Saturday, September 13, 2014

Blest are the pure in heart

I preached this sermon at the funeral of my sister-in-law, Mary McCoy, yesterday, Friday, Sept. 12, at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Boulder City, NV.  She and my brother Duncan were  married 43 years.  I was the best man at their wedding, and Mary was a good friend all that time.  She was a wonderful person, and died too early, aged 66, of ovarian cancer.  Duncan is a city councilman in Boulder City and both he and Mary are greatly loved and respected there.  St. Christopher's was filled and overflowing.  Mary's mother, now 98 years old, was in the front pew with Duncan and Duncan and Mary's daughter Elizabeth.  It was a joy to know Mary and a privilege to be present at her death, and to preside and preach at her funeral.
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm: 121 
Revelation 21: 1-7
Gradual Hymn: 656 Blest are the pure in heart
John 10: 11-16 I am the good shepherd

From the book of Wisdom: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.”
From Revelation: “I will be their God and they will be my children.”
From the Gospel according to St. John: “I know my own and my own know me.”

And from the hymn we just sang: “Blest are the pure in heart, for they will see our God.  The secret of the Lord is theirs; their soul is Christ’s abode.”

Each one of these sacred texts points to a special relationship which people can have with God.  To be in God’s hand. To be a child of God.  To be God’s own, known by God and knowing God.  To be pure in heart, to see God, to know God’s secret, to make a home in the human heart for Christ.

Deep down, isn’t that what everyone wants?  Like a trusting sheep or a beloved child, to be protected through our lives, and to know we have a special relationship with God.  But also to see and to know, with all that defines and guides and shapes a person who wants to see and wants to know. 

A person with purity of heart combines these two great spiritual qualities: trust in goodness and striving to see and to know. 

A person who is pure in heart fundamentally trusts that ultimate reality, the source of what is, which some call God, is good for her.  She finds herself to be at home in her world, loves the people into whose lives she is born, loves what she finds in the wider world as she grows up, looks for and finds worthwhile work to do with her life, finds the right person to share her life with, and then launches out into the deep waters of adult life.  That trust that she is in a good place, secure and worthy of her best efforts, that she is, in religious language, in the hand of God, that she is a child of God, is the source of her strength and solidity as she herself becomes a foundation for her family, for her friends and for her community.  Not everyone calls this trust in the goodness of the realities of life faith in “God”.  God does not need to be named to be present.  No matter what a person calls it, this is faith in what is real, life-affirming, life-giving, life-sustaining, and a person who lives with integrity in her life in this sense shines goodness all around like a lamp that cannot be hid. Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy had this kind of faith, as anyone who knew her will tell you.  She loved her world, her family, her work, her friends, with a steady flame of love that all who knew her well came to depend on, who found in her light and joy and peace.

A person who is pure in heart is also a person who seeks to know.  There is a purity in the person who pursues the truth, and when the truth is found, places it in a context of love.  Truth can be beautiful, awesome, inspiring.  Knowing the truth really can set you free.  Pursuing a lifelong path of learning opens the mind to wider horizons, and also commits a person to honesty.  But we know that truth and honesty can be used not only to grow the soul, but can also be used as weapons, both in the greater issues of life and in the little everyday things that seem insignificant but which actually define people’s lives together.   A person who is pure in heart seeks truth and when it is found, wraps it up in love, so that it is not an instrument of personal power or a weapon but a building block for something great and good.  Such a person by following the truth in love begins to imitate God’s love, which is both true and kind, both honest and loving.  I have watched Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy for more than forty years and I can honestly say that she was a person who was always looking for the truth, and a person who when she found it, had a gift of wrapping and presenting that truth with kindness, awareness of the fragility of a situation, tact and consideration.  I cannot count the number of times I would be on the phone with my brother Duncan and at a certain point in his discourse, from somewhere in the background there would be this kind but clear voice that would say, “Duncan...”, calling the conversation to a slightly different channel.  She was wise and she was kind, and she drew something better out of what was going on. 

What I am saying is that even though Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy was not a conventionally practicing religious person, she trusted the life God gave her, with all its gifts and promises and challenges, and she looked for and to a large extent found truth, and was able to communicate it with love.

We encounter people to whom the gifts of trust and truth and love, the gift of purity of heart, are given and we think, What a remarkable person she was.  And she was.  I believe Mary Elizabeth Lee McCoy was blessed, was pure of heart. 

She was not perfect.  But no one of us has to be perfect to love and trust that the life we have been given is good and worth living well.  No one of us has to be perfect to keep looking for the truth and when we find it give it to others with love. 

Praise God for Mary’s life.  Praise God for the family she was born into and the family she created.  Praise God for the good which flowed from her trust and from her truth.  She is in the hand of God.  She is truly a child of God, known by and knowing God, even though she would not often call the source of the goodness of her life God.  And even though she would not often use the names, the secret of the Lord was hers.  Her soul was Christ’s abode. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A New People: Sermon for Pentecost 13

I was privileged to preside and preach at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Oxnard CA, this last Sunday: English at 9:15 and Spanish at 11:15.  I share the English text of the sermon with you:

Exodus 12: 1-14
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20

    Today’s lessons seem quite different from each other, but actually they all center on a very important theme: how God is creating his new people, saving us and showing us the Way.
    The lesson from Exodus is the story of the first Passover.  It describes how each family of the people of Israel is to sacrifice and prepare a lamb, doing two things: First, they take some of the blood of the lamb and smear it on the doorposts, so that when the angel of the Lord comes to execute judgment on the people of Egypt he will pass over the houses of the families of Israel.  Second, each family shares a meal of the meat of the lamb to prepare them for the journey, the Exodus, they are about to begin.  They are saved by the blood of the lamb and they are bound together in a ritual meal of the flesh of the lamb.  These will become important symbols for all Christians.  We are saved by the blood of the lamb, Jesus Christ, who is the Lamb of God.  And we share the eucharistic meal of the body and blood of that Lamb, Jesus Christ.
    In the Gospel this morning, Jesus tells us how we should live together as a people.  He knows that sins against each other are inevitable among human beings, even among those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb and fed at His table.  So he gives us instructions on how we should deal with those sins.  First of all, we should not pretend that we do not harm each other through our sins.  We do.  We have done so in the past, and we will do so in the future.  Pretending nothing has happened, hiding the truth, only makes it worse.  The thing to do, he says, is to confront it directly.  The first thing to do is to go quietly to the person who has hurt you and point it out.  How many times have we said or done something that has hurt someone else and we don’t even realize what we have done!  It may be that simply pointing it out is enough.  Have you ever had someone tell you how you have hurt them, and you didn’t even know it?  It is like a dagger through the heart!  In many cases, that is enough.  But if it isn’t, then Jesus suggests a graduated approach.  First one or two, then an internal church meeting, if the matter is really important.
    I think that the real point of this process, though, is in the sentence: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Remember what Jesus said to Peter?  The very same thing!  Jesus is telling us something incredible: that the power to determine the values of life is being trusted to the people of God.  Into the hands of the new people of God is being given this divine power.  The Church, the new Israel created in the blood of the Lamb and given strength for the journey in the new Passover meal of the eucharist, is trusted by God to discern and proclaim the truth and to reconcile those who stray away and hurt each other through sin.
    In our reading from Romans this morning St. Paul takes this a step further: How do we actually live day by day with each other once we have become God’s new people, his new Israel on the way out of Egypt to the Promised Land?  How do we move from conflict resolution to life together?  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Move away from the impersonal kinds of relationships that are defined by the law, what we should not do, and by business, using the metaphor of debt and payment, to define how we live with each other.  Move toward a personal relationship, defined by love.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
    We are saved by the Passover blood of Jesus Christ, and strengthened by the eucharistic meal for our journey, our Exodus.  Let us understand that we have been set apart by God as his  people.  We are invited by Jesus to live in honesty, truth and charity with each other.  We are empowered to discern and proclaim the values God wants us to practice.  We are called by God to love each other as we love ourselves. 
    And this is all the more important because we don’t have all the time in the world.  Things are moving more quickly than we think.  Don’t delay.  We should start living right now as if the Kingdom of God has already started.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Two Miracles: Sermon for Pentecost 9

I preached this morning at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, and as it was a written-out sermon, I thought I would share it.

10 August 2014: Pentecost 9, Proper 14A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28    
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b    
Romans 10:5-15    
Matthew 14:22-33 

    One of the things that struck me about the lessons today is how both the story of Joseph and the story of the walking on the water upset the normal expectations of life.  In each of them there is danger and in each of them a miracle occurs, and something new grows out of each of them: in the case of Joseph, in his faithfulness through his terrible troubles the new people of Israel are made possible.  In the case of walking on the water, the new Israel, the Church, and her faithful members, will find a way forward through terrible troubles that are still to come.
    In order to get through our lives with some sense of equilibrium we often create an artificial sense of how things function.  We look for stability, permanence, predictability.  It isn’t so much that our personal experience is stable, permanent or predictable, but that there is an expectation that it ought to be.  Having this ideal helps us smooth over reality, simplifies our nonreflective preconscious expectations.  Families ought to behave a certain way, nurturing their futures, and when they don’t, in our constructs of likely consequences we expect terrible, irreversible results.  Nature ought to behave a certain way, so we live in the expectation that it will, and when it doesn’t, we gird ourselves in disaster response for what will surely follow.  But these two stories overturn both our “normal” expectations, and open our eyes to something new from God.
    Families ought to behave a certain way.  Brothers ought to love each other.  It’s a rough and tumble kind of love, the way that brothers often do love each other.  They give each other a hard time but when push comes to shove they unite and support each other.  Except in today’s story, when push comes to shove, Joseph is shoved in a big pit in the earth and only escapes being murdered by his brothers because a slave trading caravan passes by.  So what might be the Brady Bunch actually turns out to be more like Roots.  Joseph is carted off to be a slave in Egypt.  His brothers probably think that’s the last of him.  Our normal expectation would be that both Joseph’s life and his family’s happiness have been destroyed.  
    But the Joseph story is not just about the treacherous and savage behavior of brothers to each other, a replay of Cain and Abel, an instance of RenĂ© Girard’s theory of violence, a setup for family systems therapy for millennia to come.  It is about how God is using human behavior to create a people for himself.  Joseph accepts the reality of his situation and does the best he can with it, which in the end is very good indeed.  His faithfulness and hard work lead him from the pit to the palace, and along the way he acquires great wisdom, including the wisdom of forgiveness, a wisdom which surely can only come from God.  His brothers return, this time in great need, and instead of using his new power to punish them, he sets his family on a new path, which will ultimately lead to the Exodus, the Covenant, and the Promised Land. 
    The normal expectation of what would likely happen was overturned by a miracle: God brought the nation of Israel into being out of jealousy and homicidal intention.  St. Paul says to us this morning, “The word is very near us”.  The word was very near Joseph.  That word brought the future for the salvation of the world out of that sordid family drama. 
    The miracle of Joseph is at the end of the story, after his years of toil, insecurity, and danger as a slave, a miracle which ultimately produces a people for God.  Our gospel story this morning is structurally the mirror image of the Joseph story.  The miracle is at the beginning and points to a future of insecurity and danger for a people of God just being brought into being. 
    Peter sees Jesus, leaps out of the boat, and begins to walk on the water.  For the moment he disregards the conventional wisdom about water, so intent is he on the presence of the Word of God to him.  But, we say, people can’t walk on water.  Crucified people don’t rise from the dead.  Twelve guys can’t just bring a new people into being because they think they can.  Except they do.
    The people called to follow Jesus, the Word of God, can’t possibly navigate the uncharted waters of the future by themselves.  We know this, because we are those people today.  We are beset – we have always been beset, which is one way to read church history – with who knows what kinds of uncertainties and dangers.  Why try anything new?  The world we know conspires to defeat every good effort. Our future is like deep water in a storm in the dark.  We can’t possibly keep walking forward, let alone on water.  Except we do. 
    In my former parish in Anaheim there was a feeding program.  It came into being because a few people listened to the word of God one morning in church, when Matthew 25 was read aloud: Feed the hungry, it said.  The word was close to them.  They didn’t have much money, and there weren’t many people to do it.  But they did it.  They scrounged supermarkets for food, raised small amounts of money for milk and meat, talked their friends into helping, served the meal on the church china for hungry, homeless people, who used those dishes as carefully as if they were their own prized possessions, and for almost fifteen years every Monday night a couple of hundred hungry people sat down to a meal served to them by people who already had enough.  There were deep water and storms along the way.  But they always kept the word before them: Feed the hungry.  They walked across that water every Monday night.  I am sure you can tell me stories like that about Trinity. Because God is always calling us to cross the water.   God is always lifting us up out of the pit. 
    Both these stories tell us that the way we see things is not the way God sees them.  To the eyes of the world what happened to Joseph was surely the effective end of his life. Except that it was really just the beginning.  To the eyes of the world the way things usually are can’t be transcended, especially in stormy times, distress and chaos.  Except that those times are precisely the times when we can find the way through which God offers us in faith, finding firm footing not in our expectations and fears but in the Lord.   
    These miracles show us to keep our eyes fixed on the future.  God will make possible what now seems impossible.  When your whole world turns upside down and all seems lost, like Joseph keep on working, make the most of what you have, use the wisdom that comes to you.  Who knows what God has in mind in the end.  When the night is dark and stormy and the Lord just isn’t there, don’t be distracted by what in fear seems “normal”, by what is raging all around, like Peter was.  Look through the storm and see Jesus calmly walking toward you.  With your eye fixed on the Lord, who knows what you can do?    
    The Word is very near you. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

News: Better Late than Never

At our annual Chapter in early June the Order of the Holy Cross made two changes to the way we function.  These are experimental, in that they require formal approval to change our formularies, which takes some time.  But we will try them for the next three years and see if they work.

The first is in the way each of our monasteries chooses its leader.  In the past the Superior has chosen the Prior of each monastery and that choice was ratified (or not) by the Council.  The members of the household had at best conversational input, and sometimes no input at all.  Beginning this year each house elects its Prior, who takes office after the Superior and the majority of Council give their assent.  I was elected Prior of Mount Calvary on June 28 and confirmed shortly thereafter. 

The second change is that each of our houses will now be a house of formation for its new members.  This is not much of a shift for West Park and Grahamstown, who have had formation programs for many years.  But it will be a major change for Toronto and for us here in Santa Barbara.  We are quite excited about the prospect of attracting and training new monks for our monastery here.  I hope to write more about this in this blog soon, and there will shortly be a new page for it on the monastery website.  If you are considering a vocation to be a monk in our tradition, I hope this will perk your interest!

In terms of people, Br. Bob Pierson joined us in May.  Bob was a member of St. John's, Collegeville, for many years, and decided to become part of Mount Calvary after a year of discernment with OHC at West Park, where he was received into the Episcopal Church and into the Order in life vows on March 31.  He is a delightful addition to the community here!

Sermon for Sunday Pentecost 7, Proper 12A

It was a joy and privilege to preside and preach at St. Bede's Episcopal Church in Mar Vista (Los Angeles) last Sunday, July 27.  The Rector, Jim Newman, an Associate of Holy Cross and a friend of long standing, was on a well-deserved vacation.

Despite the best efforts of the lectionary revision people, this time all three lessons worked together for good, to use St. Paul's language from Romans in the second reading for the day.  At St. Bede's they record the sermons electronically and paste the link into the sermon page of the parish website, making it available for the benefit of shut-ins, people who can't get to church, and anyone else who might be interested.  Which might include you, gentle reader!

Genesis 29:15-28
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Here's the link:

Friday, February 7, 2014

Simplicity in Santa Barbara - 2

Months have passed.  I just reread what I wrote in September, and realize that the two things I thought were necessary for simplicity -- enough and direction -- have been given me.

I have enough, and that is something I am getting used to.  Not just the basics of life, which are actually pretty elegant here -- our terrific chef Luis Ruelas, the lovely property and house we live in, the community of Santa Barbara -- but also enough time, enough sleep, enough work, enough intellectual stimulation.  I have never really not had enough, but for various reasons buried in my psyche, I have not easily been able to recognize the enough-ness of my life.  And one of the great things about being this monk in this monastery in this place is that I am, maybe for the first time, relaxing into the realization that I have enough.  And with that comes more contentment, more trust, more ability to look away from myself from time to time.

And direction.  I guess I would say, not that I have found direction, but that it has found me.  Two things have come to inhabit my working time and to exercise my intellect in the last months.  One of them is working on the financial and regulatory aspects of our monastic use of the new property here.  Not to go into the boring details, but our change of property ownership and our evolving sense of what we might want to do with the property in the long run have offered challenges which have engaged the energies and work of the whole community here.  We certainly live in a complex society now, and the fact that we want to to use the property in monastically life-giving ways does not mean that we can without a lot of work.  The wider secular community has many interests which must be served.  So there has been a lot of green eyeshade work.

The second direction that has come to me is scholarly.  Quite unexpectedly I was asked last August to contribute the chapter on Anglican Monasticism to a forthcoming volume from Oxford University Press called the Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism.  This is a marvelous thing.  It has affirmed work I did earlier when I wrote the history of the Order, which is very gratifying.  But more, it has called me to organize my thoughts on a wider field.  I have had a marvelous time the last few months updating my bibliographies, reading things I had not read before, many of them new, and thinking about the subject in new ways.  The point of the project is not so much a survey of the history of the subject as an overview of the direction of scholarship and discernment about where it might usefully go.  I don't want to steal my own thunder (if such it be) but suffice it to say that while there have been good biographies and narrative community histories, analytical scholarship of the subject is in its infancy.  Which I find quite exciting.

So.  I have enough and more than enough.  And I have direction(s).  And I have to say, I think what I wrote in the last blog in September is true: These -- enough and direction -- are good platforms for simplicity.  I find myself less scattered, more focused, better settled in lectio and quiet prayer.  These particular two directions are, of course, time limited.  By June I will have written the chapter and sent it off.  Not by June, but in a reasonable time the context we are living in here will clarify itself.  And then I will be searching again.  And I am confident a new directional focus will find me.

But in the meantime -- what gifts I have received!  Deo gratias!