Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Snapshot of the Church

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 13, 2008

Acts 2:42-47
(1 Peter 2:19-25)
Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

A Snapshot of the Church

I guess about twelve or thirteen years ago my wife Sue and I were at a friend’s wedding. I don’t remember now what it was about, but at the wedding reception Sue and I had a pretty big fight. We managed to get through the party without making a scene, but just barely. What’s interesting about that evening now is that someone took a picture of us together in the middle of our disagreement and to this day it’s one of the nicest pictures we have of us – we’re leaning in nice and close, both giving our most toothy smiles. It’s a great snapshot – not of our fight – but it’s a great snapshot of who we hope to be and who we really are.
And today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is sort of a snapshot of the earliest Church. It’s a snapshot not of disagreement and division, but a snapshot of what the church hopes to be and what the church really is. In this snapshot we are given the beautiful image of the early Christians coming together, sharing their possessions, giving to those in need, breaking bread together and, as Luke puts it, “Praising God and having the goodwill of the people.” This snapshot of the very early Church comes very early in Acts – in fact, it’s placed right after a lengthy speech given by Peter on the Day of Pentecost. In his speech, Peter preaches repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Since Pentecost is considered the “birthday of the Church,” this snapshot shows us the Church in its infancy.

In this snapshot the followers of Jesus the Good Shepherd are united in prayer, united in generosity, and united in spirit. It’s a snapshot that shows us what the church hopes to be and what the church really is – the Body of Christ on earth.
But this snapshot of unity doesn’t mean that the Church was free of division and dispute even in those earliest years.

From pretty close to the beginning, followers of Jesus disagreed about all sorts of things – just like today, sometimes they disagreed about major, fundamental things and other times they disagreed about minor, trivial things.
Scholars think that close to the beginning there were disagreements between Jesus’ family and Jesus’ disciples. They disagreed about who Jesus was, what was the meaning of his ministry, and who should control the legacy of Jesus. If Jesus is “the gate” as he says in today’s gospel, then from the beginning the Church has argued over just who may pass through the gate and what they need to do to may pass through the gate.

Early on there was the huge disagreement between St. Paul (who never knew Jesus during his earthly lifetime – and in fact early on had persecuted Christians) and the disciples in Jerusalem, like Peter and James, who had actually known Jesus. Paul, of course, took the revolutionary step of bringing the Good News of Jesus to non-Jews. This caused some trouble and raised difficult questions, to say the least. So, was Jesus the Jewish messiah or was he the messiah for the whole world? And what about these non-Jewish followers of Jesus? Should they have to follow Jewish law? Should the men be circumcised? Should the non-Jewish followers of Jesus have to keep kosher?

These questions led to angry and bitter arguments among followers of Jesus. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives us one side of an angry and bitter argument when he tells us that he called Peter a hypocrite to his face. Paul was furious because Peter, a Jew, had previously eaten with non-Jews, but now was insisting that non-Jewish followers of Jesus keep kosher.

Yet with all of this arguing going on, the first readers of the Acts of the Apostles had this snapshot of the early Church united in prayer, united in generosity, and united in spirit. The first readers of the Acts of the Apostles had this snapshot of what the church hopes to be and what the church really is.

Over the centuries the Church has been rocked by angry and bitter and sometimes violent disputes about who is this Good Shepherd, who is Jesus, how should Jesus be worshipped, who should lead the Church and how should the Bible be interpreted. And sometimes there were disputes about slightly less important things like… should we have candles on the altar or should priests wear vestments. (I still haven’t gotten over the whole candle thing…)

I don’t need to tell you that today the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is very broken by disunity. I remember a friend of mine telling me that he was driving around Jersey City and block after block he saw church after church, representing denomination after denomination. As he drove by all these churches he reflected sadly on the disunity, the bad history, the waste, the duplication of effort and resources that they represented.

Often there doesn’t seem to be much unity in prayer, no unity in generosity, no unity in spirit. And yet we still have the snapshot of the Church united in prayer, united in generosity and united in spirit. We still have the snapshot of what the Church hopes to be and what the Church really is.

I probably don’t need to tell you about the disunity in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church. Anglicans and Episcopalians are engaged in bitter and increasingly expensive battles about interpretation of Scripture, authority and church property. Thanks to the Internet we can follow all of this bickering and disunity in real time. In seminary I found myself becoming obsessed with all of this stuff, worrying that just as I was making a commitment to the Episcopal Church it was shattering into pieces. Finally, for my own well-being I had to limit how much time I spent reading and thinking about these disputes.

But whether we choose to know about it or not, often in the Episcopal Church there seems to be a real lack of unity in prayer, generosity, and spirit. And yet we still have the snapshot of the Church united in prayer, united in generosity and united in spirit. We still have the snapshot of what the Church hopes to be and what the Church really is.

And although as I’ve said before Grace Church is the healthiest church I’ve ever been a part of, even here there have been disagreements and disputes, occasionally harsh words, misunderstandings and a lack of unity. And yet we here today – we also have the snapshot of the Church united in prayer, generosity and spirit. We today have the snapshot of what the Church hopes to be and what the Church really is.

And you know that snapshot is not just found in a book written nearly two thousand years ago. If we keep our eyes and minds and hearts open we see those snapshots all around us.

For me one great snapshot recently was the rummage sale. I have to admit that the week before the sale the accumulation of rummage drove me a little crazy, but that day – what a snapshot of what we hope to be and who we really are. Parishioners of all ages, who might disagree with each other about all sorts of things, from all the different corners and services of this church, coming together and doing incredible work – and to top it off, raising a load of money.

Another great snapshot recently was the Maundy Thursday lock-in. Again, leading up to it I kept thinking whose idea was this to invite kids to spend an overnight here in church – and especially an overnight before the busiest days of the church calendar. Well, it wasn’t my idea and it certainly wasn’t a restful night. But I have this beautiful snapshot of our youth in small groups taking their turns spending an hour at the altar of repose. Some of them did yoga, some sang hymns, and some sat in a circle on the floor telling stories. They all took it very seriously - a beautiful snapshot of what the Church hopes to be and what the church really is.

And this morning we’ll have another beautiful snapshot when three babies will be baptized. Whether they endure it peacefully or scream their heads off it doesn’t matter because in that moment as the water is poured over them they will be marked as Christ’s own forever and all of us will be powerfully reminded of who we really are. What a great snapshot.

And we have another important and beautiful snapshot ahead of us next week when the bishop makes his first official visit to Grace Church and ceremonially breaks ground on the new parish hall. What a snapshot that will be of all of us coming together in unity of prayer, unity of generosity and unity of spirit. What a snapshot after all the planning, all the discussion, all the debate, all the hope and, yes, all the anxiety, what a snapshot as we come together and say, yes, we are the Church, we are the Body of Christ – this is who we really are.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Daily Office

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 2008

The Daily Office

During my first semester at General Seminary my classmates and I were given the assignment of creating a “rule of life.” We were told to come up with a list of spiritual practices that we thought would serve us well during our three years of study and beyond in ordained ministry. To help us come up with our list and to reflect on the importance of spiritual practice we read a useful book called Practicing Our Faith, edited by Dorothy C. Bass. It includes essays on practices such as hospitality, healing, keeping Sabbath, discernment and forgiveness. To be honest, creating a rule of life seemed a little bit like making new years resolutions and sure enough most of my list quickly fell by the spiritual wayside as I tried to get through the day and get my papers written on time.

But one part of my rule of life grew in importance during seminary and has remained a key element of my spiritual life: the Daily Office (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer). You may know that the Daily Office, found near the front of the Book of Common Prayer, has its roots in very early Christian practice and is the daily prayer that is intended to be prayed by the whole Church. In reality, of course, very few Episcopalians take advantage of this rich resource. At the seminary, however, the Daily Office is offered everyday and being both a morning person and a commuter student I thought that Morning Prayer would be an especially good fit and an appropriately “spiritual” way to start each day. Before seminary I had some familiarity with the Daily Office but I had only prayed it alone. While that’s fine and has its benefits, I have found that for me it is a deeper experience to pray in community.

So over the course of three years I sat in my spot in the seminary chapel and grew familiar with the various prayers and canticles, discovered the psalms and most importantly heard a good portion of the Bible read aloud. In the Daily Office the lectionary just plows through book after book of the Bible so we get to hear the familiar stories but also the more obscure, the legalistic, and the sometimes bizarre parts of Holy Scripture that we usually manage to avoid on Sundays. It was a great spiritual and educational experience.

In his book, Grace at this Time, author C.W. McPherson offers a helpful list of characteristics of the Daily Office. He notes that it is daily but it is also brief. It is stable (pretty much the same every day) but also flexible (all sorts of prayers, readings and music may be added). Finally, McPherson makes the important point that unlike our other church services, the Daily Office is non-hierarchical – anyone may serve as officiant.

In seminary when I imagined my first job I always expected that I would be in a little city church, probably working on my own. (So much for my abilities to predict the future!) I had resolved that wherever I ended up I would institute daily Morning Prayer – and if no one else showed up at least it would give me the structure to help me pray and, who knows, maybe others would be attracted to this simple and relatively brief service.

Well, you know how this story ends! Imagine my amazement when Lauren+ first told me that the Daily Office was offered here at Grace!

Just as in seminary, it has been a great gift to gather together on a daily basis and to say the familiar prayers and to be inspired, challenged and occasionally dumbfounded by Holy Scripture. It has also been moving to see the handful of parishioners who are so devoted to attending and sometimes officiating at the service. One of my worries as I prepared for ordination was if I would ever have a chance to just go to church. The Daily Office here at Grace has given me that chance just to sit and pray and not worry whether I’m forgetting to do something, or preaching too long, or chanting too poorly. The Daily Office offers a chance to sit (and stand and kneel) and pray.

I hope more of us will take advantage of this wonderful gift that we have been given. As with anything unfamiliar, the Daily Office might be a little intimidating or confusing at first. But the officiants usually announce page numbers and I know that the “regulars” are more than happy to help out newcomers. Come pray with us! Who knows, maybe the Daily Office will become part of your rule of life, too!