Vatican: Pope to Meet with Archbishop Rowan Williams

Rowan and BenedictFrom the New York Times:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI will meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury next month in the leaders’ first encounter since the Catholic church moved to make it easier for disenchanted Anglicans to convert to Catholicism, a Vatican spokesman said Friday.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Anglican leader, was already due to visit Rome in November for ceremonies at a pontifical university to honor a late cardinal who worked for Christian unity, said the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. Taking advantage of the archbishop’s presence in Rome, Benedict will receive Williams on Nov. 21 at the Vatican, Lombardi said in a telephone interview.

The Vatican’s move, announced last week, to ease Anglican conversions to Catholicism is designed to entice traditionalists opposed to women bishops, openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions in the church headed by Williams.

Full article from the AP here:

Whirlwinds and Stewardship

A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 11, 2009

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 
Gird up your loins like a man, 
I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 
”Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:1-2).

Last Sunday, Fr. Jody launched our Stewardship Season with a sermon about the man who came to Jesus, and with great reverence asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him. “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  It was as if Jesus was conducting an intervention for this man.  Jesus knew that if the man would change just one thing, namely his anxious relationship with money, then everything else would change.  “Show me the money!” was what Rod Tidwell asked of Tom Cruise who plays Jerry McGuire in the movie of the same name.  “Show me your trust” is closer to what Jesus was looking for—in the rich man, and in us.

This morning, I want to look at the practice of stewardship from a slightly unusual angle, and quite honestly, one that I have not attempted before.  I want to look at stewardship as a personal and communal response to the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  Some people find innocent, excessive suffering to be a philosophical problem, if not a question of spiritual survival.  It seems to call into question the very existence of God.  We are currently looking at this problem in our current series in the Adult Forum, and our first reading from the Book of Job brings the issue front and center stage for us today.

If there is a God of love at the heart of the universe, why has this God allowed history and life to proceed as it has?  Philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have pondered this problem in eloquent and forceful ways. We have a word for it. Theodicy. It is a way of speaking about God (theos) with justice (diké) How doe we speak about God with justice precisely in circumstances of innocent suffering and the challenges that this life presents us. It seems very difficult to understand at times and to believe in a God of love amid real, tangible, unexplainable human suffering.

The most detailed exploration of suffering in the Bible, if we can call it that, is to be found in the elegant poetry of the book of Job.  God, as the story goes, allows a shadowy figure, “the Satan,” to test Job.  Job who is a good and righteous man loses everything, his family, and his possessions, even his health.  Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, suggest a traditional explanation, a traditional theodicy: suffering is a result of wrongdoing and sin.  So Job must have sinned.  Later, another friend, Elihu stresses the way in which suffering can be used by God to transform us, a sort of ‘soul-making’ theodicy.  So we have, even in the book of Job, these two possible answers: suffering is related to sin and human evil or it is allowed by God for the purpose of making one’s soul deeper or obedient.  Finally, after extensive and passionate pleading from Job, God delivers an answer out of the whirlwind.  And it is an extraordinary answer: God asks Job various questions, all of which make clear that God is the creator and Job might just want to remember how small and insignificant he is by comparison.  So God says:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 
Gird up your loins like a man, 
I will question you, and you shall declare to me. ”Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? 
Tell me, if you have understanding. 
Who determined its measurements—surely you know! 
Or who stretched the line upon it? (Job 38:4-5)

And so it goes on.  In a remarkable set of questions put by God to Job, God makes the point that the creator is not obliged to provide answers to the questions his creatures ask.  We will hear the rest of the story in the reading appointed for next Sunday.  But in the end, Job repents of the temerity of daring to ask demanding questions of God.  However frustrating it might seem, God is not going to explain to him or to us why the innocent suffer.

Now I’m gong to make a claim here, and you may disagree with me, that’s fine, but I would say that the Bible, Holy Scripture, does not give us a clear cut answer to the issue of evil. It gives us directions, it gives us some ideas, but I don’t think that any serious theologian, or serious leader in the church, or really any serious Christian would come to a point where they would say, “I understand the nature of evil and suffering.”  If you meet such a person, run!  I just don’t think we get that from God at this point.  I think there are reasons why.

So if suffering and evil do not logically disprove the existence of God, there are many who would say, “O.K., but I’m still angry about it. All this philosophical speculation does not get the Christian God off the hook.”  You can come up with all kinds of theodicies, but when the rubber meets the road, will those theodicies help you or not?  You still have some ambivalent feelings, you will still be confused and exasperated.  And if you love God, you will be angry with him. Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, recently wrote a Book titled “The Reason for God” which I would highly recommend.  He brings up this very good point:

The Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering.  Christianity may not explain all the reasons for evil and pain, but it provides the deepest resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than with bitterness and despair.[1]

I think Keller is right.  The question of why God allows a world where there is evil and suffering, is really not the question the Bible seeks to answer.  The question it does seem to answer is “What is God doing about it?” It’s one thing to ask why its there, but what is God doing about the evil and suffering in the world? Now that is what the overarching narrative of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is in fact concerned to answer.  Bishop N.T. Wright in his excellent book, “Evil and the Justice of God” writes,

[The Biblical Story] is about the messy way in which God has had to work to bring the world out of the mess – ever since the garden, every since God’s grief over Noah, every since the Tower of Babel and Abraham, somehow, God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to renew and restore the world.  How is he doing this?  Well he works within the world of his people.  Once God decides, with the call of Abraham, to work to address the problem of evil through people who are part of the problem as well as part of the solution, there’s going to be a lot of messiness which will reach it’s climax when God not only gets his feet muddy with the mess of the world, but his hands bloody with the nails of the world. [2]

You see where Wright is headed.  Jesus is the way indeed, in which God has dealt and is dealing with evil and suffering in the world. Every season of Lent and Passion week we read the Gospels about how the evil in the world, be it, political, social, personal, or moral, reached its height, and how God’s long term plan for Israel and for God’s self finally comes to a climax.  In the story of the Passion, we don’t get a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why its there, but rather we get the story of how God is dealing with evil, through what happened to Jesus and what is going on in and through his church today. For me, this is a more accessible approach to the question of evil, because ultimately that is where I have to turn in my suffering and the challenges of my life.  Where do you turn, in other words, to find hope, and courage, and direction when suffering crosses your path?  What does faith mean and do for you in those moments when you can’t explain your suffering?

So when people ask “why is there evil in the world” or say “I don’t believe in God because he allows children to die innocently,” for me, the best way that I can address that issue is the Gospel itself and the person of Jesus and that’s the only way that I can address it.  For many people that’s a big leap, and we have to acknowledge that. But if it were not for the participation of Almighty God in his creation, if it were not for the fact that Jesus shares our human journey and walks our road with us and for us, if it were not for this, then I would have a very difficult time being a practicing Christian.  I need to know that the God, who has given life and existence to all things, suffers with his creation and not apart from it.  God is a fellow-sufferer is the most vivid and compelling reality that has caused me to trust in the kindness of God and the loving-kindness of Jesus.  What I learn from the life and passion of Jesus is that God will not preserve me from suffering but God will preserve me in suffering and through suffering.  I can trust that he will be there, even in hidden ways. It means that we should show solidarity with those who are suffering, sharing their burdens as best we can.  When we do this, when we share in the suffering of others, we are not only enduring suffering, but in a real sense fighting against it.

Now, this is where the subject of our stewardship finally comes in.

The call of the Gospels is for the Church, for you and for me, to actually implement the victory of Christ, the achievement of God in Christ: you, me, have this task.  God works with his people to respond to the evil and suffering in the world.  The suffering love of God lived out by the Spirit in you and in me in this Christian community as answer to the evil and suffering of this world.  And if that’s true, what incredible dignity we have been given by God, that we are part of the answer to evil and suffering.  Your work in the world, what you do with your time, contributes, I believe, to the answer of evil and suffering in this world.  The church needs to stand up against evil and be involved in its defeat because we are followers of God in the way of Jesus.  I used to always ask in the face of horrendous evil and injustice, “Where is God?”  But I’m retraining myself.  Now I’m asking, “Where are God’s people?” Because we pray, “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Where are God’s people?

So when we choose to give the “first fruits” of our resources, our time, our income, our gifts and talents, we’re not merely giving them to provide for the operational costs of this church.  What we are actually doing is giving them as a response to the evil and suffering in the world, so that we can proclaim God’s unconditional love for all people in Jesus Christ; so that we can feed the hungry, so that we can seek justice for the poor and disadvantaged, so that we can nourish the hearts of young people and adults and older people, so that we can in actions of worship, discipleship, and mission, manifest what God wants to do in this community and in the world, and to provide an environment for support and for healing for those who are up against life’s greatest challenges.  That’s what our financial stewardship does; it is a tangible way of overcoming evil and suffering with good.

I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me, as I continue to grieve over the death of my dear father, to receive the genuine sympathy and compassion of this congregation in multiple ways– beyond my expectation.  It has been an immeasurable help to me to know that so many of you have walked the road of grief, and that you understand from the inside what that’s all about. You are there to walk it with me. I know that my experience of being held in the love and prayers of this community is not uncommon but the shared experience of so many both now and in the past.  When we make a pledge and we put our resources on the line for Holy Comforter, we are making a statement.  “You do not have to bare your suffering alone.  We are your friends.  We are your community.”

So brothers and sisters, you know what stewardship season is all about.  Every year, as your Rector I ask you to think, to pray, to stretch, and to give sacrificially for God’s mission in this place.  Why?–as an active response to the problem of evil and suffering in the world. I ask you to engage in the spiritual practice of giving God the first fruits of your life and labor, not simply the fruits that are left-over.  I ask you to keep Holy Comforter’s life and witness vital and strong.  I ask you to fill out a pledge card and offer it this Sunday or over the next two Sundays and let it be part of the glad offering we make in thanksgiving for all the blessings we share in this place.

Let me offer a final summary.  We are not told—not in any way that can satisfy our deepest questioning—how and why there is evil and suffering within God’s wonderful, beautiful, and essentially good creation.  What we are promised now is that God will make a world in which all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well, a world in which healing and forgiveness are the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement, which holds everything together.  And can I tell you that we are given this promise not as a matter of whistling in the dark, not as something to believe in even though there is no evidence, but something to rejoice in because of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, and his Spirit at work through his Church.  It takes faith.  It takes courage.  It takes our gifts to make that promise a reality in this world.  Amen.


[1] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton, 2008), pp. 27-28.

[2] See N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (Downers Grove: Ivp Press, 2006) particularly chapter two “What Can God Do About Evil?” pp. 58-59.  The specific quote I use in this sermon is found in a dialogue between N.T. Wright and Bart Ehrman at Beliefnet.com – http://blog.beliefnet.com/blogalogue/is-our-pain-gods-problem/

Rome’s Anglican Annex

henry_viiiFrom the Washington Post:

The Vatican is making it easier for Anglicans — priests, members and parishes — to convert to Catholicism. Some say this is further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic and Anglican traditions; others see it as poaching that could further divide the Anglican Communion. What do you think?

My favorite panelist responses to the question are found here: Bill Tully, George Weigel, Brad Hirschfield.

Don’t miss the informative article in today’s WSJ, “Pope’s Wooing of Anglicans Challenges Archbishop,” which includes the idea that if enough conservatives take up the Vatican’s offer, it could diminish the need for a “two tier” approach in the Anglican Communion.

Ironically, some say that the Vatican’s appeal could simplify the church’s politics going forward. “This could be the answer to [Archbishop Williams’s] prayers,” said Forward in Faith’s Mr. Parkinson.

Recently, while in London for the Annual Meeting of the Compass Rose Society, I had the pleasure of hearing Archbishop Williams speak about the ongoing difficulties of the Communion and the need, while working hard to maintain the deepest bonds of affection possible, to also remain focused on the Gospel imperatives.  “What ever goes on at the level of hierarchies and councils and so forth,” Rowan stated, “what is most remarkable about the Anglican Communion is that it carries on at the grassroots level, delivering the Gospel in areas of real need, practically and theologically.”  He reminded us that the opportunity to live the Gospel and build communities of transformation remains greater than ever.

Anglicanism is not at its core merely a unique system of belief or ecclesiology. It is first and foremost a way of following God in the way of Christ that is generous, orthodox, and open.  Hands to the plow my friends.

Vatican Bidding to Get Anglicans to Join Its Fold

popupFrom the New York Times:

VATICAN CITY — In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse, the Vatican said Tuesday that it would make it easier for Anglicans uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions.  Anglicans would be able “to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony,” Cardinal William J. Levada, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a news conference here.

It was unclear why the Vatican made the announcement now. But it seemed a rare opportunity, audaciously executed, to capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church to attract new members at a time when the Catholic Church has been trying to reinvigorate itself in Europe.

Full article here.

Returning and Rest

I’ve just returned from the annual Bishop’s Retreat for the Clergy of the Diocese of Virgina at Shrine Mont in Orkney Springs.  It was wonderful to take a few days away from the busy routine of parish ministry and give my soul time to catch up with the rest of me.   We were blessed by the leadership of both Br. Curtis Almquist (Superior) and Br. Geoffry Tristram from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Their meditations were profound and authentic expressions of life and ministry grounded in prayer and engagement with the human condition.  They shared insights on topics such as expectant hope, performance anxiety, strength from weakness, and the unique shape each of us brings in our motivated abilities and gifts for the common good.

I relished in the gift of time to be with my friend “Marzal” (nickname for my favorite guitar), and to work on Bach’s “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068.  The arrangement I’m playing is by the fine Sweedish Guitarist, Per-Olov Kindgren.  I played the piece for those gathered for Compline on Tuesday evening and folks expressed appreciation for the way it led them into prayer.  Here’s a video of me practicing on the third floor of Pennsylvania House accompanied by sounds of wind, cars driving on gravel, seasoned with a bit of reverb to the audio via Garage Band.  I recorded it on my Ultra Flip camcorder.  Fun with technology.  Enjoy.