St. Paul’s conflicts and our own: A sermon on Prayer Book Revision for Proper 9B, 2018

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is gathering in Austin, TX. It takes place every three years, bringing together bishops, lay and clerical deputies from every diocese to oversee the life of our church. It is the ultimate governing authority of the Episcopal Church, so it has the final say over matters of doctrine, governance, and even our worship.

On Friday, the House of Deputies passed a resolution authorizing comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Last accomplished in 1979, prayer book revision is always challenging, time-consuming, full of conflict. While the current timeline suggests the completion of the work in a decade or so, it may be that like our conversations and conflicts over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including marriage, will dominate our common life as a denomination for the next decade. It’s worth pointing out that for this process to move forward, the House of Bishops will also have to approve the resolution for prayer book revision.

If you are interested in these matters, I invite you to join me later this morning in the library where I will answer questions and offer opportunity for your reflections. In the meantime, I would like to ask you a few questions:

  • How many of you own a book of common prayer?
  • For those of you who own one, do you know where it is? When was the last time you opened it?

In my experience as an Episcopalian, lay and priest, it’s my sense that we tend to have a great emotional attachment to the book of common prayer as a symbol, and also to the language of the liturgy, but that most of us don’t engage with it in any significant way in our personal spiritual lives or with the theological perspectives offered there. That is to say, we are not “shaped” by its theology and spirituality, as we are intended to be.

The presenting issues for revision are fairly clear. Many of us struggle with the gendered language in the liturgy and in the Psalter, and we also struggle with the patriarchal and hierarchical language. In addition, there are debates about the revising the marriage rite in the BCP to make it inclusive of same gender couples. But once you begin looking at revising the text, certain theological debates will quickly explode—the atonement, for example.

So, we are going to be enmeshed in conversation and most likely conflict in the coming years as we discuss and implement liturgical revision. It’s going to be heated, both on the denominational level, and quite likely, here at Grace, and thinking about how we have those conversations, how disagree with each other, will be an important part of the process.

It’s fortunate, then, that we have before us this reading from Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth. For in it he discusses both his own spiritual experience and addresses the deep and bitter conflict in which he has been engaged with this little group of Christians he founded years earlier.

We are coming to the end of a series of selections from this text. I’ve not referred to it in past sermons because, well, it is a complicated text in its theology, in its underlying context, and in its very construction. Most scholars agree that it is a composite text, made up of portions of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian community. They also agree that what we read in this letter is evidence of a deep and painful conflict between Paul and the community in Corinth which he founded. The conflict was personal, having to do with the nature of Paul’s authority and personality.

Today’s reading gets at the heart of that conflict. Part of what was at stake was spiritual experience and the role of spiritual experience in establishing one’s religious authority. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, seemed to believe that unless one had the sort of ecstatic experience that expressed itself speaking in tongues or the like, one had no basis from which to preach the gospel.

This is Paul’s response. It began in the previous chapter with Paul speaking ironically about boasting about his spiritual gifts. Now, he is speaking directly about his own experience. He describes a mystical experience, perhaps even a vision, or a mystical journey to the heavens, where he encountered Jesus Christ and received private revelations. But, he says, no matter how wonderful or powerful that experience was, it isn’t the basis for his proclamation of the gospel or his authority.

He then describes something else, something very different. It’s some sort of physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that troubled him for many years. Repeatedly, he prayed for deliverance from this affliction. Instead of healing, he received another message from Jesus Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

If there is any phrase that could encapsulate Paul’s understanding of the gospel, it is this: “power made perfect in weakness.” It is central to his understanding of the cross. Paul writes eloquently about this in 1 Corinthians when he talks about the foolishness of the cross, “For God’s foolishness is s wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This understanding, this paradox, is the heart of the good news. We want Jesus to perform deeds of power in our midst, we want our prayers answered, our lives, our world changed by the encounter with the good news of Jesus Christ. We want, yes, we do, we want to get the kind of spiritual high at church that Paul describes. And if those things don’t come, we are disappointed and disheartened.

Like the people of Jesus’ hometown, we want him to do the kinds of things among us that we heard about him doing elsewhere. And when that doesn’t happen, our faith wavers. But the cross reminds us that Jesus’ power and victory are not according to the world’s standards. The cross is foolishness and a scandal, power made perfect in weakness.

We want Jesus to be a superhero, or at least a superstar. Instead, we follow one who carried his cross to Calvary, and stumbled along the way. We want miracles, deliverance, a problem solver, a fix-it man. Instead, we have Jesus, who couldn’t work deeds of power in his own hometown.

So what’s the point, you ask. Precisely that. Scripture, the gospels bear witness to a Jesus, a Messiah, who doesn’t swoop in from outside and fix everything, a Messiah who doesn’t call on legions of angels to rescue him from execution. The gospel, Paul, proclaim a Messiah who is born like we are, frail and needy, and died just as all humans die. In that Messiah, in his incarnation and death, we see God, power made perfect in weakness.

We see a God, born like us, with our flesh and blood, with all that it means. We see a God who knows us in our frailty and humanity, comes to us in our frailty and humanity and says to us, “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Sometimes, we think we know it all. Sometimes, we think our perspective is the right one, the only legitimate one. Certainly, Paul thought that a great deal of the time. But at the heart of this text is a very different experience and understanding—that power is made perfect in weakness; that in Christ’s weakness and suffering, we see God. Paul was trying to say that what mattered most was not education, or background, or intellectual capacity, or ability to debate and score points. What matters most is Christ crucified.

It’s an important, perhaps the most important thing to comprehend as we try to grow more deeply in our Christian faith; but it may also be the most important thing to remember as we engage in conversation and find ourselves in disagreement with our fellow Christians. To be open and vulnerable to them, to recognize, like Paul, that whatever the experience and knowledge we have from Christ, there are things about it we can’t share with others, parts of it we can’t describe or name.

And to bring that openness and vulnerability as we listen to each other, as we hear their experiences, their joy and pain, may help us all of us to grow more deeply in the knowledge and love of God in Jesus Christ. I hope we experience this next season in the life of our congregation and the larger church as an opportunity for growth and building deeper relationships among ourselves and through those experiences to welcome and embrace those who seek to walk with us on this journey.

 

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Presiding Bishop Curry (and all the bishops) speak out

There’s an interview in the New York Times with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church:

Q. Do you, as a church leader, as an African-American, feel compelled to say anything about the presidential primaries in which the Republican front-runner hesitated to disavow the support of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke?

A. It’s not appropriate, and I’m not sure it’s even legal, to make a partisan pronouncement on any candidates. But to articulate the values on which we stand. Love, at least as Jesus articulated it, has to do with seeking the good and the welfare of others before one’s own enlightened self-interest. Our politics must reflect that.

Also, the House of Bishops released a joint statement this week on the political climate in our nation:

“We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.”

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

Can we finally bury the Anglican Communion?

I’ve not paid attention to matters related to the world-wide Anglican Communion for some years. After the relative disaster of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 and  the apparent collapse of efforts to create a more binding relationship among the provinces by means of the Anglican Covenants, I suspected the Anglican Communion would continue to exist more as an idea than as reality. When Archbishop of Canterbury Welby announced he wasn’t going to convene a Lambeth Conference in 2018, the reality seemed quite dead.

Not so fast. When he made that announcement the ABC also said he was going to convene a Primates’ Meeting–for those unfamiliar with odd and obscure Anglican vocabulary, “Primates” are Archbishops and other heads of provinces; provinces being national, or multi-national branches of the church.

That group is meeting this week in Canterbury, England. There was much speculation in the run-up to its gathering about what might emerge. Tensions over matters related to full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians continue to cause friction. Would Archbishops from the Global South show up? Would they force action against the Episcopal Church over our decision to permit same-sex marriage?

The Primates have spoken. They have asked the Episcopal Church to temporarily withdraw (for three years) from Anglican and ecumenical bodies:

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is representing the Episcopal Church at this meeting. Episcopal News Service offers these words from him in response to the Archbishops’ Communique:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”

Pain indeed. Whenever relationships are broken, whenever there is division in the church, there is pain. Archbishop Welby himself reportedly said in an address to the Primates:

We so easily take our divisions as normal, but they are in fact an obscenity, a denial of Christ’s call and equipping of the church. If we exist to point people to Christ, as was done for me, our pointing is deeply damaged by division. Every Lambeth Conference of the 20th century spoke of the wounds in the body of Christ. Yet some say, it does not matter, God sees the truth of spiritual unity and the church globally still grows. Well, it does for the moment, but the world does not see the spiritual church but a divided and wounded body. Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father sent me so send I you”. That sending is in perfect unity, which is why even at Corinth and at the Council of Jerusalem, we find that truth must be found together rather than show a divided Christ to the world.

Powerful words, but they ring rather hollowly this evening.

The Anglican Communion may not seem like a big deal to many Episcopalians. It may not even seem real. And it may be that the Archbishops’ decision will have little impact. After all, the Episcopal Church is not going to revisit its decision concerning same-sex marriage. Other provinces already recognize and perform same-sex marriages and its likely that others will join that group. I’ve long expected that ultimately the communion would divide internally along such lines, even as the church in the US has with a parallel entity the Anglican Church of North America existing alongside the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the powerful forces at work in our society that are changing how people relate to institutional churches. As denominations decline and denominational loyalty disappears, what might any of this matter in thirty or fifty years?

Still, there’s an important role for international relationships with Christians in other countries. Through such relationships we are reminded of the universal nature of the church and through such relationships we can cooperate with Christians in other countries in all sorts of ways. Grace’s membership includes people from England, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Barbados, and Jamaica. Just this past Sunday an African family recently relocated to Madison from another city in Wisconsin visited Grace. How will our congregation be affected by the Primates’ decision today?

Get to know our new Presiding Bishop

A video introduction made when he was nominated: http://www.generalconvention.org/pbelect/curry

Video of the press conference he held after the election:

Bishop Curry is a powerful preacher. I encourage you to watch some or all of these sermons

From General Convention 2012:

From last year’s gathering of Episcopal Youth (EYE):

He’s published two books recently: Crazy Christians (2013) and Songs my Grandma Sang (2015)

Bishop Michael Curry elected Presiding Bishop

This is wonderful news indeed.

I had the great joy to hear Bishop Curry preach several years ago. He is a spell-binding preacher who communicates with joy and passion his love of Jesus Christ. That he is African-American, elected this week, is spine-tingling and significant. He has the gifts to help us share the Good News of Jesus Christ in our world and to help us confront racism and inequality in our church as well as our society

The full article from Episcopal News Service is here.

Episcopal Church General Convention: The Surreal and the Real

Something about this tweet captures my ambivalent feelings about the work of the Episcopal Church General Convention.

Screenshot 2015-06-25 07.28.47

 

Perhaps the Episcopal Church has made statements against the death penalty since 1956, but in those 59 years, how many Episcopalian judges, governors, legislators, prosecutors, and jurors have colluded in death penalty sentences?

(Episcopal Church General Convention: The Surreal and the Real may become a regular feature of this blog over the next week).

The Book of Common Prayer

The Commemoration of the First Book of Common Prayer is observed on “a weekday after Pentecost.” In our calendar this year, that means it is observed today (Monday was the Venerable Bede, yesterday, Augustine of Canterbury. The collect for this day reads:

Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer, A Biography:

But a religious book is limited in its ability to learn because it is concerned to teach; and a prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unles we say its words in our voices. It can learn with us, but only if we consent to learn from it. There are relatively few, now, who give that consent to the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal–now as in 1549–is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith (p. 194)

 

I said this while reflecting on Jaobs’ book a couple of years ago:

As I was reading, I was reminded again of the role the Book of Common Prayer has played in my own spiritual journey. It was the means of my conversion to Anglicanism and it continues to shape my spirituality and my religious experience. Its language and prayers have become my own. In other words, if Cranmer’s goal in 1549 was to make the Book of Common Prayer “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith,” it still holds that power. I see that same power in those among who I minister as well. I sometimes think that liturgical reformers and those who would do away with the BCP altogether lack faith in its transformational power and lack faith too, in the power of people to re-appropriate its language and imagery to meet their particular needs and contexts.

I’m struck by the last couple of sentences considering the rumblings going through the church right now about Prayer Book revision as well as the various resolutions the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music have submitted to General Convention (You can read incisive commentary on those revisions from Scott Gunn here). It seems to me that before undertaking such changes, whether tinkering around the edges or full-scale revision, we need to think carefully and creatively about the role of the Book of Common Prayer in our common life in the twenty-first century.

On the one hand, there’s a tendency to fetishize the BCP (whether the 1662, the 1928, or I suppose, even the 1979), to regard a particular version as normative for all time. On the other hand, there’s another tendency to want to revise it regularly. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that as the institutional church collapses, the things that bind it together may lose their power as well. That is true of the Book of Common Prayer. Can its language, disciplines, and rituals continue to shape people when they no longer experience it as a “book?” And what might its demise mean for Anglicanism as a living tradition within Christianity?