May 20, 2018: The Day of Pentecost, Steve Petrunak, President of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians
13 May 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Feast of San Isidro
“Other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain.” (Mark 4)
The gospel this morning is chosen especially for the feast of San Isidro, and is the familiar parable where Jesus tells of a sower who scatters seed on a variety of ground, but only one of which yields a fruitful harvest. The seeds sown along the path, or on rocky ground, or on shallow soil, or among the thorns yield nothing, but the seed sown into good, deep soil bears thirty, sixty, even and hundredfold.
Now, there are any number of meanings you can ascribe to the good, deep soil—it might be a metaphor for faithfulness, or learning, or hard work, or any number of things. But the one I want to explore picks up on last week’s theme of simplicity. You may recall that I invoked the maxim then that in anything at all, perfection is attained not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away. Thinking about matters of faith, I suggested that what is important is not elaborate religious ritual and practice, but the simplicity of the relationship between Christians given through Christ in Word and Sacrament: “One Bible and two Christians” is all you really need.
Simplicity, however, is not a simple matter. Indeed, the French poet Paul Valéry once remarked, “What is there more mysterious than clarity?” So today I’d like to come at the idea of simplicity from the direction of personal character. Let’s suppose, that what Jesus had in mind when he talked about seed falling onto deep, rich soil, was the planting of seed in persons whom we would describe as having a real depth of character.
San Isidro, I think, gives us a positive example of what this looks like. Isidro was a farm laborer who lived long ago near Madrid, Spain. He worked for a large landowner, but before going to the fields each day he made it his habit to go first to one of the churches in Madrid to attend mass.
And Isidro seems to have been one of those people who very much took to heart what he heard there. Motivated by Jesus’ call to serve the poor, he regularly shared what little food he had with those who had nothing. Legend has it that he frequently invited the hungry home to eat with him and his wife Maria, and their small stew pot miraculously never ran out.
Even the animals were recipients of his generosity: one winter day when he was on his way to the mill to have a sack of grain ground, he came upon some birds vainly trying to scratch the frozen ground for something to eat. So he opened the sack, sharing some of the grain with them, but then when he reached the mill, the sack was once again full.
Isidro, it seems, was a man whose character achieved a correspondence between his conviction and action. What he learned at church, he put into practice in life. It would be easy for us to hear these stories, however, as mere morality tales, and miss what seems to me is a deeper point. Isidro achieved in himself a distillation of what is important in life that gave him a depth of character in which conviction and action were in harmony and continuity. He is an example of someone who had pruned away the innumerable distractions and preoccupations of life, and was left with what in religions terms we might call discipleship and service; or in more secular terms, commitment and action.
This pruning away of whatever it is that unproductively distracts and preoccupies us is, in my experience, one of the hardest challenges of life. It is, for example, so easy to brood on the hurts and slights we receive from other people, that we become unaware of the gifts of love and friendship that are extended to us. Or we become so concerned with how we wish our children or our parents would act, that we overlook who they really are to us. You fill in the story for yourself: each of us has some story to tell of becoming distracted and preoccupied, so that we overlook what is really important.
I mentioned several weeks ago that I was going up to Fort Collins, Colorado, to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of the installation of the Casavant organ at Colorado State University. Now, that may not sound like any big deal to you, but that instrument had a huge impact on my life, especially through my father-in-law, Robert Cavarra, who as the professor of organ oversaw its installation.
Dad Cavarra had thought a lot about music, and what separates the great from mediocre. For him it was not about showmanship, or flamboyance, but about clarity and musicality. And as his student, I learned a lot from him about distilling one’s thinking to get beyond distraction and preoccupation down to the essentials.
Let me give you an example. I don’t know how much you know about the organ world, but it’s a real subculture. Organists love to travel around and visit various instruments, and most of the time, upon sitting down at a new instrument, an organist will pull on all the stops to see what the instrument “has got.”
Dad Cavarra thought otherwise. Many a time, I saw him sit down at an organ that was new to him, put his finger on middle C, and then pull on a single stop: the 8’ principal (8’ means that when you play middle C, you get middle C). He would quietly listen to that one note, and then pull on the 4’ principal (which sounds the note an octave higher), continuing to listen. Finally he would pull on the 2’ principal (which in turn sounds the same note, two octaves higher). What he was listening for was whether the three pitches were three separate blobs of sound, or whether they became fused more subtly into a single sound. He could tell, just based on that test, whether an organ had been built with the kind of care that created a truly fine instrument, or whether it was a distracting smorgasbord of competing and sometimes conflicting sounds.
I know it’s a bit of an esoteric example, but my memory of Dad Cavarra testing out a new organ is for me an image of what we have to do for ourselves in cultivating our personal character. Have we done the hard work of sorting out the continuity between our convictions and actions? Are we a harmonious, balanced assortment of skills and commitments? Or are we at odds with ourselves, incongruous and conflicted, going in six difference directions at once?
Rowan Williams once said, in addressing a group of ordinands, that our vocation is the residue that is left, when all the games of self-deception have ceased. That is the simplicity toward which the spiritual life that we are together pursuing in this place tries to direct us: to find here at church (like Isidro himself), the guidance in God’s Word, and from one another, by which to sort out who we are, and what our deepest convictions and commitments are going to be. And then, as we go into the fields of our own life, to go about fulfilling them by the way we conduct ourselves in our labor, our living, and our loving. May we, like San Isidro so many years ago, receive the gift of such clarity! Amen.
Robert didn’t make a very good impression the day he came for his interview with me. I was about to appoint a new teacher of Religious Education. Religious Education – RE – is part of the academic curriculum in most British schools. One of my granddaughters has recently qualified as an RE teacher. Robert was a disheveled young man; hair all over the place, collar all crooked, shoes none too clean. But by the end of the interview I liked him enough to hire him, and he proved one of the best appointments I ever made.
In the spring of his first year at the school he came to see me. “
“It’ll soon be Ascension Day,” he said. “I would like to celebrate it here with some of our students.”
“What do you have in mind, Robert?” I asked him.
“Well, I think we should get as close to heaven as we can, and then have our celebration. I’ve found a dusty old staircase in the main building, and it leads up all the way to the roof. We could have our Ascension Day service there.”
“Good idea,” I said. And every year that’s what we did.
The story of Christ’s ascension into heaven is full of meaning, some symbolic, some almost political, but it is neglected in many Protestant churches. Some sects take the Ascension more seriously than others. My wife Bea has the diaries of her grandmother, who grew up in a Mennonite family, and it is clear from what she wrote that Mennonites make a very big deal of the Ascension. For them it seems much more important than Christmas or Easter. In the Episcopal church people sometimes seem to view the Ascension as a bit of an afterthought, tacked on as a sort of postscript to the main events of the nativity, the passion and the resurrection. We get the idea that Jesus, having finished his earthly assignment, is taken up into heaven to sit at God’s right hand and just hang about until it’s time for the second coming. Meanwhile, we are left to get on with our lives, muddling along as best we can, sustained by the memories of Jesus’ earthly life and work, and hoping that when Judgment Day finally dawns we will not be found too wanting.
That of course is a limited, superficial view of the Ascension. Because the Ascension is most emphatically not about absence. The whole point is that in the Ascension Jesus is not leaving us. As our King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the ascended Christ is very present indeed. He has told us: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’. After the Ascemsion he is as involved as he ever was, but now he is not just our teacher and friend, showing us how life should be lived. He is power, he is glory, he is God. And as he sits at God’s right hand he takes charge. Christ ascended is in charge of God’s Kingdom. Now and always. We have sometimes tended to look at the Kingdom of God as a distant dream, an ideal, something towards which we should work, something that should be our ultimate objective.
But here we come to the astounding thing about the Ascension. The ascended Christ, seated at God’s right hand, establishes beyond any doubt that the Kingdom is here. The Kingdom is now. The ascended Christ is no longer some kind of heir-apparent. He is in charge. There is no greater authority. There is no higher power. And, more astounding still, Christ in glory has a place for you and for me in the Kingdom he has established and over which he reigns. But how, you may ask, are creatures like you and me going to measure up to filling such a place? The disciples may well have had such a question in their hearts as they stood gaping up into the sky. But Jesus answers it. ‘You,’ he says, ‘will be clothed with power from on high.’
So what is that power? With all our faults, all our shortcomings, all our weaknesses, how are you and I empowered to take up our place in Christ’s Kingdom? Fortunately, there’s a simple answer. It’s that you and I have the power to love God and to love each other. That’s all we need to do – although of course it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. But how inspiring it is to think that the ascended Christ decides to entrust his established Kingdom to us, to give us the task of strengthening it, developing it perfecting it – and, yes, enjoying it. How inspiring, and how challenging. If we are to learn anything from the message of the Ascension, surely it must be that you and I have work to do. Fortunately, it is glorious work. It’s the best kind of work we can ever engage in. It is, in the fullest possible sense, a labor of love. We know that Jesus loves us enough to die for us. We know that we have the power to love God and to love each other. So let’s get to work. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do whatever we can to enhance the Kingdom, and as we do, we are celebrating in the best possible way the ascended, glorified and divine Christ Jesus our Savior and our Lord.
10 May 2018
6 May 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You must love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15)
St. Michael’s is not a particularly religious place, and I am more grateful for that fact than I can express. … But perhaps I need to explain what I mean.
Abraham Heschel distinguished between what he called symbolic religion on the one hand, and the experience of the living God on the other. Symbolic religion is preoccupied with what we as Christians might call the things of the church: rituals, and titles, and vestments, and rules. Such religion, however, substitutes symbols of the holy, for an authentic encounter with the living God. Religion thereby has a way of keeping God at arm’s length, all the while giving us human beings a perfect alibi for our underlying indifference toward God.
But where, asked Heschel, is the awareness in religion of what is required of us by the God of the prophets: the God whose justice rolls down like a mighty river? Where is the gospel of hope and life and compassion and mercy? Where is the wonder and awe at mysteries that are beyond our knowing? How easy it is to be long on the things of religion, and short on the things of faith! No wonder Jesus railed so consistently against the Pharisees, the true religionists of his time, who though they fulfilled every religious requirement, were nevertheless ultimately left untouched by God.
As Heschel himself put it, “The prophet knew that religion could distort what the Lord demands of [humankind], … calling for ceremonies instead of bursting forth with wrath and indignation at the cruelty, deceit, idolatry, and violence of this world.”
The French aviator and philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (and author of The Little Prince) once wrote that, “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Perfection in other words is in simplicity, in finally reaching the essence of something—not in its painful exaggeration.
So if it is true that perfection is simplicity, how might we apply that principle to the things of faith? Or, to put it another way, what is the bare minimum which one would have to have, in order to have not the Christian religion, but the Christian faith?
The answer that came to me yesterday, as our diocese was gathered amidst great pomp and circumstance to elect a new bishop, is that all one really needs is one Bible, and two Christians: the Bible to give us God’s story, one Christian to baptize the other, and both of them to share communion with one another.
I don’t know, maybe I’m gradually reverting to my Baptist roots, but I just find that the more I read scripture, the clearer it becomes that beneath all the forms and structures of the church, the gospel is really quite simple: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself, because God has first loved you.
I’ve been struck, for example, in this Easter season that every single Sunday, we’ve had at least one reading (usually from the gospel or one of the epistles of John), that basically says the same thing: God is love. Abide in that love. Love God. Love one another. Because God is love, so you should love one another. … And by the way, did I mention that God is love? And that you should love one another? Sure enough, it happened again today: for the umpteenth time, Jesus said in our gospel that we must love one another, as he has loved us. It seems that to be a Christian, you just can’t get away from that gospel bedrock.
I’ve noticed, over the years, that as the people I have most admired in the church get older, they have all fallen into a similar frame of mind about the priority of these first principles. Fr. Ed Ostertag, for instance (my beloved mentor), told me one time that after years of struggling with political issues both civic and ecclesiastical, all he really wanted to do was to celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday, gathered around the altar with a few people who were disciples of Jesus and friends of one another. I’ve heard other mentors say pretty much the same thing. Our own Pepper Marts, shortly before he died, said to me that “The longer I live, the more I think it is all about what you do, and less about what you believe.” Or another friend recently put it even more strongly: “The measure of our worth,” he said, “is how we support each other, and everything else is speculation.” It is as if, the greatest among us, eventually come to the point of wanting to lose their life for Jesus’ sake (somehow that rings a bell …), letting go of the things of religion and coming home to dwell in God’s love.
Which brings me back to St. Michael’s. I say that this congregation is not particularly religious, because it seems to me that temperamentally we are not prone to be preoccupied with the bric-à-brac of church life. We want to do things beautifully, and we want to do them well. But we also tend to want to see through and beyond the things of religion, to the deeper imperative to love God, and to love our neighbor. Both as individuals and as a community, we may look for that kind of simplicity in silence, or in service, or in prayer … but we’re skeptical about it’s being found in ecclesiastical conventions and elaborate ceremony.
Friday night, I was at a concert at which our own David McGuire debuted a new piece of his own composition, entitled “Night Watch.” The piece was inspired by his experience of providing protective accompaniment for an immigrant in sanctuary, who had been jailed and tortured in his home country. The piece is quite minimalist (only voice, bass, and percussion), yet it is highly evocative of the terror one human being experienced through such violent treatment: the cry of nightmarish dreams, the clanging of a cell door, the still small voice of hope. David’s piece, I thought, was a composition of such power that nothing could be taken away without loss. It was honest, it was real, it was true.
Ironically, one of you happened to comment to me at that concert (as we were waiting for the music to begin), how important to your spirituality the adobe wall is here in the church: it is so simple (you said), so common, so earthy, so grounding. Indeed, I am told that the wall was created with bricks made from the earth of this very site: it is truly local, and so it aesthetically draws us into how God is in this place, at this this moment.
Those two things—a musical piece that grew out of an immigrant’s experience, and an appreciation for a wall made out of mud—are to me signs of the determination this congregation has to be rooted in what is truly real and holy, more so than in what is established and “religious.” And it is for that, that I am truly grateful.
At the opening of Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical Mass, there is a song that speaks deeply of this focused spiritual orientation toward God and to the world. As the celebrant begins to vest, wearing only jeans and an open shirt, he reflectively sings these words:
Sing God a simple song, Lauda, laude.
Make it up as you go along, Lauda, laude.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things,
For God is the simplest of all.
Blessed is the one who loves the Lord,
And walks in God’s ways.
Lauda, lauda, laude.