Archive for the ‘mysticism’ Tag

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.