Advent 3   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on Sunday 16 December 2018:
The Lectionary texts may be found here.

Audio file: homily16dec2018.m4a

In the early 1940’s, Walt Disney decided to make a movie about the African-American Experience in the post-Civil War South.

What could go wrong?

To his credit, he met with members of the NAACP to get their ideas on how to appropriately tell the story. And then, he decided to ignore all of their advice and tell the story as he had envisioned it, with all the offensive and hurtful stereotypes he had heard romanticized growing up.

You probably know the end of the story: “Song Of The South” is excoriated for its racial insensitivity, and for the most part considered an embarrassment by the Disney Corporation, which has never released it on any home video format and probably never will.

A few years ago, Pixar, which of course is part of Disney, announced that it was preparing to make a movie about Día De Muertos, The Day of the Dead, the Mexican feast related to All Saints’ Day. There was outrage from the Latinx Community, who saw this plan as an appropriation and exploitation of its culture. Several Mexican and Mexican-American artists and activists took Pixar publicly to task. “What do you really know about our culture and its traditions?” they asked. “Do you even have any Latinx filmmakers working on the project?”

And then a remarkable thing happened: instead of ignoring the activists like Walt Disney had done, Pixar said: “You’re right. We’ve taken the wrong approach. We’re sorry, and we’re going to do better.” They promoted one of their Mexican-American animators to the position of Co-director, making him one of the leaders of the project. They invited several of the very artists and activists who had challenged them to come to work on the movie, to help them understand the culture and get it right, to help shape the story and look of the film. They went back to the drawing board and restarted the project from a fresh, collaborative perspective.

You probably know the end of this story, too: “Coco” was a huge critical and popular success, enthusiastically embraced by the Latinx Community as representing and honoring its culture, and welcomed with joy by filmgoers of all ethnicities and ages.

I often see in my Facebook feed two competing ideals: one, that there is too much political and/or religious discussion in that space, and people should lighten up and post happy things like fun memes and cat videos; the other, that there is far too much banality on social media and more people should be conversing there about things that matter, like politics and religion.

As I look at the scripture readings selected for today, the Third Sunday of Advent in Year C, I imagine a similar debate happening within the multi-denominational Consultation that selected the Revised Common Lectionary. “It’s Advent: let us rejoice!” “No, it’s Advent: we must repent!” And so we have two passages and a canticle that tell us to rejoice, followed by John the Baptist admonishing us, “Repent, you poisonous snakes!”

The contrast does reflect a real longtime debate in The Church about the nature of Advent as a penitential season or not, and there has also been in my Facebook feed this week a vigorous and meticulously-researched debate about that question, and how it informs the debate on blue vestments versus purple.

Today we put aside the blue (or purple) for rose vestments, to note that this is a day to rejoice—gaudete in the Latin. Jesus is coming. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

I’ve commended to you before from this pulpit living the Liturgical Year, focusing our lives on the annual cycle of retelling the life of Jesus, and the life of God’s people in relation to Christ. And if you regularly attend an Episcopal Church, you are living the Liturgical Year at least to some extent whether or not you think about it. We are always hearing this story of redemption-and-reconciliation-with-God-and-each-other for which our spiritual ancestors have hoped in the past and for which our children and grandchildren will continue to hope and seek until that promised time comes.

We live in that hope even as wars and gun violence continue to claim our siblings, even as our government tries to erase those among us who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, even as it criminalizes poverty and ethnicity, even as it continues to separate the families of asylum seekers and allows their children to die in its custody. We rejoice in God’s saving deeds in the past, present, and future even as we mourn present tragedy.

Beyond the shock of the Baptist’s harsh words—words to get our attention and call us to do better—is what we could perhaps consider instructions on how to reach the time of rejoicing that the first three passages describe: share your abundance with those in a state of scarcity. Be just. Repent: turn away from your present position and consider another point of view.

The voice of Walt Disney in the context of making “Song of the South” is a voice we hear everyday: it is the voice saying “make America great again” without considering those for whom it has never been great. It is the mostly straight white cisgender Christian-identifying male voice that says, “On some level I understand that you feel hurt and offended by my worldview and its language, but I am too devoted to that worldview and language to consider changing it.”

Pixar, meanwhile, bore fruits worthy of repentance. They heard the voice that says, “listen to those who say that you have hurt them. Invite them into conversation and learn from them, and you will all be better together. It takes hard work, but it it is worth it. Do not let your hands grow weak.”

The world is about to change. It changes every December as we follow the Liturgical Year’s cycle of remembering our ancestors’s longing for a messiah and the fulfillment of that longing in the birth of a poor child in a manger. And it is changing in our painful reality as those on the margins step forth to lead us out of darkness. It is changing as God slowly, quietly softens hearts and awakens the powerful to unheard perspectives. We can do better. We will do better. Bear fruits worthy of repentance. And rejoice.

On that day it shall be said:

Do not fear;
do not let your hands grow weak.

The Lord, your God, is in your midst;

They will rejoice over you with gladness,
They will renew you in their love;

They will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.

Motherf**king Empathy   Leave a comment

On the evening after newly-sworn-in Representative Rashida Tlaib told her supporters that the new Democratic House’s plan was to “Impeach that motherf**ker,” eliciting finger-wagging from across the political spectrum, my wife and I happened to watch a particular episode of the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The show follows the misadventures of 1960’s housewife Midge Maisel as she becomes a standup comic, sharing Greenwich Village stages with the likes of Lenny Bruce. In this episode, Midge found herself giving a spontaneous uninvited speech at a friend’s wedding—a speech in which she made lewd jokes about the priest and inadvertently unveiled her friend’s pregnancy.

“I have no filter! I don’t know where the line is anymore!” she later confessed.

And I thought: here in 2019 USA, none of us knows where the line is anymore.

If you know me, you’re likely aware that it’s extremely rare for me to utter a curse word. This is for a number of reasons—among them that I have witnessed so many people embarrassed (or not embarrassed) when they accidentally dropped an F-bomb near children or in church (for example). I don’t want to have a bifurcated vocabulary with different lexicons for different environments and then get it wrong in the places that matter.

But this president (the Motherf**ker In Question) and his administration have strained my filter, and I’ve found my usual vocabulary often feeling inadequate to the task of describing or responding to the cruelty of the MIQ and his supporters. I’ve muttered a few curses under my breath, and at least one on social media.

I know priests, deacons, and religious who curse like sailors; it doesn’t make them any less holy people.

But as for Tlaib’s critics: calls for “civility” from people of power and privilege are almost always attempts to suppress dissent. And of course tone-policing from the MIQ and his supporters rings entirely hollow: where is the line anymore when the President of the United States regularly drops phrases like “grab ’em by the pussy,” “bomb the shit out of them,” and “shithole countries”?

(As the Psalmist says: He loved cursing,
let it come upon him;
    he took no delight in blessing,
    let it depart from him.

And how can bad language be considered more obscene than actions like endorsing Neo-Nazi marchers or separating refugee parents from their children with no plans to reunite them?

It’s clear that Tlaib’s use of “Motherf**ker” was criticized less because of what she said and more for who she is: it’s another example of privilege in our nation. A straight white cisgender Christian-identifying man can say whatever he likes and have it shrugged off as “locker room talk” while everyone else is expected to hold a common standard of decorum—especially a Muslim woman, on thin socio-political ice to begin with.

But what strikes me as most elemental about the criticism of Tlaib is the lack of empathy from the Right. For a long time Republicans have exhibited an unwillingness to understand anyone different from them—to the point at which they ridicule the very word “empathy” and assume the worst about those strangers. This refusal to see others’ perspectives has—bafflingly—become a point of pride for them as they chide liberals for “political correctness” and being “snowflakes.” What a strange and sad outlook for people who largely identify as Christian—who are supposed to see the image of God, the face of Christ in everyone they encounter!

They see lazy people rather than people whom capitalism forces to work two or three jobs to feed their families. They see people looking for a “government handout” rather than people failed by the current healthcare system. They see traitors to the flag rather than black people protesting systemic racism. They see sexual degenerates rather than people who want to make a life with the same-sex partner they love. They see predators in masquerade rather than individuals assigned a gender that does not conform to their identity. They see terrorists rather than Muslims. They see invaders rather than refugees. They see threats to their careers and reputations rather than victims of sexual assault.

They cannot fathom that for all the people who are marginalized by the system in the first place—a marginalization that has escalated under the MIQ—perhaps a curse word is the only word such people can bring themselves to utter about this president.

In a more benign time we might wish that Tlaib had used a more polite word. But whatever you think of the MIQ, if you cannot summon enough empathy to understand how a Muslim woman—someone from at least two demographic groups routinely dehumanized by the MIQ’s words and actions—might find “motherf**cker” an appropriate word for him—perhaps the only appropriate word for him—you have hardened your heart. If you cannot see why members of dozens of marginalized groups might take some small satisfaction from summoning their most vulgar vocabulary to refer to the vulgarian who has decided that their rights, their safety, and their very existence should be up for debate, you have hardened your heart.

Find your compassion and see the face of Christ in your human siblings. See the wounds of Christ in their wounds. Work to make our nation recognize their full humanity and dignity.

Posted 7 January 2019 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

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.
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.

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.
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

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