Sunday, January 29, 2017

Annual Parish Meeting -- Rector's Address

Ives Window, S. Stephen's Church
As a parish, we have much to celebrate and be grateful for. During the past year, I’ve continued to derive strength and encouragement from the commitment, energy, and enthusiasm evident in so many areas of parish life: from the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper to the Christmas Pageant; from the May Procession of our Lady to the New Year’s Day Dinner.

During 2016, we had a well attended Friday evening Lenten series, as well as Lent and Advent Quiet Days. Attendance at Advent Lessons and Carols and the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was impressive. A cheerful commitment to service in the Name of Christ is manifest every Saturday afternoon among those parishioners who assist with the Epiphany Soup Kitchen, now in its eighth year at S. Stephen’s!

When my friends and colleagues in other places ask me to describe S. Stephen’s, I tell them—without any hesitation, false modesty, or embarrassment—that we simply have the best liturgy and music of any parish in Rhode Island. James and I work hard to keep it so; and we couldn’t do it without the enthusiastic support of choristers, servers, altar guild, ushers, and not least faithful parishioners in the pews.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my staff: Assistant Priest and Episcopal Campus Minister Fr. Martin Yost, Organist and Choirmaster James Busby, Parish Administrator Cory MacLean, and Financial Assistant John McGlashan. And the officers of the Vestry: Senior Warden Tom Bledsoe, Junior Warden Susan Brazil, Treasurer George Ryan, and Clerk and Sacristan Phoebe Pettingell. We are blessed to have such a great team.

We do face some challenges. Nationwide, church membership and attendance is declining, and this is especially true in the Northeast. We’re not immune to these trends here at S. Stephen’s. Also, as I mentioned last year, we’ve been taking too much out of the endowment to fund current operations, and some restructuring is necessary. The Senior Warden and the Treasurer will be saying more about that.

Over the past few months, it’s become clear to me that to secure the long-term future of the parish, we need to make some changes in at least three areas: evangelism, stewardship, and planned giving. The changes I’m talking about are not so much procedural or methodological as what might be called cultural and spiritual—defining “culture” loosely as the mix of attitudes, assumptions, habits, and practices that shape our collective identity as a community.

Evangelism is a major theme of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry; and for once I’m glad to say that I approve heartily of the lead we’re getting from the top of our institutional structures! For too long the Episcopal Church has focused on programs aimed at church growth while soft-pedaling evangelism; and the results have been disappointing. Church growth programs emphasize marketing and methods of developing seeker-friendly congregations. Useful as those approaches are, evangelism requires something more: namely, getting comfortable talking about God’s place in our life, and inviting friends, neighbors, colleagues, and associates to come to church to experience for themselves the difference that Jesus can make.

That may be an intimidating proposition. Evangelism has generally not been part of our culture as Episcopalians; in many parishes the de facto assumption is that the clergy are there to do our evangelism for us. But that approach won’t work anymore, if it ever did. We need to engage in some serious self-examination and study of how to cultivate a more robust and vibrant culture of evangelism. So one of my goals in the coming year is to identify some sources of outside help whom we could invite to come into S. Stephen’s and lead us in a process of learning how to become a more evangelistically oriented parish, while at the same time respecting, safeguarding, and promoting our Anglo-Catholic identity.

Stewardship is another area that requires work. Sincere thanks are due to everyone who pledged financial support for the coming year. We have some enormously generous parishioners. But I’m convinced that a greater number could afford to give significantly more if they really made it a priority. Again, the problem is not so much economic or financial as cultural and spiritual. As I never tire of pointing out, in other parts of the country, giving levels are much higher than in New England for reasons that have little if anything to do with disposable income. In the coming year, then, I want us to engage the question of how we can renew our culture of stewardship in this parish.

Faced with proposals for cultural and spiritual change, our natural reaction is often one of resistance. It’s too difficult; our habits, attitudes, and ways of doing things are too ingrained. We like ourselves just fine as we are. Why should we change? Ultimately, the only persuasive answer to that question comes from examining whether our current attitudes, habits, and practices are helping us achieve our goals. We all want to grow as a parish. The question is how well our culture of evangelism, or lack thereof, is serving us in achieving that goal. We all want to put S. Stephen’s on a secure financial footing and reduce the amount we take from the endowment to fund current operations. The question is how well our culture of stewardship is serving us in achieving that goal. The motivation to change will come when we see that our current cultural patterns are not helping and may even be hindering the achievement of goals on which we all agree.

Change is possible. I’ve seen it. After I first arrived at S. Stephen’s seventeen years ago, one of the complaints that I heard repeatedly was that we had a deserved reputation for being unfriendly and unwelcoming to first time visitors and guests. More than one person told me, “I came to coffee hour and no-one spoke to me.” (The ones who told me that, were generally the ones who’d persevered in coming anyway!) A consensus emerged that we needed to fix this. So, in various ways we worked on trying to become more welcoming and hospitable. And it worked: I haven’t heard those complaints for a number of years now. Quite the opposite: a number of visitors have told me how warm and friendly we are. If we could make that change, we can also make the sorts of changes I’m talking about with respect to evangelism and stewardship, provided that we see the necessity of doing so.

Last but not least: planned giving. In my annual meeting address last year, I said that we must take pro-active steps to grow our endowment. One of the most important means of doing that is planned giving: that is, parishioners and friends making provision for gifts to the parish from their estates after they depart this earthly life. When you think about it, that’s how we got our endowment. So much of what we do here today, week by week, is funded by the generosity of the former generations of parishioners whose monuments and memorials line the walls of the church. It’s part of the fellowship we enjoy with the living and the dead in the communion of saints. We pray for them, they pray for us, and their gifts to the church continue to enrich our life together in this parish. In gratitude for their generosity, it behooves us to be generous for the benefit of those who will come after us in this place.

I’m pleased to announce today the formation of an organization that will be known as the Robert Hale Ives, Jr., Legacy Society. You may remember that Robert Hale Ives, Jr., was the young parishioner of S. Stephen’s who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. On his deathbed in Frederick, Maryland, he made a bequest to the parish of $5,000 (which in today’s money is worth about $122,000) to help pay off the $20,000 mortgage the parish incurred in the construction of its new church building—provided that the remaining $15,000 be raised within a year of his death. It was, and the mortgage was paid off. He is memorialized in the Ives window in the north aisle, which you see directly ahead of you when you walk in the front door of the church.

To join the Ives Legacy Society, you simply fill out a form indicating that you’ve remembered S. Stephen’s in your will or have otherwise provided for the parish in your estate planning. And we take your word for it and enroll you in the Society!

The purpose of the Society is to foster a culture of planned giving by publicly recognizing those who make such provision for the parish. By joining, we have the opportunity to bear witness to the place S. Stephen’s holds in our lives, and to encourage others to do the same. So I’m pleased to conclude by distributing these brochures, which explain the Society in more detail, and include an application form to join. Thank you all very much. I believe with God'd help we can all look forward to great things ahead in the continuing history of this wonderful parish.

Sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A

Fra Angelico, Sermon on the Mount, 1436-1443
Matthew 5:1-12

In my childhood, the comic strip Peanuts popularized the slogan beginning with the words, “Happiness is.” Happiness is a warm blanket. Happiness is a fresh pile of autumn leaves. Happiness is a home run. The craze soon spread to advertisements, T‑shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers. The point was that you could fill in the blank in an almost infinite variety of ways. Happiness is a new car. Happiness is a perfect golf game. Happiness is a vacation in the Bahamas. And so forth.

Throughout history, philosophers and other observers of the human condition have remarked on our natural desire to be happy. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our inalienable human rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The question is where true and lasting happiness is to be found. The Peanuts philosophy seemed to imply that each individual is free to define his or her own subjective meaning of happiness. But in the Church’s traditional teaching, happiness is something objective and given, more to be revealed and discovered than invented or constructed. And the paradigmatic Christian understanding of happiness is nowhere summed up more succinctly than in the collection of sayings from Saint Matthew’s Gospel known as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude means blessedness or happiness. And the beatitudes give us our Lord’s answer to the question of where true and lasting happiness is to be found.

Down through the centuries the Church has made use of easily memorized lists that sum up its teaching about the Christian life. The Ten Commandments give a basic set of do’s and don’ts. The Seven Deadly Sins give a comprehensive picture of the destructive patterns of behavior that separate us from God and one another. The four Cardinal Virtues and the three Theological Virtues portray the ideal of Christian character. The seven Gifts of the Spirit and the twelve Fruits of the Spirit describe God’s movement and action in the Christian life.

Entire books have been written on each of these catalogues of commandments, virtues, vices, and gifts. But the Church has always given pride of place to the nine Beatitudes as the clearest statement possible of the goal of Christian life as the blessedness and happiness of the Kingdom of heaven.

The Gospel readings for today and for the coming three Sundays are taken from the Sermon on the Mount, which opens with the Beatitudes. Jesus goes up on the mountain. When he sits down, his disciples come to him and he begins his discourse.

Notice that here Jesus is speaking to his disciples, who’ve left everything to follow him. They are the ones who are blessed because they’ve become—or are becoming or will become—poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and so forth. The ninth and last Beatitude makes this point clear, when our Lord shifts from the third person to the second person and declares, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely on my account.”

So, here we have Jesus beginning his most famous sermon by pronouncing a series of blessings upon his disciples. Each blessing has two parts: a present condition, and a future reward: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. In each case the present condition describes a quality of those who follow Christ, and the future reward describes some aspect of true happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Notice that the people whom our Lord pronounces blessed are the very opposite of those whom the world thinks blessed. We tend not to think of the poor in spirit or those who mourn as being particularly happy. The wisdom of the world is that nice guys finish last. But here our Lord subverts the world’s values. It may seem so now, he says, but the time is coming when this-worldly fortunes shall be reversed. The meek shall inherit the earth. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who now suffer persecution and exile—and no humanly constructed wall or humanly issued executive order will be able to keep them out.

We don’t have time to go through each of the Beatitudes in detail. Entire books have been written on the Beatitudes; each one of them alone could easily be the subject of an entire sermon. Not so long ago some preachers would give nine-week sermon series, taking each of Matthew’s beatitudes a Sunday at a time.

Suffice it to say that Jesus himself is the perfect fulfillment of everything he says here. He displays perfectly what it is to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to make peace, and to be persecuted, reviled and spoken against for righteousness’ sake. First and foremost, the Beatitudes are a portrait of Christ.

And it’s only in Christ that we make the Beatitudes our own and enter into the happiness that they describe. A number of commentators point out that their wording is not, “If you want the kingdom of heaven, then be poor in spirit; if you want to be comforted, then mourn.” That is, they’re not so much prescriptive as descriptive. They’re not so much a how-to manual as a promise and reassurance of the divine reward held in store for those whom the world counts least blessed in this life.

But what we can’t achieve on our own our Lord can and will achieve in us. We’ve been baptized into his Body, the Church, and we receive his life in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. If we persevere in making use of the means of grace he’s appointed for us, he will make us into the very people that he describes in the beatitudes, a people on the way to true and lasting happiness, the goal and end of human existence, a reward great in heaven.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year A

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432
(Click on image for larger view)
John 1:29-42

About thirty years ago, on a road trip in Belgium, we stopped in the city of Ghent—on the highway from Brussels to Bruges—for the express purpose of going into Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and seeing the treasure of late medieval religious art known as the Ghent Altarpiece.

Designed by Hubert van Eyck, the Altarpiece displays twenty panels painted by his younger brother Jan van Eyck between 1430 and 1432. (It was stolen and returned to Ghent twice in the twentieth century, once each during the two World Wars, but that’s another story.)

The largest and best-known panel is called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. By any estimation it’s a magnificent painting. It’s also significant in art history not only for its unprecedented realism and attention to detail, but also for being one of the earliest Western European paintings executed in oils rather than egg tempera.

At the center of the painting an altar stands in a verdant meadow bordered by lush foliage. On the altar stands a Lamb. From a wound in his breast a stream of blood pours into a chalice, also on the altar. Yet the Lamb is serene, showing no signs of pain or suffering.

Above the altar, at the top of the painting, the Holy Spirit hovers in the form of a dove, radiating beams of supernatural light that illuminate the entire landscape without casting any shadows. In the foreground, at the bottom of the painting, stands the well of the water of life. Visible on the horizon are the towers and spires of the heavenly Jerusalem.

A group of angels surrounds the altar, worshiping the Lamb. Two are swinging censers; others bear the instruments of the Lord’s Passion: the Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the spear that pierced his side, and the pillar where he was scourged.

Four groups of human worshipers approach the altar from different directions: in the foreground, contemporary monks and bishops to the right, Old Testament prophets and virtuous pagans to the left; in the background, virgin martyrs and holy women to the right, and martyrs and saints of past centuries to the left.

An inscription on the altar identifies the painting as a visual commentary on the words of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It also has a mystical visionary quality, affording a glimpse of worship in heaven as described in the Book of Revelation, where the Risen and Ascended Christ appears as a Lamb who has been slain and yet lives.

The first part of today’s Gospel reading from John comprises John the Baptist’s reflections on the Baptism of Christ, which we commemorated last Sunday. Here John speaks of what appears to be a mystical vision that he himself experienced at the Baptism of Jesus: “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and it remained on him.”

Interestingly enough, in the parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is not John but Jesus who sees the Spirit descending in the form of a dove and alighting on him. But just before that, the Synoptics include another detail missing from John’s account: “[Jesus] saw the heavens opened...”

It’s easy to skip over that little detail: he saw the heavens opened. But that’s the stuff of mystical visions. At the risk of doing what we were told in seminary never to do—namely, conflating John’s Gospel with the Synoptics—we may well ask: did John the Baptist also see the heavens opened? And, if so, what did he see?

Following this line of questioning, theologian and preacher Aidan Nichols OP speculates that at the Baptism both Jesus and John the Baptist received a glimpse into heaven, where Jesus saw himself, and John saw Jesus, as the Lamb of God on the heavenly altar. This is admittedly just speculation, but if true it would definitely account for John’s subsequent identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

This motif of seeing the heavens opened recurs in the New Testament. Almost immediately after the events related in today’s Gospel, Jesus himself declares to Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” And at the moment of his martyrdom, our patron, Saint Stephen, gazes into heaven and testifies to his accusers, “Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

The image of the Lamb in the Old Testament is multilayered. It could refer to the lambs sacrificed twice daily in the Jerusalem Temple, morning and evening, or to the lambs that individual Israelites could bring to the Temple to offer as sacrifices for their sins. It could refer to the Passover Lamb, sacrificed every year to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt when the blood of the lamb on the Israelites’ doorposts caused the angel of death to pass over their houses. And it could refer to the Suffering Servant in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, who “opened not his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter …"

Another possible meaning is the Apocalyptic Lamb. In certain Jewish writings dating to between the Old and New Testaments, the figure of a lamb represents Israel’s Messiah, opposed by an array of ferocious wild beasts representing the nations of the earth. Against all odds, the lamb defeats and subdues these wild beasts, inaugurating the arrival of God’s kingdom and the messianic age.

Some scholars have thus argued that when John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus is the Lamb of God, his meaning is simply that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed one. It seems to me, however, that when John adds that this Lamb takes away the sin of the world, he is signifying something more: namely that Jesus has come to shed his blood in a sacrificial offering that will reconcile a fallen world to God.

At every Mass, we sing or say the threefold hymn Agnus Dei: “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” Then the priest shows the consecrated host and chalice to the people, repeating the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God; behold him that taketh away the sins of the world.”

These words invite us to look beneath surface appearances, and see into the heart of a deeper reality. Visual artists like Jan van Eyck communicate something of this reality in their paintings. Music can also be its vehicle, as can various forms of prayer, meditation, and silent contemplation. Whatever the vehicle, if we’re faithful, persistent, and attentive, it just may be granted us also to see the heavens opened, and the Lamb standing at the throne of God.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon for Solemn Mass of the Nativity

Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306

Saturday 24 December 2016

From early childhood, many of us grew up to associate Christmas with the giving and receiving of presents. In my parents’ secular household, the miracle of Christmas was the nocturnal visit of Santa Claus to leave all sorts of delightful toys and games under the tree to be discovered and unwrapped, opened and assembled, in the first light of morning.

It wasn’t until I started attending church as a young adult that I came to think of Christmas primarily in religious terms as the occasion of Midnight Mass to celebrate the Lord’s Nativity. But that’s another story.

From my childhood, well into my teenage years, the question, “What would you like for Christmas?” was of momentous importance. In school, my classmates and I would excitedly tell one another what we were hoping to get for Christmas this year. In high school, this topic of conversation prompted one of my friends, who was a semi-competent artist, to submit to the student newspaper a cartoon showing a child sitting under the Christmas tree ripping the wrappings off a mountain of presents, with the caption, “Tis the season to be greedy!”

This cartoon caused indignation among the more literal-minded types in the student body who, not realizing that it was satire, thought my friend was purposely overthrowing the religious and spiritual meaning of Christmas. The truth was the opposite; he was in fact a practicing Episcopalian who wanted to lambast the day’s commercialism and materialism.

But the giving and receiving of material gifts in no way contradicts the Christian understanding and observance of Christmas. In 1923, the noted writer and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton published an essay on Christmas presents. He began by saying that he’d recently seen a statement by Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, that while she had no objection to Christmas presents per se, she herself didn’t give presents in any “gross, sensuous, terrestrial sense, but sat still and thought about Truth and Purity until all her friends were much better for it.”

This plan, Chesterton commented, was not necessarily impossible or superstitious, and it had a certain economic charm. But, he continued, it was definitely un-Christian. “I do not know,” he wrote, “if there is any Scriptural text or Church Council that condemns Mrs. Eddy’s theory of Christmas presents, but Christianity [itself] condemns it, [just] as soldiering condemns running away.”

He went on: “The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the … Creed. Christ himself was a Christmas present.”

It occurred to me as I read these words that Chesterton effectively demolishes the proverbial adage that it doesn’t matter what you give someone because “it’s the thought that counts.” No, says Chesterton, the thought by itself doesn’t count, and cannot count, until it somehow becomes embodied and tangible, because we are embodied creatures living in a material creation that God saw was very good.

It’s true that material presents fall short when given as substitutes for loving care and attention, or as attempted compensation for neglect or worse. But, conversely, the act of thinking good thoughts about those dear to us also falls short unless those thoughts become incarnate in gifts that effectively let the recipients know that we’re thinking of them.

I recall reading somewhere that if you’re invited to dinner at someone’s home in France, it’s customary to take along some such gift as a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates, much as here in the United States. But one needs to be careful to choose a gift of high quality and good taste because, unlike in this country, the idea that “it’s the thought that counts” just doesn’t fly over there. More precisely, the quality of the gift given communicates more than we might realize the extent of our respect, esteem, and affection for the recipient.

In any case, Chesterton’s main point is that even among those for whom Christmas has become a secular cultural holiday rather than a solemn religious observance, the practice of giving gifts preserves a vestigial memory of the Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is God’s greatest gift of all: a Christmas present of infinite quality expressing infinite love because it’s the gift of God himself present among us.

About a month ago, in my capacity as Superior of the American Region of the Society of Mary, I was pondering what to do about the situation in one of our Wards in Texas. The Ward Secretary was retiring after 24 years of dedicated service, and her last meeting in that capacity would be on the first Saturday in December. I wondered whether I should phone, write a letter, send a gift, or some combination of all three.

Finally, I realized that whatever else I did, the best gift I could offer by far would be to fly down there, attend the meeting, and greet her in person. And so I did—taking along a letter of commendation and the gift of a little statue as well. As every priest learns in the exercise of the pastoral ministry, sometimes on critical occasions there’s just no substitute for showing up in the flesh. But that is the incarnational principle of Christianity.

God himself sets the pattern. Contrary to Mrs. Eddy’s theory, when the human race had fallen and become subject to sin and death, God did not just sit in heaven thinking thoughts of Truth and Purity until we were all the better for it. On the contrary, God came down from heaven in person—in the Person of his Son—to share in our created human life so that we in turn might share in his uncreated divine life. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. That’s the good news that the Church proclaims and celebrates every year on the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity.

So there we have what we might call the Catholic doctrine of Christmas presents. By cheerfully giving them, we grow in the virtues of generosity and unselfishness. And by gratefully receiving them, we remind ourselves that all the truly valuable and worthwhile things that we have in this life are not those that we can take or earn for ourselves, but those that come to us from God as gifts freely given, beginning with our very existence, and ending with heaven itself. The practice of giving and receiving gifts, not only at Christmas but also throughout the year, thus becomes a spiritual discipline, a means of growth in grace and holiness.

And when we kneel at the crèche and gaze at the infant Christ, we behold the first and best Christmas present of all: the gift of God himself in the flesh. The wrapping is swaddling clothes, and the box is a manger. So we give thanks to God for such a wondrous gift, and adore.

Some key ideas for this sermon came from Aidan Nichols, OP, Year of the Lord's Favour: A Homilary for the Roman Liturgy, Volume 2, pp. 60-61. Excerpts from the Chesterton essay are here.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon for Proper 28, Year C (Sunday after the Presidential Election)

"The sun of righteousness shall rise,
with healing in its wings" (Malachi 4:2)

Malachi 4:1-2

Well, I didn’t see that one coming. This past Tuesday, the nation experienced a cataclysmic upset in the Presidential election, and I suspect that many of us are still trying to sort through our reactions to it all, as indeed am I.

I’ve no desire to add to the mountains of political commentary through which we’ve been wading these past few days. Your clergy are called to be preachers, not pundits. Much less do I want to commit the cardinal sin of “preaching politics from the pulpit.”

But I do want to offer a few thoughts in response to the election of the sort that really can come only from the pulpit. In formulating these thoughts, my task is not to be clever or original, but rather to draw on the best wisdom of the Church’s tradition of reflection on the duties of Christians within the political order. My goal is simply to articulate a few ideas that we’ve probably all heard before but perhaps need to be reminded of again now more than ever.

This election has not so much revealed as it has magnified and brought into sharper focus the deep ideological and cultural cleavages dividing our country. In a letter to the Diocese of Rhode Island on Friday, Bishop Knisely wrote this:

The results of the election this week have confirmed what we already knew. Our country is deeply divided along regional, racial, gender, and economic lines. The divisions are real and painful. The divisions are ending friendships and threatening family relationships. There are people in our communities and congregations who are delighted and people who are devastated. The emotions are real and raw, and their intensity is hard for some to understand.

That’s an apt description of the situation. How then is the Church called to respond? Remember, if we’re baptized, we’re members of the Church, so a more precise way of putting it is: How are we called to respond together, as the Church?

Framing the question in this way suggests the beginning of an answer. In the words of the English Bishop George Bell at the beginning of the Second World War, our calling is “to be still the Church.” That is, we’re called to do what the Church does. We’re called to fulfill the Church’s duties to God, to our members, and to the wider community at this time and place in history, as indeed in all times and in all places in history.

The Church’s mission begins and ends in what we’re doing here this morning: offering worship to Almighty God, and holding up the needs of the world in prayer. And that really is the essence of the response that the Church is called to make to the Presidential Election. Before we do anything else, we pray. But how are we to pray: for whom, and for what?

Here the Church’s liturgical and spiritual tradition comes to our aid. Difficult and distasteful as it may be for some, the first object of our prayers must be the President-elect himself. Down through the centuries, the Church in all lands has prayed for emperors, kings, and those in authority. This practice goes back to the New Testament, where Saint Paul writes in his First Letter to Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all … for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.”

Such prayer for the head of state does not necessarily entail approval of his policies or actions. In the early centuries, Christians constantly prayed for the Roman emperors who periodically persecuted them and sent them to the lions. It does entail the recognition that those in positions of political authority need God’s grace and guidance to make enormously complicated decisions wisely and justly. The President-elect stands in deep need of all our prayers, and it would be selfish and unchristian to withhold them now.

Secondly, we’re called as members of the Church to pray for those with whom we disagree, even within the Church itself. This imperative goes back to our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”

To refer back to Bishop Knisely’s words on Friday: some in our congregations are delighted, and some are devastated. That is no less true here at S. Stephen’s than anywhere else. In the past few days, a number of bishops and other church leaders have spoken of the need for reconciliation in our communities. But reconciliation doesn’t mean that we all have to agree, or that we should paper over our disagreements with a veneer of "niceness." It does mean, however, that so far as possible we must avoid allowing a situation to develop in which any member of our parish is made to feel shamed, ostracized, or intimidated on account of their political opinions, no matter how strongly we may disagree with them. Instead, we are called to pray for those with whom we disagree—and not just that they might be converted to our superior wisdom, but also that God might open our hearts and minds to understand better where they’re coming from.

Thirdly, we need to pray for ourselves: especially for wisdom and discernment in responding to the challenges that lie ahead. A week from today, we shall celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. That observance reminds us that all earthly authorities are ultimately subject to God’s laws and God’s reign. The Kingship of Christ furnishes us with a set of criteria by which to evaluate and when necessary criticize the actions of our earthly rulers. Contrary to popular opinion, the Church has never taught blind obedience to authority. When the state passes laws and enacts policies that violate elementary standards of justice, fairness, and decency, then as Christians we may be called to protest and register our opposition. And if the state should attempt to require our complicity in actions and policies that violate such standards, then we may be called to resist. Just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr. Where, when, and how we may be called to protest or resist is a deeply personal question for each of us; here above all we need to pray for the grace of God’s guidance and direction.

That, then, is a threefold summary of our obligations to prayer in relation to the political order in times of unsettling change and upheaval. Pray for those in positions of authority, including the President-Elect. Pray for those whom we perceive to be our enemies and opponents, that we may find some measure of mutual understanding, common ground, and ultimate reconciliation. And pray for ourselves, that we may receive all necessary wisdom and courage to bear witness to the sovereignty of Christ over all earthly powers and dominions. To him alone be all glory and worship, both now and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sermon for Proper 18, Year C

The Apostle Onesimus
St. Petka Chapel, Belgrade
Philemon 1-21

Over the past several years, the historical issue of slavery has regained currency as a topic of discussion in American society in general and in Rhode Island in particular. The film Traces of the Trade documents how the fortunes of many prominent Rhode Islanders depended on the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mindful of this painful legacy, the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island has undertaken the project of establishing a Center of Reconciliation to be housed at the now disused Cathedral, including exhibits on the state’s historic connections with slavery.

In light of this conversation in our wider community, it seems appropriate to comment today on our Epistle reading, Saint Paul’s Letter to Philemon. It’s one of the few places in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul explicitly engages with the practice of slavery in the Roman Empire of his day. So it may have something to teach us about the implications of the Christian Gospel for this still sensitive and sometimes contentious issue.

In his letters, Paul’s attitude to slavery is somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, he writes in Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters …”; in Colossians 4:1, “Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters …”; in I Timothy 6:1, “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor …”; and in Titus 2:9 “Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory.”

On the other hand, writing of the Church Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”; and again in Colossians 3:11, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”

In the nineteenth century, both slaveholders and abolitionists quoted these various passages, as well as the Letter to Philemon, to bolster their positions. More recently, some critics have faulted Paul for not having taken a clearer stand against slavery, suggesting that his apparent acceptance of the institution led to its persistence many centuries longer than it might otherwise have survived. Others rightly point out, however, that opponents of slavery and the slave trade were almost all Christians – such as the Anglican Evangelicals William Wilberforce and John Newton – who derived their abolitionist principles from Scripture. (John Newton, by the way, was the captain of a slave ship who was converted to Christian faith and became a leader in the movement to abolish the slave trade; we know him today primarily as the author of the text of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”)

With that background in mind, then, we turn to Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Just 25 verses long, Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters preserved in the New Testament. Unlike most of his other letters, which he wrote for entire church communities, or for even wider circulation, it has the form of a personal note to an individual.

The letter is addressed to Philemon, whom we know from some of Paul’s other letters as a leader in the Church at Colossae, which Paul founded. At the time of writing, Paul is in prison, but we don’t know where, since he suffered several imprisonments in his missionary journeys. The subject of the letter is Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, who’s been with Paul for a time, but whom Paul is now sending back to Philemon, possibly as the bearer of the letter.

Two theories offer competing interpretations of why Onesimus has been with Paul. The majority interpretation, which goes back to some of the early Church fathers, is that Onesimus has run away from Philemon and has taken refuge with Paul. The minority interpretation suggests instead that Philemon has sent Onesimus to serve Paul in his imprisonment for a certain period of time, which is now coming to an end—perhaps because Philemon has requested him back—so that Paul is returning him to his owner. (It seems to me that the text can bear either interpretation.)

Either way, something remarkable has happened. Paul writes that in his imprisonment he has become Onesimus’s father. In early Christian language this almost certainly means that Onesimus has become a Christian and that Paul has baptized him. Therefore, Paul writes, he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” And he exhorts Philemon, “if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.”

The letter is a masterpiece of rhetorical understatement, calling for a good deal of reading between the lines. Paul writes that while he’s bold enough to command Philemon to do what’s required, yet for love’s sake he prefers to appeal to him. (But he does not say what it is that is required.) Instead of keeping Onesimus with him, Paul is sending him back so that Philemon’s goodness might not be from compulsion but of his own free will. (But he does not say what this goodness is to consist of.) And he concludes, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (But he does not say that this “something more” is.) Here Paul is clearly hinting at some good deed that he wants from Philemon—and it’s not too much of a stretch to suppose that this is granting Onesimus his freedom so that he can return to Paul and assist him in his work.

(Incidentally, one tradition holds that Philemon did emancipate Onesimus who went on to become a bishop in the Church. About a half-century later, in the year 110, Saint Ignatius of Antioch addressed a letter to the Church at Ephesus in the person of Onesimus, their bishop. We don’t know if it’s the same Onesimus, but it very well could be.)

As I mentioned, some contemporary writers criticize Paul for his failure to condemn slavery outright. Others suggest that since Paul expected Christ’s return and the end of the world any day now, he probably regarded slavery as just another corrupt social institution that was soon to pass away, so there was no point in opposing it in the present age.

My own hunch is that the question of whether slavery should be perpetuated or abolished simply never occurred to Paul, and it’s anachronistic to suppose that it could have. Slavery was simply there, a given, an integral component of the world in which Paul lived, and neither he nor his contemporaries could imagine that world without it. (The world to come would be another matter.)

However that may be, in his Letter to Philemon, whether he knows it or not, Paul articulates a principle that spells the ultimate doom of slavery and all other forms of social oppression and exploitation. In Christ Onesimus is no longer a slave but a beloved brother; Philemon is to receive him as he would receive Paul himself. The Gospel sets before us this ideal of the equal worth and dignity of all human beings in God’s eyes; and it remains no less relevant and compelling in our own day than it was in Paul’s.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

T. Noyes Lewis, The Place of Meeting. C. 1920.

The Armistice that took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, concluded the bloodiest war the world had ever yet seen. The loss of life in the trench warfare on the Western Front was unimaginably horrendous. For example, on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British Army suffered the loss of approximately 20,000 soldiers: the most deaths it sustained in the field on any one day of battle before or since.

Observances commemorating the fallen on November 11th, or the Sunday closest, began just after the Great War itself. In 1919, Pope Benedict XV granted an indult to the English Catholic Church, permitting a Requiem on Remembrance Sunday in addition to the Mass of the day.

Every year on this day in London, at an outdoor service of Remembrance, the Queen lays a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. A cenotaph, incidentally, represents an empty tomb, erected in honor of a person or persons whose mortal remains lie elsewhere. In that sense, it’s similar to the catafalque we have here in the church today, which represents the bier on which the coffin or casket would normally rest at a funeral.

On Monday, All Souls Day, we offered a Sung Requiem Mass for All Faithful Departed. Throughout the year, here at S. Stephen’s, we offer weekday Requiems for the departed of this parish, generally on the first Monday of the month. At our daily Masses we remember by name those of the parish whose anniversaries fall during the current week, as well as those who’ve died recently.

This privilege of being able to pray for our beloved dead has a deep historical connection to our annual commemoration of Remembrance Sunday, which comes from the Church of England. Before World War I, only a few extreme Anglo-Catholic parishes in England offered prayers and Masses for the dead. The Anglican mainstream regarded the practice with deep suspicion as subversive of the principles of the English Reformation.

The dominant Protestant theology held that as soon as you died, you were consigned immediately either to heaven or to hell. Those in heaven didn’t need our prayers; those in hell were beyond all help. So, as you lay dying in Victorian or Edwardian England, your religiously minded relatives and friends might gather round your deathbed, anxiously awaiting some pious word indicating that you had the faith necessary to get into heaven. Nothing less would suffice as comfort for the bereaved.

The Great War of 1914 to 1918 changed all that. Anglican chaplains who went to the front discovered that the majority of enlisted men had no Church upbringing and professed no explicit Christian faith. In the previous centuries of industrialization and urbanization, the active churchgoing population of England had become a minority of the nation. Here they were, dying daily in the trenches by the hundreds and thousands. Yet the lives and deaths of these un-churched soldiers nonetheless often exemplified what seemed basic Christian virtues of generosity, camaraderie, bravery, and self-sacrifice.

These observations engendered a crisis in traditional Anglican patterns of belief about death and judgment, heaven and hell. According to the received criteria, these fallen soldiers were unqualified, by their lack of an explicitly professed religious faith, to enter heaven; yet, because of their heroism and self-sacrifice, it seemed neither credible nor fair that they should be consigned eternally to hell.

This conundrum led to new openness among mainstream Anglicans to the traditional Catholic doctrine of an intermediate state, where the souls of the departed are purified and purged of their sins, and so made ready for heaven. In that case, there might be some point to praying for the dead after all. The prayers of the living might indeed assist the dead in their continuing journey into the fullness of God’s presence.

The practice of praying for the dead also addressed a profound psychological and spiritual need among the bereaved. The loss of almost an entire generation had a deeply traumatic effect on British society. According to historian David Nash, the survivors collectively experienced an overwhelming desire for some kind of continuing relationship with the fallen. This was especially the case when the government decided out of necessity to stop repatriating the bodies of the dead and began burying them in vast cemeteries near the battlefields.

One result was an upsurge of spiritualism. Bereaved parents, brothers, sisters, and lovers attempted to make contact with the fallen by means of séances conducted by mediums. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame wrote a book commending spiritualism as a means of receiving communications from the dead.

In line with traditional Christian teaching, the Church of England rightly discouraged these practices. The more liberal clergy condemned spiritualism as superstitious nonsense by which unscrupulous charlatans took advantage of people at their most vulnerable; the more traditional clergy warned that fooling with the occult can open the door to malign spiritual presences that are indeed real but best avoided and left alone. The deeper question, however, was what alternative the Church had to offer.

The answer was the traditional Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints: the unbroken spiritual fellowship of the Church Triumphant in heaven, the Church Expectant in purgatory, and the Church Militant on earth. Integral to this doctrine was the conviction that just as the saints in heaven pray for us, so we have the privilege of praying for the souls of those whom we love but see no longer.

Historian Alan Wilkinson writes, “In 1914 public prayer for the dead was uncommon in the Church of England; by the end of the war it had become widespread.” In a sermon in Westminster Abbey on All Saints Day, 1919, William Temple, the future Archbishop of York and Archbishop of Canterbury, exhorted the congregation: “Let us pray for those whom we know and love who have passed to the other life …” Death does not settle everything irrevocably. Growth continues beyond the grave. We do not pray for the dead because we believe that God will otherwise neglect them but because “we claim the privilege of uniting our love for them with God’s.”

On Christmas Eve, 1918, King’s College Cambridge offered its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for the first time. The concluding petition of the well-known Bidding Prayer written by Eric Milner-White reads: "Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one." What must those words have meant to the vast majority in the congregation who had almost certainly lost close friends and family in the war that had ended only the previous month!

Anglo-Catholics of course welcomed this recognition of a practice they had long commended and they gladly offered prayers and Requiems for the fallen. Holy cards were issued depicting a priest celebrating a Requiem; above the altar was a cloud containing the figures of the soldiers for whom the Requiem was being offered. The painting on those cards was “The Place of Meeting” by T. Noyes Lewis, reproduced on the cover of today’s Kalendar.

Today, we continue the same tradition in another place, in another country, in another time. War is a horrible thing. As Christians we’re called to be peacemakers, to work and pray always for peace. Yet on at least some occasions the horrors of war have served as the catalyst for the Church’s rediscovery and re-appropriation of the riches of its own spiritual tradition. For that we may be thankful, much as we deplore war having to be the occasion of such a blessing. This morning, then, we commend to Almighty God the souls of all the fallen, trusting that Christ will bring them, and us with them, to the fullness of eternal life.


Key background for this sermon came from Alan Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War (Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth, 2014, originally published 1978), and David Nash, Christian Ideals in British Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).