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Monday, February 22, 2010

Not Another Temptation Sermon

First Sunday of Lent, Year C
February 21, 2010
Christ and Grace Episcopal Church
Petersburg, Virginia

Romans 10: 8b-13
Luke 4: 1-14

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted. 
Woe is me!  Temptation, Lent, ashes, woe is me!  You know what I'm talking about.  Whoever says, "I'm looking forward to Lent this year?"  Huh?  We don't need another sermon on temptation, heck we could give that one!  That dessert looks mighty tempting.  Those prices at Sam's Club are just too good, let's sock up for the winter.  But that job would give me so much power and prestige if I accept it, think of all that we have!  That investment firm is really promising me assurance and prosperity for my future, if only I promise them my faithfulness in giving.  Woe is me! Temptation, the basic human condition we fight day in and day out.  We know temptation so very well.
Luke's Gospel today reminds us of Our Lord's exile in the wilderness, and the temptations by the Adversary which serves as the capstone moment in Jesus' formation before his public ministry begins.  There in the wilderness, the desert of wasteland, Jesus is confronted not once but three times by the Adversary to tempt the Son of God to show his hand and see if this new Light in the world could be snuffed out. Perhaps this would have made him so weak and vulnerable that Jesus would do almost anything.  Wouldn't we?  Bread, power, and fidelity.  Simple temptations, promising and awesome: great power over creation, authority over the kingdoms of the earth, and all the promised glory and honor due a mighty king.  Bread, power, and fidelity.  Simple, eh?

"If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread!"  There is no doubt, that Jesus the Son of God could in fact do this.  If he would only do this, he could have something to eat.  But this question goes deep into the heart of the ministry of Jesus, for what would the Christian narrative be if Jesus was simply bread for himself?  A selfish Jesus, that doesn't seem to fit.  Jesus' whole earthly ministry was spent being bread for everyone--feeding, nourishing, sustaining, and filling hungry mouths with the Word of God. "One does not live by bread alone," Jesus says, and so we know that we ourselves cannot sustain life without the spiritual nourishment from God alone.   
"But, I'll give you glory and authority over all the kingdoms of the world, and I can give it all to you in a nanosecond!  It's yours, if you will only worship me.  Come on, it's easy!"  The King of Kings, a king whose Kingdom is not from this world, without missing a beat says, "worship the Lord your God and serve only him."  But the world could have changed in an instant!  No more injustice, war, famine, or disease!  But would the price be?  Whose power would be exalted?  Surely it wouldn't be God's. 
Stubborn until the end, the Adversary tried once more, "if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the temple, and let the angels catch you."  From the dizzying heights of the pinnacle, looking out over creation, Our Lord fights vertigo, "do not put the Lord your God to the test."  Bread, power, and fidelity the testing of the soul, the triumph of Christ.
It is no accident that our Gospel lesson falls on the First Sunday of Lent.  The Lenten journey can easily be mistaken for a time of "woe is me" and heaped upon by teachings against temptation, selfish abstinence for the avante garde, and a great way to show others that we're really working hard at this Lent thing.  Perhaps this is why some don't look forward to Lent.  So then, what does it all mean?  
The Gospel truth in all this is: bread, power, and fidelity.  Consider these temptations of Christ in the positive.  What are we tempted to do with our bread?  Or better yet, who are we being bread to?  What are we doing with our God-given power, prestige, or influence when we are vaulted to the pinnacles?  Are we tempted to work for justice?  Are we tempted to use what we have to fight disease, end hunger, heal addiction, and eradicate homelessness?  Are we tempted to be faithful to God?  Tempted to a life of discipleship and prayer?  Are we tempted to live in forgiveness to ourselves and those who have wronged us?  After those forty days, without food, our Lord took up his public ministry.
If we look to Christ for the answers, than, yes, you guessed it.  We should succumb to those temptations.  These are the temptations to us, the beloved of God, not from the evil in our world.  The Lenten journey is the greatest season in which we are invited to deepen our walk with Christ, to see in ourselves the God-given love that drives us out from our own deserts and into the streets--witnessing a message that the Adversary and the powers and principalities of this world don't want to hear!  We cannot live on bread alone.  That's what our Eucharistic fellowship every Sunday primes us for, and this happens year-round.
St. Paul's letter to the Romans furthers this idea that Christ is so near to us He is in on our lips and in our hearts.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved--no one is excluded or left out.  To confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, then we cannot ignore the temptation to follow the Master.  This Gospel truth is not about who is saved and who is out, it's about our ability to "walk the talk"--being bread to our neighbors, striving for the Kingdom with every thing we have, and a complete and total dependency on the wounded, risen Christ. 
Leaven, influence, and faith.  If we wait for Lent to be the time of "giving something up" then we truly miss the mark of the Master's call to discipleship.  Our temptation is corporate and communal.  The Kingdom is not about individuals, but the whole of the creation moving sweetly to God's song of love.  The temptations of Our Lord reveal the ingredients for a life of discipleship:  the need for spiritual, enriching food, striving for justice and peace, and a complete trust in the sovereignty of God.  Our Lord is modeling these staples in the face of great evil and temptation that promises all the riches and glory of the world.  But that's just it.  We are in the world but not of it.  We are working to bring about God's Kingdom here and now.  

May our Lenten journeys be full of temptation: temptation to be rising bread for a hungry, hurting world; temptation to use our power and influence to bring about the Reign of God in the streets of Petersburg and beyond.  May our Lenten journey be full of temptation to walk each and every step of the way with the Lord and Master of love and mercy.   

Friday, February 19, 2010

Monster Sunday School

Lighten up your Lenten journey and enjoy, I did...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beloved Dust

In the Book of Genesis we learn, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return" (3:19, NRSV).  In liturgies throughout the Church for Ash Wednesday, this verse from Genesis intends to re-ground ourselves in the Trinitarian life.  We are created beings fashioned by God and according to God's purposes.

My theology professor, now retired, The Rev. Dr. Robert Hughes offers us another way of looking at this passage. In his recent magnum opus, Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life (New York: Continuum, 2008), Hughes offers us the analogy of human beings as the beloved stardust of creation.  "Human beings are best conceived by as materialistic an anthropology as possible.  I am proposing that we use the metaphor of dust, beloved dust, though by this I mean the stardust of creation, matter much as conceived by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, not merely the dust of the dustbin, though that is included" (Hughes, 7).  Hughes goes on to describe that this beloved dust is animated, spirited, estranged, and redeemed dust.  I thoroughly enjoy my copy and highly recommend this important work on the mission and theology of the Holy Spirit as a companion and guide to the spiritual life.

What I find most compelling in all this is that image of not being merely dust, but beloved dust.  Beloved of God, redeemed by Christ, and inspired by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives.  It is quite easy to view Ash Wednesday in terms of "woe is me."  I do not think that this approach is helpful.  If we take seriously the call to confession, then Lent becomes a deeper journey of faith where we can walk with Christ on the journey to the cross.  Woe is world, perhaps, but as beloved dust we share in that cross-bearing moment with the resurrected Christ to help re-orient the world in terms of love, justice, and mercy.

Dust yes.  Beloved dust, even more.  The markings on our forehead are visible symbols of that loving creation that we are all share in as we move towards our ultimate hope in Christ.  The Lenten journey begins and so we can prepare ourselves for not only Our Lord's resurrection, but our own too.

Burying the Alleluias

There is an interesting post over at the New Liturgical Movement's blog concerning the tradition of dispensing with the "Alleluias" during Lent.  I had no idea of an actual coffin-like container which the children would actually bury their handwritten "alleluias" inside and open upon the Feast of the Resurrection.  Interesting.

Part 1.  Burying the Alleluias:  Burning Strawmen, Mourning Choir Boys
Part 2.  Burial of the Alleluia in an Anglican-Use Roman Catholic Church in Texas

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shrove or Shriven? Pancake Day Worldwide

"May everyday of the year be a Shrove Tuesday"
Jeremy Taylor

My Pastoral Theology professor so aptly said this morning in class, "Shrove Tuesday is not the Middle English word for pancake." Ah, but is it? I turned to The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see what is written on the matter. The OED notes that Shrove Tuesday is often referred to as "pancake day." In 1764, OED cites the reference, "let glad Shrove-Tuesday bring the pancake thin." There is even a reference to an ancient Celtic practice of ritually sacrificing a cock or hen to be eaten on this day. Thankfully, however, tons of pancake batter is beginning to be prepared all over for Shrove Tuesday.

So which is the best understanding of Shrove Tuesday? Who would dare buck the OED?

Well, my professor was alluding to the meaning of the root of shrove, which is past tense for the word shrive. Here the OED says quite clearly that shrive means:

"To impose penance upon (a person); hence, to administer absolution to; to hear the confession of."

Thus, the reference to the real meaning of Shrove Tuesday is not lost on carbohydrates. It's about confession, preparation for the following day of Ash Wednesday. Jeremy Taylor's above quotation thus makes complete sense--everyday should be a day in which we offer up our confession and receive absolution and penance from the Church.

Pancakes, or at least the idea of a carnival, is appropriate so long as the meaning of the day is not lost. The historic notion of "suspending the rules" and allowing people to blow off some steam is well within the tradition of Mardi Gras and any festival prior to the beginning of Lent. In England, there is an old tradition of the "boy bishop" or dressing up a young boy in episcopal vestments as a way of illustrating the point of temporarily dispensing the rules.

Go, eat your pancakes and be merry. Confess your sins and receive absolution so that you may be well on your way to keeping a solemn, holy Lent. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mary, Dawn of Morning

From the Feast of the Purification of the B.V.M. through Wednesday in Holy Week, the Final Antiphon of the B.V.M. at Compline is the Ave, Regina caelorum.

Queen of the heavens, we hail thee,
Lady of all the angels;
Thou the dawn, the door of morning
Whence the world's true Light is risen:
Joy to thee, O Virgin glorious,
Beautiful beyond all other;
Hail and farewell, O most gracious,
Intercede for us alway to Jesus.

V. Vouchsafe that I may praise thee, O holy Virgin.
R. Give me strength against thine enemies.

Let us pray.

Grant us, O merciful God protection in our weakness: that we who celebrate the memory of the Holy Mother of God may, through her intercession, rise again from our sins. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

From The Monastic Diurnal (London: Oxford University Press/Lancelot Andrewes Press, 2006).

"Thou the dawn, the door of morning whence the world's true Light is risen..." This line gets me every time.  There is something so intrinsically powerful in these words.  Mary, the gate, the womb which bore life and light, is likened to the dawn of morning.  Living on a mountaintop, I interpret this through my somewhat foggy lenses--dew, deer grazing about, sunrise breaking the foggy mist, and life stirring to begin a new day.  The natural overtones are not missed.  The sun rising in the east and setting in the west, punctuating our time each day with remembrances of Christ rising from the tomb, bursting forth from the womb, and the evil in the world lurking at the setting sun.  Mary the door, the vessel which the Word passes to bring the true Light into our existence.  Such a simple prayer but one that is pregnant with meaning--pun intended.  

I have found the additions of the Final Antiphons of the B.V.M. a welcomed and inspiring addition to the final office of the day, Compline.  Seasonally, they move with the fluidity of the Church calendar, providing a definite incarnational emphasis within each season.  

As a life-long Episcopalian, I was not raised in the Marian tradition of the Church.  I must admit that I found it rather odd that Episcopalians would even pray for Mary's intercession--playing at some Roman fantasy.  But in time, in prayer, and in theological education, I discovered that one cannot fully understand the Incarnation, or even the person or work of Jesus Christ, without a deep appreciation for the role that Mary plays in whole narrative.  For Episcopalians, veneration of the B.V.M. is not tantamount to an ecclesiastical identity crisis, it is our expression of our desire for catholicism in the broadest sense.

Mary, I believe, is the greatest source of unity for the Body of Christ.  Walsingham's appearance, furthermore, is perhaps the greatest and most accepted account of Our Lady among Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans today.  However, her identity must be rescued from the extreme wings of the church which beset her into highly repressive circles of clericalism and misogyny which grows out from a repressed sexuality.  How could someone hold Our Lady in such high regard and yet refuse to accept women celebrating at the altar, in the threefold offices of deacon, priest, and bishop?  It's quite telling of something of an identity crisis, and one that I suspect is rooted in the mystery of human sexuality.

Here, I would commend my friend Kenneth Leech's excellent (and rather humorous) essay "Beyond Gin and Lace," as means to understand the phenomenon of which I allude.  

Nonetheless, Our Lady withstands the test of time.  Her powerful intercession on our sinful behalf has aided me in more times than I can count.  I feel certain that by veneration--read, not worshipping!--that Our Lady can help show us the way to her beloved Son, Jesus Christ who stands ready with open arms to embrace us no matter what.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Daily Office: Readings from the Early Church

One spiritual practice that I adopted some time ago, is to read a passage from Saint Benedict's Rule prior to saying Compline.  This gives me a time of reflection from something grounded in tradition, non-Biblical of course.  Recently, I accidently left my copy of The Rule at my brother's house whilst on a family trip and so I turned to my book shelf to find something suitable as a replacement.

I quickly located my copy of Bob Wright's classic, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church (New York: Church Publishing, 1991) and his supplemental They Still Speak:  Readings for the Lesser Feasts (New York: Church Publishing, 1993).

Those who know this giant scholar, priest, and historian in The Episcopal Church know that these two volumes represent sound research, a faithful translation of the texts, and shaped according to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer Daily Office calendar.

J. Robert Wright is the Saint Mark's Church in the Bowery Professor of Ecclesiastical History at The General Theological Seminary in New York.  He was awarded the St. Augustine's Cross by the Archbishop of Canterbury for his contributions to the wider Anglican Communion.  Friends of mine who have had him as a teacher in seminary speak reverently about him.

While the publishing date may seem old to some, these texts still "speak."  The readings are arranged daily and contain sermons and writings from the early Church Mothers and Fathers.  He has included works from Dame Julian of Norwich as a move to be broader.  Wright offers in the preface his task of compiling the readings and dealing with issues of sexual inclusion in language.

A good example of how these two texts bear relevancy with the Daily Office. The Old Testaments readings for Morning Prayer, recently, have been covering the Jacob v. Esau story.  Wright paired these with a sermon by Irenaeus who brought a Christian interpretation to these texts from Genesis.  It was fascinating, for me, to have incorporated this insight from the Patristic era into my daily prayer life.  It was then that I was sold on using these texts with my Daily Office readings.

Those of my brothers and sisters who fancy The Anglican Breviary will already know of a similar incorporation of Patristic sermons and texts which are combined in the breviary.

I commend any practice of incorporating these additional non-Biblical readings from the early Church into our corporate opus dei.