This Is The Night   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, at the Easter Vigil on 31 March 2018.
Scripture:
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Luke 24:1-12*


Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

This is the night. This is the night.

When we speak in technical theological terms about the Eucharist—the meal of thanksgiving that we share every Sunday and on feast days—we sometimes use the word anamnesis. In ancient Greek language it means remembrance, or reminiscence—Jesus said at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember all of God’s saving deeds throughout history—the most important of which is Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we are united with the human family who has experienced and celebrated those deeds through all of the generations. All the saints of the Church, known to us and unknown, are present with us, remembering with us, helping us remember what we know only through their stories. Anamnesis.

But tonight—our Easter Vigil—is the mother of all anamneses. This is the night on which our remembrance both commences and culminates.

Imagine sitting with the male Disciples on the first Holy Saturday. Your Chosen One has just been executed by the state, and you’ve locked yourselves in a room to escape the same fate.

What might you do in that room to keep a grasp on your faltering faith?

You might tell stories of God’s saving deeds in history, how God saved God’s people in ages past. You might pray that—despite the death you’ve just witnessed—God will bring each of us to the fullness of redemption.

You might tell the great story of the Exodus—how God led your spiritual ancestors out of bondage and split a sea in two to bring them to safety.

You might recall Ezekiel’s Surrealistic vision of a long-dead skeletal nation having its flesh and its breath—its spirit, its life—restored.

You might tell any one of the other several stories listed beginning on page 288 of the Book of Common Prayer—I’m sure at least one or two of the disciples must have been Episcopalians and had a BCP at the ready.

Meanwhile—while the men are in hiding—the female disciples are on their way to the tomb. Perhaps they are confidant that their gender would save them from the capital punishment that might await their male counterparts, or perhaps they are simply more courageous. They bring spices and balms to honor Our Lord by further preserving his body…

Meanwhile, Our Lord has descended to the dead, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it—or as it is sometimes translated, descended into Hell. If that wording shocks you, it’s worth remembering that neither the Jewish tradition nor the first Christians had our concept of Hell as a place of damnation. The Hebrew word Sheol—sometimes translated as Hell or as the grave—didn’t have a connotation of morality or judgment, but simply meant death: eternal sleep and darkness. So perhaps Jesus is merely in darkness and rest—eternal sleep that won’t really be eternal.

But there is also a story in our tradition called The Harrowing Of Hell. If you do an image search on The Harrowing Of Hell, you’ll see an Orthodox Icon of Jesus standing on the broken door of Hell, pulling Adam and Eve out of their graves. Since Christ has overcome death, death no longer has hold on humanity. The word “harrowing” means “extremely disturbing or distressing.” The death and resurrection of God incarnate is something so powerful and earth-shattering that hell itself is disturbed; death itself quakes in fear.

Which brings us back to the tomb, which the female disciples find empty, the heavy stone somehow unsealed and rolled away. Two messengers from God tell them that Jesus is risen. The anamnesis continues: “Remember how he told you…” “They remembered his words…” and they go tell the apostles—becoming apostles—sent forth—themselves.

“But these words seemed an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” As Luke will tell us in the sequel to his Gospel, Peter will come a long way in the next 50 days, but for now, like so many men in his and our own time, he and the other male disciples have trouble accepting the word of women. The text doesn’t tell us this, but I hope he apologized to Mary Magdalene and the other women once he returned from seeing for himself.

This is the night that changes a small group of followers into an international, multi-cultural Jesus Movement. This is the night that tells us that all God’s saving deeds in history have been leading to something. This is the night that testifies that death and hell are not the end.

At the turn of the 5th Century, St. John Chrysostom—Chrysostom is a nickname meaning “Golden-Tongued”—wrote a Paschal homily that is a wonderful statement on Easter. It goes:

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a grateful servant, let her, rejoicing, enter into the joy of her Lord.
If anyone has wearied themself in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let her feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let her not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; God gives rest to them that come at the eleventh hour, just as to them who have labored from the first.
God has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one God gives, and to the other God is gracious.
God both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn her transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.
The One that was taken by death has annihilated it!
O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept.
To God be glory and might unto ages of ages.
Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

*You’re right: the appointed Gospel lesson for the Vigil this year is from Mark 16; a clerical error/miscommunication resulted in my using the Luke instead. 

Good Friday   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 30 March 2018.
Scripture:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
John 18:1-19:42


One of my favorite experiences in the years I was a resident congregant at Grace Cathedral was being part of a trio—with The Rev. Deacon Anthony Turney, of blessed memory, and The Rev. Deacon Nina Pickerell—who held the large wooden cross for veneration on Good Friday. I had a front row seat as a couple hundred people filed through the line to kneel and place their hands or lips on the wood. Though I was not scrutinizing the faces of those who passed, it was impossible not to notice that a great many of those people wept copiously.

(I’ve seen this here at St. Thomas as well, of course, but not quite on the same scale nor quite from the same vantage point).

Some were strangers to me—people I’d never seen in the Cathedral; I can’t say whether this was their first time in a church in many years or they were devout Episcopalians who just happened to be somewhere unusual for them on Good Friday.

Many, of course, were dear friends, and among those there were several from whom the weeping came as no surprise—I knew their passionate faith.

But there were some dear friends who were not generally expressive about their faith, and their tears surprised me.

All these shared an apparent sentiment for this ritual; they shared grief at the remembrance of the death of Jesus Christ. All these mourners passed by this cross to kneel before it in prayer, and to touch it or kiss it. They wept as if they were mourning the recent death of a beloved friend or family member.

Like all the best things in the Church, this was both individual and communal; it was both personal piety and public liturgy.

We knew that Christ would rise—was already risen. We knew that Easter was imminent, and still we wept at the loss of life.

Today The Church commemorates the death of Our Lord, the fact that the Incarnation of God experienced mortality—and violent mortality at that.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you are familiar with the sentence that begins the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion.” Certainly the same could be said for Good Friday.

Imagine how the disciples must have felt on this day. Imagine that the leader you’ve been following for years—the one you thought was the Messiah, and the Son of God—has just been tortured and executed by the State, with the full support of your own religious authorities. You and your friends are in hiding, fearing for your lives. This nascent Jesus Movement may be over just as it was taking off.

This was a person who changed your life, who taught you a new way of living the faith of your ancestors. A person who could literally raise the dead. And yet you can’t imagine that he could raise himself.

And more, you’ve lost a dear and trusted friend.

When my father was dying—not executed by the state but being slowly overcome by stage 4 colon cancer—I was struck by the fact that he was dying alone. I don’t mean that he wasn’t surrounded by family and close friends throughout his illness: he was, right up to the moment he breathed his last.

But it was his life that was ending, not ours. The end he was experiencing was only an abstract to the rest of us. We were losing him, but he was losing life itself, with all its joys, sorrows, and experiences. No one living could quite empathize with what he was experiencing.

No one living, that is, but Jesus. One of the points of the Incarnation is that God—who had always sympathized with human suffering—can now empathize with our experiences. Immortal, almighty God has now experienced human vulnerability and mortality.

This is part of what we mean when we talk about God’s sacrificial, redeeming love for all humankind: God became vulnerable and experienced a violent death, and now knows what it is to live and die as one of us. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”

He knows our grief as well: Jesus first experiences death from the side of mourning. Our funeral liturgy reminds us that he “wept at the grave of Lazarus, [his] friend” even before raising Lazarus, and it seems safe to assume that he wept at other graves, likely including that of his earthly father, Joseph.

God’s empathy is not limited to the agonizing, humiliating death by crucifixion, but encompasses any kid of death, including: death by the mail bomb of a white supremacist terrorist; death by toxic masculinity with easy access to weapons that no one should have; death by 20 bullets for the crime of holding a cell phone while black; and slow death by cancer.

God knows our fears of death and our pain in death, because Jesus has given his life in an offering of love to all of us. As we will sing together in a few minutes in the last verse of the hymn “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded”:

My days are few; o fail not with thine immortal power
To hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour
That I may fight befriended and see in my last strife
To me thine arms extended upon the cross of life

In turn, when we contemplate the death of Our Savior—the death of our incarnate God—that contemplation may bring us closer to peace with our own mortality.

Death is a central theme and motif in the Harry Potter books, and the final book in the series makes that abundantly clear with the Tale of the Deathly Hallows, a story within the story that is presented as an ancient myth of the Wizarding world. A story of three brothers who engage in a lifelong battle of wits with Death itself. Two brothers—seeking their own power—fare poorly, but the third Brother finally “greets Death as an old friend”—a phrase that I’ve always found moving and challenging.

In Lent—particularly in Holy Week, and particularly on Good Friday—we have the opportunity to sit with death, to  contemplate the fact that our God truly knows death, and to begin a friendship with our own death.

Death is always attended by God’s empathetic love. We also know, from Jesus’ experience and example, that there is hope, even in death. That death is not the end. That death has been overcome and undone. This is why our funeral liturgy is always an Easter liturgy. This is why that liturgy reminds us that “Even at the grave we make our song…”

Posted 31 March 2018 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

Servant of the Servants of God   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, in March 2018 for the commemoration of Saint Gregory the Great.
Scripture: Mark 10:42-45
Audio note: Unfortunately the first three paragraphs did not get recorded. Mea culpa.

What do you think of when you hear the word servant? Does it have a good connotation or bad? Does it depend on the context?

The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word servant is the kind of household employees in mansions that we saw depicted in the TV show “Downton Abbey” and “The Rules Of The Game”, the Jean Renoir movie that inspired “Downton Abbey”.

Perhaps the word is complicated for you by the subservience implicit in its meaning. Or by its connotative adjacency to the word “slave”.

March 12 is the feast day of St. Gregory the Great, and I’m grateful to Reverend Justi for the invitation to preach this morning on the patron of my Community, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. I’m fond of reminding you that you are connected to the Brotherhood, and I hope that today you might feel drawn deeper into that connection.

St. Gregory was born around the year 540, the son of a Roman Senator and great-great-grandson of a pope. After a career in politics, Gregory turned to monastic life: he retired to his family home and founded a Benedictine monastery there. He expected to live out his days in prayer and contemplation, but in the year 590 he was chosen to be Pope.

He was reluctant to leave the monastery, and his papal correspondence often includes complaints about his job and a deep longing to be back in that quiet contemplative life, seeking union with the Creator rather than arbitrating ecclesiastical and political disputes.

But he was a great reformer in the Church, revising the liturgy, creating an accounting system for the Church’s resources, and reminding everyone—often in a confrontational way—of Christian responsibility to care and provide for people in need.

In 1969, when young Richard Thomas Biernacki—later Br. Richard Thomas, BSG—set out to found a religious community for church musicians, he and his friend and advisor, a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Margaret Mary Joyce, VHM, decided on Gregory as patron for two primary reasons:

One, Gregory is associated with the creation of the plainchant style that now bears his name—Gregorian chant—which was codified under his papacy. A fitting patron for church musicians, and though the Brotherhood’s charism has broadened significantly since then, music is still very important to us, and a number of our members old and new are church organists, choirmasters, or singers.

The other reason for the choice is that Gregory is beloved in the Anglican Communion (of which the Episcopal Church is part) for sending the first missionaries to England—brothers from his own monastery—which led eventually to the Christianization of England. A fitting patron for a Community that would help change the face of religious life in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.

But perhaps the most important thing to know about Gregory the Great—the most important message we can learn from him—is the title he added to the papacy.

As he prepared for his enthronement, Gregory the monk thought about the impressive list of magisterial and imperial titles that came with the bishopric of Rome, and decided he needed to add one to keep him humble:

Servus Servorum Dei: Servant of the Servants of God.

As the Church was enthroning him at the top of its hierarchy, Gregory chose to place himself one step below anyone who was God’s servant. Gregory was signaling to the Church and the world that despite all these fancy titles like “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, I am at your service!

As Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus is telling his disciples—and us—that leadership in his reign means service, and greatness means giving all—to the point of opening his arms on the cross and pouring himself out to all of us.

And being that kind of servant might put you in service to the upper crust of society, or it might put you in service to lepers and sex workers. Perhaps all of the above. The tricky thing about being a servant to the servants of God is that we don’t get to determine who is or isn’t God’s servant.

Jesus modeled servanthood in the way he made himself available—for healing, counsel, or simply to be present—to everyone he encountered, particularly people in poverty and society’s outcasts. He modeled servanthood in his own obedience to God’s will.

Gregory made Servus Servorum Dei his personal motto. And in time Gregory’s attitude of servanthood became more important to the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory than his namesake chant or his establishment of English Christianity. “Servants of the Servants of God” became one of BSG’s mottos as well—a constant aspiration manifested in our vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

We have come to see special resonance in Gregory’s leaving the monastery for service in the world. Gregorian Brothers live in the world, not in a monastery—that is what makes us friars rather than monks (and we have St. Francis of Assisi to thank for that distinction). As religious, we spend a significant portion of every day in prayer and meditation. But we are called into service to God and God’s people, and the contemplative moments of our lives are what feeds our action on God’s behalf. We are apostolic—sent forth—rather than monastic—cloistered in a monastery. As our Brother Karekin Madteos says, we carry the monastery in our hearts.

Every Brother is involved in service of different kinds—in their own parish, in their communities and families, and in their jobs. But then: so are most of you. When you march for justice, or go to work, or spend time with your friends and families, and do so with love and intention, you are in ministry.

Many of you have heard me talk about Brother Ron Fender of blessed memory. Br. Ron spent the later part of his life in ministry to people in deepest poverty. He worked in the Community Kitchen in Chattanooga, Tennessee and lived among the impoverished clients; he provided foot care for them, and never accepted more than minimum wage payment from the Kitchen. He went on to found the House of the Magdalene, where he lived with and cared for several men who had previously been homeless. Throughout his time in Chattanooga he attended those living on the street, and often provided for and officiated at the burials of those who died.

But for most of his adult life he worked in the theatre as an actor and director, ministering to the souls of theatre-goers. Was that any less of a ministry? Any less servanthood?

My favorite story about Gregory is depicted in many pictures and icons of him, and in the medal that every professed Gregorian Brother wears with their profession cross (you’re welcome to ask me for a closer look). On this medal Gregory is sitting at his desk, writing a homily. And just above his shoulder is a dove. This image comes from an account of Gregory’s secretary, who said he saw a dove whispering homilies into Gregory’s ear—or in some versions of the story, putting the words directly into Gregory’s mouth with its beak!

Hagiography—biographies of saints—are often fantastic and far-fetched. As we say of these things: All of this is true, and some of it really happened!

But if you cannot accept this story as miracle, consider it as metaphor. Imagine the ways in which the Holy Spirit might be whispering words in your ear, or placing the words in your mouth with her beak.

Listen for the ways that God is calling you to deeper servanthood to the servants of God.IMG_2749

Advent 4   Leave a comment

mrpriest
The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on the morning of 24 December 2017.
Scripture: Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Canticle: Luke 1:46-55

Today’s Gospel lesson, known in the Church as The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, or simply The Annunciation, is my favorite Bible story. And it’s one of the most influential stories in terms of art; I would encourage you when you go home this afternoon to do a Google image search on The Annunciation. You’ll find hundreds of paintings over the centuries, from ancient murals and icons to John Collier’s very modern take. Even if you can’t call to mind any images of the Annunciation at this moment, some of the pictures you find will undoubtedly be familiar to you. (Your search may reveal a few early images in which Mary is wearing a chasuble and stole—the vestments of a priest).

The story has inspired hymns and spiritual songs, perhaps most notably Hymn #265, which we often sing at this time of year as well as on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. And three words of Mary’s response inspired Paul McCartney to write one of the Beatles’ most celebrated songs.

If you pray the Rosary, or grew up praying it, you know that the first line of the Hail Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee,” comes from Gabriel’s greeting here.

All this familiarity with The Annunciation can desensitize us to its revolutionary nature: this is one of the most subversive stories in the Bible.

Let’s quickly address Mary’s virginity: the Church and our culture have developed an unfortunate fixation over the centuries on Mary’s sex life, and it has had an unhealthy effect on our broader conversations around sexuality, with some devastating consequences, particularly for young women.

Mary’s sexual innocence is not the point, and the message is definitely not that virgins have found favor with God and those who aren’t virgins are out of God’s favor.

The point—as Gabriel explicitly says—is that God can do what should be biologically impossible. This is God saying, “I know the parameters of human reproduction; I created those parameters; and I can transcend those parameters.”

Because what’s about to happen will change everything.

Mary accepts the strange news that follows the strange greeting, and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” echoes the response of God’s faithful servants over generations to God’s call; look through the Bible and you will see those words again and again. They’re good words to have in mind if God should ever call you to anything.

And when Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary becomes three things: one, she becomes a mother.

Two, she becomes in essence the first Christian priest, consecrating with her word the body and blood of Christ—a fact curiously overlooked or excused by two millennia of male church leaders opposed to the ordination of women, despite Mary being depicted in priestly vestments in liturgical art for nearly that whole time.

Three, she becomes Theotokos: the Mother of God. Now, I recognize that may be a controversial term for some of you. Calling Mary the Mother of God isn’t to worship Mary, or to say that Mary is greater than or equal to God or Jesus; it is acknowledging and showing reverence for her special role and place—as Gabriel clearly acknowledges in the text—as the mother of the incarnate God, the one who was chosen for and accepted this role—risking her impending marriage, her reputation, and in a time of both high childbirth mortality and the stoning of unmarried mothers, risking even her life—and gave birth to Jesus and raised him.

So Mary is special. And yet, very much human, and very much an example for all of us: for each one of us is called to echo her response: Here am I; let it be with me according to your word.

Every day, in every moment, God calls you and me and The Church to do as Mary did, and give birth to the incarnation of God in the world.

Most of you know that Erica and I are expecting our first child in April. And we have had countless friends and relatives telling us, “Your lives are about to completely change forever. You can’t even imagine how much everything is about to change.” And it’s something I don’t mind hearing over and over, because I know it’s true: I know that no matter how much I can intellectually grasp how profound an experience becoming a parent is, I won’t really know until I experience it first hand. Neither books nor movies, nor having nieces and nephews and the children of close friends in my life can prepare me: the experience is beyond my comprehension.

So is this true of the Incarnation. What we will celebrate tonight, what St. Paul calls “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed,” was foretold for generations as the coming of a king and liberator of a great kingdom—and yet turns out to be not a king and kingdom in an earthly sense, but a helpless baby born to a family of marginalized ethnicity in a time of occupation and oppression, and a spiritual kingdom whose citizens strive to live in marked distinction from the values of the kingdom they physically inhabit. Even the Prophets couldn’t grasp the astonishing thing they were foretelling. But they knew that everything would change.

Shortly after the Annunciation, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is unexpectedly pregnant with John who will become the Baptist, and Mary sings the canticle we call The Magnificat, which took the place of a Psalm for us in today’s liturgy. This Song of Mary hearkens back to the Song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel—another unexpected pregnancy—and it is perhaps even more subversive and insurgent than The Annunciation.

Mary begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” (in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul magnifies the Lord) and then she tells us why; she paints a picture of a world turned upside down, a world in which God has scattered the proud in their conceit, has cast down the mighty from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty; God has come to the help of God’s servant, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy.

The Magnificat is what love, justice, and power look like in God’s kingdom. It is the polar opposite of what love, justice, and power look like in our wounded world. It is the polar opposite of the greedy, heartless tax bill passed into law this week. It is the antithesis of the justice and power structures we see in our nation today. It is a world in which Mary’s consent is an essential element of the Incarnation, as is Joseph believing her story.

This song of subversion is part of the Church’s daily liturgy: it’s optional at morning prayer, but always part of evening prayer. If you’ve ever thought about memorizing a piece of poetry to calm yourself at stressful times, consider memorizing this canticle, and reciting it—praying it—regularly.

Note that Mary uses the past tense; these are the things that God has done. Even though Jesus is not yet born, and we may not see how justice is prevailing on Earth, it is already done, and cannot be undone. The powerful, the unjust, and the unloving just don’t know it yet.

Tonight Christmas begins. God is coming into the world through unlikely means: an impossible pregnancy through the consent of a brave and Blessed Mother.

God is coming into the world through the faith and love and justice of every person in this congregation and in the Communion of Saints—brave and blessed mothers all. And everything is about to change…

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child… of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Funeral Homily for Br. Max Steele, BSG   Leave a comment

The following is the homily I gave at the funeral of Br. Max Steele, BSG, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 16 December 2017.
Scripture: Job 19:21-27
Psalm 150
Rev 7:9-17
John 11:21-27

The Gospel passage we’ve just heard finds Martha of Bethany—along with her sister Mary, and Jesus himself—in deep grief over the death of Mary’s and Martha’s brother Lazarus. It’s appropriate to imagine a sobbing voice—or even an angry voice—in Martha’s admonition to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

And if you’ve ever felt that feeling grief is somehow inappropriate for a Christian who believes in the Resurrection, take heart in verses 33 and 35 of this same chapter of John: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… Jesus began to weep.”

Jesus knows what he is about to do; he has just told Martha “Your brother will rise again.” and still he weeps over Lazarus’ death and the pain around him.

We are all in this house of prayer today because we love and grieve for Brother Max. We love and grieve with Sonya and Sam.

Scripture assures us that Jesus grieves with us.

But it also assures us of more than this: When Martha talks about her brother rising in the Resurrection on the last day, Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection and the life.”

Brother Max had faith in this declaration. He had faith in all these Bible passages we have heard this afternoon: the redemption promised in the Job passage; the salvation promised in the Revelation. Like the Psalmist, Max was unabashed in his praise of God. He was an example for all of us to follow in his faithfulness to God’s call.

I met Brother Max when he and I interviewed for the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory in the spring of 2014. The two of us, with Michael-Julian Piper, had a few hours to get to know one another the evening before our interviews, and in those hours we shared our life stories and became fast friends. I went to sleep that night thinking, “if we don’t get into BSG, I want to start a community with these two guys.”

And the next morning, the three of us found that we were already community: the interview process is—appropriately—intense, and in between sessions, Max, Michael-Julian, and I met in the chapel to talk, pray together, and cheer each other on. We were all admitted that day as Postulants Prospective, and the three of us continued to be community over the next few months as we waited for Summer Convocation and the chance to actually join The Brotherhood: we had several phone calls to talk about life, theology, and our hopes and plans for our vocations.

All this to say: Max was born to be a Brother. Born to serve, support, and love the people around him. Born to be faithful to God’s call.

The Brotherhood has two mottos: “Servants of the Servants of God,” which I think we can all agree Max embodied; and “Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone the glory.” Shortly after we became Postulants Prospective, Max began to put “Soli Deo Gloria!” in his e-mail signature. It was completely natural and genuine in him to glorify God and not himself; it was so true to the good, humble servant he already was.

I’m moved by Max’s choice of the passage from Job, particularly the lines:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side…

It reminds me of a hymn we often sing at the close of Palm Sunday: “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded”; it’s number 168 in the Hymnal.

There’s an extent to which each of us dies alone. I know that Brother Max was surrounded in his final days by Sonya and Sam, by Brothers and other family and friends. And I know that his trust in God was so strong that he had a sense of peace about his death—that his only worry was leaving Sonya and Sam bereft. But none of the mortal humans at his side could share his experience of death; no one could entirely understand what was happening to him.

One of the blessings of the Incarnation is that God in the form of Jesus Christ has experienced death. That Jesus—immortal and eternal—has an intimate personal understanding of human mortality.

The last verse of “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” is:

My days are few; O fail not, with thine immortal power
To hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour,
That I may fight befriended, and see in my last strife,
To me thine arms extended upon the cross of life.

Jesus was present with Max throughout his dying in a way that no other living human could be. And extended his arms from the cross to “guide Max to springs of the water of life, and to wipe away every tear from his eyes.”

Which brings us back to Jesus and Martha, weeping together at the graveside of Lazarus. In his Incarnation, God knows the deep sorrow of losing a dear friend. Jesus,  in weeping for Lazarus, with a company of mourners, bestows holiness upon the very act of mourning.

Even though we are confident that Max is with Jesus, and will rise again in the Resurrection on the last day, we grieve at his apparent absence from our lives here and now.

But Max is still with us. He is present in our memories of his sweetness, his warmth, his humor and laugh, his service to his fellow human beings.

He is with us in the ways that his personality has rubbed off on Sonya and on his brothers and friends. He is present in Sam. We see him in Sam already, and will no doubt see him more as Sam grows.

And he is present in the Communion of Saints who pray for us and with us and walk among us. Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we are united not only with Christ and one another, but with every Christian who has celebrated the Eucharist over time. Max is there with us, probably saying to each of us in that wonderful Alabama-Tennessee baritone, “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!”

At this altar, we receive abundant, unconditional love from a God who knows and can empathize with our deepest pain and grief. We receive nourishment to give us strength and faith to go out into the world and serve God and God’s people, to God’s glory.

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side

IMG_2654

Advent 1   1 comment

C99mg1hXoAAWSUBThe following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 3 December 2017
Biblical texts: Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18Mark 13:24-37

It is night. Charlie Brown is standing outside, looking at Linus, who is walking towards him holding a candle. Charlie Brown says, “What’s this?”

Linus replies, “I have heard that it is better to light a single candle then to curse the darkness.”

“That’s true,” says Charlie Brown, now looking past Linus, “Although there will always be those who disagree with you…”

And in the final frame we see Lucy, shouting into the night: “You stupid darkness!”

Scripture, like Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts”, is always relevant, but sometimes it feels particularly relevant, as if it speaks precisely to this present moment. When I began to prepare this homily and read the first line of the Isaiah passage, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” I thought, “isn’t scripture relevant?” In this time of unveiled white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, of increased violence, economic and environmental injustice, and morally-bankrupt leaders, how much do we long for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” to bring justice and righteousness to the wounded people of our nation and world.

Today we begin both the season of Advent and the new Liturgical Year. The Church begins its year with a time of waiting, hoping, preparing for the coming of Christ in the present and future. And we remember the ways our spiritual ancestors did the same in the past.

Each of the seasons of the Liturgical Year represents an invitation to us to contemplate our relationship with God both as individuals and in community. An invitation to remember that we are citizens of God’s kingdom, and how the way of that kingdom is different from the way of the world.

And I think Advent may be the strongest of such invitations; it is perhaps the most contemplative of seasons, and this invitation to contemplation comes in the time of year in which we often find ourselves most busy; the invitation to remember the ways of God’s kingdom comes at a time when the world is shouting at us to shop, buy, consume. Black Friday always gets the jump on Advent 1.

This congregation is abundant in generosity—our blanket drive is the most recent in a long list of examples—so I have no doubt that each of you approaches your Christmas shopping with a spirit of giving rather than material accumulation and consumption. That’s not what my Advent message is about.

But I do want to encourage you to find time within this season for that contemplation that the world wants you not to find time for. Even if all you can manage is 5 minutes on one day in this whole season. If you can do more, great; if you can make it a weekly or daily practice in this season, great. But if it’s just one time, one day, for a few minutes, stop what you are doing, set your phone down, and spend a moment with God in silent contemplation.

What should you contemplate? Consider what we are waiting for in Advent.

We begin Advent with a collection of apocalyptic readings, establishing that things are bad. And this is a good beginning to our contemplation of waiting: for what were our spiritual ancestors waiting?

What was Isaiah crying for in that passage? For what restoration does the Psalmist cry when they say, “Restore us, O God of hosts”? What was it like for our spiritual ancestors to wait generations for a messiah? What was it like to wait hundreds, thousands of years for a promised deliverance? What agony must that have seemed at times, particularly during the times of wandering in the wilderness, exile, captivity, and occupation. They must have believed their world would never be just again. What kept their hope alive?

Sometimes it is a good and right thing to sit with that darkness, to be patient with it, to contemplate the ways in which we are together in waiting for the light. We are in communion with our spiritual ancestors and with each other. That is part of what the Eucharist is about. We, like them, are waiting in hope.

In times such as our own, when power is held and abused by people exercising the worst parts of human nature, when the people in charge make a mockery of the values of our faith and the stated values of our nation, it is acceptable to scream “you stupid darkness!” And that can be a holy and righteous part of your Advent contemplation and meditation.

And then: light a candle. Meditate on your vision for this wounded world. In the spirit of the motto we have adopted at St. Thomas for this year, bring your light. How can you be the Light of Christ in a dark world?

The incarnation of God is an ever-ongoing thing, as the Body of Christ—in us, the Church—enacts the will of God, the legacy of Jesus. God works through human beings, and that includes you—as individuals and as community.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” The hope of Advent is what the hope of our spiritual ancestors over millennia has always been: that a savior, a redeemer, a sustainer will come. That there will be light at the end of the darkness, that a power greater than the evil powers of this world will come in great glory. That the ways of this world have not won, and will not win.

This hope is what keeps us working God’s will in the world through the dark times; and that work in turn feeds the hope. This is the “keeping awake,” the being “on the watch” that Jesus speaks of in this reading from Mark. That God—often through us—is working all things for ultimate good. That there is a light shining through the darkness.

I have quoted Blessed Julian of Norwich from this pulpit before. Julian is the 15th Century English mystic who wrote the book “Revelations Of Divine Love” from a series of visions she had during an illness. But I haven’t quoted her most famous line, which is what God told her several times in slightly varied words through these visions: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”*

Julian was no Pollyanna: her words—or rather, God’s words as reported by her—are not meant to be a don’t-worry-be-happy panacea, pretending that suffering isn’t real. “He did not say,” Julian notes, “‘You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed…’”*

The words “all shall be well” are that same hope: that God is always acting in love in the world; that despite the very real evil and suffering in the world, God is present with us and working for ultimate good. That someday Jesus will return, and whether that happens tomorrow or 10,000 years from now, we can keep working in the assurance that all shall be well. And that this is the vision we can carry in our hearts as we work to bring God’s Reign to earth.

Jesus is coming. And God’s abundant love has always been, is now, and will always be becoming incarnate in the world around you. As we begin this season of preparation, as you patiently contemplate the darkness, let God’s abundant love become incarnate within you—become incandescent within you.

Julian again: “And so our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts that I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this way, ‘I may make all things well, I can make all things well, I will make all things well, and I shall make all things well; and you will see for yourself that all things shall be well.’”*

*Julian of Norwich (2015). Revelations Of Divine Love. (Barry Windeatt, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1395).

In Defense Of Halloween   Leave a comment

vampyrf

A still from “Vampyr” (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

This is by no means intended as a scholarly essay on historical Halloween—I’m no expert—but simply an encouragement for Christians to see the good in Halloween.

I’ve known Christians who have a horrible fear of Halloween, or even a hatred of it. These Christians have referred to it as Pagan (a reasonable point, but they say that in a pejorative way), or even Satanic. They want nothing to do with what they regard as evil and anti-Christian.

But: Halloween is a Christian holiday. It’s certainly not only a Christian holiday, but it is very much a Christian holiday. The name itself comes from “All Hallow’s Eve,” referring to the eve of All Saints’ Day (1 November); in ancient Christian tradition, as in the Jewish tradition from which Christianity originated, holy days begin with a vigil at sundown the night before.

All Saints’ Day and its partner All Souls’ Day (2 November), feast days in which we remember great leaders in the church and loved ones we have lost, occur at the time of year in which we note the change from Autumn to Winter, and that seasonal change has long been considered to be a “thin” time, i.e., a time in which the membrane between the physical world we know and the spiritual world diminishes, and traffic between those worlds increases. The gates are open between Heaven and Earth; angels, demons, and otherworldly spirits may be close; the dead are closer still.

Some scholars have opined that Christian Halloween began as its own celebration, but more likely it was adapted from other ancient harvest festivals, most prominently the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. And that doesn’t mean we should steer clear of it; a great many Christian festivals have some roots in other traditions, including Christmas and Easter.

(It’s important to be aware of cultural appropriation, and ways in which dominant cultures—including later Christianity—steal traditions from the cultures they oppress, but in these ancient Christian traditions it was more the marginalized early Christians trying to adapt to the cultures in which they found themselves trying to survive, and or the cultures that adopted Christianity trying to meld traditions).

The increasing popularity of Dia De Muertos, the Mexican version of All Souls’ Day, has helped, as it is deeply tied to Catholicism. It likewise began as a harvest festival, and focuses on honoring dead ancestors. There are some significant cultural appropriation issues there as non-Latinx Americans adopt these traditions—to the point of creating a Disney/Pixar movie about the holiday—but at least it’s opening people to the spiritual truths contained in this season.

A good way to look at the creation of Halloween after the fashion of Samhain is to consider that both Christians and non-Christians over many centuries were noticing something; they were experiencing things at that time of year that made them consider their mortality, honor their dead, and celebrate life. They were noticing that “thinness” between worlds.

I think Christians have largely forgotten how to notice the mystical, mysterious, and spiritual. And learning how to recognize those things again would help us make peace with mortality. Making peace with death is a key part of every Christian’s responsibility, and so Halloween, along with All Saints and All Souls, is a bit like Ash Wednesday in its memento mori quality.

And so we take part in these rituals that do those things: we remember the Communion of Saints, and our dead loved ones; we dress up as people or types we might want to be, in order to live our short lives to the fullest; we tell stories of ghosts, vampires, and headless horsemen to put a concrete form on the spirits traveling between the worlds around us. We put up cardboard skeletons and devils to laugh in the face of death and damnation.

Are there people who are using the holiday for evil? Maybe, but I suspect very few at most. Recognize that those of non-Christian traditions are honoring the same aspects of life and death that we are.

So Christians, do not fear Halloween. Enjoy it! Dress up; have a party; tell ghost stories; eat, drink, and be merry (responsibly); Visit a cemetery (respectfully). Or if you’re an introvert like me, stay home and watch a scary movie (I plan this year to revisit “Vampyr” [Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932], which is very much about that traffic between worlds).

Please skip the racist and culturally-appropriating costumes; skip the portrayals of mental illness as scary; skip cross-dressing for mere comedy’s sake; skip anything demeaning or insensitive.

By all means, pray: remember saints and loved ones; pray for the safety of your fellow revelers—particularly children; pray for peace with your own death; pray for the ability to see—and make friends with—the spiritual and mysterious around us. Go to church; light a candle. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return; remember that that is a holy thing.

Posted 25 October 2017 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized