POOR PETER

St. Peter is my favorite disciple. He was appointed to lead the apostolic team, and obviously honored greatly in the Early Church and yet the Gospel-writers pull no punches in telling us about Peter’s flaws. In the highly political context in which we seek to live as Christians here in the United States, bloggers eagerly pounce on every error they perceive in our Christian leaders. Often the stories pedaled are over-blown, inaccurate, and their purpose is to demonstrate the virtue of their case. We love to demolish those we oppose.

 

The Gospels – Paul also “withstood Peter to his face” – point us in a different direction. After all Peter’s lapses, even his final denial that he knew Jesus, our Lord tells him to feed his sheep and lambs, the exposed, vulnerable original band of Christians to whom Jesus entrusted the creation of his Church. Peter’s qualification to lead was not based on his talents or suitability, his virtue or freedom from error, but simply on his vocation, his calling.

 

I think of Peter at the Last Supper, as Jesus prepares to wash the feet of his friends, gathered in that Upper Room. When Jesus announces that he is going to be a slave, and wash the feet of the guests, the sort of duty performed by a servant/slave in a wealthy home, Peter objects. I read similar objections on a Facebook page yesterday. Why object? Peter didn’t believe he was worthy and was probably embarrassed. Peter had to learn that the humble offering his Lord was making was not only a lesson about servant leadership, as important as that is. The message is deeper. Jesus was saying to Peter, as he says to his Church, to you and to me, “If you are going to do my will you must be prepared to accept the embarrassment which comes when God, whose face we see in Jesus, stoops to touch us, cleanse us, welcome us and feed us.” Until we can accept God’s condescension, we will continue to rely on our own ability, or own strength, our own courage. And then we will deny Him and run away.

LEST WE FORGET

I was struck, yesterday by a photograph of the group of ecclesiastics, clad in unLenten hues, winding their way to a grave. Another photograph showed the monument above the grave, on which was inscribed the names James Lloyd Breck. What on earth were these people doing, while the rest of the world, differently clad, differently occupied, got on with modern living? Well they were remembering their first Dean at Nashotah House. In the process they were anchoring who they are now to their story. In an age of re-invention, they were immersing themselves in their story.

 

At almost the same time a group of friends who meet daily on line were discussing the Holy Week rituals. Someone asked, “What on earth did you do before the !979 Rites became available?  My friends have been talking about the enormous influence a small group of reformers had on the way we worship. These men, and they were all men, worked in the 60ies and 70ies and drafted our present Prayer Book.

 

I’m reading the latest biography of the poet-priest, George Herbert. In tracing his life as a schoolboy we meet Lancelot Andrewes, that towering intellect, linguist, preacher, who did much to reconnect Anglicans to their story after the upheavals of the Reformation. In considering Andrewes’s remarkable Good Friday sermon, with reference to a poem on the same theme Herbert wrote, the author remarks just how foreign and alien the sermon and the poem seem to us, with their emphasis on sacrifice, the just for the unjust. That remark brought to mind the furore over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks about the tragedy of the massacre of Christians in the Sudan and Nigeria and the need for the Church in the West to consider their actions and how they may be used as an excuse by those hostile to Christianity to commit frightful atrocities. Justin Welby’s remarks were met with offended incredulity by those whose references to the theology and ethics of our ancestors are filled with rejection and scorn.

 

Our spiritual ancestors have taken on the personae of embarrassing relatives, best ignored and forgotten. Our story is peopled by fallen men and women, who seem to have got their theology, their ethics and their liturgy wrong. And so we must reinvent ourselves, and because our imaginations are strangely debilitated we end up building shrines to foreign “gods” on our hill altars, while feeling free to construct our local invented story around these totems, a story suitably embellished by reference to antiquity, as long as it is safely long-gone.

 

It’s safe enough to riffle through the extant documents we attribute to Early Church times, even if some are gnostic in their origin, or of uncertain provenance, as long as we don’t fill in the story from then to now. Archbishop Ramsey rightly termed that approach “archeological religion”. Wiseman chided the Anglican Newman of using a similar method. There’s an irony about a people enamored with the theory of doctrinal development who eschew the story of how it developed, but rather feel safer in leaping over the centuries in order to create something unconnected to their past.

 

If Episcopalians have gone in for reinvention with a heady enthusiasm, those who have left her in protest face a dramatic dilemma. They too must distance themselves from their immediate past. Some are busy reinventing the theology of those whose time was short and desperate; the Divines who labored to reform the Church in the reign of Edward VI. Because they don’t continue the story they forget that in the next few decades their position was taken up not by Anglicans but by Puritans. Others in the Anglican diaspora in America dream dreams of all things Medieval as recaptured in Victorian England. But neither have more recent graves to visit to honor their story.

 

Those who reinvent themselves want to stress their virtues and the pristine virtue of their package. They can’t deal with their rejected story because it is a story of flawed individuals, of failures, of myopia, of indefensible lapses in moral judgement, as well as a story of heroism and saintliness, of goodness and kindness and love. Herbert and Andrewes seemed to wallow in the gory reality of Sacrifice and judgment, of the seemingly immoral sacrifice of a just man for the unjust, of God’s offense deflected by the sacrifice of innocence, until we suddenly discover the extraordinary fact that the Cross in its frightful reality is about love. Love can only exist in authenticity.

 

“Greater love has no man than this…”  We do need to go to dark Calvary before we approach Resurrection. Resurrection isn’t reinvention. It can only be understood in the light of all that went before, immediately before and in the story of Israel’s relationship with her God. Part of being members of a historical Faith is discovering the grave sites of our James Lloyd Brecks, without being put off by their liturgy, or theology, or ethics, learning from their good examples but also re-learning that as they could be wrong, so we can be wrong, as spectacularly wrong as they could be from time to time. In that we also relearn that what looks like frightfulness, what looks like the Cross may well be the place where love is exposed fully and wonderfully.

 

As Anglicans we need to embrace our own story, and test the hill altars we have erected in our spasm of reinvention in the light of that story. I say this not to invite some form of antiquarian revival. It is interesting to note that in the two great revivals of the 18th, 19th century, Evangelicals and Tractarians both embraced the contemporary whole-heartedly, with a passion to right the wrongs in those societies, as they freed the slaves, worked to house the poor and abolish child labor. Yet they embraced the story of where they came from with vigor while adorning their love of Christ with that which seemed to be new, but which was really firmly anchored in the Anglican story, its saints, its sinners, its liturgy, its parishes, cathedrals, dioceses. In the end if we forget who we are, we have nothing authentic to offer the rest of the Church, and nothing reliable to offer those who come to us seeking Jesus.

WHEN PRINCIPLE TRUMPS PEOPLE

The People Involved

The controversy that erupted over an invitation to the Presiding Bishop to preach at Nashotah House Seminary has been an undignified spectacle. Those least regarded have been ordinary human beings caught up in all this, while blogs and Facebook pages have erupted in the sort of battle and murder, and tragically sudden death the Great Litany bids us pray we avoid. I think particularly of the seminarians at Nashotah House, sent there at personal sacrifice and no little expense to prepare themselves for ministry. These men and women come from the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in North America and other Anglican bodies. In classroom and chapel, the circumstances which have divided Anglicans in North America fall silent as the worship of Almighty God is offered and the wisdom of Scripture and of saints, past and present is taught, read, learned and inwardly digested and lives are formed in prayer and study in order that a continued supply of equipped clergy may serve the people of God. Among those being formed was Terry Star, a Native American, whose people have remained loyal to the church despite their sufferings, past and present. Terry might well have been embittered by the history he inherited and the continued deprivation of his people. He remained determined to seek peace and reconciliation and mirrored that determination in his kindly smile, loving manner and simple devotion. In the midst of the controversy, knowing that his wish that the Presiding Bishop should experience Nashotah -a Native American word – first hand had caused such a furore, Terry suffered a heart attack and died alone.

Terry served on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and had experienced kindness from the Presiding Bishop. Terry was training to be a priest and had experienced kindness, faith and joy at the House. Coming from a nation that has experienced enormous prejudice and violence, his heart ached as he experienced the bitter divisions within the Anglican family of churches in America. “Blessed are the peace makers.”

His fellow seminarians, to a lesser degree, struggle daily with their unhappy divisions. Our jurisdictions, the ones from which the student body is drawn, owe to these dedicated men and women our careful devotion. We are warned by our Lord not to place stumbling blocks before “little ones”, those young in faith and ministry, placed in our care. They are not slogans or political talking points. They are God’s chosen.

Principles

When I was young in ministry I was a school chaplain. One of the staff, a dour Scottish atheist said to me one day, “Beware of principled folk. They are often unprincipled about their principles.”  Of course he overstated his point, but he had a point. Those on the left and right of the present Anglican spectrum are often unprincipled about their principles. Their passion for their Causes is seen as justification to indulge in prejudice, hatefulness, and character assassination, justified by their advocacy of true religion and virtue, for justice and morality. Stripped of their Christian attire, they seem no different than the devotees of political faction in the State. When I read that an entertainer had described the President of the United States as sub human, I thought of the descriptions bandied about leaders of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican diaspora in an attempt to dehumanize “the enemy”, making such people fair game in religious warfare. Who knows how many ordinary, devout lay people and not a few clergy who have been driven from their churches by the hatefulness of zealots, on the left and on the right,  torn apart local congregation in a struggle for territory, stone and mortar and parish funds? Who knows how many seekers have contrasted “See how these Christians love one another’, with the spite and invective they read about and experience?

No one comes out of the battles that have divided and torn apart Anglicanism in America looking virtuous. The excuses for law suits, involving secular courts in grasping  often inefficient Victorian piles have eroded separation of Church and State and portrayed a mercenary and materialistic affiliation. Many of those whose assets have been appropriated have used the hurt they have experienced as excuse for bitterness and a vengeful spirit. If either side had devoted their zeal and money to the plight of Native Americans living in dreadful conditions on reservations, on the poor and the needy, and got on with merely being the church in mission according to their own lights, who knows how many would have been drawn to Christ by the winsomeness of Christian people, divided by principle but united in compassion and mercy?

The religious wars of the 16th and 17th Century, as the church divided and fought, dreadfully weakened Western Christendom. All too often the Devil won. We have inherited those divisions, writ large in the presence of a multitude of sects, whose buildings still stand witness to our unhappy divisions on almost every street corner.

May

In early May the Presiding Bishop will spend a day at Nashotah House, mixing with staff and students, and preaching a eulogy for Terry Star at Evensong. After that she will fly out, perhaps with the Nashotah Hymn, “Firmly I believe and Truly” ringing in her ears. No doubt all, whatever their affiliation will offer her courtesy and she will offer that courtesy back. Perhaps, who knows, she will catch a glimpse of a community at peace with one another, to whom Jesus is all in all?  People, human beings, baptized people will briefly interact. And that will be that. Tragically her visit will no doubt produce another stream of invective as “progressives” lament that she set foot in such a place, and the orthodox want the place exorcised. I pray that God the Holy Spirit may use those few hours to work grace, touch hearts and drive away bitterness.

UNLESS YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS EXCEEDS…..

February 9, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)Psalm 112:1-9, (10)1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)Matthew 5:13-20

One of the hardest problems we face in hearing or reading the Bible, is that of time. We don’t have time machines, and even if we did, we’d journey back in time with the ideas formed in us by our nationality, the communities in which we grew up, our family traditions, and the things we take for granted. If we tried to get back to the people for whom Matthew is writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, we’d land in a strange land, among unfamiliar people. No doubt they’d think us pretty odd, too.

The gospel today underscores the great gulf that is fixed between our time and the first century of the Christian era. The verse where the passage ends only makes matters harder for us to understand. St. Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who had been raised to attempt to keep the laws and rules of Judaism. Some of them had probably been Pharisees before their conversion. The word “Pharisee,” like the word “righteousness,” is loaded with not always very complimentary meanings for us. We think of proud, intolerant people, filled with self-admiration for themselves and full of harsh criticism for people they believed to be sinners.

The Pharisees, or Pious Ones, began their history as a reforming group, intent on bringing the Jewish people back to faith in their God. They believed that the best way to do that was to stress the Law of God, as given by Moses and elaborated on in the religious books developed over the centuries. In Jesus’ time, some of these Pharisees opposed the teachings of Jesus because they thought he was undermining God’s Law. They saw him as a threat to religious purity. Not all of them opposed Jesus. Two are named as his supporters.

As the church grew, opened itself to non-Jews and developed its own teachings, a great debate arose about the place of Old Testament Law in the life of Christians. St. Matthew, a Jew himself, seeks to assure Jewish converts that Jesus hadn’t come to abolish God’s law. He records Jesus as saying that the whole law would remain in force forever. And yet in the gospel we just heard, he says that in keeping this law, we have to do much better than the Pharisees.

Is Jesus saying that we must keep the Jewish Law, all that stuff about what we can eat, or what we can do on the Sabbath? Are we to be like some people, perhaps we know a few, who think they are better, more moral, more upright, than the rest of us and are harsh in their judgment of others, intolerant of anyone who is different?

This rather difficult passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses gave the Law to Israel on the Holy Mountain, so now Jesus gives the law to his disciples and those who would follow him. He begins with a description of those who are happy or blessed. He will go on to expand, or “fulfill” the meaning of the Law. In the verses that come after this gospel, Jesus will warn against an anger that leads to violence. “You shall not kill,” begins with our dealing with what happens when we give way to anger, disgust, when we take offense. Jesus will teach us that we are to seek reconciliation with people with whom we quarrel, that we are not to “come to the altar” if we haven’t done all in our power to love our neighbor; for loving those close to us, those in the communities around us, is one of the commandments of the Law Jesus identified as the foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets.”

So what can we take home with us from the gospel today? Keeping the law of God is not a matter of feeling and acting as if we are superior to those who, in our judgment, fail to live up to our standards. We love God in loving others. St. Paul often reminds us that the Law shows up our own inadequacies. We are in no state to judge others. But having received God’s love in Jesus, despite ourselves, we are empowered to help those who stumble. It’s not that we are to abandon all hope of perfection, of holiness. Rather it’s a matter of understanding that the road to holiness is the path of love, compassion, of caring and sympathy, of helping each other along that journey, stopping to assist those who have become tired, have fallen on the way, or who have given up in despair.

Some of the most tragic stories that emerge from wars involve prisoners or refugees, walking along roads, herded by brutal guards. The heroes of these stories are those who in the midst of their own miseries, despite the dangers, share their meager rations, water supplies, even clothing, to help those who have fallen by the side of the road, who might well be shot by the guards because they can’t keep up.

On the journey of faith, we are not appointed by God to shoot those who stumble, who fail to obey orders. We are called to go out of our way to care. The whole point of God’s Law is to urge us to put God and others first and to die to our own self-love and desire for self-preservation.

Of course the strength to live for God and for others doesn’t come from attempts to keep God’s commandments. That strength comes from God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. We meet here today to receive that strength, that grace, not as the righteous company of God-supporters, but as those to whom mercy is continually given. When we leave this place to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we go as forgiven, empowered people, strengthened to keep God’s Law by loving all who we shall meet.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

HUMBUG

Tis the season to be outraged. It’s also the season for extraordinary humbug. For example, I found the statement by the Duck Dynasty fellow offensive, but I was disturbed by the A&E network’s reaction. A&E ‘adopts’ a family which prides itself on its “redneck” identity, builds an enormously successful Reality Show around the family, makes money out of the homespun lifestyles of the family, and is outraged when a family member expresses opinions more often than not found among such people.

I can be outraged by the Duck Dynasty patriarch and by A&E, all at the same time. I can blog about my outrage using the most evocative terms available in my working vocabulary. I can thereby demonstrate that I am on the right side, whatever that side may be, show you all just how virtuous I am, and accomplish all this from the comfort of my recliner. Guess what? It won’t cost me much time, much energy, or any money. I don’t even have to be objective. If someone is attacking my belief, my lifestyle, my ethnicity I can strike back, on behalf of my circle and be as aggressive as I like. I can go for the jugular, attack the person in my sight, spill blood, shut down my computer and go and get on with my life basking in the glow of my own rightness. Outrage is delicious. I can be as self-serving and self-centered as I like, and reap the rewards heaped on me by people who approve of my position.

How did God demonstrate his outrage at the human condition? He emptied himself, became a servant, surrendered his life as a public felon. He came as a vulnerable baby, the prey of an ‘outrageous’ tyrant. He was attacked by the virtuous, the righteous, the Pharisees – a society to protect the purity of the Nation and its Church – and he offered in return his love. He associated with sinners, untouchables, while the virtuous called him a drunk and a glutton. Jesus expressed his ‘outrage’ by offering love, by showing God’s amazing concern for human beings, flawed, sinful women and men. He sought to change lives not by reading the riot act and administering a flogging -yes. he took the whip to religious humbugs – but by exposing them to the life-changing power of the Divine love.

We are told not to judge; we are told to care. This does not mean we are called to approve of human fallenness. Rather we are to remind ourselves that because we are fallen, we have no standing as judges and when we have the temerity to assume the mantle of a judge we turn into humbugs and join the ranks of those who in their moral superiority, sent Jesus to his death.

Having written this. I must be sure that I am not impressed about my outrage about the outraged. It’s not easy is it?, to attempt to lose our lives, carry our crosses, walk with Jesus, not easy to make the attempt without being impressed by our nobility, our virtue and a short step to the place when we can, once again, indulge in the beauty of being outraged.

ADVENT BLUES

Two vaguely related topics, of interest to a somewhat narrow constituency, provoke intense responses each year when Advent comes around. The first might seem trivial. Should vestments and other hangings be purple or blue? The second is perhaps a bit more important. Is Advent a penitential season?

 

The second question relates to the first because in most churches, purple is used in Lent. In Lent, the Gloria in Excelsis isn’t said or sung, and not one muttered Alleluia escapes one’s mouth, the hymns tend to be mournful and there are no flowers in the church. Of course in Advent there are no flowers in church, the Gloria in Excelsis isn’t sung, but we still utter our Alleluias  with as much enthusiasm as a proper Anglican may muster, except perhaps when taking a shower. For some reason, the question of whether to use blue or purple vestments has become associated with our position on whether Advent is a penitential season or not. Well, actually, I think it possible that the use of blue vestments in Advent may be attributed to Almy. I’ve no idea who gave them the idea. 

 

Before the English Reformation, there were a number of color schemes in use, depending on which part of the country one lived in. The Sarum Use, named after the great cathedral in Salisbury, used blue in Advent. It is probable that when the 1549 Prayer Book was issued, the Sarum color system and ceremonial, with some adaptions, became the official use for the English Church. However that only had two year’s or so of life, after which the church solved the problem by abolishing almost all ceremonial and all colored vestments except for copes. 

 

During the Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th Century, when ceremonial and colored vestments returned, most churches adopted the color schemes used by the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. By the end of that century some ‘ritualists’ decided that to be truly Anglican, ceremonial and vestments should be those that were in use in the first year of King Edward VI: 1547. They studied the illuminations in Medieval service books and came up with a Sarum color scheme. Percy Dearmer championed all things Sarum in his “Parson’s Handbook”. 

 

The question of whether to shout Alleluia or not was moot until recently because no such acclamation was to be found in the old Prayer Books . Very few parishes in the USA conformed to the Sarum ceremonial and color scheme. It seems passing strange, therefore, to arbitrarily select one of the Sarum colors -blue- for Advent while sticking to the Roman usage throughout the rest of the year. There may be places that use unbleached linen in Lent, but they are few and far between. 

 

So why blue? It seems to have become the badge of the anti-penitental crowd, and of course of those who like blue but wouldn’t be caught in polite society venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary. So is Advent a penitential season? If it isn’t, why do we omit the Gloria and save on the budget for flowers? To my mind the answer is equivocal. It may not be penitential, as in Lent, but it is certainly penitential in terms of our taking stock of ourselves to prepare to go “even unto Bethlehem” or to meet the King “when he comes in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.” Yes, Advent has its joyful aspects. Nevertheless while the society in which we live consumes and purchases and parties, Christians stand out as they examine themselves and make themselves as ready as may be to greet the Baby King and the Baby Judge. So I opt for purple.

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