‘YOU SAY THAT I AM A KING’

The Kingship of God is a scriptural concept and expresses a spiritual truth: God, the creator of all, is in charge of this world.  And we are members of that kingdom.  As such, our lives are worked out in the context of a world which is neither chaotic nor random but ordered by love and maintained in justice, an orderly world which is a kingdom, the very Kingdom of God.

Jesus himself was called King by several of his followers.  During his lifetime on earth, Nathanael called Jesus “King of Israel” after Jesus said he’d seen Nathanael by a fig tree. (Jn. 1:49)  The crowd used the title as a derisive one, mocking him while he hung on the cross: “He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now…” (Mt. 27:42, also in Mk. 15)  Those Magi  went in search of the child “born King of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2), and even Pilate asked Jesus if he was, in fact, a king. (Jn. 18:37 & Mt. 27:11)  The title was, from time to time, ascribed to Jesus after the ascension.  Writing to Timothy, Paul confessed that Christ is “King of the ages” (1 Tim. 1:17) and called him “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (1 Tim. 6:15)  For obvious reasons, John’s Apocalypse abounds in language about Christ the King, the righteous victor who will overthrow the wicked powers of this world: Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5), “King of the nations” (Rev. 15:3), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16, also 17:14).  Jesus talked about his kingdom, and he made mention of kings in many of his parables, such was the association readily made for his listening audience.

Jesus never called himself King, though, nor did he accept it when offered.  The title he seemed to prefer was ‘Son of Man’ or ‘Son of God’, and yet Jesus resisted people making a ready connection between him and the great messianic hope of the people.  The Messianic Secret of the gospels – the reason Jesus tells people to keep quiet that he is, in fact, the Christ – is because a commitment to discipleship must be the result of an organic faith, growing from the inside out, not following a leader like we are so readily programmed to do.  The titles we employ – King, President, CEO – carry so many associations that they have the dangerous tendency to inhibit a truly heart-grown faith, the only thing which will lead to that kingdom within, the only thing which creates true discipleship.

For these reasons, then, Jesus and Pilate have what seems an unnecessary argument in Pilate’s chamber on the night our Lord was handed over to be crucified. (Jn. 18:33-37)  Pilate wants desperately to maintain order on that clamorous night, and it seems he’s aware that Jesus has been wrongfully accused.  “Are you King of the Jews?” Pilate asks, exasperated by the proceedings.  Jesus answers in an odd way, not answering the question with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  “How’d you hear that?” Jesus asks.  Pilate shoots back, “Look, tell me, what have you done?”  Jesus gives an unusual answer once again, mentioning his followers and talking of his kingdom.  “Aha!  Then you are a King,” Pilate snaps back, thinking he’s caught Jesus.  “You say that I am a king,” Jesus says, and again goes off on a seemingly disconnected musing about truth and his followers and pointing to his work of reconciling all things in Him: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus doesn’t deny his kingship, not at all.  The fact that we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King is meet and right so to do.  That God in Christ is King of everything is a standard of faith and a profoundly comfortable truth (…well, I suppose it’s decidedly uncomfortable if you are already a worldly power or principality).  And Christ’s Kingship has profound consequences for the ways in which we live in this world, amidst these powers and principalities.  Officially instituted in 1925 with Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quas Primas (In the first), the Feast not only affirms the scriptural witness about our Lord’s Kingship but also made clear in the early 20th century – a time of growing fascism and vitriolic nationalism – that the Christian’s supreme allegiance is due only one ruler, Christ the King, in heaven.

This is why Jesus makes Pilate squirm through an oddly philosophical conversation about kingship and kingdom on that heated night.  What Jesus points to in not taking on the title “King” is that it is God’s nature to give and give freely and give of God’s very self.  As Lord of all, God has everything, indeed, is everything.  God is complete in Godself, the very fullness of Being.  In God, there is no gift that is not shared (in truth, the opposite it impossible; if it’s not given freely it’s not a gift).  The gifts of God, being that they are, by definition, of God are also, by definition, shared.  God knows no other way than to give freely, vulnerably, fully. There is, then, in God, only blessing.

As ruler of all, we short-handedly call God “King”.  Moreover, He could very well establish  that fact by having us pay continual homage, receiving as a monarch our fidelity and love and service.  But God doesn’t establish his dominion by power; no, he does the opposite: He makes Himself vulnerable, becoming one of us, even dying for our sake in a humiliating, dreadful means of public execution, dying so that we may live.  Our Lord doesn’t ‘lord’ over us in the way we would otherwise associate with the term “king” or “monarch”.  On the one level, He models for us selfless, unconditional love.  On a much deeper level, however, He does this because He is this; by God’s nature He is selfless, generous, vulnerable and blessed – hence that greater mystery we call the Trinity, a mutual, egalitarian, self-giving monarchy of the One who is Three and the Three who are One.

The identity and nature of God cannot, therefore, be summed up in words like “King”.  After all, God is not what God says He is, nor is He what we say.  No, God is is who God shows himself to be by acting meaningfully and decisively in history and our lives.  Faith, in turn, is not intellectual assent to a series of beliefs – God is King – but, rather, an experience of the living God, the experience of knowing that one’s life caught up in the life of God, the creator and lover of all.

We are called to a beatitude life, a life of supreme blessedness, which means we are called to share freely and with humility the gifts we have been given.  Especially in this fast approaching season of gifts – gift-giving, gift-buying, gift-wrapping, gift-getting – it’s counter-cultural to celebrate that the only true gift is the one which is given away, freely, and used for the wellbeing of all – shared, not owned; given away, with no expectation or hope of return.

That’s what the gospels call a beatitude life, a life marked by blessedness, not fullness, not giftedness.  Sharing of yourself in some small reflection of the way in which God, who is and yet never accepted the title, King of kings and Lord of lords, shared – freely, vulnerably, for the life and blessing of the world.

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 25 November 2012, the Last Sunday of Pentecost and Feast of Christ the King.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MINDS

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:2

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SIR TONY BALDRY
Second Church Estates Commissioner addresses
House of Commons Nov. 22, 2012

Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’  As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.

I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice.  The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church.  The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision.  It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”

They could easily get away with this conversation, of course.  Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church:  42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.

It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ.  A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government?  I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive.  Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.

Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment.  Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows.  That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God.  The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue.  It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern.  And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts.  Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament.   The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.”  And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.”  Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded.  I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell!  (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)

Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”).  Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So let’s talk about a vibrant church.  A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another.  That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ.  A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together.  A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all.  A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts.  It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both.  It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously.  It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.

A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent.  But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction.  The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer.  And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people.  Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society.  Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.

This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land.  We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America.  And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago.  It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian.  It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ.  It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well.  The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.

At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.

TO PRESENT THE WHOLE OF OUR LIVES, SAYING ‘THANK YOU’ AS WELL AS ‘HEAL US’

It’s only been two weeks since Election Day, although it feels to me like much longer ago, so quickly have I put it out of my mind.  This has been a particularly bruising time in our country.

The origins of a commonly-shared national Day of Thanksgiving are also rooted in conflict and strife, in fact.  A day to give thanks following the annual harvest goes back to old world customs, and was brought over to these shores most notably by those pilgrims seeking religious liberty.  It wasn’t until 1863, though, that a commonly-held day in November was established as Thanksgiving Day, credited to then-President Abraham Lincoln but due chiefly to the tireless efforts of one Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor.  (Lincoln proclaimed that it would be the last Thursday in November.  In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established it would be the fourthThursday in November, arguing that an earlier celebration would provide a greater economic boost to the country.  Guess Thanksgiving and Black Friday were destined for each other!)

LINCOLN’S 1863
Thanksgiving Proclamation

The origins of a day, in Lincoln’s words, to give “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” is rooted in an experience of  bitter enmity and strife.  That most bloody and destructive Civil War was raging in October 1863, when Lincoln penned his Thanksgiving Proclamation.  The sentences of the Proclamation move swiftly and poetically between blessings and terror, between joy in the abundance of God’s gifts and horror at the sight of what we have done to ourselves and our common person.  Lincoln:  “[This] year…has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, and yet only a few sentences later he mentions “the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field.”  The President writes seamlessly about “thanksgiving and praise” and doesn’t fail to mention “our national perverseness”;  waxes about “peace, harmony, tranquillity” and takes note of the “widows, orphans, [and] mourners” who suffer under “the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Thanksgiving, then, is not only a time to come together and set aside that which divides us.  Thanksgiving is also a time to confess – confess both our thanksgiving and praise, but also our sinfulness and pride.  Thanksgiving is a time in which we present the whole of our lives to God, saying ‘Thank you’ and yet also ‘Heal us’.

The prophet Joel, in his second chapter, offers a vision of God’s lavish kingdom, restored to the people.  “Do not fear, O soil…the pastures of the wilderness are green,” the prophet declares, foretelling a time in which vines will be full of plump grapes, the people’s pantries overflowing with grain, and their wine-racks stocked with really good vintage.  I suspect it’s the first part of this one verse which landed it in today’s observance: “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

But the prophet, not unlike a certain 19th century American president, is pointing to God’s abundance when his people have experience great scarcity, not only of provisions and livelihoods but also of the feeling that God, their God, was advocating for them.  Joel is most likely written near the end of the prophetic period: after the people have returned from exile, after they had experienced – some of them witnessed – the rampant destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, after they had watched the great glory of God’s chosen people become a mockery to the dominant foreign powers.  They, too, were tired, exhausted, devastated.  What, again, were their leaders fighting for?  Just what did they win?  Those now-renowned prophets from years earlier, those who preached against the status quo and foretold the destruction which proved to be profound, even they seemed unnecessarily vitriolic.  True, their message was vindicated in history but that period, too, seemed forlorn and lamentable.

Worship and praise of God does not come, exclusively, from perfect lives of total blessing and abundant joy (there are no such lives out there, anyway, so stop looking).  Utterances of thanksgiving and prayers of praise come from perfectly ordinary women and men who lead challenging, normal, stressful, busy, uncertain, happy, resilient, and hopeful lives.  All of us experience ups and downs, and sometimes our ups are really up, for which we give extraordinary gratitude, and sometimes our downs are dreadful.  Sometimes we fight and fight hard, and come out bruised, all of us.  Sometimes we pit ideology over relationship, and partisanship over love.  And sometimes we are our own worst enemies, engaging, in years past, blood-stained wars and, recently, confilcts which aren’t as bloody but are no less destructive.

When that conflict is over, and when the battleground of life is fought, we are tired.  And we are directionless.  We’re not only tired of fighting, but tired of following fighters.  One dangerous turn, in this, would be towards utter hopelessness and resignation, verging on what Kierkegaard called “the greatest hazard of all – losing one’s self.”  And, Kierkegaard reminded, losing one’s self “can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”  That’s the root of despair, and that’s even worse than depression, further removed than resignation, more acute than mere unhappiness.

The biblical witness is a straightforward response: your self is connected to a web of greater meaning and, indeed, ultimate transformation; you will not be lost in God.  Moreover, your life in God will not be a battlefield, a conflict, a series of competing ideologies.  It will be marked and cleared by love — radical, unconditional love.  And that’s why we give thanks, and that’s also why we give our whole selves, good and bad, beaten and bruised and glorious and ascendant.  The message of Thanksgiving Day is to give, then, the whole of your life to God.  And strive to make your life not perfect, nor conflict-free but, rather, perfectly simple, following those lasting words Paul wrote long ago to young Timothy: “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  In doing so, you will work out your salvation with fear and trembling, and the world will be redeemed through your witness.

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Excerpt from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Thanksgiving Day, 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be found by clicking here.

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3 October 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

PREGNANT WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF NEW LIFE

“Why can’t the church just get relevant and start having fun with Christmas? My answer is simple: look what they’ve done with Christmas … for Christ’s sake!”

It’s upon us already.  Christmas-y kitsch is here, and it’s only mid-November.  In fact, I heard that Nordstrom’s is not putting up any Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving.  It’s astonishing that something which seemed fairly standard not long ago – waiting until after Thanksgiving to start Christmas – is now so counter-cultural it makes news.Meanwhile, we in the church are extremely counter-cultural.  While the world is going into Christmas crazy-ness, the church focuses on other themes, particularly about an apocalyptic end-time (Mk. 13:1-8).  This theme is only going to get more pronounced over these next six weeks.  During Advent – the four week season leading up to Christmas – we’ll actually talk more about the second coming than about the first one and the baby and the manger and that little town of Bethlehem.

 

Why can’t the church just get relevant and start having fun with Christmas?  My answer is simple:  look what they’ve done with Christmas … for Christ’s sake!  By the time we actually start talking about Christmas in the church, around the evening of December 24, many folks will be taking down their trees and removing their yard ‘art’ and making New Years’ resolutions about losing the 15 pounds they added during the holiday and saying to themselves, with great exhaustion, “Whew, I’m so glad this only happens once a year.”  Look what they’ve done with Christmas.  Is this the story you want told, an exhausting sprint through the world of marketing and media and mayhem?  Or do you want another story, and is your heart yearning, pleading for another story of a life well lived and the gift of God’s goodness?

 

Speaking of which, here’s another annual ‘Christmas’ tradition I haven’t yet experienced, but I’m sure I will.  Every year, someone or some headline or some email gets all hot and bothered because someone said to them “Happy holidays”, instead of “Merry Christmas.”  (God help the person who says “Happy Hannakuh” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or, for that matter, “Happy Festivus”!)  Or someone else is going to clip out an article about a local town, somewhere, which refuses to put up a crèche in the village center, or insists that a Star of David also needs to be there.  This ‘tradition’ happens every year, as well, and it’s almost as exhausting as the other one, to me at least.  Why is it the culture’s job to say Merry Christmas?  Why is it the job of the department store or TV station or local jurisdiction to preach Christmas?  And if this is what they’ve done to Christmas – turning it into a holiday completely devoid of what it’s about, for us, as Christians – do you really want them in charge in the first place?

 

It’s your job to say Merry Christmas, and live it, too.  It’s my job to say it and model it, as well.  It’s our job, as followers of the Way, to be Christmas people.  And if we want to show the world what this means we’ve got to prepare differently, and renew in ourselves a story that is, at its core, all about renewal.

 

In the Gospel of Mark’s thirteenth chapter – what scholars call Mark’s “little apocalypse” – Jesus predicts that the Jerusalem Temple will be toppled.  Later, standing atop the Mount of Olives – the very place where the prophet Zechariah predicted God will stand at the end of days – Jesus foretells of earthquakes and wars and all those nasty, bad, terrible, no good things we associate with the apocalypse.  This type of literature frightens us.  It’s scattered throughout the bible, through the prophets and Daniel and, certainly, Revelation, yet it causes in us feelings of discomfort and fear and un-ease.

 

The word, apocalypse, though, is a rather welcome term for early Christians, and it should be welcome for us, even today.  The Greek word simply means an uncovering, a revelation from God of what was previously hidden from our understanding or vision.  All the drama which surrounds apocalyptic literature – the earthquakes, pestilence, fire, warfare, seven-headed beasts, four horsemen – is simply there as code language.

 

And here’s the basic meaning of that code: When God comes, the world and everything in it is going to change.  Apocalyptic literature was welcome to early, persecuted Christians, then, for it was a message of redemption and release.  Similarly, I’d say, apocalyptic literature can be liberating for us, too, for it sets us free from the crazy-ness which this world has already embarked on, the ways they’ve taken a story of new life and turned it into a marketed, draining secular observance.

 

When God comes, everything’s going to change.  The world will be turned upside down, and this culture’s rampant pursuit of death – and, if anything, secular Christmas points profoundly to a culture fixated on killing itself – will be set against an offering of real life, the only kind of life that can truly be called life, namely, God’s.  Later in December you’ll hear Mary proclaim this very truth in her song, called the Magnificat: God has “looked with favor on his lowly servant; … he has scattered the proud in their conceit; … he has lifted up the lowly; … and the rich he has sent empty away.”  That theme resounds, as well, in the song Hannah sang upon hearing that she is pregnant with the one who will become her firstborn boy, the son whom she will name Samuel, the biblical character who will renew his people, not unlike Mary’s son centuries later.  Hannah, too, proclaims that when God comes, everything’s going to change:  “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. … He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (1 Sam. 2:1-10)

 

It’s wonderful to have stories of pregnancy and birth in this season of preparation.  I suspect that God’s coming will not appear, to us, as earthquakes and wars and headline news.  On the contrary: I suspect God’s coming will be much more quiet, off to the side, unnoticed by many, much like a woman who is pregnant and is waiting the day of expectation, knowing that it’s coming and so she waits, patiently.  This world, itself, is pregnant with the possibility of new life, and yet that life is not found in the splashy celebrations or public observations or kitsch on the lawns or department store shuffle.  The life which is offered of God, the life which really is life, is born in unexpected places, in quieter moments, in the opening hearts and minds of ordinary women and men who decide to observe differently, to worship more fully, to spend less money, and give more of their life.

 

This, to me, sounds a lot like Christmas, which is not only a counter-cultural, upside-down kind of holiday but is also a subtle story, a baby born in a barn to two unwed parents, greeted by beasts of burden and dirty, uncultured shepherds.  God is turning this world over upon its head every day, but doing so by a quiet, interior revolution, it seems.

 

Join that revolution, then, and make these next several weeks a revolutionary series of observations, for yourself and for your community.  Turn away from that death-march the secular world calls ‘Christmas’ and find God’s pregnant possibilities within, where they’ve always been.  That’s a life worthy of being called life, one which will feed you and one whereby you can feed others, as well.

 

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 18 Nov. 2012.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

BY SCHISMS RENT ASUNDER AND HERESIES DISTRESSED

Perhaps it’s an issue between South Carolinians – a vocal progressive minority in the Episcopal diocese and their theologically conservative bishop and, let’s be honest, most likely the bulk of that diocese.  In October 2012, after the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence (SC) had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori restricted Lawrence’s ministry.  Immediately, the South Carolina Standing Committee announced that that action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.”  On Nov. 15, the Presiding Bishop offered a pastoral letter to the faithful in South Carolina who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church, a letter which affirmed our much-treasured Anglican comprehensiveness and offered a compelling vision of the contested core at the center of our lively tradition.  That being said, the Bishop of Springfield is also correct to assert that Jefferts Shori offered a fairly one-note legalistic document when a message of nuance and grace and love was best intended. And on Nov. 17, the majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina voted to affirm the actions of their bishop and diocesan leadership and disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church.

BISHOP MARK LAWRENCE
of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina

The issue, as I’m sure it’ll be reported, is going to be about yet another fight between a liberal Episcopal Church and conservative Diocese of South Carolina, or between a left-leaning bunch in the diocese and their right-wing bishop, or between those who uphold biblical faith and others who are theological revisionists.  Yet not one of those interpretations would really get to the core of the issue.

This is about the Christian faith as it’s been received and practiced in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church — and not the ways in which it’s been twisted and perverted by those who talk more often about catholic faith and orthodox theology.

This is about schism — breaking away and setting yourself apart — which in the early church was considered a grave sin and was not at all distinct from heresy; in fact, schism was a vastly more important issue than the latter.  In recent years, I recall the 2008 conversation in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (IL) when that diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church.  The Dean of the Cathedral, which was the single-largest congregation, making up 22% of membership in the diocese, educated the cathedral congregation about the misdirected motives of what he called the ultra-conversative diocesan leadership as well as the benefits of staying, even if one disagrees with the majority, and the spiritual disadvantages of schism. From the Episcopal News Service article of 3 December 2008: The Very Rev’d Robert Dedmon (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Peoria) “beseeched the synod ‘not to further divide the body of Christ’ by what he termed an ‘impossible and compulsive pursuit’ for a perfect situation. ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners,’ said Dedmon. ‘Heresy can be remediated, people can change their minds, but schism, once it occurs formally, is never reconciled.'”  In a comment on Kendall Harmon’s blog in Nov. 2011, Dedmon poignantly quipped: “As a Quincy Episcopalian, I can only say, once again, schism breeds more schism, until at last we are all alone.”

From the Greek, schisma, meaning to tear, shism is an intentional separation from the body.  The New Testament records the apparent tendency of some believers to focus on particular theological sticking-points and isolate those issues as the issue — in turn, establishing that those who disagree with them are the false believers.  That’s why there’s no biblical distinction between schism and heresy.  The Greek verb ‘aireomai (from ‘airesis, heresy) means to choose or to prefer, a tendency in theology, according to Karl Rahner, of taking “a truth out of the organic whole which is the faith and, because [one] looks at it in isolation, [one] misunderstands it.”  There is no right theology without right relationship or, in hip seminary-speak, no such thing as orthodoxy without orthopraxis.  That so-called ‘false brethren’ were separating themselves from the body and setting up churches and interpretations of their own in early Christianity seemed an established fact (Acts 20:30, Col. 2:18), and Jesus himself predicted that that would happen (Mark 13:6, Matthew 24:39).  Moreover, the vast majority of New Testament literature is concerned with community formation and ensuring that churches stay together, no matter what, and only when significant brokeness is at hand and the offender is unrepentant shall the bonds of fidelity be severed.  This is a constant theme in the letters of Paul, whose own ministry was constantly undermined by those who came in after he left and un-did what he worked so hard to build, and the Gospel of Matthew, in particular; see Matthew’s entire 18th chapter about community norms and, with specific reference to a process by which offenders should be heard and tried, Mt. 18:15-20.

Outside of the New Testament, the technical term, schism, first emerges in Irenaeus’ c.180 CE polemic, Adversus Haereses, written against the popular gnostic heresy.  “Schism” shows up in book IV, chapter 33.7, and yet that entire chapter is a case-in-point of this larger issue — namely, that relationship with the whole body, no matter whether you may disagree about particular points of interpretation, is an essential ingredient to right belief.  Needing a better editor, the chapter is entitled: “Whosoever confesses that one God is the author of both testaments, and diligently reads the scriptures in company with the presbyters of the church, is a true spiritual disciple; and he will rightly understand and interpret all that the prophets have declared respecting Christ and the liberty of the New Testament.”  Section 7 continues: “[The true spiritual disciple] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, — men who prate of preace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.  For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.”

Although some will argue, today, that schism and heresy are two quite different things — heresy having to do with issues of doctrine and schism having to do with relationships — that distinction is nowhere found in early Christian literature.  Further, I’m not certain how that distinction can be maintained with theological integrity, even today.  In the modern era, we’ve seen the Roman Church try to do so with a certain, um, clunky-ness.  The Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offered a well-intentioned olive branch to the Eastern churches and Anglican Communion, trying to straddle a fine line between welcoming them, even accepting them, but not accepting that they are fully members: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”  In this painstaking attempt to distinguish between heresy and schism, I have to say I’m even more confused about my standing in their eyes: I suppose I’m one of their brothers, though an imperfect one.  (Once, I flippantly said to a member of the Roman church, “I guess to you all we’re a bunch of heretics,” to which he replied: “No, you’re just schismatics.”  Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse and neither ‘welcome’ is better.)

The irony in this, for some, is that I, an Episcopal priest and, therefore, schismatic, am writing about the sin of schism.  But my own faith journey led me to accept my Protestant heritage and yet seek Communion in apostolic, catholic Christianity.  For me, it was the Episcopal Church which helped me find a voice and a home in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  It could’ve been the Roman Church, I suppose, but in the course of my desire to connect my life to an apostolic, catholic body the real issue I confronted was what issues I wanted to struggle with over the course of my life and ministry.  As a Roman Catholic, I suppose, I would struggle with issues of theological exclusion and doctrinal uniformity.  As an Episcopalian, I would struggle with conflicts caused by being too inclusive and, sometimes, doctrinal sloppy-ness.

It really comes down to which issues one wants to struggle with because there is, simply, no one perfect church.  Again, Dean Dedmon of Peoria’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, said it well: ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners.”  All churches, as all communities of ordinary people, are the places where we work out our relationship with God in Christ by striving for charity and clarity in our relationships with one another and our own self.  Failing to do so and breaking relationships — becoming a schismatic by willful choice — is, then, now and has always been a sad state and, I’d say, a sin.

WHAT IS CHURCH, ANYWAY? WHITE AND SEABURY

On 14 Nov. 1784, Samuel Seabury, an American, was consecrated as a bishop in Aberdeen, Scotland by three other bishops, making him the first American consecrated a (Anglican) bishop in the apostolic succession and historic episcopate and all that important stuff.  It’s a big day for the Episcopal Church, as it was back then, and we mark it on our church calendars and celebrate it, maybe some of us with specially-baked purple cakes.

SAMUEL SEABURY

All component pieces of American culture, obviously, had problems once the continental leadership declared revolution on the Mother Country.  For the American priests and lay persons who worshipped in what was once called the Church of England – or most likely what they called, simply, ‘the church’ – there was not only an identity crisis but a real debate about  the meaning and substance of church.  Not all Americans supported the idea of revolution; most ardent supporters of the Crown left for Canada or across the pond, and many who remained began to reconsider their understanding of human civilization and the call of Jesus, alongside those who spoke with more political impact of the concepts of liberty and justice for all.  But not all Americans were willing to re-consider the whole enterprise, nor were they willing to leave their home country and go elsewhere: Seabury, himself, served as a chaplain to British troops during the conflict, drew maps for His Majesty’s troops of the hill country of New York, and even collected a pension from Great Britain.

Yes, it was marvelous that Seabury was made a bishop and, yes, it’s an important mark of our episcopal heritage that we not only maintain the historic three orders of ministry (bishops, priests, deacons) but we do so according to apostolic tradition and freely take on the weight of catholic Christianity.  But I’m not so sure that bishops make a church.

In the 1780s, as the Episcopal Church was reorganizing itself and, in fact, determining that it would use the name ‘Episcopal’ (coupled with ‘Protestant’) – the former, a term favored by the party in seventeenth-century England which affirmed the role of bishops  – everyone thought that bishops were essential.  Those who didn’t were already something else, and by the end of that decade Wesley and Asbury and the Methodists had broken ties with their own mother church.

Everyone in the Episcopal Church was working to get American bishops consecrated. The only question, then, was what kind of ‘Anglican’ church would be imagined and planted on American soil:  one which featured old world organizational theory (bishops at the top, clergy deployed from them, and lay people as recipients, hardly participants), or a more representative church which featured republican ideals and was democratically organized – a church which dared to uphold catholic practice and act like Americans, with that messy concept of democracy and collective discernment through representative gatherings. The latter had never before been developed and Seabury opposed it and worked very hard against it.  Even though he and others from New England participated in early organizational conversations, they were inherently skeptical of the 1782 pamphlet produced by William White, a priest in Philadelphia, which seemed to argue, Seabury contended, for nothing more than congregational polity and gave too much power – most of which was reserved to bishops in the Church of England – to the laity.  Once consecrated, Seabury refused to participate in the General Conventions organized by White and others.  Further, he signed his early letters as ‘Bishop of All America’ and even reached into other dioceses’ territory and ordained priests from there.

The organization of the Episcopal Church around something like a representative form of governance has much more to do with William White than Samuel Seabury.  White pleaded with England for the consecration of bishops but – in the clear absence of a man in purple – he and others began to organize the church, anyway.  They imagined a General Convention (initially proposed in 1784 as a unicameral body of clergy and lay) and dioceses that would adhere to state boundaries.  They spoke openly of lay participation, and I think the Prayer Book’s 1979 addition of one more order of ministry – namely, the laity – is in perfect keeping with this early vision of an American Anglicanism.  White and others proposed one bishop for each diocese and dreamed of an Episcopal Church that would be interdependent – one diocese to another, as well as one new American church to its Mother Church in England.

WILLIAM WHITE

Seabury, meanwhile, organized a clergy-led, bishop-centered, non-representative governance in his diocese.  The bishop taught the clergy, the clergy taught the people, and the people did as they were told.  Obviously, I’m biased and I’m sure that shows, so I’ll note, at least, that Seabury was affirming an age-old tradition of episcopal leadership and church organization, albeit (for me) an age-old tradition that had no relevance in the new world, neither the 18th century version nor, let me add, this 21st century edition.

Things were getting heated, and the 1786 General Convention (which Seabury didn’t attend, anyway) passed resolutions denying the authority of Seabury’s consecration and, by implication, any clergy he ordained.  By the middle-half of the 1780’s there were three competing Anglicanisms: one, the churches led by Seabury in New England; another, Wesley’s Methodist Episcopalians (who went their own way when he appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as superintendents in 1784); a third, led by White (PA), Samuel Provoost (NY), James Madison (VA), and Thomas Claggett (MD) in the southern and central states.

Even though he had his own opinions about things it was, again, William White who paved the way for reunification and opened the compromise which led to the Episcopal Church we have today.  In 1789, White – who was, in 1787, consecrated in the English line – led that year’s General Convention to reach out to Seabury: they affirmed the validity of Seabury’s orders, created a bi-cameral General Convention with a separate House of Bishops, and amended the 1786 Constitution to make lay Deputy participation optional. These things met most of Seabury’s objections. The olive branch being offered, Seabury began to conference, then, with the other bishops and the division between the northern and southern versions of the Episcopal Church began to be healed. Before his death in 1796, Seabury participated in one consecration – Claggett’s (MD) in 1792, the first consecration of an American bishop on American soil.

I find myself hoping and praying, today, for someone like William White.  I do this for at least two reasons.  First, I’m drawn to those, like White, who are so comfortable with their traditions and heritage that they see no conflict, no irony in exploring new ways to be who they know themselves to be, already, in Christ.  That’s courageous, to me, and I think the world is desperate to hear not pre-canned voices and opinions but people who love Jesus and follow him through the ministry of His Body, the church, of their own free volition and at the same time are entreprenuerial, adventurous, open to new possibilities, and talk openly of being disciples in new and, perhaps, different ways.

And, second, I’m drawn to William White because he also set aside his own thinking and brought in Seabury, intentionally reaching out to a man who, according to many of White’s own friends and colleagues, was making too much noise, acting like a jerk, and was as arrogant as the day is long.  White reached out to Seabury and encouraged others to do so, as well, and they even modified and amended their own belief system, established earlier, so as to make room for the one who was previously a contender, now a partner and brother in Christ.  We have competing Anglicanisms today – just look at what’s going on in the Diocese of South Carolina – and yet I cannot, at the end of the day, establish with certainty that one is necessarily better or more righteous than another.

No, I said that wrong: For those Anglicanisms who express themselves in generous conversations, commitment to a common life, mutual support of the whole through prayer and giving, and are unafraid to affirm their views, even if they may differ from the more vocal majority, I see no reason to part ways, and only great sadness if this should end up in divorce.  But for those who say it’s ‘my way or the highway’ or those who think of democracy and shared discernment as weak or ineffectual, and those who think a church needs to have baseline agreement on issues of discipline and order, I am sad to say this but there isn’t communion there, already, and it would only make sense for us to go our separate way.

Because at the end of the day I am proud to serve in a church that is not perfect – by no means – but one whose imperfections I can clearly love, and seek to live with.  For the imperfections of the Episcopal Church are also our greatest blessing – a commitment to apostolic truth and order; catholic worship and substance; one another and those net yet amongst us; justice and the dignity of all persons; and the ways in which we work this out, in fear and trembling, by being the church, together.  Bishops, then, were never the core of the issue, not historically, not today.  Bishops convene and call forth and lead, through relationships of love and support, this disparate and wildly divergent group of people who follow Jesus in the Episcopal Way – forward in the work of ministry, which requires the participation of all the orders of ministry: bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people.

BOTH RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL

I am a religious Christian.  It’s not so cool, today, to say you’re religious.  It’s much more trendy to call yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’.  But let me make a claim for religion, and I gather it’s not one you’ve often heard.

The root of the word, religion, has to do with binding.  People who are religious, by definition, participate in something that’s not necessarily theirs in a private and personal sense, and it’s hard to pinpoint just who came up with those symbols and those traditions – bread as body, wine as blood, water as new life?  Religion is limiting where spirituality is free.  For those very reasons, religion is  less appealing than spirituality.  And yet, for those same reasons, I am religious and encounter no contradiction between my religion and my spiritual outlook.

You see, the longer I live with Jesus – the longer I live into the Christian story and get shaped by these symbols and stories and words – the more aware I become that I am participating, through Christ, in a small slice of a great mystery: the mystery that I am a part of a creation, not a disordered jumble of stuff, and that this created order is being loved into a greater wholeness and transformation.  Christianity is the home through which I seek to understand and, even when I don’t fully understand, nonetheless follow the God who is at work transforming this new order.  Those who have been married for a long time know what this is like: the longer you’ve been married to your partner, the more at peace you are with all those other people you didn’t marry.  Or the longer you live in your vocation or career, the more at peace you become with all the things you didn’t – and will never – get around to doing.  The longer you live the life you are living, fully and proudly, the less you worry about what other things you should or could or needed to be doing, and the more at peace you are.  Religion binds us to a story and, ironically, at the same time keeps us open to the reality that our narrative is not necessarily the story; rather it’s one lens on the whole.

The more one reads the bible – a pretty religious thing, after all – the clearer this becomes.  The Old Testament book of Ruth is a good case-in-point.  Here’s the story: Naomi is a Jewish woman from the town of Bethlehem who, in a tragic sweeping accident, loses her husband and her two sons while the family is living in Moab.  She prepares to return home and  her two foreign daughters-in-law also prepare to go back with her.  Naomi tells them to turn back and stay with their people, instead, and one of them (Orpah) agrees but the other (Ruth) refuses.

Ruth and Naomi, then, go to Bethlehem, and the rest of the drama confirms why this story is so appealing – astonishing in that it not only features as main characters ancient Near Eastern women, but two very determined and plucky and savvy women, at that. Naomi plays the matchmaker between Ruth and a Jewish guy named Boaz, and Ruth does her part to secure her future, and that of Naomi’s family name.  The final, final result is that Naomi via Ruth via Boaz becomes the great-great-grandmother of David, and Ruth becomes, then, the foreigner great-grandmother of Israel’s most laudable kind.  A foreign, plucky, determined woman, the ancestor of Israel’s great Messianic figure.

If religion were pure and of small vision, stories such as Ruth’s would not have been included.  If this were about purity and small-mindedness no right thinking Jewish editor would have tolerated having a savvy foreign woman as the great-grandmother of their great King.  All religions struggle with inclusivity versus exclusion.  This struggle has always been, for religions are very much human-made systems of understanding, but human-made systems of trying to understand a great and profound mystery, let’s not forget.  And, in every religious tradition, there are those personalities and symbols which point beyond human conceptions and towards the expansiveness of God’s emergent, radically inclusive Kingdom.  The story of Ruth and the very fact that it’s a part of this so-called Holy Bible highlights, once again, that the God we follow is profoundly expansive.  If I want some small measure of peace in keeping up with that dynamic God, I’d better find a religious home, a place in which I can find comfort when challenged and challenge when comfortable.

Whereas the world sees religious folks as small-minded, judgmental, and myopic in their viewpoints and opinions, most religious folks I’ve met are quite broad-minded and expansive and at peace with the various stuff of life, its ups and downs, and the ways in which conventional human traditions might give way to new understandings, and how God might very well be in all of that.  Religious people or, I should say, religious people who are also spiritual are the folks who can straddle that line between utter mystery and simple comprehension, between the passing nature of our ideas and the eternal substance of God’s wisdom, between the gift of welcoming an outsider and the need to delineate group norms, between being transformed and being at peace.

And that, in itself, is probably the reason for which I am a religious Christian.  Religion helps give peace and the Christian religion gives me a profound peace, and it’s not the peace which the world gives; not at all.

It’s the peace Jesus modeled and taught.  Summarizing the commandments into two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself – Jesus actually pointed beyond the commandments, the words and pointed us to the heart of the life of faith: love.  In particular, He named three loves: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

If in pursuing peace you want to find it, if in seeking meaning you wish to uncover it, you would do well to re-invert those three loves and start to work at them as a spiritual practice.  First, start by loving yourself.  Look, this isn’t an invitation to vanity, but a call to truly know yourself as God’s beloved: know your goodness and your wickedness; know that you’re sometimes screwed up but altogether redeemable; know how deeply you’re loved, and know in your heart that God thinks of you as His beloved.  And that depth of knowledge — knowing something by heart — is what Jesus calls ‘love’.  Love yourself, that unique and marvelous person whom God has made.  Love yourself and you will be at peace as you love your neighbor and even, as Jesus also commanded, love your enemy and, ultimately, love God.  If, in turn, you cannot love yourself, you’ll never love your neighbor and, in fact, you’ll only blame your neighbor and scapegoat your god and find every fault possible with your enemy.  You’ll always be looking beyond and to others for their faults.  And life, then, will not be life-giving, not to you nor for others.  And you, then, will not ever find peace.

But be at peace with yourself, with your understanding of the world, as limited as it may be, and you will, in turn, know God.  And, even more so, you will find yourself at peace with God while God goes about doing what God does – loving those whom you and I might rather not like; redeeming those whom some of us might see as enemies; bringing into his Kingdom those whom we might rather exclude and keep out.  But if your religion is true and your spirit refreshed, that won’t mean a thing, for you will keep following the God who is changing you, at that very moment, from the inside out.

 

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 4 Nov. 2012.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.