Transfigurations

fra-angelico-transfiguration
A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 24:12-18Psalm 992 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Old Testament reading and Gospel have a few things in common. They are both filled with mountains. They are both filled with mysteries. And they are both filled with momentous changes.

In the Reading from Exodus, Moses and Joshua start up the mountain, but Moses goes further. He goes so far that he enters a cloud. And this cloud wraps him round with the Glory of God and soon Moses begins to get directions from God for how the people should worship God and how they will be able to follow God faithfully in the future. Moses gets details on the making of the Ark of the Covenant, lamp stands, the tabernacle—various objects which would symbolize God’s presence among the people.  Loaded down with plans and expectations, Moses moves out of the cloud and back in, amongst the people he has been called to serve.

Again, in the Gospel, there’s a mountain. But this time it’s Jesus and a few of the disciples who go up the mountain and there up high, Jesus is transfigured. He is changed. They see light, there is brightness all around and suddenly next to Jesus are Moses and Elijah. These are endorsements far beyond anything politicians might hope for. Here is Moses, representing the tradition of the law in Israel and Elijah, representing the tradition of the prophets. Together they offer strength and support. And then God speaks from the cloud: “This is my beloved; in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

People have scratched their heads and wondered about this passage ever since people have passed on holy stories and read the Bible. The church wonders so much that we read this story twice a year: on August 6 at the Feast of the Transfiguration, and again on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany. But whether we read it in August or today, there is mystery and there is wonder, and I think all of this “cloudiness” is intentional and comes right from God. I think God wants to remind us of the mystery in our lives and as we stand on this side of the Season of Lent. God prepares us for the unexpected.

One writer (Frederick Buechner) comments on the Transfiguration, in saying, “It was Jesus of Nazareth all right… but it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.” But, as Buechner points out, we also have places in our lives where God continues to break through. “Even something like that happens to us once in a while,” he writes. “The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”

It’s the miracle of God that we can be transfigured from time to time. We can be changed from one kind of person into another. We can be converted. We can become someone new, someone better, someone perhaps a little more decent, someone a little more forgiving, someone perhaps a little more holy.

Faith empowered by the Transfiguration allows us to see differently. Such faith allows us to see a bulb, but imagine a lily; to see a sinner and imagine a saint. It is the essence of transforming, transfiguring faith that we are helped to see beyond the present and gain a glimpse into the future, into that land of “if’s” and “can’s” and “maybe’s.”

I have a colleague who had a parishioner who told him that when she died, she wanted the Gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ to be read at her funeral. When he asked her why, she said, “Because after I die, it will tell people who what I’ve become and how I’ve changed.” When he first told me this story, my colleague said that the lady was still living, but that she was in a nursing home. She had once been an avid reader, but her eyes had given out and she could no longer see to read. She had once been a great storyteller, but she had slowed down and almost had lost her gift of gab. To the eyes of those who might glance in her direction, she was slowly fading. In her very last days, when my friend visited her, he could envision her as she suggested, as she one day shall be: radiant, filled with life, filled with God.

This is a place of transfiguration and, in the Holy Eucharist, we share a meal of transfiguration. We see ordinary bread, but it becomes the Body of Christ. We see wine transfigured into Christ’s blood.

And through the mercy of God, by the power of God, we too are transfigured, little by little, day by day, Lent by Season of Lent, into being God’s faithful and holy people.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen

 

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Growing in Imperfection

angel_oakA sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, and Matthew 5:38-48.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

We only have to walk outside the church today to hear someone describe the weather this weekend as “perfect.”  Especially as compared with the sleet and cold of last weekend, the warm air, the sunshine, and the extra holiday for Presidents’ Day all contribute to the use of that word for this time: perfect.

Usually when something is “perfect” we mean that it’s the best or highest.  When we perfect a draft of a paper or a document, it means that we try to get rid of all the mistakes, all the errors, all the misspellings and typographical mistakes. Perfection usually has to do with the ideal, with what we may agree out loud with our mouths is unobtainable, but all the while on the inside we are still measuring ourselves against some idea of perfection.

But the word used in today’s Gospel doesn’t really mean what we usually mean by “perfect.” The word used is the Greek word “teleios.” And while I usually hate to sprinkle sermons with fancy-sounding words, this is an important one.  It also finds its way into other fields, as in Philosophy, where teleology has to do with the end or the final result of something. For example, if one were to make a teleological argument for creation, one would argue that all of nature is aiming and building toward an end, supporting the idea that there’s a creator who is behind that design.

More than “perfect,” the “teleios” has to do with reaching maturity, with being whole or complete. One writer (David A. Duke) uses the image of an acorn to explain this word. A “perfect” acorn, in this biblical sense, would not be the biggest acorn on the tree, nor the prettiest, nor the meatiest (except, perhaps to a squirrel). Instead, the “perfect” acorn in the sense Jesus is using the word, would be a full-grown, leafy, majestic oak tree. The “perfect” acorn would be the acorn that has grown to full adulthood, has grown beyond its “acorn-mind,” has grown into something that is beautiful, and helpful, and useful.

Eugene Peterson’s version of the scriptures, called “The Message” makes this especially clear. He translates and paraphrases verse 48 not as “Be perfect;” but rather, Peterson puts it this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

This means that the kind of perfection Jesus encourages us towards is related to God and the generosity of God. “Be whole as God is whole, be complete as God is complete.” At the end of it all, there’s the culmination in Jesus’ saying, “Be like God. Be generous like God. Surprise other people with that generosity and amazing things will happen.”

Jesus gives examples of this in the rest of today’s Gospel.  The famous saying “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” has nothing to do with accepting abuse or acting like a doormat for others. As many commentators have observed, to be hit on the right cheek in the Roman world would have normally meant that someone used the back of their hand to smack you, so it would not only be a violent act, but also—if not more so—an insult. It meant that the person striking regarded you as lower than himself or herself, as though you were inferior—in that world, a slave, a child, a woman. Hitting back would just continue the cycle of violence. Offering the other cheek, however, is a statement: “Ok, hit me again, but this time, you have to view me as an equal.” It would change the power dynamic.  It’s a grown-up response.

And in the other example, a rich person takes a poor person to court. If they sue for your outer garment, give them your undershirt as well, so you’re standing there naked. It won’t shame you, but will shame the other person who has gone to such lengths to get money from a poor person.

And a similar thing is meant with the situation of a Roman soldier asking someone to carry his equipment. There were cultural rules and expectations for this sort of thing. So by carrying the equipment further, you would not only startle the soldier, but break the cultural code and risk his embarrassment. You would make him look foolish.

N.T. Wright suggests that these stories are a snippets, almost cartoons. Jesus is saying through these images, “imitate God.” “Be like God.” God is generous beyond what anyone would expect, so be generous with each other, be larger than your usual self.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, holy men and woman went into the Egyptian desert looking for God and looking for themselves. Some probably went looking for what they thought might be perfection, but when confronted with their own internal demons, when confronted with the teachings and sayings of older, wiser hermits, they soon came to understand that the way to perfection is through imperfection. The way to wholeness is by admitting one’s brokenness.

There’s a great story about a desert father called Abba Moses. It seems that a brother living in community in another part of the desert had committed a fault and a kind of council was called. The brothers all wanted Abba Moses to go, but he refused. Finally, someone sent a messenger to him and said, “Abba Moses, please come. Everyone is waiting for you and for your opinion on the matter.” So Abba Moses got up and went, but he took a leaking jug filled with water, and carried it with him. The other monks came out to meet him.

They saw the leaking jug and asked, “What is this, Father!” Abba Moses looked at them and said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the faults of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.

We can see through the growth and clarification of scriptures that the Bible is not perfect. Those who have tried to live a Christian life before us were not perfect. We are not perfect, but the really good news today is that we’re not called to be perfect. If anything, we’re encouraged to admit our imperfection and to be generous in allowing for the imperfections of others. This generosity leads to wholeness. It leads to maturity. Such generosity helps us to grow into something like giant, beautiful, long-lived well-loved trees.

In the final chapter of Revelation there is an image of the holy city, the New Jerusalem. There is a river of the water of life. The Lamb of God presides. And there is a tree of life, “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

We are those leaves, imperfect, but growing, changing, developing in generosity, all under the watching care of God. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to be perfect—we just have to keep growing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Choosing Life

treeoflifeicon
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 30:15-20Psalm 119:1-81 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In our first scripture reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is giving Israel an enormous pep-talk. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, of wondering if God is still directing them and leading them, of worrying about what might come next, Israel is on the edge of moving into the Promised Land. I don’t know the geographic setting for the speech, but from its imagery and majesty, I wonder if it wasn’t on a hill somewhere, overlooking a great expanse of land down below, and far away. Moses speaks to the occasion in grand terms, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…[You will be blessed.] But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [then] I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in [that] land….” Life and death, blessings and curses. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord you God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Choose life.

Choosing life can be every bit as dramatic as Moses makes it sound. We choose life when we move into a new relationship. We choose life when we plan for a child. We choose life when we make a new and better decision about the direction in which we’re headed.

But choosing life also involves smaller decisions. Choosing which conversation to be a part of, choosing what to eat or drink, and even choosing how we move or exercise—all can mean choosing for life over death (in the long run).

In the Gospel today, Jesus gets down to the nitty gritty, as he points to some of the guidelines for our choosing.

Jesus is talking about our living with what is sometimes simply called “the Law,” meaning the Law of Moses—the Ten Commandments, but also, with the wisdom associated with the law and its interpretation.  This Gospel can sound like a real “laying down of the law.” It can sound like a faith that leaves out people. In fact, if we were to miss the fine points of the Gospel, most of us would probably find ourselves left out.

Jesus is re-interpreting the old law, saying, “it’s not enough just to keep the law. That probably won’t work very well, anyway. The key to living faithfully is to try to understand the things that move under the surface, the motivations and moods, the fears and fantasies that lead us off-track.”

Jesus repeats the commandment, “You shall not murder.” But then he goes further by uncovering some of the things that lead to murder. We might hear the talk of murder as extreme, until we begin to think of the anger, the frustration, the road-rage, the minor annoyances that can all too easily escalate. We might begin by harboring a grudge or nursing a resentment, and if we’re not careful, we can end up in court.

Instead, Jesus says we should work at reconciliation. He speaks of going to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, but if you remember your neighbor has something against you—stop your worship and go work things out with your neighbor beforehand. Notice how Jesus puts this—he doesn’t even say, if “YOU” have something against your neighbor, but rather, if your brother or sister has something against YOU. That changes the responsibility for reconciliation, doesn’t it?

Our tendency is to ignore the problems. Especially at church, or in any organization, we think that if we just avoid “such and such” or act a certain way or say a certain thing, then future conflicts can be avoided. But when we come to the altar, we feel the break in community and it haunts us. Here, Jesus is exaggerating his point.

If one left the temple in Jerusalem to go and be reconciled to a neighbor, it might take hours or days. You wouldn’t just leave the goat or turtledove or whatever you sacrifice might be sitting there on the temple steps. And yet, his point is made, isn’t it? Until we at least begin to pray for the person who has a problem with us, or with whom we have a problem, whatever we offer at the altar will be less than what it might be. And we won’t be free.

Prayers of confession are a beginning. A note, or phone call, or email, or conversation with another person is a beginning. A prayer for one’s enemy or one’s hard-to-get-along-with brother or sister, is a beginning, and that opens the heart to God’s grace. If we took Jesus’ words literally, we would have a whole lot of unused communion wafers every Sunday. But instead, what we do is we confess that we are broken people on the mend, and we ask for God’s grace to restore us and help us restore broken relationships.

As we move further into today’s Gospel, Jesus leads us into messy territory.  “You shall not commit adultery,” he reminds us. But then goes on to warn about lust and about all the urges and senses that, if given energy and encouragement, lead to adultery. His answer is to watch the emotions, watch the heart.

And then, Jesus talks about divorce. This is one of those topics (like abortion, like homosexuality, like many issues) that really warrants an entire series of looking closely at what scripture says, at how the culture of the time influenced the scriptures, at how faithful people through the ages have understood the movement of the Holy Spirit.  As people of faith, we continue to believe that “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) but just as much (if not sometimes, more) we believe that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret scripture for our own day and our own lives.

There are times when a divorce is an unfaithful decision, made out of selfishness or spiritual immaturity. But there are also times when divorce is the ONLY faithful decision, and then one really needs all one’s faith to continue choosing life even in the midst of dark days. Choosing life in that case means reconciling as much as possible. Choosing life means praying for the other people involved, it means working on one’s issues, and choosing life after divorce or the ending of any relationship means being open to a new relationship or re-marriage when God opens that possibility.

We choose life with the attitude we adopt when we wake up in the morning. We choose life in our thoughts, in our conversations, in our willingness to apologize, in our ability to forgive, in our faith to move on in the Spirit of God, and in our thinking about what will follow us in the future.

Choosing life is not as easy as simply memorizing and repeating commandments and trying to harness every bit of energy we have in order to live by them.  There’s no joy of Christ in that sort of life.  There’s a moral slavery—exactly the kind of bondage from which Christ has come to liberate us.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, sometimes sounds a lot like Jesus as she point to the limits of phrases and platitudes.  Most recently, some of her words from a 2004 interview on PBS have found a new following in social media.  She cautions against using phrases and words to without following them out to their conclusion.  In this interview, she talks about so many of her brothers and sisters who put tremendous energy into what they belief is the cause of “pro-life.”

She said, “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”  Notice she’s not disagreeing with the people she mentions, necessarily, but she’s pushing all of us to get beyond the sound bite, the talking point, or the rallying cry.

Whether you agree with Sister Chittister, or not, notice that she is raising the same point Jesus raises.  “Choosing life” can’t be about picking and choosing which life to choose, or which aspect of life to choose.  Instead, we are either moving towards life, or we are moving towards death.

Before us is set “life and prosperity, death and adversity.” If we obey the commandments of the Lord our God, walking in his ways… then we shall live, and we shall live in such a way that our life is outlived by the one who is Love Himself.

Redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us choose life this day and for ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Centering in the Mind of Christ

centeringprayerA sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10 , 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, and Matthew 5:13-20.

Listen to an informal version of this sermon, offered at the 6 PM Contemporary Eucharist, HERE

Salt and light are strong images. They gain even more strength in the teaching of Jesus. He ties them to faithfulness and suggests that by resembling salt and light we will not only be useful to him and to God, but we will please God, and will be a part of what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s easy to see why these images have guided Christians for centuries. But taken out of context and blown out of proportion, salt and light become destructive and imperialistic.

As the Puritan John Winthrop sailed towards the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he preached a sermon on the ship entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” The words have been used again and again by preachers and presidents to inspire and to encourage. The trick is to remember that they are words having to do more with service than privilege. Too much salt can sting and ruin things.  Too strong a light can blind and confuse.

In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul suggests how to navigate a middle way, moderate approach in the face of possible Gospel zealotry.

When Paul approaches the worldly and urbane Corinthians, he does so not as though he’s got all the light and they’re living in the dark. He doesn’t approach them as though he’s rubbing salt into a wound. Instead, he approaches them simply.  He tells them about Jesus Christ crucified. Paul describes his approach as one of weakness, fear, and trembling. Of humility, really. It’s as though Paul trusts God more than he trusts his own words or wisdom.

Paul describes beautifully the Spirit of God—the Spirit being that part of God’s movement and energy in the world that appears when words fail.  It’s the Spirit that soothes when answers are hidden, that accomplishes when plans fail. The Spirit is sometimes our last resort, but it’s often God’s first choice of presence in our lives. As scripture reminds, “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”

And then Paul does an interesting thing. He relates this Spirit of God to the mind of Christ. In that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, his mind was filled with God and the things of God. And so, to be like Jesus Christ is to set our mind on the things he values and teaches and lives out.  To be like Jesus is to allow our mind to be filled with God and God’s Spirit.

Filled with the Spirit, we discover a funny thing: all of a sudden, we are acting and thinking and living like the people Jesus has described in the Gospel. With the Spirit of God pouring through us, we shine like light for others—not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way, but in a way that comes from God. And we become salty, as well—not in a way that overpowers or offends, but in a way that is distinctive and delights. If you cook at all, you know that too much salt overwhelms a food and so you taste nothing but the salt. But just enough, and the salt encourages other flavors, and the whole dish is made better.

It’s that way in the world, as well. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we add our own Christian perspective and find that it adds to, rather than obliterates; it promotes rather than dominates.  Salt is strong enough to stand on its own, and that’s just the way our faith ought to be.

If we are centered on the Spirit, allow God to make us light and salt, then that second part of the Gospel really sort of takes care of itself.  The second part talks about the commandments of God remaining firm, and how, if we should break a commandment or teach others to do so we will be “least in the kingdom of God.” If we keep the commandments and teach others to do so, the Gospel says, we will be “great in the kingdom of God.”  All of this takes care of itself. Enlivened by the Spirit of God, we realize it when we fall, or fail, or break a commandment. And so we say we’re sorry. We might go to confession. We stop and re-evaluate and pray for the grace to carry on. Keeping the commandments is not the focus of our faith, but it becomes a natural by-product of living faithfully.

And so, how do we get this mind of Christ? How do we get the Spirit of God?

It begins at baptism.  There and then, the Holy Spirit is given to us. But we spend our lives living into the Spirit of God, through the process the church sometimes calls sanctification—a way of being made holy.

Another way of allowing the Spirit room in our lives is through prayer.

Some of you are familiar with the type of prayer known as Centering Prayer.  There are other forms very similar—Christian meditation, Buddhist and non-religious meditation, and others.  Centering Prayer works very simply.  One sits still in a chair or on a prayer stool or a mat, and one simply opens oneself to the Origin of all that exists. When a thought shows up, simply let it pass on through. Just return to the silence, the space, the place where you are inviting God to be. Sometimes a “centering word” is helpful.  It’s a little different from a mantra, which would be repeated over and over.  In Centering Prayer, the silence is welcome and the “centering word” is simply used to bring one back to center.

It can be anything like “grace,” or “blessing,” or Jesus’ word for God, “abba” or perhaps “amma.” The word isn’t the focus, it just reminds you to come back to center and simply “be.”

Centering prayer usually happens for about 20 minutes or more. It takes practice.  It’s counter-cultural because in such prayer, we’re not struggling to keep up with emails, with news, with tasks, with people, with expectations, with hopes. We’re not improving or producing or creating.  We’ve not even paying attention to our own faith, or beliefs, or prayers. It’s a time for being quiet, for practicing the quiet. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes it,

What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, ‘God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.’ (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 6)

Whether it’s Centering Prayer, meditation, a good cup of tea and quiet few minutes, or a particular walk in the park—I encourage you to find something that centers you, that calls you again to the Spirit of God within you.  Each us is called to be salty, bright, freed and forgiven people, living in the Spirit of God and sharing God’s love with any who will have it. May we slow down, breathe, notice, and give thanks for the “mind of Christ” within us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Holy Foolishness

Fool and Bird 1978 by Cecil Collins 1908-1989
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Micah 6:1-8Psalm 151 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The scriptures we have heard today are tricky, I think.  They can do damage if we simply hear them, sing a few songs, say our prayers, and go on our way.  They can seem to describe an ideal faith, a faith that (at our best) we might even pray for, but in our heart of hearts, most of us know we’ll probably never attain such a faith.  And so our scripture, on a first hearing—instead of being encouraging and strengthening—can sound intimidating or even discouraging.

In the reading from Micah we hear God’s disappointment and almost heartache at having been let down by his people, God’s beloved.  In words that return to us again on Good Friday, God asks, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…”  And what are we to say?  But then God seems to make it even more difficult.  Saying we’re sorry won’t be enough.  Simply offering prayers of penitence or offering works of charity won’t wipe the slate clean, but instead, God says, “Here is what the Lord requires: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  We live in a world of bosses and political leaders not chosen by the majority.  And so, it becomes very personal: How do I do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?  It’s a question I’ll be living out for the rest of my life, but I’m not sure how close I get to being that person.

The Psalmist is honest in asking another version of this same question: “Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?  Who may abide upon your holy hill?”   But when the answer comes, it offers little solace. “Who can dwell in the tabernacle or abide on the holy hill? “Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.”  And so which of us is that person?  The honest answer would be to admit that there are probably very few people dwelling in the tabernacle and almost no one on God’s holy hill. One would need to be perfect and pure, holy and loving.

Lucky for us, that we are not the first people to notice the impossible demands of holiness and wonder what we are to do.  The Episcopal Church comes from the Church of England, which was born out of various impulses, but especially born against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and many others wrestled with this very idea:  How do we aim to be holy people while living in a sinful world, and so often falling victim to it?

One enormous goal of the Reformation was to try to break down the distinction between the very holy (or the professionally holy) and every person of faith.  Theologians reached back into scripture to remember that ALL the faithful are called “saints,” not just a few.  They renewed the biblical idea of the “priesthood of all believers,” reminding the church that everyone has a share in full participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and also everyone has a share in representing Christ’s sacrifice in and to the world.  If the Body of Christ lives in our world, then it lives in us.  And so, the faith of Jesus Christ is not for the morally perfect, or even the morally consistent, but is for each broken and sinful one of us.

And I think, this is where the Beatitudes come in.

Again, if we first hear these lovely phrases, “Blessed are those…” we can easily tune out, thinking that Jesus is preaching pretty words, but they have little to do with us who struggle to make it through another day in the real world.

Biblical scholars differ in how the Beatitudes should be understood.  Some suggest that Jesus was preaching in a time during which people really thought the end of the world was coming soon and that such preaching was meant to usher in the Kingdom of God.  If that were true, then it would explain the urgency and the radical nature of Jesus’ words, especially the blessings for those who endure persecution.

But other scholars suggest Jesus was laying out the basic standard for admission for any who might follow him.  If this were so, then the hurdle seems impossibly high.  Does Jesus really mean for us to seek out these situations and look for God there?

We all have times of mourning in our lives—whether we grieve the loss of a family member, a spouse, a friend, or grieve the loss of a job, or even another time.  But is Jesus really suggesting that we seek out opportunities for grief and mourning?

Some in our world experience religious persecution—too many—but again, are we supposed to be like some of the martyrs we read about who seemed to seek out punishment and persecution?

Well, I don’t think so.  I think Jesus is doing several things in this beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, the section that includes the Blessings.

One thing Jesus is doing is simply stating what is the case.  How many in this room have known tough times whether because of your own health or the poor health of someone else, and just at the darkest time, someone appeared.  God appeared.  We don’t look for those hard times, but long after, we sometimes look back and recall a kind of closeness to God that was different from the ordinary.  It was unusual, and it had within it God’s blessing.

If anyone has ever really been hungry—whether through circumstance or through a voluntary fasting—then you know that even in such a time, there sometimes appears a fullness that is different from something satisfied by food.  It’s a fullness of fellowship with others who share in your situation, it’s a fullness born of being dependent upon God.  Again, unless it’s a voluntary fast, this kind of hungering is never something we’d wish on anyone—and yet, when we reflect on it, we remember God was there, and in a strange way, so was God’s blessing.

But even more than simply pointing to the way life sometimes unfolds, I think Jesus is also inviting us to see the world through his eyes, in some ways, to see the world from upside down.

When St. Francis of Assisi began to experience God in strange, new ways, and began to feel the Spirit of deeper conversion in his heart, he sought out abandoned churches to pray in.  He is said to have spent a lot of time praying in caves.  Reflecting on the process that led Francis to see things differently, G.K. Chesterton writes,

The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.

It’s that kind of conversion, Jesus is talking about.  He’s saying that the wisdom of God looks crazy to the world, because the world’s so-called wisdom is in fact, what’s crazy.

Paul tells the Corinthians that “The message about the cross is foolishness to [most of the world] . . .,  but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Jesus was thought to be a fool by the religious leaders of his day, and his followers have been thought foolish, naïve, inefficient, and idealistic ever since.

Jesus gives us the Beatitudes as a kind of foolishness that has the wisdom of God hidden inside.  He offers this list of blessings as invitations, I think, invitations for us to listen and look for God EVERYWHERE, but especially when we’re in a rough spot.

Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .
Blessed are those who mourn . . .
Blessed are the meek, . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . .
Blessed are the merciful, . . . Blessed are the pure in heart . . .
Blessed are the peacemakers, . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . .
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

In a culture that tells us we need to make more money, build higher walls, protect ourselves at all costs, and even focus on charity “at home,”  the Beatitudes sound like complete foolishness.

As Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block . . .[many], but to those who are the called, . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

The Church also as a long tradition of a Holy Fool—someone who seems out of their mind, totally bonkers, but serves the role of helping the faithful see deeper truth to their practice and piety.
Early on there were those who sought the silence of the desert of fourth-century Egypt. Their sayings are strange and almost Zen-like and are filled with examples of how they would confuse the sophisticated and side with the ignorant.

Later, there was St. Simeon Salos, a sixth-century monk who went into church one Sunday with a handful of nuts. At the beginning of the liturgy he started throwing them and managed to put out all of the candles. When people tried to catch him, he went up in the pulpit and began throwing nuts at all people. He dressed up in strange clothes, ate sausages in public on Good Friday and did everything he could to question tradition, convention, and propriety.

The great early Church preacher John Chrysostom places St. Paul in this category, pointing out,

Paul himself we admire on this account, not for the dead he raised, nor for the lepers he cleansed, but because he said, ‘If anyone is weak, do I not share their weakness? If anyone is made to stumble, does my heart not blaze with indignation? He nowhere boasts of his own achievements where it is not relevant; but if he is forced to, he calls himself a fool. If he ever boasts, it is of weaknesses, wrongs, of greatly sympathizing with those who are injured.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us that the life of faith will always look foolish in the face of worldly ways.  If the church ever begins to be taken seriously, we are probably not being who we are called to be.  It doesn’t matter how large or great we look to the world. It doesn’t matter how smart or how rich or even how useful we are. It doesn’t matter how holy or how clean our hands get to be.  The key to known the risen Christ in our midst has to do with a kind of detachment, a lightness of being, with the ability not to take oneself too seriously, and the gift of being able to laugh at oneself, at the Church, and even at God.  May we be embrace holy foolishness even (if not especially) in hard times, so that we might smile quietly and inwardly as God’s  inside-out, upside-down kingdom of joy unfolds around us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Growing Together: The Rector’s Annual Report

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Episcopal Churches have at least one official annual meeting to hear ministry reports and elect new officers. The Rector usually gives a report and at Holy Trinity, Father Beddingfield provides a written report but also incorporates his annual report in the sermon of the day.

Hear the sermon that includes the report HERE.

January 2017: Our Context
A cardinal rule in preaching is never to “ignore the elephant in the room.”  That is to say, if something major has happened out in the world, in the community, or the church family, the wise preacher will address it.  She will listen and pray and try to help a parish understand where God is in such an event or occasion. This leads to a particular challenge for me today.

Since this is the day of our annual meeting and we like to understand our one worship service as being the first part of that meeting, I had planned to offer my annual report in the form of the sermon.  But this has been an unusual week. A new president has been inaugurated, and the fears for many of us have only increased.  There may be a few who are cautiously optimistic by new economic opportunities or the “hand grenade” approach to government, but most I have spoken with are increasingly anxious.  And then yesterday brought different emotion.  The Women’s March here and around the world brought new energy and community to a number from our parish as we sought to remind the new administration and congress about some of the values most important to women, and about human rights.   Wherever you may be in the political or cultural spectrum— chances are—this week has been challenging in some way.

And so, where is God in all of this?  And what might it possibly have to do with the annual meeting of this particular parish?

Well, I want to begin trying to answer that question by quoting a passage from a book I keep revisiting.  The book is called After Virtue, and it’s by a Scottish moral philosopher named Alistair MacIntyre.  Even though the book is pretty dense (for me, anyway), there’s a classic section near the end that, I think, helps us think about what God might be doing in these confusing times.  MacIntyre writes

…[F]or some time now we too have reached a turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.  (After Virtue, p. 286)

MacIntyre is, of course, referring to the idea that St. Benedict in the late 6th century, and his founding of Western monasticism really saved civilization, especially through the rough times of barbarians and marauders, extreme violence and warfare.  The monks preserved and taught agriculture, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, and metallurgy.  Perhaps more than anything, the Benedictine monks and nuns copied manuscripts and furthered the development of arts, literature, and music.

MacIntyre’s assessment of our time as a “New Dark Ages” is characterized by an arbitrary understanding of truth, the myth of the individual as the center of the universe, violence at home and abroad, and once again, talk of cutting programs in education and culture.  We’re waiting for a new Benedict, MacIntyre says, but it will be different from the last.  This “new Benedict,” God’s method of salvation, will have to do with “local forms of community within which civility and the intellection and moral life can be sustained.” And this brings us to the Church of the Holy Trinity, what we’ve been doing, what I think God is doing in our midst.

Yes, the world is changing around us.  Demographics work against a typical Episcopal Church, we are no different.  We have no idea what the new subway and continued gentrification will mean for Yorkville, and cultural patterns continue to lead people to understand themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (as though the two can really be separated—but that’s another sermon.)

And yet, we’ve been living, working, and praying as a Christian community rooted in this place for 118 years.  And especially in the last year, we’ve worked hard at building community, taking stock, growing in God, and saying our prayers while inviting others in. We are building a good foundation for the future, and will get through the New Dark Ages together, with faith rooted in Jesus Christ.

Building Community
Much of my first full year among you has been spent trying to get to know you, trying to figure out who is a part of the community and who’s around the edge.  Some of this can be learned through the parish database, and we’ve put new emphasis on keeping up to date with records and contacts and doing what restaurateur Danny Meyer calls “collecting and connecting the dots”—in order to strengthen relationships.

A part of this is communication.  We’ve used more signs, more postcards, and more postings on social media.  Beginning with the First Sunday in Lent of 2016, we began the weekly newsletter and insert, calling it News from 316.  That title is meant to name to address of the church as well as remind us of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Most weeks, I write something as a cover article—about our worship, about a saint’s day who is celebrated, or about a theological or pastoral issue.  We send it out by email every Thursday, and while I want to change that method of emailing, to help it get by more spam-protection software and be easier to open and read, I’m grateful to those of you who read it.  Between the News from 316 and our website, one can generally get a good sense of what’s going on.  We need to do more, and if you have some ideas or talents in social media and can volunteer, please let me know.

I’ve tried to build community through the programs offered by Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center: especially the Tuesday senior lunch and volunteering in the men’s shelter. I don’t get to the Saturday dinner as much as I’d like but try to encourage around the edges, as well. While I’m officially the chair of the both the Triangle Theatre and HTNC, I hope to continue to add energy, leadership, and vision, for these enormous mission arms of our parish.  Since the opening of St. Christopher’s House in 1897, mission has been the heart of this parish and continues to be through HTNC and our partners at Health Advocates for Older People and Search and Care.  Several hundred people are reached, served, and befriended by these programs each week.

Erwin and I love living at the rectory, and we have enjoyed the many receptions, meetings, fund raisers, and events we’ve hosted, and will continue to do that in the future.

Many in our community feel connected to this parish.  In the past, an annual MayFair has been a big part of this.  In 2017, I’m encouraging folks to really think about how we can use our energy and resources to show of our church, let people sample a bit of our personality, but do so within the means of our time, talent, and treasure.

Taking Stock
Much of my approach to the last year has involved a kind of “taking stock.”  I continue to learn the building and its needs and have spent a lot of time navigating lapsed inspections, expired certificates, and unaddressed violations with the City of New York.  We have caught up with some of these, but have more to do in 2017.  We continue to be hopeful about an arrangement with the new owner of the Rhinelander Building next door in which we will lose nothing but gain needed work on the rectory gutters, flashing, and pointing; and we are slowly looking at how to structure work of renovation, repair, and renewal in various parts of the building.

Some of “taking stock” includes our numbers.  Holy Trinity has not had a financial audit since 2010.  We began one last fall, and we will be completing that very soon.  In preparation for that, I’m also happy to say that we now have leases for every person or group who rents space in our building—but this is new, and some of the leases are outdated.  While the seven apartments we have provide a small but stead income, renting to church employees in the diocese (thereby effectively subsidizing the salaries of other churches’ clergy is not faithful stewardship for us in the long run.)

This year we began to develop a plan for addressing some of the issues around cleaning, repair, and maintenance, but then realized that our bookkeeping system needed more attention and cleanup than we had thought.  We parted ways with our part-time bookkeeper, and hired an excellent bookkeeping consultant who is getting things organized, bringing our various bookkeeping systems into alignment, and helping us to hire a basic, part-time bookkeeper who will be able to maintain records and run the business side of our ministries. Maria Wainwright, our bookkeeping consultant, will train the new person and then be “on call” should we ever need her to help with a question or a specific project.  I apologize to anyone who contributed in 2016 and did not always receive timely statements or answers to your financial questions.  Please know that this will not happen again.  I’m enormously encouraged by the new work being done on our systems, and confident we’ll be squared away before long.

I’m grateful to the Budget and Finance Committee, the Buildings and Grounds Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Vestry, and all our volunteers who give so generously of time and talent.  Even though we have some of the busiest people in the world in our parish, you commit and follow through, and it’s a joy to serve as your rector. Especially as we’ve gone through three bookeepers in the last year, Erlinda Brent has provided consistency and care in that area, as she has in so many others.  She continues to do the work of three or four people, and I’m grateful for all she does.

An enormous part of “taking stock” has only just begun, and that involves our making new friends in the neighborhood and city, exploring contacts, and really looking and praying about the use of our buildings.  Which spaces do we insist on using for our ministry and programs?  Which spaces might we share more fully?  And are there spaces we could lease or invite a new partner to develop?  In the coming year, I’ll be developing a small task force to look at some of these questions and so I welcome your prayers and ideas for our being more faithful stewards of all God has entrusted us.

Growing in God
Last summer, we offered a monthly Christian Education class, “Prayer & Pie,” and had 20 to 30 people each time. In the fall, Lindsay Mullinax and Dawn Persaud offered Christian Education for children each Sunday morning in the Cloister Chapel, and we also renewed regular Sunday morning Adult Christian Education.  This was made possible by shifting our later morning service to 11 AM, and I’m grateful for the parish’s flexibility in making the transition.  Our topics last year included a Bible Study of the Gospels, the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare (on St. Francis Sunday), a four-week course on What It Means to be an Episcopalian, a three-week discussion of the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and an Advent series on canticles.  I know Sunday morning is not the best time for some people to come for forty-five minutes and learn about the Christian faith, but since there is not magic time I’m aware of, this is the time we have.  I’m grateful to those who have made this a priority and joined us and look forward to continuing to offer a rich and varied range of options.

Last year also renewed the Holy Trinity tradition of seasonal Quiet Days, or mini-retreats.  In Lent, we offered one on praying with beads (rosaries and such) and in Advent, we teamed up with the Church of the Epiphany to offer a day on the medieval saint Hildegard of Bingen.

Saying our Prayers
Worship is at the heart of what we do and who we are at Holy Trinity.  Monday through Thursday of each week, we offer Morning Prayer and have built a small and faithful community.  In the fall, we also began offering Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, followed by a Eucharist with particular prayers for healing.  Again, we’ve developed a small but faithful community and look forward to growing that service this spring, as the light allows people to do more in the evenings.

I feel enormously blessed to work with Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, our professional choir members, volunteers and volunteer musicians.  Our music program at 11 and 6 is one of the best-kept secrets in New York—but it’s a secret I hope to share more and more.  Worship is a joy at Holy Trinity and each of our services, in its own way, nurtures members and welcomes newcomers into what the Prayer Book calls “the beauty of holiness.”  Our worship is made possible by several small teams of people—ushers, altar guild members, lectors, and acolytes.  Enormous thanks goes to the heads of each of those groups and all the people who share their time with us.

Our Context and the Gospel
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Simon Peter and Andrew, and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  We, too are called to “fish for people.” We’re called to use whatever skills, abilities, or gifts we might have in order to help others know the love of God through Jesus Christ.  We may be called to teach for people, to cook for people, to build for people, or to listen for people.  We might be called to network, to raise money, to teach, or repair for others. Whatever it is we may do, in meeting Christ, we have the potential for our everyday doings to become ministry and mission.

There’s an old preacher’s story about the devil and his generals who try to mount a new battle on Christians.  They want to weaken and kill the Church.  And so, the generals all get together and the first one has an idea.  “What if we try to convince them that there really is no God?”  “No,” says the devil. “That will never work. Too many Christians already have a strong sense of God, we need to come up with something else.”  The next general stands up and says, “I have it.  Let’s convince them that there really is no difference between good and evil, between right and wrong.”  But the devil shakes his head again.  “No,” he says, “too many Christians already have a deeply ingrained sense of what’s right and wrong. We’ll have to think of something else.”  Finally, the third general steps forward. “Sir,” he says, “my idea is a little subtle, but I wonder if we might encourage them to continue believing in God, even encourage them to keep distinguishing between good and evil, but we simply suggest to them that there’s no hurry in any of this.  There’s no need to rush, no need to worry, no sense of urgency.”

We can look at the Church (as, perhaps with the recent presidential election in our country) and realize that apathy, indifference, and the belief that “someone will do it” take their toll.

There is an urgency to “fish for people,” to welcome and embrace—not because of the financial or volunteer demands of the parish (though we have both of those), but because people need Jesus Christ.  And we need each other in a new kind of Christian community in order to navigate the days ahead. Too many people are living in spiritual dark ages and don’t even realize it—they just keep searching in circles, going through people, jobs, experiences, alcohol or drugs… you name it.  They don’t have to worry about a physical, fiery hell in the afterlife—they’re already living in one.  We offer an alternative.  We offer community and home.  We offer the Body and Blood of Christ to sustain us in this life and to empower us for the next.

I thank you for all you do and all you are.  I thank you for helping to make 2016 such a bright year, and for the privilege and joy of serving as your rector.  May God bless us with light in the dark and the abiding, life-giving presence of Christ in this new year.

 

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Called, Gifted, and Sent

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Detail from the San Damiano Cross

A homily for Friday offered in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ. The appointed Gospel is Mark 3:13-19.

Alasdair MacIntyre is a Scottish professor of moral and political ethics whose 1981 book I mentioned the other morning.   The book called After Virtue is often cited as one of the most important ethical works of the 20th century.  Though it’s difficult to read, MacIntyre argues that morality has become an individual pursuit, left to the feelings of any particular person—while a real moral framework can only be created and sustained in community.  Some see in his work a kind of “politics of self-defense” for local communities and groups who hope to survive the forces of capitalism and the other enormous cultural shifts taking place around us. In a classic section that I keep rereading, MacIntyre says this:

…[F]or some time now we too have reached a turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.  (After Virtue, p. 286)

While many find MacIntyre’s statement disconcerting and pessimistic, I actually find it hopeful.  I find it hopeful because I know St. Benedict and others like him and I know communities—like this one and many others—who have been building and sustaining “local forms of community” for generations.  While we sometimes worry that we’re going extinct or can’t see what the next chapter of faith might look like, we at least have the capacity and the tools to go forward, creating a new world, and (in our case) living into the Kingdom of God.

In our first reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, we’re reminded that our God is a God of covenant relationship.  God wants to gather us together in a community that is accountable to God.  In our Gospel, we see God in Jesus gathering up a new community.

Jesus calls the twelve apostles.  Then he calls gifts out of them.  And then he sends them out to spread the message of God’s love, all the while, building new communities so that God’s love in Christ can be “gazed upon, considered, contemplated, and imitated,” as Clare might remind us.

Though it’s natural to question the institutional ways in which we maintain community—whether that is a religious order or a parish—but we, too, have been called just as powerfully as those first disciples.

Jesus calls us by name.  We have heard that calling and we have responded. But we should never forget that he continues to call us to new ministries, new perspectives, and new ways of living out that original calling.

Jesus calls particular skills and gifts out of us.  But again, with the Spirit’s work within us, Jesus keeps calling new gifts out of us, if we’re open and alert.  I could not have told you years ago that I would feel deeply and clearly called to work on my Spanish and really get it conversational when I’m in my 50’s.  I also could not have told you that my old construction skills and instincts developed through college summers would help me manage and maintain five church buildings from 1899.  Who knows what God is calling each of us to learn and grow and accomplish next?

And finally, just as we have responded to Christ’s call and embraced the gifts for ministry he has given, he has sent us and continues to send us.  Sometimes the mission field is across the room and sometimes it’s across the globe.  But we have what we need in our initial calling, in the gifts given and grown, and in the abiding power of Christian community.

Especially on this Inauguration Day filled with so much division and rancor, and as we prepare to be faithful people in the days ahead, may we remember that we are called, but we are also called into community, but we are also called as a community to pick up our cross daily.  And as we discussed this morning, this means allowing space for those we disagree with.  Miroslav Volf reminds us, that in the Cross, “We who have been embraced by the outstretched arms of the crucified God must open our arms even for the enemies—to make space in ourselves for them and invite them in—so that together we may rejoice in the eternal embrace of the triune God.” (Exclusion and Embrace, p. 47, in Ilia Delio’s Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love)

May God deepen our several callings, strengthen our vocations, and fill us with the Holy Spirit to be faithful until we are joined with God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Making Strange

st-francis-kneeling-zuberanA homily for Thursday offered in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ. The appointed Gospel is Mark 3:7-12.

As we looked at the San Damiano Cross yesterday, we noticed that Mary Magdalen has her hand to her chin.  We talked about how some theologians and iconographers suggest this symbolizes her carrying a secret:  The secret that Jesus is risen from the tomb.

We encounter another secret in today’s Gospel, a part of what some have referred to in Mark as the Messianic Secret.  This has to do with the way in which Jesus seems to caution people to keep quiet about his being the Messiah and not publicize his miracles.  In today’s reading, the demons or unclean spirits spot him and name him as the Son of God, “But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.”

This idea that Jesus might not want everyone to know the full truth about him until a certain time might strike us as odd in an age when we spend so much of our energy trying to be transparent and open. We want to be up front, direct and obvious.  When it comes to the person of Jesus Christ, most of the discussions I hear in the church have to do with ways we can present Jesus more directly, more clearly, and with more immediacy.  The failure of religion to captivate, critics say, is our reticence and reserve.

And yet, here is Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, showing the ultimate “reserve”—reserving his power and reserving his identity.

In the 1800s, some of those theologians in the Church of England known as the Tractarians wrote about “reserve.” They described reserve as a sort of disposition, especially of early Christians, who in times of persecution and misunderstanding, were reluctant to say exactly what they believed.  In the mid-19th century, this idea caused a huge uproar, especially among the more Protestant expressions of the Church.  But listen to a section of Tract 80, as Isaac Williams explains what he means.

As our Saviour pointed to His works, instead of declaring Himself, after the same manner, when, in the times of Origen, the secret discipline was practised in the Church, which seems to correspond to our Saviour’s concealing Himself, he pointed to the lives of Christians, i.e. to the works of Christ shown in them, as the strongest evidence which he could offer to the world. The truth must ever be propagated by some way of this kind, and not by argument.  (Isaac Williams, Tract 80, c. 1837)

Critics used the Tracts of the Times as evidence that this movement was really a secret work of the Pope, or the devil, or some combination of the two.

But Williams’ point that the “truth must be propagated in some way other than argument” resonates with me. The old religious vocabulary does not always translate. Our patterns and practices—even when simplified and explained—aren’t very convincing.

Someone who thinks a lot about how we talk about faith, how we present it, and how we interact with society is the Rev. Dr. Alison Milbank at the University of Nottingham, England.   She’s a literature professor who specializes in religion and culture, and writes about using the imagination in apologetics, or using the imagination to argue for Jesus Christ.  She writes

For me, the whole enterprise of presenting the faith convincingly is aimed at opening [a] desire in others, rather than offering pre-packaged answers … Our use of Scripture similarly can no longer be that of earlier modes of apologetics, in which the miracles were presented as forms of evidence in themselves.  Miracles even in the Gospels do not convince alone, but as signs of the divine at work.  We can, however, point to the texts as mysteries … And we can convince people, paradoxically, by pointing to the mystery of Christ as something attractive and convincing … For if Christ is the reality that takes us upward, we see through him, by means of him, with him.  And in trying to convince others of his divinity, we should return, perhaps, to the Tractarian reserve of the early Oxford Movement in communicating religious truth.  Christ is beautiful, especially when he is most disfigured, and if we are to convince others to follow him, we need to guard and gradually reveal that beauty.  (“Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange” in Imaginative Apologetics, ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM, 2010), 44-45.)

“Revealing beauty” is something we often do well in the Episcopal Church.  In fact, “the beauty of holiness” is something we pray about and practice, but do we celebrate it as much as we might?  Both St. Clare and St. Francis understood beauty as a means of knowing God and for both, and we’ve talked about how for them, the principle lens was poverty.  They didn’t romanticize the poor.  They became poor, and from that point of view could see all creation in its true beauty.  They seemed compellingly strange in their day, and they still do.

Alison Milbank suggests that we “make strange” the Gospel, that we claim the strange things we do, such as going to church on Sundays, committing ourselves to a life of prayer and compassion, standing in solidarity with the poor.  We veil the Gospel in story, mystery, and fairy tale, because as C.S. Lewis suggested, fairy tales are just the thing to help us “steal past the watchful dragons.”

Our culture’s wild appetite for virtual reality games, stories and movies of the supernatural, all point to a hunger for “the other.”  How do we, as bodies of Christ and the Body of Christ begin to reflect God’s beauty in a way that might entice, or allure, or woo?  Jesus knew how to not give away a punch line and how to lead people into mystery.  How might we follow him with a touch of “reserve?”

For starters, I think we keep telling stories, and try to make them really good ones. We keep celebrating the sacraments with as much passion and poetry as possible.  We keep on being religious in a secular society, riding bicycles in habits and pushing grocery carts through Times Square, and doing all that we do.  We keep being a little mysterious and odd.  And we keep being strange, for Christ’s sake.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Praying for Unity

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St. George’s Church, carved out of rock, Lalibela, Ethiopia.


A homily given on the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ
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This morning, as we looked closely at the San Damiano Cross—that cross before which St. Francis and St. Clare prayed—I forgot to point out an important detail.  You may have noticed it, but it’s especially appropriate today, as we remember St. Peter.  Around the edge of the cross is a border that appears to be made of shells.  Some suggest it represents eternal life or the shell’s connection with our baptism.  But this border runs all the way around the cross—except on the very bottom.  The bottom has no border, but instead, it has what looks like a stone or a rock.  It makes the point graphically that the Cross of Christ sits upon a rock, just like the Church is built upon a rock, celebrated in today’s readings.

If we look at today’s Gospel closely, we’ll notice that Jesus proclaims Peter as the “Rock” on whom he will build the church, not because of Peter’s goodness or worthiness. It’s not Peter’s holiness or giftedness that gets that title.  Instead, it’s Peter’s faith that become the foundation.  It’s his faith that enables him to be solid and strong.  We get another glimpse of that faith when Peter preaches in today’s Epistle reading from Acts.

Peter and John have just been arrested by the religious officials and when they are called to account for themselves, Peter says

 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this [healed] man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.  This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’

Here, Peter sounds very much like the rock he is appointed to be.  He’s strong and sure of himself.  There’s no doubt.  There’s no hesitation.  The strong, rocklike, always-sure-of-himself Peter is one image.  Some people and churches champion this image of Peter:  Keeper of the Keys and Primate of the Church.  But the biblical Peter wasn’t always so strong.

Far from being “rock,” he was sometimes more like quicksand.  It was Peter who couldn’t stay afloat by faith, when Jesus was standing on the water just in front of him. And it was Peter who sat by the fire, getting warm, while his best friend, his savior, the Messiah he had been so quick to proclaim— was dying on the cross.  I identify more with Peter the rock who sometimes crumbles, because we crumble, too– under stress, in doubt, in fear. We worry, and wonder, and hesitate like Peter.  And we need assurance.

Peter gets his assurance in that last conversation with Jesus, after the crucifixion and resurrection, as they are sharing breakfast on the beach.  Through all the faith and the failure, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Again and again, the question comes: “Do you love me? Do you love me?”

We know Peter’s response and we remember that Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, and feed my sheep.” It’s as though Jesus is explaining to Peter that he will continue to have the assurance he needs, he will continue to be strengthened and supported, but it will happen in life of ministry.  It will happen in the feeding, the tending, and the caring of one another.

That’s a ministry we share with Peter and with all Christians. It’s the Real Presence of Christ in us, after all, that makes us strong, that makes us solid, that helps us to be part of the rock of the Church’s foundation.  As Peter encourages, “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2).

A few years ago my church was planning to add a new wing to the building.  And I especially remember when it came time to choose the stone.

Since the main church building was stone, we decided to build the addition in stone, as well.  And that’s when the architects and the builders got busy.  What kind of stone? From what quarry? What sort of mortar should be used?  On and on the questions went.  Finally, about five stones were placed outside for a bunch of us to look at and choose among.  I learned through those discussions that even though each stone was differently shaped and a good mason could make just about anything fit together, there was a desired spectrum of color that could be tolerated.  Too blue, and it wouldn’t do. Too gray or brown, deal breaker.  The color of the stone needed to be within the same family of the stone we had.  In other words, the stones could be different and mismatched—but only to a point.

I think of those stones in the context of our “rocky readings” from scripture today and because today begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I think of those stones and the need to have them fit within a preconceived notion because I tend to think and pray about unity in a similar way.

The IDEA of unity, of coming together with another person or another group around an idea or a belief sounds wonderful. Let’s do it! When do we start and when will people arrive?

But if I’m honest, unity is only really attractive to me as long as I get to define what “unity” should look like.  Like in our construction process, stones could be oddly shaped or strangely sized—just so long as they fit in with our basic color scheme.  When we think of conversations and experiences moving towards unity with other Christians, do we enter into those conversations and times with our own narrow expectation of what’s possible?  Do we insist on our own terms?

Last Sunday, I was able to attend a Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration that was shared by Episcopalians and Baptists.  The liturgy was Prayer Book Episcopalian.  The hymns and music were all Baptist.  At Communion, both wine and grape juice were offered.  I prayed silently for the priest, the minister, and the team of people who organized that day because I know it could not have been easy.  The people who can’t abide wine in Communion would not have been happy.  The strict Episcopalians who insist on wine would not have been happy.  But for the sake of unity—I think at least One was extremely happy—and that One was God.

As we pray for Christian unity, I think we could keep in mind at least three things.

First, we need to be aware of our tendency to define unity in our own terms.  We need to let go of that.  I need to have faith that God’s unity will be revealed, and it will probably look a little different from what you or I want or imagine.

Second, unity will take time.  It will take patience, it will survive misunderstanding and hurt feelings. But if it is based in God, it will come.

And third, our prayers for unity require us to do some work.  We shouldn’t expect our phones to ring with other churches, other religious communities, and people with other perspectives, all suggesting we come over for a potluck dinner and discussion.  We will need to work at it, ourselves. And the best way to move toward unity will probably be more in the feed of other sheep than in the discussions or plans concerning sheep. Praying for Christian unity cannot be solely contemplative, but will require each of us to do the work of extending a hand, opening our heart, and putting ourselves in proximity with the Other.

Perhaps because Sister Mary Lynne and I were talking about our Presbyterian heritage, I’ve been humming a hymn all day today.  It’s one of my favorites from the Reformed Tradition, full of strong images in a minor key.  ‘Built on the Rock the Church doth stand, even when steeples are falling.”

Surely in temples made with hands God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands, All earthly temples excelling.
Yet He who dwells in heav’n above Chooses to live with us in love,
Making our bodies His temple.

May St. Peter inspire us to have the faith of living stones, of odd texture and shape, of various color and origin, so that Christ might form us all into one foundation of love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

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Dodging Demons

antony-and-the-demons

Temptations of Saint Anthony panel (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510-15

 A homily given on the Feast of St. Antony of Egypt in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ.

A few weeks ago as I was carefully cleaning a country ham, washing off some of the salt, and getting it ready to be cooked for New Year’s Day, I burst out laughing.  I laughed as I remembered an old preacher’s story.

The story is about a woman who wanted a ham, but had no money.  She really wanted a ham to feed her family, to keep them going for a little while, to help them have something good to eat, which was rare—since they had no real money.  And so the lady prayed.

“Lord Jesus, please send me a ham.”  Every morning, she’d get on her knees in her kitchen and pray: “Lord Jesus, unworthy as I am, please help me feed my family.  Please send us a ham.”  Day after day, it was much the same prayer.

But one day, the town scoundrel happened to walk by her window just as she was praying.  He heard her, “Lord Jesus, send me a ham…” and decided to play a trick.  He went to the store, bought a ham and waited until she’d be praying the next morning.  As soon as he saw her hit her knees, he threw the ham through the window.  Boom!  The ham made a dramatic landing.

“Thank you, Lord Jesus,” he could hear the woman say.  “Thank you, thank you.”  And out of the house she went, praising the Lord, giving thanks, and telling her neighbors about God’s goodness.

After a little bit of this, the scoundrel had heard enough, so he jumped at the chance to embarrass the lady.  “She’s just a superstitious old so-and-so,” he said. “I bought the ham, not God, not Jesus, not anybody else—it was me, you silly old woman.”

The woman took a breath, looked at the crowd that had accumulated and then at the man, and she said very calmly: “The devil may have delivered it, but it was the Lord Jesus who sent me a ham.”

I like that story not only because it involves a ham—always a good thing, in my book.  But also because the lady takes seriously the devil. Probably because of all her prayer, she knows a devil when she sees one.

Not long ago, at my parish’s Wednesday Eucharist, one of the scriptures included a word about Satan.  Afterwards, someone teased the reader, saying that she sounded a little uncertain as she was reading that part.  The reader said, “Well, I don’t really believe in Satan.”  We talked a little about that, casually, and I think she meant to say she didn’t want to give too much credit to Satan, or take him too seriously.  But that brief conversation reminded me of how the Church has perhaps left the concept of evil to vampire stories and horror movies.  We’ve dropped Satan from our vocabulary, and so it’s no wonder that demons seem to sneak up to us so easily.

Today the church commemorates Antony of Egypt who in the 3rd century, heard the Gospel message about selling possessions and having treasure in heaven, and took it literally.  He sold what he had, put his younger sister in the care of other people, and went into the desert pursuing a life of spiritual discipline and what turned out to be spiritual warfare.

While he went “away from” many things, he was also very much moving “towards.”  He was moving towards God, towards a richer experience of Christ, and perhaps even towards a more meaningful understanding of himself.  Though he aimed to be largely alone, and is known as the father of eremitical monasticism, once in the desert (like saints and holy ones through the ages) his single-mindedness and passion for Christ attracted other people.

While our Gospel today stresses the voluntary poverty of Antony, leaving possessions was the easy part.  If we look at the life of Antony, especially as chronicled by Athanasius, we see that Antony’s real strength showed up when he became poor in spirit, poor in his ability to control his thoughts and feelings, poor in managing his hopes and fears, and poor in his own resourcefulness to confront evil.  It was in THAT poverty, that he found power, which was the power of Christ.  And the power of Christ is enough to dodge and disperse any demon.

But the demons still tried.  Athanasius writes colorfully about this:

Once a very tall demon appeared in an apparition and had the daring to say, ‘I am the Power of God;” and “I am Providence; what do you wish that I would give you?’  But then, speaking the name of Christ, I spat at him with all my power, and attempted to strike him, and I really seemed to have hit home, and at once, with the mention of the name of Christ, this giant figure vanished, along with his demons. Once while I was fasting, the cunning one even came as a monk, having the semblance of loaves of bread, and he offered me counsel, saying, ‘Eat, and stop your many labors; you, too, are a man, and you are about to grow weak.’ But I perceived his deception and got up to say my prayers. This he could not bear, for he disappeared, and he looked like smoke as he went through the door. (The Life of Antony, 40).

The Life of Antony is so colorful and compelling that it’s easy to forgetit’s n ot a first-person account.  It’s written, instead, by Athanasius, who was bishop of Alexandria for forty-six years.  Exiled five times by four different Roman emperors,  I think it’s fair to say Athanasius knew a thing or two about demons.  When Antony begins to describe how he deals with demons, I think we’re really hearing how Bishop Athanasius deals with all the demons of his day—those not out in the desert caves, but in churches and buildings, in clergy, parishioners, and politicians; in cultural clashes, and all the various pressures of every day.  Athanasius writes

For when [the demons] come they approach us in a form corresponding to the state in which they discover us, and adapt their delusions to the condition of mind in which they find us. If, therefore, they find us timid and confused, they forthwith beset the place, like robbers, having found it unguarded; and what we of ourselves are thinking, they do, and more also. For if they find us fainthearted and cowardly, they mightily increase our terror, by their delusions and threats; and with these the unhappy soul is thenceforth tormented. But if they see us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future, mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand, and that no evil spirit has any strength against the Christian, nor any power at all over any one- when they behold the soul fortified with these thoughts – they are discomfited and turned backwards. Thus the enemy, seeing Job fenced round with them, withdrew from him; but finding Judas unguarded, him he took captive. Thus if we are wishful to despise the enemy, let us ever ponder over the things of the Lord, and let the soul ever rejoice in hope. (The Life of Antony 42)

As anyone who has found some strength in a Twelve Step Recovery program knows that the healing over demons begins with admitting powerlessness.  “Admitted we were powerless over [fill in the blank: alcohol, drugs, food, sex, money, other people…]
Admitted we were powerless over demons, powerless over our future, powerless over our faith, powerless over our families, powerless over our health….

St. Clare writes about this in her First Letter to Agnes as she offers advice for dealing with the little demons as well as the large.  She writes

You know, I believe that the kingdom is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor . . . for she who loves temporal things loses the fruit of love. Such a person cannot serve God and money, for either the one is loved and the other hated, or the one is served and the other despised . . . You also know that one who is clothed cannot fight another who is naked, because she is more quickly thrown who gives her adversary a chance to get hold of her; and that one who lives in the glory of earth cannot rule with Christ in heaven.  (1 LAg 25-28).

May we give thanks for Antony of Egypt, for Clare, and for all those who lead us in the words of Peter, “to humble ourselves before God, cast anxiety on him, take up discipline, and stay awake. So that the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, might restore us, support us, strengthen us, and establish us.” (1 Peter 5:6-10)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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