Tag Archives: Scripture

My temple and my tower

Today is the last Sunday in the six-part sermon series on the Beatitudes at St. Thomas Church.

Remember that Jesus is addressing a diverse crowd, announcing the kingdom of God, and turning conventional wisdom upside down.

Jesus says people who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are honest about their own failings (what he calls pure in heart), and who are persecuted and reviled — these people — are blessed.

They are in the kingdom of God now, they are in intimate relationship with God now. It may not sound like it, but Jesus is trying to get the crowd (and us) to hear something that has always been true.

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Today is also “Bible Sunday,” if you will, in the Episcopal Church with the lovely collect that urges us to “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, which God has “caused to be written for our learning” (BCP 236).

What the Scriptures say about salvation is that it is to be found in intimate relationship with the God who created us, not in the things we humans desire out of a false sense of need or out of envy of others.

Professor John Dally at Bexley Seabury in Chicago lays out a brilliant summary of the biblical story. He says, in part, “salvation is knowing where you fit in the story.”

The biblical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.

The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.

Creation of the World

The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.

The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).

However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.

Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.

Creation of Israel

Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.

During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.

Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.

The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.

The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.

Creation of the Church

Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.

Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.

As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.

End of the World

The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.

The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.

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Things like kings and rulers, a Temple adorned with stones, even Christendom and the towering structures of economic and political power, those will all be thrown down eventually in favor of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city.

As our final hymn says,

Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.

But until they do fall to dust, “the powers that be” – both political and religious – will not be able to comprehend the self-giving love that Jesus invites us to practice, and we who practice it will get into all kinds of trouble with Tower and Temple both when we do.

That is when the kingdom of God is near, says Jesus.

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Jesus is the lens for reading the Scriptures, suggests Fr. Richard Rohr in his books and his daily meditations.

When the Scriptures represent people acting like Jesus = people get it.
When the Scriptures show people not acting like Jesus = people don’t get it.

The Scriptures are the record of the people of God working out how God has been acting in salvation history.

When Jesus says “Let the children come to me” and the disciples do (Matt. 19) = they get it
When the poet sings of Babylon, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock” (Psalm 137) = he doesn’t get it.

When the apostles set apart deacons to care for the Greek-speaking Gentile widows who are neglected (Acts 6) = they get it.
When the priests force the returning exiles from Babylon to divorce their foreign-born wives in order to be “pure” (Nehemiah 13) = they don’t get it.

When the Hebrew people live in intimacy with God who saved them from Egypt, walking in the desert for 40 years as a covenant people (Exodus) = they get it. They grumble about it a lot, but they get it.
When they are in the Land and they want a powerful king like everyone else (even though Samuel warns them he’ll be a tyrant and they’ll hate it) = they don’t get it.

When David the king wants to build God a house, a splendid Temple adorned with jewels (2 Samuel 7) = he doesn’t get it.
When David confesses his sins of committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) = he gets it.

When the disciples who’ve been with Jesus for three years are still gawking at the tall buildings and the splendid Temple (in today’s passage from Luke) = they still don’t get it

Jesus tries to help them and the crowd see that when you are hauled before synagogues and judges because you don’t fit in their orderly, successful scheme, that’s when you get it.

That’s when you are on the right side of the story of salvation history, the story that has been unfolding all along.

In fact that’s when you’re blessed, because you’re nearer to the Kingdom of God than ever before.

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Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that political power or religious control is part of knowing God’s near. God’s always been near, but our desire for power and control and our need to prove to others that we’re right means we’ve missed him. We’ve looked right past those who are near him.

Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that words are part of knowing God’s near. Jesus says poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, purity of heart, and persecution — these states of being — are the places where God is present.

When you are in those places yourself, when you are grieving and aching over injustice, worn down, sick at heart over your own failings, words don’t help much. Words are often part of the problem, especially when well-meaning religious people like us tell you everything is really all right.

Everything is not all right, but hear this: God is near.

Can you hear that?

Everything is not all right, but God is near.

Even Jesus — the Word of God as John calls him — even the Word of God stopped speaking in order to demonstrate God’s presence. That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now a newborn baby, speechless and helpless. Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now alone, a beaten and broken man, thirsty and suffocating on the cross.

That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

We Christians who are fortunate to have plenty are called to empty ourselves, like Jesus, to stop grasping for political power and religious respect, to stop talking about how we’re persecuted or how our plan is right, and instead to follow Jesus, to demonstrate by our presence with people who actually do suffer that God is with them.

Until we go farther – until we listen to people’s needs, until we join them in their cry for justice, until we stop looking for power and respect and risk being reviled and falsely accused ourselves, we don’t get it.

Let those with ears “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures and let us join with God in God’s plan for salvation.

Then we can truly sing:

But God’s power
Hour by hour

Is my Temple and my Tower

 

 

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12 Steps of Christmas | Introduction

Before we begin with Step One and Morning Prayer on Christmas Day, here’s a little background information about the Daily Office, the 12 Steps, and my plan for this series that you may find helpful.

About the Daily Office

From the beginning, Christians, like their Jewish forebears, have prayed at set times of the day. (See Acts 3:1, for example.)

Over the centuries, and especially with the rise of monastic communities, Christians gathered to pray as often as seven times a day (emulating Psalm 119:164).

That sevenfold monastic pattern was simplified during the Reformation, and in the Church of England became two “offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer.

The Roman Catholic Church may refer to these prayers as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Orthodox Churches may refer to them as divine services or divine offices, and the Episcopal Church (to which I belong) refers to them as the Daily Office.

Whatever differences there may be — in number of services, times of the day, selections from Scripture to be read at certain times — there is a basic pattern to the Daily Office that’s pretty common.

The Psalter – Reading from the Psalms has for centuries been the foundation of daily prayer.

In the Episcopal Church, the 150 psalms are read at Morning and Evening Prayer on a seven-week cycle.

The Lessons – Readings from the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) and from the New Testament are next. In some churches, those readings are relatively short (maybe just a verse or two) and may be called “chapters.”

In the Episcopal Church, we have inherited a tradition of reading a lot of Scripture in the Daily Office. Over the course of two years, we read most of the Old Testament once and the whole New Testament twice.

The schedule of what Psalms and Scripture lessons are to be read on a particular day is called the “lectionary.”

The Prayers – Beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for our own needs and those of others and we give thanks to God for the blessings we enjoy.

In the Episcopal Church, there are special prayers called “collects” that set themes for every Sunday of the year, for days of the week, and for special occasions. At each office, we commonly read two or three of these collects.

About the 12 Steps

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the history timeline on the AA website, date to 1938 and to the early experience of the first members.

They are “a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

The 12 Steps were codified from the “Big Book” titled Alcoholics Anonymous, which also includes stories sharing members’ experience, strength, and hope.

You can read the 12 Steps in short form or in the longer form of the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

About this blog

I’ve been praying the Daily Office for about 23 years now, since before my ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and I’ve been writing and teaching about it for many years.

I’ve only been practicing recovery for a little over two years now, since becoming sober in October 2013.

Three things really stand out for me as I compare the two practices:

The first thing that struck me about AA meetings is the regular reading and re-reading of the Big Book and of the “12 and 12.”

This constant return to the basic texts of AA has a lot in common with the practice of the Daily Office.

Year after year, season after season, week after week, “one day at a time,” the words of the basic texts — Bible or Big Book — soak into your imagination, and you begin a process of incorporating their wisdom into your daily living.

The second thing that I discovered is that both AA and the church talk about similar spiritual practices; we just call them by different names. For example, what AA calls a “daily self-inventory” the church calls “Confession of Sin.”

And third, both practices are done not because you feel like it, but because it’s time to do it.

We pray Morning Prayer each day at 6 am because that’s the time to do it; we go to an AA meeting on Friday evenings because that’s the time to do it. We can enjoy a “daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

The 12 Steps of Christmas

Each day during the 12 Days of Christmas, we will read one of the 12 steps and pray the Daily Office with its psalms and Bible lessons as appointed in the lectionary.

From the resonances between them, perhaps some wisdom will emerge that will help in our “spiritual awakening.”

I look forward to having you join me in the process for the next 12 days, and I invite you to share in the conversation by adding your comments.

Merry Christmas!

NT Wright on Scripture in worship | A big, exciting room we come in and inhabit

I couldn’t possibly agree more with N.T. Wright’s comments in this five-minute video on Scripture in worship from Glenn Packiam’s Mystery of Faith Blog.

With attention to what we are doing, we are fortunate in our “gentle Anglican liturgy”  — in the morning and evening offices and in the Holy Eucharist — “to inhabit the world of Scripture” just as Wright describes:

What one is doing is turning Scripture into a world where you come in and live, a big exciting room that you come in and inhabit.

Wright gently bemoans how the public reading of Scripture is too often sidelined in worship. He even describes being invited to preach at a “modern-style” service and at the last minute being asked, “Would you like a Scripture reading?”

The public reading of Scripture is itself the primary act of worship. It is not conveying information to the congregation; it’ll do that as well, but it does that as the byproduct … of celebrating the mighty acts of God.

And so what do we do in this “big exciting room that you come in and inhabit”?

When you have built this great house of praise and worship, which is the scriptural story surrounded with the psalms and the prayers of the people of God, then you turn it into intercession, because you’re now living in a room where intercession makes sense.

I’m reminded here of what the founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Fr. Richard Meux Benson, says about praying for others:

As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.

In the first half of the video, Wright has actually been describing the Daily Office, a point that I think might have been lost on his listeners, because he then goes on to clarify that the same thing is happening in the Eucharist.

I am grateful to Packiam and his colleagues for sharing this short glimpse of Wright’s deep, lifelong meditation on Scripture.

However, I find Packiam’s comment as he introduces the clip so poignant:

It is precisely because Prof. Wright is an ‘outsider’ to our modern worship world that his thoughts may be helpful. He may see things we miss. What he chose to address was the absence of Scripture in worship.

Here as elsewhere in his books and videos, I think N.T. Wright is explaining historic Christian worship from the “inside,” especially when he calls it “an act of humility, a way of saying ‘I’m not making this up as I go along.’ It’s a gift from the whole worldwide church, and I inhabit it gratefully.”

The public reading of Scripture — and especially the pattern we have inherited in the Daily Office — is a gift from the worldwide church, indeed, and I inhabit it gratefully. I hope you do, too.

Pattern and strength

Choir of King's College, Cambridge

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Dean Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons and not the music. ‘The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God …’ seen ‘through the windows and the words of the Bible’. Local interests appear, as they do here, in the Bidding Prayer; and personal circumstances give point to different parts of the service. Many of those who took part in the first service must have recalled those killed in the Great War when it came to the famous passage ‘all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light’. The centre of the service is still found by those who ‘go in heart and mind’ and who consent to follow where the story leads. (From the program of the 2013 service)

Pattern

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and let us make this Chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessèd Mother, glad with our carols of praise. (From the program for the 2013 service)

Though the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols as celebrated at King’s College, Cambridge is an elaborate feast of sight and sound, its pattern is clear to anyone familiar with the Daily Office.

After an opening prayer, the main body of the Lessons and Carols service consists of nine readings from Scripture carefully chosen to tell “the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious redemption brought us by the Holy Child.”

Interspersed between the lessons are musical responses — carols and hymns — in place of the canticles we use in the Offices day by day.

The service of Lessons and Carols, like the Daily Offices, concludes with collects appropriate for the season.

Though the Festival of Lessons and Carols was planned in 1918 out of Dean Eric Milner-White’s felt need for “more imaginative worship,” its roots in the Prayer Book pattern of Morning and Evening Prayer are deep and nourishing.

Strength

The collects which conclude the service of Lessons and Carols, like the collects in the Daily Office, rehearse our “sure and certain hope” in the resurrection:

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only son, Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him, when he shall come to be our judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

O God, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly, grant you the fullness of inward peace and goodwill, and make you partakers of the divine nature; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

In the strength of Christ we find not only rest but nourishment for service.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ, the apple tree.