessness, the hopelessness.

There are other ways to ponder. Luke says that when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted with the words, “Hail, favored one!” Mary was perplexed and pondered. After she learned that she would give birth to the Savior of the world; after she said her “yes” to God, as she reflected on the meaning of these events for her life and for the world, she eventually gave voice to her thoughts in the Magnificat, that great song of praise:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 

This powerful, prophetic hymn declares to us the work that God is doing here, tonight, in this place, in our world. It is work that God has been doing for a very long time and will continue to do until the final consummation of all things.

We Christians have domesticated and caricatured this great event. We have turned it first into an occasion of saccharine piety and sweetness that comforts and consoles us but never challenges or unsettles us. And our culture has cooperated with us to create and sustain a consumeristic spree of holiday spending and celebration that has nothing to do with the story we heard, the gospel that was proclaimed, the Word that has become flesh and lives among us.

We see a mother and baby, a loving family caring for its own. Onto that image we project our own images of loving families and see modeled ideals that we may or may not be able to achieve, or even want to achieve. The holy family is surrounded by all manner of figures, lost in wonder and worship. We hear the story, recreate and reimagine them but when we do they lose their power. We think of sweet, docile Mary, accepting her role, modeling her faithful and quiet devotion, ignoring the fierceness of her hymn:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 

As I reflected this week, as I read Mary’s hymn against the backdrop of the news, and the great events that occurring in our world, I was drawn to a sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great German theologian and martyr. In Advent of 1933, as it was becoming clear the direction that Germany would take under Hitler, Bonhoeffer had this to say about the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn:

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. …

The manger, like the cross, is the place where we see Christ at his weakest, most vulnerable, most human. The manger is the place where we see Christ profoundly, wholly like us.

Yet the manger is where we also see God working out God’s marvelous purposes. We see God, in human flesh, coming to us, meeting us in our weakness and vulnerability. We see God, in human flesh, coming to encounter the poor, powerless, oppressed. We see God meeting refugees and strangers, prisoners, the homeless and hungry. In the manger, at the manger, we see God turning the world upside down, casting down the mighty from their thrones, turning away the rich, scattering the proud. In the manger, we see God bringing about a new world, a new order.

Into our world full of despair, fear, hatred, and evil, God has come. God has come among us as one of us, as the weakest, least powerful. It is mystery and paradox, that the Creator of the world, the Word, through whom all things came to be is now among us, with us, a wordless infant. His presence fills us with hope, and gives us words to speak.

Into our world, into our lives, God comes. Mary sang of God’s coming and of God’s mighty acts; casting down the powerful, sending away the rich, scattering the proud. Her faith proclaimed and sang those mighty acts, although there was little to show for them. Herod ruled, Rome ruled; the poor and the oppressed suffered.

So too, today. Let us proclaim and sing God’s mighty acts, let us declare to the world that Christ’s coming into it means a new world, a new creation. Let us rejoice and sing to the world that Christ’s coming brings hope to the hopeless, freedom to the prisoner, justice to the oppressed. May our hope burn brightly as our voices carry the tune: ”Gloria in Excelsis Deo” Thanks be to God!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Magnificat

The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment.

From a sermon preached in London, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 1933