Monday, December 09, 2019

The Nearness of God

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
   be acceptable in your sight,
   O God, my strength and my redeemer.” ~Psalm 19:14

The Nearness of God

That’s what seems to come to me today. Therefore, let’s consider this text from today’s Gospel; “Repent, The kingdom of heaven has come near”
   ~Matthew 3:2

Many years ago one cold and blustery Friday in December when I was a young priest in Hyde Park, I found myself in the bank across the street from the church. Suddenly dark clouds and a violent wind whirled outside. For a moment everyone stood still. Well, you know me; I am not one to let such a moment pass by; I wheeled about, fierced myself up with eyes blazing to say; “Repent!” There was a moment of suspended animation, then finally we all had a good laugh for ourselves. 

John the Baptist, likewise, was a fierce and edgy sort. His appearance in the wilderness, clothed in camel’s hair, his diet of locusts and wild honey is an indication of his somewhat feral nature. When it came to the Pharisees and Sadducees he did not hold back or mince his words; “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” Fair warning! It is a matter of ironic interest to me that for both John and Jesus, it was the fundamentalists of the day who proved to be the source of violent danger.

And yet folks flocked to him. His message; “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people!” drew us to him. When he appeared; he proclaimed the nearness of God. In the midst of that arid desert; in the rocky, dusty earthen experience of human suffering and injustice; John proclaimed Good News. The Waters of Baptism make new life possible. Copious amounts of water go hand in hand with the extravagant promise of God that we can indeed die to sin and rise to newness of life. God can bury bury sin and death and raise us up in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Rejoice! God is near.

The Christian hope is built brick by brick and person by person into a whole new realm of eternal life.  The nearness of God becomes an unmistakable sign of who we are. Jesus is very near to us. John said so. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

This blessed Advent season is full of the expectation of a new birth. That expectation is of the sort that is inevitable given the condition Mary finds herself in. She ponders what all these things might mean that the Angel Gabriel announced to her. Neither she nor Joseph could possibly understand it all. But there was no time for that. The Nearness of God was upon them and within her.

So they journeyed on from Nazareth to Bethlehem; an arduous and dangerous journey of just over 97 miles. Imagine that! Not an easy trip for anybody on foot, let alone a woman on a donkey in the fullness of her pregnancy. The Nearness of God comes to us much like every earthen journey; fraught with danger, distance, and possibility, requiring determination.

Thank God! The Nearness of the Holy One is with us every step of the way. I believe this is why we flock to John the Baptist. He proclaims the kind of repentance that understands our predicament. Like Mary and Joseph, there is no way we can possibly understand what it all means while going through it.

I remember when our boys were young. Those years were busy and demanding. After dinner, we put the three of them into the tub, dried them off, put on their P.J’s and sent them off to bed. But because of our baptism, I also remember story time every night. I remember lighting the sacred candle. We said our prayers. And then there was slumber in the Nearness of God. 

There were mouths to be fed, dishes to be done and endless loads of laundry, and a living to be earned to provide for it all. The whole journey was and continues to be a demanding one. If we do not stop to remember the Nearness of God in the Joy of Repentance, we miss so much of life. It is a sad and depressing world that doesn’t know the Nearness of God.

“Repent, the kingdom of God has come near.”

I think we flock to John and to Jesus precisely because in them we see the nearness of God.

Throughout the Biblical narrative we read the record of God’s Nearness. Today the Prophet Isaiah proclaims
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a little child shall lead them.
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God
   as the waters cover the sea.”

Likewise the Psalmist points to a kingdom not yet completely fulfilled but no less hoped for.
“Give the King your justice, O God, *
The King shall defend the needy among the people; *
       he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure”
In Sacred history we see Jesus as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and he shall reign for ever!
These words sing to our hearts in the Nearness of God.

As for the one in whose name you have dedicated and consecrated yourselves in and from this sacred place, he writes to us today in words of immediate and practical value; 
“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus”…and…”Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Paul brings the nearness of God front and center right up to the present moment. Here we are living as Paul urged us to live. I am grateful beyond words that you live this way because you become living evidence that Jesus is indeed present in the nearness of our friendship with one another. 

When John invites us into repentance I suspect it is more with a note of Joy than it is with a note of Severity. After all, John’s point was that the kingdom is near. God is near. God is no further away than Forgiveness, Reconciliation, or the next act of Compassion and Love. This is how Jesus is with us when he heals the sick, teaches the crowds, feeds the multitudes, or overturns the tables in the Temple Precincts, then dies, puts our sin away and rises again in Glory. 

God has come as near to us as the Holy Child who is born to us yet again this year. Prepare ye the way for the Holy One in your hearts!

Repentance is a matter of deep Joy. God’s day is not a day of darkness and gloom as it was on that that Friday in Lent on a Boston Bank so many years ago. Repentance is a matter of Joy to John, to Jesus and to all of us who would embrace this new life born to us in the nearness of God. 

“Repent for the kingdom has come near.” Amen. 

In the Name of God; the Most Holy, Undivided and Everlasting Trinity. Amen.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Defend the Orphan ~Isaiah 1:17

“Defend the Orphan” ~Isaiah 1:17

“Watch , for you know not when the master of the house 
will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or 
in the morning; lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” 
~Mark 13:35, 36

This is how the Gospel says it in Mark. Today’s Gospel from Luke turns the phrase in a slightly different way. But the message is the same. Watch, be ready; Jesus is coming at an unexpected time.

When I was in the early years of my priesthood I served a church in which the Senior Warden sold insurance by day and played the saxophone by night. His wife often quoted the Gospel words; “You never know when Walter’s coming home, at midnight or cockcrow or in the morning.” She often said the words with an edge in her voice, a pause and then we all laughed. 

When I go to church on a Sunday morning on a beautiful day like this, I hope to hear the Good News of Jesus, and to be among folk who want to worship God. I find myself eager to be in the beauty of holiness, to ready myself for the coming of Jesus. 

But the world is much too much with us. Day in and day out we hear so much bad news. The daily grind can get to us. We oftentimes find ourselves worn down by it all. So when I come here, I want to find my heart lifted toward the holy.

This has always been the case. From the earliest of times, folks have gathered to sacrifice and feast before God in an effort to find whatever connection there is between us and the divine. 

Yet also from the earliest of times the Prophets have confronted and warned us about thinking that worship alone pleases God.  In today’s first lesson from the Prophet Isaiah, we read;
“When you stretch out your hands,
   I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
   I will not listen…
   cease to do evil,
17   learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow.”

How timely these words!

The prophet’s message bears a special immediacy to us. As we round up folks for detention and deportation, the children are left to plead with us. How can they possibly understand the politics of it all? 

There is a little girl in tears who looks up at a camera begging for her father. “I need my daddy. He’s not a criminal. Please don’t take him away and leave me here alone.” I do not understand how it is that we make orphans by the the hundreds on a daily basis, rather than defending them, those of us especially who claim to be under the authority of Scripture.

Therefore I turn to the Bible. In it I find the word “Justice.” It is used 194 times. There must be a way to find our way to a just solution to what divides us. It stands to reason. 
The Prophet continues;
“Come now, let us argue it out,
though your sins are like scarlet,
   they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
   they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
   you shall eat the good of the land”

There must be a way to turn our hearts. With God there is “Compassion”; a word that is used 80 times in Scripture and there is the word “Forgive” which occurs 133 times.

Tragically, the word “violence” is also used 76 times. When left to our own devices we end up in conflict which often directs us toward hatred and hatred is expressed in violence. 
The Prophet continues; 
“if you refuse and rebel,
   you shall be devoured by the sword;  The gun and the AK-47
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Isn’t that the tragic truth of it! Dear ones, what we read in this ancient manuscript from Isaiah today sounds as fresh and as raw as this precise moment in our history. 

This is what brings me to gather with good folks like you Sunday by Sunday. Right smack dab in the midst of a world much too present with us we seek to gather and remember who we are and whose we.

The Epistle articulates an especially compelling vision of the Gospel today.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Interesting turn of phrase; “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The Christian Hope is the assurance of the Love of God made flesh and blood in Jesus. The word “Love” by the way, is used in the Bible 872 times. If our conviction is in Jesus, surely God’s Love is the thing unseen but no less real. And this is our Faith! “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.

We have received the faith of Abraham who connects us to the Three Great Abrahamic Faiths; Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. For as Paul says in his soaring words today; “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place …not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed…in a foreign land, living in tents…but he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” “A wandering Aramean was my father!” By faith he and Sarah gave birth to descendants ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’” Abraham like the rest of us at one time or another, undocumented aliens in a foreign land, put his faith in God. 

What bring me back again and again to our gathering together is this Faith; a living relationship with Jesus and with the people of Jesus because we are the people who embrace the Gospel proclamation we heard just moments ago; we are the ones who listen to Jesus; “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

When Jesus comes each and every one of us wants to be engaged in those life giving words; Justice, Compassion, Forgiveness. This is the Way to Faith and the Way to Eternal Life; it is the Way of Love. Justice for the orphans, the widows, the poor; without regard to Nationality or Language, Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Orientation or any variation of all the above. We are all one in Jesus.

And Jesus says; “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

In the Name of God; the Most Holy Undivided and Everlasting Trinity. Amen.

Fr Paul

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Hovering Silence

"A Hovering Silence"

(A Pentecost sermon at the conclusion of the annual gathering of the Anamchara Fellowship at the Passionist Fathers Retreat and Conference Center in Detroit.)

“Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire. Amen”

I have no way to say this but to tell you the truth. The Holy Spirit came to me when I was but a boy. I cannot even begin to describe the fullness of her beauty, but I was quite taken with her early on. 

You see, it was in the bleak mid winter of my 8th year to heaven when my father died. It was Christmas, 1953. There had been a bitter divorce and hurtful words were spoken. The Christians in the family said that my dad couldn’t go to heaven becuase he didn’t go to church. I thought that was cruel and mean spirited. Thank God my grandmother wasn’t a “christian”...she was an Episcopalian.

She sent me to church hoping that might cheer me up. From the moment I entered that place, I knew I was in God’s House. High above the Altar there were the words: Holy, Holy, Holy. Stained glass windows sent tiny rainbows of refracted light to the corners of oak pews. The choir sang a peculiar music called Anglican Chant. There were words of poetic cadence. And a kindly man stood up and spoke of God’s love from the pulpit. Then we said; “Our Father who art in heaven.” I looked up into the clerestory hoping to see him. But he wasn’t there. No God; no dad. So I cried; “Abba, Father”, like Paul told us to do in today’s Epistle. 

I took it all to my bed in the night season and poured out my heart to the Silence who dwelt with me there. I can tell you precisely where She was. She hovered over my heart, I’d say, about a foot or so above me. I spoke to the Silence. More than once tears drenched my pillow as I tried to explain to her what happened. But then when I listened there was nothing there but an Absolute Silence.

Then one day on the way home from church, I mindlessly plucked a solitary leaf off a straggly city hedge and buried my thumbnail into her girth. I looked at down at her green life blood buried there and realized she died for me. That’s when it happened; it was as if the Word of the Lord came to me. She was precise and articulate when she spoke; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?” I stopped dead in my tracks. I listened but there was nothing more. Then I gave her voice to all the world around me; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?” Imagine, The still small voice of God spoke to me in the sheer Silence.  

I ran home as fast as I could. I burst through the front door and ran into the kitchen where my grandmother was peppering up something to eat; 
“Ma is there a God?” 
“Of course there is” 
“Ma is there a heaven?”
A touch annoyed and a sideward glance; “Of course there is.”
“Ma, is my daddy there?”
I looked at her with pleading eyes. She hesitated, just a moment. The idea of spending an eternity with that Irishman must have been a ponderous thought for a Maine Yankee. But the question remained; “Is my daddy there?”
And that’s when she knelt down to me and held me close. She folded my head into the nape of her neck and it is as if I can still smell the scent of her hair; and that’s when she said; “Of course he is!”

Can you see how beautiful She is? The Holy Spirit entered her heart and God’s eternal now came to life in me in the beauty of holiness.“Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire. Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight.”. 

My heart leapt for joy. And when I went to bed that night, the Silence became a Presence to me now. She had a Name. I called her God. We were told to call her him. But she/he/they have always been someone of glory and beauty to me. For me there was a feminine dimension to the Holy Spirit. 

Then, come to find out, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. All that confused me when it came to the use of godly pronouns.

Nevertheless, now in the night season I could preach to the Presence hovering there because the Gospel message was clear to me now. There is a special place in God’s heart for my dad and for the rest of my family and for all of you and for everyone all the world around.

Mind you, my family was a mess. There were mental health issues. My grandmother was agoraphobic. My uncle was gay. My mom had been through an abortion and three husbands. Working out the particulars of God’s Salvation Plan for my family took years and many controversies in our church....and we’re still working through it all.

Many’s the night I spent pouring out my heart to the Presence. I call him/her/them God. Jesus. Holy Spirit. They are a whole community of distinct persons to me. But it his Her beauty that first and foremost caught my eye and dwelt within my heart and soul.

So I became a priest and served congregations in Massachusetts, Ohio, West Virginia and South Carolina. Since retirement I’ve served more congregations than I did while I was working. And next Sunday I retire for the eighth time. And the Gospel I preach is still the same; “There is a special place in God’s heart for you.” And on Pentecost, that message was proclaimed to every race and nation in every language and tongue. 

The Gospel proclaims the love of Jesus. Do you have any idea how beautiful you are? I mean really? You are a reflection of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I well know how wounded and broken your hearts are, like mine. But the healing power of Jesus has touched us and that’s all it takes. That plus a little kairos time and eternal life living in you and me. You are beautiful, becuase you reflect the image of God.

Today I take it upon myself to invoke the Holy Spirit. In Eastern Christianity they call her Sophia. Now that’s a pretty name; a beautiful name! The Hagia Sophia; the Holy Wisdom. Her dwelling place in Constantinople, now Istanbul, still stands as a sign that She was at the center of Eastern Christianity for a thousand years. Like my grandmother She is a storyteller of Shakespearean and Biblical proportion. She imparts Wisdom to us in the story she tells of God’s saving deeds in history. She imparts Wisdom to us in the stories we tell to one another.

Mind you, as beautiful as she is, The Holy Spirit is not to be trifled with. Remember, Jesus sent The Advocate to be with us forever. So, for instance, when I took up the cudgels for the homeless in West Virginia we built a shelter. There was controversy. The NIMBY syndrome kicked in. Somebody was so mad they called my wife and threatened to kill me. You have to know Cindy to fully appreciate how she said it: “Oh yeah; take a numbah, I want to kill him too sometimes.”

The Holy Spirit gave her those words. The threat was real; it was frightening. But God diffused the threat! For the rest of my life, I’ve taken up the cudgels for all sorts and conditions of folks. Just like you do. 

Paul said that when we are in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male or female. Do I have to spell that out? When Paul says “Jew or Greek” he means all races and ethnicities. When he says; “slave or free”, he means everyone, no matter how rich or poor. And when he says “male or female” he means everyone else for that matter. Do I have to spell that out?  LGBTQ-AEIOU...everyone in God’s magnificent kaleidoscope of human identity. If you get bullied about, I’ll be there to take up the cudgels on your behalf. 

Come Holy Spirit come, She came to us on that first Pentecost with flames of fire above our heads. She gave us power to speak plainly in every language on earth of the mighty acts of God, and of Jesus’ power over sin and death. But when it comes to the language of the heart; there’s a language all the world hungers to hear. We all understand that. We can all speak that language. When I sit down across from you, I can look into your eyes and say; “There’s a special place in God’s heart for you too!”.  

In the Name of God; the Most Holy, Undivided and Everlasting Trinity. Amen.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Mary's Tears

Mary's Tears

“Marie-Madeleine se tenait debout en pleurant devant la tombe.” Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb.
“Notre Dame se dresse aujourd'hui comme une tombe à Paris.” Notre Dame stands today like a tomb in Paris. 
“Nos cœurs sont rempli de tristesse à cause du feu à Notre Dame.” Our hearts are filled with sadness because of the fire at Notre Dame.

How fitting that if this tragedy had to happen, it happened in Holy Week. Because she will rise again, perhaps not bigger or more beautiful than she once was, but she will be filled with faithfulness more than ever before. Nothing reminds us of what we have more than when we loose it. Loss and death is a stark reminder of what and who we treasure in our hearts and how much.

Christ has died. So have so many loved ones. We remember them, sometimes wishing we could see them one more time. There is something left unsaid, undone. Perhaps one more hug!

As I watched the news from Paris Monday night transfixed by what I saw; I heard someone say; “Incroyable!” as the spire fell into the vault of the cathedral

As we hear the news this morning from Sri Lanka, we stand transfixed; "Unbelievable". The Good Friday fact of human tragedy ultimately gives way to the fact of human love. This is the Resurrection. 

Yes, it is unbelievable not only our loss of Notre Dame, not only of churches belonging to black congregations in Louisiana, but also our very own fire here at Trinity, some years ago. So much was lost. But the buildings rose again.  Moreover so did our faith.

Within days a billion dollars was raised for the rebuilding of Notre Dame de Paris. Thankfully, at the same time, millions have poured in for the rebuilding of the churches in Louisiana. Trinity Church stands today as a sign of our faith in Jesus.

Naturally folks raise questions; If we can raise a billion dollars that quickly, that easily for the rebuilding of a Cathedral, what about the poor for whom Jesus gave his life?
Remember; Blessed are the poor, the mournful, the meek, the righteous, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted?

If we can rebuild a great Cathedral dedicated to the honor of our Lord’s mother, surely we can raise the funds for those for whom Our Lady sang her song;
 “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
     and has lifted up the lowly. 
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
     and the rich he has sent away empty.”

I grew up in the hood and have served congregations in the inner city. I have served in rural churches where so many live in poverty. What breaks my heart is that, in so many places, the forgotten live without the hope of a future; of work, a place to live, or even enough to eat. What about them?

Across the political spectrum, there is general agreement that America needs an enormous investment in infrastructure projects. If we choose, there are good jobs for everyone to rebuild our bridges, roads, and transportation systems.  After World War II we put all those returning soldiers to work building the Interstate Highway System. What an opportunity we have today!

There is death but there is also resurrection. Paul guides us through them both in today’s Epistle; “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

In Adam all die. Yes, divided, enslaved by the sin of hate, recrimination and blame we all die. But in Christ all shall be made alive. Imagine being filled with such love for one another that we put aside our differences and mobilize all our efforts and figure out a way to put all our citizens to work. Imagine filling our young with hope in all inner city neighborhoods like the one we live in, or in rural areas. Unemployment in the coalfields of West Virginia still hovers around 70%. There is too little hope in too many places. 

Life or death? Die to sin? Rise to life? Is there a Resurrection? Part of the answer to that question rests on our willingness to become obedient to God together.

There are those who, in all honesty,  do not believe in the Resurrection. My stepfather used to say; “When you’re dead, your dead.” He said that as an engineer might. He was a practical man; hard, true, honest and full of integrity. On the other hand, he loved my mother. There was nothing practical about that! That was a miracle, given the sharp edges of her personality. I often told him; “HK”, using his initials; “For living with my mother, you’re going to heaven, whether you believe in it or not.”

There are many others who are not so full of true, honest integrity and faithful love for the likes of the vulnerable in our midst. They honestly think that they can get away with whatever chicanery they can dream up. There is a thing called theft, fraud, dishonesty, violence and criminal behavior. There are those who think there is no accountability in this life or in the life to come. If you are rich enough you can probably get away with it in this life. If you are poor, you will likely be incarcerated.

But God will not be mocked! Do you suppose that the secrets of our hearts are not indeed disclosed to God? It must be of considerable comfort to those who have said in their hearts that there is no God. Boy, are they in for a surprise!

My son Michael often looked askance at some of the shabbiness of this world and he’d say to me as we drove by; “Dad, did it ever occur to you that this whole God thing might be a crock!”
“Oh there are times.” I’d tell him in all candor. 

But then I read the Gospel again. Every single day. Every single Sunday with faithful folk like you.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and the person I meet on these pages comes to life again for for all who look to him for hope. Not for this life alone, but for the life to come as well.

The ancient symbol of the Resurrection is the butterfly. The idea of death and life is woven into the fabric of the created order. In winter all seems to die a cold and rock hard death. In Spring all of nature is born again. A common grub finds itself inside a tomb like cocoon. It emerges to the glory of a butterfly. 

Recalling and restoring this ancient symbol, we present to you these butterflies. Your Sunday School has made them for you. We are all in for a wonderful surprise. The common grub has no way of understanding that it will become a glorious butterfly. How can you and I know what we shall become? And what God has in store for us?

Every time I stand at the grave with the bereaved among my family, friends and parishioners, I proclaim the ancient words; Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, and without hesitation, I proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus. 
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again.

Now we go to the font and renew our Baptismal Covenant.
I so love it when I sprinkle you with holy water and remind you who you are and whose you are. We cannot help but smile and be filled with joy. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! 
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! 
The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia

Please come with me to the font as we renew our Baptismal Covenant. 

Fr Paul