Sunday, August 27, 2017

Living Stones

Living Stones

It was in late August of 2005 and my son David called from New Orleans. He had limited access to the news and asked me what I knew about Hurricane Katrina. It was still days away from landfall but I was glued to the Weather Channel as I often am. Many clergy fancy themselves amateur meteorologists. I told him “David, listen to me very carefully; you are in the very center of the cone of predictably.” Then I said to him with a note of authority; “David, this is your father talking; get out of there! ASAP!” Thankfully he did evacuate with some of his friends and sought shelter with other friends in Atlanta. Sometimes it is entirely appropriate that you come right out and say who you are!

Who do you say that I am? I like to say that I am “just a simple parish priest.” My dear friend, Bishop Brookhart got a little tired of hearing me say that, so he made me an honorary Canon to the Diocese of Montana. So now I say that I am “just a simple Diocesan Canon.”  Another friend told me that makes me a large caliber, big bore! You folks have made me the Interim Dean of St Peter's Cathedral and you are making it difficult for me to maintain my simplicity.

But then along comes my namesake, Paul and in today’s Epistle he reminds us “not to think too highly of ourselves” but “to think with sober judgment”. Each of us is gifted in many ways and Paul enumerates some of them. The list he provides is not exhaustive, and he proclaims that the reason for our giftedness is “to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” 

You do know you are holy? You are acceptable to God, do you not? One reason we gather as One in Christ Sunday by Sunday is so that we can be at God’s table and present ourselves to receive the Sacrament, forgiven and full of the Grace that God intends for us. 

Look how many gifts you bring to God and to one another: Paul continues; “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”

We will need all of these gifts and more besides, in the face of history; whether the kind inflicted upon us by nature or humankind. 

We are in the midst of a dry season with many wildfires here in Montana. Folks On the gulf coast, are in the midst of one of the most dangerous hurricanes to hit the United States in more than a decade. It will take all our gifts working together to be a spiritual sacrifice to God; fire fighters, rescue personnel, first responders and good neighbors. So many prayers are needed. Prayer means much more than muttering words. I remember leading a mission team into New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. We may need to prepare ourselves to do likewise in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Prayer implies a willingness to roll up our sleeves and do the work God has given us to do. Thus our very selves become a prayer, living sacrifice not just to God, but to each other.

In human history, there are other kinds of disasters. Warfare, violence, racism, injustice and oppression are certainly nothing new to our times. 

Slavery has been around for a very long time. Our first lesson reminds us that the new Pharaoh didn’t know about Joseph and cared nothing about God. In Egyptian theology, Pharaoh was a god. He was accountable to no one but himself. So when he saw that the Hebrew folks were becoming more numerous than was politically comfortable, he decided that the male children should be killed off. When the midwives thwarted his directive, he required that the little male Hebrew babies be set adrift in the Nile to die. 

But God will not be mocked, Pharaoh! That goes for any and all others who like to trust in their own power and who think “more highly of themselves than they ought to think”.

Pharaoh’s daughter saw the little Hebrew child floating in the bullrushes and she saved the little fella and called him Moses, literally; “Moshe”, meaning “I drew him up out of the water”.  With a clever play on the Hebrew word, and an interesting turn of phrase, the name suggests that he would draw his people up out of the waters of the Red Sea and bring them from slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the Promised land. Then of course, Moses gave the people the Law since freedom requires responsibility.

In today's Gospel, Jesus led his disciples to Caesarea Philippi by the headwaters of the Jordan River. Here we go with the notion of water again. Interestingly, the Temple of Pan is located there. Pan was popular as a Greek god of desolate places. But there in the cave at this Temple there is a spring that provides copious amounts of water. The place is made holy by this water which is after all, the source of life. In due course the Jordan became a popular place for Baptism in the early church. 

And so it is that in this sacred place dedicated to Pan, Jesus wanted to know; “Who people say that I am?”
The disciples answered; “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
But Jesus said; “Who do you say that I am?” 

Peter recognizes and proclaims Jesus as the Christ of God. It is in this context that Jesus proclaims Peter as the Rock on which he would build his church. Each recognized the other for who they were. 

Notice also yet another Biblical triple play on words. The word “Peter” as you know means “Rock”. The Rock on which Jesus builds his church is not like a limestone rock the Temple to Pan is built upon. No, the Church will be built in the hearts, the minds, the souls, and bodies of the people of God beginning with Peter and the disciples of Jesus. As the prophet Ezekiel says; “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” ~Ezekiel 36:26

That means you are the Rock, the Petra, the Pierre on which God continues to build this church. Your hearts will be filled with love, forgiveness the reconciling power of God.

As a “simple parish priest” and now your Interim Dean, you and I pick up where others have left off.  We enter a new season in the church year. 

We have a Nursery, a Sunday School and a Youth Group to build. We are responsible for the lives of our people young and old alike. How shall we faithfully and joyfully share our gifts so that we may bring ourselves and others into that place where we may encounter the Holy, the living God? 

We have gifts that God has given us each according to the Grace allotted to us. We can tell God’s story and our story. God’s life is woven into the very fabric of our lives. For God’s sake, tell that story!

How shall we sing the songs of God and make music to the Mighty One in our midst? Only as each of us offers the gifts given to us can we make such music. By the way all God really wants, is for you to sing joyfully. I am so glad you sing as well as you do. It lifts the spirits to sing. It would be nice if we were all able to sing tunefully and and in the right meter, but that’s not the essential matter. You are indispensable when it comes to music. With good direction you’ll pick up the tunes and the meter all in God’s good time. In the meantime, sing your hearts out. And make bold to join the heavenly chorus.

How shall we make provision for God’s church? Obviously by becoming members of the church, by becoming good stewards of God’s grace, and by becoming cheerful and generous disciples of Jesus. By giving in proportion to what God gives you, you will become Peter, the Rock on which God will build the Church! We are not an institution; we are The Body of Christ, we are what our Presiding Bishop calls, “The Jesus Movement”.

It really is quite simple isn’t it? We are one body in Christ. 

Nature and History are a challenge to us. As we make our way through our challenges, we must face the storms that assault us whether hurricanes, wildfires, or racial discord, and so on. The challenges go on and on and on. We are resolved to face those challenges with the grace God gives. In the midst of all our challenges, there is this essential question; who do you say Jesus is? He is the Christ of God! And who does he say that you are? You friends are Peter, you are the living stones, the very rock on which Jesus builds his church. 

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

Fr Paul.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bread to Dogs or Bread of God?

Bread of Dogs, Bead of God?

My dear friends, I bring you greetings from the faithful who gathered yesterday at St Paul's Cathedral, on the Boston Common, the oldest park in these United States of America. Bishop Alan Gates asked my son David about you and me, during a service of prayers for peace. And thank God there was peace in Boston yesterday as more than 40,000 gathered to provide a visible sign that hate has no place in the City of Boston. What a relief that is.

As for the President, he has done for us one thing that no one else has been able to do. He has forced us into that exquisitely uncomfortable place where we must talk about issues such as Racism. I’ve been to dozens of conferences, there have been thousands of sermons on Racism, but this one man has done something that no one else has been able to do. He has put us all on the spot as to where we stand. We are all forced to look into the mirror of our own souls and ask; “Who are we?”

I have spent a lifetime working against racism. I began my ministry in Hyde Park in Boston during the integration crisis in the 70’s. There were Nazis there too trying to egg us on into racial warfare. When Cindy and I moved to Euclid, Ohio, again we faced the integration of the public schools. When we were in West Virginia there was a cross burning. It seems a black kid took a white girl on a date. I immediately spoke with a black pastor in town and hundreds of us marched together from St Mark’s Episcopal Church to St Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church. Even the Governor of West Virginia joined our efforts to renounce this act of hatred and intimidation. We demonstrated our solidarity for racial and human harmony. 

By the way my life has been threatened several times along the way. I have found myself at the center of many struggles. There was a time when someone called Cindy to say; “We’re going to kill your husband!” Cindy had the presence of mind to say, in her best Boston accent; “Yeah, take a numbah, I want to kill him too sometimes.”

The events of this past last week have left many of us shell-shocked. Where are we headed as a country? Can you imagine a march where the message of racial superiority, anti-semitism, hatred and violence is not soundly and convincingly renounced by the chief executive officer of the nation? 

Even before yesterday’s demonstration on the Common, one Bostonian travelled to Charlottesville and proudly declared in an interview; “Hitler was right!” and “Auschwitz was a five star resort!” Others chanted “Blood and Soil” during a torchlight parade last week. The expression was popularized by the prominent Nazi theorist Richard Walther DarrĂ© in 1930. The Nazi Party embraced the expression “Blood and Soil” as one of its chief ideological slogans. I renounce such statements as utterly contrary to everything this country stands for and contrary to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. I only wish that our chief executive leadership knew this history well enough to renounce it with equally convincing authority.

Driving an automobile into a crowd of demonstrators in Charlottesville or a van into a gathering of tourists in Barcelona are both acts of terrorism. Period. When anyone uses theology or ideology to justify acts of violence, we have no choice but to renounce such acts immediately and hold those responsible to account swiftly.

Enough of that for now. Lets look at what the Scriptures have to say to us today. Interestingly enough the assigned lectionary for the day deals with issues of racism, slavery and oppression. Isn't that interesting!

We begin with the Gospel for the day. At no time in history have we needed the Gospel more urgently than we do now. Jesus led his disciples on a walk to Tyre and Sidon. By the way, that's a walk of about 124 milesfrom Jerusalem. Quite a hike! There must have been some discussion along the way about the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem and then I suggest to you that there must have been questions about why they were heading deeper and deeper into Canaan. Was he not sent to the House of Israel? Why then did they find themselves so deep in foreign territory?

Finally a Canaanite woman confronted Jesus with a plea that he heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Let’s be clear, this was a Canaanite woman, a woman of a different racial and ethnic class than the Jews. She was, horrors, a Gentile, a foreigner! Jesus, playing into the disciples’ prejudice and racism, ignored her. They told Jesus to send her away. Jesus made it clear he was sent by God to the lost sheep of Israel. She knelt down before him and begged him for help. His answer to her doesn’t sound like Jesus to me two thousand years later. We know now that Jesus’ love was for all people without regard to race, gender, ethnicity, or orientation. But we did not know that then. So, reflecting their prejudice and bigotry Jesus said to her; “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The woman’s response was astonishing. Instead of slinking away in dejected rejection, she said; “Yes, Lord yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” 

In an instant the Savior’s face was transfigured by the love of God made flesh and blood in him; “O woman great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Jesus breaks the dividing wall among us then and there. Whatever dividing wall you wish to erect, Jesus breaks it down. Racial divides, gone. All other convenient pigeon holes we wish to use to classify folk. No more. 

Thankfully, more and more we as a church are becoming a “House of Prayer for ALL People.” In our own historic context in Montana, our relationship with Native American folks also needs an honest to God reality check. As a matter of fact, I thank God for recent events. For now we all have some soul searching to do.

You know, I have a vision for us as a nation and as a people. The vision is not new to me but as old as the Republic itself. Imagine if you will the American Bald Eagle. It is a noble vision the Native American community revered deeply. Thankfully, I’m bald so it may help envision what I seek to say. The eagle has two wings. A left wing and a right wing like all birds. Ben Franklin, is reputed to have suggested the turkey as our national bird given the factious nature of the body politic. But consider the eagle. On the left wing let us postulate the possibility of Democrats, progressives, and liberals. On the right let me suggest we may find Republicans, traditionalists, and conservatives. For an eagle or any bird to get off the ground, it will need both wings, but for it to soar it will need every single feather working in concert together. 

This will mean that as responsible citizens we must reclaim the center. We must renounce the extreme. By that, I mean there must be a place where we can hold conversation with one another when we agree and when we disagree. True enough, we tend to seek out like minded people for much of our lives. But where we really soar is when we can work in concert with those who most differ from us. There is a thing called bi-partisanship and Congress. If we are to deal with matters of urgent concern such as health care, infrastructure, unemployment, poverty, the national budget and so on, we must work together. This will allow the great symbol of our national experience not only to get off the ground and fly, if we begin to act as grown ups and responsible citizens, we can soar!

As for those in the extreme where hatefulness and violence are embraced. We categorically reject that. The politics of “divide and conquer” is much in vogue these days, often has been in history. But such an approach to our common life is not reflective of our better angels. Since a boy the American credo I hold dear has been and continues to be that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

As for slavery, Joseph knew first hand what that was like. In our first lesson today we read where Joseph said; “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into into slavery in Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” God has redeemed history before. God will redeem history again as soon as we listen up to God! In the sweetness of reconciliation Joseph “fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” That’s when their spirits soared like an eagle. 
The spirit of the Psalmist soars today with these words;
“1 Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
2 It is like fine oil upon the head *
that runs down upon the beard,
3 Upon the beard of Aaron, *
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
4 It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.
5 For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.”
   ~Psalm 133

Eternal Life folks or hatred, violence, and death? That is the choice that always stands before us. Bishop Brookhart writes of what happened in Charlottesville; “This event, which included the death of a young woman, reminds us that disciples of Jesus cannot tolerate or condone white supremacy and racism.” 

Allow me to add this from my namesake Paul in today’s Epistle; “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Or as we read in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus; “Bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all…until all of us come to the unity of the faith…to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Soaring words indeed.

Yes, my spirit soars in Jesus. I pray this is how it shall always be with us. May God bless us, everyone!

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

We're not in Boston anymore!

The Feast Day of the Transfiguration 2017
St. Peter’s Cathedral, Helena, Montana

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Boston anymore”
~Dorothy (a minor variation)

Last night Cindy and I were out shopping. We stopped to grab a bite at Shellie's Country Cafe. When we observed cowboy hats, boots and belt buckles, we looked at each other and said; “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Boston anymore”

Good morning folks and thank you for your wonderful welcome to Helena, Montana. Cindy and I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Bishop Brookhart, Sara Medley and the Cathedral Chapter, and to your wonderful Parish Administrator, Donna Gleaves. You have provided us with a very comfortable place to live in and a basket full of goodies to enjoy. Donna has prepared pages of agenda items for the interim dean to pay attention to as we begin this journey together. It sets my head to spinning as I contemplate; “Good Lord, where have I landed now!”

When we left Boston it was hazy, hot and humid. When we arrived in Helena, it was smokey, hot and dry. This folks, is a mighty Transfiguration! How appropriate that we begin our time together on the very day that Jesus was transfigured right before their very eyes, high up upon the holy mountain. We have what we call mountains in the Berkshires in my home state, but the Native Americans named the place Massachusetts: “Place of little hills”. Those hills are nothing like what we have around us here. How beautiful! I can hardly wait for the smoke to clear to see them in all their magnificent majesty. And as I say that, let us remember those who fight these wildfires. Several have lost their lives in the ongoing battle. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their courage and sacrifice, we owe them our prayers as they face the dangers of the work they do day in and day out. 

It was hot and dry in the desert places where Jesus and his disciples ministered. They focused their work around the sick, the poor and the outcast. They brought them the Good News of God’s love and their love. With courage and resolve they mightily ministered to their needs. 

Then the day came for them to climb the holy mountain. It was cold and windy up there if it was anything like the holy mountains we visited when we took a bus load of high school kids to the Holy Land. 

There was an encounter with the Holy, as so often happens when we are with Jesus. As they prayed there, suddenly Jesus was transfigured and his face shone like the sun, his clothing became a dazzling white. They spoke of his departure, interestingly enough, and as they did, Moses and Elijah appeared and the Glory of God radiated through them. 

Peter, dear Peter, our very own Peter didn’t know what to say. So he said the only thing he could come up with; “Lets make a couple of lean to’s of the sort you make in a mountain when you’re going to spend the night and lets stay a while. Let us dwell in this moment.” Imagine here is Jesus, the One with power over sin and death. Moses the one who brought us up out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the Promised Land and then gave us the Law. And Elijah the Prophet who did not shrink from confronting the Powers and Principalities of his time with the Word of God. Neither did Moses shrink from Pharaoh nor Jesus fall away from facing Pilate or the Temple authorities. 

Then as suddenly as they all appeared together, Moses and Elijah were gone and only Jesus remained before their eyes. They heard it plain as day; “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him now!”  

You will remember what Jesus said.  He spoke on the basis of what he did. After all in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does say; "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven." ~Matthew 7:21. You will remember the Sermon on the Mount. You will remember how he cured the sick, and those suffering from every form of mental illness, and how he went out of his way to visit the outcast and the lepers of his day. Not everyone was thrilled with this approach to human need. And Jesus paid dearly for his love for us all but he rose again from the dead and here he is now in our very midst this day in the power of his resurrection. 

Our church has undergone quite a transfiguration in recent years. We are seeking to understand anew what Paul meant when he said; “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” ~Galatians 3. The Gospel is not about Jew or Greek alone but about any race or ethnicity. It is not about slave or free alone but all economic classifications. Not even gender identity can factor into consideration about the love of Jesus when you think about it.  We are all one in Jesus. We have all put on Christ as a garment. 

Our own blessed Peter, the Rock upon which Jesus continues to build God’s Church, when speaking to the Gentiles, namely the “outsiders” the “foreigners” of his time, said in his glorious Easter Sermon; ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” ~Acts 10

Every one of you gathered here this morning shines with the same kind of Glory with which Jesus shines. I can see it in your faces. And I see no exceptions, even after these first 45 years in parish ministry 45, thanks be to God. 
Mind you there are characters in our midst. There are varieties of gifts, opinion, conviction, temperament, and every Dickensian peculiarity. After all, we are Episcopalians. But when we gather in this holy place and at this altar rail we bring who we are to God and to one another and somehow we gather rubbing shoulder to shoulder in the very midst of God’s Glory. The collect of the day proclaims that as Jesus is wonderfully transfigured so may we be “delivered from the disquietude of this world” and behold God in Glory. It is this very Glory which you show forth in your lives, it is your joy that will bring people to Jesus. Be radiant! Be joyful!

There is another Sunday in the church year when we observe the Transfiguration. I love the way the Collect for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany puts it; “O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”

We gather week by week delivered from the disquietude of the world we live in so that we may be transfigured from glory to glory. Bring yourselves and others to the Glory of God and the Joy of Jesus!

I hope you allow yourselves to live in this glory. From the moment I first entered this building, I could sense it; you know what I mean; that breathtaking sense of the holy. When Donna first showed me this place I was especially taken with the stained glass windows. Then come to find out, they were made by Charles J Connick in his studios in Boston. Aha! No wonder I feel so much at home here. As we bask in the beauty of this place may I invite you to allow yourselves to be transfigured from glory to glory especially in the inward places of your very souls.

Connick wrote of the beauty of our encounter with God in these words; “If churches are made radiant and beautiful places of worship, we can have a spiritual regeneration without anyone knowing what is going on. Beauty can preach as very few with bundles of words can preach. I want to make beautiful interiors for both churches and souls. I want folks to hear my windows singing.” 

What does God want of us and of this Cathedral as we seek a transfiguration of the human soul? My wife Cindy has a way of bringing me back to earth. Seems there are always bills to pay and stuff to do. You and I know that no matter how glorious the mountaintop moment may be, we always have to come back to reality. The fact of sin and wickedness and death is all around us. How shall we organize ourselves as a Cathedral to confront that sin and wickedness and death? It has been said of Mother Teresa that she was “something beautiful for God”. Her mission was anything but beautiful. She faced into the ugliness of death and loved them to the Gate of Heaven. Jesus came down from the mountain to face his crucifixion, followed then by his resurrection.

You are something beautiful for God especially when you organize your lives around the suffering of the people around you and when you have the courage to become agents of God’s Justice. No Toto, we’re not in Boston anymore. We're right here in Helena. May God grant that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s Glory. And what is it that God requires of us but “to do Justice, to love Mercy, and to walk humbly with our God”. ~Micah 6:8. Stay tuned folks, next week we celebrate 150 years of mission and ministry in and from this place. God grant that what we do in our time together may guide us toward the next 150 years of worship and service.

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

Fr Paul