keep your accounts in order

Homily for Sept. 17, 2017

The news from Florida and Texas is heartbreaking, and yet we can see goodness there.  We have seen in the past weeks acts of selfless care for people in need, where it simply didn’t matter to anyone who was doing the saving and who was being saved. We learned that when a storm hits Texans show up with pickup trucks and Cajuns show up in boats, and together pull everyone from the water they can find. When Irma bore down on Florida, homes up and down the eastern seaboard were opened for Floridians to seek shelter. We have remembered that we are our brother’s keeper.

To be a Christian, though, means that we don’t wait until a natural disaster to show this kind of self-giving care for our neighbors. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves, knowing that one member of the body is cannot thrive if another is diminished. In this, we are profoundly accountable to one another.

The Christian life is characterized by a radical accountability – to one another in the church, and to God.  Even before we call it radical, accountability is a powerful concept when we really think about it. It means that our accounts must be in proper order.  We must pay what we owe. We must not take out loans that we know we can never pay. We must pay workers what they earn.  That’s accountability. But as followers of Jesus, we go further. We live lives of radical accountability. Through forgiveness and humility and love, we learn instead to unburden ourselves of our worldly accounts – our list of things owed to us and things we owe to others – so that we can be free to love.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of the line from the Lord’s Prayer: Give us this day our daily bread.  There’s a lot of meaning in there. May we have enough to eat, and trust God that will provide our needs. May we have the bread of life – bread of the Word, through study and prayer and worship – so that our hearts may be nourished. But when I think about our accountability to one another, this phrase takes on new meaning. Give us this day our daily bread.

Trusting God to give us our daily bread today means living profoundly in the present, and not relying on all those little accounts that we know will be there for us tomorrow. Relying on daily bread given by God means that we aren’t thinking about that stockpile of favors, or leverage, or even the wealth that we hold onto to make sure we can get what we need…tomorrow.

We are free to taste the goodness of daily bread when we’ve spent our lives leading up to this day practicing radical accountability. When we’ve cultivated forgiveness, when we’ve learned that holding a note over someone else – and though I’m using money as a metaphor here, we all know what it’s like to have something lorded over us – we’ve learned that holding an account where we are owed something gives us a false sense of security for tomorrow while robbing us of our daily bread, today. Give us this day our daily bread envisions living each day with our accounts in proper order.

The meaning of daily bread is deepened by the next line: Forgive us our sin, as we forgive sins. Or trespasses, if you want to speak King James English, or debts, if you want to be Presbyterian for a day. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. I may like the Presbyterian interpretation more than our own, because it gets at this idea of radical accountability.  God forgives our debts, and we refuse to hold onto debts owed to us, because we know that a web of indebtedness puts daily bread out of reach.

Forgiveness is what makes this possible. We see in the parable of the wicked slave that God models the perfect forgiveness that allows us to properly settle our accounts.  The slave owes his King a sum of money, but when he cannot pay it, he falls on his knees and begs mercy. And the King forgives him the debt: radical accountability means being ready to wipe the slate clean. Not one time, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. An absurd and audacious number of times. The Kingdom of God has the best banks ever, and none of them are solvent.  And yet they hold a treasure far richer than 10 thousand talents.

We all need forgiveness. We’ve done things that hang heavy on our hearts. We’ve said things that we cannot un-say.  We’ve even thought things that haven’t yet reach the surface of awareness, where we could see them for the hurtful things that they are. We need forgiveness, and that is exactly what God gives us.

And when we are the ones doing the forgiving, we too gain our freedom. Forgiveness means we don’t get to hold on to that thing that is eating away at our relationship, we let it go. Seventy times, we let it go. We let it go for us, and we let it go to share the gift that God has given us.

That doesn’t mean that we let ourselves get hurt repeatedly, or suffer abuse. Forgiveness means though that we don’t let our hearts become trapped in someone else’s dark jail cell. Forgiveness is about freedom, and it’s is one of God’s greatest gifts of empowerment.

Of course, the slave is forgiven, but what does he do? He then turns to someone who owes him money and demands payment. He’d been given the good news of total forgiveness, then slinked around to open a new account.

The Christian life calls for a radical accountability to God, and to one another. As God forgives us, we must forgive one another. You all know what a chit is, right?  It’s a little note, a voucher, that records a sum owed.  We don’t want to hold on to these, but if we are honest with ourselves, do we stockpile them?  But those are nothing more than debts that haven’t been forgiven, and they will stand in the way of daily bread.  Trust me…you don’t want that chit!

This is not just about forgiveness, though. Radical accountability means living in faithful community without holding any sense of power over one another. This means we don’t get to lord anything over anyone, for the simple reason that there is only one Lord.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he notes that there are some believers who are vegetarian, and they believe this is essential to the faith. Well, are they right? And if they are, are they better Christians? And if they’re wrong, are worse? (Paul uses the words strong and weak here).

Some of these folks feel that certain practices are essential to being a follower of Jesus. But while Paul suggests that they are a bit mistaken, there’s a much deeper point to be made. He suggests that those who rely on practices are weak in faith, and that those who aren’t worried about that stuff are strong in the faith. Yet this isn’t a value judgment: those practices are sacred if done to honor Jesus, even if they aren’t necessary.

But that’s not the point. The point in Paul’s eyes is a sense of welcome that brings us back to radical accountability. Sure, he says, there are those who are strong in the faith and those who are weak. Yet, he says, the strong must welcome the weak, and the weak must welcome the strong, for God has welcomed all of us. Do you see it? Nothing is lorded over another, because there is one lord. There are no imbalances, no chits, and no judgment of the fact that we’re all on different stages of our walk with Jesus, and that that walk will take different forms. All of it is part of the Body of Christ, for we are all one in Jesus.

Since we’re talking about stewardship this month, I also see our financial giving as a part of this same radical accountability. We give not simply because we know there’s a need; we give because it allows us to experience the daily bread of God’s presence. Giving – and as Christians we are called to give a meaningful proportion of what we have – helps put our accounts in order. It means that our accounts follow our accountability, because it means structuring our whole lives around the love of God and our fidelity to our brothers and sisters.

Give us this day our daily bread.  Good accounting means keeping good track of our ledgers. But radical accountability means something so much more: it means letting the forgiveness and grace of God shape our lives so that we can truly settle all our accounts. When we hold onto a stack of chits, of things owed and things we owe, we become mired in the past and fixated on getting paid back tomorrow.  But neither gives us a taste of the living God. Our daily bread is here today, and we are as free as we wish to be to let it nourish us.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19 St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

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the big money question

Homily for September 10, 2017

It’s remarkable how often values that are not our own can creep their way in, to such an extent that what we come to regard them as sacrosanct even though they may be contrary to who we actually are. This happens when we set aside what Jesus tells us is truly valuable and instead let the world determine what’s important.  So, I thought I’d start this morning with a return to some of those core values, and to do so by sharing my job description with you.

Well, it’s not my whole job description but it is the part about Christian stewardship. This is from our Constitutions and Canons:

It shall be the duty of Rectors or Priests-in-Charge to ensure that all persons in their charge are instructed concerning Christian stewardship, including:

(i) reverence for the creation and the right use of God’s gifts;

(ii) generous and consistent offering of time, talent, and treasure for the mission and ministry of the Church at home and abroad;

(iii) the biblical standard of the tithe for financial stewardship; and

(iv) the responsibility of all persons to make a will as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer.[i]

Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it?  Even though we’re not going to get to all that today, I wanted you to hear how many layers there are to Christian stewardship: caring for the environment, giving of our time and money, the biblical standard of the tithe, and the responsibility of everyone to prepare a will.  Yes, all this is about money and about caring for the church that we love, but at its heart each one of these is about how we care for our world and for one another. It’s about the care of our souls.

Now, over time we rectors have interpreted this charge rather…narrowly… sticking to the letter of the law and mentioning money…once, maybe twice a year, but not much beyond that. It just wouldn’t be…polite. But Jesus has something to say about money that is not polite: we must talk about it, because when left hidden money stands in the way of our relationship with God.

Yet how often will each of us hear the exact opposite, the messages instead that the world wants us to hear about wealth and consumption? Once, maybe twice, maybe six times in a given commercial break.  Once, maybe twice, maybe six times when we check our status on social media. Once, maybe twice, maybe 100 times a day when we worry about how much money we have today and how much we will have tomorrow.

But that’s not what Jesus taught us. No, Jesus seized upon every opportunity he could to talk about money. Jesus talked about money more than anything else other than the Kingdom of God. He did this because he knew two things about it. One, he knew that when money holds power over us, we remain enslaved to it. Yet he also knew that in opening our hearts around money, and even healing our relationship with it by giving it away, we would find a path to discipleship.

Stories of discipleship always have two components to them. There is a leaving, and a following. Each of Jesus’ disciples had something they had to walk away from in order to follow him.  Peter, Andrew, James and John all left their fishing nets to follow Jesus.[ii] Francis and Nicholas were both fabulously wealthy young men who left their riches – Francis literally stripping his sumptuous clothes in the sight of his family – to follow their Lord.

We, too, must leave something in order to be disciples. If we’re to follow Jesus, we have to be ready to leave something that seems, well, unleavable.

A wealthy young man asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Though we might be tempted to interpret that question simply as “how do make it to heaven” I believe that a more wholehearted reading of this would be something more like: “Teacher, how can I have this change of heart?”

When Jesus answers, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me, the young man is heartbroken. Eternal life sounds great, but he can’t imagine that the eternal is now. He thinks he wants to follow, but he cannot leave what holds him at the starting line, what keeps him stuck.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that his heart brings him to Jesus, but then his wallet holds him back. “It is touching,” says Charles R. Lane, “because Jesus obviously want him to be a disciple.” [iii] Yet his wealth told him something different: it told him that without money, he was nothing. And he listened.

And in our world, we listen. The subtext here is that the wealthier we are, the harder it is to follow Jesus. St. Basil wrote in the 4th century that the more money we have, the harder it is to love our neighbor.[iv]  We are the wealthiest society in human history, and yet we think that we have got faith and money in proper balance.

But think for a moment how many wealth-and consumption messages we expect, allow, permit in a given year. Literally thousands upon thousands. How many generosity and stewardship messages do we tolerate in that same year? One, maybe two. We do not have money in faith in proper balance, because we cannot serve God and wealth. Once we get into the game of figuring out how much of what we have is God’s and how much we can hold on to, we’ve already serving two masters.

And so stewardship has come to feel like an annual reminder to set some aside for God, rather than a celebration of all that God gives us and all the ways that we can respond. But I love talking about generosity, because it means reflecting on all that God does for us, and all the ways that we get to say thanks.

We’ve come to think that talking about money is about encouraging sacrificial giving. In a way, sure, that’s what it is and as a matter if fact that kind of giving is good for us. But far more important is this: I want you to think about this a transformational giving. Transformational giving means leaving something that anchors us in a self-centered world, and instead following Jesus.

So…let’s talk turkey. How much should you give?  Not, how much does the church need…that’s a question for another day. Today, this month, is all about you. The goal of our stewardship ministry has nothing to do with budgets and targeted goals, because we believe that this is about one thing: discipleship. Following Jesus.[v] So, what is the right amount to help you grow in your relationship with God?

That number is going to be different for every person, for every household, but scripture and tradition teach us that the number should be a meaningful proportion of our income, and grow over time. My first pledge when I was younger was about 4 or 5%.  Jo and I have grown over the years to reach the tithe of 10%.  We give that, off the top, because we know that everything we have is God’s, and that frankly it gives us great joy.

Of course, many are at a different place in their journey, and that’s ok. The point is to begin, and to grow, and to come to see all things as God’s. The question is not, how do I give sacrificially, but rather, how do I give transformationally?

To me, the big money question is this: what level of giving will help you make a meaningful break with the priorities of the world, and allow you to truly follow Jesus?

And yet, despite all this talk about money, Jesus doesn’t want your money. Jesus wants your heart.   He just knows that for most of us, our hearts are weighed down with our treasure, and that nothing breaks that spell like giving it away. When we give, we become generative:  The money we offer is just the beginning of what we then have to give. What starts with our financial giving becomes a snowball of generosity and grace that finds its way into every corner of our lives, and into the world around us.

The next two weeks are an important time in our life as a church. We will come together in five community gatherings to celebrate the church and God’s gifts to us. No one will be asked for money, but it will be an important moment to build our church through fellowship and give thanks for what we have been given.  I want you to pick one and attend it, but most importantly I want you to pray for St. Andrew’s. Not for money, or that we raise a certain amount. Rather, I want these gatherings to be animated by the prayers of the whole church, and I invite you to pray that our hearts will be transformed by a call to generous thanksgiving.

May we continue to give thanks, and may we grow not just in generous giving, or even in sacrificial giving, but in transformational giving.

 

Homily for September 10, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14 (& Matthew 9:16-22), St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] Canon III.9.6(b)

[ii] Lane, Charles R. Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation.   Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006. P. 38

[iii] Ibid p. 38

[iv] http://alexis-florides.blogspot.com/2015/05/st-basil-on-wealth-and-social-justice.html

[v] This thought, and much of this homily, is drawn from the work of Charles R. Lane in Ask, Thank, Tell.  I recommend it to all pastors and those leading stewardship ministry. He often uses the phrase “The Goal of our stewardship ministry is to help God’s people grow in their relationship with Jesus through the use of the time, talents, and finances God has entrusted to them.”

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new pathways of spirit and life

vehomily for August 27, 2017

A newborn baby’s brain is an incredible thing. When our first child was born, we were amazed to learn that in her first two years she would form more neural pathways than she would for the rest of her life.

That was great news, until I thought about what happens to our brains for every year after that.  It was sobering to think that even then – I was 34 at the time – my brain was already on the downward slide. Sure, wisdom might be gained through age and experience, but the brain as an organ more or less peaked at an early age.

I’ve learned since that the scientific community has shifted somewhat, and the concept of neuroplasticity has emerged: the idea that the brain really does (to some extent) renew and strengthen in certain ways as we age, if we are willing to put in the work and even take care of ourselves a bit. Sure, it’s a lot easier to learn a foreign language or a musical instrument when we are children, but it’s not impossible (even for older adults) and doing so will in fact make our minds more resilient and more adaptable. Sure, we might be set in our ways of seeing the world, but once we realize that that’s simply a choice that we make, we see that we really can be open to new things…and that it’s not actually all that hard!

I’m oversimplifying here, but the idea of neuroplasticity means that our minds are not as made up as we think, and that the spiritual growth that’s at the heart of our faith has a God-given biological component to it: we really can grow and renew, and we are in fact hard-wired to do it. It seems to me that Paul, two thousand years ago, would have been very comfortable with this idea. In fact, I get the impression from today’s lection that our growth in Christ absolutely depends upon it.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.  What a curious contrast Paul draws here, between being conformed to the world around us, and being in a lifelong process of renewal so that we can be open to the wildness of the Holy Spirit.

Our world is filled with temptations away from God, little seductions that convince us that we are at the center of things, that we have everything figured out. Our lives are filled with distractions that hide from our eyes both the injustices of the world and the sublime joys that are at the heart of a life centered on Christ. Yet so we often choose to conform to these things (which when you think about it means taking a boundless spirit and cramming it into a lifeless mold), rather than choose a life of renewal.

A life of conformity is kind of a deformed thing, isn’t? Our souls are form-less, shaped far more by mystery than by convention. A life of conformity is incredibly static. It’s passive at best, and reactive at worst. But perhaps the saddest part living our lives conformed to things that are not of God is that it represents the willing surrender of our freedom and dignity to something that is not holy, not life-giving, not rooted in God’s generous spirit.

Yet as passive as conformity can be, the renewal of our minds is the exact opposite: it is an active and lively process, it is a fearless, open-hearted willingness to admit that we don’t know it all, and that we are ready to go where God might take us. Do we face an uncertain future? Great, because we trust that God is with us, and we know that certainty is an illusion anyway. Will we have to abandon some things we cherish?  Well, we can handle that, because we know that renewal means discovering that some things don’t give life like they once did. Will we land in unfamiliar territory? Well, that’s the best kind, because that’s the only place where we grow.

Yet we must remain vigilant, because the temptations back to conformity are pretty much everywhere. Frank Crouch writes,

In the U.S., we live in a culture that inundates us with advertising designed to keep us conformed to this world. The marketing/media industry spends billions of dollars annually to flood televisions, websites, billboards, email, regular mail. They intrude even onto the gas pump screen… They seek to define us essentially as consumers, individual economic units existing for the sake of larger market shares. In addition, each day our families, friends, organizations, religions, political parties, and society at large pressure us to fit in, to stay within the boundaries of tradition, custom, or practice that mark who we’re “supposed” to be.[i]

But what we buy and how we vote is just the surface. The true dangers of conformity lay deeper, where we let our hearts take on the shape of the things of this world rather than the mystery of God. We distort ourselves to fit in to boxes that are fearful, greedy, tribal, or just plain selfish. Where we feel no need to go deeper, to renew our minds, or even grow in faith. To conform is to wrap ourselves around a collective certainty, which is to warp ourselves around it. To conform to the world is a subtle act of violence against our own souls. Conformity to the world, in Paul’s eyes, was a form of death, for it means anchoring our great spirits on lifeless things.

And yet, there is good news here! But before I get to Paul’s good news, let me remind you the good news that the medical community has for us all: these big ol’ brains of ours, the vessels for the minds that God has given us, are only done growing if that’s what we want out of life. If you prefer to be convinced that you are fully formed, fully cooked, have it all figured out and are in need of no more upgrades, great, we’re happy for you, we wish you the very best. But that doesn’t seem to be the way that God designed us. Paul had that figured out, and saw that following Jesus meant a living engagement with God, a life of renewal which by its very nature meant that faith was lively, dynamic, and ever-new.

It’s humbling to realize that we are not as fully formed as we thought we were. Yet that is where we must begin, for while certainty feels good for a while, it is a form of death, and we are all about life. To approach God we must have a beginner’s mind, eternally open to what God wants to show us while comfortable with knowing that we don’t know. The neural pathways of our brains may slow down after age 2, but new pathways of spirit and faith open to us every day.

Rather than wrapping our souls around the lifeless ways of the world – which in Paul’s day, as in ours, is so often the path of least resistance – Paul envisions discernment and faith as a lively, adventurous engagement with God. Renewal isn’t something we do every few years, or just when things were getting a bit stale. Renewal is our everyday orientation, a wide-awake openness to where God is going to take us today. It means trusting that God is always working in us and through us, and that renewing our minds and our hearts is how we continue to listen.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.  To conform to the world is to give up our great freedom, and to choose to limit something that was never meant to be domesticated. The life of renewal is more courageous than that, it is wild and adventurous, it is at peace with not having it all figured out.

Where there is space for the Holy Spirit to move, there is life for us as well.

 

The Rev. Bernard. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16

[i] Crouch, Frank L. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3375

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to see all things for what they are

Jesus climbs the mountain with Peter and James and John, and is visibly transformed before them. Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive the law…when he returns he is literally glowing, he is shining so much that he must put a veil over himself so that the people don’t freak out.

We might say that that kind of holiness is just fine for Jesus and Moses, but do we really believe that such transformation is possible for the rest of us? Is transfiguration a nice inspirational story, or is it at the heart of what it means to be fully human?

The truth is that God made us for this.  But let’s talk a bit about how we begin to get there. This kind of profound change isn’t only for the saints and the patriarchs. Nor is this simply about suddenly becoming more holy, in some instantaneous moment of divine favor. Transfiguration is a part of becoming fully human, of becoming who God created us to be, of enfolding the mystery of God into our own human, yet sacred, lives.

When Archbishop Rowan Williams addressed a synod of Catholic bishops in 2012 he talked about how contemplation is at the heart of transformation. He said that “contemplation is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics”, and “to put it boldly,” he says, “contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.”[i]

Both Jesus and Moses climbed the holy mountains, and both were changed. Yet both also spent time during these journeys in a state of prayerful contemplation. Moses was silent for days before his first encounter with God, and Jesus upon reaching the height of the mountain began to pray.

These stories cannot be told without silence. Silence is, of course, hard to come by in our world.  I find that deeply troubling. Our souls need time to turn off the noise of our world and to be with God, and indeed to listen to God (who sometimes, if we’re really quiet and really paying attention, might actually tell us something we didn’t already know).  But the key phrase is paying attention. Contemplation trains us to pay attention.

Contemplation means many things, the most obvious one being contemplative practice, meditation and prayer, intentional practices of silence.  But I realize that going off on meditation retreats is not realistic for many of us.  That’s why I think that a good start is simply learning to pay attention, learning to notice and listen for God, finding a disciplined practice that helps you to not to be more like God, but to become more human.  And to recognize the holiness in that.

Contemplation, you see, is the root of meaningful change. And change is the thing we want most but work hardest to prevent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that we don’t really like to change.  What’s more, while we don’t like to change, we really don’t like to see other people change if we ourselves are un-transformed.

If you are courageous enough to step away from the noise of the world even for 10 or 15 minutes a day, I promise that you will meet resistance. You will encounter resistance from the 24-hour-a-day noise machine that demands your attention and your energy.  As you begin to experience this change, you will meet the resistance of friends and family members who haven’t done their own work, and if you change, they’ll fear that they might lose you.  As you undertake a journey of transformation, and this saddens me, you might even meet resistance from your church (if the church itself hasn’t done its own work.) Archbishop Williams said:

What people of all ages recognize in these practices is the possibility, quite simply, of living more humanly – living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment.”[ii]

Unless the church lives in this place, though,

It will run the risk of trying to sustain faith on the basis of an un-transformed set of human habits – with the all too familiar result that the church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions, anxious, busy, competitive and controlling.[iii]

So what is contemplation, exactly? It is certainly meditation and practices of intentional silence. It is time to write or create, if you are so inclined.  It is prayer and study, whether the daily office, forward day by day (which I understand now comes in a new smartphone app), daily scripture readings, or books about the spiritual life. It can be a walk in the park or time in your garden.

Contemplation is ultimately about finding in the generous gift of silence the ability to see, and therefore to live, differently. It’s as much about what we learn to see as it is about how we pray. Rowan Williams reminds us that that “Contemplation is an intrinsic element in this transforming process.  To learn to look at God without regard to my own instant satisfaction, to learn to scrutinize and to relativize the cravings and fantasies that arise in me – this is to allow God to be God, and to allow the prayer of Christ, God’s own revelation to God, to come alive in me.”[iv]

“I discover,” he writes (and this is my favorite part), “how to see other persons and things for what they are in relation to God, not do me.”[v] Who does that? Who lives like that? The answer is, those who have learned to find that powerful still point within, those whose prayer and practice has refined the way they see and love and move about the world. That is what transfiguration look like.

Moses’s time of prayer and silence in the presence of Yahweh resulted in the law: an entirely new way of living as the People of God. Talk about innovation. Yet when he returned, he had to wear that veil. What would it mean for us to reflect that same Glory, and to even do so with the veil off? For the truest expression of our being to radiate both praise and love?  That, too, is the work of contemplation.  Williams writes,

To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts. With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow. And the face we need to show to our world is the face of a humanity in endless growth towards love, a humanity so delighted and engaged by the glory of what we look towards that we are prepared to embark on a journey without end.[vi]

Reduced to stillness and silence, we are at last ready to grow.  We are at last free to love the world that God created, not for what it can do for us, but for the sake of its intrinsic one-ness with God. When we are changed, we are free. This, in the words of St. Paul, is our transfiguration, our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord.[vii]

 

Homily for August 6, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] Williams, Rowan. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Address to the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. October 10, 2012. Paragraph 8. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2645/.

[ii] Ibid., Paragraph 15.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., Paragraph 10.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., Paragraph 6.

[vii]2 Corinthians 3.18, referenced by Archbishop Williams in Paragraph 6.

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rest for your souls

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

For every great summer vacation that we savor for years afterwards, there are probably just as many vacation fails, the ones where everything seemed to go wrong: the cars that break down on the highway, the child who gets the flu on day one of a beach week, the restorative hike through the woods that results in a broken ankle. It’s those vacations that are so restful that all you want to do is get back to work and experience some normal stress for a change.

These remind us that just as “time off” is not the same thing as sabbath, vacation is not the same thing as the deep, restorative rest that we find in God. We need all these things…we need time off and we need vacation, but we also need sabbath, we also need to let go the things that we are carrying, and rest in Jesus.  We need to play, to be like children again, we need to uncover what recreation means. I used to hear recreation as a formal word for leisure, for those things we do when we’re simply not working. But the word of course means re-creation, to create anew, to be filled with the energy and inspiration of new life. That is what happens when we can put down our burdens and find that perfect rest in Jesus.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. You will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

The truth is, we are all carrying burdens. Some of us are carrying terrible burdens, and the worst are the ones we feel we can’t speak of.  Actually, the worst ones are the ones that weigh us down but are so cleverly disguised that we don’t see them for what they are at all. That’s why naming our burdens can be the most powerful agent of healing and grace that we can know.

What weighs on you today?  Is it the suffering of a loved one…or your own struggle with self-destructive behavior?  Is it a toxic work environment, or a stack of unpaid bills?  Is it the sadness of seeing so many suffer needlessly, the grief of loss or loneliness, or simply feelings of unworthiness or shame?

In his writings, Lancelot Andrewes (a 16th-century priest with pretty much the best English name ever) pointed towards the goal of the Christian life as the interiorization of the revealed Christian mystery[i]. He didn’t mean it in the nice frozen-chosen way that we might think. If the mystery of Christ finds its way to the heart of our being, that means we’re going to be more joyful, more effusive in our love for God, more playful, more able, quite frankly, to let it all go come the sabbath day and rest completely in Christ. This is the heart of re-creation.

But we can also think of this beautiful interiorisation of Christ’s love as the perfect and complete release of the burdens we carry. Restfulness in God is the opposite of the weariness that comes from carrying those impossible loads. Some of those things, of course, are external, the systems where you can’t get ahead, the troubled family member, the brokenness of a community.

But many burdens are effective because we’ve internalized them, made them our own, and are working on fooling others into carrying them with us. Those are the feelings of guilt and shame. But those can also be feelings of superiority and judgment – ego and pride are burdens too. As one very tender example, we can look at something like bigotry not just as a sin, but as a burden as well.

But which of these burdens – the ones that are external, the ones that we’ve internalized, the ones I have named and the many burdens that I haven’t – came into the world with us when we were born? The answer I’m looking for here is, none of them. Not a single one.  To quote John Donahue, we don’t come into this great world carrying a whole basket of burdens.[ii] That is the miracle of birth, and one of the reasons we’re so drawn to a child in the first months of her life. Who wouldn’t want to hold a baby and be reminded of the moment when we, too, were without the heaviness and the weariness of our lives?

But we must do some work before we can get to the recreation.  Perhaps the first task is to see the burdens for what they are, and then with an open heart and a critical mind begin to practice a bit of burden management. Think like a gatekeeper. When your cousin drops that little racist joke, when someone says something to hurt you or to bait you, or simply to diminish you, you don’t have to be defensive or judgmental. You can simply realize that that’s someone else’s burden. You can say: that’s yours, I don’t want, you can keep it. I’ll be praying for you.

But when Jesus says, come to me and I will give you rest, he isn’t talking about coming for a day at the spa, either. He says that my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  Easy and light, but you may notice that it is still a yoke, it is still a burden. That’s because this perfect rest and refreshment is a part of discipleship, not just of letting go but of aligning our whole lives with the life and message of Jesus.  Discipleship demands a lot of us, for it means giving our whole selves – all we are, and all we have – to God.

But there’s something very different about that burden, isn’t there?

I think of it as the difference between a burden that is oppressive and grinding, and one that is productive. Imagine a yoke that is so heavy that it destroys the bodies of one animal after the next. That is exploitative, and that’s how we experience so many of the things that weigh us down. We’re not growing, we’re being used up. That’s what a grinding burden looks like, and when we carry enough of those we forget entirely how to rest in God, or how to rest at all. The off switch stops working.

But the field still has to be worked, right? And that’s what I mean by a productive burden, that by carrying Jesus as we go, living by his gentleness and humility, aligning our lives with his love for the world, we’re still working, maybe even harder than before, but our souls are being restored. Our souls rest when the work we do is good, and meaningful, and life-giving. Our souls rest when we know we are with Jesus. This is when we experience re-creation.

Come to me, all you that are weary, and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  We carry terrible burdens. Instead of unloading, we learn to get better at carrying them (or so we think), which means that we just keep adding to the load until we finally collapse under the weight of it all.  That’s when we break down and realize that we need help.

Thank God there’s another way, and it comes not from figuring it all out but in simply coming to Jesus, resting there with him, and reimagining the work of our lives. That’s when we see just how much our souls need rest. Our souls need the rest and restoration that comes from reconnecting to God.  We find that rest that in Jesus, in humility and gentleness, in the prayerful (and playful) work of re-creation.

Homily for July 9, 2017, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Year A, Proper 9, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] A.M. Allchin, Anglican Spirituality, Stephen Sykes, John Booty & Jonathan Knight, Eds., The Study of Anglicanism, (London: Fortress Press, 1988). 355.

[ii] O’Donohue, The Invisible World: Wisdom from the Celtic World. Audiobook, published by Sounds True. Chapter 3.

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