Monday, September 03, 2012

Looking Evil in the Eye: Sermon Preached at the Ordination of Br. Shane Neese, AIHM, to the Order of Exorcist, August 11, 2012

Luke 7:11-17 (Gospel for the Feast of St. Monica, observed on the Saturday of the annual retreat of the Order of Augustinians of the Immaculate Heart of Mary)

And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people.  Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.  And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.  And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.  And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.  And this rumour of him went forth throughout all Judaea, and throughout all the region round about.

A few years ago, when I went to visit my parents at their home in Missouri, I stopped to visit a friend from divinity school who is also a veterinarian.  She was teaching in a college, as were her two housemates, and the two housemates had a dog.  I went for a walk with one of the housemates and the dog, and the dog misbehaved very badly, and both she and I ended up tangled in the dog’s leash as the dog kept running and jumping, blissfully ignoring her owner’s commands.  The next day, my friend the veterinarian and I went for a walk with the dog.  The dog began to misbehave, and my friend shouted “No” very authoritatively, while yanking on the leash so that the dog went up in midair and yelped.  The dog was quite well-behaved after that.

At the end of the visit, my friend dropped the dog off at another professor’s house, and the dog visited with the two resident dogs as we waited for the professor to arrive home.  While we sat on his porch, a very bold cat (surely not related to my easily-frightened tabby cat Allie) walked up, and my friend’s housemate’s dog started barking at the cat, clearly relishing the prospect of frightening it away.  But the cat did not react in any way, and kept walking toward us.  The dog’s barking became increasingly upset and unhinged, and finally, as the cat approached, the dog rolled over and began whining, beaten into submission by the cat’s confidence and self-assurance.

In today’s Gospel, something very similar happens.  Jesus meets a funeral procession, in which a young man has died at an early age, and he doesn’t flinch.  He looks death, mourning, and loss straight in the eye – and he overcomes it.  He does not ignore it, he does not let himself be overcome by it – rather, he confronts it, and he is able to raise the young man to new life.

All of us will face sin, evil, sickness, death, mourning, and other things that are not the will of God in our lives.  Some of these will be within ourselves – our own sinfulness, our own weakness, our own failure to do the will of God.  Some of them will be due to external causes – sickness, mortality – our own and those of our loved ones – natural disaster, the sins of others.  But in all of these situations, we are called to be more than conquerors through our Lord Jesus Christ – who enables us to look these situations in the eye without flinching, because we know that Christ has won the victory over them, even if we cannot see it at the present time.  We do not deny their reality – we are broken people who live in a broken world, and only by recognizing the brokenness, can we open ourselves up to healing.  But neither do we flinch from confronting it, because Christ is greater than the brokenness.

Brother Shane Neese was just ordained an exorcist.  If the need to look evil in the eye without flinching is a necessary task for every Christian, it is even more so for the priest.  A priest must be able to see the brokenness in his or her congregants’ lives, and help those who are overcome by sin, or sickness, or grief, to look to Jesus and be healed.  If the priest cannot do that in his or her own life, how will the priest be able to help others to do so?  If a priest cannot look the evil that crucified Christ in the eye and know that the risen Christ will overcome it, then how is the priest to offer the Eucharist?

Mother Sandra Hutchinson, when preparing for her own ordination as an exorcist, said it very well:  “Of all the minor orders, this is the one that intimidates me the most.  Evil is real, and this is a direct challenge to it.  But God is real too, I know that.  And I’m looking forward to it as well.”

Shane, as you take on this ministry of exorcist in your journey to the priesthood, it is my prayer that, like Jesus, you will be able to look evil in the eye, not flinch, and know the power of Christ over sin, evil, and death.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Being Rooted and Grounded in Love

Ephesians 3:14-21

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner being; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

Many churches have a tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.  It is kept for priests and others to take Communion to the sick, as well as serving as a focus for devotions to Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament.  Since we in the Independent Sacramental Movement do not, for the most part, have church buildings of our own, many of us reserve the Sacrament in our own homes, so that we may experience the sacramental presence of Christ, as well as that those of us who are not ordained can receive Communion daily.

In a very real sense, all of us are called to be tabernacles once we have received Communion.  The act of receiving Communion should not be thought of as something that happens for a few minutes on Sunday, or even daily, but rather, having received Communion, we should so live our lives that we serve as tabernacles in the world, so that others may see Christ in us.

As Christ takes up residence in our hearts, Christ’s presence transforms us.  This marvelous passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us a good look into that process. 

We were given the Holy Spirit in baptism, and Paul prays that our inner beings may be strengthened by might by the Spirit.  And Christ takes up his dwelling in our hearts when we receive by faith in the Eucharist.

Through the power of the Spirit, and by the indwelling of Christ, we are then “rooted and grounded in love”.  We cannot hope to have any lasting fruits of our faith if we are not deeply rooted and grounded.  Too many Christians go about, their actions goofy and ungrounded, because they have not taken the time to pray, the time to be still and know that God is God, the time to allow the love of God root them and ground them.  It is only as we experience this rooting and grounding in love that our actions can begin to blossom forth, and bear witness to the love of God for a sinful and suffering world.

As we allow Christ within us to root us and ground us, we find that our understanding of things will change – we will begin to comprehend what is the breadth and length and depth and height – we will begin to transcend our own selfish understandings of things and our own preoccupation with our own problems, and begin to have a love for all of God’s creation, and an understanding of both its need for redemption, and the love and power to redeem it God has given through Christ – and also understanding that because we are the body of Christ on earth today, and that through the power of Christ and the power of the Spirit, we will be able to bring that love to those who need it.  We will understand that the homeless person – the working poor – the immigrant whose religion, language, and culture are different from ours – the people whose sex, gender, and sexuality differs from ours, and whose families differ from ours – are created in the image of God, and that we are called to work for justice for them.  And this understanding cannot come to us by ourselves; no, we understand this “with the saints” – with each other, in the community of the church.

And when we are rooted and grounded in love, by the Christ within, and understand the need of the world for God’s love, and God’s love for the world through Christ, and our call to bring that love of Christ to the world, together with one another – then we will be filled with the fullness of God – our understanding of the empowerment through Christ will begin to manifest itself in our lives, in works of charity – in reconciled and reconciling communities – in all of our actions.

This transformation begins in worship – in the passage, Paul talks about bowing his knees to the Father – and our transformation is begun in our baptism, and continued in prayer, scripture, and sharing in the Eucharist in our worshipping community – and it is only appropriate that as we are transformed and sent out to do God’s work in the world, so we are drawn back to worship, in that wonderful doxology:  Now unto the One that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto that One be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

(Preached at St. Mary of Grace parish, Media, PA, July 29, 2012)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Welcoming All Baptized Christians to Communion

A friend of mine posed the following query: What do you think about open communion for all baptized Christians, regardless of their belief in the Real Presence?

Here is my answer:

The ICCC policy has always been open communion for all baptized Christians, regardless of their views on the Real Presence. We believe very strongly in the Real Presence, the doctrine that the bread and wine, once consecrated in the Eucharist, become the Body and Blood of Christ. But I think believing fervently in transubstantiation while living a sinful life is far worse than living a godly life and receiving, even though one sincerely holds a memorialist view (the view that they only represent the Body and Blood of Christ, rather than becoming them) -- I think it's the welcoming of Christ into one's life through the Eucharist that is important, rather than having the exactly correct view of how it happens.

To use an imperfect analogy -- much better to think flipping a light switch causes a light to turn on because there are monkeys in the walls who are riding bicycles to generate electricity, but be current on one's electric bill, than to completely understand how electricity works but refuse to pay the bill.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Welcoming a New Blog to the ISM Blogosphere

There is a rabbinic understanding of heaven as being a yeshiva where rabbis will learn Torah and argue over the intricate points of the law throughout eternity.  

A little over twenty years ago, when I was a second-year student in divinity school, I walked into the registrar's office and introduced myself to a young first-year student.  It turned out that we were both, at the time, Episcopalian, and I remember that he told me that in Arkansas, where he was from, when they got rid of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, "they got off their knees and got their guns", and thus began a friendship that has lasted ever since, albeit with times of more and less contact.  Both of us later made our way in the Roman obedience, each trying religious life (oddly enough, with a mutual classmate, even though ten years separated our experiments, and the sketchy mutual classmate had undergone a name change in the mean time).  Both of us have now made it into the Independent Sacramental Movement, and last weekend, it was my great privilege to share in the laying on of hands as he joined the clergy of our movement, as a priest and then as a bishop.  Throughout our friendship, we have discussed many aspects of our Christian faith, often arguing over the intricate points, even as we share a love of Christ, and I have the blessed hope that we will continue arguing together in heaven in the next life, much as the rabbis pictured heaven.

He now has a blog (he has had well-read blogs before, being an excellent and entertaining writer), and I commend it to you:  I'm sure there will be posts with which I agree and posts with which I disagree.  He did the great favor of quoting me in one of the posts, and he is egging me on to do more posting of my own.  Please check it out.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Sermon for the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. --Luke 2:21

Today is traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. Under Jewish law, baby boys are circumcised on the eighth day, so if Christmas is celebrated as the birth of Jesus as a Jewish boy, then today is the celebration of his circumcision.

The liturgical changes in the 1960’s and 1970’s led to this feast being known under different names. The church in Rome in the early centuries celebrated the octave day of Christmas as a feast in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, recognizing her role in the Incarnation, and traces of this persisted in the liturgical texts for the Feast of the Circumcision down through the centuries. So the Roman Catholic calendar renamed the feast the “Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God”. Episcopalians and Lutherans renamed the feast the “Feast of the Holy Name”, recognizing that it was on this occasion that the name Jesus was given to the newborn infant. However, the gospel read on this day continues to be the account of the circumcision, and I believe we have much to learn from considering its significance.

In Genesis, we read that God commanded Abraham to be circumcised, with all the males of his household, and to circumcise the boys on the eighth day from that point forward. It quotes God as saying “[M]y covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13). The Hebrew word “bris”, or “b’rit”, as it is pronounced in Israel, which is the common Jewish term referring to circumcision, literally means “covenant”. The circumcision is a very visible reminder in the flesh of a Jewish man of the covenant God made with the Jewish people, promising certain things to them in return for obeying God’s commandments.

This sign of the covenant is so serious and important that, despite the fact that it would normally fall under the category of prohibited activities on the Sabbath, it is not only permitted but required to be done if the eighth day is a Sabbath. The account in Genesis states that anyone not circumcised is “cut off” from his people for violating the covenant.

What is a covenant? A covenant is a solemn agreement between two parties, with each promising to do something for the other. God promises, in the covenant of circumcision, to be the guardian and keeper of the Jewish people, while the people promise to follow God’s commandments and to be a holy people.

It was necessary for Jesus to enter into this covenant as the one inaugurating the New Covenant, which would bring Gentiles into covenant with God as well. We as Christians believe that through baptism, we are brought into covenant with God. God promises to give us eternal life, in return for our promise to renounce sin and all the forces of evil, and to accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, living a new life in, through, and for him.

We often hear that the gift of new life in Christ is a “free gift” – and in one sense, it is true. We are given this new life without our having done anything to deserve it. It is a free gift of grace.

But in another sense, it is not free – in return for this “free gift”, we agree to be completely transformed in Christ, and to give our whole lives over to him.

The covenant in the Old Testament involved many sacrifices. Clearly, circumcision involves a sacrifice of flesh and blood. Many other parts of the covenant were sealed with animal sacrifice. On Candlemas, which we celebrate on February 2, we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, with a sacrifice of two turtledoves, in accordance with the commandment in the Torah.

And much of our faith as Christians revolves around the doctrine that Christ sacrificed his life for us on the cross, and there is a long tradition of thinking about the precious blood of Jesus, and its cleansing power in our lives. There are many hymns written about it, such as “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “There is Power in the Blood”, but even many more traditional hymns, such as “The Church’s One Foundation”, make reference to it, saying of the church that “with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died”. There is even a devotion to the seven sheddings of blood of our Lord, of which the Circumcision is the first.

In our day, many are uncomfortable talking about the place of blood and sacrifice in our faith, and it is certainly outside the scope of this sermon to examine all of the theories of the Atonement. However, it is significant to note that just as circumcision involves the shedding of blood in bringing someone new into God’s covenant with the Jewish people, so baptism is the symbolic death and resurrection of the new Christian into Christ’s death and resurrection.

This is a very important beginning in our new life with Christ. The deepest relationships we have are with those with whom we have gone through suffering of some kind. Put another way, if you haven’t shed blood, sweat, and tears in your spiritual journey, you haven’t gotten anywhere. Being a Christian involves putting our whole being – our blood, our sweat, our tears – as well as our joys, our laughter, our happiness – into our walk with Christ.

As we celebrate the beginning of a new secular year, in commemorating the Circumcision of our Lord, may we resolve to make this a year in which we give our all to Christ, knowing that we will receive so much more in return.