Good Friday: Let us embrace the Cross

A sermon preached on Good Friday 2014 at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.

Crucifixion

From the Passion according to St. John, “And again another scripture says, ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced.’”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This day provokes in us a wide range of deeply felt responses. I once knew a woman who had nightmares for several weeks before Holy Week, as she dreaded hearing and recalling the Passion. Some of us may have experienced violence in our own lives, violence that is echoed in what we have just heard. Or perhaps we are moved to tears by the depths of God’s love for us, that God would suffer agony and death.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Christians have, for centuries, looked for ways to comprehend what is incomprehensible. As we gaze on the Cross, if we are not overcome by horror and sorrow and gratitude, we simply aren’t paying attention. It’s difficult — impossible even — to fit this day into our human experience.

Many Christians have looked for someone else to blame for what happened on Golgotha. We have desired a way to shift responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. Too often, we have put all the guilt on our Jewish brothers and sisters, deliberately forgetting that Jesus himself and all his disciples were, of course, Jews. And I don’t need to remind you, just a few days after violence perpetrated against Jewish organizations in Kansas City, that this is not an ancient problem, something that we have solved.

We are desperate to put distance between ourselves and the Cross. In American public Christianity, it is common to rattle off the bumper-sticker saying, “Jesus died for my sins.” Of course, that’s true, but this short sentence is also a caricature of our salvation history. The Cross is not something that is done, merely a past event that we can look back on with the easy distance of twenty centuries.

The fact is, as uncomfortable as foot-washing might have been last night, Good Friday eludes our embrace precisely because the intimacy that the Cross demands is greater than our ability to comprehend.

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Maundy Thursday: Gird yourselves and look for Jesus

This year, I am the guest preacher for the Triduum at Church of the Ascension in Chicago. Because people sometimes ask for sermon texts, I thought I’d post them here. Enjoy, or not. And, by all means, if you are in Chicago, stop by the Ascension for some excellent liturgy, warm people, and generous clouds of incense (among many other good things).

Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

For those of who you might be experiencing this strange and wonderful celebration of Maundy Thursday for the first time this evening, we are about to embark on a pilgrimage. Tonight, and over the next two nights, we will enact dramatic events from the first Holy Week: the final meal of Jesus with his friends in the Upper Room, the first Eucharist, Jesus demonstrating his love for his disciples by washing their feet, the loneliness and betrayal of Gethsemane, the Passion, the Cross, the uncertain waiting, and finally the Empty Tomb and the Risen Christ.

Sketch for "Jesus Washing Peter's Feet" circa 1851 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 via Tate Now perhaps some of you are a bit miffed at the preacher for reading out our plan for these Three Holy Days, not so much because I’ve given spoilers but because we all ought to know this. Why state the obvious? But I think these annual rituals have a danger, and that danger is familiarity. We have repeated them so many times, perhaps we are tempted to enter a kind of ritual lull, when the shocking power of what we are doing is lost on us.

I invite you, if you are familiar with what happens in Holy Week, to have a conversation with someone for whom this is all unknown. Perhaps there will be guests or new Christians or people new to Catholic worship here, experiencing all this for their first time. Ask them what it is like. See what we do through their eyes.

And if you are here tonight wondering what you’ve just signed up for, be not afraid. You are about to savor the most powerful and transformative liturgies in the Christian tradition. On our wild journey through friendship, love, betrayal, sorrow, death, grief, and finally unfettered joy, we will see how deep and how wide God’s love is for our world and for us.

But let us talk about tonight.

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Discipleship and celebration — An interview in The Living Church

TLC interviewNot long ago, I did an interview with Richard J. Mammana, Jr. of The Living Church. They’ve now published the interview. Here’s a sample:

We water down the demands of the faith, hoping it will be more attractive to seekers, but forgetting that it is precisely the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus that compels disciples. We give up too easily on challenging relationships, whether in our personal lives or in the Anglican Communion, because we forget that we have the Advocate to help us reconcile. We settle for mediocre liturgy, preaching, and teaching, because we begin to substitute the perceived friendliness of community for the transforming presence of God among us. We think that our task is to renew the Church, when our call is to renew the world. Of course, I think the Church does need renewal, but that is the means and not the end.

Go read the whole thing, if you like. We talked about Forward Movement, the Anglican Communion, and discipleship, among other things.

By the way, I encourage you to subscribe to The Living Church. After a rough patch, in which I let my subscription lapse, I’ve become a subscriber again. It’s gotten really good the last few years under the leadership of Christopher Wells. Lots of thoughtful articles, book reviews, interviews, and news of the church.

BREAKING NEWS: Archnemesis given up for Lent

Breaking news alertThis just in… As many of my regular readers know, I have a tense relationship with Tim Schenck, my archnemesis, with whom I am forced to work on Lent Madness. Each year for the last few years, we had managed to negotiate a settlement for the forty days and nights of Lent (and not a minute more). This year has been tough.

If you aren’t familiar with the history, the “Cuban missile crisis” of our relationship was the Great Jelly Bean War of Oh-Ten. Our blogs nearly came to blows in what has become known as the poetry slam to end all poetry slams. You can follow the saga here, here, here, here, and here. For years, we met for coffee every week in a vain attempt to reach a comprehensive settlement, but it has proven elusive.

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Of gimmicks and Gospel

Too often, we decide that some gimmickry will make the church interesting. Whether it’s music styles, feel-good therapeutic preaching, or some other way of expressing “relevance” we think that these things will make us as interesting as all that glitters. While I do think the church needs to change to meet the needs of a changing world, we have to be careful that we are presenting ourselves in an authentic way. Gimmickry for its own sake is a mockery of the Gospel and makes the church less interesting, not more. The only compelling thing about the church is the Gospel. Let me say that again. The only compelling thing about the church is the Gospel.

This tension is not new.

As unbelievable as it sounds, I still hear people say, “We need new music to reach ‘the young people.’” Balderdash. Many if not most “young people” these days actually want transcendent worship with ancient music. Now, I have nothing against new music on its own terms. A guitar mass isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it works for lots of people. So if a guitar mass is an authentic expression of your community, it will be terrific. If Solemn Mass with all the trimmings are authentic for you, by all means do it. But trying to slap a coat of look-at-how-cool-we-are onto your authentic self won’t do.

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Governance, administration, and change. Oh, my!

In 2012, nearly all Episcogeekery talk was about church restructuring. General Convention that year famously passed a resolution to create the Task-force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church in a rare unanimous vote. (Seriously, there’s always a cranky person voting no; I have been that person.)

change aheadWe are finally seeing some fruits of TREC. They recently released a study paper on networking, and that one was panned by most of my friends and by several bloggers. Had I made the time to blog, I’d have given it low marks too. Yesterday, they released a study paper on church governance and administration. This one will fare better, I think. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

Before I share a few thoughts, I’d like to correct one thing. My local Ohio nemesis, the Crusty Old Dean will doubtless mention several times in his forthcoming blog post on the topic that he started writing about this stuff in 2011. Yeah, whatever, Crusty. 7WD was all over this governance stuff in April 2010. For my trouble, I received some unbelievably nasty emails from various well-known folks in the Episcopal world. Their basic angle: if I didn’t like General Convention, I should stay away. And the classic: my new-fangled ideas are impossible, and I’d know that if only I were a six-time Deputy. In other words, the (mostly boomer) crowd said, “Get off my lawn, Xer!”

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Holy Women, Holy Men, Holy Cow

Holy CowThe Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church has asked for feedback on their thinking about revision to our sanctoral calendar. I’d encourage you to have a look at the comments section on the latter link, where there are extensive comments, good conversation, and some thoughtful response from SCLM members. In the past, I’ve blogged about HWHM a couple of times (here and here). Other bloggers have written about this as well. Mostly, I hope the SCLM and other leaders in our church will give this much thought and prayer before the next General Convention.

Before I share a few thoughts, I’d like to thank the SCLM for a thankless job. They have a great deal of work to do on minimal funding. For their trouble, they get snarky comments from the likes of me. While I don’t always agree with their recommendations and resolutions, I remain grateful for their commitment to our liturgical life. That said, I do want to offer some feedback as they have requested, acknowledging that I’m a liturgical dilettante at best.

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By what authority?

A friend of mine recently shared a meditation she wrote for a clergy conference. She has graciously allowed me to post it here on 7WD, though she prefers to be anonymous. I think she has raised some very important issues in the life of the church and its clergy — and for me, personally — that too often go unexamined. What would our church and our world look like if God’s people exercised well the authority God has given them? See also my previous post, “Of Christ’s body, the church: how to get healthy.”

authorized“By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mark 11:28)

I am used to having my authority questioned; I’m the mother of a nearly five year old. “You’re not the boss of me!” is her most common way of questioning my authority. Paired with pushing every boundary I set, questioning every decision I make, and saying “black” any and every time I say “white.” My life is currently a daily exercise in answering the question: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”

Those questions are of deep import for me, not only as a parent, but also as a priest in God’s Church. We’ve seen the crisis over Church authority in the headlines, of course, as clergy of all stripes have abused the authority entrusted to them, using it to coerce and injure through sexual abuse, financial misconduct, or manipulative preaching and teaching. Those kinds of abuses of authority are deep and damaging, as clergy too often confuse God’s authority with their own.

Yet there is another, equally pernicious, authority problem in our Church today: one of relinquished authority or abandoned authority. As clergy we have all too often, not abused our authority, but abrogated it.
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New commandments: Thou shalt Tweet…

twitter commandmentsCourtesy of the BBC, I ran across a new social media policy from the Church of England’s Diocese of Bath and Wells. In the article, the diocesan spokesperson demonstrates that they have earned their way onto the clue train:

A spokesman for Bath and Wells diocese told the BBC that publishing the resource was what “any good organisation” would do. “The Church of England is in every community in the UK, so it seems right that we should be in online communities too,” he said. “We’re not the first diocese to provide guidelines, but our clergy increasingly use social media. A vicar might engage in conversation online in the same way that they do in the street, post office or pub.” (emphasis added)

Couldn’t have said it better. The church needs to be communicating in this space, because it’s where people are communicating.

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The Church could learn a thing or two from athletes

Church and FootballAs longtime readers of 7WD will know, this blog has had precisely nothing to say about professional sports. You might think I’d be a big baseball fan, since we can see inside the Cincinnati Reds stadium from our apartment. But no. It’s not that I object to sports, but they aren’t usually my cup of tea.

All that changed last night. As Richard Sherman was giving his infamous pithy interview after the Seahawks beat the 49ers, it occurred to me that church leaders might learn a thing or two from athletes. If you don’t know about the interview, go read a certain unnamed blog by my archnemesis, which has (in all seriousness) covered some of the complexities of the interview and our reactions to it, not neglecting the humor potential, of course. Tim has time to write stuff like this, because his team was eliminated from the postseason by another football team…from Cincinnati, I might add.

In any case, it’s time that those of us in the church drew upon the collective brainpower of people who are packing in the crowds every weekend, whilst many churches stand empty. Here’s where we could gain some advantage from athletes. They are veritable fountains of wisdom and clarity, and it’s high time we adapted some of their talking points for our use. As Yogi Berra reminded us, the intellectual side of the game really matters. I paraphrase slightly: “Church is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”

Here is a smorgasbord of opportunities to apply well-honed aphorisms to real world situations.

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Epiphany Proclamation 2014

One of the things I miss from parish ministry is the reading of the Epiphany Proclamation each year. So, dear reader, I hope you find this edifying and even enjoyable.

dropcap dear friends in Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return. Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising celebrated between the evening of the seventeenth day of April and the evening of the nineteenth day of April.

Each Easter – as on each Sunday – the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the fifth day of March. The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the twenty-ninth day of May. Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the eighth day of June. And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be on the thirtieth day of November.

Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.

To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. Amen.

When shall we celebrate the Epiphany?

January 6The Feast of the Epiphany is January 6, right? Not so fast, it seems. On the House of Bishops / House of Deputies email list, someone asked when others were celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. Of the replies I saw, I believe all said they were celebrating the Epiphany on Sunday, January 5. This is an interesting glimpse into our attitudes about the discipline of the church and our expectations of church members.

The Book of Common Prayer is unequivocal. The Feast of the Epiphany must be celebrated on January 6, unless your congregation celebrates the Epiphany as its Feast of Title (i.e. your church is named “Church of the Epiphany” or something similar). There is no provision for celebrating this Principal Feast on a Sunday, unless you it is deemed “urgent and sufficient” and one has obtained “express permission of the bishop,” but that seems unlikely. If you’re curious about the calendar of the church and the rules for following it, they are all laid out on pages 15-18 of the prayer book.

So what’s going on here? Some clergy leaders have decided that the laity cannot or will not celebrate this feast day at the appointed time. They have therefore, in contravention of the rubrics of the prayer book, moved this celebration to a Sunday, thereby violating the canons of the church and their ordination vows. As an aside, under the current Title IV rules for clergy discipline, any cleric who is aware that someone has done this is canonically required to report this to the appropriate persons forthwith.

What’s the big deal? Has the curmudgeonly prayer book fundamentalist struck again? Perhaps. Or maybe this is more than legalistic abstraction. I’d like to suggest four reasons why moving this celebration from its appointed time to a convenient Sunday is an unfortunate choice.

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