28 March 2011

VTS Forum Event Next Week

I don't write much here about my job as coordinator of the VTS Forum Hour, but we've got a big event next week that I'm trying to promote as widely as possible. Plus I'm genuinely excited and wanted to share the news! Tell your friends!

Special Guest Next Week

The Rev. Stephanie SpellersNext week, 4/4-4/6, the Rev. Stephanie Spellers will visit VTS to meet students and be part of several special events. Many of you know of Rev. Steph and her work. She serves as priest and lead organizer for The Crossing community, a fresh expression of church within the life of St. Paul's Cathedral in Boston, and as the Consulting Editor for Emergent Resources for Church Publishing in New York. She is co-chair of the Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism and travels the country consulting and supporting Episcopal congregations as we embrace the challenges and opportunities of life in 21st-century America.

Rev. Steph's visit is an opportunity for VTS to get another take on the world of emergence Christianity and some of the ways it expresses itself in an Anglican context. In particular, let me draw your attention to the Tuesday night conversation. We have scheduled this event at 5 p.m. in the Welcome Center to accommodate as many students as possible, knowing that some will have to leave for classes and other commitments. Please come for as much of this evening as you can. If you plan to be around for dinner at 6:15, a dinner that will be worth your while, RSVP to this email and let me know that you're coming.

Please join me in welcoming Rev. Steph when you see her here on campus next week, and do join us for these events with her as you are able.

Many thanks to the following students who have helped plan these events: Mike Angell, Tim Baer, Kirsten Baer, David Erickson, Bert Hall, Gregg Morris, Audrey O'Brien, and Brenda Sol.

In Christ,

Summary of Events

Tuesday at 1: Anglicanism Remixed -- Embracing Our Traditions and The Other

How do we balance a commitment to transformation and radical welcome with love for Anglican traditions? Can you keep the baby but refresh the bathwater? Rev. Stephanie Spellers leads this interactive forum exploring multicultural, emergent visions of Anglicanism.

Date: Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Time: 1-1:50 p.m.
Location: Gibbs Room
Contact: Kyle Oliver, koliver@vts.edu

Tuesday at 5: Dreaming with Both Feet on the Ground

A session for students considering ministry as innovators, church planters, and church redevelopers (or anyone who wants to introduce radical welcome and fresh expressions in a conventional congregation). Please join us for an introductory session at 5 p.m. and/or an informal, no-cost dinner around 6:15. Please RSVP for dinner to koliver@vts.edu.

Date: Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Time: 5-7:30 p.m.
Location: Welcome Center
Contact: Kyle Oliver, koliver@vts.edu

Wednesday at 12: Seminary Eucharist

Rev. Steph will preside as we use the Eucharistic liturgy from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the ELCA worship book. Bishop Richard Graham, bishop of the Metropolitan Washington DC Synod ELCA, will be our Lutheran preacher for this service in observance of our Lutheran-Episcopal full communion agreement.

Date: Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Time: 12-1 p.m.
Location: Prayer Hall
Contact: Mitzi Budde, mjbudde@vts.edu

27 March 2011

Last Sermon for a While

I've preached three of the last four Sundays, so I'm looking forward to a bit of a homiletical hiatus. Still, it's been a rewarding month for this preacher-in-training. Here's what I had to say today on John 4:5-42:

Throughout the centuries, readers of today's story from John's gospel have encountered the passage, taken in its many details, marveled at what one expert called this “first full example of [John's] dramatic ability,”1 and emerged from their careful study with one lingering and important question: “Why does it have to be so long?” Of course I kid, but the designers of our lectionary are not ignorant of our attention spans or of the necessary vocal endurance it will take for deacons throughout the church to belt out this hefty portion of the good news today. So let's let the question stand. Couldn't we do justice to the story while shaving off a few verses? Couldn't we, for instance, have heard only the first half? When this passage came up in the church's daily lectionary a week ago, that's exactly how we got it: the encounter with the woman one day, the follow-up with the disciples the next day.

I think if we look closely at what actually happens in this story, the logic of sticking to our full dose will become clear. So, if you can, think back to the beginning. Jesus is fatigued and thirsty after a morning's travel. He asks for a drink of water from a woman he encounters near a well and, after the initial exchange says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (10). The woman replies, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (11). Jesus tells her that she's misunderstood him: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (13-14). In other words, the woman has underestimated Jesus's person and promise. The living, flowing water is not a physical gift that relieves us of the need for our daily H20; it sounds more like a spiritual gift, like his teaching and his sharing of the Spirit.2 Of course, he and the woman say lots of other things, but let's leave it at this for our gloss of Scene One: the woman and the water.

In the second half of the story, we see Jesus turn his attention to the disciples. As is often the case, they start off scandalized by the company he's chosen to keep, but then they move on to more immediate midday concerns: “Rabbi, eat something,” they say, and he replies, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Like the woman, they initially miss the point: “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” they say. And as with the woman, Jesus chooses to enlighten them about their misunderstanding: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” So the disciples underestimate him as well. He is sustained not by material food, he says, but by his mission.3 So that's Scene Two: the disciples and the food.

The importance of these parallels, I believe, is that each scene contains a challenge, and these challenges are related. In Scene Two, the challenge is pretty direct and obvious: it's to make Jesus's mission our mission. He says, “I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (35). Now, as then, the time is ripe for us to go out and reap what God and other servants have sewn. The time is ripe because the need is great, and without even knowing it we reap God's harvest as we speak a word of hope to a neighbor or engage in an act of solidarity with a stranger.

Scene One, I think, contains a similar challenge, not about mission this time but about devotion. To say it briefly, we have to choose to drink the water, a choice that will affect us every day of our lives. Like staying hydrated on a hot summer day, “being watered” by our Lord takes discipline; it's not a lot of work, but we have to remember to do it. Drinking the water is about letting the risen Christ into our lives or—better yet—about taking time to realize that he is already there inside us. There are lots of ways to do this, of course: perhaps prayer, bible study, or just quiet time with God. That a little effort each day can make a lifetime of difference in our relationship with God is surely a sign that the Spirit is active in our lives and working within us to transform our hearts.

So, I said that the challenges Jesus has in store for us in this passage are related, and this is the point I want to really want to make clear. The way they're related makes a difference, because this is probably the point in the sermon where we all start to feel a little weary. It sounds, I'll admit, suspiciously like I'm trying to add to our to-do lists, maybe not just for Lent but for the rest of our lives. Perhaps, as it does to me, the very prospect exhausts you.

Well, let's take a tip from Bishop Sutton for a moment. I loved the point he made toward the end of his sermon when he was with us back in February. He asked us to notice that Jesus didn't say, “You are the pepper of the earth.” It strikes me that we'll get a better handle on this morning's gospel passage if we think about what else Jesus didn't say. He didn't say, for instance, “I came that you might have another to-do list, and feel guiltier about it.” He didn't say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will add to them.” No, what he said was that he has innumerable good gifts to offer us: life abundant, rest for the weary, and, today, food and water for our journey, what John Calvin called “the secret energy by which [God] restores life in us.”4 The way our two challenges this morning are related is that Jesus claims they will sustain us.

So maybe the real challenge is simply to hear that good news—“I have food to eat that you do not know about”; “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”—to hear that good news and believe it. Believe that Jesus's food, which is to do God's will, really can nourish our lives. Believe that Jesus's living water really can quench our spiritual thirst if we but stop and drink. Believe that God alone can sustain us.

This is where I think we can help each other out. Have you ever heard someone talk about a change in their life and seen the incontrovertible signs that this change is bearing fruit for them? Perhaps they light up at the mention of a new outreach project they've been participating in, chronicling it for you not because they want to boast, but because all the joyful details just kind of bubble up. Or perhaps they get very quiet and shy as they admit during a small-group conversation that they've had a profound experience of God, one they think might stick with them for years to come. They can't really make sense of it rationally, but neither can they dismiss it and go on as if nothing had ever happened. Does hearing about those experiences ever stir something in you? Does it start to make Jesus's promises today sound a little less far-fetched?

Let me risk a personal example. I have this inkling that the practice of keeping a journal might be a good idea for me. This is not something I want to do. It sounds exhausting. Seminarians write a lot, much of it under duress, and the thought of adding even just a couple more paragraphs each day was enough to invoke in me something approaching despair. But I had a conversation recently with a friend who has been diligently journaling for years. And when I hear her talk about all that she's learned about herself in those pages, and how much this record of her struggles and her triumphs has meant to her as the years have passed, I start to believe that keeping a journal could be a source of life for me too, a way of deepening my awareness of how God is working within me. I'm starting to believe, and so far I haven't been disappointed. It may not stick, of course, but for now it does feel like the kind of blessing Jesus promises us today.

So how about you? How do you need to be sustained by deepening your life of mission and devotion? How have you been sustained by these things in the past? My prayer for us today is that we ask ourselves these questions—and especially that we ask each other. That Christ can sustain us in this way with his food and his living water is such good news that it can be almost impossible for us to believe. In this third week of Lent, let's try to help each other's unbelief.

1 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997): 342.

2 See Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (i–xii) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966): 178-180.

3 Anchor, 181.

4 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005): 149.

15 March 2011

Little Rock...Rocks

So, I was in Little Rock this past weekend preaching at St. Mark's Episcopal Church. What a thoroughly lovely parish and a fun experience. If you ever get to Little Rock, definitely check out Whole Hog; it had been far too long since I had real barbecue. Anyway, here's the sermon I preached on Romans 5:12-19.


Good morning, my name is Kyle Oliver, and I bring you greetings from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where I'm a second-year divinity student. I'm here thanks to the kind generosity of this parish and especially of Mary and Dean Kumpuris, who sponsor a scholarship for seminarians in memory of their daughter Anne. I am very grateful to be here, and I'm grateful to be your guest preacher this morning, even if it is the First Sunday of Lent.

I've gotta tell you, though, that's the last thing I thought I'd be saying when I first starting preparing this sermon. You see, my mind kept leaping back to an Ash Wednesday sermon I heard several years ago. It was given by a priest who may very well be the sweetest, gentlest man that I know. But you wouldn't have guessed it sitting in the pews that day. He very starkly laid out the situation for us, starting with words like “We are all here guilty of the sin of idolatry!” And it turned out that he was just getting warmed up. It was a shocking experience, and it has stayed with me as a real landmark sermon for the beginning of Lent. “Uh oh,” I said, “I don't think a sermon like that would be an advisable way to begin a relationship with people who had just given me money for school.”

Imagine my relief, then, when I got a look at our passage from the fifth chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans. It speaks quite well to our Lenten situation, and it views the problem of our sinfulness in proper proportion. The message here is profoundly upbeat, very much in the spirit of our psalm's opening line: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven * and whose sin is put away” (Psalm 32:1). Of course, that joy comes after several stages of reflection, examination, and confession. The first step is acknowledging that we are among this potentially happy lot. Paul makes no bones about this first point: “death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). And so we are right to face the reality our sins, our weakness, and even our wickedness. Good Protestants that we are, we ground this reflection in scripture. On Ash Wednesday, we take a deep breath and march through a very difficult liturgy, listening as the readings and prayers form for us a list of our transgressions against God's holy law. We need this list of the charges, because, as Paul writes next, “sin is not reckoned when there is no law” (13). So in the season of Lent, we are first called to wake up to the reality of our situation. We take note of the full extent of the law and our failure to keep it, and this renewed awareness “reckons” to us—points out to us in no uncertain terms—our enslavement to sin in all its weight and inevitability. So that's step one on our penitential journey: taking stock of our sinful situation.

Now it's in the next step—perhaps even more so than in all the sinning we've been up to previously—that we can go seriously astray. In this next step, we decide, usually without even realizing it, that we're going to make it all up to God. We're going to change our ways, put things right, take responsibility for our actions, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in splendidly self-sufficient fashion. We're good Americans, after all, and we believe in accountability. And so all our well-meaning Lenten disciplines take on a note not just of penance, a means of saying we're sorry, but of punishment, a means of suffering for and therefore, we hope, atoning for our wrongdoing.

This, Paul says, is precisely the wrong response to our predicament. Death is indeed “exercis[ing] dominion” over us (14), but we cannot flea to freedom through our own efforts. And this is where we get to the good news, which is plentiful. First and foremost, it is the news that we do not need to earn our freedom. It has been earned for us, and it is—Paul says no less than five times in this passage—a free gift. As in really and truly free. No shipping and handling. No mandatory mail-in rebate. Our redemption is a free gift that we need not and indeed cannot earn or pay for.

What's more, Paul says, the power of this gift is like no other force in the universe. Listen again to what he writes next: “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass [that would be Adam], much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification” (15-16). In other words, the effects of sin spread like a cancer. Adam and Eve eat the apple and—boom—we're off and running, multiplying transgression upon transgression. But on the other hand, the free gift of God's grace can and does wipe clean the face of the earth and usher in an era of abundant health and wholeness, of true and abiding rightness with God in Christ. As a very literal translation would render what comes next, “where sin abounded, grace overabounded” (17).

I implied earlier, I hope somewhat provocatively, that this whole “free gift” gospel that Paul preaches in all its power does not sit very well with our American sensibilities. We want so desperately to earn what we have. We want, like Mrs. DuBose in To Kill A Mockingbird, to live in and then depart this world “beholden to no one.” It's encoded in our national ethos that there is something lazy or shameful about asking for help, about even needing help. By confronting us with our own sinfulness and mortality, Lent seeks to relieve us of this toxic but pernicious thought. This is the second stage of our Lenten reflection, and it will take many of us an awful lot of Lents to get the message—myself, I fear, quite definitely included.

I heard an interview recently with Eugene Peterson, author of the popular paraphrase of the Bible known as The Message. It sounds like Peterson can relate to our plight. When the interviewer asked him if his faith had ever been tested, he talked about a particular time in his life: “Yeah, those early years that I call the Badlands, when my competitive instincts weren't working anymore. There were six years when nothing seemed to be working.” The interviewer asked, “How did you get over it? Did it just pass, or did you have to really work at it?” Peterson answered, “Well, you see that was the problem. I was used to working at things, and now working at things didn't make any difference. So I found some people to talk to. I started running … so that became a way of being competitive without being competitive … We started keeping Sabbaths, my wife and I … We just kind of lived into that Sabbath world of rest … So there were a number of things like that. It wasn't a program. It goes each step an arrival; each thing we did led to something else. After six years, I can't tell you what happened, but here I was, I was whole. All that stuff had gotten integrated into something which was more like a joyful, obedient life rather than a striving, mastering life.” Listen to that. “Working at it” was part of the problem, he says. Learning to receive was part of the solution. And in the end, he “cant' really tell [us] what happened … [he] was [just] whole.”

I think we would do well to treat our Lenten journeys, and especially our Lenten disciplines, with the same soft hands Peterson used to receive the wholeness God had in store for him. During this season, and throughout our lives, we can and should say that we're sorry. We can and should renew our commitment to doing the best we can, and expect that God's gift of grace in our lives will gradually raise that bar higher and higher. But if our Lenten discipline becomes another venue for trying to earn a free gift that has already been bestowed, then heaven make us free of it. Not to be overdramatic, but such practices are not just pointless, but dangerous. In the words of spiritual writer Martin Smith, if we can't learn in Lent to accept our creatureliness and imperfection, then we will become a “menace” and not a “grace” to the people we encounter, and to ourselves. It will turn us into self-hating perfectionists and turn our life of faith into a piety contest. And a piety contest, it was recently pointed out to me, is no more likely than a pie-eating contest to win us the peace of God that we seek. Lent, I believe, seeks to teach us to receive that peace as pure gift, not earned by our merits but freely given through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ.

04 March 2011

Another Take on "The Real Problem" in Anglicanism Today

I recently read with some exhaustion a Living Church account (though not this one) of the Mere Anglicanism conference held in Charleston, SC, back in January. The theme of the conference was "Biblical Anglicanism for a Global Future: Recovering the Power of the Word of God." I have to say, especially in the added light of following this week's hubbub around Rob Bell's new book, I'm getting awfully tired of having my faith be portrayed as "unbiblical" by people who, in good faith, read the bible differently from how I read it (which manner is, I believe, also in good faith).

One particular case in point is the following comment about the Rev. Charles Raven's session "The Wages of Synthesis or Lasting Treasure? Recovering the Power of the Word of Truth." (In fairness to Raven, let me preface all this by acknowledging that I'm relying on Daniel Muth's account of his position, so I'm happy to stand corrected if I'm misrepresenting him.)

Raven described Archbishop Rowan Williams as a brilliant committed Christian beset with an ultimately unworkable combination of hermeneutical pessimism (Scripture is unclear) and ecclesiastical optimism (if we talk long enough we will find common ground). Despite the archbishop's best efforts, treating Christian orthodoxy as process rather than proposition does not keep all parties at the table, Raven said.

It seems to me that the accusation of "hermeneutical pessimism" gets to the very heart of what is tearing us all apart right now. I believe Williams is a hermeneutical realist; he acknowledges that faithful people encounter the biblical text and reach different conclusions about what it means. You can call that an attack on "the Power of the Word of Truth" if you like, but . . . well again, we ultimately arrive at me saying something like "but we're going to have to agree to disagree on that point." I believe we are called to a more hopeful and realistic doctrine of the Truth of Scripture, one that is neither relativistic nor threatened by the existence of a diversity of interpretation. We don't have to be soft on truth to be firmly convinced that no party sees it in its entirety but, rather, "in a mirror, dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12).

And so it goes. The demand that orthodoxy be purely about proposition is common enough, but the history of Christianity shows--in my reading of it, though some of my classmates understandably disagree--that we've never gotten very far at living out our catholicity when we demand of all our fellow communicants rigid adherence to a universally agreed upon dogmatic program. Indeed, you could do a lot worse than to interpret the term "Mere Anglicanism" in exactly that spirit: our tradition chose to acknowledge the difficulty of demanding uniformity of doctrine, so we dedicated ourselves to sharing common worship. (Then again, I got into one of the two shouting matches I've been in during seminary defending that position.)

What seems especially unfair about Raven's claim (or, again, Muth's gloss of it) is the language about keeping "all parties at the table." It sounds like we can agree, at least provisionally, that doing so is an admirable goal. But why is it intractable under the Williams formula (hermeneutical pessimism + ecclesiastical optimism)? Because the hermeneutical optimists want us pessimists to either (1) see the light and change our tune, (2) leave the table because of our dogmatic unworthiness, or (3) allow them to take the table with them somewhere else. Keep in mind that subscribers to the Williams formula are not--by and large, though we have some things to repent of, I believe--asking anyone to leave the table. What is communion, our position leads us to ask, but continuing to sit at the table and talk about the things we disagree about? So take note: in this program, no one's being forced out (this is absolutely essential to the integrity and cost of the position, and I think my "side" has blown it in a couple of instances), though some do choose to leave.

On the other hand, what of the converse position? What would happen if the dominant formula were hermeneutical optimism (Scripture is clear) and ecclesiastical pessimism (no amount of talking will lead us to identify common ground)? That table seems to have people leaving in droves: First, most of us hermeneutical pessimists will be forced to leave for our unwillingness to sign on the dotted line (except for those few whose individual interpretations happen to fall in line and who are willing to push away from the table their brothers and sisters for whom that is not the case). Second (and of course this one is subject to my biases as a hermeneutical pessimist), there will be the inevitable trickling out of those hermeneutical optimists who find, not that their optimism was misplaced (Scripture is clear!), but that their fellow optimists just happen (out of ignorance? unfaithfulness? outright rebellion against God?) to be wrong about some point or the other. In this alternative, even if "the Power of the [unambiguous] Word of Truth" heads off the secondary trickle that has never heretofore been headed off, an awful lot of people get forced out.

So we have two alternatives, both resulting in the original table seating many fewer guests. How do we choose among them? Well, hermeneutical pessimist that I am, I return to 1 Corinthians 13:12 and then keep on reading:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Final reflections:

(1) I'm sorry about all the polemical Us vs. Them here, I really am. This article has just been eating away at me all week, and I needed to get my objections out there in the open. Obviously, the terms Raven/Muth set out here are fundamentally inadequate to capturing the complexities of the situation. But there's a kernel of truth here that teaches us quite a bit about what all the fuss is about.

(2) Obviously, the combination of hermeneutical optimism AND ecclesiastical optimism is an attractive third option and may best account for why the Anglican Communion has made it this far with its current level of intactness. And I certainly want us to go forward with an approach that is deeply grounded in faithfulness to scripture and that trusts in the Spirit's power to guide the Church into all truth. But aren't we asking too much of the Bible if we expect it to somehow be the unambiguous arbiter of all our doctrinal disagreements? And isn't that what Raven, in comparing hermeneutical optimism favorably to Williams' ecclesiastical approach, ultimately does?

I don't think you have to be a radical historical-critical biblical skeptic to believe the Bible contains some pretty significant ambiguities on issues that matter to our modern life together. This is why I prefer the term "hermeneutical realist" and why I believe that love--God's love for us, our love for God, our love for each other, and Christ's longing for us all to be one--is the only force strong enough to keep us all at the table.

(3) Incidentally, does anyone know why these Living Church issues keep ending up in the VTS mailboxes? Did the seminary score, like, a complimentary subscription for all its students? What about at the other seminaries? I'm not speaking ill of my hometown's ecclesiastical periodical (indeed, I'm grateful, even on a day where I've frittered away my entire afternoon on a blog post about a single paragraph on page 26 of the February issue), but it's slightly creepy to be getting a magazine without knowing why.