Monday, December 11, 2017

Sermon for Advent II

Yesterday I preached my Advent II sermon--on the nature and sources of true hope, how suffering relates to hope, and the Bible. Yes, it was wide-ranging.
Of course, faith and love are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian—but hope? Does life in Christ mean having a perpetually optimistic, temperamentally upbeat take on life? Does it mean remembering that “every cloud has a silver lining”? Always “making the best of a bad situation”? Making lemonade “when life gives you lemons”? 
Now, these very American sayings aren’t all bad. They can be helpful when we lose perspective amidst the minor setbacks and frustrations of everyday life. In those cases, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “It isn’t as bad as all that, is it?” But these little pieces of sound but limited advice have essentially nothing to do with the theological virtue of hope. 
When, in fact, it is that bad—when real tragedy strikes—(saying,) “look on the bright side” amounts to a denial of reality. And denying reality is not a theological virtue. To the contrary, denial is one short step from despair, hope’s opposite. 
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This hope in no way denies or reduces the reality of suffering. It does not seek to “balance out,” much less eliminate, suffering. Rather, through hope our suffering is incorporated into the life story of Jesus. Just as the scars of Jesus were not erased in the resurrection, this incorporation does not wipe away the tragedies in our lives. Yet we will find them somehow transformed, healed, and redeemed in Jesus. And just as Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus moments before raising him from the dead, our right understanding of reality and our full anticipation of the triumph of life over death does not eliminate mourning. The promise that Jesus will wipe away every tear is eschatological—it is a distinctly future event. That future is sure. Our task, then, is to live with a right understanding of present reality in anticipation of future triumph. To live hopefully means knowing that death is not the end, that the apparent power of the forces of darkness is an illusion, that our victory is sure.

You can read the whole thing here.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christian love: easy for me to say

A good friend responded to my recent faculty devotion with a brief email saying, succinctly and correctly, "easy for you to say." Naturally I responded at length. Part of my response is below, lightly edited.

I'm more and more convinced of the deeply fallacious nature of our culture's tendency to resort to "easy for you to say"--i.e. to shift attention away from the validity of the claim made and instead focus on whether the person relaying the claim has the right to say it based on their personal situatedness and experience. And in this case, "relaying the claim" is the right phrase, since the claim isn't mine but rather that of Jesus and that of St. Paul, both of whom exchanged privilege for suffering and death.

Do I have their cred (divine and apostolic, respectively)? Of course not. And I am personally much more able to identify with the St. Peter in the courtyard of Caiaphas and especially the apostles fishing out on the sea (who denied the claim of Jesus indirectly--by avoidance and redirection rather than outright rejection) than with the St. Peter who was carried "wither thou wouldest not" at the end of his life. I can more identify with the three disciples snoozing in the Garden of Gethsemane than with their Lord's "not my will but thine be done" on the cross. The demands of Christian love weren't easy for Jesus, and they weren't easy for the apostles.

But what's our job as Christians, if not to present to each other the demands of Jesus? If not to challenge each other to grow in holiness no matter the circumstances? Grace doesn't exist to underwrite or excuse our laziness and complacence. It does not even exist to make us feel better about ourselves as sinners. It exists to transform us "from one degree of glory to another," to raise us from death to life, to fashion us into the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. And, if we let it do its work, it surely will change how we understand ourselves--not as the sinners we once were, but as saints participating in the divine life.

I've long been convinced that Christian leaders (especially priests and pastors, but sometimes also bosses) are almost always wrong to temper their sermons/instructions with "I'm the chief of sinners" or "I really struggle with this myself." What's the point of that stuff? I know it's intended to reflect humility and authenticity, but isn't it basically selfish--to avoid coming across as judgy/preachy?--but what's the purpose of Christian leadership if not to judge rightly and preach truly! And what's the outcome of those disclaimers? Doesn't it just soften the instructions?--as though Jesus never really meant all that stuff in the Sermon of the Mount, as though he was really just exaggerating for effect.

Of course we need wisdom, prudence, and compassion as we call each other to holiness--but (a) there is never a good time to accommodate sin, though there are plenty of times in which a word of correction will only increase sin (so, again, prudence is necessary) and (b) there are simply no circumstances in which the call to love is suspended or abrogated.

Anyone who says otherwise is preaching a different gospel than the gospel of Christ.

Monday, November 20, 2017

An apostasy that is nearly invisible

When I gave a faculty devotion this past Tuesday on self-sacrifice, I did not then realize that it would be but a pale imitation of Fr. Glenn's beautiful and profound sermon this past Sunday meditating on the final passage of the Gospel According to St. John. The Gospel closes with a fishing trip by seven apostles--a return to the vocation from which Jesus had called them--and then an odd and poignant meal these apostles share with Jesus on the beach.

(In a previous faculty devotion, I reflected on the recurrent centrality of food in the resurrection narratives.)

From Fr. Glenn's sermon:

There is an apostasy that draws no attentions to itself because it is so practical. There is an apostasy that is nearly invisible because it hides out in the open spaces of a man’s or woman’s life. Jesus had promised to make them fishers of men and they, after all this, settled for their old way of life. Is that all there is to it? The destiny of all mankind, of all creation, is in the hands of these few men, and what is their posture toward the Pearl of Great Price? Here is an apostasy that so practical, so obviously essential to life, so self-evident and necessary that it will go unnoticed except when it is brought into the presence Christ and his searching, all-demanding claim upon your life just as it was experienced on the beach that morning as seven Apostles ate breakfast with Jesus. Such is the searching, all-demanding eucharistic presence of Christ that comes to us in worship and in perfect judgment. 
... 
"Peter do you love me more than these?" I do not for a moment think there is any reason, textually or morally, to think that Jesus was asking Peter whether or not he, Peter, loved him, Jesus, more than any of the other disciples loved him. Not at all. I think our Lord may well have gestured toward the practical gear and hardware of their practical life: their fishing boats, the ropes, the well-tied nets, the gear and tackle, the fresh fire-coal, the strange, speckled, dappled trout. Do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than the practical? Do you love me more than what others say is feasible, than what they say is real life — do you love me more than this ready-made, ready-at-hand way of getting through? Do you love me more than your life?

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

St. Paul, Slavery, and Love

What follows is a devotion given to the faculty this morning, in which I gave a provisional/tentative reading of St. Paul's instructions about slavery and their relationship to the biblical picture of love. I would certainly love any feedback or criticism!

I want to talk this morning about St. Paul and the institution of slavery. As an American history teacher, I think often about the Bible and its relationship to slavery, but today it’s especially relevant, since Titus 2 was appointed as a reading in Morning Prayer (1928 BCP). I saw that, and then I saw that today’s blessing in Seeking God’s Face (a shared faculty devotion) comes from the Sermon on the Mount--and I think St. Paul’s instructions to the enslaved are intimately connected to Jesus’ instructions to the persecuted.

 St. Paul on slavery might seem to be odd devotional material, but I think the apostle provides great (though certainly troubling) insight into what it means to love on a day-to-day basis.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Anglicans in Iberia

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. This post is a reading response to chapter 42 of The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Anglican Communion--"Dioceses Extra-Provincial to Canterbury" by John MacDonald (our professor).

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This week’s reading tells the numerically small story of the Dioceses Extra-Provincial to Canterbury. It is a particularly curious story within the Anglican Communion, dealing as it does with either regions seen as marginal on the world stage or with cultures seen as far removed from the heart of Englishness. Yet, strange or marginal as these places might be within the global Anglican Communion, their story does indeed reveal something about the nature of the illusive Anglican identity.

 [What follows focuses on the two Anglican dioceses on the Iberian Peninsula (the other two extra-provincial dioceses are Bermuda and the Falklands—the latter being technically a parish).]

The Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church can trace its theological roots to the foment of the Reformation—which did indeed penetrate the Iberian Peninsula, despite the best efforts of the heirs of the Catholic Monarchs. Its institutional roots, however, are three centuries later. Like so many Anglican churches elsewhere in the world, the Spanish Anglican church began not as a mission to natives but as a chaplaincy for expatriates. The Rev. Juan S. Cabrera largely created the indigenous Anglican church. Like others among the magisterial reformers, Fr. Cabrera did not exhibit wholesale hostility to all things Catholic. Like them, he did not intend to create something new but turned to the roots of Spanish Christianity—in this case, resurrecting the Mozarabic rite. Although his appeals to “sister Churches” were met by silence and even hostility form the English, Fr. Cabrera’s consecration by Irish Anglican bishops ensured that the churches he shepherded would remain in the Anglican Communion.

The story in Portugal bears similarities: a church started for expatriates became “indigenous” under the leadership of a Spanish formerly Roman Catholic priest—in this case, the Rev. Angelo Mora. The Portuguese similarly sought and eventually received episcopal oversight from non-English Anglicans (Americans this time). The liturgy was also linked to the Mozarabic rite, as well as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Mass.

Both stories show the Englishness of Anglicanism—both started as English-language churches for ex-pats. But both stories also show the adaptiveness of Anglicanism, its appeal for and empowerment of non-English Christians. In their countries, these churches are distinctively evangelical, because they are not Roman Catholic. Yet in their shared emphasis on the ancient Mozarabic rite and in their desire to receive episcopal oversight in apostolic succession, both churches reflect a desire to remain Catholic—yet not Roman. The Portuguese Synod in 1880 offered as beautiful a reflection of the Anglican spirit of reformed Catholicism as one could hope to find:
We do not desire to found a new religion, but simply to cleanse the Christian religion from the corruption of the ages, and to reconquer the ancient liberties of the early Lusitania Church—so long subjected to the foreign yoke of Rome—and to spread through all this country a doctrine, which shall be Catholic and Apostolic, in a church that shall be Portuguese not Roman.
Perhaps the best that can be said for this strange, paradoxical Anglican tradition is that it reforms while retaining Catholicity, that it places the highest possible emphasis on the authority of Scripture without dismissing the Church from which the Scriptures came. And while Anglicanism generally comes dressed in English trappings, such a creature—a Catholic, Apostolic Church that is Western but not Roman, Orthodox but not Eastern—can persevere even when the presence of the English is no more, and when the appeal of Englishness is spent.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Black Liberation, Christology, and Echo Chambers

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. This post is the third of a three-part series from a course I took at UVa this summer on The Black Church and American CultureIn it I am responding to a few essays/chapters assigned by the founder of black liberation theology, James Cone.

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Although my reaction to James Cone's provocative and stimulating theological work was far from uniformly negative, I do want to use this as an opportunity to work through two particular difficulties that present themselves immediately after reading.

Cone asserts that the person of Jesus Christ and the experience of black Americans must be held in constant dialectical tension with one another, but it is quite clear which holds ultimate and absolute primacy throughout. The experience of black Americans serves as the governing principle for interpreting, for filtering, Cone's reading of Jesus. (This is abundantly clear in the two chapters from A Black Theology of Liberation, somewhat less clear in “Who Is Jesus Christ for us Today?” from God of the Oppressed.) Cone claims that Jesus’ historical and biblical Jewishness fundamentally means that he identifies with the oppressed. That in turn requires, in contemporary context, that Jesus be identified as black. Of course, Jesus does indeed identify with the oppressed, and he must be identified with, for, and to black Americans. But should he be identified as black? Cone is right that the white European Jesus has no more historical and perhaps less theological basis. But this is ultimately so because the Second Person of the Trinity did not cease to be incarnate at the resurrection or ascension. He remains Jesus. He remains Jewish. Cone has determined, however, that the sole relevant factor in Jesus’ Jewish particularity is the oppression Jews experienced. Yet the Jews of the Bible were not only oppressed; they were often oppressors. Cone would perhaps say that this element is irrelevant to the narrative God was weaving in his interaction with the Jewish people—but then that’s precisely the problem. Cone has decided in advance what about Jesus counts and what doesn’t, which means that the Jesus of whom he speaks is inevitably his creation, subject to his whims and inclinations and manipulations. Cone’s Jesus is powerful and provocative—but cannot be authoritative.

Of course, Cone has already anticipated and dismissed my objections as those of a white man with a vested interest in maintaining the oppressive status quo. There’s no question that I will never fully understand the experience of black Americans. As much reading and thinking and listening as I might do, I will always be essentially an outsider speaking from a position of fundamental and insurmountable ignorance. Thus I have nothing to say that is worth Cone’s hearing. That’s fine so far as it goes—he really and truly has absolutely no reason to listen to my voice, even if it could be divorced from my whiteness. But the principle also creates an echo chamber for Cone. Cone’s dismissal insulates his position, at least in theory, from any serious engagement with critical positions. Critiques by whites are meaningless, of course, but Cone has also defined being black as agreeing with his position: “Black thinkers… cannot be black and identified with the powers that be. To be black is to be committed to destroying everything this country loves and adores” (21). Implicitly, then, blacks who would disagree are in fact not black but white. Regardless of the merits of that argument, the most troubling element is that Cone has managed to create a situation in which he need not listen to any dissenting voices, in which the only voice that counts happens to be his.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Jesus's Poverty versus St. Paul's Privilege?

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. This post is the second of a three-part series from a course I took at UVa this summer on The Black Church and American Culture. In it I am responding to Howard Thurman's chapter "Jesus—An Interpretation" in his Jesus and the DisinheritedIn the future, I also hope to take up the more general question of the apparent connection between trinitarian heresy and racial justice.

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Howard Thurman rightly points out American Christianity’s tendency to preach to the privileged about their responsibilities to the needy, while not saying much about what is often central in the New Testament—the message of Christianity for “the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed” (13). And his argument about the different social statuses of Jesus and St. Paul was a striking perspective. ("Unless one actually lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul,” 33-34.)

Ultimately, though, there was a certain psychological and socioeconomic reductionism to Thurman’s approach to Jesus and especially St. Paul. He did note that what makes Jesus “most significant is not the way in which he resembled his fellow but the way in which he differed from all the rest of them” (19). But Thurman’s Christology seems suspect. Jesus is “a spiritual genius” who “became a perfect instrument for the embodiment of a set of ideals” because he “was so conditioned and organized within himself” (19, 16). None of that precludes a recognition of Jesus’ full divinity—the Incarnate Word is fully human, after all—but, if unqualified, it reduces Jesus to a great spiritual guru. Given American Christianity’s otherworldly fatalism, Thurman is right to reemphasize the this-worldly implications of Jesus’ teaching, but he overcorrects, reducing Jesus’ message to a version of social justice divorced from the fullness of the gospel. (“Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed,” 29.)

Psychological/socioeconomic readings can be enlightening, but they can also be dismissive, allowing one to bracket off difficult passages as products of the author’s context—which results in a watered-down text that can no longer threaten the reader’s premises. This precludes wrestling with the fullness of a text. It may be that St. Paul’s teachings to slaves expressed blind spots due to privilege, but if we do not try to wrestle with how St. Paul himself would have defended his teachings, we are letting ourselves off the hook too easily. (I suspect St. Paul would have said it has to do with the multifaceted nature of Christian love and its all-encompassing demands upon the Christian; we may not like where that leads, but charity demands we attempt fully to understand, even if we do not hold to the Church's traditional teachings about biblical inspiration.)

The other problem for Thurman’s interpretation is that, taken as a whole, the New Testament's teachings do not break down so easily by class and status. For instance, every aspect of St. Paul’s theology and ethics that Thurman sees as a problematic consequence of privilege is equally evident in the first epistle of St. Peter, who did not share St. Paul’s status and privilege.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trinitarian Heresy and Racial Justice

In response to my last post, Daniel Silliman has raised the provocative question of the connection between trinitarian heresy and racial justice:
The connection can't just be brushed off, as will become clear in future posts on Christology in Howard Thurman and James Cone. And Martin Luther King, Jr. also exhibits highly questionable trinitarian orthodoxy in his writings.

So it's something that has to be considered, one way or another, and I plan to do just that at some point after my three-part series pulled from my black church class. Stay tuned.

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EDIT: Yeah, okay, I was ambitious foolish to think I would have time to write about this anytime soon. It's something I would love to write on more, but that will have to wait. You may now tune out. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Pentecostalism, Race, and Orthodoxy

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. The one below is the first of a three-part series from a course I took at UVa this summer on The Black Church and American Culture. In the future, I hope to take up the more general question of the apparent connection between trinitarian heresy and racial justice.

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Christians in general believe that God will eventually (re)unite his Church, and thus most believe that the Holy Spirit’s work results in Christian unity. Vinson Synan’s The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition outlined the ecumenical impulse of Pentecostalism that initially united a diverse group of Baptist and Methodist Christians, but it also showed how the movement eventually broke down along racial and theological lines. Pentecostals could not (would not) overcome segregation and prejudice, Trinitarian debates, and disagreement over the “second work of sanctification.”

Meanwhile, in The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism in the USA, Ian MacRobert suggests that disagreements over the “Oneness” doctrines “were more probably rationalisations for schism than genuine reasons” (70). Without in any way diminishing the animating and perhaps even overwhelming influence of race in Pentecostal history, I also want to point out that Trinitarian theology and Christology functioned as the central and almost sole cause for excommunication and schism across the first thousand years of Christian history and continued to be the sine qua non of defining Christian orthodoxy for the next thousand. Moreover, the division over the “second work of sanctification” reflected the reassertion of prior denominational lines that had been blurred but not eliminated by the Pentecostal explosion. It seems implausible (and uncharitable) to reduce these issues into fig leafs for racism.

Later on, MacRobert suggests that the “attempt to fit the presence and power of the Holy Spirit into existing theological categories” prevented “most of the white Pentecostal sects and also—though to a lesser extent—many of the black ones” from following the true leading of the Spirit. “However,” he says, “Black Pentecostalism—particularly Oneness or Apostolic Pentecostalism—has retained more of the ‘original’ Pentecostal message and power” (86-87). Perhaps this apparent endorsement of Oneness Pentecostalism explains his downplaying of Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology.

By contrast, I am writing as an Anglican devoted to the orthodox and Catholic faith of the creeds and ecumenical councils—and thus rather inclined to a hermeneutic of suspicion towards contrary (“heretical”) movements. If MacRobert’s operative premise is that Oneness Pentecostalism is a work of the Holy Spirit, mine is quite the opposite.

Synan, meanwhile, asserted that “many periods of Christian history from St. Paul to Charles Parham had been punctuated by occasional outbreaks of glossolalia.” However, he only mentioned three movements from the first sixteen centuries of the Church’s existence—all three of which were denounced as heretical (though not because of speaking in tongues, and only the Albigenses would be broadly rejected by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians today). The first two post-Reformation groups mentioned—Shakers and Mormons—fall outside of even the broadest definition of Christian orthodoxy.

So, for me, Synan’s attempt to established the historical bona fides of glossolalia in the Church was extraordinarily counterproductive. I am still figuring out what to make of the charismatic movement. I have very little firsthand experience with it, but given the vibrant and growing charismatic branch of Anglicanism, as well as the experiences of some people close to me, I am much inclined to embrace it. But the association Sinan and MacRobert made between the charismatics and historic heresies is giving me serious pause.

Note: my paraphrase of MacRobert's "apparent endorsement of Oneness Pentecostalism" may not have done full justice to his argument. Here's the context, starting with the last paragraph on page 86.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

My sermon for Lent II

I preached today on the story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15:
Let’s take a closer look at the faithful posture of this foreign woman. The text says that she “came out” of the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, suggesting that she has journeyed to find Jesus. Mark’s Gospel explicitly clarifies that her daughter remained at home. If you can picture the scene: she is alone amidst a gaggle of foreign men. Probably she is dusty and bedraggled from travel, a Gentile dog crying out for aid from a man she identifies in explicitly Jewish terms: “O Lord, thou Son of David!” No wonder the disciples find her a bit pathetic. 
Yet her vulnerability does not stop her for a moment, driven as she is by love for her daughter and drawn by faith to Jesus. She is clearly a desperate woman. Pathetic and desperate: not the sorts of adjectives we would be inclined to apply to ourselves. To the contrary, we are competent. Educated. Refined in our judgment, discriminating in our tastes. All of this is good. None of it is bad—unless it prevents us from seeing that, like the Canaanite woman, we too desperately need Jesus. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23b, NRSV). If our wealth, our stability, and our competence prevent us from seeing our need for Jesus—then in that case it is bad. It is damnably bad. If self-satisfaction and complacency are your illness, let this Lent be your medicine.
Read the whole sermon here.