Sunday, May 12, 2024

Easter 7 B - May 12, 2024

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Aidan Owen
The Seventh Sunday in Easter B, May 12, 2024

 Click here for an audio of the sermon

  A few years ago I went to a friend’s ordination to the priesthood at the Cathedral in New York. It was 2019. I’m sure you remember that four-year period we were in the middle of. When it came time for the sermon, the preacher gave a list of all the terrible things going on in the world. And when the list was done, so was the sermon. No Jesus. No God. No encouragement about what it means to be a Christian or a priest in difficult times. I was speechless. 

Even more astonishing to me was the response from my fellow clergy. In the sacristy after the service, everyone around me was talking about what a powerful sermon it had been. I wanted to shout, “But where was the good news?” I was put in mind of Friedrich Nietzsche’s great critique of Christianity summed up in the words he attributes to Zarathustra: “They would have to sing better songs to me that I might believe in their Redeemer: his disciples would have to look more redeemed!” 

There was a lot of bad news at that time. Arguably there is even more bad news today. But we Christians are called to preach, not the bad news, but the good news. We are called to proclaim the challenging message that even here and now, in the midst of sorrow and devastation, genocide and war, political upheaval and climatic collapse—even here and now Jesus Christ is risen. When the news gets worse and worse, our need to proclaim and model the joy of the resurrection is even more paramount. 

Joy is meant to be the characteristic state of the redeemed Christian. But, like its counterpart gratitude, it is hard to maintain, particularly when we believe that our joy is a product of our own action rather than a gift of the Spirit enlivening us. Of course we will be dour when we think the salvation of the world is a matter solely of political and social action and that action rests entirely on our shoulders. 

This morning’s gospel reading gives us a section of what we call the High Priestly Prayer or Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. I recently heard someone set the scene thus. Jesus is having a meal with his friends. He knows it will be the last time they are all together like this, and he just can’t bear to part with them, so much does he love them. So he keeps finding other things he needs to tell them. He is doing his best to equip them for the days and years ahead. And maybe he’s also having a little trouble letting go. I imagine we’ve all be there. 

And yet, long though it may be, this prayer of love and inspiration contains some of the most exquisitely beautiful passages in Scripture. At the heart of this morning’s passage is the verse “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” 

This is what Jesus is up to: praying—interceding with his Father—so that his joy made be made complete, whole, total in us. Here is the first clue to sustaining the joy of the redeemed. It is not our joy. It is God’s joy, initiated by Jesus, and made full and complete in the Holy Spirit dwelling within and among us. 

We often use joy as a synonym for happiness. But lightness of spirit, giddiness, being carefree—these are all too anemic to be called joy. Joy is something deeper, stronger, more profound. It is a gift of the Spirit, equal parts acceptance, hope, and love. 

Christian Wiman points out that joy must contain sorrow. In fact, he calls sorrow “the seams of ore that burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and […] make joy the complete experience that it is.” (My Bright Abyss, p. 19) Joy is not a denial of reality, but an embracing of it, a drinking of reality to the dregs. 

Joy understands the limitations of our knowledge and trusts that God is working out God’s purpose in the world and in our own hearts, whatever the outward appearance. Joy is a thing of the Cross as much as of the Resurrection. 

I’m always surprised at quickly we move from the sadness and somberness of Good Friday into the celebration of Easter. That certainly doesn’t seem to have been the disciples’ experience, if we read the scriptures closely. They were afraid. They were perplexed. They were confused and astonished. So lost are they, that they often don’t recognize Jesus when he appears to them. Instead, their hearts burn strangely within them. We can only celebrate Easter morning because we know the end of the story, or we think we do. 

More and more, though, the world seems like that first Easter morning. We have seen the crucifixion of our hopes and loves. We have even laid some of them to rest. And now we’ve come to visit them and found an empty cave and a pile of clothes. We know that something has happened, something immense, something shattering. But what? 

I call to mind a section of Christine Lore Webber’s poem “Mother Wisdom Speaks”: 

Some of you I will hollow out. 

I will make you a cave. 

I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness. 

You will be a bowl. 

You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain. 

I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you. 

I will do this for the space that you will be. 

I will do this because you must be large. 

A passage. 

People will find their way through you. 

Sometimes joy looks like being hollowed out like a cave. Sometimes joy looks like allowing the darkness to make its home in us, so that the lines between the light and the dark soften, and we come to know more clearly the unity of all things, to bear that unity in our bodies. Are we willing to be bearers of joy in broken world? Are we are willing to look at the wreck of this world and see not only the rubble but the beauty? 

Jesus prays for his joy to be made complete in us. Having ascended into heaven so that, as the letter to the Ephesians put it, he might fill all things, it falls to us to complete God’s joy. Without us, the joy, hope, and love that God means to fill the whole creation is incomplete. Take that in for a moment. God chooses to be incomplete without you and me. And that also means that the world is incomplete without our joy. 

If we are shy or guilty about being persons of joy, then why in the world are we Christians? We are people who not only believe but know in the flesh of our bodies that Jesus Christ is risen. The world needs this joy. If we are not to bear it, then who will? 

Without joy, we cannot sing the song of the Redeemed. It may be frightening to live in joy when the world prefers chaos. We may feel guilty or shy. But, to quote Rebecca Solnit, “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”  

Even more so for us Christians. Joy is our birthright. So call the banners. Step out of the shadows and join hands. Let the insurrection of the Redeemed begin! Amen. 

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Ascension Day - May 9, 2024

 Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Bernard Delcourt
Ascension Day, May 9, 2024

 Click here for an audio of the sermon

In the name of God, the Lover, the Beloved and the Love ever flowing.

The Ascension marks a new era in the history of salvation. Jesus’ ascension into heaven takes the enfleshed, embodied reality of the human experience within the Trinity, within the godhead. 
The Ascension also marks the advent of the universal Christ. The Christ who is present to all times and all place. The Christ who is no longer constrained to the unicity of time and place of an earthbound, human body. 
One can see that advent of the universal Christ as represented by the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
With the Ascension, God now has within godself a lived experience of what it is to be a human creature. And a very complete experience it is, including, but not reduced to, deep suffering.
We, the creatures, have a knowledgeable, empathetic advocate in the person of Jesus who combines his human and his divine natures. Our human experience is intimately understood by the divine.
The empathy that is so central to Christian living – “love your neighbor as yourself” – is now more deeply ingrained in what God is. In God’s empathy, God goes: “yes, I know how that feels.”
That is an amazing God indeed. “What a wonderful God we have,” as a Holy Cross brother of times past used to say.

The ascension of Jesus into heaven is yet another place of intersection between the human and the divine. The incarnation was another one.
It is a place where the horizontality of human experience, its immanence, meets with the transcendence, the verticality of divinity. 
And with the ever-present Holy Spirit (coming up, or is it down, to a church near you in ten days), that intersection expands everywhere, all the time. There is no atom, no quark that is not imbued with the Presence of God.

But back to the singularity of the ascension. In that moment, the apostles realize that the body and soul of Jesus need not be next to them for the Son of God to be very present to them. The text says: “And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” (Luke 24:52)
However, it takes two angels to bring them back to the now God-infused horizontality of their human experience: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11)
It can be tempting to be a spectator of God’s transcendence. We are transfixed by God’s awesomeness. We can be awed to the point of forgetting to be a witness to God’s immanence. We can forget to turn to fellow creatures and care for them, care for God in them.
We can and should contemplate God’s awesomeness. But we should be able to get up from our contemplation to “chop wood and carry water” for ourselves and for those in need.

A prayer commonly attribute to Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) points us in the direction of witnessing to God here and now:
God of love, help us to remember
that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
And I add, ours are the flesh destined to embody God’s love in the world today and every day.

We are to marvel at our amazing God, in heaven as on earth. And we are to turn to our fellow creatures and attempt to be a blessing of love to God’s creation, in emulation of Jesus, no less.
And we are not meant to fixate on the time and place of the Redeemer’s return. Doing that can end up being an escape from our clear and present responsibility to God’s body as revealed in all creation (human, animal, vegetal, mineral, terrestrial and sidereal).
“This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11b) i.e. it’s all a mystery, don’t try to determine what is beyond your ability to figure out.

In the climate-changed, decreasingly bio-diverse, war-torn world of today, I may eagerly want God to provide us all with an immediate escape strategy. Come, Lord Jesus! 
But no matter how much I may desire that; I am still to be God’s hands and feet here in the in-between times.

May the blessings of Jesus’ incarnation, life, passion, resurrection, and ascension strengthen us to be active witnesses to his love here and now.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Easter 6 B - May 5, 2024

 Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Aidan Owen
The Sixth Sunday in Easter B, May 5, 2024

 Click here for an audio of the sermon

Most people think of celibacy only in the negative. You’re giving up sexual contact with others. You’re giving up marriage and family. Or even worse—you’re suppressing this natural and beautiful part of your humanity. At the most superficial level, this understanding is accurate. You are giving up something—many somethings, in fact—when you live into a call to consecrated celibate chastity. But for those whom God truly calls to that life, celibacy is a doorway joy and depth and ever-expanding love.  

The celibate life, lived with integrity, is not so different from a sacramental marriage. By limiting our expression of our sexuality, we allow God to expand our capacity to love and be loved. If it’s the life you’re called to—and that’s the key right there—you can fall in love with God in every person, every glint of sunlight off the water, every beat of the crow’s wing. 

One of the greatest gifts of celibacy for me has been the discovery of the joys of true and deep friendship. When we speak of love and relationship, we are almost always talking about sexual or romantic connection. But deep, true, and abiding love flowers in many other fields, if we let it. 

In this morning’s gospel reading—which my friend Suzanne calls lovey dovey Sunday—Jesus invites his disciples and us into a different kind of relationship with God than we are accustomed to. “You are my friends,” he tells them. Then he emphasizes that this move to friendship is a marked change in his relationship with them. “I do not call you servants any longer; […] but I have called you friends.” 

This shift should shock us. At the very least, it should cause us to stop and wonder and question. 

Throughout the synoptic gospels and in the earlier parts of John, Jesus offers many different images for the relationship with God. God is a forgiving father running into a field to meet us or a mother hen protecting her flock. Jesus is the bridegroom, the lover who pursues us, woos us, weds us. God is the master or lord challenging us to obedience, patience, and service. Jesus is the teacher opening the way to wisdom and self-abandonment. But here Jesus calls us his friends. 

Until this moment, each relational image that Jesus uses is hierarchical. If God is our mother, we are children. If Jesus is our teacher, we are students. If God is our master, we are servants. Our tradition has used these same power-differentiated images of God almost exclusively. There is certainly a value and truth in these images. After all, we are not God. We are limited human creatures. 

And yet this morning Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you my friends.” True friendship is not power-differentiated. True friendship is mutual, egalitarian, horizontal. Not only does Jesus tell us that this kind of mutual, equal relationship is available to us, but he tells that friendship—not parental love, not romantic love, not the loving bond of teacher and student—friendship is the truest and deepest love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It is through friendship that we most fully know and love Jesus and that we fulfill his commandment to love one another. 

The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist has a beautiful chapter on the graces of friendship: 

“For us no honor exists that could be greater than Jesus calling us his friends. The more we enter into the fullness of our friendship with him, the more he will move us to be friends for one another, and to cherish friendship itself as a means of grace. The forging of bonds between us that would make us ready to lay down our lives for one another is a powerful witness to the reality of our risen life in Christ. In an alienating world, where so many are frustrated and wounded in their quest for intimacy, we can bear life-giving testimony to the graces of friendship as men who know by experience its demands, its limitations and its rewards.” 

Our world certainly is alienating. So many are frustrated and wounded in their quest for intimacy. So many are abused by parents and lovers and masters and teachers. Jesus offers those of us who have been so wounded a different way to know him and love him and one another: the way of friendship. 

I believe one of the reasons we often have such an anemic understanding of friendship is that true friendship—with God and one another—requires total vulnerability. To share one’s soul with another can be frightening. It can and does open us to betrayal. Jesus knew this, of course. Still, he chose to call his disciples friends the same night that they would leave him, deny him, and hand him over. Still, he returned to them, laid himself bare for them again, and showed them the way of forgiveness and healing. 

To lay down one’s life for one’s friends does only mean to accept physical death on their behalf. Mostly it means to be willing to lay oneself bare, to stand wide open to the possibility of betrayal and abandonment and to choose to love anyway. Cynthia Bourgeault writes that “self-emptying is at the same time self-disclosure.” To offer the gift of one’s true self and to accept another’s gift of self is what it means to abide in and with God and one another. 

This is the way Jesus calls us to love him. This is the way Jesus calls us to love each other. Without power over, without manipulation, without hiding or shame. Freely. Vulnerably. Nakedly ourselves. 

And because you know I have to say it: What a friend we have in Jesus! Amen.