“Whenever I find love in this violent and uncertain world, I want to bless it.”
John O’Donohue was a friend and teacher, a voice of Celtic spirituality silenced too early. John died at age 52. He was an Irish priest and poet, a philosopher and scholar, a rare spirit in himself. Nancy and I came to know him first through his poetry and his wisdom. Another poet, David Whyte, said John had a ‘bird of paradise’ vocabulary. Yes, but he was so much more than a thinker. John was larger than life, with a huge laugh, appetites for fine Irish whiskey, loud humor, and good food, and he possessed energy enough for three. I know. Nancy and I tried to keep up with him as he led a group of pilgrims across the wild hills of western Ireland.
Once upon a time, John came to Bend and offered a Spiritual Care Conference for health care workers. I was Senior Chaplain in those days at Hospice in Bend. I didn‘t think there was much chance we could get a world-famous speaker to come to little Bend, but the only guarantee that something won’t happen is if you never ask for it to happen. Anyway, three hundred plus people came to the seminar, and no one skipped out after lunch.
The first session after lunch was Q & A. It was a time for the audience to respond to his first two sessions, before the final third presentation. The dialogue was going well, and John was enjoying his listeners, when the predictable troubling question came. A woman stood and challenged him, asking what his position was on gay marriage. The questioner left no uncertainty as to what she expected to hear. I don’t remember her question exactly (as host for the seminar I was getting nervous about then) but she basically reminded John that he was a Catholic priest, and under the Pope’s authority, and surely, he did not stray outside the church’s teaching that homosexuality is an abomination. There was an audible “aaagh” from the audience, and then silence. Then John spoke words of real grace which I have no trouble remembering to this day, “Whenever I find love in this violent and uncertain world, I want to bless it.” What a benediction. What a way to live. The questioner sat down.
When most of our country would rather think about the coming of Christmas than the coming of Jesus – maybe you too – the Gospel for our first Sunday in Advent strikes an unexpected chord. Matthew writes about the end of time, the day of judgment, the coming of the Son of Man. For context, remember this teaching was given on Tuesday of Holy Week, four days before Jesus’ crucifixion. It was sobering teaching then, and it has a profound note today, but not as a threat. Jesus says up front in the Gospel no one knows the day or the hour, and Matthew remembers him saying the Gospel would have to be preached to the end of the world before the end will come. So there is more of value here than fear of the end.
That Tuesday for Jesus was fraught with uncertainty, perplexity, and stress. He knew what he had provoked. Moreover, the times were hard for the people of Jerusalem. There are plenty of voices which say our day is saturated with uncertainty, perplexity, and stress. So here is the question - as people of faith, should we be perplexed? Is it not assumed that people of real faith are wise and confident at all times? I have heard that in matters of daily decisions and in larger world issues, faithful people should be steady and clear-headed. Some of us who are good at guilt will turn it inward: “If only I had faith… or enough faith… or the right faith…”
But faith is not about believing strongly, or having the right answers, but about acting through the times of perplexity and confusion. Uncertainty is a condition in even the best Biblical faith. Count the heroes – Sarah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Amos (any of the prophets), Mary, Jesus, Paul – they all knew uncertainty, but moved ahead “in faith”, in trust and hope. Uncertainty and doubt are facts of authentic life – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” Faith is about action, not doctrine; action infused with trust and hope.
We are not expected to know everything, but we are expected to do something. When I first thought seriously about seminary, I went for an interview with Bishop Louttit of South Florida. He was a colorful and strong man, a colonel in the National Guard, an effective bishop but hard. Many of the clergy and lay people were afraid of him. I brought awe and some of that fear to my interview. I only remember one question of many that day, “Mr. Green, what is the most important thing to do when a member of your parish dies?” I recall anxiety but not my answer. After I fumbled around a bit, he said, “The most important thing for you to do is walk in the door.” As the Biblical commentator Mark Yurs wrote, “Biblical faith knows it does not know everything, but it does know it is called to do something here and now.” Friends, we are not expected to know everything these days, but we are expected to do something.
Note though, ambitious Christians, we need not do everything, but something. We need to do something – in our own little worlds and in our own souls, and for some of us, in the big world. Something, not nothing. St Paul wrote to the Church at Rome, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers… Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13.11f). That is an honorable Advent challenge, no? Lay aside the works of my darkness and put on the armor of light? A challenge for our own souls, and then in compassion for this world and its people. Again, from Mark Yurs, “Those who have tended to the needs of the world will inherit God’s kingdom, while those who have ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned will not.”
No doubt, most of our country would rather think about the coming of Christmas just now than the coming of Jesus. That is why the Church needs Advent – to lift our Christian vision to the long view, to see past our present uncertainties and work towards quality of life - for this planet and among all God’s people. The truth is, storms are temporary, but the poor will always be with us. So let hold dear - faith is about action, not doctrine; action infused with trust and hope.
“Whenever I find love in this violent and uncertain world, I want to bless it.”
Today, as Episcopalians and Christians, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ. This Sunday is the last Sunday of Ordinary time before going into the Advent season, and as a relatively new Episcopalian I have always considered the Scripture texts puzzling. I mean, how does the death of Jesus on a cross relate to celebrating the kingship of Jesus. Death and kingship seem like polar opposites.
I decided it was time for me to do a little digging into the background of this feast day. This is what I found out. Pope Pius XI instituted The Feast of Christ the King in 1925 for the universal church. The Feast of Christ the King has been celebrated in the Episcopal Church since 1970. According to Pope Pius many Christians, including Catholics, had begun to doubt Christ’s authority and existence, as well as the Church’s power in the secular world. Pope Pius had three goals with initiating this feast day: (1) that nations would see that the church, or in this instance the Catholic Church, has the right to freedom and immunity from the state (2) That leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ and (3) That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.
With our recent election results in the United States I was struck by the power behind these three belief statements, especially number three. How do we the faithful gain strength and courage to celebrate this feast with authenticity? How does our Gospel lesson equip us to lead with Christ as our example? Jesus is not your typical earthly king who leads with an iron fist, he leads with an open heart and hand.
In Jesus we have a king who is crucified. We have a king who forgives the very people who put him to death. We have a king who, while hanging on the cross in agony, grants salvation to the criminal on the cross next to him. And if that wasn’t enough, we have a king who brings the condemned into Paradise with him. The question we must ask ourselves is this, “Would we vote for this kind of servant king today?” In our consumer-ridden Western world today, it is doubtful.
Pope Pius XI brought forth this feast day, because he thought the church had lost their influence in the world. I am not going to second-guess the pope’s original motive for initiating this feast day, but his words are a current challenge to Christian believers in the United States. Notice he does make a statement that you must believe like the Catholic Church to engage in Christian ways of following Jesus. Instead, he zeroes in on the core issues behind people’s apathy and disinterest in following in the way of Jesus. He states that following Jesus is a heart problem.
Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota says this about the current church, “We can no longer be secure in the fact that the church leads differently than the world, that our [Christian] leaders are better than secular leaders simply because they run a church” … she goes on to ask the question, “To what extent has the church contributed to the latent misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and exceptionalism in our ‘mainline’ and seemingly respectable institutions, practices, rhetoric, and confessions. Said more simply, “Has the church screwed up by not following the way of Jesus?”- His way of love, compassion, and courage. Because those three actions describe how and why Jesus died on the cross.
I have learned a hard lesson during this past election. I have learned that believing the right things does not necessarily lead to change or enlightened light. I have grappled with the truth that a person can have strongly held beliefs, and still be fearful, self-preoccupied, and terribly narcissistic. I can have strongly held beliefs, and still be angry, judgmental, mean and violent. Christian history and the history of other religions give us many examples of this. Because the bottom line is this, believing has little transformative power. Being Christian is not about right beliefs. Power comes about with a change of heart. Jesus transformed evil power into self-giving love on the cross, and I need to give way more thought on what it means to be a Christian.
I can easily allow the words of the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed to roll off my lips without these beliefs having any influence in my life. Believing in those early 4th century years meant something way different than it does now. The word believing back then meant something like the English word ‘beloving’. To believe in God, or believe in Jesus, was to belove God, to belove Jesus. As Bishop Curry might say, “Do you love Jesus enough to follow His way?” Personally, I want to say, of course, I’ll follow Jesus. I love him? But will I?
Following Jesus means I need to rethink power. What is good power? What is evil power? And how is good and bad power shaping my own perceptions? How honest can I be with myself as I examine my own motives to live for Christ? I have three actions I plan to exercise in my life: (1) I am going to listen to others, both inside the church and outside the church. (2) I am going to examine my own fears as I wrestle with challenging the status quo and (3) I am going to sit with forgiveness.
First, I will listen to the voice that has a different viewpoint of Christianity and my political reality. I will try to grasp their words and thoughts without judgment or the need to change their position. I was reading the Peanuts cartoon a few days ago, and Lucy held up a sign saying, “Power to my kind.” And Charlie Brown responds, “Good grief.” Exactly, good grief, how can I expect everyone to think like me, or be like me? It’s unreasonable, or even crazy thinking for humans to clone each other’s thoughts or actions. God uniquely designed each person, so can we as Christians respect true diversity, and still claim our own truth.
Colossians says, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.” If we reclaim the words from Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun,” then we can say with confidence that God resides in all things, even those parts of life that do not make sense, or challenges our strong-held core values.
Second, I must grapple with my fears, so I do not live a life filled with anxiety. Am I afraid to speak out for the immigrant who needs my voice? Karoline Lewis states, “To think that rhetoric can’t make a difference is to let the rhetoric of hate have the dominant voice … to think the church needs to remain neutral so as not to offend is to forget that the empty tomb was thought to be a load of crap.” We must learn to be braver in our speech, and bolder in our actions. Will I be the criminal on the cross asking Jesus boldly “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Lastly, I will sit with forgiveness. I will examine my own heart for anger, hate, and bigotry. I will ask God to forgive me for the evil I cannot see in my own heart, and ask that the Holy Spirit continue to give me eyes that can discern good and bad power. And then I will grieve the things I cannot change about myself, or the evil I cannot change in the world around me. I will grieve to keep my heart and hands open to the suffering around me.
The Song of Zechariah sings to us: “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” As Karoline Lewis says one more time, “Look for the crack, as small as it might be and preach it. That’s how the light gets in.” It is the same light that the criminal saw in the man called Jesus, King of the Jews when he asked to spend eternity with Jesus. Jesus is that kind of King. One who came from humble roots, and proclaimed that his kingdom looked quite different than the Roman kingdom, or our present U.S. culture. Christ is King! Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
13th November, 2016,
“That we lose not the eternal”
In 1971, I was a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary. Alexandria, Virginia, was and is adjacent to Washington, D.C., which in those days was blessing and curse. There was great unrest in our country. There was tragedy from Viet Nam. Veterans had been scorned and mistreated for years. There were demonstrations and violent anti-war protests in the news every day. It seemed that our beloved country was tearing itself apart.
Seminary life was not immune from the turmoil in the country. Students and faculty were divided, with passions defending America at all costs, and passions threatening to tear down the country. A professor had been arrested for celebrating a Peace Eucharist on the steps of the Pentagon, and there were student groups crying foul and demanding his resignation. The flash point came when a group of students demanded removal of the American flag which flew on the tower at the Seminary. The tower was at the center of the campus, and the flagpole was posted about two thirds up the tower, and at the top, was the cross. The charge was that the war was evil and the country was derelict in its participation in it. The matter came to a head when the seminary community, about two hundred faculty, staff and students, gathered, some to resolve issues, some to force them. It was scary, and felt a little dangerous, to be in the middle of so much rage, accusation and belligerence. Perhaps you remember those days.
Nevertheless, there we were. Arguments were made, people interrupted, mean names were used, tempers flared and one or two students stormed out. I was not the only one worried about our community being dismembered. The stress and pain of the meeting went on for more than an hour, and then, when the speakers began to repeat themselves and start their arguments over again, the Dean stood and went to the front. He was a very gracious man, soft spoken and elegant. Dean Woods said words to the effect that, while he understood the feelings on both sides about the flag, we must remember that the symbol which first claims our allegiance is at the top of the tower.
There has been much pain, argument and division in our beloved country throughout a most contentious presidential campaign. When I awoke Wednesday morning, when the results were in, I felt like a stranger in my own land. I had no idea that more than 60 million of my fellow Americans voted with values so different than mine, and that opposing passions were so widespread and deeply held. I felt like a stranger in my own land, but I came to see that was the way Trump supporters had been feeling for some time, like strangers in their own land.
Our country is divided. Republicans are asking their Democrat neighbors, “Can we still be friends?” Some see foreboding days ahead, while others sing, “Hallelujah.” Some citizens are feeling vulnerable in their own country, while mean words and hateful acts crop up in supermarket parking lots, on school grounds and on line. There are protests in our cities, and heartfelt prayer vigils all over. And as with any large conflict, there are people in the middle who just want the stability of their country back, and little ones who see fear on adult faces and feel overtaken by fear themselves. This much you know.
But this is not the end of the story. It is the present reality, but not forever. The sky is not falling; these are not the end days Jesus spoke about in the Gospel today. True, there are places where the earth is shaking, but just as true, there are places where the earth is not shaking. People of hope and good will from both parties are coming together across the land for prayer, for understanding, for healing of their hearts and the healing of this country. There is fear in places, especially among the vulnerable, but there are many, many standing together.
I saw it last night in the eyes and songs of children in Hood River, in confident words from the Sheriff and other presenters, particularly teenagers, and in the overcrowded church gathered to call out and honor our common humanity. If there is any lesson I learned as a Hospice chaplain, it is that there is always, always hope. Last night, hope was visible in Riverside Church.
And there is more to bind us together if we think about it. My son-in-law is a Trump supporter. He and I have been unable to talk much about the reasons for our different views, nor our feelings about the other’s view nor the problems of the nation. However, he is a man I love and respect. He is husband to my daughter and father of my Grandsons. There is so much that binds us together as family that we will not let our politics drive a wedge. For you and me, loved by Jesus and called to love in the name of Jesus, let us embrace his love and not let politics drive a wedge. It is that cross above the altar, the empty cross of the risen Jesus, above the flags of church and state, which holds our hope and claims our future.
In the name of God, then, as people of God, our job is to model a new reality, to speak truth and bridge gaps. Let us discover our own classism, racism, sexism, and elitism. And instead of preparing for combat, from fear and doubt and suspicion where we find it, let us make grace.
At the risk of quoting words you may remember about the kingdom of God: “In every act of generosity… the kingdom is present. In every hope and prayer, and every time prejudice and violence is sidestepped, the kingdom is present. In every moment when you and I are aware of our blessings, when we laugh with a child or weep with one who is grieving, the kingdom is present. When broken hearts are healed, in moments of reconciliation… whenever fear is cast out and love takes its place, the kingdom is present. No matter the darkness, when one candle is lit, one more light shines, and the darkness will not overcome.”
Friends, our times are not easy times, and our days must be lived with care, respect and a vision of hope. But we are Easter people, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song. We can do this. Let us pray:
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal; through Jesus Christ our Savior, Mentor and Friend. Amen
Sermon for St Mark’s, All Saints Sunday
6th November, 2016, Luke 6.20-31
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Unsettling words, and they ought to be.
These are not your popular beatitudes. What you and I recognize as The Beatitudes are from the Sermon on the Mount. This set, though, is not from a mountain or even a hill, but from an open place, from a teaching nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain. Unlike the familiar list, which has nine things to remember, this set has basically four, but also unlike the familiar these four blessings have parallel warnings attached. For example, “Blessed are you poor” is answered by “woe to you who are rich”. These are not just wise sayings, but wisdom with teeth in it. This morning’s beatitudes are also more personal. The familiar version is a teaching about others: “Blest are those who know their need of God… blest are the sorrowful… blest are those of a gentle spirit”. These, however, are written “Blessed are you who are poor… blessed are you who are hungry… blessed are you who weep now…” These sayings get to the point. They are not spiritualized. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” is a different message than “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
So which is it? These are both from the voice and heart of Jesus, but they are different. And why would we prefer Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit” instead of the more direct and personal, “Blessed are you who are poor”? Maybe it is easier to say “poor in spirit” than “Blessed are you who are poor.” Can you imagine the reception if you said to someone in the Warming Shelter, that they are blessed in their poverty?
The dilemma is better understood if we note that while these are the words of Jesus, they are from two different sources. Jesus wrote no books. The familiar Beatitudes are from Matthew’s memory of a teaching encounter with Jesus, a record which goes on for five chapters. This morning’s list is from Luke’s memory. Scholars believe Luke’s is the original and more accurate version, because the form follows the tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures in which every set of blessings is followed by a set of warnings. Further, Luke’s version is one quarter the size of Matthew’s, and less complicated, perhaps more easily learned by heart until they were written down. Different memories, different forms, but the same voice of Jesus, and the same object - both Matthew’s and Luke’s beatitudes teach the same kingdom of God.
Jesus believed the kingdom is here, now, rather than a reward in the distance after we are dead. Certainly, the kingdom here is incomplete, but it is present, now and here. In every act of generosity, in every experience of breathtaking beauty, the kingdom is present. In every hope and prayer, and every time prejudice and violence is sidestepped, the kingdom is present. In every moment when you and I are suddenly aware of our blessings, when we laugh with a child or weep with one who is grieving, the kingdom is present. When broken hearts are healed, in moments of reconciliation, when you feel God is as close as your breath, the kingdom is present. Whenever fear is cast out and love takes its place, the kingdom is present. No matter the darkness, when one candle is lit, one more light shines, and the darkness will not overcome.
Marcus Borg, commenting on Luke’s beatitudes, wrote
A primary quality of a life deeply centered in God is growth in compassion. This meaning is expressed in perhaps the most concise summary of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. The verse, Luke 6.36, combines theology (what God is like) and ethics (how we are to live) in a few words: be compassionate as God is compassionate… But compassion is not just a feeling. It is about acting in accord with that feeling. Jesus did not say, “Feel compassion as God feels compassion,” but “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”. (Convictions, p224-5)
In every act of compassion, the kingdom is present, and in every act of compassion, one more candle is lit. Perhaps it is not thoughtful to say to someone in the Warming Shelter, “Blessed are you who are poor…”, but for us to be present in the Warming Shelter in the first place, compassionate and ready to receive from another there – that matters, and the kingdom is present in us.
Today is All Saints Sunday, and we rightly remember those blessed ones who have been the lights of the world in their generations. As has been said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. True enough. Yet no matter how grand our predecessors in faith, if Christian grace is to continue to flow, if there is any passing on of a vision of a compassionate world, if there is to be forgiveness practiced or mercy given, it is up to us. We are the kingdom here. We are the medicine. You and I are the current “translators” of the message of Jesus now. We are the kingdom here. We are the medicine. It is a good thing to be descended from saints, but the light of the world rests now with us.
One other observation about this encounter with Jesus: the popular beatitudes say that Jesus went up on the side of a hill to teach. These, though, have him on a plain. Further, Luke is clear that Jesus “looked up” to see the disciples. Picture this: perhaps he was stooping, or kneeling beside a sick person, someone broken, and he was caring for them. At any rate, he looked up. Perhaps, if you can imagine that scene, he is saying to us, “Come here, and help me.” I am learning that St Mark’s is a profoundly spiritual place. It may be more than what one expects in a church these days, or it may be exactly what a one should expect a Christian Church to be.
St Paul refers to all the worshipping community as “saints”. The Church later canonized special folk, but for Paul, the faithful Christians were saints. That is us, you and me. We are the kingdom here. We are the medicine. Others are looking to us to be the light bearers. Perhaps All Saints Sunday is our day as well. Amen.
PREPARING FOR ALL SAINTS' SUNDAY
Sermon Notes for St Mark’s
30th October, 2016
All Saints Day is Tuesday (11/1), and next Sunday (11/6) is All Saints Sunday.
All Saints Day is a time to celebrate all Christian saints, known and unknown, since the second century of the Christian era.
This is a marvelous day, a major day, as we remember those who have gone before us in this Christian way. They are extraordinary folk, like St. Mark and St, Francis, Martin Luther, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have just finished reading The Heart of a Pastor, a biography of Edmond Browning, and I believe he belongs in this extraordinary company, though he would deny it. I remember in 1997, when the General Convention celebrated his term as Presiding Bishop, a dance group came from South Africa to offer tribute to Bishop Browning. I remember their chant honoring three extraordinary people — Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Edmond Browning. I thought then, what a tribute to be sung with the likes of Tutu and Mandela. Browning belonged there, just as he belongs here at St. Mark’s.
There are others, perhaps known only to you and me, who are also part of that great cloud of Christian witnesses. When we say, “Therefore… with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven, “, they are all there, all the saints, and next Sunday we will begin in our prayers to remember them.
This Sunday is important, too, for it is a day to prepare for next Sunday, to consider seriously our financial commitment to the life of St. Mark’s, and to remember those who have gone before us — great saints and local saints.
It has been said, “The best things in life aren’t things.”
To help us remember the deep gifts which are ours, tapping into what may be called a “theology of abundance,” here are three questions to reflect on:
1. Who are your saints and angels?
These are the people, living and dead, who touched your life in a special way. Perhaps they were teachers who ignited your passion for a particular book, author, or subject. Perhaps they were friends or strangers who supported you when you most needed help. Perhaps they were colleagues or mentors who’s presence changed your life in a positive way. Perhaps they were musicians or actors or artists or others whom you never met but who inspired you to see life in a new way. Perhaps they were parents, siblings, or other family members.
Sometimes angels show up as “dark” angels. These are people who’s initial impact may have been negative but your experience with them led you to move in a positive direction.
2. Who do you deeply love? How do they know you love them?
Sometimes we fall into ruts with the people closest to us. We forget to tell them we love them, or maybe we never did; We forget how much they mean to us. Make a list of your loved ones. Remember you cherish about each one. Tell them — if not in words, in some small action that comes from your heart.
3. What are your expectations of God?
Sometimes even if our faith is strong we may fear God —- that He will ask things of us that we are unable or unwilling to do; that He will judge us harshly, on earth and/or after death. These fears may be rooted in negative images of God that carry over from painful childhood experiences, misunderstandings about who God is, or misinterpretations of scripture. Healing our images of God may be some of the most important work we can do. Can you learn to see God as He sees you, through the eyes of Love?
Think on these things. Remember Jesus and the holy ones in your life. The opposite of remember is not only to forget, but to “dis-member”, to separate, to take apart. All Saints Sunday, also Pledge Sunday — let it be a day to re-member, to bring ourselves back together, and to discover the whole-ness, the holiness that is already there.
All Saints Sunday, Pledge Sunday — a day to Re-member.
* These notes were edited with permission by Amy Russell
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.