Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Ordination of Br. Aidan Owen to the Order of Deacons : November 14, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
to the Sacred Order of Deacons
The Rev. Matthew Wright
November 14, 2017- Luke 12:35-38

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

The Rev. Matthew Wright
Whoo boy! This day has been a long time coming. Nearly ten years ago—it’s weird saying that out loud—I got an e-mail from a Yale undergrad asking about my year in the Episcopal Service Corps program I was then finishing. He had just been accepted into the same program, and had some questions… actually, a list of exactly 12 questions. He said that although he had always been academically-focused, he felt that God was pushing him out into the world to find other seekers… and he mentioned his calling to the priesthood.

Br. Aidan… then Will… accepted the intern position, and we actually ended up working together for about 6 months, before I went off to India, and then on to seminary. And over the next several years we would occasionally bump into each other or catch up by e-mail.

By 2011, Will was a seminarian at Union in New York, but he was no longer pursuing the priesthood. An e-mail note from that year stated how amazing James Cone was as a professor, and ended with “I’m not planning on entering the discernment process, though I guess that could always change.”

Way to leave room for the Holy Spirit! And the next I heard, discernment was on again—begun with St. Luke in the Fields. And then off again—or, at least, graciously paused by Bishop Andy—because monastic discernment had begun. At long last, monastic vows were entered, the Bishop pressed unpause, GOEs came and went, and ten years from the first e-mail, here we are today. Family, friends, brothers—people from so many different communities that have shaped Aidan and made him who he is this morning.

And because for all of these years the discernment question has centered on priesthood, it’s very easy to see today as just a bump in the road along the way to the goal. Ordination to the transitional diaconate! Often approached as, eh, just a necessary hoop to jump through.

Shortly after I was ordained to the priesthood, I was present at a program about diaconal ministry. And the vocational deacon leading the event asked for all the deacons in the room to stand up. Well, I, I was now a priest, so I kept my seat. And the deacon looked at me, and I said, “Oh no, I’m a priest now.”  And she said, “Oh no—once you are ordained a deacon, you are always a deacon.”  And I learned my lesson and got to my feet. You are not stripped of your ordination to the diaconate when you become a presbyter, regardless of what the word transitional may imply. The vows you will make today endure. And diaconal ministry will be enfolded into your priestly vocation and, thank God, it will never leave you.

Now admittedly, when Aidan invited me to preach, my mind went right to “What a good priest he’ll be.”  And I started thinking about the books on priesthood I was going to quote from. And I had to slow down and say, Wait, the work we’re gathered to do today, the work of the Holy Spirit we’re gathered to witness, is the ordination of a deacon. And it is not a bump in the road to the priesthood or a hoop to be jumped through. It is a sacred and sacramental and lifelong charge.

During the Examination, our good bishop will name the work of a deacon. He will tell us that Aidan is “to make Christ and his redemptive love known… to those among whom you live and work and worship”; that he is “to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.”  And he will say—and this is where I want to dwell this morning—the bishop will say, “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”

That’s big. You are to interpret to the Church, the world. Not interpret the Church to the world—that’s a very different thing—but interpret the world to the Church. You are to be a voice for the whole messy, broken, beautiful, becoming, hurting, longing world. You, Aidan, as a deacon, are to place your ear against the breast of the world and listen for the heartbeat of God, for the longings of God, and then come back and say “Church, Church, let me tell you what God is doing in the world, what God needs in the world, what the Spirit is up to outside our walls, let me interpret the world to you.”

Because too often we, the Church, get too worried about our buildings and our budgets and our theological minutiae—as important as those things all can be. And too often we have thought our job is simply to interpret the Church to the world. And we need diaconal witnesses who can remind us that Christ came not to be served but to serve, not simply to be heard but to listen, to listen with our ear against the breast of the world, which is the breast of Christ himself.

I’ve heard Bishop Dietsche say that of our three Holy Orders, the closest to the actual servant ministry of Jesus is the Sacred Order of Deacons. Jesus may be our Great High Priest after the Order of Melchizedek, but he did not busy himself offering sacrifices for the institutional Temple complex. No, he was out with his ear against the breast of the world.

Now the question may come to your mind, How is a deacon to keep his ear to the heart of the world tucked away in a monastery? Well, first of all, this monastery is no escape from the world; life lived in intimate community is life lived in the heart of the world. And the world courses through this place as every year thousands upon thousands of hungry souls, of spiritual seekers, pour through these doors, these halls, this chapel. People who would not step foot into a parish church come here to find God, people from so many walks of life come here to find quiet and healing, come here to speak their needs, concerns, and hopes. That diaconal longing expressed in an e-mail 10 years ago to be in the world with other seekers is still being lived out right here and now.

And so Aidan, this is the perfect place to live the diaconal dimension of your vocation—which is not simply to help set the Table or liturgically proclaim the Gospel—which we already know all of the brothers here get to do anyway; no it’s to take the pulse of the world as it flows through this place, and then to interpret, to speak a word from that encounter, to the Church. I have heard your voice, and I know that the Church needs it.

But it would be woefully short-sighted to think that the world Aidan is charged with interpreting is simply made up of human beings. As a deacon, you need to listen to the honey bees in that field, and to this sacred Hudson River, and to that 300-year-old oak tree in the cloister, and to the birds and the deer on this land, and interpret their needs and their hopes to the Church as well. You are to interpret to the Church the world, the whole world because the Church has been far too near-sighted far too often.

And so this deaconing work, it is first and foremost contemplative work. To interpret, and interpret well, you must listen, you must be present, you must be free of agenda. Because if you are not, you end up only interpreting yourself, your ego, and not the world. Aidan will be, and is, an excellent interpreter. More than once you have interpreted to me what God is speaking in and through the world.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, "…be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks."  A deacon has discovered that the Master is knocking in every moment, in every inch of creation, that the world itself is the wedding banquet. “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert…” Present. Lovingly attentive. Ever-ready to interpret. Deaconing.

I used to be on the bandwagon that says, “The transitional diaconate is a confusion of orders. If someone feels called to the priesthood, they feel called to the priesthood, and not the diaconate.”  I still think that’s probably true. And all the more reason that priests should be ordained first as deacons!

Each of our holy orders is like a sacramental mirror, reflecting back to all of us a fundamental facet of our own humanity—in the setting of the table, reflecting back the universal call to servanthood; in the breaking of the bread, reflecting back the priesthood of all believers; in the office of the bishop, reflecting back the unity of the people of God.

Shortly, Aidan, the Church will lift you up as such a mirror, and then set you down among the people to show them who they really are. Wearing a habit, he already knows something about this mirror work. Remember that like your monastic vocation—and like all Christian living—diaconal work is first of all contemplative work—that to interpret God’s world, you must be empty, and humble, and fully human. Because it is only out of the awareness of our transforming union with God in the humanity of Christ that everything else flows. Daily you will have to polish the rust from the surface of the sacramental mirror of your life. And I’m sure your brothers will gladly help with the necessary abrasion.

And when in six months or so you, God willing, are made a priest, don’t forget this, your first ordination, not replaced by but enfolded into the next. As a priest, you will be called to interpret the Church to the world, but never forget to interpret the world to the Church. And so, my dear brother Aidan, rest your ear against the breast of creation, which is the breast of Christ himself, and listen for the heartbeat of God… and then come back and say Church, Church, let me tell you, let me tell you…!

And so we pray, Come Holy Spirit, come Holy Spirit, come Holy Spirit… Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Proper 27, Year A: November 12, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. John Forbis   OHC
Proper 27 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

 Br. John Forbis, OHC
We are in a stage of the Liturgical Year where we begin to look at the end before we begin again. If there is anything this morning’s scripture teaches us is that it is not a time to be smug. As Amos tells us, “Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light.”  As W.B. Yeats comments in his poem The Second Coming:

The darkness drops again, but now I know. That twenty centuries of stony sleep. Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Why would we want the day of the Lord, indeed?!?! 
Certainly, the threat of Amos, Paul’s strange language and five virgins being barred from entering the wedding banquet are obvious reasons for uneasiness. However, these passages raise other questions for me.

Who is Amos really speaking to and why?  And what is Paul really speaking about?  What about the 10 virgins?  Who are they?  Who are the wise virgins and who are the foolish ones?  They are all bridesmaids, friends of the bride after all.

Perhaps the questions I am asking are beside the point. But something tells me that dismissing them too easily might mean missing an opportunity to meet the bridegroom when he comes.

Amos speaks to a people who are in great expectation for the Lord. And yet, he refutes any and every claim that the coming will be pretty. Those who escape a lion are only then to be surprised by a bear. God takes no interest or even pleasure in their “solemn assemblies”. The Lord will not accept anything they have to offer. What the Israelites think is going to get them right with God ends up being exactly what God despises. Who are God’s people now?

Paul writes to the Thessalonians “ … we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord will be caught up in the clouds together with those who have died to meet the Lord in the air …”  What?

The foolish virgins (or in another translation, the silly virgins) compound mistake after mistake. In their desperation, they say, “Give us some oil.”  It was a demand, not a request and they were demanding the wrong thing. They could have figured out that the light of the wise virgins or even more so the bridegroom was enough to bring them to the banquet. Instead, they went on some wild goose chase in the dark and were left outside the door. Even more so the wise ones could have shared their light if not their oil. It seems strange that no one thought of this.

Sure the foolish made their decisions and showed bad judgment, but perhaps the actions of the wise virgins or refusal to act begs the judgment that Amos brings down upon the Israelites. The bridegroom is delayed. Paul thought he would come during his lifetime, during the lifetime of the Thessalonian church. He was wrong. 10 virgins expected him earlier and only 5 were prepared when he finally does come. And Amos … well, Amos describes his coming as not something to celebrate too readily.

Maybe the key resides in the coming being unexpected, surprising, leaving unanswered questions, even throwing us off balance. And so we are kept on our toes, unsettled, uncomfortable, but awake. We are brought through Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism itself to be people of God, and as people of God, we can no longer be people who are complacent or asleep. We are to be unsettled people, restless people, people who keep watch with love, people who long for justice and righteousness, people who are truly alive. And thus maybe even be people who unsettle as well.

In his book, The Sacred Voice is Calling, John Neafsey, a clinical psychologist and theology lecturer, who has focused much of his work on vocation and social conscience surmises, "… An uneasy conscience may be one of the best places to listen to the whisper of the Spirit that calls us to a better way."

Just when we think we know when the bridegroom is coming or even what he will look like, he shows us something entirely other. This gives us the capacity to show mercy and compassion. Righteousness is not about piety, but it is about empathy and solidarity with those who may feel they have no access to the bridegroom. When we are living in the truth of love, then, our worship truly expresses the mystery and disruption of God’s loving grace. This is not something that the world around us always wants to see. So many in the world would rather snuff that light out.

Let’s face it. We have been in the dark and have barred our own selves from the banquet. We are in need of guidance. But the call in the middle of the night may not be just to meet the bridegroom but to guide others to meet him as well. Then, the community is whole. Then, 10 virgins get into the banquet. Perhaps for this, we are to be prepared.

The true hope of all this apocalyptic literature is that no matter where we are or think we are, in our inadequacy, in our bad decisions and the consequences that come of those, even if we think we are in the dark and are not recognised, the bridegroom comes at any time, even at midnight, to meet us. Justice rolls and righteousness flow like mighty waters. And we are transformed, transformed as though we were caught up in a strong current right up into the air as Paul tells us. Christ draws us into this conversion. The banquet is still open to us and the guiding lamp in the middle of the night, as well as our own, can bring all of us there.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Proper 26, Year A: November 5, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC

Proper 26 - Sunday, November 5, 2017

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Significant portions of these remarks are indebted to the New Yorker magazine of October 23rd, and in their entirety appeal to your intercessory prayer and action for social justice.

The Gospel passage is Jesus’ denunciation of the exploitation of power by a social class deemed prophetic and therefore untouchable. The passage is entitled “Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees,” in this instance comprising the first twelve verses of Matthew 23, but, on closer inspection, practically the entire chapter is dedicated to this indictment of those entrusted with the interpretation and application of religious law in the daily life of Palestinian Judaism, those trustees who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.

An extraordinary series of “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” comprises, apparently, the most passionate verbal denunciation by Jesus of anyone in the Gospels. We might wonder, Why does Matthew devote practically an entire chapter to the problem, whereas the other Gospels have only a couple of verses? A good guess may be that Matthew is writing for Jewish-Christians. Therefore we’re presented with a lengthy catalog of indictments against a group whose position as interpreters and teachers of the Torah — the revealed laws upon which Israel's identity depends — confers a privilege and respect which shields it from the censure one would expect. This lengthy catalog is repeatedly marked by the phrase "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" and perhaps nowadays Jesus would have said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, scumbags!" Each of those Woes introduces a description of how this privileged class of supposed teachers, who are actually abusers, have perverted the original life-giving revelation into something oppressive and self-serving. In fact, the starkest examples of this perversion appear to be regulations associated with the Temple, giving rise to an observation by Abraham Heschel on one occasion that the most pervasive institutional sin should be called “the sin of the sanctuary,” as true, apparently, of Christians as of Jews. That sanctuaries are a promise and possibility of a portal between earth and heaven would seem the reason.

Therefore, Jesus concludes his list of woes against the scribes and Pharisees, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often have I desired to gather your children together . . . and you were not willing. See, your (temple) is left to you, desolate, devoid of God.”

The untouchability of those associated with the sanctuary has, as we know, been compromised by a broad indictment of the priestly caste in the Western Church; it’s differently reflected in an interview between Marin Alsop, Director of the Baltimore Symphony, and Scott Simon of NPR’s Weekend Edition at the time, several years ago, when Maestra Alsop had accepted her appointment as director of the symphony. Scott Simon asked her why the symphony’s board of directors had taken so long to approve her appointment, to which she replied that in the culture of this country there remained the myth of an ultimate male authority figure casting its shadow over the legitimacy of any such female figure. In the time of Jesus, of course,  the myth of an ultimate male authority figure was writ even larger in the popular imagination.

If it’s legitimate to regard these so-called untouchables as abusers of the tradition entrusted to them, a comparison with the current revelations of sexual abuse by other male power figures may be useful as revealing just the beginnings of an undoing of the male mystique which informs American society. Furthermore, I regard the courage of the revealers as not unrelated to the passionate denunciation expressed by Jesus in the Gospel.

We talk about assault as if it were a new phenomenon as if it weren't the people in positions of authority who are so often responsible: lawyers, judges, priests, teachers, police officers, doctors, CEOs. Why do we act so shocked? The subject of sexual abuse is treated like global warming — we think that if we pretend it’s not happening, then maybe it will go away. For years - for centuries - the economic, physical and cultural subjugation of women has registered as something like white noise. Lately, it appears that we’re starting to hear the tune.

What had been a backdrop is now in the foreground; it has become a story with rotating protagonists which never seems to leave the news. Sexual harassment and assault is an issue that crosses all boundaries, political or otherwise. It's about predators in power who know that they are untouchable and the people who enable them. Thanks to mainstream feminism, victimized women have been supported to an unprecedented degree by much of the media and the public. At the same time, political backlash insures hard limits for this support. The increasing narrative clarity about male power does not always translate to progress. For women, it feels, all at once, shockingly possible, suddenly mandatory, and unusually frustrating to speak up.

We should pay attention to the dynamics that make this progress irregular: not all abusers meet with consequences, and not all women can attain firm ground. Men are still more often held to a standard of consistency than of morality. The star abusers were disgraced, in part, because of their hypocrisy; men who never pretended to see women as equals or as worthy of respect can generally just keep on as they were. There are significant constituencies in America who are not yet interested in holding men accountable for abusive behavior. And there are still huge swaths of women - the poor, the queer, the undocumented - who can’t count on the security that feminism has conferred on its wealthier, whiter adherents, or trust that their victimization would even become news.

Nevertheless, the hunger for and possibility of solidarity among women beckons. Recently, women have been posting their experiences of assault and harassment on social media. We might listen to and lament the horrific stories being shared, and also wonder: Whom, exactly, are we reminding that women are treated as second class? 

Being heard is one kind of power, and being free is another. We have undervalued women’s speech for so long that we run the risk of overburdening it. Speech, right now, is just the flag that marks the battle. The gains won by women are limited to those who can demand them. Individual takedowns and social media stories do not yet threaten the structural impunity of powerful men as a group. On one side of the issue, the moral weight is crushing, the energy vital and sincere. On the other side, there is disavowal and retrenchment. In between are plenty of people who would rather we just talked about something else. This type of problem always narrows to an unavoidable point. The exploitation of power does not stop once we consolidate the narrative of exploitation. A genuine challenge to the hierarchy of power will have to come from those who have it.