27 February 2015

ON THE OBSERVANCE OF GEORGE HERBERT

This week (February 27), the Episcopal Church will observe the feast of George Herbert, surely one of the finer poets in our tradition. Here is but one example of his work:

THE AGONIE
 
        Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
        But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

        Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
        His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

        Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
        If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

However, the figure of George Herbert, country parson, has also assumed a legendary and misleading image. In a little treatise called “The Country Parson,” Herbert laid out a set of admirable criteria for what makes a successful parish priest. Those attributes of soft and genteel politeness have often been lambasted and critiqued, recently by Justin Lewis-Anthony in his delightful book, “If you Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him.” Lewis-Anthony noted that Herbert, in reality, was not really such a removed country parson. His little parish church was actually within walking distance of the high culture of Salisbury, and –even then—Herbert served there less than three years. He didn’t really pay his dues!

Here is what Justin Lewis-Anthony wrote in The Guardian, June 2, 2009: “Close your eyes and picture a vicar of the Church of England. Whether you are a regular churchgoer or someone who once watched an episode of The Vicar of Dibley, your mental image will more than likely be this: a smiling, benign, inoffensive and unworldly cleric. This image has its origins in the life and ministry of one man, George Herbert (1594-1633).  … …. Too often Herbertism gets in the way of Christianity. The solution must begin with ridding the false memory of Herbert, who he wasn't and what he didn't do. Much of our reverence for "George Herbert" is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him.” (The Guardian, June 2, 2009).

George Herbert was actually born in Wales, and there is another Welsh-born poet and priest, a more contemporary one, whom I highly recommend for a fine model of country clergy. He is R. S. Thomas, a great giant of a poet. I can print here only a portion of his poem, “The Country Clergy,” but look it up. It is an excellent and rugged juxtaposition to Herbert’s fantasy country parson. From Thomas’s “The Country Clergy:” 

I see them working in old rectories  
…They left no books, 


Memorial to their lonely thought 
In grey parishes; rather they wrote 
On men’s hearts and in the minds 
Of young children sublime words 
Too soon forgotten. God in his time 
Or out of time will correct this.



10 February 2015

WITH WINGS LIKE EAGLES?

Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

I used to sing a little song set to that verse, and the song ended, “Teach me Lord, Teach me Lord, to wait.” But waiting is one of the hardest things we do! If given a choice, we would rather not wait at all. Over history, western civilization has progressed ever so deliberately towards practices and inventions that free us from having to wait. From the printing press, to the industrial age, to the internet, we have shortened our waiting times.

In today’s information age, we no longer have to wait for the evening news shows, or the morning newspapers, to inform us of what has happened in the last twenty-four hours. The 24/7 news cycle means we have it now. In fact, the internet puts almost any information at all into our eyes in almost an instant.

Finally, of course, Amazon has us able to shop right now, with only a few key strokes, without waiting for our consumer urge to abate. The ability to download entire books has us reading that book we were slightly interested in, within two minutes of our urge. We don’t need to wait for much at all. We have learned to fly like eagles – quickly and instantly!

In the midst of the satisfaction that the world offers us in almost an instant, the Bible steadily admonishes us to wait. Whatever for?

Because life – real life—does not happen instantly. It takes time. Because flying itself takes time.

When Isaiah wrote the verses of chapter 40, Jerusalem had been captured; and the inhabitants of Judah had been forced into exile in Babylon. They had no idea when, or if,  they might be set free to return home. Other parts of the Bible describe their desperation (Psalm 137:4 asks, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”).

In that time of desperation and tears, Isaiah counsels waiting. Things will not be as they are now, he says. “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” It is God who will provide, says Isaiah, not our human strength or urgencies.

Last year, when I was down in Coweta County, on the farmland where I grew up, in the pastures where I learned to run, I would always see two bald eagles circling on clear days. They had built a beautiful nest, a home, in a towering old pine tree next to the lake. My entire family took joy in noticing their activities.

But this past Fall, we were crushed when we noticed one day that the old pine tree had collapsed. The entire nest, the eagles’ home, had been devastated; and the eagles were nowhere to be seen. They were gone. We counted the incident as another example of the hard life of nature.

But last week, when I was down there again, at the lake, I noticed an amazing thing. There they were, two bald eagles, soaring over the pastures where I used to run as a child. Yes, said my family, they had started a new nest, over on the other side of the lake. It was probably not complete yet, but it was being built, because only now is the time that eagles build a nest for their young.

Yes, it is only now that the new home for the eagles could be built, when the season is right, when the rhythm of life is returned to birth and new life. The eagles had to wait. The eagles could not build their new nest immediately. They had to wait for the seasons to change. But they waited; and the Lord provided another tree and another nest.

When we are crying, of course we want to return to joy. When we are desperate, of course we want hope. When we are in exile, of course we want to return home. When we are weak, of course we want to regain our strength. But God brings us home over time, when the seasons change, when the rhythm of life returns.

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” Teach me Lord, teach me Lord, to wait.


22 December 2014

LET IT BE


(a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent - 21 December 2014)

 The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:28, 30-31, 35, 37-38)

“Let it be,” said Mary.

About forty-five years ago, there was a man whose business was failing. He was still a member of an amazing partnership –one of its two great stars, in fact—but he knew the partnership was crumbling. In fact, everyone in the business knew it.

The year was 1969. The partnership was the great rock band, The Beatles. The man was Paul McCartney. As he worried about the break-up of The Beatles, McCartney tried more and more desperately to take control of the band.

One night, Paul McCartney had a dream, a dream that featured his mother, his mother Mary. In the dream, his mother, who had died when was fourteen years old, came to him and said just a few words, “Let it be.”

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, Let it be.

McCartney has said, since, that he did not intend the song to have any explicit religious meaning, but he has also said that people can interpret that song in any way they like, including the religious.  And many of us do just that.

It is my belief that, in the church, today is Mother’s Day. I know that the rest of the country counts the second Sunday in May as Mothers Day, and we here in the church usually make a nod in that direction on the Second Sunday in May. But, in the Christian Church, we already have a Mothers Day, built into our lectionary, our schedule of Bible readings through the year.

It’s today. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas, the Church usually hears the faithful story of the one of the great mothers of our tradition. Mary. Mother Mary. The one who heard the angel announce a miraculous conception. The one who received the Word. And, then, the one who said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” The one who said, Let it be.

Hail, Mary, we say today. Full of grace. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Many of us know that powerful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition, and say the prayer to Mother Mary. But we might well speak it to all mothers today. We hail mothers today, those who say yes, those who allow the miracle of new life to be conceived in them. Mothers, who whisper words of wisdom to those they love, especially in times of trouble. Mothers, who speak words of truth.

When I speak “Hail Mary,” today, though, I do not mean that today is just a Roman Catholic day. It is a Protestant Catholic day, too, just as powerfully, because what we observe today is the power of the Word. It is the Word that comes upon Mary. It is a powerful Word, aggressive, energetic – maybe even a male generated – word.   

It is the Word which fills Mary today, and it is the Word which fills us. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh. And the Word fills us.

At some point in every mother’s life, at some point in every father’s life, at some point in every parent’s life, they hear one of the most feared questions of parenthood. “Mommy, Daddy, where do babies come from?”

No matter how old the questioner is, there is always one answer that works. There is one correct answer for the question, “Where do babies come from?” They come from love. Babies come from love. When two people love each other, new life happens. When the divine and the human love each other, new life happens!

And the signs of that love are often words. Words are important. The way we speak to other people matters. The way we speak to our lovers matters.

What did the Word say to Mary? “Greetings! Favored One! The Lord is with you! Do not be afraid!”

The word “Greetings” really means, “Rejoice!” It is one my favorite words in the Bible. The Word of God is always, at one level, a word of rejoicing. What if that were the first word we greet folks with every day? Rejoice!

“Favored one.” Ah, what if each of us called our lover, “favored one.” “You have found favor,” says the angel to Mary.

“Do not fear,” says the angel. Indeed, that is what Love says in every generation. You need not fear. Perfect love casts out fear.” When you find yourself in times of trouble, do not fear.

And Mary accepts this miracle, this sign of divine love, Mary accepts this Word, with her own words. She says “Let it be. Let it be to me according to your word.”

But Mary is not the only person in this story who accepts the Word of new life. The angel says that her “cousin, Elizabeth, in her old age, has also conceived.” And, the gospel of Matthew tells this story another way entirely , with the angel announcing the news not to Mary at all, but to Joseph.

It’s not just Mary’s day today. It’s not just Mothers Day today. It’s Fathers Day, too. It’s cousins day. It’s relatives day. It is a day to welcome the power of grace into our lives, no matter who we are. It’s All Flesh Day.

When the angel hailed Mary as favored one, the angel was announcing favor to all flesh. When Mary said “Let it be to me according to your word,” the Word entered all flesh. That word said, “You are favored. You are graced.”

The mighty, inseminating, conceiving Word of God is always about grace. And there’s not a person in the world who does not need it. Your child needs that word. Your lover. Your friend. Your stranger. Your other. Your enemy. The Annunciation is a word of grace. You are favored, and so are you and you and you.

Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God. The Holy Spirit has come upon you with grace.

The power of God’s grace is that it makes us all feel like virgins. The power of grace is that every time is the first time. It is a new beginning every time it enters into us. It’s like celebrating New Year’s Day.

The story is not just about accepting the seed of life inside us. That’s important, to be true. But the Annunciation is about announcing. It is about speaking the Word. It is about God speaking good words to all flesh. And then it’s about our speaking good words to all flesh.

Speaking good words. The scholarly among you know what the word “benediction” means. Bene means good. Diction means speaking. A benediction is a good word. Believers in the Annunciation are meant to proclaimers of grace and good words. The Church, the community of faith, is meant to be an announcer of blessing and grace to the world.

“Hail, favored one. Rejoice, you have received grace.”

What kind of blessing, what kind of grace, will we give today, tomorrow, and Christmas itself? It is what our children need. It is what our friends need. It is what our parents need.

It is what we need. And when we have received grace, it grows. The nature of grace is that it grows. The proof of grace is that it grows. The way others know you are pregnant with grace, is that it grows. It starts with a whisper, and it grows into a song.

Let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be. That which is conceived in you is holy. It is grace. And it will be the salvation of all flesh.


AMEN.

30 November 2014

KEEP AWAKE: RACE RELATIONS AND INCARNATION

(a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 30 November 2014)

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples, "about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. ….And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

“Keep awake,” said Jesus.

And, indeed, many of us around the country were awake this past week. We made sure we were awake and watching the news on Monday evening when a grand jury decision was announced in Missouri, a decision not to indict a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man this past August.

Many of us stayed awake even longer, worried and watching, to see if danger or violence might erupt in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Then, we stayed awake worrying about loved ones everywhere across the country.

Others of us were awake simply worrying about our country. Has the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, really revealed that race relations are no better than they were decades ago? Have all our efforts toward racial reconciliation retreated now?

I don’t like staying awake like that. I don’t like worrying about police forces across the United States. I would far rather trust them, because I know that the vast and overwhelming majority of our police do not act in impulsive and ill-considered ways. I don’t like worrying about young black men in our country, worrying about their safety, and worrying for myself, and worried that maybe I continue to harbor unconscious prejudiced attitudes about my safety. I don’t like staying awake like that.

The decision in Missouri last week was another in a series of what people have called “Wake-up” calls in our country. “Wake up,” said the decision. And our country’s various reactions to the decision said the same thing, “Wake up!” Differently skinned people in our country are indeed treated differently. “Wake up!” Differently skinned people in our country interpret actions and decisions differently. Black people recognize and interpret actions differently than white people do.

“Wake up!” said the demonstrations. The grand jury’s decision not to indict will be accepted by many across our country, and it will be criticized and questioned across our country. And around the world, for that matter. And in churches, so many churches, on this very day. Let those conversations and arguments occur. And let the demonstrations, the peaceful and non-violent demonstrations, occur.

Many good comments have been offered this past week. Like many of you, I was especially touched by the honest words of Benjamin Watson, a black football player for the New Orleans Saints. In the midst of his acknowledged anger and fear and embarrasment and sadness, he also said that said that he was both hopeless and hopeful. Yes, some aspects of our race relations in this country seem hopeless. But the best of us do not give up. Those of us who see a better world are hopeful.

Like many of you, I have spent my entire life struggling for just race relations in the communities where I have lived. I was fortunate to have been taught early in my life about equal respect and equal dignity and equal justice for all races, and especially for African-Americans in the South, where I grew up. But, as a white man, I remain sensitive to those times and places where respect and rights do not seem to be equal, even in my own heart.

Yes, I yearn for a community, a world, where the words “black” and “white” are not just categories, where those words are not simple stereotypes. Those descriptions refer to actual and individual people. Ultimately, each of us, individually, is worried about the same things: security in our streets and neighborhoods, wisdom and moderation in our police forces, non-violence and peace in our protests and demonstrations, and justice in our communities.

“Keep awake.” Now, on this First Sunday of Advent, when the Christian Church always focuses on the kingdom to come, we hear Jesus adding his own words to our conversations. “Keep awake,” says Jesus, and we are urged to keep awake to race relations in our communities.

Keep awake. Do not lost heart. Be watchful and alert. This season of Advent, four weeks before Christmas, always signals for Christians a new kingdom. However, I have come to believe that the word, “kingdom,” is not so great a word to describe what we look for in our time, because “kingdom” itself is a rather outmoded word.

We simply don’t have “kings” any more, and it takes too long to try to re-interpret what our kind of “king” is. First of all, of course, “king” is a male word. (Has anyone noticed, by the way, how so many of the players, on both of the violent sides of our race demonstrations are male? It may be that we don’t need any more male anger and male diffidence and male shooting.)

In the same way, we don’t need just another king. Our God, the God we wait for, is not simply another imperial ruler who will bring another system of justice.

The problem with earthly systems of justice is that they exist only for a season. Every country has imagined that its justice system might be ideal. The Protestant Reformation was a revolution in a way. Certainly it was a protest. The French Revolution. The American Revolution. The Civil War. Even the Civil Rights Act, for which we are truly thankful. As advanced as these developments toward justice were, in their own time, there then came a time when elements of those system also failed us.

So, every year, the Christian Church says “keep awake.” There is something greater. We have a God who will not come to us with simply another set of laws. He does not sit as a new judge, settling disputes once and for all.

No, our God comes to earth in  new way. God actually comes as us. The holy mystery of the incarnation is that God is incarnate among all of us!

Justice and peace emerge in our world, not by our depending upon someone else, or someone outside us. Justice and peace emerge in our world by our acting justly and peacefully in every small personal element of our lives. 

Race relationships remain one of the most challenging tests of whether we believe in the incarnation or not. Christianity proclaims that God was incarnate not just in Jesus, but in each of God’s created human beings. We are, each of us, made in the image of God. The reason Christians believe in just race relations is not because of some super-law, or grand jury decision, or new political system at all, but because we believe that God is present, really present, in every human being.

That is a daring proclamation. I dare us to believe it during this season of Advent, waiting for Christmas incarnation. Keep awake. God appears among us, in every day, and in every moment of decision, and in every relationship of our lives.


AMEN.

The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler

Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip