Wednesday, October 31, 2018
Monday, October 29, 2018
October 28, 2018
+ This past Thursday, one of the truly great spiritual leaders of the Church passed away. You might not have heard about his passing. In fact, you might not have even heard of the man himself. But he was a giant, especially among those of us who have tried to follow a more contemplative prayer life.
On Thursday, a Cistercian priest and monk by the name of Father Thomas Keating died at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. And he was a giant because, in a very quiet, very unassuming way, he radically brought about a very simple kind of prayer that has helped countless people to no end. The form of prayer he helped people to practice was called “Centering Prayer.” He did this as a way to “revive the contemplative teachings of early Christianity and present them in updated formats.” (https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/history-centering-prayer)
For him, it was a form of contemplative prayer was prayer "centered entirely on the presence of God."
Centering Prayer, according the method of Father Keating, uses single prayer word to “center” us, to bring us back into communion with God. Now that single prayer word is important. And it is meaningful only to the person using it. It might be as simple as
But it is this word that helps us be centered—to focus—in our prayers.
Now you’ve heard me preach again and again about this, but I firmly believe that, without a solid foundation of personal prayer, all that we do in church on Sundays is without a solid base. All of us who have been baptized are ministers of the Church. And for our ministry to be effective, we need to have a strong and very solid prayer life to support that ministry.
I, of course, highly encouraged people to pray the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer every day as the first foundation. From the offices and from the Mass, our prayer life as followers of Jesus flourish. For many of us, however, the Daily Offices are not something we can fit into our busy lives.
But, no matter how busy our lives are, we must always have a strong foundation of prayer. And that prayer life can be very simple. Centering Prayer and its emphasis on simple little prayers throughout the day are sometimes, by far, the most effective prayers.
This morning, in our Gospel, we find a very little, but it seems, very effective prayer, very much in the spirit of Centering Prayer. It is a story that at first seems to be leading us in one direction, then something else happens.
We find Jesus at Jericho, which reminds us, of course, of the story from Joshua and the crumbling walls. We then find this strangely detailed story of Barthemaeus. It’s detailed in the sense that we not only have his name, but also the fact that he was the son of Timaeus. That’s an interesting little tidbit. And we also find of course that he is blind.
Now, it’s not a big mystery what’s going to happen. We know where this story is going. We know Bartimaeus is going to be healed. We know he is going to see.
But the real gem of this story doesn’t have to do with Jericho, or the fact that we will never again hear about Bartimeus son of Timaeus. The real gem of this story is that little prayer Bartimaeus prays. There it is, huddled down within the Gospel, like a wonderful little treasure.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now that designation of Jesus as the “Son of David” is interesting in and of its self. By identifying Jesus as the Son of the David, Bartimaeus is essentially identifying Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one sent by God.
But it takes on special meaning for us this morning, on this day after the massacreat Tree of Life Temple in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. I want to be clear about what happened yesterday. What happened there didn’t just happen to people we think of as “them.” Yes, I know. We’re Christians. They’re Jews. They are “them.” But, we really don’t get use that excuse.
Because of this one we follow—this Jewish Son of David—what happened there at Tree of Life Temple, to those Jewish people, happened to us as well. We are the same family. We are inheritors of what those people died for yesterday. Those people were murdered because they were Jews. They were Jews living in hate-filled society by an anti-Semite with automatic weapon. We cannot simply explain all of that away. And we cannot blame them because they didn’t have an armed guard at their door. They were Jews who were murdered because they were Jews. Jews, just like our own Son of David was a Jew. And because of that, what happened to them, happened to us too. We can never forget that fact.
So this man, Bartimaeus, is praying to the Jewish Messiah, to the One God sent, to have mercy on him. And what does the Son of David do? He has mercy on Bartimaeus.
And in that prayer, we find the kernel of Centering Prayer to some extent. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s so deceptively simple.
But, obviously, according to our Gospel for today, the prayer is important. Jesus does what he is asked. He has mercy on this man and heals him.
So why is this prayer so important? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of how to pray in this wonderfully simple little prayer. Jesus occasionally gives us advice in the Gospels on how we should pray.
The first one that probably comes to mind probably is the Lord’s prayer, the Our Father. But today we find a prayer very different than the Lord’s prayer. The Lord’s prayer is very structured. It covers all the bases. We acknowledge and adore God, we acknowledge and ask forgiveness not only for our sins, but for the sins committed against us by others. And so on. You know the prayer.
The prayer we hear this morning cuts right to the very heart not only of the Lord’s prayer but to every prayer we pray. It is a prayer that rises from within—from our very core. From our heart of hearts. It is truly the Prayer of the Heart. The words of this prayer are the words of all those nameless, formless prayers we pray all the time—those prayers that we find ourselves longing to pray.
Here it is, summed up for us.
More often than not, our prayers really are simple, one word prayers. And the one word prayer we probably pray more than anything—I do it anyway—is:
“Please!” I pray so often.
Or sometimes it’s: “please, please, please!”
The one word prayer I should be praying more than anything is: “thanks.”
But Centering Prayer definitely comes from that kind of heart-felt prayer. Here are the words we long to use in those prayers without words.
“Have mercy on me!”
But if we were to pare it down, if we were to go to the heart of the prayer, what word from that prayer would be the heart of the whole prayer? It would, of course, be “mercy.” And in Centering Prayer, that would be our centering word.
We would quiet our mind. We would breathe quietly. And we would just simply repeat that one word, over and over again until we are in the presence of God.
The word draws us to God, helps nudge us into God’s presence. And then once we’re there, we don’t need to use it again except to use it to nudge us back into that Presence.
And, for many of us, this is the heart of our prayer. This is what we desire from God.
Please, God, we pray. Have mercy on us.
Using words like this, praying like this, simply sitting quietly and just being in the presence of God is a kind of “prayer of the heart.” That’s a perfect description of the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel. It is, as I said before, a prayer of the heart. If our lips could no longer pray, our heart would go on and this prayer would be the words of our heart.
The fact that it is so simple is what makes the Centering Prayer so popular. Anyone can do it. It is a prayer each of us can do wherever we are and whenever we need to do it.
I sometimes do centering prayer when I am in the dentist chair, getting my teeth cleaned. Or on the airplane. And during times like this, when hatred and anger and true darkness rages around us, we need these moments of peace. In fact, it is a prayer that demands to be practiced in moments like that. It’s almost impossible not to do it once we dip into it.
And it’s not as though we are mindlessly babbling on for sake of “saying our prayers.” We are not mindless repeating a prayer word over and over again for the sake of appearing to pray. It is a way to truly enter into the very heart of what prayer is all about.
What I find so interesting about that statement is that, limitless as this prayer might be, infinite in its use as it might be, it comes from and addresses our very own limitations. It is essentially the ceaseless prayer that should be going within us all the time. It is the prayer of absolute humility.
Or, going back to our discussion about one word prayers, the one word from this prayer we would be praying is “mercy.”
Like Bartimeaus, we can simply bring what we have before God in prayer, release it, and then walk away healed. There is no room for haughtiness when praying this prayer. The person we are when we pray it is who we really are.
When all our masks and all our defenses are gone, that is when this prayer comes in and takes over for us. This is the prayer we pray when, echoing Thomas Merton, we “present ourselves naked before our God.” That’s what makes the prayer of the heart—Centering Prayer—such a popular prayer practice for so many. And this prayer does not even have to be about us. We can use this prayer when praying for others. How easy it is to simply pray:
God, have mercy on her, or him, or them.
It’s wonderful isn’t it? how those simple words can pack such a wallop. We don’t have to be profound or eloquent in the words we address to God. We don’t need to go on and on beseeching and petitioning God. We simply need to open our hearts to God and the words will come. No doubt those words will be very similar to the words of the Centering Prayer of Father Thomas Keating.
So, like Bartimaeus, let us pray what is in our heart. Let us open ourselves completely and humbly to God. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of our own lives healed. We will find taken from us that spiritual blindness that causes us to grope about aimlessly, to ignore those in need around us, to not see the beauty of this world that God shows us all the time. Like Bartimaeus, we too will be healed of whatever blinds us to the Light of God breaking through into our lives. And when that blindness is taken from us, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too will focus our eyes, square our shoulders and follow him on the way.
Monday, October 22, 2018
Sunday, October 14, 2018
October 14, 2018
Amos 5.6-7,10-15; Mark 10.17-31
+ For those of you who might not know, I am in the process of moving out of the rectory and into my late mother’s twin home. Now, most of you would think this would be fairly easy. He’s a priest, you’re no doubt thinking. He lives a simple life. Why is it taking so long for him to move?
Well, I really don’t live that simple of life. I like “things.” I have lots of “things.” Like LOTS of books. LOTS and LOTS of books. And midcentury furniture And, weirdly, lots of midcentury dishware. That’s weird because I don’t cook or really over use my kitchen. But when I have guests over, let me tell you: they eat and drink from the finest dishware they could make in the 1950s and early 1960s! And I have a lot of things I accumulated from my parents after their deaths. So I’m sorting and donating and throwing and truly, I hope, simplifying my life.
There’s a word I’ve been using quite a bit lately.
As in shaving away, as in paring down the “things” in my life.
It’s daunting and exhausting and good and frustrating all at once. And I’m making major headway.
And just when I think I’m doing really well, I come across this morning’s Gospel reading? Were you uncomfortable with it? I was uncomfortable with it. We should be uncomfortable. We all should be uncomfortable when we hear it. Jesus is, quite simply, telling it like it is. It is a disturbing message—at least, on the surface.
I stress that: on the surface.
He makes three hard-hitting points.
First, he tells the rich man who calls Jesus “good” to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.
Second, he compares wealthy people getting into heaven to a camel going through the eye of a needle—a great image really when you think about it.
Finally, he tells his disciples that only those who give up their families and their possessions will gain heaven, summarizing it in that all-too-famous maxim: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”
For those who have—who have possessions, who have “things,” who have loved ones, who have nice cars and houses and safety deposit boxes and bank accounts and investments and stock AND bonds,--these words of Jesus should disturb us and should make us look long and hard at what we have and, more importantly, why we have them.
But…is Jesus really telling us we should give up these things that give us a sense of security? Does it mean that we should rid ourselves of those things? Should we really sell our cars and our houses, empty out our bank accounts and our safety deposit boxes and our savings and cash in our stocks and bonds give all of that money to the poor? Should we pare our lives down to nothing? Does it mean, we should turn our backs on our families, on our spouses and partners, on our children and our parents? Does it mean that we should go around poor and naked in the world?
Well, we need to look at it a little more rationally. Because, when Jesus talks about “riches” and giving up our loved ones, he’s not really talking what he seems to be talking about.
Do you remember the Gospel from last week, in which he was talking about Moses and the Law and divorce and remarriage? Now, that was a difficult scripture as well. He was saying that if one gets a divorce and remarries, they are committing adultery.
As I said last week, both of my parents had been divorced from their previous spouses before they married each other. Were my parents committing adultery in their marriage? Of course not.
But you can see how people DO have issues with the literal interpretation of this scripture. In fact, I had an uncle, who was divorced and remarried, who heard that scripture one morning in church in the 1970s. He got up and left the church and never stepped foot in a church again in his life. I wish I could’ve told him then, what I’m going to say right now. (Though I suppose where he is right now he’s already figured this out)
When Jesus talks of these things, he’s not really talking about what we think he talking about. He’s not really talking about the securities we have built up for ourselves. What Jesus is talking in today’s Gospel is about attachments. Or more specifically, unhealthy attachments.
Having “things” in and of themselves are, for the most part, fine, as long as we are not attached to them in an unhealthy way. Jesus knew full well that we need certain things to help us live our lives. But being attached to those “things” is a problem. It is our attachments in this life that bind us—that tie us down and prevent us from growing, from moving closer to God and to one another. Unhealthy attachments are what Jesus is getting at here. And this is why we should be disturbed by this reading.
Let’s face, at times, we’re all attached to some things we have. We are attached to our cars and our homes. We are attached to our televisions and computers and our telephones. Some of us are attached to our books, and to the art that hangs on our walls, and on midcentury furniture.
And, even in our relationships, we have formed unhealthy attachments as well. Co-dependence in a relationship is a prime example of that unhealthy kind of attachment that develops between people. We see co-dependent relationships that are violent or abusive or manipulative. People, in a sense, become attached to each other and simply cannot see what life can be like outside of that relationship.
And as much as we love our children, we all know that there comes a point when we have to let them go. We have to break whatever attachments we have to them so they can live their lives fully.
The same is true, in a different way, with our parents. You’ve heard me say many times over this past year that, taking care of my mother in these last years meant that my world sort of revolved around her. And when she died, I felt lost and aimless. I still do.
It is seems to be part of our nature to form binding relationships with others and with things at times. Especially in this day and age, we hear so often of people who are afraid to be alone.
The question we need to ask ourselves in response to this morning’s Gospel is this: if Jesus came to us today and told us to abandon our attachments—whatever it is in our own lives that might separate us from God—what would it be? And could we do it? Because Jesus is telling us to do that again and again.
What the Gospel for today hopefully shows us that we need to be aware of our attachments. We need to be aware of anything in our lives that separates us from God. Jesus today is preparing us for the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot enter the Kingdom of God and still be attached to those unhealthy things in our lives. Because we can’t take them with us into the Kingdom.
The message is clear—don’t allow your unhealthy attachments to come between God and you. Don’t allow anything to come between God and you.
If Jesus came to us here and now and asked us to give up those attachments in our lives, most of us couldn’t to do it. I don’t think I could do it. And when we realize that, we suddenly realize how hard it is to gain heaven. It truly is like a camel passing through the eye of the needle.
For us, in this moment, this might be a reason to despair. But we really don’t need to. We just need to be honest. Honest with ourselves. And honest with God.
Yes, we have attachments. But we need to understand that our attachments are only, in the end, temporary. They will pass away. But our relationship with God is eternal. This is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel.
So, we can enjoy those “things” we have. We can take pleasure in them. But we need to recognize them for what they are. They are only temporary joys. They come into in our lives and they will go out of our lives, like clouds. All those things we hold dear, will pass away from us.
That is driven home to anyone who has to clean out a loved one’s home following their death. One of the true low points in this past year since my mother died was cleaning out her closet. I avoided it. I was tempted to ask someone to do it for me. But finally, one day, I just couldn’t stand seeing all those clothes, still on their hangers and folded neatly on their shelves. I realized that my mother would never wear those clothes again. My mother specifically requested that all her clothes go the New Life Center. And there, all her things, hopefully, are now being used by someone else who can wear them, who needs them. Hopefully several people are warmed on this bitterly cold day by the coats and sweaters my mother once wore.
One day this will happen to us as well. All our clothes, all our possessions, all the money we worked so hard to save will no longer be ours. They will all be divided and distributed and given to others. It’s important to remind ourselves of this fact, even if it’s depressing.
But that is essentially what Jesus is telling us today. He is saying to us, “don’t cling to these ‘things.’” Let us cling instead to God and to the healthy bonds that we’ve formed with God and with our loved ones—with our spouses or partners, our children, our family and our friends. Let us serve those whom we are called to serve. And let us serve them fully and completely, without hindrance. Let us make the attempt to see that what we have is temporary. Let us be prepared to shed every attachment we have if we need to. And when that day comes when we are called by name by our God, on that day we can simply not think about these “things” we cling to here, but we can simply run forward and meet our God face to face.
Sunday, October 7, 2018
October 7, 2018
+ Now, for any of you who think of my as this kind of High Church Anglo-Catholic guy, you might be surprised to hear me say this:
But, I have, for many, many years been very attracted to and inspired by the Quakers, or the Society of Friends.
I know that’s probably a bit shocking to you. You would not think a denomination that is completely and totally non-sacramental and non-liturgical would hold any appeal to someone like me, who loves liturgy and the sacraments! But sometimes even I need an escape from the trappings of high church Anglo-Catholicism.
Even more than that, I love the simplicity of Quakerism. I love the silence and contemplative aspects. I love their pacifism. I love the fact that, historically, they were on the forefront of so much social change in society. I love how they strive for a truly experiential and relational connection with God—with the Light within, as they call it. And I love how the Quakers embody in their faith and in their lives a very simple, child-like faith.
It’s this last point that is especially appealing to me. And I also personally find it difficult.
To me, cultivating such a relationship with God without the structure of liturgy and the sacraments seems particularly daunting.
But there are days when I want that.
I want that simplicity.
I want that silence.
I want that child-like relationship with God.
And it is this child-like relationship with God that Jesus is commending to is in our Gospel reading for today. Out Gospel reading for today is wonderful. Well, except for that little exchange about divorce at the beginning of it.
After this debate, which really is all about following the letter of the law, rather than actually being divorce and remarriage, people start bringing children to Jesus. He says,
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
So, what does Jesus mean when he talks about the Kingdom of heaven and children? Well, he is talking quite bluntly, I believe. He is making it clear that we need to simplify. We need to simplify our faith. We need to clear away all the muck, all the distractions, all those negative things we have accumulated over the years regarding our relationship with God.
Now, to be fair, the Church and Religion in general have piled many of this negative things on us. And that is unfortunate. Too often, as believers, we tend to complicate our faith life and our theology.
We in the Episcopal Church get caught up in things like Dogma and Canon laws and rules and Rubrics and following the letter of the law.
In the Roman Catholic Church, we find these strange “cults” of Mary and the saints that really do not promote a deeper faith, but rather only a shallow, somewhat plastic kind of faith.
In the Protestant church churches, we find that the Bible itself is held up in such a way that it eclipses the fact that we are called to live out what we learn scripturally and not just impress one another with our scriptural prowess and knowledge.
All the churches get so caught up in doing what we are told is the “right thing,” that we lose sight of this pure and holy relationship with God. We forget why we are doing the right thing.
For Jesus, he saw what happened when people got too caught up in doing the right thing. He tended to blame two groups of people for this. The scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were very caught up in doing the right thing, in following the letter of the Law. A few weeks ago in one of my sermons I talked about these two groups of people—the scribes and the Pharisees.
They have received a very harsh judgement in the long arc of history. But we need to remind ourselves that, at their core, these were not bad people. They were actually well-intended people, trying in their own way to live out the Law, as they were taught.
It was the job of the scribes to write down and copy the scriptures, a daunting job in those pre-printing press days. As a result of copying scripture again and again, they of course came to see themselves as experts of the scriptures. And they were.
The Pharisees saw their job as interpreting the Law and the scriptures for people. They tried to make sure that the letter of the law was followed and that all those complicated rules we find in the Levitical law were followed to a T. They did this because they thought it was what was supposed to be done. In the course of their trying to do the right thing, they ended up losing sight of the heart of the Law and Scriptures and only concentrated on the letter of the Law and scriptures. But in doing so, they lost sight of God, which is easy to do when you’re so caught up on the dots and dashes of the words, and not on what those words actually mean. They lost sight of the meaning behind the Law. Hence, the debate about divorce today.
Jesus is telling them—and us—that we need to simplify. We need to refocus. We need to become like children in our faith-life.
Now that isn’t demeaning. It isn’t sweet and sentimental. Becoming children means taking a good, honest look at what we believe.
As followers of Jesus, it does not have to be complicated. We just need to remind ourselves that, if we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will show us God.
Following Jesus means knowing that God is a loving, accepting and always-present Parent. God is our “Abba.” Our job as followers is to connect with this loving Parent, with “Abba,” to worship and pray to God. Our job is to be an imitator, like Jesus, of this loving, all-accepting God in our relationship with others. When we do that—when we become imitators of our loving God, when we love as God loves us—the Kingdom of God becomes present in a very real and profound way.
But the fact is, the Kingdom of God is not for people who complicate it. The Kingdom is one of those things that is very elusive. If we quantify it and examine it too closely, it just sort of wiggles away from us. If we try to define what the Kingdom is, or try to explain it in any kind of detail, it loses meaning. It disappears and become mirage-like.
But if we simply do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus—if we simply follow Jesus, imitate our God and love one another—the Kingdom becomes real. It becomes a reality in our very midst. And whatever separations we imagine between ourselves and God and one another, simply disappear.
This is what I love about being a follower of Jesus. I love the fact that despite all the dogmas and structures and rules the Church might bring us, following Jesus is simply that—following Jesus. It is keeping your eyes on the one we’re following. It means doing what he did and trying to live life like he lived life. It means worshipping like him a God of amazing and unlimited love.
Yes, that sounds very simple. But it can also be very difficult, especially when we still get caught up in all the rules and complications of organized religion and the letter of the law of the Bible. And we do get caught up in those things.
Because following Jesus can be so basic, we find ourselves often frustrated. We want order. We want rules. We want systematic ways of understanding God and religion. Simplicity sometimes scares us. Becoming childlike means depending on God instead of ourselves. Becoming childlike means shedding our independence sometimes, and we don’t like doing that. Sometimes complication means busywork. And sometimes it simply is easier to get caught up in busywork, then to actually go out there and follow Jesus and be imitators of God and love others. Sometimes it is easier to sit and debate the fine points of religion, then it is to go out and actually live out our faith in our lives, and to worship God as our Abba.
But, as Jesus shows us, when we do such things, when we become cantankerous grown-ups, that’s when the system starts breaking down. We when get nitpicky and bitter, we have lost sight of what it means to be like Jesus. That’s when we get distracted. That’s when we get led astray from following Jesus. That is when we “grow up” and become cranky, bitter grown-ups rather than loving, wonder-filled children.
It is good to be wonder-filled children. It is good to look around us at the world and see a place in which God still breaks through to us. It is good to see that God lives and works through others.
So, let us be wonder-filled children. Let us truly be awed and amazed at what it means to follow Jesus. Let God be a source of joy in our lives. And let us love each other simply, as children love. Let us love in that wonderfully child-like way, in which our hearts simply fill up to the brim with love. Let us burn with that love in a young and vibrant way.
Being a Christian—following Jesus—means staying young and child-like always. Following Jesus is our fountain of youth, so to speak. So let us become children for the sake of the Kingdom. And when we do, that Kingdom will flower in us like eternal youth.
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