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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The voice of Christ is peace

Monday in the second week of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 85:8-13; Luke 5:17-26

Psalm 85:8-9
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
  for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
  and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
  that his glory may dwell in our land.

Chi Rho mosaicFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm 85)
The voice of Christ, then, the voice of God, is peace: it calleth unto peace. Ho! it saith, whosoever are not yet in peace, love ye peace: for what can ye find better from me than peace? What is peace? Where there is no war. What is this, where there is no war? Where there is no contradiction, where there is no resistance, nothing to oppose. Consider if we are yet there: consider if there is not now a conflict with the devil, if all the saints and faithful ones wrestle not with the prince of demons. And how do they wrestle with him whom they see not? They wrestle with their own desires, by which he suggests unto them sins: and by not consenting to what he suggests, though they are not conquered, yet they fight. Therefore there is not yet peace where there is fighting. …

What peace then is that which men have here, opposed by so many troubles, desires, wants, wearinesses? This is no true, no perfect peace. What will be perfect peace? “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53). Persevere in eating much; this itself will kill thee: persevere in fasting much, by this thou wilt die: sit continually, being resolved not to rise up, by this thou wilt die: be always walking so as never to take rest, by this thou wilt die; watch continually, taking no sleep, by this thou wilt die; sleep continually, never watching, thus too thou wilt die. When therefore death shall be swallowed up in victory, these things shall no longer be: there will be full and eternal peace. …

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Be not afraid

Friday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 29:17-24; Psalm 27:1-6,17-18; Matthew 9:27-31

light in church of the holy sepulchrePsalm 27:1
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
  the LORD is the strength of my life;
  of whom then shall I be afraid?

From Explanation of the Psalms by Cassiodorus:
“Whom shall I fear?” means “I shall fear no one”; fear of the Lord had ensured that he could fear no other.

“Be not afraid.” Jesus said that about as often as anything. With the Lord as our light and salvation, what, indeed, do we have to fear? God has our back! Particularly as Christians, we know that God’s power is stronger even than death itself. If the worst that could happen is we die — and we don’t have to be afraid of that — then what is there to fear?

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A house built on the rock…of doctrine

Thursday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:19-24; Matthew 7:21-27

House on a RockMatthew 7:24-27
Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

From John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew (Homily XXIV)
“For the rain descended,” saith Christ, “the floods came, the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon the rock.”

By “rain” here, and “floods,” and “winds,” he is expressing metaphorically the calamities and afflictions that befall men; such as false accusations, plots, bereavements, deaths, loss of friends, vexations from strangers, all the ills in our life that any one could mention. “But to none of these,” saith he, “doth such a soul give way; and the cause is, it is founded on the rock.” He calls the stedfastness of his doctrine a rock; because in truth his commands are stronger than any rock, setting one above all the waves of human affairs. For he who keeps these things strictly, will not have the advantage of men only when they are vexing him, but even of the very devils plotting against him. And that it is not vain boasting so to speak, Job is our witness, who received all the assaults of the devil, and stood unmoveable; and the apostles too are our witnesses, for that when the waves of the whole world were beating against them, when both nations and princes, both their own people and strangers, both the evil spirits, and the devil, and every engine was set in motion, they stood firmer than a rock, and dispersed it all.

And now, what can be happier than this kind of life? For this, not wealth, not strength of body, not glory, not power, nor ought else will be able to secure, but only the possession of virtue. For there is not, nay there is not another life we may find free from all evils, but this alone.

This parable invites any number of useful readings. Today I am captivated by John Chrysostom’s reading — that the rock of which Jesus speaks is doctrine. It’s not a usual reading of this parable in today’s church.

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Cast them at the feet of Jesus

Wednesday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Matthew 15:29-39

Mountains by the Sea of GalileeMatthew 15:29-31
After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

From Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Book XI)
Let us then cause to go up along with ourselves to the mountain where Jesus sits — his church — those who wish to go up to it along with us, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the maimed and many others, and let us cast them at the feet of Jesus that he may heal them, so that the multitudes are astonished at their healing; for it is not the disciples who are described as wondering at such things, although at that time they were present with Jesus, as is manifest from the words, “And Jesus called unto him his disciples and said, ‘I have compassion on the multitudes.'”

Origen reads this story with an allegorical flair. This story isn’t just about a mountain, for that mountain represents for us the church. We disciples are encouraged to bring along with us great crowds, especially people who are in need of healing. In the church, Origen says, crowds of people will be healed by Jesus Christ and thus these same crowds will be astonished. It isn’t us, the disciples, who need to be astonished. It is the crowds for whom these deeds are done.

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It’s time to grow

Tuesday in the first week of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-8; Luke 10:21-24

Luke 10:21-24
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

Jesus mosaicFrom the Paedagogus (Book I) of Clement of Alexandria
In the same way, therefore, we also, repenting of our sins, renouncing our iniquities, purified by baptism, speed back to the eternal light, children to the Father. Jesus therefore, rejoicing in the spirit, said, “I thank you, O Father, God of heaven and earth, that you have hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to babes;” the Master and Teacher applying the name babes to us, who are readier to embrace salvation than the wise in the world, who, thinking themselves wise, are inflated with pride. And he exclaims in exultation and exceeding joy, as if lisping with the children, “Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in your sight.” Wherefore those things which have been concealed from the wise and prudent of this present world have been revealed to babes.

The Gospel is not complicated. It does not require sophistication to understand, and the most worldly, sophisticated people in the world may struggle the most when it comes to the Good News of God in Christ. This is the message Jesus teaches. But we should not become prideful about this, about our place as Jesus’ followers, not least because it would be profoundly ironic.

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Holy love raiseth us to heavenly things

I am going to try to offer a brief post each weekday of Advent. We’ll see how it goes, so please bear with me. My hope is to post a brief bit of scripture from the daily Eucharistic lectionary of Advent, a patristic text related to that text, and then a few thoughts of my own. My hope is to encourage myself and others to explore the riches of scripture and our ancient tradition.

Monday in the First Week of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Matthew 8:5-13

Psalm 122:1-2
I was glad when they said to me, *
  “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
Now our feet are standing *
  within your gates, O Jerusalem.

HolySepulchreFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms:
As impure love inflames the mind, and summons the soul destined to perish to lust for earthly things, and to follow what is perishable, and precipitates it into lowest places, and sinks it into the abyss; so holy love raiseth us to heavenly things, and inflames us to what is eternal, and excites the soul to those things which do not pass away nor die, and from the abyss of hell raiseth it to heaven. Yet all love hath a power of its own, nor can love in the soul of the lover be idle; it must needs draw it on. But dost thou wish to know of what sort love is? See whither it leadeth…

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Restore us, O God of hosts

Another Advent has come upon us. In several previous years, I’ve written a post for the beginning of Advent, trying to schedule it for the vigil of Advent Sunday. This year, I’m a bit late to the party, due to some travel yesterday and a drained car battery today (all is well now).

So, if you’ll ignore the irony of a late post on the Sunday we heard a Gospel reading about the necessity of wakeful preparation, I’d like to share a couple of thoughts about Advent and then share a few resources for the journey this year.

Advent is my favorite liturgical season, I think. I could come up with lots of reasons for that, but I think it really boils down to the music. Last year I shared some favorite albums, and they’re still my favorites. I’ve also written about the liturgical color of the season and how we need Advent in our time. This year I’d like to touch on a simple theme: we “nice-ify” Advent at our own peril.

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Engagement with scripture, engagement with Jesus

Converge Magazine has recently published a bleak article about the decline in biblical engagement among Canadians. There is every reason, sadly, to think that the findings would be mirrored in the US and in many other nations. The article summarizes and comments on a published study from the Canadian Bible Forum, “Are Canadians Done with the Bible?

The trend is alarming. Both lay and clergy leaders should be concerned about this and coming up with strategies to reverse the trend. Sadly, instead of crisis, a comfortable complacency pervades many leadership circles of the Episcopal Church. “Why focus on the Bible?” they say. “That’s for other people.” This attitude says much about why our denomination is experiencing precipitous decline. As the article says, “Bible engagement is the primary catalyst for spiritual health and growth. This is why he says this study is so alarming; death of Bible engagement spells out death for any vibrant church life.”

The importance of scriptural engagement isn’t just for others. RenewalWorks, a ministry of Forward Movement, has collected mountains of data on the spiritual health of the Episcopal Church. There are enough data that we can see some patterns in what activities serve as catalysts for spiritual growth, and scriptural engagement is among the most important. Incidentally, you can see some of the preliminary research in a new Forward Movement title, Footsteps: Making spiritual growth the priority. Within our own church, engagement with scripture is one of the most reliable ways to nurture spiritual growth. It’s really pretty simple: if we could get more Episcopalians reading and reflecting on the Bible, their lives would be enriched and our church would be healthier.

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Of stress and leadership

Yesterday, I preached a Michaelmas sermon in which I talked about spiritual warfare in our world. If you doubt the existence of spiritual warfare, look at a newspaper. Or consider what’s happening in our church.

stress ballMy social media feed has been taken up by an unfolding crisis at The General Theological Seminary over the last few days. Not long before that, it was Episcopal Divinity School. On a regular basis, I hear about about crises in congregations. And then every three years in the lead-up to General Convention, you can count on a crisis in one form or another.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

When we are under stress, we are never our best. That’s part of the human condition. Our church has been stressful for many, and that’s only going to increase. Lots of congregations are facing increasing pressure as attendance plummets and (often deferred) maintenance needs rise. Our seminaries are mostly not a picture of health. Dioceses are trying to figure out what to do as assessments look to get smaller. And then there’s the churchwide level, which is a whole new level of impending doom.

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