03 December 2012

Shutting down blogger blog, moving to WordPress

Hi friends,

I'm writing to let you know that I'm shutting down my blogger blog after having ported CSC over to Wordpress. Check out www.kyleoliver.net for an expanded site, including all past blog content (and new posts, of course) at http://www.kyleoliver.net/blog/. Needless to say, it's a work in progress, but I think it's starting to look alright. The feed is available at http://www.kyleoliver.net/feed/.

I'm very sorry to break this link and this feed, but it needed to happen for technical reasons and for my continued professional development.


05 November 2012

Gathering with the Saints: A sermon for All Saints Sunday

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Ephesians 1:11-22 (All Saints Day, Year C [long story], RCL)

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15–16). I hope the author of the Letter to the Ephesians won’t mind me borrowing these words. I share their sense of thanksgiving, though I direct them at a different church at a different time. You see, when I think of the saints and a city’s love for them, I think first of my pilgrimage to Rome.

I was there with a group of seminarians and clergy representing VTS at churches and events throughout the Eternal City, including mass at an English-speaking Jesuit parish and even a papal audience. We brought to Italy all kinds of questions on our syllabus. But perhaps most of all, we went to figure out what we might make of the saints. That was certainly the case for me.

“What do we make of the saints?” I see now that it was the wrong question, too concerned with forming a theological position. The better question for a pilgrimage is this: “What did God make of the saints?” Or, borrowing again from Ephesians, “What are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints?” What did God give to them? What does God give us, through them? These are questions for an encounter.

Our group’s most intimate encounter took place not in Rome but on a day trip to Assisi. That medieval town captures well, through juxtaposition, the power of God’s gifts to Blessed Francis, who was born into wealth but came to embrace a path of poverty. The people who built a basilica in his honor seem to have forgotten the humility of his spiritual heritage. So we pilgrims were drawn first and foremost not to the basilica but to the modest oratory of San Damiano, where young Francis once prayed and heard Christ on the cross tell him “Francis, rebuild my church.”

Several of my companions and I spent five or ten quiet minutes in the tiny, dilapidated nave. As we shuffled in awkwardly, we gave each other some space and slowly settled in to pray. I looked up at a replica of that painted, once-talking crucifix, and the moment took on a noticable weight. No, Jesus didn’t talk to me. But I was aware that I was soaking up … something.

When we exited, my friend Caleb asked “Did anybody else feel that?” He and I had not been alone. We didn’t know what that was, exactly. But I’m pretty sure the group had, together, a gentle but profound experience of the grace and presence of our Lord. Francis’s witness to the simplicity of the spiritual life became a window through which we caught that glimpse. Saints are like that: windows for beholding grace.

We were also fortunate to take a number of “vertical tours” of other important sites, descending through the layers of time to the streets of Rome in the first few centuries of the Church. The most dramatic of these was our tour of the Vatican necropolis. Several stories below St. Peter’s Basilica, these excavations uncovered in the 1940s the site that many believe to be Peter’s final resting place. Our earnest tour guide made a compelling case for their authenticity, but the significance for me wasn’t about whether the several visible bones we saw belonged to St. Peter or not.
What was moving to me was both the tenacity and the tenderness with which these Roman Christians, like their forebearers, claimed Peter as one of their own. The same was true of other saints at the major churches around the city. “Here lies St. Agnes,” we heard later in the week on her feast day. “She was was one of us.”

So our trip painted an interesting picture of our “inheritance among the saints.” We saw them serve as windows for grace, their gifts enlightening our hearts to see the power of God and the persistence of Christ’s call. We saw them serve as links in the great chain of the Christian faith, binding us one to another across both time and place. Today we give thanks for those links as we bind ourselves in the Spirit to Michael Sebastian Freeland in the sacrament of baptism, and as we sit with the news that Fr. Andrew will be retiring as rector of St. Paul’s at the end of January.

Such is the liminal nature of the Church God has made of the saints. God has called us to pay particular attention to comings and goings because we witness to a kingdom that has come and is yet to come.

There’s a fatigue that can set in, living this way. It’s the fatigue of Francis and his homeless friars, called by Christ into the countryside to tirelessly preach the gospel. It’s the fatigue of building church on top of church in restless tribute of saints striving to saints in joy. It’s the fatigue of running a church like this one, of filling the rotas and planning the budgets and always saying hello and goodbye to people we love.

But there is more to the story of our “inheritance among the saints.” There is good news that energizes both the Eternal City and the Letter to the Ephesians. It’s one of the things that sets this letter apart from the ones we know for sure that Paul wrote. It’s the fullness of what this writer means by the word “inheritance.”

Our inheritance is that we are to be gathered up.*

Our inheritance is that we are being made a part of the great “fullness of him who fills all in all.” Listen to the verse that immediately precedes our passage from this morning: “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

So our inheritance with the saints is not just our salvation through Christ, which is how St. Paul usually puts it. It’s not just the treasury of past and present witness to that good news, which the saints so boldly proclaimed with words and with their very lives. Our shared inheritance is that we will be made a part of a cosmic unity with the saints and with the one who has already gathered them up. The saints are for us a sign of this inheritance, like the seal with which we are marked by the Holy Spirit in baptism--but easier for us to see, because the saints are dynamic, concrete, human.

I remember the first time I saw the Roman skyline. I was on my way to the stunning Galleria Borghese, north of the central city and up the kind of hill that you’d have to have Borghese money to live on. I was overcome by the number and variety of cupolas and crosses below, every one marking a central point in the life of a real community giving and living their lives to Jesus Christ.

But the next day I discovered an even better place to take in that tableau. So if you find yourself in Rome, and if you can keep it from going to your head, head over to St. Peter’s. Don’t ascend all the way to the cupola, the great dome, or you’ll lose the effect. Head for the rooftop gift shop, but keep walking past it, back toward St. Peter’s Square. You’ll find that you’re approaching, from behind, the statues of the saints that stand on top of the basilica’s facade.

Pick your patron saint, or perhaps head for the statue of Christ himself in the center. Get as close as you can, joining the ranks of those who witnessed to our Lord in life and witness to him still. Then gaze out at the city with them, a city that has the saints in its very bones. What you might experience, by the grace of God, is something like our inheritance in Christ. Not just because it is grand or beautiful or triumphant, but because in that moment you too will be gathered up with those who have been gathered already. Sadly, for now, it will be a fleeting thing.

We went to Rome looking to see our inheritance with the saints, but Ephesians tells us we cannot find it there or anywhere else, because it is a future reality. Our inheritance is, at last and forever, to be gathered up in Christ, with the saints and with all creation. So perhaps, for now, it is enough just to be gathered, gathered around Christ, gathered here, gathered with each other, gathered to celebrate All Saints’ Sunday. May it be, to us, a foretaste of the gathering to come.

* I am indebted here to Paul L. Hammer’s article on “Inheritance” in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 415417.

09 October 2012

"Talking to folks — not organizing them"

I'm feeling inspired today by a recent blog post by my friend Gary Manning, who's obviously been thinking about the same kinds of things I've been thinking about ever since returning from the Episcopal Evangelism Network's Mission Development Conference a couple weeks back.

Here's a taste:

But the people who live near our churches aren’t generalizations. They are very specific! They have specific histories, specific challenges, specific disappointments and specific dreams. Many of them are our friends. We like them and they like us. It would seem these folks could give us some first person insight as to how a community of faith might engage them or be beneficial in their lives. Through such conversations we might better understand how we could more effectively serve our neighbors — you know, the ones Jesus called us to love?
Now if we actively engaged such a project, here’s what I’m pretty sure will not happen. We will not see a dramatic increase in Sunday worship attendance. We will not see the annual operating budget balanced. We will not suddenly be flush with volunteer labor to do all the church chores that have multiplied, like dandelions, in local congregations through the years. So if we’re not going to get more people, more money or more volunteers, what would happen if we risked talking to our neighbors? 
To be honest, I’m not sure, but I’ve decided I’ve got to try and find out. It’s time for me to get out of the office and into the field. It’s time for me to start asking questions and spend time listening to what people have to say (even if some of what they say may not be easy to hear). I don’t expect such an experiment will come easily. There’s always plenty of e-mails to answer, books to read, meetings to attend and blog posts to write. Somehow, though, I will have to break the gravitational choke-hold of busy-ness and get on with the business of Jesus, which seemed to include a fair amount of talking to folks — not organizing them. From time to time I’ll post an update about what I learn. For all of the uncertainty I have around this project, I am, becoming clearer and clearer about one thing.
We church types can no longer simply be content with talking to ourselves.

Check out the whole thing here.

07 October 2012

Bohr Doodle Googlers: Welcome

I've written in the past that one of the best things I ever did for my blog's traffic was to name it after a Latin expression that folks occasionally have reason to look up. For the kind of traffic I'm used to, today is a significant day for this phenomenon. That's because the phrase "contraria sunt complementa" is mentioned in at least one of the write-ups for today's Google Doodle send-up of Niels Bohr.

So if you've found this blog because of the Doodle and your curiosity about this lovely expression, let me just say welcome to you. Although I started this blog when I resided mostly on the latter end of the "letters and science" spectrum (I was a graduate student in nuclear engineering), I've now moved closer to the middle with a technology-heavy ministry job in the Episcopal Church. I remain committed to the idea that opposites are indeed complementary, and I might in particular direct you to an online course I developed about the relationship between science and theology, which course discusses some of the modern physics issues that Bohr had such keen insight into.

Anyway, I'm glad you're here, and I'm glad you're interested in one of my major role models. Here's to Niels Bohr on what would have been his 127th birthday! Enjoy.

20 August 2012

Sermon on Proverbs 9 from Sunday, August 19: "The voice of Wisdom where we are"

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Proverbs 9:1-6 (Proper 15, Year B, RCL)

God meets us in our mess. Jesus blesses our human experience by coming down from heaven and sharing that experience in the Incarnation. We are sanctified by the living Christ as if by the smoke of a hundred and eighty pound thurible swung from the heavens. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but this was part of Deacon Eric’s point in last week’s sermon. God meets us in our mess, the mess of our human lives.

That’s certainly a very scriptural idea. Just think of the Bible’s cast of rather slippy characters. We read that it’s up to trickster patriarchs, turncoat prostitutes, self-righteous prophets, and a persecutor of the church to accomplish the work that God has purposed. Their lives are a mess, and yet they not only meet God along the way, they become the agents of God’s will.

At first glance, the Book of Proverbs looks like something of a counterexample. There seems to be very little mess here, partly because there are so few actual characters. What we get instead is verse after verse of disembodied, almost clinical wisdom. Like this: “The wise are cautious and turn away from evil, but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.”1 Or this: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”2 Or this: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in [it], bear [it] that the opposed may beware of thee.”3

OK, so that last one is from Hamlet. In fact, I’ve long suspected Shakespeare of simply lifting some obscure chapter of Proverbs and inserting it as Polonius’s parting advice to his son Laertes in Act I.4 I’d love on some rainy Saturday to sit down with my Bible and read Proverbs straight through to convince myself otherwise once and for all. But the truth is, I’d probably end up rereading Hamlet instead, because Hamlet, like most of the rest of the Bible, is full of characters and the messes they create. The mess is what we can relate to.

So perhaps today is our invitation to learn to love the Book of Proverbs, because today we are reminded that this book, and others like it, do indeed have some characters, including one that we will meet in some unexpectedly messy places if we look for her.

We read elsewhere in scripture that she calls to us “[o]n the heights, beside the way, [and] at the crossroads …beside the gates in front of the town, [and] at the entrance of the portals.”5 Her “mouth [utters] truth; [for] wickedness is an abomination to [her] lips.”6 “[S]he knows the things of old, and infers the things to come,”7 perhaps because “[t]he LORD created [her] at the beginning …the first of [God’s] acts of long ago.”8 Proverbs says she was “beside” God “like a master worker” and was, as one scholar translates, the LORD’s “delight day by day[,] [p]laying before [God] all the while, playing on the surface of [the] earth.”9 [Pause.] Whoever this character is, she is full of deep understanding but also the creative impishness that speaks beauty into being.

As many of you know, her name is Wisdom, so wisdom becomes not just a thing dispensed in Proverbs but the person dispensing it. Wisdom is, among other things, the very voice of the God we hear along the way on our messy human journey. We meet her today when she has built a house and prepared a banquet: “she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here! …Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’’’10

To encounter Wisdom as an embodied person is key to appreciating the entire book of Proverbs, because it reminds us that all those disembodied sayings are the lessons of real Israelites in their encounter with her in the messes of their lives. She reminds us, in the words of Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, that “experiences of the world” are “divine experiences as well.”11 To know Wisdom is to know the Lord, and as we grow in this knowledge, by grace we come to personify wisdom ourselves. Try thinking of a wise person in your life and perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

I believe that we will learn to “walk in the way of Wisdom,” and come at last to live in the house that she has built, so long as we remember to look for her along our messy way: on the heights and in the valleys, at the crossroads and the inroads, at the portals that open to us and the ones that close. She will call, for God is always seeking us, be we must listen carefully, because her voice is always in danger of being drowned out. And if we only listen for it in this place, we will miss part of what she’s saying, for Wisdom embraces the entirety of creation and our experience of it.

If we desire to tune our hearts and our ears to the sound of her voice—both “in here” and “out there”— we’re going to need some help. Practices like spiritual direction and discussion help us discern the signal amid the noise. Disciplines like service in the community and hospitality to the stranger remind us that our circles don’t have a monopoly on Wisdom’s insights and that our habits don’t always lead us along her paths. But, for my money, the most important thing we can do to encounter Wisdom, and so learn her lessons, is pray: whenever we can, where-ever we are. [Pause] Prayer brings our thoughts back to God and can remind us that the voice of Wisdom is speaking to us, persistently if not always perceptibly.

A bishop and former Benedictine monk once told me to listen for the voice of God by praying with scripture. The psalms, he said, are the best place to start, and I’d add that maybe the proverbs are a close second. “When you’re reading the psalms, he said, just stop when you hear that verse that seems to be directed right at you, right in the place where you are today. Just stop and sit with it in that place, even if you’re praying in church.” He told me that he’d at first had a problem with this advice when he received it from his novice master: “But what if we all stopped at the same time when we’re singing the psalm during the office? ” he asked. His master replied, “Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

To my knowledge, the voice of Wisdom never spoke that clearly and that uniformly to him and his brothers. Even monks have their messes, to be sure, but everyone’s is different every day—theirs and ours. Most days, my ears will be deaf to the voice of Wisdom in God’s special verse for you—and vice versa. That’s also why we each learn different lessons from similar experiences, and why we need to talk to each other about it when we do.

I certainly don’t know Wisdom and her ways as well as many of you do, and anyway she sounds different to all of us. So at this time, and in this place, I can only pray that God will give us each the grace to listen for her and to hear. But as you leave this place today, rest assured that, amid our messy lives, Lady Wisdom is finding ways to call to each one of us from the rooftop: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

114:16. All quotations NRSV unless otherwise noted.
3Hamlet, I.iii.65–67.
5Proverbs 8:2–3.
6Proverbs 8:7.
7Wisdom 8:8b.
8Proverbs 8:22
9Excerpts from Proverbs 8:22–31 translated by Roland E. Murphy, “Wisdom in the OT,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 6 (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 925.
10Proverbs 9:3b–6.
11Quoted in Roland E. Murphy, “Wisdom in the OT,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 6 (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 925.

23 July 2012

Sermon on Mark 6 from Sunday, July 22: "Discipleship when life happens"

I've recently started work as a part-time assistant for pastoral care at St. Paul's Parish on K Street in Washington, DC. As I say in this sermon, "life happened" (and also death) early Friday morning in Aurora, CO. So my first sermon in this new position took an unexpected turn. Please continue to pray for all those affected by Friday's shootings.

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Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (Proper 11, Year B, RCL)

Our gospel passage this morning is more than a little confusing. I think our first task has to be just figuring out what’s going on. The gospel writer Mark can be hard enough to follow, and today the job is made more difficult by the designers of the lectionary. So take a deep breath and think back with me, if you can, to our readings from the last two weeks. Recall that Jesus had sent out the twelve two by two, to cast out spirits, heal the sick, and proclaim repentance. Next came last week’s strange interlude about John the Baptist, Herodius, the dance, and the head on the platter. And then, just like that, we’re back to the apostles without a word of warning. So the first thing to remember is that the apostles have “gathered around Jesus,” as we heard in the first verse today, because they’ve returned from their journey and want to tell him how it went.

They give what must have been a rather fabulous report, considering the nature of the work Jesus empowered them to do. And then Jesus says this: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” It must have been like music to their ears. After all, they’d traveled days or maybe weeks with no supplies. So imagine the disciples’ surprise and frustration when they arrive and find that a crowd had seen them going and rushed ahead to their formerly deserted place. They’d been promised a retreat alone, and they ended up hemmed in by a crowd full of sheep without a shepherd. But filled with compassion and apparently tireless, their master rolls up his sleeves and begins to teach them many things.

So how did the disciples handle it?  And what did Jesus teach the crowd?  Here’s where things get really confusing. The next line we heard this morning was this: “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.” What?  First they get out of the boat and watch Jesus start teaching, and now they’ve crossed over to the other side of the lake?  Notice that we’re missing almost twenty verses here. At first it seemed to me that whoever chopped this story up got a little overzealous. Indeed, the part they removed was hardly insignificant: it’s the feeding of the five thousand followed immediately by Jesus walking on water. These are important details that help us understand the flow of the story, however familiar they are to us and however long they would take to read, or chant.

So why the huge jump?  I thought. How could the designers of the lectionary screw up a Sunday reading so badly?  Surely it’s not too much to ask that the story make sense. But then I read on ahead from the line about having crossed over: “When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized [Jesus], and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. …[They] begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” Now this is sounding familiar. I think we’re starting to hear a theme of faithful service amid frustration and fatigue. Part of what the lectionary emphasizes, it seems to me, is that after having their retreat interrupted, Jesus and his disciples attended to the needs of those who interrupted it. And then, yes, they headed off somewhere else to attend to still more people in need.

Disciples, I am sorry to say, are always on call. The apostles weren’t told, “Put down your nets and follow me, except on weekends, federal holidays, and three personal days that do not carry over to the following year.” No, our baptismal promises do not come with blackout dates, and the needs of the world are stubbornly indifferent to how much overtime we’ve put in lately.

Those of you who are parents probably understand this reality better than anybody, and those of us who remember or are still living what we put our parents through can probably come to a second-hand understanding. I’m thinking in particular of a summer afternoon when my family pulled into our Florida home after two days on I-95 returning from a trip to New York. I was seven, and my sister was four, if that gives you some idea of what kind of days these had been. But despite the terrible timing, I chose that day to throw an absolute fit about wanting to go see our local minor league baseball team. For reasons I still do not fully understand, my father relented. Now that’s a pretty tame example, but you parents can all name much more inconvenient or even desperate instances of when, as they say, “life happened.” You can’t control when your child gets sick, fails a test at school, breaks up with that first boyfriend or girlfriend, wrecks the car, or worse. Life happens, and you respond the best way you know how whenver you have to, because that’s what it means to be a parent.

Maybe that’s the lesson Jesus teaches his disciples in this morning’s piecemeal passage and that its addled editors are trying to teach us. The twelve got into that boat with every intention of caring for themselves for a while, but they got out knowing that Jesus and they had a job to do and that the grace of God and the presence of their master would carry them along. Life happened, and they responded as well as they could, because that’s what it means to be a disciple.

I was with a group of St. Paul’s parishioners this week who have learned this lesson far better than I have, learned it over years of faithful, Christ-centered service. Reflecting on the shape of their ministry, they named the frustrations of DC metro traffic, the difficulty of finding volunteers for certain work, and the sense we all get that the ministry Jesus calls us to is simply unrelenting: “no respite” was a common refrain. But they also spoke of the ways they were refreshed by “seeing delight in others,” by “the opportunity to stimulate excitement,” and by “watching others grow and develop” in faith and service. The abundant grace of God is such that sometimes the Holy Spirit breaks into our dreariest moments of tedium and exhaustion and helps us find peace and light among it all.

Now, none of this is to say that the disciples in today’s lesson didn’t genuinely need that retreat time. They did, and we do. But our call, it seems to me, is to be open and discerning when life happens. Sometimes, we really do need to push that boat back from the shore and find a new, genuinely deserted place to recharge our batteries. There may be no blackout dates for disciples, but there are some days when we won’t be of much use anyway. At other times, though, the need is so overwhelming that we can feel the risen Christ walking beside us, nudging us into service as his strong hands and compassionate heart in desperate times.

Yesterday morning, I visited the website of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Aurora, CO. “Summer time and the living is easy,” the home page read. You better believe that’s because the people of St. Martin’s have more pressing things to do right now than update the parish website. Congregations throughout the area have thrown open their doors to those whose shock and grief at Friday’s murders have drawn them out to stand vigil with their neighbors. The wounds to their community, and to the whole human family, are deep. We will all be tending to those wounds for some time, especially Coloradans, who have also been battered by the recent wildfires and who still carry scars from killings all too similar in Littleton in 1999. The images of smoke and gunfire, the harrowing stories of fortunate survivors, and the laments of the bereaved are painfully familiar. No, the living won’t be easy in Colorado for quite some time, regardless of what the calendar says, regardless of who is on vacation.

Where do they find the strength, and where will we, in the face of this senseless act, and in the face of the more mundane changes and chances that threaten each day to sap our energy and hope in God’s promises?  Well, we’ll find it in each other, to be sure, which is why we heard over and over again this weekend that mental health workers, pastoral caregivers, and concerned citizens everywhere are reaching out to those who need it. During another recent crisis, my seminary Hebrew teacher used this expression to describe what we do in our most desperate times: “we huddle.” I hope you’ll take some time this afternoon to huddle with anyone you think might be particularly confused, hurt, or frightened by Friday morning’s terrible, sickening attack. If you’re one of those people, please know that you are not alone and that your response is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be taken lightly. Please don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. We’ll all find strength in each other.

But we Christians witness to another power stronger still, and it’s what brought many of us here this morning. As one pastor, who happens to be speaking right now to a congregation in Colorado, said Friday, “Obviously, the affected families don’t need a theological treatise right now; they desperately need the very real presence of Jesus in their lives, and that’s what our church and many others are helping them experience.” When life and death happen in the worst ways, we huddle with each other, and we huddle around Christ. “The apostles gathered around Jesus,” Mark tells us, and so should we. We huddle in this familiar place, we bring our sadness and confusion, we pray, we break bread.” In so doing, we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, allowing the living Christ to breath his life into us anew. We reach out and touch not his cloak but his very body, and we receive in some way the healing power that flows from him. Gathering around Jesus is how the apostles received the strength and courage to keep on getting out of that boat despite fatigue and frustration. And it’s how the grace of God will get us through these times and worse. If you don’t believe me, look around you in this holy huddle. There are people in this church who have been to hell and back. Life and death happened to them at the worst possible times, and they are disciples still, serving the Lord of Life who heals and strengthens all of us, come what may.

So pray for the people of Aurora this week. Pray for James Holmes. Pray for each other. And pray for the church whose mission is to bind up the broken-hearted and help share the healing love of Christ with everyone who waits for him on the shore.

27 March 2012

Yoder Prize Submission -- "Love Together: A moral-theological reflection"

VTS Dean and President Ian Markham wrote in his commentary today that "The Ronnie A. Yoder Scholarship was established ... as an invitation for VTS seminarians to reflect on the significance and centrality of love as the center for Christian theology, life, preaching, and practice, which can be a theme that unites the major world religions."

I am the very grateful recipient of the Yoder Prize this year, and I thought I'd post my submission here in case there is some interest in reading it. I'd like to thank my wonderful fiancée, Kristin Saylor, who teaches me more about love every day, and my parents, Joanne and Chris Oliver, for setting such a sterling example of "love that can last." Thanks also to Tim Sedgwick for much instruction (in class and by example) about how to write virtue ethics (and much more besides) and to Judge Yoder for his generous support of this scholarship.

08 March 2012

Sermon on Glory and Mercy, 2 Lent

Between field ed, the VTS chapel, and class, I have preached seven times in the last six weeks. That's all in six weeks' work for the average parish priest, but this seminarian is definitely ready for the break ahead. In the meantime, here's my final effort, from Sunday's readings (and collect!).

Many, many thanks to David Schlafer, who talked through it with me on Thursday and basically gave me all the good ideas.

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“O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy …”1 So begins the collect for this, the second Sunday in Lent. It’s characteristic of our liturgical tradition that such a profound insight into the Christian faith and life—and indeed into the divine life—be relegated to the role of dependent clause in one of our common prayers. But perhaps that’s the charm and power of sticking our best theology in as asides in the sacred syntax, because it allows us to be surprised in the Spirit when we do stumble across them. That’s what happened to me this week when I read those words: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy.”

I was surprised because glory and mercy are two words we use a lot in church but seldom use together. Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about what they might mean. When I hear the former word, I think immediately of something like “fame and glory,” the glory of renown, of being thought of highly by others, of possessing admirable and perhaps enviable fortunes. Plenty of God’s servants possess this kind of glory in our Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the great kings David and Solomon. Of course, the biblical witness also speaks to the spiritual danger that accompanies such glory: the temptation to forget that we can possess it only partially. We learn, sometimes the hard way, that whatever glory we may come into should ultimately be ascribed to God, the source of all good gifts. The kings of Israel lost touch with that important truth, to their own detriment and, we are told, to their nation’s.

So there’s a second, related sense of glory for us to consider then: God’s own glory, to which Solomon’s temple and our modern-day cathedrals and basilicas are meant merely to point. Indeed, the image of God being worshiped for all eternity in the heavenly temple by choirs of angels and the communion of saints is the ultimate expression of this idea. We need “sounding trumpets’ melodies”2 to wrap our hearts around this idea of glory, plus the best poetry we can muster. My fallback association, perhaps somewhat modest by St. Paul’s standards, is Calvin Hampton’s shimmering setting of Canticle 18, a text that reads, in part:

Splendor and honor and kingly power

are yours by right, O Lord our God, …

And so, to [you] who sit[] upon the throne, …

Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor,

for ever and for evermore.

Another song of God’s glory is the well-known hymn by Walter Chalmers Smith:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Hopefully one of these associations puts a glorious melody in your head. If not, rumor has it there’s a music lover or two in this parish, and perhaps they can help you out with another possibility. But they might hesitate if you asked for their help today, wouldn’t they? These aren’t exactly Lenten melodies we’re talking about. Surely this notion of glory is the stuff of Easter and Ascension. In our current season of examination and repentance, we’re not too likely to sing anything triumphantly, jubilantly, or—here’s my favorite, from a poem by Edward Taylor—“seraphic-wise.” It somehow wouldn’t feel quite right, all that glory. Not right now.

Mercy, on the other hand, is never far from our thoughts this time of year. We heard of it in Genesis and Romans this morning. Though Sarah’s womb was barren and Abraham’s body “already good as dead,”3 these two great ancestors nevertheless “hop[ed] against hope”4 for the mercy of God’s deliverance. And God, in turn, promises them bounty beyond their wildest dreams. Part of Paul’s point in our reading from Romans is that Abraham and Sarah’s story is our story too. By God’s mercy, we Christians too claim an inheritance in God’s promises of covenant loyalty. Of each of us, then, can it be said, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”5

Of course, the mercy we receive from our Lord is wider by far than just this sense of deliverance from need and despair. Probably the aspect of God’s mercy that is most with us in this season is mercy as regards our guilt from “dust and sin.”6 And more often than not, we reflect on our state in a minor key, and the emotional tone of our reflection is the humility of a “troubled spirit” and a “broken and contrite heart.”7

In that vein, I’m grateful again for the musical witness of Calvin Hampton in a different composition. He re-set a profound meditation on God’s mercy with a dignity of melody and tempo that better matches the emotional character of Lent than the more well-known tune it replaces:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;

there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;

there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.

If you know it, you know it’s an almost haunting tune, insistent but understated. And indeed, mercy as the gospels understand it is a very humble thing, seemingly disconnected from the grandeur and the splendor and the trumpets. Quietness and trust are the name of the game in this forty-day celebration of God’s loving mercy. Perhaps most of all, the saying that springs unbidden to my mind on the subject of mercy is from the calling of Matthew. The disciples are taking some flack for Jesus’s habit of associating with tax collectors and other riff-raff, but Jesus overhears them and says this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’’’8

Go and learn what this means. It’s an odd thing, really, telling them to go when the best place for them to learn the lesson would seem to be that very meal, with those very sinners, from the very man who said, “Blessed are the merciful.” But maybe his telling them to go has a different meaning. That’s the sense I get from our gospel reading today, on this day when we celebrate the God whose glory it is always to have mercy. The story comes from the great pivot point of Mark’s gospel. Immediately before our passage from today, we hear Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. And so the curtain falls on Mark’s Act I, because finally even the thick-skulled disciples get it. When the curtain comes up today, we first hear this: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”9

It is simply not in Jesus’s vocation to hang around reveling in the glory of messiahship. Once the disciples understand that he is the Christ, he strikes out toward Jerusalem on his final journey, his great errand of mercy. In case we don’t get the point, Mark says practically the same thing again in the next chapter in the story of the transfiguration. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings.”10 No, Jesus says, it is not yet time for me to reign in glory. Or, if you prefer, from today’s lesson: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”11

You can’t understand glory until you understand mercy. That’s what Jesus says to us again and again and again. And so he tells us to “go and learn what this means,” just like he went and showed us for himself. I love trumpets and temples and the transfiguration, but I am also convinced that the glory of the Almighty and Everliving God cannot exist apart from the humility of the ever-merciful one who became obedient to the point of helplessness and death.12 And so at the heart of Mark’s gospel lies the paradoxical truth that is at the heart of our faith and the heart of our God: blessed are the merciful, exalted are the humble, worthy is the lamb. We can’t understand glory until we understand mercy because there is no greater glory than to have mercy. This Lent, as we follow Jesus on the road to complete his glorious act of mercy, may we listen to his charge: “Go, and learn what this means.”

1Book of Common Prayer, 166.

2Edward Taylor, “Meditation Twenty,” Sacramental Meditations. See also the stunning Gerald Finzi choral setting.

3Romans 4:19.

4Romans 4:18.

51 Peter 2:10.

6George Herbert, “Love,” The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900.

7Psalm 51:18.

8Matthew 9:12–13.

9Mark 8:31.

10Mark 9:5.

11Mark 8:33.

12See Philippians 2:6–8.