Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas Eve/Day 2014

Christmas 2014.



            As we gather to celebrate Christmas, I think of the wonderful hymn, Adeste fidelis, "O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem."


          Those brief words describe the Church, and her desire to be connected with the sacred story of Christ's birth.  They make us spiritually present at the birth of Christ.  The Church is not bound to the strict ticking of the clock at moments such as these.  Whatever year it happens to be is immaterial.  And we call that sense of timeless observance anamnesis.  If I teach you this word you can use it to impress your friends. 


          Anamnesis is remembering something in a way that makes you a participant in the original events.  For instance, whenever the Holy Eucharist is celebrated we are brought into the upper room with Christ and his disciples.  It is not just a memory.  To have it as a memory would be to describe it, but then move on.  But instead, we re-enact it.  The priest, on behalf of the Baptized, recites the story, speaks Christ's words of institution, "This is my body…Do this in remembrance…"  And then we literally do it.  We receive the Bread and Wine as Body and Blood, and time collapses.  It is as if all Christians throughout the world, and throughout time are taking and eating in remembrance.  Anamnesis.



          In the same way we recite the story of Christ's birth, and like the shepherds, we have come to Church—spiritually to Bethlehem—to worship and adore.  Time further collapses as we recall in the Holy Eucharist that the Christ Child is also the one who became our Lord, who suffered and died "for us, and for our salvation." 




          The hymn calls us "faithful, joyful, and triumphant," which also collapses time to the very end of time, when the Church is gathered together in heaven.  So in a sense, all of time is fully present in this liturgy.  What is now, is also then, and is also at the very beginning.


          You will likely experience something like this in your own family celebrations.  There are traditions and decorations that will link you through memory to your childhood, and every year since.  But if it is only looking backward, then it isn't anamnesis.  It's nostalgia.


          Nostalgia is looking back with emotion.  Nostalgia is like eggnog—a little bit is okay, but too much can make you sick.  Nostalgia says that the good old days were better, and that it will never be as good as it was.  It can be tempting to succumb to those thoughts, especially when there are people we miss, whom we wish to see again.




          But the Church does not celebrate Christmas with nostalgia, as if life was fine then, when Christ walked the earth, but then it's been downhill from there.  We celebrate with anamnesis—giving thanks for then, celebrating now, and looking forward with holy hope to the promise of Christ—the promise of the fulfillment of time, the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. 


          And because of that, we can celebrate as the hymn calls us, "faithful, joyful and triumphant."  Not as poor wretches missing better days, but as the Baptized, holding our heads and hearts toward the future, trusting that God will accomplish his promises.


          We read that in the lesson from Isaiah, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness—on them light has shined." 


          The light that shines on you at Christmas emanated from the night sky in Bethlehem when "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, `Glory to God in the highest heaven.'" 


          It is the light that emanates from Christ's own being lying in a manager, a newborn promise who is at once fulfilled, fulfilling, and yet to be fulfilled even more.



          You may not feel yourself to be "faithful, joyful, or triumphant," but you are.  Being that has almost nothing to do with your own efforts.  Christ came to seek and save the lost, not the already found.  The great gift lying in the manger is the Incarnate Love of the living God, who sees us as we are.  Who sees our brokenness, our frailty, our sinfulness, and is still deeply and devotedly in love with us. 


          Through anamnesis—though our enacted, hope-filled memory—we are given the experience of being present in all time, past, present and future, and of knowing that we are loved and accepted by God in our past, present, and future. 


          So come all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant, come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem!  Come and behold him, born the King of angels!  O come let us adore him—for this time, and for all time!






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, December 15, 2014

The One who calls you is faithful.

Advent 3B.  14 December 2014.


1 Thessalonians 5:16-24


               The Epistle lesson this morning is almost the very end of the first letter to the Thessalonians, the church in Thessalonika.  Each of the Epistle lessons in Advent contain a sense of urgency, and a call to a more devout life.  The urgency in these words is hard for us to internalize in the same way that the letter's original recipients internalized them.  They believed—and we are also meant to believe—that Christ's return is imminent. 

            Therefore the injunctions to rejoice and give thanks, and test, and not to quench, and to abstain, and so forth, are tersely given—like the last words of someone leaving someone else in charge.  "Remember to feed the cat, and water the plants, and the trash goes out on Wednesday."  Paul is drawing the letter to a close, and he's doing so with these reminders.

            And the last words—at least of this lesson—contain a short benedictory prayer with an important promise.  Paul writes, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." 

            The prayer is that the church be sanctified—that God would hold them and keep them apart from the world around them with its corrupting influences—and that their spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless.

            It's an important prayer, especially for the early church.  Remember that they have no roots in history to draw from.  The cemetery does not contain the remains of generations of Christians before them.  This is a brand new faith.

            In addition to that, Thessalonika is not in the Holy Land, which would provided, at the very least, a cultural Jewish tradition to draw from.  Thessalonika is in Macedonia, which is northern Greece.  So here they are, a little church in a Greco-Roman city.  They have converted to a new faith that has deep roots in Judaism—itself a foreign religion—and is based very much on this belief that Christ Jesus is due back at any moment.

            For them to be "sanctified entirely" means that they would be held together in mutual love, and in the disciplines that Paul has taught them for worship, for maintaining the Christian faith.  Paul addresses them as their spiritual father.  He wants them to be safe, and to not let go of what he has taught them.

            And so, after this prayer comes a promise.  Paul writes, "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this." That God who has welcomed them into this faith is going to be actively with them, and within them.  Let me suggest that that is very profound; and something we can blithely ignore when times are good, but draw strength from when evil days come.  "The one who calls you is faithful."

            You may or may not consider yourself called, but you are.  The Church must never allow our understanding of "call" to become domesticated, or hostage to the traditional orders of bishop, priest, and deacon—as if they represent some sort of post-graduate diploma to one's Christian identity.  To use one of St. Paul's favorite expressions:  μὴ γένοιτο "May it never be." 

            Sacred orders are important, but they are only meaningful if they serve to help the whole church discover the deeper call, and that is the call within you.  Within all of us.  It is a call to know God, and to be known by God.

            God is deeply and devotedly in love with you.  You might just allow yourself to sit with that thought at some point.  Maybe in your devotional life, you could put aside your prayer list, and even your books—and let yourself sit with the single idea that God is deeply and devotedly in love with you. 

            Our heads get so filled with other messages, don't they?  And even if you have a regular form of private prayer, it's so easy to sit down to it and not have your mind on it.  It becomes this thing to do

            I have learned after many years that stillness must precede prayer.  It's like listening for the dial tone.  And then, when we can finally rest in oratory of our souls, and a sense of connection is nurtured—we discover God within us—then finally a prayer may be said.

            There are so many occasions when prayer is expected to be on our schedule.  The prayer before a meal, or the prayer before a meeting, or something, and I invariably feel this internal awkwardness about it, because the food is getting cold, or people are impatient.  I remember one time I had someone come into my office for help—she wasn't a parishioner, she was in need of assistance with something financial, and she said, "I really need you to pray for me."  It was like, if I didn't start saying words right now that something bad was going to happen.

            So I tried to calm her a bit by saying, "Let's just bow our heads and take a minute first."  But after about five seconds she said, somewhat angrily, "Are you going to pray for me or not?" 

            Why do we pray if it isn't to find the giver of the gift, as well as the gift?  Everything about Christ, and the story of his life, death, and resurrection is meant to communicate the very simple fact that God is deeply and devotedly in love with us.  And within that love there is a constant call to deeper relationship, too deeper trust in the one who loves you most.

            What is so powerfully profound about the promise is that the one who calls us is faithful.  We all know what it is to experience unfaithful love.  We all know what it is to be enticed by a feeling or a thought only to be disappointed.

            This is a frequent theme in ordination sermons.  Young men and women brightly arrayed in their albs with red stoles standing by.  They fidget in their band-new clerical collars, and the sermon is often along these lines, "The one who calls you is faithful."  It's a sermon the ordinands need to hear and can already preach, because if you manage to make it through seminary, internships, hospital chaplaincies, the General Ordination Exams, and the Commission on Ministry, by goodness, you have learned that God is faithful.

            But again, this isn't, and shouldn't be, just about the ordained.  Everyone needs to hear that following God's voice will not be in vain.  That we aren't being teased, or led out on some fragile branch that cannot bear our weight.  But it can be a real struggle sometimes, especially if the road ahead is uncertain, and if we are already planning certain outcomes. 

            Anxiety does that.  Anxiety is a pick-pocket thief of emotions.   Anxiety talks to you about wisely planning for contingencies, and all the while it has its hand in your pocket taking away all your faith, and all your happiness.

            Anxiety is a fortune-teller, a palm reader.  Give him your peace of mind, and he'll give you nightmare scenarios that will likely never happen.  No one can see into the future.  No one can account for every little thing that adds up in your life to influence you or the immediate world around you. 

            And at the same time, neither do you really understand the full power you have.  The significance of your being.  You have the ability in any given situation to influence it for the better or worse.  We so often think of the problems and people in our lives as inflexible or insurmountable obstacles.  And we think we could never do anything to make it better.

            There is a church I know of that had a major situation that had built itself around a central issue, namely that Mrs. SoandSo would never be okay if we did X.  It was taken for Gospel that she would be deeply offended, and no one wanted to do that.  It was subject of whispers and worries for weeks on end.

            So one day, the priest got tired of it, and explained the situation to Mrs. SoandSo, line by line, what had brought us from this to this, and what finally has led us to wanting to do (GULP)….this-thing-that-we-just-knew-she-hated.  And she said, "Oh, well, when you put it like that, it's fine.  Go ahead."  And when she said that, a whole tangled mess of anxiety, strained relationships, weird little attending problems, all of them resolved almost overnight.  We forget that people are always in transition from one thought to the next, and from one feeling to the next, and what is "no" now, may be "yes" tomorrow.

            The word confidence is from the Latin confidere, which brings together con, meaning with, and fides, meaning faith.  To have confidence, to be with faith, or with trust.  And so to have confidence in God is to believe that the one who calls you is faithful.  That you will not be left without comfort, or without love.

            As you have come to church today it is likely that you bring with you an assortment of feelings about this time of the year.  It's cold and grey.  There are people we miss.  There may be strange sadnesses that come upon us that we do not even know how to explain. 

            We need to hear that below it all, or perhaps above it all, the one who has called us into relationship through his own beloved son, is faithful.  You are not alone.  You have not been teased, or led out on a branch that cannot bear your weight, God is faithful.



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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, December 8, 2014

Who was John the Baptizer?

Advent 2B.  7 December 2014.[1]

Alexander D. MacPhail


            If you really want to know someone you almost have to know their family and how they grew up.  I want to tell you about two very devout people named Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were from similar backgrounds.  They were both born into priestly families in the Jewish tradition.  Zechariah was born of the order of Abijah and Elizabeth of the tribe of Aaron.  Aaron, you may recall, was Moses's helper, and from his family, a tribe was formed.


            When I say they were of priestly families in the Jewish tradition, you must understand that the priests were the men who served in the Temple—and the Temple, you will recall, stood in Jerusalem.  It was this massive stone structure with inner courtyards and outer courtyards and places and buildings for everything.  I spoke about it last week.


            There is no way to describe how large and how meaningful that place was for the Hebrew people.  There were many synagogues in which the faithful would worship and learn the sacred story; but, there was only one Temple.  The Temple was the place.  The Temple was where the physical presence of God abided in the stones that Moses had inscribed with the Torah—the Law.  The stone tablets were kept inside a gold encrusted box, called the Arc of the Covenant.  The Arc was kept inside the Holy of Holies, which was the most special room in the Temple.  Only the Temple priests could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then, only one day of the year, which is known as Yom Kippur—the day of atonement.


            The Temple had a system of hierarchy that was just as intricate and political as, for instance, Washington DC.  You have your insiders and your outsiders.  You have honest and dishonest.  Inside the system, you know exactly who you are, and who everyone else is.  If you were born to a Temple priest, then you were at the top of the social ladder—you are a Sadducee.   You could not join the priests—you were born one.  You knew who your father's father's father was.  You knew that you would always, always have a place in the system—because the Temple was too large and too important to fail or be destroyed.  We will always have a Temple; we will always need the priests to care for it—guaranteed job security and social status. 


            The Pharisees were a different group—highly devout, very political—but for the most part these were the middle class.   We almost can't see them clearly anymore because Jesus spends so much time fussing with them, and sermons that mention the Pharisees almost never really paint a full picture. 


            I don't mean this to sound offensive—truly—but the modern day equivalent would likely be us.  I'm not saying that we're hypocrites.  Not all Pharisees were hypocrites.  But it's this group of people were the rabbis, the people who went to synagogue regularly and gave to support the widows and orphans.  Yes, some of their folks were corrupt—and yes some of them got in trouble with Jesus. 



            Most of what Jesus did not like was their lack of care for the less fortunate, and their inflexible social structure.  Jesus did not like that they often taught one thing and did something else—but they were not without merit.  In one place, Jesus says, "Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees."  Meaning that they were a decent group—but not as righteous as the followers of Jesus should be.


            But now, as with the Sadducees, if you were born a Pharisee, you were a Pharisee.  You may have become a rabbi, or a cantor, or some other official in the synagogue, but you could not be a Temple priest.


            Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years, and had no children, though they had prayed and prayed for a child.  Zechariah was a priest of the Temple, and one of his duties was to offer incense in the sanctuary—which was the enclosure just before the Holy of Holies.  People would come to pray outside the sanctuary, and the priests would take turns offering incense in the sanctuary.


            One day, while Zechariah was offering incense the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been heard, and the God was allowing Elizabeth to have a son.  Gabriel said, "You will name him John and he will make you very happy, because the Holy Spirit will be upon him.  He will turn the hearts of many of the Israelites toward their God." 


            Zechariah was thrilled, but doubted.  "How can this be?" he asked, "Elizabeth and I are too old to have children."  Gabriel responded, "I'm not the pizza boy, Zechariah.  I stand in the presence of God, and I'm telling you, you're going to have a son.  But because you have not believed, you will be mute, and unable to talk until these things have happened."


            So Zechariah was unable to talk, and Elizabeth did, indeed, become pregnant.  And after she gave birth to a boy, and it was time to circumcise him, they asked for the boy's name—although it was a foregone conclusion what the child's name should be.  Zechariah.  His dad's name.  Temple priest, born to Temple priest, Order of Abijah.  Zechariah was the son of Zechariah, who was the son of Zechariah.  Plain as the nose on your face.


            Elizabeth said, "No; he is to be called John."  "Excuse me, did you say, uhm…John?"  "Yes, John."  Well, now wait a minute.  We need to ask the father.  The family line comes through the mother, but he's a boy, and his father is entitled to pass along the name.  Zechariah is mute.  Unable to speak.  But they ask him just the same, and he said, "His name is John."  And everyone was in shock, because he had been unable to speak until then.    


            And Zechariah praised God and fear came upon everyone—they said to one another "We're going to have to keep our eyes on this child.  He's going to be something special—the hand of the Lord is upon him.  (Pause.)


            The Bible does not tell us anything about John's childhood or puberty, but look at his background.  He was born into the class and culture of the Temple priests.  He was surrounded by a community that prayed and worshipped regularly, and frequently.  He learned the Torah from the best scholars, he learned the intricate choreography of Temple worship, its hierarchy, its privileges.  I am sure that he learned the under belly—he saw the corruption, the pettiness. 


            I would imagine that he played with other little boys, born to Temple priests, and knew the families who were jockeying for position and power.  He would have been tested and graded and scrutinized and altogether expected to become a Temple priest.  Even though his name is different, even though the story of his birth is a little different than the others—his life is mapped out.


            What happened to him?  What happened to make him leave all that behind and become a prophet in the wilderness?  What made him trade the fine clothing—long cassocks and embroidered capes—for camel's hair and a leather belt.


            I think I know.  I think John grew up learning the Torah so well that he looked around at the Temple system and said, "There is very little in the way we do things here that corresponds with God's Law to care for the widows and the orphans and the strangers." 


            "I don't see how we can expect the poor to come and pay the fees we are telling them they need to pay to offer sacrifices in the Temple.  They come and empty their pockets to sacrifice pigeons and sheep, and what happens?  We slaughter them, and then we have to clean them up, and if we don't burn the carcass, who get's the meat?  The people who paid?  No.  We do.  We're eating and drinking at their expense—and here, we're supposed to be helping them


            "And what about the sacrifices?  David said in the Psalms, "For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Psalm 51:16,17. 


            "I think we have a problem here.  I think we have some systems that have very little to do with God, and an awful lot to do with keeping the poor down and the rich rich.  And what really turns my stomach about it is that we're doing that in the name of God." (Pause.)


            John knew the Torah.  He started at a very early age and probably knew it better than Zechariah.  He knew about the prophet Elijah, who was supposed to come and herald, or announce, the end of the age—the coming of the Messiah.  John knew that Elijah was described as a hairy man who wore a leather belt.  He knew the prophecy of Isaiah, "The voice of one who cries in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord."


            So John packs up his things, shakes the dust of the Temple off of his sandals.  Shakes off the traditions and the culture and the hierarchy, and he makes his way to the region around the Jordan river.  He puts on the clothes of the prophets of a bygone era.  No one wore camel's hair and a big leather belt.  These were the vestments of Elijah.  To see him out there in the wilderness was to see the Torah come to life.  The Word was becoming flesh in John.  The Word of God, written in the book, leapt off the page and there he was.  Is he….Elijah? 


            John was rooted in an incredibly devout background.  The son of a son of a son of a Temple priest, and with all the learning of his aristocratic background, he shed every vestige to bring the Gospel to the average, poor, lonely people of Israel.  He came to the lost sheep.  And his message was simple, "Repent, prepare…there is someone coming who is more learned and powerful than I am.  I am baptizing you to clean you from your sins, but there is a man coming who is going to clean you with the Spirit of the Living God.  You might think I'm something, but I am not worthy to shine his shoes." (Pause.)


            John's message has become the Church's message in Advent.  A call to repentance, a call to prepare the way for the Messiah.  Like John himself, this time is deeply rooted in tradition, but always new and relevant. 


            It is time to wake up, shake the dust of worthless endeavors off our sandals, and reclaim the true teaching of the Torah—to care for the poor and the helpless, to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.


            John's background made it possible for him to carry the best teachings of the Torah out to the countryside, and made space for the Holy Spirit to move anew.  We all have this ability.  We have all been groomed in the Church with the wisdom of the Torah.  We have feasted at the table of plenty.  Now, the wilderness is calling.  The mission field awaits.  So, in the spirit of Advent, go, and prepare the way.  The King is coming.




[1] Adapted from a sermon preached on 4 December 2011.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

​​A​​ Sermon on Christian Spirituality. 9 November 2014.



            It has been on my mind and heart for awhile to speak about Christian spirituality, because what I know I want, and what I believe most Christians want, is a genuine experience of their faith, and genuine sense of connection with God.  Every liturgy and every sermon is meant to lead us to that; however, I have found it helpful—through spiritual reading, prayer, and listening to other clergy—to get right down to the most basic elements.


            I want to begin with God.  The Rev. Ed Kryder, one of my seminary professors, used to say, "One should always begin with God, because that is where everything starts anyway."


            The Church believes that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, but in some sense the mystery and doctrine of the Trinity is a hindrance for Christians—and certainly non-Christians—in attempting to relate to God in prayer.  Questions emerge, such as "Am I praying to one, or to all three?"  And what often happens is that these questions form a brick wall inside of us with a sign that says, "You're not doing it right."  Prayer ceases to be an activity of the heart, and becomes a sort of intellectual puzzle.   


            The other problem is that some of our Church's language conceptually hinders us from intimacy.  God is construed in many hymns and stories in the Bible as being outside of us. 


            In fact, even the Lord's Prayer reinforces this sense of distance when it reads, "Our Father, in heaven," as if to say, not here with us, but far, far removed from us. So that it can feel like a long distance phone call from the days when long distance sounded like long distance! 


            Yes, our Lord taught us to pray "Our Father in heaven," but if you take the whole of his teaching, Jesus never promoted the idea that God was distant from us.  If anything he preached the opposite, like when he said, "The kingdom of heaven is within you."[1]  Or when Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit."[2]  Christ Jesus conceptually changed the theology of God's remoteness, as expressed often in the Hebrew scriptures with atoning sacrifices, and God appearing to Moses covered in smoke and fire. 


            Jesus said, at first "My Father," and then he opened it out to "Our Father."  The "who art in heaven" part is there to say that the Father is not constrained to a physical presence, which would be to say "on earth," but that the intimacy of the relationship is not constrained.  Let me put it this way, "Our Father who is within you, and within all of us."  "Our Father, who is within Christ, and is now also within you, as well." 


            How, then, did God come into us?  Well, first we believe God is within all of his creation, fundamentally.  It's like the joke of the man who comes to God and says, "We don't need you anymore as the Creator.  We can heal most diseases, and we can clone people, and we can make almost anything we need."  So God says, "All right, let's have a contest.  You make the form of a human being and I'll make one, too."  The man says, "Okay," and reaches down for a clump of clay.  And God says, "No…you're going to have to get your own clay."


            Every fiber of our being is part of God's creation, so his presence is here at the most fundamental, sub-atomic level.  But as a Church we have a symbol of God's entry into us.  We plunge people into God.[3]  The Church has often construed that Sacrament as an act of cleaning someone, but a fuller understanding is that a person goes down into the water in the name of God, and is raised up from the water as a new creation.  It is a rehearsal of the Resurrection of Christ—a proclamation that God has acted to redeem us, and to fully claim us, and infuse us with his presence.


            So, God is within.  Searching for God is in some sense an absurd idea.  God is inside us.  We have never known the absence of God, really.  We have been born in his presence, plunged into his love, and reborn by his Spirit.  So when we say we are searching for God, what we are really saying is that we are searching for a feeling, or an experience, or a sensation that confirms in our emotions that God wishes to be present with us.  But God is already fully within us, and within all of the universe.


            In fact, every sensation, every emotion, every spiritual experience is already within you.  Think about this for a moment.  Imagine someone in your life who annoys you.  Close your eyes and think about them for a moment.  See them doing or saying the things that upset you.  Notice that those feelings are beginning to rise.  What do we say?  "That person makes me feel…angry."  Well, it's not that person who is feeling angry.  It's you who feels angry.  The feeling of annoyance was already in you, it's just that that person has a special way of putting you in touch with those feelings. 


            You can do this with any other feeling: a person who makes you feel love, a person who arouses you sexually, a person who makes you laugh, a person who makes you feel angry.  Jesus taught us to pray for the people in our lives with whom we have trouble, because he wanted us to learn to convert those feelings from hatred to love.  The problem you and I have with the other person is not their problem, but ours. 


            And when we have people in our lives who are hard to love, it becomes even harder to love God, because those two feelings within us are at odds with each other.  God wants us to feel love toward him, and toward others, because God wishes us all to be bound together in love.  To live by the sword is to die by the sword.[4]  To live at peace is to be at peace.


            We mourn when someone we love dies, because each person has a unique way of making us feel love.  But that feeling is still within us, even when the person we love dies, and some of the feeling can be rekindled through memory.  One day, in the Resurrection, we can all be together again, and "be known fully as we are fully known," as St. Paul wrote.[5]  But the feeling of God is already within you.  So how do we get in touch with it?


            This then leads me to talk about the soul.  And when I use the word "soul," I mean our truest self, our most authentic, "who-I-am" self.  A lot of Christians and people of other religious traditions want to feel God's presence, and don't quite know how to go about it.  And as I said, part of that is a conceptual problem of believing that God is somehow remote, distant, aloof, and that we must seek him in the dark, empty room of our mind.  At least, that's how it can seem to us sometimes.


            The first step is to stop thinking of God as out there, and begin to think of God as in here.  Do whatever it takes to convert yourself to this.  Put up a note on the mirror in the bathroom.  Tie a string around you finger.  Whatever it takes.  When Moses asked for God's name, God said, "I am who I am."  God is pure holy being, and is deeply within you.  You have been plunged into God; you are never absent from him.  He is your Father within you.  He is the Son within you.  He is the Spirit within you.  God with us.  God in us. 


            The second step is to understand that God is embracing your soul in total, unconditional, self-giving tenderness.  Tender love.  The kind of love that you really want and need.  And the only thing holding you back from getting in touch with it is the surface level self you are operating your life from.  It can be called the ego.  It can be called the personality, although that is somewhat misleading. 



            But what I mean is that your soul is back behind your surface level judgments about what's good and bad, happy and sad, all those limitations of thought that you are just a physical body going through life…eating and sleeping, and hating work, and loving play.  And when you stop looking so critically at every facet of what's in front of you, you will see the Creation, and the people around you with new eyes.  Jesus called it being "born from above" or "born again."[6] You will see the world with your truest self, your soul, which is being held tenderly by God.  You are a beloved child of God.  That is who you really are.


            Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it produces no fruit."[7]  The grain of wheat can be understood as the transient, capricious, very-limited appraisal of whatever comes and goes in your life. 


            We meet someone and think, "I like them," or "I don't like them."  We don't know more than a couple seconds of their life, and we've made a decision about them.  Yet, they were born, like us.  Loved by someone who cared enough to make sure that they lived, like us.  They need to eat and drink and sleep, like us.  And most importantly, they want and need to be loved, just like us. 


            You are just like them, and they are just like you; it's just that we've formed an opinion from our most shallow self that keeps our soul from identifying them as a beloved child of God, just like we are. 


            So sin, you see, is operating more from this surface self, and not from your soul, which is always held in a divine embrace.  You and I sin because we cannot perfectly remain true to our God-infused soul.  But through the work of Christ on the Cross, and through God's grace, we spend our lives training to renounce that surface self.  To let it die. 


            The less you give in to going through your life making these little judgments about good and bad, happy and sad, angry, aroused, repelled, and the more you let yourself see everyone and everything as created and loved by God, then you will become more like Christ, and the Kingdom of God will come. 


            Consider the Sacraments.  Plunged into God, and then through the reception of his body and blood more and more of us becomes like Christ, who wishes to be known within us, within our bodies, within our deepest being..to give us his tender love.  It is a shared meal, because our kinship in Christ demands that we do this together—that we RE-member Christ.  That he is for and within all of us.


            So, when you pray…what does Jesus teach us?  He said, "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father."[8] In other words, go within.  Go backstage, as it were, into your heart, and pray that you can live from that place of God's tender love.  


            Look at how life progresses!  You begin as child liking this, and hating that.  At first everything is good or bad, black or white, happy or sad.  And all of our young life is about our appetite for experiences that make us feel certain ways.  Wanting to feel, feel, feel…  And life over many years slowly grinds away those appetites, and we become less and less attached to particular things.  People sometimes say, "I used to think this was so important, but now, I've softened in my old age."  Yes!  Exactly!  But you don't have to grow old to let that happen!  You can start early!


            You let go of what isn't important, which is the fleeting pleasures and pains of what you have judged to be good or bad, happy or sad.  And instead, you accept life as it comes—like when Blessed Mary said, "Let it be with me according to your word," or when our Lord Jesus said, "Father, not my will, but yours."[9]


            You let life come, realizing that sometimes you're going to feel happy and sometimes sad; sometimes aroused, and sometimes repelled, but behind it all—within your soul—God is holding you, loving you as a beloved child, until your soul finally turns completely to God.  And when your soul turns completely to God you will no longer need a physical body. 


            It all started and ended back at the Jordan when we were "plunged into God."  And over a lifetime of eating and drinking God, and learning about God, we let go more and more of the appetites and attachments that try to pull us away, until we yield fully to the embrace that has always held us. 


            The same God and Father who said of Jesus, "This is my beloved Son," says the same words to you at every moment of every day in quiet sanctity of your soul.  The French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience."[10]


            I hope this helps you a little.  None of these thoughts are originally mine, and I am a very imperfect example of the ultimate renunciation that Christ calls us to.  But part of the beauty and pathos of Christian spirituality is that "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."[11] 


            While we are still at times trapped by our surface level selves, God still "holds our souls in life."[12] God still tenderly gives us the love, the forgiveness, and the healing we need on the path that leads to eternal life.


            In the Name of God, who is within us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[1] Luke 17.21

[2] John 20.22

[3] The Rev. Martin Smith, Bishop's Fall Retreat at Shrine Mont 2014.

[4] Paraphrase of Matthew 26.52

[5] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[6] John 3.3

[7] John  12.24

[8] Matthew 6.6

[9] Luke 1.28 & Luke 22.42

[10] The Phenomenon of Man, 1955.

[11] Romans 5.8

[12] Psalm 66.9

Monday, November 3, 2014

All Saints

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All Saints' Sunday.  2 November 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail



            Close your eyes, go into your heart, into your soul…  God is holding you there, and giving you love.  Hear him say to you, "You are my beloved child.  On you, my favor rests.  With you, I am well pleased."


            Adore the Father, who has created you in his love.  The Son who redeems you.  The Holy Spirit who searches you out, and knows and loves every corner of your being.


            From this embrace, allow yourself to see the company of heaven.  Thousands of people whose names you don't know, but you know that they held, and still hold the same faith in Christ that you do. 


            And see those wonderful people who nurtured you in the Christian faith, perhaps when you were very young.  They are looking at you today, so proud of you.   And not just because you're in church today.  They are always proud of you. 


            Bring your heart back the embrace of God, who upholds your feeble life, and who knows your wants and your needs, who cares even more deeply than you do about your life.  Take a moment to offer God your love and your most earnest concerns.  (I'll be quiet for a little bit.)        Stay in the tender embrace of God, but when you are ready, open your eyes.




            When I was first writing my sermon on All Saints' this year, I sort of plowed on with the history.  How the early church commemorated the saints and especially the martyrs—those who died because they wouldn't renounce Christ.  I was going to speak about the yearly celebration on May 13th, which was later moved to November 1st, after a chapel in St. Peter's Basilica was consecrated to all the Saints on that day, and that we've be observing this feast on or around November 1st for 1400 years, but all of that seemed so dry.


            The beauty of the saints is that they were people like you and me.  They loved our Lord; they loved the communities they worshipped and served in.  They had headaches and trials, sicknesses, parents and friends.  They had anxieties in their personal lives, made many mistakes.  They needed to be held and loved just as much as we do.  They had favorite foods. 


            They struggled with their own stuff, too.  They struggled with times of darkness and distress, loneliness and the contours of grief.  They knew the happiness of sunny days, and flowers, and music, and little epiphanies about life and the mystery of God. 


            They are no different from you and me, really.  Some of them were especially gifted with abilities to write, compose music, preach, and give.  Some of them had incredible courage at moments when courage was needed, but you have been that person, too, you know?


            And I think this celebration of All Saints'—at its best—is the yearly reminder that our relationship with them and with all the faithful departed has not ended.  That we are all beloved children of God, baptized—plunged—into God, and reborn into eternal life.  And just as we certainly continue to love those who have died, so do they, continue to love us.  We are separated by the mere frailty of our flesh. 


            Traditionally we celebrate All Saints on November 1st, and then All Souls, or All Faithful Departed on November 2nd.  It is a more nuanced way of celebrating the difference between those great examples of the Faith, and those faithful loved ones who have died—but I wonder if God would want us to make that distinction.  It seems innocent, or perhaps naïve. 


            There is no real difference between those we venerate and those we simply miss.  I am confident that we wouldn't be able to tell them apart in the company of heaven.  We are all baptized in the same water.  We all eat and drink the same Sacraments. 


            A spiritual author I was reading last week wrote that the only real hindrance to knowing the truth or knowing God is believing that we are individuals.


            So today let us remember that we are not alone—never alone.  We are part of the whole of God's creation.  We've been plunged into the love of God in Holy Baptism, and all those wonderful saints—some we know, and some we don't—are loving us, and praying for us.




Monday, October 27, 2014

With all your heart

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Proper 25A.  26 October 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail



Matthew 22.34-46



            What I just read for you is the end of a series of lections we have been reading on the conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership of the day.  The Pharisees are well known to us, though often construed as a caricature of religious fussiness.


            In fact, the Pharisees were simply the normal devout Jews.  These were the rabbis, and the Jews who went to synagogue each Sabbath and certainly for the major feasts and fasts.  The Pharisees in this lesson were leaders, perhaps members of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council.


            The tradition of rabbinical teaching was through question and answer, parable and allegory.  Rabbis and scribes liked to cite theologians in their teaching to give strength to their sermons.  Remember that Jesus did not teach in that way.  He spoke, as they said, "as one with authority," meaning that Jesus was able to speak of matters with total confidence and conviction.


            Some addressed Jesus affectionately as "Rabbi"—though Jesus was not trained as one.  Even more affection, to the point of absolute obedience was implied when they said "Lord."  But when someone called him "Teacher" as we have in today's lesson, there is no affection whatsoever.  In fact, it's almost impolite.


            Yet the question from one of them is an old chesnut among the rabbis.  "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  It was a common, though somewhat controversial, question.  Rabbis could give summaries of the law.  In fact, it's somewhat like preaching.  You can talk about this verse or that verse in minute detail, but, "Come on, clergy, give us the view from 10,000 feet.  Boil it down for us!"


            And a rabbi may opine on that.  He may give his own take on law from the perspective of his many years in the rabbinate, giving advice to people over many years of hearing people's problems and giving his thoughts.  He may be more strict in his interpretation and want to hold up the standard of the law.  "This is our line in the sand.  This is the Torah of God.  We may not like when it says this or that, but it's God's law, and though it may be difficult to follow, follow we must."


            Or a rabbi may be more disposed to the compassionate view of the law—more the spirit than the letter.  So his summary of the law may be more about God giving his people a rigorous standard, but we can't always measure up, and that is why we are waiting for a messiah, who will teach us more perfectly how to follow it. 


            So you see, you have different ways of thought among the rabbinate, just as you would among doctors and judges and any group that would receive a certain amount of education and practice in the real world—and can, therefore, form thoughtful opinions.


            The question to Jesus is abrupt, perhaps even aggressive and disrespectful, as indicated by addressing him "Teacher," and then asking a question that would have been common among those who had been more experienced. 


            It is rather like when an adult asks a 10 year old boy, "Are you married?  How's the wife and kids?"  Except that there is no humor in the question to Jesus.  One can almost hear the other Pharisees in the group stifling their laughter that someone has asked Jesus this question.


            But you see, I also said it was a controversial question, and that is because although a rabbi could give a summary of the law, it was understood that all the commandments were equal.  They were given by God, so to try to rank them or appraise them was considered a purely human endeavor, which could be considered arrogant, or even blasphemous. 


            The rabbis had counted a total of 613 commands in the Torah.  And that number is the sum of 248 positive commands, meaning "Do this," and 365 negative commands, meaning, "Don't do that."  Those numbers had significance.  The 248 positive commands correspond with the known parts of the human body; and the 365 negative commands correspond with the days of the year.[*]


            So Jesus is on the spot in a culture that rather likes putting rabbis on the spot!  He responds with the creedal statement of the Sh'ma, found in Deuteronomy 6, "The Lord your God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."  And then Jesus adds, "This is the greatest and first commandment."  Well, it is, literally.  It is certainly the first by mere order.


            And then he tacks on Leviticus 19.18, saying "And the second is like it, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 


            It's an interesting response for several reasons.  One, Jesus doesn't react to the disrespectful tone with which he was asked the question.  Two, he could have stopped with the Sh'ma—with just giving the commandment to love God.  It's a no-brainer, as it were.  And it would certainly keep him out of trouble. 


            But the Lord's addition of that next verse is the distinction between what Jesus is on about, and what the Pharisees are on about.  We forget that these are people with a common heritage and common sacred texts, but who see the nature of God's relationship with humanity in very different ways. 


            For the Pharisees it really is all about God—in fact, to the exclusion, if necessary, of compassion for humanity.  "God gave us a law, and people need to follow it at all costs.  Have we learned nothing from the Exile?  We were in bondage for 50 years.  People who remembered this land died waiting to return.  And when we returned and found Jerusalem in tatters, and the Temple destroyed, what did we do?  We said, `This must never happen again.'  If the law says that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned, then she should be stoned."


            But for Jesus, this way of thinking was ludicrous.  Obviously adultery is wrong, but women have no voice in this culture.  It isn't her fault that man forced himself on her.  And even if she was complicit, look at her—shaking like a leaf, publicly embarrassed in front of everyone.  You have to understand that the law is there to remind you what's right, but some allowances have to be made from time to time.


            And there you have it.  Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  You wouldn't hang yourself over your mistakes, so have some compassion.   (Pause.)


            But before you I let you go I just want to speak briefly about the tension of living with this teaching.  To love God and to love one's neighbor is not meant to be onerous, or to pit one against the other; however, it is difficult sometimes to strike a balance.


            Usually, devout people find one of those two as their strong suit.  They are good at being a compassionate listener, or running the food pantry, but they don't take much time to pray.  Or they are given to solitude, and don't really enjoy interacting with people that much. 


            I think for many years I have understood love of neighbor as an outgrowth of love of God.  And it certainly can be.  Love of God first, which then provokes love of neighbor.  After all, love of God is the first and greatest commandment. 


            But recently I was talking with Karin about this.  And what came to me is that loving God is sometimes very difficult to do.  I don't mean that I find God less than loveable, but it can be difficult sometimes to connect.  We get distracted, or we feel frustrated that prayer takes so much attentiveness.  We all know that there are seasons of the spirit.


            If you follow these two commandments only in their order, you may not get around to loving your neighbor, so I have come to the belief that they are meant to enrich each other.  That if it seems difficult to love God in your heart, try loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and it may be that loving God is found in that.  Likewise, when loving your neighbor is not fruitful, loving God in solitude may help.


            There are times I struggle with loving God—not because I don't, but because I'm not sure how to.  How do you give love to God?  Or how do you receive it?


            God is not someone on whom we can lavish physical attention as we might with our spouses or children.  God is spirit so the encounter is one of faith.  What do you say?  How do you bring out the love; or how do you gauge the depth of it?  I know what it is from time to time to receive the love of God as a sensation; but giving it back is something of a mystery. 


            One mystical author wrote that it is enough simply to be in God's presence, and he likened it to sitting with someone you know so well, that you don't have to say anything.  You can just be with them.  Presence is enough.


            I can tell you what sometimes works for me, and that is just to sit still and wait.  It may be a few minutes.  It may be more than a few.  It's as if I forget how to just be, and the time I need is time to remember that I am part of the world around me.  That God is fully present, but I am not.  My mind is too busy, or I'm absorbed in the transient needs of the day. 


            But if I can be still, and wait, the Lord will come, and when he does, I don't have to wonder how to give love to him.  It just happens.  (Pause.)


            Some years ago, at another church, there was a woman who started coming who sat at the back.  The first couple Sundays she left before I could really follow up with her.  She'd shake my hand at the door, but then quickly make her escape.  Sometimes people need to do that, you know.  


            There are people who hang on to their lives by their fingernails.  They are interested to see if we really believe what we say we believe, or they've felt something shift inside of them and they don't have language for it.  It's too raw, or it's too new, and the vulnerability can make them wonder if they are going crazy.  They worry that if a cleric or a church member were to look into their eyes, that we'd see everything, and they would feel terribly exposed.


            So, I just played it cool.  And whenever she started to talk, I listened.  I think it was about a year after she started coming that she told me, "I had the strangest experience one evening."  She said, "I was outside after dark, after I had put the children to bed, and I looked up into the night sky and I said, `God, are you really real?'


            And she said, "It was then that I heard back.  But the voice didn't come from out there."  She pointed to her heart, and said, "It came from in here!"





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[*] The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VIII, pg. 424.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Many are called, but few consider themselves chosen.

Proper 23A.  12 October 2014.


Matthew 22.1-14


            If you have been coming to church over the last three weeks, you may have noticed a decidedly chilly breeze coming from the Gospel lessons.  They have not been very happy readings, because the lectionary has held us in a little series of parables that Jesus told in judgment of the Pharisees while he was teaching and healing in the Temple. 


            Two weeks ago, you may recall, we heard Jesus say that the tax collectors and prostitutes were going into heaven ahead of the Pharisees, because the tax collectors and prostitutes recognized the Word of God in John the Baptist's preaching and repented, but the Pharisees could not discern it. 


            Last week, we read the parable of the stewards of the vineyard who refuse to listen the servants of the owner, and finally, to the son of the vineyard's owner.  It is a very brazen parable, and needs very little explanation.  Jesus is saying "You Pharisees have not tended God's vineyard well; you did not listen to the prophets, and now you are not listening to the Son of God. 


            This week is the third parable of judgment and it's about a wedding banquet that a king gives for his son's wedding.  Jesus is speaking of an ancient practice of kings giving banquets for their subjects. 


            Like the parable of the vineyard this one does not take much to interpret.  In fact, it might not even be much of a parable—in the sense that this story doesn't really tease our minds.  It's really more of an allegory: where this obviously equals this.  God is the king, the son is Jesus, and the wedding guests are the devout Jews, the Pharisees.



            When the guests do not come to the banquet, they are saying, we don't recognize this marriage.  Jesus uses some exaggeration to make the point.  One guest went to his farm, one to his business, and the rest took hold of the servants of the king who were issuing the invitations, and mistreated them and killed them.  The point is made.  Some just sort of benignly went about their lives, not really caring about the wedding one way or the other; but some actively persecuted the idea of the celebration.


            Well, the king is enraged, so he kills those guests, and invites those who were not worthy to attend.  So enter all the people who had not been welcomed before.  Enter the lepers, the poor, and the outcasts, and all those whom Jesus welcomed.


            Yet, there is a man who came who was not dressed for the party.  And king will not have him.  "Bind him hand and foot, and thrown him into the outer darkness."



            What shall we make of that man who was not dressed appropriately for the wedding?  If we go over to the Presbyterian Church and ask, they might say that the man was not predestined to go to the party.  He was invited, but he didn't have the grace to get in.  Is that what Jesus meant? 


            Or maybe he represents the people who didn't get the right Baptism.  You know, he wasn't baptized completely.  The wrong words were used.  He didn't go under the water.   Or he wasn't part of a congregation recognized by the bishop.  Is that it?  No.


            I think the problem with the man is that he came, but—like the Pharisees—he did not really want to be there.  Sure he'll show up to see everyone, and maybe even throw a little rice, but he doesn't really want to be there.


            Have you ever seen guests like this at a wedding?  Most of the time the people who fit this description are children.  Boys who show up in an ill-fitting suit with the tie askew, and the holes from the tags still visible on the jacket sleeves.  Petulant.  Wishing they could be wearing anything else, doing anything else.  And the better part of you thinks…well, there you are…boys!  That's just what it's like when you're a boy. 


            But every once in a while you see an adult who just can't seem to hide that they really don't want to be there.  And the better part of you thinks, well, we can't all be happy all the time. 


            Maybe she wishes she hadn't been asked to be a bridesmaid—wear this silly tent of a dress that does nothing for her.  Maybe she is jealous of the bride, or maybe she thinks they are making a big mistake. 


            If it's a man, maybe he'd rather be watching the game, or whatever.  Maybe weddings and funerals just aren't his thing.  Doesn't like churches.  Had a bad experience when he was a little boy.  Raised his hand to answer a question in church, and people laughed at him.  You know those things happen.  Or maybe he had heard a sermon about how God sees everything we do, and church just feels like a magnifying glass. 


            I know plenty of people who would never darken the door of a church except for a wedding or a funeral, and even then, they'll wait outside the door till the very last minute.  It's too much…something.  That's where the funeral for Soandso was, so it's hard to go to a wedding there.  I can understand that.


            Maybe, it's too emotional in another way.  Maybe they worry that if they sit in that church with their thoughts and feelings for more than a few minutes, they will begin to think about where their lives are, and where they had hoped they'd be.  And it's hard to celebrate a wedding with that stuff on your mind.  Second guessing your decisions—regrets, broken promises. 


            But you get invited to a wedding to celebrate!  It isn't about you; it's about the bride and groom! 


            So you look over at that person who isn't there to celebrate and, maybe a little like the king in the parable, you want to throw him out.  "Look, buddy, if you can't see that this is wonderful, you need to get out of here!" 


            And here we have the crux of the parable.  "Many are called," says Jesus, "but few are chosen."  It's an odd expression, though, when you think about it.  It sounds like many are called—like standing on a balcony calling out to a plaza full of people, "Hey!  You are all invited!"  But to say few are chosen suggests that the host doesn't really choose everyone he invited.  Yet, isn't everyone chosen by the nature of the call?


            I think it should read like this, "Few people are willing to consider themselves chosen."  And here is why I think it should read that way.  Consider this.  You get invited to things.  Weddings, parties, and maybe you just expect that invitation to come.  A lot of people were invited, and you were on the list…just another person on the list, you think.  Or maybe it's a party that always happens, and you always get invited, and you always go.  And you think there's nothing really special to this.    


            But does it change anything in your mind to think, I was chosen?  I am chosen.  (Pause.)  I am chosen to celebrate this wedding.  I am chosen to celebrate this birthday with that person.  What a profound difference!


            So going to it, and letting yourself let go of the reasons why you might not really like them, or want to be there, or whatever, can just fall away.  I have been chosen to celebrate this, because the host knows—God knows—I am part of these people's lives, and this is not about me.


            I think in this parable, Jesus says, "Look, God has chosen you!  If you still don't see that, and you show up to this big party called the kingdom of God as if this is all about you, and what you want, then you are not dressed for the party."


            "But if you recognize that you have been invited to consider yourself part and parcel of the kingdom of God—a vital, beautiful, treasured person in relationship with God, and the Church—then you can just celebrate it!  You can just enjoy yourself!"  It's all in how you look at it.


            In a sense, this parable is very close to the parable of the Prodigal Son, isn't it?  The person who isn't dressed for the party is the elder brother.  He stands there sulking in the corner, while everyone else celebrates.  And the father comes over to him and says, "You think I chose my younger son over you?  No!  I chose you both!"  (Pause.)  "This isn't about you.  Your brother was lost, but now he's found.  Dead, but now alive.  We have to celebrate!  You are chosen to celebrate with us."


            Can you join the party?  You have been chosen.



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