Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment? Continue reading
It seems that the Episcopal Church is in a constant state of litigation. Over the last decade and a half, we’ve seen repeated conflict across the church in response to the moves toward full inclusion of LGBT persons in our life and ministry. Now, millions of dollars later in legal fees, with courts consistently affirming the Episcopal Church’s position that dioceses are not independent of General Convention, another round of such litigation is likely. First, we’ll have to see how things play out within the Church.
This past summer, General Convention passed resolution B012 which mandated that bishops opposed to same-sex marriage make pastoral provisions for couples, congregations, and clergy who sought to solemnize such marriages in their dioceses. Several of the bishops opposed to same-sex marriage have offered such provision, some are still discerning. One, Bishop William H. Love of the Diocese of Albany, announced in November that he would not offer such pastoral provisions.
As was to be expected, an disciplinary proceeding was begun against Bishop Love. Such proceedings, or complaints, can be made by anyone within the Church, so the likelihood that someone or some group would initiate the proceeding was highly likely. Less certain was whether the Presiding Bishop would take any additional action while the disciplinary proceeding was moving forward. Yesterday, Presiding Bishop Curry published his response: to restrict partially and temporarily Bishop Love’s exercise of ministry. Specifically, Bishop Love may not participate in any diocesan disciplinary proceeding against a priest who performs same-sex marriage, “nor may he penalize any member of the clergy or laity or worshipping congregation of his Diocese for their participation in the arrangements for or participation in a same-sex marriage in his Diocese or elsewhere.”
Now, Bishop Love has issued his response to the response. Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately, he will appeal the Presiding Bishop’s restriction on his ministry and vigorous challenge the disciplinary proceeding. He bases his appeal on the definition of marriage in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:
The official teaching of this Church as outlined in the rubrics of the Marriage Service in the Book of Common Prayer is that: “Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and woman in the presence of God.” (BCP 422). Canon 16 of the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Albany upholds this teaching and remains in effect until it is either changed by the Diocesan Convention, or it is legally proven to be over-ridden by the legitimate actions of General Convention; none of which has yet taken place.
Now, I’m no canon lawyer, but it would seem to me that because the Book of Common Prayer is itself authoritative because of an act of General Convention, General Convention has the power to rescind or modify anything stated within the BCP. Likely, there’s some fancy canon lawyer parsing of later General Convention actions, that will be the hinge on which any ecclesiastical disciplinary proceeding will depend.
The other key element in Bishop Love’s defense is his appeal to the definition of marriage in the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Albany, which he says will remain in effect until changed by Diocesan Convention or legally proven to be over-ridden by the legitimate actions of General Convention. Here Bishop Love is appealing to the familiar, but often proved wrong, argument that dioceses are independent of General Convention. It’s wrong, because General Convention has the power to create and dissolve dioceses.
What’s so unfortunate about all this is that it is avoidable just as all of the earlier litigation and attempts by bishops, other clergy, and congregations to leave the Church. When Bishop Love was ordained deacon, then priest, and consecrated bishop,, he vowed to ” I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.’
If he is no longer able to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, he should step down as bishop. It’s really quite simple.
Instead, the Church will expend energy and resources on this internal battle. Should Bishop Love be unhappy with the final result of his appeal and of the disciplinary proceeding’s ultimate outcome, he may choose to pursue his cause in the civil court system as many other bishops and dioceses have done. If he does, it’s likely that more millions of dollars will be expended in the effort.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. While it is a major feast day of the Church, unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, most Christians, most Episcopalians, don’t really observe it. Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide in our calendar, so while the church is still decorated for Christmas today, the decorations will be removed after today’s service. There’s a bit of confusion or controversy there, because many people take down their Christmas trees and other decorations on 12th night, which occurred yesterday, the 12th day of Christmas. We keep our decorations up largely because we want to retain the crèche and enjoy seeing the magi and their entourage worshiping the christchild at the crèche. If you weren’t here for Christmas, they spent the entirety of Christmas season on the table in the rear of the nave.
Our focus may be on the star and the magi or wise men on Epiphany, but it’s a feast that has other connections in the larger Christian tradition. It is also associated with Jesus’ Baptism and with Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
Both of those stories point to the deeper meaning of the feast of the Epiphany. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means “appearance,” or “manifestation”—especially of the divine or of God. It was used in the Hellenistic world of Jesus’ day to describe those appearances of the divine to humans, moments when the gods seemed especially near. It was also used often as a title for rulers and became associated with the imperial cult, as emperors came to be understood as manifestations of the divine.
We see elements of that notion in our familiar gospel story, the story of the coming of the wise men following the star. It’s a lovely story, but one that’s been very much domesticated by the Christian tradition, so that we miss the deeper meaning and power of Matthew’s larger purposes in telling it. First of all, the wise men, or kings. Well, they’re not kings, are they? Associating them with kings derives from other scriptural references such as those from today’s reading from Isaiah and from the Psalm. When we call them “magi” we’re getting closer to what Matthew had in mind, astrologers from the East, very likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran—who were astrologers, using the movements of the constellations and planets to predict the future.
Their very exoticism, their “otherness” is part of Matthew’s point. Coming from the east, they had no knowledge of Jewish scriptures or traditions; they were Gentiles. In part, Matthew wants us to see them as part of the larger mission of sharing the good news—to all the world, as he has Jesus command his disciples in the last verses of his gospel. But he also wants us to understand that even apart from scripture, Gentiles can come to some understanding of God and of God’s saving work—all it took for the magi to begin their quest was to see a new star rising in the East.
The magi’s intuition of God’s new actions in the world provide a sharp contrast with that of Herod who had know clue about the birth of the “king of the Jews” and was terrified when he heard of it. He had to bring in scripture experts to answer the question the magi posed to him.
Let me tell you a little bit about Herod the Great. Herod’s father and grandfather had been supporters of Rome and rulers of provinces in Palestine. Herod’s father appointed him Governor of Judea. Eventually, in the midst of conflict over succession to Julius Caesar, Herod fled to Rome and succeeded in getting declared King of Judea by the Senate; returning to Palestine, he also gained control over Galilee, and eventually, by marrying the daughter of his chief rival, became de facto King of the Jews. He was a ruthless ruler, known for his excessive taxation. He built Roman style cities such as Caesarea Maritima and began the rebuilding and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple. He also had considerable conflict within his domestic life—he had five wives, one of whom he had executed, and killed two of his sons when he feared conspiring against him, and just days before his death, had a third son executed.
All of this is backdrop to Matthew’s story and while we didn’t hear the next episode of this story—the flight to Egypt and the execution of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, and while there’s no independent evidence to support this episode, it’s entirely in keeping with what we know about Herod historically. If he killed his own sons because of their efforts to wrest power from him, it’s likely he would have had no qualms with large-scale executions of whole demographic groups.
Matthew is drawing a sharp distinction between Herod, King of the Jews, and Jesus, King of the Jews. He is also drawing a sharp distinction between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When Herod heard the news of these visitors from the East in search the child born “king of the Jews” Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. The magi say their intent is to go to the newborn child and pay him homage—we should have in mind a formal act of obeisance a subject might offer to a king or ruler.
So there are two kings in this story, not three. The two kings are rivals—both King of the Jews, one is Jesus, one is Herod. Herod represents the power and ruthlessness of the world, willing to take any action to gain and consolidate power, and once in power to use everything and everyone at his disposal to display and project his wealth and power.
On the other hand, the king of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, born to ordinary, poor, people who are at the mercy of the other king—whose experience of his kingship is terror and fear, who flee their home for another country in search of safety. That king of the Jews will grow up to proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a reign not of power and fear, maintained by bloodshed, but a reign of peace and justice. Jesus’ life will end as he is proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the charges leveled against him by the Roman Empire, a revolutionary, a rabble-rouser.
Like the magi, we stand between these two kings, these two kingdoms. Our journey in search of Jesus has brought us to this place, to this crossroads. We may want to make homage to the king of the Jews, but do we know what that truly means? Are we able to make that journey? Herod’s kingdom may beckon to us with its power and wealth, even with its ruthlessness, but the kingdom of the one who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents fled with him toEgypt, who preached mercy and peace, and whose life ended on the cross in Herod’s city of Jerusalem, beckons to us as well. To whom will we pay homage, before whom will we offer our gifts?
1 Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
our Shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal Home.
2 Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is Thine arm alone,
and our defense is sure.
3 Before the hills in order stood
or earth received its frame,
from everlasting Thou art God,
to endless years the same.
4 A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an ev’ning gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.
5 Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.
6 Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!
Written by Isaac Watts and published in 1719, the hymn is a paraphrase of Psalm 90. It’s a particular favorite of mine and especially appropriate as we think about the coming year.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
—John Donne, Nativity from La Corona (1610)
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.