Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany - February 9, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany - February 9, 2020

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
Matthew 5:13-20

A group of climbers is ascending K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. The peak is 28,000 feet. One night in camp, they are besieged by a storm, and, in danger of being buried in snow, are forced to turn back. During the perilous descent, one of the climbers trips, loses his lighting, becomes separated from the group, and begins to blindly stumble and then clumsily rappel down the mountainside alone in the cold and dark. At one edge, after anchoring himself, he descends, and slowly releases all of his rope. It is not long enough. He comes to the end and still cannot not see or feel the ground. He is too exhausted and cold to ascend. Hanging in the blinding, raging storm, he cries out for help, but no one can hear or see him. He calms himself and prays for guidance. A quiet, yet firm inner voice comes immediately, “Unhook yourself from your harness and let go of the rope.” Too frightened to trust such guidance, he continues to hold on. The next day a search crew found him frozen to death, dangling in the air three feet above a level rock ledge.

The readings for this Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany take us to the end of our proverbial ropes where, if we take the texts seriously, we must either let go or continue to hold on. These words address our deepest yearnings and common fears and point the way toward fulfillment and peace. We have just heard in these texts a description of what it means to be and live as a human. They tell us that we must attend to relationships in the world, but before we can do that, we first must go inside ourselves. Here is the unveiling of an unseen reality told with a startling honesty. But we are also warned to beware of the all-to-real dangers of illusion and fantasy. These words which challenge the status quo of our common life come not by the forced imposition of laws or guilt or manipulation, but spring from an understanding of our true nature. Only when we first remember who we are can we then begin to set the world aright.

Epiphany proclaims that the Light that is the Christ has come and is glorying out into the world. All that seeks and lives in darkness is sent fleeing by the beams of this Light. Before we consider what this inner journey is about, let us note the imperatives in the texts, because they are about what is fleeing in the light of Christ. In Isaiah: loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share your bread and house and clothes; In 1 Corinthians from St. Paul: speak wisdom, seek to understand; In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus: let your light shine, make your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. These imperatives are essential, but they must be held within the greater context of their motivation. Why are we being commanded to do these things? Where is this action coming from? We are formed in a culture that puts “doing” before “being”. In the empire, identity, worth, and value are external, tangible, earned commodities which we win (or lose) in order to possess whatever status we desire. Even as Christians, this cultural programming can creep into our reading of scripture and push the emphasis into the realm of doing at the expense of being.

The imperatives of the texts are not seeking a transfer from the text to the world. These are not moralisms for creating fair societies. There is something more profound and radical being said here. Remember that contrary to the culture, in the Bible, “who” comes before “do”. Identity informs and inspires action. The prophetic identity works itself into us first before it can become meaningful action. God is concerned that I am made into the kind of person from whom justice and peace – good news - flow naturally, not as a religious obligation. Righteousness is first about personhood before it is about behavior. The injunctions and admonitions in Isaiah are warnings and pleadings for justice, not merely for justice’s sake, but because at the beginning of the reading the people are called by God “my people”. The immediate danger is that the people of God are acting contrary to their identity, which will bring them alienation from God and their neighbor – a state for which they were not called and are not formed. They must be awakened to themselves in order to receive the reorientation which will embody the world they long for. As so often happens with the prophets, the forgetting of identity is the core problem that leads to fear, idolatry and violence.

We wrestle with the same temptation to turn ourselves into good doers detached from hearing ourselves called “God’s people”. This is present in the Gospel reading also. For a long time what I heard Jesus say was, “Go and make yourselves salt by being saltier. Go and make yourselves light by shining more, doing more.” That is not what Jesus says. Directly and simply he says, “You are…” Before he says anything about how to live out being salt and light, he names us – not what we are supposed to do, but who we are. The acts of seasoning and shining in the world flow from our true identity.

Back at the end of the rope with the mountain climber. He is a metaphor of our discovery of ourselves as exposed and vulnerable between the illusion of our adequate self-sufficiency and the risk of trusting what we cannot see. If the climber had truly believed that he was loved and safe because he was a precious child of God and that the voice he heard in response to his prayer was real, the decision to let go of the rope would have been simple. The crisis was not about the validity of the inner voice, it was about who he was, whether he was made for fear or faith. Would he cling to the identity he could perceive, even though it would lead to his death, or would he let go and be caught by the unknown – bigger than his perception, the arms of God?

The end of your rope is a very holy place to be. The end is coming to realize the passing satisfaction of performing, earning, being good enough, doing enough. Being at the end of your rope is not a crisis resulting from failure, but a passage to spiritual maturity. At times in our lives, the rope, like the training wheels on a child’s bicycle, is a necessary and good gift from God – holding us safe, teaching us to trust. As we grow and are able to stand on our own feet, the rope will become a leash, keeping us attached to a level of safety we have outgrown and is holding us back. Growth then is only possible in letting go. Letting go is the encounter with our greatest need and our greatest fear. The end of the rope is the divine wake-up alarm of remembering, receiving, seeing, going, doing.

Jesus describes this as exceeding. Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees – not because it is a righteousness that does more and does it better, but because the righteousness itself is sheer gift within relationship between Lover and Beloved and is offered back to God and neighbor as free gift, without grasping, controlling, or boasting because it was not and can never be a possession. The earned holiness of the scribes and Pharisees is a heavy burden and a hard taskmaster, forever pulling oneself up the rope toward a safe ledge that never appears. It is tempting, but futile. This is why Jesus names the temptation of salt losing its taste or light hidden under the bushel basket. He is speaking of the denial of identity which spoils the salt and quenches the light. We are God’s people, salt and light. By our very existence, embodied in our obedient acts, being made like our Lord, the light bursts forth and the darkness is pushed a bit farther away. Amen.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Presentation of Our Lord - February 2, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC
The Presentation of Our Lord - February 2, 2020

Malachi 3:1-4
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

Today we celebrate the Feast of The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which is also known as The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, and also as Candlemas.

It is called The Purification after the Jewish ritual custom prescribed in the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, where the mother of a male child is commanded to undergo forty days of cleansing from the blood of childbirth and then to offer herself and her child at the temple with an offering.

Her purification is accompanied by the presentation of her child. The ritual itself is a consecration of both the mother and child’s lives to God, and the offering is a sign of thanksgiving and gratitude for safe delivery of the child and the continued health of the mother. If the parents were rich enough, they would offer a lamb. If they were too poor, they would offer two turtledoves or two pigeons, as Joseph and Mary did.

That the Feast is also called Candlemas originates with Simeon’s prophesy that the Christ Child would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel. (Luke 2:32) Later Church tradition has this day as the Feast on which beeswax candles were blessed for use both in churches and in private homes throughout the year. And that is how we started our liturgy today.

The Presentation in the Temple closes Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ infancy. Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth and early childhood contains three hymns that scholars believe predate the writing of the gospel itself.

Those three hymns are very familiar to those who pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer services of the Book of Common Prayer. They are also very dear to monastic communities who sing them in the Divine Office.

The Benedictus or Song of Zechariah features in our office of Matins. The Magnificat or Song of Mary features in our office of Vespers. And we sing the Nunc Dimitis or Song of Simeon every night in our office of Compline.

It is this third hymn which is featured in today’s gospel passage. Simeon’s hymn of praise to the baby Christ resonates in me as another Ode to Joy.

Simeon, nearing the grave, knowing that his time is short, trusting that the promise must be near, lives long enough to hold salvation in his arms and to look into the eyes of the one who will save not only Israel, but Gentiles as well - the whole world.
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."
Let's consider the words of the Nunc Dimittis itself.

“... now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” At the end of the day, I sing this hoping that I can let go of any preoccupation, worry or anxiety I may have held during the day. Creation is in God’s hands not under my control. God is here with us all, with each of us, now and forever. Fret not and trust in the Lord.

“... for my eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon says. At the end of the day, I sing this recognizing that God has been present and active in life all day, And, with luck, I recognized God in the face of my brothers, in the interactions with our guests, our staff, our contractors, our directees.

Simeon continues “... which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” At the end of the day, I sing this recognizing that the Christ cannot be but Universal. I rejoice that our salvation is corporate. We are being transformed together, if at varying paces. God saved us one and all and salvation continues, if we can but see with the eyes of our heart.

Near the end of my life, I hope I will be able to sing the Nunc Dimitis with a full-hearted gratitude for its unfolding and with hope for what is yet to come. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, ...”

In the ordinariness of parents bringing their baby son to the temple for an offering, Simeon saw something greater - indeed the greatest gift of all. He is teaching us to wait and watch and see and praise. So let us use our spiritual practices wisely and faithfully and be watching and praising with Simeon - in our liturgies of hymns of the good news, in our own private prayer, in our acts of mercy in the world - all in the assurance that Christ comes and reveals himself to us - in ways we expect and ways that surprise, in the convenient and the inconvenient, in the knowable and in ways beyond knowing - yet Christ is through all and in all and with all.

Today’s feast has yet another name, which focuses not on why the Holy Family went to the Temple, but on what happened while they were there. In the Byzantine Rite, this feast is remembered as Hypapante—or, “the meeting”—a reference to the meeting of the Christ Child and his Mother Mary with holy Simeon and the prophet Anna.

Simeon, we’re told, “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” Anna, “was of a great age [… and] never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” By my reckoning, Anna had been living a devout life in the Temple for a good sixty years.

Simeon and Anna can be conceived of as sort of “proto-monastics.” They live entirely devoted to God, in regular prayer and in constant hope for the fulfillment of Israel’s longing.

Anna and Simeon were living in light of their ultimate hope. And so it’s not surprising that they, of everyone present in the crowded Temple that day — these proto-monastics — noticed an unnoticeable couple with their infant, coming to offer two turtle doves, the offering appointed for the poor. Anna and Simeon had cultivated a different way of seeing.

We are no longer called with Anna and Simeon to simply live in hope of Christ, to live in Advent, as it were. But rather we are called to live in Epiphany, in Christ revealed among us, also in us and through us.

In the First Coming of Christ, recognized by Anna and Simeon, the eschaton, our telos, our goal, our end, arrives as a Person, as one embodying that final fulfillment.

Some, including Teilhard de Chardin, foresee that the eschaton will arrive, not as an individual Person but as a Community, a collective Person — as the fullness of the ever-growing Body of Christ as it comes into being through the whole of the human family.

However, we cannot mother the growing Christ and escape the sword that will pierce our soul, as Simeon prophesies to Mary. As we open ourselves to Christ’s growing presence in creation and in community, with Mary we will feel the pain of Christ, as he struggles to come into form through each of us. Our hearts will become sensitive to the human, animal, and ecological suffering that surrounds us. Our mercy will be as wide as God’s mercy. Our love will be as encompassing God’s Love.

And along this path of organic growth of the Universal Christ, we monks will continue to sing the three hymns of Luke’s infancy narrative to remember the revolutionary message of God’s love and justice for all.

As St. Augustine wrote in his commentary on Psalm 73: “Qui bene cantat bis orat.” Who sings well, prays twice.