Monday, February 27, 2017

"Glory be to God!"

The Feast Day of the Transfiguration 

The appearance of God was like a devouring fire on Sinai 
Jesus face shone like the sun, his clothes dazzling white.
A Voice said; “this is my Beloved Son, listen to him”
You rulers of the earth, be wise; be warned!

On the summit of Mount Washington and right here on Great Blue hill there are weather stations. The winds, the temperatures, the clouds, the views up there are all impressive up there. The climb, the rarified air, the exertion, the view, the very journey can change your life. To appreciate the experience, you had better dress appropriately. And you also better respect what can happen up on those mountains. There are many who have found that mountains can be dangerous places and can surprise them with uncompromising and unmerciful reality. Tuckerman Ravine, for instance, is notoriously risky for even for the well trained and experienced climber.

In Sacred History, the mountain has figured significantly in the experience of God's people. At Sinai, for instance, God spoke to Moses and said; “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written.” 

I have been to the mountain of God. In fact a dear friend, Esber Tweel, an Episcopal priest of Arabic origin and I took a busload of high school kids on Pilgrimage to Jordan, Palestine and Israel twice. I’ve also taken kids on Pilgrimage to France and in this country to New York City, Washington, DC and to Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

It was an amazing experience to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land. Several times we made our way through the desert to Mount Sinai. It is also known in Scripture as Mount Horeb. I’ve seen what scholars believe is the “burning bush” because of the way it shimmers in the sunlight; it looks like it is on fire, and yet is not consumed. The location of this “burning bush” is at the foot of Mount Sinai at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest religious communities in Christendom. One wonders if that’s what Moses saw when God revealed his Holy Name to him, to us. "I AM", God told Moses. That is my Name. The God of ALL BEING where the very Name itself is so sacred that it must not be spoken out loud because all beings are sacred, all creation is sacred. It was in this sacred place that we encountered and remembered what happened there. The whole experience, I can assure you, transfigured us all, even a bunch of teenagers and their chaperones. I believe teenagers need such adventures. I call it the "Outward Bound" of our spiritual encounter with God. 

My son Michael rose early in the morning, somewhere before 3am and with the others they climbed the mountain. I was not so ambitious and stayed behind. The experience of that climb changed Michael that day. He told me that it was as if Moses himself walked with him along the way. These kinds of experiences happen on Pilgrimage. I remember celebrating the Eucharist on the Mount of the Beatitudes. That experience changed my life that day. 

Way up on that mountain God gave the Law to Moses written in stone. That Law, is now written not just in stone but in every human heart. You and I know what is right. We know what is wrong. Insofar as the Law transfigured the people of God in the wilderness, so too we; the Law transfigures us.

You know from your reading of Scripture that Ahab and Jezabel surrounded themselves with a priesthood that told them what they wanted to hear. This is often the case with politicians. Jezabel was a priestess of Baal as were the priests who surrounded her and Ahab. Baal was a nature god of Canaanite origin and reflected the common nature gods of the Ancient Near East. Baal was in charge of the weather, earthquake, fire and the whirlwinds, what we might call tornados. This reminds me of those who tell me that if they want to go to church they go for a walk in the woods or golf. Sounds too much like the Baals to me!

Elijah the prophet told Arab and Jezabel the truth; God is a God of history, a God of Justice especially for the poor and the alien among us. It was God who acted to bring the people up out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Again and again, God has acted to bring people up out of the rod of oppression into a land of freedom. God still acts decisively in history. And to do so God needs a Moses or aMartin Luther King. God needs you!

We know that Elijah confronted Jezabel’s priests and revealed them for their falsehood. They came to an unpleasant end, we’re told. Jezabel pursued Elijah to kill him. Elijah fled in terror and fear for his life. Up on the mountain once more, he seeks the shade of a bush which withers and dies while Elijah likewise withers in spirit and asks God for death. God wants to know what the prophet is doing on the mountain when he is supposed to confront Ahab with his wrongdoing. Elijah was afraid for his life and well he might be. Jezabel was a fierce woman according to the biblical account.

Then in a most compelling encounter God reveals something of transfiguring power. A terrible wind passes, but God is not in the wind. A great earthquake shakes the mountain, but God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire passes before the mountain, but God is not in the fire. Then a "still small voice" or a "sheer silence", as the Hebrew might have it, comes to Elijah in his heart of hearts and asks, "What are you doing here, Elijah?” You see, God is not "in" any of the natural elements of wind, earthquake and fire. God is in your heart telling you what is right and wrong. God wants you to act in history to reveal God's love, compassion, and justice. Elijah then goes on to confront Ahab once more until he finally repents and returns to God. Jezabel however, not so well! 

In today’s Gospel the Law and the Prophets; represented by Moses and Elijah appear by the side with Jesus on the Holy Mountain. And then they were gone and only Jesus is left. We are told that Jesus face shone like the sun. This blinding encounter changed the lives of the disciples and left an indelible mark on their lives as they came to the realization that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets!

How does Jesus’ face shine into your life? We are told in the Gospel that a voice from heaven declares that Jesus is God’s Son; listen to him. What do you hear when Jesus speaks to you? When you read the Sermon on the Mountain of God as we have been throughout this Epiphany season; what do you hear Jesus say to you, to this church, to this nation?

What changes is God looking for in your life? In this church In  this community? In the nation? And in a world so much at conflict, at war and in terror in so many places. God is speaking clearly to each of us and all of us; "What are you doing here?" Hear it? That still small voice? That sheer silence in your heart of hearts?

“Why are the nations in an uproar” the Psalmist says. And then goes on to say; “and now, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Submit to the God with fear, and with trembling bow before him.”

As I look over the news in recent days I’m astounded that the attack on the freedom of the press by the current administration. The media always shines a critical light on politicians. That's just the way it is when you get into the public arena. In a democracy debate and disagreement goes with the territory. I could have much to say about this in the tradition of the Prophets, and will at the appropriate time.

But I believe that our more immediate task is to take a look at our life here at Trinity Church in Canton. Your vestry is meeting after church today to share some time together seeing what we can discern of God’s call to us over the next few months and years. What is God’s call? What is our mission? Who are we to be for one another and for the community in which we are set? How shall we make provision for the needs of this congregation and for those who do not yet belong? 

All in God’s good time. I look forward to this time together. We have much to learn about one another as we seek God’s will for us here.

The Guiding Star in all this is the One whom we encounter on the Holy Mountain. We know what he said. We know who he is. This is the one of whom the voice from heaven said; “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.” May God grant us grace to listen to that Sacred Voice here at Trinity.

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

Fr Paul.

Friday, February 24, 2017

"The Annunciation"

The following is an attempt to capture a moment in time well before the birth, life and death of Jesus. She, like many "unwed" mothers found herself "overshadowed" by someone much more powerful than her. Sometimes this power is conceived in love. Sometimes not. Many young women and girls shared her predicament down through the ages. How was she to explain this to Joseph? To the world? This dear friends is not about "Virgin Birth". This is about an unwed mother. To honor her and to honor all those who are constant in their love, I have written these lines. Not only does she carry the Christ within her, we all do. We are all the hands and feet of Jesus. Her message is not an explanation but a manifesto to the rich and powerful. How timely! (Please note the artistic note below)

"The Predicament" 
By Fr Paul Bresnahan  

Overshadowed by this shaft of Light
The bewildered girl gazed intently, intimately;
She sat strewn midst scattered bedclothes
Much perplexed and now with Child

The Encounter ended, pondered
"What have I done! What shall I tell them?
Joseph, and all the world;
Of this 'Virgin' Birth?"

(An expectant pause)

"Remove the mighty from their thrones
Let them go hungry
Lift up the lowly, meek and poor
Fill them with good things
Proclaim your soul the greatness of God!
Magnify and make All Holy!"

Artistic note: The painting above is by Henry Ossawa Tanner. He was an American artist and the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 to study, where he continued to live after being accepted in French artistic circles.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Red Headed Women and Whiskey!

Red Headed Women and Whiskey!

Jesus said; “Love your enemies.” 
I find that difficult to do sometimes, particularly in the present political context in this country. We are so divided now. Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, Citizens and Immigrants, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Atheists. The rancor among us is palpable.

All this made me think of a time when I found myself in the hotbed of controversy over the building of a homeless shelter in Saint Albans, West Virginia. Our church operated what was called Christ’s Kitchen, a free breakfast and lunch program for the poor in the midst of a challenging neighborhood. There were a number of homeless folks who lived along the riverbank and under a bridge. One especially stormy night a small band of homeless folk put together a makeshift shelter of cardboard boxes. They set a fire to keep warm. Things got out of control and when the smoke cleared three people had died. 

The press came by to investigate. We went over to the site of the fire and in what was one of the most pitiful things I’ve ever seen, I watched as the department of Public Works cleared the scene of all the worldly possessions of the homeless and the police gave tickets to them for littering and vagrancy. Not only had they lost their friends in the fire, all their worldly possessions were gone and they were facing court action and fines for the crime of being homeless. The reporter and I documented and published the sequence of events.

We went back to Christ’s Kitchen to collect ourselves in the aftermath of all this trauma. And then in a moment of inspiration, I said; “Give me your tickets!”. The reporter and I went out to the front steps of the church and I brandished the tickets in front of a camera and announced that the police had harassed the homeless at the direction of the city authorities, and that I had taken the tickets into my possession and if the courts wanted to collect fines they’d have to get the money out of me. The story made it to the front page of the Charleston Gazette

The response from the city was predictable. The next morning I arrived at my office to see my secretary in tears and she told me that the President of the City Council had called and and was in a state of outrage. He said to her and I quote; “Those Irish, the only thing they brought to this country was red headed women and whiskey”. The press were there waiting for a quote from me. I was ready;
“I’ll have one of each!” said I.

Thus began a sequence of events that led to the building of a homeless shelter. I shall never forget all the parishioners, community leaders, lawyers, police, civic leaders and so on who became a part of a collaborative effort to build that shelter. What had begun in controversy and confrontation, eventually became a galvanizing rally point for constructive cooperative ministry. It began however with with my willingness to serve as a lightning rod!

When Jesus tells us to turn the cheek and to love our enemies, I don’t think he means that we are to roll over and play dead in the midst of conflict. Rather I think Jesus wants us to engage one another honestly and creatively in a way that leads to reconciliation. That’s how it all worked out for us in Saint Albans. West Virginia. 

Things don’t always work out so well. When Jesus confronted the religious authorities of his day, he overturned the tables in the Temple precincts and then there was the trial, the execution, and the dreadful death of Jesus.

But even then, even then at the very point of his deepest moment of suffering Jesus found it within him to say; “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

“You have heard that it was said of old ‘An eye for an eye’”
The bankruptcy of that ethic was clear to Jesus. As it was to Mahatma Gandhi who is quoted as having said;
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth merely leaves the whole world blind and toothless!”

Jesus insisted that we love our enemies.

Is such redemption possible in this nation and in this world of mutually exclusive opposites; particularly when our President seems to revel in insulting and alienating so many? Not only are we a divided nation, but the wedge between us seems to widen by the day. 

I believe it takes much conflict and confrontation to work out the particulars of our reconciliation. We must be outspoken in our advocacy. Particularly as Christians and other folks of faith, we must speak up on behalf of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized and the alien among us. The ethical biblical mandate requires us to do so.

You did hear that verse from Leviticus in today’s first lesson? When describing the farmer’s duties when harvesting, the Biblical ethic requires that the margins of the farmer’s field be left for the benefit of the poor and the alien among them. And then the Scripture says; “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself!”. 

No doubt you will remember that when Jesus described our neighbor he singled out the Samaritan. Samaritans were despised by the general population of the day. They were foreigners, and their religion was “different”. I’m sure there were those who would have deported them all back to Samaria if they had it in their power to do so.

Foreigners! My grandmother, God rest her soul, used to say that it was the Irish who ruined Boston. That tells you what she thought of my dad especially after that nasty divorce.
She also made me promise on the family bible that I would never marry an Italian. I promised! Obviously I broke that promise. And I’m glad I did. But my grandmother is fine about all that now that she’s got it all straight in heaven. 

There always has been  prejudice based on race, ethnicity, class, national origin, language, gender and orientation. There always will be. Folks have put folks in pigeon holes for ever.

But what of Jesus? Did he reject the outcast, the sick, the poor, the blind, the lame or the lepers. Did he reject the prostitutes or the tax collectors or look his nose down at common fisherfolk?

Who did Jesus reject?

The only folks Jesus had trouble with were the religious literalists of his day who kept trying to catch him up in his words. Ultimately, he found a way to love them too!

Is there any hope for America and our sad divisions?

There is this one thought. It is a reach but let me mention the hope I have for this country. The American Bald Eagle. It is a magnificent symbol for this nation. Ben Franklin thought it might be safer to use the Turkey as the symbol of this nation given the factious nature and level of intelligence of far too many.

But if we could be inspired by the symbol of our nation’s greatness, then hope is possible. Look what it takes for an Eagle to fly. It takes both wings; the left wing as well as the right wing. And no matter how far out those feathers are, they all work together for a purpose. 

Dare we hope that we could honor one another in this country, and across the great divides that appear to be at such variance? This is a great dare. I’m not sure we can do that. But if we could, the Eagle would do more than fly, it could soar!

Clearly this is one of the reasons Jesus told us to “Love our enemies”. He also told us that he expected us to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect. This is where I fall short of the mark. I can get hurt. I can get angry. My feelings can even verge far too close to hateful. This is not what Jesus had in mind when he asked me to be perfect. 

When I become aware that I have strayed a bit too far from the desirable perfection that Jesus has in mind, I look for a way to return to him with all my heart. Righteousness is a corrective then to our behavior. When I veer off to the left or to the right of that righteous line, Jesus beckons me to return. After all we are called to be perfect even as God in heaven is perfect. 

When the Chief Executive governing officer of these United States of America revels in mockery and disparaging disrespect we have a problem at the very heart and soul of the nation. Likewise the Press, and all up and down the body politic of this nation. Are we enemies who insist on our hatefulness? Or can we find our way to Peace once more with Freedom and Justice for All?

Will this Eagle soar? Or will its broken wings confine itself to the ground? 

It took some time, everyone had to swallow some pride but the President of St Albans City Council and I came to a deeper understanding, appreciation and respect for one another. So too with the Police. I often brought donuts to the break room as a peace offering. And when a K-9 was cut down in the line of duty, the Baptist minister refused to bury the dog. Apparently the dog was not regarded as having a soul. But one of the police officers knew I’d bury the dog. Fr. Paul, they knew had a heart for all God’s creation.

All in God’s good time. All is made well. Peace reigns. The homeless shelter is built. Perfection is Present to us even if only for a brief and fleeting moment. 

What of America here and now? Will we seek peace and justice once more? Or rather will we insist on characterizing one another as enemies. Jesus tells us that we must love our enemies. Jesus tells us to be perfect as God in Heaven wants you to be Perfect. Will we seek God's will or our own? How we answer that question will make all the difference.

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

Fr Paul.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Reconciliation between the Oppressor and the Oppressed

A Matter of Life and Death

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago in a faraway land of Cleveland, Ohio when I was the rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio, there was a young man who left his Ohio home to go to work in West Virginia. There were problems at home. In many ways he was a troubled youth. He came to church on occasion though. When he did, I could tell by the way he looked at me at the altar rail that he was in pain. When he left, I wrote him a note. In it I said that no matter what happened, remember this one thing, “I believe in you. More importantly, God believes in you. I know you will find your way.” 
Years passed. When I found myself at St. Mark’s Church, in Saint Albans, West Virginia, there he was one Sunday. He was all grown up with a family of his own now. At the coffee hour he came up to me and said;
“Remember this?”
With that, he opened his well worn wallet and there was a tattered, water stained crumpled up note that he very carefully unfolded. It was falling apart at the folds. It was my handwriting, but honestly, I had forgotten that I had written that note. He told me that whenever he was discouraged, and there were many times that happened, he would open up that note and he remembered what I had said, and he then called God to heart and prayed. 

You never know what small gesture of kindness may touch another human being’s heart. But each of you, whether you know it or not is making a difference. You may never know it. But your expressions of loving kindness can make all the difference in a human life. Another former parishioner likes to say; “Make America kind again!” Likewise, if you are not so kind, or are a little too quick with hasty words, you can leave a world of hurt behind you.

It really is a matter of life and death; the way we live. You and I both know that. There are a hundred ways for us to live good fruitful and productive lives in a way that glorifies God and is of service to all the men, women and children.  Those we love so much and perfect strangers too. 

There are also hundreds of ways for humankind to destroy God’s creation and God’s creatures; both ourselves and others. It really comes down to the fundamental choices we make each day, the choices whether we wish to add abundance to human life or to take away from it.

Every Sunday we pray the Collect of the Day. As the service begins, it is time for collective prayer. We take a moment to gather ourselves, and pray in summary what God is teaching the Church through the Scriptures. The very first English Book of Common Prayer was written by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1549 and it contained these magnificent prayers. They are an anthology of spiritual wisdom that has come down to us from the ages. 

Today’s Collect admits the truth about us; “in our weakness we can do nothing good thing without you.” Isn’t that the truth! So where are we to turn for help but to God? The collect continues; “give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed”. 

The collect of the day expresses the wisdom of today's scripture themes.

The First Lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy says “obey the commandments of the Lord your God…by loving the Lord your God and walking in his ways” and “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”. To obey God is to choose life. The commandments are God's notes of encouragement to us. 

The Psalmist says; “Happy are they who observe God’s decrees and who seek God with all their hearts!”

My namesake, Paul, had problems with a factious congregation in the seaport town of Corinth. Truth be told each of us has a different part to play in building up the Body of Christ in this or any congregation, in this or any diocese, in this or any denomination. Paul continues; “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In the midst of conflict Jesus’ provides the following instructions in today’s Gospel “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift”

Reconciliation! Paul reminds the church in Corinth that there is this business of reconciliation. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he says; “God has given us the task of reconciling people to him.” After all it is in Jesus’s death that the dividing wall between us has been broken down. “All of this is from God who has given us the ministry of reconciliation”. Paul claims that Jesus has made peace by the cross. He paid the price for our sins. Therefore, let us be reconciled to God and to one another.

“There is the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death”. That’s the opening line of the oldest document of the church after the New Testament material. I have often used “The Didache” as it is called with teenagers because that’s when kids often play with danger thinking they are immortal. Folks we can get hurt. Folks, we can live and we can die. The sooner we learn to make the choice to live, the better for us all.

It is a matter of life and death the choices we make as individuals, as churches, as nations and so forth and so on. All we have to do is look around or study history. It is all there plain as day.

You and I are here today because we have chosen life. Whatever sins cling still close, we nonetheless choose life each day. I suspect that we have a long, long way to go to reach perfection. Sometimes you and I can get quite discouraged.

But someone may write a note to us that we will hold precious. We will carry human and Godly kindness, folded up in our hearts wherever we go. In fact God has written a note to you. God knows exactly how you feel. God has been there in the joy of Christmas, in the Temptations of the wilderness, in the heartaches of those who are sick or dying. God knows what it is like to be rejected and finally God knows what it is like to suffer and die!

But I do have good news for you. Wonderful news! You are forgiven. The big sins, those things you're still ashamed of; Forgiven! Even all those everyday bad habits you haven't gotten around to facing. It is all Forgiven. So bear fruit of one who is loved of God and forgiven of all your sins! 

There is the problem of oppression however.
We can make no peace with oppression
If it is true that Jesus came to bring Good News to the poor. ~Luke 4:18
If it is true that "inasmuch as we do it to one of the least of these, we do it to Jesus" ~Matthew 25:31ff
Then it follows that we will be reconciled to all. But we cannot be reconciled to oppression.
We must be peacemakers. 
But we cannot make peace with oppression.

Reconciliation remains necessary between the oppressor and the oppressed. 
It is the ethical mandate of God that the oppressor take responsibility for justice.
If not, it becomes our to duty to see that justice is done. 

It is all written down for us in notes of encouragement, kindness, wisdom and faith. We call those precious notes the Holy Bible. We read substantial part of it every single week. God continues to write notes of forgiveness and love in our hearts every moment we draw breath. This is the way to life for anyone, for any congregation, for any nation, and for the world we live in. 

God demands justice!
It really is a matter of life and death.

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

Fr Paul.