Archives for July 2012

Bible Study: 12 Pentecost, Proper 15 (B) – Aug. 19, 2012

Discussion Leader: Jordan Haynie, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” (John 6:53)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111 (or Proverbs 9:1-6 and Psalm 34:9-14); Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Proverbs 9:1-6

In this passage, Wisdom builds her house and lays her table for all, and most especially for the simple. In the previous chapter, she has called out for all people to follow her. Indeed, she claims that whoever finds her, also finds the Lord and life. She calls all people to herself, asking them to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Ancient Jewish tradition thought of Wisdom almost as a person; some believed she was God’s first offspring, the one who assisted in Creation, others thought of her as God’s wife. Later Jewish philosophers, such as Philo, called her the Logos. Logos is a Greek word for “Word” or “Reason” that early Christians used to speak of Jesus (“In the beginning was the Word (Logos)” John 1:1.)

In this passage, Wisdom prefigures the all-encompassing welcome of Jesus, who invited prostitutes and tax collectors to join him at table. She invites all who are simple as He invites all who are weary and heavy-laden. God’s invitation is open to all, in both Old and New Testaments. How can you be one of Wisdom’s servant-girls, and invite all to her table?

Psalm 111

Great are the deeds of the Lord! The psalmist praises God for all of God’s marvelous works, for God’s graciousness and compassion. Particularly, the psalmist mentions God’s gift of food “to those who fear him.” We don’t often think of God working this way, because we see so many deserving people go hungry. Clearly, not all who fear God have enough food to eat. But God has also sent redemption to his people, which should make us mindful that God will redeem those who are hungry from those who oppress them; as the Magnificat proclaims, when the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent empty away.

We pray that God’s redemption might be made manifest here on earth as in heaven, but are we prepared for the reversals that will bring to our society? Are we prepared to fulfill our role as God’s hands in the world to make His will a reality, even if it may mean a material loss to ourselves?

Ephesians 5:15-20

The author of Ephesians commends to us the task the psalmist has just done: “Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.” Praise the Lord, he writes, and give thanks to God always, in the name of Christ.

For what are you particularly thankful? If singing is not your forte, how can you best express that thankfulness to God?

How does this idea of thankfulness and praise tie in with God’s abundant welcome as shown in Wisdom’s table? How can you carry that with you at all times, not just when singing?

John 6:51-58

As Wisdom invited all to her table, and as the psalmist declared that God would give food to those who fear him, so Jesus declares that He will give His own body for food for the life of the world. Jesus is the very Bread of Life that nourishes us in times of hardship.

This in no way excuses those of us who have ordinary bread from sharing with our neighbors who have none – far from it! If Jesus gives His own body for our food, we must be generous with what we have and give to others. But Jesus declares that the food that God will give will be greater than mere bread. Christ abides in those who receive Him, and they abide in Him.

Through the Eucharist, we are connected with Christ eternally, and made one with Him. Through the Eucharist, we are assured eternal life. But that life is not meant for us alone. We are charged to cry out, like Wisdom and her servant-girls, to invite everyone in, that all might share in Christ’s living bread, not just in the Eucharist, but in the community of love and shared burdens that is Christ’s Body, the church.

Dan Bell

Dan Bell is entering his final year of the Master’s of Divinity (M. Div.) program at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He is an aspirant to the priesthood and is spending this summer interning as a chaplain at Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut.

See Dan’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 11 Pentecost, Proper 14 (B).

Bible Study: 11 Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – Aug. 12, 2012

Discussion Leader: Dan Bell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’” (John 6:51)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Psalm 130 (or 1 Kings 19:4-8 and Psalm 34:1-8); Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

1 Kings 19:4-8

Elijah is terrified and running for his life in this passage. Jezebel has vowed to take revenge on him for having killed the prophets of Baal, so he is justly afraid and flees into the wilderness. The prophet is clearly overwhelmed by his circumstances and at the end of his rope. He runs away to escape sure and certain death, yet we find him sitting under a tree and crying out for God to bring his life to an end. Elijah doesn’t want to die at the hands of Jezebel, but at the same time he’s not sure that he can go on living. “It is enough … take away my life,” he says to God. Remember, this is the same Elijah who, in just the chapter before this, displays his awesome faith in the Almighty by calling down fire on Mount Carmel and vanquishing the false prophets of Baal. How could he go from such amazing, faith-filled triumph to such pathetic defeat and despair? Perhaps simply for this reason: he may be a prophet, but he remains a man and therefore weak, fearful and inconstant. Indeed, Elijah’s sheer humanity is made obvious by the means procured by an angel to give him the strength to continue on in his journey, a cake and some water. Notice that God didn’t give him any grand exhortations on why he needed to pull himself together and just have more faith. Instead, he sent him the basic necessities of life – food, water and a bit of companionship to keep him going.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been at the end of your rope, without the motivation to continue on? What has kept you going in such circumstances? Do you think that God was with you during those times, and if so, how did God provide for you?

Psalm 34:1-8

This selection from Psalm 34 goes well with the previous reading from 1 Kings. Like Elijah, the psalmist has faced terror and affliction at the hands of his enemies. The difference between the two passages is that, unlike the portion from 1 Kings, in this part of the psalm the one under adversity has been delivered from hardship and so we find him rejoicing in God’s goodness. The psalmist writes that God hears the cries of the faithful and rescues them from all their troubles. Of course, we know that scripture also records times when God does not deliver people who are facing hardships, at least not right away. Elijah’s story shows us this reality, as do various other portions of the Psalter (for example, Ps. 22, the Book of Job, etc.).

How should we respond during such circumstances, when God doesn’t seem to be present or active in life’s struggles? Do we, like Elijah, say that we’ve had enough and give up hope that things will get better? Or do we, like the psalmist here, call out to God and try to taste and see that the Lord is good? Even in the darkness, let us look to God and be radiant

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The author of Ephesians seems to be asking us to do the impossible when he writes, “be imitators of God” in 5:1. After all, how can we finite and fallen creatures ever presume to try to be like God, who is utterly above and beyond us mortals in every way? Do we dare think that we can be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect (see Matthew 5:48)?

Well, we may not achieve perfect holiness in this world, but this passage from Ephesians gives us some practical hints on how we can begin trying to imitate God. First of all, we’re told to choose truth over falsehood, keeping in mind that relationships that are healthy and holy must be founded on honesty and trust. Second, we’re given permission to be angry, as long as we learn to release our anger in healthy ways, before too much time passes. After this, more instructions follow: do not steal; do honest work and share with the needy; do not speak evil; be kind and forgiving. In all these ways and more, we can truly be like God. As we seek to do so, let us place all our hope in Christ, who has made it possible for us to do the impossible, by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8).

John 6:35, 41-51

Jesus is making some very strong claims in this passage. He promises that anyone who comes to Him shall never be hungry or thirsty. He declares that anyone who has been drawn to Him will be raised on the last day. He asserts that whoever eats of His flesh, the living bread of heaven, will live forever. These are all very striking words and it is no wonder that his fellow Jews, and even the disciples, are scandalized by Jesus’ teaching (see verses 41 and 60f).

Obviously, this text requires a great deal of careful reflection. Salvation looks like bread, which is the Body of Christ broken for us; and wine, which is His Blood shed for us. Through these inestimable gifts, offered to us in the Eucharist, we are made partakers of the divine nature and assured of God’s favor and goodness toward us, now and forever.

An old hymn by Johann Franck, “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,” written in 1649, beautifully captures this great reality of Christ given to us in the Sacrament. Here are some of the hymn’s final lines: “From this supper let me measure, / Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. / Through the gifts Thou here dost give me / As Thy guest in heaven receive me.”

Patrick Collins

The Rev. Patrick A. Collins is the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Huntingdon, Penn. He is also pursuing a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) degree, with a focus on liturgics, at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.

See Patrick’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for 10 Pentecost, Proper 13 (B).

Bible Study: 10 Pentecost, Proper 13 (B) – Aug. 5, 2012

Discussion Leader: Patrick Collins, General Theological Seminary

“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” (John 6:35)

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a and Psalm 51:1-13 (or Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Psalm 78:23-29); Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

In this passage, we see the prophet Nathan, being the voice of God, in confronting King David about his behavior. David had abused his authority as the king and had not treated Uriah the Hittite or his wife Bathsheba with justice. This greatly displeased God and God gave hard justice to David by taking from him the child conceived by Bathsheba.

But we discover later that after this first child died, David and Bathsheba conceived another son, named Solomon. Solomon later becomes the next king. So even in God’s justice there is mercy and second chances.

It seems that too often in life we forget to acknowledge that some of the suffering that we endure is caused by our own actions. And at other times we allow ourselves to be caught up in the difficult moments of life and forget to see the joy that can come at a latter time from our suffering.

Have there been times in your personal life or in the life of your faith community when suffering happened that was directly caused by either your decisions and actions or the decisions and actions of the larger community? Were you able to see God’s hand at work in those times of difficulty or was it only later that you were able to see God’s work in the midst of the strife?

Psalm 51:1-13

Our psalm reflects a tone of acknowledging one’s sinfulness and wishing to reestablish a relationship with God. There is no attempt to blame someone else or to pass the buck.

The psalmist clearly believes that (s)he is the one who has wronged God and that God has every right to do what God wills, not what the psalmist wants. The psalmist also freely admits that it is up to God to cleanse or not cleanse. The psalmist can only admit to the sins and desire to be restored to a right and loving relationship with God.

Have there been times in your life when you have wronged another person and have asked for forgiveness? How does it feel to be in the “helpless” position in a relationship?

Ephesians 4:1-16

Paul’s image of the church as a body with different parts is an image that is used to describe how different people have different gifts. We like to think that we have unique gifts and that we can all work together in harmony. But this image depends upon the individual parts all acknowledging that God is in control. This image also insists that our desires are to be secondary to God’s call and God’s plan for us.

But as we have seen with the other readings listed above, we don’t always freely and happily accept God’s control. We also don’t always follow God’s call and plan for us. When these things happen, it is like the body is fighting with itself or even the body is getting sick.

How can we do better at accepting our own place in the body of the church, or in God’s plan for us, even if we aren’t comfortable with that plan or that role? Are there times when our own wrestling with God can throw other parts of the body into discomfort or confusion?

John 6:24-35

Jesus challenges the crowd that is following him to understand that God provides them with the things that they need. He also reminds them that God, not Moses, gave their ancestors manna when they were in the wilderness. At times, it seems that it is very easy to think that a person is doing God’s work, when in fact the person is doing the work with God’s direction and help.

God freely gives us what we need, whether we deserve these things or not. God also provides us these things when we take them for granted or aren’t paying attention to them.

When was the last time that you really saw and appreciated a sunrise or a sunset? How often do we take for granted the multitude of gifts that God gives to us each and every day?

Elders offer us wisdom and grace, 12 Pentecost, Proper 15 (B) – Aug. 19, 2012

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111 (or Proverbs 9:1-6 and Psalm 34:9-14); Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Two old friends recently met at a school reunion. They had not seen each other for 35 years. During that time they had each married, raised children, worked to support their families and, they discovered, been active members of their churches. As they walked into dinner, one looked at the other and said, “We’ve aged well, but our hair has gotten gray, and we’re sagging in places. What have we got to say for ourselves?” His friend smiled and said, “Wisdom!”

A local Rotary club was having a hard time getting a major fundraiser off the ground. People were distracted and nobody was volunteering for the jobs that needed to be done. The organizers were both discouraged when they met with their club president, an older woman. As they talked over lunch, their president had many suggestions for how to move forward, and all of them involved giving precise tasks to people and asking them if they would do a certain job, rather than a general asking for volunteers. At the next meeting all the tasks were assigned and the activity was a success.

These two stories illustrate something we all know: maturity and experience are valuable traits in our culture. They are in our churches as well.

From the earliest times of our ancestral faith, wisdom has always been upheld as a part of spiritual growth and development. As we grow in knowledge and love of God, we should expect to see changes in ourselves. Our tent should become bigger, not smaller. Our generosity of spirit should broaden and deepen. And we should see elders among us as gifts of wisdom and grace, especially in times of difficulty.

A church was having a conflict over worship times. There were those who wanted one service, and those who preferred an early service without music. As the discussion went on and became more divisive, one member said, “But we’ve never had an early service.” An elder stood up and replied, “Oh yes we have. I can remember …” and her explanation and tone changed the whole focus of the discussion. Elders are often sources of wisdom, and they carry the corporate history of a congregation.

But there is another side to all of this talk of wisdom: it comes in today’s gospel reading from John. Jesus says, “I am the living bread. … Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” It seems that wisdom alone does not grant us participation in the kingdom. Wisdom is rather a doorway to spiritual living that includes the Eucharist as part of our regular practice. The Eucharist feeds us with the living bread that sustains us, helps us grow in Christ, and brings us peace and maturity of life, at whatever age we may be.

As we watch Jesus dealing with the people who come to him, some pleading, some confronting, others curious, we see him over and over again answering their questions with simplicity, kindness and great power. He cannot be trapped by the powers of this world, except by his own choice; he cannot be bought or tempted by the devil; and he is not compromised.

The prayer after Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer says that when we are baptized we enter into new life and are anointed with gifts: “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.” These gifts are ones that result in spiritual wisdom and maturity. These are gifts that help us embrace the world as God’s creation rather than rejecting it as merely sinful and degraded. And that is spiritual maturity.

Right now there is a lot of posturing and shouting going on as we approach the November elections. Some want to join in the name calling and finger pointing; and there is plenty of reason to do so. Some Christians have always been drawn into this fray, choosing to publicly support a candidate or a cause, but we know Jesus did not do this. He saw all temporal power as limited in its scope, subject to the whims and wills of the people who put others in power, and unable to address the issues of peace and justice for many. We need to remember that, and while we hold our leaders accountable in a democracy, we also look to Jesus for leadership. At our recent church convention the person giving the noon address reminded us that the question we need to ask in not “What would Jesus do?” but “What did Jesus do?”

Our Christian wisdom should direct us to act in terms of our Baptismal Covenant, seeking and serving Christ in all persons. Our spiritual maturity should energize us to work to see the Christ in all persons. Our spiritual wisdom should help us know that does not mean we have to give others what they want, but what they need. Our combined maturity and wisdom should lead us to remember our own need for Sabbath, the rest that restores and renews us.

Finally, the living bread that sustains us should always be our quest: Jesus, whose prayer, mind and deeds show us what to do, Jesus whose flesh and blood instill new life within us, Jesus who lives in us that we might live forever. As the collect for today has us pray, “Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work and to follow in the blessed steps of his most holy life.”

 

— Ben Helmer is the vicar at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He and his wife live in nearby Holiday Island. 

God gives us bread – and everything else that we need, 11 Pentecost, Proper 14 (B) – Aug. 12, 2012

1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Let’s begin today with a familiar verse from Deuteronomy; it’s not in today’s lectionary readings, but it lies behind this whole series we’ve been hearing from John’s gospel. It also shows up in the temptations stories in Matthew and Luke, and is tied to the reading from First Kings. Moses is giving the Law to Israel, and Moses says to the people that God “humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” We know this verse, especially the punch line, very well. But the more we consider the logic of these words, the more interesting it becomes.

How would you do it? How would you teach someone that we do not live by bread alone? What would you give someone to make them understand this? Our first thought would probably be to give them a sermon, or a lecture, or to try to arrange a spiritual experience. Or maybe to offer a really spiffy adult education class, with professional videos and worksheets and breaking into small groups to go over some discussion questions – maybe that would do it. How about it? What would you give someone so they could understand that we do not live by bread alone?

What God gave Elijah and the people in the wilderness, and what Jesus gave the crowd in John’s gospel, was bread. Manna was bread, or enough like bread to make no real difference. Elijah got ordinary bread. They ate it and it kept them alive. They couldn’t live without it. But isn’t that peculiar? Why give bread to make people understand that they do not live by bread alone? Of all the things to give, why give the one thing that seems to prove that you can live by bread alone: namely, bread?

And yet, this may have been the most important part of the whole business of Israel’s being in the wilderness, of their being formed as the people of God. Jesus may have seen this as vitally important to his mission.

Because if the folks couldn’t get this – if they couldn’t figure out what was going on with the manna, or with the miraculous feeding, if they couldn’t understand about the loaves – well, then, it was all pretty much hopeless.

The key to all of this is that God gave Israel and Elijah – and Jesus gave that crowd – bread in such a way that it was obvious that the bread was pure gift. They didn’t make it, they didn’t work for it, they couldn’t pay for it – it was just there. So they had the chance to look at bread, at the stuff of life, with clarity; and to see beyond that thing, and to see that this vital stuff was also and centrally a gift from God and so a sign of God’s love and of God’s call to relationship with them. Since it was so clearly a gift, they were able to see that the thing, the bread, meant more than what it was all by itself. All real gifts do.

But if the manna, if the bread on the hillside, if the stuff that God give us so that we can live, if this is given to us, not just to keep us alive, but also to draw us to God and to life with God, then we do not, and we cannot, live by bread alone. So, oddly, the only gift that can really show us that we do not live by bread alone is free bread. Anything less vital, anything less essential, would allow us to cling to life for its own sake, and so make all questions of meaning secondary and avoidable. This is still going on, and even now God gives us life, and the stuff of life, not because life is the most important thing in the world for us, but just exactly because it is not. We are given these as gifts, to help us realize that God, and life with God, are most important.

We see this with special clarity at the altar, where the bread we receive is clearly not about itself alone; but is hooked to something much greater. So we can look with awe and reverence upon something as simple as this thin, tasteless wafer, because we know it to be sign, symbol and presence of something much greater than flour and water.

But the deepest sign, symbol and presence of something much greater is not just this bread; it is everything we have.

Part of the point of this bread, the bread of the Eucharist, is to teach us that we do not live by bread alone. This bread is special so that we can understand that all bread, all that we have, all that is necessary for life, that this, too, is special. It’s all given to us as a sign, symbol and occasion of God’s love. It’s here to draw us past itself and past ourselves, so that we, seeing both the gift and the giver, will respond to the giver in love and in service. Creation, all of creation, is sacramental in this sense.

So it all gets jumbled up. The bread we eat every day, and Israel’s manna in the wilderness, and Jesus being the bread of life, and our weekly Eucharist – they all run together.

Here is one way into this. There’s an old rabbinic admonition that insists, of anything and everything, “If you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.” The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the air you breathe, the people and the things of your life, if you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.

So, if you have enough to eat, and the strength to go on for another day, and people who care about you, if you have all of that and you don’t give thanks for it, then it’s bad for you – all of it.

It’s poisoning your soul, and shrinking your life. Really.

That’s because giving thanks for something puts it in its proper place, it places the thing as part of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. That’s where things, all things, properly belong. Anything, especially bread, is understood properly only when it is understood in relationship to God.

On the other hand, if we do give thanks for it, then it can be good for us. If we give thanks for it, then every part of our lives can draw us toward the only source of meaning and hope that makes any sense.

It’s very easy to forget this. It’s very easy to value the things of creation and of our lives for themselves, to take them outside the context of a relationship with God. When we do this, when we see only what is right in front of us and no more, then we are impoverished, we are barely living on the surface of our lives and of our world.

That’s what it means to live by bread alone. To live by bread alone means to see no farther than the things themselves, and so to miss the presence and the love and the call of God that are really a part of every piece of bread we have. It’s to miss the gift, and the love behind the gift.

So God gave Elijah and Israel bread, and Jesus gave the crowds on those mountainsides bread, and God gives us bread – God gives us all we need for life – so that we may be drawn beyond all of these and see more than we would see otherwise, so that we might understand that we do not live by bread alone.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

‘God’s Right Hand’ traces Falwell’s influence

New biography sheds light on formation of Christian Right

God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right. Michael Sean Winters. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 448 pp.

In the fall of 1981, Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti welcomed the university’s new freshman class with a blast at the Moral Majority, a pressure group of religious conservatives founded two years earlier whose most visible spokesman was the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Giamatti told students that Falwell and his ilk were moralistic authoritarians whose injection of religion into politics was responsible for a “new meanness of spirit in our land” and “resurgent bigotry.” Giamatti’s attack on Falwell and the religious right landed on the front page of the New York Times and made headlines around the country. Conservative journalist William F. Buckley, Jr., had the best riposte, as usual, scoffing that “to be lectured against the perils of the Moral Majority on entering Yale is on the order of being lectured on the dangers of bedbugs on entering a brothel.”

Jerry Falwell was one of the most consistently unpopular public figures of his time. He was also, according to Michael Sean Winters’ new biography, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, one of the most consequential. Indeed, Winters maintains that Falwell reshaped American religion, American politics and the Republican Party – not necessarily in that order – and that his influence has persisted to the present day, even though Falwell died in 2007.

In Winters’ view, Falwell was the figure principally responsible for galvanizing fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to political engagement after their long self-imposed exile from the cultural mainstream following the Scopes trial – though, ironically, Falwell had delivered a famous 1965 sermon criticizing Martin Luther King, Jr., and other pro-civil rights ministers for participating in politics. Falwell and the Moral Majority mobilized social conservatives around support for laissez-faire capitalism, low taxes, American exceptionalism, anti-communism and pro-Israel foreign policy, and opposition to abortion, secularism, liberalism and homosexuality.

Falwell broke new ground by persuading Protestants to make common cause with members of other religious groups, including Catholics and Jews, who formerly had been objects of suspicion and prejudice. And by reviving the Republican Party at the grassroots, Falwell empowered conservatives to first take over the GOP, then to elect Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, and finally to break up the New Deal coalition and enable Republican domination of Congress, starting with the 1994 elections that made Newt Gingrich speaker of the House. The price, however, was that the Republican Party came to resemble Falwell’s theology: rigid, incapable of compromise, intellectually incurious, and possessed of a tendency to see its opponents as not just misguided but evil.

Winters has written an engaging and thoughtful biography, and does a good job of tracing Falwell’s development: his dysfunctional upbringing in the Jim Crow South, his conversion to fundamentalism in 1952, his founding of the Thomas Road Baptist Church and what became Liberty University, his rise to celebrity with his “Old Time Gospel Hour” television show and his entrance into politics with the aim of restoring what he believed to be America’s lost moral purity. Regrettably, however, Winters doesn’t seem to have interviewed Falwell or any of his family or close associates, and his archival research covers Falwell’s public pronouncements rather than the internal operations of his religious, educational and political empires.

Winters is sharply critical of Falwell in many aspects. He points out that Falwell and the Moral Majority made “no attempt to engage in the daunting task of devising anything like a coherent Christian philosophy for political engagement.” He takes Falwell to task for his defense of segregation and South African apartheid, his demonization of the forces opposing him, his tendency to reduce religion to ethics, his divisive political impact and the ways in which his activities sometimes discredited religion and contributed to the growing number of Americans who have rejected religious affiliations. But Winters also defends the importance of religion in American life, the legitimacy of Falwell’s participation in democratic politics, his underrated contributions in purging fundamentalist Protestantism of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, and his ability to disarm critics and even forge unlikely friendships with former enemies such as Senator Ted Kennedy and pornographer Larry Flynt.

Winters’ only departure from fairness comes when he ascribes excessive importance to his subject. Winters fails to note that the reemergence of fundamentalists and evangelicals as a political force first came with their support of Jimmy Carter’s presidential candidacy in 1976 rather than Reagan’s in 1980. He overlooks numerous political studies contending that evangelical conservatives began voting Republican out of opposition to civil rights rather than because of the stimulus of the Moral Majority, and he exaggerates the extent to which even born-again white Protestants agreed with the group’s positions.

Even so, socially conservative religion undoubtedly plays a larger role in Republican politics, and American life in general, than it did before Falwell emerged on the political scene. Winters’ account offers many suggestive parallels between the rise of hard-edged conservative religion and the decline of mainline churches and moderate Republican politics. Falwell makes an excellent case study of the tendency over the past four decades for religio-political forces rooted in nativism, doctrinal certitude, anti-establishment populism and fear of change to displace forces based on cosmopolitanism, intellectual searching, tradition, accommodation and progressivism. Expressions of this change may be seen in Tea Party gatherings, empty pews at many long-established congregations, and the inability of many Republican legislators to depart from conservative orthodoxy even when the nation’s solvency is at stake. Americans who seek a new balance in religious and political life will have to reckon with Falwell’s legacy.

 

Geoffrey Kabaservice is a columnist for The New Republic and a visiting research fellow at the Roosevelt House institute of public policy at Hunter College, New York City. His most recent book is Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Food that endures, 10 Pentecost, Proper 13 (B) – 2012

August 5, 2012

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a and Psalm 51:1-13 (or Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Psalm 78:23-29); Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

A deep spiritual hunger is implanted in every human heart. Different people will seek to fill this need in different ways, but the hunger is not unique. People yearn for a deeper connection, an eternal spiritual connection, and when that is lacking will seek any means to be fulfilled.

Jesus said he came that we might have life and that abundantly. Yet, he who offered fullness of joy was often met by people with simpler, lesser needs. In the fifth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus met a Samaritan woman who longed for living water so she wouldn’t have to keep returning to the well each day. Jesus started with that basic need and used it to forge a relationship with her that ended with the woman reconnected to God and to others in her community.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus has met the immediate needs of a host of people. Those remaining after he fed 5,000 with a little fish and bread seek out Jesus. Jesus tells them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

The previous day, Jesus fed their physical hunger with bread and fish, and the crowd sought him out once more. Jesus points them to their spiritual hunger, which is what he really wanted to fill. After all, the people were created to love God and love others as they loved themselves, and in chasing after other needs, they risked getting further from the real nourishment they needed.

Jesus compares this to the original bread from heaven, manna, with which God miraculously fed the children of Israel for 40 years in an uninhabitable wasteland. This was the daily bread that would come anew each morning, with enough to last the day and a double portion for the Sabbath. Now Jesus compares the daily bread of manna, which God gave in the desert, to the Bread of Life, which God offers in Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus offers nourishment, which goes to the heart of our most basic human need to fill a spiritual hunger. Having been created to be in relationship with God, without that connection, we can feel empty.

It is an easy move to connect Jesus referring to himself as the Bread of Life to the Eucharist. For in the mystery of the Eucharistic feast we eat the bread and drink the wine, and in so doing we partake of the body and blood of Jesus. But we don’t want to jump to that correct response so quickly that we miss the bigger picture.

This discourse comes when Jesus has two more years of ministry ahead of him. In fact, this is, after all, John Chapter 6, out of 21 chapters. There is much more time left in Jesus’ ministry before he gets to that last meal with his disciples. John’s gospel makes clear what the other three gospels only hint at: the Eucharist is not about Jesus’ death alone. Jesus’ self-giving act in communion is not only concerned with the Last Supper, the cross and the empty tomb alone. Jesus’ whole life, rather than just one or two events, will institute the sacrament of communion. Put differently, faith is not in Jesus’ death and resurrection alone, but in Jesus’ whole life – from Bethlehem to Golgotha, and beyond to an empty tomb in a garden, Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, and his ascension to heaven.

Everything Jesus did – who Jesus was and how he acted – are part of God’s revelation to us. We cannot separate one part of his life from the rest. Nor should we have a Christian part of our lives separate from the rest of our lives. We are to take Jesus’ whole story and make it part of our whole story. This is much more than hearing the word, it is word and deed.

In baptism, we do not simply hear of Jesus’ baptism, but water is poured over us as a sign that we are united with Christ through baptism. We don’t just hear the story, we actually get wet. In the Eucharist, we don’t merely listen to the words, “Take eat,” but we actually get up, come to the altar rail to take and eat. It’s not just the bread that we take, bless, break and give. God took Jesus’ whole life, blessed, broke it and gave it to us. We are to let that story of God’s love for us take us, bless us, break us and give us back to the world.

Jesus wanted those who followed him after having their fill of fish and bread to discover real spiritual nourishment so that they would never hunger again. And yes, one is fed through the Eucharist, but this too is only part of the picture. Our Sunday worship is to be just a part of how we are fed spiritually.

Compare spiritual nourishment to food. Eating out once a week in a restaurant is not unusual. In fact, it is rare to find someone who eats out only once a week. But what if that was the only meal the person ate. Someone who goes back to their familiar seat in a restaurant week after week to enjoy their one meal of the week could never be nourished enough to make it through the remaining six days.

In the same way, common worship in church on Sunday is meant to be an important part of one’s spiritual food and drink, but it will never sate your hunger if this is your whole plan for feeding you spirit.

Fortunately, the Episcopal Church has a centuries-old norm of daily prayer that is well suited to filling this void. The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer as found in the Book of Common Prayer are a wonderfully enriching daily devotion. When praying in this way, together with the daily scripture readings, one is better prepared to meet whatever comes. It is not that troubles never occur to people who pray and read their Bible; it’s just that those who marinate daily in prayer and scripture are more connected to God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Then whatever comes, they can call on that connection.

For those looking for an easy way to get started, there is the very helpful “Forward Day by Day,” which in booklet form or online offers a brief daily reflection to accompany the scripture readings. The booklet offers the same readings as those used in the Daily Office. Either way, you’ll spend 15-20 minutes out of each day re-centering your life in the ground of your being, the God who made you and redeemed you. There is no better way to nourish your spiritual side than through a daily meal of prayer and scripture reading.

So much of our lives is spent working for the food that perishes. We must work to earn food, water and shelter and all the extras that make life enjoyable. But we know there is more to life than the daily grind. For a fulfilled life, one should commit a portion of each day to prayer and reading the Bible, for that is the food that endures for eternal life and the gift of Jesus who came so that you might have an abundant life.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He writes on congregational development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Mystery writer pens religious thriller

Chercover's spiritual reflections surprising, refreshing in 'The Trinity Games'

 

The Trinity Game. Sean Chercover. Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012. 425 pp.

Sean Chercover, an accomplished mystery novelist, brings his clear prose and crime-novel writing vantage to the religious arena in “The Trinity Game.” The story’s protagonist, Daniel Byrne, a former welterweight fighter and current Catholic priest, is reminiscent of the traditional hard-boiled detective; Daniel’s a good-looking, muscular, loner, haunted by an old flame and out to do the right thing, whatever the cost.

Byrne spends his time investigating miracle claims for the Vatican’s Office of the Devil’s Advocate. Known for his ability to debunk frauds quickly and surely, he is sent to Atlanta when tent revivalist turned televangelist Tim Trinity develops an alarming ability to speak in tongues. In addition to being a prominent prosperity preacher, Tim Trinity is also Byrne’s uncle and the priest’s surrogate father, though they split in Byrne’s teens and have had patchy contact ever since.

Byrne arrives in Atlanta prepared to undermine Trinity, but his life takes a dramatic turn when he discovers that the tongues are not part of Trinity’s money-making tactics but, rather, an uncontrollable new capacity that Trinity is desperately trying to staunch. The phenomenon becomes more pressing when Daniel, in concert with local linguistic experts, realizes that the tongues translate to accurate premonitions of future events.

What follows is a gripping account of Trinity’s quest to survive as the Vatican deploys their strongest to quash the threat to Catholic primacy. Daniel’s intellect and survival skills are put to the test when he realizes that the Vatican is not the only group threatened by Tim’s skill. Bookies, the media, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and various local governments race to silence Trinity as his predictions menace organized crime, law and order, and papal preeminence.

All the while, a new flock of followers amass wherever Trinity goes, to proclaim him a messiah or, at least, prophet. And behind the scenes, a millennia-old secret society dedicated to the perseverance of the truth protects the hesitant duo.

With half a dozen actors in motion, what follows is an adventure from Atlanta to New Orleans as Daniel and Tim embark upon a swift escape. Along the way, they deal with their complicated past, resolving some of the issues that forced them together and drove them apart. Critically reexamining their understandings of faith, truth and Christ’s message, Daniel and Tim forge a stronger relationship.

Although both characters undergo vocational change, it is Daniel’s that forms the major subplot of the book. Trinity’s miracle kick-starts Daniel’s own retrospective journey, which will ultimately lead him to decide whether to leave the priesthood.

With so many plot developments to keep up with, “The Trinity Game” does have to fall short somewhere. Chercover chooses not to waste word count on character description and, in places, leaves the reader wanting to know more about his cast. After a few words about physical appearance and an outlined backstory, the author populates the book with reliable, if predictable, stock characters. Fortunately, he’s chosen compelling stock characters and intervenes to humanize or complicate the ones that interact most closely with Daniel and Tim. At times, the sheer number of characters seems overwhelming – but the important ones resurface, reminding readers where they fit, and the rest disappear as quickly as they were introduced.

Overall, Chercover’s sketchy portrayals are an insignificant qualm. “The Trinity Game” is such a quick and captivating read that you rarely have time to wonder what became of the last people you met because you are preoccupied with a handful of motivating mysteries that leave the reader promising to go to bed after just one more chapter.

Will Daniel and Trinity survive? What will happen with Trinity’s tongues? Has Daniel actually found a miracle? How will Trinity’s power affect the future of religion, of society, of his orphaned nephew?

“The Trinity Game” is a perfect summer read for thriller fans. While it may resemble other novels in the recent spate of religious thrillers, what sets Chercover’s book apart is its attention to his characters’ spiritual lives. Without sacrificing pacing or excitement, Chercover presents an engrossing plot full of compelling, well-intentioned and intelligent religious characters. The excitement other books achieve through detailed histories and invented theological debates, “The Trinity Game” outdoes through more realistic and subtle personal turmoil.

As they grapple with the implications of miracles in their faith, their churches and their relationships, the characters advance toward a captivating conclusion. As other books in this genre develop plot from detailed accounts of church corruption and exploits of insincere religious leaders, “The Trinity Game” does things differently; and the result is refreshing.

(Rebecca Novack grew up in Colorado but lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has her master’s in Theological Studies and is an avid fiction reader.)