Pentecost 3

This past Wednesday we had our first event for the Bordentown Laundry Project, which we set up with the Bordentown Rotary and Paul Ciarrocca, the owner of the Rivertown Laundromat.  As much as we wanted to do something like this, having an evening to invite those, who because of their financial situation, were having trouble keeping up with their laundry, we were apprehensive.  Questions seemed to beget not answers but other questions; fear begat more fear.  Who will come, if anyone?  What if more people come than we can accommodate?  How will they get there and home?  Snacks?  Games?  What if it rains?  What if no one else thinks this is a good idea and we can’t afford the whole thing?

 

We still have questions after our first evening, but we got lots of answers as well.  Between the parish and the wider community, more than $600 worth of quarters were collected.  Three dozen bottles of detergent, countless sheets of fabric softener, pounds of cookies, coolers full of water, enough coloring books and crayons to keep 30 kids occupied.  We ended up serving around 30 members of our community, and the love of Christ was proclaimed on our streets.

 

That doesn’t mean we had nothing to fear.  If you remember, on Wednesday afternoon, right as we were loading my truck to bring the supplies over, the skies opened up, pouring rain, lighting, and thunder.  The storm threatened to squash the event – who would carry their laundry out in a thunderstorm?

 

The Church Father’s teach us that when something good is happening or about to happen, Satan attacks, tries to get in the way of the Gospel being preached in word or deed.  As volunteers from the church, the Rotary, Hope Hose, and the Kiwanis carried various things into the laundromat, braving the storm, it was clear we were under attack.  But it was also clear something good was about to happen.

 

But again, that doesn’t mean we had nothing to fear.  Today’s Gospel reading is a lesson in fear, a subject appropriate to our times.  Fear God, Jesus tells us, and I think many of still wrestle with that language.  Why would we fear a loving God, a God who died for us?  It’s confusing, certainly.

 

First, Jesus tells His disciples that He is sending them out into the world as ‘sheep amongst wolves’, now a classic reference.  The twelve disciples, like so many that would come after them, will be persecuted, attacked, betrayed, put to death by even the people they trusted.

 

“Jesus says not to be afraid of such people.  They can only kill the body but cannot touch the soul.  On the other hand, Jesus says, “Be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”  In other words, fear God.  But rather than leave us with that bald statement, Jesus hastens to add a thought “on the third hand”: God whose eye is on the sparrow, cares even more for you.  Indeed, he even counts the hairs on your head.  So do not be afraid.  You are worth much more than a whole flock of sparrows.

 

 

“Did the third hand take away what the second hand gave?  Jesus is saying that the One who holds the ultimate power over you is the One who loves you the most.  How, then, does exhortation to fear God apply?  Jesus is here simply recalling a theme deep in the Hebrew tradition, the intimate connection between fear and love of God.  What is meant by fear in these contexts is a complete awe and reverence for the Creator, such that one always acts out of profound respect for (the Lord).

 

“If “fear” of God has such a positive meaning, why, then, does Scripture insist on negative words that are best translated “fear” in this case?  Analogy may help.  Every parent wants to instill in a toddler a healthy fear of fire, deep water, and automobile traffic…  (Healthy fear, not craven fear.)

 

“Perhaps a more helpful analogy is the fear we have of offending those we love the most.  Are we not deeply pained when we discover that a word or act of ours has hurt a parent, a child, or a good friend? And do we not fear offending them?  That’s the fear Jesus would have us feel toward the Father.  When our love life is governed by this fear of God, we discover that we really have nothing to be afraid of.”[1]

 

The fear, awe, and reverence of God drives out the fears of this mortal life and replaces them with love, the kind of love that causes us to reach out to each other and our neighbors in the Name of Jesus.

 

[1] Dennis Hamm, SJ  http://liturgy.slu.edu/12OrdA062517/theword_hamm.html

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Pentecost 2

The Most Reverend Robert Runcie, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in his book, Seasons of the Spirit, that he once got on a train in England and discovered that all the other passengers in the car were patients at a mental institution being taken on an excursion.

A mental hospital attendant was counting the patients to be sure that they were all there: “One, two, three, four, five…” When she came to Runcie, he said “And who are you, then?” “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Runcie replied. The attendant smiled, and pointing at Runcie continued counting, “six, seven, eight…”1

Archbishop Runcie right then knew what it must have been like for the 12 disciples after Jesus sent them out to tell people that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” and to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”

How many times did people in the towns and villages visited by the apostles just assume they were in need of a little help? Even Jesus was a bit suspect in the eyes of many of His fellow Jews: John writes in his Gospel that after hearing Jesus’ teaching, “Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and insane. Why would you listen to Him?”…”

But then we get the reply of those who witnessed Jesus being Jesus. John records, “But others replied, “These are not the words of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?””

There’s the rub. If the disciples just went around claiming to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, then yeah, people might have dismissed them out of hand or had them swept out by the town constable. Something, or someone, must have been moving through them.

Now, that brings up the issue at hand today. What I saw as most interesting is “that Jesus authorizes such a powerful ministry for disciples who were clearly—at least as of that moment—completely clueless as to the meaning and shape of Jesus’ wider mission. It’s like authorizing some high school students to go out and start building skyscrapers…”2

The disciples are often depicted as just not getting the whole story, even when God the Son is literally spelling it out for them. As we talked about on Pentecost, this rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling continued until that long-awaited gift of the Holy Spirit, and so in today’s story, we’re still dealing with twelve guys who could really screw this whole “Mission of God” thing up.

And so there must have been some sort of urgency to the matter. We find throughout the Gospels that Jesus knew that His time on earth was not long, that He wouldn’t grow old and grow a long beard and sit under a tree, teaching like an old sage.

When Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, He meant it! Nearness brings urgency, even danger. The Kingdom of God is Christ’s, and Christ is coming to a city near you, and so gear up and get ready! Tell them the Kingdom is near and then show them what the Kingdom looks like, Jesus tells the disciples: show them that it looks like healing, cleansing, holiness, and life.

Sometimes it seems that the Church has lost this sense of urgency, the sense that people are in danger because they have not heard that the Kingdom of God is near. Perhaps we think that because none of us can miraculously heal people or cast out a leper or Lazarus our neighbors, that we have been left out the mission, that we didn’t get the marching orders straight from Jesus.

But that’s just not true, and you know it. I know you know it because every time Jesus gives us a mission, whether it be cooking a HomeFront meal or washing the clothes of our deserving neighbors or seeking out the under-served and under-recognized in our community, you guys are all over it. I asked for some detergent and quarters for three hours of laundry and you all responded with enough for about fifty hours of laundry. Ministry to our neighbor in Jesus’ Name is healing, cleansing, sanctifying, and life-giving. Will we sometimes look a little crazy doing it? Sure. Will we sometimes go off on a mission not really knowing the full story? Absolutely. But so did the twelve disciples. Jesus is urgent in His pursuit of the lost, and so are we.

1From the Transfiguration 1999 issue of TAD, as seen on the Facebook page of Catherine Salmon.

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I Went to Church Every Day for a Month and Here’s What Happened.

If you’re like me and hit Facebook a few times a day, you’ve seen the “I Did 100 Lunges a Day for a Week and Here’s What Happened” types of posts. They’re everywhere; they usually contain something aspirational for the desk-worker set, and I find it interesting to see which of my friends shares which of the posts.

Now, I’ll admit my headline is misleading. I didn’t go to church every day for the last month.  But as the Rector of an Anglo-Catholic parish, I’m at church almost daily, and saying the Offices and Mass is a huge part of my vocation. My parish schedules anywhere from one to four services, six days a week, excluding the summer months, when that scales back to three days week. So it’s safe to say that I go to church a lot.

Here’s what has happened:

Jesus has changed my life. I am, as a priest and as a man, profoundly changed. In both receiving and being the presence of the Blessed Sacrament almost daily, I am a different person than I was nine years ago.

As a seminarian, contempt was once named as my spiritual gift, and my friend was only half-joking. I have become much more patient and more tolerant of differing practices and local customs (though my bishop and colleagues might be surprised to hear that). My prayer life is better. My pastoral care is more consistent and more, for lack of a better term, caring. I’ve read more Scripture and more of Scripture than I would have on my own. I am more grateful for my vocation and for my parish. My people know that I am praying for them, that I’m available to them, and that our parish is open and available to our community.

The parish has changed as well. After re-instituting the weekday Masses, attendance at them was spotty and sometimes non-existent, outside of a server or the random seminarian. But in the last, say, seven years, only a handful of the weekday Masses have gone unattended. There’s usually only a few of us at weekday worship, but those few are faithful and joyful. There’s a community built in those Masses that couldn’t exist without them. And the fact remains that if the priest and his people join together as often as possible in worship and prayer, the parish can’t help but be healthier for it.

Let me clear that this is something that has happened to me, through the grace of God and the good people of Christ Church Bordentown. In just showing up, God has moved me to a better place. Do I still need a lot of work? Most certainly. Am I the disciple I could be? Of course not. But I know from whence change comes and how sanctification works, and that begins and proceeds in being with Christ and His people at every opportunity.

That’s what has happened. I want to thank my wife, Doan, who puts up with me. And my deepest thanks to the Rev’s J. Connor Haynes, Alan Salmon, and Tinh Huynh; without them and their work, influence, and prayer, the ministry of Christ Church would suffer.

–MT+

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Trinity

“The fine preacher George Buttrick was once on an airplane scribbling out sermon notes on a legal pad. The man next to him asked what he was doing and so Buttrick said, “I’m working on next Sunday’s sermon–I’m a preacher.” “Oh yeah,” the man replied, “religion! I like to keep my religion simple–I don’t like complicated doctrines. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule–that’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what is it that you do.” “Well, I teach in the science department at the university. I’m an astronomer.” “Ah yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get very technical about such things. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy–why would anyone ever need more than that!?””1

I sympathize with both parties in that little story, and by my third year in seminary, reading 900 page books on whatever complicated theological we were learning that week, my heart was with the astronomer. But the fact remains that theology, the study of God, is a big part of the fundamental work of the Church. Bad theology begets bad worship, bad pastoral care, and broken people. Good theology begets just the opposite.

Why am I talking about this? Because it is once again Trinity Sunday, perhaps the most theologically challenging Sunday of the year. The doctrine of the Trinity is difficult to grasp, and always was, because an infinite and all-powerful God is just difficult to grasp with our finite and less-powerful minds. Faith and belief can be hard, even when you stare God in the face. St. Matthew just told us that the eleven disciples were on a hill, Jesus Himself shows up, and most of them worshiped Him, but hey, some doubted.

“We are not told what exactly was doubted. What did the doubters doubt? Their own eyes? Possibly. Did they doubt the continuity between the Jesus they once knew and whoever this was before them now some days after the death of their former Master? Possibly. Or did they doubt even more fundamental things? Did they believe this was their old friend Jesus all right but then wondered if he had really died after all? Did they believe this was Jesus but thought they were seeing a ghost, a vision, an apparition of Jesus from the other side but not a newly alive, flesh-and-blood person?

It is difficult to say. But whatever the precise nature of the doubt, we cannot escape the striking fact that on the very day when the most famous commission of all time was given to the then-budding Church—and on a day when the Triune formula for the divine identity was given as unambiguous an expression as anywhere in the entire New Testament—right then and there on that very day, there was doubt. There was uncertainty and a hint of skepticism.”2

Thankfully, the act of having faith and the act of being absolutely sure all the time are not the same act. I think that’s what goads us into the work of theology, the need to take the relationship we have with the living God and make it better on our end, to know Him more fully, so that we can love Him for who He really is.

Fr. Haynes reminded us this week that our great statement of theological doctrine, the Nicene Creed, “makes three primary assertions: “I believe in one God:  the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; . . . I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord; . . . I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and giver of life.”

“The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is at the heart of our faith: God, who is One, is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, the Son is God; but Father, Son and Spirit are all distinct. Not merely a theological abstraction, this is the reality that lies behind, beneath and above all things. Affirming this faith helps to keep us from believing only in an eternal creator, or only in a dying god-man, or only in a spiritual intelligence that pervades all things. God is all these things:…an eternal community of divine love.”3

Can Trinity Sunday seem a bit academic, the doctrine remote? Sure, if we let it be that way. But what it really is is the full revelation of God’s very nature to us, His beloved sons and daughters, so that we too can be caught up in that community of divine love. Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

1Scott Hoezee, This Week http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/trinity-sunday-a/

2Ibid.

3Fr. J. Connor Haynes, from the St. Mary’s Newsletter, June 8, 2017

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Pentecost

This weekend, we will do a dangerous thing. We will admit four of our young men to Holy Communion. What power and mystery they will be confronting at that altar rail. I’m sure you join me in hoping that the act of receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord will become central to their lives, their source of comfort and power, solace and refreshment.

This weekend is also, obviously, the feast of Pentecost, dangerous in it’s own right. Being baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit sounds warm but not cuddly. Being baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit can change a person.

“Barbara Brown Taylor notes we can see that Jesus was the Messiah when we think about his followers in a kind of before-and-after set of pictures.

“Before Pentecost they didn’t fully recognize who Jesus was, even though he ministered and lived with them for years.
“Jesus’ disciples didn’t stick with him when he got into deep trouble with the authorities, instead abandoning him as quickly as they could. Then, when he, just as he had promised, rose from the dead, they struggled to fully believe that he was alive again.

“On Pentecost, however, those very same slow, timid, bumbling disciples become utterly fearless leaders. Jesus’ disciples proclaim the gospel in front of both large crowds and menacing authorities. After Pentecost, they heal sick people and exorcise demons. Jesus’ disciples even go to jail gladly where they sing hymns that shake their prison’s foundations.

“That miraculous transformation begins with what Acts 2:1-21 describes. Among the last things Jesus told his disciples before he ascended to the heavenly realm was to wait in Jerusalem for God to keep his promise to baptize them with the Holy Spirit. So with what we suspect was little idea of what Jesus meant, Jesus’ disciples obeyed him by returning to Jerusalem.

“In Jerusalem, while they waited, these assembled people prayed “constantly.” They may even have asked God to tell them about just what they were waiting for. After all, John the Baptizer had said something about how Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. It probably sounded dangerous.

“Perhaps thankfully, then, Jesus’ disciples had to wait only ten days for God to answer their prayers. On the day of Pentecost, a festival the Jews celebrated fifty days after the Passover, the disciples received what Taylor calls “a crash course in power.”

“First there was what Luke calls “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” Then there were what looked like “tongues of fire.” Finally, God filled Jesus’ disciples with the Holy Spirit, so that they began to talk in all sorts of foreign languages.”1 The bystanders who first encounter the disciples after all of this supposed they were all hammered, and since it was 9 o’clock in the morning, they were pretty vocal in ridiculing them. But the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, not distilled spirits, and their boldness and power went on display.

What happened next? Well, the Holy Spirit scattered the disciples around the world to witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of them were at some point imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and eventually killed, save John. Him they boiled in oil but he wouldn’t die. Thomas, who we heard last week misunderstanding every word out of Jesus’ mouth, made his way through India. A few weeks ago I met a man after the Vigil Mass who is from Palayur, India, and was educated at the school attached to the Church of St. Thomas, consecrated in 52AD by St. Thomas himself. Thomas they killed with a lance.

And so Pentecost had and has consequences. Being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire can change a person. The Christian Faith is not for the faint of heart. C.S. Lewis famously said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” What we get instead is an actual relationship with the living God, whose Spirit, if we let Him, will take us places we could never imagine.

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Eater 6

The last time I was at my seminary, I ran into my friend Fr. Les Ferguson, who graduated a couple years behind me. He was wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering across the front, which I eventually identified as ancient Greek script. I asked what it said, since I barely passed Greek at seminary, and I immediately regretted asking. The words on Fr. Ferguson’s shirt said “It’s all Greek to me.”

St. Paul immediately regretted going to Greece, and arriving in Athens just amplified his regret. The “area was inhabited well before the 6th century BCE. The name Athens stems from the goddess Athena and is pluralized because it took in the territory of a number of smaller villages. The focal point of the city is the naturally raised platform Acropolis. In the early stages of development, while other parts of the ancient Greek world rose to spectacular levels of civilization, Athens was just one of many city-states. Around 620 BCE, Draco, an Athenian aristocrat, initiated the first steps towards order. His reputation for severity comes down to us in the use of the term draconian.”1

Athens became a cultural and educational hub, and also a target. The Athenians famously clashed with the Spartans and with many others, but even when they lost, they bounced back to greater heights. “In 146 BCE, Athens fell under the rule of the rising western power of the Romans who remained its master for over 500 years.”2

It was into this Roman controlled Athens that Paul arrived, and he did not like what he saw. Luke described Paul as being paroxyno. Remember that Luke was a doctor, and he used a medical term in his assessment of Paul: paroxyno describes the symptoms of an epileptic seizure. Paul was physically bothered by his surroundings. He was pitching a fit.

His surroundings? “An ancient historian once said of Athens: “It is easier to find a god there, than a man.” Everywhere Paul looked, there were altars, shrines, and temples. There was one to Athena, one to Zeus, one to Ares, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Neptune, Diana. Athens was a veritable forest of idols.”3 Faithful Jews are not big on idols, nor graven images.

Like James Bond’s martinis, Paul was shaken, but he was also stirred. Stirred by the Holy Spirit, Paul could not abandon the people of Athens to their false gods. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Paul knew that what he had to say would not be particularly well received, so complimenting his listeners was a good start. Paul goes on to attach the Living God to a god the Athenians somehow sensed, enough to build an altar to Him, the unknown god, sensed but never knew. He made his argument, witnessed to the risen Christ, and made more than a couple converts that day.

We live in a time and space that’s not so different from first century Athens. Idols are all around, idols I’m too familiar with. In my case, they’re not named Ares, Jupiter, or Athena, but rather Iphone, artisanal meats, and Netflix. Christian values are not the assumed civic norm, and we have all heard of the rise of the “nones”, those who list their religious affiliation as “none”.

It is no longer enough to open the doors and assume people will just come in, though here that actually seems to be rather effective. To fully engage in the mission of Christ in Bordentown, it’s what we do when we go out those doors that will distinguish us. Proclaiming Christ to Bordentown in 2017 might take new approaches, and so we’re on that track. Social media might well be the new Areopagus, and so we post daily on Facebook and Twitter, and our Instagram game is getting stronger. Like Paul, we have to meet the people of Bordentown where they are, wherever that might be, however comfortable or uncomfortable that place might be for us.

The state of the world might give us paroxyno, it might send us into fits, but like Paul, we won’t abandon our city to the forces bent on dominating us. Rather, stirred by the Holy Spirit, we will use every means our Lord provides to witness to the risen Christ.

2Ibid.

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Easter 5

If you’ve heard the words in our Gospel lesson today, you’ve probably heard them at a funeral. John 14 is by far the most requested passage for Requiem Masses, for obvious reasons. Jesus speaks these words in a grave situation, surrounded by the specter of death, the death that awaits Him, and yet it is His disciples who He seeks to comfort.

“He is helping them get ready for his suffering and death. They are stunned. Once he asked if they were going to leave him, as many others had. Peter said, “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Now the situation is reversed.

“So Jesus says a simple thing. “Do not let your hearts be troubled by this. You have faith in God, have faith also in me.” The straightforward meaning of this directive is, you know how to trust; you do it with God. So use some of that kind of trust with me.

“Good enough, and yet there is a much deeper meaning. He is saying in effect, “I, Jesus, am in complete union with the Father. I am a member of the Trinity. I am a revelation of everything that the Father is. When you trust the Father you are trusting me in the very same act. It goes right over their heads, as too often it does ours. So Jesus, the compassionate, tries an illustration.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I ever have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself. A nifty image. A physical place, where we can all be together again. He will come back and get us. Who could misunderstand this? The apostles could, and did. Fear and grief blocked it. Jesus tries a different approach. “Where I am going you know the way.”

“Thomas explains the practical difficulty with such a statement (this is Doubting Thomas, whose heart couldn’t take the risk of trusting without facts): “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Thomas, typically, has missed the deeper meaning. Jesus had often referred to himself as “the way,” as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “You can know the way to the Father because I am The Way.” It is a beautiful depth of truth. But it does not work.”1

There’s an old saying among priests that the congregation listens to you at funerals but not at weddings, that you could say blah blah blah blah for 10 minutes in a wedding sermon and get away with it. That’s mostly true, but the whole truth is that many people at funerals listen to the preacher but don’t hear what’s said, or can’t hear what’s said. After the death of a loved one we are, as the prayer in the funeral rite says, “in the midst of things we cannot understand,” and so we are to trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting.

But as we all know full well, most of us can’t make that leap right there, when our hearts are troubled. Perhaps that can give us some sympathy for the disciples, who’s minds and hearts were scattered, smothered, and covered.

Many if not most of us travel through life at least a little spiritually confused. We wonder where the Lord is, where He is directing us; we have trouble knowing hearing Him and so therefore trouble knowing Him.

The good news is that it was always thus. At the end of the teaching session we just heard a snippet of, Jesus might have been sitting with His head in His hands, wondering how He managed to surround Himself with such a bunch of dolts. Instead, Jesus loved them all the more; He gathered them again and again after His resurrection and entrusted them, the guys who couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag, into the world to change the world.

We are here at this time and in this place because Jesus sent that group, people just like you and me, to spread the Gospel. So the next time you’re in the midst of things you cannot understand, feeling scattered, smothered, and covered, remember that the Lord loves you all the more, and might be readying you to change the world.

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