Covenant, Relationship, and Lent: Lectionary Reflections for the Second Sunday of Lent, 2012

This week’s readings

In yesterday’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, we heard about Yahweh’s covenant with Noah. In this week’s Hebrew Bible reading, we hear one version of the covenant with Abraham. The notion of covenant is of enormous significance for Hebrew Scripture and for the understanding of the relationship between God and God’s people. When I was studying Hebrew Bible in college and divinity school, a great deal was made of covenant, and of the important parallels and connections between Hebrew notions of covenant, and covenants among the writings and cultures of Israel’s neighbors. It seems that Hebrew understandings were shaped by those neighbors.

There were really two dominant forms of covenant both in the Hebrew Bible and in other ancient sources. One was an agreement in which each party made commitments; the other between a more powerful ruler or kingdom, and a less powerful one. In the latter, the more powerful one extended protection to the lesser and demanded loyalty and other obligations. Both the covenant with Noah and the one with Abraham recorded in Genesis 17 were asymmetrical. Some sort of response was required of the weaker party—if only acknowledgment of God’s power. Thus Abram bowed deferentially in God’s presence. But the promises of the covenant were not dependent on some action on the part of either Noah or Abram. God promised never again to bring a flood and to Abram, God promised that he would be the father of a great nation. In each covenant there was a sign, the rainbow or circumcision.

The notion of covenant continued to undergo interpretation and reappropriation. Early Christians wrote and spoke of a New Covenant established in Jesus Christ. In later centuries, Christians continued to use covenant as a rich metaphor for relationship with God and with one another. It was particularly important during the Protestant Reformation While language of covenant continues to be present in our theology and liturgy. But I wonder whether it continues to be meaningful. Do we still conceive of our relationship with God, either as individuals or as communities, in terms of covenant? To put it in slightly different words, would we use the language of treaty or contract to describe or understand those relationships? If not, what images are predominant now?

The same question could be asked of our use of covenantal language to describe relationships among people or communities. Is covenant a useful device to construct or define such relationships. One could think here of “the covenant of marriage” or yes, even the Anglican covenant. Is it helpful to understand any of those relationships in terms of loyalty, obedience, or mutual obligation?

That being said, it is clear that covenant was a supple enough concept that the Hebrews and Jews could reinterpret it to fit changed contexts. After the downfall of the monarchy and during the exile in Babylon, the exiles could still see in the idea of covenant a useful way to interpret their experience. God had not abandoned them; rather, their unfaithfulness to the covenant explained their loss of land and freedom.

To read the story of the covenant with Abraham is to read a story of great faith and a story of God’s faithfulness but as the verse that immediately follows today’s reading reminds us, it is also a story of divine mystery, and a certain amount of humor: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.”

In this season of Lent, exploring the nature of one’s relationship with God is an appropriate focus. Whether we think of it in terms of covenant, of friendship, of love, or in some other way, it’s important that we acknowledge who God is, and who we are in relationship with God. Sometimes, I suppose, laughter is the appropriate response in that relationship.


Get Ready for Lent! A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 2012

In the early 90s, Corrie and I were living north of Boston. We were graduate students. I was finishing my dissertation, Corrie was working on hers. The academic job market was tight. In fact, the year I finished there was exactly one job opening in the History of Christianity nationwide. We decided to stay where we were, close to Harvard libraries, while Corrie finished. And I would look for work. Eventually I found it in the unlikeliest of places. After working as a temp in several companies, I landed a permanent job in a seafood-processing firm. We mostly sold shrimp, fish sticks and other frozen seafood items to school cafeterias, restaurants, and retail outlets.

I couldn’t have been working there more than a few weeks when I walked into one of the managers’ offices and saw on her wall, a framed poster. On it, in screaming black letters were the words “Get Ready for Lent!” It was October. Continue reading

Contentious rituals, contentious ashes–seeking meaning in a secular world

I’ve been reflecting on Ash Wednesday–my own experience of it as well as its place in American culture the past couple of days. I’ve especially been intrigued by the growing popularity of “ashes to go” as well as the pushback. This movement has generated considerable publicity, both in traditional media and onlne and it has given rise to some interesting thinking about Ash Wednesday’s significance in post-christian culture.

I’ll dust off my former “religious studies scholar hat” for a moment or two. The power and meaning of rituals are much debated, both within and between religious communities, and among scholars of religion. In the west, in contemporary American Christianity, there are relatively few rituals that use real matter as powerfully and dramatically as Ash Wednesday. Think about it. The water of baptism leaves no physical mark after one has dried off; the bread and wine of the Eucharist are often reduced to faint imitations of real bread and wine. Even burials are rarely accompanied by the sight of real dirt (astroturf covers the open grave and if dirt is needed to sprinkle while saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the funeral director provides a small vial of sand).

Ashes are real. Of course one can buy them from religious supply houses but most of us like to go the whole nine yards, burning last year’s palms and grinding them up. Ashes are messy. I have yet to figure out how not to leave a trail of them throughout the church and as often as not, while distributing them, a few will fall on the nose or cheek of the people.

We rarely touch ashes or find them on our bodies, except on Ash Wednesday, or if we are in the midst of cleaning out a fireplace. Ashes are dirt; they are evidence of disorder and destruction and have no place in our daily life. Certainly they do not belong on our foreheads, or in a church. But there they are.

There is a deep anti-ritualism in Protestant Christianity that has extended itself to mainstream American culture. It’s only a ritual, we say; or that’s empty ritual. At the same time, there is a deep yearning for meaning, for authenticity, and for connection. Ash Wednesday offers all of those things. What is more real, more authentic than the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? What deeper connection is made between the one who says those words and distributes the ashes, and the one who receives them? It may be a momentary connection, no more lasting than the touch of a thumb on a forehead and a shared glance, but in that moment there is connection, between priest and people, in an individual (their past, present, and future) and with an individual and their God, Creator and Redeemer.

Nothing about Ash Wednesday has surprised me more than the demographics at our services. There was a higher percentage of students and young adults at all of our services on Wednesday than there are on Sunday mornings. Clearly, the ritual of Ash Wednesday resonates.

There is a great deal of discussion about young adults and religion. Are they losing their religion? Are they disconnected and flying solo? How can we reach out and share the good news of Jesus Christ in this post-Christian world where people are seeking meaning and connection?

I think an answer might be here, in Ash Wednesday. To offer rituals, worship that are deeply authentic and connecting, not just with God, with other humans, or with our own emotions. To offer rituals that are authentic and connect us with the real–like ashes–that connect us with our humanity, our deepest selves, and show us that at our deepest selves is the desire and love of God, such rituals, whether performed in a a traditional space like a church, on a streetcorner or a subway stop, such rituals can offer hope, direction and grace, for broken people in a broken world.

More importantly, we can’t know what effect our actions might have on those we touch, we cannot know how God might be at work, whether those actions take place at an altar rail, or at a bus stop. Those effects are in God’s hands, in God’s grace, something for which I am endlessly grateful to the God I love and serve.

Ash Wednesday 2012: Ashes to Go? or Ashes to Stay?

Last year, I stood outside the doors of Grace Church before Ash Wednesday services to offer ashes to passers-by. I wasn’t self-consciously participating in “Ashes to Go.” Rather, I did it because it was another way I saw of reaching out to our community during the protests and political upheaval.

This year, as more jumped on the bandwagon and the practice received considerable publicity, I pondered my own participation and decided in the end against. My reasons paralleled those of Tim Schenck. In addition, Grace is situated such that passersby could easily come in for the service–office workers or students headed to lunch, for example. Today was a nice day and as is my custom I stood on sidewalk before the service in my vestments, greeting people as they came to church and greeting passers-by as well.

As I stood there, I was greeted by a man who asked me if I had ashes. He had been among those who received them from me last year and was hoping to receive them again. He was very disappointed. We chatted for a few minutes and he stopped inside the church to pray, although he couldn’t stay for the service.

It was a powerful encounter for me, a reminder that the assumptions we make about the effects of our actions, liturgical or not, are unpredictable. We all know that sermons we struggle over and think are awful are often experienced as transforming; we know that pastoral encounters we wish we could have done over sometimes are healing moments. We know that even the liturgies that we botch can be channels of God’s grace. There were people in both of our services today (so far) that I’ve never seen before, and probably will never see again. How different is that from an encounter with a passer-by, a brief prayer, an ashed thumb-print cross, and the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” God can use that, even that as a channel of grace, and who am I to prevent it?

So next year, I’ll be on the street corner again, offering ashes to go. I won’t be participating in the hype, however.

Restructuring the Church: What about the bishops?

In the ongoing debate over restructuring the Episcopal Church, there has been considerable concern about whether reforming our structure and governance may lead to the bishops’ increasing their power. Some wonder if talk about restructuring is nothing more than a power grab. Outside observers opine that among the Episcopal Church’s problems is the episcopacy itself. Over in England, they are still fighting over whether women can be ordained bishop. And over every conversation about bishops in the Episcopal Church looms the model of the Roman Catholic episcopacy and hierarchy.

I’ve been thinking about bishops in the Episcopal Church for the last weeks, in part because I’ve spent considerable time with my own bishop. I’ve also been thinking about bishops because ultimately, any conversation about restructuring the church has to include careful thought about the role, purpose, and ultimately, theology of episcopacy. So here are some thoughts.

I’m a trained historian of Early Modern Christianity (formerly known as Reformation and Counter-Reformation History). The Reform Council of Trent focused its reform efforts on the office of bishop, reorienting the bishop’s role toward the praecipium munus, the teaching and preaching office. By requiring regular parish visitations, the establishment of diocesan seminaries and printing presses, among many other things, Trent fashioned a job description for a reform-minded bishop. In the persons of men like Carlo Borromeo of Milan, newly ordained bishops could look both to the decrees of the Council of Trent, and to reforming bishops as they developed their own reform programs. Taken together, this effort was remarkably successful in the course of the seventeenth century and constituted a sharp break with the medieval past.

When I began reading English Church History of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I was shocked by the degree to which English bishops remained more medieval than their Roman Catholic counterparts on the continent. They continued to sit in the House of Lords; there were few, if any, expectations on their work in their dioceses. Visitations were relatively rare; clerical education remained largely in the universities, and often bishops had little control over clergy appointment to parishes. In other words, there was no clear understanding of what bishops were to be.

In fact, to a certain degree, the very fact that the episcopacy came to be a distinguishing mark of the Church of England (and subsequently of the American Episcopal Church) is something of an historical accident. As late as the 1590s, the great Elizabethan apologist for the Church of England, Richard Hooker, could argue that the episcopacy was not a necessary mark of the true church. It was only because of the opposition from more radical reformers, and finally the Civil War, with the cry of “No King, no Bishop!” that the episcopacy came to be seen as necessary.

I’ve never had a course in Episcopal polity, so I don’t know if there’s a coherent theology of Episcopacy in the Episcopal Church. It’s not clear to me that we’ve ever had a coherent theology of the episcopacy. So far as I know, we have bishops because early Americans decided we needed to have them in order to ordain priests (note that the Wesleys decided otherwise). I know the ordination rite makes certain assertions:

My brother, the people have chosen you and have affirmed their trust in you by acclaiming your election. A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.

You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.

With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

I don’t know how bishops think about their role. I suspect that in addition to the programs for newly consecrated bishops, much of their formation as bishops takes place in the context of meetings of the House of Bishops. I suspect too, that they are shaped by their own experiences with bishops, and the particular cultures of the dioceses they serve. No doubt those who participate in Lambeth Conferences are shaped by their encounter with Anglican bishops from other provinces and nations.

But whatever their formation in their spiritual roles as bishops, they are also shaped by institutional cultures and by the American understanding of how complex institutions run, which is largely based on the corporate model. Just as I am occasionally chastised for not functioning enough like a CEO (or chastised for functioning too much like one), the same is true of bishops.

Have we left the definition of a bishop’s role too much to their own devising? Who, what, do we want our bishops to be? Too often, I suspect, many laypeople and clergy, would prefer that we not have bishops at all. We see them as power-hungry, eager to impose their will on us, on our congregations, and on our ministry, and sucking up our resources for their own use.

We are engaging in a lively and crucial debate over the structure of the church. That debate must include conversation about what the ministry of a bishop should look like in the twenty-first century. In this diocese, we make a great fuss over the work of Jackson Kemper, our great missionary bishop. I wonder what it would be like if, instead of looking to models in other Anglican churches, Roman Catholicism, or parallel denominations, we would again conceive of the episcopacy as a missionary enterprise, and bishops first and foremost as missionaries. After all, the ordination rite begins with the claim that they are the heirs of the apostles, who were sent out into all the world to preach the gospel and make disciples. To focus on that role, rather than on their succession or authority, might also go a long way toward easing people’s concerns about power grabs.


“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”: Lectionary Reflections for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B

This week’s gospel reading is remarkably brief. It presents challenges to the preacher, because we have heard much of it in other contexts already in this liturgical year (vss 9-11 was included in the gospel for The Baptism of our Lord and vss 14-15 were included in the reading for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany). The key verses left out of those other readings were 12 and 13, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Compared to the accounts of the temptation in Matthew and Luke (there is no parallel in John), Mark’s version is astonishingly brief and puzzling.

“And immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.” The word translated here as “drove” is used elsewhere in Mark to describe Jesus’ casting out demons or Satan. Mark also uses it when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the temple. It’s an active verb, associated with violence and to use it here raises all sorts of questions. What is the gospel writer’s intent? To show that Jesus is utterly subject to the whim of the Spirit? Is Jesus a victim of the Spirit? Should we even capitalize the word “Spirit” assuming it refers to the Holy Spirit? And perhaps most importantly, what is the significance of the sequence: baptism, temptation, and beginning of public ministry?

These two verses (12-13) are full of allusion to a world we don’t inhabit, a world in which evil personified as Satan besets us, wild beasts surround us, and angels tend to our needs. But even if the symbolism is alien, the reality to which those symbols point is the same reality in which we live. We are tempted and struggle with sin and we do find solace in spiritual friendship and support. The terrors of the wilderness may be our despair and fear, our struggle with addictions, unemployment, even loss of faith. Jesus heard those amazing words, “You are my Son, my Beloved.” Those words must have sustained him throughout his trials in the desert, just as the words pronounced at our baptisms, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” should sustain us in our own wilderness sojourns.