Thursday, November 29, 2012

Kneeling in Heart and Body

At All Souls, one encounters a variety of postures in prayer.  Especially when it comes to kneeling, the informal Episcopal Church slogan, “All may, some should, but none must,” certainly applies. Physical limitations prevent some from kneeling and whenever one is unsure of one’s stability or strength, I hope that person will feel comfortable standing for prayer and communion.  Others cannot kneel.  But whether permanently or temporarily unable to kneel, one may always “bend the knee of the heart,” to paraphrase the apocryphal Prayer of Manasseh.

Even though I often pray kneeling, increasingly, I find that kneeling is not simply a physical act.  Perhaps at its deepest, kneeling has more to do with an attitude and an orientation.           

One of the most helpful perspectives on kneeling I have found recently comes from the author, Ernie Kurtz (Shame &Guilt, 1981, rev. 2007).  He suggests that kneeling can be understood as a “middle position—half-way between standing upright and lying flat.” 

Sometimes, when we feel overwhelmed by life, by work, by limitation, or by sin, we feel like we have no power and there is nothing we can do.  Kneeling is a reminder that we are never so low as to be lying flat.  We can always do something, even if it is only to raise ourselves up just a bit, to kneel.  We can get up on our knees.   At the other extreme, we are sometimes completely full of ourselves, imagining that we need no one and that nothing can bring us down.  Kneeling then reminds us of our need and helps us in humility.  There’s a balance between control that is absolute and control that is abdicated.  “You can do something,” Kurtz writes, “but not everything.”           

The poet Ann Weems imagines that in each of our hearts there is a Bethlehem, a place for God to be born.  She writes, “In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos, let's listen for the brush of angels' wings. This Advent, let's go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places” (Kneeling in Bethlehem, 1987).  Whether your bowing is spiritual or physical, whether in heart or in body, I invite you to join me in kneeling, as we observe God’s coming into our world in new ways and with new power. 

Christ the King

Resurrection Window by Goodhue, All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King.  The lectionary readings are Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, and John 18:33-37. 

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is a little like a New Year’s celebration in the church, since this day works as a kind of exclamation point to the church year. A new church year begins next Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent, as we slow down a bit, breathe deeply, and begin to think about what it means that God has come into the world in the flesh. But today is Christ the King and in the scripture readings there runs the steady theme of the Kingdom of God.
In the Book of Daniel there are some frightening images. There are fires and flames, beasts and burnings. There is conflict and warfare, but the end result is a kingdom, a kingdom that is glorious and everlasting and serves the Ancient of Days for ever.

The psalm invites us to sing the praises of the Lord God who is like a king. So mighty is our God that all creation rises up to praise him, people, nations, even the waters themselves lift up their voices.
The Revelation to John also celebrates the king as victor. While it gives hope to the scattered Christians being persecuted in the first century, it also describes a cosmic battle of good and evil, where the victory is so complete that even we, living much later, become royals. John gives glory, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”

This is a vision of victory that stretches to everyone, making us all kings and queens, princes and princesses, people created in the very image and likeness of God.

In the Gospel, Jesus explains to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews; my kingdom is not from here.” “My kingdom is not from this world.”

From the calling of the disciples, through the healings and parables and teachings, even as they enter into Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover, there is confusion over this kingdom of God as it pertains to Jesus. He explains his kingdom by what it is not, rather than by what it might be. When asked, Jesus gives simple images. The kingdom is like a mustard seed. The kingdom is a like the yeast used by a woman baking bread. The kingdom is like a pearl of great price. The kingdom is here, but it is not here.

How we perceive the kingdom of God will directly affect how we live out our lives in faith.
The Church over time has understood the kingdom of God in different ways. At some points, it has understood the kingdom of God as a goal for the here-and-now. The idea of Christendom, a civilization ruled by Christian kings, following Christian laws and fighting for Christian ideals allowed for and encouraged the crusades.

It has allowed for the persecution of Jews and Muslims and anyone perceived not to fit into the prevailing understanding of what it means to be “Christian.” There are, of course, still those who would have this nation be an overtly Christian one, with so-called Christian laws on the books, just like people in other places advocate for another religion’s laws to rule the day. But whenever people begin to try to create the kingdom of God in time, before long, the kingdom of God often seems to look a lot like us.  It becomes a reflection of our own values and beliefs, and often the uglier side of those believes. However, the words of Jesus are clear: “My kingdom is not from this world.”
Others in the history of the Church have taken our Lord at his word and understood his kingdom as only having to do with heaven, far, far away. Therefore, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness in this world, simply need to wait: they’ll get their justice in the next life. But to believe that the kingdom of God only exists in heaven leaves us with little or no responsibility for the earth where we live.

But there is another view. Instead of the kingdom absolutely now or the kingdom way away in heaven, Christ calls us into a more unpredictable place, to live between the “already” and the “not-yet.” Wherever there are signs of justice and hope and faith, there is a breaking-in of the kingdom. But it’s partial, not yet fully realized.

The season of Advent will give us opportunity to explore this further as we look at what it means for Christ to have come into the world as a child, but also for us to look forward to his coming again in glory at the end of times.

So the kingdom, in some sense, is Christ himself. As he reveals himself, the kingdom unfolds. The kingdom of God spreads out as we receive Christ and come to know and love him and continue to embody his kingdom-goals in our lives. As Saint John realizes from the Revelation, “God has made us (with Christ in us) to be a kingdom.”

This kingdom is not of the world. It is a kingdom of reversals. Our Lady, herself, sang of this kingdom, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.” To live with Christ as King is to live with an awareness of this reversal.

His is also a kingdom of outcasts. When we read the Gospels it is a wild array of people who come to hear Jesus, who follow him, and who make him their Lord. Some are prostitutes, some are tax collectors, some widows, some soldiers; some are very rich, some are very poor, but they are unlikely to meet except in the presence of Christ. To live with Christ as King is to live in continual welcome of the outcast, of those who have nowhere else to go.

And finally, his is a kingdom of possibilities. To live with Christ as King is to live in expectation, to live in hope, and to live in faith. It is a kingdom of second chances, and third chances and fourth and fifth and sixth chances.

Especially on this day, we give thanks for Christ the King. And we give thanks that it is a kingdom that has been given to us, for us to extend to all of those who might believe. May we rejoice in this kingdom of reversals.  May we open our doors to a kingdom of outcasts.  And may we open our hearts to a kingdom of possibilities.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dealing with Fear Through Thanksgiving

Cheeses with Almonds and Pritzels, by Clara Peeters, c. 1612-1615, Cleveland Museum of Art

A sermon for Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Joel 2:21-27, Psalm 126, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Matthew 6:25-33.

Often it is said that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is fear. 

I used to believe that more than I do now, since I think—as I grow, and age, and experience more of life—I think faith can sometimes be found precisely THROUGH fear.  By facing fear, by naming fear, by moving through fear (with the help of others), one can begin to feel the strength and care of God as a shield, as armor, and as a cloak of protection. 

Today’s scriptures might sound a little surprising for a Thanksgiving Day because they include so much talk of fear, and worry and anxiety.  The well-known words from Matthew are before us, in which Jesus says bluntly, “Do not worry about your life…” “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’  [Try telling that to the hundreds of people in the line at the grocery store last night! ] 

I wonder what the man with NY license plates (who cut me off in traffic yesterday as he was gunning for an entrance into a shopping store parking deck) would have said, if I had rolled down my window, smiled and said, “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink…?”  (Luckily, I kept my window up, said nothing but a quick prayer for the man, and so, I’m standing before you now-- alive.)

“Do not fear” can sound like empty words and the phrase can sound like the worst sort of platitude.  But on Thanksgiving Day, in the context of our prayers and our pause to be thankful, this question of fear and faith can be approached in a different way. 

For fear to go away, it needs to be replaced by something: confidence, strength, know-how, information, results, assurance.  Or, fear can be replaced by the act of thanksgiving.  Jesus says “do not worry about what you will eat or drink, do not worry about tomorrow, do not worry about the future.”  And yet, when we do worry, perhaps that’s the time to try to be thankful, to try to jot down or say out loud the things we DO have, the times God HAS been present, the people who HAVE been with us when we most needed them.  Fill that fearful space with a prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving, and we’ll find that the anxiety begins to shift a little.  God gets in that space to remind us that God is God, and God will be with us in the future, just as God has been with us in the past. 

In just a few weeks, we will hear the message from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.  Seeing terror in her eyes, watching her shake for fear, the angel will say to her those famous words, “Do not fear, Mary.”  But then notice her response.  She doesn’t immediately shake off the fear with newfound faith that makes everything instantly all right.  She sings. 
She sings a song of thanksgiving, reminding herself (and all creation) of God’s nature to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, and to keep his promises. 

Thankfulness doesn’t fill the empty chair at the table, where someone used to sit, but who has died since the last Thanksgiving.  Thankfulness doesn’t magically create a job for us, or a full pantry, or friend to share our worries with; but the act of being thankful can erode the power of fear and worry.  And once fear is gone, we can begin to enjoy what is present, what is near, what is given.

Austin Farrer writes about enjoyment.  He says

The best way of thanking God is to taste his goodness with all our palate.  It is no use making speeches of thanks to a musician, if you are bored by his performance. You may deceive him, indeed, if you are a clever hypocrite, and can act the attention you can’t be bothered to bestow.  But God reads our hearts, and he knows whether we taste his kindness, or not.  Enjoyment is the sincerest thanks.  (The Brink of Mystery, p. 67-68)

Thanks be to the God of all good gifts, the God who banishes fear and fills our hearts with joy.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks by Looking Around

Near the top of my gratitude list is the time I spent at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City.  The rector, the Reverend Stephen Gerth, taught me how to cense an altar, how to say Mass, and how to look through ritual and custom to find the heart of Christ.  Stephen also taught me how to give thanks simply by looking around.     

I remember countless social occasions, parish happenings, and liturgical celebrations when the rector would, at some point, command the room and ask everyone to stop.  He would say something along the lines of, “I invite you to take a moment.  Look around the room.  Notice everyone who is here today and remember their faces.  Take in this scene, because this particular gathering, this combination of people and circumstances, will never happen again.”         

Some might find such words maudlin, but I always found them deeply meaningful.  I appreciated his interruption, almost like pressing the pause button in the middle of a great movie so that details might be noticed.  Stephen was right to point out the rare, the unique, and the once-in-a-lifetime nature of our being together, whether such a time was a high occasion or an everyday event.        

This Thanksgiving is the sixth year that Erwin and I will be at All Souls for Mass in the morning, and then in the undercroft all afternoon, continuing the feast. When I think about the last five Thanksgiving dinners, I recall how the room looked different each year.  Some of our beloved saints have died and now enjoy an even greater feast in heaven.  A few parishioners have moved away, and some of the family, friends, or neighbors who joined us in the past were simply passing through.  Each year has been different, but each year has been a gift.  And I’m grateful to have noticed.      
Wherever you may spend time over this Thanksgiving weekend and through the holidays ahead, I invite you to try that little practice Father Gerth taught me:  look around, notice what is special in that moment, and give thanks to God for the gift of life and those around us. 


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