Sunday, October 30, 2011

Entering the Promised Land: A Sermon on Joshua 3:7-17

Many years ago, when I lived in Atlanta, I would occasionally attend Shabbat services at Congregation Bet Haverim, the glbt synagogue affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. They met in the parish hall of an Episcopal church that I attended for two years. One Friday night, I had the great privilege of being present for the dedication of their Torah scroll. The student rabbi leading services, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, later became the rabbi of Congregation Bet Simchat Torah, the glbt synagogue in New York City. She had us put our chairs in two long rows facing each other, and hold out our hands, and unrolled the Torah scrolls on our outstretched arms. She made a joke about no one getting out the correction fluid for the “clobber passage” on homosexuality. The passage in front of me was the one giving the laws of Yom Kippur.

The sermon she preached that night was one of the best and most memorable sermons I’ve ever heard. She mentioned that, while most of the Torah dealt with the journey of the Israelites toward the Promised Land, they never reached it within the Five Books. Even Moses, the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, was not allowed to enter, but had to see it from afar before dying and being buried. She compared that to our spiritual lives, during which we are always “on the way” toward the fullness of the presence of God, and of living in perfect harmony with our neighbors – yet we never reach that destination in this life, although it is to be hoped that we are moving closer to that destination.

I believe that this insight is valid for us as Christians as well. We will never reach the place where we are constantly “practicing the presence of God”, to use the phrase used by the Carmelite lay brother and spiritual master Brother Lawrence, who famously said that he was as conscious of the presence of God while washing dishes as he was on his knees in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. We may have glimpses, we may even have extended periods of this, yet we never reach the point where this is our reality twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

And we never reach the point where our whole lives are lived in perfect charity with our neighbors, live lived in full witness to peace and justice. We may strive for God’s kingdom to come on earth, but it will never be here in its fullness on earth before the eschaton.

Today’s first reading, in the book of Joshua, which appears after the Torah, tells of the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land. But there is a final hurdle that must be overcome before they can enter: the Jordan River. God tells Joshua that the way they can overcome that obstacle and enter is by having the priests take the Ark of the Covenant, and walk into the Jordan River. The waters will then gather in a heap, and the dry land of the riverbed will appear, and the Israelites will be able to cross over in ease.

And that is exactly what they did.

The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in Israelites’ worship life. When not in travel, it rested in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Tabernacle and Temple. On top of it rested the Mercy Seat, on which the High Priest sprinkled blood on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. There are two accounts in different parts of the Bible as to what was inside of the Ark. In some places, it is recorded that only the two tablets of the law, containing the Ten Commandments, were placed inside. In other placed, there are added a scroll of the Torah, a jar of manna – the mysterious substance that God rained down from heaven to feed the Israelites, and finally, the budding almond rod of Aaron. When there were those outside the Levite tribe who wished to be priests in place of Aaron, God instructed Moses to have each tribe place an almond rod – a dead branch -- inside the Tabernacle, and in the morning, Aaron’s had budded, and the others had not.

In our own lives as Christians, while we will not reach our true home, the Promised Land, in this life, there are even obstacles preventing us from reaching those glimpses we are given in this life. Like the Israelites, God has provided us with an Ark that contains gifts that can help us overcome those obstacles, our Jordan River separating us from the land of Canaan. If I may be permitted an allegorical interpretation of the Ark, I believe we as Christians can profit from this passage.

Just as the Ark contained the scroll of the law, and the tablets with the commandments, so we are given the gift of Scripture. In the first Psalm, it says of the righteous that “his [or her] delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he [or she] meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2) – which is quoted in the Rule of St. Albert, the Carmelite Rule, as the principal duty of those following it. As we meditate on Scripture, day and night, our lives are transformed, and we are able to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ, in which we are created, and to which we are restored. The word of God in Scripture leads us to the Eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ.

We are also given manna in the form of the Eucharist, and by extension all of the sacraments. We are fed week by week, or even day by day, by the Body and Blood of Christ, receiving Him into our lives, so that we may become living tabernacles, sharing Christ with all with whom we come in contact. We receive the Body of Christ, so that we may become the Body of Christ in the world.

And the rod of Aaron reminds us of the baptismal priesthood to which we are all called. As we share in the offering of our lives to God as a living sacrifice, as Christ offered his body on the altar of the Cross for the whole world, so we too receive new life, just as Christ was raised from the dead. We mediate the reconciliation of the world to God through Christ by sharing with Christ in his eternal priesthood.

As we continue our journey, may we be filled with grace to receive these gifts of Scripture, Eucharist, and Royal Priesthood that we are given in our own Ark of the Covenant, Jesus Christ, and may we be enabled to pass into the Promised Land through Christ.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Challenges and Gifts of Priesthood: On being a Confessor

It is tricky to discuss one's experience as a confessor, lest it lead to inadvertent breaking of the seal of the confessional. However, let me just say that the challenge, as I see it, is not the particular sins confessed. Most confessions, I would imagine, involve the confession of mundane sins of the sort that everyone commits on a regular basis, and in this day and age, particularly in the ISM context, everyone who comes to confession is sincerely penitent. Most confessors, upon hearing the list of sins, will most likely think, "Oh, yes, I committed this sin just the other day. Yes, that is an area I need to work on as well." Giving a penance (and I have only given the reading/praying of Scripture -- mostly the Psalms -- as a penance) and giving absolution is not really the challenge.

The real challenge is meeting the penitent where they are in their spiritual life and helping them. Some penitents come because confession is a regular part of their spiritual lives, and they are really only seeking absolution. And that is okay -- that may only be there to receive the sacrament. Others, in addition to this, may come to the sacrament also seeking a way to deepen their spiritual journey, and the confessor ideally will be able to hear this and provide some counsel or advice that will help the person to take the next step, whatever that may, on that journey. And since people are coming from a variety of places along that journey, this can be a challenge.

It's really no different at all from ministering to the people who come to Mass. The priest's duty as preacher and celebrant of the Mass is to preach the Word of God well and to celebrate the sacrament in a reverent and prayerful way, so that all who attend may receive the Word and the Body and Blood of Christ to strengthen them for service in the world. However, there are those who will come with a particular spiritual need, and before or after Mass, the priest may be called upon to provide further pastoral care to help that person where they are. Again, that can be a real challenge -- in fact, that may be a much bigger challenge, since it comes in the context of interacting with a whole community, and it can be trickier to discern the signs of what is going on with a person.

Discussing the interesting hard cases of the really big sins, or the preaching of particularly difficult texts, or the precise rubrics of the Mass are fun exercises -- it is dealing pastorally with individuals and communities that is the difficult work, and it is an art, not a science -- and the grace of the Holy Spirit in the moment often proves much more valuable than all the conversation about it in the world.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Priesthood

(in response to a question asking "What exactly it is that priests *are* and how priest, deacon, and laity are distinct in how they *are* in the world?")

First, the three orders of ordained ministry involve identification with particular aspects of Christian discipleship to which all baptized Christians are called to some degree -- it is just that deacons, priests, and bishops are called to identify with them to a degree that ordinary Christians are not. All are called to serve, as Christ was called to serve, but deacons are called to identify with that servanthood in such a way that their whole life becomes a life of servanthood. All are called to act in priestly ways, but priests are called to identify with Christ as priest and victim in such a way that their whole life becomes a life of priesthood. And bishops, in addition to being "high priests", are called to the ministry of shepherding, of overseeing the church -- and all are called to that ministry to one extent or another, but bishops are called to identify with the church in such a way that their whole life is a life lived for the church.

Specifically, priests are called to be ministers of Word and Sacrament, most especially the Eucharist. All Christians should read and meditate on Scripture, and make the Bible their own book -- but priests are called to so identify with Scripture that they are women and men of the Word, so that it permeates their very being, so that they can preach -- the official sermons during liturgy are when they do this most visibly, but in a sense, there should never be a time in their waking life when they are not (and the dreams of a priest while sleeping should be filled with biblical symbolism). All Christians are called upon to sanctify their daily lives with the presence of Christ, but through the life of constant prayer (the center of which is the Divine Office, with its round of psalms, scripture, and prayer on behalf of the church) in intercession for the church, the priest is called to live out that Incarnation constantly. (While I know that religious do this as well, the Divine Office is more of a means of sanctification for religious, whereas priests and other clergy are more bound to recite it on behalf of the church than as a means of personal sanctification. It is sacrificial.) Finally, with the Eucharist, the priest becomes an "alter Christus", "another Christ", in acting on behalf of Christ as the priest who makes the one sacrifice of Himself on Calvary, and acting with Christ in offering himself or herself on behalf of and in intercession for the world.

Another way of looking at this is to look at where the "home" of each order is. The place of ministry for the laity is in the world. When they come to church, they sit in the nave, and are the ones who receive ministry. Laity do not come to church to minister, but to be ministered to, so that they can return to the world to minister. The place of ministry for the deacon is at the threshold -- during the week, near the door of the church, acting to communicate between church and world. The place of the deacon during the liturgy of the word is at the crossing, between the nave and the chancel, proclaiming the gospel facing the people, leading the intercessions facing the altar. The place of the deacon during the liturgy of the Eucharist is at the altar, assisting the priest. The place of the priests during the week is in the church, ministering to those who come for solace and ministry. Their place in the liturgy is in the pulpit and at the altar. The bishop, as a priest, belongs in those places as well, but also at the cathedra, overseeing the whole operation. Joseph described it thus at the gathering with the clergy -- God owns the restaurant, the bishop is the manager, the priests are the chefs, the deacons are the waiters, assisted by the minor order busboys, and the laity are the customers who come to eat.