Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ember Wednesday

Exodus 24:12And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them. 13And Moses rose up, and his minister Joshua: and Moses went up into the mount of God. 14And he said unto the elders, Tarry ye here for us, until we come again unto you: and, behold, Aaron and Hur are with you: if any man have any matters to do, let him come unto them. 15And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. 16And the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17And the sight of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. 18And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and gat him up into the mount: and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights.
The Ember Days are observed four times a year, a set of fast days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), which became associated at some point with ordinations -- which traditionally take place on Ember Saturday. The Mass for each Ember Saturday has 5 extra lessons, in addition to the Epistle and Gospel, and ordinations to each of the minor orders takes place before each one of the lessons. In Anglican circles, the tradition of an "Embertide letter", which each seminarian (and in some dioceses, clergy) are required to write to their bishop to report on their progress. We have recently adopted this custom in our jurisdiction, sharing them with each other on our email group (sharing what each is comfortable sharing), and it is proving to be a helpful exercise of reflection. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the "Litany for Ordinations" is suggested for use on the Ember Days as a way of praying for vocations to ministry, for those called to various ministries, and for the ministries of all the baptized. (We prayed this as part of Vespers this evening.)

The scripture lesson above (I'm departing from just commenting on the gospel) is one of two lessons read before the Gospel in the Ember Wednesday mass, and it is intriguing to note the amount of time Moses spent in prayer -- a week BEFORE the forty days he spent receiving the Torah.

As those called to lead communities of faith, it is my prayer, that we clergy may take the time to spend in prayer and retreat to be able to be able to receive inspiration as to the direction our communities should go.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cast out the moneychangers from the church!

Matthew 21:10And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? 11And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. 12And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, 13And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. 14And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. 15And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased, 16And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? 17And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there.

Someone once said, "Jesus came to show us the way, and people have been studying his fingernails ever since." Jesus constantly butted heads with the religious authorities of his day, because they continuously failed to "get it" -- but, sadly, the religious authorities of the communities claiming to follow him have also failed to "get it". Certainly, being physical beings, we have material needs, and communities of human beings will inevitably have those material needs as well. Although we in the independent movement tend not to have paid clergy or church buildings, there is certainly nothing wrong with either of these, and there is a proper way for churches to be good stewards of money.

However, sadly, it is all too easy for money and other material concerns to become the primary concern, replacing true spiritual values rather than supporting them. And money is not the only temptation -- political power is another serious temptation. Tragically, we see this played out in Nigeria, where the the head of the Anglican organization, Peter Akinola, is actively working to get laws passed that would ban any support for or expression of homosexuality, with five-year prison terms. That this man is condemning the Episcopal Church and its Christian leaders, such as Bishop Gene Robinson, while perverting the gospel of Jesus Christ into a tool for persecution of those against whom he is bigoted is obscene.

I urge everyone who reads this to pray for the persecuted lgbt community of Nigeria, and to contact your elected officials to urge them to act to prevent this grotesque miscarriage of justice.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Separating the Sheep from the Goats

Matthew 25:31When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

Fr. Chris Tessone has a good entry today, pointing to an entry by Sister Mary Sue of the Order of Santa Ignora, on the necessity of seeing Lent not merely as a "journey" but also and much more importantly as an opportunity to confront the sin in our lives. Today's gospel reminds us of the stark choice confronting us -- an easy, comfortable religion that doesn't challenge us to conversion has no salvific power -- only an encounter with the Crucified can lead us to the sacrificial, self-giving way of life that leads to salvation. We may very well be a "resurrection people" and the a-word may be "our song", as the song says -- but the Resurrection only happens after the Crucifixion.

Our parish was recently given a beautiful purple chasuble, stole, and maniple for Lent by an Episcopal priest friend -- but wearing a beautiful stole without taking on Christ's yoke of sacrificial service, or a maniple without being prepared to wait tables for the hungry (the maniple, sadly not worn much anymore due to the minimalist excesses [yes, that is an oxymoron, but an accurate one] of the liturgical movement, was an early napkin that bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons wear/wore as a symbol of our service) benefits us nothing.

May this Lent not be merely about religious devotions (not that there's anything wrong with devotions!), but may it be about the conversion that leads us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

First Sunday of Lent

S. Matth. 4. 1 THEN was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an-hungered. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down; for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan; for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

One of the most fascinating literary figures of the twentieth century is Charles Williams, one of the Inklings, a friend of JRR Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and others in that circle. He has followers in very conservative Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic circles, and yet, an initiate of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a descendant organization of the Order of the Golden Dawn, also has followers in esoteric and magical circles, and one of his novels, The Greater Trumps, considers the Tarot. He has some interesting comments on today's gospel, which I commend to your attention.

The earliest Christians saw martyrdom as the highest form of Christian discipleship -- indeed, they had to guard against the excessive devotion to it that blurred the line between a courageous stand for the gospel and reckless self-endangerment/suicide. As the Christian faith became more tolerated and then elevated to the state religion, asceticism replaced it, and drove men and women into the desert to pray and fight with demons, using Christ's forty-day stay in the desert as a model. Lent is also modelled after this forty-day stint in the desert (among other forty-day/year periods in scripture), and we, like the desert mothers and fathers, go into a desert (figurative for us) to fight our demons and pray.

Like Jesus, we will soon see that the temptations are not necessarily those to gross immorality -- rather, the most dangerous (and common) temptations are those to put good things to the wrong use. We hear a lot about social justice, and, indeed, we are called as Christians to be very outspoken about it and work toward it. However, if we get to the point where the gospel becomes a means to the end of earthly well-being, rather than the struggle for social justice being a means to the end of following Christ, we will go astray -- the Religious Right has had many embarrassing moments as it has been co-opted by the Republican Party, and the Religious Left will endure many more as it is co-opted by the Democrats. As Christians, we are first and foremost citizens of the heavenly realm, and secondly members of the church, and finally, citizens of our nation-states -- when we reverse the order, we create idols. Without being conscious of it, we will have worshipped the devil to gain control of earthly political power -- to implement godly ideas, for sure, but without recognizing the ways in which that power corrupts us.

Note that I'm NOT saying that we should abandon our efforts to achieve social justice -- rather, we must remain ever-vigilant that they are done for the right reason -- service and obedience to God -- and not as an end in themselves -- the same can be said about prayer or any other religious exercises.

Fr. Chris Tessone, as always, has some interesting comments about this aspect of today's gospel -- he quotes Luther about the ways in which fasting can become a good work rather than a means toward the end of drawing closer to God. I commend his comments to you as well -- his test about whether fasting is authentic or not -- if we do it "because it is part of the Kingdom's plan, enabled by God's grace and imprinted on our will by Christian discipleship" -- is the test we should apply to ALL of our spiritual life.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for the First Sunday of Lent, 1979 BCP)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Feast of St. Matthias

Matthew 11:25 At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. 26 Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight. 27 All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. 28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

From at least the time of St. Gregory I, Bishop of Rome, the feast of St. Matthias was observed on this day (Feb. 24, or 25 in leap years) in the West, but on August 9 in the East. After Vatican II, the revised Roman calendar put it on May 14, but Anglicans and traditionalists continue to observe it on the traditional day.

I feel a certain kinship with St. Matthias, for two reasons -- first, having been born when my father was nearly 50 and my mother 41, I was the youngest cousin on both sides (I'm an only child), and so I always felt like a "latecomer" to the family, not having experienced a lot of the family history that others have. In addition, we moved a lot when I was a child, so I frequently started at a new school and in a new church (my father being pastor in most cases) -- and while Matthias had accompanied Jesus and the other disciples from the beginning, I'm sure being one of the Twelve must have been a similar experience.

The last three verses of today's gospel have always been one of my favorite passages of scripture. When I first began to pray the Office, in high school, in the form provided in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the first Office I regularly began to pray was Compline -- and these verses are one of the options for the chapter -- and the option I usually chose. And the first verse is the first of the "Comfortable Words" in the traditional Anglican Eucharistic rite -- which I heard in the Rite I parish I attended toward the end of high school, as I began to forsake the evangelical churches of my childhood for the liturgical tradition. As I was beginning to come to terms with being gay and figuring out how to reconcile that with being Christian, this promise that what Christ asks of us is not burdensome or heavy was quite reassuring, and whenever I hear these words, I am taken back to that time -- along with hearing the Willan Agnus Dei, these are my most vivid religious memories of that period of my life.

However, the contrast of this passage with the very difficult passage we read yesterday -- and Jesus' command to "be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect" -- is quite striking. The Collect for today is also a contrast (at least for those of us called to be pastors):

O ALMIGHTY God, who into the place of the traitor Judas didst choose thy faithful servant Matthias to be of the number of the twelve Apostles; Grant that thy Church, being alway preserved from false Apostles, may be ordered and guided by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

When I pray it, I pray that I may be preserved from BEING a false apostle, but may instead be a "faithful and true pastor" -- and anyone in a pastoral office will sooner or later be confronted with a difficult situation where one must make an agonizing decision, with the very heavy burden of worrying if the decision made will have a deleterious effect on one's flock. I can only pray that I have more "Matthias" moments than "Judas".

I don't know how to solve this paradox -- and maybe it is not solvable -- there are times when the Christian faith is the greatest consolation in the world, and there are times when it is extremely difficult. As we continue our Lenten journey, may we never forget that consolation during the times of anguish and temptation.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Matthew 5:43 - 6:6 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 47And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 48Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. 6:1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. 2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: 4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. 5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Good to know the bar isn't set too high . . .

It is so difficult to love one's enemies -- I find it very difficult to love terrorists who wreak wanton destruction. I find it nearly impossible to love people like James Dobson, or Marilyn Musgrave, or Mitt Romney, or the others who lie about gay families and attempt to put as many legal and financial and human obstacles as possible in place to prevent gay families from being able to function. I find it difficult to love clergy (in our independent movement and elsewhere) who serve idols rather than Christ -- the "unity" some Episcopalians are willing to pursue to the point of turning their backs on lgbt folk, money in the case of some independent "clergy" more interested in the fees they will receive than in serving the people -- to give but two examples. And, quite frankly, if I give money to charity or the needy, I'd like a little gratitude, and I want to be known as a prayerful person.

But, as followers of Christ, we are called to let go of our hurt and anger and see the image of God in everyone, no matter how much they have defiled it. We should certainly be angry at injustice -- but we must "be angry and sin not" -- and not allow our anger to lead us to hate -- or, worse because it is easier -- give up on those perpetrating the injustice.

We should see our almsgiving as a matter of justice and not charity -- something to which we are obligated, not something we do because we are "good". In this, we can learn from our Jewish sisters and brothers -- the Hebrew word translated as "charity" in the sense of philanthropic giving is "tzedakah", literally "justice" -- and the Jewish teaching on this has translated into a strong Jewish presence in the civil rights movements for African Americans, women, lgbt folk, and others -- which puts Christians to shame.

And, if you find all this as difficult as I do, you will agree that the time spent in prayer will be necessary to seek the grace to live it out, rather than a badge of piety.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Matthew 8.5 And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, 6And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. 7And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. 8The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. 9For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. 10When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 11And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 13And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.

Some scholars believe that the centurion's "servant" was not so much a servant as a male lover/partner, offering evidence for how the Greek word used is used elsewhere. My extremely-rusty-and-never-that-good Greek is not proficient enough for me to make such a judgment, but assuming this is true, it gives the gospel an interesting spin. Certainly, Jesus' healing of a gentile and someone related to a soldier (as lover or servant), someone who was very much outside the religious mainstream of his day, speaks to his embrace of the marginalized, and if this is indeed a same-sex couple, then this only intensifies this theme.

This gospel is also the source for the beautiful prayer recited by the celebrant and communicants in the Roman rite (3 times in the classic version, first by celebrant and then separately by communicants after the invitation -- reduced to one recitation in the modern version) -- "Lord, I am not worthy, that thou shouldest enter under my roof: but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed" (translation from the English [Knott] Missal -- the modern Roman translation is sadly deficient, as is typical).

It is unfortunate that St. Paul's admonition for communicants to examine themselves before receiving communion, lest they eat and drink condemnation to themselves, has been twisted into the de facto excommunication of the vast majority of Christians the majority of time. In the Roman church prior to Pius X, and still in the Orthodox churches, frequent communion was discouraged because of the alleged unworthiness of the average Christian. In most Anglican and Protestant churches (Plymouth Brethren and Barton/Campbell/Stone restoration churches being exceptions), the celebration of the Eucharist became restricted in most churches to monthly or even quarterly (twice-yearly in Amish and some Mennonite churches) because of the unworthiness of the congregation. This began to change among Anglicans with the Oxford Movement, and Lutherans and other Protestants since the Liturgical Movement have begun to celebrate more frequently, Christ be praised.

As long as one is not at enmity with others (and I believe that a willingness to be made willing to forgive is sufficient, if brought in prayer to Christ) and properly discerns the body of Christ (I'll post on that another time -- let's just say someone who is in relationship with Christ), one should commune. The idea that because one hasn't been to confession, or hasn't fasted, or is somehow not "spiritual enough" is a terrible reason to stay away -- better a sinner who recognizes their sinfulness should commune than a prideful person who mistakenly believes they have "earned" the sacrament through devotional exercises. None of us can ever be worthy enough to deserve to receive Christ in the Eucharist -- and none of us needs to be -- as long as we are humble enough to recognize our sinfulness, we are invited.

And, just as it would be rude to be invited to a dinner party and to refuse to eat once there, so it grieves our Lord when Christians stay away from receiving Christ in the Eucharist.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

S. Matth. 6. 16AND Jesus spake unto his disciples, saying, When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Alexis Tancibok, in his reflection on Clean Monday, roughly the Byzantine equivalent of Ash Wednesday, states that:

Asceticism is not about suffering. Rather it is about peeling away the cares, worries, resentments, desires and emotions that “weigh” us down, make us sluggish to respond to grace, and the calling of God in our life. . . . During Lent, we each in our own way, take this opportunity to dig a little deeper, to be that little bit more aware of the process of peeling away those distractions that anchor us to points of suffering; in so doing, we prepare to enter the Great Feast open, un-burdened, and free, ready to receive all that the grace of the Resurrection has to offer.

That is what today's gospel is trying to teach us. We begin Lent with the ashes -- symbols of our own mortality, and the corruption that our sin has brought into the world -- -- the death of our inner life, the spiritual death of those we victimize, the death of relationships. Through the fast of Lent, we continue the washing of our face and anointing of our heads that began in baptism and confirmation, with the faith and hope that our reborn, regenerated selves may shine through more and more -- in that resurrection that happens in this life, a foretaste of the great resurrection that will happen at the end of time.

I pray that all of you may have a holy Lent, in which your faith is deepened.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Shrove Tuesday - Quinquagesima Gospel

S. Luke 18. 31 THEN Jesus took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again. And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way-side begging: and hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace: but he cried so much the more, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him, saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee? And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight; thy faith hath saved thee. And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God.

The juxtaposition in this gospel is priceless -- the disciples don't understand what Jesus is trying to tell them about his necessary journey to the cross -- they are spiritually blind -- but then a blind beggar is able to see who Jesus is, and receive healing. So often, those in power within churches can fail to see where Christ is leading us -- and often, those on the margins can see more clearly.

One of the great spiritual movements of the twentieth century is the twelve-step movement, begun with Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step is "we admitted we had a problem . . . " -- and in this gospel, it is the blind one who can admit and "see" his blindness who is healed -- not the disciples, who cannot even understand that they are spiritually blind.

This Lent, let us "open our eyes" to our blindness, so that we may be healed and become able to see.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Monday before Ash Wednesday: Meditation on Sexagesima Gospel

S. Luke 8. 4 WHEN much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable: A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell by the way-side, and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock, and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be? And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand. Now the parable is this: The seed is the Word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe, and be saved. They on the rock are they which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.

There is one way in which I am extremely Christlike. Just as our Savior cursed the fig tree, and it immediately withered and died, so I have an almost miraculous ability to kill plants. I'm told philodendra are among the hardiest and easiest to care for plants -- and yet I've murdered a couple. Yet even I, unlike the sower in today's parable, know that one should be careful where one plants -- I would never plant on a sidewalk, or in a thorn-patch, or in rocky soil.

I often hear this lesson interpreted such as to admonish people to make certain that they make themselves good soil, and avoid being in one of the other categories that ultimately does not bear fruit. And, certainly, that is a legitimate interpretation. But I wonder, if we look a little deeper, what it means that the sower is so careless as to distribute the seed so recklessly? (And yields being lower in that time, one would think farmers would be even more careful about planting seed only where it was likely to grow and bear fruit.) This recklessness is meant to bear witness to the reckless distribution of God's grace to all, without regard to merit.

And we should realize that we all, in different parts of our lives, fall into the various categories. There are parts of our lives that are good soil, bearing abundant fruit. There are parts of our lives that are choked with the cares and riches of the world -- not bad things in and of themselves, but things that, not put into their proper place, can choke God's grace in areas of our lives. Then there are the areas of temptation to sin that we allow ourselves to succumb to and which cause the grace to wither and die. And there are those parts of our lives that are so hardened that the seeds of God's grace become birdseed instead.

But I'm not so sure that we are always immediately able to discern which areas are which -- God's grace may bear fruit in ways in which we are completely unaware. A life filled with the grace of God is not necessarily a religious life -- and religious exercises may become opportunities for pride and sin, if we are not careful.

I hope this Lent to take time to reflect on my life and to listen to the Spirit to learn more truly where the good soil, the thorns, the rocks, and the hardened paths in my life are -- and I pray that others may do so as well.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Septuagesima gospel -- posted on Quinquagesima

S. Matth. 20. 1 THE kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market-place, and said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the good-man of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong; didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way; I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

I suppose it is appropriate that I post this two weeks late, since that puts me in the category of eleventh-hour laborers! Interestingly, the Liberal Catholic Church lectionary has this gospel for Quinquagesima, and John Plummer has some wonderful comments on it on his blog, Priestcraft.

I find much hope in this gospel, because even those of us who may have squandered our opportunities to do great things for God may still join in at this late date. God will not shame us or refuse to reward us just because we have only come to divine service late (regardless of what some who purport to speak for God may say). As it says elsewhere in scripture, Today is the day of salvation. So let us take this Lent as an opportunity we have been putting off to draw close to God, and allow ourselves to be sent into the fields to labor.

There is also hope in the fact that the owner of the field hires those whom no one else would -- those hired at the eleventh hour stood idle not out of laziness, but because they were rejected by potential employers. God chooses us for service not because of our talents or because we have a lot to offer -- God chooses all of us and then empowers us with the Spirit to do the work we are sent to do. At this eleventh hour, we see God calling women and lgbt people into the episcopate, priesthood, and diaconate, no longer allowing the church that for too long has treated the ordained ministry as a restricted club to keep them out.

Finally, we are all beginners in prayer, no matter how long we've been at it, and this gospel gives us hope that we may reap the rewards even as beginners who do not know how to pray properly.

Lenten meditations

I will be posting my thoughts on the gospel each day for Lent -- using the traditional one-year lectionary. Today, although it is Quinquagesima, I will post thoughts on the Septuagesima gospel, and then tomorrow and Tuesday on the Sexagesima and Quinquagesima gospels, respectively.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Theses of Bonn and Declaration of Utrecht -- Let's Retire Them

One of my pet peeves about many jurisdictions within the Independent Sacramental Movement is that they use the Theses of Bonn and the Declaration of Utrecht as confessional statements. Now, many of the people that do this are very good people, some of the best in the movement, and my criticism of this practice should not be taken as any indication of whether or not a given jurisdiction is healthy or not.

The first reason I don't like these documents as authoritative in the ISM is that they were not produced by us -- but rather by our cousins in the Old Catholic movement as found in the Union of Utrecht. Many in the ISM wish they were a part of the Union of Utrecht, and some are actively trying to join (an exceedingly bad idea, IMHO) -- but the fact remains that, although we may have our roots in Utrecht Old Catholicism, we are a different animal. The only jurisdiction in the USA that was ever a member of the Union of Utrecht was the Polish National Catholic Church, which is no longer a member due to differences over women's ordination and lgbt inclusion. On the other hand, there is a jurisdiction that is in full communion with Utrecht, and it seems that those for whom full communion with Utrecht is important ought to seriously consider joining it -- I'm speaking, of course, 0f the Episcopal Church. Using Utrecht documents implies an identification or relationship with Utrecht Old Catholics that does not in fact exist, and I think we would be better off without that confusion.

The second reason I'm not fond of these documents is that they largely define Old Catholicism in negative terms -- by what Utrecht rejects about Roman Catholicism -- than in positive terms by what Old Catholics stand for. I can understand, historically, the reasons for this, and I don't deny that these documents may have been useful at the time -- but I would greatly prefer to see a positive confession of who we are and the principles we espouse, rather than a repudiation of those we reject.

Closely related to the second reason is my third -- much of what is rejected about Roman Catholicism - particularly in the Theses of Bonn - is obsolete thanks to developments in the twentieth century, up to and including the Second Vatican Council. The liturgy is now, for the most part, in the vernacular, and the Roman Catholic denomination now encourages scripture study in the vernacular. The statement that no translation of scripture can claim an authority higher than the that of the original texts refers to the fact that the Roman Catholics formerly regarded the Vulgate as the inspired version of scripture -- something put to rest by Vatican II. (I've heard many bizarre explanations of this particular thesis by ISM folk with no knowledge of Old Catholic history.) As a matter of ecumenical charity and truthfulness, it is inappropriate to hold up as our central confessional documents statements which reject aspects of another denomination's faith and practice which no longer apply.

Finally, there are aspects of contemporary church life which must be addressed by any confessional statement -- the question of women's ordination and lgbt inclusion -- which were not addressed at the time of these documents' composition. Regardless of where a jurisdiction stands on these issues, it certainly seems more relevant than questions about the Vulgate or vernacular liturgy.

I look forward to the day when we can produce our own confessional statements and not rely on outdated documents of other ecclesial families.