Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Weary? Rest in Heaven

Today's Eucharistic readings (Isaiah 40:25-31; Matthew 11:28-30( are like a tonic, healing whatever is aching in me.  Together they invite me to be renewed.

Isaiah tells us that "those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."  Then Matthew presents Jesus' invitation: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

These are delightful promises of rest and renewal.  But as I sit with them, I'm aware that neither of them promises an end to the work.  The burden may be light, but there's a yoke and a burden.  We may be renewed, but we will continue to go forward.  So this is not a promise of the end of growth, or movement, or progress.  It's a promise, I think, of another kind of growth.

I spend much of my life striving.  My spiritual director calls it "efforting."  I put my shoulder to the plow - and if there's no plow available, I will build one!  I have plowed through much of my life, until exhaustion hits and I have to stop and rest.  I've done a lot, but that's not really the point of life.  If I want to know God, I need to stop the striving.  I need to let God in.

This easy yoke is the yoke of patient trust, of gentleness.  It's the yoke of living in the present even while doing work that carries us forward.  It's the "burden" of following where God calls, at God's pace - a much lighter burden than those we often put on ourselves and one another.  This yoke, this burden, is sustainable.  We can be renewed even as we continue.

In the convent of St. John Baptist in New Jersey there's an illuminated calligraphy that says "In Coelo Quies" - Rest in Heaven.  Now, you can take that to mean we should work our tails off and rest after we die, but I always thought it meant I should rest in God's world while doing the work here.  At least, that's what I took as its wisdom.  I think that's what Isaiah and Matthew are getting at.

Today, rest in heaven.  Ask God to lead you.  Let Jesus use you, gently and humbly.  Give thanks for the love that reaches to renew us.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Prepare the Way

Today is the first of two Sundays of Advent devoted to John the Baptist.  I find myself really frustrated this year by the absence of Mary.  Two weeks of John, every year, and no week that is specifically devoted to Mary.  Yes, it's important to include Joseph, and I'm glad we're doing that, but out of twelve Sundays over three years, Mary appears in only two of them.  John in six.  Our theme is preparing the way, getting ready for God to come in our midst.  I think Mary has a place in that.  Oh well.

So: how do we prepare the way?  Yesterday we had a retreat around the theme of "making space for grace."  At one point I was describing how we can clean our spiritual house, we can name our liabilities or defects and ask God to remove them, but in the end God may have another agenda.  We may find ourselves with the same shortcomings that bother us, while God has removed or transformed something that wasn't on our list!  Our job is to make space for grace, not to engage in self-improvement.

A participant looked at me and said she was just floored by this.  God may not remove the things I want removed?  After I've looked at myself and named this stuff, I have to leave open the possibility that God isn't bothered by what bothers me?  It is mind-blowing.

So today I think about John's call to prepare the way of the Lord.  Make "his" paths straight.  Don't get confused; it's not your own way you're preparing, it's not your own path you're grooming.  You do your part, but in the end it's the Holy One walking this road.  S/he walks it in you, as you, and as all of creation.  But S/he's not the "you" that does the preparing; that ego-self can only go so far.  That's important to remember.

Prepare the way.  Sit and listen.  Respond to what you hear.  Let yourself be led, and let yourself be surprised.  God be with you.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Simple, But Not Easy

Today's Eucharistic Gospel reading is Matthew 7:21-27.  Here he compares those who "hear these words and do them" to a wise man building his house on rock.  Those who hear but don't do them are headed for destruction.  So my first question was, "What words is he talking about?"

This passage is the ending to the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus has been teaching for three chapters about how to live, how to pray, what to value.  Many of the teachings are inspiring and uplifting: "Do to others as you would have them do to you"; "Don't worry about tomorrow"; the Lord's Prayer.  But many are disturbing and challenging, to the point where we have decided as churches and as cultures to ignore them: no divorce except for adultery, no adultery for that matter, fasting, not retaliating or harboring anger, loving our enemies.  Matthew doesn't separate some of these out and make them optional.  All of these, according to Matthew, are Jesus' "words."

So: are you ready for Advent?  Are you ready to meet God again, in the flesh?
Are you ready to meet God in the annoying neighbor, the bully, the political opponent, the unwashed homeless person, the panhandler?
Are you ready to meet God as the one who wants to forgive you for your failures, who forgives you your anger, your annoyingness, your rudeness or disdain?  Are you ready to start again?

I could avoid all this by explaining how some of these prescriptions were shaped by Jesus' society, a society radically different from ours.  I could say that some of these just aren't realistic.  And they aren't.  They fly directly in the face of my primitive survival instinct, my "realistic" fears and desires. But I do believe that Jesus said them and meant them.  So I'm in a hard place.

I can do my best to build my house on rock, but I'm pretty sure I've got too much sand in it for it to stand really firm.  My only hope is to do my best and trust in God's mercy to show me how to do better.  Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Monday, December 2, 2019


I'm inspired to write a bit more during Advent.  Because of technical difficulties with Blogger I may not post everything I write, but I'm grateful for the desire to reflect.

Today the reading for daily Eucharist is Matthew 8:5-13.  The centurion tells Jesus not to bother coming to his house to heal his servant; he trusts that he can heal him wherever he is.  It's an interesting choice to begin Advent.  Why did the framers of the lectionary choose this?  I don't know, really.  But I have the freedom to discover meaning for myself, so I'm pondering.

What strikes me is the centurion's phrase, "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof."  This is used in the Roman Catholic Mass just before receiving communion.   For some it is humbling, an acknowledgement of grace; for others, it lands as humiliating and punishing.  And I wonder, what is it doing here, in Advent?

I think for me the point today is that worthiness is not the point.  Jesus does not heal the servant because the centurion is worthy, or because the servant is worthy.  He does not heal the servant because the centurion expresses his unworthiness.  We may think he heals him because of his great faith, and I think that's Matthew's point.  But for me, today, I hear that Jesus comes because we need him, and because he loves.

Jesus is coming into a world torn by evil, shredded by sin, yet a world full of desire for the good.  Jesus doesn't come because we're worthy, and he won't stay away because we aren't.  If that were so, he would never have been born, for the world has always been what it is.  No, Jesus came because we need him, and because he loves.  He is coming again for the same reason.

So today, perhaps you might begin Advent by asking Jesus for whatever healing you need.  It doesn't have to be dire; it may be as simple as annoyance with a neighbor.  It could be those feelings of unworthiness that paralyze people and keep them from sharing their gifts.  It could be anything.  What in you needs healing?

Blessed Advent to you!

Thursday, November 21, 2019

When You Hear Rumors . . .

Our Sunday Scriptures these last weeks of the season include warnings about the time that is to come, when structures collapse and the natural world seems bent on chaos.  Jesus tells the disciples not to panic, not to believe those who tell them they know the meaning of these events.  But he also makes clear that they mean something.

How appropriate for the month we are having at the Companionary!  Since midnight of November 1, we've seen a torrent of "signs."  Here's a recap:
November 1 - we lost power for 36 hours; internet down for a week.
November 12 - our annual mailing was moving along when the Excel file scrambled all the data, had to be redone.
November 12 - Elizabeth was in a car accident with our new (used) car; she's alright, the car needs help.  No collision insurance.
November 16 - our cat falls sick, goes off to the animal emergency room.  She seems fine now.  Mostly a response to stress!
November 14-21:  the reserve tank from the well starts to struggle.  We schedule the installation of a new tank.  But overnight last night the tank (or the pump) failed entirely.  Plumbers coming later today.  Hoping it's just the tank!

So that's the "woes."  But there are blessings, some of which also can throw me off balance:
November 20 - new windows in the outer office where I (Shane) work and see people.  Chaos, but a wonderful result.
New members are joining the covenant group.
I'm leading one of my favorite groups on retreat this weekend.  I may not be ready, but they will carry it for me.

In the meantime we are preaching and presiding, leading retreats, and seeing people for direction.  And here are some of the blessings:
We've always had a way to see people.  Our neighbors at Holy Cross Monastery kept us warm, accessible, and hydrated.
Each of these could have been much worse!!!
We haven't blown up or gone into a tailspin; we keep laughing.

Now, I don't believe that God sent us these events.  (Maybe the stars, but not God.). But I do believe that God opens doors for us to grow if we choose.  I do believe that resilience is a gift from God.  I do believe that friends and resources are gifts, not of my own deserving or planning.  I do believe that choosing to look for grace in the midst of chaos is my part in the dance.

So: these may not be "the end times," but every day can be the end and the beginning.  We've had so many openings this month, so many chances to see beyond what is crumbling to a greater grace.  I'm confident that this coming year will be full of growth and new awakening.  I hope I get to experience it with heat, water, food, and friends; but I'll take it either way.  What choice do I have?

If you are struggling this month (and I've heard that many people are), know that you are not alone.  And while God may not be "teaching you a lesson," I believe that God is available for instruction and renewal at any time.  Grab it.  If you need help hanging on, reach out.  And wait for December!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Sermon October 27, Proper 25C

I want to talk about humility.

Humility has a hard time of it in our culture. 
In the wider American culture, we hear about the importance of standing up for ourselves, for self-esteem.  We get an implicit message to look out for number one, and we can hear a lot of scorn for those who don’t measure up.  American culture seems to be built on the idea of exalting ourselves, moving up the ladder, standing out.  And we Americans have a long history of comparing ourselves to other countries and saying, “I thank you, God, that we are not like those others.  We have freedom and democracy; we have the biggest economy in the world; our sports teams are the best.”

In church, on the other hand, we hear that we should be humble, but that often gets translated to mean we should think of ourselves as worse than others, less deserving, less important.   Too often it becomes a prescription for letting ourselves be abused, for hiding our gifts, for putting our light under a basket.

I don’t think either of these options is quite what Jesus had in mind in this parable.  And I don’t think either of them gets at the power and grace of humility.

The Pharisee has a lot to be grateful for.  He abides by the law, he gives to God what is prescribed.  But he makes two mistakes.  First, Luke suggests that he thinks he’s done this himself.  Now, Luke may be wrong here; the Pharisee does indeed thank God for letting him be this way.   But the second mistake is clear.  

He doesn’t give thanks for doing what is prescribed, or for the richness of his life.  He compares himself to others, judging them less than himself.  That’s the nub of it.  It he had just said, “God, I thank you for making me someone who does these things,”  that might be simple gratitude.  But when he turns his eye toward his neighbor, when he compares, he’s turned his vision from God.

Notice that the tax collector doesn’t say he’s worse than others.  He doesn’t say, “Lord, have mercy on me, the worst sinner in town.”  His sin is enough for him.  He’s talking to God, he’s looking at God with both eyes.  He’s not worrying about anyone else.  He’s not comparing.

Comparison is always dangerous.  If I compare myself to you, I lose.  If I find that you’re better than I am, I despair.  If I find that I’m better, I’ve lost touch with you.  Either way I lose.

God’s question is never, how do you compare to others?  It’s not, what is your class rank?
God’s question is, are you being who I made you to be?  Are you doing what I called you to do?

Each of us is unique.  Each of us is bundle of traits and capacities, frailties and strengths.  We each have plenty to work on, and plenty to work with.  My sins are my own, as are my gifts.

Humility means seeing myself as I am.  It means honest assessment.  It means contrition when I fall short, and thanksgiving when I grow and thrive.  There’s no place in there for comparison.

The earliest Christians understood that Jesus came to show us how to be human and divine, to be what God intended.  This didn’t mean arrogance; it meant gratitude and wonder.  Paul gives us an example of this in his letter.  He has fought the good fight, and he trusts that he will receive the crown of righteousness.  But he is not the center of the story.  He gives glory to God for his stamina and faithfulness.

Now, Paul may seem a strange example of humility.  He does indeed spend time comparing himself to other apostles and missionaries, and he can boast with the best of them.  He’s an imperfect vessel, like the rest of us.  But at his best, he knows that everything he has done is through God’s spirit.  His aim is to leave communities devoted, not to Paul, but to God in Christ.

That should be our aim as well.  In our lives, in our churches and in our work and family life, we are called to be all that we can be; to be the glory of God, as human beings fully alive.  We are called to testify to the power working in our lives.  That has nothing to do with my list of achievements or worthy tasks, though they may result from it.  It has to do with the quality of my being, the state of my soul.

When I am really trying to live in this way, I continually trip over the places where I fail.  My prayer life grows stale, I work too hard, I get grumpy and rude and impatient.  I try to run the show, and the next thing you know I’m running over the people around me.  Then I have to turn and ask for mercy.  I need to get on my knees and cry and say, “Lord, help me.”

I wonder what happens after the two men finish their prayers.  The Pharisee has already lost his connection, but what about the tax collector?  Jesus says he is justified, but there’s more to Christian life than justification.  What we call sanctification, growing into the full stature of Christ, means turning from our sin and trying to amend our ways.  Does the tax collector change his ways?

Humility doesn’t mean justifying my weakness, my repeated failures to change my ways.  That’s not humility; that’s a subtle form of lazy pride.  Jesus doesn’t give us a free pass.  Over and over, after he forgives and heals people, he says, “Go and sin no more.”  That’s the road ahead of us.

Wherever you are in your life and your relationship with God, honest assessment is essential.  Humility means facing the truth, good and bad, and asking for mercy and strength.  Then it means turning from focussing on your sins and aiming at serving and contributing to the world around you.  It means letting yourself be poured out as a libation, an offering to God, and rejoicing at what God is up to.

To God be the glory forever and ever.   Amen.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Try, Try Again

In the name of honesty, I have to come clean. After writing yesterday I managed two 15-minute walks, but otherwise kept my whole schedule - from 6 in the morning until 8 last night. Sigh. I am a productivity addict.
But God came to my rescue today. I had another full day planned - sermon and newsletter in the morning, spiritual direction all afternoon. And I had not slept well. So: neither of my direction appointments made it! Different reasons, but one thread. 
Now, I could have "made use" of that time to do things on my list. But I felt rotten, my cold is lingering - so I read, then watched a short documentary on PBS. Now I plan to watch more. So there. Take that, superego!