Sunday, August 28, 2016

Proper 17 C - Aug 28, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter RostronOHC
Proper 17, Year C - Sunday - August 28, 2016

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Gandhi spinning yarn. What is our simplicity?
With all sorts of news about the presidential campaign swirling about, I recalled the well-known aphorism: All politics is local. Whatever the sweeping visions or inspiring slogans,­ if any, ­in the end, people tend to make their decisions on the smaller things, things that affect their daily existence. Such as having enough food on the table, being safe on the street, having a decent place to live, getting a good education, and having access to quality health care. Yes, there can be bigger principles at work in people’s decision­-making, but a prerequisite is the fulfillment of fundamental, local needs.

This principle is also at work not just as we think ahead and make choices about the future, it also applies to the trajectory of the past that brought us to this present moment. The grand themes of history that we look back at, and study and learn from, only emerge out of the accumulation of many lesser, individual events and decisions that were made over time with no knowledge of what the future, or what the big picture, would be. Likewise, the grand arc of our individual lives is the accumulation of the many small choices that we make along the way. Thus, little things matter. All the small decisions that we make matter. They add up to who we are.

So it is in today’s gospel. Where do you choose to sit? It seems like a fairly inconsequential decision to make, yet it is not. It is a reflection of how you regard yourself in relation to others. If you choose to sit in the highest place, there is an assumption of being important. It implies that you want and deserve the best, that you don’t have much concern about what might rightfully belong to someone else. 

On the other hand, sitting in the lowest place makes space for others to be ahead of you or to receive more than you. And that involves a letting go or a doing without. It embodies a level of poverty. Poverty, I imagine, is not a word most of us in this room might associate with ourselves. On the surface, I don’t think of myself as being poor or as living in poverty. Yet, for me and for my brothers, poverty is embedded in the component of our monastic vow in which we commit to conversion to the monastic way of life. And for you seated in the congregation, if it isn’t already, poverty, and an awareness of it, can become part of your spiritual practice.

But, what is poverty? Most simply, it is being without, lacking something. Something material or emotional or spiritual. It does not necessarily mean, however, that you do not have enough. It can mean having only what one reasonably needs and living simply, without extravagance. The more we possess, the more energy we must devote to caring for and protecting those possessions, and the less energy we have to be mindful of the needs of others, to love our neighbor. Our Founder, Father Huntington, expresses this in his rule when he says:
we are, then, to look for the riches of God to be given us more fully as we depend less upon the riches of the world. 
And Jesus exhorts us in the gospel of Matthew, 
Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal; but store up treasure in heaven... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
We can choose to do without material things in order to make more room for spiritual things.

There is another manifestation of poverty for us as Benedictines, which is common ownership. As put forth in the book of Acts, 
The whole company of believers was united in heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own; everything was held in common.
Benedict includes this in his Rule, where he says, 
... no one may presume to give, receive, or retain anything as his own, ... not [even the free disposal] of their own bodies and wills.
So, rather than being individual owners of anything, we instead are stewards of commonly­ owned things. We are responsible for their care and use while they are in our possession, but we, as individuals, do not own them. I have on occasion been given something here in the monastery and been told, “Here, this is for your use,” not “Here, this is yours.”

Beyond the notions of intentionally doing without, or with less, or of sharing possessions, you can also experience a form of poverty that stems from the loss of something that you really do want, something precious, and for reasons beyond your control. Things such as good health, or a happy marriage, or the love of a lost parent or child. That form of poverty can be a source of pain, sorrow, regret, bitterness, or resentment. It can fuel jealousy and animosity. It can cause us to close in on ourselves and condemn or neglect others. In his book, Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen writes, 
When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs. The Christ who lives in our own poverty recognises the Christ who lives in other people's. Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others'. We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people's pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness. By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us. But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.
The avoidance or denial of poverty, then, in its various forms, can lead to separation, from others, and from God. You could be avoiding the “desirable” poverty of simplicity or shared ownership and instead, be living with a sense of privilege and with a focus on accumulating and holding on to lots of nice things. This puts you at risk of becoming self­absorbed and inwardly focused, becoming disconnected from those around you. On the other hand, you could be carrying your own painful, emotional poverty. Denying this puts you at risk of denying the needs, even the very existence, of others who are suffering, because that might resonate too much with your own woundedness. 

Either way, our own poverty ­ material, emotional, and spiritual is significant and worthy of careful examination. Do you have more things than you need? What consoles you when you are stressed? What issues of the world concern you? What activities and things enliven and enrich you? Your honest answers to questions such as these can suggest how poverty exists in your life,­ what forms it takes, how you understand and relate to it, what your intentions are around it­ and that in turn can shed light on the ways that you engage with, or separate from, those around you.

So now, back to the simple question prompted by today’s gospel, one of the many small decisions that add up to your life. Where do you choose to sit? Do you choose the highest place?

That is, do you choose to insulate yourself from others, to detach yourself from your own humanity in favor of other seductive but false attachments? Or, do you choose to sit in the lowest place? There, you can embrace your poverties and enjoy the freedom to be open and honest and loving with those around you, no matter their place in the world. We heard Paul say it today in his letter to the Hebrews: 
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers... Remember those who are in prison... Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.”
It is then that we can be filled with the ultimate treasure: God’s love. And, by living in such Godly poverty, we will be able to realize what Paul expressed so eloquently to the Corinthians: 
As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: poor yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin- August 16, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC 
Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin- Tuesday,  August16, 2016

 Flowers And Herbs From The Monastery Garden 

Our Brother Robert preached without notes. What follows is a synopsis of his sermon:

Today the community celebrates the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Known by many titles (The Dormition or Falling Asleep, the Assumption, the Heaven-going), the solemnity celebrates the passing of the Virgin Mary into God's nearer Presence. Our Br. Robert preached at our Eucharist and spoke of the Slavic tradition of blessing herbs and flowers on this day. 

There are many legends surrounding Mary's passing, and one very popular one speaks of the Apostles gathering together at her death.  Thomas, as usual, is late, and asks to see the Mary's body one last time, now already in the tomb.  When the tomb is opened for him, no body is found. Instead there is an abundance of flowers and sweet smelling herbs and spices.  Perhaps that is the most adequate language we have to speak of the mystery of death and eternal life, Mary's and ours. It is certainly the most beautiful.

The sermon concluded with the traditional blessing of flowers and herbs, using prayers from both the Byzantine tradition and the Book of Common Prayer:

"Almighty, eternal God, by your word alone You created out of nothing the heavens, earth, sea, and all things visible and invisible. You commanded that the earth give forth plants and trees for the needs of human beings and animals, each according to its need. In your infinite goodness You ordained that these plants serve not only as food for the animals but also as medicine for the sick body. We beseech you, bless these different plants and fruits and bestow upon them your blessing, and endow them with your power, so that they may serve humans and animals alike as a defense against all sickness and all that is impure: for You are our God and we give glory to You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and forever. Amen.

"We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea; for the richness of mountains, plains, and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.

"These flowers, herbs and plants are blessed and sanctified in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the sprinkling of this holy water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Proper 13 C - Jul 31, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randall Greve, OHC

Proper 13 Year C - Sunday - July 31, 2016

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

The Abbey of St Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy where is found Sacro Speco, a cave where St Benedict lived as a hermit

The seeds were carefully planted. The summer brought abundant rain and sunshine. Finally, the crops were harvested and stored - a good season. The landowner was supplied with food and could rest from his labor, knowing that he and his family could eat through the winter and even beyond, such was the abundance of the harvest. The larger storehouses are a reasonable plan, a responsible way to preserve his provisions. And yet he is not called prudent, he is not praised for being careful and wise, but a fool - God calls him a fool.

As I have been engaged in Sunday supply this summer and preached on several of the lessons from Saint Luke during this Pentecost season, I have been moved again by the stories of Jesus seeking out the sick, the demon-possessed, the socially outcast and rejected and tenderly guiding them into the merciful embrace of healing, forgiveness, and community. Many of the stories have been of dramatic and obvious outward reconciliation. Luke is always interested in how Christ is present in the least and unexpected, the nobodies from nowhere who become examples of courageous faith.

As the narrative turns in the middle chapters to the challenges of obedience, to the living out of the gift of new life, Luke presents a different kind of outsider. He shifts into the description of a more insidious internal kind of isolation and alienation. This state is not the result of physical ailment or social identity, but a condition of heart attitude toward oneself, God, and neighbor. Luke goes deeper into the question of 'who is the outsider who is in need of conversion - of being brought home to self and God and neighbor?' Of course the answer is, “we all are”. In these middle chapters, with parable and teaching, Jesus looks into the human heart and reveals to us the ways in which we who seem outwardly to be the comfortable insiders can become alienated from ourselves.

Listen to what the landowner says from the lens of relationship, because that's what the parable is about - not food storage! 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

This man is rich, he is in the social in group, he has influence and success and material abundance, but relationally he is in a poor, lonely, sad hell of the isolation of his own selfishness. I, me, my, now – and death something that happens to little, common, mortal people – not him. His essential foolishness is his believing that it’s about him; the fields are his, the crops are his – even that his life is his. There is no gratitude, no sharing, no celebration. He has become his crops - locked away in a barn, safe and secure.

The lesson from Colossians is the mirror opposite vision of what human life can be. Rather than closing in on my ego, Colossians chapter 3 is a description of the opening up of myself to the gift of life that is offered by God. Dying and rising with Christ, a person is truly free when the receiving and giving of new life is rooted in the gratitude, wonder, and generosity of God's gift in giving life and power to open up to it in all the risk and vulnerability that the journey invites. The things that are above of which the author speaks are the dispositions and attitudes that allow me to recognize that everything is a gift - there is no such thing as my crops and storehouses and my life, but I am part of a bigger story that calls on me to be faithful to the part given to me and then hand on to those who come after.

Certainly the parable is a warning about the temptation to accumulate and identify ourselves with material things and the status we believe they bring – the call to generosity and simplification are always speaking to our propensity to hoard and grasp. But the parable is not as simple as “be more generous” or “have less stuff”. It speaks to the very nature of life in the face of death, of the source of identity and worth, the core question Jesus presents – “of what does my life consist?”

As a child of God, as one who is in Christ and sharing in his dying and rising, as one who values relationship and eternal things more than material things – how can I live in such a way that I am free and available and connected to myself, God, and my neighbor? Authentic conversion happens not by merely avoiding what is harmful, not by punishing myself into some external standard, but by having a bigger vision of my existence which calls forth from me and calls me forth so compellingly that I joyfully leave behind whatever gets in the way of living that vision.

I have mentioned to a few brothers the experience of visiting Sacro Speco in Subiaco two weeks ago, the monastery over St Benedict’s cave on the side of a sheer rock face. Above and below the grotto itself are layers of holy spaces cut out of the rock and painted with frescoes from the 13th to 15th century. Much of it looks as it did over 500 years ago. The guide pointed out that the frescoes on one level were over 100 years older than in the earlier level because that is how long it took to cut into the rock, shape and smooth it, and then finally paint the frescoes.

I had the image of the work being passed down through generations, perhaps within the same families. I thought about those who did the first 20 or so years of chipping and shaping and what they must have thought – here is the plan of the space, but I’ll never live to see it finished. The notion of starting something and not being able to or living long enough to see the results made me very anxious. Were I to time travel back 600 or 700 years and look ahead to the amount of work that had to be done and the time it would take, I would have said, “This is stupid. You want me to cut chapels out of solid rock? Don’t you know who I am? Can’t we just put up a sign or something?”

And the parable began to echo in my ears as me: I will say to myself ‘let’s do it now, quickly, and make sure that when it is finished I get the credit and that I am securing a place for myself.’ You fool. How often is the myth of instant gratification more important, more real, than the epic of God’s redeeming and reconciling the world in Christ. The choice that appeared before me was that either I could storehouse whatever I could grab today, OR I could leave a legacy, I could think about the lives of those who will come after, those who will remember me and us through the tangible and intangible bequest of our lives 20, 50, 100 years from now.

Faithfulness means that sometimes I reap the harvest God grows. Faithfulness also means that I may be called to plant seeds that others will tend to full fruitfulness. I stood in Sacro Speco admiring the beauty of the sacred in stone and paint that looks as if it has always been here and said ‘thank you’ to those who put in decades of prayer and work so that thousands of pilgrims could be inspired and moved by the gift of the human capacity for such wondrous perseverance and creativity because one man’s yes to God has produced a harvest of countless lives encountering the embrace of Jesus in one another. Amen.