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The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Snowed In

  • Isaiah 62:1-5
  • 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
  • John 2:1-11
  • Psalm 36:5-10
I'm snowed in at the moment, riding out an historic (so they say) blizzard, and grading freshman English papers. People often tell me that they don't envy me the job of teaching college freshman English, but at the moment, I am glad I do that instead of preaching. Every time I look at Lectionary readings, I try to find a common theme, but this group frustrates me. I'm glad I don't have to preach on it. There's sort of a wedding and marriage thing going, then we get to I Corinthians.

The Wedding at Cana
Roman Catholics use this text to support the idea that marriage is a sacrament, but even if we didn't have these dozen verses, it would still be clear that God really likes the idea of marriage and dislikes the idea of divorce. I don't think the point of including this event in John's gospel was to announce for the first time that marriage is important. We already knew that.

I begin with a few odd, interesting observations:
  • Jesus seems reluctant to deal with the wine problem, but Mary takes charge and brings the issue to a head. Somehow she believed that he had the power to fix the wine problem, even if he wanted to stay in the shadows. (Interesting, too, that Jesus had disciples with him, but apparently had performed no miracles yet.)
  • I have often wondered what it would have been like to have been one of the servants. This wedding guest has just told me to take some bathwater to the chief wine steward for a taste.
  • In my Protestant seminary days, the professors tried to push the idea that New Testament wine was unfermented grape juice. Whatever else is going on, the chief wine steward says that at most weddings the host waits for the guests to get drunk before bringing out the cheap wine, but this stuff is really good. About 180 gallons of it. I don't think Jesus was too shy about alcohol.
Enough scene-setting. John's favorite word for "miracle" is "sign." What was the water-to-wine event a sign of? Apparently it wasn't that public. The wedding guests, including bride and groom and chief wine steward didn't know what had happened. Only the servants knew. (I'm guessing that Jesus later told the whole incident to his good friend John, who wrote it down.) So this wasn't the flashy sort of public announcement that Satan suggested Jesus perform during the temptation in the wilderness. It didn't solve some earth-shaking tragedy (a dead daughter, a man covered with leprosy), though a host who couldn't provide enough wine for the party would have been a laughing-stock in the town for years to come. Very quiet, very personal miracle.

Spiritual Gifts
When I was much younger, I was in a church that got very fascinated by the whole business of speaking in tongues. Tongue-speaking was flashy, showy, and weird. And we all wanted it. I think we needed some sort of vivid reminder that God was really in our midst, really in each one of us.

This list of spiritual gifts isn't the only one in scripture, and elsewhere Paul seems to play down the gift of tongues. In this list, there are eight other things, many of them pretty tame-appearing: wisdom, knowledge, faith, working miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits, and interpreting tongues. The list in Romans 12 is even tamer: things like teaching, showing mercy and giving money.

Somehow, none of us aspired to the gift of being a wise teacher. Even less did we aspire to the gift of giving money.

Bottom line
OK—sometimes spiritual gifts show up in very public ways. More than once, I've heard someone reveal information that he could have had no earthly way of learning. We have all prayed for the cure of a friend or loved one and heard of the person's unlikely recovery. Often, though, God prefers the "still, small voice" approach, such as the one Jesus used at Cana in Galilee. We just need to keep our eyes and ears open.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Making Pickles

First Sunday after Epiphany
  • Isaiah 43:1-7
  • Acts 8:14-17
  • Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
  • Psalm 29
This Sunday, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus, and, as usual, any discussion of baptism raises more questions than it answers. Gallons of ink and blood have been spilled on this one.
  • Was Jesus dipped, sprinkled, or what?
  • If Jesus was sinless and John was preaching a baptism of repentance, why did Jesus need to be baptized?
  • Was Jesus' baptism the same as the baptism in our church today?
  • And, by the way, does one need to be baptized in an Episcopal church to take Communion?
  • And, by the way, can a person be saved without being baptized?
  • And, by the way, what's all this "sacraments" thing about?
That's a lot of questions. One of my early Christian teachers said that we study Scripture the same way we eat a lobster. Big stuff (the meat in the tail) first, then smaller stuff if we have the time and interest.

But first, let's make some pickles.

The Language Problem
That word "baptize" doesn't show up very often in secular writing, and in Christian writing it's sort of undefined. They assume everyone knows what it means to baptize someone. Thus, thousands of years later, we get into all those arguments about dipping and sprinkling and so forth. Oddly, one of the best sources for defining the word is a recipe book from about 200 BC, which discusses making pickles. I just ran into this one at The New Testament Greek Lexicon page from Bible Study Tools. The author of this page, James Montgomery Boice, claims that in pickle-making there are two different kinds of baptism. First, you plunk the cucumber into boiling water (βαπτο = bapto), then you soak it in a vinegar solution (βαπτιζο = baptizo). It's that second soaking that turns the vegetable into a pickle.

Interestingly enough, it's the second word (βαπτιζο = baptizo) that often gets used in the New Testament. When Mark 16:16 says we need to get "baptized" into Christ Jesus, Mark isn't just talking about a quick dip; he's talking about a permanent change. Mark wants us to get pickled.

There is More
OK, so Jesus didn't need a baptism of repentance. John even objected when Jesus asked to be baptized, but when Jesus was baptized, something new happened. Nobody had previously had the Holy Spirit descend like a dove. In a sense, the baptism of Jesus was the first Christian baptism, and ever after, we have looked for a real change in a person as a result of baptism. John's baptism was sort of ceremonial, like receiving the key to the city; Christian baptism actually confers power. It's like using the key to start the engine of the race car. And when the priest (or someone else) baptises the person, you can see the water, but another change is taking place, one you can't see.

And, of course, the Episcopalian thing
The quick question is whether you need to be baptized in an Episcopal church to receive Communion here. The quick, official, theological answer is "Nope." And does Christian baptism by someone else "work"? The quick, official, theological answer is "Yup."

So welcome to the altar rail, all you baptized friends. And if you haven't yet gone through the visible event, any priest would love to talk to you about it, so the visible event will show that you are one of Christ's people.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"The report of my death was an exaggeration"

That quote, from Mark Twain, might apply to the "mainline churches" or to the Episcopal denomination, or to St. Matthew's.

True, the numbers for all those groups are not what they were in the 1960s. A lot of people who used to show up on Sunday mornings because it was socially required simply stopped coming. In the 1970s, there was quite an exodus as younger people (and a few older ones too) left for the "Jesus Movement" of anti-traditional and anti-theological churches. More recently, the involvement of many churches in highly political (and sometimes questionable) campaigns has driven a few away.

As a diocese and as a parish, we've been through all that, and some of us have gotten into the habit of talking as if things are all going to smash and ruin.

They're not.

For one thing, we have several layers of vibrant leadership (Rev. Kay, Bishop Hollingsworth, and Bishop Curry) who have a real vision for our future.

For another, if you look around, it's not difficult to point out new people who have been with us less than six months in the parish. We've had a few deaths and a few people have left town, but our numbers are actually increasing little by little.

As Treasurer, I can tell you that we are meeting our bills, plus a bit.

The real bottom line, though, is that a lot of people are still looking for what we have: a welcoming community seeking to follow Christ.

And all this talk of church death tends to leave out the major player. If God wants an Episcopal parish here, he will provide for it. And he seems to be doing so.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Epiphany Sunday

Probably well-known to the "Cradle Episcopalians," this funny word, from the Greek, refers to Jesus becoming known to the Gentiles. That's why we move the porcelain camels and wise men into the Nativity scene tomorrow. (Though Herod's strategy with the Slaughter of the Innocents was to kill all the boys under three years old, so Jesus probably wasn't an infant when the Wise Men showed up.)

Tomorrow's Scriptures are Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, and Psalm 72:1-7,10-14. The Isaiah passage is particularly dear to those who love Handel's Messiah,  and the Psalm is very royal indeed (probably one of the things that got Herod so wound up), and the Wise Men—who might have had some experience with devious rulers—showed their wisdom by obeying the dream rather than the jealous king. Great drama. We don't usually see the blood-thirsty king in the children's Christmas pageants.

I'm fascinated by Paul though. Being a Roman prisoner was no picnic, and he calls himself "the very least of all the saints" (we probably don't know the half of the scorn he harvested from both Jewish and Gentile Christians as well as from non-Christian Jews and Gentiles for trying to bridge the gap), yet he seems to see nothing except "the boundless riches of Christ."

I often read the daily newspapers (though my doctor says that's bad for my health), and I get very stirred up about the stock market, the Justice Department, and the battles between the Democrats and the Republicans. I have a strong suspicion that Paul would say, "What?? Haven't you read Isaiah? What about that Psalm?"

In praise of the Lectionary

The Episcopal Lectionary, to someone coming from another tradition, is a fascinating thing. I remember being in Presbyterian churches where we tried it out (after all, the concept of a set series of Scripture readings isn't just our possession, and there is a lot of common ground among the lectionaries), but we would get tired and go back to our old undisciplined ways. After all, one point of a lectionary is that you don't really get to choose what Scripture to read or preach from this Sunday. I've gotten to love it, though:
  • A preacher can tell—years in advance—exactly what the readings will be for this Sunday. The Friday morning panic ("What on earth am I going to preach about?") isn't nearly so intense. This Friday panic is the reason some churches never get away from the preacher's three favorite verses. Yup! I was in that church for a while.
  • If you stick around in an Episcopal church for three years, you get to hear at least 90% of the Bible read. I was in a church once where the preacher spent five years on the book of Romans. It's a great piece of Scripture, but honestly, there are 65 other books!
  • One of the great doctrines is that the whole Bible is a product of God's mind. The Bible is a commentary on itself. On a typical Sunday in our parish, we hear a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a reading from a Gospel, and a reading from some other part of the New Testament. Someone, somewhere, put those together so they usually have a theme. That's very sound thinking because any doctrine that's based on only one verse or two is likely to be very weak and flimsy. If you see three or four passages working the same theme, you are on much firmer ground.
  • When I was in seminary, our homiletics professor said he never wanted to hear a student preach the "Jesus only" sermon from Matthew 17:8. Every student seemed to have one of those in his file, totally ignoring the point that the passage is not about Jesus as the only way to heaven. (And you have to use the King James Version to get those two words together—if you use the New International Version and quote the whole verse, you get "When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus." It's the end of the narrative about the Transfiguration.) Getting large chunks of Bible in context helps keep us away from two-word doctrine.
So here's a plan. As a personal discipline I'm going to look at the Episcopal Lectionary Page every Saturday. (Note: The lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer has changed a bit. This is the one we're using.) I'm very undisciplined, so if I hit this 26 times in the next year, I'll be doing well. On Saturday, I'll try to write some sort of response to the Scriptures. (I'm choosing Saturday, not Sunday afternoon, because I don't want the implied message to be "Sunday's preacher was wrong—this is what it really said.")

I hope this can get me back into the business of Scripture meditation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Today is Christmas Day, and as with most Episcopal churches, things are dark at St. Matthew's. The big deal was last night—and it was quite a big deal indeed. We had special music, candles everywhere, and wreaths. We also had more than fifty people in the room, something of a recent record for us.

I didn't do any asking, but I got the impression that a lot of the visitors were family members of regulars, and that's OK with me. And we did have (as we do on Easter) a few newcomers who showed up just for Christmas Eve.

Donald Trump had originally planned on going to Florida for a couple of weeks, but, in the middle of a lot of political trouble, he stayed back in Washington while his wife went to Florida. Then she came back and (apparently with very little prior notice) they showed up at Washington National Cathedral for Christmas Eve.

As an Episcopalian, I can be proud that he chose our outfit over the others; as a Christian, I'm intrigued. Trump's personal history has never been very religious. The church he listed as his home church when he was campaigning had no record of him. When he tried to comment about Scripture at Liberty University, he obviously had never heard of II Corinthians. At a Presbyterian church, they passed the plate of Communion bread and he tried to put money in it. At George Bush's funeral, he obviously fumbled with the Apostles' Creed. I'd say he's not into the routine of being in a church on Sunday morning.

If he and Melania had simply stayed put in the White House, I doubt if there would have been much comment.

A couple of days ago, an excellent Washington Post article on Chreasters (the people who only show up on Christmas and Easter) appeared. The author made the point that those twice-a-year attenders might be looking for something transcendent in their lives, something beyond power and politics and money. And besides, our Episcopalian slogan is "everyone is welcome." So hooray for the Chreasters and welcome to Donald Trump. I hope you began to find what you were looking for.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Best of Times; Worst of Times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.
It's been an extremely long time since I was able to post here—overload at work and overload at home, plus a general sadness at the direction the country is going. That quotation above from Tale of Two Cities sums it all up in a way, and the last week or so focuses the direction of the last few months more than ever.

Worst of times

We have listened to an unrelenting flow of abuse from our most public politicians, abuse aimed at all manner of political opponents. It's become routine. When confronted about insults ("Totally dishonest" "Very low IQ" etc.), the usual response has been to either ignore the comment or to claim it was a joke. The "it was a joke" attempt is the usual one when actual violence is the topic. Nobody was laughing. It's no longer a joke to threaten people.

This week was a time when a couple of "true believers" swung into action, sending bombs and committing mass murder in a Jewish synagogue. The flow of verbal abuse from the very top of our government is having an effect, and this might be the very beginning, the tip of the iceberg.

Best of times

Matthew Shepard, who was killed twenty years ago because he was gay, was finally laid to rest in Washington National Cathedral. Once again, the Episcopal church became a very public voice speaking for tolerance, inclusion, and protection of sexual minorities. And our voice did get heard, perhaps the only positive news item in a terrible week.

How shall we live?

I don't think it's paranoid to expect continuing discrimination and violence against gay people, people of color, Jews, people from the Middle East, and many more who do not fit the cultural stereotype of "real American." Women, poor, and handicapped all will be targets. This kind of hatred and violence will not just vanish, especially because it's being encouraged from the highest levels of government. As a parish, as a denomination, and as individuals, we need to actually do something (not just post items on Facebook) to stand in the gap for these people who are being targeted.

  • Vote. Don't let those who support hatred and intolerance dominate the political stage.
  • Send money. Organizations that are working toward real, positive change (Bishop's Annual Appeal, ACLU, and others) need our financial support.
  • Show up. Civil rights victories weren't won by people sitting at home and watching TV. It's time again to make your presence felt.
  • Speak out. When hate speech is the only speech in the public realm, they are the winners.
  • Reach out. People who are part of targeted minorities need to know that we are on their side.
The red door of refuge is beginning to have more than a symbolic meaning.