Prayer

Who will separate us?

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

At the end of that statement, St. Paul drops the mic and leaves the stage. But what is he talking about? Paul is talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. It’s easy to have vague and misleading ideas about the Holy Spirit, so let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it. The Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. What that Greek word means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems; or a friend to stand along with a friend in need.  In the church, where Jesus is no longer physically present, God’s Holy Spirit stands alongside us, enabling us to love one another, incorporating our lives into God’s compassion.

Paul says, “The spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” It’s common to think that good prayer is somehow an output of a well-informed or disciplined mind, or that somehow if we just pray with enough fervor in the right way we can get God to do the things that are important to us.

Actually, prayer does not work like that at all. In prayer we stand, or sit, or kneel in God’s presence; our desires, our feelings, our needs are there. Our care for other people and perhaps even our words are there.  But it is the spirit of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, that joins us to God in prayer. We are joined, upheld and helped in our weakness, even when we are unaware, even when we may feel that our prayers are going nowhere—indeed, God’s presence is not based on what we feel or perceive at all—often, it is at times of dryness, desolation or even despair that we are being transformed into the compassion of God—into Christ. It is in God’s design that God’s children are formed together for the sake of the good of this world—in Jesus’ resurrection he is the firstborn of a large family.

But this good—the growth of God’s love—is not happening in a world where everything works out easily, where people can do whatever they want and it’s just fine. Paul lived in a world where truly advocating the mercy of God and the good of God’s most vulnerable could trigger the anger and even violence of a world that valued the self-interest of those who wanted to keep power and privilege. So do we. Being formed in the love of God does not protect us from the consequences of this world—of loss, or ostracism, or anger, or attacks by those filled with self-pity.  Paul was arrested more than once, for telling about Jesus. Standing courageously for the values of Christ’s compassion in this world takes a similar risk of real loss, at least if you actually mean it. The Christian life in the Spirit is not happy talk, or silver linings, or magical wishes coming true. It is living by choosing what is valuable, true and permanent over the illusory and the selfish. It is in this context that Paul says,

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

The reality of Jesus’ life and death make it clear that the truth of Christian life takes place in a world where there is suffering and death, indeed in a world where there is cruelty and injustice near at hand. The Resurrection of Christ isn’t something that takes away the reality or the permanence of death; the Resurrection is new life, in which the love of God’s Holy Spirit overcomes the fear, anger, cruelty and despair that bind people into the compromised existence of a selfish world. Paul continues:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or nakedness or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The thing that has distinguished the Christians whose wisdom has most influenced me over the years is that they share in a complete lack of self-pity. Some are great theologians and others regular parishioners. At another church where I was serving I visited a woman in the memory unit of a nursing home. She was a lifelong devout Episcopalian and a tough businesswoman. The church remembered that thirty years ago, she told them that that congregation would never realize its building fund goals unless it dedicated ten percent to outreach to the community. Now she has no memory, except what her friends remember for her. But her character is intact, with no trace of self-pity.  I would visit her, and ask her to pray for the parish and people in the parish, and she would sometimes say something insightful and loving about one of them. The last time I saw her, I asked her to pray with me for the vestry deliberations. At the end, she said, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Teach us to pray

A sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

Today’s gospel lesson features the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has been the characteristic prayer of Christians since the very beginning. Early Christian writings say that every Christian should say it three times a day—before Morning Prayer and Evensong were invented, the Lord’s prayer was the daily Christian liturgy. The Lord’s Prayer exists in a few slightly varying forms in ancient documents, and the form we have today in the Gospel of Luke is the simplest and shortest. This can help us to understand the longer version of the prayer that we sing every Sunday and which we hold in our memory.

The spirituality of Jesus and the followers of Jesus are quickly outlined: Simple reverence for God—Father, hallowed be your name; Your kingdom come—the Kingdom of God among us, life in the Commonwealth of God is the most distinctive part of the teaching of Jesus. I’m often puzzled when people suggest using this prayer as non-sectarian and appropriate for groups that are largely non-Christian. There is nothing more Christian than to pray for the Kingdom of God to come.

The Kingdom of God is very different from the Kingdom of this world. It is not about power; it is not about intimidation or fear. It is not about one group gathering all the power and wealth it can to itself at the expense of others. You see the Kingdom in Jesus healing the sick from disease and from being oppressed by those demons that distort the lives of individuals and society. You see the Kingdom in Jesus, the servant of all, who encourages everyone to be neighbors to one another.  You see the Kingdom in him as he faced those powers of the world and was killed by them and yet was raised by God from the dead.  In saying, “Your kingdom come,” we pray for the resurrection of the dead in Jesus Christ.

And it is in that vision of that Kingdom of God that we pray the next sentence: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Bread Nourished. Each day.  In God’s commonwealth there is enough. Enough to share, but not enough to grab and keep for ourselves. Life with Jesus is simple, it is an ordinary experience of peace. In his prayer, what we request is the basics of real life, not the fantasies of what we might want, or the violence of what we might take.

The way that the next petition is phrased is somewhat ironic—it points up something we want to ignore: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  This is a dangerous prayer—by entering into it, you end up giving up all claims you have to what others owe you. Of course, God’s forgiveness of our sins is much larger than that, but still, it’s a pretty audacious prayer.  It’s costly to be Jesus’ disciple. The bounty of God’s overwhelming love, forgiveness and free grace flows to us all, in pure generosity. In the Kingdom of Christ, we live from God’s generosity and we live in God’s generosity, and it only costs us …. Everything. It costs us our fears and our selfishness. It costs us our self-righteousness and judgement. It costs us our smugness and our complacency.

And that’s why the prayer ends— “Save us from the time of trial.” The trial is the temptation to turn our backs on the Kingdom of Peace and accept the world of violence, fear and anger, as we see just about every time we turn to the national news recently. The time of trial when the only way forward for everyone seems to be to hold on to the despair of anger and to give up on the hope of forgiveness. Save us from the time of trial when the way to Jesus’ resurrection seems totally blocked by that stone sealing the tomb, and those soldiers blocking the way.

The Gospel lesson continues, and Jesus continues to teach about prayer. Usually the experts observe that these stories are about persistence in prayer. That’s true. But I think Jesus is also playing with us a bit. He taught his disciples and us this simple prayer of the Kingdom. But how often do we get bogged down in being all religious about that? “Oh yes. We must be grateful and generous and forgiving.” “Oh yes, we are the faithful disciples.” “Oh yes, we never give in to the temptation to be fearful.” So Jesus tells a story about his followers and their friends and neighbors who are probably also Jesus’ followers. One goes to the other and asks for a cup of sugar or something, because guests were coming. And Jesus tells it like it actually happens (or the way that people sometimes feel)—that friend says, “No, go away! You’re always bothering me and I don’t feel like helping you out!” In this real world, people don’t always cooperate, not everything goes smoothly and not everyone is nice. Jesus is teasing us. It is not because you are perfect, or because you feel good that you are part of the Kingdom of God, it is because you are God’s child. And look! What’s in my hand? Is it an egg for you to eat? Or is it a scorpion to sting and hurt you? It’s possible to think of people who might play that trick, but not a loving parent, not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, not in the Kingdom of God, the Commonwealth of Peace. Jesus’ stories tease us out of that fearfulness and anger that are that trial that can tempt us. He forgives us and directs us to our daily bread.

The ancient Didache, or Teaching, of the Twelve Apostles, instructs us to pray this prayer three times a day. Before we come forward and share in the heavenly bread of the Eucharist (our Great Thanksgiving), Let’s pray in the words that our Lord taught us:

 

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.

Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

The appearance of his face changed

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 7, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.

The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.

The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  In other words, as, in Moses, God set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being his people, living in his resurrection, is not cost free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own righteousness or entitlement.

But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence, not what we tell God, or what we think we want.

God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face.  So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets, Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.

Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one, the Chosen.

And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.

There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It’s common to think of Lent as a time of sadness and self-denial. But it’s not a time to worry and think glum thoughts and miss some luxury you are “giving up for Lent”—Lent is a time to listen. It’s that quiet when we know the Glory of God in Jesus, God’s chosen one. That Glory manifests itself at Easter, but God’s Glory is here, at every moment. Listen to him. Leave off the noise that distracts us, the things that take our attention. See his face, the Love of God come for us. Live in God’s blessing, live your Lent in the presence of God’s Glory. He is right here.

Dr. King MountaintopThis month we are also celebrating Black History Month. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to listen to Jesus, and what it was like to see the prophets.  What it was like to live in God’s presence in incredibly difficult and dangerous times. In his last address before he was assassinated, he said:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Let us pray:

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain; Grant to us the we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

What are you discussing while you walk?

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter at St. Paul’s Church, Ossining New York

And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
This is a gently amusing story. We have all been told at the outset that it’s Jesus himself who has fallen in step with these two disciples. They are the only ones that don’t know what is going on. He says, “What are you talking about?” And they stop.

Cleopas says to him “Are you the ONLY ONE who doesn’t know the things that has happened?” If this were a play, I would expect Jesus to take a quick look at the audience, maybe even wink, before turning to Cleopas, “What things? Tell me how you would describe it.” So Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus the story that we have all gone through in the last month, in order that he can understand why they are so depressed, confused, and discouraged. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So Cleopas is telling Jesus that he’s clearly not the one that is to redeem Israel.

Like many of us, Cleopas knows what he knows, and the things that he expected and wanted didn’t go the way that he wanted and hoped for them to go, so he knows it’s all for naught. So Jesus starts walking with them again—and talking—this one who is to redeem Israel, why is it that he should not suffer? What is the real life of Moses and the prophets, if not filled with both suffering and the Glory of God?

Cleopas and his companion are very real, very understandable—and a lot like most of us. And like most of us, they found it easiest to focus on their own expectations, what they thought should happen, how the good things that they like should continue always in a straight line, always getting better. It’s easy to focus on ourselves, our own problems, and our own solutions. Another way of saying that is that it’s easy to not listen to the Gospel. God has something new and different for us, and we find it in this real world, often not in the ways that we predict, and almost always not by looking for what we ourselves want.

I always wanted to get a doctorate and be a famous professor. At the time I went through seminary, it was fashionable for bishops to require that anyone who was going to be ordained, be first interested in full-time parish ministry, not in primarily an academic calling. So I told him that’s what I wanted to do. I finished seminary and found positions in parishes in the Midwest—with the expectation that I would return to graduate school and become a professor with valuable parish ministry experience informing my scholarship and teaching. The thing is, nothing came out as I expected. I won’t go into the details and personal drama, but the timelines that I had sketched out didn’t work out, the prospects for funding and careers for graduate students in the humanities were quickly drying up, and I realized that the jobs that I envisioned were only going to the superstars and the extremely fortunate, not to those who were just good enough. There weren’t huge scholarships coming my way, or high-powered recruiting.

With three small children, I had to give up that scenario that I had created in my mind. As that was happening, I had the opportunity to watch the work of academic reference librarians and I realized that the work that they did was far closer to my own strengths and the things that I enjoyed than the dissertation writing and classroom teaching of professors. At the time, that meant giving up many things in the story I was telling myself, especially the status that I projected for myself. It also meant giving up employment by the church—it was almost 20 years before I joined the faculty of the General Theological Seminary as the Director of the Library and I never earned that doctorate. There was difficulty in giving up that story I wanted for myself, but I have never regretted it—the enjoyment of doing those things that I was meant to do far outweighs the pursuit of fame and honor.

My story isn’t that unusual; almost everyone has their own version of it—either career related or something personal—we have all experienced grappling with disappointments and setbacks and eventually giving up on something we thought was all-important, only to discover something even more meaningful.

God has something new for us, and I certainly never predicted that it would be my being a librarian. These guys out on the road, they thought they knew how Israel was to be delivered, and this Jesus guy seemed like he might have the stuff to be the right kind of leader. Maybe, finally, there would be one person who would wield power justly—but Jesus didn’t wield power at all.

It was not an instantaneous thing for the followers of Jesus to realize that his crucifixion was the source of their hope, not their utter defeat. You can see the church struggling to come to terms with this, not just in this story, but in the whole of the New Testament. Giving up this story about ourselves and how great and powerful we are, and accepting this even more exciting story about how God brings life to the humble, and defeats death with love.
breaking-bread

 

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…

L

Let us share bread, and perhaps our eyes, too, will be opened.

Their delight

A sermon preached at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd

The General Theological Seminary  Thursday, March 6, 2014

Blessed 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.

Thus begins the first psalm of the Psalter that has served as the primary prayer book and hymnal for Jews and Christians for millennia. There is nothing random or accidental in this choice. Psalm 1 sets out the theme of worship which is also the theme of life: the way of righteousness and the way of wisdom.
In our direct discourse, active voice, Strunk & White, always positive, American culture, it might strike some as a little odd that the first stanza is fundamentally negative. You are blessed for what you DON’T DO. This sets the psalm in the context of the real world—the way of blessing or happiness is not simply a trivial default setting but an alternative to ordinary things that we see regularly. Walking the way with the unambiguously wicked and criminal is not usually the most common problem for churchgoing and seminary type people, and our personal accounts of loitering with sinners and partaking of sinfulness usually put them safely in the past, even if we enhance them for dramatic effect. But after working in various seminaries for twenty-four years and hanging out with clergy for much longer—sitting in the seats of the scoffers—that’s prime real estate. We could probably solve our financial problems by charging sky-box rates for the seats of the scornful. I’ll get back to what I mean in a minute.

What is important in this psalm, as in many ancient texts, is not what is at the beginning or the end, but what is at the center. The person that is blessed is who? The one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on God’s law day and night. That word, “law,” does not refer to collections of statues and prohibitions. The word is “Torah.” The new Jewish translation renders it as “teaching” and even in its narrowest understanding, Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible, which tell the story of God’s creation of the world and of the people Israel, and of their redemption in the Exodus. This introduction to the Psalms tells us that the one who is truly blessed takes delight in all that God has done, and particularly in study and meditation on those texts that convey our heritage.

Of course, I’m thinking of the scripture, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament, but there are also all those other voices of our heritage, whether they are contemporary, or from a few hundred years ago, or ancient. About three weeks ago, our faculty adopted a declaration entitled “The Way of Wisdom,” which will be released to the public later this month. In one passage of it, we say this:

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church, whom we call “theologians,” were at once biblical scholars, pastors, and critical thinkers of great spiritual wisdom who drew deeply from sophisticated philosophical reasoning as they guided the course of the Church in their time. Preaching the Gospel was integral to the transformation of the lives of all Christians. Responsible preaching required study and study was also worship.

“…study was also worship”—the teaching of the Lord was their delight and they studied that teaching day and night. Their study, their teaching, their preaching and their pastoral work were all one blessing. In one way or another, almost all of us here today are called to an office of teaching, and in that we share in that great delight and awesome responsibility of continually learning and digesting the teaching of the Lord.

When Professor Malloy returned from grading the GOEs, he told some of us that one of his colleagues there remarked that, on the liturgics question, not one student made the connection between Lent and Baptism. That got me to thinking: it is not just a historic connection, Lent is really our preparation for baptism—we travel the road along with the catechumens, and particularly this year, the preparation for baptism is emphasized in the lectionary: from the Temptation in the Wilderness to Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman at the Well, to the Man born blind, to the Raising of Lazarus—each Sunday we progress along the Way of Wisdom further into the mystery of life in the risen Christ and though we may already be baptized we accompany the catechumens.

PERPETUAPerpetua was one of those catechumens when she was arrested. Tomorrow will be the one thousand-eight hundred and eleventh anniversary of her martyrdom. She is particularly important to me, because the central part of The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is written by her. It is the earliest Christian writing that we have that unambiguously presents a woman’s voice. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honor, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” Her sorrow was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. They rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. This is the end of her account of one of her visions:

“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’

Thus her vision of heaven depicts aspects of the baptismal service of the late second and early third century. As we meditate and study we hear voices new to us and we are transformed as part of that great cloud of witnesses. Those people in the seats of the scornful that I mentioned earlier, they are always looking for the short-cut—how do we get recognition, or success, or a program out of this?  How can we skip reading, and still get credit. One can regularly hear them scoffing at anything that spends effort that doesn’t yield results. But those who delight in the teaching of the Lord, they are like the tree planted by the stream of water, bearing fruit with leaves that do not wither. When the time comes, they have wisdom to share with the saints who need their encouragement.

The Way of Wisdom

A sermon for Theological Education Sunday

St. Paul’s, Ossining, NY 4th Sunday after Epiphany, February 2, 2014

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Who knows what today is? Of course, we all know what it is—Super Bowl Sunday. And this year, the most important event in the American secular calendar falls on February second, the same day as Groundhog Day. Even in the calendar of the Church it is at least three other things: In the Book of Common Prayer, February 2 is a major feast, the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, in older days and in some contexts the same feast was called the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lectionary also has today as the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, and that’s where today’s lessons come from. But in the Episcopal Church, the first Sunday in February is designated as Theological Education Sunday, and I’m here today, as a faculty member of the General Theological Seminary, to talk with you about Theological Education.

So what IS Theological Education? Over the years there have been a lot of confused, obscure and frankly, quite deadly, sermons and other presentations on that topic. There’s actually a reason for that. Theological Education has been regarded as being about the training of professional clergy in specialized skills which are seldom of interest or relevance to ordinary Christians or about the support of theologians whose job is to think thoughts and write books in obscure terminology that are usually inaccessible to most ordinary church members and often to ordinary clergy.
Thus presentation of Theological Education is usually an anemic attempt to communicate across a vast divide to a foreign audience. This is a problem, not just with seminaries, but with the whole church, including congregational life. The faculty of General spent a very intense week on retreat in January working on this very problem, and I would like to report out some of my perception of what we arrived at.

Theology does not have to mean a distant and abstract thing. It is clear that in the early centuries of the church, theology meant the participation in the ever-deepening practice of the Christian life which we all share. The whole church needs to be called to a more intentional and deeper commitment to this. We’re calling this the Way of Wisdom. There’s a reason for this because if we call it theology, people will get confused because they have a different idea of what theology should be about. But make no mistake: this is theology that is meant to be practiced on the ground at St. Paul’s.

TutumandelaBut what does this mean? From the Old Testament, we have a statement of the Way of Wisdom at the end of our lesson from Micah: “God has told you, O Mortal, what is good;” –and what is that?—“and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We could spend a long time unpacking that statement, and we should—we should spend our whole lifetime understanding and living what it is to walk humbly with God, love kindness, and to do justice. You could think of it as the art of living the Christian life and that’s the theology we call the Way of Wisdom.

The Way of Wisdom is exactly the same in a parish or a seminary, or indeed in all the contexts of ministry that we have, whether a soup kitchen, community organizing, outreach to returning veterans or an EFM group gathered from a number of churches. We all share our wisdom and we encourage one another in the Gospel. But among us, some are leaders who particularly focus on encouraging and helping others to grow in the depth of the Christian life. Some become clergy and others have ministries that don’t fit that mold. So at seminary we have a group that is seeking that, to grow into more depth, usually to become leaders in the church. Some are young, some are not; some have a lot of experience in life or in the church, some have less. But to one degree or another they have already embarked on the Way of Wisdom, some more than they know and others less than they think. The conversation and the community broadens and deepens.

The faculty introduces them to voices they have never known existed—from the church of the second, third and fourth centuries, from the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and from more recent times. The community critically reflects on scripture—for instance, how it impacts women in the present and in the past, or how we might sort through the controversies of the present day and how the church has done so in many critical times in the past. Even those philosophical, theological, and theoretical thinkers such as I mentioned earlier are engaged, so those voices are heard and understood, and their insights incorporated into the way of wisdom that is our life together. But none of this is just an academic or scholarly exercise, no matter how exciting that might be for some.

What does it mean to those students when they return to a parish community or another ministry and work to help people in their community deepen their walk with Christ? What does it mean in teaching, or visiting the sick, or organizing ministries, or standing in the pulpit and trying to say something true? This takes reflection, and listening, and acquiring a habit of learning and prayer.

These students, remember, don’t come to the seminary as tabula rasa. Their own wisdom is always an important part of the experience of everyone, faculty, students, staff, and others as learning and growing community. Together we learn to become those words of Micah: what is it to do justice? That takes more than a couple of minutes to answer. What is it to love kindness? What is it to be a community that always seeks to be kinder and more compassionate, especially to those who are troubled or marginalized? And how indeed can we walk humbly with our God, except for one small step at a time, and falling back and retracing those steps. The seminary provides community, so that when one stumbles along the way, there are fellow seekers there to lift one up.

So our goal at seminary is not to produce priests who have pre-made solutions to problems and who are solely focused on fixing things. What we are here to do is to provide wise, resourceful people who know how it feels to struggle to live on the Way of Wisdom and who know how to be companions to others following alongside.

That doesn’t mean we want our students to be impractical or too abstruse to bother with finding solutions to problems. On the Way of Wisdom, sometimes you have to know some skills and whether your skills address the problem at hand, or if you need to find someone with the right set of skills. Sometimes you have to fight back against injustice, while at other times, the solution is to reframe one’s perspective and let go of the issue. And sometimes, we must just be companions to one another in the difficulty of the moment. It takes resilience and wisdom to choose and shape those solutions to the hard questions, and that is where theological education is an invaluable guide.

We need to look only as far as our Gospel lesson today, the Beatitudes, for an example of what I have been talking about. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ blessing on his people on the Way of Wisdom. These blessings in many ways are simple—conveying the love of God for everyone—for example: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Yet when we reflect on these well-known passages tough questions emerge. Let’s just examine the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does that mean, “the poor in spirit?” People have a lot to say about that, to the point where it can end up meaning not very much at all. The Gospel of Luke says: “Blessed are you who are poor”—so maybe the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is just softening up Jesus’ original revolutionary message. Perhaps, but what does that have to do with how we live our lives? Maybe “poor in spirit” means that I’m blessed if I just feel poor—sort of like the guy who wrote an article for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, describing how he was furious one year because he got a $3.6 million dollar bonus and he was convinced that he deserved and needed far more than that. Lots of us feel poor like that, though probably not quite in such a dramatic fashion. Do we just use the Gospel to make ourselves feel justified and content?

It is certainly possible to interpret “poor in spirit” as humble. In fact I think that humility is essential to our understanding. But it is also easy to fall into a negative and complacent humility, regarding ourselves as not much good, with little to offer. That’s safe. And passive. And lazy.

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This does not mean that if you are passive you will go to heaven. In all of Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom is dynamic, God among his people, transforming and healing. If we try to understand the lesson through its literary form: in the first beatitude the blessing on the poor in spirit is the kingdom of heaven, and in the last beatitude the blessing is also the kingdom of heaven, even though none of the others have the same blessing. There is a parallel between the first and last passage. But the first is “poor in spirit” and the last is “persecuted for righteousness sake,” which is the only one that is repeated and elaborated. Humility is in fact being at the service of God. Recognizing our weakness and sinfulness, nevertheless, when we are poor in spirit we are in God’s service. And that service is courageous witness to the truth in our lives, which is the witness that historically resulted in martyrs in the early church and at other times.

And that is an abbreviated example of the kind of reflection that goes on in theological education. It’s for the students yes, but it’s also so that we can continue to form courageous people to walk humbly, both followed and led by their sisters and brothers in the church, and by the whole world.

The Kingdom of God and the Way of Wisdom describe essentially the same thing: our growing along with one another in the life of God. It is for us all, the art of living our lives in Christ. We all are active participants, but disciplined reflection and knowledge is needed to challenge us to live our life together in the Way to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

Thanksgiving

A sermon at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Bronx, NY. October 27, 2013

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)

The Gospel of Luke makes it pretty plain what this parable is about. You have two people—one is a tax gatherer and the other is an active and devout religious person. This religious person is very serious, perhaps he’s even a member of the vestry, certainly goes to all the Bible classes that are offered, never misses mass, and maybe even is up-to-date on his pledge.
Allan Rohan Crite ConsecrationSo when he sets up to pray in the temple, he thanks God because he is so religious. “I thank you that I am not like other people”, he says. These others, hoi loipoi in Greek, that’s the key here. He’s not even referring to a specific group of other people: it’s him… and everybody else. Perhaps there are some that are his kind of people, who also fast twice a week, tithe everything they have and are confidently prominent and public in their prayer— but the others, they are all lumped in to the category that includes everything bad.

It’s possible that this Pharisee could not even figure out why so few people were joining his group. They were so good, and of course they were on the inside with God, so why weren’t more people seeing the light?

Jesus’ point is that there are a lot of these “others” in the world, and God loves them all, even the tax collector. Then, as now, a tax collector was usually about as welcome as an Obamacare representative in a Tea Party convention. This tax collector made no defense, he simply prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Of course it’s possible to jump on the band wagon, and say—“ok that’s the prayer that Jesus wants—I thank you God that I’m not like those others who don’t pray: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner,’ and I also tithe and make it to mass more or less on time.” But that would miss the point, wouldn’t it? Contrition and humility are good, but the main thing is, this publican does not separate himself off from those “others.” The largest share of his humility is in recognizing how much he has in common with all the rest of humanity—his need of mercy.

And Jesus was famous for feasting with tax-gatherers and other known sinners, perhaps even with you and me. Christianity is a way of life and that life might indeed include tithing—I would never want to undermine the stewardship committee—but that way of life is to live and to share Christ’s mercy out there with all those “others,” the people who Jesus loves even when they aren’t here doing what we think people ought to be doing.

Like the Pharisee, we do stand here in this temple and pray in thanksgiving to God. But listen a minute to our Great Thanksgiving prayer:
Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

We are all, all of us, those “others” who are reconciled by the mercy of God to Jesus. We gather each week for Eucharist (Greek word: means thanksgiving), because our way of life is to live in thanksgiving and share with others that mercy and love of God in Christ Jesus. You are all loved, and all special in God’s sight, not because you are different from other people, but because you share with that great multitude for whom, in God’s love, Jesus gave himself on the Cross.