Tag Archives: priesthood

That they might lovely be | Sermon for Advent 3

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

“Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” – I think that verse from the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” is the single best description of the Incarnation that I have ever heard.

In Advent, the Church prepares to celebrate that great mystery of Incarnation: God becoming a human child out of love for us, living among us in order to make us children of God.

Mary’s rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday (“gaudete” means rejoice) comes from her knowledge of the God of her ancestors.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), she sings of the God who:

has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly

 [who] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty

Mary knows that God shows love to the loveless, and she willingly participates in that work by saying “yes” to God and by bearing Jesus, the Son of God, in her womb.

Love to the loveless shown

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, born at nearly the same time to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, is in prison.

This is the same John who last week berated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

John is a wild-haired but clear-eyed prophet and he is all too aware of how unlovely people are. The loveless act badly, and he calls them to do better. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he’s been waiting his whole life to see the kingdom, and now he’s in jail and in peril of his life, so he sends word to Jesus by his disciples.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer to his cousin is cryptic, but it points to God’s purposes:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4-6)

The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor – notice that being poor is even worse in this catalog than being dead! – all of these have good news brought to them.

Love to the loveless shown. That’s how you’ll know the kingdom has come near, says Jesus.

That they might lovely be

Can you hear that good news for yourself?

What would it take to break through your blindness, your stumbling, your illness, your selective hearing, your deadened heart, and your feelings of scarcity and need?

What would help you hear good news?

For me, it was hearing a version of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, two summers ago.

A group called Theodicy Jazz Collective played for one of the Eucharists at the General Convention in Salt Lake City back in 2015. I followed a link to check them out, and I was moved to download more of their extraordinarily lovely music.

As I listened to their album Vespers, I was inspired to start sketching liturgical notes and outlines for “A Jazz Vespers for Recovery.” I’d love to help create and bring a service like that to the Fox Cities, and my head began swirling with the possibilities.

But their song “The Magnificat” checked my stride (and my pride) and brought tears to my eyes. The soprano began simply:

My soul magnifies the Lord
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior
my soul magnifies the Lord,
for God looks on my loveliness with favor.

Can it be true? God looks on my loveliness with favor?

Even though part of me knew that I had simply misheard the lyric, the rest of me sat stunned and grateful.

My experience of recovery has been an experience of grace and repentance, of admitting my own powerlessness and discovering that God continually pours out blessings on me. All I have to do in response is follow “certain steps … which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

My more recent experience accepting the bishop’s call to serve as a priest (after nearly 21 years as a deacon) has also been an experience of grace. I’ve spent most of this year working with other people to discern the strengths that will serve me and the church well and to look clearly at the weaknesses that still require my attention. God pours out blessings on me, and I must continue to turn toward him as I follow his unfolding invitation.

Like John the Baptist, I know only too well how unlovely I can be.

Like John, I usually know that I should point beyond myself and my own efforts to Jesus, the Son of God, who brings the good news of the kingdom.

Like John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary, I usually know to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

But can it really be true that God looks on our loveliness with favor? Or, to sing Mary’s song correctly, that God looks on our lowliness with favor?

How can that be? Like Mary, I ponder that question in my heart.

Oh who am I?

The complete first verse of the hymn we started with goes like this:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

Who am I indeed?

In Advent, we pray at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer that “when [the beloved Son] shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 378).

As we look forward to the Second Coming, we have a sense for what to expect based on Jesus’ first coming.

John’s question this morning comes fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. The good news is fulfilled, paradoxically, in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We heard that story on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent began.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

Who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Too often, I am the mean thief deriding Jesus from the cross while also pleading, “Save me!” Too often, I am in trouble or filled with shame and fear.

But the good news is that I am not who say I am. The good news is that I am who I am who I am says I am.

Let me repeat that: I am who I am who I am says I am.

And what I am who I am says – what God says – what Jesus, the Son of God says – is that I am so lovely that he will go to any lengths to save me.

You are so lovely that God will go to any lengths to save you.

You are not what you say about yourself. You are not what others say about you. You are beloved, that you may be lovely.

This is the message of the Incarnation, which we prepare during Advent to celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news, to which we point with John the Baptist and for which we rejoice with Elizabeth and Mary.

The child born to Mary, Jesus – the Son of God, who died for us and rose again – looks on your lowliness with favor. You may without shame or fear rejoice to behold him at his appearing.

You are who God says you are, and you are lovely. Amen.

 

Image: Magnificat © Jan Richardson from The Advent Door.

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In the temple and house to house

[The council] were convinced by Gamaliel, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and [house to house] they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 5:39-42)

It seems to me that this passage is a pretty convincing place to locate the beginning of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Every day …

… in the temple and house to house …

… those who were considered worthy
to suffer for the name …

… did not cease to teach and proclaim.

The apostles were flogged, and they rejoiced.

They were ordered not to speak, and they did not cease to teach and proclaim.

Here’s an example of their proclamation, a song we still sing at Morning Prayer more than 2,000 years later:

A Song to the Lamb Dignus es
Revelation 4:11, 5:9-10, 13

Splendor and honor and kingly power *
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, *
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, *
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.

And so, to him who sits upon the throne, *
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, *
for ever and for evermore.

As we continue reading the next few chapters of Acts, we will see the apostles appointing seven deacons to serve the needs of the Greek-speaking believers as well as the Jewish believers. The song they sing is for “every family, language, people, and nation” — for the whole kingdom of priests.

The deacon Stephen’s preaching — not his table service — gets him stoned to death. He is the next one to be “counted worthy to suffer for the name” (Acts 7:60).

The violence against all of the believers is mounting.

Saul begins to follow the church, persecuting the believers. As they are “every day in the temple and house to house,” so he is “ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women” (Acts 8:3).

But “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4). Eventually even Saul is “counted worthy to suffer for the name,” and his conversion leads him to travel widely, entering house after house again, only this time to form churches.

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, Christ the Lamb.

Worthy are you, when you suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. The church thrived and grew when the going got tough. Even today, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian).

Mideast Egypt The Christian Vote

A blood-spattered poster of Jesus Christ is seen inside the the Coptic Christian Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria (CNS).

Worthy, too, are the priesthood of all believers, those who sing the Lord’s song “every day in the temple and house to house.”

Worthy are you, when you proclaim the good news of Christ not just at church, but also as you go about your daily life.

A Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

A kingdom of priests in the meantime

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

We are what he has made us

In the Daily Office is we read the Scriptures and respond to them. We do not simply listen to the words of God day after day; we speak back to God in words spoken by Christians over the centuries.

So this morning we do not just read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he reminds them that they are “alive together with Christ,” a new creation in Christ by God’s grace.

We also respond to God, saying “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God.”

That response is in Canticle 18, one of the two appointed for Friday mornings, and it helps us understand why we offer praise.

  • God created everything that is
  • By his will they continue to exist
  • Christ — the Lamb that was slain — has redeemed us for God
  • That redemption is for all people on earth, who rightly offer to God “worship and praise, dominion and splendor, for ever and for evermore.”

We come to understand that through God’s grace we are now the “kingdom of priests” that the Revelation to John describes (Rev. 5:9-13).

Created in Christ Jesus for good works

But we exercise our royal priesthood not just by praising God in the Daily Office, or at the Eucharist, or in our private prayers.

We are a kingdom of priests “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

Whatever those good works may be, from organized programs to individual acts of charity and kindness, we Christians offer them to people in order to communicate hope.

Our Christian hope comes in large part from knowing that we fit into a larger story of meaning and purpose — what the Collect for Fridays calls “none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).

We serve those who are suffering by entering with them into their experience, and we remind them by our actions that their “way of the cross” is not the end of the story. This is the wisdom of recovery work, for example. We witness to God’s power in our lives by the example of our own suffering and healing.

We serve those who struggle by helping them see how everything is shot through with God’s presence, even when it seems darkest and even if the glimpse we offer is faint.

In the meantime

Ascensiontide, as the Church calls the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost, is an “in-between time” for the first disciples.

Jesus has left them — he “ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things” (BCP 226) — but it’s not the Day of Pentecost yet, and the disciples haven’t yet received the power of the Holy Spirit that he promised.

Many people around us live in that “in-between time” all the time.

They have lost a spouse or a friend or a job, or they themselves feel lost, and they cannot imagine life any differently. They may have no sense of promise for new relationships or they may feel powerless over their circumstances; they have lost hope.

Like Jesus, we minister most effectively when we enter into people’s lives and show them what transformation can look like. In his incarnation Jesus entered into our human lives, and by his dying and rising he shows us the divine life we are created for.

We are a kingdom of priests in the meantime. We praise God for keeping his promise and we perform the good works we are created for in order to give God’s people (that is, all people) the promise of hope.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP 226)

The Ember Days: So what?

im_shrimp_tempura

The Ember Days are a strange item on the Church’s calendar.

They are “traditionally observed on the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after the First Sunday in Lent, the Day of Pentecost, Holy Cross Day, and December 13” (BCP 18).

The name comes, most likely, from the Latin Quatuor Tempora, or “four seasons,” so the Ember Days mark the four seasons of the natural year rather than seasons of the Church year.

Various sources link the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday observance to the early Christian practice of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays attested to in the Didache (ca. 60 AD) and to the Roman practice of fasting on Saturdays, too.

Since Pope Gelasius I instituted the practice in 494, it also became customary for the Ember Days to serve as days for ordinations. The faithful would join the ordinands in fasting on Wednesday and Friday, and the ordination would happen (as is still pretty common) on Saturday.

This association with ordination is expanded upon in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, and now the three collects appointed for the Ember Days (BCP 256) invite us to pray for:

I. Those to be ordained

II. The choice of fit persons for the ministry, and

III. For all Christians in their vocation

To mark these days in the Daily Office, it would be natural simply to use the first collect on Wednesday, the second on Friday, and the third on Saturday. You will notice that the third collect is the same as one of the Prayers for Mission (BCP 100) that we use regularly in Morning Prayer.

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So what? Why should we care about the Ember Days?

Well, let me bring it closer to home and give you some examples.

I am a member of the Commission on Ministry (COM) here in the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac. Our job is to assist the bishop in the following ways:

  • to determine the present and future needs for ministry in the Diocese
  • to provide discernment processes for parishes and individuals seeking to identify and use their gifts in ministry
  • to provide continuing education for all people, lay and ordained, in their ministries
  • to support the development of the ministry of the laity in the Diocese and within parishes
  • to identify persons for Holy Orders, and to guide and examine seekers, aspirants, postulants, and candidates for the diaconate and priesthood in their journey toward ordination

Four times a year, the Ember Days specifically focus not just the COM but the whole Church on praying for all Christians in their vocation.

Today is Ember Wednesday, so we pray for those to be ordained. In our case, the next ordination in the Diocese is that of Fr. Matt Gunter, who will be ordained as our new bishop on Saturday, April 26. Today I pray not only for him but also for all who are working to make that ordination service a celebration of our life and ministry here in northeastern Wisconsin.

On Ember Friday, we pray for the choice of fit persons for the ministry. The COM just began offering a group discernment process called Circles of Light for all who are interested in seeking God’s will for their ministry, and of the 10 people in the group two think they might be interested in the diaconate and two in the priesthood. I’ll pray especially for those four people this Friday.

On Ember Saturday, we pray for all Christians in their vocation. This Saturday, I’ll be with the young adults of the Diocese at a Happening weekend, and I can’t think of a better time to pray for vocation than with high-school age Christians.

Who might you pray for during this Ember Week?

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Bonus Ember Day trivia!

I am deeply grateful to Michael P. Foley’s article on the Ember Days for this delicious — and I mean yummy! — bit of trivia:

Even the Far East was affected by the Ember days. In the sixteenth century, when Spanish and Portuguese missionaries settled in Nagasaki, Japan, they sought ways of making tasty meatless meals for Embertide and started deep-frying shrimp. The idea caught on with the Japanese, who applied the process to a number of different sea foods and vegetables. They called this delicious food—have you guessed it yet?—“tempura,” again from Quatuor Tempora.

So next time you’re out for sushi, take a moment to pray for those about to be ordained, for the choice of fit persons for the ministry, and for all Christians in their vocation. You’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for reading!