Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

+ In the Name of He who was, and is, and is to come: Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

The Collect for today makes several very important points in quick succession.

First, it prays God to visit us daily so that we may be pure. We cannot help but become sullied, confused, and make errors in this world, and our loving God knows this. He has made provision for this in the Church by a regular life of grace and repentance so that we  may return to him and feel his renewing presence, never wandering so far away as to become lost.

The collect asks God’s purifying power on our conscience, a word ultimately deriving from a Latin word for knowledge. Conscience is our inner knowledge of what is good and right; it is that part of our mind that stays focused and firm on what has been shown to us as good and proper as Christians. Like every aspect of our body and spirit, our conscience needs regular nourishment in God’s will and truth to operate properly.

The purpose of this effort is that our God may find us mansions prepared for him when he comes to us. This is the exact opposite of the scene in Genesis when Adam and Eve, fresh from transgressing God’s command about the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, hide themselves away in shame when God comes to them in the “cool of the day.” They were not a mansion prepared for him then at all, but a closed door in fear and self-loathing.

Advent, now nearly over already, has been a brief course in God’s return at the End of the Ages and in the daily encounters we tend to overlook as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s Nativity. Even at this late hour, our God is speaking to us through the sacred words of Scripture, calling to us that there is still time to live the Advent Life of joyful expectation of Christ’s return now and then.

The Lesson from 2 Samuel tells of King David’s desire to build for God a temple of stone, now that David has reached a place of comfort and peace. King David seems ill-at-ease with the fact he is living in a palace but the Ark of God “still stays in a tent.” This initially seems entirely reasonable to the prophet Nathan, and he encourages David to carry out his plan.

Nathan, however, daily purifies his conscience: he listens to God. So deeply is he trained in this that even asleep he is listening. In his dream God reveals he does not want or need David’ pity, delaying the Temple building project. Rather than David make God an earthly, temporal house, Nathan reports God has decided to make David’s house eternal.

This promise of an everlasting dynasty was a far deeper thing than David understood. David’s descendants would ultimately lose the kingdom through their unfaithfulness…but God never reneged on his promise. What we will celebrate at Christmas is the manifestation of that promise’s durability and God’s faithfulness to those who make a covenant with him.

We learn from this story something else: the most important temple we as Christians have is the temple of our heart, for it is from our heart that the truest worship is offered to God, and from our heart that we love our neighbor, thereby loving God. It was David’s loving heart for God and God’s people, not a promise to build a building to house the Ark, that brought forth the divine promise from David’s line. It is still not too late today to open your own heart to God in humility, repentance, and service to your neighbor. Advent is not quite over; there is still time to prepare to receive the King where it counts most.

The lesson from the Gospel today is the account of the Annunciation in St. Luke. We hear this story at this hour because it is the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophesies regarding the Messiah, what St. Paul in Romans 16 today calls “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.”

The Temple the Messiah would first know in this world, before his dedication in Jerusalem, was the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That temple was made of flesh, not of stone. At one and the same time it was very small and cosmically vast: it was hidden inside the body of a young woman, and yet it was “more spacious than the heavens” because it contained the Logos of God, the Word made flesh. This impossible contradiction was the start of God’s redeeming and healing humanity from within, rather than by forcing our compliance from without. Yet, there had to be willingness; an openness from our side to participate.

St. Mary is the true focus of this day. She is the most honored of all the saints and receives our highest veneration. She is honored in part because she was ready to be that “mansion prepared for God” spoken of in the collect. Her response to the Archangel’s message was: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It was not: “come back when I am ready,” or “I need more time.” She didn’t fully understand but she was prepared.

We cannot know when our God will call upon us to serve him. Perhaps it will be to help a person in great distress, or to give guidance to someone caught in anxiety and perplexity. It could be to give time to teach, to encourage, to witness to God’s mercy, or to show the Gospel in a courageous act of generosity or a commitment to prayer. The essential thing is that we are a “mansion prepared for himself,” and like the Holy Theotokos, ready to say “Here am I” when called upon. This is the “obedience of faith” St. Paul speaks of in Romans today—a loving obedience that produces holy lives of readiness and courage.

The highlight of Evening Prayer is always the saying or singing of the Song of Mary from Luke, Chapter 1. St. Mary begins her song of praise with the words: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” When we live such lives of God’s “daily visitation,” we are indeed living temples, mansions proclaiming the greatness of the Lord: for our delight and for the benefit of the world.

That is why what we do here is so urgently important—and it is not too late to join the Blessed Virgin in her song each night at Evensong and daily in lives consciously consecrated to God’s reign, a reign which has already begun in heaven, in this liturgy, and in the lives of every person who loves and serves God and neighbor for Christ’s sake. Let it be with us according to God’s most holy will and word.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

St. Thomas, Doubt, and the Foundations of Faith

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:10-14, NRSV)

Today is the annual Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, a figure emphasized in the Gospel according to St. John. His role there is a mix of eagerness and doubt…a very good picture of the believer at a beginning stage of faith, and a hopeful guide as we learn the full meaning of that sometimes confusing word: “Believer.”

When we think about the Apostles we often focus mostly on their later, mature stage of belief. The reading from Revelation quoted above is used for the Eves of Feasts of the Apostles in the Daily Office and presents a picture of the Holy City of God’s presence in a perfected state, resting firmly and securely on the glorious twelve-course foundation of the Apostles—an image of stability and completion.

Yet the Apostles all came from the ordinary mix of human life, each with his own shortcomings and limitations, gifts and skills. Each of them had to make a journey, as we all must, from our beginnings in faith to maturity and beyond.

It is enormously significant that the image of the Holy City resting upon the foundation of the Apostles in Revelation 21 comes at the book’s conclusion, not its beginning. This vision is of a wholeness achieved through a journey and through trial. Being a believer is not a static thing; it is an ongoing interaction, an encounter in which we are transformed. Being a “believer” is, to a great extent, a verbal reality rather than simply a noun.

St. Thomas is recalled on two specific occasions in the Liturgical Year: on his feast day just prior to Christmas and on the Sunday after Easter Day. We encounter this particular Apostle in conjunction with two of the most important Holy Days in the Calendar. In a sense, we are being shown that doubt and struggle must be encountered even in relationship to our most cherished beliefs: Incarnation and Resurrection.

What makes St. Thomas particularly significant to many modern people is that, for all of his impetuosity and expressed doubt in the Gospel account, he goes on to be a person of abiding and rewarded faith: abiding in the Church’s telling of many stories about his later travels—even, by tradition, to India—and rewarded in his being numbered and celebrated at every step as among the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb. He is the sign that even our doubts, when offered to God and worked with creatively, may become the pathway to a deeper and more transformative faith.

The lesson from the Old Testament at Morning Prayer for St. Thomas’ Day comes from the Book of Job, near its conclusion, when God has spoken to Job from the whirlwind. Job has remained faithful through his many trials and through the ruthless interrogation by his so-called friends (this is often the story of faith: those purporting to be our friends can easily become something quite different in our trials). He has refused to curse God, but he has also built an elaborate case of his own innocence and self-justification. The effect is, in part, to put God on trial for the wrongs of this world.

All of this changes after Job’s encounter with God in the whirlwind. In the face of the complete otherness of God, Job utters the famous words:

I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:1-6, KJV)

By a persevering faithfulness to the journey, Job has his transformative encounter. He is made into a different person through humility: first by recognizing his prior faith was more in himself than in God (the “hearing of the ear” rather than the “seeing of the eye”), and then by repentance (the “dust and ashes” part), yielding a new level of openness leading to deeper trust. Job’s humility at the end of the book takes his much-vaunted holiness at the start of the story to an entirely greater level of perfection. This is a vision of what being a believer requires.

The characteristics of Job and St. Thomas—perseverance, faithfulness, humility, openness—are the foundations of their ascent in faith and belief. These are the qualities of any real “believer,” rather than arrogance or mastery. Indeed, those who have substituted arrogant certainty and mastery for the true marks of discipleship often develop a distorted, stunted kind of faith requiring very hard work to undo and refashion into the living faith our God desires. It can be overcome, but such a faith adds to the journey’s challenges.

Perseverance, faithfulness, humility, and openness are, at heart, marked by Love as both motivation and goal, and it is this gift of love which is really at issue. Our being a believer is really, in large measure, about being able to receive and offer love from and to God and our neighbor. Such love is what keeps us “in the game,” so to speak, willing to go further and deeper in our pilgrimage of faith and transformation.

The Feast of St. Thomas stands as a vital reminder that the Faith we hold is a lively, growing thing. It is marked by failures along the way, missteps and stumbles, all of them offered with humility to God, so that we might arrive at a mature faith: a faith no longer plagued by doubts but marked by love, openness, and honest encounter with God. That faith is, I believe, what the language found in Revelation seeks to describe: a lasting and beautiful foundation of love offered in trust through which God’s presence is perceived and known.

Coming to this kind of faith means taking the journey of a lifetime. St. Thomas beckons us to join him on that journey so we might share with him the joy and fulfillment of God’s eternal presence in the Holy City of which we are all being transformed into “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) even now, there to reside in ever-deeper knowledge and love, forever.

Collect for the Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle:

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Embertide: No Coasting into Christ-likeness

“If you are coasting, you are going downhill.”

Whether it comes to our work, personal goals, relationships, intellectual life, or bicycling, the law of gravity seems to apply. Going downhill is easier than going up.

For reasons that remain a bit fuzzy, we often exempt the spiritual life from this rule. Somehow, there is a presumption that faith ought to be easy, “natural,” and struggle-free. Many guides to the Christian life today suggest that following “Ten Time-Tested Steps,” or “Five Biblical Principles,” or some other clear set of techniques will keep us on the straight-and-narrow as we practice a low-risk, easy-going Christianity.

Where anyone gets this idea, I cannot say.

The New Testament makes intensely clear that struggle—not ease—is the lot of the disciple. Jesus nowhere says: “Sit down on your comfortable chair and think about me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.” Ours is an active faith with risk; it proposes a way of life steeped in labor, not blithe rest.

The Ember Days are short periods of prayerful consideration of ministry (lay and ordained) coming quarterly in the Liturgical Year. Originally, they were connected with the agricultural year, but eventually they moved their focus to the Church and its ministry. For many years (and in some places still), ordinations took place at the Ember Days.

Various forms of prayer and spiritual practices have evolved to observe the Ember Days, including the Great Litany, the Litany for Ordinations in the Book of Common Prayer, Ember Day Eucharists, making a sacramental confession, fasting, and praying the Southwell Litany in either its lay or ordained forms are all examples. Those preparing for ordination write to their bishop at the Embertides to share what has been happening to them through the often fraught period of preparation and formation for Holy Orders.

Much of what traditionally is done at Embertide has a penitential character (and this is appropriate, since it is God’s own gift of ministry we often pervert or damage), but truly positive guidance for how to mature in Christian life can sometimes be hard to find.

One resource, found in the new edition of the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book, caught my eye a while back, and I would like to commend it to you. It is entitled “A Prayer for Spiritual Growth and Development.”

This prayer is made up of a series of petitions covering many of the traditional elements found in the regular practice of faith as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer and in the catholic tradition as this part of the Church has known it. It is a kind of cross between an examination of conscience, an act of faith, and an intercession. I have found it, along with the Southwell Litany, to be a well-constructed and sound prayer for Embertide use. It could form the basis for making a sacramental confession, as well as making a well-prepared private confession in the Daily Office, say on a weekly or monthly basis. Here it is:

            O my God, I believe in you; strengthen my faith. All my hopes are in you; hold them secure in your strong hand. I love you with my whole heart; teach me every day to love you more and more. For all in which I have offended you or harmed another, I repent and ask forgiveness.
            I adore you as my first beginning; I aspire to your as my last end; I give you thanks, the source of all that is good, in me and in the world; I rest myself in your unchanging love. I pray, O my God, that you will guide me by your wisdom, restrain me by your justice, comfort me by your mercy, and defend me by you power.
            To you, I desire to consecrate all my thoughts, words, actions, and sufferings; that I may think of you constantly, seek to honor you in all my actions and conversations, and be ready to do and endure whatever accomplishes your will.
            Enlighten my understanding and conform my will to your purposes, to guide me in the right use of my body, and to sanctify my soul. Grant that I may not be lifted up with pride, weighed down with despair, moved by flattery, burdened with shame, or confounded by the devil, the deceiver of the whole world and accuser of your servants.
            Give me strength, O Lord, to know my faults and amend my life, to overcome temptations, to acquire the virtues of character and to seek the gifts of grace that will allow me to fulfill your purposes.
            Let me always remember to be obedient to rightful authority, faithful to my friends, just and fair to those who depend upon me, and charitable to my enemies.
            Grant, O Lord, that I may remember your rule and follow your example by loving my enemies and by speaking the truth in patience and love. Give me courage to work for what is right and just in all my dealings. Temper any righteous indignation with patience and humility and keep me from any collusion with injustice.
            Make me, O God, prudent in my actions, courageous in dangers of body or soul, patient in affliction, and humble in prosperity.
            Grant that I may be attentive in my prayers, temperate at my meals, diligent in my works, and constant in my good resolutions.
            Help me to obtain holiness of life by an honest confession and sincere repentance, by a devout and reverent participation in the Holy Eucharist, by a continual awareness of your presence, and with a singleness of heart that desires to know, to love, and to serve you.
            Grant that I may so live in this life, that in the hour of death, I will fear no evil and know that you are with me. By your mercy, may I be welcomed into the eternal dwelling of peace and rejoice to stand before you; through the grace that is in Christ Jesus and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I do not know the source of this prayer, though it sounds very much to me like an updated or modernized version of something older. If it is not, then the author certainly is well-imbued with the classic Christian spirit of prayer.*

I like very much how this prayer works us through the essentials of the Christian faith, and then to the ways we live that response out, in matters great and small—for, truly, all thoughts, words, and deeds are a response in love to Christ.

There is confession here, but so is there supplication and great hope. It is balanced in its regard for all the various ways we are being called and given grace to grow into life in Christ.

This is not a simple prescription, but a rich encounter with the varied aspects of what honest, working discipleship looks like. It is not perfectionistic but aspirational in the best sense: it shows us the way forward while making clear we don’t do this ourselves. God’s loving grace is the source of all our progress and growth; our work is to be mindful and respond, day-by-day.

Following Christ is often likened to a pilgrimage. Some parts are incredibly beautiful, others are nightmarishly hard, dangerous, or ugly. The sun can scorch, the shoes can pinch, the cold can chill, and we can be soaked to the bone by rain—each with its spiritual and emotional equivalent. On the Camino Santiago in Spain, the stops along the way are called refugios, or “refuges.” We all need those refuges where we can rest for a time, be nourished, heal up, check our map, converse with other pilgrims, and be renewed in hope as we start the next leg of the journey.

I think the Embertides serve essentially as refugios along the pilgrim way to heaven. Just now, not so many people are utilizing this gift of reflection, assessment, and insight provided quarterly by the Church to her pilgrim children…but this prayer provides yet one more refuge to stop along the way and be refreshed. I encourage you to take it.

*If any reader knows the prayer’s origin or author, I would be grateful to learn about it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Feast of St. Lucy and Christ's Light in Dark Places

Today we remember and give thanks for the life and witness of St. Lucy (Lucia) of Syracuse, Sicily. She was a martyr during the reign of terror unleashed by the Emperor Diocletian during the year AD 303-4 (one of countless many)—the worst of the ancient Roman persecutions.

Her story had a great attraction and poignancy to the early Christians in the Western Roman Empire. Daughter of noble pagan citizens, she had become a Christian and dedicated her life to Christ, seeking to distribute her sizeable dowry to the poor rather than marry. This illustrates well the direct connection authentic Christianity has with generosity and sacrificial compassion for those in need.

Lucia’s mother Eutychia—now a widow—wanted her daughter to follow the expected course for a woman in Roman society: to marry, have children, and run the domestic side of family life. This was the only real social security most women of that time could have. Lucia had other plans. She wanted to remain a virgin, consecrating (setting apart) her life for Christ’s work exclusively. He would be her suitor and husband, and no other.

Virginity is seen in our society as a kind of tragedy once a person gets beyond a certain point. In an updated version of the past. we see sexual experience and identity as the sine qua non of a meaningful life, the secular equivalent to a sacrament. Lucia saw it otherwise. If sexuality is a gift given by God, then a very profound form of gratitude for that gift is to offer it back to God for his redemptive purposes, opening up the gift of the self beyond the limitations and possessiveness of sexual or romantic relationships and making holy that which is often commodified. And this is what Lucia did.

This gift of celibacy as an offering of love was in Lucia’s time—as in ours—a controversial and disturbing notion to the culture around her. It suggested a reversal of norms, a prioritizing of spiritual things above the physical world, a denial of sexuality as having ultimate significance, and (in her case) a clear stepping outside of cultural controls on women and children. It was a threat that could not be tolerated.

Even though her mother did not desire to hurt her daughter, the man Eutychia had promised her daughter to in marriage did. He denounced Lucia to the local Roman governor and that governor demanded Lucia commit the ultimate sacrilege for a Christian: to worship anyone other than God by burning incense (and act of worship) before and image of the Emperor. When Lucy refused, the full weight of the Roman legal apparatus fell on her; after a series of attempts she was executed by the sword, like St. Paul.

St. Lucia, whose name means “light,” immediately gained great acclaim in the western Mediterranean. Her name was added to the official list of martyrs in Rome and her witness has travelled to the far reaches of Christendom (even becoming a celebrated figure in Sweden, with elaborate traditions to observe the day). In dark places, the light of love and faithfulness she exhibited has long made an impression.

Her story has an added significance today, when the long-term impact of the Gospel’s insistence that men and women are not simply property or the sum of the various “tags” used to describe them in any culture or era: we are all unique children of God and given gifts and a calling by God to live out the Good News of Christ, often in ways challenging the norms and preoccupations of the day.

After so many centuries it might be tempting to relegate St. Lucy (as she is known in English-speaking countries) to the museum of ancient-but-not-very-relevant figures; but that would be wrong. In our sex- and gender-objectifying era we need to celebrate the witness of this courageous young woman who shows the Light of Christ in the world’s dark places—and attitudes—today, and to honor that witness by helping those who suffer such trials to live that Christ’s freedom now.

Collect for the Feast of St. Lucy

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Lucy: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in her triumph may profit by her example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.