Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books
-C.S. Lewis “On the Reading of Old Books”
Some of the best advise I have ever been given has come in the form of two words: read this. Time and again I have had mentors, friends and spiritual directors recommend books that have had a profound influence on my life and on my faith. The list that I present below is by no means exhaustive, but represents some of the most treasured and well worn volumes on my bookshelf. Some of these books would be appropriate for anyone wishing to have a deeper understanding of the faith (e.g., “The Catholic Religion” by Vernon Staley); some are very specifically resources for priests and liturgy nerds (e.g., “Ritual Notes”); and some are just plain fun (e.g., “The Towers of Trebizond” by Rose Macaulay).
Some of these books are recommendations from colleagues of mine in the Society of Catholic Priests. As I attended our conference this year in Atlanta, I was reminded that one of the greatest things we as priests have to share with each other (and hopefully with the rest of the world as well) is wisdom. So here is a list of books that an Anglican in the Catholic tradition may wish to have on their bookshelf.
Not all of these books are about Anglo-Catholicism per se, but are about the Catholic Faith in general. Most are old, but some are new. I intend to update this list from time to time as I discover or am referred to new resources.
The Catholic Religion: A Manual of Instruction for Members of the Anglican Church by Vernon Staley
The King’s Highway by G.D. Carleton
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
Heresy by G.K. Chesterton
The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton
Heresy by Alister McGrath
Paths in Spirituality by John Macquarrie
The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey
Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth
Why Sacraments? by Andrew Davison
He who is: a study in traditional theism by E.L. Mascall
Existence and Analogy by E.L. Mascall
Priesthood and Prayer by Bede Frost
The Return of Christendom by Maurice Reckitt et al.
Reconciliation: Preparing for confession in the Episcopal Church by Martin Smith
Soul Friend by Kenneth Leech
Saving Belief by Austin Farrer
We Preach Christ Crucified by Kenneth Leech
The Christian Priest Today by Michael Ramsey
The Rule of Saint Benedict by Joan Chittester
The Divine Milieu by Pierre Teillard de Chardin
Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton
Foundations by Karl Rahner
The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker
Prices Private by Lancelot Andrews
Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Elliot and Christianity by Barry Spurr
Tokens of Trust by Rowan Williams
The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean Leclercq
Corpus Christi by E.L. Mascall
Signs of Life (40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots) by Scott Hahn
Books about Anglo-Catholic History
Walsingham Way by Colin Stephenson
Anglo-Catholicism by Sheila Kaye-Smith
The Vision Glorious by Geoffrey Rowell
The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede
Books about liturgy, or prayer books
The Parson’s Handbook by Percy Dearmer
The Mass of the Roman Rite by Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J.
Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book by David Cobb and Derek Olsen
The Ritual Reason Why by Charles Walker and Thomas Ball
Ritual Notes by E.C.R. Lamburn
The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described by Adrian Fortescue
Few things elicit an eye-roll and an internal groan from me more readily than hearing a clergyperson use the word “prophetic.” It is a particularly obnoxious term when used in relation to one’s own ministry. It is usually meant to imply that someone or something is forward thinking or visionary, but part of the problem with this is that the only sure-fire tool to separate the visionary from the delusional is the perspective of time. I was just at a conference with New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson who quipped in his presentation: “You are a prophet after you are dead, while you are still alive you are just an asshole.” It’s a fine line in any event I’m sure.
My biggest problem with the word “prophetic” though is that by constantly using it to describe someone who can foresee the future, we set ourselves up to misread the central mission of the biblical prophets and thereby misunderstand our own prophetic mission.
Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…the list goes on. We think of them as eccentric visionaries; as people that make dire predictions and cry for change, but at the heart of the message of each one of the prophets is a call to faithfulness. Living in times of great distraction and distress, when people seemed hell-bent on chasing after every new “god,” the prophets called out for people to abandon their idols and their false gods and to return to the Lord, the God of their ancestors and the God of their salvation with renewed devotion. The visions of the future were a means to an end; they were a tool used by the prophets to plead with a stubborn and headstrong people, but calling people to faithfulness was their true mission. Perhaps abiding faithfulness is more at the heart of what it means to be a prophet than eccentric visions. Maybe that is the core of our prophetic mission as well.
In the Latin mass there is a traditional prayer said by the priest or deacon immediately before the proclamation of the gospel. It is known as the Munda cor meum:
Cleanse my heart and my lips, O thou almighty God, who didst purge the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a live coal, and of thy sweet mercy vouchsafe so to purify me, that I may worthily announce Thy holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer has always been a very special moment in the liturgy for me. On a practical level it is the last moment to gather my thoughts before proceeding to proclaim the Gospel lesson and deliver the sermon. On a spiritual level this prayer is a reminder that the proclamation of the Gospel is a prophetic act, not in the sense that it should be filled with visions and eccentricities, but in that its core purpose is to call people to greater devotion. We are reminded as clergy, that when we set out from the altar to bring God’s word to the people, we do so in the footsteps of not just apostles and saints but of the prophets as well.
While I have appreciated the inclusion of the prophetic imagery for some time, I have not always appreciated how much the circumstances of the prophets actually mirror my own until more recently. The church at large as not yet reconciled itself to the fact that traditional Christianity (by that I mean the faith that is basically summarized by the Nicene Creed) is no longer a part of the dominant culture. When the church is still active in the public sphere it is relegated to roles that are largely ceremonious or it is used as a tool either to support nationalist sentiment (for the right wing) or socialist sentiment (for the left wing). The church is used for a means to an end, rarely as an end in itself. The dominant religion among those that are unchurched (and among many of those that are) is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, not traditional Christianity. The faithful that the church is left ministering to are likely to find themselves living in a type of exile: holding values and priorities that are often in conflict with the society at large.
What I find most meaningful about reflecting on the role of the prophets as I go to proclaim the Gospel, is that I am reminded that I do not need to be winning over the popular culture in order to be doing the work of God. At the end of the day, I don’t have to worry about trying to change the world, doubling my Average Sunday Attendance, being in good favor with the local political establishment, or trying to come up with “new and creative ways of being.” I have no interest in clever mission statements and movements, and no desire to try to reinvent the church every few years. It’s just not me. I have the Great Commission, 2000 years of faithful Christian witness and the biblical prophets that came before. That is enough. Walking in the footsteps of the prophets is a reminder that we aren’t called to be winners, we are called to be disciples, and there is a big difference. Isaiah knew that most of his words would fall upon deaf ears; he knew that only a faithful remnant would remain, but that was enough for him. It was enough for Jeremiah, who never felt worthy of God’s calling, and it was enough for Ezekiel, who ended up preaching to dry bones in the desert. The prophetic ministry of the priest or minister is not that we are called to be creative visionaries; it is that we are called to a life of faithfulness and to witness to the power of faithfulness to others.
I just returned from spending three days at a conference with the Society of Catholic Priests. Now, whenever I mention this society to people that are unfamiliar with it, I usually have to explain that, no, this has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. We are catholic priests in the Anglican Communion. We are male and female; we are gay and straight; we are married and single. We come together as priests that treasure the faith that has been handed to us by our ancestors and who wish to share that same faith with the world. We are people who highly value tradition, but who also recognize that tradition can develop and change over time. We believe in sin and redemption, and death and resurrection, not just as vague concepts, but as realities in our own lives and central truths in the life of Jesus Christ. We come together regularly to encourage one another and strengthen our witness to the faith. In short we are priests that feel called to witness to a way of faithfulness that has been handed down to us across the generations: lives filled with scripture, prayer, sacrament and mutual support. It isn’t always an easy path to walk. The right wing of the church struggles with our acceptance of women’s ordination and gay marriage; the left wing of the church struggles with our adherence to traditional ideas of sin, redemption and resurrection. If we were looking for the road to easy approval, either within the church or outside it, we have probably chosen the wrong one. With declining attendance numbers, constant corporate-like rebranding and retooling, diocesan liturgies that seem to be chasing after the spirit of the age more than the spirit of God and with the church’s often sick preoccupation with looking “cool” to the dominant culture, those of us that feel called to faithfulness and tradition can very much feel like we are in a valley of dry bones at times.
I give thanks for the times that I get to spend with my brothers and sisters in the Society of Catholic Priests. I give thanks because whenever we come together I am reminded that it is ok just to be faithful. It is ok to just worship the God of our ancestors without feeling the need to be creative or unique. It is ok to not worry about being in the majority either in the church or in society at large. We don’t have to win every battle in order to do the work of God…we just have to be faithful. We don’t need to try and think of ways to sell the next generation on our faith, we just need to live it as best we can. In the end only God knows the future. When Ezekiel was asked if the dry bones could live again he replied: “O Lord God, you know.” God knows indeed. It isn’t necessarily the prophets task to know what God is restoring life to; it is the prophets task to faithfully preach the word. The Resurrection is God’s job, not ours.
The Munda cor meum prayer is immediately followed by another prayer of the celebrant:
The Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that worthily and rightly I may proclaim his Gospel.
It is such a simple and quick moment in the liturgy, and the congregation may have no idea that it is even happening, but for me at least it is a regular reminder that as a priest I am called, like the prophets, to faithfully carry God’s word into a world filled with dry bones. My job is to faithfully proclaim; God is the one who ultimately gives life.
Note: This sermon was preached on Thursday, September 29th, 2016, being the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, and on the occasion of the blessing and dedication of our new front entrance.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Church of The Ascension in Rockville Centre has, I think at least, a well-deserved reputation for being a welcoming church. Plenty of individuals have made this observation to me, and it is certainly something I have experienced myself. To welcome outsiders into our community is very important, but if we are going to minister to the community in which we live and if we are going to evangelize the next generation of Christians, then being welcoming will simply not be enough. We need to be an inviting church.
You see, in the recent past going to church was taken for granted. It is just what you did. When people moved into a new community they went church shopping and very often the church they selected was the one that was the most welcoming, or the one that most suited their needs or their tastes. People were looking for church and your task was to get them to choose yours. Alas, that is not the world we live in anymore.
Most people in our society are not looking for a church anymore. Sure, you may encounter a few here and there, but they are fewer and farther between. People still have spiritual needs and they still long for answers to life’s tough questions, but they are less convinced that church is the place to have those needs met. That makes our job, as Christians that are called to spread the good news, a bit harder. We can no longer depend upon people coming to us, so we must go to them. We cannot just welcome people into this worshipping community, we must invite them.
The world we find ourselves in is less like the 1950s and 60s of our parents and grandparents, and more like the 50s and 60s AD of Paul and the Apostles: We live in a largely secular world that is mostly unfamiliar and unconcerned with the teachings of Jesus. But, that is the same world that Christ sent his disciples out into; he sent them, he didn’t tell them to wait until the world came looking for them; he sent them out and told them to go out into the world making disciples of all nations. That is the world in which we live: we are not just reminding people of the good news; for many people we are helping them encounter it for the first time.
Now you may be wondering: what on earth does this have to do with new church doors and windows? It’s this: people no longer assume that church has much to offer their lives. They aren’t going to fight to overcome obstacles to get in. We have to invite them to take a look inside. We need to show them that this isn’t just a door into a community meeting space, but a gateway into a different kingdom. Our new entrance isn’t just designed to be pretty; it is designed to be inviting. It is designed to remove barriers. It is designed to entice people to go deeper; to encourage them to look within and maybe, just maybe, respond to the God that is calling out to them.
It is fitting that standing guard over this new entrance are four archangels. Tonight is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels; it is a day when the Church celebrates God’s angels and the work they do for his kingdom. Now I feel that I should point out here that there are many misconceptions about angels in popular culture. The biggest misconception is that angels are what we become when we die. No. That is not what the church teaches. Angels and humans are entirely different types of beings created by God. We might join the ranks of the faithful departed when we die, we might even be called saints, but we do not become angels. What we do share with angels though is a common mission: angels were created to be the special messengers of God, to work for God’s kingdom here on earth, and we as Christians are called to do very much the same. The angels that grace our doors direct our thoughts not only to the things we ought to pray for as we enter this building, they remind us of the work we need to do as we leave this building.
Saint Uriel, the giver of divine light and patron of poets and artists. Saint Uriel’s task is to inspire. To make people wonder at the greatness of God and all his works. We pray to Saint Uriel to fill our thoughts with the beautiful ideas that come from God and we pray that like Saint Uriel, we too can inspire others in our own way.
Saint Gabriel, the announcing angel who visited a young virgin to tell her that she was with child and that that child was the son of God. Saint Gabriel’s task is to proclaim. To announce to the world the coming of Jesus Christ and to proclaim the truth that this child is unlike any other. We pray to Saint Gabriel that he may continually make Christ known to us and we pray that we can be so bold as to proclaim that same child to an unknowing and unbelieving world.
Saint Michael, the prince of all the angels, the angel who casts Satan down and protects us from every attack of evil. Saint Michael’s task is to defend. To use his strength to defend those that are weaker in the name of justice. Saint Michael is the patron saint of police officers, soldiers and all law enforcement and that window is given as a tribute to all those who have answered the call to serve and protect. We pray to Saint Michael that he will protect us from the evil in this world, and especially protect those who put their lives in harms way on a daily basis, and we pray that we too will have the courage to stand up to evil in the world whenever we encounter it.
Saint Raphael, the medicine of God and the patron of pilgrims. Saint Raphael’s task is to heal. To embrace those who are suffering in body, mind or soul and give comfort and consolation. We pray to Saint Raphael that he may heal our infirmities, including our sins, and we pray that we too can be the instruments of God’s healing in the world.
Saint Uriel, Saint Gabriel, Saint Michael and Saint Raphael. As we enter this building, they remind us of the things for which we need to pray; as we exit they remind us of the work that we too are called to do in the world. We too are messengers of God, and we are called to Inspire, to Proclaim, to Defend, and to Heal. When we go out into the world doing that work, we invite people into relationship with God. The new entrance stands as a witness, not just to welcome those that are already coming in, but to invite those that are walking past. Our lives should do the same.
There are, of course, two more windows, which I haven’t referred to yet, and they are the most important. The windows at the heart of our front entrance, the two center doors, are mostly clear, and standing outside as you peer through them you first see the baptismal font, and then beyond that in the distance, the high altar and the tabernacle containing the body and blood of Christ. This is the feast that the angels are inviting us to. This is communion, becoming one with Christ and one with God. We go out into the world. Like the angels we serve as God’s messengers: we inspire, proclaim, defend and heal, but this is what we are inviting people to: to become the body of Christ in this world and ultimately to become citizens of the heavenly kingdom.
Those aren’t just new doors and steps out there that lead into an old building. It is the gateway into a different kingdom and a different way of life. We have reason tonight to celebrate. We celebrate Alice Mary Roggenkamp who began pushing for a ramp for people with mobility problems to get into the church. We celebrate all those who contributed to the 125th campaign to help fund this project and especially the committee and those who worked long hours over the past couple of years to make this a reality. We celebrate the courageous lives of our soldiers and police officers who we will remember every time we see the light shining through Saint Michael’s face. We celebrate the lives of Mildred Savrda and Russell Dee Cooper, William and Dorothy Challice, Alfred and Ruth Frauenberger and Judith Berglund, for whom the other angel windows are given. Finally we celebrate the life of one man that wasn’t a member of this congregation; wasn’t even an Episcopalian, but nonetheless Fred Quenzer found in this church a place of spiritual refreshment and of grace. The front doors, the two center windows, the floor under your feet and even this vestment set that we are wearing were all made possible by the generous bequest from a man who only came here because someone invited him. If you have found God in this place, if you have experienced God through his angels, if you have been convinced of the truth we proclaim, if you want to fight for God’s kingdom and if you want to heal a broken world, then don’t just wait to welcome the souls that make it inside: go out and invite them.
Surely it is easier to just say the words rather than trying to move our voices to some melody, and yet singing has almost always been an important way in which God’s people have demonstrated their love for him. In scripture we find the “Song of Moses,” the “Song of Miriam,” the “Song of Hannah,” the “Song of Solomon,” and of course the Psalms themselves, all poetry that we believe was originally sung to God, just like our hymns or praise songs are sung today. Why do we sing? We sing because we believe that it gives glory and honor and praise to God in ways that surpass the spoken word. One could probably make the argument that music was invented for worship, and there aren’t many religious traditions that don’t include it in some form. But of course, music and song are not the only ancient ways in which we worship God; there is another way that is equally, if not more, ancient: incense.
Whenever I hear a priest explain the use of incense in Catholic worship I invariably hear one of the following arguments or statements:
Incense symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven
Incense is fragrant and engages our sense of smell in worship
Incense was used in the ancient times to mask bad odors
While all of these arguments have some truth to them (and I must admit I have used them myself at times), they all fall short of identifying the primary, and most important, reason that incense is used in worship: We offer incense to glorify God.
Incense is quite simply burned as an offering to God. The rising smoke of the incense fills the air with something beautiful in the same way that our voices fill the air when we sing. They are both ways in which God’s faithful people have sought to honor and worship their creator from the earliest biblical times. We don’t talk about singing as if it were symbolic of worship; it is worship. Music in church is not there to entertain the congregation; it is there to glorify God. We need to start thinking of incense in the same way.
From the Book of Exodus, wherein Aaron is instructed to build an altar of incense in front of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 30: 1-9), to the Book of Revelation, where an angel stands before the throne of God, offering God “a great quantity of incense” along with the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3), incense is routinely offered in the worship of God. In Psalm 141, the psalmist writes:
I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;
Give ear to my voice when I call to you.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
The psalmist is assuming that the burning incense and the evening sacrifice are acceptable to God, and he is praying that his prayers, however feeble our faulty they may be, may be as acceptable. Nowhere does the psalmist imply that the incense is merely symbolic of true worship; he actually implores God that his prayers may be as truly worshipful as offering incense.
In fact, the one time in which scripture comes down very hard on the burning of incense is when it is treated as just a symbol. The prophet Isaiah famously describes offerings as “futile” and incense as an “abomination” when he is excoriating Israel for divorcing the external forms of worship from true conversion of the heart (Isaiah 1:13). Worship is not meant to be an empty symbol or ritual, but an outpouring of the internal love we have for God, an outpouring which should also manifest itself in a desire to do good and resist evil. The problem here is not the incense or the offerings; the problem is when our rituals become disconnected from our devotion.
I know plenty of churches that value music in worship, but not incense. I cannot think of any churches that value incense, but not music. I do not think it is any accident that the churches that use incense most liberally are also the churches most inclined to sing large portions of the service. Perhaps we appreciate (even if only subconsciously) that both the smoke and the song are solemn offerings to God. They are lifted into the air, not primarily for our entertainment, but as an offering for the worship and glorification of the Almighty.
Sure, all sorts of symbols abound in our worship, and music and incense can (hopefully) be pleasing to the ear or the nose, but please, let’s stop telling people that that is why we are using them. Our primary purpose should always be the praise and adoration of God. Everything else is just gravy.
If you were to enter almost any Catholic Church (either Roman Catholic of Anglo-Catholic) before the 1960s you would almost certainly have seen the clergy vested in a white linen garment known as an alb. Very often these albs were decorated with an extensive amount of lace. The lace in an alb served two important functions: first on a very practical level, the lace makes the garment lighter and more breathable (and saying mass in several layers of robes in churches before the invention of air-conditioning this was a welcome introduction indeed); second, and far more importantly, lace was symbolic of the amount of effort and care being put into the worship of God.
Before machines could make lace quickly and cheaply, it represented something of a luxury. Lace was expensive and very hard to make. Its intricate patterns were woven by hand and represented countless hours of toil and care. When lace first became available and fashionable, its use was not considered a sign of femininity, but of nobility, so it was quite natural that in seeking to worship the King of Kings, the church would very often employ lace in its linens and vestments to symbolize the supreme transcendence of God.
Of course, lace was not the only sign of nobility used in the worship of God. Chalices were to be ornate and made of the finest metal. Vestments and robes needed to be beautiful and splendid. Churches had altars that were intricately carved and windows that colorfully illustrated the stories of our faith. The worship of God was not something incidental: time, effort and treasure were devoted to make going to church the most awe-inspiring experience that most people ever had.
How far we have come. This past week I have twice encountered prejudice within the church against priests who still find great value in maintaining and wearing traditional vestments. It has happened plenty of times before, but enough is enough. So here are a few things I want everyone to know about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them:
Femininity has nothing to do with it. Wearing traditional vestments has nothing to do with having a lace fetish and wanting to wear frilly things (not that there is anything wrong with that). Indeed, I sometimes wonder about the implied misogyny that seems to exist in so many put-downs about traditional vestments looking feminine. So what if they do? We need to recognize that our ideas about what is masculine and/or feminine have changed over time (just look at portraits of kings and queens through the ages if you don’t believe me). The church’s vestments evolved long before trousers became a thing, so maybe we should stop trying to assign them a gender. And while we are on this subject, it is worthwhile to state: not every priest that wears and values traditional vestments is opposed to the ordination of women! I, for one, love a good lace alb, and fully support women wearing them too.
The vestments are not there to make me look special. The robes are not worn to glorify the priest, they are worn to glorify Christ. As a priest, I am a sinner in need of redemption just like everyone else. During the mass, I act in the person of Christ, to say his words of institution over the bread and wine and distribute his body and blood to his faithful people. It is a moment that is supremely not about me at all, but about Christ and what he has done. The time, effort and expense put into beautiful vestments is not done to make me look special, but rather to remind all of us how special Christ is and how glorious this meal is that he has invited us to.
We are not trying to turn back time. I love patristic theology, early mass settings, medieval architecture, baroque vestments and altar furnishings, and even the occasional modern praise song (gasp!). My standard when evaluating church things is not “is it new?” or “is it old?” but “is it good?” What I have found, time and time again, is that things that have managed to stand the test of time have usually done so because they have lasting value from one generation to the next. I have no desire to go back to the days before civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights or air-conditioning, but I do believe that the people that lived before and through those times still probably have a lot to teach me. Just because we find timeless wisdom and value in things that are traditional does not mean that we fail to see the importance of the progress that has been made along the way as well. For the record, most priests that I know that have strong preferences for traditional worship are actually quite young, and much of the laity that are attracted to this type of worship are fairly young as well. This isn’t about catering to the blue-haired ladies in our congregations as much as it is looking to what is resonating with children and youth.
This is not about some secret desire to be Roman Catholic. On many occasions people have visited my church and commented “This is just like Roman Catholic” to which I would like to reply “When is the last time you visited a Roman Catholic Church?” Traditional vestments were a hallmark of both Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches up until the 1960s, when after the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman church began moving toward more modern vestments (and by modern I mean reflecting style, material and color trends of the 1960s and 70s). Today very few Roman Catholic parishes worship in traditional vestments or follow the older Tridentine form of the mass. The fact is that Episcopal priests that wear cassock-albs, modern-styled vestments and worship at West-facing altars have far more in common with their Roman Catholic colleagues than those of us that have a preference for fiddle-back chasubles, and that is fine, it really is. I have no problem with priests and churches that can feel connected to Christ through newer rites and modern aesthetics. As long as it is faithful to the gospel and works for the community, great. Go with it. What I do have a problem with is the notion that those of us who connect with traditional worship in all its forms and finery on some level do not belong in the mainstream church and are just waiting for an excuse to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a mainstream Anglican in the Episcopal Church and that is right where I intend to stay, but if we say that our church has room for a variety of styles in worship, then we should live that out by not trying to force traditional worshipers off to the margins, or even worse, out of the picture altogether.
Ultimately the lace may not matter, but style does. Style and substance go hand in hand. We need to get that. People pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If we put more effort into setting a nice table for a dinner party than we do preparing ourselves for worshiping at Christ’s altar, what does that say about our priorities? Say what you will about traditional worship, it is seldom sloppy or irreverent. It takes Christ seriously.This is not some show that we are putting on week after week, it is the worship of God, and it is that very same worship that has led many a faithful Anglo-Catholic to serve Christ in the streets and in the hearts and bodies of those in need, as well as at his high altar. Maybe a Solemn High Mass isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I get that, but please stop suggesting that we are going through all of this effort for any other reason than to glorify God.
The next time you see a priest wearing a lace alb consider this: he or she has probably done so as a conscious choice, but it may not be for the reason you think. He might not be trying to make a statement about his stance on some political issue in the church. He might not be trying to dress like a historical figure from ages past. He might not be trying to draw attention to himself by wearing something grand our outlandish. He might, just might, have seen something very beautiful and thought “surely this is worthy of God.”
Sirach 10:12-18 Psalm 112 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Luke 14:1, 7-14
On Thursday, September the 29th, for the Feast of Michaelmas, Bishop Geralyn Wolf will be with us to bless and dedicate our new front entrance, including and especially the new stained glass windows in our doors.
Now if you haven’t had the chance to stop and look closely at these windows, I urge you to do so at some point. Particularly the four archangels who are depicted on the four doors on either side of the two center doors. Now some of these archangels are probably familiar to you. I am sure you have heard of Michael the archangel, patron of police officers and those in law enforcement: soldiers. No doubt you have heard of the Archangel Gabriel, the one who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was with child. And you may have heard of the Archangel Raphael, who is the patron of healing; some hospitals, in fact, are dedicated to or named after Raphael. But I would venture to say that the archangel you know the least about, is the one that is featured on the Northernmost door, which is Uriel.
You may not have even heard of Uriel before, and the reason for that is that the scripture that Uriel comes from is in the part of the Bible that we know as the Apocrypha or the deutero-canonical books, which we don’t read all that often. You actually got a snippet of one of those books this morning in our first reading: the Book of Ecclesiasticus, but there are others and some of them are quite wonderful. This particular book that Uriel is in called Esdras (2nd Esdras to be specific), is fascinating and it is a shame that we don’t read it more often. In the Book of Esdras, there is the prophet Ezra and he is lamenting the state of his people. He is lamenting that the Hebrews have been hauled off into exile and he is beating his head against all of the inhumanity in the world. Ezra is perplexed at how people can be so cruel to one another and why they have to suffer so much. He is questioning God: Why God, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why are my people (your people) suffering? Why are you forcing them into exile?
As Ezra is questioning God, suddenly there appears to him this angel Uriel. And Uriel says to Ezra: I’ll answer your questions, but first you have to tell me three things: how much does fire weigh? how do you measure the wind? how do you bring back a day that has passed?
And Ezra stands back and is perplexed and says: who on earth, what human on earth could answer those questions? There is no way I could possibly answer those questions for you! And Uriel says to him: If you cannot understand the things of this world, of which you have experience, how do you possibly think that you could understand the things of God?
I love that story. In part, because I have so often found myself in the place of Ezra, questioning God and wondering why things are happening to certain people and why people are suffering and why the world is the way it is. And here is this story with this angel of God coming to remind Ezra, and the rest of us, that God is so much more mysterious than we can imagine. We as humans are very limited in our understanding of the world. We like to congratulate ourselves and convince ourselves that we are brighter and more clever than we are and that we have actually figured a lot more out than we really have. But if we are honest with ourselves as humans we will recognize that there is so much in the material world that we don’t understand and don’t appreciate. we can’t even look at the bottom of the ocean; it remains completely mysterious to us and we are still finding new animals on this planet, and yet with our limited understanding of the material world we think that we are going to comprehend all of the mysteries of God’s world? I think not.
This story reminds us of our limitations as humans. We are not nearly as bright and as clever as we think we are. God is more powerful and mysterious than our minds could ever conceive. If we can’t even fully understand or appreciate the world around us that we can see and touch, what makes us think that our individual minds can fully understand God?
Now Uriel goes on to explain and reveal quite a lot to Ezra, and he is the patron of divine revelation and inspiration, but more importantly he makes him understand the importance of approaching God with humility.
Humility is the key to having faith. Humility allows us to recognize that we are not as smart, as righteous, as good, as glorified as we might wish that we were.
As long as God exists, there will always be a standard higher than our own. There will always be someone or something greater than us: a higher authority than our own judgment. If we try to eliminate God from our lives, then we become the standard by which we measure the world.
Christians often get blamed for being self-righteous, and sometimes we are. People of faith in general get accused of being self-righteous, and sometimes that is true. But if you really want to be with someone who is truly self-righteous, go and hang out with an avowed atheist. I’m not talking about your casual atheists: people that question God or are not sure what they believe, or have doubts. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about your professional atheists: the people who publish books about God not being great, or God being dead. I’m talking about these people: people that make their career by claiming that there is no other higher power; that there is no other standard other than the standard that they set, and only the absolute truth which they proclaim. That is true self-righteousness: believing that there is no other higher power and believing that you are really in control of the world around you, and that you completely understand the world around you. That is true self-righteousness.
Faith begins by acknowledging that we are not the ultimate authority in this world, that we do not understand and know everything, that we cannot understand and know everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t have beliefs. We absolutely do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t hold onto things that we believe have been revealed to us, we absolutely do. I am a very traditional person as you all know, because I believe that tradition is there as a help and a guide to us, but I believe that tradition has to be approached with humility. My personal philosophy is that unless I have a good reason to depart from tradition (a very, very good reason) that I will default to whatever the traditional stance is. It is because I don’t trust myself. It isn’t because I am convinced that I am right; it is quite the opposite actually. I am convinced and I know very well that I can be wrong. I don’t trust myself to make all of the right liturgical choices or scriptural choices. I believe that God and our tradition is so much larger than me, or one priest, or one generation of priests. Therefore I am going to look to those things that have lasted generation after generation after generation, because there I find that perhaps God is revealing something to us that is lasting, unchanging and worthwhile. But in doing so I recognize that it is always possible to be wrong. Even in adhering to tradition, I recognize that it is possible for me as a human or us as a collective group to make mistakes. We adhere to tradition out of humility, not out of pride or arrogance.
In this morning’s gospel, our Lord’s admonition to always take the lowest place at the table is actually quite practical advice, but it also points to a deeper spiritual reality: pride and vainglory are not to be dismissed as minor sins; they are in fact symptoms of a deep spiritual sickness. The one who has to assume the highest place at the table on their own is someone who probably doesn’t have a right view of themselves in relation to God, their neighbors and the rest of the world.
That sort of pride and vainglory is not left to humans alone though. We are not the only ones that suffer from it. I would point out to you that while we talk about the four archangels in our windows in the front, that there are actually five angels depicted in
those windows. You probably haven’t thought about that, but there are five angels depicted in those windows. One of those angels, was one who traditional tells us was very proud. He sought to assert himself over God. He thought that he was equal with God, if not better than God. That angel was cast down. If you are looking for that angel he is at the feet of Saint Michael. We know him as the serpent, as Satan or as Lucifer, but the tradition says that what he was was an angel that sought to glorify himself, rather than allow God to glorify him. If we wonder what happens to those who glorify themselves it is spelled out for us very clearly in our first reading this morning:
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.
If we can acknowledge and see the truth in the statement that the beginning of pride is sin, then may we also acknowledge, and believe, that the beginning of faith is humility.
Or so asks the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah this morning. What has straw in common with wheat? Jeremiah is railing against false prophets in this passage. He is drawing a comparison between those prophets who truly have the word of the Lord, and those that are just promoting their own agenda. In the middle of this comparison he asks this interesting question: what has straw in common with wheat?
It is an interesting question, because the truth is, straw actually has a lot in common with wheat. Straw and wheat are the same plant. It’s a type of grass. When it grows and becomes ripe it is harvested. The seed, or the grain, is separated from the stalk and the leaves. The seed is wheat, the stalk is straw. So really, between one part of the plant and another there is quite a lot in common: it grows in a common field, it has a common look and smell, a common life really. There is so much in common between wheat and straw, and yet only the wheat has life within it. It is only the wheat, the grain, that can be planted again and create new life, and it is only the wheat, that can be crushed, transformed into flour and worked into bread; bread that can nourish us and sustain our lives. Humans can’t live on straw; horses can, their bodies our built to digest it, but ours aren’t. If we could manage to chew it, it might fill us up, but it can’t nourish us. We need wheat.
So this is how Jeremiah wants us to look at these two types of prophets and two types of prophecies: they may look alike and smell alike, they may in fact have a lot in common, but at the end of the day only one has the power to give life. Only one can nourish us.
So what are these two different types of prophecies or prophets that Jeremiah is talking about? Well the prophets of the true God, and there are many more than just Jeremiah, as he points out, the true prophets challenge God’s people. They preach a word that convicts them, calls them to change, calls them to put aside the false Gods that they have made by their own hands, to put aside idolatry and to return to the one, true, living God, who alone has the power to give life. Those are the true prophets; they may not be a barrel of laughs or much fun at a party, but they are the ones that help us to grow.
The other prophets? Jeremiah points out that God is well aware of them. He hears what they preach and yet can’t remember saying it himself. They are preaching from their own imaginations and dreams. They aren’t challenging the false Gods of the people; the people aren’t being asked to change their ways. Since the people are not being continually redirected to the true and living God, they are gradually turning away from him; moving further and further away, until eventually they even forget his name. Now let’s not kid ourselves here: we like these prophets; we like them because they make us feel good about ourselves, they don’t challenge us to change anything in our lives, we don’t have to examine our motives; they tell us that it is ok to stay just as we are: no need to grow, no need to change, no need to repent. Perfect for a party, but perhaps not so good for growing closer to the true God. Their words are straw: filling perhaps, maybe even comforting, but there is no life in them.
There is so much straw in the church today. Not just our church, not just the Episcopal Church, but in all churches there is straw; different types of straw maybe, but straw nonetheless. We have a lot of false Gods out there that we keep running after. We have made a lot of false Jesus’s, or perhaps not false, but at least incomplete. We cut out the words of scripture that challenge us. We dispense with any image of God that isn’t warm and fuzzy and we create (to quote the old Depeche Mode song) our own personal Jesus. We have liberal Jesus, the guy who only cares about the poor and the environment and convincing the world to take a big group hug. We have conservative Jesus, the Jesus of family values, who lets you keep your money, but makes you feel compelled to spend it on statues of him playing sports with your kids.
The problem with both of these Jesus’ is that they are straw men. They are one-sided caricatures of Jesus that don’t challenge us. They are easy and comforting and they ask very little of us. They aren’t the real Jesus. If you spend enough time reading scripture, and reading all of it, not just the happy parts, not just the warm and fuzzy parts, if you read all of it, at some point you are going to encounter a tough word from God. At some point Jesus is going to say something that you won’t like, and you can choose to either wrestle with it, or you can skip over it, walk away and ignore it and chase after the Jesus that makes you feel righteous without actually having to be better than you are.
This morning we get one of those tough words from Jesus. If you think that Jesus is all about peace, love and happiness: you are in for a surprise. If you think that Jesus is all about family values: you are also in for a surprise. This morning, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, says to us:
Do you think I have come to bring peace to the word? No, I tell you, but rather division.
And it’s not just going to be about one nation against another: it is a division that can separate our very families: the most intimate bonds. That is a tough word to swallow. It isn’t comforting, but if you have lived long enough in this world you will recognize that it is truth. Sometimes following God can mean making choices that you don’t want to make. This is the wheat of our faith. This is wheat because passages that challenge us and make us question our assumptions about ourselves and about God, those passages are the ones that put real life in our faith; those passages are the ones that make us grow. Whenever we read something that makes us question our own righteousness, that is when we are growing in our walk with God. Yes, sometimes we need God to embrace us, to pick us up and to love us in all our brokenness. We believe he does that, and thank you God for doing that, but sometimes we also need a kick in the pants; sometimes we need God to challenge us to do better, to be better. Sometimes we need to be redirected away from the idols of our own making and back to the God who actually saves us. Sometimes we need to be reminded that maybe God doesn’t always make the same choices we do, and just maybe, God doesn’t always vote the way we do. Last time I checked, Jesus was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but we love to pick and choose his words to make him always agree with us. It is so easy to try to avoid being challenged by God, and it has gotten even easier in a world of Facebook, wherein you can just turn off the voices that say things you disagree with. I’m guilty of that too, I admit it.
The lesson from this morning’s gospel, and from the prophet Jeremiah, is that if you are looking to God for a pat on the back only, you may be sorely disappointed. God loves us, yes, but he is calling us to be better than we are. He is calling us to be more. Recognizing that is to lay hold onto the wheat of our faith; there is new life to be had in that truth.
As Christians we are continually surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to the faith. Saints, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs and martyrs, so many individual stories of people who found in God and in Christ a call to follow; a call to grow and to change; a call to forsake sin and to seek the redeeming love of Jesus. That is what our faith is about: not platitudes and sentimentality, but a God that is willing to suffer death in order to save us from ourselves. This isn’t cheap grace. We can’t turn away from the tough words of Jesus, we must embrace them, because there is truth there that we probably need to hear. That cloud of witnesses isn’t filled with people that had it all figured out; it isn’t filled with people that understood every utterance of God, and it isn’t filled with people that made all the right decisions. It is filled with people that knew that they couldn’t get through this life on their own and that turned to God for help whenever the storm clouds formed on the horizon.
We don’t come here to worship a straw man, or a caricature of Jesus: we come here to worship the living God, who sometimes comforts us and sometimes convicts us. Sometimes his words go down like honey, sometimes it is a bitter pill. There always have been and always will be false prophets. There will be ministers and churches that will focus on one aspect of Jesus and not the whole Jesus. There will be ministers that try to explain away miracles and there will be ministers that try to perform fake ones. There will be ministers who choose to skip over any Bible passages where God gets angry, and there will be ministers that revel in God’s anger and direct it at everyone else but themselves. Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, it doesn’t matter, we all have our share of false prophets who promise you peace, even though Jesus promises us quite the opposite. Beware of them, beware of anyone who tries to over-simplfy God, or cheat you of the life-giving wheat of our faith, because what they are selling you is, to put it bluntly, horse manure, and as someone that has been knee deep in it, both figuratively and literally, I can attest that it is mostly straw.