“First the Bad News . . .” A Sermon for Proper 28, Year A

You all know those jokes that begin ‘I’ve got good news and bad news . . .” Well, in this sermon I’m going to flip it around and talk about the bad news first, because there is lots of bad news in the appointed lessons for today. There is talk of a dreadful “Day of the Lord.” There are dire warnings of impending disaster. Continue reading

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“On Our Side!” A Devotional on the Atonement

Atonement“But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
—1 John 2:1-2

When I was a child my siblings and I worshipped with our parents and went to Sunday school before worship. I don’t remember much about Sunday school, but I have many powerful recollections of worship.

We were Episcopalians and so worship was out of the old Book of Common Prayer, with its grand 16th century language, a good bit of which I didn’t understand. Nonetheless, my faith was shaped and formed by those words that washed over me from Sunday to Sunday.

The passage above from 1 John was often read in the service. I wasn’t exactly sure what the passage meant, but somehow I knew it meant Jesus was on my side, even amidst whatever sins might befall my little life. It was a comforting thought. Continue reading

Norwood Days: We All have to Start Out Somewhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have to start out somewhere.

I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a funny clip about church from Saturday Night Live and I immediately recognized that it had been filmed at the little church I grew up in.

I had seen rumblings about this on the Norwood Facebook page, that there had been a film crew at the Church of The Holy Communion, a beautiful Episcopal church in Norwood, a small town in Bergen County, NJ.

Both my parents were raised in Congregational churches (and my Mom was for a time a Methodist), but when my Mom beat the dust of the Midwest off her heels and moved to New York City she became an Episcopalian. Both my parents were, for a time, librarians at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

They lived on the Upper West Side when I was born, which is how I came to be baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which if you’re keeping track of things like this, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.

Before I started school we moved to Closter, New Jersey, a little town in Bergen County across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. My Dad was a commuter at the time, working downtown as the photo and caption editor for the Religious News Service, the public relations arm of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews.

While in Closter we attended the little church in Norwood, where my brother Bill was baptized, a very early memory of mine. My father, never baptized, was then a grumpy agnostic, and from him I learned to take both faith and doubt very seriously. My mother was devout and active in the church.

We moved to Norwood when I was in fifth grade, and then were within walking distance of our church.

I am sure there was sin, gossip, and the sundry pettiness that plagues every congregation of humans, but I felt loved and accepted there, and the fact that I ultimately became a Christian minister speaks well of their care and nurture for and of me.

The rector was a gentle, ancient man, Mr. (always “Mr.” as he was low church) John Foster Savidge. He had an odd way of speaking that I assumed was some kind of special ecclesiastical patois. Only years later did my Dad tell me he had CP and a resulting speech impediment. He was very kind to me, and one time when I was about 11 he came to call and neither of my parents were home. He treated me with great respect and dignity, and told me about his trips to England. Years later I had my own times living in Oxford and Cambridge.

His successor was The Reverend Robert Maitland, who was ironically more blue collar but also more high church and always “Father” Maitland.

It was under his care that I was confirmed. He was a very down-to-earth guy, much a contrast from the patrician Mr. Savidge.

When I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those days cancer was an unmentionable and few adults talked to me about the prospect of her impending death. One was my beloved basketball coach, John Shine, and the other was Father Bob Maitland. He took me to lunch at the Red Coach Inn (any Bergen County folks remember that?). He showed me what a minister could be.

My Mom did die during my first weeks at college at the age of 53. Fr. Maitland presided at the service at the Church of the Holy Communion, to a packed house as only those who die too young can bring out. I was having none of this God who snatched away the most important person in my life.

But years later after a long and arduous faith pilgrimage (which is another story for another day) I came back to the church and to a calling as a minister, although in a different franchise.

So the Church of the Holy Communion remains one of my landmarks, a holy place. And since I always (usually) love SNL the confluence of these two made my day.

The little clip was a trip down memory lane. I took voice lessons from the organist, Walter Witherspoon, and saw the organ near where I stood for my first recital. I saw the lovely stained-glass windows. I wrote recently about the window dedicated to a  Sunday School classmate of mine who died in a sledding accident when I was in the second grade.

It has been years since I have been back there, but I thank God for the place and the people, mostly now in the church triumphant, that were there in my growing-up days.

Ashes and Snow: The Quotidian Graces of my Ash Wednesday

 

I woke up early this morning.  Too early, in fact, to stir without waking my sleeping wife, whose alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m.  So I put on my headphones and turned on my iPod.  At bedtime it had been set to Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, for I am boldly attempting to sing it with a local choral group in May.  But for some reason my iPod was now playing my entire library on shuffle, and I didn’t want to have the little but bright iPod screen light go on and disturb my wife, so I listened to an eclectic assortment of tunes, starting with Traffic’s “Freedom Rider,” then the Greatful Dead’s “Trucking,” and ending with something lovely by Mary Chapin Carpenter, with some Christmas music thrown in the middle for good measure.

The alarm promptly sounded its daily vigil, and as my wife prepared for work I got up to see if there was an early Ash Wednesday service I could attend, since I wanted to go snowshoeing, as we got a fresh new mantle last night, the first in quite awhile.  I know snow has been wreaking havoc south of here, but we have had, not a snow-less winter, but an atypical one for the Berkshires, and I have been hiking in just boots and Yaktrax every day, so I was pumped to get on my snowshoes.

My denomination, the United Church of Christ in the U.S., is a rich mix of traditions, but the majority of them have Reformed roots, so Ash Wednesday has never been big for most of us.   And especially here in New England, where the Congregational churches that sit in the center of every village and town have evolved from the Puritan settlers.  The Puritans, who in so many ways got it right (but not always), historically took a dim view of such suspect accretions to the faith as Ash Wednesday services (they outlawed the celebration of Christmas for generations to give you some idea of where they were coming from.)  In the UCC and other Reformed churches we are coming around, thanks to the cross-fertilization of the Twentieth Century ecumenical movement, so now you can find such services in our churches, but they are usually at night.

But I was raised an Episcopalian (as was my wife), and as a young person I used to go to the early Ash Wednesday Service with my Mom, who died when I was eighteen, and so I have many poignant memories of such services.  I am very familiar and comfortable with the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, and fully accept the imposition of ashes, and so I tamp down my more Puritan impulses on such occasions.

Consequently, I looked on-line for the services at the local Episcopal Church, where I have a long history, as it is near the congregation I served for 22 years, and where my wife and I attend every once in a while.  I was hoping for early, but be careful what you wish for, since the service was at 7:00 a.m., and it was already 6:40 and I was still in my PJs, and the church is a ten minute drive.

Now those of you who know me know that I am somewhat old school (I suspect my children might say to the point of fussiness), and don’t feel quite like myself in church without a coat and tie and proper shoes, but there was no time even for a shower (now occupied by the one who actually works). So I washed as best I could, and tried to disguise my bed-head, put on my hiking clothes and went to divine worship.

I arrived at the front door at 6:55 and it was locked.   Hmm, I thought.  This is clearly not a UCC church, for “extravagant welcome” is one of our principle articles of faith.  But I knew there was a side door that led to the chapel, so off I went and arrived in time to see a few other souls ready to enter.  The rector, who is a friendly and gracious priest, came sweeping in, welcomed us and beckoned us to the chapel.

The familiar liturgy really moved me, and, since my own sense of sin may well be my keenest spiritual faculty, I found myself very emotionally involved in the  service.  And, not to put too fine a point on it in a public blog, I have of late been even less where I would like to be in my long and sometimes stormy relationship with God than usual, so I was feeling properly penitent and truly glad to hear the good news of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

The rector nicely explained Ash Wednesday, and how they had, on the previous evening, made the ashes for the service from the Palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. Then we went forward to get our ashes and I dutifully fell in line with the faithful.  When my turn came the priest put ashes on my forehead and said “Rick, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Then she said to me, “Will you do me?”  She handed me the little bowl, I dipped my finger in it, and repeated the words she had said to me, while I made the sign of the cross on her forehead.

I have been very involved in the ecumenical movement for most of the thirty-five years I have been ordained.  It has fallen on hard times of late, sad to say.  But I was profoundly moved by my colleague’s recognition of me as a fellow minister of Jesus Christ.  Another priest friend of mine, Jane, did this years ago, so I have imposed ashes exactly twice in my life.  Both times the gesture was humbling and wonderful.   God can use such small acts of grace to strengthen the unity of his church, a unity that we have already been given in Christ, but that we cannot see because of our sin.

Then I went snowshoeing.  But first I e-mailed and called every retired and unemployed outdoor type I knew, but as in one of our Lord’s parables, they all had other plans.

So I went alone, which I never do, since I have a brain injury and sometimes fall, although I have poles so usually it’s just my pride that gets hurt.  But I decided to do it anyway today, and I had my cell-phone if I needed help. So I headed up the glorious white hill at the Pittsfield State Forest and broke fresh snow on one of my favorite trails.  It was beautiful there.

I had labored about half an hour, and suddenly there appeared two relatively new friends of mine out of the blue. The last person I had called before I left was my neighbor, who couldn’t go with me because of an appointment.  I had told her that I didn’t hike alone, but was going to try it today.  She mentioned that these same two good friends of hers might be at the State Forest today and I should look for them.  But, in truth, they had found me only because she had called them after I talked to her, and they were all looking out for me.  We had a vigorous hike uphill and back down and a most pleasant conversation.  It was lovely.

Such were the quotidian graces of my Ash Wednesday, for which I am most grateful.

Rome Disses Canterbury: A Sad Time for Ecumenism

Ecumenism is in my DNA.

When I was growing up my father worked for the National Conference of Christians and Jews for fourteen years (technically interfaith, I know, but with strong ecumenical bonds). From my early nurture in the Episcopal Church I was taught that all Christians are Catholic since catholicity is one of the marks of the church named in the creed (“One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.”) I learned that the divisions in the church were the result of human sin, and that we were to work for overcoming them and finding our God-given unity. We prayed (from the Book of Common Prayer) for God to overcome “our unholy divisions.”
I remember the excitement generated when Pope John the 23rd promoted “aggiornamento” that was a feature of the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council. The “windows came open for awhile” a Jesuit friend once said to me.

I recall a sermon in the late nineteen-sixties when our rector enthusiastically reported a historic service in San Francisco where Eugene Carson Blake and Bishop James Pike propose a process leading to the eventual union of the Mainline churches(which became the Consultation on Church Union: COCU.)
As a young adult I joined the United Church of Christ in part because of their great history of ecumenism, and their commitment to be a uniting church. I was ordained by the UCC and served for a dozen years as their representative on the Massachusetts Commission for Christian Unity (MCCU). There, I met wonderful, faithful men and women representing the whole spectrum of Christian communions. One highlight was I got to meet and talk with Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, one of the the great Roman Catholic ecumenists.
I studied the World Council of Churches Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry(BEM) document carefully, and used it in both my local ministry, and in my A Course in Basic Christianity.
So I was dismayed this week to read the reports about Pope Benedict offering “traditional” Anglicans the opportunity to come into the Roman Catholic Church with the promise of “Anglican Rite” status. My first response was sadness. The Vatican is basically telling the Anglican Communion that they are not really a church. I thought of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, someone I truly admire, having to sit there in a press conference and pretend he and his church weren’t getting disrespected.
The whole incident represents a giant set-back for a multi-generational ecumenical dream shared by many Christians from all communions, rooted in Christ’s own prayer to God the Father “that we may all be one.” That dream won’t die, of course, because the unity of the church is God-given, and in God’s own time and way it will be fulfilled. But silly me for thinking I might see more manifestations of it in my lifetime.
And how sad for those who will have to leave their church home. How will it all play out? The priests get to keep their wives but leave their parishes? And which Anglican rites will they be allowed to use? The Eucharistic theology in the various Books of Common Prayer is decisively Reformed in character, and has indigestible nuggets of anti-Roman polemic in it. My former Episcopal colleague Father J. Michael Povey writes astutely about this on his blog with the post Which Rites?
Whenever the church of Jesus Christ splits, it is a scandal. It weakens the church’s witness to the world. And when people leave their communion for another, it diminishes the diversity within that communion. The worst thing for a church is to be a bunch of like-minded people. I have often had to swim against the stream of my own denomination, but as my friend Gabe Fackre has always reminded me, “there are no safe harbors.” That is, there are no ecclesial utopias this side of the kingdom of God.
Here in Massachusetts many of the new members in Protestant churches are former Roman Catholics who come for one reason or another. We welcome them and extend them hospitality in our congregations as we should, because they are our Christian brothers and sisters. But to me it has always been bittersweet to see someone leave their church home, and it is a breach of ecumenical etiquette to bad mouth other communions.
I am guessing that the Vatican believes they are holding out an olive branch to the disaffected Anglicans. But the way it was done signals that any real Roman Catholic/Anglican dialogue based on mutual respect is finished for the foreseeable future. And if even they who share so much can’t work for common ground, what chance is there for us “separated brethren?”
So it is a sad time for ecumenism.