Archive for April, 2012

“Benedict the Balanced”

April 30, 2012

As our Lessons and hymns make clear, this is “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the church calendar – the day we read verses from John’s Gospel in which Jesus described himself as “a good shepherd” for his people. One who lays down his life for the sheep. The one who knows his sheep even as they know him…which is why they listen to his voice…and follow him.

 I know a lot of people today who have trouble with this “good shepherd image.” First of all, it can be a little “schmaltzy.” The first parish I served inCentral Floridahad a so-called “Good Shepherd” window over the high altar. It was a poorly done, contemporary piece and members of my youth group used to say that it depicted sheep “with eyes like a man!” Now, there are some wonderful artistic representations of “the Good Shepherd” – but for every one of those there are hundreds of schmaltzy ones. And I’ll bet you’ve seen a few!

 Secondly, most of us have little experience with real sheep or real shepherds in our day. We don’t know, firsthand, the difficulty of the job or the dangers they faced in Jesus’ time…and, in some places, still do. But, finally, most of us just don’t particularly like to see ourselves as sheep! They may look pretty cute and cuddly from a distance, but if you’ve ever been near a flock, you don’t want to inhale too deeply! And suffice it to say, if there were IQ tests for animals, the sheep would not be among the brightest bulbs in the batch!

 So, how do we redeem this “Good Shepherd image?” Well, visiting here at St. Benedict’s this morning, I couldn’t help but think of your patron saint as another model of a “good shepherd” who is at least a little closer in time and space to us today, particularly through his legacy. I’m sure you’ve heard your share of sermons on the life of Benedict, belonging as you do to this parish, and you know that he lived in the sixth century and is sometimes called “the Father of Western Monasticism.” Benedict’s disciples founded monasteries all overEuropewhich became centers of learning, health care, justice, and the arts.

 Benedict is also the patron saint ofEuropebecause some would argue that those monasteries helped preserve Western Civilization through the so-called Dark Ages. The “Rule of St Benedict” which he wrote to give gentle guidance to his monks and nuns established the foundation for modern human rights because in these communities, each person was to be treated with respect and honor and dignity. These monasteries valued learning, good manners, discipline and self respect.

 As Christians in the Anglican tradition, we are almost unconscious heirs of this Benedictine tradition because so many of our cathedrals and parish churches in England are built quite literally upon the foundation of ancient Benedictine monasteries and the spirituality fostered there has crept into our generous, liturgical, common sense, “via media” way of living out the Christian life. Anglicans really are “Benedictine” in our core.

 Trying to be a good shepherd to his flock as Jesus was, St. Benedict devised a fairly simple, eminently practical Rule for his monks and nuns to live by – at least by the standards of other religious orders of his time in history which were pretty strict. The modern day monks of the Episcopal Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge MA have actually written a contemporary commentary on that ancient Rule, explaining how Benedict’s principles can be a guide, really, for any Christian community today – from a family to a parish church to a diocese and beyond. It’s a beautifully written series of meditations on the Rule.

 The three distinctive vows taken by Benedictine monastics are actually something I’d like to commend to our confirmands today…and really to all of us who are renewing our baptismal covenant on this occasion. In Latin these vows are “stabilitas”…”obedientia”…and “conversio morum.” And, in English – stability…obedience…and conversion of life.

 Stability means being rooted and grounded. The Benedictine monk or nun promises to stay committed to his or her monastic community for life. We need that kind of commitment in this fast changing society and world today. We need that kind of commitment in our marriages…in our parishes….and in our denominations. It often seems these days that very few people are willing to persevere. When things get rough, people bail out. So many today seem to be on a constant search for the flawless partner or the ideal church or the perfect denomination – as if any of these things exist! Stability means that we find God and happiness right where we are, and that we don’t always have dash around after every trend or fashion or new idea.

 Obedience is a word most of us aren’t very fond of either! But the root of the word “obey’ means simply “to listen.” True obedience means listening to others and responding to their needs. The obedient person is always alert to the spoken and unspoken needs of those around them. Obedience builds peace and understanding in communities. We need to listen to God, listen to the Scriptures, and listen deeply to the voice of the Holy Spirit within us and listen to each other. That’s really what it means to be obedient in the Benedictine sense.

 And, finally, conversion of life. This is not the same thing as a dramatic religious conversion like Paul had on the way toDamascus. It’s a way of looking at life that is creative, hopeful, and positive. The person who seeks conversion of life is always looking for a new way to see life. It sees possibilities, not problems and is always seeking to convert the difficulties of life into opportunities for growth. (By the way, I found those definitions in a fine article by Dwight Longenecker entitled “Benedict the Balanced.” He provides a way to live a balanced, and holy, life.)

 So, stability…obedience…conversion of life. Three ways through which St. Benedict sought to be a good shepherd to his people. (1)To be rooted and grounded and committed in our relationships. (2)To listen to God and to the needs of God’s people around us. (3) And always to look for possibilities, not problems.

 I think that’s what a Good Shepherd looks like today. Surely Jesus of Nazareth exhibited all of these qualities in his life. Let me offer once again our Collect for today with special intention that we may begin to live these vows in our lives as well. Let us pray: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him, who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Womb and Tomb…Birth and Resurrection

April 21, 2012

Easter 2B.

It’s a joy to be with all of you today at St. Michael and All Angels! Two verses from today’s Gospel reading: “But Thomas (who was called the Twin) one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

 So, as this morning’s Gospel reading reminds us,St. Thomas– the Apostle – had a problem with Easter! He had a problem believing, and relating to the fact, that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And I suspect that some of you, if you are honest, also have a problem with Easter. You too may have a problem believing, and relating to the fact, that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

 And that’s understandable! It’s easy to understand why many people have a problem with Easter. First of all, like Thomas, we often see Easter from the wrong side. We’re on the “outside” looking in, so to speak. We see, first of all, the deep darkness of the Empty Tomb. We experience the Absence of Christ, before we experience his Presence. Thomas missed the apostles’ first encounter with the Risen Christ because he wasn’t “in church” that Sunday! He wasn’t with the rest of the apostles when Jesus appeared to them.

 We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there on Easter evening, but he wasn’t and so he missed the encounter. He was on the outside, looking in. And it’s very difficult to understand something you haven’t personally encountered. It’s the same with us. If you’re not part of the Christian community, it’s pretty difficult to understand what Christians are talking about with respect to Easter and the Resurrection.

 Secondly, we may have no personal experience to tie Easter to. It’s easy to relate to Christmas – everybody loves babies…and birthdays! We can relate to the birth of Jesus. And we can relate to Ash Wednesday and Lent because, deep down, we all know that we are sinners and that we stand in need of repentance and forgiveness. Our Jewish brothers and sisters explore similar themes on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Muslims do something similar during Ramadan. And so do many other religions.

 We can understand, and relate to, Good Friday, because most of us have experienced death. The death of a parent or grandparent or loved one…even a beloved pet. We know something about death and loss. We’ve experienced it. But Resurrection! Only Jesus has experienced that, and come back to tell us about it.

 So, because so many people – likeSt. Thomas– have a problem with Easter, we sometimes trivialize it. Because we have a hard time relating to Easter, we surround it with something familiar, something predictable – like the cycles of nature…and flowers…and eggs…and springtime…and, God help us, the Easter bunny! A chocolate Easter bunny, no doubt!

 And yet, you know, there is an experience that each of us had had that relates to Easter. It’s called – Birth! It’s called “being born.”

 Jesus’ tomb was a dark, confined space from which – Scripture tells us – he was expelled by a Force quite beyond his control. That’s why we really shouldn’t say “Jesus rose from the dead” but should say instead, “Jesus was raised from the dead.” Jesus didn’t raise himself. It was God the Father – by the power of the Holy Spirit – who raised the dead and buried Jesus from the tomb, from that dark and confined space. A Force quite beyond his control.

 But our mother’s womb was also a dark and confined space from which you and I were expelled, long ago,  by forces quite beyond our control as well! And the life we experienced right after being born must have been about as different from the life we experienced in the womb as the Risen Life Jesus experienced on the other side of the grave must have been. The womb and the tomb… Birth and Resurrection…are similar experiences.

 I think that’s where all that talk in the New Testament about being “born again” comes from. Becoming a Christian, and accepting the Resurrection of Jesus, is in fact like being “born again!”

It’s what our Collect, or Prayer for Today, was getting at: We prayed, “Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been REBORN into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith…”

 You and I have been born from the womb of our mothers, where we were sustained by embryonic water and nurtured by her own body and blood which we shared. We have also been re-born through baptismal water and are now nurtured by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist which we share with one another. One day, we shall be born yet again from the darkness of death into the Risen Life of God which we will also share. Our personal Easter is being born into the Presence of God whom we cannot see now, but one day will see – face to face! As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

 I hope that you who are to be confirmed today have come to the point in your lives where you believe that. I hope all of you have come to believe in the Resurrection this Easter. For the Easter miracle is, in some ways, no more miraculous – and no less miraculous – than the miracle of birth and life itself. And, because of Easter, life has triumphed over death for ever!

 There was a 20th century Welsh poet named Dylan Thomas who once wrote a poem about death which stated that we should not “go gently into that good night”…that we should rage against it as against “the dying of the light.” We know that is not true. And that, when our time comes, we can indeed “go gently into that good night” for it is not the Dying but the dawning of the Light.

 I hope you have come to believe that this Easter. And my prayer for you comes in the form of an Easter Blessing, written by David Adams:

 The Lord of the empty tomb

The conqueror of gloom

Come to you

 The Lord in the garden walking

The Lord to Mary talking

Come to you

 The Lord in the Upper Room

Dispelling fear and doom

Come to you

 The Lord on the road to Emmaus

The Lord giving hope to Thomas\

Come to you

 The Lord appearing on the shore

Giving us life for ever more

Come to you


Republican Bible

April 13, 2012

 President Obama cited Luke 12:48 as a moral argument for his support of “the Buffett Rule,” a version of which is due for a vote in the Senate next week. It is an apt defense for Jesus is describing what it takes to be a faithful steward of our possessions: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” No wonder the wealthiest among us swallow hard when hearing this in church…or on the campaign trail.

While the “Buffett Rule” will not solve our debt problems alone, it does address a basic principle of tax fairness. Particularly since the average tax rate paid by the highest-income Americans has fallen close to the lowest rate in over 50 years, and in 2009 22,000 households making more than one million dollars annually paid less than 15 per cent of their income in taxes while middle class Americans paid more. This is fundamentally unfair. Apparently the Republican Bible reads, “From everyone to whom much has been given, less will be required.”