Sunday, June 26, 2016

Proper 8 C- June 26, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC 
Proper 8 Year C - Sunday -June 26, 2016

 Holy Cross monastery Bell tower
( Photo credit The Rev'd Phil Geliebter)

Our gospel this morning invites us to wrestle with the question of desire: our desire, God’s desire, the desire to be desired. What do we choose as the ultimate goal of our life? In Luke we hear a twice-repeated phrase that sets the tone for Jesus’ discipleship, and sets the standard for ours.  We heard that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem”. That’s a great phrase for single-mindedness.

Feelings ran deep between Jews and Samaritans, as we can tell by the reaction that James and John had.  But Jesus won’t be sidetracked into an old feud.  His focus is on his mission. No matter how much the disciples fuss he stays the course. His disciples are literally being formed on the road. They learn by doing, by participating, as conscious, active observers and agents of love, compassion, and justice. This can’t happen on cruise control.

Three would-be disciples are introduced.  On the surface Jesus’ words may sound like harsh teaching---especially since the words are addressed to us.  If you want to follow me, you must be prepared, and you must count the cost.  The first person is swept away by his emotions.  His enthusiasm at the sight of the crowds and the privilege of Jesus’ company has obscured the cost that he will have to pay.  Jesus reminds him of the most basic deprivation that must be expected. Like his master, he will be without a place to lay his head.

The next person, when invited to follow Jesus, offers an excuse. “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”  Jesus looked into the heart of this person and saw that he was making a selfish excuse out of a sacred duty.  Clearly the man’s father wasn’t dead. It was more likely that he wished to wait for his father to die so as not to encounter his father’s opposition to his choice of such a sketchy life with this itinerant rabbi. 

The third person was not rash or selfish.  He had counted the cost. He wasn’t making an excuse.  He was sincere and definite in his intention---but he wanted to delay.  He wanted to say good-bye to his family and friends.  But Jesus reminds him that the time is now. He uses the image of the Palestinian plow.  Because it is so light, it’s guided by only one hand, while the other hand drives the oxen.  This kind of plowing required careful attention.  Any distraction in focus, especially turning to look back, would result in crooked furrows. He invites others to follow him. When they are unable to make the commitment on the spot, Jesus moves on. He’s kingdom-bound and kingdom-driven.

The demands of the Reign of God are both urgent and absolute. That Reign is nothing less than the grace and love-driven transformation of the self and the world. There is no place for the reluctant or half-hearted in this radical calling.  Nothing---whether fear of discomfort and loss, perceived duties and demands, or family ties---should be allowed to detract from it. The three potential followers in the Gospel remind us of just how much we bury our hunger to know ourselves and God beneath our busyness, our routines, our preoccupation with our relationships. The degree to which we have all been seduced by a convenience store brand of Christianity is evident in our response to Jesus’ words.  We pick and choose what we want our discipleship to be---on our terms, on our schedules, with our agenda. Jesus calls on them and us to set our eyes on the kingdom and to commit to it.

Augustine wrote that “Before God can deliver us from ourselves, we must undeceive ourselves.”  Paul, in a wisdom born out of immense personal struggle, articulated the great paradox of faith and freedom.  As long as we live in the flesh, with hearts fixed on the world, relying on our own self-will, we are a slave to the world.  To do what we want, when we want, according to our want, is to be reduced to a self-absorbed slave. So much of our lives are caught up in that tension between fear and longing---even our fear of intimacy with God. In the end, I think what matters most is not how we love God, but how we allow God to love us. Jesus’ clarity is an example for us. All of who he is and what he does is based on his identity as the Beloved of God. This relationship deepens all the dimensions of his life.

Only when we surrender our lives to the power of God can we find the service that is perfect freedom, because in this act of surrender we begin to will what God wills. The compulsion to serve only self, in whatever form it takes and whatever justification we make---that compulsion lessens its grip on us.  Our anxiety, born of self-reliance and self-service, dissipates and is overshadowed by the desire to live freely and fully.  We live for Christ, and hence for one another.  We experience the paradox of rebirth: the giving up of the false self for the gaining of the true self. This shift implies that I want to show up in my life more fully. I want to let go of my old stories and habits. I am willing to be with the truth of whatever I learn about myself. No matter what I feel and what I find, I want to be free and fully alive. When we see, understand, and experience all the self-defeating blockages that have covered our true self’s qualities, they fall away like dead leaves from a live plant, and the fullness of our soul emerges naturally. Only our resistance and fear-based strategies prevent us from showing up and claiming our birthright as children of God.   

The deepening of our relationship to God can take some delightful and surprising turns. It’s like a dance, with a rhythm of hiding and showing, protecting and sharing, of approaches and withdrawals. It is definitely not perpetual ecstasy.

We don’t know what happened to the three potential followers, but we do know that the invitation he gave to them he also gives to us---to be single-minded in our deepest desire, in choosing what best leads to a deepening of God’s love and life in us. +Amen.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Nativity of Saint John the Baptist C- June 24, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Nativity of Saint John the Baptist - Friday -June 24, 2016

 John The Baptist Icon at Holy Cross Monastery
(photo credit monk of Holy Cross Monastery)

Saying or singing the Benedictus is a big spiritual highlight of my day. Its imagery, its boldness, its hopefulness re-ground me in the contemplation of God’s acts. Especially in those moments when I am stuck in frustration and forget that I am in the epic of salvation history, the Benedictus is the declaration of the reality that what was begun at creation, declared through ancestors and prophets, and that reaches fulfillment in Christ is still happening and is moving toward consummation. The Benedictus is full of such rich words – praise, redeemed, salvation, mercy, covenant, holiness, righteousness, prophet, forgiveness, peace, light. It sounds so optimistic, as if Zechariah is rolling out a red carpet and all John has to do is say “Here is Jesus” and Israel will flock to him and worship him, the Pharisees will realize that God is love, the Romans will lay down their weapons, the Gentiles will embrace him and the world will live in peace and joy forever. Some words, however, the rest of the story, are left out of the Benedictus: repent, judgment, ax, fire, vipers, Herod, platter, beheaded, buried. Not only does everyone not believe the message, but the powers kill the messenger.

Who is John the Baptist? He was conceived in a barren womb, living in the barren wilderness, called to proclaim repentance to many who heard and believed but to many more whose hearts were hard and barren, arrested and thrown in a barren prison, executed still wondering whether his life had any meaning, whether he should look for another. I wonder if at the end he himself would have believed the words his father prayed in his presence at his circumcision.

The hope of the Benedictus laid alongside the ambiguity of John’s life presents us with a paradox. Belief in the Benedictus cannot be mere pious sentiment. If it has meaning at all, it requires entering into the realities of our lives and interpreting those realities in the light of salvation that is truly here and truly awaiting consummation. The barrenness that we experience is real. God’s promise of light in the darkness of that very barrenness is also real. John was called to embody and articulate the suffering of his life and the life of the people as the call to new life. The prophet – the truth-teller, the preparer of the way, the conscience proclaiming justice and peace – is born out of, lives in, and dies in the places of the world that appear to be most without God. We proclaim the Benedictus as reality even, and especially, where our own souls and the world around us is far from mercy, righteousness, forgiveness, and peace.

Perhaps this tension is the Christian, and especially monastic, vocation. John entered into his world as it was while at the same time embodying and proclaiming God’s dream of what could be and will be. The vocation is a movement inward and outward. He first goes to the wilderness, probably with a community of Essenes who are awaiting the Messiah, to pray and be still and listen and wait. His own heart has to be forged in the furnace of transformation in the barren place before what he says and how he is will bear fruit. In the confrontation with God he is on the road to the conversion of his self-will, his illusions, and his fears. He knows what will happen when he appears to Israel, what the Pharisees will think of him and what the Romans are likely to do to him. But he is free – he has transcended the need for human acceptance or approval. This is our inward journey. When he appears publicly he unmasks the oppressive domination system, confronts exploitative distortions of the nature of God, articulates a vision of personal and communal conversion, and embraces his role as forerunner by saying of Christ “He must increase and I must decrease”. This is our journey in community and for the church and the world. John is committed to the truth, especially in naming the evil of oppression and prejudice. His gift is in upholding a standard of real peace forged in facing hard realities that resists the wide road of passive resignation. He is an actualized, individuated person whose own mortal life is offered in the service of God’s vision of salvation.

We read the Benedictus, then, as God’s mission in and for the world through the life of John the Baptist and through our lives as well. Ultimately, salvation will fill the whole earth. On the way to consummation, as we cooperate with God, we encounter the response that John experienced. Some, by God’s grace, hear and believe. Others will not. For us all, the call to personal holiness and communal justice that burst forth in the Benedictus beckons us to action with God. In our journey to embrace life, we must stand up against the presence of whatever seeks to demean, withhold, or repress that life within ourselves and our neighbors and help the light to shine, especially in the darkest places. The Benedictus is, like the Magnificat, the announcement of a radical reorientation of the world as a community and how we live in it as individuals – a reorientation to the mystery of hope in suffering, life in barrenness, faith in unknowing, power in powerlessness.

Zechariah’s words, then, engage us in the call to live the truth that it declares about us – that we are redeemed, liberated, rescued, fearless, and those upon whom light has shone. That I am selfish, fearful, and arrogant at times reminds me of my need for this promise to be refreshed in me tomorrow and the next day and the next day. This is the journey. It is not arriving at the complete satisfaction of my longings, but the very fact of my dissatisfaction is the journey, is the beginning of prayer. Life is difficult. We can’t be whole. We are in the dark. We don’t have all the answers. None of those statements negates the invitation to a joyful life, but ground joy in bigger realities than my feelings and my understandings. Yet we are on the way to freedom and light and peace. May the birth, prayer, witness, preaching, death and joy of St John the Baptist guide us in faithful service as we proclaim the coming of salvation.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Proper 7 C- June 19, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Proper 7 C - Sunday, June 19, 2016

 Monk praying at Holy Cross Monastery
(photo credit  a  monk of Holy Cross Monastery)

A textual note at the beginning will convey something of the alarm of the demons at Jesus’ sudden appearance in their territory. Translations of the Hebrew Bible have a tendency at times to turn the text into something else, and in this case Isaiah’s verse of God saying, “I said, ‘Here I am, Here I am’ to a nation that did not call on my name” actually reads, “I said ‘Behold, I, Behold I’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” This is the nature of Jesus’ sudden appearance.

I’d like to present this reflection on the Gospel story of the healing of Legion the Demoniac by borrowing some illustrative events from the autobiography of Leslie Caron, the French film actress, in particular those attending the decline of her acting and dancing career in later years.

The first movie I went to in Boston my freshman year in college was An American in Paris, the hot film in September, 1951, starring Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly among others, and I went to see it, I think, two or three times because it had just hit the theaters and was a great device for making new friends as well as diverting pressures at the beginning of the academic year. I think Leslie Caron particularly impressed me because she resembled my younger sister, and I took note of Gene Kelly because in the opening scene he rises from sleep in his Parisian garret with every hair on his head in place and perfectly made up. Early 1950s Hollywood.

Therefore, what caught my attention more recently was an interview Ms. Caron gave on NPR on the occasion of the publication, several years ago, of her autobiography Thank Heaven. The interviewer, Scott Simon, remarks, “You were 18 when you came to Hollywood with your mother. Was it both thrilling and frightening to be an 18- year-old in Hollywood?”She replies,”It was, yes, mostly forbidding. I didn’t know anything about filming and these great big holes where everything is dark except the light on you, and you’re being filmed by a sort of metallic monster. And I didn’t know anybody. And I didn’t know the language. So it was very intimidating at first. And Gene used to tell me: Honey, turn your face to the camera; otherwise your grandmother won’t know you’re in the film.”

Scott Simon goes on:”There’s a startling sentence in your book which if you don’t mind I will read. You turn the page to a new chapter and it says, What does it feel like to reach 50 when you’ve been known for your juvenile charm? Age crawls behind you and sneaks under your skin like an imposter.”

Leslie Caron explains: “It doesn’t feel good. It feels frightening. And I don’t think it’s just frightening for actresses. I think it’s frightening for every woman and possibly every man too. Suddenly men don’t look at you in the same way in the streets. And suddenly there isn’t the same, you know, kindness in the policemen if you get arrested for a yellow light. Everything changes. Suddenly you don’t get those scripts anymore.”

Scott Simon continues: “Well, you’re quite candid in the book about saying that you found some liquid consolation.” She answers: “Yes, I did. And I really was floundering. I didn’t know where to go, what to do. I did do this Auberge, the bed & breakfast. . . I rebuilt . . . there were three or four houses practically in ruins, so I had to rebuild them. And once the work was over at night, I just found myself very much alone, very empty and lonely and tired. So I would, you know, have a drink and so on, and it became a very bad habit. I was on very dangerous grounds there.”

Scott Simon: What kind of - to use the British phrase for it - pluck does it take to pull out of that? Leslie Caron: “You have to want to. You have to look at yourself and decide, do I want to live or do I let myself die? Because it doesn’t take any time at all when you’re on that bad slide to not wake up one morning. So I decided, I guess, I want to live. And I went to see a psychiatrist and I went to AA, and I did both for several years, every day, every day, every day, and pulled myself out of it. And then when you get there you are happier than anybody who’s never been down the pit. That’s the great reward, is that you really cherish joy, happiness and life. “Leslie Caron’s autobiography skirts the mystery to which she alludes in that statement; in view of the fervor with which she says it in the interview, one wonders why the omission in the book whose very title suggests transcendent territory. As for heavenly gifts, she mentions only the happenstance of timely acting jobs which came her way while she was working herself out of the pit, which I suspect was an editorial device to enhance the book’s appeal, but the obvious fervor in her interview suggests she was entirely aware of the God-informed steps at the core of the AA program to which she devoted herself: viz. We admitted we were powerless over alchohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

(I can imagine myself in Legion’s place in saying this): The essence of this manifesto is the realization that I am ultimately helpless in the presence of the power which threatens my existence. But, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the arresting fact about Legion as a naked crazed human being, Leslie Caron as a despairing, aging actress, and myself as an equally desperate cradle Episcopalian. Once our preliminary circuitry gets fried to reveal the depth of our helplessness, we’re apt to be amazed by the revelation of a strange hard-wiring of faith which seems to be a gift from another place, like an unperceived God who appears when God’s insufficient predecessors have vanished. This brought Legion, clothed and sane, to be sitting at Jesus’ feet, and Leslie Caron, after years of hard inner work, to testify to the joie de vie of experiencing, and emerging from, the desolation of the pit.
Does this rid us of our demons?

Not according to Theodore Roethke who says, “If my demons are to leave me, I fear my angels will take flight as well.” Apparently we’re not after a demonless self, but a balanced diet of demons and angels. My angels are not interested in a soul-scape devoid of shadow. Those of my generation will remember a Sunday evening radio program starring Lamont Cranston which began: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows! Heh, heh, heh . . . “