The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Broad or Narrow

Recent surveys seem to show that Christians are, as a whole, much less accepting, affirming, and generally nice people than non-religious people.

That's not really news to many of us, though we usually think of the non-loving culprits as "those other guys who call themselves Christians." Certainly not my crowd. (Of course, that loops back into the non-accepting complaint almost instantly!)

So here's the dilemma. Built into the notion of teaching a religious truth, there's the unavoidable fact that if "A" is true, then "Non-A" and "Anti-A" can't be true too. If Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6), then the way is shut for those who want to come to the Father, but not through Jesus, right?

Big stuff

As Christian believers, we need to hold on to the "Big stuff"—who Jesus is, what belief and salvation are all about, and what basic morality means.

Little stuff

Church history is a constant story of items migrating from the "Little Stuff" category to the "Big Stuff" category. Can you be a Christian believer if your church uses grape juice instead of wine for Eucharist? Can real Christians smoke? The list goes on and on, and it's a very sad testimony. Last I looked there were 217 "real" Christian denominations in our country, but there must be thousands more tiny splinter groups that have pulled away, mostly because of "Little Stuff" issues. Can God save a person who who owns a gun? Will you meet the priest from the neighboring Catholic church in heaven?

There's a reason all this is important. We do make distinctions, and we need to, but when the distinctions are all "little stuff" distinctions, we're excluding Christian brothers and sisters.

And when we ignore our own issues—focus on finding what's wrong with you and telling you about it—we really do deserve to be called judgmental.


Because we Americans have gotten foggy about what the Christian faith really is, another religion is gaining a lot of ground. The Christian faith, as defined by a very vocal segment, is defined as opposing rights for minorities, rejecting immigrants, hating sexual minorities, living in fear with a gun under the pillow, and grabbing as much power as possible, with dishonest strategies if necessary, for our subgroup. That's a strongly appealing religion/political party for many, but Jesus didn't have much to do with it, even if the adherents meet in church buildings. The true Christians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and the others, need to band together and reject this new false religion.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Not always boring

When a jazz pianist plays for your morning service, you sometimes get surprises. Today was Transfiguration Sunday (with the bonus O.T. scripture that describes the prophet Elisha sticking with his mentor Elijah until the very last second when Elijah was taken up into heaven), so the background music for Eucharist was "I've grown accustomed to your face."

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Next Wednesday, I give the Ash Wednesday sermon (twice—noon and 7 PM). Ash Wednesday has always been a bit of a curiosity for me, for although I grew up in a heavily Roman Catholic state (Maryland), most of the Catholic kids went to their parochial schools, so we never saw them. And we never saw the cross on their foreheads. Never had one on mine either.

We were always sort of reticent about religious symbols. Though most of my friends were Jewish, you would never have known to look at them. Boys never wore yarmulkes. If a girl wore a cross on a necklace, we thought of it as just a pretty symbol, nothing religious.

Next Wednesday I get an ash cross on my forehead. And I preach about it. And the text is Matthew 6 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them."

Now what? The writers of the lectionary have set me a pretty dilemma.

Let's back off a bit. I've spent most of my adult life associated with universities and colleges. Almost every building I have worked in has had someone's name attached to it, and even though we normally forget who these people were, the point was to memorialize a rich donor. On my campus, one of the dorms was Liggett because the tobacco magnate gave money for it. I attended classes is Busch because the beer manufacturer was a donor. Now I teach in Dauch, named after a man who made his money in auto parts (a less ominous trade than tobacco or beer).

Back in Jesus' day, wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor, and public praying and fasting was a way to show off how devoted one was. it was a great way to get public honor and praise. I think that's what Jesus is warning us against.

I'm always uneasy when some noted religious person stands in front of a TV camera to give a public prayer. When someone compliments the way someone prayed in a public meeting, that sets my teeth on edge. Some of the prayers God likes best are not too artistic—Romans 8:26 says the Spirit helps our prayers when we just cannot do it with good words.

So what about that mark on my forehead? I don't think it's a case of "Little Jack Horner" Christianity ("He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and said 'What a good boy am I.'") It's more a mark of ownership and possession. After all, we burned the Palm Sunday fronds to make the ashes. Those were earthly signs of Jesus' kingship. He's the king. Not me. It's not a smiley face. It's a symbol that someone died for me. It's a symbol of death and burning and destruction. It's also a mess and hard to get off. I'm stuck with the thing all day. I didn't put it there. I don't deserve any real credit. It's all Christ's doing.

Friday, February 2, 2018

I or We?

A few weeks ago, we had a Sunday morning visit from Brad Purdom, Canon for Congregations. He was supposed to be doing an "instructional Eucharist," and I thought I knew what to expect. "Here's when you cross yourself, and here's why."

Not bad stuff. Kind of interesting. Useful if you aren't too comfortable with the usual Episcopal way of doing things.

That's not what he did.

I have probably forgotten half of what he said, but the half that remains is that when we get together on a Sunday morning, it's all about US the corporate Christian entity, not about the I of my personal devotional life.

That emphasis is all through the liturgy. The confession of sins is first person plural. A prayer we all repeat every Sunday begins "Our Father." Several versions of the Nicene Creed are available, but the one for Sunday worship begins, "We believe."

Like most really good teaching, this one elicits the response, "Why didn't I catch that before? Of course!"

This isn't the way my previous Christian experience went. My memory of Eucharist is primarily of sitting in a pew, balancing a thimble of grape juice and considering my personal relationship with God. My memory of preaching (whether sermons I gave or sermons I heard) is almost all about a personal response to the Gospel: What am I going to do about it? Even the modern Charismatic movement, with all the corporate singing and dancing, is primarily focused on my emotional response to God. "Was Sunday worship good?" = "Did I enjoy it?"

I don't think Purdom wanted to eliminate personal response to God; in fact, I know that's a very vivid part of his message. But this was different. We, as a group, are the body of Christ, and Sunday in an Episcopal church is a celebration of that unity.