Saturday, August 1, 2015

Street Jesus

Preached on the occasion of The Rev. Michael Bordelon’s ordination to the priesthood.
There’s a short cartoon strip making its way around social media. It goes something like this.
A young man is having a private conversation with Jesus under the shade of a small tree. The two are facing one another, perched on a couple of large stones.
Signaling his passion and sincerity, the young man leans in toward Jesus. His hands punch and sweep the air as he speaks. He says, “You keep talking about love and justice and reconciliation. How can you allow so much hunger and poverty, suffering and degradation, violence and prejudice in the world?”
Jesus is listening patiently. When the young man finishes, Jesus calmly says, “That’s funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Jesus is not speaking to just that young man. He’s talking to you and me. He’s talking to the Church. God has a mission, and he has a Church to carry out that mission.
The concluding prayer from the Litany for Ordination could not make this any clearer. 
The bishop prays for God to look favorably upon God’s Church. He then goes on to pray that God’s providence carry out the plan of salvation. 
In other words, God is carrying out the plan of Salvation through the Church. God is raising up what has been cast down, making new what has grown old, and bringing all things to perfection through Jesus.
The Church is a Eucharistic community. A Eucharistic community is more than a group of people who like to worship in a particular way.
The essence of the Eucharist is this. 
We gather to give ourselves to Jesus just as as we are. Shabby, distracted, hesitant, fearful, cranky, wounded, irritable, lonely, foot sore, and world weary. We could use a shower, a cup of coffee, a talking to, a vacation, or at least a long nap.
The world is big and beautiful, ruined and aching. Its problems are too big for us. And we fragile, fractious humans happen to be one of the world’s biggest problems.

So, against all reason, Jesus bids us give our too small, too timid selves to him.
In turn, Jesus gives us back to ourselves as the very Body of Christ. He weaves us into his eternal life, into his very self.
Now for those who seek merely to be comforted, to get our fill and take to the La-Z-Boy, to get the holy cookie and take a little snooze, I have some disturbing news. The Body of Christ  does not take well to the sedentary life.
Jesus is, after all, the redeemer, the restorer, and the healer of the entire creation. Once we get woven into his Body, we are engaged in God’s mission whether we like it or not. 
We may engage enthusiastically or indifferently. We may take great risks in the name of Jesus or play it safe in the name of our own comfort and security. 
But Jesus has made us instruments of God’s mission. We will be either effective, useful instruments or go dull and rusty through disuse.
Today we gather to ordain Michael Bordelon to the Sacred Order of Priests. It’s a big day for Michael, his family, and his friends. But let’s be clear that the sacrament we celebrate today is not all about Michael. The sacrament of ordination is about the Church.
God is ordering—renewing, refreshing, and transforming—the very Body of Christ to make it more capable of engaging God’s mission.
We have not gathered to watch God do something to Michael. We have gathered to submit ourselves to God’s ordering—God’s shaping and forming and organizing—of all of us. 
Michael is being woven into all of us—into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—in a new way. He is one of the baptized entrusted with the care, the nurture, and the goading of all the baptized.
Michael is being remade. And we are all being remade along with him.
Michael, today you are accepting God’s invitation to play a particular role in God’s gathering and sending of God’s people. You are being given the gift and grace to gather people around Jesus’ holy word and his holy Table.
You are to preside at Jesus’ feast for God’s people and to lead them into the world for which Jesus has given his life.

Neither seminary, nor ordination, nor years of faithfully studying, preaching, and teaching the Gospel will make you a God expert. 
Some people expect priests to be God experts. But let’s be honest with each other. There is no such thing. We are all just children in the infinite depths of the divine mysteries.
You will only betray your vocation, diminish your soul, and do violence to the people God calls you to serve if you think that you are a God expert and expect others to treat you like one.
You are God’s beloved, just like every other baptized person (well, like every person, sparrow, dandelion, carp, electron, galaxy, and caterpillar, but that’s a sermon for another day). 
Like every baptized person God’s love for you lays a very specific claim on your life forever.
Like all of the baptized, God’s love beckons you to love God and love your neighbor. Loving God comes to fruition when we give ourselves to being God’s instrument of redemption, healing, and restoration on this planet.
And now, Michael, I ask you to stand to receive your charge. 
We ordain people to the priesthood—we are ordaining you to the priesthood—to keep reminding God’s Church that we are God’s beloved and to keep goading us to act like it. 
Get out of your office and into your neighborhood. Feast on Word and Sacrament in order to be the Gospel in the world. Love your people so that they will follow you out of the building and onto the streets. 
Jesus is already out there. Let’s not keep him waiting any longer.
This sermon was preached at St. James Episcopal Church in Alexandria, LA.

Monday, July 27, 2015

How Episcopalians Believe

This is the second post in the series "Getting Our Bearings." To read part one click here.

Websites for Episcopal congregations frequently include a “What We Believe” page. 
Some of these pages refer to or even reprint the Catechism found in The Book of Common Prayer. Others list central theological doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation. A few provide accessible explanations of the Creeds.
Articulating what we believe is an indispensable dimension of the spiritual life. A number of detractors have criticized us for failing to believe anything because many of us believe that theological ideas develop over time. We seem to them to be swapping out old beliefs for new ones.
Henri Martin's "Reflected Willow on the Green"

The charge that we believe nothing is simply false. Instead, we mean something different by “believe” from what our critics seem to mean. So in what follows, I want to talk about how we believe.
Talking about how we believe is not meant to provide an account of the faith formation process or to explain how we offer evidence for our theological and moral concepts. To put it simply, we will spend some time considering what Episcopalians mean by the word “believe.”
To provide a sense of where this essay is headed, I will paraphrase Richard Rohr. The truth is eternal. How we grasp it, articulate it, and express it is not.
In some Christian circles, there is only one form of believing. To believe means to assent to a fact. A belief—the content of what you believe—is a plain statement of fact. Something like this: the cat is on the mat. No interpretation is needed. What we say simply mirrors the reality in front of us.
Philosophers call this the correspondence theory of truth. The mind is a mirror. What we believe is true when the ideas we champion are an accurate reflection of the world around us.
This concept of truth is perfectly workable for our everyday routines. For instance, the traffic light is red so I must stop (unless I am in Shreveport, in which case I must floor it). Or, only this key on my keyring will fit in the chapel door.
How we believe spiritual truth differs from how we believe simple facts. Our finite minds cannot fully, perfectly, finally comprehend the infinite mystery that is God. 
Albert Bierstadt's "Sunset in the Yosemite Valley"

Take for instance the word “beautiful.” I have called sunsets and Mozart piano sonatas beautiful. We also say that God is beautiful. And yet we all recognize that the word as it applies to these finite things cannot adequately express the perfect, eternal beauty of the Holy. 
As Thomas Aquinas put it, I use the same word to talk about finite sensual things and the infinite, spiritual character of God. The word cannot possibly mean precisely the same thing in each case. However, the word provide an analogy that helps us to draw closer to our Maker.
Jesus characterized his own human-divine nature with metaphors: Bread of Life, Light of the World, True Vine. He taught his disciples using parables. Metaphors and parables are not mental reflections of spiritual facts. We return to them again and again to find deeper meaning and to be stretched mentally and spiritually to receive ever more of God’s presence.
Olafur Eliasson's "Beauty"

How we Episcopalians believe is appropriate to what we believe. Or to put it more accurately, how we believe is appropriate to who believes in us.
We are growing—always growing—in our knowledge and love of the eternal, infinite one who loves us first. Believing for us is not merely our assent to a set of unchanging spiritual facts. Believing is beloving, yielding to an unrelenting love.
How we articulate what we are learning about our beloved develops over time. Jesus does not change. But by his grace, over time, how we inhabit his love will grow.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Response to the Lafayette Shootings

Last night an Alabama man opened fire in a Lafayette movie theater. He killed two young women and wounded nine other people before turning his gun on himself. 
Among the wounded are two members of one of our local Episcopal parishes and the mother of a student attending a local Episcopal school. There seems to be no personal connection between the shooter and any of his victims. He was attending a comedy.
Words fail to express the shock and sorrow so many of us feel in response to yet another act of senseless, irrational violence. Our hearts go out to the victims, to their families, and to the entire community of Lafayette.
Join me in praying for those who died. May they rest in peace and rise in glory. May the merciful God comfort and console their grieving families and friends.

Join me in prayer for those who were wounded. May their recovery be swift and complete, and may God’s healing touch guide the medical personnel caring for them.
Finally, pray for the deceased shooter. Nothing excuses his disregard for the infinite value of human life and his destructive violence. And yet our Lord teaches us to pray even for those who would do us harm and who would reject our prayers. May the infinitely loving God have mercy on his tormented soul.
My heart and mind—probably much like your own—are reeling with the specific horror and agony of the Lafayette shootings. Nevertheless, I am also mindful that these shootings join what seems like an endless stream of senseless violence across our country.
This is not the time to outline a detailed Christian response to our epidemic of violence. But there is space to name it for what it is: an epidemic. The medicine for this epidemic is the Gospel. And that Gospel teaches us to be peacemakers.

We followers of Jesus are not helpless in the face of violence. But we must take the risk to ask how we contribute—in many cases unconsciously and unintentionally—to a cultural addiction to violence. And we must have the courage to take the risky steps and to make the difficult changes to overcome violence with the peace that passes all understanding.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Getting Our Bearings

This post is the first in the series "Getting Our Bearings." 
Our Presiding Bishop-elect, The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, says that Jesus did not come to start an organization. He started a movement, the Jesus movement.
The Church is a movement. We are a Jesus-transformed, Jesus-gathered group of people sent by that same Jesus to be his hands and feet and hearts in the world. He continues his mission through us. Through his Church Jesus continues to restore, to heal, and to reconcile a shattered world.
The key to being true to the movement is being true to Jesus. Being true to Jesus cannot be separated from being true to his followers. And being true to Jesus’ followers is among our chief challenges.
John William Waterhouse's "Windflowers"

Here’s what I mean. 
The Church is not a club that we can join and then quit in favor of a more comfortable or agreeable assembly. We find ourselves in the Jesus movement because Jesus chose us. And so it is with everyone else in the movement. The Church, this holy movement, is a fellowship not of our own choosing.
Jesus loves us. That is our starting point. On our best days, we love Jesus back. What complicates our ability to return Christ’s love for us is his requirement that we love him by loving those he loves. And to be honest, Jesus is frustratingly prodigal in his love.
Jesus apparently loves people whose opinions differ from our own on a variety of significant matters. We disagree about politics, but we also see things differently about theological, moral, and social justice matters.
The Church is and has always been a movement in which our unity as Christ’s beloved is at once a gift and an achievement. We are one by virtue of the gift of Christ’s love for, transformation of, and sending of us. We achieve our unity by learning again and again to focus upon what binds us together while allowing for differences that do not undermine our basic identity as the Body of Christ.
Stanley Spencer's "Map Reading"

We are entering a new season as the Jesus movement. Social, cultural, political, economic, and technological changes call forth from us a new articulation of the eternal Gospel of God’s unquenchable love in Jesus Christ. To engage this mission, we have to get our bearings.
By getting our bearings, I mean in part seeing with clarity the shifting topography of our social, historical context. But more basic still is our need to understand how we as Episcopalians go about the activity of being Church.
How do we sort out what is essential and what we can peacefully disagree about? What are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason? What kind of authority do they have? How do we understand the authority of the Bible? How do we read the Bible? What is our moral theology? What is our worship and how does it relate to God’s mission?

In the days ahead I will address these and other questions by way of getting our bearings as the Jesus movement. These essays will not build one upon the other in a systematic way. They can be read separately or in any order. However, they will form a kind of web or constellation of ideas that I hope will help us to walk the road ahead together.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Faith and Fear and Courage

My father Sam grew up in Gaffney, South Carolina, during the Great Depression. In those days, Gaffney’s economy centered around textile mills. The Owensbys worked in one of those mills and lived in one of the company-owned little houses in the mill village. 
Sam was the youngest of thirteen children. He was just fourteen on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the Second World War. The next month he turned fifteen, ran away from home, lied about his age, and joined the Navy. He served in the Pacific throughout the war on a variety of warships.

Mobile Cotton Mill Village

Storms were a fairly common experience, but my father remembered one in particular. Their ship had been tossed by massive waves and battered by gale-force winds for days. The kitchen couldn’t provide hot food. Drinking water was running desperately short. And the ship was steadily taking on water.
Finally, the captain came over the intercom. He told them that they had been a good crew. It had been an honor to serve with them. The ship was going down. May God have mercy on their souls.