Sunday, December 9, 2018

Second Sunday of Advent

With original plans scuttled by yesterday's medical drama, we found ourselves unexpectedly in Chicago on a Sunday. We elected to worship with the congregation at St Paul's-by-the-Lake, where I know handful of folks. St Paul's is robustly Angl0-Catholic, in a quite conservative style. Yet, attendance was good, with a beautiful demographic diversity, both in age and ethnicity. Lots of young families. Quite a lively and lovely spirit. Later in the day, after a long walk, I read and responded to an Ember Day letter (sent early) from one of our seminarians, and attended to some routine personal organization chores. Dinner with Brenda at a nearby Argentine steak house (it was excellent).

Sermon for II Advent

St Bartholomew's, Granite City--Luke 3:1-6, Baruch 5:1-9, Psalm 126, Philippians 1:111

Most of you probably don’t know that there was a period in my life—actually, it seems like a different lifetime—when I was a salesman. I was not, by any reckoning, a very good salesman, but whenever I point that out, someone invariably comes back with the quip, “But what do you call what you’re doing now?!”—the implication being that, even though I’m not paid on commission, what my ministry is about, is, in effect, selling the gospel, or Christ, or the Church, or something along those lines. Well…whatever. This much I know: Making a sale involves the buyer coming to the conclusion that there is some advantage to him or her in making the purchase. The first essential question that must be answered in any sales process is “What’s in it for me?”

Now, if I’m going to have to listen to anyone call me a salesman for what I do, I’m just going to hold up a mirror and remind everyone that, if I’m a salesman, then all of you are too. The Church—the whole community of the baptized—is in the business of telling anyone who will listen that God loves them madly, and has gone to great lengths to be friends with them, and invites them to join the community of those who have decided to take him up on his offer of friendship. This activity is called evangelism, and when we do it, we have to answer the “What’s in it for me?” question just as surely as does the seller of perfume or mutual funds or hot dogs or real estate.

Different brands of Christians have different responses to the evangelistic “What’s in it for me?” question. Those who might generally be described as Fundamentalist Protestants have a rather dramatic way of framing the question. I once saw a tract entitled “The First Five Minutes After Death.” The author clearly set out two scenarios: Those who have at any time intentionally said a prayer by which they confess their sinfulness to God, put their trust in Christ alone to save them from the consequences of that sinfulness, and invite Christ into their lives, will be ushered immediately in the blissful nearer presence of God. Those who have not said such a prayer will be consigned directly to Hell, where they will literally suffer intense physical pain for endless ages. Well, if and when one comes to the point of accepting that these are the only two choices, with no ambiguity or shades of gray, the “What’s in it for me?” question is answered pretty resoundingly.

Christians of a more liberal persuasion, however, have a different answer: the world is full of social problems. There is injustice, oppression, bigotry, poverty, gun violence, corruption, illiteracy—the list could go on and on—these things are all around us. God wants to do something about these problems. But the only arms and legs and hands and feet God has belong to us. As John F. Kennedy said almost 56 years ago in his inaugural speech, “God’s work must truly be our own.” By becoming a Christian, one can join God’s army, enlist on God’s team. We can be instruments of God’s peace, and help usher in God’s kingdom of justice and love. Surely this is itself a significant reward; ample motivation for becoming a Christian.

But there’s another response to the “What’s in it for me?” question. I call it the Advent Response. The Advent Response is, “You want to know what’s in it for you? Well, how would you like a ringside seat for the decisive battle of all time—the victory of Almighty God over the forces of Evil and Death? How would you like a front row seat for a more spine-tingling action drama than any human mind could conceive—the re-creation and redemption of the universe?” In today’s liturgy, we are confronted with the primal images and metaphors of Advent. A place is prepared for the arrival of God’s Holy One. A hostile wilderness is tamed. A channel is carved through the mountains that divide human communities from one another. The canyons and ravines that we lose our way in are raised up. Highways are built to connect God’s people with one another. And my favorite metaphor of all: That which is crooked is made straight. With this image, I can’t help but imagine God as Bob Vila, the guy who first popularized home renovation on TV about 30 years ago. He, and his imitators now on HGTV, could take a derelict old building, and imagine its former glory and its inner beauty. And he had the knowledge and skill and perseverance to restore that glory and reveal that beauty for all to see. The Advent Response is to

prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made plain; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 

As we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us.” At a very personal and individual level, we see small blessings come our way, and we know the One who is behind those blessings, the Great Lover of our soul. We experience healing—maybe from a minor headache, maybe from cancer—and we know who is behind that healing. We come to realize that we are forgiven, the slate wiped clean, the foolish things we have done dispensed with, and we are filled with gratitude toward the One who is the source of that forgiveness. We feel ourselves mysteriously and gracefully drawn—called—to a vocation in life; we experience what it is to be a round peg in a round hole, and songs of praise flow from our hearts in adoration of the One who has issued that call. Over time, we realize that we are growing in holiness, becoming more like Jesus, that we are cultivating the habits in this life that will enable us to be fully alive in the next.

As we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us” not only personally and individually, but socially. We come to realize that our connection to the Head also connects us to the Body, that we cannot know Christ without also knowing his Church. We grow in our awareness that the communal life of the Church is not an optional extra, a pleasant frill, but lies at the core of our Christian identity. The bond that God establishes in baptism connects us not only with him, but with one another. We become devoted, in particular, to the Eucharist, which ever reconstitutes the Church, and in which the Church is most clearly and purely herself. This leads us to a more profound discipleship, a deeper giving over of our hearts and minds and wills to Christ, allowing our faith to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Discipleship, in turn, forms us in servanthood—a servanthood that expresses itself in radical devotion to one another, but also acts as a leavening agent in society. We become subversives, God’s secret agents, who transform society not by revolution, but by quietly turning it inside out just by being who we are as the Church, by loving one another, and letting the world know we are Christians by our love.

Finally, as we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us” at a cosmic level. Everywhere we turn, we see sinners repenting and being forgiven. Everywhere we turn, we see Evil declawed and defanged and the good of which all evil is a corruption displayed in bright array. Everywhere we turn, we see Death being swallowed up in victory, choking on itself and dying.

So, what’s in it for us? In a word, Joy is what’s in it for us. The Old Testament apocryphal book of Baruch is an anthem of joy flowing from the Advent Response. The prophet echoes Isaiah in a startling way:

For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. … For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him. 

The Epistle to the Philippians reiterates the same theme, with St Paul in the first of what would be a whole string of references to joy and rejoicing in the course of his letter:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.

And the Psalmist is certainly not to be outdone in this department:

6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Lost among all the media hype surrounding the fortieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination was the obscure fact that there was another significant death on the very same day—the death of the British author and lay theologian C.S. Lewis. Professor Lewis has had a tremendous influence in forming several generations of Christian minds and hearts, including my own. One of his most influential books is his spiritual autobiography, entitled Surprised By Joy. He articulates a notion of Joy that far surpasses the shallow emotion of a smiley face or the exhortation to “Have a nice day.” For Lewis, Joy is a profound and abiding conviction that, whatever comes our way, all will be well in the end, and we will be happier than we could ever imagine, because of the deathless love of God made known to us in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord. Indeed, inasmuch as we allow ourselves to be trained by the Advent response, we will most certainly find ourselves Surprised By Joy.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Saturday (Immaculate Conception)

There are plans and there is life. Today, life won. It was supposed to be a leisurely morning ahead of a 1:00-2:00 departure to the Hampton Inn Edwardsville/Glen Carbon and a visitation tomorrow to St Bartholomew's, Granite City. It ended up with a canceled visitation after several hours of quality time in the ER at Swedish Covenant Hospital. In our living room, seated on a couch (for which we are grateful), Brenda passed out and started to convulse. After about five seconds, she was fine. But we couldn't not have it checked out, since it was the second fainting episode within a month. The prevailing theory is what they call orthostasis due to insufficient hydration. Tests for other things (cardiac, electrolytes) all came back negative. We'll be following up with her primary doctor ASAP. In the meantime, I need to stick close to her, and I'm sure the good people of St Bartholomew's are understanding about this, although it is wrenchingly uncomfortable for me to not be with them as planned.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Friday (St Ambrose)

Out of retreat now, and back in the saddle. My personal circumstances may dictate a rather unorthodox style, but the formula is pretty classic: pray ... read ... reflect ... write ... repeat. And, perhaps, sleep a tad more than usual. As such things go, I would say that is "worked."
As for today:
  • Task planning over breakfast.
  • Morning Prayer with Brenda.
  • Edited, refined, printed (placing the hard copy in my car), and scheduled for posting this Sunday's homily (St Bartholomew's, Granite City).
  • Reached out by email to a priest whose parish I am visiting soon.
  • Wrote an email (in Spanish) to the Bishop of Peru, letting him know he'll shortly be receiving a modest financial contribution from the Diocese of Springfield.
  • Lunch from Pizza Hut, eaten at home.
  • Reached out by phone and email regarding a pastoral matter.
  • Wrote and posted (on the website) my article for the next edition of the Springfield Current.
  • Took a brisk 75-minute walk. (With temps in the mid-20s, it was never going to be anything but brisk!).
  • Friday prayer: Lectio divina on tomorrow OT reading from the daily office lectionary.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda.
  • Mid-evening, made a start on adapting the current Roman Catholic authorized rite for exorcism for use in the Diocese of Springfield. This will be a bit of a project.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

First Sunday of Advent

Up and out of my improvised Springfield accommodations in time to report to St Paul's, Carlinville 30 minutes ahead of the regular 0915 liturgy. It was, for them, a good turnout, just north of 30 souls. The musical artistry of their organist, Diane Aikin, was Advent balm for my Advent-loving spirit. I was particularly pleased to see them singing the Psalm at the Eucharist, responsorially ... because that's what one does with Psalms. Spirited time visiting with folks over food following the service. Fr John Henry presides over a community whose members enjoy one another's company. 

Following my customary day off tomorrow, I will be on personal retreat through Thursday. So my next post in this space will be one Friday.

Sermon for Advent Sunday

St Paul's, Centralia--Luke 21:25-31

When we watch a scary or suspenseful movie for the first time, it’s easy for us to forget that what we’re watching on the screen is not actually happening, but that actors are delivering lines written by an author, and moving according to the wishes of a director, and that there are banks of cameras and audio equipment just beyond our field of view. Our emotions correspond to what we’re watching, as if it were real. But if we watch the same film a second or third time, our emotional responses become less intense. We know how it ends. There’s no longer any reason to be frightened or anxious on behalf of the characters in the drama. We watch the action as if through different eyes.

As Christians, as the people of God and the Body of Christ, we have a similar advantage as we watch the compelling drama called real life play out in our experience. It’s not like we have a script that feeds us every line and blocks every move, so there is still an element of suspense. But we do have a plot summary—a library of documents called the Holy Scriptures—we have a plot summary that tells us the ending. We know everything comes out OK. The good guys in the white hats arrive on the scene just in time to untie the widow from the railroad tracks and throw the villain in jail. God wins; Satan loses. We are confident in the knowledge of our ultimate redemption.

Outside the context of faith in Christ, however, real life is at least a melodrama, and very often a suspense story, if not a horror film. This reality is brought home to me every time I preside at a funeral. The traditional Christian burial rites provide such a level of meaning and comfort, and lend such appropriate dignity to the occasion,
that it’s difficult for me to imagine mourning the loss of a loved one, or preparing for my own death, in any other way. Rarely have grieving family members not mentioned to me how supportive the funeral liturgy is and how grateful they are for it.

In the absence of a well-grounded, well-formed, and mature faith, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” the trials and tribulations of our lives, seem random and utterly devoid of significance. The daily grind of getting up in the morning, trying to make a living, and tending to the essential infrastructure of our lives, from taking out the trash to flossing our teeth—this all becomes a burden that is depressing just to contemplate. Bumps along the way—cars that won’t start, checks that bounce, relationships that turn sour, people who betray us, cancers that metastasize—bumps along the way only add insult to injury. Earthquakes, floods, fires, famines, droughts, train wrecks, and plane crashes become the punch lines of some cosmic standup comic
with a sick and twisted sense of humor. It’s no surprise that the dispensers of anti-depressants are doing such a brisk business. It’s no surprise that people, particularly in “advanced” First World cultures, continue to abuse alcohol and nicotine and other drugs. It’s no surprise that we are so confused about sexuality and gender and what any of it means, if anything. It’s no surprise that we are consumed by acquisitiveness.
We can’t appreciate anything unless we can own it, any more than a one-year old can appreciate an object if he can’t put it in his mouth. As a society, we are chronically and relentlessly driven, but we have no clear idea what our destination is. These, my friends, are the signs of our times.

Our Lord Jesus has some pointed words about reading the signs of the times as we examine his apocalyptic discourse, this time as it is recorded for us by St Luke. (You may remember that, a couple of weeks ago, we looked at St Mark’s parallel version.)
He talks about the end time, the culmination of history as we know it, and that the days leading up to the apocalypse will be accompanied by massive social and political unrest, economic dislocation, and natural disasters. The language can easily be construed to predict both the projected effects of global warming and the incessant Hollywood preoccupation with objects from outer space colliding with the earth.

And then Jesus offers the very homely example of a tree changing its appearance as the seasons change, and how, if we can tell what time of year it is by looking at a tree, we ought also to be able to “read” what God is doing by looking at the signs of the times.

What Jesus is inviting us to do is to take a good look at that plot summary God has provided us with, and to live our lives not as if we were watching an action or suspense or horror movie for the first time, but, rather, as if we were viewing a re-run, a story that we already know the ending of, and it’s a happy ending. When friends stab us in the back, when loved ones let us down, when the stock market takes a dive, when the body politic of our country seems to have cracked along a fault line running right down the middle, when your teenage daughter says “I’m pregnant,” or the boss says, “You’re fired,” or the doctor says, “You’ve got cancer”—we know that the story doesn’t end there. The final scene of the final act is yet to come. The credits have not yet begun to roll. Read the signs of the times. It is going to get worse before it gets better. The darkest part of the night is just before the dawn, when Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ,
comes down in a cloud with power and great glory.

I am among those who enjoy taking long trips by automobile. When Brenda and I lived in California many years ago, it was almost an annual habit of mine to drive to the midwest to visit family. If I could cross two time zones in a single day, was a real high! When I would return home to central California after being away on one of these journeys, I noticed certain things that otherwise escaped my attention. The absence of mile markers on the side of the road, for instance, and the presence of raised dots between the lanes—something we can’t do in our part of the world because they don’t play well with snow plows!—were signs that I was definitely back in California, and getting close to home. The species of plant along the highway median was a sign that I was in the central valley, and not anywhere else. A reddish hue along the side of the road was a sign that the tomato harvest was in progress. Without even thinking about it, I “read” these signs, and my body responded with a rush of adrenalin. I was all of a sudden not sleepy anymore. I took delight in familiar voices and familiar announcements on familiar radio stations. I rejoiced in anticipation of the end of my journey, and in gratitude for my safe arrival home.

Jesus tells us that this is the attitude we should have when we read the signs of impending apocalypse. For those who are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how the story will end, such signs are occasions of great anxiety and distress. But we have that plot summary. We know how the story ends. We can see a long-expected Jesus just outside the margin of our viewing screen. Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

This is what the season of Advent is about—keeping vigil, watching, praying, growing in holiness, joyfully contemplating the return of our Savior in power and great glory. 
Maranatha—Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Saturday (Nicholas Ferrar)

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Walked to Charlie Parker's for breakfast  (2.2 miles).
  • Walked from Charlie Parker's to the blood bank to make a scheduled donation (2.6 miles).
  • Walked to the home that I still make payments on but remains vacant, to generally inspect it and turn down the thermostats (2.4 miles).
  • Walked back to the office (2.5 miles).
  • Took off my shoes and rested a good long while, lunching on leftovers from yesterday.
  • Hand-wrote greetings to clergy and spouses with birthdays and wedding anniversaries in December,. Wrote emails to those with ordination anniversaries (for which December is a banner month).
  • Responded to accumulated emails and various other small administrative items.
  • Did a year's worth of *master* sermon planning plotting.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Went out to find some steak for dinner, given that I had left a slew of red cells at the blood bank.
  • Responded substantively to a substantive email I found waiting for me when I got back to the office.