Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Celebrating a Dear Colleague in Ministry

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7) includes Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

I must confess: never would I have chosen those readings for the celebration of Barbara Kourajian’s graceful career. And yet…

There is exactly the right message on the lips of the angel of God: “Do not be afraid; for God has heard your voice, just where you are.” That’s surely the right message to Barbara, as she draws whole the circle of her ministry here. And it’s precisely the right message for us who wonder, “Whatever shall we do now?”

And from Paul’s letter to the Romans, his potent reminder that when we are baptized, we are made one with Jesus Christ in his death so that we are made one with him in his resurrection. That is the central mystery of our faith, and on a day like this we must lean fully into the promise that in Christ God transforms our dyings into new life, our endings into commencements, and our retirements into… well, who knows?

And then there’s Matthew’s seminar with his disciples. He records Jesus extending to the twelve both his hands at once: with one, he excluded grandiose self-importance (“A disciple is not above the teacher… it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…”) and with the other he includes everyone in the esteeming grace of God (“Even the hairs of your head are all counted… so do not be afraid; you are of more value than you know.”) How like a rabbi, to embrace all by asserting “on the one hand” while insisting “and on the other hand”… in full sympathy with the human tendency of a community to contain both those who think highly of themselves and those who knock themselves down. To all who are on this familiar spectrum, Jesus declares good news of pervasive love that casts out fear.

There are themes in Matthew today that help me express how grateful I am to have enjoyed eighteen years of often serendipitous (and always fascinating) liturgical partnership with Barbara Kourajian. Every Tuesday in the school year, Barbara and I would bring our hymnals and lectionaries for an hour or more of considering closely the crucible created by each Sunday’s readings, listening to how various texts and songs and prayers might resonate together. I will miss those Tuesdays, and here’s why.

Barbara has the gift of teaching without losing the openness of remaining a disciple, a student, a fellow learner fully ready to give, but adept also at receiving. I wonder if you know that throughout her eighteen years here, she has studied organ with Ed Lawrence—studied this organ, where her lessons were held, exploring how best to draw the best out of this humble and limited instrument. Wouldn’t you have thought that she might have stopped those lessons years ago—how much better could she get than what she has given us?—but what has made her such a fine organist and choir director is her commitment to finding out how deep the well of excellence is.

Some musicians have a similar commitment to excellence, but lack the love and the laughter that draw people to the well—a musicians’ quest for excellence can send folks running the other way. Having invested herself in excellence, Barbara has invited us to excel, as a singing congregation, and most surely as a choir. And I wonder if anything brings out a more sparkling smile on Barbara’s face than when an anthem has gone really well, or, as I noticed at Vespers last Wednesday, when voices blended in an a cappella duet that was a pure taste of heaven. You should have seen Barbara’s face.

Her choir members know they are valued. The hairs of their heads are all counted. In our mobile society, each Sunday a different ensemble of voices is heard, meaning that Barbara has kept careful track of who’s coming and who isn’t. She has made sure that singers aren’t afraid to offer their questions and suggestions, from the most confident singer to the newest voice on the block. She has cared for each singer as a pastor cares, as a shepherd cares.

Diana and I have known Barbara for twenty-five years, first as our son Andrew’s piano teacher. In 1992, we heard there was a house for sale on Lindley Terrace. I believe the sign hadn’t yet been hung, but Andrew insisted, “I just know it’s Ms. Kourajian’s house,” and sure enough, it was. At the closing Barbara and Bud brought Andrea to the bank for the signing; I remember her snuggled in her carrier, on the big table where all the documents were being passed from one party to the other.

Now this place of worship won’t be Ms. Kourajian’s house in quite the same way as it has, these eighteen years—though we’re delighted to hear her say she’ll worship with us when she wants to in this coming year before the move to Maine. And I guess on the table now is the infancy of Barbara’s retirement. My friend, may this new life provide you with freedom, strong health, and fortunate new opportunities to be bold.

(At this point, Peter introduced composer Alice Parker, long a friend of St. John’s and a source of inspiration to Barbara, who had come to church this morning secretively to rehearse thirty singers to lead a new hymn commissioned by the parish to celebrate Barbara’s ministry on her retirement. Alice introduced the hymn “Inheritance”, based on her reworking of two or three of Thomas Traherne’s meditations. Traherne (1637-1674) was a pastor on the Welsh border, and a metaphysical poet whose “Centuries of Meditations” was not discovered until 1964, in a manuscript version that was on its way to the trash bin. Richard H. Schmidt in “Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality”, published by Eerdmans in 2002, writes, “For Traherne, the world was not, as for the Puritans, a wilderness fraught with dangers and temptations, but ‘the beautiful frontispiece of eternity,’ a theater manifesting the wonders of God, a school offering lessons in joy and delight.” )

Friday, June 20, 2014

Celebrating the Holy Trinity

Scripture for Trinity Sunday includes Genesis 1:1-2:4a; II Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

What an odd thing, to reserve one Sunday in the church year to celebrate a concept: Trinity Sunday. If there is a problem with this, it is that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is just as likely to be presented as a problem as it is to be celebrated as a priceless gift, a burden to be explained rather than a blessing to be embraced. More a geometry problem to solve than a pool of living water to go splashing and swimming in.

And the readings for today are an odd lot. First, the opening account of creation from the Book of Genesis, as if recognizing from the get-go that the mystery of the Holy Trinity requires a healthy regard for materiality, the Creator God longing for partnership in caring for this beyond-miraculous shimmering mantle of life draped upon this planet. And in the culmination of all this divine yearning , God breathes spirit into matter, to implant the divine likeness.

Okay. So that’s not quite a proof text for the doctrine of the Trinity, but it presents two dimensions of God, Creator and Spirit, and the stage is set for the Word to become flesh, as the divine breath animates Adam and Eve, implanting the image of God.

Then, after what may be the longest lesson in the church year, come two of the shortest.

St. Paul writes to his congregation at Corinth and expresses what every pastor asks of his or her congregation: “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.” I wonder if these words don’t echo the voice of the Creator God shaping the world.

I wonder if these words might also suggest the crucible out of which the doctrine of the Holy Trinity emerged. The concept of a multi-dimensional God (Father/Mother, Son, Spirit) puts God in order. The interdependent unity in the midst of diversity (Creator, Redeemer, Guide) demonstrates what agreement looks like and how it behaves at the highest level. The basic message that God is knowable in at least three distinct ways without conflict, without contradiction, models what it is to live in peace.

And then the Gospel, the closing words in Matthew, conveys the promise the Holy Trinity fulfills: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And that “I” is spoken from the heart of the dancing, twirling, circling persons of the divine Trinity, inviting us to know God through each pathway into the Godhead, to pray into warmer relations with whichever member of the Trinity we feel least familiar with, to steep ourselves in trusting silence in the company of whichever member we feel we know best, and to welcome the call that rises from the yearning of God for partners in caring for the earth and its myriad creatures.

Carl Jung insisted that three was an incomplete number, always leaning toward four. This helped him present a case for Mother Mary taking her place in the Godhead.

Though, from what I’ve observed, believers who are devoted to Mary don’t need her case to be argued by any man. Mary is the one who gets things done. There hasn’t been a time in the worldwide Church when Mary hasn’t been right at the heart of the apostolic community, the missionary movement, and the bridging between materiality and the spirit.

Check out the rightmost window above the altar rail and see Mary front and center at the Ascension of her son Jesus, and see her again as the hub of the wheel of apostles receiving .the Pentecostal flames of illumination and ignition. You might say she is the midwife of the new creation launched by the resurrection of her son, our savior.

One need not be a Jungian to speak of Mary on Trinity Sunday. Nor is it tinkering with the Holy Trinity to speak of her place in the divine dance. When we all learn the steps and practice the rhythms of the Holy Trinity, when we all entrust ourselves into the dynamic stillness of the Creator, the centered self-giving of the Redeemer, and the Spirit’s peace that passes understanding, then the doctrine of the Holy Trinity will seem no longer a problem in geometry, but a priceless gift of grace.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Remembering the Fiftieth Day

Scripture for the Day of Pentecost includes Acts 2:1-21 and John 7:37-39

I’ve gotten hooked on Pandora as my online source of music while I work. Every so often it disengages into sleeper mode, requiring me to return to the site and say, Yes, I’m still listening. (Of course, I could forego that exercise by shelling out a few dollars a month, but I’m not there yet.) That moment of re-engagement must be waterfront property for advertisers, since the same ad comes on so often I pretty much have it memorized. We exercise our bodies, so why not also exercise our minds? Lumosity.com. “Challenge your brain with scientifically-designed training… Train memory and attention… Web-based personalized training program… Track your progress… Get started now.” Learn how Lumosity works for you.”

Memory. Remembering. Such a frequent topic, as one advances in age. Remembering is the key to so much that matters: Thoughtfulness. Heritage. Purpose. Responsibility. Starting the car. Remember to look up, we are taught by the Ascension of Jesus on the fortieth day after his resurrection: Disentangle from your smart phone, to-do list, agenda, and assorted compulsions… Remember to look up to regain perspective on yourself and your world in light of God’s sovereignty and the vast scale of the heavens.

Today, the fiftieth day in the new creation launched by our Lord’s resurrection, what goes up comes down. The Spirit needed to reproduce the wide-embracing love that has summoned us in Jesus Christ, the very Spirit that is in Jesus and is in the Creator God and unites them both is poured into the hearts of all who will welcome and treasure this gift, uniting us to one another and to God in Jesus.

Pentecost, the 50th day, the making-over of an ancient Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the law to Israel, transposing it to remember the giving of the Spirit to the Church for the world. Remember the common heritage of this day in both religions: the ancient law was given to fashion a people of faithful freedom. Such is also the work of the Spirit of God given today.

The Book of Common Prayer calls us to remember that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with one another and with God in Jesus Christ. The weekly eucharist we celebrate to sustain us for that mission has at its very heart a portion called the Anamnesis. Pull that word apart and see its Greek components: “An-“ (against) “amnesis” (forgetting). This is the moment whose purpose is against forgetting. X marks the spot of deepest moment in the eucharist—one that is set off with the ringing of bells in our Anglo-Catholic parishes—when we hear the celebrant give voice to the words of Jesus, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

And then, after hearing similar words over the cup of wine, again resolving into, “Do this for the remembrance (the Anamnesis) of me,” we respond with words we know by heart, words that constitute the Church’s first and oldest creed, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” and we call this the remembered mystery of faith.

Remembering is key to identity, central to accomplishment, crucial to perspective and balance. As you can’t start the car if you can’t remember where you left the keys, you can’t renew faith and hope and love if you’re forgetting what they look like, what they feel like, what they require, and where their source is to be found.

Forgetting can be perilous. Amnesia robs us of all our links to who we are and what we need to do. The potency and danger of forgetting has been dramatized for us this past week, as the free world has remembered the days of massacre in Tiananmen Square, June 3rd and 4th, 1989, while China forbids that remembrance, stifles the memory, inculcates amnesia. It appears to work: school children as old as high schoolers do not recognize iconic photographs of that event (or are afraid to admit they do). Wise voices, hopeful voices, say the day will come when the story will be told and truth reclaimed by remembering.

Such potent remembering, the re-membering, the reunifying of members by speaking truth and seeing the picture whole, telling the story, voicing the Word, is what eucharist is for, what life is for.

For seniors at Williams and their families, the cup of remembering overflows today. Remembering is central to all that matters: Heritage, appreciation, reconciliation, recovery, celebration, choice, mindfulness, completion, commencement.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Does the Ascension Mean?

Scripture for the 7th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 1:6-14; I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

On the fortieth day of Eastertide, following the chronology of the Gospels, the Church catches its breath as our Lord Jesus Christ ascends into heaven. What does the Ascension mean?

The New Testament is challenged by the question, “With what sort of body does the risen Lord come?”. There’s clear evidence that the Gospel writers do not want us thinking of the resurrected Christ as a ghost. St. Luke reports that at our Lord’s final appearance to his disciples, “They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have… ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” (Luke 24:36-43)

How charming can you get in making the point that this is one and the same Jesus, the Christ known to them, loved by them, as before?

But where the tension enters is around the question, “So is his the body of a resuscitated corpse?” No. That’s out of bounds for two reasons. First, resuscitation leaves the door open a crack for thinking that he didn’t truly die, which would make the resurrection fall far short of being the good news Christians dare believe it is. Second, if we really were dealing with Jesus in his same physical body as before, wouldn’t he be subject all over again to the limitations of flesh and blood? St. Paul, writing to the Romans, insists, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” (6:9-10)

The Renaissance painter who tried to capture the Ascension with a group portrait of the disciples looking up to heaven, a pair of bare feet dangling overhead--- that’s all you see of Jesus, just those feet—wants to tell us that we’re dealing here with flesh and blood, metatarsals and Achilles tendons, bunions and blisters, and, of course, those nail holes.

But doesn’t that same ploy, the dangling feet, sweet as they are, reveal the inadequacy of flesh and blood to describe the ascending Christ? Might a painter capture the moment and the movement better by an abstract style, not so much feet in flight as energy rising, returning to its source?

St. Paul again, this time writing to the Corinthians, speaks to our question. “But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come? …” Do you remember what he says next? “You foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel… But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body… For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.” (I Corinthians 15)

What’s the take-home from all that? Paul’s distinction between a physical body and a spiritual body. By Paul’s understanding, Jesus’s forty days of post-resurrection appearances have been in what he calls a spiritual body. Remember how, last Sunday, we heard his apostolic colleague Peter claim that our Lord’s very first appearance out of the tomb took him to breathe freedom into those mockers and scoffers who made fun of Noah during the building of the ark. What an edgey way to declare that absolutely no one is beyond the reach of the spiritual presence of Jesus!

We all know what a physical body is, and how it works. A spiritual body? Whatever that is, I believe it’s the answer to our opening question. The doctrine of the Ascension does not require belief that a physical body is taken up, but rather that a spiritual body rises to return to its source.

While I don’t have a handy definition of a spiritual body, here’s how that image makes sense to me. Jesus Christ the righteous one suffered for the sake of the unrighteous, in order to bring us all to God. And when man’s inhumanity to man had done to Jesus the very worst it could do, God made him alive in the spirit: not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a person transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit.

Which gets me thinking that the Ascension is really about you and me, about what our dying means, and how it is we dare conceive participating in a realm beyond this one.

What we do know about a spiritual body is that the Church is described that way in the New Testament letters. Paul writing in I Corinthians says, “For just as the (physical) body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one (spiritual) body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male or female—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (chapter 12)

We physical individuals are united, made one spiritual body, in grateful acceptance of the gift of Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, the life that constitutes goodness and sets in motion a power that equips humanity to reproduce his wide-embracing love. That love is the gift the world needs. To take our part in that love, we open ourselves to be transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit.

What does the Ascension mean? The Collect for that day answers the question-- so why, for heaven’s sake, didn’t we go there right away and not wait til the very end of this sermon? All I can say is that to approach the Ascension, you have to go the scenic route.

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages…”

He ascends in order to fill all—what goes up must come down—freeing us to love God in all things and above all things, freeing us to seek and recognize and treasure his presence with us on earth.

By ascending, the risen Christ trains the spiritual body of his Church to look up. There’s as basic a meaning as you can get… but there’s not a one of us who doesn’t need the message reinforced daily: Look up from our smart phones, our must-do lists, our agendas and our analyses. Disentangle from what has to matter so much because of our physical dependencies, and choose to practice the spiritual freedom that God gives us, calls us to, and uses to prepare us for what God is preparing for us.

And what comes down, according to the New Testament’s chronology, comes down ten days later, on the fiftieth day of Eastertide, and causes the Church to catch the breath of God inspiring the new creation released in the resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit, the same spirit in Jesus that is in the Creator God, comes down on Pentecost, and fills all hearts that will seek and recognize and treasure such a gift.

Next Sunday is the Day of Pentecost. It will have some stiff competition hereabouts, with commencement at Williams. Rise early and come to worship at 8:00, when we’ll sing, and when parking is easy, and when leftovers from our breakfast for Williams seniors are at their most plentiful, and the timing is perfect to go watch the procession, and first the opportunity to rejoice with a few of our seniors and their families.