Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent 1 B - Nov 27, 2011

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY --- Br. Julian Mizelle, OHC
Advent 1, Year B - Sunday, November 27, 2011

Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Living In-Between

On this first Sunday of Advent, as the Church begins its telling of the Christian story once again, our Gospel reading tells us to “keep awake”.  Honestly, this command to keep awake I find to be a bit annoying.  Most of us do not need to be told to keep awake during Advent.  We are already operating in a state of sleep deprivation.  Instead of being accused of being asleep we are more likely to be accused scurrying through the rush of holiday shopping, parties, and to-do list, being highly over-scheduled, and burning our Advent Candle at both ends.  There’s endless shopping, gifts to prepare, parties to plan, travel arrangements to make, lots of extra cooking and baking.  Squeezed in to our already busy lives will be Christmas pageants, Cantata’s and Lessons and Carols.  The joy of being with family and friends is a gift but it is also a stress.  Visiting relatives and in-laws mean extra work and somehow it all has to get done.  The pressures of the holiday season will be over-shadowed by a constant reminder of how many shopping days left until Christmas morning.  In case you’re wondering you have 27 days and about 15.5 hours.  So it occurs to me that the real pastoral action needed for most of us is not to be told to keep awake, but to pass out sleeping pills with chamomile tea to minister to our over-caffeinated, stressed out selves.

The fact that we are exhausted and stretched to our physical limits is not just a reality of Advent and Christmas -- it’s a reality of our lives all year long.  Sleep, or the need to get more of it, has actually made it onto the list of spiritual disciplines.  This is simply recognizing that it is hard to progress spiritually when we’re exhausted.  James Bryan Smith in his book “The Good and Beautiful God” says that the number one enemy of spiritual formation today is exhaustion.  Many retailers opened their stores this past Friday (Black Friday) at midnight Thursday.  Some even pushed their opening hours earlier and opened on Thanksgiving Day.  We’re loosing the sanctity of setting aside a holiday as a time of resting from our busy lives.

Our culture is caught up in a mad rush of busy-ness that is pointed toward Christmas morning, but it is not pointed toward the coming of the Christ child.  We may not be physically asleep; quite the opposite actually.  But in our wakefulness to the realities of the holiday rush we can fall asleep to the spiritual season of the coming Christ.  So on this first Sunday of Advent Mark’s gospel gives us a wake-up call by telling us that the coming of Christ is both near and at hand.  But which coming of Christ does Mark’s gospel point us to?  Advent is a special season indeed linking the historical coming of the promised Messiah with the coming of Christ into our own hearts and the coming of Christ again at the end of time.

Our lection this morning is known as the little apocalypse and is filled with references to the end of all time.  Not unlike many today the Disciples wanted Jesus to give them a date.  They were ready to mark their calendars.  So Jesus gave them a metaphor -- the Fig Tree.  A fig tree would be a well known reference point for someone living in a Mediterranean world in the first century.  When we encounter figs today they tend to be mashed inside a moist little biscuit.  But for us, is the sign to the end of the age really to be found in a comfort food cookie?  I think not.

For us this is a metaphor pointing to a paradox.  The wake up call in Mark’s gospel is calling you and me to awaken to paradox.  In fact, it is one of the most important paradoxes found in the Gospel.  It is the paradox of already but not yet.

  • It is the already but not yet drama of how we live our life with God.
  • Christ has already been born but not yet has the world come into His light and love.
  • Already Jesus has established the means for our relationship with God, but not yet do we live in complete union with God.
  • Already the Prince of Peace has come but not yet have we learned to end our wars.
  • Already Christ has taken our wounds but not yet have we been able to let them go.
  • Already the realm of God is evident all around us, but not yet is God’s realm fully established in this world or even in our hearts.
  • Already God’s economy is at work, but not yet have we moved our hope from Wall St.
  • Already God has filled the earth with plenty but not yet have we learned to share it with all.

Jesus was telling His disciples, and through this gospel text He is telling us, we are the one’s living “in-between” His first coming and His second coming.  This already but not yet paradox is how Mark’s gospel breaks right into our lives today speaking to us who live in-between.  Mark’s gospel is not an apocalyptic message for those left behind, it is an apocalyptic message for those left between.  For those living in this challenging meantime between the already and the not yet.

Just like the fig tree that knows how to respond to the seasons of the year Advent calls us to a season to go within.  All of nature moves deep inside and all living things have dug their roots deep into the earth for sustenance and protection.  We too are invited to turn inward during this blessed time of preparation for the Lord’s coming.  This is the season to let Christ be born anew in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls.  This is the season to live fully into the reality that although Christ was born in human weakness, He manifested His divinity to the world.  This is the season to open our hearts to His spiritual coming in our inmost being where Christ is born anew and to let His light shine within us.  This is the season to wait and watch for His final coming at the end of time where He will manifest His glorified being through all creation.

As I was preparing my own heart for the Advent season I was going through my journal and came upon an entry I had written years ago.  The entry has the simple title of “Three Questions”.  I’m not for sure what impressed me to write it down at the time.  But today I would tell you that the Holy Spirit knew I would need it at this point in my life.  I have taken these 3 questions and placed them on the inner tabernacle of my heart.  It is as if they sit in the cradle of my being, the Holy Spirit working them through me as He knows best.  I don’t even try to provide an answer to these 3 questions.  I am simply letting them be within me, allowing my heavenly friend to engraft them into my life.  I will journey with them these next 4 weeks of Advent.  They will be my guiding star leading me to the cradle of my Lord.  I share them with you in invitation for you to journey with them during this season of Advent.

  • What needs to be forgiven?
  • What needs to be healed?
  • What needs to be celebrated?

Three questions that hold and carry us through the paradox of already but not yet of our lives with God.  Three questions that stand with us in solidarity (quite literally) in this in-between place of our Christian journey.  Three questions that we can welcome keeping awake with through this holy season of Advent.

Have a Blessed Advent!  Amen!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Proper 28 A - Nov 13, 2011

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY --- Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Proper 28, Year A - Sunday, November 13, 2011

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Right away I ought to say that the talents of which the Gospel speaks are not the abilities with which we usually connect the word, but rather a standard weight of money of a large value; minor point of clarification.

In the Sundays leading up to Advent we’re treated to a series of Gospel parables concerned with the judgement of ethical behavior by one who gives the means to live wisely, absents himself and eventually returns to see how we’ve done, presumably to prime us for the season of Advent.

Today’s parable is a stern warning against choosing death when life is offered, in this case choosing to do nothing with a talent of money when given you on the basis of your known ability to use it productively. The servant cites the merciless character of the master as the cause of inaction, but the master describes the servant’s forfeiture of native ability as an act of cowardice, a vile and worthless choice.

The story is intended as a stern warning, and if warning and incentive is the principal object lesson for a first century audience, a peremptory condemnation into outer darkness will presumably cut it.

Yet we ought to remind ourselves that the Synoptic Gospels from which it comes must also be measured against the Fourth Gospel, that of the glorified Christ, the Christ who insisted he came not to condemn the world but to save it, and the Christ who defends the adulteress against the vengeance of a misogynist society.

So, let’s rely on the greatness of God to develop a larger ending to the story and let’s cast it in a more inclusive mode.

The parable is a cautionary tale about one in such terror of the master’s mercilessness as to become oblivious to the qualification which gave her the talent. She was deemed worthy of the talent , deemed capable of putting it to productive use; she was capable, she definitely was capable. In the story she could have added in language we’re more accustomed to, “I was so terrified on account of my abusive family history that I forgot who I was and what I could do, so I went and hid your talent in the ground out of sheer desperation. Mister, the most unbearable misfortune is when you lose yourself in that way, when you realize it and even reproach yourself, but you just can’t help it.”

And then there’s what could be called ‘The Workshop Syndrome,’ assuming the master distributed the talents at the same time, the one-talented servant - let us call her Sally - would have regarded her colleagues’ larger number as indication of their superior abilities which fed back to further undermine her self confidence, disempower her.

Sally, for goodness’ sakes, needs a life coach who actually would not address the psychological trauma but rather appeal to a more compelling vision than fear, something she cares about enough to take just one step for its sake, the courage for which comes from another place, enabling a trembling mortal to move forward and bringing along its own progress, step by step, as day follows night.

Those with whom I’ve been privileged to share the experience of bottoming out and resurrection speak of a courage which seems rooted in a god, a god beyond god, who appears when god has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt. For a Christian believer the abiding vision when all else has vanished is typically the image or imagination of Christ crucified, as if produced by an unsuspected capacity in themselves , and this god beyond god brings a knowledge of their death and resurrection with a chemical edge which can practically be tasted.

Such bottoming out and resurrection is how we can understand the exclamation of the Apostle Paul: “Hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly... God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. . . much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:5 ff.)

The initial backbone of today’s Gospel seems to have been fear-based, about something the culture imagined as the wrath of God, but we’ve seen that it’s possible for the wrath of God to be obliterated by a larger truth which we experience as unearnable grace, to which the tradition testifies, of which Paul once again exclaims in his letter to us today: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that . . . we may live with him.” (1 Thess. 5:9-10)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Proper 27 A - Nov 6, 2011

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY --- Br. Andrew Colquhoun, OHC
Proper 27, Year A - Sunday, November 6, 2011

Amos 5:198-24 --- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 --- Matthew25:1-13

Preaching rotas have a way of tripping me up – so do lectionaries.  I’d like to have a bit more leeway.   You know… Oh, I don’t like this gospel, let me pick another that’s more comfortable.  One that won’t kick up so many questions.  One that won’t go against what my mother taught me about sharing, for example.  As in, “If you don’t give these young women some of your oil, I’ll be very disappointed!”

Picture credit: Frank Starmer

These strange passages of Jesus’ discourses are not the kind of Christianity most of us want.  We had a friend in South Africa who said that what the Church desires is Christianity Lite.  Non-disturbing, comforting, reassuring following the meek One who loved children so much!  Who told us to be like children.  (By the way, anyone who thinks that means being nice and eager to share, doesn’t know children!)

In our efforts to keep things nice, we often just don’t read what is there. We see what we want to see. And what we seem to want is for difficult truths to go away or at least to simplify. So we pick and choose.  This part fits my ideas, I’ll keep that.  Oooh, this is not nice, it must be wrong.

I don’t mean that all portions of Scripture have the same weight for us.  Cultures have evolved, ethics have matured, and so on.  The Levitical laws do not all apply in our faith tradition.  We don’t keep kosher.   We may not stone adulterers.  You might get pork for lunch.

But some aspects of the Bible speak of things that are immutable, unchanging.  The things which deal of justice and God’s righteousness which is love are not always palatable to our ears.

The words of the prophet Amos are among those.  After putting the people squarely among those who perpetrate what they condemn in others with regard to the poor, he tells them this… don’t expect the Day of the Lord to raise you up. None of your efforts at righteousness will count for anything because you trample the poor and take from them levies of grain; you tax them but don’t pay any yourselves. (oops, did I just say something awkward?)  You do all the “God” things and neglect the godly things. You preach morality; you sacrifice, you sing all the right songs, you pronounce yourselves God’s people but until justice flows like rivers and righteous concern for the poor and needy pour out, I do not hear you.

So the prophet calls us to live as God’s people must.  Not with outward show but with inner love.  And that won’t come about automatically.  It takes practice. It comes from an open heart that doesn’t seek its own wellbeing but seeks the righteousness of God – that is, a righteousness that streams from love and spends itself in justice.

So to the ten bridesmaids!  Not a clear story of redemption at all, I don’t think.  Why didn’t the five prudent ones share their oil as out idea of politeness and propriety would demand?  What about if someone asks for your shirt, give him your coat, too? What’s happening here?

I don’t believe this passage is about going to heaven or even being ready for the second kept out?  Is heaven, then, all about good behavior?

And it’s certainly not about good manners or being good boys and girls.  What Jesus is calling for in these last days is for his disciples to be prepared for whatever might come.  Being a bridesmaid isn’t just about a pretty frock and parties. If the lights went out, nothing could happen. This is a story about faithfulness and commitment.  Life in the kingdom, comes with responsibility.  The wise ones knew this. They had prepared themselves with the hope and expectation of what was coming.  They couldn’t give away the oil because it was the oil of long perseverance, the oil of faithfulness. Not something that can be dispensed automatically.

Jesus calls us to life in a kingdom that fully demands response.  Christianity Lite is for comfort, for pleasant Sunday mornings. Or pleasant weekends in the monastery.  Life in the kingdom calls us to be ready for the demands of being truly human as Jesus the Christ was.  Life in the kingdom comes fraught with danger and the weight of being the people who do justice and love mercy.

There’s really no time for Christianity Lite.  Look around us. Look at the desperation in the world; look at the hunger in the eyes of people. Face the unrest and fear humanity faces. Consider economies based on war and greed. Nothing soft will be sufficient to the challenges of love.

Look into the face of Christ and it will become clear as the Day.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Saints - Nov 1, 2011

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY --- Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
All Saints - Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Revelation 7:9-17 --- 1 John 3:1-3 --- Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints

It is hard approach All Saints Day without having to pass through its much celebrated, and much distorted, prelude – All Hallows Eve, better known as Halloween. Mischief and mayhem, ghosts and goblins, and above all – as much candy as anybody can stomach... These are the stuff of Halloween, at least in secular American culture.

Halloween, with its focus on what you can get, makes a mockery of our religious tradition. But sometimes our religious traditions need to be mocked...

The roots of Halloween, and of All Saints Day for that matter, are a bit obscure, though it appears that Celtic spirituality played an important role in the start of both traditions.

It is hardly surprising that Celtic tradition, with its very high regard for those who have gone before and far less linear approach to time, would peculiarly honor saints. The custom of All Saints seems to have spread eastward from Ireland.

And its not so surprising that in the enterprising and poverty-ridden Celtic lands, somebody figured out how to make money along the way. Perhaps starting in Scotland, poor people went about on the eve of All Saints asking for money. In exchange for some cash, they would pray for the souls of your loved ones in purgatory. An All Hallows Even tradition is born... Halloween also appears to have spread east, and then west, from Ireland and Scotland.

Add some Reformation and some ingenuity by American candy makers to the mix and today we have substituted candy for coins and any idea of prayer, for souls in purgatory or anywhere else, has flown out of the equation altogether.

Yet here we are, faithfully keeping All Saints Day, which has come from humble Irish roots to be a principal feast of the Church.

The focus on souls in purgatory, or on ghosts and goblins, or just on candy, makes an interesting prelude to this feast. At best, it seems to call us to focus on what we can do for these pour souls, whatever poor souls we may have in mind. At worst it seems to focus us on what we can get – who can get the most and the best candy.

But the focus on what we can get, rather than what we can give, may in fact be the right preparation for All Saints Day, as counter intuitive... as unchristian as it may appear.

Bernard of Clairvaux, that is Saint Bernard... notes that our praise, glorification, and celebration can mean little, if anything, to the saints. Earthly honor, he observes, can be of little value next to Heavenly honor. He concludes that the saints have no need of us. According to Bernard: “When we venerate [the saints], it is serving us, not them.”

And that, for Bernard, is exactly why we should venerate saints (including, of course, Bernard himself).

As Bernard sees it, venerating the saints, calling them to mind, inspires us to want to be in their company – to want to be like them. Ultimately we want to join the saints not in their communion with each other, but in their communion with Jesus, with God.

So a bag stuffed with candy may not be exactly the desired outcome, but a person stuffed with spirit may be the spiritually evolved cousin of that trick-or-treat bag...

We are taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but when God, or the Saints of God, are offering gifts, it is surely better to be ready to receive. On All Saints, more than any other time, we are called to open our hearts to the gifts that we receive from the saints. And to the extent that we are preoccupied with what pious gifts we can bring and solemn liturgies we can produce, we are just getting in the way.

So who are these saints anyway?

In the early church it was not so complicated to become a saint. All you needed was enough enthusiasm at the time of your death in the great congregation and you were acclaimed a saint. A spontaneous process, of course, doesn't sit well in a hierarchical system, so as the Church became more powerful and more centralized in the middle ages, a more controlled process of ordering saints came into use.

There has been a little bit of a tempest in the teapot of the Episcopal Church recently over the publication of “Holy Women, Holy Men.” It appears that a great effort was made to be more inclusive and more representative in who we honor as a saint in our calendar.

Including JS Bach sits well with me – no greater musician has ever written for the Church, but Henry Purcell seems a bit more iffy. Ralph Adams Cram, architect of our little church, was surely an inspired builder who's buildings still enliven the spirits of others, yet I'm not sure his life is particularly inspiring, or even particularly interesting. There is no question that John Calvin has had a huge impact on countless Christians, but I suspect he would be among the first to ask to have his name removed from a list of saints.

For me, the great service provided by Holy Women & Holy Men is that it calls us to think differently about saints. Our natural tendency is to want to call somebody a saint because they deserve the honor. But as Bernard of Clairvaux notes, our honor is of no value. That is not the point of having someone in the calendar.

Perhaps what we need is a greater embrace of Halloween – the image of standing before the saints with our goodie bag in hand asking for a treat may be the best approach to All Saints Day. Maybe I need to be more like the innocent child searching for treats than a sophisticated adult deciding who is, or is not worthy of sainthood.

Does Bach inspire me in the way that Patrick, or Columba, or Martin Luther King do? I really don't know, but he does inspire others. I do know that, much as I admire the work of Ralph Adams Cram, he surely does not. But the simple wisdom of Halloween is that I don't linger at the places where the treats don't work for me. I just move on.

Wyston Hugh Auden is somebody who may not actually be on anybody's list of saints – though a more inspired and inspiring poet in English language would be hard to find. His poem, “A Hymn to Saint Cecelia,” the patron saint of musicians, describes the relationship with saints as only a truly inspired and gifted poet can.

“Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire. Translated daughter come down and startle composing mortals with immortal fire.”

I pray for Cecilia to appear to me. I pray for John and Charles Wesley to appear to me. For Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. For Benedict, Scholastica, and James Huntington and W.H. Auden. The list goes on and on.

They don't need me – I need them. I need their strength, their vision, and their ability to startle me out of the cocoon of my own ego. God grant us all the wisdom and humility to open our hearts to receive the gifts that the saints around us so freely offer.