Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Desert Inside Us--A Sermon Preached at Christ Church Cathedral and The Church of St. Michael and St. George by The Reverend Canon John W. Kilgore, M.D. on 18 February 2015, Ash Wednesday

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret

In a few moments you will be invited to the observance of holy Lent, ‘by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.’ And you will, if you desire, have ashes imposed on your forehead. Ashes from palm fronds of last Palm Sunday, burned. The molecules of living things on this earth. Perhaps of ones you knew here, or your forbears. And in the future perhaps molecules of you will be imposed on someone else’s forehead. Lent, and the ashes, remind us of our transient nature and of our place in God’s universe. And the ashes go on the foreheads of all - wealthy and destitute, educated and ignorant, compassionate and cruel. All of us, without distinction. So how do we live into this holy season? What are we to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’?

There are three lines in our readings today that seem to inform us, our lives of faith, at tis juncture. ‘Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,’ from Matthew’s gospel. ‘He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness,’ from the Psalm. And ‘Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near — a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!’ from the prophet Joel.

Our lives seem pretty good. But there is a lot of evil stuff going on in the world right now. ISIS is out there and has declared Christianity as one of their major targets. They seem to be attacking a major European capital every week. They have declared the fall of Christian Rome by the end of the year. And are very likely in America in full force soon. A fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel?

Maybe. But there has always been evil in the world. There have always been times of difficulty, of tension. We, in our life times, and especially here in America, have lived in a time of particular, peculiar, and privileged security. Almost everyone has enough to eat, while half the world goes to bed hungry every night. Our cities are secure, we don’t have rockets and IPG’s and suicide bombings going off every day in every market places and villages. And life expectancy is incredibly high. Until AIDS, almost all infectious disease were wiped out — smallpox, polio, TB. And the transient ones that killed, diphtheria, strep throat, meningitis, Neisseria, and others were treatable with antibiotics, discovered in the 20th century. We are privileged. We are fortunate. But it may not always be that way. Perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security. America is so much better than almost every other place in the world. By our world standards.

But do we know our need for God? Do we realize our transitory nature? And how are we to explore that during Lent, our appointed religious season for such exercise? Most of us will say, ‘Give something up!’ And that has been the traditional wisdom. Indeed I was with someone just a couple of days ago who said, ‘what is that old stuff about giving up for Lent? Aren’t we supposed to take something on? Giving up seems so wrong!’ Lent is not about giving up, or taking on. Lent is about knowing our need for God. About remembering that indeed ‘days of darkness and gloom…clouds and thick darkness’ are part of our earthly experience. While we might be lulled into a sense of false security, especially here in America, that is not guaranteed. Travail may come. And Lent is also about remembering that ‘we are dust and to dust we shall return…’ But the Psalm reminds us, ‘He redeems our life from the grave and crowns us with mercy and loving-kindness.’ But only if we know God. Which is why that first line is important. ‘Whenever you pray, go into your room, and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.’ If we don’t know God, we don’t know God’s salvation.

Which is why Lent is so important. Lent symbolizes Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness when he fasted and the angels tended to him. It reminds us of the forty years in the desert of the Israelites. And it is our yearly time to stop, slow down, consider our relationship with God, and work to improve it. It is not about giving up or taking on, but rather, about a time to get to know God better and to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation and what Jesus did on the Cross for our salvation.
Brother Ronald Rolheiser writes, ‘Lent invites us to stop eating, so to speak, whatever protects us from having to face the desert that is inside of us. It invites us to feel our smallness, to feel our vulnerability, to feel our fears, and to open ourselves to the chaos of the desert so that we can finally give the angels a chance to feed us.’

So how do we do that? What do we do? It depends on you and on what you discern in prayer to be your Lenten discipline. Last week I gave a couple of tips for finding ways to pray in small snatches throughout the day. Perhaps that is your Lenten path this year. Certainly that is about knowing God better. Possibly Lent is indeed giving something up: tobacco, or alcohol, or chocolate, or meat, or lunch. But any giving up is to be combined with prayer, and with giving. As I was instructed years ago by a great priest and mentor, fasting is always accompanied by prayer! When I learned that, fasting became a very different experience for me. That little prayer when hunger pains strike, ‘Lord, fill up my emptiness with your presence’ (praying in little snatches through the day!) is an amazing salve to hunger pains, and a true spiritual lift. And giving up, likewise should be accompanied by giving. if you fast a meal, perhaps that money should go to feed someone hungrier than you. Last year I endeavored to, everyday in Lent, call a friend that I had not been in touch with in some time. It was wonderful and uplifting out of the blue to talk and catch up. It was uplifting to me and to them. I gave up some of my time to others. But I was the one fed. I have to confess that I missed a lot of days. And endeavor to do it again this year, more consistently, and to combine prayer for those I am calling, after I learn their life situations.

I don’t know what your Lenten discipline might be this year. But I urge you to adopt one that is a combination of giving up and taking on. But more importantly, to make Lent a time of knowing God better in prayer. Go into your room and shut the door and pray to our Father in secret. These admonitions and disciplines in Lent are only tools to shift our focus from our earthly lives to our relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A day of darkness and gloom may indeed be coming, but He, Jesus the Christ, redeems our life from the grave. That is the message of Easter, but it is difficult to see if we haven’t been in the desert of Lent. I wish you a blessed Lent.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Calling out the spirits" - A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, February 1, 2015

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!"

It begins with calling out the spirits. So it was with Jesus. So it is with us.

Jesus always put first things first. And in Mark’s Gospel, this morning’s story of Jesus casting out the unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum is the very first thing he did after calling the disciples.

Jesus doesn’t start by going out into the world. Jesus starts at home with his community of faith. Jesus, a Jew, looks in the mirror first – looks at the synagogue – and names its own uncleanness, its own dysfunction, its own evil, before going out into the world to name it there.

Naming unclean spirits is not about creating one more us vs. them, not about dividing a community into good people and evil people or picking a few scapegoats to self-righteously cast out. For Jesus and for us, naming unclean spirits is about calling out behavior and ways of being that hold us captive. About naming the ways we act and the systems in which we participate that keep us fully from becoming the Body of Christ.

Naming and casting out unclean spirits is about renouncing ways of life that divide, corrupt and destroy, and instead, putting our whole trust in Jesus and following his example in living lives of bold truth-telling, deep integrity, and radical hospitality and love.

What Jesus tells us by putting first things first and marching right into the synagogue and calling out the spirits is that unless we first name and cast out the spirits in our own community, we will never be able to be the church in the world in ways that will bring in the realm of God on earth as it is in heaven.

This work is Job One. And like everything about following Jesus, we never do it alone. Like everything else about following Jesus, we name the unclean spirits and cast them out together, looking each other deeply in the eyes all the way.

That’s why even though we Episcopalians don’t like to talk about evil and darkness because it sounds so superstitious, we do talk about it in one of the most important places – in our baptismal service.

Everyone pick up the red prayer books and turn to the bottom of page 302. This is a part of our baptismal service we don’t spend a lot of time on, and yet it’s one of the most ancient and important pieces of becoming part of the Body of Christ.

It’s called the renunciations and the adhesions. Six questions we answer before we are baptized: Three ways of life we reject and three sacred vows we make. It is the liturgical embodiment of what Jesus did in the synagogue at Capernaum. It is us gathering as the community of the faithful, naming the unclean spirits in our lives and in our life and saying “we are not going to be about this” … and then turning to Jesus and saying “we belong to you.”

Now take a deep breath. And let it out. And let’s answer these questions together:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do.

I asked us to take a deep breath before answering these questions, because if these renunciations and adhesions don’t make us tremble, then we simply aren’t paying attention. In making these promises, we are staring the worst of the world right in the face and rejecting it. Even more, we are putting our whole trust in the grace and love of one who has shown us that his grace and love leads directly to the cross.

If you want to know who we are as a Christian community, it doesn’t get any plainer than this. We are a community that openly names and calls out the forces of evil, the powers which corrupt and destroy and the temptations that draw us from the love of God. And we do not do it in fear but trusting that because of the surpassing grace and love of Jesus Christ those powers which for years have silenced us in fear will they themselves be silenced and driven out.

And this morning, Jesus reminds us that first things are indeed first. That it begins with calling out the spirits. With letting them know they cannot hide from us. With naming them without fear. With trusting in the power of Jesus Christ to strip them of their power and cast them out.

This morning, Jesus reminds us it begins with calling out the spirits. And that means it begins with us. Right here. Right now. That is the challenge before us. And it means even as we go out into the world to transform the world’s ills, we cannot neglect the work we have to do right here in our community.

And so, together, with Jesus by our side, we have some hard looks to give ourselves and some hard questions to ask ourselves.

As we offer space for AA meetings and as we lobby for greater services for people struggling with addiction and mental illness in the St. Louis region, do we look at our own history of alcoholism and addiction both in this Cathedral community and in our diocese? Do we see the ways we still live into the addictive family system model of “Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.” Do we renounce that spirit and call it out with a renewed commitment to health in our relationships and in our communication with one another?

As we go out into the streets and proclaim that Black Lives Matter, as we demand justice and equality of opportunity for all regardless of race or class, do we look at the unwritten rules of the Nave of Christ Church Cathedral? The customs of where we sit when we’re in this room that perpetuate division in this community. That those of us of color tend to sit toward the back and those of us struggling with homelessness tend to sit on the margins? Do we renounce that spirit and call it out with a renewed commitment to dismantling our own “us vs. them” thinking and deepening our relationships with those who are most different from us?

As we go into the courtrooms and lobby our legislators to strike down laws that treat those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender as less than full members of society, do we look at how welcoming we truly are of people who are new and different to this Cathedral community once we get beyond the handshake and smile at the door. Do we hear that often the experience of people new to this Cathedral community is that we are initially warm and welcoming but then only talk to the people we already know? Do we renounce that spirit and call it out with a renewed commitment to treating the stranger as Christ and incorporating all people into the life of this community?

Addiction. Segregation. Inhospitality. These are powerful spirits to name. And undoubtably there are others. They are certainly not unique to Christ Church Cathedral but we can be unique in our resolve to face them head-on just as Jesus did that day in Capernaum.

And just as with this morning’s Gospel, we can be sure they will not go quietly. Like the man in the synagogue in Capernaum, they have been living among us for so long they have become our familiar friend. We will be tempted to deny that these spirits are among us because their existence does not fit with the image we have of ourselves. And as a body, we will convulse and cry out as we allow Jesus to name these spirits and drive them from us, so accustomed and even dependent have we become on them in our life together.

But that’s not all. There’s one thing more. For, just as with this morning’s Gospel, as we do this. As we with courage show ourselves and the world that we are not afraid to name the spirits in our community that corrupt, destroy and draw us from the love of God. As we with courage name them, look them full in the face and renounce them and instead embrace the bold truth-telling, deep integrity and radical hospitality of Jesus Christ. As we do this just as in Capernaum and the surrounding region of Galilee, the people will look at us with amazement. They will look at us and see Jesus. And there is no greater purpose for us than that.

And the good news is, with God’s help, we can do it. We can do it in here and we can do it out there. The spirits of addiction, segregation and inhospitality are strong. We have grown accustomed to living with them to the point where it is easy for us to deny they are even there. But they are nothing compared to the goodness of this Cathedral community. They are nothing compared to the past and present history of love in this Cathedral community. And most of all, they are nothing compared to the power of Jesus Christ.

The people marveled at Jesus because Jesus spoke with authority. And Jesus gives that authority to us. We have authority when, turning to Jesus and accepting him as our savior, we don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk. We have authority when, putting our whole trust in Christ’s grace and love, our integrity is beyond question and our motives are beyond reproach. We have authority when following and obeying Jesus as our Lord, in deep love for one another we simply name what we see, confess our own sin and proclaim our trust in the healing power of Christ to amend our lives.

And as it did with Jesus, it begins with calling out the spirits. With letting them know they cannot hide from us. With naming them without fear. With trusting in the power of Jesus Christ to strip them of their power and cast them out.

First things first. It begins with calling out the spirits. And that means it begins with us. AMEN.