March 3, 2019, The Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration): Episcopal-Methodist service, Pr. Bryan Lauzau, Preaching
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
March 3, 2019 Message
Biblical Text: Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
Theme: We are called to engage, heal and transform brokenness in our world.
Introduction and the Contemporary Condition
Since today is the Episcopal Church’s Feast Day of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of what became the Methodist (and now, United Methodist) Church in the United States, and since I’m a retired United Methodist Pastor, it seemed like it might be reasonable to give a hint of Wesleyan flavor to today’s message, so I’ll look to John Wesley for that. John Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest serving The Church of England and, among many other things, he was a prolific preacher. The messages he preached were firmly rooted in Scripture, speaking what he saw as the plain truth of the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus. Here are some entries from his journal written in May of 1738: “Sunday, (the 7th): I preached at St. Lawrence’s in the morning, and afterward at St. Katherine Cree’s Church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both; and was therefore the less surprised at being informed that I was not to preach any more in either of those churches. Sunday, (the 14th): I preached in the morning at St. Ann’s, Aldersgate; and in the afternoon at the Savoy Chapel, free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprised that at St. Ann’s, likewise, I am to preach no more. Friday, (the 19th): I preached at St. John’s, Wapping at three and at St. Bennett’s, Paul’s Wharf, in the evening. At these churches, likewise, I am to preach no more.”
Even without knowing the details of those sermons, I think the reactions to them that Wesley recorded give a pretty good sense of the nature of the messages he delivered. What Wesley preached was the Gospel – the “Good News” – of Christ. He was, in his time, by definition an evangelist, “a preacher of the Gospel.” But by his own account, his proclamation of the good news didn’t always elicit a good reaction; it often challenged individuals and the Church to examine the conduct of their personal and corporate lives in light of Jesus’ example and teaching. With specific regard to The Church of England, Wesley felt that the church was straying from Jesus’ vision; it had become in some ways a self-serving institution, existing to cater to and placate it’s socially advantaged members to the exclusion of those who Jesus called his followers to serve. The Methodist Movement within the Church of England was an attempt by John Wesley and his brother Charles, also an Anglican Priest, to redirect the Church to a more authentic grounding in Jesus. John and Charles sought to change the nature of their Church, not to dismantle it, through evangelism within and through the Church of England. Among John Wesley’s particular concerns was that The Church of England wasn’t properly addressing issues connected with the need for prison system reform, unfair labor practices and widespread hunger.
While the Methodist movement had a foundation in evangelism, I want to be clear about the context in which I’m using that word. Wesley’s evangelism was distinctly different from what routinely passes for evangelism today. In contemporary society, proclaiming the good news has become an exercise in which the news that’s proclaimed is usually only “good” if you’re a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and preferably male. The proclamation of the Gospel is no longer necessarily an affirmation of God’s grace and unconditional love of human-kind (albeit at times also a challenge to how we live our lives individually as followers of Christ and collectively as a community of faith); it’s often, at least as heard from those who receive the most air time in the public forum, an affront to the very same divine grace and love it purports to proclaim. The opinions and positions attributed to “evangelists” or “evangelicals” today are often ones of exclusion, not inclusion and doctrine overshadows practice as the basis on which one is judged worthy to claim the name Christian and join the exclusive club. In that context, neither John Wesley nor Jesus himself would qualify as an “evangelist” or Christian.
Insights from Scripture
So what about the words from Luke’s Gospel we heard today? Is there good news to be found there, and if so, is it good news for us? When the good news of the Gospel is held up to our lives, are we a reflection of that good news, or does it make us squirm so much that we politely ask a Methodist preacher not to bother occupying the pulpit here at St. Michael’s after today? Let’s take a look...
The Gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus is, I think, one of those passages in Scripture where you can get so entangled in the question of whether the events happened exactly as described, (that is, Jesus changing in appearance; Moses and Elijah suddenly appearing, and talking with him; a voice (presumably God’s) speaking from a cloud declaring Jesus as God’s Son, the Chosen of God), that you might miss the actual message the passage means to communicate. If you ask me whether I believe the events recorded by Luke – this miracle – actually happened as described, I’ll tell you that, sure, I believe in divine miracles, but I don’t know exactly what happened on the mountaintop in the presence of Peter, John and James that day; it’s a mystery. I am sure of a couple of things, though (well... pretty sure...J ). The mountaintop experience was, I think, an Epiphany, and could have been received by Peter, John and James as such. God revealed that Jesus embodied the entire Law of Israel and all the teachings of the Prophets. Jesus was the embodiment of the entire story of the Chosen People up to that point. This was what God communicated by the presence of Moses and Elijah – in whatever way that happened – with Jesus. But that had to do with past and present. The future was communicated by God’s voice from the cloud: Jesus was God’s Son and was the revelation of God’s eternal plan; past, present and future. But what could have been an Epiphany for Peter, John and James at the time was evidently rather lost on them. I imagine they were completely overwhelmed by whatever happened in their presence, but in typical human fashion immediately tried to bring it under their control, instead of simply allowing the experience to wash over them in all its transformative power. Instead of allowing this divine encounter to permeate their being, they sought to get things under control by building a couple of lean-tos and ordering in some pizza so everyone could sit around and chat for a while before they all had to go back home. Please understand that I don’t mean to be disparaging of the disciples; I might very well have had a similar instinctive reaction (maybe not the order-in pizza part though). The point is that human instinct perhaps obfuscated what God intended to be a fundamental revelation of who Jesus was and is. And if we are too enmeshed in the details of the story we might miss the revelation too. Jesus was the perfect incarnation of the entirety of God’s will and action in human history (and perhaps from the beginning of time) and a perfect reflection of God’s eternal will for God’s creation.
And it’s in the verses immediately following Luke’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that we get a glimpse of what this revelation, this Epiphany, means for us. The next verses in this chapter of Luke are these: “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met [Jesus]. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son...Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him’...Jesus answered...‘Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.” (Luke 9:37-42; NRSV)
The first act of Jesus recorded by Luke after the Transfiguration was for Jesus to heal a demon-possessed boy; a person who the society of his time would probably have shunned out of fear born from a lack of understanding of his ailment. Jesus, affirmed by God as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets and as God’s Son; Jesus, the perfect incarnation of the entirety of God’s will and action in human history and the perfect reflection of God’s eternal will for God’s creation, turned immediately to embrace a boy from among those who society had placed on the margins in order to give him the healing, transformation – and transfiguration – he needed.
In a general sense we can consider this demon-possession as metaphor for the ugliness that manifests the demons of our world. It might be the demons of xenophobia, white nationalism and classism manifest in the ugliness of systematically devaluing, marginalizing and discriminating against people of sacred worth because of their sexuality, racial, cultural and ethnic heritage, or economic status. It might be the demon of hubris, by which those who are called to serve God place themselves instead in a position above God, carrying out human agendas while invoking God’s name, manifest as the ugliness of the church acting as gatekeeper, creating a barrier to the experience of the unconditional love of God by those the church judges to be unworthy, having brought human doctrine to bear instead of truly proclaiming – and living – the Good News of Jesus. And this is certainly not an all-inclusive list. Demons and the ugliness through which they are manifest abound, reminding us of how broken our world is.
And so, what are we to do?
The good news is that Jesus, God’s Son and Chosen One was the perfect incarnation of God’s grace and unconditional love. Jesus is a mirror for the love of God for all God’s creation, a love freely given to each of us just because God has chosen to; a love that exceeds our ability to fully comprehend. The resurrection of Jesus is our assurance that this love will always prevail, no matter how ugly the world around us might be and, if we allow it, this can be for us the source of strength we need in order to engage the world, in all its ugliness, knowing that the world will not be our undoing.
The bad news is that as followers of the Way of Jesus we are called to be agents for the same grace and unqualified love of God for humankind – and all creation – God has revealed through Jesus. We are called to not only fully acknowledge the ugliness to which the demons of our world give rise, but also to confront, transform and transfigure it, with God’s help, so that at least the part of the world within our reach is a more perfect reflection of the will of God as Jesus has revealed and lived it.
Let us be among those who engage the brokenness of the world around us through nothing less than the unconditional love of God. Let us seek the transformed worldview – the transfiguration – that will empower us in our work. May it be so.
10 February 2017
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep.” (Luke 5)
Michelle Obama is famous for having said, “When they go low, we go high.” I’d like to play off that statement this morning, but paraphrasing it to say, “When they go thin, we go deep.”
Now, the “they” in that statement is nobody in particular. It’s anyone who speaks a platitude, or a slogan, or some kind of propaganda—anything that’s said that substitutes superficiality for substance; triviality for seriousness; shallowness for depth. You know what I mean: you can hear it most anywhere. On the television news, in the mouths of politicians, from the lecterns of the halls of academia—even from the pulpits of the church (I hasten to add).
But moving from the thinness of so much of what we hear, to the depths for which our hearts and minds yearn, is important, because in the gospel we just heard, Jesus teaches his disciples that it’s in the deep where the fish are to be found. Jesus is walking along the lake of Gennesaret, and he comes upon several fishing boats lined up along the shore, one of them belonging to Simon. The fisherman have been out all night, though the fisherman haven’t caught a thing. Yet Jesus bids them to put out their boats once more, and directs them to come with him into deeper water, and to let down their nets there. And what happens? Their nets come up full to overflowing, so heavy with fish that they even start to tear. Depth, that’s where there’s a catch to be made!
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about language, and the difficulties that come with trying to say something of substance, something with depth, something that resists the rising tide of vulgar simplification. I was put in this frame of mind by a TED talk that a colleague group to which I belong shared together. It was given by Lera Broditsky, a cognitive scientist who spoke on the topic, “How language shapes the way we think.” She pointed out that there are roughly 7,000 different languages spoken around the globe—which also means that there are roughly 7,000 different worldviews, because language shapes the way in which we understand ourselves, and the world around us.
As an example, she pointed to an aboriginal society in which their language has no equivalent for “left” and “right.” Instead, they orient themselves according to the four directions. So, for example, if I hold up at this moment what I would call my “right” hand, they would describe it as my “southwest” hand. Or if I held up my “left” hand, they would say that it was my “southeast” hand. Think of the difference in that: instead of defining my place in the world in reference to myself (left or right), this culture would have me define it by reference to the physical world around me (north, south, east, west).
The point is that when we use words, we naively assume that they have a kind of direct correspondence to the world around us. In fact, even words with the most obvious meanings, are actually very culturally conditioned—like left and right. And if that is true of simple concepts like left and right, how much more so of extremely complex concepts like—God, for instance! In our common usage, you and I assume rather casually that the word “God” refers to something rather concrete and tangible. But if we start to pick that word apart a bit, we quickly discover that it is rather indeterminate. Do we mean by God the unity of all things in the divine life, or their inherent diversity? Do we mean by God an inexhaustible reservoir of mercy and compassion, or the judgment of evil? Do we mean by God a reality that is as near as the beating of our own heart, or as transcendent as the heavens above ultimately beyond our knowing?
In short, as we begin to pick apart the idea of God, do we not come to a place where God is the silence that is left when the games of all of our other speech have ceased? Is God … silence? That’s deep.
The silence of God, however, is not a void. It is a silence that is full. A silence that is pregnant. A silence where we stop spilling our platitudes and slogans and propaganda about ourselves, and discover the depths. Thomas Merton once said, “If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and, in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless.”
Our Christian life is about learning what it means to have something true to say, by stilling the superficial voices of the self sufficiently to hear the deep, silent voice of God. And by extension, church is a place where we come to learn how to use words carefully, thoughtfully, expressively, deeply—breaking the silence only when necessary. Even the words we use here in worship, which in their abundance may at first seem to be the antithesis of silence, are ultimately about replacing the superficial interior dialogue we have with ourselves, with a language that first substitutes, and then quiets our interior voice so that we may hear the silence that is God. [You have to sing Amazing Grace a thousand times, before you can really sing it once.]
Now, I know that for most of us, “silence” is about as accessible in our daily routine, as “order” is in our households. But it’s all around us, like the air we breath, waiting to be heard. It’s there, whenever you need to listen to it. So maybe, just now, in the prayers we are about to offer, you will hear in this moment the silence that is the deep, the silence that says more than anything else you will hear today, the silence that is at the core of life, the silence that both preceded and will follow you. So listen: listen for the depths, listen for what God’s silent voice has to say to you. Amen.
27 January 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8)
Rather than talking twice today—once in the sermon, and a second time at the Annual Meeting—I thought I would combine the two into one “State of the Church” address. Perhaps it will help make up for the postponement of the State of the Union, which we were all looking forward to so much.
Let’s start with the reading from Nehemiah. It may seem a bit obscure, but it’s actually really important. The people of Judah have, after many years, finally returned to Jerusalem after their forced exile in Babylon. They found the city in ruins, so as a first priority they have rebuilt the city walls for safety, and now they turn their attention to their religious life that is in tatters after such a long disruption. Ezra the priest stands up to read the Torah, the law given through Moses, and when the people realize the divergence between its lofty vision of what it means to serve God, and the feebleness of their own efforts, they begin to weep. How far they have fallen! How pitiful is their conformity to its precepts! But in that moment, they also discover that to reintroduce God into every aspect of their lives—as the law proscribes—is a source of great joy. As Ezra reminds them, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
In short, they realize what Abraham Heschel summarized with the maxim, “God is of no importance, unless God is of supreme importance.” Or in other words, unless God touches every aspect of our lives, then God is no god at all, but only a casually important resource rather like a dentist, or an undertaker: useful from time to time, but not all that influential on the way we live. But that is not what the people hear in Ezra’s reading of the law: they hear there that the God who created us has a claim on our life, a claim to be the context for everything we do. Otherwise, it is not God whom we follow, but a mere fantasy of our own ego.
So, for example, if God is not the source and standard for our concepts of justice, then God is not God. Or if God does not touch the way in which we relate to other people at home, at work, or in the community, then God is not God. Or if God does not judge the truthfulness and integrity of our politics, then God is not God. Or if God does not determine the meaning of community in every part of our lives, even where it is most uncomfortable at places like the border, then God is not God. To repeat: “God is of no importance, unless God is of supreme importance.”
Having been the pastor here at St. Michael’s now for nearly four years, it seems to me that our great blessing is that like the people who heard the Torah read by Ezra, this parish has over time committed itself to doing its best to let God be supreme in our life together. We’re not perfect, obviously. But when we worship, we do try to have something to say, rather than just to say something. When we meet together, we do try to be respectful and hear one another out, letting the Spirit work between us. When we hear someone knocking on our door, we do try to welcome them in. When we look around our neighborhood, we do try to see and respond to real human needs. When we come up against political challenges and issues, we do try to let our faith-based commitment to human dignity and justice shape our thinking. When we consider the gifts that God has given us individually, we are quick to respond generously to the needs of others, and of the church. Heschel called such a life, a life that is compatible with God’s presence.
Think back over what evidence from this the last year we have for our genuine efforts to be God-centered people. We housed, cared for and supported a family seeking asylum.
We invited all three of our local congressional candidates to speak to us as a sign of our political engagement—and diversity.
We launched The Restoration Project to cultivate deeper discipleship with Jesus.
We held our first annual all-parish retreat at Camp Stoney.
We began Soul Break, to invigorate our contemplative prayer life.
We experimented with The Well as an intergenerational Saturday evening worship experience.
We continued to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Navajoland.
We provided essential early childhood education to over 70 preschoolers, and supported their sometimes struggling families.
We invested time and resources in taking our J2A teens on pilgrimage to Canterbury.
We supported those who are caregivers for a loved one, or who grieve someone’s loss.
We added new staff to expand our programs in Christian formation for all ages, to deepen our pastoral care, and to enliven our music in worship. (And by the way, I want to add that we have what I think is an exceptionally fine staff. They work hard, they support, encourage, challenge, and joke with one another. And they love the people they serve. Our heartfelt thanks to each of them.)
We did our best to spend and manage money carefully, to honor and make most advantage of the gifts you so faithfully give.
And perhaps most stunningly, almost without thinking, we just decided to put our shoulder to the wheel and pay off our mortgage through one lead gift and then an extraordinary outpouring of generosity to our Easter Challenge. I’m still amazed, and with that done, we have finally finished a project the parish took on over a decade ago, of which we are all the beneficiaries, as we have celebrated today.
And meanwhile behind the scenes we continued to provide food to those who need help through the food pantry; we fed meals to those experiencing homelessness, or who had been released from prison.
Our seniors shared their monthly lunch together. We provided clothes and school supplies to our local public schools. And there are also all the amazing things that so many of you do out in the community that the rest of us don’t even know about.
We didn’t get it all right, we made some mistakes, some people may have felt overlooked along the way. But I think it’s fair to say, that we genuinely tried to let God touch our lives, and through us the lives of others, so that it could not be said that God is of no real importance to us, but is perhaps of supreme importance.
Two years ago, I suggested that we ought to try turning the parish inside out. As you can see, we’ve come a long way in doing just that. But there is more to do. Our Immigration Ministry is considering opening up space for emergency housing, “The Landing,” to offer short-term shelter to immigrants just released from detention, people from Navajoland coming to town for medical care, or maybe even youth groups on pilgrimage. Our own Rite 13 middle-school group needs support and encouragement. Our preschool has greater potential still for addressing the critical issue of early childhood education in New Mexico. “The Well” needs to be established as a regular Saturday evening worship experience. We need to continue to deepen our support for seniors, anticipating the “silver tsunami” that wil affect our whole society as the boomers age. Our Parish Hall desperately needs a makeover, to make it a true place of hospitality. And it may even be time to revisit the Sunday morning schedule, which always seems rushed and leaves us a bit scattered as a community.
But I trust that as people willing to put God first, we are also people who will achieve what God intends us to do. We can take great courage in that, in these days when communities of faithful integrity and with a commitment to truth and justice are so vital to our common future not just as a church, but as a nation and a people. Amen.
Pastor Joe Britton
Homily for the funeral of Marion Canterbury
St. Michael’s Church
24 January 2019
Jesus said, “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”
(Matthew 5:10, in The Message)
It was Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who once said, “Reform in the church always comes from the fringe.”
To celebrate the life of Mother Marion Canterbury brings those words to mind, for she was someone who truly lived life and exercised her ministry at the edge of the church—and to great effect!
Marion was the kind of person who sought out the needs of people wherever and whatever they were: she would as readily celebrate the Eucharist on the tailgate of a pickup or on a pool table in a bar, as in a church.
Or sensing the hunger—both physical and spiritual—of the students and faculty at NMSU, she created “God, Mother, and Apple Pie,” a restaurant in Canterbury House (which everyone of course assumed was named for her). Through her prodigious culinary skills, she not only brought the campus community in for both breakfast and lunch every day, but made her own living at it as well.
Marion was a priest who was never seduced by the titles and privileges of the institutional church. She never wore clericals, but just a black shirt with an open white collar—imminently more practical in the desert heat, if nothing else. Being beyond retirement age for much of her ministry, she mostly worked for half-pay.
She was, in her way, a worthy successor to the legendary Preacher Lewis, that intrepid pastor who founded congregations all over southern rural New Mexico, from El Paso to Albuquerque. His circuit was along what was known as the Jornada de Fe, and from his base in Las Cruces he walked or hitch-hiked from one far-flung community to another to be present with their people.
Marion became pastor for several of the 28 churches founded by Lewis, including Christ Church, Hillsboro, my own home base. Like Lewis before her, she is remembered in Hillsboro for making the slightly notorious S-Bar-X saloon her first stop whenever she came into town—not for a drink (or maybe so), but mainly to catch up on the news, to find out who needed what, and to put out her tin cup to take up a collection.
At a time when being ordained as a woman was still very new in the Episcopal Church—and still very precarious—Marion became a deacon in 1979 and a priest in 1980. When she was later forced out of her ministry by a new bishop, along with a number of other women in this diocese, she remained loyal to her call, shaking the dust off her feet and going north to Wyoming to follow in her father’s footsteps by ministering to several congregations there. A note that came with flowers for this service from Christ Church, Douglas reflects the strength of her ministry there: “She was a wonderful, unique and necessary gift to the world.”
Perhaps the obstacles that were thrown down in Marion’s path are why her daughter Susy wanted the text from First Corinthians printed on the back of the bulletin. As Susy explained, “In Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, the heroine finds herself questioning whether she can do what needs to be done, whether she can save her father, her little brother, whether she can do her part in stopping the creeping darkness threatening the earth. She expresses her doubts to some spiritual allies, one of whom quotes part of this scripture to her. I'm sure my mom experienced many such doubts and, like the heroine of the story, kept moving forward anyway.” And so we read in Paul’s letter, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise … But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”
Marion never had much money, but she had a zeal and zest for life that got her by, together with her five children. One time, the story is told, the lights at home were out because the electricity had been cut off for non-payment. “Goody,” exclaimed Marion. “We can have a candlelight picnic.” And so the family did.
Tommy Means recalls that he was discouraged by the bishop at the time from ordained ministry, who said that he had no qualifications whatsoever. “Marion however demanded it,” Tommy said. “And it was hard to tell her no.” Tommy is here today, now a beloved retired priest whose path paralleled in many ways Marion’s own journey through southern New Mexico and up to Wyoming. He is a living tribute to her instinctive pastoral wisdom and insight into what people are capable of doing, when given the chance.
But we would fail in our task of mourning Marion, if we only celebrated her daring unconventionality, and did not also learn from her example of what might be called a “ministry in the raw.” That’s where our scripture readings come in.
In planning this service, Marion’s daughters asked that some of the lessons be read from The Message, a modern paraphrase of the Bible which as you may know seeks to restore the liveliness and directness of its original language. When we hear the Beatitudes read from that version as we did today, and in the context of the life of Marion Canterbury, we can perhaps grasp the visceral directness not only of Jesus’ ministry, but of hers as well. He, like her, was not one to beat around the bush: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope,” he says. “With less of you, there is more of God and his rule,” or, “Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out … What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort.”
In words like that, we hear an urgency and candor that is so easily drained out of our ordinary life together. I sometimes imagine, for instance, that what we blithely call Jesus’ “Words of Institution” in the Eucharistic prayer, were originally stammered in a kind of despairing desperation at the Last Supper. Somehow, somehow Jesus had to get the message across to his friends that he was about to die for them—“What can I use?”, (I imagine him saying). “Maybe this, this bread, this is my body! And maybe this, this wine, this is my blood! Do you get it? Do you care?”
Mother Marion was a priest who, by her own example of self-sacrificial ministry, called the rest of us also to care. To care about things that matter! To care about the poor, the immigrant, the alienated! To care about the reform of the church! To care about one another! To care about God! (To care about … God.)
I regret to say that I never met Marion—or rather, I only met her on her death-bed, as I administered Last Rites to her—but I have to say nevertheless, that I will miss her tremendously, as will many of you.
Thanks be to God for the gift that she was! Thanks be to God, for a life lived on the fringe. Amen!