Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A small proposal as Advent becomes Christmas

When the San Bernadino massacre occurred, I interrupted my Advent Ruminations to write about it and to make a small proposal.  Something recently caught my attention regarding this subject. While searching the Internet, I found a good statement by an interfaith group of clergy (Christians and Jews) in a community – a statement deploring the surge in anti-Muslim sentiments and recalling us to our Judeo-Christian values. It’s good that this happened; we need more of these witnesses. But there were conspicuous absences among the signatories. Who was missing? (Hint: I don’t mean Buddhists and Hindus.)

All of the Christian clergy who signed the statement were from the mainline denominations. There was not a single representative of the evangelical churches or the “Bible churches.”  This suggests to me that there are no personal relationships between these two groups of Christians. It would almost certainly not be welcome if a mainline pastor showed up on the doorstep of an evangelical pastor, asking him (it probably would be a him) to sign the statement. That wouldn’t work. There is too much suspicion and ignorance of the other’s position. Obtaining that signature would only be possible through the nurturing of personal relationships among the clergy of a city or town.

Building such relationships, to be sure, would take a lot of work, and it is so much less stressful in a demanding job to focus on one’s own congregation and group of like-minded mainline clergy.  It is not easy to step across that border. But it is this unholy divide between the mainlines and the conservative evangelicals that is diminishing the witness of the Christian church in America in this time of terrorism. It isn’t all the fault of the conservatives (I admit to using these terms somewhat loosely); the disdain of the mainlines for the evangelicals has something to do with it.

As an example of what I’m talking about, I will give a specific example. I recently preached a sermon at the ordination of Jason Poling to the Episcopal priesthood at the cathedral in Baltimore (it is posted in Ruminations). As I hint in my charge to him, he has unusual credentials which enable him to straddle the evangelical-liberal divide, and as he moves around Baltimore, it is striking how many clergy of all persuasions he knows personally. Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland, though he recognizes that Jason is more “conservative” than his mostly “liberal” diocese is, has honored Jason’s gifts by putting him in charge of a lovely but empty Episcopal church building, to start a new congregation. I single this out for mention because there is an opportunity here to build some bridges. It does not seem to occur to most “liberal” clergy that a relationship with an evangelical pastor might be worth cultivating – for the sake of the witness of the whole church of God in this time of national crisis.

So it is my modest proposal that mainline clergy might do a great work if there could be some personal relationships nurtured across these hostile borders – for the sake of the gospel of the Prince of Peace who tells us “Do not fear, little flock.”

May the feast of our Lord’s Incarnation bring new hope, new resolve, and new light to his church, this season.

The post about San Bernadino is here. Read the last paragraph (before the Marilynne Robinson quote) for the small proposal.

And the sermon for Jason Poling’s ordination is here:

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Fourth week of Advent

Yesterday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, the 11 AM service at St Thomas Fifth Avenue was, as usual, pretty much perfect (assuming you love the classic liturgy). There was nothing red in the church, only simple, classic greenery and the purple hangings. On the altar frontal, the great words, Adveniat regnum tuum appeared ("thy Kingdom come," from the Lord's Prayer); that is an eschatological, Advent-y prayer if ever there was one. The hymns and carols were tilted to the Annunciation, but that was fine, since that theme has within it the note of promise, waiting, and anticipation that are so central to the season.

Just one problem: "Joy to the world" at the end. "The Lord IS come." Oh dear. Why? There are so many appropriate Advent hymns for the fourth Sunday. My copy of Hymnal Studies 5: A Liturgical Index to the Hymnal 1982 recommends for Advent IV a good many hymns, including for example "Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates," "How bright appears the Morning Star," "The King shall come when morning dawns," "Hark! the glad sound! the Savior comes," and a good many others taken not only from the Advent section but also from other parts of the hymnal. "Joy to the World" is not listed, nor is any other Christmas hymn.

Why is this important? (Most people couldn't care less.) It's important for several reasons.  The most obvious reason is that one gets the impression that the culture is forcing the church's hand. The more we are like the culture, with its month-long Christmas frenzy, the less we are like the people of God. About ten years ago a woman whose husband had recently died unexpectedly at the age of 50 wrote to me about her love of Advent. "I like the darkness," she said. She explained that the sense of something imminent but not yet here was appealing to her in her grief. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who obviously loved Advent, wrote similarly in his letters from prison.

Advent should be the pre-eminent time of the year for a fearless inventory of the darkness all around us. I jotted down a partial list, taken from this week's news, on my St Thomas program: terrorist attacks, human trafficking, torture by Navy SEALS, the Syrian civil war, Boko Haram, child abuse, blatant discrimination against people of color in the construction unions, the deterioration of political discourse, extreme poverty, increase in homelessness, droughts all over the planet, and schisms in the churches. I get the impression (I could be wrong, of course) that few preachers referred to any of these things on the fourth Sunday of Advent. It's as if the turn to Christmas was made two weeks ago. And if that's so, it's because of the pressure of the culture, not because of any profound liturgical rethinking.

I remember from my younger days in the church that every seven years, when the fourth Sunday of Advent coincided with Christmas Eve, there was a great scramble as the altar guild made the changeover between the morning service and the midnight service on the same day--bringing in the tree and the candles and the holly and the red ribbons in the space of a couple of hours. My mother said, "Christmas should come in a burst." That made a great impression on me. On the other hand, maybe this is just nostalgia. Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York City Ballet, is reported to have said, "Nostalgia is pure vanity." Is that so? I can see some truth in that,  insofar as we tend to believe that our cherished illusions of the past are more important than other people's search for the new. But on the other hand, not all memories are illusion. Some of them point to a greater truth. God does not owe us anything. There is no progression of history leading up to a well-earned incursion of grace. "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given" (Philips Brooks). Advent is a sort of great silence, symbolically--a silence representing all the times in human history when God has seemed to be absent. Advent is therefore a great darkness pierced only by the words of the prophets: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light." If we continue to allow this incomparable season to be chipped away, a precious part of our liturgical and theological heritage will be unknown to almost everyone.

(This is the third of three posts on the subject of Advent. For what it's worth, I am hoping that I will be able to put together an Advent book next year.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What is happening to Advent? Part 2

In the procession of the church seasons, Advent comes first, before Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Since all the other seasons very clearly mark out the events of the Lord's life, death, and resurrection, it is logical that Advent would be construed as the "countdown to Christmas," in the familiar phraseology of the space age. The marketeers have taken this idea and run away with it, so that commercial Advent with its mostly secular "Advent" calendars and other gimmicks (it's hard to believe that when my children were little, it was almost impossible to find purple candles) has enabled more Chinese manufacturers to fashion still more paraphernalia for the American "holiday" market.

Well, the church can do something about this, and until recently, the Episcopal Church always has. We seem to be slipping now, with all kinds of carol services in the middle of Advent; even so, however, it's striking, on the third Sunday of Advent and perhaps even the Fourth, to walk uptown fifteen blocks from Grand Central and observe the interior of the Episcopal churches with their plain unadorned evergreens, contrasted with the brilliant red poinsettias of the other denominations. The Episcopal poinsettias will come out on Christmas Eve and will remain until Twelfth Night. This restraint during Advent, this observance of the true Twelve Days, is a counter-demonstration designed to be a rebuke to commercial Christmas, a refusal to bend to the pressure of quasi-religious sentiment. It points to the dark condition of our present world order and symbolizes our yearning for a definitive word from God. By telling us that God owes us nothing, the season prepares us for the unimaginable grace of the gift of God's only Son in human flesh.  But not in the simple sense of God coming as a baby. We have Christmas for that, twelve whole days of it through January 5.

Advent is meant to be portentous, which is a very different thing from our standard assumptions that everything is going to work out for the best. Who can believe that any more, anyway? In this season of the year 2015, a front-page feature article in the New York Times 12/4/15 tells us of our fears, fears that we never expected to have. (The article is by N. R. Kleinfeld, who wrote the chief feature article for September 12, 2001--first sentence: "It kept getting worse."  First sentences in the recent article: "The killings are happening too often. Bunched too close together. At places you would never imagine.") There is a profound theological message here. Advent is the very opposite of the "countdown to Christmas," because it tells us of our status in the world as it is. When Jesus spoke of  "the ruler of this world" he meant Sin and Death, also called Satan. We have no right to expect anything from God.  Advent requires of us an unblinking assessment of the real situation we find ourselves in.

But that still doesn't get at the question of what Advent is really about. One of the readings associated with the season is the cry of the prophet Isaiah:  "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down! that the mountains might quake at your presence, as fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil--to make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations might tremble at your presence!" (Is. 64:1-2) This is not a season of hope for the birth of an infant. Advent, to be as blunt as possible, is the season of the world-overturning Second Coming of Christ.

Am I making this up? Well, take a look at the 40 Advent hymns in the Episcopal hymnal. All but two of them are about the Second Coming. Listen to the words of Charles Wesley's  "Lo, he comes with clouds descending," arguably the greatest of all hymns, if words and tune (by Vaughan Williams) are taken together; it's a vision of the Last Judgment, with universal implications (who are those people in the second verse? might they be us?). Take a look at the uncompromising figure of John the Baptist, the Advent herald, whose words of alarm have nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but only with his coming as the One who will reverse this world order. Listen to the lessons, how they invoke the Second Coming. Recall the medieval presentation of Advent as the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell--in that order. At Grace Church in New York in 1994, at our well-attended Wednesday night services, we had four Advent sermons in a row on the Four Last Things, in their medieval order. Attendance was robust. Why? who would come to hear a sermon on Hell in the week before Christmas?

Here's the answer. That particular congregation knew the secret. Behind, before, under, above, and embracing the Advent message of judgment is the first, last, and forever message of God's prevenient grace. What? Well, "prevenient" is a good in-word for Christians. Every other group has its in-words, why shouldn't we? Pre-venient  is from the Latin, meaning "to go before."  God's grace is there before his judgment. There will be a judgment upon all that is evil, all that opposes God's love. That should be good news to us, but only if we understand that judgment will fall on ourselves first ("For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God"--I Peter 4:17).

In the 12/12 Times, an article about the pall of dread that has fallen on our country quotes a college student who thinks Donald Trump is xenophobic, but admits that although we have been conditioned to think that xenophobia is wrong, nevertheless "we all have to safeguard against an inner Trump." He is wise beyond his years. For the Christian community, Advent is the time for an unflinching look at ourselves as God sees us, full of conflicting impulses and unconscious prejudices. The context makes the difference: we submit to God's judgment in the context of God's promise. Our Lord Jesus Christ has promised to redeem the world. We will be saved through judgment; but we will not be saved without judgment. That's the way to understand the fiery preaching of John the Baptist on the second and third Sundays of the season. I'm still waiting for an Advent calendar that has a picture of John the Baptist in windows 8 and 15...

To read my first post on this subject, click here

Friday, December 11, 2015

An Advent ordination sermon in time of national crisis

Note to readers: I believe the American body politic is in crisis, and that is the reason that I am posting this sermon directly on my blog, something I have never done before. My sermons are usually posted under Sermons. In this case I am attempting to model how preachers might bring the events of the day (and the season of Advent) into a sermon.

Letter to the World

A sermon for the Ordination of Jason Poling
to the sacred order of priests

The Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, Baltimore, Maryland

by Fleming Rutledge                                              The Second Tuesday of Advent 2015


Text: II Corinthians 3:2-6

How many of you out there have never been to an ordination before? (Many lay people in the congregation raised their hands.) Well, you are blessed to be here. Many church members never see a service of ordination in their whole lives, yet this is one of the most impressive occasions that the church has to offer. This is not only a great day for Jason; this is a great day for the whole Body of Christ. Not only do we gain a new Episcopal priest tonight, we gain a glimpse of what it means to be an apostolic church.

In the Nicene Creed, we say, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Most people probably don’t stop to think what those four words mean, and the word “apostolic” may be the least understood of the four. What does it signify?

First and foremost, the word “apostolic” refers to another Word, a word with a capital letter: the Word of God. An apostle is one who is commissioned to receive, carry, and spread forth the Word of God. The church, we affirm, is founded on the Word of God entrusted to the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New. This has always been a scandalous affirmation. I’ve never forgotten a day long ago when a much admired clergyman came to visit my husband and me. He asked me what I was studying at seminary. When I mentioned homiletics, he drew himself up to his considerable height and said, “Preaching! The Word of God! How arrogant to imagine that human beings can preach the Word of God! I would never claim to be able to do that.”

It’s amazing how long I’ve remembered that. It was a predominant attitude in the 60s and 70s. My homiletics professor, the esteemed Lutheran Edmund Steimle, said that he didn’t know why the seminary even paid his salary in the late 60s because he had so few students. Everyone was so consumed with social action that preachers lost confidence in their apostolic commission. To some extent this continues today. I’ll get back to social action later—it’s essential—but for the moment it’s the apostolic vocation that we need to define tonight. Johnny Ray Youngblood was the well-known African-American pastor (now retired) of a Brooklyn church who was celebrated for all the community action he sponsored. However, he said this about that:  “I don’t care how big a budget you have or how many social programs you’ve got going, the people want to know on Sunday morning if there’s a word from the Lord.”  Pastor Youngblood was by his own admission a very flawed human being, but he had that apostolic confidence that builds the church.

Where does such confidence come from? Is it arrogance to have confidence in one’s apostolic commission? The climactic moment of the service you are participating in tonight is the laying on of hands. The Episcopal Church has always put great store in the idea that this laying on of hands goes all the way back to Peter, the disciple of Jesus, the first Bishop of Rome. It's an idea that still gives me goosebumps every time I think of it. But the unbroken chain of hands, potent though the symbolism is, does not lie at the heart of the meaning of the word “apostolic.” For that, we need to look at the letters of the Apostle Paul.

For this sermon and this occasion, I reread the first and second letters of Paul to the church in Corinth (our ordinand Jason spent 8 months teaching I Corinthians not too long ago!). Underlying the entire Corinthian correspondence is the struggle of Paul to defend his apostleship against his opponents. In both letters, Paul is battling to defend the gospel against his opponents who say that his résumé as an apostle is deficient. They’re undermining his preaching, his person, his habits, his insufficient “spirituality,” his deficient wisdom (sophia), and his insufficient spiritual “knowledge” (gnosis). The Corinthian church thinks it has an abundance of wisdom and knowledge. This boasting in Corinth is the occasion for Paul’s famous chapter on love: “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge (gnosis)…but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

All the way through these long letters, Paul is fighting to establish the truth of his apostolic credentials. Unlike the Paul of Acts, the Paul of the letters never tells the story of his commissioning unless the gospel is threatened. In Corinth, he has his back against the wall. So, in the resurrection chapter of the first letter, he writes this:

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain…it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.                                                                     (I Corinthians 15:10)

This is the foundation of apostleship. This is the foundation on which the service of ordination rests.

But now notice something very important. Despite the power of Paul’s conviction that he had been personally seized by the living Lord Jesus, he did not simply go out and start doing apostolic ministry on his own. There’s an important autobiographical passage in Galatians where, again, Paul refers to his conversion only because he feels he has to. His opponents in Galatia were threatening to undo all his work. He therefore, with some degree of asperity, reminds this congregation that he founded,
I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not a human gospel. For I did not receive it from human beings, nor was I taught it, but it came [directly] through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)

So after his road-to-Damascus experience, he goes on to say, he took a long (very long) trip by himself, presumably to think about what had happened to him, and only then did he go to Jerusalem to go through what is now called “a process of discernment” with the senior apostles, Peter and James. So you see, the apostolic commission, even in the “apostolic age,” even in the case of the greatest of the apostles, was never a matter of one person’s conviction of his or her call. It always had to be ratified and upheld by the church. That’s why it’s so important that all of you are here tonight, clergy and lay people alike. This is not an occasion for the glorification of Jason Poling, and Jason knows that as well as anyone. This is an occasion of solemn rejoicing for the whole body of Christ, that the Lord still calls people to the service of the apostolic ministry.

Here we are in the middle of the sermon and I haven’t even read my text yet. The text for this sermon is from Second Corinthians. This second letter, or group of letters, is painful to read, in places. Paul is as beleaguered here as we ever see him. In the letter to the Galatians, he takes a commanding position, but in Second Corinthians, he is pleading, he is throwing caution to the winds, he is trying every approach he can think of to regain the trust of the congregation that he founded, now far away and split into many factions, drifting away from the gospel into various kinds of spiritual competition. In this passage from the third chapter, Paul is trying to respond to the bragging of the “super-apostles” who have arrived in Corinth carrying imposing letters of recommendation from Christian leaders with big names. Paul begins, Do we [apostles] need letters of recommendation, as some others seem to think they do? (II  Cor. 3:1) Well [Paul says, in effect], let me tell you something about letters of recommendation:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.                                                         (II Corinthians 3:2-3)

Dear people of God:

You, yourselves, are God’s letter. You yourselves are “a letter of Christ.” You yourselves are a letter to the world, written not with ink, but written by the Spirit of the living God. And you have become, and are becoming, just such a letter through the message of the gospel preached by those whom God has commissioned. You are a letter to the world! Not “you should be,” you annoying Corinthians; not “you must be,” you recalcitrant congregation; not “you ought to be,” you stiff-necked people: you are—you people in the pews, no less—you are a letter written by the Spirit of Christ. This is a wonderful illustration of Paul’s teaching, often summarized as “become what you already are.”

Now. This is the season of Advent. Advent always begins in the dark. Darkness without, darkness within. This week, the terrifying event in San Bernadino has unleashed yet another spirit of darkness lurking in this beloved country of ours, a spirit of darkness heaped on top of the already present shadow of racial conflict in cities like Baltimore. From the point of view of Christian faith, the central challenge is that the Christian churches are divided, speaking messages at odds with one another. The letter to the world that we are writing is confused and confusing. We cannot seem to get our voices together. The mainline churches have lost their former place of authority in American life and often seem to be simply repeating over and over a generic, toothless message of harmony, peace, and inclusion. The so-called “Christian Right” is larger, more noisy, disdained by the mainlines, focused on sexual issues, and today more than ever seems consumed by militant political rhetoric. The Roman Catholic church has the great advantage of the magisterium, the church’s teaching office, but that permits it to some extent to stand apart from the other Christian traditions. Therefore in this time of great crisis, we are fractured and ineffective.

Advent knows all about this darkness. We pray on the first Sunday of Advent that God will give us grace “to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.” Dear people of God, we are truly in a crisis of our national identity. What a prodigious tragedy it will be, what a sin against the Spirit of Christ, if the churches fail to speak with a single voice against the demonizing of Muslims, the targeting of refugees, the emphasis on fear and danger rather than “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln so unforgettably put it. The esteemed novelist, Marilynne Robinson, recently published an essay called, simply, “Fear.” The first sentence, surprisingly, was, “America is a Christian country.” And, she goes on, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” If we act out of fear, if we let loose the dogs of war because it will make us feel temporarily safer, if we once again compromise the Christian values that made secularism possible in the first place, we will surely come under the judgment of God.


Jason Poling, will you please stand? For you, here is the second half of my text from II Corinthians:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant….
(II Corinthians 3:4-6)

Not that we are competent of ourselves…our competence is from God, who makes us competent. The word that the King James Version uses is a good one: “sufficiency.” The sufficiency required for apostolic ministry is from God. Jason, in talking to you during the past couple of years, I have the sense that you understand this fully. You will not be intimidated by anyone saying that mere human beings have no right to pretend that they speak for God. If there is no Word from the Lord in these days, if God has not entrusted weak, flawed men and women with his message, we might as well pack up the Christian enterprise and sink back into flailing impotence.

Jason, thanks to the far-reaching imagination of Bishop Sutton, another gift from God, we believe that you are poised on the brink of a new ministry of the Word and the sacraments. By all accounts you are particularly called, with your unusual, varied background, training, and gifts, to help build those bridges between factions in the churches that endanger the church’s public voice in these times. This is, of course, an impossible task, but “all things are possible with God.”

And now I invite all the rest of you to stand, as you are moved to do so.

To the saints gathered in Baltimore tonight:

You do not need “letters of recommendation” from any president, senator, congressman, pundit, newscaster, cultural tastemaker, investment banker, chief of staff, police commissioner, university president, or any other human agency. “You yourselves are the letter…to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us [apostolic ministers], written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” May God grant his grace and power to his church, that we will overcome our divisions in this time of testing, that we will not fail to write our letter with the spirit of Christ’s love for all humanity of every faith and of no faith at all.

And may God grant Jason Poling, and the bishops of Baltimore, and the whole people of God throughout the United States of America, the strength, the humility, and the courage to proclaim Jesus Christ as our Saviour and our Lord, in word and in deed.


Saturday, December 05, 2015

After San Bernadino: what will we Christians do?

I will get back to my Advent series shortly, but I have been interrupted by the news analysis this morning. Sober voices everywhere are telling us that this is a time of crisis similar to 9/11, but to me it feels even worse. It feels worse because it was possible to construe the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and whatever the other plane was aiming at as somehow containable, as something we could get our minds around (as, indeed, I think we did, in time). The anger unleashed at ordinary Muslims was intense but did not really last very long. This time, it's different. Now, jihadists are all around us, and we now know that anything can happen. The result is that ordinary American Muslims fear for themselves, and we should feel for them. I read an account of one young Muslim professional who for the first time is afraid to wear her head scarf.  Worse yet is the case of Omair Siddif who was about to get into his car in a suburban Dallas parking lot, when a man came up to him, showed a gun, and said, "I could kill you right now." Mr. Siddiq stayed quiet, and the man walked away, but he is now getting a concealed-carry permit. Imagine it: ordinary Muslims and Texas vigilantes gunning it out in shopping-center parking lots.

We Christians should be profoundly concerned about the mood in the body politic. I recently mentioned Marilynne Robinson's short essay on the way that fear corrupts. Here is the conclusion of my blog on the subject:
I think this is the first time I have ever urged my readers to read a specific essay. It's short, only two pages. You will probably have to pay to read it, but it's worth it. Here is the link:
This blog had more hits than my everyday posts ordinarily do, so I hope it touched some hearts. One of Ms. Robinson's principal points, that fear is not a Christian habit of mind, has stayed with me. In today's New York Times, the very moderate, balanced, mature David Gergen, who never raises his voice, says that the current mood in our country is"almost animalistic...Americans are looking beyond particular policy for the personality that looks like somebody strong enough, tough enough, big enough to provide security." The fact that so many on the Christian right are running in the direction of the loudest, angriest, most ill-considered voices is a cause for very serious concern.

I have a small idea. If I were the rector or pastor of a congregation, I would start doing everything I could to build bridges to some of the "conservative evangelical" pastors in my town or city (and lay people can do this too). I would invite them to coffee, or to small groups to have lunch. I would try my best to build friendship and trust. I would try to put aside the abortion/ gay marriage issues for a time, to focus on a specifically Christian response to the deadly threat that we are apparently going to have to live with for many years. I would try to move toward talking together about our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sermon on the Mount, maybe a Bible study based on Philippians 2:1-11. When the Bible study group at the AME church, Mother Emanuel, in Charleston, was attacked, white churches reached out to the black congregation in ways they had not done before. On this model, I believe we should be doing the same thing with the Christian Right which liberal, progressive Christians love to look down on. The mainline churches have lost their voice in our culture, and it's partly our fault because we have not made the effort to build those bridges which could carry us forward in this time of great crisis. I don't feel that I have much in common with the extreme Christian right, and it is easy to sneer, but surely our mutual confession of Jesus Christ as Lord should mean something to us all. If he is truly "the One who will come to judge the living and the dead" as we confess, surely we can risk our prized sophistication to try to lower the temperature of the rhetoric, the atmosphere of panic, the incessant talk of "the bad guys." "For God has bound over all human beings to disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all."(Rom. 11:32).

And finally, Marilynne Robinson, again:
I take very seriously Jesus' teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword....Death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits he shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death he can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like "everlasting."

Thursday, December 03, 2015

What is happening to Advent?

For most of my life, I have held strongly to the Episcopal Church because all my thinking is shaped by the calendar of seasons  and their importance. Advent, in particular, has always gripped my imagination. Even when I was a child it was clear to me that those purple hangings (now more often Sarum blue, equally if not more correct) pointed to something more than simply "getting ready for Christmas." In fact, there was something about Advent that suggested a significance beyond even Christmas, something that was clearly related to our lives in this fallen world. Even as a child I knew this, in an unformed way. My perception of the high importance of Advent was heightened by my parents' practice of doing no decorating whatsoever until Christmas Eve (you can imagine the bustle of getting it all ready on one day!). The Cowley Fathers in Cambridge, Massachusetts (an Episcopal/ Anglican order), observe Advent and celebrate Christmas in just this way--and the Twelve Days of Christmas are the celebration, not the days before the holy day.

For most of my life, the Episcopal Church has held to this rule of Advent. We have not sung carols until Christmas Eve. We haven't decorated the church until Christmas Eve. We observe the solemn Biblical readings and recognize the role of fire-breathing John the Baptist for two Advent Sundays in a row. Most of us sing "Lo, he comes with clouds descending" on the first Sunday of Advent, and we read the Great Litany. Until 1979, the collect for the First Sunday of Advent was read on every single day during Advent including all four Advent Sundays. It reminded us of "the works of darkness," and the solemnity of its language (based on Romans 13:11-14) made a great impression. These have been precious things to many Episcopalians.

In recent years, however, there has been a lot of slippage. Children's Christmas pageants have usurped the Fourth Sunday of Advent in many parishes, and the emphasis now is on the Annunciation (that's a relatively recent change in the lectionary--the Feast of the Annunciation is properly observed nine months before Christmas Day). Churches offer Christmas festivities earlier and earlier. More unfortunate than these manifestations, though, is the state of Advent preaching. Every year now, I get indignant emails from friends around the country complaining about the sentimental sermons they've just heard on the First Sunday of Advent. The theological rigor demanded by the lectionary and the hymns  is being bypassed.  Advent and Lent should be the seasons least affected by banality and sentimentality, but the severity and seriousness of Advent is being swallowed up in the glow of candlelight. The Advent wreath is a beautiful thing, and we've always had one at our house, but its meaning, too, is being shaped nowadays into a shallow message of love, joy, and peace, as if it had no more resonance than your typical commercial Christmas card.

In the years when I preached regularly, I began every Advent sermon with these words: "Advent begins in the dark." Is that not particularly the case this year? We are all battling fear in a way that has not been true in America since World War II, and perhaps not even then, since that war was fought far away. Those two great Anglican poets of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot (in Murder in the Cathedral) and W. H. Auden (in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio) evoked a sense of Advent as a time of foreboding. The ultimate hope-beyond-hope is always there, beyond and through the foreboding, but when the essence of the season is diluted by cheery, upbeat, inferior forms of hope, the Advent power of the ultimate promise of God scarcely registers.

As is well known, the church seasons unfold the story of Jesus Christ through birth (Christmas), baptism, public appearance, and ministry, culminating in the Transfiguration (Epiphany), the passion (Lent), the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday), the crucifixion (Good Friday), the resurrection (Easter), Ascension Day, and the gift of the Spirit (Pentecost). I remember being present long ago in a discussion group when it was asked, "What part of the story of Jesus Christ does Advent tell?"

Do you know the answer to that? Watch for my second Advent installment...

Collect for the First Sunday of Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.