Friday, November 1, 2019

For All the Saints

If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, all you have to do is open the Book of Common Prayer--or as it is more casually known, the Prayer Book or BCP. It takes some practice to know how to flip effortlessly back and forth between the different parts of the Eucharist service, as well as the BCP's other resources. The more you do, however, the deeper an understanding you will gain of the "faith once delivered to the saints," as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. The same could be said of the Hymnal 1982. It, too, is a good reflection of Episcopal belief, and on a day like All Saints' Day, when we sing so many classic favorites, our theology jumps out from the page.

In churches that only gather for worship on Sundays, it's difficult to differentiate between the two holy days of All Saints' Day (November 1) and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed (November 2). Parishes with a daily Mass are able to keep them distinct; but for parishes like ours, we have to make the most of that one day when we're all together at the Lord's Table. The hymn we're going to sing at the Gospel on Sunday begins, "I sing a song of the saints of God, patient, and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherd on the green: they were all of them saints of God--and I mean, God helping, to be one too." The saints comprise a dazzling variety of people, both the lofty and the humble.

All Saints' Day, strictly speaking, commemorates those that the Church over the centuries has seen fit to add to its official Calendar of Saints. As this Sunday's offertory hymn, "By all your saints still striving," notes, it includes "apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the noble throng who wear the spotless raiment and raise the ceaseless song." Yet it's not only the greats like the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Luke, St. Francis, or contemporary luminaries like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the unsung heroes who have done great things without official recognition. The verse of the offertory hymn fittingly ends, "for them and those whose witness is only known to you--we give you praise anew."

The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, on the other hand, remembers all who have died: my Grandma Kibby; my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Cortese, and so on. They may not have had a global impact like St. Joan of Arc or St. Thomas Becket--my patron saints--but they made a huge contribution to the person I am, and I am eternally grateful to them. So, it's wonderful that the Church offers a place in its calendar to commemorate them, too. One of the consistent messages of these two days is that we are called to remember both the Church's greats, and the people that were great for us, inspiring us to strive to become the best versions of ourselves, saints in our own way. And it is an expression of the Church's belief in the communion of saints, or as the Letter to the Hebrews calls it, "so great a cloud of witnesses." We pray for them as they reside with God in heaven, as we ask them to pray for us while we continue our earthly journey, hopeful that we will join them some day.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

This Sunday, in addition to observing the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we will commemorate the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Angels are a curious feature of Holy Scripture and the Church's tradition. The Greek word, angelos, means "messenger;" and indeed, the Bible usually depicts angels as holy couriers, bearing God's messages to humans. Angels are also described as doing God's bidding, such as fighting the Evil One, as St. Michael the Archangel is depicted here in a famous painting by Renaissance master, Guido Reni. But, of course, the angels' primary function, like ours, is to praise and worship God, "Holy, holy, holy Lord. God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!"

Whether you think that angels are flesh-and-blood heavenly beings or simply a metaphor for God's divine communications, angels express human beings' frequent experience of God as distant, inaccessible, and unknowable. Remember, that Moses could not look upon God's face directly, because it would have been too mindblowing to behold, and so could only look upon God's hindquarters, so to speak, as he passed by. Even after that, Moses' face shone with the light of God, which was so overpowering that Moses had to wear a veil whenever he descended the mountain, so that the other Israelites would not be blinded by the light.

In a similar fashion, angels serve as a kind of opaque veil between the unknowable God and our limited human understanding. They represent our need for the message to be tempered in some way, the light dimmed and the content simplified, so that we can process it. That's probably a key reason why God speaks to patriarchs and prophets in their dreams or at night. There are so many more possibilities when we don't limit ourselves to logic and literalisms. Angels and dreams make the barrier between God and humans a bit thinner, so that enough of the light can shine through without blinding us completely.

I think that many of us imagine an embodied, real messenger delivering the divine message, because the messages at times feel so personal to us. Angels transmit not only God's message, but the feeling of God's presence and care. It is as if angels amplify for us the emotional, relational content of God's speaking, not just the words or images themselves. And that gives me a certain joy, knowing that God not only wants me to understand, but to feel in my heart his reaching out to me in love.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Story of Belonging

Anniversaries are a good time to take stock of things. Whether it's a birthday, wedding anniversary, or the commemoration of some other major watershed moment, these days urge us to reflect on where we've come from and where we're going. St. Helena's turns 60 this month, and so I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the parish's long life and the path that lies ahead for us.

I spent some time yesterday at the Starbucks in Burr Ridge Village Center sipping an almond-milk decaf cappuccino and poring over some old dog-eared histories of the parish. I smiled at Peggy Anderson's reverence and wit as she recounted in her elegant, lyrical style some of the high points of the parish's history: the first meetings at Pleasantdale School and Fr. Soukup's study, the burning of the mortgage on September 12, 1976, and the various social and outreach events we hosted: pig roasts and salad luncheons and autumn festivals. Peggy also spends a lot of her history documenting the origin and meaning of many of the features and furnishings of the church building, for as Fr. Johnson put it, "the church has an opportunity, even a responsibility, to encourage beautiful artistic expression as a means of recognizing and experiencing the divine image in creation." It would seem that she and Fr. Johnson were of the same mind on such things. One only need look back at our Advent Service of Lessons and Carols last December to know that the aesthetics of worship have always been and continue to be an important current running through the parish's life.

But what was most compelling about Peggy's history were the affectionate vignettes of the people who have belonged to St. Helena's family over the years. And there were some characters! Fr. Johnson returning from Europe yet again with a statue or another set of gorgeous vestments to support the parish's high-church worship. The arrival of the Petraseks and the Oommens. The wedding of my fellow priest and friend, Mark Geisler. Fred Boskovich dressing up as a clown on the Fourth of July at Pleasantdale Park. A lot of life has unfolded within these walls. Peggy documents meticulously each priest who served the parish over the years, some with long, distinguished tenures and others for a short season, with never an kind word or uncharitable comment. As an historian, she is always professional and gracious. It's a rarity to experience such writing nowadays. What a privilege and a pleasure.

But both priests and parishioners came and went, and most of the people she talks about are no longer around. That should not make us sad. Churches shrink and grow. People are born and die. As I've said to many of you, Jesus started the Church with just twelve of his friends, and so similarly, we are no less St. Helena's because we are few. Most Episcopal churches are small, as it happens. As we cross the threshold of our 60th anniversary, I want to tell you that I think great things are ahead for us, even if we remain small and intimate. Great things lie ahead, because St. Helena's is stiil full of great people, you, who will continue our story of belonging.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Breaking the Law

In this Sunday's reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled and bent over by an evil spirit for 18 years. The leader of the synagogue gets quite indignant with Jesus, because he heals the woman on the Sabbath, when the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch--literally, five books) specifies quite clearly that no work is to be done. This provides yet another opportunity for Jesus to call out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who favor a legalistic reading of the Torah, rather than taking a common-sense or pastoral approach, as Jesus does. This story is meant to help us reflect on what it means to apply the rules of our faith to real life.

It is important to remember that the Torah that Jesus, the Pharisees, and ordinary Jewish people followed was not a legal code. We often translate that word, "Torah," as "Law," such as when we recite "the Summary of the Law" in the Book of Common Prayer, in which Jesus says that loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves are the greatest commandments, on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. Yet the word, "Torah," is more accurately translated as "teaching," "instruction," or "guidance." The longstanding practice of translating the word, "Torah," as "Law" in English is actually a translation of the Greek word, nomos, which was chosen when Jews first translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation, which we know as the Septuagint, rendered "Torah" as "Law," and so have we.

Fortunately, we know better now; and incidentally, so did the learned Jews of Jesus's day. The Torah was not just the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), "the Written Torah," but also the tradition of scholarly rabbinic interpretation of those five books that has been passed down through the generations and is now enshrined in the writings of the Talmud and Midrash, "the Oral Torah." Both the Written Torah and Oral Torah represent an attempt to apply holy wisdom to real-life situations. Jesus reminds the religious elite of his day that the Torah doesn't offer us a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to every situation. Real wisdom requires a person to apply the Torah's instruction and guidance creatively to each new situation, not just to offer a pat answer that will fly in the face of common sense and common decency.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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