Sunday, December 18, 2016

Thine is the Parlor!

Thine is the Parlor!

We began our journey together two weeks ago during this Advent season thinking about God's Winnowing Fork. Last week, you may remember, I shared some thoughts with you about being "Grounded in God". This week let us remember what we can of those first moments we had with God back whe we were much younger. My thoughts go to the front parlor in our modest working class home in Somerville.

The front room was saved for special. My grandmother called it the parlor. The “divan" and the overstuffed chair in the corner were covered except for company. They needed to be protected for special, especially the chair in the corner.  We were not allowed to sit there.

When the Minister came to our home that one unforgettable time, we hastily prepared the parlor and of course, the covers were quickly removed. Soon the kettle was pipin’ hot, the biscuits and baked goods were fresh out of the oven and smelling of savory goodness. It was such an honor for us to have him come to our home. He sat of course in the corner chair and spoke to us one at a time and then he came to me. He asked me to come to him, sat me up on his knee and he said; “And you, young man, how are you doing?” I’ve never forgotten it.

It was as if God had spoken to me. 
It was as if God cared how I felt. 
I was filled with awe.

When we said that special prayer in church, you know, the one Jesus taught us, it was before I could read or write, but I knew the prayer by heart nonetheless. I prayed what I heard. When we came to that magnificent doxology at the conclusion of the prayer, I said it with reverence along with the others, “for thine is the kingdom, and the parlor, and the glory.” Yes, I said “parlor”. That's what I heard when the others said it and it made sense to me. The parlor is such a very special place. For it was in the parlor that the Priest took me up on his knee to ask how I was. It was as if I had been touched by the hand of God.

You can imagine my disappointment when I learned to read and discovered that the word was “power” and not “parlor”. Good heavens, what a letdown. To me the kingdom of God must be a very special place like our parlor where God sat enthroned in his overstuffed chair in the corner. Imagine such a special place! This is still how I dream of God. 

When our collect for this day says “purify our conscience by thy daily visitation”, that makes sense to me.  (~Book of Common Prayer page 212).  It goes on to say "when Jesus comes to us may he find in us a 'mansion' prepared for himself". That makes perfect sense too!  May we make our souls pure and ready for him just like we do our parlor in Somerville, or your parlor in Dorchester.

The human soul is the perfect dwelling place for God. St Augustine tells us that the human soul cannot come to rest until it comes to rest in God. We are to be more than a parlor. We are to be a "mansion" prepared for him so that by that by God’s daily visitation we may be made pure. 

“In my Father’s house there are many Mansions” aren’t there! That’s what John’s Gospel proclaims in fourteenth chapter. Isn’t it a glorious thing to know that Jesus visits us every single day and not just when the Priest finds time in his or her busy schedule to stop by for a cup of tea and fresh baked biscuits. 

This business of God’s daily visitation makes of us, each one of us, something holy, something beautiful for God. We may or may not be so beautiful to the human eye, especially in my case; but in the eyes of God we are a magnificent work of art! You and I are in God’s Museum of Fine Art just over there on Huntington Avenue in the Fenway! It is as if Jesus has all the time in the world to take us each one of us on his knee to ask; “And you, how are you today?”

Truth be told, some days I have to confess the truth; “Not so good Jesus”. There is much sadness in this world. There is injustice. We see our loved ones suffer and then taken from us. The tears pour from our eyes. Our hearts are broken so many times. Often, we see our hopes dashed by the cruelty of history. We see the poor ground up by oppression. The greed of injustice seems to reign even in this land. We are supposedly dedicated to “freedom and justice for all”. The pledge of allegiance we make in our schools is for all. Why then is it that so often it seems to apply only to some?  Sometimes we simply have to tell Jesus the truth, “You want to know how I’m doing? Not so good, Jesus. Not so good.” Today the Psalmist puts it this way (Psalm 80, BCP page 702);
“5 You have fed us with the bread of tears; *
you have given us bowls of tears to drink.
6 You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

But God will not abandon us will he? The Prophet comes into our midst and reminds us that God is with us. Using unforgettable imagery, Isaiah tells us today; “God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel; that means God is with us. It is as though God were to come right smack dab into the front parlor of our souls. The souls we have prepared for him. He comes in and sits down in that overstuffed chair by his daily visitation. He calls us each by name and sits us right up on his knee and says; “How are you, Child?” “Don’t forget, I love you?” “Let me wipe the tears from your eyes.”

Yes, “Thine is the kingdom and the parlor, and the Glory for ever and ever. Amen” When we become discouraged by reading the newspapers or watching the news, and by God, that can be down right depressing, God comes to us not just as a Child but as a Teacher, a Healer and as one whose Victory on the Cross conquers all sin and all death. 

Plus, I have news for all those who think theirs is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Boy, do they have a rude awakening coming! I’m sure that Caesar Augustus and Herod thought that theirs was the kingdom and the power and the glory, didn’t they? That dark and dangerous world was the same world the Christ Child was born into. Born of a human mother, in a rude little manger, with cows and sheep gathered about. There was no fancy parlor for our Jesus even of the sort we had growing up in Somerville or Dorchester. He had nothing, except for the gifts that were brought to him from the Arabian East. Talk about foreigners!

As he grew up he healed the sick, he cured the lame, he ate with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. He didn’t shy away from the lepers or any outcasts of the day. He even preached to the Good News to the detested Samaritan foreigner. He preached good news to the poor. He spoke truth to the powerful; particularly the biblical literalists the day; Pharisees, Sadducees and the Doctors of the Law. He raised the dead to life and even forgave the sins of many including the woman caught in the very act of adultery. Then, most difficult of all, he told us to love our enemies.

He changed the world, this Jesus did. And so did his followers. The power of his Gospel has reached from that time to this. All the way around the world. His love, his forgiveness, compassion and reconciling power, has embedded itself in the human heart all around the world. The Word of God endures and spreads unabated. 

And where is Caesar now? Or Herod. Isn't it interesting, by the way, that Jesus picked that part of the world to be born, live and die. Rome came and went. So have the Barbarians, Iconoclasts and terrorists of the day. The Carolingians, The Ottomans and The Western Colonial Empires and everything in between. They've all come and gone. Hitler’s heinous hatred and all other hateful ones before and since where are they? 

What of this country? God help us! Have we seen a rise in hatred in recent years in this country? Have we seen the rise of prejudice and fear? The tired old divisions never go away do they? Fears based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender and orientation never go away. In spite of the fact that we have grown up in a land that has taught us to celebrate our diversity, somehow the old fears, the old hatreds rear their ugliness once again and especially during the recent election. 

I hate to be the one to break it to any who set themselves up in power based on hateful speech, but they’ve sewn their own ruin right within the infection of their own hearts. Not to name names of course! But hear this; theirs in not the kingdom, the power and theirs is certainly not the glory.  The more they try to grasp onto their kingdoms, their powers and their supposed glory, the more it slips through their fingers like sand. 

We’ve seen what happens to that pitiful and hateful young man whose violence left death in the wake of his assaults at a bible study in South Carolina. His hatred merely returned back upon himself. Those he tried to terrorize, turned their fear back toward him with the love of God, the power of Christ's forgiveness and the reconciling power of The Holy Spirit. The pitiful one takes his hatred with him to his eternal reward. How sad for him.

As for those who build their power on arrogance, bullying, fear and hatred; they will also have their day. I'm here to tell you, God will have his day too. Jesus said; "By their fruits you will know them!" 

I will not be silent at a time of hatred. I've heard the those ringing words of Martin Luther King too many times to be silent in a time of deep darkness. We must all double down on the work that lies ahead of us to stay true to God's high calling to be faithful; 
Just a few of the things he said...just as a refresher for me at least if not for all of us. I'm sure you are familiar with so many of his words.
For instance;
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that." 
Here's a few that strike close to my heart;
"There comes a time when silence is betrayal." 
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." 
This one I love;
"Only in the darkness can you see the stars."

What we are to do just now may not be clear. That clarity will emerge as we move forward, but forward we must move. Again Martin Luther King said;
"Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase."
And this;
"If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward." 

The Gospel tells us that in this dark world of sin a savior is born. In the darkest time of the year, in darkest times of human history, hatred and violence, God will come and dwell among us. He will be born in your hearts again. That’s what Christmas is for. Love came down at Christmas. 
And love trumps hatred all down through human history.
(The word "trump" as used here is a verb not a proper name. Parenthetically, there is nothing 'proper' about that name!)

Empires come, empires go, but the Word of our God endures forever. "For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only Begotten Son of God." ~John 3:16. 
"For thine is the Kingdom, and the parlor, and the Glory", as I used to say it as a child.
But then I was corrected, and rightly so.
"For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory for ever and ever." Amen.

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

Fr Paul

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Grounded in God

Grounded in God

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about being “grounded”. God knows, as a teenager I was grounded more than once. When my grandmother called me by my full name “Buddy Bresnahan”…they called me “Buddy” in those days, since my dad’s name was also Paul, “Buddy Bresnahan”, when she said that, I knew I was in trouble. I’d be sent to my room or worse, I was “grounded”. Anything like that ever happen to you?

Nowadays, my wife keeps me grounded. Every day, while I am saying my prayers and writing in my journal, she will be tending to the household budget, crunching numbers, checking bank balances, making sure that every penny is accounted for. She often looks up to me to say; “Did you even check the balance in your account before you went off spending that money?”. Truth be told, my answer is usually, a weak; “Geez, I thought sure I had plenty of money in there.” She has her hands full keeping me grounded.

But I’m not alone in that regard. Last week, I thought we scared poor Rupert Moore half to death upon entering the church. Cindy lost her footing for just a split second, and went down on one knee. She had no idea of what happened there. And so when we got home, I said to her; “You’re grounded!” 

Then there’s the business of going for my daily walk. I love sauntering along city sidewalks. We live near the ocean right off Lynn Shore Drive. Walking by the sea, listening to the call of the gulls and the surf crashing along the beach, breathing in the salt sea air and walking along listening to the quiet echo of my footsteps, all of this keeps me grounded in the joy of being alive, even in the chill of winter.

The Mystery of the Incarnation means that we believe God was grounded.  In the holy season for which we joyfully prepare during this Advent, God becomes flesh and blood. Born of a human mother, poor, homeless, in a common stable among the animals, in the chill of winter, there is the Holy Child. And the Mystery of the Incarnation is that to God each one of you is no less holy. 

God was grounded as one of us in human form in the person of Jesus. So much does God love us that he became one of us to show it. We cannot help but love the Baby Jesus, lying there in a manger. “For God so loved the world that he gave his begotten only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.

A baby born of Mary. Goodness sakes she and Joseph weren’t even married at that time. Talk about being grounded. This family and this mother extended their arms of love to all of us. What wondrous love is this, what joy rejoices our hearts to hear the story told again and again each year!

Today we light the rose candle on the Advent Wreath. The Third Sunday in Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday in the Church Year. The word comes from the Latin; “Gaudeo” meaning “Rejoice”. Hence the rose candle, blending the joyous white with the penitent purple, represents joy and rejoicing at the nearness of the Holy Child. 

 You may have noticed that the first lesson today was filled with images of joy and rejoicing. The Prophet Isaiah spoke and said;
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.”
The prophet continues with these promises;
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

Years and years ago, I visited Betty in the hospital as the end of her life was approaching. She had suffered from spina bifida all her life. After we said our prayers, she said, “Oh, Fr Paul, don’t forget my envelopes.”. She tithed, by the way. I said; “Oh dear Betty, can you really afford to give so much money to the church?” You know what she said to me? She looked intently at me and said; “I’ve suffered all my days with this back of mine, but you know, soon I shall be able to leap like a deer. For all that God has done for me, this is the least I can do for him.” Her witness to God's love changed my life then and there.

In today's Canticle, Mary rejoices when the Archangel Gabriel visits to bring her the news that she shall be the mother of the Holy Child.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord” she begins. 
The song appears in scripture as a magnificent poem. As her soul soars she sets the nations straight and proclaims the justice of God.
“God has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
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.”

This joyous song of Mary! She knows who her son will be and how to answer the question we all have and which John gives voice to in today's Gospel;
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 
Jesus answers John's messengers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

When shall all this be you may rightly ask? James, the brother of our Lord, tell us in today’s Epistle to be patient. For as “the farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” You too must also must be patient. Sometimes we get a bit tired of waiting. But God’s kingdom is already unfolding among us. As the crop grows there is much to be tended, watered, weeded, protected. Our patience is not inactive. It is rather creatively engaged with the Powers and Principalities by the Power of God exercised in each of us. Remember what Abe Lincoln once said; “You’ll sooner get the chicken waiting for it to hatch than by breaking its shell”. In the meantime, keep that egg warm and protect it with your life!

We remain firmly grounded in God. We gather here Sunday by Sunday to set forth the praise of God with rejoicing. We sing God’s songs, don’t we choir? We carry God’s cross, yes? We read God’s Holy Word and proclaim the Gospel. When we leave this place we apply ourselves diligently to the work of bringing God’s justice to fulfillment, and ministering to those who suffer. Our patience is not grounded in passivity, but engaged in the work God has given us to do.

By the way, we also bring our gifts to God. Being the grounded one, Cindy writes the check and puts it in the plate. After all, I suspect somebody has to pay the bills for the church; the heating bill, the insurance, the upkeep of the building, and if you would like to have a parish priest eventually you’ll have to provide for that too.

Cindy and I do not put money in the plate to pay the bills of the church, however. No we give to God in proportion to what God gives us. We aim at 10% of our income because that’s the Biblical standard for giving. If you do the arithmetic you’ll find out that’s a little bit of a bite on the family budget, but we are working toward our tithe nonetheless.

God is good to us. All of us. When we give, we give to God so that we can build up God’s Church and make it strong. Wherever we are Sunday by Sunday, we give to God because this is God’s church. I understand that you are in the midst of your pledge drive. God is good to you. Like Betty taught me years ago, the least we can do is thank God in our generosity and in our pledging. May I gently remind you to fill out a pledge card if you haven't already done so?

God has grounded you and given you life. God has set you in family, given you friends and work. God has also given you this beautiful church. Last week, in the outpouring of your hospitality, you gave Cindy and me such a warm welcome here at St. Mark’s. We both thank you for that. Your warmth, your affection, your love for God and one another are abundantly clear. If God is to be grounded in this place it will take each one of us doing our part for God. This is what rejoices the heart of God. 

Finally we are grounded in prayer. You know the seven principal kinds of prayer, don’t you? The Catechism is worth reading now and again to keep us mindful of and grounded in faith. It is in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 845.  The part on Prayer and Worship begins on page 856.

According to the Catechism, the principal kinds of prayer are, class? Adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, intercession and petition. The seventh principal kind of prayer, anybody?  Sometimes overlooked in a consumer society; it is the prayer of oblation. It is the prayer that says; “You can count on me to do whatever God needs to be done for the work of the Church”. Yes, you can count on me, to serve, to put my back into it, to make provision for this holy place though my generosity, my gratitude, my devotion.

Our prayer and worship are grounded in God. As God grounded himself in Jesus to be among us so we ground ourselves in the service of God and our fellow men, women and children. This is our Prayer. This is our Worship. The Eucharist we celebrate this day is but a joyous foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet.  We have all been invited to feast forever with the Communion of Saints. Then as now we shall be forever grounded in the everlasting love of God.

In the Name of God, the most holy, undivided, and everlasting Trinity. Amen.

Fr Paul 

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Winnowing Fork

The Winnowing Fork

Please allow me to thank you for your invitation to spend the remainder of this Advent Season, Christmas, and even into Epiphany to be with you. Together with joy let us set forth the Word of God and Celebrate the Sacrament of Christ’s Presence among us. I am delighted to be with you particularly at this time of year.

Allow me to introduce my wife, Cindy. We met each other not far from here in Hyde Park 38 years ago while I was serving at Christ Church. And we are delighted to be in Dorchester where two of our sons were born at the old St. Margaret’s Hospital over on Cushing Avenue. 

Cindy and I have been married 37 years now. We have three grown sons. Our first born, David lives nearby and attends St. Mary’s Church. Our second married recently and lives in Charlotte and our youngest lives in San Francisco. I have been ordained 44 years and have served congregations in this Diocese, in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I “retired”, after a fashion, 10 years ago this Christmas and in my retirement I have served as interim and “bridge” priest wherever and however the church  needed. I like writing particularly on issues of Congregational Development. I thank God for all these wonderful blessings. And I thank God for you. You are a blessing to one another and to the church as today’s Epistle says; “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another.”

In this very special Advent season we prepare for the birth of the Holy Child. There is a note of urgency in our preparation. We hear it in the voice of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel as he enters onto the stage of sacred history with these words;
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
Make his pathways straight”
We are to make room in our hearts for the Birth of this Holy Child, as John reminds us again with that same note of urgency;
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

This Kingdom is indeed near, it is at hand. In fact it has already arrived. It is within you. Again and and again, Jesus uses these words “near”, “at hand”, “within”, and “among” to describe the location of the Kingdom of God. His winnowing fork is already in his hand.

We needn’t wait until we die to live it. Nor do we await some cataclysmic event to occur, as some claim, when the earth and the heavens shall pass away. No, dear friends. God’s Kingdom is here, within and among us. That is why it is a matter of urgency that we prepare our hearts to receive The Child again this Christmas.

We are to repent. That is to say, we are to become something “new” again for God in the same way that God is always becoming something “new” to us. We are to undergo a “complete makeover”. I imagine that there are some of you who like those TV shows where they are always gutting out and making over somebody’s home. Don’t you wish you had the wherewithal to do all that you might dream of doing in the home in which you dwell? O well, in the meantime we make do with what we have. 

The dwelling place of which the Scripture speaks, however, is within the human heart. Here is where we can make the kind of metamorphosis that John and Jesus want, right here, within our hearts. When John uses that word “repent” he uses a Greek word “metanoia” which means “a complete makeover”. Much like a grub undergoes a metamorphosis from its cocoon to become a magnificent butterfly, so too we are invited by John and Jesus to make our hearts new again. In point of fact one of the images the early church used to signify who we are to become is the butterfly. Where we now put a cross, the early church often put a butterfly, a very beautiful one, like a Monarch Butterfly. 

Which reminds me, do you have any idea how beautiful you are in God’s eyes? How magnificent? As Shakespeare described humankind 
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving,
how express and admirable in action, how like an angel,
in apprehension, how like a god!” 
~Hamlet; II,2.

And Michelangelo, when he looked at a block of marble, he did not see a formless hunk of stone, he saw the potential for an angel. Imagine the exquisite shill of the sculptor working on the rough corners of your soul to make of you something beautiful for God! Jesus is your sculptor! 

The Holy Child is soon to be born for us. We have now lit the second candle of the Advent Wreath a candle that represents Love; not just a love of God and of one another, it is the love we are commanded to have in our hearts and souls for ourselves. The second of the two Great Commandments is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Notice please that the second commandment is to Love your neighbor "as" you do yourself. It does not say "instead" of yourself” but “as” yourself, that is to say, in like manner.

There are distractions to be sure. There is the incessant “jingle” of “Christmas” bells and piped in music in all the stores and the hectic pace we keep this time of year. There is the din of the news much of which portends ill for many of us and the nations of the earth. This is a danger and a distraction to the proper nourishment of our souls. 

It is an urgent matter for us is take quiet time and prayer to be with God as we prepare our hearts to be present to the Holy Spirit. 

In today’s first lesson the prophet reminds us that a little child born of the root of Jesse, shall come among us. Furthermore “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”.

Just for the record, the biblical narrative repeats the theme of Justice  time and again. Today, for instance the Psalmist says; 
“He 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.”

Not only is our Advent preparation urgent, it is also clear that God will judge justly for the poor, and will hold the oppressor accountable for any and all oppression. With his fierce and urgent voice John says; “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Be forewarned ye leaders of the world and within our own nation. Repent!

I don’t want to be on the wrong side of God's winnowing fork, do you? Imagine how it would go over if you were the one by whom 20 million people were denied health care! The Gospel, as Jesus says, is indeed sharper than any two edged sword.

Advent waiting is anything but passive. Advent waiting is full of expectation and urgent preparation, much like any expectant mother awaiting the birth of her child. There is much to be done before the moment arrives. 

We have much to do as we await the Birth of the Holy Child this year. Our souls await a complete makeover so that you and I can become the hands and feet of Jesus in and for the sake of the world we live in. In order to repent as John and Jesus would have us repent we will need to undergo such a transformation as will make each of us something very beautiful for God indeed. That transformation is not just a personal one it has its social dimension as well. I would be less than candid if I did not say that I am concerned about any nation, especially our own, when it turns its back on the needy and the poor, the outcast, the sick and the lame. You and I may have to prepare ourselves for further action as we move into the next chapter of our nation’s history.

Teresa of Avila the 16th Century Christian Mystic writes;
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” 

Jesus will come again this year and when he comes all people will be invited to find hope, love, joy, and peace in him, just like Advet words proclaim. God help anyone who prevents the hope, love, joy and peace of God from justly extending to all without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, class, gender or orientation. We seek to be what Jesus lived and died for. We are to become more and more "A house of prayer for all people". Even now the winnowing fork is in his hand!

We seek to be among those on whom God’s favor rests, during this Holy Season of urgent expectation. My prayer for all is the same as the Scripture proclaims on this Second Sunday of Advent.
"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In the Name of God, the most holy, undivided, and everlasting Trinity.

Fr Paul.