Let your light shine

Friday in the third week of Advent
Isaiah 56:1-8; Psalm 67; John 5:33-36

John 5:33-35
You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.

candlesFrom St. Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John (Tractate XXIII)
And lest thou shouldst say, How was he not the light, of whom Christ says that “he was a lamp”? — I answer, in comparison of the other light, he was not light. For “that was the true light that enlighteneth every man coming into this world.” Accordingly, when he said also to the disciples, “Ye are the light of the world,” lest they should imagine that anything was attributed to them which was to be understood of Christ alone, and thus the lamps should be extinguished by the wind of pride, when he had said, “Ye are the light of the world,” he immediately subjoined, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid; neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but an a candlestick, that it may shine on all that are in the house.” But what if he did not call the apostles the candle, but the lighters of the candle, which they were to put on a candlestick? Hear that he called themselves the candle. “So let your light shine,” saith he, “before men, that they, seeing your good works, may glorify,” not you, but “your Father who is in heaven.”

We Episcopalians don’t say much about our faith. This is true not just when it comes to strangers, but within congregations. By and large, we simply don’t share our spiritual journeys with one another in conversation. That’s too bad. Our refusal to share the light of Christ means that darkness persists where the gloom could be dissolved by God’s radiant love.

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Satiate yourselves with the sacred words

Thursday in the third week of Advent
Isaiah 54:1-10; Psalm 30; Luke 7:24-30

Luke 7:24-26
When the messengers of John had gone, he began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

deacon and gospelFrom Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke (Sermon XXXVIII)
Ye who thirst for the knowledge of the divine doctrines, open once again the treasure-house of your minds: satiate yourselves with the sacred words: or rather, give way to no feeling of satiety herein: for gluttony in things that tend to edification is a quality worth the gaining. Let us approach, then, the Savior’s words, not carelessly, and without due preparation, but with that attentiveness and vigilance which befits those who would learn. For so alone can those subjects for contemplation, which are difficult of comprehension, be rightly understood. Let us, therefore, ask of Christ that light, which he sends down upon the mind and heart, that thus being enabled correctly to understand the force of what is said.

The excerpt from Cyril of Alexandria is really just the opening to his sermon, before he gets to the bits about John and Jesus. But I think Cyril gives us an important reminder: the scriptures demand more than a casual reading. We do well to prepare ourselves to hear and to engage the Word.

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Step away from the disintegration booth!

As Episcopal church geeks will have noted, the report from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church has released its report for General Convention. Go read the whole thing. If you don’t want to make the time to read all 73 pages, Nurya Love Parish has published a summary. The usual suspects in Blogospheria Anglicana have been busy. Crusty Old Dean has no use for the report. The Black Giraffe says there’s some good stuff. There are other reactions, and you can look for a round-up on the Acts 8 Moment site in the next day or so.

At the moment, I don’t want to say too much about the substance of the report. I’d rather talk about our reaction to it and where we go from here. But first, I’d like to go on a Crusty-sized digression.

There’s a episode on Star Trek (the real one, not one of the poser sequels) in which the Enterprise crew find themselves on a planet engaged in a long war. Entitled “A Taste of Armageddon,” the episode tells a compelling story about war and captivity to imagined reality. It turns out that two planets have been at war so long they don’t know any other way of life. Because actual war is messy (and might do enough damage to cause war-making to become impossible), they’ve decided to turn over the computation of casualties to computers. A bank of computers is constantly declaring where imaginary bombs have landed, and then the people in that area have to enter disintegration booths to be euthanized. So people die, but precious infrastructure is preserved.

disintegration boothThe Captain and his mates are rightly shocked by the site of people calmly queueing to end their own lives in disintegration booths. But the people on the planet can’t imagine any other way. In the end of the episode, the Enterprise crew destroy the war-game simulation computers. Now, if the people want war, they’ll have to deal with the costs of real bombs and the site of real blood. We viewers don’t know what happened, but it seems likely the people will choose the hard work of peace now that the painful but familiar endless war as they’ve known it must come to an end.

You’re wondering what any of this has to do with TEC or TREC, right? It’s a reasonable question.

While we haven’t installed disintegration booths at General Convention (yet), we are living in a painful reality in which no one seems to be able to imagine an alternative. Not just at General Convention, but across the church, we blithely do the same things over and over again, even while the vast majority of our congregations wither. It’s costly, but how else could we possibly do things? The pain of the present is tolerable, because it’s familiar.

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Partakers of his divine nature

Wednesday in the third week of Advent
Isaiah 45:5-8(9-17)18-25; Psalm 85:8-13; Luke 7:19-23

Luke 7:22-23
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

mosaic at san clemente romaFrom Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke (Sermon XXXVII)
…And in what way we are benefitted by attaining to faith in him, every one knows: nothing however forbids our enumerating a few particulars. For first indeed we obtain the light of the true knowledge of God: and next, when by the aid of holy baptism we have washed away the stains of sin, being purified that we may serve him purely, we are also made partakers of his divine nature, and gain him to dwell within us by having the communion of the Holy Ghost. And we are made also [children] of God, and win for ourselves [kinship] with him who by nature and verily is the Son. Moreover, in addition to those things, we are exalted to the inheritance of the saints, and dwell in bliss in the enjoyment of those blessings which are bestowed on those who love him…

As I visit congregations across the Episcopal Church, I love asking people questions. One of my favorite questions goes along these lines: “Why would someone new come to this church?” The answer says a lot about the vitality of the congregation and its likely future. Too often people say, “We are a family, and it’s such a warm place.” In reality, these are often the least welcoming, least friendly places. Often, this answer declares, “We are a club, and the members are very happy here.”

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O magnify the Lord with me

Tuesday in the third week of Advent
Zephaniah 3:1-2,9-13; Psalm 34:1-8; Matthew 21:28-32

Psalm 34:3 (RSV)
O magnify the Lord with me,
  and let us exalt his name together!

choir stallsFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm XXXIV)
Stir up then love in yourselves, brethren; and call to every one of yours, and say, “O magnify the Lord with me.” Let there be in you that fervour. Wherefore are these things recited and explained? If ye love God, bring quickly to the love of God all who are joined unto you, and all who are in your house; if the Body of Christ is loved by you, that is, if the unity of the Church, bring them quickly to enjoy, and say, “O magnify the Lord with me.”

These are timely words for Episcopalians, we we draw near to our triennial General Convention this summer. Just now, the first of many legislative reports has been released. Already, people are hurling attacks and choosing sides. It would be well for us to treat one another within the church with love. Surely those with whom we disagree also love Jesus Christ and desire the health of the church?

To be sure, I might feel that others are wrong — on these issues or on any number of other issues. But I try (not always with success) to keep two things in mind. First, it is possible that I am the one in error. Second, even as a critique the positions of others, I need not attack other people, nor need I ascribe malice to their motives.

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He hath first bestowed mercy

Monday in the third week of Advent
Numbers 24:2-7,15-17a; Psalm 25:3-8; Matthew 21:23-27

Psalm 25:7
Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
  therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

Bapistry in Duomo FlorenceFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm XXV)
The Lord is gracious, since even sinners and the ungodly he so pitied, as to forgive all that is past; but the Lord is upright too, who after the mercy of vocation and pardon, which is of grace without merit, will require merits meet for the last judgment. “Wherefore he will establish a law for them that fail in the way.” For he hath first bestowed mercy to bring them into the way.

We Protestants may squirm a bit at the way St. Augustine suggests that we will need to produce merit fitting for Judgement Day, after having received God’s grace. Incredibly faithful, intelligent people have been battling this out for millennia: does our salvation come through grace or works? We’ve mostly come down on the side of grace, and I think that rings true with the scriptures. I’m grateful for this reading.

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Stir up thy power, O Lord!

The second of my meditations on collects for an Advent quiet day offered at St. Stephen’s, Providence. The first meditation is here.

Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

stir up collectA couple of weeks ago, I was on vacation in Lisbon. Wherever I go in the world, I always enjoy visiting churches, and so I made it a point to visit the grand cathedral in Lisbon. You can pay a few Euros and visit the Treasury, and so I did that. There were lovely late medieval vestments and all manner of shiny liturgical items. It was glorious.

As I was staring into one of the display cases, I noticed an ancient illuminated missal. My Latin isn’t particularly good, but I can usually recognize and sometimes even read ecclesiastical texts. I noticed one of the books was open to the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. With large illumination, the collect began EXCITA. Even with my inadequate Latin, I could gather that was “Stir up”! Excita! I was a bit captivated by that Latin word. I kept thinking about it. Excite! Stir Up!

When I got back to the hotel, I did some Googling, because I was curious about a collect for the first Sunday of Advent that began “Stir up!” It turns out, as some of you may know, that four of the five collects at the end of the liturgical year once began Excita! in much of the Western church. Apparently, the framers of medieval liturgical books thought the people needed some end-of-year, end-of-time stirring up. Our collect for the third Sunday of Advent finds its origin among the earliest medieval liturgical sources, one of those ancient end-of-the-year “stir up” collects.

I haven’t really stopped thinking about “Stir up!” in the last couple of weeks. For some reason, I can’t quite let it go. I am captivated by the idea of God stirring us up, of being stirred up by God’s power. It really suggests we won’t be left the same, that things will get mixed up in us and in the world through God’s power. I think of the swirling nothingness at the beginning, out of which God brought all Creation into being, and how God’s creativity continues in the world. Stir up thy power!

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Cast away the works of darkness

This is the first of three meditations on collects I offered today for an Advent quiet day at St. Stephen’s, Providence, RI. The second meditation is online now and the third will show up close to Advent IV. It was a delight to share time with folks there and to enjoy their gracious hospitality.

darkness and lightThe Collect for the First Sunday of Advent
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This is sometimes known as the Advent collect, and until our current prayer book, it was to be used every day of Advent. Some of us may use it devotionally each day or even in corporate worship through the season. This is fitting. In so many ways, this collect perfectly captures Advent — both our recollection of the First Advent of Christ in humility and our hope for the Second Advent of Christ in glory.

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Meditate on his law

Friday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 48:17-19; Psalm 1; Matthew 11:16-19

Psalm 1:1-2
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
  nor lingered in the way of sinners,
  nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
  and they meditate on his law day and night.

Santa Miniato al MonteFrom Tertullian’s Against Marcion (Chapter XIX)
“In that law would he meditate day and night.” It was not in severity that its author promulgated this law, but in the interest of the highest benevolence, which rather aimed at subduing the nation’s hardness of heart, and by laborious services hewing out a fealty which was (as yet) untried in obedience: for I purposely abstain from touching on the mysterious senses of the law, considered in its spiritual and prophetic relation, and as abounding in types of almost every variety and sort. It is enough at present, that it simply bound a man to God, so that no one ought to find fault with it, except him who does not choose to serve God.

We Americans love to talk about our rights, but we’re not so good at owning up to our responsibilities. It’s not very different in our faith. How easy it is to talk about what we receive, but how rarely to talk about our obligations. We’re especially good at an antinomian, no-law-all-grace faith. In this faith, we talk about how much God loves us, but we almost never talk about what God expects of us. We talk about how Jesus reached out to the margins, but we don’t talk about how Jesus challenged every person he met to repent, to be transformed (“Go and sin no more!” or “Stand up, take your mat and walk!”).

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Greatness without end

Thursday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 41:13-20; Psalm 145:1-4,8-13; Matthew 11:7-15

Psalm 145:3
Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
  there is no end to his greatness.

Prayer in JerusalemFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm CXLV)
“Great is the Lord, and very much to be praised” (verse 3). How much was he about to say? What terms was he about to seek? How vast a conception hath he included in the one word, “very much”? Imagine what thou wilt, for how can that be imagined, which cannot be contained? “He is very much to be praised. And of his greatness there is no end;” therefore said he “very much:” lest perchance thou begin to wish to praise, and think that thou canst reach the end of his praises, whose greatness can have no end. Think not then that he, whose greatness has no end, can ever be enough praised by thee. Is it not then better that as he has no end, so neither should thy praise have end? His greatness is without end; let thy praise also be without end.

This will be a short one. My sense is that in our church today, we too often focus on what’s in it for us. Why is church good for us? What will it make us do for the world? What are the effects of liturgy on us and on our world? But St. Augustine helpfully spins it all around. It’s not about us at all. It’s all about God.

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My burden is light

Wednesday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 40:25-31; Psalm 103:1-10; Matthew 11:28-30

St John the Divine NaveMatthew 11:28-30
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

From St. Ambrose, Concerning Repentance (Book I)
So, then, the Lord Jesus refreshes, and does not shut out nor cast off, and fitly chose such disciples as should be interpreters of the Lord’s will, as should gather together and not drive away the people of God. Whence it is clear that they are not to be counted among the disciples of Christ, who think that harsh and proud opinions should be followed rather than such as are gentle and meek; persons who, while they themselves seek God’s mercy, deny it to others…

You’d think it would be pretty simple for us Christians. Like Jesus, we should reach out to all people. Like Jesus, we should offer the refreshment of the Good News of God’s redeeming love. But it turns out we’re not so good at this. We exclude all manner of people, sometimes overtly and sometimes in subtle ways. Liberals love to shun conservatives. Conservatives love to shun liberals. Not to mention our miserable failure as Episcopalians to create church communities that look as racially and economically diverse as our society. If we were offering the easy yoke of Christ’s love to all, our churches would look like our communities.

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Take heed lest thou live ill, and chant well

Tuesday in the second week of Advent
Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 50:7-15; Matthew 18:12-14

Psalm 50:14
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
  and make good your vows to the Most High.

Censing the tomb of ChristFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm 50)
For now some one or other, because God had said to him, “Immolate to God the sacrifice of praise,” and had enjoined in a manner this tribute, did meditate to himself and said, I will rise daily, I will proceed to Church, I will say one hymn at matins, another at vespers, a third or fourth in my house, daily I do sacrifice the sacrifice of praise, and immolate to my God. Well thou doest indeed, if thou doest this: but take heed, lest now thou be careless, because now thou doest this: and perchance thy tongue bless God, and thy life curse God. O my people, saith to thee the God of gods, the Lord that spake, “calling the earth from the rising of the sun unto the setting,” though yet thou art placed amid the tares, “Immolate the sacrifice of praise to thy God, and render to Him thy prayers:” but take heed lest thou live ill, and chant well.

Augustine warns of a great danger in the Christian faith–that we do a splendid job of worshiping Jesus in church and lousy job of being his followers in the world. It’s an occupational risk, and it’s a challenge the church has faced from its inception. Jesus had plenty to say in his time about religious people whose lives did not show forth what they professed with their lips.

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