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“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”

February 26, 2020

 

[words of imposition from the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday]

For years I have felt such a degree of bewonderment at a Lenten phenomenon that used to make me sit up and take careful notice.  At my former church home in New York City, within that highly congested, yet all too significant crossroads of Wall Street and Broadway, 15-20,000 people made their way, and for that matter still make their way, to Trinity Church on Ash Wednesday.  They come every year without fail.  They come to have carbon black smudged on their heads in the form of Cross.  They come to be reminded of their mortality.  Now that is a staggering number of people, and such a swell in weekday attendance, that it demanded we marshall every possible black-cassocked resource in the southern part of Manhattan to do the work of imposition.  You should have seen our thumbs when all was said and done.  From way before sun up to way after sundown, we stood there amid long queues of somber souls who wanted that simple ministration of being ashed with a cross, along with the sobering words “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Remember, don’t you ever forget, keep it fresh and green in that mind and heart and soul of yours that you are but a speck of lifeless, burned-out matter as you enter this holy place…that’s your heritage, that’s your present tense in one sense, and as a matter of fact, that’s your destiny as well…and if, in your arrogance, you think you’ve got something going for you, think again!  Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.  Oh I know there’s much more to be said about who and what we are in the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, but we’ll get to that truth in due course…like Easter and Pentecost.  For today, let’s honor one truth at a time. 

In this season of life when we’ve become a notoriously impious lot who taste and nibble at any spirituality on the market that will tell us I’m OK and you're OK and we’re OK, I think it nigh incredible that we would ever even listen to such a dust-laden dictum, much less have it smudged on our consciousness.  I’m surprised the Standing Liturgical Commission hasn’t decided to remove the medievalism here, extract the penitential, and substitute new words: “My brother, my sister, you are lovable and adorable, and God just thinks you are peachy-keen. —and, instead of ashes, then perhaps sprinkle the imposee with the silver glitter of fairy dust. 

More Fully Confirmed

February 23, 2020

Transfiguration Sunday. Matthew tells us: “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them…”

Transfigured – Metamorphoo in the Greek – makes us think of metamorphosis…maybe a butterfly…literally to change to another form: caterpillar to butterfly – in that case unrecognizable in the change one to the other – in this case, recognizable, but more. In Luke’s account of this, instead of transfigured he says, “the appearance of his [Jesus’] countenance was altered.” 

But remember – both Luke and Matthew were not there. They are describing what they have heard – after some time went by – Peter, James, and John were “ordered” not to say anything about this until after the resurrection. Interestingly John, who was there, does not report this experience in his gospel. Maybe it was too personal? Maybe it’s simply, as Loisy asserts (Bromiley on Transfiguration), because John’s gospel is a “perpetual theophany” – a never ending revelation of God. 

What I love about the Bible is that is tells us crazy ungraspable things so casually. It’s almost like dinner time conversation: “Please pass the potatoes:” only Jesus was transfigured. So calm. So tidy. 

But this is crazy. I was reading in the Bromiley Encyclopedia on the Transfiguration. And it also asserts an understatement: this is a difficult passage. 

And here we are. 

The timing of this is so great – it’s the Sunday before Lent begins. We may find challenge, assurance, and umph for the Lenten season in this passage. 

Part of the fun of today’s readings is the conceptual overlap of the Old Testament and Gospel as well as the recollection we hear from 2 Peter. 

In Exodus Moses takes his assistant, Joshua, with him up a mountain for a 40 day and 40-night conversation with God. In the gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. 

Israel is on the brink of wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus’ followers are on the brink of witnessing Christ’s suffering and death. For both, they are on the edge of the unknown and unsure where it is going. This may stir us as we approach Lent.

6th Sunday after Epiphany

February 16, 2020

On rare occasions, our readings on a Sunday morning veer in the direction of the Apocrypha, i.e. the 15 historical and prophetic books of sacred literature that Anglicans/Episcopalians use for purposes of edification and spiritual counsel.  Today our case in point is from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach. The category is Hebrew Wisdom Literature, a life-giving source of ethical teaching written two centuries or so before Jesus’ birth. 

“If you choose,” says Ben Sira the writer of this account, “you can keep the commandments of God, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God gives you the power to do just that.  He has placed before you fire and water; so stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”

This past week I conducted a clergy conference In Lisbon, Portugal, and I used these words of the rabbi in my addresses. It was a gathering of the Convocation of American Episcopal Churches in Europe together with our sister church—the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal (not Roman Catholic—but Anglican—and what a name—I like to say it: the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal).  We met together in that beautiful capital city of Lisbon, and I was invited to come over with an expectation that I might assist them in understanding and addressing the spiritual dynamics of addictive illness, alcoholism in particular—along with its insidious effect on families of those so afflicted. Our American congregations abroad—scattered throughout the European continent—are having quite a time with this disease and its many ramifications in church life, so they pocketed their pride, and they asked for help.  33 years in recovery from the disease of alcoholism, and a doctoral degree in spirituality, and the emergence of a life’s work helping addicts and their families—provide me with some degree of expertise when it comes to leading such a conference—“Been there, and done that” as the saying goes. 

We no longer observe “Alcohol Awareness Sundays” in the Episcopal Church.  Such Sundays used to be de rigeur in Episcopal life and practice, but sadly they have disappeared.  I’ll use to my time in Portugal as an opportunity to share with you what I shared with some of them…and we’ll make this our own Addiction Awareness Sunday.  Back in the olden days, especially in churches of the south where preachers still had a measure of credibility and their words a powerful sway, people like me could get up in a pulpit and raise the dickens with their congregations about the evils of smoke and drink.  And those dickens appeared to pay dividends—at least to some extent. Preachers screeched, temperance clubs flourished, stills were smashed in the name of Jesus—especially up there in NW Arkansas—Newton and Boone Counties to wit.  We had teetotalers all over the denominational map signing pledges of abstinence and promising on Bible stacks to lead lives along the proverbial straight and narrow—ultimately giving way in this country to Prohibition — Can you imagine?  13 years of Prohibition.

Encouragement in Our Now from Mary & Joseph

February 02, 2020

Today we continue in our Epiphany season – seeing God’s revelation and affirmation of Christ – the reality of the Messiah arriving on the scene. 

What’s weird about this season of is that Jesus is a baby one week and an adult the next and then a baby again…The point is not to be linear but to show – which is really the definition of Epiphany – to show. 

There are things going on in our gospel reading today that serve as example to us. We are in a strange place globally and nationally and maybe personally – and so were Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna.

We, today, have a Senate impeachment trial – only the third time in our nation’s history has a president been charged by the House of Representatives and a Senate trial taken place. Republican or Democrat – this is hard and challenges ideas for us all about faith, character, commitment, and constitution – our very democracy. Leaders in these trial presentations are not always behaving really great. It leaves us asking some questions: is this who we are? what will become of us? Where are we going? 

We are at an historic moment as a nation that is challenging for each of us. 

Additionally, there is this coronavirus. An outbreak internationally that began in China and has a lot of unknown with it. In the vein of movies I have seen, this illness quickly has come to the place of being spread person to person. A little scary as we consider other historic outbreaks. 

Right now, watching the news is actually worse than most scary movies I have seen. 

I don’t mean to be dramatic about our “now.” I realize that in every generation there are those things that take place that can shake us to our core: politically, economically, ideologically.

But our national and international news is a bit core shaking these days.

On top of that, there is the tragedy of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and ripped apart with horrifying suddenness four other families. That intersects with us – the worse can happen to any of us at any time. It does not matter of you are rich or poor famous or unheard of – none of us gets a pass on suffering and death. We are all out of control. It’s just not something we are always aware of…

There is a Wildness to Baptism

January 12, 2020

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. We acknowledge, we honor, and we respond.

But what is this baptism thing? It is a sacrament and if I asked what a sacrament is, many of you, perhaps from your preparation for confirmation back in the day could spout it off. A sacrament is (and this is found in the catechism section of our Book of Common Prayer in page 857): “sacraments are outward signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” Simply put sacraments are things familiar to us that God uses to show God to us. 

In our contemporary culture baptism may be thought as something we do to babies and we go Awwww. And in our building lay out, we do it often a little clandestinely in the back corner. What’s going on back there anyway? 

Well, a lot. 

This bowl of holy water and little babies make baptism seem tame, but there’s a wildness to baptism, a recklessness, a danger to consider.   

The wildness comes as we take in all the angles of action going on. 

In our narrative this morning, the Trinity is uniquely present – Jesus – incarnate God, the Holy Spirit as a dove, and God the Father expressed through voice, speech. 

As we look at this, quite dramatic expression of the Trinity, let’s remember that Jesus is Savior, but also, that Jesus is also our model. He shows us how to live and informs our understanding of what is happening. So, a part of baptism for us now, today, is that the Trinity is expressing God. All of God present. All of God moving. 

The wildness comes as we consider God’s voice and the water. We heard in our gospel account: “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” 

Just as he came up from the water. 

Historically, people were baptized more regularly as adults, and it was more regularly done as a full immersion – all of a person all the way under the water. Now, that changed over time, because of need and in response to culture. That’s the beautiful thing about liturgy – it is dynamic, not static. It changes in ways that are discovered with care in response to culture and crisis. The crisis of change with baptism was infant mortality. By illness and other factors, so, the sacrament of baptism began to be done with infants – because they might die.

Sacraments are familiar things…

No Place Like Home

January 05, 2020

Are you ready now? The good witch asks the farm girl. 

Yes, she answers, but hesitantly. Behind her stand beloved friends: a tin man, scarecrow, and lion. She draws a deep breath and says, her doubt resolved:

Say goodbye Toto. Yes, I’m ready now.

Then close your eyes, and clap your heels together three times.

Eyes closed, she taps the ruby slippers.

And say to yourself  “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

I’ve told you before that the father of my first year college roommate was Robert Penn Warren, the novelist. I don’t believe I have previously mentioned that the great uncle of my second year roommate was L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’ve used All the Kings Men and The Wizard of Oz for sermon fodder so often through the years I may owe my roommates royalties.

I left home, here, for college in 1973. My father’s bishop’s diary entry for that September 3 reads: “Labor Day weekend with family. Down to two children at home. Tomorrow it will be one.” September 4: “Put son Christoph on the plane for Amherst College. Felt somewhat like the old rancher in the classic Norman Rockwell picture.” “Breaking Home Ties” is the name of the painting. A sad father sits at the bus stop with his eager son, who is leaving for State U. 

This eager son boarded the plane and was homesick all the way to Massachusetts. Four years later I collected my diploma and came right back home. 

On June 26, 1982—my sister Patty’s birthday––I was ordained deacon here. I was the only ordinand that day. As my home parish, you presented me for ordination. Somewhere down deep in the Cathedral archives there must be a vestry vote recommending me for ordination. My father came out of retirement to preach, from this pulpit, about the life and work to which I had been called. 

So kneeling on those steps, X marks the spot, is where I started out in ordained ministry, a yellow brick road that wound around the state: south to Pine Bluff, west to Van Buren, back east to Little Rock (St. Margaret’s); up north again for some extra years of school, then south back to St. Margaret’s, and finally right back here, home base, six years ago.

The First Sunday After Christmas

December 29, 2019

Today, on the first Sunday after Christmas, we hear the Christmas story from a different perspective, as poetry, through the prologue of the Gospel of John.   I can’t imagine understanding Christmas, or the rest of the story, without the Gospel of John.  It is on our calendar for every first Sunday after Christmas and it is also an option for every Christmas Day.   There is a good reason why it rolls around every year.  It’s a profound introduction to the meaning of the rest of the story.

So, John says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Our Gospel this morning is describing an intimate relationship and to understand the relationship, John’s poetry invites us to enter through the Genesis Creation story:   

In the beginning, Genesis says, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good. 

What does our Gospel say that has come into being through God?  Life.  And the life, John says, was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The Light has Life in it.

Christ is that Light.  Christ is that real Light that John the Baptist keeps pointing us toward.  In our poetry this morning, John the Baptist keeps popping up to point to the real person, Jesus, who is that true Light that has come into the world to enlighten every one of us.  If we want to know what it means to be made in God’s image, we can look long and hard at Jesus.  Through Jesus, the Word speaks anew into creation, “Let there be light.”

It’s a strange phenomenon that we don’t always notice the Light of Christ.  Our Holy Bible and, if we are honest, our ordinary lives, point out, again and again, that it is common for us to not recognize it, to ignore it, to resist it, to forget about it. 

I have my own annual ritual that keeps me remembering that Light shines in the darkness.  Every Spring, I plant Morning Glories and Moonflowers in my backyard.  My little blue Morning Glories start blooming around dawn and close in the late afternoon; my Moonflowers start blooming at dusk and bloom all night.  What a marvelous sign from God’s creation that says “he makes the dawn and the dusk both sing for joy.”  [i]   I’ve had Moonflowers outside my bedroom window that grow profusely, and the white blooms can be six inches wide.  Moonflowers literally shine in the dark.  They remind me of the year I went through my “Dark Night of the Soul.”  It gives me great comfort knowing that God’s plan includes flowers that bloom only in the dark.

The Scandal of the Incarnation

December 25, 2019

It’s Christmas morning. Whew. We made it! It was a late night for us potentially in a lot of ways – gathering to worship and preparing for celebrations. And a late night for those on the scene at the first Christmas: Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds. 

We like them may be a bit tired and fuzzy. 

It’s interesting to ponder what this morning was like for those on the scene in contrast to what it’s like for us and for the writers of the readings we have heard this morning – particularly Hebrews and John. 

We hear in our epistle this morning, written likely at least 60 years after Jesus’ birth: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” 

Speech. Words.  

This echoes the creation narrative of Genesis 1: God created. Over and over we hear from Genesis, “God said,” and our imagination goes to immediacy – poof - water, trees, sunlight, moon, stars, animals, people. God did not think, God did not wave a magic wand, God spoke and created. 

A big deal. A powerful deal. It’s a little hard to grasp in our day. Words unfortunately do not tend to be a big deal now, but in the then and there they carried weight, had authority, conveyed truth, and communicated the power to accomplish what they said.

We’ll come back to words.

Let’s consider those on the scene -

That first Christmas morning must have been a tired one. Mary and Joseph had a newborn. Jesus is God incarnate, become one of us. Incarnation. We hear that language in our gospel reading. Jesus is God incarnate, but that does not mean some definable percentage of human and divine was mappable in his person. Jesus was both, and his humanity was not compromised at all – he had likely already been breastfeeding, filling his diaper, crying and keeping his parents awake in their makeshift “room.” They were tired on this first Christmas morning.

Beautiful Day

December 24, 2019

“He might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved.”[i]

Those words were written not of Jesus, but of Mr. Rogers, by a journalist named Tom Junod, in the December Atlantic. I read it on an airplane. The article was titled: “What Would Mr. Roger’s Do?”

Personally, I was too old for Mr. Rogers. His show came on the air in 1968, by which time I was thirteen and done with children’s television. Eddie Murphy and Johnny Carson’s late night impersonations of him made me laugh, and that was all I knew.

Along with the rest of the country, I am getting to know him now in hindsight, through last year’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and this year’s movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. In both we learn about this writer Tom Junod, whose life Mr. Rogers changed by being kind. This happened in 1998, when Esquire assigned him a story on Mr. Rogers, a short profile, for a special “American Heroes” issue. 

At the time, Junod was a forty-year old reporter who had built his reputation by knocking big shots off their high horse. Mr. Rogers seemed ripe for exposure. Surely his niceness was an act and Tom was just the reporter to bring that truth to light—capable, he says, “of silken cruelties committed in the name of revelation.” He was assigned the story on Mr. Rogers, he remembers, “because one of the editors at Esquire thought it would be amusing to have me, with my stated determination to ‘say the unsayable,’ write about the nicest man in the world.”

One interesting thing he found out also came as a surprise to me. In Fred Roger’s closet there was . . . a preacher’s gown. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Tom asked him heavy, grown-up questions. In the news, another shooter had attacked a school. If God is love, why this evil? Fred replied with a grown-up, seminary educated reflection that God is constrained in his dealings with the world by some of his own commitments to it: “If there is such a thing as a ‘dark corner’ of God’s nature then I think it is God’s refusal to go back on the promise of ‘the creation’s freedom to love or not.”[ii]

Against his producer’s advice, Mr. Rogers was open to the Esquire interview. He sat for one, then another, and another. Finally the hidden truth came out, unearthed—but the tables had been turned. As Tom had scratched for dirt on Mr. Rogers, Fred was digging for gold in Tom. He knew he would find it. When he did, Tom said his heart, which had felt like an iron spike, “opened like an umbrella.” This happened in a prayer.[iii]

As for Mr. Rogers, his deepest secret was his kindness, born of his belief in children. “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid.”[iv] A child was that treasure. Empty the bank to buy that field. And what Faulkner said about the past, he applied to childhood. No matter our age, our childhood isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

God Save the State

December 08, 2019

Our psalm is a prayer for good government:

Give the King your justice, O God,
And your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously
And the poor with justice.[i] 

Such a government would be godlike in its impartiality, and for its care, top to bottom, for the common good. 

We now interpret “King” democratically, with separated powers:

Give the president your justice, O God,
And your righteousness to congress.

If Washington, Hamilton and Madison were father to those revisions, their grandfather was John Locke. According to Locke, government exists to preserve a community, small or large, and protect the natural rights, God-given, of its people. The powers of government are given with trust for the attainment of these ends.[ii] 

Locke knew that wars complicate this formulation.

I have been reading James Michener’s novel The Source, an eight thousand year stroll through the history of the Holy Land. In 336 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Israel for Greece. His successor Antiochus IV decided that it would serve the empire best if all its peoples practiced one religion, centered on Zeus, whom he personified. He renamed himself Antiochus Epiphanes, “God-Made-Manifest.”[iii] Under penalties up to and including death, a Jew “could neither keep the Sabbath, nor observe the feasts of his fathers, nor so much as confess himself to be a Jew.”[iv] Many faithful Jews refused to obey and were executed. In 166 BCE, Judah Maccabee led a Jewish revolt that drove the Greeks from Israel. 

The Greeks were followed by the Romans, who ruled Israel through Herod, a puppet king. John the Baptist chastised Herod for breaking divine law, and was beheaded. 

Such things don’t happen in our country as a rule. Our founders placed a hard stop on religious executions. These founders were wise to human nature’s mix of great and terrible potential, and masterful at giving freedom air to breathe while frustrating its appetite for power.

One of their best designs was the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That plan would have spared John the Baptist and saved the Jews from Antiochus Epiphanes.”

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