Monday, June 30, 2014

The Holy-Making Gift

Today’s simple, but beautiful, Collect in the Lutheran Book of Worship prays: “O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another...” What can be the driving force, the motivation which leads you and me either to begin, to begin anew, or to continue to live the life which we call “Christian life”? It’s what the Collect and our Christian tradition calls grace.
The word grace can have lots of meanings and understandings. We speak of “grace” before meals. We point to the style and “grace” of an ice-skater or a ballet dancer. When special guests come, we set a table “graced” with fine linen, elegant china, and exquisite crystal. We even speak of the “grace” of a happy death.
I may or may not have shared this story with you before, but it bears sharing again. On Christmas, 1977, when my daughter, Nicole, was seven years old, she came to me with a small, taped-up envelope as we were opening our gifts. From the hapless care with which she’d wrapped it, and the solemn way in which she presented it -- with all of a 1st grader’s formality! -- I knew that it was something very special. On a small card, a familiar scrawl had written: “Dad, I know that this is a very small thing for a gift but it is the only rare and beatyfull [thing] I could find. I hope you like it. Sincearely, Nicole.” Enclosed in the card was a large, chipped rhinestone. That was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, because the rhinestone was a symbol for the really rare and beautiful gift: the gift of herself. What I experienced in receiving that child’s gift is about as close as I can come, humanly speaking, to describing what God’s gift of grace is like.
The Book of Common Prayer (p. 858) says that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”  

God’s favor”:  When you’re a favorite or when someone does you a favor, it’s because you’re special; in fact, because you’re unique. You mean something. You’re important to the other person. And the favor is freely given. The giver consciously chooses to give it to you. A mature person doesn’t give favors indiscriminately or routinely. Favor is reserved for a special someone, on a rare and singular occasion. Grace is God’s favoring you and me: except that it’s not something. It’s God’s very self, God Who is Amazing Love, and that is given to you and me forever at creation, if we choose, in the very person and nature who you and I are.
Towards us, unearned and undeserved”: St. Paul has a passage in Ephesians 2 (5-10), and upon reading it one morning in the study hall my first year in college, I broke into tears at the power of its message: “Even though we were dead in our sins, God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love God had for us, gave us life together with Christ -- it is, remember, by grace and not by achievement that you are saved...Thus God shows for all time the tremendous generosity of the grace and kindness God has expressed towards us in Christ Jesus. It was nothing you could or did achieve: it was God’s gift...which saved you. No one can pride oneself on earning the love of God. The fact is that what we are, we owe to the hand of God upon us…” “Unearned”, “undeserved”. We can each easily recall just the foolish things we’ve done in the past, even in the recent past: the careless mistakes, the dumb things we all do without using our God-given reason -- not to mention our acts of willful and deliberate selfishness. Yet St. Paul assures us that “though sin is shown to be wide and deep, thank God that God’s grace is wider and deeper still!” In today’s Epistle (Romans 6:12-23), Paul gives thanks to God “that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart...” “Obedient” here, from its Latin root, means that we’ve not just heard God, but that we’re really listening, from the depths of our being.
The description of grace I mentioned earlier goes on to say that God’s favor “forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” Remember the phrase in St. Luke’s account of the Gospel (17:21) where he says: “The reign of God is within you”? Well, that’s what being in grace means: God in Jesus is present within you: all the time, forgiving in mercy, enlightening by his Word, loving and empowering you through the Holy Spirit. Christ’s presence is a sanctifying grace, i.e., a holy-making gift, because the Holy God -- Creator, Redeemer, and Amazing Love -- hands God’s very self over to you and to me, God’s “favored” ones. In Paul’s words, “...the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s the gist of today’s Collect: “O God, you direct our lives by your grace...”: from within us, in the deepest place of our being.
Coming to faith by gradual awareness of God’s presence in us through Christ and the Spirit, in the very person and nature in which you and I are created, amounts to something of a personal revolution. We’re all seekers by nature. Spiritual writer James Finley describes a seeker as "a person who, having once caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do". We can all think of times when we’ve had “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. In those moments we subtly recognize the holiness of life as it is: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children; in helping others; even in experiencing death, our own or others’. These are moments of revelation, literally, of having the “veil”, the curtain, pulled back for us. God passes through the gate in our momentary quickenings, awakening us to the Amazing Love which is Godself, given to us in our creation. God continually awakens you and me to see that we have the ability to live habitually conscious of this Love giving Itself away. It calls forth in us a desire for a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of the life which is at once God’s and ours. And the effect of these “awakenings” is cumulative, i.e., they lead to our wanting to set out upon the path leading to even deeper experiences of oneness with the Love which abides within us. For some, this happens at an important turning-point in life. For others, it gains momentum through a longer process of investigation, questioning, study, and struggle. For all of us, this is what we mean by “following Christ”, living the Christian life, living in grace.

In June, 1965, I had the privilege of making a Cursillo weekend in Ft. Wayne, IN. During that time, the second talk was given by a Fr. McNulty. I have no recollection of him at all, since he was there only for that talk. But I do remember that the title of his talk was “Grace”, and that in my original notes I jotted down that he had said this: “Grace is what God has to do to me to enable me to love as [God] loves.

Today’s Collect suggests what that is in practice, for we ask God to “Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another.” It’s in that way that we present ourselves, as Paul says, as servants committed to righteousness for sanctification. It’s also how, as Matthew’s Gospel (10:40-42) indicates, we welcome and introduce others to Christ, by letting them see Jesus in our words and actions. That, in turn, allows justice and mercy to come to another person through us even in the simple gesture of giving that person a cup of cold water. None of such people, Jesus says, “will lose their reward.” 
Francis Thompson, for whose poem, The Hound of Heaven, I’ve had great love since high school, talks in that poem about Love’s relentless pursuit of you and me. These lines of his couldn’t be a better summing up of Grace:

Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms, 
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”  


Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Day of Pentecost - Día de Pentecostés

Pentecost, one of three major Old Testament celebrations, was originally a day of thanksgiving and rejoicing for the wheat harvest; later it became associated with God giving the Covenant to His people through Moses on Mt. Sinai.  

The miracle of Pentecost is that God is still present and powerfully working daily in people’s lives, and that people continue to witness to this, proclaim it, hear it, and hopefully believe it in the name of Jesus the Christ.  That is miracle enough for the Church.

Pentecost recalls all those other extra special moments in our lives when we’re touched, to the point of being ecstatic, literally “standing outside of ourselves”, by our awareness of God working in our lives and in the world.  But if we were to be so full of wonder every day, we would not do the ordinary things, like eating, sleeping, working, taking care of others. We would be paralyzed by wonder.

Beginning this week, the Church’s liturgical season is called “Time after Pentecost”.  Sometimes it’s referred to as “ordinary time”.  I call it the “long, green season” because for the next 25 weeks we’ll be wearing mostly green vestments!  By and large, the Gospel lessons during this time are about Jesus’ day-to-day ministry: his preaching, healing, and travelling about -- all seemingly terribly ordinary, except for the Spirit’s touch.  
For some folks the word “ordinary” means “dull”, “boring”, or “joyless”.  That is unfortunate because even ordinary times, places, and objects are very special. 

What could be more ordinary than the water through which each of us is reborn to new life in Baptism, just like water over which, in the book of Genesis, the Spirit, hovered.  Yet through it we became Christ’s own forever. Through this ordinary symbol and God’s mighty doing, we received the promised Holy Spirit of Pentecost.

Jesus Himself took ordinary human staples of food, bread and wine, and made them the enduring signs by which He becomes present through the Holy Spirit.  We ask in the Eucharistic Prayer: “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son.

And we, ordinary people, have been called in our Baptism: commissioned and ordained to continue the mission and ministry of proclaiming and sharing the Good News of God in Christ.  “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says in the Gospel.  When we receive God’s Spirit, it means that we hear, we assent, we let ourselves be guided, and we share Jesus the Word with anyone who will listen.  “...we hear them telling in our own language the mighty works of God.

This Day of Pentecost is a special day, a day to have a party. Today we celebrate with Javier and Jasmine as they receive Holy Communion for the first time. The best part of a party is when we sit down and share all the good food, and sing and dance together. When we share the Bread and the Wine here in the Eucharist, which is the thanksgiving feast, our food is the Body and Blood of Jesus. The Eucharist reminds us of who we are. We are sisters and brothers in the Church. We listen to God’s Word. We are fed with the Body and Blood of Jesus. The priest blesses us and we go forth to love and serve God in our daily lives. It is very simple, very ordinary, and yet it is extraordinary because of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God with us, the Spirit of Pentecost.

                                       (Sermon given on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014, also celebrating the First Communion
                                                                                                                     of two of the young people of San Pablo, Healdsburg, CA)

Pentecostés, una de las tres grandes fiestas del Antiguo Testamento, fue originalmente un día de agradecimiento y regocijo para la cosecha de trigo; más tarde se convirtió en asociado con Dios dando el Pacto a su pueblo por medio de Moisés en el monte Sinaí.

El milagro de Pentecostés es que Dios es todavía presente y trabajando poderosamente cada día en las vidas de las personas, y que la gente siga a dar testimonio de esto, proclamar, escucharlo, y espero que creer en el nombre de Jesús, el Cristo. Eso es suficiente milagro para la Iglesia.

Pentecostés nos recuerda de todos ésos momentos otros muy especiales en nuestras vidas cuando nos somos tocados, extáticos, literalmente “de pie fuera de nosotros mismos”, debido a nuestro conocimiento de Dios obrando en nuestras vidas y en el mundo. Pero si fuéramos a estar tan lleno de maravilla todos los días, no nos hacemos las cosas ordinarias, como comer, dormir, trabajar, cuidar de los demás. Estaríamos paralizados por el asombro.

Al principio de esta semana, la temporada litúrgica de la Iglesia es llamada "La Estacion después de Pentecostés". A veces se ha referido a como "tiempo ordinario". Yo la llamo "la temporada verde y larga" porque durante los próximos veinticinco semanas voy a estar usando vestimentas verdes, en su mayor parte! Las lecciones del Evangelio durante esta vez están acerca de el ministerio diario de Jesus: su predicación,  curación, y sus viajes -- todas cosas muy ordinarias, parecerían, con excepción por el toque del Espíritu Santo. Para algunas personas, la palabra  "ordinario" significa "aburrido", "tedioso", "sin alegría". Eso es lamentable porque los tiempos incluso ordinarios, lugares y objetos son muy especiales.

¿Qué podría ser más común que el agua a través de la cual cada uno de nosotros renacemos a una vida nueva en el Bautismo, como el agua sobre la que, en el libro del Génesis, el Espíritu, se cernía. Sin embargo, a través de ella llegamos a ser propia de Cristo para siempre. A través de este símbolo común y la poderosa obra de Dios, recibimos la promesa del Espíritu Santo de Pentecostés.

Jesús mismo tomó grapas humanos ordinarios de la comida, el pan y el vino, y les hizo los signos perdurables por el cual Él se hace presente a través del Espíritu Santo. Lo pedimos en la oración eucarística: "Santifícalos con tu Espíritu Santo, y así serán para tu pueblo el Cuerpo y la Sangre de tu Hijo."

Y nosotros, la gente común, hemos sido llamados en nuestro Bautismo, encargados y ordenados para continuar la misión y el ministerio de anunciar y compartir las Buenas Noticias de Dios en Cristo. "Recibid el Espíritu Santo", dice Jesús en el Evangelio. Cuando recibimos el Espíritu de Dios, significa que escuchamos, asentimos, nos dejamos guiar, y compartimos a Jesús la Palabra con nadie que lo escuche. 
"... Nosotros los oímos hablar en nuestra lengua las maravillas de Dios."

Este día de Pentecostés es un día especial, un día para hacer una fiesta. Hoy celebramos con Javier y Jazmín, ya que reciben la Santa Comunión por primera vez. La mejor parte de una fiesta es cuando nos sentamos y compartimos toda la buena comida, y cantar y bailar juntos. Cuando compartimos el pan y el vino aquí en la Eucaristía, que es la fiesta de acción de gracias, nuestra comida es el Cuerpo y la Sangre 
de Jesús. La Eucaristía nos recuerda que somos: hermanas y hermanos en la Iglesia. Escuchamos la Palabra de Dios. Estamos hartos con el Cuerpo y la Sangre de Jesús. El 

sacerdote nos bendice y nos vamos a amar y servir a Dios en nuestra vida diaria. Es muy simple, muy corriente, y sin embargo es extraordinaria debido a la presencia del Espíritu Santo de Dios con nosotros, el Espíritu de Pentecostés.