Saturday, July 25, 2015

True Authority: On the Feast of St. James

gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[The collect for the Feast of St. James the Great, Apostle]

Today is the commemoration of St. James, son of Zebedee, Apostle and Martyr. To distinguish him from other persons in the New Testament with the same name, he is often called "the Great."

The collects used for the various holy days in the Calendar are meant to express a key spiritual truth in the Christian faith in connection with the occasion being observed. Collects are best when direct, focused on central concerns of Christianity,  and unafflicted by the fashions and obsessions of a particular era (this is one reason why so many collects being drafted in our ideologically-driven day are puerile, florid, and vacuous). The collect for St. James' day is an example of a fine collect.

We, who live in an age of so many Christian martyrs yet are so rarely put into the position of martyrdom itself, are particularly in need of careful study of this collect, for it says something very important about the source of genuine authority in the Church in our particular time and place.

Early Episcopalians, if they had possessed the ability to look forward into the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would have been horrified to see the rise of CEO-bishops, vast cathedral complexes, and (probably) much of the current edifice of financial safeguards currently in place in the Episcopal Church. While not a group of extreme ascetics, they had no desire to develop another Church of England, with all the signs and symbols of power it possesses. 

People like bishop William White and even the Higher Church bishop Hobart envisioned a much more missionary kind of Anglicanism. They were radicals in the best sense: not the pseudo-radicalism that merely wrecks things, but the careful weighing of a contemporary expression's fidelity to its original purpose. Because their Episcopalianism had endured the fires of the American Revolution, they had come to know what was truly important in their practice of the faith, and what was not. 

In practical terms, this often meant sacrificing some of the institutional comfort and power for missionary flexibility while at the same time refining the central core of an authentic, well-formed and practiced Anglican Christianity. Because of the willingness to lose some prestige in the older sense of that term, many of our early Episcopal leaders wielding truly impressive moral authority in what was often a struggling church tradition.

I think such forces are still at work in The Episcopal Church today. After glorying in our long period of cultural access and power, the Episcopal "brand" has sunk quite a bit. Spending many millions in internecine lawsuits (however we choose to justify them by focusing on canons or peculiar readings of church history) is a symptom of a difficulty in letting one era go and embracing the radical call before us. That radical call is not to play catch-up with contemporary culture or destroy dissent. It is to embrace the life of "self-denying service" that marked St. James' ministry--and continues to mark true leadership in the Church today.

Exactly what that service looks like is variable, but in whatever form it takes, it must be there. We can usually tell when it is not, however. When leadership is not practicing "self-denying service" we need a lot of rules, a lot of mandatory this-and-that, and a great deal of coercion to make things happen. Energy is sapped, but adherence to group-think is exalted. When the Christ-like Apostolic witness is present in our midst, in whatever form it takes, there are a great many people who respond to the call to participate, work, give, and plan for a future in faith. Christ alone is exalted and cults of personality (or trendy, facile solutions) are eschewed.

The tone of leadership is a good barometer of exactly where the Holy Spirit is active in the Church. Today's collect reminds us that leadership's real authority is not found in canons, lots of meetings, peculiar get-ups, titles, special seats in the chancel, being able to enforce decisions, or being last (or near the end) in processions: it is in being increasingly transparent to the Light of Christ as expressed in an inner simplicity, godliness in daily life, repentance when we fall, and a thirst for the things of God. Admittedly a high standard: but then, that is what Christ set out for us, and what our hearts yearn for. By God's grace, it is (has been and always will be) attainable.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

St. Mary Magdalene, the persevering witness

The Collect for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Each age seems to view St Mary Magdalene through its own lens, often telling us more about that particular era than the saint herself. At various times, she has been viewed as a “fallen woman” offered forgiveness by Jesus, an apostle to the Roman Emperor (as well as the inventor of the Easter egg tradition), and due to the rise of militant commercial secularism and its “sacrament of sexuality” in recent years, we have had to bear with her as “Mrs. Jesus” in some bestselling books. None of this has a real scriptural basis; some of it is scurrilous; all of it is more or less silly.

As we remember St. Mary today, we are invited to do what the collect for her feast bids us: focus on the issue of healing in this life and resurrection in the next. Scripture tells us that Mary of Magdala was healed by Christ in a profound way…so much so that she never forgot it. She lived her life from a place of personal gratitude to Jesus—just as all who have come to faith in Christ will as we learn the depths of his freeing love for us. Only when we understand that we really have passed from one kind of life (focused on death) to a new one (now focused on Life), will we be more than Christians in name only.

Her response to receiving this new life was to be very faithful to Jesus, personally supporting his ministry, enduring the ups and downs of being associated with him, and caring for him even in death. Her life as found in the Gospels is a beautiful illustration of how we who call ourselves Christians ought to live out that identity. Healing (in all ways and on all levels), received with gratitude leads to true and living discipleship.

St. Mary Magdalene is also notable for her witness to Jesus’ Resurrection. The account in the Gospel according to John is particularly significant. There we are given a carefully-drawn picture of her initial inability to grasp what has happened—utterly understandable—and how that inability eventually is transformed into an awareness leading to joy. This scene, so fruitful for contemplation, is the focus of a passage from a sermon by St. Gregory the Great often read on this day:

   When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and did not find the Lord’s body, she thought it had been taken away and so informed the disciples. After they came and saw the tomb, they too believed what Mary had told them. The text then says: The disciples went back home, and it adds: but Mary wept and remained standing outside the tomb.
   We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.
   At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a great love. As David says: My soul has thirsted for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? And so also in the Song of Songs the Church says: I was wounded by love; and again: My soul is melted with love.
   Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.
   Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognized when he calls her “woman”; so he calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognize me as I recognize you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognizes who is speaking. She immediately calls him rabboni, that is to say, teacher, because the one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.

St. Gregory shows us that Mary Magdalene is far above what we have occasionally “used” her for. She is not primarily a sexual sinner made good, or an astute business woman turned Christian, or the necessary yang to Jesus’ yin. No: St. Mary is utterly beyond such trivia. She is a one of the most visible and human expressions of persevering faith in the New Testament. That perseverance, born of a personal encounter with Christ, and nourished by gratitude and service, results in a faith strong enough to take what happens at the Crucifixion and remain open, loving, and devoted until the moment that the risen and transformed Christ speaks to her. This is precisely what active, living Christian discipleship looks like today.

Persevering faith is not particularly valued here in America. We praise relevance, hip-ness, visibility, productivity…but not perseverance. We like getting things quickly, easily: making anyone wait, forming people over time so that they are more than themselves…these are hard sells in our current climate, drowned out by each new fad that sweeps across our searching, anxious, yet deeply impatient culture. Yet, St. Gregory lauds St. Mary Magdalene for just this characteristic, and so should we.

Because Mary refuses to abandon the search for Christ, she is able to hear him when he speaks. Because she wants to hear so much, she is ready to hear. What we want so often tills the ground of our hearts, allows for that which is sown to become a rich harvest.

St. Mary’s persevering faith sets her alongside the great figures of our faith: David, Solomon, the Prophets, Paul, and many others whose search for the Truth, relationship with God in Christ, and complete healing is so great that they never abandon it. That is, perhaps, the most glorious thing we celebrate today…and the most subversive, counter-cultural aspect of her witness. Based in Holy Scripture, we find someone far more powerful and influential than any of the chimeras produced in the past. Celebrate the true Magdalene…and better yet, emulate her.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Saul, Samuel, Agag, and the courage of learning from hard texts in Scripture...

And Samuel said, 
‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices,
   as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
   and to heed than the fat of rams. 
For rebellion is no less a sin than divination,

   and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. (1 Samuel 15:22-23a, NRSV)

The lessons from 1 Samuel this week in the Daily Office deal with something repugnant to most modern readers: a religiously-sanctioned act of genocide. God orders King Saul to exact a total retribution against the Amalekites for their previous aggression and unprovoked attacks. All of the Amalekites--men, women, children--and their possessions are to be destroyed. Nothing and no-one is to be spared.

Western liberal Christians generally approach this text with both revulsion and skepticism. The notion that God could demand such horrific violence and that such a thing was actually carried out seems criminal and impossible. In the face of ISIL and other such groups, the echoes of religious-based terrorism are deafening in these texts. 

So, mostly we just stop there and say something like: "the Old Testament is so bloody and gruesome, with a bloodthirsty God so unlike the one we worship in the New Testament." Unable to justify the Scriptures to our minds, we enter into the business of consigning them to oblivion (where they will come back to haunt us in our subconscious, popping up in unwanted ways) or the imperceptible fringes of antisemitism or its offspring, Christian supersessionism. Like people who pass over the truth of history or current events for what is going on in People Magazine, we avoid what we cannot understand or find painful.

Yet, the Holy Scriptures do not need to be "justified" in the way a current government's policies are before the press and public. The texts of the Bible are there to be entered into or rejected, but not made merely palatable. Attempts to do so miss the point, much like contemporary attempts to smooth out the news, "spin-doctoring" facts that are painful, confusing, bewildering, or illogical.

The story of King Saul, his rise and fall, his complex relationship with Samuel, with the Hebrew nation, and with God, is remarkably contemporary for something so very old. There is a great deal to be learned from it, if we have the courage. Entering into the story rather than holding it at arms-length and judging it allows for much more insight and even--gasp--application.

One of the most fascinating parts of this story occurs when Saul goes ahead without Samuel and mixes his royal role as commander with the priestly one of offering sacrifice. The priest-king ideal (so often found in ancient near-eastern monarchies and exemplified in Holy Scripture by Melchizedeck and Jesus Christ), when activated by Saul, seems to be the "third rail" for Samuel, bringing on a final condemnation and annulment of God's support after Saul's previous disobedience to God by not destroying all the booty from the Amalekites. Saul's reasoning in response--Samuel taking his sweet time getting to the sacrificial rite and the clamor of the people for action--only reinforces Samuel's anger (and, seemingly, God's rejection). Here, if we have the patience of learners (rather than the impetuousness of dilettantes), we can pause and ponder. 

Saul, a creation of Israel's desire for a unified political-military leader, becomes aware of the utility of joining spiritual power (ritual sacrifice) with what he already possesses. In so doing, he is taking on something not specifically granted to him by God (or the cantankerous Samuel). He is also fusing two kinds of power that require the ingredient of obedience to God in order to be effective. By bending to the will of the people who are demanding this fusion of power, Saul is showing what kind of a king he has become: weak, dangerous, and unstable. This will be drawn out later in the story of his tortured and destructive relationship with David. There, Saul is willing even to destroy his own line's future to preserve his own power. Such kingship cannot be good for the people, does not honor God, and cannot stand.

Samuel voices this in his rebuke to Saul in the above-quoted passage. He calls out the central problem: Saul puts outward, cultic practice above inner spiritual obedience. David, for all his faults later on, resists this. Saul's actions betray a fundamental misuse of his position that drags God's authority into dynastic politics, one that we have seen again and again in political leaders/rulers when they try to fuse their earthly power with the divine. Such a fusion is, as Samuel points out, really just another form of idolatry and divination...a way around the primary commitment to the One God who has revealed the divine will and justice.

That justice is very hard to square with human justice. Various attempts have been made to do so, and they all come up unconvincing. The Summary of the Law ("Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself") is about as clear as we can get; but, in the end, the Christian religion points to the Cross of our crucified Lord (the one who is without sin and takes on all our sin, shame, alienation, and misuse and offers it to God as the perfect priest-kingly offering) and says, in effect: "Let that be an end to all offerings of justification."

And so should it be an end to all attempts to fuse sacred and political power. Saul's stubborn desire to rule in God's Name, yet on his own terms, sounds suspiciously familiar to Anglican ears. Henry VIII would try to do much the same, setting up a national conflagration not able to be put out for nearly one hundred and fifty years...and which in some ways, burns still in our tradition.

This passage from 1 Samuel also calls into question the repeated attempts to "pretty-up" spiritual wrong by wrapping it in priestly garments. We have seen a great deal of this in Chrsitian history, perhaps most devastatingly in recent years over the child sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, but certainly each tradition in Christianity has been guilty of this in one way or another. Samuel's question to Saul ("Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?") remains pointed at us today. How do each of us individually, and Christian communities in aggregate, find ways to cover over our lack of faithfulness to God by applying "religious makeup" to hide or legitimize the disgrace?

The slaughter of the Amalekites, which frames this passage, remains a true horror. Just after this section, their king Agag is brought before Samuel. The Amalekites' many crimes are recalled, and Agag is killed, being "hewn in pieces" by his executioner in what can only be described as an act of religious butchery. Any attempt to minimize or "justify" this is, I think, pitiful and immoral. Like the horrors we know of in our own national, family, or personal history, there are chapters which--no matter how much we believe them to have been necessary or appropriate--we cannot fully understand or approve. Anyone, religious or not, has a lot of reckoning to do when dealing with the full account of his or her own story.

But the work of faith will not let us shrink from this accounting; it requires that we enter into it and grapple with it, learning at each approach what we may, and offering what we do not understand back to God (something secular people cannot do). Some things, perhaps, ultimately have little to teach us. Others, once thought irrelevant, suddenly are shown to hold great meaning for us, when we are ready. This is one of the ways Anglicans approach Sacred Scripture, a way requiring maturity, perseverance, and humility.

We cannot know when a particular verse, story, phrase, or image will open up into a vista of revelation that changes or enriches us. Our limited perspective requires the activity and guidance of the Holy Spirit for the right timing (do we adequately appreciate how important or freeing this is?)  We just keep entering in through the gates of prayer and openness--precisely what King Saul lacked. That, too, is part of the loving obedience for us as believers, an obedience helping us gain the fruit of Christ's sacrifice of Love, a love that re-focusses our search for more Amalekites to slaughter from people we do not like to the sins that lie in our own hearts.