Monday, July 8, 2019

Bearing Fruit

In this week's reading from the Letter to the Colossians, the author says, "just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God." The gospel, as the author understands it, is the story of Jesus's redemption of humanity and his promise of a better future for all of us. Once we've heard this Good News, it begins to work on us and shape us into a new creation. But what does this new creation, this fruitfulness, look like?

Some would have us believe that God rewards dutiful Christians with financial prosperity and good fortune; but this week's readings suggest something very different. The story of the Good Samaritan, which will be our Gospel reading on Sunday, illustrates that true fruitfulness comes from an inner spiritual richness, because that richness fosters life in everything and everyone it touches, not just ourselves. The fact that a Samaritan, considered an outcast among the Jews of Jesus's day, offered such abundant mercy and generosity to a stranger affirms that it's the love within us that matters, rather than wealth, social status, or power. After all, a priest and a Levite both passed the wounded traveler by without so much as a glance; but the Samaritan is moved by compassion. He binds up the travelers wounds, conveys him to an inn, takes care of him, and instructs the innkeeper to spare no expense in looking after the injured man until he returns.

This story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus's answer to a lawyer's question, "who is my neighbor," after Jesus reminds him that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Church teaches that it is each Christian's duty to attend to both "spiritual works of mercy" and "corporal works of mercy." Corporal works of mercy attend to people's physical needs: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and bury the dead. The idea in Colossians is that we do good works, not because we feel guilty or pressured by others, but because we feel an overwhelming gratitude for God's care and nurturing of us. And maybe, like the robbed traveler, we too were saved unexpectedly by a stranger in our own moment of crisis. Similarly, the message in our Gospel reading is that we do works of mercy out of a sense of shared humanity and love for each other as neighbors. Love generates love. Our own experience of fruitfulness makes us eager to see others fruitful, too.

Even though we have entered a more leisurely season at St. Helena's, we will still need to be planting seeds this summer, so that the parish can bear new fruit. We already have a rich soil and a healthy climate to allow these seeds to flourish. So, we'll build on our spiritual richness, by learning to invite, to greet, to orient, and to incorporate newcomers better. We'll draw on our own experience of God's abundance so that others can be fruitful, too.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, June 7, 2019

One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic

This Sunday, Christians all over the world will observe the Feast of Pentecost, which people often call the Church's birthday. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the day that the Holy Spirit alighted on Jesus's followers, equipping them for ministry. The story illustrates what we call the four Notes or Marks of the Church : that the Church is (1) ONE, (2) HOLY, (3) CATHOLIC, and (4) APOSTOLIC. We affirm these qualities every Sunday when we recite the Nicene Creed; but many of us say the words without really reflecting on what they mean.

The statement that the Church is ONE, emphasizes its fundamental unity, such as when St. Paul refers to us as "the Body of Christ." It is often hard to appreciate or even believe that the Church is one, when there are so many divisions among Christians into different denominations, theological views, and worship styles. Nonetheless, we affirm that, however much we human beings may have fragmented the Church over the centuries, God is working through us to restore it to wholeness, which is why ecumenical work, for instance, is so important. Remembering that the Church's essence is to be ONE should impel us to seek out unity where we can.

The Church is also HOLY, in that it calls us into a particular kind of living. This lifestyle is modeled on the example of Jesus, who showed us how to spread peace, justice, and harmony by fashioning mutual, moral relationships with God and among all human beings. The Church's teachings, its sacramental life, and its mission in the world are tools for us to live as Jesus did, so that we can inhabit that holiness.

The Church is CATHOLIC, according to the original definition of the word, which is "universal." The Church is not limited to one locale, one denominational tradition, or one worship style; but rather embraces all Christians everywhere. The Pentecost story in Acts is a testament to the fact that Jesus's disciples were commanded to spread the Gospel to every family, tribe, language, people, and nation, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the Church is APOSTOLIC, meaning that the Christian faith we practice is a legacy from the first apostles that has been handed down from generation to generation. Known as the "Vincentian Canon," St. Vincent of LĂ©rins in the 5th century affirmed the universality of this apostolic faith by claiming that it is "what has been believed everywhere, always, by all." Now, that may seem like a pretty bold and sweeping statement that may not hold up under scrutiny; and yet it is easy to perceive even in our own Sunday services the enduring legacy of the apostles: the reading of Scripture; the blessing and sharing of bread and wine; prayers for the Church and the world. There are still many common features between our faith and that of the apostles, as the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer makes clear.

Although the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, it is only so in an imperfect way. The Church is often prone to schism and disunity, corruption and vice, denominational prejudice, and theological error. When we recite the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, there's always a hint that we are making an aspirational statement, that we will work to make the Church a better and fuller embodiment of those four essential qualities that we claim for it. The Acts story is clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to all who were present, without distinction--men and women, slaves and free, old and young, worthy and unworthy. The apostolic ministry has been given to each one of us, and each of us is called to serve. Each one of us is called to embody the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church as we go about the ordinary activities of our daily lives. That should give us something deep to reflect on this Sunday, as we recount the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus's followers in the gust of wind that brings God's holy fire.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

An Appeal to Justin Welby

27 February 2019

The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby
The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury
Primate of All England
Lambeth Palace, London, SE1 7JU

Your Grace:

Many of us in the Episcopal Church first greeted the news of the upcoming Lambeth Conference with great excitement. When I was in England this past summer and visited Canterbury for the first time, I was deeply moved by the palpable bonds of kinship and affection created by our shared belonging to the Anglican Communion. I felt incredibly proud and connected. It was with great sadness and distress, therefore, that I read the recent statement from Dr. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, announcing that same-sex spouses of active bishops would not be invited to attend the 2020 Lambeth Conference along with opposite-sex spouses.

I am, of course, keenly aware that not all Anglicans are of the same mind on issues of human sexuality, as well as a wide range of other issues. We are living in an age, however, in which the Church stands largely discredited among the people to whom we are called to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Having often found ourselves on the wrong side of history, the Church has developed a reputation for being prejudiced, retrograde, and oppressive, a reputation that, I fear, is well justified. How are we to look people in the eye and say that our God is a God of love, and the Bible is the divinely inspired container of God’s loving Word, when the leaders of the Anglican Communion countenance and perpetuate the homophobia and discrimination that hurts so many LGBTQ members of our Christian family? How are we to defend the Church against the legitimate claims of outmoded and pharisaical legalism?

I know that you, like I, take seriously St. Paul’s affirmation in his Epistle to the Galatians (Gal. 3:28-29) that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Are LGBTQ people not also heirs of Christ’s promise, Your Grace? I came to the Episcopal Church in 2004 after having wandered for twenty years in a spiritual wilderness following a traumatic departure from the Judaism of my upbringing. I fell in love with the Anglican form of Christianity, because I witnessed in Holy Scripture and experienced in the embodied life of the Church a Jesus who loved and fully included the poor, the marginalized, and the rejected without any qualification and in defiance of the religious and civil authorities of his time. And I fell so in love with Jesus that I have dedicated my life to him as a priest.

The Sunday lectionary recently included the Sermon on the Plain from the Gospel of Luke, in which Our Lord says, “blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Lk 6:22-23). Our Lord did not judge us worthy of being hated, excluded, or reviled. Must we wait for heaven to see our Lord’s promise of inclusion fulfilled? Are we to be bullied, as the prophets were, by people who are ignorant and frightened by the ongoing revelation of God’s truth, as Our Lord said in the Gospel of John:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).

God is speaking to the world; but many do not want to listen. As the spiritual head of the world’s 85 million Anglicans and Episcopalians, Your Grace, please guide me: what am I to tell my flock? When the chips are down, and we have to choose what is just and what is expedient, how am I supposed to defend the Anglican Communion? Must I tell my LGBTQ folks that Cantuar believes them to be expendable, or will I be able to say with pride that you and other Anglican leaders stood up for them? I hold out the deepest hope that you will take a courageous stand and echo the resolute words of the Most Rev’d Edmond Lee Browning, 24th Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, who said “I want to be very clear – this church of ours is open to all – there will be no outcasts – the convictions and hopes of all will be honored.”

I have great compassion for the very difficult situation in which your find yourself, Your Grace, in trying to keep the Anglican Communion together, as did your predecessors in office. I will pray for you in love for the formidable vocation which has been entrusted to you, as I hope you will pray and advocate for all those who have been materially harmed by the Church’s exclusionary policies. With this in mind, I implore you to consider adopting the fairer and more equitable policy of inviting no spouses of active bishops to the Lambeth Conference, if you do not feel you can invite the same-sex spouses. This would at least mitigate the sting of our continued exclusion from full membership in the Church at the highest levels. It would remind me and others of why we are still proud to be Anglicans.

I thank you, Your Grace, for your consideration of my comments. I wish you and all of our family in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion a transformative Lent.

Your humble servant in Christ,

The Rev’d Ethan Alexander Jewett, SCP
VIII Rector, St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, Burr Ridge, Illinois
Episcopal Diocese of Chicago
The Episcopal Church

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Bless Those Who Curse You

Last Sunday, Deacon Daryce and Deacon Miguel led us in reciting the Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting to commemorate the victims of the 38 mass shootings in our nation's recent history, including the one last Friday in Aurora, IL. Many people said what a moving and overwhelming experience it was to bring to mind so much wanton violence within the context of the church's worship.

This week's readings likewise address a variety of human tragedies. The reading from Genesis recounts Joseph and the Israelites' want during a period of famine. The psalm acknowledges human anxiety in the face of wickedness. The epistle reading from 1 Corinthians confronts head-on the reality of physical death and the promise of resurrection. And finally, our Gospel reading from Luke offers encouragement to those who are the victims of persecution and oppression.

In each case, the author tells us not to lose heart; because the moment we give up on hope and goodness, evil wins. The way we vanquish wickedness is by being kind and loving ourselves, by not letting ourselves be corrupted by the influences that destroy God's creation. If we rely on God to sustain and support us in the midst of adversity, if we follow God's guidance for a virtuous life, we will bring more joy, peace, justice, and mercy into the world to defy the evil forces that separate us from God and each other. By being faithful to the teachings of Jesus, we will offering the best, most effective resistance to the powers of darkness.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, February 15, 2019

A Blessed Sacrifice

Lent will be upon us in a few weeks, and sacrifice will be a key theme of the season, as you will see in the Lenten news items below. I realize that sacrifice is not a popular concept, because it communicates suffering and deprivation. But the fact of the matter is that in this Sunday's Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus openly acknowledges the reality of human suffering in the world. Jesus never tries to avoid talking about difficult things, like sacrifice.

In his "Sermon on the Plain," like his "Sermon on the Mount" in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus heals the sick and addreses a large crowd of people to offer them comfort and hope in the midst of their very real suffering. Recalling the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus assures the poor and downtrodden that their suffering will not be eternal, and that the wealthy and powerful will cease to enjoy their undeserved privileges. What Jesus is doing here is reminding everyone--rich and poor alike--of God's mercy and justice.

But we will not be passive observers of God's mercy and justice, Jesus teaches us, but rather, the agents of that mercy and justice. We are preparing for the Lenten season when we will be asked to repent, to "turn back" toward the path of God's mercy and justice, to mete it out to those we meet, and to embrace them as our fundamental values, the values that will drive our thoughts, words, and deeds. As followers of Jesus, we are called to a good kind of sacrifice by risking something precious of ourselves to alleviate the suffering of others. By denying ourselves on occasion, we make room for the other, that he or she may have enough, too. The Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are intended to teach us to make due with less, so that others might enjoy relief from suffering, have full bellies, and find cause to laugh and rejoice.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, February 8, 2019

Candles, Throats, and Confirmation

This week's reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians emphasizes the faith in Christ that Paul received, which he has in turn passed on to them. He gives a very short summary of the foundational beliefs of Christianity, or as the Jesus movement was originally known, "The Way." The Church has a word for this handing on of the faith from one generation to the next, paradosis. It is a sacred process that continues to this day.

Last Sunday was an abundant example of paradosis with the full panoply of ancient rituals that embody that faith that Paul is describing to his friends in Corinth. Our Candlemas Masses in English and Spanish included festive processions with banners, lit candles, and incense to remember the presentation of the infant Jesus by his parents in the Temple, a ritual in which they offered their first-born son to God's service in observance of Israelite tradition. We also blessed throats to commemorate the Feast of St. Blaise, a fourth-century martyr, bishop, and patron saint of illnesses of the throat to ask for God's protection from sickness over the coming year. In the Spanish liturgy, we blessed a statue of the Christ child and placed him on the altar, followed by a wonderful feast of tamales.

Christian communities across the ages and throughout the world have enshrined rituals and traditions like these to give substance to their faith in Christ. In March, we will enact another series of rituals to mark the solemn season of Lent: the imposition of ashes, walking the stations of the Cross, and the intense liturgies of Holy week, among many others. We will also be fortunate to greet our bishop, the Rt. Rev'd Jeffrey Lee, on the Second Sunday in Lent, when we will confirm and receive people into the Episcopal Church. In this very moving ceremony, the bishop will very visibly pass on to new Christians and Episcopalians the faith of which he is the steward, as the successor of Paul and the other apostles. This Sunday, I will preach on the sacrament of confirmation and offer some thoughts on how we might understand it within the larger scope of our daily life as Christians.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Water and Wine

This week, we hear one of the miracle stories from the Gospel of John: the story of Jesus transforming water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. It is one of the many stories we tell during the season of Epiphany that manifest Jesus's divinity. Epiphany is the season when we contemplate the implications of the Incarnation, that God became human out of love for us.

The point of this miracle story, like many others, is that Jesus didn't just live among us so that God could share our humanity. God came among us as one of us, so that he could transform us into a new creation. The effect of Jesus on ordinary people was that he showed them what lay hidden inside of them. Sometimes, what he showed them was untapped potential. Just as water could become wine, people could become more than they appear to be on the surface. Sometimes, Jesus showed them the less pleasant things inside of them, like hypocrisy, fear, and selfishness. He got into a lot of trouble for that.

Overall, though, the message is a positive one; because Jesus always maintained that we could choose the kind of person we became. We don't have to accept superficial appearances. We could aspire to be something different, something new, something surprising.  We don't have to be just water; we can be wine--the very best wine. That is a message for each of us, as well as for our parish as we embark on a new year, full of untapped potential and endless possibilities.