Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Different Perspective

PROPERS:          EASTER 7, YEAR A    
TEXT:                 1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11

This is offered as a meditation and not a sermon.

ONE SENTENCE:        The trials through which we are going are recurring theme in history; the provenance of God is the overriding principle.       

            This is my last Sunday with Holy Trinity as a supply priest.  Please accept my heartfelt thanks for how you have welcomed me into this congregation.

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            Let me focus on the now. We may treat these days as a unique experience in human history.  Despite previous times of the Spanish flu, the Smallpox pandemic, and the Black Plague – and countless others – we see this time as unique.

            Would that it were so.

            These are strange times, for sure.  Likely, we have never personally experienced similar times and, likely, we will not again.  But perspective and kerygma – that is, proclamation – can give us a sense of eternal hope – even in the midst of these challenging times.

            The world in which the early church formed was one of tumult for the budding Christian movement.  The church began in an era of open hostility.  There was hostility from the religious leaders.  There was hostility from Rome.  And the many pagan religions looked down upon Christians.

            And in the era in which 1 Peter was written, most of the opposition was class-based in nature.  Most Christians in the area the author of this letter was addressing were the lower classes – many were slaves.

            So, rather than the organized persecution which would come later, these early Christians faced slights, criticism, and ostracization. It is a bitter pill to swallow – but Christians would face worse.

            Like those early Christians, we face challenges that are not as bad as they could be.  This is not the Second World War, nor is it the Great Depression.  But we are facing trials that the author of 1 Peter could identify with, as could the early Christians.

            However, in the midst of those first century difficulties, the Christians embraced hope and faith.  They did so by recognizing they had a different lens through which they looked at the circumstances of that day. Theirs was a different perspective from the world which surrounded them.

            It is a perspective I embrace.  It was described so well by the late Jesuit mystic, Anthony DeMello, in his meditation “The River.”  Hear his words:

I look up at the sky and see the morning star
burn brightly in the heavens.
I imagine what it sees as it looks down
on me and my surroundings
and this portion of the earth.

I visualize what it must have seen
a thousand years ago today…
five thousand…
a hundred thousand…
five million years ago.

I attempt to see in fantasy
what the morning star will see
a thousand years…
five thousand…
a hundred thousand…
five million years from now
on the anniversary of this day.

I pass in review the various stages of my life –
infancy, childhood, adolescence,
adulthood, middle age –
in the following fashion:

I search for the things
that seemed immeasurably important
at each of these stages of my life,
things that caused me worry and anxiety,
things that I stubbornly clung to,
that I never thought I could live with
or without.

When I look back from the distance of today,
how many of these loves or dreams or fears
retain the hold they had on me in former years?

Then I review
some of the problems I have today,
some of my present sufferings,
and of each of them I say,
“This too will pass away.”

I think of the things I cling to
or that I am possessive of.
I realize that a day must surely come
when I shall see them differently.
So of each of these attachments too I say,
“This too will pass away.”

I make a list of the many things I fear,
and of each of them I say,
“This too will pass away.”

To end, I see myself embarking on my daily tasks
with earnestness
and fervor
with which I plunge into a drama
or a game,
absorbed, immersed, but never drowning.

            There is real wisdom and perspective in his words.  It is a perspective – much like 1 Peter’s – which each of us could adopt in these days.

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            I am reminded of riding with my mother in her car in 1958.  The radio was on.  From the radio came the rich and soulful sounds of Mahalia Jackson, singing a song that was very popular then.  I loved that song.

            That song reflects the wisdom and perspective – the deep and profound faith – of 1 Peter and Anthony DeMello.  We need to hear those words today:

He’s got the whole world in his hands,
He’s got the whole wide world in his hands,
He’s got the whole world in his hands,
He’s got the whole world in his hands.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Eyes and Ears of Hope

PROPERS:          EASTER 6, YEAR A    
TEXT:                 ACTS 26:10-14; ROMANS 8:31-39 (Not the propers for this day.)

This is offered as a meditation and not a sermon.

ONE SENTENCE:        Even in moments of extraordinary clarity, “we see through a glass darkly” the generosity and magnificence of God’s grace.

            As we approach my last Sunday here, I feel it is important that I share something personal with you, the good people of Holy Trinity.  It is a story of hope which transcends these trying times.  It is a story of hope which spans seven centuries – and even more.
            The thing which has moved deeply inside of me, especially in the past week, involves two names that I have shared with you in my two most recent meditations:  Richard Rohr and Julian of Norwich.

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            Richard Rohr is a prominent spiritual writer and contemplative who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He is the leader of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

            He publishes an on-line meditation each day.  Each week’s meditations are focused on a specific topic.  This past week, his writings have been focused on Julian of Norwich.

            We do not know her true name. Dame Julian, as she is known, was an anonymous mystic who occupied a small room in a church bearing the name St. Julian, in west central England in the 14th Century.

            As you may recall, she is known for her near-death experience and the series of 16 visions which appeared to her during that traumatic time.  The writings which emerged from that dramatic day became known as Revelations of Divine Love.  It is the oldest book in English written by a woman.

            As she lay on what was presumed to be her death bed, a deacon stood over the 30-year-old Julian and pronounced Last Rites.  It was then that the visions began.  She later recovered, and committed those visions to writing.

            Her words and the descriptions of what she saw ring down through the centuries.  They tell us of the tender love… the self-giving… of the eternal nature of God.  Her words stand over and against the word of the Church of that day, which had focused on guilt, sin, and fiery judgement.  Her overarching vision was an ever-loving, ever-giving, and ever-forgiving God.

            Hers was a vision of profound hope in a century marked by the Bubonic Plague, in a town which saw three-quarters of its inhabitant claimed by that illness.

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            Richard Rohr focused on Julian’s visions, and saw in them the nature of the Holy Trinity.  He saw how the intimate relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pointed us toward God’s relationship with each of us.  Woven gently into each person is the imago dei – the image of God – that cannot be obscured.  Though our lives – complex and conflicted as they are by the human condition – accumulate layer upon layer of the less than holy, the essence of God’s image continues in our true nature.

            That image may be buried very deeply. Though you and I may not be able to see beyond the scars of human existence – the anger, the bitterness, the addictions, the betrayal, the sin – God sees that divine nature at our core… and we are to assume it is there in each other.  That may be hard – but it is our call.

            And, what’s more: Try as we might to prove ourselves worthy in the eyes of God, that worthiness is already indelibly there. Doubt, though we might, our belovedness in relationship to God, it cannot be taken away.  Our embrace by the Holy is beyond dispute.

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            That point was emphatically made to me years ago.  It came in a personal experience much like Julian’s. Time and time again I have to revisit that experience to get properly oriented.

            It happened like this:

            The experience was 15 years ago, in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina.  I was on diocesan staff in Mississippi.  We were struggling to assist the six congregations which had seen their facilities utterly destroyed by the storm and its raging tide, and assist the thousands who were left homeless.

            There were long, long days, and frequent trips to the affected area.  Gas, food, electricity, water and many resources were in short supply.

            Unbeknownst to me, the stress was taking its toll.  I found myself collapsed at home with some unusual neurological symptoms.  I was alone in a dark room, as Nora worried about my wellbeing.  Various doctors were consulted.

            I was in and out of consciousness in the dark room.  But two scriptural images were prominent in my slumber. Again, and again they came to me, and I knew I had to pay attention.

            The first image was from Acts 26 – the third time the apostle Paul’s story of his conversion experience is told in Acts.  Hear those words, Paul’s testimony:

I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13 when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’
            These were Paul’s words to King Agrippa.  Their uniqueness occurred to me.  Even though his conversion – his Road to Damascus experience – had been told two previous times in the Book of Acts, it is only this time that the last eight words are included: It hurts you to kick against the goads.

            I had to find out what goads were.  It turns out they are sharp sticks used to herd sheep.  And it would hurt to kick goads.

            Saul – his name before he took the name Paul – had striven to persecute the church.  His righteous anger and striving were – in the eyes of Jesus – counter-productive.  He was hurting himself by trying so hard.

            I internalized that lesson.

            The second image that came into my mind was from Paul, as well – from his Letter to the Romans.  The eighth chapter of that that book is considered by many to be the high point of the New Testament.  Hear Paul’s words:

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
            In the darkness of my room, the light of revelation shown clearly to me.  It was in the last words of the passage:

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
            His words were the essence of the message that Julian of Norwich had heard.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God. It was the message of the tender love of God – of God’s faithfulness, forgiveness, grace, and mercy which transcends – that is, trumps – every human failing and condition.

            I heard that message – actually, the two messages – very clearly.  It has changed my life.

            I hope you can hear it, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

In Liminal Space

PROPERS:          4 EASTER, YEAR A    
TEXT:                 ACTS 2:42-47

This is a meditation and not a sermon.

ONE SENTENCE:        We are living in liminal space and the challenge is which way we move forward.    

            Bishop Kendrick has a weekly Zoom Conference with groups of clergy, to check in with us and to discuss the challenges of this time.  I have been privileged to join those conversations.  The Bishop is a kind, wise, and gentle man.

            This past week, he was focusing on writer Richard Rohr’s concept of liminal space.   Liminal space has been a subject of Rohr’s internet meditations during the past week. Now, I’ve got to admit that term was not on the tip of my tongue but, through the conversation, I was able to discern its application in the conversation.

            It basically means transitional time.  If you reflect on the current times, that is precisely where we are.  In liminal space. We are transitioning from one place to the next.

            Liminal comes from the Latin word for threshold.  Whether we recognize or not, we are on the threshold of something new, something different.  That can be both frightening and thrilling.  It is like the Chinese word for crisis – it is a combination of the letters for danger and opportunity.  We are in liminal space – facing both the challenges of dangerand opportunity.

            There are various ways we can view these days. Phyllis Tickle, the late writer and church commentator, wrote of the rhythm of history and the axial ages.  The concept of the axial age refers to the transformative change cultures go through at key points in history.  

            There are different ways of interpreting history, but we can look back at pivot points, such as the rise of major religions, the reshaping of those religions, and the introduction of new thoughts, perspectives and philosophies.  Looking back, we see those moments of history which unsettle cultures but lead to new ways of being.

            Think of such moments of transformation – of being on the threshold of something new and different.  The Hebrews standing on the shore of the Red Sea as Egyptian chariots thundered toward them.  Danger and opportunity.

            The grief of Holy Saturday – the day following Jesus’ crucifixion – and the silence of the tomb. Danger and opportunity.

            The challenge of the religious authorities by Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, John Calvin, and others in the days of the Reformation. Danger and opportunity.

            The days following December 7, 1941, after a devastating blow had been struck against the United States by a foreign power. Danger and opportunity.

            In the midst of this pandemic, we face both danger and opportunity.  Which way will we go?  We are, no doubt, on a threshold.  Yes, there are dangers.  But opportunity abounds.  God calls us – the church – into a new way of being. In fact, God may be forcing our hand, to move us into new ways of being.

            That is precisely this position the disciples and the budding new church found themselves in in the lesson from Acts this morning.  The church had grown by 3,000 members in a very short and tumultuous time.  It was bound to have been chaotic. Religious leaders and the Roman authorities were trying to quash this new movement – either by pointing to orthodoxy or at the point of a sword.

            The church faced this duality of danger and opportunity. And the lesson tells us how the church responded: Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

            It was not a time or a movement for the faint of heart.  Neither is this moment a time for timidity.  We are in liminal space – on the threshold of something new – in a time of both danger and opportunity.  How we approach these times will determine the church’s future for decades – and perhaps centuries – to come.

            I am reminded of a cultural icon.  It was the 1989 movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones was seeking the Holy Grail.  In his pursuit’s final stage, he finds himself standing over a yawning chasm, separating him from the goal of his quest – the cup of Christ.

            He is much more aware of the danger he faces – stepping out over the seemingly bottomless chasm.  But, he has hope that he will find opportunity by squarely facing the danger. And he steps out – and finds a walkway he could not see.  He embraced the danger and was rewarded with the opportunity.

            We are like the early church… and Indiana Jones… and all those who have found themselves in liminal spacesover the millennia.  The steps we take in these times of danger and opportunity will determine the future course of our branch of God’s mission.

            Let us move forward with boldness.