Archive for the ‘Homilies’ Category

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).

Dry Bones? Rotting Flesh? We Can Work Around That.   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 2 April 2017

Biblical texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45

The actor Ray Wise is probably best known for playing “Leland Palmer” in David Lynch’s Surrealist television show Twin Peaks. You may have heard that Twin Peaks is coming back to television next month, with most of the original cast picking up the story 25 years later.

In recent interviews, Ray Wise has told the story of David Lynch taking him out to lunch a couple of years ago and saying, “We’re bringing Twin Peaks back, and we want you to come be in it again.”

Wise replied, “But David, I’m dead! Leland died!”

With a mischievous grin, Lynch said, “We can work around that.”

Today we are beginning the fifth week of Lent, our time of engaging with our mortality; repenting of our sins, individual and corporate; and renewing our life in preparation for the joy and resurrection of Eastertide. And in today’s readings we get two hard-to-believe stories that foreshadow the mystery of Easter.

Sometimes the Prophets seem a bit like Surrealist filmmakers as they retell their visions. Ezekiel gives us here one of the greatest mystical encounters in the Bible, rendered in wonderful poetic language: “The hand of the Lord… set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones… there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” These bones are long dead—they have not seen blood or marrow or life for years, maybe centuries. “He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” We might add, for clarity, “only”: “O Lord God, only you know whether these bones can live.” But there’s an almost comical subtext here: “You tell me, God! They look pretty dead.”

Erica and I visited the Catacombs in Paris last fall: it’s a series of human-made caverns and tunnels that began in the middle-ages as an underground limestone quarry, that two centuries ago was used as an ossuary—a resting place for the bones of the dead.

So when you visit them today, you walk through chambers with thousands of dissembled skeletons stacked en masse. It’s quite a breathtaking sight, and really a sort of Ash Wednesday experience: someday we, too, will be a pile of bones.

But this is now what comes to my mind when I hear this story: thousands of lifeless, scattered skeletons that could not possibly return to vitality—and yet in this story, they do.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…

So I prophesied as I had been commanded… And then an astonishing thing happens: the bones assemble themselves into skeletons, and muscles and skin form on them. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, and as he does, the breath enters the bodies of the Dead and they live.

Ezekiel engages our imagination with this outlandish vision, that we might have a sense of God’s power to resurrect the dead.

Ezekiel is speaking here of a spiritual resurrection: the People of Israel are in exile and captivity, and deep despair.  They have let their relationship with God fall into disrepair: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”

Or as the Psalmist puts it: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord…

And yet God promises here that they—and we—can return to spiritual life and right relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel reading brings us from the mystical to the miraculous: Jesus, arriving intentionally too late to cure Lazarus’ illness, weeps at his gravesite, and then asks that the stone sealing the tomb be rolled away.

Martha, ever the pragmatic one, warns Jesus that there is a four-day stench of rotting flesh built up. Like the dryness of the bones in the valley, this is a great storytelling detail: in case you weren’t sure: there is no hope of life beyond that stone. Lazarus is unequivocally dead.

But Jesus prays; then he calls to the corpse in the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!

So too, Jesus calls us out of our graves. From the times, the places, the ways in which we find ourselves spiritually dead, God calls us forth individually and communally to new life, to resurrection.

Many years ago I was suffering from depression. And at that time I heard these stories of the Valley of Dry Bones and Lazarus with new ears, finding tremendous resonance in them for the death I felt I was experiencing; the stories gave me hope of a spiritual resurrection.

Whatever depths of pain, grief, loneliness, and despair you may be in, God can raise you into new life. In God’s Kingdom, even death is not an obstacle. Dry bones? Rotting flesh? We can work around that. We can work through that.

Our parish has been experiencing a kind of death and resurrection over the past year-and-a-half as we said goodbye to a beloved rector and look forward with hope to a new one.

And many of us are feeling that our very nation is dying in some ways right now. But there is always hope of resurrection.

As Christians, we are always practicing resurrection. Both in the sense that we practice our faith, which is based in resurrection; and in the sense that we might practice a speech or a musical instrument.

In vowed religious life we have a saying: “Every day we begin again.” We are all continually practicing dying and being resurrected into greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ, until the day Christ comes again to lead us all into the final resurrection, living in unity and peace with all of God’s people.

There’s another common element in these two stories that we often overlook: did you notice how both the bones in the valley and Lazarus return to life? Through the will of God, manifest through the words of a human being.

God doesn’t simply animate the skeletons—as God could no doubt do: God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to them, and to the breath. Remember that to prophesy is to speak for God; the Hebrew word that we translate as “prophet” literally means “spokesperson”.

In the Gospel story it’s important to consider Jesus’ dual nature—fully human, fully divine. It may be the divinity of Jesus that resurrects Lazarus, but it does so through Jesus’ human voice: Lazarus, come out!

And it’s not just Jesus who does this: He commissions the disciples to raise the dead, and we have examples in Scripture of at least Peter and Paul doing so.

All of this means two things: first: God loves and can resurrect you.

And second: as we are disciples, called to follow and emulate Jesus, this points to our own calling to be agents of resurrection. We can help raise the spiritually-dead through God’s love as it is manifest in our words and actions—our care for our beloved siblings—known to us and unknown. We can pray, and prophesy to the Spirit to reanimate our loved ones. Sometimes it is enough simply to see and acknowledge the death they are experiencing. To be present with them, and weep with them, as Jesus did and does.

As with so many other stories in the Bible—the Virgin Birth, the Feeding of the 5000, the Parting of the Red Sea—whether you are a pragmatic Christian who sees these stories as legend and metaphor, or a mystical Christian who sees them as mysterious and real—we can all believe in the truth of these stories, which is that God can do the impossible; God loves us enough to do the impossible; and more often than not it is through us mortal human beings that God will do the impossible!

“Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

No Motherless Children   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 8 January 2017

Biblical texts: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Sometimes atheists make the most spiritually resonant art. The great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, an avowed atheist, made a painstakingly-faithful and shockingly reverential cinematic adaptation of The Gospel According To Saint Matthew, with all dialogue straight from the Biblical text. And as his film comes to the scene we’ve just heard, we see John baptizing peasants in the Italian countryside while on the soundtrack, the Blues singer Odetta sings “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.”

As Jesus approaches John, there is a smile of recognition between the two of them. John protests, saying he needs to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus assures him this is the right way. And once it has been done, God’s voice comes from the heavens, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words reminiscent of several passages in Isaiah, including the one we heard a few minutes ago.

Today is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the day the Church remembers that Jesus, like most of us, was baptized. We have entered, as of Friday (or Thursday evening) the Epiphany: We have passed through Advent’s season of waiting, and the twelve days of Christmastide celebrating the incarnation of Christ in our lives, and now we celebrate Christ’s revelation to the world. Today is one of four days in the year that the Church recognizes as “especially appropriate” for baptizing newcomers to the faith, and though we are not baptizing anyone at St. Thomas this morning, we will renew our Baptismal Covenant together in a few minutes.

Baptism, according to The Episcopal Church’s Catechism (which is in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 845), is one of the two great sacraments of the Church—the other being the Eucharist. A sacrament, you’ll recall, is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The Catechism says, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The simple act of pouring a bit of water on a person’s head becomes a sign of God’s welcoming that person into the family.

When I was born, my parents decided not to baptize me as an infant; they wanted to wait until I was old enough to make the choice myself. And that choice came when I was about 13 years old, when the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up held a year-long confirmation class for middle school children, which would culminate in confirmation—full membership in the church—preceded by baptism for any of us who hadn’t been baptized earlier in life.

I was enthusiastically on board with confirmation: I wanted very much to be a full member of the Church, primarily so that I could vote in congregational meetings—I was already very interested in church governance. But I was terrified of baptism, to the point at which I really struggled with the decision to be confirmed.

My fear was entirely rooted in my adolescent vanity. First, I was simply embarrassed: Why hadn’t my parents taken care of this earlier? Why on earth would they have waited for me to make up my own mind when this was clearly something done to unknowing infants? Learning that roughly half the class was in the same boat as me somehow didn’t diminish that embarrassment.

But the more significant reason was my hair. I had thick red hair that required about half a bottle of hair gel every day to control. And for some reason I got a notion in my head that the pastor—who was known for his sense of humor—would, upon putting water on my head, make a joke to the congregation about how much gel was in it.

He was a compassionate person and a good pastor in the midst of a sacrament of the church, so of course he made no such joke. I was baptized, without any fuss apart from my own distraction.

Years later, days before I officially joined the Episcopal Church, I witnessed my first Episcopalian baptism. The whole congregation followed the altar party’s procession back to the font, and we all read or recited the Baptismal Covenant together. The adult baptizands were all dressed in a white alb after baptism and handed a candle: the Light of Christ. I was filled with a deep wish that this could have been my baptism, not the experience that my anxious teenage vanity kept me from appreciating at the time.

But: the wonderful thing in The Episcopal Church—and I think this is part of God’s grace in baptism—is that it didn’t really matter whether I was baptized as an unknowing infant, an unappreciative teenager, or a discerning adult: that baptism at Grace Cathedral was my baptism. As has been every baptism I have experienced since then. At every baptism we attend and participate in, each of us has the opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, our Baptismal Covenant with God. We remind ourselves that we are beloved children of God and part of God’s family. We renew our commitment to be in relationship with God, not simply as individuals, but in community.

We recite—in question-and-answer form—the Apostle’s Creed. And then we promise, with God’s help, to continue in the teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayers of the Church. To resist evil and repent of our sins. To proclaim the Good News. To see and love Christ in the person of our neighbor. To strive for justice, peace, and the dignity of every human being. We say aloud together our shared beliefs about our Triune God, and we recommit to our responsibilities to God’s kingdom and our siblings in it.

Going back to the Pasolini film: Pasolini uses that “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” cue several times in the picture, not just as prelude to the baptism scene. And motherhood was a recurrent theme throughout his work; perhaps its most significant sign in this film is the fact that Pasolini cast his own mother in the role of the Blessed Mother Mary.

I don’t know why he used that song in the baptism scene, but it seems a significant contrast to God’s proclamation moments later: “This is my beloved son.” Jesus is no motherless child.

Nor are any of us motherless children, even if we feel as if we are: I don’t know if Pasolini had any knowledge of the wonderful English mystic Julian of Norwich, but this Gospel message—perhaps particularly in the way Pasolini tells it—makes me think of a key theme in Julian’s work. In the late 14th Century, Julian had a series of powerful visions from God, which she later wrote about in her book Revelations Of Divine Love. Among many other things, God gave her in these visions an understanding of Christ as a mother to us all. She writes: “…Our Saviour is our true mother, in whom we are endlessly born, and out of whom we shall never come to birth…“We know that our mothers bear us and bring us into this world to suffering and to death, and yet our true mother Jesus, he, all love, gives birth to us into joy and to endless life—blessed may he be!”*

I know that not everyone has a good relationship with their parents, and so: if you are someone who has not known a parent’s wholehearted, unconditional love, know that God’s love is that for which you have hoped. This is Julian’s message—and, indeed, the overarching message of the Bible. God loves you as dearly, as abundantly, as a mother should—and more.

In the humility of God’s incarnation comes the deepening humility of the Messiah’s submission to the rite of Baptism, despite the Baptizer being less worthy than the baptized. God welcomes Godself into God’s human family, into the Beloved Community. Jesus, though fully divine, is fully human: he is one of us.

And all this shows God’s love for us: that God would take part in this human life, and in particular today would take part in this rite to which each of us is called in righteousness. That one of the ways God makes the human family holy is by participating, in the flesh, in its holy rituals.

I’m sure there are 13 year-olds who approach baptism with far more grace than I had. And I am equally sure that there are mature adults who approach baptism with as much anxiety and trepidation. But at that font—as at this altar—we are received with the love that a parent has for their beloved children. God gives generously regardless of our ability to appreciate or understand what we receive.

Come to this font and be readopted. Come readopt your siblings. Come to this table and be made one with all of God’s people. Come be welcomed into the arms of Jesus, your loving mother.

 

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

Waiting, Hoping, Preparing   Leave a comment

fullsizerender-2The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 27 November 2016

Happy New Year!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means it is the first day of the Liturgical Year, the calendar that the Church follows. The Liturgical Year is our way of following the life of Christ through the year. It is a way of marking God’s time even as we mark civic time. It is the Church’s way of reminding us that though we are very much in this world, we are not to be of it: we are citizens of God’s kingdom more than any earthly nation.

When I came to the Episcopal Church, out of the Presbyterian Church, in my 20s, I was at first shocked to find that we didn’t sing Christmas Carols in church all through December (except for the handful that are really Advent hymns), and that there were many Episcopalian families that didn’t put up a tree and decorate the house until a few days before Christmas. But in time, I came to embrace those traditions in my own life. And over the past several years I am beginning more and more to think of this day, rather than January first, as the beginning of the year.

Now I’m not telling you you can’t do those things: if you want to put up a tree this weekend and sing carols all month, go for it. Whatever brings you joy and brings you closer to Jesus is the right way for you to celebrate the season. But I would encourage you to find some way to keep Advent in a world that is keeping cultural Christmas. If you have a family altar, put a blue or purple cloth on it. Make an Advent wreath and light the candles on it every night, saying a prayer—or even one of the Daily Offices from the Prayerbook—with your family. One of my Gregorian Brothers had a pair of converse sneakers in the colors of every liturgical season; he’d be wearing blue Chuck Taylors for the next four weeks. Spend time reading a daily Advent meditation: you can find them online or in bookstores. There’s a wonderful book that I’m starting again this week called Watch For The Light. These are little ways to take time to keep the Advent vigil this season…

We begin the liturgical year not with Jesus’ birth, as might be the intuitive choice, but with the time before Jesus arrives: a time of waiting, hoping, preparing. In Advent we recognize three different kinds of waiting: first, the time of the Old Testament, in which our spiritual ancestors waited for the long-promised coming of The Messiah, a waiting that culminates in Christmas. Second, the Second Coming of Christ, that time of ultimate reconciliation that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading. But we do not only see the waiting and hoping of the past and future: the third kind of waiting is this present moment: we wait, hope, and prepare for how God is being made incarnate in our own daily lives right here and now.

Waiting, hoping, and preparing. Right now, I think many of us are waiting, worrying, and dreading. We are in a time of uncertainty and fear: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and ableism that has always been present in American culture is in ascendancy again, and in danger of being mainstreamed. We seem more divided than ever. How do we prepare with joy for the coming of Christ—in our past, present, and future, in the midst of such turmoil, distress, and division?

This morning’s readings begin in a place very familiar to us as Coloradans: the mountains. We have perhaps a unique understanding of the passage from Isaiah. In my nearly two years in Denver, I’ve seen in those mountains God’s majesty and the grandeur of God’s creation—a holiness, and even a certain kind of danger—a holy danger, if you will. I’ve heard from many of you who have lived here all your lives that the mountains are peace and respite—that the very sight of them is comforting to you. They are where Coloradans relax, and where we find our adventure and joy.

Isaiah tells us, “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.’”

So what if we were to imagine a mountain far higher than our fourteeners? A place where all the peace, respite, comfort, joy, adventure—and even that holy danger—are all magnified by the presence of God. Might that be a place where we could learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths? How might we bring that mountain to earth, into our own lives and our political realities?

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The end times that Jesus is talking about could come this afternoon, or it could come a thousand years from now—or a million. We are simply told to be ready.

And what does being ready look like? The same thing that being a Christian looks like: work and prayer. Doing the work of justice and love that Jesus teaches us by word and example through the Gospels. Praying that God would make this world better reflect God’s kingdom, and then being God’s hands, bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… The night is far gone, the day is near.” What are the ways in which you might be asleep to God’s will and revelation in your life and in the world? What are the ways in which God might be calling you—through Paul’s words here in the letter to the Romans—to wake up?

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, in her excellent book, The Liturgical Year, calls Advent, “the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.” Or as Paul says, “the moment to wake from sleep.”

There is perhaps no better season than Advent for noticing the darkness—in our world, in our nation, in our own souls. Sit a while with that darkness this season. Meditate on it. Talk with God about it in prayer. See how much it needs the Light of Christ. And then: Pray on your own response to it; see how you can cast away the works of darkness and be a messenger and harbinger of that light.

You may have thought that my earlier list of Advent observances was a bit on the superficial side. The goal of those suggestions was to get you into a mindset of living a liturgical year. Of living in the way of the Kingdom of God rather than the way of a nation that cannot ever truly represent the way of Jesus, no matter who sits in its halls of power. Following the life of our incarnate, empathetic Christ, who knows exactly what it is like to be regarded by an empire as less-than-fully human.

But I will now add to that list: observe Advent by living out the Gospel: by feeding the poor, by welcoming the stranger, by lifting up the oppressed. Work for justice: march for it, demand it from your elected representatives on all levels. Protect the vulnerable, by lobbying on their behalf, and—if you’re serious about the safety pin we’re all wearing, by putting your body between theirs and those who would harm them.

Remember that, no matter how divisive our different ideologies may seem, there is no division in Christ Jesus. We are all one in God’s love, and we are called to love each other in the same way even when we radically disagree.

Above all, do not be afraid, even when it seems there is much to fear. Remember that God loves you, as God loves all of us.

These are the ways we prepare with joy for the coming of Jesus. These are the ways we announce that there is room in our inn, and prepare a cradle for the birth of a poor refugee baby who will be our king. These are the ways we look with hope to a future where God’s justice will prevail and earthy governments will matter no more. These are the ways we see God’s incarnation in our own lives, today.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. Beloved, the day is near.

Posted 27 November 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Homilies

Tagged with , , , , , ,