Sunday, October 18, 2020

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 24 A - October 18, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Robert Magliula, OHC


Over these last weeks, our readings have expressed how the circle of God’s embrace expands to include more people in God’s unfolding story of salvation. This portion of Isaiah was probably written toward the conclusion of the Babylonian Exile, before Israel returned to rebuild Jerusalem and reclaim its identity. Isaiah names King Cyrus of Persia, as God’s own anointed, the only place in Hebrew scripture where a foreigner enjoys the sociopolitical title of messiah. The reason is that when Cyrus conquered kingdoms, his policy was founded on tolerance and understanding, permitting local cultural and religious identity and autonomy. 

As we are learning in this pandemic and foreign political climate, the experience of exile and return deepens self- understanding for all of us. The prophet invites us today to affirm the utter mystery of God and of divine action in the world and to perceive it in unexpected times and places. We get in trouble when we attempt to domesticate God---when we dare speak of God as part of our group alone. God cannot be owned and never will be.
 
Today, Matthew, continuing to recount the dispute between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day relates a deceitful plan to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. As a colony of the Roman Empire the Jews were paying taxes that supported the occupying army and government. They were required to use a special coin bearing the image of the Emperor which the Pharisees saw as a violation of the first and second commandments. If he advises not paying the tribute tax, he will be accused of sedition. If he advises paying, he sets aside the law of God.
 
Jesus widens the question by placing it in the context of identity by asking “Whose image is on it?” None of us are exempt from discerning what belongs to whom. Tertullian, writing in the early third century said, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image, which is on the human.” 1 Coins bearing Caesar’s image belong to Caesar. Human beings bearing God’s image belong to God. 

Caesar will get his coins, but the coin of our flesh and blood is the image of God. Every life is marked with the inscription of the One who is its source and destination. The theological point that Jesus makes about God’s interest has nothing to do with power, as Caesar’s does.  The God to whom we render our days is the God Isaiah describes from the midst of exile. The tender compassion of God for God’s children is the product of the inspiration for all the rendering we do, and the taproot of our politics. For Christians, baptism is the watermark of our true currency. At our baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross. Even so, all of us walk a fine line in negotiating the currency of our identity: collaborators some of the time, subversives some of the time. I find a sort of comfort in Jesus not making this an easy question. The answer is easy only for those who regard Caesar as god or as the devil.

Our true image can sometimes be difficult to recognize. Virtually all great spiritual traditions share the conviction that humanity is the victim of a tragic case of mistaken identity. When we look at each other, or in the mirror, we tend to see the inscriptions that our business with the world has left on us: you are what you look like, what you have, what you wear, what you do, the company you keep. There is a “self” with a small “s” and a “Self” with a capital “S”, and our fatal mistake lies in confusing the two. The small self is how we define ourselves outside of love, relationship, or divine union. After spending many years building this small self, with all its labels and preoccupations, we become very attached to it. Existing outside the reach of God’s will and love—outside of reality and life, it cannot help but be an illusion. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. For most, there is no greater subjective reality than this small self. Sensing its fundamental unreality, it clothes itself in myths and symbols of power. It begins to convince itself that it is what it does. The more it does, achieves, and experiences, the more real it becomes. It frames reality in a binary way: for me or against me, totally right or totally wrong, my group’s or another group’s opinion. That is the best the small egotistical self can do, yet it is not anywhere close to adequate, and hardly mature wisdom. The small self is still objectively in union with God, it just doesn’t know it, enjoy it, or draw upon it. For most of us, this objective divine image has not yet become the subjective likeness. To move beyond it always feel like losing or dying.

The question of our ultimate loyalty and deepest allegiance can only be discerned through our true identity. Our lives are God’s, and all that we do is to be marked by that conviction. There is no higher claim upon us, nor can there ever be. All claims and allegiances are evaluated and understood in the light of whose we are and whose image we bear. The challenge is what to do when allegiance to God and government pull us into a situation of divided loyalties where both entities have a rightful claim and neither side can be dismissed.
 
As this election approaches and tensions and divisions deepen, the issue for us isn’t about paying taxes. It’s about paying attention to what our government is doing, and whether or not, in good conscience, we can support those actions. The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society. It’s no wonder the mental and emotional health among a large portion of the American population is in tangible decline. We have abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science, or religion in civil conversation; we now recognize and can no longer deny that we are living with the catastrophic results of centuries of systemic racism. 

We are, without doubt, in an apocalyptic time. Our spiritual bankruptcy has robbed us of our shame. We need to become human again. We need to see that what has led us to pretended moral power has really led to our peril. Power has become our national obsession. Even as churches, we have given more energy to our institutions, than we have to the gospel. We cling to the image of the Warrior God in the face of the God of Love. We mix the national religion and the Christian religion as a matter of course. We presume this country is especially favored by God, under God’s singular protection, and distinctly chosen to do God’s will. We abhor violence but we do not study nonviolence. We are stricken with a fear of sharing that closes our borders and deports the defenseless. 

The fulfillment of the law is that which grows out of complete devotion to God, expressed in love of one’s neighbor. The opening of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is a powerful statement of what that looks like. As with Isaiah, God is active, empowering, encouraging, and persistent, illustrating an intimate connection between the life of God and the life of God’s people, who have come to know this God by coming to know and appreciate one another. 

Our occupation and vocation as monastics and believers at this time must be to first restore the Divine within by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. The spiritual effect is to become a people of peace, too strong to be intimidated even by our own, too involved to be silenced. The function of the peacemaker is not to shirk combat with evil. The function of the peacemaker is to find ways to confront evil without becoming evil. God cannot abide with us in a place of fear, a place of ill will or hatred, inside of so much angry noise and conscious deceit. God cannot be born except in a womb of Love. So, we must offer God that womb. In these coming weeks, we need to stand as a sentry at the door of our senses so that the toxicity cannot make its way into our soul. Our life’s goal is to illustrate both the image and the likeness of God by living in conscious loving union with God and each other. 

+Amen.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 23 A - October 11, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Luc Thuku, OHC


There are 2 things hated with passion by the kikuyu tribe of which I belong. These are 1) dogs and 2) uncircumcised boys. The reason for dogs being hated is a story for another day. As for the boys, there are two reasons. 

The first one is envy, because if you are uncircumcised and therefore not initiated to adulthood as per the culture, then you are still regarded as a kid despite your chronological age, and therefore you can do anything you want and get away with it. 

The second reason and I guess the most important, is to show the boys that they are nothing important till they are initiated and therefore incorporated fully into the tribe.That act of always being treated with contempt made one look forward and even pressure his parents to let him go through the rite.

This is important to prepare them psychologically because it is a painful business and with it also comes responsibility for family and tribe, and one needs to go through it voluntarily. Young initiates graduated to being  warriors who protected the tribe and later would marry and procreate to ensure the continuity of the tribe.
 
When my tribe embraced Christianity, this practice of shaming was to some degree carried on to the new faith and if you did something wrong, as a young person, it was not uncommon for parents to punish,(or according to them challenge or encourage) you in form of a song if caning and tongue lashing failed. The song went like this: 
Kihii giki mukuru thiini Ukaharuruka urio wiki Haha hatiri onaumwe ugaguteithia Na niukarira uri o wiki. 
Caitani nake ndagaguteithia Na riria ukwihia mwihagia nake akehugura na thutha aguthekerere  ha ha ha na niukarira urio wiki. 
Loosely translated it says: 
You uninitiated one to the valley of hell you will descend all alone there is not even one here who will help you and you will cry all alone 
Satan too will not help you and when you sin you sin together he will just turn and laugh at you Ha ha ha and you will cry all alone  

As you can imagine, this song was sung to me numerous times when I faltered and it used to disturb me a lot. I used to question myself why I had to suffer in hell for a life I had not chosen to live in the first place. I was not baptized by choice or born a Kikuyu by choice, and when I was old enough I was forced to go to church and punished if I got there late and so the entire God/ church and tribe business became very confusing and oppressive. 

This question presents itself again in today's gospel reading(Matthew 22:1-14) where those invited to the wedding don't seem to have a say or freedom to choose to go or not. When they attempt to assert their freedom, although some did it in an unacceptable manner(murder), they get killed. Then idlers are invited or rather forced to come to the wedding feast, and to the credit of the host both good and bad are invited, but one of them who did not have a wedding garment is bound up and thrown into the outer darkness. One would imagine that the host would have been more forgiving or understanding to this second group because they were picked up on the road going about their business, but it seems it is either his way or no way at all. This gets even more concerning when it is presented as coming from the mouth of Jesus explaining how things will be at the end of time and yet, Jesus had come to reveal a loving, forgiving and respecting God, and the explanation given that it is because “many are called but few are chosen” doesn’t make any sense at all! This passage can be and is very depressing right?… No!  

Today's gospel passage will only make sense if read and interpreted in context as opposed to literally. Matthew is writing to an ethnic Jewish congregation that first and foremost thinks it is entitled to salvation due to it’s descent from Abraham; and that also is familiar with the language of right or wrong, reward or punishment, life or death, male or female, heaven or hell, righteous or evil, God or satan… In short a language of black or white with no grey areas in between, although most of them lived their lives in the grey areas. This could therefore be basically the language of Matthew teaching, and not a verbatim quote from Jesus. However, it doesn’t diminish its value or validity as the word of God as we shall soon see.  

If we want to know God's language in this regard, we should not look further than the first reading that we heard from the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 25:1-9. In this prophecy especially from verse 6, God promises a feast on "this" mountain which is not named and could therefore represent any city…remember cities were built on hills or elevated land those days for easier protection from invaders, hence the imagery. Isaiah was writing to give people hope that despite the destruction of their city by invaders, in this case the Babylonians who will exile them, God will have them return and reward them. Isaiah continues  and says "the Lord of Hosts will make for ALL people a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well aged wines strained clear”. Despite the feast sounding delicious and sumptuous(my apologies to vegans and teetotalers), the catch phrase is that The feast will be for ALL, not for some or for those dressed for the occasion. He continues to say that the Lord will also wipe away the tears from all faces(not just of the good ones), and the disgrace of His people he will take away from all the earth! This doesn't sound like a mean God who seems to derive pleasure from punishing those who exercise freedom or those who make simple mistakes like our inappropriately dressed fellow at the wedding in the gospel passage. 

The language in today's gospel therefore should not be taken to mean God is unforgiving, death happy, or one who looks for the slightest mistakes to punish and does so out of proportion to the offense. It should be taken as an encouragement to the hearers not to take things for granted and think they can live life without a care and get away with it. Like the uncircumcised kikuyu boys who are born Kikuyu yes, but are not fully Kikuyu, until they are initiated into the tribe voluntarily, Jesus through Matthew is reminding the ethnic Jews that being born a Jew does not guarantee them eternal life. They have to accept the invitation and choose to be in relationship or communion with God. 

The gospel today is also reminding us, albeit through reverse psychology, that although we are christians(most of us “ethnic Christians” as a result of infant Baptism and regular church attendance), we should not take it for granted that we will be saved, but we have a responsibility to make a conscious choice every day to cooperate with the divine plan of salvation. Being a Christian alone does not guarantee anyone eternal life…It is living as a Christian daily that puts us on the path to eternal life! 

In the second reading that we heard this morning from Philippians Chapter 4:1-9, Paul lays down for us the strategy of cooperating with this divine plan and of living daily as a Christian. In verse 8, He tells us that whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, to think about these things. Finally in verse 9, he urges the Philippians and us to keep on doing the things that they have learned, received, heard and seen in him and the God of peace will be with them. Simply put, Paul is telling us that as followers of Jesus, we should not be self centered, egocentric, selfish and narcissistic. Whatever we do should be done with the next person in mind and for the good of the other person. This is however easier said than done especially in our  contemporary society which is driven by profits, selfishness, greed and all that accompanies these vices. If every single person who call themselves Christian in America today were to practice the recommendations of Philippians 4 verse 8, we would have a model of a just Christian society, a paradise on earth. However, our sense of entitlement that emanates from capitalism gone wild, and distorted interpretation of scripture where wealth is confused with blessings and its lack a curse; leaves us dangerously unprepared for life here and now and for eternal life for it robs us of joy.

The mark of true Christianity is joy that comes not from material things but from knowing and being in relationship with God through others. Paul therefore urges those of us who are true followers of Jesus Christ this morning in Philippians verse 4-7 to rejoice in the Lord always and to let our gentleness be known to everyone for the Lord is near. He urges us to worry about nothing but in everything through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to let our requests be known to God. When we do so, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 
My dear brothers and sisters, are you experiencing joy and peace?, are you able to rejoice in the Lord always despite  the circumstances you find yourself in? If so thanks be to God! If not, the message in today's readings is encouraging us to take a step towards our loving savior who is forever inviting us to experience joy and peace here and now and to eternity… and as Paul reminded, there is no better time than now because the Lord is near... 
Come to the Savior make no delay, 
Here in his word He's shown us the way; 
Here in our midst He's standing today, 
Tenderly saying "come!" 

Joyful, joyful will the meeting be, 
When from sin our hearts are pure and free, 
And we shall gather, Savior with Thee 
In our eternal home. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Feast of the Dedication - October 4, 2020

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY

Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC

99th Anniversary of the Dedication of our Church - Sunday, October 4, 2020

Those of you of a certain age may remember the 1969 movie “‘Alice's Restaurant.” It is loosely based on a song of the same name by Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody Guthrie, which is itself based on a true story though, no doubt, somewhat exaggerated. It was a popular film about war and resistance, about coming of age, about sex and drugs and all those other good things. But all I remember about the movie--and this may say more about me than I care to admit--is a brief scene about fifteen minutes into the film which recreates a service of the removal of a consecration of a church or what we might now call the secularization of a consecrated building. Trinity Church, a small Episcopal parish, was located in the Berkshires and was being taken out of commission, so to speak, to become the home of the eponymous Alice. I was struck by the starkness and power of the service, at once both sadly realistic and yet paradoxically hopeful. The cinematic portrayal was accurate down to the last detail. Even the prayers were true to the approved text:

"We who are gathered here know that this building, which has been consecrated and set apart for the ministry of God's holy Word and Sacraments, will no longer be used in this way but will be used for other purposes.

“To many of you this building has been hollowed by cherished memories, and we know that some will suffer a sense of loss. We pray that they will be comforted by the knowledge that the presence of God is not tied to any place or building.

“The altar has been removed and protected from desecration.”

The Bishop's statement was then read: “...this building, having now been declared deconsecrated and secularized, I declare to be no longer subject to my canonical jurisdiction.” 

Contrast this with the joyous ceremonies of consecration and dedication such as we read in Scripture. There is Solomon's portrayal of the original Temple in Jerusalem, real or imagined, with all its accoutrements.  Or the lavish rededication ceremonies of the Temple after the Babylonian exile with its gold and silver and thousands of animal sacrifices.  Or even what occurred here ninety-nine years ago today when St. Augustine’s Chapel was dedicated and consecrated to almighty God. To be sure, it was a more modest affair than what we read about the time of the Second Temple. Still, it was a major production by any measure. There were special trains from New York City. About 500 people attended the service crowding every available nook and cranny. And in the perfect fall weather that followed, food was served on the lawn, a real multiplication of loaves and fishes.

The service was not without its critics of course. The local Episcopal rector from across the river, Dr. Alexander Cummins, was scandalized that the bishop would participate in such a service in this community of monks thereby lending it legitimacy. He made his sentiments known in the New York City press. I can't resist quoting at some length:

“The long trail of monasticism is full of intrigue and rebellion on the part of these irregulars against the regulars, i.e., monks against bishops, priests,deacons or laymen.  History gives us a picture of the gossiping woman in all ages telling her eager tale against the parish priest or bishop in the willing ears of a listening monk. This has been one of the most offensive combinations of unhappy debate and cruel persecution against men accused of heresy and unorthodoxy.

“With this picture must be placed another of the rich orthodox layman outside, ready to meet all deficits and stand all bills for further propaganda provided that sufficient influence is used to keep him out of purgatory. 

“West Park has its saints, no doubt, but it is also behind much false teaching in the Church.  It cannot help itself in the nature of things….

“Is it wise for the Bishop of a diocese which still remains old-fashioned and Protetsant in its character to make one of his first official visitations to a monastic establishment hitherto felt to be a good place to avoid and historically in line with ways and teachings contrary to all the American fathers stood for?”  (New York Times, November 7, 1921)

Dr. Cummins obviously thought not. Happily, not everyone agreed.

In the wider Catholic tradition, and especially in the monastic tradition, buildings are important. They are not accidental. We often hear it said around the current increasingly frequent closures of churches and other places of worship that the church is the people, not the building. This is true. But people are also embodied, as is our own Christian faith. And so we need spaces, buildings in which to gather, to be the ekklesia, those who are called out. We need places to be instructed, to be fed, to be renewed. We need places to find community.  We need places to mark our beginnings and offer our commitments and covenants and vows, and yes, make our exits. 

Churches are these places for us. And at their best, they are also places of great beauty,  doorways into the sublime, the eternal. I think of another movie, “The Deer Hunter,” a 1978 epic war film which takes place in and around a depressing and depressed steel town in Western Pennsylvania at the height of the Vietnam conflict. The one place there of great beauty, of transcendence, indeed of hope is the local Orthodox Church at the center of the town. In the midst of this grey landscape is the exuberance of a church bathed from top to bottom with light and color and song. It is a place of vastly larger meaning and hope in a world on the brink of meaninglessness and chaos.  My own ancestors who came from Central and Eastern Europe understood this. They were exceedingly poor, but the first thing they did after getting jobs and a home was to build a church. It functioned as a community center and a cultural touchstone. But most of all, I think, it served as a place of beauty and light and hope no matter how grim or difficult life might be.  And that is because the Church building itself, as much as the community gathered in it, is the image of something more. It is the image of something eternal. It prefigures, if you will, the Paradise of God.

So every year we commemorate this reality and hold up this truth with gratefulness, with joy, with nostalgia, with awe as we celebrate this anniversary. “This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven,” said Jacob upon waking from his dream of a ladder which reached to heaven and upon which the angels of God ascended and descended.  We can say the same of this place. 

Nevertheless we must also remember that nothing is here forever. The words of one of our favorite hymns say it so well: 

Mortal pride and earthly glory,

sword and crown betray our trust;

though with care and toil we build them,

tower and temple fall to dust.

But God's power, hour by hour,

is my temple and my tower.  (Hymnal 1982, # 665  )  

Buildings age and collapse or they are destroyed through natural disaster and through war or human madness. Congregations, like monasteries, change. They grow and build and outgrow and shrink and disappear. Cultures change, demographics change, priorities change, our self-understanding changes. This is the truth as well.

And so a service of secularization or deconsecration is also worth considering today. Does it mean these buildings or attempts were failures? Perhaps not. Could it be that they have fulfilled their purpose all too well, that their time has come and is now gone in a particular place, and that we now hand them over the larger providence of God, just as at the end we will hand over our very souls to that same loving providence? Sooner or later everything will disappear. Everything.

In the Book of Revelation we are given a vision of the new Jerusalem, heavenly and eternal. What is shocking is the claim that there is no Temple there.  It’s no longer needed. The rituals have ended, the cult is done, the sacraments have ceased, the priests are no more and not because they were not effective or necessary.  Rather precisely because they were.  Rituals, figures, types are ended because the reality, the Prototype, the living Truth now pervades everything.  Call it what you will: heaven, paradise, eternity, the Kingdom. It is Christ all in all.

None of us is there yet, of course, none of us. But our eyes look toward that day and our hearts stretch forward toward it. Church buildings, like this Chapel, are signs and signposts of hope for a future that is almost unimaginable and yet utterly necessary and--dare we say?--inevitable.

So we give thanks today for those who built this place, this little forecourt of heaven, this little foretaste of God’s future, already present.  We remember those who have worshipped within these walls during the past 99 years--monks, guests, strangers and pilgrims, the hopeful, the despairing, the lost, the confused, the certain, the seeker and the sought. May they join us this morning as together with the angelic choirs we give thanks to God for this and for all divine signs and instruments of grace.  May we be joined together here and hereafter.  For truly, the Lord is in this place. 

Amen.