Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Why General Convention is So Wearying If You Pay Attention

It shouldn't be hard to come up with an answer to the question of "what is the #1 issue facing The Episcopal Church?" It's the numbers. I haven't dealt with the stats since COVID upended them, but if we're doing better than the average 3% decline per year of the past, I would be quite surprised. In almost every diocese the decline and closure of parishes is ongoing and is (or ought to be) a major concern; in the more rural dioceses it's more like an existential threat.

Therefore you should not be surprised to learn that very little of business slated for the upcoming General Convention addresses this issue. Indeed, as you can also guess, most of it has to do with the pet issues of the American progressive upper middle class. I am not going to go over every proposed resolution as Scott Gunn is doing, if only because I do not have the time nor the stomach to read through fourteen resolutions on the Palestine/Israel conflict. I'm going to have to deal with things in broader terms.

Those Middle Eastern political positions are a good place to start, though, for all of the usual reasons. First, hopefully nobody who wasn't at GC will care how they play out. It's hard to imagine anyone outside the church will care except for right wing loudmouths who want to tar us as hopeless leftists. Nobody, anywhere, is going to say, "well, now that TEC has spoken, I must reconsider my views." We have no moral authority left. And I do not think we can get it back by taking sides in what is a very old, fraught, and complex struggle, especially considering that, if we aren't as immediately culpable as a body as we are with American slavery, we are historically hardly free from the taint of antisemitism.

But beyond that, I don't agree that the answers given by these resolutions are correct. It would be for the good of everyone if Netanahu were out of power as quickly as legally possible, but it seems to me that a realistic resolution has to accept that Israelis face an existential threat. I am quite repulsed by various progressive voices playing down the savagery of the attack that set the whole thing off. And so, OK, maybe they will be rejected on that basis; but the large and constantly presenting issue hee is that the content of these resolutions comes from outside the church. We put a little TEC color on the language, but the fact is that these are the views of one subculture, and they are being put in the church's mouth.

And this comes up all over the place. Just the fact of which committees exist is telling. For example, we have a Environmental stewardship and care of creation, which is OK except that there are four resolutions toward carbon neutrality. On one level I have no issue with that, and as I've said many times of late, if we'e taking this seriously we have to go beyond that and re-bind the carbon that's already up there. The issue again is that we have no authority other than to place demands upon ourselves; not only that, but it's hard to imagine that a church convention brings sufficient technical expertise to the issue to be credible. And looking over our shoulders at all those rural parishes that have to worry more about having a roof at all than caring whether it gets solar panels placed on it, again, this is the project of a certain upper class group, particularly those who can set aside the issue that making all those solar panels is sure to involve a great deal of environmentally destructive mining in third world countries whose people have no power to complain.

We also have committees on Social justice and United States policy, Stewardship and socially responsible investing, Safety, wellness and mental health, Accessibility and inclusion.... And this is not to say that none of these should be concerns brought before the convention, but that the very names of the committees bespeak a certain mindset. And indeed, looking inside, we find, besides the usual self-affirming "commend" resolutions that neither I nor Gunn has much use for, we find for instance a resolution to urge those in prison ministries to urge their fellows from other churches to hold the same views on various sexuality etc. topics if they are to work together. Personally I suspect this is completely divorced from the realities of such ministries, not the least of which is that those fellows are likely to be Roman Catholics or Baptists whose church policies are less enlightened than ours. And I cannot imagine any chaplain worth his or her salt paying the least attention to this directive. But it makes people of a certain subculture feel good to have urged it.

Meanwhile, there are two resolutions on mission, and here the problem isn't so much the lack of resolution, as it were, as it is that church planting isn't so much a matter of Directives From 815 as it is diocesan response to a myriad of local conditions. The big issue I see from my examination of the statistics some years back was that the character/quality of the rector was nearly all-important. The ideal priest is a serious celebrant, a gifted preacher, and a caring pastor; but since Rev. Mary Poppinses are uncommon, just getting one of these characteristics goes a long ways towards making a vital parish; and conversely, a priest is aggressively off-putting in one of these areas can hut a parish very badly. And this isn't something that is addressed well in resolutions; it has to be part of churhc and especially clerical culture.

This brushes up agqinst another issue which I want to hold off on until I deal with things liturgical, but for now, consider all this positioning from the perspective of someone outside that certain upper middle class progressive viewpoint. Some of us who are outside this worldview are just stubborn and dismiss all this, and bully for us. But the church's adoption of this outside worldview, which is out-of-step with so very much of the population, is intrinsically exclusive. We focus too much on obvious differences like race and sexuality and ignore the far stronger (in this age) divisions of wealth and especially class and politics. And when we enthrone the values and opinions of one class/subculture, it is alienating to outsiders. And it comes to look like a control issue, which makes the exlusion more real.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Our Mission: To Witness

For the Easter Vigil: this year the gospel was from Mark.
the women at the tomb

We have heard the story of how the women arrived at the tomb, expecting to find a corpse sealed behind the stone, and were met instead by the angel, the messenger of the great gospel: Jesus is risen! And thus is salvation announced, the miracle beyond miracles. Moses held out his hand, and God delivered the Hebrews though the cleft waters, a show of power befitting the efforts of Hollywood special effects. The people walked through the sea on dry land, and then the waters returned to wash away the forces of Pharaoh and deliver God's people from bondage. Against this spectacle the empty tomb pales, and yet it is this which changes the world forever, for at that moment, death was broken forever. And those women, and ourselves these two millenia later, were not the agents of this salvation, but only witnesses to God's mighty act:

“The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."

In Mark's gospel, the women flee into silence, and yet we have their testimony tonight. Indeed, there are those who hold that the shortest versions of Mark are somehow truncated; and we have other versions which attempt to supply the seemingly missing ending, more or less clumsily. But that is not important, compared to the empty tomb and the angel's message, which is the conclusion of a single narrative common to all four gospels, to which they devote more space than any other single story. They all agree that Jesus took his disciples with him when he went to pray at Gethsemane, and that there he was arrested by guards from the temple, led by Judas; they all recount the same story of interrogation by Caiaphas and the chief priests, during which Peter denied his master three times, as prophesied; they all tell how Jesus was taken to Pilate, who condemned Jesus in spite of his obvious innocence, releasing Barabbas instead as a sop to the crowds. They all describe how Jesus was mocked, and how he was crucified with two others, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James looking on, but the disciples dispersed. and how his clothing was divided among the soldiers; and they all state that Joseph of Aramathea came and, with Pilate's permission, took the body away and laid it in the stone tomb, wrapped in a shroud, before the day was out.

But that is not the end of it, by no means. All four gospels continue, relating the same tale of Sunday morning: that at daybreak Mary Magdalene went to the tomb with other women and found it opened, and that Jesus' body was not there; they all say that she and those with her encountered an angel who asked her why she wept, and who told her that Jesus was not there, and that he was risen from the dead. Here, then, is the heart of the gospel message: Christ crucified, but also, Christ risen. Nothing is more important to the faith than this—nothing! Only the incarnation approaches it in importance. It is because of the testimony of these women, and that of the disciples after them, in their encounters with the empty tomb and the risen Jesus, that we have a religion to preach. It was this that Peter taught in his address to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, and which teaching put him and the other disciples in front of the Sanhedrin.

Paul likewise makes Christ crucified and risen again the center of his teaching, and so must we also bear witness, for if Christ were not arisen, what would the point be? It is the testimony of that Friday, and that Sunday morning, that gives meaning and justification to our gathering here, to remember again the glorious grace which we have received. Were Jesus not arisen, well, we have many moral teachers from around the world; what is one more? Were Jesus not arisen, what hope would there be in our faith? Were Jesus not arisen, why should the world heed our message?

But the tomb is empty, as the women related; Christ is arisen, and death's power is thus broken, to be utterly wiped away on the last day, when the old passes away and all is made new forever. It is these moments in history, in which salvation is realized, that are the foundation of our message to the world. The brokenness of humanity is something that anyone can see; human sinfulness is the one doctrine verifiable by ordinary observation. But salvation is hidden from such inquiry; it can be found only in the church, not because the church owns it, but because it is the church's testimony, the memory of those sacred days, that brings the message of salvation to the world. Without us as its messengers, who would hear of Christ? Who would know that salvation is there, and is freely given, and may be taken for no greater price than confession, faith, and baptism? And when we say to others, “you should live as we teach, in the name of Christ,” who should heed us? We know that Jesus is the incarnate Son, and that his teaching is that of God on earth; but we know him first as Jesus crucified, buried, and risen again, and it is this which compels our worship, because it is in this that we see the fulfillment of the LORD God's saving purpose. And if it is how we see what is revealed, it is thus how we must show others the same divine revelation. We must be witnesses to the world, not hiding in fear, but bold in proclamation. We did nothing to defeat death: God, in his incarnate son, did that. But now we have been made part of that miracle, and it is through us that the world may also become part of it. That is our mission as the church.

Christ is risen from the dead: that is our first message; come and be baptized: that is our second; live together in the kingdom as Jesus taught, doing his work as we await the last days in faith, love, and hope: that is our third. One follows from the other; they are not separate. So here we are, and what work must we do? Well, to live as Christ taught, of course, dead to sin in the sacrifice of his crucifixion, as Paul explained. But it is not simply a matter of living an upright and godly life in charity and purity of heart. No, to the best of our ability, and in the grace of the Spirit, we must carry out the will of the Father not only in abjuring sin, but in showing the Son to the world. Those outside the church need to see a reason for coming in, not just through our superior life (for at this we fail over and over), but through our superior knowledge: we know the story of salvation, and the world does not. The world chases after false gods: not only failing to see the LORD God as He is, and worshiping others in His place, but elevating human lusts and greed and impulses above all other principles, to the end that any kind of life together becomes predatory and abusive. We must offer them, instead, the one True God, incarnate in Jesus the only Christ, fully real and truly man, crucified at one place and time in Judaea while Pilate was procurator under the Emperor Tiberius, and risen again from the tomb in Jerusalem, and from thence returned to the heaven which is beyond our mortal and physical knowledge. As they are taught, and are baptized, and partake of the sacraments, then shall they know the Word Incarnate, and shall see the Godhead, and with us they may join in the work of the kingdom. And then with us they shall proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Holding Up Our Lamps on the Day of the Lord

The Day of the Lord: who living under His covenant could not hope for it? The day when God's power washes over the earth and makes all things right. The days when God's enemies are finally and forever defeated: who could not hope for that day? Who among us does not want to see righteousness triumph and evil be thrown down?

Many years ago, Melissa happened to be listening to a local radio preacher, and he said, “You know, the Day of the Lord could be today! And wouldn't that make today extra special?” And even given how this utterly fails to grasp the awe that such a day should force upon us, let me just say that Amos rejects even the idea that we should expect to rejoice in that glorious deliverance—for he says, do not expect to be delivered, but expect instead that we might be that evil that the world is to be delivered from. And he says, “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.” So what is wrong, that the offerings required by the Law are rejected? Well, the answer is in the next verse: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

The same prescription is given by the prophet Micah:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

And when we turn to the parables, we see the same. The King in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats says to the latter: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’

It is through our love of neighbor that we show our love of God. Not that we are to neglect worship of God, but these prophesies and parables are directed to the religious, not to those outside the fold. They are directed to us. We believers, if our faith is to be true, must make it so through justice and mercy and humility, not just through prayer and worship. Nor should we grow complacent and contemptuous as if our works elevated us above others, saying, “Lord we thank you that we are not like other people, not like that banker over there or that social justice advocate over there.” Our works do not save; only Christ does that, the Christ who shall return in judgement.

For when that terrible day comes—and it will be terrible, no question about it: the Revelation spends chapter after chapter on it, what with the seven trumpets and the seven bowls of God's wrath poured out over the earth—we shall indeed be called to account, with only the grace of God in Christ speaking for us. And that day will come upon us in a flash, like lightning across the earth, said Jesus. The parable I have just discussed falls at the end of the same chapter which begins with today's gospel, and like the chapter just before it, the emphasis is upon being prepared. And for the bridesmaids, the point to catch is that the bridegroom is delayed; he is coming at an unexpected hour, not catching them by surprise by coming early, but indeed, his arrival is heralded. But because of the delay, the foolish have run out of oil.

Now, when looking at this closely, the thing seems to fall apart. Why are the wise so churlish? What does the oil represent? How about the merchants? But really, this is the wrong way to look at a parable. The oil doesn't have a specific meaning; it is simply something that is emblematic of the lack of foresight by the foolish. It is the flame that matters, the light of the lamp that welcomes the bridegroom. Therefore keeping the lamp lit signifies our continued attention to our work as Christians, though the bridegroom's arrival be two millennia coming, and still longer. And then, on that awful day, if we have been steadfast in the Lord, our faith worked through in justice and mercy, let it be as Paul promises: we shall be taken up in the new life, to meet our God as he comes to judge the earth. For it is in that faith that we can say, in the face of that dread day, Maranatha: even so, Lord, come.

Friday, April 07, 2023

And Thus We are Freed

Preached Good Friday, 2023

Who was the guilty?

Who was it that killed the Son of God?

Most immediately, a band of soldiers, who with hammers and nails bound Jesus to the instrument of his final and fatal torment, at the command of Pontius Pilate, who yielded to the will of the crowd and the Sanhedrin, led by Caiaphas, after Judas betrayed him in the garden. This is all spelled out in the gospel we have just heard. So it would seem that we have exhausted the list of those responsible.

And yet.

All of those I have named are long, long dead; indeed, we are within a few years of the two-thousandth anniversary of the crucifixion, if it has not already past. There is neither man nor woman living, it would seem, who is responsible for Jesus' death; no Jew, no gentile; no authority either Jewish or Roman (for all such governance has passed away); no soldier, no bystander. All responsibility has been ended by the passage of time, at least as the world would count it.

And yet.

And yet, we look to the ultimate reason for Jesus' death, and it is our salvation. We modern Christians are reduced to bystanders before the cross, with John and the women, or else fled like the other disciples. The passion reading of last Sunday puts the crowd's words upon our lips, but then we sit again, and become merely the audience to the passion play. If we are more sensitive perhaps we feel for his suffering, but either way we are at a safe remove from the events of that holy and terrible day.

And yet, as we sit before the cross, the altar bare and the sanctuary stripped, the responsibility still lies upon us all. It is our sins which brought about the incarnation; it is for us that Jesus was born the Christ. For us he walked the earth in human flesh; for us he taught and prayed; for us he was given over to suffering; and for us he was betrayed, abandoned, and tortured unto death. We who would be bystanders are yet participants, for it is our sinning, and the sinning of all humanity, which brought all this to pass, and while we comfort ourselves that our sins are small compared to those of others, in the end, it matters not. So what if one man hammers upon the nails in His hands and feet by murdering and theft and exploitation, and we feel that we have naught to confess but our petty contempt and shaving at the edges of the law: nonetheless, it is all the same hammering. And it is the same love of Jesus for all that laid him on the cross and stretched forth his hands and feet. Within the past few days I saw an illustration of Jesus washing the feet of various reviled figures, and yes, his salvation was made for them as well as us, and not because his salvation is so great as to encompass even them, but because it is so great as to encompass us, whether we see the full extent of our sins or not.

For the full extent of our sins is that they pervade our whole being. Sin is in our very nature, and the only “cure” is death. So therefore we are cured, on Calvary's hill, by the death of God himself, given up to the evils humanity has wrought upon one another, so that the Son of Man is offered up, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world as no other offering could.

And yet, we are still bound to the world, with every failing to feed and cloth and comfort the word, and by every harsh word, every theft, every slander, every injury. Each act against our fellows, even the contempt and malice we carry in our hearts: each chains us more securely to the dead weight of sin, that we may not escape the destruction it surely rains upon us. And yet, even knowing this, we hammer away, though we know not what we do.

And there is nobody to blame but ourselves. Judas may have betrayed Jesus, but it is we who put him in the garden. Caiaphas may have decided that Jesus was a threat to the Jewish authorities, but it was our sins which made those offensive teaching necessary. Pilate may have passed sentence, but we put the Son of Man before him. The Soldiers may have wielded the hammers and nails, but it is we who laid the Lamb of God on the cross. We are not innocent; we may not blame our neighbors, but only ourselves.

And yet, here we see that in Christ's suffering and death, all is forgiven. Salvation is accomplished, once and for eternity, upon the cross. Whatever we may think or feel about the matter, we free, and we who are baptized are bound to that salvation, so that every good we do likewise pours out the grace we have been given. Every witness to Jesus we make, be it through word or deed, manifests God's love. The cross is The End, at least to the first act of creation; sin is broken, though it continues until the end of all time, when death is destroyed forever.

And so, I am done today with “and yet”. For now we are in the age of “and thus”: and thus we see the glorious morn the result of sin's destruction is manifested. Thus we see our freedom realized. Thus we see our work set before us: to carry the church, Christ's body, his hands and feet and mouth, to all about us, and to enlarge that church through baptism in His death. And thus we look to that glorious day when all blame, one and for all, is burnt in the everlasting fire, that the eternity of salvation is harvested and gathered into God's house forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Winnowing

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.”

Jesus said, “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Jesus said, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Jesus died for our sins, and not for ours only, but the sins of the whole world: these are the words of the Apostle John. There is salvation freely given to all. And yet—well, Jesus, rather embarrassingly for some, spends a great deal of time on what John the Baptist called the winnowing of the people: the wheat to be gathered into God's granary, but the chaff to be burned. And Jesus likewise says that at the end of days, in the great harvest, the weeds will be taken and burned; when the flock is collected, the sheep will be separated from the goats. One will be taken, another left.

Preachers of a certain stripe spend a lot of time on the subject of this judgment. You may have heard of Jonathan Edwards' notorious sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”, in which he speaks at length (for that is how things were done in those days) of how it is only the merciful hand of God which keeps us from the fires of perdition, and yet, the time will come (Edwards says) when this forbearance will end, and only those whose trust is in the Lord will be kept safe from the flames. This is the classic language of revivalist Christianity, but the same focus on judgment is central to late medieval piety. Edwards' image of God dangling souls like spiders on threads, over the the fires of hell—well, I think it is inaccurate as an expression of Jesus' teachings. It implies that God's mercy is capricious, and that is not how Jesus depicts it, nor the prophets before him, nor John of the Revelation after him.

No, this judgment, this winnowing, this sorting out of humanity is ordained in the mind of the Father, inexorable, its time set, yet hidden until the day when Christ returns and all accounts are settled. Should we then fear it? Yes, we should, but no, we shouldn't. Jesus simply spends too much time on warning us about the sorting of the harvest that I should brush those warnings off. And it is striking that Jesus, John the Baptist, and the prophets all agree that this sorting is on the basis of works—but not in avoiding sins as most people think of them, for the sheep who are saved are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. It is the works of mercy that save, and as James teaches, these works show our faith. And if we are merciful out of fear of damnation, well, is that not faith?

And yet, we should not fear, for God is with us, and if any man sin, we have Jesus as our advocate. Focusing too much on the fear of judgment tempts us to the surpassing sin of setting ourselves up in judgment, and even though Jesus says “Judge not”, again it is quite popular for us preachers to rail against this or that sin, and then to slip over into condemning and persecuting those sinners. And this is so obviously merciless and so obviously an arrogation of God's authority that even had Jesus not explicitly condemned it, we should infer its sinfulness from the whole of the rest of his teaching. The urge to pray “Lord, we thank thee that we are not like other, sinful people” is so strong that it takes constant vigilance, which is to be found in humility, to avoid alienating ourselves from our fellows, and therefore from God. The new kingdom of God is not in self-purity (though we should know and resist our impurities), but in mutual love: not in separation, but in inclusion; not in division, but in unity. It is not a kingdom of judges, but servants.

And that kingdom is not far off. It is near, it is now, and yet it is also coming, for Christ shall return and being this old world to its end. But none may know when, as proven by all those who have falsely prophesied a date. Each such predicted day comes and goes, for he is coming at an unexpected time. And yet, he is always about to come, for to us it is not about dates and times, but about our expectation, that we should make ourselves ready, like the wise virgins. The years, the centuries, the millennia stretch on, and still we wait, but still, Christ's return is always tomorrow, and our work, Christ's work in the world cannot wait, and not because our work makes the kingdom, but because our work is of the kingdom. We do not build the kingdom of God on earth; we manifest it, when we love God and love our neighbor. And as we draw others to Christ, both in worship and in service to one another, we further the knowledge of salvation, that the harvest may be increased without end.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Wisdom! Let Us Attend!

“Wisdom! Let us attend!”

These words, or variations on them, are spoken four times in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the main Eucharistic rite of the eastern churches. They introduce each of the readings, and are repeated before the Creed is said. The great church of Constantinople was dedicated to Holy Wisdom—Hagia Sophia.

Well, let me tell you, I tried to attend to some wisdom in writing this, because the first reading is relatively new to the lectionary. And, well, one commentator on this passage began by saying, “On even the most 'ordinary' Sunday it can be difficult to preach and teach from the book of Proverbs. It may seem well nigh impossible to do so on Trinity Sunday.” I did not find this reassuring, though I have refrained from calling our priest and dumping the problem back on her. So let me see what wisdom can be found here.

The chapter from which our first reading is taken contrasts with that preceding, which describes an equally metaphorical, adulterous woman who leads the unwary astray. Our first verses today are part of that contrast: Wisdom speaks from the heights, from the gates, while her rival roams the streets, hidden. But the main contrast is between the two paths down which they lead their followers: one to sin, but the other, of Wisdom, to righteousness. The reading then skips over a passage on the virtues of wisdom, which on this day, perhaps do not need to be dwelt upon, for it resumes at the section most relevant to the day: the relationship of Wisdom to the Godhead.

Most of the commentators I came across equated Wisdom with the Son: Jesus, the Word of God. And there is something to be said for this reading. If nothing else, the parallel with the opening of John's gospel is strong:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

Likewise, Paul refers to Jesus as the “wisdom of God” in his first letter to the Corinthians. But I do not think think it is quite so simple. For one thing, our reading today says that “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,” and we are instructed in the creed that the Son is “begotten, not made”. Furthermore, biblical figures of speech are not material for mechanical deduction. We name both the church and the bread of communion as the body of Christ, and therefore should it not be the case that, being members of this body, we are therefore also Wisdom?

No, I do not think that Wisdom is to be identified with the Word alone, and thus with Jesus. Wisdom is in Him, as she is in the Father and in the Spirit, but she comes forth from their action together, just as creation and redemption and holiness come from the Godhead as a whole, working as one. She speaks in scripture; she is revealed when the LORD God acts in history; she is heard in the tongues of the Spirit. But she herself is not one or even all of these things.

Wisdom calls us to seek God, but the finding is a strange thing. Surely it is wise to align oneself to whatever underlies existence, but how to do it: that is quite the problem. We who have found the LORD God, or have been found by him, are confronted with not just some philosophical under-girding of reality, but with a personality whose will confronts us in the history of salvation. And in this confrontation, it is Wisdom who stands at our side, not as advocate (for that is Jesus' care), but as guide. She shows us right pathways; she warns of danger; she counsels patience and forbearance. In this wise, are we not reminded of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who will guide us into all the truth, and will declare to us the things that are to come? But I say, again, the Spirit and Wisdom are not one and the same; and yet when the Spirit leads us to understanding of the word of scripture: there, Wisdom is found. When the Spirit inspires our worship, that we perceive Jesus in the sacraments: there, Wisdom is found. When the Spirit moves us to acts of charity: there, Wisdom is found.

And the Father, of whom the Son, the Word is begotten, is He Wisdom? No, and yet Wisdom is his creation, as all else is. But that creation is through and with the Son and the Spirit, thus, so does Wisdom issue forth from the Three in One, so Wisdom is in the words of Jesus when he says, “whoever who has seen me has seen the Father”, as Wisdom is in the visions of the prophets and the writings of the evangelists and the letters of the apostles. But she speaks even before this, for it is she who points to scripture; it is she who points to the church; it is she who leads us to worship; and it is she also who shows to us our sin and corruption.

It is written that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom,”—indeed, it is written in the very chapter following our reading. And here we take up our final thread of Wisdom, for in that chapter, she has set up a feast:

To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’

It is that last phrase that is the key: “walk in the way of insight.” Wisdom is more than knowledge of God, if indeed one may use that word about the LORD who is beyond knowledge. Wisdom teaches us how to live so that we look to God in every thought and act of our lives. In every act of love, of worship, of thanksgiving, of charity, of reproof, of self-discipline, of leadership, of submission: there we may find Wisdom as our guide. We hear Wisdom when we are taught that God sent his only Son, God from God, to live with us and die for us and break the bonds of death; we hear it in account of the first Pentecost, when the Spirit came upon the disciples. We hear it in the councils of the church, where the creed which we shall shortly say was formulated to express the mystery of our faith. But hearing is not enough. We must return Wisdom's invitation and dwell with here so that she dwells in us. Therefore attend to Wisdom, so that we may live as Isaiah calls us to do: “Let us walk in the light of the LORD.”

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Surrendering Unto Caesar

Over the summer, at McLean Bible Church, there was a crisis of leadership: the election of elders failed, and a second election had to be held. And the reason? Well, according to the chief pastor, David Pratt, as he related in a sermon on July fourth, a group was trying to take control of the church apparently to replace leadership with people who would espouse a more conservative line—that is, a more politically conservative line, for among other things, a rumor was passed that the three candidates were going to have church buildings sold to Muslims. And there certainly is a struggle going on: in researching this I found a Facebook page called “Save McLean Bible Church” which states the following:

MBC members have lost all confidence in the Elder Board and Pastoral Staff. The congregation is witnessing corruption, lack of transparency, deception, slandering, intimidation, and use of the pulpit to bully members of the church. The elder board and pastoral team continue to lie and peddle lies after lies. The vision and purpose of MBC is to make a gospel impact on Metro Washington with the message of Jesus Christ. This vision led to making disciples among all quarters of DC Metro area, including the influencers and policy makers in Washington, therefore, impacting the nations and even the world. We believed that this was a strategic mission because of the following reality: “Change Washington, change the world.” Join us in restoring McLean Bible Church to the purpose and vision for which it was founded upon!

In the end, the second election did seat the same candidates; even the first was quite close to the 75% margin needed to elect. The opposition was clearly a minority of the congregation. Nevertheless Pastor Pratt has been attacked in many places for his supposed leftist politics, as has Phil Vischer, whom you might recognize as one of the creators of the VeggieTales Christian videos. Another prominent evangelical pastor told Peter Wehner of The Atlantic that “Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke.”

And then of course there are the preachers who have gone all in on politics. To take just one example, we have Franklin Graham, Billy's son, who posted on Facebook: “The House Democrats impeached Trump because they hate him and want to do as much damage as they can. And these 10, from his own party, joined in the feeding frenzy. It makes you wonder what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal.” Thus he cast her as Caiaphas and the ten congressmen as Judas. I could go on for some time on this, for it is appallingly easy to find preachers claiming that the COVID vaccine is the Mark of the Beast, and not too difficult to find people making supposedly prophetic utterances that the previous president will be restored to office by this or that date.

My purpose, however, is not a enumeration of the sins of other churches, and I suspect that most of you already have some awareness of this, if not a grasp of its extent or depth. Given the day, though, I will spend a little time elaborating their vision of the Kingdom of God. First, I note the claim that “America is a Christian nation,” with the implication if not outright assertion that as a nation it is beset by satanic forces. The church, and thus the kingdom, is allegiance, and their purpose is first of all to defend it against outsiders. And thus, the second characteristic: the identification of church purpose with national purpose, which tends to reduce preaching to a reiteration of their social mores. Finally, their vision is apocalyptic: they look to the day when God's rule will be established again on earth, a rule gained by the crushing of God's enemies, which, of course, are also their enemies, and therefore their enemies are also God's enemies.

My description is, I will admit, something of a caricature, but the point in the end is that this vision is both militant and partisan. And here Pilate fits right in, for his question to Jesus reveals his concern: is Jesus a threat to the Roman state? Once he establishes that Jesus claims no civil authority, Pilate loses interest, and in the end only condemns Jesus to pacify the crowd and appease the Jewish authorities. Of course, we know better: we know that in the end Jesus' claim over all is God's claim, and earthly powers shall be swept away with the old earth itself. And yet, when we consider the many parables which describe the kingdom of God, they do not describe its establishment among humanity as a military campaign: it is growth, it is return on investment, it is the yield of the harvest, winnowed from among the weeds and barren places. The labor is that of the farmer, not of the soldier.

God's kingdom is not of this world, and yet, we are not apart from it—not yet. And as we act in the world, well, Jesus and the apostles teach us to minister to its citizens, not only by evangelizing and preaching, but in ordinary acts of love and mercy. This is the second great commandment, and we are taught that the neighbor whom we must love is the Samaritan, the Jew, the Muslim; those of other nations and races; those both above and below our social class; even the liar, the thief, and the murderer.

And, well, OK. We collect food for the poor, and we send them coats, and we make up gifts for the sailors, and no doubt we give to any number of other charitable works. Nothing wrong with that, though we are wrong if we think we work our salvation by those acts. But that is not all we must do, and we are confronted by the prospect of the ballot box and the judgment it asks of us. As to that, there are differing opinions. Anthony Bloom, the late Orthodox archbishop in Britain, once said in an interview:

The Church must never speak from a position of strength. It ought not to be one of the forces influencing this or that state. The Church ought to be, if you will, just as powerless as God himself, which does not coerce but which calls and unveils the beauty and the truth of things without imposing them. As soon as the Church begins to exercise power, it loses its most profound characteristic which is divine love [i.e.] the understanding of those it is called to save and not to smash.

And one could go on from this to assert that we as voters are not to consider ourselves agents of the church. I don't choose that for myself, and on the other side one may count Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an advocate for and embodiment of the need for the Christian to be involved in the world. Even among the Orthodox one may recall Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek church marching at Martin Luther King's side—literally so. But I think all of them would have agreed that our approach to the power that positions of authority provide must be reluctant, humble, other-serving, and ever-mindful of both the rebellion and the cruelty that lurk within our hearts. Bishop Bloom is surely correct in claiming that we are not ordained to rule the world for Christ.

Thus, when we look upon our political opponents, well, yes, obviously we must not demonize them. Easy to say, not so easy to do. One comes upon political candidates whose statements are cruel, contemptuous, full of lies and invective, and how hard it is to vote against them “in love”, and how hard not direct our own contempt against their supporters! And how easy it is to award those of our own affiliation with approval and congratulate ourselves simply for opposing the other side.

There is a further danger. Earlier I spoke of the confusion of the church's will with that of “conservative” culture. We here are not immune to that. “Culture catechizes,” says Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor. We are taught by radio, the news, our Facebook feeds, our college professors, our friends and our parents—well, at least so the latter hope. And in this age it is so very easy to filter out those who do not reinforce our own urges and identity. We are taught by the voices of the world day in and day out, and then we come to church and spend maybe a few hours hearing, God willing, the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than that of the spirits of the age. And thus Jacobs asked, “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week, and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out?” And he continues, “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right. People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.” Perhaps we want to believe otherwise, but it requires a constant effort to set aside the tenets, the prejudices, and, well, the communal sins of our own communities. It is terribly difficult to separate out what the world teaches about solving the problems of our lives and of those around us from the command that we love those around us; we are very much prone to confuse the need with the method. And we in this place are especially so tempted: well-educated, many of us set into positions within the government or its contractors, it is so very easy to know that we know what is best, without having to listen to others.

This world of constant chatter: it easily tempts us into unearned anger. Jacobs again: “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred. They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.” Yes, perhaps there is much to be angry about, and yes, even Jesus showed anger. But anger is consuming, and anger against others eventually drives out love and embeds hatred within the heart.

So where does this leave us, aspiring to the kingdom of heaven?

Well, I have no simple answer. I mean, there is a simple answer, which is to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love one another as Christ loves us. Simple, and yet in our fallen lives, finding room to love can be hard, even impossible in our sinfulness. But we do have some things to plainly avoid, through Christ's teaching and example. We may not lord it over others; we may not seek to harm others; we may not put our own lusts above the needs of others, nor may we be indifferent to their suffering. And therefore, as much as we participate in politics, it must be to the service of others, not to do battle with them. For Jesus' kingdom is not of this world: his strength is in our weakness, his authority is in our submission, and his eternal reign is manifest in every passing act of love we carry out. But I cannot tell you exactly what those acts should be, and I would very much doubt another person who claimed otherwise. It is our own judgment, under the direction of love, which we must take to the ballot box, and may the Spirit ever guide us there. And there, we shall fail, over and over, in carrying out the work of the kingdom, but if anyone sins they have an advocate in Jesus Christ, who redeems not only our sins, but those of the whole world—even our enemies and persecutors. The kingdom of God is folly to the world, and we cannot defend its borders through force of might; but those borders are extended in every act of love and mercy, until the day when, as the Father ordains, the Son shall return in glory, and under the Spirit love shall hold sway everywhere, world without end. Amen.