Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This Strange Intrusion

Sermon preached on St. Thomas' Day, December 21, 2013, at a Eucharist giving thanks for fifty year anniversary of the ordination to the priesthood of The Rev. Peter W. Peters.  Habakkuk 2:1-4, John 20:24-29

            It is as if back in the dim recesses of liturgical history where mere mortals fear to tread, someone decided that Christmas needed not to be so happy.  So this person
The Very Rev. Michael Hopkins, The Rev. Dr. Peter Peters, The Rev. Canon Julie Cicora
surrounded the great feast of the Babe of Bethlehem with doubt, martyrdom, exile, and the murder of innocent children.  Merry Christmas!
            St. Thomas’ Day is a strange intrusion into our last preparations for Christmas.  But, of course, we should immediately recognize the work of God here.  This strange intrusion has God’s fingerprints all over it.  And the birth we are about to celebrate, as sweet as it is, is it not the feast of the strangest intruder of all?
            In a well-known and dare I say well-loved passage, the prophet Habakkuk speaks for God:  “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time…”  The prophet is somewhat cagey about just what this vision is.  He rails against injustice.  “The very stones will cry out from the wall…” against it, he says.  At length he ridicules idolatry.  “Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’”
            At the end of chapter two Habakkuk gives us all that he is going to give.
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him!
            That the vision may need to be an urging for us to shut up and listen is itself a strange intrusion.  We are all about words.  Words, words, words, and these days in our prayers it seems the wordier the better.  Yet the vision is that our first impulse is to become silence.  Good luck with that, and I do not mean just our hero for the evening, Peter.  It is a message for all of us, this preacher included.
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him!
            Of all people—since he wrote a lot of words—John Calvin seemed to know this.  He at least knows there is a limit to intelligence and the words it produces.  He once wrote, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than our own intelligence.”[1]  I certainly do not think that is an anti-intellectual remark, but our intelligence, Calvin is saying, always needs to be checked before God.  We must learn to listen as eloquently as we speak.
            Perhaps this was Thomas’ problem.  Poor old Thomas and the label “doubter” he carries about.  It should not be lost on us that his doubt leads to faith.  Doubt is not the same thing as rejection, it is more akin to curiosity.  It is one step on a journey.  It can be, of course, and often is, participating in the idolatry of our own intelligence.  In the midst of it we need, like Thomas got, a strange intrusion that strikes us “dumb” (pun intended), again like Thomas, who blurts out a few words but then is smart enough—or perhaps dumb enough—to keep quiet.
            It is, perhaps, easy to rib our friend and colleague Peter for a reliance on intelligence and words.  And I think he would be the first to tell you (although I guess I actually am) that one of the gifts of 50 years of priesthood has been that words are not always the best response, especially if you want grace to get in the door.
            And Peter is about grace.  It is his theological heart, as it was Calvin’s, and, in the end, Thomas’.  Grace may just be the word we use for the act of strange intrusion God makes into our lives, offered freely to us by Jesus and sealed forever by the Holy Spirit.  Grace is, indeed a strange thing, and an intrusive thing, when, in a world of competition and status and the idolatry of the self-made person, unmerited and unearned love arrives at our feet as a gift.  When the simple words, “You are loved,” are spoken, and our impulse is to say, “but…”  And the finger of grace appears at God’s lips and delivers Habakkuk’s vision, “The Lord is in his holy temple.  Just be quiet.”  Any protest you or anybody else wants to make about your unworthiness disappears into the silence, until the vision actually does become plain.
            Peter you have shared this vision with us, and for that we are grateful, to God and to you.  And we are grateful that we have been able to share it with you.  You know well one of the great realities of priesthood, that we who are ordained need our doubt encouraged into faith as much as anyone.  The significant impact between us has been mutual and the strange intruder has been in the midst of it all the time.
            I know that talk of the special grace of ordination is pushing your low church convictions just a bit, but, hey, you asked me to preach, and I have never pretended to have anything other than a catholic heart.  But the special grace of ordination is not about the faculty to bless or consecrate or the authority to preside and absolve, the special grace of ordination is much stranger and intrusive than that.  I have never found a better description of it than in, of all places, the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  The old woman is reflecting on color, the pain of it and the glory of it, and she eventually lands on the mystery of the prism and the rainbow of color it mysteriously produces.  And she says this most extraordinary thing.
The deeds and sufferings of light make colors.  By the time sunlight reaches us, it is beautiful old news.  We get tanned, healed, fed by the sun’s own long spent ricochet history.[2]
            We are privileged to be stewards of this “beautiful old news” which is the mercy, grace and freely given love of Jesus, that strange intrusion into our lives that call us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, and, yes, sometimes stand silently, with God.  It is a life fraught with perplexity, peril and pain, and it is tempting nearly every day to doubt its reality or simply wish it away.  But it is the long spent ricochet history of “justice and peace for all people” and “the dignity of every human being” that we cannot let go of because it will not let go of us.
            Thank you, Peter, for being our fellow traveler with this strange intruder.

[1] I found this quote on the Internet, but have been unable to trace its exact origin.
[2] Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989), p. 274.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Monday in Advent 2: The ways untrod

There's a voice in the wilderness crying, a call from the ways untrod... (The Hymnal 1982 #75)

The beginning of this hymn gives me a different perspective on the "wilderness," an important biblical image.  Usually we think of the wilderness as the wild place, the threatening and dangerous place.  "The ways untrod" say something different to me.  This is wilderness as the unexplored place, and not just any unexplored place, but the place to which we are being called, the place that needs our exploration.

Of course, the unexplored place may indeed by wild, threatening and dangerous, but not necessarily.  It is certainly the risky place, because it is always the place where our status quo is challenged and re-formed.  Go into the wilderness, physical or spiritual, and you will not be the same.

What is unexplored for you?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Saturday in Advent 1: Justice

O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and  love, delivered from our selfish schemes.
May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release,
till by God's grace our warring world shall see Christ's promised reign of peace.
(Hymnal 1982 #597)

This is not a hymn found in the Advent section of our hymnal but it certainly could be.  I suspect the compilers of the hymnal did not want its use confined to Advent.  Yet it does express Advent longing.

The text reminds us of our call to work for social justice.  Not all agree that the church should be about this business, because there is no way to do so and not wade into politics.At our Diocesan Convention last month, a resolution from the Public Policy Committee of the Diocese questioning the use of the Common Core curriculum (the subject of a forum at Two Saints on December 15) passed easily, but not before someone suggested we had to vote no because of the separation of church and state.  That is a misunderstanding of not only the Constitution but also the Bible.

Social Justice is the Christian's business and the Church's business.  So, of course, is the personal growth of each one of us in our relationship with God.  They are not mutually exclusive.  I'll quote these words from Walter Brueggemann's book Peace tomorrow:

[God's dream] is concerned not only with joy but also with justice, not only with love but also with equality, not only with happy persons but also with nurtured environment.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Monday in Advent 1: Lo he comes

Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. (Hymnal 1982 #66)

[This Advent I am going to reflect most days on my favorite part of the season:  the music.  Advent hymns are plenty. In the Hymnal 1982 alone there are 24,and for only a four week season!]

Advent begins with talk of Jesus' second coming, judg
ment, and the vision of the reign of God in justice and in peace.  After 2,000 years, one might think that the promise of Jesus' return might have worn thin, and perhaps it has for some, or even many.  But, as in many things in life, it may be more about the journey than the destination.  And maybe that is why we keep singing these songs.  They are songs of longing and expectation, the deep desire for the Dream of God.  It is the longing that matters, to be free and at peace.  Advent reminds us of this longing, invites us to revive it.  It seeks also to stir us up into action, action that brings freedom from fear and sin, and the peace of which  the angels sang in Bethlehem.