Archive for the ‘Diocese of Albany’ Category

Sermon for Pentecost – May 24, 2015

May 25, 2015

Acts 2:1-21 This is that.

A little over fourteen years ago I came out of seminary from The General Theological Seminary (GTS) in Manhattan. Mark Richardson taught systematic theology and Tom Breidenthal taught moral theology. Mark Richardson is now dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, which is an Episcopal Church Seminary in Berkeley, CA. Tom Breidenthal is presently the Bishop of Southern Ohio, and one of the four nominees to become the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (the election of the next PB is next month in Utah)

It was a pretty unusual arrangement, because both Profs. Richardson and Breidenthal used the same systematic theology textbooks.

The three books were written by James W. McClendon, Jr. Ethics (1986
); Doctrine (1994); 
Witness (2000).

Jim McClendon started out as a Southern Baptist. Later, he was a theologian in the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists are Christians of the Radical Reformation. The descendants of the original Anabaptists include the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists!

McClendon taught for 46 years at various schools:
Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the University of San Francisco, Stanford University, the University of Notre Dame, Fuller Theological Seminary, Baylor University, Temple University, Goucher College, Saint Mary’s College of California, and Church Divinity School of the Pacific. His longest appointment was at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

McClendon helped found what came to be known as the narrative theology movement in the late 1960s.

So, I attended an Episcopal Church Seminary in the Anglo-Catholic tradition where both the systematic theology and the moral theology professors used the same textbooks written by a former Southern Baptist from Texas, who had converted as an adult into an Anabaptist.

When someone is a good teacher – he or she is a good teacher – it sort of doesn’t matter where he comes from. Southern Baptist, Mennonite, Catholic, who cares?

I could go on and on about James McClendon. His first major book was called Biography as Theology. He thought we all could profit by reading about the lives of people who lived out their faith. In Biography as Theology he presents the lives of Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr, Clarence Jordan, and the composer Charles Ives.

In McClendon’s systematic theology books we read stories about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The question always was: What motivated these lives, and how did they handle adversity?

The other thing McClendon did was turn us back to the biblical stories. The stories in the Bible had become embarrassing myths and fictional accounts for many theologians of the 20th century.

McClendon is well known for three words: “This is that.”

“This is that” comes from today’s first reading in the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. McClendon was using the King James Bible. In our translation, and in most modern translations, this is rendered as “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.” It is the 16th verse of the 2nd chapter.

The KJV has “but this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.”

In the first chapter of Acts the text says there were about 120 people gathered together: The eleven faithful disciples, Matthias (who was Judas’ replacement), Jesus’ mother Mary, various women disciples, relatives and other disciples.

And then they have this tremendous experience together, which we hear about in church every year on this day. People began mocking them, and rumors were spread that the Christians were drunk. Peter stands up and says these people are not drunk! No, “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” And then he proceeds to quote from the Prophet Joel.

People generally think that prophecy is prediction. Prophecy is often actually something completely different. The Prophets are really saying something about their own times, if only to reject the status quo.

It is certainly true (for instance) that when Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream” he was criticizing the society he was living in. But in another way, Dr. King is speaking to us now.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

And when that day comes, whether in Georgia, Mississippi, or Troy, NY the people will recognize what Dr. King said, and they will say, “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!”

“This [NOW] is that [THEN]”

Jim McClendon’s insight about “this is that” is important because Christians are always confronted with skeptics who doubt the truth of our convictions. It is hard to prove that we know God in Jesus Christ. We don’t get drunk at our Sunday services, but maybe we are just delusional?

But, there are those times when we do see the Kingdom of God on earth:

– Homeless people grateful for our gifts of toilet paper and socks.
– Times like yesterday when a motley crew of various saints of the church came out to St. Paul’s to do yard work.
– I remember so vividly the night I was volunteering in a shelter, and a young Syrian homeless man with epilepsy came in – a man who did not have work papers, a man who couldn’t keep steady work because every week or so he would land in the hospital with grand mal seizures. Well, this young man came in one night caring for another old man, who was mentally disabled. The Syrian man helped him get some food, get him ready for bed, and tucked him in. I still don’t know why he cared for the other man. They weren’t related. It was just so kind.

And I wish I could have known then to stand up in the middle of that homeless shelter and say, “Some people will say this is sad. Here is a homeless man taking care of another homeless man? But I say this is that which was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”

In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used this same text from Isaiah, chapter 40 in his “I have dream” speech, which just goes to show that Dr. King was using “this is that” himself when he prophesied in Washington, DC in 1963. He was not predicting a date when his dream would come true. He was telling a truth that was ignored.

May each one of us hear in Scripture those words that will open our eyes to the truth around us. May we recognize Beauty in the commonplace, Wisdom in the powerless, and see the Kingdom of God even here in Troy, NY. Amen.

A Meditation on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants

April 2, 2014

Matthew 21: 33-45
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants presents many interpretive difficulties. Is the story about the promises God made to ancient Israel? Is it about Jesus and his conflict with the Jewish religious leaders? Or is it about the futility of violence?

My short answer is “Yes!” The parable is all about that and much more. People have been listening to this parable for close to 2000 years, and many different meanings and points of view have been offered. How then, do we apply such a complicated parable to our own lives?

My approach is guided by two rules. First, is to be faithful to Christ, making sure that other Scripture does not deny what Scripture specifically says about Jesus. Second, is to be faithful to the unity of the Bible, so that the whole combined story of both the Old and New Testaments is congruent with what Scripture says about Jesus.

The other thing that guides me is less of a rule, and more just a way of picturing things. The Biblical past shows a way to understand my own particular circumstances. It is helpful to see my own struggles and blessings mirrored in the Bible, all the while knowing there is built-in to the story of my life (and the Bible) a promise of a glorious future.

When we do this, we are simply following in the footsteps of Jesus’ first disciples. As Jesus steps up to tell a story about someone who planted a vineyard, his listeners immediately hear a similar story that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah told about a vineyard.

“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. [H]e looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” (Isaiah 5: 2, 7b RSV).

The situation that Jesus describes is exactly the same! Certainly, Jesus is telling a story that provokes the “chief priests and the Pharisees,” but at the very same time he is re-telling a very old and continuing story of God’s faithfulness, and humanity’s corresponding unfaithfulness.

Some will not be persuaded. They want historical evidence and documentation. They want the story authenticated. In fact, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (told in all the synoptic Gospels) actually provides a solid Jewish interpretation of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. It also shows Jesus to be controversial, and having deeply offended the very people who finally plot his death.

But, in the end Jesus is speaking through the Bible not to detached readers, but to faithful readers. And much the same way as I read a letter from my spouse, to read faithfully is to read carefully and to respond appropriately. How then, do we, as Christians in loving relationship with our Lord, tend the vineyard in such a manner that the resulting harvest is bountiful and worthy of praise?

 

A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Bestow upon me, O Lord my God, an understanding that knows thee, wisdom in finding thee, a way of life that is pleasing to thee, perseverance that faithfully waits for thee, and confidence that I shall embrace thee at the last. Amen.

 

Matthew 21: 33-45 Revised Standard Version
33 ¶ “Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.
34 When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit;
35 and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them.
37 Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’
39 And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
44
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.

On trying to do theology without getting co-opted by the man, who in this case happens to be a very nice liberal academic.

July 10, 2010

Up until fairly recently Christian theology was taught at mainline seminaries in the following order:

1. Prolegomena, also called Fundamental (“First”) Theology, Foundations for Theology, or Philosophical Foundations for Theology.
2. Doctrine.
3. Ethics.

I was taught theology at The General Theological Seminary, NYC, by Mark Richardson (The Very Rev. Dr. W. Mark Richardson, recently appointed the Dean and President of Church Divinity School of the Pacific) and Tom Breidenthal (The Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas E. Breidenthal, the present Bishop of Southern Ohio, Episcopal Church). Both of these professors were in turn taught at one time by Jim McClendon (James William McClendon Jr. (1924-2000)), who was a Christian theologian in the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists are Christians of the Radical Reformation. The descendants of the original Anabaptists include the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists!

McClendon’s greatest work is a systematic presentation of Christian theology in three volumes (Abingdon Press):

Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1, 1986
Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 1994
Witness: Systematic Theology, Volume 3, 2000

I had the great honor of being taught Ethics by Breidenthal, and Doctrine by Richardson. Both professors used McClendon’s texts. The experience was transformative.

You can see right away that McClendon’s order is different from other systematics. He said Christians from the Radical Reformation haven’t written much theology because they were

1. too busy being persecuted and
2. too busy practicing their faith, and making a living.

It takes a long time to write theology, and one needs an income and some leisure to do it – so it isn’t surprising there is so little Anabaptist theology.

For McClendon the first task of being a Christian is discipleship, which involves living a particular kind of life in a community of shared practices. This is “first order” Christianity, or living the Christian Ethic.

“Second order” Christianity is reflecting on, and sharing the faith (Doctrine and Witness). This would include theology and philosophy (especially that branch of philosophy which attempts to understand other convictional communities – often labeled, “Philosophy of Religion.”)

McClendon offers an interesting critique of theology done since the Enlightenment:
1. A Christian doesn’t have to submit first to universal philosophical categories before discipleship.
2. A Christian doesn’t need theology or philosophy to practice Christianity, but needs to use theology and philosophy in order to enter into dialogue with people from other traditions.

The primary issue here is whether theology should be subject to non-Christian standards for the verification of truth. In fact, in many quarters, (especially academia) theology has submitted to so-called universal philosophical categories. As a result, Christian faith and practice have been relegated to a private sphere of value, opinion and sentiment.

For those, like myself, who think that the living practice of Christian self-understanding and identification determines its “applicability [for] a general criteria of meaning,” the effort should be rather to “correlate theology as a procedure subject to formal, universal, and transcendental criteria for valid thinking.” * The difference here is between agreed forms of rationality as opposed to universal rational standards for establishing what is true.

Fortunately, there has been a degree of convergence in method (“criteria for valid thinking”) between various fields of study. One of the major developments in science, philosophy and theology in recent years has been a growing appreciation for the social aspect inherent in the practice of each of these disciplines. This movement, which some have labeled post-modernism, places an emphasis on the importance of language, narrative, and culture in the formation of systems of thought, communities of discourse and shared moral practices.

* Quotation from Hans W. Frei in Types of Christian Theology (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), edited by George Hunsinger and William C. Placher, p. 3.

Coming home to faith

June 27, 2010

A Facebook friend asked me to participate in a blog discussion about salvation, especially as it concerns the death of Jesus. I decided to offer first, a personal account of my return to Christian faith as an adult. I followed up later with my opinions about the significance of Jesus’ death. Here is the first installment:

I came to Christian faith as an adult, after many years of drifting around spiritually. I had experienced deep peace, and the presence of God in church, as a kid in Catholic school. I was an altar boy and for a time had considered the priesthood, but that all fell away as I reached my teenage years.

Returning to church as an adult was unnerving, because I felt that there was so much going on in the worship service, even as I tended to approach the truth claims of Christianity with cynicism. I remember discussing with a Catholic friend my qualms about receiving communion, since I didn’t believe that the bread and wine changed into Jesus’ body and blood. She said, “Well, obviously something happens, doesn’t it?” And I had to admit this was true, and so I began receiving communion again as an adult – looking forward to it each week – and then twice a week, attending a Wednesday noon healing service also – which was an hour drive from my home.

After a few years I went to college and then to seminary. By this time I was in my forties and it was both very difficult and exhilarating to be immersed in intensive study of subjects that I had only dabbled in previously. Among other things in college, I studied the Bible, biblical languages, and philosophy. In seminary I pursued theology, especially systematics.

All the way up until about midway through seminary I remained divided between my experience of the mysteries of faith and my intellectual understanding. Mostly, as I look back, this was due to the fact that I received the gifts of the Spirit at the Eucharist without questioning them. But my intellectual understanding was limited by philosophical pre-conceptions – and because I thought of myself as a pretty open-minded guy – I was mostly oblivious to my errors in thinking.

In two specific ways I think I was limited. First, without consciously being aware of it at the time, I was firmly committed to A. J. Ayer’s verification principle, which posits that for a question or statement to have meaning it had to be capable of being proved to be true.

Second, I had a view of history that was shaped largely by Hegel. This perspective assumes that each successive movement (or era) in history resolves the contradictions and errors of the previous era.

As I worked my way through the actual history of the various Christian doctrines, I became more familiar with conversations that have been going on within the Church (and between other convictional communities) since the beginning. These discussions – categorized generally as epistemology, ontology, soteriology, sanctification, theodicy, and eschatology – require the student to challenge him/herself to painful exposure (the original purpose of the Socratic dialogues) to one’s own tendency for self-deception.

Finally, I was helped immensely by Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself an eccentric Christian, who completely changed his mind on his understanding of the nature of philosophical (and moral) problems. Eventually, he began to see these as errors in the use of language –  grammatical mistakes, rather than actual philosophical problems – in which the human mind persists in imagining a difficulty when the problem is simply a mistake in how one considers the evidence. He used a drawing, which I found very helpful. It is a rabbit/duck and it is either one depending on how you look at it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Duckrabbit.jpg

1. Salvation: The Death of Jesus

June 27, 2010

re: the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus

It was suggested that Christians could be grouped into two camps:

1. Those who emphasize Jesus’ death, and
2. Those who emphasize his life.

Obviously, these are generalizations – some might say caricatures. But if I accept that Christians could be grouped this way, what are the distinctive features of each group? Who are these people?

I do not think I belong in either group, but maybe I can offer my opinion anyway, and then follow up with my point of view.

I. “Those who emphasize his death”

A. Those who gave us pre-modern Atonement theology: the ransom theory (Origen, c. 185-254), the satisfaction theory (Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), and the moral influence theory (St. Augustine, 354-430 and Peter Abelard 1079-1142).

B. Those who represent modern (over)-reactions to “those who emphasize Jesus’ life”:

1. Those early 20th century conservative Protestants and their heirs: “A belief in the authenticity of miracles was one of five tests established in 1910 by the Presbyterian Church to distinguish true believers from false professors of faith such as “educated, ‘liberal’ Christians.”

2. Some traditionalists: Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, is a pious reflection on the “Stations of the Cross,” but goes over the line into an extended meditation on sadism, as it attempts to show that Jesus suffered more than any other man.

II. “Those who emphasize Jesus’ life”

A. Those who are the heirs of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason: The Enlightenment brought advances in scientific knowledge, and more adequate explanations for natural events and processes.

B. Those who embraced modern Biblical interpretation: In the 19th century some Christians increasingly became uncomfortable with what they saw as cultic traditions and “pagan” belief systems having infected the biblical accounts.

2. Salvation: The Death of Jesus

June 27, 2010

III. “My position”

A. So what’s wrong with “those who emphasize his death”?

1. Actually, the death of Jesus does not feature prominently in the early Church. For many years the death of the founder of the Church by crucifixion was an obstacle to recruitment – a serious public relations problem.

2. The various atonement theories, especially the satisfaction theory, reflect a pre-modern feudal society and hence, the prevailing ideas concerning justice. If there ever was a preoccupation with Jesus’ death, it certainly comes after the 11th century – long after crucifixion lost its strong association with shame and scandal. There weren’t any “naked, suffering” type crucifixes before the 12th century, and with the outbreaks of bubonic plague that may have killed as many as 25 million people in the 14th century, it is understandable that death increasingly became an important theme of the middle Ages.

3. The Christians who emphasize Jesus’ death today often seem to be reacting against a perceived moral decline in and after modernity, which they blame on Liberal Christianity’s tendency to stress the humanist teachings of Jesus.

B. So what’s wrong with “those who emphasize Jesus’ life”?

The Liberal Christian tradition (not to be confused with a progressive political agenda) is an outgrowth of modern biblical interpretation. It developed in a Christian context and generally, as Western society has become more secular, tends to be characterized by reservations about the Bible. It is also reticent about traditional teaching on the Resurrection of Jesus, The Virgin Mary, miracles, hell, original sin, etc.

The text probably most associated with Liberal Theology is “The Essence of Christianity” by Adolph Von Harnack (published in 1900). Harnack sought to strip Christianity of purported pagan influences in order to present Jesus as an exemplary teacher of ethical values. He thought the essence of the Christian faith consisted of

1. The Fatherhood Of God.
2. The Brotherhood Of Man.
3. The Infinite Value Of The Human Soul.

Later, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) criticized Harnack for domesticating Jesus – basically turning him into a figure palatable for modern tastes, and leaving out the real context for understanding Jesus: Jewish apocalyptic expectations for a messiah. Unfortunately, Schweitzer ended up concluding that Jesus died in a failed attempt to bring an end to the present age.

Schweitzer saw that Liberal Christianity, while attempting to address the concerns of modernity, completely failed to honor the concerns of the authors of the New Testament.

3. Salvation: The Death of Jesus

June 27, 2010

C. What do I think is important about the death of Jesus?

Last Wednesday, in our regular parish Bible study, we read the ninth chapter of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes I, during the 5th century BCE. The king allowed Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem, serve as governor, and rebuild the wall of the city. After the work was done, Nehemiah assembled the people who had returned from exile. They stood in sackcloth and ashes, and made a renewal of their covenant with God. But before they made the covenant, Ezra the priest recites the history of their relationship with God. He says:

7 Thou art the LORD, the God who didst choose Abram and bring him forth out of Ur of the Chaldeans and give him the name Abraham; 8 and thou didst find his heart faithful before thee, and didst make with him the covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite; and thou hast fulfilled thy promise, for thou art righteous. 9 “And thou didst see the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and hear their cry at the Red Sea, etc. Nehemiah 9:7-9, RSV

This type of narrative-in-worship is a distinctive feature of Hebrew/Jewish writing, and it is an essential part of their collective identity. The people remember who they are – finding their identity – by recounting their history as the people of God. He is their God, who has been faithful, always providing for them, even when they were unfaithful.

We can see the same type of “holy remembering” much earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“5 “And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 7 Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; 8 and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:5-9, RSV.

There are other examples, but let me simply say that narrative (and communal identity) are essential for understanding the Bible and the story of the people of Israel.

When we come to the New Testament we are reading a continuation of the same story of God and his people. By this time the Romans have occupied Israel, and a tremendous longing has built up in the hearts of the descendants of Abraham. They yearn for a savior who would restore them to their previous status as a free and sovereign nation (either in this world or in an Age-To-Come). Many people flocked to Jesus believing him to be the long-awaited messiah. When the Roman authorities crucified Jesus, it brought great shame and disappointment to his disciples.

Later, Jesus appears to the disciples and they believe he has risen from the dead. This account of the resurrection of Jesus becomes the main focus of the writers of the New Testament. After the disciples experienced the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus, their lives were radically changed. Jesus had come to them and forgiven them (remember, they had abandoned him when he was arrested) and then he “breathed on them” – giving them the Holy Spirit. Some seven weeks later the gathered disciples have another powerful experience of the gifts of the Spirit, which emboldens them to share the witness of the new life they have received in knowing the Crucified One.

The encounter with the Risen Lord, then and now, does not primarily turn people into individuals who have good ethics (though this does happen). Rather, it builds up the Church, as a community of faith, through the life-giving power of the Spirit. From the beginning Christians did not have “ethics,” as commonly understood. Christian faith is not mainly a philosophy of life carried out by autonomous individuals. Rather, being a Christian is itself an ethic, or a way of life, carried out within a community of faith.

St. Paul, whose writings actually predate the Gospels, himself had personal relationships with the closest disciples of Jesus. It is Paul who supplies the corrective to Schweitzer’s analysis, in his “doctrines of the church and of the mission of the church to the world.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, p. ix, 1998)

Dr. Schweitzer thought that the early Christian sect was a separatist group that just happened to have developed a universal moral code while they waited for the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. To me this doesn’t make sense. If this were the whole story wouldn’t the teachings, practices, and worship of the group only apply to the insiders? In fact, Paul says in Romans 10:11-15 that the Gospel is available to everybody, not just to the “in” group.

It is Paul’s teaching about the Spirit carrying on the work of Christ through the Church that makes sense (to me) out of the worship practices, the mission, and especially the new life that comes in Baptism and Christian fellowship – and makes sense (to me) out of the death of Jesus.

In the 11th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth we can listen in on the “identity narrative” of the early Church being passed down from the first disciples. First, Paul offers a rebuke to the Corinthians for how they are presently celebrating the Lord’s Supper. And then, starting at the 23rd verse, he reminds them that he has passed on a (holy remembering) tradition to them that he has received from Jesus (through the apostles):

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, RSV.

There is a very lengthy eucharistic prayer (“D”) in the Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church, 1979), which was adapted from the ancient Liturgy of Saint Basil. Versions of this prayer are used in the Greek and Slavic Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church, and others. It is the eucharistic prayer that is authorized by more churches in the world than any other type. Unfortunately, because of its length it is not used often in many churches. It is certainly very comprehensive, and (to me) quite beautiful. And I think this prayer is a fitting description of the new life we receive in Jesus Christ, and in his life, death and resurrection.

Here is the portion of the prayer that serves as the introduction to St. Paul’s institution narrative (quoted above) of the Lord’s Supper:

Father, you loved the world so much that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy. To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new.

And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.

Then, after the text from 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, the prayer continues with the following declaration of praise and blessing:

Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption. Recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory; and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you. (BCP, 374)

In summary, the significance of Jesus’ death is how his own experience of immense suffering (by evil intent), and utter abandonment (by his friends and by God), was transformed by the power and grace of God. All the disciples of Jesus (including those now living) work and pray together in the Church asking, in his name, that the Holy Spirit will transform their lives and give them the same new life that Jesus’ first disciples received.

Easter Sunday Sermon

April 7, 2010

Easter 2010 Sermon

There is a long-standing tradition of using a bible text for a sermon. I’m going to use six different texts for today’s sermon. Don’t worry, I promise we won’t be here all day.

This is my personal New Testament [hold up], and these are the verses that make the main points of the Bible.

1. (Romans 3:23)   I am a sinner no better than all the rest.

2. (Romans 6:23)   The wages of sin are death.

3. (John 14:6)   Jesus is the way.

4. (Romans 10:9)   If I confess on my lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in the Risen Christ, I will be saved.

5.  (2 Cor. 5:15)   Jesus died for all.

6. (Rev. 3:20)   The Risen Lord Jesus is standing at the door knocking. If I invite him in, he will come in and we will have dinner together.

In the church, the local church, this particular church – I often hear concerns that compete with the main message of the Bible. And then there is something else that may apply to this church more than some others – something I hear over and over:

“What a beautiful church!   Shame you don’t have a bigger congregation.”

“What a beautiful church!   It must cost a lot to maintain it.”

“What a beautiful church!   Do you mind if I walk my dog in the church yard?”

I am a sinner no better than all the rest.

I could die in my sins.

Jesus is the way.

Confessing and believing I am saved.

Jesus died for all.

The Risen Lord stands at the door knocking.

Last Thursday night we had a service here. It was the Maundy Thursday service. There were just a few people in the congregation, but we had a full choir. So, I stood right over there in the sanctuary and preached to the choir! I just about ignored the congregation, and I stood there and preached to the choir.

My message was this: God washes feet. I’m not sure what the choir heard, but that was my intended message. I said something about the nature of the Divine Love, and how it was a servant-like love. But my message was basically that God washes feet.

My father is Jewish. I wonder what my great-grandfather in Russia would have said about this. “God washes feet?” “Who knew?”  (I’m sorry. I don’t know what a real Russian Jew sounds like. I grew up in New York. Jews sound to me like Mel Brooks.)

If God washes feet, his clergy should wash feet. I think everybody should wash each other’s feet. If everybody washed everybody else’s feet the world would definitely be a better place. Instead of making and selling weapons and drugs we should wash feet.

The choir sang. The Deacon and I washed some feet; we shared Holy Communion; we stripped the altar; we turned the lights off and went home. It was a lovely service.

Before the service Betty and Carl came in. I was sitting over there at the side chapel. Betty came down the middle aisle with her husband Carl in tow, and they came over to me. Betty introduced herself first and then Carl. She said, “Carl just loves this church. He thinks this church is the most beautiful church in the world.” Carl was silent, and just nodded his head in agreement. Betty continued, “Carl just loves this church. He feels such a sense of peace when he is here. I was wondering if you do blessings?

She said, “I was just diagnosed with cancer today.”

So I took them over to the communion rail and anointed them and prayed for healing.

I ran into a guy I know at the coffee shop up the street. He said, “Pastor Mike, right?” I said, “That’s right, and you are Jeff. You’re an architect, right?” He said, “Yeah, that’s right. Good memory. Now, you’re the pastor of what church in Troy?” I said, “St. Paul’s Episcopal – down at the corner.” Jeff said, “What a beautiful church!    How many do you have there on Sunday?”

I went to visit a lady at a nursing home last week. She said, “I sure do miss St. Paul’s Church. What a beautiful church!    How much do you have in the endowment fund left?” I told her, and she said, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

A mother emailed me two weeks ago. Her infant boy needs brain surgery on the 26th of April. The little guy has a serious condition where his skull isn’t making room for his growing brain. The mom said that the Episcopal church that she and her husband used to go to just lost their priest. The priest moved away to another part of the country. She wanted to know if I would baptize their baby. She had seen pictures of St. Paul’s. She said it looked like such a beautiful church!

Actually, I was a little worried about the politics and protocols involved. The other Episcopal church was in another deanery in the diocese. I’m the Dean of the Metropolitan Deanery.  I thought I better call the Dean of that Deanery, and also call the lay warden of the other church. I didn’t want to step on any toes. The Dean said, “Michael, whatever you want to do is fine. You do what you think is best. If you can arrange the baptism, that’s fine. If you need me to handle it I will. Just call me if you can’t fit it in your schedule. (Very gracious)

The warden of that church said, “It would be such a blessing and a comfort to the family if you could baptize that baby. We have been praying for them. Right now, we’re going week to week with substitute clergy. The family reached out to you and if you can be of help to them, please do so.” (This also was very kind and gracious.)

I’m a sinner no better than all the rest.

I could die in my sins.

Jesus is the way.

Confessing and believing I am saved.

Jesus died for all.

The Risen Lord stands at the door knocking.

Next Saturday, I am going over to that home (in a foreign land out in the far reaches of East Greenbush, NY) and I’m going to baptize that baby, and we’re going to have Holy Communion, and the Risen Lord will be standing knocking at the door, and we’re going to invite Him in to have dinner with us.

May we leave here this fine day keeping in mind what is important, and also what is less important.  Amen.

Rector’s Newsletter Article for April, 2010

March 29, 2010

re: Safeguarding God’s Children

Dear Members and Friends of St. Paul’s Church in Troy.

My ministry partner and wife, Marianne, and I have been providing sex abuse prevention training in the Diocese of Albany for over six years. I would like to take this opportunity to urge the St. Paul’s clergy, staff, volunteers, and members to participate in training or  re-training for the prevention of child abuse. Our Diocese requires that all individuals who have ministries with children and youth receive certification.

You are invited to the next regional “Safeguarding God’s Children” program which will be presented at Grace and Holy Innocents Church, 498 Clinton Avenue Albany, NY, (518-465-1112), on May 22, 2006 from 9:00AM to 1:00 PM.

The “Safeguarding God’s Children” program was developed by the Church Insurance Company in concert with Presidium, a consulting firm that specializes in the production of professional programs, videos and text materials for churches and not- for-profit groups. This particular program was developed in response to a resolution adopted by the House of Bishops at General Convention. These seminars are aimed toward the prevention of sexual abuse of children and is specifically directed to help parishes develop their own policies and procedures to that end.

Safeguarding God’s Children provides participants with the information they need to protect the children they know and care for in their personal lives and the ministries in which they serve. The program is based on the philosophy that if every adult can protect just one child, they will forever change one life. If we can all change one life, together we will make a difference in this generation of children. The focus is on having parishes develop a culture that supports an attitude of protection of children from predators. In addition, resources are provided that can help Churches develop policies and procedures that are compatible with the constraints and gifts of each parish.

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Gorchov

Easter 2010 Message from the Rector

March 11, 2010

An Easter Message from the Rector

Dear Members and Friends of St. Paul’s Church in Troy:

The Sunday before last was the end of February and on that day a member of the parish (Helen Perkins) met me on the front steps of the church with the exciting news that she had just seen a robin that morning. The sun was out then and there was an unmistakable feeling of warmth to the sun’s rays. Both Helen and I were encouraged by these harbingers of spring. I for one am looking forward to getting my rowing shell back on the Hudson River!

For some reason the coming of spring always takes me by surprise. It’s not as if I really think it will stay cold and dark forever, but still, the way winter hangs around – and suddenly one day – it feels different, and I heave a great sigh of gratitude knowing that the days are really getting longer, and spring IS just around the corner. Pardon the cliché.

In our parish, as in other Christian churches, we look forward to celebrating the greatest Holy Day of them all – Easter – coming this year on April 4th. Since Easter Sunday is a spring event there is a natural tendency to associate Easter with spring flowers, and more generally with nature and fertility. This correlation between Easter and “mother nature” certainly has been helped along by the fact that the pagan cultures that preceded, and later co-existed, with Christianity had their own spring festivals celebrating nature and the “cycle of life.” In fact, the word “Easter” itself has its roots in a pagan god of fertility.

I readily confess to be annoyed that our principal Christian feast is named after a pagan fertility goddess, but I suppose it is far too late for me to ask everybody to stop calling it Easter! I guess we’re stuck with it. It may be true also, that a word like “Easter” can still carry the proper meaning even if the origin of the word is tied up in something else.

In most parts of the world the Christian Holy Day of Easter is actually called “Pascha,” derived from “Passover,” which originated in the annual memorial of the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  The name Pascha is preferred because Jesus transformed the meaning of the Hebrew Passover by passing over, in his own body, from death to life.

The basic Christian story, in the words of ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, starts like this: “[W]e are creatures of a good God who has [grafted us on] to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” * Here is where the Easter metaphor of living things really takes root. Instead of putting our faith in the temporary mood lift that comes with spring flowers, eggs, and multiplying bunnies – we find our eternal happiness tied up in the actual story of God. No matter how dark and oppressive it became for Israel, God was with them and did lead them into the Promised Land. My story and your story is also the story of the people of Israel. The story of Israel is also the story of Jesus. And the story of Jesus is actually the story of God the Creator, who does not stand far off from the world looking on with disdain for its imperfection, but actively, through Jesus Christ, continues to create the conditions for the world’s redemption.

May you find in the signs of spring – in the grass, trees, flowers, and birds – an affirmation that God is near, and Jesus is Lord.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Pascha Blessings,

Michael +

The Rev. Michael I. Gorchov, Rector

*http://www.livingchurch.org/news/news-updates/2010/3/9/americas-god

Upcoming Events:

  • Palm Sunday, March 28, We will begin the 10 am service in the Guild House.  The Liturgy of the Palms is immediately followed by a palm procession to the church as we commemorate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem where the events of Holy Week enfold through the reading of the Passion.  March 28th is also the deadline to return the envelopes and offerings for Easter Flower/Music Memorials.
  • Maundy Thursday, April 1st, Choral Holy Eucharist and stripping of the altar at 6 o’clock…
  • Good Friday, April 2, A special choral Worship service will be held at 1pm.
  • Holy Saturday, April 3rd, We will meet at Bruegger’s at 8:30 am for coffee and then go to the church for dusting, polishing and decorating.  All volunteers are welcome.
  • Easter Sunday, April 4th,
    • 5:00am – The Great Vigil;
      • 7:00am – Light Breakfast and Refreshments.
    • 8:00am – Holy Eucharist
    • 10:00 AM – Festal Choral Eucharist.
  • The Annual Meeting and Election of a Warden and Vestry members will take place on Sunday, April 18.

The date for our annual Book Sale has been set for June 4 (setup & preview sale) and June 5 for the public sale.  Receptacles for used reading materials will be in the Church and Guild House.  We will welcome fiction, non-fiction, craft and cookbooks, children’s books, CD, VHS, DVD and Audio Books.  No text books, periodicals or encyclopedias, please.