Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Have a Gloomy Lent!
The once Bishop of Western New York, whose see city is in Buffalo, was an impish fellow by the name of David Bowman. He, like many Episcopalians I know and love has a bit of a wry sense of humor, and refuses to take himself too seriously. On Ash Wednesday of every year he is fond of calling around to his best friends to greet them with that playful voice of his. When you pick up the phone he says; “This is the Bishop and I’m calling to wish you a gloomy Lent”.
Which brings us to Ash Wednesday; that time in the church year when we take the ashes from last year’s palms, burned now to a cinder, and impose those ashes on our foreheads with the ancient words; “Remember that dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yes, this is indeed a mark of our mortality.
We Celts I’m told were fond of keeping a skull on our desks in the cells of our monasteries many centuries ago as a reminder of whose we are; of where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. A senior warden from St Mark’s Church in St Albans WV got a chuckle out of that one too when I mentioned it. He also had an impish smile. Sipping his tea at coffee hour he’d say to me; “Alas poor Yorick!”
There is a monastery of the Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts just steps from Harvard University. The current Bishop of Massachusetts is a monk from The Society of Saint John the Evangelist. It is situated pleasantly on the banks of the Charles River. It is a quiet place of prayer in the midst of a very busy city. And in the very capital of the halls of power and influence there sits this holy place. Many flee to it for peace, renewal and prayer. More than twenty years ago the monks began a weekly Eucharist on Tuesday evenings at the Monastery chapel for the Harvard Community. Interestingly enough, the chapel is packed week after week after week with young scholars who hunger and thirst for good preaching and excellent liturgy.
There is a dinner that follows. There is mirth and merriment, and good intelligent and lively conversation among the students and the monks. It is possible to take time there to be in retreat and nourish your spirit.
So on this Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, I read these words from Brother Malmquist, a member of the community I’ve known for many years, known and respected for many, many years.
“We are loaned back into life for a little while with Jesus’ promise that he’s going to use us, he’s going to use you. You represent Christ to this world – your sheer presence, your words, your touch, your actions, beyond which you could ask or imagine, and in ways that Christ will set up.”
Yes, imagine, we are loaned back into life for a space of time, perhaps seventy or eighty years; some more, some less. But we are loaned back into life. What a stunning way to put it.
For those of us who respond to the call of Jesus, we do have the promise that he will use us. We have this promise, he will use you. Your words, your touch, your actions, beyond which you could even begin to ask for or imagine and in ways that Jesus has already prepared for and me you to walk in.
Lent is a good time to give something up or to take something up; in either case as a way of disciplining ourselves in ever new and creative ways to the devotion we seek to Jesus, to the church, and of course to one another.
But what makes Lent even more especially powerful for me is the notion that I can hardly restrain myself. So much do I love God and Jesus, so much do I love you that I can hardly restrain myself.
Whether it is visiting the sick in the hospital, the elderly in the Keystone Villa, telling stories to the children, feeding the poor at the Community Center in Birdsboro, preparing for a pilgrimage to France with the young people, preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, or the hundreds of other things you and I make it our business to do...I can hardly restrain myself. Neither can you.
This is because it is our Joy and Care to be represent Christ to the world we live in by our presence, by our words, our touch and our actions, and far beyond anything we could have ever possibly asked or imagined, because it is Jesus who has prepared these pathways for us to walk in.
So as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel “Do not look dismal”. Aren’t those wonderful words for an impish bishop, a senior warden, or the rest of us. For God’s sake, don’t go moping around looking dismal!
And of course, beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.
But you certainly may do this. You may very well let your light so shine before others so that they may see the good you do and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Not to draw attention to ourselves, but to give glory to God.
But that’s exactly what I can hardly restrain myself from doing. This is exactly what has drawn me to the work of the church all my life.
This is Lent. This is what it is to observe a holy Lent. We may give something up or take something up, either way, to mark our devotion to God and to one another. We are to mark the active presence of Christ in life. You are loaned back into life for a while. You are to represent Jesus with your sheer presence, your words, your touch, your actions.
And because we awe loaned back into life for a while we do not store up treasures for ourselves where thieves break in or steal and where moth and rust corrupts. We lay up treasures where they count; in the hearts and souls of those we love, recognizing that their lives and own own lives are a gift from God that returns to God when the time comes.
The mark of our mortality with which we embrace on Ash Wednesday is the profoundest celebration I know to bring to mind the knowledge that we can hardly restrain ourselves as we set about to do the work that God has given us to do.
Paul puts it this way in the Epistle; “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” That’s what makes our nature so irrepressibly joyful!
The Psalmist says it even more energetically;
Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
So go ahead and have a gloomy Lent, rather an irrepressibly joyful Lent, one in which you too will hardly be able to restrain yourselves, filled with the knowledge that you have been loaned back again for a while so that you can represent Christ to this world. And may you be filled with all the fullness of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saturday, February 09, 2013
On the Mountaintop
I remember like it was yesterday the day we took a busload of kids to Mount Sinai. St. Catherine’s, one of the oldest Monasteries in Christendom stands at the foot of the mountain and encloses an example of what we have come to call “the burning bush”. When the wind plays through the leaves, they shimmer in the sunlight and appear to be ablaze with glory. The mountain reaches 7,497 feet toward heaven. The kids all arose at 2am to begin their climb. I begged off and allowed my son Michael to be my eyes for me.
Upon his return Michael was a changed man. His countenance was transfigured, if you will, with a radiance that can only be explained by what it means to walk in the footsteps of the holy. He told me it was like he could feel Moses with him in his footsteps as he climbed the mountain. The silence he heard was deafening, only his breath and the breathing of strained lungs from his friends who also found their lives changed by this approach toward God.
Not long after they reached the summit, there was a magnificent sunrise...and the silence continued. The kids wrote in their journals of their contact with God there on the mountaintop.
When I was younger I climbed my beloved Mount Washington in New Hampshire...at least, I should say, more accurately and more honestly I climbed a lateral path with a group guided by the Appalachian Mountain Club and reached Bald Knob one October day. It was cold up on the mountain, but the sun was shining, and we were too young to notice any discomfort from either the weather or the exertion.
There we rested and looked out over the Presidential Range. How magnificent. It was as though you could hear the voice of God speaking in your heart. “Here is my creation. Take care of it. Take care of one another. Remember, this is holy”, the voice seemed say.
I can well imagine how it was the day that Peter, James and John went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus. Such is the awe with which one takes to the mountaintop that one can hardly help but pray.
It would come as no surprise to me that one might see something like the images of Moses and Elijah. After all the Law and the Prophets were written into their hearts as the Law and the Prophets are written into our hearts. Woven into our lives from Sunday School on, the sense of right and wrong; and the desire for just dealings among each other, guides and governs the better angels of our nature.
It is in this spirit that we now come to the Last Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord. On this day we see Jesus transfigured before our very eyes. We see him along with Moses and Elijah, and as they fade away he becomes more and more vividly the imprint of the nature of God. The Law and the Prophets may now be fulfilled by a higher law and a deeper justice. A compassionate love and the courage of reconciliation makes Peace with God and humankind possible. They now complete the old dispensation, under which we lived for so long at the foot of Sinai’s mandate.
Now we live under the mandate of the Love of God made flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. We are changed now from glory to glory. This means for all our days. As it is in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, so too for us in all our joys and sorrows, all our triumphs and failures, all our righteousness and all our sin, God redeems us in our life and death through the life of our Advocate with the Father.
We cannot stay on the mountain, one must hasten to add. As much as we’d like to build lean to’s for the capturing of the moment as Peter suggested to Jesus, he found out all too soon that you cannot capture or box the holy into any kind of container. It is well known that there are these impressive bushes that one can weave into lean to’s in this part of the world. But the holy simply passes as soon as it comes. We come down from the mountain changed, but for us, the radiance of those moments fades as it did from the countenance of Moses when he came away from the tent of meeting.
We return to the whoop and wharf of the ordinary round and that which seemed so vivid and real now becomes somewhat more diffuse and fading away into memory.
Allow me to recommend that we all spend some time practicing the presence of God as a regular discipline. In prayer and in acts of mercy, may we waken our spirits with the presence of God within us. I do hope some of you will attend our Lenten Classes between the 8 & 10:30 services. I’ve called this particular series of classes “Tracing the Image of God”.
I believe we can do that; I mean “trace God’s image”. You may remember that we are created in the image of God. I don’t mean that we are created to “look like” God. Neither does any serious theologian. It means something much more.
Our Catechism says;
What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to
create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation
and with God. Catechism, Book of Common Prayer page 845
You see, to be created in the image of God means to be most genuinely human. In fact we theologians consider it to be an axiom that the more genuinely human we become the more God-like we are. Conversely, the more genuinely God-like God becomes the more human God really is.
The two meet, we believe, in Jesus. The horizontal line of human experience and the vertical line of Godly love and redemption meet at the nexus of the heart of God and in the human heart.
In these recent months we’ve seen quite a spate of storms. It appears to me that nature is trying to get our attention. My son David recently published a table of charts for Boston Harbor sea levels as they were in the 1890’s, the 1950’s and the present. Guess what...yes Virginia, the sea levels are rising dramatically. And more than that, the glaciers are receding, the Polar Ice Caps are melting and yes if you want to see Glacier National Park, you better be quick about it.
Between Hurricane Sandy and the Blizzard of 2013, it is clear not just from these storms but from the collected evidence of all meteorological data, that there is a climatic change coming upon us caused at least in part by human activity. We will not be able to hide our heads in the sand over the fact for long. For the sand is being swamped by the water. You could drown hiding your head in the sand!
I confess that it has been fun the past few days to track the Blizzard of 2013. David and Joshua Bresnahan and all my friends in New England have been busily posting photographs and videos to help track and document the magnificent power of the storm. One of the videos I posted showed a bunch of young people tossing each other about in the snow like sacks of potatoes. At the shore, they looked out over the sea wall at King’s Beach near my home, and the scene they saw was breathtaking. The roiling and rollicking tempest unleashing its power upon the shore is nothing short of a magnificent and awe inspiring sight.
So then if we are created in the image of God we are created to love, to create, to reason and to live in harmony with creation, then it follows that we might perhaps consider our role in tending to what God has given us. That’s real stewardship.
The Transfiguration of our personal spirituality is not an event that occurs in isolation but within the context of our relationship with God, one another and all of God’s creation.
Paul warns us that their minds were hardened and that the veil was drawn over their faces. They refused to see Jesus for who he is. Remembering that Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life, it begs the question. How can we deny the truth? Now we find ourselves climbing another mountain of God in our own historic moment. What we see as we reach the summit will change our lives. Clearly we stand in need of yet another Transfiguration of sorts.
Like my son Michael when he climbed Sinai yea these many years ago, we will find ourselves climbing with the holiness of God. That holiness is demanding that we care for God’s creation and one another.
Thus I pray with the collect of the day that we may be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed from glory to glory as we encounter the living Christ in our own day.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.