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.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Richard. I guess Ironic can also be Irenic!

Mr. Mcgranor said...

God is sovereign, medieval bishop of Rome.