Category Archives: Anglicanism

Sermon, June 7

The Scripture lessons for this Sunday may be read here. 

The people Israel had been living in the Promised Land for many generations. Sometimes following God’s ways, sometimes not so much. Often at war, sometimes conquered. Not particularly powerful nor particularly wealthy, as nations go.

This story took place about three thousand years ago, a little over a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. The prophet Samuel had been ruling the people Israel for several decades. But he was growing old, and his sons were not of his caliber. So the leaders of the people came to him and said, Samuel, appoint a king for us. All the other nations around us have kings to rule and govern them. Courageous kings, at the head of armies; noble kings, dispensing justice from thrones; virile kings, surrounded by their lovely wives. We want what everybody else has. We want a king too.

Samuel didn’t take it well; but then God told him, “Samuel, cheer up! They’re not rejecting YOU. They’re rejecting ME. You, and the prophets and judges who went before you, have ruled in My name and served My will. Now my people want a human leader. So be it. Give them a king. But warn them. Show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So that’s what Samuel did. He said, “This is what your king will do, because this is what all kings do. He will take your sons to serve him as guards and warriors. He will use the wealth of the country to build up an army for the wars he will wage. He will take your daughters to work in his palace – as perfumers and cooks and bakers – if you’re lucky. He will seize the best of your land, your fields and vineyards and orchards, and give them away as gifts to his courtiers, his favorites. And of the land he leaves you, he will take one-tenth of the produce you grow, and one-tenth of the sheep and goats of your flocks, to feed his army and fill the table for his feasts. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, to work for HIM. And you will be no better than slaves  to his power, ambition, and greed. And on the day when you finally see this clearly, you will cry out to God because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but God will not answer you that day.”

But the people did not listen. They said, “No! We are determined to have a king, so that we may be like other nations, with a king to govern us and fight our battles.” And so Samuel anointed the warrior Saul, whom God chose to be the first King of Israel.

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings – really all one long chronicle – are written with great nuance and skill. I love it when the summer of Year B rolls around and we begin to walk through this amazing piece of ancient literature once again. Like all great literature, these Biblical books tell a particular story that is also a universal human story, an always-and-everywhere story. And the always-and-everywhere element of this chapter, of Israel’s desire and Samuel’s warning, is the very human tendency to want what we want, even when people warn us of the cost.

We want what we want, even when we know the cost. We know about the destruction of our planet, but we still drive our cars and run our computers and, God help us, buy bottled water. We know about slave labor and child labor, but we still want our iPhones and our chocolate. We know about the underpaid, underprotected factory workers, but we still want cheap clothes and goods. We know about residential segregation, and the ways it perpetuates economic and racial stratification, but we still want to live around people who look like us, who’ll take care of their yards and drive appropriate cars, and we very much want to send our kids to a “nice” school. We know the costs. But we want. So we forget.

This is what my Facebook feed feels like sometimes:  Yes, yes, slaves… Yes, yes, pesticides… Yes, yes, racism… Ooh! Cute cat video!…  We want. We want our consumer goods, our comfortable lifestyle – nothing ostentatious, just, you know, nice – we want the best of everything for our children, of course – maybe we just want to be able to get through the day without feeling too terrible about ourselves. So we look away, we stop our ears, to avoid hearing the prophets who are tallying the costs of the way of the world.

There are many moments in Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, where the way of the world and the way of God are held up against each other. In tension, even at war. Many Christians hold that tension central to their way of being; they live day by day striving to follow God, knowing that puts them at odds with the ways of society, the ways of humanity.

Episcopalians – Anglicans – are not a tradition that tends to draw that line starkly. We were founded, back in the 16th century, as a national church. The religious order and the political and social order were not identical; but there was a LOT of overlap. Remember, the Queen is STILL the official head of the Church of England, our mother church. And we are the inheritors of that mindset in many ways, that mindset of establishment. We’ve never been an established church, in this country, nor even a particularly large church. But we have a history of being the church of the wealthy and the educated. I remember when I was in high school, one of our Social Studies books, for some reason, had a list of all the presidents of the United States with their religious affiliations. And the Episcopalians had the most, by far. It’s less true than it used to be, but for many generations the Episcopal Church was the church of the elites – to the point that upward mobility could mean abandoning the Methodist or Baptist church to “go Episcopalian.” That kind of strong identification with those at the top of the heap hardly encourages a church to point the finger at the injustices, consequences and costs of the status quo.

There are some really good things about Anglican and Episcopalian this-worldlyness. I’m not calling us to become the kind of Christians who view the present and material world with suspicion. One of the hallmarks of the Anglican and Episcopal way is an incarnational and quotidian spirituality – incarnational in that we see God present in this world, not only in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but in many ongoing and lifegiving ways; quotidian, a fancy word for everyday, in that we see the potential for holiness and service to God in ordinary life and even the most humble tasks. I love that aspect of our distinctive Christian way. But maybe we need to draw a cleaner, clearer line between assuming that God is present in this world, and assuming that this world, therefore, is the way God wants it to be.

There is a lot about the way of this world that is sick, and broken, and destructive. In our baptismal rite, we are asked to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God… What images flash before your eyes, if you reflect on that phrase? Waterfowl with oil-soaked wings? Children in refugee camps? So many examples. You’ll have your own list.

Jesus loved the world so much. He saw the potential for holiness and grace in everyday life and ordinary people. And at the same time, he was outspoken about the ways in which the status quo of his time and place corrupted and destroyed God’s creatures. That’s why he got called crazy.

In today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to find him and bring him home, for his own protection, because everyone is saying that he’s out of his mind. He’s out of his mind because he’s saying that the old holy prophecies of healing and hope for God’s people can still come true. He’s out of his mind because he acts like sin can be healed, forgiven, released, instead of worn as a shabby shameful garment for a lifetime. He’s out of his mind because he says that God’s ultimate desire for humanity is that we should live and grow and flourish, not that we should follow a bunch of nitpicky little rules.

Michael Curry is the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina. He was my bishop while I was seeking ordination, and he ordained me to the priesthood in 2009. He’s also currently one of the candidates for Presiding Bishop, and he’s one of the best-known preachers in our church. He preached on this Gospel a few years ago, and talked about our calling to follow Jesus and become “crazy Christians.” He said,

We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord. Crazy enough to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it…. We need some crazy Christians. Sane, sanitized Christianity is killing us.  That may have worked once upon a time, but it won’t carry the Gospel anymore…. [We need some Christians] crazy enough to believe, as Dr. King often said, that though “the moral arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice.” …. We need some Christians crazy enough to believe that children don’t have to go to bed hungry; that the world doesn’t have to be the way it often seems to be; that there is a way to lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside; that as the slaves used to sing, “There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom,” because… we are all equally children of God, and meant to be treated as such.

Bishop Curry’s words remind me of a line from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which is coming along in next week’s lectionary: “If we have been unreasonable, it is for God; if we have been reasonable, it is for you.” Paul’s talking about holding that space of being just sane enough to get people to listen, and just crazy enough to dare to speak and live God’s radical truth.

Unreasonable for God’s sake. Crazy Christians. It makes a great slogan, and a pretty good sermon. But how do we do it? How do we claim that craziness? How do we find the patience and strength and courage to believe in, and work for, a future in which our simple everyday pleasures – good food, rewarding work, rest, play, time with those we love – are not bound in complicated and far-reaching ways to human or environmental degradation, exploitation, waste or suffering? How do we become strong enough to count the costs, and, sometimes, to re-calibrate our wants? How do we get strong enough to be that kind of crazy?

One thing is certain: we’ve got to do it together. By doing this: coming together for worship, sharing prayer and song, food and conversation, receiving Scripture and reflecting on it together. In the words of Kyle Oliver, a priest and educator who thinks a lot about these questions, “We Episcopalians are a ragtag bunch united primarily by our firm conviction that praying together forms us into the people God is calling us to be.”

Walter Brueggeman, the great Old Testament scholar and writer, has a keen sense of how the ways of the world differ from the ways of God; and he, too, says that it’s the gathered life of the community of faith that makes us able to step back from the first, and step into the second.  (Here’s a summary of the Brueggeman talk I’m citing here.) He talks about inculturation, nurture, formation, discipleship. He says that all our ministries, all the things we do together as a faith community – preaching, liturgy, education, social action, administration, stewardship, ministries of food and fellowship and hospitality – they are all instruments and tools for the nurture of God’s people into that alternative worldview. Into the ways of God, that are often unreasonable or flat-out crazy by the standards of the world.

And I love this: Brueggeman says, of course we’re ambivalent about that. We’re not sure we want to detach from the status quo, to opt out and turn our back on everything normal and taken-for-granted. Do you really want to become that person on Facebook who’s always ranting about bottled water?  We like a lot of the normal stuff. We like malls and Smartphones and exotic vegetables. We’re likely to spend a lot of time trying to straddle the ways of the world and the ways of God, betwixt and between, back and forth, neither one nor the other.

But, says Brueggeman, there’s good news even in our uncertainty, our double-mindedness: “The good news is that our ambivalence as we stand [between worlds], is precisely the [space] for the work of God’s Spirit…. It is in our ambivalence that the Spirit in us can be stirred and we can be opened to new possibilities… Surely one of the crucial tasks of ministry is to name the deep ambiguity that besets us, and to [reframe that ambiguity as a space of] waiting for God’s newness among us. This work is not to put people in crisis. The work is to name the crisis that people are already in… Ministry is for truth telling about the shape we are in. And that truth telling makes us free.”

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the blessing of talking with many of you, through a series of focus groups, about how your church and your faith shape and support your daily life in the world. And a lot of you have said, in one way or another, that belonging to a church, and to this church, is what helps you not to be too overwhelmed or discouraged by the ways of this world. Not to lose heart, to use Paul’s language, when faced with the powers that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. You’ve said that coming to church helps you reset and release hatred, bitterness, fear.  That it helps you see the big picture, remember that long arc of justice. That it reminds you that you’re not alone; that you’ve got companions in the work, the struggle, the ambivalence. That it simply reminds you that goodness exists – and sometimes that’s enough.

That’s my prayer for this place, this community, this faith-village with its elders and youngsters, its worker-bees, bards and sages. My prayer is that our shared life, in all its aspects, will shape and bless and empower us as followers of Jesus, who, like him, love the world so much; who, like him, see the potential for holiness and grace in everyday life and ordinary people. And who, like him, are empowered to speak and act to challenge and change the ways in which the status quo harms God’s creatures, and name, together, the bold, strange, hopeful, crazy truth that things could be otherwise.

 

Sermon, May 10

I know it’s Mothers’ Day, but I have a story for you today about fathers. Two fathers, a couple, who live and attend church in Orlando, Florida. Rich and Eric attend the Cathedral Church there, and when they became parents, they sought to have their baby son, Jack, baptized at their church. The Dean of the Cathedral agreed to the baptism, but he explained that the congregation includes some conservative folks who would have a hard time accepting and celebrating Rich and Eric’s partnership and parenthood. The Dean suggested doing the baptism at a smaller evening service, attended by more “open” folks. Fine. But then, a few days before the baptism, Rich and Eric got a message from the Dean. Some members of the congregation were opposing the baptism, and the Dean explained that it would need to be delayed, in order to resolve those difficulties. Angry and sad, Rich took to the Internet to share the story and ask for prayers. After an outpouring of support for the family and anger at the Cathedral, word is that the Dean and the family are discussing next steps, and that Jack likely will be baptized at the Cathedral soon.

Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is about baptism – and who’s entitled to it. This is the end of the story of Peter and Cornelius the Centurion. Cornelius was pious and generous man. But he was also a Roman, a member of the occupying army. Not quite an enemy combatant… but in that ballpark. And he was a Gentile, a non-Jew. The apostle Paul was going around saying that Gentiles could become Christians without following Jewish religious practices, including being circumcised. The apostle Peter was not on board with that, seeing it as wishy-washy anything-goes feel-good inclusivity. But then Peter has a holy vision, in which God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”  And moments later he is called to the home of Cornelius, to teach him about the Christian faith. So Peter preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. And they are so stirred by his words that the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they praise God with wild abandon. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” It’s a rhetorical question. The only person likely to withhold the water is Peter himself, and his heart has been changed. Cornelius and his family are baptized on the spot.

Peter’s question should remind us of another one, from last week’s Acts lesson, just a couple of chapters earlier. Philip the deacon, walking the wilderness road, meets a court official from Ethiopia. Like Cornelius, he’s a pious man, with a heart open to God. Like Cornelius, he’s a Gentile, an outsider to the covenant. He’s not an enemy combatant -but he’s a black African, and he’s a eunuch;  his body has been mutilated in a way that would have made him ritually impure for a lifetime, within the purity codes of the Jewish religion. But Philip, like Peter, heeds God’s call to welcome this seeker into the body of Christ. After Philip preaches the Gospel to him, the eunuch says, “Look, here is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Well… Nothing. The eunuch is baptized, marked as a member of the household of God, clean and pure and whole in God’s eyes, and goes on his way rejoicing.

Can anyone withhold the water? What is to prevent me from being baptized? One of the central themes of the book of the Acts of the Apostles – and, for that matter, of the Gospel of Luke, by the same author – is the early church’s discovery, and rediscovery, again and again, that God’s mission is bigger than their understanding. That where they see barriers, God sees doorways. That where they see dividing lines, God sees connections. That where they see distinctions and differences,  God sees unity and belonging. As Peter says at the moment of his great epiphany,  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” God has no favorites. All who seek, find. All who enter are welcomed.

Good news. And…  the story of two thousand years of the life of the church is a story of the church’s forgetting this, or failing to realize it fully, again, and again, and again. The 19th-century poet and priest Frederick William Faber put this into words so beautifully in a hymn known to us as “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” It’s in our hymnal, but some of the best words aren’t included: “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.”

We make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own. That has been the story of the church, over and over and over again. Rich and Eric and Jack are only the latest to feel the sting of being told that they are only mostly children of God. Most of the comments I’ve seen on their case mirror my own immediate reactions: the Dean had NO RIGHT to create a barrier for this child’s baptism; my church would have agreed to baptize this baby in a heartbeat; et cetera, et cetera. But I’ve also seen a point raised that gives me pause.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved the rite of Holy Baptism back into Sunday worship, into the regular liturgical life of the congregation, after centuries of baptism largely being practiced as essentially a private family rite, performed after church or at another time. In our baptismal rite, the congregation stands for the Church Universal, the Church in all times and places, as it welcomes a new believer. And our baptismal rite gives the congregation a voice. At the beginning of the rite, the congregation is asked, Will you do all in your power to support this person in her life in Christ? And you answer – WE WILL. I love that part! And at the end of the rite, the congregation says, “We receive you into the household of God,” and invites the newly-baptized to share the life of faith.

The question raised by this kerfuffle in Florida is, can you – should you – perform a baptism if the congregation gathered is unable, through their convictions, to commit to supporting that child, that family; and to receiving them as fellow members of God’s household? I don’t like saying that the Dean may have a had a point, in asking this family to wait. But the Dean may have had a point. I can’t imagine how awful and awkward and sad it would be to perform a baptism, to name a child, and mark him as Christ’s own forever, and have few or no voices from the congregation speak up to welcome and affirm. Should the Dean have withheld the water? No. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe there’s any justification in our church laws or our sacramental theology for turning away that family. Is it a real issue that the congregation of that Cathedral was not able to assent to Jack’s baptism with boldness and love? Yes. I do believe that. I think the Dean made the wrong call; but it was a tough call. The family was ready; the child was ready; God was ready; but the people weren’t ready. The church wasn’t ready.

Listen, I can’t talk about this situation in Florida from a position of smug inclusivity. I could, and would, baptize a child with two daddies – or two mommies – without a moment’s hesitation. But right now, I can’t tell a gay candidate for ordination that their sexual orientation won’t be an issue in some dioceses of our church. Right now, I can’t say yes to a gay couple who want to celebrate their marriage as a sacrament of the church. I hope those things will change soon. If that is your hope too, keep on praying.

But I don’t believe in preaching sermons that only point a finger elsewhere. I wouldn’t tell you the story of baby Jack and the Dean just to say, Thank God that we are not like them! … I’ve been asking myself, where does our church draw lines, create distinctions, make barriers? Where would today’s curious guest or seeker, today’s Cornelius or court official, find our welcome to be restrained, our hospitality qualified, our inclusiveness conditional?

It’s not an easy question to answer, which makes it all the more important to ask. We think of ourselves as inclusive Christians; it’s a strong value for us, that wide welcome. We Episcopalians often define ourselves against churches that exclude, that limit the access and authority of certain types of people. To paraphrase the immortal words of comedian Tom Lehrer, “Some churches do not love their fellow man, and we HATE churches like that!” We make a point of welcoming everybody. No, really – EVERYBODY. St. Dunstan’s has a welcome statement that we crafted and adopted, several years ago; you can read it on our website. I’m proud of that statement. I think it matters.

But when we adopted that statement, one of our members reminded us, You know you can’t just adopt this and then sit around feeling smug. You still have to actually welcome people. To use the language of the baptismal liturgy, each visitor and newcomer poses a question for the congregation: Will you receive this person as part of this household of God, and do all in your power to support her in her life in Christ? And the people of the congregation have to be able and willing and ready to say a resounding, WE WILL!…

There isn’t a clear-cut place in the life of St. Dunstan’s as a parish where we are drawing lines and placing limits around a category of people for whom Christ died, and we have to quit it. It’s not that straightforward for us. What is to prevent the stranger from being baptized? Who is withholding the water?  Where do we, unintentionally or accidentally-on-purpose, draw lines and build barriers that make it hard to enter, connect, belong?  The questions raised by these lessons from Acts – those questions require deep, reflective, risky engagement. They require the demanding and paradoxical work of looking for who isn’t here. Like those pictures they sold in mall kiosks, twenty years ago,  where you had to stand and stare at them until your eyes crossed, and then you might start to see the outline of … something. It’s kind of like that, figuring out who isn’t here, and then trying to figure out why.

We are a quirky church – St. Dunstan’s in particular and the Episcopal Church in general. And we’ve always kind of assumed that the people who would join our churches would be people basically like us. People who are literary enough to enjoy the high language of our liturgy. Who are musically trained enough to appreciate our classic hymnody. Who inhabit their bodies in such a way that they can sit still for 75 minutes. Who know how to dress and behave with basic middle-class decorum. Who’ll bring the right kinds of food to our potluck suppers. Who’ll somehow magically already know about all our pet projects and ministries and three-letter acronyms, so we don’t have to keep explaining ourselves. So tedious!…  I’d say our tolerances at St. Dunstan’s are pretty good; we’ve got folks who don’t fit that mold, in lots of ways, who are nonetheless beloved members of this fellowship of faith…  But we’re still haunted by that image of the archetypal Episcopalian. We still use “we” to mean “people like us”, without recognizing the lines we’re drawing.

In his book “People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity,” Dwight Zscheile talks about our expectations and how they shape our capacity to welcome the guest and stranger. He tells a story of visiting another Episcopal church with his family – a church that proudly proclaimed “Radical Hospitality” on a banner hung outside. Dwight and his wife are both Episcopal priests; they are white, middle-class, educated; they know how to dress and how to behave in church. Ideal guests, right? However: they had their young son with them. He was the only child in church. And they quickly realized, from the glares around them when their son so much as rustled his drawing paper, that they were expected to have him out of church – in a glassed-in “cry room” or a distant nursery tucked away in the basement.

Zscheile writes, “Radical hospitality is a wonderful idea, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the leaders who [proclaim] it… Living into the reality is another thing, however…. In practice, the Episcopal Church has been best at including those who share its existing predominant socioeconomic class and culture…. The Episcopal Church has become a boutique, niche church, serving a narrow audience of self-selecting members.” He quotes another Episcopalian who described the Episcopal Church as being like NPR: with an audience that is “small, but discerning.” And in fact, there’s probably a lot of overlap between NPR’s constituency and that of the Episcopal Church – well-educated, affluent, liberal.  But, Dwight says, this rather self-satisfied posture can lead us to “abdicate responsibility for engaging neighbors who differ from us. We assume that those who want to worship how we already worship, [and] who think like we do, will find us, and we can then ‘include’ them.”

Those words convicted me. Because I have told myself pretty much exactly that: We’ve got a good thing going here, we Episcopalians; But we’re such a nuanced, sophisticated kind of Christian that not many people can really appreciate it. We’ll probably always be a small denomination; that’s just the way it is. It’s kind of a hipster thing: artisanal, small-batch church. You’ve probably never heard of it.

Zscheile challenges me to have more faith in the gifts of the Episcopal Way. He himself was raised unchurched, came to the Episcopal Church as a young adult, and fell in love. Listen to what he says about this church of ours, this way of being Christian: “Anglicanism offers a richly textured Christianity with ancient roots, expansive sources, a living commitment to justice and reconciliation, and space for people to explore, question, and grow along the way. It embodies the wisdom of centuries, not just the latest fads. Its historical embrace of…  cultural context … mandates that it speak the language of the people. At the same time, it is inhibited in many places by a traditionalism that obscures the power of its traditions; by elitism that restricts [access to] its treasures; and by a lack of theological and spiritual clarity and urgency that would fuel a renewed sense of purpose. Episcopalians still largely assume that people will find the church, rather than recognizing that [we are pushed] out into the world, on the arms of God, to serve and embrace the stranger.”

THAT’S Peter in Cornelius’s living room,  making the choice to let the baptismal waters flow.  THAT’s Philip standing by some muddy roadside puddle with the Ethiopian court official, acknowledging that Jesus has already chosen this man as his own, and our job is just to assent and receive. THAT’s the hard and hopeful and necessary work for us: of trusting that what blesses us here, could bless others too, and daring to offer, proclaim, invite.  That’s the work that should tug at our imaginations as we begin to envision what this church will look like, could look like, in five years, or ten, or fifty; as we craft a vision, in words and worship, poetry and song, marker and glue and pipe cleaners and Lego, of St. Dunstan’s as the church of our wildest dreams.

Sermon, Feb. 8, 2015

I am no one’s slave, but I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them to the way of Christ. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law, so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  – 1 Cor 9:19-22

In these chapters of the first letter to the church in Corinth, the early Christian leader and church planter Paul is defending himself against questions regarding his authority and motives as an apostle as Christ. And in the course of this rather cranky passage, he offers this clear and powerful statement of what Anglicans, many, many centuries later, will name as the vernacular principal.

Vernacular is a good fifty-cent word. It means the language spoken by ordinary people, in the course of their ordinary lives. The language in which you function normally and comfortably, not a second language or an unfamiliar jargon that leaves you floundering, uncertain of meanings, how to understand or make yourself understood.

The Vernacular Principal is one of the great pillars of the Protestant Reformation: That worship should be in the language of the people. This principal is stated very plainly in the 39 Articles, the historic statement of the doctrines of the newly-formed Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican way of Christianity, to which we belong as Episcopalian Christians. The 39 Articles define a space for Anglicanism between the extremes of continental Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Article Twenty-Four is titled,  “Of speaking in the Congregation in such a Tongue as the people understandeth.” And the Article states, in wonderfully emphatic 16th-century English: “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people!”

The theological warrant for this core principal goes back much earlier than the English Reformation, to the Incarnation, to Jesus himself: God become human, not as some universal everyman, but as a human living in a particular setting, speaking the language and wearing the clothing of his time and place and people. Jesus himself was an act of translation, a vernacular moment within the life of God. And Paul takes up that theological theme in his deep commitment to meeting people where they are, speaking to them in terms they can understand, framing the good news of love and transformation that he carried with such conviction in terms of their language, their concerns, their convictions.

Now, the central issue in the 39 Articles was the use of Latin as the language of worship, in a country where the common people spoke English. But the vernacular principal is about much more than simply translating our prayers or theological terms into local languages, Maori or Kikonde or Korean. There are many, many linguistic communities within a language like American English. We all know this: we have different ways of speaking depending on who we’re with and where we’re from, our jobs and professional vocabularies,  the formality or informality of the setting, and more. And then there are all the non-linguistic languages we use: Musical and symbolic and ritual vocabularies. Social patterns, norms, and beliefs about the world.

This kind of translation has happened throughout Christian history. It’s not unique to Anglicanism, but our tradition names it clearly as part of our way of being. We Anglicans are a people who expect, when we gather to worship God together, to be able to understand, respond and participate. And so over five hundred years and in countries and cultures all over the world, Anglicans and Episcopalians have adapted our core practices and teachings into local customs and idioms, opening the door into new ways of being Anglican. That work of adaptation to local contexts is so central for us that a recent book on the Episcopal Church states,  “If it’s not translated, it’s not yet Anglican.”

If it’s not translated, it’s not yet fully Anglican.

Now, I’ve just preached for three pages on the centrality of translation for the Anglican Christian way, our living-out, as a global and local church, of Paul’s commitment to being all things to all people. And some of you are undoubtedly thinking, Okay, but. So why do we worship in this odd and distinctive building, instead of just meeting in the coffeeshop up the road? Why are you wearing that white robe and the thing around your neck, which you call a stole, though you did not steal it, and a funny piece of white plastic around your neck under that, instead of the normal uniform of an educated forty-something mom in Madison, Wisconsin? Why do we use funny words like “Eucharist,”  instead of, I don’t know, “holy snack of Jesus”?

The vernacular principal doesn’t stand alone. It exists in dynamic tension with our identity as a church grounded in Scripture, sacrament, and tradition. As a church entrusted with ancient, holy, and powerful treasure to carry into new cultures and futures.  The proud forty or so of you who made it here last week in the snowstorm will remember the catchy definition of Anglicanism that I shared: the embrace of apostolic catholicity within vernacular moments. Let me try to capture the sense of that statement in a language understanded of the people: Anglicanism is the embrace of ancient traditions, practices and symbols, carried forward into the present and adapted to local and current contexts.

We’re not a church that just throws out the old stuff in favor of the new. We don’t have a worship leader in jeans, giving friendly faith chat followed by praise songs that sound like pop music. That works for some people, some churches. It’s not our gig. We are most fully Anglican when we hold what is modern, ordinary, daily, familiar, concrete, and what is ancient, lovely, mysterious, otherwordly, and odd, and bring them into conversation. Allow them to speak to each other. The ancient in the present, and vice versa. The holy in the ordinary, and vice versa.

For Paul, being all things to all people didn’t mean that his preaching sounded like every other voice in the culture around him. He had a core message that he carried wherever he travelled, and wove into all his letters. Things like his conviction that what matters most is not who or what you are when God comes to you, but what you become afterwards. Like his conviction that how people treat each other within a Christian community is one of the most important ways we can witness to God’s love. Paul has core messages that he’s always proclaiming. But he’s also always looking for the best, most effective way to speak those truths to the people among whom he finds himself. Translating the good news into the local language and worldview, so it can be “understanded of the people.” Paul was a good Anglican in so many ways!…

As I talk about these two core elements of the Anglican way, tradition and translation, the word “balance” keeps wanting to come out of my mouth, and I keep resisting it. Balance implies something settled, equal, resolved. But we are talking instead about a living, productive tension between receiving from the past and renewing for the present. That tension IS the life of our churches, the heart of our Way.

And it’s never resolved, never finished. It’s never been finished in two thousand years of Christian history, in five hundred years of Anglican history. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the foundation of our worship, was a pretty radical work of translation and adaptation when it was new; today, many things about it feel dated. Even when we work out a way of being, a way of worshipping or gathering or structuring our life together, that works really well for us,  it’s not the way things will be for always and everyone. Because we are Anglicans, and that’s just not how we roll.

So if the word “balance” comes into it at all, let your mental image be not a set of scales settling out to equilibrium, but a tightrope walker with a pole – Tradition, Translation – making minute adjustments with every step, every breath, in order to stay on her feet and keep moving forward.

Dwight Zscheile, a priest and professor at Luther Seminary, and the leader of the Missional Leadership Cohort program that I’m doing right now, states in his book “People of the Way,” “The Church must ask itself, ‘Are we worshipping in the language of the people, or are we asking them to worship in a foreign tongue?’ This doesn’t apply only to [those] whose first language is not English. It also applies to younger generations, and newcomers to church, who need expressions of Episcopal worship and life that resonate with their native ways of speaking and being together.”

As Anglican Christians we are fundamentally committed to the ongoing, puzzling, paradoxical work of discerning, with the power of reason and the wisdom of tradition and the guidance of the Spirit, the sweet spot between translation and tradition for us, in our time and place. For the people who are coming to our doors now and for the people beyond our doors to whom we wish to speak good news.

Last Saturday I attended an event here in town featuring Nadia Bolz-Weber, the famously-sarcastic Lutheran pastor, writer, and speaker. She shared about her theology and ministry, and the liturgy and public presence of her parish in Denver, the House for All Sinners & Saints. I had been back in Wisconsin for exactly 36 hours after my trip to Texas for my Missional Leadership Cohort retreat, where we were grappling deeply with these questions of translation and renewal, so I noticed immediately how much Nadia was talking about the same issues, the same work. Though she uses a different metaphor: instead of translation, over and over again, she spoke about sewing things together. She said, “To be a church today is to take scripture and tradition and people’s lives, and sew them together, and make things jive.” Being church is about faithfully stitching together Scripture and world and self; faith, practice, current events and daily life.  And she shared with us many wonderful examples of how the House of All Sinners and Saints, over their years together, have lived this out, through many mistakes and failures and things tried once, revised, and tried again. Until they have developed some robust and lively, holy and powerful and delightful ways of quilting together tradition, word, symbol, and world.

On Good Friday, their liturgy includes laying flowers at the foot of a cross. The first year they wondered afterwards, What do we do with the flowers? So they took them to the scene of a recent street shooting, said a prayer together, and left them there. Now they do that every year; there’s always a recent act of violence to remind us that every day is Good Friday.

Shrove Tuesday is coming up in a couple of weeks. Episcopal churches generally celebrate with pancakes, a custom based in the old practice of getting rid of all the fat and sugar and meat in your kitchen before entering the great fasting season of Lent, which begins the following day.  Nadia’s church, the House of All Sinners and Saints, celebrates Shrove Tuesday by going to a bar and giving out donuts, for free. All evening. Box after box of donuts, with a sheet of simple suggestions for practicing Lent. That’s how they’ve translated the customs of Shrove Tuesday, into the language of twenty-first century indulgence.

There were lots of other examples in Nadia’s talk. One or two that we might try adapting here; and many more that simply stand as examples of bold experimentation with translating tradition into the language of a fresh context; with stitching together Scripture, faith, and life, into an eclectic patchwork that is creative, intentional, and sacred.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is not subtle. The vernacular principal has been coming at me from a lot of directions, the past couple of weeks: conferences and talks and books I’m reading and even today’s Epistle. I think the Holy Spirit has something she wants me, and us, to hear. And I think that word is a word of encouragement.

I hear all of this as an endorsement of a path that we are already on. St Dunstan’s is a church that is already pretty thoughtful, and pretty engaged, and pretty creative about seeking new intersections of faith and life. We have tried quite a few experiments in translation, and many of them have even worked pretty well, and are worth repeating or improving upon. (And we learn from the ones that don’t work, too!…)

Just last week, we celebrated the feast of Candlemas. In medieval churches, candles would be blessed and taken home to burn in times of sickness, storm, or crisis. I invited the congregation to come up with some ideas for how to translate that custom into our modern world. And one of our members suggested that, next year, we invite folks to bring in their emergency flashlights, to be blessed alongside the candles, connecting the spirit of this traditional rite with something real and meaningful in our lives.

So when I hear some of the best and brightest voices in our churches talking with urgency and hope about this kind of work – the work of honoring tradition by helping it speak into the present – I hear it as an encouraging and joyful reminder of how necessary and holy this work is. I hear it as grounding this work in Scripture and theology and the Anglican way, and in the very nature of God incarnate.

I hear it as encouragement for us to continue on the path boldly, being willing to try things, to be playful, to risk a little, to make mistakes, to fail; to reflect, listen, learn, wonder, and explore. And I hope you hear it in that spirit too, as I pass all this on to you. I am proud that St Dunstan’s is a vibrantly Anglican congregation, actively engaged with the work of translation, of sewing together past and present, church and world, holy story and daily news, into the brightly-colored, strong, and beautiful quilt that is our life of faith together at St. Dunstan’s.