He stretched out his arms in love on the hard wood of the cross

I taught for a year at the School of Theology of the University of the South (Sewanee). During that time, and for the next year, too, I made a habit of attending Morning Prayer at the seminary. It is one thing to say MP for oneself; it is quite another to do it regularly in community. I quickly came to love one of the collects for mission that includes the phrase “you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within your saving embrace.”

At Eucharist last night, I talked about the meaning of the cross. The lessons were 1 Cor. 1 “I preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” and Jn 12: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

It seems to me that so often the cross is a divider, a sign that is meant to create boundaries, to delineate who is in and who is out, but in the collect as well as in John 12:32, the cross is a uniter. I’ll be pondering the meaning of the cross more in the next days, and will probably preach on this in some way on Good Friday.

The Anointing at Bethany

The gospel appointed for Monday in Holy Week is John 12:1-11–the story of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany by Mary. While all four gospels have versions of this story, the four diverge dramatically in details. John sees the significance of the anointing in light of the crucifixion. When challenged by Judas about the expensive perfume used, Jesus replies, “she has anointed me beforehand for my burial.

Monday in Holy Week is also the traditional day in our diocese for the annual reaffirmation of ordination vows and the chrism mass, when the bishop consecrates holy oil and distributes it to clergy for use in the coming year. I’ve never attended this service; it comes on a day when I teach, and besides, my ordination vows are still recent enough that they don’t need to be recharged.

Yesterday, I visited a parishioner who’s been in the hospital for over a month. She is probably in the last stages of her life. While I was there, I anointed her with oil for healing, but as I thought about it, and as I pondered the gospel in preparation for the evening service, I wondered whether I was also anointing her for burial. Perhaps I was doing both. As I put oil on her forehead, I thought of Mary’s anointing of Jesus, and I thought as well of Jesus suffering on the cross. It was one of those moments when the little things we do are powerful reminders of our connection with the stories in the gospel and with the whole church. The anointing at Bethany was also the anointing in Greenville, yesterday.

The Pew Survey of the US Religious Landscape

Amidst all of the other news and noise, you may have heard something about the massive study of religious life in the US undertaken by the Pew Forum. Among the key findings: almost 30% of Americans have left the religion in which they were raised for another one, or for no affiliation. If one includes movement within Protestant denominations, that percentage increases to 44%. Almost 1/4 of young adults (18-29) claim no religious affiliation and although a third of American adults were raised as Catholic, only 1/4 of adult Americans are Catholic. This significant loss in numbers would be even greater if not for immigration. You can read more about the survey here.

Such surveys provide useful information for us as we think about St. James’ ministry in Greenville. While we live in an area that is more Protestant and more Evangelical than the rest of the country, Greenville is changing rapidly. The growing number of religiously unaffiliated people and the frequent movement between denominations and religions pose challenges to the Church. How can we reach out to those who are unaffiliated, especially those who have become disaffected from their religious upbringing? How can we make our worship, parish life, and ministries attractive to newcomers and visitors?

I haven’t read the report closely–my eyes often begin to glaze when dealing with too many statistics–but I am familiar with other surveys that focus on baby-boomers and post baby-boomers. Remarkably, these surveys have shown clearly that when following people over periods of time (longitudinal studies), many people move in and out of involvement in religious communities. We know that young families seek out the church, but these studies have shown that many young families disengage, and people later in life re-engage with the church. That’s partly why the Pew Survey found such a low affiliation among young adults.

We are living in a religious marketplace, and how the church responds to that reality will be key to its survival, both on the local and the global level.

An Exciting and Exhausting weekend

Months ago, when I invited Dr. Shelly Matthews to preach on January 27 I had no idea what else would be going on. Oh, I knew that there were two organ recitals scheduled, but it was only later that we decided to focus on Children’s Church at the 9:00 service. The senior EYC lock-in that was scheduled for the 19th and 20th was postponed until this weekend. I ended up spending about as much time at the church this weekend as I would from Good Friday to Easter.

But it was a wonderful weekend. The recital was beautiful, both times–in fact I heard it in full only on Sunday. I had to slip out early on Friday night to help with final preparations for the reception. I was especially taken with the Bruhns from the first half of the concert, and the Durufle at the end. It was also great to see Hal Gober again, and to meet his wife. Karen and the organ wow’ed all of those in attendance.

At 12:15 AM on Sunday, I celebrated the Eucharist with around 25 of our young people. It was a beautiful night as I drove up the mountain. The moon was shining brightly which gave me an idea for some comments on the gospel I made at the Eucharist. Yesterday’s readings were from Isaiah 9 and Matthew 4, which quotes the Isaiah passage “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Then at 9:00, we worshiped with Children’s Church and gave our first and second graders prayer books to celebrate their completing the course on the meaning of the Eucharist. It was great fun to watch all of the kids participate in our worship so enthusiastically and I must say that several of them are almost ready to become readers for our regular services. The energy and excitement during the service was wonderful.

I would like to thank everyone who worked so hard to make this weekend the huge success it was. Karen of course; the members of the organ committee–especially Albert Blackwell; Corrie who put on the reception Friday night and Karen Hipp who did so much to help; the women of the ECW who did the reception on Sunday; Laura Lipscomb and Jennifer Jerina, who organize children’s church and organized as well the children’s participation; Shelly Matthews who preached a fine sermon, as always; Katie, who organized and survived the lock-in, and the staff of St. James, who worked so hard behind the scenes to make the weekend a success: Dena, Becky, and Mike. Great job, everyone!

Our Middle School EYC's hike to Raven Cliff Falls.

I’ve never been there in January, but Corrie and I have enjoyed the hike both in the spring and the fall. Some of our middle school youth made the hike January 13. They made the mistake of sharing the photos with me. As an aside, when the EYC ski trip was announced for Super Bowl Sunday this year, I mentioned that the last time I had been skiing was Super Bowl Sunday, 1979. Thanks be to God, no pictures exist of that event.

So here is the falls, the kids, and an emu.early-january-08-013.JPG



So what is sin?

Over the last months, I have been asked about sin by several parishioners. Today someone asked me, “What does Jesus save us from?” It’s a very good question. In my sermon on Sunday, I said that one important aspect of the incarnation is that in Christ we see the possibility of what humanity might be, what we were intended by God, and prevented by the fall from becoming. In fact, most traditional theology (the Fathers, St. Thomas Aquinas, et al.) argues that salvation offered by and through Jesus Christ goes beyond what we might have achieved on our own had we not sinned.

But what is sin? We tend to think of sin in terms of particular acts–going against the ten commandments, for example. But sin is more than that. As I understand it, sin is above all a way of describing the fact that as humans we are not as God created us to be. There is a fundamental brokenness in us that we experience in different ways: when our body betrays us, when we know what we ought to do, but cannot or will not do it, when we hurt others or ourselves out of sheer maliciousness or even ignorance. That brokenness we interpret as sin. God created us as good, but because of the fall, we are not whole beings.

I reject the notion of substitutionary atonement, that Jesus Christ had to die to save us from our sins, that “he paid the price” or that “there is power in the blood” to quote two familiar 19th century hymns. Rather in his life, in the cross, and in the resurrection, Jesus Christ shows us what humanity might be, could be, should be. In his self-giving love, he overcomes our brokenness and offers us a way that we, too, might overcome it.

The colors of Advent

Some of you may have noticed that mysteriously one of the blue candles on the advent wreath at St. James became pink last week, and that it was lit on Sunday with two of the blue candles. Some controversy ensued. Before the change was made all of the clergy were consulted and were comfortable with the change. Little did we expect passions to be aroused.

Fr. Tom said in conversation this afternoon that the advent wreath was a recent liturgical innovation, so I decided to do a little research. While one must approach information on the internet with considerable caution, wikipedia above all, I did find it interesting that according to that source, the modern advent wreath became a common custom in Germany only around 1900, and then only among Protestants. It probably arrived in the US in the 1930s or so.

The color of the candles is dependent on the liturgical color of Advent. Traditionally among Roman Catholics, because Advent was seen as a penitential season, the liturgical color was purple, the same as in the season of Lent. But like Lent, which had a Sunday “off”–Laetare Sunday–when the liturgical color was rose (pink), it became the custom to use pink on the third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday.

As a result of the liturgical changes in the twentieth century that sought to de-emphasize Advent’s penitential nature and to distinguish it clearly from Lent, blue became a popular liturgical color, especially among Protestants. Anglicans could appeal to the Medieval traditions of Salisbury (the “Sarum” rite) which used blue during Advent. In most Episcopal churches, whatever the color of the other candles on the wreath, there is one pink or rose candle, which is usually lit on the third Sunday (though according to some traditions on the fourth).

I suppose that the most “liturgically correct” thing to do would be to get a set of vestments to match the pink candle. But remember, the color of the candles doesn’t matter a great deal; what does matter is what the season of Advent is about, to help us prepare for the coming of Christ.

Christ the King

In my sermon today, I mentioned the mosaics in San Vitale in Ravenna. Here is a rather poor reproduction of the apse mosaic depicting Christ in Majesty:


Here is Justinian and his attendants:

byzantinesanvitalejustinian.jpg And here is Theodora and her attendants:


It’s barely detectable in this image, but on the hem of her gown is a depiction of the magi presenting their gifts to the Christ Child.

A homily preached on the Eve of Thanksgiving, 2007

Yesterday afternoon, Corrie and I went on one of our occasional foraging expeditions. Many of you know that Corrie is a gourmet cook. What you may not know is that she is deeply involved in efforts at sustainability—the ideal of producing food for our tables in ways that are environmentally sound. This year we ordered a turkey from Broken Wing farm down near Ware Place. Bill, the farmer, raises heritage turkeys—turkeys your grandparents might have eaten, as well as traditional breeds of chickens and hogs. We chatted briefly after we bought the turkey. Our conversation, as conversations with farmers always do, quickly moved to the weather, the ongoing drought and the scorching high heat last summer. He lost 20% of his turkey flock to the high temperatures this summer.

We stopped at another farm yesterday, at Happy Cow Dairy. As we drove up, in the pasture next to the lane were several calves still wobbly on their feet. Two had been born that afternoon and we watched a few minutes as another cow started to give birth. Now, neither Corrie or I grew up on farms, but we were surrounded by them throughout our childhood. The rhythms of the agricultural seasons shaped our lives. Most of the members of my church when I was growing up were either farmers or worked in some related business. We always knew when the agricultural economy was going well or badly and we always knew how the weather was affecting crops and livelihoods.

As you know, we are in the midst of a severe drought here in the southeast, but for most of us, the fact that we are nearly 2 feet under our average annual rainfall has had no effect on us. We may have heard the news reports that Atlanta’s water supply may dry up completely by New Years’ Eve, but we’ve got plenty of water. We aren’t worried about our taps running dry and we certainly aren’t concerned that our food supply might begin to falter because of the drought.

In agricultural societies, of course, such things do matter. In most traditional agricultural societies, a poor crop means not just money troubles, but a good chance that one might go hungry. Tonight’s reading from Deuteronomy comes from just such a society. The Book of Deuteronomy purports to be the final speeches of Moses before his death and before the Hebrew people enter the promised land. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that it dates from several centuries later than that, during the monarchy and reflects an attempt at reform of Israelite religion.

What we have in this reading is a liturgy, the instructions for a thanksgiving service that the Israelites were to celebrate at the beginning of the harvest. They were to take some of the first fruits, the earliest and best harvest and present it to the priest at the temple. While it isn’t expressly stated that it is the tithe, the tenth portion of the crop; this may be intended because of other language in the text.

For us, to imagine that farmers might offer something of their produce to God is not all that surprising, but there are other aspects of the liturgy that might be. In the first place, it is done in the context of a recital of God’s mighty acts on behalf of the Israelites. One gives thanks because God delivered the Hebrew people out of oppression and slavery and brought them into the promised land.

But there is more. After making the offering, they are instructed to throw a party—to share the bounty of the land with those who do not possess it—the Levites (who were dedicated to the service of God) and to the alien. Thus Thanksgiving was not just about giving thanks. It was also about remembering the past and about sharing the bounty of the land with all. It reminds us of the deep commitment of the law of Moses to the weak and the outcast.

In the parallel chapter of Exodus that records this ritual, there are a series of other laws that make the values of God clear. The Israelites were instructed to till the land only for six years out of seven, to let the land lie fallow for the seventh year, so that it might be refreshed and so that the wild animals might eat. They were instructed to rest on the seventh day, not just because it was holy, but in order that their beasts of burden and their laborers might rest. But above all, they were not to oppress the widow, the orphan or the alien, because they had been strangers in Egypt. Their experience of oppression should shape their treatment of others.

Seen in this broader context, Thanksgiving is not just about food, family, football, and shopping. It is not just about giving thanks to God for all that we have. In fact, that’s a small part of it. For the biblical traditions, and for our Anglican tradition thanksgiving is about much more.

In a few minutes we will celebrate the Eucharist. The word itself announces the centrality of thanksgiving to our faith. For it means to give thanks in Greek and was used from the earliest days of Christianity to refer to the communion service. But even there we are not left off the hook. Thanksgiving is always tied to outreach. In the post-communion prayer, the thanksgiving after communion as it’s often called in our service bulletins, after giving thanks to God “for feeding us with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ” we also pray, “Send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you.”

What is the work God has given us to do? To love and serve him, certainly, but as we will be reminded when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, it is also to love our neighbors as ourselves, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace.

Most of us don’t know or want to know where or how our food is produced. All we care is that there’s lots of it, and that it is cheap. If you’re like me, usually the closest you get to a farm animal is if you get stuck behind one of the trucks delivering chickens to the Columbia Farms plant. If you’re like me, the sight is sickening. If you’re like me, you also probably try to avoid seeing the stream of workers walking back and forth from the plant.

Giving thanks to God is not just about our relationship with God. It is also about our relationship with the world and with all of humanity. We ought, we need to care. Indeed, in Deuteronomy God demands it of us as part of our act of giving thanks. As we sit down at our bountiful tables tomorrow, we ought to take time to reflect on where that food comes from, whether it at all reflects the biblical vision for agriculture, and how our thanksgiving might become about more than stuffing ourselves and might become about sharing God’s bounty with the world.

Life Goes On

Four deaths in a parish of our size in less than a month is a staggering burden for clergy, staff, and parishioners, especially when some of the deceased have been as important to the life and ministry of St. James as some of those to whom we have said good-bye recently.

As a priest, I’ve found that there is no more important aspect of ministry than to be with people as they die and as they grieve. It’s not that what we say or do can ease the suffering or loss. There’s nothing I detest more than mouthing platitudes, so don’t expect them from me. Rather, it’s what sometimes is called by pastoral care givers “a ministry of presence.” I’m not even sure what that means most of the time. What I do know is that for me, being with dying and grieving people is one of the places where I encounter God’s presence. It’s a holy time, a reminder of what we are about as Christians. It is a time to honor the dignity of human persons and to reach out, in faith, to God.

It’s also a time when I give thanks for the Book of Common Prayer. The language and poetry of the burial services, the beauty of the prayers, the brave acclamation of faith in God that resonates throughout the services, are always deeply moving. As a priest, when my own words might fail me, there’s always the BCP that will say what needs to be said. The language of the BCP never fails to move me, even, or especially, when I am officiating.