Girard and Galatians: Seeing what is hidden

I’ve been reading and working through the implications of Rene Girard’s insights into human relationships for years – particularly the way that Girard unlocks a new way of reading the biblical texts. If you’ve heard me preach or teach over the years you probably know how major an influence Girard has been on my thinking.

There’s a wonderful resource “Teaching Non-violent Atonement” that’s been posting a regular Wednesday sermon that demonstrates how a preacher can use Girard’s ideas to communicate the meaning behind the texts. For the last few weeks there have been sermons on Galatians (which we’ve been reading in the RCL on Sundays). This is a quote from this week’s sermon post:

We have always assumed “works of the Law” referred to Jewish religious practice alone but Rome was the real law-giver in the world and those who worked for Rome were doing the works of the Law. But you wouldn’t want to say that out loud. Who killed Jesus?  The Romans did, in cooperation with local Jewish authorities.  Both Roman and Jewish law attempted to bring what they saw as righteousness through violence, exclusion and death.  Their goal was to purge the world of evil as they saw it when evil was in themselves and in their method of bringing “peace”.

Jews along with all other defeated peoples know this, Paul argues.
And the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that Paul says is the alternative to law, what is that?  Notice I didn’t say faith in Jesus but rather the faith of Jesus.  The faith of Jesus is his allowing Roman and Jewish Law to judge, condemn and execute him as a criminal, though he is the Son of God, in obedience to his father and as an expression of their love for us.  Jesus did this to show us how the law works to condemn, knowing this was the only way to expose what we humans could not see.  Talk about faithfulness; Jesus goes to his death, forgiving us on the way, out of faithfulness to God and love for us all.  In this way his faithfulness seen on the cross makes us right with God.

Paul saw this on the Road to Damascus when he had an apocalyptic in-breaking of truth that turned his violent and law-working world upside down.

via Wednesday Sermon: Division Undone (go read the whole thing)

Given the events of our own day, where we’re seeing strange pairings of groups that ought to be in complete opposition to each other coming together to make common cause against the “other”, I’m finding that re-reading Galatians in this particular light is incredibly enlightening.

Tears are in the nature of things

Dan Edwards, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada writes in his Good Friday sermon this year:

We live in a world that worships success.
We have little use for the old religion of self-denial.
We practice disciplines of self-coddling.
The chaplain of a national Episcopal group this year actually wrote a Lenten letter urging us to go to a spa and relax in sensual delight for our Lenten discipline.
Our society averts its eyes from the poor, addicted,handicapped, and even those wounded in our wars.
A lot of so-called Christians are preaching a prosperity gospel: “Get your religion right,” they say, “and God will make you rich.”
It’s the religion for kings, the faith of winners.

But that isn’t Jesus’ religion.
The cross isn’t about that.
The cross is about “the tears in the nature of things.”

On this Holy Saturday, as Jesus lays dead in the tomb and the world is dark and quiet with grief and waiting, it’s worth reflecting on what our faith teaches us about the suffering that it is all around us. We can only see the hope of Easter through the lens of the Cross. 

Anything else is just another form of escapism.

Rainment, glistening and white.

It snowed on Friday. A tropical system, full of moisture and relatively warm air, slid north along the Southern New England coast and collided with cold arctic air flowing down out of Canada. The result was a fast developing, very wet snow fall that started at dawn and continued until an hour before twilight.

The wet snow and the relatively gentle wind off the ocean allowed the thick white heavy flakes to stick to every surface they touched. The ground was covered, as were the trunks and branches of the trees. The evergreens groaned with the weight of the snow as gravity pulled them down toward the center of the Earth. The bare tree branches were coated, and a number of limbs snapped because of the weight. Many of my neighbors lost power, and a few people were hurt. It was heavy and dangerous.

It was a day of gray air and not much light. The heavy moisture mixing in the cold air and the warmer ground temperature gave us a thick fog that started as the snow began and settled low to the ground throughout the day. I knew the Sun was up and it was midday, but I had that knowledge more on faith than observation. At least until about an hour before sunset…

IMG_0158As the day was drawing to a close, the clouds caused by the storm system cleared from west to east. The line was sharp and dramatic. Twitter lit up with people exclaiming about the bright blue sky they were seeing, with reports being made closer and closer to where I was. Finally the edge of the clouds moved over our heads and just as everyone was saying, the difference was dramatic.

By that time it was late in the day and the Sun was low in the southwestern sky.  The trees were suddenly lit from below. The trunks remained within the gloomy gray fog but the branches, as they reached up to the sky were lit with the most astonishing light. And the snow that so heavily coated everything began to glow with a glistening golden light against the startlingly deep blue cloudless sky.

The sight took your breath away. There seemed nothing to do but grab a coat and rush outside to see the thing that had happened. The forest was still full of the heavy silence that accompanies any winter snow, but the sky was full of glory – and almost boisterous golden light that seemed strikingly noisy against the silent gloom that clung on close to the Earth’s surface. And as quickly as it happened, it ended.

What was most remarkable to me was how quickly we had gone from darkness to light, and then how quickly the light faded into the azure blue of twilight. The boundary between light and dark on the surface of planet is called the “terminator” and on the Earth it sweeps East to West at the Earth rotates from day into night. It sweeps across the surface of the Earth at nearly a thousand miles per hour. I was remembering that as the light faded and we transitioned back into darkness and gloom. Because the Sun’s light had been hidden by the fog and snow for so much of the day, the brief glimpse of golden glorious light was fleeting, and somehow made all the more beautiful.

640px-Alexandr_Ivanov_015I was remembering this morning how the light of that day had been followed by the azure of twilight as I heard the Gospel lesson for this Last Sunday in Epiphany. Jesus and his disciples climb to the top of a mountain, and for a brief moment, Jesus is revealed, transfigured in the sight of his disciples, and glows with a glorious glistening light. It is a moment when we see him as he truly is, fully reflecting the light of his Father As the veil between the realms of existence is pierced, he is seen flanked by the living history of the story of the children of Abraham in the persons of Moses and Elijah.

And just as quickly as the golden light I saw on Friday faded, so too the vision the disciples had of Jesus in his transfigured state faded. But the light they saw changed them, illumined something deep within them and made them long for it to return. I suppose the light I saw, the forest that blazed with it did the same thing to me. Perhaps such experiences have done the same for you… igniting within us a longing for a glimpse of the deeper reality that is always surrounding us, yet is only seen occasionally, unexpectedly, and often when our attention is focused on something else.

I imagine the most faithful response to such an experience, since it does not seem to be our part to dwell in it forever, is to cherish it and commit it to our memory. The days are often too short and too dark and the night is long. Yet the day is always capable of bursting forth with an unanticipated explosive force, reminding us of the promise and hope that sustains us and makes life possible.

Listen to the voices that are exclaiming that the light is shining, even if you sit in darkness. And when they do that, go outside and look up to see, if it is granted you, the reason we always have Hope.

Sermon for the Feast of Willibrord

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?

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, Crossroads.ca/calcom. 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.

Pursuing the Mystery of Science and Faith – a sermon

I preached this sermon last week at the 2014 Ecumenical Round Table meeting on Science, Technology and the Church meeting in Salt Lake City last week.

A rabbi once told me, in a conversation about faith and science, that God hides the truth from us, and expects us to work, using all of our faculties to find it. That’s a counter to the common understanding of how Science or Theology work, but for those of us who are seekers in both fields, it’s something that we know to be true because we encounter its reality every day of our lives.

I was hoping to call out everyone who lives in both worlds and ask them to be living examples that one could be a believing scientist…

Jesus our Mother Hen; Lent 2C 2013

It’s taken years for me to finally understand the deep significance of Jesus, the Lamb of God, describing himself as a Mother Hen gathering her chicks under her wings in Jerusalem. It was reading a missionary’s experience while teaching in Tanzania that was where I found the key to unlocking what I believe is his meaning.

Having understand him finally, I started to ask what you and I in the Church were expected to do as a result? I found my answer in the final Collect for Mission in Morning Prayer.

See where you find your answer.

Lent 2C 2013 – the audio recording of the sermon preached on Feb. 24th at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bristol Rhode Island.

WordPress audio hosting test

Please ignore this post. I’m testing the ability of WordPress to host my sermon audio files directly. (I’ve been using another service, but I’m not seeing an advantage to using it anymore.)

Epiphany 2C 2013.m4a

Looks like it’s working about as well as the other service that I use. Are you able to listen to the file? (Or do I need to transcode it to mp3 before uploading? It works on my laptop, but may not work universally.)

Final Sermon at Trinity Cathedral

There is reason to believe that the United States is about to enter into a period of increasing sectarian violence. In some places the shooting has already started. How are we as Christians, as Episcopalians, as members of Trinity Cathedral supposed to respond?

The lessons we used in this final sermon were the same as were used at my installation 6 years ago; the gospel was John 15:9-16.

You can read the notes that used in the extended entry below.

A note about future sermons. I was able to record this sermon off the iPad I used to preach from yesterday. My hope is that as I now preach in various pulpits week in and week out, I’ll be able to keep posting my sermons using this sort of workflow. Let me know if the audio is acceptable?

MP3 File Continue reading “Final Sermon at Trinity Cathedral”

Proper 15B 2012 – The manna returns

When Jesus speaks, in John's Gospel, about being the bread of life, he is explicitly identifying himself as the Messiah to his listeners. He is telling them that he is going to bring the return of the miraculous manna to the children of Israel. It was the sign that the people of the time expected of the Messiah.

I'm taken with how Jesus reshapes the passover ritual given my Moses into the passover of the Messiah. He takes the story that Moses commands the chosen people to remember and adds to it.

We need to pay particular attention to what Jesus does here, because we are commanded to remember his words not once a year, but now once a week.

MP3 File

We may not know what to say, but we know what we must do.

Watch the Helpers

In a tragic moment like this, people often turn to the Church to help them make sense of what has happened. But, truth be told, we don’t have an answer for them. We don’t know what to think either. But while we may not know what to think, we do know what to do.

A sermon preached at Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona the Sunday following the shooting of 71 people in Aurora Colorado.

(Use the link above to read a description of the sermon and to listen to the audio.)