Sunday, December 29, 2019

The First Sunday after Christmas - Sunday, December 29, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép Martinez-Cubero, OHC
The First Sunday after Christmas Day - December 29, 2019

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

Today's gospel lesson is John's nativity story; it is not with shepherds and angels or a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. In this nativity story, John echoes the words from the book of Genesis: In the beginning when God created… God said, "Let there be light." In John's gospel, from the very beginning was the Word. This notion is a very important event in the evolution of how the early Christians thought of Jesus as the glorified Christ, the Son of God.

Paul, the earliest of New Testament writers, in his earlier writings, speaks of Jesus as becoming the Son of God in his resurrection. For Mark, writing about twenty years after Paul, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God at his baptism. Matthew and Luke, writing about ten to fifteen years after Mark, describe Jesus as the Son of God at his birth. Just after Matthew and Luke, Paul’s thinking about Christ has evolved and writing to the Colossians, speaks of Christ as the "first-born of all creation." But in the fourth gospel Christ is not born at all. The Word was always with God even before creation began.

John’s Prologue is one of the most beautiful scripture passages. It’s poetic form, however, can sound somewhat cryptic. And, so, my preparation for this sermon led me to the original Greek language of the text and to checking the accuracy of the translation. It is one of my favorite exercises when studying scripture, thanks to our Brother Roy, who, when I was a novice, would always come to our Bible Studies with his Greek New Testament and Greek Lexicon.

"In the beginning was the Word." The Greek word is Logos and varies in meaning depending on what period in history it is being used. By the time of John’s writing, logos had come to mean the creative power of God and the kingship of God over all things. Philo, a first century philosopher, saw logos as flowing from God, and as the mechanism through which God created the universe. Logos combines the concepts of thought, deed, and power. For the author of the fourth gospel, logos is an expression of God's innermost nature which is present in the world.

John’s threefold claim, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” reveals the origin of Jesus, his relationship with God, and his identity as God. These truths about Jesus are essential to John’s portrait of Jesus, the meaning of the incarnation, and also signify that which describes our own humanity. We make sense of our humanity through these categories of origin, relationship, and identity, and now God has chosen to live these truths.

The God who spoke and said, "let there be light," became flesh and lived among us. The Greek phrase translated as “lived among us” has really to do with indwelling. That is a significant difference. For John, the Word became flesh and indwells us. It was not a temporary event that happened in the first century. If we recognize it, the Word indwells us today, and every day.

John says, "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The light and life is intended for all people. The author has chosen words and symbols that not only the Jewish community can understand, but with which the Greek community would also resonate. Jews would be reminded of the Creation of world in Genesis and the Wisdom of God active in Creation in Proverbs. Greeks would understand the creative principle of order in the universe understood as the Logos. The Word made flesh is a gift intended for everyone, not just for some.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Darkness in the gospel of John is depicted as light's adversary. Since light manifests the power and presence of God, the darkness refers to the powers that oppose God: sin and evil. In John's Gospel, sin is human rebellion against God. Sin and evil are formidable foes to be sure, but ultimately cannot overcome the light of God's Word. Light, you see, can warm the bones, yes, but can also burn like a laser. Light shines into our relationships and communities when we welcome it into our lives to heal, yes, but also to expose; to warm, yes, but also to burn away evil.

“[T]o all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God". The word translated as “believe,” really means "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire self, and not just the intellect as the word "believe" would imply. The status of "children of God" has completely to do with trust, and is certainly "not of blood." The Greek word is actually a Hebrew idiom for "bloodshed" or violence. Children of God do not attain their status through violence or war. Nor are children of God born out of "the will of the flesh," in other words, through the established ways of the world- superficial satisfaction, and greed. Nor are children of God formed "out of the will of man." In a gospel that, amazingly, repeatedly uses the inclusive word anthropos to refer to human beings in general, here, the author uses a word that specifically relates to men, andros. I can’t help but to conclude that the gospel makes it clear that children of God are not formed by male headship but by God alone.

The incarnation shows us a different way of seeing life and living in the world. We are called to let the light of the incarnate Word, enkindled in our hearts, shine forth in our lives. We are called to be blessings. We are called to follow the way of Love. We are called to be fully alive. We are called to be holy, not as an achievement on our own but as a gift of God. Through faith we have been given the power to become children of God.

A Jewish friend once told me that she knew a rabbi who told a story about each person having a procession of angels going before them and crying out, “Make way for the image of God.” Can you imagine living with this as our reality and the truth that guides our lives? The implications are profound. It changes how we see one another and ourselves. Perhaps that is the truth for this first Sunday after Christmas Day for us. And the Word became flesh and indwells us. Are you recognizing the Word become flesh in your own life and in the lives of others? Do you see the procession of angels and hear their voices? And the Word became flesh and indwells us today, this very present moment. So make way for the image of God, and may the light of the incarnate Word, enkindled in our hearts, shine forth in our lives. ¡Que así sea en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Day - Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Christmas Day - Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

The year 2017 saw the passing, at far too young an age, of a wonderful novelist, essayist, poet and story teller, Brian Doyle. Doyle was never a major public literary figure, but he had a following. He was known as a “Catholic writer,” but that title fits him fully only if we understand catholic in its broadest and most primitive sense of universal, for his topics covered the spectrum of human relations, the natural world, humor with an Irish tinge, and yes, religion.

I want to share with you part of an essay he wrote some years ago:

I’ll tell you a story. Some years ago I sat at the end of my bed at three in the morning, in tears, furious, frightened, exhausted, as drained and hopeless as I have ever been in this bruised and blessed world, at the very end of the end of my rope, and She spoke to me. I know it was Her. I have no words with which to tell you how sure I am that it was the Mother. Trust me.

Let it go, She said.

The words were clear, unambiguous, crisp, unadorned. They appeared whole and gentle and adamant in my mind, more clearly than if they had somehow been spoken in the dark salt of the room. I have never had words delivered to me so clearly and powerfully and yet so gently and patiently, never.

Let it go.

I did all the things you would do in that situation. I sat bolt upright. I looked around me. I listened for more words. I looked out the window to see if someone was standing in the garden talking to me through the window. I wondered for a second if my wife or children had spoken in their sleep. I waited for Her to say something more. She didn’t speak again. The words hung sizzling in my mind for a long time and then faded. It’s hard to explain. It’s like they were lit and then the power slowly ebbed.

Let it go.

She knew how close I was to absolute utter despair, to a sort of madness, to a country in which many sweet and holy things would be broken, and She reached for me and cupped me in Her hand and spoke into the me of me and I will never forget Her voice until the day I die. I think about it every day. I hold those words close and turn them over and over and look at them in every light and from every angle.

Doyle told no one of his experience for more than a year, until finally he shared it with two friends who had themselves been, as he puts it, “Spoken to in moments of great darkness.”

I've been Spoken to as well, four times as I reckon it, though only once were there actual words involved. And that experience was much more dramatic than even Doyle's, involving as it did a crucifix with its head turning and speaking...a little like something out of The Exorcist. But the words—all seven of them—were words of gentle invitation. I won't share them with you, but I can tell you that I was totally surprised by my response. “Yes” I said. “Of course.” Where did that come from? And like Doyle, I've pondered those seven words for now over twenty years.

I want to propose two suggestions this Christmas Day.

The first is that many people—billions perhaps—have been Spoken to. But many of us have forgotten the words or suppressed them or shared them with no one else, lest we be considered odd or weird or crazy. Or even worse, religious fanatics. But dear people, it happens all the time. The Mother speaks words of wisdom. The crucifix moves. The sun dances. The bird on the wing exalts the soul. The cry of a baby opens up worlds unseen and unknown.

The 16th century German radical reformer Thomas Muntzer once said: “I will not pray to a mute god.” And neither should we. But, in point of fact, God is not mute. God speaks and continues to speak through the ages and nations and cultures and religions of the world and through the astonishing and now endangered structures of this created order. And to and through people just like you and me.

Where have you been Spoken to? Where has the Holy One—blessed be He—where has the Holy One touched your heart? Because you know He has. And He will touch it again. Are you being Spoken to, addressed, summoned, called today, perhaps right now? People, we must listen up. We must pay attention.

The second thing I want to suggest—no, more than simply suggest, but rather proclaim—is that God has spoken powerfully and in a most unique and astounding way in and through Jesus Christ, whose coming among us we celebrate today. And this not simply through Jesus the great moral teacher, or the spiritual guide, or healer and prophet or social critic. And not just through the Jesus of the Cross and Passion and Resurrection. Not even through that Jesus whose power to transform our dying world into something new and revolutionary is already happening. Though to be sure, all that is real Speaking, living and life-giving. But God speaks perhaps most powerfully through the simple and mind-boggling affirmation that in a child, in this Christmas Child, God draws us toward Love and to love.

Hear what Austin Farrer, the great Anglican theologian of the last century, has to say:

Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk and does not know that it is for milk that he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men.

God speaks to us through this Child, mewing for milk and not even knowing it. And in this Child's neediness, vulnerability and profound lowliness, the eternal God stoops to become one of us, one with us, dwelling among us, drawing love out of us. And at the same time transforming us and all creation. We are raised—all of us—to divine life. And we take with us everything: animals, plants, waters, earth itself. For this is, as St. Basil says, a festival of all creation. “And heaven and nature sing!”

Individual messages can be powerful and transformational. I am grateful for those times when the veil has been pulled aside for a moment, and I was graced with a glimpse of eternity. But in his humble, indeed mute, Speaking, this Child in a manager says more. And we have yet, after two thousand years, to wrap our minds and our hearts around it.

But there is, I believe, Good News, and that is that we needn't worry too much. In the fullness of time for you and me, sooner or later, the Mother will come speaking words of wisdom. The crucifix will turn its head. The sun will rise. The bird will soar. The partner or friend will laugh. A stranger will startle us with an unexpected act of kindness. A baby's cry will split the night. And suddenly, suddenly, new worlds will open before us.

Because Christmas is always happening. Always.

And as I might say once again: “Yes, of course.”

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 22, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A - Sunday, December 22, 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a photo of a nativity scene picturing Mary sound asleep in the background and a young Joseph holding and delighting in the infant who was delighting in Joseph as well. Our Gospel today is about the annunciation to Joseph, not Mary. The image I described, and our Gospel challenge much of the legend that has grown up around Joseph. Christian tradition has never quite known what to make of him. He’s an extra in the drama which stars Mary and her child. He disappears from the gospels before Jesus is baptized and is never heard from again.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the main character. Gabriel speaks to him, not Mary, as he lies sleeping. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The salutation is important. If the Messiah is to be born the son of David, then this is the man he must be born to. The prophet said so, and Matthew goes to great lengths in his long genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel, and later, quoting prophets throughout his Gospel, to persuade us that what the prophets foretold had come to pass. According to Matthew, the whole experiment hangs on what happens with Joseph, not Mary. If Joseph believes the angel, everything is on. The story can continue. Mary will have a home and her child will be born the son of David. But if Joseph does not believe, then everything grinds to a halt. Then Mary is an outcast for disgracing her family and herself. She will be disowned and left to survive however she is able, with her illegitimate child.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, and I would add, a loving, compassionate, and hopeful one as well. He was not naïve but courageous in his choices. He believed that Mary had been unfaithful. Betrothal was equivalent to marriage; infidelity counted as adultery. We have so sanitized this feast, that we forget just what a scandal the Incarnation really was. Today’s text reminds us that the preparations for that first Christmas were anything but conventional and far from proper. To Joseph, the pregnancy was a violation of social convention and ethics, as well as an emotional and physical betrayal.

Confronted with Mary’s presumed adultery, he decides on the most humane of his legal options, divorce, and to do it quietly so as not to endanger her. Despite whatever emotions were raging, he wasn’t willing to shame her or trash her reputation to clear his own. What emotional turmoil it must have been for him. It’s just such times that conjure basic questions. Outside our familiar framework, meaning is challenged, decisions questioned, doubts unearthed. It’s alarming and exhausting. It drains joy out of the present moment. At those times we reach back into all those behaviors or things that we have used to give at least the illusion of stability and safety. In reality, the most it gives is a brief respite from consciousness.

Joseph would have been very familiar with our first reading from Isaiah, where the prophet comes to reassure King Ahaz that all is not lost. God gives a sign: a young woman pregnant with a child of promise, a child born of a woman, with all the bloody and fleshly reality of full humanity. The child’s name, Immanuel, (“God is with us”) reinforces the divine promise of faithfulness and deliverance.

Perhaps it is the memory of this sign spoken by Isaiah that arouses hope in Joseph. Even when our private little worlds go to dust, hope digs in the ruins of our heart for memory of God’s promise to bring good out of bad, joy out of sadness, life out of death. Hope is not optimism in the face of dire circumstances, nor is it founded on denial. My experience is that hope is made of memories which remind me that there is nothing in life I have not faced that I did not, through grace, though unrecognized at the time, survive. Hope is the recalling of the good in the past on which we base our expectation of good in the future, however bad the present. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something will make sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Joseph was on the verge of divorcing, when an angel of the Lord started whispering hope in his ear. Joseph’s sense of right and wrong got lost in the divine shuffle. His righteousness gave way to God’s; his faithfulness a response to God’s. Even if he never fully grasped or understood what the angel told him, it ignited hope in him.

Faithfulness rarely feels good because it calls on us to set aside our emotions and preferences. It’s work, and it’s a prerequisite to trust and intimacy. Did Joseph like the situation that was thrust upon him? Was trust in Mary immediately restored? You can be sure that what transpired between these two human beings did not resolve overnight. It was a mess that only got messier before it got better. I have no doubt that it did get better. The proof is seen in Jesus himself who learned the love, compassion, and courage that was modeled by this man.

Joseph surveyed this mess he had absolutely nothing to do with and decided to believe that God was present in it. With every reason to disown it all, to walk away from it, Joseph claimed the scandal and gave it his name. He became the child’s father the moment he said so. The issue was not a biological but a legal one. He owned and legitimized the mess and it became the place where the Messiah was born. Joseph’s belief was as critical as Mary’s womb. It took the two of them to give birth to this child: Mary to give him life, and Joseph to give him a name.

Joseph, no less than Mary, is the one in the story who is most like us, presented day by day with circumstances beyond our control, with lives we may never have chosen for ourselves, tempted to divorce ourselves from it all, when an angel whispers hope in our ears: “Do not be afraid, God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God may be born here too, if you will own it.”

God’s birth requires human partners willing to love, to hope, willing to claim the mess, to adopt it and give it our names. And not just each one of us alone, but the whole Church, surveying a world that seems to have run amok and proclaiming over and over again to anyone who will hear that God is still with us, that God is still being born in the mess and through it, within and among those who will still hope and believe what angels tell them in their dreams. +Amen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Third Sunday of Advent - December 15, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. John Forbis, OHC
The Third Sunday of Advent, Year A - Sunday, December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

So it’s three candles now, and I suppose I have to get with the program. As we draw nearer to Christmas, more and more is being promised. All of these passages are quite bold in their claims. Isaiah writes with brazen certainty:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, 
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For Isaiah, the future is determined and established.

Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew purports that the above events have and still are happening now at the present time. The blind do see. The deaf do hear. The lame do walk. The lepers are cleansed. The dead are raised. And as if that isn’t enough, the poor have good news brought to them.

If the religious and political authorities are witnessing all of this, Jesus might be doing this against his better judgment. Jesus is becoming a dangerous man, as John already knows.

James encourages us to endure and wait patiently for the coming of the Lord. Part of that enduring is to live in community, not just membership to a particular association or club but true, honest, relationship. The coming will change everything, and we’re answerable to how we live into those relationships.

James seems more realistic, more appropriately cautious than Isaiah and Jesus. Yet, he still challenges us to wait for what will come. He points us to the prophets like Isaiah.

After all of these predictions, I have to confess to you that I’m skeptical. Doubt is my default position. I come to doubt much easier than an acceptance or even recognition of the marvels happening all around me and within me. My bold claim is that there isn’t much proof of what these three men are talking about.

But what did I go out into the wilderness to look at? What did I go out to see? Glory, majesty? Or a foreshadowing of the whipping that Jesus will receive from a reed? The kind of prophet James points me to … who will so soon be beheaded?

I can afford to doubt. Doubt can be a luxury. I’m not blind, deaf, lame, marginalized. I don’t I think I need the Good News brought to me as much as the poor do. Waiting isn’t desperate for me.

If there is one thing I thought I would have learned by now, is that for so many of those who are suffering and marginalized and really need Good News spoken to them, faith is all they have, all that is left for them. Anything less would be cause for despair. Even hope may not be enough to sustain the gruelling endurance and patience required to await the coming of God. As Isaiah demands, “strengthen the weak hands; make firm the feeble knees; Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come and save you."

Thus, the author of Isaiah offers nothing less. The future is a fait d’accompli. Jesus is the fulfillment of this future making it present. This power of God manifested in Jesus is so assured that James compels a transformation of the past of grumbling, division and destructiveness threatening to tear down a community to a present anticipating the Coming of God to be among us and even one or all of us. This Coming will also hold us accountable to our conversion of heart. By our love toward each other, we are loving God. “The Judge is standing at the doors.” Furthermore we have a role model and an inspiration for our faith. If we really want to know how to increase it: “take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

Yet, John the Baptist was once so sure of who Jesus was. As the voice cries out in the wilderness after seeing Jesus coming toward him, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And at another time John says, “He must increase but I must decrease.”

John’s brash, prophetic presumption is tempered by a sobering omen hinting at his own demise. Now that he is in prison with the possibility of his own death looming over him, he sends his disciples to ask the heartbreaking question to Jesus, “Are you the one?” He questions; he doubts for all who are blind, deaf, lame, unclean, marginalized, in prisons of either their own making or physical incarceration.

Yes, he doubts, but he also seeks out the Messiah and longs for Jesus, about whom he has heard so much, to be the one. Was it all worth it? Was his whole life of being the messenger for a purpose or is his death just another senseless, meaningless execution based upon the whim of a capricious ruler? Is John to yet wait longer for another when he is decreasing? He has no more time to wait.

As Christmas comes near, time becomes more and more one, as past, present and future magnetically pull toward each other and collide. Or the known, the uncertain and the unknown converge into the manifest, incarnate NOW! Doubt falls into the spaces between these forces trying to keep them apart. Yet, faith endures, faith waits, faith is patient.

We have just lit candle number three. Advent imposes itself. It’s fiercely implacable, relentless, uncompromising. The suffering will not just see, hear, walk, be clean. They are. It’s done. We have, shall and do wait for the coming of God … some of us so much longer than others. She will, has and does save us.

But what did you, Jesus, go out into our wilderness to look at? Did you go out to see and hear singing, joy and gladness while sorrow and sighing are fleeing away? That we have, will and do prepare a high way called the Holy Way for God’s people; so that the redeemed – all of us – will walk upon it?

We are the voice crying out in the wilderness. We are the messengers ahead of Jesus; who prepare the way for each other before us. We are prophets. This is God’s brazen faith in us.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Second Sunday of Advent - December 8, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC
Advent 2A - Sunday, December 8, 2019

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

It is my great pleasure to preach on a psalm today. 

As a monastic community we are psalm-drenched on a day by day basis. Maybe that is the reason we have not used psalms in our Sunday liturgy in a long time. 

But the Sunday liturgy offers a psalm in a smaller morsel than the platefuls of psalms we are used to. You can savour it in a different way.

My brothers and I have decided to experiment with a Sunday psalm again for this season of Advent. So I had to preach on the psalm before they might disappear from our Sunday liturgy again. “Quick, quick, preach me!” cried the psalm.

More seriously, I have thought a lot about judgement in the past few years. And I want us to visit with judgement for a bit.

Divine judgement is a perennial undercurrent of Advent. Part of Advent is to wait for Christ’s return at the end of time as we know it.

A lot of the scriptural passages that form a basis for this event speak of judgement. Often the judgement is presented as retributive; a painful sentence is doled out to those found lacking and there does not seem to be further redemption from it. The sheep get paradise and the goats get hell, forever one would assume.

I am afraid of such kind of categorical judgement. For one thing, I am not so sure that I may not be found lacking myself. And for another, I know several people whom I love and whom I fear might be found lacking as well. Would nothing save them from eternal retribution at the final judgement?

Don’t get me wrong. I think God is fully entitled to judge us. And I think it would be a good thing for us to be presented with a fair and just judgement of our actions, motives and character. I am just hoping that the judge would be extremely lenient in the sentencing.

You see, I have a grave problem with letting God be presented as a retributive, vindictive judge with a strictly dualist mind. My reading of scripture, and of the gospel in particular, has the arc of God’s desire for creation landing in the neighborhood of peace, justice, righteousness, prosperity. 

And that’s without dwelling too long on love; as in “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) or “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

Psalm 72 speaks of a King. Is it an earthly King or a heavenly King? I think it speaks of both divine authority and earthly authorities. And it asks God to enable the earthly leaders to emulate the divine king.

Psalm 72 focuses on justice and righteousness. In Hebrew, the word for righteousness would be tzedakah, a complicated noun that has elements of charity and  “social justice” woven into it. Tzedekah as social justice means that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence.

Of course, food, safety and shelter are basic requirements. But as an advanced and wealthy society, it behooves us to consider the basic requirements of a just and fulfilling life for all. What common good constitutes righteousness for our country today?

We might want to think about what are some basic requirements of a righteous life in these 21st century United States. Does it include access to education and healthcare without getting into crushing debt? Does it include fruitful livelihoods that support a serene life? Does it include an economic system that preserves the ability of nature to sustain us?

I think that the Lord Jesus, the embodiment of the king that psalm 72 called for, came to bring us peace. And that Christ’s peace is to be sought through nonviolent justice. 

This is opposed to peace through victory of a violent kind. That latter kind of peace, is the peace of domination systems, of empires.

I believe that nonviolent justice is what Christ will deliver at the final judgement. I hope he will want to yet again give us the option of repentance from our sins and transformation of our hearts at the final judgement. I believe in an infinitely merciful and loving God who seeks the redemption and restoration of the greatest number of his creatures.

That still leaves unrepentant die-hards who will in fact choose punishment rather than redemption by refusing to be swayed from their belief in the superiority of evil. My hope is that there will be very few such die-hards.

But when will Christ’s return in glory usher in the final judgement? No one knows. Despite some who regularly make firm predictions on the timing, they always seem to get it wrong.

No matter, until the final judgement comes, we need to live as Christians.  We are called to do our best to embody the justice and righteousness of God here and now. We are called to be just and righteous leaders in our spheres of influence, no matter how small they may be. 

And we should endeavor this in both our personal lives and our corporate lives, including the life of our nation. In the coming election year, this means we should continue to hold candidates, elected officials and other leaders to the highest standards of justice and righteousness.

To that effect, do we choose leaders that encourage justice, social justice, hope, adequate shelter, care for all creation, including the non-human?

As for us, as John the Baptist enjoins us, we should bear fruit worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8). Like him, we may not be worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, but we are worthy to carry on the work of righteousness to empower the poor, the suffering and the needy.

As the prophet Amos thundered in yesterday’s matins reading: “...let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Solemnity of James Otis Sargent Huntington - Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Aidan Owen, OHC
The Solemnity of James Otis Sargent Huntington - Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Nehemiah 5:1–12
Galatians 6:14–18
John 6:34–38

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

In the name of the One God, who is Lover, Beloved, and Love Overflowing. Amen.

You know the man. He was, in Fr. Whittemore’s recollection, “a big man. He was holy. He had a massive intellect. His head and features were beautifully moulded. His lips were full, mobile, extraordinarily expressive. His large eyes looked through yours into the depths of your soul.”

You can still experience that gaze in the extraordinary pastel portrait of Father Huntington in the crypt. He still looks through you into the depths of your soul. But gently, sweetly, and tenderly.

“Our Father Founder was a born leader,” Fr. Whittemore continues. “Men followed him with devoted loyalty. He led. He never pushed. He had more respect for the liberty of everyone with whom he came in contact than anyone I have ever known.”

Yes, he was a leader, a founder, a visionary. He was a tireless advocate for justice for the working poor. He was also a devoted and humble servant of the community he founded, famously hating the title “Father Founder,” because he felt it separated him from his brothers, as it almost certainly has done.

I will admit to feeling some sympathy with this hesitance. In preparing for this sermon, I kept asking “what is uniquely holy about the Founder?” How is he, apart from the rest of our deceased or living brothers, particularly saintly?

Yes, he founded our Order. But he didn’t do so alone. He was simply the only one of our three founders who stayed. And yes, his thought, personality, and piety have shaped us, particularly through the treasury of his Rule. And yet, it is perhaps truer to say that the tension between Father Huntington’s personality and vision and that of Father Hughson have shaped and continue to shape us, supported all the while, by Father Whittemore’s remembrance of the early years and his gentle, unifying vision, which continues gives silent shape and structure to our sense of ourselves.

These three together, I would argue, were and continue to be the great, guiding lights of our common life.

Where, then, do Father Huntington’s particular sanctity and witness lie?

Father Whittemore remembers a particular and striking detail of the Founder’s life. He writes “The Father encouraged one to ‘live dangerously.’ He said to me once that each of the saints was within a hair’s breadth of being a heretic. Apparently what he meant was that the saints were not content with taking conventional ideas of religion ready-made and timidly or slothfully resting back on them but that they pushed their wills and affections and reasons to the uttermost in their courageous quest for Truth. Because it was indeed Truth that the saints sought and because they surrendered themselves to God at the cost of their own inclinations and sentiments they were preserved by Him from error and led on to fuller and fuller visions of His glory.”

Father Huntington’s great respect for the freedom of the individual—seen here particularly in his encouragement to ‘live dangerously,’—is, perhaps, his most palpable legacy to us, his children. He was so insistent on the importance of individual liberty that he came close to making an idol of it, so close as to be within a hair’s breadth of being a heretic.

We can see this in his enthusiasm for new ideas, in his instinctive “yes” when a member of the Order suggested a new course or ministry, in the careful attention he gave to his brothers and those under his care, and in his desire for the Order to develop the capacities of its individual members rather than to form pious automatons. He felt that, in general, “we should consecrate the things of this world not so much by their disuse as by using them for God’s glory.”

We can also see his fanaticism for the liberty of the individual in his reticence to offer his opinion in community meetings, lest he sway the common mind, a reticence that also shows up in his shyness and his apparent ambivalence about personal closeness. And we see it, too, in his reported unwillingness to say no to his brothers, even when it was in their own best interest that he curb their actions.

Why this focus on freedom?

The answer shines forth from his Rule, whose beating heart is its soaring passages on the surrender of the monk to God. He writes “We are to bear in mind that the vow of obedience is the portal of the religious state. That sate is constituted by a covenant wherein the soul gives itself, all its powers and faculties, together with the body and all material possessions, to God. […] From this it follows that obedience is the chief among the three vows of the religious state, since by obedience man offers to God the intellect, the will, the whole being, as not only a sacrifice but a holocaust.”

He goes on, “The virtue of obedience is the dying to self, to self-interest, self-pleasing, self-love. ‘Christ became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.’ […] We obey not that we may live more peacefully, but that we may die more perfectly. The peace will come only when the sharpness of self-annihilation has been felt, when, through death itself, we have entered into the liberty of the sons of God, and can say, ‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’”

True freedom can only be found in loving submission to the one who first modeled that submission for us. The submission of our monastic obedience, which is to say our free gift of ourselves to God through our common life, can only be accomplished to the degree that we are free to make that commitment. Only a free person can submit; otherwise we live in a kind of slavery, coerced by our needs, resentments, and fears.

The result of the free offering of our entire self to God is the perfect freedom of the children of God, where we, too, can say that Christ lives in us.

We see the fruits of this free self-offering in the Founder’s life, and they are the signs of his sanctity and the promise of our own. He was, in Father Whittemore’s recollection, “the most utterly pure and innocent adult I have ever known.”

That kind of innocence rises from the ashes of our self-immolation. It is not the innocence of children, of never having hurt or been hurt. Rather, it is an adult innocence and a Christian one. It is the innocence of one who has been found guilty of all charges, who has been forgiven utterly and completely, and who has been reborn beyond all understanding through the love and mercy of Jesus.

It is the kind of innocence that looks at what the world calls reasonable and laughs, not with derision, but with love and compassion for the confused muddle in which we find ourselves. This innocence is the peace that the world cannot give. And it is the source and the end of Christian hope.

In the end, it is perhaps Father Huntington’s innocence and that of all God’s saints that comes closest to heresy and to holiness. For in a world that is falling apart around us, none of us is free from evil’s stain. We all have blood on our hands, greed in our hearts, and pettiness on our tongues.

To trust so totally in the mercy of God that we can offer ourselves freely and completely—what foolishness that must seem to the world we live in. What foolishness it must seem to us, too, much of the time. To dare for the innocence of the redeemed really is to live dangerously, freely, and joyfully in a violent, chaotic, and beautiful world.

May God’s mercy bring each of us to that innocence and freedom of the children of God. And may Blessed James and all the saints intercede for us always. Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Last Sunday after Pentecost - Sunday, November 24, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. John Forbis, OHC
Last Sunday After Pentecost - Christ the King - Sunday, November 24, 2019

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

We, Christians, are strange people. The world looks to royalty to be either imperial rulers or symbols of national pride and patriotism.

We worship one who is executed as a blasphemer and seditionist. He hangs between two thieves. We institute a feast in which we call him “King”. He never accepted this title himself. When Pilate tries to coerce him to admit he is a king, he responds cryptically, “You say that I am.”

He is a “King” who would not be King: an anti-king. We worship a man nailed to wood; a crown of thorns gouged into his head. He is an object of mockery and derision, including the pièce de résistance – a plaque above his head also calling him King of the Jews, a title reserved only for Herod.

The temptations from the Devil have come back to haunt him. The masses taunt him with familiar phrases, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself.” This execution surely must be the opportune time for the devil to return.

However, despite the jeers that taunt him to doubt God’s affirmation of him as the beloved Son with whom he is well pleased, the King Anti-King will not be averted from the one thing that is the culmination of his mission and fulfillment of his eminence as the Beloved Son of God.

He dies of his own will. He dies forgiving. He dies promising paradise to a thief. He commends himself into God’s hands.

Yes, we, Christians, are strange people indeed. If we are suffering, we are not compelled to look for the quick fix, to desperately seek out comfort and avoidance of conflict – the immediate gratification compensating for our pain and loss. Instead, we are urged to endure … to exercise patience, exude joy and gratitude for sharing in others’ pain, saints in light and embrace God’s grace and transformation pouring from God’s own grieving heart. This costs the King/anti-King everything and costs God his Beloved.

He is also the anti-King who tells us, as we read just two days ago, that unless we are like children, vulnerable and dependent upon God, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If we refuse or hinder these children, ourselves and each other, we are refusing Christ, and if we’re refusing Christ, we might as well don a millstone around our necks and jump into the sea and drown in its depths.

This King who would not be King advises us to cut off our hand and foot, tear out our eye and throw them away if they cause us to stumble. Blindness, lameness and being maimed are preferable to the alternative, says the one whose sense of his intimate and familial relationship with God is placed into jeopardy by the devil’s attempt to cause him to stumble and the devil’s anti-victory at his Crucifixion.

But how can he expect us to submit to such horrors?

Well, he is a broken man, derided, mocked, taunted, tortured. Blood blinds his eyes from his ghastly crown, streams from his hands and feet and finally from a deep gash in his side. He is lame, maimed and blind.

The other bitter reality is that I am quite capable to play many roles in this grotesquerie. I could be a Roman soldier vying for his purple cloak, a self-righteous religious judge fooling myself that I am proving Jesus wrong, a blasphemer, a charlatan. I am a part of the crowd who jeers and mocks and can’t turn myself away from the voyeuristic fascination of this blood feast. I could even be one of his crucifiers.

We are drowning, lame, maimed, blind who have no idea what we are doing, people who has and does betray others, ourselves and most of all, God. Yet, from his terrible anti-throne of suffering, Jesus speaks forgiveness. He doesn’t just invite us into his kingdom that is not a kingdom.

It’s a foregone conclusion. We will be and are today with him in nothing less than paradise! A place beyond anything we can ask or imagine, a power of complete surrender, emptying and sacrifice, an anti-power beyond time and space as we know it.

Jesus promises eternity. The Resurrection follows, it has happened. It happens still. It happens now as we celebrate this feast in this place. This paradise permeates all that we do and are, how we are creatively transformed and reconciled to God, how we welcome, clear the way and serve the child to enter community with us as Jesus welcomes and opens the way of life and wholeness for the thief

Not only does Jesus subvert the image of king, but he subverts whom we blindly think and concede we are, a people consigned to greed, self-interest, ignorance, hatred and violence. A gang of crucifiers or ingratiators to kings for our own advancement, a concession to being irredeemable, beyond mercy and forgiveness.

Just when we are drowning in and crippled by tyranny, Christ’s love is stronger than death. As I am seduced, duped into blame and indifference, Christ, the victim of all of these abuses, offers forgiveness for what he endures from and for us. To a criminal consumed by guilt and self-punishment, seeking connection and recognition, he offers not hope but a promise.

From Christ’s anti-throne, the cross, the anti-King lords over nothing. He gives up power for which we can commit the most heinous acts. The anti-King refuses retaliation and vengeance for which we vehemently clamor or coldly expect. In death he insists on life, love and healing.

As Christ is defeated and deposed from his anti-reign he chose for himself, he becomes the triumph of God’s transformative life beyond time, wholeness that gathers us, the crippled remnant, from wherever we are scattered into God’s paradise and love that overcomes tyranny, destruction, violence and finally death. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pentecost 23C - Sunday, November 17, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
Pentecost 23C - Proper 28 - Sunday, November 17, 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

The book of Isaiah is the second-most quoted book of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament (after the book of Psalms). If the book of Psalms was Jesus’ book of common prayer, the book of Isaiah was known to him enough that, when handed the scroll of that book, he could find exactly the passage he wanted to read from (Luke 4:17).

In many ways, Jesus’s birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection are the embodiment of prophetic utterances in the book of Isaiah. We are soon to enter a season of expectant hope, Advent. The season of Advent looks both backward and forward to the realizations of such hopes.

Today’s text from Isaiah offers a vision of this expectant hope. God the ever-creative momentum of the universe is about to create new heavens and a new earth. The text is sometimes understood to refer to the end times.

But when God says “I AM,” “I AM about to create” doesn’t that speak of the eternal now, this very instant we are living? God is impatient for this new creation to break into our world. God is not waiting till the end of times for this to be realized.

Jesus himself says the Kingdom of God, this new creation, is in the midst of us (Luke 17:21). God desires us as co-creators of the new Jerusalem. If we consent, we can be instruments of God’s dream for creation.

This new creation that God is about to reveal is not a utopia, as in a dream that has no place in reality. This new creation demands our engagement in the gospel of Jesus Christ every day of our life.


The third author of the book of Isaiah who speaks to us in today’s passage was addressing the Jewish people who were just returning from exile. They were discovering a distraught and destroyed Jerusalem. They had to start anew in very difficult conditions.

They might very well have chosen to weep and mourn former things that were no more. Or they might also stand with the Creator-God, let past things be in the past, and build a new Jerusalem.

And the prophet Isaiah gives us a wondrous list of characteristics of this new Jerusalem. Some characteristics might sound like the electoral program of a presidential hopeful. Mind you, our politicians could do worse than take a leaf out of Isaiah.

First of all, the new Jerusalem is a city. We are not going back to the Garden of Eden where we could be alone with God. We are looking at a civil society where we build our future together. We will relate to God as a community. We will thrive together. We can’t do this alone. God is enrolling every available laborer in this project.

We are no longer going to dwell on our losses and our past glories. We are going to be forward-looking.

We will be healthier, more joyful and more prosperous than we can imagine. We will live out fulfilled lifetimes.

We will have economic justice. All will have fruitful livelihoods and will be able to enjoy the fruit of those livelihoods. There shall not be domination over our lives or exploitation of our labor.

We will be happy that our children get to enjoy what we will enjoy ourselves. We won’t worry about their future being bleaker than our present.

And then, as a fledgling Vegan, I can’t help but rejoice at the thought that wolves and lions are going Vegan too (although I aspire to better than a meal of straw).

Think of all the ways we can engage our present predicaments to move into this direction and usher in the Kingdom of God here and now. You don’t need to cure cancer (but if you can, by all means, please do). You can start with offering a cool glass of water to those in need. Every little action in favor of our common good counts in this endeavor.

And God will cooperate with you every step of the way. God will delight in your consent to build the new Jerusalem with God. God will rejoice in your collaboration.

And with God, you will remove the causes of weeping and distress. Before people cry for help, we will come to their aid. We shall be the answer to people’s prayers.

Of course, some also draw comfort from the thought that no matter how short we fall from embodying the vision, God will complete it in the end. At the end of times, God will make perfect what we have started to accomplish with God.

Well yes, probably, but why wait until then? Insisting on Isaiah’s vision being an eschatological vision, a vision of the end times only, seems like a cop out to me. Why labor at building the new Jerusalem, when God the Creator himself will finish it off in a New York minute at the end of times? Why bother? We don’t know when time will end. My understanding of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection is that God desires us to try and help in the meantime.

I want Isaiah’s vision to inform my life and that of our Christian community. It is a vision that has universal appeal. We can share it with all of humanity and all of God’s creation. It is truly a vision for the greater common good of all creation.

Remember this vision throughout the coming season of Advent. Etymologically, Advent means “what is to come.” Remember the advent of Jesus of Nazareth, of Jesus the Christ and of the new Jerusalem he prefigures.

Beloved Lord, thank you for Isaiah’s rendering of God’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Thank you for Jesus emboldening us in the building of the Kingdom of God here and now. Help us join the multitude of your laborers no matter how late the hour. We look forward to sharing the fruits of our labor with all and with You. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Pentecost 22C - Sunday, November 10, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Pentecost 22C - Proper 27 - Sunday, November 10, 2019

Job 19:23-27a
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

“Don’t confuse me with the facts.  My mind is made up.”

The source of the saying is unclear.  We can imagine who might say it.  It is a long list…  Our cultural moment is awash in minds made up.  It is a good, old-fashioned American value to have made up one’s mind.  Nice if the facts agree with the thing about which one’s mind is made up, but not always required!  Why let facts ruin a good story?  Made-up minds are strong, resolute, determined, immovable.  The culture idolizes people who know – or at least act like they know.  Sometimes we even elect them to office.  Having arrived at a made-up mind is a state not without a certain appeal.  What is the alternative?  Who wants to be defined as wishy-washy, lacking backbone, following the crowd, going with the flow?  That all sounds rather limp.  Molly Ivins, the late columnist and author from Texas expressed this idea in the images of my home state: “There is nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow line and dead squirrels.”  Civilized conversations across differences are rare.  Compromise is a dirty word.  It is easier to demonize and despise than to dialogue.  We may seem particularly polarized, locked in our minds that know and safely sequestered in our appropriate tribes, but we are not the first people to be so dangerously drawn into dualism.  This is as old a game as the Garden of Eden and we encounter a classic example in the Gospel for today.

Luke is the gospel of universality, portraying a Jesus who eagerly seeks out the rejected, outcast, unclean, and unwell and brings healing, forgiveness, community, and hope.  In teaching and miracle and parable Jesus declares the divine “yes” to each person without exception.  But Luke is no utopian fantasy story where everyone takes Jesus up on his offer.  The human “no” is always possible.  Frighteningly real and easy.  If heaven is likened to a banquet thrown in honor of one and all, a celebration of endless abundance and outrageous joy, then hell is the decision to stand outside the party, alone, in the darkness, and refuse to go in, refuse to break bread with tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers.  Those outside believe it is better to keep their hearts safe in its casket of judgment rather than to dignify such a blasphemous gathering of human scum.  My mind is made up.

The Sadducees in the gospel reading were skilled in the mind-making business, especially in how much better they were than, well, just about everybody.  They were a priestly sect that only accepted the Torah, the first five books, as authoritative.  We enter the scene in the early days of Holy Week.  Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, and attracting large and enthusiastic crowds, much to the consternation of the Sadducees who come to pose this convoluted scenario to Jesus.  The Sadducees found no reference to the resurrection or life after death in the Torah, so they rejected it, though later writings begin to form an idea of resurrection, the Sadducees held onto to a hard-core purist position.  The question to Jesus is, like the question about paying taxes to Caesar, a no-win trap to which there is no straight answer that will not add to the already deep divisions about these issues.  “Do you read the text correctly, Jesus, or are you an enemy?”, they sneer.  So, with the crowds listening for his answer, the Sadducees know that if they can publicly shame him, catch him without an answer, or at least without a good one, the crowds will see him as a disgraced charlatan and move on, order restored, problem solved.

Jesus knows what is going on, of course.  His response turns the tables on them and uses their own sacred texts, his example of Moses at the burning bush is from Exodus 6, to make a point about life after death.  God, he says, did not cease to be God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after they died.  “I am their God”, Yahweh proclaims to Moses, present tense.  If the patriarchs are alive, then everyone is alive in God.  Welcome to Bible study with Jesus, who probably has some good things to say about what the text means.  His way of using the text is as important as the content.  He is giving us an example of sacred reading.

Once when leading a retreat for a parish group here over a weekend, I allowed some time for questions during one of the sessions and someone asked, “Do you ever get bored reading the same psalms over and over again?”  Without thinking, I said, “we don’t read the same psalms.”  The answer is about a basic set of attitudes and assumptions about reading sacred scripture.  The Bible is not a static history book from which I extract a finite amount of data.  It is alive, breathed into.  The inspiration happens in the interplay, the event, the dance between text and reader out of which something new is eternally possible.  I don’t read the same psalms or any scripture the same way twice because I am not the same – my needs and questions are ever changing.

What is clear from Jesus’ use of the story of Moses at the burning bush is that Jesus had read the text.  He had listened to it, pondered it, noticed things about it.  He had connected stories together.  That God uses the present tense, “I am” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob means something.  And because of that reading, Jesus can upturn a trap question about marriage customs designed to embarrass him by referencing a story that speaks of the very identity of God.  The question, Jesus is saying, is not “how do I get my doctrinal details and ethical conformity to every law so close to the text that I become the super-righteous person I am expected to be”.  The deeper and more important questions are; “who is God, how does God come to us and invite us into relationship and promise to be faithfully present to us even into eternity?”

The Sadducees did not read like this.  They found in the text what they wanted in order to perpetuate a system of temple control and power that benefited them.  Their agenda created a bias that turned the text into a weapon with which they could attack their enemies.  The Torah contains many commands to the people to show respect to the foreigner, generosity to widows and orphans, welcome to the stranger, and compassion to all – a revolutionary ethic that said treat others as God has treated you.  The Sadducees, if they had read carefully, should have seen in Jesus an embodiment of all that the Torah says about neighborliness, a call back to the heart of God’s covenant with a people for the whole world, and then welcomed Jesus with joyful gratitude as Messiah.  Instead, the Sadducees’ reading of the Torah, in seeking to discredit and defame Jesus - who only ever did good and obeyed God - conveniently skipped over those passages.  Their stubborn refusal to let go of their power and status in exchange for the wonder of God’s truth will keep them outside the party. 

If we read the Bible solely to justify our positions so that we can insult and demean the other in error, or even just different from us, it is not the Bible we are reading.  Have you ever thought, “Don’t confuse me with what the Bible says, my mind is made up”?  As a professor of mine liked to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out”, but be open-minded and open-hearted enough to be bothered.  If you sincerely read the whole thing, especially the parts you do not like, you will be bothered.  The Bible inspires us with truth, encourages us, moves us with its beauty, but don’t stop there, keep going.  It talks about justice, money, possessions, generosity, service, love.   It bothers us.  Read it again.  Or, actually, read it as if for the first time.  This reading is not about fully grasping those mysteries, but remembering the first rule of theology: God is God, you are not.  Sacred reading is the decision to enter more consciously into the presence of God in reverence, ready to be instructed, consoled, or corrected, as God’s voice speaks in the text.

The correction part is the hardest and most uncomfortable.  Notice that Jesus told the Sadducees they were wrong, “and the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed in the story about the bush…”  He rejects their misreading and corrects it.  He resists nonviolently and non-judgmentally, however, with a view toward opening their minds and hearts to perceive the truth.  Reading in this way will give the text access to us, to mirror back to us what it has to say about our minds, our privilege, our attitudes, and invites us to honesty.  God then unmakes the mind that we so quickly make, and makes it into the mind of Christ.  We are headed toward the last day.  We can’t go into the party with a God of our own making.  We can only enter the banquet feast as guests of the God who is.  Jesus here is showing us how to be liberated from our stubbornness and inviting us into a life of grace that is wide enough to allow God to do in us and others what we cannot do alone.

Many times, Jesus could have entered the power game, taken a side, and demonized those labelled less holy and worthy than him – which would have been everybody.  That is what fanatics do, and Jesus is not a fanatic.  Jesus is a radical.  Fanatics define themselves by us versus them.  Radicals believe that in the depths of our being we long most for communion and community even more than competition and rivalry.  Radicals believe something better is possible in our relationships, that the great shared feast is real, and it is coming.  Where fanatics want to trap, radicals want to liberate.  Listen to your thoughts and words – radicals use words like “children of God”, “all”, and “alive” and turn the world upside down.

O God, bother us.  Expand our made-up minds, enlarge our constricted hearts.  Remind us that our holy reading reveals how much more there is to know of your infinitely mysterious yet revealed and present grace.  No, Molly, there is more in the middle of the road than just a yellow line and dead squirrels.  The middle place is the holy place, the meeting place, the middle of the road is where the bridge across the divide that tears us apart is waiting to be built, where possibilities are born, where one hand extended in friendship toward another is the beginning of a peace that will last and a justice that will never fail.  After the arguments, the positions, the schisms, the elections – after all the walls are down and all the labels peeled off and there is no more “us versus them” but only one great holy “we”, after the conquests of nations are swallowed up by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, what lasts forever is life, real resurrection life, a party.  Come on inside.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Pentecost 21C - Sunday, November 3, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Pierson, OHC
Pentecost 21C - Proper 26 - Sunday, November 3, 2019

Isaiah 1:10-18
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

The prophet Isaiah says, “Hear the word of the Lord....Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.”  So there....I guess we've been told.  Luckily we no longer put much stock in animal sacrifices or even cereal offerings, but what about our incense?  We do use a lot of it around here.

Of course, we are not meant to hear this passage literally, and yes, I did take it completely out of context.  The actual point that the prophet is making is in the next verse:  “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.”  God is not interested in our religiosity if it is not supported by a concern for justice, and care for the poor, and the oppressed.  We can't hide our sinfulness behind religious ritual or even pious prayers.  God sees right through that.  God calls us to “remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

My guess is that most, if not all of us, are concerned for the poor and oppressed --to a point.  And it's at that point that we need to hear what the prophet Isaiah is saying today.  Can we be more concerned than we are?  Should we be more concerned than we are for those who lack the basics of life?  Well, at least none of us are as out of touch with the needs of our neighbors as Zacchaeus was.

The gospel story today tells us that Zacchaeus “was a chief tax collector and was rich.”  As we know, tax collectors were Jewish people who worked for the Romans to collect tax money to be sent to Rome.  They weren't paid, but were expected to collect their own living expenses by charging more than was owed to Rome, and keeping the rest for themselves.  If Zacchaeus was a rich man, then we can assume that he was a very skilled extortionist.  He knew how to get lots of money from people, and they resented him for it.  That's why people were so upset when Jesus paid him attention.

And it's interesting that Jesus knew who he was.  Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was.  Evidently they had never met, but Jesus knew who that man in the tree was even before he was introduced.  Zacchaeus was that notorious.  And if Jesus knew who he was, he knew what kind of person he was, just as everyone else did.  But Jesus didn't preach to Zacchaeus; he didn't correct or criticize him, or even acknowledge his reputation.  Jesus simply reached out to Zacchaeus, and invited himself to “stay” at his house.  It's understandable that the people around were upset.  Why would Jesus want to stay with a tax collector? And a rich one, at that. Doesn't he know what kind of man this is?

I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.  His open, loving invitation to Zacchaeus caused a tremendous conversion to take place.  Now, all of a sudden, Zacchaeus is offering to give half of what he owns to the poor.  And he even admits that he might have defrauded some people, and is willing to pay them back four times as much.  Jesus' merciful approach to Zacchaeus completely disarms him and enables him to seek to do the right things regarding his neighbors.  When Jesus preaches, he doesn't speak to Zacchaeus but rather to the crowd, reminding them that Zacchaeus is “a son of Abraham,” a member of the Jewish community just as much as they are.

So let's return for a moment to Isaiah's concern about the poor and oppressed.  We don't need to get defensive about our lack of attention to the poor.  We are called, like Zaccheus, to recognize that we are all in this together, that we are all members of the human family and that we must be concerned for those who have less than we do because we owe it to them to share what we have rather than hoard it for ourselves.  Like Zacchaeus, Jesus' love and mercy for us empowers us to be loving and merciful to others in need.  We are moved to act, not out of guilt, but rather out of gratitude for all that God has done for us.

We hope that Paul might say of us what he said about the people of Thessalonika:  “your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing....To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”