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Archive for May, 2017

Upon My Fiftieth Year of Ordained Ministry
Father Larry

I wish on this day of such significance to my own life, that I had something especially wise and profound to say to you; or, at least something that while simple might be extraordinarily helpful. But the reality is that as the years glide away with ever increasing rapidity, I know less and less of what or how to say anything to anyone. Although, as for that, my comfort and confidence now grows stronger, almost daily, that the pathless path I chose all those years ago, or that chose me, what the first Christians called “the Way,” was the right path – none of Robert Frost’s regret that I could not have been one traveler and traveled both divides, where the road bent in the freshly fallen leaves of the yellow wood. If I have any regrets or discontents, it is that I have not been a better exemplar or expositor of the beauty of Jesus – especially to those closest and dearest to me.

I know formally, both when I first committed myself to the Christian Way and to the work, the ministry, of Christ. But I do not know even informally, perhaps none of us do, when I first accepted the invitation to this whole great adventure of the spirit. When I was a very young boy, four, five and six, I would sometimes play at the back of our property near an abandoned oil sump –Jesse James stealing from the rich folks and giving it to the poor or Geronimo fighting against all odds to save his little ragged and hungry band of Apaches from the white man’s greed and genocide. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, in the midst of my wild play, I would hear a voice I did not recognize, distant but distinct, one clear single call — “Larry.” I would freeze and listen with the utmost intensity. No one would be around. No one talking in a nearby field. My beautiful protective Collie, Prince, the only living presence to be seen anywhere. I think, although I can not prove this with analytical logic, that the Spirit of Christ, which is the Holy Spirit of God, often speaks to children, calls to children, not necessarily in an audible voice, but in subtle response to their own muted cries of loneliness, of sadness, of helplessness.

By the time I was eleven or twelve I worried, a lot, about the possibility of a meaningless life. The way I framed the question in my own youthful mind was: “Is life nothing more than getting up in the morning, tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching television, untying your shoes, brushing your teeth and going to bed?” If I had known about Henry David Thoreau and his experiment on Walden Pond, I would have strongly resonated with his assertion: “Most people are asleep, and in their sleep lead lives of quiet desperation.” I did not want to sleep my life away. In the desire for “something more” to life we all hear the mysterious voice of God, distant but distinct, calling as we go about our funny little games.

Did you notice how Saint Paul refers in the reading from 1 Timothy 4:14, to “the gift” given Timothy at Timothy’s ordination? The gift Timothy received is the gift of ministry itself. There are no words in any language capable of saying what a magical, blessed, gifted life I have lived. I have had hours and days, months and years to ponder those things that matter most. Time to seek the face of God and to find in Christ the chief glory of my life. And work to do that is of ultimate significance and therefore, ultimately fulfilling. To paraphrase the British mystic Evelyn Underhill, the opportunity to be a tiny part of God’s vast transformative work — the triumph of charity. For this gift my soul often cries out in silent exaltation and gratitude, “Thank you, thank you, thank you Lord.” Of course, the reality is that one need not desire, or ever become, clergy to receive this gift – the only requirement is a listening heart!

So, are you familiar with the Robert Frost’s poem that begins:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have out walked the furthest city light.

Sometimes, as a young teenager, at night I would walk up and down the quiet country road that ran in front of our house. If I had been asked then what I was doing I probably would have answered, “Nothing.” An objective observer might have said it looked like I was pacing; or, like I was thinking. But what I would say now looking back, is that I was praying. For prayer can be and is many things, and the Holy Spirit makes them all plain in heaven. Walking and praying, I came to the conclusion that all the things of this world, in the end, come to nothing. That the writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, was right: “All is vanity.” We spend our lives, “Chasing the wind.” Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, like all the greats who came before and after them, and who are yet to come, dust and ashes. Their empires – historical curios. “Vanity of vanities its all just chasing the wind.” A number of years ago I cam across this aphorism: “No life can be counted a success that is not lived for something or someone that time and circumstances cannot destroy.”

In the night, walking and praying, I experienced a second moment of spiritual clarity in which I saw that the One time and circumstances could not destroy was the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, of Paul and Dorcas and Phoebe, and Mary Magdalena. I knew that God was not a person as we think of persons, not even a super person, but I also knew that God was not merely a sort of nebulous Star Wars force, or the sort of “loving feelings” espoused by the modern self-help movement, and could only be truly known as we might think of knowing another person – a dear friend or a loving mother or father. All such words are, of course, metaphors, symbols pointing to something we cannot describe, but that does not mean that what they are pointing to is not real. I saw that my only hope in this life — and beyond — was this warmly parental, but mysterious unseen God, who had been revealed in the love, joy, peace, and sacrificial strength of Jesus the Christ. And so one Sunday morning I walked to the front pew of our little one room ramshackle church of poor Southerners, Texans and Okies as they sang an old Gospel hymn. The Pastor, Dennis Campbell, asked if I believed that Jesus was Christ and Lord – Son of the Living God? And upon my simple confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ — a confession that millions upon millions have made across the centuries in spite of torture and death,  and that thousands will make and die for this very year — I was baptized by immersion. This is the sign, and has always been the sign, we call it a sacrament, that one has embraced and been embraced by a new reality. It was the sign that I had died to my old life, and my old self, and had risen from this “watery grave” to live a new life, that was to be nothing less than Christ living in me, and my living in Christ. Of course, none of us ever fully grasps all the spiritual implications of our baptism, so I remain a spiritual novice to this day.

When I was a boy there was a pastor, W.J. Lynch, who occasionally visited in our home, and I always stayed in the room for those conversations. I somehow sensed that they were significant and were about the chaos in which our family was nearly always engulfed. What was utterly amazing was that each time, at the end of his visit, it was like Bill left the peace of Christ with us. Sometime in the year after my baptism, I heard that Bill, who had moved a couple of hours a way, was in town and was going to hold what we called a “Gospel Meeting.” And so that Wednesday night I drove to our little church on the wrong side of the river to hear him preach. Like many teenagers, I was in an intense period of questioning what to do with my life. There was an inaudible desire in me to be able to do for others what Bill Lynch had done for our family. That is probably part of what drew me there that night. But there are so many ways to really help people, and many of them far more lucrative and secure than pastor or priest. That was a time when I wrestled with the angels. From my conversations with you I know that sometimes you also wrestle with the angels. Bill began his sermon with the reading of Matthew 16:24-27 which is our reading this morning. And this is how I heard it in the English of the old King James Version of 1611:

16:24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

W.E. Sangster the great English Pastor said in his book, The Secret of the Radiant Life, “The most sublime moments of the spiritual life, are those in which we understand in our hearts what we may have known in our minds all along.” I don’t know how to describe it. My mind stopped at the end of the reading. The sermon stopped at the end of the reading. The service stopped at the end of the reading. The whole world stopped at the end of the reading. I have no idea how many homilies I had heard on this text by that point in my life – and could have given my own acceptable explanation of its meaning. I had always understood it as a dire warning of the consequences of faithlessness, and of valuing and pursuing what is ultimately worthless, but in that sublime moment I heard it as a beautiful promise, an elegant invitation and an exquisite gift offered by Jesus in pure love. The possibility of seeing each moment, choice, and incident as an opportunity for communion with God through Christ, in the Spirit. If you have consecrated your heart, mind, and soul to another, I have no criticism as long as it makes you a better person, but as for me, my heart belongs to Christ alone.

I am sometimes asked rather dismissively how can I think all this business about Jesus is possibly true? Or that Jesus can be trusted? This homily is hardly the place to attempt to answer so large a question. So, I will just say I trust Jesus because in him I find an unsurpassed goodness and beauty – a unique goodness and beauty that I have at times also seen in his followers; and, I believe the ancient Greeks were right, that what is both good and beautiful is most likely also true. Jesus himself suggests a rather pragmatic test, “Follow my teachings,” he said, and discover for yourself where they come from.” Knowledge of the divinity of Jesus, insight into the true nature of Christ, comes only by living into it.

The next thing I was aware of we were all standing for the closing song and prayer – replacing our hymnals. I walked into the night without saying a single word to anyone, and drove home through the olive orchards — quiet and gnarled old trees that seemed to possess some “secret and ancient wisdom.” And that’s how an ignorant, messed up, dysfunctional, Okie boy from Bakersfield felt the throb of angel wings, seraphim and cherubim, shake the temple, and heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? “And answered, “Here am I; send me.

May you each be given the joy and the grace of a listening heart. Amen.

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