Image of Oscar Romero on the wall of names commemorating the civil war in
San Salvador, El Salvador (via Wikimedia Commons)
Ash Wednesday Reflection: March 1, 2017
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I have been reacquainted with dust. It happened as I rode in the back of a pick-up truck to a deeply remote village in El Salvador. Few go there. We made the trek to gather in solidarity with the poor of that community in their struggle for purpose and dignity. It is a ministry of accompaniment as we seek with them to change the structures that hold them captive.
Clouds of dust swirled around us and clung to our skin, moist from the heat of the day. Grit argued with my teeth when they came together, bracing for the jolt of the next deep rut. My clerical shirt, soaked in sweat, was browned by the dirt of the miles-long road that beckoned us to our destination. This is the dust of justice as longed for in the hearts of God’s people. They anxiously await our arrival for they inform us later that our very visit is a gift of encouragement.
It happened too when sitting in the chapel where, as he stood at the altar ready to transition into the Great Thanksgiving, Monsignor Oscar Romero was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. I was confronted with the dust of my mortality as I once again heard the account of that horrific day from the nun who oversees the shrine and still-active place of worship. Standing before the blood-soaked clerical shirt and vestments hung in his modest apartment, I am confronted with the dust of my call as a person of Christ. A great leveling occurs. All humanity is one in that moment. My shirt was brown with the transplanted particles of a road, his with the dried blood of a martyr. Blood and dirt are sacramentalized in the smudge on my forehead, your forehead, this day. It is all of the earth. This is the dust of sacrifice and the blood of the people resides in it.
I gaze in prayer upon some of the worst that humanity can perpetrate upon another. Archbishop Romero’s cause was the people: God ‘s justice and peace for every human being. The word that comes to me rising up from within is “offering,” meditating upon a life lived and sacrificed along with tens of thousands of others that God’s people might know the possibility of a new and transformed life. I will live with that word “offering” all this Lent.
Today, Ash Wednesday, calls us to be honest. Honest with God, honest with ourselves, honest within our communities, about whom we really are and who we are in Christ. We must begin with the honesty of our baptism where we are assured of our belovedness in God’s mercy. Everything must begin and end there. Yet even as we are dust, mortal and too often captured by our own brokenness and that of all humanity, we are redeemed dust. We are by grace continually being made new, transformed into the likeness of Christ. The stewardship of our life in almsgiving, prayer and fasting is to set us to look toward God as the ground of our being and to all God’s people as worthy of our love. Making it real and present is our work.
Remember always you are dust. Every particle of your dust, your being, calls out the God-question “O creature of the earth, why are you here?” May your life be spent, offered, honest, in response.
The Last Sunday After the Epiphany
February 26, 2017
We stand at the precipice of the liturgical season of Lent, and ready or not, we transition into its wilderness of honest introspection of who we are as God’s individually, but perhaps even more, who we are as a community. It is through the window of the Transfiguration, the crowning event of this season of light, that we are introduced once again to the clarity of Jesus’ identity, first heard at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” His baptism and Transfiguration are bookends of the season after the Epiphany, each a manifestation – an epiphany – of who Jesus is.
But note that this day is not only about who Jesus is. It is also about who you and I are. The Scriptures remind us over and over again, and today is no different, that we gain our identity of who we are in the midst of a community in relationship to God and to one another.
On the holy mountain Jesus’ identity was affirmed within the community of Peter, James and John, along with the historical witness of Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, who also had experiences of the glory of God on holy mountains. Today, the identity of those baptized and receiving the laying on of hands by the bishop is reaffirmed. Just as Jesus, you are God’s beloved, with you God is well pleased, embraced by God, sealed by the Spirit, Christ’s own forever, and empowered for service to be God’s ambassador of love and grace for the sake of the world.
One of the purposes of the Divine Liturgy is to draw us into a relationship with God and one another in which the veil is pulled back just a bit in order to catch a glimpse of the glory of God, to be given the opportunity to fall in love with the Holy once again, and to find ourselves reminded of who God is, who we are, and what God intends the world to be. We see on the holy mountain today a vision that all creation is full of God’s glory, that beauty is everywhere, and that each moment vibrates with God’s presence, if only we had eyes to see and hearts ready to be opened.
Some years ago I was travelling on a warm summer day on my way to a diocesan meeting. Part way there I came upon road construction where one lane was shut down. There was the guy doing his job, holding the sign that said “Stop!” in large letters, causing us to wait for the other side to clear. I found myself irrationally irritated that this interruption in schedule might cause me to be late, because clearly, the universe is all about me.
While waiting, however, by grace I was able to slow my breathing and look around. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a Wooly Bear, one of those fuzzy fat caterpillars walking along the yellows stripe of the road. Each undulation of its body and the manipulation of its many legs moved it along at a rather rapid pace. I found myself relieved when it made it to the side of the road not being squished by a tire.
I looked out the window on the other side and gazed upon a red-winged blackbird, perched on a cattail as it swayed bag and forth in the breeze, glowing iridescently in the sun. Transfiguration? All of the sudden what seemed like an inconvenient interruption was transformed into a moment of grace, even contemplation on the beauty of God’s creation. I was awakened by that grace to a reality that was present whether I noticed or not, but fortunately circumstances caused me to slow way down, pause, and see with different eyes.
I wonder if you have heard of something called “the sacrament of the moment?” In essence it means that each moment of life, every breath we take, is full of the grandeur and wonder of God. Too often, however, we are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted to notice. Yet today we hear Jesus’ words to us, “Get up and be not afraid!” In other words, stand with Jesus as he stands with you, just as he did with his disciples on that holy mountain, and as some of you are doing today in coming forward.
That is what this day seeks to do as it calls forth from us a new way of seeing. This life isn’t the only one there is, but we are called to live this life in a way that respects what God has made, including ourselves, and calls us to be stewards of every relationship on earth to which we are called. What we discover in Jesus’ Transfiguration is that each human being is made in God’s image, how we treat every human being matters, and is why we promise again today in the Baptismal Covenant to “work for justice and peace among all people” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
The nature of life is always to be in transition. We often resist since we human beings really like the status quo. Yet this day teaches us, once again, that the journey into holiness is not only to change, but to change often. Or to put it more eloquently from today’s Collect, to be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Hopefully, by grace, we’ll be opened to the possibility, discover the joy of being co-creators with God for the transformation/transfiguration of the world, and find ourselves transfigured along the way.
St. Matthias the Apostle
The betrayer, Judas, had done his deed. Now the company of apostles was down one. Peter was clear as he rose to call the community to its responsibility to replace Judas with another and restore the number to twelve, reflecting the fullness of the twelve tribes of Israel.
I have always wondered how Matthias felt to be one coming off of the bench to take his place on the first string. Did he want to be chosen? Did he lobby for the position? Did he see Joseph Barsabbas as a competitor about whom, by the description in Acts, a bit more was known? The criteria named was “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…” and here is the kicker – “one of these men must be with us a witness to his resurrection.” This is a criterion dear to my own heart as a bishop in God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. All bishops are “called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection…” (BCP p. 517)
Yet is this not the responsibility of all baptized people? The bishop of a community is the icon or window for that glorious mission for the sake of everyone. Each person of Christ, every parish and faith community, is called to be first and above all a witness to the resurrection of Christ where we die to everything that is not of God’s perfect love for all the creation, in order that the new life of grace may take root and flourish. Our call is to name it where we see it and also to be a part of bringing it about for all to see – witnesses.
Perhaps this is why we know nothing of Matthias, never named again in scripture. He is to be understood as every person taking one’s place in the company of apostles. The account in Acts is clear that Matthias was chosen by God, not a mere vote. Just as he was enrolled with the eleven apostles, so in our baptism are we. The integrity of that original community of Christ was threatened by one who had “turned aside to go to his own place.” Remaining faithful in community is hard now just as it was then. But just the fact of being in community, seeking to be a part of God’s mission, is in itself a witness to resurrection hope.
Our heavenly citizenship is to be lived out in earthly application. Our security and center in this Gospel work is not to be found in our own ability to make it work. It is not even to be found in the quality of our prayer or, get this, not even in the existence of our individual churches. We discover in a mature faith that it is never merely about us. Even one of Jesus’ choices ended up not working out so well. Our hope is in the living Christ who is among us and in us. It is always about the mission for which we are called – witnesses of the resurrection.
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 19, 2017
We talk a lot about love in the Christian faith. Today through Matthew’s voice we hear from Jesus what love is to look like. For here we continue from last Sunday the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the center of Jesus’ value system. It is, once again, full of hard sayings for apparently, love is hard work:
“Love your enemies;
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
These are lofty goals, an amazing ethic, calling us far beyond how we usually see people acting, including sometimes ourselves. What a great reminder of what a life lived as a disciple of Jesus is to take shape.
Some of you are aware that I was just recently in the Diocese of El Salvador, meeting with the rest of the Board of Trustees of a human rights organization called Cristosal. The people of El Salvador continue to struggle for the basic norms of justice that you and I might take for granted. While there, I am often reminded of the part of the terms of amnesty after the civil war, not unlike what was negotiated in South Africa, where people who committed horrible crimes of violence were not prosecuted, all in order to be able to live into a new future for the good of the country. The desire for vengeance, the settling of scores, was set aside.
Or perhaps you recall the account of an occurrence in the Amish community of Pennsylvania a few years ago, when an Amish woman was murdered by an Amish man, who then took his own life. It is the Amish belief that by the teachings of Jesus, they are not to do anything in response that stirs up feelings of anger or vengeance. An expert in Amish culture said, “They have a deep sense of comfort, assurance that things are in God’s hands and in the long run all will turn out okay. If something like this happens, we try to accept it as it comes and move on.” As another Amish man said, “Sympathy must also go to the killer. We feel sorry for that person because they could not help themselves and have not yet come to the light.” It was reported that the husband and family of the woman also offered forgiveness and hope for the man’s restitution.
And of course we can point to Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church right down the road in Charleston, where not long after the horrible slayings of those dear nine people, we heard from the families words of forgiveness extended toward Dylan Roof, the killer.
If these stories raise uncomfortable feelings and huge questions for you, then you begin to get as sense of what Jesus’ hearers may have been thinking and feeling when they heard his teaching, which almost certainly violated their sense of evening the score: you know, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But as someone has said, true justice is love in action. In El Salvador, in the Amish community, and among the families of Mother Emanuel, we see people, sometimes in fits and starts, trying to live in a higher way, with an ethic that goes beyond the ordinary. Maybe this is an unsettling thought, but it is the way to which we once again commit ourselves in the renewal of our baptismal vows today and reaffirm in the reception taking place.
Yes, love is hard work! The tendency is to want to get even. Forget for a moment the huge examples of violence I just gave you. We experience this in small ways too, like when a person steps in front of us in a line; or when we get cut off by a car and wish we had a button on the steering wheel with which to vanquish the person who did it to us; or when a neighbor behaves in a manner we don’t like and we want to get them back in some way.
Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, his way of loving given to us today, is not about passivity or being the proverbial doormat. It is about leveling out the exercise of power and dominance over one another, calling you and me to a way we’re often not ready to hear much less put in place in our life. Therein lies my struggle – it is the Christian’s call to stand not only with the victims of our world, and here’s the rub, but also with the unforgivable, the condemned and the hated. Why? Because this is what Jesus embodied in his life. It cost him his life and he forgave them even as they were executing him. “If you love those who love you, what reward is that?” NO big deal in other words. What about loving those who are impossible to love?
What we see in Jesus is a bringing forth of the reign of God right into the midst of the contested arena of human life. People who start to live this way may seem odd, even deluded. It will be alien to popular opinion, perhaps even threatening. It doesn’t get votes. Maybe you find yourself resisting Jesus’ hard sayings right now. Yet we know on some level it is the better way, for it is the way of Jesus transforming the world for hope, reconciliation and liberation.
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2017
Choices. We all have choices to make as we walk this earth, from the small inconsequential ones such as which brand of tissue to buy, to big ones regarding vocation, what kind of person we want to be, or even becoming a mission of the Episcopal Church in 2014. Today’s readings offer many choices, and indeed in Deuteronomy we hear these words, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Five persons of this congregation are coming forward today to publicly declare their choice, to choose life by following Jesus as Savior and Lord in and through the Episcopal Church.
We have been given an amazing gift from God, that is, the gift of free will. While it is true that there are many things that occur over which we have little or no choice, we can choose how we are going to respond to whatever it is life brings us.
We who are gathered here do so I trust, because we are saying that it is our desire to live a life that seeks to follow the way of Jesus. Again from Deuteronomy, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways...” At the same time, the gift of free will can be used to have our “heart turn away, not to hear, and thus are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,” such as the gods of power, entitlement, money, success or class. You can make your own list.
As Christians, we are always called to look at the life choices placed before us, to search our hearts in prayer, and in the context of the Tradition passed on through the centuries examine how our choices honor God and God’s people, or not. Its not always easy, especially when we come up against conflicting values, but even then what we are seeking is the way of Jesus: to seek and serve Christ in all persons; loving your neighbor as yourself; striving for justice and peace among all people; and, respecting the dignity of every human being. No small things are they? They involve big choices nearly every day because as we know, being a Christian is supposed to be a radical statement.
Pat was a parishioner of mine some years ago when I was the rector of a parish in Southern Virginia. In the early 70’s, before I was her priest, she was outspoken about the overt racism evident in the area. In that day and in that place it was a risky thing to do, and of course it still is in many places. Members of the parish told me that Pat’s home, where she lived with her husband, would get pelted with eggs and spay-painted with epithets too vulgar to repeat here appeared on her garage door. When I was her rector in the mid-80s I heard these stories from others and one day, when visiting with a then elderly Pat, I asked her about those days and why she was motivated to speak out. She said, beautifully and simply, “Because I promised to follow Jesus.”
Pat chose life, life for all God’s people, even at great personal cost and in the midst of foreboding circumstances. She chose the life of Christ, God acting in her and through her, resting in the assurance of her baptism that God has claimed her as his own. When the five folks coming forward today say, “I do, and with God’s grace I will follow him (Jesus) as my Savior and Lord; when all of us gathered say we will support them in this journey and by our own prayers and witness join them in following Jesus; we declare that we are a part of the Jesus Movement to transform the world for God’s vision of justice, peace and reconciliation for all. Their choice is a sign of hope and encouragement for all of us.
I recently saw on a church sign these words: “For those who have much, our responsibility is to build larger tables, not higher fences.” This is not a political statement. It is a statement of faithfulness. It is the way of Jesus as God leaves us with the free will to choose the way of life or death. It is the choice God places before each of us in some way every single day whether it be while standing in a grocery store line, discerning how to be the best steward of our resources, or even what kind of church we want to be in our service to the community.
Jesus is always upping the ante, if you will. We learn in Matthew’s Gospel today that it is not only the act of murder, or adultery or swearing falsely that is the problem, he challenges what is going on in the motivations of the heart before any of those behaviors even get manifested. His way is always the higher way, the harder way, the more demanding way, the faithful way. After all, it cost Jesus his life, why would it not be costly for us too?
The Good News for us today is that in and through it all, we are loved completely and utterly by a God shown to us in Jesus who desires to be in relationship with us. From St. Paul, “We are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” We are not left alone in our choices. God remains with us even when, and perhaps especially when, we don’t get it right. God chooses us and in thanksgiving we can choose God in the way of Jesus.
Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1460-64 (via Wikimedia Commons
Can you smell the incense? Still my beating heart. The scene being played out in Luke 2:22-40 as Jesus is brought by his parents to Simeon in the temple moves the soul of anyone who loves the experience of liturgy beautifully offered, whatever the form. Such ritual provides a space to make connections, to engage our imaginations and take us to old places and new alike, all to fall in love again with the One who draws us there. “My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord” (Psalm 84:1)
Each year as this feast comes upon us I am immediately transported to quiet evenings in the chapel at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Singing the Nunc Dimittis, The Song of Simeon, as the Church has since the fifth century, calls me to deeper prayer as fragrant smoky trails float by. It seems that my presence is not so much my decision to show up, but that this place has been prepared and has been waiting for me to arrive. Mary and Joseph may have had a similar sense.
This day always evokes the yearning of my heart. As each note of the canticle passes by my lips in what I trust is Holy Spirit breath, the longing of my deepest center is recognized anew. Like Simeon I am on pins and needles. “These eyes of mine have seen the Savior.” I am amazed by the feel of the warm weight of the child touching my forearms. Where am I?
Longing is everywhere. It is found in the hearts of the young parents anxious for their child in that electric moment of naked trust as they pass their infant son into the arms of the elderly prophet. In that offering, past and future are bound together forever as time itself is transformed. It breaks forth in Simeon’s song – he did sing it, right? – as he cradles the hope of the world and is reawakened to his hunger and thirst for the glory of Israel called to offer God’s justice to every human being. It wells up from the depths of Anna’s soul who, as she looks on, cannot constrain the imagination of her heart that provides some sense of the purpose of her eighty-four years of prayer. Thanksgiving is her song.
For what do you yearn? What is the deepest longing of your heart? Go to that place. Dwell with it. The imminence of fulfillment dominated Simeon’s life and pervades the hopes of all in that temple moment. He was not content to live in the past. His yearning propels him into an expectant future of God’s faithfulness. The promise arrives. He puts out his arms to receive the grace given. His heart sings. The universe has a purpose calling for our cooperation. Maybe we too can sing ourselves into a radical openness to a new future.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.