glory of god

glory of god

Monday, November 3, 2014

On Richard Hooker, the Body of Christ, and the Great Grape Debate: A Sermon for Episcopal Divinity School

In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen.

I thought I would begin my homily with a few questions for you—to make it a little more interactive. There are no right or wrong answers. But you do have to think back—however far back you have to go—to the time before you came to EDS (or before seminary if this is not your first adventure in theological education). So, raise your hand if, before starting seminary, you had ever heard of a man called Thomas Aquinas. Okay, great. Now, here’s another one: raise your hand if you had ever heard of Martin Luther. How about John Calvin? And finally, think back to your foggy pre-seminary days. Had you ever heard of Richard Hooker?

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we know of the main or foundational Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed theologians—maybe not always what exactly they said, but certainly who they were. But when it comes to the foundational Anglican theologian, not so much. Why is that? Maybe it’s because Anglicans were late comers to the Reformation party, or because our theologians write in a particularly opaque sort of way, or maybe it’s simply because there isn’t anything necessarily unique about the substance of Anglican theology, even if there is a fairly consistent method or lens through which we look at things—a lens offered in part by Hooker, as it happens.

If I remember back, I think that I had heard just a little of Richard Hooker before starting at EDS in 1995, nearly 20 years ago, because I had read Carter Heyward’s book Touching our Strength when I was in college, and I believe she briefly references Hooker in it. I don’t know what he would think about being featured in a book on sexual theology, but there you go—he appeals to Anglicans of all backgrounds and perspectives—those of us here at EDS and no doubt our brothers and sisters at Trinity School for Ministry and Nashotah House who are celebrating him today as well. But despite that early introduction in Carter’s book, it wasn’t until I finally got here and started studying the figures of the English Reformation that I really learned what Richard Hooker was all about, and how significant he is—probably as much for giving us a roadmap for the work of doing theology and living together in church, as for the unique content of this thought.

Most often Hooker is credited with crafting the “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism, comprised of scripture, reason, and tradition. In the popular view, these three elements stand equal in strength and length, as would the legs of a well-balanced stool. Here is what Hooker actually writes: “Be it a matter of one kind or of the other, what scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.”

In other words, Hooker suggests a system which privileges scripture as primary, the longest leg of the stool, as it were, with the constant use of reason as its interpreter, and only tradition or the voice of the church, by which he usually means the early church, as a third and even distant source of authority. A very unstable stool, indeed, with legs of three different lengths. But, it’s still a profound method for the doing of theology and the ordering of the church’s life. Though, admittedly, it’s not always easy, clean, or obvious. Certainly, Hooker’s approach can lead to a lot of disagreement, as we each read scripture and utilize our own individual gifts of reason and interpretations of the tradition of the church—sometimes coming up with very different and even conflicting ideas of what’s right in any context or situation. I guess maybe that’s why Anglicans are so good at disagreement—we have taken to heart at least some of Hooker’s method.

Which, as it happens, reminds me of a major disagreement—a sacramental controversy even— that arose here at EDS when I was a student, as we struggled to sort out the right balance of scripture, reason, and tradition for our community. I’m pretty sure it was the 1997 to 98 school year. And at some point it was suggested, out of pastoral concern and a sense of justice and inclusion, that we should start offering grape juice at the Eucharist, as well as wine. That’s regular practice at EDS today, but 16 or 17 years ago it was a new.

You seriously wouldn’t believe how this innovation divided the community. “The Great Grape Debate” some of us called it. Things became so tense that Dean Rankin called for a community-wide forum to discuss it. Faculty debated—some offered a strong “pro-grape juice” position, arguing that inclusiveness and sacramental hospitality should be at the heart of who we are as a community, while others with equal conviction argued that the Prayer Book rubrics clearly state that the Eucharist must be administered with unfailing use of the words and elements that Christ used (and, of course, grape juice hadn’t been invented then). Not only that, they argued that it would be sacramentally impossible to consecrate anything other than regular fermented wine. In other words, it just wouldn’t work. Those holding the more conservative position also argued, as tradition long had done, that receiving in one kind is adequate and constitutes full sacramental participation.

As incomprehensible as it might sound today, the whole thing was really painful and divisive, separating dear friends and colleagues, because it really was about the sacramental center of our life together—who felt welcome among us, and who didn’t. Some members of the community even started wearing little knit grape clusters to witness to their support of adding a non-alcoholic option, while others refused to participate in any Eucharists that included the grape juice. There were notices in the weekly “Common Fare” newsletter alerting us as to whether grape juice would be offered or not, so that no one be offended or feel unwelcome.

Personally, I was perplexed by the whole thing. Several of my closest friends and a favorite faculty mentor were on the more “traditionalist” side, but I had plenty of friends who wore the liberationist grape clusters as well. I grew up in the Lutheran Church and we always had a choice of wine or grape juice, so I couldn’t quite understand what the big deal was. But being newer to the Episcopal Church I was really trying hard to understand all the arguments, thinking maybe I was missing something. Or maybe, I thought, this is just the way Episcopalians are. They don’t argue much about theology, unlike Lutherans who are expert at that—look at all the different synods—but these Episcopalians surely do care about liturgical minutiae.

Finally, in a debate on the subject in a class on the Prayer Book, I had enough and blurted out: “Look, if we can convince ourselves that wafers are really bread, then it seems to me that grape juice is close enough to wine.” I don’t think the professor, who was on the traditionalist side was too impressed, but I stood by it. These little details—wanting to be sure that we do things properly or that we believe all the right things—can become so all consuming that we miss the forest for the trees. I’m as guilty of that as anyone—just ask my altar guild or any of my former seminarians. But how much better would it have been if, rather than twisting ourselves into knots over whether the grapes were fermented or not, we had all understood that by making a small accommodation—one that didn’t hurt or take away anything from anyone—we would enable our fellow community members to draw closer to God. That, it seems to me, is the Hookerian way.

Like Jesus, Richard Hooker had no concept of grape juice. It wasn’t invented until 1869, by a Mr. Welch. But in his time Hooker was well acquainted with Eucharistic controversies. He was born in 1554 during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor, and grew to maturity under Elizabeth I. He died on Nov. 3 in 1600, just three years before Elizabeth. Even if he didn’t witness firsthand any burnings at the stake over eucharistic theology, he was certainly aware of them after the fact. And he was equally aware that many in his own time felt that the established church was leading people to their own damnation for teaching “Popery.” Hooker’s solution to these conflicts was to suggest that whatever theories we might have about what’s happening in the sacrament are far less important than God fulfilling God’s promises. For Hooker the emphasis was always on God’s action through grace, and then our faithful response to that action, rather than our theories.

So for example, for Hooker, the bread and wine are signs or symbols of God’s presence, a presence that is really enacted in the blessing, breaking, sharing, and eating. But, Christ’s true presence is to be found in the heart of the recipient, more than in the elements themselves. He writes rather famously: “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not therefore to be sought in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” However, although this is his personal view, he has no interest in excluding or excommunicating those who hold other beliefs. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Puritans—he thought they were all wrong—but still they were really and truly are members of the Body of Christ, and thus they also receive the full grace and power of the sacrament. It was quite the astounding, comprehensive, even liberal position for a Reformation theologian.

He came to that view, because ultimately, for Hooker, the underlying purpose of the sacrament, in fact the underlying purpose of the whole of human life, is always participation in Christ—that Christ may dwell in us and we in him. Everything else is extra—and our theories for how that happens are just that, theories. He explains:

“It is on all sides plainly confessed, first that this sacrament is a true and a real participation in Christ, who thereby imparteth himself even his whole entire person as a mystical Head unto every soul that receiveth him, and that every such receiver doth thereby incorporate or unite himself unto Christ as a mystical member of him, yea of them also whom he acknowledgeth to be his own; secondly, that to whom the person of Christ is thus communicated, to them he giveth by the same sacrament his Holy Spirit to sanctify them as it sanctifieth him which is their head; thirdly that what merit, force, or virtue soever there is in his sacrificed body and blood, we freely fully and wholly have it by this sacrament; fourthly that the effect thereof in us is a real transmutation of our souls and bodies from sin to righteousness, from death and corruption to immortality and life; fifthly that because the sacrament being of itself but a corruptible and earthly creature must needs be thought an unlikely instrument to work so admirable effects in man, we are therefore to rest ourselves altogether upon the strength of his glorious power who is able and will bring to pass that the bread and cup which he giveth us shall be truly the thing he promiseth.”

With that, Hooker suggests a roadmap to end heated philosophical and theological arguments. Rather than debate, he urges us all to take comfort and even assurance in the knowledge that God will fulfill God’s promise, which is to bring us into participation in the divine life—that Christ may dwell in us and we in him—and most especially into the salvation that such participation makes possible.

You know, as much as Anglicans like to appeal to Richard Hooker in a casual sort of way, I believe we need to set aside what we think he says, like the wobbly three-legged stool, and really read him, and reflect on his deep insights into the church community as the Body of Christ, not only for the 16th century, but for today, the blessed company of all faithful people, in which God lives, and in which God reconciles and transforms, in which God gives life—new, abundant, eternal life. Because when we do that, I think we’ll realize that our divisions are just our divisions, not God’s—whether of theology or liturgy or whatever may divide us. As Hooker reminds us, God desires nothing more than that we would be united—if not always in thought, then in spirit, in God’s Holy Spirit—so that we all may live in God and God may live in us.

I’ll close with one final reflection by Hooker on the Eucharist, which I think is especially beautiful and reminds us that our goal and purpose is always to simply receive the blessings that God so richly and freely offers us all, whoever we are, whatever we believe, whatever our divisions or disagreements. He writes:

“Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at my Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but overly patiently heard, let them take their rest…. what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any congregation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my soul, thou art happy!”

Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Parable of the Leaven and the Ordination of Women: A Sermon in Celebration of the Philadelphia Eleven

We’ve just heard several short parables. In them, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, yeast, a pearl, and a net: all ordinary things, the basic stuff of life, yet for Jesus, they are hints of the kingdom of God. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it, that we would know who God is and how God relates to us through such mundane things as seeds, or yeast, or a net. But then, Jesus never wanted to separate off God from life; in fact, he didn’t even want to box God into a synagogue or a church. Rather, he wanted us to find and see and feel God working in us, among us, and around us, all the time, whoever we are, wherever we are, and whatever we are doing—whether we’re gardening or working in a field, cooking or fishing, or even sweeping the house. 

Of these, my favorite is the parable of the leaven: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’” It sounds homey, doesn’t it? The aroma of fresh bread, rising, growing, coming to life. But do you remember how, a couple weeks ago, I shared a definition suggesting that Jesus’ parables are almost always provocative or unsettling? In case you missed it, here it is again. C.H. Dodd, a biblical scholar at Cambridge University, wrote: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving in mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

So, how does this parable of the leaven fit that definition? It certainly is drawn from common life, being about yeast and flour. But what about it is strange or leaves in doubt its precise application? Well, to understand that, you have to think less like us today, and more like a Jewish person in the first century—in other words you have to think like Jesus and the disciples he was talking to. The first thing to note is the translation. The version we use says the woman “mixed” the yeast in with the flour, which is semi-accurate. But the Greek actually says that she “hid” the yeast in the flour. Meaning, maybe she did it in secret, or even deceptively. That’s intriguing.

Second, usually in Bible when yeast or leaven is mentioned it is negative, like “the leaven of the Pharisees.” Jesus certainly wasn’t talking about yeast that comes in neat packets from the grocery store, but instead little bits of bread that were damp, sticky, slightly mouldy—like sourdough starter. Kind of gross. Rather than a positive, people concerned with purity in their food and in their homes, as Jesus’ hearers would have been, actually believed that leaven contaminated everything. But here Jesus says it was added intentionally. What’s more, it was mixed in 3 “measures” of flour. Not cups, but measures. That’s equivalent to 50 pounds of flour. So imagine: you go bake something and unexpectedly your dough rises and rises out of control because someone hid leaven in it. The perplexing nature of the parable is starting to become clear (or maybe it’s becoming less clear).

Finally, notice that the main character is a woman. Not such a big deal for us today, but 2000 years ago? In essence, Jesus is comparing God to a woman, something in itself, and not only that, but to a woman who does something sneaky, unclean, out of control. That’s who God is, Jesus tells us. In a little parable, just a sentence long, he offers a whole new concept of the kingdom of God: It’s not what you expect. It doesn’t follow the rules. It’s wild. Sneaky. And it’s definitely out of control.

This weekend, Episcopalians across the country are remembering and celebrating some other women, more recent in time, who also were thought to be wild and sneaky and out of control. Forty years ago in Philadelphia, on July 29, 1974, eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Only, the Episcopal Church didn’t yet allow women priests. In fact, twice it had voted down proposals to ordain women—first in 1970, and again in 1973.

Actually, in 1970 the church did vote to allow women deacons. But deacons can’t perform sacramental ministries like celebrating the Eucharist or officiating at weddings and funerals, let alone leading churches, the usual priest stuff. And just as men had for nearly 2000 years, a lot of women and even girls felt that God was calling them to that ministry, too. Only, before 1974, if you were a woman in the Episcopal Church you couldn’t respond to that calling. You were told that the priesthood wasn’t for you, that God couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t call women to that kind of ministry. Or maybe, you were told to be patient; that things would change in the future. But you had to wait until the men in charge decided that it would be okay to have “girls” or “ladies” join their club.

That is, until those first eleven women, ranging in age from 27 to 79, decided that they had waited long enough. One, in particular, came to the realization that if she believed that God were calling her to this kind of ministry, then it was up to her to claim it for herself, rather than wait for it to be handed to her as a gift, out of the generosity of men’s hearts. Her name was Suzanne Hiatt. Like me, she grew up in Minneapolis. She moved to Massachusetts to attend Radcliffe College, and then in 1961 was one of the first female students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, long before most Episcopalians thought women should or could be priests. But Sue did.

Sue appeared to be an unlikely revolutionary. I knew her in her last years, when she was one of my seminary professors (she died in 2002, shortly after I graduated), but I understand that she always looked and acted pretty much the same. Her usual wardrobe consisted of cardigan sweater, wool skirt, knee socks and loafers: typical Radcliffe attire, in the 1950s. Sue just never changed. But underneath that conservative exterior was a woman, a Christian, of steely resolve, who believed with every fibre of her being that the Spirit of the Lord was upon her, that God was calling her to be a priest, and that God was calling other women to that ministry as well. I should add that many others agreed—her seminary professors, her rector, and her bishop. They just didn’t know how to make it happen. So, in a soft-spoken but determined way she challenged and stood up to bishops. She refused to back down or take a back seat. Most of all, she refused to believe that women are less able, less equipped, or less human than men. And she was right.



Besides having the heart of priest, Sue was a community organizer. She knew that there is both power and safety in numbers. One person can be sidelined or discounted or shot down. But it’s a lot harder to do that to a group. So, after legislation allowing women priests was voted down in 1970 and again in 1973, she decided it was time for decisive action. Having been ordained a deacon in 1971, one of the first, she contacted other women deacons and liberal bishops to see who would be willing to just go ahead and do it. Although the church had not approved ordaining women, it never said that women couldn’t be ordained. And, Sue noted, people always said that in older English, as in the Prayer Book, when it says “man” or “he” it really means people, without regard to gender. So, that could apply as much to ordination as to anything else.

Well, she found 10 other women deacons willing to go ahead. Finding bishops was harder. Even liberal bishops who believed women should be ordained felt they couldn’t until the church had truly approved, likely afraid that they would be brought to trial for breaking a law—even though there was none—and would lose their jobs and pensions. Eventually, though, three brave retired bishops stepped forward. They had less to lose. And they went ahead and did it. Though, unlike the woman in today’s parable who hides yeast in the flour, the Philadelphia ordinations were not secret. The whole world knew about it. They even bumped Richard Nixon and Watergate from the headlines. Of course people tried to talk them out of it, to be patient that change would come. Others claimed the women were corrupting the church. One protester said the women “could offer up nothing but the sight, sound, and smell of perversion.” But they went ahead, confident that God was calling them to this new thing, confident that the Spirit of the Lord was upon them.

The service, attracting 2,000 people, was held at the massive Church of the Advocate--a largely African-American parish. Although the women being ordained were white, much of their support came from Black Episcopalians active in Civil Rights, who believed that no one is free until all are free. Paul Washington, rector of the parish, was a veteran of the Black Power movement. The preacher was Dr. Charles Willie, Harvard professor and vice president of the House of Deputies, the highest-ranking layman in the church. In his sermon he said, “This shouldn’t be seen as an act of arrogant disobedience. But an act of tender defiance.” Dr. Willie is known to long-time Emmanuel parishioners as the husband of our former organist Mary Sue Willie. The Advocate’s senior warden also had a starring role, leading the procession as the crucifer. Her name is Barbara Harris. Later, of course, she was ordained herself and became our bishop in Massachusetts—the first woman bishop in the world.

I was less than two when the Philadelphia ordinations happened, so I don’t remember all of the excitement. But maybe you do. The event certainly didn’t resolve anything. In fact, the bishops of the Episcopal Church were so angry that they declared the ordinations utterly invalid. But the women wouldn’t accept that ruling, and neither would the 2,000 people who witnessed the event, nor their supporters across the country and the world. So, they acted as priests as often as they could. They celebrated the Eucharist. They preached sermons. People saw them, and more and more became convinced that this new thing was in fact the right thing. It was God’s thing, like the woman in the parable, mixing leaven in the flour so that the whole church could rise.

The next year, in 1975, four more women were ordained in Washington, DC, by another retired bishop, also without permission. When the church’s national convention was held again, in 1976, there were 15 women priests and the threat of more. Fearing further chaos and unrest, and no doubt increasingly convinced that the time was right, the convention finally approved and admitted women to all orders of ministry—as deacons, priests, and as even bishops. Though it would be another 12 years until the smart people of Massachusetts elected Bishop Barbara. Sue Hiatt said that they finally found it harder not to ordain women than to ordain them. She was probably right.

Maybe it all would have happened anyway. Maybe, eventually, the church would have realized that when it comes to gifts, skills, and callings, women are no different from men. Maybe. Then again, if it hadn’t been for visionary and courageous people like those priests in Philadelphia, and the few bishops willing to take a daring risk, maybe we’d still be waiting, just as Christians had waited for the previous 1,974 years. As I said earlier, Sue Hiatt was one of my seminary professors, as were Carter Heyward and Alison Cheek, two of the other priests ordained that day in Philadelphia. I am who I am because of them. And I know that others trained by them feel the same, including priests who have served here: Bailey Whitbeck, Steve Ayres, Kay Evans, Libby Berman. Even our bishop-elect Alan Gates. We've all had our ministries shaped by these prophets and pioneers who changed the church. So in a real way, this anniversary, and these prophetic priests, while part of history, are also part of our life and our ministry—the old and ever new Body of Christ that I, and we, try to live into each and everyday.

I thought I’d close with a reflection by Sue Hiatt, the informal “bishop to the women” on the transformation that she and the Philadelphia Eleven brought to the Episcopal Church. She wrote: “In retrospect, to have been ordained ‘irregularly’ is the only way for women to have done it. Our ordination was on our terms, not the church’s terms. We saw ourselves as deacons proceeding in obedience to the insistence of the Holy Spirit that the step be taken for the integrity of the church. Women were able, through much pain and hard work and witnessing, to bring bishops and clergy and laity to share our vision of a church in which (as the banner hanging on the altar at the Church of the Advocate that morning read) ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female, bond nor free, Jew nor Gentile—We are one’.”

Like the woman in Jesus’ parable, women we know today, lay and ordained, are transforming the church from the inside out—giving it, giving us, life and vibrancy, mixing or even hiding yeast, so that we all are leavened, and grow, out of control, beyond even our wildest imagining. Thanks be to God. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Planting and Growing in God's Love: A Sermon on the Parable of the Sower

Sometimes, when people here around Boston learn that I grew up in Minnesota, they assume that I must be from a rural area. Once, someone at a former church even asked me what sort of farm I came from, perhaps thinking that I lived a 20th century version of Little House on the Prairie. I had to disappoint her by saying that, in fact, I grew up in the suburbs, about 20 minutes from Minneapolis. The city is called Maple Grove, not to be confused with Walnut Grove, where the real life Ingalls family of the “Little House” fame lived.

The two Groves, in fact, are about 150 miles and many more worlds apart. I did visit Walnut Grove once, in search of the famed little house, but it’s not there, having long since collapsed. All that’s left is a depression on a hill by a stream where their dugout sod house once was, with a sign saying that’s the spot. Although, like the more famous Walnut Grove, Maple Grove, where I’m from, also used to be farmland, potato farms mainly, but that was a hundred years ago. Now it’s a city of about 60,000 residents.

But even though I didn’t grow up on a farm, one of my grandmothers did. My mom’s mother: Grandma Florence. She lived quite a bit later than the famed Ingalls family, but I suspect her early life was a lot the same. Her father, Fred Krussow, the son of German immigrants, was wheat farmer. And like the earliest pioneers, he and his family moved across the country quite a bit, in search of the best land, the best soil, the best opportunity. After emigrating from Germany in 1850 or so, the Krussows landed in Minnesota. Then they moved to Oregon and farmed there, where my grandmother was born. After her mother died, they moved back to Minnesota. And eventually Grandpa Fred uprooted his family of 7 and moved to Saskatchewan, where he had successful wheat farm—until the drought, dust bowl, and depression of the 1930s.

My grandma, though, she didn’t go to Canada. Instead, she stayed behind in Minnesota to finish high school. After graduating, she moved to Minneapolis for secretarial school, then working in Pillsbury’s headquarters. But although she left the farm, farming didn’t really leave her. In her backyard she grew tomatoes, carrots, Swiss chard, green beans, zucchini, and rhubarb. Row after row marked out by stakes in ground and pieces of string strung across to organize what would go where. She didn’t believe in wasting land with grass when you could use it to produce something good. And like a good farm girl, her basement had shelf after shelf of canned goods—along with a clothesline and what at some point must have been a modern convenience called a ringer. Eventually, Grandpa Fred came back to Minnesota and moved in with her on the top floor of her house, where he lived until he died at age 90. I asked my mom yesterday when Grandpa Fred moved in, and she said he was just always there, from the start, probably since the dustbowl.

Not believing in grass, Grandma tried to get a vegetable garden going at our house in Maple Grove, too, but the soil wasn’t very good. It’s clay-like, so mostly it was just good for potatoes, like the farms there a hundred years ago, though we tried to grow carrots and tomatoes and strawberries as well. Not always with great success. Well, plus the fact that once my mom went to tend the garden and she saw a snake. She threw a rock at it and refused to go back out there again. So, we put up a swing set instead, which admittedly was a lot more fun than growing potatoes.

Obviously, Jesus’ parable of the sower, which we just heard, inspired this recollection of my farming ancestry. The search for good soil, for a place in which the seeds might take root, grow, and flourish is something that may be a little foreign to us where we live, certainly most of our lives don’t depend on it in an immediate way (though, of course we do indirectly depend on good soil for our food), but probably it is a story that would have made a lot of sense to people in ages past, or in different contexts than our urban and suburban lifestyles.

When Jesus teaches in parables, what he does is take familiar images, stories of ordinary, mundane things, like planting seeds or casting nets for fish or even sweeping a house, and through these stories he tells us something about God and about us. Usually, though, he doesn’t tell us what the stories mean. Rather, he lets the hearers—whether the original disciples or us many years later—discern what he means. Sometimes, it may even be that the stories, the parables, mean something different for us today than they first did 2,000 years ago. That’s what’s so brilliant and unusual about Jesus’ parables. They are able to speak to different people in different ways across time and space.

While I was preparing for this morning I read an interesting definition of parable by a Welsh Bible scholar named C. H. Dodd, who taught at Oxford and Cambridge for many years. He wrote: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving in mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” Isn’t that great? In using parables, Jesus doesn’t tell us what to think; he doesn’t give us “prepackaged meaning,” but instead challenges us to respond, inviting new meanings in new situations, always “teasing us into active thought.”

What’s different about today’s parable, however, is that in addition to the typical Jesus-style story, we also find an explanation, a code of sorts. The seeds thrown on the path and are eaten by the birds is really Satan stealing away belief from some, while the seeds sown on rocky ground are people whose faith never takes root. But the seeds sown on good soil are people who allow the good news of the gospel to grow in their lives. It’s very neat and tidy. But, it is also atypical for Jesus’ parables, which usually are just left hanging, with no explanation at all, just our minds teased into thought, often leaving us scratching our heads trying to figure out what he means.

It is most likely the case that the parable of the sower really was told by Jesus to his disciples. It uses language and imagery quite consistent with Jesus’ general approach and manner of speaking. The explanation, however, is probably a later addition, reflecting the concerns of the early church—trying to explain why it was that some people responded faithfully and fully to the message of the gospel, to the saving Good News of Christ, while others didn’t. For those who heard Jesus’ message and responded with faith and trust, whose hearts were filled with Christ, it was hard to understand why others were so resistant. It certainly wasn’t God’s fault—so maybe these non-responders were really just bad soil. Or, maybe Satan had prevented them from responding as they should. I suppose these hypotheses are as good as anything. After all, we still don’t really know why some people embrace lives of faith and others don’t. But like the early Christians, what we do know is that for those who do respond, for those who answer Jesus’ call to discipleship, the results, the harvest, can be very great—both in terms of what we can do, what we can sow and grow ourselves, and also in how our hearts are filled with God’s grace and love.

Whatever the explanation of the parable, whether Jesus’ or the later gospel writers’, what we also see (and I think this is just as important, or maybe even more so than the explanation given) is that God, the sower, is completely indiscriminate in terms of where the seed is thrown. Unlike my grandmother, who carefully planted her seeds individually in neat and straight rows, with stakes and strings to make sure everything grew as it should, and only planted those seeds that she knew would grow properly in her yard (for example not planting an orange tree in Minnesota), unlike that, God takes a completely different approach—sowing seed, sharing the good news of grace and love completely willy nilly, with reckless abandon, even. It’s as if there’s no limit, there’s no way that God will run out, so why not try—here, there, and everywhere—on the path, in the rocky soil, among the weeds, even among us here today, in the chance, in the hope, that some of those seeds will take root, wherever they are.

Of course, God does that because there really is no limit. There really is no limit and there is no end to God’s grace, to God’s love, and even to God’s hope—God’s hope that we will hear, God’s hope that we will respond, God’s hope that whoever we are, wherever we are, we will be among those who in whom God’s grace and love takes root, and then grows and flourishes.

So, Jesus tells us, in language and in an example that was no doubt perplexing at first, God sows seeds and casts them in every direction. God even casts them in our direction, unlikely soil as we may be. And then, like a farmer or like my grandmother in her backyard garden, God showers those seeds, God showers us, with love, waiting to see what will happen. Waiting to see how we respond. And you know what, it isn’t hard. Responding. All we have to do is allow those seeds, and the power that love, the power of God’s life, to take root in hearts and souls, until it and until we grow and bear fruit and yield—as Jesus says, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundred fold. And then we respond by sharing that yield, by sharing that love that good news with others. Sowing seeds ourselves and harvesting a yield beyond our wildest imagining. That was Jesus’ promise 2000 years ago, and I think it still is today.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
       

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD 

Monday, July 7, 2014

On Loyalists, Patriots, and the Episcopal Church: A Sermon for July 6

Some years on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July we have held a historical service—a recreation of what worship would have been like in the colonial era. We didn’t plan that this year, but I now kind of wish we had, since I am feeling a little cheated out of my usual Independence Day enjoyments due to Hurricane Arthur—watching bombs bursting in air on TV a day early is not quite the same as in person. Even so, special service or not this time of year my mind always seems to turn to things historical—both the history of our nation and also the history of the Episcopal Church. So, rather than our lessons, my focus this morning will be on recalling that story. Sorry if you were hoping for a sermon on the story of Rebekkah being claimed for Isaac with a nose ring.

You may know, or maybe you don’t, that the Episcopal Church was really born in the struggle for American independence. The Revolution was like the act that cut the Episcopal Church’s umbilical cord from its mother, the Church of England. After the war, we were on our own, much like the country as a whole. I imagine it was both exhilarating and very frightening. A significant number of the colonial Anglicans—both lay and ordained—were loyalist, supporting the king and not the struggle for independence. As a result, during the war over half of the Anglican clergy gave up their churches, a goodly number fleeing to Canada or back to England.

That loyalist sensibility was particularly strong among Anglicans in the north. In New England, as many as 90% of Anglican clergy were loyalist. I suspect that’s because here, the Congregational Church, descendents of the Puritans who came in search of religious freedom—specifically freedom from the Church of England—had official sanction by the colonial government, and the Anglicans, ironically, were an oppressed minority. So, they saw their allegiance to the king and England as their security in hostile, Puritan territory.

There has even been some suggestion that a conflict between Anglicans and Congregationalists contributed to the Revolution. The Anglicans, you see, were tired of traveling back and forth to England, particularly for priests to be ordained, and wanted a bishop of their own. Well, the New England Congregationalists were appalled and aghast at the suggestion. Leading Congregationalist minister Jonathan Mayhew of the Old West Church in Boston, who was a theological liberal, nearly Unitarian and a leading voice crying for American liberty, viewed bishops as nothing more than a tool of royal oppression. He said: "Is it not enough, that they persecuted us out of the Old World? Will they pursue us into the New to convert us here?" Mayhew died in 1766, before the Revolution, but his ideas were influential in coalescing momentum against the king and against the king’s church.

The situation was different in the southern colonies: in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. There, as well as New York, the Church of England was the established, authorized church. Because of that, Anglicans were greater in number and really in a much more secure position. Down there, only 23% of the Anglican clergy were loyalist (remember it was 90% in the north!). And in many cases the leaders of Colonial government themselves were Anglican, including some names you’ll probably recognize: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Jay, John Marshall, Patrick Henry. Also General George Washington. In fact, three quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglican laymen; though, some were more religious than others, and a good number were Deists, embracing a very reason-based approach to religion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was Unitarian in belief, not believing in miracles or creeds or anything like that, but still attending and even serving on the vestry of an Episcopal Church. Because of their more prosperous position, the southern Anglicans didn’t look to England for their security and freedom in the way the northerners did.

After the Revolution, those who remained set about to pick up the pieces and organize their orphaned church. They built it around the very same ideals as the new American government, while striving to maintain the beliefs and practices they inherited from the Church of England—the Book of Common Prayer, sacraments, and the like. They valued democracy, and for the most part sought to give laity as well as clergy as voice and vote in church matters. But, they also still believed in bishops as spiritual leaders—they just thought the bishops should be elected, rather than appointed by a king, and should have limited authority. And, of course, parishes had to be self-supporting, no longer relying on England to keep them going. That’s where the concept of pledging comes from, hand in hand with the idea of a democratic church. 

It took time for everything to sort itself out. For a while it seemed like each diocese was its own autonomous church (sometimes with only one or two parishes). The northern New England areas that had been largely loyalist tended to be more high church, in stark contrast with the Congregationalist majority, while the south was more Protestant and far more democratic. In 1780 the Diocese of Maryland held a convention and called itself “the Protestant Episcopal Church.” It was the first time that name was used—sort of ironic or at least aspirational, as the word “Episcopal” means with bishops and they didn’t have any yet in the new country, nor really any way of getting them, since the Church of England likely wasn’t willing to help.

Even so, in 1783 the clergy of the Diocese of Connecticut met secretly (no laity, since they weren’t so sure about giving laity a vote up here, thinking it too much like their adversaries the Congregationalists). These clergy elected a priest named Samuel Seabury to be their bishop. He had been a loyalist during the war, serving as a chaplain to the king’s army, even drawing maps of the colonies, and was imprisoned by the Continental army in Connecticut for a while. However, following the war, he chose to live in the new nation. After his election he sailed to England to see if he could get the bishops there to consecrate him a bishop for the United States. He was unsuccessful, as he refused to swear another oath to the king.

Undeterred, he went north to visit the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who didn’t require an oath of royal assent. This time he was successful and on November 14, 1784, Seabury was consecrated in Aberdeen by three Scottish bishops. He sailed back to the United States to be the very first American bishop; in fact, he was the very first Anglican bishop outside the British Isles. Although he was only elected Bishop of Connecticut, for a while he gave himself the impressive title “Bishop of America.” Seabury’s promise to the Scottish bishops was that he would introduce their version of the Holy Communion liturgy here, which was more high church or catholic than England’s. He succeeded and it is one of his primary legacies.

Well, you know the rivalry between England and Scotland. When the English bishops learned that Seabury had been ordained up there, they got all worried that all of the American bishops would come from Scotland, which they felt was of questionable authenticity. Plus they feared the loss of their spiritual as well as political influence, so they passed a law allowing the consecration of three bishops for the United States, ensuring their legacy and influence here.  As a result, between 1787 and 1790 three more priests from America sailed to England to be ordained bishops: William White of Philadelphia, Samuel Provoost of New York, and James Madison of Virginia (cousin of the president). With four bishops in the United States, we didn’t need to look to England or Scotland any longer, as traditionally it only takes three bishops to consecrate a new one.

Truth be told, though, it was still a tense time. In many areas the church’s membership was decimated by the war. Bishops Seabury of Connecticut (the former loyalist) and Provoost of New York (who had been a Patriot) couldn’t stand each other, archenemies is how historians describe them. They couldn’t even bear being in the same room together, so it took Herculean efforts to get the church organized—priests ordained by Seabury often weren’t welcome in middle and southern dioceses, and the northern dioceses refused to send delegates to national conventions and wouldn’t sign on to the first proposed prayer book, because it wasn’t high church enough. Bishop White of Philadelphia (who had been a chaplain to the Continental Congress) was the peacemaker, getting Seabury to agree to something when Provoost was away sick, always delicately balancing the high church, catholic sensibilities of the north and the low church, democratic ideals of the south. White was brilliant, but probably didn’t feel it at the time.

Bishop Seabury, by the way, in the very early days oversaw Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as his Connecticut diocese (since there were hardly any Episcopalians here—only about 5 parishes). King’s Chapel in Boston, the first Anglican church in New England, actually became Unitarian because of Seabury, since the bishop refused to ordain to the priesthood its lay reader, James Freeman, who had embraced Unitarian beliefs. Its previous clergy were loyalist and fled during the war. Edward Bass, rector of St. Paul’s Church in Newburyport was elected bishop of Massachusetts in 1789. However, his parish rejected the vote because, as in Connecticut, lay people had not been given the vote. He was elected again in 1796, with lay votes this time, and was consecrated the next year—the 7th bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Well, that’s some of the story of how we came to be—children of the Revolution and the struggle for American Independence, though some reluctantly. Always inspiring to me in the story of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church is how very human we are. In the early days, infamously born of a king who wanted to divorce his wife, and later of a Revolution that not everyone supported, but once it was settled, they committed themselves to the ideals of this new country, even modeling the church on its principles of democracy. Our church is founded upon the belief that God can work and speak through all of us: lay and clergy alike, of many backgrounds, perspectives, and beliefs—both when we get things right and even when we get them wrong. The Episcopal Church is far from perfect, sometimes frustratingly far. But for me, it is holds in a unique way the best of Christian tradition and the extraordinary gifts and insights of the American experiment and experience in democracy, liberty, and a striving for justice for all.

I thought I would close this morning with a prayer for the Fourth of July from the proposed Book of Common Prayer from 1786, composed three years after the end of the Revolution. The prayer was controversial then because many Episcopalians weren’t so sure that the Fourth of July was a day to celebrate. But today, we can celebrate and give thanks—for the blessings of life in this country, for the blessings of other countries around the world, and most especially for the blessings of that country, that kingdom, of which all people are citizens.

So let us pray

Almighty God, who hast in all ages shewed forth thy power and mercy in the wonderful preservation of thy church, and in the protection of every nation and people professing thy holy and eternal Truth, and putting their sure trust in thee; We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for all thy public mercies, and more especially for that signal and wonderful manifestation of thy providence which we commemorate this day; Wherefore not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name be ascribed all honor and glory, in all churches of the Saints, from generation to generation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Do not be afraid": A Sermon for Easter Day

In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.

What a pleasure and delight it is to share this bright (if rather brisk) Easter morning with you. It is a pleasure to see the church looking so Eastery (thanks to our hard-working altar guild), to hear us sounding so Eastery (thanks to our talented and also hard-working choir). Most especially, it is a pleasure and delight to see this place so full and to see you, some parishioners I know well, some families visiting from a distance, and also to see those of you who may be here at Emmanuel for the very first time, or at least for your first Easter. Easter really is when we are at our best—though we’re pretty good the rest of the time, too.

I think maybe we have such a particular fondness for Easter here at Emmanuel because our very first service as a parish was on an Easter morning, all the way back in 1870—some 144 years ago. So, every Easter is our birthday or anniversary in a way. Now, I don’t think any of you here this morning have been coming to us quite that long, since 1870, but whether this is your 90th Easter at Emmanuel or your very first, I want you to know that you are very welcome here, and that we would be more than delighted to have you consider this parish your church home. I’m quite positive that those who are familiar with our community, whether longer term members or newer, would attest that this is a warm, welcoming and inclusive congregation. We are made of up people of every background and perspective, all united in our love of God and in our desire to share that love, that Easter, resurrection love, with each other and with the wider community.

You know, something I often find myself reflecting on, especially on days like Easter, days when we remember back to long ago stories and sacred traditions, is how much we, today, in the year 2014, are just like the people we read about in the Bible. Here we are, separated by thousands of years in different contexts, and yet our desires, inclinations, and thoughts are almost exactly the same. Sure, we have cars and the Internet and smart phones, but who we are deep down, who we are as human beings is exactly the same. Like Peter and Paul, like John and James, and Mary Magdalene and Mary Jesus’ mother, we have families and many of us have jobs (or have had, or will have). We worry about our future and our kids’ futures and we care for aging parents, some of us have wonderfully fulfilling personal relationships, while others of us too often feel alone and have what seem to be more than our fair share of struggles. Like people in ages past we also get sick and desire healing. We long for understanding, we long for hope, we long for a sign, some sign, that things will turn out right for us and for those dearest to us. Whether we use the words or not, we long for God.

I suspect that more than anything else, it was this longing, this deep inward longing for healing, and understanding, for hope and for God, that first drew people to Jesus, so long ago. Whatever Jesus looked like, whatever he sounded like, whatever his personality was like—there was something about him, some great spark or fire in his soul, perhaps—that had the power to draw people in. Just being with him, or being touched by him, made people, of any background, feel whole, accepted, alive, and real even. It must have been so extraordinary. And probably, it was not really like anything that we can even begin imagine now, so many years later.

And then, suddenly, in a flash, on that Friday, he was gone. Although we know that it happened  (all four gospels tell us so), that too is really beyond our imagining and our understanding. We know that most of those who had followed Jesus, those who had been touched and healed by him, those who had been taught and fed, fled and went into hiding during and after the crucifixion. Some, like Peter, even denied that they had known Jesus. Whatever healing, whether physical or spiritual, whatever new and abundant life he had given them was suddenly gone, overtaken by grief, and also by fear. Perhaps fear that they might be next. Or maybe even fear that everything they had come to believe so powerfully was really all just a big lie. Maybe Jesus wasn’t so close to God after all. Maybe it was all just wrong. So, what did they do? They locked themselves away. They wouldn’t even answer a knock on the door, they were so afraid.

Fear really is hard to overcome, isn’t it? It is so immobilizing. Whether the object of our fear is real or imaginary, whether it’s concern about a medical diagnosis, or a sudden 2:00 a.m. panic about work or bills, or even if it’s a monster under the bed or a ghost in the closet that we are afraid of, fear can often become so consuming that it is impossible to even move. Like Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday and the days following, at times like that, when we are afraid, locking ourselves away in a secret room may seem like the only reasonable and safe solution. But, of course, it doesn’t really help. Not really. In fact, it probably just makes it worse. Because then, we let our fear direct our lives. We allow it to have power over us, which is just what it wants.

I remember having an inkling of that kind of fear back on September 11, 2001. I had just started working for Episcopal City Mission at the diocesan offices in Boston. After the first plane hit the World Trade Center, most of the staff went up to Bishop Shaw’s office to watch the news, as he had the only TV. After the horror of it all became clear, there was a Eucharist and prayer service in the cathedral, led by Bishop Barbara Harris, and then the bishops closed the offices at about noon. I lived in Jamaica Plain and the only to get home was on the subway. I remember thinking that we probably were safer at the cathedral than on public transportation, but of course I had to go. That ride home was the quietest, eeriest and most surreal I ever remember. Once I got to my apartment, I felt a lot like Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday. I just wanted to lock the door and never go outside again.

Similar feelings were rekindled the week of the Marathon bombing a year ago, especially, for me, on that surreal Friday, when Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown were all in lockdown. Do you remember how every TV station was endlessly just showing live shots of tanks and SWAT teams going from door to door to door, knocking and searching, knocking and searching. I live in Quincy, not in the lockdown area, but close to it, and I, too, was hesitant, apprehensive, about being outside. I did go out some, for lunch and a walk. It was actually a beautiful spring day, as I recall, but the only sounds outside I remember hearing were birds chirping and police sirens echoing through the air.

Fear—whether justified or imaginary—can be, and often is immobilizing. It is so consuming, and limiting, and un-empowering. Fear prevents us from believing, from seeing, from hoping and working and striving for something better. In fact, fear is contrary to everything that Jesus taught and did and lived, each and every day of his life and ministry. It is contrary to the life—the abundant life—he so desires for us.

Which, as it happens, is exactly why we have Easter and the resurrection. More than anything, what the resurrection does, what Easter does, is cast out fear. Or maybe, it’s better to say that the resurrection gives us the courage we need so that we can cast out our own fear, so that we can overcome it. The resurrection is God’s reminder to us, God’s promise really, that no matter what may happen in life, no matter what broken or messed up situation we may find ourselves in, whether of our own making, or something beyond our control, it is not so broken and it is not so messed up that God can’t somehow find a way to redeem it and bring new possibilities into being. Sometimes it may take a while—it won’t always be just three short days, and it won’t always be the way we first envision—but eventually, somehow, new life will spring up: new life, new hope, and a new way. The stories we’ve been hearing lately about the Marathon bombing victims, a year later, are testament to that fact—some who lost legs are dancing, others are getting married or expecting children. Easter promises us that God can take any broken, messed up, rotten situation, and make it new. Not unaffected by the past, not as if it didn’t happen, but renewed and filled with fresh possibilities.

As it happens, that’s what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary discovered on the first Easter morning, along with the empty tomb. Undoubtedly, when they set out early that day their grief was overwhelming, and probably their fear, too. They likely wondered and worried about what was coming next; probably they were fearful about what would become of them without Jesus; they may even have wondered if they could have or should have done or said something differently along the way. Who knows, maybe if they had, Jesus would still be alive, still with them, still teaching and healing, still loving and still being loved.

Of course, as it turns out, as we know, Jesus was still alive, or least, he was alive again, however it happened, beyond their and our explanation and imagining. And do you remember what were his very first words to women when he met them on the road, after greeting them? He said: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. Just like the angels at the empty tomb, just like the angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in their fields, and just like the Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her she would bear God’s Son. These words, God’s words, spoken to them, spoken to us, spoken for 2000 years, are always the same: “Do not be afraid.”

The resurrection is God’s way, God’s miraculous, mind-boggling, rule-twisting, world upside-down-turning way, of giving us the strength and courage that we need to overcome our fears, to unlock our doors, and to roll away the stones, so that we can step out of our tombs and away from our fears, so that we can walk confidently into the bright sunlight of Easter morning, able once again to live, fully, and freely, and abundantly.

That’s what this resurrection Easter feast is about. Easter, the resurrection, isn’t only something nice that God did for Jesus, long ago. It is for you, and for us all: whoever we are, whatever our backgrounds, whatever our mistakes, whatever our hopes and whatever our fears. Easter promises us all a new day. And it promises us a new chance for a new kind of life, a resurrected kind of life. That life, that resurrected, fear-free life, is God’s Easter gift to you, on this beautiful spring morning, and always.

Just as he greeted the women long ago with these words, so also does the resurrected Jesus greet each of us with the same words and with the same Easter message: “Do not be afraid.”

Alleluia. Christ is Risen. Happy Easter.


© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Focus on Faith: A Reflection for Passover and Holy Week

Over the course of this week, Jewish and Christian people of faith will be observing some of our most sacred traditions. For Jews, it is the time of Passover (Pesach), commemorating God’s deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt under the Pharaohs. Passover is a weeklong observance (this year from the evening of Monday, April 14 to sundown on Tuesday, April 22). It includes the ritual cleansing of the home, reading of the story of the Exodus, singing, games, and a special dinner with family and friends called a “Seder,” usually held on the first two nights of the holiday.

The Seder meal is both solemn and celebratory, recalling the Israelites’ bondage and strife, as well as their deliverance into freedom under Moses. Not being Jewish myself, I had always assumed (based primarily on my childhood viewing the Ten Commandments with Charleton Heston) that the Passover observances were somber. I learned otherwise when I was invited to a Seder at the home of some Jewish friends when I lived in Canada. There are serious elements, but for the most part it is a joyful celebration, in thanksgiving for God’s goodness. In fact, my hostess told me that she wouldn’t have done her job until I was so stuffed that they would have to roll me out in a wheel barrel. It was just about necessary.

Christians are in the midst of Holy Week. It begins with the remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and concludes with the celebration of Easter. In between these two high points are plenty of lows, including the recalling of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, his betrayal, arrest, and finally his crucifixion under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate on Good Friday. It is believed by Christians that these events occurred during the week of Passover and that Jesus (who was Jewish) was in Jerusalem to observe the holiday.

There are multiple theories and doctrines that attempt to explain why Jesus was crucified (executed as a criminal, in fact), what his death meant nearly 2000 years ago, and what it continues to mean today. In the Roman Empire crucifixion, being the most painful and humiliating punishment conceivable, was reserved for treasonous enemies of the state. So, it likely was a result of claims made (by Jesus, by his followers, or by his enemies) that he was the King of the Jews and the Son of God. In the Roman Empire, only Caesar would have been afforded such lofty titles. Whatever the reasons, we should never lose sight of the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish themselves, even if his teachings challenged the religious standards of his day. The gospels’ attempts to paint the Jewish populace as the “bad guys” in the story of Jesus’ death likely reflect a later prejudice among minority Christians. It is a perspective that has haunted Western civilization ever since and needs to be confronted. It was the Empire that killed Jesus, evidenced by the fact that he was crucified as an enemy of the state.

Most importantly, Christians believe that on the Sunday after his death Jesus rose again. We don’t know and can’t explain how, beyond believing that God is always more powerful than we can imagine. This is what we celebrate on Easter. It is the faith that has sustained Christians for 2000 years. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters believe that God was powerful and faithful enough to free the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, Christians believe that the powers of evil and death were not strong enough to hold or defeat Jesus. For Christians, the resurrection is God’s promise and demonstration to all people that sin, evil, despair and even death cannot and will not have the final word in human life.

So it is that Jewish and Christian individuals, families, and faith communities across the world are simultaneously remembering and celebrating the great promises and actions of God this week. They are promises of hope. They are promises of liberation. They are promises of life—new and abundant life. The Wakefield Interfaith Clergy Association invites you to join one of our faith communities this week and experience that abundant new life for yourself.


© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Dusty Springfield, the Pet Shop Boys, and the Miracle of Sight: A Sermon for Laetare Sunday

This past Wednesday evening, during our Bible study, I mentioned in passing the 1960s Dusty Springfield song “Wishin’ and Hopin.” I guess in doing so I surprised the Wednesday crowd, as they wondered how I would even know about this song, since Dusty, great as she was, was not exactly at the height of her popularity for my generation in the ‘80s, which was more the Madonna era. But I love Dusty even so, and listen to her lots, especially when I’m working around the house. Though, not while writing sermons—I tried that in preparation for Ash Wednesday this year and it was a total disaster. I was too busy singing.

Now, like the Wednesday night crowd you, too, might be wondering how I would even know about the great Dusty Springfield—with her big blonde beehive hair, thick mascara, and soulful voice. Well, for starters, it’s because when I was about 14 my new and (as it happens) my still favorite band was the English electronic synth dance duo—the Pet Shop Boys. And in 1987, just as I discovered them, they released a duet with Dusty titled “What have I done to deserve this?,” which ended up being her biggest ever hit, and introduced her to a whole new generation of fans, just like me. But, as much as that was my official, conscious introduction, as I think on it, it’s probably also the case that I like her because my father, a child of the 60s, absolutely loved that era’s music, especially of the “British Invasion.”

And Dusty, well, she was the undisputed female Red Coat General of the British Invasion, reaching these shores even before the Beatles and breaking new ground with her “blue-eyed soul” Motown sound, with hits like “I only want to be with you,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “Just don’t know what to do with myself,” and later “the Look of Love” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” On car trips or just hanging around the house, that’s what I heard, along with the likes of the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and for a little American flavor, Peter, Paul, and Mary.

My dad literally spent hours and hours on Saturday afternoons sitting on the living floor, with his meticulously cared for 1960s records piled up all around him (I was never allowed to touch them), putting together the perfect 8-track mixed tape for long driving trips through Canada and the Black Hills, for work (he was a courier, so he spent considerable time in the car), or just for Saturdays at home. You may know that he died when I was 15, and he was just 38, so his beloved ‘60s music is one of the ways that I have of holding on to him, feeling that’s he present still. Though, I have to admit that my favorite song, perhaps of all time, is still, and maybe forever will be, the more contemporary Dusty, with the Pet Shop Boys, singing in very techno fashion: “What have, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?”


As it happens, “What have I done to deserve this?” is a question that people ask all the time. What have I done to deserve being sick? What have I done to deserve being fired from my job? What have I done to deserve having my spouse or partner leave me, or worse, die unexpectedly? No doubt the family members of those lost in the missing Malaysian airplane, those affected by Washington mudslide, survivors of the firefighters in Boston or the Marathon Bombing, of 9/11, Pearl Harbor, or even Nagasaki and Hiroshima, could all ask the very same question: what have I done to deserve this? I suppose it’s a question that my mom, my brothers, and I all could have (and might have) asked when my father died unexpectedly 26 years ago, too. It’s even one that my dad himself might have asked, since from the time he was in his late 20s he struggled with the effects of muscular dystrophy, having to wear leg braces and often struggling to walk, which is probably what led to him falling in an accident, breaking his knee, and dying after surgery.

Unfortunately, though, who ever we are, and whatever our personal afflictions or struggles, whatever our grief or loss, the “what have I done to deserve this?” question often ends up going unanswered, because, really, most times, there simply is no good or satisfactory answer. Things just happen. Painful things. Undeserved things. Things that make no reasonable or rational sense.

But, because we human beings don’t really like unanswered questions, we make up explanations. For example, whatever bad thing might have happened—whether on a small personal scale or in bigger more universal ways—it is all part of God’s mysterious plan. For centuries people have thought that way, for millennia really, probably going back to the very origins of humanity. If there’s something we don’t understand or can’t make sense of, well, then, we can blame it on God. Or if not exactly blaming it on God, then blaming it on ourselves (or on other people’s selves), followed by what we deem to be God’s appropriate judgment. That’s the whole point of the biblical Book of Job, after all--why do bad things happen? It is God's fault? Our fault?

And sometimes that can be comforting, in a way. Having the faith that God is always in charge and that whatever happens, seemingly good or bad, it is by God’s design. But at other times, that can seem really, even outrageously offensive, too. Did God have a hand in causing 9/11 or the Holocaust, or less globally, taking my dad from me, or your loved ones from you? I don't know for certain, but I just don’t think God does that. I don’t think that God wants us to go through grief or pain or loss, all to fulfill a great master plan. I suppose it’s possible. But it’s not really how the God I believe in operates.

But what God does do, I think, is help us endure these sufferings. God stands with us and dries our eyes. God helps us to see that there is a new day on the horizon, holding out the promise of new opportunities, new hope, and new life. God helps us to know that as we suffer and endure trials, losses and hardships, we are never alone. Because God, and the Great Cloud of Witnesses —the Mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people, as we pray in the Rite I post-communion prayer—are always there with us, alongside us, and even within us, propping us up, prodding us along, and giving us eyes, opened eyes, to see the world and our lives in it in ever new ways.

That, at least in part, is what I think our gospel passage this morning is all about. Here we find a man who is blind from birth, who has never seen anything, at least physically. But through Jesus’ presence and intervention he finds himself healed. He is given new sight. And more importantly, he is given new understanding—of himself, of his faith, and of the power of God. (You’ll notice in the passage that he goes from saying Jesus is a man, to saying he’s a prophet, to finally saying that he’s the Son of Man, the Messiah).

If you remember, one of the questions that people around him had been asking, probably since the time he was born, was what had he done to deserve this, this blindness? Or, if it’s not his fault, what had his parents done? Because no one would be born blind otherwise. It must be a symptom of some other greater, deeper, more profound, inner evil. In fact, the blind man probably believed this himself—that his condition was a direct consequence of his own inner sinful nature.

But then, along comes Jesus. And he tells the blind man, his own disciples, those crabby, wet blanket Pharisees, and us 2000 years later, that this just is not so. By giving the blind man sight, by opening his eyes, Jesus testifies that his blindness is not some kind of punishment from God, but is instead a condition that we all share, in various ways, by virtue of being alive. We are all limited in some way or another—for some it is sight, for others hearing, for still others it’s not so much physical, but feeling alone or discouraged, unsatisfied or unfulfilled. None of this is God’s punishment for anything that we, or certainly our parents have done. Nor is it even necessarily punishment for what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time.

Instead, it is simply a manifestation of being human, of being limited, fragile, mortal. But Jesus tells us, in fact, he shows us, that through him, by being united to him, we can transcend these limitations and truly see, truly hear, and truly be filled. Whatever our griefs, whatever our losses, whatever our crucifixions and Good Fridays, we will always find Easter and we will always be led to resurrection. Which is, of course, the whole point of our Christian faith. We haven’t done anything to deserve it, this resurrection, to answer the question of my favorite song. But it’s what we get. Just because. Christ shines upon us light to see and know that even in our grief, even in our loss, and even in our limitations, we are never alone, we are never truly blind, and, most importantly, we are never really dead.

As it happens, that was exactly my experience, so many years ago, when my dad died. Not at first, of course. At first it was horrible. But over time I came to believe that God had not abandoned me or my family, but was walking alongside us and strengthening us, propping us up and giving us hope. Through that experience, our faith—or at least mine—grew deeper and stronger and more real. Not because it gave me any answers as to why. But because, through that grief, I experienced the promise of resurrection and new life in a profoundly real way. It wasn’t any longer just something I was taught to believe in at Sunday School or confirmation class. Rather, it became something that touched me at the heart of who I am. In fact, I’d even say that’s why I am here as a priest among you today. My feeling of being loved, being cared for, and being filled with Christ’s light at that painful time—through friends, through our church community, and through prayer—through Mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people—was so powerful, so encompassing, so motivating, that I felt called to share it with others, even if all too often dimly and imperfectly.

That’s how God works—God takes people, people like his Son Jesus, people like Jesus’ disciples, people like us, even people like the wet blanket Pharisees, and he uses them. God uses us all, in our various gifts and in our various limitations, to make the world brighter, fuller, and more alive. So that others, too, can see. And then, so that they can believe.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 


© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Temptations, Wildernesses, and Journeying to God: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

So, it’s the first Sunday of Lent and I have to confess that so far, anyway, I haven’t had a very Lenten Lent. On Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday, I had a couple glasses of wine. On Friday, I ate French fries, and yesterday, Saturday, I ate a piece of black forest cake. Every day I’ve drunk coffee, as well as my biggest temptation—Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper—well maybe I’ve had a little less of that, but not considerably.  If Lent is supposed to be about giving things up, about denying ourselves things we like, little pleasures like French fries, Black Forest cake or Dr Pepper—well, then, I am a miserable failure. Of course, the good news is that there’s still over a month to go, so maybe I can pick myself up, dust myself off, and start over again. Maybe.

But it’s so hard sometimes. Especially when we have gorgeous spring-like days like yesterday. Under those conditions it’s hard to focus on fasting and self-denial when outside it feels a lot more like Easter, a lot more like resurrection and new life. That’s the trouble with Lent beginning as late as it does this year. In other years, Lent starts in mid-February, when its cold and dark and we already feel a little morose. It’s just not fair for it to start when, after a long and torturous winter, we are already eagerly anticipating the new life of spring. So, I am perfectly comfortable blaming my Lenten failures on the calendar. It really won’t care.

Plus, the really good news is that Lent is actually about a whole lot more than giving up wine or chocolate or fried potato products. It’s really about journeying deeper into the heart and being of God. It’s about letting go of whatever doesn’t matter, whatever clutters up our lives, so that we can focus on the things that really do matter—who we are, who God made us to be, who God hopes for us to become.

That’s what I think I would like to focus on this Lent, in both my prayer and in my living: discovering who I am in Christ and who God wants me to be. And I would invite and encourage you to do the same: focus on who God made you to be and who God wants you to become. Those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday this past week will remember that I spoke about the stark dichotomy between the dark symbol of the ashes—a sign and reminder of our mortality—and our society that seems so intent on denying or even somehow trying to overcome that mortality, whether through exercise or diet, medicines, face creams, or more dramatically with the very pleasant and breezy sounding “lifestyle lift,” which is probably not all that pleasant or breezy in reality. All are meant, in a way, to help us defy the odds and live forever—or at least look like we are 20 years younger when the time of our mortality finally comes.

Now, as I said on Wednesday, there’s certainly nothing wrong and a lot right with being healthy. And really, there’s nothing wrong with looking young or younger than your years either. After a certain age we all desire that. But what is problematic, I think, is when the attainment of a perfect body or the perfect job or the most stunningly gorgeous spouse or partner becomes so absorbing that we lose sight of who are, and whose we are. The cross of ashes on our foreheads and the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return serves, I think, in a very powerful way, to draw us, or even jolt us, back to our center in God. Through the ashes, through the cross, we are reminded, yet again, that none of this external stuff, none of the stuff or the promises that are advertised on TV, radio, or the Internet really matters. Because it won’t last. Like our mortal bodies, one day all that stuff will also again be dust. It will return to the source from which it came: God. And so will we.

I think, really, that’s the meaning in the wilderness temptation story that we just heard in today’s gospel. Much like the voices speaking to us through our TVs, radios, and computers, telling us that if we only sign up or show up, take a pill or pay three easy installments of $29.99, we can be skinnier, prettier, younger, richer, have a better partner, a better house or a better car, much like those voices Satan tries in various ways to lure Jesus away from his true self and center in God by suggesting that if he just turned some stones into bread he wouldn’t be hungry any longer, or if he’d bow down (in other words, turn to Satan and away from God) he’d have all the power he could possibly want or need. Jesus doesn’t give in, as we know, but we shouldn’t imagine that it wasn’t hard all the same—after all, after 40 days he probably was really hungry. And who wouldn’t be drawn in by the promise of wealth or power or prestige?

And here’s the thing. Because we are good Christians and because we have been brought up to believe that Jesus lived sinlessly, we tend also, sometimes, to think that Jesus was so perfect, so beyond corruption or temptation, that nothing could or would have phased him, that these temptations just sort of rolled off his back. But I don’t think that’s right. Because Jesus was human. Fully, truly, really human. Human like you and me. And if these temptations weren’t really tempting, well then, who cares? It’s easy not to give into things you don’t like or want or need. What’s hard, what’s real, what’s miraculous even, is standing firm in the face of something that is truly alluring. That’s why, when we prepare to confront the power of temptation, we shouldn’t imagine that we will get a proper warning—like seeing a little red devil on our shoulders with horns and a pitch fork. Rather, it will be pleasant, reassuring, alluring and seductive even. It is for us, and I imagine that it was for Jesus, too.

In fact, if the Adam and Eve story in Genesis is to be believed, being tempted in this way, being tempted into thinking that we can be better or smarter, more attractive and more powerful, is something that humans have struggled with from the beginning of time. Only, also, as long ago as that, we humans have known, in a deep, inward, spiritual place, that by giving into these temptations, we end up losing part of ourselves, even as we also drift, little by little, and usually quite unintentionally, away from our center in God. We forget who we are and whose we are.

That, I think, is why the Adam and Eve story was written down in the first place—to try to help explain this weird inward pull we humans have for making choices that, for whatever reasons, seem to be good in the passion of the moment, but in retrospect are extraordinarily bad. In fact, when you stop to think about it, the whole of the Bible is full of such stories—people, good people, who are lured in by the promise of power, or prestige, or sensual pleasures, only to find that they have sold themselves or lost themselves to the highest (or even sometimes the lowest) bidder—Adam and Eve for a piece of fruit, Esau for a bowl of lentil stew, Samson, David, and Solomon for the lure of beautiful women.

But what we also learn, in reading the Bible, in encountering these stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his 700 wives and 300 concubines (now there’s a biblical approach to marriage—how did he even have time for actually ruling Israel?), and so many more, what we learn through all of these stories is that although we may wander far off into wildernesses of our own making, God is steadfast, God is faithful, and God will always welcome us home again, welcome us home into God’s heart, where we were born and where we belong, forever and always.

And that, I think, is what this Lenten season is all about, more than giving up fried potatoes or black forest cake. It is the journey through temptations and out of our wildernesses. It is the journey back to God. And for Christians, for us here this morning, that journey comes with and in and through Christ. In following him, in striving to resist temptations the way he did, in taking up our own crosses, and even dying to the lure of power and prestige and beauty, dying to all of that, we will find that we are, in fact, truly alive. We find that we are able to rise again.

You know, on Wednesday, when we were marked with ash crosses and told that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we could just as well have been reminded that earlier, on another occasion, on another day, at our baptisms, after we were sprinkled or doused with water, we were likewise marked with crosses, on our foreheads—crosses that day not of ash, not of death and mortality, but of eternal life, life with and in God. And it is those crosses, the baptismal crosses, the resurrection crosses, that we are journeying to rediscover this Lent. So that when it really is Easter, when that glorious day comes, we will be ready and able to leave our wildernesses, our tombs, and rise with Christ.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.