Always Reforming

Here we are, on Reformation Sunday in the Anglican church with an Anglo-Catholic-Lutheran pastor/priest! That’s quite a combination, don’t you think? Not sure if I’m the right person to preach today, so I’m going to enlist the help of all the Lutherans here. What does Reformation Sunday mean to you? Why do we celebrate it? How has your church marked this day in the past? And what about Anglicans? Was there an Anglican Reformation in the 16th century? (Yes)

In the past month we watched the movie Luther with our Confirmation students and interested parishioners. The movie gave a fairly good account of the turmoil in the 16th century and the religious and social, cultural and political forces that lead to Martin Luther’s rise and his bold stance against Rome. Luther sparked a heated debate with his questions, some of which we don’t seem to get so worked up about today. But in the 16th century, when the church had absolute power and control over people’s lives, Luther’s questions and analyses caused a firestorm: were people to seek salvation for their souls through blindly obeying the Church  or by freely to reading the Scriptures for themselves and to find their salvation through faith in Christ Jesus? Did their hope for heaven come simply from being a card-carrying Catholic or through a direct relationship with their risen Lord? Sadly polemics and politics fostered a growing animosity between Rome and the Reformers.

Many of Luther’s concerns voiced in his 95 Theses in 1517 remained unaddressed for a good 400 years. Finally, in the mid-20th century the RC Church conceded that Luther was right on quite a few points. The Second Vatican Council (1960’s) implemented changes that Martin Luther would have wholeheartedly approved of today. Luther is rightly credited for being the father of religious freedom, from which now stems our ability to see God at work even in other faith traditions.

One important dictum that Rome embraced at Vatican II is: Ecclesia semper reformanda est which is Latin for “the church must always be reformed.” It refers to the conviction that the church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to speak Good News into every time and place.

Thankfully, much has happened in the past 100 years to recover and renew the bonds between church traditions. We can see this locally, regionally and globally. The Lutheran-Anglican Full Communion Covenant, which makes our local partnership possible, the various bi-lateral ecumenical dialogues, the meaningful celebrations last year of the 500th Anniversary. We’re finally burying our ecclesial hatchets. and recognize Christ’s presence and witness in one another – finally.

But remember the Latin phrase I just used: Ecclesia semper reformanda est “the church must always be reformed.” The church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to be able to speak into human dilemmas in every time and space. And so while Martin Luther’s hotly debated questions have finally found some common answers, new questions and challenges have emerged, both inside and outside the church, some of them with a vengeance similar to Luther’s time.

This was evident in Rome – again – in the past month, where an extensive Synod on Youth and Vocations took place. For three solid weeks bishops, priests and religious, young delegates male and female, spoke boldly and loudly about today’s salient questions: the massive migrations of peoples leading to poverty and exploitation, the brutal forms of global violence and animosity which seem to have no end, increasingly hurting and killing innocent people; the challenging realities of LGBTQ people and the churches’ response; the role of women and visible minorities in church and society; secularization, religious pluralism and the church; the fallout from the global clerical sexual abuse crisis, resulting in massive breakdown of trust in and credibility of organized religion; the need for accountability of bishops and all spiritual leaders, and the questionable value of enforced celibacy; racism and colonialism, climate change and eco-injustice hurting Indigenous peoples everywhere the most; the revolution of global communications and social media (akin to the invention of the printing press in Luther’s time), the economic, social and cultural pressures on our youth who feel unequipped and in serious need of solid guidance; the exodus from organized religion by the young (and some old too), the pressing need for the church to listen more than to teach … and on and on and on …

The young delegates minced no words and left no stone unturned – their voices, with the thunder reminiscent of Martin Luther himself, spelled urgency on all fronts. Their list of grievances and challenges, both internal and external to the church, are different than in the 16th century. Yet their list almost sounds like a new version of Luther’s 95 theses.

The youth in Rome pressed the need for substantial reform inside the church in order to meet the challenges of the new world order, in order to make the Gospel sound anew, fresh and inviting, capable to speak to the human heart today once again. Many of these challenges are shared among all Christian traditions. Some observers have already called this moment in history as ripe for another Reformation – hopefully one that will not lead to further fracturing of the Body of Christ.

How would Martin Luther speak into the challenges and crises of our day, and how the Church needs to respond? In two ways. First, Luther would go to the Scriptures as his primary tool for assessing life and seeking God’s guidance. How does the Holy Word of God summon us to address our modern-day challenges and questions? Second, Luther would be unafraid to speak boldly about sin. Addressing the prevalence of sin in each of our hearts remains an essential part of Lutheran witness – that’s why Lutheran worship begins with Confession.

But speaking of sin is kind of a hard sell these days. We hear often that it is no longer fashionable or relevant to speak of sin, that the word/concept is outdated. Naming things sinful today is considered offensive and off-putting (and so it should, right? Was it ever otherwise?). But without an honest reckoning with the reality of sin (what it is, what it isn’t, what to do about it), we become, subtly but surely, less honest with the truth. Without the courage to name and own sin, especially as defined by God’s Holy Word and Christ’s witness, as we hear again in today’s words from Paul’s letter to the Romans and from John’s Gospel, we risk making a mockery of the Gospel. Without the humility and honesty to name sin, we cannot be set free by God’s saving action in Christ Jesus.

Luther argued that sin was a pervasive condition expressed in our daily failure to love God and neighbour rightly, to which we add today a failure to love and treasure creation. Sin cuts through every quality of our being. But Luther also knew that the all-pervasive, subtle yet cruel selfishness that drives every one of us cannot be quantified into a grocery list of wrongful actions.

Sin is much deeper than a grocery list, and we can do nothing to make it better; only God can in Christ Jesus. God does not parcel out mercy to the qualified; because none of us qualify, none of us. God pours out forgiveness on the needy – and that’s all of us. For Luther, there was no compromising this good news.

We receive Christ’s mercy freely, but not cheaply. Being called to account is never easy but it is worth the struggle, so that we may know the power of Christ’s cross and the fullness of His love. There is forgiveness and new life for the taking 24/7. This assurance is what Lutherans, faithful to Luther’s discovery in his personal struggle, can still offer to the church and the world today. And this is why, on this 501st Reformation Sunday, the prayer we prayed earlier in our service today is so important, so relevant and so necessary. The words apply to each of us personally and to our beloved church family in the whole world. In light of today’s massive challenges and crises in both church and world, let us pray this prayer together:

Gracious God,
we pray for your holy catholic church
which includes all of us.
Fill us with all truth and peace.
Where we are corrupt, purify us;
where we are in error, correct us;
where we are amiss, reform us:
where we are right, strengthen us;
where we are in need, provide for us;
where we are divided, reunite …
AMEN

Homily preached on October 28, 2018 — Reformation Sunday.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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Ecclesial Cross-Pollination

Those of you who know me, know that I live with a seed grower (Prairie Garden Seeds) whose daughter is following in her father’s footsteps. So the seed language kind’a rubs off on me — I can’t help it. Once in a while, though, that language actually sheds a delightfully new light on church-stuff. Hence the title of this reflection.

Recently I preached on Ephesians 4:1-16. Especially verses 1-4 are classic words in ecumenical circles: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

It is a massive embarrassment to confess that, over the course of 2,000 years we Christians have utterly failed … utterly failed to live up to this urgent command.  Too often we have acted as though the purity of the church could only be achieved/preserved by dividing, by walking away from each other, by denouncing one another, until the only ones left are those who look, talk, think, and act … like us. Differences are no reason for divisions! Spirit-given differences are not a problem but are God’s good gift so that together we can learn how to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). God’s calling, the unity of the church, in all its diversity, is God’s gift. How have we distorted and denied this gift! We have outright condemned the gifts of others – often and harshly. Paul’s words therefore should be painful, really painful.

Divisions in the church betray God’s overflowing grace. Divisions in the Body of Christ reveal our self-centeredness: we prefer to be right in our own eyes. We have no time or interest in others, we don’t want to bother learning how to love those who are genuinely different, whether that involves our atheist neighbour, or the congregation down the street, or our brother/sister in the next pew.

Fortunately we can slowly breathe a collective sigh of relief: in the past 100+ years we have been learning to reclaim our God-given unity with fellow Christians. We are working hard to heal the wounds of divisions. We are helping each other to regard differences not as dividing, but as the gifts of God to build up the Body of Christ. Reconciliation and healing, unity in diversity, are the new ways of being church today – whether this pertains to our Indigenous sisters and brothers, to our gay and lesbian fellow-Christians, or to relations among the church traditions.

This summer Anglican Bishop Rod Hardwick from the Qu’Appelle Diocese cycled across Canada (yes, Victoria to NFL) in 62 days (completed on July 31) to bring the message of healing and reconciliation to all he encountered. In the past fifty years numerous ecumenical agreements and milestones have been achieved on local, regional and global levels in the church. Shared ministry arrangements are growing, such as my own Anglican/Lutheran partnership in Watrous; inspiring examples of recognizing each other’s gifts and of healing Christ’s Body on earth. Last year’s world-wide events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation were a shining witness to Catholics and Protestants recognizing Christ in one another, from our own small parish studies, right up to Pope Francis himself. Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, to join the Lutheran World Federation in prayer. Francis co-presided in prayer with the Archbishop of Canterbury and together they commissioned 18 pairs of Anglican & Catholic bishops for the work of reconciliation and healing between our traditions.

Then just as I was enjoying well-deserved time off this summer, a new ecumenical document was released: Walking Together On The Way, written by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Given the ecumenical animal I am, I didn’t waste time. I read the entire document while relaxing in my backyard (and I’ve passed it on to my RC colleague for his summer reading!). I was utterly surprised and delighted at the message in this text. Compared to other ecumenical texts, this one differs significantly in content, tone and methodology. More than any other, the document truly does justice to Paul’s words to the Ephesians.

What is so different, you may ask? Well, instead of stating the usual, “these are the gifts from our tradition that you need in yours,” it reversed the sentence/ question: “what gifts do you have in your tradition that we need in ours?” The entire text is marked by a profound trust and appreciation for the other’s witness to Christ and the Gospel. This appreciation is then coupled with a new, deep humility and honesty about one’s own denominational weaknesses and shortcomings. This is the first official document that applies the principles of what has come to be known as Receptive Ecumenism: Instead of asking what other traditions need to learn from us, we ask what our tradition needs to learn from others, and what we can receive from others which is of God.

This approach requires an ‘ecclesial examination of conscience’ with all the challenging implications of those Gospel words – the courage to be self-critical, to make humility a virtue, to risk openness to conversion, reconciliation and healing.  Here is truly a refreshing wind blowing in ecumenism-land, opening new pathways towards realizing the unity Christ won for us. While this approach is particularly courageous (and therefore new) for the Roman Catholic Church – which is not known for readily admitting shortcomings or errors – every tradition falls into traps of self-righteousness and arrogance. In fact, faced with difference, each of us can fall into the same trap. It’s not easy to stay out of that trap but it’s mighty important lest we betray our baptismal commitment to follow Christ. What would happen if instead of distancing ourselves from different people, different opinions, different perspectives, we learn to seek that of God in the difference? Ecclesial cross-pollination – do you see it?

And so, while Paul admonishes the Ephesians and us, his words don’t spell despair. In verse 13 Paul recognizes that we are still growing toward maturity. If that growth depended on ourselves, we would be doomed. But Paul reminds us that we are held by the calling of God, we are given to one another by the Spirit, and we are united in the Lord who is head of the whole body. The church’s growth into Christ (verse 15) is God’s gift and God’s promise. We have not yet grown up, but it is happening as we continue to foster relationships across differences, encouraging ecclesial cross-pollination, as we encounter one another at the Holy Supper, as we hear and sing the holy Word, as we reach out to meet the needs of the world, and as we serve in the ministries of the church. As Martin Luther once wrote:
This life, therefore, is not godliness
but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well, not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.

We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.
This is not the goal but it is the right road.
At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.

  • Excerpt from the new ARCIC document:
    It is our hope that Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church—Local, Regional, Universal will be a part of an ongoing process of honest self-reflection and growth. In their 2016 Common Declaration, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby declared: ‘While, like our predecessors, we ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us, we are undeterred. In our trust and joy in the Holy Spirit we are confident that dialogue and engagement with one another will deepen our understanding and help us to discern the mind of Christ for his Church.’ It is important to make clear that by ‘together’ the Commission envisages each communion attending to its own structures and instruments, but aided by the support and example provided by the other communion. The sense is of our two traditions each walking the pilgrim way in each other’s company: ‘pilgrim companions’, making their own journey of conversion into greater life but supported by the other as they do so.

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Pressing a Response

Several friends and readers have been asking for my thoughts about the recent media coverage on Jane Kryzanowski, a member of the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) movement and soon to be ordained a bishop in that movement (July 21, 2018).

I share with Jane the long and painful, passionate and intimate journey into embracing a priestly call within a church that does not recognize or bless such a call. While Jane has chosen to follow a route that places her outside of a traditional ecclesial structure, I have moved to another one, i.e. the Anglican Church. How are such decisions made, and is one better than another? How do we even know that our priestly calling originates in God when the Church denies that possibility? How do we engage the spiritual challenges that come with each path? How do we honour those who choose different trajectories, especially ones we might disagree with? Where is God in paths that make others shake their heads in disbelief?

Our response to such questions varies widely according to personality and temperament, background and opportunities, life experience, spirituality and passions. And so I can only speak from my own history and understanding. In the 26-year dance with my priestly vocation I have run the gamut of responses: from outright denial to trying to run away from God (yeah, I met Jonah on the way), from bargaining with God and minimizing the serious nature of the call, from doubt to fear to finally a deep, all encompassing yes.

One of the paths I indeed explored several years ago was the RCWP movement. I engaged extensive conversations with a member of that movement and entered serious discernment for a short time before turning away from that path. Why? First of all, I am not a political activist by nature. This has been true in all areas of social justice, contentious issues and difficult ethical topics. It doesn’t mean that I am unengaged or disinterested, quite the contrary. My mode of engagement is different, more direct and invisible. My engagement has not often taken the shape of standing on ramparts, disrupting public gatherings, joining protests or lobbying church officials. My primary call and inclination has been to serve direct needs on the ground, to honour the earth through simple living off the land, and to engage pastoral opportunities in unassuming ways; I tend to leave the heavy political lifting in both church and society to others. Both approaches have their strengths and pitfalls.

While outsiders may see the RCWP movement primarily about public protest, I am aware that this is not its self-understanding. Its call to witness to injustice within the church is expressed through fostering a renewed model for priestly ministry and through serving direct needs on the ground, especially with those who feel alienated from the institutional church. Regardless of this noble purpose, priesthood with the RCWP movement would have felt to me like adding a political dimension to what I saw in essence as a call to serve the faith community. My priestly call felt too precious and too intimate to be tossed to and fro, potentially subjecting it to unpredictable seas of ecclesial confrontation. My desire for parish-based pastoral ministry was far greater than engagement in political activism.

I also struggled with what seemed a rather weak structure of discernment and accountability in RCWP. This aspect has surely evolved and matured since I last engaged its counsel. Discernment and accountability is both a communal and personal matter. I wondered about how to sustain a genuine priestly spirituality, and how to work for reform when the official ties with the existing church are forcibly severed.

I became acutely aware that the pastoral trust and opportunities I was enjoying in parish, diocesan and ecumenical ministry were quite unique; not every RC woman so called had access to these open ministerial spaces. Maybe these open spaces were there for good reason. Joining RCWP  would incur automatic excommunication, resulting in closing the open spaces within every ecclesial  structure, Roman Catholic and otherwise. Ironically, moving to the Anglican ecclesial community does not come with the same stigma. Despite what’s on the books about invalidity of orders, Rome’s 50+ year commitment to formal dialogue and close relations with Anglicans, including clergy, bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury leave little doubt about its practical recognition of Anglican Orders and its appreciation for the Anglican Gospel witness.

Paradoxically, the realizations arising from my RCWP exploration clarified my pastoral call and priestly heart with that uncanny peace the world cannot give. I gratefully acknowledged that I had ample opportunities to serve God’s people, while my spirit was guided and nourished from the priestly vocation in my soul. God affirmed the call inside, as well as how I was to continue living that call on the outside.

I discovered that, despite the prohibition on ordination, my ministry career could be surprisingly fruitful. This was possible in part thanks to a deepened understanding of sacraments, encompassing every occasion in which I could facilitate an embodied encounter between God and a person in need. I learnt that priestly ministry need not be limited to the institutionally ordained, that it could be deeply life-giving and love-giving even in the most restrictive circumstances. To increase the probability of such fruitfulness I chose daily to surrender to God, chose not be victimized by the pain but let it teach and hone my spirit, to keep my ego out of the driver’s seat, and to ground my experience in Christ Jesus. While I share the vision and the vocation with RCWP women, and while I certainly gained a greater understanding of what leads one to choose this ordination route, my path was clearly a different one.

But, you may ask, was this response not a capitulation to an oppressive ecclesial system? Was this not a cop out on my part, a cowardly supporting of the status quo? For some, this would have been so. For me, not so. Instead, guided by Scripture and prayer, good mentoring and challenging self-reflection, this response lead me to develop a robust spiritual resilience in the midst of an unjust ecclesial situation. I grounded my priestly identity in God, and only secondarily in the church. I developed skills to avoid feeling victimized by an unjust ecclesial practice and to help me rise above ecclesial limitations, skills that continue to serve me well even now as an Anglican priest.

Undoubtedly there is an ecclesial tension within Roman Catholicism when it comes to the ordination question for women. Our own Scriptures and tradition, our own Pope Francis, continuously remind us of the God of surprises, the God who doesn’t fit into our limited boxes of understanding and interpretation. We embrace God in a person, Jesus Christ, who revealed the radical nature of God’s grace and mercy for all people. Jesus, God’s grace in the flesh, engaged people in need, touched clean and unclean people alike, to the scandal of the religious establishment. He was in many ways a breaker of those human rules that did not serve God’s reign, and thus still continuously calls us to a higher standard of justice, wholeness and integrity.

Every time Pope Francis emphasizes that God keeps doing new things among us, I think of the priesthood for women. In his homily at the closing of the 2014 Synod on the family, Pope Francis said: “God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.” Well, God may not be afraid of new things, but church leaders seem to be. However, time is a necessary discernment tool in both personal and ecclesial development. Time will test the new thing God is doing in women such as Jane and myself who experience a divine call to priestly ministry. All we are asked to do is to be a faithful steward of the tiny part entrusted to us in this larger ecclesial drama, and leave the rest to God.

In order to live this tension creatively, freely and faithfully we need a long view, one that extends beyond our own few years on this planet. But I see a uncanny irony in Rome’s certainty that women cannot possibly be ordained when considering the following words from Pope Francis: If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

There is no denying that each of us can be called onto different paths to fulfill a similar purpose, even if we find ourselves shaking our heads at one another’s choices. Whether inside or outside traditional ecclesial structures, we are all in this together. There is that of God in everyone and in every choice motivated by love. As long as the primary driving energy is love and humility, grace and mercy, with anger, bitterness and resentment surrendering to these four, each person’s journey is deserving of trust and respect despite our own misgivings.

We need to learn to think and say with Pope Francis, who in turn of course echoed Jesus, when he said: Who am I to judge? I share Pope Francis’ dogmatic certainty: God is truly in every person’s life. Taking this reality seriously, my own discomfort or disagreement with paths and choices others take can then become God’s invitation to deeper self-reflection and ongoing grounding into God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Who am I to say that God does not use everyone to further God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy? Would that we can afford one another this mutual trust and respect even when finding ourselves on different routes of life.

  • Here is a personal account by Christine Haider Winnet who joined the RCWP movement.

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Transformed Lives

In the past few weeks I have been following the discussions between the Vatican and the German Bishops’ Conference on Eucharistic hospitality towards interchurch couples. This question concerns me quite directly as I am Anglican and my husband is Roman Catholic.  Bishops, cardinals and theologians spend endless hours, months and years debating whether or not to open the table of the Lord to Christians not in communion with Rome, but whose baptism is nevertheless recognized by Rome. Jim and I are united in two sacraments: baptism and marriage. But the Church separates us at the table of the Eucharist. This cuts deep, undermining the integrity and ecclesial value of our marital union.

I have profound respect and affection for the Eucharist. Participating in the Eucharist, consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus has been pivotal in my own faith formation. The centrality of the Eucharist has continued in my new Anglican discipleship. But from this Anglican perch, I am becoming more and more puzzled and saddened at the sacramental antics in Rome. It seems that for Rome institutional communion trumps unity in faith and in Christ Jesus. It also seems that the table of the Lord is being treated as the table of the Church. Finally, it seems that a medieval philosophical category (transubstantiation) trumps transformed hearts and minds.

I don’t in any way intend to be disrespectful, but my deep love for the Eucharist and for the church prompt some serious questions. Is Jesus more fully present in a Catholic Mass than in an Anglican Eucharist or Lutheran service of Holy Communion? When I moved into the Anglican tradition, one faithful Catholic lamented that I was leaving the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” This betrays not only a lack of ecumenical knowledge, particularly about the Eucharist, but also a limited understanding of Christ’s Real Presence. I moved so as to grow more fully into Christ’s Real Presence in the world and in the church by living out the priestly vocation God had placed in my heart (despite my objections, I may add).

If the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist is truly superior to anyone else’s celebration of the same, then why does this not show in a multitude of changed lives on fire with Jesus? Does the transubstantiation of hearts not take priority over the philosophical minutiae over how the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus? *

I know the theological and ecclesial arguments well: it has to do with validity of Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession and visible ecclesial unity. But each of these terms suffers from a constraining definition, as Avery Cardinal Dulles pointed out so succinctly in his seminal work Models of the Church.

In a 1993 letter to a Lutheran bishop, Joseph Ratzinger wrote: If the actions of Lutheran pastors can be described by Catholics as “sacred actions” that “can truly engender a life of grace,” if communities served by such ministers give “access to that communion in which is salvation,” and if at a Eucharist at which a Lutheran pastor presides is to be found “the salvation-granting presence of the Lord,” then Lutheran churches cannot be said simply to lack the ministry given to the church by Christ and the Spirit.

Holy Communion is meant to change us, Pope Francis said recently. Echoing St. Augustine he stated: Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! In fact, we invoke the Holy Spirit upon us God’s people to effect this transubstantiation in our own lives as part of every Eucharistic Prayer. Instead, a Catholic Mass can be as mediocre as any celebration of the Lord’s Supper in another church. Worse even, studies have been done on why Catholics arrive in church late and leave early.

I have been at many a Eucharistic celebration in Anglican and Lutheran churches, and now preside at the same in both. Never have I seen people leave before the end of the service. Moreover, every hymn gets its full verses sung as an expression of praise rather than only a couple of verses serving as “traveling music” for the priest. There is a gusto and an engagement in these services that I wish more of in a Catholic Eucharist. If the Catholic Eucharistic sacrament is somehow more whole, more authentic, then why does this not find expression in all who receive the true Body and Blood of Jesus in radical lives of service to others, simplicity of lifestyle, outreach to the poor, and advocates of justice for the oppressed?

It would behoove us all to sprinkle our private and institutional judgments of one another with a good dose of humility and self-examination, especially when it comes to the Eucharist. The Gospels are embarrassingly candid about how little the disciples actually understood Jesus during his ministry. None of us, not even a Pope, should place higher demands on one another than Jesus ever did for those who broke bread with him.

Clearly, none of us fully grasp the meaning of Christ`s sacrifice any more than the first disciples did. And none of us can add anything to our worthiness in receiving Christ’s sacred Body and Blood in the Eucharist than what Christ has accomplished in his suffering and death for us. In fact, the seventh century mystic St. Isaac of Nineveh is quoted as saying, ‘Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So then — do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.

What would happen if the validity of the Eucharist was determined by “discerning the Body” (1 Cor. 11:27-29) and measured by transformed lives instead of institutional membership?

  • I highly recommend Gabriel Daly’s paper Eucharist: Doing the Truth with Christian Faith
  • Excerpts from a summary of the RC position on Eucharistic sharing:
    The norms published by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, in 1999 stated, “Episcopalians and Lutherans can be presumed to believe in the real presence. For members of other communions there may be need for some further discussion concerning their belief in the Eucharist.”
    At the same time, the 2008 guidelines of the Diocese of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said, “the Church does not require other Christians to have more knowledge of the sacrament or more faith and holiness than the Catholic faithful have. This principle is particularly pertinent in applying terms of the law that speak of the other Christian ‘manifesting Catholic faith’ in the sacrament, having the ‘proper disposition’ and being in ‘spiritual need.’”
  • The final reporting on the meeting between the German bishops and the Vatican can be found here. Interesting to note that Pope Francis did not give the bishops a final answer, but sent them home with — work it out, boys.
  • Update May 12, 2018. Cardinal Willem Eijk from the Netherlands (my country of origin) has unleashed a sharp critique on Pope Francis about the matter. Dutch friends have been sending me responses appearing in Dutch publications, fiercely criticizing the cardinal, summed up in: dear Cardinal, close the book and open your heart.
  • Update May 28, 2018: This interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput is well worth reading and pondering for both Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants alike. Again it raises the question: what is non-negotiable in ecclesial unity and what is acceptable diversity? Rome approved the Eucharistic Prayer of the Armenian Church which does not have an Institution narrative or consecration of elements. What will it take for Rome to accept the Eucharistic prayer of other Christian traditions?
  • Update June 4, 2018: Pope Francis seems to claw back his command to the German Bishops Conference’s to “work it out.”
  • Update June 12, 2018: RC German Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg responds to Pope Francis’ most recent decree.
  • An interesting article sharing the story of a Lutheran-Catholic couple in Germany.

And the beat goes on …

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Celebrate and Mourn

Yes, this is “the” Big Weekend — Reformation weekend. I remember Reformation Sunday 1999 well. It was the first time I found myself, a Roman Catholic then, preaching in a Lutheran pulpit at the invitation of the local pastor. It was a momentous day in Augsburg, Germany, where representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The core argument from the 16th century, that lead to Martin Luther’s excommunication, was finally laid to rest. Since that momentous event other church bodies have signed on this Declaration, including the World Methodist Conference, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Anglican Communion. The gaps that have separated the followers of Jesus Christ — the Prince of Peace, the great Reconciler — are closing and healing. Across most of the Christian world a collective sigh of relief and gratitude can be heard —  reconciliation at last.

I have lived the painful divisions in the Body of Christ quite personally for the past 27 years and continue to do so.  As a good Catholic girl I studied at a Lutheran seminary, and discovered to my great surprise that Lutherans and other Christians can indeed be authentic living witnesses to Christ Jesus. Now, twenty-seven years later, I am an Anglican deacon, soon to be priest, and live the deep pain of a closed Roman Catholic communion table, where ecclesial divisions apparently trump the marital communion I live with my own RC spouse on a daily basis.

So when I read about Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols embracing in tears at communion time, I wept my tears with them. This line in particular hit home: Entirely against the teaching of Jesus Christ, Christians learnt to hate and kill each other, even more than they had done in the past. And Pope Francis said today: “For so long we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harbouring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.”  How did it come to this?

If nothing else, I hope with all my heart that we have learnt some hard lessons in humility, restraint and remorse towards one another. In this anniversary year, none other than Pope Francis is illustrating with bold gestures and words that the Christian family has indeed buried its hatchets and is ushering in a new era of healing divisions. This 80-year old pontiff is living up to his title — building bridges wherever there is an openness of heart, risking new initiatives of reconciliation and dialogue. In today’s meeting with the leadership of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland Pope Francis noted that “Christians of different denominations are living today as true brothers, no longer as adversaries.”

In my own little community on the Canadian prairies, we are slowly following suit. Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics are gathering on a regular basis now to engage in common prayer and to learn about one another’s faith traditions, assisted by ecumenical documents produced by national and international dialogue groups. With internet access these great ecumenical documents are only one click away. What is harder is to find enough good church folk willing to risk the learning and growing with their sisters and brothers in another church. But in our small prairie town we are making progress. While our Lutheran-Catholic Lenten study this past spring lacked some important conversation partners, this fall’s Anglican-Catholic-Lutheran study is seeing a great three-way denominational mix at the weekly sessions. The discoveries and learning are creating surprise and enthusiasm, yet generating tears of both celebration and mourning. We have so much in common yet, like estranged siblings, we have lost out on so much in these five centuries apart.

In our zeal to confess Christ Jesus as Lord, we still fail miserably to live up to this claim. Let us heed our sorrowful history of internal conflict and strife as a shameful betrayal of the very unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed so fervently when the cross loomed. While old barriers are indeed dissolving, new ones are waiting to take their place. As my little ecumenical study group on the prairies is learning, some church traditions continue to resist relinquishing their own security of being right in order to further the unity for which Christ died. Others look upon smaller traditions are somehow less than, thus ignoring Paul’s summons in 1 Corinthians 12 to regard those members of the body that we think less honourable (to) clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members with greater respect. Time will tell whether we have learnt the lessons both from history and from our Lord Jesus himself.

That Reformation Sunday in 1999, preaching with joy on the Joint Declaration as the fruit of fraternal dialogue, an older woman greeted me after the service. She grabbed both my hands while tears streamed down her face. “I’ve prayed for this all my life,” she managed to say with great emotion. “When I married my Lutheran husband 42 years ago, the Catholic priest told me not to bother coming back to church.” Her words hit me in the stomach. “And when I saw you up there,” she continued, “I knew this was God’s doing.”

Little did I know that my words and presence unleashed God’s healing waters in this woman’s spirit. Words preached that Reformation Sunday by a Roman Catholic woman in a Lutheran pulpit stitched her shattered heart together again. I have carried her, and many others since, with me in my heart and prayers. And so this weekend I both celebrate the remarkable reconciliation we have achieved in the past fifty years as well as shed tears of lament  for the unity which still eludes our reach.

Logo in top image: from Lutheran Church Canada

Update Reformation Day Oct. 31 — Joint Statement from the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

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Feeling the Heat

Homily, August 20, 2017 on Matthew 15:21-28

Preaching is becoming a dangerous occupation. The homily/sermon is meant to help us connect the message from Scripture with our daily lives. But atrocities like the ones this past week in Charlottesville and Barcelona make preaching the Good News of God’s love and mercy increasingly more challenging. Preachers are feeling the heat as we engage the sacred words of Jesus with today’s tragedies. While BC has been feeling the heat of massive forest fires this summer, we preachers feel the heat of tension, of horror, of conflict. We feel the heat of helplessness, of sorrow, of guilt … How do we speak prophetic truth into racism? How do we speak healing into discrimination? How do we speak hope into a world careening towards self-destruction?

Feeling the heat of conflict should not surprise preachers though. After all, we preach One who had a knack for heating up conflict as a matter of course. Again in today’s passage, things are heating up under Jesus’ feet again. Who is Jesus’ ministry for?? Do foreigners, people of colour and outcasts have a right to claim God’s grace and healing? Just like in our time, there were strong cultural opinions in Jesus’ time about who was acceptable and who was not: clean and unclean people, they called them back then. The Canaanites were deeply despised by the Israelites. Jesus experiences tension and the ugly reality of racism, prejudice, and discrimination towards a defenseless person in need.

A foreign and despised woman approaches Jesus, a Jewish man. She even has the nerve to pay him homage and then begs a favour she has no right to. She bursts into Jesus’ space and pleads with him: “Lord, son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon.”

Whatever else he does or says, Jesus at least refuses … he refuses the disciples’ demand to remove this nuisance from their midst. (the disciples have a knack for sending people away or telling them to shut up and not “bother” the Master). Jesus responds by addressing the woman directly, with a comment that seems quite out of character for this man of God: “I am a stranger here; I should not interfere.” Is this out of character, or is Jesus merely testing her?Or in the worst case, is he just plain rude, insensitive, and harsh? “Help me!” the woman insists. Jesus’ next words seem excessively harsh: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs!”

“Dogs” was a derogatory much like “nigger” or “Redskin.” Slurs such as these are an insult, a metaphor referring to others as less than human, more as animals, only good for eating leftovers.

The Canaanite woman issues a bold challenge: even if Jesus’ mission is initially meant for the Jews, is he nevertheless willing to respond to genuine faith no matter where and in whom? But then again … who knows what this woman is about… Better safe than sorry; better not throw the message of God’s kingdom to the dogs.

It’s disturbing to see Jesus act this way. But let’s be honest … how often do WE act in this way? We’d rather be safe than sorry ourselves. Most of us have made up our minds about what is important in our lives and who counts in the grand scheme of things (and who doesn’t). We are diligent in living our faith and church commitment. We stick to our priorities with honourable loyalty and a principled sense of duty.

So principled and so loyal are we that nothing can divert us from our goal to serve God. Until someone rattles our cage, and reveals how far short we actually fall from serving God when we exclude and ignore and unjustly label another. The Canaanite woman rattled Jesus’ cage… The tragedy in Charlottesville rattled our cage, revealing the ugly poison of racism. The tragedy in Barcelona rattled our cage, revealing our global failure to foster justice and respect in all people, esp. those disadvantaged by the world’s economic systems which favour the few at the expense of the masses.

Sure, Jesus’ mission is intended for God’s chosen people. But who are God’s chosen people? The Canaanite woman calls Jesus Lord, refers to him as master, and humbly says that she, like dogs under the table, will gladly take the leftovers of his mission and power.

It is no coincidence that Matthew placed this story right smack between the two miraculous feeding of the multitudes, both of which reported leftovers. While these crowds were adequately provided for, it is the Syro-Phoenician woman who seeks what Jesus’ own people don’t even realize they have – the leftovers! And Jesus, astounded at her faith, is forced to leave the beaten track. rethink his whole mission and gives her the … leftovers of God’s healing love.

How many times, Lord, do we fail to recognized you because we are too busy with our own private interests and have long ago set limits on who deserves our love? We can all be outraged by the news reports of refugees smuggled and drowning in the Mediterranean, or other countries closing their borders to them. It’s easy to be outraged at terrorist attacks like in Barcelona or the racial clashes in Virginia. But our outrage is sometimes cheap and hollow. For we are the ones who have everything at the expense of people who are oppressed and exploited. We all help perpetuate the unjust distribution of the earth’s wealth, a wealth given by God to be shared with all people.

Sure, Jesus’ mission is intended for God’s chosen people. But as Jesus himself discovers, God’s chosen people includes the Canaanite woman, invites outsiders and nuisances, includes smuggled immigrants, people of colour, and all people of good will. God’s love has no limits and accepts no boundaries. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence, Jesus himself gains new insight and extends his mission past his own people, his own religion, his own nation. And don’t forget that we … are the beneficiaries of this shift.

Pope Francis repeatedly urges us to risk veering off the beaten track in the name of Jesus and for the sake of the world. “Jesus,” he said to a gathering of young people, “is the Lord of risk, of the eternal ‘more.’ Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. … Teach us how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. “Have the courage to teach us that it is easier to build bridges than walls!”  

On this side of death, we are all saved and unsaved, saint and sinner, both at the same time. We all bear the status of “foreigner” in God’s kingdom. We are really not that different from the Canaanite woman, blacks suffering racism, refugees running for life, suicide-bombers disillusioned with the worlds greed and exploitation, smuggled and suffering illegal immigrants desperately seeking safety and a future.

We may not experience their particular illness, social rejection or utter destitution. But we all know what it feels like to be rejected, unloved, ignored, denied, attacked and judged. None of us goes through life without collecting the deep scars that sin and evil inflict. Engaging with someone who cries out for justice and healing is always unsettling, and can re-open scars in our own heart. Only when we let this happen can compassion be born and healing occur. In the end, we all stand together, hungry and thirsty before our God as God’s chosen people. Only then, boundaries and distinctions will fall away.

Despite Jesus’ initial reluctance to grant her wish, never once does he rebuke the Canaanite woman, never does he silence her, and never does he send her away. Instead, Jesus engages her in dialogue. Jesus enters a relationship with her, which has everything to do with human dignity.

We cannot limit God nor trivialize what God can do. Every person we despise should remind us that “there for the grace of God go I.” To all of us Jesus says: “Always remember both your own need for mercy and healing as well as your calling to bring God’s healing to the world.” Or as C.S. Lewis once said: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

And so we feel the heat of the world’s tragedies, and we should. We feel the heat of our complicity in perpetuating racism and discrimination, injustice and greed. We feel the heat of the temptation to give in to helplessness and apathy. The tension in today’s Gospel remains unresolved. Instead, we live that tension fully in the day-to-day challenges and encounters. For we are wounded healers, saint and sinner. As wounded healers God calls us  in the service of the Gospel. Without limiting God, and without trivializing God’s healing love, we are the hands and feet, and the heart, of Christ. “We” are all God has on this earth.   AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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Miscarried or Still Pregnant?

This past Lent my parishes (Anglican and Lutheran) invited the local Roman Catholic parish to engage in a study on the Reformation. After all, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the 16th century event that splintered western Christianity into a number of different church traditions, traditions that remain divided to this day. However, intense dialogue in the past 50 years and new agreements on key aspects of our Christian heritage have now ushered in a new era of rapprochement, one that needs to be shared and embraced by the ordinary disciples in all church pews.

It seemed timely and such a good idea to gather participants from three traditions to learn and discuss together about the events of the 16th century, acknowledge the significant agreements and convergence that has have been achieved through dialogue at the highest levels for the past 50 years, and to look towards a future of community and unity.

Now I tried very hard to remain realistic; I minister in a small prairie town so I had no illusions of this venture drawing a big crowd. Nevertheless, I was surprised when 14 people showed up for the first of five sessions. The numbers fluctuated somewhat each week but remained steady between 14 — 21 participants. This number was amazing; moreover, people were committed and open to learning. Hearing about the significant dialogues and agreements between our church traditions was a real revelation for most folks, one that clearly inspired and engaged them in new ideas and visions for the future.

To this effect, the parish study, designed by a Canadian Catholic-Lutheran working group and entitled Together in Christ, gave five clear directives to be discussed and endorsed by local churches. These same imperatives were agreed to and signed between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in a joint worship service in Lund, Sweden, on October 31, 2016, attended by Pope Francis himself:

  1. Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
  2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
  3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
  4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
  5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

This major step towards mutual recognition at such a high church level definitely moves the process towards full visible unity closer to its goal. There was, however, a slight problem in our local Lenten study, one that the group became more vocal about as we approached the last session. The majority of the participants had been Lutheran and Anglican! Despite support from the RC parish priest, alternating meeting venues between Lutheran and Catholic parish halls, and weekly notices in parish bulletins, the Catholic participation remained extremely weak (with the exception of one session which saw six Catholic participants but most didn’t return) and even zero at one session 😦 . It was painful and the group lamented this vacuum, feeling as if stood up on a date. After all, the study was designed as a conversation between Roman Catholics and Lutherans (Anglicans came along for the ride). What could possibly account for this Catholic absence/disinterest?

And so when there’s a vacuum in reasonable explanation, the mind begins to speculate:

  • Were Catholic lives busier than Lutheran or Anglican lives and so they couldn’t make time for this?
  • Do Catholics remain fearful to engage too closely with “those” other Christians?
  • Are Catholics insulated from other Christians and don’t feel a need for serious engagement?
  • Are Catholics unaware of the monumental changes brought about through 50 years of ecumenical dialogues and agreements?
  • Do Catholics still believe the RC Church is the only true church, making ecumenical dialogue unnecessary?
  • Are Catholics overly obedient to papal authority and may fear losing this if engaging in ecumenical conversations?
  • Have Catholics inherited the historical disdain for Protestants through an ecclesial gene pool stretching five centuries now?

I’m still pondering whether this was a huge missed opportunity on the Catholic side, an ecclesial miscarriage of sorts, or if we are still pregnant with potential dialogue and conversation. The group that gathered decided to give the Catholics the benefit of the doubt and is opting for the latter. The group is currently preparing a letter addressed to the local Catholic parish community, indicating how much their voice and participation was missed and could we please talk.

By way of closing the 5-week Lenten study we shared, even if only with less than a handful of Catholics, we did mark Good Friday together with a joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican worship service. It seemed appropriate to come to the cross of Christ in contrition and humility. Lord, O Lord, have mercy.

Prairie Encounters

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