Monday, October 31, 2011

All Hallow's Eve

By the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins

Most people love Hallowe'en, or at least they did when they were kids.  Some Christians are "opposed" to it because of its pagan roots, and its supposed origin in worship of the Devil.  To participate in it is to participate in "occultist" activity.

Well, here we have a problem.  Christian tradition, especially its worship (including the liturgical calendar), has deep roots in two sources:  the Jewish tradition of the time of the apostles and pagan practices throughout the ages.  Christians have a long, long history of adopting and adapting pagan practices.  All Saints' Day is a case in point.  Many northern European cultures had a day at this time of the year (often considered the first day of the new year) when the dead were said to communicate with the living.  Christians' ongoing relationship with the dead (what we call the communion of saints) meant that it naturally gravitated toward these celebrations even if it could not adopt all of the practices associated with it.  Voila, All Saints Day.

Dressing up in costumes is fun.  Of course, we want to avoid costumes that are racist, or that promote violence.  Those are contrary to our values.  Halloween is not a day off from upholding the dignity of every human being.

Hallowe'en and All Saints may be a very good time to have a conversation with young people about evil and death, since we do seem to dance around its edges as part of our celebration.  How can that conversation go? Lots of ways, but here are three basic talking points:

  • We participate in evil when we choose to do injustice, choose not to make peace (reconciliation), and when we refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves (and that includes not loving ourselves).
  • We all do these things from time to time and God is always ready to forgive us if we can be honest about what we have done.
  • Jesus came to struggle against evil and death and they appeared to win when he died on the cross.  But he did not stay dead. He came back from the dead to proclaim that evil and death had been defeated once and for all.  Any power they have after he was raised is temporary.

If you have this conversation, you just might get a question about the devil, and even hell. Is there really a devil? Is there a real hell?

Good luck. This is tricky ground.  It is easy just to say "No, we don't believe in these things," but that is too simple an answer.  Here's my answer.

I don't know if there is a real devil.  I do know that there is real evil in the world and that I am often tempted to participate in it.  I also have experienced evil that could not be explained simply by human will (someone choosing to do bad).  We do not know where this evil comes from so sometimes we speak about the devil, or Satan, as its source, giving evil a name and a place (hell).  Whether or there is a Satan or a Hell, we know this:  Jesus has conquered them.  At Easter we sing about Jesus smashing the gates of hell so that no one has to stay there any longer.

There are lots of things in this world to be afraid of, lots and lots and lots and lots. And it is OK to be afraid of them.  But they cannot take you away from God. When you were baptized, the priest put oil on your head, made the sign of the cross and said, "Nicole, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever."  You are chosen by God. You are a saint. Nothing can change that, that's how strong God's love is.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mutual Obedience: Listening to Love

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost:  Matthew 22:34-46

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

            I’ve never been sure just what the test was.  There was only one answer Jesus could have given, only one thing he would have said.  He said what, as a Jewish man, was on his lips at least twice a day.  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (JPS translation).

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

            It was and is called the Shema, from the first word in Hebrew translated “hear” or “listen.”  Over the centuries it became the beating heart of Judaism.  It is what is written on a tiny scroll inside the mezuzah on Jewish doorways and in the tefillin, boxes held in the hand and worn on the forehead during morning and evening prayers.  If Jews have anything like a creed, this is it.

            There is nothing else Jesus could have said.  It was as natural to him as breathing.  Perhaps the lawyer was testing to see how far Jesus would stray from the tradition.  He did not stray an inch, well, maybe an inch, because he did two things to the Shema.

            First of all he changed a word.  Deuteronomy 6:5 says that you shall love God with all your heart, soul, and might.  Jesus says

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

            Scholars do not seem to make a big deal about this change.  I think it’s huge.  Love God with your mind!  What a concept. God does not want me to turn off my brain in order to love him, God wants me to turn it on.

            And then Jesus does another thing.  He couples the Shema with something that had never (so far as we know) been coupled with it before.  He said,

And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

            That is Leviticus 19:18.  Jesus equates the two, and in doing so, turns the worship of the One God on its head.  You cannot be said to love God without loving your neighbor.  Justice and spirituality are inseparably linked by Jesus here.  Many of his followers, right up to this day, have sought to tear them back apart.

            But Jesus said, “Be devoted to God and be devoted to your neighbor.”  Everything else has to be understood in the light of this double love.

            But what does it mean?  What does it mean to love God? What does it mean to love neighbor?  The Benedictine monastic tradition has an answer that reaches back to the beginning of the Shema.  Shema!” “Hear!” “Listen!”

            The Rule of St. Benedict in fact begins with this word.

Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them the ear of your heart.[1]

That’s a lovely metaphor, “the ear of your heart.”  Benedict goes on

This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God…

            Obedience is not our favorite word, but it is, perhaps, the fundamental vow of monastics.  For us, “obedience” tends to mean doing what you are told, and we do not always like to be told what to do.  I include myself in that we, ask any bishop I have served with.

            But to monastics, “obedience” means something different.  Obedience is fundamentally the commitment to listen.  And that is literally what the word means.  The root Latin word of the English word “obey” is “audire,” to hear, or to listen.

            For monastics this obedience is due not only to whomever is in authority over them, it is also due one another.  Benedict writes in chapter 71 of his rule:

Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the prioress or the abbot, but also to one another, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.[2]

Benedict entitles this chapter “mutual obedience.”

            I have found over twenty-one years of preparing couples for marriage that the most important skill I need to check on and help with is listening.  Virtually all of these couples thought as they were preparing for “the big day” that their love would last for ever.  It will not, I tell them, if you do not very intentionally listen to each other.

            Listening, as Benedict and Jesus have shown us, is a fundamental building block of love, which is what I think Benedict would say mutual obedience is.  Mutual obedience is love.

            We are entering a few weeks of listening, and I hope that in doing so, our love for one another will increase.  Members of the Vestry are visiting members of the parish.  Their primary purpose is to listen. They will have questions, but ultimately even they are not all that important.  They are there to listen.

            Now all of us have trouble listening, especially in this day and age when we are surrounded by noise and stimulation and hurrying.  To listen you have to be quiet, you have to be focused, and you have to be patient.  All these Vestry members will not get listening right all the time.  Feel free gently to coax them back on the path.

            We are also entering a conversation about worship. There will be sessions next weekend and again on November 13.  We are going to exercise the discipline of listening in those sessions.  We are going to practice what Benedict calls mutual obedience.

            It may very well be that both in the Vestry visits and our Worship Conversations, that some hard things will need to be said.  That’s perfectly fine.  We cannot claim that we have re-established Eden here at 17 South Fitzhugh Street.  But as there is an obedience in listening there is also an obedience in telling.  We must remember that we are speaking to the ear of someone’s heart.  I can disagree with something that is going on. I can even be downright unhappy about.  But I need to voice that disagreement in a way that can be heard, which means I don’t get to set aside compassion just because I am unhappy.

            Here's the starting point:  We all love God. We have different ways of expressing it, although our common way is this Eucharist.  I believe we all love this community as well, and want what is best for it.  Let us over the next month listen to one another, let us be mutually obedient to one another, let us love one another, as we are loved by our good God.

[1] From the translation of Sister Joan Chittester, O.S.B. in The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages (Crossroad, 1992), p. 19.
[2] Ibid., p. 176.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Carpe diem octavum

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Philippians 3:4b-14

            Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of our ministry together. Today I begin my eighth year as your rector.
            As I was thinking about this particular anniversary it came to me that this is a particularly important one.  In the Bible, seven is an important number, beginning with the seven days of creation.  After that almost any time the number seven appears in the Bible something about God’s continuing creativity is going on.  God is doing something in order that something new or astonishing can happen.

            Some examples:  In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are seven days to the feast of Passover, and the Year of Jubilee—the forgiveness of debts and return of land—is seven times seven years.  In the New Testament, seven basketfuls of food are gathered after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the first deacons number seven, and the Book of Revelation is full of sevens.

            As Christianity develops, there are seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, and seven joys and sorrows of Mary.

            More important to me is not so much these sevens, but what happens next: eight.  Eight is not an important biblical number, except in that Jewish males are circumcised on the eighth day of their birth.

            But the number eight does come up in the writings of several of the early church fathers.  Christian worship—the celebration of the Eucharist—gradually moves from Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the seventh day, to Sunday, the day of the resurrection, or, as it came to be called, the Lord’s Day.

            Sunday is the first day of the week, of course, but that is not what these early writers called it.  They called the Lord’s Day, “the Eighth Day.”  They said, for one, that the first day was the day of creation. The eighth day was the day of the new creation.  The eighth day was when things really began. The eighth day, if you will, was the first day of the rest of your life.

            Think of it in terms of circumcision on the eighth day. A Jewish male is not given a name until that day (we call the remembrance of Jesus’ circumcision, “Holy Name Day”).  On the eighth day, a Jewish male’s identity is sealed, both as a Jew and as an individual.

            OK, so this fits into some thinking I have long had.  For the last thirty years, the average length of service for a rector has gradually been decreasing.  It is now a little under seven years.  I was in my first parish twice that long and I have become an advocate (with many others) for the return of longer tenures, perhaps not the 40+ years of Dr. Winnie at St. Luke’s, but certainly more than seven years.

            I think it takes seven years for a priest and congregation to really come to know each other well, to trust and love each other, establish a corporate identity, and truly be ready to take on some hard stuff.

            If I am right, then we are at that place.  In some ways we are now ready to do the work we are being called to do.

            Which is not to say that we have not been working hard together. We have.  But really tackling the hard stuff, messing with the potential of a real reshaping of this parish for the future?  We’ve talked about it; we’ve glimpsed it; we’ve done some good preliminary work, but we have a long way to go.

            So I am here to say to you today, let us seize the eighth day.  Carpe diem octavum!

            Or, in the words of Paul this morning from Philippians, in my paraphrase, “Let us press on to make the power of the resurrection our own, because we live in the confidence of who we are, brought together and sealed in relationship by Christ himself.”

            Or, in the words of an old folk song that became an anthem of the civil rights movement, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”

            Carpe diem octavum!  Let us seize the eighth day! Let us press on! Keep your eyes on the prize!

            After seven years I still cannot tell you exactly where we are going. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the last seven years trying to figure that out, but I have pretty much decided that is not my job.  That is something we must discern together, with the confidence that God is our companion.

            There are four things right now of which I am sure.

            First of all, I am sure that our mission statement holds true as a statement of who we are and what our values are.

Together, as people of God, in companionship with Jesus, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be…A healing place for souls…A school for justice…And a welcome table for all.

            Second, I remain convinced that the way we express these values together is in sacrificial acts of hospitality, generosity, and compassion.  Hospitality is still Job One.  And what is another word for “hospitality? Justice.

            Those two things are work we have done and must continue to do.  Now here are three things for the eighth day. 

            First, I am going to get personally involved with children and youth ministry here.  I want to play a more active role in the spiritual lives of our young people.  I will need help and I ask you to ask yourself, how can I help make this a better place for our children and youth?  Let me know the answer!  My first step: I have invited young person in sixth grade or up to supper at my house for some fun, getting to know each other and dreaming.

            Second, I am going to convene a conversation about our worship. It is time to do some evaluation and to ponder ideas of what works and what doesn’t work with young people (here I’m talking twenty and thirty somethings) in other settings.  I hope as part of this conversation we will talk about this space and the challenges it brings us.  I  will be producing a resource for the conversation which will be in your hands by October 16th, and which will include dates and times for the conversation—there will probably be several opportunities to try to catch as many people as possible.

            Third, your Stewardship Committee and Vestry have decided to do an “Every Member Visit” as part of our stewardship emphasis this fall.  Each of you will be offered a visit by a Vestry member and a partner.  The primary purpose of the visit is relationship building, and giving each member of the congregation an opportunity to have a “one on one” conversation with a member of the Vestry. 

            We hope those conversations will be hopeful ones.  “How do we continue to move into a thriving future?”  The conversation will not be primarily about money unless you want it to be.  You will be given a pledge card, and you will be invited by the Vestry member to join him or her in sacrificial generosity to the parish.  You will not be asked to hold out your arm for a proper twisting.

            As we have begun to plan for this Every Member Visit, and as I worked on this sermon this week, I found myself renewing the excitement with which I came here seven years ago.  I opened my first sermon to you from 2004. It wasn’t half bad!  Here’s the last sentence:

In all that we do in the months and years ahead, let us remember Jesus Christ raised from the dead, let us give thanks to God for God is good, and let us build, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a community of love and hope which is good news to and for the world.

            I think we have been doing that, with fits and starts, joys and sorrows, good decisions and bad ones, the arrival of some very fine people and the departure of others.  We have not been perfect, but we have, for the most part, been faithful.

            A thriving community of love and hope still lies in our vision.  In seven years we have built a relationship that is strong. Now let us seize the eighth day, the day of new creation, new identity and renewed purpose. Let us press on and keep our eyes on the prize!  Carpe diem octavum!

Sunday, October 2, 2011