Tuesday, November 30, 2021

St. Andrew: Christian life and an Ordination Anniversary


May Andrew, gentlest of the saintly company
   Inspire forgiveness for our grievous trespasses
That we, sore burdened by offences manifold 
   At his petition may obtain deliverance

(Verse from a hymn on St. Andrew’s Day)

 

 

Almighty God, who hast given such grace to thine Apostle Saint Andrew, that he counted the sharp and painful death of the cross to be an high honour and a great glory; grant us to take and esteem all troubles and adversities which shall come to us for thy sake, as things profitable for us toward the obtaining of everlasting life. Through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

(The Collect for the Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle, in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer)

 

 

 

November 30th is the Feast of St. Andrew “the first-called,” as recorded in the Gospel according to St. John. St. Andrew is my “ordination patron,” since I was ordained to the sacred priesthood on this day in 1993. In addition to seeking his prayers as a companion on the journey, I have thought a great deal about my patron over the years, learning more about his particular ministry and gifts—both from the Holy Scriptures and subsequent pious tradition.

 

Perhaps known best as St. Peter’s brother, the Fourth Gospel records Andrew as having first been a disciple of John the Baptist before becoming acquainted with Jesus and eventually following him (and in turn inviting his brother Peter to meet Jesus). From this we can tell he had keen spiritual thirst and insight. Andrew listened so deeply to John’s message that he knew John was not the Messiah, recognizing (as others couldn't, it appears) John’s mission of preparing the way for the Messiah.

 

I keep this aspect of St. Andrew’s witness in mind as I go about pastoral ministry. It is so easy to become wrapped up in personalities or issues that I can miss the true message. When younger, I sometimes became quite wedded to a particular figure or movement in the Church without recognizing how such passions and loyalties can take my attention and focus from following Christ and his gospel. It is surprisingly—and sadly—easy to substitute another “gospel” for the one our Lord taught. Andrew’s witness challenges this. 

 

Another aspect of this Apostle which intrigues and guides me is his name. Andrew’s name in Greek means “manly,” or “valorous.” The fact he bore a Greek name rather than a Hebrew one (as did his brother Simon) suggests a family background operating more in the midst of the complex cultural currents of his time and place rather than in the backwaters or safe eddies of religious traditionalism. This also has a message for me. 

 

It is sometimes tempting for a person with my temperament to desire peace so much as to want to “climb back into the womb” (to borrow a phrase from Nicodemas) of religious purity and custom. This is not real discipleship or authentic Christianity—but an immature and selfish impulse to avoid the implications of following Christ. To show real maturity, true spiritual valor, we must be so deeply-grounded in Christ’s mind that we may follow wherever He leads without fear or complaint. It means being willing to take risks while not losing connection with the life-giving source of faith, vision, hope, and wisdom. This is the proper place of holy tradition.

 

This leads me to a final point of consideration: Andrew’s courageous and yet gentle nature. Tradition holds that Andrew was martyred on a cross, much like his brother Peter. These first disciples identified so deeply with Christ Jesus they were to die in a like manner as did he—emphasizing that the Christian life is not an escape from suffering but an encounter with it in Christ’s power and love, identifying more with Christ through them. 


This, in turn, leads to loving others more openly and speaking the truth in love. Andrew invited his brother Peter to meet Jesus: he didn't force or hector or shame him. The difference is at the heart of the Christianity I know and desire. Relinquishing the outcomes to Christ is a necessary part of surrendering to God--as step requiring humility and inner communion with the Lord.

 

I am thankful for having the “first-called” Apostle as my ordination patron. His witness inspires me in the sometimes difficult and tumultuous times in which we live to listen deeply, follow simply, and love courageously. While I am only a beginner in this journey, today I rejoice in the witness of a disciple who has left a record of “things profitable for us toward the obtaining of everlasting life” in his actions, words, and character. By God’s grace may it be so for us all.

 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Last Sunday

 


Next Sunday's liturgical title is: "The Last Sunday after Pentecost." It has a rather jarring quality to it. The Last Sunday. It makes one think of finality and culmination.

Due to the collect for this Sunday and the imagery often used in both the scriptures appointed and hymns chosen, it is frequently called "Christ-the-King," though the BCP nowhere actually names it thus.

The "Feast of Christ-the-King" was instituted by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1920s in response to growing secularization, the effects of nationalism, and (to be honest) the decline in monarchies in favor of democracies, communism, or dictatorships. Originally appointed in that Church for the Sunday before All Saints' Day, it emphasized Christ's sovereignty above other loyalties and ideologies--something very much worth consideration now, as well.

Many Episcopalians now prefer "The Reign of Christ" to "Christ-the-King" for this day, largely for its avoidance of patriarchal / hierarchichal / masculine imagery for Christ. Yet, the debate over this Sunday's "nickname" tends to obscure its actual message.

What this Sunday celebrates is not substituting one form of earthly power (monarchy for democracy) for another, but the coming victory of God's reign on earth--something we pray for each time we say the Lord's Prayer and the Creeds. Simply put, this Sunday celebrates a world we pray for but often seem at odds with.

Such a world is not based on death, fear, or shame. It is lived in light, love, and joy. It bridges divides we think impossible; it raises up the lowly, and brings down the haughty. It reveals the truth about God, humans, and the creation. God's restored world is utterly unexpected by and completely at odds with "the way things are." Through the gift of the Holy Spirit it is available to us in holy creation, in liturgy, in prayer, and in Christian service with others made in God's sacred image.

Whenever we meet with it--even for a moment--we will find Christ's reign strange and challenging to the exact degree we are wedded to death. It is for this reason that this Sunday's Gospel reading highlights the dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ: a conversation between death and Life itself.

This Sunday is a frank admission that placing our loyalty in "the way things are" or in our own "devices and desires" is in direct opposition to Christ's reign, his will as made known in the gospel. It points to the conflict at the heart of being a Christian.

It has been observed that, for one to catch the feeling of authentic Christianity, one must understand every day to be our last. Only then will the preciousness and sacredness of each day be revealed. "The Last Sunday after Pentecost" catches that very well. True Christianity means we have already died and risen with Jesus and are thus citizens of God's dominion, God's sacred community. Our loyalties, priorities, and desires must and will be tested again and again, until we gladly surrender to this.

As we come to this Sunday, I pray we will each experience it truly as "The Last Sunday": consciously standing on eternity's edge and preparing to fall lovingly into Christ's arms of love and truth.

For, in truth, that is what this Sunday (and every day) should be--the eternally glorious moment of surrender to the Love which alone makes right, and which alone overcomes death, fear, and loss.


Brandon+

Monday, November 8, 2021

Sharing the Common Cup: A Pandemic Message


During the pandemic there has been a renewed concern on the part of some about the chalice at the Eucharist. The belief some hold is that the common cup is not sanitary. Indeed, the Episcopal Church in many places forbade the distribution of the Holy Sacrament from the chalice to the people at the start of the pandemic--and continues to do so in some places still--while in others questionable or novel innovations have been employed to deal with this concern.

These responses have often resulted in erroneous thinking and practices: scientifically, spiritually, and liturgically. 

Scientifically

The risk of transmission of disease from the common cup is very, very low.  A recent article has once more confirmed this.* If it were an effective means of communicating disease, I would be ill much of the time, as I receive what remains in the chalice at the conclusion of communion at each celebration of the Eucharist. We also know now that SARS-CoV-2 is not effectively transmitted by surface contact in situations such as found with the common cup. As the above-linked article puts it:
In summary, the common communion cup may theoretically serve as a vehicle of transmitting infection, but the potential risk of transmission is very small. Currently, available data do not provide any support for the suggestion that the practice of sharing a common communion cup can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 because SARS-CoV-2 transmission from a patient with COVID-19 or asymptomatic carrier to other people has not been reported.
While the risk isn't zero, very few people are at any risk of infection by receiving the sacrament from the chalice.† Episcopalians often say they "follow the science." Here, this means accepting that the chalice is both sanitary and safe for the vast majority of people. 

Spiritually

Beyond the question of safety is the matter of what sacraments mean and provide to the faithful. We should be much more concerned about the value and efficacy of the sacraments as spiritual medicine, as well as our own fitness to receive the Holy Mysteries, rather than only their fitness for us. Consumerism has so invaded our faith that we often ignore the solemn words found in the Exhortation (based, in turn, on St. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians) for "all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup" and "Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord." The erroneous and exaggerated concerns around the common cup only deepen a serious error in contemporary discourse: conforming the sacraments to us, rather than conforming our lives to sharing in them and thus receiving their benefits.

Liturgically

The Eucharist is a sacrament of unity--the unity of God-in-Trinity, the unity of God and humanity in Christ, the unity of the Body of Christ in heaven and earth, the unity of the Church throughout the world and across the ages, the unity of our life as a holy offering, and the unity of those who gather in Christ to share in this meal. To shun the shared cup without sound reasons diminishes this sacramental sign of unity. 

Similarly, the substitution of pre-packaged "communion kits" for a common sharing essentially obliterates it. When, as some churches have done, communicants are given (or take for themselves) private plastic-wrapped wafers and cups, the visible sharing in this unity is drastically reduced. It also creates a large amount of plastic waste at what is supposed to be a meal where "nothing is wasted" and brings up the question of how such "waste" is to be reverently disposed of--along with the obvious point that such "communion-at-all-costs" is an unfortunate icon of our alienated, polluted relationship to God's Creation. Once again, consumerism (masquerading as sanitation, safety, convenience, &c.) has intruded, with all its Mammon-worshipping paraphernalia and logic, and displacing sound sacramental, liturgical practice.

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There are, of course, legitimate reasons for not receiving from the chalice: recovery from alcoholism, or the effects of some medications might be good reasons, for example. Since we teach that reception in one kind (either the consecrated bread or wine) is sufficient for a full communion, abstaining from the common cup does not nullify one's experience of the Sacrament. The point is to receive or not from the chalice based on spiritual and factual considerations, not myth, pseudoscience, or plain misunderstanding. 

For all but the most seriously immunocompromised, the chalice is safe. It is sanitary. It delivers Christ's sacred Blood to us without danger, as our Lord would have it. It is a sign of our being one in Christ. You may receive from it in faith and without fear.

Let us focus now, instead, on what it means to "share in that cup" and to be nourished in Christ's life and love there.

BLF+

* This article does remind us that if we are experiencing active infection, we should not receive. In such cases, we should not be in public liturgy, either.

†If you are seriously immunocompromised or for some other reason do not feel you can receive Holy Communion in a public liturgy, please contact me. I will make Holy Communion available to you privately in an ultra low-risk setting.


Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Fourth of July: Liturgy, Patriotism, and Partisanship


William White, First Bishop of Pennsylvania

July 4th is a Feast Day in the Episcopal Church’s calendar. That might not seem revolutionary, but it actually is (pun intended). 

During the American War of Independence, Church of England clergy in the American Colonies found themselves facing three possible actions: they could stay loyal to the Crown and risk fines, injury, or imprisonment, they could betray their oath to the King in the name of Independence, or they could stay and accept the changes while only grudgingly embracing the revolution. Many thousands chose the first and left for Canada, England, or elsewhere. Another group was “all in” with Independence. Those who did not support the revolution but stayed had to find a way to survive in the newly-independent nation and the brand-new Episcopal Church. Hard feelings were everywhere and memories were long (indeed, Pamela and I knew a priest and his wife in New York whose families were on opposite sides of the American Revolution: it was still a sore subject in the late 1980s). 

 

Early on, there was quite a lot of pressure to make July 4th a Feast in the Episcopal Church’s Calendar. The thought was that, just as the Church of England had a holiday celebrating the accession of the monarch to the throne, the new nation needed a church feast celebrating independence. This is called patriotism. It was also gratifying for some to rub the noses of the clergy who had “lost” in their disappointment, making them say prayers, preach, and lead liturgies celebrating a cause they didn’t really support. This is called partisanship.

 

One of the key pro-revolutionary figures in the early Episcopal Church was The Rev’d Dr. William White, who became the first Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. He had been chaplain to the Continental Congress. He had “cred” with the Revolutionaries. When discussion at a church convention about an Independence Day Feast was taken up, it was expected White would encourage the observance of an event he so clearly supported and for which he had risked so much. Such was not the case, however.

 

White wrote this about the attempt:

 

The members of the Convention wanting to force this observance seem to have thought themselves so established in their station of ecclesiastical legislators, that they might expect of the many clergy who had been averse of the American Revolution the adoption of this service; although, by the use of it, they must make an implied acknowledgement of their error, in an address to Almighty God….

 

White rebuked those who, in their triumph, gloated over those who had lost. Once he wrote this, the energy for the 4th of July Feast Day in the liturgical calendar collapsed. It was not included in our calendar until over a century later, in the 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer.

 

Today we would say White’s judgment was wise for a number of reasons. First of all, the American Revolution had only partly lived out the ideal of the Declaration of Independence. Race slavery was incompatible with its ideals and its retention was one of the clearest signs that national failure and hypocrisy was as much the issue as independence and liberty on July 4th. White, who would not own enslaved people (unlike our first Bishop, Samuel Seabury), also ordained African-Americans (Absalom Jones and William Levington) to ministry, and was conscious of this profound discrepancy. 

 

White also knew that when you are right you don’t have to prove it by being belligerent. Such tactics are those of a weak person or cause. His refusal to “get on the bandwagon” for the July 4th Feast Day was a refusal to descend into the narrowly partisan, smugly self-certain aspect of faith. He held strong views and wasn’t shy about sharing them, but he remained convinced the Gospel’s force was blunted—not sharpened—by adopting mean-spirited, partisan tactics.

 

Finally, White understood that liturgy is not the place for mockery or invective. Our address to God in prayer must rise above self-serving ends or the gratification of unworthy aims. Liturgy must glorify God and increase love of neighbor—not contempt for neighbor. That remains true. The 4th of July prayers in the BCP pray God’s grace to make our nation a truly just and equitable land, not a smugocracy of self-delusion.

 

William White’s commitment to a truly Christian approach in political life meant he was free to see the real needs present and to act with regard to them. He worked tirelessly over his long life to bring the Gospel to those in need: persons with disabilities, in prison, or women who had experienced abuse (the first such institution in the United States). When most every other white clergyman fled Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever outbreaks of the 1790s, Bishop White stayed to minister to the sick. He was a true Christian.

 

The Church today is faced with a major decision: to follow the logic of partisanship and retreat into the shadows of the “culture war,” taking pot-shots and allowing the Cross of Christ to be merely a tool used by humans for political advantage, or to confront the cruelty, injustice, and selfishness of our society with the words and power of the risen Christ.

 

Some want the Church to be apolitical, by which they mean uninvolved. Others want the Church to ally itself with one or another political party, by which they mean subordinated. Neither represents Christ’s way of challenging the powers of this world while remaining firmly anchored in the love of God. Christ was involved, and so must we be. But his involvement always means loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves—not descending in a race to the bottom of disrespect and partisanship.

 

There are few easy answers in the matter of Church and political life. I look to the example set by Bishop White as a better way to live in response to the challenges of faith and politics: we practice the Gospel by taking personal risks and making personal sacrifices for the safety of others and a more just world. We link our worship to our actions, becoming more Christ-like as we live. We become more truly “revolutionary” this way rather than more partisan and mean-spirited. When we gather on Sunday, July 4th, we will pray for our country, give thanks, and—like Bishop White—labor on that it might become the kind of nation it has long proclaimed: a land “with freedom and justice for all.”

 

Brandon+

 

The Collect for Independence Day:

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Prayer, Fasting, Mercy: "These Three are One."


This sermon is by St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 380 -- c.450), bishop of Ravenna. It is a wonder of beauty, economy, and insight. Use it as a guide for your Lenten journey and you won't go wrong:

There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.

           Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

           When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

Let this be the pattern for all men when they practise mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.

           Therefore, let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defence, a threefold united prayer in our favour.

           Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting. There is nothing more pleasing that we can offer to God, as the psalmist said in prophecy: A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God does not despise a bruised and humbled heart.

           Offer your soul to God, make him an oblation of your fasting, so that your soul may be a pure offering, a holy sacrifice, a living victim, remaining your own and at the same time made over to God. Whoever fails to give this to God will not be excused, for if you are to give him yourself you are never without the means of giving.

           To make these acceptable, mercy must be added. Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

           When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.
            Amen.

Friday, January 15, 2021

An Earnest Pleading before Christ

This prayer, called an "Obsecration," is a pleading of God's mercy in the face of human sin. In the midst of a world bent on its own destruction, it is tempting to turn our backs in either indignation or disgust. Yet, the Christian faith embraces the Cross of Christ, and in so doing, intercedes for the world. Such pleading also confronts us with the truth of our own complicity, leading us to repentance and amendment of life. This prayer is especially suitable for Fridays throughout the year, as well as in Lent, Holy Week, and as an examination of conscience.

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Lord, by this sweet and saving Sign,

Defend us from our foes and thine.


Jesus, by thy wounded feet,

    Direct our paths aright:

Jesu, by thy nailed hands,

    Move ours to deeds of love:

Jesu, by thy pierced side,

    Cleanse our desires:

Jesu, by thy crown of thorns,

    Annihilate our pride:

Jesu, by thy parched lips,

    Curb our cruel speech:

Jesuby by thy closing eyes,

    Look on our sin no more:

Jesu, by thy broken heart,

    Knit ours to thee.


And by this sweet and saving Sign,

Lord, draw us to our peace and thine.


- Richard Crashaw, and others.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

St. Leo the Great on the Feast of the Epiphany


This excerpted sermon on the Epiphany by St. Leo the Great illustrates a number of features of classic Christian faith. It shows how deeply imbued with the Holy Scriptures all true teaching and preaching in the catholic faith must be. It delivers a message both of hope and of clear direction for how to savor this feast and how to apply it—in this case, by taking a lesson from the star that guides the Magi on their way, to help others come to their destination in God. It is a fine example of what faithful preaching has always been (and must always be), so human hearts may be nourished in the unique and joyful message of Salvation.

May your Epiphanytide celebrations continue the theme of joy and possibility begun at Christmas. Keep the whole season after Epiphany until Lent as a time of intentional thanksgiving for being led by faith into God's nearer presence while on earth and for the promise of meeting our Lord "face to face" at the end of the ages.

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The loving providence of God determined that in the last days he would aid the world, set on its course to destruction. He decreed that all nations should be saved in Christ.


A promise had been made to the holy patriarch Abraham in regard to these nations. He was to have a countless progeny, born not from his body but from the seed of faith. His descendants are therefore compared with the array of the stars. The father of all nations was to hope not in an earthly progeny but in a progeny from above.


Let the full number of the nations now take their place in the family of the patriarchs. Let the children of the promise now receive the blessing in the seed of Abraham, the blessing renounced by the children of his flesh. In the persons of the Magi let all people adore the Creator of the universe; let God be known, not in Judaea only, but in the whole world, so that his name may be great in all Israel.


Dear friends, now that we have received instruction in this revelation of God’s grace, let us celebrate with spiritual joy the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles. Let us give thanks to the merciful God, who has made us worthy, in the words of the Apostle, to share the position of the saints in light, who has rescued us from the power of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. As Isaiah prophesied: the people of the Gentiles, who sat in darkness, have seen a great light, and for those who dwelt in the region of the shadow of death a light has dawned. He spoke of them to the Lord: The Gentiles, who do not know you, will invoke you, and the peoples, who knew you not, will take refuge in you.


This is the day that Abraham saw, and rejoiced to see, when he knew that the sons born of his faith would be blessed in his seed, that is, in Christ. Believing that he would be the father of the nations, he looked into the future, giving glory to God, in full awareness that God is able to do what he has promised.


This is the day that David prophesied in the psalms, when he said: All the nations that you have brought into being will come and fall down in adoration in your presence, Lord, and glorify your name. Again, the Lord has made known his salvation; in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.


This came to be fulfilled, as we know, from the time when the star beckoned the three wise men out of their distant country and led them to recognize and adore the King of heaven and earth. The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all men to find Christ.


Dear friends, you must have the same zeal to be of help to one another; then, in the kingdom of God, to which faith and good works are the way, you will shine as children of the light: through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.
from Sermo 3 in Epiphania Domini, 1-3. 5: PL 54, 240-244.
St. Leo (c. 400 AD - 461 AD) is commemorated on November 10th


The Collect of the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.