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