By Unknown - http://marilynkaydennis.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/the-diabolic-saint-magdalena-of-the-cross-part-6/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17629672

Revisiting Spiritual Warfare as a Progressive Christian

Lectio divina on this morning’s second reading from the Daily Lectionary.

Click here to read it.

you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. (1 Thess 5:5)

Of course, Indigo Girls fan that I am, I immediately started singing this song in my head:

My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark
and I do not feel the romance, I do not catch the spark.
By grace, my sight is growing stronger
and I will not be a pawn
for the Prince of Darkness any longer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about spiritual warfare lately. You know, angels n’ demons n’ stuff.

When I was part of the charismatic movement in college, I obsessed over this topic in a literalistic sense. Once I left behind the conservative theology I formerly held, this is one of the things I stopped thinking about.

In recent years, I have been returning to the language of my tradition with a new set of eyes. This has come as I have re-engaged with traditional liturgy, mostly through the Book of Common Prayer and the Rule of St. Benedict.

The funny thing, especially for one who identifies as a theological “liberal”, is that the transformation process is a two-way street. Yes, I am a bit revisionist in the way that I engage with the language of my tradition. I read a lot of Marcus Borg and use catchphrases like, “I take the Bible seriously, but not literally.”

My worldview shapes the way I interact with the liturgy. But the opposite is also true: The liturgy also shapes ME and the way I interact with my worldview.

I am not a strict religious naturalist. The philosophical term that most closely aligns with my personal belief is panentheism (Google it). I believe that the mythical language of my tradition gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not accessible (for me, anyway) through the rational processes of the scientific method. As one sister is fond of saying, “There’s a THERE there,” when it comes to theology.

(EDITORIAL NOTE: Dr. Renee Lee Gardner, Formation Minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo and my personal source for this quote, has informed me that the phrase originates with novelist Gertrude Stein.)

It has been quite easy to affirm that idea in pleasant matters related to God, Christ, and the Sacraments. But what about the darkness: i.e. sin and the demonic?

Several recent events have coalesced to lead me back to the language of spiritual warfare.

On a personal level, I have sat with dear friends who wrestle with addictions and broken relationships. On a social level, I am watching with deep lament the bitter hatred that seems to have taken hold of my country and manifested itself through the Trump campaign.

My partner recently attended the Why Christian? conference in Chicago and participated in a breakout session on Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare for Progressive Christians led by Richard Beck, author of Reviving Old Scratch.

Other thinkers who have been informative for me on this subject have been my seminary professor Bob Ekblad, Walter Wink, William Stringfellow, and Rene Girard.

There seems to be a real substance to evil that exists at the personal and social levels. These forces of darkness do not bow to human reason or willpower. In short, they are stronger than we are. So, how do we resist them?

I am still working that out. Do demons possess the quality of objective, personal existence, as I do? I don’t know yet. Can these forces be ultimately tamed by discipline, legislation, education, and non-violent direct action? I tend to think not. There is much about which I remain agnostic.

I have no problem seeing demons, as they are portrayed in religious art, as psychological projections of these forces. But that does not mean they are mere fantasies. I cannot deny that the struggle itself is real. There’s a there there.

Liberalism, in its justified excitement about the universe and human nature, has not “given the devil his due” when it comes to the reality of evil. As C.S. Lewis famously commented in The Screwtape Letters, the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world that he did not exist.

G.K. Chesterton, in his critique of modern theology in Orthodoxy, wrote:

“If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”

I think the time is coming for liberal and progressive Christians to take sin and the demonic as seriously as we take the reality of God.

More importantly:

I do not believe we enter into this struggle of spiritual warfare alone. I believe I have touched, at the heart of the universe, a loving presence that is constantly leading us in the direction of shalom: peace and justice.

When we dream of a world that is free from hate, exclusion, greed, and indifference, we are not making this up. This is not liberal idealism; it is truth.

I believe that God is at work in us and in the universe itself, harmonizing the discordant noise of the tohu va bohu (Heb. “formless void”) into a symphony that reflects the beauty of the Trinity.

This is the work that Christ came to earth to complete: “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).

The Church, Christ’s Body on earth and in heaven, has been given the necessary weapons to effect this warfare. But how do we do this? How do we wage war on war itself? How do we exclude exclusion? How do we oppress oppression? How do we kill death?

We have a spiritual arsenal at our disposal. We have the prayers and the Scriptures. We have the sacramental rites of Anointing, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Reconciliation. Each deployment of these weapons plants a flag on the battlefield against death, indifference, isolation, anarchy/oppression, and bitterness (respectively).

The primary difference between these weapons and the weapons of the world is that they bring life, rather than take it. We wage a very different kind of warfare than that of the world. St. Paul writes:

“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

And again:

“The weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

More importantly, we have the Sacrament of the Eucharist as the “principal act of worship,” according to the Book of Common Prayer. In this celebration, we return tangibly to the truth that we are one with each other, for we are all one in Christ. The Eucharist is the ultimate act of resistance against the forces of darkness, within and without.

The Church might even think of the Eucharist as our “nuclear option.” Its effect is 180 degrees opposite to that of an atomic bomb:

In a brilliant flash of light, the vaporous forms take on solid substance and come to life. Communal structures are formed and built up by a shockwave that makes no distinction between man, woman, and child; soldier or civilian. The fallout creates a radioactive zone where sickness is healed and life enriched. When people remember this event, they will celebrate the many lives that were saved.

Finally, in the Sacrament of Baptism, the Church has its D-Day on the soil of the world. In a world-system based on institutionalized injustice, Baptism is treason. In it Christians pledge their allegiance to new a new regime, the kingdom of heaven. It is an Exorcism and the beginning of an invasion against the occupying powers of darkness.

In the baptismal rite of the Book of Common Prayer, we recite:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do.

Above all, I trust in the divinity that I have experienced, as a Christian, in the person of Jesus Christ. God becomes real to me in the story of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. Whether all of this turns out to be literally factual or mythic symbolism is beside the point, I experience it as true and believe it.

I trust that the presence of the living Christ is at work in me and the world to bring us inexorably toward the goal of union with God.

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Until then, the peaceful insurgents resist:

By Unknown - http://www.svetigora.com/node/906, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3752815

The Unquenchable Fire

Click here to read the service bulletin, including the biblical text

Introduction

There is a story of a young novice in a monastery who goes to his abbot and says, “Father, what can I do to attain Salvation?”

The wise old abbot responds, “As little as you can do to make the sun to rise in the morning.”

So the novice replies, “What then is the purpose of meditation and all our spiritual exercises?”

And the abbot says, “To make sure that you are awake when the sun begins to rise.”

I love this story because it does such a good job of getting right to the reason why we, as people of faith, put ourselves through the hard work of prayer and the rigorous demands of the Christian life.

Saved by Grace

As Christians in the Reformed tradition, we are fond of insisting that salvation comes to us by grace, as a free gift apart from our good works, ritual observance, and correct theology. We receive this gift by faith, but even that receiving faith, St. Paul says, is a gift from God, “so that none may boast.”

We sainted sinners and sinful saints are utterly incapable, either by works or by faith, of doing anything to make the light of Christ appear in our hearts or world. Like the young monk in the story, we can do as little to attain salvation as we can to make the sun rise in the morning.

Like the shepherds of Bethlehem in the Christmas story, we do not bring Christ to birth, we simply bear witness as the Word of God “takes on flesh and dwells among us.”

Exegesis

In today’s gospel, we encounter a man who understands intimately what it means to bear witness to the presence and activity of Christ in the world.

Radical Prophet

St. John the Baptist was a dangerous radical and progressive prophet whose task was to “prepare the way” for Christ’s first coming to earth. I call him a “radical” because of the Latin term radix, which means “root.” John was a powerful mystic. As the last prophet from the Old Testament era, his ministry was inspired, not by a particular school or tradition of rabbinic interpretation, but directly by God.

Religious traditions need prophetic renewal from time to time. Without direct experience of the divine, religions begin to calcify and get “stuck in their ways.” The Buddha played a similar role in the Hindu faith. We Protestants might point to Martin Luther and John Calvin as prophetic voices in 16th century Europe. In Judaism, there were many prophets who arose throughout the history of Israel. Prophets, as radicals, reconnect the faithful to the “root” of their faith in God. They are always “dangerous” to established authorities because they call into question “the way we’ve always done it” and remind us of our core commitments to God and neighbor.

This is exactly what St. John the Baptist is doing in today’s gospel. He calls the people to a renewal of their spiritual and political lives by announcing:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Bearing Fruit

He has particularly harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two major parties of established religious authorities in first century Judea. To them, John says:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

By “fruit,” John means the kind of changed life that a person leads when they have come into a deep relationship with God.

The religious leaders would have been understandably offended by such comments. They might point to their seminary degrees on their office walls. Or they might make reference to their traditional ancestry, which they trace back through the prophet Abraham in the biblical book of Genesis.

But John anticipates this defensive response. He says:

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

In other words, John recognizes this ruse for what it is: a distraction from living the kind of life that God envisions for the covenant community. After liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God said to them, in effect, “I want you to be a different kind of community from the nations you see around you. Old patterns of exclusion and oppression must not be present among you. I want the nations of the world to look at you, my people, and see what kind of God I am.”

But the people of Israel, like all peoples, were consistently unable to live up to this high standard. We read in the Old Testament just how often God’s people “missed the mark” and began to take on characteristics of Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon. They worshiped humanly constructed images and ideologies in place of God, exploiting the earth and their neighbors. This is why God continually sent prophets like John. They called the people back to what it means to be God’s covenant community on earth.

Facing the Consequences

When the people refuse to listen (which is most of the time), God warns them that this way of life (“Every man/woman for him/herself”) leads only to death and destruction. This is why John says:

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Notice how John does not name God as the source of this destruction. We might be tempted to think of God as the primary actor in this event, but I think it would be just as legitimate to think of it as a natural consequence of our tendency toward selfishness and the violent ways of the world. God’s intention, in sending us the prophets, is to save us from this path of self-imposed destruction. If we refuse to heed this warning, God respects our decision by allowing us to face the consequences of our actions.

Wheat and Chaff

The good news is that there is another way. Even in the midst of our rebellion against God’s ways of peace, God is present and active. In first century Judea, God sent St. John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ.

John says:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

At first glance, this image might seem like another warning of wrath and judgment. But it might help if we look more closely at John’s image of the Messiah as a farmer winnowing a harvest of wheat.

Wheat grains grow inside of a husk on a stalk, much like corn. In order to salvage the nutritious wheat, the husk must be removed. This is done by a process called “winnowing.” In the ancient world, farmers did this by setting the pods over a fire. The heat would crack the husks open and the wheat would fall out. Then the farmer would toss the pile in the air with a large fork. The wheat would fall through while the husks (called “chaff”) would be blown away by the wind.

Here’s the interesting thing: the wheat and the chaff are parts of the same plant. I take them, not as symbols of two different kinds of people (“good” and “bad”), but as two realities that exist within myself. I am, at the same time, both sinner and saint. There are good parts of me and bad, wheat and chaff.

Chaff is an essential part of wheat. It protects the precious grain while it grows on the stalk. Without it, the grain would be vulnerable to predators and the elements. But there comes a time when the chaff must be removed, or else the grain will never fulfill its destiny to make new plants or be ground and baked into bread. In the same way, we who live in this complicated world are a mixture of more useful and less useful parts. These parts of us must grow together for a time, so that we can become fully-formed, well-rounded people. We wrestle with these complexities and long for the simplicity of a life where only good remains forever.

When I imagine my destiny at the end of life, I imagine God taking those less useful parts of me and separating them from the goodness in me that reflects the divine image. I see divine judgment as the “winnowing” process, by which goodness is preserved and evil eliminated. Whatever is left at the end of this process is that which will live forever in God.

Unquenchable Fire

How will God accomplish this division of good and evil with us? John tells us quite clearly:

“He [Christ] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

This is directly related to the winnowing process. The Holy Spirit, the presence of God within us, is the winnower’s fire that liberates the good wheat from the chaff we no longer need in our lives. God is at work within us, transfiguring us day by day into the divine image and likeness.

And John reassures us with the good news that this inner fire of God is “unquenchable.” That is, all the chaff and sin within us is unable to snuff out the presence and power of the Spirit.

Kindled by Water

This fire was kindled in us, ironically, by water in our baptism. In that moment, when the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection were applied to us, the Holy Spirit came to dwell in us in a way that cannot be undone. Baptism is not so much something that we do for God so much as something that God does in us. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s pledge to save us and never leave nor forsake us.

Baptized Christians are part of Christ’s Body, and Christ loves us as dearly as we love the parts of our own bodies. He could not abandon us any more than one of us could cut off a hand or a foot. This is why John calls the fire “unquenchable.” We can resist the Spirit, but we cannot snuff her out entirely.

Application

The prophet invites us, in this Advent season, to “prepare the way” for Christ’s coming by cooperating with the energy of the Holy Spirit, who is already at work in us, separating the good wheat from the chaff we no longer need. We are invited to return to the roots of our faith and consider again what it means to be a member of Christ’s Body, the covenant community of God’s Church in the world.

This work is not something we do for God, but what God is doing in us. We cannot make Christ appear in our hearts any more than we can make the sun to rise in the morning. The good news is that Christ is already here, working God’s will in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our only choice is whether we will resist or cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives.

St. Paul writes, in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (1 Thess. 5:23-24)

This Advent, may we open our hearts to allow the fire of the Spirit to crack open our hard shells, and the wind of the Spirit to blow away that which we no longer need. May the water, wind, and fire of baptismal grace gather us once again into the barn of the Church, where we will dwell together in peace at Christ’s coming.

rev-barrett-lee-_-brother-odo-23d661

Spiritual Nexus

What a great PBS program that highlights my home monastery, St. Gregory’s Abbey, and the other spiritual communities surrounding it in Three Rivers, Michigan.

I have written previously on this blog about my personal experience in Three Rivers, specifically through the monastery. Click here to read that article.

Ever since my first visit to the abbey, I have wondered whether pre-European communities felt similarly drawn to this land. I am also curious about the “Ley Lines” idea. I know nothing of the philosophy behind it, but the confluence of spiritual centers in a single area makes one wonder. Before now, I had only encountered “Ley Lines” in science fiction, but my experience in Three Rivers is giving me cause to wonder whether there might be some truth to them.

The Rev. George MacLeod of the Iona Community describes his Scottish island home as a “thin place”, where the border between heaven and earth is somehow more permeable. I would not hesitate to use the same language to describe Three Rivers.

The PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly recently did a story on the spiritual communities of Three Rivers. I have never personally visited the other spiritual centers around the abbey, although I receive spiritual direction from a member of the Apple Farm community. The video is posted below.

http://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365886858/

Here is also a link to a new book about the area, Spiritual Nexus: Discovery in America’s Heartland by William Allan Baltz.

If you have not yet visited Three Rivers, you really are missing out!

Click here to learn more about visiting St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers.

Telling Stories

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.

Click here to read the biblical text

Sermon text

One of the funnest (and funniest) parts of Thanksgiving dinner is when family and friends start sharing stories around the table. They often start with something like, “Remember that time Uncle Harvey…”

In our family, my wife and I have one that we never get tired of telling the kids. It’s the classic story of “How I met your mother… twice.”

I first met Sarah at a student conference in western North Carolina in the summer of 1999. We had a nice chat on a group hike, established that we had a mutual friend, shook hands, and parted ways. Four years later, I was getting onto a bus in Vancouver, Canada, having just moved there to begin seminary. The woman across the row from me struck up a conversation. We had a nice chat, established a mutual friend, and… suddenly both of us had a major case of déjà vu.

As it turns out, she was the very same person I had talked to four years prior. When life gives you a second chance like that, you take it. We began dating less than a month later and married before the end of graduate school.

People love to tell family stories like this, especially during the holidays, because they help to give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. In a world that often seems so random and out-of-control, these stories give us a hunch that there is some other Will working itself out through our existence. They remind us that we are not alone in this universe and that life itself is meaningful and good. We never get tired of telling or hearing them.

Of course, these stories don’t just exist in our families. They are a major reason why we come to church. The Bible itself, even though it is a collection of many different stories, tells one Big Story that continues to shape and change our lives today.

The biblical story is that the infinitely loving God of the universe created the world and called it Good. When we humans, in our selfishness, turned away from God and each other and fell into slavery to sin, God did not abandon us. After centuries of reaching out to us through prophets and sages, God took on flesh and came to dwell among us in the person Jesus Christ. When we refused to listen to Jesus and tried to silence him by the violence of crucifixion and death, God summarily rejected our rejection by raising Jesus from the grave. Now, we who are baptized into Christ share the healing power of his resurrection and function with the world as his Body, his hands and feet, on earth until he comes again in glory. On that day, the dead will rise and the whole creation will be made new, as God originally intended, and governed with divine justice and mercy.

This is the story we Christians tell ourselves each Sunday in church. We hear it in the Scriptures and see it in the Sacraments. We leave the liturgy each week, fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, and are sent out into the world to be the Body of Christ. It cannot be understated just how important that mission is in this world, where life often seems so empty and meaningless.

Jesus talks about this Christian story in today’s gospel reading. Like any good story, this one has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Today, Jesus is talking to us about the ending.

He starts by undermining two thousand years of Christian speculation about the end of the world. Look in the Religion section of any bookstore, and you will find multiple books claiming to have figured out the scoop on when and how the end times will take place. But Jesus says in this passage, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

St. John Chrysostom, a bishop in the early Church, agrees with Jesus on this. He wrote that human beings “should not seek to learn what angels do not know.” Jesus does not give his followers any “insider information” on the end of the world. What he asks of them is far more difficult.

What Jesus asks of Christians is that we “stay awake” and “be ready” for history to reach its conclusion. This is important. Life on this planet often feels chaotic, empty, and meaningless. To the eyes of a person without faith, it seems like a random series of events that are just happening. Without a sense of purpose in life, we are wont to slip into a mindless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of fear.

In Jesus’ mind, this state of existence is not unlike the condition of the world immediately before the great flood of Noah. He says, “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Another way of saying this is that it was “business as usual” for everyone until the moment when the rain began to fall. They were so caught up in their little plans and schemes, they didn’t realize that God’s great story was in the process of unfolding all around them. When the moment of truth came, they were not ready.

Jesus reminds us that the world does not revolve around us. The universe will not stop its ordinary operation to accommodate our plans, however great we think they may be.

The good news is that God has an even greater plan, and we are invited to play a part in it. Jesus invites us today to reorient our lives around God’s vision for the world. God’s dream is to renew the face of the earth so that it reflects the harmonious beauty that God intended for it to have at the beginning. God dreams of a world where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, strangers are welcome, and sinners are forgiven. Jesus often referred to God’s dream as “the kingdom of heaven”. It is the one thing around which he oriented his entire life and ministry.

The work of the kingdom of heaven has been going on since the dawn of time. It began in earnest with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It continues today through Christ’s Body on earth, the Church, and will draw to a conclusion at some unknown point in the future. It is God’s dream and Jesus is inviting us to be a part of it. We come to church each week and tell each other these stories in order to be reminded that this universe is no accident, and our lives are no random series of events.

This week, we begin the liturgical season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate that beloved moment in God’s story when Jesus Christ, the Word of God, “took on flesh and dwelled among us.” But it is also a time when we look forward to Christ’s second coming at the conclusion of history. It is a time when we are invited to reorient our lives around the divine vision of a renewed creation, the vision for which Jesus lived, died, and lives again in us.

In this coming holiday season, let us not get caught up in our cultural patterns of materialism and greed. Let us also avoid the backward-looking nostalgia for the “good old days” of Christmases past. Let us instead look within and around us for the work that Christ is giving us to do in this world today. Finally, let us look forward to the day when God’s story finishes with a happy ending and all of creation joins in the song of unending praise to its Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Let us pray.

“O Come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” Amen.

Resistance

Love is our resistance.
They’ll keep us apart
and they won’t stop breaking us down.
Hold me.
Our lips must always be sealed.
The night has reached its end,
we can’t pretend,
we must run…

“People who say they follow a poor, itinerant savior who came to bring good news to the poor and freedom to captives have elected a president who speaks contemptuously of women and people of color, and whose election has sparked celebration by the Ku Klux Klan and outbreaks of violence and harassment against Muslims, Jews, Latinos, women, immigrants and LGBT people.

Christians who voted for Trump may claim policy or economic reasons for having done so. But by electing a man whose words and actions support and incite hatred and violence, the church has failed the country, and we have a lot of soul searching to do.” -the Rev. Gay Clark-Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, the Episcopal Church

Click here for more details on how this resistance will look for the next 4 to 8 years, from Gay Clark-Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church.

By Susulyka (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

First Snow

 

It came later than expected,
dreaded interruption,
minor inconvenience,
forcing me to slow
down.

Those who know best say,
“Do not leave the house
unless absolutely necessary.”
Ancient wisdom
from the empire’s
last days.

You don’t find silence;
it finds you,
when you least expect it.
Drowning out
everything else.

Vapor
made liquid,
then solid,
succumbing to gravity,
dropping into view.

Takes on flesh
and dwells among us.

Space
has more substance
than ten thousand things.

Because we are
so different,
you and I,
I offer myself
to the cold,
to the nothing
that is everything.

rev-barrett-lee-_-brother-odo-13ae9b

More Photos of Clothing of Oblate Novices

These photos were taken by my parishioner, Larry Palmer-Braak, at my clothing as an oblate novice at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers. He attended the clothing with his wife Marion. I am fond of telling Larry that he is the finest contemplative photographer I have ever seen. Included also are some striking photos of Br. John Mark (my fellow oblate novice), the monastery, and the monks themselves.

feofan_blessing

Sermon on Christ the King

Sermon Outline

  1. Feast of Christ the King
    1. End of our liturgical year
    2. Luke’s point is fairly obvious
      1. Christ is King
      2. Different kind of king
        1. Reigns from the cross
      3. But what does this mean?
      4. What does it have to do with us?
    3. What it does NOT mean
      1. Everything that happens is Christ’s will
        1. “God’s plan”, “Everything happens for a reason”
        2. Disease, accident, natural disaster?
  • Christ’s crucifixion itself?
  1. Christ endorses the agenda of the powers-that-be
  1. What it means
    1. Everything that exists/happens is material that Christ can work with (including the crucifixion)
      1. God’s vision – “the kingdom of heaven”
        1. Less to do with what happens
        2. More to do with who we are
      2. Christ is establishing a new order, over and against the powers-that-be
    2. Was the cross God’s plan for Jesus?
        1. To say Yes is to accept the unacceptable (“cosmic child abuse”)
      1. Crucifixion was the powers’ plan for Jesus
        1. Prophets expose the sins of the powerful
          1. Injustice, hypocrisy, idolatry
        2. Jesus does this consistently
          1. Shallowness of religious elite
          2. Futility of a political system based on violence
        3. Threatens the power-base with truth
          1. God didn’t need Jesus to die, the powers did
        4. Jesus accepted crucifixion as the consequence of his ministry
          1. Continued to minister anyway
          2. Borg: “The cross is the world’s No to Jesus”
        5. Ironic injustice
          1. He is made to suffer and die because for doing the right thing
          2. They call him “king” ironically, to mock him
            1. But he really is
          3. Jesus “bears their sins” by absorbing their violent hatred without retaliation
            1. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
          4. They taunt Jesus to come down from the cross
            1. Leaders, soldiers, criminal
            2. They can only conceive of a Messiah that is like them: violent and powerful
              1. Leaders: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
              2. Soldiers: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
  • Criminal: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
  1. The real irony: these opposing powers are really saying the same thing
  1. But one person gets the irony: the other criminal
    1. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
    2. Nearing death, giving up hope for survival, he sees clearly the futility of this world’s violent system
    3. Unironically addresses Jesus as king:
      1. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
    4. The hopeless loser gets it
  2. In the world today, the “hopeless losers” still get it
    1. They see clearly the futility of the violent world system
    2. But the powerful are blinded by their interests in the system
      1. We don’t want to see the truth because we still hold out hope that the system will work in our favor
      2. Poor and oppressed people see the futility more clearly
        1. Black Lives Matter, I Believe Women
        2. Powerful interests try to silence these movements
  • Jesus stands in solidarity with them
    1. If we want to stand with Jesus as our King, we must stand with them
      1. Black lives, women’s lives, queer lives, trans lives, Muslim lives, refugee lives, Mexican lives, immigrant lives, disabled lives, mentally ill lives matter… and these lives are being ended by crucifixion today
      2. Church: “Preferential option for the poor”
    2. Like Jesus, we must be prepared to be crucified with them as a consequence of our solidarity
      1. We must be ready to listen to their experiences and suffer with them, especially where we have been complicit in their suffering
        1. This is repentance
      2. Jesus, the most powerful King, stands in solidarity with those who are the least powerful
        1. And he does it without returning violence for violence
        2. This is what it looks like for Jesus to reign as King from the cross
        3. His Church must do the same
      3. Our basis for hope is that crucifixion is not the end of the story
        1. King Jesus ascends the throne on Mount Calvary, but reigns from the empty tomb
        2. In his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and hell
          1. St. Paul (Ephesians 1:17-23): “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
        3. Filled with the hope born of this faith (this pledge of allegiance), the Church stands at the forefront of countless movements for peace, justice, and mercy
          1. We do not grow tired, even when the entire world is against us and others give up, because our hope is born of something greater than this world
            1. St. John (1 John 4:4): “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
          2. We have even learned to take pride in the cross, the instrument of Christ’s mocking and torture:
            1. St. Paul (1 Cor 1:18-25): “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
          3. Our response
            1. “Therefore,” (Hebrews 12:1-2), “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
            2. St. Paul again (Romans 12:1-2): “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
  • Finally (Philippians 2:5-11): “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
  1. This is not liberal idealism; it is Christian hope

    1. Grounded in the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead
    2. We come to church, week after week, to fed by Word and Sacrament, then sent back out into the world to keep doing this work of standing, with Christ our King, in solidarity with the crucified peoples of the earth.
    3. We need to be reminded of these truths because the world will try to choke that faith out of us
      1. St. John (1 John 4:4): “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
    4. The cross was this world’s No to Jesus, but the empty tomb is God’s Yes.

      1. And God’s Yes trumps the world’s No every time.

img_5752

Clothing of Oblate Novices

Clothing of oblate novices at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, a Benedictine community of men in the Episcopal Church.

I ask your prayers for Br. John Mark and me (Br. Odo), during our novitiate, as we seek to live the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict in work, prayer, peace, and hospitality. Pray also for our brothers the monks in this amazing community.

And if you haven’t made it out to St. Gregory’s for a visit, I highly recommend it!

Photos by Br. Abraham Newsom, OSB