The Road Ahead

One often hears that truism that we are at an historical crossroads, or are in a moment of cultural upheaval.  People used mistakenly to refer to the Chinese ideogram for crisis that also meant opportunity!  That it often seems so does not mean that of some times this is particularly true.  So I will begin with the harder news, first for our denomination as a whole, and then for us as a diocese devoted to what the late theologian Hans Frei called ‘generous orthodoxy.’  The Episcopal Church dropped sharply in the past decade, especially in the number of baptisms and marriages.  In addition, we have learned recently that, in the period of COVID, it has shrunk by a third in average Sunday attendance. While we have not experienced such a drop, we are not immune to the effects of the larger Church climate.  Some weaker dioceses may struggle to survive. (It is in this context that the importance of Dallas paying its full assessment, as an expression of fellowship, can be seen).

In such an environment, and in the face of a good deal of resistance from the bishops, the Church has embarked on a process of Prayer Book revision which is confused at best.  It will probably in continue through the next two Conventions, and it will probably result in the new marriage rite, amenable to same sex couples, having an equal status.  Meanwhile, and on a more positive note, there are efforts to assure that parishes that wish to do so can continue to use the 1979 Book (for the older of us the idea of the 1979 book as the venerable one is slightly comical).  At the same time, we watch with interest the consent process for new bishops in dioceses of the Communion Partners, the fellowship of those who are full members of TEC but maintain a traditional teaching on marriage. The Church as a whole needs to continue to affirm that our voice is ‘indispensable’(General Convention, 2015). All these facts taken together constitute an inflection point.

At a recent Commission on Ministry meeting I played ‘To be a Pilgrim,’ a hymn with words by John Bunyan.  I believe that intrepid and persevering spirit is what we are, first of all, called to in this season. Parishes, clergy, dioceses of more traditional mind, will have to make their way, learning along the way. We do not know exactly how things will work out. But we do know the things that need to be in the spiritual knapsack of the intrepid pilgrim.  I will offer these as I use three Greek words from the New Testament- I would apologize for the obfuscation, but in fact you know the words! For anamnesis, think ‘amnesiac’- it means ‘remembering.’ For oikoumene, think ‘ecumenical’- it means ‘global.’ For kyriakon, think of hearing the ‘Kyrie’ in Church, ‘Lord (have mercy)- it means ‘the Lord’s thing’ (day, people, place).’ All three are clear (but hard), humbling, challenging, life-giving.


The context in both the New Testament and the liturgical tradition is eucharistic, but we can broaden this out to the whole of the Christian life. We strain to hear the message of the Gospel anew, and are given by grace to recall it. The word conveys a remembering which is powerful and brings the thing remembered into powerful presence in us.  As the Church struggles, we are driven back to the basics anew, not with a spirit of superiority, but in humility, as beginners, as ‘babes in the faith,’ anew converted.  A traditional witness has to be a vocation on behalf of all of recalling, and with the confidence that the Word itself and alone suffices in power to sustain the Church. We all as sinners are justified by grace, by virtue of Jesus’ saving death. We can learn many things from the world; the ‘sufficiency of Scripture’ doesn’t mean a retreat from thought and engagement.  But the authoritative voice in what matters most remains the Word of God. The sacraments likewise are ‘visible words’ (Augustine) calling forth what they say. By contrast, no stratagem or amalgam aimed at Church survival will suffice.  In uncertainty (which we in our weakness share) we repair to what is certain, the saving Word of God conveyed in Scripture.


This word is actually related to another word you know: ‘economics, literally the ‘law of the home.’ Likewise the oikoumene is ‘the inhabited place,’ the world as it is given to humans to live together (in contrast in the New Testament to the kosmos, ‘the world’ (in its fallenness).  Christians, though a part of a distinct, and often oppressed, group, understood themselves to be members of the one oikoumene (indeed in the Letter to Diognetus imagined themselves its soul). 

The more pressed life may be for the Church in post-modernity, and in an era of denominational decline, the more we reach out as fellow-branches-of-the-tree, friends, neighbors, in the oikoumene. The more distanced we may have been, the more we define our very selves in relation to the oikoumene.  As I write this reflection, we begin to hear on Sundays the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus deconstructs the very idea of an ‘enemy,’ in utter contrast to our cultural moment, and in direct connection to the saving death toward which He moves. 

Think here in terms of concentric circles. The parish is a spiritual place inhabited together, not a collection of individuals consuming a religious product. A diocese likewise is a koinonia, a thing in common. We have to work toward grasping this!  The Episcopal Church is likewise our family, to which we are bound, especially when we disagree or feel disregarded.  We inhabit the same oikoumene with other denominations of Christians, whom we may rediscover in the time ahead. We have a special vocation here of brother- and sisterhood with largely African American churches, and will need to continue to learn from them.  Of the greatest importance is expanding our sense of koinonia with the worldwide family of Anglican Churches. This is a providential gift, a sign to us of the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,’ and the Gospel content for a more abstract notion of diversity.  (And we have new resources in the diocese to make this easier to do). Finally we inhabit the same oikoumene with those who suffer around us, those who misunderstand us, etc,


If the oikoumene is as wide as can be, the kyriakon is a narrow. It is day of the Resurrection, on Christians pray together in the same place, The day, place, bodies all belong to the kyrios, the Lord.  (The premier ethicist in Anglicanism in our time, Oliver O’Donovan, has mentioned that Sunday itself was spoken of as a sacrament by some in the early Church).  Our practice is the same, a primitive simplicity, an utter throwback.  The places of the kyriakon thickly dot the landscape of the whole oikoumene, as we remember ‘until He returns.’  Of course I have in mind the stark contrast this has with that other reality, looming everywhere in our world, technology, the disembodied world system, itself resembling what the New Testament called ‘powers and principalities,’ the latter called in Greek kyriotes, ‘things pretending to be kyrios,’ or ‘hegemons.’ Political acrimony, adolescent distress, moral corruption: these are all bitter fruits of the ‘worldwide web,’ which said it would as one ‘bind us all.’ The idea that it would somehow deliver the Church was doomed, though I grant that it can have a (carefully) limited use.  In the future, it is the opposite, the embodied, diverse, ancient reality of meeting to pray on the Lord’s Day, to sing, to hear, to be absolved, to pray, to commune- which will be our greatest spiritual armor.







Christmas Eve Sermon at St. Mathew's Cathedral

Our sermon begins with a familiar figure, old Jacob Marley in his clanking chains taking us to Christmas past. And the time is roughly that which Charles Dickens knew, the mid- 19th century, give or take a decade. But the difference is this, Marley is headed not to his familiar London, but for two other destinations, where two famous men had something to say about the birth of our Lord.  Our first stop is Berlin and its great university, where we find the premier philosopher of his time, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, up in his study, finishing one of his overly long and obscure books.  He was a lapsed Lutheran, but he was interested in the incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus.  Hegel called it ‘picture thinking,’ which is to say, a fairy tale, but with a deep meaning. The divine is really what he called ‘spirit in the world’ moving through history- we might call it, evolution or enlightenment or consciousness or spirituality. What becomes incarnate is greater human potential, and this old story of a manger and a baby can finally be understood for what it tells us about ourselves in modern times.  Fast forward to many a guru or life-coach or political organizer. Hegel lived a century and a half ago, but you and I recognize this way of hearing the story- maybe we have thought of it this way at some point in our lives.

But Marley now takes us on a second, longer trip ( a decade or so later).  He brings us further this time, 6,000 miles, to the great east African kingdom of Buganda, there to meet the king, the Kabaka, in his palace on what would be called Lake Victoria.  The Gospel has just arrived via missionaries, including Anglicans.  He and his advisors are surprised by the news. The Bugandans knew of miraculous appearances and deeds of gods and spirits. And they knew of the creator God, the father high above the heavens. But after creating, he rested at a great distance from this world, which has turned out to be so sad and cruel.  Surely the Father is too smart to disturb his rest and get mixed up in all this!  For this reason the Christian message seemed strange and illogical.

Now you might think this sermon is itself strange- what have our lives to do with a turgid philosopher and a pagan king a century and a half ago?  Well, quite a lot actually. For many hear the story of the incarnation of God’s Son in Bethlehem, and so the Church’s claim about the incarnation, in just these ways. It is a beautiful old-fashioned story about human striving for which we have better words….Or maybe we assent to the existence of a God too distant and abstract to have anything to do with this mess.  These two ways of hearing tonight’s story are not outdated, in fact we all have probably had  in our lives moments or phases, where we think in these ways too- maybe we do so now. 

These two takes on the incarnation of God are different, but note that, practically, they amount to the same thing, namely that we are left with lots of room to run our own affairs.  In the first case, the story is really about us, and in the second the Creator has gone to the coast and left us to fend for ourselves.  In a way we are dismayed by this desertion, but in another we humans like it that way.

Just before COVID, a Methodist theologian and bishop named Will Willimon came to this cathedral and gave a talk titled ‘keeping Christianity weird,’ an allusion for our Texan benefit.  I mention this because there is a third way to hear tonight’s gospel reading. It is stranger than the others, but actually more compelling and logical in its own way.  For the real question is this: who is God? What sort of God is he?  And to answer this question, as with any question of identity, of who someone is, we need to hear his story, the trajectory of what he has said and done.  He is indeed the creator, and he is indeed high above all things.  But he loves his creation. The great Jewish philosopher/theologian Joshua Heschel liked to talk about the passion of God, his yearning for his wayward children, an offense to philosophers and yet a truth at the heart of the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament.  He means to dwell with us- that is what the psalm about the Lord as king tonight means. For his own mercy’s sake He means to come to his exiled children, though they in no way deserve it. That is that the prophet Isaiah is saying in our first lesson.  You see, the Gospel is not first all about us, as the philosopher and the pagan king thought, but first about him. We come to be who we were meant to be in his light, in the wake of his coming.

And that coming is not just an idea or a tale, but an event.  So in the Gospel we hear that the maker of all things is born as one of us, so as to live, and then die as one of us too.  If you object that this ties the usual idea of a god in a pretzel you are right, one threefold pretzel to be precise.  But our job is to hear the gospel on its own terms. If it seems offensive, that means you get it. If it seems strangely compelling, it means that he is in the process of getting you. The story is the same, an event, a claim, but a lifetime and more could be spent diving into it, which is what it means for it to be a ‘mystery.’

In keeping with what we have said, two things should be said about our Gospel account of the incarnation from St. Luke tonight.  First, see how high and low converge in a way which is surprising and divine.  The child is born in a stable, vulnerable to attack from the powers of this world, as a result of which the angelic hymn sounds forth, the song of exaltation in heaven! God’s highness is his utter freedom, even to come low and join us, though in doing so he is no less God almighty.  Think of the words of Paul in Ephesians,’ what does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he descended into the lower, earthly regions; he who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens…’

Secondly, and finally, hearing the Christmas Gospel on its own terms, and putting who God is first, doesn’t mean that we find no place in this story.  Once we stop upending the story to be something about us, the story’s point, and so we, come round right. For the story includes us, we are a character in it.  We are the shepherds, at first bystanders, but, it turns out, more than that. We receive the sign of God’s action, and hear the hymn of praise to him.  And we are able, by God’s grace, to respond. The story envelopes us. As a result of hearing, we go to where the child is, we join the song of praise, and we tell others what happened. In those verses are found all we know, and all we need to know, of what the Church of God really is.

Of course there is much more to say, and the rest of the Christian year, complementing this great festival, says it. What it means for the God of love and covenant faithfulness to enter into his children’s plight leads on to weeks of hearing the strange parables of Jesus about the Kingdom. it leads on to his abandonment and death on our behalf, on to his being raised ahead of time, and finally to our being sent, like the shepherds, to be the emissaries of this news. Marley could take us to visitations of things past concerning these too, and we would see their meanings come to be obscured in ways all too familiar to us.  Already Mary is pondering what is to come in her heart.  Tonight is, like every service, an invitation to the whole counsel of God, laid out week by week in the bible and the church’s year.  But it is enough, and more than enough, this evening, to hear what the story for what it has to say, for what it is as a word from God, and so join with the shepherds in ‘glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.’      Amen.

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.