Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday

  • Usual morning routine; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Took care of some documentation chores related to the refinancing activity referenced yesterday.
  • Completed and refined my homily for this Sunday (St John's, Decatur).
  • Took care of an administrative chore connected with the coming Province V Synod (in April).
  • More minor (but inescapable) "administrivia."
  • Lunch at home.
  • Plotted the tasks that will make sure my Holy Week and Easter sermons get conceived, gestated, and hatched in a timely manner.
  • Revised and recrafted a homily for Lent III (St Mark's, West Frankfort).
  • Traveled to Alton and delivered the first of five Lenten teaching sessions at St Paul's. I particularly enjoy this sort of ministry. Home right at 10pm.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday

  • Task planning at home, Morning Prayer in the cathedral, but the latter delayed by a phone calls from two mortgage lenders, since I put the word out in cyberspace yesterday that I'm considering refinancing our home loan. This happened a couple of more times through the day. The good news is, the conversations are turning out to be fruitful.
  • Brief administrative chores, and some less brief replies to a stack of emails--stuff that's neither particularly major nor particularly minor, just real people needing some real attention from me, even if brief, to some real needs. I'm not complaining.
  • Worked on "packaging" the first batch of names to send to a search committee.
  • Lunch with the Dean, talking about Holy Week services in the cathedral, in which I will take a major part.
  • Drafted an email to the widest diocesan list we have informing those who have not yet heard of the death Sunday of Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti and his wife. (They were stabbed to death by their son. Tragic.) Springfield has had a companion relationship with Bishop Cavalcanti's Diocese of Recife (now part of the Province of the Southern Cone). 
  • Finished preparations for tomorrow night's opening session of the Lenten teaching series I am giving in Alton Parish.
  • Hand wrote greetings to clergy and spouses with March birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Usual Tuesday scanning and processing of hard copy materials.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
  • After dinner, a substantial phone conversation with a potential candidate for one of our vacancies.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Homily for Lent I


               I Peter 3:18-22
Alton Parish                                                                                                                     Genesis 9:8-17
            Mark 1:9-13
            Psalm 25:3-9
           
 Last month, as you may know, I spent some time in England—specifically, at Canterbury Cathedral, where the Dean was in seminary alongside a very famous person; that is, the Rector of the Episcopal Parish of Alton! One afternoon, we were given a guided historical tour of the cathedral. As we stood near the great west door of the church, the guide pointed at the great expanse of floor that lay between us and the choir and the High Altar, and told us we were standing in the “nave.” Then he pointed up at the ceiling, and invited us to look at the peak of the roof and imagine the whole building as an upsidedown ship. This makes the peak of the roof along the lengthwise axis the keel, and the floor in the area where the congregation usually gathers the bottom side of the deck. If you just take your mental picture of a traditional church building and flip it over and set it in water, you can see that the notion makes a certain degree of sense. (And here we can see how the word “nave” is connected to the word “navy.”)

But why? Why think of a church as a ship, and this area as the “nave?” Well, there’s another layer of symbolism here.  It goes back to Noah’s ark, which was a ship, of sorts, that accomplished a very specific purpose for those who were inside it. Our Old Testament reading today is from the tail end of the story as told in the book of Genesis, where the Lord promises to never again destroy humankind by means of  water, and provides the rainbow as a sign of this unilateral and universal covenant that he was making.  As Genesis recounts this familiar pre-historic legend, the Lord God was disgusted with the behavior of the human race and decided to wash them all away in a flood and get a fresh start.

One family, the family of Noah, was chosen by God to carry on the human species, and to assist with the preservation of  all the various forms of animal life,  after the destruction of the flood. The Lord told Noah to build a great ark, which he did. And while he was building it, he endured quite a bit of ridiculing and mocking on the part of his neighbors. They thought Noah had gone completely around the bend. Even if they’d received engraved invitations to join him and his family on the ark before he shut the door, they would have howled in laughter as they refused.

And then it rained .... and rained ... and rained and the water rose, and the scoffers had serious second thoughts about not having gotten into the ark before it floated away and left them to drown. 

But let us not dwell on the fate of those whose ability to tread water was put to the test, because they are not the main event. The main event is the ark. The waters rise, and the ark floats, and those who are on the ark are saved. St Peter, in his first epistle, which we also hear on this First Sunday in Lent, picks up on this imagery of the rising waters carrying the ark and its occupants to safety, and connects it with the sacrament of baptism.  Just as the eight people on the ark were saved, as it were, “through water”—
that is, by means of the flood floating the ark to its eventual safe resting place, so we who believe in Christ are saved through the agency of water, the water of baptism. This is why the baptismal font is traditionally located near the entrance to the nave, the ark, and why it is customary to mark ourselves with baptismal water when we enter the church building, because it is “through water” that we were admitted to the fellowship of the Church, the Body of Christ. 

Noah’s ark, then, is a prefigurement of the Church. Indeed, one of the names for the church, in Christian tradition, is the “ark of salvation.”  The point Peter is trying to make is that those who are on the ark—Noah’s ark as a prefigurement, the church as the present reality—those who are on the ark are utterly secure in their hope of salvation.  You see, the ark floats.  Those who are in it, as long as they remain in it, cannot be harmed by the raging flood. So the imagery of the church as an ark, which God saves, and, thereby, those who are on it, is incredibly rich.  We can scarcely even  mine the surface of it today, but let me try to briefly suggest three ways in which the Church is the ark which brings us to salvation.  

First, the church is the place, and the only place, where we find the sacraments. The sacrament of baptism unites us with the dying and rising of Christ and gives us new birth as children of God. The sacrament of Holy Communion, with a boost from Confirmation at some point along the way, supplies the nourishment we need to grow into “adult children” of God.  At various times, most of us find ourselves in positions where the working out of our salvation can be helped along by the sacraments of unction and reconciliation.  The majority of us are called to the sacrament of marriage, which is an abundant means of grace. And with a relative few of us, God chooses to use the sacrament of Ordination to complete the work of salvation. (Some might say that the clergy are the really hard cases; those whom God could not reach any other way but by putting a collar around their neck and keeping them on a very short leash!) What a life-giving spring the sacraments are, and where else can they be found but in the Church?! 

Second, we find the word of God in the Church. Within the fellowship and worship and discipline of the Church, the Word of God is proclaimed, taught, read, shared, and broken open. One can, of course, pick up a Bible and read it outside of any contact with the Church, but it is still because of the Church that that Bible is available in the first place, because the Bible is the Church’s book. The Psalm for today’s Eucharist contains the petition,  “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me.” Just where can one be sure to find such leading and guiding?  In what context does it normatively take place?  Only in the Church. St Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us much today about Jesus’ forty-day sojourn facing temptation in the wilderness, but we know from Matthew that he persistently quoted scripture back to the tempter, to refute his temptations. Where did he learn the scriptures, apart from the “church” of the Old Covenant, the community of the synagogue and the temple?

And that leads me to my third and final point about how the Church serves as the “ark” of our salvation, which is Christian community. In these days of social fragmentation, with the breakdown of even the nuclear family, let alone the extended family, with the idea of neighborhood functionally non-existent, the hunger for community is stronger than ever. Community has always been at the heart of the Church’s ideal. We have never done it perfectly, and often done it poorly, but to an ever greater extent, it is now the only game in town. The community of the church is a place where we can know and be known, love and be loved, pray and be prayed for, rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. We are united in the bond of baptism. That makes us family, that makes us community. And through the sacraments and the word, we have the grace available to us to grow into that reality. 

The call to us this morning, just five days into Lent, is “all aboard!”, ... all aboard the ark of salvation. Don’t trust your ability to tread water, for you will surely drown in the flood. Don’t count on cutting a special deal with God to supply you with your own private life raft. Maybe he will; maybe he won’t. The only certified method of flood survival is to get on the ark, the ark of salvation, the one holy catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ. Amen.

First Sunday in Lent

  • Arrived at Trinity Chapel, Alton in time to get the lay of the land prior to the regular 8:15am liturgy. Good turnout of 35, which made the place seem nicely full. I have now completed a circuit, having celebrated Mass in every church or chapel of the diocese that has a regular congregation.
  • Principal liturgy of the parish down the hill at St Paul's, 10:30. Confirmed six and received three. Very warmly received. Excited about returning there the next five Wednesdays to give the Lenten teaching series.
  • Chilled out for about 90 minutes at the beautifully-appointed tri-level condo that is home to Fr David Boase, the rector of Alton. Then we headed to Lewis & Clark Community College for a 3pm concert by the Alton Symphony Orchestra (Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in B-flat and the Dvorak 8th Symphony), at which we encountered several parishioners and I was introduced to several "movers and shakers" in the Alton arts scene.
  • Home around 7:30, having stopped for dinner at Brenda's favorite (Ruby Tuesday) in Litchfield.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday

Resting now at the Holiday Inn in Alton, after a wonderful dinner with the vestry and spouses of the parish. Looking forward t a full day tomorro.

Friday, February 24, 2012

St Matthias

  • Usual morning routine, at home and in the cathedral, although the latter portion was extended as I prepared to celebrate the Eucharist prior to the Diocesan Council meeting.
  • At my desk just long enough to answer a couple of emails before having to head back next door for the liturgy. We duly kept the feast of St Matthias, Apostle. 
  • Mercifully, Diocesan Council meetings are only quarterly in the Diocese of Springfield. In addition to the usual reports, and tweaking the 2012 budget, we had a fruitful discussion about companion diocese relationships in general, the nature of our commitment to ongoing ministry in the Cairo area. the proposal for a special General Convention in 2014 to restructure the operations of the Episcopal Church, and our relationship to the neighboring Diocese of Quincy.
  • Lunch with the Archdeacon at the Dublin Pub (the iteration thereof that is just a block from the cathedral).
  • Upon returning, took a phone call from the now vicar-elect of St Michael's, O'Fallon, notifying us of his acceptance of the call. I must keep his name secret until the leadership at St Michael's informs the congregation this Sunday, but I am very excited about the priest they have asked me to appoint. It's been a long road.
  • Began rough preparation for the second session of the Lenten teaching series I am giving at St Paul's, Alton. (By the way, these sessions are being recorded on video, and will be made available, probably first just on YouTube, but eventually via a YouTube link embedded on our still-to-come new diocesan website.)
  • Friday personal prayer time--lectio divina on Psalm 35.
  • Further private devotions and prayers in the cathedral, followed by a visit to St Luke's to participate (just as part of the congregation) in walking the Stations of the Cross. Evening Prayer (short memorized form) in the car on the way home.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thursday (St Polycarp)

  • Task planning at home, Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon either processing emails or dealing with details surrounding the call of a new priest to the diocese. Included in the emails was a message from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music regarding lections for Holy Week, which is a somewhat vexed subject, since there are some conflicts between the Revised Common Lectionary and the Prayer Book. This is a subject in which I have more than a little bit of interest, so I invested some time analyzing the differences between RCL and the 1979 lectionary and mentally preparing to make recommendations to the clergy of the diocese.
  • Prepared--liturgically, homiletically, administratively, and presidentially (in that I'm chairing the meeting)  for tomorrow's quarterly gathering of the Diocesan Council.
  • Revised the ongoing working draft of my sermon for Lent II (St John's, Decatur).
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Attended a reception and presentation sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Springfield featuring Orli Gil, Israeli Consul General in Chicago.

Ash Wednesday Homily


St Matthew’s, Bloomington

Ash Wednesday is one of those occasions which seems simple enough. Its meaning seems obviously, intuitively self-evident—until, that is, you try to explain that meaning clearly and concisely. Then it becomes complex, and fuzzy around the edges, and we’re not quite as sure as we thought we were that we understand it all. 

There are several layers of meaning operating at the same time in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday.  Part of what we’re doing, of course, is marking the beginning of the season of Lent. In a few minutes, I will invite you solemnly “to the observance of a holy Lent.” And Lent, of course, does not stand alone. It is not an end in itself, but the means to an end. It is supposed to get us ready to celebrate the Paschal Triduum—the three sacred days which connect us to the deepest realities of our lives as human beings:
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. 

The Easter Vigil is the watering trough of our identity as baptized Christians. It is the place to which we return time and time again for refreshment in the knowledge that we have been buried with Christ in his death that we may share with him in his resurrection. Lent originated as the “home stretch” of a long period of pre-baptismal instruction and formation. It is therefore an appropriate time for us to develop a sense of solidarity with those who will be numbered among the saints, those whose names will be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, at the Easter Vigil this year, whether here at St Matthew’s, or elswhere. We do well to hold them in our prayers, and to walk with them in these final days leading up to new birth, and thereby renew our participation in our own new birth.

The mystery of Lent is therefore much larger than a narrow focus on sin and repentance. But that is certainly where the emphasis is at its beginning, on Ash Wednesday. This is the reality which the ashes that will be applied to our foreheads signifies. Sin is the 900-lb gorilla in our jungle, the elephant in the living room, and it is ridiculous to ignore it. 

Sin has a cosmic dimension. It infects every corner of the created universe. We are all therefore victims of it. Those who have had their lives uprooted by a recent cyclone in Madagascar, or drought in Tanzania, or the various earthquakes that have occurred around the world in the last few years, are certainly not victims anyone’s particular sin, especially their own, but they are surely victims of universal sin, cosmic sin. 

Sin also has a social dimension. In social sin, the victims are individual, but the perpetrators are corporate, a collective “we.”  To give a rather extreme illustration:
I personally do not either use or buy or sell illegal drugs.  But as a participant in a national and international economy of which drug trade is a part, some of the money that flows through my pocket has at one time or another been used to pay for illicit drugs. So when a baby is born addicted to crack, I am part of the “we” that is responsible for that tragedy. That’s the way social sin operates. You and I are both victims and perpetrators of social sin. Part of our repentance tonight is for that sort of sin.

Sin also has, of course, a very personal dimension. Each one of us is individually guilty
of doing those things which we ought not to have done, and leaving undone those things which we ought to have done. And at an individual level, sin is wickedly deceptive. It is like the Trojan Horse, sneaking into our hearts disguised as common sense or justice or beauty or love, and then spilling its vile contents into our souls in a desperate attempt by the Evil One to draw us away from God. The frightening truth about personal sin, individual evil, is that I cannot even trust my own feelings and intuitions. They are tainted, and cannot be relied upon apart from the objective standard of God’s revealed word. What “feels right” to me may be the very face of death itself, and I need to run 180 degrees in the other direction.

Turning 180 degrees around. That takes me to the third level of meaning that is operating in tonight’s liturgy. Turning around is itself the very definition of repentance. When we run away from sin and evil, we find the open arms of Jesus waiting for us—Jesus, the Prince of Light and Life. Jesus, in his redeeming love, supplies us with the strength we need to persevere in our repentance.  He does this through the witness of scripture, in the communal life of the church, and—most openly and gloriously—in the Mass, the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus is not merely an example or a coach or a cheerleader. He’s more than just moral support. He gives us his own self, his very life,
the meat on his bones and the blood in his veins. To receive the ashes that mark us as sinners without also receiving the Body and Blood by which we are redeemed is to tell and hear only half the story. 

Before God, we stand overdrawn, bankrupt. But the miracle of gospel grace is that the creditor steps down into the place of the debtor, and pays the debt. The sacramental elements of the Eucharist are the sign and seal and actual conveyance of that payment. We have the resources necessary to the keeping of a holy Lent, and a holy life thereafter. Amen.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

  • Task planning and some email processing at home, Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Dealt with a request from a bishop in Tanzania, whom I met at the Canterbury conference last month, for assistance in applying for a United Thank Offering Grant.
  • Dealt with some administrative detritus pertaining to the three vacant cures we currently have in play.
  • Refined my homily for tonight (at St Matthew's, Bloomington).
  • Worked on the first of my Lenten series presentations (to be at St Paul's, Alton).
  • Made travel arrangements for my trip to attend the consecration of the next Bishop of Central Florida in March. (As I have noted before, this sort of thing is inordinately time-consuming).
  • Wrote a congratulatory note to a bishop-elect whose consecration I will not be attending. 
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Stopped by home to retrieve Brenda, then headed north to preach and celebrate the Ash Wednesday liturgy with the good people of St Matthew's, Bloomington. It was unexpectedly extraordinarily well-attended, with well over 100 in the room (a "Sunday crowd," the rector tells me).
  • Lovely dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Fr Dave and Amy Halt after Mass.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shrove Tuesday

This was a day of telephone calls. I spoke with a vestry member of one of our parishes (over the search process issues), the interim rector of one of our parishes in search, two colleague bishops about different candidates for two different openings, a potential candidate himself for one of those openings, a priest from another diocese concerning an aspirant to ordination, and my ELCA counterpart regarding a particular cleric whom we share. In between phone calls, I managed to schedule a couple of appointments, process a batch of emails, and refine my homily for this Sunday (to be delivered in the Episcopal Parish of Alton). In the evening, Brenda and I actually found some real Louisiana-style Mardi Gras food at a funky bar in downtown Jacksonville. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Special Monday Edition

I've written some travelogue/reflections on my recent England trip. See here. Back to my regularly scheduled day off.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany


Mark 9:2-9
St Luke’s, Springfield
           
Human beings have a love-hate relationship with water. As spring approaches the upper midwest, there’s always a worry about flooding as ice and snow melt and the rivers rise. Under the right conditions, of course, we enjoy being on water and in water. But we also realize that it can cause great harm, and even kill us, quickly and without warning. That’s why we have lifeguards. When we swim under a lifeguard’s gaze, we expect that if we get in over our head, or get a cramp, the combination of the lifeguard’s desire to help us, and his or her ability to help us, and our willingness to cooperate in being helped, will result in our being rescued from danger.

Desire + ability + cooperation = deliverance.

Or, to express it theologically, making God the lifeguard:  God’s love + God’s power + our faith = protection from whatever it is that might harm us.  God will keep me from getting the flu, or God will get me that job I need, and if he doesn’t, it must be that my faith wasn’t strong enough or I didn’t pray the right way, or ... something. 

Don’t we sometimes hang on to rather childish views of God? We make God out to be something like a cartoon super-hero, who, because he’s both powerful and good, will see that we really need to win the lottery, and that, after we take care of our need, we’ll put the money to really worthwhile uses—unlike all those others who merely want to win the lottery and would just use the money selfishly.  After all, I love God, God loves me, and the Bible says that those who love God are destined to live with him in heavenly glory, and, well . . . let’s just get on with it, Lord!  Why mess around any longer with all these annoying details of life—like friends who disappoint us and family members who betray us and bodies that get old and fat and wrinkled and politicians than lie to us and thieves that rob us and unending wars that drop bombs on homes and schools and wedding receptions. Let’s just forget about this suffering business and get on to the main event. 

In another couple of years, the Winter Olympics will be held once again. I can’t say that I particularly enjoy participating in winter sports, but for some reason I kind of like watching the them. One of the sidebar human interest stories I like has to do with the participation of athletes from countries we don’t normally associate with winter sports, or even winter, for that matter. Remember the Jamaican bobsled team from 1988 that became everybody’s favorite underdog, because, in Jamaica, winter means maybe having to put on a sweater at night? While they may have been a popular favorite, I suspect that the mainstream bobsledding community resented them—that is, people who had dedicated years and years of their life to the sport of bobsledding now had to share ice with some islanders who just picked up the sport on a lark a few months earlier. It seemed like they were trying to participate in the glory of Olympic competition with a minimum of personal investment. 

Now, if you will make a leap with me from the Winter Olympics to an unidentified mountain in first century Palestine, I will suggest that the holy apostles Peter, James, and John have something in common with those Jamaican bobsledders, and with us... in those moments when we want God be a celestial lifeguard or superhero, and just get us out of all this trivial suffering and take us directly to the heavenly banquet, where, during the after-dinner awards presentation, we’ll finally get that golden crown. Peter and James and John are on top of the mountain, and Jesus is mysteriously transfigured, revealing the very glory of heaven, and Moses and Elijah—two of the superheroes of Israel’s history—show up as well, and, to top it all off, the voice of God himself booms from on high. The poor disciples think, “Hey, we’re rubbing elbows with some pretty impressive company; this calls for a celebration.  Jesus, how ‘bout we build monuments for you and your two friends, and maybe, down the road, we can charge admission, get a T-shirt concession, sell the movie rights—you know, this could really help out your cause.” 

They didn’t get it. 

They didn’t get it. Peter and James and John were like athletes from the land of sun competing in sports from the land of ice. They didn’t quite understand what was going on, and what their place was in it.  Their befuddlement was not because Jesus hadn’t tried to clue them in to what was happening. Just before climbing the mountain, Jesus had said, point blank, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” 

And, of course, after they got down from the mountain, back into the real world, that’s precisely what happened. Jesus was nailed to a cross by the bad guys and there was no lifeguard or superhero to rescue him. Daddy didn’t make it all better. And two of the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration abandoned him when he most needed a friend. 
But there on the mountaintop, with Jesus’ clothing shining more brightly than any cold water detergent with bleach could ever make it, the disciples thought, “This is it!  We’ve arrived!  The glory of God has been revealed and pretty soon it’ll flow down this mountain and fill the valley and everyone will see what we see and know what we know. The kingdom has come. All that talk about suffering and dying—well, I didn’t hear him say that, did you?” 

Are you blessed to find yourself on a mountaintop in your life today?  Take care that you don’t start thinking and acting like the kingdom has come for you, that you’ve arrived. 

In your journey through life, are you currently exploring the valley of the shadow of death, the valley of fear, the valley of anger, the valley of despair?  I will not trivialize your suffering by telling you to “cheer up, this too shall pass.” But I will suggest that your position in the valley is the best possible vantage point from which to perceive the meaning of the mountain. What Peter and James and John did not “get”, what you and I often don’t “get” when we’re on top of the mountain, is that the glory of the mountaintop can only be understood in the light of...suffering. The splendor of Jesus’ transfiguration is empty apart from the agony of his death on the cross. So if you’re in the valley, look up at the cross, and see that you’re in good company.

And don’t be envious of those who are on the mountaintop.  You, after all, can see what they can’t. You can see that the light show up on that mountain is not the main event, the coming of the kingdom. It’s just a sneak preview. Only from your position close to the cross can you see that beyond and through the cross is glory and splendor that makes the light of the Transfiguration look like a forty watt bulb! 

If you’re on the mountain, enjoy it! And take strength from the experience, because the valley still lies ahead of you.

At the winter Olympics, I suppose there may yet be a Moroccan ski jumper or two, who only first saw a pair of skis last month. But in the kingdom of heaven, the only path to lasting glory leads through the valley of the cross.  There’s no getting around it,  there’s only getting through it.  The beginning of Lent closes in on us now, a season when, as a community, we walk that way more intentionally and more  intensely. We do so in the hope that we will thereby be enabled to grow beyond a childish conception of God as a lifeguard superhero who is there to “make it all better”, to a mature relationship with  a God who has became one of us, who suffered with us and for us, suffering which alone gives meaning to the glory which we also share with him. 

Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration)

This was a welcome, and rare, "easy" day, in the sense that my parish visit was only a ten minute drive from my home, and the service didn't start until 10:30. And it was also great fun, as St Luke's in Springfield exudes vitality and energy. Preaching there is slightly interactive. Indeed, a young boy actually raised his hand politely at one point. I stopped to acknowledge him and promised to take his question after church. Here's what it was: "Why are you so silly?" Still unpacking that.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday

  • Task planning and a bit of email processing at home; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Phone conversation with my "peer coach," Bishop Bill Love of Albany.
  • Refined the draft of my homily for this Sunday (to be delivered at St Luke's, Springfield).
  • Final preparation for tonight's retreat meditations for the Mission Leadership Team (aka Vestry) of Christ the King, Normal.
  • Lunch at home (leftovers).
  • Attacked a mountain of hard copy scanning and processed a stack of snail mail that arrived while I was away on clergy retreat.
  • Left the office shortly after 4pm, swung by the house to pick up Brenda, then off the Bloomington for the above-mentioned vestry retreat (preceded by a yummy Indian dinner at the home of parishioners Rod and Dee Matthews). Home shortly before 11.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thursday

  • Usual routine. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Spent the morning (until about half past noon) processing a batch of emails and taking care of some fairly urgent administrative tasks. This involved, among other things, substantive phone conversations with colleagues from two other dioceses.
  • Lunch at home (from you know where).
  • Left at 2pm with the Archdeacon for Salem and a 4:30 meeting with the Bishop's Committee of St Thomas' Church there. It was a fruitful and positive exchange at the beginning of a transitional season for them. I was particularly heartened by their receptivity to the emerging mission strategy of the diocese as I articulated some of its details.
  • We were back on the road (having consumed some pizza during the meeting) before 6:30, and, hence, back in Springfield at a reasonable hour. I am so grateful for a winter (so far!) of snow/ice-free driving conditions.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wednesday (Thomas Bray)

  • Concluded the clergy retreat with a "round table" (metaphorically speaking) discussion about ways of more effectively fostering clergy collegiality, the emerging strategic plan for diocesan mission, and the potential pastoral impact of actions taken by this summer's General Convention.
  • I had an afternoon to "kill," so I indulged my fondness for urban rail transit systems and caught an inbound Metrolink train at Swansea and rode it into down St Louis. My aimless walking around let me first to Macy's, where I bought an inexpensive had to keep the light rain off my glasses, then to Busch Stadium, where I quietly pronounced a curse (we'll see if it works; I should have brought a goat!), and finally to Christ Church Cathedral, where I barged in unannounced on Dean Michael Kinman and Bishop Wayne Smith. They received me most graciously.
  • My early evening gig was with the Search Committee at St Michael's, O'Fallon. We needed to have some heart-to-heart communication about where they are in their process. Time will tell how productive our time together was, but I am hopeful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday (Ss Cyril & Methodius

Still in Belleville on clergy retreat. Two more incisive addresses from Fr McMichael. Three hours of one-on-one conferences. Communal Morning Prayer and Evensong, and a sung Eucharist at midday at which I presided and preached. Lots of conviviality at meal times. We conclude after lunch tomorrow.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday (Absalom Jones)

On clergy retreat now, at the King's House Retreat Center in Belleville. Fr Ralph McMichael talking to us about eucharistic theology and spirituality. A good time for clergy who don't see one another very often just to hang out and develop their relationships. We're very blessed. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

VI Epiphany

Met with parishioners from St John's Chapel at the regular Adult Ed hour, prepared to talk about whatever they wanted to bring up, and what we ended up talking about was the still emerging missional vision for the diocese. I couldn't have been more pleased with that development. I'm sensing that we are starting to get critical mass of acceptance and enthusiasm for it across the diocese. The Mass that followed was splendid. Good attendance, glorious music (as always), an altogether superb visitation, IMO.

Sermon for Epiphany VI (Year B)


I Kings 5:1-14
Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign                                                                      

Naaman had a problem. He was a military man, a prominent general in the army of the King of Syria. He was a man of material substance and high social standing. People looked up to him and admired him and envied him. But Naaman was also sick. He had a disease called leprosy, which disfigured the appearance of his skin, a distinctly unpleasant sight to behold. Moreover, unless he could do something about it, Naaman’s leprosy put his high social standing at risk, because lepers were despised and feared; they were the outcasts of society in the ancient world. So Naaman wanted to be healed.
Naaman wanted to be made whole. Naaman needed help.

It would surprise me to hear that anyone at St John’s today has leprosy. But it would also surprise me to hear that anyone worshipping with us this morning does not desire healing and wholeness and feel a need for help in attaining those goals. Many of us, like Naaman, want literally to be healed from a physical disease. Sickness has gotten in the way of living life to its fullest, and we crave deliverance from that sickness. Others are aware of ill health that is rooted in emotional and mental health issues. We crave peace of mind—peace that settles our stomachs and lowers our blood pressure and allows us to think clearly, peace of mind that flows from a clear conscience. Or, it could be that we see disease as a metaphor for a troubled marriage, or a relationship with a child or parent or other loved one that seems to be falling apart; a symbol for lost hopes and dreams, or for that inarticulable angst, profound sorrow that does not flow from any apparent cause, but which tells us that all is not particularly well with our souls, or with the world.

There was within Naaman’s household an Israelite slave girl. She had been taken captive in one of Syria’s on again/off again armed conflicts with its neighbor, and put to work as a domestic servant. The slave girl, whose name we are never told, sees her master’s distress over his leprosy, and in an expression of magnanimous goodwill that, given her circumstances, seems incomprehensible to us, tells him that she knows a prophet in Israel who can cure his leprosy. Now, of all the people connected to Naaman, this girl was the least likely to even be noticed, let alone heard by him. She was the weakest and most vulnerable person in his life. If it were not for the enormity of his problem, and his desperate desire to find a solution, he probably wouldn't have given her a second thought. But he did. He listened, and he acted.

Naaman went to his own king and got a letter of reference to the king of Israel (apparently at that point, the conflict was “off again”). Then he loaded up his wagons with expensive gifts and made his way to find Elisha, stopping first at the Israelite capital of Samaria to pay his respects to the king. In an amusing subplot, the king is scared to death the he is expected to heal Naaman. Elisha eventually hears of the awkward situation and sends for Naaman to pay him a visit. But when Naaman—the great and highly-esteemed Naaman—arrives at Elisha’s house, the prophet doesn’t even bother to greet him personally, but merely sends a servant with the following instructions: Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River, and you will be healed of your leprosy.”

Naaman is highly insulted. “I’ve come all this way, bearing all these gifts, and this two-bit Israelite-scum prophet won’t even extend me the courtesy of coming out and greeting me and waving his hand solemnly across my leprous skin while he intones some mysterious prayer to his mysterious god? Take a bath in that slimy Jordan River?! Is there something wrong with our rivers in Syria that I had to come all the way down here to do this?”  

By virtue of a series of unlikely possibilities, Naaman finds himself at a critical moment of decision, possibly the most pivotal moment of his life. But he has plenty of company, the company of each one of us. In our search for healing and wholeness—or, to put it another way, in our search for salvation—it is extremely, almost irresistibly tempting, for us to decide that the path which is recommended to us is the very path we find least appealing, least palatable, even unacceptable.

Several years ago, I developed a pinched nerve in my neck, which made living in general, and sleeping in particular, highly uncomfortable. I went to my doctor, who told me what we all hate to hear: “These things are really hard to treat.” He gave me a range of options, the least invasive of which was physical therapy, so I made an appointment with the therapist. I was sort of like Naaman. I hoped she would use her knowledge and skill and experience to do something to me that would make me feel better. And like Naaman, I was a little disappointed when the emphasis in our therapy sessions was to teach me to do things for myself, in the form of some exercises in some rather undignified body positions which made me look and feel quite foolish. It was not what I had in mind when I went to the doctor!   
  
I am blessed never to have acquired an addictive dependency on drugs or alcohol or nicotine, but my observation is that recovery from addiction involves facing several alternatives which at first appear “unacceptable” to the addict. And the healing of broken marriages and other human relationships requires humility and compromise and willingness to lay pride and ego aside. 
 
So Naaman was confronted with a critical decision. Would he or would he not follow the “unacceptable” instructions of Elisha and dip himself seven times in the River Jordan? His first response is “No way! I’m heading home.” And head home he did—or at least he started to when, once again, one of his servants intervened with some common sense advice: “Look, boss, there are all sorts of harder things he could have asked you to do, and you would have done them gladly. Here’s the river; what have you got to lose by giving it a try?”

It is to Naaman’s credit that he found the strength of will to overcome his innate abhorrence of what he had been asked to do. In his eventual compliance, he experienced and demonstrated the truth of a fundamental spiritual principle—that salvation, healing, wholeness, fulfillment, come mysteriously at unexpected times and in unexpected ways and from unexpected sources, when we are obedient to God. God spoke to Naaman through Elisha, and Naaman overcame his instinctive reluctance. He obeyed, and was blessed by being delivered from leprosy. He found the wholeness he was seeking.

God speaks to us in many and various ways—through the sacred scriptures, through the collective experience of his people, through fellow pilgrims in Christ who serve as spiritual friends and guides, through the voice of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, and through the unique circumstances of our lives—the ordinary and the unusual; the comic, the tragic, the ecstatic, and even the sinful. He calls us to a general obedience—asking us to order our lives in ways that flow in the same direction as his own loving energy flows—and he calls each of us to a specific obedience—asking us to be attentive, to discern his presence and activity in our lives, to listen to his call to vocation and service. When we attend to what God says to us, we will probably hear a great deal that strikes us as unacceptable, even as a bath in the Jordan struck Naaman as unacceptable. But in our case, as in Naaman’s, that unacceptable path is the route—the only route—to the healing and wholeness we seek. It takes courage and faith and spiritual fortitude. Naaman would tell us, if he were able, that the gain is certainly worth the pain.

See you on the riverbank. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday

Left Springfield mid-afternoon for Champaign, pulling up to the Chapel of St John the Divine in time to officiate at 4pm Solemn Choral Evensong. The music program at St John's is one of the jewels of the diocese, and they outdid themselves tonight: Responses by (the recently deceased) Gerre Hancock, Mag & Nunc by Herbert Sumsion, S.S. Wesley tour de force anthem "Ascribe Unto the Lord", and the lovely hymn "How shall I sing that majesty...", sung to the tune Coe Fen. Wow. We then adjourned to the home of some parishioners for a hearty buffet dinner attended by vestry members and spouses. A quite convivial time. Ensconced now in a hotel room in anticipation of returning to St John's to celebrate and preach at Mass in the morning.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday

  • Task planning at home; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Processed a batch of emails. No single one of them was overly-complicated, but, together, they took a chunk of time.
  • Checked in by phone with one of our clergy regarding an ongoing difficult pastoral situation. It was a substantive conversation.
  • Took some time to write a substantive reply--one that I hope is also thoughtful and from the heart--to an email I received from one of our lay folk while I was in England, this one over another sensitive pastoral concern.
  • Lunch at home, stopping first to make a bank deposit, get some cash, fill my near-empty gas tank, and pick up some tacos and tamales from La Bamba ("Burritos as big as your head!") on MacArthur.
  • Spoke by phone with a priest from outside the diocese who is a potential candidate for openings that may arise in Springfield.
  • Spoke by phone with a colleague bishop over a small but important administrative concern.
  • Spoke by phone with another of our clergy regarding developments in his parish and deanery.
  • Exchanged group emails attempting to arrange a planning meeting related to the Mission/Vision statement.
  • Processed some emails related to April's Provincial Synod (and meeting of Province V bishops).
  • Wondered how the afternoon got away from me so quickly.
  • Prayed the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary and Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thursday

  • Usual routine. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • "Revised and extended" (to use C-SPAN lingo) my homily for Lent I, Episcopal Parish of Alton.
  • Phone conversation with Fr David Boase over details of my visit to Alton Parish on Lent I, and the Lenten teaching series I will be giving there on Wednesdays.
  • Personal brainstorming re broad areas of mission implementation. This included fooling around with some organizational chart software, which was kind of fun.
  • Appointment with Fr Dale and Deacon Joan Coleman, bearing much positive news about goings-on at St George's, Belleville.
  • Lunch appointment with John-Paul Buzzard of St John's Chapel in Champaign. He's an organ builder and I'm an organ geek, so we easily kept ourselves amused.
  • Back to the mission implementation flow chart work referenced above.
  • Phone conversation with Ann Wilt, Bishop's Warden at St Michael's, O'Fallon, regarding their search process.
  • Continued with study and research in preparation for the Alton Lenten teaching series.
  • Spoke by phone with Fr Ashmore as he wore his Chair of Examining Chaplains hat.
  • Took the time to manually enter names, dioceses, and email addresses for the 26 other bishops who attended the Canterbury program with me. It isn't like I'll be in frequent contact with very many of them., but it was nonetheless a valuable exercise. It made my sense of connection to them just a little bit stronger. Many of them minister in environments that are many times for challenging than my own, with natural catastrophes and violent civil strife just a normal part of their world. It is important that we hold one another in prayer.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wednesday

  • Usual routine at home, then an 8 am dental appointment.
  • Morning Prayer in office.
  • Refined and signed a couple of pro forma letters to persons involved in the ordination process.
  • Exchanged emails with a couple of stakeholders in the development of a new diocesan website.
  • Began planning for vestry retreat that I have been asked to lead at Christ the King, Normal.
  • Wrote my first Ad Clerum letter of the new year.
  • Lunch at home.
  • Finished writing notes to clergy and spouses with second-half-of-February birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Spoke on the phone with one of our priests regarding an upcoming change.
  • Developed a draft of my homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 22 February, at St Luke's, Springfield.
  • Refined my homily for this Sunday, Epiphany VI, at the Chapel of St John the Divine in Champaign.
  • Made a major dent in the pending scanning/filing of hard copy items.
  • Evening Prayer in the office.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tuesday

  • Task planning at home, which was itself a substantial task today, given that I am now resuming "ordinary time" after having been out of the office for three weeks, and lots of "ordinary" things to do have piled up.
  • Brief catch-up time with the Archdeacon and the Administrator, then short devotions in the cathedral before returning to the office for Morning Prayer, as there were various things going on in the cathedral nave.
  • Took care of a few details pertaining to the liturgies for next week's clergy retreat; conferred by phone with Fr Tucker, who is my "point man" in that area.
  • Attended the regular meeting of the diocesan Finance Committee. 
  • Pondered a couple of challenging situations in two of our congregations, and made some small moves that grew out of my pondering. 
  • Lunch from TG, eaten at home. After lunch, I took a brisk walk on my new treadmill. So far, I'm pleased with the experience.
  • The rest of the day was spent working through the pile of hard copy snail mail that had accrued on my desk during my three weeks of absence from the office. It was a little bit of everything--the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Epiphany V

  • A blessed time this morning with the people of St Mary's, Robinson, and their pastor, Deacon Ann Tofani. They are a small but spiritually vital congregation.
  • Stopping for lunch in Effingham, we arrived back home just before 2pm.

Homily for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany


Mark 1:29-39       
St Mary’s, Robinson

It’s winter, and although it’s been pretty mild so far, winter brings with it the cold and flu season, and the majority of us usually catch a bug of one sort or another. My own personal pattern, for as long as I can remember, has been to get sick in November, and then get through the rest of the season without too much trouble. This year it was actually early December, but otherwise it’s been true to form. For the last several years, we’ve heard a lot of frightening speculation in the media about the possibility of a worldwide devastating flu epidemic.

But even without anything that drastic, sickness is ubiquitous. It’s all around us. From ear infections in babies to colds and flu to more serious life-impairing and life-threatening conditions, we all get sick, and we all know and love people who get sick. It has ever been so, even though tremendous advances in the practice of public health and medical care in the developed world have freed us from many crippling or deadly conditions. And it was even more so the experience of people who lived in first century Palestine, where Jesus lived and walked and exercised his ministry.

Since Epiphany, this is the third Sunday where our gospel reading has come from Mark, as will be the case for most of the rest of this year, between now and next Advent. Yet, we’re still in Chapter One, and we’re not even finished with it yet! Even in the early part of Mark’s gospel, even in this very early phase in Jesus’ public “career”, we are told that his fame is constantly spreading. And what is this fame is based on? To some extent, as we learned last week, it’s based on the authoritative manner of his teaching. But primarily, Jesus’ fame arises from his extraordinary and astonishing ministry of healing the sick, liberating people from diseases and crippling disabilities. Both elsewhere in Mark and in the three other gospels, healing is a central element in Jesus’ ministry. It is probably the one thing for which is most widely known, and is the single best explanation for the crowds of people he seems to consistently attract.

It’s tempting, I know, for us to be envious of those crowds who followed Jesus around and saw him make blind people see and deaf people hear and paralyzed people walk, and even, on occasion, bring the dead back to life. We think to ourselves that any doubts we might have about our faith would dissolve if we were able to witness such miraculous events. The fact is, though, miracles like that still happen. They don’t make the headline news, but extraordinary healings that cannot be explained by means of medical science, and are often in defiance of “scientific” expectations, take place virtually every day. Jesus still heals through prayer and the sacramental ministry of the church. Tumors have been known to disappear on the very eve of surgery, and this has been a continuing element in the Church’s collective experience for 2000 years. There may even be somebody here right now who has experienced such a miracle, or who knows someone who has. Through prayer and laying-on-of-hands and anointing with oil, people are regularly healed of back pain and cancer, headaches and heart disease, and we give thanks for these wonderful signs of God’s victory over the powers of evil, God’s triumph over the forces of sin and death.

The problem is, not everybody is healed. In fact, more people are not healed than are healed.
And those who are healed inevitably get sick again and, in fact, die eventually. So we’re confused. It seems like God is toying with us, playing with our emotions for his own amusement, healing some and not others. We’re tempted to rationalize these inconsistencies by assuming that those who are healed must have some superior quality of faith or moral virtue that makes them more deserving. But if we just keep our eyes open long enough, we see that this is just not true. I’ve heard stories of someone who has come to faith in Christ virtually yesterday, a na├»ve new believer with very little theological learning or experience in disciplined and regular prayer, who gets healed after one prayer, while a pious and devoted lifetime Christian still suffers after years of persevering prayer. It doesn’t seem to make sense. What could God be thinking?

So, once again, we’re tempted to be envious of Jesus’ contemporaries, who could grasp the hem of his garment and feel his loving touch on their afflicted bodies, or at least look him in the eye and ask him the hard questions about what God is thinking. But, even if we could somehow magically transport ourselves to that time and place, I fear we would soon be disappointed.  Mark tells us how Peter’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and Jesus “took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her.” That was a wonderful event, and everybody rejoiced and gave thanks. But here’s the deal: Peter’s mother-in-law eventually got sick again, and died. Mark also relates how “the whole city” thronged the door of the house, and Jesus healed an untold number. Scores—if not hundreds—of people came to that house in Capernaum in one day and were healed of “various diseases.” They were delighted, and Jesus’ fame increased. But what Mark’s gospel does not tell us, what we have to infer on our own, is that each and every one of them eventually got sick again and died of something. No doubt, some of them felt the way we feel, that God was being capricious, entertaining himself at their expense.

In order to understand the experience of miraculous healing,  and not find ourselves angry with God in the process, it helps to see these events from God’s point of view. You may be aware that fully one-third of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life, from the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday through his passion, death, and resurrection.  Mark may even have been so bold as to say that God does not want us to see Christ as a healer—or a teacher, or a prophet, or a leader, for that matter—God doesn’t want us to see Jesus as anything apart from the cross. None of those other things matter if we do not see them through the lens of the cross. We know who Jesus is authentically only as we know him crucified and risen, and ourselves as participating in that dying and rising.

There’s a theological shorthand for this; we call it the “paschal mystery.” The paschal mystery binds together and sees as one event the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The paschal mystery is the principal thing we “remember” when we celebrate the Eucharist. In the context of the paschal mystery, we can look “back,” as it were, and see the extraordinary healings that Jesus performed directly, as well as those that he has continued to perform in response to the prayers of his people—we can see these extraordinary healings not simply for what they are in themselves, but as prefigurements, types, foreshadowings; not the thing itself, but anticipatory glimpses—of the permanents healing secured for us on the cross.

Because of its character as a sign, a premonition, a sneak preview, miraculous healing cannot be conjured up or confected “on demand.” God is not bound by the terms of any covenant to make it so. The paschal mystery, however, is a different matter. God has bound himself to the sacraments as “sure and certain” means of grace; it’s part of the covenant he has made with us in Christ. In the sacraments—particularly in the Eucharist, but also in Unction—we leap ahead into that time when our redemption is complete, when all pain, disease, anxiety, fear and misery are banished, and all tears wiped away. In the meantime, as we strain forward and long for the completion of our redemption, we rejoice for those premonitions of that redemption as may be granted us in the form of miraculous healing. But more importantly, we come time and time again back to this holy table, as a hundred generations of Christians have done, to participate in the paschal mystery and live for a shining moment in the fullness of God’s kingdom, where there is no more need for miraculous healing, because there is no more sickness.

Amen. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Saturday

The morning was spent reconnecting with my spouse and home, unpacking, and processing what I unpacked. Made a small dent in the pile of emails that need attention, but there is still much to do. By mid-afternoon it was out the door for a three hour drive to Robinson (practically on the Indiana border) in advance of an 8am liturgy at St Mary's in the morning. Grateful for having made the decision to travel during daylight hours (all two-lane roads), we caught a quick dinner at a Chinese buffet, then found the local cineplex to see War Horse.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday (St Anskar)

This was a taxing and at times stressful day of travel, but all's well that ends well. Had a nice breakfast in Washington with my friends Christopher Wells, editor of The Living Church, who also happened to be visiting there. Then by taxi to Union Station, by train to Baltimore-Washington airport, a two hour flight to Chicago O'Hare, a ride on the Blue Line 'L' that lasted the better part of an hour, six long blocks on foot to Union Station (plus a couple of wrong guesses in how to get across a Wacker Drive under construction, a two hour wait in the second Union Station of the day, then a three-and-a-half hour ride on Amtrak to Springfield. Brenda was waiting for me, and we got home around 9. I think I have the public transportation thing pretty well covered.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thursday (Candlemas)

Recovering from jet lag in Washington, D.C. While enjoying a good long walk in the morning, I got to see a presidential motorcade whiz down Connecticut Avenue en route back to the White House following the Prayer Breakfasr. It's quite an entourage. In the evening, I blessed candles, preached, and celebrated Mass at St Paul's, K Street, one of the venerable east coast Anglo-Catholic shrine churches. They have a gorgeous liturgical and musical tradition, and it was a pleasure to be part of it.

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)


Luke 2:22-40
Malachi 3:1-4
Hebrews 2:14-18

(Delivered as a guest celebrant and preacher at St Paul's, K Street, Washington, DC) 

I have learned over time that one of my chronic disabilities is that it is that, when I meet somebody new, it is sometimes difficult for me to remember what he or she looks like apart from the physical surroundings in which I normally see that person. So if I first meet you, say, on the way out of church tonight, and run into you tomorrow at the airport when I’m on my way out of town, there’s a good chance I won’t recognize you. The same would be the case if a the person who bags my groceries where I usually shop in Springfield showed up on at the cathedral the next time I’m there on a Sunday. This is embarrassing sometimes, but I do eventually learn what the regular characters in my life look like. 

Fortunately, there are enough people in the world who are good at remembering names and faces to compensate for those, like me, who aren’t. But all of us, nevertheless, are conditioned by what we expect, by what our experience sets us up to see or hear. When I’m in a particularly jovial mood, one of the tricks I like to play on people—kids, usually—is this:  spell “pots” (like in “pots and pans”). Go ahead and spell it out mentally to yourself. 

Now spell “post”.

Now spell “spot”. 

Now spell what you do when you come to a green light. 

A good many of you just mentally spelled out s-t-o-p. If you did, you’re a hazard to the rest of us, because we go at green lights and stop at red ones! 

We see what we’re conditioned to see, what we’re set up for. This tendency has a much more serious significance than as the foundation of a corny practical joke. As children of this age of science and technology, you and I are conditioned to assume that if something can be touched or seen or heard or measured or otherwise accounted for scientifically, then it has a certain status as credible reality.  Conversely, if someone makes a merely rational or intellectual assertion, or testifies to a purely spiritual experience, then we tend to be skeptical.  We withhold judgement until there’s...what? 
Until there’s proof; that is until some objective, properly controlled experiment can verify what’s been said. We see what we’re conditioned to see, and we’re conditioned to see that which can be scientifically verified. 

Yet, there are those people who claim that there are other ways of seeing, other ways of experiencing reality.  These other ways of seeing don’t contradict science so much as they simply lie beyond its reach. The two elderly characters in tonight’s gospel—Simeon and Anna—are among those who testify to an alternative way of seeing, a way of seeing that is developed and cultivated by long years of waiting, and thousands of hours of praying. A way of seeing that is practiced quietly and privately by people in every country on every continent. For some, it’s a well-worn habit. For millions of others, it’s an occasional blessing, sometimes an unwelcome one, which soon fades and returns them to the “normal” scientific way of experiencing reality—that is, a way of experiencing reality in which we see and understand the events of our lives, and the events of all our lives—that is, life in general—as just a random chain of cause and effect relationships.  We’re born with a particular set of genes that determine our looks, our talents, and, in a large measure, our health. We grow up in a particular environment: parents, siblings, money—or lack of it, education—or lack of it. We meet certain people, develop certain relationships. Sometimes we’re at the right place at the right time and on other occasions we’re at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the sum of all these random shufflings and re-dealings of life’s deck of cards, when all is said and done, constitutes our biography. That’s the way we see it, or, that’s the way we’re conditioned to see it, at any rate. 

There were those, no doubt, who were present at the temple in Jerusalem on that day 40 days after Jesus’s birth who saw nothing out of the ordinary. Jewish law required women to come to the temple forty days after giving birth to be ritually cleansed; in effect, to mark the conclusion of the mysterious, dangerous condition of pregnancy and new motherhood. And since long-standing tradition was that God had a special claim on firstborn males, if the child was a firstborn male, he had to be “redeemed”.  If the parents couldn’t afford a lamb, the price of this redemption was the sacrifice of two pigeons or turtledoves, which is what Mary and Joseph brought with them to the temple on this day.  There were probably other sets of parents and children there at the same time to do the same thing. The great majority of them saw nothing out of the ordinary about the man and woman and child who are the focus of our attention. 

We see what we’re set up to see. We can see life as a series of chance encounters, or we can see life as the medium of God’s presence and God’s activity. This was the way Simeon and Anna were able to see it, and they were the ones who didn’t just look right through Jesus that day in the temple. Simeon and Anna were conditioned, by years of waiting and praying       and believing, to recognize “the consolation of Israel”, the Messiah, the Christ. And when they laid eyes on Jesus, they saw what they were conditioned to see. They recognized the long-expected Jesus, the one who is the light of the world—the one whose life and ministry and death would be a scandal, a sign of contradiction to the religious milieu, and which would inflict bitter suffering on his mother. 

St Luke the Evangelist also had the gift of sight which Simeon and Anna shared. He was able to see the Holy Spirit as active in the story: first revealing to Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and then revealing to Luke that this visit to the temple by the infant Jesus was the foreshadowing of his eventual return to Jerusalem to claim authority over the temple, and then to suffer and die. Luke rescues this story from being merely “cute” by placing it in the shadow of the cross. 

This gift of sight has also been given to the Church as a whole, who, in her collective wisdom, has seen the connection between this gospel narrative and, on one hand, Malachi’s Old Testament prophecy about the Lord visiting and         purifying his temple, and, on the other hand, the image from the Epistle to the Hebrews of Jesus our great high priest, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, continually making intercession for us in the heavenly temple of which the Jerusalem temple was only a pale reflection.   This is a grand vision, if we have the eyes to see it! 

Without these eyes of faith, we see our lives, not only as a random chain of cause-and-effect relationships, but as a chain that we are trapped in and God is absent from.  Life is cruel and absurd, and then you die. But if we can allow God to set us free from our conditioning, if we can let Jesus teach us to see with the eyes of faith that Anna and Simeon saw with, then what a glorious vision awaits us! Life is no longer a roll of the dice but is the medium through which God touches us and cares for us and showers his mercy upon us. A friend of mine once expressed this in an almost mathematical way: the difference between coincidence and providence is faith. 

Let that sink in. 

Or, if you are more comfortable with addition than subtraction:  Coincidence—the seemingly random events of our lives,  plus faith—seeing with the eyes of Simeon and Anna, equals providence—God’s care for us through and in everyday events. When we make this equation a reality, sadness will turn to joy, despair will turn to hope, and we will be able to sing along with Simeon: “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see; a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” 

Amen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tuesday (St Brigid)

Back now where money is green and drivers keep to the right. Ensconsed in the rectory of St Paul's, K Street, Washington, D.C., in which parish I have invited to preach and celebrate the feast of Candlemas tomorrow night. The flight was about as good as flying coach can get, which is to say, I had the row to myself and the row ahead of me was empty. May not be a winning formula for British Airways, but it works for me.