Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent Sunday

Up and out of my hotel room in Effingham a little past 8, continuing south and east. Arrived in Mt Carmel with plenty of time to space in advance of the regular 10:30 Mass at St John the Baptist. We confirmed a young lady, and otherwise enjoyed a hearty celebration of the First Sunday of Advent, followed by a just-as-hearty potluck meal and conversation in the parish hall. Hit the road at 1:10 and pulled into my driveway right at 4:30. With the exception of Cairo, this is the longest of my Sunday afternoon drives.

P.S. I will be on personal retreat this week, so laying off of social media in all forms. Back in this space next weekend.

Sermon for Advent Sunday

St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel--Luke 21:25-31, Zechariah 14:4-9

I believe it was the renowned theologian of the last century, Paul Tillich, who said that a preacher should always prepare a sermon with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. If I were to follow that advice today, what would I find? 

My Bible tells me we're early in the season of Advent, because I have just heard passages of scripture that speak of that time outside of time when history as we know it will come to an end, the good guys in the white hats will win, everyone will be happy, and the curtain will come down on the play. And what does the newspaper—figuratively speaking; most of us get our news from the internet now—what does the “newspaper” tell me? The newspaper tells me that a militant fringe of the Islamic world is inflicting unspeakable suffering on the people of Syria and Iraq, and, when they can manage it, Europe and North America. The newspaper tells me that a crazy person with a gun could walk up most anywhere at anytime and start shooting multiple people. The newspaper tells me that that racial and ethnic fear and hatred is alive and well just about wherever you look, that illegal and destructive drugs are being sold and people still drive drunk ... and bad things still happen to good people.

As Christians, of course, we have a name for what we read about in the newspaper, and that name is Sin. You and I are both victims of and perpetrators of Sin. It's a basic fact of human existence, and has been since time out of mind. 
We get sick, we have accidents, we feel pain—both physical and emotional—we suffer from and participate in injustice, we do things we know are wrong and we do them over and over again, and eventually we die, sometimes peacefully
after a long life and sometimes violently after a short one, but the end result is the same: we're dead. We can sometimes put it off by a number of means, but we can't ever escape it. We live under a death sentence, and it will eventually catch up with each one of us. 

And so, condemned as we are, we find ourselves puzzled—oh, what the heck, not just puzzled, but cheated, toyed with, let down—by passages of scripture like today's Old Testament reading. 

On that day ... the Lord your God will come, and all the holy ones with him.  On that day there shall be neither cold nor frost. And there shall be continuous day ... for at evening time there shall be light.  On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem ... and it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will become king over all the earth.

I'm sure you can recall hearing a good many other prophetic passages from both the Old and the New Testaments that speak in equally glowing terms about the blessings of peace and prosperity and health and eternal life that will be the reward of those who are faithful to God's call. On that day. And when we compare that vision to what life is actually like on this planet, we want to know, "Ok, when?"  "How long, O Lord, how long?" When will “that day” actually get here?

Then, if we combine these hopeful and inspiring passages of scripture with others that make theological assertions about Christ redeeming us from Sin by his death on the cross and defeating evil and death by his resurrection, we really wonder where the missing link is. How come we still experience ourselves as trapped by sin, both as victims and as participants? It's like when you get an unsolicited email telling you you’ve won a free trip to the Bahamas, if you just first pay a small service fee, and, if you’re paying attention, you strongly suspect that, if it’s not simply a scam, they really just want to sell you a timeshare. Promises, promises. So, are we being scammed by God? How long, O Lord? 

It's no wonder, then, that many church-going Christians on the first Sunday of Advent find it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for passages of scripture like today's gospel reading, which is apparently intended to get us all excited about the future. We're told that the return of Christ at the end of time—“the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory”—will be preceded—announced, as it were—by all sorts of warning signs: natural disasters and unusual environmental phenomena, and the like. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, “Look up and raise your hands, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

Well, you know and I know that practically all the way back to the time Jesus uttered these words, people have thought they were seeing the signs he was talking about. TV preachers talking about the end times is really nothing new; only the medium has changed, the message is an old one. So we tend to be kind of apathetic about this Advent warning. If our experience of Sin is mainly as a victim, then it may give us a tinge of hope, but not really what we're looking for. If our experience of Sin is mainly as a perpetrator, as a victimizer, then it may trigger in us a split second of fear, but not enough to cause real change. 
It inspires neither very much hope nor very much fear. 

Yet, we're here, aren't we? In some way, we still look to Christ as our Redeemer and Savior from Sin, from Sin that victimizes us and Sin that we participate in. 
Christian teaching is that human beings are helpless, bound by Sin, utterly reliant on God's mercy. This mercy is what we are gathered here this morning to celebrate. This mercy was first hinted at to Adam and Eve as they were being expelled from the Garden of Eden, when God declared that the offspring of the woman would "bruise [the] head" of the offspring of the serpent. Christian interpretation has seen in this nothing less than a veiled promise of the coming of Christ. So from the very moment humankind became both a victim and a perpetrator of Sin, God put into motion a plan, a plan to rescue, to save, to redeem not only us but the entire universe from the curse of sin and evil. 
In the mystery of God's mercy, this plan of salvation was ordained not to take place in an instant, in one fell swoop, but in stages, over long periods of time. 
God's plan for the redemption of the universe is, in actuality, a drama, in three acts, with a prologue. 

The prologue is the Old Testament, God's gradual self-disclosure to and covenant with the people of Israel, our ancestors in the faith. Act I is what we find in the four gospels—the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God made flesh. In this series of events, the kingdom of God was introduced. “Introduced” is the operative word here. Think, if you will, of Christ as a “good germ,” a “good virus.” When a virus is introduced into a human body, it may lie dormant for a while, or it may reproduce itself very very slowly. Long periods of time may go by before the virus makes its presence known by producing observable symptoms. The first coming of Christ, the first Advent, was the introduction of the “Christ-virus” into the organism of the human race. Various events, throughout history, have shown that humanity “tests positive” for the presence of this Christ-virus. And a good many cells in our collective body are actually symptomatic, they show signs of the presence of Christ. But the situation is still very fluid, very much in process, a process that is still quite some distance away from completion. 

When I lived in Louisiana back in the early 1990s, one of my routine yard maintenance chores was to spread poison on any anthill that I encountered. (You see, ants are more than a mere nuisance at picnics in the south—they sting, and it’s quite unpleasant.) The ant killer I used comes in the form of a white powder, and the instructions say to apply a specified amount over the top of the colony, taking care not to disturb the structure of the anthill. It's not at all dramatic, like turning the thing over with a shovel and emptying a can of Raid on it. But it’s a great deal more effective. It introduces the poison to the ant colony. Nothing changes immediately, but that colony is essentially "history" as soon as the poison is spread over the top of their home. Gradually, ants will carry it throughout the intricate network of underground passageways, and only after several hours will the process which was begun by scattering a tablespoon of powder on a mound of soil begin to show results. And the results are thorough.

The promise of the scripture readings for Advent Sunday is that God will finish the work of redemption that He began when He took on human flesh deep inside the womb of the Virgin Mary. God will finish what He started. Act One is not the entire play. Act Two, which is where you and I play our roles, is not the whole play either. When we rehearse the list of God's mighty acts in Christ whereby he redeems us from the power of Sin: incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, descent of the Holy Spirit ... we've got to add one more: return. The return of Christ, the second Advent of Christ, is Act Three, when the full meaning of the story is finally revealed, and all the loose ends of the plot that were left dangling after Acts One and Two are tied together. Only after seeing the entire play, all three acts, can a theater-goer make an intelligent assessment of the work. Judgments that are formed after an action-packed and suspenseful first act, or a long and complicated second act, may be shown to be totally off base when the plot line of the third act plays itself out. You just don't know until you've seen the whole thing. 

That means that we, who have roles to play in the second act, may be tempted to think that Act Two is all there is, or that it's somehow our responsibility to make Act Three happen. Neither could be further from the truth. The truth is, we simply haven't been given a complete script. We have a plot summary that gives us a broad idea of what happens—we know that the play has a happy ending and that the good guys win—but we don't have any of the details. Those are the business of the Author and the Director. Our job is to know our Act Two lines well, to pay attention to the Director, and to not worry very much about the plot of the third act. 

This assignment, of course, involves a lot of waiting and a lot of preparing and a lot of hoping. Sounds very much like Advent, doesn't it? You might even say that life in Act II is one long Advent, one long season of waiting and preparing, but always with hope, always with the knowledge that there is an Act Three. “...when these things begin to take place, look up and lift up your hands, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

Come, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Saturday (Kamehameha & Emma)

Got back from family time in Chicagoland last evening. Slept in, quality time on the treadmill, quality time with the french horn, roamed around social media, processed a short stack of emails, packed, and headed for Effingham, where I'm spending the night before moving on to a visitation in the morning to St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Wednesday (James O.S. Huntington)

  • Usual weekday routine; MP in the cathedral.
  • Prepared to celebrate and preach the midday Mass.
  • Spent some quality time with the Provost, covering a range of issues.
  • Roughed out the third of my three quiet day meditations at St Stephen's,  Providence (RI) the weekend of III Advent.
  • Processed a short stack of emails.
  • Showed up for the noon Mass, but it failed for lack of a quorum. A quorum is two. Happily, this is not a very frequent occurrence.
  • Grabbed some grub from La Bamba and took it home to eat. Remained home for the afternoon.
  • Worked on my homily for III Advent (in Providence). It's now at the rough draft stage.
  • Researched video-conferencing platforms for an upcoming conference call.
  • Packed for two nights away. Hit the road with Brenda at 4:20 for points north.
  • Stopped in at OSF St Joseph Hospital in Peoria to look in on Fr Brian Kellington. He is much improved, and may already have been moved to a rehab unit (after two weeks on a ventilator) by the time you are reading this. Then, up IL29 along the right bank of the Illinois River to the facility where Bishop Donald Parsons resides. We had a very nice visit with him as well.
  • We moved on then to Bloomington, where we are bedding down for the night ahead of continuing northward to Palatine for Martins family Thanksgiving tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tuesday

  • Just as I was pulling out of the driveway to head to the office I got a phone call from my optician's office letting me know that my new glasses were ready, so I diverted west instead of east. Then I stopped for gas. When I arrived at the office, I discovered I didn't have my keys, so I drove back home to retrieve them. While returning, I got a phone call from a priest in another diocese seeking pastoral/strategic counsel, which kept me out in the parking lot for several minutes as we concluded our conversation. All this is just to say ... it was fully mid-morning by the time I got in!
  • Consulted with the Archdeacon and emailed the Treasurer about some cash flow technicalities pertaining to wiring some funds to one of our companion dioceses.
  • Fiddled with some new software that a friend online enticed me into downloading (a Mac client for WordPress). No satisfactory outcome from that yet, but I'm hopeful.
  • Spent the rest of the morning refining my homily for this Sunday (Advent I at St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel) and printing a working script.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Wrote the first draft of a post due soon for the Covenant blog. It mentions Jesus, Mel Gibson, and the "alpha issue" of ecclesial conflict.
  • Compiled some links to online parish search profiles that I had promised to send to the wardens of St Paul's, Pekin and All Saints, Morton.
  • Worked on my homily for Advent II (Trinity, Mt Vernon), taking it from "developed  notes" to "rough draft."
  • Threw up the broad strokes of two of the three meditations I am scheduled to give in a couple of weeks at an Advent Quiet Day at St Stephen's in Providence, Rhode Island. Taking my cue from the General Thanksgiving, the three will attempt to explicate the Redemption of the World, the Means of Grace, and the Hope of Glory.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King

With the regular liturgy at St John's, Centralia set for 11:30am, it was a relaxed morning. I met Fr David and Elizabeth Baumann at the Cracker Barrel in Mt Vernon for breakfast at 9:00, after which we all headed north and east to St John's. The liturgy there had lots of energy, and it was great fun to visit with folks over good food in the parish hall afterward. I finally got home a bit before 4:00.

Sermon for Christ the King

St Thomas', Salem & St John's, Centralia--John 18:33-37

We probably associate this conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, recorded for us in John’s gospel, with being in church during Holy Week—Good Friday, to be specific. So it’s interesting—at least I find it interesting as a preacher!—to encounter it in a completely different liturgical context, as we come together to celebrate the conclusion of this cycle of the church year, the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the feast of Christ the King. But, in the gospels, there really isn’t much to go on by way of material that would help us celebrate the kingship of Christ in an obviously appropriate manner—you know, with crowns and scepters and thrones … that sort of thing. Instead, we’re left with passages like this one, where the words “Jesus” and “king” occur in close proximity to one another, but in an ironic, counter-intuitive sort of way.

Today’s gospel is one of the most familiar in all of literature—not just the Bible, but, really, all of literature. Pilate is trying to figure out what to make of Jesus, and how to navigate through some very politically precarious territory that he has been maneuvered into. He has certain obligations to Caesar as the appointed governor of the Roman province of Judea. But it’s also in his best interests to remain on good terms, to the extent possible, with the leaders of the Jewish people, the population among whom he and his troops are seen as an occupying force. It was a delicate position. So, with the clock ticking, as it were, he has to figure out who this Jesus character really is, and how best to play the difficult hand that he’s been dealt.

Figure out who Jesus is. This is, of course, the question of the ages: Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus for me? Of what relevance is he for my understanding of the world and my place in it? In many ways, it’s not any less delicate for us, as 21st century Americans, to deal with that question than it was for Pontius Pilate. We live in a culture, we swim in an ocean, that idolizes the autonomous individual, the freedom of each person to, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, engage in “the pursuit of happiness,” so long as that pursuit doesn’t impinge on the freedom of anyone else to exercise the same freedom. And, since our economy is generally ordered according to free market principles, when you combine that with our attachment to individual liberty, the result is that we also swim in an ocean of consumerism. We often don’t notice it because it’s just always, literally, all around us. We cannot help but define ourselves as consumers. I remember an ad jingle for a cable TV company from back in the ‘70s, when that industry was still in its infancy: “It’s not just more choice; it’s your choice.” 35 years later, that jingle has finally become a reality for me, as I almost never watch a TV program when it’s actually on, but later, when I’m ready for it, “on demand.” My choice. Of course, the very technology through which I exercise my freedom as a consumer notices and records the choices I make, and is constantly telling me, “You might also like …” this or that.

Now, I’m not generally one of those doomsayers who constantly points out the shortcomings of our culture. But, as I speak to a community of Christians, I cannot avoid making the observation that the hyper-individualistic and consumerist ether in which we live poses some very serious risks, because it encourages us in the notion that we can design God to our personal specifications, that we can have access to God “on demand,” and, significantly, be able to turn off that channel when we’re not in the mood for it. Now, those of you who are my generation or older have some small degree, at least, of immunity to this tendency, because we were raised in an era when there was a widespread belief that objective reality actually exists, and means something. If I say the sky is green and you say it’s red, we can’t both be right. We could both be wrong—the sky might actually be blue!—but we can’t both be right. That sort of rationalist attitude has its own problem with regard to Christian faith, but now we’re in a time when the generations younger than we are—I speak to my fellow Baby Boomers—have a mindset that is described as “post-modern,” in which objective reality isn’t really a thing anymore. It’s all subjective perception; it’s all a matter of whether something “works for me.” If you try and tell someone they’re objectively wrong, you’re just being judgmental, or bigoted. Who is Jesus? Jesus is whoever you want him to be, whoever you need him to be, whatever “works for you.”

One consequence of this post-modern understanding of Jesus—ultimate truth, ultimate reality—is fragmentation. There is no underlying common narrative about what’s really real that people can tap into unconsciously. When it comes to religious truth, each individual is his or her own Pope. A second consequence, following on fragmentation, is frustration. Most of you are probably on Facebook; a handful, maybe, on Twitter. Just look at your feed. Don’t you see constant frustration about the diversity of experiences and opinion? “Why doesn’t everybody else see it my way?” we constantly wonder.

It was hard for Pilate to get Jesus to help him with his political quandary. Jesus wouldn’t give anything that Pilate would recognize as a straight answer. Similarly, it’s hard for us to get past Jesus with our narcissism, our self-absorption. Jesus tells us exactly what he told Pilate: “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

So, we are in the same boat with Pilate. All we are left to work with is that that Jesus claims to bear the revelation of the God who is, the God who objectively is, the God who is himself Author of reality as it is, whether it works for me, or not, whether it works for you, or not. I don’t have the individual liberty, the personal autonomy, the freedom of choice, to design my own God, to confect my own narrative of Ultimate Reality, my customized account of what makes the world go ‘round, why everything is the way it is, and what it all means. “For this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth,” Jesus says. “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” So says Jesus. So says Christ the King.

And then, when we make that move, that surrender of the heart and mind to the Lordship of Christ, that laying-aside of the freedom to define ourselves on our own terms, to define God and the service of God on our own terms, it then becomes suddenly clear that we have all along been blind. It’s like the scales fall off our eyes and we see ourselves for the first time as we really are: a gathering of rebels, an assembly of outlaws who need to bend the knee to our true Sovereign. And as we do so, he leads us out of our self-absorption and syncs our fragmented and frustrated egos with his redemptive purposes. Praised be Jesus Christ. Praised be Christ our King. Amen.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saturday

Took the morning very easy. Eventually got in a nice, long session on the treadmill. After flitting around social media for a while, it was time for lunch. I managed to grab a few minutes with the french horn before having to pack and be out the door (solo) around 2:30. By 4:45 I had arrived at St Thomas', Salem, ready to celebrate, preach, confirm, and preside at a baptism. What a joy that was. After the invariably fulsome potluck repast in the parish hall, it was off to the Hampton Inn in Mt Vernon, where I'm bedding down for the night ahead of tomorrow's visit to St John's, Centralia.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday (St Edmund of East Anglia)

  • Morning Prayer in the office. (The church was being cleaned.)
  • Prepared to preside and preach the noonday liturgy.
  • Attended to several details pertaining to the transitions in two of our vacant or about-to-be vacant parishes.
  • Responded to a query from the Church Pension Fund about the clergy of the diocese (generally).
  • Thought through and made some mental notes on an ongoing sacramental/liturgical/pastoral policy concern.
  • Celebrated and preached at the midday Mass, observing the lesser feast of St Edmund of East Anglia.
  • Lunch from Hardee's, eaten at home.
  • Kept a 2pm donation appointment at the blood bank. I was supposed to give red cells but my hemoglobin was too low, so it had to be plain old whole blood. More red meat, I guess!
  • Spent a good part of what was left of the afternoon doing some routine once-in-awhile personal organization maintenance (if you must know, cleaning out the "Bucket" folder in my Evernote account). It's not sexy, but it needs to be done two or three times a year.
  • Friday Prayer: Ignatian meditation on the daily office gospel reading from Matthew.
  • Evening Prayer in the office.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thursday (St Elizabeth of Hungary)

  • Early morning treadmill workout.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Took my homily for Advent I (St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel) from "developed outline" to "rough draft" stage.
  • Various bits of administrivia.
  • Wrote a long email to the Chancellor, who is chairing the continuing ad hoc working group for the revision of our constitution and canons, setting out my own thoughts on necessary canonical changes.
  • Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
  • Crowd-sourced an administrative/pastoral/liturgical question to a group of friends on a listserv.
  • Updated my contacts folder--a long-overdue task, since about a dozen of them were dead!
  • Headed north to Peoria to look in on Fr Kellington (much improved, with a long road yet to travel) before keeping a date in Pekin with the combined vestries of St Paul's and All Saints, Morton. They were already looking at a pastoral vacancy in the new year. It's just come a little sooner than expected. Home around 9:30.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Wednesday (St Hilda)

A little catch-up: I was in Dallas over the weekend to take part in the consecration of the new bishop of that diocese. An ancillary part of the experience involved linking up, sometimes just for a moment and sometimes for a more extended period, with a pretty long list of friends and colleagues. And since a number of Communion Partner bishops were present, we took the opportunity for some odds and ends of business. I got home Sunday night/Monday morning, around 1am. Then, after a brief sleep, Brenda and I boarded the 8:37am Monday departure on Amtrak to Chicago. We had tickets to the Lytic Opera's production of Alban Berg's Wozzeck, which was splendid (having first exercised our membership privileges at the Art Institute for a good portion of the afternoon, and enjoying a nice dinner at a restaurant near our hotel). Tuesday morning found us on the 9:25 southbound train, which put us back in Springfield around 1pm. Then, chores and errands, broken up by taking in the newest James Bond movie.
Now for today:
  • Task planning for the rest of the week at home.
  • Visited a new optometrist (new to me, that is) for a (much overdue) routine eye exam and selection of new glasses. The solution, for the first time, involves two pairs--one for general use and one dedicated to computer use. Getting old.
  • In the office, then, around 10.
  • Prepared to celebrate and preach the midday Mass.
  • Spoke by phone with a potential candidate for one of our clergy vacancies.
  • Dealt with a relatively minor, but pressing, administrative/technical issue.
  • Refined and printed a working draft of this weekend's homily (Saturday night at St Thomas', Salem and Sunday morning at St John's, Centralia).
  • Reported to the Lady Chapel for the midday liturgy, but there were no takers, so I struck the set and moved on. (This happens sometimes--fortunately, rarely.)
  • Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
  • Attended to a fairly substantial piece of business related to the work of the Communion Partners (taking the form of drafting a longish and involved email).
  • Took a phone call from the rector of one of our parishes, and then spent some time chasing down some information for him.
  • Processed a short stack of emails, each one involving looking something up or articulating a proposal or some such.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral at a relatively earlyish 4:45, owing to dinner plans with a former parishioner who is passing through Springfield.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Saturday (Consecration of Samuel Seabury)

Well, the consecration of Samuel Seabury took place on this date in 1783, but today it was the consecration of George Sumner as Bishop of Dallas (#1090, with Seabury bring #1--YFNB is # 1056). It was a 2 1/2 hour liturgy, but splendid from beginning to end. It was my honor to be one of the primary co-consecrators. I have quite a few friends in the Diocese of Dallas, so there were lots of mini- reunions. Because of the vicissitudes of the airline schedules, I am here another whole day, taking the last flight to Springfield tomorrow night.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday

A day of traveling and connecting. Up and out in time to catch the 8:11 AM departure from Springfield nonstop to Dallas. Picked up my rental car and drove to the Highland Park neighborhood, venue of the official hotel for the consecration of the next Bishop of Dallas. Checked in, got settled, grab some lunch, and otherwise relaxed a bit. Met with some of my Communion Partners colleagues over an ongoing project that were involved with. Caught the shuttle to the big Methodist Church in downtown Dallas where tomorrow's consecration will take place, in order to attend a rehearsal. (I am honored to be one of the co-consecrators). Then, back to the hotel for our reception, followed by a dinner for bishops an out-of-town guests.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thursday (Charles Simeon)

45 minutes on the treadmill to start the morning. Morning Prayer in the office. Took up work on my sermon for Proper 29 (Christ the King, in the two Eucharistic Communities of Marion County Parish) turning a rough outline into a rough draft. At 11, met with one of our deacons who is involved in the parish in transition to discuss future deployment. Lunch at home -- leftovers. My afternoon was devoted to driving up to Peoria to visit Fr. Brian Kellington, who is recovering from emergency heart and aortic surgery earlier this week. It's been a rough couple of days, but he seems to have taken a favorable turn today.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Wednesday (St Martin of Tours)

The original agenda for the day called for a late afternoon trip to Peoria to visit Fr Kellington, followed by a meeting with the joint vestries of St. Paul's in Pekin and All Saints, Morton. But the weather forecast called for violent wins to arrive in the late afternoon, so an exchange of text messages with one of the wardens from Pekin lead to a rescheduling of that meeting, and a text message from Laurie Kellington indicated that Fr Brian is still too sedated to receive visitors. So it was back to a more normal daily routine. I made travel arrangements, worked on some clergy deployment issues, celebrated the midday Mass, attended to some Nashotah House and Communion Partners business, and prayed the offices in the usual manner.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tuesday (St Leo of Rome)

  • Weekly task planning over breakfast at home. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Caught up with the Archdeacon on a range of matters, some trivial and some substantial.
  • Hosted the semi annual meeting of the diocesan trustees in my office, along with three others joining my conference call on the speakerphone. Our investment advisor was with us as well.
  • Met with an individual in the middle stages of discerning a potential call to the priesthood.
  • began to get accustomed to the reality that I am working with an iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard all week. My laptop is in the shop, hopefully getting outfitted with greased lightning. It’s been moving at a rather glacial speed lately.
  • Lunch from Pizza Hut, eaten at home. One of the guilty pleasures I allow myself only rarely.
  • Devoted a chunk of time and energy to an ongoing project on behalf of the Communion Partners Group of bishops.
  • Took care of some supplementary sermon prep planning in the view of a change I made to my visitation calendar.
  • Attended to some important details pertaining to planning for my sabbatical in 2016.
  • Spoke by phone with a potential candidate for one of our vacant parishes.
  • Reached out by email to a potential candidate for one of our other vacant parishes.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Lord's Day (XXIV Pentecost)

Up and out with Brenda by 7:45, heading for an 8:45 arrival time in Carlinville, ahead of their regular 9:15 celebration of the Eucharist. I presided, preached, and confirmed on adult. It was a beautiful day for a drive in the central Illinois countryside. They had a potluck afterward. One of the parishioners asked if it's like that everywhere we go. It pretty much is. It's usually a party when the bishop visits! What a privilege it is to lead this life. After a couple of hours of downtime at home, we got back in the YFNBmobile and headed east this time, to sit in on Linda Buzzard's organ recital at St John's Chapel in Champaign. We wavered as leaving time approached, but when I heard Bach's Passacaglia & Fugue in C-minor was on the program, I didn't need much persuading. It's one of those "touch the face of God" pieces for me. Then, to compound our good fortune, we were steered to the Black Dog Smoke & Alehouse for dinner, and it was one of the finest BBQ experiences we have ever had.

Sermon for Proper 27

St Paul's, Carlinville--Mark 12:38-44, I Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28

It’s been barely more than a week since the World Series ended, so, for some of us, baseball is still on the brain. If you’re familiar with the game of baseball, you know about the play called a “sacrifice.” This is when the batter, either intentionally or unintentionally, hits into an out. He doesn’t become a base runner, and heads back to the dugout. But, as a result of either being thrown out at first base or retired because an outfielder catches a fly ball, that batter’s team enjoys a benefit—either in the form of a run scored, or someone already on base advancing to the next base. The batter sacrifices his own chance to get on base and score a run, he sacrifices his opportunity for personal glory, in order to benefit his team. Of course, in a much more serious vein, we talk about the sacrifices made by members of the military, who follow orders and put themselves in harm’s way, offering their limbs and lives as a potential sacrifice for what we all hope, at least, is a greater good.

So we admire those who engage in sacrifice because they overcome the instinctive impulses we all have to preserve our own personal best interests. These instinctive impulses usually make themselves known as tremendous fear, and overcoming a deep fear is one of the most difficult actions a human being can undertake. We are all, in various ways, the beneficiaries of such courageous, fear-defying actions. For many in the world, the source of fear relates to immediate personal safety. The hordes of people streaming out of Syria, for example, are just trying to get themselves to a place where they don’t have to worry every second about a bomb exploding in their face. In other places, the issue is food insecurity; this would include much of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. For middle class North Americans and Europeans, fear is grounded in whatever we perceive threatens our financial status—job loss, unexpected bills, stock market fluctuations, recession, inflation  …  and sometimes church stewardship campaigns.

For the record, clergy, including bishops, are not immune to this fear. As retirement becomes less and less of an abstraction for me, and more and more a concrete prospect with a definite time frame, I find myself paying ever closer attention to anything that might affect the Church Pension Fund. It’s been my observation, over nearly three decades of pastoral ministry, that various processes of conversion happen at various rates. The most essential conversion, of course, is conversion to Christ, coming to serious terms with who Jesus is and what that means for my life, and I’ve seen that conversion happen, several times, quite suddenly, almost overnight. There’s also conversion to discipleship—learning the habits of following Jesus faithfully. This usually takes some time, but I’ve seen it happen relatively quickly. But the one process of conversion that is usually the last one to come to maturity and produce fruit is the “conversion” of our finances. Our wallets and checkbooks and investment statements are invariably among the last things that we surrender to Jesus when he asks us to follow him.

So the Old Testament reading and the gospel today are slap-in-the-face challenging. If they don’t make us squirm, we’re probably not paying attention.  In the narrative from I Kings, Chapter 17, the land of Israel, 800 or 900 years before the time of Christ, is suffering from a famine that is the result of a prolonged drought. It hasn’t rained in a very, very long time. The word of the Lord comes to the prophet Elijah. Go to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, Elijah is told, which is actually out of the country, in Gentile territory that would now be part of Lebanon. Following the instruction that he has received, Elijah approaches a widow in Zarephath, and directs her to give him something to eat. She responds, in effect, “Wouldn’t I love to. But, look here: I’ve got this paltry amount of flour, and this paltry amount of oil, and this paltry pile of sticks to make a fire with. So I’m going to make a couple of pancakes for my son and me, and that’s going to be our last meal, and then we’re going to just lie down and die. So, sorry, I can’t give you anything to eat.” Elijah just says, “No worries. Trust me on this. Just make the pancakes and give them to me. There will be enough left for you and your son.” Somehow, Elijah persuades this woman to believe him. She makes him the pancakes, and when she goes back to her containers of flour and oil, there is, inexplicably, enough for her to make more pancakes to feed herself and her son. In fact, as it turned out, there was always enough oil and enough flour, until the rains eventually came, and crops could be harvested again. But before she could experience that abundant provision, this woman had to offer a sacrifice; she had to allow herself to be led through and beyond her deepest fear—that of not being able to feed her child.

Then there’s the gospel story, which is a bookend to the narrative from I Kings. Jesus is teaching his disciples one day in the Temple in Jerusalem, right in the area of the box where it was customary for people to come by and make their pledge payments. People are stepping up and dropping sacks of coins, some large and some small, into the box. But then an elderly widow comes up and puts in two virtually worthless coins—an amount worth even less than if you or I dropped two pennies into the offering plate. It certainly wasn’t going to have any discernible impact on the annual budget of the Temple. But Jesus commends this woman, and says that her offering is worth more than all the others. Why? Because it was a sacrifice. It was all she had. It was everything. And don’t think the detail about it being two coins is just incidental, because, you know, she could have put in just one of them and kept the other for herself. But she didn’t. She put both coins in the offering box; all she had.

The animals in the barnyard were talking one morning. The farmer’s birthday was coming up, and they wanted to do something special for him. One of them suggested, “Let’s make him breakfast!” “Great,” said the hen. “I can donate some fresh eggs.” And the cow chimed in, “And we can use some of my milk to cook up something yummy from the oven.” Then everyone looked at the pig, who was strangely sober. “Hey, for all of you, making breakfast for the farmer is at worst an inconvenience. For me, it’s a sacrifice!”

But here’s where the experience of a disciple differs from the fate contemplated by the pig: Our offering of our lives to God, our sacrifice of our lives to God, becomes God’s offering of his life to us.

Let me unpack that. How do we offer our lives to God? Our lives are first offered to God when we are baptized. I put that in the passive voice, because, for most among us, that’s an event we don’t remember, something that was done to us, not something we freely chose for ourselves. But most of us have been confirmed, or renewed our baptismal vows on the occasion of somebody else’s confirmation. So we have, in one way or another, promised to follow and obey Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Or, to put it in the language I use to explain baptism to young children, we have all said, “Jesus is the boss of me.”

We have also offered our lives to Jesus, sacrificed our lives to Jesus—to some extent, at any rate—whenever we have placed money or a check in a church offering plate, or sent a pledge payment in the mail, or online. Stewardship is an offering of our lives to God. It is a recognition that, not only do we not own the money and material resources that we think of as belonging to us, we don’t even own ourselves—our souls and bodies. In baptism, we sign over everything to God, to be put at God’s disposal for the extension of God’s kingdom.

And this movement of self-offering, this movement of sacrifice, is repeated and renewed every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist. When we place bread and wine on the altar, and when our checks and cash are presented at the altar, these things represent our lives, they represent us. When you see them on the altar, think of yourself as being on the altar. And an altar is a place of … what? Of sacrifice. Part of the action of the Eucharist is that we offer ourselves in sacrifice—in union, of course, with the only perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus, God offering God to God as an atonement for our sin.

In the Eucharist, we give our lives to God, and, in the Eucharist, God gives his life to us. How does God give his life to us? In three ways that parallel the three ways by which we give our lives to God.

First, God gives his life to us in Holy Communion. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive God’s own life, God’s own self. We receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, who, even in that same moment, as today’s epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us, is pleading our case before the Father as both our Great High Priest, and as the victim who is himself the sacrificial offering.

Second, God gives us his own life by blessing us for the sacrifice we offer of our tithes and offerings. I hope I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the standard of financial giving for a baptized disciples of Jesus is 10% of the material and financial resources that God entrusts to us. That’s what a tithe is. And the wonderful thing is this: To my knowledge, I have never met an ex-tither. When we are obedient to God, God has a way of blessing that obedience, and meeting our needs. Not our desires, necessarily, but our needs. But I will say this, that tithers are invariably the most joyful Christians I encounter. God is faithful to us, and when we are faithful in return, that original faithfulness is only compounded.

Finally, God shares his life with us by calling us to vocations that reveal and express our truest selves. God doesn’t just want us to be financially faithful; he wants us to be vocationally faithful, to answer when he calls, to follow where he leads. We may be tempted by fear that to offer God our lives means that we will be deprived of all sorts of good or fun things that we had planned for ourselves. But, again, just as I have never met an ex-tither, I have never met anyone who has regretted making that “reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” that St Paul commends to us. God is invested in our happiness, and has a way giving us back what we surrender to him, only enhanced, better, with a bonus of some sort.

So there’s a great deal going on in this liturgy today, perhaps more than we realized. Even as I speak to you as your Chief Pastor, I stand with you as one more baptized disciple, in need of grace to overcome fear and offer all that I have in sacrifice, in the hope that it will be returned to me as more than I can imagine. 

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Saturday (St Willibrord)

With nothing scheduled, I took the opportunity to do some cocooning--though, with an internet connection, it wasn't a very pure form thereof. Processed several email, attended to some Communion Partners business, took a sermon from "message statement" to "outline," took a good hard and long walk, spent some quality time with my french horn, read Morning and Evening Prayer, and tried to relax a bit. I need to get better at that.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Friday (William Temple)

  • Usual AM routine; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Turned my attention once again to my sermon for Proper 27 (this Sunday at St Paul's, Carlinville). Exalted some valleys and made some rough places plain, and printed out a working script.
  • Got to work on scanning a formidable pile of assorted hard copy materials that had been accumulated on my credenza's inbox.
  • Presided and preached at the regular midday cathedral liturgy.
  • Lunched with the Provost and two of his parishioners. Strictly social, no agenda.
  • Got back to the scanning project. It was quite a pile.
  • Took a phone call from a Nashotah House stakeholder.
  • Sat prayerfully with my notes from exegetical commentaries on the readings for Christ the King (two weekends hence in Marion County Parish) and arrived at the single declarative message statement from which every sermon sprouts.
  • Prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thursday

  • Early morning treadmill workout.
  • Task planning at home; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Participated in a routine conference call with the administrator and the investment manager of the Putnam Trust, which benefits two of our parishes, and of which the Bishop of Springfield is by title a co-trustee.
  • Prepared to celebrate and preach at the midday Mass. Then discovered that I'm actually on tomorrow, not today. So I then prepared for tomorrow.
  • Reviewed the resume of a potential candidate for one of our vacant parishes. Made contact by email with another potential candidate for the same vacancy.
  • Lunch from La Bamba, eaten at home.
  • Processed a few emails.
  • Kept a routine dental hygiene appointment. 
  • Took the rough outline of a homily for this Sunday (St Paul's, Carlinville) and developed them into a rough draft of a working text. In the midst of that project, I took time out for a substantive phone conversation with the Dean of Nashotah House.
  • The hour was late; Evening Prayer fell by the wayside today.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wednesday

Breakfast at Toddhall ... Morning Prayer (including an office hymn, with YFNB at the organ again, this time more respectably) ... more from our presenter Paul Hoffman (including a simulated catechumenal Bible study) ... Votive Mass "For All Baptized Christians," at which Pastor Hoffman preached ... lunch ... final presentation session with Q&A .... discussion with bishop & clergy on an unrelated topic ... took Pastor Hoffman ot STL, then headed north, arriving home around 5:30. It was a very good clergy conference.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tuesday (Richard Hooker)

Back to a usual weekday morning routine, although it's been so long since I've been in the office in a "usual" way that it seemed a little exotic. Morning Prayer in the cathedral. Lots of conferring with the Archdeacon and the Administrator on an array of issues. Sorted through the pile of hard copy material that had accumulated in my absence. Attended to some of the details of corporate worship at the clergy conference that began in the late afternoon. Wired some funds to our companion diocese in Tanzania--money that we've been accumulating and aggregating until there's enough to justify the wire transfer fee. Lunch from China 1, eaten at home. Drove southward at 1:45, and carried on four conversations with key players at Nashotah House over some exigent issues. Arrived at the airport in St Louis and retrieved Pastor Paul Hoffman (ELCA), the presenter for our clergy conference. Drove out to Toddhall, checked in, ate dinner, and gathered for Evening Prayer in the chapel, where I served--somewhat clumsily at times--as organist in what rather quickly morphed from a said service with one him to full-blown Evensong. The evening thereafter was devoted to our topic--reappropriating the practices of the ancient catechumenate for evangelizing and disciple-making in a post-Christian culture.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints

Presided and preached at the 7:30 and 10am liturgies at St Matthew's, Bloomington, with the later celebration including two (adult) confirmations and two receptions. Good visit to a parish that is doing well under very capable leadership. Headed home for an afternoon and evening of rest, with a bit of email processing. Looking forward to a full day off tomorrow, the first since September 21.

Sermon for All Saints' Day

St Matthew's, Bloomington--Matthew 5:1-12

Today is the feast of All Saints. It is a time when we remember, and give thanks for, and join in worship with, our fellow Christians of times past who have distinguished themselves in the corporate memory of the church for their heroic sanctity—devotion, courage, perseverance, holiness of    life. We honor them, we praise God for their example to us, and we bid their prayers on our behalf. 

The lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer directs that, at the Mass for All Saints' Day, we read from St Matthew's account of Our Lord's "sermon on the mount;” more specifically, that portion of the sermon on the mount that is known as the "Beatitudes".  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn ... blessed are the meek ... the merciful ... the pure in heart ... the peacemakers ... those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.” These are the qualities by which we recognize saints. 
So, this morning, I want to hold up, for our prayerful attention, a small sampling—one for each of the eight Beatitudes—of the names that appear in the official liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church, some of those, in other words, whom we honor today on this feast of All Saints. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit. In other words, blessed are those who have learned to ignore material wealth, or the lack thereof, as any indication of the worth of a human being, particularly themselves. I think here of St Antony of Egypt. In the second decade of the fourth century, Christianity was transformed almost overnight from an illegal, intensely persecuted religion into the only officially approved religion of the Roman Empire. For the first time, being a Christian could improve your social standing and advance your career. So, pretty soon, there was a movement within the church that wanted to stay connected with the notion that following Christ costs something. These people said, "We want to take Jesus seriously when he  says, 'Sell all you have and give the money to the poor'. So we're going to pull away from mainstream society, form communities, and live the Christian life the way it was    meant to be lived." St Antony was one of the early leaders of this movement. Antony of Egypt was raised in a devout, and rather wealthy, Christian home. His parents died when he was a young adult, but instead of settling down to enjoy the estate he had inherited, Antony sold it all and distributed the proceeds among the needy. He voluntarily impoverished himself, he made himself poor for the sake of the gospel. Then he went and lived alone in a cave for twenty years, after which he founded and presided over a community of men who lived together following the rule of life that he had devised. Antony wrote that his desert monastery was "filled with singing, fasting, praying, and working that they might give alms, and have love and peace with one another." Blessed Antony, poor in spirit, pray for us. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. We mourn when we say "goodbye" to someone or something that has been closely linked with us. The life of Samuel Isaac Joseph Scherechewsky was one that contained a great many goodbyes, plenty of opportunity for mourning.  Samuel Isaac Joseph Scherechewsky—now that is a name!—was born to devout Jewish parents in Lithuania in 1831. He was raised with the idea that he would become a rabbi, and, at the proper time, he went to live in Germany to study for that vocation. But, while in Germany, he came in contact with missionaries from the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, and he decided to become a Christian. So here he was, in an alien land, and having adopted an alien religion. One would think that would be enough of a "goodbye,” a sufficient occasion for mourning, to last most of a lifetime. But not so. Samuel then emigrated to the United States, and enrolled in a seminary in Pittsburgh with the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister. But once again, just as he was trying to settle down and prepare for his life's work, Samuel was surprised, this time by the Episcopal Church. So he transferred to our own General Theological Seminary in New York. After he graduated and was ordained, Samuel just kept heading west (maybe he figured he'd make it all the way back to Lithuania someday!). He boarded the proverbial slow boat to China, and learned to read and write Chinese while en route to mission work in Shanghai. Over the next fifteen years, this Lithuanian Jewish German-educated briefly-Presbyterian naturalized-American Episcopal priest lived in Shanghai and Beijing while he worked on translating the Bible and parts of the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin Chinese. Then he was elected and consecrated bishop of Shanghai. After six years, Bishop Scherecshewsky had to say good-bye once again—this time he mourned the passing of his health, as he became slowly paralyzed while yet in his early fifties. He typed the last 2,000 pages of his translation using only the middle finger of his right hand. Blessed Samuel Isaac joseph Scherecshewsky, who knew what it means to say good-bye, to mourn, pray for us. 

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. During the seventh century, the Christian church in the British Isles moved out of the isolation in which it had lived for about a century and a half, and re-entered the mainstream of European Christianity, which, at that time, meant Roman Catholicism. The newly-arrived church authorities from across the water looked suspiciously on some of the practices of the old British church, pointing out in particular that the ordinations of some of their bishops and priests were of questionable validity. One of these was a gentleman named Chad, who was the Bishop of York. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore, called Chad into his office one day and said, "We've got a problem. Your ordination isn't valid.  You can't serve as a bishop anymore."  Now, with words like that, one might well expect, as they would say in Britain, that a "row" would ensue. But St Chad just calmly replied, "That's fine. I never thought I was worthy to be a bishop anyway." Theodore was so impressed with Chad's humility, his holy    meekness, that he re-ordained him and appointed him Bishop of Northumbria. Chad's ministry as a bishop was distinguished by the fact that he preferred to travel around his diocese on foot to visit his parishes, rather than on horseback. And instead of living in the official bishop's residence, St Chad stayed in a much smaller, simpler house nearby (rather like the current Bishop of Rome decided to do when he assumed his office!). Blessed Chad, example of meekness, pray for us. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. The life of William Wilberforce is an exception to the popular notion that it's impossible to be both a politician and a saintly Christian. Wilberforce was already a member of the British parliament when he experienced a profound spiritual awakening in 1784. His first instinct was to quit politics, but he decided instead to stay where he was and, as the Cursillo movement today would put it, to "Christianize his environment.” And the Lord called him to do so in a very specific way:  William Wilberforce spent the next 49 years, the rest of his life, working tirelessly to abolish slavery and the slave trade from the British Empire. He was the most important single influence in this great accomplishment, which was finally complete one month after his death. Blessed William Wilberforce, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, pray for us. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. In the middle of the fourth century, a young man named Martin was wandering around the Roman province of Gaul looking for a place to settle down. He'd been born in Hungary, raised in Italy, and had just been discharged from the army after serving a tour of duty in what is now France. (Isn’t it ironically appropriate that his feast day falls on the same date as Veteran’s Day?) Martin had recently become interested in Christianity, and    had been enrolled as a catechumen, someone who was undergoing rigorous preparation for the sacrament of baptism. As he walked along the road one cold and damp day, St Martin was approached by a poor man who asked for "alms in the name of Christ.” Martin didn't have any money to give him, but he took off his military cloak, drew his sword, cut the cloak in half, and gave one half to the poor man. The next night, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream, clothed in—you guessed it—half a cloak, and said to him, "Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with this garment."  Martin went on to become an exemplary monk and bishop, but his act of mercy toward Jesus, present to him in the form of a poor beggar, was the defining moment of his sainthood. Blessed Martin, merciful Martin, pray for us. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Purity of heart is to know and feel so clearly who you are, that being and doing are indistinguishable from one another. In any roll call of saints that demonstrate purity of heart, Elizabeth of Hungary is going to be on the list. Have you ever noticed how many hospitals there are that are named for St Elizabeth?  Well, there's a good reason. Elizabeth was born in the year 1207. She was a princess, daughter of the king of Hungary. She later married a German nobleman, who, fortunately for her, was quite tolerant of her seeming obsession with almsgiving.  He allowed her to deplete her dowry—the part of her family's estate that she brought with her into the marriage—for her benevolent purposes. During a famine and epidemic in 1226—and while her husband was in Italy!—she sold her jewels and established a hospital where she helped care for the sick. A little later, she started giving away the palace's own grain reserves. Elizabeth's husband died the next year, and the executors of his estate were not amused by her "extravagances,” and they sent her packing. She lived on a subsistence income from her own family after that, but continued her life of self-denial, caring for the sick and poor.  St Elizabeth died of exhaustion in 1231, at the ripe old age of 24. Blessed Elizabeth, pure in heart, pray for us. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.  Remember St Chad, the bishop who humbly accepted the decision of the English church to conform to the ways of Rome? Well, that decision didn't come without a fight, and one of the key players in bringing an end to that fight and reconciling the opposing sides was St Hilda of Whitby. Hilda was the abbess—the one in charge—of a monastic community that was remarkable even in its own day for the fact that it included both men and women, who lived together, under one rule, in one community, all under one human authority, namely, Hilda. Hilda was known for her wisdom and good judgment, and was often sought out by kings and other public figures for her advice. So when the conflict between the ways of the native English church and those of the mainstream Roman church came to a head, Hilda became a mediator, and offered her monastery at Whitby as the site for negotiations to end the dispute. Through St Hilda's leadership as a peacemaker, the church in England was able to move beyond its quarrels and get on with its mission. Blessed Hilda, peacemaker, pray for us. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. For almost three hundred years before Emperor Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion, the church endured wave after wave of persecution. Tens of thousands of Christians chose to suffer torture and death rather than renounce their loyalty to Jesus     Christ. (Something rather like this seems to be going on in parts of southwest Asia in our own time.) Vibia Perpetua was a young widow of a wealthy Carthaginian family.  She was the mother of an infant, and herself a catechumen, preparing for baptism.  In the year 202, Emperor Septimus Severus issued a decree that all persons should offer a sacrifice acknowledging the divinity of the emperor. This, of course, a Christian could not do, so Perpetua was arrested and imprisoned.  At her public hearing, her aged father begged her to relent and offer the sacrifice, but Perpetua steadfastly refused. So, on March 7, 202, Perpetua and several of her companions in the catechumenate were sent into the arena, where they were attacked by a leopard, a boar, a bear, and a bull. Eventually all were put to death by a blow of a sword blade to the throat. To the last moment, St Perpetua shouted encouragement to  her companions: "Stand fast in the faith and love one another" were her last words. Blessed Perpetua, persecuted for righteousness' sake, pray for us. 

There's a hymn, very dear to my heart, which, to my great dismay, was not included in the most recent revision of our hymnal. "Art thou weary, art thou laden, art thou sore distrest?" The language and imagery is rather Victorian so perhaps its omission is understandable. But what this hymn is trying to say is sublime. Each verse consists of four lines. The first two ask a question about Jesus and what it means to follow him. The next two provide an answer.  "If I still hold closely to him, what hath he at last?" And the answer: "Sorrow vanquished, labor ended, Jordan passed."  And again the question: "If I ask him to receive me, will he say me nay? … Not till earth and not till heaven pass away." And finally: "Finding, following, keeping, struggling, is he sure to bless?" In other words, is it all worth it? Is everything that goes along with following Jesus—the discipline, the prayer, the faithfulness, the self-denial—is it all going to be worth it in the end?  Finding, following, keeping, struggling, is he sure to bless?  Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs answer Yes.” Antony, Samuel, Chad, William, Martin, Elizabeth, Hilda, Perpetua, and all the saints ... answer Yes. All holy people of God, pray for us. Amen.