Monday, August 20, 2012

A Call to the Ironic Life

Br. Richard Edward Helmer n/BSG

Sermon at the profession service of The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
Annual Convocation 2012
Saturday, August 18th

Chapel of the Stigmata
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center
Wappingers Falls, New York

Jeremiah 17:7-8 / Ps. 139:1-7 / Corinthians 6:1-10 / Matthew 6:25-33

It was a peculiar and ironic honor to be invited to preach at this year’s profession service: Peculiar, because my habit needs at least another year’s worth of stains before this community considers offering me a bib! Ironic because I speak today to vows I have yet to undertake myself. Ironic, too, in the crazy mixed up way I was reminded this week as I stood in proper order behind Br. Millard to receive communion – which reminded me of that delightfully confused verse of John’s gospel: “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me...” (1:15) But before getting tangled up in the potential arrogance of using that verse, I flee to another perhaps more appropriate verse of John: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (1:27) A much more worthy verse of unworthiness, if you will – in a week where not only do we stand in affirmation of Millard’s first profession, but William Henry’s life profession; in a week where I find myself pushed by the tide into the middle of this body as we welcomed four new postulants and clothed two novices; in a week where with tears of sorrow and hope we recounted and remembered the life of our beloved brother, Michael Elliott.

Who is worthy to untie the thong of anyone’s sandal in such a cloud of witnesses? Or count the achievements of grace in even a one of us? Jesus challenges us this day and every day to step out of our anxiety about ordinary clothing and food and into this great, mixed-up, ironic life of grace where order is drawn from chaos and chaos made of order, where life is greater than clothing, even greater than food; where indeed, as Paul writes to a young, confused Christian community in Corinth that we are called to be servants, to be witnesses enduring all the ironies of this life.

Like many of you the last few weeks, I spent evenings glued to the Olympics. After dinner and dishes, I would sit in my comfy armchair while my family and I would behold human achievement at its apex playing out before millions of on-lookers like us.

One of the events we watched almost every evening was diving. As a musician, I practice for ten hours for perhaps ten minutes of performance of a classical masterwork. Yet it remains difficult to imagine training for years and years to perfect a mere one-and-a-half seconds in the air and then have my whole future riding on that tiny fraction of time.

Catching my attention one evening between the crowded field of athletic prowess, the blitz of commercials, and the endless inane chatter of commentators – my wife has acquired Olympic skill with the mute button – came the words of David Boudia. At one point when he was caught for an interview between dives in the individual semi-finals, he was asked about his feelings around the competition. With an off-the-cuff, almost pre-programmed casual evangelical tone, he uttered, “God is sovereign.”

I turned to my wife on the sofa and asked if that hit home for her. It was one of those “So how’s that working for ya’?” moments I have often shared with seminarians studying ministry in our parish the past few years.

My wife shook her head no.

It didn’t work for me either at first. It seemed like shallow, rootless theology that would never reach the deep places of the heart. So I chuckled about it for a few days until I read some background on David and realized we were beholding something more than the mere sloganeering that you might expect from a run-of-the-mill Midwestern evangelical faith. No, it was the slightly uncomfortable, but honest zeal of the newly converted.

It turns out that David, after medaling in a competition a few years ago, found himself wondering if that’s all there was to life: years of training, barely a second-and-a-half in the air, and then a medal around the neck. Sure, sure, commercial success and recognition came with it, too. He would have clothes to wear and worry about, he would have food to eat, but at the end of the day, success of this sort can own your life, and the capricious commercial world will chew you up and spit you out faster than it takes to make a single dive.

The question of what comes next sent him into a spiral of depression – a pathway that ultimately led him to discover a Christian faith. It dawned on me that for the briefest of moments – perhaps one-and-a-half seconds – we had caught a glimpse into the struggles of a young, tender soul caught in the bright lights of Olympic stardom, of confronting the awful spiritual temptations of athletic ego. He had followed the siren song of success and found its emptiness. He knew the dangers. Maybe he was saying “God is sovereign” for no other reason than to simply remind himself of where life truly resides, and it wasn’t on the podium or in front of the cameras anymore.

The conundrum now that he has won Olympic gold will not be just where he will go from here, but whether or not the gold is his because he put God first. Will he be tempted as we are when we are met by success to imagine the cosmic quid pro quo has deigned to bless us for our efforts? Will he wonder whether or not – as I am fond of reminding a parish filled with successful entrepreneurs, managers, and financiers – God is more than a cosmic ATM; more than a mere divinization of our economic or vocational success?

Is my faith any greater than David Boudia’s, I now wonder, just because my three-word catch phrase that proclaims God’s sovereignty is in Latin, and just because it captures the spirit of a medieval Bishop of Rome?

Maybe not.

I just pray the zeal endures.

It is our beloved Minister General who reminds us regularly that we are not called to be successful. Yet we chuckled yesterday evening as we lined up for the community photo that we are in danger of filling this choir to bursting. Success has come to the Brotherhood, but like the podiums and cameras, it might indeed be a gift to be recognized, but success is not our calling. Rather, as Richard Thomas says, we are called to be faithful – yes, faithful through the ironies of this life as St. Paul would have us:

“In afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. . .treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Faithful witnessing to life in the Gospel is hard. It is the hardest thing we do, moment-by-moment. Sometimes we’re great and sophisticated at it. Other times we get by and get through with barely a cliché or by the skin of our teeth, plunging into the darkness with the utterance of a single soli deo gloria.

As a community of brothers, we hold one another through affection, through the discipline of a Rule, through mentoring and sometimes good old fashioned cajoling to this witness to the ironic life we have received: an ironic life that can be a pain in our behinds when necessary, an ironic life that can be a joyous offering at other times, an ironic life that can be as dangerous as it is healing, as severe as it is gentle, as bewildering as it is meaningful. And what do we make of the ironies of this life rooted as it is in our baptism, in our vows, and in this fellowship?

A few years ago, before beginning this journey with the Brotherhood, I harbored a growing irritation with a colleague I worked with. Like the ironies of the religious life, she seemed to see success where I saw failure, was joyous in the midst of chaos while I was miserable, found organization stifling where it brought me some peace of mind. I asked a Zen priest about my irritation, and she reminded me to practice in those moments when my colleague was driving me the most crazy the old spiritual practice of breathing: inhaling light and exhaling darkness. Of casting out the poisons of fear and resentment and drawing in the light of Life.

The spiritual life of this body is much like that. This body breathes through the ironies: breathes out the darkness, offering it to a God who is the only One who can manage to fashion it into something creative and generative. This body breathes in the Light, taking in the Spirit left for us to enliven our steps and strengthen our hearts, hands, and minds for service in Christ’s name.

I don’t suppose many of us, if any of us, will be Olympians as a result. No, we will be so much more than that! The Olympics celebrate the strength and skill of the human body in its prime – a prime that lasts a tiny fraction of time, maybe only a second or two, especially in the grand life of this planet, let alone the cosmos. When we lift up our hands to receive the Body of Christ or throw the pall over a brother about to make vows for the rest of his natural life, we embrace the great dance of grace that transcends life, death, and even time itself. We wear a cross where an Olympic medal might hang, a hood for a crown, shading our eyes from the immeasurable glory that is God’s, covering our heads in the storm that is God’s gracious justice. We get our hands dirty planting our lives and the lives of others in the fertile earth and ever-flowing abundance of God’s love, that we might grow by grace into the sturdy, spiritually rooted ones Jeremiah envisions: so that clothes and food worry us less than abiding in the life of our Savior.

We show nakedness and vulnerability when the world demands decisive strength. We offer rugged solidarity where the world demands abandonment. We are brought together when the world flees to all corners. We are scattered when the world wants us pinned down in one place. Where the world proclaims difference, we call each other brother and clothe one another in sameness. Where the world wants to oppress with uniformity, we reflect an uncountable host of differing gifts.

We are a community of these and so many ironies for the simple reason that the life we proclaim is ironic: death leads to life, vulnerability to strength, darkness to light, failure to success, humility to a true pride in our God. And all is meant to breathe into being a kingdom – God’s kingdom: revealed yet hidden, beaten yet victorious, in here, yet out there . . . where we are called to serve.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Amazement

Sermon for Easter Sunday
April 8th, 2012

Listen here.
Delivered at The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Mark 16:1-8

I have a question for you: Why are you here?

Maybe there are as many answers to that question as there are people in the room. But I invite you to dwell on that question this Easter Day.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, I remember when I was six or seven years old piling into the car and driving thirty miles up the road to the Cathedral in Salina, Kansas. We were going to a one-man dramatic presentation of Mark, something a number of fine actors do around the country to this day.

I invite you this Easter to take a couple of hours, and read through the Gospel According to Mark in a single sitting. Mark is a fascinating gospel, and this day we heard the original ending to the book. It’s an ending which does not leave us with any grand proclamation or mission, but rather with the women fleeing with terror and amazement from the empty tomb. They are silent. They tell no one what they have seen.

At some point in the later first century or early second century, somebody came along and decided he didn’t like this ending to Mark, so he tacked on a new, little ending. Then again, another person or community came along a bit later and decided they didn’t like that ending, either, so they tacked on yet another longer one. For many years, when I would open my study bible, this original ending really bothered me, too. It didn’t sit well with me as I was searching in earnest for something more final, more definitive, more compelling to prove the Easter story.

But now, I have grown to like the original ending because it leaves us hanging. It leaves us with a question.

The beauty of Mark’s gospel is that it’s really pithy, short, and direct. In a way, you could say it could be titled “Jesus and the Three Stooges.” Jesus is out preaching, proclaiming, teaching, and healing, while the disciples are biffing and bopping one another and saying, “We don’t get it.” Mark understands that there is always another character in the story – perhaps the most important character of all (other than Jesus) – and that is Mark’s audience. He is always teasing us in a way, tickling us under our chins, contrasting our faith with that of the disciples’, our awareness of what this is all about in contrast with their comedic ignorance.*

What I most remember about the dramatic presentation of Mark at Christ Cathedral was the actor himself, a short man perhaps in his fifties, dressed in a simple tunic and pacing back and forth barefoot on the cold concrete of the chancel step, beads of sweat forming on his brow as he re-told the fast-paced narrative with a fiery passion. At the end of his telling I also distinctly remember a woman sitting nearby who said to someone sitting next to her in a pragmatic way that only a Kansan could, “Well! I’d be surprised if he didn’t catch pneumonia.”

Looking back on it now, I don’t think she quite got it.

But then, that’s the thing about Mark. Nobody in the gospel gets it. The women at the tomb don’t get it! We hear about them today approaching the tomb expecting to find a body, and thinking about very practical things, like how they might roll away the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb. They, like us, think they know how life should be, just as we think we know how life should be: We are born, we live what we hope is a decent life, and then we die. We spend a huge amount of energy building institutions, financial plans, and societal structures around this assumption, this assumption of the linear model of being human: birth, life, death (and maybe we end up with a plaque someplace with our name on it.)

The women were going to embalm the body of their Lord and Savior. They have walked with Jesus through his passion. In some ways, they have been more faithful than the apostles, who all betrayed Jesus and fled during his trial and execution. Who knows where they are? Sleeping in on a Sunday morning? Hiding out someplace out of fear? But the three women are at the tomb, and they are startled to be greeted by an open tomb and a figure inside who says, “He is not here.” In a way, he is asking the women, “Why are you here? Why are you looking for Jesus amongst the dead?”

These days in the secular press, it’s very clear in black-and-white that the Church is dying, along with so many other institutions in the West that are floundering. If you read only a little more deeply, you can easily reach the conclusion that there are ecclesiastical authorities who are more than happy, it seems, to help the Church die.

Why are you here? Have you come to look for Jesus amongst the dead? Have you come to a dying institution for sentimental reasons, for family reasons, or for the Easter Egg hunt?

Why are you here? Mark poses these questions to us in today’s Easter gospel. What are you looking for?

He is not here!

Jesus has gone out ahead. He is risen! He is not stuck here within these walls simply for you to come by and get your “Jesus fix.” What we’re about to do is give you a small portion of bread and share a common cup to remind you that Jesus is risen, but not to tell you that Jesus is stuck up here on the altar. Rather, we share in communion to remind one another that he is risen in our hearts and he is risen in the world out there, waiting to greet us where we are called to serve, just as he was waiting to greet his followers in Galilee!

I challenge you this Eastertide not to come to church simply to find Jesus here, but to look for Jesus out there: the work and the life of the Risen Christ waiting to meet and greet you in acts of mercy, justice, and compassion; defying death; confronting the world’s linear notion of life. Our life is not linear. Nor is it cyclic or karmic. It is instead what one of my spiritual directors calls the spiritual life of the spiral: the spiral upwards towards God’s heart. And that spiral driven more by questions than answers is an eternal journey that binds together all of the human family: living, dead, and yet to come in the Risen Life of our Lord and Savior.

And this Easter life is not what you’d expect. You will be amazed, you will be frightened, you will be inspired, and you will be devastated.
But you will be given new life.

For this is how we live, and how are called to be as an Easter People.
*I owe this perspective in large part to The Rev. Dr. Katherine Grieb, Professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological School, and a retreat she led on Mark with the Brotherhood of St. Gregory in January, 2011.

Friday, April 06, 2012

I Thirst

A reflection for a Good Friday ecumenical service on the Seven Last Words.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
John 19:28

When it was all finished, when Jesus knew it was all done and completed, the work over, the job at an end, the terror, pain, agony, and shame of the cross borne and the terrible days, hours and minutes run down to seconds, Jesus uttered (to fulfill the Scripture) “I thirst.”

“To fulfill the Scripture.” I wonder about how we hear John’s parenthetical statement so close to the climactic moment of the Passion. I wonder what we think it means “to fulfill the Scripture.” I’m tempted to take it through the lens of the old-fashioned American Protestant work-ethic: that is to hear it as part of Jesus’ salvation productivity check-list, near the end of the Messiah’s task-list. “Oh yes, I must say these words from the twenty-first verse of the sixty-ninth Psalm. Check.” The thought makes me want to take the author of the gospel aside and berate him for ruining an otherwise perfectly dramatic moment.

Or maybe I could take the Biblical Scholar Approach and argue the author tying the Passion remembered with the sacred texts his audience already knows... Trying to persuade them Jesus is who he says he is, who we say he is. “I thirst” is then the proof-text for our argument, simply another piece of evidence in the great rhetorical gambit to sway the jury.

But I should know better. John does not waste words. And mere checklists or evidence don’t rise to the occasion. They don’t lift my eyes to the cross or get me out of the cloudy places in my head and down into the plumbing of the heart, the depths of the soul.

Jesus fulfills scripture. He doesn’t simply prove it all in a court of law or cleverly wind his way into our intellects. Nor does he please his God, his Abba Father, by simply checking every box on the Messianic to-do list. No, he fulfills scripture. He makes the old text leap to life and jump into the messiness of our own with the deep yearnings of humanity wound up in the eternal yearnings of our God.

“I thirst,” as God has thirsted from the beginning for a people who would trust and follow their Maker and Redeemer through the wilderness of this life into the Promised Land. “I thirst,” as the faithful prophets and the countless, silent unnamed holy ones thirsted for righteousness and for justice in their own time, that it might tumble down like mighty waters and wash away the idolatrous, craven, murderous appetites that run the world.

“I thirst” for the pure water that gives life, the water our sisters and brothers even this night in too many places can’t have because greed, corruption, and warfare dam it up beyond their reach. “I thirst” because you thirst and we all thirst for something we cannot quite explain, a completion yet to be rendered, a spigot yet to be opened, a tap yet to be turned. “I thirst” for the water that wells up to eternal life, to really believe and to really know that I am God’s beloved, for that water and heart-knowing that means I will never have to thirst again. I thirst, I yearn to be home with Abba, with Papa God, with Mama Wisdom, where the table is always set and the feast always prepared, and the water and wine quench every thirst and satisfy every last fiber of my being. Where there are enough chairs for everyone I love and even the strangers and enemies I don’t.

“I thirst” for that overflowing cup the Good Shepherd promises, even if he himself forgoes it so that in those last gasping breaths on the cross, the whole world may see beyond all of our denial and self-deception...may see for a few beats of the stricken heart our true thirst revealed for what it truly is: a thirst for the God that gives us all life and a Savior able, across all the chasms of suffering, shame, and death, to lead us there.

Painting: Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani? by Ann Kim

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Call to Holy Week

A message to the members of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley:

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

As I was doing the final edit on this week's e-blast, my colleage at St. John's, Ross, Chris Rankin-Williams, noted on his Facebook page that the Ross Recreation department was hosting an Easter egg hunt — on Palm Sunday.

For me, it was both cause for laughter and cause for consternation: Laughter at the ridiculous vision of hunting for Easter eggs on a day I have always set aside for reflection on the story of Jesus' Passion; Consternation at the schedulers' profoundly careless disconnect from the Christian calendar that carried Easter and its customs in the West for centuries.

But most of all it speaks to just how counter-cultural in some ways Holy Week has become. Holy Week is an embrace (rather than a denial) of the suffering in our midst and around the world across the ages. Holy Week is a recognition (rather than an arrogant blindness) to human vulnerability to death. Holy Week is a witness (rather than willful ignorance) of the terrible costs of human hubris and the evils that are just as real in the twenty-first century as they were in the first.

Why did Jesus die?

It's a question I'm taking to our confirmands this Palm Sunday evening. We Christians have several answers that have accumulated across the centuries. But none of them adequately embrace the experience of Holy Week: the Supper, the Passion, and the Cross.

I urge you to bring this question with you and join us this week for our Holy Week services. It's a question that Christians have always known needs to be lived in community, not merely answered by a theology text. It's not a question that can be ignored, either. Behind it, of course, is the question about our own mortality and frailty, our vulnerability, and also our arrogance and lusts for power.

Most of all, it is a question of love, and whether death can truly vanquish it.

By living into this question, we have a chance to discover the true meaning of what happens next.

Then we might be truly ready to hunt for some Easter eggs. . .

Love to you all, and with blessings this Holy Week!

Br. Richard Edward+

(After this was posted, a parishioner wrote me to tell me Mill Valley's Easter Egg Hunt was the Saturday before Palm Sunday!)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Asking the Right Question

Do we truly want to be made well?

It is incredibly easy to stay stuck in the pathological patterns of destructive suspicion, blame, and condescension that we pick up from the wider American – if not globally Western – political discourse these days. It is also incredibly easy to see our institution – as fragile, compromised, declining, and inept as it might be right now – as a problem to be fixed rather than a resource to be pressed into service for the sake of Jesus’ vision amongst the people: the Kingdom, the Reign of God.
What is wrong with The Episcopal Church? Lots. But the question itself I find wrongheaded. “Fixing” a temporal institution for today will inevitably sow the seeds of different institutional problems needing to be fixed tomorrow. If we haven’t learned this yet from the great secular financial crisis, we need to take a closer look. While we rush perpetually around to fix and adjust, the world’s real needs for healing might escape our distracted notice.

Maybe we need to start asking the right questions, and those for me begin with what’s working. Asking those questions puts us in the right frame of mind to channel institutional resources, focus, and leadership towards our strengths.