Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The words we use, the language that we speak and think with is impoverished. English is one of the most dense languages available to us in terms of actual vocabulary, but it is still limited in our expression. All language is limiting. But speak we must. I think it's good to get that out on the table, once we speak we have already limited our inner meaning, our thoughts, our desires, our emotions, our investment in our relationships.

For example, when I shout, "I love you" to my wife as she leaves the house, or when we part company, those three words are a cipher for a powerful relationship that lies at the intersection of our bodies, our history (individually and together), economics, society, time, sickness, commitment, children, and a million other grids of meaning that all overlap and converge in this one relationship. And all that is just with this one relationship not to mention my myriad connections with family, friends, staff, enemies, teammates, neighbors, et. al.

Dealing with others, making ourselves known and intelligible is always mediated through our words (verbal, body, contextual). And those words are always something of a betrayal of our deeper meaning and significance.

One word that kept coming up repeatedly is tradition. Tradition comes from the Latin, traditio, meaning to pass on. Most of us, I imagine think of tradition in terms of set-in-stone objects and practices that are stodgy, yet comfortable. I think of the couple that wants nothing to do with church most of the time, but want to "use" the church, and her words, for the "ceremony." I'm not denigrating this motivation because in it I recognize that people still see tradition as worthy enough to at least bring it out, and dust it off when needed to effectively solemnize an occasion. The thing about tradition though is that we have, especially in the church, but certainly in civil society (see 4th of July parades) objects and practices that are effectively divorced from reality.

The reality is the life of the practitioner. Tradition is meant to be a lived reality, not a series of objects moved in a certain order for magical effect. Words on a page that are moved around (spoken) without being implanted in the life of a practitioner is also life-less and magical. By magic I mean simply prioritizing the object in question with power over life. So in the Church we see in sacramental life prioritizing of the bread and wine over the gathered body of those who believe that God is up to something, in other words the Eucharistic elements have more power to express God than the assembly of believers.

Tradition then, to look back to the Latin, is the passing on of something, and I think that the emphasis has been on the "something" and not on the "passing." Tradition is passing, it is active. The most important aspect of the passing is the activity, the lived activity of the content of the tradition. To put not-too-fine-a-point on it: to shove symbols at people and expect a transformation is mere magical thinking. Instead, what if we passed our tradition by living it actively? Evelyn Underhill, the great Christian teacher, said once that the life of prayer is more easily caught than taught.

Sometimes, actually very often, indeed twice this week, young couples contact me to talk about baptism. The emails read something like this: "Good morning. My husband and I would like to have our 5 month old son baptized. We do not belong to your church, and haven't decided on one as of yet. However, we find this to be extremely important for our son, and an important part of our role as parents. Our other child was already christened by his age, and we would love to dedicate his life in Christ as well." This, to me, looks like non-practice meeting up with objects, for magical effect, perhaps family magic. I used to say to people, "call me me once I've seen you in church for a year." The church is for those who want to walk with God, with the disestablishment of the church there is no longer any social benefit to participating in the church, why does this even matter to you if you don't go to church? I've softened on this. Now I meet with people right away and talk to them about what baptism means and that it is not a private act for family, it is not celestial fire insurance, it is the initiation of this person into the Body of Christ and the people gathered there are going to promise to raise this child, so it might be a good idea for you to get active in our parish so that people aren't adopting a stranger.

That usually is met with surprise, that the small thing they think they wanted is actually pretty darn big. I've not had anyone come and hear all this, then walk away. I'm traditioning them, and myself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Masters recap part one of a lot

I took a class on contemporary Anglican Theologians, with the Rev. Drs. Ben King and Rob MacSwain. Ben is a historian of the church and Rob is a theologian. Rob taught many of my theology classes for my MDiv including directing my independent study on Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and ethicist. Hauerwas, famously, was on the cover of Time Magazine in 2001 as the America's most important theologian, which he had a real problem with; but no one remembers this because the issue came out on Sept. 11. Hauerwas, being American, is given to pithy quotes, see here.

The first theologian we read was Rowan Williams who is decidedly NOT given to pithy, bumper-sticker ready quotations. As I read through his extraordinarily dense and nuanced, On Christian Theology, I kept looking for that one phrase that would sum up his project. I couldn't find it. Hauerwas can be summed up in "The first task of the church is for the church to be the church," followed closely by, "The Church doesn't have a social ethic, it is a social ethic." But Williams...? Nope.

Williams is doing something else. I think this is owed to his being a poet, but the activity of reading On Christian Theology imparts an experience of the content, which is some doctrine of God or a method of doing theology. The form itself communicates the content. What I mean is, his chapters on the Self and the Holy Trinity actually, I think, give a sense of what life is like in these doctrines. So his chapters on the Trinity, for example, are very subtle, intricate, and intermingled. One gets an actual experience of the Trinity's perichoretic relationship. It is the most difficult theology I've ever read, but it repays the effort.

Williams writes widely for the wider audience. I'd highly recommend, Finding God in Paul, Being Christian, and my favorite, Silence and Honey Cakes.

Another aspect of Williams that came up in our discussion of his theology was the fact that he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and not a widely successful one. Some of his thoughts on homosexuality didn't fair too well once he had the power of the office. One person in the class said insightfully, "If only he had been Rowan Williams instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he thought we needed the office, not the man." Williams ultimately went against some of his own thoughts as the Archbishop, this, apparently had real personal consequence. Therefore, some of Williams later work looks at tragedy as a Christian category. In fact as I work on my paper for this class, which is on theodicy,wondering about a loving, powerful God in a world of pain and suffering, Williams' thoughts on tragedy loom large.

I'll reflect more on this class, especially the other theologians we covered, later.

Monday, June 27, 2016


I've been out of town for several weeks, three to be exact. I only missed one Sunday because after the first week I came home to Charlotte to pick up the family to join me. Where was I? I went home to Sewanee, AKA the School of Theology at the University of the South. The way that my very happy childhood shook out, I somehow emerged without a sense of place, without a place that I call home. So when I visit my parents, I visit them, I don't go "home." That house was sold my senior year of high school. Years later we went to seminary at Sewanee. It's a beautiful place, take a look:

Not only is it beautiful but the faculty and staff of the school of theology basically formed me into a priest, and a Christian. So this place feels like home. It's got it's problems, but knowing about those (it's racist founding (which they openly acknowledge and face down), its relationship with the surrounding community, etc.) means that Sewanee is a real place, not a fantasy. So Sewanee is my spiritual home. Earlier this year on a trip to Jerusalem I was struck by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which, for me, is the perfect icon of the broken Body of Christ. On that trip my heart became magnetized to that strange place. But in Sewanee, I'm fed spiritually just being there.

I was there to start a new course of study. I'm doing what is called a STM, a Masters of Sacred Theology. I have no idea why they don't call it a MST. I've been told that the STM is the most academic degree they offer, even more than the MDiv. I am hear to report that this seems to be the case. I take classes along with the Dmin (doctor of ministry) students. A DMin is not a PhD, but it is an advanced degree that is more practical in nature, at least in what they produce at the end. The DMin students, for their program, must do a project related to the parish. The STM students write a thesis, 120 pp. So... there's that.

Students take two courses at a time, for three weeks, five days a week, two hours per day per class. It was intense. They basically take a semester's worth of work into three weeks. The first few days I thought I had made a horrible mistake, I certainly felt like a total slacker. My reading and thinking had gotten a little flabby, but as the days went on I was able to run with the big boys and girls. I was reading about 150 pages of content per day for the classes, plus a little wikipedia for the stuff I didn't understand. So when there is a theologian writing about the grave mistake of the epistimology of Dun Scotus, you have to do some quick reading on what the heck that is!

I'll highlight what I read later, but suffice it to say for now that the course of study was amazing. It was hard at times to remember, with my family there, that I was not on vacation. I found myself resentful of all the work, but kept repeating: I. Am. Not. On. Vacation.

I'm so grateful to the parish for supporting this study. For me, I am greatly fed by this high level kind of study and it is a joy for me to make it intelligible to the parish through our programming and my preaching. More to come!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Good 'Ol Paul

Sermon for Proper 8C
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Did you ever learn something that was a game-changer? You know, like one day you knew how life worked, but then you learned one little thing, and boom! Life is different, you see the world anew, a light goes on.
I know that the best kind of learning is slow and nuanced, where knowledge becomes wisdom, but sometimes, a powerful learning can be summed up in a bumper sticker-like pithy saying. For me, several years ago this happened when I came upon the dual saying: the map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. Have you heard this phrase?
It basically means that the means of signification and language are in fact not what they refer to. I’ll probably say something that refutes all this when we talk about sacraments at the end of July. But for now: The map is not the territory and the menu is not the meal. What’s that mean? To me it means that we have to continually remind ourselves that the tools we use to make sense of the world are no the world itself. Actual maps can get you from point A to point B, but those maps look nothing at all like the territory you are in. The difference between a two dimensional map and the Grand Canyon, for instance, couldn’t be more different.
Likewise, the menu is not the meal. The menu hints at the meal, it gets you to the meal, but you don’t eat the menu, you eat the meal.
Both the map and the menu though are pretty darn useful, they get you somewhere or something. The map gets you to the Grand Canyon, then you put the map away. The menu gets you to the meal. Once you order your food the server takes the menu away.
I’m bringing all this up because we need to talk about Paul. It’s funny, we need to talk about Paul, as if we were going to hold an intervention. Paul has gotten a great deal of grief from the church in recent years, some of it deserved, mostly not. I think that the main problem that most people have with his writings is that he wasn’t just like us, he wasn’t as politically progressive as we would have him. Hopefully I can help repair Paul’s bruised reputation a little today.
The reading we get from Paul today is from his letter to the church in Galatia. Because Paul’s writings were put into the Bible, many of us just sort of assume that these writings fell out of heaven, fully formed. But that’s not it at all, Paul was always writing to a specific community, that he usually knew very well. All of Paul’s writings are, what scholars call, occasional writings. It doesn’t mean that wrote when he felt like it, it means that he wrote for particular occasions, he had a reason for writing.
The reason that Paul is writing the Galatians is because they have heard and responded to God’s loving acceptance in Jesus Christ, but in his absence they have fallen back into their old ways of expecting certain behaviors and life-styles for members of the church. Paul is writing to chastise them for their exclusion and condition making.
And here is where we get the map and the territory, the menu and the meal. Paul uses two symbol systems to outline his argument: slavery and freedom, and flesh and spirit. I’d like to dive into these in detail but always remember that the map is not the territory.
First Paul says that, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” He’s using this dichotomy of freedom and slavery because, everyone in that age would have understood exactly what he means, those who were listening either, were slaves, had slaves, or knew one or the other. Slavery in the first century was extremely commonplace. Paul is sometimes criticized for not coming down hard enough on slavery. To those I would say, read Paul, you’ll be surprised. That does not take away the fact that preachers in this very city in the 18th and 19th centuries used selective citations of Paul to prop up their own evil economic system.
But when Paul talks about freedom from slavery he is using the culturally resonant metaphor to reveal the fact that the Galatians, and by extension, us, are reverting back to an old understanding of what it means to be accepted by God, namely that we must submit to laws of behavior and winning God over. That’s slavery. Freedom on the other hand, through Christ means that we are free from the slavery of winning God’s love. And that freedom also means that we are free from expecting others to have to earn our love.
The other symbol that Paul uses us flesh and spirit. Remember that he is trying to communicate a deeper truth, the map is not the territory. Believe me I could give you twenty minutes on the different Greek words for what we would call the body, but what matters is what he says. The flesh and the spirit and vying for control of the full human being, in each of us. If we let the flesh drive the bus then all those bad behaviors follow, he ends his list with “and things like this.” It’s not meant to be exhaustive or even definitive, you know what he’s talking about: fear, lying, unfairness, callousness, the list is almost endless. But when the spirit drives the bus, when the spirit is in control of the human being, then that life takes on the shape of a human that is in close contact with God, a life like Jesus’, a life that bears fruit, like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
So, keeping in mind that the map is not the territory and that no metaphor is perfect: We are no longer owned, enslaved, to the notion of living that would have us have to earn God’s love. In Christ we are made free to come to God. And because we are now free in Christ, the spirit can now run our lives, not the flesh. That’s Paul 101, that’s Christianity for Dummies.
Now, listen to me. I need you to go from hearing these words to listening to these words. Everything I’ve been saying, you think is about someone else. But it’s not, it’s about you. I was thinking about you when I wrote this. I do that a lot, much more than you might be comfortable with, I write sermons with specific people in mind. This one is for you, all this stuff about being set free from the slavery of impressing God is real, it’s real that we don’t earn love, and it’s real that we should extend that same unconditional love to other. It is real. And it’s about you. And you’re not doing it. And if you did, you’d be, if not happier, you’d be free, free with God.
Look, I know the political system is rough. Lord knows that the last few weeks have been bad weeks for the world. And, frankly, I don’t have the faith in the moral arc of the universe. I don’t have faith that everything happens for a reason, or that everything will work out. But I have faith in God and God alone. I trust that God has accepted me and you and the entire creation, without condition, full-stop. And that sets me free, it sets me free to love. It sets me free to throw a wrench into the machine of condition and exploitation.
That’s the territory, that’s the menu. This place of love is our destination. If Paul’s maps and menus don’t get you there, then set them aside, but don’t set aside where he’s trying to get us. Come up with your own maps and menus, but make no mistake, the territory is God, and the meal is Jesus Christ.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sermon for a Funeral

Here is the text of a sermon I preached for a parishioner. She was 90 years old. Her name was Joyce. It was a beautiful occasion. I've long held that the funeral rite of the Episcopal Church is our most beautiful liturgy. I think that in it, we have the church's strongest proclamation of what it's about and also it happens at the time of our lives that says most strongly what will happen to us. Those two items coming together powerfully makes for good liturgy. Here's the sermon:

Funeral Sermon for Joyce Brown
June 25, 2016
Job 19:21-27a
2 Cor. 4:16-5:9
John 10:11-16

Joyce was a walking paradox. She was always reticent at first and then you couldn’t get her to shut up. She was, for the last several years, quite frail, but always present and on the go, under her own power.
Her family was kind enough to send me some of Joyce’s poems and I found one that gives us insight into her loquaciousness. “Silence is Golden, or so they say. Alas, I’ll be poor then for many a day, for talk I must or else I’ll bust, I really can’t help being made that way!” And, so you know, Joyce ended this poem with an exclamation point.
A few months ago when Joyce turned 90, during the service I gave her special attention which she of course tried to deflect, saying, “Oh no, oh no!” Then she stood up and gave a speech.
But don’t you know that these little speeches, they were always about the community and how much they cared for her. The same thing happened a few months ago when she left the women’s retreat. Just before her departure she held forth for ten straight minutes, after saying that she didn’t know what to say. Joyce’s self-deprecation was in her own way an honoring of those around her.
Joyce wasn’t all about being shy, and then over-speaking. She was also unusually spry for her age. A while back at St. Martin’s we had a Palm Sunday procession through our neighborhood. It was a very chilly morning and more than one person, a fraction of Joyce’s age, declined the long, cold walk. But Joyce did the procession. Yes she brought up the rear along with us priests and her friend Fran, but she did it. I was so worried about her over that broken pavement but she never missed a step.
Joyce was a paradox: Small and frail, but large and strong; never wanting to make a fuss, but always making a fuss.
And Joyce’s faith is a paradox. Here we are at the commemoration of a death, and we talk about life. We worship a God who actually died, and yet we proclaim his ongoing and enduring life.
These first two readings which Joyce chose for us to hear on this occasion are all about the paradox of life in God, that even in death, we shall be alive in God. Even our mortal bodies which are subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can be, in the audacious words of the patronal saint of this parish, “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” This is what God has always been after, to swallow up everything into his loving life. And we here today are a testimony to that life and love that Joyce lived and embodied.
The other funny thing about our paradoxical faith is that God has hidden God’s self in the creation. This means that the world is fundamentally sacramental, that we can use our bodies and our need to create signs and symbols and poetry, to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch God. Joyce knew that, Joyce knows that. In fact, Joyce gave us the gift of God’s presence by being so weak and making such a fuss; that was Joyce, but it was also God that we served and put up with.
Another of Joyce’s poems addresses her knowledge that God can be found anywhere.
The Tree
Through the glass windows, spread in grace,
You see the world while in God’s place,
It is a wonder to behold, bringing feelings, peace untold,
God’s own nature there to see draws prayers from the soul,
That beautiful tree.

On the tree outside the church, Jesus on a limb doth perch,
And as he swings his sandaled feet, He looks inside to see us meet,
Of course you say, you see him not, be still be sure he’s not forgot.

This poem may sound to some as radical or even anti-institutional church, but I don’t think so, it’s simply the musing of a faithful woman who knew that God is not contained in the church. The church is not the custodian of God, but merely the gathering of those who have been shocked by God’s love and we are trying to figure it out. After all, as Jesus says in our gospel reading, the fold of those under God’s call is much much more broad and inclusive than most of us would be comfortable with. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” He’s talking about us, he’s talking about that person you hate, he’s talking about the one you think is beyond love and respect. God loves that one. So what are you going to do in light of that reality?
This is the paradoxical God that Joyce believed in, loved, and participated in: that life has swallowed up everything, that God can be found, if you look, and that the church is not the custodian of God, but instead is the aftermath of this loving, life-giving God.
That’s what I wanted to say to you today, that was me preaching the gospel with some help from Joyce. But I wanted to end with a story and poem of my own, all about Joyce.
Last year we had what we call an instructed Eucharist, it’s when we take a look at what we do in worship and answer questions so that we can more thoughtfully engage in our worship. At one point I talked about how it takes so many people to make it all work, from the hours of preparation of the preacher to the staff lining up all the volunteers, the readers, the one who composes the prayers, the altar guild in making everything right, even the little lady who launders and starches the linens; it takes many many people to pull off the congregational, corporate worship of God, this all happens by, with, and through our bodies which God has filled with his Holy Spirit! It was pretty good!
At that moment, Joyce’s shaky white arm shot up, shyly. “Yes Joyce?” I asked. She answered, “The. Linens. Are. Not. Starched.”
What do I know? Those linens are nice and crisp, but they aren’t starched, apparently starching makes linens less absorbent or something. Joyce used to come into the sacristy to retrieve the linens used in our Eucharistic meal. As time went on she declared that our sacristy was too busy and that she didn’t want to get knocked over. So she used to wait in the front row after the service and someone from the altar guild would deliver the soiled linens to her in a ziplock bag. Joyce would then take those linens home and wash them by hand. I heard that Joyce would even take the water in which the linens were washed outside and commit it to the ground, such high respect did she offer the elements of our sacrament.
Here is a poem I wrote, soon after meeting Joyce and learning about her small service to Christ’s church:

She was British, there must be a story there,
About how she came to the States.

She had always worked in the background,
At Church for decades.

Her, now, papery hands,
Had rinsed Christ’s blood from the linen.

She takes them home to rinse.
Toddles outside,

To commit Christ
To the ground: Burying him, again, and
Again, and again.

Unaware that he has stowed away,
Under her fingernails.

Thank you Joyce, thank you for your irascible, loving spirit. Thank you for showing us God. God bless you and keep you and through the mercies of God rise again in glory.