Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Only Gate for All

Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

In a consumerist society such as ours, one based on the belief that more choice equals more truth, the words of Jesus in the Gospel appointed for the Feast of St. Timothy cannot but send a shiver down the back. We are taught, indeed groomed, to believe that only by keeping our options open, by having a wide array of choices, and through our opinions being consulted and valued, can we be content with our leaders. But Jesus has another vision.

He is the gate; he is the way into the sheepfold. He provides not a smorgasbord of options but a simple choice: either accept him as the Lord, or not. Why? And how can we proclaim this today?

He does this because there is only one way to gain entrance before God: that is to be like God. We were created in the Image and Likeness of God, but we have settled for something less, something ungodly. Christ offers the unique way back, and at the same time forward, to our identity. He makes possible the renewal of the Image and cleansing of the Likeness in us. He shares his life with that we might enter and stand before God again. But we must enter as he does: through the gateway of humility, mercy, compassion, love. This is the gate; this is the way to God. Jesus embodies it; he is it. There is no other way, no shortcut over the fence, or through a gap in the wall. There is only his way. This is why he must say these words. They are the truth we must hear and live.

Every time we focus on choices and options, we are really asking for the easy way of discipleship, the way that requires no personal transformation, no growth in hard-won compassion. The prayer for this day reminds us that it is through enduring hardship, not in avoiding it, that our holiness is wrought. The ‘godly and righteous’ lives of the saints we laud in our worship must set the standard and pattern for our own lives. Anything less is bleak hypocrisy.

A Christian is really a Christian when he or she knows that the disciple’s back is against the wall, and the time of choices has ended. There is only one way to the peace we seek: it is the way of Jesus, the way of love. When we accept this and then choose to love another person not because they are like us, but precisely because they are unlike us in every way except that Jesus has loved them as well…then we are taking the Jesus way, the unique way into the pasturage the human soul desires above all else. Only when Christians themselves have decided to walk through the Gate, and no longer make our own stolen entries on our own terms, will our witness to the world be righteous and godly. Pray this week we may live such conscious lives before our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Almighty God, you called Timothy and Titus to be evangelists and teachers, and made them strong to endure hardship: Strengthen us to stand fast in adversity, and to live godly and righteous lives in this present time, that with sure confidence we may look for our blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Gesima Sisters and their (almost) return

Some of you reading this will remember the three Sundays prior to Lent being known as the ‘Gesima’ Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. They formed a sort of “semi-season” of preparation before Lent in the ancient Western Kalendar. One priest I worked with used to speak lovingly of “the Gesima Sisters” and their annual visit The current revision of the Prayer Book swept these observances away, however. The focus today in the Calendar is on Epiphanytide as a time of Theophany (the showing-forth of Christ as Son of God) and the mission of the Church to share the Gospel to all peoples.

As valuable as this focus is, there remains a very real need for Anglican Christians to prepare for Holy Lent. When we defer that work until the days immediately prior to Ash Wednesday, we are likely not going to get very deep in our Lenten observance.

To that end, during these three last Sundays of the season, we are focusing on classic themes and practices for preparation for the full observance of a Holy Lent.
- Sermons on rekindling a Holy Desire for God, humility, and forgiveness of others
- A Lenten Rule form will be set out (with a detachable commitment form) with instruction for considering your Lenten discipline.
- A list of key Lenten practices with explanations will be in the Tidings (our parish newsletter)

We will also celebrate Shrovetide, of course! The Last Sunday after Epiphany will witness our “Farewell to Alleluia.” Holy Eucharist on Shrove Tuesday (10 AM) will commemorate St. Agatha and also the end of Ordinary Time; the traditional pancake supper will be offered in the evening.

While the Gesima Sundays are no longer officially part of the Church Year, my own sense is that eventually, a pre-Lenten time of “official” preparation will re-emerge in the Episcopal Calendar. It simply reflects a wise and holy practice. You are always welcome to contact me to discuss your Lenten observance; this glorious “Feast of Lent,” as George Herbert called it, deserves consideration. The opportunity it provides and the Paschal joy it heralds deserves no less.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Courage to Grow

Today’s Gospel is a quietly challenging text. In it, we hear that two disciples of St. John the Baptist overhear John naming Jesus as the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice will take away “the sin of the world.” This starts the disciples on the road of inquiry. Who exactly is this Jesus? How is he the “Lamb of God?” The biblical text takes but a few lines, but it is entirely possible that these hitherto devoted disciples of John had to do some serious soul-searching and courage-raising before they could ask Jesus about himself.

At first, the best they could do was to follow behind Jesus, apparently silently (and perhaps a bit sheepishly). Finally, Jesus turns to them and says: “What are you looking for?” And this really begins the great adventure. Jesus takes the initiative here, as he truly does in all authentic discipleship. When we forget this and come to think of our following Jesus as something we control or even start, then we have ceased to worship God and are looking instead into a mirror.

But, this story has much more to offer us. The two disciples in question were first disciples of John, not Jesus. We don’t know exactly how many disciples John had, but from what the Gospel tells us elsewhere, it was likely there were a considerable number. How many of them understood that his was a ministry of being a forerunner, we cannot be sure. Perhaps many were not even able to understand that John was “not that light,” as the Gospel tells us, but “bore witness to that light…that was coming into the world.” The point is that John was clear about his ministry: he came to prepare the way for the Christ. Yet, it must have been difficult for others who had become disciples of John to grow beyond him, to accept the full dimensions of his purpose and ministry.

These two disciples were amongst the first people who had to look at Jesus as a challenge to grow in their faith and understanding. Too often Christians act as if they can somehow “graduate” from growing in faith – as if there is a time when following Jesus leads us to a point of assurance requiring no deeper love, no richer comprehension. This is surely a kind of heresy. We who follow Christ need always be ready to answer the Lord’s question again: “What are you seeking?” And we must do so with fresh words, a new level of eagerness.

We are not told what transpired when these two disciples stayed with Jesus. It is a matter on which some speculate; but for us, let it be a reminder that the path to full discipleship includes chapters that are essentially incommunicable to others. All we are told is that one of those disciples – St. Andrew – came out of his encounter with Christ a transformed man, ready to share his experience of the Good News with his brother, thereby brining the future leader of the Apostles before his Lord and Master.

All of this could happen because these two disciples were not first and foremost disciples of John: they were seekers after the Truth, lovers of God, and unsatisfied with anything less. They did not confuse faith with stubbornness or rigidity. They had the courage to grow as they were called by God; they set the pattern for all of us, all our churches, all our ministries. Only if we are like they were will the message we bear be worth hearing…because it will not be our own message, but God’s.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Justice of God

In a sermon preached after Christmas in 1985, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh said these words about the effect of the Incarnation:

And then a new justice was introduced, or rather proclaimed by Him, not the distributive and retributive justice of the law, another justice. When Christ says to us, ‘let your justice be beyond that of the Scribes and Pharisees,’ He speaks of the way in which God treats each of us. He accepts each of us as we are. He accepts good and evil, He rejoices in the good, and He dies because of and for the sake of what is evil. And that is what God calls us to remember, and how He calls us to be and to behave - not only within our Christian circle but in the whole world, to look at every person with that kind of justice; not judging and condemning, but seeing in each person the beauty which God has impressed upon it and which we call ‘the image of God in man’. Venerate this beauty, work for this beauty to shine in all glory, dispelling what is evil and dark and making it possible, by the recognition of beauty in each other, for this beauty to become reality and to conquer.

It is this beauty, this glory in the human person that has been lost in the horror and distortion of sin, and it is precisely this beauty that has been restored through the gift of Christ to the world. The Church in this season proclaims the living presence of Christ through its worship, but Christians must do more than proclaim in their churches the message of the Gospel: they must embody it. This means the end of “systems” whose purpose is to force humans into neat boxes that deny their true identity before God. All ideologies, all economies, all “ground-breaking” theologies, all academies…they all must be challenged by this simple idea: that we must see in each person the beauty which God has impressed there – venerating that beauty, work for that beauty to shine in all its glory, and dispelling the evil and dark that holds back that beauty’s fullness. If that person’s beauty is illusive to us, we are being called by Christ to look deeper, to let the Holy Light of God illuminate our own darkened vision.

Because this is a struggle, we want turn away from this vision and flee to an ideology, an “-ism,” or an intellectual certainty requiring no humility, no dependence on God. When we do, our justice becomes only that “of the Scribes and Pharisees.” Some “system” of human devising becomes our joy, the power of the Gospel is diminished in us, and we are the same as the World. The real challenge of this season may be to hold on to the gift of the Christ given at Christmas, recognizing that we have only begun to comprehend the magnitude of the freedom He brings for us and the world.

The Season after Epiphany: A Season of Theophanies

This time of the Liturgical Year is usually referred to as “the Season after Epiphany,” or Epiphanytide for short. It is part of the Ordinary Time of the Church Year, those Sundays which are ordered (numbered) after a Feast. Thus, the Season after Pentecost has numbered Sundays that stretch around to Advent, and this time of year has the same format connected to Epiphany. The color for both seasons (outside of major Feasts and special commemorations) is green – a color of growth and renewal.

Epiphanytide has been treated in different ways over the centuries. Current practice in the Episcopal Church connects us to the ancient understanding of this as a season about Theophany, or the showing forth of Christ as the Son of God – fully divine as well as fully human. This is clearly a major focus in the Feast of the Epiphany itself. The gifts given by the Magi indicate both Christ’s divinity (the frankincense) and his humanity (the myrrh for his burial); the gold connects them together in that he is shown to be the King of Glory, who will restore God and humanity to peace through the Divine Love made known on the Throne of Glory, the Cross.

But, there is far more in this season of Theophanies. On the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we recall Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of St. John the Forerunner. This is the central Theophany of the season. It is recalled in the Gospels as the key moment when Jesus is shown forth to be the Anointed One, beginning his public ministry. It is also the moment when the Trinity is first shown and made explicit, though this great mystery was not understood by those present at first. The voice of the Father pronounces: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) In this moment, we are given the glorious gift of God’s self-revelation, seeing there the mystery of Divine Love and interrelationship, into which we are baptized as followers of Christ. We share in God’s loving approval through Christ and our response to the gift of new life in him. This Sunday is both a showing forth of the Divine life of the Holy Trinity and a recollection of our own share in that life through Holy Baptism. In the solemn procession at the beginning of the Liturgy on this Sunday, a special stop (called a station) is made at the Baptismal Font, and a prayer recalling our baptism offered. It is customary in some places for Holy Water to be sprinkled during this procession, as well, as a physical reminder of our baptism. The sign of the cross is made by those present as the water reaches them, providing an personal opportunity for acknowledging the gift of grace in Holy Baptism, and the call to live that new life out in our daily lives as disciples. And yet there is more!

On February 2, the Calendar commemorates the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (also known as the Purification of the Virgin Mary, Candlemas, and Fortieth Day). This Feast brings us to the Temple, when St. Mary and St. Joseph, in accordance with the Mosaic Law, presented the infant Jesus forty days after his birth. It concludes the Incarnation cycle of feasts that began with the Annunciation in March, and reaches its climax at Christmas. This feast recalls Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2), and St. Simeon’s words, “Lord, you now have set your servant free….” Once again, Jesus is revealed to be the God-Man, the Incarnate Savior in our midst.

In Year C of the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (we are in Year A), the Wedding Feast at Cana is the Gospel lesson for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany. This, the first of Christ’s miracles, is another “showing forth” of his Divinity. It also tells us that God is able to transform that which is ordinary into that which is extraordinary. Another part of this mystery is that other than Jesus and his mother Mary, we are told the only people who understood what had happened were “those who served” at the wedding feast. In other words, only if we adopt a servant’s humility and role as disciples will we ever gain an understanding of the Gospel and the great mysteries of the Faith. This challenge stands before us each day, especially when we share in the Holy Eucharist. We take into our very selves the Holy Mysteries of Christ, and are called to service in the world as Christ’s agents of grace. Only in this way can we enter into the true knowledge of God.

Finally, Epiphanytide culminates in the Sunday before Lent, when we celebrate the final Theophany before Jesus’ going to Jerusalem to be offered upon the Cross – the Transfiguration. This great day, with its solemn retelling of the great mystery of Christ’s appearing on the Holy Mountain with Moses and Elijah (symbolizing the Law and Prophets, the Living and the Dead – of which Christ is the Fulfillment and over which he is Lord), is celebrated with great richness. The Uncreated Light of God shines from the Savior, and those privileged few with him are stunned by their encounter with the glory of the Son. We see on this day a foretaste of the Holy Resurrection, giving us strength and grace as we undertake the rigors of a Holy Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Of course, throughout the closing weeks of Epiphanytide we are preparing for Lent. A Lenten Rule for our observance will be made available, teaching on Lenten practices will be offered, and each person is called upon to hear what God is saying to us so that we might take up our cross and follow him into fuller life and freedom. This is called our Christian ascesis, our training for the Kingdom of God, and we will each need to take seriously what the Lord tells us is required for our growth in the knowledge and love of God as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

We will do this preparation, however, not as yet another secular “moral improvement project” due to guilt, on our own initiative, or through our own willpower; we will do so as a loving and joyful response to God’s call, God’s revelation of the Divine plan for us in Our Lord, and by God’s grace in these Holy Theophanies. God is with us, Emmanuel – not only at Christmas, but now and always. Let us rejoice and be glad in this truth, this promise.

May God richly bless you as you enter again into the mystery of this Holy Season!

Faithfully in Christ,


Friday, January 4, 2008

Fresh Beginnings Built on Solid Foundations

Dear Friends in Christ,
2008 is going to be a year of new initiatives at St. Timothy's. Before anyone panics, though, let's remember what doesn't change:
  • The Faith doesn't change.
  • The basic shape and character of the liturgy doesn't change.
  • Our commitment to Christ isn't up for negotiation.
  • God's call to us to be His people remains.
But, some other matters will be under review and undergoing some renewal. Here are some we are planning to address in 2008:
  • A new format for the Annual Meeting, focusing on discernment of God's call to us.
  • New Vestry members will be elected and the Vestry better integrated into the parish's overall structure.
  • We will be using the Commission system to organize our ministries; each Commission will have a Coordinator and a liaison from the Vestry.
  • A new overall "picture" of how we discern and then use gifts for ministry will be implemented, based on work done by the Diocese's Commission on Ministry.
  • A new Mission Statement will be developed; once we have a Mission Statement, then we will be able to set priorities and goals for mission. Each Commission (area of ministry at St. Timothy's) will then go about its work in direct relationship with an over-all vision for our common life and purpose as a Christian community.
These initiatives have to do with building on the solid foundations of teaching, worship, and fellowship at St. Timothy's. They are not busy-work or change for change's sake. Each aspect is meant to assist in sharing the message of the Gospel as we have received it--with grace, humility, joy, and effectiveness. January is the month when we celebrate our patron, St. Timothy. Here is a passage from the first letter to Timothy which I hope describes this parish as we enter into a season of thoughtful renewal. St. Paul is reminding Timothy to use the gifts he has been given by God:

Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4: 15 - 16)

St. Timothy's is being called to use the gifts it has been given in new ways. It will be a delight to work together toward this goal. May Christ's blessings be with us!


Brandon Lee Filbert+