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February 18, 2018, 1st Sunday in Lent YR B

Year B, Lent 1
February 18, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.”

So I preached about money in October, sex a few of weeks ago, and I’m working on a sermon on evangelism.  I think the only thing that I could preach on that would make Episcopalians more uncomfortable than those topics is the topic of our sermon on this, the First Sunday in Lent: Satan.

When was the last time you heard that word uttered in church?  Anyone recall?  Well, the funny thing is that it was last week, in the Examination of the Candidate in Trinidad’s Baptism.  We asked “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”  And then a few lines down we are asked “Do you turn to Jesus and accept Him as your Savior?” and that’s the last you’ll hear of that sort of thing.  Get it taken care of at the beginning and you don’t need to worry about it again.  If only that were the case.

St. Mark’s gospel is concise and sparse about most things, and Mark’s telling of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is no exception.  The Holy Spirit drove Him there and “He was… tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  That’s it.  No bread from stones, no command of the world, no pinnacle of the temple like in Matthew and Luke.  Mark’s Satan is less specific, but is very much there.

Satan.  What does that mean?  Well in Hebrew the word means Adversary.  That is pretty straight forward.  But Satan goes by a lot of names in Scripture.  The one testifying against Job is the Accuser.  Isaiah uses Lucifer.  The meaning of Satan evolved over the course of the Hebrew Bible, leaving off where we Christians pick up, as the prince of angels and their host who broke with God and fell were thrown out of heaven.  In the New Testament, the word Satan occurs throughout, but other monikers are used: the evil one, the enemy, the ruler of this world; the god of this aeon; and, murderer from the beginning and father of lies.  Holy Scripture, which gives our faith its vocabulary and narrative trajectory, includes Satan. Definitively.

In biblical theology, Satan, no matter what name is used, indicates forces in opposition to God.  From the beginning, page 4 in my Bible, forces, a tendency, something has been in opposition to God.  Sometimes this is talked about as evil forces being at war with the will that created everything, the Creator, God.  As our tradition tells it, that war culminates in the Passion, in the horror of Jesus of Nazareth’s ascent of Golgotha.  Look around at the Stations of the Cross, horrible, the devil’s work.  But it happened. Great is the mystery of faith.  The Cross defeated Satan in that we, all of us, are reconciled to God; we have a chance.  But Satan persisted, the opposition of God continued in the New Testament record of the church and continues, and will continue until the fullness of time, when everyone and everything is reconciled to God.  If you want to skip the end, Revelation 20 is interesting with Satan being cast into a lake of fire and sulfur and torment “day and night forever and ever.”

So is the discomfort is growing?  I have this daunting book The Concise Sacramentum Mundi edited by the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.  It is 1800 pages concise (which guess is concise relative to the 6 volume un-concise version).  In the passage on “The Devil” that Rahner himself writes, he warns that when preaching or teaching on Satan to expect “skepticism from people accustomed to the scrupulous empiricism of the natural sciences.”

Fair enough.  Thinking about apostate angels and tempters and “father of lies” doesn’t compute.  Possession and evil spirits don’t qualify as “true” or “real” in our evidenced based world.  And neither do the miracles.  Or the Transfiguration we heard about last week.  Or the Ascension, or Pentecost with the Holy Spirit sweeping over the faithful like a flame, or descending like a dove. Or the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  None of those equations balance either.  But that is where faith comes in.  Faith is a legitimate source of knowledge, as legitimate as any other source of knowledge such as logic or empiricism.  That means that the insights you gain in silence, are real.  It means that the consolation you feel in your heart when you know someone loves you, is true.   Faith as a legitimate source of knowledge means that that union with Ultimate Reality, the Holy One of Blessing, God that you experience when you take the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ actually happens.  It is a legitimate experience even though there is no metric to measure it, no sensor to record it, no peer review needed or possible.

So if faith informs us about the good stuff, we need to keep our eyes wide open about the bad stuff, too.  Rahner suggests that “people today must have their attention drawn to the sinister supra-human power of evil in history.”  That’s what we mean when we talk about it as a war between good and evil, between Satan’s own and God’s.  It is not hard to see that in our history, in this present moment.  Evil is everywhere, in many forms. This is where I’d usually offer a litany of the forms of evil, but evil is something we all recognize.  Remember, evil does not need to have a will, it is results based.  But it often seems willful, so we attach a personality to it.  It makes it easier for humans to deal with something that seems like, well, human, than it does with an abstract concept like evil.  So we invented  Satan to put a name and face to the evil that permeates the world.

When suffering happens, Satan, evil caused it.  Suffering is the chief fruit of evil.  So we can talk of a hurricane as a natural evil, or the crimes of a deranged person unable to tell right from wrong.  And there is moral evil, that is evil done by commission or omission by people who do (or should) know better.  You know as well as I examples of evil in this world, from the massacre in that Broward County high school to the stories you keep deep inside yourself; they are Legion.  They are Legion, and they are and have been and will continue to be on the warpath.

C.S. Lewis has a lot to say about this, about the ongoing war between Satan and the forces of Goodness, Truth and Beauty.  According to Lewis, Christianity, is a “fighting religion.”  He describes the world as being in the midst of a rebellion in heaven and earth, the forces of evil, Satan, allied against the forces of good, of God.  And we, humans, we exist in enemy territory.  That is C.S. Lewis.  Satan has the upper hand on earth.  Look around.  That would answer a lot of “Whys?”  Why is it like this?  Why would someone do that?  Evil is abroad in the world.  I have described the church as being an outpost or an embassy of the Kingdom of God.  I told that to a priest friend of mine and he added, “or a beachhead.”  That sounds terrible and warlike.  Well, it is.  Look at human history.

For many, most of us, who live in the bubble of South Eugene, we don’t face much real strife.  Most of us don’t fear for our safety very often.   We will not be bombed, or step on a land mine.  No one is going to take from you what you need to live, or force you out of your home.  Those are encounters with evil.  Someone having ill intent towards you, violent intent or action.  Most of us in this room don’t experience that very often, or not at all, maybe even never have; but not everyone.  Especially women.  The rates of violence and threats of violence women experience is staggering.  If you are in any way different from what is conventionally normal, you are at greater risk.  Even if it is largely not like that here and now, or for us, for many in the world, over all of our history, the world often has been, often is a scary, hostile, and decidedly dangerous place.  Evil, Satan, exists.

Why doesn’t God just flush Satan out of the world?  Well, because the evil of the world, the moral evil any way, is in us.  Satan lives in a little corner of each of our hearts and minds and bodies.  Completely intertwined.  And that is all of us.  We all have the capacity to do horrendous things.  What percentage of Germans went along with the Nazis?  Most.  Almost all of them.  Maybe they weren’t excited about it, or even hated it, but they went along, the banality of evil, and sixty million people died all over the world in some of the most horrible ways conceivable.  Were those Germans outliers?  No.  They were human.  Most of us would do the same.  Go along to get along, don’t rock the boat are the most basic forms of evil and we all do that all the time.  God doesn’t just sweep it always because we can’t separate the evil from ourselves.  It is a smudge, a stain on humanity and that stain has had time to set, it can’t just be washed out.  God tried that.  We heard the end of the Noah story this morning. It didn’t work, and God said that that was not going to happen again, but that there would be a new, everlasting covenant, signed with a rainbow, a covenant with all people, not just Israel.  The Earth would not flood again, God would find a different way to redeem the creation, to repair the rift, to remove the stain of sin and hate rather than hit the escape button again.  Enter the necessity of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus Christ, we have a chance.  Well, it is more than a chance, it is a way.  The Way.  On this Way, we are shown how to be resilient in the face of evil, even horrendous evil.  Greater than that, we are given a way to resist Satan, to face it head on and shine God’s healing light through our intention and action in the world. In Jesus Christ we have a chance not only to survive, but to live, and live abundantly, and help others do the same.

What does that look like?  “Rest into the blessed assurance of Jesus Christ and all will be well.”  Yes it will be.  But how do you translate what too often are just religious platitudes to your average Tuesday morning reading the paper.  Knowing that in the fullness of time all will be well, all will be well, every manner of thing will be well, that’s first.  That is Christian hope.  But hope is really nothing more than holy patience.  And being patient takes a lot of work.

Things are not going to fix themselves.  Satan is relentless, like weeds in a garden.  You can’t let up, you must be vigilant or you will never find those strawberries before the mice do.   But evil is not the surf.  It is not the flow of water to the sea.  Or will of life, weeds and otherwise, that will always push and push, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” and every other living thing.   Evil is not inevitable, not unstoppable or insurmountable.  That’s God.

So what do we do in this world covered, as it is, with Satan’s fingerprints?  Be patient.  Being patient is not capitulation, it is strategic posturing.  Be mindful of the world around you.  Where does evil lurk in your corner of the world?  Who around you is suffering?  Why?  What can you do about it?  A lot of us despair when we consume news, so much evil so evident in so many places!  Joan Halifax, a noted Zen Roshi, speaks of empathetic distress; the dissonance that occurs in our heart when we encounter suffering that we have no agency to do anything about it.  There is enough of that in our own homes to occupy us for lifetimes, beware seeking it around the globe.  Wendell Berry is very clear that the notion of Think Globally, Act Locally is impossible, dangerous.  Human beings can’t think globally.  Trying to has gotten us where we are today.  We need to think local, act local, and deal with what you can deal with, and for most of us, that is our neighbors in our own neighborhoods, and first and foremost, ourselves.

So be active.  Where you see suffering, don’t turn away.  Do what you can.  Nothing inspires hope in the world more than helping someone.  (And hope gives Satan chronic indigestion).  Works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal, are definitive remedies for the evil of the world.  Try on volunteering at 2nd Sunday Breakfast this Lent.  Go to the next Egan training.  Our own Hospitality Village and Home Starter Kit ministries need your effort!  So does our Sunday school.

Be mindful of what you are capable of.  We had a class on clergy sexual abuse when I was at Divinity School, and the professor said something like, “Well, I know no one here will ever do anything like this, but…”  Wrong.  We are all capable of the very worst, and the very worst happens too often because you weren’t aware of the possibility of it happening.  A clear and open mind is a formidable opponent to evil.  Be mindful.

Be mindful of your mind.  Do you let your mind take you where it wants, or do you exercise some control?  Jesus talks about sinning with our thoughts.  Moral evil starts there: in a wandering mind.  Thoughts come, all sorts of thoughts, ugly ones, sometimes. Violent thoughts, licentious ones, they happen in everyone’s mind, but you don’t have to engage them.  Don’t play with them, or give them your conscious attention.  When I hear a confession, I hear it, it comes in, but when absolution is given, I put it aside.  I remember it, but I don’t, I actively don’t think about it or engage it because that is not my business, I am a vessel of the church.  You are not your mind.  You are more than your mind.  You have control.  (And if or when you don’t, pray – that’s a way to give control back to God.)

When I look out into the world, be it our train-wreck of a political landscape or state of the environment, or the fact that hundreds of people will be freezing tonight, maybe dying right outside these doors because we, I don’t care enough to really do something about it, I get very frustrated, and in that frustration I can get very angry.  Very angry.  Anger can be righteous, Jesus was angry, but it can also be toxic.  It can rot away our good will and get us all murky about means and ends or throwing up arms in helpless disgust and stomping away.  Another way to say it is that it makes straight the path for Satan into your heart.  I am trying, really trying to be less angry and intentionally more sad; less vengeful and intentionally more heartbroken, and oddly, being sadder and heartbroken, I am feeling more hopeful.  Maybe I am just feeling more.  Isn’t that what Jesus is teaching when He tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?  Meeting hate with hate, violence with violence, evil with evil Satan with the satanic just brings more hate and violence and evil and Satan into a world already overflowing with all of that.  We need less of that, and more love, for love is the foundation of the Kingdom of God.

Satan is the anthropomorphization of evil.  It puts a human-like face and a human-like will on a quite human tendency, defying or flat our opposing the will of God.  It is real.  It is pervasive.  It causes immeasurable suffering.  And in Jesus Christ, its days are numbered.  As we journey through Lent together, be mindful of where the Adversary tempts you, and remember the other Way Jesus offers in His love and Sacrifice for you.  AMEN

February 14, 2018, Ash Wednesday YR B

Year B, Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was

 

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Welcome to the observance of a holy Lent.  That line from St. Matthew’s Gospel. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” really sums it up.  From 2nd Corinthians, we hear about “being unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive… as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”  Those are the fruits of having your heart and mind and body focused on those treasures in heaven.  To do that, though, to get our hearts and the rest of us pointed in the heavenly, eternal direction, we have a few housekeeping items in our earthly existence that we need to attend to. That is what Lent is all about.

Its right there in the BCP, on page 265 which we’re going to hear right after this homily.  We observe Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

That’s what we are supposed to do.  Examine ourselves, our situations, our human condition.  Repent, that is change the direction of our lives if our lives are askew.  Fast.  Pray.  Read Scripture.  Good churchy activities; hard to argue with or against.  But why is it important for us to do this each Lenten season?

We don’t make ourselves miserable for misery’s sake (you never need to go looking for suffering, it will show up on its own).  We don’t give up things or take them on for their own sake.  Yes, you maybe should lay off the sweets, the bottle, the screen, each other, whatever your special poison is, whatever pulls your attention from heavenly things to earthly ones, but any of those benefits are just a side effect, maybe healthy side effects, but just side effects.  All that we give up, all that we take on, it is not that they are good in and of themselves, it is what they do (or can do) to us.  And what is that?  Make us mindful.

The practices of Lent are practices of mindfulness.  Mindfulness is simply paying attention.  (As if there is anything simple about paying close attention).  We are bombarded with sensory inputs from outside of ourselves.  We are overflowing with thoughts, fantasies, ideas, images from within ourselves.  We have so much going on it is amazing that most of us can move a fork from our plate to our mouth without losing an eye, let alone living a life in right relationship with God in Christ in the deafening, blinding chaos that marks 21st century America!

Mindfulness is noticing.  It is paying attention.  It doesn’t usually mean active, directed focus of your attention or intention, but usually means not being distracted from what is most important, which is usually whatever is right in front of you in any given moment.  (And maybe being mindful, you might learn that the things in front of you are actually not important, not worthy of another single kcal your life’s energy.  A good thing to become mindful of).

All of the practices of the season: fasts, prayer, study, reading scripture… they are designed to remind you of where your treasures are stored, or where you want to start putting things up.  To remind you of what is most important.

So what are you doing for Lent?  What is going to help you be most mindful?  You are here.  That is a very good start!  Coming to all of our liturgies from now to Easter morning is an idea.  (You only need to choose one each Saturday/Sunday Feast of our Lord, God is reasonable).  I know a couple of people are giving up “high and luxurious beds” to sleep on the floor or a thin pad.  Someone is giving up caffeine (and is dreading it).  Memorizing the Mass, or portions of it: the Creed, the Collect for Purity.  We’re all giving up full text bulletins for the season. Someone had a new idea: emptying the larder.  Going through all your shelves and cabinets and either eating it all, figuring out what to do with that jar of kipper steaks you bought for some un-remembered reason, or giving away what you can’t or won’t use.  That is a good one.  Food occupies a lot of space in a lot of our lives.  We’re using the Lent poster to read the Gospel of St. Luke over the course of the season.  That is a good one for the whole family to participate in.  Anyone have any other good ideas?

Many of our practices work because they give us opportunities to remember what we are doing in real time.  So you are giving up coffee.  Or are getting up early to do yoga or getting yourself to church every Sunday in Lent.  When you feel that urge to stop at the café and pick up a quick cup of coffee, or you want to hit the snooze button rather than pull on your yoga pants, or you really, really would rather finish the paper than get dressed and drag yourself all the way to 39th and Hilyard: when you feel that pull, that urge, and you stick with your practice, what is happening? It is that very itch, that urge, that resistance to doing what you agreed to do, that is the feeling of mindfulness, that is the opportunity to remember God when so much else in our world wants you to think about anything besides that.  The pang of denial is the call to remember God.  That is some powerful medicine for those of us residing in this sin-sick world.

A few practical practice tips.  Only you know what is best for you, what will help you the most.  Be honest with yourself.  At the same time, some of our practices will obviously have impact on our families or those we live with.  A fast on setting the thermostat at 60 needs to be a household conversation. Like Jesus says, don’t take pride in your observance; it might just be best to keep it to yourself as much as possible.

If you haven’t figured a practice out it is not too late!  Don’t throw out the whole 40 days of practice opportunity just because you got off to a late start.  That is a common pitfall of spiritual practice.

The same goes with lapses.  When you lapse, which we all do, fine.  Or when you forget that you gave up coffee until reaching last sip of that vanilla double soy latte, don’t feel bad, don’t give up the fast as a failure, just notice it.  Notice why.  Notice how you felt as you ate that chocolate, or drank that glass of wine.  Notice it and get back on the path.  Being pure is not the point; moving towards purity is.

A final note.  In Lent we are called to repent, to change the direction of our lives.  Taking Lent to give up smoking or drinking or pornography or whatever addiction or potential addiction that threatens you is a fine idea and is the definition of repentance. I myself stopped drinking on Ash Wednesday four years ago.  The momentum of the communion of saints, that cloud of witnesses that are particularly visible this time of year helped me get through those first 40 days and strengthened me to keep that up for these past years.  And it is a good way to “try on” not doing whatever it is that you don’t want to be doing.  “You don’t want a beer?”  “Oh you know, Lent…”  you can reply.  You might just find that it is easier to say no than you think, but the force of 2000 years of tradition behind you can’t hurt.

Lent is the time for us to remember who and what we are.  Dust, yes; insignificant, inconsequential, utterly.  And just as utterly the beloved of God, the Ultimate Reality that brought all reality into being also knows every hair on your head.  And loves you.  Ahhh… that is so easy to forget.  May this holy Lent remind you of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

 

 

February 11, 2018, Last Sunday after the Epiphany YR B

Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 11, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“Before you is a consuming flame, and round about you a raging storm.”

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany.  That sounds ominous.

This is also the Sunday of the Transfiguration (not the Feast of the Transfiguration, that’s in August, this is just the humble Sunday on which we read of the Transfiguration before we are sent on our Lenten journey).  Transfiguration.  That’s all about change.  Jesus changes before the disciple’s eyes.

We also have a baptism today.  Young Trinidad Roholt will be welcomed into the family of God today.  She will be changed.  She will be marked as one of Christ’s own, forever.

That’s a lot going on for a Sunday in February.  A lot of change.  Change can be scary.  I think I told you my change joke a couple of years ago.  I heard is as Harvard professors, and once as priests, but I think the word people fits just as well:  How many people does it take to change a light bulb?  Change?????  Or the other one, who here wants change?  (The crowd goes wild).  Who here wants to change?  (Can you hear the crickets)?  Change can be scary.

The Transfiguration is about change.  It is also about being scared.  That what I want to talk about this morning.

What are you scared of?  What scares you?  I talk to a lot of people about fear, about their fears.  Fears of being alone.  That is a big one.  Fears of being pointless, of having a meaningless, pointless life.  Fears of being wrong.  Following the wrong path, the wrong god, or following the right god, God, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.  I have not heard a lot of people speaking of their fear of death itself, but an awful lot about the fear of someone else’s death, or the fear of dying, the process of dying rather than death itself.  Fear for our children.  So many people suffer so horribly and they are all someone’s child.  The pain there can be life long and overwhelming, breaking people and relationships.  And the world that we are leaving to our children and their children… that’s something I lose sleep over.  But now that the head of the EPA has assured us that global warming is good for us, maybe we’ll all sleep more easily.  Thank you Mr. Pruitt.  The fear of hurting someone.  “If I leave, it will kill him.”  And of course, the fear of change.  I hear a lot of that.  Fear that someone can’t get out from under addiction, can’t get out of a bad or dangerous relationship, can’t leave the trappings of conventional success to answer God’s call to a vocation, to what they are supposed to be doing, or at least a call away from doing something lousy if not evil, can’t stop doing all the stupid things that we all sometimes do, can’t get out of our own way.  And of course there is all the fear of our President and his attachments and aversions and delusions and how his personal limitations put the whole planet at even more risk than usual.  Lord have mercy on him, and those living in his churning wake.

Underlying all of it, the most pervasive fear that I encounter is the fear of suffering, of pain itself.  And that is a tough one, because that is a lesson that Jesus Christ makes abundantly clear: suffering is real.  It is inevitable.  The heart of St. Mark’s gospel is the coexistence of glory and suffering.  Jesus cannot get to Easter without going through Good Friday.  Again and again and again it comes up in this the shortest and oldest gospel.  That’s the object lesson that Jesus teaches His inner circle through the Transfiguration.  His full divinity is revealed to them in the miraculous appearance of Elijah and Moses, in the Transfiguration, His clothes becoming dazzlingly white (in other versions His face shone, too), and to remove all doubt, God’s voice booms from the Heavens much like it did at Jesus’ baptism, “this is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!”  Fully divine.

Jesus’ full humanity is also revealed as He instructs them to tell no one about what they had seen until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Meaning that he was going to die.  He had just been telling them about this, and that it wouldn’t be pretty.  To use some old-fashioned language, the victory of Christ occurs only through His defeat on the Cross.  He couldn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday.  And neither can we.

Now that is a fine lesson for those of us sitting here the week before Lent starts.  We should be afraid, sometimes.  Fear is an appropriate response to things that are scary.  Some things are scary because they are threatening or dangerous.  Having cancer is scary.  Someone who hits you sometimes is scary, or exerts their power on you or judges you.  The unknown can be scary; like that unopened letter from the lab or the darkened parking garage. And some things are scary for their awesomeness.  Storm-driven surf pounding a beach.  That feeling of incredibly low air pressure like when a tornado is threatening.  I think the most physically scary thing I ever experienced was snorkeling with Windy.  It was lovely, fish, a bit of coral, then we swam around a rock outcropping and the bottom dropped into the inky depths, and big waves off the open ocean were all of a sudden everywhere.  The scale of the world exploded.  And God can be scary.  When that flaming chariot screamed down and swept Elijah up to heaven, Elisha was scared.  Up on that mountain Peter, James and John were scared, terrified, actually.  There are times when we should be, too.  The power of God is fearsome, the overwhelmingness of life itself as it teems and kills and eats and births and dies, the mass of the cosmos churning, those waves crashing over us, the needs of a newborn baby utterly dependent on you to kill and not be killed, to let it eat and not be eaten.  That’s the fear of God, and it is a righteous fear.  If you’ve had a child, do you remember the first night you had alone with them?  The midwives, nurses, doctors, doulas, mothers and mothers-in-law, whoever was there, they were gone and it was just you.  Did you realize in that moment that the world trusted you with a human life.  You?  Us?  Lord have mercy.  I have lots of inappropriately colorful ways I could describe how scared I felt in that moment.  New life entering this world is an act of God, perhaps the most awesome act of God.  Fear is a fine response to that kind of awesomeness.  Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and hopefully the beginning of humility, the most holy and important virtue we can have.

That is a fine lesson for us on the precipice of Lent.  We should be thinking about God and God’s fearsomeness and the long march towards death we all are on, but what kind of lesson is that for baby Trinidad, and her parents and godparents and grandparents and friends?  Is that what they want to hear on the morning of her baptism, the morning of her joyful adoption into the family of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit?  I’m afraid it is, for we too often want the glory that we see without the message that we must hear.

And what is that message?  That life is beautiful.  That God loves you and always has and always will.  That loving and being loved, knowing and being known, that simply breathing in the sweet air of the creation is joy upon joy upon joy.  And that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  And so will those you love.  Your heart will be broken, it will heal, but is sure to be broken again, as will your body.  There are good days and terrible days and for most of us, there are just a lot of days.  You will choose well sometimes, and poorly others.  You will succeed, and you will fail.  There is a lot of work to do, and you won’t get to all of it, not even all the important stuff.  Maybe especially the important stuff.  And even at the grave we make our song: Halleluiah!  Halleluiah!  Halleluiah!

The message is that we will experience pleasure and pain, joy and suffering.  We will feel and cause it all.  And you ae forgiven.  We will bring life into the world, conceive it, bear and birth it, tend it, and we will, all of us, kill.  We have to to live.  And you ae forgiven.  And all of it matters.  The suffering and death of this world breaks the sacred heart of Jesus Christ so it must break ours too, and if we follow Jesus, we know that we must do all we can to relieve the suffering and injustice of this world.  All of that is absolutely and indelibly true.  As is the fact that we will die.  This life will end for each of us.  And, as absolutely and indelibly true as all of that is that that, death, is not the end of the story.  All of this matters, all that happens in Chronos, in physical time and space, matters.  Terribly.  And we will spend the rest of eternity in Kairos, in God’s time.  We, each of us, will live forever.  Not in this form, heavens no. My dream is that it is like gazing into the eyes of someone you love, a baby on your breast or your love held gently in your arms in the mist of great intimacy, or looking at the stars on a clear night way out at sea, or on a Montana mountain-side, or hearing a storm rage outside your window while the fire licks the stove and you are snuggled up warm in bed right on the edge of sleep.  Or it is like true silence.  As the Trappist say, “Silence is as deep as eternity.”

Jesus Christ, Son of God suffered and triumphed that we might do the same; that is know that the life we have here is precious, and good, and is worth struggling for and suffering in, and that that, the good and the bad of this life is not the end of the story.  God is.  And God is good.  Very good.  That is a fine lesson for you if you are that cute and are about to be baptized, or if you are one of us run of the mill Christians at the front end of another Lenten season. AMEN

 

February 4, 2018, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany YR B

Year B, Epiphany 5
February 4, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“…for that is what I came out to do.”

What did you want to be when you grew up?  That’s a real question. Anyone want to share?  Or what you want to be when you grow up?  (A question not limited to our youth; some of us take our time growing up).  ____  Did anyone end up being what you said you wanted to be when you grew up?  So everyone else changed along the way.  Well, either your mind changed, or you changed, or maybe the world around you changed, or at least your knowledge of it did.

I had no idea what I wanted to be.  A firefighter of course, when I was five.  Following my grandfather into medicine interested me until I started on real math.  A monk.  I have no idea why or how a 12 year-old Congregationalist kid would have thought of that, I didn’t have a clue about what it meant, but that lingered for quite a while; I got close. The military was always there, every male in my family served in uniform, but I saw it as a starting place as it was for them, I never saw myself as a lifer.  Politics intrigued me, but I am too earnest for that game, too idealistic to compromise in the ways needed to govern, and so many politicians I met were a bit too smooth for my comfort, their suits just a bit to shiny.  So I followed the wind, or let it carry me here and there.  Some of it was consciously letting providence (God) have their way.  Some of it was following a path of least resistance (sometimes the good kind, sometimes not).  Some of it was fear of making a commitment and striving for it (fear of striving and failing, and the fear of the effort real commitment would take).  But wherever I was led I jumped into with utter devotion until I learned better than I did when I began and followed the next call.  Not much of a career strategy, but it did lead me here to be with you, and that is a very good thing indeed.

Why did you want to be whatever it was you wanted to be?  Was it that you knew what you were good at, did that steer you?  (I am very good at school, so teaching or scholarship; or I’m good with children, so parenthood is my vocation).  Or was it what you wanted to be doing, how you wanted your life to be?  (I want summers off; I want the life that money can bring; or I don’t care so long as no one is telling me what to do; or I want to take a shower after work, not before; or I want to work with monkeys, or words, or people who need me).  Or for many, it was one of the things off a pretty short list, because the prospects (or the prospects you were told about as possibilities) seemed limited.  Great is the privilege of limitless options!  (And, too often the cost as well, but that is a different sermon).

It is great when those things line up… what you are good at, what you want to do or how you want to live, and if it is (or seems) possible.  But there is another thing to consider: what were you, are you supposed to do.  What did/does God want of you?  This is the notion of vocation.  The life’s work that God has for you.  What are you supposed to be doing with your life, not according to conventional wisdom, or Fortune’s top 20 careers for the new millennium, or what your mother thinks (though those and other sources might contain clues), but what does God want you to do and be?

A theology professor of mine had a daughter who was a brilliant mathematician, she was shining as an undergraduate at Yale.  But that wasn’t what she felt called to.  Rather she felt called to follow path of a more applied mathematics: the oboe.  (She shined at that, too).  Her mother was proud, and concerned.  Not the suitability of music as a vocation, she was an accomplished musician herself, but the prospects of a Yale math honor grad are a bit more secure if not certain than even an MFA from the finest conservatory.  Two paths diverging in the woods.  But call is call, no?

We have an interesting little story in Mark’s gospel selection this morning.  This is right on the heels of last week’s story, Jesus casting out a demon, and being seen as one “teaching with authority,” the subject of Ed Lawry’s excellent sermon last week.  Today, Jesus heals the apostle Simon’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever.  As news of Jesus’ healing powers spread, the sick and the possessed were brought to Him, in droves.  “And the whole city was gathered around the door.” He healed the sick and exercised the demons.

The next morning, he awoke before dawn and snuck off to a deserted place to pray.  Well that wouldn’t do.  Simon and his friend “hunted for him.”  The image I have is children searching for their mom who just wants a minute to drink a cup of tea in peace, just one minute to herself.  “Everyone is searching for you,” they say.  And what does Jesus say?  Let’s get out of here.  “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there, also; for that is what I came here to do.”

But what about all those sick people?  The city gathered at the door: the diseased, stricken, crippled, possessed?  All those in need of healing, what about them?  Could anything be more important than them?  Jesus?

At the time of writing this, I had not heard the state of the union address as I was on retreat.  (Yes, I wrote much of this on retreat, which was actually a great thing to do, it helped focus my prayer considerably).  I almost wrote a litany of the awful things that President Trump said to see how close I would be to what he actually did say.  But though I was writing, I did not break radio silence and check in with the world, which was fitting, being with Trappists.  Thomas Merton, in his depressingly relevant 1968 book Faith and Violence, said that he didn’t read newspapers.  He found the papers to contain superfluous, un-thought-out, inaccurate or at least fluid information in an overwhelming volume.  Too much and not helpful, that was his take on the “news.”  He said that enduring, important news, news worth consuming could wait for the book; so he did.  Very little information is so important, or even relevant to what we can do anything about that we can’t wait for the book.  I wonder what Fr. Merton would say about Facebook?

Like I said on Epiphany 3 and 4, this world, this beautiful and horrific, resilient and fragile, holy and profane world matters.  It matters to God and it matters to our neighbor, which about covers it, so it has to matter to us.  Which means that how we are and what we do in this world, matters.  How we consume resources, how we treat neighbor and neighborhood, how and to what we dedicate the greatest gift we have, our self, matters.   That which you dedicate your concern and effort and time, your life’s energy, from which you derive satisfaction, a living perhaps, often an identity, all of that matters.  Which also means things like the contents of our President’s speech and what it implies for our neighbors around this country and the world, matters.  And since it matters, it must necessarily lead to action to support that which is right and combat the evil, resist all those things that will usher in the horror show that looms on the horizon.  We must do God’s work, which means doing good and resisting evil.  That is what making real the Kingdom of God means.  Our parish mission statement, which comes right out of the catechism is clear: our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ as we pray and worship, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace and love.  That is our mission, which is the collective form of vocation; it is our purpose, it is why we are gathered, it is what we are supposed to do.

I think we’ve got two out of three pretty well in hand.  We can always do more, better, faster, stronger, but we pray and worship well here together.  Our Saturday/Sunday Feast of our Lord cycle is as strong as any parish I have ever seen.  If I weren’t the priest I’d come here to worship.  And promoting justice, peace and love, reaching out into the world, that is part and parcel of our identity as a parish, and it is what most anyone who is not churchy knows about this place: that we care for the homeless, we put our money (and ourselves and this building) where our mouths are, like we are supposed to do.  I am proud of you all for taking risks in that way.  Not Prideful proud (well not much) but “a warm-hearted admiration for” proud.  But what about proclaiming that Gospel?

Did anyone read my letter in the annual report?  That is not a test!  In all my years sitting in a pew I don’t think I ever read reports like that, so don’t feel anything, I am just curious.  I wish I had read this passage from St. Mark’s gospel before writing it.  In part, my annual report is about my vocation, and what I discerned over the course of my sabbatical.  The words I used were that I am feeling more and more called to build up the good than combat the bad.  I think I am supposed to build up the Church, this church, you, preparing you all to discern and do rather than all the work out there that I have been doing, activism, direct service in the community, crying “Semper Fidelis” as I go over the top in a frontal assault on the Zeitgeist.

Jesus was healing people.  He was doing it, right?  Healing in the name of the God of Hosts, embodying God’s soothing balm, making real the Most High in the lives of the lowly, making them whole again.  But that was not what He came here to do.  He came to proclaim the Gospel, so He left the sick and moved on to the next town.  That is a theme in Mark’s Gospel.  He came to proclaim the Gospel. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Those are Jesus’ first words in the first Gospel written

Yes, yes, yes, our actions are an embodied proclamation of the Gospel.  Yes.  And.  And we need explicit faith in that work, Gospel intention in that civic action, holy flesh on the equally holy bones of our ministry in the world, because it takes a lot more than just our wills to make the Kingdom of God real.  In this world it does.  None of us are that strong on our own to persist and persevere in the way we need to persist and persevere, to endure the hardships that real change will bring.  We need more.  We need God.  Like Pope Francis teaches: First you pray for the poor, then you feed them.  That is how prayer works.

I re-read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on retreat.  Good stuff in that one, dated in places, but strong.  In it he wrote of people’s desire for the church to “take the lead” in society, be more active.  But, he observes, what “take the lead” mostly means is that people want church people, read: leaders; read: clergy, to take the lead and advocate policy and lead action.  He writes, “That is silly.  The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever…”  That’s it, isn’t it.  Our great hope.  Everlasting life, cosmically everlasting, not biologically, that’s unnatural.  That’s our starting point here at church.  The rest of it, the work, the actual application of Christian principles to the world, that is on you, the people.  Christian values find their way most definitively into the world in you, Christian people being in the world.  You want the values of Jesus Christ applied to business, law, teaching, raising a family, whatever your context is, then be a Christian business person, a Christian lawyer, a Christian teacher or parent or a Christian whatever it is that you are.  You are the church in the world, you are the hands of feet of Jesus Christ, not only shaping the future, but being the right now.

So if it has seemed that I am here at church a lot more, I am.  And it pains me!  (Not being here, but not being out there).  I love the excitement, the engagement with power, the edge that comes with working with people on the fringes.  And there is the less edifying pride of the attention, being in a lot of people’s contact lists, being in the know.  But that is not where I am being called right now.  I am being called here.  This is what I am supposed to be doing.  My vocation is becoming more clear.  And the vocation of this place, of you, or at least a path to discerning those vocations is becoming more clear, too.  That path is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change everything.  EVERYTHING.  Everything in your heart.  Everything in your life.  Everything in this sometimes seemingly God-forsaken world.  The power of light and life is made flesh in Jesus.  When we say the Word is made Flesh, we’re talking about the manifestation of the underlying consciousness of the universe, the Reason that undergirds existence, and has since the beginning.  That idea goes back to Justin Martyr in the 2nd century.  This is as Good as it gets, this Word, this News.  There is nothing, nothing subtle about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but how it alights in our hearts (if it does), that can be subtle.  Sometimes it changes everything, your whole life caught like a fish in the net of the Word and reeled in.  Usually, though, the changes it affects are less dramatic than Saul being knocked off a donkey and becoming Paul, apostle of Christ, but are more like (pause) “What am I doing? I don’t need to have another drink,”; or “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy… OK, that’s better than flipping off that jerk who just cut me off.”  (and it is).  That’s how the subtle work of the Gospel in our hearts happens most frequently.  “I’ll give a little more to x this year, I’ll feel it, but I can afford it.”  (X could be Resurrection, or it could be some other entity shining light into the world).  “No, immigrants should have rights, too,” you reply after Uncle Pete passes judgement with the spaghetti, or when you sit at your kitchen table and vote, or make a sign and march, go to a meeting and organize or run for some office yourself.   That’s Jesus happening.  That’s proclamation of the Gospel and its fruit.  That’s your job.  This is mine, laying a Gospel foundation so that you can have the strength to do the work God has given you to do.  Thanks for bearing with me as I figure out how to do what I am supposed to do as your priest.

These might be baby steps to the Kingdom, but they are steps.  And they are in the right direction.  It might take a long time, but that’s ok, becasue after all, we are going to live forever.  AMEN

 

January 28, 2018, 4th Sunday after the Epiphany YR B

Sunday, January 28, 2018, 4th Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Ed Lawry

 

MAY OUR LIVES BE ROOTED IN LOVE

 

Today’s readings center around the issue of “authority” and the difficulties the Christian community faces in giving scandal to each other in the face of different understandings of what is required of each of us in our commitment to love God.

 

We all should remember how extensive, complicated and detailed the Mosaic Law was including rules about what is clean and unclean food, ritual purification laws, requirements for keeping feast days, rules about sacrifices and blessings, laws about contributions to the temple, instructions for construction and maintenance of the Ark of the Covenant, recommendations about blessings, etc.   Part of the aim of this complex of Law sought to make members of the Jewish sect distinct from other religious communities.  They were to be the people of Yahweh—the chosen people of God.  And the way they showed this off to others as well as the way they demonstrated this to each other in order to encourage piety grew elaborate and obvious.

 

This might give us some pause in our contemporary life.  Imagine how different our lives might be if we all went around wearing little Episcopalian hats or scarves, stopped what we were doing every so many hours to unravel our prayer rugs and dropped to our knees facing Bethlehem, produced and consumed special Episcopalian food on a regular basis (what would you suggest, Yorkshire pudding? fish and chips? shepherd’s pie?)

 

Among the various sects in the ancient Middle East it was typical for individuals and communities to at least show collective homage to their deities by sacrificing food to their gods in public ceremonies and if stories in the Old Testament are any guide, in private manifestations of worship.  Such a sacrifice demonstrated how loyal and dependent the worshipers were to the powerful protector and provider they had chosen as their god.  We see this food sacrifice in the earliest parts of the Old Testament—famously in the story of Cain and Abel.  And indeed this story suggests that the sacrifice of meat (Abel’s sacrifice) is understood to be most pleasing to the deity.

 

So we hear Paul giving this careful administrative counsel to the Corinthians about the religions implications of food consumption.  Is the consumption of the food offered in sacrifice to an idol a case of treating the food as merely food since “Food will not bring us close to God.  We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”?  Or is it a case of treating it as a sacrament, in which case it would be a blasphemy because it acknowledges the deific status of an idol as opposed to the one true God?  Paul shrewdly splits the difference.  Since in fact, the food cannot be religiously important since the idol does not exist, there is no objection to eating the food as food.  But, since not everyone is so clear and strong in their theological understanding, it might contribute to their confusion about what really counts as sacramental.  Thus it could contribute to the disruption of doctrinal unity and solidarity of the Christian community.   Because meat is the real source of the problem as the primary sacrificial food in question, Paul concludes that we are all better off being vegetarians until the coming of the Kingdom.

 

Perhaps the Church in Her wisdom decided to include this section of the epistle in today’s lectionary as a kind of sneaky way to indicate that Paul was surely not the prophet talked about in the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy who would be raised up from among the people and God’s own words put in his mouth.  What would Jesus himself have said to the Corinthians about the matter?

 

In contrast we have Mark’s gospel which presents Jesus who does indeed have complete authority.  Indeed that is the very point to this section of Mark’s gospel—to show at the beginning of this story that Jesus was, unlike the scribes or Church administrators, “the Holy One of God” as the unclean spirit in the synagogue identifies him.  How did the people know this?  Because he “taught them as one having authority”.  And how did they recognize that he had authority?….Well, the members of the synagogue cite the evidence that “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”  So it appears that the Jews took the opinion of the unclean spirits.  But aren’t unclean spirits masters of deceit?  Perhaps they were like the contemporary Russians and were spreading Fake News for their own wily purposes?  It is very interesting that Mark doesn’t give us the actual teaching that Jesus provided in the temple which might have bowled his readers over with its authority.  But no—no words simply on their own contain authority except that minimal authority that whoever speaks them is the “author” of them (except when they are quotes from someone else’s words).  No, the idea of authority Mark is talking about is something else.

 

Authority as we discover it in Mark is that special attribute that some person has that intuitively calls forth confidence in the truth and rightness of what they are saying.  Authority elicits trust.  It is not contained directly in any words but is a global presence that cannot be resisted.  My favorite touchstone for this notion is from John’s gospel (Chapter 6) after Jesus has taught a revolutionary idea of sacrificial/sacramental food, namely his own personal flesh and blood as food and drink.  Many of his disciples heard this teaching and lost respect for Jesus’ authority, but when Jesus asked the 12 if they would also leave, Peter speaks up and says “Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Here Peter’s spontaneous outburst includes the other apostles without checking with them, so certain was Peter of the reality of Jesus’ authority.  His trust in Jesus is robust, and interestingly he calls Jesus by the same title as is used by the unclean spirit in Mark’s gospel—the Holy One of God.  Yet here the puzzle becomes acute.  Peter and the apostles seem to be brought under the spell of Jesus authority, but many of the other disciples desert Jesus at this moment precisely because of the words of his teaching.  How then is  this authority of Jesus supposed to be obvious and irresistible?

 

I am in the middle right now of reading a fascinating book by the Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman called “Thinking—Fast and Slow” in which Kahneman explores the many ways our intuitions provide unjustified evidence for rapid conclusions that form the foundation of how we make our way in the world.  Though he holds out a lot of respect for our ability to overcome our errors, it is a bit disheartening to realize that many of our typical mistakes in the way we intuitively understand our world are operative even when we know that they are mistakes!  He writes a little about how we form our opinions about authority.  Much of this is familiar to most of us upon reflection—deep voice, air of confidence, square jawed, athletic build, etc.  And if you want to gain authority in a group, speak assertively and early in any meeting. These are the sorts of things that sow seeds of confidence that someone speaks with authority.  Moreover, someone who seems to have power—the ability to manipulate the things of the world according to his or her own purposes suggests also that they have some authority.

 

Authority and power have long been associated concepts.  Those who seem to have authority seem naturals for getting power.  Those who have power often are accorded authority.  But we have many examples of the two attributes contrasting with one another—most often in someone who has power but who has little authority and sometimes in the case of someone who has authority, but alas, little power.

 

When we see someone with authority, we often think they should have power and we seek to give them power.  Thus the occasions when people wanted Jesus to become a king or a political leader.  When we see someone with power, we often seek to attribute authority to them too.  Thus the many examples in the scriptures of Jesus performing what many people took to be miracles and how those miracles were interpreted as signs of his authority, and especially the miracle of his own resurrection which was claimed to be self-authored—i.e. on his own authority.  Mark’s gospel gives us the story of Jesus’ power over even the unclean spirits as strong evidence of his authority.

 

So what prompts us as Christians to trust in the authority of the Jesus figure—the Holy One of God?  One good answer is “Well…it is just everything.”  And that is why we don’t just stop with the beginning of the Gospel story, but carry it through the Church year until it comes round again and we do it again until we manage finally to SEE.  But when I try to puzzle it out, I keep coming back to the marvelous way Jesus kept separate the easily confused attributes of power and authority.  The source of Jesus’ authority for me is paradoxically his deliberate powerlessness.  His example was to be the servant of all, to love rather than be loved, to understand rather than be understood.  As our passion scriptures call him, he was the one who emptied himself.  Even his miracles are mostly not exercises of power over the natural elements, (though he does make the wind subside and manages to walk on water pretty well) but of simply his words that are obeyed by other intelligent beings who, in order to obey, must have the discernment to see and the will power to follow his direction.  Everything in his life is a transformation into the spiritual.  Forgive one another, love one another—what else was his message?

 

The Old Testament is filled with depictions of God as omnipotent.  He is creator and destroyer. His wrath shakes the heavens and the earth and his support sustains his chosen people in battle.  He is an awesome God.  In contrast, the New Testament mostly portrays Jesus as almost defenseless against the plotters and the jealous and over-scrupulous Pharisees.  He sometimes has to run away to keep from being attacked.  Instead his life was more like a dance or a song or a poem—nothing political or military or even very organizational.  He made nothing happen, but he changed everything.  I think of him in the way that the poet W.H. Auden (“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”) characterized poetry itself.

 

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From the ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.”

 

 

January 21, 2018, 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B, Epiphany 3
January 21, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“For the present form of the world is passing away.”

Last week we talked about human sexuality.  About our sexuality.  About sex.  We talked about how sexuality is a gift from God, a site of intimacy and connection, of pleasure, sometimes of creating new life.  Our sexuality is powerful, like fire, life giving, but untended, can be life taking, too: yours and others.  As with all of God’s gifts there is a shadow side, a sinful side and we can do great harm to ourselves and others with our sexuality, as with all of our appetites; they sustain and delight us, but we can become enslaved to them.  And the basis of it all being that what we do with our bodies, matters.  It matters to you, and your being.  It matters to your neighbors, those you share this world with, and it matters to God, to your relationship to God and to God in God’s self, the creator, redeemer and sustainer of humankind.  What we do with our bodies, matters.

It does matter; what we do with our bodies.  That doesn’t mean that it matters only in how our body interacts with other human bodies, it means that our interaction with the whole creation, anything in the created order, matters.  A key Anglican tenet is that the world is good.  The God of Hosts created it; Jesus dwelt amongst us in it; the Holy Spirit enlivens it.  We call it incarnational theology.  That is why we strive for such beauty and elegance in our liturgy, for we are attempting to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” as the psalmist indicates.  The world is not God, but God, our rock, our fortress, our stronghold created it, and animates it, and lives in and through and with it, and loves it and us.  This, all of this, is not nothing.  It is not just suffering.  It is not some grand delusion.  It is not some dread place to trudge through on our way to the sweet by and by.  This is the day (and the place) that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it, all of it.  What we do in this world, impacts this world, impacts the world that God created; that is why it matters.

The creation is good, very good, it could be, should be perfect, but it is not.  The world can be a perilous place.  We’re not going to get too deep into the doctrine of original sin, but basically it’s purpose is to account for the fact that it is not all good.  When faced with a choice between good and evil, we can, and too often do, choose the evil.  Why?  Why don’t we always and instinctively choose good?  Ain’t that a question for the ages.  The idea of original sin is less as a way to explain why that is true, why we choose the wrong way too often, (it is not, I repeat NOT Eve’s fault), but rather this doctrine points out that it is true, that in fact the world, we, don’t line up nearly as often with the way we could be, should be, as God intended for us to be.  I think we can all agree on that, or maybe you missed the paper this morning?  It is not all hunky-dory.

So how do we live in a world like this?  A world that is good, is of God and for whatever reason we so readily can twist and distort, so that the same desire that leads you to connect with the one you love in the holy intimacy of sexual union can be bent into the seedy, sordid, sometimes predatory and violent realm of lust.  Or the pleasure of the table, sustaining our bodies and satisfying our palates with food, rich food filled with marrow, well-matured wines strained clear, that good can be bent into gluttony, giving us 40s of Steel Reserve Malt Liquor and supersized Big Mac meals.  Oh how we can convince ourselves that we are satisfied when we have everything we want and nothing that we need!

How do we live in a world like this; one that is full of the good and the evil, with nearly every good thing either having a shadow side or that we have the ability to pervert or distort it or our relationship to it?  How do we live?  Lightly.

Between last week’s lection from 1 Corinthians 6, and this week’s from the 7th chapter, St. Paul is teaching the church specifically about this, about how to live in a fallen world.  Last week we read “All things are lawful for me…” This means that earthly things, he mentions food and sex, these are not inherently bad, they are lawful, “The food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.”  I could imagine him saying that parts of us are made for sex and sex for parts of us, not a bad thing at all, as natural as birth and death.  But then he goes one, “…but I will not be dominated by anything.”  “…I will not be dominated by anything.”

Then there is a long teaching on why it is better to be celibate but if you can’t help yourself get married and how to handle married life (I am glad that is not in the lectionary), but then we come to this week’s reading, and we hear him speak of the time growing short, “For the present form of the world is passing away.”  He says that married people should “be as though” they did were not married (obviously Paul wrote from a male-centric world view, we can help clean up his act and include women).  He said also that those who mourn should be as though they were not mourning, and the same for rejoicing and buying things and dealing with the world, we should “be as though” we did none of these things because “the present form of the world is passing away.”

This is the kind of passage that got folks like Marx very upset, because it can easily be read as saying to ignore the world, that it is meaningless, that none of this matters.  That’s the opiate accusation, that we are biding our time ‘til the sweet hereafter, that we focus only on the fullness of time, allowing us to ignore the suffering, injustice, oppression and other fruits of capital and empire right here and right now.

That is not a completely unwarranted critique.  Part of the problem is that Paul was convinced that the world was ending, and soon.  Christ’s return was imminent.  And the early Church took it specifically to mean take comfort not in worldly things because your consolation was right around the corner, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe…”  That still stands, His return in immanent, although most of us understand that the timeline for Christ’s return is less pressing than it seemed in 53 this letter was written.  Still, Paul’s teaching remains valid as how we ought to live in this world.

But to be crystal clear, Paul is not saying to ignore the world around us.  OK?  He is saying “do not be dominated by anything.”  When he says that we shouldn’t live as though we are married, or as though we mourn, or as though we rejoice, or buy things, or have dealings with the world, maybe he is not saying to reject all of it, to become celibate, though married; callous or numb in the face of loss or joy; to buy though you have or want nothing; or to just not deal with the world, maybe he is saying don’t be dominated by those things.  He’s not even saying don’t get married, or don’t mourn, but he is saying don’t live like it, don’t live like everyone else who thinks and lives as though all of this, the material world is all that there is.  It isn’t.  It is important, is matters and what we do matters, but it is not the only thing, not the most important thing.  Don’t let any of it, this world, the things in this world, our relationship to things in this world, don’t let that, any of this become the most important thing to you.  Because it is not.

We are in this very real world.  We are not taught to renounce, to flee to the desert like the Essenes, or New Hampshire like the Shakers and renounce the world.  We have monastics and hermits and anchorites, but they are specialists called to special ministry.  We, most of us, are called to live and love, to serve God and neighbor and live our lives, have friends, maybe meet and marry and make a family, build the church, live in community AND we need to remember that this, all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly is provisional.   Temporary.  Perishing.  That is what Paul is saying.  “Detached involvement” with this world.  That is how one commentator characterizes how Paul is instructing us to live.

Why?  Why should we assume a stance of detached involvement?  “For the present form of the world is passing away.”  Which means what, that the end is near repent and believe?  Yes.  That doesn’t have to mean that the world will end; it can also mean that the world as it is now will end.  The Kingdom of God is near, meaning that the world redeemed, reconnected with God, purged of that original sin that sets us to often on the wrong path, on the lusty side of desire, the gluttonous side of hunger, that world will come to an end, that form of the world is passing away.  That is possible, a world like that.  Not only possible, but immanent, the redemption of the world; that is the most basic and fantastically hopeful heart of the Christian story.

So when we live “as though” (that is a key phrase that Paul repeats five times in this sentence), when we live “as though” things of this life are important but not dominant, an eschatological freedom emerges for us.  If we understand that the present form of the world is in fact passing away, we might begin to internalize the truth that this is not all there is to concern ourselves with, and we can find freedom from being “trapped by the world’s structures and institutions.”  We are trapped by them if we live as if they held the final answers.  They don’t.  God does.

Is the air feeling kind of thin?  Or hot from all the theological hot air?  Living “as though…”  Do not be dominated.  “Detached involvement.”  That and 5 bucks will get you a large mocha.  This all is as profound a teaching as we have; that we shouldn’t become attached to this world as it is, that we should not follow the perishing.  But how then shall we live, those of us with a maybe a spouse, children, responsibilities, rent or a mortgage to meet?  Leave it all?

No.  And that is not what Paul is teaching.  His focus is not on renunciation, but the blessed assurance that God intends to bring order to this chaos, this suffering, sinful and chaotic world, a new order.  The Reign of Christ, the Kingdom of God is near!  As soon as we get our act together, poof!  It arrives.  So we try not to be dominated, we try to live “as though” we are not trapped by all of it, by the material world as real and important as it is.

Hold onto this world lightly.  A few weeks back I talked about that beautiful chenille sweater that Windy spilled bleach on, remember?  I had just left the corporate world and wouldn’t be affording something like that again.  And I could have been really upset.  (Well I was, but I’m dealing).  But really, as gorgeous and soft as it was, it was just a sweater.  Or I came here because I was laid off.  I loved my job at the monastery, and there were implications for my ordination and my relationship with my bishop.  It was hard on my family. I was so upset that I had a back spasm that sent me to the hospital.  But it was just a job.  Most people lose a job at some point in their lives.  It was real, there were consequences.  We had to get out from under a house, and find work, and reorder our whole lives, move, and???  We weren’t close to any edges.  We weren’t in existential danger.  A loss like that can be dangerous, can threaten some futures, and demand emergency action.  But though it sometimes seemed like that to us, it wasn’t.  Holding the world lightly is taking things for what they really are, assessing actually how important something is.

A large salary, standing, professional prestige, success, being successful by conventional standards… none of that is actually important. Making a living that lets you contribute to the commonwealth, and support yourself and those you are responsible for, and not doing it in an evil way: that’s important.  Living in just the right house in just the right neighborhood while wearing just the right clothes is not important: everyone (EVERYONE) having a safe, clean, warm place to live and having any decent clothes to wear is.  Being the one in charge (as much as some of us love it) is not important: the fact that a by most accounts sexist, racists, classist megalomaniac is president of this country is, the world matters.  The present form of this world is passing away, and us resisting the likes of our President and his faction is one of the steps in that direction.  He is attached to this world with every fiber of his being.  That is what it looks like when attachment to this world is brought to its ultimate conclusion.  Its ugly.  And wrong.  That is what Paul is teaching us.

Hold this world lightly.  Lovingly, yes, but gently, lightly, don’t grasp or cling to things that are not important.  And what is important?  Well think about what was important to Jesus and the disciples and the early church; that is a good place to start.  Maybe ask about what the saints teach us in their lives and deeds?  Or what is important in the Mass; where is our attention directed?  There are clues in there.  Imagine what God might think is important, if God thought like we do.  Or imagine what is important to a woman near to giving birth, or her child when they come fresh and new to the world, or that child’s great-grandmother as she nears death.  What is important to them?   Or to a teenager living in Aleppo, or Mogadishu, or San Salvador, or Nogales?  Or in a car off of Seneca.  What is important to them?   Or to an ancient tree in Fall Creek, or one of the 250 North Atlantic Wright whales that are left, or the Great Barrier Reef as it bleaches into oblivion?  Imagine what is important to the tens, hundreds of thousands who marched yesterday in the Women’s marches around the world.  All of these are clues to what is truly important.  Hold those things, lightly.  The rest, it will pass away.  “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.”  AMEN

 

January 14, 2018, 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany YR B

Year B, Epiphany 2
January 14, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’”

When I first read the epistle for today, 1st Corinthians 6, with its fornication and prostitutes and becoming one body, my first thought was “I am glad this is not youth Sunday.”

So this is a passage about sex.  Well, it is a passage about the relationship between our bodies, our physical manifestation, and God, that within which we live and move and have our beings.  St. Paul is telling us that our bodies, that how we use our bodies is totally tied up in our relationship with God; inseparable.  Actually, what he specifically says is, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”  Our bodies are God’s, gifts to us given by grace alone, therefore what we do with them matters.  I think that is the sermon, the center of an Episcopal-Anglican sexual ethic is that our bodies are a gift from God and what we do with them matters. But what should we do with them?  That is a big question.

Doesn’t it seem like almost everything you hear about Christianity in the media has something to do with sex?  Abortion.  Birth Control.  Abstinence only sex education.  Purity rings and purity balls and purity pledges.  (That whole movement is tied directly to this passage from 1st Cor).  And of course there are bathrooms, gay weddings, gay wedding cakes, and the on-going horror of clergy sexual abuse in parishes and schools of all sorts.  The image I get from popular culture is that we, Christians, spend every Sunday prudishly tut-tut-tutting about what everyone is or is not supposed to be doing in their bedrooms.  But I don’t know about you, but in my forty something years in Congregational, Unitarian and Episcopal congregations I have never heard a sermon about sex, sexual conduct, sexual ethics, what is right or wrong or what we should or should not be doing.  Like sex outside the bonds of sacramental marriage…  that is pretty basic.  Anyone know what our teaching is on that?  Some Christians might talk too much about this subject; some of us probably not enough.

Human sexuality is not a comfortable topic for many of us.  For some it is triggering, sex is right at the front of your mind, be it from trauma suffered or a sexualized world-view, desires swirling about, blinding you at times.  Some of us avoid thinking about it all: it may be a source of pain or shame, loss or loneliness, confusion, or maybe it doesn’t feel relevant to your life, or at least what the church has to say about it is not relevant to your life.  But it is.  Relevant.  Our sexuality is a central part of our existence, maybe not as a solitary individual at this moment in your life, but it has been, it may be in the future.  Each of us are here because two people at some point had sexual intercourse.  And look at the paper, go to the check-out line of any grocery store, open your junk mail folder, sex is everywhere, it is an important part of the fabric of our society, and it, sex, as with everything that we do physically in the world God created, matters.  It matters in our relationship with God and with our neighbor.  So let’s take a moment and shine the light of faith on this most intimate topic.

So what is the Church’s teaching on human sexuality?  Well maybe a better question is does the church, our Episcopal church, have teachings?  Yes it does.  But the authority of those teachings is different than, say our Roman Catholic friends.  Ours is not Mother Church with her magisterium whose teachings are God’s teachings.  Our church offers guidance.  It offers rules for the conduct of the church itself which then informs us.  So, for instance, we learn of the church’s stance on say same-sex marriage through a commission’s theological study and reflection which then offered input to our General Convention which eventually authorized “I will Bless you and you will be a Blessing,” our authorized liturgy for sacrament of marriage for same sex couples.  That is how teachings manifest in our church, or roughly so, that’s the most concrete manifestation.  We don’t, as a church, offer much in the way of definitive rules governing our lives, but we do offer reflection and guidance, reinforced with our life in Common Prayer together.  And that is pretty good.

But by what authority?  Where does a church teaching come from?  How is God’s word revealed to us so that we may live as disciples of Christ in this beautiful and confusing world?   Because there is a lot of stuff in the bible that is very specific about our sexual conduct.  Same gender sex is forbidden.  Polygamy isn’t.  Women are consistently placed in an inferior position, like in our passage today.  The soul in peril is the man joining with the prostitute.  The prostitute is purely the object, the occasion for sin, not an independent actor, not a human being, certainly not a victim of systematic patriarchal oppression that values her only for what value she, or her body, offers to men.  Scripture can be complicated.

We get a lot of flak from more conservative Protestants because we regularly teach what is not scriptural, or in the case of a lot of sexuality issues, expressly against the scriptural record.  Yes we do.  And that is as Anglican as it gets.  You’ve heard of the three legged stool?  Richard Hooker, our great English Reformation theologian in the 1590s proposed that God’s will is discernible from multiple sources, not simply the sola scriptura, scripture alone, taught by the continental reformers like Calvin and Luther.  Scripture is our primary source material, but tradition and reason are also sources from which we can discern God’s will. Tradition is how we’ve done it in the past.  From the church fathers and mothers and stories of our saints, to church canons and rules, to Holy Orders, the calendar, our liturgy… the voices of our ancestors are heard in our traditions.  They don’t get a veto, but they do get a vote.

And reason, most modern Episcopalian’s favorite.  It is not just intellectual process, but is more that God’s revelation is not sealed, and therefore we need to be open to it.  We can learn, grow, evolve and individuals, as a society and even as a church.  Among other things, we now know that the world was not created in six literal days.  We know that women are not property, that slavery is evil, that we don’t have dominion over the creation (and should not try to).  Reason keeps God alive through our capacity to think, dream, imagine, and discern.

So when it comes to same sex marriage, or say the permissibility of sexual relationship outside the bounds of holy matrimony, yes, scripture is clear:  People have been doing it for a long time and they ought not to be.  Tradition is also clear:  people have been doing it for a long time and the church has always said that they ought not to be.  Reason though, that has revealed to us a different take.

Sex in scripture and tradition has always been understood as a category of human experience held in the context of marriage and family.  Proper sex is married sex.  Traditionally, the church taught that sex was primarily for procreation.  There were allowances for mutual society, for relationship, for the intimacy and bond exchanged and created in sexual relations, that is an acceptable reason to have sex, but far secondary to procreation.  A third reason that sex in marriage was permissible was as a remedy for sin.  Paul was clear that celibacy was preferred, but if you can’t help yourself, get married so your needs aren’t met sinfully.

After the Reformation, these notions began to shift, and trended to accepting our sexual activity as first relating to mutual society, the bonds of sexual companionship rather than procreation.  Hence we don’t have bans on contraception, and our abortion debate is more complex.  More recently, moral theologians have been focused on pleasure, and the positive aspects of pleasure and that pleasure is a gift from God and something to be sought and enjoyed, not something seen as simply an occasion for sin.

So in discerning if same gender sex or sex outside of the bonds of marriage, scripture and tradition tell us things, and so does our experience of the world, historical and cultural reflection, the natural and social sciences.  All of that together can lead us to a statement such as this, that was issued in the General Convention of 2000 as resolution D039:  “…we acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships…”  We recognize that this, long-term committed relationships outside of marriage occur and we don’t condemn them, or call them sinful, but we do have expectations of them.  “…we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see each other in the image of God.”  That’s how we should conduct ourselves in the world sexually: in committed, loving and respectful relationships.  Sex within the bonds of sacramental marriage is preferred, that sacrament isn’t superfluous, but we understand that other forms of relationship are good, too, they need not be site of sin.

So what should we not be doing?  Some churches have a list.  We don’t, not a specific one anyway.  The resolution continues, “…we denounce promiscuity, exploitation, and abusiveness in relationships of any of our members…”  I’m not generally taken by Resolutions of Convention, locally or nationally, but that is pretty good.  That is a pretty good explanation of proper and Godly conduct of the sexual aspect of our being.  And it opened up theologically, the possibility for same sex couples to have sexual relationships that weren’t considered sinful.  See that, theologically, has been the major barrier.  If sex can only occur within the bounds of marriage, and if same sex couples can’t marry, then all same sex sex would be by definition sinful.  Well, it is not.  Our gift of reason has revealed this to us and we are maturing as a people.  And now everyone can get married!

So that is all well and good.  We have technical/theological/legalistic grounds for our sexual conduct, that is important, for as we see in far too much of our public discourse, our sexual conduct can have communal, societal consequences.  But our individual sexual lives are not characterized by technicalities, theological nuance or legalism.  Our sexual lives are much more organic, move much more with the rising of the sun, the movement of the tides and the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

Our sexuality is a gift from God.  It is a source of joy.  Of intimate connection.  Of deepening love and commitment.  Of wild pleasure: the pleasure of being pleased and the pleasure of pleasing someone else.  Our sexuality is the source of life itself.  It is where we come from and it can be something we offer to the world in intimate partnership with another human being.  It is a gift for which we should be grateful.

With all gifts from God, though, great responsibility comes with our sexuality.  Like Paul says, quoting Genesis, “The two shall become one flesh.”  When our bodies are that open our spirits are too, wide open.  There is a vulnerability like no other in sexual union.  And it is risky.  If you have been in intimate relationships likely you have experienced pain, you have been hurt in intimate relationship.  That is why we emphasize commitment, fidelity and monogamy as the context for expressing ourselves sexually.  Casual sex is not only physiologically risky, with the myriad infection risks and potential for unintended pregnancy, but psychologically and spiritually risky.  Our spirits are exposed, and if you don’t know that person, well, and love them and expect that they love you, bad things can happen.

And bad things do happen, all the time.  Our sexuality, the thrill of desires satisfied that is a gift, but like most gifts from God, there is a shadow side, a sinful side that we, as humans, seem to have a lot of trouble with.  Like good food, what a gift, but it can so easily turn to gluttony.  Rest is a gift from God, but sloth is just around the corner.  Desire drives us.  Drives us to great heights, sexual desire in particular, it runs deep, brain stem, base of the spine, in the guts deep.  I have never seen the force of life so obviously on display as in a buck in the midst of a goat herd in heat.  We had this little goat, Sweet William, a dwarf Nigerian about this tall.  He was separated from the does by a seven foot high welded steel fencing panel.  One day he ran along the wall like Trinity in the opening scene of The Matrix and flung himself over the top of the fence like a high jumper, his inflexible little body slamming on to the barn floor, but on the right side of the fence and the excitement continued.  The force of it!  Impressive.

It drives us, too, right into the ground sometimes.  We can become enslaved to our desires, leading us to make terrible decisions that hurt those we love the most.  It can lead some, many, to prey upon others, to put their own gratification and satisfaction before everything else.  It can lead some to disregard themselves, to devalue your humanity, your needs, bending to the will of others for their sake, not yours.  Sexual exploitation, abuse and violence are endemic and devastating.

Our sexuality is powerful.  So much of our identities, self-worth, self-image, notions of others as objects and subjects of desire are wrapped up in our sexuality.  Are we desirable?  Can we perform?  Are we alone in the cosmos?  What do you have to give?  What can you receive?  Our deepest beings are all tied up in sexuality.  It is powerful, it is like fire:  it will sustain your life, but left untended, it can take it, too, and it can take the lives of others.

Sex isn’t bad, but we can do bad things with it.  It isn’t dirty, but we can soil and pervert the gift we have been given.  Being a sexual being isn’t shameful, but we can treat others and ourselves shamefully.

Our bodies are part of the created order.  They are, as one theologian writes, “the piece of the world that we are and for which we bear responsibility.” We have the freedom to make choices for how we live our lives, how we use our bodies.  As you walk in this world as the sexual being that we each are, be mindful of that.  What you do physically and in your mind has consequences for yourself, for those you share intimacy with, for the community in which those relationships exist, and across the creation.  We are interdependent.    So enjoy your body.  God has blessed you with it.  Enjoy the body of the one who gives their body to you.  That is a most precious gift.  And always remember, what we do with our bodies, matters.  AMEN

 

January 7, 2017, Baptism of Our Lord, 1st Sunday after the Epiphany YR B

Year B, Epiphany 1 (Baptism of Our Lord)
January 7, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him,  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

Well Christmas is finally over.  The trees are down.  The greens are in the compost pile.  The last of the egg nog has been drunk up and the stockings have been put away for the season with care.  I hope you had a joyous Christmas.  We really stretch it out in our house, marking each of the Twelve Days of Christmas with carols and gifts.  It is really fun having that much Christmas and it really takes the overwhelmingness out of Christmas morning with its stacks of presents from Papa and Nana and the rest of the family back East.

But it is over now.  We celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany last night.  The Epiphany, or The Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles is our commemoration of the revelation of Jesus Christ to just that, to the entire world.  The Magi are the primary symbol of that manifestation.  They traveled from far off lands to pay homage to the newborn King, and presumably, they would bring word of Him back with them.  But there are other symbols, liturgical or ritual actions that we use to mark Jesus’ light shining into time and space.  One is the reading of the Wedding Feast at Cana, that was where Jesus turned water into wine, that was His first pubic act in the gospel of St. John. The other is what we are talking about this morning, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, on which we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord.

Baptism is one of the two great sacraments of the Church.  What is the other great one? __  Eucharist.  How many sacraments do we have?  ___  Seven.  They are: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.  Why are Baptism and Eucharist great?  ___  While the others evolved under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave Baptism and the Eucharist to us directly.  We received the Eucharist when He broke the bread and poured the wine with His friends at what would be the Last Supper before He was crucified.  And Baptism we received in the story we heard this morning, His own baptism in the Jordan under the hand of St. John the Baptist, the heavens opening, the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove, and the voice of God proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So today we are going to talk about Baptism: Jesus’ baptism, what it meant then and means now, and your own baptism, what it meant then and what it means now.  Now I know that some of you here are not baptized; some of you younger folks and some of you older folks.  Our radical Resurrection hospitality extends from our parking lot and our Egan and breakfast and family shelter and Home Starter Kits all the way to this open table here, meaning that everyone is welcome, baptized or not.  That is against church canon, but our Bishop allows for pastoral generosity, and I feel in my heart that Jesus would, too, so when we say “This is God’s table, all are welcome here,” we really mean it.  You are welcome here.  And if you don’t feel called to Eucharist, please feel free to come forward for a blessing at the rail with your brothers and sisters.  It is nice to be up here together.

So what is Baptism?  Well, the outward and visible sign of Baptism is water, a ritual cleansing in the name of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  So what actually happens?  Good question.  Remember this is a sacrament, a site of eternal and actual encounter with God through God’s vessel, the church.  Another way to say that is that it is “Who knows?”  This, like all sacramental encounters is a mystery.  How and what happens, it is a great and holy mystery, beyond our ability to understand let alone accurately describe.  Sacraments are not evidenced based, you can’t measure it, but that does not make it one iota less real, rather the sacraments are experienced based.  Billions of our brothers and sisters across millennia have been joined with God in this very particular way, and if you let it, it can, it will change your life.

Sacraments are a mystery, but with experience and a bit of holy imagination, we can talk about them.  Here is what wemight say about Baptism: “In (the water of baptism) we are buried with Christ in His death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Any guesses where that came from?  The BCP.  Not the catechism part, but the Baptismal rite itself.  Really, if someone asks what Episcopalians believe, you can with only a touch of snarkiness hand them a BCP and say “This.”

That’s a lot, though.  A lot that we imagine going on in this sacrament.  Buried with Christ in His death.  Sharing his resurrection.  Rebirth by the Holy Spirit.  Welcome into his fellowship.  There is a lot going on in the water of Baptism.  The same water that we heard of from Genesis, that God’s breath moved over, the same water that Israel escaped bondage through, the same water that Jesus Himself was baptized in.  That’s some water.  What does it all mean?

As Christians, as we try to figure out something about God or the world, Scripture is a good place to start.  The most basic way to understand baptism is that it is a call to mission, a call to activity by and in and through God.  That is certainly how the story of Jesus’ baptism in St. Mark’s gospel, the story we heard today, is framed, a call to mission, and that call comes in two distinct forms: anointing and appointing.  Let’s look at the scripture.

For St. Mark, the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is important.  John had been anointed as a prophet, a prophet who herald’s the coming of the Messiah.  St. Mark wants to be sure that we know that Jesus is the one that John has been waiting for.  John was very popular, and no one doubted his authenticity as a prophet.  It was important to Mark that everyone knew with certainty that Jesus was the chosen one of God, that He had been anointed by God, that he was the one John was talking about.  And that message comes in such a Jesus-y way, doesn’t it?  He, Jesus, was the one being baptized, not the one doing the baptizing.  The baptizer is sort of the one in charge, right?  Reading the book, saying the prayer, pouring the water.  But that wasn’t Jesus.  No, in perfect Jesus fashion, He showed how strong He was, how great He was, how holy He was by assuming a posture of humility.  On his knees, under that water.  Like the cross, His submission was His strength, His death was His (and our) victory. So Jesus is the one they’d been waiting for, that lesson is for us, AND, just maybe, this is that word getting to Jesus for the first time.  Mark doesn’t start with a nativity story.  No, it starts with John the Baptist, proclaiming “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.”  Then Jesus appears from Nazareth and is baptized and then sees the dove-like spirit and hears God’s voice. This is not only a revelation to us, but this, in Mark’s gospel, is Jesus’ call.  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus is anointed by God in the waters of Baptism, marked as Son, Beloved, in whom God is well pleased.

So Jesus is anointed, and then He is appointed to His mission.  And His mission?  To be a savior.  He came as a savior, not as a judge, though that may happen, not as a king, though He is held in royal esteem, but a Savior.  He came baptize not with water, nor with fire, but with what?  The Holy Spirit.  He is here to catch us in our headlong plunge, to cast God’s net far and wide and scoop us all up and hold us and heal us as a friend, as a brother, and as God.  Now that is a mission.

And it is explicitly messianic.  Messiah, Christ, that word simply means anointed, the anointed one.  The anointing happens in the descent of the dove and the voice of God proclaiming God’s favor, but this anointing itself becomes an appointing.  He is The Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of God, and carrying that title was a burden, it was a mission all its own.

By receiving baptism, Jesus was anointed as God’s chosen, and was appointed to serve us, to save us as messianic Son of God and the suffering servant that Isaiah prophesied.  His mission was to proclaim His solidarity with us, the guilty, the sinful, the separated from God, and in proclaiming His solidarity with us, all the way up to experiencing death, human death and descent to the dead, Jesus saves.  Saved.  Us.  All of us.  You.  That was the mission given to Him from God by the hand of John the Baptist.  Wheh… all of that in the scant and muddy waters of the Jordan river.

When you were baptized (or when you are baptized), much the same thing happens to you as it did to Jesus.  In that water, be it a dribble from the silver shell, a bucket’s worth in a feed trough, or a full on river dunking, you are anointed as “Christ’s own for ever.”  Your sins are forgiven, meaning that the distance between you and God is gone, there is no longer any separation, and in that, you are raised to a new life of grace.   Now that’s some anointing.

And our mission?  Our appointment?  The rite is quite explicit:  “Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Surrender to the actuality of God, spread the good news and serve by loving God with all our heart and all our mind and all our being and loving our neighbor as our self.  You are ordained into the priesthood of all believers.  That is a pretty tall order, so the rite continues, and we pray that God give us the tools we need to fulfill the mission we are given: an inquiring and discerning heart, courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.  All of that together means that you have what you need to figure out the mission God has appointed for you, what work God has given you to do.  But that is on you, figuring it out.  Discerning vocation, your life’s purpose and how that purpose serve’s God’s will.  And in a moment like this, with chaos in our leadership, crisis in our climate, poverty spilling out into our streets, it is time to get cracking.  You have what you need.  Pray on it.

We have some baptisms coming up. One in a couple of weeks, a baby, and there might be three or four, adults and children, at Easter Vigil, the most traditional day of the year for Baptisms.  That is pretty exciting.  And in just a moment, we are going to go through and renew our Baptismal Covenant as we do every year on this Sunday in memory of Our Lord’s Baptism so long ago.  Ponder those words in your heart.  They are for you.  AMEN.

December 31, 2017, 1st Sunday after Christmas YR B

December 31, 2017
1st Sunday after Christmas YR B
Sandra Wu

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

Good morning (evening) and a very happy New Year to all. My name is Sandra Wu. A few months ago when Fr. Brent asked me to preach, I immediately went into panic mode and suffered premature performance anxiety. Then why am I here today? When I looked at the lectionary readings for the first Sunday after Christmas and saw that the gospel reading was from the first chapter of John, that was it! Since I first read and pondered the prologue to this gospel, I have been awed and mystified by the poetry, the magnificence, and the power of John’s words.

 

The Interpreter’s Bible sums up my feelings and thoughts: (quote)“No book in literature has so breathtaking an opening as these stupendous findings on the life and character about to be described, flung down so confidently as the only possible explanation of them…The whole thing has the effect more of a piece of lofty music than of literature. It stirs strange feelings and emotions in us that surge up out of the deeps. It creates an atmosphere in which one reads, awed and tense, and with held breath. We know that we are face to face with something august, tremendous, illimitable. But the impression left upon most readers’ minds, one fancies, is indefinite and vague; a sense of something very big and very real, but indescribable, which will not go into words.”(end quote)

 

Join me then on my journey to understand and put into context John’s words.

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

Here is John’s profound declaration of the incarnation, the begetting of the divine from the divine, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God” as we profess in the Nicene Creed every Sunday. The Greek word Logos (translated as the Word) is defined in the Harper Collins Study Bible as “the divine principle of reason that gives order to the universe and binds the human mind to the mind of God.”  As Genesis I begins with the phrase “in the beginning” and goes on to describe the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the life upon it, John speaks of a new beginning, a new creation, with the the birth of the one that brings eternal life to the people after they have grown away from God.

 

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

In the first century, at the time of John’s writing, the Gnostics believed that there was an upper world of pure Spirit which was the dwelling place of God and a lower world of material things, darkness, and evil. Between these 2 worlds was a series of intermediaries, beings that separated God from his creation, a dualistic world. John refutes this belief by asserting that “all things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.” There is no impediment between the Creator and the created, as it says in Genesis I.

 

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John defines the essential nature of God as Light, Love and Spirit. That light battles and wins over the forces of darkness. Humans are born into darkness (sin) and are saved by the Light, the revelation of God through the incarnation.

 

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

Jesus participated fully in our humanity, experiencing suffering, misunderstanding, weariness, thirst, pain, sorrow and disappointment. His own people betrayed him and he died on the cross. This Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

 

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

We are able to see the face of God through the life and actions and selfless love of Jesus. Grace and truth. Selfless love in action. Kenosis. We pray to Jesus Christ, “you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.” Jesus is our chance for renewal, for reconciliation with God by the forgiveness of our sin, our sin of distancing ourselves from God.

 

Hearing or reading about God’s love is one thing, but there is nothing like personal experience to drive it home. When we lived in Ohio and I had an upcoming hip replacement surgery, something I was hoping to avoid, my friends who were members of an evangelical sect offered to “pray over me” for healing. It was an intense and out of the ordinary experience with 5 or 6 people praying aloud over me all at once in Susie and Mike’s house, laying on of hands, and with a high level of emotion. In the end I still needed the orthopedist to fix the problem, but one person’s statement to me during the healing prayer remains ever fixed in my heart. She said “God loves YOU, Sandra.” Now I had been quite familiar with the fact and belief that God loves the world and all the creatures in it. Somehow I didn’t really KNOW that God’s love extended to ME, personally, until then. When I read John’s gospel, it is all laid out for me, for us.

 

So here we are, a week after Christmas Day. The parties are over, the guests have departed, the leftovers have been preserved or disposed of. Presents have been opened, some of them returned or exchanged. Dry brown needles are dropping from the Christmas tree. We are exhausted, our wallets are a little lighter, perhaps we are even disappointed because our Christmas was not perfect. Shouldn’t we be feeling good, just as happy as on Christmas Day when we were joyful because the divine had come to us on earth? The Light and Love of Jesus has arrived. Now what are we to do? Do we gear up for New Year’s eve parties and the plethora of bowl games on New Year’s Day? What about carving out some time to reflect on the meaning of the birth of Christ?

 

We started this journey during the dark time of Advent, when we lived in sin, in darkness, and we placed obstructions between ourselves and God. It is literally the darkest time of year, just before the winter solstice. Then we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of the divine, on Christmas day. We are told by John that Jesus brought light into the darkness at that time and that the light continues to shine, and is not extinguished even today. The days grow longer now, by a few minutes every day. We feel hopeful that eventually the cold and rainy days will be in the past and that the sun will shine on us and warm us again. Isaiah says that “we shall be called by a new name and that we are granted righteousness by the grace of God in Christ.”  The new life that was born in Bethlehem represents God’s desire to be with God’s people in a new way. This is a time of birth and renewal.

 

How can we continue to experience this sense of renewal throughout the New Year? What can we do to recognize God’s love for us in a new way, every day, not just on Sunday? We pray, we praise, we bless, we come to church, we pledge some of our earnings, we listen to sacred music, we do good works, we feed the hungry and shelter the homeless at Resurrection. In our private lives we say our daily prayers, or pray the Office, read and meditate on scripture as in the practice of Lectio Divina. We practice Centering Prayer, meditating with the intention to consent to the presence and action of God within us. The purpose of all this is to transform our lives into the likeness of God. To do as Jesus did, to love the Lord our God with all our mind and heart and to love each other, to become the embodiment of Christ in our actions. It requires intention and it requires action. It is hard to maintain our intentions without some help. That’s where the community at Resurrection comes in. We  have numerous opportunities to engage with each other to strengthen our resolve. There is Mass, Adult Formation, Contemplative Prayer, Lunch Bunch, choir, Piecemakers, a total of 37 ministries at Resurrection when I attended last summer’s Ministry Fair!

 

I’d like to put in a plug for Contemplative Prayer. We practice letting go of thoughts during silent prayer so that we can make room for God. The effect is to bring ourselves to awareness of God in our everyday lives by emptying ourselves of our ego-driven thoughts, our unceasing busyness, our seeing things and persons as bad or good, right or wrong, black or white. As Richard Rohr writes so eloquently in a recent daily meditation on Self-Emptying, (quote) “the key to kenosis is knowing that your life is not about you. Everything—each breath, heartbeat, morsel of food, seeming success— is a gift. We are entirely dependent upon God’s loving us into being, and keeping us in being, interdependent with all other beings. Your life does not really belong to you…life and love are poured into us that we may pour into others. This is precisely what Jesus modeled for us through his life, death, and resurrection.” (end quote)

 

On the first Sunday after Christmas we hear from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, calling us to be reborn. “We should be overjoyed because in Christ we are children and heirs of God, freed from slavery.” Let us go forward into the New Year with a renewed dedication to become children of God in our thoughts, actions and spirit.

 

In closing, I would like to share with you the words of a choral composition written by Morten Lauridsen, a Pacific Northwest composer. Ed and I were blessed to hear this piece performed earlier this month in Tacoma. The piece is entitled O Nata Lux.

O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi-
 

O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with kindness deign to receive
the praise and prayer of suppliants.
You who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be made members
of your blessed body.
 
O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world.

December 17. 2017, Third Sunday of Advent YR B

Year B, Advent 3
December 17, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

I don’t know about you, but this Advent is flying by.  Maybe it was this crazy Egan activation, 10 nights, the longest ever.  As busy at it is here and with Windy gone so much, in our family it was sort of a lost week and a half. And hold onto your parkas, it is coming again, another long one.  Or maybe it is that we are greening today, a week early.  Christmas decorations are for the Christmastide, not the Advent season.  Or that Advent 4 is Christmas Eve.  I’d blame the HSK Advent Shrub for throwing me off if it hadn’t focused such amazing generosity from you all.  $2500 in three weeks.  They are back in business.  Though liturgically irregular, that little shrub is a harbinger of the coming season of abundance.  And it is coming fast.

Or maybe it seems fast this year because there is something about this season.  What a year!  In our lives: deaths, births, relationships begun, ended, health restored, health faltering, successes, failures. We’ve experienced the gamut right here in little old Resurrection.  Sandi remarked the other day that life can be so lifey sometimes.  And the world…  Alabama came through, yes, but only by the hair of our collective chinny-chin-chins.  The courts have been helpful, but the tax plan isn’t. It is a very bad sign that a nuclear disarmament organization won the Nobel peace prize.  That signifies that their purpose is not only real, but is pressing.  And our dear leader is still our dear leader and the opposition; I don’t know.  So much seems to be swirling around.

One thing that is holding me steady this year is the season of Advent itself.  In particular, the lectionary this year has pulled me in, and I can feel it pulling us towards Christmas. Advent isn’t about candy canes and waiting for Santa, it is about preparing for the Incarnation of God.  What is that that we must do?  Repent!

That is where the Advent season takes us.  We are broken, sinners. Neither we nor our world are as it should or could be.  This is not about fault, it is about fact.  Roy Moore is not a major political figure because we have our stuff together.  You are not difficult sometimes because you are manifesting the image of God in which you were made as brilliantly as you could.  Your rough edges, sometimes razor sharp jagged edges; we all have them, so we need to repent.  We need to admit that we are in fact broken, and we need to endeavor to change the direction in which we are headed.  And that brings us to where we left of last week… To repent we need to understand, and then act upon the knowledge that we cannot save ourselves.  We need to surrender.

That is the essence of repentance, that handing over to God of everything, ourselves.  People talk about a moment of Zen, a paradoxical moment where your regular thinking brain and feeling heart just can’t wrap itself around something.  Well our Zen Buddhist brothers and sisters don’t have a monopoly on adjusting themselves to holy paradox.  This is one of those moments like the weakness of the cross being the strength of God.  We can’t help ourselves.  That is what Grace is all about, life just flowing, light just shining, that’s the Grace of God.  But what we can do is let that life and light flow through us and shine out of us.  But, we can’t shine our own lights, we don’t have them.  Life can’t flow from us because it’s not our life, it is God’s.  But what we can do, is let God do those things.  Let God do those things in and through us.  That’s the key word: let.

Simone Weil supposedly uttered one of the most useful statements every made about all of this.  She said, “It is not so much that we need to say yes to God, but rather we need to stop saying no.”  God in Christ is ever present, like atmospheric pressure, pushing constantly pushing His way in to our souls, but we have this amazing ability to avoid it. To not hear it.  And sometimes is seeps in and all is well, for a while.  Then we turn away.  Exile and return.  That’s the human story.  Rejection and reconciliation.  It gets exhausting.

In the end, it is about surrender.  Letting go and letting God.  That step off the cliff before your repelling rope has full tension.  Laying down your arms (real, emotional or spiritual) before an opponent as an act of strength.  Letting something you love go, because it needs to be freed.  Doing something knowing that it will be for the best, though you know the near term pain will be great.  You’ve all been there.  That leap.  That is exactly what we are being called to do with our whole lives in relation to God.  To stand on that precipice and let go, leap into that dark abyss into the warm, comfortable arms of God that are just beyond your sight.

That is the culmination of repentance and that is all pretty darn abstract.  What we really need are tools, paths, practices to affect our surrender.  It is much easier, it seems, to keep it all as it is, not rock the boat, not deal with the consequences of the changes that will follow.  It is hard to stop saying no to God.  We need help.  Enormous help.

The lectionary just works sometimes.  This week, St. Paul is right here with us the passage we have from First Thessalonians.  In these eight short verses, Paul lays out a series of things that can ready us for the indwelling of God.  I say things, because these are not so much practices, but are postures, states of mind, filters of what comes in and goes out of you.   By trying some of these ways on, we might be able to assume a posture of receptivity allowing us to relax our guards enough to let the sun shine in.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Well.  That’s pretty direct, isn’t it?  It is like when people asked Jesus, “How should we pray?”  He answered.  “Pray like this: Our Father, who art in Heaven…”  We don’t get direct answers like this so often.  So let’s go through this passage.  The richness of it is stunning.

“Rejoice always…”  When was a time you rejoiced?  Really rejoiced?  I think of the second day of my sabbatical.  We drove up this crazy switchback road, twenty miles south of Prineville, to this house we had rented for a week, site unseen.  So much seemed to be riding on it being a good spot.  I was fried going on sabbatical, for a lot of reasons, and I, we needed a break, need some time alone together… and we pulled into this driveway and this place was more than we ever could have imagined.  Exactly what we needed.  I rejoiced.  I unclenched all of my muscles and a smile just {ding!} popped on my face.  I’m not a shriek or throw a hat up in the air kind of person, but I can imagine that feeling.  Letting go.  Letting goodwill flow out in response to good will flowing in.  I did, and that letting go in joy, the verb form of rejoice, it started us off on two of the best weeks we have had as a family.  I was just present, with that smile right there.

When you have rejoiced, where was God in that?  God was there, for sure, a new baby, a wedding, an idea falls into place, a project complete in the way you had envisioned, only better.  You felt open, didn’t you?  Receptive to the world. Gentle.  I felt so gentle bouncing off-road across sagebrush country in Windy’s truck.  That feeling (or that feeling with better shock absorbers) that is the feeling of receptivity.  That is the feeling of openness to God.  Imagine giving in to that?

“…pray without ceasing…”  Imagine giving into that all the time?  That is what Paul is indicating.  Prayer.  What does that mean?  Anyone know the official BCP definition?  (Anyone know where to find the official BCP definition?)  [Let’s do a BCP sword drill.  We’ll cheat.  Page 856, right in the middle of the page.  Could someone read it?  “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.”]  Responding to God, always.  In Judaism, there are prayers for everything, every mundane act has a prayer that goes with it.  I spent 10 days in a Buddhist monastery in Burma meditating.  Sitting in the hall, walking meditation, that was part of the practice.  The other part was that you did everything mindfully.  You consciously pick up the tooth brush. Pick up the toothpaste.  Twist the cap off.  Squeeze the toothpaste.  Watch it go on the brush.  Stop squeezing.  Put the cap back on, twist, twist, twist.  Put it down.  Raise the toothbrush…  There’s 20 minutes of your life lived mindfully.  Noticing, being as fully present as possible in every moment, those prayers some Jewish folks do, it is not very efficient, but man oh man, you are right there, chest deep in the sacrament of the present moment.  That is what Paul is talking about.  Responding to God without ceasing.   That means being open to the world as it actually is.  It means not being cut off, wrapped up, walled off, shut down, our heads in the clouds or in the sand.  Responding to God all the times means being present and open and honest with what actually is.

When you are there, when you are fully present, things aren’t as scary as they are when you bumble along in the half light most of us walk around in, our minds and hearts whisked away by our phones, our entertainments, our fantasies of the future and nostalgia for the past.  Praying ceaselessly, constantly responding to God, you aren’t going to be startled as often, for the unexpected is noticed a lot farther off when you are really paying attention.  What God is offering you is a lot clearer when your vision is a lot clearer.

“…give thanks in all circumstances…”  This is about gratitude.  Always being grateful is a way of life, it is a whole being orientation.  Gratitude is the posture of knowing that it is not up to you, what you have, what you do, what happens to and around you.  Giving thanks always is a first order practice of finding God in your moment to moment life. We always say grace before eating in our home.  That thanksgiving pauses us for a moment, opens us.  At the monastery, we prayed before eating.  And then we prayed after eating.  It is harder to remember to say thanks for the food which you just ate.  Now this is not the same as saying, “Well, God made this happen for a reason!” when something terrible happens.  God’s will does not make tragedy happen.  But it is, even in the face of horror, being thankful for even the breath you take.  Giving thanks for food you have.  For the company of others who grieve with you.  For someone to pray for.  There is always something to be thankful for.  And when we remember that, and when we note something to be thankful for in even the darkest time, your souls loosens, like tightly held shoulders relaxing.  That is a big fat invitation to God to come on in.

“Do not quench the spirit.”  Let it grow!  Let it flow!  Energy, life, love and joy.  Don’t tamp it down.  Don’t drown your fire.  Where you find joy and passion (or where joy and passion find you), follow or welcome it in.  I hear so many stories that begin, “In a perfect world, I’d be doing/working/sailing…”  When I left the Marine officer corps, and not to long thereafter the corporate achievement ladder for the bright shores of ministry, I was scared silly.  What future was I leaving behind?  What prosperity was I forgoing?  How could I ever afford a chenille sweater like the one Windy spilled bleach on again?  You know, important stuff.  (It was a very nice sweater, though).  But I walked away from it and have regretted it exactly never.  Do not quench the spirit, live fully, now.  That is where and when God is.

“Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything…”  This is good. This is about giving the benefit of the doubt, but not swallowing blindly.  We need to give the benefit of the doubt.  We need to consciously rely on things, people, outside of us.  We need to heed the call of Isaiah, and know that “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves,” but we need to see how that fits into our lives, into whatever it is that you have before you.  One of the things I love hearing the most about this place is that many think that this is a safe place for seekers, spiritual seekers.  I strive for it to be.  If you can’t ask the hard questions at church, where are you going to ask them?  And some of the questions get answers we can abide in.  Some don’t.  And that is ok. We’re Anglican.  Just make sure you stand up and sit down when you are supposed to!  Really though, “…hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil.”  That is not advocating salad-bar religion, but it is about self-examination, learning what you need, what will help you develop your relationship with God.

“…this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  All of these ways of encountering the world that St. Paul lays out, rejoicing always, praying ceaselessly, giving thanks in all circumstances, not quenching the spirit, giving the benefit of the doubt but still testing…  can you see how doing those things could open you up to God?  Could bring you into a more intimate relationship?  Could bring the idea of surrender into the realm of possibility?  Some much of this is about trust.   Trust is tricky business, particularly if you have good reason not to trust power, like racial minorities, any kind of minority, actually, women.  Surrender for a woman is a different task than surrender for a man.  You are asked, if not forced, to surrender, to submit constantly.  But surrendering to God, now that can be something completely different.  For the powerless, the lesser powered, it is not groveling before some father-king, no, it is an audience with the source of all creation, you are called into the presence of the God Almighty!    That is a place of honor and awe, not humiliation.  And for the powerful, maybe there is a bit of groveling.  Maybe we men types need to have the experience of humiliation before the almighty, that might be edifying for us to experience.  In either case, we need to open to God enough that God might slip in and soften our hearts, help us change the direction of our lives, help us repent and get on with the brilliant work God has given each of us to do.

Christmas is almost here.  Let go.  Let God.  AMEN