preparing the church for baptism

Veni Sancte Spiritus is often sung at liturgies of ordination, though it can be sung at other times and certainly isn’t out of place at a baptism.  When Bishop Rodman was ordained and consecrated this summer, bishops sang Veni Sancte Spiritus as they gathered around and laid hands on him, praying together to invite the Holy Spirit to move through them all, and to make Sam a bishop.  So, too, when the freshest priests in the diocese were ordained in the week before Christmas, dozens of us gathered around them, and as Bishop Sam laid his hands on their heads we sang Veni Sancte Spiritus and prayed for the Holy Spirit to bestow upon them the gift of ordination to the priesthood.

I’m trying to describe a special kind of prayer that is a part of a special kind of spiritual gift. It isn’t magic. It isn’t “The Force” (which is very much on my mind, as my children and my family have a bad case of Star Wars fever). It isn’t an incantation or charm or spell designed to make God do what we ask. Rather, it’s an act of prayer that honors the fullness of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the church, a presence that draws everyone in the space into a lively encounter with God – even the people who aren’t being made Bishops or Priests on that particular day.

This kind of prayer isn’t reserved for the clergy: it’s a kind of prayer we devote to all people as they become a part of the Body of Christ through their baptism. I’m writing not just to share stories of ordinations, but to invite you all to join me in prayer this week for Clara Bennett who will be baptized at St. Andrew’s on Sunday.

I know that most of us – me included – grew up with an affection for baptismal days when some cute kid got dipped. And we’ll have that on Sunday, I promise. But we also know that this is so much more than that: baptism is a gift of the spirit, one that empowers us to be the body of Christ and draws us into the lifelong adventure of growing in wonder and faith.

And since it’s such a big deal, let’s not wait until Sunday to begin preparing ourselves and our church. We can prepare the church with our prayers, on Sunday and in the days leading up to it. I hope you’ll join me this week in praying for Clara and celebrating the movement of the Holy Spirit in baptism, and for the the ministry of all the baptized who make up St. Andrew’s church.

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reoriented eastwards

I’ve long understood the Epiphany as the showing of Jesus (the proper word is “manifesting”) to the world. Through the miracle of the wedding at Cana and the calling of the first disciples, and especially through the witness of the Magi who would take the message back East, the Incarnation that has come to us is now spread to the world beyond our backyard.

Yet I’ve been reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World about the far-off and exotic lands between Europe and the Pacific that were, our cultural memory notwithstanding, the center of the world for much of known history. This is a work of history rather than church tradition, so Frankopan says nothing about magi and myrrh except to mention, of course, that spices and fragrances were economic engines of the times. But spending time reading about the world to the East has diminished for me a cherished idea that Jesus came to us and that we then shared him with the world, starting with our traveling friends who followed the star.

The eastward orientation of the Epiphany story tells us otherwise. Our worldview is rooted in the triumph of Western Christianity, yet the first witnesses came from the East and headed back in that direction. The three kings saw and knew the star for what it was; Herod feared the star and relied on the Magi to find it for them, while the Romans (from out West, I might add) were oblivious.

I like how this disrupts our Western orientation towards Bethlehem, and suggests that the terrain is less familiar than we might realize. I like how it suggests that Jesus was never “ours” to share, but rather drew in wisdom and reverence from the heart of places that didn’t show up in our history books.  I like how that humbles us, and shows us that there is mystery and holiness in this world in places we’ve never heard of, and folk abiding in Jesus in ways that we too might someday learn.

St. Andrew’s will celebrate the Epiphany with a service of Holy Eucharist on Saturday, September 6 at 5:30 p.m. in the Chapel at 5:30 p.m., followed by fellowship (and King Cake!) in the Parish Hall.

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the art of showing up

Homily for October 15, 2017

The parable of the wedding banquet is one of several stories that Matthew tells about pretty much the same thing: who is invited to be in relationship with God, and how we respond to that invitation. The first story was about the laborers in the field, where the workers who started at 4pm get paid the same as those who worked in the hot sun since the morning. Though this offends our sense of justice, the point was that grace comes to everyone who desires it, no matter when they come to the table.

It’s helpful to remember Matthew’s context was the late 1st century. Many of the first Christians still held strong Jewish roots, and one of the defining tensions was how much Jesus’ ministry was rooted in his Jewish ancestry, and how much this movement constituted a break from that tradition. Many of the conflicts in the early church revolved around how Jewish the earliest Christians still needed to be, and how to include those who had no Jewish roots whatsoever.

So immediately the question of how much the workers get paid ceases to be about paying the workers the same for less work. It’s a parable about 1st century Gentiles who would presume to follow Jesus despite their lack of Jewish roots. Yet the story also makes an important statement about grace: a conversion of the heart that take place late in life is sacred and valuable, even if it’s unfortunate that it didn’t happen earlier. We are never outside the reach of God, no matter where in life’s journey we are.

What good news this is for someone who’s lived a hard life, perhaps never darkening the door of a church, perhaps living a life of selfishness and greed: God never forgets them, and there’s always that possibility of conversion. What good news this is for someone who’s livid perhaps a softer life, who never misses a Sunday in the pews yet lives judgmentally, loves conditionally, and can’t be bothered to confront their privilege or care for the poor? God never forgets them either, and there’s always that possibility of conversion!

In the parable of the Wedding Banquet, everyone is invited, but not all will respond with the conversion of heart that makes our faith really mean something.   The first people whom the King invites reject the messengers. So, the invitation that was previously limited to one family unit, so to speak, is now sent out to anyone who wants to come.

The wedding hall fills with guests, but it turns out that not everyone there is fully there. Oh, they’re physically there, they’ve met the bartender and are schmoozing with the neighbors, but it turns out that not everyone is there with their whole hearts. One man is there without his wedding robe, and the king is speechless.

God invites all of us to the party. But now we see that something is asked of us in return. Andrew Purves writes that “The parable carries us into the subtle relations between the grace of election (all were invited) and the obligations of obedience (to be clothed with Christ, to live in Christ). Grace is freely given, situating us in God’s company by an act of loving election. As a consequence, we are obliged to live as God’s people, according to God’s will for our lives.”[i]

Let’s think first about why this invitation is such good news. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from: you are invited. It doesn’t matter whether your grandmother was on observant Jew or a lapsed Presbyterian: Jesus love you the same either way, and wants you to come to the feast. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, or said, or thought way back when or even last Tuesday: Jesus still loves you, and wants you to come. You don’t have to worry about being worthy, because your intrinsic worth comes from the fact that God created you with love and intention. Jesus loves you, and wants you to come to the banquet.

We get to respond to the generous invitation of God simply by showing up enjoying the party. It isn’t simple, of course.  Showing up means delighting in the presence of God, it means grieving with those who suffer, it means living lives of righteousness and generosity. It means being willing to risk something of ourselves, to love courageously, and to place our trust in God.

The wedding party is both joyful and challenging because it’s about invitation, and obligation. We are given an invitation, and we can accept or reject it. And when we accept it, something is asked of us in return…

And that is that when we come to a festival, we dress for a festival! We clothe ourselves with Christ. That image pops us throughout scripture: Paul exhorts the Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”[ii] and in Galatians he writes that “because we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ.”[iii] This is about the conversion of our heart, about anchoring our lives on Jesus, about wearing outwardly the faith that we know inwardly.

But it also means going beyond words and ideas and creeds. You see, our clothes say things about us that our words cannot. Think of it this way: in a business meeting, you wouldn’t pair every handshake with the words “Please note that I am a very professional person.” You don’t have to…your suit says that for you. A college professor at commencement doesn’t need to recite her own degrees before her speech…her academic gown says that for her.  And in the parable, the one man may have known all the right words, from John 3:16 to the ten commandments, but his failure to put on the proper robes betrayed the fact that his heart wasn’t really in it.

He didn’t wear the robes because he didn’t realize why the feast mattered as much as it did.  And what is our Sunday Eucharistic feast, but a reflection of the great heavenly banquet? So it matters that we wear robes, so to speak, that fit the occasion!

Now, in no way, shape, or form is this about what you wear to church. But the meaning of the wedding robe is not so far from how we think about the vestments that liturgical leaders wear. Robert Hovda was a Roman Catholic liturgist who wrote about what vestment say about our worship:

What is most important about public worship is that we gather together for a festival, a special occasion, a celebration of the reign of God that goes way beyond the tight, little, rationalistic, verbose, exercises we sometimes try to make of it into a large, broad fully human landscape, where Jesus is truly the firstborn of a new humanity, and where our liturgical tools (vestments and colors and taste and textures) penetrate the Babel of our words.  Good liturgical celebration (and he’s talking about what the officiating ministers wear), like a parable, takes us up by the hair of our heads, lifts us momentarily out of the cesspool of injustice we call home, puts us in the promised and challenging reign of god, where we are treated like we have never been treated anywhere else…were we are bowed to and sprinkled and censed and kissed and touched and where we share equally among all a holy food and drink.[iv]

It isn’t about the robes. It’s about the banquet, which is nothing less than the reign of God, in which the poor are lifted up, where the mighty are cast down from their thrones, where our sins are forgiven, and where we are fed the food and drink of eternal life. The wedding banquet is the transformation of the world, the kingdom of God made real.

On this Sunday of course, on every Sunday, come as you are. The cut of your suit and the cost of your shoes matter little to God. But the great wedding banquet is another matter. On the day of the great feast, when heaven and earth become one, may we be lavishly attired, adored with Christ, and transfigured by the love of God.

 

Homily for October 15, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 19h Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 23, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4. Robert Purves: Phillipians 4:1-9

[ii] Romans 13:14

[iii] Galatians 3:27

[iv] Hovda, Robert: The Vesting of Liturgical Ministers. Worship, 54 no 2 Mar 1980. p. 106-107. I edited this quote for brevity.

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the empty glass

Homily for October 1, 2017

Do you see the glass as half-full, or half empty?  The question has particular meaning these days, and on this Sunday. The question resonates in these times, when so much is uncertain. When our anxiety levels rise we can be drawn towards pessimism, and towards the self-centered thinking that does such harm to our world. The question resonates on this Sunday, when we draw this season of stewardship, our celebration of generosity and discipleship, to a joyful close: on this Sunday, how can we not see the glass for its fullness, as a reflection of the abundance of God?

You probably see which way I’m leaning on the great question of the glass. We look at it sitting there, and we realize that on some days we will see it as half empty, yet we know that a more faithful perspective leads us to see what is there, and what is possible.

But let’s not get too lost in staring at that glass. And why not? I think that the great mystics of our tradition, and on some days I would even place Paul in that category, would tell us this: We’re looking at the wrong glass!  All this thought about half full and half empty, as much as we might lean towards optimism, keeps us tethered to a mindset that pales in the light of the Gospel. No, in Paul’s estimation, there are no half measures here.  The glass – and this tells us something about the incredible self-giving nature of God – isn’t half-anything. The glass is completely…

Empty. If you’re looking at a half-empty glass and trying to find the abundance of God, you are looking at the wrong vessel.  The nature of God is to empty himself completely into the world, that we might receive that grace, and then lavish it upon others. This is an abundant and audacious emptiness, and Paul uses a word here that we need to know: kenosis. Self-emptying. Pouring myself out, to become remade with the breath of God.

Paul is writing to the new believers in Philippi, who struggled to sort through conflict and competing claims of leadership.  Make my joy complete, he wrote. Be of the same mind, having the same love, do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Paul isn’t giving them the tools to figure out who is right and who is wrong; Paul is encouraging them to completely change their mindset. Unless they do, they will remain forever rooted in a self-centered world.  Not only will the conflict remain, but they will fall far short of the fullness of relationship with Jesus. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

This is a far more radical idea than it sounds like at first. This is not a simple “try to think like Jesus.” This is not “What would Jesus do?” Paul is not asking them to look at the same half-empty glass and learn to see it as half full. Taking on the mind of Christ means looking at another glass entirely. Paul then quotes a hymn that the Philippian would have known to say what taking on the mind of Christ really means.

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Jesus emptied himself. Kenosis: self-emptying. Paul gives us a window not just into Jesus the man, but Christ, the second person of the Trinity. Co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet in a moment in time chose to empty himself and take on human form. When Jesus came to walk among us, this was first and foremost an act of divine self-emptying. And when Jesus offered himself up to death on a cross, this, too was an act of self-giving, a kenotic act, in which the vessel that held Jesus’ life was violently shattered, pouring out his life and breath onto the ground below. Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. To that favorite local hymn, Paul likely added the phrase even death on a cross.

In God’s abundant acts of self-emptying, there are no half measures. That’s the meaning of the word anyway, isn’t it? There’s really no such thing as “half empty”…it’s either empty or it isn’t! And that means we mustn’t settle for half measures ourselves…we will find joy when we empty ourselves, as we learn to live not for ourselves but for others, and for God.

To me, this is one the most powerful phrases in all of scripture. It speaks to my heart and does something to me every time I read it. Whenever I read or hear of Jesus “emptying himself,” I feel my blood pressure go down a bit. My breath gets just a bit deeper, and I feel a sense of peace all throughout my body.  I experience self-emptying as a beautiful and healing experience, as if Jesus is saying to me that I can let go all the burdens and accretions that my soul has picked up. And it’s instantaneous, as the act of emptying something tends to be. Kenosis is not an endurance run: it’s an immediate abandonment of self to make room for grace. It is a lavish emptiness.

Paul wrote these words because he knew the Philippians needed them. But Paul needed them too: he wrote this letter during one of his periods of imprisonment, and some scholars suggest that Paul’s use of such evocative poetry came from his own pain, that he needed a reminder that his own sacrifice connected him to the mind of Christ.  And note that when he asks that his own joy be made complete, it doesn’t come from regaining his freedom. It comes when his children in faith – the Philippians – choose to take on the mind of Christ Jesus, to live the life of bold, self-emptying love.

William Greenway writes that “Even as Paul endures imprisonment and faces execution, he is sustained by this kenotic participation. It is a love that burns with desire for the flourishing of others, a love whose joy can be made complete only when all are included. Paul burns with a joy and love that he desperately wants the Philippians to share.”[i]

We are healed when we empty ourselves, lavishly, and joyfully. Greenway continues, “When concern for others takes one utterly beyond self-interest, beyond obsession with achievements, and self-obsessing guilt over failures, beyond self, then one receives the comfort as an Easter ‘yes’ so overwhelming, unconditional, undeniable, and absolute that it is experienced as unfailing and forever – a yes more potent and enduring than any imaginable no.”[ii]

Our stewardship and generosity will reflect the glory of this overwhelming “yes:” there are no half-measures in kenosis, and there is no way to be halfway generous. Our thanksgiving and gratitude for God’s self-emptying can only be a complete and wholehearted yes to God, and that means pouring ourselves out as Jesus did.

Our responses to the pain in our world, or whatever might be surfacing in our families or our communities, will start at the same place if we are being faithful.  We cannot see another’s pain if we are obsessed with ourselves; we cannot find the completeness of Joy if we choose to redefine the witness of another in terms that soothe our own feelings. It was true of the Phillipians; it is true of us. Either we empty ourselves, and make room for the wild movement of the Holy Spirit, or we hold on to what we’ve got and what we know, and forever try to turn a half-empty glass of water into an infinite spring of the water of life. But it won’t go there. We’re looking at the wrong glass.

Instead, as followers of Jesus, we take on the mind of Christ. We see the world not for what we might draw from it, but what we can pour out upon it. We see our lives not as vessels for consumption and accumulation, but as channels of grace and love, as conduits of the infinite gifts of God. We can give thanks for the gifts of God, and then turn our cups upside down, pouring ourselves out in a holy act of self-emptying love.

Homily for October 1, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 17h Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 21,  St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] William Greenway, Feasting on the Word, David Bartell & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Year A, Volume 4.

[ii] Ibid

 

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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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