Posted in Preaching

Called in Grace; Serving Gracefully

I was invited by Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island to preach on Saturday, September 12th at the ordination to priesthood of Maxine Barnett and Diane DeBlasio.  I was honored to be asked and did the best I could.  I was blessed to be able to reflect on the many experiences I have had as a priest since ordination on June 11, 1983.  Here is the text of what I preached:

The Ordination as Priests of Maxine Barnett and Diane DeBlasio

By the Right Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, New York

Diocese of Long Island

 

Christ at Emmaus, by Rembrandt.
Christ at Emmaus, by Rembrandt, 1648 (Louvre)

Scriptures:

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 24:13-35 

My father worked as a school custodian for over 35 years. Sometimes in the summers he used to take one or the other of us to work with him. I remember doing a free-range exploration of the school while Dad was working in another part of the building.

One year around this time, just before school opened after summer vacation when I was between grades 4 and 5, I wandered into a classroom which the teacher had already prepared for the opening of the new year. It was neat and silent and clean, all the desks in strict rows, the blackboard looking like it had never yet been used. Between the two classroom doors was a bulletin board decorated, and on the board I read these words:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge |&| shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast |&| with ah! bright wings.

I hardly understood what I was reading, but in some way those words sent a thrill through my mind and heart and body. They were words that spoke somehow of a hope that could and would endure no matter how messy or pained or seared or bleared or smeared the world became. They were words that spoke of divine faithfulness to this creation and to human beings within it. Always, always, in God’s East light is born and reborn and close to the surface of the earth breathes the Holy Ghost.

I didn’t find those words again for years. And when I did, I discovered that they were words put down by a priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). They were words penned by a man who spent most of his life doing the work that most of us women and men do over a lifetime, whatever be our own special calling. He worked to understand the world around him, himself in it, and the relation between the two. Who am I? Who are you? What are we doing here?

What is the call of a priest? What is the call that Maxine and Diane have felt in the very marrow of their bones and that they have been willing to move heaven and earth to answer? What is this call that Augustine describes as the inner voice of God like this:

Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness.

Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness.

Thou didst breathe fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee.

I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. . . .

 (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book X, Chapter XXVII)

 What is that call? In part, it is to do what Hopkins did in that poem he called God’s Grandeur. The priest’s call is to speak haltingly but faithfully of the often hidden and always real presence and action of God among us. It is to attempt to translate into words that sound that broke through Augustine’s deafness, that light that opened his closed eyes, that breath of something that is like nothing else, that changed his life – and still changes lives – utterly and forever.

What is the call of these our sisters, come here today in ancient rites to have their lives re-ordered to a particular place in Christ’s Church?

Is this call not to stand with a terrified Isaiah before the living God? To stand knowing with him the unworthiness we all share and the divine invitation that at once ignores and heals that woefulness? Is it not to stand completely vulnerable before the unsurpassable divine power, that power which expresses itself fully at last by self-emptying and becoming as vulnerable as we, right here on the surface of this planet? Is this call, in a place even of divine voice and smoke and confusion, to yet decide to say, without knowing what lies even one day ahead, “Here I am, send me”?

What is the call that strengthens Diane and Maxine as they answer it?

Is it not heard in the words of the apostle Paul, writing from prison, writing to a community persecuted for its faith, and yet proclaiming joy, joy, joy as he writes? Is that call not echoed in the apostle’s assurance that gratitude, a constant attitude of thankfulness in all and every circumstance, is the key that ushers us into God’s presence?

In whose voice and accents do the hearts of these our sisters hear this call?

Is it not the voice of the Stranger who approached Cleopas and friend somewhere between big-city Jerusalem and village Emmaus? Is it not the Voice of One ready and willing to listen to their story, but also ready to challenge and correct and teach them? Does their call not become tangible, concrete, ready to be touched and even taken up as food and drink, when they willingly invite that Stranger to table and allow him to serve the meal?

They are called, these sisters of ours. They have heard what Isaiah and Paul and Cleopas and friend heard. And like them, they have answered. And so they are here today. And because they have answered, because that moment is always a moment profound and moving, we are drawn here with them.

There is a wonderful statement embedded in the middle of the Gospel of Luke’s 24th chapter, from which our good news comes today. In verse 22, the two refugees from Golgotha, broken-hearted, afraid, and on the road away from the death they know Jesus suffered say this:

 “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.”

Look at these two women with whom we gather in prayer today as they come to be ordained as priests. You who know them well, consider their own Emmaus road which has led to this place and to this time. You know what it has taken in faith, in commitment, in courage, in prayer, in steadfastness, in amazing grace for Maxine and Diane, our sisters, to come to this day. So can we not also speak this day, with absolute truth, with joy, with hope and gratitude the words of Luke 24:22?

“Some women of our group astounded us!”

Diane DeBlasio and Maxine Barnett have astounded us. And likely will astound us again as they take up the ministry of Word and Sacrament, of action and love, of self-sacrifice and grace which is theirs from this day for the rest of their days. The wonderful Greek word in the background in that lucan verse is existemi – to be amazed, to be astonished, to be beside oneself with wonder. This is what women did by giving witness to what they saw on the day of Christ’s Resurrection. And this is what these our sisters are doing for us today. We are beside ourselves with wonder here and now, based on witness given here by these two to Christ’s risen life. We are called today to let that joy, founded firmly on Christ’s life-giving encouragement and energy, flow wide and deep among us.

Now.

Now.

Now. After the final blessing of this Eucharist has been given, and the last hymn sung, and the last piece of cake consumed and all the first blessings given, what follows? What follows then?

I think perhaps something like this.

Like all those who have trod this road before them, Maxine and Diane are given tools this day with which to work. The tools are two: word and gesture. Just as in the sacraments. In baptism there is a word, the invocation of the triune God and a gesture, the pouring of water. In the eucharist, there is a word, the word of Christ over the bread and wine; and the gestures of taking, blessing, and sharing.

These new priests will go forth from this place carrying a word which is not their own, but which has been given to their hearts. It is a word which transforms them first, and invites them then to share that revolution freely.

These new priests will go forth from this place given the responsibility to find gestures – actions, signs, signals, symbols, traces, movements – proper to these times that will carry to those whom they lead and serve an urgent alert that this is our time – our only time – and our opportunity – our one opportunity – to do what Isaiah and Paul, and likely Cleopas and his companion did in their time.

As prayerful and beautiful as this liturgy is, it will be made into something of lasting significance when into the world and onto the streets are carried that word and those gestures.

It will be simple, but it will not be easy. As in every generation, Isaiah’s fear will live again. Paul will languish in prison again. Cleopas and the other disciple will flee again – all in this world now. In this world in which Maxine and Diane, with us, will live and minister in Christ’s name.

There will be times, many of them, that seem to call for extraordinary strength, for creativity, for willingness to step into the breach, for deep compassion for the profoundly poor, for courage to speak an unpopular or worse, ignored word about this seemingly distant figure called Jesus. There will be many times when the world, as Hopkins saw it too, will appear seared and bleared and smeared again. There will be moments when the voice that brought Augustine to wakefulness seems silent again, and the light he saw dimmed, the fragrance he followed faint. I say it again: this is not going to be easy. Nor always done with plenty of supportive company. Living the life of one who went to the cross is not meant to be easy. Following One who held nothing back, but rather gave it all, is never easy when it is genuine.

And you will go at it, Diane and Maxine, with the massive tools of word and gesture! Seems a bit thin on the equipment side, doesn’t it?

How can this be done?

It is possible by only one way: by grace.  As a dean of our school of theology here at Garden City wrote in sweeping, radical, all-out words a generation ago:

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting – no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. . . . it is Jesus who is your life. . . . You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.

(Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three).

If I might put it a little less grandly. You will find, if you pause often to look for it, that the Kingdom of God is present in every moment, not only those bright and beautiful. You will find that any road can be the road to Emmaus, the road to encounter with the risen Christ, the road to abiding nourishment and astounding news.

Emmaus is the point of arrival, at table with Jesus. That is where word and gesture, rendered well, will bring us all. It is fascinating to realize that no one knows exactly where the village was to which Cleopas and the other walked that Sunday evening. We only know it was linked to Jerusalem by road. By word and gesture we invite and lead our contemporaries to that place in the company of Jesus, to that village which now can be anywhere and everywhere, to that village that we build up by our commitment to Christ and our ministry in His Name.

Our part: bring them to Jesus. Despite our weakness, despite what we lack, despite our failures, what we can do is to introduce them – all those we encounter over a lifetime – to Jesus. Bring them to his table. Invite them to sit and get comfortable. The rest is God’s work.

So it is not easy, no. But it is simple.

The work my Dad did for 35 years, like yours, was also a calling. Our word ‘custodian’ comes from the Latin custodi – one who cares. One who protects, escorts, guards and attends.

Maxine and Diane, be good custodians of the treasure that is placed in your hands and hearts. Be loving companions of all God’s people along the road from death to resurrection. Be channels and avenues of God’s ever-generous grace. Entrust your weakness to divine care and speak and act with confidence beyond yourself.

So you will see this world charged ‘with the grandeur of God.’ You will find words to speak of it and gestures to show it. You will see God’s dawn breaking in the east of life and you will be upheld on the ‘bright wings’ of the Holy Ghost.

So may it be!

~ John P. McGinty+

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Posted in Preaching

Slaves of Jesus Christ: Be Stretched

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...
Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I was honored to be asked to preach yesterday at the ordination of Marie, Lauren, and Fred as deacons yesterday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, New York.  Here follows my offering.  I will not provide the scriptural citations as they are quoted within the sermon. 

 

May the ministry of these three in Jesus’ name be long, happy, and graced!

 

 

 

Bishop Provenzano, deacons, priests, holy people of God:

 

I remember lying on the floor on the day I was ordained a deacon as the voices of the people gathered prayed.  I remember the strange feeling of lying face-down there, the sound of prayer above and surrounding.  I remember the old carpet on which we lay was dusty.  It had been swept in a vain attempt to clean it up by brooms made of great lengths of straw, some of which had come out of the brooms and remained on the carpet, and now they jabbed and stabbed us as we lay there in the middle of that community of prayer.  We were stretched out, one with the community and very much alone, apparently at rest but vigilant, every bone and muscle tensed as the prayer continued and the stubble from the brooms poked us.

 

The same ancient word of God to young Jeremiah that we have heard this morning was read that day as well.  To the prophet’s protestation that he was not ready to prophesy, the God of Israel responded, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you and shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”

 

The same hope we prayed moments ago in Psalm 84 beat in our hearts that day too: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose hearts are the highways to Zion, Who going through the barren valley find there a spring, and the early rains will clothe it with blessing.  They will go from strength to strength . . . .”

 

We took, as Lauren, Marie, and Fred do today, Saint Paul’s description of the ministry as our own: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

 

Like you this morning, we pledged anew that day, in a quite particular way, to follow Jesus the Christ.  Our hearts were filled with the desire to learn from him, and with him and through him and like him, to be within the community of disciples “as one who serves.”

 

With my fellow ordinands I lay on that dusty rug that morning with openness of heart and sincerity of mind.  We hardly knew it then, but we had no idea to whom we would be sent, what we would be commanded to say, and just what it was that we were being told we need not ever fear.  We did not know how barren some of the valleys we’d pass through would be; how long we would feel the wait for the blessing of God’s rain, nor how going from strength to strength would sometimes feel like the acrobat waiting for the next trapeze to appear after she’d let go of the last and hung in mid-air, foolishly faithful and faithfully foolish.  We hardly knew then how the temptation to proclaim ourselves rather than Christ Jesus would be real, because we knew more  – or so we thought – about ourselves than about him, and because our commitment to know him more deeply would wax and wane through the years.

 

We knew little then, really, about what it means to serve in the church or even what kind of servants the church would need.  And if I am entirely honest, I don’t know that much more today than I did then.  Like you, I got up off the floor and wiped myself off.  I took a first step, and life happened.  Ministry happened.  Service and preaching and sacraments and connecting to people on the streets happened.  Hour followed hour.  Day followed day, and year followed year.  Joy came, and so did tragedy.  Clarity came, and so did profound confusion.  Sin came and forgiveness followed.  Hunger came and Eucharist nourished.  The world turned and the church changed.  The proclamation of the Word went on, and amazingly, that Word has had something to say to every place, to every person, to every parish and ministry, to every situation, to every Sunday everywhere since then.  And it still does.

 

That Word has been living and active all along simply and marvelously because the One who spoke it remains living and active.  God spoke the day my class was ordained.  God speaks today.  We believed, as I know you do, that we meant everything we said that day, that our words were true.  But that mattered infinitely less than the fact that what God spoke that day, and this, and what God will speak tomorrow is true.  True and transformative and saving.

 

The beautiful prayers of this liturgy, in the words of the Bishop and in your responding affirmations, offer you the church’s guidance in the ministry of deacon which you take up today.  “A special ministry of servanthood,” with service especially to “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”  For them and for us all you make the love of Christ known.  You make certain that the church remains attentive to the needs of the world.  You as deacons, in the words of the second century martyr, Justin, whom the church recalls today, bring the body and blood of Christ ‘to those who are unable to be present at the Eucharist.’  You remind the church, constantly in your very being, that the church’s vocation is to be servant in the name of Christ.  Servant to every need known and every pain shared.

 

As vans belonging to one communication company constantly remind us along our streets and, it seems, at every stop light: “This is huge.”  This is tremendous.  This is a tender, personal, demanding, sustaining, communal, huge calling: to be ‘a slave for Jesus’s sake.’  Neither you nor I nor anyone could do it at all unless we belong entirely and lean daily on the One who is first among us as One who serves.  But belonging there and leaning there, you will do it every day for the rest of your lives.

 

There is a wonderful moment early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead.  Three generations of preachers, each named John Ames, are gathered in one place – at the grave of the senior Ames, somewhere in Kansas.  The older man’s son and grandson have sought out that resting place.  They found it in an unkempt and lonely place.  They set about cleaning up the grave of their loved one and the whole graveyard.  As they finish the work, the middle generation Reverend Ames closes his eyes in prayer.  His 12-year old son with him there, his own calling and ordination still in the future, finds his father’s prayer much too long.  He opens his eyes, and we read this:

 

At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where the east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning.  Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the son was going down.  Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them.  It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.  I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it.  And then I said, “Look at the moon.”  And he did.  We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up.  They seemed to float on the horizon for a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them.  And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon.

 

My father said, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful.  I’m glad to know that.”

 

This calling of yours will stretch you, not only today on a cathedral floor, but it will stretch you in every way all your days, asking you to reveal more of what you can be, and to allow grace to unwrap its unexpected gifts in you for the sake of the others.  Jesus, who lay stretched in a manger and later on a cross in generous love, who gave everything for you, will not ask you for less than everything.

 

This can be frightening.  Although we are told to never fear, I know it has been frightening to me.

 

But my friends, know that we stand together exactly where the three generations of the Ames family stood that evening.  We stand as custodians of the past, of what has been handed on to us.  We stand on the foundation of the past. We tend its monument and honor it.  We stand in the present, in prayer and focused on what surrounds us, with our attention fixed on the future.  But most importantly, we stand together, and though day end and night come, we are never in darkness.  We are always together, and together in the marvelous eternal living light that is the face and the voice and the gentle hand of the God who bids you today and tomorrow and the day after, to serve.

 

John P. McGinty

 

June 1, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Preaching, Words!

A Second Look

Homily for the third Sunday of Lent 2013

[Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9]

Syrian mortar shells fall on the Golan Heights;
a pope resigns;
the sequester becomes reality in the United States;
the Newtown Creek area straddling Brooklyn and Queens is pronounced one of the most polluted in the nation with an underground oil leak bigger than than Exxon Valdez spill;
a sinkhole in Florida like a horror movie takes a man in an instant from home to lost;
Pilate brutally mixes the blood of Galilean Jews with their sacrifices to teach the population a lesson;
eighteen are killed when the tower near the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem unexpectedly collapses.

Good morning! In the midst of all this and so much more, it is very good for us to be here. Throughout the week we as the current human occupants of the planet have just lived, and long before as reflected in the telling of woes with which the Gospel opens today, there is plenty of big bad news around us. And what’s more, take any of the big stories – Syria, sequester, Newtown Creek, Macedonian riots – and poke around just below the surface and you will find the little stories that hurt even more, the tiny human stories of men and women and children and the old and families who are suffering, and who have neither power nor authority to do anything about it.

And then there come the days when this is obvious, too painfully obvious right here at home, as in the tragic loss this past week of Martha Carr Atwater, whose funeral was celebrated here in a packed Grace Church on Friday. The blog this talented woman and beloved wife and mother wrote was subtitled, “Solving the World’s Problems One at a Time.” It seems that “one at a time,” as near-impossible as even that is, is nothing like enough. The world’s problems, near and far, come at us at a much faster rate.

No kidding about it at all. When you dare to take a cold, hard look around, sometimes it can all look cold and hard.

We are here, we choose to come to places like this every week, to take a second look. Like Moses’ attention riveted by the bush that burned but was not consumed, when he stopped his sheep-herding everyday work to say, “I must turn aside and see why this is so.” Like the gardener in the parable Jesus tells this morning asking to take a second look – a yearlong second look – at the fruitless fig tree, so we are here to take a second look at life, another look at people, another look at sorrow, a second look at love and possibility.

The Apostle Paul wrote in the tenth chapter of his first letter to the troubled and troublesome church at Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” There’s something deep in me that wants to say to that great man: ‘Paul, my brother, that assurance is cold comfort or none at all. Help me instead to take a deeper, a second look. In all the chaos, the striving, the pain; in all the hunger and in all the feeding; in all the violence and in all the peacemaking; in all the despair and in all the determination to hope; in all the sickness and in all the healing; in all the dying and in all the birthing – what is going on here?’

When Moses paused to take that second look, he quickly found that he was, and had been already, standing on holy ground, standing in the presence of God. When the owner of the vineyard appears in Jesus’s parable and orders the non-producing fig tree to be ripped out of the earth and thrown away, we can spontaneously presume that that owner of the vineyard is God, and that by extension he is looking our way out of the corner of his eye as he speaks to the gardener and saying to us, ‘You’d better produce, or you’re a goner too!’

But what if, like Moses, we pause, step closer, and take that second look? What if the vineyard owner is not the figure of God in that story? What if the more proper image of God there is the gardener? Humbling himself, responding to the complaints of this owner – whoever that may be, who is filled with ego and declares his desires loudly like law – what if this Gardener-God reveals here the Motherly and Fatherly understanding for the plight of the tree, for the plight of all who are set-upon and frightened, hungry and alone and unable to accomplish what they would like to do, unable to grow and to bear fruit as they are created to do? What if this second look reveals that we, like Moses, are standing on holy ground? What if, in fact, our closer look helps us realize that we are planted in holy ground, right here, and that by our side in the midst of all the coldness and hardness, the challenges and the losses, the strain and the pain, is God? God who nourishes and feeds and protects and nurtures, stands by faithfully and watches by our side? What if this is the deeper truth? What if this is, at last, the only truth? The one that lasts? The one that dies and rises? The one named Jesus?

The collect for this third Sunday of this amazing season brings both comfort and hard truth. As is often the case, we reach the comfort by accepting the hard truth. The truth is this, in the collect prayer’s words: “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” The power to help us is not in us. But it is as near to us as our own beating heart. There is the comfort: “Almighty God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, defended from all adversity which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” Great Gardener, in your gentle humility and faithfulness, stand by us in your care.

In the midst of this past week, full of all the roar and earthquaking of any earthly seven-day period, I came across in reading a reference to a hymn by the great Charles Wesley. By coincidence the church celebrates Charles and his older brother John on this date, March 3, each year. I looked this hymn up, until now unknown to me, and heard it sung. Written in 1738, the year in which Wesley dated his true conversion to Christ, it is titled “And can it be that I should gain?” Originally Charles called this poem, “Free Grace,” and he shared it with his friend, John Newton whose own hymn of conversion we sing as “Amazing Grace.” Both proclaim and ring out and sing confidently into the storm of life the virtue of that second look which always, always, always, can and will reveal where we are as holy ground, made such by the One who stands with us.

Something about the second verse of this hymn singing of Jesus and his mission knocked me down and set me back up one evening this week:

“He left his Father’s throne above
so free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for, O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love! how can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

“Emptied himself of all but love.” Life can and will empty us too. In God’s saving grace, God’s amazing love, may life leave us only love.

On a second look at all the coldness and the hardness, may we see only love, feel only love, live only love.

John McGinty
March 3, 2013
Grace Church Brooklyn Heights