Sunday, January 29, 2012

Epiphany 4 B - Jan 29, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Julian Mizelle, OHC
Epiphany 4 B – Sunday, January 29, 2012

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:14-20
The Scream
Reading the Gospel of Mark is a bit like reading a set of Cliff Notes—and a paired down version at that. It is a fast moving Gospel, details are spotty, and years worth of events get packed into a few sentences. In this opening chapter to Mark’s Gospel we go from the Messianic Predictions of Isaiah to John the Baptist and Christ Baptism, His wilderness temptation, the launch of His Galilean Ministry, the calling of His first disciples and immediately into a series of healings and miracles. These opening 45 verses to Mark’s Gospel gives us a sweeping overview of Christ life and ministry. Reading it is like watching a movie trailer to an action packed adventure. Even those great beings who devised our Revised Common Lectionary seem to understand there would be much to unpack in this core narrative of the Good News. There are a total of six Sundays in Epiphany. However five out of six Sundays give us Gospel lessons from the first chapter of Mark. 
Todays lesson brings us to Capernaum, where we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue. And in the middle of His discourse He is interrupted by a deranged man yelling out at Jesus. The text paints the picture of a demon possessed heckler who is no longer in control of his own body. The evil spirit is now speaking through the man. But we are given the fewest of details and I find myself wishing to know a few more facts to better understand the story.
1. Why was this man in the synagogue?  Demon possession was a sure sign that you are unclean, impure and not worthy of presenting yourself in the synagogue. In the first century those who have mentally lost it lived out by the tombs, in the cemeteries or in the desert wilderness. Most of the demon possessed people that Jesus encountered during His earthly ministry dwelled in one of these “outer” places. In fact these were the places feared and avoided at all cost. When it was time to bury the dead you got in and out of the cemetery as quickly as possible. If you lingered your chances of encountering an evil spirit increased. Or worse yet, you may pick up a demon who goes back home with you.
2. What kind of evil spirit did this man have? What was it nature and character? It isn’t made clear to us what the mans unnatural or pathological state was. Did he suffer addictions or was he bi-polar? Was he completely schizophrenic or did he still have some hold on reality? Was he a victim of abuse? Did he come from a broken home or a loving home? Did he know he was lovable and loved in God’s eyes? Had anyone ever taught him to have self-compassion?
Or maybe it was something simple and far more common—something experienced by all of humanity. Did he suffer from the non-stop commentary, those internal voices of on-going negativity and judgement, running in his head. The Church Fathers called it Sin. The Church Mystics called it Brokenness and The Human Condition. It is the universal fate we have all been born to. Quite possibly our deranged heckler was traversing the dark night of sense and his outcry was more of a cry for help. Edvard Munch’s classic painting of an impressionistic landscaped with a lone dark figure standing in the foreground whose hands cover his ears as if to say stop the inner voices, with mouth wide open is a painting of both stunning beauty and stark reality. The painting is simply titled “The Scream.” And it is a painting that we have all found ourselves living in at some point in our lives.
The Scream - Edvard Munch - 1893 - National Gallery, Oslo, Norway
Our questions could go on. The list of unanswered details are endless. Mark did not write with the agenda of giving us a complete picture. Instead he leaves us with an open invitation. An invitation to write the details of our lives into the story. If this is the story of the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” then it must be a story we can write ourselves into. It must be a story we can identify ourselves in.
Not that long ago as a green and “wet-behind-the-ears” novice I posed a question to my Novice Master in a novitiate class. I asked “where have all the demons gone?”. The response was a quizzical look, as if to say “what are you talking about?”. Well, in the life and times of Jesus and in the life and times of the early Church there seemed to be a strong focus on Satan and his minions—the demons. But in our post-critical age of scientific enlightenment we don’t talk much about demons. Respectable Anglicans can go decades without experiencing a good smiting of the devil. We don’t even seem to poke fun at the devil in our culture the way we did in times past. Long gone are the days of comedian Flip Wilson and his character “Geraldine” and that classic line “the devil made me do it.” Long gone are the days of Dana Carvey’s “The Church Lady” from Saturday Night Live who week after week had the recurring epiphany “Could It Be Satan?”.
But maybe our consciousness is changing. Earlier this week I was asked by a Princeton Seminarian student if we as a Monastic community ever experience a sense of being up against forces of darkness, principalities and powers that push against us in our ministries. And if so, how do we fight against these forces. (With questions like this you know why we brace ourselves when we have seminarians come for a visit. They’re wonderful and they keep us on our toes.) The truth is the dark forces are never that far away. Our modern day demons include: alcoholism, drug addiction, prejudice and hatred, fear, depression, jealousy and envy, loneliness and isolation, materialism and a drive for power, even boredom and meaninglessness, acedia. These demons do not point to something that has taken hold within us. It would be more correct to think of these demons as pointing to a LACK of something within us. 
Jesus did not take something out of us to make us good. The good news is that he came to make us aware of something inside...truth, love, forgiveness...our central core of goodness. 
Jesus came to the synagogue well equiped to deal with evil spirits. He had just spent 40 days in the desert facing down his own demons. The image of Jesus as exorcist is an image of someone who has experienced his own demons. It is the classic image of the wounded healer. Jesus faced three temptations. They are the 3 temptations of the false self. They are the 3 temptations that we all face in our broken humanity: our twisted needs for control, power and affection. To dismantle the programs of control, power and affection is to dismantle the false self. And when you have dismantled the false self you have authority when the devil, or when life, tries to knock the wind out of you. Jesus only had to speak two words to take authority over the evil spirit. Be Silent, sometimes translated Be Still. They were the same two words He used to calm the raging sea. It has been said that silence is God’s first language. Everything else is commentary. 
“What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” Absolutely right! Jesus not only teaches in parables in the synagogue but He IS the parable of God. From this first chapter of Mark and all throughout the Gospels he appears as an enigma wrapped in mystery. What He actually says seems straightforward enough, at least on the surface. Yet sufficiently cryptic to tempt and tantalize us to be drawn in deeper. 
We are also left without the details of where our deranged heckler went next. What happened to him? What became of his future? His story never recurs in Marks narrative. And once again we are left with the invitation to write in our own story and become the living Gospel. 
Today we are the ones who come to temples, synagogues, churches, houses of worship, and even monasteries seeking transformation. And in two words Jesus becomes our boundary-breaking, demon-dashing, law-transcending Lord commanding us to “be silent, be still.” 
Through His healing silence we go forth with restored meaning to our lives. Through God’s silence all the evil spirits that are wrapped up in our control, power and affection issues are dismantled leaving us in the wonderment of being filled with God’s love. Through the realization of the fundamental woundedness of our humanity is where we discover healing, freedom, transcendence. 
Through Jesus’ own woundedness of battling satan’s temptation in the wilderness he healed this man in the Capernaum synagogue. His woundedness took him all the way to the cross fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic words, “by His wounds we are healed.” In the woundedness of Christ He became the source of life for all of us—even for you, even for me.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Epiphany 3 B - Jan 22, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
Epiphany 3 B – Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Sisters and Brothers, the time is now.  The kingdom of God is breaking into our lives. 
Now is the time to turn back from wayward pursuits.
Now is the time to see all the good that is at hand, if only you turn to God.

Let nothing come before the love of God.
Don’t let relationships fall apart because of God; but don’t let any of them claim the order of your life.
Don’t forget your abiding concerns for the sake of God; but don’t let any of those concerns sing out of tune with your love for God.

Today’s three passage of scripture talk about conversion and alignment with God.


First, our reluctant and crotchety prophet Jonah has finally made it to Nineveh.  He has walked through a third of the megalopolis of Nineveh.  He walks with a proclamation of doom.  It’s not his style to use mellifluous rhetoric to appeal to conversion.  And yet, already king, people and animals are turning to the God that Jonah didn’t even say a word about.

The story of this mass conversion tells us more about God than about the inhabitants of Nineveh or about Jonah. 

To God, there are no outsiders.  And God is responsive to all.  The undeservedly self-righteous Jonah disapproves of God’s mercy.  Why forgive these loathed Ninevites, thinks Jonah.

The Ninevites are overlords of the Israelites.  Their people have subordinated the Israelites into an exile of servitude.  No matter; God pays attention to their turning away from their sins.  God forgives them and repeals the punishment that Jonah proclaimed with obvious schadenfreude. 

God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites is a blow to the Israelites.  They, the chosen people, have been found undeserving, and now they live to see how gentiles receive God’s recognition.  As Jesus will say, God is able of … stones to raise up children to Abraham (Luke 3:8).


In your life, today, who are your Ninevites?  Is there any group of people you’d rather not find under God’s pinions?  Is it possible, that whatever their faults, they have already found God’s forgiveness -- and deserve yours?


Secondly, the apostle Paul suggests in several places of First Corinthians that the imminence of the end of time is his own opinion, not God’s teaching.  However, as is often the case, in preaching one meaning, the preacher opens the way for the Spirit to say what she must.

Paul asks us to live as though the end of evil, the appointed time, is imminent.  Paul asks us to be undividedly about this in-breaking of God’s time.
He is not requesting to dump all our commitments but he is demanding that we put them in right perspective to the love of God.  No concern or relationship of ours, whether good or bad, is to bear over our commitment to God.  That injunction is valid for any moment in the course of time as created by God. 
Because, at any moment, God is close at hand.  At any moment, the fulfilment of God’s purpose is ongoing.


In your life, today, what overbearing concerns abide in you?  Are they blinding you to God’s purpose in your life?  How do you put God first and foremost while being faithful to other important relationships?  This latter question is one that monks in formation often ask themselves.


And finally, Jesus confirms it; the time is fulfilled; the time is now.  If He calls you -- and He IS calling you -- leave aside whatever seemed so very important and yet stands in the way, in His Way.

Jesus is not calling us to new tasks (although there will be those too), but Jesus is calling us to a new identity.  And it is a costly identity.  This identity of disciple requires an unswerving loyalty.  This identity demands a trust that, what will be broken in acquiring it, was not worth keeping whole.


When I first heard my call to become a monk -- and I had tried to have tin ears for a while -- my first reaction was: “Wow, that’s great, Lord!  How about I make myself available to this nifty vocation in 2 years, 3 at the most?” 

I had recently reinvented myself in a new career that I loved.  I had started my own business.  I was thriving.  And, as any good entrepreneur, I had a business plan. 

It needed a couple more years to come to fruition.  What’s 2 years, in God’s time? 
Well, imagine John and James telling Jesus that they’ll follow Him when they have met the fishing quota they have promised their father...

God’s time flows in strange curves; not like our sequential, rectilinear, measured projection of time.  God’s desire for you can make two years seem like an eternity to... God.  God knows when the time is fulfilled.  And when God knows it; the time is now!

Eventually, having cleaned my ears, I heard it: “Get thyself to this monastery, now.”  OK, OK.  Off I went; but not before starting to tear apart this very identity I had invested so much into.  And my attachment to my glorious business plan was only a symptom of that mistaken identity.


Today, I ask you: What is God’s desire for you?  How are you resisting that desire?  Can you ask God to tip you over into His desire?  Can you pray that?  When He calls, can you answer “I’ll be out in a minute!” -- rather than in 2 years, in 5 years, when my dog will die, when my roommate will move out.

Discipleship doesn’t come cheap.  But rejecting our true identity as disciple of Jesus is the costliest loss of all.

Pray that you will not mistake the sirens’ song for the voice of your destiny.  Listen for God.  Seek a loving balance amongst the concerns and relationships of your life.  And, when he calls you, hear yourself saying like Eli: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10)

May you lean into the embrace of the living, loving God.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Epiphany 1 B - Jan 8, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY --- Br. Adam McCoy, OHC
Epiphany 1, Year B, Baptism of Christ - Sunday, January 8, 2012

Genesis 1:1-5
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11
St John the Baptist Baptizes the People, by Nicolas Poussin, French, 1635

The Baptism of Christ - Seven Mysteries

Our texts this morning are short. The first is the beginning of the creation story in Genesis. The second is the odd and interesting story of the baptisms in Ephesus, where Paul found disciples of Jesus who were still practicing the baptism of John the Baptist. And the Gospel is the story of the baptism of Jesus by John. Their brevity makes them accessible, easily grasped as stories, to all who hear or read them. They are straightforward narratives. At least they seem straightforward. But as we ponder them they come to be steeped in associations which lead us deeper into the Scriptures, and the deeper we go, the more mysteries we find. These are not mysteries to be solved, like detective novels or mathematical problems, but experiences we are invited to enter, through which we are led to places we might not have expected to go.

This morning I want to share some of my mysteries of this story in Mark with you, and see where they might lead. And I gratefully confess that my guide for this journey has been the excellent commentary on Mark by Francis Moloney.

In order to do so, I am afraid we will need the first three verses of Mark, which I took the liberty of adding to today’s Gospel. I am sure the composers of the Lectionary won’t mind a little bit more of St. Mark this morning.

A first mystery: Mark’s Gospel begins “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”. St John’s Gospel famously begins with en arche en ho logos, and we immediately associate that, as we should, with the beginning of Genesis: “In the beginning (en arche) God created the heavens and the earth.” It is less noticed and it is worth considering that Mark’s first word is also arche. The beginning. A coincidence of grammar? Perhaps. But one of Mark’s characteristics as an author is that as often as not he uses allusions to scripture, a phrase or even just a single word, to set off a chain of associations. This is made easier because the Scriptures for him and for the Early Church were the Greek translation of what the Church came to call the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which Jews and Christians alike believed to be as inspired as the Hebrew. The story Mark tells will stand on its own, but when we “get” his scriptural references, our participation in the story is enriched. So Mark’s use of arche as his first word should at least alert us that something about creation might be happening.

A second mystery: In the short space of the first three verses of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is given three titles: Christ, or the anointed one; the Son of God; and the Lord. Embedded in the first eleven verses of Mark are also three other oblique but important references to Jesus’ power and divinity. First, in the ancient world, an euangelion, a gospel, or good news, as we translate it, was a proclamation of a military victory, a political triumph or the birth of a royal heir, and that is the word used for the proclamation of Jesus. Second, John says that he is waiting for someone “more powerful than I”. The Greek word for “more powerful” is ischuroteros, a word regularly used as an attribute of God. And third, John is introduced with a simple “it happened that”, usually translated as “appeared”: egeneto. The same word is also used of Jesus, but look at the difference: “egeneto en ekeinais tais hemerais elthen Iesous”: “it came to pass that in those days Jesus came”. So many more words: our “in those days” doesn’t quite capture the majesty of the Greek, with its redundant “the” and “those”. Jeremiah (31:33) uses this form, “in those days”, to introduce the Day of the Lord. Joel uses it of the pouring out of the Spirit on all mankind “on that day” (3:1). And Zechariah says, “In those days ten men of every language will take a Jew by the sleeve and say, “We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you” (8:23). Jesus is not only Messiah, Son of God, Lord, but he himself is the euangelion, the proclamation of divine power as the world understands it; he is ischuroteros, the one who bears the attribute of power of the God of Israel; and he is himself the Day of the Lord the prophets have waited so long for.

A third mystery: The place of John the Baptist. A place in time. Old Testament prophets usually pointed back to the covenant of the LORD with Israel. But John points forward to the Lord. John is the hinge between the past and the future: “I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” There was the past and there will be the future. But what of that pregnant moment in between, where John actually lives? And another place, this one his social location: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals”. According to the rabbinic commentaries, “untying the master’s sandals was the one demeaning task never required of a Hebrew servant” (Moloney p. 35). Mark expresses indirectly the unique nature of John: the one who looks both backward and forward, the one who is both greatest and least. As our Lord says in Matthew (11:11), “Of all children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.” This mysterious figure dislocated in time and human relations is the one who brings Jesus to the Jordan.

And so, the mystery of the baptism, the movement, and the vision, and the voice, three mysteries which are really one great mystery.

As Jesus ascends from the water, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. The words echo each other in English as they do in Greek: anabainon and katabainon. Ascend and descend. The upward and the downward movements are simultaneous, a cosmic dance. Jesus emerges out of the water and the Spirit like a dove descends upon him. Water? A dove? The first dove we meet in Scripture is the dove Noah releases from the ark, which brings back the olive branch to show that the earth has begun to emerge from the chaos of the waters. Mark is the first to associate the dove with the Holy Spirit. And Mark’s implied comparison, the Flood and the Baptism, is also striking. But who is Jesus in this comparison? Jesus is not Noah. He is not the one who sent the Spirit-dove. Jesus is the one who is emerging from the water, cleansed, purified, ready for new life. The one with power, the incarnation of the Day of the Lord, is himself the one in whom life will return and in whom the new covenant will be written. And again, ascending and descending: Jacob’s ladder, which itself opens heaven to allow the angels of God to ascend and descend, a figure which John’s gospel ( 1:51) reports of Jesus: “ you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

As Jesus comes up from the water, he sees the heavens torn apart. In Genesis (7:11), the heavens are opened to begin the great flood, and Isaiah (24:18) envisions the opening of the heavens as part of the apocalypse at the end of time. But Ezekiel, the prophet to whom God gives the vision of heaven and the throne of God, (1:1) says that his ministry began with a rending of the heavens: “In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, as I was among the exiles on the bank of the river Chebar, heaven opened and I saw visions of God.” Three fruitful associations: The beginning of the act of cleansing of the world; the beginning of the end of days; and a prophet standing with those exiled from Israel, on the banks of a river, seeing visions of God. Standing behind all these, though, is a greater rending. God begins the first creation by separating the light from the darkness, and then by creating a vault to separate the waters, the waters above the vault and the waters below the vault, and the vault is called heaven (Gen. 1:6-8). Before the waters were separated the Spirit hovered over the deep. Has the Spirit been absent, or been disregarded, or even banished, from the first creation? Is the Spirit now returning as the heavens are torn apart, in the Baptism of Christ, to the waters below the vault of heaven? Is the creation being remade, refashioned, made new?

And the voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." A sign of God’s favor, surely. A cause for rejoicing. But what pleases God so much? Perhaps the clue is in the description “the Beloved” - ho agapetos. This is the adjective God himself uses to describe Abraham’s son Isaac, and which God’s angel uses twice again as they approach the top of Mount Moriah for the sacrifice (Gen 22:2; 12). What wondrous love is this? we might ask.

Mark’s first eleven verses open to us a world of astonishing scriptural sophistication, quite different perhaps than we may have thought at first about this seemingly simple narrative. These mysteries open to us the Baptism of Jesus as the culmination of the yearning of creation, the patriarchs, the prophets, Israel, indeed the whole world, since the beginning of time. We see John the Baptist as the representative of all that has gone before, standing in the timeless moment before the One-who- will-be-called rises up out of the water. Once he does, once he rises, everything has changed. The world is no longer separated into a Spirit-filled heaven and a bereft earth, because the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit pours down, lighting on the head of Jesus, ready to fill the earth, beginning at Jordan. The creation is about to be transformed by him whose gospel of power is announced and whose redemptive, beloved Sonship awaits.

And so, the seventh mystery: We are invited into the mystery of Jesus’ Baptism, the same mystery he enters into. We are not invited to be John the Baptist, standing, watching, witnessing, but not joining. We are called to follow Christ down into the water, and then up, to meet the Spirit descending upon us, even us. May we go down into the water. May we rise in Baptism. And as beloved sons and daughters, may we follow wherever it leads.