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Homily: “Advent and Expectation”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday of Advent 2016, Year A.

In this first week of Advent, the sense of expectation grows. Although the weather outside can often be frightful, nonetheless this is for the most part a season of warmth, for Christmas and all its wonderful remembrances is just around the corner. We are expecting a visit from Jesus—a particular kind of visit, where he visits us in His humility, as the long proclaimed and hoped for Messiah, as a child.

Imagine the feelings, two thousand years ago, of Blessed Mary, now in her eighth month of pregnancy—how she was pondering the real meaning of the words announced to her by the Angel Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Pondering, and feeling this baby, the Son of God, in all the glory of the eighth month of pregnancy.

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Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, pt. 4”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Christ the King, the Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 29, Year C).

I will conclude today with my series of sermons on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. It was four Sundays ago that I began in on this area of Christian religion. Recall part of our Collect from that Day: “Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.” Well, we do not properly pray if we say words that we do not grasp and have a decent handle on as far as their meaning. And what understanding we might have already of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity can always be renewed and deepened; it is the very nature of Christianity that we continually revisit and in so doing, re-experience, the terms and principles we use to attempt to grasp the revelation about ultimate reality—God—that is in Jesus Christ, and in Him definitively.

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Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 3”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 27, Year C).

Today is Stewardship Sunday. This is the day each year when we reflect on what it means to be a steward. A steward is someone who looks after something, protects something. Specific to us, we reflect on what it means to look after this church, and what it means to protect this church. By “church,” we mean certainly the physical structures, care of the buildings, the roof, the furnace, the organ, the windows; we also mean care of the people who worship here; and we also mean protecting and caring for the culture in this church, the “feel” of being here that we often do not notice because it is so obvious, the sense of life, the sense of sacred in this space, the sense of holiness and the active, burning and real presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

No mature or even semi-mature person needs to be told that the care and protection of a church’s physical structures, the people, and sacrality requires an ongoing financial commitment on the part of the members of that church. Later this week you will receive in the mail pledge cards that ask you to tell the treasurer of the church the amount of your pledge for next year, so that the treasurer, along with the Vestry, can make an intelligent budget for our church in the two thousand seventeenth year after the birth of Our Lord.

It is said, of course that we give to the church not only treasure, but also time and talent. This is true, but there is more to it than that. First and foremost, we are to give our prayer. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our heart must be in our prayer life. Some kind of prayer every day of the week — both using the official prayers of the Church in the daily Offices, and personal prayer through our conversations with God — comes before money in importance to church stewardship. As an aid to healthy prayer, the Church commends the practice of self-sacrifice, of self-denial. We all need activities that bring to us private joy. Yet can we commit or recommit to an activity the sole purpose of which is to give greater glory to God? Attending a weekday service at either of the two churches in this Parish, praying Morning or Evening Prayer at home, finding a godly book to read devotionally, beginning a contemplative or silent prayer practice, are good places to start.

And let us never forget mercy! “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Being merciful is another primary way to practice stewardship. It begins with being kind, forgiving and patient with those in our parish family, and continues of course to those in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. The classic “corporate works of mercy” —to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead—flow out of our prayer life and flow out of our practice of self-denial.

Our works of mercy, and in fact all of our prayer, sacrifice, and acts of stewardship as I have described, presuppose the virtue of Faith as a growing habit of wanting to learn about the character of God, the nature of Jesus Christ who never abandons us to the power of death, who comes to our help, so that in seeking Him we might find Him. God is a stupendously rich Reality — the alone boundlessly rich Reality. His outward action throughout the Universe — His creation, preservation and direction of the world at large — is immensely rich.

All of this is to say that our works of mercy, our prayer, our sacrifice—our stewardship—very much reflect our sense of Hope. This is true certainly in the common sense of the word, whereby we have trust that goals difficult to achieve can be reached. Can this Parish survive twenty, thirty, fifty more years? It may seem today to be a difficult goal to achieve. Yet Hope in the Christian context, as a theological virtue, as a habit, is based on the conviction that God wants all things to live and is constantly at work to lead us to fulfillment. Hope is the habit of feeling confident in His abiding assistance. If we feel confident of God’s abiding assistance, then we display to some degree a truly Christian Hope. And if we display Christian Hope, then our stewardship—prayer, sacrifice, works of mercy, and, yes, a pledge of money for the next year—is certainly necessary, but also natural, fitting, and joyful. Our stewardship becomes a blessing, because it comes from our love of God, it is filled with God’s Spirit, and received by God to the greater glory of His Holy Name.

In order to underscore the importance of Hope to Christian Stewardship, I want to read a summary of an event that happened one week ago, on Oct 30. This summary comes from the Times of Israel, on their website. The title of the article is “First Mass in Two Years held in Iraq’s Main Christian town”:

A handful of faithful gathered in a burnt out church Sunday for the first mass to be celebrated in two years in Qaraqosh, which was once Iraq’s main Christian town. Iraqi forces retook Qaraqosh from the Islamic State group days earlier, as part of a massive offensive to wrest back the country’s second city Mosul.

Hear the words of Yohanna Petros Mouche, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, who officiated the Mass with four priests: “After two years and three months in exile, I just celebrated the Eucharist in the cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the Islamic State wanted to destroy. But in my heart it was always there.”

In June 2014, IS jihadists took over swathes of Iraq, also taking Mosul where the archbishop was based. He moved to Qaraqosh, a town with a mostly Christian population of around 50,000 that was controlled by Kurdish forces and lies east of Mosul in the Nineveh plain. But a second jihadist sweep towards Kurdish-controlled areas two months later forced around 120,000 Iraqi Christians and members of other minorities to leave their towns and villages. “We had no other choice but to convert or become slaves. We fled to preserve our faith. Now we’re going to need international protection,” a priest said.

Donning a resplendent chasuble and stole, Mouche led mass on an improvised altar in front of a modest congregation. [Let me add photographs suggest a congregation of about three dozen, standing for the entire Mass around a small altar with tea lights for candles; the church itself is in ruins, blackened and grey, full of ashes everywhere. The scene looks post-apocalyptic to say the least.]

“I can’t describe what I’m feeling. This is my land, my church,” said a local militiaman who attended the Mass. “They used everything against us: they shot at us, they sent car bombs, suicide attackers. Despite all this, we’re here.” The bell tower of the church was damaged, statues decapitated and missals and other books strewn across the nave floor, which is still covered in soot from the fire the jihadists lit when they retreated. But some of the crosses have already been replaced and a new icon was laid on the main altar, where the armed militiamen took turns to light candles.

“This church is such a powerful symbol that if we hadn’t found it like this, damaged but still standing, I’m not sure residents would have wanted to come back,” Mouche said. “But the fact that it’s still here gives us hope.”

And the fact that we are still here gives us hope.

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Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 2”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of All Saints.

I said previously that I would be exploring the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity as a kind of running theme over the course of several sermons. Recall that I said that these three virtues are potentials in every human being, gifts given us when we were knit by God in our mother’s womb, and that the cultivation of these virtues through religious practice makes us not like the Pharisee who exalts himself, but like the tax collector, who humbles himself and can only say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It is also true that cultivation of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity makes us more like the Saints of the Church. It is very helpful, I think, to recall that the Saints, and not intellectual biblical theologians, are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. The Saints are those of the baptized who have lived out their membership in Christ most fully. Doing that, making that journey, living out our membership in Christ to the fullest extent possible, is really what the Bible is for. The purpose of Holy Scripture is to help us love Jesus more and more; when we contemplate Holy Scripture, we allow the Holy Spirit to throw logs on the fire in our heart. Continue reading

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Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 1”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 25, Year C).

We should not be too hard on the Pharisee. I say that for two reasons. The first is that although the Pharisee is claiming for himself a high standard of pious observance, and while liturgical evidence from that era does suggest that the Pharisee is acting above and beyond the norm, his fasting, his tithing, and even his comparison between himself and the tax collector is not that far beyond the pale, for that religious context.

The second reason why we should not be too hard on the Pharisee is that if we are hard on the Pharisee, if we regard him too strongly, too rigorously as an undesirable example of loving God, if we decide we are not like this Pharisee, then we are replicating the error ourselves that Jesus invites us to avoid. In too strongly and too rigorously condemning the Pharisee, we do to the Pharisee exactly what the Pharisee did to the tax collector. It is a bit of a trap laid for the too pious among us, and we must avoid it. Remember, God has a wicked sense of humor. Continue reading

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Homily: “Religion and the Dark Night of the Soul”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 24, Year C).

Luke’s introduction to this parable is unusually explicit. This is a parable, he writes, about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. I could stop my homily right here because this is straight teaching about religion, straight teaching about parish life, and straight teaching about how to make Mission happen: pray always and do not lose heart. If there is an open secret in the religious life, at the center of it all, it is that.

The majority of the time, teachings about religion in the Gospels requires a bit more work to find. If the Gospels are like a tall tree, full of the most wondrous and delicious fruit ripe on its branches, the teaching that we need to pray always and not lose heart would be a fairly low-hanging fruit, able to be reached by the wee-est of children. It may not be easy to follow — for to pray always is something of a challenge, and the instruction to not lose heart is good and holy until, well, we lose heart and are left wondering, Ok, what do I do now?

To lose heart at times throughout our life, whether a day here or a day there, or even for longer spells, should never be regarded as alien to our pilgrimage, but a natural part of it. In fact, when we grow into maturity in the Christian faith, the journey in some respects does not get easier, but harder: each morning when you wake up can be a profound test of faith.

There is no more dramatic recent example of this than Mother Teresa, Continue reading

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Homily: “Religion and Angels”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels, 2016.

We come in the liturgical year to the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. This feast day enjoyed great popularity in medieval England, and the wider British lands of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well. So much so that it came to be known as “Michaelmas,”—“Michael’s Mass”—with the same shortened treatment that Christmas, or “Christ’s Mass,” received in popular piety. It was also important because it was a turning point in the English economy each Autumn, for it was seen as the official end of the harvest season, and hence new servants were hired, debts paid. Also, the universities began their terms after this day. One of my seminaries, Nashotah House, still calls its fall semester, “Michaelmas Term.”

Michaelmas showed up, as Church festivals often did (and still do), on the dinner table. It was customary to eat goose on Michaelmas Day; there was a kind of bread called “St Michael’s Bannock” that is a relative of the scone; and Michaelmas, according to English folklore, was “last day that blackberries should be picked. It is said that on this day, when Lucifer was expelled from Heaven, he fell from the skies, straight onto a blackberry bush. He then cursed the fruit, scorched them with his fiery breath, spat and stamped on them and made them unfit for consumption! And so the Irish proverb goes: ‘On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on blackberries.’” There is even a “Michaelmas Daisy,” a kind of Aster whose color ranges from deep pink to light purple. With the Weiner Roast last evening outside the vicarage at All Saints’ as part of our Michaelmas revelry, we participated in an age-old festival and added—with hot dogs and s’mores and the rest—a particularly American spin.

Three years ago, as a lowly seminarian, I was invited to preach on Michaelmas. In conversations with the Rector of the Parish in the week leading up to the Feast, I indicated to him that I had become surprisingly enthralled with the subject of Angels. Hearing my enthusiasm, he invited me to do a Sermon Series, which I gladly accepted. One of the bits of research was to ask my then eight-year-old daughter Twyla, “What do you think angels are all about?” What she said was, “Angels are all about God.”

As I said then, and I say again now, I do not think I could express it any more succinctly. Angels are all about God.

Angels are all about God in two ways. The first way Angels are about God is because they are around God, who is sitting on His throne. Angels are serving and worshiping God, the countless throngs of angels that stand before God to serve Him night and day, beholding the glory of his presence— “day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev 4:8). Lest that sound like a fanciful sentiment, do understand that the Church has long understood the purpose of what we call Morning and Evening Prayer—traditionally called the “Divine Office” and a central pillar of our religion—to be pure praise of the type that the Holy Angels sing unceasingly in their ministry; so that in Morning and Evening Prayer, even three people in a chapel on a quiet weekday evening, we join the Angels in their unending chorus of praise. Because our prayer joins with the chorus sung by the angels, we are around the Throne of God in Morning and Evening Prayer.

The second way angels are about God is in their identity. The meaning of angels is not found in who they are, for all we can say is that they are spiritual beings; the meaning of angels is found rather in what they do. Angels are messengers that announce—that is what “angel” means. What they do is what they are named. For example, Michael means “who is like God?” because he confronted prideful, puffed-up Satan with that very question. Satan, another angel, means “the opposer” or “the accuser” because of his accusing activity toward God. Saint Michael is ever a reminder that when we are puffed with pride, like Satan and his unholy angels, we will fall, and continue to fall until we become humble, at which point we are able again to praise God and receive his blessings. When we have humility, another pillar of our religion, we have angels to thank.

It is through humility that we can receive and respond to the message brought to us by angels. The good or holy angels, being messengers like the Angel Gabriel, who brought to Blessed Mary the message that she was to become the Mother of God, pending her free consent—they disclose God’s good news of salvation and vocation in ways that we can perceive and respond to. God’s will for us, who He wants us to be, becomes available to us through the ministry of angels. Whenever we understand anything about God—that is, about reality, because faith’s name for reality is God—we have an angel to thank. Angels translate God’s message to us. God’s message, which is His love, resides in its fullest sense in “light inaccessible,” so the angels render that light accessible to our minds. All revelation we receive—whether in life’s peak moments, life’s valley moments, or life’s mundane moments—come from angels.

This led perhaps the most celebrated Christian theologian of the Western Church, Saint Augustine (who died in the early 5th century) to remark that “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel.” Is that not a staggering thought? Every perceivable thing in this universe is put under the charge of an angel, and angels are all about God. With the contemplation of this truth, all of reality lights up, and all of creation dazzles like the waving robes of those whose faces see God. How appropriate, then, are Jacob’s words from our first reading, when he awoke from his sleep: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is truly the gate of heaven.”

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

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Homily: “Religion and Disobedience”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 20, Year C). Cross-posted from the Parish of Tazewell County.

In this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, what kind of narrative is this? Not a narrative of events that actually happened, in the sense that there was a particular beggar to whom our Lord was referring. If there was such a beggar—and I should add, there may have been, for there is no way to prove or disprove the historicity of this beggar based on the account given to us by Saint Luke—if there was such a beggar, that is not the primary point of Our Lord’s teaching. This is not a history lecture by our divine professor.

“The narrative is a representative narrative: a narrative of what is constantly occurring under the form of a typical incident; a typical narrative of what is again and again happening — God’s judgments come on men and women for their sin.” [1] We see this all throughout the Old Testament. A classic example is the story of Adam and Eve, who because of their sin (their choices that separated them from God’s will) receive judgment. We see this dramatically in the account of the Great Flood, also from Genesis. A whole society makes choices that separate themselves from God. “Again and again teachers of righteousness are sent to warn of coming judgment and a ridiculed by a world which goes on buying and selling, using and wasting, feasting and drinking, bullying and oppressing, till the flood of God’s judgment breaks out and overwhelms them.” [1] We are back to the need to understand the role that analogy plays in interpreting Holy Scripture. We are not Adam and Eve, we are not the people that perished in the Great Flood — but we can act like them in the choices we make. Continue reading

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Homily: “Religion and a Sense of Humor”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 20, Year C). Cross-posted from the Parish of Tazewell County

We have a story about a rich man who learns somehow that his manager—that is, his steward—has been mismanaging the rich man’s money. This is not a story about stealing, or embezzlement, the scholars tell us. This is more a story about incompetence—this manager has probably made some poor decisions and the hemorrhaging of money can go on no longer, deems the rich man. Something has to be done, and so the rich man confronts the manager, and tells him your days are numbered, so do what you can to fix it. Not exactly the glorious vision of the Transfigured Lord, not exactly the world glistening white with Jesus.

One might reasonably imagine the disciples, having this story dropped on them, might be a little perplexed. This, from the Son of God? This from the anointed one? This, from the savior of the world?

Apparently, Our Lord wants to teach us about religion through a story about a man who is dishonest, corrupt and effectively untrustworthy. Perhaps some of the more snarky of Jesus’ followers may have quietly said to themselves, “Oh that Jesus, there he goes again.” Continue reading

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Archbishop Fisher: “We have no doctrine of our own”

“The Anglican Communion, with its fellowship of Churches, has a special responsibility at this time in the world. We have no doctrine of our own—we only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition or diminution. We stand firm on that rock. We know how to bring to bear on our Christian devotion and creed all the resources of charity and reason and human understanding submitted to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So we have a freedom and embrace a faith which, in my belief, represents the Christian faith in a purer form than can be found in any other Church in Christendom. That is not a boast. It is a reminder to us of the immense treasure that is committed to our charge — the immense responsibility on us in these days to maintain unshaken those common traditions that we have inherited from those who have gone before us.”

That is Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher, 99th Archbishop of Canterbury, quoted in Church Times, 2 February, 1951, pg 1. Click here for a PDF of the entire front page.

 

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Homily: “Religion and Formation, Part 2”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on Holy Cross Day, 2016. Cross-posted from the Parish of Tazewell County.

Holy Cross Day is a feast that has different names throughout the wider Church. In the Roman Catholic Church it is known officially as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, yet recently was also called the Triumph of the Cross. I like how the Greek Orthodox tradition calls this day the “Raising Aloft of the Honored and Life-Giving Cross.” Despite the variety of names, is a solemn feast that traces to very early in the Church, at least to the mid-fourth century, meaning that Christians have been keeping this celebration for perhaps one thousand, seven-hundred years. By celebrating this Holy Day today we join an immense cloud of witnesses that celebrates it with us — celebrates and adores our Savior Jesus Christ who, in the words of our Collect, was “lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself.”

That is a wonderful line from our Collect, and it echoes what Saint John quotes Jesus as saying: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” There are additional ancient texts of John’s Gospel that have Jesus drawing not only all people to him, but all things of any kind: in effect suggesting that what is drawn to himself is reality as a whole. That all reality is drawn to Jesus is an image that, while perhaps staggering in its immensity, indeed too much for the human mind to be able to comprehend in its totality, nonetheless is fitting, is it not? For it was through Jesus that all things were made, and without him was not anything made that was made. (I am quoting of course from the opening verses of Saint John’s Gospel.) If all reality was made through Him, then in His glory on the cross, all reality returns to him, and all reality to Him is reconciled.

With all things in the universe drawn to Jesus raised high on the cross — and we cannot leave anything out here, whether from the vast swathes of interstellar space, all the stars and planets and galaxies fitting in quite nicely next to our beloved little doggies and kitties — you put all of creation together, reconciled to Jesus, and what might emerge is the kind of brilliant white light around Jesus; much like, perhaps, the raiment, white and glistening that Peter, John and James witnessed on the mountain at the Transfiguration of Jesus. What to do with that almost mystical vision, certainly as profound an image as they come, I do not know, save to sit with it, to love it, to reflect upon it quietly — all of reality glistening with Jesus — to allow the Holy Spirit to teach and guide you into truth about the Light Inaccessible. For to sit with, love, and reflect upon Jesus is to ponder him in your heart, the example given to us by Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, the model disciple.

Now I mentioned last week that today would be Part 2 of a kind of sermon series about Formation. This coincides with the kick-off of two Adult Study Classes in our Parish, one at Saint Paul’s and one at All Saints’. And there are two statements I made last week that I want to say a bit more about today.

The first statement was that “Formation is the process by which we continue the journey to have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” I want to underscore that, because without seeing the process by which we gain understanding about Faith as a journey, we may not know where to begin, and we may not feel comfortable trying to articulate the questions that we have. When we are talking about the Christian Faith, the axiom is quite true: there are no bad questions. Formation begins with asking questions, whatever they might be, about our experience with God — this is as true for us today as it was for the first Christians trying to make sense of the Day of Pentecost. When we ask questions honestly, we find that somehow or another, we live into the answers, which leads to still more questions, and more living into the questions, and that is why we talk about journey, or “pilgrimage.” At all times and in all kinds of formation, we are guided by the Holy Spirit who helps us to begin to make sense of Jesus raised high on the cross, drawing all reality to him in glistening, breathtaking white light. Exploring even that one image is the work of a lifetime — it begins in this life and continues into the next.

The other statement I made was that “Adult formation is crucial to the survival of the Church today, and the survival of this Parish.” That is true because that is how the Church has always survived. While there can be no question that our current situation, in the wider Church and in our Parish, is a challenging one, be sure that this is hardly the first time the Church has faced difficulty. Whether it was vicious fights in the early centuries about heresy and true doctrine, not to mention the regular persecution of the early Church and all its martyrs (like Saint Lucy), or whether it was dealing with catastrophes from the Bubonic Plague or the ravages of war, the Church on earth has faced peril, more or less from day one. But it survives through Christians, formed spiritually and theologically in Faith, who pass on the revelation community to community, family to family, even person to person, at all times anchored in the Liturgy of the Church.

To be a disciple is to be trained by God, slowly and patiently to appreciate, to love, to adore the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, while available to the wider public, did not form the multitudes—he did not even try. He focused the vast majority of his attention, his care, and his teaching on the twelve disciples. He was raised up high on the cross for the sins of all people for all times. “Christ is the savior of the whole world, and it is important to realize that apart from a few square miles in the Middle East, he did not bother to look at it.” [1] Rather, he slowly guided a small group of people to become a true rock upon which His Church could be built—a group of people about the size of our Parish. To a small group he presented unfathomable mysteries that the Church is still trying to make sense of, to work out in fear and in trembling, mysteries the Church must protect, adore, and share with each new generation. As we gather in our Formation classes whether these two starting up now or in formation classes in the future, do know that less important is coming up with the right answers as it is forming the right kinds of questions, and doing so in community.

Let me conclude by noting that we petition God in our Collect to grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Brothers and sisters, Jesus reaches out to us from the cross with loving arms, and warm hands. His cross is the “source of all blessings, the source of all graces, through it, from our weakness, the faithful receive strength; from shame, glory; from death, life.” [2] This is the grace we must have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. If we believe in him, we believe that he is the true light come into the world. May we believe in this light, that we may become sons of light. And formed by this light, our faces, like Moses’, might shine to others.

[1] Martin Thornton, Pastoral Theology, chap. 6.
[2] Leo the Great, Sermon LIX, On the Passion, VIII: on Wednesday in Holy Week.

Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: “Religion and Formation, Part 1”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 18, Year C)

Sometime this past week, Fall happened. I believe it was Tuesday morning as I recall, just before the service of Morning Prayer at All Souls’ Chapel in Pekin. The temperature dropped; perhaps — and I am guessing and have not looked this up — the barometric pressure shifted. In any case, the signs of Autumn are all around: it is Labor Day weekend, schools have been filled with children for several weeks, the outdoor swimming pools are closed for the year, major league baseball teams have called up their best prospects from the minor leagues, the Marigold Festival kicks off this week, my own family is starting to plan for apple-picking in local orchards—and, well, you all could probably add your own “signs of Autumn.”

From my role, constantly looking at this Parish as a whole from a pastoral perspective, one of the changes that Autumn brings is the gathering and regathering of groups of parishioners for formation classes. It is exciting to me, personally, that this is happening at both at Saint Paul’s church and All Saints’ church. It is exciting because it is through adult formation experiences that we can strengthen bonds in our parish family, ask questions that can lead down new creative paths, and reinforce personal bonds with each other as well as with Jesus Christ.

As I have told many of you, I was blessed in my previous parish with the invitation to lead adult formation classes for four years. This not only forced me to bring down to earth what can be the rarefied air of seminary studies — formation really is where the rubber meets the road—but also it was an opportunity to learn how to listen to God and how He can speak to us, beckon us, entice us—and to do so in the usually quiet times within a small group of adults. One of the many insights I took away from that experience of being a parish catechist is that the riches of the Christian faith are inexhaustible. It is a great blessing to us today to have two thousand years of recorded reflections by devout Christian men and women at our disposal, even at our fingertips.

Because the role of adult formation is so crucial to survival of the Church today—including, I strongly believe, the survival of this Parish—I will not only speak this morning about Formation, but I will do so next Sunday as well—something of a two-part Sermon series. Yet in both cases, I will ground whatever I have to say in the appointed Lessons from Holy Scripture. And so, in that Spirit, what do we hear this morning that calls us to reflect upon the importance of formation? We hear it in Jeremiah:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.

God wants to form us. And who would not want to be clay in the hands of God? God has made the most beautiful and stunning things we have seen—he is the architect of everything in the universe—such beauty, to paraphrase our Psalm, “too wonderful for us; it is so high that we cannot attain to it.” God’s nature is Love. God can only form us into more and more loving creatures. It is he that makes us, and not we ourselves. So may we consent to be like clay in the hands of our loving God!

We also hear about formation from Paul in his Epistle to Philemon:

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Formation is the process by which we continue the journey to have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Without formation, we have only a partial understanding, if even that. Note as well how for Paul, formation happens in the context of sharing faith in the community. Formation does not happen in isolation. Individuals cannot form themselves. Community is essential.

I often base my thinking about Christian life on what happened on the Day of Pentecost. As I have recounted many times, everything fundamental we can say about Parish life can be derived from the response of the People to the Coming of the Holy Spirit. Saint Luke tells us they continued in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Formation relates to all three dimensions of the prayer life, but it is part of that first one: “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” Our faith in all its dimensions traces from the apostles’ and what they taught of their experience with Jesus, and that experience is only communicated in community that meets also to break bread and for prayer. Formation, then, is not an option, but necessary. And it is also Prayer. Again from our Psalm: “How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them!” True formation is not learning the right answers on a test, but being thrown into prayer, thrown into wonder and awe.

Finally in our Gospel, formation is one way to interpret the entire passage. We must hate our family members not in the way we feel about them—we are to love our family members—but we are to see Jesus as more important even than the mother and father we love, the brothers and sisters we adore, the spouse to whom we are devoted. If we do not choose to love God and make him our first priority, even above our family, we cannot be his disciple, Jesus is saying. And yet in order to choose Jesus, our choice must be an informed one. All the best choices we make in life usually come from being educated about the choice we face—whether building a tower, fighting a war, or choosing the food we eat, clothes we wear, the company we keep, or where we spend what money we might have. And formation teaches us about Jesus so we know about Him that we are choosing. Without formation, the choice we think we might be making about Jesus may not in fact be about Jesus at all.

Formation is the opportunity we give the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the other people gathered, through whatever it is that is being studied, whether a text from the Bible or something else. Formation can be a crucible that forges our character in the shape God intends it to be. The concluding line from our Gospel reads, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” That is not “give up” in the sense of give away, but rather in the sense of “offering it up” to God—to place everything we have on the Altar and allow God to reveal their purpose. Our Collect begins, “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” May we all give our hearts to God, day in and day out. And may He give them back to us formed like clay in His hands in an ever-deeper understanding of Him, so that we may truly carry his cross into our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods as disciples of Jesus—always thanking God because we are marvelously made.

Cover image “Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: “Religion and the Wedding Banquet”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 17, Year C)

Religion is how we love God. It is through our religion that we are able, by the grace of God, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. In our Collect this week—and let me point out here that the Collect is provided to us by the Church not only as an important prayer on a given Sunday, but as a gift for each day of the following week, that is, today through Saturday; to take time during the week, even every day, to reflect on the Collect is a good and holy activity; for when we pray with the Collect at home, we emphasize the relationship between Sunday worship and our home life, and we invite that relationship to bear fruit—in our Collect, we affirm that all good things come from God: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things. That is, we affirm that He is the creator and we are His creatures—we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

We need to constantly, every day, many times a day even, affirm this right relationship between ourselves and God. We need this because when we are aware of the right relationship between ourselves and God, we are far less prone to sin, that is, to make choices that lead into degrees of separation from God. When we are aware—really aware, not merely intellectually, but profoundly—of the right relationship between ourselves and God, of Creator and Creature, then almost immediately humility grows in our bodies and souls, and fills our heart—humility fills us so that our souls, to quote Blessed Mary, magnify the Lord. Constantly recalling this right relationship, and living and being into that relationship, is what Saint Luke is telling us today: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Jesus is speaking of how we are to act at a wedding banquet. Brothers and sisters, we do this passage from Saint Luke a great disservice if we make it too small. The wedding feast is not small, but large—inexpressibly large. We must recall that throughout Scripture Jesus presents himself as the Bridegroom, and the Church as His Bride. The wedding feast, then, is the relationship between God and the Church.

Lest that sound abstract, let me be quite specific: we are amid the wedding banquet right now, because the Mass is the “sacred banquet in which, through the communion of the body and blood of the Lord, the people of God share the benefits of [Christ’s] sacrifice, renew the new covenant with us made once and for all by God in Christ’s blood, and in faith and hope foreshadow and anticipate the [heavenly] banquet in the Father’s kingdom” [1].

This is what is meant by wedding feast—not small, but incomprehensibly immense. God is the author and giver of all good things—and He gives all good things for our enjoyment, because in enjoying and celebrating what God has made, we enjoy and celebrate Him. That happens in more abundance the more that the love of God’s Name is, to quote our Collect, grafted in our hearts. It happens as God, to again quote our Collect, increases in us true religion.

Religion is how we love God. Religion is how God nourishes us—religion is what nourished the first Christians at the Day of Pentecost, for what issued forth from what must have been that stupendously powerful day was religion: Saint Luke wrote that they continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42). We ask God to increase this in us—increase in us true religion, says our Collect. Meaning, there is false religion—activity that instead of binding us to God, binds us to false gods, idols, or lies. The mark of true religion is that through it, God is glorified: more specifically, the mark of true religion is the bearing of fruit—good works that give glory to God’s holy and mighty Name.

And lest that sound abstract, let Saint Luke be quite specific: Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

So, we might ask ourselves, are we no longer to share meals with our friends or members of this Parish? In the words of Saint Paul when he often presents such a question, By no means! Jesus himself shared many meals with his friends, that is, the disciples, and the first Christians shared fellowship and broke bread together constantly, so the lesson here lies in a different meaning.

If we are to represent Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, then we are to share His living bread—that is, the Gospel, the good news of Christ—with people around us. Sharing the Gospel, proclaiming the Good News, is a banquet: an encounter with God. We are told to seek out this encounter with the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Seek out such people who suffer in those ways physically—actually poor, actually crippled, lame and blind—and we are to seek out those who suffer in those ways spiritually. Those who are poor are bereft of hope, of the saving help of Christ; those who are crippled and lame know the right direction in life but are unable to follow that path because of frailty and weakness; those who are blind cannot see the heavenly light because they are oppressed by the darkness of the present life.

We invite these people to the banquet not by proselytizing but simply by loving them. But do realize the challenge Jesus demands we face: “We must remember, that we have a great work to do, many enemies to conquer, many evils to prevent, much danger to run through, many difficulties to be mastered, many necessities to serve, and much good to do; many children to provide for, or many friends to support, or many poor to relieve, or many diseases to cure; besides the needs of nature and of relation, our private and our public cares, and duties of the world, which necessity and the providence of God have adopted into the family of religion” [2]

If this sounds imposing—and I believe it should—all the more reason to ask God daily for the grace and power to faithfully accomplish His work. Religion is how we love God, but it is God that gives us the ability to love Him. Let us pray:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] Pope Paul VI, Eucharisticum mysterium 3 a.
[2] Jeremy Taylor, Rule for Holy Living, I.

Cover image “Marriage at Cana” by Giotto is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: “Religion and the Crippled Woman”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 16, Year C)

A thought crossed my mind this week, and it went something like this. “We hear about Jesus curing a crippled woman—crippled for eighteen years. Am I going to be able to continue to focus on what Saint Luke can teach us about religion, when this incident is pretty remote from our experience as a Parish?” “Furthermore,” to continue the thought, “those of us who do have trouble walking are far too intelligent to expect that after hearing this Gospel, or even receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, they will no longer have trouble using their legs.” Life in the Church, even among the most very faithful, does not seem to match the picture painted by Saint Luke. So it seems that we have a problem—namely, a Gospel reading about Jesus performing a miracle that, as a whole, does not seem to be relevant to religious life like ours in the Parish of Tazewell County, in any way, shape or form.

In fact what this demonstrates is why biblical fundamentalism is not a sustainable approach to understanding Holy Scripture. Now, fundamentalism in and of itself is not entirely devoid of merit. What fundamentalism ever reminds us to do is pay attention to the words on the pages of the Bible, for the words of the Bible reveal truth; these words are sacred words, prayed over quite literally for thousands of years. What hopes, what tears, what dreams, what light hang on the words of each and every book of the Bible! As Saint Benedict wrote nearly 1,500 years ago: “What page or what utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not a most unerring rule for human life?” In our passage today—a woman crippled by a spirit for eighteen years, able finally to straighten up, and praise God! And so we certainly can hear this miracle, and know that if Our Lord can do that, He can certainly help us in our needs, whatever our needs may be.

The fatal flaw of fundamentalism, within the context of parish life, is that a fundamentalist reading of this passage can go little further than that helpful but overly general sentiment. It is true that such a straight reading shows us that Jesus in this moment is counter-cultural, and cannot be boxed in by the rules of Jewish law—much like, you recall, how he could not be boxed in at his Transfiguration by the booths Saint Peter offered to build. His reasoning is certainly clear: if any activity at all is done on a holy day, then healing should be done, because humans have the highest value of any creature on earth. Jesus gives higher priority to the salvation of souls than to social rules. He actively castigates and condemns a system whereby social rules are given more prominence than grace.

All that is good and holy, and can be seen from a more or less fundamentalist, or “straight,” reading of this passage. But what claim does this passage make upon us? or what guidance does it give us on our journey into unity with God? It is important for our lives, we might be told, because Jesus is the performer of miracles. Yes, but how? How is it important for our lives — meaning, how does this fact actually impinge upon our prayer, both liturgical and personal?

One key to learning about religion from Scripture, and from the life of Jesus as reported by the Evangelists, is the principle of analogy. Because rarely if ever will there be a direct, one-to-one correspondence between what is described in Scripture and the conditions we face today as Christ’s Body, we can look to analogy to make the leap, so to speak, from the revelation in Scripture to guidance in our prayer life.

Let me give a specific example pertinent to this reading. Saint Gregory the Great, a late 6th-century Pope, and commemorated on our calendar on March 12, taught that if a person is “lame,” that person “sees the way that he ought to go but through the infirmity of intention is unable to keep perfectly the way of life that he sees because, having unstable habits, he cannot rise to the state of virtue and so his conduct is unable to follow in the direction that he desires” [1]. What he is saying is that the crippled woman described by Luke is like a person who sees the way that she ought to go but because of weakness cannot make that walk.

This analogy fits, particularly when we go back to the story and read that this woman was crippled by a spirit—in fact bound by Satan—meaning, bound by choices in which she gave into Pride, and the consequences of those choices—denying, ultimately, that she was a creature made by God, who is beyond time and space. And so, by means of analogy, this woman seems a whole like more like us now, does she not? We all, at some point, give into temptation, make a choice that deep down we know is wrong—whether it is Pride directly, that is, selfish arrogance, or one of the other six major versions of Pride: Envy, Anger, Covetousness, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth—the Seven Capital Sins.

Sin means separation from God—separation from harmony with the created world, through which God reveals His will for us. When we are separated from God through sin, we are not able to praise God fully and humbly. Again, we are like the woman, unable to praise God until the Word of God—Jesus—spoke to her, caused her to straighten up and gave her the grace to fully and humbly praise God Almighty. Can there be any wonder why these sorts of miracles by Jesus delighted the people who had ears to hear and eyes to see!

And so, yes, a straight reading of the text tells us that Jesus was counter-cultural. Yet by analogy we can grasp that the People of God are countercultural the more we accept the presence of Jesus, the grace of his healing word, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. A straight reading of the text tells us that Satan bound a woman for eighteen years, kept her bent over, and unable to praise God. By analogy, we can grasp that the choices we face in our lives have high stakes, because choices based on pride and selfishness separate us from the ability to hear God, which means we cannot delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways—so Satan has us bent over, and Satan has us unable to praise God.

So let us come to Jesus. Let us ever try to hear him. Jesus already sees us, and He is already calling to us. When we know in our hearts, in our inmost being, that we cannot exist without Him, then truly can we hear Him, and truly can He set us free.

[1] Pastoral Rule, para. 11.

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Homily: “Religion and Relationship with Blessed Mary”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Solemnity of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

We have just heard the Song of Mary, known as the “Magnificat” because the first words in Latin translation are “Magnificat anima mea, Dominum”—“My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is embedded within a larger moment in Saint Luke’s Gospel that is known as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That particular moment as a whole is commemorated on our Calendar on May 31st. Mary travels to the hill country in Judah, having been confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and call his name Jesus. That is the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25. Three Calendar days are related to today’s Gospel reading! Anyway, Mary travels to be with Elizabeth, herself bearing a son by the work of the Holy Spirit, that son being Saint John the Baptist.

Just before Saint Luke records this Song of Mary, he tells us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” We hear of course in Elizabeth’s words part of what has become in the Church the Hail Mary prayer. Yet what might be missed is that this moment is in fact the first miracle of Jesus. He sanctified Saint John in the womb of Saint Elizabeth—and Jesus did so by the words of Mary. Can Mary’s words be anything but prayer? No sooner had Mary spoken in prayer than John was sanctified. His first miracle, performed through the prayerful words of his Mother—should this surprise us? It is by Mary that Jesus has come into the world—it is through Mary’s prayer, then, that Jesus might come into our hearts.

The full name for today’s feast is “Saint Mary the Virgin, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Its date on the Calendar of August Fifteenth coincides quite intentionally with what is called in the Roman Catholic tradition as “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Let it be clear that these feasts, despite the different names, are one and the same. The words of our Collect, “. . . you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary . . . ” are everything that is meant by the Assumption of Mary, and the theology of Mary’s Assumption into heaven by God upon the end of her earthly life —or, as is said in Eastern Orthodoxy, her “dormition,” or “going to sleep”—has been widely received within Anglicanism, particularly within parishes.

When we think of Blessed Mary, it is common to immediately think of the Hail Mary prayer. A part we have already heard from the mouth of Saint Elizabeth. Here is the rest: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

So often we hear the words “pray for us” or “pray for me” or “have a particular person in your prayers,” or “keep such and such person in your prayers,” and so on. It is ancient custom in the Church, when celebrating the feast day of a Saint, to ask that Saint on his or her day to pray for us. At my ordination to the deaconate, well over seventy saints were named, after each one was chanted, “Pray for us.” All this while I was prostate on the floor before our bishop. Afterwards he called it a very contemplative moment, and let me tell you, it was a particular hot afternoon in the church. So you can imagine that all the sin got burned right out of me.

To want to know what we are doing when we are doing it is a mark of maturity. And so, when we say, “Pray for us”, what are we saying? This phrase finds its context, first and foremost, in the saints of the Church. What all saintly Christians have in common is a life lived toward Christ in the fullest sense; and so we can say that, in a word, what they have in common is holiness. We ask people who display something of a tangible sense of the holy about them to pray for us. God is at work in them, and his activity is palpable, apparent to the senses, apparent in their life. God is calling them in a focused, discernible and active way.

Of course the best example of holiness is Mary. Luke wants us to know that her soul “magnifies the Lord.” Her “spirit rejoices in God.” These are marks of holiness that I think still apply today. Also notice that Saint Luke would have us hear Mary as echoing the prophets. Her words echo the prophet Isaiah, who wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” Saints, as I have said before, are the best interpreters of the Bible, because the biblical revelation has struck them in a deeply personal way, and as a result they have lived out the biblical revelation within the human condition in a remarkable manner. “Living with the revelation” is the heart of what it means to be a disciple, and from that comes holiness.

When we ask a person to pray for us, we are saying three things at once. The first is that we are asking the person to say or think something that will help us in some way. “Pray for us” is a form of intercession. “Pray for us, because we really need it.” This is obviously a normal way of speaking when we are faced with some difficult challenge or obstacle, or perhaps when we are suffering in a particularly acute way, or we know that a medical procedure is soon to be performed. Because that person exhibits a sense of holy, we are comforted by God through them, and their offering of prayer brings the Peace of Christ to our hearts.

The second meaning of “Pray for us” is we are asking the person to pray because we are not able to. “Pray for us” here means vicarious: say or think something on our behalf, in our stead, because we are not able to do it. Here, through these three words, we recognize that some people have a vocation to pray. A vocation to be a Pray-er, in the sense of something committed and disciplined. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Disciplined, unceasing prayer is a gift. And so when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are recognizing her vocation to full-time prayer, and we are sharing in that vocation. Prayer is a gift that can only be shared. In asking such a person to pray for us, our prayer through them will be a better prayer to God.

Here, then is the fullest understanding of “Pray for us.” “Pray for us” means relationship. When we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her to be in relationship with us, and we are acknowledging our relationship with her. There is a simple, elegant beauty in doing just that. We say “pray for us, Mary” because we know that being in relationship with her is better than not.

When we are in relationship with Mary, and when we think about what it meant for her to be the predestined Mother of God—totally dedicated to the person and the work of her Son—the Christian religion is transformed from a collection of moral principles, biblical sayings and rules, doctrines and ideas into simple life of obedience and love; from spectacular battles in a culture and political war into unspectacular service to others; from trying to control events into active surrender to God’s loving hand in all things. When we are in relationship with Mary, and see the Christian life more and more from her perspective, the true nature of the Christian religion is revealed. For when a poor and powerless young woman was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would bear in her womb the savior of the world, the Son of the Most High, holy Son of God, she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In the face of the unfathomable, the incomprehensible, the seeming impossible, Mary said Yes to God. Who would not want to be in relationship with a person like that? This is why Elizabeth was filled with joy—she recognized in that instant that being in relationship with Mary means being in relationship with the Holy Spirit, filled with the Holy Spirit, and thrown into joyful prayer.

I conclude with a prayer from a seventeenth-century Anglican bishop named Jeremy Taylor.[1] Besides being one of my favorite prayers, I share it because it ought never be said that within Anglican tradition there has not been a strong devotion to Mary. Let us pray.

O Holy and ever blessed Spirit, who did overshadow the Holy Virgin-Mother of our Lord, and caused her to conceive by a miraculous and mysterious manner; be pleased to overshadow our souls, and enlighten our spirit, that we may conceive the holy Jesus in our heart, and may bear him in our mind, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect men and women in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, IV, ad S.6

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

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Homily: “Into the Hearts of Those Who Loved”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County at Saint Paul’s, Pekin during the Mass for Christian Burial of Mary Margaret Baxter, parishioner.

I once received an email from a woman who knew my wife through the graduate school Hannah attended. This woman wrote me seeking ideas about how to answer her children’s questions about their grandmother who had recently died. I believe her daughter was six years old and her son nine years old. This was not a church-going family, to say the least. In fact, I had heard both her and her husband say some pretty nasty things about the church over dinner conversation. They knew I was studying theology, and that did not matter.

The particular question the children had been asking is, “Where did Grandma go?” The mother told me that her children had said, “Grandma must be somewhere . . . where is she?” Despite the mother and her husband being avowed atheists, who even ridiculed Christian believers, she reached out to me in an act, I think, of great courage. I cannot speak to her motivations except the obvious concern she had for her children, who were dealing with death—with the grieving and confusion that so often comes with death—for the first time in their young lives. Because of our media culture—television, video games, movies, even regular stories—death I suspect was not a completely alien concept to these children. They were bright kids with intelligent parents. And this of course was the first time for the mother and father dealing with death from the perspective of a parent. Never had they experienced death—the grieving and confusion of it all—through the eyes of children under their care. We all may think we understand death and dying, and then it happens to someone close to us, and the reality of the strangeness of it all hits us in the face.

So I struggled about how to respond to this question from these particular persons. What I said was, “When a person dies, their body remains here on earth, whether buried or cremated. But who they are goes directly into the hearts of those who loved that person. So,” I continued in my email to the mother, “when you talk with your son and daughter, point to your heart and to theirs, and say, ‘Grandma is right here.’”

This apparently worked. The mother later wrote to thank me for these words. She said they were a great help with her children. I do not share this story to make myself out as a hero. The only hero is Jesus Christ. All I did was proclaim the truth. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And so our relationship with a person who dies does not end — our relationship with the person changes. The closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to our loved ones, because our loved ones live in Jesus and live in his resurrection.

Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him.” Jesus and the Father make their home in our hearts. The heart in the biblical understanding is not only the seat of desires, emotions, thoughts, and plans — it is the primary arena in which we encounter God. God lives and moves and has his being in all places everywhere, and in all his creatures, because through him all things were made. Yet he lives and moves and has his being in a particularly concentrated and focused way in the hearts and lives of the Baptized, who because of baptism are members of his body. Because of Baptism, our body, says Saint Paul, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. And so if the Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — lives in us, lives in our hearts, then so do all the Angels, Archangels, all the company of heaven, all the Saints, and all the faithful departed, including our sister Mary.

To feel confused or perplexed, to grieve for the loss of loved ones, is as perfectly normal part of the process as death itself is a perfectly normal part of life. In our Gospel, Martha was grieving. She wanted Jesus to do something. Yet when we accept our confusion, rest in perplexity, allow sadness to happen as it must — to not fight it — when we proclaim with our hearts the truth of the Christian faith, even as we want Jesus to do something — only then can we realize that he already has, and the joy of the Christian faith can soften and expand our hearts even more.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).

Cover image “Resurrection of Lazarus” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: Religion and the Transfiguration

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

The Church year (from Advent through the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, called Christ the King) amid its inexhaustible riches can be said to broadly focus on two mysteries. From Advent through the Day of Pentecost, we focus on the mystery of Jesus Christ, the life of the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. From the Day of Pentecost through Christ the King, we focus on the mystery of the Church, the life of the Body of Christ on earth and all of visible creation (called the Church Militant), in the Intermediate State of Paradise (called the Church Expectant), and in heaven itself (called the Church Triumphant).

This is pertinent because the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus occurs twice during the Church year. It is always the appointed Gospel for the last Sunday after Epiphany, before the season of Lent; and it is appointed, of course, for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Therefore, the calendar suggests that there are two perspectives upon which to reflect on the Transfiguration. Whereas before Lent, we focus on what the Gospel account reveals about the mystery of Jesus, today we consider what it reveals about the mystery of the Church—the relationship that the angels, saints, faithfully departed, and all the baptized, including us have with Jesus Christ. Bluntly, before Lent, it is “What does this say about Jesus?”; today, it is “What does this say about us?”

All three Lessons involve the image of a holy mountain. The idea of scaling a mountain has remained the classic analogy for spiritual pilgrimage. As a matter of course, what we know about climbing mountains is that it is hard work which requires discipline, courage, stamina—days which are dull, even monotonous, as well days occasionally adventurous and exhilarating, yet so because of the disciplined plod. Moses had already led the Israelites for some time before he had his mountaintop experience, and the twelve disciples, including Peter, John and James, had already followed Jesus for some time before theirs. Mountain-top experiences are relatively rare, and they are the fruits of labor.

One of the purposes of the Feast of the Transfiguration is to be a harvest for us, the People of God, who have been concerned of late with the relatively mundane tasks of religion—the activities by which we praise, reverence and serve our Lord, learning about the means by which our souls are saved; about sin and its cure, humility; religion as summarized in our baptismal covenant: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the daily prayers, and it is lived out representing Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, seeking harmony with the created order, resisting sin: loving God and neighbor. It is very much like the work required to grow vegetables from seed—less the excitement of the planting as much as when the novelty wears off: pulling weeds, watering, pruning. Mundane, yet: ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you—the Church does not teach, labor in the vineyard and the fruits might come; no, the Church teaches, practice religion and they will come.

Historically, the Feast of the Transfiguration traces to about the 4th century, and the earliest evidence points to its origination in early monastic communities in the desert of Egypt. These Christians living austere lives of quiet obedience, strict daily discipline and extended periods daily of silent contemplation began to recognize a liturgical depth in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus becoming dazzlingly white. It became a central feast in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, associated in fact with the harvest season. Newly picked grapes were brought to the Church to be blessed on this Feast. This parallels, incidentally, the medieval English blessing of bread from new crops of wheat on what is still called Lammas Day—or “loaf mass” day, August 1, close to the eastern Feast of the Transfiguration. Transfiguration became an official feast in the West in the fifteenth century, and added to the Episcopal Church calendar about 120 years ago.

The tedium of growing grapes, or wheat; attending Mass week in, week out during long stretches of hot weather—perhaps the Christian religion, Christian obedience gets a bit hum-drum when compared to the fun activities of summer travel, swimming pools, backyard grilling and looking at the stars. Is it too much of a stretch to suspect we might be sometimes lulled into something of a summer stupor, within our air-conditioned homes and cars, our gardens yet to bear fruit or roses?

“Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory.” The transfigured glory of Christ wakens us from our summer slumbering. A rose blossoms in glistening white. Imagine what it must have been like for Peter, John and James. The wonder—the holy awe of it all! Moses and Elijah—both having had mountaintop experiences, and both having had experiences with a holy cloud—speaking of Jesus’s departure, that is, of His Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection. Could there even be words to describe the experience for Peter, John and James? Can we fault Peter for wanting to cling to this moment, to build shelters so that the moment might never end?

We ought not fault him, because despite not knowing the meaning of what he said, God responded with still more glory. A cloud came and overshadowed them—this is a biblical symbol for the presence of the Holy Spirit, overshadowing the three disciples just as Mary was overshadowed at the Annunciation. And entering into the holy cloud, the voice out of the cloud, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice is the Father, speaking to the apostles, and hence to us, like he spoke to Jesus at his Baptism in the River Jordan.

And so this is a fully trinitarian experience—the mountaintop of the mountaintop—and the fulfillment of the voice of the Father is Jesus alone. Jesus is the one we are to listen to. By listening to Him, we will hear the voice of the Law, signified by Moses, and the voice of the prophets, signified by Elijah. Rather than trying to control Jesus, to box him in, we are to listen to him.

Peter, John and James experienced this event, this unspeakable miracle. A biblical miracle is an experience beyond the capacity of language to express its full meaning. The accounts of miracles in Scripture attempt to bring expression to that perceiving in depth. Miracle-language attempts to articulate moments that had within them deep wonder, unspeakable awe and mystery. There is a focusing of God’s activity in a miracle, an intense concentration of the action of God.

And doubtlessly Peter, John and James carried this concentrated experience with them, mostly in silence, or confused wonderment—certainly changed inwardly in the soul like Moses was changed outwardly on the skin of his face. They experienced this miracle, yet still doubted the divinity of Jesus, and at first disbelieved his resurrection. It was only looking back later on this mountain-top event, after the resurrection of Jesus, that they saw not only the depth of the experience but its meaning—that Jesus was both Man and God: a Man who definitively reveals ultimate reality, his manhood fully taken into God. The Transfiguration initiated them into the mysteries of God, but it took time for them to see in this experience its fullest depth, for it to become true prayer.

Saint Peter tells us that we will do well to pay attention, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. We reflect on the Transfiguration of Our Lord because it is a lamp shining in darkness. The primary darkness is not the world at large, but our inward souls. May we keep silence, reflecting inwardly on Jesus transfigured in dazzling and glistening white. And may we, as we climb the mountain by our religion, by faith behold the King in his beauty. And may the day continue to dawn, and the morning star continue to rise in our hearts.

Cover image “The Saviour’s Transfiguration”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: Religion and Covetousness

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 13, Year C)

Over the recent Sunday Gospel lessons, focusing as we have on religion as activity, we have not heard much on the topic of Sin. It has not been entirely absent, however. A creeping pride was implied with the seventy-two disciples returned from evangelism, as well as with Martha amid her hospitality. It was implied strongly toward those who did not help the man who fell among the robbers. It was mentioned prominently in the Our Father prayer—“forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us”—but beyond that, nothing more said.

In today’s Gospel, sin takes center stage. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus implores. In other translations, the word is “covetousness.” Note the strong language from Jesus: “Be on your guard.” And before that, “Watch out!” Jesus wants to get our attention with this teaching.

“Sin” is one of those words that is pervasive not only in the Church but in the wider society as well, and so the true meaning of sin has I think been obscured as a result. Just as we seen the term “religion” in the secular world has a static meaning, quite different from the more dynamic meaning within the Church, the term “sin” within the Church’s most ancient teaching requires a careful understanding.

Sin means separation from God. Sin means separation particularly with respect to our hearts. Let us be clear: we are never separate from God in an absolute sense—that kind of separation means not only death but annihilation. God’s presence is necessary to exist in the most fundamental sense. But we are often separate from God, that is to say sinful, in our will, our choices. In the choices we make, with respect to our bodies, actions, emotions, habits, as well as inwardly in our soul—what captures all of that is the term “heart”; our heart is where we encounter God, and it is in our heart—the center of our being and existence—where we can be very separated from God. When the Church speaks of the unbaptized person, in particular a wee baby, being “born in sin,” it is not in an absolute sense of separation, for that is impossible for a person who is alive; but in that existential sense of the heart that has yet to choose God in an active, intentional way.

Sin, then, is activity. It refers to activity distinct and different from activity born of the desire to love God. Sin is activity without the love of God at its center. Sin is activity with love of oneself, or love of some idol or false god, at its center.

There in fact is only one kind of sin, and that is Pride. Pride is at the root of all sins, which vary only by emphasis. What is Pride? Pride is the denial of the fact of creation; that we are creatures. It is the denial of creaturelihood; for to deny that we are creatures denies that there is a creator, that is, denies God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. Pride is the root of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Cain with his brother Abel, as well as of Satan, the fallen angel who thought he was greater than God. Adam, Eve, Cain, Satan—each misunderstood, in their own way, the nature of the created order. That is, they got the doctrine of creation wrong. The doctrine of creation is that God makes, keeps, and loves all things; all things find ultimate meaning only in God; and all things are to serve God. Activity contrary to that doctrine is sin.

I mentioned that Pride is the root sin, and all other sins vary only by emphasis. This refers to what are called the Seven Capital Sins, or Seven Deadly Sins. The Church teaches there are seven major patterns of sin—that is, seven ways we go awry from the doctrine of creation. All of them are forms of Pride, of denying the fact of creation. The Capital Sins have to do with our relationship to creatures and the created world. When we are in right relationship with creatures, we are close to God, for His will is expressed through His creatures. When we are not in right relationship with creatures, we are separated from God.

Like religion and like sin, “relationship” is not static but dynamic and active. When we speak of the experience of Christian religion, we are speaking about being in right relationship to God through the created world—moment to moment, day to day. We are speaking of activity by which we are in harmony or growing in harmony with God’s creation, and hence in harmony with Him.

In our Gospel today, we hear about the Capital Sin of greed, or more classically, “covetousness.” A rich man builds larger barns to store his possessions. But this is done not for the benefit of God but of the man himself. His sin—the choice that separates him from God and fosters disharmony—is to choose himself as the primary beneficiary of these possessions—grain and goods. This choice creates a relationship with the possessions, these creatures, that is sinful. He is thinking strictly in terms of materialism. He choice thereby denies that there might be any ultimate or divine purpose for the grain and goods that glorifies God. So he does not really love these creatures—the grain and goods—in the Christian sense, because Christian love involves God and neighbor—but rather he loves owning, possessing, even exploiting these possessions.

Covetousness, then, is “a lack of love for creatures—an inordinate love to own, exploit and abuse them. It is materialism, the failure to understand that creatures are to glorify God in their own particular way and to help us to do the same” [*].

We overcome covetousness “not by turning our backs on creation but by trying to admire and understand creatures more perfectly, not by hating things but by loving them more truly” [*]. When we admire and try to understand creatures, we open ourselves to the possibility of God revealing to us spiritually something of their ultimate purpose. Covetousness, or greed, separates us from God, because it denies that creatures have any ultimate purpose. It is a form of Pride, of denying the fact of creation with a particular emphasis on the denial of godly purpose.

The antidote for covetousness is generosity. Yes, that means sharing what we have, what we have been given, with others. The first Christians, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, shared their possessions in common. But it also means being generous in our attitude. We often covet the judgements or opinions about others of whom we do not approve. Our attitude thereby becomes rigid, unbending and final. Historically we have seen such attitudes towards people of other skin colors, social classes, gender, country of origin, or level of education. Or it is because we have been wounded by someone, and understandably harden our hearts toward them. We covet, and hold onto, these attitudes because it allows us to avoid the hard work of loving them, and loving God in them. But loving others does not mean liking them, but adoring the fact that God is as active in their lives as he is in ours.

Let us, by the grace of God, have the self-awareness to recognize when we are being ungenerous in our attitude toward persons or things that bother us, or even that we hate. Let us remember that when we love God, we, by definition, are loving all that God loves—and God loves all his creatures and all his creation, without exception. To begin to conceive the scope of God’s love throws us away from Pride and into Humility—a love that is abundant beyond our comprehension, for God loved all his creatures in the beginning, loves all of them now, and will love all his creatures for ever, world without end. Amen.

[*] Taken from Martin Thornton, The Purple Headed Mountain, chap. 5.

Cover image “Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator)”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

 

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Homily: Religion and the Our Father

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 12, Year C)

We have been looking at the Gospel of Saint Luke for what he can teach us about the patterns of activity of the whole of life as lived by the faithful Christian. We are called to reconcile our lives to Jesus Christ. That is little more than pleasant-sounding sentiment unless we are taught just how to do that. That Our Lord was born, lived, died on a cross, was buried and rose again for the sins of everyone, all so that in rising to Heaven he would leave us lost, confused, and bewildered about how to actually follow him strikes me as simply ridiculous. But he did teach us religion, I strongly maintain. He said He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life: that implies religion. Hence the need to learn what religion actually involves.

We certainly learn by doing, and this is a part of the purpose of liturgy. To take one example, liturgy teaches us about repentance. At the beginning of our liturgy, we as a Body acknowledge that over the last week separateness from God has creeped in, as it inevitably does, and we acknowledge that we have yet to fully grow into the Love to which God calls us; and we pledge to delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, so that all we do may give glory to His holy Name. Reconciling our lives to Jesus means all we do — whether here at the Altar being fed by Word and Sacrament, or in our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces representing Jesus — is to give glory to God, as we are able and according to our gifts.

The Holy Spirit presents himself time and time again, in one opportunity after another each and every day of our life, to be guided toward the voice of Jesus. So that in hearing Him, we grow closer to him as he lives and moves and has His Being in us and all the creatures around us, all of whom are made through Him. Jesus calls us to Him that we may share more and more in the glory of the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We are here for unity with God, and God’s gift to us, given to us through our Baptism, is the capacity to accept what has been given through Jesus. All we need to do is say “Yes” to God when He makes Himself known to us. When we say “Yes” we consent to being closer to Him, being bound to him, tightly wrapped in His love.

It must be that religion, the activity of the faithful Christian, binds us to Love Incarnate. It must be that Love itself binds us, ties us up, and in so doing, gives ultimate freedom. For the activities called “religion” are gifts of Love given at the Day of Pentecost — baptismal fellowship that forms us in the teachings of the apostolic Church; gathering for the Breaking of Bread; and daily Prayer both personal and extemporaneous as well as from the teachings and tradition of the Church.

The patterns of religion, then, involve learning about our forgiving God in community; the asking for and receiving of necessary provisions; and the gathering and dispersing week-to-week in praise of God who has created all things past, present and future.

We can see that the Our Father prayer is the summary of the religious life. It contains, in concentrated form, the patterns of activity of a life growing in Love. Just as a field of vanilla beans is concentrated into vanilla extract, all of religion is concentrated into the Lord’s Prayer. “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come” is an ever-constant reminder that God has created all things, all creatures, and therefore is radically outside the bounds of time and space. “Give us each day our daily bread” asks God for what we need, and asks Jesus, the living bread, to share His Sacred Humanity with us to that we might feel, see, smell, hear, taste and think through his senses. “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” asks for the coming of the Holy Spirit, who unites all creatures to their Creator and who allows us to find forgiveness in our heart. “And lead us not into temptation” acknowledges the triune God’s providential hand in all activities, who provides always a way out when the Devil tries to test us.

Clearly, the Lord’s Prayer is the most important prayer in all of Christianity. Of all the abundance of Jesus Christ’s teaching to us, He in fact only directly taught one prayer, and that is the Lord’s Prayer. The Church has recognized the importance of this prayer by making it central to its religion. It is said when the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is on the altar, and it has always been said during the daily Offices. In fact, liturgical history indicates that the Lord’s Prayer was the first form of the daily Office. Evidence dating to the first century AD, or early in the second, shows that the Lord’s was ordered to be said by the Christian community three times a day, every day. It therefore was the official prayer of the early Church.

The Lord’s Prayer, then, is at the heart of Christian religion. It sums up the aims, aspirations and activity of the Christian life. And the reciting or chanting of the prayer itself became a central of the Christian family. Another gift of our Baptism is that we can be assured that if we respond to grace by participating in the Breaking of Bread each Sunday, and praying the Our Father on a daily basis — not because of duty but because it is a gift from Love Incarnate — we will grow in love and holiness. And there is nothing more infectious in this world, nothing more attractive to potential workers on the harvest, nothing more evangelistic in our neighborhoods, than love and holiness.

Cover image “The Synaxis of the holy and the most praiseworthy Twelve Apostles”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: “Religion — Martha and Mary”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County at All Saints, Morton on the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 11, Year C)

Baptism today is not a given, hence it is a decision that has behind it a great deal of intentionality. Many people no longer think it is necessary to be baptized. They may have no strong opinions against it, but it is no longer even on their radar. In the not too distant past, to be baptized was more a matter of course, even of social custom. People of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came by this honestly. There are some commentators today who look at the changed environment in which the Church lives, and immediately say that those baptisms were less genuine, even more superficial, because “everyone was doing it.”

I am not quite of that view. Any time we look at the past, and do so honestly, we immediately see nothing is as simple as it may first appear. There are so many factors to consider when looking at the past and trying to make judgements. History is complicated. Be that as it may, Christians today in our society can no longer expect that the normal social values and Christian values are one and the same; or even, at times close at all. We are living in a time when Christian values, and the Christian way of living, when compared to values and behaviors in wider society, are what some, including our Bishop, call “counter-cultural.”

To be baptized today is an act that is counter-cultural. And so my first remark is to commend Paul and Brittainy, as well as Tim and David, in deciding to baptize young Anna, as well as their other children. It is a choice that flies into, not with, the prevailing winds of society. Baptism is against the grain. To make this choice is, in the technical sense, what it means to be “authentic.” To be authentic is to take control, or begin to take control, of the direction of one’s life. Paul and Brittainy, Tim and David are doing so on behalf of Anna. This is a decision that requires courage, responsibility, and they all are to be commended in making it.

To be baptized is, in a very particular way, to become a Christian by grace. In the very helpful Catechism found in The Book of Common Prayer, what being a Christian involves is described with clarity. The duty of all Christians, of whatever age, gifts, and level of maturity, is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God. We pray that young Anna will grow into her God-given gifts and into a life of Christian ministry that uses her gifts in the world to the glory of God—to be equipped for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ—of loving God and loving neighbor.

To be baptized is to begin the religious life as members of the glorified Body of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. To be baptized means we have the ability, given freely as a gift from God, to reckon our entire lives to Jesus. The baptized person can see Jesus as the measure of all things, the pattern to be found in all aspects of reality, always the point of departure.

Now to do that, to reckon our entire lives to Jesus—to find in the choices we face how the light of Christ enlightens us—is not easy sometimes. We forget to include God; we become blind to his light. Reckoning our lives—and the best example of doing this is found in Blessed Mary, the Mother of God—requires both quiet moments of contemplation as well as active lives of serving others, of representing Jesus.

We see both examples in our Gospel reading today. Martha welcomed Jesus and the disciples into her home and served the guests—an example of the active life. Her sister Mary sat at the feet of the Lord, listening. She is the example of contemplation. Now although Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way—that is, contemplation, or sheer listening to the Word of the Lord with no distractions—a closer look reveals that Martha is also listening to the Lord. Yes, she is active, perhaps a bit too active, perhaps pride is creeping in, but she is also listening to Jesus. She recognizes that she needs the help of Jesus.

The better way—no matter our lives, our gifts, our responsibilities—is always listening to God, seeking his saving help. What is the better way for Mary is the better way for Martha, and the better way for us. Yet Martha is not a negative example for us, but one very positive and affirming. She welcomes Jesus; she provides hospitality; she talks with Our Lord. She mixes listening and doing, and we are to do the same. Remember she is a Saint, her feast day is July 29, shared with her sister Mary. Saints are the best interpreters of holy Scripture, because their lives express the Gospel.

For as we live our active lives today—our religious lives representing Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces—when we feel overwhelmed, or stressed out by all of the tasks on our to-do lists, tell Jesus. Talk to him, and bring him your complaints, as Martha did. As is taught in our Collect today, God knows our necessities before we ask, even our ignorance in asking.

So be honest, remember Mary, remember the need for quiet contemplation, away from distractions to hear Jesus—yet be like Martha. Live a mixed life of activity and contemplation, according to your gifts. And when the road gets bumpy, do not edit your frustrations, tell Jesus about them. If it means complaining to God about another person, by all means do so—Martha did! But then, like Mary, and like Martha, have the courage, the patience, and the fear of the Lord to listen to him, to wait for his sign, to be guided spiritually, and hence behaviorally, by him. One of the many gifts of Baptism is the assurance that when we listen to him, at some point in time of his choosing, He will speak.

Cover image “Christus im Hause der Martha” by Georg Friedrich Stettner is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: Religion and Our Gifts

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 10, Year C)

Last Sunday I suggested that we can look at Saint Luke’s account of the Sending of the seventy-two for what it says about the nature of religion. While in the secular world, the term “religion” means a system of beliefs, of one form or another, within the Catholic tradition of Christianity, it is in effect a verb. Religion is first and foremost activity.

And so the seventy-two, sent by Jesus into homes to pronounce Peace and proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near — that is sent to represent Jesus to others — is at the heart of religion. We, too, the Body of Christ, are sent to represent Him in the world, sent each Sunday at the Dismissal — go in Peace, to love and serve the Lord — and therefore are presented with opportunity after opportunity to bless the homes around us with the Peace of Christ, and to proclaim in our lives that the Kingdom of God has come near. And then to return the following Sunday, the gathering of His Body, to come to the Altar of God to be reminded of the majesty of the Almighty Father, to meditate on his mighty acts, savoring again how Jesus Christ live, died on the cross, was buried, and rose again for our sins and for the sins of all people, past, present and future, to be enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and to be fed with the Bread of Life, rejuvenated for another week of ministry, of evangelism. Religion, then, is but the special way in which the whole of life is lived by faithful Christian.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and there is perhaps no more well-known parable in all of the New Testament. It repays constant reflection, meditation and contemplation, particularly in the troubled times of today’s society when we seem to hardly go more than a day without learning of some heart-wrenching tragedy. And to meditate upon the Parable looking for what it may say about religion-as-activity—it can teach us here as well. We notice in this passage the strong affirmation of how important it is to ask questions about the teachings of the Church. As I pointed out back in May when I gave a talk during Evening Prayer, there are two primary kinds of questions the first Christians asked on the Day of Pentecost. “What does it mean?” and “What shall we do?” On these two questions hang the health of every Christian community, including this one. These questions give evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and alive.

Now by that I mean, present and alive within the community, within the Parish family. Yet this Parable also makes clear that the Holy Spirit lives and is present outside the community, as well. It is the Parable about the Good Samaritan, not the Parable of the Good Jew. In Jesus’s story, the implication is clear: God teaches and forms the conscience of people outside of His chosen disciples, that is, outside His Church. To rearrange the words of our Collect today and apply it to this Parable, would go something like this: “God granted that this Samaritan knew and understood what things he ought to do; and that this Samaritan had the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” God works outside His elect, outside His Church on earth. His grace fills all in all, for He created all things and fills them with his blessing.

I had a conversation this past week with a man who, as it went, told me that he did not think it was necessary to go to Church in order to treat people with love and respect. And I told him — and I was wearing my collar—yes, agree. And this Parable is one reason why. God reveals the values of human decency, love, respect and dignity beyond those who come to Mass every Sunday. Even more, God bestows gifts upon such people, as he bestowed gifts upon the Samaritan man. See how the Samaritan man shared his gifts — of awareness, pity, bandages, oil and wine; a donkey, good sense and discernment, silver coins, even persuasion. We ourselves may not possess all of these gifts, yet we all possess gifts and talents given to us by God, and in abundance; for our God is not a miser, but has formed us in his image.

To use our gifts to the fullest, we firstly must acknowledge that they come from God, not us — it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; and secondly we must use them as they were meant to be used. This second part demands discernment, because it is not always readily apparent how best to use our gifts. It may take not weeks or months, but years, even decades — sometimes a whole life. The test is this, whatever the gift we may be trying to understand and use, is this gift giving greater glory to God, or to me? Does it lead to the growth of mercy, or does it lead to creeping pride? Does the gift increase health—spiritually and hence behaviorally—or does it lead us to hardened hearts in the face of hunger, fear, injustice and oppression?

Simply put, through our gifts do we represent Jesus in the world? That is the real test. With that in mind, let us hear the words again of our Collect.

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Homily: Religion and Evangelism

Delivered at All Saints, Morton on the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 9, Year C)

As I prepared for this Liturgy, and particularly for this homily, I will admit that an image I could not quite shake was an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony, like the Academy Awards. Now, perhaps the younger people here may have no idea what I mean when I say “Academy Awards.” I suspect that is not altogether a bad thing, to be unfamiliar with this annual event. I have not watched this awards show in well over a decade, but who can forget the image of the announcement, “And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to . . .” and the surprise on the face of the winner, who proceeds to the stage, hugs all the people around him waits for the applause to end, and then breathlessly give an acceptance speech, thanking every person all the way back to childhood who helped that person win this award. A long list! And sometimes the orchestra started to play, cutting the speech off somewhere between thanking the third grade music teacher and that first agent which got that role of an invisible extra on a 30-second toothpaste TV ad.

So while I will not rattle off a list of names, and it could be lengthy, believe you me, I will simply say that I am truly grateful to be here with you all, and I, and my family, are grateful for your prayers, and for the many ways our move to this Parish of Tazewell County, and the Rectory in Pekin, has made us feel welcomed, loved and inspired.

And yet I continued to ponder this image of the acceptance speech. It struck me that many of the speeches, despite even a dozen people being thanked, seemed someone to still be about the actor. Yes, the words were thankful, but the overall spirit seemed more self-centered. I do not have any examples of this, but it is a sense I remember having when I watched these sorts of shows. Yet occasionally there was a winner whose speech really did point beyond that person, and do so in a poignant, touching way. Maybe it wasn’t even the words that actor said in this remarks, as much as the presence he or she had — a dignity, a depth, a strong yet humble presence.

Jesus is pointing to this distinction. The distinction is between, on one hand, a kind of self-centeredness, and, on the other hand, one that is God-centered. The seventy-two (in some ancient manuscripts, it is 70) return from being sent out like lambs among wolves, return from pronouncing Peace to all houses they enter, return from healing the sick, return from proclaiming “The Kingdom of God is near.” They return from representing Jesus to the local community of Samaria, which would have been a hostile environment.

They return, and say to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Now it would be wrong to judge the 72 as bluntly self-centered. I say that because Our Lord did not judge them, as far as Saint Luke relates to us. His response to them is loving. He confirms their accomplishment — “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” And he affirmed the spiritual power they have when they represent Jesus — curing the sick means they have power to overcome all power Satan may have spiritually, and hence behaviorally, over people. And, indeed, the 72 had not forgotten the holy Name of Jesus, and had invoked it in their evangelism.

Yet Jesus is a gentle guide, a wise spiritual director. “However,” he says, “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” He detects a creeping pride. And he reminds them that the greatest glory is not what we do, even when it is God who works through us. Our greatest glory is what God has already done for us. He created us, he called us into covenant with him. So often he gently coaxes us toward into ever-greater humility. This is what the Sacraments are for: gently coaxing us into humility.

This passage from Luke tells us a great deal about the true nature of religion. That word, religion, is so abused today. In this national political season, we have only begun to hear to thrown around like a dagger. In the secular world, “religion” means a system of beliefs. But in the Catholic tradition of Christianity, of which Anglicanism is a part, religion is in essence a verb. It is activity; it is dynamic, not static.

Religion is that activity, that way of living, that ties or binds ourselves to God. It is motion. It is experiential. It is working with people, saying good-bye, and then later on, often seeing them again. Just as the 72 were dismissed by Jesus and sent into evangelism or mission, we are dismissed each Sunday, and sent by God in peace to love and serve the Lord as he lives and breathes in all people, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces. And we return the following Sunday. We return not because our tails are between our legs, usually, but because God calls us and we respond. And he ever-calls us into humility, because only in humility can we serve the Lord.

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Homily: “Catholic Imagination”

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 6, Year C)

A week ago, after Mass, a group of us from Saint Paul’s accepted the invitation from the Rector of All Riverside to accompany him to travel to Hyde Park to hear an address given at Catholic Theological Union. The speaker was Father Richard Fragomeni, who happened to have been one of my professors when I studied theology at CTU. And the topic of the talk was “the Catholic imagination.”

That is, as you well know, a principle that has become increasingly explored here at Saint Paul’s. Father Fragomeni, who in addition to being seminary faculty is the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, gave a talk both entertaining and enlightening. And as his talk neared the end, he took questions, one of which came from the Rector of All Riverside, who asked Fr Fragomeni if he might say a couple words about the notion of “meditation.” Because, I think, the afternoon Mass at CTU was about to begin, Fr Fragomeni being also the celebrant, his answer was perhaps rather short because of time. He did, however, follow up in an email to me the next day.

In the email, Fr Fragomeni wrote that a metaphor to understand what Catholic imagination entails is “mediated immediacy.” He went on to write that this metaphor “points to the hope that the presence of God/Christ, while immediate, that is, present among us, is not a direct presence, but a mediated one — through signs and symbols and dreams and bread and wine and oil and people and stars and cosmos and emptiness.” He concluded by writing, “Now that takes some imagination to inhabit that place: most apophatic, and most sacramental.”

Mediated immediacy. The presence of the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob — of the God who forgives all sins. And yet a presence, mediated by the things of creation; mediated by creatures. We know God first and foremost through his creatures. We discern the will of God through our relationship with creatures. And not only creatures such as bread, wine, oil, but people, animals, soil, mountains, rivers, and the rest. All of these can mediate — can be means of conveying — God’s presence. We are to be stewards of creation not so that we can control and manipulate the creatures of this world, but so that we can hear God through them.

In our Gospel reading from Saint Luke, we have oil, and it is brought to Jesus, and it is used the anoint the feet of Our Lord. Although tradition for about 1,400 years interpreted this woman as Saint Mary Magdalene, the text does not name this woman, but to say she was a sinner. Perhaps she is not able to anoint the head of Jesus with oil because her humility keeps her low. Many of us, perhaps all of us, are similarly brought low by awareness of sins we have committed. We are brought low by the awareness of the wounds inflicted by sins — wounds upon ourselves, and wounds upon others.

And yet we are raised up by grace in our love for God. We are raised up when we give ourselves to God just as this woman gave herself to Jesus through this oil, and through her tears, through, even, the hair on her head. We are raised up by a God who wants to forgive us, wants to be immediate in our presence, mediated by the gifts we offer to him. Saint Luke is telling us that we do not have to know the right way to offer God ourselves and our gifts. There is not the sense that this woman was following a procedure, a step by step process of how to properly anoint Jesus. She just gave herself to God, thoroughly, completely, not holding anything back.

When we give to God our own best gifts, our own treasures; when we tell God we are aware of the specific sins we have committed, in that sense “give him our awareness”, our awareness becoming a gift we offer him — perhaps the most expensive, most prized, most special gift we can offer him — he responds with love. He responds with forgiveness. He responds with his presence — immediate, yet mediated by the gifts we offer to him.

Cover image “Jesus at Bethany” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Homily: “That He Might Fill All Things”

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside at the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016

In this age in which the Bible is used in society every which way for every which cause, it is easy to forget how deeply personal its words are. Over the last two centuries of biblical scholarship, we have learned that “the Bible itself is no objective record of events and sayings, no set of revealed propositions, no manual of morals and no biography of Jesus.” So what, then, is it? “It is an intensely personal interpretation of the experience of the biblical writers from within the community of faith.” [1] That community—the Church—experienced the Ascension of Jesus in a variety of ways. In two accounts, Ascension occurs on Easter Day, in the evening; in today’s reading from Acts, forty days after Easter Day. Yet in all three accounts the Ascension is not experienced as an absence of Jesus, but rather as his real presence in a new and more powerful way.

New and powerful, indeed, and intensely personal. In Saint Luke’s gospel, the immediate reaction to the Ascension is “great joy.” Not great sadness; not great confusion or despondence—great joy. Luke tells us as well the disciples “were continually in the temple blessing God.” And so we have prayer and liturgical worship to go with great joy. Saint Mark, in his account, tells us the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.” All of the disciples’ experiences—all their life and actions, all their contemplation—became filled with Jesus.

Ascended to His Father, he became intensely personal for the Church. When Jesus was with them in His flesh, they often were confused, even challenged him—they did not understand who he truly was. But when he ascended, they knew—they grasped together in prayer that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, definitively reveals ultimate reality—that he was indeed the Son of God, sitting at the right hand of the Father. They knew that Jesus ascended so that he might fill all things.

All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. All of creation, all creatures both great and small, are the expression of God. The nature of the primordial Father is to give—to make, to create—and all that is manifest comes to be through the Word that speaks and expresses—the Son. And the love between the Father and Son—what unites them, and unites us as His creatures to them—is the Holy Spirit, for He is the shared will between Father and Son. Every creature is the sensible expression of a thought of the Son of God, of Jesus.

All of creation expresses Jesus—yet clearly he is more expressed in some parts of it more than in others. As Pope Leo the Great said over 1,500 years ago, what was visible of our Redeemer at the Ascension was changed into a sacramental presence. [2] Jesus chose bread and wine to express, to be, Him. And that fact we particularly celebrate today in the First Holy Communion of Isadora Dallman and Oona Dallman, as well as the recently received First Holy Communion of Jacob Bailis. We all celebrate—some of us in deeply gratifying ways—the journey toward unity with God that Oona, Isadora and Jacob are on.

It is, undoubtedly, intensely personal for them; we pray it grows ever-more intensely personal as the journey continues—and yet it is the journey of the oldest tradition of the Christian People of God. The Eucharist, supported by daily Office prayers and lived out as Devotional fellowship with the world based on the Bible—these are the repeatable parts of Baptism. Jacob, Isadora and Oona have all chosen, of their own free will, to receive preparation of Holy Communion through guidance, teaching and prayer. May the Eucharist fill them, and continue to fill us all, and give us all great joy to bless God through our worship and to go forth into the world preaching the Good News of Christ, knowing that everywhere we go, the Lord is there working with us. Alleluia! Christ the Lord ascendeth into heaven: O come let us adore him. Alleluia!

[1] Martin Thornton. Prayer: A New Encounter, Personal Preface.
[2] Sermon 74.

Cover image “Ascension of Christ” by Guariento D’Arpo is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

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THE PASTORAL PRAYER of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx

This short but brilliant work from Saint Aelred is now available from Akenside Press. You can read it online or download the complete PDF.

It simply takes my breath away, which perhaps comes off in the Publisher’s Foreword I wrote:

There are those works from the 2,000-year-old treasure of Christian literature that so burn with the presence of the Holy Spirit that little more can, or should, be said. While it is certainly no weakness of a work that some kind of commentary may be necessary for a proper appreciation of its insights—for this certainly applies to Holy Scripture, the Rule of Saint Benedict, and many more works, as well—we nonetheless ought give those gems which speak for themselves a special reverence within the broad devotional landscape.

The Pastoral Prayer of Saint Aelred is one such gem. is one such gem. Each line, often most every phrase, is so filled with honest self-examination and complete oblation toward God, that I am rendered speechless, thrown into prayer. But let me not say much more, else my words trod upon the inward savoring of the gloriously delicate insights of this venerated English Cistercian and abbot, a possibility terribly frightening.

I will say that I first came upon this work as part of personal study of the English School of Catholic spirituality, of which this saint is a key voice, that coincided with my chaplaincy internship at a Chicago-area hospital as a Candidate for Holy Orders. Asked to lead a devotion for one of the weekly group seminars, I shared Saint Aelred’s “Prayer for the Good of All.” That it spoke profoundly to these Christians—two Roman Catholics, a Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Seventh Day Adventist, along with myself, an Anglican—demonstrates that the Oratio Pastoralis can resound with any disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks, by the grace of God, to be spent on behalf of others.

Enjoy, and see also the other free books and audio we have made available. More is on the way!

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An extended excerpt from PRAYER: A NEW ENCOUNTER by Martin Thornton

The next step of our reissuing of Martin Thornton’s books is an extended excerpt from Prayer: A New Encounter, and it is now available.

This extended excerpt includes both Forewords that John Macquarrie wrote, first for the 1972 edition from Hodder and Stoughton, and second for the 1988 reissue by Cowley Publications. An intriguing bit from the former:

I am especially pleased that Dr Thornton has drawn so much on my own theological work in the writing of this book. His profound knowledge of ascetical theology has enabled him to draw implications from my work of which I was not myself aware, though for the most part I think these are consonant with my intentions.

Also included is the “Personal Preface” by Thornton. It was not included in the Cowley reissue for reasons that are not clear to me. Not only is this crucial to properly understanding the purpose, scope and emphases in this book, it also functions as an appraisal of his writing as he enters his third and final phase of his theology. It begins provocatively:

Modern theology is an ancient concept, since every age has to make its own reappraisal and practical application of the faith once delivered to the saints. Sometimes this development takes the form of a gentle unfolding of tradition; sometimes, as is the case today, it is a radical upheaval. The present generation of Christians must learn to live with chaos, more positively they must grasp and live their faith in a spirit of adventure and experiment.

Finally, the bulk of the excerpt is Chapter 14 of Prayer, entitled “Silence.” Here we see Thornton anticipating, and strongly complementing, the emphasis on contemplation that has been so successfully taught and shared by theologians such as Fr Thomas Keating, Fr William Meninger and Fr Basil Pennington (among others, with Thomas Merton obviously being influential). For example:

If withdrawal into silence is focus or concentrate of experience, then it is a necessary and natural need, not an artificially imposed religious duty. Silence is the environment of creativity, the essential condition for letting-be, the birthplace of love.

Enjoy this extended excerpt of Prayer: A New Encounter. Also see the extended excerpts recently made available from Rural SynthesisThe Purple Headed Mountainand English Spirituality.

Cover image “Descent of the Holy Spirit” by bobsh_tis licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

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Offices of Praise, Silence and Readings

This is the trinitarian pattern of offices that I use. This daily pattern consists of a Divine Office of Praise, a Holy Office of Silence and a Daily Office of Readings. These offices are detailed below with the caveat that such descriptions usually read more complicated than they are in actual practice. It is all a balanced and sane cooperation with grace.

What this reflects as a whole is “devout experimentation” within Anglican tradition. I have been informed by a close study of Martin Thornton’s theology and inspired by his manifold insights. I have sought to see how a retooling of the threefold Regula might work—specifically, a twenty-first-century Regula for the Remnant Church—to wed Thornton’s insights with Benedictine, Cistercian and Cranmerian ascetical/spiritual wisdom amid the post-Christendom conditions of today’s Catholic Anglican pastoral reality. And obviously, active and conscious participation in the Mass and Holy Eucharist, as ordered by the Prayer Book, is presumed.

MORNING
First is the Divine Office of Praise. If do nothing else in the morning because of time, I pray at least this Divine Office, which takes ten minutes to chant. It is an immersion into seven of the most ancient and powerful prayers of the Church, which are teeming with true orthodox doctrine, and which “praise him for his mighty acts; praise him for his excellent greatness” (Ps 150:2), giving ascetical emphasis to the primordial God the Father. I believe this focused and invariable form can be an instrument of what Martin Thornton calls “Unity in the Church Militant,” because laypersons both young and old, clergy—everyone—can chant or recite this Divine Office of Praise.

Second, and immediately following the Divine Office commences a Holy Office of Silence, through 30 minutes of Centering Prayer. This is from the contemplative tradition as taught today by Frs William Meninger, Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington, all Cistercians, derived from their study of The Cloud of Unknowing.  This Holy Office of Silence is an exercise in contemplation and openness: communion with pure being. It is a means to live-into, and hence inwardly digest, the holy space cleared by the Divine Office. (For more on Centering Prayer, see this PDF).

Against the typical practice which allows complete freedom of choice, for the Sacred Word I always use a pregnant word or very short phrase selected from the ancient prayers in the Divine Office of Praise, something that grabs me or is meaningful in that moment; this word or phrase — such as “Holy,” “Mercy,” or “Magnify him” — becomes the Sacred Word used to express my will to be present to God during this period. Centering Prayer as a whole cultivates presence with God in his loving, glory: akin to Moses’ “Here I am” at the Burning Bush (Ex 3:4) or Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; an ascetical emphasis, then, on the expressive God the Son, who reveals the Father.

Third is the morning form of the Daily Office of Readings, directly after Centering Prayer. After the bathing in doctrine and silence comes devotional attentiveness through the rhythms of Psalms, Canticles and Lessons. Here we are listening to our inspired, authoritative Scripture: “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13); hence here the ascetical emphasis shifts to the unitive God the Holy Spirit, who leads us to God the Son.

There are three additional notes about the Daily Office of Readings in particular:

  • In essence it is Archbishop Cranmer’s classic Office from the 1549 BCP. The modifications are slight but noticeable: giving priority to the Collect of the Day (having moved the opening Preces to the Divine Office of Praise), linking the Lessons with specific Canticles, and settling on a uniform Collect for Mission as the third collect. Yet overall this form is Rite I according to the 1979 BCP.
  • I chant the entire Daily Office except the Lessons. For the Psalms I use the Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter, and for the settings of the Venite and Canticles (including the Quicunque Vult and Pascha Nostrum), I use the Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter.
  • If time does not permit, I chant the Psalms within the Daily Office, and leave lessons until I have space for lectio divina at a later moment in the day. (For more on lectio divina, see this PDF).

(Total time: 60 min.)

NOON
Divine Office of Praise, and, unless my schedule on a given day does not permit, it is followed by a Holy Office of Silence.

Let me add that William of Saint Thierry expressed what I have seen as a rationale for this Divine Office form when he wrote: “Faith is a willing assent of the mind in respect to revealed truth. To believe is to reflect on the truths of the faith while assenting to them . . . deep down in the heart, a pure willingness, and on the lips a willing assent as one confesses his faith” (The Mirror of Faith, chap. 8).

In other words, Faith is a virtue, a behavior, a “willing assent.” As such it requires cultivation on a daily basis. A memorizable, and hence internalized, Divine Office form expands upon the set-prayer of the Our Father by means of the Creed. God’s story, the deep truths, thus becomes our story, and this Office, by growing the virtue of Faith, becomes a sturdy rock for both catechesis and evangelization. To chant the Divine Office of Praise is to confess doctrinal orthodoxy, a confession inwardly digested and lived-out still more through offices of Holy Silence and Readings, as well as recollectively in ministry.

(Total time: 40 min.)

EVENING
Divine Office of Praise, then a Holy Office of Silence. Thereafter is the Daily Office of Readings in the same way as the morning, using the evening portion of Psalms, Lessons, Canticles and Collects. The previous note about Lessons applies here as well, as well as the obligation to pray the Divine Office of Praise at least, if a particular day’s schedule does not permit anything more.

(Total time: 60 min.)

WAKING AND GOING TO BED
1. Upon waking, I say a brief and silent devotion in which I ask God for His presence. This lasts a minute or two. Oftentimes it is Julian of Norwich’s prayer:

God, of Thy Goodness, give me Thyself:
for Thou art enough to me,
and I may nothing ask that is less
that may be full worship to Thee;
and if I ask anything that is less,
ever me be in want,—
but only in Thee I have all.
Amen.

2. Right before bed, under the covers, I silently recite a “little Office” of the Apostles’ Creed, Our Father, Collect for Mission, and Benediction, all memorized. I also use this little Office before Mass, said silently in the pew. This is the Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of thy faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before thee for all members of thy holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and godly serve thee; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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A Divine Office of Praise

For the praise and glory of his Name, for our good, and the good of all his holy Church.

PDFs: noted version | said version.


Preces

O Lord, open thou our lips. *
And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

O God, make speed to save us. *
O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. *
As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Praise ye the Lord. *
The Lord’s Name be praised.

 

Jubilate Deo, omnis terra
(Psalm 100)

O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands *
serve the Lord with gladness and
come before his presence with a song.

Be ye sure that the Lord he is God;
it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves; *
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise; *
be thankful unto him and speak good of his Name.

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting; *
and his truth endureth from generation to generation.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son *
and to the Holy Spirit;

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be *
world without end. Amen.

 

Benedicite, omnia opera
(Prayer of Azariah; abridged)

O all ye Works of the Lord bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Angels of the Lord bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Heavens bless ye the Lord: *
O ye Waters that be above the firmament
bless ye the Lord.

O all ye Powers of the Lord, O ye Sun and Moon,*
O ye Stars of heaven bless ye the Lord.

O ye Showers and Dew, O ye Winds of God, *
O ye Fire and Heat bless ye the Lord.

O ye Winter and Summer, O ye Frost and Cold, *
O ye Ice and Snow bless ye the Lord.

O ye Nights and Days bless ye the Lord: *
O ye Light and Darkness bless ye the Lord.

O ye Lightnings and Clouds bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O let the Earth bless the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Mountains and Hills,
O all ye Green Things upon the earth, *
O ye Wells, O ye Seas and Floods bless ye the Lord.

O ye Whales and all that move in the waters
bless ye the Lord: *
O all ye Fowls of the air, O all ye Beasts and Cattle
bless ye the Lord.

O ye Children of Men bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O let Israel bless the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye Priests of the Lord, O ye Servants of the Lord, *
O ye Spirits and Souls of the Righteous
bless ye the Lord.

O ye holy and humble Men of heart, bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O Ananias, Azariah, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

Let us bless the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

 

Te Deum laudamus

We praise thee O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. *
All the earth doth worship thee the Father everlasting.

To thee all Angels cry aloud, the Heavens and all the Powers therein; *
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; *
Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.

The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee. *
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.

The noble army of Martyrs praise thee. *
The holy Church throughout all the world
doth acknowledge thee;

The Father of an infinite Majesty,
thine adorable true and only Son; *
Also the Holy Spirit the Comforter.

Thou art the King of Glory O Christ. *
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.

When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, *
thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin.

When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, *
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.

Thou sittest at the right hand of God, *
in the glory of the Father.

We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge. *
We therefore pray thee help thy servants
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.

Make them to be numbered with thy Saints, *
in glory everlasting.

O Lord save thy people and bless thine heritage. *
Govern them and lift them up for ever.

Day by day we magnify thee, *
And we worship thy Name ever world without end.

Vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin. *
O Lord have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.

O Lord let thy mercy be upon us as our trust is in thee. *
O Lord in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.

 

Kyrie, eleison

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

 

Pater Noster

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Ave Regina Caelorum

Queen of the heavens, we hail thee,
Hail thee, Lady of all the Angels;
Thou the dawn, the door of morning,
whence the world’s true Light is risen:
Joy to thee, O Virgin glorious,
Beautiful beyond all other;
Hail, and fare well, O most gracious,
Intercede for us alway to Jesus.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.


Concerning the Offices: Divine Office of Praise and Daily Office of Readings (Morning and Evening Prayer)

The threefold Regula—Divine Office, Mass, personal Devotion—is the ascetical application of the doctrine of Holy Trinity. In plain terms, the Divine Office praises God transcendent, the Mass communicates with God incarnate, and personal Devotion recollects God immanent. Included in personal Devotion is the Daily Office of Readings to invite the Holy Spirit, who guides us into the Sacred Humanity of Christ Jesus, who is the final and definitive revelation of the Father.

Both Offices can be recited alone or in a group and are to be chanted or recited aloud. In both Offices, the term “Officiant” is used to denote the person, clerical or lay, who leads; “People” denotes all gathered.

This Divine Office of Praise is to be recited at least once per day, and as many as seven; ideally it is memorized. When prayed by a group of people, the Officiant recites the first phrase of each of the seven prayers, and the People recite the rest. It is appropriate to stand for the Divine Office when sung or said as a group. It is commendable to follow the Divine Office of Praise with a long period of silent prayer.

The Daily Office of Readings is appropriately prayed twice a day, in the morning and the evening. When prayed in a group, it is appropriate to recite the Psalms antiphonally and for persons other than the Officiant be assigned to read the Lessons. In all situations, all sit during the Office of Readings, and it is conducted as a relaxed meditation, open to God’s mystery and love.

If both Offices form one sequence of worship, the Divine Office is first, followed by a period of contemplative silence such as Centering Prayer. In all cases, it is appropriate that the Divine Office, as pure praise to the Father transcendent, be first in the course of the day.

A shortened form of the Daily Office of Praise for families with young children is Preces, Jubilate, Kyrie Eleison, Pater Noster, and Ave Regina Ceolorum.

If both Offices form one sequence of worship, the Divine Office is first, followed by a period of contemplative silence such as Centering Prayer. In all cases, it is appropriate that the Divine Office, as pure praise to the Father transcendent, be first in the course of the day. For more, see “Offices of Praise, Silence and Readings.”

Icon of the hand of Monica Thornton.

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Publisher’s Introduction to The Purple Headed Mountain

[Note: This is the new introduction included in the reissue of The Purple Headed Mountain by Martin Thornton. See here for an excerpt from the book and see here to purchase it.]

At the conclusion of a course just completed at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois, during which we read and discussed this book, I asked the parishioners what they thought future readers needed to know before they read it. I do not think I can improve upon one parishioner’s response:

This simple, down-to-earth book clarifies what Christians need to know about living as followers of Christ. It defines the day-to-day existence of the Christian and provides a simple framework for thinking (and re-thinking) basic tenets/concepts such as sin, prayer and humility. It is a foundation for those looking to live and nurture their relationship with God.

To only elaborate, this is a book that can still teach the Church today, because it contains an integrated, practical vision too often absent from Christian life. Often when we read for spiritual formation (rather than for mere spiritual information), despite a bounty of insights—those which stop us, startle us, raise our eyes to God—the fruits fail to resonate at home and at the altar and in everyday toil. The problem is simply stated: When devotional writings do not correlate easily to doctrine, nor works of serious theology plainly to normal life and prayer, muddle ensues.

Martin Thornton would have none of this disconnect, for his superb theology—always sophisticated yet always accessible and grounded in pastoral reality—insists on what he called a speculative-affective synthesis: an integral balance, in the Benedictine sense, of intellect and action, study and wilderness, dogma and love. Hence, this book, despite it being written in 1962, remains stubbornly contemporary and topical—what a true classic always is. However, four observations might be helpful at the outset to head off unnecessary confusion:

1. Martin Thornton, among the most erudite theologians of his day (see English Spirituality), was a Catholic Anglican: He was utterly committed to an Anglican expression of the full Christian faith once for all delivered to the saints. The last thing he meant by penitence was to encourage anything like hair shirts, punishing guilt-trips or mock piety. Perhaps secular culture’s influence still lingers, as in The Scarlet Letter and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (“Only the penitent man will pass”). But the genuine activity is rooted in humility within the conditions in which we are born—discipleship amid, rather than divorced from, God’s created order. The biblical revelation insists that all of God’s creation, cosmic and microscopic, is made good; yet how often do we persist in pretending otherwise! Creatures mediate God’s presence; so sin as disharmony with creation impedes proper discernment of God’s will. Penitence, then, is searching for the truth of our God-given vocation through sober analysis and a joyful heart within obedient parish life—such as when the Book of Common Prayer is used as Regula (that is, an overall pattern or rule of corporate prayer life: Office-Mass-Devotion)—and, ideally, supplemented by competent spiritual guidance.

2. Amid the bounty of Christian writing we continue to see today, genre must ever be kept in mind. This book is not dogmatic or historical theology, nor is it biblical theology or devotional writing aimed merely for private inspiration. Thornton here elaborates upon the doctrines of Creation and Sin, yet he presumes all others of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church: Holy Trinity, the threefold Church (Militant, Expectant, Triumphant), Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, the Church-deemed authority of Scripture, the Two Natures of Jesus and so on. Academic experts today would add detail to Thornton’s summaries of Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi and Hugh of St Victor, and biblical scholars would underscore the lack of historical-textual clues that Mary Magdalene practiced “harlotry” specifically. Again, genre: So which is it? Properly, this is ascetical theology, because it offers to faithful Christians exactly what they need: a sacramental, corporate framework (or ascetic) that enacts doctrine and articulates our experience and total prayer life so as to ever-grow and reform into the likeness of Jesus; the western Church adopted the Magdalene-as-harlot image because, as seen through an ascetical lens, she is a glorious example to all Christians. Yet this is also pastoral theology, because it makes available to lay and clerical catechists rich reflection that invites creative development in parish life—to graft insights given by the Holy Spirit to the pulpit and the pews, to catechesis and to the home. Pastoral theology, if it is to integrate disparate theological disciplines and insights, requires a Catholic ascetic such as Thornton brilliantly developed throughout his thirteen books.

3. Thornton was no sexist, yet his age had social conventions differing from our own. Today we might wince at the “schoolgirl conscience” and “pretty/plain girl” metaphors introduced in Chapters IV. It should be known that his work as a spiritual director was with women mostly, not men, and the “pretty/plain girl” language likely comes directly from real experience. Indeed, as he wrote in Chapter VI, to be blunt “is seldom bad in pastoral practice”—that is, bluntness has its place in the overall scheme of pastoral and moral theology as both are taught to clergy, catechists and the faithful. But at the same time, Thornton would agree that to offend is never good, either. Readers are advised to take these metaphors with a grain of forgiving salt for the insight into sin that lies beneath the surface. The same applies to “schoolgirl conscience,” yet with a caveat. As much as we might wince, “schoolgirl conscience”—which obviously infects men and women alike—is in fact a strong critique of what sociologists today call moralistic therapeutic deism. This idea—that God made us only to be nice, good and fair to each other; that He created us to be happy-feel-good creatures; and that He is uninvolved in our lives save for the difficulties—may be what a great many people think today, and may contain grains of truth, but it is in no way the Christian conception of God. Ever the gardener, Thornton would applaud all efforts to uproot this unmistakable heresy from parish soil.

4. Finally, it is no accident that Thornton appeals to the doctrine of Creation and its central role in the total prayer life. Thornton possessed what theologians today call a “Catholic imagination” or “sacramental imagination.” Against the impoverished vision of Creation espoused by moralistic therapeutic deism, all things in fact are made, loved, and kept by God; hence all creatures, each according to its kind, mediate His presence and reach their fulfillment of purpose in the Cross and Resurrection. To contemplate that inexhaustible fact is a basis of Catholic ascetic—for ascetic, as the sacramental, corporate framework of total spiritual growth, is nothing but systematic reflection upon all implications of Creation in light of the Incarnation. By presenting the Capital Sins as the recurring patterns of how we go awry with Creation, Thornton invites us to a stunning, thoroughly orthodox life of adventurous inquiry: Who are we? Who are we called to become? How are we out of harmony with His created order? Or in sum: How can right relationship with the Blessed Trinity be restored? Our attitude toward God’s Creation is at the heart of it all. For as Thornton suggests in this book and echoed ten years later in Prayer: A New Encounter, the simple words of the Benedicite—whether chanted in the Divine Office or meditated upon devotionally—are nothing short of tremendous theology:

O ye Mountains and Hills, O all ye Green Things upon the earth,
O ye Wells, O ye Seas and Floods bless ye the Lord! . . .
Let us bless the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit:
Praise Him and magnify Him for ever.

Matthew Dallman
Solemnity of All Saints, 2014

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Homily: “Filled with the Power of the Spirit”

Delivered at Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
According to the RCL: 
Neh 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Lk 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

One of the important dimensions to always remember in our meditations and reflections upon Saint Luke’s account of the beginning of the mature ministry of Jesus is what directly precedes our Gospel reading in Luke’s narrative. What directly precedes is his Baptism in the River Jordan, then a genealogy that is 16 verses long which traces Jesus all the way back to Adam and Eve, and then finally his Temptation in the wilderness. And so, first and foremost as we consider the Gospel account today, we see Jesus setting out on his public ministry after having done what in today’s language, we would say is a great deal of discernment. He heard his Father’s voice and the bodily presence of the Holy Spirit at the River Jordan. And this self-knowledge, which was not brand-new but perhaps reached in this baptism its fullest self-revelation to Jesus, drove him into the Wilderness to actively confront the Devil, overcome the Devil, beat the Devil for all time, and then, into public ministry, which demonstrated to everyone that his own fleshly being was foretold by prophets like Isaiah. What I am offering to you is that perhaps this is something of a pattern that might be applicable to us, as individuals but even prior to that, as members of this parish, Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington. For we together are the local Body of Christ in this place, here and now, as we together are on our journey.

Finding a pattern in how our Lord and Savior discerns and then acts has certainly been of tremendous service to me in my own journey. Among my first comments this morning is to express my sincere gratitude to you all for welcoming me and my wife and daughters into your parish family—for allowing us to journey along with you. There has been a warmth, a genuineness, and a deep sense of hospitality that began from my first moments with you. Six years ago when this journey began, I could have never dreamed to be here with you all. When one signs on to God’s demand to pursue Holy Orders in His Church, one learns quickly that things will not go according to one’s own plan. On the other hand, as a wise person once said, if one’s expectation of God’s will is that it will be regularly bring inconvenience, difficulty, and awkwardness, then things will go very smoothly.

How true this is even about Saint Matthew’s, Bloomington! This is, no doubt, a healthy parish with a clear purpose to worship God in the beauty of holiness. And yet among my own first experiences with you all was learning about the truck that smashed into the church. Inconvenient, to say the least—also difficult, certainly awkward, along with a whole host of additional adjectives that could be used. And then I remember hearing Fr Halt preach, my first time, and he spoke passionately about seeing God’s presence—here, in this near-tragic accident, in the waves and ripples of its impact on this parish and the local community. God is active, God is alive, God is present—here and now—we know this to be true, and yet do we have the words to articulate what His presence works and flows?

When we begin to ask these kinds of questions—how do we talk about God’s presence in our lives, and the direction he gives for our lives?—we might falter. We might trail off into vagueness or even silence. We know He is present. We may not know how exactly God’s presence works, and how it flows through us.

This is precisely why we must look to Jesus. This is where, again in so many ways, in all ways, he becomes our primary teacher. This is what the New Testament is for—watching Jesus, the living and glorified only-begotten Son of the Father, the anointed one, our Lord and Savior—watching Jesus live, and move, and have his being. Just as a person training to be a teacher learns best from shadowing an experienced teacher, just as a nurse resident learns from being taken under the wing of an experienced nurse, or a postulant learns to be a priest by direct relationship with experienced priests, just as children learn how to be adults by the constant model of their parents and other important grown-ups—we learn how to be Christians, that is, more and more Christ-like, or in Saint Paul’s words, to “strive for the greater gifts,” by not only reading about him or studying theological theories, but by watching him at work.

I mentioned before that we can find something of a pattern, and I think that pattern is begins with being filled with discernment and emptying forth into action. Jesus learned definitively who he was at his baptism and again in the Wilderness, he then fought against the Prince of Evil and won, and then “returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country.” The profoundness of his power, how it spread widely, this is a preview of what later happened on the Day of Pentecost, when the power of the Resurrection and the Presence of the Holy Spirit, channeled by the ferocious preaching of Peter, changed the course of the lives of three thousand souls that day, and hundreds of millions of souls since then.

All of the creation was made new by Jesus. And he teaches us that asking the hard questions, wrestling with them together, wrestling like Jacob wrestled with the Angel, living-into the mystery of God’s will for us—Jesus teaches us that this is the way toward proclaiming the Gospel in our own lives. The hard questions—like, “Who are we?” “Who am I?” “How did we come to be?” “What is God’s purpose for our being here?” For Jesus this meant realizing the unrealizable—his true identity as the savior promised since the prophets of old. For us it means continuing, according to our gifts, his earthly ministry of full loving God and fully loving God’s creation and our neighbor. Through him and entirely because of His grace, we are to “preach good news to the poor,” to “proclaim release to the captives,” to “set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

And so all that Jesus read from Isaiah that day applies to us through Jesus, is part of our vocation as members of His Body. We Christians can only acknowledge in profound humility the tremendous responsibility Jesus himself willingly accepted for himself, and accepted for his followers. We are incorporated into His Body. We are incorporated into his Saving ministry.

And so, in this season of annual parish meetings and asking the hard questions about who we are and what is God calling us to do, how deep a resonance the words of our Collect become, chanted by Fr Halt at the beginning of Mass, which I invite you to pray again with me now:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.