Matthew 20: 1-16 — Gifts. Grace.

 Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

What is the Kingdom of God? Is it the landowner? Is it his vineyard? Is it all of his land and his ability to hire laborers for his vineyard? Is the whole parable a description of the Kingdom? I usually get caught up with the story, the supposed “meat” of the parable” that follows the “set up” but the set up is ambiguous.

Certainly the 1st Lesson pericopes seem to support the supposition that this passage is about God’s generosity and our tendency to always look for more. There are two optional passages. The first is Exodus 16: 2-15. The “whole congregation of the Israelites” complain against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The people think they will die from hunger. God spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites.” Tell them I will send manna (the term means “food” which is more generic than the usual interpretation of “bread). The other possible 1st Lesson pericope is Jonah 3: 10-4:11. Jonah is angry that God has saved Nineveh after Jonah told them that they were doomed. Now Jonah looks like a false prophet. God’s response to Jonah’s anger is that God sees the big picture and can show mercy to whomever God wants.

To strengthen the context even more, the 2nd lesson is Philippians 1:21-30. Paul is advising the Philippians to “live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.” Given our context, this could loosely be interpreted as both your joyful living and your suffering are good because you live in Christ.

So back to the Gospel passage. It seems that at least one message is that it is that we should be happy about the gifts we have been given. “Don’t worry; be happy” as the song advises. Do not look at others and feel cheated. Interestingly the passage does not talk about some of the laborers getting more than others. They all get the same. Those who work the whole day think they should get more but the is up to the landowner.

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. What does it mean to be first or last. In a different passage Jesus advises to take a chair lower at the table. Do not exalt yourself. The host (the landowner?) may invite you to sit further up. In both cases it is someone else’s decision, not mine.

Still, what are we to take from this passage? If we see ourselves as the laborers, it may not matter when we are called. We are all in the Kingdom. (Possibly others are as well.). What maters is that we recognize that Grace comes from the landowner. It is ours to recognize as blessing. It is ours to accept. There is no “more” or “less.” Grace is.

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Utopia, Optimism, Dystopia

On September 11, 2001, our daughter was seven years old. We all woke up that morning to a horrific “accident” at the World Trade Center. It very quickly became apparent that this was not an accident; it was an attack on the United States. I remember telling her that we were going to take her to school and that either Mary or I would find out what had happened and come back for her if we needed to. She remained calm but noticeably alarmed.

Jacquelyn is a “millennial.” Her generation mainly knows a post-9/11 world. This is a world of insecurity and catastrophic world threats. Theirs is a world of lethal climate change conditions, nationalistic right wing rulers and pandemics. They really enjoy dystopian stories of human survival in an entire different world. That world is the one of “Blade Runner,” or Ender’s Game,” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They enjoy these in both print and film. The world is one of living in destruction here on Earth or of escaping Earth to live as strangers in a strange new land. (Is the moon the new land?) They have strong doubts that life and love always stronger than death and hate?

As Debby Irving writes in “Waking Up White,” mine is a generation of optimism. (These meanderings are inspired by reading a chapter in which she characterizes our generation, the Boomers.) We were born after Word War II. It was the era of the postwar GI bill and all of the increased prosperity that the Bill brought so many Americans. Our parents acquired new houses, new cars, televisions, kitchen appliances and more and more stuff. Americans had saved Europe and the world from fascist dictators and a Japanese Emperor whose people would die for him. We had the nuclear bomb, the ultimate weapon. Yes, we were soon in the Cold War with Russia but we would win that too.

Doubts started creeping into this optimistic perspective fairly soon. We are not able to force Russia out of Korea and had to settle for a treaty that still hasn’t ended that war. But then JFK, the young, vibrant idealist, came along to boost our spirits. But the Vietnam War came along as well and the doubts returned. However, the bottom line remained: we are Americans and we can achieve anything we set our minds to. We can walk on the moon. We can make progress in civil rights. We have the Peace Corp and can right the wrongs that exist throughout the world.

Irving talks about seeing oherelf as one of the “privileged” during her upbringing. She was born into an East Coast family who traced its roots to colonial America. “Waking Up White…” is her story about becoming aware of that privileged status. One of her points is that if she is “privileged,” then there are those who are not privileged. Who are they? What does it mean to be something other than privileged? Her larger thesis is that most white people in America and certainly those of us reading her book are among the privileged.

Are “privileged” and “blessed” the same? My parents were poor. They came from upper New York farming families and made the adventurous trip to Fort Lewis, Washington. My dad had been assigned there during the War. But they didn’t quite get there. They stopped in Grants Pass, Oregon to pick apples and pears in order to make enough money for the last miles of their journey. They ended up staying in Gr4ants Pass. All of us children grew up on a farm. We counted our blessings. The one major tragedy that entered our lives and almost shattered our family was our brother Damian’s death. But we grew up believing that we were and are blessed, but certainly not privileged. On the other hand we were somewhat like those families that Irving describes. There were no negroes in Grants Pass, at least not until LBJ’s War on Poverty program established a Job Corps center outside of town. My parents were among those who were vocally against the center. I didn’t know that negroes were actually human beings like me until I met some kids from Portland’s inner city while working at a summer camp during my senior year of high school.

What is the opposite of a dystopian world view? Possibly a utopian one. This summer I attended a virtual lecture (via Zoom) on the 19th century transcendental utopian movement in New York. Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed at Blithedale for awhile. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in several utopian communities. Bronson and Abby Alcott were part of the movement and founders of a couple of utopian communities. They raised Louisa May Alcott in the utopian Fruitlands community. Henry David Thoreau was a family friend. Utopians believe that human beings are not only called to be better but can be so. They try to demonstrate through their communal life what that something better looks like. There is no particular generational name for utopians. They have been part of Western societies for centuries. In fact the writer of Luke-Acts describes a early Christian utopia in chapter 2 of Acts: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. There were numerous such communities in the eastern part of the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some had a core Christian belief system. Others were more humanistic in nature. The ones to which Emerson, Hawthorne and the Alcotts found themselves drawn were part of the Transcendental movement of the day.

Dystopians look past the current world and believe that it is coming to a bleak end. Survival will be in a very different, bleaker world, if we survive at all. Utopians look at the current world and wish for something better. Both are different from the Boomers. We are optimists. We see what is and believe that not only can there be a better world but that we can and will make it so.

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Matthew 18: 15-20 — Reconciliation and Forgiveness

When our daughter, Jacquelyn, was in middle school, she was in a rehearsal for a play with other classmates and students. The teacher/director had a sign on the gymnasium door that read, “Do Not Disturb. Practice in Session.” She often held the students over the time rehearsal was supposed to be finished. This angered me and I talked to a couple of the other parents about it. These parents were friends of mine. One evening just after the rehearsal ended, I marched up to the teacher. I made a big scene by publicly going up to her and telling her that we parents had other things to do than wait around as she took extra time for the rehearsals. I said this in a loud voice. There were still children around. Later the head mistress of the school demanded that I apologize to the teacher. She threatened to pull me off of the Parent Board if I did not apologize. So I did, even though I still thought the teacher was in the wrong. Months later I realized how embarrassed the teacher must have by my reprimand in front of her students.

We have been having some repair work done on our house. On the first day, one of the workers kept leaving the old wood they were removing with nail points facing up. My father always told me not to do this. I have carried that safety point with me. I turned over a plank without saying anything to the worker but I suspect he saw me do that. Soon he placed another on the ground in the same manner. When I saw it, I urned that one over as well. He soon placed another one with nail points up and I decided to leave it but I did not say anything to him. When his supervisor arrived a little later, I told him that I am concerned about work place safety and wold like it if the workers were more careful about placing wood with nail points down. The crew was present. He apologized and then turned to the crew and said something to them in Ukrainian.

I have often reflected on the first incident and others like it, including the most recent. I see something that goes against my principals and I try to correct it by saying something to the person, in front of others. This not not what Jesus tells us to do in this passage. Instead, we are to go to the person and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. This is the kinder thing to do. In both cases I could have spoken to the other person in private but, subconsciously, wanted to make a show of my righteousness. This may have resulted in a change of ways. Instead, it caused a rift between us.

We all fail every day. We often fail in front of others. We often hurt others through our failures. The two incidents described above are about my failures as much as, if not more than, the other person’s offense. I could just as easily be taken before the assembly. “If such an offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This seems strange because, elsewhere in the Gospel (perhaps not in Matthew) Jesus teaches that Gentiles and tax collectors are welcomed into the Kingdom, into the church.

I often see and feel others sin against me. But I usually do not have the courage to “go and point out the fault” when we are alone. I often do not take the time to compose myself so that I am not confrontational. I often do not use the formula,”When you do or say X, I feel Y.” This passage carries a heavy burden. If the offender does not follow the “rules” of the church, he can be treated like a Gentile or tax collector. She can be excommunicated. But, in the process, I and the one or two others I take with me and, eventually, the entire church, may find ourselves cast out. This is why reconciliation is done between God (through the confessor) and the one person. This is why I need to take the first step toward reconciliation. I may judge the other wrong but, in the judgment, I carry guilt for not recognizing and proclaiming the infinite divine love and forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed.

“What ever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This passage includes the justification the church has used down through the centuries for “confession” and for excommunication. And history and society have often showed the error in the church’s judgements and actions. This passage ends with the reminder “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This is not a justification for judging others. It is a reminder to restrain ourselves from judging.

Before I rush to bind, I need to step back and remember that Jesus is among us. I need to be conscious of this. Even if my sister or brother is not conscious of this, by having Jesus with me, I bring him into our meeting. If I step back, if I reflect, if I use the “when you do this, I feel that” formula, if I remember that I am a follower of Jesus, I will see fewer (if any) reasons for me to confront others about their sins against me. I will learn humility about my sins against them.

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Mt 16: 13-20. Who do you say that I am?

There is much that comes to mind when reflecting on this passage. I tell the candidates that this is the central question of all four gospels. Is it? John does not have Jesus asking the question. Maybe that’s because John’s gospel is loaded with “I am” proclamations. But it is central for the three Synoptics. Matthew, Mark and Luke spend their entire gospels trying to answer the question. We spend our entire Christian lives trying to figure out the answer as well.

So my personal question is “Who is Jesus for me?” And I will try to give my personal answer here (rather than go off on some safe, impersonal theological discourse). And my expression of this personal answer might be different in an hour or in a day or in a year. Often times I don’t know the answer because I don’t stop to think about how to give an answer. Jesus is the historical person who was so open and honest with people that he called them to live and to be better. He lived this in such a way that they (and I?) saw the Holy through him. He is the person who, when he was crucified as a criminal, could not be accepted as a criminal by those who knew him, especially his closest companions. They came to believe that he was very different. But I suspect they didn’t realize that at the time of his death. Then they were simply filled with grief, like so many are when a loved one passes into new life.

But the story is that they came gradually to see that he was, in some way or another, still with them. And they tried to express that in many ways. “I have seen Jesus and he is my Lord! He proclaimed a wonderful message that God loves you and me and everyone with no exception, with no limitations, with infinite forgiveness of our inability to ever do enough!” Then they tried to elaborate on that with “He is risen!” and all of the expressions both in word and in deed that have followed.

I still am not sure who I say he is. I am not sure why I continue to feel the call of Jesus’ moral commands. I tell people that it is because I know deep within that Jesus is Lord. But I don’t know what that means for me. I celebrate that he was raised. But I don’t know what that means for me. I am involved in the catechumenate in order that others may answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” ever more clearly in their lives, but I don’t know what that means even when I see it in them and hear them proclaim it.

We are transformed. Is it more than a feeling? It is if and when we try to live the Christian life. It all comes down to this. Why do you do what you do? And that is why I’m not sure what my answer is. It is never enough. Neither my words or my deeds are anywhere near adequate to answer the question. But Jesus’ message is that they are and they aren’t. It is because any response, so far as it is an attempt to do what is good and life giving and life sustaining and that brings joy into others life, and perhaps into mine, is good. It is never enough because I fall short of meeting the standard that is packed into the words of Peter’s response “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” That is why I pray yet know that I can pray “better.” That is why I do what I do (sometimes) and know that I can do better.

My personal frustration with being a follower of Jesus, a follower of a person who leads me, in some mysterious way, to the Holy, is that whatever I do is never enough. For some people that is a reason not to be part of “a religion.” You are never good enough. But with Christianity that doesn’t matter. None of us gets “there,” gets to fully see and touch the Divine. That is what it is to be human.

Thoughts like these are theological meanderings. They are what is expressed in the basic, primal, first witness accounts that Paul’s letters embody and that are set down in the Gospel stories. They are what is expressed in the creeds and in all of the theological and mystical expressions down through 2,000 plus years of pondering like I am doing here. They are what led Karl Rahner, for example, to talk and write so much about grace. They are what preachers try to express to us in every homily and sermon.

And acts of kindness and love (be they random or not) are how we physically express these thoughts. This is where the letters of James come in. They and the Gospels remind us that our Christian answers to “Who do you say that I am?” can never be only cerebral responses. We must put our faith into action. That is what I try to do and what I fall so short of doing.

Thank you God, who is revealed through Jesus, for helping me do and try to do. And thank you for the knowledge that my failings are forgiven and that I am loved even when I do not love enough. Thank you for the knowledge and belief that love is always stronger than death.

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Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as a Guide to a Spiritual Life

One of my current pursuits is to develop a more spiritual path in catechumenate ministry. I am looking for personal guides as well as those that I can use in the catechumenate. Inwardly Digest caught my attention because of its twofold subtitle reference: the prayer book and spiritual life. I thought it might help me be able to better use the Book of Common Prayer in guiding catechumens and candidates.

There are some parts of the book that I can see in this way, for example, “The Spirituality of the Prayer Book System” and “The Basic Principles for Liturgical Worship.” However, much of the book teaches about the BCP. It explains the structure and significance of the Church Calendar, Daily Office and the Holy Eucharist rather than guide the reader through meditations on each of these. After reading this study of the BCP, I am in a better place to promote it to our catechumens and especially our candidates as a tool for personal prayer.

Two years ago we had a candidate who devoted herself to reading the lessons of the day. If I had read Inwardly Digest before she joined the catechumenate, I would have been able to offer some guidance on how she might enhance her prayer life by expanding her commitment to read the daily lessons. On the other hand, I would not want to overwhelm her or any one drawn to find prayer and spirituality in and through the BCP. For me, the value of Derek Olsen’s work is to enhance my own knowledge and appreciation of the BCP so that I can use it as a prayer guide for our candidates. For example, because of his section and comments on the Collects, I will seek some of those for prayers before our meetings or for other times when one or the other of those seems pertinent. Interestingly, he did not spend any time on the “Prayers and Thanksgivings” section of the BCP. Those can be a rich source of prayer and spirituality for anyone who uses them or reflects upon them.

In terms of my own spirituality, The Collect for Purity is becoming what Olsen calls “a gem of Anglican devotion.” Since I first heard it and prayed it, this collect has been a favorite of mine. It took Olsen to push me to make it my own. I will share it with the candidates in one or more of our meetings.

In general, I will not put Inwardly Digest in my collection of spiritual books and guides. I will keep it in my collection of books on the liturgy. If I teach the “Introduction to Worship and Prayer” again, it will be a good source book for that course.

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Changes in the Book of Occasional Services

This is an article that I wrote for the Journey to Baptismal Living e-news. It is longer than most of my posts:

For Episcopalians, the first authoritative set of rites for the catechumenate was published in the 1988 Book of Occasional Services (BOS).  Thirty years later, the 2018 General Convention approved a working version of a new BOS that includes a revision of the section on the catechumenate and related rites.  For the most part, the approved rites remain the same as in the 1988 BOS.   However, the instruction for implementing the catechumenate has significant modifications.  This article will review some of those changes.

In general, the language in the 2018 BOS instructions is more pastoral than that of the 1988 version.  In the 1988 version, the catechumenate is a period of training and instruction.  The 2018 version describes the catechumenate as a time of discernment, as a period of exploration of the Christian life.

The list of those who are responsible for the preparation of catechumens is the same: the bishop, shared with local clergy, lay catechists and sponsors.  The 1988 instructions are explicit about the roles and responsibilities of the sponsor.  The sponsor needs to be well prepared for their ministry in the services and for guiding and supporting “their catechumen.”  Sponsors also have a role in the discernment process as to when a catechumen is ready to celebrate the call to candidacy (i.e. enrollment).  According to the 2018 instructions, “seekers” are to meet regularly with sponsors and catechists “to explore the interpretation of Scripture, communal worship, personal prayer, and service to the poor and oppressed.” 

The 1988 instructions explicitly name the catechetical method as “experience first, then reflect,” i.e. mystagogy is the method throughout the catechumenate.  This includes the recommendation that “the services not be discussed prior to their celebration.”  The 2018 instructions change the language to “reflection”:  reflection on the catechumens’ experience in the light of Scripture.  There is nothing in terms of celebrating the rites before any discussion or rehearsal.  This toning down of the place of mystagogy throughout the catechumenate reflects the input of catechumenate ministers during the 30 years between the two instructions on the catechumenate process.  While the method of “experience first, then reflect” is fruitful when exercised, it is difficult to get catechumens and candidates to agree to proceeding “blindly” into the celebration of the rites.

In 1988 the instructions spoke of “classes,” “curriculum” and “instruction.”  These terms can lead to the misunderstanding that the catechumenate consists of classes.  The 2018 instructions are more explicit:  “each catechetical session consists of reflection on the readings of the Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary….  Preparation for Baptism…should not be confused with reading or memorizing the Catechism found in The Book of Common Prayer. (emphasis added). This latter language leaves no doubt that the catechumenate is not about teaching the doctrines and dogmas of the Church.  Instead, it is about mutual discovery, through reflection, of who Jesus is for us.

The year-around catechumenate remains a topic of discussion for many catechumenate teams.  Should we attempt to have a catechumenate process that is operational and available throughout the year or do we continue with a process that begins sometime in the fall and finishes on Pentecost Sunday?  The 1988 BOS is explicit:  “The catechumenate exists throughout the year in the parish, and persons may enter at any time.” (p. 112)  The 2018 instructions are less direct:  “The process of preparation is ongoing in the congregation, and persons may enter it at any time.” (p. 125) The modification recognizes that most congregations that have a catechumenate exercise a break in the ministry.  Each congregation must still answer the question of what does it look like to have a catechumenate in which “persons may enter at any time.”  That phrase remains in the 2018 instructions.

The instructions describe each of the “stages” (1988) or “steps” (2018).  Stage 1, “The Pre-catechumenal Period” of 1988 becomes “Inquiry” in the 2018 introduction.  The 1988 description of this period talks about “classes with sufficient preparation to enable persons to determine that they wish to become Christians.” (p. 113). But there is no mention of who will teach these classes.  The 2018 edition identifies the inquiry as an exploration that “can occur in any number of settings and contexts.”   Congregational leaders are encouraged not to teach but rather to look for creative ways to share the Gospel (p. 126)

Stage 2, “The Catechumenate” is renamed as “Exploration, or the Catechumenate.”  The Rite of 
Admission is explicitly named in the 2018 version as opposed to “a public liturgical act” in 1988.  The 1988 version uses “instruction,” the language of knowledge transfer as opposed to catechumens gathering with their sponsors and catechist “to explore the interpretation of Scripture….” (p. 126). Both descriptions name four focus areas for this period:  Scripture, communal worship, personal prayer, and service to the poor and oppressed.  The 1988 version identifies this as the appropriate time to “determine the name by which one desires to be known in the Christian community.” (p. 113).   There is no reference to naming in the 2018 version.  (At some point in the process, many catechumens and candidates choose a “confirmation name.”  Exploration of those named in The Great Cloud of Witnesses or other references to exemplars of Christian living can be a fruitful part of the catechumenate.)

The name of Stage 3 is changed from “Candidacy for Baptism” to “Preparation for Baptism.”  The guidance on when the Rite of Enrollment is celebrated is changed from explicitly being the beginning of Advent or Lent to, more generally, “approximately six weeks prior to the date of Baptism.” (p.126) This allows for the numerous variations that may occur in the catechumenate journey.  The 1988 instruction specifically mentions use of the “private disciplines of fasting, examination of conscience and prayer, in order that the candidates will be spiritually and emotionally ready for baptism.” (p. 114). These disciplines are not mentioned in the 2018 instructions.

The 1988 BOS addresses “a fourth period [that] immediately follows the administration of Holy Baptism” (p.114) but it does not name the period.  Many catechumenate ministers have used the term “mystagogy,” in reference to this period.  Perhaps, in recognition of confusion that use of the term “mystagogy” brings to many in our congregations, step four is now named “Reflection on the Sacraments.” 

The 1988 version provides assistance in maintaining a separation in the celebration of rites for catechumens and for those already baptized.  It provides “The Calling of the Baptized to Continuing Conversion” (i.e. those to be confirmed or received) on Ash Wednesday (pp. 133 & 137-139).  The 2018 BOS includes a Rite of Enrollment on the First Sunday of Lent for those being confirmed, received or who are reaffirming their baptismal vows.  The baptized are to enroll their names after the catechumens.   I suspect this change recognizes what is taking place in many congregations.  In general, there is less of an emphasis on ritual separation of the catechumens and the candidates for Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation. The consistent instruction is to celebrate Welcoming and Enrollment after welcoming and enrolling catechumens.

The 2018 Additional Directions (p. 136) provides prayers of dismissal if the parish dismisses the catechumens following sermon.  It also provides rubrics and prayers if the parish custom is to have catechumens remain in the Assembly for the Holy Communion.  These rubrics and prayers are very helpful, as most parishes do not practice dismissal of catechumens.  

As noted at the beginning of this article, the rites for catechumens remain substantially the same in the two editions. The 2018 edition includes a rite of “Recognition of Ministries in the Church and the World.” (pp. 154-155). This replaces the 1988 “Commissioning for Lay Ministries in the Church.” (pp. 175-191) There are three significant differences.  First, the new rite is a recognition, not a commissioning.  Second, the new rite is more inclusive; it recognizes ministries in the church and the world.  Third, the new rite is placed immediately after the “Rite of Enrollment for Confirmation,….”  This suggests that this rite might be used in similar fashion to the Lutheran rite “Affirmation of the Vocation of the Baptized in the World.”  Both are appropriate celebrations on Pentecost Sunday.

Jared Cramer, an Episcopal priest and blogger (“Care with the Cure of Souls”), notes that the 2018 version of the catechumenate materials has an “extremely helpful and entirely re-written introduction.”  There are no significant changes to the process, but the introductory explanation “is now much easier to understand and the language and ideas surrounding each stage are helpfully simplified.” (Blog entry of June 6, 2018).  Hopefully this simplification will make the catechumenate more attractive for an increasing number of our congregational leaders.

References to the 1988 BOS are to the Second Edition, published by The Church Hymnal Corporation.

References to the 2018 BOS are to the edition found at episcopalchurch.org/what we do/liturgy and music.

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Matthew 14: 22-33 — Prayer in Quiet and Prayer in Chaos

This Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus walking on the water (Mt 14: 22-33). The phrase “He dismissed the crowds” is repeated in the first verse.

Jesus “made” the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side while he dismissed the crowds. After he dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain to pray. Jesus made space for himself so that he could go up the mountain by himself.

Elijah does somewhat the same thing in the first reading, one of my favorites from the Hebrew Scriptures (I Kings 19: 9 – 18). The difference is that Jesus makes a conscious effort to go up the mountain whereas Elijah seems more on a journey and finds himself at a mountain cave. Granted that it is not just any mountain. It is God’s mountain. Later in the story the “Word of the Lord,” –is it God?–tells Elijah to stand on the mountain. I have always imagined this as Elijah being in a cave on the mountain.

Both prophets find themselves on the mountain and praying, for that is what listening for God is all about. Elijah hears God; he hears the Voice of the Lord in the silence that follows the wind and the earthquake and the fire. He steps out of the cave after hearing the silence and prays in a different way. He talks with God and finds direction.

We don’t know anything about Jesus’ time of prayer other than he is by himself. Does he listen for God? Does he hear God? Does he talk with God? We don’t know. He is there to pray in the evening but by morning he is down from the mountain and walking on the sea. In the past I have assumed that Jesus is at peace when he has come down from the mountain but Matthew doesn’t tell us that.

I am in the boat with my fellow disciples. I am caught up in the wind, in the noise. Am I terrified because of the wind that batters the boat or am I terrified because I see Jesus walking on the water or because of both? I am not the one who gets out of the boat. I let someone else take that risk. Sometimes I have been the one to step out alone and explore the risky, the unknown. Sometimes I find that others follow and sometimes I feel that I am “out there” by myself. It is during the latter times that I become frightened. I become frightened enough to call out, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.” That is my version of Peter’s plea, “Lord, save me.” This is my prayer in the midst of chaos, not in the midst of silence.

Jesus and Peter get into the boat, the wind ceases and all of the disciples worship Jesus. Is Peter’s worship different from the others? He has had an intimate encounter with Jesus. He is the one whom Jesus has saved from the waves. But the battering wind ceases for all of them. Peter’s risk seems greater. Jesus’ grace is for all. Is Peter more aware of that grace and more appreciative for it than the others? Perhaps. We don’t know. That is the end of the story.

It only matters, if it matters at all, because the one who seeks Jesus, even in a conditional way — “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you” — is the one who takes the greater risk and is the one who is more aware of the grace, of the salvation. There is a part of me that says that this doesn’t matter. Yet it does. We are left with a bunch of “what ifs.” For me, the greatest is “what if Peter had not responded to Jesus’ call?” Peter is the one who overcomes the fear of seeing a ghost. Peter is the one who calls out to Jesus. Peter is the one who steps out of the boat. Peter is the one who becomes frightened in a different context than the others. Does that mean that Peter’s experience of Jesus’ saving touch is greater that that of the others? It is certainly a bit different.

I see Peter in more of a partnership with Jesus than the other disciples. His moment of salvation may be earlier than that of the other disciples but they all experience Jesus’ saving grace. Their salvation, their experience of the new calm, their realization that Jesus is the Son of God is no different than Peter’s, or at least the story doesn’t tell us that it is. It only tells us that, because Peter took the risk, he becomes frightened and Jesus reaches out to him in particular. But Jesus only questions Peter’s faith as well.

I hear my own guides telling me that, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether Peter experiences Jesus’ saving touch before the others or not. Jesus saves all of them from the chaotic winds. But it does matter, maybe not at the end of the story but certainly in the middle. Peter is the one who steps out of the boat into the unknown. And Peter is the one Jesus saves before he calms the sea for all.

I need to remember this the next time I am fearful of stepping out into a leadership position. I don’t expect that I will be saved any “more” than others but only that someone needs to take the first step. Someone needs to recognize the grace filled chance in the midst of chaos and fright. Someone needs to have the courage to call out and to step out. That courage may help good things to happen even while I am doubting and risking. We may all be saved but that salvation needs to start somewhere.

Lord, save me!

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The Grain and the Weeds — Mt 13: 24 – 30

The Wheat and the Weeds

This Sunday (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost) we hear the Parable of the good seeds, the wheat, being choked by the weeds. The pericope skips verse 31-35. There are two more parables, that of the yeast and that of the mustard seed, in that section. Matthew also adds a comment that Jesus taught in parables.

What we have here is similar to last week’s pericope. Last week’s Gospel passage was about the random sowing of seeds, where they landed and the consequent success in growing. This one talks about the “someone” who sows good sed specifically in a field, presumably plowed and prepared for the sowing. And the weeds do not come naturally. An enemy sows weeds among the the wheat. What are the consequences?

I grew up on a farm. We had two fields that we plowed, fertilized (with chicken manure…a powerful stinky soil enhancer) and sowed with alfalfa seeds. The weeds came by themselves. But alfalfa is a hardy plant and survived the attack. And we had no enemies other than nature who planted the weeds. I do remember one crop in which the weeds won. We ended up using the final product as mulch. But usually there was more alfalfa than weed so that the cows had good food for the winter.

Jesus explains that the enemy is the devil. But neither the seeds of wheat nor the seeds of weeds have a choice in terms of their growth. They are planted, grow and are harvested together. In the end the parable says, that it is the causes of sin and all evil doers who will be thrown into the furnace of fire. The enemy, the evil doers, are the ones who are cast into the furnace.

What happens to the weeds? According to Jesus’ explanation, they are “the children of the evil one.” They too are “burned up with fire.” This makes sense in the Israelites’ ethics, where the evil of the son inherits the sins of the father. But it doesn’t seem to make sense with Jesus’ message of an ALL loving Father.

How does this make sense? In the great battle between God and the Devil, between good and evil, are the weeds, the “children of the evil one” collateral damage? No, there seems to be some intentionality in their punishment, just for being “born” as weeds. Maybe the key is in the phrase, “while everybody is asleep.” If we are asleep, if we ignore the power of evil, then we and those around us suffer consequences. This is the only time in the parable or the explanation that we are told that the enemy is able to come because there was no one on watch. Everybody, that must include the sower, his entire household and his slaves, the gathers, are asleep. But the parable does not hold them responsible for giving the enemy the opportunity to sow weeds while they were sleeping.

There are several parables about those who fall asleep and suffer the consequences. One that comes to mind is of the bridesmaids who fall asleep while waiting for the groom to come. He goes right past them and they are not able to go to the wedding feast.

Perhaps the hidden message in this parable is that we must be vigilant. There is a great deal of temptation. We can and do fall asleep. Falling asleep may not even be intentional. It just happens. Does the all forgiving God, the God of the Good News that Jesus proclaims, understand our lack of diligence? I think so. But there are consequences and some of those can be more serious than we’ll ever know.

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Romans 6: 1-11

Before I begin this reflection on the Epistle for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, I want to comment on Jeremiah 20:7, the beginning of one of the two possible Hebrew Bible readings for the day. “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed.” (NRSV) Or, as translated in the King James: …”thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived…” Another translation uses “duped” rather than “enticed.” The Jerusalem Bible translates it as “You have seduced me, Yahweh, and I have let myself be seduced…” According to Rolf Knierim, my Hebrew Scriptures professor at Claremont, “seduced” may be the most accurate translation of the Hebrew. It connotes the tempting, tantalizing draw to which Jeremiah felt he had succumbed. As with most “victims” of seduction, Jeremiah tacitly admits that he has no one to “blame” for all that befalls him as a Prophet but himself. I like The Jerusalem Bible translation because it injects a bit of the sexual into Jeremiah’s otherwise difficult adventures as Yahweh’s prophet.

Now on to Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Epistle for the Easter Vigil uses the same passage, except that it starts with verse 3 (“Do you not know…” rather than 6:1. I like to start the Vigil proclamation with “My sisters and brothers, do you not know…”

As Jim Dunning pointed out many years ago, this is the first mystagogical reflection for all of us after the Vigil baptisms. Indeed, in the ’80’s, when we were still enjoying the flexibility of the RCIA in its early days of implementation, we discussed moving this passage so that it would be proclaimed immediately after the baptisms and associated initiatory rites. This was controversial at the time (and increasingly so as the rites of initiation become more “solidified) because it took the Epistle passage out of its “proper” order in the Liturgy of the Word. In 1984 I had the opportunity to drive Balthasar Fischer to the airport after he had spent several weeks at Notre Dame working with those who were studying and discussing the catechumenate. Dom Fischer is credited as the person who developed the RCIA to respond to the needs recognized in the Vat II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In fact he chaired the study group that created the book of rites. I asked him what he thought of the idea of moving the Romans reading. He said, “Move it where you think best. The entire Liturgy of the Word in the Vigil is flexible.”

I like the idea of moving the reading because it is Paul’s reflection on the significance of baptism, of what the newly baptized and the assembly have just experienced. One could argue that the same selection “works” just prior to the baptisms. Leave it in its “proper” order in the Liturgy. But Paul is addressing those who are already “baptized into Christ Jesus,” not those who are about to be baptized. Paul is saying, now that we have experienced and witnessed this most recent baptismal event, remember — all of us have died so as to be raised. We have died to our old lives. We have died to sin so that we can be alive to Christ. New life overcomes death as long as we die to our old life.

One, two, three, four; what are we looking for? Are those traveling the path toward baptism looking for death? At the beginning of the Catechumenate journey, we ask the inquirers, “What do you seek?” The formulaic response is “faith.” (At Trinity, we let our seekers give their own responses. In my experience those responses are about seeking faith in the Christ Jesus.) We aren’t looking for death but we will find it along the path. We will find Jeremiah’s torment because God has murmured sweet somethings in our ears and we have let ourselves be seduced. But we will also find new life as we shed our old ways, our old lives.

Do you not know, my sisters and brothers, that we all celebrate death and resurrection during baptism? We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection to be our Christ. We celebrate our resurrection to be members of the Body of Christ. We celebrate new life.

“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11)

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Catechumenal Ministries–Who Does What?

“Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?” A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” [The Episcopal Catechism in the BCP]

The catechumenate is primarily a ministry of the laity. — [Jim Dunning and others.]

What is the role of the laity and the role of the clergy in catechumenate ministry? I have always ministered in the catechumenate with the perspective that this is primarily a ministry of the laity. By and through baptism, all Christians are called to proclaim the Good News and work to bring others into the Body of Christ. How each participates in catechumen ministry depends upon his/her gifts and role in the faith community. Some are called to be sponsors; others, catechists; still others, musicians. Some laity may be spiritual directors. Clergy often minister in this role. but spiritual direction is not an exclusive gift to clergy. Deacons can catechize about service but so can others. Bishops and priests preach and officiate at the various rites. It is true that both laity and ordained ministers can direct the catechumenate. When I do work with clergy, especially pastors, on the catechumenate, one of the things I emphasize that they do not have to direct another program. They can help identify and train lay persons to direct and catechize.

There is a tension that develops at this point. Do clergy trust laity to catechize “correctly” in the catechumenate? Many priests think that they need to be in charge and lead the catechumenate “classes” because they have a better grasp of the doctrine that needs to be passed on. There are several errors in this. The most important is the assumption that catechumenal catechizing is about passing on ecclesiastical doctrines. Catechizing is about allowing the Spirit to speak Truth through silent listening to the Gospel. In the catechumenate, a good catechists is one who knows how to lead lectio divina. This is not a ministry reserved to the clergy.

What about the Catechumenate Director? Again, this does not have to be a priest or deacon. The minister needs to have good organizational skills and needs to guide evangelism, discernment of sponsors, scheduling of rites and many other aspects of the catechumenate.

At Trinity Cathedral, the clergy told me that they felt excluded from the catechumenate. They felt that the team had decided that the clergy’s only role was to officiate. They didn’t know what went on or what was “taught” in the “classes.” They didn’t feel that they knew the catechumens and candidates that we lay leaders were asking them to bless. They wanted some class or meeting time with the candidates. They want to get to know the candidates better. Their solution for this is to join some of the meetings or “teach” some of the sessions.

I, on the other hand, thought I was doing the clergy a favor by assuming the responsibility for leading meetings and catechizing. I directed the catechumenate, drafted the rites, oversaw the catechists. I interpreted “lay led” or “lay-driven” as meaning that the clergy did not need to be involved in the weekly meetings. And I didn’t trust that they knew what the process and what catechesis were all about.

The clergy do need to be involved with the catechumens and candidates. The question is “how?”, besides those roles that are exclusive to the ordained. In the past several years at Trinity, we have tried various things. One member of the team suggested that we give the clergy beads that the candidates had to request, thus giving them an opportunity to meet and talk with various clergy. That turned out to be superficial. The clergy handed out beads but did to take the opportunity to meet and talk with each candidate. This past year members of the clergy said they specifically wanted to attend some meetings. This is difficult, given that there is an intimacy and trust that develops in the small groups as the weeks and months go by. Our solution was to ask each of the staff and main associate members to lead a meeting on a Baptismal Promise during Lent. It turned out to be a challenge to schedule those.

James Wilde edited “A Catechumenate Needs Everybody; Study Guides for Parish Ministers” in 1988 (LTP). I have used it a lot while training people in catechumen ministry. Various people wrote essays on the various ministries: the Sunday Assembly (i.e. the entire congregation), Evangelism, Hospitality, Prayer,, Discernment, Peace & Justice Minister, Catechist, Catechumen, Sponsor, Sponsor Coordinator, Director, “Ordained Presider,” Lay Presider, Deacon, Bishop, Spiritual Director, Preacher or Homilist, Liturgist, Msic Director, Mystagogue. Many of these ministries get consolidated into several people, depending upon the size and structure of the parish.

There are only a few of these ministries that clergy cannot do: the Sunday Assembly (they can lead this), the catechumen, and the lay Presider. There are ministries that are exclusively reserved to the ordained: Bishop, Ordained Presider and Deacon.

The main criteria for who does what may be defined as identifying the gifts of the Spirit that members of the congregation possess. Numerous works on the catechumenate emphasize that “the primary minister of rites of initiation and the periods around them” is the assembly. (A Catechumenate Needs Everybody, p. 1). It is the business of the entire congregation to participate in the formation of catechumens and candidates. Thus initial task for the discernment minister is to help members of the congregation discern their gifts. The Director needs to coordinate all of the ministries. In a small parish, one person may assume several catechumenate ministries. In a larger parish, there may be more people to assume the different ministries.

All this being said, we come back to the role of the clergy in the process. My concern is that the clergy in a parish not see the catechumenate as another program that she/he needs to direct. The catechumenate is an important ministry. In some ways, because it is about preparation for baptism or renewal of baptismal vows, it is a central or core ministry in the parish. But this does not mean that the clergy-in-charge needs to lead or direct.

The most important role for the clergy is to get to know the catechumens and candidates before celebration of the rites. The preacher can personalize sermons, not only for the occasion but also for the candidates. How the personal connection happens will vary. We have tried several ways at Trinity and will continue to work on it in conversation with the clergy.

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