Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon: John 1.1-18

The Rev. Joseph P. Mathews
30 December 2012
Christmas 1, C
John 1.1-18
St. Luke's Episcopal Church, San Francisco

In the name of God: Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.

On the third Sunday of Advent this year the Advent wreath made much more sense to me than it ever has before. Not only was I keeping Advent candles lighted at church, but my fiancé and I replaced the plant on our dining room table with an Advent wreath. I insisted that if we were putting up a Christmas tree on the Second Sunday of Advent I was making an Advent wreath.

As we ate dinner each night I grew accustomed to the amount of light the two candles produced. On the Third Sunday of Advent, when we lit another candle, our table seemed much brighter. A ha! We were using light to wait for the light that came into the world, the light that the darkness did not overcome. This light grew weekly and before our eyes cast away the darkness around our table.

This prologue to John sets up the entire narrative of Jesus in John’s gospel. We have heard three prologues to Gospels today, though in different forms. Matthew, Luke, and John all give us background on Jesus before he begins his public ministry and teaching. John, however, goes farther back. While Matthew and Luke deal with Jesus’ birth, John tells us that the Word exists in the beginning.

Like the passages we heard leading up to this selection from John, this passage is a history of salvation — starting at the very beginning. “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word was present at the time of Creation and there when life came into being. The Word was there when humanity sought life not in God, but in the fruit of the earth. This falling into a darkness away from God was not the end, though. The Light of Christ shone on and gave a ray of hope for humanity. As our Isaiah passage says, those who had walked in darkness have now seen a great light.

Throughout time God was with us speaking through Prophets and giving guidance in the Law. Bur rather than merely speak from on high, through one or two people here and there over time, God gave up some of Godself and chose to live among us. The word became flesh and lived among us. He is called Emmanuel — God with us.

This passage from John’s Gospel is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Both Chrysostom and Augustine say that this passage from John’s Gospel is actually beyond human thought. But so what? What does it mean that Jesus took on flesh and lived with us? How often do we think about what that practically means?

Sure, in Eastertide preachers might point out that Jesus — post-resurrection — holds his fish fry and says he’s hungry. I think that is entirely too tame. One Friday night in seminary, in the wee hours of morning as I made my way back to my campus very thankful for New York’s grid system I had an epiphany: Jesus, at some point, probably had to have had too much wine.

His first public miracle, also in John’s Gospel, certainly tells us that he was an amazing host. How many of you are familiar with the wedding at Cana? The wedding runs out of wine and Jesus’s mother asks him for more. He says it’s not his time yet and she does a motherly snap of the fingers and he turns water into wine. There’s more wine. What our usual tellings of this story don’t capture is how much more wine. 818 standard bottles is how much water Jesus would’ve turned into wine. 818. Think about that tomorrow night if you’re out celebrating.

This, peoples of God, is the Good News. Not necessarily that Jesus had too much wine, but that Jesus the God-man came to be with us and live like us. From a humble birth in a manger to losing his parents at one of the biggest entertainment events of the year, to dying a real death, Jesus came to be with us. He doesn’t come just to hang out, though. He comes to give power to become children of God to those who receive him and believe in him.

In a few minutes we’ll all stand up and say the Apostle’s Creed. This is the creed that is affirmed at baptism, and its placement in the Daily Office is to remind us of our baptismal promises about these beliefs. The words of the Apostle’s creed are in the first person. I believe this, that, or the other. In the Nicene Creed we profess what we believe.

This believing, though, isn’t just checking of the list that the creeds so easily make available to us. Run down the row, with their sight lines so we can all say it together, “Yep, I’ll take that one too.” This believing is far more than intellectual assent, but personal embrace. Rather than acknowledinging in your head that you accept something, believing in Jesus — to become a child of God — means doing something with that belief.

To find the things we do, we need only look at Jesus — and need only look at our passage from John. The Word became flesh and lived among us. In what ways to do we live as flesh with those not like us? One way that St. Luke’s is living among others is having John Philip Newell come to speak next month — and advertising the event on Facebook! Your parish YouTube video is a great way of engaging with those who aren’t here yet, including today’s preacher. This engagement with contemporary communications methods may be new to you, but it may not be. Perhaps it might have been or might be still a field trip, a visit to somewhere new.

In his series on welcome and new member incorporation from the Diocese of California’s be::community webinar series, Chuck Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop, invites churches to take field trips: into their past to discover the things that have remained constant; into their present to see ways that perhaps they aren’t being as hospitable as they think or ways that someone new might encounter their regularly routine; and into their horizons, those places outside our churches where we might build relationships.

His push is that the church look at ways of adopting new members, offering to bring new people under their wing and seeing how God may bless the community with gifts that new people bring. In your Sunday Night Mics and your food pantry you have taken people under your wing and welcomed them to be as they are and to form you. You’ve taken field trips to cyber space and to your community to find ways of inviting new people and sharing good news.

In Canon Robertson’s series the encouragement is not on finding newcomers, but welcoming new members. He challenges people to look at demographic groups around them and how best parishes might engage them. Beyond corporate work, though, he challenges individuals to think about three people in their lives who might be interested in events at church and will have gifts to bring. He stresses intentionality of building relationships over giving sales pitches.
You have collectively taken those field trips. Maybe not all of you, but your leaders have, and they have borne fruit. Your field trips into your neighborhood and cyber space and then setting up shop have benefited you collectively and benefited others. The Word becomes flesh and lives among us. God leaves where God has been and comes to live among us — on a field trip — in the person of Jesus.

Jesus comes so that those who embrace his teachings and let themselves be made in his image may become children of God. Canon Robertson encourages us to look for new members, not just newcomers. Jesus was looking for disciples, not just people following a crowd around him. He’s still looking for that, and we are still being made in his likeness. Jesus took on flesh and lived like we do, and although he’s not physically present with us as Jesus the man, we assembled the church are Christ’s body.

In this season of Christmas we celebrate God’s field trip to earth. Born of humble means, Jesus is God with us — God in the mess of things. As we move toward epiphany, when we celebrate the Light enlightening not a chosen few, but everyone, think about ways that you corporately and individually can go on field trips to new places. Epiphanytide has historically been a season of evangelism.

This doesn’t mean knocking on doors and asking people to come to church — but it may mean knocking on doors and seeing if anyone needs help. Who are three people in your life who might enjoy what happens at St. Luke, in all of the various programs that you have. Think about telling them about the things that give you life here. In the context of a relationship, think about inviting them to come to church with you for an event.

The word became flesh and lived among us; we are flesh and live among others. In this being flesh — living like Jesus, who lived like us — keep going on field trips to learn about yourself and from others, ever challenging yourselves to be discipled and personally embrace the teaching of Christ, not just assent to them intellectually. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon Text: Mark 10.24-45

The Rev. Joseph P. Mathews
21 October 2012
Proper 24, B
Mark 10.35-45

In 2008 Vintage 21, a multi-campus chuch in North Carolina, dubbed some Jesus videos from the 60s or 70s.

Jesus says things, sometimes with a sarcastic tone, like “I walked on water, I think I can walk through the door” after the triumphal entry on a donkey.
This is followed someone asking “Hey Jesus, will my donkey get into heaven now?”

When Jesus walks into the temple for the cleansing he asks, “What in the name of me is going on here?”

He then flips tables over and says “You’re not supposed to be having fun here; you’re supposed to be praying and reading your bibles.”

All the while three Pharisees are looking in on him and worried that they’re going to get it. When they walk in, as he’s lecturing the crowds, he says about the Pharisees,
“these three think they can get into heaven just because they’re dressed like the wise men.”

While these videos are silly, and I think hilarious, they have a few things in common with our hearing of today’s Gospel passage.

First, those doing the dubbing know the entirety of the Jesus story and clearly let the present affect how they retell the story.
Clearly Jesus wouldn’t have said “What in the name of me?” or referenced people dressing like magi.

Secondly, these videos also consistently show that the disciples just don’t get Jesus — and that sometimes we don’t either.
Today’s gospel passage brilliantly brings that to light,
and because of THAT, when I read this text I hear it in my head as though Vintage 21 Church has created an audio dubbed version of it.

 “Jesus! We have a favor to ask!” James and John say to him.
Exasperatedly Jesus sighs and says, “What do you want?”
“Let us sit beside you forever in heaven!”
“Really? That’s what you want? Can you handle it?”
“You know we can, boss!”
“Well, you’re going to have to handle the stuff I have to deal with, but I can’t give you what you’re asking.”

Unlike the disciples, we know the entire story of Mark’s Gospel.
Not just the very end, where the women run away from the empty tomb,
but the part before that when Jesus is seized, crucified, and dies.
We know that the baptism Jesus faces and the cup he drinks are those not of happiness and celebration that he can give to the disciples,
but are of suffering that must be endured before God makes all things well in the resurrection.

What James and John do today is absurd, and not at all the behavior of disciples.
James and John are concerned for themselves and how everyone will see them at the end of time.

The way disciples are made is by following their teacher, their master.
Rather than asking favors of the one forming them, they follow and do as they are told.  When they ask Jesus he responds with a question that doesn’t ask if they really want what they’re asking.

No, the question about his baptism and cup are about him.
He asks them, in not so many words, “Can you do what I’m going to do?
Can you follow me to then end?”
Our knowing then story means knowing that Jesus is asking if they will die because of living like he did and doing as he’s taught.

The compilers of Mark’s gospel were careful here – as they usually are – in the choice of images they used.
That they have Jesus asking about a baptism and a cup is no coincidence.
In the time between Jesus’s ascension and the time the Gospels were written, people told stories about Jesus.
The stories they remembered weren’t always word for word, but certain themes emerged.

They remembered Jesus taking bread and wine, blessing it, breaking it, sharing it, and telling them to continue doing that in his remembrance.
They remembered that he was baptized and that he told people to go into the world baptizing others.
The first Christians, before they were reading Mark, were following Jesus’ actions around water and meal.

In water and meal, they remembered and we remember Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus asks his disciples in all ages to follow him.
In baptism we promise to follow him by dying to sin, embracing our own deaths when required, and renouncing evil.
For many people the promises of baptism are often made by someone else in their name.
Those making promises on behalf of someone else also promise to be responsible for seeing
that the child presented
is brought up in the Christian faith and life and
by prayers and witness helping the child to grow
into the full stature of Christ.

Rather than being a magic act or a Good House Keeping Seal of Approval, baptism is an all in commitment to following Jesus.
To follow him we have to learn from and learn about him.
Being around disciples is how disciples are made.

James and John presumed to make a demand of the teacher, and the other students don’t like it a bit, so they pounce.

Jesus doesn’t want any of that either and rebukes the whole lot.

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The baptism Jesus faced was one of suffering and death, and in ours we promise to follow him as we face the same.
When we drink the cup given to us in this Eucharistic feast, we remember this death and proclaim his resurrection while we wait for his coming in glory.
We pray that we will serve God as we receive the sacrament.
If we serve God the way Jesus served God, then we have to be in the thick of the sufferings of the world.
We have to know the pains of others, regardless of how well we may know them, and suffer with them. 
We must have compassion.

James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ right hand, but he tells them that’s not his decision to make.
Rather than celebrations and crowns now for disciples having done great things,
they are promised that death has been defeated and they will be raised up.

Rather than being victorious because we’ve demanded it, we are victorious in God’s works of redemption.
In celebration and preparation of the fullness of that redemption, we try, often with about as much success as the disciples, to follow him.

Are we able to drink the cup Christ drank, or be baptized with the baptism with which he was baptized?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Distress of the Privileged

I just read a great piece on The Distress of the Privileged at The Weekly Sift. It's a trifle long, but a great read about how privilege is being challenged in a changing society and how that is upsetting for those who have been so settled for so long. The conclusion (after looking at a movie and a new fable, among other things) is

"Ultimately, the privileged need to be won over. Their sense of justice needs to be engaged rather than beaten down. The ones who still want to be good people need to be offered hope that such an outcome is possible in this new world."

It's worth a read, so read it all.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reloading and Resurrection

This post has been at least in my head in process since I was driving from Alabama to California, the week after the shootings in Aurora, CO. During that time I saw many different people say many different things about gun control, how awful it was to be politicizing the tragedy so soon, how we can't help but politicize it because it is a political issue and our faith lives require us to engage our society's politics.

Most of the posts were from the same people over and over again, seeming to get louder and louder as they posted. However, watching my Facebook feed, I noticed some other trends around the Christian faith as it was indirectly related to gun violence in the US. While there were certainly those being explicit (usually arguing for more gun control as a life issue), there were those who drew no correlation between their desire to have their guns and their faith, but the trends of whose posts certainly link the two.

My observation of many of these posting was that the people who might claim to have a deeper faith because they regularly post prayers requesting miracles were also the ones who posted most from a place of fear concerning who can carry weapons. I felt a dissonance between expecting logic and reason to be defied as someone prayed for cancer to be poofed away, despite what medical professionals may be saying, in one posted and insisting they needed to be able to arm themselves to protect themselves from others.

This understood need to protect themselves from others seemed to stem largely from a fear of death. My understanding of much of the Bible is that Christians are instructed to not live in fear. A poster I used to see, and I have no idea if this is factual, said " 'Fear not' is in the Bible 365 times - one for every day of the year.' " If we can rely on God for miraculous cures for cancer, why do we feel as though we need rely on ourselves to protect us from death?

The perceived need to protect ourselves from death throws me some, too. While this isn't something I'll claim many people are happy to say that we're a "Christian Nation." Those are, at least among my Facebook friends, the same ones who are so insistent that we have guns to defend ourselves - from the bad guys (who, I'll point out, are still created in God's image, whether we like it or not). This fear of death does not resonate with one of the core tenets of Christianity: that dying Christ destroyed our death and rising Christ restored our life; Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.

For a Christian Nation, we seem to be awfully scared of something that we believe doesn't have any power over us. We seem quite content to rest on these ideas, promises, thoughts, and beliefs when people have died, but how do we realize Easter while we're alive? I think that we're probably more likely to live fuller lives now (cf. John 10.10) if we aren't worried so much about holding on to it. Liturgical Christians at least annually acknowledge that they will die ("Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return") but we don't sit in that.

Neither do I think that we should live only thinking about the afterlife. Rather than being a motivator for what we do now, I think the promises that those in the tombs have been given life should release us of fighting to stay alive by not taking risks and fearing that we're always about to die. Acknowledging that it's a possibility is probably a good thing, but fearing it isn't, I don't think.

How do we engage and realize Easter in our day-to-day living? Do we believe that in baptism we have been buried with Christ into his death so that just as he was raised we may be raised to new life (Rom. 6.4)? If we do, and we have faith that we will be raised, and have faith the cancer can be cured miraculously (which not all of us do), why do we fear for our lives? Why are we willing to rely on God for healing but not protection, particularly protection from something that Christ has already defeated and has lost its sting?

Does "Christian America" and its need for hand guns actually believe in the Resurrection?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Bread of Life is Not Hollow Audio

Here is the audio of the sermon I preached on John 6.35, 41-51.

Click to download an MP3.

The Bread of Life is Not Hollow

The Rev. Joseph P. Mathews
12 August 2012
Proper 14, B
John 6.31,41-51
Christ Church, Portola Valley, CA

As an undergraduate I spent a lot of time with the same people. College life pre-makes friends for you; people start out new together and finish together. During the four (or more) years it takes, you have to eat, so you may as well eat with people you like.

Our time together didn’t usually end when we’d finished eating, though. We would go to our college ministry’s building and watch TV, do homework, or engage in Bible study. Often we would spend from lunch until time for bed with one another.

Far too often, though, we found ourselves in the kitchen between meals.

Despite how much we may have eaten in the Saga – the campus dining hall – or how much pizza from Hungry Howie’s we ate, we were hungry again a few hours later.

In time we came to have a term for describing the food more than the subsequent hunger: hollow. Hungry Howie’s was hollow. Saga was hollow. A friend at another campus ministry’s lasagna was hollow.

There was a lot on the outside, but there didn’t seem to be anything on the inside. The food was hollow and we were hungry again.

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus is offering an alternative to hollow food: the Bread of Heaven, his very flesh.

Two weeks ago we heard of Jesus feeding the five thousand. After he left them, they followed him and went looking for him.

Jesus said to them last week, “You are only following because you’re hungry, not because you actually believe in me. Don’t work for chase and gorge yourselves on hollow food. Find the food that lasts forever.”

They listen to him and ask him to give it to them always and he replies by telling them that he is the bread of life, and whoever comes to him will never be hungry or thirsty.

And today he amps it up: He is the bread of life, and not only will those who eat him not be hungry, but they will live forever. While his initial hearers may have recoiled at the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh, John’s community didn’t.

As Taylor Burton-Edwards points out, Jesus is the bread of heaven. Jesus – the incarnate Word living and breathing among them – is clearly flesh. He is the bread who in giving of himself gives flesh for a feast.

Following Jesus, these early Christians – and we today – presented themselves in the bread and wine.

Following Jesus means following him to the end, which he starts to foreshadow today.

Jesus’ saying, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” is John’s community reminding itself that Jesus gave up himself.

He placed us first, and following Jesus means giving ourselves up to God and for one another.

When we make Eucharist together we model this and remind ourselves of it.

We offer ourselves to God and to one another.

About the Eucharist St. Augustine said, “Be what you see, and receive what you are.”

The bread and wine we present to God are somehow transformed by grace into Christ’s Body and Blood. The earliest Christians didn’t try to explain how it happened, they just believed it as they gathered, having been transformed by grace in their baptisms, into Christ’s Body.

As Christ’s body in the world we live now meeting needs – physical and spiritual – just like Jesus did.

In living now, we look for the age to come, but don’t wait for it as the world around us crumbles. The crowd Jesus is talking to in our passage followed him because he’d fed their hunger.

Jesus’ promise to never be hungry is an offer for a fuller life dependent on him and relying less on ourselves as we continually give ourselves to God and of ourselves to those around us, in meeting needs of stranger and friend without though or expectation of payment or reciprocation.

As Derek Webb prays for his fans, may the bread on our tongues leave a trail of crumbs that brings the hungry back to this place that we are from.

This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die…whoever eats this bread will live forever.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

O If Life Were Made of Moments

The Rev. Joseph P. Mathews
22 January 2012
Epiphany 3+, B
Mark 1.14-20
Christ Church, Portola Valley, CA

The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near. Amen. Our gospel text today is full of movement. John is arrested. Jesus goes to Galilee. Although John had been preaching in Judea, Herod – the ruler of Galilee – has him arrested. Jesus goes right into the midst of this area and continues preaching that John had started. Simon and Andrew are at work casting nets, doing physical labor. Jesus calls them and they leave their nets and follow him. James and John are casting their nets, Jesus calls out to them, and they leave their livelihood and their family to follow this rabbi from Nazareth who is always on the move.

Not only is he on the move, he’s on the move in a place where he could easily be overtaken with trouble. Can you imagine being at work, knowing that someone has been taken away because of their message, and someone saying very similar things comes along and tells you to come with them. Might their nerve impress you? Might you roll your eyes at their calls, knowing how dangerous it might be? Might you just think them crazy? Last week we heard Nathaniel question Jesus’ call on his life because of where Jesus was from. This week we have four men who leave home, income, and family because of Jesus’ audacity.

Mark makes no mention of these four disciples weighing their bags before getting on the road. The follow Jesus on his journey. They just go. The temptation here is to say that we should just drop everything and follow Jesus, too. If we give in to that temptation we may also judge ourselves harshly for failing to not give up so much so quickly. Rather than taking these four as the absolute example of discipleship, let’s keep Nathaniel in mind: slow to follow and waiting for something more concrete than a shout from beside a lake.

Rather than offering us an absolute example for how to answer Jesus’ call, this passage – along with our First Corinthians reading – offers us an example for how we are to live. The specifics of the First Corinthians letter are particular to the church at Corinth, but the rationale of all those commands is timeless: the time is short, and the present form of this world is passing away. Things are being changed and we’re on a journey. The forms of the lives that James, John, Peter and Andrew had come to their end. In their encounter with Jesus their lives were changed, and Jesus told them how their lives would be changed: instead of catching fish, they would become fishers of people.

Those who Jesus has called to follow him have changed lives that they cannot help but share with others. In Jesus the Kingdom of God has drawn near. While Jesus is particularly calling some disciples in Mark’s gospel, he’s directing our fisherfolk today to cast their nets broadly: to invite all into relationship with Jesus. Rather than fishing for food for a living in one place, they’re called on a journey of following Christ and learning from him. As they learn from him and grow to be like him, they go preaching on their own in various journeys near to their homes and far away.

The Christian life is not a series of moments: baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, and so on. As the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods says, “O if life were made of moments, even now and then a bad one, but if life were made of moments then you’d never know you had one.” Rather than being a series of moments good and bad, the Christian life – all of life – is a journey from cradle to grave, from baptism to burial. Whether our answers to Jesus’ calls are immediate or with more hesitancy, we are a people on the move. Always.

On the move, Jesus’ call on our lives should affect how we live. The way we treat all people is influenced by our faith – we’ve promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. That promise was made expecting God’s help, and we will fail in keeping it. We’ve also promised to admit when we’re wrong and work to be reconciled to those we’ve wronged. While Episcopalians tend to not like the idea of “evangelism” it is a tenet of the gospel. Part of our objection to it, however, tends to be based not on the idea itself inasmuch as how others have done evangelism.

In lives on the move, we meet other people. We smile at people on public transportation, or we curse at other drivers. We offer support through Facebook comments or say hateful things anonymously on YoutTube. We encounter Christ here assembled as Christ’s body, and at the Table in bread broken and wine poured. We also encounter Christ in the other and we recall the self-giving love of God who came to dwell among us as humans all the way to death. We evangelize by taking good news to those in need. Shouting “repent or burn” on a corner doesn’t sound like very good news to me.

Following Jesus on the journey means we need to pack lightly and be adaptive. But our journeys are not always as light as we might hope. Adapting and changing are scary things for individuals and institutions. As I move into my last semester I’m starting to feel as though things are tumultuous considering all the changes that are coming to my life. I will not be in school for the first time in twenty years. I am leaving friends in New York City with whom I have been building good relationships for three years. I am leaving classmates about whom I care deeply and who have provided comfort and challenge to me when I have needed each of those things. I may be moving to the other side of the country from anyone in my family. Before all of that I have to do all my schoolwork and other projects about which I am excited but will be a lot of work.

But it’s over the tumult Jesus calls for us to follow him, to leave those things which may be holding us back from being closer to him, helping others come to know him, or seeing the Kingdom of God as it has drawn near. While we’re giving James, John, Peter, and Andrew’s quick and enthusiastic reply to Jesus’ call, we aren’t given their thought process or how they felt after leaving their toil and kindred to follow Jesus on the Way.

The Kingdom of God has drawn near, and all of creation has access to it. In order to see and experience, though we have to evaluate what things hold us back from being closer to God, what things we love more than Christ, what idols we have. These things may be live-giving and good for us, but we cannot hold them so close that they block our ears from hearing Christ’s call to adapt and be ready to move. For me this means moving away from my beloved General Seminary and my boys off campus. We will stay in touch, and there will be ongoing support, but I must adapt as my call changes.

I must adapt, and you must adapt. Always. The Church must adapt as it moves forward and discerns Christ’s call for it in the new realities of society it finds itself. Jesus’ call to us and to all of humanity is relentless, though. When we don’t hear or we can’t hear, Jesus keeps calling. When we hear and don’t listen Jesus keeps calling, no matter how many times we say to stop. Jesus’ call to us is as relentless as his love for us. In knowing this love we are called to share it with others as we build relationships with them and care about them, traveling lightly on the journey and adapting as we go. Amen.

I am a Pharisee

I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, January 29 as part of the community's ongoing exploration of the Gospel of John. The text is John 8.1-11; read it here.

Before we read the text I pointed out that for most of the first millennium of the Church's history (until about 900 CE) this passage does not appear in most manuscripts of John's Gospel and there is almost no commentary on it from Greek commentators. A theory about its exclusion is that Jesus' generosity made leaders in the Early Church, who were committed to very strict discipline, uncomfortable.

I really like for things to be fair.
I like rules.
I am an enneagram 1 – organized, efficient, and with very high standards – for myself and others.
My high standards far too easily turn into being overly critical of others and myself, expecting perfection from all.
I want to be right.
About everything.

Believe it or not, I played football once upon a time.
I was ten years old and a lineman.
I hated it.
No, I didn’t hate it because I got hot and sweaty
or had to wear pads
or the time it took up.
I hated it because I felt like I was then only one who got it.
I would come home from practice and rant about being yelled at that day.
“You could drive a Mac truck through these gaps!” the line coach had shouted…as those to my left or right stood too far apart from me.
“WHY DON’T THEY GET IT!?  The play is white, so you go right! It rhymes!”

While my self-perception is that I’m striving for excellence, that is easily not others’ – particularly teammates or younger brothers’.
Self controlled? Yes. Rigid? No.
I like my systems that others or I have put in place – particularly when or because they work.
If they don’t, I prefer to change the system the appropriate way rather than ignore it completely.
Systems protect people.
Systems keep people safe.
Systems save time.

If the characters in John’s Gospel are screens onto which we can project ourselves, I would most likely be a Pharisee.
They had inherited a tradition that kept them distinct.
It kept them in touch with God.
It defined who they were, and the woman in today’s reading broke it.
They come to Jesus as he’s teaching with her and want his judgment.

These Pharisees have brought a woman who was caught breaking the law.
These men who want to be right have come to trick Jesus and test him.
Perhaps this test comes after Jewish leaders had lost the power to execute.
If Jesus sides with the woman he ignores the Law.
If he orders her death, the civil authorities will be thoroughly displeased, to say the least.
Jesus doesn’t answer their questions, though.

These are people concerned for the words of the law, but not its intentions.
They aren’t concerned with her relationships and how her adultery may have broken them.
They don’t question her spiritual state or even if she’s penitent.
There is some suggestion that rather than trying to win her love back, her husband found people to witness her sin to bring her to trial.

As concerned as they were for the law, they weren’t concerned about her.
They cared more about being right than showing love, and the Law existed to give guidance on showing love to God and neighbor.
Jesus, however, loves the woman.
Instead of answering any of the mob crowd’s questions, he makes a judgment that if any of them is without sin they should start throwing the rocks.
No one does.
They all leave,
one by one,
starting with the elders, those most steeped in this tradition.

When he finishes writing in the dirt Jesus looks up at her and asks where everyone is.
A crowd came. Now it’s gone.
“Has no one condemned you?...Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

If the character’s in John’s Gospel are screens onto which we can project ourselves, that means we can find ourselves in two positions in this text.
We have a crowd of me: Enneagram 1s who want to follow the laws and enforce the rules.
And we have me, broken, scared, and just out of danger being told
“Neither do I condemn you,” and being sent to sin no more
And we have Jesus, whom we all imitate, challenging the zealots and loving the guilty.

Jesus’ sentence isn’t fair.
She had been caught in adultery, and that was against the Law.
There were two witnesses other than her husband, with whom her relationship was broken.
The system protected her husband’s relationship.
While Jesus is expecting that a zealous crowd here be totally honest in their motivations, he still spares the woman.
The Law was very clear in its letter.

God’s love for us in the intent of the Law isn’t fair, though.
Rather than being condemned we’re told to go and sin no more.
No matter how many times we are caught in unfaithfulness to our promises, messing up, failing to love God and our neighbors.
Each time we’re told, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lying in Ordination Vows

Over the last few weeks (a month or so) I've participated in conversations about the diaconate. Many of my seminary classmates have said that at their ordinations to the diaconate they would have to lie in their ordination vows. A professor said that many people have to. One said his bishop said he could cross his fingers. Where would people be lying in their ordination vows? And why? The vow in question is the first question of The Examination (BCP 543), "My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?"

As these conversations have been happening, others have been as well, and a big event has, too. On December 21 I knelt before my bishop and he prayed, "Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Joseph; fill him with grace and power, and make him a transitional deacon in your Church." I was ordained as a transitional deacon, it's in the prayer.

Actually it's not. The constant references to my being a transitional deacon or to the transitional diaconate have annoyed me the last few weeks. I don't want to get into the idea of cumulative orders where they stack up like nesting dolls. or talk about direct ordination to then presbyterate. I'm not an advocate of that. I am, however, an advocate of deacons, their work, their lives, and their ministries.

My classmates have said that they will have to lie in their ordination vows, but I think that presents a problem. Rather, I should say I did not have to lie in my ordination vows. I do believe that right now I am truly called by God and the Church to the life and work as a deacon. Saying that I'm a transitional deacon betrays the importance of that life and work. While some people advocate ordaining people directly to the presbyterate, one of the reasons I pursued orders in The Episcopal Church was to serve time as an ordained deacon, called to a  special ministry of servanthood under my bishop modeling for all the baptized that servant ministry to which we are all called.

My understanding of my call to the priesthood is that the Church forms its priests by serving as ordained deacons first. I don't believe that I am called to be an ordained deacon for life, but I am a deacon right now. I am not a "transitional" deacon anymore than Bishops Harris, Robinson, Parsley, Gray-Reeves, or Curry were transitional presbyters. While some say that those called to the priesthood should be ordained right to that order, I think that instead we might discern as individuals and in community when people are called to be priests.

Rather than setting the date of an ordination to the priesthood six-twelve months to the day from the diaconal ordination, why not take the process of priestly ordination just as seriously as we do postulancy, and candidacy, and diaconal ordination? While people seem to hem and haw and build up loads of anxiety before their first meeting with the commission on ministry or for getting candidacy, it seems like skating from that point on, and no one seems to question if they will be ordained to the priesthood in an exact timeline per their diocese.

Apparently that I'm even saying these things could hold my process up in some dioceses, too! When discussing a GOE answer from this past week I told classmates of my intentional inclusion of a deacon in a liturgy and cited the diaconal ordinal. They were from the same diocese and almost both immediately said that in their diocese my advocacy for the ministry of the deacon would lead to questions among the committee if I might not be called to the vocational diaconate.

Throughout my seminary career I have been such an advocate, and I think it has to do with my formation about ordained ministry happening a)with vocational deacons around and b)such a strong teaching on the tradition of the church that I could never have thought about being ordained directly to the presbyterate - although one of my closest friends and mentors (in the tradition from which I came) was pursuing just such a process. During that time, however, she was on trial and discerned herself and in community when she would be ordained an elder.

Scott Gunn wrote tonight about Broken Things in the Church. I think one of the things broken in The Episcopal Church is not the diaconate, but our treatment of the diaconate. As Episcopalians we say that we firmly believe in the three-fold ordering of ministry. Our understanding of the ordering of ministry is important to us in ecumenical dialogue, but I think oftentimes we act like there are really only two orders of ministry: priests and bishops.

In a sermon at General Convention 2009 Bishop Barbara Harris implored the church to stop treating LGBT people called to ordained ministry as though they were "half-ass baptized." If we continue to treat vocational deacons as though they're half-ass ordained (limiting their use of the title "The Rev", disallowing them from wearing collars, making them wear grey clergy shirts to tell them apart, saying that "the clergy" follow "the deacons" in procession, etc.), while encouraging deacons pursuing the priesthood to act like priests in waiting, we devalue the ministry of all deacons.

Rather than celebrating our three-fold ordering of ministry we say that only people who want to be priests and people who can ordained are ordained. Those other people who've had the prayer prayed over them are just fixtures, regardless of the good work they do in prisons, with seafarers, in schools, and all the other places deacons go to serve. I love telling people in the subway that deacons taught me to knit and explaining the ministry of the deacon to random New Yorkers who just wanted a picture of me knitting.

I'm called to that ministry at this point in my life. Maybe it's easier for me to embrace this because I don't have an ordination date yet, and I don't know what the timeline is. There are a lot of variables that may need to be worked out. Maybe it's a good thing for me, though. I'm not a priest-in-waiting because I don't know when I'm waiting for! I am a deacon called "to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by [my] word and example, to those among whom [I] live, and work, and worship, ... [and] to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." (BCP 543).

The Prayer Book knows nothing of transitional deacons, only deacons called to special ministries of service under their bishops, whether they are pursuing the presbyterate or not.