Saturday, December 24, 2011


Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them light has shined."

I've always enjoyed winter, but for the first time this year, I've been looking out my window at 4 in the afternoon, thinking, “It's so dark! Where is the light?” No matter what “Latest Findings” may turn up in the news or on TV around this time speculating when Jesus was “really” born, there are good reasons we celebrate it at the darkest time of year. We are all a people who walk in darkness.
It seems like every few months now, the country is about to go bankrupt. Politicians blame one another as they attempt to keep or gain power, but don't seem too concerned with us common folk. Checkpoints at airports keep us in fear, and remind us of the darkness around us. Individually, we have our private darknesses of depression or anxiety, of having lost someone we love, of having lost a job, or opportunity. We can understand the pain of the ancient Israelites as they sat in captivity, as expressed in Psalm 137:
By the waters of Babylon we sát down and wépt, * when we remembered thée, O Sýon.
2. As for our harps, we hánged them úp * upon the trées that áre therein.
3. For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody ín our héaviness: * Sing us one of the sóngs of Sýon.
4. How shall we síng the Lórd’s song * ín a stránge land?

In our pain, we cry to God, as they did, imploring his help. It's not when things are going well, when all is bright, that we do this. The story of the Israelites is the story of each of us. We understand how easy it is to forget God, as they did, when everything’s going well, but as we experience the darkness and the cold around us, that's not where we are. Expectations are unreasonably high; family disagreements are magnified, and we want the yoke of our burden broken. And to those ancient people, and to us today, Esaias prophesied: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

And so they waited, and so we wait.

“In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.” God hears the cries of his people, and he comes. But he comes not in power and majesty, through rent heavens – but in secrecy, darkness, anonymity. He comes to save his people – but not everyone notices. Jesus would later say, “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.” So we see in tonight’s gospel, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
In our own darkness, God, who is Love, comes to us as Love-made-flesh. We find him in our darkness hidden, attended by lowly animals. This little babe shows us the beginning of his kingdom, an upside-down kingdom, unlooked for by the people of power. Those people can't understand his kingdom, or see it, because it is a kingdom of Love. It isn't a kingdom that exists somewhere else, in the future, or in heaven: it's right in our midst, and all it takes is Love to see it.
When we suffer in the darkness of a loss of a parent, or sibling, or friend, we suffer because we love that person. And in that Love, Christ is present with us. He doesn't overthrow the darkness by force, he robs it of its power by Love. If we “watch”, and see him there, we're not alone, and as the Psalmist says in Psalm 139, “the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as cléar as the dáy; * the darkness and light to thée are bóth alike.” The simple knowledge that we're not alone can make the darkness no longer a burden: it is through love that the “boots of the tramping warriors” are burned as fuel for the fire. He comes to us in the smile of a stranger, in the kind words of a friend, in the chance jumping out at us of a word or phrase from a book or paper we happen to see.
When we then go to someone else who is in darkness – not with solutions to their problems, not with judgments or answers, but with a simple presence in Love – Christ is once more incarnating. “They shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” It is in simply being with one another in Love that Christ is eternally born in our darknesses. This is the wonderful manner in which the devil is confounded! As Jesus would later describe the Kingdom of heaven, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” Once the leaven of Love is worked into the meal our Life, no matter what hurt comes to us, Love will resurface. And so Tonight we celebrate the Birth of Love. Not 2000 years ago, but Now, Eternally, With us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Proposed revision of the Commination for Ash Wednesday

After Mattins and the Litany.
¶ After Morning Prayer, the Litany ended according to the accustomed manner, the Priest shall, in the reading Pew or Pulpit, say,

Brethren, this time of Lent upon which we are now entered was, by the Ancient Church, observed very religiously, and set apart; all men examining themselves for true fasting, and for the due preparation of all persons for the worthy receiving the Communion at Easter.
In the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put out of the church to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend. In place whereof, let us hearken to the example of our first ancestors:

A reading from the third chapter of Genesis.
Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of the serpent, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Let us, who have sinned in ignorance or knowledge amend our lives, lest we be suddenly overtaken by the day of Death, and seek space of repentance and find it not. You must know that fasting is of no value, but as it is joined with prayer, and the afflicting of our souls before God. Nor does its substance consist merely in the distinction of meats, but in such a restraint of bodily appetites as disposes the mind more for prayer. The goal of fasting, prayer, and our sorrowing for sin, is to work in us true repentance; which is a real change both of our heart and life by which we become assured of God’s love and favour to us.

¶ Then shall they all kneel upon their knees, and the Priest and Clerks kneeling (in the place where they are accustomed to say the Litany) shall say this Psalm.

Psalm 51. Miserere mei, deus.

V Kyrie eléyson. R Christe eléyson. Kyrie eléyson.
Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil. Amen.
V O Lord, save thy servants and handmaids. R That put their trust in thee.
V Send unto them help from above. R And evermore mightily defend them.
V Help us, O God our Saviour. R And for the glory of thy Name deliver us; be merciful to us sinners, for thy Name’s sake.
V O Lord, hear our prayer. R And let our cry come unto thee.
V The Lord be with you. R And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.
O Lord, we beseech thee, mercifully hear our prayers, and spare all those who confess their sins unto thee; that they, whose consciences by sin are accused, by thy merciful pardon may be absolved; through Christ our Lord. R Amen.

O most mighty God, and merciful Father, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made; who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but that he should rather turn from his sin, and be saved: Mercifully forgive us our trespasses; receive and comfort us, who are grieved and wearied with the burden of our sins. Thy property is always to have mercy; to thee only it appertaineth to forgive sins. Spare us therefore, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed; enter not into judgement with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners; but so turn thine anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our vileness, and truly repent us of our faults, and so make haste to help us in this world, that we may ever live with thee in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. R Amen.

¶ Then shall the people say this that followeth, after the Minister.
Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, Full of compassion. Longsuffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, And let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Imposition of Ashes

¶ The Priest shall then go to the Altar and bless the ashes:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing which thou hast made, passing over the sins of men for their penitence; who also succourest them that are in necessity: vouchsafe to bless + and sanctify + these ashes, which for humility and holy religion’s sake thou hast appointed us, after the manner of the Ninevites, to bear on our heads, for the doing away of our offences: and grant that by the invocation of thy Holy Name, all those who have so borne them for the entreating of thy mercy may be thought worthy to receive from thee pardon of all their sins, and this day so to begin their holy fast, that on the day of the Resurrection they may be admitted to the holy Paschal Feast with purified minds, and at length receive eternal glory. Through etc.

¶ The Priest then signs each person’s forehead with the ashes, saying,
! Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

¶ While this is done, the choir shall sing this Anthem. The anthem shall be sung after each verse of its psalm.
Ant. Let us change our garments for sackcloth and ashes; let us fast and weep before the Lord, for our God is very merciful to put away our sins.
Psalm 69. Salvum me fac

¶ This Psalm may be sung only as far as required for the distribution of ashes.

¶ The Priest then says,
V The Lord be with you. R And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.
Grant us, Lord, we beseech thee, so to enter upon Christian warfare with this holy fast, that we who are about to fight against spiritual wickedness may be fortified with the aid of continence. Through etc.

¶ Then turning to the people, he says,
The Lord bless us, and keep us; the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us, and give us peace, now and for evermore. R. Amen.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Proposed Rites for Holy Thursday

I've been researching lately the formation of the 1549 prayer book, and comparing it to the Sarum rites that came before. It seems to me that likely some of the "Ceremonies abolished" were abolished as much for lack of time to prepare, as for any definite purpose. (Now, by 1552, other forces had gained the ascendancy.) So, in the spirit of the 1549, I propose these rites for Holy Thursday, in the context of the traditional Book of Common Prayer.

Reconciliation of the Penitents
¶ Before Mass, the following is said,
Dearly beloved, as in the Primitive Church, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance; so on this day those persons were returned to the loving arms of the Church.
The accepted time is come: The day of divine propitiation and salvation of men, when death was abolished and eternal life began. For albeit no time is devoid of the riches of the Lord’s goodness, yet now forgiveness of sins is more ample by reason of his indulgence, and the admission of those that are beginning a new life is more free by reason of his grace.
¶ A Procession is then made to the altar, singing,
Ant. Come ye, children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Ps. 34

¶ Upon reaching the Quire, then shall be said,
Our Father etc.
V. And lead us not into temptation. R. But deliver us from evil.
V. My God, save thy servants and handmaidens. R. Which put their trust in thee.
V. Send them help from thy holy place; R. And evermore mightily defend them
V. Lord, hear my prayer. R. And let my cry come unto thee.
V. The Lord be with you. R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.
O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty, everlasting God, who hast deigned to heal our wounds: grant to these thy servants, O Lord, pardon for punishment, joy for mourning, life for death, that they may be counted worthy to attain unto the blessings of the reward of thy peace, and unto the gifts of Heaven. Through etc.
¶ Then the Priest shall turn to the people, and say,
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. R. Amen.

The Maundy

¶ Before Evensong, the Celebrant shall gird himself with a towl, and proceeds to wash the feet of twelve persons, or as many as may be found.

¶ While this is done, the choir shall sing,
Ant. I give you a new commandment : that ye love one another. Psalm 133

Ant. Then Mary anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped them with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Psalm 67

¶ The Priest then resumes his cope.
Our Father.
V. We wait for thy lovingkindness, O God. R. In the midst of thy temple.
V. Thou hast charged. R. That we should diligently keep thy commandments.
V. Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is. R. Brethren, to dwell together in unity.
V. Lord, hear my prayer. R. And let my cry come unto thee.
V. The Lord be with you. R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.
Be present, O Lord, we beseech thee, at the performance of our bounden duty; and because thou didst deign to wash thy disciples’ feet, despise not thou the work of thy hands which thou hast committed unto us to be retained; but as the outward impurities of our bodies are here washed away, so may the inward sins of us all be cleansed by thee, which do thou thyself deign to grant. Who etc.

The Stripping of the Altars
¶ After Evensong, the clergy shall strip the altars of all cloths and ornaments. During this time, the following is sung.
Ant. They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture they cast lots. Psalm 22

¶ The Altars are then washed with blessed water. After washing each altar, the Priest shall say the collect of the Saint in whose honour the Altar is consecrated.
¶ Meanwhile shall be sung,
Resp. On the Mount of Olives I prayed to the Father : Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. † Thy will be done. V. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. † Thy will be done.

Resp. Lying men compassed me about; they scourged me without a cause: † but thou, O Lord, my defence, avenge me. V. For trouble is hard at hand, and there is none to help. † But thou, O Lord, my defence, avenge me.

¶ Afterword, all depart in silence.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Feast of St. Michael

Genesis 28:10-17
Revelation 12:7-12
John 1:47-51

When I was four years old, I remember waking up in the night, the bedroom lit only by a bit of moonlight through the window. I woke up because I was falling out of bed. But I wasn’t nervous at all, and I still remember the fall being gentle. I got up and climbed back into bed, knowing that I had been alright because my guardian angel was there and had lowered me gently to the ground. When thinking of the event now, I recall Psalm 91, “And he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep the in all thy ways. They shall bear thee in their hands, that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone. Memories are not always reliable, but this one has been with me for a long time.

Today we celebrate St. Michael the Archangel, one of the Patrons of our Jurisdiction. Traditionally, This was one of a few feasts dedicated exclusively to Michael. In more recently devised calendars, the other Archangels are included. And although the Orthodox Christians don’t celebrate Michael until November, when they do, the feast is even broader: The Synaxis (or Common celebration) of Michael and All the Bodiless Powers. And finally, in the traditional calendar, today would be the Feast of the Guardian Angels. So today, I’d like to talk about angels in general.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of angels, and - based on my conversations with various people recently, these images are pretty common - is a large, beautiful, and probably sort of androgynous looking human, with large bird wings wearing a robe. Michael however, doesn’t wear a robe, but rather a roman breastplate and kilt, and carries a sword. They can be invisible, and when they’re not on earth, they sit around heaven playing harp.

Looking at some more learned people’s opinions, I found quite a bit more information than the common knowledge. St. Denis the Aereopagite says that angels are portrayed with animal parts, such as bird wings, or, in the case of Cherubim, with hooves, specifically because animal parts on a celestial being should strike us as unbelievably ridiculous, and we can then ask what the symbols *mean*, rather than accept them as the actual appearance.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, wrote in his 12th c. “Guide to the Perplexed”, that angels were what we would presently call “Natural laws.” He writes,
“Say to a person who is believed to belong to the wise men of Israel that the Almighty sends His angel to enter the womb of a woman and to form there the fœtus, he will be satisfied with the account; he will believe it, and even find in it a description of the greatness of God's might and wisdom; although he believes that the angel consists of burning fire, and is as big as a third part of the Universe, yet he considers it possible as a divine miracle. But tell him that God gave the seed a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called "angel," .. and he will turn away; because he cannot comprehend the true greatness and power of creating forces that act in a body without being perceived by our senses.”

How different were his times than our own!

The authorities agree that the word “angel” is properly a description of the office, and not the creature per se, because angels are “Messengers” of God’s will. Angels have no bodies, being spiritual creatures - made of intellect and will. St. Thomas Aquinas states that angels can put on bodies, like a set of clothes, if necessary to appear before the waking eyes of multiple persons, as when the three angels were entertained by Abraham and Sarah. These bodies are, however, merely drawn out of the air, and dispersed when the angel is through. More often, angels are perceived, (when perceived at all), through the spiritual sight - what we call the imagination, as when Jacob beheld them ascending and descending on the ladder. Thomas further states that, being made of intellect and not matter, angels are not bound to a particular space in the *same fashion* that we are. Rather, when we say that an angel is “in a place”, that means something similar to us “thinking about something.” That is simply the location where the angel’s understanding is occupied.

St. Thomas says that the higher orders of angels are concerned with broader fields of operation - the universe, the world, certain countries, etc. The lowest order of angels may be concerned with individuals. Among these are what we call Guardian Angels. Although some angels are guardians over entire peoples - as God said to the Israelites going out of Egypt, "Behold, I send mine angel before you," yet every individual also has an Angel guardian. And unlike the grace of baptism, which comes only to some, God gives to every individual a guardian angel at their birth. And just as the devil and his angels are able to provide us with evil or despairing thoughts, worries and temptations; so our guardian Angel is able to provide us with hope, strength, and possibilities. In "The Bishop's Wife", the angel Dudley is telling the bishop's daughter about the boy David driving the Lions away from his sheep, and composing the psalms, and he says that an Angel put the idea in his head, although David didn't realize that it was an angel.

What does knowing something about the Angels do for us? Why not simply know that God cares for us, and leave his method unexamined? God does nothing without a purpose, and anything we come to know about God brings us closer to him, and allows us to live more fully in him. Just as he has revealed to us his Unity in Trinity to teach us, among other things, the primacy of Love, so by operating through the ministry of Angels are we reminded that our Love for God cannot strictly play out privately between God and Us, but is mediated through his creation. As Jesus says, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and comforted the sorrowful are those who have done so to him. Angels remind us that we cannot operate alone, and indeed, we need not: we never are alone. Not only does God attend us each individually, but furthermore he sends angels to help and guide us.

In the reading from the Apocalypse of St. John, we heard that Michael overcame the devil and his angels, and threw them out of heaven. Commentators disagree on whether this happened at some time in the distant past, if it happened at the birth of Christ, or if it will happen at the end of the world. Regardless, we may know that in the last days, when we approach the judgement, the accuser will not be there, having lost his power. And although, for the time being, his evil angels are allowed to operate on earth, and are, within the bounds set by God for reasons that we cannot fully understand right now, allowed to try to harm us, we always have helpers near at hand to support us. And as the angels themselves, being creatures of spirit, abide with us through the simple direction of their thoughts, so we too need never turn further than to think on or imagine the angels and saints in order to be truly present with them.
And as we grow in faith, and attend to the action of God in our lives, may we ever more often be able to say with Jacob, "Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!" And as we realize more truly God's dwelling within us, may we ever more securely realize that our own hearts are "none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven."

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Most Holy Trinity

Apocalypse 4.

In the fourth chapter of the Apocalypse, we see a description of the heavenly worship. Now, when Moses was given the requirements and descriptions for the construction of the earthly tabernacle and the rites to be performed in it, it was to be an earthly mirror of the heavenly reality. The figures given were understood to imitate and intimate, in their way, the Spiritual realities they pointed to. And indeed, there is a great deal of Jewish commentary on the typology and symbolism present in the rites and implements.

In John's vision, we see a description (albeit, still in images and types! The only way our earthly selves can perceive!) of that heavenly reality. Not all of it is present in this 4th chapter; some details come later. But we see that where the Temple of Solomon contained a “sea” made of brass–an immense basin containing several hundred gallons of water for the priests to wash in–, John beholds a “sea” made of glass like crystal. The temple was served by the Levitical priesthood; John beholds twenty-four elders - “priests” in the Greek – adoring. The focus of the Tabernacle and then the temple was the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies: the top of it being the “mercy seat” flanked by cherubim. John beholds a seat, and one thereon, flanked by 4 “Living Creatures”. The throne, cherubim, and possibly the sea – have also been seen before in Ezekiel. The beasts are seen to have six wings, full of eyes, and they sing, “Holy, holy, holy.”

So, why, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, are we given a reading that contains no overt references to the Trinity? Perhaps it is because our own worship is also a mirror of the heavenly, and it is through our worship that we come to have some bit of understanding about the Trinity.

For us, as for the ancient Hebrews, the analogy is not exact, and naturally contains certain differences due to the fact that the object of our worship is in heaven! Our Throne is the altar, and the one seated thereon is Jesus. Within the next few chapters of John's vision, Jesus will appear as the slain Lamb; but for us, he is God Incarnate. He is the only image of and way to the Father on the heavenly throne. As we sing at Christmas, quoting Wisdom 18, “For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne.” Around the heavenly throne are 24 elders dressed in white and wearing crowns; the earthly altars are surrounded by clergy in white albs, and crowned with the tonsure of humility. In heaven the throne issues lightnings, thunderings, and voices; on earth we hear God in the silence. The seven lamps of fire burning before the throne remain in the Orthodox East, we of the West alter the number of candles we place about the altar. The Sea of crystal in heaven is mirrored by our baptismal font of stone.

Four Living Creatures are described, flying, seeing, and singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” When they do so, the elders fall down, and glorify the one on the throne. In our worship the Living Creatures are the Four Gospels. The first portion of our worship builds toward the reading of the Gospel. It is this which lifts our souls, as with wings, toward the object of its worship and ours; which gives us eyes of understanding; and which compels us to respond, “Holy!” and so in the Mass of the Faithful, we sing with them, and with the priests we fall before the throne, giving ourselves to God in thanksgiving for our creation and redemption.

How then, does this Scripture represent the Trinity, and how do we encounter it? Very little, as I mentioned, is said here. Christ is mentioned once, in the first verse, summoning John with a voice like a trumpet to behold the mysteries. The Holy Ghost may be mentioned once or twice: John was said to be immediately “in the spirit”; and the lamps before the throne are the seven Spirits of God. Finally, the Father is seated upon the throne, like jasper or sardine.

But we, farther away in understanding from the heavenly mysteries, are more explicit in the operations of the Trinity. All our prayers are directed to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. All our worship begins, as John's did, “in the Spirit.” It is the presence of God within us, the love of God among us, that turns our gaze to God. Within the Church on Earth, we find the Son, and through him are led – through the waters of baptism, the desert of fasting, to the cross of self-sacrifice where, casting down our golden crowns, we truly can be brought into the presence of our Creative Father.

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Ascension Day Sermon by The Rev. Mr. Michael Shirk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Whitsun Day

S. John 14. 15.

Today is Whitsun Day, or Pentecost. In today’s epistle, we here that the disciples were all together “When the day of Pentecost was fully come.” The Jewish festival of Pentecost, or Festival of Weeks, falls 50 days after Passover, and commemorates both the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and the offering of the first-fruits to God. As the crops, earlier planted, begin to fruit, the first fruits that appear were marked in some fashion, and today were brought to the temple to be offered to God. This is why, in the epistle reading, Jews from all over the world were present.

Today we celebrate the same thing – but viewed through Jesus Christ. The Jewish people celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai; we celebrate Jesus giving of the Law of Love to the disciples. The Jews celebrate the first fruits of the crops, and we celebrate the first fruits of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: the crop of about three thousand souls.

Let us look specifically at the Law of Love, as described in today’s gospel. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Now, we have all heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” And we know from experience that this is true. Most of us have probably had the experience of a friend or family member who, although saying they loved us, or that we were their best friend, or that we could trust them, betrayed us in some way – and it was the deed, not the word, which was able to reach most deeply.

And so Jesus admonishes the disciples – and through them, us – today: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” It is not through saying that we love Jesus, nor through feeling an affection toward him, that our love is shown to be real – but through keeping his commandments.

What are his commandments? I could only find one “commandment” listed as such in the Gospel according to St. John: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you:” the commandment, or mandatum of Maundy Thursday. That love for our neighbors is likewise not sentimental or affectionate, or at least not exclusively so: it is a love of deeds, of service to them. A love which receives a stranger as though he were Christ. A love which washes another’s feet. A love which, in the end, is willing to lay down its life for another. Isaac Williams, a 19th century English theologian writes, “Love is itself the keeping of the commandments, the new law, and the true Pentecost of Mount Sion, which is engraven on the affections of the new man, fulfils the law which it gives, and in so doing is a law unto itself.”

The way that we love Jesus is through loving each other. And when we do so, we will find, as Jesus promised, that the Holy Ghost, the comforter, is with us. His presence in our lives is not the reward for good deeds, but is in the deeds themselves.

When I came first came out to my best friend, the first person I came out to, I was afraid. But he gave me a big hug, and said, “That's alright!” In that act of Love he showed to me, the Holy Ghost was present.

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

May the light of the Holy Ghost truly enlighten all our hearts, and grant us the grace to ever more love God through one another.

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Ascension Day Sermon by The Rev. Mr. Michael Shirk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ascension Day, 2011

Acts 1:1-11

A few weeks ago, Mother Anne asked me if I would like to give the homily tonight. I had mentioned to her in passing that the Ascension was one of my favorite holidays, and she said she'd love to learn why. However, one often has a favorite this or that without the slightest considered reason! So this has been an occasion to look more deeply into a story and celebration that, until now, I have simply “liked.”

Christians have always believed the scriptures do not have a single interpretation, a single truth, but a multitude of depths, all containing truth, and appropriate for different facets of our lives. It has seemed to me that whenever scriptures raise questions (or problems!) for us, that is a call to look more deeply at what is being said – or not said! The story of the Ascension is a fantastic story, and it was fantastic to those who experienced it, and to those who first heard it, as well as to us. I'd like to explore some of what it might have meant to them, and what it might mean for us.

This text has many peculiar details, that, for me, raise questions. For 40 days, Jesus appeared to the disciples, teaching them. It is understandable that he had more to teach them now that they had seen him rise from the dead, than beforehand. But why for only so long? And why only to the disciples? During this time, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem. He had already appeared to certain of them separately, so why did he require that they stay together in that city? Finally, he took them to Bethany, according to the Gospel, and there he was lifted up from them as high as the clouds, before a cloud took him from their sight. How must they have experienced that? I have no idea how the risen Christ must have appeared! In the various accounts, he seems always to have been seen as a person, but never recognized as Jesus until he revealed himself. How does one see someone one knows, and think them a stranger? They saw him, but no one else did; if anyone else had been in the vicinity when the disciples were watching Jesus ascend, what would those others have perceived? Would they have seen anything at all? And finally, as he ascended, and the disciples watch, two angels appear and ask them, “why stand ye gazing up into heaven?” What an odd question considering what just happened!
Some details, be they factual or literary devices, would have served to situate the story in a greater context for the first listeners. For Luke, Jerusalem is a symbol of Judaism and Rome is a symbol of the known world. Perhaps in Jesus requiring the disciples to remain in Jerusalem at first, we see echoed that what Jesus has to teach is first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles. When Jesus took them to Bethany before departing, perhaps he was identifying with the prophecy first given by Zechariah, and later addressed by Amos and Joel concerning the Day of the Lord, when the Lord would stand on the Mount of Olives (where Bethany is located) to Judge the Nations.

Moving into the more troubling question of a levitating body: I think sometimes people in the past are given too little credit in terms of what they believed or wondered or accepted. They perceived a world that operated on the same rules ours does, even if they came with different presuppositions. I think it's a safe course of action to assume that if something seems incredible or doesn't make sense to us, it's possible that the original recipients responded the same way. Luke seems to have been writing to a Gentile audience, and Paul tells us that Greeks seek wisdom – and what he preaches is foolishness to them! I think there is a clue in both the cloud taking Jesus from the disciples’ sight, and in the Angels' question as to how this is meant to be worked with. I'd like to take a side trip through some resent research to explain this.
As Modern Americans, we tend to place a lot of trust in our senses. We tend to think that if we can't see something, it isn't real. And if someone else sees something that we don't, we assume they have a problem. The Ghost of Jacob Marley asked Ebenezer Scrooge why he doubted his senses. Scrooge replied “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.” Some of us may wonder, secretly or aloud, whether the disciples had properly cooked their dinner that day. However, we routinely fail to sense many things that are there . In a video of an experiment performed for their book, “The Invisible Gorilla,” Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons ask the viewer to watch a group of people passing a basketball and count the number of passes. Afterward, the viewer is asked if they saw the Gorilla walk through the middle of the group partway through. Most people never see it. I don't know what the resurrection body of our Lord was like, but the frequency with which normal people overlook things that are “right in plain sight” makes it quite plausible to me that the disciples could see something, upon having it pointed out, that others could not.
Part of the reason people don't see the gorilla is that it doesn't belong, and their attention is elsewhere. The Ascension that the disciples witnessed was something new, and totally out of the ordinary. In our own times, when we push beyond the boundaries of what most ordinary people can intuit in their everyday life, we have to resort to analogy and symbol – and we understand that those analogies and symbols are true as far as they go, but limited.
Any specialized field will make use of unknown terms, or – more likely – known terms used in an unknown way to the rest of us. Sometimes we accept this, such as in physics, where many of us are content to let the Physicists know things we don't, and trust that they know what they're talking about. Sometimes it causes us problems, such as the introduction of computers into everyday life: we're confronted with windows, desktops, mice, and menus that are only tangentially related to the windows, desktops, mice and menus that we know outside of computers. And so we get confused, and even indignant, at the impenetrable domain of Computers. The only way through the frustration is through experience. When we come to experience what the terms mean, rather than just trying to understand them. And if someone leads us through that experience, so much the better.
And so, Christ ascended in front of the disciples – but only as high as the clouds. Their perception stopped there, as though to say to the listener, “This is as far as your understanding needs to go.” And as they gazed the angels asked why, As though to say to the listener, “Be amazed, yes, but do not let your focus get lost trying to reason out this event. Simply look, and then turn back to Jerusalem, and wait for the comforter. John Calvin agrees. “And this seemeth to be the reason why the cloud did overshadow him, before such time as he did enter into his celestial glory; that his disciples being content with their measure might cease to inquire any further. And we are taught by them that our mind is not able to ascend so high as to take a full view of the glory of Christ; therefore, let this cloud be a mean to restrain our boldness, as was the smoke which was continually before the door of the tabernacle in the time of the law.” Further understanding comes not from the encounter of reason and words, but from the experience of Christ.

Having looked some at how we might understand the reading, how then might it affect us? Ascension sits in the Liturgical Year toward the end of the Easter season, near to Pentecost. As we go through the year each year, the celebrations are not simply a remembrance of words and deeds that Christ taught and did. Rather, they are our own present as we are ever made more fully one with Christ.
In the Athanasian Creed, we read that Christ, “Who, although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking of the Manhood into God.” His path is not only on behalf of us, but also simply ahead of us.
The gift of the church is one aspect of the Grace through which God effects our salvation, not only once-and-for all, for we are already his and assured of eternal life with him, but also in that our time spent preparing for that eternal life is in fact time spent slowly living into it even now. And so, during the time of Lent, we purge and fast, and train our souls in virtue that at Easter, in the waters of Baptism, in the crossing of the Red Sea away from Egypt into the Promised Land: At Easter, when Christ “hath broken the gates of brass, and smitten the bars of iron in sunder,” we, with Christ, might die to the “old man” - the slavery to our passions, and emotions, and even our reason, that tyrant Pharoah: and break the gates with which they constrain us; and rise, not bound by the body, but governing it in unity with God. We take on ourselves the suffering of Christ in unity with him, and through that suffering we learn something more of the depths of the Compassion and Love of God for all creation.
Anthony Sparrow, a 17th c. English theologian says, “This day He opened the kingdom of Heaven to all believers, as we say daily in the Te Deum. Thus holy Church … In the Epistle … teaches us our duty not to stand gazing up to Heaven, wondring at the strangeness of the sight, but to take heed to demean our selves so, as that we may with comfort behold him at his second coming, his coming to judgment.” Our time now through Pentecost is not to stand gazing up to heaven – to a Rapture at the end of the world, or simply our own inevitable earthly deaths, waiting for our salvation to come to fruition. Rather it is to return to return to Jerusalem, and allow God's grace to change us into that which we behold. This is the season of Unity with God, of attaining (ever so slightly more!) the perfection, peace, tranquility, and trust, that God's grace is bringing us to.
Now, while we remain in these bodies on earth, that Unity will never be quite fully achieved, but every year as we relive these mysteries, and meditate on them, and bring them into ourselves, more and more of ourselves may be brought into the Kingdom of God. And because we cannot do this without God's Grace, we pray in the collect today, “Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell.”

What holy day could be more wonderful! But this has only probed some small portion of the depths of this day. As I was looking at paintings of the Ascension, I noticed two major approaches. The more common, shows Christ, full body and radient, risen just above the disciples heads. But a slightly less frequent portrayal, from mediaeval icons up to the present, highlights Jesus' feet. In the oldest versions that I've seen, the disciples gaze up at a lone cloud from which a pair of feet emerge. Salvador Dali painted Christ suspended with arms outstretched – but with the viewer looking straight up at his feet from below, obscuring most other details about him. This imagine intrigues me, and has a “ring of truth” to it – but I haven't been able to discern yet what that special truth is. The angels announced that Jesus would “come in the same way” they saw him leave – which I haven't examined it all. But what I am extremely comforted by is the knowledge that Jesus ascended into heaven with a human body that we might not doubt that we also may, while in our bodies, be united with God in Heaven.
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Ascension Day Sermon by The Rev. Mr. Michael Shirk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A sermon

The Rev. Mr. Michael Shirk
March 3, 2011
Deuteronomy 5:1-22, 2 Corinthians 12:11-21, Matthew 7:13-21

Enter ye in at the straight gate…because straight is the gate, and narrow the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

This way which leads to life is what Christ came to show us. In another gospel passage he said that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. The nature of this Life can only be alluded to, but if one is to see a reason to follow this narrow path, one must know something about what one is aiming toward. The Life in Christ is a life inspired by Love, the Love that drives out fears and subjection to passions; a Love that knows that one is made in the image of God, and Love that can only come from being loved as a Son, though undeserving. A Love that knows that all others are also made in the image of God, and sees itself reflected in them.

How are we to interpret the straight gate and the narrow path? What about the way that leads to life is hard to find? I'm reminded of Little Red Riding hood, as she's portrayed in the musical "Into the Woods."

"Into the woods, the path is straight;
no reason then to hesitate…"

I think the narrow path is not so difficult to find per se, but rather is it difficult to remain on. It doesn't take long before the wolf, clothed in the wool, or perhaps simply the nice words of a sheep, appears to lead us to the side. And the side is nice. Those of you who were with me in Boston two weekends ago will recall every time we passed across the "straight way" leading toward Trinity Church, the wind picked up terribly. Going aside from the path provides shelter, and interesting things to see. Until trained, our minds and passions are easily distractible.

"Mother said not to stray,
still I suppose a small delay…
Granny might like a fresh bouquet…"

The commandments given in the first reading are the beginning of training the will to focus. The image of the wind blowing down the path is similar to a saying of Amma Theodora, one of the desert mothers. "Amma Theodora said, 'let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as trees, if they have not stood before the winter's storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.'"

How are we to respond to these trials and temptations, in a way to bear fruit after the winter winds? Verse 12, which precedes today’s passage says, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them." That is indeed a rough wind to withstand.

Here we can pivot to the image Christ gives of the fruit-bearing trees. Those false prophets who would lead us from the straight path, offering us shelter from wind, seducing us with Christian words and good promises – how are we to know them? They aren't necessarily obvious, for Christ warns: "Take heed." He answers that we shall know them by their fruit. Not by their words, "For not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’": but by their deeds. And not, furthermore, by those deeds which are easily feigned: for even an evil tree can fast, or give alms, or pray. These, the "Sheep’s clothing", while proper to the sheep, are the very same adopted by the wolves to mislead. We see this in those "religious" people the media loves to show, and who would sow doubts in us, claiming that their difficult path is thus the narrow one, or seek to sway our rulers to divert our attention from the path. Rather what the discerning eye should look for is the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruit of a good tree, the traits of the true sheep that the wolf cannot emulate.
And so, we know some of what will seek to take us from the narrow path to the straight gate; and we know some of how to discern if others are a help or a hindrance on the path. How does one best stay on the path? By keeping one's sight fixed on the Christ. Many of you have probably experienced when driving that it's easiest to run onto the shoulder when looking to either side; but focusing on a distant landmark helps keep you driving straight Although in today’s Gospel he says that the way that leads to life is hard; yet in another place he says that his burden is easy and his yoke light. St. John Chrysostom reconciles these by saying that a soldier doesn't mind his injuries when serving his prince, and so our burden is light when struggling toward the city where our Lord resides.

One final interpretation is provided by Alan Watts. In his "Myth & Ritual in Christianity," he sees the narrowness of the gate as being the present. And certainly, Now is the only time we have to meet our God. As the liturgy repeats throughout the seasons: Now is high time to awake out of sleep: for Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. A great and wondrous mystery is made known to us this day. Arise, shine, for your light is come. Behold, Now is the acceptable time. This is the day that the Lord hath made... In his view, the broad way to either side is awaiting a future that is not yet here – (Tomorrow will bring its own worries) or dwelling in a past that no longer ought to have power – (I have brought you out of Egypt.) This way of looking at it is supported by the fact that Jesus says the way is narrow that leads to Life, – not to "eternal life." "The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day."

No matter how far we may stray, though, our Lord is always ready to help us back to the path. Little Red Riding-Hood fell victim to the wolf, straying off the straight path; but even having been consumed by the wolf, she was not beyond redemption by the Woodcutter. And so she then sang,

"So take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers;
And though scary is exciting:
Nice is different than Good."