Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Feast of Saint Joseph: March 20, 2018

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
The Feast of Saint Joseph - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

Br. Randy Greve, OHC 

He did not ask for this.  He would be the most surprised of all at the fuss made about him.  He is not a preacher – in fact he speaks not so much as a single word in the Gospels.  Nor is he a writer, a founder, a reformer, a mystic, a teacher, or an artist.  

He is an ordinary, common, carpenter in a small town.  His death, which most scholars believe happened before Jesus began his ministry – a conspicuous absence from the text being the only basis of this theory, is not worth a mention to the gospel writers.

 Even this morning’s gospel reading puts him namelessly behind Mary, who speaks for them both as they interrogate the young Jesus recently in the Temple. 

The word “saint” is characterized along two streams in the breadth of the Church.  The formal designation for the canonized or recognized – those figures of history that we rightly view with admiration and imitation, but who often seem so beyond us in their heroic sanctity as to be practically super-human.  The impulse is to reflect on the life of a St. Antony, St. Benedict, or St. Francis and find ourselves rather ordinary by comparison, even if history has embellished the reality for effect.  The weight of this definition is on what makes saints if not better, at least different, from us.  The other definition of saint, the one I grew up with, emphasizes that every Christian is a saint in the exact same sense as any other Christian – the priesthood of all believers.  The emphasis is on our common human experience and need and reception of God’s grace that enables us to love and serve at all in whatever way God calls us.  While the first definition can hold up examples for us to emulate in our own lives, it can inadvertently create a gap between “saint” and “regular Christian”.  The second approach rightly begins with our commonality, but leaves the question of how we can recognize and celebrate the lives of those with truly extraordinary gifts and character.  The irony is that the really “sainty” saints always prefer the second definition, but defined by the first.

The gift for us in the story of St. Joseph is that he transcends and reframes the categories.  He is a saint of the ordinary category who is extraordinary in the simplicity and directness of his life and purpose.  Three verbs, three moments, three decisions are of the essence of his life and heart.  The angel comes to tell him to take Mary as his wife after she is revealed to be with child.  And he does.  The angel comes again to tell him to get up and take Mary and the baby and go to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.  He does.  The angel comes a third time to tell Joseph to go back with Mary and Jesus to the land of Israel.  So he got up and went to the land of Israel.  He does not need to speak.  His actions speak volumes.  Here is his purpose and his vocation.  We don’t need any more than this.  These acts – if this was all there was - is a life of obedience and service.  All that formed and shaped his heart lead to these moments and all that followed was forever changed by his listening and acting. 
As we read the biographies of our departed brothers around their death dates in chapter, I am moved over and over again by the recurrence of a phenomena:  at some point in the life of each brother he heard, he got up, he met a purpose, and he gave himself in a way that served a particular need, provided an essential offering of work and wisdom for the community.  For some it was a role in leadership, especially those who brought care and calm in times of turmoil or change.  For others it was the realization that their best service was a quiet, steady, behind-the-scenes gift for keeping things going.  For all of the variety of stories and personalities, and indeed many struggled and suffered profoundly with their own issues, none of them could have predicted the twists and turns their lives would take within this community or how responding to the monastic vocation in this Order would be a source of stretch and challenge, of joy and consolation.  The only assurance was that they had each other and their common commitment to keep getting up together.  I think to myself as I hear the biographies, “It’s almost as if he were born for this”.  And of course he was.  If there are saints in our history, saints among us now, and there are, they did not and do not ask for the title, much less the trials and sacrifices that formed their holiness.

What St. Joseph and the greater cloud of witnesses remind us of today is that the virtues to which they and we aspire are formed more by our response to the calls and opportunities that come our way than by any decision to make ourselves holy in a vacuum untouched by the changes and chances of this life.  My own plan for my life is never as adventurous and deep as God’s desire and potential for my life.  We are not first formed and then declared fit to live this life.  We are like Joseph prepared for and formed in the living that reveals our hearts and ushers us into humility and conversion.  Saints are people who in fear and trembling show up in such a way as to allow the needs of their communities to evoke out of their hearts and minds and souls and strength the power to get up that is truly there waiting but that they did not know they had.  I imagine Joseph as someone who just wanted to live an ordinary, quiet, undramatic life in Nazareth being a carpenter and raising a family.  That is a good life for some, but not all.  In Joseph, God saw a longing, a love, an obedience in his soul, perhaps unknown even to Joseph, and seeing that, God said to the angel, “him.” 

Each of us entered this community with a “yes” to an open vista full of unknowns, a life that included our ideas of what we wanted to do.  The life we want is not the life we get.  Conversion begins in believing that what we get is a gift from God.  If lived faithfully, the life we get has given us joys, trials, experiences and relationships we could not have imagined.  Character and commitment are tested and revealed in the moments after we say to ourselves, “I didn’t ask for this.  This is not what I signed up for.”  Look to Joseph in those moments.  Listen for the voice.  Get up when the call is to ditch your plan.  Get up when you don’t want to.  Get up when Egypt is far away and strange and full of risks.  Get up when your exile is over and it’s time to go home.  Ordinary, simple, an act, a decision, a yes - some made once and others affirmed and repeated and re-entered over and over, day by day, moment by moment.  May it be said of us, read about us in future generations, when all that is left of us are some ashes, a name plaque, and a story on a piece of paper, that we got up, we lived our unique purpose, we shaped a future, and so were formed by God’s grace into people who can be called extraordinarily common; in other words, saints. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent -Year B: March 18, 2018

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br.  Scott Borden, OHC
Fifth Sunday in Lent Year B- Sunday, March 18, 2018

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

Br.  Scott Borden, OHC
As Lent progresses we are called to turn our thinking from repentance, our work at the start of Lent, to focus on Jerusalem – specifically on Jesus' journey to Jerusalem. Today's scripture readings are clearly part of that shift.
The shift is not just a call to think literally about the city of Jerusalem and the pending crucifixion. Embedded within the shift is a call to change the way we think about God.
We start in Jeremiah... "I will make a new covenant... I will write it in their hearts... I will forgive their sins and remember them no more." Long before Jesus, Jeremiah is already telling us that God is changing the relationship. The new relationship is built on loving forgiveness. But the call is more urgent in Jesus time. Jesus is the embodiment of the new covenant that Jeremiah is talking about and crucifixion is, in some way, the sealing of that covenant.
It's also worth noting that when Jeremiah speaks of "they" and "them" – he is talking about "we" and "us"... we are the beneficiaries of grace, of salvation. This dreadful walk that Jesus is making is, after all, for us.
John's telling of the Gospel brings us up to date on events just before the Crucifixion. A crowd is assembling for the festival – that would be the Passover Festival – when faithful Jews remember the release from slavery in Egypt, the story told in Exodus.
Jeremiah is telling us about a new covenant of forgiveness – of freedom from bondage to sin. And John is telling us about events taking place during the ancient festival that celebrates the freedom of Jews from bondage in Egypt. A new relationship with God is in the midst of these stories.
Clearly as we journey with Jesus through the events we know are coming, the underlying message is one of freedom and release rather than one of sorrow and remorse.
John's narration begins with some Greeks... we don't know much about them, how many they were, who they were. These details are, apparently, not important. What they do tell us is that this Jesus Movement has outgrown its roots in Judaism. Before we get comfortable with that, I think we have to consider that this Jesus Movement may be outgrowing much of today's Christian thinking. But that’s a different sermon for another day...
The narration seems a bit clumsy. The Greeks find Phillip and tell him they want to meet Jesus. Philip doesn't take them to Jesus but instead goes to find Andrew... and then Andrew and Phillip go to find Jesus and tell him. What do they tell Jesus? We don't really know, but it's probably along the lines of "Hey Jesus... there are some Greek folks here who want to meet you."
Jesus gives an answer that is, to say the least, a non-sequitur. "The time has come", he says, "for the Son of Man to be glorified." What has this got to do with some Greeks who just wanted to say hi... We get no help on that because Jesus continues with a discussion of death, seeds, fruit, and eternal life.
"Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." By now our Greek chorus is probably saying "OK, we're just going be going ..." But Jesus isn't done. "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor."
Jesus gives some clear clues that sorrowful times are at hand and then seems to tell God what to do: "Glorify your name."
And God answers... "I have glorified it and I will glorify it again." Part of me wants to hear God saying "Jesus – don't tell me what to do..." Part of me wants to hear a threat – "I will Glorify my name and then we'll see how you like it..." Apparently, much of the crowd can't even recognize the voice of God – they hear thunder.
Jesus clarifies that God is speaking for our benefit, not his. How much we are like that crowd? How many times does God speak and we only hear thunder? Or something... anything but the voice of God. How often do dismiss the voice of God as something else? That is a humbling thought.
Jesus goes on: "Now is the time of judgment! Now the rulers of this world will be driven out! I will draw all people to myself."
The situation feels ominous, perhaps even dangerous. Thunderclaps from God precede a tirade from Jesus. But if you focus on Jesus' words and ignore the thunder, we could understand Jesus to say he will embrace all of us – draw us all to himself. He will wrap his arms around all of us and draw us close in a wonderful and loving embrace.
That is sandwiched in between "I will be lifted up" and "Jesus said this to indicate what type of death he would have." As we turn toward Jerusalem it's hard not to think about crucifixion. John seems to be underscoring that thought. But if we remove the bread from the sandwich, we have a message of love from Jesus – all of us will be drawn in. How inclusive. How expansive.
People who know me know I love my qualifiers. One of the first things you learn in broadcast journalism is that qualifiers make just about any sentence true. "Human beings have landed on Marz" is obviously false. But "according to some folks, human beings have landed on Marz" can be true. You have to love those qualified statements...
But Jesus puts no qualifiers in his statement. I will draw all "faithful" to myself... I will draw all "right thinking" or "right living" people to myself... I will draw all Episcopalians to myself... All monastics... No. There is no qualifier. I will draw all people...
Jeremiah tells us that God will be written in our hearts – not in our minds. And Jesus tells us about a pending embrace when we all get drawn in. This is a radical shift in the way people have been accustomed to relating to God. Gone is the God who punishes our sins. Gone is the angry God. Gone is the God who favors our tribe and destroys the others... Faithful people for generations have known God by studying the law. Now they must look to their hearts. This is still very much our struggle.
John gives us this discussion by Jesus of seeds falling into the ground and dying, only to rise again. Certainly, part of what John is telling us is about the near-at-hand death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. But if that was the only story John wanted to tell, he certainly could have been more direct.
I think John wants us to hear a larger context. Death and resurrection is not only about Jesus. It's about all of us. Our understanding of God must die in order for a new understanding, a new way of knowing God to take its place. Our ways of living and ordering our lives and culture must die in order for a more Jesus-oriented life to come into being. Ultimately, we must die in order that we can be free of death – death being our attachment to things of this world. This is the Glory of God.
We live in a culture that fears death. And not just death, we fear aging in any way. Plastic surgeons are among the best paid medical professionals in our society. We can, at great cost, create the illusion of eternal youth, but it is a lie. The message in this morning's Gospel is that rather than denying death, we must embrace it. This is surely not an invitation to suicide or murder... it is a spiritual call. In our understanding death is not the final word. It is the thing that comes before resurrection.
As Lent gives way to Holy Week and Easter the question we can ponder is how can we die? What of my own attachments can get nailed to the cross with Jesus? What pieces of myself can I toss into the tomb? Can I kindle a bonfire of my own vanities at the Easter Vigil? What space can I clear for resurrection to fill? What seeds can I drop into the ground? And what might spring up from them?
Faith is trusting in things not seen.
There is an old hymn which we generally think of as a Christmas song – Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. The text uses the image of an apple tree for the resurrected Jesus. And I want to call a bit of to mind partly because Advent and Lent, Christmas and Easter, must always be bound together and also because I think it has some special use in the last part of Lent:
This beauty doth all things excel. By faith I know, but ne're can tell
The beauty which I now can see in Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.

For happiness I long have sought and pleasure dearly I have bought.
I miss'd for all, but now I see tis found in Christ, the Apple Tree.

I'll sit and eat this truth divine. It cheers my soul like spiritual wine.
And now this fruit is sweet to me that grows on Christ the Apple Tree.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B: March 11, 2018

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Fourth Sunday in Lent Year B- Sunday, March 11, 2018

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

Br. Roy Parker, OHC 
Today’s story about the Cross implies a couple of important things on the Lenten journey toward Easter: one is the assertion to the Jewish authorities which Jesus makes later in the John Gospel, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am,” which is the revelation of his God-identity by means of the Cross; the other is the central message of Good Friday, that that particular day is, strange to say, not about the death of Jesus, but about the victory of the Cross, as if Jesus were to say,

“It’s not about me, folks, but about what God intends to do through me by means of this instrument.”           

The gospel is also about what can happen when we look toward Jesus the Savior who was fastened to the life-giving Tree as the serpent was similarly fastened to an elevated pole in the sight of the Israelites. I borrow my description of salvation partly from an interview between Bruce Springsteen and David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, which occurred at one of the magazine’s recent festivals  and complete it with a riff on the legendary OK sign adorning Chevrolet’s used car lots.

Springsteen’s remarks describe something of the interaction between the Crucified and Glorified Savior and the believer who turns to him entirely wholeheartedly. David Remnick is asking Springsteen about his manner of concert performance in the 70s, to which he replies: “Losing myself was something I was shooting for. I’d had enough of myself by that time to want to lose myself — so I went on stage every night to just kind of do exactly that. Playing is orgiastic. It’s a moment of both incredible self-realization and self-erasure at the same time.

You disappear and blend into all the other people that are out there and into the notes and chords and music that you’ve written; you kind of rise up and vanish into it. That was something I was pursuing, and I was pursuing intoxication and why people have gotten intoxicated since the beginning of time, why the war on drugs will never be successful, because people need to lose themselves; we can only stand so much of ourselves. For the audience’s part, they come not to learn something, but to be reminded of something when they come to see a performance or someone they love deeply. You’re getting people in touch with the center of themselves. 

Why do people come to a show? Well, you want to be reminded of the part of yourself which feels really alive. That’s what a great three-minute pop song does. In three minutes you get the entire picture. You get the possibility of life on earth and what that can mean and what that can do for you and do for others. It’s just encapsulated in three minutes of what can feel like nothingness, but for some reason has had the power to inspire and lift up and bring you closer to Godhead or whatever you’re pursuing. Our job is we’re repairmen, we’re reminders. I don’t get paid to play this song or that song . . . I get paid to be as present as I can conceivably be on every night that I’m out there!” So, Springsteen reminds us also of the chemistry between the Crucified and Glorified Savior and the heart of the supplicant.

     A further commentary is conveyed by Chevrolet’s legendary OK used car sign.

The OK Used Cars brand, Chevy’s used car trade-in division, started in the mid-1920s. The OK tag system was a checklist that showed what parts of the car had been checked and reconditioned prior to throwing it out on the lot. Said Chevrolet, “We developed this to protect the used car buyer, attaching a tag to the radiator caps of all our reconditioned cars — the famous Chevrolet Red OK tag — showing exactly what vital units have been checked OK or reconditioned by our expert mechanics. We believe that no fairer system of used car merchandizing has ever been devised, for it assures the customer honest value as well as a dependable, satisfactory car.” A list of thirteen items, from engine, transmission, and radiator to upholstery, fenders, and finish were systematically checked off, and the tag attached. At one time this was a big deal. Cars wore out quickly, and buying used, even recently used, was chancy. 

The OK tag put millions of minds at ease over the decades. As time went on with frequent style changes and updates rolling out of Detroit, to the fashion conscious nothing looked older than a three-year-old car, and you’d think this would leave used car buyers feeling down in the mouth. Nevertheless the OK tag took some of the sting and stigma away from buying a used car. It wasn’t brand new, of course, but that didn’t make it any less stylish or comfortable or dependable or tough or quick or peppy. Or yours.

One of my seminary classmates, Jon Olson, was rector of Christ Church, Ontario in Southern California, where I visited him upon moving to Santa Barbara some years ago. Jon was sort of a ‘beat’ artist, and among the items furnishing the sacristy was a crucifix above a prie dieu of which I have a facsimile.

The problem is that this OK tag does not apparently designate anything stylish or comfortable or dependable or tough or quick or peppy.  This particular model has obviously been totaled and not even ‘Rent A Wreck” would have it.  But we’re told it’s a sleeper, full of unsuspected value if we turn to it with all our heart. The OK tag for this particular wreckage implies features hidden from us until we hit a wall lie that which produced the wreckage.

When we hit the wall which causes god to disappear in the anxiety of doubt, there can appear what Springsteen describes as losing oneself, self-realization and self-erasure at the same time, disappearing and blending, rising up and vanishing, touching the part of yourself which feels really alive, the possibility of life on earth and what that can mean and do for yourself and others, which could be called God beyond god.  The crucified one wears the OK seal of approval because he’s utterly reliable in this regard.