Sunday, August 23, 2009

Homily for Proper 16 Year B 2009

You have heard it said: “All is fair in love and war.”
Love and war--uttered in the same breath. The comparison of the two can strike the ear as a sour note, as dis-chord, dissonance, disharmony. But the two are often joined.
Jordin Sparks, who knows not a sour note, sings in her current pop hit: “I never meant to start a war/ Don't even know what we're fighting for” She plaintively asks: “Why does love always feel like a battlefield?” And to ensure you will not forget the name of the song--she repeats the word “battlefield” a bazillion times.
Jordin sings: “I guess you better go and get your armor/ (Get your armor)/ Get your armor/ I guess you better go and get your armor/ (Get your armor)/ Get your armor. More echos for the slow to hear.
Jordin Sparks is not the first to draw upon war as a metaphor for love. Twenty-five years ago Pat Benatar’s single “Love is a Battlefield” was at the top of these same pop music charts. And about two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul drew upon the same metaphor.
Paul, in a letter to the church in Ephesus, encourages them to fight the good fight. He admonishes them to put on the armor of God. This is special armor for a special battle. He warns them that he is using a metaphor-- “our enemies are not flesh and blood.” Like when Jordin Sparks compares romantic love to war, creating an interesting metaphor--Paul does the same sort of thing. Paul, however, is not concerned with romantic love, the greek word eros--but agape--godly love. Turns out--godly love is also a battlefield.
A phrase from Song of Songs is an interesting case study: “His banner over me is love.” I sang it as a worship song as a child in Vacation Bible School. The image is of a military banner with “love” written on it. The War Scroll from Qumran mentions banners bearing such mottos as “the truth of God,” “the righteousness of God,” “the glory of God,” “the justice of God.”1 The woman in the Song may be announcing that she is under the cover, or refuge, of her lover.2 If so, the poet has taken a military image and subverted it to love’s ends: on the male’s banner is written “love.”3 Military metaphors are not unusual in Song of Songs: 6:4,10, and 12; 1:9; 3:7-8; 8:6.4 Jordin Sparks is not the first to connect love and war in this way. So, the next time you sing, “his banner over me is love,’ imagine, if you will, a banner with ‘love’ written on it signifying God’s unquenchable love for his people, but also remember that the phrase in its original context describes the love of a young man through the eyes of the young woman he loves. The text overflows with eros. But synagogue and church found no difficulty in transposing the language onto a register expressive of God’s love for his people, and of their love and worship of God. That audacious hermeneutical move has held generations of believers in its embrace for more than two thousand years.
In our text, Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus to put on righteousness (acting rightly--justice’s first cousin) as if it were a breastplate. Wear truth as a belt. Shod your feet with telling everyone good news of peace. Keep the faith--“Your faith will be your shield,” he says. Truth. Peace. Faith. Righteousness. God’s rescue will be your helmet. Together, these are godly armor.
The Spirit of God is your sword, not a sword of metal--a sword made of Word. When Alexander Pope said that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he was thinking of battlefield’s of flesh and blood. We, however, are thinking differently.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God...Word became flesh--Jesus. When Jesus was being arrested, Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of one of those who had come to take Jesus away. Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its sheath. Jesus said to Peter, “those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Peter was on the wrong battlefield. Peter drew the wrong sword.
It is rather subversive, don’t you think, to use words that connote violence, to advocate non-violence. The words of The Word, were constantly misunderstood by the more literally minded. In our Gospel lesson today Jesus asks (of words he had uttered) “Does this offend you?” Had they answered, they would have answered “Yes.”
Paul’s use of the language of war is both subversive and offensive. But Paul believes that love and war have more in common than a lack fairness--Paul believes love is a battlefield. Are you ready for battle? Will you fight? Will you take up arms against evil? Have you put on your armor--righteousness as a breastplate, salvation as a helmet, shoes of proclaiming the good news of peace? Got your shield--that is, Faith? Is Truth your belt? Ready to take up your sword of the Spirit.
With Jordin Sparks, I can sing (think of it as karaoke): “I guess you better go and get your armor/ (Get your armor)/ Get your armor/ I guess you better go and get your armor/ (Get your armor)/ Get your armor. More echos for the slow to hear.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reflection on a Reflection

The first in a series of reflections
on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflection

In his reflections upon the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury writes:

“...the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage.”

I will frame my reflections on his reflection, by moving toward an answer to his question: Is the Church free to recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings?

Williams believes that in

“the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.”

A positive answer to the question, he says, needs:

painstaking biblical exegesis
Wide acceptance within the Anglican Communion
Due account taken of the teachings of our ecumenical partners
A strong level of consensus
Solid theological grounding

I agree with his first requirement. And can say that the first has been done. I will, at the end of this reflection, add a short bibliography.

The second is a rather odd requirement and I am afraid I do not understand it. It looks rather straightforward at first, but when you stop to think about it, the requirement is circular. Further, I am unsure why this should be a requirement--the Anglican Communion is not, I remind the Archbishop, the Anglican Church.

Let me say more on the second requirement’s circular nature. Mary-Jane Rubenstein has recently reminded us that toward the end of Three Guineas (1938), Virginia Woolf takes a moment to marvel at the recent findings of the Church of England’s Commission on the Ministry of Women. Although it found no theological support for the position, the Commission continued to bar women from the priesthood because doing so reflected “the mind of the Church” In short, the Commission declared that the church should not ordain women because it did not ordain women. Rubenstein’s suggests that the Anglican Communion cannot accept the blessing of same-sex unions until the Anglican Communion accepts same-sex blessings.

Thus, I am driven to think that the Archbishop must mean something else. Perhaps, he means that the Episcopal Church is not free to recognize same-sex unions until there is widespread acceptance in the Anglican Communion. If this is his meaning, then I think he is mistaken. First, canonically speaking, the Episcopal Church has not (and is not likely to grant) the Anglican Communion such power. Second, within the history of the Anglican Communion, such a requirement would have meant that women’s ordination could not be recognized by the Episcopal Church (thank you Virginia Woolf for reminding me of that reality).

Whether he means the first or the second, matters not. Both are wrong-headed. The first possible meaning circular and the second factually mistaken.

Let me, then, suggest a third possibility and if he means this third possible reading, then let me be the first to say “I agree.” If the Episcopal Church recognizes same-sex unions by means of public blessings, it does not mean that the Anglican Communion recognizes same-sex unions by means of public blessings. The Episcopal Church does not “speak” for the whole of the Anglican Communion. Just because the Episcopal Church ordains women priests it does not mean that the Anglican Communion endorses the ordination of women to be priests. Just because the Episcopal Church consecrates an openly gay man to be bishop, does not mean that the Anglican Communion consecrates openly gay men to be bishops.

Since I do not like to think of the Archbishop as wrong-headed (I deeply admire his work as a theologian), I am inclined to prefer this third possible reading of his second requirement. Further, the context of his second requirement may suggest not widespread acceptance of blessings for same-sex unions, but just the biblical scholarship that would form the basis for such a decision (though one would like to think acceptance of the dictates of Holy Writ would naturally lead to conforming action by all Christians). If so, then the proverb “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” comes to mind. The Biblical scholarship can be provided, but some may refuse to read it. Nonetheless, as a purely descriptive remark, the Archbishop’s second requirement is self-evidently true.

Moving on now to his third requirement: the concept of “due account” is rather ambiguous. Mary Ann Case has remarked on the teachings of one of our ecumenical partners,

“...Pope Benedict XVI, has been quite clear and direct in linking his Church’s recent teachings on homosexuality, on the ordination of women, and on heterosexual marriage in a theological anthropology of essential sex and gender differences.  Benedict analogized what he saw as the growing disregard for the essential “nature of the human being as man and woman” to the destruction of the rainforest in his December 22, 2008 address to the members of the Roman Curia.  Given the historical exclusion of women from decision-making in the Church, Rowan Williams’s invocation of the “venerable principle” that “what affects the communion of all should be decided by all” (”Quod Omnes Tangit”) as a brake on change in the direction of freedom and equality in matters of sex and gender is, as one of Boccaccio’s heroines suggested on Day Six of the Decameron, deeply problematic.”

Deeply problematic indeed. Unless, “due account” simply means accurately recording our ecumenical partners dissenting opinions on the subject. Again, I am going to suggest that this must be exactly what he means--otherwise the Anglican Communion’s teaching on a host of subjects--the authority of the Pope, the use of contraceptives, the role of women in the Church (to name but a few)--would be called into question. In fact, if he means anything stronger--the very existence of the Anglican Communion is called into question, as is all of the Christian tradition formed by the Reformation. Or for that matter, the whole of Christianity post the great schism of East from West.

No, he must mean something more modest. He must mean simply duly noting their dissenting opinions. Easy enough to accomplish. We can assign the job to Bishop Epting’s office. I am sure a “due account” could be provided in short order.

His forth requirement looks and sounds a great deal like his second, but lacks the second’s specificity. I am left wondering as to what body be believes must form a consensus. As I ponder the various possibilities, I am drawn to the belief that he means the body of Christ--the Church universal. The Church, across time and space, cannot be said to recognize the same-sex unions by means of public blessings, until a consensus (answering the question in the affirmative) within the Church is found to have been formed.

Again, one cannot properly say the Church recognizes same-sex unions just because the Episcopal Church recognizes same-sex unions. Furthermore, should the time come that the Anglican Communion were to recognize same-sex unions (don’t hold your breath on that one), one still could not properly say that the Church Universal recognizes same-sex unions. If this is his meaning, then let me say “I agree.” It is a rather obvious thing to say, but I can find no fault in saying it.

His fifth requirement is perhaps the most interesting--a solid theological grounding. Much work has been done in this regard. I would want to begin, however, with the Archbishop’s own solid theological grounding of the issue in his 1989 essay “The Body’s Grace.” To my reading, he has supplied his fifth requirement himself.

Alternatively, his fourth and fifth requirements may simply be a summary and reiteration of his first three requirements--if so, then see above. I need not repeat myself just because he does.

In conclusion, the Archbishop’s question (Is the Church free to recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings?) is of limited (if any) immediate consequence. Given his requirements for a positive answer (which seem rather self-evident), the answer is “no.” It is the same answer one would have to give for any number of similar questions. We can substitute “papal authority” for “same-sex…” and be driven to the same “no.” We can substitute “the legitimate use of contraceptives” for “same-sex…” and be driven to the same “no.” Virginia Woolf could have asked “Is the Church free to recognize the ordination of women?” and have been driven to the same answer--”no.”

The answer is of no immediate consequence, for the question on everyone’s mind is not this rather academic question--but rather the very practical question “Should the Episcopal Church recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings?” Followed by the question “If the Episcopal Church does recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings, what will be the response of the Archbishop of Canterbury?” On these questions, the Archbishop is silent.

I suspect the Archbishop must then be addressing the Anglican Communion and reassuring those opposed to the actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church that whatever the Episcopal Church does, it does not speak for the whole of the Anglican Communion. Furthermore, I suspect the Archbishop must also be addressing those ecumenical partners of which he speaks and reassuring them that whatever the Episcopal Church does it does not speak on behalf of the whole of the Anglican Communion. If I am correct in this reading, then this one paragraph of his reflection, at least, is descriptive, not proscriptive. He is not indicating how he believes it should be, only trying to accurately describe how it is. If this is indeed his meaning, then I find no fault in it. If, however, I am wrong and he did indeed intend these requirements to be proscriptive, then his argument is seriously flawed (see above).

Next essay--why I may be wrong and the Archbishop may be proscribing requirements for action.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reflecting on Cal Thomas' Reflection

Mr. Thomas begins his article by referencing the '70s comedian Flip Wilson who created a character for his NBC television program called "Reverend Leroy" of "The Church of What's Happenin' Now." The reference is meant to make a connection between contemporary culture and the Episcopal Church, suggesting that the Episcopal Church follows contemporary culture, rather than the mandate of the Gospel.

Mr. Thomas (rightly) says that like some contemporary "reverends," Reverend Leroy was a con artist. Without saying it, he manages to place clergy of the Episcopal Church with "con artists." Such an attack is properly called an ad hominem abusive. He further makes that connection by saying that the "Reverend Leroy would feel right at home in the modern Episcopal Church." Mr. Thomas never explains why clergy who are con artists would feel at home in the Episcopal Church. Mr. Thomas "name calls" then moves on. So far, his piece is without substance.

Mr. Thomas then erroneously says that the Episcopal Church "voted at its denominational meeting in Anaheim, Calif., to end the ban on the ordination of gay bishops". In this instance, he is simply inaccurate (see previous blog entry)

He goes on to say that the Episcopal Church voted to "permit marriage "blessings" for same-sex couples." Again, he is inaccurate. More precisely the Episcopal Church voted to ask its liturgists (the Standing Liturgical Commission) to compile resources for meeting the pastoral needs of same-sex couples. If the 2012 General Convention receives the resources, and if those resources contain a blessing for same-sex couples, it is still unlikely to act on them until 2015. At the earliest, the Episcopal Church is not apt to adopt any liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions for another six years. Mr. Thomas should have said: the "Episcopal Church" took the first step toward what may one day be an approved liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions" As it is, what he did say is inaccurate and misleading. Even at that one should always show some humility when predicting the future, just ask any meteorologist. The Episcopal Church may never adopt such a liturgy, or they may adopt one in 2012. Nobody knows.

So far, his article is either without substance or erroneous. So far, nothing in his article has any merit.

He sites un-named denominational leaders who supposedly explained they are attempting to stem the exodus from their church by embracing a new doctrine they call "inclusivity," which they hope will attract young people. (1) I need to see the actual quote. I doubt seriously any leader of the Episcopal Church would use a phrase like "new doctrine." The phrase sounds more like Cal Thomas than Katharine Jefforts-Schori. As to "doctrine" the Episcopal Church uses the two historic creeds in our worship (Nicene and Apostles) and we have an outline of the faith (a catechism) in the back of the prayer book. There are no other explicit officially authorized doctrines. All other "doctrines" are implied in the liturgy. Mr. Thomas simply does not know what he is talking about. (2) I doubt seriously if any leader of the Episcopal Church would believe (much less say) that the actions taken at General Convention were merely a means ("new doctrine") to an end ("to stem the exodus"). DO25 is about respecting the dignity of every human being--something Episcopalians vow to do at their baptisms. Hardly a means to an end.

Mr. Thomas' then says: "Apparently church leaders think that if they can reach people before they have fully matured in their faith, they can sidetrack them into beliefs that have nothing to do with the God that Episcopalians once claimed to worship and that they can be shaped into practical secularists who are willing to seek the approval of men, rather than God." The key word here is "Apparently." His alleged quote from an un-named source that is itself untrue is now morphed into his own conjecture as to motive. We learn more about Mr. Thomas in this line, than we do about the Episcopal Church. Again, there is no substance in his attack. He has created a "straw man."

If you are counting logical fallacies in his article, you will now need a second hand to keep track.

Beginning with faulty premises, Mr. Thomas then attempts to draw conclusions. As we have seen the whole notion of "inclusivity" in his article is a non sequitur, however, his statements manage to be factually wrong on top of being logically flawed, He says "Inclusivity has nothing to do with the foundational truths set forth in Scripture." Jesus, the Truth, seems to be all about inclusivity in his life and work and died to save the whole world (radically inclusive). Mr. Thomas' account of ecclesiology is also flawed. He says, "The church, which belongs to no denomination, but to its Founding Father and His Son, is about exclusivity for those who deny the faith." (1) Episcopalians are Trinitarians, the correct doctrinal formula is not "Founding Father and His Son" but "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Ironically, Mr. Thomas' way of naming the divine makes him a heretic. Something I feel sure he will wish to avoid being. (2) Rather than the "Body of Christ," Mr. Thomas seems to think the Church is a country club, denying membership to some who break the club rules. In short, his understanding of the Church is so theologically problematic that to address it adequately I would need to write at least another essay dedicated to that theme.

He misunderstands the theology of the Church ("The church is inclusive only for those who are adopted by faith into God's family"). His statement implies that faith is assent to intellectual propositions--a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of faith. The metaphor "adopted" is properly joined with "family of God." So one might correctly say something like: All are invited to God's banquet table. Those that accept the invitation are adopted into the family of God. Mr. Thomas has a habit of making "grammatical" mistakes when trying to speak the "language" of faith.

Once again, he commits the logical fallacy of ad hominem abusivee. He says, "There are more biblical references to this than there is room to cite here, but for the Episcopal leadership, biblical references no longer have the power to persuade, much less compel them to conform." To say that any group of Christians would not be persuaded by holy scripture is to "name call." In this particular case, with regard to Episcopalians, it is a false statement. The resolutions with which he is in disagreement are rooted in a faith informed by prayerful reading of holy scripture. Mr. Thomas should, more accurately say that he reads holy scripture differently--not that Episcopalians are not persuaded by holy scripture and fail to conform to its dictates. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Episcopalians are not persuaded by Mr. Thomas' understanding or holy scripture and do not conform to Mr. Thomas' reading of the Bible.

Again, Mr. Thomas bases his conclusion on faulty premises. He says, "That's because Episcopal leadership has denied the teachings of Scripture..." The key words here are "That's because." He is attempting to make a logical inference. But in logic, true conclusions only necessarily follow from true premises. As has been shown, his premises are false.

He finishes that sentence with another wrong-headed assertion: "... in favor of, well, inclusivity, a word that appears nowhere in Scripture." Again, the ministry of Jesus was all about being inclusive. If Episcopalians are about inclusivity (and he has not shown that they are--he has just asserted it), then Episcopalians would be in conformity with the life and teachings of Jesus.

He then does more name calling: "Episcopal heretics — for that is what they are".

He supposes that Episcopalians would not want to use the word "inclusivity" but "would choose another word to make them feel more comfortable." While Episcopalians have not used the word "inclusivity" (at least not that Mr. Thomas has cited in his article), he has not shown that the concept is unbiblical or incongruous with the Christian faith. Even with all that said, he misses the point when he concludes "accommodation with the world seems to be a more important objective than the favor of God." Who exactly is making accommodation with the world is not self-evident. If the Episcopal Church did what he claims (and they did not), it is hard to see such an action as accommodating the world when the United States has enacted a "Defense of Marriage Act" and 20 states have amended their constitutions to ensure that marriage is unavailable to same-sex couples" In my own state the amendment passed with a 75% majority. A prima facia case can be made that those who are against same-sex couples being able to marry are following culture rather than the mandate of the Gospel.

Mr. Thomas then attacks President Carter, the most overtly religious of Presidents. President Carter attended Church regularly before, during and after taking office. In Georgia, he taught Sunday School. Even as President, Mr. Thomas correctly notes that he "occasionally taught a Sunday school class." President Carter does indeed claim to believe holy scripture and Mr. Thomas is correct that President Carter is convinced that a woman's right to choose to have an abortion is not incompatible with the teachings of scripture. And Mr. Thomas is correct that President Carter recently announced his support for same-sex "civil unions." And Mr. Thomas is correct when he says President Carter "says he sees nothing prohibitive in Scripture to such arrangements." While President Carter is not an Episcopalian (he is a Baptist), Mr. Thomas does demonstrate that someone who is committed to the authority of scripture and has been a student of holy scripture across a lifetime, can hold positions different from those held by Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas misses the point of his own example. Mr. Thomas then commits another ad hominem abusive by saying, "Carter must have gotten hold of a Reader's Digest condensed version [of the Bible]."

Mr. Thomas concludes his piece with another attack on Episcopalians, arguing that they have accommodated culture--rather than being faithful to Christianity. He says, "If the church — Episcopal, Baptist, or whatever — is to be a beacon to an increasingly dark world, it must know not only what it believes but in Whom it has placed its faith. For these Episcopalians and the kinds of Baptists admired by Jimmy Carter, it is a church that has made its bed in the world, and it has as much power to illuminate as a burned-out bulb." In so concluding, Mr. Thomas again fails to recognize that in so far as Episcopalians (or Carter) are guilty of believing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires us to take certain actions that may be different from the actions Mr. Thomas has taken, it does not necessarily follow that Episcopalians are the one's simply accommodating culture. One could just as easily make the argument that it is Mr. Thomas who is the accomodationist.

Ultimately, Mr. Thomas' piece is obviously not about being logically sound or factually accurate. In fairness to him, it must be said that he probably did not intend the piece to be either. In the piece, he is acting as "cheerleader" to those readers who already agree with his politics (and/or to a lessor extent his theology). He most likely was not trying to write a substantive and carefully reasoned piece. Thus, the spiritual gift of discernment is therefore beyond the scope of his interests. If, however, he would wish to write a substantive reflection on the recent actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, then I would encourage him to give some thought to how communities of faith determine (that is discern) God's will in the midst of their own context--temporal and geographic. In the United States, in 2009, how should Christians respond to some states legalizing same-sex unions and many more ammending their constitutions to prohibit it?

Cal Thomas & DO25

Mr. Thomas does not understand or willingly misrepresents the situation in the Episcopal Church in a recent op-ed piece.

Background: Thirteen resolutions were proposed to deal with the 2006 statement that called for a "moratorium" on ordaining gay bishops—a misnomer for the appeal for restraint. Six resolutions called for repealing the statement; another six called for strengthening it.

The 13th resolution included a description of where we are as a church right now. This was the resolution that became DO25. Bishop Bruce Caldwell of Wyoming is reported as having said DO25 was "largely descriptive of where we are today". Affirming my "read" of the resolution (see above).

Mr. Thomas should be more careful in his "reporting" and not base his opinion pieces on misinformation.