Tag Archives: religion

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.

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.

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.