Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Joy! Easter Surprise! Easter Power!

Happy Easter

Happy Easter. Let me greet you with the Joy, the Surprise and the Power of Easter Day.
First let me greet you with the Joy of Easter.
There really is no greater Joy than Easter. The songs of Easter, the festive gathering of God’s people especially on this one day of the Christian Year, the day that marks the Queen of Festivals. We gather as God’s family today to feast at the altar of God, so too I wish you every joy as you gather with your families and friends around your dining room tables later today. 
The Joy of Easter is a recognition that everyone is welcome within God's saving embrace without exception. “Now I understand that God shows no partiality” as St. Peter puts it in today’s first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. “For in any nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”. Anyone means anyone. Anyone means you. That’s the joy of Easter. And the fact that it is you means no one can say that it is not you. The events of these last days in Holy Week are a proclamation of Godly generosity. There can be no exceptions to God’s generosity, God’s love, and God’s compassion. This is the Joy of Easter. 

It took Peter time to come around to this knowledge just like it takes time for the whole church of God to come to the knowledge of God’s full and inclusive love. This to me is the Joy of Easter. All means all. Thankfully we belong to a church that now recognizes that there are no distinctions to its membership or ministry based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, or orientation. It took us a while to come to that understanding, but here we are. Like Peter, we too, now know that "God shows no partiality".
So let me also greet you with the Surprise of Easter.

When the women went to the tomb early that first Easter day, they were prepared to go through the customary preparations of the body for its final burial, and they brought the spices and the balm that were used for the purpose, steeling themselves for what, of course, is an exquisitely unpleasant task. What they were not prepared for was the Resurrection of that Body. When it was not there they supposed that perhaps he had been removed. It would have been, of course, the final indignity. Mary, stood there weeping, weeping from the very crest of grief. She supposed that he was the gardner, the one who spoke to her, and so she asked if he had taken the body, and where had he taken it.

Finally he said to her; “Mary!” 

Here is the surprise! She did not recognize him at first. It would come as no surprise to me if any of us really recognize Jesus ever at first, but especially on our Easter Day. We can certainly recognize him within the life of his teaching, his healing, his miracles, and even on the day of his death, that we can all recognize. We are all too familiar with all of that.

But on the Day of his Resurrection? And the Day of our Resurrection? Or now on this Day. The Day of the Resurrection of those we love who have all been gathered to our ancestors. That’s the surprise we’re all in for.

My step-father was a wonderful man. But he was a kind of a hard bitten German fellow. In fact his family came from a hard life of farming both here in Pennsylvania and then later in western Ohio. These people were a very practical people, and they learned their lessons from the school of hard knocks. My step father, “HK” as I called him; his name was Homer Kershner, went on to become an engineer. So for all he knew, only those things existed which you could see and measure and mould with your hands and with man made machinery. He allowed as to how there may very well be a God. It was nice of him to allow God existence, I often quipped. But the whole thing about heaven. That he was quite convinced. There is no evidence of such a thing. When you’re dead, you’re dead. I think he actually took some comfort in that declaration. After all, my mom was a feisty sort of woman and more than once I saw her sharp personality pierce into the hearts of those she loved as well as those who loved her, my own heart included. Oh but how he loved her! And so I often said to him; “Listen here, HK for loving my mother, you’re going to heaven whether you want to or not!”

We all laughed. But I meant it then. I mean it now. Hey, HK, “Surprise! You're in heaven!”

What a wonderful surprise we're all in for.

And finally let me greet you with the Power of Easter.

Several days ago I took some pictures of the full “worm” moon. It is called that by the Algonquin native Americans to characterize the new life that begins to emerge near the end of March. Forasmuch as the tender tendrils of earth’s new life push through the softened ground as prepared by the humble earthworm who in turn invites the robin’s return, and too as even the tiniest green shoots of grass break through concrete cracks in our sidewalks as Spring’s new life burst into the sunlight, so too our Jesus conquers the grave on this Easter Day, on all Easter Days, and most importantly on your Easter Day and mine.

God knows I understand how real death is. I’ve known it in my family and among my friends, I’ve certainly sat at the bedsides of many others I’ve served through the years, over 1000 at last count; I've shared the sorrows of many a family, and in my own flesh and bones I know the facts of my own vulnerability. But on Easter Day I proclaim the Power of Easter over Sin and Death.

Jesus Christ is Risen today! Alleluia!  What gives me the knowledge of this Power is not my mind, or the intellect or even in any theological reflection or any proofs for the existence of God, or Heaven or Eternal Life. What gives me the knowledge of the Power of God is my heart where I know the love of my family and friends, and God’s family and friends. For it is because I love you that I can believe. In fact, it is because of my love for you that I know that my Redeemer Lives. 

Thus as you prepare to walk with your next priest, prepare to walk with him or her with warmth, affection and love.  For as long as you can walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God, then too you can walk with your new priest and one another.  This too is the power of Easter.

So then I wish you a very happy Easter. I wish you all of its Joy, I pray for its Surprise. And this I know, we will all come to know its Power.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Poor Shall be Filled; The Rich Sent Away!

Palm Sunday 2013

“He Shall Fill the Hungry with Good Things”
By Fr Paul Bresnahan

This is Mary’s song. It is one of the great song’s of faith sung at the time when the Archangel Gabriel came to the young maiden with the news that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, and she shall then bring forth a son who will be called the Prince of Peace.

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
    and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
    the lowliness of his handmaiden.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
    he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
    and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.
This is the promise he made to our forefathers,
    Abraham and his seed for ever.
Thus Jesus was born to bring Good News to the Poor and he said so in the synagogue in his hometown. They nearly pitched him headlong over the precipice of a nearby cliff for saying so, but that’s what he said. Then at the end of his ministry he made this pronouncement: namely, that all the nations of the earth would be judged in accordance with how well they would treat the poorest of the poor, for as Jesus said; “Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.” ~Matthew 25: 31ff.

It is in this spirit that we gather this Palm Sunday yet again singing our songs of faith. “We are marching in the Light of Christ”, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and of course, “The Palms” de rigueur. Then at the end of the service we sing “Ride on ride on in Majesty, in Lowly Pomp Ride on to Die.”

The day began with such hope and promise. The children and all those happy throngs who spread their garments and palm branches along his way. They were his beloved; the poor and the lame, the blind, and the leper, the sin sick souls for whom there was no room in the Temple. These were the ones who sang their Humble Hosannas to their Lowly King.

Then he entered the Temple, and just when we thought this would be the day of his exaltation, he upset the tables of the moneychangers, he made a whip and drove them out of the Temple, saying “My House shall be a House of Prayer for All People, but you have made it a den of robbers!” Never had we seen our Lord so angry, even violent. And with that, of course he sealed his fate. For now those in power, especially among the Sanhedrin and the Roman occupation forces, had no choice but to have him done away with. Not only was he a threat to custom and tradition, he could have mobilized these masses of poor and the subsequent uprising could upset more than a few tables in the Temple Precincts, they could have upset the entire theological and political world they knew.

Then, as we know from the dramatic reading of today’s Passion Narrative, he was arrested, tried, convicted and crucified in the most shameful way the Roman authorities had available to them; on a cross, with two more bandits and political insurrectionists.

Which brings us back now to Mary’s Song.
With what shall he fill the hungry now?
How shall the humble and meek be exalted?
In what way shall the proud be scattered in the imagination of their hearts?
How shall the rich be sent empty away?

When we look at history and even in current events, things are more like a line from an old song: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. Funny the title of that song is “Ain’t we got fun”, as if to acknowledge money isn’t everything, and as if to acknowledge the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

What then does Jesus promise on the cross? 
At first, no there’s no doubt about it; he promises nothing more than the suffering and death that all human nature must feed on. 
Is the cross our food?
So it seems and so terrified are the disciples that they flee away and Peter himself denies him three times before the cock crows twice.
Only the women are left, to console one another in their inconsolable grief.

Is this our fate?
Is it ever to be so?
Or will there ever be a time when Justice reigns in human society?

As we await the answer to that question, Mary still sings her song as if by solemn warning;

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
    and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
    the lowliness of his handmaiden.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
    he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
    and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.
This is the promise he made to our forefathers,
    Abraham and his seed for ever.
And with what shall we be fed?
Now we know.
Because for us, it is as Paul said

“He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord”

Thus the dynamic of humility and exaltation are pointed together directly at the center of the heart of Jesus. In that Cross of Christ then we too are humbled as Jesus and Mary have been humbled before us in order that we too shall be greatly exalted.

As for the proud the rich and the powerful, particularly as they turn their backs on the poor. I’m not so sure they are so much to be envied as I sense it from the Song of Mary or the Preaching of Jesus. For in the Divine economy these tables are indeed upset, when the measures of forgiveness and eternal life are factored into God’s Justice.

As God stands as our Judge, we sing our songs of faith as millions have done before us, and Mary did the moment Gabriel brought her the Good News of the pending birth of her son.

So then no matter how poor I may be, no matter how empty I may feel, no matter with what suffering I must endure; this I know, as I embrace the Cross of Christ, I too shall be humbled for a season as Jesus was, but then I shall also be greatly exalted as Jesus himself is exalted.

So now the Song of Mary and the songs of our faith lift our spirits as they always do and we live out our faith in the knowledge and love of God in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose embrace all of us live and move and have our being.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of The Holy Spirit.

Fr. Paul

Sunday, March 17, 2013

God is about to do something new! What about us?

God is About to Do a New Thing
What About Us?

It has been a year now since I came to share with you this journey toward heaven. And what a year it has been! I dare say, we’ve grown accustomed to one another’s faces as the words of the tune from My Fair Lady puts it.

It was St. Patrick’s Day then. It is St. Patrick’s Day now. And that Irishman from Boston came by for a visit, and we’ve marched together along the pathways of Berk’s County in order to Glorify Christ and for the Salvation of our Souls.

We’ve driven out some of the snakes that posed a threat to our congregation’s well being, and we’ve sought to walk in the Light of Christ together.

So now we must prepare ourselves for God to do “a new thing” in our midst as the First Lesson puts it. “Forget the former things”. Ha, that’s not so easily done! Whether the things of Cal Adams, Johanna Graham or Paul Bresnahan, all of that will soon enough be a thing of the past. And we will need to forget them, honest to God, forget them; in order for God to really do a new thing with you and your new priest coming together to continue your journey toward heaven.

Oh yes, I know and understand how much you and I would like to continue on doing what we’ve been doing, but I suspect God has other ideas. After all, I need to get back to my city by the sea some day to watch the tides come and go with my trusty Lab-mix Alcibiades. Yes that’s his name. My son has read Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian Wars...and the dog ended up with one of the more obscure names from that chronicle. I call him “Al” for short, unless he’s in trouble.

All that aside, retirement beckons. I’ll grant you that a spontaneous outbreak of devotion led by none other than Chuck Crummy called out for the my election to the Episcopacy in Rome; and more than once I heard the acclamation; “Paul for Pope!” as recently as last week’s pancake breakfast. 

I would have gladly served. How I would have relished the opportunity to get my hands on Roman Catholicism and leave my mark there, for the sake of those yet considered outcasts in the company of Jesus by that lot. Alas the Princes of the Church were led in other directions and a good man; a man of humility from Argentina was elected; a Jesuit no less, and he has called himself “Francis” to set the tone for his own papacy. We can hope for the hope of the poor now. And that is no mean thing. If this pope looks out for the poor of the planet, his papacy could be of historic significance.

It will take some time for us to hope for much else. Women will have to wait, for instance. Isn’t it interesting that the very next Sunday after the election of Francis, we come to a Gospel that places Mary at the feet of Jesus? This is a position reserved for the Disciples of a Teacher. Those who sit at the feet of the Teacher have a special place in the heart of The Teacher. Here she anoints his feet with the rarest of perfumes. Pure nard is refined from a rare and expensive root of a spikenard pant found only at 3000-5000 meters of altitude in the Himalayas of Nepal. 

Imagine the cost of that stuff at the time Mary used it to anoint Jesus’ feet. No wonder Judas challenged Mary’s right to do what she was doing. Perfumes of nard, having the scent of lavender in many cases, were used only for highly important rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem and for similar rituals to honor the gods in Rome.  Here Mary uses a whole pound this perfume to recognize Jesus as being none other than the Christ of God not with words, but with every extravagant wiping of her hair on the feet of Jesus. The disciples were horrified!

Conversely Jesus recognizes her as his disciple. “Leave her alone!” Jesus insists. “You will always have the poor with you”. Do we not still have the poor with us? Can we not do something about poverty still? Can we not do more than cut budgets to make their lives more miserable? Why can’t we at least be sure that every citizen of this nation has a decent job, so they can provide for their families? Even the Bishops of Rome have spoken up about that as have our own Bishops. The voices of these bishops have been largely ignored.

The Gospel goes to the heart of the matter when it notes that Judas really didn’t care about the poor. The idea of betrayal was already sneaking into his heart of hearts. But for Jesus this woman’s love meant a great deal. She along with the other women would be there for his suffering, his death, and the preparation his body for burial. And where were the disciples then? Long since terrified, running away from the prospect that they too could end up like Jesus if they hung around waiting to see what happened. Jesus stood by Mary because he knew that Mary would stand by Jesus. 

Much like the Episcopal church has stood up for women and their place at the altar of God. Now even our Presiding Bishop is not only a woman but a scientist and a pilot. A real renaissance woman! We’ve come a long way, baby from the day that Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with her hair.

Even if the current Bishop of Rome does not recognize her or other women as disciples worthy of ordination, Jesus exalts her to a place of honor in his heart and in the heart of God by allowing her to say what Peter had already said; “You are the Christ of God!” Only she says it with those anointing.

“God is about to do a new thing”; a great many new things. Watch what God does here at St. Gabriel’s. But more to the point what will we be doing to bring God’s new things to pass? At every level of our lives, what will we be doing? Just yesterday, I showed the Bishop what we’ve been doing here with our Membership Drive. My excitement was palpable and he could see it. I asked him; “Is there anything else I can do for the church while there is life still left in me?” 

Can I do anything for the poor? How I wish I could snap my fingers and put all my fellow country men and women to work. When I sat in the luxury and comfort of a commuter rail train last week on the way to the Flower Show I saw for myself row after row of blighted housing in Philadelphia. I thought of the young people there dying on crime and drugs. I thought of the young people in rural West Virginia dying on crime and drugs. They are dying of boredom with no work to do. 

Can we not do something for the poor? Is the best we can come up with is budget cuts that hurt the young and the elderly? Can we not do something about gun violence? For the life of me, I cannot understand why there isn’t an outcry of outrage. 

Alas, the seaside beckons. The tides come and go. And the dog likes the treats I spoil him with. It is St. Patrick’s Day. It is a day for corned beef and cabbage and lots of boiled vegetables. It is a day for music and dancing. A slice of Irish soda bread and a wee bit of the Guinness to wash it all down will leave you smiling from ear to ear and with a twinkle in the eye.

Watch out! God is about to do something new! So as my namesake puts it in today’s second lesson, so too I say it; “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”