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“I Said to the Man…”

I know that years are artificial constructs, convenient ways to plot the passing of time. The political events of the past year both in the United States and Great Britain could be construed as challenging another idea linked to time; that of progress. It’s not only liberals who subscribe to one of the fundamental planks of Liberalism. That is the doctrine that things are moving from darkness into light and if that progression doesn’t seem to move swiftly enough, it is our job to give it a push.

 

When the twenty first century began it was largely assumed that one sign of progress was that nationalism, a polite descriptor for tribalism, was now definitely one of those dark ideas which time, now armed by methods of instant communication, would finally eradicate. Mind you, America presented both a prototype of internationalism and a challenge to it. For over four hundred years, successive waves of immigrants largely supplanted the original inhabitants. The aboriginal population was derided as being primitive and “savage”, decimated by sword, musket and disease. Spaniards, Britons, the French, the Irish, Africans (themselves enslaved), Italians, Asians, Jews, Eastern Europeans and others, staked out land and neighborhoods, and delineated three nations.One of those nations in particular looks like an example of what globalization is intended to resemble. The United States looks like a United Nations. And yet, in the recent election, it opted for locality over globalization. Whether that decision is a temporary regression, or a re-establishment of nationalism, with its accompanying mantra of patriotism, remains to be seen. The “Brexit” vote in my own homeland, may point in the same direction. The sort of “liberalism” which inspired the Founders of the United States, it is suggested, is now up for challenge. This lengthy preamble may suggest to you that I’m about to opt for the future or the past, as projects. Not so.

 

I belong to a nation that has co-existed with liberalism, conservatism, autocracy, monarchy, republicanism, fascism, communism, theocracy to name the major political themes. My nation has managed to co-exist freely in areas and territories where one or another of these theories, or combinations of some of them, existed. In some my nation has been persecuted, even eradicated. At other times my nation has collaborated, even with regimes propounding philosophies in obvious conflict with the moral teachings of it Founder and founders. Not all of these regimes were or are overtly repressive. At times my nation has favored one political philosophy over another and even suggested that its citizens should follow suit. At times my nation has embraced fear, fear of the future, fear of the past, and even fear of success.

 

My nation is the Church, against which the gates of Hell, or of political theories, of progessivism or conservatism, shall not prevail. Unlike secularism, the Church’s greatest foe is ecclesiastical nationalism. That is a strange concept for an Anglican to propound. Anglicanism became a separate face of Christianity when, using fantasy as a prop, it invoked the idea that every Christian Empire has the right to its own “national” church, free to propound its own version of Christianity. So that tyrant Henry VIII encouraged his henchmen to unearth “histories” of a post-Roman Empire nation, ruled by merry old souls like Olde King Coel. So the ruler of part of an island, detached from continental Europe, claimed imperial status, and a church as part of his trinkets. And yet this tiny Imperial Church continued to chant the anthem of the whole church: we believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Indeed one version of the Creeds printed in the Imperial Church’s Liturgy affirmed not only belief in, but simple belief: “I believe one Catholic” etc.

 

Reliable history, as opposed to history as propaganda, informs me that my nation, the Church, can disappear from a nation or geographical area. Yet, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is numerically stronger now than it has ever been. Jesus warned against faith in statistics when he said “When the Son of Man returns shall he find faith on earth?” Henry VIII’s project of a discreet local church mercifully developed into a world-wide Communion committed to the reunion of the Church.

 

Let me try to be clear here. Of course local or “particular” churches should be free to govern their own affairs. They should not claim freedom to construct their own religion, their own creeds. The divisions which bedevil the Church, weaken and compromise its witness and make local area churches prone to cultural domination by national forms of secularism. Such a malady weakens the ability of the church in a nation or area to act as an effective conscience. At the same time, too much focus on universality makes it equally difficult for the local church to act as an effective conscience.

 

It is so hard for us to place our baptismal certificates on top of our birth certificates. And yet my hope, and the world’s future hope lies in Kingdom Come, when heaven and earth combine, and the kingdoms of this world becomes the Kingdom of our Lord Christ. My citizenship in that new world rests on my being born “from above” by baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The water and oil mark on my forehead enables me to trust the man who stands at the gate of the year, as he exhorts me to step out into the darkness and put my hand into the hand of God.

 

 

 

A Traditionalist Contemplates the Jesus Movement.

Let me begin by saying how encouraged I am by the Presiding Bishop’s emphasis on Jesus and his saving works. It is not my purpose to pick apart aspects of the “Jesus Movement’ which might give someone of my persuasion pause. Rather I want to seek a way to contribute to Bishop Curry’s visionary call.

 

“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” So wrote the author of the second Epistle to the Thessalonians. 

Paul, let’s call him the author of this short letter Paul, encourages his hearers and readers to stand firm in the faith communicated by the spoken and written word. He describes his teachings as “traditions.” We get here a glimpse of the earliest “Jesus Movement.” Across the Roman Empire, and perhaps beyond, groups of people drawn from different classes, regions, nationalities, religious backgrounds, male and female were uniting in the belief that Jesus is Lord. They prayed that the Kingdom of God would come and that God’s will and purpose established.

Before a decision had been made about the authority of a growing corpus of Christian writings  appended to the books of the Jewish Holy Books, these Christians sought to stand firm on a foundation made up of oral and written “tradition.” This tradition told of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of a man named Jesus, from Nazareth, a Jewish carpenter’s son whom they worshipped as God. Already, through their devotional lives and particularly their principle act of Christian worship, a fundamental if rudimentary Trinitarian awareness was becoming “traditional”. At least weekly, if not daily, and often at great risk, the followers of the Way, of the Christ, met together to break bread in prayer and to be instructed in the the teachings of the Apostles and those “Apostolic Men” set apart by the laying on of hands.

 

When 2 Thessalonians was written, a second generation of Christians was emerging. This was made possible by the evangelical zeal of those called to be “witnesses” Beginning with Jesus’s household, his family of followers, and gradually by a growing company of those who heard and received the “evangel” and submitted to an adapted Jewish purification rite, Baptism, the movement of Jesus followers spread far and wide, even into the household of the Roman Emperor, a potentate who soon found himself challenged by the imperial claims of the carpenter from Palestine. The Christian movement was thoroughly subversive. It eradicated even the differences of ethnicity, gender and status. Within the community slaves and aristocrats were equal. Christianity challenged the fundamental areas of human division, nationalism, class, gender and human rights. These causes of division and violence washed away in water poured and were thrust back down daily as all broke Bread and prayed. There was no magic fix to humanity’s ancient sins. They were to be confronted again and again, as we note in St. Paul’s and St. Clement’s letters to the Corinthian church, written decades apart but on the same subject, division.

 

Those of us who remain in the Episcopal Church, who some call “traditionalists” offer this tradition to the Jesus Movement. We seek to be “witnesses”, life-givers, armed with the “traditions” upon which we are grounded, “the Evangel” we have received. We believe ourselves called and sent people, of differing race, nationality, gender and social class, made one, forgiven our sins, made new, redeemed through baptism. We worship God through the perfect offering of Jesus on the Cross, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We believe that it is within the family or household of Christ that racism and all other sinful “isms” are vanquished and particularly in the offering and receiving of the Eucharist. We believe that the most vital program for justice is the project of passing on that which we have received in Word and Sacrament. Our firm foundation is built upon the received Scriptures, the Church’s Creeds, the writings of the Church’s teachers particularly in the first five centuries, the Councils of that period and their decisions and the traditions of every age which express what St. Vincent describes as the faith received “everywhere, always and by all.”

 

We hope that this offering equips us and qualifies us to be partners in the Jesus Movement.

 

 

 

 

POLITICS?

I was leaving for England when the election results were published. I thus spent three weeks away from the fray, although the BBC kept me up to date about affairs in the USA. It was fascinating to receive a preview of “Government by Twitter”.

 

In England progressives are still in shock about Brexit and its aftermath. On both sides of the Atlantic daily blog posts attempt to explain and analyze how the very people “liberals” claimed to support turned against the Left, the Labour Party in England and the Democrats in America. I grew up in post World War 2 England. The workers had rejected Winston Churchill for Clement Attlee and his socialists companions. Seventy years later the working class rejected the Establishment leaders of both major parties and opted out of Europe. Many supported Ukip, a party which makes Churchill look very liberal indeed. In America, the workers rejected both party Establishments and voted in an apolitical building magnate who promises to put the clock back and restore lost jobs.

 

These “working class” voters were convinced that the political elite had forgotten them, or, worse still, were contemptuous of their lifestyles and beliefs. Whether true or not, contempt works both ways. Goodness knows what happens if an independent Britain, or the paradise offered in America fails to help those whose incomes have decreased, life expectancy has decreased, jobs evaporated and in America, medical care has been denied.

 

My purpose in writing this is not to advance one political ideology against another. I write to raise the question, have the mainstream churches in America similarly failed the working class? Yes, there are many projects aimed at alleviating poverty and championing the underclass. However these worthy projects emanate in those parish churches and diocesan and denominational offices, far from the places where the “underclass” actually live. The Episcopal Church, for instance, is retreating from rural America. In urban areas, those churches which remain, are often venues to which the well-off, or at least not poor drive to make common cause with those of their own religious flavor or social beliefs.

In the 19th Century slum priests, mostly Anglo Catholics, went into places of enormous poverty, built churches, and lived among the under class. True many of these priests had independent wealth and could support themselves. Today “starter churches” survive if enough people are drawn in to pay the bills. No one even contemplates recruiting clergy and lay leaders who will support themselves by one means or another. The way we recruit ordinands often excludes pioneers and favors safe, bland men and women, who are capable of sustaining established congregations, often with skill and quiet heroism. But where are people of holy zeal, ready to move themselves and their families into deprived areas, places where violence may be normal, and the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse endemic? Where are the “denominations” (I hate that word) that would contemplate sending consecrated priests, deacons and lay leaders to live with and evangelize the workers?

 

And, anyway, working class people nowadays are rarely progressive.They have their own sort of denominations. Who needs them? Meanwhile we will continue to offer free meals once a week to the homeless and the poor, and champion them with resolution and check book.

 

 

CATHOLIC OR PROTESTANT?

http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/10/05/call-to-remembrance-our-catholic-and-reformed-past/?platform=hootsuite

 

It’s not at all clear when the question arose: Is Anglicanism Catholic or Protestant? I suspect that for the first 250 years of our separated history the answer would have been Protestant.

If the question was then extended to a reasonably well educated parson, ministering to a country parish in England in the second half of the 18th century (someone like Parson Woodforde of Weston Longville), we might have received a more nuanced answer.

The parson might have taken a sip of his wine and answered, “If by Protestant, you mean like those in Scotland or on the Continent, then no, we’re not quite like them, although some enthusiasts among us may think so. We have a liturgy, bishops, and territorial parishes.”

Move another hundred years on and plenty of parsons still taught that Anglicans — the word was now in use — were a unique sort of Protestants. Others would have affirmed the evangelical nature of the established church, and yet others taught that Anglicans were as Catholic as the Pope. The latter might have used arguments similar to Woodforde’s — I’m putting words in his mouth — when he stressed the uniqueness of the established church. (Mind you, claiming to be liturgical, episcopal, and territorial just as well described one as a Scandinavian Lutheran. Yet those identifiers were inherited from Catholicism.) Diarmaid MacCulloch described Elizabethan Anglicanism as “a Protestant Church which remained haunted by its Catholic past.”

In Woodforde’s day Anglicans may have differed about what Protestant meant as a descriptor, but the Church of England was remarkably united in the way it looked and the way it sounded. It was a verbal church. While a vestige of ceremonial religion might be discovered in cathedrals and the chapels royal, it was not to be discovered in parish churches. The parson wore the same clothes as he did in the street unless he was celebrating Holy Communion, for which he donned a surplice. True, he wore a distinctive clerical garb in the street (cassock, gown, and tippet), but so did Presbyterian ministers in Scotland. In the Episcopal Churches in Scotland and the American colonies even the surplice was abandoned.

The parson “read prayers and preached,” moving from prayer desk to pulpit to do the latter. He went to the Holy Table to celebrate Holy Communion perhaps four times a year. He went to the font at the back of the church to baptize, and to the church porch to marry. He put his hand over the paten and chalice when he read the Words of Institution during the Eucharist.

But the emphasis was on the written word spoken aloud, whether in leading the liturgy or preaching. Anglicanism was united. Even evangelicals were “churchmen.” They may have engaged in extra-liturgical preaching and praying, but on Sundays their worship looked and sounded much like any other Church of England worship.

Latitudinarians wrote and preached a moralistic religion, but on Sundays they kept to the script. High Church parsons laced their sermons with quotations from the Church Fathers, but at worship they remained verbal and immobile. The actual words of the liturgy had much more influence than passing theological fashion and described the form pastoral ministry took.

The Tractarian and Anglo-Catholic revival in the 19th century changed all that. Ceremonial of one sort or another became the added norm in all but very evangelical parishes. Church parties developed: Low, Broad, and High. They began to function like modern political lobbies. They created seminaries to perpetuate their brand of Anglicanism. As synodical government became popular in provinces across the world, the notion that such assemblies could formulate and propagate doctrine by majority vote became a given.

Are Anglicans Protestants who have taken on the trappings of Catholicism, while eschewing its discipline? Let us return to our imaginary conversation with Parson Woodforde. Both he and most of his colleagues believed in what might be described as the Church’s uniqueness. It was nothing like Roman Catholicism. It wasn’t much like other Protestant churches. Although anti-Catholicism was much muted by the end of the 18th century, it remained part of the inherited story.

When Parson Woodforde said he was a Protestant he meant that he remembered Bloody Mary, the burning of Reformed bishops, and Guy Fawkes’s gunpowder treason. Many popular Catholic devotions shocked him. At the same time, he eschewed a form of religion that made distinctions between the devout and the ordinary. His parishioners were not folk who had been converted, or who regarded themselves as elect. They were all the baptized who lived in the territory he oversaw as parish priest.

The parson ministered to this population in much the same way as had his predecessors back through the centuries, before and after the Reformation. He baptized, taught children the faith using a catechism, prepared them for confirmation, married and buried them using the rites and essential ceremonies of the Church. He received ordination at the hands of a bishop, the successors of others back through the centuries. He visited the sick and prayed for the dying.

In all these respects, the Protestant parson performed the ministry of a Catholic priest. He taught all the doctrines enumerated by the Catholic Creeds. Although the following had nothing to do with “catholicity,” the parson ministered from the ancient parish church around which were buried the ancestors of his parishioners. His bishop was enthroned in a cathedral built probably in several stages, almost all in medieval times. These buildings were the tangible relics of a Catholic past.

Anglicanism’s catholicism is to be discovered in the form and shape pastoral ministry took, and continues to take, in dioceses and parishes. It is when it seems to place undue emphasis on the status of its adherents that it veers away from catholicity. When it requires adherence to novel teachings and practices, rather than to sacramental identity, it endangers its authenticity.

By “novel teachings and practices,” I refer to ideological proposals over and above the core of the creedal faith. The form such novelties take changes. After the Reformation it was a proposal that baptism wasn’t enough. One had to believe oneself to be elect and separate. (Perhaps that remains the clue. Parson Woodforde would have called such people “enthusiasts.”)

Eschewing novelty doesn’t mean stagnation and obscurantism. It does mean a practiced humility that submits the will to the teachings and practices of the Church. For clergy it means the trivial task and common round of intentional pastoral ministry as the flock of Christ is nurtured by Word and Sacrament.

Then Came Sex

I presume that those unfortunates we lump into a net entitled “Progressive”, as opposed to the unspeakable we consign to the cage “Traditionalist”, believe in the essential unity of all humans, support the United Nations, its agencies, and a multitude of non governmental organizations that espouse an international cause and beg for our money on line. Traditionalists tend to be nationalists, suspicious of foreign entanglements and of organizations peddling what they believe to be immorality.

 

 

Two things prompted this blog. My older son recommended a book entitled Map of a Nation, by Rachel Hewett. It’s the story of how the British Ordnance Survey began. Every square inch of Great Britain is mapped, and in my day, school children were obliged to write down descriptions of what they “saw” as they examined selected views of a map – a church with a steeple just as the road turned left, with a steep hill to the right, two and a half miles north east from the ruins of an abbey. We estimated the distance by licking pieces of thread and placing them on that portion of the B 1234, making sure that we included every turn and bend, as it traversed the old bridge over a stream near a railway line. I don’t think we were taught about the rather sinister origins of the Ordnance Survey (that’s how it is spelt) or of the men who slogged along trails in the Scottish Highlands to map the place for the army.

 

 

The Highland Scots rebelled against the London government twice in the 18th Century. The governments of England and Scotland were united by the Act of Union, much to the satisfaction of Lowland Scots but not to their Highland neighbors, who tended to be Roman Catholics or Episcopalians, and gathered themselves into historic clans, led by autocratic noblemen who ruled the roost. Another distinguishing feature was the absence of roads. Once over the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands, often indistinct tracks led to castles or humble crofts. That is, until after the ’45 Rebellion when the army of the Hanoverian king, led by a relative, subdued the clans, slaughtered suspected rebels in their thousands and banned the tartan and the use of Gaelic. If you’ve noticed a similarity between these events and what occurred in America in the following century, you are right. To enforce the law, a series of forts were built. It became necessary to built roads to link these forts and so a very small group of lowland Scots were recruited to survey the area between fort and fort. This they did, extending their labors to most of the Highlands, and then, for fun, the Lowlands too. So began the process of mapping every inch, or whatever the decimal equivalent is, of Great Britain. These maps have become something of an obsession for hikers, armchair or walkers, and form the basis of the British GPS system. Ordnance surveys began as one of the means of uniting Scotland, and then Scotland and England.

 

 

Then I noticed that our Presiding Bishop was in London meeting with a group appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and given the task of finding ways to restore unity, peace and concord to the Anglican Communion. Since the post World War 2 era, the Provinces and National Churches which have their origins in the migration of the English, and not a few Scots, across the globe. have grown in number. This wander-lust began with merchants in Turkey and what we now call India, became serious at Jamestown (I’m not mentioning Plymouth because supporters of the Massachusetts colony seldom mention Jamestown), and exploded in colonial exploits in the 19th end early 20th century. These people took with them goods, guns, diseases, map-makers and their religion. In Africa they drew arbitrary lines to delineate colonies, dividing tribes, or incorporated rival tribes. The last notorious act of map-making was an arbitrary line drawn between India and the new state of Pakistan. One of the results of this seemingly harmless endeavor was the slaughter of tens of thousands of Hindus and Moslems.

 

 

These peripatetic Brits built churches for themselves, often imitations of the medieval parish churches they left behind. They attempted, with varying degrees of success, to convert the “Natives”. Eventually they created colonial dioceses, headed by men, the products of Public Schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They also brought with them their religious tribes. Sydney, Australia was adopted by staunch Evangelicals, who believed in conversion, cold baths and muscular Christianity. Zanzibar’s bishops might well have been confused for Roman Catholics, to the fury of Catholic missionaries. The American colonies reproduced the religion of 18th Century England. in the South and middle colonies, the religion of Tenison and Tillotson propounded Latitudinarian moral virtues and sat lightly on doctrine,miracles and  sacramentalism, whereas in New England, the faith of Cavaliers and Caroline Divines found new birth.

 

 

As the British Empire shuddered to an unanticipated halt, colonies became independent nations, and their local Anglican expressions evolved into autonomous churches, joining Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans who had gained autonomy in the preceding century and a half. So evolved the Anglican Communion. Until just after the Second World War, almost all bishops were white men, and except in the United States almost all were English, the product of the same class structure and education system, and despite deep differences in what we used to call Churchmanship, all were loyal subject of the King Emperor in London.

 

 

After independence most former colonies remained members of the “British” Commonwealth. Their post colonial churches remained in the Anglican Communion, a grouping of autonomous churches with a membership of around 80,000,000. The “roads” constructed between the Provinces and National Churches and between them the the see of Canterbury remained  despite occasional tensions over the legacies of colonialism, muted perhaps by the realization that their existence is one of those legacies. As archbishops of Canterbury did their obligatory rounds of the Communion they continued to engender enthusiasm and draw crowds.

 

 

And then came sex. The Lambeth Conference, meeting roughly every decade, drawing together bishops invited by the archbishop of Canterbury, first discussed sex in a debate about contraception before the Second World War. They were against it. Then came divorce and re-marriage. There were differences of opinion, but not huge rows. Despite early attempts to turn the Conference into an international Synod, attempts that might well have succeeded had Canterbury not refused to cooperate, the Communion has no central body that can enforce a policy, however popular. National independence produced in it wake a wave of nationalism both in states and their churches. Yet an older national church, the Episcopal Church (of America) and its mini communion of overseas dioceses founded by American missionaries, became, for complex reasons, the leader of the anti-centralization pack.

 

As sexuality became the obsession of Western national cultures, divisions developed about just how far their Anglican churches should accommodate themselves to changing mores, or discover in these cultural developments an authority not immediately obvious in Scripture or the universal Church’s historical tradition. Nowhere was this more obvious than in North America. In the United States and Canada, campaigns to overturn systemic racism and sexual inequality expanded to embrace the rights of LGBT people, culminating in the legalization of same-sex marriage. The Anglican national churches in North America supported these cultural developments, but a minority vigorously dissented. Both sides in an often bitter dispute took to the expanded communication methods that developed in the sixties, and soon, via internet, the disputes which had led to schism in America and Canada were beamed across the planet. The proponents and opponents of “gay rights” took their fight to African cities, Asian internet cafes and South American barrios. Many African, Asian and South American provinces, evangelized largely by Evangelical Anglicans, reacted in dismay. The “roads” between these provinces and North American provincial head offices were barricaded, and three successive archbishops of Canterbury accused of not using an authority they didn’t possess to expel American Episcopalians on the one hand or Nigerian dissidents on the other, who with others, had created a rival communion within the Communion aimed at preserving traditional sexual roles and mores. American gold financed both sides.

 

 

Most social progressives advocate the creation of pan-national institutions in part to tackle issues such as poverty, modern forms of slavery and climate change. Most African and Asian political enthusiasts fight for nationalism and oppose vestiges of colonialism in both its British and American forms. However it’s not that simple when it comes to church. The American Episcopal Church has been forced to oppose attempts to create a Covenant, (although not quite dead, it’s life was threatened when, ironically, the dioceses of the Church of England failed to endorse it) or empower the Communion’s primates to discipline errant Provinces. Meanwhile the anti-colonial national churches of the Global South have been obliged to campaign for a beefed up central authority in order to defend what they perceive to be biblical religion.

 

 

Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, first among equals among the heads of the worldwide communion of Anglican (Episcopal) churches whose only authority is moral and whose only capital is a nostalgic affection for the see he occupies, managed to get his fellow primates to form a committee composed of leaders from both factions, men like Michael Curry of the US and Ian George of the Indian Ocean, with the task of unblocking the roads between the provinces and each other. The committee met in London last week. Their task seems impossible. There are some progressives and more than a few traditionalists who yearn for them to fail. They want to retreat into the safety of their own clans, sure of their purity. Like the cartographers who began work on the Ordnance Survey maps, the Primates’ committee is charged with mapping the scenery of the Anglican world in order to re-create unity. One can only pray for them.

 

 

 

 

SAINTLY?

Anglicans don’t seem to be much good about choosing saints. (I’m using the word Anglican because it reaches wider than “Episcopalian” and serves better as an adjective!) The problem is that we are not sure what a saint is and we are a bit uncomfortable about the whole notion of some group or other sitting around a table coming up with a list of suitable deceased people who can meet the approval of a Provincial Synod, and perhaps be included in a heavy tome sold by church bookshops to further litter sacristies or clergy bookshelves. Perhaps we know that originally, in those blessed days -even days were saintly then – there were neither provincial synods nor committees, standing or otherwise.

 

 

Once the Church stumbled into the saint business, it seemed pretty clear that New Testament heroes were saints, even if they weren’t without sins or faults. If you were reading or listening to the “Philemon” lesson last Sunday, rather than judging whether the reader was pronouncing those names correctly, you would have noticed saintly Paul being manipulative and ‘snarky’. Peter betrayed his Lord. Thomas doubted.

 

 

Churches were built over the graves of saintly martyrs and soon were called by that saint’s name. Local people began to revere a man or woman, or woman or man, whose life and deeds inspired them. The experts call that a cultus. The Jim Jones’ group of besotted followers is called a cult in a sort of devilish reversal of definitions. The Devil has his heroes.

 

 

I find it easier to describe what a saint isn’t. Top of my list is that a saint isn’t someone whose passion is for a cause that describes his or her own condition or circumstance. Such a person may be called an advocate but that doesnt necessarily denote heroic virtue. I don’t mean that a saintly person can’t champion a cause. It just shouldn’t rank above daily, perhaps hourly praise and love for God: a similar love for creation and all created things for what they are rather than for what they aren’t. I can just manage to love the skill and care involved in the creation of a bedbug, and perhaps the wretched thing has a purpose, although I must trust God on that one and wish he hadn’t bothered, but hand me the bug spray. A saint is found to have prayed hard, adored intentionally, interceded regularly and confessed honestly. It was by performing such tasks that a person became good at sharing love, which isn’t a character trait; it is God’s love. Perhaps being nice or nasty is a character trait, both of  which can be worked on. Being good is a gift from God and increases as a person cooperates with God and loves neighbor. Yes, this is all about love, or rather about loving, but I didn’t mention that because the word has been sentimentalized. It has become all about feelings rather than doings. You can’t feel your way to sanctity. The list of virtues above is applicable as a rule for us all. Rule? Hang on, perhaps that’s our problem. We’ve succumbed to the idea that spontaneity is next to godliness. It isn’t. Being saintly is a hard, disciplined slog.

 

 

As I list these positive virtues I begin to realize why Anglicans are uncomfortable about saints. Their qualities make us feel rather uncomfortable. They are so religious! Anglicans are reticent folk. We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves and we tend to think that the call to a holy life is fine in theory, but impractical and, well, perhaps a bit odd. We tend to think of clergy in the same way, unless they fall from grace and then we are indignant that they didn’t live up to a standard we think to be impracticable and rather odd. It was by performing religious tasks, that is praying, that a person became good at sharing love, which isn’t a character trait; it is God’s love. I better say that again. Goodness is God’s gift to us. We didn’t inherit it from grandma, or learn it from our parents. The notion that doing good makes us good at praying is an upside-down idea. Praying makes us good at loving.

 

 

We’ve all probably met a saint without knowing it. Most saints are never canonized and never recognized. Whether recognized or not these holy women and men lift up the Church, its calling and mission and support it by their intercessions. If we get to know a saint, either a living one or one who is much more alive than the living, we will probably experience one of those embarrassing moments, when, in the words of the hymn, “we want to be one too.” What we do at that moment is up to us, or rather a matter of our allowing grace to pierce our cynicism. To succumb to grace (the word grace means gift) is the beginning of a disappointing life. Every time we really try to be saintly we will fail. “Following the good example” of saints, the substitution made in collects for the old idea of asking for their prayers, invites failure. I can no more become saintly by imitating Saint Bede, than I can become a concert pianist by sitting at a piano and imitating one. But perhaps if I practice my scales, and get a teacher, I may learn to knock out a tune on the piano and if I learn how to pray I may become someone who is saintly, probably not very saintly but who knows? I’ve strayed a bit from wondering how someone is recognized as a saint to how one becomes a saint, but I thought if I started by giving suggestions about how you may become saintly you’d be too embarrassed to read on.

SIT DOWN (Sermon for August 28, )

PROPER 17, 2016 St. Luke 14: 7-14

We all need to be noticed. Being lost in the crowd can be a frightening experience. Recognition feels good. Unfortunately it can become a drug, driving us to extremes in order to feel the rush of pleasure experienced when someone important smiles and speaking our name, guides us to an adjacent seat at the dinner table.

 

St. Luke, reputed to be both a doctor and an artist paints a picture in vivid colors and not without a tinge of humor. One sees Jesus, in the home of a pious rich man, leaning against a pillar as guests bend over to see if they have a place at table close to their important host.

 

 

Don’t think of a modern dining room table, or “high table” at a banquet. Jesus was looking at a number of low tables against which were arranged couches, which looked rather like an antique chaise longe. One lay down, head on large pillows, and faced sideways. One doesn’t know whether there were place cards. Perhaps at a feast to which the important and the self important were invited, there may have been cards. At any rate one imagines the scene as the guests frantically seek recognition, a recognition granted by being close to influence and power.

 

St. Luke quotes Jesus: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

 

He told them a parable.” A child once defined a parable as being a heavenly story with no earthly meaning. Nothing could be further than the truth in this case. But we must be careful. This isn’t a useful story to share with the upwardly mobile or a lesson in etiquette. Episcopalians are often described as the former and alleged to be obsessed with the latter. We may seem to be more interested in good taste than in good theology: more intent on success than salvation. Congregations, if they can, spend a good deal of money on vestments, furniture, choirs and organs, guitars and studied, tasteful informality. Evangelism is back in fashion. The finance committee hopes and prays that the Jesus Movement will bring people of means who will solve the budget crunch. Perhaps such people will be asked to come up higher.

 

Jesus, having annoyed the guests by delivering his short, withering story about snobbery, suddenly moves the message, addressing those who have sought recognition from their puritanical host but now addressing them as potential hosts. Instead of inviting to dinner those who inflate their egos because they are seeking recognition, they are to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

Notice the last phrase. The host of the feast to which Jesus has been invited is a Pharisee. The word means a Righteous or Pious one. A hundred and fifty years earlier Israel was a province of the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The local governor encouraged the Jews to adopt Greek customs and religious observances. A Jewish priest and his sons rebelled and founded a society to uphold and preserve the Jewish Law and religious observances. In Jesus’s time these Pharisees attacked those who compromised with Roman culture. They believed that by keeping the ritual and moral law they would, when the Messiah came, be “repaid” with the best seats at the table. Those who obviously didn’t observe the law were to be shunned. They had no place at the table. That they were poor, crippled, lame and blind was proof of their depravity. If they were responsible, respectable, Torah-observing people they wouldn’t be poor or ill. At the very least the sins of their fathers were visited on them.

 

Leaning against a wall in the dining room of a Pious One, Jesus quietly disturbed the religious and social order. More than disturbing it, he overthrew it. No wonder they planned his assassination. How could religion as an effective moral force against power survive such an assault? “He takes down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” So sang Jesus’s holy mother, so often that it is quoted in the Gospels. Jesus had learnt well.

 

Of course the poor and ill are not automatically to be seated next to Jesus at the heavenly banquet any more than the rich are to be rejected: Jesus does seem to suggest the rich may have a harder time, particularly where wealth and self-righteousness combine to form character. That’s not the point here. The point is, if anything, more troubling. We are called to seek out those we don’t often see in church on Sunday. We may champion them, feed and clothe them, but what about asking them to kneel next to us at the communion rail? We may share with them daily bread, but what about the Bread of Life? Jesus, the Host, invites all who work and labor to enjoy his peace and rest.

 

If we could hear the Jesus who as Risen Lord deigns to be our guest this morning, what parable would he tell? How might we react?