Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Sermon Illustrations

Kendall Harmon has today linked to a CT post on bad sermon illustrations. Now, if you are a glutton for punishment and have read through my sermons, you may have noticed a total lack of anecdotes, and a relative paucity of factoids. There are a couple of reasons for that. Part of the reason is simply that I do not have a ready source for them. Yes, there are books and websites full of them, but I do not care to own the former nor search through the latter.

Which brings me to the other main reason: Calling these stories "chestnuts" is being rather kind to them. One of the commenters refers to them as "just so stories", or "urban myths". They circulate as a kind of liturgical glurge to pad out inadequate exegesis.

I don't oppose them entirely. A good illustration is a powerful thing to engage the hearer. But scripture comes first; the teaching of tradition comes next; the preacher's insight after that. The stories are a condiment, a seasoning, to spice the story, not to overly sweeten it or substitute for spiritual meat.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

So What Now, Since We Are Freed?

preached at St. Mark's Highland on 29 June 2014

This week continues the long series of readings from Paul's Letter to the Church in Rome which began last week, and this week's text is the complement to the previous, in which Paul began working through the implications of Jesus' atoning sacrifice versus our present sin.

I have remarked, on occasion, that the all-pervasiveness of sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of Judaeo-Christian religion. Everyone does things they know are wrong; anyone who observes the world honestly can see that. The LORD God gave the law to the children of Israel, and even as they had seen the fire on the mountain, they sinned a great sin before Moses had even descended. And I don't know about you, but if Awe-Inspiring Special Effects isn't enough to convince people to put their trust in the LORD and behave, I don't know what would be. We are perverse beings; or rather we are slaves to our broken nature—slaves to sin.

Or at least we once were, before we came to the water of baptism and were reborn in the new life. So what now, since we are freed from that bondage?

Last week Paul began with a question, which appears again this week: why not keep sinning? After all, he said last week, more sinning means more grace; this week, he suggests that being free of the law, we might think we may live as we please. It is a rhetorical question, of course, which Paul answers with his favorite comeback: By no means! We were held in thrall by the rebelliousness which goes all the way back to Adam, but that bondage was broken on the cross. But the freedom we gain is not license; indeed, at the very beginning of this long argument, way back in Chapter One, Paul identifies licentiousness as one of the marks and signs of our sin.

No, the freedom we gain is that we may again take up obedience, that we may become (as he says) “slaves of righteousness”. Now, this may seem to us paradoxical and unbelievable. We are free, but only through being bound to God. We are free, but we yet continue to sin. Fifty-four years after my baptism, and I am still slothful and intemperate, and those are my good faults. The most damning accusation the world levels against us, as representatives of Christ, is that we are hypocrites.

That accusation Paul does not answer this week, but another—that we are no fun—is at the heart of this week's argument. We are stuck in church on Sunday morning, listening to (they say) dull music and being lectured at; we frown on sex and drugs and every other pleasure. But as Paul says, all this freedom to frolic through life is illusion, and that the adultery and fornication, the double-dealing and exploitation, the violence both in word and deed are all signs of the bondage to sin which leads, in the end, to destruction. For those who lack another hope, the payoff, the wages of this sinning may not be held a raw deal, though I see that what the old serpent promises is never really what sinners get.

But this is Paul's message: we do have another hope, through Christ Jesus. We do not have to settle for the wages of sin, but have the gift of new life made available to us through grace. And since sin came as disobedience, so life and freedom come as faithfulness to what God commands of us.

Jesus gave us a new commandment: love one another has he loved us. We know the measure of his love, stretched out on the arms and post of the cross. Paul says that we are not to yield our members to sin, but Jesus yielded up his hands, his feet, his side to those who crucified their Lord. Therefore we yield our members to righteousness, even as they remember their old habits of sin. Take up the bread and cup in remembrance of his sacrifice, and then take up the acts of service to the LORD, living in Godly harmony, in charity, and in worship. Thus we show in our lives the free gift of the Father, in the Spirit, which is life and hope for the age to come.

This Puny Cosmos

So, a week or so after the end of he the new Cosmos series, Trinity Sunday rolled around, and we did Prayer C, with "the vast expanses of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile Earth, our island home." Not one of the BCP's more felicitous texts, but its heart is in the right place. And it is surely most suitable, in its comprehensive story of salvation, for this culminating day of the Easter and Pentecost season.

Those vast expanses, those galaxies and suns, and that fragile Earth all featured prominently in Neil deGrasse Tyson's scientific story. I do not recall Tyson specifically referring to the mediocrity principle, but it buttresses his cosmology. Earth is unimportant, unremarkable; there are held to be uncountable earths populated with innumerable races. There must be: probability dictates it.

But the story of earth is anecdote, not data. We don't know how uncommon earth-like planets are, or how commonly they evolve some form of life, or how often that life evolves toward creatures like unto ourselves. Indeed, more recently the oddness of earth within the solar system has been heightened by suspicion that the formation and existence of our rather-larger-than-typical moon is important to the development of life here. The hope of those who want to believe that there is nothing remarkable about our human existence is that the unimaginably numbers of galaxies and stars within galaxies and planets around stars are sufficient to overcome any conceivable rarity of our situation, but pitting the unimaginable against the inconceivable is on the order of multiplying zero times infinity and expecting to get an answer.

The motivation behind this is Genesis, Chapter One, or rather, a distaste for it. When Stephen Hawking asserts that "the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies," the several value judgements (including Hawking's exaggeration of how common the sun is) are, after all, his judgements. God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, so there is no reason to look for him in the gas giant, the supernova, the galactic core, or the black hole, or in any number of cosmic vastnesses or exotica.

If it offends that the creator of all should have created all but the most infinitesimal portion as mere backdrop to the divine earthly drama, well, that reflects on our aesthetics, not on God. The "pale blue dot" is a question of perspective, but in the end, it is the divine eye that matters.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Numbers: 2012

So another year's statistics are out, and the five year fast facts summary brings the cheery news that domestic membership is down 1.5%, same as last year, and that domestic ASA, after last year's interruption, has resumed its steady decline, not quite the traditional 3% this year. overal summary informs us that in a decade we've lost 24% of our ASA, and that not only did half our parishes lost ASA, but that over half had lost at least 10% of their ASA over a decade.

On a diocese-by-diocese basis, I note first of all that 2012 will be the last year that all of South Carolina is counted; as the 19th largest diocese by ASA, its loss means a decline of up to 1.9% of the total, alone. That year will also see the disappearance of Quincy into Chicago, but given that it was the smallest domestic diocese (Navaholand, which is a mission, is smaller), around 4% of parishes each have more ASA, and its membership is less than the typical error in that number. It's also a sign of How Things Have Changed that Quincy was not merged into Springfield, which in the old days would have been a far better fit; but most of the diocese having passed on to ACNA, I suppose Springfield would represent, to the remnant, that which they wished to avoid.

At any rate, the diocesan numbers are somewhere between "not as bad as they could be" and "well, pretty bad actually". Nineteen dioceses recorded gains in ASA, San Joaquin squeaking in with one, that's right, one extra attendee. Only three relatively large dioceses recorded gains: Chicago, Southeast Florida, and (oh well) South Carolina. Four of the gainers were overseas, including three of the top four by percentage gained. Lots of dioceses scored big losses, topped out by Los Angeles, whose loss was 10% of the total domestic ASA loss. Ohio also did quite poorly, with a 14%+ loss.

Then we get some other cheery numbers. In the domestic dioceses, burials outnumber child baptisms by 2300 ex-people, or in the 8% range of the total of either. Receptions alone are enough, for now, to make up the difference, and presumably some adult confirmations also register an increase, but again, the losses show that the attendance problem is caused in large part by people just not coming anymore. Overseas dioceses did better, as usual.

Next year's numbers are sure to be bad, what with the departure of most of SC. A continuation of the 3% ASA decline is a near certainty. And it will be a sad day when the best we can come up with is the observation that, well, at least our financial investments increased.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

What Can I Do to Avoid "Thinking Liturgy"?

Via one of Facebook contacts I came across the news that the Thinking Anglicans website is starting a new blog titled Thinking Liturgy. They say that "[I]n this new blog we shall look at the link and explore how our worship can reflect the social justice that we have proclaimed, and at the continuing relevance of this in the second decade of the twenty-first century." But before that they talk about what does get done in church:
These things are intimately linked with what we do in Church. We gather around lectern and table to hear and receive the Word of God; we share forgiveness and peace with our neighbours, and eat with them, recognizing the presence of Christ as we do so. We are the body of Christ, not just in Church, but in the world. Our table fellowship is not just a symbolic table fellowship existing only within the confines of the church building; rather, all these things are one.
Anyone see what they left out? To be a little fair, they do mention "worship" twice; but let's go back to 1 Corinthians 11:26: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes."

It's that whole anamnesis thing again. Worship of and communion with God is the center of the liturgy; this is why we repeat the creed, and why one of the crucial elements of communion is a recitation of Jesus' words and acts on that final night. I do not see how social justice figures in this, except as an excuse for messing it up or forgoing it entirely.

One of the Facebook respondents waspishly remarked, "Personally I'm very happy with my unthinking Liturgy." Personally I am too exhausted to be waspish, and can only manage raw denunciation, unfair though it may be to snipe at them before they have even really gotten started. In the name of Social Justice, which is to say, progressivist politics as practiced by the college-educated class, I can only expect Father-free liturgies and the kind of self-congratulation I encountered at Trinity, Copley Square. I expect a lack of real theological (much less political) engagement. I expect giant paper-mâché Calvinist puppets of doom. I do not expect to be taught even the most basic Christian dogma.

Meanwhile, in an Anglo-Catholic parish in slums on the banks of the Thames, the rector carries on the work of the church by reviewing the church school lunches to make them less institutional. Their ritual is arch-traditionalist, and their theology, age-old; I cannot imagine that they do not teach their children the basics of the faith, nor would I expect that the preacher stands in the pulpit at the major feasts and hedges on the gospel narrative. By contrast, my experience of social action liturgy is that it consists of making empty gestures whose effect is to reward the participants and even onlookers with the self-congratulation of having done something Significant.

Therefore I do not want liturgy that "reflects social justice". I want liturgy that recalls and recollects and repeats the age old acts, with dignity and solemnity, liturgy that acknowledges our own sins and not just those of others, liturgy directed to God in worship. I'll even settle for worship conforming to the rites of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America as they are recorded in the Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Like Papyrus Fragments in the Desert Wind

I've once again stolen the title, this time from where I do not recall, in honor of what appears to be the denouement of the whole Jesus Wife Fragment. Once again, the scholarly focus is more on the Gospel of John fragment that accompanied it, which appears to be in the same hand and has suspicious parallels to a modern edition of another text whose language is inappropriate for the period. But another detail has emerged in further examination: there's a hole near the top of the page, and on one side the scribe as written around the hole, while on the other, he has not. Now, it's not unread of for a text to be written on a damaged page, and for the text to be fitted around the damage; it's extremely hard to justify, however, that on one side, there was damage, and on the other side, there was not.

More details about the supposed origin of the document have also turned up in Owen Jarus's article on the LiveScience site. Supposedly these texts came out of the collection of one Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, who supposedly obtained them in Potsdam in 1963. This story, it turns out, has many difficulties. It does seem that Laukamp was living in West Berlin at the time, but Potsdam was then in East Germany, and Laukamp could not have travelled there. But in any case, Jarus was able to contact the executor of Laukamp's estate, and Jarus was told that Laukamp, a toolmaker, had no interest in old texts and did not collect antiquities. Another acquaintance gave the same story. Further investigation revealed that the German antiquities authorities had no knowledge of the parchments.

Thus the legitimacy of the text continues to dissolve. And finally, the major media, those who pushed this story, are yielding in their defense of the fragment. The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the story; other negative stories ran in Slate and the Daily Mail. Even Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times, who was one of the chief media advocates for the text, came out with an article recounting the extent of the doubts. Far from delivering revelations about the early church, or even about Gnostic heresy, all we are left with is revelation of the gullibility of those who long for such exposes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus' Brother-in-Law

So, in the last few days the whole "Jesus Wife Fragment"/"Gospel of Jesus' Wife" episode has taken another twist. Christian Askeland's article title this time is a bit too not nice to use but I had to come up with something. Anyway, here's the story: the mainstream press articles haven't said much about the context of the JWF, but those who have followed the story more closely know that it arrived with several other fragmentary texts supposedly from the same collector. Well, one of those has been now shown to the world, and it is a bit of the Coptic Gospel of John, in what looks like the same hand as the JWF, and on papyrus of comparable age.

And according to some scholars, it looks to be forged, in the same manner that the JWF is thought to be forged.

The problem is this: the text matches that of the Qau Codex. But not only does it match, it even follows the set of line breaks of a specific modern edition in an eccentric manner, to the point of having a glitch at a page break, and this edition is (like the Gospel of Thomas edition thought to have been used to compose the JWF) available on-line. This, however, presents another problem: the Qau Codex is in a dialect of Coptic which, by the date this appears to have been written, had died out.

So why should a churchman care? Well, on one level, all of this fuss ought to be immaterial. Whether the JWF represents a modern forgery or an ancient gnostic text, it stands well outside the orthodox canon; in a sense, the question is whether it is a modern or ancient forgery. It's all about the world-changing hype. King, whose baby this is, has connections to the Elaine Pagels/Jesus Seminar/"we can learn about early Christianity through the gnostic material" people. But this fragment has now been cut loose from this because of its late date, to the point where its importance in that wise would be indicating a significant survival into a time around Charlemagne's reign. The mainstream media is looking, for whatever reason, for another Coluphidist "well, that just about wraps it up for Christendom" wildly overstated story, and Harvard and Company played off this desire and got an endorsement of King's claims that was emphatically undeserved.

If you want a non-hyperventilating mainstream story reviewing the whole thing you can try this one from the Weekly Standard. And if you want a larger perspective on the novelty of these claims, you can see this column by David Jenkins that came out after the first round of JWF stories. But you can just as well ignore the whole thing, and dismiss anyone who tells you that this or that find challenges orthodox doctrine. Sure, you'll get called a traditionalist (as if that were a bad thing) and accused of burying your head in the sand, but you'll save yourself a lot of grief sorting through the nonsense.

Friday, April 18, 2014

TRECing to Calvary: Part 2

OK, so here's the real imagining problem: we're stuck with a social model of the denomination which is forty-some years out-of-date.

Or maybe the problem has been with us longer, for courtesy of Joe Rawls I read these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer back around 1930: "The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America." He complained about the lack of understanding of dogmatics, the trivialization of sermons, the obsession with the fundamentalists, and so forth: his complaints are all so familiar. But the current driving mindset of the denomination has added to it a schizophrenic quality stemming from a far more recent social conflict.

The core of this can be found in how conspicuously inaccurate the old "Republican Party at prayer" line has become. Republicans these days are Methodists (at least that's what the Valpo maps imply) or Mormons or Southern Baptists or megachurch evangelicals, but given that, for the first time, the Supreme Court has no Episcopalians on it and that the last really prominent Episcopal politicians were George Herbert Walker Bush and the Rev. Sen. John Danforth, both well outside of the Republican mainstream today, it's extremely safe to say that the policy connections between the political party and the political church are basically nonexistent. At the same time, however, that sense of establishment prestige and entitlement lingers.

And we are still wealthy, and (by some standard at least) well-educated. But it is not the moneyed upper class which is our core, but the upper middle professional class. And most strongly expressed are the sentiments of one corner of academia. Let me be quite blunt about this: there is nothing about the current cant which passes for ECUSA theology that I don't recognize from my days as a college student in the late 1970s. The obsession with sexuality, the politically correct radfem monkeying with the God-language, the dabbling in leftist progressive politics: I heard it all, first, at the University of Maryland College Park, coming out of the various leftist activist groups and their professorial sponsors. But it predated even that, as anyone reading about the fads of 1960s "mainstream" theology is aware; before that, one must remember that fundamentalism is the reaction to modernism, and not the other way around.

In any case, the driving forces of Episcopal Church theologizing, for some decades now, have been stuck in this boomer time warp, and caught between the pretense of outsider "prophetic speech" and the reality of church establishment power. This church is a political power center for advancing leftist progressive causes, while at the same time dabbling in fashionable skepticism about our own teachings and equally fashionable credulity toward secular spirituality. And it's no great secret that deviations are winked at or just ignored, if not even exalted by our guardians of the faith, while commitment to age-old tenets is dismissed and deemed irrelevant.

In the context of such juvenile attitudes it is hardly surprising that one sees a movement towards a more juvenile liturgy, in which solemnity is fled from and in which anything that might be found burdensome or offensive to some hypothetical person is omitted or bowdlerized. Meanwhile the pattern of textual revision brushes aside ancient theological concerns in favor of a kind of linguistic totalitarianism in which it is believed that if patriarchal language is taken from the congregation's mouths, they will be forced to take a more feminist view towards their fellow humans, so that we come to church to find that the words of scripture cannot be spoke for fear of offense. The effect is of meddlesome older siblings who nag like the parent they most assuredly can only pretend to be.

I am not the only churchman to see this. Robert Hendrickson said much the same in his Assize Sermon reflection. And the observations cut across the conservative/troglodyte-progressive/heretic battle lines which defend the field of discourse. And there is some hope of a turn-around to be seen in the outcome of the last GC, in which Communion Without Baptism was rebuffed and the proposed Holy Men, Holy Women was sent back for more work. But of course, it is a sign of the times that everyone know that CWOB will continue with the tacit approval of many bishops, and that unbelievers and apostates will continue to be lifted up here and there as Christian exemplars, because their politics were Just. That's what rebellious college students do, after all.

But that time is past. It is time to take up the mantle of adulthood in full, not just its powers, but its responsibilities, and particularly those to what has been passed down through the ages. It's time to admit that the ancients did actually know something. It is time to admit that there is no establishment to rebel against any longer, but only ourselves.

And most of all, it is time to admit that the church's job, first of all, is religion. Social action is important; social justice is demanded by faith and scripture. But even the heathen do as much. Only the church can administer the sacraments; only the church can evangelize; only the church can worship. And only the church carries the anamnesis, that which it remembers of old and (if the rubrics be followed) repeats and reaffirms each Sunday.

Today, the cross stands before us, not shining in brass and silver, but crudely, brutally, the rood of the glorious sacrifice cloaked in earthly shame and agony, unto death. Once again it is given to us to turn away from the world and sacrifice the approbation of our supposedly more enlightened peers, and to speak back to the world the truth of Christ crucified. Will we? Can we? Or shall we turn away, like the rich young man, because we hold the social wealth of the world?