Sunday, August 8, 2004

BCP - Proper 14 C - 08 Aug 2004

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Brother William Bennett, n/OHC
BCP – Pentecost 14 C - Sunday 08 August 2004

The story of Abraham and Sarah is central for all who profess the faith of Israel. Our parents, Abraham and Sarah, then called Abram and Sarai, were originally residents of Ur, in the southern part of what is now Iraq, very near Kuwait. Sometime around 4,000 years ago, Abraham received the call from God to go forth to a new land, the land of the promise, and to take Sarah and together they would become the parents of a great nation.

And they went. They left everything behind and went. They faced a long trek of many miles. Through the journey and it hardships, through warfare and peacemaking, they believed the promise and they waited, waited for it to be fulfilled. And as they waited, they grew older. And as they grew older, they feared that the promise would not be fulfilled, could not be fulfilled. How could the promise of new life, new life lasting to many generations take root from the tired old flesh and bones of Abraham and Sarah. How could two old people produce an heir? At best it seemed they would have to rely upon one of their slaves to inherit their flocks and herds and, most important of all, see to their burials.

Today's lesson from Genesis enters the story at this point of despair. Abraham has just emerged victorious in a battle over an alliance of four kings. In a vision God comes to remind Abraham once again that God is his protection and shield and that Abraham's reward, his future, will be very great.

But Abraham's despair wells up. And his despair leads him to protest. Where is the future? How can the future of the promise be fulfilled? He remains childless. His only heir, if that term could be used, was a slave. A slave is not the sign of the future. A slave is the sign of the past or, at best, of the maintenance of the present. The child is the sign of all that is new, of all that is coming, of all that is promised.

God responds with the assurance that the slave will not be his heir, but that Abraham and Sarah's own child will be. And then God takes him outside to look at the stars and says that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah will be as numberless as the stars of the sky.

It is a strange argument put forth by God. God does not try to persuade Abraham or to get him to understand how the promise might be fulfilled. God simply restates the promise that two old people will have their own child to be an heir. And then there is the sign of the stars of the sky. Perhaps Abraham was able to deduce that the God who could create the numberless stars, indeed all of the universe, could be relied upon to keep this simple, single promise to two people.

We don't know what happened within the heart and mind of Abraham, but he accepts the truth, the reality, of God's promise. The text says he believed, he accepted as the truth. The text uses an interesting word here, from which our word at the conclusion of prayers, AMEN, is derived. Amen is the word of acceptance and of hope. It means truly, verily, or we believe it to be so. Abraham said amen to the promise, and God judged it to him as righteousness.

"Abraham believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness." For Christians, this is the pivotal verse of Genesis, if not of the entire Old Testament. From the time of St. Paul and the writer of Hebrews down to the present, Christian theologians have focused on this verse.

Why is it so important? First, righteousness (zadekah in Hebrew) is overwhelmingly an attribute of God. To be righteous is to be just completely and without fail forever, to act always with justice and faithfulness. Only God is able truly to be righteous. But when Abraham accepts the promise it is reckoned as righteousness. That is to say: God imputes to Abraham a divine characteristic. God sees Abraham in divine terms. In other words, God chooses to see in Abraham, at this moment, a new Adam who is restored to the Eden, where for this moment, Abraham is once again the full image of the God who is righteous, as all humanity was created to be.

Because for that moment Abraham was able to align himself, his will, his hope with the will of God as expressed in an unbelievable promise. He trusted the promise, more especially he trusted the speaker of the promise. He did not try to understand, to manage, to manipulate. Doing those things would have been not an expression of faith but of what we might call ‘functional atheism', saying that we believe in God but acting otherwise—relying upon our own actions as a cover for our doubt in the fulfillment of the promise given by God. We go ahead and strike out on our own acting as if we believe that all the responsibility is on us, that we'll have to do it (whatever it may be) by ourselves because God won't, or can't, at least hasn't so far, fulfilled the promise.

Rather, Abraham was willing to wait, to wait until God's time came to its fullness and the promise came to birth. He believed the promise. All of this is important to us. We, too, share in the divine promise first made to Abraham. It is a promise of new creation, of all made new and restored to the righteousness of the first creation---before we lost our head and broke that righteousness. It is a promise of a future, the future of the Kingdom of God. At times, as Abraham and Sarah will do later in the story (in the next chapter actually) when they arranged for him to father a child by her handmaid Hagar, we may attempt to take charge and fulfill the promise on our own terms. More often we will join Abraham in his protest over the impossibility of the promise of the length of the delay.

Even Mary on the Day of Annunciation, when confronted with another unbelievable promise, protested, "How can this be"….before she said Amen, "Be it unto me according to your word." That Word spoken to Abraham and Sarah, spoken to Mary, and spoken to countless others in our story, now calls us to trust him, to faith in him, to believe, to say "Amen" to even as the Word's promise remains beyond our sight, beyond the horizon.

All too often, however, our response gets mired in futility, in the burden of all that we have to do. Like Abraham our despair wells up, for the problems seem insurmountable: financial disarray and mounting needs, the fallout from visionless leadership, discord and warfare. We experience these problems globally, nationally, in our families, in this monastery even. And we think that we must solve them ourselves. We display our functional atheism, our belief in ourselves, rather than believing God, the giver of the promise of new creation and abundant life. Believing that God will keep the promises does not do away with our responsibility to act, but often it seems to me than our actions (or our immobility and inability to act) are, in fact, a substitute for believing God, a smokescreen hiding from view the fact that we do not really believe God will keep the promises.

Abraham believed God would keep the promise and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

And God will do the same for us. God will reckon to us his own righteousness. God will see us as his very image (even when we can't). God even does it when we persist in our unbelief.

And the sign to us that the promise is true, that God will pour out his own righteousness over us, the sign that all of this is true is Jesus the Christ. He lived the righteousness only reckoned to Abraham. He is the new Creation in history and for whom we look as the fulfillment of the promise. He is the new Adam who restored – recapitulated -- the creation to its Glory, literally by giving it back its head.

And like God who pointed out the stars to Abraham as a sign of the promise, Jesus gives us tangible signs of his presence as we make our pilgrimage forward into the promised future to greet him.

He gives us the water of baptism, in which we are reborn into his image, united in his obedience unto his death and restored to the glory of creation in the new life of resurrection.

He gives us his Body and Blood, he entrusts himself to us, to remember his death and resurrection until he comes again, to feed us on our journey into the promise.

And above all he gives us each other, to journey and to wait together, sharing in a common life which gives us the strength to say daily to God with Abraham and Sarah and Mary: We trust you, we believe that you will keep the promise and so we say, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

BCP - Proper 12 C - 25 Jul 2004

8th Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 12 C
July 25, 2004

Genesis 18:20-33
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

I find a very powerful, even startling convergence between the reading from Genesis and the reading from the Gospel according to Luke.

We start with Abraham's bargaining session with God - one of the most amusing and refreshing passages in scripture. It is not enough that Abraham dares to negotiate with God, but Abraham appears to win. The next time I negotiate a contract I want Abraham as my agent.

Flip forward to the Gospel. The disciples say "Teach us how to pray." Well, in a sense, that is exactly what Abraham was doing as well - teaching us, by example, how to pray.

Luke appears to takes us further. "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened." Initiate the relationship and God will respond. Of course Abraham's prayer also clearly assumes that God will respond.

We, bad as we may be, know how to give good gifts - how much better the gifts that God knows how to give.

But we have to knock. We have to ask. We have to haggle just as Abraham did.

In both the Gospel and in the passage from Genesis it is clear that we have responsibilities in our relationship with God. In honest prayer we approach God, but we have to be honest and we have to approach. Abraham honestly prays, in the form of negotiation, to change the fate of Sodom. Do we have the honesty and courage to pray in the form of negotiation with God for the facts of our own world?

Of course, Abraham's successful bargaining with God notwithstanding, Sodom still gets destroyed. In the very next chapter of Genesis, God rains down hellfire and brimstone and wipes away the city. Apparently God did not find those 10 good men that Abraham had haggled for... And we all share the experience of asking in prayer for things that we do not receive.

At some level, though, we know that prayer is not a way of getting things - even good gifts - from God. It is a way of growing in our relationship with God - growing toward wholeness. If our prayers appear to be answered, or if they do not, we still grow in wholeness when we pray. God knows how to give good gifts - but that is not the same as giving us what we want.

I think there is a second layer of convergence between the Genesis story and the Gospel story this morning. I see a link between the idea of gifts from God that Luke talks about and the fate of Sodom. Maybe this is just a crafty excuse for me to talk about Sodom...

Much has been made over the millennia of the sin of Sodom. In modern times we have come to associate that sin with a certain sexual orientation and have even conferred upon the sin legal standing as the crime of Sodomy.

As our Church struggles with the issues of ordination of openly gay people to high positions and how to properly honor the committed relationships between persons of the same sex, our notion of the sin of Sodom works its way into the text and sub-text of that dialogue.

There are those who want the dialogue to be absolute - that is to say they want no dialogue at all. God gives the law and we must follow or, quite literally, be damned.

But the story of Abraham we heard complicates things. It tells us to haggle with God - to pray. And Jesus, in this morning's Gospel, commands us to begin that dialogue. Jesus doesn't say: "If you want to, ask..." "If you are so moved, knock..." Jesus says ask! Knock! No equivocation. No qualifiers. So those who want simple, absolute answers, are not well served by this morning's readings.

So what is the sin of Sodom about which Abraham, and we, apparently can negotiate? Scholars have debated this and remain divided. So we leave the area of fact and enter the area of thought. All I can tell you is what I honestly think.

I don't think the sin of Sodom was homosexuality as many believe. And I don't think the sin was violation of the rules of hospitality as others propose.

The sin, in my opinion, was the abuse of a gift from God. And that is why I see a second link between the Gospel according to Luke and the story of Sodom.

The men of Sodom were using a gift from God as a weapon - as a tool to humiliate and violate others. Relationship and love had nothing to do with it. Even sex, in the way we think about sex, really had nothing to do with it. Power and domination had everything to do with it.

So God gives us a gift and, in Sodom, we make a weapon. That, I think, is the sin of Sodom. That is the sin from which even Abraham's artful negotiation could not save Sodom.

Today, of course, we still regularly use sex as a weapon for power and domination - at Abu Graib prison in Iraq, in our prison system at home, in offices where employees are sexually harassed, in churches where the proper boundaries between adults and children have been notoriously violated, in our advertising where sex is used as a weapon against our judgement and willpower... perhaps in our own homes, in this Monastery, maybe even in our own hearts...

And although sex may have been the particular gift abused in Sodom, it is certainly not the only gift from God that we abuse. When we use the gift of industry to destroy the environment, is that the sin of Sodom? When we use the gift of science to build weapons of war so horrible that "mutually assured destruction" is the term used to describe their use, is that the sin of Sodom? When we use the gift of great wealth to allow some to live in unfathomable comfort while others are denied even enough to eat, let alone basic dignity, is that the sin of Sodom?

The danger, for me, in the traditional way we think about Sodom is that we become concerned with what they did wrong there and then. As long as we don't do the thing they did, then we are OK. And if we abhor the thing they did, then we must be really good.

But Abraham's negotiation was not about abhorring. It wasn't about being orthodox or upholding tradition. It was about seeking an honest, fresh understanding with God. It was about asking, about knocking.

We know that God showers us with gifts - great and wonderful gifts. We know that when we knock, God answers.

But how do we use our gifts - the gifts that God gives us? How do we honor God with those gifts? How do we injure others and the rest of God's creation with those gifts? How do we take God's gifts and make weapons? How do we repent and amend?

Let us pray: Creator God, all good gifts come from you and you have given to us in great abundance. Help us to leave behind the desire to respond in petty, greedy, defensive ways. Help us to grow toward wholeness with you, with our brothers and sisters, and with all of your creation so that we can respond to your gifts in love. In Jesus' name we pray.

Br. Scott Wesley, OHC

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Centennial - Holy Cross Monastery - 22 May 2004

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
on the occasion of the 100 Anniversary of the dedication of Holy Cross Monastery in West Park
Saturday 22 May 2004

Genesis 28:10-17
1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-10
Matthew 21:12-16

It is a great joy and indeed a privilege to preside and preach on this occasion. A hundred years ago in the intensity of churchmanship battles, it would have been somewhat surprising and in some quarters considered scandalous for the Presiding Bishop to be present at the dedication of a monastery, let alone act as Chief Celebrant of the Liturgy. We have come a long way. Monasticism, a mode of life, a way of responding to the gospel, an articulation of our baptismal conformation to the paschal pattern of Christ's death and resurrection, which was once considered exotic if not foreign to sensible Anglicanism, has become an integral part of the life of our church and an immense blessing to us all.

The fact that a diocese which, in my own remembering, was somewhat suspicious of monastics, in recent years elected a religious to serve as their bishop tells us something of how perceptions are changed. And of course I cannot forget Father Campbell of this order who, in 1925, was elected missionary Bishop of Liberia.

Abbot Matthew Kelty, in a chapter talk delivered to the monks of Gethsemene Abbey in Kentucky observed that the monastic life is a journey into reality: the discovery of one's personal reality in Christ, mediated by a pattern of ordered prayer and the rigors of life in community. "How can you draw close to God, if you are far from your own self?" asks St Augustine of Hippo. The monastic life, therefore, involves a double discovery: God and oneself. But what is true of monastic life is true for us all inasmuch as all Christian living is rooted and grounded in the baptismal mystery of dying and rising, losing and finding.

In preparation for today I found myself reflecting upon the role this monastery and the community it houses has played in my own life. I first came here 43 years ago as a seminarian for a weekend retreat. I came again on retreat before I was ordained to the priesthood. As a parish priest I visited the monastery a number of times with parish groups, and as Bishop of Chicago I returned to give a retreat for members of the clergy. Now, as Presiding Bishop I try to come from time to time in order to catch my breath, so to speak, and remind myself that life in Christ is the name of the game. And here I need to say I am immensely grateful to this community for its always-warm welcome and encouragement. I know that many others, some of whom are here today, share my gratitude.

At the same time I have to say that while this monastery has been a place of joy and refreshment, it has also been a place of painful self discovery and disillusion: that is, having to face and acknowledge illusions about myself and the shape of my own faithfulness and to take to heart St. Benedict's counsel: "Never lose hope in God's mercy." And here we need to acknowledge that there is in us a strong tendency to construct for ourselves an idealized self, the self we would like to be, in order to offset the imperfect "thorn ridden" self we actually are. Visions of an ideal monastic self, realized either by vocation or some form of association with a religious community, can aid and encourage us in such self-generated efforts.

Perfectionism, often driven by shame, is the motivating force behind much religious behavior, including our own. This I think is why St. Benedict, having enumerated the tools for good works - a natural magnet for perfectionists - knowing that we will fail, heads off the descent into self-castigation by concluding his list with, "And finally, never lose hope in God's mercy." Let mercy, not self-judgment have the final word.

This is where dis-illusion comes in and we are made to realize that the living flame of God's love is a consuming fire as we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews. The self constructed self, which is an idol of our own imagination, is the self which, in gospel terms, must be lost in order that the true and authentic self can be found. This is the journey into reality to which Matthew Kelty refers.

A monastery --- this monastery which was dedicated May 19, 1904 --- is, therefore, not so much a refuge as it is a furnace in which the often strange and wild and paradoxical and ironic and fierce and gentle ways of God's love and compassion burn away what is false and unreal, and reveal us to ourselves, in all our complexity, as gift rather that burden. And the blots and imperfections, the thorns that mire us down in self-judgment are caught up into the real self, the true self which God in Christ accepts and deeply and tenaciously and ruthlessly loves.

In the March issue of Mundi Medicina, the monastery newsletter, Adam McCoy engages in an act of remembrance as he reflects upon the monastery and its past: "Every room," he writes, "has many stories. Some are lost, some live in collective memory and some are vivid and living. Some are happy, some sad, some bizarre or hilarious. All recall the distinctly human characters whose lives have been touched by this place." The stories are stories of grace and redemption, dis-illusion and truth. They are stories of Christ's way with us, which exceeds all that we can ask or imagine.

One hundred years ago, in the sermon preached at the dedication of the monastery, Father Osborne, the Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, said, "Here….is our prayer. That the Cross may ever be held up as the life and power of the Christian Church, and by it all men may be drawn to him." Father Osborne's prayer reflects the words of Jesus: "And I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people [or 'all things'] to myself." Among the "all things" that Christ draws to himself through the cross, are all the bits and pieces of ourselves, the good bits and the bad bits, the pieces that give us joy and the pieces that cause us pain. All are drawn to the Cross, embraced by the arms of Christ and purified and made whole in the fire of Christ's deathless love.

Simeon the New Theologian (and "new" means 11th century), describes the journey into reality as a process of waking up in Christ. He writes, "We awaken in Christ's body as Christ awakens our bodies, and my poor hand is Christ. He enters my foot, and is infinitely me. I move my hand, and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him….I move my foot, and at once He appears like a flash of lightning. Do my words seem blasphemous? ---Then open your heart to him, and let yourself receive the one who is opening to you so deeply. For if we genuinely love Him, we wake up inside Christ's body where all our body, all over, every most hidden part of it, is realized in joy as Him, and He makes us, utterly real. And everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in Him transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely. And radiant in His light, we awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body."

These bold and startling words --- and the full text is bolder still ---capture something of what happens when the full force of the paschal mystery overtakes us and we are drawn by bands of love to Christ on the Cross and through the Cross, sometimes kicking and screaming into the unfamiliar yet liberating realm of resurrection.

In today's Second Reading, Peter urges to let ourselves be built up as living stones into a spiritual house of God's construction. As such, we need to be shaped and dressed and placed in relation to one another in order that the divine imagination can have its way and our unique and proper place in the overall structure can be realized. Our reality - in this case our shape and placement - does not derive from us, but from God - how God sees us - and God's desire for us. Again drawing from St. Augustine, "We are real insofar and we exist in God's order, and God's order exists in us."

This Monastery of the Holy Cross has borne witness to the reality of God's order since its dedication. Many have entered its door and passed beneath the stone bearing the words Crux est mundi medicina - the Cross, medicine for the world. Some have come to try their vocation; others have come as guests. Notions of monastic formation and discipline have changed over the years, as have patterns of worship, yet the fundamental search remains the same: who am I called to be in the love and truth of Christ? Paradoxically, monasticism is a pattern of life running counter to what most people would consider real - complete with costumes from a different age - while at the same time pointing to a deeper level of reality found in the One who is the way the truth and life itself in all its fullness and unrealized potential.

In today's Gospel Jesus drives out of the temple all those who are using the temple for their own ends and have fitted God to their own reality. In declaring the Temple a house of prayer, Jesus makes clear that sacred space exists for one purpose, and one alone: encounter --- encounter with the one who is, who was, and will be for ever, in whom we discover who we are and are called to be.

This monastery has been for many --- monks, former monks, oblates, associates, visitors, guests and friends, a place of encounter and discovery that all that we are is caught up and drawn to the Cross by the force of Christ's fierce and purifying love, and that, in the words of the First Letter of John, "What we will be has yet to be revealed."

This encounter takes many, often very mundane and sometimes humorous, forms. One of the surest ways God gets to us and exposes us to our true selves is through others. The daily interactions, the annoying personal habits, the envies and irritations, instances of anger and forgiveness, patterns of affection and dislike, moments of delight and sheer idiocy, which are realities of community life in its various forms, serve to undermine our constructed selves and expose our poverty which is precisely the point at which grace can begin to have its way with us and lead us to our true self.

Like it or not we are for one another's salvation, as the early monastics well understood and St Benedict after them. Which simply means that we are shaped and formed and built up into Christ through one another. This is a process which requires accepting from and through others a great deal of unwanted truth and dying to self, that is dying to the idealized self in order to give space to the real self as found in Christ.

A monastery is therefore a battleground as well as a furnace: it is, in the words of Jacob, "an awesome place". The constraints of monastic life force a struggle between the constructed self and the authentic self found in Christ. My brothers, it is your willingness to engage this battle and to enter the furnace not just for yourselves but for the sake of the world and its healing that makes this a sacred place and a source of encouragement to us all.

Therefore as your Presiding Bishop and friend of many years, thank you for your faithfulness in the past and present, and may God lead you on into the future and continue to make this monastery a place of encounter and discovery and blessing for all who pass through its door. "Glory to God whose power working in can do infinitely more that we can ask or imagine" Amen.

Saturday, May 8, 2004

BCP - Proper 2 C - 2004

Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost: TRINITY SUNDAY

Isaiah 6:1-8;
Psalm 29;
Revelation 4:1-11;
John 16:5-15

Evagrius of Pontus, a Greek monk of the 4th century who came from what is now Turkey in Asia and later lived out his vocation in Egypt, said: "God cannot be grasped by the mind. If God could be grasped, God would not be God."

Evagrius's words seem to me to be a fitting way to begin a sermon on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. It is a warning to keep before us as we talk about the innermost reality of God. Our faith teaches that God is One God, in Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Do you grasp that?

For many people, the inability to understand God, to grasp God, leads them to reject the whole notion of God. What they are doing is rejecting anything greater than themselves. Others take a different direction, and because they can't understand God, can't grasp God, they believe that there is something wrong with themselves. They believe that they don't have enough faith or aren't good enough or smart enough to get it.

Thank you Evagrius, for admitting that God is beyond us and cannot be grasped, controlled, defined by us-for if God could be so limited to fit into the human mind, then God is not God who is transcendent and beyond, who called creation into being out of chaos.

This Almighty and transcendent God is whom we meet in two of our lessons. In both the lessons from Isaiah and the Revelation we have visions of -melek ha-olom, the king of the universe, seated upon a throne. Humans quiver before his majesty and the host of heaven, cries out "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts." We ourselves will echo this vision as we give voice to the heavenly host and all creation later today as we approach that throne in the eucharistic sacrifice of bread and wine. This is the transcendent God that we cannot grasp.

But there is another aspect to God. It is called immanence, the nearness of God to us, the intimacy that God shares with us. And this intimacy is at the core of what we celebrate in the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

There is another text that serves us well today. It has been very important in the development of Trinitarian theology and worship, yet we don't read it on the feast day in any of the three years of our lectionary cycle. It is found in Genesis 18:1-15. You might want to read it this afternoon.

Our parents, Abraham and Sarah, are old and it is long past childbearing time for Sarah. Yet, God had reiterated time and again that Sarah and Abraham would bear a child and would be the parents of a great nation. But how could this be? Or could God not be trusted to keep his promises to his faithful ones?

They were camped at the oak tree of Mamre when three strangers appeared. In typical middle-eastern hospitality, Abraham and Sarah brought water to wash their feet and prepared a feast to welcome the strangers. As the three sat under the spreading tree eating, Abraham stood by.

They spoke to him and said where is Sarah? She, a modest nomadic woman, was hidden still in the tent. She'd prepared a meal for the visitors but custom decreed that she not mix with them. She might not sit down with them, but she listened. And when one of the strangers said that when he would return, Sarah would have a son, she laughed to herself (not out loud), and said, "After I've grown old, and am married to an old man, shall I have pleasure?" The stranger then said to Abraham: "Why did she laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" Sarah, afraid, denied it and said, "I did not laugh". But he said, "Oh yes, you did laugh." Then the men set out from there.

What has this story got to do with the Trinity? The text of the story is curious. It says that the Lord appeared to Abraham at Mamre-when Abraham looked up and saw three strangers. Mostly they speak with one voice. But later on the one who questions Sarah's silent laughter is also referred to as the Lord. Clearly, this is not a reference to the fully developed doctrine of the Trinity, but the early church saw in it a hint at what we had come to believe as the truth and began very early to represent the Trinity by this scene. In particular, it consisted of three figures, usually painted as angels, sitting around a table under the oak tree. Originally, the picture included Abraham and Sarah serving them, but over time they dropped out as more and more the focus has placed on the strangers at table.

And what the painting is focusing on is the relationship among the three. Unlike most religious paintings, the figures do not look out at us. Rather, the three are looking at each other. They are in a relationship of equality that is bound together by love. At the core then of God's nature is this never-ending circle of love. It is God's nature to love in relationship: the relationship we call, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The picture originally called the Hospitality of Abraham became known simply as the Holy Trinity. It stands in the place of honor today in this temple of the Lord. What is unique about this icon is that rather than facing us as most icons do and coming out to meet us, confronting us, rather it pulls us into itself so that we are located on the table in the center of the circle, surrounded by hospitality and love. In fact, what the picture says is that the creation exists within the intimate arms of the Trinity. Creation is held together and held up by the love of God in God's own self. God supports and sustains the creation, God stands under-understands-the creation, not the other way around. God has creation within the grasp of the Divine Love, which holds the creation in the center of that love. God grasps creation….We cannot grasp God. We can only make pictures of what we see partially.

But, when the Lord met Abraham and Sarah at their campsite under the shade of the oak tree at Mamre, they gave the two old ones a promise, the promise of new life, represented by the birth of a child. And Sarah laughed because it was so silly. Yet, God keeps promises no matter how silly they sound, for nothing is too wonderful for God. Within in a year, a boy was born to Sarah. They named him Isaac-the name means: he made us laugh. Even you and I can grasp that-a newborn baby as the sign of God's closeness and love and faithfulness.

And it came to pass that in the fullness of time, God again gave us a little newborn as the sign of God's love for us. God himself came to us as a graspable baby, as the fulfillment of all his promises and the sign of our salvation. And we can grasp that, because we can hold a newborn little baby in our arms and cuddle her. And besides little babies make us all laugh.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Br. William, n/OHC

Sunday, February 22, 2004

BCP - Epiphany Last A - 22 Feb 2004

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Brother William Bennett, n/OHC
BCP – Epiphany Last A - Sunday 22 February 2004
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Exodus 34:29-35
I Cor. 12:27-13:13
Luke 9:28-36

I love tales of the supernatural. Perhaps it's because my mother wouldn't allow me to watch them when I was younger. All it took was the first telltale strains of the theme music from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" or "The Twilight Zone" to emerge from the TV set, and immediately my head flew up from the book I was reading and my eyes and ears zoomed to focus on the black and white shining light. I couldn't control my response to the sound and its promise of fear and awe and surprise that would make all the hairs on my arm stand up amid the chilly bumps of gooseflesh.

But just as immediately, my mother's reflexes primed her muscles and moving faster than was normally her choice, she was up out of her chair in those pre-remote-control-days with her hand on the dial. "Clunk," it went as the picture changed to Perry Como or something or other. As she eased back into her chair, invariably she sighed, "there."

By that time I would have shaken myself from my chill-anticipating reverie to wail, "Mom! I wanna watch it!" Her unvarying response echoes with me to this day: "Nobody wants to watch that glawm."

That ended the discussion. (And by the way, I did not know then, nor do I know now, what "glawm" is. I even had to invent a spelling in order to write it down.)

In those days when parents still had control over the television, I discovered a way to beat my mother's censorship of "glawm". I read. I read all sorts of scary stuff at night under the covers with a flashlight. It was a lot scarier that way. And as I created in my mind's eye all the terror-choked scenes from the written page, I longed to see the stories reveal themselves in front of my eyes so that I could be a witness.

Well, now that I am an continues. Before I moved here, many was the night that found me nestled under the covers in a bedroom made eerie by black and white light. (I know it's not good for my eyes to watch TV without a light on, but it's scarier that way.) I'd be riveted to Cable reruns of Alfred Hitchcock and the Twilight Zone. I'm still seeking the thrills of the supernatural, still trying to define "glawm", still trying to see all the shows that were forbidden me as a child. It's funny but even to this day when I hear their theme music, I also hear my mother's admonition. Perhaps the willful defiance of that voice which I consciously undertake whenever I watch an episode is part and parcel of the thrill...not only does the subject matter excite me but I'm being a bad boy by watching it!

I'm certain that it is my penchant for the supernatural that rivets my attention on two of today's lesson: Exodus and Luke. They come alive for me. Using the skills of imagination honed by devouring those many volumes by flashlight, I find myself standing in the stories. I'm there beside Aaron as he watches Moses come down from the mountain which was covered by the cloud filled with fire, come down from the mountain after his lonely sojourn there, come down from the mountain with the skin of his face shining. With Aaron and all Israel, I'm afraid, and the flesh stands up on my arms. I'm there with Peter and James and John as they see glory shining through Jesus as he's flanked by Moses and Elijah. And as the cloud overshadows us, my skin turns clammy with fright. When the voice speaks, my knees give way and with the three in the story, I collapse on the ground in fear and trembling.

Fear and trembling. That must have been what it was like to have been with Moses when he came down from the fiery cloud on Sinai or to have been covered by the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration. Fear and trembling all around. What is everyone afraid of?

They are afraid because they see something they cannot explain. A cloud blazes with fire on Sinai into which Moses disappears and from which he reappears. Jesus shimmering in light from an unseen, inner source and talking with Moses and Elijah. No one had ever seen such sights.

The apostles were shielded from the radiance of the light by the thick fog of a cloud, only to hear, in fear and trembling, the voice of God.

Fear and trembling. Throughout Holy Scripture those are the words which describe at all times and in all places the meeting of humans and our God. "The Lord is King," the psalmist sings, "let the people tremble...let the earth shake."

The God of fear and trembling is all-powerful. The God of fear and trembling is distant. The God of fear and trembling is high and exalted. He is a stern judge and a king whose deeds surpass human understanding.

And in a strange way people are comfortable with this God. They are comfortable because they know how to act in his presence. They bow down in craven fear, knees shaking, eyes covered and bodies pimpled with the little mountains of gooseflesh. And like me under the covers with my books of terror, they adore the thrill of the fear. They adore it, because the fear keeps God distant. You never can approach this God of fear and trembling.

And that's the trouble with the "fear and trembling" perception of God. We have found a way of dealing with it and never have to see God face to face. We never really meet the God of fear and trembling.

Left to ourselves nothing would have changed. God would remain distant and we would be bowed down, immobilized by fear, bowed down like Peter and James and John, little hump-backed islands, separated from God and from each other.

But you see, God did not create us to be distant from God. God did not create us to be separated from each other. And God got tired of it! God decided to do something about it. Many times throughout our story as God's people we see God moving towards us to show us who God is. Prophets reveal God's will to us. God calls us through Noah and Abraham and Moses into covenants--contracts--with him. But it's not enough. If God gets too close, human beings fall down trembling or turn in fear to face their backs towards God.

God decided to do something about it in a new way. The new way is Jesus. Jesus looks like us, he walks and talks like us, he laughs and cries like us, he bleeds and dies like us. God comes among us as one of us, and, as Matthew tells today's story, Jesus reaches across the gulf of fear and trembling and touches us and says, "Get up. Do not be afraid."

God comes among us in our own image, in order that we can see that we are God's image.

It is not that God has a body like you and me, but at the core of who we are, we are God's likenesses in this world, it was this likeness to God that was visible shining through Jesus on the mount.

But exactly what was it that was shining through? Scripture speaks of it only as light in some gospels, as glory in Luke, but we know what it is. St. Paul points us toward it in today's second lesson. It is love.

God is love. That's one of the first verses of Scripture that my mother taught me, that we each learned and that we teach to the children in our lives. We say it with ease, but do we know what it looks like?

We do know that love does shine. We've all seen it. We've all seen someone in love, perhaps it was your own face in the mirror. The eyes are bright with a new sparkle, the smile is radiant, the cheeks aglow. The same is true of a woman pregnant with child. Her love for the new creation growing in her womb shines through her face.

That's how God wants to be seen by us, as love making radiant all of God's creation. All of it mind you--especially you and me. God wants us to shine with the light, with the glory, of that love, just like Moses and Jesus and Elijah. Because each one of us, as we walk through our lives, is a moment of Transfiguration for the people we meet. It is through us that God's love shines to fill the world with glory.

Yes, there are days of fear and trembling, times of isolation and separation. Even though we look for the age to come, we still live in the old age which is passing away. Our propensity to sin, to erect barriers between ourselves and others, to do those things which cause people to turn their backs on us or cause us to hide our faces in shame, all that is still with us, and we will fall into it again and again. And fear and trembling is our response of realization that once again we have chosen, through our thoughts, words and deeds, to separate ourselves from the love of God by separating ourselves from that love as it lives in other people.

But now it is fear and trembling with a difference, because it's no longer the last word, for in the midst of that fear and trembling the forgiving, the loving hand of Jesus touches us and his voice calls us to turn our faces once again to the face of love himself. "Get up," he says, "and do not be afraid." He pick us up as a mother picks up a child who has fallen while she is trying to learn to walk, puts her feet back under her and says, "Get up. Don't be afraid. Let's try it again. I won't let you get hurt."

The old fear and trembling are no more the final words. There is a new word now, Jesus the Word of God himself.

Listen to that new Word. Lift up your heads. Take off those veils of solemn faces; open up those eyes which are cast down and have learned not to see. Trust him. Get up and do not be afraid. And let the glory shine through your face and through your caring hands so that the world will see and know the love of God in Jesus Christ as it is made visible by you.

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.

Br. William, n/OHC