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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

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

Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe   Leave a comment

A homily given to the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory on 27 January 2015, the Feast Day of the three saints.

Old Testament: Malachi 3:16-18: 16 Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lordtook note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. 17They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.18Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

Epistle: Acts 16:11-1511 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

Gospel: Luke 8:1-3: 1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

 
When asked “how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg answered: “Nine.”

To the follow-up question: But that would be all of the justices; how does that represent fairness? She responded: “For most of the country’s history, there were nine men, and nobody thought that was unfair.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe, three early Christians. “Holy Women, Holy Men” calls these three women “Witnesses to the Faith;” Grace Cathedral has their figures—along with Priscilla (who has a different feast day shared with her husband Aquila)—on an altarpiece in a chapel, where they are known in the community as early Christian leaders.

We’ve just heard the story of Lydia—almost in its entirety: the end of the chapter adds a return visit by Paul & Silas to Lydia’s home, where they find a company meeting there: perhaps the beginnings of a church.

I want to remind you of what we know about Dorcas and Phoebe. First Dorcas, whose brief story is in Acts chapter 9, verses 36-42:

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

Phoebe doesn’t even get a story, just a shout-out toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Chapter 16, verses 1 and 2:

16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, (sen-cree-ay) 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

The Gospel lesson for this feast day is a brief mention of the presence of Mary Magdalene and some other women—Joanna and Susanna are named—in Jesus’ ministry. The message seems to be merely a note that Jesus welcomed women among his followers and patrons.

You may have noted that the three lessons are very short passages; Lydia’s story is by far the longest, and it’s only 5 verses. When the Church in its wisdom created this feast day, it seems to have struggled to produce a substantial lectionary. It is wonderful that we celebrate these women and their roles in getting the Church on its feet—but it is a shame that there is so little to celebrate.

The size of the texts is no doubt symptomatic of the ancient world’s marginalization of women. Women had very little power in that place and time. Married women had their husbands to look after them, and widows—the women for whom Dorcas wove clothing, and perhaps including Dorcas herself—were entirely disenfranchised (thus the Bible’s frequent exhortations to take care of widows and orphans). Holy Women, Holy Men notes: “As what the Jewish community called a ‘God-fearer’ [Lydia] was undoubtedly accorded respect by the Jewish community, but still would have been marginalized.” Even this wealthy, God-fearing merchant was marginalized because of her gender.

Most stories in the Bible are about men. Sure, the Bible has a number of great female characters. But more often than not, they’re relegated to supporting roles—sometimes even in their own stories: Dorcas, for instance is a distant second to Peter in her own resurrection narrative!

But the size of the texts is also perhaps symbolic of our continued marginalization of women in our world and in the church. If the paucity of female-centric Biblical narratives is a result of the marginalization of women in the ancient world, what story does our contemporary church tell about women?

Four decades after the ordination of women in The Episcopal Church, female priests and deacons still fill far fewer pulpits than their male counterparts, and make far less money in the same positions.

I remember conversations at General Convention last summer about the lack of female candidates for Presiding Bishop. The defense was that almost no female bishops met the detailed job qualifications, such as having been a Diocesan for a certain number of years. But that’s a problem in itself! Why aren’t there more women Diocesans? We’re doing better than the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, but it’s still not enough—by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s standard or any other reasonable measure.

Part of our role as religious, I’ve been told many times in the past year and a half, is to stand with those on the margins of our society, to lift them up. To share our privilege—and if nothing else, all of us in this community experience the privilege of gender—to bring them closer to justice and equality. God puts opportunities into our lives every day to speak up for women, and their equality in our world and in our church. We can do this through advocacy, through asking for gender equality in our workplaces, our ministry organizations, and churches. We can step aside to give women and girls an opportunity that we might have otherwise taken to serve or lead. And often, it’s even better to not speak up, but to quietly support women as they speak for themselves.

Perhaps a larger challenge is to think about ways we can ensure that a feminine perspective exists within our all-male community! Easier in days when we shared more time and space with our sister community, no doubt. But the world wants to equate the feminine with weakness, and I know that for many of us personally the feminine has been something to shake off, to abhor. But Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural—which means embracing the feminine and being stronger for it.

All of these things are true not only for women, but for other marginalized people who get even less representation in the Bible: racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. We can be intersectional in thinking about the marginalized.

Let’s go back to these three women and their relevance to our own lives: Lydia is a merchant in purple cloth—known historically to be difficult to make, often reserved for royalty, and very expensive. So it’s likely that Lydia was wealthy. She eagerly listens to and receives God’s message through Paul, and her first act as a newly-baptized Christian is to open her home to Paul and his companions. In her generous hospitality, she becomes literally a servant to the servants of God.

There is much scholarly debate about how closely Phoebe’s role may hew to our contemporary definition of “deacon,” but I’ll leave that debate to the scholars and hope that we can at least agree that Paul’s context makes it clear she is a leader of some kind, and that her leadership is of a servanthood nature. “…Help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Phoebe is engaged in some work to which Paul wants the Roman church to make available its resources, and he knows that they will receive back in some greater form whatever they give to Phoebe.

Dorcas’ story is my favorite—not because of her resurrection, but because of this line: “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” This puts such a wonderful image in my mind, because I don’t get the sense that the widows are showing Peter rough-hewn garments made from scraps. I picture them showing him the intricate weave of the cloth, the fine stitching and embroidery, the beauty of the completed garments. Dorcas is not merely obeying the Biblical instructions to care for widows; she is giving them fine garments worthy of display. Peter brings glory to God in raising Dorcas from the dead; Dorcas has already brought glory to God in her work.

These three women are doing what conventional wisdom might consider “women’s work,” but what is simply the very things we are called to do in our rule, the very things that Jesus calls all of us to do. They each give of their time, talent and treasure; they are caring for and serving those around them. They are dedicated to prayer, and to learning and spreading the Good News of Jesus. They are living witnesses to Christ’s love in the world. Each one is finding her own particular way of following Jesus, of spreading the Jesus Movement as it takes shape in its first century. They could be us; we could seek no better models to emulate.

Society may not have cared much about these women; the Bible may not have much to say about them… But The Lord takes note and listens, and a book of remembrance is written of those who revere The Lord and think on his name. When we remember their names and their stories, we also memorialize the countless women who have helped the church on its way but did not get a mention in the Bible. Women across two millennia who have feed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger as Christ in their midst. And when we support women in their struggle for equality and justice in the Church and Society today, we are remembering Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. The Lord takes note and listens.

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

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