Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent - The Doorkeeper

First Sunday of Advent Year B Mark 13:24-37
Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come.

Those words from Jesus in today’s Gospel help give some focus to this season in the life of the Church we call Advent.  Advent is not just a name for the 4 weeks before Christmas in the church where we get a head start on our Christmas celebration.  We look back, yes, at how Christ came into the world, but it is also a time to look at how Christ comes to us now, and how Christ will come again at that time when God’s promises are fulfilled, and the Kingdom of heaven is made complete.  In these times – in between the manger of Bethlehem and the time when Christ will come again, Jesus tells us to keep awake.

Keep awake? How?

Jesus tells us that the task of keeping awake falls on the doorkeeper.  Because we do now know when the time will come, someone has to be on the lookout.  In verse 34 of today’s Gospel, Jesus says that this situation is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  

We often think of door keepers as being like guards, keeping people out.  The only way to get in is to talk your way in, let them know the secret password, sneak past them, or fight your through them.  But some door keepers have another role, not related to guarding something in order to keep unwanted people out.  The role of this other kind of door keeper is to let others know when something, or someone, is coming.

For example, there are those kinds of door keepers when a court is in session. Sometimes, that kind of door keeper may make a simple announcement, such as “All rise, court is now in session”.  Sometimes, it could be a more detailed and solemn ritual.  The second highest courts in our nation, just below the U.S. Supreme Court, are the several federal circuit courts of appeal, spread throughout the country.  On several occasions, I argued cases before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, with court houses in St. Louis and St. Paul, where the door keeper would begin each session with this little ritual:

The lawyers and onlookers would all be gathered in the courtroom, waiting, when there would be three loud knocks at the door between the judge’s chambers and the court room. The door keeper would then announce: "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is now in session.  All persons having business before this Honorable Court may now draw near and they will be heard. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

Regardless of how it was done, the door keeper’s job was not to guard the courtroom, but to announce to us that the judges were on their way in.
And that is essentially the role of the doorkeeper that Jesus talks about.   The kingdom of heaven doesn’t need a door keeper who is like a guard.  But the kingdom of heaven does need a door keeper to keep awake, be alert, and to let others know when that hour has come when all things will be fulfilled. Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye – the kingdom of heaven is now in session.

When will that master of the house return? When will that door keeper need to be alert and awake in order to announce that return? We don’t know. As Jesus said,  it may be in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, meaning that predawn time of the early morning, or at dawn.

Those times aren’t just random times that Jesus picked out.  They would prove to be crucial times of day in the days to come from him, particularly as the story of Jesus last few days are laid out in the Gospel of Mark.   Those times when Jesus says that the master may return are all connected with critical events leading up to the crucifixion. Evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. (Thanks to Pastor David Lose for writing about these connections)

The verses from today’s Gospel come from at the end of chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel.  What happens in the very next chapter - chapter 14? Well, we have the Last Supper, and Mark 14:17 begins to tell the story of that event by saying: “When it was evening he came with the twelve…”.  Evening.

 A few verses later, we have Jesus’ prayer in anguish – “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me, but not what I want, but what you want” .  When he had finished his prayer Mark’s Gospel tells us that  “Once more he came and found the disciples sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” because it was the middle of the night.  Midnight.

 Jesus was then captured and tried before the religious leaders at night.  At the close of his trial, Peter’s abandoned Jesus, just as Jesus predicted he would.  When did that happen? Peter denied Jesus just as the cock crowed for the second time”.  Cockcrow.

And finally, we have the time when Jesus is delivered to Pilate, the Roman governor. When did that happen? According to the first verse of Mark chapter 15: “As soon as it was morning”.  Dawn.

Evening. Midnight.  Cockcrow. Dawn.  Each time was a critical time during Jesus’ road to the cross.  Each time is a time when Jesus said that we would need to keep awake, and keep alert, for the time when he would return.

But how can we stay awake all the time? It just isn’t possible for us to be awake all the time! We need our rest, our sleep! And that is where the door keeper comes in.  

Because the door keeper isn’t just one person.  The door keeper – the one given the task of keeping awake – keeping alert – for the coming of Christ - is us. 

We look for Christ, together, because any single one of us can’t stay awake all of the time.  There are times when we are weary.  When we are sick.  Times when we have doubts.  Times when we have fear.  And that is why we need each other, because it is the role of the door keeper community to watch when others cannot.    

Our modern world is full of what I’ll call “do it yourself religion”, meaning the idea that our relationship with God is better as a strictly vertical relationship (just me and God), without a horizontal relationship (with each other).  I understand the reason behind that kind of thinking. Church communities are full of people, and people fight.  People are self-centered. People can disappoint us – even betray us.

People certainly did all those things to Jesus during the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, at dawn. 

His followers disappointed him by not staying awake while he was in anguish in the garden, and when Peter denied him.  One of his followers outright betrayed him. After the disappointment, after the betrayal, his own people crucified him. 

But Jesus did not abandon them. After the resurrection, after his ascension into heaven, Jesus remained a living presence with them, in their community – helping them keep awake, keep alert, together.  Think of the words Paul used in today’s reading from 1st Corinthians – his letter talks about the spiritual gifts God gives to us that we need in order to wait for the revealing of Christ. 

Was his letter to an individual? No.  It was to the church in Corinth.  From the rest of the letter, we know it was a church full of problems and divisions.  But they needed to stick together.  Together, they were called into the fellowship of God through Jesus Christ. Despite their problems – they still needed one another. 

And that is the truth for us as well.  Despite our imperfections, together we are being molded by God, to use that phrase from today’s reading from Isaiah about how God is the potter and we are the clay – together we are being shaped into the body of Christ during these times in between the manger and the second coming. 

We need one other, to hold one each other accountable when needed, to do together what Christ calls us to do – love and serve our neighbor – and, to be the door keeper to the kingdom of heaven.  Again, not the kind of door keeper who is a guard.

Together, our call is to be the kind of door keeper who proclaims the good news. The good news that Christ was born for us in Bethlehem. The good news that Christ died for us on the cross.  The good news that Christ’s presence is among us today, and that Christ will come again, to make all things new.

Thanks be to God – Amen. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Sacramental Perspective on Matthew 25:31-46

So as not to go 0 for 2017 in blog posts, I thought I would interrupt the silence and post this morning's sermon, since it is a good barometer of where I am theologically and spiritually these days.

Christ the King Sunday Year A Matthew 25:31-46

You’re going to figure this out soon enough, but the word of the day for this sermon is "perspective", meaning the where and the how we view things, our point of view, or our vantage point.  We just heard Jesus talk about sheep and goats, but let me use cats and dogs to illustrate a point about the importance of recognizing the perspective from which we view the world around us.

Dogs, like the ones on our family farm I visited over the Thanksgiving holiday, look up at you with those big brown eyes, wagging their tail, as if they are thinking to themself: “You love me, you feed me, you care for me, you take me for walks... you must be God”. Cats, on the other hand, like our dear Mellow whom we adopted from the shelter last year, look at you with those piercing eyes, thinking to themself:  “You love me, you feed me, you care for me, you pet me ... I must be God”. (Joke adapted from a sermon by Steven Sizer: Recognizing our perspective – the vantage point from which we look at the things around us - matters.

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the last day of the church year, before we begin a new church year with the season of Advent next week. A day that we can take a step back and look at the world from a new perspective.  A perspective which reveals to us how Christ the King is a very, very different kind of king. A perspective which shows us how Christ is a king whose crown is thorns, not jewels, A perspective which shows us that his king’s throne is a cross, not made of gold. 

A perspective revealed to us through today’s Gospel from Matthew.  A perspective which reveals how Christ is with us today.  A perspective that shows us how Christ the King comes to us today - not through all kinds of royal pageantry, but through those whom Jesus calls the least of these who are members of my family. The hungry.  The thirsty. The stranger. The naked.  The sick.  The imprisoned.

This parable, sometimes called the judgment of the nations, or perhaps more simply, the parable of the sheep at the goats, is found at the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew, the chapter we’ve been going through these past few weeks where Jesus has told a series of parables about being prepared for the day when he would return.  In the very next chapter, chapter 26, Jesus had the last supper with the disciples.  He was betrayed and arrested. He was put on trial before the high priest, then in the 27th chapter, brought before Pilate, and taken to the cross.

Today’s parable of the judgment of the nations, using the sheep and the goats as metaphors for the righteous and unrighteous, was the last parable he told before those events we remember during Holy Week.

There are probably several different perspectives from which we can look at this parable of the sheep and the goats, but I’m going to talk about three. 

One possible perspective would be to look at this parable from what I’ll call the “legal perspective” the perspective that Jesus is offering us a contract for our salvation, with a list of conditions. What kind of list?  Well, because the Christmas shopping season has begun, pardon me for bringing up Santa, but a list of things we can do to be put on the nice list, the sheep list - and not the naughty list, the goat list. Let’s see – feed a hungry person? Check.  Give a drink to a thirsty person? Check. Give clothing to a naked person? Check.  Welcome the stranger? Check. Took care of someone who is sick? Check.  Visit someone in prison? Check.  Okay Jesus, I’ve done all of those things – now fulfill your end of the deal and tell me I’m a sheep.   

Another possible perspective is what I’ll call the “save the world” perspective. What I mean by that is that from this perspective, we think that Jesus is telling us how to go out there and make his kingdom a reality here on earth in our time, and we do that by doing all kinds of great and noble and just things for other people. 

Things like feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, etc. – I won’t mention the whole list again.  Jesus told us about the kingdom of heaven, so let’s get going on bringing it to earth by doing all these things - time’s a wasting.

The problem with those perspectives is that they are from the vantage point of what we are doing.  We need to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and take care of the sick to fulfill our end of the legal bargain, or we need to do these things to save the world and make the kingdom of heaven a reality here on earth by doing them.

I’m going to propose to you a different perspective – what I am going to call a sacramental perspective.  As Episcopalians/Lutherans, along with other Christian traditions which believe that God’s grace comes to us through the sacraments like baptism or communion, believe that ordinary things or objects can bring the holy to us.  They can bring Christ himself to us.  The water of baptism bring Christ to us and unite us with him in his death and resurrection.  The bread and wine bring Christ to us as they carry his body and blood for forgiveness of sin and nourishment of our souls.

In other words, the sacramental perspective reveals to us that the material world – what we can see, taste, touch, is not all there is that is material to us for our salvation – our unity with God.  Through this parable, Jesus is reminding us that each encounter with the people that we meet has the potential to be an encounter with himself.  What may seem like an ordinary event, can be a Christ event.

The week before last, I stayed several days at New Melleray Abbey, the monastery over Dubuque that I go to periodically. The monks there follow the ancient Rule of St. Benedict as the guide for their lives, and the Rule of St. Benedict recognizes how Christ comes to us through others.  One part of the Rule specifically quotes Matthew 25, when it states that “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”. 

In other words, an act of hospitality, welcoming a stranger, is a sacramental event – an encounter with Jesus. A means by which Jesus Christ - the King of this very different kind of kingdom - comes to us.

A sacramental perspective reminds us that Christ’s presence in the world is not merely a past event, or a future event on the day when Christ returns.  Christ’s presence is a current event.  The face of Christ is reflected to us through the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the stranger, the imprisoned.  We are all pilgrims on the journey, and Christ visits us through the journey of others. (Adapted from a writing by Fr. Prior Joel Macul on the 20th anniversary of Christ the King Priory.
A sacramental perspective affects our mindset when we go about doing the things that Jesus spoke of, like feeding the hungry.  These aren’t just acts of charity from someone who has something, to someone who does not have something. We aren’t the kings of our little kingdoms being benevolent and merciful to those whom we provide assistance.

We are receiving far more than what we are giving because the presence of Christ the King himself is with them, whether we recognize it or not.   One of the beautiful things about this parable is how the people who were sheep and not goats did all of these things without even realizing it was the Son of Man who was with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger, and imprisoned.

So, a sacramental perspective is not required to be a sheep and not a goat, but it does open our eyes to a new way of looking at why we do the acts of love that we do as Christians. It is a perspective that comes when, as Ephesians so beautifully puts it, the eyes of your heart are enlightened. 

The eyes of your heart.  Not the eyes in your head.  The eyes in the core of your being – the core where the Holy Spirit dwells in you because of the sacrament of baptism, the core which is nourished and fed because of the sacrament of communion.

A sacramental perspective opens the eyes of our heart to see God’s grace incarnate in water, in bread and wine.  It allows us to see the presence of Christ in the least of these. It allows us to see that the presence of the resurrected and living Christ is not merely a thing of the past or future, but a living presence right here, right now, with us.  Immanuel.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Sermon for Reformation Day, 2016

The following sermon is based on Luke 19:1-10, which is the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel for the day. (I've used the Reformation Day texts before, but because I also serve an Episcopal congregation now, I used the RCL text so I didn't have to prepare two sermons).  

Grace to you and peace in the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Since I have spent the past couple of days at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, I didn't have a lot of time to create my own sermon for today.  So, I want you to imagine that we have a special guest preacher here today, but I’m not going to tell you who the preacher is until after you’ve heard it.

"You have come here meet Jesus. Today’s Gospel speaks to us of just such a meeting between Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus, in Jericho. There Jesus does not simply preach or greet people; but he passed through the city.  In other words, Jesus wants to draw near to us personally, to accompany our journey to its end, so that his life and our life can truly meet.

An amazing encounter then takes place, with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus was a wealthy collaborator of the hated Roman occupiers, someone who exploited his own people, someone who, because of his ill repute, could not even approach the Master. His encounter with Jesus changed his life, just as it has changed each of our lives.  But Zacchaeus had to face a number of obstacles in order to meet Jesus, which also have something to say to us.

The first obstacle is smallness of stature. Zacchaeus couldn’t see the Master because he was little. Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don’t feel big enough, because we don’t think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation; it has to do not only with self-esteem, but with faith itself.   We have been created in God’s own image; Jesus has taken upon himself our humanity and his heart will never be separated from us; the Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us. We have been called to be happy for ever with God! 

That is our real “stature”, our spiritual identity: we are God’s beloved children, always. So you can see that not to accept ourselves, to be negative, means not to recognize our deepest identity.  God loves us the way we are, and no sin, fault or mistake of ours changes that.  

As far as Jesus is concerned – as this Gospel shows – no one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In God’s eyes the clothes you wear or the things you own are of absolutely no concern. In God’s eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.

At times in our lives, we aim lower rather than higher. At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in his love for us. The fact is, God loves us even more than we love ourselves. God believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. God is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries.

But that brooding is a kind of virus infecting and blocking everything; it closes doors and prevents us from getting up and starting over.  God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful, because we are always his beloved sons and daughters. Let us be mindful of this at the dawn of each new day.  It will do us good to pray every morning: “Lord, I thank you for loving me; help me to be in love with my own life!” Not with my faults, that need to be corrected, but with life itself, which is a great gift, for it is a time to love and to be loved.

Zacchaeus faced a second obstacle in meeting Jesus: the paralysis of shame. We can imagine what was going on in his heart before he climbed that sycamore. It must have been quite a struggle – on one hand, a healthy curiosity and desire to know Jesus; on the other, the risk of appearing completely ridiculous.

Zacchaeus was public figure, a man of power. He knew that, in trying to climb that tree, he would have become a laughingstock to all.  Yet he mastered his shame, because the attraction of Jesus was more powerful. You know what happens when someone is so attractive that we fall in love with them: we end up ready to do things we would never have even thought of doing.

Something similar took place in the heart of Zacchaeus, when he realized that Jesus was so important that he would do anything for him, since Jesus alone could pull him out of the mire of sin and discontent. The paralysis of shame did not have the upper hand. The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus “ran ahead”, “climbed” the tree, and then, when Jesus called him, he “hurried down”. He took a risk, he put his life on the line. For us too, this is the secret of joy: not to stifle curiosity, but to take a risk, because life is not meant to be tucked away. When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit around waiting with arms folded; he offers us life!

After his small stature and the paralysis of shame, there was a third obstacle that Zacchaeus had to face.  This obstacle was all around him. It was the grumbling of the crowd, who first blocked him and then criticized him: How could Jesus have entered his house, the house of a sinner!  People will try to block you, to make you think that God is distant, rigid and insensitive, good to the good and bad to the bad. Instead,  God calls us to a kind of courage, the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies. People may laugh at you because you believe in mercy. But do not be afraid.

That day the crowd judged Zacchaeus; they looked him over, up and down. But Jesus did otherwise: he gazed up at him. Jesus looks beyond the faults and sees the person. His gaze remains constant, even when it is not met; it seeks the way of unity and communion. Don’t stop at the surface of things; distrust the worldly cult of appearances, cosmetic attempts to improve our looks. Instead, God has given you a heart which can see and transmit goodness without growing weary. The joy that you have freely received from God, freely give away: so many people are waiting for it!

Finally let us listen to the words that Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus, which to be seem meant for us today: “Come down, for I must stay at your house today”.  Jesus extends the same invitation to you: “I must stay at your house today”.

We meet Jesus here, today, but that meeting continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on. The Lord  wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies or in your work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams. God desires that you bring all this in prayer and God hopes that, in all the “contacts” and “chats” of each day, that prayer comes first. God wants to be able to speak to you day after day through the word, so that you can make the Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life!

In asking to come to your house, Jesus calls you, as he did Zacchaeus, by name because your name is precious to him."

So, whose sermon was that? 
Martin Luther? No.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer? No. 
Some other great Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Protestant? No.
I edited it somewhat for context, but that was, in essence, the sermon given by Pope Francis to a million young people at World Youth Day in Krakow Poland, on July 31st of this year.  One of the slogans of the Reformation was “grace alone”, and there was a whole lot of grace in that sermon.

Tomorrow is the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Germany, a Reformation which spread to England and other parts of Europe a few years later.  But October 2016 is proving to be a special month, too.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby met and said together that our differences “cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find within each other’s traditions.

 Our differences should not stop us from praying together: not only can we pray together, we must pray together, giving voice to our shared faith and joy in the Gospel of Christ.”
That call to common prayer is being lived out tomorrow in Lund Sweden – Pope Francis will be visiting the predominantly Lutheran country for a joint prayer service marking the beginning of this 500th anniversary year, and this is one of the prayers that they will pray together:

“Jesus Christ, Lord of the church, send your Holy Spirit! Illumine our hearts and heal our memories. O Holy Spirit: help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the Church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world.  Amen.”
The Reformation helped remind the Church of what Jesus said to Zaccheus - that salvation comes to your house today, for the Son of Man, has come out to seek, and to save.  As Pope Francis’ sermon indicated, that promise is a gift which can overcome obstacles and divisions.  It is a gift that gives us new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God – Amen.        

Monday, May 9, 2016

Why I'm Sticking with the Revised Common Lectionary, Part 2

Unbeknownst to me at the time, on the same day that I posted my first article about the Revised Common Lectionary (, a group called "Clergy Stuff" posted a video on Facebook about the Narrative Lectionary.  The video features Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary, who has been one of the primary developers and proponents of the Narrative Lectionary. The video can be seen here (, and it features two comments on why the Narrative Lectionary is allegedly superior to the Revised Common Lectionary which I want to address.  I've really enjoyed some of Professor Jacobson's work in the past, particularly "Crazy Book: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Biblical Terms", as well as his other books published by Augsburg Fortress.  However, I have a profound disagreement with his assessment of the RCL, and his belief that his Narrative Lectionary rectifies the alleged problems with it.

The first comment made by Professor Jacobson is as follows:

"We actually think that we do a better job of aligning the Biblical story with the major festivals of the Church year. In the Revised Common Lectionary, you get the adult John the Baptist in Advent saying 'Jesus is coming', but that's not the Christmas story - its not the adult John the Baptist saying the adult Jesus is coming. So, what we have is the prophetic texts - the prophets longing with hope for the fulfillment of God's kingdom and the coming of the Holy One, and then the Holy One is born at Christmas, and we tell, then, the Biblical story in order...."

Is Advent merely a season where we prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas?  If so, his claim might have merit.  However, Advent is not just about recalling the story of the baby Jesus coming into the world.  If it were, I'm not sure why we would even have a separate Advent season - we would just have one six week Christmas season. Instead, Advent is also a season where we prepare for the return of Christ at the eschaton (a word which essentially means, to borrow a phrase from the rock group REM: 'the end of the world as we know it').  Therefore, contrary to Professor Jacobson's opinion, the readings where "the adult John Baptist is saying the adult Jesus is coming" make sense given the historical purpose and meaning behind the season of Advent:

"The eschataological orientation that is found in some of these early sources continues to be a significant element in the proclamation of the season of Advent. Indeed, the very name Adventus, 'coming,' 'approach,' suggests not only the coming of God into the world in Jesus but the approaching return of the risen Lord in all his heavenly splendor.  Indeed, the Advent season and its hope should not be regarded purely or even primarily in terms of Christmas.  It should not even be seen as an introduction to the Incarnation but rather as the completion of the work of redemption.


The season gives voice to the impatience God's people feel at least from time to time but which they may be hesitant to express to God.  The purpose of Advent is to rouse once again in the people of the Church the anticipation of the End and of the great Day of the Lord, and to bid them to be prepared for it.


[T]he Church gives voice not only to the expectant joy of a bride or of a mother at the impending birth of her child. Mother Church expresses her deep longing for the coming of Christ in glory at the end of the ages. It is not a fearful dread that the Church wishes to instill in her members when through the psalms and hymns and readings and prayers she calls on us to think about the Parousia, the final coming, but rather she points us to the goal of our efforts to keep awake and to watch: unending union with Jesus Christ. All our work and study and prayer and living has one purpose and meaning: to bring us and all humanity into the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  So the central prayer of Advent is the one word, the concluding prayer of the Bible, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus."

(From pp. 27-29 of "Journey Into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year" by Philip Pfatteicher, a noted Lutheran liturgical theologian - these are just brief snippets of a extensive discussion about the Advent season found in the book, including a discussion about the RCL readings).

Therefore, instead of enhancing the Church's understanding of the liturgical year, the Narrative Lectionary diminishes it.

The second comment from the video that I want to address is this remark from Professor Jacobson: "The problem with the Revised Common Lectionary is that somebody in 1973 or 1972 decided what Scriptures you need in your church in 2016, 2018, 2020..."

"Somebody in 1973 or 1972"?  The Revised Common Lectionary is not based on the fruits of one person's work in the early 1970s.  As noted in my earlier article, the roots of the RCL are based on the three year lectionary developed in the Roman Catholic Church during the years following Vatican II.  Following the conclusion of Vatican II, Biblical scholars came together to work on the three year lectionary, which resulted in the publication of Ordo Lectionum Missae in 1969. After over a decade of work by scholars from numerous Christian traditions, the Common Lectionary was published in 1983.  Finally, after a trial period of the Common Lectionary, and revisions made by even more scholars, the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992.  (For more information, go to this website:

So, the RCL is the fruit of the labor of multiple scholars from multiple Christian traditions over the course of several decades.  It is not a perfect lectionary.  But, it is a truly "catholic" (universal, not just Roman) lectionary.  This was a sentiment expressed by ELCA Bishop Guy Erwin, who shared my earlier post on his Facebook page, and offered these words:

"This is lovely. Reading and reflecting on the RCL texts each week is for me a powerful witness to our unity as Christians. Not only the mainline churches but also the global Roman Catholic Church uses essentially the same Sunday texts, which means most of the world's Christians are focusing their hearts on the same scriptural truths each week.

No lectionary can ever be a substitute for the broader study of scripture--there simply aren't enough Sundays for that. What we hear ...on Sunday is an invitation to go deeper--to use more scripture to learn more--not an end point.

And though I believe every part of scripture is useful, I think the lectionary helps draw us away from the sense that the Bible was somehow put together and delivered to us in canonical order (and in English) by God, in order to tell us a smooth, consistent and complete story of everything God wants us to know. It is instead a wild and varied witness, and each part deserves to be considered on its own without being forced into a frame. Even the dissonances in the RCL help us be modest in the face of this sometimes mystifying collection of holy writings, and point us always back to Christ as the only unifier."


Monday, May 2, 2016

Why I'm Sticking With the Revised Common Lectionary

Now and again, I reconnect with colleagues and look at the latest trends in the church via the sometimes controversial ELCA Clergy group on Facebook.  One subject that comes up periodically within that group is the lectionary - specifically, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which is the series of readings used by churches during Sunday worship services.  The RCL has been an ecumenical success, as it is used widely by Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and churches from other denominations.  Even more importantly, from my perspective, it is largely in sync with the Catholic lectionary - therefore, even though we are not yet at the point where the Eucharist is shared, we at least share in the same readings from Sacred Scripture most weeks.

As I noted in my last post (back in March, sorry- I'll try to do better!), I am now 1/2 time at an Episcopal congregation, in addition to my 1/2 time call at a Lutheran church.  Since the Episcopal Church values a common liturgy (hence, the Book of Common Prayer), it is a given that congregations use the RCL. 
Based on what I read on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page, however, it appears that in the ELCA we are far from unity in our Scripture readings at worship.  Some pastors feel free to change the readings at will, or develop their own sermon series, based on their own choice of readings.   As a Lutheran with Benedictine tendencies, you can probably guess that I'm not a big fan of that practice.  
Furthermore, a whole new lectionary has been developed by Luther Seminary, the Narrative Lectionary, and a sizable contingent of congregations appear to be using it based on what I am reading on the Facebook page.  Why was a new lectionary developed when we already have one that has been widely used in the ELCA and in our ecumenical partner churches? This is the reason given:
"Though the Revised Common Lectionary has united the church in its reading of scripture and has given much-needed structure, it doesn’t present scripture -- especially the Old Testament -- in a way that helps people to become fluent in the first language of faith. The Narrative Lectionary is an attempt to take nine months to do just that."  
When I read this statement, it made me wonder  - what is the primary purpose of Scripture reading during worship?  Are Scripture readings and sermons supposed to be like Bible studies?
No.  The purpose of Scripture reading during worship is to proclaim the mystery of the faith and the presence of Christ in our midst.  
Through the magic of Google, I found an article called "Explaining the lectionary for readers", which contains a beautiful explanation of how and why the Catholic (and therefore, RCL) lectionary readings are put together.  Although it is from a Catholic website, this language strikes me as being very much Lutheran as well, with its primary focus being on the proclamation of Christ: 
 "[W]e can think of the readings at the Eucharist as a series of concentric circles:
• at the centre is the gospel which is a recollection and celebration of the mystery of Jesus, the Anointed One;
• this recollection is given added dimensions by readings from the Old Testament: the Law (such as Genesis or Exodus), the prophets (such as Amos or Joel), the Psalms, and the Writings (such as the Book of Wisdom or the Books of the Maccabees);
• then there are the readings of the great early Christian teachers’ letters to churches, such as those of Paul.
The purpose of the readings is that, in the words of the General Instruction on the Lectionary, in accordance with ancient practice there should be a ‘re-establishing [of] the use of Scripture in every celebration of the liturgy’ and that this should be seen as ‘the unfolding mystery of Christ’ being ‘recalled during the course of the liturgical year’ 
If the readings at the Eucharist are there to help unfold the mystery of Jesus Christ, then several important consequences flow from this:
• We are not reading the Scriptures simply to get a knowledge of the Bible.
• We are not reading these passages because many Christians consider reading the Bible a valuable activity in itself.
• This action is not part of a Bible Study, nor should it resemble the classroom atmosphere of a study group.
•The focus of all our reading is not an abstract understanding of the scriptural text – such as would be carried out by a biblical exegete in a theology course – but to see what each portion of text (whether from the gospel, the Old Testament, the psalm, or the epistle) reveals to us about the Paschal Mystery.
• Our reading is not book-focused; it is not text-focused; it is focused on Jesus as the Christ.
• The gospel is the primary focus on the mystery of the Christ in each celebration; the Old Testament and Psalm relate to it as background, example, context, or elaboration; the epistle is a separate attempt to focus on the mystery of the Christ through the help of early Christian teachers.
• The readings are to help us encounter the person of Jesus Christ in whose presence and name we have gathered.
‘The word of God unceasingly calls to mind and extends the plan of salvation, which achieves its fullest expression in the liturgy. The liturgical celebration becomes therefore the continuing, complete, and effective presentation of God’s word’." 
During worship, Christ is truly present in our midst.  Therefore, don't we want our readings to be aimed at proclaiming that mystery in union with the Body of Christ around the world? 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Life Changes, Daily Prayer, and Inner Spiritual Renewal

As you've noticed, it has been awhile since I've posted here.  Lots of things have been going on in life - the primary one being my recent vocational changes.  After 20 years of practicing law full-time, I've reduced my practice to part-time.  I'm still the 1/2 time pastor of St. Luke Lutheran in Sioux City, Iowa (where I have been since 2012), and in addition that role, I am now the part-time Priest-In-Charge of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, which is located in a beautiful building built in the 1800s, just north of downtown.

For those of you not familiar with ELCA Lutheran church polity, about 15 years ago, a full communion agreement was approved by the ELCA and Episcopal Churches to allow for this sort of thing.  So, at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays, I'm Father Jay, leading services according to the Book of Common Prayer, and at 10:00 a.m., I'm back to being Pastor Jay at St. Luke.  An article in our local paper used my story as an example of how churches are dealing with reduced clergy numbers:

In the meanwhile, I'm still trying to follow the Benedictine path of daily prayer.  Admittedly, with my vocations and family, it is still a struggle.  But, it is a worthwhile struggle, and a journey I am committed to continuing.  Why?  Well, I suspect the Holy Spirit has something to do with that, but if you're looking for a rationale, here is a great article I just saw about why daily prayer is so important.  It is written from a Catholic perspective, but the reasoning is essentially applicable to anyone who feels led by the Spirit to a deeper prayer life:

Finally, I'm nearing the end of my two year course in spiritual direction offered by the Benedictine sisters in Yankton, South Dakota.  Last year in the course, we read "The Cloud of Unknowing", which is an anonymous medieval text on the renewal of the interior spiritual life through contemplative prayer.  This Lent, I've been re-reading the book, along with a contemporary devotional book based on The Cloud, "The Loving Search for God" by William Meninger, a Trappist monk.  Today, I came across a passage written by Meninger which says a lot in just a few sentences about our daily walk with God:

"A real Christian, as opposed to a cultural Christian, is not one who never sins.  He or she is one who, having sinned, is willing to reach out and find his or her sufficiency in Christ and start over again - today!" (p. 31).

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bruno Barnhart, RIP

One of the gems of the Benedictine family are the Camaldolese monks - they live together in community, but retain a solitary lifestyle more reminiscent of the Desert Fathers and Mothers than a typical Benedictine monastery.   Along the beautiful California coastline near Big Sur is New Camaldoli Hermitage, home to a small number of resident Camaldolese monks and a thriving Oblate program (non-resident lay monastics).

This past weekend, one of the resident monks of New Camaldoli, Father Bruno Barnhart, entered into eternal rest.  While his is not a household name, Barnhart has written some interesting books on the revival of the ancient wisdom tradition within Christianity.

Barnhart's death coincided with the First Sunday of Advent, and the following passage from one of his books is appropriate for the season:

"Our temple, and all the temples, are gone forever from the world.  Now from within, from the center, the world itself is illumined as temple.... The music of the King sounds, beyond the ears' hearing, throughout this temple that is Christ.  The one Child, the Son, has come into his fullness at the center of the world, and the world that exists in him is now illumined and glorified in him." (From p, 208 of "Second Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity").