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 Preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church March 26, 2023 on the occasion of the installation of the icon of the Annunciation.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit

   + Let me begin with a brief explanation of my presence in your pulpit.  It is due to an icon, the Icon of the Annunciation, which has just been written by wife Jane for St. Thomas and to the generosity of your rector who has gracious invited me to occupy it.  On the one hand I count it wonderful privilege and must confess to being a washed with memories of my undergraduate years serving on this altar, worshiping almost daily in this choir, and of a number of visits over the years, the last of which was the fall semester of 2019 when we were resident in Edgerton House for a semester.  On the other hand, I am keenly aware of the challenge to match the quality of preaching to which you are accustom and to do justice to the demands of this pivotal Fifth Sunday of Lent and its daunting propers.  The pivot, to which I refer, is a turn from a season of introspection to the moment of the observation of the climatic mysteries of crucifixion and resurrection.  The daunting propers to which I refer begins with the difficult Gospel of a man, Lazarus, brought back form the dead, which supplies a preview of the Resurrection of Jesus which is to follow. The prospectus of this Gospel is provided by the Old Testament reading which consists of Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of the Dry Bones.  In it a nation, Israel, is promised that it will be brought back from destruction, hardly less miraculous than bringing a man back from the dead.  The New Testament reading is a retrospect on the resuscitation of Lazarus, it being a lesser included miracle of Jesus raised from the dead.  It consists of Paul’s wisdom which he set at the heart of great Epistle to the Roman.  Without the eighth chapter, the epistle fragments and devolves into a legalistic argument, the very thing that Paul is trying to avoid.  The stakes could not be higher!  The fact that your preacher this morning has been sitting on the bench for the past 15 years, gives new meaning to this year's Lenten theme: March Madness.

             My hope is that the icon that has brought us to together can provides us with the means finding the Gospel for us in these reading and the spirit that will allow us to enter into the contemplation of the death and resurrection of Christ that is shortly upon us.   It might seem gratuitous, but Annunciation icon is not a peripheral icon, but a central icon, being a Festal Icon, which are displayed in the upper story of the Iconostasis, which divides the nave of an orthodox church from the sanctuary and is repeated on the Holy Doors that open the sanctuary to the nave.  In the Western Church it is expressed in the Angelus, rung three times a day, inviting one to prayer the Angle Gabriel’s greeting to Mary: “Hail Mary.”   

               To begin with, I would refer you to the upper lefthand corner of the icon.  There you will see a cloud of dark unknowing, which send a ray, marked with a dove, obliquely across the icon to the breast of Mary of Nazareth.  It represents the movement to the Holy Spirit. The movement of the Holy Spirit is precisely what is at stake in Ezekiel’s vision.  The spirit, rauch, in Hebrew, transported Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones.  There Ezekiel is directed to prophesize “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath, ruach, to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath, ruach, in you, and you shall live.”   The play with Hebrew word ruach, which means wind, breath and spirit, recalls the creation story.  There the ruach hovers over the chaos.  There God forms Adam from red clay and breaths life into him.    Spirit is also what is at the heart of the wisdom of Paul.  Chapter 8 begins with thematic statement “The law of the Spirit of the life in Christ has set you free.”  In the portion of that chapter, we have read today, the agency of the Holy Spirit is declared to be the essential mover of the resurrection: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” 

               The line, that traces the movement of the Spirit. connects the prophet’s vision and Paul’s Wisdom and, on its way, it passes through the bringing of the man, Lazarus, back from the dead.  (I cannot pretend to say more of the what and the how.  But something happened that day in the Spirit which struck those present to their core.   Step back and look again and you will see that that this line originates in the creation and ends in the resurrection and on its way, it passes through the heart of every one of us.

               Now I would direct you attention to the figure on the right side of the icon, Mary of Nazareth.  She sits in the posture of prayer. 

               Her primary garment is not the blue of heaven as in Western art, but the red of the earth as it always is in the in Eastern art.  The Hebrew word for red is adam.  The word for red dust is Adamah.  From that dust the first human, hadam, was formed.   Mary’s under garment is green, the color of growth, and only in her hairline is a touch of blue signifying her share of divinity that indwells us.  Curiously in the East she is referred as the Theotokos, the God bearer, and not as in the West, the Ever Virgin.   She sits firmly in context of our humanity and her “lack of sin,” is the lack of separation from humanity and, more particularly, from Israel.    The long line of history that passes through Isreal equips her with the capacity for a “Yes.” 

               Her prayer is an internal dialogue.  It arises as a response to the call of indwelling Word of God. The same may be said of you and me.  It is there because, as we read in John, “The Word was coming into the world and the world knew him not, but as many as received him, he gave power to become children of God.”  Wherever the Word is, the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and says to the Word, “You are my beloved, my son, in whom I am well pleased.”   Simultaneously this same Spirit returns to the Father with the words of the Son: “I delight to do your will.”   In this archetypal structure of prayer, the movement of word and spirit anticipate of the experience of the Christ at his baptism and at his Transfiguration. 

               This is where I need your help.  I want to look into your own interior prayer and see if it is not essentially dialogical.  See if the origin of your interior dialogue is not your initiative, but rather your response to something which has invited your response: “Ask and you shall receive.”  And then recall, if not always to same degree, that what appears to be a purely mental activity has had some kind of physical effect on you.  You might have reported, “my heart was warmed.”  Given the distractions that plagues our prayer, it is likely that this physical effect has not been all that deep or prolonged.  Even so, I dare say we felt something pass through us.  The movement of the Holy Spirit plays us as if we were a string and she was a bow drawn across us.

               It is important for my argument to place Mary’s interior pray life, in the context of our own.  Once we have grasped its commonality with our own, we can go on to imagine its exceptional outcome.  Imagine that the warming is so deep, and the resonance is so sympathetic that the whole body is engaged.  I cannot pretend to say more about what or how, except to confess, “conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

               Now we can step back from the icon, as we do I ask you to take note of a detail.  In Mary’s lap is a hank of wool dyed red and shaped like a cross.  From it a thread ascends to her raise right hand and from it the thin red thread descends.  Apparently, her state of prayer has been preceded by the labor of spinning thread.  It is red, adam, the color of blood, dam, and it foreshadows the blood of her son.  The thread falls below to where it raps about a spindle, and then from the spindle it continues down into a chalice.  This chalice is the holy grail from which we ourselves partake.  The thread ties us to the holy mystery of the movement of the Trinity which creates and ends the world, and in between makes for our salvation.  Let us confess it: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit.”


God as Embodied

Christology and Participation in Maximus the Confessor

Dr. Hans Boersma

January 30, 2023


I must begin by expressing my deep gratitude to St. Vladimir’s for making this splendid occasion available, both the Divine Liturgy celebrating the Feast of the Ecumenical Teachers:  St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzus and this outstanding lecture by Dr. Boersma, in the context of the Ecumenical dialogue of Anglicans and Orthodox.  From the point of view of Anglicans this dialogue helps us find that level of sacramentality which belongs to us, but which is subject to suppression by our commitment to rationality.  That is why when reading theology years ago, reading Schememann meant so much to me.  Allow me to register a few thoughts about where Dr. Boersma has led us.

It is commonplace to say the Jesus embodies God, but the inference that God is Embodied raises a question.  Dr. Boersma has argued for the inference in his address at the Fortieth Annual Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture.  He begins with a tease: “Does God have a body?” and then he laid out the Scylla and Charybdis through which one must navigate: the deist severance of God and Creation on the one hand and the pantheist identification of God and the creation on the other.  The navigational aid that Boersma offers, is the work of Maximus the Confessor and more generally of the Council of Chalcedon and the tradition of eastern fathers associated with it. 

Boersma identified two key themes of Maximus, his concept of logoi in everything and his concept of divine act as participation with which he intended to make his argument.  With the former he accounts for the potential of creation and with latter the capacity of the divine to be present in things and transcendent at the same time. 

The way these tools should be used, to my thinking, is in reference to the hypostatic union.  Incarnation according to Chalcedon is not an alteration or replacement of the physiological but the union that happens on the level of hypostasis.  Anything less, risks the confusion of the two natures.  What is meant by hypostasis not easy to state.  Person, as it is translated, in our contemporary understanding is blurred with psychological connotations which makes it a translation of limited value.  My attempt at stating it is to speak of it as the origin point of personal being, and as such the single subject of all subsequent actions.  In the case of the Christ, that point is grasped by God, is God.  From that point divine energy works downward into the body which responds by reaching upward to cling to God.   

This intersection of the divine with the creation it unique.  It can happen once only at certain time and place. The existence of logoi in all things represents the possibly of response.  But each logio is a very small line of information, in need of elaboration of another logoi, and another, until it can accrue the capacity of the “Yes.”  It is one of the mysteries of history that this happens in a Galilean village in what we reckon as the first century, in the interior life a young virgin woman.   In this sense the conception is unique, and Spirit led like the creation and the resurrection.   

In term of action God is present in the body of Jesus, but in terms of being, he is not in the body but remains outside over against the body in God’s infinity.  If the former participation constitutes being embodied, we cannot object Boersma’s proposal.  But it seems safer not to speak of God as embodied since this soon leads us to the rock of pantheism, which undoes sacramentality.


The Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers

January 30 

In the West, January has been a season of Ecumenism.  In the last quarter of the last century, the Octave of Christian Unity, fitly bookended by the Feasts of the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul was widely observed and commonly reported upon in the media.  The idea of the octave originated with the Graymoor Fathers in 1908 and was greatly enhanced by the Second Vatican Council, 1964.  The founder of the Graymoor’s was Paul Wattson who had opened his ministry as an Anglican priest, in our own Omaha Nebraska.  He was here as part of the Associate Mission which the new Bishop, George Worthington, brought to Nebraska to launch an urban mission aimed at the working-class immigrant populations of the city.  The young celibate priests were active across the city with social programs and founding churches.  The mission did not last long and most of it work disappeared, save for St. Andrew’s which continues to serve the city.  Wattson returned to the East and found a vocation as Roman Catholic, founding an order formally called the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, never losing his zeal for unity, including for that of the divided churches. 

 It comes as a pleasant surprise that at the end of January a significant ecumenical event will happen in which, in a small way, I will be a part.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary, NYC, of the OCA is marking the feast called the Synaxis of The Ecumenical Teachers with a liturgy and program which will be addressed by Dr. Hans Boersma, an Anglican Priest, in honor of Dr. Alexander Schememann.  These events that can be participated in online by registering on their web site,

The Ecumenical Teachers are St. Basil, the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom.  They are the key Fathers associated with the Council of Nicea which preserved the worldwide unity of the church, 321 CE, and with the struggle that ensued to defend its teaching.  The word “synaxis” refer to coming together as a congregation for the liturgical purpose common prayer and witnessing.  The image of the three hierarchs, differing in their gifts, so gathered is itself a celebration of unity and an elegant witness to the great triune unity of the Divine enshrined in the teaching of the Council.  It is a testimony to St. Vladimir’s zeal for unity that it makes this the patronal feast of their chapel.  I share with you the version of this icon which is in my own prayer corner that it might add to its aura to the light that shine forth from work of St. Vladimir’s.  In it St. James of Jerusalem is added, as his presidency at the Council in Jerusalem, laid the foundation of a conciliar church.


Schememann also belongs to that last quarter of the last century, which now seems so long ago, when we devoured his writings as a means and a hope for living into an Ecumenical Age, which, of course, did not happen.  The issue in the West is clear.   Even as the fruits of the theological dialogue was being published, ARC, LED and others, a shift was taking place in church life.  The fears for interior unity and discipline within the various church bodies, led to a replacement of theological identities with political identities.  Political lines were easier to draw and to defend.  There is no need to point fingers because we have all done it.  The bottom-line result is hard to assess, but one wonders if more has been lost that gained, and how, difficult it is to walk out of it. 

 As one who has followed Orthodox Church in America and of St. Vladimir’s Seminary over the years, I have the sense that they sit in the context of American life in a way that is different from those of the West, Roman, Protestant, Evangelical and Anglican.  It is gracious of them to share with us and from them I think we have much to learn.

 The Elder of Omaha, January 2023


Does Kathryn Tanner Preach?

 Not an Occasional God

Occasionalism, which was formerly known as supernaturalism or interventionism, in relation to the Devine, is excluded by Tanner’s primary principle for God-talk: God’s agency acts immediately, everywhere, always.  In contrast to a God that acts occasionally, this God is the great God, that in turn demands more of us.  We mirror God, so if our God is an occasional God, we will be occasional Christians, sometimes in need of God, sometimes praying to this God, sometimes going to Church to find this God.   If, on the other hand, our God is great God, who acts immediately, everywhere, at all times, then we will understand that our need for God is continual, our prayer is continual, and our going to Church is regular.   

Here's a text:  "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." I Thessalonians 5:16. Almost makes me miss not having a pulpit!


A Brief Homily for the Feast of Stephen the Martyr 

Dec. 26, 2022

On our way to the eucharist this morning, I was pointing out to my wife the interesting implication of the church long standing choice to have the Feast of St. Stephen follow Christmas Day, and in a couple more days, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  The implication is that the little child, who is the prince of peace, is born surrounded by violence.  To this she replied that is not any different from today.  That thought leads to the necessity of asking the question of what difference that birth made.  One way of answering that emerges from a contrast between the murder of the Prophet Zechariah and stone of Stephen.  Zechariah, with which Jesus links his own death, died between the altar and the sanctuary of the Temple centuries before his own death.  The stoning of Stephen followed a few years after his death.  Dying Zechariah cries out: “May the Lord see and revenge!” But Stephen dying, cries out: “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” Stephan cry echoes that of Jesus on the cross: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  Now that is a really big difference.   A difference which, in fact, can change the world.

  Br. Jerrold Thompson of the Priory of the Incarnation in Omaha sent the following comments after watching the our You Tube video A Brief I...