St. Thomas' Parish at Dupont Circle – Washington, DC

Archive for the 'Bible' Category

Don’t do something, just stand there!

Jeremiad: noun \ˌjer-ə-ˈmī-əd, -ˌad\ a prolonged lamentation or complaint; also :  a cautionary or angry harangue.  From ‘Jeremiah’ the Hebrew 6th c. B.C.E. prophet who foresaw the destruction of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians, who seized Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and took many of the inhabitants into exile in Babylonia.  Jeremiah was eloquent but ultimately ineffective in warning the people that the coming destruction was not an act of God, but the consequence of their own actions.

Copyright The Washington Post.Blogging-Thomas has been quiet for almost a year.  The lack of complaints about this has been humbling, but then humility is less and less of a stranger the older I get.  Today’s Navy Yard massacre in Washington, DC, where I live, was the last straw.  I’m writing for the sake of my own soul, as perhaps Jeremiah realized at times he was doing as well.

This won’t be as long as a proclamation by Jeremiah, and the only eloquence about it will be a brief quotation from his biblical writings.  If you want something eloquent about Jeremiah and in his style, listen to my spouse’s sermon yesterday from St. Thomas’ Parish here in Washington. This post won’t be that good.  But I’m going to finish it anyway.

The Hebrew Scripture lesson yesterday was from the fourth chapter of Jeremiah’s writing.  And it used words that, as was said in yesterday’s sermon, we always assume are being said about somebody else, not us: “My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

Now I don’t know yet anything whatsoever about who did this shooting (one shooter is dead and two more are still at large).  They are perpetrators of evil actions.  I have no compunction saying that.

But if God showed up in person for the evening news and asked: Now didn’t something like this happen back in Ft. Hood, TX?  How did those folks die?  We’d say, guns.  And the 6 a little later in Tucson, AZ?  Guns. And the 12 at the theater in Aurora, CO?  Guns!  The 6 at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI?  More guns!!  And those 23 precious children in their own school Newtown, CT?  Guns, too, ok?!?!!!  And the dozen who’ve died thus far in Washington, DC, today?  GUNS!!!!!

And then I imagine God asking simply:  And so what did you do after Ft. Hood?  And we’d have to say, nothing!  Tucson?  Nothing!  Aurora?  Nothing.  Oak Creek?  Nothing!  Newtown?  NOTHING.  And what do you plan to do tomorrow?  IF YOU WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH, I IMAGINE WE’LL DO NOTHING ONCE AGAIN!!

And Jeremiah the TV Commentator signs off by reporting God’s parting words:  “My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”   Thank you Jeremiah.  I know I couldn’t have said it that well myself.

Jeremiah could have dissected the Babylonian captors ad nauseam, and they probably weren’t very nice people.  But his point was that the real problem was a society that has lost it’s way, and was destroying itself by glorifying, indeed deifying, power and violence and injustice.

For Jeremiah and Judah, there was no happy ending.  Their kingdom fell.  For us, maybe there’s hope.  Maybe our national response to gun-violence one day won’t be “don’t do something, just stand there!”  For we will never get all the crazy, angry, bitter, violent people off the street or out of our lives or world.  But we’ve got to find a way to take the guns out of their hands.  Let’s help one another to quit just standing there, and this time do something!



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Prophet Margins

The role of the prophet was an impossible one.  Prophets were called to speak truth to power, to name human folly, and to declare to those living in comfort in the middle of prosperity that God’s preferred residence was actually at the margins.  The prophet was tasked with afflicting the comfortable.

As a result, prophets were usually on the outs with leaders of church and state who had taken it upon themselves to let God know their expectations, and to demand that God meet them.

The prophets role was to remind us of the folly of our human expectations — that if God is on our side, we will prosper, our nation will have a preeminent place in the world, and our religion will protect us with God’s special favor.

“All people are grass,” Isaiah wrote; “their constancy is like the flower of the field” that withers and fades. And so the prophets of Israel were the ones to speak up and remind the people that God did not exist to meet our expectations.

The prophet’s role, however, was even harder to live out.  After Israel fell to conquest and the people were sent into exile in foreign lands, it was the prophet’s role, as well, to comfort the afflicted and to remind them that God remained faithful to them, even when they were allowed to suffer the consequences of unjust living, of human unfaithfulness in loving God and their neighbor.

Isaiah had, before their exile, called the people to account for their expectation that God would continue to bless them with military and monetary success, however little justice their lives displayed.  Now, at the far side of that time, the prophetic voice that we will hear on The Second Sunday of Advent turns the other cheek:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid …”  God will “feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

This is not the voice of God to the triumphant privileged, but to the sheep who have been ravaged by wolves, some of which they  have invited into their own folds.  It is the voice announcing that God will be their shepherd, doing for them faithfully what they had refused to do for one another — show mercy, compassion, forgiveness to those who live at the margins.

It was Isaiah’s job to declare not only that God  had chosen deliberately not to live up to their former expectations, but also that God doesn’t plan to live up to their expectations in the future, either!

Why?  Because  God has something better in mind.  The world will one day be turned on its head.  The margins will become the center of God’s life-giving presence.  The last will be first.  “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”

In a word, the Messiah is coming.

And in that Blessed One, all of creation will discover God’s expectations for us, to be seen in the face of a poor child, born on the margins.

So wait.  And watch.  And stay awake.   For throughout the Advent Season, God is coming towards us already, with unanticipated mercy and compassion and love.

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gay, black, baptist, Republican, Harvard, radical, Anglophile, preacher

The church lost one its greatest preachers … ever … last night when Peter Gomes died in Boston. If you don’t know about Peter Gomes, he was pastor at Memorial Church on Harvard Yard.  Two generations away from his ancestors in slavery, he disappointed his father by foregoing work in the cranberry bogs in order to become a minister. “When I told my father I wanted to go into the ministry he said, ‘I had hoped my son would do honest work’.  … He expected me to go into the bogs like he did. I have spent the rest of my life trying to persuade father I was doing honest work.”

He believed that Jesus turned everything upside down, but the church had turned them right back up where they were, putting success and power back on top.  “So much for the missionary position,” he told Stephen Colbert.

Peter was a black preacher with an aristocratic Harvard demeanor — a radical Republican who later in life changed his party affiliation to Democratic — a gay Baptist who came out in protest to an article in a conservative student publication at Harvard condemning homosexuality.  As he put it in 1991, “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay. … Those realities, which are irreconcilable to some, are reconciled in me by a loving God.”

Professor Gomes was as engaging a writer as a preacher.  Try either The Good Book or The Good Life or The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (download it to your Kindle or iPhone).  Now there’s wisdom.

He also knew how to laugh, starting with himself; you can get a glimpse why thirty years of Harvard students loved him in this clip from the Colbert Report.  We will all miss him, whether or not we knew him in life, because uniqueness like this just won’t happen again.

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A quiet week in DC Northeast

It was a quiet week in Washington Northeast . . . . At least until the Metro crash. I had just arrived home from teaching French at Catholic University of America when vehicle after emergency vehicle went wailing off towards where I had just come from, and auto theft alarms and the hundred-thirty-pound Rottweiler next door (incongruously named Flossie) raised up their voices in orgasmic worship of the siren gods. Great fun until I turned on the news and learned what it was all about; it will be some time before I hear another really really loud fire engine and say, “Cool.”

It was a less quiet week for the fellow doctoral students whom I’m coaching through their language qualification exams in French and German. It’s easy enough for me to concoct a quiz question like, Circle the correct completion: Elles sont (a) allé (b) allés (c) allées. Not so easy for George, laboriously mastering his first foreign language at thirty, or Dave, trying to memorize conjugations while his wife is weeks away from delivering their second child and he is entertaining The House Guests from Hell – old college friends with a four-year-old, the three of them fighting like cats and dogs. Being a doctoral student at Catholic U is not a stress-free occupation.

And, curiously, especially not so for my fellow students who are Catholic.

I’m free to float past the authority claims, the arguments against permitting use of condoms in any circumstance (though shouldn’t we take care to protect lives now, so we can attend to souls later?), and the posters for pro-life novenas and campus chastity drives. My Catholic colleagues are not. Sally, an historical theologian in my German class, understands what was lost at Vatican I (1870), when the teaching authority of the church was taken away from university theologians and given to an ordained hierarchy lumbered with its own claim of infallibility. As a committed Catholic, she is stuck with living in an institution that now will not, because it cannot, ever overrule itself; there will be no Brown vs. Little Rock-equivalent doctrinal declaration in her lifetime.

By historical accident, not by superior wisdom, we Anglicans arrived at a different understanding of authority. Queen Elizabeth, knowing she faced the possibility of religious civil war in sixteenth-century England, created a Church of England that demanded uniformity of worship but knew better than to seek uniformity in how that worship was understood; “I desire not,” quoth she, “windows into men’s souls.” We were left free, individually but in community, to decide for ourselves what Scripture is really saying to us and what God demands of and for us in the major decisions of our lives. This has its own risks; where a Roman Catholic polity can be as centripetal as a black hole, ours can be as centrifugal as a dandelion gone to seed.

It also calls us to a different kind of responsibility, both in individual discernment and in balancing individual discernment with the demands of living in a communion that functions by consent and consensus. For some of us, the question is how to balance the conviction that in-church blessings of same-sex unions are not merely lawful but demanded by God’s justice, with the regrettable but deeply felt reluctance of African bishops to countenance any such thing. For others, the question is how to live with being answerable for so many choices. One of my German students is a cradle Episcopalian who became a Catholic in search of greater certainty. The infallibility of Pope in Council is for him the foundation of all spiritual security, and he scraps about it continually with Sally. Their most recent blow-up (not, thank heavens, in my class room) was about, of all things, the validity of Anglican ordinations. She, arguing for, thought the matter was still open for theological discussion. He, against, was quoting canons of Vatican I. Verbatim. In Latin.

Desmond Tutu has asked for a sense of proportion in the Anglican Communion’s debate about sexuality and authority; why is this one sin, if it be a sin, so much more important than any other? Yesterday’s Metro crash, also, is a call to perspective; are we really going to enquire into firefighters’ personal sexual orientations before letting them go into the wrecked cars to pull out passengers? Action is as important as purity of doctrine; our faith doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t take us outside ourselves and outside our immediate faith communities to serve Christ in the world. And our discernment isn’t on the right track if it makes us less, not more, charitable towards those who disagree with us. My gut reaction to Bishop Akinola is to reject him as vitriolically as he rejects me. But then I remember what living in Nigeria was like, how the culture operated, and I can see – just – how many of the authoritarian certainties that represent safety to him are threatened if two men are free to kiss. Anger and fear are joined at the hip; it is his fear that makes him angry, and we can insist that it is time for the church to endorse the blessing of same-sex unions, not later but now, and still pray for his fear. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

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Selling Advent

There are almost as few things for sale with an Advent-theme as there are Lenten-collectibles.  Lent, of course, is focused on the events leading up to the end of Jesus’ life at the age of thirty-three.  Lent is a hard sell, and few people try to make a living off of Lenten trinkets.

But it comes as a surprise to many of us that one of the central themes of Advent is the final judgment.  Advent, we are jolted to learn, isn’t just about waiting for the baby Jesus in the manger, but also our anticipation of the end of all things at the last judgment when Christ comes back on ‘the last day’ as the Lord of all of creation for all time .

No wonder that both seasons – Lent and Advent – are ‘hard sells’.  They are, after all, periods for introspection about “the time of this mortal life” (BCP, 211), and thus have a certain ‘penitential’ quality to them – a tone of giving-up or turning-loose of our attachment to ‘things’. So ‘selling Advent’ sounds like an oxymoron, if not just in bad taste.

As a result, we are left with Advent Wreaths and Advent Calendars for the most part, although personally I can never find where I put the four-candle-styrofoam-form last year for my wreath, and I always get to about December 15th before I realize that I’m ten days behind with my calendar already, and give in to sloth.

So it’s been interesting to think about whether there are actually any ‘consumer goods’ out there with Advent themes that are worth considering even in an age of recession. The trick, of course, is how not to fast-forward to Christmas, even when trying to celebrate Advent — like this Nativity Advent Wreath I found for sale online this week.

In protest you could wear an “It’s Only Advent” button while you’re out doing your Christmas shopping.  Or you you could be less self-righteous than I tend to be and look at a wonderful website and blog by the artist Jan Richardson to see some of her fabulous Advent art and to buy one of her Advent books – Nancy and I own Night Visions and have just ordered The Advent Door.

Here’s someone who’s been captivated by Advent, and her art can unleash a whole new set of associations about this special season.

Spend some time looking at her Advent Hours Series of Greeting Cards, or one of her fantastic prints, like “Wise Women Also Came.”

Advent is such a curious season for so many Christians because it invites us to entertain the possibility that God chose to be in our midst precisely because creation is one of God’s favorite places to be.  God took flesh, became incarnate, because our flesh was worthy of bearing God … then … and still is now.

It’s hard to sell Advent because we’ve been so thoroughly taught that our bodies are bad that we can no longer even imagine they are good enough to be God’s place to dwell.  So we wait in Advent for this miracle to become ours again  … althought it is already, if we were only awake enough to see it.

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“Ike” Eisenhower and the Advent Calendar

Leave it to the BBC for trivia you can count on:

EDOW Advent Calendar“The first advent calendars appeared in 19th-Century Germany, when various methods of counting the days between the start of Advent and Christmas Day were used. Starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, or simply on 1 December, the Protestant Christians would keep track of the days by making marks on their doors with a piece of chalk, which would then be rubbed off one by one as Christmas approached. Other practices then developed, including burning a candle or putting up a small religious picture to mark each day.

There is some disagreement as to when the first printed advent calendars appeared, although it is clear that they were first produced at some time in the 1900s. There are claims that a Christian bookshop in Hamburg produced a ‘Christmas Clock’ in 1902, and a newspaper in Stuttgart is known to have included an advent caldendar in its pages in 1904. However, the first mass producer of advent calendars is thought to have been Gerhard Lang, who worked at the Reichhold & Lang printing office in Munich. He released his first advent calendar in 1908 and had a steady business going which produced over thirty patterns of calendar until some time in the 1930s. The calendars would usually have 24 doors, but tended to be better-decorated than modern versions.

Soon enough, calendars were being designed with little doors or pouches which contained small religious pictures or bible extracts. Better still, some of the calendars also contained sweeties in order to keep the attention of young children. The practice escalated up until the Second World War, when paper and cardboard were rationed and advent-calendar production ground to a halt. Once the war ended, though, the production began again, pioneered by Richard Sellmer in 1946.

The introduction of the advent calendar to the USA was aided by ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, whose grandchildren took a shine to the idea. The calendar was soon adopted in other countries too, and in the UK chocolates began to appear behind the little doors as soon as rationing would allow. By the end of the 1950s, chocolate advent calendars had appeared, and by the following decade they had become widespread. They still exist today, with hundreds of different varieties appearing across the globe.”

Three of the best online are the Full Homely Divinity Advent Calendar — the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s fifth annual 2008 Advent Calendar — and the BBC’s wonderful, musical Bach Christmas Calendar.  Bookmark each of them (or just your favorite) and check each day for a new surprise.

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Advent anticipation

There are two seasons in the church year that ask us to wait.

During Lent we wait for the pivotal stories of Holy Week, and Good Friday, Holy Saturday …. and Easter.  Forty days we wait, with a growing sense of the immensity of what lies ahead, and our own insufficiency in the face of God’s time of need.

During Advent, the season beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, we are also asked to wait.  But now the waiting has an entirely different flavor.  It is the waiting, to use Shakespeare’s phrase from the Merchant of Venice, “With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness.”  It is the waiting for God’s entrance into our home, this place earth.

It is long enough for us to be admonished to “keep awake” — for it will come as a surprise, “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” We are admonished, too, to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Yet there is no doubt that the point is for us to be ready “to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer” (BCP, Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent).

Our waiting for the child in Bethlehem is “Advent anticipation” – the expectation of the unexpected.  We cannot imagine what form God is already waiting for us to experience, as we, too, discover our own flesh as capable of bearing Christ into the world.  We wait in anticipation that this year again, God will make our flesh God’s own “proper habitation” (Richard Hooker).

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Why Darwin Still Matters … as Do Our Views of Him

“Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still,” Rev. Malcolm Brown, director of missions and public affairs for the Church of England, wrote in an essay entitled “Good Religion Needs Good Science.”

“We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends.”

Brown’s amends include a much needed corrective that Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson and other Christian creationists might consider.

“Subsequent generations have built on Darwin’s work but have not significantly undermined his fundamental theory of natural selection. There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6: 25-33),” Brown wrote.

“The anti-evolutionary fervour in some corners of the churches may be a kind of proxy issue for other discontents; and, perhaps most of all, an indictment of the churches’ failure to tell their own story -
Jesus’s story – with conviction in a way which works with the grain of the world as God has revealed it to be, both through the Bible and in the work of scientists of Darwin’s calibre.”

Though Darwin is a hero to atheists, he was raised in the Anglican church, thought about becoming a clergyman, later attended a Unitarian church and described himself as an agnostic. “In my most extreme
fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God,” he wrote in 1879. “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.”

It has been noted in recent commentary on Palin’s nomination to run for Vice-President on the Republican ticket with John McCain that “As a candidate for governor, Sarah Palin called for teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools. But after Alaska voters elected her, Palin, now Republican John McCain’s presidential running mate, kept her campaign pledge to not push the idea in the schools.

She’s in favor of teaching both creationism and evolution in the public schools. ‘Teach both,’ she said in a 2006 gubernatorial debate. … McCain believes the issue should be decided by individual school districts.”

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Maximal minimalism

The genius of Anglicanism, as Episcopalians have understood it for at least the past 120 years is what I call “maximal minimalism” – that is to say, the maximal statement of faith can be best conveyed by the minimal number of core convictions.

The Lambeth Conference of 1888 stated it far better in Resolution 11 than any lengthier Anglican Covenant will ever do, when it said “That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion”:

(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.”

(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself–Baptism and the Supper of the Lord–ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.

(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

  • In its wisdom the church didn’t try to impose one reading of Scripture on everyone, or set up a tribunal for settling whose interpretation is correct;
  • The church didn’t try to say what the creeds meant or exactly how one should understand them before becoming a Christian;
  • The church affirmed baptism and holy communion as the central sacraments of the church, but didn’t try to set out who could and couldn’t be baptized or celebrate or receive holy communion; and
  • The church left the central symbol of the Episcopal Church – the episcope, or bishop — to be “locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.”

This “maximal minimalism” was not the result of believing too little. It was the result of believing too much to let any single interpretation, or understanding, or teaching, or doctrine, or church body or structure or person have sole authority over how God can and cannot be understood to be alive and at work among God’s people at any given time.

Sometimes less is more. Like now.

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Anglican Covenant – a bad idea whose time has come?

Dr. Wayne Whitson Floyd, a lay theologian, chairs
the Education and Formation Committee
at St. Thomas’ Parish, Dupont Circle, Washington, DC

One of the recommendations of the 2004 Windsor Report, written in response to reaction against the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, was that the Anglican Communion move towards the adoption of a so-called Anglican Covenant. Despite many gallant attempts to make Windsor into a statement of the beauty-of-unity that is the Anglican Communion, I remain unconvinced. As the old Southern saying goes: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” I say this because I am convinced that such a document — however nuanced its wording — would in effect state the means by which official condemnation of the Episcopal Church’s full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians at all levels of church life could be justified. It also would define the Episcopal Church’s action in consecrating Bishop Robinson as having removed TEC from the fellowship of the Anglican Communion. Dress it up however you want, but IMHO it’s still a pig.

To its credit, the response of the Episcopal Church up to now has been far from enthusiastic about such a Covenant — “it would be a bad idea that I do not support” Washington’s Bishop John Chane was overheard to say recently. Our bishops and Executive Council and General Convention deputies have agreed, however, to study the idea and make recommendations about the Covenant (the official study guide can be found here), which is in its second draft (the full text can be found here).

The Diocese of Washington’s Episcopal Cafe recently commissioned a series of articles on the Covenant, which give you an idea of how it is being approached officially by the Episcopal Church. And the General Theological Seminary’s Desmond Tutu Center, following its April 2008 conference on the proposed Covenant, has posted on its website more html, mp3, and pdf resources and responses to this than most Episcopalians will ever have the patience to absorb.

I realize I betray my own heterodox Episcopalianism — and poor Southern manners — by having lost already most of my patience to participate in what already is a several years long extended series of debates among our bishops, Executive Council members, General Convention deputies, seminary faculty and all manner of cogs in the complex machinery that is the Episcopal Church. This will continue past this summer’s Lambeth Conference, into the 2009 General Convention, and certainly beyond.

From the outset, I must say that I simply think the whole endeavor is a bad idea, but a bad idea whose time appears to have come.

It’s a bad idea for some fairly simple reasons: Read more

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