Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sermon for Epiphany VI

St Thomas’, Glen Carbon--Luke 6:17–26

I once saw a signboard in front of a church that read, “If you feel far from God … guess who moved.” That’s cute and clever, of course, but it also speaks some truth, at least inasmuch as, at any given moment, any given person is probably more likely to feel far away from God than close to God. Sometimes we’re conscious of this distance from God, and might even be able to say why we feel distant. More often, perhaps, its subliminal, operating in the background, like an app that slows down your computer or smart phone just enough to be annoying but not enough to make you want to investigate the reason. Either way, however, it results in something theologians have called “soul-sorrow.” Soul-sorrow is a deep-seated intuitive sense that something is wrong, not just at a personal level, not even just on the level of society, but cosmically. Something is cosmically wrong. It’s not dramatic. It’s not flashy. It’s just persistent, like the experience that some people have of ringing in the ears that just won’t ever go away.

Even Christians, even people of faith, can suffer from soul-sorrow. The evidence of all that is wrong—with the world, with reality itself—is too overwhelming. Too often, though, I suspect that Christians who are afflicted by a particularly acute case of soul-sorrow are forgetting one of the bedrock convictions of our faith—namely, the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  We forget that part of God’s project of saving us from ourselves, saving us from the power of sin and death—part of God’s project was to become one of us, to take our mortal human flesh, to identify with us, to become “in every way as we are, yet without sin.”

A couple of minutes ago, we heard Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. We’re familiar with the Beatitudes as we find them—nine of them, to be precise—in Matthew’s gospel, but, I would suspect, less familiar with the pared-down version that we find in Luke—pared down in the sense that there are only four instead of nine, and also shorter; instead of “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example, it’s just “Blessed are you who are poor.” So, we have “Blessed are your who are poor,” “Blessed are you who are hungry,” “Blessed are you who weep now,” and “Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you and revile you, and spurn your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” (That last one does get a little long, I guess, doesn’t it?)  Yet, in this pared-down form that we find in Luke, the Beatitudes beautifully describe the conditions that Jesus himself assumed, the conditions that Jesus took on to himself, for our sake, when he took our flesh, when he became one of us.

Blessed are you who are poor. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus says of himself that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There’s no evidence that either Jesus or his disciples were ever in danger of starvation, but they wandered around and were dependent on the generosity of others for their food and lodging. Think of the occasion when the Pharisees scolded Jesus for his disciples plucking grain from fields along the side of the road; they did that because they needed food, not just to pass the time. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, refers to Jesus as having been “made poor for our sake” (II Cor. 8:9). For whatever fame he achieved, Jesus never enjoyed even modest material prosperity, let alone wealth. He constantly lived on the edge financially, not unlike many among us. The recent government shutdown revealed the extent to which many Americans indeed live paycheck-to-paycheck, and are only a job loss away from homelessness. Jesus knows poverty.

Blessed are you who are hungry. When Jesus uttered these words, he was speaking from personal experience. Right after his baptism, you will recall, Jesus went right out to the Judean wilderness for a very long fasting retreat. The Devil attempted to exploit his hunger by challenging him to turn the stones that lay on the ground in front of him into loaves of bread. I cannot even begin to imagine what it took for Jesus to resist that particular temptation. Now, not many among us may be physically hungry, other than feeling slightly peckish in anticipation of whatever food there is at coffee hour (though some are), but few of us are unable to identify with a “hunger” for prestige and influence, and a temptation to abuse what power we have in order to achieve those things. Jesus knows hunger.

Blessed are you who weep now. A decade ago, as part of my first and so far only trip to the Holy Land, the members of my group were first introduced to the city of Jerusalem from atop one of the hills that lie to the north and to the east of the city. It was a spectacular and intensely moving sight. And it was from one of these hills, most likely, that Jesus wept over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says according to Matthew’s account, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And in John’s gospel, we read of his appearance in the village of Bethany after receiving word of the illness of his dear friend Lazarus, but by the time he gets there, Lazarus had died. As he encounters Lazarus’ sister Mary, still overcome by her own grief, Jesus himself joined her in her weeping. Jesus wept.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you and revile you, and spurn your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Here we cannot help but be reminded of several passages from the prophet Isaiah—and if you’re like me, passages from Isaiah as set to music by George Frederick Handel: “He was despised and rejected, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.” As Holy Week comes around each year, and we subject ourselves to the liturgical recapitulation of our Lord’s passion, an experience that sits somewhere on the range between uncomfortable and painful, we see him mocked by the soldiers who crowned him with thorns and robed him in purple. We hear his searing words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knows hatred and exclusion.

The fact is, wherever we can go in our soul-sorrow, Jesus has been there, and is, in fact, there with us. Poverty, hunger, weeping, scorn—Jesus is familiar with this territory.

Many Christian homes are decorated somewhere with a cross on the wall. It used to be—this isn’t so much as case anymore—it used to be that you could tell a Catholic home from a Protestant home by whether it was just a plain cross, or a crucifix, one with the suffering Jesus still attached to it. There’s actually a third alternative as well—an image of a crowned Jesus wearing the vestments of priest, as it were, reigning from the cross. All three of the representations of the cross have something to commend themselves. But when I’m with someone who’s feeling deep soul-sorrow, or when I’m in that place myself, there’s no replacement for a crucifix. I want to know who’s with me in my pain at that moment, because I know he’s the one who knows the way out.

It’s one thing to suffer—whether by means of material deprivation, or hunger, or grief, or loss of reputation. But, as followers of Jesus, we have an opportunity to suffer in an added dimension. We have an opportunity to make our suffering not meaningless, but redemptive. We have an invitation to suffer “in Christ,” with Christ, our lives bound to him and his to ours. This is, in fact, what the Eucharist is all about, but that’s a different sermon! Suffice to say that, as we offer this Eucharist, we do so in solidarity with Jesus, laying our soul-sorrow at the foot of the cross. And precisely there, at the foot of the cross, so we find the grace to redeem our suffering by conforming it to the suffering of Jesus. How much closer to God could we get? Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Saturday

Up and out of our Springfield office encampment right at 0800. Then down to Charlie Parker's, so I could introduce Brenda to my Saturday morning haunt. Then down to Edwardsville, where we arrived at St Andrew's the targeted 60 minutes ahead of the Celebration of New Ministry inducting Fr Joel Morsch as 33rd rector of the parish. Following the fine post-liturgical repast, I had a scheduled conference with a cleric of the diocese. By the time that meeting concluded, it was 2:00pm. Brenda and I headed to our reserved hotel room in Glen Carbon, whereupon I immediately collapsed from exhaustion; I was *really* tired. Only left the room long enough to grab dinner at Ruby Tuesday in Collinsville. Whatever aspirations to afternoon productivity I may have had were laid aside.

Sermon for the Installation of Fr Joel Morsch as Rector of St Andrew's, Edwardsville

Joshua 1:7-9--Psalm 43--Ephesians 4:7, 11-16--John 14:11-15

St Andrew’s Church in Edwardsville, Illinois has a story—a rather long story, but American standards, at any rate. (Our friends from across the Atlantic might not be overly impressed.) 178 years is long enough to have seen a Civil War, which I cannot help but think affected the parish profoundly, two World Wars, and a Great Depression. Rectors have come and gone. The location has changed. Buildings have been erected, and added onto. Hundreds upon hundreds of souls have been reborn in Christ at the font of baptism in this church. Children have been instructed in the faith and presented for confirmation. These very hands have laid on a few of them. Dozens and dozens of couples have stood at this altar and made vows to one another “in the presence of God and this company.” And some of those who were baptized, confirmed, and married at St Andrew’s were buried from this parish, having attained a ripe, old age. The Eucharist has been celebrated here over 10,000 times. And, whatever we may know about the history of this church, there’s way more that we don’t know, and can’t say, but is still important to the heart of God and in the lives of those who were touched here, but whose encounter with the Holy One in St Andrew’s Church left no record or trace save in the privacy of their own hearts and minds. The inertia, the momentum, of the history of St Andrew’s Church weighs heavily on us this morning. It is a force we cannot even begin to measure.

Joel Morsch also has a story—not as long as the story of this parish, to be sure, but long enough. He’s no spring chicken—and I can get away with saying that because he’s about my age, and I’m no spring chicken! Fr Joel has had a distinguished tenure as rector of one of the most significant parishes in the Diocese of Southwest Florida, and served two other parishes before that. His ministry as a priest has touched countless lives, and his priestly character has been shaped and molded over his 21 years of ordained ministry, and before that. He’s a husband and father and grandfather. He comes to Edwardsville not as a blank slate, but as an experienced and mature priest and leader.

Both of these stories—the story of St Andrew’s and the story of Fr Joel—are powerful and deep. Both stories have great strengths. The spiritual DNA of St Andrew’s, as it has been genetically modified—not engineered, but modified, in a quite organic way—the spiritual DNA of St Andrew’s as it has evolved over the decades is one of this community’s greatest assets. That DNA is present here this morning. And the aggregate life experiences of Joel Morsch have formed him into a wise and competent Christian leader. His assets have been on display here for a couple of months now, and they are in the room this morning.

Both stories, I should add, also bring vulnerabilities to this occasion. You don’t need me to tell you—and I don’t need any particular knowledge of St Andrew’s to be able to say this; what I’m about to say is generally true of virtually all church communities—you don’t need me to tell you that patterns of dysfunctionality are embedded in the culture of St Andrew’s. People have been wounded here, grievously wounded, and some have left wounded, but left a robust share of their woundedness behind to continue to infect the community. Sin lives and spreads in the life of St Andrew’s Church. Fr Morsch also arrives here this morning a wounded man, and I can say that even though I don’t know him very well. He arrives here with peculiar sensitivities and vulnerabilities. He is a flawed human being.

So this is a complex and mixed occasion. It drinks from a liturgical tradition named “induction” and “institution,” and we are indeed inducting and instituting the 34th rector of St Andrew’s today. But the Prayer Book calls this liturgy a Celebration of a New Ministry; that’s it’s official title. Now, it’s tempting, I know, to think of the “new ministry” as being that of Fr Morsch, and it is that. But it’s also so much more. It’s the joining of two stories—two long and powerful stories that carry within themselves both strengths and vulnerabilities—the joining of two stories to create one new story. I was never a very good student in science, and only had “bonehead chemistry” in college, but I did learn the difference between a chemical mixture and a chemical compound. A mixture leaves the two contributing elements identifiably intact. A compound creates something, something to which both elements contribute, but which has properties that are beyond either of the two contributors. Or, since Edwardsville is a college town and there are many academics in this parish community, to use the language of classical Hegelian dialectics: St Andrew’s is the thesis and Fr Joel is the antithesis and what we are celebrating this morning is a synthesis of the two. We are beginning a new story, one that is developed out of the story of St Andrew’s and the story of Fr Morsch. That is the “new ministry” that we are celebrating.

This new story has a purpose. St Paul, writing to the Ephesians, articulates this purpose:
… so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.
There is an observable result that we expect to see from this new joint ministry between Joel Morsch and St Andrew’s Church, and it has to do with maturity in Christ, wisdom and perceptive insight, the ability to speak truth in love, and become more and more like Jesus in deed and word. It also has to do with worship, as Psalm 43 reminds us:
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
St Andrew’s has ever been and must always be a worshiping community, a Eucharistic community. That alone provides the context in which Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians can take root and flourish.

And what are the means of accomplishing the purpose of this new story? The Lord’s advice to Joshua as he “celebrates” his “new ministry” as leader of the people of Israel in succession to Moses offers us a clue:
Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
Joshua had a monumental task ahead of him. Can you imagine trying to succeed Moses? Here he is being promised that, inasmuch as he is faithful to that task, God will be faithful to him. We claim that promise now, in strength and courage, on behalf of the new story that is being revealed today.

Finally, the story of the new ministry between St Andrew’s and Fr Joel has an aspirational outcome, as we read in John’s gospel, as Jesus tells his disciples:
Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.
I’ve always been amazed and intrigued by these words of our Lord as he takes leave of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Jesus had an earthly ministry of compelling teaching and miraculous healing. What works could possibly be “greater” than these? There is no stock answer to such a question, but it’s apparently our vocation and destiny to find out! Somehow, the opportunity for witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ made possible by the coming together of the St Andrew’s story and the Joel Morsch story—made possible, indeed, by Jesus going to the Father—is something we should await with bated breath.

One new story emerging from two stories coming together, a vital new synthesis growing from the encounter between a thesis and an antithesis. This new story is rooted in Christian community and worship. It is resourced by the divine gift of strength and courage. It is inspired by the vision of accomplishing greater works for the sake of kingdom of God than we can now even imagine. I have every confidence that this new story will be a blessing to Edwardsville and southern Madison County and to the Diocese of Springfield. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday (Thomas Bray)

  • Usual early AM routine.
  • Processed a short-stack of late-arriving emails.
  • Attended to some routine personal finance chores.
  • Packed and loaded the car, with Brenda in tow, and headed south, departing our garage at 1145. Arrived at the office in Springfield around 3:30.
  • Briefly conferred with the Communicator and the Archdeacon, then headed out to get a haircut and a carwash. (Yes, I'm still more comfortable accomplishing some of the mundane chores of life in Springfield than in Chicago.)
  • Returned to the office and did the finish work on my homily for Epiphany VI, this Sunday at St Thomas', Glen Carbon. Other than ending up with output from a printer that I can put in my car, "finish work" includes carefully reviewing the text for "orality," A sermon is an oral event; it is spoken and heart, primarily, and only secondarily something that might be read. The spoken word has both more constraints (simple sentence structure, accessible vocabulary) and more opportunities (rhythm, pacing, repetition, alliteration). When I create a first rough draft of a sermon text, I *try* to attend to these things, but I always find that, when I come back to it later, I always find several places where I can recognize more deeply that what I'm working on is not an essay or a blog post, but a sermon.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda in the cathedral. Then out to dinner at NuhVo (first-time visit to a newish endeavor).
  • Back in the office: sealed Fr Morsch's institution certificate, wrote a memo to the Standing Committee.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Thursday (Ss Cyril & Methodius)

  • Usual weekday AM pattern, made longer and more complicated now by all the exercises my physical therapist has assigned.
  • Tweaked (not insignificantly), edited, formatted, printed, and scheduled for posting my homily for Saturday's Celebration of a New Ministry at St Andrew's, Edwardsville. Most importantly, perhaps, I placed the working script in my car--this after dealing with some technology issues related to the printer.
  • Took a call from the Bishop of Northern Michigan on a matter of mutual concern.
  • Lunched on leftovers.
  • Did some substantial, and time-consuming, work on a portion of the clergy retreat that I am directly responsible for.
  • Took a first homiletical drive-by of the readings for Lent V (Redeemer, Cairo).
  • Brenda and I went on a long walk on what felt like a balmy afternoon, trying to keep our footing on the sections of slush and avoid stepping too deeply in standing water. I am really ready for spring.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Wednesday (Evening Prayer)

The day began somewhat "violently," as Brenda was scheduled for an 0830 test (an EEG, still chasing down her fainting spells late last year) that required her to arrive "as sleep-deprived as possible." So I got us both up just before 0500, and we watched silent films from the 1920s on Turner Classic Movies. I had a bit of granola (she wasn't allowed anything) and re Morning Prayer in the usual fashion. We walked the three blocks to Swedish Covenant Hospital in 15-degree cold, the test went smoothly, and we walked back in 20-degree temps. I then got to work on my task list: processed a reply to my Lambeth Conference registration and plotted some appropriate followup tasks, reviewed draft minutes from last Saturday's Diocesan Council meeting and returned them to the secretary with some notes, made some concrete plans and arrangements around April's annual Mass of Chrism. Carryout lunch from the Chinese place around the corner. Spent most of the afternoon creating a rough draft sermon from my developed notes for Epiphany VII (St George's, Belleville). Long walk with Brenda, then Evening Prayer together.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Tuesday

  • Morning Prayer and tea in the usual weekday manner, but then out of the building at 0740 en route to a 0800 physical therapy appointment--a three block walk through slushy sidewalks.
  • After the appointment, and checking my weather app to learn that walking conditions were not going to get any better as the day progressed, I leveraged the distance I already was from home into a proper walk.
  • Upon returning, and spending a bit of time with Hattie, who was down for a visit, I organized my week's worth of tasks and picked out targets for getting done today,
  • Officially created an account with Breeze, our new database provider, and got Paige set up to begin the process of data import.
  • Took care of a handful of smallish administrative matters via email.
  • Lunched on leftovers.
  • Attended to some routine personal finance chores.
  • Devoted the bulk of the afternoon to fleshing out into a rough draft the (somewhat) detailed notes I had made last week toward a homily this Saturday on the occasion of Fr Joel Morsch's institution as rector of St Andrew's, Edwardsville.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda.