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!