The One Who Calls You Is Faithful

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

That’s 1 Thessalonians 5:24, and it is now officially one of my favorite verses in scripture.

This entire 1 Thessalonians passage is beautiful, every phrase packed full of practical encouragement in the life of faith that somehow manages to rise above plain advice and reach a lyrical joy.

These are words you can write on your heart, words you can carry around with you through the day, words you can call up when your soul is hungry for light.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says. “Do not quench the spirit…hold fast to what is good.”

Those are lofty goals.

I wish to heck I did rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, but I can guarantee you I don’t.

There are days it’s more like “complain always, feel sorry for myself without ceasing, and make my own life more difficult in all circumstances.”

How do we live lives drenched with rejoicing, governed by prayer, and radiating gratitude?

Both the how and the why of it are all contained in that concluding phrase: “The one who calls you is faithful.”

This phrase has more than one meaning, and we can see it through all of our scriptures appointed for today.

“The one,” of course, in “the one who calls you is faithful,” is God.

But there is more than one way to look at God’s call. Continue reading

Who Wants to Talk About Virtue?

Our Isaiah passage and our psalm today are among my most beloved scriptures in the Bible.

How many of us can ever read Isaiah 40 without hearing Handel’s setting of it for Messiah?

And Psalm 85:10, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” I count as one of the most vivid and beautiful descriptions of the Dream of God in all of scripture.

I notice a shared image between Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85.

Isaiah is commanded to proclaim: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.”

Psalm 85 says, “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven…and our land will yield its increase.”

These are images of plants growing up from the ground, but we notice that the result is very different in each case.

We humans are like blooming plants, but we do not last. We fade and wither, and quickly return to the Earth, our source.

What plants grow up strong and stand fast forever? The virtues or values of truth and righteousness, and the Word of God.

What do we make of this? What does it have to say to us in our walk of faith?

Advent is a good time to reflect on our mortality.

It is technically a penitential season, which means it is our opportunity to reflect on sin and death.

As grim as that seems, we don’t reflect on sin and death to be morbid or self-abasing. We do it because it helps us gain needed perspective, to see ourselves as those flowers that fade and the grass that is cut down.

And what’s the purpose of that?

To teach us to cherish every moment we have in this mortal life, and also to remember that no matter how big the mistakes and regrets we have, they too are as fleeting and mortal as the grass in the sweep of the long story of our loving and forgiving God.

So we learn from our texts that virtue lasts: truth, righteousness, mercy, and peace.

What does that actually mean? Continue reading

Good News: The End Is Nigh

You have no idea how tempted I was to get in the pulpit today wearing a big sandwich board sign that said, “The end is nigh!”

It’s Advent, and the texts chosen for us to study and reflect on in the Advent season are often chaotic and dramatic, foreshadowing the end of the world.

There are themes of apocalypse woven throughout, whether it is John the Baptist or Mary the Mother of Jesus talking about social apocalypse or Jesus talking about cosmic apocalypse.

We hear in our scripture readings on Sunday mornings about valleys being made low and hills lifted up, about the mighty being cast down from their thrones, about the axe being at the root of the tree and the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire.

As I’ve preached before, despite what the onslaught of saccharine Christmas commercialization would have us believe, Advent is not really a tender and gentle time. It is about dramatic and earth-shattering upheaval.

And our texts for this Sunday are no exception. Jesus tells us that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

That’s pretty intimidating.

And Isaiah seems positively eager for everything to go to hell in a handbasket.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”

He can’t wait!

Here is another opportunity to remind ourselves how different our outlook is from the people who originally heard these words proclaimed.

What kind of people are eager to see society torn limb from limb and for God to erupt into history with righteous vengeance? Continue reading

Standing Up for Where You’re Wrong

This gospel is always one of the hardest to deal with in a sermon for me, because it convicts me so deeply.

Jesus sets forth a very clear and simple standard for our lives as disciples, and I know how badly I’m failing at it.

Am I feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger every day?

Maybe if I stretch the interpretation and say that I’m feeding the spiritually hungry, I can give myself some cover.

But honestly, I’m a fundamentalist and a literalist about these types of texts, and I know the truth about my life.

Jesus in the gospels virtually never tells us what to believe.

He tells us what to do.

And what he tells us to do over and over again is to care for and empower the poor, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable in our society.

I fear that I’m not really doing that, at least not in any way that requires much sacrifice or initiative from me, and I doubt I’m alone in this room in that cringing realization.

Reading a text like this honestly, and facing up to the fact that we’re not doing what Jesus has asked of us—that is a painful, frustrating, guilty and helpless state of mind.

We call that state of mind “being convicted.”

It hurts so much that I started to ask: what is the value or the function of this feeling of conviction in our spiritual lives? Continue reading

Anita Hill, Sexual Harassment, and the 10 Virgins

Trigger warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

 

 

The floodgates have opened on the reality of everyday experience for American women.

Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence, and the number of women who have not experienced sexual assault is vanishingly small.

In the circle of women who are most dear to me, several have been raped.

I myself had what I would describe as a semi-consensual sexual experience in college that had deep repercussions for me.

And with regard to sexual harassment, the reaction of most women I know to men who are asking, “Is it really this prevalent?” is, “You mean you didn’t know?”

There are few of us who do not have strong emotions about this cultural moment.

I have talked to straight male colleagues who are frightened.

They are examining years of their lives in retrospect, wondering if they ever crossed a line somewhere and will find out about it on the front page of the local paper.

I have talked to male colleagues who react with scoffing dismissal, insisting these accusations are a fad and a bandwagon for every opportunist holding a grudge.

Other male colleagues have reacted with sensitivity, solidarity, and commitment to being part of a solution.

The female colleagues I have talked to have had a range of reactions as well.

Some have had to shut down all news and social media in their lives because the constant barrage of sexual harassment allegations has triggered their own memories and swamped them with PTSD.

Some who have not dealt with outright abuse or assault have felt guilty or privileged compared with those who have.

Many are deeply cynical that any real change can occur in a nation that elected as president someone who freely admitted to sexual assault in what he called “locker room banter.”

And this doesn’t even begin to address the additional levels of harassment and assault experienced by those rendered even more vulnerable than those in my dominant milieu of middle class white women.

People of color and LGBTQ colleagues I’ve spoken to have shaken their heads as they’ve affirmed that my privilege has shielded me from additional layers of poisonous harm that bombard them from the outside world every day.

I think one of the questions everyone is asking is, “Why now?” Continue reading

How To Avoid Becoming a Burden When You’re Carrying a Burden

Do you feel burdened?

The writers of our epistle and gospel want to know.

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul says.

Jesus speaks of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

What is the difference between the two? What separates those in the Beloved Community who impose burdens on others, and those who remove them?

The topic of burdens is important throughout the Bible.

Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.”

Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

We all know what it is like to feel burdened by life.

Every single person we know is bearing a burden of some kind, some seen, some unseen. Cancer, financial hardship, caregiving for an elderly parent, a child struggling in school, addiction—the burdens add up and weigh us down.

And we all feel the collective burdens of lives lost or altered in natural disasters, mass shootings, and the global struggles of poverty and disease.

It’s no surprise that the bearing of burdens shows up all over scripture.

And in our texts for today we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to relate to his spiritual community, and how the scribes and Pharisees are.

What differentiates the two? Continue reading

1549: Who Will Finish Our Journey?

How do you think Moses felt when he realized that he would not get to enter the Promised Land?

What heartbreaking and crushing moment!

He has poured out over forty years of tough, uphill leadership of the people of Israel, and God is now telling him that the goal will be forever out of his reach. He will die without entering the Promised Land.

It seems even more cruel that he will actually see it, but not enter it.

In our lesson from Deuteronomy today, Moses is led up to the top of a mountain, “and the Lord showed him the whole land…The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.”

At first it seems like a pretty poor reward for such long and dedicated service.

But like so many things in the Bible, we realize that it is meticulously faithful to the way things happen in real life.

Many times we have a dearly held and longed-for goal for ourselves, our family, or our community, and despite the years of work we put into it, we never see it accomplished.

That’s in fact almost guaranteed for the biggest and most important goals of transformation.

Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech—he said it explicitly, that he had seen the Promised Land, but he did not know if he would enter it.

But he did not speak those words with despair.

His voice rang with hope and even joy.

This is the difference between people who have been transformed by God’s work in their lives and those who haven’t. Continue reading

1662: Costly Faith

In our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we’ve been journeying back in time together through the history of our Church with increasingly older editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

We tackled 1928 and 1789, and today we work our way through the 1662 edition of the Holy Eucharist in the Church of England.

The stories of the Tudor dynasty during the Reformation are well-known by most of us–Henry the VIII and his short-lived wives, Cranmer and Edward and Elizabeth, Luther and all the rest.

Heads were getting chopped off left and right, palace intrigue both political and sexual ruled the day, and it all makes for very good television for us now.

But what a lot of modern Americans don’t realize is that the events leading up to the prayerbook we’re using today, the 1662 edition, are equally dramatic and gory.

To understand this story, we have to remember that religion, politics and violence were virtually inseparable in this time and place.

During Elizabeth I’s reign, Via Media Anglicanism took solid hold with what is now called the Elizabethan Settlement.

Famously claiming that she did not seek windows into men’s souls, Elizabeth presided over an end to heresy laws, which allowed people more individual freedom of religious conscience than had ever existed before in England, all within a stable state Protestant Church, independent of Rome.

Many people longed for a return to Catholicism, the familiar faith of their forebears. But many others felt that Protestantism in England was lukewarm, and agitated for a far more Calvinist, Presbyterian, reformed Church of England.

Add in major conflicts over the role of the monarchy and whether its occupants were fit to lead and fair in their dealings with Parliament, and you have a recipe for violent armed conflict.

The English Civil War, which was actually a series of three wars, broke out in 1642 and raged until 1651.

King Charles I was ultimately tried and executed, and a Protectorate was formed under Oliver Cromwell.

Eventually the monarchy was restored, but never again with absolute rule. All subsequent monarchs would have to share power with Parliament.

During what’s called the Interregnum, the period between kings when Cromwell and his associates were in charge, the ultra-Protestants were in power.

These super-Protestants were called Puritans, whom you may remember from Thanksgiving pageants at school.

The Puritans considered the Church of England to be far too Catholic, and that’s where we get our connection to the prayerbook.

While the Puritans ruled, as you may have read in the front of your bulletin, use of the Book of Common Prayer was illegal.

You would be fined 5 pounds the first time you were caught using it, 10 pounds the second time, and the third offense could result in a year in prison.

As everyone I’ve told about this this week has said, “Wow! That escalated quickly!” Continue reading

1789: Idols and Identity

How do we communicate to ourselves and to the world who we are as a community?

As we think about this question, we notice an interesting intersection between our passage from Exodus and our use today of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer for our worship.

The 1789 BCP was the first prayerbook by Americans, for Americans.

Many of the founders of our republic were Anglicans, including George Washington, and they quickly realized that they needed ecclesiastical independence along with political independence. Church leaders began convening in 1785 to compile a new prayerbook.

The American Revolution had ended two years earlier, in 1783. The new nation was now at peace, but had to create its own economic and political stability.

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia would not convene until 1787, and the constitution would not be ratified and go into effect until 1789.

So for those who were involved or affected by all three events, it went in the following order: war, prayerbook, constitution. Interesting.

So what we have is a people in violent crisis, trying to escape from what to them was a foreign oppressor in Great Britain.

That’s a situation not unlike the Israelites in our Exodus text today.

They have been delivered from enslavement, but have found that their troubles are only beginning.

They need something to unify them, something to express their identity, something to say who they are now that they are free.

For American Anglicans, that was the new Book of Common Prayer, the very one we’re using today.

For Americans broadly, that was the U.S. Constitution.

For the Israelites, as we read last week, that was the 10 Commandments.

These are documents that express identity.

They are documents that prescribe behavior, and by doing so set up a set of aspirations of how we are to live together.

They say who we are by saying how we would like to behave.

But it’s more complicated than that. Continue reading

1928, 2017, 10

Today we’re starting our Historic Liturgies project at St. Francis.

We really started it last week with the 1979 prayerbook liturgy that we use every week, but that’s so familiar it doesn’t really count.

This is the first week we’ll really strike out to try something different with our 1928 prayerbook liturgy.

Next week we’ll do 1789, then 1662, and finally 1549, the first Book of Common Prayer compiled by Cranmer himself.

Robert and I have collaborated on this project, and we’ve had to shorten most of the liturgies a bit.

The older prayerbooks had long, long exhortations to communion. This goes back to the days when lay people were not used to receiving communion more than once or twice a year and had to be encouraged by the priest to come to the altar.

One bit we took out this week which I’ve since realized we really should have kept in, was the Decalogue.

The Decalogue is the recitation of the 10 Commandments in worship, and it used to be at the beginning of every service of Holy Communion.

This goes back to the days when most people were illiterate, and Cranmer and his associates hoped that hearing the 10 Commandments at the beginning of every service would help people learn and memorize them.

In the 1662 rubrics, the priest is instructed to “rehearse distinctly all the 10 Commandments,”—make sure they really hear it!

We took it out this week to shorten the service, but you’ll see we’ll have a chance to reflect on it anyway because it is our scripture today from Exodus.

A colleague told me this week of a fascinating interpretation of the 10 Commandments he read that I’d like to share with you. “At the Red Sea, God took the Israelites out of Egypt. At Mount Sinai, God took Egypt out of the Israelites.”

Wow! Isn’t that an interesting thought? Continue reading