Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

When I was in college, I had a part-time job at a small, independent bookstore in Hastings. This was during the era when the self-help book industry was just starting to explode. Books flooded into the store and flew off the shelves that promised to make you happier, better set up for love and connection, more productive, and more successful. The unabashed optimism and cheeriness of these books always made my cynical Generation X eyes roll dramatically and often. The epitome of the books from this age was Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is a time management and leadership manual sealed with a kind of smarmy spiritual veneer. Despite my constitutional allergy to the whole idea of the book, it’s actually not too bad, and I remember more than my pride wants me to admit. One of the habits Covey discusses is “to begin with the end in mind.” The idea is that if you have a clear goal for where you want to go in some area of your life in the future, it will transform how you live in the present. When you see the end, you know how to begin.

The Transfiguration of Jesus, which is the story in our gospel lesson today, is Matthew’s way of beginning with the end in mind. It seems like something right out of science fiction. Jesus and three of his disciples go up on a mountain together, and suddenly Jesus gets a mysterious glow, his clothes become dazzling white, he’s joined by two long dead prophets, and the thundering voice of God declares Jesus his beloved son, and urges the disciples to listen to him. I can’t hear this story without thinking of the final scene in Return of the Jedi when the shining, ghost-like figures of Anikan Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda appear to Luke and company.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just a fantastic invention of the gospel writer, but there’s a lot more than a simple magic trick going on here.

Up to this point in the story, things have gone pretty well. Jesus has been teaching, healing, and building up a nice little group of followers. But right after the episode this morning, things start to get a little darker. Jesus starts to journey toward Jerusalem, his conflict with the religious and political authorities starts to build toward its violent and tragic conclusion.

So right here on this mountain, just before things get really hard for Jesus and his disciples, God gives them a preview of what the end will look like. This episode is God’s way of saying, no matter what is about to happen, my light will outshine the coming darkness, my life will overcome the impending death. They are beginning a very difficult period with the end in mind. They have a glimpse of God’s victory at the end of the hardship they are about to face.

At the end of it all, when the disciples are on the ground overcome by fear, Jesus comes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

That’s exactly what Jesus says to us this morning, too. Get up, and do not be afraid. This story is always read on the Sunday right before Lent starts, and as we prepare to begin Lent, we get a preview of Easter. As we face different kinds of darkness–the worries about our jobs, our kids, fear for the nation, weariness at how conflicted we all are, fears about our health, or our money, or fears about potential assaults on our own dignity or that of others—we hear the promise, we see the preview, that God’s light and love will outshine and outlive the worst our world can be.

Get up, and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid because God’s light and love will shine brighter than the darkness you’re facing. Get up because God’s love is more powerful than the hatred and intolerance that are out there. Get up because that light and that love needs to be carried out into the dark world, and that’s what we are for as followers of Jesus.

Every week, this is meant to be a small little mountaintop, a place where the beauty of this space and the ancient prayers are meant to dazzle us just a little with a preview of God’s promised future, so that our experience of the present darkness can be reshaped by God’s light. Each week, the Jesus we meet on this mountaintop offers us a chance to begin again with the end in mind: the end of God’s loving kindness, God’s compassionate justice, God’s perfect peace.

We stand on this mountaintop each week so that we might go back out there and help dazzle the darkness around us, transfigure whatever sorrow we encounter, infect the world with love and hope. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry often puts it: our job is to help God transform the world from the nightmare it has become for so many into the dream God has for all people. Get up, and do not be afraid.

In a few minutes, we’ll baptize Oliver Pendell. As part of that, we’ll renew our own commitment to being light in the darkness, working for justice and peace in the world, and we’ll receive Oliver as a beloved brother in that work. Every baptism is this incredible moment to hear God call us beloved, to see God’s light shining in the darkness, and to be reminded that we are called to be that light in our lives.

All of us have plenty to be afraid of. All of us have more than our fair share of worry, of anger, of grief. We stand on the mountaintop again this morning, we are invited to begin again with the end in mind, with God’s glorious love and mercy in sight. We’re invited again to feel Jesus’ hand tap us on our sagging shoulders and say again:“Get up, and do not be afraid.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

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“Dignity”-Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany by Brother James Dowd

This morning we have just heard a reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians which contains a passage that has had a major impact on my own faith journey. Given the particular moment we find ourselves living through as Americans, I wanted to share a bit of my personal experience with others in our community because I think it might shed light on what some of you might be experiencing yourself. So I am going to ask you to indulge me talking about myself for a just a little bit here.

This then is a story about me, my dad, the Sisters of Mercy and how I became an adult Christian in a very difficult time. First, Dad had the faith of a man raised in an Irish-Catholic milieu, the type of faith you found in members of the Greatest Generation. Unlike many men of that generation and from that tradition, he was comfortable talking about faith – he loved the Scriptures and he loved to read lives of the saints. He was well grounded in what it meant to be a Christian. And he shared that with all four of us kids and, as I showed particular interest in religion, we talked about God and the Church and lots of religious topics a fair amount. These are the conversations with Dad that I most cherish now, many years after his passing.

When I was about fifteen, Dad began to talk to me about what we just heard in First Corinthians. He would say, “Jim, it is always important to remember that you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you.” The reminders of this particular passage, which came often in my mid-teens, seemed to come out of the blue. This would often be followed by his telling me that it is important to listen to the church’s teaching on all matters, but that there were levels of teaching that were more important than others. The teaching that we are all God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells within each one of us was among the highest and most important teachings. Remember that, he would say.

I had no idea why he was constantly referring to this one specific passage.

Now fast forward a few years to when I was being educated in high school by Sisters of Mercy. These sisters, along with my mother and sister, are among the greatest women in the world, and I just love them. Towards the end of my junior year and throughout my senior year, I was beginning to come to an understanding of myself that was rather upsetting and often confusing. It would take several more years for me to be able to fully grasp what it all meant, but it was becoming clear to me that I was gay.

At this point it was the late 1970’s and we lived in Williamsburg, VA. I was completely steeped in my Roman Catholic faith, and didn’t even have the word “gay” in my vocabulary except as something that was said by actresses in movies from the 30’s and 40’s referring to being happy.

But for me, there was nothing happy about life by the end of my senior year and into my first year of college at William and Mary. No, these were dark times.

And throughout this period there were several Sisters of Mercy who reached out to help in ways that would have an enormous impact on me. They would tell me – over and over again – that I was created in the image and likeness of God and that God made me, just like God made everyone else, to be a temple of the Holy Spirit.

One Sister at a particularly dark time, said to me “don’t you understand that when God made you in God’s image and created you to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, God gave you an inherent dignity that no one can take away from you. No matter how bad things get, no matter how awful the President and the Pope might be on this issue – your dignity was given to you by God and no human being and no institution can take that away from you.”

So that was the early to mid-1980’s and things were very bad and getting worse for gay men at that time. With the entire church – not just the Catholic church – being openly hostile toward gay people or, at best, neutral, as if we didn’t even exist; and with the president ignoring the ever growing plague of AIDS, it was a dark, dark time for me personally and for gay men in general.

But through it all, my father’s words and those of the Sisters of Mercy kept coming back to me – “I am created in God’s image and I am the temple of the Holy Spirit. No one can take that dignity from me.” This became a kind of mantra for me. I thought about that a lot and more importantly, I prayed with that idea a great deal, and soon, I actually began to believe it and then found a way to live more deeply into that theological point of view. A point of view that still guides me today. A point of view summed up in one word: Dignity.

I haven’t really consciously thought about that time in my life in quite a while now. But the current situation in our country has brought all of that rushing back to me and that has caused me to reflect much more profoundly on our Baptismal Covenant, especially the last question that we ask and answer every time we renew that covenant.

That last question – you can find it on page 305 in the Prayer Book – is asked by the Presider at the liturgy: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? And we all answer: “I will, with God’s help.”

There is so much of our theology tied up in that question and answer. The linking of justice and peace among all people – let me emphasize – that means all people, every type of people, every type of person. Like them or not, understand them or not, agree with them or not, we are to strive for justice and peace among everyone.

But it occurs to me that had my dad and the Sisters not taught me about my own inherent dignity, it would have been nearly impossible for me to see that dignity in people who were different from me. And so I would like to offer you the gift that my dad and the Sisters offered me. That gift which understand that God loves each one of us in the unique way that God created us.

So if you are a person who feels under attack by the current political climate, I want to offer you the wisdom of the Scriptures and the tradition of our faith that Dad and the Sisters taught me.

  • If you are a woman, who is repulsed by the idea of being considered a piece of meat that can be grabbed at will or if you are a woman who is sick and tired of not being paid equally for equal work, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a transgendered person, and you are sickened by the hatred and ignorance that lands at your feet daily, then I want to say that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a differently abled person, and you are horrified by the governments’ attempt to erase your presence from every Federal web site, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a person of color and you are repulsed by the outward display and inward longing for a white nationalist regime by some of those in power, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are an immigrant or refugee and you are terrified that the Administration is going to tear apart your family then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.

 

But for all of us, it is not enough to be told by someone that you have this God-given gift of dignity and then, magically, everything will be o.k. I had to pray for a long time after my dad and the Sisters taught me this wisdom to really come to believe it. Faith is the gift from God, but it is only the gift of a seed. If you don’t tend and water it with prayer it will not grow. So during this dark and dangerous time in our history, I urge you to tend to your dignity, water your dignity. Deepen your prayer lives as an act of resistance to those forces both within you and without that attempt to tear you down, that attempt to tell you that you are not worthy of the protection of this great country, that you are not God’s beloved child.

Now please understand, dignity is not enough. But the Baptismal Covenant directly ties respecting the dignity of every human being to the striving of justice and peace. And respecting the dignity of every human being begins by respecting the dignity inherent within yourself.

We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, that season in which the Church focuses on the manifestation of Christ in the world. The greatest manifestation of Christ in the world is a community of Christians shining forth their dignified selves. Embracing our Christian faith by acknowledging our own dignity and the dignity of others is a great act of resistance that we can all engage in. May God bless us in this holy work. AMEN.

Sermon for Recovery Eucharist and Commemoration of Father Samuel Shoemaker by the Reverend Charles Peek

There are people who shy away from AA because they think it seems too religious. Welcome to the Episcopal Church where we seldom make the mistake of seeming too religious.

You can tell by my outfit that I’m not a cowboy, so let me introduce myself: I’m Fr. Chuck Peek and I’ve been sober since April 30, 1986. For those for whom that form of introduction doesn’t mean anything, I’m a failed drunk. Once I belonged to the Poor Me club…poor me, poor me, pour me another! I don’t have to live like that anymore thanks to a program of recovery, such as AA; AA in turn owes its thanks to Fr. Sam Shoemaker, whom we celebrate tonight. Fr. Shoemaker, in turn, owed his life and ministry to his dedicated grasp of the essence of the spiritual tradition of Christ’s Church.

When we celebrate Fr. Shoemaker, we are celebrating a priest who was not at times shy about being critical of priests—something we can all relate to. (If you’ve been standing outside, finding fault with the Church, come on in and meet some of us who not only know its faults but sometimes are its faults!)

Among the legacy Fr. Sam left us was a kind of wish list for priests. Fr. Shoemaker’s “wish list” for the priest of the church is, it seems to me, no different than the wish list for all Christians, and, taken possibly in reverse order, no different than what the 12th step asks of those recovering:

“…I wish they would not forget how it was

Before they got in. Then they would be able to help

The people who have not even found the door,

Or the people who want to run away again from God.

You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,

And forget the people outside the door.

As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,

Near enough to God to hear [God] and know [God] is there,

But not so far from men [and women] as not to hear them,

And remember they are there, too” (“I stand at the door,” silkworth.net 2016)

The spiritual steps offered as the steps to recovery in AA (or any other twelve-step recovery group) include steps that should be familiar to every practicing Christian. They include taking a moral inventory, making amends for harm done (in Christian repentance, it is not enough just to tell someone you are sorry for hurting them, you need to make amends for the harm), making a daily practice of meditation and prayer, turning our wills and lives over to God, which folks in Recovery and a great many Christians call “surrender”: laying down the arms of self-destruction and hoisting the flag of surrender to a loving God who can make us whole and useful.

In a letter to Fr. Shoemaker, Bill Wilson (sometimes called the founder of AA) said that the steps summed up what had been taught “primarily by” Fr. Shoemaker. Without Shoemaker’s teaching, Bill said, “there could have been nothing—nothing at all,” and he usually listed Sam’s name among the “co-founders” of AA (along with Dr. Bob Smith).

If you have been in meeting rooms of AA you have seen pictures of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob. You never see Sam’s picture, nor do you see the picture of Ebie who helped Bill get sober but couldn’t stay sober himself, and you certainly don’t see pictures of the long-suffering spouses, such as Lois. If I had my way, every one of their pictures would hang in the meeting halls. But, then, the program of recovery constantly reminds me that it is not all about Chuck Peek getting his way. Being a member of AA is not conditional on the member getting his or her way. (Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true of the Church as well.)

Not only the conception of the program of Recovery but also its very language echoes language and concepts found in the sermons and books of Fr. Sam Shoemaker. These same words and thoughts also echo the scripture once read in recovery meetings before there was a Big Book (the manual Bill Wilson wrote for AA), especially The Book of Acts, the Sermon on the Mount, the book of James, and Paul’s hymn to love at the close of Corinthians. And they all in turn mirror the standards used in the Oxford Groups that were forerunners of AA and for which Fr. Shoemaker was the American leader. Let me give one example of the close resemblance: in his preaching, Sam Shoemaker charged each listener to come to a “decision to cast my will and my life on God.” That is almost word for word the 3rd step of recovery (found in your program): “We made a decision to turn our wills and lives over to God.”

Now having mentioned the Big Book, let me say that tonight’s celebration is not necessarily a recommendation to go out and immediately read a copy of “the big book,” Alcoholics Anonymous. (Unless of course you are in Alcoholics Anonymous, and then it might be a great idea to read the manual!) But as to what good the book will do for those not addicted or committed to helping addicts: all the spiritual steps of any sound spiritual discipline are there to be sure, but they are definitely framed in the language of addiction, and possibly you are not an addict and do not operate from a personality that leans to any obsessions.

Perhaps…although for most everyone the possibility bears more thought than it is usually given. But even with the specific language to people who are addicted to substances, or behaviors, or experiences, the spiritual principles in the book come through loudly and clearly, so maybe a Christian or a church study group could benefit from a reading of the Big Book.

There you would find that the principles are simple and basic. Love and Tolerance (and the honesty, openness, and willingness necessary to become loving and tolerant) are the keys, and when it comes to being loving or tolerant, honest or open, it is my experience that we all stumble, all fall short. “All fall short of the glory of God.”

These principles we try to practice one day at a time. Scripture tells us that sufficient to the day is the evil thereof…meaning: we only get one day at a time and waste it if we try to live yesterday or tomorrow, if we take it for granted, or if we devote it to a fixation on all that is wrong with the world. We live only when we live the day we have, thankful for its blessings, and devoted to the solutions to our life’s problems. In short, your day is either run by the evil of people, places, and things, or it is run by the goodness of the grace of God! You cannot have it both ways, you cannot serve both God and what is not of God!

[During the Sunday Eucharist at St. Luke’s, Kearney, our celebrant tonight, Fr. Ness, gathers people for thanksgivings and blessings, and he always begins by asking them all to take a deep breath of the Spirit. Spirit and Breath come from the same root word, and a little thought will tell you that breathing is important to spiritual practice. Nothing better arrests a moment of panic than getting control of our breathing. Nothing eases stress better than regular, deep breathing. So I want you to take a moment right now and, with me, breathe deeply in and out: slowly breathe in God and breathe out what is not God, breathe in the spirit of God, breathe out what is not of the spirit of God, breathe in peace, breathe out discord . . . already you may feel the benefit of this, and you will find that adding this to your prayer and meditation times helps you to peace and quietness of mind.]

Now there are basically three things programs of recovery say about God:

First, Recovery tells us that there is a God and I’m not it. No matter from what religion or denomination, it is fundamental to every spiritual life to get rid of grandiosity and embrace humility. And by grandiosity I mean from both ends, the grandiosity of feeling that you are better than everyone else and the grandiosity of feeling you are worse than everyone else.

Now my good friend, retired Roman Catholic priest Fr. Jim Schmitt tells the story of parishioner who was just a horrible man—mean and abusive to his family, dishonest in his life, awful. But one day that changed and the change lasted another day and into weeks and weeks and Fr. Jim finally asked him what had happened that made the change in him. The man, now in recovery, said it was simple: he had turned in his resignation as head of the universe . . . and God had accepted his resignation!

So, first “there is a God and I’m not it”; then secondly recovery tells us that God is and has been all along in our corner. We don’t discover that God is with us now that we’ve gotten sober or clean. Drunk-a-logs (the stories we tell of our former drinking lives) prove that God was with us over and over again. And that tells us that the God who has been with us all along is not the hateful, angry God we had been taught or we had come to believe to be God. God was not missing in action, though we often missed the signs of God’s presence.

There is a God and I’m not it. God is and has been with us all along. And finally God expects something of you. I know we do not not seek controversy and I am sure this will be controversial, but here it is: contrary to a lot of sentimental Christianity preached today, God requires more than pious words. We are called not just to say God is in our hearts or Jesus is our savior, but to strive to actions that make those words real. The 3rd and 7th step prayers in The Big Book are essentially the prayer that God might do with me today whatever it takes to make me useful to God and other human beings. And one follow-up thought about being useful . . . we can’t be useful off by ourselves. Every addiction I know of—again to a substance, a behavior, and experience doesn’t matter—ends up isolating us from others. We may have started out going to the bar to be social; we end up alone in our rooms hoping no one will bother us. You cannot remain in isolation and recover and you cannot remain in isolation and be useful.

Making our new understanding real by putting words into action is exactly what we heard urged by St. Paul in tonight’s second reading: “Clean out the old leaven of malice and evil and eat of the bread of sincerity and truth.” (I Cor. 3)

We do not get into action once for all. We get into it daily. Sometimes we get over-confident or lazy. So the fact is that all of us some time, some of us all the time need to be reprogrammed, need to reboot the system. We celebrate Sam Shoemaker because that’s what Sam Shoemaker teaches us how to do. Let us celebrate Sam’s day by listening to what Sam teaches. My few examples all come from his book Realizing Religion—even in the title you can hear the idea of making something real. Anyone can be religious, but the challenge is to make that religion real in your life. So here is just a sample of what Sam taught.

Sam wrote, “There are laws for the production of the Christ-type of life. Without heeding them it is . . . foolish to hope for success.” 7

And with that he noted, “It is extremely hard, and in most cases frankly impossible, for anyone to secure results which are fundamentally spiritual without using any spiritual means, or fulfilling any spiritual conditions.” 6-7

Again, Sam taught, “Surrender to the Divine Life . . . takes on reality as we have in mind definite cooperation with God in definite work for one definite person.” 79

(When we first get into recovery, the definite person is ourselves; as we grow in recovery, then the definite person becomes another person in need.)

Then Fr. Shoemaker knew what all sound psychology teaches us, that one of the three things most needed in our lives is a sense that our lives have meaning and purpose. He told us that in recovery, we are:

“Armed with that fortifying [strengthening] sense that we are cooperating with God and doing the work which of all work [God] most wants done.” 78

I could hear that thought echo scripture tonight when Dottie read the reading from Isaiah, “Awake, awake, put on your strength”! (Isa 51)

And since you have all gathered here in a church tonight, here is what Fr. Shoemaker tells us about Church:

Sam taught: “We need the Church—need its irksome discipline as well as its inspiring teaching—and not less the Church needs us.” 69

How many ever stopped to think the Church might need us!

And he added: “There is no greater testing place of character, especially of the disposition which is able to work with others, than the fellowship of the Church.” 69

As I come to a close tonight, I want to say a word to those of you already in Recovery; remember this: the fellowship of the program is meant to lead us to the fellowship of the spirit. In the Fellowship of the Spirit, then, let me close with Fr. Shoemaker’s invitation to all of us…to you tonight…and invitation I repeat with fervent hope that you will take it to heart:

God will always give the regeneration we want . . . God has a great spiritual experience and destiny to which [God] calls you, if only you will rise up to receive it.

AMEN.