Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Resistance of the Holy City

Given the increasingly disturbing news about what our sisters and brothers in Latin America are facing at our borders right now, I have come back to and am reposting the text of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, just a few weeks ago. The video of the sermon is also available online.


A Reading from the Revelation to John (21:10, 22-22:5) 
In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In moments of grief or pain, there are some scriptural texts that always seem to come to mind. Texts from the Bible, for example, that you hear most often at funerals. This is why people love the 23rd Psalm with its image of a shepherd who leads us even when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Or Isaiah 25, where we hear the promise that, in the end, God will prepare a feast for all people and destroy death forever, wiping the tears from all faces. In John's Gospel, there is the story of Jesus telling a grieving Martha who is struggling with the death of her brother Lazarus that he—Jesus—is the resurrection and the life. And in the Revelation to John, we see promises of our eternal home where we are reunited with those who have gone before, where the God who sometimes seems distant or hard-to-find dwells right here in the midst of us. These are powerful and comforting texts.

And though it is true that the Revelation to John, with its hopeful vision of the end of our existence, is indeed a comforting text when you are struggling with the painful reality of death, the truth is that this book was written to be a very different sort of comfort in the late first century. For a long time, people thought this book was written to comfort Christians who were suffering under the despotic reign of Emperor Domitian. In this line of thinking, the book of Revelation was written to give hope to Christians who were being imprisoned and killed because of their beliefs. It envisioned a picture of an empire-wide persecution of the Christian faith.

But modern scholarship would actually urge us to tone down that understanding of the first century, this idea of widespread persecution of Christians at that time. Because, truth be told, there simply is not any strong evidence of any empire-wide persecution which singled out Christians for imprisonment in the late first century. Don't get me wrong, there were indeed martyrs in this time and place. There was persecution. There were Christians who died because of their belief in Jesus Christ. But these were exceptions in the imperial life. They were not the norm. Persecution, when it occurred, was sporadic and limited to specific localities under Domitian’s reign.

Modern scholars, instead, believe that this book was written in the context of a significant conflict among Christians themselves in Asia minor. The key question in the book of Revelation is whether you participate and remain complicit in the Empire of Rome, symbolized by Babylon in Revelation, or whether you resist imperial power. Because there were Christians who did not view the Empire as a dangerous force, one that advanced the aims of darkness and the devil. For these Christians it didn't matter if you sacrificed incense to the image of the Emperor or called him Lord, you could do all of that still believe that Jesus was the supreme Lord.

The book of Revelation was written as a polemic against that view, insisting throughout that you cannot call Jesus and Caesar Lord at the same time. There can be only one Lord. Those Christians who thought that you could compromise with the Empire are criticized in Revelation for being lukewarm in their faith, for not fully committed to the new reality which has been brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And it may be easy for us in the 21st century to look back 2,000 years at all of this and find it somewhat interesting, but probably foreign to our existence. But that is, I think, a misunderstanding a well. Because I think Revelation raises some very interesting questions for Christians today, particularly those of us who live in the United States. Because there are significant arguments to be made that the power of United States in our own time far surpasses whatever power Rome had at the height of its imperial rule. We don't talk about the American Empire, generally, but if you look at the amount of territory which is under the control of our country, if you consider how many armed forces we have stationed in continents and countries all over the world, and if you think how other countries respond to what our country does or doesn't do… (when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold, right?) If you think of all of this, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the United States is a country that wields significant power in this world, almost an imperial level of power, perhaps.

And so I think that when we read the book of Revelation we must ask ourselves some very hard questions about our allegiances, our citizenship, and our patriotism. We must ask ourselves whether our citizenship and patriotism has ever crossed a line somewhere or sometime, whether our love for our country has ever risen above our love for the risen Christ—and the Body of Christ for whom he died

Today’s reading from the 21st chapter of Revelation helps frame this question in a very helpful way, I think. Because one of the most significant realities of the Roman Empire was that the whole world existed in two separate groups. There were Roman citizens who were treated a very specific way and there was everyone else. Paul even took advantage of this when he was arrested and brought before the courts, saying, “Hey, I’m a Roman citizen. You can’t do this to me!” By the late first century, the early Christian church, though, was a tremendously mixed community. The church began as a sect within Judaism but quickly grew to include Gentiles. The church included those who were rich and those who were poor, those who were slave and those who were free, and people from many nations and ethnicities and citizenships. And in the Christian church all of those people were placed on equal footing around the Eucharistic table.

The problem with getting very comfortable with the Empire in the late first century was that not everyone could do that. Members of the church who were Roman citizens could indeed enjoy their much greater freedom, but they could only do that while also acknowledging that other people—other people right in their church—did not have the freedom they had. And that is why the author of Revelation urges resistance instead of complicity, insisting that the power of the Empire is always a diabolical power precisely because of the way that the Empire (no matter the era in which it exists) seeks to carve up and divide humanity so that the power of the Empire may grow, so that the wealth of the State may increase. And that power is absolutely contrary to the power of love which raised Jesus from the dead, the power that seeks to reconcile a divided humanity.

And so, when John of Patmos sees the New Jerusalem in today’s epistle reading, he says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” In saying this, what he is doing is painting a picture which is a stark contrast to the picture of Rome—the other city where, supposedly, the other nations will come, but only in order to be subservient to the power of the State.

No, the power of the New Jerusalem is very different, and the nations don’t come to be slaves, they come to be set free. The only thing kept out of this city, according to John, is that which refuses to be made clean by the blood of the slain Lamb and to those who practice abomination—which defined in Revelation as those were willing to sacrifice much at the altar of the state, no matter the cost to their fellow Christians. That is the abomination.

And you and I, we live in a world which is also divided into two groups, those are American citizens and to those who are not. And I think we are meant to feel uncomfortable when we read this text. We should feel uncomfortable at the reality that some of our sisters and brothers in Christ have markedly different freedoms than we have—and not only our sisters and brothers in other countries of the world, but our sisters and brothers right here in the United States who don’t have all the same benefits we have because they are not citizens of the State.

I talked a couple weeks ago when I was preaching on Revelation about how sometimes we are willing to sacrifice relationships with friends and fellow Christians at the altar of our preferred political party, that we will angrily insist that our party is right—right no matter what—even if it burns a friendship to the ground, and how that is a form of idolatry to the State.

But there are all kinds of idolatry out there, all kinds of ways of sacrificing to the State at the expense of your fellow Christian. And if we truly believe that the vision of the end of human existence described in Revelation 21 is a city that quite literally leaves its doors open all the time, that in the end of human existence there are no checkpoints, but everyone is welcome to come in, everyone is treated as a person, then we have to ask whether or not those of us who are citizens are complicit in another sacrifice, one that is willing two let the State place the personhood and humanity of our fellow Christians to the side, one that that refuses to allow the gates to be open but insists they must be closed, one that that sends people back to countries filled with poverty and violence and a death, all in the name of keeping us supposedly more secure and wealthy.

Because, God forbid we lose our jobs or our comfort.

There are all kinds of sacrifices the State invites us to make every single day to the power of our empire. And there is cost which is mammoth.

Because, believe it or not, the Revelation to John was written not to comfort people like you and me. The Revelation to John was written to comfort people who don't have the right citizenship, people who have been told they do not have the same rights for reasons that were very legitimate and legal in Rome. The Revelation to John was written, instead, to provoke those who do have power, to provoke those who are comfortable, to say that if you are comfortable you are complicit. To provoke people like you and me, and to force us to ask, “At what cost does our desire power and comfort come?” Revelation invites us to ask which citizenship matters most to us, citizenship in this country or citizenship in the new Jerusalem that Jesus Christ is trying to bring about… the new Jerusalem that the State killed Jesus for trying to bring about.

And Revelation urges us to resist the Empire anytime the Empire seeks to oppress or exclude any person, particularly people who stand at the closed gates of our own country, people who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, people who are wondering why… wondering why their sisters and brothers who live on the other side of those gates have not spoken up and demanded change. Amen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

D-Day reflections, both inspired and unsettled

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

Tomorrow, June 6, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day — the largest seaborne invasion in history when Allied forces landed on the beach of Normandy during World War II. Together with British and Canadian troops, the invasion covered 50 miles of the French shoreline.

This operation was the beginning of the liberation of France from the control of the Nazi regime, and is generally seen when the tide of the war turned toward the eventual Allied victory on the Western Front.

The leaders of the Allied forces knew that the invasion would come at tremendous cost of human life. As the American troops prepared, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower told them, “The eyes of the world are upon you. You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny.”

By the end of the day, 2,501 American soldiers had been killed in action. It is estimated that 4,414 in total died that day.

As the sun went down on June 6, it was not clear that victory was coming. The Allied forces had not achieved any of their primary goals. The beach landings had been tremendously deadly, with ramps dropping men into chest-deep water in places, resulting in their drowning when the weight of their equipment carried them down. Many of those who did make it off the ramps were quickly killed by German forces. It wasn’t until June 12 that the five beachheads were finally connected, and the Allies secured the front.

I remember watching accounts of this invasion in the film “Saving Private Ryan,” when I was a student at Grand Haven High School. It was the first time I had seen a war movie that truly sought to capture the carnage and horror of battle. Later, I watched the 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers,” and was likewise struck by the massive loss of life on that day, the tremendous courage of young men climbing into cold water and heading in the direction of machine-gun fire, knowing their sacrifice was essential to victory over the Nazi regime.

Like many in my generation who grew up in an age after the draft, in a time where there was no massive conflict on the scale of the world wars which called so many to battle, I didn’t serve in the armed forces. My focus in my younger years was on studying to serve in ministry in the church. But I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt over the sense that I did not do my part like some of my friends and my peers who serve.

As I studied theology and Scripture throughout undergraduate and graduate school, my own views on war shifted and developed. In my upbringing, war was a necessary part of our world — something essential to defend the innocent against the violent and aggressor nations. I remember arguing with some theology professors when our country was preparing for the second Iraq war in 2003. They articulated the perspective of Christian non-violence, but I could not understand how that view squared with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the prophetic literature, those who stand idly by while the innocent are oppressed and killed are condemned for a lack of faithfulness. How could we, as a country, stand by while atrocities were happening in Iraq?

Of course, as the conflict in Iraq persisted into one of the longest-running conflicts in our nation’s history, I began to question my initial views. Particularly as civilian deaths continued to rise, my Christianity begin poking at my conscience, wondering if we truly were protecting the innocent — or complicit in killing them. As of right now, it is estimated by the Iraq Body Count Project that nearly 200,000 civilians have died in that war — but that organization’s methodology is often criticized by scholars for likely underestimating.

For a time, I moved to the viewpoint of Christian non-violence, particularly as I was convinced by the arguments of scholars like John Howard Yoder, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauwerwas. But I never fully was convinced of this position because it seemed only tenable when Christianity is a small minority within the State. In my first years of priestly ministry, I served in the Washington, D.C., area at Historic Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I became friends with parishioners who served in the Pentagon. My overly academic views on war and violence began to clash with my experience of faithful Christians doing their best to protect their country.

When I’m honest, I’m not sure where I stand on all these questions now. However, as I look back on the carnage of D-Day, I cannot help but be inspired by these young men, many of whom were certainly motivated by Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I do believe that our world would be a darker and scarier place were the advance of fascism through the Axis powers not stopped — and I doubt anything other than violent resistance could have stopped that kind of power.

But I remain unsettled. I remain unsettled because, though there will be several commemorations and memorials of this 75th anniversary tomorrow, there remains massively insufficient passion when it comes to the question of caring for veterans in our country. The most recent “point in time” count found there were nearly 40,000 veterans who are homeless. Nearly one-third of all veterans who served since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have at least one service-connected disability. Our care for those who have served is woefully inadequate — and it is a problem that has plagued our country since the Revolution.

And I am unsettled because it seems those in power are willing to send our brave young women and men to die for causes that are questionable —even from the perspective of a Christian just war theorist. There is a carelessness to civilian casualties that should feel obscene to any human — let alone any Christian. And this is not a partisan issue — both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have an ugly track record with the use of military force. In recent times, the attacks upon brave LGBT Americans who put their lives on the line to defend our country have been particularly heinous.

Mostly, though, I am unsettled because 75 years after D-Day, fascist ideologies are once again on the rise throughout the world and right in our own country. Racial violence from white supremacists has seen a disturbing increase. Alarmingly large percentages of people seem to be adopting clearly neo-fascist views on questions like ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and opposition to immigration. An insistence upon supporting the State — no matter what — is increasingly the marker for those in power.

So, I honor those brave men who climbed onto the beaches of Normandy for the cause of freedom, hoping their certain sacrifices could overcome the evil that threatened to envelop Europe and the world. But I think we must also be alert — because there are always forces willing to use the story of veterans to advance interests that are contrary to the foundations of our county. And we must be willing, like those soldiers 75 years ago, to stand up and resist the totalitarian and fascist tendencies in our own world right now, even in our own country.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

New anti-abortion laws are contrary to the sanctity of life

Below is my column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

Last week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a near-total ban on abortion. Under Alabama’s new law, abortion will be a felony punishable by life or 10-99 years in prison. The only exceptions in the law are if the life of the woman is at stake or if there were circumstances that would already result in the death of the unborn child. There are no exceptions for sexual assault or incest.

The resistance to these exceptions rested upon the arguments of the bill’s proponents that the personhood of the unborn child is paramount.

Not to be left behind, the GOP-led Legislature of our own state has passed legislation that criminalizes an abortion procedure performed in the second trimester called dilation and evacuation. Democrats fought against this legislation because this procedure is often the safest option for women who are faced with this tremendously difficult situation. This legislation also provides no exceptions for rape or incest. Our own governor will likely veto the bill (if she hasn’t already by the time this column is published).

What we are seeing in these legislations is the increasing success of the so-called Right to Life movement, a movement which claims to be predicated upon Christian teaching about the sanctity of life. However, this legislation — and much of the Right to Life movement — rests upon modern political and philosophical arguments and not upon the actual biblical witness.

I want to be clear; abortion is a massively tragic choice that women face. My own denomination, The Episcopal Church, spoke clearly in a 1994 resolution that “all human life is sacred from its inception until death.” The resolution continued with two important points. First, it was clear that abortion should only be used in extreme situations and certainly not as a means of birth control. At the same time, the resolution was clear that legislation will not address the root cause of abortions. Our church expressed “its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”

This position rests upon an acknowledgement that the biblical witness on the question of abortion acknowledges the nuance of personhood and the sanctity of life. Those who claim that a fetus is the equivalent to a human being from a moral and ethical standpoint cannot make that claim based upon Scripture. Exodus 21:22–25 is clear that if violence causes a miscarriage, the penalty is different than if you murder someone. Numbers 5:11–31 describes a ritual a woman must go through if she is accused of adultery, where the priest gives her something called “the water of bitterness.” If she has indeed committed adultery, the water will “make your uterus drop, your womb discharge.”

Both of these texts absolutely reflect the patriarchy of the time (in the Exodus text, the husband determines the punishment for the loss of the fetus, and there is not any corresponding violent ritual a for a man accused of adultery). Thankfully, given the fulfillment of the law through Jesus Christ, we are no longer bound by these commandments. Instead, Jesus told us that love of God and love of neighbor is the principle upon which all laws must rest.

So, the question for the Christian is what does love of God and love of neighbor require? What does a true respect for the sanctity of life require?

First, it requires respecting the sanctity and personhood of the life of a woman. That means that when a woman is faced with tragic and difficult circumstances, the church should support her and help her make her own informed decision about what is best. And then, after she makes that decision, the church should walk alongside of her.

The church should also advocate vigorously for maternal health care and for social programs that help women and small children. The continued GOP attempts to dismantle programs that help women in poverty who make the brave choice to bear children — alongside the legislation on abortion currently being passed — is an evil hypocrisy.

Though abortion rates have declined for years, research by the Guttmacher Institute indicates that nearly one-in-four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. That means it is likely that there are many women sitting in the pews of churches right here in Grand Haven who have been told over and over again that they are murderers. This is not only contrary to scripture — which nowhere refers to abortion as murder — but it is a cruel and evil message to send to women who are hurting. It does not respect their sanctity.

The second thing a Christian should do is advocate for policies that reduce the number of abortions in society. We must be clear, countries with the most restrictive laws on abortion also have the highest rates of abortion. A 2016 analysis found in the Lancet found that the average abortion rate in countries where abortion is illegal is 3.7 percent — but it is 3.4 percent in countries where abortion is legal. Furthermore, when there are highly restrictive abortion laws, women are also far more likely to have serious health problems and die as a result of an abortion.

However, comprehensive sex education reduces teen pregnancy rates (and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases) far more than religiously based abstinence-only education. Providing free birth control also results in far fewer abortions. A Contraceptive C.H.O.I.C.E. project in St. Louis gave women free contraceptive counseling and the contraception of their choice and the average annual abortion rate was 0.97 percent — compared with the 4.2 percent rate of sexually active teens. This reality also makes GOP and conservative Christian attempts to limit access to contraception massively hypocritical.

It is time for Christians to refuse to support anti-abortion legislation that results in danger to women. It is time for Christians to insist that our faith requires us to demand instead better access to health care for all women, stronger social programs for those who struggle. And it is time for Christians to repent of language that has cruelly and painfully wounded the hearts of women who have been faced with this tragic reality. A true value of the sanctity of all life — including the lives of women — demands no less.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Looking for light in the dark places of the Church

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune

These are dark days for American Christianity.

The divisions in our country that are painfully evident are also manifest in our congregations. Of course, churches have always found themselves divided among more conservative and more progressive approaches. But the divide seems to be so much deeper these days. In conversations with my colleagues, I know that we have all found it difficult at times to hold together communities where the political and social forces at our time seem to be pulling people further and further apart.

Beyond the struggle within the church, though, it is also outside. With larger and larger segments of the American population no longer attending church, and belief in God decreasing, the increasing polarization of our country has increasingly impacted the way people view church. As those without faith watch American Christians continue to support policies that are anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant, policies that hurt the poor that Jesus told us to care for, their distaste for Christianity only seems to increase.

I try to spend time letting non-Christians know that not all Christians agree on these questions. Though the religious right sought to craft a narrative of what Christian politics looks like, Christians are actually much more diverse than the media would let you know. Indeed, the most recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that white evangelicals are the only major religious group where a majority support President Trump. (Interestingly, Trump has the highest poll ratings among evangelicals who don’t actually go to church.)

For many Christians, these next few weeks mark some of the holiest of the year. As Lent draws to a close, Holy Week will begin on Palm Sunday, April 14. During this week, Christians will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. We will remember his last supper with his disciples on Holy Thursday. We will commemorate his death on Good Friday. We will wait in prayer on Holy Saturday until we celebrate his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As we journey through these days, it’s probably worth remembering that Jesus was not killed by non-religious people, by those who didn’t believe in God. Rather, Jesus was killed by the drawing together of the fears of the religious with the anxieties of the State. Jesus was killed because his massively inappropriate love offended the religious.

Jesus had a distasteful tendency to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes. He castigated moralists who had strict views of purity laws, views that led them to be cruel to those who ran afoul of their beliefs. And while he did not come to overthrow the Roman government — much to the dismay of some of his followers — the government took the fears of the religious seriously enough to put him to death.

And yet, as we walk through this story during the coming Holy Week, we will also be greeted anew with a love that overcomes death and the grave. At the empty tomb, we will discover the emptiness of our own narrow understandings of what God can and cannot do. We will see love embrace those who sought to kill God’s own son. We will see love embrace even us, in our fear and anger, inviting us to relax our grip on our own perspectives and instead to let ourselves be loved. And letting ourselves be loved, we will perhaps learn anew what love actually requires.

Jesus said the world would know the people who follow him by their love. I find it unsurprising — and heartbreaking — that a certain picture of Christianity, one that is devoid of love and only knows how to demand its own way, continues to play across the media. I wish religious leaders didn’t bless some of the morally abject policies of the current administration — putting migrant children in cages, slashing assistance to the poor, enabling rampant corruption, to name a few. Because that’s not the Christianity I know. That’s not the Jesus I know.

If you’re sitting there, watching this all play out in the news and on social media, and saying this is precisely why you don’t want to bother with church or organized religion, I want you to know that there are a lot of Christians who don’t believe this is what Jesus calls us to. Jesus calls us to live lives of profound sacrificial love.

And I want you to know during this Holy Week, I’m trying to learn that love better, too. I’m trying to learn from the Good Teacher how to love even those I might imagine as my enemies, even if red hats and old southern flags make me flinch.

Because all of us, including this liberal priest, need to learn how to love better. Sure, we need to stand up for what God’s love and justice demands, but we need to do that like Jesus, not like the mob that clamored for his death.

These are pretty dark days for Christianity, but the light of resurrection glimmers on the horizon. The invitation to love — and live — anew is extended to every Christian. We can change the story told about the church. We just have to be willing to repent.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish, including their Holy Week services, can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Facing God Together – Thoughts on Orientation in Liturgical Prayer

Before I begin, I need to make something very clear. Because I'm going to say some things about the priest celebrating ad orientem (facing east or, more accurately, facing the same direction of the people), but I don't want people to misunderstand how my views on this question impact my own approach as a priest in the parish. 

The church where I am currently honored to serve as rector is a church where the altar is pulled away from the wall. The custom in this congregation for quite some time is for the priest to face the people during the Great Thanksgiving. That is, the priest stands behind the altar facing the people as all pray together for Christ to become present with us once more through the Blessed Sacrament.

I think it is important to be clear that I find it tremendously unlikely that at any point in my priesthood, including in my current cure, I would ever “fight the battle” to put the altar back against the wall. Indeed, when altars were pulled out from the wall it was all too often done in a violent act, without a deep engagement with the people of God. It was the will of the priest, trained in the ideals of the Liturgical Movement, which reigned supreme. People were told that this was the way things should be. 

Thankfully, our General Convention has apologized for the way in which we handled putting the ideals of the Liturgical Movement into practice in the Episcopal Church, specifically in the way that authorizing the 1979 Book of Common Prayer created some wounds among those who had loved the 1928 Book of Common Prayer

I don’t believe battles should be fought in churches over questions like altars and fonts (at least, if battles can be avoided). These should be great places of uniting with one another—not contests of wills. 

(As an aside, I have often found it fascinating that clergy fought for pulling altars away from walls—something that  is required nowhere in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer—and  yet, by and large, did not fight equally hard for the creation of full immersion baptismal fonts—something that is explicitly the preference of the prayer book. I think it says something about what priests value that they fought over where they stood during Holy Eucharist but did not fight over the how to celebrate the sacrament of initiation for all Christians… but I digress.)

If I ever served in a church that did decide to change the location of the altar or the custom of which direction the priest faced during the celebration of Holy Eucharist, it would be a change that the community made together after prayer, study, and conversation. 

Because who I am as a priest rests not only upon the broader church which ordained me into this but upon the people of God who I am called to serve in my current cure. Any authority I have derives from their gracious gift of choosing me to be their presider. 

People like to think of the mid-to-late 20th century, particularly the 60s and 70s, as the great decades when our church threw off the bonds of clericalism and that finally priest and people were placed on the same level. With a decade of priestly ministry under my belt, one-third of the way through my career, I am increasingly doubtful that this actually happened.

Sure, priests stopped being called father—because it was only father then—and instead chose to be called by their first name. Altars were pulled away from the wall and the laity were invited to participate fully in so many aspects of Holy Eucharist. But these things did not end clericalism, they just sent it into more subtle and unseen places.

After all, I have known priests who bristle at being called father or mother and yet still exercise their ministry in profoundly clerical ways (like, for example, insisting people call them by their first name when a parishioner or colleague might have a piety that prefers titles). There are several ways in which priests who don’t wear clericals and insist on their first name can still allow their own opinions and preferences to run roughshod over the gathered community. There are plenty of priests who don’t wear clericals and eschew titles but who also feel very confident placing their own personal beliefs ahead the decisions of the broader church when it comes to issues like communion without baptism. 

So, let’s be clear. Clericalism will likely always be one of the besetting sins of the Christian church. Where you place the altar and where the priest stands and who the priest faces… None of this will actually fix clericalism. Clericalism is best addressed through good formation, modeling of healthy ministry by bishops and those in authority, and priests being serious about saying their prayers and becoming more like Jesus.

And yet, I do increasingly have a desire to say a few words about where we place the altar, where the priest stands, and the direction the priest faces. I do want to say a few words about the ancient tradition of celebrating Holy Eucharist with the priest facing the same direction as the gathered community, all gathered together in front of the altar of God.

One of the reasons I want to say a few words about this because of a change in my own parish that happened last year. Through generous gift from a family in the church (and then several other families were inspired likewise to contribute‚, we renovated what had been an old narthex and turned it into a small chapel for the saying of the Daily Office and the celebrating of weekday Eucharist. We call it the All Souls’ Chapel because of the columbarium which now rests within the walls and of the commitment that we have in that space to pray for all the faithful departed.

Because it is a very small space, the altar stands against the wall. It is a beautiful small granite altar, one that was originally in the chapel of the cathedral of our diocese, before we sold the cathedral to a mega church. It had spent some time in the garage of a former member of the cathedral and then made its way to our church because of a gift from our parish administrator that was matched by a generous gift from our previous bishop. 

When I say the words of the Great Thanksgiving at our weekday celebrations of Holy Eucharist, I stand in front of the altar with the people only a few feet behind me, all standing in front of the single row of chairs.

The first time I celebrated Eucharist in this new space, I got a little verklempt. I was overcome with this sense of the people of God standing behind me, supporting me as I sought to preside faithfully over this holy prayer. When they said the words that are assigned to them in the Great Thanksgiving, it was as though I could feel those words pushing against my back, holding me up, enabling me to stand. I felt more one with them than I have ever felt celebrating facing them.

I often feel like so many of the debates over the question of which direction the priest faces during Holy Communion entirely miss the point. 

In the early church, the question was not whether or not the priest faced to the people or the people faced the priest. In the early church, what was essential was that you prayed facing east, looking expectantly for Christ to come again. In the early church, all those gathered—priest and people—faced the same direction. (In what follows, I’m going to try to summarize some of the masterful work of Uwe Michael Lang—you can read his essay on this question online here, or better yet, buy the book.)

The practice of facing east was based upon the ancient custom of Jews in the diaspora who would always face Jerusalem when they prayed. For most Jews in the diaspora, Jerusalem was to their east and so that is the direction they would face. The Hebrew word for east is mizrah, and ancient synagogues in Europe and the Mediterranean were built with an orientation to mizrah, to east. The mizrachrefers to the wall of the synagogue that faces east, the place where the rabbi nad other lieaders would sit. Even when the temple was destroyed and the glory of God, the shekinahhad departed from the Holy of Holies, Jews continued to turn toward Jerusalem, hoping for the Messiah who would come and gather up God’s people.

And so early Christians faced east, first because it was for many of them the direction toward Jerusalem, but then also because of their belief that Christ would come again in the east, the direction of the rising son. Early Christians faced east when they prayed in longing expectation for Christ’s return believing with all your heart that Jesus did not leave us alone and that he would come upon the clouds finally to make this world right through God's love. And in Holy Eucharist, facing east, Christ then would indeed come to us again in simple bread and wine, reassuring us that Christ was present with us in this holy sacrament even while we yearn for his return at the end of time.

As Louis Bouyer notes in Liturgy and Architecture, the oldest Syrian churches from the fourth century were built with the apse facing east, with the altar paced either directly in front of the east wall or slightly forward from it. There was a bema, a raised platform in the middle that was adapted from synagogue worship and from which the readings would be done and the prayers offered. Then, the bishop and the clergy would move eastward to the altar for the liturgy of Eucharist, with the people and celebrant all facing east, all facing the altar together. 

The debate about facing east during prayers in the early church usually comes from early Roman basilicas, where the entrance was oriented toward the east and the altar was in the west (which means that in those churches, for the priest to face east also meant the priest faced the people, who were then facing west). Bouyer suggested that in those churches all would instead face the open doors at the east, with the rising sun coming in, during the Eucharistic prayer. Others doubt this, because it seems unlikely that the people would turn their backs to the altar. In Liturgie und Kirchenbau, Klaus Gamber suggested that the people stood on either side of the altar and so when they faced east with the priest, the altar would have been to their side. Others find this hypothesis likewise unlikely. In the end, we simply do not know for sure and there are good arguments on all sides (no pun intended!).

During the first millennium of Christianity, before the divisions between east and west, all Christians faced east together during prayer. It was not until modern times that the idea arose, first in Roman churches, that the priest and the people should instead face each other. Still, to this day, the vast majority of eastern churches have the priest and people face the same direction during the Eucharistic prayer. The only exceptions are those churches that have been influenced by the Roman rite and culture. 

And though the Liturgical Movement and the Second Vatican Council which came out of that movement believed that having the priest and people face each other during the Eucharistic prayer, that assumption is now increasingly called into question by scholars in the Roman tradition and outside the Roman tradition. It is also important to note that the Second Vatican Council actually did not require celebration facing the people, as is commonly assumed. Our own 1979 prayer book, which is considered by many to be one of the pinnacles of the Liturgical Movement assumes a celebration that is done with the priest facing the altar—and not necessarily the people—for the Great Thanksgiving (see the rubric on page 361 after the sursum corda, which says "Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds.")

Lang, who I cited earlier, has argued strenuously that the tradition of all facing the same direction is one that should not have been discarded so quickly. Rather, it should be recovered in contemporary liturgy. He quotes Christoph Schönborn who talks about how signs and gestures and movement are all essential for "incarnating the faith." He then gots on to argue that "the constant face-to-face position of priest and people expresses a symbolism of its own and suggests a closed circle." Even the Protestant sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, notes that when the liturgy is celebrated with the priest and people facing each other, "this new position makes wonderfully clear that the sacred being that is worshipped exists not outside the gathered community but rather inside it. It is a powerful symbolic reversal." 

I know that this reversal cuts to the heart of what some liturgists and clergy longed for in the second-half of the twentieth century—a sense of a God who was truly present within us. But I do wonder if much of what occupied our attention as Christians in the twentieth-century helped foster a perception of God within us to the extent that we worshipped what we liked and lost our sense of the presence of God outside the community, outside the walls of our churches, inviting into a transcendent reality that will always be more than what we can confect in the closed circle of congregational worship.

Furthermore, scholars, clergy, and laity alike have all increasingly noticed that the priest and people facing each other has had an unintended side-effect. Though the goal was for the liturgy to become more communal and less hierarchical, the opposite happened. Whereas the focus point had been the altar and the transcendent God beyond that altar who meets us in the sacrament, by shifting the priest to that position on the other side of the altar, the priest now becomes the focal point. 

This is particularly ironic for Anglicans, who have not generally held to the Roman understanding of the priest acting en persona Christi, standing in for Christ as the host of the meal at the table. For us to have the priest in that position is to import some very significant ideas about Eucharist and the priesthood that have not been core to our own theology in the same way that they have for the Roman church. 

The priest now as the host of the meal, faces the congregation across the altar. This means that the priest no longer blends as easily into the grand liturgical action. Now the priest's facial expressions, where one sets one's attention through the eyes, the choice of manual actions with the hands, all of this is on display for the people of God—even though none of this should be the focal point of the liturgy. 

It is in this context that an approach to presiding has developed where the personality of the priest can entirely overcome the liturgy in ways that are both unhelpful and contrary to our understanding of the true goals of Christian worship. As the great Hans Urs von Balthasar argues,
An element lacking in good taste has crept into the liturgy since the (falsely interpreted) Council, namely, the joviality and familiarity of the celebrant with the congregation. People come, however, for prayer and not for a cozy encounter. Oddly enough, because of this misinterpretation, one gets the impression that post-conciliar liturgy has become more clerical than it was in the days when the priest functioned as mere servant of the mystery being celebrated. Before and after the liturgy, personal contact is entirely in place, but during the celebration everyone's attention should be directed to the one Lord.
Thus, celebrating facing the people can often be done in a way that more resembles watching a cooking show than it does the sacred prayers of the faithful gathered around the table.

Even such a noted Anglican luminary as Louis Weil argued in a lecture I attended that celebration facing the people only makes sense if the entire liturgical space is redesigned so the people truly are gathered around the altar. That is, in architectural spaces that have the altar in the center of the space with the congregation gathered around it. If your liturgical space remains the gothic arrangement of long nave, followed by chancel, and then altar, then Weil said one would be better off remaining with an eastward style of celebrating so as to avoid the priest becoming the center point of the liturgy.

Now, like I said when I started, though I hold these views quite seriously, I would never fight this battle in a congregational context. Other clergy who agree with me on the importance of the priest and the people all facing the same direction may disagree with my choice here—and I wish them well in their work. At this point in my ministry, my attention as a priest is occupied with other matters that I think are more important to our congregation's attention—seeking to articulate a welcome that makes the church more diverse, getting people to stop calling Republicans or Democrats evil, encouraging people that devoting time to spirituality is well worth the effort, etc.

However, I will keep talking about this, because I do think it is a conversation worth having in the church. And someday, who knows, my own community here in Grand Haven—or some other community I serve in the future—may raise their hand and suggest we reconsider the orientation of our prayer and our liturgical space. I look forward to leading this conversation at that time, exploring together, as priest and people, how the direction we face in the liturgy has in impact upon the way we understand God, ourselves, and our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

In the meantime, I will continue to celebrate facing the people on Sundays—but I will also do it knowing that I must be very careful and very intentional in ensuring that the focus point is not me, that every liturgical choice and action should draw the attention of the people to the Christ who becomes present for us once more upon the altar, and not upon the presider who lead's the people's prayers asking God to make it so. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Confessions from the Church on Ash Wednesday

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

“You have something on your forehead.”

Today, Christians around the world will likely have someone come up to them at some point and say just that, noticing the dark smudge on a forehead. The reason, of course, is because today is Ash Wednesday — the day that marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

Many Christians — and many preachers for that matter! — have noticed the odd incongruity of the practices surrounding Ash Wednesday. In many churches, the Gospel reading includes Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.” Then, we all come up to the altar rail to have our faces disfigured by a smudged ashen cross — proclaiming to the world that we are fasting.

And let’s be clear, if the ashes any Christian receives upon their forehead are worn as a symbol of pride in their piety, they should indeed wash those ashes off straightaway rather than fall victim to the sins of pride and self-righteousness. However, if the ashes upon your head make you look a bit silly, if they make others inquire after your spiritual life curiously, if they provoke within the wearer the willingness to say openly and honestly, “I wear these ashes because I am a sinner and, through God’s love, I’m trying to do better” — well, then I think the ashes might indeed serve a deep and important purpose.

Because far too often the church pretends to be a place where everyone has it all put together. Rarely do individual Christians stand up and repent of their sins. Even more rarely does the church as a corporate body stand up and repent of her sins.

It reminds me of a story Donald Miller told in his book, “Blue Like Jazz,” when the Christians in his group set up a confession booth in the midst of a gloriously hedonistic university festival. Revelers would giggle and go inside, only to have the Christians present confess to the revelers the sins of the church and to ask their forgiveness. People would leave struck and confused, completely unused to hearing religious people say they have been wrong, and to say so in specific ways.

I participated in something similar a few years ago at the Grand Rapids Pride festival. I attended with a group of other Christians who wore T-shirts proclaiming, “I’m sorry.” We were there as a public witness, a public apology for the way the church has harmed and demeaned LGBTQ people — those with faith and those without faith.

Some people looked strangely at the priest wearing a T-shirt saying “I’m sorry,” thinking it must be a trick. But many people came up with tears in their eyes and said, “Thank you. I’ve been in such pain from being kicked out of my church, or told I’m disordered, or being told my love for my partner is a sin.” I gave each of those people a hug, telling them the church had gotten this wrong for a long time, and I wanted them to know that I apologized on behalf of the church. I apologized for my own failures in this area, when my own thinking was more rigid and narrow.

This is the sort of thing I think ashes are about on Ash Wednesday. The ashes Christians wear are not a symbol of our deep spirituality — or at least they shouldn’t be. The ashes are a public apology for the sins we have committed, the times we have failed to make manifest the love of God to our neighbors, to our enemies, to the world itself.

And I do believe the church has much to repent. We need to repent of our treatment of LGBTQ persons, treatment that has caused countless suicides and resulted in innumerable shattered faith relationships. But there is more.

We need to repent of our preference for those who look and think like us, resulting in Sunday being the most segregated time of the week.

We need to repent of our complicity in economic systems that rely upon people making starving wages so that we can have cheaper products and more comfort at home.

We need to repent of being more concerned with keeping a specific institution running than with being the bodily presence of God’s love on earth.

We need to repent of enabling leaders in the church to abuse and harass, and of not being willing to do the hard work of supporting processes that keep the vulnerable safe from the powerful and predators.

We need to repent of our silencing of the voices of women, of how long they have been kept out of places of authority, and how the loss of their voices among the clergy has diminished the whole body of Christ.

We need to repent of approaching the tragedy of abortion with language that has made untold women feel they are murderers, instead of people who were often faced with equally horrible choices and who needed a loving support while they made those choices.

We have much to repent. That’s what those ashes mean to me.

You might see me out on the street today, wearing my strange priest clothes, a funny hat and a big cloak, offering “Ashes to Go.” I do this so that people can be invited into this season whether or not they can attend a service, whether or not they have a church home. But I do this as well because, at the end of every rite, after I’ve imposed ashes and we’ve prayed together, I ask the person who stopped to “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.”

I stand on the street because I need your prayers as I seek to be more faithful to God’s love in my own life.

The church often needs your forgiveness as much as you need God’s. This is what Lent is truly all about. God’s love is waiting for all of us in this Holy Season, but we must have the courage to turn to God and say, “I’ve done wrong. We’ve done wrong. And we are ready to change.”

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What 'Rent' Taught Me

My column in today's issue of the Grand Haven Tribune

The first time I saw the Broadway musical “Rent,” I was on a trip to New York City with the other thespians from Grand Haven High School. I remembered this experience with the partially live production of “Rent” that aired on Fox-TV at the end of last month, a production that often moved me to tears.

I loved all that the theater programs in both middle and high school opened me up to as a teenager, and I had very much looked forward to my first visit to the big city. We saw a handful of shows while we were there, but the one that stood out to me and changed me forever was the evening we saw “Rent.” If you’re not familiar with this show, it is a loose adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's opera “La bohème.” It follows a small, eclectic group of artists who live in the East Village as they seek to make sense of life in the midst of poverty, drugs and the growing HIV/AIDS crisis.

As a young, conservative, evangelical teenager, this show was my first exposure to LGBTQ persons who didn’t seek to hide or cover things up. Some of the couples in the show are same-sex and some are opposite-sex, and that’s just the way the story goes.

One of the couples, Collins and Angel, were particularly compelling to me. Collins is a part-time professor of philosophy and an anarchist. He meets Angel, a street drummer and drag queen. They connect that over the fact that they both have AIDS when Angel tenderly cares for Collins after a mugging. Their love for each other as they seek to overcome difficulty, their shared dreams for a different future, and Angel’s heartbreaking death make their narrative one of the strongest threads running through the musical.

The song that impacted me then most deeply, I think, is “Will I?” It is sung at the end of an HIV support group gathering, as he sings about his fear of losing his dignity as he dies from AIDS. He sings, “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” and the other members of the group join in singing with him, his fear also being their fear.

I was taught in church, of course, that all of these people were unrepentant sinners and that much of their struggle and suffering was because of the moral and ethical choices they had made. Thus, though this was all sad, what they really needed was to repent and find Jesus. That’s what I was taught.

But the cold arithmetic in that theology entirely evaporated as I watched this show for the first time. I cared less about whether or not they were sinners and more about their struggle to claim some sense of dignity. These seemed like people who were remarkably good deep within, and at that time in my life I lacked the theology to articulate why.

I believe “Rent” was the beginning of the unraveling of my simplistic view of morality, as I began to understand that what matters most are people and the rule of love. Jesus himself said all the law and the prophets hang on love of God and love of neighbor — my understanding religion had cut people off as unworthy because of the law and, thus, this reading of the law, failed in the task of helping me love my neighbor.

Seeing “Rent” was also the beginning of my own construction of a positive understanding of goodness, mission and evangelism — one that began to realize that the characters didn’t need Jesus. First, they needed food. They needed somewhere safe to live. They needed medical care. Most importantly, they needed to be seen with dignity — and that requires real relationships, not simply evangelism. Indeed, many of them could actually teach me just as much (if not more) about Jesus than I could ever teach them.

Quite frankly, I needed these characters to evangelize me. Thankfully, they did.

Much of the conversion experience I had watching “Rent” parallels the need Christianity still has to repent of the church’s behavior and response during the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Those suffering from AIDS were ostracized in society and especially in the church, with those who had the disease being labeled as sinners due to their sexuality or their drug use. Some Christians went so far at that time to proclaim that the disease was God’s punishment for homosexuality. In 1987, Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is a lethal judgment of God on the sin of homosexuality and it is also the judgment of God on America for endorsing this vulgar, perverted and reprobate lifestyle.”

Even at the highest levels of our government, President George H.W. Bush said nothing as the death toll continued to rise. When he did speak, he said people needed to change their behavior. He opposed needle exchange programs that could have saved lives and passed massively inadequately funding for research in this growing health crisis largely because so many of the victims were seen to be culpable for contracting the disease. It was almost as though they were an expendable part of society.

“Rent” taught me how religion can blind you to seeing people, really and truly seeing people as people with inherent dignity and worth, ironically enough. It taught me that God’s love can exist in a variety of forms and that I, as a Christian, had some repenting to do. In the two decades since that trip, I’ve certainly changed. I’m now honored to serve in a church where we joyfully celebrate our LGBTQ members. I’ve had the privilege of officiating at a handful of same-sex weddings, both for parishioners and for community members. And, as a priest, I know very clearly that it does no good to preach at people when you ignore their basic needs of survival.

“Rent” taught me that what Jesus demands of me is love. That I truly love people. And I hope that as the legacy of this musical continues to grow, wider portions of the church will also find themselves convicted for their continued ostracization of LGBTQ Christians, their continued patronizing approach to the poor, and their continued finger-wagging at those struggling with addiction, telling people they just need Jesus when they also could probably use some excellent addiction-related mental health care.

I hope that wider portions of the church will find themselves convicted, will repent of their own response to people, both during this crisis and today. And I hope we will all be willing to learn anew what love truly demands of us.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.