Monday, May 31, 2010

RCL - First Sunday After Pentecost: Trinity Sunday - May 30, 2010

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC

Rublev Trinity Icon

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

A million-billionth the size of the head of a pin, not yet energy or matter, explodes and in 10 to the minus 37th of a second expands to create the universe. Unfolding according to a law of nature, a law somehow already present, already active, which St. John’s Gospel would come to identify as a work of the Logos, the Word of God, an energy driven by the Spirit becomes particles, then atoms, then molecules, as more and more complex combinations unfold, dancing to primeval patterns formed so deep that every pulse of energy, every atom, every molecule already knows the dance. The universe from the beginning dances according to the patterns of the Word and the energies of the Spirit..

Matter forms and combines in dust and clouds and spheres, denser and denser as its own gravity pulls it in and together. Elements form, heat melts, cold freezes, gases blanket the celestial balls. Stars are born, planets circle them. In some places that dance is the only dance. So far.

In others, on our own planet, oxygen and water form, and more and more complex molecules. The energy of the dance, the laws present from the moment of creation, Spirit and Word, impel this energy-filled matter to reproduce itself – one molecule divides into two, two multiply into four, four into eight, sixteen, 32, 64, 128, 256..., billions, trillions, in the blink of an eye (but there are no eyes!). The waters fill with them. Amino acids become amoebas, amoebas become multi-cellular, simple becomes complex, growing, separating, specializing, from cells to organisms. Eons pass. Proto-plants and proto-animals differentiate, change, become more complex, filling the sea, then the air, then the land, forming and shaping, straining in adaptation. The Spirit, The Word, deep down move everything that is onward, and everything that is, everything that lives, gives its unconscious praise for being, hope in being born, joy in the flourishing of its nature, expectation for what is yet to come from its dying. Life lives from life.

The world is Trinitarian in its very being: Creator, Word and Spirit are simultaneous, proceeding from the creative will, each equal but not alike, the world the project of this triune God Who is beyond all our understanding and yet present all in all.

Humans somehow attain consciousness, an awareness that the other is not the same as me, and begin to fathom the mysteries of the design of things, the Word, and wonder at the energy of it all, the Spirit. From the very first we want to know what we are, where we came from, what we are for. We are part of the rhythm of life and yet can imagine ourselves outside it, somehow exempt from it. And we act as if we are exempt from it, as if the other were not other but an extension of our undifferentiated selves, and we suffer for it. We try to imagine what might be beyond. We intuit a Creator, describe “him” in our own images, and as we think about our own images, we know them to be both true and untrue. God, Father, Creator – words, images from our experience. In truth, what we call God is what or who is before the world, outside the world, not defined by the world, unexplainable, ineffable.

Except for one thing: Something has come out of Nothing. This “God” is one that wills being to be. That is what God “is”. I Am Who I Am. Or, perhaps, I Am Becoming What I am Becoming. Or, perhaps, I Am What Is. Or, perhaps, as God said to Job, Why are you asking me this question? The consequence of God’s willing is the Created world, acting according to a rational “Word”, in the energies we have come to call “Spirit”. Like God, the world also is one, and it is three.

But our world has become old. Human consciousness has brought as much grief and sorrow as it has brought us joy. Perhaps more sorrow than joy.

A man appears among a people chosen by God. His words are truth. They strike some to a heart of gladness and they strike others to a heart of guilt and anger. His touch heals. His voice calms the waves of the sea. Multitudes are fed. The dead are raised. His stories unlock the profound secrets of the universe in the most ordinary things. Eyes can see and ears can hear, and what they see and hear is the truth about a world suddenly not alien but filled with life from God, because it is of God.. Hope springs where it has no right to spring. A kingdom is proclaimed, not of man but of God.

Who is this man? He speaks of the Father, of the Spirit, and of himself, as if the three are one, as if he is the human face of God. Some are scandalized, but others leap with joy. Some, perhaps most of us, are both scandalized and joyful. How can this be? Just when we thought we had a grip on him, he is killed. He is never seen in that form again. But in others we come to recognize his unique voice, his unique life, his unique being. No longer dead, but alive, but so unpredictably alive. He gave us his body and his blood for the food we need: Life lives from life. And then he’s gone.

And then, a strange, unexpected, incomprehensible energy begins to flow. Dispirited disciples draw courage from it. Inarticulate workingmen begin to talk of God, and even more wonderful, people start listening to them. A new idea begins to form: The kingdom that man talked about might be happening. People begin to live it, and are so energized in the Word that says the kingdom is possible that the Spirit fills them and leads them and gives them courage where they had none. And gradually the truth dawns – or rather, as that man promised, they are led by the Spirit into the truth: The world belongs to God. That man was God’s Word, who can never die. That man was God’s Son in human life, whose death gives us life. The Spirit which has filled us is the same Spirit whose energy is the life of the world itself, come down on our heads in tongues of fire, energizing the world again.

We are the people this is happening to now. We exist because the Father wants us to. We have met the Word in the Son. We are in the Spirit.

Describing the Trinity is as difficult as describing the world itself, because the world’s life, from which our thought and language flow, comes from the triune life of God. But we are invited into that life. Every creative act joins the Father’s creation. Every act of learning, every discovery of knowledge, every self-offering gift to others is participation in the Word, is participation in the Son. Every cooperation with the energies of life joins us to the Spirit.

Is there any adequate way to describe God? There is one: Love. The will of God is that being may be, that in all its manifest and hidden glory the universe may unfold, and that in time the conscious minds of that universe can come to understand that behind all that is, is Love. Love demands an object. God created the universe, created us, that there might be an other to love, and that we too might learn to love the other.

And so all creation sings God’s praise, each particle, atom, molecule, amoeba, organism, plant, animal in its own peculiar and wonderful language. Their being is itself their act of praise. And as we are drawn into the love of God, we too are moved by the Spirit, but now, in union with the triune God, to speak in spirited energy the Word of praise, praise of the One who made us, we who by God’s gracious will have being, and are drenched in triune love from the beginning of time to the end of eternity.

In the end, finite words fail this infinite task. All we can really say is, Glory. Glory. Glory.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

RCL - Feast of Pentecost - May 23, 2010

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Andrew Colquhoun, OHC

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17(25-27)

A few weeks ago I led a Celtic retreat for the spouses and partners of the clergy of the Diocese of New York. I had a great time. I love talking and celebrating my heritage and telling stories. The Celtic people lived by the story. For them the story holds the meaning - the story expresses the truth much more fully for us than data could. And it’s more important that the story be a good one than a factual one. Facts to the Celt are incidental. The Native American traditions are the same – their story tellers often begin by saying, “Now, it may not have happen just like this but this is the truth!” Same with Semitic people. In Africa everyone understood this, too. Simple people around the world live by the story.

Scripture is a story- and I think when we forget that we kill the truth told in the Bible. When we turn Scripture into a law library or a textbook we lose the story of God’s seeking love and our longing to rest in the heart of that loving heart of God.

This account from Acts is a story – not a recitation of factual things – not to be photographed and put on the front page of USA Today or Time and Newsweek.

It’s a happening that can only be grasped if we are willing to forget the propositions and definitions. It is a story and as with most stories, its purpose is to take us beyond the happenings to something more.

We have been listening to The Wind in the Willows in the refectory and I love it. And yet the facts are that rats don’t talk, they’re not even nice; moles are creepy wee things with slits for eyes; toads give you warts… well, maybe that’s not a fact. But we listen with our breaths catching as Mole senses his home in Dulce Domum and his small heart breaks; we thrill when Rat hears the pipes of the divine at dawn; we chuckle guiltily at Toad’s overweening arrogance because in his goings on we recognize our own crazy ways.

And now we have just heard another story – a most dramatic one. But we have changed this story, too, I’m afraid. We have altered it to make it palatable, respectable. We would much rather have a nice Holy Spirit who leads us into still waters and gives us quiet pasture. We want to be enlightened. We want to be guided into peaceful places and fulfilling comfort. We want a Holy Spirit who will make me “spiritual”; we like – some of us – to feel just that bit superior to those who don’t express Pentecostal experiences, who don’t speak in tongues. Or we consider that we are beyond such behaviors – especially if we come from the top drawer, so to speak. It has been said that a grand lady once exclaimed, “We Episcopalians don’t ‘Praise the Lord!’”
But this story tells us of a Spirit that comes to frightened people and drives them out of their comfort and safety into the maelstrom of the marketplace and makes them act like drunks!
And Peter - Peter who a couple of days ago couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge Jesus to a servant girl, gets his dander up, confronts the crowd and tells them that they are missing something wonderful - something they had read without understanding for generations… about God at work in a new way, about a promised time when things will be turned upside down and strange and wonderful events will take place. And God’s salvation, God’s love, will be freely poured out.

Jesus tells his disciples about this in our Gospel passage. He says you don’t and won’t understand now but you will. And you will learn what it is to be my followers. What a promise! What an offering of peace! What an opportunity to live!

Unfortunately, I’m afraid we hesitate to step into that conversion. That story is too hard to take. Our brains can’t get beyond the facts… we don’t have the resources, there’s too much to tackle, the way isn’t clear.

Brothers and sisters, I feel that the lesson of this day for the Church, if we will listen to the story, is that we don’t need our own resources, we can tackle anything, and we don’t really need to see the way.

God’s expectation of us is courage to go ahead… to step into the marketplace and be people of truth and doers of justice; merciful people who don’t act out of fear or discouragement but have the bravery of the drunk who can take on the world.

It’s not our message we proclaim. It is the story of a love that dies for longing; a love that restores and renews. It’s the Gospel!

Friday, May 21, 2010

RCL - Ascension Day - May 13, 2010

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC
RCL - Ascension Day - May 13, 2010

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

Memory is a powerful thing. No matter how many other images of the Ascension I see, the one that keeps coming back to me is a mural on the side wall of the main viewing room in the Palm Mortuary, the more gentile-friendly of the two mortuaries in still culturally Mormon Las Vegas in 1981. My father was laid out there, and for four gruesome hours my mother and my three brothers waited for people to come by and pay their respects. Conversation is stilted at best at such times, and there are long pauses. So I had quite a lot of time to gaze at this mural. The perspective was from below, as one gazed up a tall, green, grassy, verdant hill at a pastoral scene of sheep and shepherds and ordinary people, drawn like figures from a Sunday School book. The sheep were looking at the grass, the shepherds were looking at the sheep, and the rest were looking up, at an immaculately white-robed Jesus who was ascending into the blue, blue sky, about a third of him already gone. It was naive. It was awful. It was – ordinary.

Luke places the Ascension at the central and most crucial point in his two-volume work, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. It is the hinge-event of his theology. It is so important that he tells it twice. This has always seemed a little strange to me. The Resurrection is supposed to be the central act of the Christian faith. The Incarnation is our foundational doctrine. The life of the Church is empowered by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So why give the Ascension this crucial role, especially since it is not mentioned by Mark and Matthew, and is not recorded as a separate event by John?

I want to suggest that the Ascension is the point at which Luke tips his hand, tells us plainly what he means. He does this in at least three ways.

The first is Jesus’ own teaching that his disciples are witnesses to events whose meaning is found in the Jewish scriptures: “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Luke’s theology is that the conversion of the world to God the Father will be accomplished by the power of the death and resurrection of the Son through the agency of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and that none of that is unforeseen. It is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the actions of God in history as remembered in the sacred scriptures, the Word making available to the whole world the salvation begun in Israel. This is the most ancient and most important Christian way of reading the Scriptures, one which has endured until our own time: Christ is prefigured in the Old Testament, revealed in the New.

The second way Luke tells us what he means is by showing Christ embodying the Scriptures. Standing with Christ at the Transfiguration were Moses and Elijah, and here they are again, if not named. Elijah’s ascension in the chariot of fire endows Elisha with his cloak: the disciples are to be “clothed with power from on high”, just as was Elisha. And they are to be filled with the Spirit, just as was Joshua when Moses died and disappeared. Both will be ready to lead the people of Israel along new but unknown paths. And standing a little behind Moses and Elijah is a third figure, little mentioned now but intensely interesting to the ancients: Enoch, who also ascended to God. Enoch, the seventh generation after Adam, whose son was the longest-living human being, Methusaleh. Enoch, who lived 365 years, of whom Genesis 5 says, “Enoch walked with God. Then he vanished because God took him.” Enoch, whose perfect numbers encompass the mathematical perfections of revelation and creation: Enoch, the sabbath child, whose life is a year of years, who walked with God. The mysteries of Enoch, Moses and Elijah are the backdrop to the mystery of the ascended Jesus, who also walked with God, who is the perfect man, incarnating the Logos, by whom all things are made; Jesus, who leads us out of our Egypts to new promised lands, but who must, like Moses, disappear so that we may cross the water; Jesus, who challenges the evils of the world and does not win against its powers, but then is taken up, only to leave a double share of his power to his followers.

And Luke’s third, and possibly most important meaning: God incarnate in Man becomes Man incarnate in God. If Acts is the Book of the Holy Spirit, Luke’s Gospel is the Book of the Incarnation, and incarnation among the lowliest. It is Luke who tells us of the Archangel’s visit to that simple teenaged girl, not yet married, simultaneously worried and willing as so many ordinary people are. It is Luke who tells us of Mary’s prophetic war song of the vindication of the poor. It is Luke who places the birth of Jesus in the manger because there is no room in the inn, and it is Luke who introduces shepherds come to honor the child, not kings. It is Luke who tells us, Blessed are you poor, you actual poor. In Luke’s gospel the coming Kingdom will be God’s great act of reversal, and it is no accident that the last question the disciples ask of the risen Jesus, before he is taken from them forever, is, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

Places of divine action were important in the ancient world. One perhaps unexpectedly relevant place as we consider the Ascension was the temple of the divine Julius, erected to Julius Caesar, on the very spot in the Roman Forum, the political center of the world, where his murdered body was cremated in a public funeral. The ascent of the smoke from the body of Julius Caesar was taken to be a confirmation of his divinity. No longer a man, but a god. It could be argued that the divinization of Julius Caesar was the moment when the world’s kingdom was bestowed upon Rome. This ideology was not unknown in Palestine. No wonder the disciples saved this question for last: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

In contrast to the Forum, Bethany probably means “house of the poor” or “poor-house”, Beth-anya. It was where Simon the Leper lived, and where Lazarus took ill and died. Archaeology suggests it may have been a popular way-station for Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem, tired and weary and sick from their long trip. It may well have been a refuge for those whose conditions of life made them not only unwell but unclean, a place just far enough away from and out of sight of the Temple to fulfill the ritual purity laws. How fitting that Jesus found his closest friends in Bethany, that it was there that he stayed during his last week on earth, that it was there that he raised Lazarus to life.

And fitting that it was from Bethany that he ascended into heaven. Not from the center of the world’s power, or even from the great Temple of Jerusalem, but from an ordinary little village dedicated to the poor, down the hill and out of sight of the better folk. Not a man whose body had to be burned so that he might be thought no longer human but a god, whose power would be manifest in wars and regimes of cruelty, but a man whose body was honored in resurrection and whose humanity sits at the right hand of the Father. This is the second bookend of Luke’s Gospel, the culmination of the Nativity: God who became Man is now Man who is God. The power to transform the world resides in the sympathy of one who lived as one of us, who chose the residents of the poor house as his friends and their little town as his second home, who tasted the worst and suffered the most one of us can suffer. The reversal of the world’s power is complete in the Ascension. Mary’s Magnificat prophecy is fulfilled. Jesus, the friend of the poor, sits at the right hand of the Father, and when the time comes, one of us, one who understands us, will be both judge and advocate.

The longing of the human race for the day when God’s kingdom will replace Caesar’s is so strong, so powerful, so urgent, that it attracts adherents far beyond the circle of the faithful. We should never underestimate the desire all people share for righteousness and justice, but also for mercy and loving-kindness, and for their hope, with us, that the promise of Jesus Christ is true. We hope in faith, they think our hope is impossible, but they hope for it all the same.

A.E. Housman, no Christian or friend of Christian faith, puts this as well as any poet I know in his Easter Hymn:

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

RCL - Easter 6 C - May 9, 2010

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
RCL - Easter 6 C - May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 5:1-9

Easter Lilies, St. Augustine Chapel, Holy Cross Monastery

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

There is deep conflict in the Gospel reading we just heard, though you might not have noticed it. In our circus-frenzy media world, conflict is almost always front and center... loud and unsubtle... The conflict we encounter this morning’s Gospel reading is more a hint than a battle. Yet it is very profound. It is conflict that is right at the heart of following Jesus.

But first I want to reflect on the reading from Revelation. Revelation can be a troublesome book. I don’t suppose any book of the Bible has been used for more mischief over the years. The book made it into scripture by the skin of its metaphorical teeth. The early church taught that Revelation was never to be read as a book of prophesy, so naturally, over time, it has been used for little else.

For many non-Christians, it may be the most familiar book of the Bible. Its fantastically frightening imagery is the stuff which Hollywood movies are made. Folks who know nothing of the Gospel may know a great deal about the Apocalypse... Armageddon, the 7 seals and various plagues and pale riders and beasts and so on.

But this morning we encounter part of Revelation that doesn’t make it into the movies. Here we see heaven, illuminated by nothing less than the glory of God. Its gates are never shut by day... and there is no night. Elsewhere we learn that there are twelve gates, three in every direction.

I find the descriptions of heaven in the Book of Revelation are among the most beautiful passages in all of scripture. Those open gates... that river of the water of life flowing through the center... I have the sense that God is standing at every gate welcoming everyone by name with a loving and warm embrace.

Here we have this vision of God’s wondrous love, the new Jerusalem, in the Book of Revelation as a backdrop for this passage from the Gospel of John.

John is definitely still in the Old Jerusalem... We have a sheep gate and a pool rather than 12 gates and the river of the water of life... Oh well...

This pool is a place where the sick gather in hope of being healed. And Jesus just happens to be passing by. He meets this anonymous man who has been sick for 38 years. That is, more or less, forever.

Jesus has a strange conversation with the sick man. “Do you want to be made well?” We generally assume that the sick always want to be made well... A simple yes or no would be appropriate, but the answer is not simple. Instead of yes or no, the man offers an explanation of why its not possible for him to be made well.

There is no discussion of faith. There is no request for help. The sick man has no idea who he is talking to. And there really is no indication that he wants to be made well. The man knows why his life is going to stay the way it is.

So when Jesus says stand up and walk, it’s a bit out of the blue. Yet the man stands up, takes his mat, and walks away. Generally in the stories of miraculous healing, there is at least a mention of faith. But in this case faith has nothing to do with it.

The reading ends with the innocuous sounding note that it was a Sabbath, which, out of context, sounds like a brief denouement. “It all happened on a Sunday....” No big deal.

Except in context it is a very big deal. It is a huge deal... For by taking up his mat the man has broken the law. He has done work on the Sabbath.

If we continued reading, we would find that the authorities question the man about his law breaking. He immediately implicates Jesus - which, after all, is nothing but the truth. And the stage is set. Jesus has earned the wrath of the authorities. He has started on the road to crucifixion.

All that in one little sentence. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

I mentioned conflict earlier and we’re starting to have conflict: The conflict between those who faithfully follow Jesus and those who faithfully follow the law. Keep note of the fact that both groups are faithful.

Until the time of Jesus, the faithful followed the law. There was no other way to be faithful. And they had to trust the authorities who interpreted the law. These authorities come off looking pretty bad in the Gospels, to say the least. Some of them no doubt were hypocritical and cynical. Some of them, no doubt, engaged in a conspiracy to execute Jesus.

But surely many, probably most, took their responsibilities seriously and interpreted the law to the very best of their abilities. They were people of deep faith and, therefore, faithful to the law. They loved the law because they loved God.

Its no little thing that Jesus has done. He has said, in effect, you can break the law and still be faithful to God.

This is heresy. Its like Jesus saying to a devout Baptist you can be immersed or sprinkled. Or to a devout Roman Catholic, go ahead and get remarried. Or to a devout Episcopalian, sure you can eat meat with your salad fork...

Whatever our most cherished piece of Christianity may be, imagine if someone came along and said “who cares.” Who cares about the Eucharist... Who cares about the creeds... Who cares about the Bible... This is what the faithful authorities of the time the time must have heard Jesus saying. Take up your mat... Who cares what the law says.

But this conflict only points to a more fundamental conflict: the conflict between polarity and paradox. In a polarized world, good and bad have to be in opposition. Just like up and down, hot and cold. Conservative and Liberal. The ends of the polarity can’t meet.

As humans, we’re drawn to polarities. They make sense. They are orderly. They let us cope with myriad tasks each day. They simplify things. The law, whatever it may be, helps us sort things into polarities. But polarities create dichotomies which are false.

The world of Jesus is a world of paradox, not polarity. It’s a world where sinners and saints can be all jumbled in together, they can even be the same people. It’s a world where God can be trinity and unity. It’s a rich and complex world. It’s a world where the faithful can be unfaithful to the law.

Life and death are not exclusive. Good and evil are not miles apart. Jesus dying on the cross and Jesus rising from the tomb is paradoxical.

The Jewish authorities were there to sort things into polarities - things are either lawful, or they are not. And still today, there are times when we very much want the church, or some authority, to sort the world into good and bad. Its part of the appeal of people like Rush Limbaugh. Polarities let us know where we are, or at least where we think we should be.

The sick man at the pool had a nicely polarized world view. I’m sick and I can not be made well. I can not move from the polarity of sick to the polarity of well. But sick and well are not polarities. We are all sick and we are all well.

Jesus continues to offer us paradox. In just a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist - the meal that is food and drink, flesh and blood, sacrifice and memorial... in which a tiny fragment of bread and little sip of wine will offer sustenance for eternal life.

Jesus doesn’t call us to be lawful or lawless. Jesus calls us to live life abundantly. That means embracing paradox rather than clinging to polarity. That, for me, is the heart of the Gospel - that perfect freedom lies in total servitude to Jesus. That eternal life includes being willing to die for a friend. That I am strongest when I am weakest. That I am a miserable offender and that God loves me.

Like the sick man at the pool I cling to my world view. And Jesus comes along and says take up your mat.