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The power to practice love | Sermon for 1 Epiphany

 

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”

I am among the most fortunate of people, because I know that my father loved me.

In a picture from when I was just a couple years old, you can see his hand touching my cheek, a simple gesture of physical affection that characterized his relationship with me and our whole family.

Dad and Me Orlando 1970He held me in his arms (and he held my mother and my siblings, too), and he told me he loved me in countless ways. When I shared that picture on Facebook, my sister instantly responded that she recognized his gesture — the “sense memory” is as strong for her as it is for me.

The last time I served as a deacon at the altar with him before he died, a similar account of the Transfiguration of Our Lord was the appointed Gospel reading. After I read the Gospel, Dad got up to preach but then stopped, saying, “I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to sit down, because this is my son, my beloved, and I want to listen to him. I want to hear what he has to say.”

My wife and I have spoken many times about what a blessing it is for both of us to have had this kind of unconditional love in our lives. Even though we do not have children of our own, we have been privileged to share our love with others, especially our “emotional daughter” Anna and our grandson Alex.

You have it in your power to give this kind of love, too. You can be for another person — a child or a grownup — the same kind of blessing that my father was. You can embrace them in the kind of love that God the Father has for all of his children.

Who is your beloved? Who needs to feel the touch of your hand on their cheek and hear from you that you are well pleased with them?

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Jesus heard these words from God at his baptism in the Jordan River.

Baptism was for him, as it is for us, an act full of symbolic meaning.

Our service of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer outlines several symbolic meanings that the water holds for us.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior. (BCP 306-7)

Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we will renew our own Baptismal Covenant and our baptismal vows.

The vows are not about how to earn God’s favor. Rather, they are promises we make about how we will live as God’s beloved children, how we will “continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

Baptism is to us a sign of God’s grace pouring over us; the promises we make are about what we will do in practice to share that grace with each other and with the world.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

That is, will you practice being graceful and generous with your fellow parishioners, your clergy, and your fellow-Christians? Will you practice prayer that keeps you in touch with God and the needs of God’s people?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

That is, will you practice demonstrating grace by standing firm against those who do harm to others, and by recognizing when you are the one doing harm and making amends to those you have hurt?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Being a Christian is meaningful to you; will you practice telling other people about God’s blessings? Will you practice showing them that you have God’s peace?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

We had diversity and inclusion training at my work this week, and we learned that promoting diversity requires conscious action. It’s easy to be with people like yourself, but you have to practice choosing to be with people who are different.

 Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

That is to say, will you practice remembering that every human being craves the touch of a father’s hand on their cheek, the loving embrace of a mother, the gentle word from a friend? Will you practice sharing that love with others and will you practice encouraging those in power to make sure people are being cared for?

As baptized Christians, we are filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

That means you have it in your power to practice the kind of love that Jesus practiced. You can be for another person — a child or a grownup, a neighbor or an enemy, someone who is poor or someone in power — you can be for them the same kind of blessing that Jesus was.

You can embrace them in the kind of love that God the Father has for all of his children and demonstrate Jesus’ self-giving love by your actions.

Who is your beloved? Who needs to feel the touch of your hand on their cheek and hear that God (and you) are well pleased with them?

 

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Beloved | Sermon for Holy Name

Note: Today’s sermon was my first as vicar of Church of the Holy Apostles in Oneida, WI. Founded as the Oneida Indian Mission in 1702 in New York State and moved to Wisconsin in 1822, Holy Apostles is the oldest Native American mission in the Episcopal Church.

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“Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Like Jesus we have not only titles, lots of them, but also a name.

Jesus’ Titles

Jesus’ most common title, Christ, isn’t really Jesus’ last name (and H. is not his middle initial). Christ is the Greek adjective that means Anointed; it’s the same as the Hebrew word Messiah.

In the stories of his birth that we read from Matthew and Luke last weekend and this morning, Jesus has another title, Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Perhaps some of you have seen that poster that lists many of his other titles?

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But perhaps Jesus’ most important title is Lord.

The first proclamation of faith after the resurrection – and from the patron of my former parish “doubting Thomas” no less – was “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Jesus is both Lord and Savior. His title is Lord, and his name means Savior.

Jesus’ Name

The name Jesus, according to the angel, means “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Paul writes to the Philippians that, because of the self-emptying, obedient love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross,

God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)

From before his birth, Jesus’ name starts to show us who he is and what he is doing.

We have names, too

My name is Rodger – Lindsay – Patience.

My name comes from my father and grandfathers and our Scottish ancestors.

I also have clan names – Ross, McColl, and Lindsay.

You each have names – some of you that I’ve met already, like Ken House (Hoyan), have two names.

Your names may come through your mothers and grandmothers. There were certainly a lot of Betties in the church basement a couple weeks ago when we were tying the cedar ropes that decorate the church for Christmas!

Many of you have clan names, too – Wolf, Turtle, and Bear.

Our names begin to describe us, at least in relationship to other people in our family and clan.

We have titles, too

I have a new title – Vicar.

The kids at St. Thomas have been having fun the last few weeks trying to remember to use another new title “Father” instead of my old title “Deacon.”

I am called a Senior Faculty Member at work. I’m not actually “senior” yet; my boss keeps trying to give me a promotion.

I am a Delta Diamond Medallion™ Member, and I have the luggage tags to prove it.

When we meet for coffee, Richard Ackley jokes and refers to me as “White Male Privilege” – that’s more about entitlement, but it comes from the same root word.

I am also a recovering alcoholic, a title that has transformed my spiritual life in the last few years.

Some of the titles we use are descriptive of who we are; some are aspirational. Some only serve to bring us down; others remind us how far we’ve come.

Beloved

But in the Body of Christ, in the “company of friends” who follow Jesus, we really only have one title, and that is Beloved.

Jesus is Lord, and we are his Beloved. John, who was actually known as the Beloved Disciple even while Jesus was alive, wrote that

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

We each have different names that connect us to our families, we each have titles that define our aspirations, but as friends of Jesus we have only one true title.

We are Beloved.

No other title should be allowed to obscure that one or to separate one Beloved child of God from another.

No other title – Episcopal/Methodist, Republican/Democrat, Oneida/White, Packers/Vikings, Christian/Muslim/Jewish, believer/atheist, no family name or clan affiliation – should keep us from sharing our lives with others as Beloved children of God.

Paul insisted that

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit …. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:12-13; 27)

So as Jesus’s Beloved, it is our joy to cooperate with God and “plant in every heart the love of him who is the Savior of the world.”

We are – first, lasting, and always –

Beloved friends of a loving Savior
who remind God’s other Beloved children
of the self-emptying love of Jesus which is for them, too.

If other people are to believe in Jesus’ saving love, if they are to trust the loving purposes of God, they will have to see that love in his Beloved.

They will have to see it in us.

Amen.

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That they might lovely be | Sermon for Advent 3

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

“Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” – I think that verse from the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” is the single best description of the Incarnation that I have ever heard.

In Advent, the Church prepares to celebrate that great mystery of Incarnation: God becoming a human child out of love for us, living among us in order to make us children of God.

Mary’s rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday (“gaudete” means rejoice) comes from her knowledge of the God of her ancestors.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), she sings of the God who:

has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly

 [who] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty

Mary knows that God shows love to the loveless, and she willingly participates in that work by saying “yes” to God and by bearing Jesus, the Son of God, in her womb.

Love to the loveless shown

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, born at nearly the same time to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, is in prison.

This is the same John who last week berated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

John is a wild-haired but clear-eyed prophet and he is all too aware of how unlovely people are. The loveless act badly, and he calls them to do better. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he’s been waiting his whole life to see the kingdom, and now he’s in jail and in peril of his life, so he sends word to Jesus by his disciples.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer to his cousin is cryptic, but it points to God’s purposes:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4-6)

The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor – notice that being poor is even worse in this catalog than being dead! – all of these have good news brought to them.

Love to the loveless shown. That’s how you’ll know the kingdom has come near, says Jesus.

That they might lovely be

Can you hear that good news for yourself?

What would it take to break through your blindness, your stumbling, your illness, your selective hearing, your deadened heart, and your feelings of scarcity and need?

What would help you hear good news?

For me, it was hearing a version of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, two summers ago.

A group called Theodicy Jazz Collective played for one of the Eucharists at the General Convention in Salt Lake City back in 2015. I followed a link to check them out, and I was moved to download more of their extraordinarily lovely music.

As I listened to their album Vespers, I was inspired to start sketching liturgical notes and outlines for “A Jazz Vespers for Recovery.” I’d love to help create and bring a service like that to the Fox Cities, and my head began swirling with the possibilities.

But their song “The Magnificat” checked my stride (and my pride) and brought tears to my eyes. The soprano began simply:

My soul magnifies the Lord
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior
my soul magnifies the Lord,
for God looks on my loveliness with favor.

Can it be true? God looks on my loveliness with favor?

Even though part of me knew that I had simply misheard the lyric, the rest of me sat stunned and grateful.

My experience of recovery has been an experience of grace and repentance, of admitting my own powerlessness and discovering that God continually pours out blessings on me. All I have to do in response is follow “certain steps … which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

My more recent experience accepting the bishop’s call to serve as a priest (after nearly 21 years as a deacon) has also been an experience of grace. I’ve spent most of this year working with other people to discern the strengths that will serve me and the church well and to look clearly at the weaknesses that still require my attention. God pours out blessings on me, and I must continue to turn toward him as I follow his unfolding invitation.

Like John the Baptist, I know only too well how unlovely I can be.

Like John, I usually know that I should point beyond myself and my own efforts to Jesus, the Son of God, who brings the good news of the kingdom.

Like John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary, I usually know to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

But can it really be true that God looks on our loveliness with favor? Or, to sing Mary’s song correctly, that God looks on our lowliness with favor?

How can that be? Like Mary, I ponder that question in my heart.

Oh who am I?

The complete first verse of the hymn we started with goes like this:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

Who am I indeed?

In Advent, we pray at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer that “when [the beloved Son] shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 378).

As we look forward to the Second Coming, we have a sense for what to expect based on Jesus’ first coming.

John’s question this morning comes fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. The good news is fulfilled, paradoxically, in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We heard that story on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent began.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

Who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Too often, I am the mean thief deriding Jesus from the cross while also pleading, “Save me!” Too often, I am in trouble or filled with shame and fear.

But the good news is that I am not who say I am. The good news is that I am who I am who I am says I am.

Let me repeat that: I am who I am who I am says I am.

And what I am who I am says – what God says – what Jesus, the Son of God says – is that I am so lovely that he will go to any lengths to save me.

You are so lovely that God will go to any lengths to save you.

You are not what you say about yourself. You are not what others say about you. You are beloved, that you may be lovely.

This is the message of the Incarnation, which we prepare during Advent to celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news, to which we point with John the Baptist and for which we rejoice with Elizabeth and Mary.

The child born to Mary, Jesus – the Son of God, who died for us and rose again – looks on your lowliness with favor. You may without shame or fear rejoice to behold him at his appearing.

You are who God says you are, and you are lovely. Amen.

 

Image: Magnificat © Jan Richardson from The Advent Door.

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My temple and my tower

Today is the last Sunday in the six-part sermon series on the Beatitudes at St. Thomas Church.

Remember that Jesus is addressing a diverse crowd, announcing the kingdom of God, and turning conventional wisdom upside down.

Jesus says people who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are honest about their own failings (what he calls pure in heart), and who are persecuted and reviled — these people — are blessed.

They are in the kingdom of God now, they are in intimate relationship with God now. It may not sound like it, but Jesus is trying to get the crowd (and us) to hear something that has always been true.

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Today is also “Bible Sunday,” if you will, in the Episcopal Church with the lovely collect that urges us to “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, which God has “caused to be written for our learning” (BCP 236).

What the Scriptures say about salvation is that it is to be found in intimate relationship with the God who created us, not in the things we humans desire out of a false sense of need or out of envy of others.

Professor John Dally at Bexley Seabury in Chicago lays out a brilliant summary of the biblical story. He says, in part, “salvation is knowing where you fit in the story.”

The biblical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.

The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.

Creation of the World

The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.

The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).

However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.

Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.

Creation of Israel

Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.

During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.

Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.

The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.

The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.

Creation of the Church

Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.

Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.

As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.

End of the World

The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.

The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.

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Things like kings and rulers, a Temple adorned with stones, even Christendom and the towering structures of economic and political power, those will all be thrown down eventually in favor of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city.

As our final hymn says,

Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.

But until they do fall to dust, “the powers that be” – both political and religious – will not be able to comprehend the self-giving love that Jesus invites us to practice, and we who practice it will get into all kinds of trouble with Tower and Temple both when we do.

That is when the kingdom of God is near, says Jesus.

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Jesus is the lens for reading the Scriptures, suggests Fr. Richard Rohr in his books and his daily meditations.

When the Scriptures represent people acting like Jesus = people get it.
When the Scriptures show people not acting like Jesus = people don’t get it.

The Scriptures are the record of the people of God working out how God has been acting in salvation history.

When Jesus says “Let the children come to me” and the disciples do (Matt. 19) = they get it
When the poet sings of Babylon, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock” (Psalm 137) = he doesn’t get it.

When the apostles set apart deacons to care for the Greek-speaking Gentile widows who are neglected (Acts 6) = they get it.
When the priests force the returning exiles from Babylon to divorce their foreign-born wives in order to be “pure” (Nehemiah 13) = they don’t get it.

When the Hebrew people live in intimacy with God who saved them from Egypt, walking in the desert for 40 years as a covenant people (Exodus) = they get it. They grumble about it a lot, but they get it.
When they are in the Land and they want a powerful king like everyone else (even though Samuel warns them he’ll be a tyrant and they’ll hate it) = they don’t get it.

When David the king wants to build God a house, a splendid Temple adorned with jewels (2 Samuel 7) = he doesn’t get it.
When David confesses his sins of committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) = he gets it.

When the disciples who’ve been with Jesus for three years are still gawking at the tall buildings and the splendid Temple (in today’s passage from Luke) = they still don’t get it

Jesus tries to help them and the crowd see that when you are hauled before synagogues and judges because you don’t fit in their orderly, successful scheme, that’s when you get it.

That’s when you are on the right side of the story of salvation history, the story that has been unfolding all along.

In fact that’s when you’re blessed, because you’re nearer to the Kingdom of God than ever before.

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Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that political power or religious control is part of knowing God’s near. God’s always been near, but our desire for power and control and our need to prove to others that we’re right means we’ve missed him. We’ve looked right past those who are near him.

Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that words are part of knowing God’s near. Jesus says poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, purity of heart, and persecution — these states of being — are the places where God is present.

When you are in those places yourself, when you are grieving and aching over injustice, worn down, sick at heart over your own failings, words don’t help much. Words are often part of the problem, especially when well-meaning religious people like us tell you everything is really all right.

Everything is not all right, but hear this: God is near.

Can you hear that?

Everything is not all right, but God is near.

Even Jesus — the Word of God as John calls him — even the Word of God stopped speaking in order to demonstrate God’s presence. That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now a newborn baby, speechless and helpless. Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now alone, a beaten and broken man, thirsty and suffocating on the cross.

That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.

We Christians who are fortunate to have plenty are called to empty ourselves, like Jesus, to stop grasping for political power and religious respect, to stop talking about how we’re persecuted or how our plan is right, and instead to follow Jesus, to demonstrate by our presence with people who actually do suffer that God is with them.

Until we go farther – until we listen to people’s needs, until we join them in their cry for justice, until we stop looking for power and respect and risk being reviled and falsely accused ourselves, we don’t get it.

Let those with ears “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures and let us join with God in God’s plan for salvation.

Then we can truly sing:

But God’s power
Hour by hour

Is my Temple and my Tower

 

 

i-thirst

Stay thirsty, my friends | Sermon for Proper 24C

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin (where I serve as deacon) we’re in the middle of a six-week series of sermons on the Beatitudes, sayings of Jesus that are found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus is addressing Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, a mixed crowd of believers and non-believers, those who think they belong and those who have been told they don’t.

He says we are “blessed” – happy or fortunate – when we are poor in spirit, when we are meek, when we mourn. He’s announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, where things are as God intends them to be.

Today we’re on the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness is when things are as God intends them to be.

Righteousness comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, meaning fairness or justice; my wife tells me that in German, the word for righteousness is like “richtig” – meaning that things are done correctly.

Righteousness is divine approval; what is deemed right by God.

Those who are righteous are those who are as they ought to be. Those who receive a righteous judgment are those who are treated justly, fairly, correctly – as God would have them treated.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those who eagerly desire to see everyone treated as God would treat them.

Fr. Aran told us two weeks ago about the rabbinical way of riffing on Scripture in what is called a “remez.” I want to riff on just one word, the word thirst – righteousness may feel like too big, too abstract a concept. Thirst we can understand.

A remez is the second of the four traditional levels of interpretation of the biblical text the historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical.

So here’s another philosophy – a remez – about thirst that you’ll recognize:

“Stay thirsty, my friends.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World does not really hunger or thirst for righteousness, does he? He thirsts for adventure and acclaim that set him apart from other people. In fact, with his recent well-publicized blast-off to Mars, he’s about as far apart from us as he can get.

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He’s more “up in heaven” than “down here on earth.”

The flip side of that beer commercial (on the day before my third sobriety anniversary) is a very down-to-earth story about Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frustrated by the slow growth of the AA Fellowship, and anxious about the thousands of copies of his “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous remaining unsold in a warehouse, he spoke to Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who appeared at his New York apartment one cold, rainy evening in 1940. As the story goes,

Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.

“Blessed are they,” Father Ed said, “who hunger and thirst.”

Bill replied, “Is there ever to be any satisfaction?”

Father Ed said, “Never. Never any. Keep on reaching – in time your reaching will find God’s goals, hidden in your own heart.”

He reminded Bill W., “You have made a decision to turn your life and your will over to God … you are not to sit in judgment on how God or the world is proceeding. You have only to keep the channels open … it is not up to you to decide how fast or how slowly AA develops … For whether the two of us like it or not, the world is undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.”

Father Ed basically describes the pattern of the Christian life, what we call the way of the Cross, and Bill began to learn that night that he had to turn his thirst for success and the approval of others toward self-sacrifice instead, putting down his own ambition in favor of working his own program, one day at a time.

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“We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

We Christians learn about the way of the Cross, what we call “the way of life and peace,” from Jesus himself, especially from the way we see him act as the end of his life and ministry draws near.

The Beatitudes come from the beginning of his ministry, where he is drawing large crowds.

But even before that beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus had to face a trial of temptation. He is alone in the desert and the Devil appears to him.

“You look hungry; why not make these stones into bread?”

Jesus realizes that he must turn his own hunger, his concern for his own life and ministry, his power as God’s beloved, which could just make him self-sufficient, into concern for others. He must aim his hunger elsewhere, as the Word of God will teach him.

His ministry must be about feeding others (and with overflowing baskets of bread, in fact) while he eats the bread of life from God’s word which, as Paul later reminds Timothy, “is useful for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But at the end of his life, on the night before he died, he is once again all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Perhaps in his Agony he remembers his own parable “about the need to pray always and not lose heart.”

“I’m thirsty,” he says to the Father, “but I don’t want to drink this.”

“Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” The prayer he taught to his disciples – the Lord’s Prayer which we pray daily in the church, the Lord’s Prayer that many AA meetings close with – rises to his own lips: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus must aim his eagerness for the Kingdom of God, finally, away from all success, away from the crowds, away from his closest friends, and toward the one final act in the drama of redemption which only he can perform.

He gives up his freedom. He is bound and arrested, tortured and mocked, beaten and finally crucified as though he were a murderer or a thief. He endures injustice and unfairness and what is not right for the sake of the whole world.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus says with nearly his last breath, “I thirst.”

i-thirst

He aims what he thirsts for at the heart of the Father, and “earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God” (BCP 287).

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 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Being filled in the sense that Bill W.’s story and more importantly, the example of Jesus, suggests is less about the achievement and more about the process.

The fellowship is growing too slowly for the Wall Street money man’s tastes, but it’s not about him. He must work the Steps himself and stay humble.

The Devil is persuasive to a hungry man in the desert, but he resists the temptation to use his newfound power for himself only.

The cup is bitter, like “sour grapes that set one’s teeth on edge,” like sour wine mixed with gall, but the thirsty man drinks it so that God’s will for the whole world will be fulfilled.

Over time, and with constant practice, as we do our best to set aside our ambitions and focus on our own way of the Cross – as we try daily simply to carry out our ministries fully – we will find that our reaching and God’s goals have become one.

“It’s not up to you to decide … We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

Righteousness will come about not because we aim to “save the world” – which Christ Jesus has already done anyway “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334) – but because we aim what we thirst for, our ambitions and desires, at what we can do for the sake of others today.

So, stay thirsty, my friends.

Amen.

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Solemnly engaging to conform

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?

 Answer

 I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. (BCP 526)

Engaging to conform

I have already been living under this vow for 20 years as an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, but I have been invited to reflect on it again as I prepare for ordination to the priesthood.

First and foremost, I believe the center of this particular vow – in response to the bishop’s questions about loyalty and obedience – is the promise to engage to conform.

Doctrine, discipline, and worship may be the legal matter of this vow, but conforming (both willingly and readily) is the spiritual energy of this promise made by bishops, priests, and deacons at their ordination.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

We live in a culture that does not value conformity, but rather tries to sell us on the endless allure of newness, entrepreneurialism, start-ups, and fashion.

Being transformed away from that culture, away from conformity to that world, means the “renewing of our minds” toward the good, the acceptable, the perfect. Being transformed toward good requires the paradoxical conformity of humility.

Humility means learning the hard lesson that there are people who know more, and know better, than I do. As I have realized often in my professional career and in 20 years as a deacon (and more recently in three years of recovery), I can learn from the experiences of people who know what I need to know only to the extent that I am willing and ready to conform to “the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery,” or to the experience of my colleagues, or to the practice of the Church’s disciplines.

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Discipline

I have been taking an online Canon Law course through Bexley Seabury this fall, so I now happen to know that where clergy discipline is concerned:

Discipline of the Church shall be found in the Constitution, the Canons and the Rubrics and the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer. (IV.2)

The church’s disciplines are not random, but have organic beginnings in the early Church and have developed over time as society has changed.

In our particular branch of the Church, we have disciplines that include organizing ourselves in General Convention and dioceses and parishes, agreeing how we will worship (down to the fine print), and setting out requirements for ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons.

Engaging to conform to the discipline of the Church means willingly working within the political structures of General Convention, the diocese, and the parish – even if you are working ultimately to change those structures.

It means willingly participating in an ordination process that involves many other people, even if (as my faculty advisor observed a long time ago) it’d be easier just to stand on the street corner and say, “I’m a preacher!”

Napoleon Dynamite Gosh

It means willingly observing the fine print of the prayer book or other services authorized by Convention, whether you agree with the changes or not.

I’ve always worked in large, bureaucratic organizations, so I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact that there are policies and procedures – disciplines – that govern the way we live, and work, and worship together.

Worship

Together or alone, we Episcopalians worship God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, in the Name of Jesus Christ.

In just the same way as the disciplines of the Church have changed over time, so too has the Church’s worship, whether personal devotions or corporate prayer.

From the very basics – fasting and the Lord’s Prayer – to personal prayers several times a day, to gatherings of Christians morning and evening, to splendid Byzantine liturgies and daily Latin Masses, to monastic offices, to worship in the vernacular and the Reformation focus on the reading of Scripture, the Church’s worship has changed and evolved in myriad ways throughout the 20 centuries since Jesus’ time.

Engaging to conform to the Church’s pattern of worship means, for me, praying “by the book” using the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

Though the public offering of the Daily Office has not been required of clergy in the American Episcopal Church as it was in England, it’s the heartbeat of the English prayer book tradition and an unparalleled practice for hearing and responding to the Holy Scriptures. Other forms of personal prayer, like meditation and Centering Prayer, supplement the offices and give me a chance to be silent and receptive, communing with God in that way.

Secondly, even though for a long time Sunday worship in the English and American Church featured Morning Prayer and only occasional Communion, the pattern since 1979 (and in many places even before I was born) has been to celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and on other Major Feasts. The prayer book rubrics are clear on the subject.

I read an article this week in The Living Church by Andrew Pearson, a cathedral dean who says “we are a Morning Prayer parish in the first place, already differentiating ourselves from nearly every other Episcopal church in the United States.”

Engaging to conform, to my mind, means setting aside that kind of idiosyncratic preference in favor of practicing and promoting the Church’s current pattern of corporate worship.

It’s often said (by Episcopalians, at least) that “praying shapes believing.” Practicing the Episcopal Church’s discipline and following the pattern of the Episcopal Church’s worship reveals the Episcopal Church’s doctrine.

Doctrine

According to the canons of the Episcopal Church:

Doctrine shall mean the basic and essential teachings of the Church and is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. (IV.2)

In the parishes and dioceses of the Episcopal Church we baptize new members of Christ’s body, making and renewing promises before God as we recite the Apostle’s Creed.

We pray morning and evening, reading from the Holy Scriptures and reciting that same baptismal creed. We celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday, reading from the Holy Scriptures and reciting the Nicene Creed in affirmation of the faith we hold.

We confirm lay persons and marry people and ordain ministers in the context of the Holy Eucharist. In other sacramental rites, we reconcile the penitent, pronouncing on them God’s absolution; we minister to the sick, laying hands on them and anointing them with oil for healing; we bury the dead, commending them to God in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Exsultet at Holy Communion

Our doctrine is our common prayer, and it is to be found in its disciplines.

My teaching over the years – in the catechumenate, in abuse prevention training, in Deacons’ School, in Episcopal 101, at retreats, on this blog, in Education for Ministry – has been, and will always be, rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and the Holy Scriptures, as the Episcopal Church uses them.

I stand willing and ready once more to engage to conform.

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Peace with every step

 If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

There is only one way into a labyrinth. It’s not a maze, but a winding path.

Earlier today at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin — at Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor training — we watched a video called With One Voice.

Contemporary mystics from 14 spiritual traditions, monastics and lay people, men and women, spoke of the universal human experience that mystics have, even though they seem to pursue many different paths toward (or following) that experience.

One of the mystics who spoke, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Yoga Center, suggested paradoxically that “there is only one path. That path is you.”

In just the same way, there is only one path into the labyrinth, and you must take the winding road toward the center.

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As you approach the center, you come very close, but then the winding path leads you farther away, back around for another loop.

Similarly, as you leave the labyrinth, retracing your steps along the one path, you seem to get quite far along, and then you suddenly find yourself near the center again.

There’s a quality like breathing to a labyrinth — the rhythm of going in and back out, out and back in again.

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As I approach ordination to the priesthood, I have been walking for the past few months in company with members of my discernment group (a priest, a deacon, and two lay people).

I am feeling the same sort of in-and-out, near-and-then-far sensation as in the labyrinth.

Some days, the prospect of beginning a new pastoral ministry seems crystal clear and tantalizingly close (what are we waiting for?), then a question from the group causes me to wonder if I’m really as ready as I think I am.

Other days, it feels like Jesus might have felt at the beginning of Mark’s gospel: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness ….” I’ve had a chance to meet many members of the new congregation, and it feels in some ways like we’ve already started. But the ordination date hasn’t even been set.

Back to the center. Loop back around.

Perhaps I should “put off sense and notion,” as Eliot suggests. I’m not here to “verify,” to nail things down, to organize the whole project. Other people, like my bishop, are in charge of that.

Perhaps all I need to do right now is kneel right here, where prayer has been valid. I know from experience that the DeKoven Center is just such a place.

There is only one path, and it will wind wherever it leads, to the center and back again, as long as it takes.