Advent 2

Forbes magazine, that font of capitalist wisdom, entitled its seventy-fifth anniversary issue “Why We Feel So Bad When We Have It So Good.”  It sported articles by some of the media luminaries of our time: Peggy Noonan…, George Bush, and Dan Rather; the Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, writing of the disillusionment that comes from our cultural fascination with affluence; and the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, warning us of the weary discontent haunting a nation surprised to discover that “economic and material goods are no compensation for social and moral ills.”[1]

Sounds pretty bad.  Sounds like we are, as a society, joyless.  It also sounds like Forbes magazine was being rather prophetic, like a voice crying out in the consumerist wilderness.  Not unlike the two great prophets we heard from this morning, Isaiah and John the Baptist, Forbes is able to identify and call out a problem; but very much unlike our prophets, it’s not able to fix it or provide any comfort to the afflicted.

We just heard Isaiah report the words of the Lord: O Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  “In the sorrows of life, who does not long for comfort?  Who would not melt with gratitude at the tender comfort of God?  Yet what is comfort?

“When we want it, sometimes what we want is just what the good shepherd gives his lost sheep. We don’t want to walk along the road of our life to the Lord.  We want God to carry us.  But a child that is carried all the time will never learn to walk, to leap and run.  That child, weak enough already to be carried, will get only weaker as the carrying goes on.

“And comfort isn’t a matter of giving weakness. It’s a matter of giving strength—strength for walking, even over very rough roads.  In fact, the “-fort” in “comfort” comes from the Latin word for “strong.”  The “com-” in “comfort” is from the Latin word for “with.”  To give comfort to someone is to lend him some of your strength.  He is more able to stand on his own feet and walk because you are with him.”[2]


And yet, on the face of it, we haven’t known John the Baptist as a comforting figure (and most of us probably haven’t known much about Isaiah at all).  The Baptist can come off as a bit of a raving lunatic: how many people have you known who wander out into the wilderness to preach about repentance and to call out the sins of the mighty among us?  Let me ask that another way: how many do you know who do those things without the hope of being paid to do those things?  Who might expect death rather than cake?

And John the Baptist words rarely evoke comfort, at least the way we tend to read and say them.  My favorite quote from the Baptist is him calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.”  Not very nice.  “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie,” sounds like the ominous plot of a Michael Bay movie. 

That is, until we remember who stood in those sandals the Baptist was unworthy of.  Who it was John was trying to prepare us for.  John the Baptist was stirring his people up, for sure, but he was stirring them up for hope, for the hope and strength and comfort that is God walking among us.

‘I have baptized you with water,” said the Baptist, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  All who come to Jesus become His own; because we have received the baptism Jesus offers, we have the comfort of being cleansed from our sins, the freedom to pursue righteousness, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  What immense strength comes from that.  O Comfort, comfort my people,’ says our God.

 

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Advent 1

The great St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a little about a lot of things and a lot about a few things.  Being a late convert, someone who, let’s say, might have preferred that what happened in Hippo stayed in Hippo, he wrote incessantly about his struggles with sin and his constant need of conversion and repentance.  That’s to say that he was a regular person in that regard, though regular people rarely write it all down.  Augustine also wrote brilliantly about time, the theology of time, and yet his most famous quote about time is this:  “What then is time?  If no one asks me, I know; but if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I do not know.”

 

Time is a popular subject in the Bible  It’s a one way street, though – people are always asking God about time.   “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13)  “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Hab 1)  “‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1)

 

It’s seemingly constant.  It’s the Biblical equivalent of having toddlers in the backseat of the car asking “Are we there yet?”  It shows human beings to be impatient, grasping, ignorant, small creatures, like gnats buzzing around the ears of God.  But it might also show humanity at its best.

 

We are all too aware that, as Paul Mills writes, “We are temporal creatures with a finite lifespan.  Western lifestyle is dominated by considerations of time to such a degree that the clock is rivalled only by the printing press as the most influential invention of this millennium.  In societies less obsessed with temporal flow, we are known as ‘people with gods on their wrists’.  Time travel is a pervasive theme of our science fiction.

 

“Yet, with Augustine, although we instinctively know what time is and can sense its passing, we have extreme difficulty in defining it. We perceive time as approaching us from the ‘future’, passing across the vanishingly brief boundary of the ‘present’, into the ‘past’, but we cannot sense whether the past and the future exist as realities other than for their moment in the present.

 

“While some biblical writers depict history having cyclical features, the overriding picture is of time within this universe being linear, having both a beginning (at creation), and a definite end (e.g. Acts 17:30-1).  We do not know the exact time of the end, but it is already known by the Father (Mark 13:32).  History has a fixed end-point, and therefore a destination.  This contrasts particularly with the Hindu notion that time is endlessly repetitive and cyclical, which can result in apathy about the consequences of our actions within time.  Rather, the belief that time is linear encourages purposive action (Psalm 90:10, 12).” [1]

 

Said another way, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.”  Jesus was with His disciples in Jerusalem when one of them admired the majesty of the Temple.  “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus.  “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”  People being people, a few of Jesus’ disciples cornered Him and asked, “Tell us, when will these things happen?”

 

Jesus gives a long discourse about the signs and wonders that will proceed the end of days, everything from the Gospel being proclaimed to all peoples to persecutions to the stars falling from the sky, but then He says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

 

Jesus here sees humanity at its perhaps annoying best: the buzzing falls out of “When will this happen?”, and it sounds more like, “We love you and long for your return.”  “Are we there yet?” sounds more like “Your absence from us is dreadful.”

 

“Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come,” becomes less of a warning and more of a comfort: “I am coming,” says the Lord, and so stop worrying about when.  Because ‘when’ becomes both a producer of anxiety and an easy out: a countdown clock both makes us buzz around like gnats and lets us ignore our duties to each other and to the Lord.

 

This Advent, take the time to mark the time, to notice its passing, to make use of the time our Lord gives us, and give Him thanks for not letting us know what time He’ll get back.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Paul Mills: http://www.jubilee-centre.org/a-brief-theology-of-time-by-paul-mills/

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Christ the King

A happy and blessed Christ the King Sunday, everybody. The Feast of Christ the King is our Feast of Title, despite our church being older than the feast itself. Ritual Notes, the ultimate guide to all things liturgical, tells us that churches named Christ Church should have August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration as their feast of title, but I don’t know any Christ Churches who use it. We will celebrate this afternoon with our usual Solemn Evensong and Benediction, followed by an actual feast.

The Feast of Christ the King is also interesting in that “Jesus does not claim this title of king for himself. He sets out to gather up disciples. Andrew. Simon Peter. Philip. Then he encounters Nathanael, who exclaims, “You are the King of Israel!” As he will later do with Pilate, Jesus neither accepts nor denies the title. Rather he points to the future, when “you will see greater things than these.”

“The title King of the Jews comes most definitively from what might be an unexpected source: the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea and no friend of the Jews. “Are you king of the Jews?” he asks Jesus. Not getting a satisfactory answer, Pilate uses his own, earthly authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. He presents Jesus to the angry crowd: “Behold your king!”
“Here is one commentator’s provocative, haunting perspective on the scene: “With his ‘Ecce Homo,’ [Pilate presents] a mocked king, crowned with thorns, covered with welts and spittle, to a crowd clamoring for his crucifixion. ‘Behold the human condition,’ says Pilate, ‘this is what fallen man is—a pitiful caricature of the divine image.’ This is the king of the Jews.”

“Covering all the bases, Pilate has an inscription written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek and put on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” When the chief priests object, he shuts them down. “What I have written I have written.” Pilate uses his authority not to rescue Jesus from certain death, but – perhaps unwittingly — to declare his kingship in words that have lasted millennia.

“It may be for this reason that Pilate was venerated in some early Christian traditions. The Ethiopian Church venerates Pilate and his wife on June 19. In our tradition, Pilate is the only human other than Mary, the mother of God, named in the Nicene creed. The classic depiction of Christ on the cross, whether suffering and broken or clothed in splendid apparel as Christus Rex, typically includes Pilate’s inscription.

“King of the Jews is not a title Jesus claimed for himself. He does not preach himself as king; rather he preaches the kingdom of God. He says again and again “the kingdom of God is like…” using parables and images to convey what we must imagine and pray for. Thy kingdom come.”1

It is this humble and self-sacrificial king who left eternity and entered history, who speaks His commands gently, who favors the little guy, to whom we pay our homage today and every day. We do that by very simply doing what He told us to do today: feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner.

How are we doing with that? Well, we need help visiting the prisoner; turns out it’s actually quite hard to visit prisoners. But the sick, the shut in, we do okay at that. We gave 325 people complete Thanksgiving meals this past Thanksgiving, and who knows how many of our neighbors will benefit from the Truck event the Thursday before, and our parish is one of the larger contributors to the St. Mary’s Food Pantry. The Bordentown Laundry Project helps keep clean clothes on bodies old and young in our city. And we welcome the stranger every day into this building, our sanctuary.

It may at times seem unfair that we serve a King who we don’t see in the flesh, at least not like Pilate or the Apostles or so many did 2000 years ago. Our consolation today is two-fold: one, we will one day see our King face to face, He promised us that; two, Jesus tells us today, we can see Him everywhere we look and in everyone we serve, for “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pentecost 24

So my New York Football Giants are now 1 and 8, and so I am once again learning lessons in humility. Even worse, I have to admit that I am now a fan not of the Philadelphia Eagles but a fan of one Eagle in particular. It’s just plain hard to not like Carson Wentz, who is not only the future of NFL quarterbacks, but just an amazing guy. If you’ve been wondering why lots of ESPN viewers have been crying like children lately, just google Dutch Destroyer, and see the story of Lucas Kuster, an 8 year old football prodigy who was cut down by cancer, and how Carson Wentz went above and beyond in befriending Lucas and his family. Chris Long, the Eagles excellent pass rusher, was on the radio last week and warned the hosts not to hang out with Carson Wentz because you’ll just feel bad about yourself, Wentz being the best person ever. It seems no one with Wentz’s talent could possibly be so humble.

Now, some “people think that humility is a matter of taking yourself to be small, unworthy, not up for much. But, in the Gospel parable (we just heard), the servant who thinks he is too little to do much with his talent is dismissed as wicked and useless, and his talent is taken away from him. The Lord doesn’t praise him for humility.

“So what is humility? It is the opposite of pride—but what is pride? Pride isn’t thinking that there is some excellence, some talent, in yourself when there really is. Rather, pride is a failure to recognize that talent as given by the Lord.

Not everyone is as insanely talented at one thing as a Carson Wentz or a Chris Long, or Sergey Brin or Maya Lin or Elon Musk or Yo Yo Ma, for that matter, but everyone has talents, everyone has been given something or lots of things that they are good at. Not all talents are showy, of course. Perhaps you have my favorite talent in others, the ability to listen patiently to the concerns of others. Or perhaps the Lord has granted you an empathetic heart or the ability to knit or to fix mechanical things or you know, all the stuff you’re good at.

Now, that said, “Our talents are not a function of what we are and can do. Every excellence in us is a gift of the Lord’s. We can acknowledge the excellence that is truly in us without danger of pride, provided we remember that such excellence comes from the Lord.

“Not only that, but in the Gospel Reading our Lord announces a funny distribution principle: to him who has, more will be given. So here is the idea. A person who does not refuse a gift of the Lord’s receives it and consequently has more. Then, because he has more, the Lord will offer him another gift. If he does not refuse that new gift, it will be given—and so he will have more. And then more will be given to him. And so on and on, till a person blazes in glory for the Lord.

“Unlike the useless servant in the parable, then, we can aim as high as we like, with true humility, provided we recognize as gift every excellence we have. Everything is gift, and everything is meant to be given back in service of love for the Lord.”1

But we can’t do that if we’re afraid of using our talents. That fear manifests itself in so many ways. What if I fail? What if I go for it and fall on my face? What if I feel the Lord calling to me to do something, but I feel totally unprepared to do that? Well, the good news is that the Lord doesn’t call the prepared, He prepares the called. Those talents are already in you, waiting to come out.

If this parable tells us anything, it’s that when you are generous in the use of our talents, when you use them to bring light into the world, happiness to those we love, and glory to our God, God will reward you, reward you with opportunities to use those talents, with work that challenges and engages you; He will set you at tasks which demand your best efforts, and lead you to accomplishments which satisfy and delight you.

Or, you know, you could just dig a hole, hide your talents, and hope God isn’t mad when you see Him.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the Recent Violence

Two of the five deadliest mass shootings in American history have happened in the last six weeks. Stephen Paddock killed 58 people on October 1st from his perch in the Mandalay Bay, and last Sunday, Devin Kelley killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs while they were waiting for church to start. On Halloween, Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck into cyclists and runners for about 1 mile of the Hudson River Park’s bike path. Unfortunately, these are just the worst acts of terror in the last six weeks, not the only ones.

The settings of these attacks are striking; concerts, parks, and especially churches are supposed to be safe places, places of refuge and re-creation, and yet we have learned that there are those who grant no one sanctuary, even in an actual sanctuary.

We have prayed for the victims of all of these attacks at our altars and whenever they come to mind. We have prayed for them knowing that prayer is not the “offering of vague good wishes,”* but rather the manner in which we mourn, and the manner in which we offer to God our brokenness, the brokenness of our society, and our unwillingness to do more to prevent the violence.

There is, of course, no magic solution to all of this, but it will certainly take political, societal, and personal change. Our God wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and then even more wonderfully renewed that dignity in Jesus Christ, making it possible to not only live a holy life but to regard all life as holy. To, as we often say, love our neighbors as ourselves.

Our world will someday be perfect. But until that time when no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, look for the ways God gives you to help put an end to the devaluing of life that ends in such violence. Start with prayer, but don’t end there.

* From the release by Bishops Against Gun Violence.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pentecost 23

In my hometown there are two beach clubs: the Monmouth Beach Bathing Pavilion, the public club to which almost everyone who lives in Monmouth Beach goes to, and the Monmouth Beach Bath and Tennis Club, a private club which is populated mostly by out-of-towners, and costs approximately 300 times more per year than the public club. Built in 1924, it’s big and open, with extensive latticework, and it’s been painted over a hundred times. It’s essentially a tinder box. And so, when I was in college and a young firefighter, there were a few of us who would get paid to be there from 7pm to 5am to watch for fire. I’d do firewatch a couple nights a week, have fun with my buddies, and almost nothing ever really happened. Consequently, it was tough to remain vigilant, to keep your eyes open, to watch for problems instead of jumping off the roof into the pool.

“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”, was good advice then and still is. The Bible tells us to be vigilant a lot: vigilance is all over the Psalms and the parables of Jesus. Paul seemed to think Jesus was going to sneak up on him, which we can forgive because of that one time Jesus did sneak up on him on the road to Damascus. Peter famously tells us to “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

And so we come to our ten maidens and their oil lamps, a parable I never really understood, because I didn’t understand ancient Mediterranean wedding customs. “In this period of Israel’s history, families practiced what is known as patrilocal marriage. The bride moved to the groom’s home which would have been located in or close to the home of his father.

“Anyone who has visited Peter’s house in Capernaum or seen reconstructions of the house plan recalls that a cluster of homes formed a complex in which Jonah and his wife and children, single and married, all lived. This included Peter, his wife and children (and mother-in-law), and his brother Andrew.

The ideal marriage partner in this culture is a first cousin, specifically, a father’s brother’s daughter. If Peter married his first cousin, then his mother-in-law was also his aunt. Middle Eastern families of antiquity and the present are close-knit units, and these wedding practices explain why.

“The marriage was arranged by the fathers under the powerful influence of the mothers; it was ratified with a contract negotiated between the mothers but signed ultimately by the patriarch. The purpose of such a marriage was to join two families. When the partners were old enough, the long marriage ceremony was celebrated. The highpoint of the ceremony occurred when the groom, accompanied by his relatives, went to the family house of the bride to transfer her to his home. It is here that the rest of the wedding ceremony and celebration took place,”1 and it is here that Jesus’ parable begins.

“It portrays ten bridesmaids, five of them foolish, five wise. The foolish ones have brought no oil reserve for their lamps, in case the first allotment runs out. The groom is late. Finally, he appears at midnight. The unprepared call out to the others, “Give us some oil.” But the provident tell the foolish to get their own. And so the chance is missed, the door barred, even as those left behind cry for opening. It is too late. The moral of the story: “Keep your eyes open, for you know not the day or the hour.”

“There’s the wisdom. We never know the hour or the day. All ten bridesmaids, recall, were asleep. The difference was that five of them were prepared. The point is not that we should calculate when destiny might arrive. It is that we should be ready for it every moment of our lives.”2

If that sounds a little motivational-poster-ish, don’t worry, it’s not. Tony Robbins will not be writing a book on the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Being prepared for the Lord is not about being your best self all the time or living your best life now, and it’s certainly not about worrying all the time if you’ve done something wrong and Jesus is going to catch you. Being prepared for the Lord is a lot more fun than any of that: it’s being about the work of the Lord. It about being in relationship with Him and with your neighbors. Watching for the Lord means looking for Him in every place and in every face, looking for ways to serve Him in every situation. Do that, and when the Lord comes, you won’t have to worry about getting locked out the party.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pentecost 21

So it’s been two weeks since Doan bought a boat-load of Halloween candy, including two giant bags of fun-sized Snickers, my favorite, though there’s nothing fun about fun-sized Snickers. I want full-sized Snickers, or better yet, King-Sized Snickers. “In 1998, a Colorado handyman was snowmobiling in the mountains outside of Steamboat Springs when he got swept up in an avalanche that buried his vehicle and left him stranded in a blizzard. Provisioned with nothing more than two butane lighters and a Snickers bar, the man endured 40 mph winds and near-zero temperatures for five days and four nights as rescue teams struggled to locate him. Luckily, the Snickers bar he’d carried was the king-sized version. Every one of its 510 calories helped him persevere through the course of his ordeal.”1 I just want to be prepared in case of avalanche.

Anyway, were a couple days out from Halloween, and because around this time I get lots of questions about Halloween (on top of Olivia Brovak’s excellent Halloween question at Ask Fr. Matt), I figured I might answer a couple of them here.

Halloween is a bit of a mash up, all things considered. The origins of how it is presently celebrated go back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sa-win, and not just Glenn Danzig’s next band after he left the Misfits). The Celts celebrated November 1st as their new year, and so Samhain was essentially New Year’s Eve. They believed “that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.” And that ghosts would walk the earth.

“In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.”2 Just to be clear, all of this stuff is bad.

Fast forward to May 13, 609 A.D. “Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1.”3 All Saints’ Day. And since the Saints are holy, the day was also called All Hallows’ Day, and so the day before could, in theory, be called All Hallows’ Eve or All Hallow’s Even, or, just to make it easy, Hallowe’en. The observance of Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day on November 2, is called Hallowtide, the days of the dead, a time to honor and pray for those who have gone before us. Just to be clear, all this stuff is good.

Now, some Christians don’t celebrate Halloween, thinking it just a pagan holiday and giving it up to the secular bonanza it is today. I think that’s a shame, because Halloween is a Christian day and can be both sugar-filled fun and edifying to the faithful. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few things to avoid.

Let me think of a few. Ouija boards, fortune tellers, divination, casting spells, horoscopes, and mediums come to mind, as does using sacred spaces like graveyards to get a cheap scare. Remember that there is a dark side, evil does exist, and when you ask the universe or the dead or a Ouija board or a medium a question, you might get an answer, but the person answering is not God. The reason we’re warned about these things in not that they’re not real but because they are, and they invite bad things into our lives. Just to be clear, all this stuff is bad.

Let me think of a few things to do this week. Pray for the dead – write down the names of your beloved dead on the All Souls Intentions sheets we have in the back or by the office. Celebrate the Saints, as they pray for us and have set wonderful examples for us. Dress up the kids on Halloween, preferably in a costume that doesn’t celebrate evil or suffocate them like those old plastic masks I had when I was a kid, and go get lots of candy. I’ll be picking up some King-sized Snickers to give out, just in case any of you get caught in an avalanche.

3Ibid.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment