Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Day of Pentecost - May 31, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép Martinez-Cubero, OHC
Br. Josép
“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Jump back people! We got violent wind, tongues of fire, and bold preaching! That’s some good stuff!

It was the day of Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, Shavuot, the Jewish celebration of the first fruits of summer, and the celebration of the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai. Devout Jews are gathered together to celebrate what they believe; that everything we grow and everything we have comes from the hand of God, and the most precious of all is the Torah, the gift of the Law. All are gathered together in one place, and what happens? The Holy Spirit interrupts… a party. 

I can just hear myself: “This is inconsiderate. I know Jesus told us he would send us an advocate, but I mean, he should have given an indication of when this was going to happen so we could be prepared. Seriously, he should have scheduled this with us.” But the Holy Spirit is not concerned with my need for neatness, order, organization and preparation. No, the Spirit shows up when she shows up. Our job is to watch and wait and get moving when it shows. The Holy Spirit interrupts what we know or think we know. And it interrupts violently… with wind… and fire… and Galileans.

If you know me just a little bit, you know that I am going to read this morning’s story from the Acts of the Apostles and the thing that is really going to jump at me is the whole bit about: Are not all these who are speaking in our languages Galileans? … They are filled with new wine. And I can most certainly relate with Peter’s righteous indignation when we stands, raises his voice and says: "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.”
Are not all these Galileans? … Surely they’re drunk. That’s what jumps at me, especially during this past week when I watched in disbelief a video of a white person in Central Park calling the police on a black man who insisted that she abide by the park’s rules and put her dog on a leash. God forbid this black man would challenge her sense of white privilege. “I’m going to call the cops. I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Are not all these Galileans? … Surely they’re drunk. That’s what jumps at me in this reading, especially this past week when I watched, with a certain amount of disturbing numbness, a video of a handcuffed black man face-down on the street pleading for his life because he is struggling to breathe as a white police officer mercilessly presses down on the black man’s neck with his knee until the black man stops breathing. Are not all these African-Americans?... Surely they’re drunk.

Even if we have a hard time with the whole idea of miracle, we can get the whole notion of the Holy Spirit interrupting through wind and fire because we can insert the visuals… but Galileans? It really points to the terrible human propensity to make assumptions based on where someone is from, or what they look like, or where they went to school, or where they work, or how much money they have… 

And what about the assumptions we make in order to distance ourselves from the person to whom we are pointing our finger? The first thing I thought when I watched that video of the white woman calling the cops on the black man was: “She is a racist conservative.” But she is not. She identifies as a progressive who supports progressive causes and supported Obama’s presidential campaign. So much for what I am sure I know and my neatly black and white assumptions! So when I read: Are not all these Galileans?... and my mind translates it to Are not all these Hispanics?... Surely they’re drunk, I know in my heart that I can choose to leave it at the level of my ego, or I can engage in the much harder exercise of taking a hard look at myself and confessing with humility that I too have Galileans of my own. So when the Holy Spirit interrupts violently through wind and fire, oh yes, that is scary. But when the Holy Spirit gets to us through whoever the Galileans are in our life, speaking a language we can understand… what do we do with that?

Christianity is a religion of language. We monks recite and chant psalms full of words throughout the day. In the creation stories of Genesis, God births the very cosmos into existence by speaking: "And God said."  "In the beginning was the Word," we read about the Incarnate Christ in the beautiful prologue of John's gospel. We profess our faith in the language of creeds and prayers and liturgy and music all full of words. And in the Book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." 

Those of us who speak more than one language can really understand that language is much more than its grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. A language carries culture, history, psychology, and spirituality. To speak a language other than one’s own native language is to orient oneself differently in the world- to see differently, to hear differently, to process reality differently. To speak across barriers of race, culture, religion, or politics is to challenge stereotype, and to risk sneers, mockery and ridicule. It is a brave and disorienting act.

What language do we really need to be speaking at this moment in time when our nation seems to be growing more and more tribal and even faith communities turn on each other for lack of effort to learn to understand each others language? How can we learn to speak and comprehend each other’s language so that we can experience the limits of our own words and perspectives? How can we learn to speak and comprehend each other’s language so that we can discover that God's deeds are far too great for a single tongue and a single fluency?

O come, Creator Spirit, come and make within our souls your home; grant us your seven-fold gift of grace: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, godliness, and joyful awareness of your grandeur. O come, Creator Spirit, come and enrich our tongues and speech with grace, that we may all become your prophets able to speak and comprehend languages across barriers of race, culture, religion, or politics. O come, Creator Spirit, come and shed your love in all our heart, that we may all truly become your incarnate Love and the true Body of Christ. ¡Que así sea en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Seventh Sunday of Easter - May 24, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
The Seventh Sunday of Easter - May 24, 2020

Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

We come to the last Sunday of the Easter Season, the Sunday after Ascension Day, to the peculiar experience of hearing for the third week in a row a reading from the Gospel of John set on the night before the crucifixion. These Farewell Discourse chapters are summary, preparation, and theological reflection on the death/resurrection/ascension singularity. Time becomes something other than a straight line. We have entered a realm where the chronological flow of events is less important than the eternal, ongoing truth and power of the events in the world. The historical and eternal meet and interpenetrate, the chronos time being visited by moments of kairos which change everything. 

According to our calendars, we have come quite a distance since Ash Wednesday on February 26. That date seems like an eternity ago given all that has happened in the last twelve weeks. We go into the wilderness, to the depths of our souls and the nature of our resistance to God so that we may be ready and willing to receive the medicine of salvation freely offered us. We emerge into the glory of the empty tomb and the risen and ascended Christ. The Gospel today ties together these seasons and stories of death and resurrection spanning from those dark, cold days of February (when I actually physically touched people’s forehead’s with ashes) to today. The mystery of life, death, and resurrection cycles and tumbles through our lives just as in the Gospel of John where Jesus is always the crucified, risen, and glorified One even in his earthly ministry, even, we might say, from before the foundation of the world.

All of that is context to the verses I would like to focus on this morning. Verses 9 and 10 say this,
“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”
Jesus speaks here of the communion between Father and Son, and elsewhere in the Farewell Discourse of the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the discourse as a whole, the life of the Trinity is always described as relational, the persons are distinct yet in and for one another. The Trinity is not an abstract idea for examination or a closed circle beyond us. The unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the source of our being and the model of our life with God and one another. The relationship between Son and Father is not, thankfully, “on behalf of those who have been chosen over others; on behalf of those who are good enough…” But rather because of and out of their relationship we are brought into being, and by being we belong and are being given in belonging. The only qualification needed is that you are here. The belonging is inherent in our souls by awakening to its presence.

And then “I have been glorified in them.” Here is a union, fusion, participation in the dignity of each human being in the eternal and everlasting unfolding of the love and grace of God to and in all things. Our human life is the context within which the glorification of Christ is an ongoing incarnation of perfect union and utter self-giving love. The ever-being-revealed radiant being and presence of Christ is ongoing within us. That is the essence of the meaning of our human lives – to be an incarnation of the glory – that is, the perfect union and utter self-giving love of the Son in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the context of the Upper Room, the soon coming arrest and execution, Jesus has little time and does not waste words. The imminence of death has a way of focusing thoughts and words to what is essential. Jesus urgently wants the disciples to be so rooted and grounded in their identity as belonging to the Trinity, that nothing will shake their belief. What is it that Jesus leaves the disciples as the Last Word, the final echo of his voice before the Passion? The glory of the Son from the Father lives on in us as individuals and community.

All of this theology is lovely, but the reason Jesus is talking this way is to inform our lives from the inside out. Living as the one in whom Christ is being glorified is the heart of the Christian vocation. Christ glorified in us is the conversion from self-will to detachment. The desire for our own glory is the source of sin and distorts and warps our identity. Detachment is knowing the difference between my glory and Christ’s glory. Christ’s glory is not about control, power, dictating the future. The allowing of Christ’s glory, the surrendering of my will to power, orients my vocation to what is ultimate and eternal. Whenever I assert my self-will, I embrace the illusion that I am independent and can separate myself from belonging to the Holy Trinity.

In A Letter of Consolation, Henri Nouwen writes to his father six months after the death of his mother on the relationship between autonomy and detachment. He is seeking to distinguish between a passive resignation and an active surrender in the spiritual life. He writes,
“It [autonomy] is the option to understand our experience of powerlessness as an experience of being guided, even when we do not know exactly where… We can see that a growing surrender to the unknown is a sign of spiritual maturity and does not take away autonomy… I am constantly struck by the fact that those who are most detached from life, those who have learned through living that there is nothing and nobody in this life to cling to, are the really creative people. They are free to move constantly away from the familiar, safe places and can keep moving forward to new unexplored areas of life.”
Even the holy possessiveness of the Trinity has a detachment that possesses and at the same time freely gives to the other.

We can hear these words of Jesus in a fresh way as we are in our own urgent time. We are in need of being rooted in what is meaningful and lasting. Our lives reflect and participate in this mystery. In aging and ultimately our own death, we live in the hope of the promise of resurrection. That hope amplifies and enriches the present moment because eternal life is now and we are preparing, storing up treasure for what awaits us. St. Benedict counsels us to live with the end in mind: “remember that you are going to die”, he says in the Rule. Like John’s bending of time, it is difficult to understand how to “remember” something that is in the future. St. Benedict is inviting us to look forward to the day when there are no more denominations, church buildings, monasteries – when the containers are gone, having been replaced by the eternal presence of the thing these structures signify and toward which they point. The expectation of fulfillment in a world where only our acts of love remain from all our days helps us hold loosely what is useful and necessary, but is still passing away. The externals are given to us to teach us the way of love.

Lately I have been in mind of Mary Oliver’s famous poetic question;

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Well, Mary, “I plan to live it, and then to lay it at the feet of the One who made me and to whom I belong.” The prayer Jesus prayer for the disciples, praying even now for us, imagines what might happen when we are welcomed into heaven. “Tell me”, Christ will say, “did you live, did you enjoy the wild and precious gift I gave you of being alive and being you? Did you enjoy sharing my glory – in all the joys and sorrows, gifts and losses – as much as I enjoyed creating you?” Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Ascension Day - May 21, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Rev. Matthew Wright
Ascension Day - May 21, 2020

Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

Up, up, and away! Today, 40 days after Easter, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, when, as our reading from the Acts of the Apostles put it, he “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Some of you here, I'm sure, have seen the von Kulmbach painting at the Met in which the awestruck disciples stand looking up and all we and they can see are Jesus' feet sticking down, dangling through the clouds, as he is taken up, up, and away.
von Kulmbach, "The Ascension of Christ"

Admittedly, the Ascension is one of those scriptural stories that many of us don’t know much what to make of anymore. Did Jesus really fly up into the clouds? Is this something we're supposed to or should believe? It seems, of course, like this story was written with a pretty simplistic, three-tiered understanding universe in mind—earth in the middle, hell down below us, and heaven somewhere up above the clouds. And for Jesus to get back home to God the Father, well... he had to go up, up, and away. But this past Sunday St. Paul reminded us that God is the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” not so much “up” as “everywhere.”

And today, knowing as we do that the world is round, we also know the relativity of that word “up.” Living on a round planet, the direction all of us point for “up” is the exact opposite of someone living on the other side of the world. And we also know that if you travel up through the clouds and enter into space that you can keep on going for light-years upon light-years. As the Anglican theologian Keith Ward puts it, “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).”

And so, what does the Ascension of Jesus mean for us today, knowing all that we know? How are we to understand this story? Well, interestingly, Luke is the only author to give us an actual account of the Ascension, and most scholars think he was writing around A.D. 80 or 90, 50 or 60 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, and he tells the story twice, in slightly different versions—once in his Gospel and once again in The Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel, he places the Ascension fairly quickly after the resurrection appearances; it seems like maybe just a day or two after Easter.

In his second work though, The Acts of the Apostles, he places the Ascension exactly “forty days” after Easter—and as you know, “forty” is a biblically symbolic number used to indicate a period of fullness or completion—in the days of Noah, it rained for “40 days and 40 nights”; Moses was atop Mount Sinai for “40 days and forty nights”; and Jesus fasted for “40 days” in the wilderness.

And so the 40 days here is a clear tip-off that this narrative is symbolic; it gave Luke a dramatic way of closing his account of the Resurrection appearances. But other authors in the New Testament—in fact, all of the other authors in the New Testament—don’t seem to have understood the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension as two separate events. Paul tells us simply that Jesus was “raised to the right hand of God”—as if resurrection and ascension are one and the same divine act, facets of a single mystery. Jesus was raised into the power of God, and it is from there that he then appears to his disciples.

Theologian Samuel Zinner even talks about what he calls the "Good Friday Singularity" in which Jesus' death on the Cross, his resurrection and ascension, and even the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are understood as a single multifaceted mystery that is then segmented and unfolded narratively and liturgically. He notes the way some of our early texts seem to still hold some of these facets together; in the Letter to the Hebrews (10:12), for example, we're told that "when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God," implying a simultaneity—when he offers himself in death, he sits down at God's right hand—these the two side of a single movement.

Similarly in the First Letter of Peter (3:18) we're told that Jesus was "put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit"—again as a simultaneous movement. And this is very much the case in the Gospel of John in which Jesus' raising up on the cross is his glorification by God, his enthronement at God's right hand. And it's also here in John's Gospel that Zinner says we can see the mystery of Pentecost present at the Cross; John says that on the Cross Jesus "released" or "handed over" the Spirit; not "his spirit" as we sometimes translate the text, but literally in Greek "the Spirit."

And so from the standpoint of eternity, we can see Jesus' death and descent, resurrection and ascent, and the Spirit's outpouring as one unitive mystery that is then unfolded in time—and for Luke, living in a three-tiered universe, also unfolded spatially by sending Jesus up, up, and away. But today we might better understand Jesus' Ascension as his movement not to a higher but to a deeper dimension of reality. St. Paul had a very subtle understanding of the Ascension: he says in the Letter to the Ephesians that Jesus “was raised far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). He is raised above everything in order to fill everything.

And so, in his Ascension, Jesus doesn’t go further away from us, but instead becomes infinitely and intimately closer to everything. The entire mystery of Jesus present in every point of reality, and that entire mystery present in a single point. In being raised on the Cross, he also descends into hell; in being raised on the Cross, he ascends and is enthroned at the right hand of God; in being raised on the Cross, he pours out the Spirit. In being raised on the Cross, far above all the heavens, he now fills all things. And yet this singular, simultaneous, unified mystery is too much to be born by a single moment in time or comprehended in a single day, and so mercifully it is unfolded for us in time and in space.

And today, we gaze on just one facet of that mystery: the one we call Ascension. But as we gaze with the disciples, up, up, and away, our gaze is redirected. We're told that as they stood looking up, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Why do you stand looking up? He will come again in the same way as you saw him go. How did he go? From below—from here, from the world. And he will come again in the same way, they say—not from heaven down, but once again, from the earth up. If you stand looking up, up, and away, you'll miss him.

He came the first time through the womb of Mary, the womb of life, the womb of the Earth. He will come again in the same way. So often we think of the "Second Coming" of Jesus as Jesus crashing down out of the clouds. But the angels here tell us we've got it all wrong. Don't look up. Don't you know he will come again as he did before?—from the womb of your life? Don't you know that, ascended, he now fills all things?

And we don't, and so mercifully the singular mystery is unfolded for us in time; we're given time to adjust to what has all happened in a moment. Ten days, in fact, before the next facet of this singular mystery is revealed at Pentecost. Ten days to learn to redirect our gaze from up, to down, to within and all around us.

There's a story told about a failing monastery that once had been grand, with regularly dozens of vocations coming in, but it had dwindled down to five remaining brothers, who expected they would be the ones to close the doors. But one day as the Abbot was visiting with his old friend, the town rabbi, the rabbi confided in him that it had been revealed to him that the Messiah had come as one of the brothers in his very monastery, but he could not reveal who it was.

Well the abbot was astounded, and he thought well certainly it isn't me. But he went back and told his brothers what the rabbi has said. And they all began to wonder—could it be Br. Aelred? He is pretty crotchety, but he's also very wise. Or maybe Br. Thomas—he's not very smart, but he is one of the kindest people we know. And so on. And as they began to treat each other with a newfound love and reverence —because, any one of them might be the Messiah—the townspeople found themselves drawn once again to the monastery. There was lightness in the air there. And vocations began to grow, and the community once again flourished. And truly, the Messiah had come again among them.

As we enter these ten days of Ascensiontide, and begin to redirect our gaze—remember, one of you, one of you, is the Messiah! All of you, for he now fills all things. Why do you look up to heaven? Don't you know that he will come again in the same way as before? And so may we find him here and now, risen and ascended, in this gathered community, and in the whole of creation.