Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Your Priest is Pilate and Judas (and so are you)

People get up in arms sometimes about the symbols that we use around the Eucharist. That's fair. If people don't know what's going on, then it makes sense to be afraid that they are having the wool pulled over their eyes. And, if they get the sense that the priest doesn't know what's going on either (!), then it makes sense to get very uncomfortable.

The problem is complicated because we are centuries beyond what these forms originally meant. We have layers and layers of accreted meaning on simple acts (like the use of incense for odour control!). What should we do? Should we throw them all out? No, I say. Let's give our fathers and mothers in faith the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that they had something important to do or say with these forms, and let's open our liturgical and theological imaginations to explore the meaning that might be found there.

Take two quintessentially 'catholic' forms: ritual hand washing and kissing the altar. Priests often have their fingers washed before the beginning of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. It seems to represent a washing away of sin and lines up with the Old Testament images of the priests washing themselves in preparation for their priestly service. But, if you haven't seen it before, it can strike you as a little odd. Why is it there?

Also, in some higher church parishes, it is customary to lean down and kiss the altar during the service. This has been seen as a kiss of homage and obedience, as Michael Hunt puts it. It may also be a kiss reverencing the place where the Holy Spirit changes the earthly elements into spiritual food and drink. Either way, it can make many of us uncomfortable.

One of the amazing things about the Eucharistic liturgy is that it retells the story of the Passion. It starts with the "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" as Jesus enters Jerusalem. It continues through recounting the events of the Last Supper. It culminates in the breaking of the bread that both represents and re-presents the broken body of Christ. The offer then of the bread and wine is a hopeful sign of Christ's resurrected and living presence among us.

If the 'narrative' of the Eucharist puts us in the story of the Passion, where might hand-washing and a kiss fit in?

It fits with the prototypical rejecters of Christ. Pilate washes his hands. Judas betrays with a kiss.

What would it mean to see these symbols as re-presenting not only the sanctity of the Passion but also the priest's (and our own) complicity in Christ's death? What if we saw every kiss as the kiss of the betrayer as well as the kiss of homage and obedience? What if we saw the hand washing as simultaneously a sign of handing Christ over to the crowd and being made clean by his sacrifice? Might that draw us into the Eucharist differently? Perhaps more faithfully? Would that be enough to salvage these catholic practices for the evangelical proclamation of the Gospel?

Your priest is Pilate and Judas. And so are you.

[Photo by Rick Jernberg]

Monday, September 19, 2011

God's Good News for the Poor

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church is meeting 15-20 September in Quito, Ecuador. Many of the sessions have involved giving on-the-ground introductions to liberation theology, "a Christian movement in political theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions" (Wikipedia).

In the 16 September update from the Episcopal News Service, a curious sentence crept in:

All three speakers spoke of how the principles of liberation theology, which is God’s good news for the poor, can speak to our various church contexts.

Granted, this is part of a press release, prepared by members of the HoB likely at the end of a long day of work. In that context, I would be surprised if I could string together a coherent set of sentences, much less something polished enough to publish with ENS.

However, given that caveat, this still strikes me as a rather odd way to put it. The sentence seems to be saying that liberation theology itself, which only began in any formal way in the 1950's, is itself God's good news for the poor! Can that be right?

Alternatively, we could read it to say that the "principles of liberation theology" are God's good news for the poor. I imagine this is a little better, because the principles of liberation theology, as the next sentence put it, are involved with "authentic biblical witness today." However, even this sounds strange, since even though liberation theology's principal theologian Gustavo Gutierrez articulated God's "preferential option for the poor," he still emphasized praxis over doctrine, which sounds rather like emphasizing practice over principles or at least raising practice to the level of principles.

Liberation theology by itself cannot be God's good news for the poor. If that were true, then the poor received no good news from God before the 1950's. The principles of liberation theology aren't either. At its best, those principles are generalities taken from Scripture. They can be great, but they cannot be God's good news for the poor because the Bible by itself is not that either.

But by grace the Bible does show us the way. It points to God's good news for the poor and that good news is not a set of principles, no matter how faithful, but a Person who lived, died, and was raised again, stripping the authorities and rulers of their oppressive power and calling a people to witness to this reign in the here and now in part by taking the side of the weak against the strong. We do ourselves a disservice when we equate this or that theological movement with God's good news for the poor, whether we do it intentionally or not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and he is the one who fights for us, who pours himself out on the cross for all of us, especially the weak, marginal, and oppressed, and raises us up with him into newness of life.

I suspect, if asked, those three speakers on the 16th would agree substantially with these thoughts. I think we would agree that it would have been better had all three spoken of how the Person of liberation theology, who is God's good news for the poor, could speak to our various church contexts today. He can, and is, we pray, through the speakers' ministry to our bishops in Quito. May the Lord bless them all richly.

[Photo by Dimitri Castrique]

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Christianity, a word among the words?

In the Incarnation, the Word becomes a word among words, or so said David Bentley Hart in his The Beauty of the Infinite. This idea came to mind when I read a new blog over at Cranmer's Curate.

There the author quotes a woman overheard on the BBC saying this about the mandatory acts of public worship at her school:

"We are a very multi-cultural school and were we to mention Jesus it would exclude some of our students."

The Curate promises a cool appraisal and then promptly, and very un-
coolly, calls the woman a "high priestess of political correctness."

While it is plain that the UK is a post-Christian nation and that it would take a radical shift in culture for it to be at ease again with its Christian orientation, I don't think the best route is fulmination. Perhaps the answer is to let Christianity become, as its Lord did, a word among the words. For too long, Christianity was THE word among words, and it alliance with political power in the UK only problematized the faith's relationship to the Commonwealth.

Perhaps it is time for the church to enter graciously into its own kenosis, not counting equality with God as something to be grasped, but taking upon itself the form of a servant in order to proclaim the true Lordship of Christ in our secular age.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Response of Faith (Baptismal Covenant, part 3)

(continued from here)

The Book of Common Prayer talks about Covenant as well. The story of Abram and the firepot puts our biblical understanding of covenant in the realm of God's unilateral grace. What understanding does the Prayer Book have?

The BCP makes a distinction between the Covenant God has made and the covenant we make with God and with one another

In response to the question, "What is meant by a covenant with God?" the Catechism responds, "A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith" (BCP, 846).

There are two movements in this answer. The first is the relationship initiated by God. This aspect of covenant we have already seen in the story of Abram and the firepot. The second is our response in faith. The first is God's movement towards us. The second is our movement towards God. But, the Catechism does not say that the Covenant is both of these movements. No, "a covenant is a relationship initiated by God." We respond to the gracious, unilateral covenant in faith.

The Catechism distinguishes between the Old and New Covenants, but it maintains God's gracious, unilateral movement in each. Any talk of a Baptismal Covenant falls squarely under the rubric of the New Covenant, however.

Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and through them, to all who believe in him (BCP, 850).

This gracious, unilateral movement of God towards us in Christ demands a response. The response that Christ requires is summarized in the Catechism by the Summary of the Law (You shall love the Lord your God… and You shall love your neighbor as yourself) and the New Commandment (Love one another as Christ loved us) (BCP, 851).

The New Covenant is God's gracious movement towards us (and our human response towards God) in Christ. Our response in faith  is lived out in the Summary of the Law and the New Commandment. The Baptismal Covenant found in the Book of Common Prayer is nothing more than an exegesis of these two responses to the New Covenant of grace. In other words, the Baptismal Covenant gives us nothing more than can be 'proved' from Holy Scripture. Even if the Episcopal Church did not express the Baptismal Covenant in the way they do, the same ordinances are incumbent upon all Christians. Formalizing a minimum standard of discipleship in this way adds nothing to what Christ our Lord himself demanded of his followers. If anything, it helps us along the way.

The Baptismal Covenant consists of eight questions and answers. The first three comprise the Apostles' Creed. They are "Do you believe?" questions. The remaining five are about the Christian life. They are "Will you do?" questions.

Questions 1-2 outline Christianity's 'portable narrative.' This is the story that Christ followers believe about the past so that they can follow Christ in the present. Following Christ in the present is the theme of the remaining questions, each of which characterizes the baptized life by a different but interrelated aspect. The baptized life is the life of the Spirit (q. 3-4), the life of Proclamation (q. 5-6), and the life of Service (q. 7-8). In abstraction, we might say that the baptized life is the life of Spirit-empowered Witness.

In the next installment, we will discuss articles 1-2.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Baptismal Covenant, Part 2

Photo by Billy Alexander
Several weeks ago, I started a series on the Baptismal Covenant, found starting on p. 304 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Today, I want to continue our discussion around the idea of covenant. This week we will explore a biblical image of God's covenant making. Next week, we will talk about the way the Baptismal Covenant is portrayed in the Book of Common Prayer.

Abram and the Firepot

Genesis 15 contains a curious story. In Genesis 12, God called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans. Genesis 13 sees Abram parting ways with Lot. In Genesis 14, Abram goes to war to rescue Lot and afterwards is blessed by the enigmatic prophet-king Melchizedek. Genesis 15 sees Abram receiving a vision from the Lord.

God promises Abram many things, including descendants as numerous as the stars. When Abram asks how he will know that he will possess it, the really strange stuff begins.

God asks Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram cuts them in two and places them across from one another; a bloody path lies between. This was a customary way to seal a covenant between two parties. They would walk among the pieces as they made the deal, essentially saying "If I don't hold up my end, let it be to me as it is to these animals."

But God does not let Abram walk through the pieces. Abram falls into a deep sleep, and a firepot and a torch passed between the pieces. "On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants, I give this land …' (Gen 15:18)." It is as if God says, "You and I are in this covenant, but I take full responsibility for it, both for you and for all generations."

I've heard this called God's 'unconditional' covenant. I don't think this is quite fair. God's expectation is "Walk before me and be perfect," and the OT is full of God threatening through the prophets to remove the covenant from Israel. The covenant carries blessings and curses. It is a dreadful thing to be in covenant with God, as the name "Israel," "the one who struggles with God," attests. But, even if the covenant is not unconditional, it is at least unilateral. It is God's desire to establish covenant with humanity. There is a willing human partner, but God does not meet Abram halfway. God comes all the way to Abram and pitches his tent with the children of Israel. God graciously moves toward humanity, and this movement is unilateral, full of promise and life. It makes a people where there was no people.

If the Baptismal Covenant is meaningful in the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, then it must be meaningful in relationship to this, the establishment of the Old Covenant, as well as the living out of the New Covenant inaugurated in Jesus Christ. Next post, we will explore the way the Book of Common Prayer talks about Covenant, and the relationship of the Baptismal Covenant to the Old and New Covenants attested in Scripture.

Monday, August 01, 2011

I help people talk to God

Photo by Steve Todey

"What do you do?"

Notice that when people ask you what you do, they are asking about an action, not an identity statement.

We all know this awkward conversation:

"So, what do you do?"
"I'm an accountant."
"Oh, ummmm. What do accountants do?"

Claiming an identity in response to a question about activity can shut down a conversation. Conversations are like a friendly match of volleyball. Both sides take turns hitting the ball back and forth over the net. They're not trying to score points, just spending time together. In the situation above, responding with "I'm an accountant" interrupts this friendly game with a surprise spike. It leaves your conversation partner diving and scrambling to return the ball.

In the book, How to Talk to Anyone, the author Leil Lowndes suggests a course of action for this dinner party stock question. She calls it the "Nutshell résumé."

A nutshell résumé is designed to answer the "What do you do?" question straight-on while giving your conversation partner something to latch onto. It deposits information into the conversation and gives the other person a lot of time, space, and options in returning the ball.

"I’m an accountant" could become "I help individuals survive tax day," or "I keep my company financially honest," or even, "I help people hide their money." Any of these are better for small talk than "I'm an accountant."

Turning now to the priesthood. If "I'm an accountant" can maim a conversation, then "I'm a priest" shoves it out an airlock into the cold heart of space. What are some options for nutshell résumés for priests?

Here's a list of possibilities:
  • I help people find God
  • I introduce people to God
  • I help people thrive
  • I help people find who they really are
  • I help people live in tune with the earth
  • I help people live in tune with the world
  • I help people live in tune with God
  • I introduce people to Jesus Christ
  • I'm a spiritual midwife
  • I lead people to the throne of God
  • I help people discover the secret of the world

Each of these has its own resonances. All of them are true in their own way, and they each provide different options for expanding the conversation.

But, I finally alighted upon something else entirely: "I help people talk to God."

Priests help people talk to God. We do. It's wrongheaded to think that people have to come to us to talk to God. We're coaches. We come alongside our parishioners to equip them to be the royal priests that God has called them to be in their secular vocations.

And think of the ways that a stranger might take that answer. "Oh, how do you do that?" "Which God is that?" "What kind of people can talk to God?" "What set you on that course?" "Can you help me talk to God?" Any direction the conversation goes from there is evangelism of one sort or another. Any conversation that follows is an opportunity to invite a new acquaintance further into your life, which is hidden with Christ in God.

I can hardly wait until my next cocktail party so that I can try it out.

Are you a minister? How do you introduce yourself at parties?

Monday, July 25, 2011

SERMON: Jesus Keeps His Promise, A Sermon for Pentecost

Date: June 12, 2011

Note: This was the last sermon I preached at St. Matthew's Anglican Church, Riverdale. St. Matthew's was full of wonderful people to serve, and they taught me to love the Church in all of its shapes and sizes. Thanks be to God for them.

I have already admitted to you how big a fan I am of Star Wars. One or two Christmases ago, one of my family members bought me a giant book called, Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy. That’s right, a pop-up book. There is a different paper sculpture that springs into being as I turn each page. One page displays the Mos Eisley cantina, complete with an assortment of aliens, droids, and the famous cantina band; the next brings to life the Millenium Falcon, with a look inside its famous hull. Each page brings to life a new world of hidden panels and light-up lightsabers to explore. And if you turn the page slowly, you can see the slow folding of one world and the slow unfolding of the next. If you stop, with the page straight up in the air, the two worlds hang there, one almost gone, the other almost here. And this tension, this excruciating exhilaration of being-in-between, happens each time you turn the page.


There is something of that in-between-ness in the air as the gathered crowds fill the Temple in Jerusalem that Pentecost after Jesus was crucified. Jesus’ death and the rumours of his resurrection had been the buzz of the town, but the buzz has dulled over these last 50 days. Many of the city’s visitors, having saved for years to make the long Passover trip to Jerusalem, choose to stay for the Pentecostal feast before they make their way home to the far corners of the Empire. Adding to the number of stayers, many other pilgrims stream into the city for Pentecost, the annual celebration of covenant renewal.

The Temple courts are full. There are people and priests praying, animals lowing and yelling. The commotion is constant, never ceasing. Everyone is there together worshipping God.

It’s easy to overhear what people are saying. One group is animatedly discussing those 50 day old crucifixions. Another cluster claims to have seen Jesus’ followers in these very courts, the Temple courts, blessing God. They’re here so often that it’s a little strange that they are nowhere to be found today.

The crowd continues walking, worshipping, praying.

Then they hear it. It’s loud. It sounds like a tornado has hit Jerusalem, or a giant dust storm, or a violent wind. It is so loud that the Temple courts go quiet. People strain to see where the sound might be coming from; some duck behind friends or run towards the Temple’s inner courts. When the loud rushing sound suddenly ceases, those left standing lean forward to listen.

A smaller sound meets their ears from outside the Temple courts. It sounds like a group of people crying for help! The words are all mixed up together; the crowd is still too far away to hear what’s really going on. The people closest to the Temple gates start to exit first to see what the commotion is about. The rest begin to follow. As they get closer, they hear the voices growing more distinct. They round the corner and see a group of people through the large open window of an upper room. They are standing as though praying, and as people get closer some of the crowd begin to smile and nod in understanding. One particularly vocal member of the group exclaims loudly, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? […] In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:7-11)! All were amazed and perplexed. The whole crowd begins to turn in on itself. The genuinely curious ask, “What does it mean?” The openly skeptical respond, sneering, “They are filled with new wine.”


The sneering, skeptical response is a temptation that we all face when something radically new enters our lives. This cynicism is a type of self-armouring. We use it to put distance between ourselves and the fantastic opportunity or the call to service. It’s a crossing of the arms, a shaking of the head, a turning down of the mouth. When something dramatically new enters our world, we get cynical just like the Pentecostal sneerers, and we cast about for an easy explanation (“They are filled with new wine”).

A couple of good friends of ours took Monique and me to visit the Black Creek Pioneer Village. It was winter, and a fresh snow blanketed the ground. We visited period homes and shops, each one decorated for Christmas in a different way. The doctor’s home was striking, decorated in a Scottish style. We learned about Christmas traditions and the practice of medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The doctor’s office was a room in the house, and our guide showed us the instruments for tooth extractions, amputations, and blood-letting.

We got into a discussion about germs. Our guide told us the story of the first man who proposed that student doctors should wash their hands after they dealt with cadavers and before they delivered babies. He was laughed out, released, and eventually locked away in a mental hospital. It took a long time before the medical profession finally woke up. In fact, the younger physicians first picked up the idea. The older generation refused to adapt. They crossed their arms, shook their heads, and sneered at the young people who thought they needed to wash up before doing surgery. With the benefit of hindsight we wonder why they would resist the growing body of evidence that germs really do have an impact on the success of surgeries. Our guide put it this way: to admit the germ theory was for this older generation of doctors to admit to their communities, to their profession, and (hardest of all) to themselves that they for their entire careers had been killing patients. Their cynicism about the new science was a shield protecting them from the horrible, horrible truth.

And so it continues with us. Often when we find ourselves being cynical and sneering, especially about the things of God, it is because we are trying to protect ourselves. As the page turns and the old world folds up and the new one is revealed, cynicism and sneering cling to the old. It refuses to repent. It refuses to do what is necessary to live in the new day.


The 12 disciples, Jesus’ mother Mary, and the other women who traveled with them are gathered in the upper room. They can walk into a new day; they can move from one page to the next, because Jesus keeps his promise.

Just a few short days before Pentecost, they had been with Jesus on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. He made them a promise, “You are witnesses of these things,” he said. “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49). Jesus put it another way, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These were the last things Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. The disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and went back to Jerusalem. There they were always in the Temple courts praising God. They devoted themselves to constant prayer together. They waited and watched, not with cynicism or fear, but with real hope.

Did they feel the page turning? Could they see the world they knew collapsing and a new one taking its place?

When the day of Pentecost comes, they are all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the entire house where they are sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appear among them, and a tongue rests on each of them. All of them are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gives them ability (par. from Acts 2:1-4).

When the gathered crowd streams from the Temple courts to see what is the matter, some sneer, thinking the disciples are drunk. Peter stands up among the disciples, raises his voice, and speaks. And from his place at the Father’s right hand, Jesus gives the Spirit which turns Peter from a fisherman into a witness. The witness begins here in Jerusalem, but soon it will spread to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Jesus keeps his promise.


We set aside this day each year to remember that Jesus, all those years ago, kept his promise to his disciples. And we affirm, with our fathers and mothers in faith, stretching all the way back to the apostles, that Jesus keeps his promises still. That first Pentecost is over, but the Spirit of God that proceeds from the Father and the Son is still at loose in the world. The first Pentecost is over, but each year we remember that the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost still means something to us today.

First, Pentecost means that we are caught up in the same story as the disciples were all those years ago. Just as the apostles’ found themselves at that turning of the page between the old world and the new, so do we find ourselves riding the transition between the present and the end of time. At any moment, we expect that Jesus himself might appear, riding in the clouds, to reclaim the world for himself. We can wait for that time with patience and with hope because of the Holy Spirit’s life among us, shaping us into Christ’s image, feeding us with spiritual food, reminding us not to worry because Jesus keeps his promise.

Second, Pentecost means that we can’t control God. Jesus didn’t give his disciples magic words to summon the presence of God. Yes, we invoke God’s presence in prayer, but our invocation is no guarantee of it. God is not a pet to be trained or an object to be owned. God is the free God. God is the one who loves us precisely in that freedom, which means that we cannot move or force him, but we can know, because of Jesus’ promises, that he is always on the move towards us, and that movement towards us is the Holy Spirit. While we can’t control God, we can put ourselves in God’s way. After the Ascension, the apostles prayed constantly, praising God in the upper room and in the Temple courts. We, too, are called to the life of prayer, both as individuals and as a body of believers. In living the prayerful life, we will put ourselves in the way of the God who in and as the Holy Spirit is on his way towards us even now.

Finally, Pentecost means that we are called to be witnesses. The apostles are given miraculous powers when the Spirit comes, but these powers are not for themselves to have and hold. The power is for witness. The Spirit empowers the apostles to be his witnesses, first in Jerusalem where they were, then in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. So too, this Pentecost, does the Spirit empower us to be his witnesses here on First Avenue. It is our Jerusalem, our starting point. It is here that we will learn to be a church that is alive both in and for our neighborhood. It is here that we will stand up and find ourselves speaking into people’s lives, even to people with lives much different than our own, because the Spirit is there as our translator, making sense of the Gospel even for them. It is here that we will find brothers and sisters with whom we can share our lives, committed together to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. For in so doing, we will find ourselves solidly in the way of the God who loves us in Jesus Christ. We will find ourselves empowered by his Spirit to bear witness to God’s love even here. May it be true of us, by God’s grace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Welcome to Contra Factum

King's College Chapel, Cambridge
photo by Monique Ingalls
If you're visiting Contra Factum after reading my interview in the July 31 edition of The Living Church, a hearty welcome to you! I hope you'll enjoy the site.

My wife Dr. Monique and I are in the midst of a two-stage international move. The first took place this week, when she and I (with the help of the great folk at Wycliffe College) moved our belongings from Toronto to Arkansas. Vilonia, AR is homebase for our summer of visiting friends and relatives before moving to Cambridge (hopefully) in late August. Monique has been awarded the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Popular Music and Culture there. She will teach courses and pursue her own research as a member of the Faculty of Music and as a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College.

It's my hope that Contra Factum will come back to life in the next couple of weeks. I want to continue posting on The Episcopal Church's Baptismal Covenant, and there are other avenues I would like to explore, like mining biblical resources for a 'theology of freedom.'

Welcome, and enjoy!

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Spiritual Exegesis of the Baptismal Covenant, Part 1

The Baptismal Covenant. Let's talk about it.

If you've seen the comments sections on Anglican blogs, you'll likely have noticed a basic trend when people talk about the Baptismal Covenant. "Liberals" think the BC is a great thing, something to be celebrated. "Conservatives" think the BC is just one more mistake made by the 1979 Prayer Book committee.

Politically, this divide makes sense. Liberals (henceforth, please imagine the scare quotes) use the BC as a way to justify their liberalizing agenda. The last line of the Covenant contains the promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being." Liberals tend to summarize the whole BC with this promise, a move used to great effect in their ethical arguments.

It's understandable why Conservatives (remember: scare quotes) then want nothing to do with it. In the North American Anglican political and polemical discourse, the BC is the wholly owned subsidiary of the Liberal cause.

In other words, the Baptismal Covenant has become, like so many other shared texts, a source of contention instead of a source of unity.

This is a problem for North American Anglicans (Canadians included) because the BC is part of each and every Baptism we perform. Because of its polemical place in our political struggles, the Covenant has lost its ability to be a shaping influence in our baptizands' lives.

But, what if we tried for a moment to remove the Baptismal Covenant from its polemical setting and let it interpret itself? What if we stood back and in an attitude of prayer performed a spiritual exegesis of that text?

I think we would find something that is not only deeply Anglican but also deeply Christian, biblical, sanctifying, and helpful. I would like to see the BC removed from our political debates and ensconced in the context of the Christian life, in the life of Christians being shaped into the image and likeness of Christ.

We could, as many do, point to the authors (they are still alive) and say we can know the BC's meaning by looking to their intentions in shaping it. But, here's the thing. The BC is part of a conciliar, liturgical document, hallowed now by decades of use. Whatever the authors' original intentions, the BC has a history now, a spiritual effect in people's lives. That effect is informed more by the spiritual world it creates for us than by the BC's polemical context. Its spiritual world is created and nurtured by the deep interconnections of language and practice that hold the Book of Common Prayer together and hold the Prayer Book together with the Bible.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I intend to undertake a spiritual exegesis of the Baptismal Covenant. I will treat the Prayer Book as 'text,' allowing its internal connections to tease out its meaning, in some ways attempting to allow 'it' to explain 'itself' insofar as that is possible. To this layer of meaning we will add the Bible's language, from which the language of much of the Prayer Book (and much of the Baptismal  Covenant) is drawn. To use a post-liberal term, this spiritual exegesis is an exercise in first-order language.

I will begin next time with a brief look at the initiation of God's covenant with Abraham and end with an overview of the 'parts' of the Baptismal Covenant and the order in which I will take this spiritual exegesis.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

SERMON: Jesus the Cornerstone

Date: May 22, 2010
Text: 1 Peter 2:2-10

When I was young, my uncle introduced me to quartz crystal. In our backyard, he pointed out some rocks, took us over to them, and showed us the smoky translucent crystals hidden within. He said that they had probably been spit out of a volcano some million or two years ago, something quite unbelievable in flat Houston, TX. It opened a whole new world to me, and soon I was taking my dad’s sledgehammer and breaking rocks all over our yard. Some were small; others were quite large. Of the crystals discovered, I kept a collection. Over the course of a summer, what once were just rocks suddenly became things of beauty and discovery.


Our second lesson is taken from St. Peter’s first letter. He writes to a group of people who made that same type of discovery. Peter says that their life before was one of darkness, aloneness, and the absence of God’s mercy. But now, because of their discovery, something has changed. Though they were once dwelling in darkness, they have come into God’s marvelous light. Though they were once alone, they now have a people they can call their own. Though they were once outside of God’s mercy, they now have experienced it firsthand.

And here’s where rocks enter the picture: Peter admonishes his hearers to draw near to what he calls the ‘living stone,’ a stone that was chosen by God and precious, intended to be used as the cornerstone of God’s new Temple on earth. The believers themselves will become stones in this building. But first Peter tells them a story, a story about this chosen and precious living stone.

When God put the cornerstone down, there were builders in Zion, hired by God to build his Temple. They were intimately familiar with all of God’s ways and works; God had been working with them for a long time. They knew his designs. When God found the cornerstone to start his new building, he gave it to the builders he trusted.

But instead of proving trustworthy, they did the unthinkable. They rejected this living stone, the cornerstone. It was as if they had said, “We know what the building is supposed to look like, and this doesn’t fit in with how we see it.” They set it aside and began to build on their own.

But that cornerstone, chosen and precious of God, could not be used for anything other than its purpose. They thought it would work better as part of the wall, but they couldn’t budge it, couldn’t make it fit into place. They thought they might break it and divide its pieces among them for various projects, but the stone just rang as their chisels broke against it. And when they tried to ignore the stone, they found it always in their way. They stumbled over it. They fell. They could not finish their work because the cornerstone had become a rock of stumbling. In other words, they could not finish because they would not start where God wanted them to start. The builders had rejected the cornerstone.


Tobias Fünke
It would be hard for us to blame them. We live in a society here in North America where we are constantly advised to build our lives on nothing save our desires, our passions, and our dreams. We, the builders of our lives, are told that we need no touchstones, no cornerstones. All we need is to be true to who we really are. We don’t want to build our lives on anything but ourselves.

A good example of this comes from the odd and off-color TV comedy Arrested Development. All of the characters in the show are baseless. They are wealthy and so are not constrained by anything. They can do whatever they want; they can follow any dream. One of the characters is named Tobias Fünke.

Tobias is tall and mostly bald. Gangly. Strange and a little ugly. He is a difficult character to watch because he has, well, no life. He began his professional career as a successful psychological analyst and therapist, helping people to look deep inside themselves to discover the root of their problems. But then, he looked deep inside himself. There he discovered that he was an Actor, with a capital “A.” This revelation turned his world upside down. He quit his job and started pursuing roles anywhere that he could, living off his wife’s family’s wealth as he pursued his dream. The problem? Arrested Development takes delight in showing its audience, again and again, how irredeemably bad an actor Tobias actually is. The darkly funny part of the whole thing is Tobias’ obliviousness. He thinks he has talent, and whenever he comes face-to-face with his weakness, he refuses to see it. He shuts it out. He tries to build his house around a dream instead of the solid rock of his professional training or his family or the reality of his own strengths and weaknesses.

Am I right to think that you and I are often tempted to live this way? I think so. We find ourselves refusing to build our houses around the solid things of our lives. Instead, we build them around our egos, our dreams, our passions. We learn to shield ourselves from criticism. We learn to pretend that the world is like we want it to be instead of the way it really is. Now, we might try to take reality and fit it into a wall we’re building or to break it up for other parts of our house, but we can’t. Reality sits there ready to be built upon. But as we ignore it, we find ourselves tripping over it, falling, breaking. We find ourselves building on the sand until one day everything we build comes tumbling down.


But the good news that Peter proclaims to his hearers is this: in the midst of a world in which God’s builders had started building their houses on sand, God set a stone in Zion, and this stone was Jesus Christ.

Jesus, God’s own Son, was chosen and precious in God’s sight. God set Jesus in Zion as a cornerstone. He was the one upon which God’s Kingdom would be built. He was the one that if people would only believe in him, they would never be put to shame. But, as we know, the builders rejected the cornerstone and tried to build on their own. To them, Jesus became a ‘stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ Their rejection saw Jesus hung upon a cross.

But, God’s love for Jesus, his precious cornerstone, meant that God would not let his chosen one see decay; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ raised him from the dead. The Living Stone still stands, and it is upon this stone that Peter calls his hearers to be built. “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” he instructs, “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Later, he adds, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

For the people who first heard this letter read in their churches, they received a great gift. Even though they were not Jewish, even though they did not inherit the promises of God by virtue of their birth, they have received the promises through Jesus Christ. While they once dwelt in darkness, they have come into the marvelous light of God’s love. Though they were once not a people, now they are God’s people. Though they had once not received God’s mercy, now they have. They have a new start, a new beginning. They have the opportunity to let themselves be built up into God’s new Temple on earth, the Church. [They can build their lives on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, God’s chosen and precious cornerstone.]


Every week, close to the end of our service, immediately after the post-Communion prayer and before the Blessing, we say in unison a small passage from Scripture: “Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation, in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen” (BAS, 214).

“Infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” We were meant to live for so much more than what our passions or our dreams or our desires can give us. We can live our lives like Tobias Fünke, constantly grasping after a baseless dream, or we can let ourselves be built on the rock of reality, a rock that St. Peter says is no one other than Jesus Christ himself. Now this treads very close to a central mystery of our faith that is expressed beautifully in the collects for Morning Prayer: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standing our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…” (BCP, 11). For Christians, the limitation of obedience (and obedience is nothing more than being conformed to the reality of Jesus Christ) is not ultimately a restriction but a freedom. Disobedience, or building on the shifting sand of our own desires or passions, is slavery. It is slavery to a limited humanity. Obedience, on the other hand, is openness to God’s “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

What is this infinitely more that human beings are called to? Human beings are called to stand at the boundary-line of heaven and earth, to be, as St. Peter calls us, God’s holy and royal priests, priests that offer spiritual sacrifices that God is delighted to accept. As Christ’s royal priests, we represent the world to God, offering God the things of the earth in our prayers. As Christ’s royal priests, we represent God to the world, as we read the Scripture, listen to the Word preached, and share our faith with others. In all cases, in our lives we offer spiritual sacrifices to God, sacrifices of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

And all of this happens right here at St. Matthew’s. Being built up into God’s spiritual house, learning to be royal priests, this is the work of the Christian life. It is the reason we gather for worship. It is the reason we join together to serve our community. It is the reason we gather in small groups to learn how to offer the world to God in prayer and offer God to the world in witness. And so I commend our small groups to you again (there’s an announcement in the back of your bulletin). These are lively training grounds for the royal priesthood, where we learn to live our lives together, being built on the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ himself.

As we live quiet and peaceable lives together, praying for all and bearing witness to Christ’s love, we are built up together into God’s new Temple on earth. In the quiet, in the peaceable, in our faithful prayer and witness, built upon the solid cornerstone of Jesus Christ, God’s power, working in us, will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Through us, our worship, and our service, God will be glorified from generation to generation, in the Church and in Christ Jesus, the chosen, precious, and everliving cornerstone, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Reserving the Sacrament

In my church we reserve the Sacrament. For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, reserving the Sacrament means that we set aside the consecrated bread and wine of the Lord's Supper for future use. It's a helpful practice, especially for those of our shut-in members. We can then take a part of the Sunday's table fellowship to them so that, in effect, they share the same Meal with all of us.

Reserving the Sacrament is tricky for Anglicans because (to my knowledge) it is a Catholic practice tied to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation, put simply, means that in the Eucharistic prayers, God replaces the substance (the 'is-ness') of the bread and wine with the substance of Christ's Body and Blood. While the elements still look, feel, and taste exactly like bread and wine, their reality is Jesus himself: body, blood, soul, and divinity.

The Anglican Church in its historic formularies repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation as "repugnant to the plain words of Scripture," (Article XXVIII) but it is important to note that the difference with Rome on this matter was a dispute over the means of Christ's presence, not the fact of Christ's presence. Article XXVIII goes on to say that the Body of Christ "is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper , is Faith."

Embarrassingly for contemporary Anglican practice, the Article continues, "The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped."

So, we have the catholic practice of reserving the Sacrament. An early Anglican formulary denies that this practice is part of Christ's ordinance. This is, strictly speaking, true. Christ's ordinance includes the Words of Institution and the elements of bread and wine. But, as Anglicans since at least Hooker have maintained, just because something is not explicitly ordained by Christ does not mean it is disallowed. We have to ask whether the practice is repugnant to Scripture, that is, whether it in some way denies or goes against the grain of the story of Christ as told by the Bible.

In other words, we have to ask, as George Sumner did with the indelibility of Holy Orders, whether or not we can find an evangelical argument for this catholic practice. Is there something to which reserving the Sacrament bears witness that we find essential, good, and in accordance with the Scriptures? I think there is.

In brief, reserving the Sacrament means that what happens in space and time matters and continues to matter for our spiritual lives.

Ultimately, there is but one death in space and time that gives meaning to, shapes, illumines, and redeems space and time: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. As bearers of a Protestant tradition, most Anglicans would say that Christ's death is once-for-all. It does not need repeating. What happened in that specific space (on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem) in that specific time (somewhere around AD 30) matters for all space and time, and it matters not merely as a spiritual event but as a spatio-temporal-spiritual event. What happened in space and time mattered and matters.

In an analagous way we can move to the consecration of the elements in the Eucharist. Some say that the Bread and Wine are just signs. They carry meaning only insofar as they are part of the worship service. Afterwards, the elements could be fed to the dogs because there is nothing special about them at all. In other words, what was once special and important in space and time falls away from that use once the context has passed. Should the materials be saved for the next celebration of the Lord's Supper, they would be prayed over again, just like the previous service had never happened.

But, those of us who reserve the Sacrament maintain by the practice that what happened in a specific place (at the altar at my church in Toronto, for instance) at a specific time (somewhere around 11:45 am on Sunday) continues to matter, even after the worship service ends. The elements, though not changed substantially, still bear the significance of consecration. That past event continues to have significance - once-for-all significance, even - in the case of these specific elements.

Whatever we think about the means by which the Sacrament is Sacrament, reserving it bears witness to an understanding that what happens in the past matters, that bread and wine once set aside are not automatically returned to secular use as soon as the service is over. Reserving the sacrament claims a historical connection with the bread and wine's consecration in  space and time, which in turn claims a connection with the once for all consecration of Jesus Christ upon the cross. As St. Paul says, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16, NRSV).

Reserving the Sacrament means that we believe that things of supra-historical (spiritual) significance can happen in and as space-and-time realities. Reserving the living signs and symbols of Body and Blood claims something about the reality, tangibility, materiality, personality, and individuality of the Cross. Because Christ's consecration on the Cross was once-for-all, we practice a once-for-all consecration of the elements that enable our sharing in Christ's consecration by the power of the Spirit in faith.

What do you think about reserving the elements of the Lord's Supper for future use? How does your church practice?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Sermonic Metagaming

Since a friend of mine dropped the core rulebook on my bed in my second year of undergrad, I have, off and on, run campaigns in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. The technical title is "Gamemaster" or "GM." The GM pulls together the story and set objectives for the players, who each play different characters. The players are free to do whatever they wish with their characters, and it's the GM's job to make sure that the story gets told and told well. An RPG ends up being an exercise in group story-telling, and, I have to say, is one of the best preparations for leading small group discussions I've ever had.

RPGs have rules that govern the physics of the imaginative world that the GM and the players create together. Dice are used to account for the randomness of the player's actions. Just because a player's character is a really good medic doesn't mean that they will always save a person's life. There are innumerable small things in life that effect the results of our actions. The dice simulate that.

Because there are so many rules, it's tempting for players to start metagaming, or playing their characters like the characters have all the knowledge that the player does. A player could, for instance, keep their character from visiting a planet the player knows from the movies is doomed to destruction. Or a player who knows the rules well could make the entire gaming session about disputing the finer points to their maximum advantage.

The common sin? They use knowledge they have of the movies or the rules to distance themselves from the story that the group is telling together.

Sermonic metagaming, a similar phenomenon, happens when preachers use specialized knowledge to distance themselves and the congregation from the story they had to that point been telling together in the liturgy.

When I was first falling in love with the Anglican tradition, I used to joke that the great thing about worship in the Episcopal Church was the most you could mess up was the sermon, and that was only 10 minutes anyway. Having been an Episcopalian now for several years, I can say from experience that sometimes those 10 minutes (or 20 or 30) can be so thoroughly metagamed so as to wreck the whole rest of the service.

I once met a bishop (in another denomination) who boasted to me about a sermon he had recently preached. He proudly told me of stripping the passage from the Pentateuch down to its JEPD sources, showing how the earliest source said something quite different than the redacted whole that his congregants had in their Bibles, and lifting up this reading as the authoritative one. This was the truth that they were to live, he told them, because this is the earliest part of the biblical revelation. He used his specialized knowledge of historical criticism to distance himself and his congregation from the liturgical story they had been telling together, a story predicated upon the biblical witness' canonical wholeness.

Pastors also metagame in their sermons when they talk every week about something they are trying to build in their congregations. "Community" and "authenticity" are popular tropes. The problem is not that these are bad things in themselves. The problem is that ministers often run roughshod over their sermon texts in order to get to them. And, ironically, I don't think we build community or authenticity very well by talking about them. Analysis paralysis seems to set in too quickly. Instead we build them by getting together and telling and living the story week-to-week. A metagamed sermon distracts from the desired goal; it doesn't seem to further it.

Now, I have to say that there are certain places in the church's life where metagaming is important and necessary. The announcements are a time set aside for just that. Adult education is another one of those places, and I would worry if a minister didn't have classes from time to time on historical criticism or the benefits of building a community of authentic believers. But, please consider keeping those things out of the pulpit. They distract and disrupt. They disable the community's participation in the weekly liturgical story. In other words, they draw attention to the preacher or to the congregation when the sermon should be drawing attention to the story of God's gracious and merciful self-giving in Jesus Christ.

Let's stop the sermonic metagaming and get into the story. It's an adventure we shouldn't want to miss.


Do you have any stories of sermonic metagaming? Please share below!