23 February 2020
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Last Epiphany: Transfiguration
“Peter said, ‘I will make three dwellings here:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” (Matthew 17)
When I was a young priest, the rector I was working for at the time caught me up short one day when he said, “Joe, it seems to me that you are more interested in the things of the church, than you are the ways of Jesus.” Ouch.
The thing was, he was right. As a recent seminary graduate, I knew all there was to know about religion. I knew the correct number of times to swing the thurible to cense the altar at high mass. I knew the proper vestment to wear for every possible kind of church service, from Solemn Choral Matins to a private home communion. I knew the difference between a reverend, and a very reverend, and a right reverend, and even a most reverend. I knew the name for every vessel in the sacristy, and the right sequence of collects to pray at Morning and Evening Prayer. I had it all down.
But the thing was, underneath all that religion, there wasn’t a lot of spirituality. I had lapsed into what Rabbi Heschel called “religious behavioralism,” by which he meant a faith that substitutes the symbols of religion for authentic relationship with God. Heschel devoted much of his life to combatting the ways in which he saw “rituals, customs and ceremonies” overtaking the experience of real praise and devotion in American synagogues — and the same could be said for much of mainline Christianity at the time as well.
And so, from the time that that rector made his remark to me about my religiosity, I think I’ve been on a gradual journey away from religion, and toward the spiritual — if by the spiritual is meant a deep and personal awareness of the underlying mystery of everything that is, as given by God in the act of creation. By comparison, what you might call the bric a brac of organized religion just isn’t that interesting or life giving, at least not to me. Not anymore. In fact, if what many people say nowadays is that they are “spiritual but not religious,” well then, count me in!
And isn’t that what Jesus himself was constantly trying to get the religious authorities of his day to understand — those Pharisees who were masters at observing the letter of the law, but overlooked its spirit entirely. And of course, as we heard today, when Jesus took his closest disciples with him up on the mountain top, and they caught a glimpse of just how intense the affinity was between him and God—the first thing they want to do is institutionalize it by building dwellings to contain it. Jesus simply ignores their all too human instincts toward religiosity, and tries instead to draw them into the moment: “Trust me,” he says, “you don’t have to hold onto this. Let it be. Don’t be afraid.”
And in the space that such a true spirituality opens up, not weighed down by the impassivity of observance, something new and more alive can begin to grow: we begin to become followers of Jesus, rather than mere participants in ceremonies. In his little book, Being Disciples, Rowan Williams says that to be a follower—a disciple—of Jesus means, at the very least, two rather simple things. First, it means being open to asking whether what we do, and what we speak and know, are open to the influence of Christ and his Spirit. And second, it means committing ourselves to being part of a learning community that together seeks to be drawn ever more deeply into his life.
Discipleship, in other words, is a state of being — a way of life. Or, another way of putting it, would be to say that it has to do with a certain stability, a patient staying, or abiding (as John’s gospel puts it). It has to do with remaining in the presence of Jesus long enough, that the things we routinely do become shaped by his own example into practices that infuse every part of our daily life.
The word “discipleship” comes from a Greek word meaning “to be a student,” and in the ancient world, disciples lived in the household of their master and learned through their constant exposure to his teachings. Discipleship therefore implies an commitment to be constantly changing and growing, refining the skills of living that constitute the way of life one is attempting to take in and internalize.
But of course, not every day results in large steps forward. It has been said that discipleship is a lot like bird watching: you have to sit very still, expectantly anticipating that something dramatic might happen, which means that some days nothing much does and they feel disappointing and unproductive. Yet on the occasions when some rare and beautiful bird does break into view — well then the time sitting quite still is all worth it.
Here at St. Michael’s, we are embarked on a yearlong examination of the practices of Christian faith that are the yardstick of what it means to make following Jesus a way of life — practices that you might say that tend toward the spiritual, rather than the religious. At its core, such a practice is something done by a group of people—us—that addresses some basic human need, but in response to and in light of a common awareness of Christ’s animating presence within. Some of these practices can seem quite ordinary, things like hospitality and gratitude—and some of them more difficult, like testimony and prayer—but when they are practiced in imitation of Jesus, they take on the role of reorienting our lives to seeing and relating to the world as he does. They move us along from being members of the church, to being followers of his way.
Let me give you one example. This week is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent as the season of preparation for Easter. If you were to just walk into church here on that day, knowing nothing about what was going on, you would probably get the strong impression that it was all about some ritualized expression of guilt that a group of people feels about something they have done. But if you were to reframe that day in terms of the practice of healing (as we intend to do), a rather different message would come through.
Perhaps the real issue is not so much that we are all guilty, as that we are wounded, in one way or another, by the consequences of what we have done. And our deepest need is to be healed (or set free, or liberated, or restored, or made whole, or whatever word you want to use for it). The practice of healing, then (of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation), would be the natural outgrowth of being a community where we also engage such practices as truth-telling and respect for human dignity, so that what has wounded us and what we have done to wound others can be named, recognized, and set right.
Following Jesus, means approaching life through a set of practices that form us with just such a disposition of awareness, expectancy, mystery, and anticipation—always open to the growth of our interior spirit, rather than held captive by the externalities of religion. And for me now, that’s the only Christian life worth living. Amen.
(Oh, and by the way — the correct number of swings of the thurible to cense the altar? It’s 24.)
2 February 2020
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“There was also a prophet, [named] Anna …” (Luke 2)
At the rear of the church, over in that corner, there is a window that depicts the scene of today’s gospel (its reproduced for you in the bulletin so you can see it). There, in the bottom panel of that first window, are Mary and Joseph presenting their young son Jesus to be blessed in the temple. And on the right is Simeon, the old man who had waited his whole life for the coming of the Messiah.
In the window scene, Simeon has just sung the song we heard in the gospel, “Mine eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.” But now we come to the moment when Anna, the elderly woman who has likewise waited her whole life for this same moment, also sings to God. While the words of Simeon’s song, however, are recorded in scripture; hers are not. And so the artist depicts Anna with her arms outstretched, praising God in her own words, but with her back to us, her song long forgotten.
In preparing for today’s service, I ran across a prayer for the occasion which began, “O God, on this day your servant Simeon recognized your son as the Messiah,” but sure enough, there was no mention of Anna. Such omissions might cause us to wonder: How is it that we have such selective attention, and overlook so much that is right in front of us?
Last week at the Annual Meeting, I talked about how the church is going through a period when the way we understand Christian faith is radically changing. Its one of those seemingly every-five-hundred year renewals when the church rethinks and reconstitutes itself (as we talked about last week). The current renewal is due in no small part to the fact that our self-understanding as human beings has likewise changed so much. Modernism (you see), as the heir of the Enlightenment, urged upon us the idea of the self-sufficient individual, who acts in his or her own rational self-interest, and whose behavior is then socialized by the invisible hand of the marketplace. That’s the myth by which we have lived for the last several hundred years.
But after the horrors of the twentieth century, it seemed pretty hard to hold onto the idea that human beings act rationally. And so we have had to ask ourselves as a society the question: How did we overlook the fact that we are actually a jumble of contradictory emotions, and that our behavior is as much motivated by how we feel as by what we think?
And those feelings in turn include the instincts of insecurity and selfishness which lead to the irrational groupings of tribalism, in which human beings are bound together not by their rational self-interest, but by their fears and anxieties. We saw, for example, that kind of isolationist tribalism on full display in Washington this past week. How did we miss recognizing the role pure emotion plays in politics?
It should come as no surprise, then, that church too has had its own remarkable blind spots that have gradually come to light in this period of a societal change of perspective. Have you ever noticed, for example, that in our so-called statement of faith, the Nicene Creed, that the whole of Jesus’ ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing is reduced to nothing more than what Richard Rohr calls “the great comma”? Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary,” we say, comma, and then we go right on to “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” No hint of the Beatitudes, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the raising of Lazarus. Not even the word love appears anywhere in the creed, nor the word mercy, nor the word compassion. How did we miss that?
And like our societal emphasis upon the rational individual, Christian faith in modern times has tended to emphasize a very personal idea of salvation that reduced it to nothing much more than the personal piety of me and Jesus—and in that order. If I accept Jesus as my lord and savior, then all is right with the world. But what about Jesus’ own summary of what he taught, that we are to love God and love our neighbor? Where is our responsibility to one another? Where is our commitment to the common good? And how did we miss that?
In short, we are at a period in the church’s history when we are realizing that there is a lot we have missed, and so we are having to rethink what it means to be Christian. Across much of the church, there is a growing awareness that to be Christian has to do a lot more with a way of life that makes us followers of Jesus, and a lot less to do with a set of propositions about him. It is in practicing the faith, in other words, that we become Christians, rather than in believing the faith. One of the clearest signs of that shift, for example, is the emphasis Pope Francis gives to mercy and compassion as markers of faith, rather than doctrinal orthodoxy.
Another form that this shift takes is what has been called the “Emergent Church” (perhaps you know that term already)—a way of being church that mines the ancient traditions of Christian life to inspire its worship, and then out of that creates ways of making faith an active way of life. The word emergent is sometimes rather superficially understood to mean a church that is “emerging” from its previous blind spots. But it really refers to something more profound.
The idea of emergence comes from a theory prevalent in the biological and social sciences that recognizes that a combination of entities can result in attributes that neither of the entities has by itself. Take a bicycle and a human being, for instance. By themselves, neither has the ability to move swiftly forward. But put them together, and voilà! You have an amazing capacity for motion.
The emergent church, then, is a community that recognizes that when individuals come together to live a common way of life shaped by core Christian practices, it creates a community of imagination and creativity and generosity and caring that is qualitatively different and bigger than that of any of its members. It’s what scripture calls “the body of Christ”: a community that is able to be Jesus to the world.
And one of the hallmarks of the emergent church, is that there is no great need for a big institution for it to happen: it can happen in homes as well as in churches, in small groups as well as in congregations. And so we are entering into a period when the church is in the process of re-inventing itself, moving away from fixed structures to informal networks, and away from a static hierarchical organization to the vitality of localized communities.
As I said, this is an exciting time to be a Christian—a once in five-hundred year opportunity—and we get to be part of it! And not only that, but perhaps we at St. Michael’s are ideally positioned to be on the frontlines of this great emergence: spiritually grounded, theologically astute, socially progressive, aesthetically gifted, and willing to take a risk.
So if over the coming years, we as a church retrace our steps by reclaiming what has previously been overlooked, we might yet get to hear what Anna had to say—or better yet, perhaps we will be the generation, finally to give voice to her long forgotten song. [And who knows, maybe it was a jazz tune itself!] Amen.