Sermon for the Feast of Willibrord

Sermons and audio

St. John’s, Barrington Rhode Island; 2014 Diocesan Convention Evensong

Saint Willibrord

This evening we are celebrating the memory of Willibrord – the Apostle to the Frisians.

(I had to look up the location of Frisia – it’s essentially the lands that border the Eastern part of the English Channel and the southern portion of the North Sea.)

He was a celtic missionary of the same movement that brought us Columba, Alcuin, Bede and others. They were of Irish decent, though Willibrord was actually a North Umbrian, trained for ministry in the northern part of England and in Ireland and then sent south to the continent. These were the scholars who taught the court of Charlemagne to value reading and literature. They were the scholar monks who essentially re-Christianized all of Northern Europe after the Roman Legions withdrew from the Western part of the Empire and moved to the East.

Willibrord in particular was a man noted for his humility, his love of routine and common-place, and his desire to succeed in being the best sort of religious person he might be. Leading a delegation to Rome on behalf of the young religious community being planted in what is today the Netherlands, he was selected (and reluctantly agreed apparently) to serve as the Archbishop of the Frisians. (This is about a century or so after Augustine of Canterbury has arrived in Canterbury to convert the already Christian English people to Christianity.) Upon his return from Rome he chose Utrecht to serve as the center of his missionary efforts, and became the first Archbishop of Utrecht as a result. You might recognize the significance of that City for us as Anglicans. In the latter part of the 19th Century the Roman Catholic bishops of that region could not recognize the claims made about the office of the Pope in the First Vatican Council and broke away from Rome and became the “Old Catholic” Church, a denomination with which Anglicans have been in full communion for almost a century. (The society which promotes relationships between the Old Catholic and the Anglican Communion is called the Willibrord Society.)

All of that is interesting and important. But for life of me, I can’t easily see the connections between the lessons appointed by the lectionary and the saint whose life we’re commemorating. The most fulsome accounts of the life of blessed Willebrord talk about how he spent 50 years serving in his ministry, essentially loved and respected by all and died quietly in his bed. Why we are hearing of the lament of Jesus over Jerusalem somewhat escapes me. Unless it is because the lesson is meant to recall to us our long standing ecumenical relationship with our sister denomination and is a lament that we have not moved further toward a more visible ecclesiastical unity with other denominations in subsequent years. (I’m afraid that the Old Testament lesson from Ecclesiastes isn’t much help either, it is a recounting of the restoration of the Temple and regular worship of God in that place. Perhaps it is a reference to the re-Christianization of Europe after the Legions departed and the so-called Dark Ages began.)

But all need be lost due to my lack of understanding the original intent of the lectionary compliers. Looking more closely at the Gospel, which makes sense to me, as we are all called to preach the Gospel whenever possible, perhaps there’s a way to understand the chosen image not as reference to our failed ecumenical work, but in a different light, one which has meaning today, a light that is best seen by remembering the backdrop of what was happening in Northern Europe during Willibrord’s lifetime. I mentioned that his ministry took place during the period of time that led up to the rise of Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor. I didn’t mention that one of the reasons that Willibrord choose Utrecht as his base of operations was not just that it is situated along a major waterway, but also that it was possessed of a fine castle, a fortress, that allowed the person who controlled that city to control much of the economic life of the region. Willibrord went to the center of power and began a complicated relationship with earthly power as he spread the news of the Gospel to so many. And he made use of that close relationship with power, even allowing the Gospel to be used as an excuse to forcibly subdue neighboring tribes so that they could be saved.

In the Gospel Jesus describes Herod as a Fox and himself as a hen who wishes to gather her chicks under her wing. There’s an implied contrast between Herod the King, the Greek man who is claiming a suspect right to inherit the political power and armed might of Israel, albeit as a vassal king of the Emperor Caesar and Caesar’s legions. Jesus makes the distinction particularly sharp as he describes Herod as a crafty fox and himself as a mother hen. A crafty fox makes sense when describing a man who was essentially a courtier to a great foreign power. But why a hen as an image for the Messiah?

I’m afraid that our separation from the rural culture of the middle east has made understanding this particular metaphor harder than it ought to be for us.

Cal Bombay writing in “God’s Protection” makes at least one meaning of the odd image explicit, especially for those of us who grew up around farms here in the US:

…Across the prairies of the west it’s not uncommon for fires to sweep with great speed and intense heat. They are, obviously, a terrifying experience and often lives are lost. One of the areas of life that suffers most is the small animal kingdom. But the prairie chicken has an astonishing way of handling a prairie fire. At the first hint of trouble, the hen calls out to her chicks, who rush under her wings; she ruffles her feathers and squats down protectively on them. As the fire sweeps by, the mother hen simply dies in the heat, but more often than not, the chicks survive the quickly passing fire. It’s remarkable that a hen will be so devoted, even to death, for her chicks. (Cal Bombay, “God’s protection,” Crossroads Web Site, Retrieved October 17, 2003.)

Barbara Brown Taylor was the one who helped me understand what Jesus is describing when he paints himself as a Hen to Herod’s Fox in the context of Jerusalem where Jesus will later be crucified.

Taylor writes,

Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.

Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her – wings spread, breast exposed – without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

You see the point that Jesus is making. Herod protects the flock by sending others to die. Jesus protects the flock by giving up his own life on their behalf.

Now, is there a connection we can make between this lesson and Blessed Willibrord?

It’s helpful to remember that our mother Church, the Church of England, is the established Church of England and Wales. That means it is more than partner to the ruling authority in those lands, it is an integral part of the government. That gives the Church in that part of the world a great deal of access and privilege; over which I’ll admit to have having the occasional twinge of jealously. But it also means that Church is frequently in danger of participating in the sort of morally questionable actions that expediency and political reality often require of those who govern.

For instance, while the Church of England eventually came to take an important role in the process of abolishing slavery in the British Empire (following the lead of the Quakers, a sect that the Church of England pushed to have banned and actively persecuted), for a significant portion of the 18th century the Church managed to not only keep silent about the slave economy, it managed to turn a significant profit at the expense of the human souls that were being torn from home and condemned to live the remainder of their lives in brutal conditions. And of course, the Church of England in New England, particularly in Rhode Island has had its own complicated and on occasion disappointing history with the slavery industry here as well.

The Church, our Church, was at the table when such decisions were being made, when this country was being built partly on the backs of the enslaved brought here in chains on boats built and owned in Rhode Island. And we did not act with honor in that day.

I wonder how things might have been different for the Church and for our Country if we had committed ourselves to using our privilege, our place at the table, to stand up and be the voice for those who were denied their place at the table? I wonder what would have happened if we had been more like the Mother Hen that Jesus is for us, and less like the Fox that Herod chose to be?

Of course there’s no way to answer that question, and I suppose to be fair, we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to project our own 21st century outrage at the institution of slavery and the Church’s participation in it onto the people of that day who made their decisions according to the light given to them in that moment. But still I can wonder. Still I think we should wonder.

Who knows what led Willibrord and his contemporaries to entwine their ministries so closely with the earthly powers of those days. Perhaps it was what was normal to them. Perhaps it grew out of desire to return to the days when the Church’s establishment in the Roman Empire meant that they could compel people to believe they way the Church authorities thought they should. Perhaps it was the least bad choice the Church had in that moment. But there’s little of the Hen in all of it, and a bit too much of the fox.

More to the point will be the decisions we make in our own day for the Church we serve and together lead. What will guide our decisions and our choices in our day? The craftiness of the fox? Or the dream(?) of the Hen?

It is my prayer that we will hear the wings beats of the Holy Spirit as we arrive at the moments in which we are confronted with such choices.

Divine Uncertainty: “Jonathan Edwards in a New Light”


When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, I was part of group that tended to eat our lunch at a table in the refectory that was under the portrait of Jonathan Edwards, a former faculty member who later departed to be the President of Princeton. We knew him as a man of heroic faith, who had died as result of offering himself to be a test subject for a smallpox vaccine. And we talked in hushed tones about his famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”. But sadly we never discussed the details of his thought or of his philosophical inquiries.

Which turns out to be a real shame because Edwards much like Bishop Barclay, a contemporary, were both significant philsophers whose work has been neglected as western thought has made the shift from modernity to post-modernity. And that’s surprising because both Edwards and Barclay have much to say about a reality in which absolutes exist but are likely unknowable in any complete sort of way.

This afternoon I stumbled across an essay written by Marilynne Robinson and posted on the National Endowment for the Humanities website which looks more closely at Edward’s work, particularly focusing on his writings as “new light Calvinist” (a group that held that ongoing revival was an important part of Christian Life).

I was particularly struck by this quote that details the ways in which Edwards used natural theological revelation as a source for his understanding of God and God’s nature:

“Never departing from strict reason, Edwards sanctified the unknowable. I experienced a quiet, cerebral awakening of my own, as much secular as religious, as much scientific as theological, though these categories are not so clear-cut as they are often made to seem. Edwards intended from his earliest work to create an all-unifying metaphysics and, though he did not achieve this, his thought feels shaped by the intention to keep the possibility implicit. It accommodates Locke and Newton, the best philosophy and science of his period. His thought asserted a great influence on the intellectual/activist movement that arose out of the Second Great Awakening that created many educational institutions across the country, among them Grinnell and Oberlin, and that pressed for the containment and abolition of slavery. Lyman Beecher, his sons Edward and Henry Ward Beecher, his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe and the large circle associated with them accepted the need for the kind of conversion experience Edwards famously described, and adhered as well to the model of intellectual rigor he presented.

Edwards’s metaphysics is first of all an esthetics. His statements about fundamental reality are based on the nature of light, not as metaphor but as model for all aspects of being, from time to consciousness and selfhood, to love, to the experience of the sacred, to ontology, to God Himself. In Edwards’s understanding, these things participate in one another so deeply that their radical likeness is a kind of identity. Light for him is a virtual synonym for beauty, and the given world is saturated with it. Natural light is an analog or a metaphor for ‘supernatural light,’ an important phrase that makes an important distinction, though his exploitation of the character of ordinary light is essential to his argument.”

Lots more here.

I’m particularly taken with the last thought in the essay:

“Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.”

Fossil Sitting In Sun Light

It’s a view of the Universe that seems much more in tune with the sort of writings you come across in modern theology than one would otherwise expect. As a follower of Popper’s post-positivism myself, I rather taken by what happens in Edward’s schema as he takes the experience of reality as seriously as I think Barth does in his writing. It gives you room for the mystery of the divine in a way that non-experiential thought doesn’t seem to do.

Canterbury on dealing with ISIS and jihadism

Current Affairs / Religion

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury has released a tightly reasoned essay on the necessity of a thoughtful and coordinated response to the threat posed by ISIS and the extremist so-called “jihadists” around the world.

The essay very carefully refuses to find a reductionist explanation, a simple way to understand what is, at its heart, a multi-faceted response to a number of local issues. The Archbishop writes in particular:

“Every conflict is individual, and a global narrative by itself does not address the particularity of each region or country. However, the reality of jihadist terror, and the related elements common to conflicts, have become more global since the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. Strategy must be holistic. This conflict embraces a whole range of complex causes, demonstrated in the huge number of Muslim deaths, often forgotten in the west. Nor is it restricted to the Middle East. The Central African Republic has descended into utter barbarism, with a religious edge, seen by many Muslims as religious cleansing of their followers. Somalia is chaos, Libya is in meltdown.

This struggle is not simply a religious conflict, but a terrible mix of ethnicity, economics, social unrest, injustice between rich and poor, limited access to resources, historic hatreds, post-colonial conflict and more. It is impossible to simplify accurately. We cannot tolerate the complexities and so we seek to hang the whole confusion on the hook of religious conflict. And because even to do that on a global scale is complicated, we focus on one area, at present Iraq and Syria, while others—Sudan, Nigeria and most recently Israel and Gaza—are forgotten. Or, equally dangerously, we deny it is religious, in the illusion that religion makes it unfixable.”

More here.

I can not stress how important I believe the addition of this voice, and what he says, is to the debate about a Western response to ISIS. Please, if you are a person of faith, take a moment to read the whole essay.

What is irreducible in the Gospel? How do we give freedom to the hearers to synthesize?


Yesterday, as three groups of the House of Bishops went to visit churches, museums and cultural centers around Taiwan, I found myself thinking about the challenges of proclaiming the eternal Gospel to people whose thinking is organized in radically different ways than that of the West.

It’s not a new problem. The early missionaries of the Church struggled with explaining the Hebrew roots of Christianity to people of the Hellenistic culture. Missionaries who traveled East long ago learned to share the good news in ways that were intelligible back then. And now that we, who are formed in Western thought are trying to travel West to share the same Gospel, we are having to revisit that missionary challenge once again.

On Friday, when we had a presentation from the principle of the Theological School in Hong Kong, we talked about the difficulty in explaining the formal relationships of the third person of the Trinity to the first and second persons, in a culture that understands Spirit in a totally different manner. What they’ve discovered in Hong Kong is that, to be effective in educating clergy for the East, they have had to move away from the classical Western Augustinian models of sin and redemption toward a paradigm of companionship and discipleship. Once that happened, there was a rapid change in the ability of the students to synthesize the material they were learning and express it in ways that both surprised and taught their instructors.

On Saturday I had the chance to have lunch with a retired Taiwanese Episcopal priest, who had been trained as a Western philosopher (and had taught at St. John’s University for part of his ministry). We talked at length of the challenges of teaching Western ideas in a completely different semiotic context. As one of the translators of the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin, he was particularly aware of the challenge of communicating nuance to the reader so that the reader would be able to understand and synthesize a deeper understanding in the way that students in Hong Kong recently have managed.

The two conversations have driven home for me the need for all of us who are trying to do missionary work (even among the scientific sorts) to think long and hard about the irreducible minimum concepts that we are trying to express. And how we can do so in a way that allows the hearers in the new and different culture the ability to respond in ways that teach us something about the nature of God. Since it does stand to reason that God is somehow present in their midst and has been whispering the Gospel in their ears all along (in a Rahnerian fashion I guess).

Anyone who has learned from the African, Native American and Latino Christians will know what I mean. Anyone who has learned something of God from the laboratory or the equation will as well I hope.

No answers – perhaps not for a long time, perhaps never. But it’s something to ponder while I wander the streets of a city in a country of a very different culture.

The mission of education in Taiwan

Travel / World Mission

Today, my first full day in Taiwan as part of the House of Bishop’s meeting, was spent taking a tour of St. John’s University. The university was originally planted in Shanghai by the then bishop of Shanghai – The Rt. Rev. Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, one of my favorite heroes on our Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.


I found this plaque in English describing the work of Bishop Schereschewsky and his role in founding the University. We learned while we were there that the alumni have been quite famous over the years, presidents of Taiwan, representatives to the United Nations and even the famous architect IM Pei.


We began with a presentation by the chaplain to the University, a former Math Professor who is also an Episcopal priest. He introduced the student faith community leaders (all Episcopalians) and they described their evangelism efforts and how they try to share the gospel on campus. It was moving and exciting to see how committed they were to telling the Good News in a place where Christianity is a small minority religion.

The rest of the visit involved meeting the University President – one of the few woman presidents in Asia, who is a Electrical Engineer who did her graduate training at Cornell. She talked about the history of the University and expressed her gratitude for the ongoing financial support of the Episcopal Church to its programs and continued growth. We asked about the possibility of forming a theological college to train clergy at the University and what might be needed for that to happen. (It’s needed she tells us.)

But I was most taken by the story of the university’s founding by one of our Episcopal Church’s missionary bishops. Schereschewsky, who also translated the Bible in Cantonese to aid evangelism efforts, founded the school as part of his work to create a new understanding of the role of learning in society, and a dream of having the Christian community in China take a major role in shaping the modernization process that was then underway. The university motto is “Light and Truth” – you would probably recognize it latin; Lux et Veritas. But I was taken too by the school slogan –

Talent serves Virtue; Learning serves Society.

A more Anglican understanding of the work of education would be hard to find.

The president of the University shared her need of Anglican and Episcopal teachers to come to live at St. John’s for a year or two. They would have the opportunity to learn Mandarin by immersion, and they would be incredibly helpful in the work of the Applied English department in training students to achieve functional

(image of the altar of the Church of the Advent – the parish church on campus that also serves as the college chapel.)

Fall 2014 House of Bishops meeting

General Convention / Travel / World Mission

Tomorrow we will begin this year’s Fall House of Bishops meeting for the Episcopal Church. We’re meeting this year in Taipei, in the Diocese of Taiwan, a diocese of the Episcopal Church. As I mentioned this to people in Rhode Island, there was some surprise that Taiwan was part of our Church – but over the years, as our mission work in the Episcopal Church in the US
took us further and further afield, we have helped to plant a number of church communities in parts of the world beyond the US borders.

One of the hallmarks of Bishop Katherine’s leadership during her time as Presiding Bishop these past nine years has been strengthening of our interconnectedness with the missionary work that is happening around the world in the Anglican Communion and particularly in the Episcopal Church (which is still mostly based in the USA). Relationships have to be attended to intentionally to flourish, and visiting one another is a major part of that work. I’m still new to the House of Bishops, but over the past years, I’m told we have tried to visit a non-USA diocese at least once in each triennium.

I’m looking forward to this visit. There’s much to learn. As I write this, I’m sitting in the airport in San Francisco surrounded by people from countries all around the Pacific. It feels very different that it does sitting in the airport in New York City or in Boston, where you tend to be surrounded with people from nations that border the Atlantic. There’s a westward focus here on the West Coast that reflects America’s role as a Pacific Rim nation, just as there’s an Eastern focus on the East Coast, reflecting our role as a nation state on the North Atlantic. The food in hotel this morning reflected that – salmon, congee and rice along side the typical bacon, eggs and potatoes. (Just as breakfasts in the hotels on the East Coast will often have grilled tomatoes, backed beans – or just crisp breads, cheese and fruit.

Doing the work of telling the Good News requires the teller to be aware of the culture in which one is speaking. Learning to listen to and speak with the people of Asia may well be the great mission field of the Church in the next century. This trip we are taking is a chance for us to get started with that learning. I’ve never been to Asia – I’m excited to learn from the Taiwanese, and hoping to share something of what we are doing in Rhode Island as well. It looks like the schedule of presentations will include briefings on the work and challenges of the Church in Korea, in Pakistan and other parts of Asia as well.

Much to learn! Here’s hoping that there will be time to write and share regularly as well.

Entangled States, the book


2250856I was talking with the publisher of Entangled States (the book that grew out of the blog, sermons and other writings I’ve done over the years) and he told me that we have just about sold out of the first printing.

The book was really his idea, and he’s the one who managed to take a pile of things that I’ve said over the years and turn them into something coherent and readable. Once he had put it together and I’d had a chance to do some editing, we published it online on Amazon and iTunes. That’s where I thought it belonged, being such a strong believer in digital media. But a number of friends asked if there was any way we could turn it into a paper edition as they much preferred to read a physical book to an e-book. David Ord (the publisher) found a way to do it, and even started a new virtual press in the process.

David’s waiting to see if there’s enough interest to warrant a second printing, so if you want to make sure to get a copy, grab one. (Entangled States will always be available in an e-book format.)

If you would like a paper copy, here’s bit of the publisher’s blurb and a link to the website to order one.

“No matter how adamantly we insist on being divided, every now and then we can’t help but catch a glimpse of the fact we are bound together. Such a glimpse may come in the form of a spiritual experience, a sense that the universe is suffused with a divine Presence. Or it may occur in a laboratory, as a scientist discovers a connection no one has ever seen before and realizes there is a unity to reality.”

More at publisher’s site.

For what it’s worth, should there be any profits from the book, they will be donated to youth and young adult ministries here in the Diocese of Rhode Island. (ECC specifically.)

The Bishop of London on the nature of Truth

Religion / SOSc

This has been a day of reading and reflection. I’ve had a chance to start getting caught up the long list of websites that I’ve bookmarked to read over the Spring and Summer.

I came across this quote by Richard Chartres in an interview on nature of Christian Contemplation:

“[T]ruth expresses itself as an economy in which the various elements of the truth aspect and balance one another. The truth is not to be encapsulated in a neat formula. It exists as a massive symphony, where the truth is given by the interplay of the various parts. If you omit any part of it, then there is a reaction and exaggeration of the missing element.”

More here.

I had a conversation earlier today on the nature of the paradigm shift the Church is presently experiencing. We’re moving from a deterministic understanding where we can “nail things down, just so” and know the right answer, to one in which we have multiple strands of networked ideas all competing and riffing off one another. We’re moving from a deterministic paradigm to a connectional one – where the interactions between ideas are at least as important, if not more so, than the ideas themselves.

So, with all that playing in my memory, I was delighted to run across this quote that describes Truth as a Symphony with harmony, rhythm, pitch and melodies. It takes us way from the idea of Truth as single statement and toward the idea of Truth as story.

Faith or Humility?

Religion / SOSc

I’ve been turning a thought over and over since last weekend. The Gospel for that Sunday was the story of the Canaanite (outsider) woman who meets Jesus and asks for a healing for her daughter. Jesus initially rejects her request saying that he was sent to the Israelites not the outsiders. She pushed back and Jesus, impressed by her, heals her daughter.

It’s an odd story that doesn’t really fit with the paradigms we use to understand that Gospel story these days. We tend to think (rightly I believe) that God is acting in Jesus to draw all the nations and all people into a new relationship with God. The short hand version name for this paradigm is “Inclusion.” God is inclusive and profligate with Love for all. That’s a hard thing for us as humans to understand.

From that viewpoint, this gospel story is hard to understand. Either Jesus changes his mind (which doesn’t seem to fit with any of the other stories in the gospels), or he’s playing some sort of game with the woman who confronts him (which also doesn’t fit).

But Inclusion wasn’t always the primary paradigm for understanding the Gospel. Right after the Reformation, in the protestant churches at least, the paradigm was Faith. As Martin Luther argued, we’re saved by Faith, not by the actions we take or don’t take. That’s a huge point and an important thing to remember, and a central teaching in St. Paul’s writings. And it’s a bit easier to focus on the outsider woman’s faith that Jesus could heal her daughter in spite of Jesus reaction to her question than it is to put his reaction into a matrix of Inclusion. (So this wasn’t as difficult a story to preach prior to the post-WW2 paradigm shift.)

And prior to Faith, the paradigm of the Church was Humility. We were saved by Jesus and his humility to God, and we were expected to follow suit and be humble as well. To the early Church what was notable about the outsider woman wasn’t her insistent belief that God had room for her in God’s heart, or her faith that Jesus could and would heal her daughter, it was the way she responded humbly to Jesus’ reluctance to heal. She doesn’t become angry, she accepts what he says but continues to push. The early writers commend her humility and say that is what Jesus ultimately commends.

My point is this – there are multiple paradigms that have served the Church in its attempt to understand that actions of God in Jesus’ earthly ministry. But we always tend to look at each story through one set of lenses at a time. It’s rare that we take the time to try all of the various lenses that Church has used over the thousands of years it has wrestled with these texts. I’m thinking that this has impoverished our ability to read the Gospel. All of our understandings of what God is doing in Jesus are partial and incomplete. Like in physics where we need to know when we ought to use classical physics versus when we ought to use quantum physics, perhaps we need to be ready to shift paradigms when a particular story just won’t fit…

I’m thinking of committing myself to discipline of reading the gospel stories through these various paradigmatic lenses this coming year. I want to see what new insights such a practice brings to me as a preacher. There’s an art to knowing which sort of physics to apply to a given situation. I’m wondering if there’s a similar art to knowing which great Gospel paradigm to apply to a given story.

The only way to know is to try it.

These things did not happen in a corner


Today we had a chance to drive up to the top of the Mount of Olives and to look across the Necropolis of Jerusalem to the where the Dome of the Rock stands – where the Temple stood in Jesus’ time.

I knew intellectually that there view from the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron valley to the Temple was important to helping unlock additional meaning in what is called the “mini apocalypse” in Mark’s Gospel, but until I stood there and saw the details with my own eyes, I didn’t understand the full reality of what I had been told. Today I got it.

Somehow in the moment of hearing the Friday prayers and sermon from Al Asqua Mosque, visiting the Western Wall, looking to where the Holy of Holies had been, seeing smoke rise from where Gehenna had been and even visiting the Garden where Jesus prayed on Maundy Thursday night – which is right in the midst of the necropolis – I realized that all of this was a part of the prophetic actions of Christ in Holy Week. Every location that I had read about had a deeper meaning and context when placed into its historical location. Everything was much closer and much more intimate than I had ever imagined. Every location in the story of Holy Week could be seen from where the apocalypse had been told.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like on Maundy Thursday as the “crucified” passover lambs where being carried down the steps of the of the Temple, toward the Kidron, toward the garden, toward the graves. And imagining the deeper meaning of the true lamb, gathering his disciples in the Upper room to celebrate, to share in their lamb, and in the Lamb as they began their passover feast.

I have been told that part of the key to prayer in the mystic tradition is to be able to see the deeper levels of reality in the everyday. Standing at the top of the Mount of Olives, looking at where the Passion happened, and remembering when it happened, I had just a moment of that sort of seeing.

I guess I now understand why so many people have told me that I wouldn’t be able to fully grasp the whole story of Holy Week and the Triduum unless I came to Jerusalem to see. The events had to happen here, in the way they did – not in a corner someplace else, or in a different city as a sort of holy folly. They had to happen here so that the full meaning of Jesus’ death could be taught.