Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington - 25 Nov 2009

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. James Randall Greve, OHC
Feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington
Wednesday 25 November 2009

Galatians 6:14-18
John 6:34-38

From the Galatians reading - For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! . The Message Bible puts it this way: “Can't you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do – submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life!

Is God in fact creating something totally new? In us? Here, now? On this day when we commemorate our Founder we engage in the important work of looking back - to what is past, what is old - in hopes of becoming prepared for and open to what is new. Fr. Huntington went where there was no path and left a trail and so we pause to remember what a bold risk, what a culturally and ecclesiastically subversive thing he was doing and we pray for a bit of his spirit to fall on us and cover us. Today is not just about the past but is also a moment to look in the mirror, and then look forward to the possibilities of the future.

Not plans for this or that building but to the question of what kind of men are we called to become? What new creation is yet to be sprouted up in us? This day is an opportunity to remember that the call and vision that began 125 years ago today is an event that lives in us and with us. Each of us in the Order of the Holy Cross chooses to found the Order every day by our living out the Gospel through our Rules, our love for God and our neighbor, and our willingness to continue to be grounded in good soil for growth for ourselves and the Order. With the words from the service of Life Profession still fresh in my mind and heart, I am impressed with the emphasis on decision and will within that and other rites of passage within our life. “What do you seek?” (Are you sure? Do you really?) The call is something that happens to us – that is God's free gift to us, the decision is what we do with the call, how we respond to God's gift, every single day.

St. Paul's message to the bickering church in Galatia, harassed by the Judaizers who were putting conditions on salvation, is as relevant to us as today as in the first century: The apostle is saying: “You must keep choosing freedom, deciding for the truth, defending the Gospel against those who would attach an asterisk and small print “some restrictions may apply”. They knew the Gospel at one time but they were bewitched, lulled, seduced away from Jesus to “Jesus and”, the root of every heresy.

A new creation, not a new version of the old creation, is everything. Living the new creation means being vigilant, purifying our hearts, not sliding into the old life of the past. The truth doesn't just happen, the founding of the Order didn't just happen, the ongoing life of prayer and service doesn't just happen – faithful monks from the founder to today have day by day stood up and let their “yes” be “yes” and their “no” be “no”, took stands, made sacrifices so that we could pursue new life within the call of the monastic life.

I was reminded of the importance of decision through a recent encounter. The conversation didn't follow the script. I was in the bookstore a few weeks ago on a particularly quiet weekday when a couple who had driven down to explore the monastery came into the store. Now some visitors will quietly browse and others will be full of questions, most of which I've been asked a hundred times before but am glad to answer as they are an important part of the ritual of hospitality. But this was different.

After chatting a bit about the monastery, the man asked me “When did you decide to become a Christian?”- not an Episcopalian, or a monk – two of my more well-rehearsed little stories, but a Christian. I remember thinking in a flash “I'm a monk, I'm supposed to know this!” Without missing very much of a beat I heard myself say “This morning when I woke up.” The reaction was a quizzical but thoughtful expression and the encounter was practically over – nothing much more was said. Just as I didn't expect that question, he didn't expect that answer and it seemed to have left him without want or need of reply.

“When did you decide to become a Christian?” Something about his use of the word decide hung in the air and has stuck with me. It's just not something I believe I've ever been asked before but the question and the answer exchanged that day are important. Decide is an active, intentional word. I've mostly thought of my Christian commitment as something I've been compelled to be and do, caught or swept up into rather than a decision as such – total reliance on grace - more Augustine, less Pelagius. I thought later about my answer and the other possible and equally valid answers I could have given.

Did my conversion happen when I was baptized as an infant at St. Jerome Catholic Church? When I went with my friends to Clay Road Baptist Church and asked Jesus into my heart when I was eight? Was it through the community at West Oaks Baptist Church in the early 80s or standing at my father's hospital bedside as he recovered from two gunshot wounds that almost killed him? Was it the decision to attend Houston Baptist University or Southern Baptist Theological Seminary? Was it when I decided somewhat on a whim after having left seminary to slip into St. James Episcopal Church on a Wednesday night in Lent in 1992?

I could make the case that decision was going on when I was received into the Episcopal Church, when I responded to calls to ministry at different parishes, when I began to explore monastic life, my entry into this community, my clothing, my profession. What about the thousands of days between those moments, in the day to day grind of just doing life?Could I have decided this morning in the quiet moments before sunrise? Could my original answer have in fact been true? What if every day is when I decide to become a Christian? What if deciding to be a Christian today allows me to decide that more fully and deeply tomorrow?

New creation sounds great and if I asked you “Do you want to be made into a new creation in Christ?” most of us would say “Let's do it!” But the nitty gritty of change, the day to day-ness of working out our salvation, is hard, tough stuff as we all know. In fits of honesty we realize we don't always want what we say we want – the illusory short cuts, the quick fixes are at times too tempting when faced with the long, hard slog of transformation. Being stretched, taking risk, giving up the safety and security of what I know for another land is not easy, but it is worth it.

It is worth it because a new creation is everything and because the alternative is far, far harder and more dangerous – a smug, isolated, comfortable deadness – dead seeds on dead soil. There is no third option – it's either stewing in the juices of our own selfishness or pressing on every day for new life. So we are on the hook, trapped in a land without a no man's land, wonderfully tricked by God into waking up and making a decision. A monk is a sign of paradox – the paradox of the blessedness of sacrifice and the abundance of self-denial.

A monk dares to say “no” to everything dead, everything illusory, everything transitory, everything that obscures our new life. A monk stands up and points to the lies and says “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything”, counts it as nothing and casts it all aside in order to experience the freedom of the free gift of God's grace – a new creation is everything. The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in The Cost of Discipleship that the one central and unavoidable question of Christianity is not “Are you willing to die?” but “Which kind of death are you going to die?” Or, as Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, says in the famous song, “You gotta serve somebody”.

What followed from this day in 1884 for James Otis Sargent Huntington? 18,462 days of getting out of bed and deciding to become a Christian, saying “yes” to conversion, new life, new creation. Over fifty years of praying, leading, preaching, raising money, moving, then moving again until his last words were “I will always intercede!” and then he died on June 29, 1935.

A new creation is everything. Fr. Huntington believed that, staked his life on it. He proved it to be true and proved God faithful. Let us become men of new creation - open, expectant, hopeful, real – now, today, tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, the day after that. May the thousands of days that are past grant us their gift of wisdom and love. May the days that lie ahead grant us their gift of deepening love and hope. May we have the grace and will to follow the path shown us and cleared for us by St. Benedict, Fr. Huntington, and the whole company of heaven joined in the praise of Christ. Amen.


kannan said...
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Fr Homoousian said...

what a moving sermon! Thank you, Randy... thank you indeed!

Anonymous said...
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