Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day when the Church recognizes and rejoices, through scripture and hymns and prayers, the special guidance, sure protection, relentless pursuit and loving care of God and Christ as a “good shepherd.” It is a metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testaments.
It doesn’t happen often (Easter being a movable feast after all) but it does happen, when “Easter 4” falls on an early Sunday in May. For those special years, a marvelous combination of traditions occurs, when much of secular society celebrates “Mother’s Day.” It is a time of giving thanks and paying tribute to those special women in our lives who have supplied those same traits of a “good shepherd” — guiding, protecting and caring for each of us in unique, and uniquely needed, ways.
The psalm appointed for today is probably the best known of all psalms, the 23rd, proclaiming “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and praising a protective, attentive God providing all our real needs. The appointed Gospel speaks of Jesus as a shepherd who calls each of us his sheep by name, and whose voice we know. (John 10:22-30)
Even for those who — for any one of an infinite number of reasons — were not fortunate enough to have an earthly mother able to nurture them, many have been blessed with some motherly figure (sometimes more than one) who “shepherded” us through much of the “valleys” and “shadows of death” in our lives. It makes Mother’s Day a time of special significance.
It is an unusual joy, then, when church and secular calendars align just right, and we are called to focus an “attitude of gratitude” not just for our earthly moms but also our Heavenly Creator God. This awesome God (whom our patriarchal tradition often calls “Father” but Who of course transcends beyond all gender) so frequently reminds me of certain things, I think, if I could only be more open to them. Despite my cynical lawyer’s streak, I am coming to believe more and more that we are indeed creatures of Love, created for Love by a Creator Who is Love, and Who wraps perfectly loving arms around each precious creature…just like the Best. Mom. Ever!
Growing up, somehow I could pick out my mom’s voice over all other voices whenever she cried out to me, especially when calling me by name. (If ever my middle name was included, I knew I had better come running!) I suspect I am not alone in having such precious memories. So it is not surprising that today’s collect for this Good Shepherd Sunday, with its special timing this year honoring all moms, earthly and heavenly, bears special resonance.
“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
(Originally published for Holy Saturday, April 2014.)
The collect from the very sparse Holy Saturday liturgy says a lot about this “in between” day...
O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The rubrics of the Prayer Book are very clear. No Eucharist today. There is to be one and only one service before tonight’s Easter Vigil, with a worrisome Gospel reading from Matthew 27 that speaks of Jesus’ dead body being moved into the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate sending soldiers going to seal the stone that covered it and to “make it as secure as you can.” And Matthew also writes “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb” (Matt 27:61).
In the face of death, that’s often the only human thing we can do — sit in grief-stricken paralysis, in awe and uncertainty.
One spring morning many years ago, I was at the breakfast table sipping my coffee as my then-young son munched his cereal in his high chair. I opened the paper to see that a local judge had died the day before, after a long and painful battle with cancer. Instinctively, I moaned “oh” and my son looked up to inquire, “What wrong, daddy?” As best I remember, I think I tried to explain to him how daddy knew this lady who had been very sick, and died, and had gone to heaven, but daddy was still sad because he would miss his friend.
Mainly, what I recall is muttering some miserable mess trying to clarify to a child something no adult can truly understand.
Even so, my 4-year old took all this in and seemed to be satisfied and took another scoop of his cereal. After a few seconds, though, he looked up and asked, “Daddy, does she feel better?” In an instant, my muddled confusion was wiped away and replaced with an absolute rock-solid answer I could give him with unquestioned certainty, albeit now with a flushed face and choked voice: “Yeah big guy… She feels better.”
There is an awful lot that my lawyer’s brain can’t wrap around during these mysterious high Holy Days leading up to Easter. But here is what I can grasp — something (or Something or Some One?) has grabbed hold of me. And despite my very best (or worst) rebellious stubborn efforts sometimes, this Mystery does NOT let go.
Lord knows (literally?) that I have more than a few doubts about the nature of God (“My ways are not your ways, sayeth The Lord…“). But here is what I do know, if for no other reason that I have felt it and experienced it so deeply in my life: Whatever God is, God IS… and He/She/They/It is relentless.
For reasons far beyond my understanding tears well up while I write such things. They are tears of hope, regret, sorrow, wonder, joy. Perhaps most of all, they are tears reflecting a desperate need and deep desire for it all to be indeed true.
So, not unlike the women sitting across from the tomb, I too wait and wonder what comes next, and just how God is going to act in my life and in this broken world. And I wonder even more how I might respond, not yet understanding just how near Our Lord of Resurrection might be.
(Originally posted in April 2014. Updated, edited and reposted for the Feast of the Annunciation, 2022.)
Today, March 25, the church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, a fact that normally escapes my attention most every March 25th, and it most certainly did in 2014. (After all, there’s not much need for me to note “Just nine more shopping months ’til Christmas!”) But 3/25 on the 2014 calendar “just happened” to come on a Tuesday, and on that particular Tuesday I “just happened” to make it to the small Tuesday evening Eucharist celebrated each week in my home parish. The Celebrant, The Rev. Lisa Saunders, “just happened” to inform the dozen or so assembled faithful about that day’s significance.
Gabriel delivers a “perplexing” proposal to a young girl… with a lot riding on her answer.
That particular Lent, Mary was on my mind – a lot.
Maybe I was just taken by the Gospel reading about Gabriel’s surprise visit to this young Nazarene girl. Standing before an Archangel, I’m not t all sure I would react with Mary’s sanguine aplomb at some other-worldly being suddenly appearing before me with a hearty, “Greetings, favored one!”
Being “perplexed” would be the least of my reactions. Call me faithless and crazy but I’m thinking Gabe’s reassurance that “The Lord is with you” would somehow strike me as less than reassuring.
Whatever the reason, the term “…born of the Virgin Mary” has now become one of those phrases that just seems to jump out during the liturgy. It is important to note that the term which is often translated to “virgin” in English simply connotes a young unmarried woman of child-bearing age. Most scholars agree that the term in original scripture says more to being a “maiden” than any statement about sexual “purity.” Regardless, it is her obedience, her surrender, her willingness to walk the unknowable path of the Unknown that has taken more and more of a focus this particular Lent.
As she stood there pondering this sudden proposal from some strange messenger claiming to speak for the Omnipotent Creator, Mary could never have known what all was to come. Indeed, if we as God’s children truly do have God’s awful gift of free will, I wonder sometimes if God actually knew what all was to come?
I love Frederick Buechner’s take on Gabriel’s task in selling Mary on the whole idea…
“(Mary) struck the angel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it…
As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
— from Peculiar Treasures
I can never know the anguish, angst and anxiety that a mother feels watching her son take a fearful path. I have witnessed it, though, in my own mother, in the lives of some women I’ve been blessed to know in my life, and in the mother of my own son. It may not be the pain of nails that pierce flesh and bone, but it is searing pain nonetheless and it deeply pierces the human heart.
Jesus’ decision to go to the cross was a sacrifice willingly made, thanks be to God. Mary’s unspeakable sorrow and suffering, watching her child endure that cross, was not.
(Originally written last year, February 2021. Updated to reflect changes in Covid status and the current war in Ukraine.)
Ash Wednesday is not a day for high self-esteem.
In the centuries-old tradition of Lent, we strange Christians begin this forty-day season of penitence, preparing for the joy of Easter by submitting – however hesitantly – to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we, ALL of us, are really just passing through.
“You are dust,” the priest reminds each one of the assembled, one by one. And just to make the point clear, ashen dust is smeared on each forehead in the sign of a cross. “…And to dust you shall return.”
That’s in normal times, of course, not Covid times. Last year, that little uplifting ritual was self-imposed. As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in countless scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and, all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them, from whence they came and their inevitable destination. This year, 2022, the outlook pandemic-wise may have lightened a little — at least enough for in-person services with actual cold dead ashes on actual live warm foreheads — but the world outlook is FAR from improved as Russian troops bear down on Ukraine.
This dismal exercise is meant to set the stage for a reflective, more intentional and “penitent” Lent. Today’s virtual service began — like any other year — with no introductory fanfare of any kind, no processional music, no opening acclamation or liturgical response; just a silent slow procession through the (for now empty) church sanctuary.
For me, the opening collect of Ash Wednesday paints a distressing portrait of humankind’s depraved state and utter need for redemption:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who ae penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Before we are smudged with ashes and once again given our yearly instruction regarding our dusty ancestry and legacy, the Ash Wednesday liturgy calls for the Celebrant to pray with words lifted from Psalm 51, beseeching God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts” while we go about “worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness.”
And yet, amidst all this lamentation, there are reminders not just of our desperate need for redemption, but thankfully God’s eager yearning to offer it.
Thus, for all its solemnity and breast-beating, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is an invitation, and a glorious one at that.
If I can somehow focus my feeble five-second attention with a faithful more-focused intention for the next forty days (thankfully we get Sundays off), then such a Lenten journey just might crack open a mysterious door a little wider. Lord knows what is on the other side of that door. On this side is the fervent hope of a “perfect remission and forgiveness” from an “Almighty and Everlasting God” who indeed “hates NOTHING”…not even a frenetic and distracted and sometimes disillusioned cynical lawyer who too-often seems more concerned with finding answers instead of just accepting gifts.
One of the greatest gifts of liturgy, much like a powerful poem or memorable speech, is the way a simple succinct phrase within it can sometimes reveal a depth of experience or emotion that is almost beyond words to truly capture. Just a few words, expressed in just the right way at just the right time in just the right circumstances, can express an intimate knowledge and awareness that says to the hearer “I think I know some of what you are feeling, what you are going through…I’ve been there.”
One such phrase comes within one of the “Additional Prayers” that appear toward to the end of the pastoral service for the The Burial of the Dead:
Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Those eight words “for those we love, but see no longer” capture for me all the tender and bittersweet emotions for those persons especially dear who have ended their time on this planet, and yet still very much alive in my heart. Those eight words speak of special loved ones never again to be gazed upon this side of paradise, except in the mind’s eye and perhaps glimpsed in the most fortunate and happiest dreams.
Earlier this week, on November 1, many liturgical churches celebrated the “Feast of All Saints” most often referred to as “All Saints Day.” It is considered one of the high holy days of the Anglican tradition and is a time to pause and pay special attention to that “great cloud of witnesses” that have come and gone before us on this earthly journey. Often in the All Saints Day service, the names of all the parishioners who have died in the previous year are read aloud, one by one, as a way of remembrance.
The next day, November 2, is the companion feast of “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” It is more widely recognized in Latin America than the United States. Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, celebrating “that vast multitude that no one can number,” the emphasis during All Souls Day is more personal, intended to honor a particular loved one or small set of intimate loved ones. The Feast of the Faithful Departed is celebrated with such things as listening to music they especially liked, or preparing and enjoying the food they found especially satisfying, or wearing an article of their clothing or carrying a personal item they treasured. It is a common practice to place a picture of the departed by a candle for the day.
Most often in most Episcopal churches in the U.S., the two days are celebrated as one on “All Saints Sunday” — which happens to be today. It seems an especially appropriate time then to embrace such a prayer as the one above, and indeed, to let it embrace us.
Sitting in a dimly lit kitchen at 3:40 a.m. The silence is deafening. The stillness roars like a roller coaster.
Earlier, I turned over – again – in bed to see the alarm clock flash its low red signal, now 2:19, and then 2:47, and then 3:14. And now I’m now vertical, at the kitchen island, feeling very tired. But not a bit sleepy.
Insomnia can be doubly frustrating when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.
Oh, I have had PLENTY of reasons in my life not to sleep, and no doubt will have plenty more in the future. Most of the time, a death is somehow involved. A death of a loved one or a relationship or a job or a trial. Or, just as often, it can be just the fear of losing those things.
But on this night, there is no such anxiety, no identifiable reason to be so “Sleepless in Charlotte.” There was no caffeine before bed (not even chocolate), no screen time, no spicy dinner. I even remembered to take my usual one tablet of Tylenol PM.
But finally at 4:05 a.m., I finally do have an explanation I can understand why now I’m too anxious to sleep, too frustrated and fixated to even think of going back to my pillow. It is my growing anger over the fact that I cannot sleep.
Spiraling down further and further in a combination of self-pity, self-doubt and self-disdain, I finally do what I often do when I run out of options. I pray.
Funny how prayer for me is so often the last resort, and rarely the first option. Truth be told, I don’t feel like I’m that good at praying, especially at night. I might mumble a few quiet incoherent thoughts, “Lord, let me sleep please,” as if the Almighty is purposely just poking me in the ribs or stealing my covers. Most of the time, I need help to pray, so like any good Whiskeypalian, I look in the “Prayuh Book.” I search for the service of Compline.
Compline is an ancient liturgy for corporate worship at the very end of the day when the faith community is ready to surrender to sleep. It is perhaps the most contemplative liturgical practice, peaceful and gentle, calming and restful and restorative.
There in the final prayers of Compline, I find a prayer that (to borrow that hackneyed phrase)“soothes my soul.”
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
I can’t explain it. But it does soothe my soul. I read it again it, and then whisper it slowly aloud.
Keep watch... (God is watching. The Lord does not slumber or sleep, so the Psalmist tells us.)
…with those who work or watch or weep this night (I am not the only one up right now. I think of them, and the different reasons they have to also be sleepless.)
…and give your angels charge over those who sleep. (I am too much a cynical trial lawyer to really know if that’s true, if Angels really do exist, and really do keep charge of us as we slumber. But I do know this — I want it to be true. And in the pitch darkness on this night that is enough.
I crawl back to bed, and whisper the prayer once more.
The Book of Common Prayer includes a specific collect for the celebration of Independence Day in the United States:
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Interestingly, today’s collect for “Proper 9” in Pentecost, even though not specifically written for the Fourth of July, works just as well,…especially for America in 2021:
O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In his song “Coming to America,” Neil Diamond has a line about immigrants and how they “are traveling light today…in the eye of the storm, in the eye of the storm.”
May it be so with us as well, both as proud patriots and struggling followers of Jesus, that we being “united to one another in pure affection” might indeed “travel light” in the midst of all our current storms.
While it does not get anywhere near the secular attention that Christmas or Easter garner, Pentecost is still a “biggie“ in the Christian tradition. That’s because it’s the big celebration of “The Holy Spirit” — that most mysterious portion of our mysterious and unfathomable triune God.
It is often called the “birthday of the Church,” and commemorates the very strange appearance of the HS coming upon the disciples of first century Palestine, very soon after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Nobody knows exactly what happened on that particular morning, but the writer of Acts says it was “like the rush of a violent wind” with something like “tongues of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.” (Acts 2:1-4). Because of the day’s significance, a reciting of the “Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant” is often part of the Pentecost worship service.
As I’ve written before in this blog, this fairly modern liturgy of Baptismal renewal goes through a series of eight questions, the first three being corporate “we” affirmations of doctrinal beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed. The last five though are individual and specific, compelling the personal commitment of each believer and the promise of “I will, with God’s help.”
Four of those five specific questions have been covered in previous posts:
This last one, for my money at least, is the sine qua non of them all:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
It seems to me that this one personal commitment is the one that matters most, the one without which the other four really wouldn’t matter that much. The depth of this question, if taken seriously, both expands the world view￼ of a “Jesus follower” and compels a believer to bring it down to the most intimate and microcosmic view.
I believe that it is no accident that the writers of this liturgy purposely chose the term “Christ” as opposed to “Jesus.” Of course, the central tenet of the Christian faith is to believe that “Jesus is the Christ”… inextricably intertwined.
But they are not synonymous.
Jesus is the human, the carpenter’s son turned itinerant preacher￼￼￼￼￼￼. Christ is the title, the fulfillment, the hope of humankind — as old as humankind itself — that God the Creator would be made manifest in humanity, thereby drawing all creation to its Self in unity with the Divine.
The first seven words of this question presume an astounding truth. That is, the assurance Christ is￼ woven within every human being, without exception, and￼ without regard to race or age or gender or nationality or status or for that matter one’s personal religion or faith. Paul spoke this Truth to the early church in Galatia that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Likewise, John writes the nascent churches in Asia that￼, far from being some stern celestial grandfather or vengeful prison warden, “God is love and whoever abides in love abides in god, and God abides in them. God is love and all who live in love live in God and God abides in them.” (1 Jn. 4:16)
Maybe the simple, sweet words of that old hymn say it best and make this truth plain:
In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north; but one great fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide earth.
Such a truth, seems to me, leads then inevitably to the commitment encapsulated in the last five words of this quintessential question in the Covenant, about ￼”loving your neighbor as yourself.”
I must confess to taking some misguided and ill-advised pride that a lawyer (in true lawyer-fashion) asks Jesus a smart-ass technical question about the definition of “neighbor” trying to “test Him,” and slice and dice and parse that commandment: “Yeah, but Teacher Jesus, really now…just who exactly qualifies as my ‘neighbor’?” (Lk. 10:25-37) Jesus of course, like the most evasive of witnesses, never really answers the lawyer’s question, but rather tells the timeless story of “The Good Samaritan.”
Jesus is never interested in technicalities, but rather a broad all-inclusive embrace that my “neighbor” comes to me in form of whoever darkens my doorstep or crosses my path.
One last point about this most essential part of Baptismal Covenant. I often overlook the fact that Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” pretty much requires that I have to find a way to love myself, too — not at all an easy thing for me to do sometimes. ￼There are things that I say to myself, with such vitriol and venom, that I would never say to any other human. Ever. Thus, this question in the Baptismal Covenant reminds me to ease up on myself, to cut myself as much slack as I would readily give to the guy in the apartment upstairs making a little noise, or a colleague or client missing a deadline, or a fellow parishioner for taking up that last space in the parking lot.
That’s why THIS part of the Baptismal Covenant, more than any other I think, merits the most earnest and hearty response: “I will, with God’s help.”
Every several years or so, I seem to get reminded from Lord knows where (a phrase that uncomfortably seems more literal sometimes than just a figure of speech) that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation.
It always occurs exactly nine months before the ”Feast of the Nativity” a/k/a Christmas Day. (Go figure.)
The day celebrates the account in Luke’s Gospel of the young maiden Mary, and her surprising visit by the angel Gabriel…and his even more surprising message that she had been appointed to offer human birth to the son of God.
It usually comes in the middle of Lent, a few days or weeks before Easter. It is a time (as said so wonderfully by Canon Rose Duncan at the Washington National Cathedral this morning) of “wombs and tombs, beginnings and endings, births and deaths.”
Regardless of what faith we might profess, or if we follow no organized religion at all, it seems that in every life it is inevitable to face times of real decision, of moving one way or the other, of following a path pointed this uncertain way or that, or maybe just staying put – frozen and hesitant – and making the decision of no decision. And in that sense, the story of Mary and her annunciation is, in absolute fact, a universal human story.
A few years back, I was also totally surprised by the Feast of the Annunciation one March 25. It led me (as these things tend to do) to pour a nice single malt and start writing, and wondering how that same God who beckoned a young girl to change the world forever might also be beckoning me.
(For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Generally speaking, we Episcopalians are not particularly known for our proclamations. Near the top of my list of favorite oxymorons (slightly ahead of “corporate culture” and “military intelligence,” but behind “Justice Thomas”) is “Episcopal evangelism.” It’s typically just not our style, which makes this third question of the Baptismal Covenant a bit problematic for many of us, at least for me.
I’m not at all sure why that is exactly, but a story by southern novelist Clyde Edgerton that he read here in Charlotte a few years back from one of his books offers a humorous clue. The scene was about an old man and a boy one Sunday morning on the front porch of a general store in Macon, Georgia. The old man is rocking while reading the Sunday paper, as the boy plays with baseball cards on the steps and a church bell rings out to signal the end of the service of the church across the street. “Look at them Episcopalians there, boy,” says the old man looking up from his paper and taking his reading specs off to watch the acolytes take the cross and candles around back to the sacristy and the priest in his vestments greet the parishioners recessing out into the humid air. “You know, there ain’t nothin‘ Episcopalians wouldn’t do for the love of God,” the man tells the boy, “…exceptin’ if it was tacky.”
That story is funny because in so many ways — at least in regards to this Episcopalian — it is so true. Why else, if not for fear of my being “tacky” would I feel the least twinge about the commitment to “proclaim…the good news”? It’s not that I am a particularly shy person, Lord knows. Indeed, family and friends would “proclaim” that I am most assuredly not. Nor am I all that shy about claiming to be Christian; I write this blog on the liturgy after all, and am a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of North Carolina.
Why so shy?
The hesitancy, the twinge, the “shyness” (such that it is) in my proclaiming anything about Christianity is mainly because, I confess, I just don’t want to be associated with “those” kind of Christians…you know, the ones with a lot of hairspray.
I try not to look down my nose at those good church-going folks who fill big NBA-sized arenas to hear the word of ”JEE-YAH-UH-ZUSS” shouted at them with all the cock-sure certainty of used car dealers whose sole task and desire is “closing the sale.” I try, I really do. Those mega-churches do fill an obvious need for those that flock to them. Even so, I fail miserably most of the time.
And then there are the “Christians” for whom the term “tacky” seems for me far too benign. These are the folks who seem hellbent (an adjective chosen with care) on making sure that the “club“ of Christianity remains exclusive. You are either “in“ (i.e., you have at some point repeated a magic prayer and have been “saved“), or you have not and are therefore “out.” They seem not the least bit shy in proclaiming loudly their “Christian” views of what the Almighty most certainly dictated about a number of current issues — abortion, guns, welfare, the border, school prayer, child adoption by LGBTQ parents and a heavenly host of other matters not really mentioned specifically in Scripture. The absence of specific, literal guidance does not at all prevent these “Christians” from offering specific and literal guidance as to what beyond all doubt and discussion Jesus wants. The problem is, most of the time, those views do not sound a whole lot like the Jesus I read in the Gospels.
If “proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ” means being associated with those “Christians,” I just as soon take a pass on that part of the Baptismal Covenant.
The problem is…
There is a significant drawback to my timidity, though, besides the obvious flaws that it is snobbish and snooty, and well, timid, in a time when I believe our faith calls for boldness. That huge flaw is the inescapable fact that being a true follower of Jesus, by today’s earthly standards anyway, is pretty damn nutty. Let’s leave aside for a second the whole Nativity legend of virgin birth and heavenly beings appearing to Joseph (in one Gospel, but none of the others) and to Mary and Shepherds (in another Gospel, but none of the others). Let’s not even dwell on the main point of the Baby Jesus legend — the Omnipotent Yahweh of Creation, now appearing as a helpless bastard infant born to a poor oppressed girl with confused boyfriend in a Bethlehem stable.
Instead, let’s just look on the central message of the adult Jesus. His word and example was — and to believers very much IS — a loud proclamation that God’s overwhelming healing Love for each of us is lavish, undeserved, illogical and radical. And Jesus’ primary command to us — to love God and neighbor — means that followers who take him seriously must forgive attacks on them over and over and over again, and actually do good to any and all folks who abuse us. We are instructed to pray to God like a neighbor banging on your door late at night wanting some beer and snacks for some friends who dropped by. To “proclaim the Good News” we are told both requires and leads us to care about and show love for our most hateful enemies. In a world of self-esteem, self-image and self-actualization, we are told we must lose ourselves in order to save ourselves.
Such counter-cultural thinking is not always appreciated in pop culture, high society or the academic towers. So yeah, there’s a real risk of Christians in general and Lord forbid Episcopalians in particular of being seen as kind of weird, a little crazy, and even <gasp > tacky. Episcopalians need to get over it. To be more precise, I need to get over it.
Getting over it.
Ever so slowly, and with a lot of fake-it-til-you-make practice, I‘m finding my lawyer-brained, bet-hedging self more and more able to share in my crazy and tacky beliefs. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – Biblical scholar and firebrand preacher all rolled into one — is helping me “get over it” when he writes a book he unapologetically entitles, “Crazy Christians.” He helps me further with his latest book (written just before the latest pandemic and racial upheaval and civil unrest, and released during the midst of them) that is premised on the ”crazy” but somehow absolutely true — and even empirically logical — notion that “Love Is The Only Way.”
Regardless of all the twists and turns and causes along the journey, I find myself more able — sometimes even willing and eager — to proclaim (even if more by word than example for now) that I have had these grand moments along the way, from “Lord knows” where. And those moments have been so grand and have given a small glimpse of a Divine Goodness beyond all human goodness, a Universal Beauty beyond all earthly beauty, and most of all an Infinite Unfathomable Love far beyond my ability to comprehend, or to resist. What small comprehension I can manage, though, inevitably leads me to person of Jesus of Nazareth as human embodiment of that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love. And who even now — two millennia later and with countless generous of “Christians” who have done their damnedest to muck things up — remains still Jesus the Christ, the Unifier and Healer of all living things.
Just this morning, after most of the above had been written, I happened to see an online sermon from one of my favorite priests preaching about today’s Gospel (John 3:14-21) for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, focusing on what it means to live as a Jesus-follower “in the light” versus trying to be a Christian hidden “in the dark.” He posed a question that his been gnawing at me all day, and seemed as good as any way to conclude: “Who is protected by keeping your faith a private affair?”
Regardless of my constant misgivings of doubts, uncertainties and silly concerns, I would do well to ask, whenever I hedge or hesitate to “…proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,“ … Who indeed am I trying to protect? If I’m honest, I’ll have to admit it is probably me.