Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Sermon for Reformation Day, 2016

The following sermon is based on Luke 19:1-10, which is the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel for the day. (I've used the Reformation Day texts before, but because I also serve an Episcopal congregation now, I used the RCL text so I didn't have to prepare two sermons).  

Grace to you and peace in the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Since I have spent the past couple of days at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, I didn't have a lot of time to create my own sermon for today.  So, I want you to imagine that we have a special guest preacher here today, but I’m not going to tell you who the preacher is until after you’ve heard it.

"You have come here meet Jesus. Today’s Gospel speaks to us of just such a meeting between Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus, in Jericho. There Jesus does not simply preach or greet people; but he passed through the city.  In other words, Jesus wants to draw near to us personally, to accompany our journey to its end, so that his life and our life can truly meet.


An amazing encounter then takes place, with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus was a wealthy collaborator of the hated Roman occupiers, someone who exploited his own people, someone who, because of his ill repute, could not even approach the Master. His encounter with Jesus changed his life, just as it has changed each of our lives.  But Zacchaeus had to face a number of obstacles in order to meet Jesus, which also have something to say to us.

The first obstacle is smallness of stature. Zacchaeus couldn’t see the Master because he was little. Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don’t feel big enough, because we don’t think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation; it has to do not only with self-esteem, but with faith itself.   We have been created in God’s own image; Jesus has taken upon himself our humanity and his heart will never be separated from us; the Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us. We have been called to be happy for ever with God! 

That is our real “stature”, our spiritual identity: we are God’s beloved children, always. So you can see that not to accept ourselves, to be negative, means not to recognize our deepest identity.  God loves us the way we are, and no sin, fault or mistake of ours changes that.  

As far as Jesus is concerned – as this Gospel shows – no one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In God’s eyes the clothes you wear or the things you own are of absolutely no concern. In God’s eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.

At times in our lives, we aim lower rather than higher. At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in his love for us. The fact is, God loves us even more than we love ourselves. God believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. God is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries.

But that brooding is a kind of virus infecting and blocking everything; it closes doors and prevents us from getting up and starting over.  God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful, because we are always his beloved sons and daughters. Let us be mindful of this at the dawn of each new day.  It will do us good to pray every morning: “Lord, I thank you for loving me; help me to be in love with my own life!” Not with my faults, that need to be corrected, but with life itself, which is a great gift, for it is a time to love and to be loved.


Zacchaeus faced a second obstacle in meeting Jesus: the paralysis of shame. We can imagine what was going on in his heart before he climbed that sycamore. It must have been quite a struggle – on one hand, a healthy curiosity and desire to know Jesus; on the other, the risk of appearing completely ridiculous.


Zacchaeus was public figure, a man of power. He knew that, in trying to climb that tree, he would have become a laughingstock to all.  Yet he mastered his shame, because the attraction of Jesus was more powerful. You know what happens when someone is so attractive that we fall in love with them: we end up ready to do things we would never have even thought of doing.


Something similar took place in the heart of Zacchaeus, when he realized that Jesus was so important that he would do anything for him, since Jesus alone could pull him out of the mire of sin and discontent. The paralysis of shame did not have the upper hand. The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus “ran ahead”, “climbed” the tree, and then, when Jesus called him, he “hurried down”. He took a risk, he put his life on the line. For us too, this is the secret of joy: not to stifle curiosity, but to take a risk, because life is not meant to be tucked away. When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit around waiting with arms folded; he offers us life!

After his small stature and the paralysis of shame, there was a third obstacle that Zacchaeus had to face.  This obstacle was all around him. It was the grumbling of the crowd, who first blocked him and then criticized him: How could Jesus have entered his house, the house of a sinner!  People will try to block you, to make you think that God is distant, rigid and insensitive, good to the good and bad to the bad. Instead,  God calls us to a kind of courage, the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies. People may laugh at you because you believe in mercy. But do not be afraid.


That day the crowd judged Zacchaeus; they looked him over, up and down. But Jesus did otherwise: he gazed up at him. Jesus looks beyond the faults and sees the person. His gaze remains constant, even when it is not met; it seeks the way of unity and communion. Don’t stop at the surface of things; distrust the worldly cult of appearances, cosmetic attempts to improve our looks. Instead, God has given you a heart which can see and transmit goodness without growing weary. The joy that you have freely received from God, freely give away: so many people are waiting for it!

Finally let us listen to the words that Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus, which to be seem meant for us today: “Come down, for I must stay at your house today”.  Jesus extends the same invitation to you: “I must stay at your house today”.

We meet Jesus here, today, but that meeting continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on. The Lord  wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies or in your work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams. God desires that you bring all this in prayer and God hopes that, in all the “contacts” and “chats” of each day, that prayer comes first. God wants to be able to speak to you day after day through the word, so that you can make the Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life!

In asking to come to your house, Jesus calls you, as he did Zacchaeus, by name because your name is precious to him."

So, whose sermon was that? 
Martin Luther? No.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer? No. 
Some other great Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Protestant? No.
I edited it somewhat for context, but that was, in essence, the sermon given by Pope Francis to a million young people at World Youth Day in Krakow Poland, on July 31st of this year.  One of the slogans of the Reformation was “grace alone”, and there was a whole lot of grace in that sermon.

Tomorrow is the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Germany, a Reformation which spread to England and other parts of Europe a few years later.  But October 2016 is proving to be a special month, too.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby met and said together that our differences “cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find within each other’s traditions.

 Our differences should not stop us from praying together: not only can we pray together, we must pray together, giving voice to our shared faith and joy in the Gospel of Christ.”
That call to common prayer is being lived out tomorrow in Lund Sweden – Pope Francis will be visiting the predominantly Lutheran country for a joint prayer service marking the beginning of this 500th anniversary year, and this is one of the prayers that they will pray together:

“Jesus Christ, Lord of the church, send your Holy Spirit! Illumine our hearts and heal our memories. O Holy Spirit: help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the Church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world.  Amen.”
The Reformation helped remind the Church of what Jesus said to Zaccheus - that salvation comes to your house today, for the Son of Man, has come out to seek, and to save.  As Pope Francis’ sermon indicated, that promise is a gift which can overcome obstacles and divisions.  It is a gift that gives us new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God – Amen.        

Monday, May 9, 2016

Why I'm Sticking with the Revised Common Lectionary, Part 2

Unbeknownst to me at the time, on the same day that I posted my first article about the Revised Common Lectionary (http://benedictinelutheran.blogspot.com/2016/05/why-im-sticking-with-revised-common.html), a group called "Clergy Stuff" posted a video on Facebook about the Narrative Lectionary.  The video features Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary, who has been one of the primary developers and proponents of the Narrative Lectionary. The video can be seen here (http://clergystuff.com/news/2016/5/2/what-is-the-narrative-lectionary-anyway), and it features two comments on why the Narrative Lectionary is allegedly superior to the Revised Common Lectionary which I want to address.  I've really enjoyed some of Professor Jacobson's work in the past, particularly "Crazy Book: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Biblical Terms", as well as his other books published by Augsburg Fortress.  However, I have a profound disagreement with his assessment of the RCL, and his belief that his Narrative Lectionary rectifies the alleged problems with it.

The first comment made by Professor Jacobson is as follows:

"We actually think that we do a better job of aligning the Biblical story with the major festivals of the Church year. In the Revised Common Lectionary, you get the adult John the Baptist in Advent saying 'Jesus is coming', but that's not the Christmas story - its not the adult John the Baptist saying the adult Jesus is coming. So, what we have is the prophetic texts - the prophets longing with hope for the fulfillment of God's kingdom and the coming of the Holy One, and then the Holy One is born at Christmas, and we tell, then, the Biblical story in order...."

Is Advent merely a season where we prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas?  If so, his claim might have merit.  However, Advent is not just about recalling the story of the baby Jesus coming into the world.  If it were, I'm not sure why we would even have a separate Advent season - we would just have one six week Christmas season. Instead, Advent is also a season where we prepare for the return of Christ at the eschaton (a word which essentially means, to borrow a phrase from the rock group REM: 'the end of the world as we know it').  Therefore, contrary to Professor Jacobson's opinion, the readings where "the adult John Baptist is saying the adult Jesus is coming" make sense given the historical purpose and meaning behind the season of Advent:

"The eschataological orientation that is found in some of these early sources continues to be a significant element in the proclamation of the season of Advent. Indeed, the very name Adventus, 'coming,' 'approach,' suggests not only the coming of God into the world in Jesus but the approaching return of the risen Lord in all his heavenly splendor.  Indeed, the Advent season and its hope should not be regarded purely or even primarily in terms of Christmas.  It should not even be seen as an introduction to the Incarnation but rather as the completion of the work of redemption.

****

The season gives voice to the impatience God's people feel at least from time to time but which they may be hesitant to express to God.  The purpose of Advent is to rouse once again in the people of the Church the anticipation of the End and of the great Day of the Lord, and to bid them to be prepared for it.

****

[T]he Church gives voice not only to the expectant joy of a bride or of a mother at the impending birth of her child. Mother Church expresses her deep longing for the coming of Christ in glory at the end of the ages. It is not a fearful dread that the Church wishes to instill in her members when through the psalms and hymns and readings and prayers she calls on us to think about the Parousia, the final coming, but rather she points us to the goal of our efforts to keep awake and to watch: unending union with Jesus Christ. All our work and study and prayer and living has one purpose and meaning: to bring us and all humanity into the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  So the central prayer of Advent is the one word, the concluding prayer of the Bible, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus."

(From pp. 27-29 of "Journey Into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year" by Philip Pfatteicher, a noted Lutheran liturgical theologian - these are just brief snippets of a extensive discussion about the Advent season found in the book, including a discussion about the RCL readings).

Therefore, instead of enhancing the Church's understanding of the liturgical year, the Narrative Lectionary diminishes it.

The second comment from the video that I want to address is this remark from Professor Jacobson: "The problem with the Revised Common Lectionary is that somebody in 1973 or 1972 decided what Scriptures you need in your church in 2016, 2018, 2020..."

"Somebody in 1973 or 1972"?  The Revised Common Lectionary is not based on the fruits of one person's work in the early 1970s.  As noted in my earlier article, the roots of the RCL are based on the three year lectionary developed in the Roman Catholic Church during the years following Vatican II.  Following the conclusion of Vatican II, Biblical scholars came together to work on the three year lectionary, which resulted in the publication of Ordo Lectionum Missae in 1969. After over a decade of work by scholars from numerous Christian traditions, the Common Lectionary was published in 1983.  Finally, after a trial period of the Common Lectionary, and revisions made by even more scholars, the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992.  (For more information, go to this website: http://www.commontexts.org/).

So, the RCL is the fruit of the labor of multiple scholars from multiple Christian traditions over the course of several decades.  It is not a perfect lectionary.  But, it is a truly "catholic" (universal, not just Roman) lectionary.  This was a sentiment expressed by ELCA Bishop Guy Erwin, who shared my earlier post on his Facebook page, and offered these words:

"This is lovely. Reading and reflecting on the RCL texts each week is for me a powerful witness to our unity as Christians. Not only the mainline churches but also the global Roman Catholic Church uses essentially the same Sunday texts, which means most of the world's Christians are focusing their hearts on the same scriptural truths each week.

No lectionary can ever be a substitute for the broader study of scripture--there simply aren't enough Sundays for that. What we hear ...on Sunday is an invitation to go deeper--to use more scripture to learn more--not an end point.

And though I believe every part of scripture is useful, I think the lectionary helps draw us away from the sense that the Bible was somehow put together and delivered to us in canonical order (and in English) by God, in order to tell us a smooth, consistent and complete story of everything God wants us to know. It is instead a wild and varied witness, and each part deserves to be considered on its own without being forced into a frame. Even the dissonances in the RCL help us be modest in the face of this sometimes mystifying collection of holy writings, and point us always back to Christ as the only unifier."

 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Why I'm Sticking With the Revised Common Lectionary

Now and again, I reconnect with colleagues and look at the latest trends in the church via the sometimes controversial ELCA Clergy group on Facebook.  One subject that comes up periodically within that group is the lectionary - specifically, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which is the series of readings used by churches during Sunday worship services.  The RCL has been an ecumenical success, as it is used widely by Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and churches from other denominations.  Even more importantly, from my perspective, it is largely in sync with the Catholic lectionary - therefore, even though we are not yet at the point where the Eucharist is shared, we at least share in the same readings from Sacred Scripture most weeks.

As I noted in my last post (back in March, sorry- I'll try to do better!), I am now 1/2 time at an Episcopal congregation, in addition to my 1/2 time call at a Lutheran church.  Since the Episcopal Church values a common liturgy (hence, the Book of Common Prayer), it is a given that congregations use the RCL. 
Based on what I read on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page, however, it appears that in the ELCA we are far from unity in our Scripture readings at worship.  Some pastors feel free to change the readings at will, or develop their own sermon series, based on their own choice of readings.   As a Lutheran with Benedictine tendencies, you can probably guess that I'm not a big fan of that practice.  
Furthermore, a whole new lectionary has been developed by Luther Seminary, the Narrative Lectionary, and a sizable contingent of congregations appear to be using it based on what I am reading on the Facebook page.  Why was a new lectionary developed when we already have one that has been widely used in the ELCA and in our ecumenical partner churches? This is the reason given:
"Though the Revised Common Lectionary has united the church in its reading of scripture and has given much-needed structure, it doesn’t present scripture -- especially the Old Testament -- in a way that helps people to become fluent in the first language of faith. The Narrative Lectionary is an attempt to take nine months to do just that."  
When I read this statement, it made me wonder  - what is the primary purpose of Scripture reading during worship?  Are Scripture readings and sermons supposed to be like Bible studies?
No.  The purpose of Scripture reading during worship is to proclaim the mystery of the faith and the presence of Christ in our midst.  
Through the magic of Google, I found an article called "Explaining the lectionary for readers", which contains a beautiful explanation of how and why the Catholic (and therefore, RCL) lectionary readings are put together.  Although it is from a Catholic website, this language strikes me as being very much Lutheran as well, with its primary focus being on the proclamation of Christ: 
 "[W]e can think of the readings at the Eucharist as a series of concentric circles:
• at the centre is the gospel which is a recollection and celebration of the mystery of Jesus, the Anointed One;
• this recollection is given added dimensions by readings from the Old Testament: the Law (such as Genesis or Exodus), the prophets (such as Amos or Joel), the Psalms, and the Writings (such as the Book of Wisdom or the Books of the Maccabees);
• then there are the readings of the great early Christian teachers’ letters to churches, such as those of Paul.
The purpose of the readings is that, in the words of the General Instruction on the Lectionary, in accordance with ancient practice there should be a ‘re-establishing [of] the use of Scripture in every celebration of the liturgy’ and that this should be seen as ‘the unfolding mystery of Christ’ being ‘recalled during the course of the liturgical year’ 
*****
If the readings at the Eucharist are there to help unfold the mystery of Jesus Christ, then several important consequences flow from this:
• We are not reading the Scriptures simply to get a knowledge of the Bible.
• We are not reading these passages because many Christians consider reading the Bible a valuable activity in itself.
• This action is not part of a Bible Study, nor should it resemble the classroom atmosphere of a study group.
•The focus of all our reading is not an abstract understanding of the scriptural text – such as would be carried out by a biblical exegete in a theology course – but to see what each portion of text (whether from the gospel, the Old Testament, the psalm, or the epistle) reveals to us about the Paschal Mystery.
• Our reading is not book-focused; it is not text-focused; it is focused on Jesus as the Christ.
• The gospel is the primary focus on the mystery of the Christ in each celebration; the Old Testament and Psalm relate to it as background, example, context, or elaboration; the epistle is a separate attempt to focus on the mystery of the Christ through the help of early Christian teachers.
• The readings are to help us encounter the person of Jesus Christ in whose presence and name we have gathered.
‘The word of God unceasingly calls to mind and extends the plan of salvation, which achieves its fullest expression in the liturgy. The liturgical celebration becomes therefore the continuing, complete, and effective presentation of God’s word’." 
During worship, Christ is truly present in our midst.  Therefore, don't we want our readings to be aimed at proclaiming that mystery in union with the Body of Christ around the world? 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Life Changes, Daily Prayer, and Inner Spiritual Renewal

As you've noticed, it has been awhile since I've posted here.  Lots of things have been going on in life - the primary one being my recent vocational changes.  After 20 years of practicing law full-time, I've reduced my practice to part-time.  I'm still the 1/2 time pastor of St. Luke Lutheran in Sioux City, Iowa (where I have been since 2012), and in addition that role, I am now the part-time Priest-In-Charge of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, which is located in a beautiful building built in the 1800s, just north of downtown.



For those of you not familiar with ELCA Lutheran church polity, about 15 years ago, a full communion agreement was approved by the ELCA and Episcopal Churches to allow for this sort of thing.  So, at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays, I'm Father Jay, leading services according to the Book of Common Prayer, and at 10:00 a.m., I'm back to being Pastor Jay at St. Luke.  An article in our local paper used my story as an example of how churches are dealing with reduced clergy numbers: http://siouxcityjournal.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/religion/many-churches-face-challenge-of-declining-clergy-numbers/article_62358c5d-4fb9-52e5-b576-5dfb64cf6cdb.html

In the meanwhile, I'm still trying to follow the Benedictine path of daily prayer.  Admittedly, with my vocations and family, it is still a struggle.  But, it is a worthwhile struggle, and a journey I am committed to continuing.  Why?  Well, I suspect the Holy Spirit has something to do with that, but if you're looking for a rationale, here is a great article I just saw about why daily prayer is so important.  It is written from a Catholic perspective, but the reasoning is essentially applicable to anyone who feels led by the Spirit to a deeper prayer life: http://www.philipkosloski.com/5-reasons-to-pray-the-divine-office-daily/

Finally, I'm nearing the end of my two year course in spiritual direction offered by the Benedictine sisters in Yankton, South Dakota.  Last year in the course, we read "The Cloud of Unknowing", which is an anonymous medieval text on the renewal of the interior spiritual life through contemplative prayer.  This Lent, I've been re-reading the book, along with a contemporary devotional book based on The Cloud, "The Loving Search for God" by William Meninger, a Trappist monk.  Today, I came across a passage written by Meninger which says a lot in just a few sentences about our daily walk with God:

"A real Christian, as opposed to a cultural Christian, is not one who never sins.  He or she is one who, having sinned, is willing to reach out and find his or her sufficiency in Christ and start over again - today!" (p. 31).

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bruno Barnhart, RIP

One of the gems of the Benedictine family are the Camaldolese monks - they live together in community, but retain a solitary lifestyle more reminiscent of the Desert Fathers and Mothers than a typical Benedictine monastery.   Along the beautiful California coastline near Big Sur is New Camaldoli Hermitage, home to a small number of resident Camaldolese monks and a thriving Oblate program (non-resident lay monastics).


This past weekend, one of the resident monks of New Camaldoli, Father Bruno Barnhart, entered into eternal rest.  While his is not a household name, Barnhart has written some interesting books on the revival of the ancient wisdom tradition within Christianity.

  
Barnhart's death coincided with the First Sunday of Advent, and the following passage from one of his books is appropriate for the season:

"Our temple, and all the temples, are gone forever from the world.  Now from within, from the center, the world itself is illumined as temple.... The music of the King sounds, beyond the ears' hearing, throughout this temple that is Christ.  The one Child, the Son, has come into his fullness at the center of the world, and the world that exists in him is now illumined and glorified in him." (From p, 208 of "Second Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity").

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Prayer for Fall

The colors of the fall season this year have been particularly beautiful at times here in Western Iowa, as can be seen from a couple of pictures I took this past week at my congregation, St. Luke, this past week. 

 
 
 
In my daily prayer book ("For All the Saints", published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau - probably the closest thing Lutherans have to a monastic breviary), there was a beautiful prayer yesterday for the fall season from Wilhelm Loehe, a 19th century German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was instrumental in establishing churches in America, as well as restoring elements of our Catholic heritage to our Lutheran tradition:
 
"Blessed be the Lord! He hath done wonderful things, and blessed is His Holy Name, Who, now, that the summer is past, has brought me in joy to behold the blessed autumn days. Lord, I am not worthy of all Thy goodness and mercy which Thou hast again showered upon me.  Most humbly and heartily I beseech Thee, O Loving Father, turn away all dangerous storms and infectious diseases, and so bless me in my participation in Thy bounty, that with health of body, peace of mind, and a good conscience, I may thankfully enjoy Thy gifts, and use what Thou hast given me unto Thy glory and the promotion of my fellowman's happiness, and unceasingly bring to Thee acceptable fruits of my life.  In these days of the ingathering of the vintage, let me rejoice in Him, Who alone truly treads the wine press, the beloved Redeemer, Jesus Christ, With the fading and falling leaf, cause me to remember my mortality, and to prepare while it is yet time for a blessed end; to leave this inconstant, passing world with joy, whenever it so pleases Three; and to enter Thy glory, there, with angels and all the company of the elect, to evermore laud, praise, and thank Thee for all thy benefits. Amen."
 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

St. Benedict's Day and the Cistercian Tradition

The Church remembers St. Benedict each year on July 11, and it is important to remember that the Benedictine order is not the only group that follows the Rule of St. Benedict.  This past year, I've had the chance to visit two Trappist monasteries, New Melleray in Iowa, and Gethsemani in Kentucky. 


(Abbey of Gethsemani, June 2015)

Trappists are formally known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO) - the Cistercians are Benedictine reformers whose history dates back to the Eleventh Century, and the Trappists represent a reform group within the Cistercian tradition.  Despite their different charisms, each order continues to represent a faithful way of living according to the Rule of St. Benedict. The living reality of Benedictine life, as reflected in the Cistercian Order, was noted by a modern Trappist monk, Michael Casey, OCSO:

"The Cistercian Patrimony is not a matter of lifeless stones, but a living reality incarnate in the lives and labors of innumerable brothers and sisters and expressed explicitly by a substantial body of doctrine developed by Cistercian authors of all centuries.  We inherit from the past not only buildings and artifacts, not only a lifestyle that many romantically believe has changed little from the Middle Ages, but a tradition of life communicated in a thousand humble ways from one generation to the next.  Beneath the Cistercian reality lays a network of beliefs, values and core practices that embody the energy of the charism.  The heart of the Cistercian Patrimony is a philosophy of life as validly applied to the twenty-first century as to the twelfth"

(Quoted at p. 20 of Come and See: The Monastic Way for Today by Brendan Freeman, OCSO).