Thursday, February 25, 2016

Christ our Mother

Luke 13:1-9

I am convinced that one of the most powerful forces in all the universe is a mother’s prayers for her children. An inspirational example of the efficacy of such prayer comes from the life of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine. Of all of the children she bore, it was Augustine that proved to be the source of the greatest anxiety for Monica. Augustine was not always a saint in fact in his early days he lived a pretty rock n’ roll life style of womanizing, heavy drinking, and partying. He even got sucked into a religious cult called Manicheism. In his autobiographical work, the Confessions, St. Augustine writes that through it all his mother never gave up on him, but continued to pray for his conversion. In her agony for the soul of her son, Monica sought the council of Bishop Ambrose who told her, “God’s time will come. Go now, it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.”

If you are a mother who worries for her troubled children, you should be encouraged by the story of Saint Monica. Not only did her son finally accept the Christian faith, but he went on to become one of its most powerful and articulate defenders, a Bishop and a doctor of the Church.
The love of a mother is often the Hound of Heaven in the life of a wayward son. The country singer Merle Haggard said it best,

 I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried                                          

There is perhaps no better image of the relentless, unwavering, way that God’s grace pursues us in our sinfulness. We address God as Father—I believe it is appropriate for us to do so not least because that is what Jesus taught us to do. I think it would be a mistake to change the Lord’s Prayer from ‘Our Father’ to ‘Our Mother’ like some liturgical revisionist suggest—yet nevertheless there is a maternal as well as a paternal side to God. God, as an eternal spirit, transcends the categories of gender. Both male and female, fatherhood and motherhood, find their source, their virtue, beauty and truth in their creator. Both man and woman were created in the image of God and both are meant to represent him in their unique way.

The Bible at times uses maternal language to speak of God’s loving-kindness. For instance Isaiah writes, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15), and “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you” (Isa 66:13).

Nowhere is God’s motherly compassion and tender mercy better seen than in our Lord Jesus Christ who says to his rebellious people, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Indeed many spiritual writers and theologians, such as Saint Anselm and Julian of Norwich, have spoken of the motherhood of Christ.   The metaphor of Christ as mother is appropriate in a number of ways.

First, Christ is the one that his people run to for protection from danger and comfort in sorrow. A mother hen will gladly sacrifice her own safety for the protection of her young. If a fox or some other predator sneaks into the hen house the mother will call her young to her and shelter them with her own body, putting herself between them and the danger. The chicks will instinctively run to her for safety and shelter. In the same way Christ puts himself, his own body, between us and our sins. He bears the brunt of their consequences on our behalf. He yearns that his people might run to him for safety and protection.

The mother is the fiercest and most selfless protector of her young. For instance no one wants to get between a mama grizzly and her cubs! The mother’s bosom is the universal place of safety and security. When we are endangered, when we are perplexed, when we are sorrowful, Christ wants us to find our solace in him. He covers us with his righteousness when we are fallen in sin, he shields us when we are attacked by temptation and despair. As Psalm 91 says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

Secondly, the motherhood of Christ is seen in the fact that he washes, feeds, and nurtures us. It is one of the wonders of nature that a mother is able to nourish her child with her own body.  Julian of Norwich writes,

“The mother may suckle her children with her own milk, but our precious Mother Jesus, he feeds us with himself. And he does this most courteously, with much tenderness, with the Blessed Sacrament that is our precious food of true life. And with the sweet sacraments he sustains us with every mercy and grace.”

Just as an infant depends on his mother for all his needs, so are we dependent on Christ. He cares for us in our helplessness just as a mother cares for her young.  He washes us in baptism and the blood of his cross and feeds us with his own body and blood.  

One of the oldest symbols for Christ, dating back at least to the second century, is that of a Pelican feeding her chicks. The image is actually rooted in an ancient legend that predates Christianity. The legend was that in a time of famine a mother pelican actually tore pieces of her own flesh out to feed her starving young with her flesh and blood. In one version of the story the mother bird revives her chicks from death. The Church embraced this story as an image of Jesus’ motherly love for his people and it became a fixture in church architecture.
Third, and finally, Christ is our mother because he suffers the pains of labor to bring forth a new creation. Jesus spoke of his own imminent suffering in terms of a mother’s labor pains. He said, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”

In the same way, Jesus considered the agony of his passion to be pure joy on account of the new creation account of the new creation it brought about. He bore each of us, our sin, our guilt, our shame, in his own body on the cross. He considered the pain to be worth it in order that we might be born again and saved from the power of sin and death.

When Christ died on the cross, a roman soldier pierced his side and out gushed blood and water. The Church Fathers see great spiritual significance in this fact. Blood and water, they say, represent the two chief sacraments of the Church, the Eucharist and Holy Baptism. Just as Eve was taken from the side of Adam, so here is the Church born from the bleeding side of Christ. We are the children of his labor and passion.

Brothers and sisters, if we have Christ for our mother, we should take great comfort in our salvation. Whatever it is we struggle with we shall be delivered. It is not possible that the sons and daughters of so many tears should perish.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Sound of Silence

Luke 4:1-13

Everyone needs a little peace and quiet from time to time, but researchers have found that too much quiet can actually drive a person crazy! Scientist at Orfield Labs in Minneapolis have developed what they call an anechoic chamber—that means no echo. The room is so constructed that walls, floors, and ceiling absorb all sound rather than reflecting it like most surfaces do. The average quiet room has a decimal level of thirty, but this room holds the record for the lowest decimal level at just nine. It is so quiet that test subjects could hear their own blood flow, the beat of their heart, the churning of their stomach and even the functioning of their own inner ear! Scientist suggest that there is even a kind of electrical whine that our brainwaves make that is normally drowned out by our surroundings. As it turns out this experience is literally maddening. After being locked in the room subjects experienced hallucinations and became extremely disoriented. The longest anyone has been able to stand being inside is forty five minutes.

 But one doesn’t need to be in an anechoic chamber to find the experience of silence uncomfortable. There is that constant existential buzz of self-consciousness that is always just below the surface of our awareness. When we slow down and listen to our own heart we are confronted by our own sin and brokenness, by our fear, and our desperate need for God. We feel his probing gaze and shrink from it in shame. We do our best to distract ourselves with the noise of business, of entertainment, and other diversions. Sometimes even worry is preferable to it. We find a million other ways to occupy our thoughts to avoid the inner silence where we are alone with God.

Silence can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is a necessary element in a healthy spiritual life. Jesus demonstrated this in his own life. Throughout his ministry he would retire to quiet places away from the crowd. In our Gospel lesson today, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus goes out into the wilderness for 40 days of solitude, silence, and fasting. In what does the value of silence consist?

Silence gives us the focus that we need to hear from God. Since ancient times men and women have sought out quiet places in the wilderness to hear from the Lord. After his victory over the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel, the prophet Elijah retired to a desert place. God sent to him a mighty wind that shattered the rock, but God was not in the wind. He sent an earthquake and fire, but Elijah found God in none of these dramatic manifestations. Instead he found him in the gentle whisper, the still small voice. I believe this is often the case in our lives as well. We expect that if God were to speak to us it would be in some loud an ostentatious way, but more often than not God speaks to us in such a way that we can easily miss him if we are not attentive. God’s presence is opened up to us, his voice, and guidance made available to us as we turn our attention to him and invite him into our heart.  

It is so important that we take time in our busy day to quiet ourselves and hear from God. When I was I kid, I can remember my father always being awake before everyone else. He worked early, but he would get even earlier than he too. This was his quiet time with God. If you came down stairs you would find him sitting quietly with a cup of coffee and the Bible open in his lap.

 Not everyone is a morning person. Maybe the best time for you is just before bed at night, or during your lunch break at work. Whatever the time, I encourage you to set it aside for God. He really does speak to us. During Lent, we are offering times of quiet meditation on scripture in our chapel, Sundays at 9 am and Thursdays at 12 pm. I hope you will take advantage of them.

Not only is silence important in growing closer to God, it is also essential for understanding ourselves better. Self-knowledge is a necessary element in spiritual growth. The first step in getting well is knowing what is wrong. If we want to grow in holiness we need to confront our sinfulness at its root. We need to ask ourselves, what strongholds does the devil have in my heart and mind that keep me in bondage? As the psychologist Carl Jung said, “Whatever does not become conscious, returns to us as fate.” Silence and solitude provides the opportunity we need to do that inner work, to allow God to undo the knots created by our sinful patterns and habits. 

 As I said moments ago, such self-knowledge is not comfortable. We tend to avoid it at all cost. It is a bit like going to the dentist. The experience is rarely pleasant, but the cost of not going at all can be much more painful and unpleasant. It can also be pretty frightening. God wants to meet us in silence, but it is often the devil that shows up before God! We are assailed by anxiety and by condemnation. He will try his best to draw our attention away from God and onto ourselves, our sins, our short comings, our passions.

This brings us to the third and final benefit of silence I want to share with you. Silence is the battleground for spiritual warfare. In our gospel reading today we see how Jesus battled against Satan in the desert. The devil tries to tempt Jesus. He appeals first to Jesus’ physical hunger, the desires of the flesh. Next he tries to tempt Jesus with riches, the lust of the eyes. Finally he tries to provoke him to some demonstration of his power and divinity. Here Jesus is tempted with the pride of life. Each time, however, Jesus answers Satan with Holy Scripture. This is an example to us. Knowing God’s word is like keeping arrows in our quiver. When the devil attacks us with his lies or tries to lead us astray, we can use God’s word to defend ourselves and put him to flight.
Often times we simply unconsciously and unreflectively absorb the devils lies. We allow his temptations to take us aware. Silence gives up the opportunity to come face to face with the world’s lies and the evils in ourself, to confront Satan and to stand our ground against him.

When we enter into the silence, when we listen for God’s voice, when we examine our heart, when we confront the devil, Jesus is beside us. He entered into the silence and solitude of the desert for our sake, in union with us. Jesus shared our humanity, the weakness and frailty of our mortal nature, he knew all the temptation that we know, and yet he was without sin.

When Adam and Eve were tempted in the Garden, they fell, bringing the power of sin and death into the world. We Christ was tempted in the wilderness he emerged victorious. If the first Adam brought weakness and futility to our human nature, Christ the new Adam brings strength and life. When we go down into the dangerous wilderness of silence, let us make Christ our shield and sword and receive the grace that comes from him.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sidekicks and Discipleship

Luke 9:28-36

About a year ago, two other young priests and I began a podcast exploring our mutual love for comic books in light of our shared Christian faith. We called it “God and Comics.” For those of you who are not familiar, a podcast is kind of like an internet radio show. Besides having a bit of fun, we had a few other goals in starting our podcast. The first was to model thoughtful, Christian engagement with popular culture. Second, we hoped to engage in a bit of contextual ministry. Comic book fans are a strong niche demographic and one that is not always known for its piety. We wanted to talk about our faith in a way that would be relatable to them. Finally, we wanted to share our love for comics with a wider audience. We believe the medium has some really exciting possibilities for artistic expression. Comics have come a long way since the funny papers!

My reason for telling you about the show isn’t just a bit of shameless promotion, although I do hope some of you will give it a listen, but because I wanted to share with you how recording our latest episode helped to shed some light for me on this week’s gospel reading.

The title of last week’s show was, “Sidekicks andDiscipleship.” In it we explore the history of the superhero sidekick and what they can teach us about what it means to follow Jesus.

Probably the best known superhero sidekick is Robin, the BoyWonder, the junior partner of Batman. Even if you have never read the comic book, you have probably seen the campy 1960’s Batman TV series in which he appeared. The creators of Batman introduced the character of Robin in the 1940’s  to lighten things up a bit when comic books were coming under fire for being too dark and violent. The character also served to give younger readers someone with whom to identify. The idea was that through Robin, and other kid sidekicks, young readers could imagine themselves having adventures alongside their favorite heroes and helping them to solve crimes.

I wonder, when you read the Gospels with whom do you identify? If you are anything like me it is probably with the disciples! When I read the Gospel stories, I am filled with admiration, awe, and worship for the person of Christ. I long to be like him, but it is his disciples—with their slowness of heart, their hardness of mind, and their occasional foolishness— in whom I recognize myself! This is perhaps true of no one else so much as with Peter. Peter, like myself, always appears to have more eagerness than wisdom, courage, or fortitude. Just look at the way he first falls asleep and then puts his foot in his mouth in today’s gospel lesson!

The picture of Peter that emerges from Holy Scripture, is one of a man in process. He is struggling to become the man that Christ has called him to be and making plenty of mistakes along the way. He, and the other disciples, are in training. They are walking with Jesus, working alongside him, trying to do the things that he does, and seeking to faithfully teach his Gospel. In this way, they are a lot like superhero sidekicks. Sidekicks are apprentices. They are training to do the things that their mentors do. They just want to be heroes, and deep down so do we!

We long for the heroic virtue, the righteousness, the greatness, and the glory in the face of Christ. As disciples of Christ, we are his apprentices, training to be like him, to do the things that he does, that our lives too might shine with the radiance of God.

Sidekicks are often miniature versions of their mentors, having similar powers, and wearing a similar uniform. For example, there is the Flash’s sidekick Kid Flash, Aqualad the sidekick of Aquaman, and Speedy the crimson archer who works alongside the Green Arrow. In a similar way each of us is meant to reflect in miniature a bit of who Christ is.

Martin Luther was fond of saying that the Christian was a “little Christ” called in our own small way to be Christ to the world. If we are little Christs, it is our Lord’s desire to lead us along so that we grow up into the full stature of Christ.

This morning, at Christ Church, we are commissioning young people to serve as acolytes in our Church. For many, the role of acolyte, is the first step in a life of service to the body of Christ. Our Acolyte ministry is a training ground for disciples. Jesus is taking these young people on as his own sidekicks! He wants to form them into heroes for the gospel! He does the same for all of us through the various ministries we serve.

When Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, he gave them a glimpse of the glory he intends for them, the end result of their training. What we see in Christ’s transfiguration on the mount is our own human nature, glorified, shot through with the eternal light, made a partaker of the divine nature.  Our Lord wants to lead us too up the mountain with him, so that like him we can know the depth of union that he enjoys with his father. To become a disciple of Jesus is to embark on a journey, and to begin a process that when complete will result in our own glorification, and in the transfiguration of our human nature. He wants us to shine like stars!

Peter thought that he could stay with Jesus forever up there on the mountain top. He suggested that he could build little houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, but he was mistaken. He still didn’t realize that Jesus’ mission was to suffer and die. That the path to glory would be through the agony of his crucifixion. 

There are some who want a crossless Christianity. They want all of glory, but none of the sacrifice. This is impossible. To quote WilliamPenn

“No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.”  

There  is no short-cut to glory, no fast-track to Christ likeness.  We must be willing to undergo the long process of formation, the discipline and sacrifice that is required. We cannot have Easter and the glory of the Resurrection without Lent and Holy Week.

If we wish to share in Christ’s glory, we must also be willing to suffer with him. Jesus said, 

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Church Without Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

What is it that makes a parish church truly great in the eyes of God? What is the one characteristic we all should aspire to, that thing which to lack would be disastrous, and would make us wholly unprofitable?

There are many important elements that contribute to making a parish one that truly honors God, you may even say that they are essential. For instance, reverent liturgy. The Apostle instructs us in Holy Scripture, “Let all things be done decently and in right order.” Others might say that a church in which the spiritual gifts are not active is sadly lacking, that the church’s worship should be spirited and passionate. Many also say, quite rightly, that a church that glorifies God is one which teaches sound doctrine. Still others say that the church must advocate for social justice and serve the poor.

I wouldn’t want to subtract from the importance of any of those things, but none of them—in themselves—are enough. In our epistle reading today, Saint Paul instructs us that without love, none of these things matter at all. He writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Some parishes have beautiful and well-choreographed liturgy, perfectly adhering to the rubrics, and yet the people are rigid, arrogant, judgmental, and just plain snotty! They are haughty and look down on others. What good is it to expertly perform the liturgy if you are proud? What good is it to be arraigned in beautiful vestments if you have a dreary soul? What is reverence without love? All these things they ought to have done without neglecting the other, without neglecting love.

Again, some churches can boast vibrant, charismatic, worship. They may be bursting at the seams with worshipers having a cathartic and emotional experience. There may even be signs and wonders, dramatic healing, and speaking in tongues. Yet with all the flash, they lack real substance. When Saint Paul says, “If I speak with the tongues of angels but lack love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol,” he is making a comparison with the pagan revelry of the worshipers of Bacchus, the god of wine, who used bells and drums in worship. In other words he is saying, “Without love you are no better than pagans!”

To use a more modern comparison, one might say, anyone can take LSD at a rock concert and feel at one with the universe, but that doesn’t mean they have the love of Christ. If just beneath the surface there is materialism, sensuality, pride, and divisiveness, charismatic worship isn’t much different. If your faith makes you look down on others, if you are more concerned with self-aggrandizement than the needs of others or the glory of God, if you lack love, you may be full of something but it isn’t the Holy Spirit!

Some churches have all the right doctrine, they are theologically rigorous, and yet they are harsh and combative. What good is belief if we lack love? Saint James writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well, but even the demons believe—and shudder!”  What good is it to know the truth if it does not change our hearts?
It is even possible to do all the right things for the wrong reasons. We can perform heroic acts of sacrifice and service, but be motivated more by a desire for recognition than love. In our quest for justice, we can even put our politics before people, and our ideology in the place of God.

God once rebuked his wayward people through the prophet Amos saying, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Does God have a problem with feast days or solemn assemblies? Of course not! He is the one that commanded them in the first place! The point is that without love, all these good things are worse than useless, they are downright offensive to God!

But what is this love without which we cannot please God? Is it a feeling or a sentiment? Not quite. The type of love that Saint Paul is referring to here is sometimes translated as charity. It is the divine love that graciously reaches out to all people. It is more than feeling. Love is a verb. It rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. That is not to say that it leaves our affections unchanged. There are charitable and uncharitable feelings. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It takes no delight in evil.

This kind of love is not of human origin. It is the presence of Christ working in us, the power of his reconciling grace. It is the gift of God. If what I have said makes you nervous, let me assure you, the kind of love I am speaking about is not a condition for our salvation. We love because God first loved us, and God loved us while we were still loveless.

This love is not a condition of our salvation, but it is the essential evidence of our salvation! Love is the fruit of salvation. God will judge whether we have received the grace of God in vain by whether or not we have love. The scriptures tell us, “by their fruit you shall know them” and “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

As we approach the season of Lent, let us examine ourselves. Are we as a church bearing the fruit of love or have we received the grace of God in vain? Are we seeking to grow in the love of God? Are we kind? Are we patient with one another in our weaknesses? Are we quick to point out the faults of others or do we charitably give them the benefit of the doubt?

I believe we will most certainly find that we have a tremendous amount of growing to do, both personally and corporately. “Love,” as Saint Paul writes, “never ends.” It is fathomless. In this life, we only scratch the surface of what it means to love like God loves. Paul continues, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Brothers and sisters, let us put away childish things. Let us seek to be mature in faith and in hope, but most importantly in love.