Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Forgiven Forgiver


We begin the new Christian Year today with the First Sunday in Advent. Advent is a season of expectation. As an expectant mother awaits her unborn child, so the Church awaits the birth of Jesus. We eagerly look, yet again, toward this wonderful season of celebration. At no time of year is the Church more beautiful than at Christmas. At no time of year are our families more excited. At no time of year is the sense of the sacred more in the air.

Yet, for so many, Christmas is also a time for depression, anxiety and alienation. If ever there were a time when our brokenness becomes more apparent, it is now in this holy season. The fact of violence in our cities involving police and our young people is obvious. Poverty is still with us. And the unjust concentration of wealth continues unabated. Internationally tensions also break out all too frequently in violence and in Congress gridlock has just become the mainstay of our daily political diet.

The Church knows this and names it for what it is; Sin and Darkness. 

We begin this season with the great collect for Advent; “Almighty God give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility”.

Jesus knew the Darkness of Sin. He came to us in utter humility. Born, I remind you of an unwed mother, homeless and poor in a stable among the animals. This is how it all began. The more Jesus loved us and taught us, the more abuse he took, until ultimately he took it all in upon himself at the cross, stretching out his loving arms so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. 

In the same way that that we pray for Godly intervention in our own history, so too the Prophet Isaiah prayed in his time; “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence”

Last week I began my ministry with you focusing on three great Gospel words. Clearly a time of great darkness needs these words as we move forward into our new life together. The words you remember are Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Love. This week and next I will focus on the first two of these words. Bishop Bud Cederholm will be with us on the third week in Advent when we will continue our conversations between the congregation and the diocese, and then I will conclude the Advent season with some the idea of the Love of God.

We begin in a difficult place; with the word Forgiveness. First comes an acknowledgment that something has gone terribly wrong. In theological terms we call this the Fall. Things were going along well enough in the Garden, and then somehow our willful self centered disobedience kicked in and everything went out of kilter. We were expelled from the Garden and things then went from bad to worse. Cain killed Abel and fled to the East. All of this Biblical imagery invites us to understand that it is in the nature of human nature to get it all wrong and then hide. Only when we acknowledge that and come to our senses we can look to the source of our redemption.

In today’s First Lesson, for instance, the Prophet Isaiah names the sin as twofold. God has hidden away from us somehow and we turn away from God as well. The order in which that occurs is interchangeable, interestingly enough. What is clear is that we become alienated from God and one another.

“But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,”

and again, 

“We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,”

And that, my friends is the condition of our Darkness and the reality of our Sin. The endless and self perpetuating cycle of violence on a scale large and small is the dark and drear disease that infects the human soul.   It is this condition which Advent addresses.

Advent, like Lent calls us to Repentance. Advent finds us in the midst of Salvation History with the understanding that the Holy Spirit had already embraced Mary at the Annunciation, then soon to follow will be  the embrace of Mary at the birth of the Savior, and in that one moment Heaven and Earth are joined by the embrace of God for the whole world. The magnificent words from John’s Gospel say it all;

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” 

The Word is Jesus. The Word is Forgiveness.

If we look at the anatomy of the word Forgiveness we will see that Repentance, Amendment of Life, Restitution where possible, are all pre-requisites to the possibility of Forgiveness. 
But not so when it came to Jesus’ dealing with the likes of us. Jesus merely forgave us period. Such was his humility that he just plain forgave us. He gave his life not just for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. He did not count our sins against us. He freely gave us forgiveness. 

And that is where we often get stuck. You expect me to swallow my pride and talk to my brother? mother? father? friend? enemy?
How can I forgive when I am hurt so or when violence strikes so close?
How can I forgive when the racial and ethnic groups, class, or gender tensions strike so close to home. How can we forgive or maintain closeness when misunderstanding and bewilderment are at the heart of how we relate to one another over issues of sexual orientation.

To tell you the truth, I often find myself full of hurt and anger over matters close to my heart. When I am in that condition of sinful self centeredness, I also find myself challenged by the prayer or Jesus.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Or in another translation
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

The prayer asks God to forgive us the way we forgive others, God help us! As we look at a world so full of blame and hatred, we ask ourselves, where is forgiveness possible?

Or even more urgently how can we endure when we find ourselves in abusive relationships or when the ugliness of power is such that our relationships are strained beyond the possibility of ongoing grace?

I do not ask these questions because I have answers to give. I ask them because they are at the heart of the Gospel.

To tell you the truth the question still applies; “How many times are we to forgive our brother? Perhaps seven times?” We know the answer to that question. “No, I say unto you seventy times seven”. In other words, my dear friends, forgiveness is a way of life that is a matter of urgency. 

Today’s Gospel makes it clear that the end is at hand. Perhaps not the end of the whole world, but certainly any one of us may find ourselves at the Gate of Heaven without a moment’s notice.

Among the deeper questions God will ask of us will be have you Forgiven with the Forgiveness that I have forgiven you? 

The end that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel is not just about the end of your time or mine on the planet, it is about the purpose of our lives while we are here.  

Clearly one of the great reasons we are here is to find a way to Forgiveness.

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


Fr Paul

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Transgender Remembrance

Transgender Day of Remembrance
St Peter’s Episcopal Church
November 19,2014

Crimes against the LGBTQ community are still more commonplace than they should be. On November 19, 2014 we gathered t at St Peter's Episcopal Church in Salem MA and took time to remember more than 250 transgender folks who have been brutally tortured and killed in just this last year. 

We Episcopalians know something of the hate and brutality against us. Matthew Sheppard was brutally beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a barbed wire fence in Laramie, Wyoming on October 12, 1998.

When V. Gene Robinson was consecrated our first openly gay Bishop on November 2, 2003 he had to wear a bullet proof vest because of all the serious death threats he had received in preparation for this sacred moment in his life and in the life of the church.

As we prepared for the Transgender Remembrance ceremony, I was asked to give the blessing...and honor among the greatest honors I have received in my life.  Offered the following prayer. A number of people have asked me for a copy.

One young person has indicated a desire to speak to me because of her family's rejection. Her dad was an Episcopal priest and now has gone to the Roman Catholic priesthood. There is no place for her family's love now and she is struggling with her rejection. I offered the words that follow

A Prayer of Blessing
Transgender Remembrance Day, 2014
Salem MA

We give thanks this night for this organization and all those who provide advocacy for the LGBTQ community.

We will not be silent. Nor will we closet ourselves away from public view.
We are each in our own way precious in the sight of God and one another.
We will not be afraid.

Matthew Shepard, one of our number was left to die on a barbed wire fence in Laramie Wyoming on a cold winter’s night.
Gene Robinson, our first openly gay Bishop and tireless advocate of of the LGBTQ community was consecrated bishop wearing a bullet proof vest.

Tonight we remember all who have faced the sting of hatred and violence for being true to themselves. And we give thanks for them.
We give thanks for each of you.

You are a blessing to one another.  And you are a blessing in the eyes of God.  As we begin our time together tonight, I thank you for the blessing of being with you in solidarity of hope that one day every church of God will become a “House of Prayer for ALL People” like this one seeks to be. And likewise that every organization on earth will be fully inclusive of all.

In the meantime may God bless you all!

Fr Paul

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Home to the Heart of God

On Sunday November 16, I provided supply coverage at St. Peter's Church in Beverly. The Gospel for the Day was the Gospel of the Talents. Here are some thoughts on the parable. Beverly, MA was also a place I knew well. It was my dad's home. My grandparents and great grandparents also come from this Northshore town. 

Home to the Heart of God

It is a lot like coming home to be at St Peter's Church and preside at the altar here and preach from this pulpit. My dad grew up right around the corner here on Butman street. My grandfather Bill Bresnahan worked for years at the Shoe which we now know as The Cummings Center. My great grandparents lived on Bisson Street and I take my middle name from them: Mr & Mrs William Bisson. In our family tree, names like the Gallops and the Tarletons are all a part of our genetic history. And they all came from Beverly.

I am home again here if only for this particular Sunday. I’ve been serving as a “bridge priest” at St Paul’s Church in North Andover during the past 10 months or so and then Cindy and I took some time off to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. We went out west to see family and some marvelous sites; Mount Rushmore, The Badlands, The Black Hills, and Devil’s Tower. And then we drove for miles and miles to enjoy not only some of the beauty our nation, but of being together all these years. And next Sunday I begin service again as a part time interim priest at a church on Cape Cod. I love being semi retired.

Being at home means something special to me. God has sent me to places like Ohio, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania and we did our best to make these places our home, but it was not until we came back to Eastern Massachusetts that we really felt that we were back home again. We live in Lynn now just off Lynn Shore Drive and most evenings I will walk along the shore and watch, and listen and smell the sweet salt air of the sea. Now that’s home to me. 

It is interesting that St Augustine was fond of saying that “our hearts are restless until they come to rest in You, O God”. As I walk the shore of the sea I find myself coming to rest in God. I’ve watched the sea in all her moods and moody she is much like us.  All the way from her perfect pacific self on a sunny summer’s day to her raging, swirling tempestuous self in the midst of a nor’easter. I’ve seen her on moonlit sparkling nights and and also shrouded in the mystery of fog when she paints herself like an impressionist would in a melancholy mood.

I find myself walking down by the sea perfectly at home with myself and my God. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t stir up the pot from time to time, when I speak up for the poor and the meek, and the outcast, the brokenhearted and those persecuted for righteousness sake because that is exactly what Jesus did.

In fact my heart comes to rest in the Holy Scripture. The Collect of the Day tells us that God has caused all holy writings to be written for our learning, and further asks “that we may read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them”.

My dear friend Bernie Maguire is an Episcopal Priest in Pennsylvania and he has always kept dogs out of his love for animals. He once had a high strung Irish Setter who on the eve of this very Sunday ate Fr. Bernard’s copy of the Book of Common Prayer. Apparently the dog was a literalist in that he did indeed come to inwardly digest his owner’s copy of the Holy Writ. 

I have read the Holy Writings from our traditions and others. I have read the Holy Koran. I have read the Law of Moses. And while there is much to disquiet the soul in these writings there is much also that brings the spirit to rest.

Particularly as I read the Gospels. The very words of Jesus again and again resonate within my soul and speak authoritatively to me even if I do not always fully understand them. I know that they stand true and withstand the test of time.

And then comes today’s Gospel. How could I come to rest with such words as these? It appears here that God is building into our lives a good deal of accountability. The landowner entrusts his slaves a very large amount of money. One talent is worth 80 pounds of silver. If you weigh that up and give the equivalent to us, we’re talking about $300,000 US. That’s a whole lot of money. But note that in the Gospel these folks are called slaves not rich folks. Note that they “trade” with what is given them and much more is earned to give back when the landowner returns. 

We know that the business of the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is an ethical matter for scripture and for ourselves. In next week’s Gospel we will read that when Jesus comes to judge the nations he will separate the sheep from the goats. He will welcome the sheep at his right hand into the kingdom prepared for them from the beginning of time because when he was hungry we fed him. When thirsty he was given something to drink. When he was sick or in prison we visited him. And he will say; “Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me. But as for the goats on his left hand, these are the ones who looked the other way when there was poverty, hunger, thirst, imprisonment and sickness. These will be sent to the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This parable gives us a clue as to the meaning of the parable that is before us today. Both speak of the end times not just in the sense of where we go when we are dead. There is another sense in which the word “end” refers to the “purpose” of our lives.

So then if we are given large sums of money to work with; or lets say when we are given more than 15 years worth of wages, we are given time to live in accordance with God’s will. You have the time and the wherewithal to trade in God’s economy. You can feed the hungry, give something to those who are thirsty, visit and sick and the imprisoned and so on.

In point of fact you can organize your life around the needs of human beings for the satisfaction of our hunger not just to satisfy our physical wants but also to satisfy our deeper yearnings for justice.

When the church is at its healthiest it organizes its life around human need and justice issues.
If we look at the history of the development of Celtic Christianity in Britain for instance we’ll notice that the religious communities of the day were built around human need.
Is somebody here sick or dying? Bring them to us and we’ll tend to them.
Are you hungry? Come here and we’ll feed you.
Are your children in need of a good education? Or do your farmers need help and instruction in the proper cultivation of crops. Come to us we are among the finest scholars in Europe. 
Are you depressed and is your soul downcast within you? Come to us and we’ll cheer you with good company and conviviality. 
And does your soul long for something more? Are you unsure of your purpose in life? Come here and we’ll give you a purpose in life. We’ll Baptize you in the Name of God the Creator, Jesus the Savior, and The Holy Spirit, the gift giver and the Holy Wisdom from on High.

God has given to each and every one of you hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of life, not cash. God wants you and me to multiply God’s work on earth so that the Forgiveness with which he forgave you becomes the Forgiveness with which we forgive one another. God’s work is to be Reconciled to God and then to multiply that Reconciliation among all our life’s enemies until God’s reign on earth is established on earth as it is in heaven. God’s work is to be Loved as God loves us and then for us to love one another until the earth is filled with the Glory of God as the waters cover the sea. 

We have been given a fortune with which to trade in God’s stock and trade. And that is what brings me home again and to peace within the heart of God. That is the only place where I can come to rest, squarely in the heart of God. That is why this Gospel and all of the Gospels and the Person of Jesus is that peace which passes all understanding.

This is precisely what Paul had in mind when he wrote this sacred text for us in today’s Epistle. “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”

It is good for us to be home together today in the heart of God. As we come to this Altar Rail today, let that peace settle within you…and let us be resolved to be forgiven as we forgive, to be reconciled as we reconcile, to be loved as we seek to love. There is no greater peace than that!

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

Fr Paul.