Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vexed by the Journey

Little vexed me more as an aspiring, struggling pianist many years ago than a trusted friend — also a musician — telling me to learn to “enjoy the journey.” It’s taken me nearly twenty years to even begin to grasp what he meant, noting my temptation towards quick fixes, thinking more often about arrivals, and craving a predictable stability in daily life that is worse than unachievable. It is entirely unrealistic. Worst of all, it is just another pet idol of mine.

Which brings me, of course, to the institutional church, from which we all benefit as we sit here this morning in the beautiful confines of St. George’s Chapel at the Bishop’s Ranch, bathed in a most blessed rain slowly eroding a long drought. How on earth — building on millennia of tradition with roots in Benedictine and desert spirituality along with Roman bean-counting governance and parochial proclivities — did we get the idea that Christianity should be institutional? At the very best, I suppose, we might say we need a vessel — and we might imagine that in the naval sense of the word — to help us sustain our essential needs while we attend to the inevitable spiritual journey of the inner and relational life. But I, as a parish priest and veritable church governance junkie, encounter too often the severe limitations of institutional Christianity, and I cannot quite convince myself.

This time of year, we remember a young woman, probably barely into her teens, literally bearing Christ not in the comfort of her own home in Nazareth with supportive, familiar faces and hands tending to her, but somewhere on the road outside of Bethlehem, in the midst of strangers. According to Luke’s account, at least, as a Galilean Jew, she had entered the somewhat foreign and hostile domain of her ancestral Judea with her betrothed, knowing full well she would bear her child, begotten under most dubious circumstances, while en route. I can only imagine what my wife might have said to me, in those interminable weeks leading up to the birth of one of our children, had I told her we were going on a long journey, and we would not be home before labor. There are probably more than a few suitable Japanese expressions for husbands spouting clueless ideas!

Yet Mary, the Godbearer, almost never has any significant interaction with Jesus in the gospels unless they are somewhere other than home. There is that precious glimpse of Jesus’ teenage years while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he incurs Mary’s fury for worrying her when he lingers behind in the Temple. There is that argument in a kitchen in Capernaum over a wedding party running out of wine. And there is, of course, that image of Mary with her suffering son about as far from home as they might imagine ever being: on a hill called Golgotha.

“Madonna of the Bamboo Grove” from Four Japanese Madonnas, an online collection curated by The University of Dayton
Mary has been called the first Christian, and I suppose it is not just for her willingness to physically bear the Son of God. It is for her willingness to journey with him into the strange, unexpected, and even terrifying; carrying him at times even into the loneliness of a stable with only the company of a somewhat mystified but stalwart Joseph and a handful of stinky animals and shepherds; or receiving her son’s body in that most poignant station of death on Good Friday.

Our predilection to reify Mary may at times obscure her witness to what it means to be truly Christian. It is not simply a matter of sitting in comfort, as we can this time of year, and sing Veni Emmanuel, unless we mean it like an expectant mother in the midst of labor. Nor is it simply a matter of hanging out for the Second Coming in the beauty of our institutional churches, unless we expect that coming to mean not one beloved stone being left upon another. The only stability we are meant to cultivate is that radical trust in the promises of God. Institutions, comforts, and even homes come and go. They can be as fleeting as a long-practiced piece of music, the fading tones of a performance, or the echoes of applause.

The Christian life is like Mary’s, after all, uncomfortable and dusty on the road, with no room at the Inn and unexpected meetings with total strangers, and the comforts and faces of home only a wistful memory. Our idolatry of stability, of sitting comfortably on the laurels of our accomplishments and conquests, explains a great many things wrong with our civilization today and across the ages. Journeys are powerfully vulnerable moments in our lives, but also the most profoundly real as we are exposed to the elements and uncertainties of a capricious universe. And so it is there that Christ comes – sometimes to us, but more often because we carry him and give birth to him there. It is there we also vent our fury at his mystifying talk about God and something he calls a kingdom. We, too, are vexed by his wandering ways and upside-down teachings. . . and we sometimes find ourselves receiving his body after the world has had its way with him and our journey — along with his — seems to have reached an abrupt end.

I suppose my greatest struggle with music and journeys all those years ago was with the “dirty laundry” of missed notes and frustratingly difficult passages and the lonely hours trying to master an instrument, a phrase, a chord, and, above all, myself. The truth of my friend’s counsel was that there was no short-circuiting, no circumventing that process. And then my even harder learning was to value that long journey when at last I would push a piece out in front of an audience, knowing even then that it might fail or I might fall to pieces in a pile of nerves. But that, too, is the journey of the true Gospel, the true Church, and all of us when we are sometimes approaching what we might call true Christianity. No amount of institutional comfort can save us from the journey we must undertake in this pregnant time. No amount of bean counting and careful preparation can forestall or circumvent the dangerous, uncertain, and sometimes seemingly endless labor of pushing Christ out into the world.

But as vexing as that is at times, it is our calling. And we, like Mary, undertake the journey risking a radical faith in the whispers of angels and the ephemera of dreams. I still take no comfort in clichés like “the journey is the destination.” But then, who said I am to be comfortable? This late in Advent is an ironic call to discomfort (“Comfort, comfort ye my people”), because nothing new comes without upsetting the old and the known, and until we learn to leave our idols at home and carry the living God with us on the road of life, we will not know our salvation.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Ferguson, Staten Island, and Advent

One lesson of the last few weeks I have tried to take very much to heart:

We must learn in this country how to better acknowledge our privilege.

This is not about “white guilt,” which is simply a mode of hiding our power behind a selfish facade of shame — a most insidious liberal piety!

Nor is this about mere “personal responsibility” — that hideous idol of the right that is blind to all the ways oppression is sustained systemically in our common culture.

No, this is about stepping back far enough to see how the simple accident of birth clothes us in undeserved power and rights over others.

And how by seeing, then, we might be offered a choice in the shared future we are willing to pursue alongside all of our sisters and brothers.

Friday, June 13, 2014


Among my first attempts at studying Rachmaninov, recorded this afternoon while practicing at church. . .

Lots of voicing, many choices, and an almost endless sea of detail:

Prelude in D Major, Op. 23, No. 4

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Love, Ludwig

Ludwig van Beethoven:

Der Kuß (The Kiss), Op. 128 (c. 1798)
Poetry by Christian Felix Weisse (1726–1804)

Adelaide, Op. 46 (c. 1796) 
Poetry by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831)

Steve Beecroft, Tenor
Richard Edward Helmer, Piano

Recorded live at The Redwoods Auditorium
Mill Valley, California
May 13, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Songs of Travel

Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams
poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson
Steve Beecroft, Tenor
Richard Edward Helmer, Piano

The Vagabond
Let Beauty Awake
The Roadside Fire
Youth and Love
In Dreams
The Infinite Shining Heavens
Whither must I Wander
Bright is the Ring of Words
I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope

Recorded live at The Redwoods Auditorium
Mill Valley, California
May 13, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

To Clara from Johannes

Here is my rendition of Brahms' Theme and Variations in D Minor, his own transcription for piano of the second movement of the String Sextet in B-flat, Op. 18. In 1860, he offered this as a birthday gift to Clara Schumann, concert pianist and life-long friend. The work was not published until 1927.
A sextet has six voices (more if the strings are playing chords).
I was given only two hands.
Definitely a study in transcriptions!
Recorded live at The Redwoods Auditorium, Mill Valley, California
May 13th, 2014

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Incongruity

Sermon notes for Easter, 2014.

Nearly fifteen years ago this autumn, my wife and I both arrived in the Bay Area within weeks of each other from two very different parts of the world. But it didn’t matter if you came from western Japan or the American heartland: the Bay Area was just as expensive and roiling with newcomers scrambling all over each other to get it while the getting was good. Some of you will remember the dot com bubble, and perhaps some of you, like me, find our current milieu eerily similar.

It seems we live again in a familiarly cynical, self-absorbed time. Business-as-usual involves 101 turning into a parking lot twice a day, sky-rocketing housing prices, old neighborhoods being rapidly gentrified by bidding wars, and an almost palpable feeling that you’d better get yours while the getting’s good.

It always strikes me during Holy Week and into Easter how incongruous, how out-of-step our observance of these high holiest days of the Christian year appear against the backdrop of Southern Marin and the wider Bay Area. And this year felt conspicuously incongruous, as stopping for time only to think about where we are headed and why might just lose us the race. Even more would stopping from business-as-usual long enough to think about a God who dared to risk everything for us – even death on a cross.

To paraphrase another passage of Christian scripture, the cross is foolishness to the world. Resurrection more so. A society of winners and losers depends on the certainty of death and a kind of inevitability for the victors. That is how the world is built and maintained. Even if we don’t always see it, we feel it in our exhaustion and uneasiness with the present time and how it distracts us from the warmth and beauty of a spring day, or the scents of the flowers, or dulls and anesthetizes us from the pain and wonder of those priceless gifts the world has not yet invented a way to commoditize: love, generosity, and compassion.

And yet we are here. Like Jesus’ first disciples at the tomb.

Those first followers gathered at Jesus’ tomb must have also felt – to the core of their being – the sudden incongruity of their lives with business-as-usual. Business-as-usual meant the Sabbath in Jerusalem was over, and much of the population was back at work for a new week. The religious authorities were poring over their latest dust-up with a charismatic pretender who had threatened both their tightly held traditions and their fragile economic/political agreement with the Roman occupation. But fragile as it was, they had come to rely on it for their prestige and power. And with the death of Jesus and the dispersion of his followers, that fragile alliance would hold. Pilate, governor of the occupation, and the garrisons under him had just executed another criminal and rabble-rouser: probably one of many during his tenure. Crucifixion was always a handy way to frighten and shame the locals into line and get rid of threats to the Pax Romana at the same time. So the tribute to Rome from this dusty, irascible, little country in the backwaters of empire would keep flowing for the foreseeable future. The Roman occupation could start a new week resting on its laurels that the drama of the weekend was satisfactorily resolved. They had done their jobs, and business could go on as usual.

But not so for the disciples at the tomb. They had planted their lives in a different garden, in an economic and sociological dead-end, a graveyard far outside the halls of power – about as far away as you could get. Jesus had taught them not to base their lives, their essence and hearts, on the rat race as they had known it. And much good that did them. Now they were far beyond the reach of the comfort of business-as-usual, stuck with a dead teacher, prophet, rabbi, and friend. And who needs a dead Messiah? They didn’t. And even if they had the imagination and savvy to turn him into a political martyr, his closest supporters and friends were scattered in fear, with no political alliances to leverage with any effect. In the tomb with Jesus was the dead barest beginnings of a revolution called “the kingdom of God.” The kingdoms of the world had defeated the Jesus revolution, cutting it down even before it had a chance to fully take root, crushing it under the heel of human empire, the well-practiced art of manipulating the mob, and the weighty, inevitable structures of economic and military hegemony.

And so imagine their surprise when they find the tomb empty, the stone rolled away!

When Mary Magdalene encounters the Risen Christ, how can she but mistake him as the gardener? That would be business-as-usual: the only expected stranger we might encounter in the company of the tombs and the dead.

It will take her, and Jesus’ other followers, a moment—or more than a few – for them to perceive the Risen Christ. And it will take a whole community to help us realize what the resurrection means…

God in the Risen Christ tells us it will no longer be business-as-usual. Something fundamental has changed, and God has broken into the world, rolling away the stones of tombs and ushering new life for the dead. The race the world offers is unmasked and emptied of its power over us. We are offered a different kind of life: one not rooted in fear, death, and competition of a cynical and self-absorbed age. Instead we are offered a life that conquers fear and death with abiding compassion, love for others, and unimaginable grace. So the question for us this Easter, then, is this:

Will we decide to continue business-as-usual? Or will we look where the women of the Gospel looked: into the margins, the graveyards, the dead ends of our lives and souls and those of others? Perhaps the incongruity of the broken bread and the common cup will awaken us this Easter to discover Christ rising to new life, the Jesus revolution arising again among us. Perhaps we will uncover our calling again as Christians to “turn the whole world upside down” in ways the world cannot understand, recognize, nor ably oppose.

The weapons of the Jesus revolution, after all, are not fear, guns and steel; nor are they venture capital, hedge funds, and technological innovation.  They are instead compassion, generosity, forbearance, forgiveness, and that wild peace in the face of death that resurrection engenders: a peace that signals our freedom from the final tool the world employs against us, death itself. And these priceless Easter virtues are here for the taking. Will you take them up again?

We remember today this promise: we are first and foremost an Easter people. This world will pass away, just as did the Roman Empire and many kingdoms since. Jesus lives forever. And so, then, might our truest selves born anew in him: our Easter selves, fresh as the spring, fragrant as the flowers, powerful as the seasons, and given as new life for everyone.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Good Friday Project

Sermon Notes Good Friday, 2014

Good Fridays were always busy for my family. As a high schooler, I remember hearing the passion according to John’s gospel in our little mission church, and then driving up the road from McPherson, Kansas, to Lindsborg, where my parents and I would play in the annual performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It was, at one level, my first acquaintance with the distinctions between two biblical renditions of the passion narrative. It was, at another level, finding a way to really begin to grapple with the texts at the very heart of our religious tradition. As a youth, Bach’s musical treatment of the passion always moved me, as he would capture the emotion of each verse and repeat it in glorious counterpoint passing between orchestral sections and the double choir. . . until its meaning sank into the very depths of the soul. It was, you might say, a striking example of eighteenth-century lectio divina.

I remember my first Good Friday without playing in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a capstone, and how empty I felt without it. Recovering a sense of deep engagement with the passion narrative then became part of my struggle to grow up spiritually, to grow up in faith.

Richard Rohr argues, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. . . Great religion shows you what to do with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust.”

Good Friday is precisely about all these things, and no amount of theology seems to get us beyond the absurd, tragic, the nonsensical, and the unjust nature of the passion. And yet, it is tempting as we have often done in the Western Church: to simply project all of that onto Jesus, call it redemptive, and then go home. But that, we all learn sooner or later, is not enough.

One of the great steps in my own journey was to reflect in recent years with my spiritual director on my own pain and suffering. At a critical point in that conversation, I finally said out loud – with more than a little trepidation after years of ordained ministry – that I had learned my pain and suffering were nothing compared with others’.

“Yes,” he replied, “but it is still your suffering and pain.” No one else’s. Just as much in need of redemption as anyone else’s. And no amount of undertaking the odious task of comparing my suffering with others’, or denying it, or looking for the right pill – spiritual or otherwise – to take it all away would accomplish that.

Until we are ready and willing to see the cross as God’s identification with our own suffering, individual and shared, we will not get past treating Jesus as only a mere scapegoat, only a cosmic carrier of our sins. Jesus’ suffering, much as we often misapprehend our own prayers and theology, is not a simple substitute for ours. Good Friday always ran the risk of turning into an abstraction for me: the next step in completing a theological formula that would perhaps end all my heartache and pain. But reality ultimately confronts and challenges our abstract notions about salvation. Most of us learn through the trials of experience that no matter how much we focus on Jesus’ suffering or think about it, it doesn’t take away our own. I often wonder if this isn’t an unspoken reason that many people leave the church or abandon Christianity all together. At our worst moments, the Church has sometimes behaved no better than snake oil salesmen, promising relief if you buy the mythical magic formula.

But we must learn that Jesus’ suffering is not some great cosmic talisman to ward off our pain. And the Church is not a simple pharmacy where we pick up our medicine and then go home and follow the prescription.

No, Christ’s suffering faces and transforms ours. In the old language, his redeems ours. His takes on the absurdity, tragedy, nonsense, and the injustice of our lives and makes it – sometimes with great endurance and sweat – all something holy. Through the cross, he takes the awful pain and messiness of this life and infuses it with meaning, purpose, and transformational power. And if we let the cross do this work in our lives, it not only transforms us, but turns us into true Christians, ready to help transform the pain and suffering of others. That is what we might call the project of Good Friday – a project that begins with Jesus, and into which each of us is called. We have been, of course, very much like the disciples, running away in fear and denial. And yet the cross remains: our invitation to become part of the mighty salvific act that God is offering all of humanity in Christ.

As a healthy religion, our tradition of the cross encourages us to offer our pain to God. Sometimes it will be relieved. Sometimes it will remain. But either way, the promise is that it will be transformed into grace for us. As a great religion, our tradition of the cross offers us a pathway to transform the suffering of others as well. Sometimes we will be able to relieve that suffering. Sometimes we will not. But either way, the cross calls us into the transformative acts of compassion that end the loneliness that suffering engenders. We then carry it together, lightening the load for one another. And God in Christ carries all of us together.
In that way, we see that our suffering is shared, and ultimately made holy. In that, we partake in God’s sharing with us in Christ, broken in the bread, poured out in the common cup. All that has blighted our life, then, is re-purposed for redemption. Our suffering is like Jesus’, and his like ours: offered out of love rather than resisted or denied in fear. And our life, like Jesus’, becomes an offering poured out for all the needs of others.

Recovering a deep engagement with the passion narratives for me began with recovering a fuller sense of my own pain and suffering, my need to see that redeemed, and my choosing to actively participate in that redemption. And that is where we all begin again together on Good Friday: at the cross, with the suffering of Christ identifying with our own, remembering our place on the cross with him, and seeing in his eyes our own reflected back. . . and through them, a God who loves us so earnestly that no part of us is beyond the renewing, life-giving touch of the divine.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Stubborn Salvation

Sermon Notes for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A


Most of us gingerly dip our toes in the waters of faith through hope. I hope there is more than this life. I hope the virtues like love and fidelity are worth it. I hope death is not the end. Hope is given as a Christian virtue, of course, but I find it somewhat remarkable that I can’t come up with a single verse in any of the gospels that Jesus commands us to hope. It’s only a word that appears in his absence or expected presence.

And so we come to another of the great “I am” statements in John this day – John’s rewriting of the familiar and ancient Torah, beginning with the creation narrative, disclosing as he did to us last week that by working in Jesus, God has not yet arrived at the seventh day sabbath rest… and this day recounting another play on the “I am” of the burning bush, the divine disclosure of being both primordial and eternal, both transcendent and imminent, both wholly other and fully present.

The focus is on the stinking tomb of Lazarus, that festering wasteland of death that haunts so many of our worst fears and wrecked dreams. John does not hesitate to ladle every possible oppositional force into the story, reminding us that Christ, the Word of God’s great “I am…” is up against every conceivable human obstacle.

On discussing making the journey to Judea, the disciples are rightly worried their teacher is walking into the inevitable, deadly trap of the religious and Roman authorities in the Jerusalem orbit. Thomas, ever the realist bordering on cynicism, offers resigning snark worthy of twenty-first century:

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John must want us to feel the inevitability in this story we all feel about the finalities of this life, the surrender to forces beyond our control, the undeniable reality of our suffering and the press of death.

Mary is too grief-stricken to greet her friend and savior. Martha, the more pragmatic of the two sisters meets Jesus with a thinly veiled accusation:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died…”

followed by a thin sliver of hope:

“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

But when Jesus offers unwavering assurance that her brother will rise again, Martha retreats to an abstraction about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, somewhere off in a murky future where hope for a struggling life might find some projected justification. The present suffering of loss –a brother, breadwinner, and kin companion in life’s brief journey gone – is just too much for hope to bear.

And so it is for Jesus when he arrives at the tomb and weeps with his companions. John compels us to consider a God who does not will our suffering or plan it to test us or use it to punish us, but rather who enters into it with us. This is a dangerous God who is not manipulated by clever prayers or incantations or pleased by the bribes of priests or even by our most righteous piety. This is a God who suffers with us, sheds tears, breaks with our hearts, and feels the gnawing reality of our finitude. This is a God who knows our limited vision, the real humility of our impotence, and the uncertainties that grind away at even the most vibrant faith.

This is a God who risks all danger to be with us at the very end, in the dark and bitter deaths we all inevitable experience.

And, a bit like Ezekiel, Jesus, when confronted with the undeniably dead and dry bones of every broken dream, promise, and ended life, does not respond to the question, “Can these bones live?” with a tepid “I hope so.”

Hope is not enough, at least not as we understand it these days as a shrug in the face of all human limitation. Instead, Christ, like Ezekiel, surrenders to the sublime power of the Creator: “Oh, Lord God, you know.”

“I am the resurrection and the life,” God in Christ says to a hopeful Martha and to us in the sacraments, at our deathbed, in our suffering, and in our darkest hour of despair. So stubborn is our promised salvation, it will not yield to our tepid hope or our deepest hopelessness. So stubborn is God’s love for us, it will not be confined to platitudes or vague projections about an afterlife. So stubborn is the resurrection that Jesus embodies, we can only respond with the silence of Lazarus as we are raised from our own stinking tombs, and ordered set free by the great I AM.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Choral Evensong

Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, and St. Stephen's, Tiburon-Belvedere, joined choir forces Sunday evening for Evensong, one of the great musical contributions of Anglicanism to the Christian tradition.

Listen now to the full service.

Albert Campbell, director
John Karl Hirten, organist
Richard Edward Helmer, BSG, officiant
The Rev. Rob Gieselmann, homilist
Musical settings by William Smith (Preces) and Thomas Morley
Expectans Expectavi by Charles Wood

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Wild Ride of Repentance

Sermon notes for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany.
Audio of the sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Someone remarked to me this week that I had chosen – in this particular vocation of serving the Church – what he called the “wild ride.” I hesitated for just a moment, tempted as clergy are all too often to see our calling as elevated or separate from most other Christians. On the one hand, it’s true: being subject to the uncertain future of a relatively modest not-for-profit budget that relies almost wholly on others’ generosity; social forces well beyond my control that might make churchy business popular, unpopular, or indifferent tomorrow; being on call when people are facing life-altering events that few witness with any regularity. . .well, it is a “wild ride” at times, indeed!

But then I recognized that few, if any of us, can say with any validity that we are not subject to the uncertainties of the present state of the world, or that we are secure enough to weather social forces no matter which way they trend, or that our particular line of work will sustain us in two or five years, let alone ten. Truth is, all of us are confronted with a “wild ride” of one sort or another. And so I say again, paraphrasing Wesley in The Princess Bride: Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something!

On Facebook this week, I came across the perennial article remarking on how the institutional church is faltering: How it has failed and hurt many over the centuries, and whether or not it deserves to survive. The curious thing was that I read one article like this and then another popped up on my Facebook news feed, and then another, and then another! I wondered for a moment if everybody was starting to write again about the demise of institutional Christianity (a familiar and depressing thought for a guy like me). Maybe we really were going to at last go under. But then I realized Facebook was only doing what it was supposed to do – posting articles on my news feed similar to ones I’d already read. It’s the same kind of consumer-driven content selection that all our media and social outlets now employ at every turn, every mouse click.

What struck me about that is the rapidly distorting effect this has on our perception of reality. We can quickly find ourselves in an echo chamber hearing only voices that think about the same things we do, and think that therefore the whole world is discussing what we are; or worse, that a majority of the world thinks the same way we do! What makes this doubly troubling is the modern myth that with all our access to information these days, we are getting a more “unbiased” view of reality than did our ancestors.

The first piece of good news, then, in today’s gospel, is that we are in this way, at least, similar to Peter, Andrew, James, and John living on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They didn’t have mass media or access to mobile devices to distort their view of reality with consumer-driven content. But it was still probably hard for them to imagine much reality beyond that which they already knew and talked about all day. Fishing was and remains another all-consuming “wild ride” subject to forces well beyond human control: weather and the almost complete mystery of the biology beneath the waves. Whether their catch would be big or small must have been a combination of seasonal guess-work, intuition, and fate into which a faithful fisherman might have injected a good dose of prayer. But no matter the size of the catch, there would always be the endless work of disentangling and mending the nets, countless hours of dropping them here or there in the waters and hauling nothing, and the gnawing uncertainty of whether even a good catch would sustain their livelihoods for another cycle of moons.

These first disciples, doubtless, talked, breathed, and dreamed fishing. It was what they knew best to their very bones. And so, when this itinerant teacher, filled with the Spirit of God from his venture in the wilderness, shows up and commands them to follow, I can only imagine their perplexity when he told them they would now “fish for people.” They will spend the next few years on this “wild ride” with Jesus, learning better what he means by that from the greatest teacher of them all: experience. They might even come to learn that this is no ordinary mystic, prophet, or teacher they are following. This might just be Someone who reveals God’s presence with us in the flesh.

For Jesus, his time has come, and none of the signs are good. John has been imprisoned, and no sensible person would believe anything other than Jesus was next on the hit list. It will take time for Peter, Andrew, James, and John – even a lifetime – to learn what Jesus has just learned in the wilderness through his confrontation with temptation: by rejecting the offer of the powers this world recognizes – the power to satisfy ourselves and lord it over others – Jesus has planted the flag of a new kind of community that will involve radical self-offering, radical non-violence, and, therefore, radical vulnerability.

This will not be a wild-ride in a chariot or alongside a marching legion or the grit of a violent insurgency. It will be a wild ride of profound vulnerability to people’s love or painful rejection; it will be a wild ride in the midst of a confrontation between the ways of a God who lovingly made all that is with a world that is too often hell-bent on distortion, dissension, division, domination, and destruction.

No doubt, Jesus saw this likely ending with a cross. Had Peter and Andrew really understood the reality they were stepping into, would they have dropped their familiar nets and followed? Would you? Would I?

Repentance for them was not simply getting it right with God so things could go back to the old and familiar. Paul must confront this very human temptation bearing bad fruit in the little clutch of Corinthian Christians today, and while his message is at times amusing (just how many people did you baptize there, Paul?) it is steel-edged with worry that the faith he gave them is being quickly sandblasted by the dry winds of familiar factionalism and quests for domination and control. They haven’t gotten repentance yet, and so they are at the same risk every formalized Christian community and every half-converted heart has been since: just going the way of thousands of other spiritualities and religious institutions across the millennia. And that is nowhere at all really, except back into the familiar teeth of a power-hungry and hell-bent world.

So when Christ calls us to repent, he is not merely telling us to be good Christians working on our own righteousness, finding the right cause and standing up for it, and then hoping to end our short lives having done good things. If that were the case, we could see Sundays as only a time to gather, utter faithful words, mend our nets, collect our rations at the altar, organize a bit, and then go out and simply do “it” better.

No, repentance is more like Jesus coming to the shore of our familiar lives and calling us out of our familiar but distorted, insular view of reality, and us daring to follow him into a wild ride that is truly unfathomable — a ride with God that, inevitably, will overturn everything we thought we knew about ourselves, the world, and even our most cherished values and beliefs.

Didn’t you learn that somewhere along the way? Maybe in Sunday School? No? Then the institutional Church, you see, is still trying to get its job right, and two thousand years later is still falling far short. Paul is addressing us as much as he is that quarreling little sect in Corinth all those centuries ago!

But not to worry. Our little community is rooted in grace, not institutional righteousness. And the school of repentance for Jesus was not confined to the synagogue. It was ever engaging its students at the side of the sea, at the booth of a tax collector, in the kitchen, seated at table with friends and enemies, under a tree, or even up a tree! For us, the school of repentance is found, too, out there in the world at least six other days of the week, when we each must grapple with our own “wild ride” and perhaps find ourselves called yet again out of the familiar, the predictable, and the ever budding arrogance of our own narrow judgments about reality. Here we gather in the hopes of being reminded of this humility and re-fueled for our journey by the life-blood and strength of our Savior, exhorted by word and sacrament not merely to do better, but be affirmed again that we are on this wild ride together with one another and our God.

And so we can truly repent by pursuing that journey that Jesus’ first disciples were on: where the flag of a new kind of community, a new kind of people, a new kind of world is carried...

A world built not on the foundations of power, but of radical self-offering and self-emptying...

So that we each may be filled with the love that God made us to have, a love that even promises to bring life beyond all death.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Brother Rock, of his own Violation

Sermon for the Confession of St. Peter
January 18th, 2014
delivered at the Winter Convocation of The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
The Chapel of the Stigmata
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center, Wappingers Falls, New York

Among the great blessings of my childhood and youth were trips to rural Gloucestershire to visit my English grandparents. Even now, simply reflecting on it brings back the scent of freshly cut sweet pea blossoms on the kitchen table, the yeasty smell of the pantry where my grandfather fermented homemade wine, and his aftershave scenting the little office beyond, cluttered as it was with papers, books, and the typewriter where he tried his hand at writing for many years.

Above his desk was a little wooden plaque that read:

“Engage brain before opening mouth.”

You might think for a moment I will be relating St. Peter today to my grandfather — a self-made and largely self-educated man, a man of simple trade, and yet amongst the wisest people I knew growing up.

But, no, I would better relate my grandmother to Peter. For our beloved Rona, to say it was to think it. She was the positive antithesis of that delightful little sign in my grandfather’s office, which is probably why it remained in his office and nowhere else in the house, and you can only imagine the fascinating relationship they cultivated for over fifty years of marriage!

My grandmother had married well below her station. To employ a bit of British understatement, her family that included a captain in the Royal Navy was not at all amused when their daughter found herself backed by love to marry into trade — namely, the floristry trade. But that she did, and so without the roadmap of family sanction, she and Stanley built a life and started a family together around his floristry business in London. They in turn found themselves backed by geopolitical forces far beyond their control into lessons of survival and perseverance through the war years.

They narrowly escaped death on at least one occasion when a German shell leveled their little shop. Gathering stubborn resolve for survival from that experience, Rona learned how to deal effectively with annoyed customers, difficult characters, and guide anxious brides and grieving families to the right floral design. All the while, she and her husband worked grueling hours, rising in the dark to gather fresh flowers for the day from the market, working late into the night to prepare for weddings, funerals, holidays, and every need for a bit of beauty that came in the door, and raising two children. Years later, as Stanley watched his professional colleagues drop dead of exhaustion in their early fifties, he and Rona decided to sell their business and purchase an old hunting lodge in the West Midlands. There, Stanley was determined to slow their pace of life, pick up gardening, and become a published writer.

But Rona, with no roadmap yet again, found herself backed onto a new, unexpected path, and so she began to teach. And she started writing about flower arranging, too, and was quickly published. By the time her first American grandson was born, she had become the primary breadwinner of the household, having built her little floristry school into an internationally recognized training ground for aspiring and experienced florists alike, all based in the studio she had designed and built.

In the seasons I would visit, we would sit together for tea and fine cheese, and Rona would still always speak her mind. Didn’t matter if it was politics, the beautiful garden she and Stanley cultivated, religion, church gossip, music, neighbors, or the weather. She articulated a strongly held thought about almost everything. And so Stanley would sometimes say in exasperation, if for no other reason than to end the volley of unsolicited opinion:

“Yes, dear, you could be right.”

Following his death, she told me on at least one occasion with a laugh that she learned early on not to be bashful about having the last word. And hers was a one-liner worthy of the Dowager Countess of Grantham:

“Not only could I be right,” she would sometimes respond to her husband, “I bloody well am!”

Rona lasted into her nineties, impetuous and opinionated as ever, and in many respects more successful business-wise than her more careful and studied husband had been. She was never the charmer that the self-made gentleman Stanley was, but at least you always knew where you stood with her. Her mottos included an honest wage for an honest day’s work and making a commitment to “keep the tide coming in.” A cousin even noticed that one of Rona’s books made a cameo appearance in the opening credits of the BBC comedy, Keeping Up Appearances. Her floristry school was taken over by a colleague and continued to flourish after she moved to the States to live with my parents.

Rona’s other favorite expression, which to this day I find myself using on occasion, was always about so-and-so undertaking something “of his own violation.”

Now that’s Peter in a nutshell, isn’t it? Always impetuous, always undertaking actions “of his own violation.”

Peter finds himself backed into dropping his nets at the seashore, abandons the familiar life of fishing for an uncertain future following this strange yet alluring, itinerant teacher. Peter jumps out of the boat to walk on the water. Peter is ready to enshrine Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountaintop and is answered by more than awkward silence. And Peter, today we remember, boldly calls Jesus Messiah and Son of the living God, and suddenly in a truly inspired moment for once, finds himself in the right. Then, before the sound of his confession fades in his own ears, he is handed the keys to the kingdom and is named in an instant of affectionate word play, “Brother Rock” if you will, a first stone for the foundation of the Church.

Yet we have good reason to doubt Peter knew precisely what he had really said or what any of this really meant. A scant few verses later, he will attempt to block Jesus from turning towards Jerusalem, and his Lord and Master will be vexed enough to call his first disciple Satan. Clearly, divine inspiration or no, “Brother Rock” had yet again opened his mouth without engaging his brain.

And it will go on. After promising not to, he will betray Jesus three times during the Passion. He will be skeptical when reports of the Resurrection are brought to him. Even after witnessing the Resurrection himself, he will clothe himself with embarrassment and jump impetuously into the water yet again, and yet still be befuddled when the arisen Christ commands him to feed his sheep. On the way to fulfilling this charge, he will argue vociferously with Paul, struggle with intractable disputes of his little community, and learn through mis-steps and unexpected visions that God still has yet even more to reveal. Nevertheless, he will still successfully lead the first Christian community in spreading the Gospel in word and deed: healing the sick, sharing the Spirit, organizing and exhorting, testifying boldly before powers and principalities, and even bursting the shackles of prison.

This week, in our own way, we Gregorians have recounted the uncertain footsteps and impetuosity of Peter as he discovered his walk with Christ. We have spent time with minds and hearts buried together in our Rule and governing documents, recounting how our Founder began this community “of his own violation” as Rona would say, and how he and subsequent companions on the way jumped impetuously and dangerously into the water, went off on tangents, said and started things they didn’t quite understand at the time. . . or simply didn’t understand at all, and yet found God inspiring, leading, and revealing things they had never imagined.

But then, that’s true of all of us, isn’t it? It’s one reason why we gathered here again to talk about humility, being broken open again and again for Jesus to plant seeds in us, and about the virtues of traveling light and allowing Christ to open our eyes. It’s why we spent time this week endeavoring to understand ourselves better, both as a community and as individual brothers.

Yet we are like many ancient tribes and like Peter himself, in that we are really walking backwards – not forwards – into the future. The ancients understood that hindsight is truly the only way we see, and so it is the future, not the past, that is behind us. Now, we might be tempted to see our evolving governing documents in particular as some kind of roadmap, some pathway forward, but they are really only lessons from experiences of the past, helping us —at best — to keep our footing while we walk backwards – or, perhaps a bit more accurately – to gather a bit of confidence and hope that we will more than survive when we, like Rona and like Peter, find ourselves backed by love and life into a future that we can only best describe as unexpected and unplanned.

The philosopher and prophet of our modern media age, Marshall McLuhan, coined the familiar phrase  “the medium is the message” and the term “global village.” He also said, gathering up this ancient wisdom, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror; we walk backwards into the future.”

And, yes, it is always dangerous to walk backwards: no constitution or customary or amount of self-awareness will make religious life safe. My brothers, we are called to remain unsafe and impetuous at times, just as Peter was; to proclaim Jesus Messiah and Son of God, and not know what the hell we are talking about some of the time or even much of the time; to undertake ministries and tasks “of our own violation”; and, indeed, to open our mouth sometimes or often without engaging our brains; to risk offering the gift of the Spirit working in us despite ourselves.

And it is this risk that continues to allow the kingdom to unfold among us and through us for the sake of those we serve, so that perhaps in the final analysis, we can with Peter learn finally to become the media and the message for Christ in this global village of ours. We might in the process show in word and deed that not only could Peter be right, he (bloody well!) is right that Jesus is indeed Messiah, the Son of of the living God:

Christ at work for the redemption of a whole fragile, tender, beloved world.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Wisdom of the Magi

A reflection for the Second Sunday after Christmas
Readings include Matthew 2:1-12

The visitation of the Magi has always been one of the more fascinating – and memorable – stories of the Christmas season. From my wondering as a child at the seemingly exotic nature of these travelers from the East, to the fabulous annual productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors I had the privilege of seeing while studying music as an undergraduate, there is something about them that captures our imagination. Part of their mystery is their origins: were they Persian priests of Zoroaster, Babylonians, Arabians, or Jewish leaders of the diaspora from contemporary Yemen, or some combination of all of these? Were there three or more? A plethora of traditions arose around and about them. In the Eastern Church, they number at least a dozen in some depictions. Tales of their later martyrdom for Christ spawned relics into the Middle Ages. But Matthew, the only canonical gospel who records their visitation, gives us precious little to go on. The author himself may have had his Jewish audience in mind as the story in some ways parallels the tale of the King Balak and the prophet Balaam in the Torah, complete with a messianic star (cf. Numbers 22-24). That Matthew also intends to show the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles may also, of course, be on the agenda.

But our fascination amounts to much more than that:

Who are these mystical figures really? And why does their story speak to us?

Part of our fascination with them is their deft handling of Herod, the crafty Judean politician, son of an appointee of Julius Caesar. Herod clawed his way to kingship by aligning himself with the Roman occupation, re-conquering his own homeland with Roman aid, and then lending legitimacy to his rule by marrying into the legendary Hasmonean dynasty, whose fame was rooted in the celebrated Jewish Maccabean revolts of centuries past. Herod the Great’s success (his building projects in Judea were more than impressive) was matched only by his ruthlessness (it is during Christmastide that we also remember accounts of his slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem in an effort to protect his throne from the prophesied Messiah.)

But Herod’s carefully crafted and paid-for rule is trembling with fear when word of a new king’s birth is whispered in his ear and these strangers from the East come looking for him. Yet the wise men catch the scent of Herod’s fearful scheming through their wise observation and dreams – they are whole, it seems, in their engagement with the universe and the sacred; holy mystics – rulers perhaps – of a different order than the unholy, violent, divisive and soul-rending political machinations that make up Herod and his ilk. The Magi are sacred watchers of signs in nature and the solitude of sleep; faithful stewards of ancient wisdom buried in the very foundations of history and the human experience – wisdom that speaks of our need for a savior, of God to come among us to restore our wholeness.

Recently, I had the privilege of one of those all-too-rare pastoral conversations with a stranger: a seeker from the wider community. For years she has struggled mightily with memories of a profoundly traumatic childhood: trauma that led almost inevitably to struggles with addiction and the law. She had done so many things right more recently: residential programs, therapy, psychiatric care, engaging recovery groups to address her compensating addiction, grappling with various diagnoses...some wrong, some right...struggling with how medication made things better...and made things worse...She had taken every step you can imagine to find and fight for her healing. But still not a day would go by that she didn’t re-engage with the awful memories of her youth, sometimes triggered unexpectedly by things that would seem to most of us innocuous.

She visited me and wondered aloud through tears simply why she couldn’t get over the traumas of the past. Her prayer life is vibrant, she continually offers thanks to God for every daily blessing, she knows scripture well, she places high expectations on herself to let go of anger and forgive those who harmed her, she struggles faithfully to keep her family together. Why doesn’t God just fix things inside her and punish the guilty as a reward for her fidelity? Why can’t she just be healed so she can be a better help to her family and friends?

It was these questions that were worthy, I realized, of the Christ-child, and the long, uncertain journey of the Magi. That the Magi and Jesus would experience a world that was as brutal in some ways as hers is a given. The Magi had to face Herod. So did the Holy Family. Neither of them fixed the situation politically or saw Herod brought to justice. The Magi simply evade Herod on the way home. The innocents of Bethlehem will be killed. John the Baptist will be beheaded and Jesus will die on the cross in part because of the machinations of one of Herod the Great’s sons and heir. Imagine the very different and somehow more familiar story we would have had the Magi remained with Jesus and conspired with him against Herod. The political messiah everyone, even Herod himself, expected, would be just another dynasty battling for power – perhaps with an Eastern alliance opposed to Herod’s Roman one – the Nazorean political family possibly rising and falling in history, like the Hasmoneans, the Herodians, or the Caesars.

One of our alternate gospels today talk of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to protect the infant Jesus from Herod’s murderous designs for a time. Exile is an inevitable and un-fixable part of the human condition: one that Jeremiah speaks to again on the Second Sunday after Christmas. And that exile has many forms: political, social, relational, familial, and even that awful internal divorce between our heads and hearts, between our inner private and outer public lives. And then there’s the cross that holds it all up for redemption, which is hinted at to Mary even while her first-born destined to be baptized the Son of God still grows in her womb.

“What if,” I asked this stranger who became no-longer-a-stranger in my office, “your struggle is a struggle we all share? One that Christ shares with you?”  Sure, her memories and journey seemed harsher than most, but our our most holy journey in common is the struggle with our woundedness.

“What if Jesus isn’t on the outside waiting to fix things, but in the very midst of your struggle with those traumatic memories, standing with you in those awful moments, sharing those wounds with you?”

I found myself offering advice I was once given by a wise counselor in a broken moment: to remember and suffer is as human as it gets. To struggle with woundedness is not so much a “fixable” reality or one to be gotten over, but one to be lived into faithfully as a journey every bit as important as following the star in the East – our wounds are a reality into which we invite Jesus for redemption, not one we try to fix before we meet him. To struggle with forgiveness itself is a process: not simply a switch we throw in our heads. To weep over difficult memories is simply to weep, a most human and Christian vocation. And then to give thanks is to offer this precious gift of Christ in our midst the very best we have to offer.

And then when we remembered her children, some of whom are now successfully engaging adulthood, she brightened considerably. Despite her own struggles, she had already been a help to them and a loving support in ways she might not even be able to imagine. And then there were those to whom she witnessed every day walking alongside her in recovery. Her ministry in grace had already begun, and had been unfolding for a long time. She didn’t need to wait until she was completely healed or perfect, or even just until tomorrow. The life of Christ had already been unfolding in her. Like the exiles’ return in Jeremiah, her journey home was palpable, ongoing, and will be ultimately joyous even if, like the returning lame and blind, she – like all of us, and even like our beloved Christ – still bears the wounds of this life.

It is this wisdom, perhaps, that the Magi knew as they journeyed great distances, asking questions, following uncertain paths, knowing their own brokenness and limitations and learning and re-learning the brokenness of the world, and yet at long last kneeling and worshiping the Christ-child and offering their greatest gifts in homage. . .

This divinity born vulnerable and human as a child among us, who is birthed into all our wounded places, shares our scars and sorrows and even our death, and yet knits a broken cosmos back together; who is driven into exile himself, and yet invites us on the long journey home from all of our wounding exiles from self, community, and God; who is worshiped by strangers sometimes more faithfully, it seems, than the recognized faithful among us; and who is revealed as the Savior of All as the darkness turns to light and the star ascends in our hearts.