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Whatever you ask in my name…

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today’s gospel reading is an astounding bombshell of revelation in the unfolding narrative of John. It is in fact the source from which we get most of the evidence in scripture for a Trinitarian understanding of God. As such, it’s a mine-field. I don’t feel quite up to explaining the Trinity today. As our good vicar noted just yesterday morning, quoting one of her seminary professors, anyone who talks about the Trinity for more than thirty seconds has almost certainly committed a heresy. I’m not going to lay money on that, and I have seen some explanations of the Trinity that actually seem to me to make some sense without straying into doctrinal train-wrecks. One of the best of them is Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker. I recommend it — at least as much as I’ve read so far. I got started on it not too long ago, and I’m not finished with it. 

But rather than risk bringing down upon my head the fuzzy fury of the Episcopal Inquisition, let me turn my attention instead only to a small part toward the end of that passage. In it, Jesus gives the apostles — and perhaps us — instruction on the matter of prayer. What he says there seems very straightforward and hard to misunderstand…but for the fact that it doesn’t seem to correspond with my experience. Does it with yours?

While not at all to be confused with holy writ, the writings of Mark Twain do contain some trenchant insights on one thing and another. Chapter III of Huckleberry Finn begins as follows:

Well, I got a good going-over in the morning from old Miss Watson on account of my clothes; but the widow she didn’t scold, but only cleaned off the grease and clay, and looked so sorry that I thought I would behave awhile if I could. Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.

Now I’m going to venture a guess that most people here have had something like Huck’s experience. You don’t have to admit it openly, but I suspect most of us have prayed for things — either physical things like Huck’s fishhooks, or other things, like the recovery of a sick friend — that haven’t actually come about. That being the case, those of us who were raised to take every point in the Bible as both literal and true might find today’s reading from the Gospel of John to be a bit of a stumbling-block. It’s certainly one of a number of things that edged me slowly but inexorably out of a more fundamentalist understanding of the scriptures myself. John tells us that whatever we pray for in his name, we’ll receive. And yet, apparently, to quote the song, it ain’t necessarily so. That’s a problem, it seems to me.

There are several ways of dealing with this discrepancy.

Miss Watson’s response to Huck Finn is in fact too often the one people resort to: it’s not an answer to the question at all, but an attack on the person who asks it: “…she said I was a fool. She never told me why…” Though this seems to be more and more the way our society deals with problematic questions, I don’t think it’s acceptable. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher. But it certainly seems to me to torpedo any very fundamentalist approach to scripture: if one is going to insist that every word of the Bible is absolutely true and also subject to an ordinary common-sense interpretation, then it ought to be true in a common-sensical way. While calling someone a fool for challenging it may be a way of deflecting an argument, it doesn’t answer it at all.

Only slightly better is the argument that Jesus makes this all dependent on the “If you believe in me” condition, and that hence, if I don’t get what I’m asking for, it’s because I wasn’t believing well enough, or praying hard enough. This is, of course, what many other people would argue. It makes it a problem about a defect in me. I have a sufficient supply of defects, of course, thank you very much, but it looks like the fine print in the contest rules that makes sure that nobody ever actually wins the prize. If God only answers the prayers of flawless people, that’s not much different from answering none of them, is it?

Moreover, it does seem to me to skate rather close to something like a doctrine of salvation by works. What is initially set out as an instance of divine grace becomes, on the strong form of these terms, merely a test of my ability to believe, where the definition of that belief is left tantalizingly but perennially just beyond my reach. I don’t know about you, but when I encounter such things in an area other than Christianity — Scientology, for example — I tend to write them off as a scam. I’m not sure I can honestly think of them differently just because they’re flying the Christian banner. 

To push the case a little further, in all this world, full of the faithless, the faithful, and the ultra-faithful as it is, surely someone must be praying with a pure heart and a correct attitude (if such a thing is achievable) for the end of the current pandemic. And yet the thing goes on. It’s possible, I suppose, that of almost eight billion possible prayers, none has been offered by a genuine believer…but I have to say that if that’s the case, the odds of my being or becoming such a believer are pretty slim, and I’m not sure that this whole prospect is anything more than a bad advertising come-on. Plenty of people prayed for the end of the Black Death too, back in 1348, and it went on to kill about a third of the population of Europe.

The other possibility, of course, is that the gospel is just wrong. I wasn’t willing even to entertain that notion in my earlier years, but I’ve become more tolerant of it since, because I don’t think that an error in some part of scripture necessarily vitiates the whole of it. That’s probably a conversation for another occasion, though. All I will say about it here is that it’s a position you can hold and still be a Christian. Nevertheless, I think a more honest approach to the scriptures is not merely to dismiss them, but to try to understand what they’re saying.

So what do we do with this?

I think there are at least two explanations that at least partly dismantle the apparent contradiction between what Jesus says and our practical experience of prayer. One is the argument that this promise was given to the apostles specifically and exclusively. That is, what God gave them was unique to them, peculiar to their own place in human history, and not something guaranteed to all Christians throughout future time. If so, then, well, that’s expired, and we’re on our own. 

That seems possible, and yet it’s curiously unsatisfactory to me. Certainly if it’s true, it has virtually no contemporary relevance to us or to our ways of praying. After all, unless we’re seriously off in our understanding of such things, there are no apostles currently alive. (I know of one Christian group that believes that there are, actually, but I have a great many other issues with them, and don’t think I buy that either.)

The other thing is this little phrase “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” That seems to me to require some definition. What does it mean to ask something in Jesus’ name? If you’ve been around Christians of various different persuasions for very long, you’ve surely run into some who close their prayers with a formulaic “In Jesus’ name,” as a way (apparently) of tapping into this guarantee. I’ve done it myself. Preparing this sermon, though, has caused me to rethink what I mean — or ought to mean — when I say it.

Let’s examine that. If all one needs to do is append this little phrase, doesn’t this make prayer something like an attempt to operate God, as if he were some kind of divine vending machine, or a genie in a bottle? If God is manipulable in this way — that is, if he becomes a functionary for you or me just because we’ve said a certain phrase, how is that different from getting a superpower just by saying a magic word…like maybe “Shazam”, for those of us of a certain age? And if so…does that sound like the way God works? I don’t think it is. There are, of course, traditional theories that define a whole category of magic as theurgic, which is to say, “god-compelling”. They have, however, very little traction in the orthodox Christian tradition. (They are much more common in esoteric Christian belief, which tends toward Gnosticism; there are similar connections in Kabbalistic Judaism. I don’t think we can find any evidence, however, in either the Old Testament or the New, that God submits to being used that way. 

And really, if you think about it, how could it make sense for that to happen? God is God, not just an infinite extension of human power. The very fabric of reality would come unraveled if it were otherwise. After all, if Tom prays for x, and Jim prays for not-x, what’s going to happen? If both sides in a war pray (earnestly, as I believe often happens) for victory, who’s going to win? If Peter and Paul disagree and pray about it, whose position will carry the day? We know from the book of Acts that the answer is not “both of them”. 

I bring these issues up not just because they’re amusing to think about — though I admit that they may be. Yes, I have a mind that wanders toward the whimsical end of the spectrum when probing questions like this. But I raise the issue here not just for the sake of humor but because a reductio ad absurdum is one of the better ways to address a problematic question. If we want to understand what praying in Jesus’ name looks like, one of the ways to narrow that down is to ascertain what it doesn’t look like. It seems quite obvious that, whatever else it may be, it’s not about magically entrapping God in a promise. There are lots of myths in the Greek tradition in which gods get trapped by their promises; especially if they swear by the river Styx, they’re stuck following through on it, whether they want to or not. They make a blank-check sort of promise, and then whoever has received it proceeds to make the gods do what they least want to do. The gods make this blunder routinely. You’d think they’d learn.

But you don’t find much of anything like that in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our understanding of God is very different, and it goes all the way back. I think instead we need to look at this as part of the wider tradition of prophecy in the Old and New Testaments. Despite popular usage, a prophet is not defined one who predicts the future. Though they do that sometimes, that’s neither neither necessary nor sufficient to qualify one as a prophet. The prophet is the one who speaks for or on behalf of God. The signature phrase of the true prophet is not “Here’s what’s going to happen tomorrow,” but “Thus saith the Lord.”  The prophet speaks in the name of the Lord in that sense. It’s not actually a super-power, and it’s not something over which the prophet typically has any say. He’s told what he’s to say, and he says it, usually after a bit of grumpy negotiation to try to get out of it. (The job of prophet is not usually considered a plum position. Prophets have an unfortunate way of being killed on the job, or persecuted in a variety of unpleasant ways.)

But I think it’s under this rubric that we have to understand the idea that someone — anyone — can be praying in Jesus name. The one praying is not just using a formulaic phrase to call God to account and to get his own way. God has not pre-approved a no-limits charge account. Instead he is speaking on behalf of Jesus. That’s not something that can be achieved merely by rubber-stamping the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer. It comes because we are charged with speaking and praying in accordance with the will of Jesus — who is God — in the first place. Otherwise one isn’t really acting in Jesus’ name, or really praying in Jesus’ name: one is merely a would-be magician trying to conjure up a superpower. 

We live in a culture obsessed with superheroes and superpowers, and it’s rather strange. They have come to take a very prominent place in our entertainment, even though I don’t think most of us actually believe that they are possible. I think that some Christians are still kind of clinging to that option, though, under this peculiar rubric. But really that’s not how it works. Even in the Harry Potter universe, most of us are still muggles. In fact, I think by the clear light of day, it’s pretty obvious that there are only muggles out here. 

I’m not actually arguing that the supernatural is impossible. There seems to be significant evidence for it. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, after all, as Paul says, our faith is in vain. That’s not in accord with the normal operation of natural processes. But I have to think that God has not given it to you or to me, or to any other person, to decide when the laws of nature will be superseded, suspended, or set aside. That’s his decision. After all, he made the laws of nature. He and nature have a special relationship.

What this leaves me with is the intriguing challenge of trying to determine how we can actually pray in Jesus’ name, then. I’m not sure I have a tidy answer to that. I’m willing to say that I suspect some of our prayers really are framed that way, especially when we are praying for — and actively working to bring about — the glory of God and his kingdom on earth. That at least seems part of the specification we get here in John. Beyond that, I think it’s something we can explore further. 

Lent 5C: Hope in the face of Endings

Originally published on Barefoot Theology.

The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
March 29th, 2020
Lent 5A

The Gospel today feels chillingly timely.

While I write this sermon, in the middle of this week there are 18,433 deaths from the novel Coronavirus. The map of its spread includes almost every country in the world, and covers every hemisphere of our globe. Here at home we have been asked to “stay home and stay healthy.” To quarantine ourselves inside our homes in an attempt to slow the spread of disease.

Our world holds its collective breathe.

We stand before the sealed tomb, weeping, feeling powerless, and alone.

Mary I think speaks for all of us when she throws herself at Jesus feet and laments: Lord if you had been here, my brother would still be alive.

As one theologian pointed out however, the focus of this story isn’t really Lazarus, it is Jesus and those around him. Jesus arrives to a community in crisis. Death and sorrow break social bonds, they reorder our world and Mary and Martha are in the midst of that upheaval.

This week an article was published quoting one of the co-authors of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss, David Kessler. David has dealt with a lot of death and he noted that we are collectively experiencing grief. Our old world has died, and faced with an uncertain future we experience all the faces of grief.

We stand at Lazarus’s tomb and we mourn, we mourn the future we expected, the present that is so strange and isolating. We’ve seen a lot of those stages of grief. There was denial, as so many have refused to believe this is real. Anger, as others lashed out at having to cancel plans or change their routines. Bargaining we we hoped that if we just do X, Y & Z for two weeks everything can go back to the way it was and so on.

But as Mr. Kessler pointed out death is real, and we will have to accept it before we can hear Jesus’ hopeful words. Jesus arrives to find a community overturned by grief. A community filled with hurt, anger, and more than little bargaining. Even his good friends must be a little angry with his slow arrival.

In the stages of grief acceptance is where the power lies, it is where we can do something. Kessler says for us that looks like “I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.” (David Kessler) But I think today’s Gospel goes beyond that point. I think today’s Gospel gives us the hope to look toward in the future.

Jesus arrives at a scene of disconnection and suffering and he doesn’t blame the doctor for not treating his friend, he doesn’t chastise Mary and Martha for not having faith, or the rest of the community for being lost in grief.

He goes to the tomb, he mourns the suffering and loss he has found and then he puts everyone to work.

He waves the strong backs toward the stone and says: “lean in, take away that roadblock!” And they do. They stop wringing their hands and shaking their heads and they shift the huge stone.

And then Jesus calls to the one who was dead: Lazarus, come out! And to everyone’s surprise, that which was dead emerges into the light of day with new life.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because Jesus waves his hands at all the people standing around and orders them: unbind him and set him free.

In the midst of uncertainty and grief it can seem like there is no future different than the one that we have envisioned, no possibility that change or hardship might lead to rebirth or newness. And here in the dark days of our tomb, where we wait for newness and light that might be how it feels.

But Jesus reminds us today that death and life are two sides of the same coin. That death and resurrection exist together. That there is no ending without a new beginning. The future we were so comfortable in was not as perfect as we might imagine. We live in a world where suffering, oppression, poverty, hunger, and sickness are still accepted as givens. A world where some might suggest the economy is worth a few (or many) deaths.

But God offers us something different, the reminder that new life can look very different than the old, so different we don’t even recognize it at first. Jesus reminds us that we have the power to set free a new future, to cut free the grave wrappings we’ve been told are inevitable, to cast them off and discover new life beneath.

This isn’t a story about resurrection as Jesus’ is. Lazarus will die again. This is a story about the ways God brings new life into our lives, the ways God allows us to start again in this temporal world. Jesus reminds us that the things which seem so fixed are always being remade and we have a hand in that remaking, if we are brave enough.

40 Days in a Cloud

Originally published at Barefoot Theology

The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints Bellevue
Feb 24th, Last Epiphany A,
Exodus 24:12-18

Growing up Lent was 40 days of deprivation. And that’s maybe not an entirely bad thing in a culture so suffused with excess. But today, Transfiguration Sunday, perhaps offers us a slightly different window into this long season of preparation and transformation.

The people of Israel have escaped slavery in a most dramatic fashion, walking through the Red Sea on dry land, the waters forming a wall for them on their right, and on their left. Behind them the waters rush in to drown the Egyptians.

They have in a way been reborn, through the flood waters of a second earthly womb. And they have settled at the feet of Mt. Horeb, the holy mountain of God. It is here they will be slowly transformed from a band of former slaves with little else to bind them together, into a people.

But before that can happen there are things that must take place. And so God descends on the mountain like a great cloud, and it is into this cloud that Moses is invited to walk.

You all know that I spend a week in a little cottage on the Hood Canal every Advent reading, praying, and being intensely introverted. Across the canal are the Olympic mountains including one particularly regal and jagged peak. Routinely that craggy, snowy peak is wreathed in cloud. This last year was very foggy.

I woke up one morning to beautiful sunshine, and as I stood there sipping my coffee watched the clouds gather around the mountain. They slowly but surely poured down her shoulders, down over her skirt of trees, rolling over the cold grey waters of the canal and finally enveloped my little house in a fuzzy grey mantle.

In that cloud was rest. Nothing to do, no need to hurry, no where to go.

I picture Moses walking up the mountain into the cloud, into the glory of God. At first his steps are hesitant and nervous but as the damp air closes around him the sounds of the camp and the constant needs of so many people become muted, fade, and finally fall to silence.

In the fog he is not a leader, a husband, a father, he is just one soul, climbing.

Up, up, up through the enfolding layers of cloud until…

Well that we are not told. That was just for Moses. His 40 days wrapped in God’s mantle. He came out of them shining with glory, he came out of them with tablets of stone meant to guide and guard. But his 40 days with God were his alone.

And this dear friends is one of the promises of Lent. Perhaps what you need is a little simplification and deprivation. Up there in the fog, there probably wasn’t chocolate, or cell phones. Perhaps you need to be wrapped up in God’s candy fluff fog, protected and swaddled and carried like a child again.

Perhaps you need to climb a mountain you cannot see clearly, be a little unsure. That is for you alone, you and God to decide.

But if you go up, and if you spend 40 days in that place with God, you will emerge transformed. Maybe with everything you thought you knew turned upside down.

For all of us, the invitation has gone out from God, come up the mountain and spend time with me. That invitation will be renewed on Ash Wednesday as the Church herself enjoins us to observe a holy Lent.

Only you and God know what that holiness looks like for you.

As you climb the mountain, as your feet set down on holy ground, as the clouds descend to wrap you up and set this time aside.

Let the sound of the world become fuzzy, muted, fade away.

Walk boldly up this blind slope, the One who loves you waits above.

And He or She or They has something prepared. Something for you alone. And if we are brave enough to climb the mountain, the vanish into the glory of God we will emerge 40 days later different, transformed, and equipped with something our people desperately need for their journey…

But what happens next, in these 40 days? That my friends is for each of us alone.

Ash Wednesday’s Sermon

Why is being an Episcopalian during Lent like playing football for Coach Vince Lombardi in the NFL?

I don’t know if you know it but Vince Lombardi was an altar boy, at one time aspired to become a Roman Catholic priest, and attended daily mass for the whole of his adult life. Maybe that explains why he was the winningest coach in the history of the National Football League. They don’t call the trophy awarded to the team which wins the SuperBowl the “Vince Lombardi trophy” for nothin’. As the head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, he never had a losing season. The people of the Green Bay community, which sold out every game of his entire tenure, called him “the Pope.”

In 1963, Vince Lombardi wrote a book called “Run to Daylight: A Diary of One Week with the Green Bay Packers. In it, he describes how he got his Packers ready to play week after week. On Mondays, they would look at game films. Lombardi says he never had to tell any of his players what they did wrong because they already knew. Instead, on Monday, Coach Lombardi would give each player one thing on which to work that week, one mistake to correct, one skill to improve, just one thing that would make them a better football player. And that, my friends, is good theology.

Compare this to your annual visit to your personal physician. Listen to that the doctor says: Lose weight. Stop smoking. Get more sleep. Stop drinking alcohol. Get more exercise. Cut back on sugar.

If you go to Group Health, you not only have to listen to the sawbones tell you all these things, they print them out in what they call a “visit summary” and send you home with a copy. The problem with this approach, as opposed to Vince Lombardi’s, is that it is too much at once, too many changes, too many major goals, too many projects, just too damn much.

You may remember that last October I read and recommended to you a book by Jana Riess called “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.”

This is a very funny book in which this goofy woman tries twelve different spiritual exercises which she thinks may lead her to becoming a spiritual superstar. None of them worked out very well. She tried fasting. She tried lectio divina. She kept the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath for a month of Sabbaths. She tried generosity. She tried praying the daily office. She tried the Eastern Orthodox Jesus prayer. And she did not become more saintly. She shudda listened to Vince Lombardi.

If you seriously feel the need to do some major spiritual reconstruction of yourself, you could get yourself a spiritual director. There are such things ‘tho not everyone who holds him- or herself out as a spiritual director is necessarily the real deal. In truth, there are some real lulus out there who claim to be spiritual directors but are more like spiritual fruitcakes. A really qualified spiritual director can offer a lot of help to someone who wants to go deeper into the spiritual life, which can be immensely rewarding.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. These people are steeped in the classics of Christian spirituality: The 4th Century Apothegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers); The 14th Century “Cloud of Unknowing”; The Eastern Orthodox “Philokalia”; Dame Julian of Norwich’s “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love”; My favourite: Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection’s “The Practice of the Presence of God”’ The Russian Orthodox “The Way of a Pilgrim”; Saint John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul”; Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s “On Loving God”. But they’ve also read Vince Lombardi and so you might be surprised when your highly qualified, highly educated, highly experienced spiritual director gave you one thing to do, one change to make, one good habit to acquire, one thing on which to work.

Or you could do it for yourself by yourself. But, if you do, don’t try to do everything at once. Just one thing at a time.

Unlike giving something up for Lent and then snatching it back with great relish the moment the Forty Days are over, a better idea would be to make a permanent change for Lent, one that lasts beyond Easter, one that last for more than a year, one that changes – in a little way – who you are … you know, like, forever.

This might be a good and sensible and useful way to do Lent. In the Invitation to a Holy Lent, which I will deliver in just a few minutes, the Church invites you to do a very large number of things: self-examination; repentance; prayer; fasting; self-denial; reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. Holy moley!

Suppose we followed the Lombardi Principle and focused on just one of those things.

Take, for instance, daily intercessory prayer. Suppose you decide to pray for Charlie every day of Lent. Charlie’s a good guy. He is a long-time and valued member of this congregation. He is in all kinds of medical trouble. And he could certainly use all of our prayers every day.

If you don’t know how or if you aren’t very good at composing prayers which you think might be suitable for the ears of the Almighty, there is help. That’s why God wrote the Book of Common Prayer.

Here’s one, filed under Prayers for the Sick: “Heavenly Father, giver of life and health: Comfort and relieve your sick servant N. (that’s where you say “Charlie”), and give your power of healing to those who minister to his needs, that he may be strengthened in his weakness and have confidence in your loving care; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
If the “every day of Lent” part is a challenge, that tells you where your focus should be. A discipline only works if it is a discipline. You decide to become a daily intercessor for Lent, daily means daily, as in once a day, at least, every day. Most people who strive to become intercessors fix a set time every day at which they will pray. For Bishop Sandy and Mari Hampton, that’s right after breakfast. They don’t even get up from the table to clear their dishes; they just get right to their prayers.

If you are going to go to this much trouble just for the sake of our Brother Charlie, you may as well spread your sights a tiny bit wider and get the prayer list from Georgeanne. I mean, if you’re there and you’re praying, is there a really good reason not to include the rest of the folks for whom we, as a congregation are praying? Some people find it useful to use a notebook or journal in which they can keep their prayer list and into which they can paste or tape written prayers that they want to use for different occasions. There used to be a rubric before the Collect for Ash Wednesday in the 1928 Prayer Book which said “This prayer is to be said on Ash Wednesday and on every day during Lent.” The Collect for Lent might be a good one to tape in there, since this is a Lenten spiritual exercise, after all.

You do this for the forty days of Lent and it has already become a habit. You’re praying not just for Charlie but for whatever else you feel moved to include in your daily offering of prayers. And you don’t stop on Easter; why would you? This is, after all, the new you: you are now a bona fide intercessor, which maybe you weren’t before.

Jesus recommends this, you know. In this evening’s Gospel, Jesus says “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So maybe there are still seventy-eleven other things that need improving in your spiritual life. Maybe you still have a long way to go on the road to sainthood. Maybe you can think of a lot else that needs work, maybe even a long list. If you feel that way, remember Vince Lombardi. And remember that there’s another Lent next year.

About the Lord’s Prayer

Today, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, the 28th day of July, 2013, about three billion people around the world will pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Some, like us, will say it in English. Some will say it in Latin, or in Greek, or, like our brothers and sisters at Saint Spiridon’s Russian Orthodox Church in downtown Seattle, in Old Church Slavonic. Lutherans will say it is German, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. Dutch Reformed will say it in Dutch. The Lord’s Prayer will be prayed in the very many dialects of Chinese, in Korean, in Japanese and in Thai. In New Zealand, they’ll pray it in English but also in the Maori language. It is a sort of symbol of Christian unity, which exists in neither institutional nor organizational form, that so many Christians will pray the same prayer on the same day.

The Lord’s Prayer has the distinction of being the only prayer taught to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. If He taught any others to his disciples, they didn’t write ‘em down nor did the Church preserve them by liturgical use.

That the Lord’s Prayer is authentically the words of Jesus is beyond doubt. Exactly which words our Lord used when he taught them is a matter of some dispute.

There are two major problems encountered by prayer detectives trying to figure out exactly what Jesus said in response to his disciples request that He teach them to pray. The first arises from the Lord’s Prayer appearing in one form in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew and in a slightly different form in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The second arises from the doxology – “the kingdom, the power and the glory” part — tacked on to the end .., or not tacked on …, as you may prefer.

About the different versions in the New Testament: Here is how the Lucan version (which we heard in the Holy Gospel read this morning) differs from the Matthean version:

Luke says: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”  (That’s the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible version.)

Matthew has it: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (This, too, is from the New Revised Standard Version.)

It is the latter one, the one from Matthew’s Gospel, that we use liturgically and that most people use liturgically.

Then, to make matters even more confusing, there is the matter of the doxology. Notice that neither of the versions – neither Luke’s nor Matthew’s – includes the part about “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” There is an interesting story about how that latter bit came to be attached to Jesus’ words of prayer. Apparently, these words were added by the Early Church, so early that they found their way back into some copies of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, which explains why there are some early texts with it and some without it. Imagine the poor monk sitting in the scriptorium copying the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. He gets to the part about how Jesus taught the disciples to pray and discovers an apparent omission from the manuscript from which he is copying. “Oh!,” he exclaims, “look at what the last guy to copy this left out! I can fix that.”

The Lord’s Prayer was used universally by the Early Christians. They used it in the mass; they used it in what became the daily orders of prayer; they used it in their private prayers and devotions. In some places, they used it with the doxology. In other places, they left the doxology out.

Somehow, the Matthean doxology came to be identified with Protestant usages and omitting it with Roman Catholic usages but this was never universally the case.

Our own usage of the Lord’s Prayer in our own Prayer Book is illustrative. We use the doxology when we pray this prayer in the Holy Eucharist, and in Morning Prayer and in Evening Prayer. But we omit the doxology when we pray the Lord’s Prayer in Compline … which always messes some people up.

Although the Lord’s Prayer was used by pretty much all people everywhere from the beginnings of Christian worship, it is not perfectly clear that our Lord intended us to use it at all. J. I. Packer, a professor of history and systematic theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, published a book in 2007 in which he argued that Jesus never intended us to learn the Lord’s Prayer by heart and repeat it by rote. Professor Packer argues that the Lord gave us what we not call the Lord’s Prayer as an example, a guideline, on which to build our own spontaneous prayers to the Father. He’s going to have to work awfully hard to persuade very many people that his argument is correct.

Which is not to say that Christians have treated the Lord’s Prayer as a sacrosanct object which may not be altered. For example, we have translated it.

It is most likely that Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples in Aramaic. If that is true, no copies of the original text exist as all of the recorded versions are in koine Greek. But we don’t pray it in Greek, nor do we pray it in Latin, into which it was translated early on. We had the audacity to translate our Lord’s words into English, several times, differently each time.

There’s the one that God likes best; that’s the one in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. There’s the commonly used one which appears in the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer. And there is the modern one – the one translated in 1975 by the ecumenical International Consultation on English Texts.  This is the one that people have had to get used to as the Rite II alternative in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

There are still more than these. Some of you have read a transliteration of the Bible called “The Message” by Eugene Peterson.  Here’s what he does with the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are.
Set the world right; Do what’s best; As above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
You’re in charge! You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

Some of you are familiar with the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the 1989 New Zealand Book of Common Prayer:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us.  From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.

Your vicar is in no position to criticize these whacky versions of the Our Father … because of the one I wrote myself. In 2003, an international on-line Christian magazine called Ship of Fools held a contest to see who could best reduce the Lord’s Prayer to the 160 characters which would allow it to be sent as a text message. Your own vicar entered this contest and did not win.  He came in third place worldwide with the following entry:

God@heaven.org, You rule, up and down. We need grub and a break. Will pass it on. Keep us focused. You totally rule, long term. Amen.

I’m sorry.

Even without the damage we can do to it trying to modernize it, the Lord’s Prayer appears to be less than the perfect prayer, so why do we use it ubiquitously.

It really isn’t the perfect prayer, you know. It doesn’t include all seven of the kinds of prayer identified in the Catechism to the 1979 Prayer Book: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition. It doesn’t cover all six of the things which the 1979 Prayer Book tells us to include in the Prayers of the People: the church, the nation, the world, the local community, those of suffer and the departed.

It seems to me that we persist in praying the Lord’s Prayer for several reasons: First, Jesus told us to. Second, the church tell us to. Saint Paul tells the Colossians to continue to live the Christian life “just as you were taught” and the church teaches us to pray the Lord’s Prayer.
When we pray it, we connect ourselves vertically with every Christian who has ever prayed it in all of Christian history. When we pray it, we connect ourselves horizontally with all of the Christians on the earth today who pray this same prayer. And because Jesus told us to … did I mention that?

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 2012

Fr. Steve suggested that I post this.
— Bruce


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

So. Here we are. Tuesday night was the culmination of a national frenzy — one we go through every four years when we elect our leaders. You may have been happy about the results, or you may have been unhappy about the results; I’m not here to address that directly, but I can’t help wondering whether the makers of the lectionary had it in mind when they selected for today’s reading Psalm 146, which contains the trenchant little verse, “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.” That seemed particularly resonant to me under the circumstances. Maybe I’m just getting old, though I confess that I long ago settled into an established skepticism about the political processes of this or any other country, now or at any other time in history. Perhaps part of that’s because I was a history major in college; there’s nothing like studying history to make you aware of the fact that human institutions are remarkably mutable, typically irrational, and really quite short-lived, however unchangeable, coherent, and enduring they may seem at the time.

Our culture is not very historically conscious, overall. What’s newest and cutting-edge is the only thing that matters to many people. One of the things that’s lacking in our contemporary culture, I think, is the concomitant sense of perspective and proportion. But even where there is some sense of historical movement, we are still often afflicted with what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. Most people in the modern era — going back at least to the early nineteenth century, and perhaps further — seem to think that they are living at the culmination of history, and that everything humanity has done up to this point has been done chiefly for the purpose of getting here. As a subjective phenomenon, I suppose it’s what one might expect from the largely subjectivist worldview that has overtaken our discourse both inside and outside the church; at the same time, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to realize that nobody in the past even remotely envisioned our current society as the goal of their existence. If your memory runs back to a time fifty years ago (and many of ours do), surely you weren’t at the time thinking of today as where you were headed. By the same token, those who come fifty or a hundred years down the road probably aren’t going to be under the impression that it’s all been downhill from 2012 (at least not unless all those end-of-the-world predictions are true: if they are, all bets are off). It’s entirely possible that they will think of us as mere stepping stones to where they are themselves. If so, they won’t have learned much, but that won’t be surprising either.

What’s missing from all this, of course, is a real sense of perspective and proportion — which doesn’t so much reject the subjective for a completely cold objectivism, as balance it against all those other equally valid subjective points of view out there. Perspective is what largely seems to have gone missing through the weeks leading up to the election. Certainly the campaigns brought out egregiously disproportionate behavior and low-minded discourse from people who usually seem to know better. It sufficiently rankled me that I actually voted for one candidate I wouldn’t have otherwise, based entirely on the absurd attack ads that had been ranged against him on television. My impression was that it was worse than usual this time: how about you? Maybe it was, but maybe it’s wasn’t. I always think that the most recent election was the worst ever. Perhaps my memory is casting a rosy glow over the more distant past. If my impression is correct, though, we really are caught in a downward spiral of public discourse in general.

And so I’ve remarked to my classes all week that, irrespective of results, it was just good to have the election over, and they all seem to have agreed. Friday night, at the opening Eucharist for the diocesan convention, Bishop Rickel preached what I thought was a remarkably good sermon (arguably two or maybe two and a half sermons…but that was okay), where he took this perception a little farther. He hasn’t yet posted it online, but when he does, I hope you’ll take a look (or a listen, if he’s recorded it). One of the observations he brought from the experience — and I’m paraphrasing broadly, because I don’t have his text — is that we need to model new ways of listening to each other across these fierce dogmatic divides — of doing so with charity and humility. He’s not the only other person I’ve seen talk about this in the Christian context. I read a blog entry from another Christian voter — this time a relatively conservative one. He had been somewhat more dismayed by the outcome of the election, but also so by the degradation of our ability to listen to each other. He too suggested that if there’s one thing we can all genuinely collaborate on, despite our political affiliations or preferences, it might well be listening to one another in humility — not caving in on strongly-held points of belief, but also not letting those take over who we are essentially as people. And I think that’s something to which adherents of either party could legitimately subscribe.

Humility and perspective. That’s what today’s readings are all about. The Psalm, as noted, has something to say about not putting our trust in human resources at all, but trusting instead in the Lord. It’s good advice to follow at any time, but in particular we need to hear this when we least want to hear it. We need have the perspective to realize that even those political issues that most divide us are not, on the eternal view of things, terribly consequential, and we also need to have the humility to admit that, however well we think we’re in command of the facts, we probably don’t know them all, and probably don’t fully understand why the other guy thinks what he thinks, and the proper course there is to interpret his motives charitably. We ourselves are limited, in other words — and we need to acknowledge that.

Today’s Old Testament reading is the familiar tale of Elijah and the widow. The country is suffering a drought and famine. Elijah is hungry, so he comes to the widow asking for a meal. She’s probably more than a little bit exasperated at the request, since she’s already at the end of her tether. She tells him, “Look — you’re barking up the wrong tree here. We have almost nothing. I just have this little bit of meal in the bottom of a jar, and half an ounce of oil; my current plan is to mix it all together, bake it, and eat it. And then we’re going to lie down and die, since there is really nothing else left for us to do.” Elijah, however, is insistent in that pesky way that only prophets really can be, and he prevails upon her to share it with him.

What happens, of course, is that this little bit of meal and this little trickle of oil somehow lasts until the drought and famine are over. The widow shares her meal, and it doesn’t actually run out. The widow and her son, together with Elijah, stick around quite a while. Admittedly, a steady diet of something like Scottish oat-cakes may not be the most appealing way to stay alive, but it’s better than the alternative.

There are several ways of looking at this story. Mediaeval biblical exegetes were inclined to see it as a figure at least in part of the inexhaustible nature of divine grace, especially as manifested in the Eucharist. That’s really not such a bad way of looking at it. In that respect, it also prefigures the stories of the feeding of the five thousand (and, if you think of it as a different event, the feeding of the four thousand as well). I’m all in favor of that, since we need to remind ourselves frequently that God’s supply is not ours, and that even when we’re at our best, the way we look at things is never really God’s way.

Of more immediate concern, however, I think there’s an important moral or behavioral kernel to this story, and it’s one we ought not overlook. The widow did have Elijah’s assurances that things would turn out well for if she complied with his request; at the same time, it must have sounded a bit nutty to her. We aren’t told, unless I’ve missed it, whether or not she was fully persuaded of his prophet’s credentials. Maybe she just thought, “Well, we’re going to die anyway, so I might as well be nice. There is, I suppose the remote chance that this guy is not just a wacko. Long odds are better than no odds.” Whatever she thought, however, what she did was important. Out of the little she had, she made an offering to this person who was in need. In consequence she herself was fed. This is worth bearing in mind.

The Gospel lesson for today brings us the equally well-known story of another widow, who goes into the temple and offers two little coins. We’re told here that together they make up about a penny. That’s about right. I’ve seen an ancient coin that was identified as a widow’s mite, and it’s a wee sliver of copper not quite as big as your little fingernail, and not much thicker. Its buying power was trivial. The evangelist tells us that she tossed her coins into the box along with the large and ostentatious gifts of the very wealthy. No doubt some people regarded her offering with contempt. Jesus doesn’t change the facts of her offering, but encourages us to look at the whole matter from a different perspective — from a divine perspective — and with humility. He points out that, whereas the very wealthy were giving out of their abundance, and doubtless were keeping plenty back for themselves, this poor woman was offering all she had, much like the widow who fed Elijah. It’s not clear whether she knew that she had another meal coming, or whether, like the widow of Zarephath, she also was just expecting to lie down and die. But she made the gift nevertheless, with the end result that at least Jesus tells us that she has given more, in the sight of heaven, then all the rest of them combined. She went, in the gambler’s terminology, “all in”.

Okay. I’m sure there are some political parallels to be drawn from this. But I’m not going to make them. The problem is that such parallels tend to trip all over each other. You can use a story like this to prove almost anything, if you have an axe to grind. I will leave that as an exercise to you, if it’s one you want to pursue. If you’re as tired of politics as I am, however, feel free to ignore the whole business.

I think the bigger lesson to be drawn here is not a political one or even a social one — though issues of social justice are intertwined here — but a personal and spiritual one, which is (in a sense) about the virtue of going “all in” — committing ourselves unreservedly — with everything we’ve got. Don’t worry: this is not a stewardship sermon in disguise. I’m not advising you to drain your bank accounts to the last farthing. I don’t think that would be wise for you or for us. But I think it does tell us something about how we ourselves should respond to need. It says more about our obligations than about our entitlements, and it says virtually nothing about our apparent capacities. Note that Elijah didn’t go to people with abundant resources. There probably were a few. Instead he went to the widow. He gives her the assurance — pretty hard to believe, under the circumstances — that the food and oil would not run out, and then expects from her a leap of faith. The widow in the Temple received no such guarantee, as far as we know; but both of them gave freely of what they had without regarding the long-term benefits to themselves, or the probable costs.

As the Psalmist tells us, the princes and institutions of this world, select and fine-tune them however we like, cannot guarantee us justice, comfort, or even survival. The resources of this world are only so useful, as well. You can have a million dollars in the bank, but if the bank fails and the FDIC fails, you have nothing. You can have a thousand pounds of gold, but if nobody’s buying gold, you can starve to death surrounded by it. Your candidate may win the election — but that doesn’t really guarantee results either.

Please understand that this doesn’t free us from the obligation to try to make our choices and our institutions as just and charitable as we can. It does, however, free us from the terrible burden of being measured and justified entirely by our success. That may be the way the world judges; it’s not the way we must judge. That is to say, our obligations remain our obligations, whether they produce the desired outcome or not. Feeding the starving man may or may not save him. Giving to the widow may not be enough to help her. Providing medical care to someone who’s about to die may not be the best use of resources in the worldly calculus of such things, either — but in the sight of heaven, these are the people we’re given to feed, support, and care for. Our duty to love one another, and to reach out to those in need, is nonnegotiable, and it’s not bounded by any kind of practical boundary. This is because everyone you can minister to is dying. And those who do the ministering are dying too. We’re all heading there sooner or later. That’s okay.

In the divine economy, our spiritual wealth, so to speak, is not measured by the buying power we can bring to the table, but by the faithfulness with which we bring what we can. The Lord has given us no guarantees — effectively all ministry is extended from the dying to the dying. But I think we can say that God looks rather more kindly upon those who shoulder their obligations even in the midst of uncertainty and inevitable death than upon those who to carve a carefully adequate piece of charity out of their abundance.

In the history of this congregation, we have been advised by many voices from many different directions at several different stages that we were a dying congregation — that we were on the brink of insolvency, and that the only rational course to pursue would be to lie down and die. Well, at some level, yes. We’re a dying congregation. But here’s the secret: so are all congregations. We all have only a finite time on this earth. That goes for us individually, and it goes for our constructions and our institutions. Our tenure of humanity is not measured by how long we can stretch it out, but by what we do with it while we have it.

I’m sorry to say that some people seem to have taken the idea that we’re dying too much to heart, and have left without really considering the fact that there’s nowhere else to go, where that won’t be true. Rather than choosing to lie down and die, we’ve chosen to continue to focus largely on our outreach. I say that not to boast for myself or for us collectively, but that seems to me to be consistent with scriptural models, too. We’re feeding homeless men, we’re feeding the youth at The Landing, we’re making hats, we’re supporting the Mission to Seafarers, we’re contributing to Northwest Harvest, raising funds for breast cancer and other charitable causes, and trying to welcome people to the Lord’s table right here at All Saints. And in every one of those activities, like the widow of Zarephath, we ourselves are fed. Can it last forever? Probably not. What of it? For today, it feeds someone, keeps someone warm, helps someone battle disease. And it feeds us.

What’s almost funny, in addition, is the fact that, while I can’t absolutely guarantee that those who manage the Diocesan Investment Fund are directly inspired by God, its resemblance to the inexhaustible jar of meal and jug of oil for this congregation has been slightly uncanny. We keep taking money out of it to close the gaps in our budget, and when we return, most of what we have taken out has reappeared. Whether that will continue to be the case, of course, we don’t know. God is not allowing us room to grow smug or self-satisfied about it. Fair enough. He’s never given many worldly guarantees — he’s telling us to follow him — to go “all in”. Our job is not necessarily to know the consequences. Our job is to act in faithfulness.

If one takes a worldly perspective out far enough, all human endeavor is marked with a certain profound futility. Every institution we’ve created, with the possible exception of the Church (by which I mean the Church Universal, and not this particular arm of it) will similarly pass away. Every business, state, nation, corporation, non-profit foundation, or movement that’s appeared on the face of the earth is of finite duration. We may like that or not, but it’s the fact, so we might as well face it. People are eternal — but they also will pass away from this part of existence. Every person you save, even with the best means and the most charitable of intentions, from starvation or some other unfortunate demise, is someone who will nevertheless eventually die.

But in the meanwhile it is up to us to be faithful, and if we look beyond the dreary perspective of this world to the perspective of the eternal and unchanging God, we see that what we do here in love and faithfulness is projected onto a different future that doesn’t look so dim.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday Sermon 2012

Exodus 3:1-6 THE SERMON
Psalm 93 Trinity Sunday
Romans 8:12-17 3 June 2012
John 3:1-16 All Saints’ Church

This morning, this Trinity Sunday morning, I’d like to talk to you a little about epistemology. You know: epistemology, just like what you discuss at the dinner table most every evening … or not.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with ways of knowing. It asks a set of difficult questions like: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? To what extent is it possible for a given subject or thing to be known? How do we know what we think we know?
Epistemologists argue with one another about the nature of knowledge, and about how knowledge relates to ideas like truth and belief.
If you like, you may blame a Scottish philosopher named James Frederick Ferrier for all of this, because he is the one who coined the word in the middle 19th Century but philosophers were arguing about epistemology two thousand years before Ferrier was a wee bairn.

It is considered good form to begin a sermon with a joke, if the preacher can find one which suits the subject matter, and I know only one joke about epistemology, so you’re going to get it.
An engineer, an experimental physicist, a theoretical physicist, and a philosopher were hiking together through the hills of Scotland. They reached a hilltop. Looking over to the next hilltop, they saw a black sheep.
In delight, the engineer cried, “What do you know? The sheep in Scotland are black!”
“Well, some of the sheep in Scotland are black,” replied the experimental physicist.
The theoretical physicist considered this a minute, then said, “Well, at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black.”
The philosopher thought for a second, then responded, “Well, it’s black on one side, anyway.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, the only major feast dedicated to a doctrine rather than a person or an event. So all over the Episcopal Church – and most of the other churches which use the Revised Common Lectionary – preachers are spelling out the mystical doctrine of the Trinity in terms which they hope their congregations will grasp. You know them all by heart:
The Trinity is like a shamrock with three leaves corresponding to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but it is one thing, which thingness the leaves all share in common. Saint Patrick allegedly came up with that one.
The Trinity is like water: sometimes it exists in the form of a vapor, like steam, and sometimes as a liquid, like water in a glass, and sometimes as a solid, like ice, but no matter which form it is in, it is still water. I don’t know who came up with that one but my old Lutheran pastor used to preach it yearly.
The Trinity is like a man who is a son to his parents, a father to his children and a husband to his wife but is the same man, despite these different roles. I don’t know who came up with this one, either, but I do know that it is a perfect example of the heresy of modalism so don’t think any more about it because it is not good for you to think heretical thoughts.
The illustrations go on and on: The Trinity is like an egg: the shell, the yolk and the albumin. The Trinity is like a tree: the roots, the trunk and the branches. The Trinity is like a fire: heat, fuel and oxygen.
And all of these classic illustrations are in some way flawed, partially in error, incomplete or imperfect parallels.

The reason for this is that, when thinking about the nature of God, we get damnably literal. And it is not entirely our fault.
Like everyone born into Western Culture since about 1650 or 1700, we are the children of the Enlightenment. If you want to blame somebody for this, blame Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke, and Pierre Bayle, and Isaac Newton and Voltaire and René Descartes and, closer to home, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
But it is too late to change it so you’d better just get used to the idea.
Some people consider the Enlightenment to be a very good thing. Immanuel Kant wrote: “The Enlightenment was Mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error.”
And it was certainly the philosophical underpinning for both great advances in science and in the founding of the world’s great democracies.
But, in its peeling away of ignorant superstition and its elevation of the role of reason above all other ways of knowing, it lost too much, tossed out too much, and created too narrow a way of looking at the world. And one of the silliest things it did was to insist that everything knowable can be reduced to its elements and fully apprehended by man.
And the problem with this is that it doesn’t work when it comes to knowing God. What is God’s specific gravity? What is the atomic formula for the stuff of which God is made? How much water does God displace in the heavenly bath tub? And what colour is God, anyway?
And how can God possibly be three persons without also being three gods? It is irrational, the Enlightenment says. Therefore, because God does fit within the confines of our reason and logic, God cannot exist.

Many aeons ago, when I suffered through confirmation classes – first as a Lutheran and then again as an Episcopalian – I was exposed to the selfsame graphic description of the Holy Trinity. It is called the Shield of the Trinity and looks a great deal like a simplified diagram of the female reproductive anatomy. There are three circles arranged like the points of a triangle. The two at the top are the Father and the Son; the one at the bottom is the Holy Spirit. Then there is another circle in the middle of the triangle and it is labeled God. The three outer circles are connected by ribbons which say either “non est” in Latin or “is not” in English. Thus, the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and so on. But each of the outer circles is connected to the one in the middle with a ribbon which says either “est” in Latin or “is” in English. Thus, the Father is God, the son is God and the Holy Spirit is God.
It is a lovely illustration, except that it gives away too much of the mystery of the Holy Trinity by trying to diagram it like an molecule or a newt’s eye or the relationship between stars in a constellation.

All attempts to rationally define God are doomed to failure from the start because God is not subject to that kind of knowing. It is a question of epistemology.
Even the classic creeds, as good as they are and as complete as they attempt to be, are insufficient to contain the knowledge of God. The Apostle’s Creed said it simply. The Nicene Creed said it more completely. The Athanasian Creed says it rather exhaustively. But none of these are able to embrace the fullness of God’s being because they use only logic and reason to express it.
This is probably why, late in his career, Thomas Aquinas stopped writing philosophical theology and began to compose hymns. He actually left the third and final part of his master work – the Summa Theologica – unwritten. Four of the Eucharistic hymns in The Hymnal 1982 are by Thomas Aquinas. Notice that the next time you sing “Humbly I adore thee, verity unseen” or “Now my tongue the mystery telling.” How many of you can quote anything from Aqiuinas’ Summa Theologica? Not many, I’d guess. But how many of you are familiar with these hymns? Most of you, I’d wager. So which was the better thing? Through which thing are you more likely to find a true knowledge of God? Which is the better epistemology?

When I was a young priestling, serving at Trinity Parish Church in Seattle, we had a black lay reader with a huge bass voice and an English accent. I can vividly recall him reading the Old Testament lesson which was appointed for our hearing this morning.
“In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
That is the stuff of which goosebumps are made, vastly superior to comparing God to a shamrock or to water, to a man or to an egg, to a tree or even to fire … although I think the fire metaphor may be coming close.
If it hurts your brain to think of God in philosophical terms, change your epistemology. Finding God in art, in music and in poetry will likely lead you closer to a true knowledge of God than ration and logic are capable of producing.

The Mezzo Wore Mink: A Liturgical Mystery


The sixth installment of the Liturgical Mysteries reintroduces the good people of the village of St Germaine, North Carolina, the good people of St Barnabas’ Episcopal Church, the fellow who is both chief of police to the one and organist-choirmaster to the other. There is much that is new in this episode. The interim priest at St Barnabas’ produces “The Living Gobbler” — a Thanksgiving spectacular show calculated to compete with the neighbouring Baptist’s “Singing Christmas Tree.” The reader also meets a sterile cross between a male pacarana and a female nutria, the pelts of which were to be marketed as “minque,” a Ferris wheel in a cemetery, a Christian nudist summer camp, a mayoral election in St Germaine, a Christian massage parlour called The Upper Womb, and a vegan Rottweiner (a cross between a Rottweiler and a Dachshund). Interposed with all of this are fragments of yet another horrible installment of the crime noir writing of the protagonist, influenced not only by using Raymond Chandler’s actual manual typewriter but, in this episode, by wearing Raymond Chandler’s actual fedora. This is incredibly funny stuff! I can’t wait to begin reading “The Diva Wore Diamonds.”

Report on SCOM Grant for Belize Trip

July 17, 2011
Christine Hertlein

Holy Cross Anglican Primary School was founded in 2006 by Frances and Vernon Wilson as a confrontation with poverty and is intended to serve the “poorest of the poor”. After vacationing on Ambergris Caye and seeing many children on the streets rather than in schools, it was determined that a school was needed to provide education for those who could not otherwise afford it in a very depressed area of the island (San Mateo). In Belize there are no public schools. The government and churches work together to provide an education at a cost to the students. The government finances teachers’ salaries and, in some cases, land for the schools. Churches then provide funding for the building, other operational expenses, and administration. In most cases the churches are already in existence when the school is built. Holy Cross is an exception. There is no Anglican Church on the island; the school was built without a church to provide administration. The bishop of Belize is hoping that a church plant will come out of the school but that remains to be seen. The school is supported by donations from and work completed by small teams traveling from the United States and Canada. Holy Cross has grown from one building with fifty students to eight buildings which have served over 500 children. Because the government has limited class sizes to twenty five students, only four hundred children are able to attend now and the school has to turn down applications. Those children are probably unable to afford the tuition at the other primary school on the island and will remain uneducated.
The first three days of the trip were spent in Belize City. We stayed at the diocesan guest house and attended church on Sunday at the Cathedral Church of St. John. On Monday we met with the Right Reverend Philip Wright, Bishop of the Diocese of Belize and Miss Leslie who is director of education for the diocese. The bishop has concerns about Holy Cross Anglican School. Frances and Vernon Wilson left Holy Cross four months ago and the sustainability of the school is the number one concern. Will the Wilson’s ideas and dedication be replaced or will the school slowly decline? A dramatic change was seen in the children attending Holy Cross. They seemed more “alive and happy”, but the bishop is wondering how long the people will think things are free and what about when these children go out into the “real world”. Is a new generation of dependence being created? His dream is to create an environment which creates equality among people, not dependence. He has seen a shift from the partners of Holy Cross. They are working more collaboratively with the school and Holy Cross is defining their needs rather than being given things other people think they need. Another concern for the bishop is the fact that the local people are seeing “salvation” or hope coming from only white faces. In the three weeks I was on the island, I witnessed the presence of six mission trips to the school and there were only two people of color among them.
Miss Leslie showed us what they are doing to try and meet the Millennium Development Goals. The only goal lacking at this time is in regards to gender equality. This is not so much of a problem in the schools, but it is still a big problem in the homes. Every school, including primary schools, has HIV aids education and a corner for health education in general. School teachers are not required to have more than a high school education, but Miss Leslie is trying to hire teachers with at least two years of higher education.
The following day we observed a soup kitchen sponsored by women of the cathedral. Most are retired women who had lived, worked and raised their families in the United States and have returned to their native Belize to live out the rest of their years. They feed as many people as they can (usually about 150 or more) until the food runs out. Food is also delivered to shut in parishioners. Their concern is who will take over this ministry when they are no longer able to do it.
We then boarded a water taxi for our trip to Ambergris Caye (a ninety minute ride) where we spent the remainder of our three weeks talking with people who work at Holy Cross, business owners, street vendors and residents.
Lydia Brown is now the volunteer coordinator at Holy Cross. Born and raised in New Zealand, she and her husband who has an interest in renewable energy in developing countries came to Belize in March of this year. She receives no salary at this time and both she and her husband are unable to work for pay until they receive their permanent residency which takes a year to complete. Lydia has struggled with the idea of short term mission trips coming to Holy Cross. Her first reaction was “Why pay $2000 to come here and do $100 worth of work?” She also felt those on these mission trips took away work from the islanders. Since she has been there however, she has seen that some of the mission trips provide a change of heart for missioners and may change lives. There are construction teams which come throughout the year and Vacation Bible School groups which come during spring and summer breaks. The VBS groups are required to provide snacks for the children. Each team which comes pays a project fee to the school of $3000. This dollar amount, in some cases, can be negotiable and the money is used to cover the costs of the projects which the team will be doing. She would rather have the parents of the children and the community involved with these projects, but they feel there is no need to be involved while others are doing the projects for them.
The school has a feeding program which up until this time provided breakfast, lunch and snacks for the children, but because of the cost involved, according to Lydia, they have had to cancel the breakfast meal. This is unfortunate because for many children these are the only meals they eat during the day. A tuition of $50 per year is being initiated this year to help defray costs (it costs $500 per year to educate one student) and it is hoped that the parents will take some ownership of the school. Ten dollars is required at registration and the balance can be paid in installments throughout the year.
Alfredo (“Freddy”), one of two maintenance men at the school, came to the island six years ago. Born and raised in northern Belize near the Mexican border he dropped out of school at age eleven to help with the family. His father was a drug dealer who had been caught and sent to jail. According to Freddy, he has “never seen a school which has grown so fast”. He is happy for the children who are being educated and is happy to know there are people who care about the children’s well-being. He is also impressed that the school is for all children, not just Belizeans (there is a large population of undocumented people from Central America on the island). He would like to see the community support the school, by painting classrooms and helping with repairs needed but they won’t help because there is no pay. Some question the need to help as they believe the school gets everything for free. Freddy believes the school instills moral values in the children, but because many of the parents are working and not at home, the children see things done badly. He believes that for some, the school is like a babysitting service and some parents don’t even look at their child’s report card.
Kristin, a chaplain for a girls’ school in Baltimore has been bringing mission groups to the school for the past three years. The school likes to have their students involved in community service locally, nationally and globally. This group spends forty hours a week at the school. Kristin believes that her students get the most out of the trip by working with the children and not in construction. They learn more about social justice issues and what life is like for the children of the island. She realizes that one week a year is not going to effect a change on the locals of the island, but her students’ lives are transformed. She hopes this is a seed that is planted to encourage service work in the future.
Sarah and Andrew, students on Kristin’s team both agreed that not only did the trip give them a chance to bond with others of their team, but they really understood the dark future of the children of the island. It was hard for them to hear what life was like for the children. They both stated that this trip “has changed how I think about people here”.
Dorita, from the mainland of Belize, has been on the island for thirteen years. She works in her brother’s grocery store. Her education is the equivalent of our sixth grade. She noted that since Holy Cross was built there are fewer children on the streets, but she doesn’t understand why now the children are being charged minimal tuition when “they (the school) get so much help for free”. When asked about the mission trips which come to help, she replied, “They bring business to us”.
Padre Arturo, a missionary of the Roman Catholic Church came from the Philippines. He has been on the island for one year and will be rotated out after serving four years at St. Peter’s Catholic Church. He feels Holy Cross is doing good work and it is his plan to initiate a feeding program modeled on the Holy Cross program in the Roman Catholic schools.
Marta, a street vendor selling produce has two children she tried to enroll in Holy Cross last year, but they were turned away. She applied too late and the school was full. The school is located closer to her home and “it’s free”.
Barnaby, a jeweler, was involved in the building of Holy Cross. It is his dream to start a vocational training program for the uneducated to learn a trade. He is willing to teach jewelry making. He noted that, “children are the future and need to learn moral values”. “Holy Cross does this for our children”.
Patojos, a native islander and dive shop owner feels that, Holy Cross is a draw for more poor people to come to the island for “free education”. His wife home schools their five children. She was educated in the United States.
Claudia, another street vendor who makes and sells jewelry, came to the island from Guatemala on vacation with a friend twenty two years ago, liked it, and decided to stay. She has one son who was graduated from Holy Cross this year and another younger son who is still attending Holy Cross. Her oldest son begins high school this fall on a scholarship. She stated, “If it weren’t for Holy Cross, my children wouldn’t be able to go to school”.
Carter, from Virginia, and on his fourth mission trip here bringing high school kids, said that the kids he brings can understand just how lucky they are. They begin to realize that the world is not just about them and hopefully the trip will inspire service work in the future. He feels that the only thing missing at Holy Cross is theology; there is no Anglican presence (church) on the island. He would like to see a rectory built and staffed by priests who are vacationing or on sabbatical.
I was most impressed by a Canadian group which came to the school. Darcy, the rector of a parish near Toronto, related that his parish wanted to get involved in mission outside of the country four years ago. St. Simon’s made a ten year commitment at that time to partner with Holy Cross. He brings a group to Holy Cross every other year and during the off years they send money for projects. They are looking at sending money for solar panels next year. They will re-assess their commitment after eight years to see if they want to continue at Holy Cross, go somewhere else, or discontinue the project altogether after their ten years are completed. He hopes that the mission trips will “enlarge the kids’ worlds”. He encourages the young people to look for commonalities between them and the children on the island, rather than differences.
I found in talking with the people of the island, most people were aware of Holy Cross and agreed the work done there is good. Only one person I spoke with, a Lebanese, did not know about Holy Cross. The misconception seems to be that most people also think that because so many mission trips come to help the school, that everything should be free for the students. They don’t realize the school has expenses to meet such as paying salaries for their office manager, maintenance men, and kitchen staff, not to mention utility bills. A taxi driver who drove us to the airport asked when we would be coming back. We responded we had to raise more money in order to come. He was under the impression that we were paid to make the trip (by whom I don’t know)!
There is a group of mothers who have banded together to help out the school. The school was gifted with several sewing machines and these mothers decided to learn to sew in order to make uniforms for the children. Only one or two of these women knew how to sew, so they began classes. Teaching the classes were volunteers with mission trips who were seamstresses. It was decided to begin with sewing jumpers for the girls this year because they were relatively simple to make. The proceeds from sales are to be turned over to the school. In the future they plan on learning to make pants for the boys and shirts and blouses as well. When asked how much the women money wanted to make for their time and efforts the response was “none”. “Why should we earn money for this when people taught us a skill for free?” They are also learning how to sew tote bags to sell to tourists. These women realize the value of education and are willing participants in raising money to see that their children are educated.
The impact of Holy Cross on the community is obvious. Children whose parents are unable to afford tuition in the other school on the island are now able to go to school. With the support of the sewing project, the women are participating in fundraising. By setting this example, perhaps others in the community will come forward and help as well and Holy Cross will not have to depend exclusively on donations. While short term mission trips fill a need for maintenance and construction, more long term partnerships are desired so the school does not have to exist wondering from day to day where money will come from.
It is my hope that the students in my seminary will, as future priests, carefully consider mission trips for their parishes in the years to come. The goal of these trips should be to help people become self-sustainable, not to do everything for them. For example, the people who help with construction projects should be teaching people of the community how to build as the seamstresses taught women to sew. Also I would hope that short term mission trips are combined with long term commitments. I would encourage those people leading a mission trip to contact the diocese prior to going to learn what is most needed and where. It is always well to remember that mission trips should be taken to teach people skills needed to improve their lives not to give them what we think they need.

Finding Divine Motivation in Natural Disasters

Exodus 3:1-15        THE SERMON
28 August 2011        All Saints Church

First there was the earthquake and then there was the hurricane; if you didn’t know better, you’d think that God was really MAD at somebody.

It is kinda funny how we humans attribute divine motivation to natural events. If there is a perfect growing season for lentils in the Inland Empire of Eastern Washington and Idaho, you don’t read in the newspapers that anybody much says that the bumper crop is evidence that God loves us a lot. If a native salmon run which was fished out and dammed out and polluted out somehow returns to a river in the Northwest, you don’t see some talking head on television saying that God is showing his love for his people (and his fish) by causing that to happen. It is only (or, at least, primarily) when bad stuff happens that people are reading and vociferously willing to attribute divine meaning to the event.

On August 23rd, in the early afternoon, an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.8 on the Richter Scale shook the State of Virginia. Because of the way the Virginia Seismic Zone works, shocks were felt from Atlanta to Chicago, from Detroit to Toronto and from Ontario to New Brunswick. There was particular damage to buildings in Washington D.C., which is not all that far from Richmond, Virginia. Cracks appeared in the topmost section of the Washington Monument, which is not closed to tourists. And there was considerable damage to our own National Cathedral, where Sunday services have been moved to a very large synagogue nearby.
The Rev. Pat Robertson, who specializes in explaining the Lord’s motivation when natural disasters occur, was quick to explain. The cracks in the Washington Monument are God’s judgment upon the nation and upon the national government, in particular. He reminded listeners that when Jesus was crucified, the curtain in the Temple at Jerusalem was rent in two. And he suggested that the damage to the spires of our National Cathedral is a judgment upon the Episcopal Church for tolerating homosexuals.

A preliminary assessment of the damage to the cathedral showed that there are cracks in several of the flying buttresses and extensive damage to three of the four finials atop the pinnacles of the central tower. Because the cathedral is entirely hand made, Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s head stone mason, said it will take many years to complete all the necessary repairs to a building started in 1907 and completed in 1990. The national cathedral is in poor economic shape, having laid off a significant portion of its staff in the last two years.  The damages are uninsured and the cost of repair will run into multiple millions of dollars. The Very Rev. Samuel Lloyd, dean of the cathedral, said that the same people who funded its completion will fund its repair, God willing, which means average Episcopalians making average-sized contributions. There is already a “contribute-here” sort of link on their website. The earthquake and the subsequent damage “has not been a jarring thing for our faith,” Lloyd said. “What it has done is challenge us to claim our faith, to go to work to make this place be as grand as beautiful and powerful as its always been.”

And then there was Hurricane Irene.

I first became concerned about this tropical storm when it threatened to rip apart Vieques Island – a small island just 21 miles long and five miles wide off the coast of Puerto Rico. My friend Consuelo lives there and reported that she would likely be off the Internet for a few days because Vieques always loses electric power when hurricanes visit. Once the hurricane had passed, she managed to get a cell phone connection and reported that all was messy but all was well … and they look forward to getting their power back … because nobody but the English like to drink warm beer.

Conservative columnist Glen Beck found divine meaning in Hurricane Irene.  He said that it was a great blessing and it was God’s way of telling people that they are unprepared.  Beck is a Mormon and Mormons store a year’s worth of food in their homes as a form of divine preparedness.

Then we got word that my daughter Heather Anne, her husband Michael and our two grand-kitties – Astoria and Commissioner Gordon – were required to evacuate their apartment in lower Manhattan. The storm came ashore in North Carolina and was headed for New York City, where a big storm can make a big mess, as the subways have this nasty tendency to fill up with water when it rains. We got word that they have moved to higher ground – not that there is much higher ground in New York City.

And then Heather wrote “In events like this, I’m largely concerned for abandoned animals, the elderly, and the homeless. I pray that they will all be looked after and that Irene runs out of steam earlier than expected. It’s easy in times like this to feel very insular and only be concerned for one’s own safety, but I hope that other coastal towns are faring okay and pray that the islands and states that have already been hit strongly can recover quickly.”

That’s my baby girl!

And then there’s this whole thing about the burning bush.

We all know the story of the burning bush.  If we haven’t read it ourselves, we’ve had Charlton Heston act it out for us on television.  But do you know the rest of that story?

During his presidency, George Bush was going through an airport when he encountered a man with long gray hair, wearing a white robe and sandals, and holding a staff.     President Bush went up to the man and said, “Has anyone told you that you look like Moses?”  The man didn’t answer. He just kept staring straight ahead. Then the President said, “Moses” in a loud voice.  The man just stared ahead, never acknowleding the President. The President pulled a Secret Service Agent aside and, pointing to the robed man, asked him, “Am I crazy or does that man look like Moses?” The Secret Service Agent looked at the man and agreed. “Well,” said the President, “every time I say his name, he ignores me and stares straight ahead refusing to speak. Watch!”  Again the President yelled, “Moses!” and again the man ignored him. Feeling the President’s frustration, the Secret Service Agent went up to the man in the robe and whispered, “You look just like Moses. Are you Moses?” The man leaned over and whispered back, “Yes, I am Moses. However, the last time I talked to a bush, I spent forty years in the desert and ended up leading my people to the only spot in the entire Middle East where there is no oil.”

The significance of the story of Moses and the burning bush is not that it was a marvel … of course it was a marvel; marvels are how God gets our attention. The significance of the event is that it changed Moses, it propelled Moses out of the life of a fugitive from justice which we was living and into the center of events which led to the freeing of the people of Israel from bondage. The meaning which Moses attached to this event in the wilderness near Mount Horeb is what moved him to be God’s agent in the Exodus.

People attach meaning to events; that doesn’t mean that the meaning inheres in the event itself.  It is the people – not the event – that find and attribute the meaning. Humans are meaning-assigning creatures.  This trait distinguishes us from our nearest neighbours in the animal kingdom.  But the meaning-assigning function in humans can be for good or for ill.
Humans can perceive an event and come up with some of the wildest, most outlandish, bizarre, seriously warped meanings to assign to it. Why do we say “God bless you” when somebody sneezes? Because the human soul comes out the nose of the sneezer and must be blessed in order not to be stolen by the Devil before it gets sucked back in with the breath. Normal event; whacko meaning attached.

Some finials fall of the pinnacles of spires at the National Cathedral? It is the direct result of the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Normal event: whacko meaning attached.

So what is an appropriate response when we hear of a disaster? The Christian response is “What can I do to help?”  And this congregation repeatedly gets it right. We hear about a hurricane in New Orleans or an earthquake in Haiti, we respond with help.  Most often we send money.  Occasionally we send Charlie Callahan.

And the issue is never about “what did they do to bring this down on themselves?” but rather “what shall we do to relieve the suffering?” The Christian meaning of disaster is “What can we do to help?

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