Thursday, January 31, 2013

Downton Abbey Inspiration

My Downton Abbey fixation is well-known at Epiphany, and last year, when I wrote a newsletter article about the PBS television series, I got more positive response than I think I’ve ever gotten. Today, after seeing episode four in the third series, I am struck again by the panoply of moral and theological issues raised in just that single episode. Capital punishment, redemption, love, repentance, authority, medical ethics, ecumenism, and economic dependence all in 50 minutes! No wonder my Episcopal clergy colleagues seem to be as hooked as I am.

*Spoiler Alert!* Don’t read on if you love the series and haven’t yet seen episode four!

This episode has two significant storylines for my purposes today: the birthing process of Lady Sybil, the youngest Grantham daughter, to her first child with her husband Tom, the Irish former-chauffer for the Granthams; and the attempted rehabilitation of the former housemaid Ethel, who had turnedto prostitution in order to support her illegitimate child.

The family’s physician Dr. Clarkson is pushed aside in favor of a noted obstetrician, Sir Philip Tapsell upon the occasion of the birth of Sybil’s child. When Sybil begins to show the signs of eclampsia, Dr. Clarkson advocates for taking her to the hospital and performing a Cesarean Section. Sir Philip denies she is suffering from eclampsia and says he can guarantee a safe birth for mother and baby if they stay at Downton. Dr. Clarkson admits that he cannot guarantee anyone’s safety, but that Sybil and the baby have a better chance with the C-Section. Lord Grantham exclaims, “Isn’t a certainty better than a doubt!” to the skeptical members of his family.

Is a certainty better than a doubt? Many Christians would take up the side of certainty. They believe their faith gives them certainty for their salvation. And we, in our burial office, speak of our “sure and certain hope” in the resurrection. But I’m not sure that a certainty is better than a doubt. Certainties prevent us from seeing other options and other views. Doubts keep us open and humble.

Sir Philip’s certainties are unfounded. After the birth, Sybil dies of complications from eclampsia. The house is devastated, and full of recrimination.

Lent is a season for repentance-but all too often, I believe, we confuse repentance and regret. We regret actions when they do not have the outcomes we desire; we repent actions when we not only regret them but are committed to changing ourselves or the world around us so that there will be a different outcome in the future.

Lord Grantham regrets his actions surrounding Sybil’s death; but I would say that he is unrepentant. He acknowledges – at some level – his responsibility for Sybil’s death. But there is nothing to suggest that he sees that he would be capable of making a different choice in a similar situation. He believes it was his choice to make-despite the dissention from his wife and mother, and the lack of input by Sybil’s husband-and is incapable of getting beyond the allegiance to the doctor of his own class, Sir Philip over the local family doctor, Dr. Clarkson.

Where do we find ourselves more likely to agree with people who belong to our own class or group, and unable to hear truth from someone who is from a different group?

Mrs. Isobel Crawley has been attempting for several episodes to redeem Ethel the housemaid. Isobel finally invites Ethel into her house and offers her a job-a path back to respectability.  The other maid immediately resigns: “If I tolerate her, I will be tarnished by her.”

Where does toleration turn into tarnish? What practices that we disagree with should we tolerate – and what practices must we not tolerate becaue they are so damaging?

Isobel has made a bold stand on behalf of Ethel, and sees her charity as a virtue: she is determined to redeem Ethel, even though Ethel herself is not convinced that she is worth redeeming. But Isobel is regretting her decision – Ethel is an energetic but not particularly accomplished cook and lady’s maid.

The charitable impulse is clearly a virtue. The very word, “charity” comes from the Latin and Greek for the word that means selfless love. But in practice, charity can be misguided and not beneficial to the very person it is aimed at helping.

One of the great strengths of the Carpenter’s Kids program that Epiphany participates in is that it is a partnership. We Americans did not establish what the goals or methods of the progam were; the Tanzanians knew what was most necessary, and implemented a program to address those needs. And it transforms our lives as well as those of the schoolchildren we support.

But for the meantime... catch Downton on PBS on Sundays at 9pm and see what happens next!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Growing and Shaping the Body of Christ

A sermon for January 27, 2013

I was at an anniversary celebration at St. John’s in the Village Thursday night, where the Rector was celebrating his 25th anniversary as rector of that parish, and Bishop Dietsche was the preacher. He told a wonderful story about going upstate to a shop that sells old wood for reuse—he and his brother are both amateur woodworkers, as it turns out. The owner of the shop pointed out some big wooden arches to them and asked if they noticed anything special about them. They looked at them for a while and then suddenly said simultaneously, “The grain curves with the wood!”. And then they were perplexed—how did someone do that? I guess—Bishop Dietsche explained this better than I can—that to get curved wood, normally you need to slice it into slivers and laminate it. These huge arches were not laminated—the grain curved perfectly in the shape of the arch.

The owner was happy to enlighten the Dietsche brothers. These arches came from a Buddhist temple in China, built around 1800, and taken apart, presumably, as part of the cultural revolution. The arches were made from trees planted by the monks around 1600 and shaped as they grew so that when they were ready for harvest—200 years after planting—they could build the temple. 

Talk about long term planning. Bishop Dietsche talked about how what fascinated him were not necessarily the monks who planted the trees—that must have been a very exciting time—or the monks who harvested the trees—what an honor to be reaping the benefits of generations of work—but rather, the monk who was taking care of them around 1700—right in the middle. That monk didn’t get the excitement of starting the project or finishing it, but he was entrusted with tending the trees so that there could be a harvest sometime in the future. 

Bishop Dietsche pointed out that all of us in the church today are like that monk. We have been entrusted with a church. We didn’t start it—and I’m not sure if I’d say we have a 2000 year old church beginning with Jesus, or a 475 year old church beginning with Henry VIII, or a 180 year old Church beginning on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side—and we won’t finish it. 

I thought this was a beautiful image for the Church of the Epiphany on the occasion of our Annual meeting. How do we fulfill this sacred trust? How do we make sure that even as we contribute our part in the story—our faithful care of the Tree of Life that is Christ’s church—we always remember that we can only be a part of it because someone before us gave it to us; and that we are responsible for handing it on to people after us.  

Another image that has a similar bent is from our Epistle today: the idea of the church as the Body of Christ. There are many members, and all are dependent upon one another—the heart cannot say that it doesn’t need the liver; the hand cannot say it does not need the foot; and it must work in concert to be healthy. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  

It makes it reasonable to ask, what part of the Body of Christ are you? In 2007 or 2008, our Vestry did this as an exercise while we were on retreat, and it was a fascinating experience. I put up an outline of a person, we discussed this passage from 1 Corinthians, and then the Vestry members each drew in the part of the body they most identified with. We had a bunch of eyes and a couple mouths; a spine, maybe a foot or hand or two. Someone was the bones. I think there were several brains. (Or was it no brain?)

I’ve got a similar outline for us today as a whole parish instead of just as a Vestry. This isn’t an attempt to create a freakish, Halloween-style monster. But rather, it’s an attempt to have both an individual spiritual epiphany, “Oh, this is where I fit in” as well as a collective sense of who we are. And it’s what allows us to realize that we don’t have to be all the parts of the body at once—as Paul asks in the Epistle, “Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Are all prophets?” We don’t all have to be on the Vestry; or all help with the homeless dinner; or all sing in the choir—but some of us must do all those things for the body to be complete.  

What part are you? I encourage you to think beyond the glamorous parts—who wouldn’t want to say, “I am the hands of the Body of Christ. I do the work of Christ in the world”? but we need a liver, too. We need someone to filter out the impurities in our system. We need lungs—the people who breath in the Spirit and distribute it to the rest of the body. We need arteries and veins, carrying oxygenated blood to our fingers and toes. A heart. A brain. A friend in seminary proclaimed “I am the eyebrow on the body of Christ.” He felt marginalized, but that he was very expressive.  

What gift, or skill, or charism do you bring to the church? What is God calling you to do or be? Are you in the center… on the edge… internal or external… muscular or an organ or a bone? Think back to the last time you took biology and the role and function of all the parts of the body… and name your place. 

It’s been interesting reflecting on this question for myself this week. I think I’m a different part than I was the last time we did this. I see myself right now as the skin. I embrace all the parts. I feel a little exposed sometimes, but also protective. 

I know there are some of you in the congregation who are temperamentally similar to me and who absolutely hate this sort of exercise where you are mandated to do art. But if you’re one of those people, be patient… this is a good thing to do. And you don’t have to. But you can, and it will help us all if you do. So after the service today, take a look, take up a pen, and fill yourself in. Leave your name if possible—that will help. And let’s see what Christ’s Body looks like at Epiphany.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Holy Spirit Columbidae

A sermon for the Baptism of our Lord

Today isn’t the first time Jeanne Person’s dove kite, which led the procession this morning, has been at Epiphany… the first time was maybe five years ago, also on the Sunday we were observing the Baptism of Jesus, and I was giving a children’s sermon about how the Spirit had descended in the form of a dove… and Andrew Mullins basically divebombed some of the kids with the dove in a very artistic and dramatic and professional swoop. Several children were terrified, which was not what I was going for in the sermon. 

But. Close encounters with the Spirit can be very frightening.  

The Spirit can lead us where we do not want to go—as it will in the next event of Jesus’ life when he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit.

The Spirit can bring us good news of the rebirth of creation, as when the dove brings the olive leaf back to Noah in the ark, showing that the planet is renewing itself after the flood. 

The Spirit can herald clarity of call, as into today’s gospel: First the dove, then the voice from Heaven: You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.  

The season of Epiphany is a series of stories about how God is manifestly present in the Gospel and in our own lives—close encounters of the Holy Spirit if you will. Last week it was the Magi, this week the baptism, next week the wedding in Cana, and on until the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany when we hear the story of Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop. All of them moments when something beyond the human beings in the story has an effect on the narrative. A baby is worshipped as a king; a voice comes from heaven proclaiming Jesus as God’s son; water turns to wine; a rabbi is transfigured into something supernatural.

And be ready for more talk of the Spirit this next year—the Gospel of Luke thrives on the Holy Spirit. Luke understands the Spirit at work in Jesus’ life, and continuing through the first generation of the church in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, far more so than the other Gospel writers. Every Sunday, this will be a year of the Spirit in our lectionary. 

Where has the Holy Spirit touched your life? Is it leading you somewhere you don’t want to go? Is it bringing you good news? Is it providing you clarity of calling? Of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit might be the most mysterious, but possibly also the most accessible. The Spirit is what answers the questions about who we are, and what we’re supposed to be doing. The Spirit guides us, inspires us, and occasionally whacks us over the head by a two-by-four when we’re really in need of an epiphany. 

We can probably all name some big times when we experienced the Holy Spirit. Big life events—weddings, births, baptisms, deaths, illnesses… I’ve just been celebrating the anniversary of one of those this week. 10 years ago last Friday I was ordained a priest. I remember that very much as a Holy-Spirit-Filled weekend—on Saturday the ordination, with all the prayers and the firm hands of Jonathan and my other ordination sponsor, Hank Mitchel, on my shoulders as the Bishop (who had played Center for the Denver Broncos, and had HUGE hands on my head with the full weight of the church running through them) prayed, “Therefore Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Jennifer; fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in your church.” And then the next day, celebrating the Eucharist for the first time, and suddenly hearing the words as if for the first time and being brought to tears at the altar. 

But the Spirit is ordinary, too, and not just something for special occasions. A perfectly ordinary example of the Holy Spirit happened this week in my life. Having heard some tough health news from a parishioner, I didn’t know what to say, so I decided to do something else for a bit. I looked up the texts for this Sunday and saw the following from Isaiah:

“I have called you by name, you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
 and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
 when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Here were the words of comfort I wanted to offer. The Spirit spoke—just from opening the bible. Here was the hope… the confidence in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that God calls us by name, loves us intimately, and is with us through every struggle, redeeming it even as it feels like were are being consumed. 

I wanted to look up some things about doves this week; this frequent stand-in for the Holy Spirit. I wondered why they’re known as peaceful creatures. Maybe there was something there I could preach on. I was distressed to discover, after a quick google search, that doves and pigeons belong to the same family called columbidae and that—at least according to Wikipedia—the terms “dove” and “pigeon” can be used somewhat interchangeably.  

“…the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a… pigeon?”

I do not like the idea of a pigeon being the sign of the Holy Spirit, the manifest presence of God. I’m not anti-pigeon, mind you—I had the pro-pigeon riot act read to me a few years ago by a woman who concluded, (and I quote): “Were it not for pigeons’ heroic service carrying messages in World War I, we’d all be speaking German and we should feed their descendants on the streets of New York in honor of pigeon patriotism.” I kid you not—New York has all kinds of people. But I have no deep affection for pigeons. They are dirty. They leave messes. They’re not very bright. They don’t sing beautiful songs. They’re not particularly pretty or graceful. There is nothing in a pigeon that makes me contemplate the divine… 

But in talking this over with Jonathan, he used the phrase, “The Urban Holy Spirit.” On the banks of the Jordan River, the Spirit takes the form of a dove. On the banks of the East River, maybe the Spirit takes the form of a pigeon. God takes the common and makes it holy—that’s the whole point of the incarnation. Maybe the purpose of having a dove—or a pigeon—represent the Holy Spirit is not because it is pure or innocent or something but because it is ubiquitous. Imagine, if very time you saw a pigeon, you remembered that you have received the Holy Spirit and that you are God’s beloved child. How many times a day do we see pigeons? All the time. A constant reminder of our blessed status as children of God. A flock of the Urban Holy Spirit surrounds us every day to remind us that we are God’s beloved children, loved and loving, and precious.