All Saints: a Prayer for Comprehension

Sometimes Jesus teaching doesn’t sit well with our sense of timing. Let me offer an example. If you were a Chicago Cubs fan at any time over the last 107 years “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” could feel a little trite. A Cards fan last year wouldn’t have wanted to quote to a Cubs fan “blessed are you who weep.” It would have felt paternalistic. For over a century the Cubbies had cause to ask “When is that laughter coming God?” But on Wednesday night this week, the laughter came. You can be sure some of the saints above were laughing too.

Cards fans, don’t lament. Remember, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” (Plus, now when we beat the Cubs next season, we don’t have to feel as bad).

The depth of Jesus’ teaching is how it holds together seeming opposites in life: joy and pain. Every life lived fully contains measures of weeping and of laughter. God is with us in the extremes and in the humdrum of daily life. God’s love is comprehensive.

I’ve mentioned before one of my favorite prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. It comes in the office of compline, the prayers we say at the end of each day:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

This prayer, like our service today, seeks to comprehend the fullness of life. Give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, AND shield the joyous. There is a fullness to this prayer. As I said, there’s a stretch to our liturgy today as well. This morning we will give thanks for life at its very beginning, as we baptize two young souls, and we will bless those who have died as we dedicate our altar of remembrance. We will hold together the two ends of life with blessing.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about holding things together. I’m betting that many of you, like me, are weary of this election season. We’ve been so embattled as a country, and now some are worrying whether we have drawn lines so deeply that after Tuesday has come and gone, we will have a difficult time coming out of the trenches. Will we hold together? Regardless of the outcome?

Then in the midst of this last week came the feast day of Richard Hooker, the theologian with the funny name, who lived in a similarly divided day. By the time Hooker was ordained the church in England had been Catholic, Protestant, Catholic again, and had finally settled with Queen Elizabeth I somewhere on a middle ground. But Richard Hooker saw and described a unique giftedness to this middle way, the via media. The Prayer for his feast day includes this phrase inspired by his writing:

[God] Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.

There’s that word again, “comprehension.”

As Anglicans, we speak of the virtue of “comprehensiveness.” In one Church we hold together and celebrate Protestant and Catholic traditions. We’ve held together different perspectives, political parties, and viewpoints. And our quintessential theologian asks us to see this holding together not as a compromise to maintain the peace, but as a stretching to hold a wider truth.

It strikes me that many of those we consider “saints” lived in a way that was marked by comprehension. They found ways to hold together difficult opposites. They were present to the highs and lows of life. Saints seem often to be set apart, made holy, by their ability to see opposing forces and to find another way through.

The Episcopal Priest and Contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault seeks that sense of Comprehensiveness as she writes about the Trinity in her latest book. She sees in the Trinity, the “three-ness” of God, a way out of polarity: this or that, the either/or liberal/conservative patterns of our day. Like Richard Hooker, for Bourgeault, the truth is not something I hold on my own. The truth is not something I hold over your head to show you that you are wrong.

Imagine, she says, our political conversations transformed by a Trinitarian perspective which teaches:

“the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but only through creating a new field of possibility large enough to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction.”

“The enemy is never the problem, but the opportunity.” How often do we see our opponents this way? Bourgeault points to a basic wisdom in Christianity: there is always a third way. None of us has a monopoly on truth.

Jesus’ teaching this morning challenged those who thought they held the truth. In Luke’s Gospel, these are his first words of teaching to his newly chosen apostles. “Blessed are you who are poor.” Can you feel the shockwaves? Throughout time and eternity, wealth and health have been interpreted at signs of God’s blessing. After all Job’s suffering, God gives him great wealth. Even today, how often do we hear someone say of their many possessions: “I am blessed.”

“Blessed are you who are poor.” The words were a challenge to his own followers, and they are a challenge to those of us who seek to follow Jesus today. “Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, when people hate you:” this is not the popular wisdom of our day. This isn’t a popular idea in any day. But Jesus is turning our sensibility upside down. Jesus is challenging us to take a different perspective. Jesus wants us to comprehend.

I think this teaching, like much of Jesus’ teaching, challenges us not simply to change our view from one side to another. Jesus did not play the games of his day. He didn’t pick one side in a debate over another. Jesus re-wrote the playbook. He challenged his followers to grow, to see opponents as opportunities to grow, to wrap our minds around ever-widening ideas. Jesus invites us to comprehend.

And so this day, we hold together, with all the saints, the whole of life. We look for God in the beginning and in the end. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians we pray for “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s Love. We pray that God might continue to Keep Watch with ALL, ALL those saints and souls who work or watch or weep. We pray that God might continue to shield the joyous. And all for thy love’s sake.

Trinity, Baptism, and Life Lived Deeply

In the name of God. The Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself.

We’ve packed a great deal into this Sunday. I know. You probably picked up that bulletin and it felt a bit hefty today. 16 pages Angela, our church administrator assures me, 16 pages is more pages than usual. Baptisms. Thanksgivings for Ministry. Great music from the choir as we celebrate their last Sunday until September. There’s a lot going on today.

This Sunday is also Trinity Sunday, and usually the rector doesn’t preach. A seminarian, assistant rector, or passerby is thrust into the pulpit with the task of explaining one of Christianity’s most complex and confounding doctrines. We have a lot going on today, so in eight and a half minutes let me explain to you the mystery of the Trinity.

Here’s a hint where it comes to religion, not that you asked for one, but regardless, here’s a hint: If a religious teacher claims to be able to explain God, RUN. I mean that. If I get into a very self-assured moment and try to explain the fullness of God, stop me. The Trinity assures us, we don’t have God figured out. God is mystery.

And Nicodemus finds himself deep in mystery with Jesus. The teacher of Israel comes to Jesus by night, under the cover of darkness. Hoping to hear some explanation. Instead, Jesus leaves him holding a lot of mystery. All of this language of “being born from above,” Nicodemus isn’t sure how to make head or tails of it. Sometimes after Jesus teaches a parable, you get a little aside afterward where Jesus explains things to his disciples: The seed that fell on the road is this, the seed that fell in the good soil is that. We don’t get such an explanation of Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus.

So what do we make of all of this mysterious language from Jesus? A lot of the language here in third chapter of John’s Gospel finds itself into our language about Baptism. Born again. Born by water and the Spirit. It’s there in the Baptismal liturgy.

We’re about to baptize Jack and Arden into the Church. What do we mean by “born again” and “born from above?” Why do we mean by “water and the Spirit?” What is this baptized life we’re describing? The short answer: it’s a mystery.

But we have to approach mystery, like Nicodemus, so let me give you my best approximation of Baptism, Water, Spirit, Trinity, and Christian life? Sometimes it helps to start at the end.

Have you ever thought about what your friends and family will say at your funeral? Who will write your eulogy? What will they say?

As someone who has preached at a few funerals, I can tell you, listing someone’s resume usually doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to name the value and blessing of a life. When you’re talking about what a human life meant, listing accomplishments, degrees, and awards rarely means much. Eulogists don’t use descriptors like “effective” or “successful.” The last thing you want to hear a minister say at your funeral is, “Sarah was punctual.”

No, funeral virtues are different. The quality of a human life, measured at its end, is deeper. When we mark the passing of a human life well-lived, we hear adjectives like loving, caring, funny, engaging, and creative. We hear stories of good listening, of daring ventures, and of deep loves.

In the end, we measure life less by material accomplishments than by inner depth. How giving, loving, loyal, and adventurous was this person? That’s what we really care about. I think that’s what Jesus cares about as well, and I believe that’s what he’s saying to Nicodemus.

You see, even in the time of Jesus, the world’s narrative of life was pretty stuck on material success. If you won battles. If you earned money. If you held power, you were thought to be blessed. We know that narrative well. It’s the narrative of our world as well. From birth to death: work hard to accumulate wealth. Fill up that retirement account. Work to earn the highest position. Get the best grades. Get into the right college. Marry the right spouse. Work for the right firm. Get the title “director” or “manager.” Add another zero to your paycheck. Unchecked, our world has a strong narrative for us, from birth to death.

I think that’s why Jesus was big into being “born again.” Check that narrative, he’s saying. You’re not born just to accumulate. In the sys of God, human life is not about power and wealth. At their funerals, I’ve heard the very rich and the very poor described as generous, loving, and kind. Wealth and power aren’t the point. Money makes certain things easier, true. But I think that with all of this “being born from above” stuff Jesus is saying, check the world’s narrative. You’re born for something deeper.

How do we get there? How do we access this mysterious life of Jesus? The mysterious life of God? I’m glad you asked.

This morning, as we celebrate the holy mystery of Baptism, we will make a series of promises. We’ll promise to continue in the apostles teaching, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. We’ll promise to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. We’ll promise to resist evil. We’ll promise to proclaim the Gospel. We’ll promise to work for justice and peace. All of those practices, all of them, help us to go deeper. But they describe the deep life more than how to get there.

There’s a promise we’ll make at the beginning of the service that matters a great deal, especially if we’re serious about “being born from above.” After Jack and Arden have been presented by their parents and Godparents, I’ll turn to the whole congregation and ask of you: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” The appropriate response is “We will!” The appropriate volume is loud. Let’s practice that.

Here’s why I think that promise is so important. I believe we only work on the deeper virtues, we only come into the hard work of growing up as moral beings. We only become more caring, more loving, more kind, in relationship. Relationships are at the heart of it all. In his new book, *The Road to Character*, the journalist David Brooks writes, “Moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs.”

Godparents, you have your work cut out for you. We promise to live lives worthy of Jack and Arden, worthy of their admiration. In Christian community, we understand that we grow up, we grow as human beings, we grow more loving, more faithful, more wise, only in relationship to others who are already loving, faithful, and wise. I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he tells Nicodemus to be “born from above.” In faithful community we learn to look up to people who are living life, and have lived life well. We learn about generosity and love.

And, in the end, that sense of community may be one of the best approaches to the Trinity you can find. Through all of the high theology, the questions of people and substance, and co-existence, the real teaching is this: God is all about relationship. Mister Eckhart the Christian mystic once explained the Trinity poetically this way, and please excuse the gendered pronouns. Eckhart lived a long time ago: “The Father of laughed, and the Son was born. The Father and Son then laughed together, and the Spirit was born. The three then started laughing and humanity was born.”

I love that explanation of God’s life because Eckhart gets the joy and the complexity of God. God is not some static principle, but as they say in Spanish “es una dynamica.” God is dynamic. In Spanish “dynamica” calls to mind the beauties and the difficulties of relationship. It works in English as well. Don’t we talk about “family dynamics?”

Relationships are difficult. I am always surprised when people tell me they don’t believe in God anymore because something happened that caused them to doubt. I want to say, “have you never been in a relationship?” Or “have you never had a deep friendship.” Like any relationship, the relationship God invites us into is not easy. I suspect there are quite of few of us, who, if asked to specify our relationship with God on Facebook, would select the option “it’s complicated.”

That’s okay, even among the baptized. I believe “complication” is what God wants. After all, God is a mystery. And if the mystery of the Trinity teaches us anything, it is this: God desires relationship with us, with all of its dynamics. Because in relationship we grow up. In relationship we learn how to be people with depth. That’s what we’re celebrating on this packed Sunday: all of the complexity and vitality of our lives together. In all of life’s complexities, through relationship with God and with one another, we learn to live deeply. We learn to be born from above.

Liturgy for Lent: Moments of Transition

Mike: Let’s turn for a moment from Eucharist. I think we’ll still do a supplemental post on Eucharistic prayers, but I want to talk about the other moments in the prayer book. If you look at the order of the services in the prayer book, there’s a sense of order that emerges. After the daily office, services start to line up along the trajectory of human life. Baptism is followed by Eucharist. Next comes Confirmation or commitment to Christian Service, Marriage, Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child, Reconciliation (confession), Anointing the Sick, Ministration at the time of Death, and Burial. I always found it funny that after burial came ordination… I’d like to cover the big ones: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Burial. The prayer book seeks to accompany the faithful through meaningful transitions in life. In the church make the changes in life the liturgical work of faith.

Jason: During the ‘80’s and ‘90’s it became hugely popular in many evangelical churches to organize ministry around stages of life. Over time, this often became a ministry model of siloed age groups. Households went their separate ways upon arriving at church. On the heels of this era, I think what we’ve learned is that marking stages of life is more important than organizing around stages of life. The marking of stages of life is a very ancient, cross-cultural habit that many are rediscovering. And the integration of age groups in church programing is something we’ve found to be true, at least with young adults, in a study we did the Diocese of Washington last year. Mike, can you take us through how this occurs in the Episcopal Church?

Mike: Baptism really helped re-shape the 1979 Prayer Book. The framers of these liturgies wanted us to see baptism as THE initiation into the faith. It’s pretty obvious from the service that they had in mind adult candidates being baptized at the Easter Vigil. However, baptism is still usually performed in infancy in The Episcopal Church. We baptize babies, and their godparents and parents make promises for them. What is new for this prayer book, and has started to influence other churches is the idea of a Baptismal Covenant (pages 304-305). Ancient Christians had to profess the Creed to be baptized. The Baptismal Covenant returns to that pattern, and adds a series of promises about the Christian life to the liturgical work of the candidates. The idea is that we are a people shaped by our baptism. We return to this Covenant again and again in the liturgical year, to remember who we are as a people.

Jason: I baptized my two oldest children in the Pacific Ocean when they each decided they were ready to choose to live by such a covenant. Infant baptism is new for me. Nonetheless, I deeply appreciate how the Baptismal Covenant is framed in the Episcopal Church. It’s all about discipleship!

As you know, Brooke and I are planning to go through Confirmation. Can you unpack Confirmation a little?

Mike: For years Confirmation has been called “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Dr. Lisa Kimball from Virginia Seminary is part of a Lilly funded grant program to study confirmation across several denominations. She wrote a great post about the potential for confirmation in the lives of young people. Still, Confirmation is one of the biggest issues in this prayer book. Lisa points out in her post the contradictions written into the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Part of what gives Confirmation life is that it is a ceremony reserved for bishops.  Confirmations can only be performed by a bishop, and the bishop represents the wider church. For most teenagers, and adult converts, confirmation is their first liturgical exposure to the “big church,” that is to the wider body of believers they belong to.

Jason: Lisa is incredible! Glad you sited her. Going back to that word ‘discipleship’ I like that confirmation takes membership in the church family seriously. It isn’t flippant. This is not a social club. It’s much more than that. It’s a way of life. As a priest, what is one of these stage-of-life marking moments that you appreciate the most?

Mike: One of the gifts of being a priest is getting to preside at weddings. I’ve really enjoyed that part of the work, and I’m really looking forward to where our denomination is going this summer around opening the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. There is one moment in our service that I think captures the sense of a liturgical wedding. Just after the bride and groom consent to take each other as husband and wife, the celebrant turns to the whole congregation. She asks, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The congregation responds enthusiastically (if the celebrant coached them well at the rehearsal): “We will.” This moment captures the whole idea of liturgy. It helps us to understand that yes, marriage is in some ways a private relationship, but we bless marriages in public because there is a public dimension. We need one anothers’ support and prayers. I remember seeing newly married friends of ours sit on your porch when we used to live in San Diego. They were looking for you advice as someone who had been married awhile. Now that I’m married, I’ve turned to you more than once for pointers. Marriage helps us understand that the big moments in Christian life need the support of community. Marriage is public work.

Jason: After you left the east coast, Brooke and I found ourselves in a new place with zero community. (No guilt trip intended, friend) It was certainly one of the hardest moments in our marriage until we started developing a new circle of friends in DC. It does take a community to build a marriage. I’ve seen isolation kill more marriages than I’d like to admit. What you articulated, Mike, is one of the great gifts of being married within a Christian community. I could go on about this but let’s move on! We’ve talked about some of the happier moments of life that Church marks for us. What else?

Mike: Walking together through illness and death can be a profoundly sacred journey. When people ask why they should join a church, I often want to say “if you don’t, and you end up sick, who will visit you in the hospital?” I often come up with another reason or two to share first, because this comes off a little morbid. But I think it is one of the most important gifts of a faith community. We are a people who acknowledge that this life is finite, that suffering and sickness are real. We have faith that death is not the end of the story, that life continues in God. In moments of sickness and death, liturgy helps makes meaning of confusing and frightening life circumstances. In the burial liturgy we pray the ancient prayer, “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Praying liturgy together through loss can help us make meaning, and remember our faith.

Jason: Amen.