Sunday, July 28, 2019

Pentecost 7C - Sunday, July 28, 2019

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY
Br. John Forbis, OHC
Pentecost 7C - Sunday, July 28, 2019

Genesis 18:20-32
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.


I have had a love/hate relationship with this Gospel passage during various stages of my life.  I have only just realized this by beginning this sermon about three or four times.  A few days ago, I felt that something had clicked into place for me, and even had a clever quote ready to use.  But then, I abandoned that idea as well.  I was trying to make Luke say what it wasn’t saying.  This Gospel is also not to be cheapened by a clever quote.  So what happened to bring me to a place where I could preach to you today with any amount of integrity?  Prayer happened. 

Being younger and na├»ve as a boy and teenager, I assumed the literal, that if I ask for anything it will be given to me; if I search, I will find; knock, and the door will be opened for me.  However, I didn’t really believe in my heart of hearts that this would be the case.  And so, I tried to get, find and to force a door open and barge in or beg and manipulate others to do so.  I was eager to see my prize. 

Meanwhile, God sends me the message while wrestling with this Gospel, “Is that it?  Is that really all you want?  Well, OK, but you might be disappointed.”

Then, becoming older and wiser, as a later teenager, college student and even into my earliest years in monastic life, I saw the asking, the searching and knocking as encouragement to intellectualize, philosophize, to figure out the world and God.  I had the opening I needed to be wiser than God. 

And God says, No, not even close. 

As I stand here today, my frustration level is a little heightened.  For there are a lot of snakes and scorpions that are being handed out, especially to children.  So, I have been not just asking, but demanding justice for the last three years since I’ve been back from South Africa.  I witnessed so many needs deferred by corruption, deceit and disregard for anyone but for themselves who engage in these travesties.  Then, coming back to this country, I was shocked to see the same behavior, only more blatant.  Where is the God whom Paul describes to the Colossians, “disarming the rulers and authorities and making a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  Sweep away the wicked rulers and authorities, and give back the fish and eggs!!  I may think I’m asking for justice, but all I am asking for is more of the same.  Retribution.  I become just another one creating more travesty. 

God’s sedate response, “Nope.  Not good enough.”

The man who is showing us God’s true identity is the same man who forgives us to the point of nailing what a punitive society expects us to owe, including demands for payback to the Cross.   He carries all of this and gives his life for peace and forgiveness.  The Cross is what disarms, triumphs and even makes public examples of those who are handing out the snakes and scorpions, of me.  Jesus stands in stark contrast to the chaotic and violent desires swirling around him. 

Nothing less than a complete transformation will do for God.  But he won’t force it upon us.  We can take it or leave it.  We have a choice.  God loves us that much. 

Yet, God’s desire for us is still so much more.  While we have our own cravings for which we so desperately ask, seek and pound on doors, God’s hunger is to give us the Holy Spirit.  This gift is as natural to him as it is for a parent, even an evil one, to ensure their child’s physical needs.

The Holy Spirit is the one to sweep away hate and violence.  The Holy Spirit is the one to disarm all of us into a life that is not defended, not vengeful, not grasping, not based on greed or fear, but on the enormous life of healing, restoration, forgiveness and peace, so much bigger and beyond what we can imagine.  So much is good enough! 

A disciple wants to be taught how to pray.  Is he looking for a trick?  A device?  A formula?  Jesus seems more concerned with what we pray rather than how we pray.  Jesus’ prayer is pared down to the bare minimum, and what’s important is what we ask, for what we search, on which door do we knock.  Often underlying my recital of this prayer is a complaint to God, “Is this it?”  I foolishly want more.  But what more do I need?  IT is PLENTY!  It is the prayer that truly asks for our own transformation!!!

We use the plural.  It isn’t just about what each of us desire, but we’re a community praying for enough bread, for forgiveness and to forgive, to not be drawn into the trials of evil, cruel actions, and victimization.  We ask for deliverance but not alone.  We ask to live in Christ, rooted and built up in him and established in faith, praying his words with him.  Vengeance, hatred, violence, death has no business being in our hearts because our one integrated heart beats for God’s will to be done in heaven and on earth.  Yet, the prayer calls for more, for heaven, God’s kingdom, to come right here to earth … God’s Kingdom, not our own!  In this prayer, we beg God daily, again and again, to lead us not into temptation to ask for less, search only in our domain, to knock on the door of emptiness but directly to the place where heaven and earth meet.   

Psalm 85 provides a gorgeous image for this:
9 Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
What if we are invited to do nothing less than to be what Jesus teaches us to pray to be?  What if we allow these few words to mean so much, to spring us up from the earth to be truth, peace and righteousness itself?  What if within us they kiss, look to each other for answers, find and come through an open door?  Can you imagine? 

Nope.  There’s more …

Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Pentecost 6C - Sunday, July 21, 2019

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY
Br.  Robert Sevensky, OHC
Pentecost 6C - Sunday, July 21, 2019

Amos 8:1-12
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42


Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany: Open our hearts to love you, our ears to hear you, and our hands to welcome and serve you in others, through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jesus, like all of us, needed companions and friends. And he found them in interesting places—among his followers, in the inner circle of the Twelve, in that disciple whom he loved, and perhaps most surprisingly, in this non-traditional family of two women and their brother, that is in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany.

St. Augustine (writing in the 4th century but picking up themes from classical antiquity) says in one of his sermons:
“Two things here on earth are essential: health and a friend. They are two things most to be prayed for. Woe to the person who despises them.”
Augustine calls health and friendship natural gifts:
“God has made human beings for living—hence health—and for not living alone—hence the search for friendship.”
And then he goes on to add a third: divine wisdom, a supernatural gift that comes closest to us in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Wisdom.

Yet even Jesus, himself eternal Wisdom, needed friends and did not despise them, but rather nurtured and developed them.  Fully divine and fully human, he had the same natural desire and need to both be a friend to and to be befriended by others.

Why friends?

Friends serve many roles and functions in our lives and there is a rich literature on friendship across the centuries.  Robert J. Wicks (Catholic psychologist) and L. Gregory Jones (Baptist pastor) among many others set out some of these roles:
  1. Prophets:  challenge us  (esp. “the sins we have come to love”--Jones)
  2. Cheerleaders: support us, affirming our gifts, esp. those we afraid to claim.
  3. Encouragers and harassers: letting us know when we are getting off course in our life's journey and even hounding us to return to a more authentic path
  4. Guides: helping us dream dreams we would not otherwise dream and pointing out what that more authentic path might look like for us
True friends help us to become more and more ourselves. They help us grow into our own unique vocation. Indeed it's hard to imagine growth as a person, as a moral agent, and as a Christian, without such supports.
 
Picture the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  Jesus seems relaxed there. He's not “on.” He can be himself and allow others to be themselves.

He can, without putting her down or dismissing her, say to his friend:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”  And maybe Martha can hear him precisely because she knows deep in her heart that he respects and values her.

And in John's Gospel Jesus can hear the anguish of Martha over the death of her brother Lazarus: “Lord if you were here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus can receive the challenge and the rebuke, because he knows deep in his heart that she respects and values him.

They are friends.  And friendship can endure rough times because there is a presupposition—a covenant really—of mutual honesty, clear speaking and forthrightness, what the classic monastic tradition calls parrhesia (free speech):
“I will not lie to you. I will tell you what I see when asked and sometimes, if it is important enough, even when not asked.  And as much as I am able, I will hold your well being, your safety, your best and noblest interests at heart.”
This covenant is not always explicitly stated, but it is always implicit in real friendship.  And without it, friendship is impossible.  It is this covenant that is at the base of all forms of friendship, from that of spouses or intimate partners, to parents, to that peculiar friendship called spiritual direction, to the ministry of mentors and pastors and religious superiors, to just ordinary, garden variety friends, that most precious of human commodities which seems to become rarer and deeper as we age.

Real friendship takes time—time together, face time (esp. now)-- and vulnerability and testing.

Aelred:  real friendship is stable and eternal → Thus betrayal by a friend is so very painful, almost as painful as death, in fact is a kind of death.  Jesus' betrayal by his friend Judas is as much a part of his Passion as is the scourging or the cross.

And I must add:  betrayal by a friend is exceeded in tragedy only by having no friends at all.  Cf. Mr. Trump

Many of us have difficulty with the language of love as applied to God or Jesus.  Do I love God? Jesus?  Maybe.  But I frequently find it helpful to see my relationship with the Holy One as primarily one of friendship in the deepest sense.

1994: trip to Taize and the Coptic icon of the soldier saint Menas –> Jesus with his arm around our shoulder and both of us facing into the reality of the present and the future. Jesus himself tells us: I have not called you servants, I have called you friends. Can we walk with Jesus that way? I think we can.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus: companions, friends of our Lord. They provided for Jesus a safe space, an honest space, a holy space. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we each, in our own way (individually and communally) did the same?  And not only for Jesus himself, but for all the other friends of Jesus and for all the dispersed and beloved children of God.

Let St. Augustine have the last word:
“Friendship begins in the family, with your spouse and children and extends form there to strangers.  But who in fact is a stranger? All human beings share the same parentage. Do you fail to recognize that person?  There's a human being there!  Are you dealing with an adversary? There's a human being there!  With an enemy? There's a human being there too!  Let a friend remain a friend and turn an enemy into a friend.”
God grant that this be so.



SOURCES:

Douglas, Deborah Smith.  “No Greater Love: Reclaiming Christian Friendship”  The Way, 35(1), January 1995. Pp. 63-73.

Jones, L. Gregory. “Discovering hope through holy friendships”  Faith and Leadership website: www.faithandleadership.com

Wicks, Robert J.  Touching the Holy (1992)

Augustine. Serm. Denis 16, 1 in Drinking from Hidden Fountains: A Patristic Breviary (1993)

Pentecost 5C - Sunday, July 14, 2019

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY
Br. Richard Paul Vaggione, OHC
Pentecost 5C - Sunday, July 14, 2019

Amos 7:7-17
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.



Thursday, July 11, 2019

Feast of St. Benedict - Thursday, July 11, 2019

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Feast of St. Benedict - Thursday, July 11, 2019

Proverbs 2:1-9
Philippians 2:12–16
Luke 14:27–33

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.


The beginning and the end of Jesus’ words here, taking up the cross and following and then giving up possessions, form the theological source of two great themes integral to monastic life.  St. Benedict emphasizes both of these practices in the rule, especially the necessity of humility and the prohibitions against private ownership.  St. Benedict does not believe, as is sometimes the critique, that thinking rightly of ourselves is wrong or that material goods are evil.  Rather, these practices are set within the larger vision in the rule of running toward life, toward our heavenly home, and therefore of necessity away from the illusions of status and security that claim our identity and distort that path.  For Benedict, entrance into the Christian journey in a monastic vocation is a move from an old life based on hierarchy and power to a life of self-sacrificial service and identification with a community.  A particular kind of community that has transcended the empire-based dynamic of oppressor over oppressed and has chosen to live in egalitarian brotherhood.  The only identity that matters in the monastery is brother.  The connection between this gospel and the rule is fairly obvious in these two sayings – they become in Benedict’s hands related to obedience and stability.  Jesus’ images in the middle, of estimating to build a tower and considering battle, inform Benedict’s theology of discernment and formation and are closely related to the vow of conversion.  I would like to dig down into the way in which the inclusion of these two metaphors within the discussion of discipleship illumines life in a community and under a rule.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, his simple call to follow him is a stage of exploration and testing.  There are hints in the synoptic gospels made explicit in the Gospel of John that not everyone who began to follow kept following to the end.  Time goes on and the nature of discipleship unfolds.  The radicality of what was asked turned many off of Jesus.  As the gospels progress, Jesus is more and more explicit about the need to move from exploration to commitment.  He is more interested in people following him with conscious intention and fidelity than with large crowds of spectators merely waiting to see a miracle.  As Luke points Jesus toward Jerusalem and the climactic showdown that leads to his crucifixion, the stakes get higher, the conditions more radical, and the urgency of allegiance absolute.  In these middle chapters of his gospel, Luke alternates between encounters and parables of God’s mercy toward the sinful and outcast and sharp criticism of those whose allegiance to prejudice and power to the exclusion of the neediest has hardened their hearts and frozen their compassion.  The disciple is to be a free person; free of family obligations, free of possessions, free of agenda, free to offer their whole selves and enter into a way that resists the ways of empire.  The first blushes of excitement and wonder must give way to the reality of the cost of discipleship.  Between today and the ultimate, joyful assurance of God’s reign in the end will be suffering.  The disciples come to see that Jesus is more than a typical rabbi, more than a miracle worker, but one who will model self-giving even unto death and ask disciples to be willing to follow in those steps in commitment if not in actuality.

The images of building and battle come in the form of rhetorical questions.  Jesus likes to pair together what we can read as the allegory of the foundation of our lives and our response to all that seeks to thwart and undermine life.  Obviously, Jesus is saying, considering and determining are called for before entering into a complex and risky project such as the construction of a watchtower or a battle against a formidable enemy.  Just as there is prudent discernment in such temporal acts, how much more must there be in the eternal decision to become a disciple.  If we are careful and realistic in our earthly pursuits of our goals, how much more must we be with our souls?  Jesus is not interested in sneaking in some fine print at the end of your disciple contract.  He is utterly transparent and honest in his conditions.  He simply wants the potential disciple to be as transparent and honest in their answer.

I have known people who liked the idea of being a disciple, who wanted the benefits of all that God promises, certainly wanted to go to heaven, but were not so interested in the formation between here and heaven, especially if it is costly (and it is always costly).  “I tried religion but it did not work for me”.  Usually the “did not work” is code for “it was not instant and easy.”  I can empathize with the impulse to jump from plan to completion.  Once I set my face toward a project, once I see the value, that it is possible, that I want it, then I just want it to be done – now.  The spiritual smoothing of my rough edges between the intent and the completion – the formation of patience, fortitude, endurance, and hope that inevitably needs to happen - seems like a frustrating waste of time.  Show me some results and let me show off my success.  How often I start doing just to be doing something or rush into the adrenaline-thrill of battle long before I have thought through what exactly is going to happen or even entertained the vague notion that my fantasy, however real it seemed when I started, was not rational at all, and suddenly I have run out of spiritual materials to keep going or I am being trampled by the enemy of my own stubborn agenda.  It turns out the teachable moments, the processes between here and heaven are important and unavoidable.

Conversion is about sitting down and considering and determining our lives first.  What I am I thinking about, talking about, doing, and to what end – where does this path go?  Before construction begins, before the battle is engaged, we need clarity.  We need an honest assessment.  The nurturing of our intent which is the energy to continue on the path of conversion, is the essential precursor to faithful action.  Following Jesus is not whatever I decide it to be.  Being a disciple is not following the Jesus I want.  It is a long, slow look at who he is and what is being asked of me.  The possibility for delusion is great, but the light of truth is greater.  Sometimes what I discover is I am on a journey on my terms, giving parts of myself, following a made-up Jesus and am headed into the abyss of resentment and loneliness.  To sit down and consider and determine is to discover that my plan cannot work.  The tower will fall, I will lose the battle.  Better an honest “no” than a conditional or qualified “yes”.  An honest “no” is good – it has possibility and hope for renewed conversion if I am willing to start afresh.

Because we are an action-obsessed culture, much of what is defined as Christian life is talking, going, and doing.  That is all well and good and Jesus likes that, but here he says, “sit down”.  Sitting down with honesty, clarity, and decisiveness leads to action that is wise and fruitful.  In a sense, Jesus is describing our whole lives and vocations, the big picture between plan and completion is my life and every day is a participation in the rhythm of discernment and engagement.  Today is building on the “yes” of my commitment and moving toward the end when the construction is over, the sounds of battle stilled, and I give my life back to God.  The moments, the opportunities, the encounters between here and heaven are sacred elements in the foundation of my life and my opposition to all that would sabotage that life.  They may seem trivial, mundane, ordinary, unseen, unexciting – but these middle bits between the excitement of beginning and the graduation into the next life are, for Jesus and Benedict, the very things that reveal my desire, expose my illusions, and clarify my intention.  Nothing is wasted, nothing is unimportant, no moment is separate from the potential to intent today the life I want for the rest of my journey.

We do not know all that entering into this journey will ask of us.  We cannot determine at the beginning how it will unfold.  But we can discern our intent, our desire, our commitment to keep asking.  Jesus is not expecting us to predict the future, but he is asking us to step into the unknown and meet him, already there and waiting, with the grace we need to welcome the gifts and trials that life will bring along the way, toward life and peace, along the run to our heavenly home. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Pentecost 4C - Sunday, July 7, 2019

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Pentecost 4C - Sunday, July 7, 2019

2 Kings 5:1-14
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.


The story of Naaman, the supreme commander of the army of Aram, who enjoyed the trust of his king and had defeated the army of Israel, is certainly a tale for our time and place. Odd how we expect God to think and act like us. Naaman faced a considerable enemy he could not defeat, leprosy. Leprosy was feared and often viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure. But God does not leave us bereft when tragedy strikes. God employs ordinary people to act in extraordinary ways.

Aram’s military raids against Israel had brought a captive Jewish girl into the household of Naaman as his wife’s servant. The slave girl learned of the general’s disease and told her mistress about a Jewish prophet who could heal him.

Naaman sought his king’s permission to return to the land of their enemy to seek healing. The King of Aram sent the king of Israel a diplomatic request, which caused quite a stir, because the King of Israel took it as some kind of plot or threat. But the prophet Elisha intervened and sent word to his king to let Naaman come to him. So Naaman arrived at the prophet’s house, accompanied by soldiers, servants and lavish gifts. Common rules of diplomacy required political permission, gifts between rival governments and respect for national religions. Naaman did everything by the book and expected the same in return. He pridefully expects his power and wealth to obtain his cure. He expects a theophany from God to heal him, and he is willing to pay for it.

What a shock when they show up and Elisha sends his servant out to relay his instructions. Naaman misconceives God’s actions through Elisha on both a personal and a national level. He rails at the perceived insult. He even takes umbrage at Elisha’s choice of a river in which he should wash, claiming that the rivers of his own nation are far superior. His pride blinds him from perceiving God’s providential acts by the slave girl, Elisha, his messenger, and even his own servants.

Finally, he heeds the appeals of his servants who suggest that if Elisha’s directions had been more challenging, Naaman would have agreed. He followed their advice, immersed himself in the Jordan seven times, and his flesh was restored. No great healing ritual, elaborate sacrifices or spells pronounced by the holy man, but instead, simple obedience to a prophet’s instructions.
This story, like much of life today in our own country, is characterized by irony. Our leaders show little or no ability to critic their own duplicitous power games. The people at the very top, who should be in the know, appear clueless, while the marginalized perceive accurately what God can do. This irony invites us to reflect on two ideas: knowledge of God and the truth of our circumstances may come from unexpected sources, and God’s providence is complex and does not always match our assumptions.

The irony that people with little or no power or wealth perceive God’s work, when the powerful may not, recurs in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In this story the captive Israelite girl proposes a solution to Naaman’s problem. The king of Israel is perplexed and paralyzed by his suspicion and fear. It is the prophet who helps both the king and the general. Naaman’s servants show him the weakness of his own reasoning, coaxing him to accept the treatment offered. The king and the general do not perceive where God is at work. The slave girl, servants, and itinerant prophet do. This is a tale for our time providing hope to the marginalized and disenfranchised, and a warning to the affluent and powerful. Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our own contradictions that we grow. Material disadvantages are not spiritual disadvantages nor are material advantages, spiritual advantages. They may in fact hinder or obscure a person’s perceptions of God. God calls people regardless of circumstance. God can empower the powerless who seek greater justice to find their voices in the midst of their circumstances. Those with power are called to identify, pay attention, and learn from those who are marginalized.

Whatever sociological context we are in, we create and act on stereotypes about those who differ from us. We all tend to turn the one who is different from us into an “other” who is somehow problematic and should therefore be ignored or dismissed. Every one of us is probably someone else’s “other.” The irony that wisdom and insight come from unexpected sources invites us all to strive to curb this tendency in ourselves. This story encourages us to recognize that any person may have important insights and be an instrument of God’s saving work in us.

Naaman’s preconceptions about how his healing should take place includes special attention from the prophet. Elisha’s directions do not match these preconceptions. This great general almost cheats himself of his healing because of his arrogance. We might expect and even hope that God punish Naaman for his pride, at least by withholding healing. Ironically, God heals him, even though he is a foreigner and an enemy who is skeptical of Elisha’s God. This irony offers the opportunity for us to reflect about the ways we understand God’s involvement in our own lives and the lives of those around us. Like Naaman, we sometimes assume that our expectations are the measure of God’s ability to work in our world. We want God to do something for us in the particular way we want it done, on a schedule we devise. The irony of Naaman’s healing discourages our tendency to look for God’s work in terms of our own desires or expectations. Naaman’s healing does not occur as he expects, but as God chooses.

Naaman’s story is important because if we hear it with the ear of our heart chances are, we will recognize it as our story as well. Like Naaman, we also may make our expectations the measure of God’s work, when we assume that God is exclusively on our side regarding all sorts of relationships, both interpersonal and international. His healing shows that God is not vindictive and includes a variety of people in the divine purpose. We do well to remember how this story expresses the breadth and complexity of God’s love. Our greatest disease is the lack of love for those who are unwanted and uncared for. God demonstrates continuing providence for individuals and nations, whether we approve of it or not. May this story move us to welcome the other, the stranger, the asylum seeker without dehumanizing and insisting that they are not like us. That tendency is ours not God’s. God’s love is beyond our control and will not be contained.   +Amen.