Saturday, September 17, 2016

Pentecost 17, Proper 20, September 18, 2016

Sermon for The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 20  ~  September 18, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth
so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

So, today we learn from Jesus that we should cheat our boss! This is one of my favorite passages, because it is obviously ironic, maybe even comic. I also like it because it is a great cudgel with which to punish literalists. Obviously, interpretation is necessary, and the Gospel itself even supplies its own – if you don’t handle unrighteous wealth properly, then you can’t expect anyone to entrust you with real wealth. What is dishonest wealth anyway? – or unrighteous mammon? Wealth just means well-being, usually material well-being, by convention. What makes wealth unrighteous is reserving well-being for the few and denying it to the many. Well-being turned into a measure of division among human beings is unjust, unrighteous. In fact, it is not really well­being, at all.
The question remains, what is the proper way to handle this unrighteous wealth? Give it away. That’s my take. In effect that is what the crafty steward was doing. We have to bear in mind that his master’s wealth was unjust. In fact, one can argue from this parable that distinctions of rich and poor are themselves unjust and sinful. So inequality in society is NOT the will of God, but rather the opposite, and wealth that is not held for the common good is unrighteous mammon, or unjust wealth, which has no rights at all.
This interpretation is suggested and supported by the lectionary’s pairing with the stirring prophetic passage from Amos.
[I always like to remember that Amos is the earliest full Book of the whole Bible. It is thought to have reached its present form in the middle of the 8th Century BC., which makes it a late contemporary of Homer, older than Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, Confucius and Laotze. It is also entirely possible that the Book of Amos was actually written by the Prophet himself.]
It is forever significant that this oldest book in the Bible is all about social justice. Do you want to please God? Do you want to go to heaven when you die? Do you want to get into harmony with Divine Will? Do you want to live a life fitting for a human being? Do you want to use your time in this life profitably? Then devote yourself to the poor and combat social injustice. Well, that is – arguably – exactly what the dishonest steward was doing! Sure, he was doing it out of selfish motives, but the effect was to reduce social inequality.
Another interpretative hint is today’s Collect, which reminds us that we are placed among things that are passing away, and asks for the grace to hold tight to what will endure. Well, money and social inequality is passing away. The power of Empire is passing away. The illusion of our divisions is passing away, and the sinful systems that arise from that illusion are passing away. Amos called this ultimate passing the Day of the Lord. He coined the term to refer to God’s victory over human injustice – good news for widows and orphans, bad news – very bad news – for their oppressors. The Day of Doom.
At the ancient beginning of our written scripture – at the door, as it were, of our whole tradition – stands this denunciation of social injustice. Our Divine Savior confirms it and underlines it. He tells us, “If nothing else, dissociate yourself from this doomed, delusional way of life. Maybe it’s impossible to avoid all contact with unrighteous mammon - fair enough. But you don’t have to hold on to it. Instead, use it against itself.  Let go of it and invest it in the oppressed. Use it to further the common good.”
The funniest part of this parable is the detail about the congratulatory attitude of the Master, upon learning that the dishonest steward had cheated him! That is unimaginable on the literal level, and I take it as another hint that the story is not to be understood as literal advice about cheating the boss. What is true is that all this wealth is illusory and passing away. It’s doomed, and those who hold on tight to it and devote their lives to it are doomed, too.
    Unrighteous mammon will always let us down, as the boss let down the steward. Better to establish solidarity with the poor, the last who shall be first, the beneficiaries of the Kingdom of God.



Pentecopst 17, Proper 19, Septemeber 11, 2016

Sermon for The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 19  ~  September 11, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

God/Prophet/People. That is the familiar pattern of revealed religion. God talks to us through messengers. They tell us about God, Who remains unseen. The symbolism of the story we heard today has God up at the top of the mountain, out of sight, where no one but the Prophet Moses can go. The people wait in the desert below. They see the clouds and lightning and hear the thunder, but that’s all. They wait. And wait. Eventually, they get tired of waiting and decide to make their own god. They do so by pooling their most valuable possessions and fashioning them into a visible symbol, which they can worship.
This behavior reminds me of the old joke about the man who comes to ask a favor. His friend replies: “Favors, favors, but what do you ever do for me?”
The petitioner replies, in great detail – “I stayed with you when you were sick last year, I lent you allot of money when you asked me five years ago, I helped your kids get into college ten years ago, I got you your job twenty years ago, and I saved your life on that camping trip thirty years ago.”
His friend responds: “Years ago, years ago. Yes. But what have you done for me lately?”
Likewise, God set the people free and brought them with a mighty arm out of the land of slavery, destroying the power of their overlords. But that was way in the past, a memory increasingly dim. Anyway, the meaning of all that was only Moses’ interpretation, and now Moses had disappeared. The people felt forsaken, this so-called “God” Moses talked about had not done anything for them lately. There was really no reason to think He would do anything ever again, or that He even existed. So they decided they would have to fend for themselves.
Our whole religion can be seen in similar terms. God is out of sight – far away, if He even exists at all. And all we know of Him we learn from messengers who come down the mountain from time to time – prophets, sages, and – later on – Apostles and Evangelists. But here we are in the spiritual desert, feeling alone. Here’s our choice: we can trust what those messengers say about the Unseen: that it is the only Reality; OR we can get together and craft our own – something we can see. A projection of ourselves that we turn into ultimate reality.
The story shows us that the latter choice – what we call idolatry – leads to death. The Israelites literally choke on their golden idol. (By the way, it is not an accident that the idol is made of gold, but that’s another sermon!) On the other hand, we can choose to trust the messenger – the Prophet – regarding Unseen Reality. There are no other alternatives. Either the Unseen, Unseeable, and Unknowable God is Real and wants us to know something about Him, or we might as well pool our resources, project a collective image of ourselves and worship it.
We live in a time when that’s what many of us do.  We believe only in what we can see, or in some imaginary projection of ourselves. The notion that what we can see is in some sense illusory and that genuine Reality is invisible is not widely accepted. Actually, our age is not so different from others in this sense. We naturally tend to believe our senses, and to think that if we can’t see it, it is just imaginary. The problem is that we can’t get along without God, so we make our own, which we can see, and it kills us.
There is another detail in the ancient story, which links it to the Gospel for today: the only repentance in this story is God’s. God repents of the destruction He had in mind for the wayward people. God changed His mind – an astounding thing! And this divine repentance came while the people were still whooping it up around the Golden Calf. In other words, God did not need to be appeased first, before He changed his mind. The punishments that followed were all Moses’ doing, not God’s. Likewise, One Greater than Moses, the Personal Fulfillment of All Prophecy, came to those who were most completely lost, while they were still lost. Here the mountain-separation is bridged not by a Prophet, but by God, Himself. The righteous, who are not apostate, but faithful to their end of the agreement with the Unseen One, do not need anything from the Godman. It is the sinners, the apostates, the wicked who do. God comes down the Mountain to eat with them.
Our Lord’s offer of salvation to the really lost is not a “last chance” to “believe or else.” It is the assurance that the door is always open, and there is nothing we can do to shut it. The worst criminal is precious, like the woman’s lost coin. And when there is the slightest glimmer of hope within the heart of the lost, there is rejoicing among the angels in heaven.


Saturday, September 03, 2016

Assumption of the BVM

Sermon for the Sunday near  
the Dormition of the BVM
August 14, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar 

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
   or let your Holy One experience corruption

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

 St. Basil the great observed that the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary belonged to the dogmata and not the kerygmata. That is, to the inner, secret life of the Church as opposed to our public preaching. Accordingly, I will say little so that we can devote our time to praise her after the liturgy.
I will note that the public, Papal definition of the Bodily Assumption of the Mother of God was, nevertheless appropriate, in the historical circumstance. The world had just experienced an unprecedented satanic assault on the dignity of the human body, in the form of the Nazi death-camps. The celebration of the Assumption of Mary may be understood as the Church’s defiance of those horrors, the affirmation that all material creation is destined to participate in the Divine Life. In 1950, perhaps, it was time to say so in public and to proclaim it from the rooftops: Mary in her bodily Assumption represents Creation restored to perfection, just as she represented all creation in her willing coöperation with God in the Redemption: Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. Let it be unto me according to your word. Mary’s fiat undoes the disobedience of Eve and makes ordinary creation a participant in divinity.
St. Irenaeus said God became human so that humanity might become divine.  The Transfiguration refers to the first part of the saying: God became human and we beheld His glory. And the Transfiguration refers not only to the Godman, Jesus Christ, but to all His human relatives, beginning with his All-Holy Mother. She is in no was different from us and the rest of creation, except that she has already passed beyond the Resurrection and Judgment to the perfection God intended in the beginning.
There is an ancient tradition of her coronation in heaven. Here, again, she represents creation. Queen of Heaven, as we acclaim her, was a title that particularly bothered some reformation theologians. It sounded way too pagan. It smacked of goddess-worship. In fact, the Holy Pro-phet Jeremiah had railed against the Canaanite cult of the same name. But Mary as Queen of Heaven is, actually entirely biblical! Gabriel had announ-ced that God would give her Son the Kingdom of His Ancestor David. Well, the ancient Davidic Kings were polygamists and none of their wives was ever called Queen. That title was reserved for the King’s mother. The only Queen of Israel was the Queen Mother. So, if Jesus is the King of Heaven, then His Mother is Queen of Heaven. Not a goddess, not the oriental Great Mother worshiped at Ephesus, but the first human being to participate perfectly in the Divine Life, which is what Christians mean by theosis or divinization. We do not become gods, but we share in the Life of the Blessed Trinity.
God became human that humanity might become divine. It is appropriate that we should recognize the theosis of Mary. As God received our human life from her, so she is the first to receive Divine life from Him. The iconographic depiction shows our Lady in repose, having “fallen asleep” in the flesh. Behind her stands her Divine Son. In a reversal of the image that shows her holding Him as an infant, He now holds her soul. There is no depiction of what will happen to her immaculate body. That remains a mystery, hidden within the heart of the Church. A Byzantine hymn imagines her last words:

O Apostles, who have assembled here
from the ends of the earth,
bury my body in Gethsemane,
but receive my spirit, O my God,
O my Son!

But from earliest times Christians have believed not only that He did receive her, but also that He did not suffer to see corruption the human body out of which had come His own sacred Body.

Arise, O Lord, into Your resting place:
You and the Ark of Your sanctification


Pentecost 16, Year C, Proper 18 September 4, 2016

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 18  ~  September 4, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

 …as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength,
 so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

I boast of what I am or what I have. Or rather, of what I THINK I am or have, because in reality I am nothing and I have nothing. Thus the Israelites are warned not to imagine that they own the land they are going to possess. Likewise, Philemon imagines that he owns Onesimus. But Paul tells Onesimus that even his very life is not his own, much less that of his slave; and Jesus says that his disciples renounce all such imaginings:
none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

As advice specific to those who wanted to follow Jesus around Palestine 2000 years ago, this statement simply recognizes practical reality: disciples in that sense did have to give up everything. It comes at the end of a series of startling pronouncements, beginning with the impossible declaration that
                               Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, 
                               wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, 
                                cannot be my disciple.

Well, we are not called to follow Him around Palestine, so what does this have to do with us, if anything? It must have something to do with us, because now and then we like to imagine that we are, in some sense, His disciples. But hate our parents and all the rest of our closest relatives? C’mon!
Honor of parents is the first of the Ten Commandments after those about our relationship to God. So, hating them seems extreme. I suppose what He means is not emotion, but attachment. In another place, Jesus says that anyone who loves parents more than Him is not worthy of Him. But the only duty one has prior to parents is to God. So in saying that, Jesus puts Himself in the place of God, as we acknowledge that He is right to do.

On the other hand, it is possible to honor Father and Mother instead of  God. How many there are whose highest value is their own family or clan or tribe – an extension of their own sense of self! This is the foundation of religious nationalism – the great enemy of the Church. Looked at this way, it is obvious that those who do not
                              hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, 
                              yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

A sense of tribal identity is one kind of possession. The conclusion of the passage expands the notion to all possession:
None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

That is surely true of everyone who wishes to be a follower of Jesus or an adherent of Christianity. We encountered this a few weeks ago. Some ancient fathers went so far as to identify the very notion of possession with the Fall. Possession is an illusion. First, because we are all going to die. Everyone is, literally, a follower of Jesus in that sense. We shall die, as He died. And then we shall possess nothing. Our possessions are, at best, temporary. Devoting one’s life to accumulation is silly.

Worse, it amounts to wasting one’s limited time in this world. This doesn’t necessarily mean adopting a lifestyle of total renunciation, but one must be very careful not to be seduced into thinking that one can possess anything. To think so is to wallow in sin, an illusion that rapidly develops into dangerous separation from Reality. Like the Israelites before whom God set the choice of life or death, as they were about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, the temptation is to forget that possession of the land is conditional. To think that one can actually possess anything is the way of the wicked, which is doomed.

Because at bottom, the uncomfortable observation that everyone who would be Jesus’s disciples must give up all possession is ultimately about inner life. What is ego if not a collection of illusory notions about self? I clasp these illusions to my breast and love them as myself, I keep them and inwardly cherish them as prized possessions, but what are they? Are they really myself? No, of course not. In spiritual terms, they are merely possessions and the spiritual life involves renouncing them, giving them up, which is to choose life.

What I think I possess actually possesses ME, whether it be external objects that I have accumulated or my fond, inner thoughts about myself – my illusory self. Most terribly, this includes my imaginings about my relationship to God. So, Jesus says,
none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

What seems like renunciation is really the path to freedom, the Way of the Righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish. All that I can ever really have is God’s mercy. All that I can ever be is a recipient thereof. To boast of anything else or to imagine anything else about God and my relationship to God – even silently to myself – is death. From which, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, may Christ our God deliver us and make us His disciples.



Pentecost 15, Year C, Proper 17 August 28, 2016

Sermon for The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 17  ~  August 28, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

…go and sit down at the lowest place…

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

For some reason, I found myself driving around the San Fernando Valley with an old friend, a priest who is a native. We passed a great big Roman Catholic Church – about the size of our Cathedral, beautifully ornate Byzantine/Romanesque pile, and we noticed that across the architrave, chiseled in massive letters was the single word: HUMILITAS.  We found this somehow ironic. And that is always the problem, isn’t it?  The chief cleric always enters at the end of the procession, because the last shall be first and vice-versa, but then the whole procession gets ordered according to rank so that the first are the lowest-ranking and so on. You can still always tell who is the most important!

Today’s observation about banquet-seating has a humorous tone, in my opinion. On the surface level of meaning, anyway. But possibly our Lord’s advice is not simply the suggestion of strategy for preferment at important peoples’ parties! Maybe it has to do with our own inner lives and the dangers of imagining that we are more advanced than we really are. For the awful paradox is that if we appear to ourselves to be making progress, we are probably not; while the more progress we actually make, the more lowly we appear to ourselves! Better to occupy the lowest place in our own estimation and possibly to be called up higher. The trick is to contemplate one’s own spiritual lowliness without undue worry or despair, relying entirely on God’s grace.

With that introduction to tie it to today’s Gospel, I want to read to you a passage from one of my favorite ancient fathers, Dorotheos of Gaza (late 6th Century). His writings also contain more than a little humor, mixed in with profound spiritual wisdom. Here is his advice about receiving unjust criticism, and turning it to one’s spiritual advantage…
[There you are sitting peacefully, minding your own business, and a brother comes up and makes a disparaging remark, and you get angry. Instead of thanking him for revealing to you yourown latent anger, you send it back to him.]

Dorotheos has a point, of course. No one can make me feel emotions. I have a choice to permit myself to be disturbed or not.  But what about unjust criticism or worse abuse? Well. I don’t think Dorotheos is advising us to be complete doormats. If the critical brother came every day to bully and abuse, it would be a matter for the Abbot.  On the other hand, if the accused brother is really on top of it, he can accept undeserved criticism dispassionately – however unfair – seeking to learn from it.  None of us is in a position to evaluate ourselves. The critical brother may be out of his tree, on the other hand, there may be more to the feedback than one would like to think.

In any case, such unpleasant experiences may give us a chance to take the lower place at the banquet, a difficult thing to do. And not for the obvious reason that it is unpleasant to let injustice go. There is also the problem of letting it go with self-conscious humility, which is not humility at all, but rather like the inscription on the church. It would probably be better to get mad and oppose the injustice openly than to pretend to humility that one doesn’t actually have. The last shall be first and the first last. But if I take the lower place in order to try to get the higher one, it is hardly humility. Maybe if I want to be really humble, I should take the higher place so that I will be humiliated! And on and on: the same old problem of infinite regress.

Anyway, I think the riddle is good to bear in mind when I think about my own inner, spiritual life. The side of me that is overly self-critical needs to be acknowledged, but not reacted against. I need to tell myself – OK, accuser-self (the translation of the word, satan, by the way!), you are probably right, and I will sit at the lowest place, because I am not very advanced. But hey! What the hell? God is my judge, no one else, not even you, that is not even myself!  I might be pleasantly surprised! Probably best not to count on it, but you never know. It seems to me that is nearer the mark of genuine humility – the kind that is not proclaimed in two-foot-high lettering, chiseled in stone.


Pentecost 14, Year C, Proper 16 August 21, 2016

Sermon for The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 16  ~  August 21, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan
bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

First let us dispense with the mistaken notion that the Judaism of Jesus’s time was altogether legalistic - devoted to the letter of the law, oblivious regarding the spirit. Jesus was not the only rabbi to teach that performing an act of righteousness or mercy – a mitzvah – on the Sabbath was not a violation of its observance. Jesus’s dispute was not with Judaism but with a certain kind of religious mentality, found in all religions, that concerns itself with external, surface matters and ignores what He called the weightier matter of the Law.
This weightier matter in question today, the deeper underlying principle beneath the commandment to observe the Sabbath, is that every creature needs to remember God, and that every creature is entitled to rest and time for recollection. There is more to life than work and preöccupation with our own affairs. The Sabbath, by commanding rest, ensures the opportunity to stop, to recognize that our time is limited, and to remember the infinite and eternal context of all our endeavors. Part of the intention here is to make sure everyone has a day off to pay some attention to what is really important in life. Not just those who can afford it, but everyone gets the day off – hired hands, slaves, even animals and the earth itself. That is already a meaning deeper than the literal observance.
If the first deeper level beneath the surface of the commandment is to give everyone and everything a rest, we hear today that the violation of the letter may sometimes fulfill the spirit. Think of the poor old woman – think how much WORK it was to have to go around bent over all the time. Aside from her suffering, she had to exert lots of effort to compensate for her affliction, and she NEVER had a day off. So, in healing her, Jesus gave her a rest. It could even be said that He actually KEPT the Sabbath on a deeper level by violating it on the surface, since He made it possible for the woman to observe the Sabbath for the first time in eighteen years. Furthermore, helping someone by relieving their suffering, cannot violate the Sabbath, since it honors God in the divine image on earth.
This was the kind of argument the rabbis loved, and the whole dispute is typical of Talmudic scholarship. As I said it would be a mistake to think it illustrates a difference between Judaism and the teaching of Jesus. Plenty of contemporary rabbis would have agreed with Him, taking the view that a mitzvah does not violate the Sabbath. What the dispute does illustrate is a difference in mentality or consciousness that is to be found among adherents of any religious tradition. Those who do not penetrate the weightier matters of the Law, are to be found, sadly, in every tradition, including our own. I am afraid that there may be lots of us who share the mentality of Jesus’s critics. Today’s Gospel warns us to examine ourselves for such a tendency.
That is not to say that externals are of no importance, or that they are nothing but an evil hindrance, to be renounced. We cannot do without them. They are the door, the entrance to the deeper chambers. We need a framework on which to hang those weightier matters, or to use  other metaphors, we need channels to deliver the spirit, earthen vessels to carry the treasure. No channels, the spirit disappears; no earthen vessels, the treasure is lost. It is just as bad to renounce all the surface matters of spiritual life as is to attach ourselves to them as if they were the goal of the whole business. They are not. But neither are they simply dispensable. They may be only the beginning, but we are all beginners.
Surely, the external rules and practices of religion are not ends in themselves; they are only the beginning of our journey to God. But they ARE the beginning: the door the strait gate through which we pass to enter on the Way. Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath shows us not that it is OK to ignore the rules, but that all externals point to a deeper spiritual reality. Keeping the Sabbath may sometimes involve an observance more profound than surface compliance.  We are all called to deeper and deeper observance – not laxity or forgetful indulgence, but ever deeper immersion in the Reality to which the external matters of religion point and to which they are the door.



Feast of the Transfiguration

Sermon for the Sunday after the Feast of the Transfiguration
August 7, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with him.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
This strange story may illuminate the dilemma of whether we must try to change the world, or concentrate on changing ourselves. Three details are essential, though they may seem accidental:
· The Apostles were sleepy, but stayed awake
· The three heavenly beings discussed Jesus’s “departure,” which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem
· Peter wanted to build three temples, whereupon the vision ceased.
Let’s take them in reverse order:
Peter’s response was natural, but wrongheaded. As soon as he expressed the desire to take up permanent residence in the Transfiguration, he stopped seeing it, and was ordered to obey. He could no longer see the Glory of God, but fell back to the level of hearing and obeying.  In a sense, he fell back asleep.
Peter knew something unprecedented was going on, but he didn’t comprehend it.  Who could? We can’t really blame him for his diminished understanding, He wasn’t completely awake, but weighed down with sleep, so that he had no idea what the three transfigured creatures were discussing. He must have found out later because the Gospel tells us that the agenda of the Council of the Transfigured was Jesus’s imminent “departure” in Jerusalem. So on to the second point.
Departure. This translation is correct, but misleading. Anyone reading the original would find the same Greek word that names the pivotal event of the Old Covenant: the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and all that went along with that earlier Departure: the Passover of the Angel of Death, the terrifying Shekinah the visible appearance of God as the Pillar of Fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the great walls of water on either side, the annihilation of the forces of enslavement, the Manna in the wilderness and the encounter with God on Sinai, and so on. THAT is what Jesus was about to reënact, to recapitulate, to ”accomplish in Jerusalem.” The two other transfigured humans, represented the two poles of Hebrew religion, the Law and the Prophets. What Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah was nothing less than a whole new Exodus, extending the Covenant to all flesh – ta panta.
This was not just about raising the consciousness of Peter, James, and John – though it was about that, too. Sleep and awakening is a common metaphor for enlightenment. Buddha, I understand, just means awake. Which brings me to the first point. There is consciousness that is to ordinary human consciousness as waking is to sleep. The drowsy Apostles were somewhere in between ordinary, somnolent consciousness, and the higher level of vigilance or being fully awake. Full vigilance is connected to the New Exodus. A new consciousness –  a higher consciousness – is a feature of the new deliverance.
One of Dostoyevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov says “the tragedy of human life is that a paradise of beauty blooms around us and we fail to see it.”  This may be related to an older theological observation that what changed on Mt. Tabor (the traditional name of the Holy Mountain of the Transfiguration) was not Jesus Himself, but the Apostles’ view of Him. After all, the text itself says not that He changed, but that His appearance changed. What changed was how His Apostles saw Him. As we now agree, our senses receive external stimuli, which are then translated into perceptions in our brains. These stimuli are waves of sound or light, or tactile sensations having to do with pressure and temperature. But is that how the world really is? There is no way to tell. This is not to say that there is no reality out there but our perception of it is only in here.
Things are not as they seem. Long before Immanuel Kant taught us that what we perceive is in our minds, and that we cannot really be sure how our perception relates to the things themselves, the theologians understood that Jesus always radiated the Uncreated Light, but human beings lacked the ability to perceive it. Just as some animals can apparently hear things we can’t, so there are levels of awareness that human beings must develop, a higher faculty that must be brought online, if we are to see the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus.  On Tabor, the sleepy Apostles enjoyed that faculty, temporarily.
Human consciousness is Creation becoming aware of itself. But our consciousness is a work in progress. It is Peter’s mistake to imagine that the purpose of this process is our own individual awakening. To think so is to fall back into sleep. The goal of the process is the New Exodus, also called the New Creation, in which all Creation, down to the humblest atom of dust, reaches its fulfillment, transfigured in the Love of God. Our occasional glimpses of Divine Beauty may be ravishing, but that ecstasy is merely a foretaste of the ultimate Transfiguration of the world.  What the Apostles saw with their human eyes is called the Uncreated Light.  That is, the Glory of God, that has no beginning or end and that always radiates through the Creation. On the Holy Mountain the Apostles saw this Glory radiating from creatures. The Apostles saw the Glory of God suffusing and radiating from humanity, not only from the humanity of the Godman, but from the other two as well. That is significant: Jesus was not transfigured alone, but in conversation with other human creatures. St. Irenaeus put it this way:
On the one hand, the Glory of God is living humanity; on the other hand, the Life of humanity is the vision of God.
This vision – this waking up – is real human life, but it is contemplating the communal transfiguration of the whole world. This is the New Exodus: the communal transfiguration of the cosmos. Dostoyevsky’s character may have been right – Divine Beauty radiates constantly from creation, though we fail to see it, just as the Uncreated Light shone in the material world from the Nativity on, without interruption. Humans can learn to perceive this New Creation. We can wake up, so that creation may become conscious of the Divine Glory that surrounds and infuses it. The paradox is that in so learning, the creation itself is gradually chan-ged into what it has always been: the Glorious Body of the Risen Christ. Wherever a human being wakes up in this way, the whole cosmos benefits.  The Communion of Saints is real – and not confined to those who call ourselves Christian. The Spirit blows where She will.
There is an old argument about whether we should try to change the world or concentrate on changing ourselves. Genuine spiritual guides agree that the two cannot be separated. It is futile to dispute about which comes first, action or contemplation, because they are effective only together – two sides of the same coin, two poles of Redemption, like Moses and Elijah. The Glory of God shines through creation. That is the deep mystery of the Incarnation. Our life is the Vision of God, but what can be seen of God – the Glory of the Uncreated Light – can be seen only in Living Humanity, which I take to mean all humus, the entire material cosmos.
   Peter’s understandable error was to want to enjoy the new consciousness by himself, and forget about the rest of creation – and to institutionalize his forgetting: IT IS GOOD FOR US TO BE HERE – good for US, you see. To hell with everything else. That is NOT higher consciousness: it is going back to sleep. So Peter slipped back into hearing and obeying. If the Transfiguration is a change in our own consciousness, it cannot be separated from the topic of the objective conversation of the beings Transfigured: what was soon to happen in Jerusalem, the Passion and Death and Resurrection of the Godman. Peter briefly saw the Glory, but he misunderstood its meaning.
Individual enlightenment is not the purpose of human life, but a tool in the liberation of the whole cosmos. There is no enlightenment without liberation – in every sense of the word – social, political, economic, and cosmic liberation. Our enlightenment, our awakening, our own transfiguration is our participation in the New Exodus, which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pentecost 11, Year C, Proper 13, July 31, 2016

Sermon for The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 13  ~  July 31, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. 

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

 A  discussion on Democracy Now last week got me thinking about ideology and consciousness. One participant remarked:

... a neoliberal economic philosophy involves a kind of understanding that the notion of the public good is kind of undermined by a basic market logic that turns us all into entrepreneurs, where competition and rivalry define who we are, where the state’s principle function…is to secure the efficient functioning of the economy and the defense, and creating the market conditions whereby you and I can pursue our own self-interest. … if we only read [neo-liberalism] as an economic philosophy and [do] not understand it as a kind of political rationale producing particular kinds of subjects, who are selfish, who are self-interested, who are always in competition with one another, then we lose sight of how neo-liberalism attacks the political imagination.

HMM! An ideology attacks the imagination. How does that work? How about this analogy: the brain is to consciousness as the computer is to the operating system and our consciousness is to ideology as the operating system is to the browser.  Consciousness will be affected to a certain extent by our ideology – more than we think, probably.  No big news – a no-brainer (I couldn’t resist!). 
So, neo-liberal ideology is like a browser, determining what we can do with our consciousness. Neo-liberalism proposes that the best way to advance the common good is by everyone competing with everyone else in the marketplace to advance their individual self-interest
But it is not the only tool to choose from. The many forms of Marxism are different tools, so are the variety of anarchist or utopian socialist theories. In this sense, there is a kind of ideology to be found in the Christian tradition also. It, too, might be analogous to a browser, conditioning our consciousness. It has something to do with the Holy Spirit and what we mean when we speak of living in the Name of Jesus. A certain shaping and conditioning of our consciousness to conform to the Gospel, as understood under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who reminds us and teaches us about Jesus. Perseverance in using this browser makes permanent changes in the operating system.     
     Now I don’t mean to suggest that Christianity is one more ideology among many. But, insofar as it is a way to interpret the world, to decipher some of its meaning, and to guide us through our own lives, it does what secular ideologies often also do. We would say that none of them rises to the level of the revealed truth, which we believe we have received, but some of them are more compatible with our way of thinking than others. Some of the browsers out there just won’t work with our operating system. Others will. Arnold Toynbee, for example, called Marxism the “fourth Judæo-Christian religion” – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Marxism. Dated as that remark may be, there is some truth to it.
 It is significant that Karl Barth and Paul Tillich were both socialists. The two great Protestant theologians of the last century may not have agreed on much, but they agreed with our own Archbishop William Temple that “socialism is the economic realization of the Kingdom of God.” This was also the view of later Archbishops of Canterbury, Lords Ramsey and Williams, and many others, especially among the Catholic wing of Anglicanism.  A hundred years ago, they used to say that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. Some wag responded with the observation that the Church’s Catholic wing was the Labor Party at prayer! Which ideology an Anglican finds more compatible with the Gospel – conservatism or socialism – will partly determine which type of Anglicanism one goes in for.
     Secularists sometimes object that this turns religion into the mouthpiece of an ideology, but I protest that Christian religion was around long before modern political-economic ideologies, and if some of them happen to agree with Christianity so much the better for them. In fact – as Toynbee suggested – it can be persuasively argued that Christianity is one of the sources, maybe the chief source, of socialist thinking, both Marxian and utopian. Be that as it may, today’s Gospel has something to say to us about the neo-liberal ideology defined in that debate on Democracy Now, the ideology that now seems to rule the roost.
     The problem for Christians is that the notion  that the best way to advance the common good is by everyone competing with everyone else in the marketplace to advance their individual self-interest contradits   our Lord’s teaching: neo-liberalism can hardly avoid the conclusion that one’s life DOES consist in the abundance of possession.  The neo-liberal order encourages individuals to make all kinds of plans to tear down barns and build new ones and fill them with the ever-growing, surplus that competition supposedly produces. Ever more accumulation. That was the man’s mistake in the parable – rather than sharing the surplus, he wanted to keep it for himself, because it made him feel more substantial, more real, more alive. Neo-liberal ideology encourages that. That was all he could imagine: new barns to keep the surplus for himself. His consciousness was deformed; his operating system corrupted by an infected browser.
     Ideology can invade consciousness and assault political imagination. The wrong browser can crash the operating system. We can come to believe that what the browser lets us know about reality is just “the way things are”: self-interest (in other words, avarice) is the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God. St. Paul calls this, idolatry. He tells the Colossians that greed, simply, IS idolatry. The Gospel says to the man making provision for greed “you fool – tonight your life shall be required of you.”  Market idolatry may produce a great deal of wealth, for some, but in the end the wealth is completely worthless if it is stored up in ever-bigger barns by fewer and fewer people, while more and more get poorer and poorer. That is what lay behind Toynbee’s remark.
Christianity –  at least in its Catholic form – is not that friendly toward free-market capitalism. We are much more interested in human solidarity and the reality that we are all one Body. This notion is a whole lot older than 19th Century socialist theory. St. Basil the Great, one of the most influential church leaders of the 4th Century, is entirely serious in declaring that the extra pair of shoes in my closet is actually stolen from the man down the street who has none. STOLEN. It is not that I have merely failed in generosity, I have actually robbed the shoeless man! My extra pair rightfully belongs not to me but to him – simply because he has none and I have more than I need.
Now, St. Basil is a Doctor of the Church, as is his contemporary, St. Ambrose of Milan, who went so far as to observe that the whole concept of private property is pretty much the same as original sin; the illusion that anything is mine as opposed to yours can arise only out of a consciousness of separateness – the illusion that you and I are separate individuals, and NOT one body. This is a defect in the browser that damages the operating system, warps our consciousness.  Ambrose and Tillich might agree that this illusion of separateness is sin itself, the sin that Christ has come to wash away.
     The faulty browser must be replaced with a new one that will not fool our consciousness into imagining ourselves as “particular kinds of subjects, who are selfish, who are self-interested, who are always in competition with one another.” Neo-liberalism will not do. It corrupts consciousness; it will crash the whole system. Even though it may rule our culture, it is not the Law of God, and any culture that operates as though it were, is like the greedy old fool in our Lord’s parable, whose life will be required of him this very night.


Friday, July 29, 2016

Pentecost 10, Year C, Proper 12, July 24, 2016

Sermon for The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 12  ~  July 24, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Your Kingdom come…

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

 heard that some insider journalists like to gamble on how many minutes it would take for a political speaker to mention Hitler. One doesn’t want to be too quick to compare the present state of the country to the Weimar Republic. Frequent wolf-crying notwithstanding, let’s remember that the other side of that coin is “it can’t happen here, and that kind of American exceptionalism is particularly fatuous. A few days ago was the Feast of St. Alexander Schmorell of Munich, the neo-Martyr of the White Rose circle – students who opposed Hitler and were guillotined in 1943. They had opposed Hitler on the basis of Christian faith, Roman Catholic as well as  Orthodox. And today, the Sunday between our two political conventions of this critical election year, we hear our Lord teach us to pray that the Kingdom of the Father may come. We hear Him tell us that the Father will give to those who ask and open to those who knock. We hear Abraham’s relentless insistence on God’s mercy for the wicked city, and we hear our Lord’s comment that even wicked people give their children good gifts and that the sleeping householder will open to his importunate neighbor just because of his persistence. In the Collect we[bt1]  also recognize God as the only Source of strength and holiness, and we address God as our Ruler and Guide.

It is probably time for some consideration of the Lord’s Prayer, but that will take a few weeks. Too much for one sermon. So today, I will concentrate on the first petition. Where we ask that God’s Kingdom may come. This prayer invites a consideration of political theology – particularly appropriate for us, just now.
The Kingdom we seek is not our own, and it is not of our own making. God alone is our Ruler, we pray that God is also our Guide. Listening to the Republican Convention, I kept thinking of the Nüremberg Rallies. People mistook their Leader for their Savior. The godless, Nazi ideology idolized German nationality and Hitler as its focal point: personal embodiment of the entire German People, the living incarnation of their suffering and hope, possessing the strength of will to achieve it. Trump said again and again “I am your voice.”   
The theatrical adulation was, in fact, similar to Nüremberg, right down to the airplane circling low over Lake Erie, and then the Trump Helicopter delivering the Voice – the Leader –  to the auditorium. Go and watch Triumph of the Will – Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary about the Nazi Party Congress at Nüremberg in 1934. The whole message was similar: we are a great people, downtrodden by a corrupt elite, servants of foreign enemies: venal and self-serving parasites who care nothing for us ordinary Americans, but hold us in contempt. The would-be Leader invoked every real grievance, every fear, and every misguided prejudice: immigrants, terrorists, international financial arrangements, the “terrible crimes” of Mrs. Clinton, and on and on. We Americans used to be winners, now we are losers. But I am here to change that. I am going to fix it. I am America’s destiny. I am your voice. I am your savior.
There was one way in which Mr. Trump did not mimic Hitler, and that was his constant reference to himself. I am this, I am that, I will, I know how to, I am going to…, &c. Me, me, me.  Now there was certainly a cult of personality in the Third Reich, but even Hitler didn’t talk like that. Trump appears to be even more self-absorbed than Hitler. Maybe that narcissism, that infantile egoism, will be his downfall. Maybe that will save us. Maybe not. We’ll see.  But the combination of that pathologically disordered character with the Nüremberg theatrics in a celebration of grievance and anger and fear makes the comparison inevitable, in my opinion.
“Lock her up!”  “USA, USA”. Not far from there to Sieg Heil.  “America First.” Not so far from Deutschland über alles. Maybe this is nothing more than the exaggerated fever of a political convention. Maybe not. Unfortunately, if it is the latter, we won’t know for sure until it’s too late. For now, all we have to go on is style.
So we remember the glorious Neo-Martyr Alexander of Munich and his companions, who achieved the Crown of Martyrdom through political action in this world, and in so doing advanced the Kingdom for which our Lord taught is to pray.  In our election year, it is legitimate to remember that all theology is political. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. Some is genuinely evangelical and some is ediabolical.  Some say that it is the duty of every Christian to support Donald Trump. This diabolical kind of political theology passes off greed and the lust for power, scapegoating and hate-mongering as reform and salvation. The genuine kind of political theology is marked by self-sacrifice and refusal to offer – or to accept – idolatrous worship. The genuine kind of political theology points toward the Kingdom that only God can bring, the Kingdom of Him Whose throne in this world is the Cross. The Kingdom for which we pray whenever we say “Our Father…”. The prayer of a little child asking Abba for bread. If we ask, we shall receive. If, in the process, like St. Alexander, we receive the Cross also, that is not to receive a stone or a scorpion. It is to enter into the heart of the Kingdom, to join Jesus Christ on His earthly throne, to join in His suffering that is the Redemption of this world.
Today a light adorns [our glorious city] the City of Munich, having within it your holy relics, O Holy Martyr Alexander;
for which sake pray to Christ God,
that He deliver us from all tribulations,
for gathered together in love we celebrate your radiant memory, imitating your bravery, standing against th godless powers and enemies.


 [bt1]the Collect

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