2007-10-26

Anglican versus Andersonian Ecclesiology

Alright. I am just as tired of "conservative" schismatics, as I am of "revisionist" heretics. I need a little ranting room, if you don't mind. I do not know what to post first here, so I will let you (the reader) decide. This article is about an email I received from David Anderson of the American Anglican Council (one of the soon-to-be schismatic groups vying for American conservative Anglicans and their money).

I have pasted the email at the end, with my own paragraph markings [] for easy reference. Anytime you see a number inside [ ], that is a reference to Anderson's letter. The people referred to in the article are Rowan++ (the archbishop of Canterbury) and John Howe+ (the bishop of Central Florida).

Anderson writes an odd, and somewhat unconnected letter about what is wrong with the way Rowan++ perceives the Church, and underlying his critique, there seems to be a radical revision of Anglican ecclesiology going on in Anderson's mind. Ecclesiology, if you do not know, is the doctrine of the Church (ekklesia), what the Church is, how She is led, and what She does. This article is an attempt to tease out this new, revisionist "Andersonian" ecclesiology (and why it is neither Biblical nor Anglican).

Traditionally, in Anglican ecclesiology, there are three levels of the Church: At a primary level, there is the "head pastor" of a local region (the bishop), and his Church (the Diocese). Secondarily, within this Diocese are local assemblies of believers called "parishes", which are led by local church elders (priests). Third, the Dioceses are connected together into a worldwide communion, as each Bishop recognizes, receives, and shares sacraments with other bishops.

As a secondary historical development, sometimes groups of Dioceses are organized into provinces, or national Churches, with each bishop equal to every other bishop, and not able to intervene in each other's Diocese. They are organized this way for practical, administrative, and resource-sharing reasons, not because the "province" is actually a real entity in the Church.

In [2] he seems to be implying that the REAL work of the Church is done on the parish level, and thus the parish is the actual basic unit of the Church, except for the fact that bishops are needed to ordain and confirm. Then, in [3] he implies that bishops (and hence their dioceses) cannot be the basic unit of the Church, because more than one bishop is needed to consecrate a new bishop. Then he launches into a critique of what is going on with Howe+ in Central Florida [4-6].

In [6] he begins a critique of Rowan's++ letter to Howe+, and Rowan's++ assumption that the Anglican communion is made up of Diocesan bishops in communion with the Diocesan bishop of Canterbury. Also, in [6] he accuses Rowan++ of following a Roman Catholic model, and thus Anderson sets up the province/national church as the "primary unit" of the Church, rather than the Diocese.

In [7] Anderson concocts a theory that Rowan++ is trying to topple the Primatial structure of the Church. Thus, in [7] Rowan++ is compared with Charles I, with the not-too-veiled threat that the Anglican primates will "cut off his head" (ecclessially speaking) if he does not recognize the Primatial nature of the Church.

In [8-10] Anderson basically re-iterates that Rowan++ is making all "True Anglicans" mad, and that if he continues to do so, his side will loose members and eventually the Anglican communion. Anderson ends with the quip about spreading the faith [11]. One might ask, how does he plan to do this? The faith requires something or someone to spread it.

He seems to be basically implying that He wants to create a new "holy club", which will spread this faith, in a new denomination, with an "Andersonian" ecclesiology. The two units of this new denomination are the provincial/national Church and it's "flying bishops", and the local parish and its priests. The Diocese has no place to play in his schema. The only really worldwide fellowship in the Andersonian denomination would be the "national headquarters" of each denominational affiliate province. Each parish would be basically autonomous Congregationalists, with no direct pastoral oversight, other than paying a bishop to fly in and lay hands on people sometimes.

I think that he presents a bold new vision of a new kind of hybrid Baptist-episcopal Church, don't you? Or do I read him wrong? I mean, he can claim this vision is "episcopal", because it still uses bishops for something. But the bishops would have a position not really known in the history of the Church. Biblically, we find regional Diocesan Churches (i.e. "The Church of Rome", "The Church in Galatia", etc.). And we find house churches, or parishes, within these Dioceses (i.e. the house church of Nympha in Colossians, or that of Prisca and Aquilla in Romans). We even find references to the universal, worldwide Church.

But, in the Bible, we do not find any reference to Provinces that are sub-universal, but trans-regional. We do not find a "Church of the Roman Empire", nor a "Church of the Persians". Diocesan Churches are always connected with a specific city (Rome, Corinth, Canterbury, Dallas), or regional district (Galatia). Provincial, national, and primatial Churches are a second-order administrative development made later in history for the purpose of unifying Dioceses together in a region, led by an "elder brother" bishop (who, I may add, did not have the ability to directly intervene in a brother-bishop's Diocese).

So, Anderson has taken a second-order historical creation (the Province), endowed it with new powers, and is trying to write it off as an "orthodox" conception of the Church? Hrrrrmph! Ecclessiologically, he seems to be every bit the revisionist that "The Episcopal Church" is regarding human sexuality! Am I reading this right? Because just as he claims that he must read Rowan's++ letter in light of other things he has done [9], so I also must read this article in light of what separatist Anglo-protestants seem to be doing.

If I am right, then our choice is clear: EITHER we opt for a historic Anglican conciliar-catholic vision of the Church, in which the primary unit of the Church is the Diocese, and communion is based on mutual recognition of Diocesan bishops OR we opt for the revisionist Andersonian vision of autonomous local Congregationalist churches who hold onto the vestiges of episcopacy, and basically pay bishops for what their hands can do.

What do you think?
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ORIGINAL EMAIL

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Message From Bishop-elect David C. Anderson

[1] For years as a parish priest I heard the arguments over which is more important, or the basic unit of the church, the local parish or the diocese.

[2] Is the basic unit the diocese with bishop and people or is it the local parish church? A parish church and priest can baptize, celebrate Holy Communion, marry, anoint the sick, hear confessions and grant absolution. The two things the local church and priest cannot do are confirm and ordain. A local church which is well managed might feel quite self-sufficient ecclesiastically until they need to have someone ordained. The American Episcopal Church went from the early 1600s until the late 1700s - not quite two hundred years - without Confirmation generally being available since Bishops were unwilling to venture to the American colonies. Priests had to be imported, or candidates sent to England for ordination.

[3] From a standpoint of continuity it would seem that the smallest complete unit of the church is the Bishop and his flock, even though by custom when a bishop is consecrated there are three bishops doing the laying-on-of-hands. Now there is a new dimension to the argument that takes it to the Province level and even to the See of Canterbury. Archbishop Rowan Williams has used the recent writings of others on this subject and applied it in a novel and two-fold way; more about this in a moment.

[4] The Rt. Rev. John Howe, Bishop of Central Florida and an orthodox and faithful man of God, has of recent confused many of his clergy as to where EXACTLY he stands in his relationship with the revisionist and heterodox top leadership of TEC. As the actions of the principal leadership of the Episcopal Church have more and more offended and disturbed the orthodox laity and clergy of his diocese of Central Florida, more and more of them have wondered if they still have a place in TEC, and indeed even in his diocese.

[5] Very recently nine of the congregations, some of them the largest in the diocese, announced that they are in conversation with Bishop Howe about their departure. Bishop Howe's orthodoxy is noted, yet the congregations and clergy felt that their Anglican connection through the heterodox TEC leadership and Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori was negatively impacting their life, ministry and proclamation of the Gospel. Bishop Howe has been clear that he is staying in TEC no matter what, so that left the clergy and congregations looking for departure options.

[6] Howe wanted to reassure these congregations (and others which haven't spoken out yet) that there is another option, and so he wrote to Rowan Williams. At the same time, it seems that Dr. Williams has several things he wishes to accomplish besides holding onto the current American Episcopal Church and her money: he wishes to project, strengthen, and expand a special relationship between individual bishops of the Communion and himself along a Roman model; he also wishes to undercut and diminish the power of the Anglican Primates whose strength has been growing of recent and is a challenge to him. Dr. Williams wrote a letter to Howe, meaning for it, in a sense, to apply to Howe's special appeal, but at the same time to move the larger agendas forward. In his letter, Dr. Williams discouraged "separatist" plans, urging all Windsor-supportive Anglicans "to regard the bishop and the diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity, rather than the abstract reality of the 'national church.'"

[7] I believe it was King Charles I who, when he couldn't control the English Parliament, decided not to convene it. Unconvened, Parliament couldn't exercise any power, he thought. Finally when he had to convene it to raise taxes, it set in play a sequence of events that cost Charles his crown and the head that it sat upon. Dr. Williams, having tried to manage the Primates (with some success at the October 2003 London Primates Meeting, then less so at Dromantine, and still less so in Dar es Salaam) has decided and stated publicly that there will be no Primates Meeting prior to the Lambeth Conference 2008. It is, quite honestly, a gamble on his part. Can he suppress the Primates Meeting and undercut the role of the Primates and Provinces by establishing that what makes a bishop Anglican is the relationship with Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury? If that is successful it would mean that to be Anglican is defined by Canterbury alone. This seems like a dangerous road to go down, especially since this Archbishop's own orthodoxy seems to waver.

[8] When the Archbishop of Canterbury first surprised everyone with the release of the list of invitees to Lambeth, it was noted that they were not invited by Province, but individually. This seemed like a slight against the Primates, but the concern quickly focused on the inclusion of those bishops who consecrated Gene Robinson and the exclusion of Robinson Cavalcanti of Recife and a number of American bishops connected to African Provinces. Now after the letter to Howe, it becomes clear that this is part of an orchestrated attempt to pull down the Provincial structure as a means of international accountability, and to pull down the role of the Primates as a college of Primates, sitting with Rowan, who is first among equals.

[9] With the blogging world and the HoB/D list serve going crazy, and some very harsh things being said about His Grace, a second letter was released. It was a "What the Archbishop meant to say was..." which attempted to put his remarks into a narrow context. Viewed alone you might be tempted to accept that, but with the earlier invitation list following the same stream of thought, it becomes clearer that Rowan isn't making this up as he goes along.

[10] Surprisingly, this letter to Howe has managed to upset both revisionists and the orthodox at the same time - but perhaps Dr. Williams doesn't mind this. The difficulty is his belief that there is a mythical middle that he can work with, unaware that the "Windsor" bishops are about to experience a hemorrhage of members themselves. More and more, especially after a number of entire dioceses and bishops depart for other Provinces, he will discover how serious is his misunderstanding. Is there such a thing as "divine right of the primal archbishopric?" Good sense would argue for a catholic and evangelical faith united, within an Anglican Communion globally made up of a family of orthodox Provinces and Primates, with clear faith and discipline applied both within Provinces and between Provinces. Although many of us are to some extent Anglophiles, the location of the see city is less important than the vitality of the faith and a structure that encourages that faith to grow.

[11] In closing, don't just keep the faith. Spread it.

2007-10-21

MY ADDRESS TO DIOCESE CONVENTION 2007

Well, this weekend was the annual convention for the Diocese of Dallas. There was a possibility of things being really contentious (with everything going on in the National Church, and the Anglican Communion). But, I have to hand it to our bishop and our whole Diocese family: We all did a good job of holding it together. I am proud of us.

At the convention I was elected to be one of our representatives to our Province. For those who are Episcopal-challenged, here is an outline of our Church organization, and what a Province is: The basic unit of the Church is the Diocese, which is the entire Church in a geographic region (think of it like this: When Paul writes to "The Church in Rome" or "The Church in Galatia", he is writing to every Christian in that entire area, whether or not they meet in several locations or not. This region is a Diocese).

Within each Diocese are dozens of parishes, or local manifestations of the Church (think of it like this: At the end of Romans when Paul speaks of individual house-churches within the entire Roman Church, this is like a Parish). Now, for the purpose of organizing together, Dioceses are usually grouped in Provinces, which are made up of multiple Dioceses. And provinces make up national churches (like the Church of England, Nigeria, or the United States). Then all of these national Churches make up the whole Anglican Communion. There are some exceptions to this rule (hey, we're Anglican, and there's always exceptions), but this is the general outline.

So, it goes like this from small to big: Parish - DIOCESE - Province - National Church - Worldwide Communion. Make sense?

OK, well I was elected to represent this Diocese at the Provincial level. Our Provence (Provence 7) is made up of the Dioceses of Arkansas, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Kansas, Northwest Texas, Oklahoma, Rio Grande, Texas, Western Louisiana, Western Kansas, West Texas, and West Missouri.

That means that I will have exotic, all-expense paid trips to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri! But, in all seriousness, it was a real honor for me.

I also got to speak to our entire Convention for 10 minutes about College Ministries in our Diocese, and issue a call for involvement in reaching College Students. The address went over pretty well. Here is what I said:

Right Reverend Sir...

Delegates to the Convention...

I Bring you greetings in the Name of our Risen Lord from Canterbury Episcopal College Ministries.

I would like to begin this address by asking you all to do something for me. If you were involved in a Canterbury program during college, I ask you to please stand up.

And, of those who are standing, I ask you: If your involvement in Canterbury was formative in helping you follow the call of God on your life, please raise your hand.

Hmmm. Just as I thought. You may sit down.

Thank you. It is demonstrations like that which tell me two things about college ministry: First, college ministry works. Second, college ministry is something we need to be passionate about in this Diocese.

College ministry works because, in a way that is unlike any other ministry in the Church, college ministry raises up young leaders who will shape the Church for decades to come as clergy and lay leaders.

College is where we send our best and brightest to learn how to be leaders in the world of business and industry, science and politics.

College ministry is something to be passionate about because through it, we are able to connect these growing young leaders into the Body of Christ, so they can find who God made them to be, and in turn lead the Church to find out who God made us to be.

We don't have to assume that our young women and men will leave the Church during college and become practically pagan. We do not have to wait for them to get married and have 2.5 kids before they realize they need to come back to Church to get everyone baptized.

No. We can be proactive. We don't have to leave college ministry to other evangelical groups. Young adults are hungry for the Christ we can offer them. I tell you, the fields are ripe for harvest!

Do you remember being a college student or young adult? Do you remember the feeling of freedom as you finally were able to spread your wings and explore the world "on your own"? Do you remember the fears and anxieties and questions that arose from trying to find where you fit in the world? Can you remember who helped you on your journey to adulthood?

In a superficial world of social masks and false promises, young adults are looking for deep, safe relationships where they can be who they are, warts and all.

In a world immersed in information, and drowning in activities, young adults need a place where they can escape to think, and ask honest questions, and get real answers about the meaning of life.

In a world stripped of mystery and transcendence, young adults need a sacred space and a sacred time to connect with the God who made them, through meaningful worship and authentic prayer.

And finally, in a world that defines success largely as being king of your own world, young adults need to find a real King they can give their lives to, who will never let them down: the Lord Jesus Christ.

In short, young adults need to find Christ-centered fellowship, formation, worship, and vocation.

The mission of Canterbury College ministries is to provide young adults with guidance on this journey. On campuses all over this Diocese, from Texarkana to SMU, from Texas A&M Commerce to our Community colleges, from private universities to the University of North Texas, we are helping students on this journey.

We are doing this with food and friendship, through fellowship and worship, in Bible studies and mission trips, drinking gallons of coffee, and staying up till all hours of the night.

And, we are rebuilding the student center and chapel at SMU to facilitate this mission to college students, as a hub of college outreach in our Diocese. Thanks to the hard work of the Canterbury board at SMU, dozens of incredible donors, and support from the Diocese, we are almost done rebuilding this fantastic facility. We invite you to take a drive down Daniel street, on the north side of SMU, and come visit the new building, and see what God is doing there.

Yet, as vibrant and hopeful as all of these things are, they are not enough. The fields are ripe for harvest, but the workers are few. We must join together as a Diocese and do this mission together. We need your help.

First and foremost, we need your prayers. Pray for the colleges of this Diocese. Pray that students would be open to the Gospel, and come into a saving relationship with Christ through His Church. Pray for those of us on the front line of college ministry, that we would be effective at what God has called us to do.

Second, we need you to contact us and get involved. For the last year a small group of us have been meeting as the "College and Young Adult Committee". We have been trying to find better ways to get students connected with college ministry, and get local parishes connected with students. If you want to be involved with this committee, come and see us at the Canterbury booth. We would love to get you connected.

Third, we need your support. It takes time, money, and manpower to do effective ministry anywhere, including on campus. We are almost done building the new student center, but we are not done paying for it. We need all the support we can get.

So, will you pray for us, that God would do something incredible at our colleges? Will you join with us in this strategic mission to see young lives healed and transformed? Will you support our call to reach and raise up our next generation of leaders in this Church?

I pray you will. And I pray that 30 years from now, our Church will be packed with men and women who will stand up, and say that the college ministries we support now, helped them encounter Christ and become who they are.

Thank you.

2007-10-15

SOLDIERS, FARMERS, AND ATHLETES

A Sermon For Year C, Proper 23
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

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2 Timothy 2:3-15
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SERMON: I was wondering: Just between you and me, do the Bible readings on Sunday ever make you uncomfortable? Do you ever feel like you come to worship for joy and encouragement, only to be confronted with ideas that are uncomfortable and perplexing?

I mean, we have had a difficult month of readings. Last week, we heard the prophet Habakkuk get angry and ask God hard questions about how he could let the wicked prosper and the righteous perish.

The week before that we heard Jesus tell a story about a rich man suffering in the flames of hell. And the week before that Jesus told us a parable about how an embezzling manager not only got away with embezzlement, but was rewarded for his shrewdness in doing so!

These readings do not leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling. They often leave us with more questions than answers: questions about God's justice, about God's goodness, about the purity of our own motives, and about our eternal destiny. These are hard questions. Disturbing questions.

And after all of these tough readings, I find that I want something light. Something encouraging. I want to hear Philippians 4:4 "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!"

I want to hear Jeremiah 29.11 "For I know the plans I have for you- declares the Lord- plans for your wholeness and not your harm, plans to give you a hope and a future."

But, that's not what we hear today. In fact, what we hear in Paul's second letter to Timothy is one of the most perplexing readings I know of, because I do not know many other readings that are both so encouraging- and so challenging- at the same time.

Paul gives us three images- a soldier, a farmer, and an athlete- to describe the life of a Jesus-follower. Each image is both shocking and encouraging, but each for different reasons. And I think each of these images corrects the flaws and the possible distortions of the other two, because our Christian life is so incredibly rich that it cannot be nailed down by one precise definition.

So Paul starts by telling Timothy "Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier's aim is to please the enlisting officer."

Comparing the Christ-life to that of a soldier is scandalous for us for several reasons. To begin with, we live in an era that has seen the carnage of two world wars, Nazi Holocausts, Stalinist purges, and three decades of every misstep of our military being beamed into our homes via Television. In such an age, it is easy to get jaded. It is easy to confuse the heroism of multitudes of good soldiers, with the war crimes of a few.

Unfortunately, since the honorable image of a soldier is tainted in our society, it becomes shocking to compare following Jesus with being his soldier. But, for Paul the image would have been even more tainted, because the word that Paul uses here would have brought up the image of a Roman soldier.

It was Roman soldiers who ruthlessly crushed opposition to Rome all over the known world. It was Roman soldiers who unjustly crucified Christ. And, by the time the letter was written, the first great persecution of Christians in Rome had probably happened, in which Roman soldiers rounded up innocent Christians and imprisoned them in the Coliseum to be tortured and executed publicly.

So, for Paul and the early Christians, the image of soldier was as tainted as it could ever be: And yet Paul still used it. Why?

In what ways are being a despised Roman soldier like being a beloved disciple?

First of all, a Roman soldier knew what it meant to have unswerving loyalty to their commander. It was not Roman military technology or technique that enabled them to conquer the known world. In many ways, from Carthage's war elephants to Persian longbow archers to savage Barbarian hordes, the Roman army was often out-manned and out-gunned on the battlefield.

But, there was one thing the Roman soldier was known for worldwide: Their obedience and discipline. They would not break rank or shirk from orders. When their commanders told them to stand firm, they stood firm. When their commanders told them to advance, they advanced. With interlocking shields, and interlocking footsteps, they advanced as one man... and for centuries, they conquered everywhere they went.

And in using the image of soldier, Paul is saying: Look at these soldiers, obeying as one man the commands of a petty potentate, advancing to conquer a kingdom that will not last. If these soldiers are willing to do this for something temporary and someone unjust, how much more should the disciples of Christ be willing to obey the Lord of Love, who rules a Kingdom that will not end?

And if these soldiers are willing to wield weapons of hate and violence in the name of Caesar, how much more should we be willing to wield weapons of mercy and love in the Name of the King of Kings?

We must be willing to stand firm when our Lord says stand firm, and advance when He says advance, with interlocking hearts and interlocking minds, moving together as one man, to heal our world, our communities, and our families, by His power.

The other thing that the image of soldier shows us is that following Jesus entails suffering. It entails walking the road Jesus walked, and carrying the cross he carried.

Yet, I fear that there is a deeper reason why the image of a soldier is shocking to us. It is shocking because it implies fighting and suffering for something. Perhaps being a soldier for Christ is shocking to us is NOT just because of the injustice of war crimes, BUT because most of us do not want to suffer for anything, ever.

In fact, some may doubt whether there is anything worth suffering for at all. If you look at our media, our commercials, our TV shows, our magazines, it seems that our society has an obsession with feeling good and looking better. We want comfort and convenience, and we want it NOW... I want it now.

In our instant society and consumer culture, perhaps the greatest two sins are to make people wait, and to cause them discomfort. We avoid activities which might take time and effort and pain. We avoid people who might tell us hard truths about ourselves, which make us feel bad, and force us to change.

Just stay up late some night and watch all of the infomercials that promise you rock hard abdominals, and a tight rear end in only 10 minutes a day, without any pain.

Just the other day I heard a commercial for some new system to learn a Spanish fluently, without having to memorize any vocabulary or do any grammar drills. They said all of that old-school, time-consuming stuff was "useless", and they had a system to be fluent in Spanish in only minutes a day. No pain, all gain.

But, being a soldier for Christ- a disciple of Christ- means precisely that we will have to wait, and endure suffering, in His Name. Just as military campaigns take time and effort and pain, so also spreading Christ's Kingdom will take time and effort and pain. It takes time and effort and pain to see our own lives changed, our families changed, our communities changed. If we want to participate with Jesus in the healing of the world, we will have to be willing to march in step with Him for the duration of the campaign.

If we were just left with the metaphor of a soldier, we might be tempted to think that the war would be quick. We might be tempted to think that the power of Christ's resurrection was going to obliterate evil immediately... That the war would be brief, and intense, and then be over, in a snap.

But Paul gives us the image of a farmer to challenge this, because God's Kingdom grows much more like a crop being harvested than like a war being won. In a war, the opposition can be overcome by sheer force of numbers, and sheer power of technology. But, a farmer must wait for the right time, the right season, and the right soil. You cannot force a harvest. You have to work with the land, not against it.

To spread God's Love requires NOT an overwhelming show of force, BUT a patient awareness of the people you love. It takes making the most of teachable moments, not beating them over the head with a Bible. It takes a prayerful awareness of the right words to say at the right time, not arguing them into submission. It takes compassion for the needs and hurts of others, not a drill sergeant screaming: GET YOUR LIFE TOGETHER!

In short, spreading God's Love takes the patience of a farmer.

Also, if the metaphor of soldier was left alone, it might imply that we can spread God's Kingdom through raw power and forcing others to submit (or else!). After all, in the heat of battle, even the best soldier can fall into hatred and inhumanity.

So, to remedy this, Paul gives us the metaphor of an athlete. He says "in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules".

The phrase "competing according to the rules" is an important one, because in Greco-Roman society, this is what distinguished professional athletes from amateurs. Often it seems like our culture is completely the opposite: These days it is the amateur Olympians who must scrupulously follow the rules, while professional athletes can flaunt all the rules of society and sport and get away with it.

But not so in Paul's day. For them, it was the professional athlete that was known for perfectly following the rules. It was the professional athlete who trained with scrupulous discipline, day in and day out, in good seasons and in bad. If they didn't, they would be disqualified, and all of their hard work would be for naught.

And the same is true for Christ followers. Jesus summed our rules quite succinctly in the Great Commandments: Love God above all, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

We are called to do this, day in and day out, in good and bad seasons. We are called to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgiven, and care for the forgotten. And we do this, not on our own power, but by staying connected to the source of our Love: our Risen Lord.

This is hard, and it requires lots of training, and that is why we are athletes. While you can win a war by cheating and being inhumane, you cannot win the athletic competition by flouting the rules. We become what we practice.

We cannot bring about God's Kingdom of Love by using weapons of un-love. We cannot heal our world by ripping it apart with power politics and bitter animosity (both of which characterize so much of the rhetoric we find in our church and our nation these days).

We must compete according to the rule of Love. Only Christ's Love can bring about Christ's Kingdom. We are His Body, his own hands and feet, reaching out to heal the world.

I do not know exactly what that means, and I do not know exactly how to live this Love, but I have some idea. And you do to. And I ask you to join me with interlocking hearts and interlocking minds to figure it out together.

And this leads me to the encouragement that all three of these images bring to us: They all bring us a vision of hope. The soldier hopes to end war and bring peace. The farmer hopes for harvest. The athlete hopes for victory.

As we follow Christ, our hope is sure. We ARE on the winning team. Some day the war will end, and God's peace will fill the earth. Some day there will be a harvest of righteousness, and everywhere we will share the fruit of Love. Some day there will be victory, when the light of Christ banishes all darkness, and the life of Christ defeats death.

I ask you to join me in that hope. Together. As one Body, with one Spirit, serving one Lord.

For we are His soldiers.

His farmers.

His athletes.

Amen+

AFFIRMATION: And now, as Christ's soldiers, and farmers, and athletes, let us affirm together or faith in the Risen Lord using the words of the Nicene Creed...

2007-10-07

ANGRY WITH GOD

A Sermon For Year C, Proper 22
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

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Based on Habakkuk 1:1-13;2:1-4
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SERMON: Quick quiz: As followers of Jesus, what is the proper range of emotions to express in our relationship with God? What are the "correct" emotional responses to feel toward God?

Well, as Jesus followers from the Episcopal tribe, we are very comfortable with reverence. We like to be reverent toward God, with a sort of muted awe, silent admiration, and inward appreciation of God's beauty. We know what it means to "worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness".

We also value thoughtfulness. We like to meditate on God, without being given the "answers", as we look at ideas about God in our imagination. We truly value asking difficult questions, and deeply pondering the possible answers. In fact, sometimes we so deeply value thinking ABOUT God, that we fail talk TO God!

But, that's another sermon...

And while Episcopal Jesus people value reverence and thoughtfulness, Jesus followers from other Christian tribes value other things. Some value excitement! They want the joy of the Lord to pour out like a gushing river every time they worship. Their worship gatherings often look more like rock concerts than what we think of as Church... But at least they are excited!

Other Jesus followers value faith and confidence in Christ. They think it is important for Christians to step out in faith into the great unknown, trusting that God will provide for them in every way. They believe that Christians should be the bravest people on earth, because they put their whole trust in a God who will not let them down.

Still others place the supreme value on sacrifice. Jesus followers should be willing to sacrifice everything for their Lord, giving up all their rights and privileges for the sake of spreading God's Kingdom, God's Justice, and God's Gospel on the Earth. For them, the major sin is to hold back even a little part of oneself from God.

Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul tended to put supreme value on Love: Agape Love. Unconditional, unselfish, unstoppable Love. Jesus said that this Love is what all the Law and the Prophets depended on. Paul said that this Love sums up the Law, and he spent a chapter in his first letter to the Corinthians talking about how it is the supreme gift of the Spirit.

And, when you put it that way, you can see how Love includes all of the lesser, but still important, values of reverence, thoughtfulness, excitement, trust, and sacrifice. If you Love God you will be reverent to Him, but also excited about Him. If you Love God you will trust Him, and also be thoughtful about Him. If you Love God, you will sacrifice yourself for the things He values: Like Justice and Charity and spreading the Gospel.

But, is this the total emotional range we are allowed to feel toward God? Or, are there some emotions that are "off limits" in dealing with God?

Honestly, I think that many Christians would say yes. There are some things that "real Christians" cannot feel toward God. There are some ideas and emotions that cannot enter your heart or mind, or else you are becoming faithless and endangering your very soul.

Because if you felt THAT- you know what THAT is- if you felt THAT then it means that you must be denying God.

Quick! Think about something else! Pretend you didn't just feel that! Ignore it! Deny it! By all means, do not admit to anyone that THAT thought ever passed through your mind!

And- this is important- DO NOT tell God about THAT. God is not big enough to handle it. God is much too fragile. If you tell God THAT He might just disappear, and cease to exist. Or, even worse, God might throw a cosmic temper tantrum, hurl a few lightning bolts at you, and make your life hell.

Wait, it sounds kind of silly when I put it that way. Doesn't it?

I mean, if God is who we say God is, He should Love us enough to walk with us through whatever we FEEL, right? And if God is big enough to make the universe and everything in it, He should be big enough to deal with my crisis, right? And if God is powerful enough to become a powerless carpenter from Nazareth who lived, suffered, and died as one of us, he should be powerful enough to help me through my pain, right?

We know this when we sit down and think about it, but we still walk around with the assumption that our entire emotional range in dealing with God can only consist of "positive" emotions.

Above all, most people believe that getting angry and frustrated with God is complete blasphemy. You CAN'T get mad at God! He is blameless! He is holy! He could squash you like a bug!

So, we sit on our anger. We stuff it. We pretend it is not there. We go through pain and suffering and rejection and humiliation and we smile weakly and say "It is all in God's plan". We witness astounding injustice- corruption, embezzlement, apathy, hate, homicide, and genocide- and we smile weakly and say "Everything works out for the best".

And the resentment grows. Instead of crying out to God and saying "How could you let this happen to them! How could you let this happen to me!", we choose to cling to a few bland clich├ęs: "A smile is just a frown turned upside down!"

Eventually the resentment reaches a crisis point, and we either explode, or melt down, or loose our faith altogether. Sadly, after doing 15 years of ministry, I find that most people wind up choosing the last option.

Some people feel so let down by God, and so unable to be honest about how they feel, that they just give up on the whole God-business altogether.

But God HAS designed us emotionally to deal with this. For every relationship based on Love, there is a solution for pent-up frustration: Honest anger. You can get angry at God, and He will listen, and He is big enough to walk you through it.

I promise.

Listen to the prophet Habakkuk: "O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted."

Can you hear the anger? Habakkuk is seeing the wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer, and he wants to know where God is! He can see that the ruthless and violent Chaldeans are going to attack and destroy his people, and he wants to know how God could let that happen!

He knows his own people are a real piece of work. He knows they are hypocrites and scoundrels, greedy and unjust, but they are not as bad as the Chaldeans! How can God bring judgment on His own people by using a people who are WORSE than His own people!

Habakkuk wants answers!

So, what does Habakkuk do? He goes up to his watchtower and sits and waits for God to answer. He demands that God answer, and then he has the audacity to SIT and wait for it!

And you know what God did? He answered.

Habakkuk was not afraid to get angry with God. He was willing to argue with God to His face. He was willing to wrestle with God, to struggle with God, to stubbornly wait for God to answer.

What we think of as unthinkable- getting angry and frustrated with God- is in fact at the core of how the Bible pictures our relationship with God. And, if you want to get down to it, it is at the core of how God designed us as humans.

In our culture, raw, honest emotions scare us. We are afraid of honest anger, in the same way that we are afraid of deep passion. We want to keep everything light and bouncy. Nothing too deep.

But, if you really love someone, one of the most important skills to learn is how to get angry with each other, and argue in a constructive way, and forgive each other from the heart. If you do not learn how to do this with your friends, with your spouse, and even with your God, your relationships will not last long, and they will be amazingly shallow.

You can always tell a relationship is in trouble if you are always walking on eggshells, bottling up resentment, and never admitting when there is a problem. The healthiest relationships are those where people honestly express what is wrong, honestly try to fix the problem, and honestly forgive each other.

And, this is true all over the Bible in our relationship with God. In Genesis chapter 18, Abraham has an argument with God about saving the righteous out of Sodom and Gomorrah. And because of this, God allows Abraham to rescue his family members from the oncoming wrath.

In Genesis chapter 32, Jacob literally wrestles with God all night. As a result, God blesses Him and gives Him a new name: The name Israel. Israel literally means "the one who wrestles with God". So, all of the Hebrew people came to be named "Israelites": God-wrestlers! And now, the Church is the "new Israel", a people called by God to wrestle with Him.

Later on in the Bible we see Moses getting angry with God and wrestling with Him. Job has a famous wrestling match with God, and so did the prophet Jeremiah. Even Jonah wrestles with God and has to spend three days in a stinking fish before he stopped being stubborn. And the result of all of this wrestling was that God spoke to them, and met them where they were at.

Wrestling God in frustration and anger is all over the Psalms. Time after time we read the psalmists who cry out and say things like "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?"

Even Jesus wrestles with God in frustration. In the garden before his arrest, He prays three times "Father, I do not want to go through with this! Isn't there some other way? Yet, not my will, but your will be done." On the cross, Jesus cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Jesus, the Son of God, was a God-Wrestler as well. And God spoke through Him too, by raising Him from the dead.

But this did not stop Jesus' disciples from being God-wrestlers. Thomas was so jaded by the death of Jesus that he said He would not believe He was raised until He saw Jesus' face, and touched His wounds. And what did Jesus do? Turn his back? Hurl lighting bolts at him for blasphemy? No, he showed up. Jesus showed up and showed Thomas his wounds.

And the God-wrestling does not stop there. In the last book of the Bible- the revelation of John- we find martyrs crying out with the same question that Habakkuk had asked hundreds of years earlier: "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?"

All of God's people are God-wrestlers. We are called to Love God with all we have- with all of our passion, all our reverence, all our trust, all of our thoughtfulness. But, loving God with that intensity means we need to be honest as well. There are times when we wonder where God is. There are times when we ache for God. There are times when the apparent absence of God makes us...

Makes us mad.

And God wants us to express that to Him. God wants us to wrestle with Him. The worst thing to do with anger is to hide it, and talk about it behind someone's back. And this is doubly true with God. Don't talk about God behind his back. Tell it to His face. He is big enough. He is strong enough. And He loves you enough.

And when you do honestly wrestle with God, and when you climb up into your watchtower with Habakkuk and say "I am not leaving here until you tell me something, God!", you will find that the strangest thing happens: God speaks. God acts. God brings resurrection where there was death.

He doesn't do it like you would expect. But, does God EVER do what we expect? Yet, He will do something. And that something will change your life, and change your world. I promise.

BENEDICTION: And now may you become a God-wrestler. May your love affair with Jesus become so real, that you are able to honestly bring your emotions- all of your emotions- to God. And may God answer you in your time of need, and bring resurrection to all of the dead places in your life. Amen+

2007-10-01

ONE HELL OF A SERMON

A Sermon For Proper 21 Year C
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

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Based on 1 Timothy 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31
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After hearing a Gospel reading like that, I bet I know what many people are thinking "Is he really serious about all of this eternal torment stuff?"

And it is not Jesus who we are talking about. Many of us assume that Jesus' "hell parables" are either over-exaggerations intended to make us behave, or simply deluded holdovers from a backwards world-view, that believes in eternal torment.

Now, since most of us want to make Jesus into the prototypical enlightened humanist, we prefer to say that he was not deluded. Instead, he was just exaggerating. His is giving us a carrot and a stick to make us into nice people. The carrot is heaven, and the stick is the threat of hell.

But we are enlightened, and educated, and anything but fundamentalist, so we don't need the stick of hell to make us nice people. So, lets get to the point: Be nice to people who are not as well off as you are. Pat them on the head, give them charity. That's the point, right?

So, the question on most people's mind becomes: Is the person preaching really serious about all that hell business?

So, let me ask you a question: If I was serious, would you listen? If I believe that Jesus is really pointing to torment after death, which is in some way based on what we did in this life, would you care?

Or, are you so convinced that because God is Love, hell must therefore be an outdated, arbitrary, barbarian concept suitable only for people who hijack planes, or advocate crusades?

There is a very popular, oft repeated line of logic that runs thus: If God loves us, God would want us happy. And hell is not a place of happiness. Therefore God does not send people to hell.

Furthermore, it is impossible to imagine God tormenting us with an eternal amount of punishment based on a limited amount of sin. Could God be such a sadist? And if so, would such a God be worthy of worship?

I don't know about you, but we had to read Jonathan Edward's sermon "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God" in my high school English class. And we all mocked it, and laughed at it.

Yet, it was a nervous laughter. Sometimes very nervous.

Because we still had to wonder... Don't you? I do.

I mean, the way I figure it, there are two major options that could happen when I die. Either I continue to exist personally, as a conscious subject who is able to identify myself as "me".

Or I don't. None of us do. We all cease to exist at death.

Now, this second view is rather popular. You can get to it by being a materialist who believes physical matter is all there is to reality, and our personalities are nothing but a phenomenon that radiates from the electrical impulses that course through the protein in our brains.

And when this protein computer is finally unplugged, we cease to be.

Period.

You can also get to it by believing that we are all part of an impersonal cosmic force, and when we die, the energy we know as our "self" is released from the illusion of being separate, and it returns to the force. We never again exist as "me" again, nor are conscious of what we were.

Now believing we cease to exist after death eliminates the need for hell, and the reality of heaven. It also makes Christ's teaching ridiculous, his resurrection impossible, and our being here right now comical.

And all of that is worthy of discussion. But not in this sermon. In this sermon, lets assume that Christ's teaching is accurate, his resurrection is real, and that we personally exist after we die.

If we assume all of this, then we begin to see that Jesus has actually walked through the "valley of the shadow of death", like we all will have to do some day. He has faced his own mortality. In fact, if you will believe it, He has literally been to hell and back.

Then He defeated death. He rose from the grave. And He imparted his own Spirit to guide his disciples in writing and recording the stories and teachings that we need to make the same journey he did.

So, I assume he has some authority on this matter which I need to listen to.

And his message might be unpacked like this: At death, our true self- our soul, our spirit, our ego, whatever term you want to use- that true self is stripped bare of all illusion to encounter the fullness of God's reality.

This means, on our side, we loose all of our "props", and face who we have become. No more masks. No more possessions to hide behind. No more people to blame. We stand as naked as we could possibly be before the Ultimate Reality of the Universe.

And, what is that Ultimate Reality? In our reading from First Timothy, we are told it is a God who dwells in "inapproachable light". Elsewhere in the Bible, we are told that this God IS light, and this God IS Love, and this God IS a consuming fire.

We will stand in the presence of a Being of such pure, unconditional, unquenchable, unselfish Love, that this God will radiate like an eternal fire, bringing light to every area of darkness in our lives.

And Jesus Himself says that "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known."

And, if we start to understand death in those terms, I think the problem becomes obvious. It suddenly stops being a question of whether or not God will let you into heaven. It becomes a question of whether or not you will let Heaven into you.

It stops being a question of how a Loving God could make an eternal hell. It becomes a question of whether we will experience God's Love AS eternal hell.

Because one day, we will all come face to face with this Love that will not die, this Love that has loved us from eternity and will never stop Loving us. And on that Day, we will choose one of three things: Hate God, Hide from God, or Hold God.

Jesus says some people will choose to hate God with a burning hatred. They will resent that God would make claims on ME. I am the boss of ME. MY stuff is MY stuff. No one can tell me how to live MY life. I did it MY way, and damn it, no one, not even God, will tell ME otherwise.

This hatred burns with fury, and rages like fire. And in the face of such hatred, God's self-giving Love burns ever more brightly. And it is perhaps for this reason that in many of Jesus' parables hell is pictured as fire and flames and torment.

But Jesus also says that some will choose to hide from God. Some will stand before God's undying Love, and will be so ashamed of their selfishness and sin that they will refuse to allow Him to forgive them. They will flee inward, into the icy black darkness of their souls, naked and ashamed before the living God.

Their shame and inability to let go of their mistakes will cause them eternal loneliness. And it is perhaps for this reason that in many other parables, Jesus describes hell as darkness, loneliness, isolation, and weeping.

And then, some of us- hopefully all of us- will not choose hate nor hiding. Instead we will choose to hold on to God. To grasp His Love. To cling to Him as Healer. To embrace Him as Father.

We will let the Light of His Love drive out the remaining darkness within. We will let Him heal us and cleanse us and make us whole. We will surrender all of our little idols and subtle selfishnesses, and allow Him to burn them away.

But here is the catch to it all. This is the reason why Jesus always connected his hell parables to how we actually treat others in this life. This is the reason why Jesus aimed these parables almost exclusively at religious people like us, who knew all of the right answers about God in their heads:

It isn't enough to know it. We gotta DO it.

If we don't learn how to love, and give, and repent, and forgive, in THIS LIFE, then it will be next to impossible to do it on the other side of life.

If we make a repeated habit of bitterness, self-centeredness, entitlement, and apathy right here, right now, how will we be in any shape to receive the fullness of God on the other side?

When you were a kid, did your parents ever tell you not to make ugly faces, because your face might just stick like that? You can see it was true in my case [MAKE AN UGLY FACE].

But what if they were spiritually right? What if there is a real danger in making our soul ugly, because our soul might just stick like that?

CS Lewis puts it this way: "every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature:

"either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other."

The longer you practice something, the better you get at it. This goes for basketball and band, as well as for sin and saintliness.

We all know people who lie over and over until they become the lie. They cannot grasp the Truth because they can no longer tell what is truth or fabrication about themselves.

We all know people who will not forgive others. The longer they choose not to forgive, the more the bitterness and hatred becomes a hardened ball inside their soul... A cancer that destroys their lives.

We all know people who only think about themselves. And the longer they do it, the more narcissistic they become, until they cannot have a relationship with anyone without figuring a way to manipulate them to get what they want.

There is only one way to break the cycle and become a "heavenly creature"- Someone who is able to allow heaven inside themselves:

That way is the Way who is Jesus. That Way is to repent of all our lesser gods, and turn to Him and accept His forgiveness. That Way is to stop creating an ugly life, and to start imitating a beautiful life. And the most beautiful life is the Life of Jesus.

If we imitate Him long enough, maybe our face will starting looking like His.

I know it isn't easy, and we are bound to fail in many astounding acts of hypocrisy. But what is the alternative? Stop repenting and become the type of soul that is hell? Stop accepting forgiveness and become a black hole of guilt and denial?

But, if you are bold enough to follow Christ, there is a promise. Saint Paul, in the eight chapter of Romans, puts the promise this way:

"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God."

Later on he says:

"In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

But, what about Lazarus and the impassible chasm that kept him from Heaven? What about all who have made their lives hell? Will they forever stay separated from God's Love by their own stubbornness?

I don't know for sure. I hope not. I serve a Risen Lord who crossed that un-crossable chasm of hell and death. I teach about a God who has put death to death, and made captivity his captive. I preach about a Creator who, according to His own promise in Colossians chapter one, will "reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross".

But, I do know this for sure. If we start following Jesus right here, right now, and if we live our lives in a way that helps others follow Jesus too, we can know we are on the Way to heaven. We can know that we are letting heaven into us. We can know Him who IS heaven.

May we ALL make Him our Way, our Truth, and our Life. Amen+
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.