Archive for February, 2009

Silence, Scripture, and Sacrament

February 22, 2009

 

We conclude the Epiphany season this weekend and so, believe it or not, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season!   So, I thought I may say a few things this afternoon which may help us prepare for a holy Lent – and I think our Lessons from Scripture provide a nice framework for that to happen.

 

I don’t normally title my sermons, but if I had to choose for this one, it would be “Silence, Scripture, and Sacrament.” Three ways for us to deepen our union with Jesus and spend these next forty days in the desert with him during the upcoming season.

 

The First Lesson is the wonderful story of the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven “in a whirlwind” and the transfer of his authority to his successor, Elisha. Elijah himself had had his own encounter with the living God in “silence”, as you remember. Back in the First Book of the Kings Elijah had encountered God on Mount Horeb, not in the wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but “in a still, small voice” (or, as the better translations render it, “in the sound of sheer silence” – I Kings 19:12)

 

Now, Elisha is preparing to lose his master and the “lesser prophets” of the day keep asking him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master from you?” And Elisha keeps replying “Yes, I know; keep silent!” There’s something about “holy silence” in the face of the mystery of God which speaks more loudly than many words!

 

We need times of silence in our lives if we expect to be attentive to God and God’s direction.  Silence is a rare commodity in our frenetic and fast-paced and noisy world. I expect it’s even difficult to come by here in your Community!  So you have to seek it out.

Some people do it by sitting on their back porch on a spring day and sipping a cup of coffee; others by taking a walk; or simply turning off the radio or CD in their car on a long trip; some learn techniques of contemplative prayer and meditation which can help still the mind and deal with all the distractions which beset us.

 

I’m not sure it matters much how one finds times and occasions of silence. The important thing is not how it happens, but that it happens. And you need, at the very least, 20 minutes or so of uninterrupted silence each day. That’s so you can get beyond all those distractions, and really begin to listen for that still, small voice of the Holy Spirit within.  As the first stray thoughts and wanderings of mind and temptations begin to assault you, during your quiet time, just offer them to God. Don’t fight them, but let them evaporate into the atmosphere as you settle deeper into the silence. Know that, in the deepest place within yourself, dwells the Spirit of the Living God. And it is with that Spirit that you seek to commune. This Lent, find some more time for Silence!

 

Secondly, spend some more time with Scripture. I know you hear it read here in Chapel twice a day, but you also need time alone with the Bible. The Bible is not a handbook with ready references and spelled-out solutions to all your problems or the problems of the world. But the Bible is an ancient and God-given library of wonderful stories and songs and biographies and letters and ethical precepts which document the history of Jews and Christians as they have lived out their lives over 4,000 years in relationship to the one, true God!  Reading the Bible is like browsing through the family album – it keeps you rooted and grounded in your history…and gives context and meaning for the way we live our lives today.

 

Our Lessons for today are so rich! The preparation for the literal “passing of the mantle” from Elijah to Elisha in Second Kings. The great prophetic liturgy of Psalm 50 with the Lord coming forth to greet…and challenge…his people.

 

The powerful Transfiguration experience as recounted in the Gospel of Mark and then Paul’s great Epiphany message to the Corinthians, referring to that event, about the God “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!” Of course not everyone appreciates the power of these stories! Some of us have found reading the Bible pretty hard going, and not a little boring at times!

 

But that’s because we’ve perhaps never taken the time, or no one has ever taught us, how the Bible came to be written, how it developed, and the basic timeline of the historical events around which it revolves. That’s why it’s so important to use tools like commentaries or other Bible study guides, or get to a class or a conference where you can become more educated in your use of Scripture and in its understanding. That didn’t really happen to me until seminary. And it was only then that the Bible came alive for me.  You don’t need seminary for that experience! This Lent, spend some time learning about…and from… the Scriptures!

 

Finally, this Lent, re-ground yourself in the mystery of Holy Communion, the Eucharist.

We don’t know precisely what happened on the mountaintop in today’s Gospel reading, that event we know of as “The Transfiguration.”  But what we do know is that it was a very powerful experience for Jesus and his friends of “Communion with God.” Jesus, like Elijah before him, had gone up on the mountain to pray and the experience he had there was so intense that he seemed to his friends positively to “glow.”

 

I don’t need to tell this Community what that looks like! You’ve seen people glow with excitement or joy or enthusiasm for God.  You’ve seen people so spiritually moved, by worship or prayer or some ministry opportunity that they seemed actually to be “radiant.”

That’s what happened to Jesus. And it’s probably happened to you as well! Or something very nearly like it.

 

Peter, James and John were moved by the same experience. They caught a vision of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, standing alongside Moses and Elijah and they heard what seemed to be the very Voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” And then suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, “but only Jesus.” Only Jesus! Well, I guess that would be enough!

 

You and I have the opportunity to receive “only Jesus” every time we come to this Supper, this holy Meal. The experience of Christians like us for over 2,000 years has been that, when we break the Bread and bless the Cup like Jesus told us to, and receive it in remembrance of him, that he is Really Present with us!

 

Not symbolically, or only in memory, or metaphorically present, but really Present! How could anyone who actually believes that ever miss Holy Communion (except in cases of  emergency or illness)? It’s quite beyond me!  So, this Lent, re-ground yourself in the mystery and the practice of the Eucharist.

 

Silence, Scripture, and Sacrament. Three ways to observe the great season of Lent. But, more importantly, three ways to maintain and deepen your living relationship with the God who alone can give you eternal life! Let us pray:

 

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Sun revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through (the same) Jesus Christ, our Lord…Amen.      

Electronic Ecumenism

February 18, 2009

My Associate and I are currently involved in teaching an online course, “Ecumenism 101”, in cooperation with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Our students are primarily Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers (EDEIO), a few parish priests, and other interested persons.

So often, when a lay person or cleric is asked by his or her bishop to become the diocesan ecumenical officer, they are willing but feel the need for further training and learning background in the field. This course, funded by a generous grant from the Constable Fund of The Episcopal Church, covers history and the development of the ecumenical movement, explores the various bilateral and multilateral dialogues of which we are a part, and concludes with at least a brief introduction to interreligious (interfaith) dialogue, since this often comes with the territory these days, even though the goals are quite different.

We will conclude the course with one day face-to-face meetings in Berkeley and Chicago to sum things up and make plans for the future.

We are very excited about this development and hope that it will be a pilot project and the first of a series of offerings for the wider Church. Future courses may end up costing the participants a bit more because we can’t rely on grants everytime. Nonetheless, it may be a way to assist in continuing education and ongoing formation for “ecu-maniacs” like me across the Church!

God Is…God is in Charge…and God Cares!

February 8, 2009

Epiphany 5B – Trinity Cathedral – Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39.

 

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is an everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

 

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”

 

One of the things I have noticed about Trinity Cathedral, over the years, and now as I am able to worship with you more regularly and supply occasionally, is that you really are a “healing community” in many ways. Your clergy and lay visitors take their ministration to the sick seriously and prayers for healing are offered regularly – not only as intercessions but actually praying for one another right here in church.

 

I think that’s wonderful because I have been interested in the healing ministry for many years. First, as a hospital visitor and intercessor myself, then as a member of various prayer groups over the years in which prayer for the sick was an integral part, and finally as a chaplain in the Order of St. Luke the Physician, a healing Order in the Episcopal Church, while rector of my last parish. I was glad to see something of a revitalization of that Order in several places around this diocese when I was Bishop here.

 

Yet, I find that lot of folks today, even Christian people, have difficulty on one level or another with the concept of healing. And, by that, I mean what we might call “spiritual healing,” healing which is related to prayer and to the spiritual life. The kind of healing we find suggested in our First Lesson today, really all the way through the Bible, and certainly in our Gospel reading from Mark.

 

A good bit of the difficulty, I think, comes from the characterizations of it many people see on television. So-called “faith healers” who use excessive amounts of emotionalism and manipulation, and sometimes downright fakery to put on a good show, and rake in significant amounts of cash in the process!

 

Well, those are often mockeries and travesties of the healing ministry. But healing is a ministry in which the Church has always been involved. It has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, but it’s always been a part of the Church’s life. If there’s anything clear about Jesus’ own ministry it is that he was a healer. The Apostles and the early Church continued in his pattern.  And the sacrament of anointing with the laying on of hands for healing is a deeply scriptural notion.

 

Many parishes across the country have chapters of the Order of St. Luke, the purpose of which is to restore healing to its central place in the life of the Church.

 

So, it’s far from a new idea in the Episcopal Church, but I do think we can learn something new about it by taking a closer look at today’s Gospel. First of all, Jesus healed Peter’s mother in law and apparently the word got out because, before the evening was over, he was besieged with requests to heal people.  The text says that, of those people, he healed “many who were sick with various diseases…” “Many,” you notice, not “all.” Even Jesus did not heal everyone.  

 

But then the text goes on to say, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and there he prayed.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  When they found him they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

 

“I have to proclaim my message…for that is what I came out to do”!  Jesus was always reluctant to get put into the class of “miracle worker” because he was convinced that his main mission was to proclaim his message…to announce the kingdom, or the Reign, of God!  Jesus’ primary message, like John the Baptist before him, was the Reign, or the Sovereignty, of God.

 

That GOD IS…that GOD IS IN CHARGE…and that GOD CARES! Everything else was subordinate to that message.    

 

So, when Jesus healed somebody, he didn’t do it to prove that he was the Son of God, or the Messiah.  He did it to bring them closer to the reign and sovereignty of God. He did it to show them that God is…that God is in charge…and that God cares.  The healings that Jesus was involved in, the miracles he performed were not ends in themselves. They were “signs.” Signs of the kingdom. Signs that the reign and the sovereignty of God had already begun!

 

Well, I think healing works the same way today. More than anything else, God wants us to begin living under the reign, in the kingdom, of God.  To be close to God, to live in God’s love. And to the extent that sickness and disease get in the way of our whole relationship with God, to the extent that sickness gets in the way of our “wholeness” as human beings, then God is against it. And works against it! That’s why we pray for the sick.

 

But the overall intent of God, and the overall intent of the Church, is the proclamation of the reign and sovereignty and the realm of God. Not simply the removal of physical symptoms or even physical suffering. Now, it may be that the way for you to attain genuine wholeness and a deep relationship with God is for you to be healed, by the power of God, from some dread disease. And physical healings like that do occur!

 

It may be that, for you, the experience of illness may help you learn your utter dependence on God, to learn a new patience and a new fortitude.  If that’s so, and it takes place, that’s still healing – whether or not it’s just what you had in mind.

 

And finally, you know, death itself can be a healing.  After all, death is the only thing that, finally, ushers us into the nearer presence and realm of God in its fullness. Death can be a healing. I’ve been asked many times to pray for someone (someone who may have been in terrible suffering) to die.  And I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong.

 

I’ve rarely been able to bring myself to do it. Usually I pray that God will heal, will bring that person to wholeness. If that means physical healing, fine. If that means strength and peace to live another day and the easing of pain, OK.  If that means death and the ultimate, final, healing in paradise, that’s fine too.

 

I know one thing: I’m not the healer. It’s not up to me. I am simply to pray for healing. God is the healer, and God’s diagnosis of the problem and treatment of the situation is the only important one ultimately.  I do believe it is God’s will for us all to be brought to wholeness ultimately, to be healed in that complete sense. That sense we prayed for in this morning’s Collect:

 

“Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ…” That’s the kind of healing we want. The healing which brings liberty… and abundant life. And we see it in Jesus!

 

How God chooses to do that is not up to me. It is up to God. We are simply to pray in the full assurance and confidence that God is a healer and that God desires us to be whole.  We are also to remember that any healing we may experience is not an end in itself. It’s a sign. A sign of the Reign of God. A sign that God is…that God is in charge…and that God cares.

 

Healing is meant, above all else, to bring us into a deeper relationship with God. Which, after all, is the only healing that really matters.  I think all this is summed up rather nicely in one of the prayers from our Prayer Book, one for use BY a sick person, especially one in pain:

 

“This is another day, Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.  Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.” Amen. 

 

That’s the kind of prayer that reminds us that God is…that God is in charge…and that God cares!