Sunday, June 30, 2013


Evangelicals rely on Scripture alone.
Secularists rely on Reason alone.
Episcopalians pay attention to both,
         and we also have this third leg on the stool – Tradition.

Our Old Testament story is about tradition.
Elijah had had one heckuva spiritual journey.
He’d done some pretty dramatic stuff.
But now his earthly race was run, so he said to his disciple, Elisha,
“So long buddy, I’m off to Bethel.”
But Elisha hung on to his teacher and went with him to Bethel.
Elijah then said, “Adios, Elisha. It was nice knowing you.
         I’m just going over Jordan.”
But Elisha said “Not so fast. I’m going with you.”

Finally Elijah said, “Goodbye Elisha I’m off to heaven.
         Anything I can do for you before I go?”
Elisha answered, “Give me the power to keep on doing
         what you’ve been doing -- only more of it.”
Elijah said, “Only if you can follow me into heaven with your eyes.”
When the chariot swung low comin’ for to carry Elijah home,
         Elisha watched him until he was out of sight.
Then Elisha tore off his own clothes and put on Elijah’s mantle.
For those who have seen the 1982 film classic Barbarossa,
         it’s the same thing Gary Busey does to become Willie Nelson.
If you haven’t seen Barbarossa, just skip this sermon and watch it. Point made.

With that mantle came prophetic power.
Earlier in the story, on their way to Elijah’s point of departure,
         they had to cross the Jordan River.
Elijah had struck the water with his mantle
         and it parted for him as the Red Sea parted for Moses,
and as this very Jordan River had parted for Joshua       
when he took over the leadership of Israel.

With Elijah gone, Elisha headed back the way they came.
When he got to the Jordan, he did the same thing.
He struck the water with his mantle, and the waters parted
as they had done for Elijah, Joshua, and Moses before him.
Elisha was carrying on a tradition stretching back over the centuries,
from his teacher Elijah all the way to Joshua and Moses.
Elisha had followed his teacher as far as he could go.
When his teacher was gone, Elisha tore up his own clothes,
         his own identity, and put on the mantle of Elijah and continued his work.
That’s tradition.

Americans are not so fond of Tradition. Take Thomas Jefferson.
He was all about Reason but he had no use for Tradition.
He insisted the world belongs to the present generation.
No law, no constitution, no form of government should last over 20 years.
Jefferson worshiped at the Church of What’s Happening Now.
He tore up the mantle of his ancestors to put on his own clothes.

Jefferson and Elisha represent two opposite attitudes.
Native cultures are our best example we have of Elijah’s way.
Native Americans honor their traditions.
They hold their ancestors in reverence.
They respect the elders of the tribe.

Anglo-Americans treat our elders as burdens to be warehoused.
We are certain that the wisdom of today
         is to be preferred over the benighted ways of our forbears.
We don’t want to be burdened by the past.
We do not expect future generations to pay any attention to us.
The Church of What’s Happening now
         acknowledges no debt to the people who got us here
         and no duties to those who will come after us.
We want to wear our own clothes, the ones in fashion this year
      not some dusty mantle from an old guy like Elijah.

It’s popular these days, even among some Episcopal leaders,
         to junk the Tradition.
Sell the churches, meet in bowling alleys, and make up a ritual
         if we feel so inclined at the moment.
The ritual we make up will express
         what we think, what we feel – something we like –
         nothing that might make us uncomfortable.

There was a time I’d have said “sign me up” for that.
But there came a point when I was not so sure of myself anymore.

I wasn’t positive that my opinions were better than the teachings
of ancient spiritual masters,
         or that my feelings were nobler than those of the saints.
And I had children to think of.
When I began to feel a responsibility for the next generation
         I simultaneously felt a responsibility to the past generations.

That’s when I became an Episcopalian.
That’s when I began to tear up my own clothes
         and put on the mantle of Elijah.
I didn’t shut down my mind.
Reason is still one of our sources of authority.
We still think. We still feel.

But if there is a conflict between my opinions
and the teachings of the Church,
         I seriously consider the remote possibility
that I might be wrong.

 Sometimes I love the Tradition. Sometimes I hate it.
But it’s always there for me to learn from,
         sometimes by arguing with it.
For example, I have never been comfortable with the Nicene Creed.
But I keep saying it and that makes me look hard at what it means.
One year, a particular line offends me to the core.
The next year, I have found a new meaning for that line
         and I love it.
But by then, another line bothers me.
I don’t say the Creed because I’m comfortable with it.
I say it because I’m uncomfortable with it. It makes me think.

Sacred Tradition is essential to our spirituality,
         right along with Reason and the Holy Scriptures.
This chasuble we wear represents Elijah’s mantle. It is a symbol of Tradition.
Apostolic Succession, having bishops made by bishops in a chain
         of inheritance going back to the apostles
                  is a symbol of Tradition.

But it takes some caution.
We all know that Scriptures can be used for good or ill.
Our Reason can be used or misused.
It’s the same with Tradition.
It can guide us into the future or it can trap us in the past.

The key is to recognize the difference between Sacred Tradition
         and a stodgy lack of imagination.
Sacred Tradition is about our core values – the stuff that makes us who we are.
It isn’t about singing one style of music instead of another;
         or whether we use an organ or guitars.
It isn’t about whether we use the 1928 Prayer Book or the 1979 Prayer Book.
It’s about having a Book of Common Prayer,
         so that we pray in the way of the church
         instead of what each of us makes up to suit ourselves.

Sacred Tradition connects us to our power source.
Elijah passed onto Elisha a mantle of prophetic power.
Jesus passed on to the disciples the power to heal
and proclaim good news.
The Tradition is a power source.
It has sustaining power to get us through the day.
When life hits us in the face and we have no words f
or how we feel or what we want,
         the Tradition has prayers for us,
“Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.”

The Tradition has transforming power to open up a new future.
It gives us this prayer,
         “Let the whole world see and know that
         things which were cast down are being raised up,
         and that things which had grown old are being made new,
         and that all things are being brought to their perfection. . . .”

The Tradition isn’t stodgy or nostalgic.
It’s dynamic, unfolding, challenging us
to become more than we are.
Our Tradition is written in poems and prayers.
It is recorded as stories of the saints.
We act it out in ancient rituals.
The poems, the prayers, the stories, the rituals
         have all been sanctified by holy lives of Christians.
By that sanctity the Tradition is charged with power
                  like Elijah’s mantle.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


God is infinitely greater than our capacity for religious experience.
God is in our religious experience. We do meet God there.
But God is vastly bigger than our feelings.
Theologians from Dionysius in the 6th Century
            to Karl Barth in the 20th Century to John Hick today
            caution us not to limit God to what we think of
                        as religion or spirituality.
At those times when God seems utterly silent, totally absent
            – at those times we do not feel the least bit spiritual
                        and have no sense of God whatsoever --
                                    God is there.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


In Jesus we see the full flowering of an image of God.
And we see a picture of how to live the godly life.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the sinner woman is living the godly life
by her loving, appreciative welcome
            while the pure but judgmental Pharisee is not.
Her very sinfulness has opened her heart to deeper godliness.

But to understand this way of seeing God and godly living,
we need to look back at how we came to view the divine nature this way.
This image of God unfolded over centuries.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a key turning point
            in that ongoing discovery.

The story of King Ahab’s land grab is a bigger deal
than it appears on the surface.
It’s about how we understand God.
And it shows us the difference between the godly relationships
            we learn in the church and the power dynamics of the world.
Israel’s first image of God was as a powerful destructive force.
God was like a volcano, an earthquake, or a desert storm.
Later they saw God as a powerful creative force.
God said “frog.”
The universe jumped into existence and said ‘Ribbit, hallelujah.”
God was creative, but still a dominating power.

That dominator God was represented on earth by kings,
            who might be good or bad – but they were always god-like
            in that they were dominating powers.
They took what they wanted – like David taking Bathsheba from Uriah;           
            or Ahab taking the vineyard from Naboth.
But when the prophets saw the kings exerting that kind of dominance,
            it didn’t look godly to them.
They brought messages from God
– like Nathan calling David to account;
            and Elijah doing the same with Ahab –
saying this isn’t right.
And that made them rethink God’s very nature.

God wasn’t about domination.
God was about righteousness – right relationships.
In fact, righteousness was actually
the core of God’s identity and they called that
“the righteousness of God.”
They said:  God isn’t a powerful creator or destroyer
            dominating us by force.

The source, the destiny, the foundation, the purpose,
and the meaning of everything  is a network of love,
appreciation, delight, forgiveness, and compassion.
That image of God changed our basic metaphor of the divine nature.
We stopped calling God a super powerful individual.
Instead, we called God the Trinity – a symbol  of relationship.

Our central religious ritual ceased to be a sacrifice
to appease or propitiate a super power in the sky.
Our central religious ritual became Holy Communion
      an act of unity with God achieved
precisely through unity with each other.

This leads to how we go about being the Church.
First, the Church is a school in which
we learn the fine art of human relationship.
We grow in godliness here by perfecting our people skills.
Second, the Church is a sign and a symbol of God in the world.
We exemplify godliness by the way we treat each other.
The Church is perfectly set up for practicing healthy relationship.
About 10% of church life is written in stone to give us a structure
like a Constitution of fixed principles.
Those things are rooted in theology, tradition, and deep archetypal psychology;
            so we do them – period – whether they please us or not.

But the other 90% of church life is up to us to work out.
There are no fixed rules and frankly
what we do often isn’t that important.
What we do isn’t nearly as important as how we treat each other
            in the process of doing it.
It’s like a family vacation.
Where we go isn’t as important as how we act in the car on the way.

So as we work out how to do church,
            we practice relationship and the world watches.
“They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Or will they?
A new priest in one of our congregations recently told some folks in town,
            “I’m the new priest at St. Swithens.”
The locals replied: “Are they still fighting?”

It reminded me of back when I was a parish priest.
We were remodeling our worship space,
            and someone suggested we didn’t really need an altar rail.
That produced a heated backlash.
People began organizing, lobbying, and politicking full bore.

One Sunday between services we were sitting
            in rocking chairs on the porch drinking coffee.
A visitor walked up, but we were so busy arguing
            over the altar rail, nobody spoke to him.
He listened to us go at each other for about 15 minutes,
            then walked off, got in his car, and drove away.

I don’t know his name.
I don’t know what he needed that day.
I don’t know what grace he was seeking from the people of God.
We were too busy fighting over the altar rail.

Altar rails are optional; a child of God is indispensible.
Whether we shine the Christ light into the world is crucial.
Whether we cultivate right relationships determines
the state of our souls when we stand before the throne.
These things are not trivial.

How we go about being Church is both our catechism and out witness.
We are here to practice Elijah-style righteousness
in a world that operates by Ahab-style
power politics and manipulation,
            a world where business, social, and even family
                        dynamics are driven by ego assertion.  

If we want to learn “righteousness” which means right relationship,
            if we want to learn how to appreciate people
            and form life-giving personal bonds,
if we want to learn the skills we need at home, work, and in the community,              where are we going to look today?

It won’t be a reality TV show or a talk show.
It won’t be an action movie.
It won’t be from our political leaders
            who think compromise is a 4-letter word.
Civic society is self-destructing and civil discourse
            is a dead language.
Look to world and you see the way of Ahab.
But if we church folks believe in the Triune God,
            if we believe that the source, destiny, foundation, purpose,
and meaning of everything
is a network of love, appreciation, delight, forgiveness,
                        and compassion
      if we aren’t faking the Holy Communion,
      if we truly believe that we connect with God
by connecting with each other
and that our relationship with God
is as good as our relationship with each other – no better, no worse –
then this is where we learn and practice the art of relationship.

Thomas Merton said, “The saints are saints not by virtue of their own sanctity,
            but by virtue of their capacity to appreciate the sanctity of others.”
We are here to learn how to appreciate each other’s sanctity.

That’s why our clergy are learning
            the relational skills of community organizing, circles of trust,
            asset based community development,
            and new ways of group decision-making like World CafĂ©.
It turns out Roberts Rules of Order are not in the Bible after all.
Our clergy are learning these skills so they can spread them
            in congregations.

If we have learned anything from the big church controversies
            of the past 30 years, it’s that when the Church imitates the world,
            when we do business on the Ahab style of power politics,
                        no one wins.
But when we withhold judgment long enough to practice curiosity,
            when we value people over project,
            when we cultivate the moral imagination
to see someone else’s point of view,
then we see the sacred in another human face;
            then God is glorified and our world becomes a kinder home.