QUANTUM INCARNATION

One of my favorite classes in high school was physics.  To be honest, I didn’t do well in the class; I earned a lowly C-.  Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the ideas of physics, principally the idea that this world is not a random, thrown-together mass of stuff but an orderly, systematic and profoundly amazing creation, a created order.

For me, it’s a spiritual interest.  According to classical physics, Aquinas and Aristotle and Newton among them, this world is not only orderly but that order can be uncovered, deduced.  And, once unveiled, it points to a greater force.  People of faith call that force God.  Seeing the order of the universe unveils something beyond, something greater, something which has somehow imparted meaning.  Classical physics affirms spiritual truths.

But classical physics seemed to suggest a break where there is, in the deepest levels of reality, fundamental union.  In classical physics, you come away with the perception that there’s something like two worlds:  one, a world of stuff (atoms and mass and energy) and, two, a world of intelligible order.  Most of the time those two worlds are united into one, sensory universe.  Which is precisely what enabled Newton, for instance, to posit laws of motion.  And which, at the same time, enabled him to humbly and faithfully claim: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Over the last century, however, the established, prove-able laws which guided Newton’s classical universe were challenged by what is now called quantum physics: a subatomic world, a world within the stuff of the universe itself.  And it’s not as easily, universally, and scientifically observable, let alone ‘prove-able’.  Where there, once, seemed an orderly world, established by intrinsic, predictable forces and proved, so to speak, by exterior principles or laws, now there is, following quantum theory, seeming random-ness, subatomic entities spinning about and unable to be completely observed or detected or, let alone, studied and reduced to man-made principles.  Even though this quantum world seems fuzzier than proving gravity by sitting under an apple tree, it also points to a certain order and truth and a “plan”, if you will, albeit perhaps several plans and perhaps competing ones and never one plan which can be fully deduced and turned into a Theory of Everything.

I don’t understand quantum theory, and I’m still intrigued by it.  (I’m in good company. The 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, is himself rumored to have said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”)

What I find so fascinating, even though I understand so little, is that these new vistas in modern physics seem to confirm what we Christians know about reality, that deeper level of reality, in particular.  This is the kind of reality we celebrate during Christmas.  Christmas is not just a holiday but a profound spiritual truth.  Here’s the real reality, we say: God took on flesh, our flesh, and not only came among us but became one of us.  This is the mystery we call “incarnation”.  And don’t let the flip side of the incarnation pass you by without notice, then: God also became human so that our nature, our humanity, our mass and energy and atoms and stuff would be renewed, restored, and redeemed.

John the Evangelist points to this remarkable truth in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”  What John’s trying to do is shine new light on an old, old story — that God has always been a part of the world, not a distant, removed, faraway entity; that God has been breathing, inspiring, moving in and under and through this world, a very part of it.  There’s quite a quantum theory within John’s gospel:  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He was in the world and the world came into being through him. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God. And the Word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. No one has ever seen God.”

The radical message of the incarnation, then, is radical in a quantum way – order and truth, purpose and plan, intelligence and truth is not outside of the stuff of this world; no, the meaning is a living, breathing, part of that stuff.  The creation has within it, already, the power of redemption.  And when God took on our flesh God wiped away the dirt and the grime which we had allowed, generation after generation, to obscure the gifts of this marvelous creation.

This’ll change the way you live. One of the keys to salvation is to live in the way God chose, intentionally, to live – as fully human, as a fully incarnate human person.  Stop trying to be more spiritual.  Start trying to be more human, indeed fully human.  Realize that the years of distance and sin and distrust have made us leery of ourselves, but they have not wiped away that original blessing, not permanently at least.

The challenge, then, is that there’s no universal principle by which salvation is earned, save for one: we all, all of us, work out our salvation by becoming fully human, to the degree that God has made himself known, already, within.  Love, then, as we know we can love, as God has shown us how to love, giving freely and generously of the grandeur of Godself in order to become vulnerable as one of us, vulnerable even to death.  Forgive, then, as we know we can forgive, as God showed us how to forgive, from the heart.  Live, then, as God showed us how to live, “from his fullness” and yet borne from within the context of this life, this earthly, physical, particular and human life which is, all the same, mysterious, wonderful, and endowed with the mark of blessing and truth.

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland

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.

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.

STREAMS TO REFRESH AND GLADDEN

Born in 1775 and consecrated Assistant Bishop of New York at the age of 36, John Henry Hobart’s life and ministry offers something of a model for our time.  Without him, who knows what would have happened to the church he served.  What did happen, we know, is quite a remarkable thing.  Or is it all that remarkable?

Most reports about Hobart focus on the High Church faction of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a strident spokesperson and advocate; most notably, his conviction in the importance of the apostolic succession and historic episcopate – set against the individualized, evangelical tendency he saw in his own church and fellow countrymen.  A man of integrity, charisma and consummate drive, Hobart is also remembered for the things he did – create The General Theological Seminary, revive Geneva, now, Hobart College, build up the clergy in his diocese, plant churches, and write hundreds of meaningful devotional manuals.  He was all those things, apparently, and he did all those things, and he happened to be a leader in the Episcopal Church.  But his vision goes far beyond the Episcopal Church, far beyond the nineteenth century, far beyond his time, and offers models for our own.

The world into which he was born was a world of dramatic, profound and, for some, sudden change.  Only one year after Hobart’s birth, the American colonies declared their independence from the mother country, leaving what was the Church of England on American soil  in a serious quandary and search for a reason to exist.  Some sided with England, and fled.  Others argued for revising their way of being church while staying true to their tradition.  We know what happened in the Revolution and we know what happened to that church, now called the Episcopal Church.  We know how this new nation established a Constitution and this new church established an American Book of Common Prayer, and we know that these new entities found their way forward, step by step, in the later decades of the eighteenth century.

But what we forget is the steady, dark cloud of fear and anxiety that surrounds any change, no less significant political and cultural change.  We forget the way, I’m sure, many remembered the good ole’ days, even though those days weren’t so good and weren’t coming back.  We seem to have forgotten that change doesn’t happen overnight, and history isn’t always linear, and even when people are on board with the idea of revision they don’t always act nicely.  We fail to remember that having your world changed right under your feet leads inevitably to anxiety and fear; most people either shut down or act out.  And even with great visionaries in the decades immediately following the American Revolution – leaders in the Episcopal Church such as Samuel Seabury and William White – ordinary folks and everyday congregations were left in stasis, extended paralysis.

Enter John Henry Hobart.  I’m sure he heard from countless members of his grandparents’ and parents’ generations all about the good ole’ days, but he never experienced that culture and he knew it wasn’t returning.  He also knew that the changed political and cultural landscape (even though he disagreed with some of it) meant that his church, which was the very definition of the establishment, was going to die unless it stopped doing two things and started doing two others.  First, stop denying the change and, two, stop looking at other churches (the rapidly growing firebrand Methodists, for instance, or the more culturally nimble Congregationalists) as if they had a better answer.  And they needed to start, for one, accepting the change (something his mentor William White established) and, for another, mining their own ‘Anglican’ tradition for ways to be true to their story and authentic in their environment.  What historian Robert Bruce Mullin has coined as the “Hobartian Synthesis” is precisely this – a compelling vision that isn’t just about getting over denial and beginning to accept but, rather, a new way forward that is, at once, entirely rooted in their story, the story of God in Christ acting through their tradition.

That’s our moment today, I believe.  I believe it because I’m living it, and I feel it profoundly most days of my own ministry.  I was born in 1975 – long  after the glory days of the post-war years, long after the Baby Boom ended, long after the mainline Protestant establishment realized it was on the decline, long after social and cultural and political shifts had fundamentally changed our country and world.  I never knew a world in which every mother stayed home all day, although I’m grateful my own mother did.  I never knew a world in which neighborhoods were all one color or race or ethnicity.  I never knew a world in which prayer was legitimate in public schools, nor did I know a world in which Sundays were set aside, solely, for Christians to go to church.   I never knew that world, and yet I was personally drawn to church – my neighborhood’s classic Old First Church.  Unfortunately, that church was in deep paralysis during my childhood years.  They fretted about the changing neighborhood, about white families moving out to the suburbs and “other families” moving in.  They remembered with fondness their church bowling league, and twittled their thumbs about numbers and a huge physical plant.  They told their story as one of bewilderment and loss, and I was growing up there, growing up in a church that was dying, and knew it.

What I learned in those years has become, in these, a priceless gift.  I learned to love Jesus, not the church.  I learned to become rooted in God, not this ever-shifting world.  I learned that a culture which supports church-going isn’t necessarily a culture that is Christian, faithful in the ways Jesus preached.  Since my church also felt like it didn’t have what other, more ‘hip’ Christian groups had, I was dragged to more 80’s Christian rock concerts and evangelical “Jesus-be-my-boyfriend” rallies than I care to recount.  And I wasn’t fed by emotional, charismatic Christianity; it seemed as shifty and unstable as anything else.  So I also learned that the subtlety and majesty and accessibility of what has become known as mainline Christianity is a wonderful thing, for it lets people go in and go out, it creates space for diversity (at its best), it’s built to change (at its best), it doesn’t force God upon anyone, and it’s solid, staid, beautiful.  I also learned that most people who have remained in mainline congregations have a lot of depth to their life and faith.  Even though they were never trained to be evangelical, they’re unashamed of talking about struggles and joys, and they’re not afraid to mention God or Jesus.

I learned that we have a rich tradition, and we don’t need a complete overhaul – we only need a new spirit.  I suppose, for starters, to believe that you also have to believe that God in Christ is acting in the world today, and that things of deep meaning are also things of constant revision and adaptation.  (Those are pretty big “starters”, and maybe you don’t agree.  You’d better stop reading, then.)  That’s what it means to be traditional.  From its Latin root, tradition implies handing down, passing on.  Things that are of the tradition are things that speak through the ages, and anything that’s powerful enough to be passed down from generation to generation is going to be expanded or, at least, have its original packaging altered.  We know, for instance, that “all men are created equal” in our political discourse has been expanded, revised, and changed.  I, for one, am not willing to go back to its original packaging just because it was, well, original.

So is John Henry Hobart’s work all that remarkable?  No.  Not at all, in fact.  And, moreover, it can be replicated by women and men today, in this time of significant cultural change.  Provided that there are people of faith who are unafraid of making a choice between being culturally acceptable or being faithful to Christ.  Provided that there are people who don’t care to “see and be seen” in a pew but, rather, be transformed by God.  Provided that there are people who know or want to know the power of the Holy Spirit, not the invitation of social convention.  Provided that there are people who will root themselves in Christ, and his story – which is a story about death, first, then resurrection.  Provided that we as the institution called “church” begin to deepen our conversation and formation, and seek to become what we receive — the Body of Christ in this world.  You bet we’ll grow, provided we make that one, simple turn.

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The sermon’s title is taken from Bishop Hobart’s address at the the opening of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City, held on Monday evening, 11 March 1822: “The event that calls us together is a subject of real congratulation. An institution, organized by the Church in her highest legislative council with a unanimity and cordiality that could not have been anticipated, has commenced its operations in this city under auspices that promise not to disappoint the expectations of its founders and patrons. Here is the sacred school in which are to be trained the heralds of the cross, we hope, to the latest generations. Here is the fountain, drawing, we trust, its living waters from the throne of God, whence are to proceed those streams of divine truth and knowledge that are to refresh and gladden the Zion of the Lord, the city of our God.”

Adapted from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Wednesday, 12 September 2012, being the Feast of John Henry Hobart, Bishop of New York

WHAT WE’VE HEARD ABOUT THE ROAD TO HELL, AND WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE WAY OF LIFE

The timing couldn’t be better.  In 1 Kings 3, Solomon ascends Israel’s throne after his father, David.  He goes to worship the Lord and asks for wisdom, for the gift to discern between what is right and what is wrong.

The timing couldn’t be better, for if you think it’s bad now it’s gonna to get worse.  In just a few weeks, it’ll get even noisier.  The Republicans are going to meet in some city and the Democrats in another.  They’ll have a great big rallying cry, and we’ll be overwhelmed with campaign promises, attack ads, and reasons to vilify one and love the other.  It’s going to get worse, much worse. That’s why it’s particularly nice to think about Solomon’s wisdom.  Would that more public servants appeal to God for wisdom.  Would that more who enter the fray of politics pursue humility, grace, and a desire to serve the common good, above all else.  The timing is quite perfect, indeed. 

Let’s look for a moment at Solomon.  He shows wisdom with that whole baby-splitting episode, so good for him.  Yet it should be noted that when he asked for wisdom he was already king, so it’s not like he needed more wealth or power.  And Solomon has an interesting track record as king.  Whereas his father, David, was a charismatic builder – the one who gathered the formerly tribal-minded people into one nation, expanded the kingdom, and was beloved by all, even in spite of his less-than stellar behavior – Solomon didn’t have his father’s grace and statesman’s touch.  Over the course of his rule, Solomon built the grand things David didn’t: that magnificent and costly Temple, for one.  Solomon expanded Israel’s power even more than his father, marrying countless women as part of his international relations with local kings and princes, pursuing wealth and prestige beyond the borders of Israel.  Solomon taxed the people heavily, forced them to work unceasingly, and nearly broke their backs.  By the time Solomon died, the divide and animosity in the kingdom was so great that he was the last monarch of the unified country – thus was Solomon’s inability to remain wise, humble, and gentle.

Even the one who humbly prays for wisdom doesn’t wind up having it.  I don’t mean to say that seeking wisdom is not good practice; rather, it is.  I’m suggesting that that’s not enough.  I suspect that once you enter that world and get seduced by power and privilege and wealth and prestige it’s really hard to look back and remember those other values of humility and grace, the care for the common good and looking out for the little man.  This happened, no doubt, to Solomon as he was entertained in the courts of his day.  This happens in every state capital and in our nation’s capitol, today, as fresh-faced lawmakers, intent on doing good, also get led down a rosy path.  Desire to serve and intent to remain wise is just not enough.

God saw all of this, in time, and God grew frustrated.  God gave us everything – minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve; resources and opportunities and desire; all the right tools and perfect moments to make His kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.  And we squandered it and messed it up, time and again.  So God grew frustrated, but also remembered He’d never again destroy this creation, hence the rainbow in the clouds.

So God determined to re-write history, and re-order the path of human life.  God did a most unexpected and radical thing, and came upon earth as one of us.

God gathered followers and friends, and one day after they fed thousands of people with just a few loaves He told them about real bread, the bread of life, the bread that keeps on giving.  He told them they needed to eat that bread, and drink the cup of life.  He went on to say that they needed to eat His flesh, and drink His blood.  Some others were standing nearby and they heard Him and thought, “Now what is this craziness?  Not only is that contrary to the Torah, to drink the life-source which is blood, but it’s just downright gross.  What is he talking about?”  To which God responded, looking into the eyes of his followers and friends: “Don’t pay attention to them, to those cynics and doubters.  They don’t understand what I’m talking about because they keep looking beyond themselves to someone else who will fix their problems.  They’ll never get around to looking at God – who is the closest, most intimate one you know and already know, the One who already knows you, from the inside out.  They’ll never get around to looking within, where God is already dwelling.”

And that’s what they remembered, years after He was gone.  They remembered how close they were to Him and how close He was to them; how intimately He knew them.  They knew that they wanted to do nothing more than root their lives in Him, and feed on him and drink from his life so that they may have the only thing worthy of being called real life.

God lived as one of us and became human so that humans can become divine.  God re-oriented the whole of human history and rooted Himself in the world so we would root ourselves in Him, and cease to look beyond or outside or to another for answers again, but within — in that deepest, holiest place where the Kingdom dwells already, made sacred when He became and thus blessed our nature.  That’s the lesson in its fullest truth:  that when God become human, redemption already happened.  And the path to new life is to be rooted in Him, the one who became rooted in our experience, as well.

Now, pause.  And return with me to the world beyond the Body of Christ.

As those Republicans meet in Tampa and while the Democrats meet in Charlotte in the weeks ahead, the danger is that you and I will come to believe their messages – that you and I might start believing, somewhere in our heart, that so-and-so has the right idea, and that good intentions lead to good results and, subsequently, that the opponent is a nasty person with awful, no good ideas that will tear down this nation and everything we value.  And you might not only believe those things but you’ll let it infect your lifestyle and your relationships, and you’ll get opinionated and cranky and stop getting invited to cocktail parties.

Don’t let that happen, to you or your life or your heart or your relationships.  Don’t let that happen for it’s a losing game.  The answers are not outside.  The answers are not in another’s good intentions, and the fault isn’t that other one’s bad intentions.  Rather, root yourself where God chose to be planted – in our very flesh and blood, where there is already the food and drink of real, unending, worthwhile life.  It’s within you already, which is where the promise is already offered … in you.

………………..

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 19 August 2012, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary).  For the full text of the sermon, click here.