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Thursday
Mar292018

For Maundy Thursday: Reflections on Mandatum

MAUNDY THURSDAY

It is funny how the ceremony of foot washing seems to be kind of embarrassing to us. It seems so intimate and personal. We are hesitant to bare our feet. And yet in our current culture people bare their souls on television and their torsos on the stage and on the beach.

A number of years ago I worked closely with the manager of one of the Union Trust branches. She literally kept me solvent while I was in business. She taught me to hoard my cash and to work the interest rates, etc. One day she told me that she would be away for six weeks. “How so?” “I asked. I am going to have my feet operated on,” she replied. She then kicked off her shoes and showed me her feet. They were so misshapen that I marveled that she could walk. Six weeks later she was back at her desk. “How are the feet?” I asked. She kicked off her shoes and showed me the most perfectly formed feet you could think of. “Now, I can really walk,” she exclaimed.

You see, when your feet are in good shape, you can walk.

Years later I started going to a podiatrist. Every ten weeks I have a whirlpool bath and the nails clipped. I leave with “happy feet.”

We think of Andronocles and the lion, where the lad removes the thorn from the lion’s paw. For years I had to tend to my Black Lab’s feet. Over the years I tended to my children’s feet and even to my wife’s.

Several times during Lent we have read passages in which Jesus’ feet are washed by one or more women. The act of foot washing was at the time seen as an act of hospitality and civility. But there is more to it than that. In the act of foot washing the host becomes the servant. There is a certain humility (even if it is done by a servant) that is intended. When Jesus’ feet are washed by the women, it is an act of devotion and a foreshadowing of His kingship and His death.

When at the Passover meal Jesus washes the feet of His disciples, He is taking upon Himself the role of servant hood. The Lord becomes the servant. He admonishes His disciples to emulate His behavior. Thus their role is to be one of servant hood and humility. Their souls are to be tended to by such humility and service to one another and to Christ.   

You see, when your feet are in good shape, you can walk. Or to put it differently, when your soul has humility and is in good shape, you truly live.

We tend to our souls through acts of genuine humility and devotion. They prepare our souls to walk through the events of Good Friday and to approach the empty tomb, and later, while walking, to meet the risen Lord.

Through the practice of humility, and through emulating Christ’s washing of His disciples’ feet, you and I prepare to have, perhaps, on the Day of Resurrection not “happy feet,” but “happy souls.”  - Amen-                               

 

Monday
Mar192018

Living Sacrifice

Living Sacrifice
Jn. 12:20-33
Lent 5

Some time ago, I was up at the hospital, two women stepped out of the elevator and said hello to me. I recognized the older woman, but could not remember her name. I had met her fifteen years ago when her husband was dying. His had been a protracted illness and she had nursed him at home. She loved him dearly and by the time he died she not only had to deal with grief but also with the fact that she was emotionally and physically spent. Her husband had no insurance coverage, so she was forced to go to work. I would see her from time to time on a street corner, at the library or in a store. She had emigrated from England and I enjoyed her accent and openness. Most of the time she was exhausted from trying to support herself and her daughter. She worried a lot about her daughter, who was actively going through adolescence and at one point moved out. So when I saw the woman I was delighted to see her and told her so. Then I asked, “How is your daughter?” My friend smiled and replied, “she’s right here.” The tall, beautifully groomed, poised woman looked at me and said, “I guess I’ve grown.” I was thrilled because the daughter was obviously solicitous of her mother and had turned into a mature adult. “You have a fine daughter,” I said to my friend. “And you have a wonderful mother,” I said to the daughter. “I know,” she replied. ‘A year or so ago I went on a job interview and they asked me who my hero was. I said, ‘My mother,’ and then cried. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, but it is true. She is my hero.” “You are both blessed,” I said “and take good care of your mother. We need all the heroes we can get.” They smiled and we parted company.

Now I tell this story because it is about sacrifice. Although my friend had sacrificed for her husband, she also sacrificed for a long time for her daughter. She had prayed hard and worked hard so that her daughter would have a chance at turning out okay. The daughter recognized that her life was changed by the sacrifices of her loving parent.

Sacrifice gives meaning to life. The Greeks who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel story would have understood the stoicism of my friend. The Jews would have understood her piety. But for the early Christians there is a profound dimension to sacrifice as well. The author of John sets the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Gentiles in the context of the Passover. The Passover festival commemorated the release of Jews from the bondage of slavery by the Egyptians and early on included the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb. In that sacrifice the sins, failure and guilt of the Jews, collectively and individually, were laid upon the lamb. The priests, the Levites, were the agents of mediation between the people and God. When Jesus foretells of His own crucifixion, He is embracing the traditions of the ministry of the prophets, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the apocalyptic Son of Man of Daniel and I Enoch as He takes upon Himself the role of the sacrificial Paschal Lamb. Through His sacrifice the sins of the world (yours and mine) are absorbed and the forgiveness of God is made apparent. This means that the grip of evil and death are not the last word. The struggle is won. Cosmic powers are realigned and there is the promise of eternal life. In short, the familial sacrifices of parents, as well as those of society, are affirmed and lifted beyond the merely human level of stoicism and piety.

The requiem which we hear today embraces the deep reality of sacrifice: that it is a profound, fearsome and a fierce struggle. (It is never a walk in the park.) The music gives us a vision of this dramatic struggle - the awesome event of the powerful, otherworldly intervention of God into the realm of our all too human condition.

Sacrifice gives meaning to life. It is the sacrifice of Christ, as the Paschal Lamb, that gives meaning to our life. You and I are called by Christ to a life of sacrifice. We find our life by losing it because Christianity is a life to be lived, not just a set of concepts to be intellectually held. Through sacrifice we find meaning. But we are not left to our own devices. You and I are fed by the sacraments, which sustain us in a life of meaningful sacrifice.

The requiem ends with the Paradisum, words of praise and thanksgiving, “Into paradise may the angels lead thee; and at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy (sic. heavenly) city Jerusalem.” BCP p.484. These words are a joyful explosion of thanksgiving and affirmation. They are an affirmation that you and I live no longer in a world of hopelessness and chaos, but through sacrifice, Christ’s and ours, in the world of God’s Kingdom where there is profound hope, compassion, and meaning - the salvation of our souls. Through sacrifice Christ brings us the promise and guarantee of new and eternal life. At the gates of heaven may God say, “Yes, you’ve grown.” Amen.

 

Monday
Mar122018

My Way or the Highway

MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

JN 3:14-21

          The northeaster left us without power. Even so, like Ben, my Black Lab who died years ago, I love bad weather. My mother was the same way. She was a Swede. Dad always said she had been born on the prow of a Viking boat, heading into a storm. So, bad weather is not a problem for me. I pull on my favorite Topsiders and wade out. These are wonderful shoes. I got them up at Booth Bay Harbor in Maine and have had them for years. Of course, the water comes right through them! My faithful all-weather shirt gets drenched. I retrieve the New York Times and the Stamford Advocate, which I read before coming to work. But I can’t read them because I have to change my clothes. Then there are a series of phone calls, and I’m off balance for the rest of the day. I’m also cold.

          We all have routines and patterns of behavior that we follow and depend on. They are the ways “we have always done that.” Those routines and patterns, personal and societal, are called “mores” and “folkways.” Mores are the rules and regulations, laws and requirements. Folkways are more informal, family traditions and ways we order our life. How we dress tends to be a folkway. Women wear high heels. Men don’t (except in Texas). The shoes you walk in will vary according to the culture, geographical area and function of what the wearer is doing.

          All of this is pretty obvious until you begin to notice that men and women yearn to have a closer relationship to that which is the “Holy Other.” When men and women are called or pulled in by that which is part of the mysterium tremendum, part of the compelling force in and behind life, then things get very, very serious. We all have a desire to live in harmony with life, to find “the right relationship” to how things fit together. The Book of Job, for example, deals seriously with that problem. For the Hebrew, for the Jew, the overwhelming question was “how do you live in a right relationship with God?” For the Jews the answer was in their history and in the prophets. Their history spoke of God’s leading them to a promised land. Their prophets, like Isaiah, spoke of justice, mercy, humility and faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The sole repository of this information was The Law. Now The Law was not just the Ten Commandments; it was the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and it was called The Torah.

          Certain scholars specialized in studying the Law and in trying to interpret it, which they did sometimes by referring to the prophets. These men were called rabbis. Those who were “strict constructionists” and very conservative were the Sadducees. The more liberal were the Pharisees, who wanted to make things applicable to every day life. Arguing, reasoning and studying were part of what they did and how they lived.

          In John 3:1-17 we are told there was a man, named Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night and told Jesus that he knew that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God; for no one could do the things Jesus did unless sent from God. (A very flattering opening gambit.) Jesus speaks of being born from above. Nick rhetorically counters that one can’t re-enter the womb (a typical rabbinic rhetorical device – starting from the literal facts). Jesus replies that what is born of the Spirit is spirit and what is born of the flesh is flesh. One who is born of the Spirit and believes in the Son of Man (Son of God) will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

          Today’s passage, Jn 1:14-21, lays this out bluntly. “My way or the highway.” What Nick is being told is that the old mores and folkways, the old patterns of behavior that Israel has followed, that the Jews have followed, that the rabbis have taught – The Law – is not enough. Belief in the teachings of Jesus and in Jesus as the Son of God is the key to living a meaningful and holy life and is the key to entering the kingdom of heaven (which is in effect having a right relationship to God both now and hereafter.) In the storms of life the old shoes for the pilgrimage of faith don’t work.

          Our job during Lent is to re-examine our understandings of the nature of Jesus and His teachings and the extent to which we have incorporated them into our lives and to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

          This process and experience is not a casual or “sometime” thing. Some years ago I was celebrating at noon at St. John’s, when a figure appeared at the back of the sanctuary. He was stooped and lame. I bid him come in and later talked to him. We became friends. His name was “John.” John was a former professor at Stanford, Harvard and Yale and also an international consultant. “I used to commute on the Concorde,” he once told me.

          John’s health was rapidly deteriorating, and he was in and out of Stamford hospital, where I saw him and gave him communion. John had been highly successful as a “rabbi,” or expert in areas of finance and management. He had mastered the mores of our capitalist society. John married and divorced three times and had four adult children. Each of them had been damaged by the divorces. John and I talked through those relationships, and he began to see where he had failed and the damaged he had done. He realized that he had neglected the area of faith and his relationship to God. John’s values, perspective, orientation and life turned around. He changed. John still was an expert in his Torah or ways of life, his management expertise, but he realized that he needed something more profound. He needed Christ as well.

          John’s health tanked and his son took him out to Napa, California, where he died. The son invited me to do the funeral. My knee blew out and I could hardly walk. My son, Chris, out of the blue called up and said, “I’ll take you out.” We flew to San Francisco; I took my cane, wore a pair of sturdy shoes, and did the service. I told the family that I came out because John had changed. He had come to terms with his failures and blindness and was sorry. He greatly loved his children.

          I turned to leave and started towards the car. The youngest daughter ran down the hill and threw her arms around me. She looked up and asked if John really loved her and knew that she loved him. I told her “Yes,” and said the same when the older daughter ran down the hill and threw her arms around me! She asked the same question. I backed both women off and said to all four adult children, “I came out here to honor your father.” A man of learning, he had missed what was important, repented and learned again. In the processes through the love of God he was able to express his love for his family. He was, pardon the expression, “born again.”

          Was it the power of the Holy Spirit? Well, you see, my son, Chris, took me out to California and brought me home. So small miracles do happen every day.

          Nicodemus in the story from The Gospel of St. John continued to be a rabbi, paying attention to the mores and folkways, The Law, but he added to that his discipleship to Christ. He was there at the Crucifixion and prepared Jesus’ body for the tomb (in accordance with The Law). At the same time John, the consultant, recognized Jesus as the Son of God and believed in Him.

          So too, you and I during this season of Lent are called to examine our assumptions and patterns of behavior, our mores and folkways, how we do things (as a parish, corporately, professionally, personally, and familially) and how we integrate Christ into the core of our being. Sometimes we need to make changes. We need to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”           Sometimes we need new shoes for our pilgrimage of faith. Sometimes we discover that we cannot put new wine into old wine skins. Sometimes repentance is called for. But always, always, you and I need to worship and to let the Holy Spirit work God’s will in our lives.

          Let us go forth, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

-Fr. Gage

Monday
Mar052018

Temple Cleansing

Temple Cleansing

John. 2:13-22 

The admonition not to make my father’s house a “den of thieves,” “temple of commerce,” or “marketplace” clearly establishes the point that the purpose of houses of worship is to worship: to glorify God, to hear His word, and to learn, pray, and praise.

This admonition pops up in any parish every time there is a fund-raising event. You and I are caught in the bind of having to do the work of the house of the Lord to physically maintain it and the need for keeping the purity of “the house’s” intent.

         The greater Church has a similar pinch. I am currently reading two books, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. On the one hand, Angela’s Ashes is the story of a young boy growing up in Ireland under unbelievable conditions of poverty.  In McCourt’s book, the less than charitable behavior of the priests and brothers towards the author’s family and poor of the parish is often appalling. The parochial system of education in the primary grades is brutal. From this perspective the Church had become a den of thieves.

On the other hand, Kathleen Norris writes of spending two nine-month periods of time in a cloistered monastery in Minnesota, where, through hearing the Scriptures read, participating in the liturgy, and practicing the Benedictine discipline, she understands a wholly different dimension of herself and the world.

So it is in society. A local company reported large profits in yesterday’s newspaper. It was the business world at its best and not to be sneered at. And yet, the company makes guns! The success of society has a flip side, for I have to try to find housing and money for food for the abused and forgotten of this same society—society that produces not only guns but also the Metropolitan Opera.

My parish, the Church at large, and our society are all caught in the dilemma of choices and the outcome of our actions. We find over and over that our actions have unexpected contradictory results too often our efforts to build the City of God yield the City of Man.

During Lent, ponder the tensions in your life: where there should be purity of intent and action and there isn’t. In Jesus, God took upon Himself the complexities of our lives. Like the sacrificial lamb, He bore our sinful failings. With Him, you and I can sacrifice that within us, which is base and self-centered. In your meditations and prayers, let God’s Holy Spirit drive from you that, which is unfit in the temple of your body, spirit, and mind. Christ has died with and for you. Let Christ rise and live with and in you. Amen.

 

Monday
Feb262018

Constancy of Grace

        CONSTANCY OF GRACE

Mk. 8:31-38

2/25/18

2 Lent

This is the second Sunday in Lent. Last Sunday I invited us to consider our various wildernesses – those places in our lives where we hurt, wander, are lost and often in despair. As an illustration, I spoke about “the last dirty little secret,” the issue of suicide that most of us have a brush with at least once in our lives.

I do not want to leave us in Lent wallowing in despair or the vastness of our own wildernesses. Today I want to talk about the constancy of God’s grace. I’ve talked about this before, when I preached about the fact that we are not alone.”

Last Friday, Faye and I went to Hope Street Pizza for dinner. The place was packed and noisy. At one table there were six children and two adults. The father was noisier than the kids. Faye and I suffered through the noise and were really annoyed with the father. Finally, the family got up to leave and the father came over and said to me, “Fr. Gage, I want to thank you for what you did at the service for X. It was an enormous help.” “You are welcome,” I replied.

After he left, Faye said, “Who was that?” “I don’t have a clue,” I replied.

Friday night’s experience reminded me of two other similar experiences. One night we were eating at the Fireside Restaurant, before it burned down, and a woman in a booth across the room came over and said, “I want to thank you for inviting everyone to come to the communion rail to receive a blessing (if not communion) at my friend’s wedding. I am Jewish, and it made me feel so welcome.” “I’m glad you told me,” I replied.

The final story is this one. When I was at St. John’s, one Friday I went over to the Canterbury restaurant for lunch. I was standing in line contemplating the offerings in the steam table when a man broke out of the line ahead of me and came back and stood right smack in front of me. “Do you remember me?” he asked. I looked at him closely. He was nicely dressed in a suit and tie and I swear I didn’t have a clue. “No, I don’t.” I replied. “Look closely.” “No, I don’t recognize you. Perhaps you have me mistaken for another priest.” “No. It was you.” “You mean at St. John’s; that church there?” “Yes. It was you. Some time ago I was in a bad way, and I came to you and you helped me out. In fact I saw you ten times and you helped me. I lost my wife; my house, my car, everything and YOU DIDN’T GIVE UP ON ME. Finally my life got turned around and I have a good job and am back on track.” He handed me his business card and I recognized his name. “Yes, I remember you now.” We had talked from time to time and occasionally I slipped him a grubstake. What I remembered was that every time I saw him he was totally blitzed. “Are you in the program?” I asked. “Yes.” He replied. I used to go everyday. Now I’m down to three days a week.” (We were talking about A.A.) “Don’t let up,” I said. “Oh, no, I won’t.” “And thank you for telling me.” He offered to buy me lunch, but I declined and settled on a couple of cold meatballs.

Now I’m telling these stories not to aggrandize myself, but rather because they remind us of the constancy of God’s grace. Every once in a while something unexpected happens that is redeeming and nourishing. I was particularly struck by the phrase, “YOU DIDN’T GIVE UP ON ME.” I kept reflecting on the phrase, “You didn’t give up on me.” Isn’t that what we yearn for from our parents? That they will always be in our corner? Isn’t that what we want our kids to say about us – that regardless of how far they stray they are still our children and we will not give up on them? Isn’t that the marriage vow? “For better, for worse, for richer for poorer.” The tragedy in broken marriages is that the spouses give up on each other, and often give up on themselves. Have you not had a teacher who made a difference in your life because he or she didn’t give up on you?

As I read today’s Gospel passage, I keep thinking that the message of the Gospel is that God does not give up on us. The story of the Garden of Eden tells us that there is a propensity in man to stray, to become self-centered and to pursue false idols. Throughout the Old Testament, time and again God calls His people to obedience and to a close relationship to Him. Time and again they stray, tempted by the world and by Satan. But God does not give up on them. He brings them out of Egypt and back from Babylon. Time and again the prophets proclaim the failure of the people to do justice and to walk humbly with their God. Time and again there is punishment and redemption. Throughout the Old Testament there is the dominant theme of the constancy of God’s grace. God does not give up on His people.

When Jesus tells His followers that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, killed and rise again, that is not what they want to hear. Peter objects and Jesus rebukes him. Jesus stands the religious expectations of His time on their collective heads. He rejects a military messiah, or the messiahship of a popular prophet. Rather Jesus draws upon the tradition of the messianic suffering servant of Isaiah and the tradition of the sacrificial Paschal Lamb of Exodus and Passover. In addition He incorporates the tradition of the apocalyptic Son of Man from Daniel and I Enoch. Through using these three traditions, Jesus says that God does not give up on mankind, on you and me. It is through suffering and atonement and through transcendent participation in your and my lives that God enters fully into our lives: living, breathing, laughing, crying, suffering, dying and then revealing the promise of eternal life. He is fully with us. The message of The Passion, Good Friday and Easter, to which this passage in Mark points, is that God in Christ Jesus does not give up on you and me.

Hence, Jesus’ challenge to His disciples, and to you and me, is not to give up on Him. To take up your cross is to bear your burdens for Christ’s sake, not for your own gratification. It is to live a life where priorities are aligned, where there is self-denial and where you lose your self in faithful commitment and service to Christ. Like an artist, or teacher or healer, you and I find our lives by losing them - in this case by losing them in a closer relationship to Christ, by living in the constancy of God’s grace.

Many times I have stood at a grave and heard the unspoken question, “What did he do with his life? What counted? What was important?” Those who are honored are those who gave, not those who took; those who loved, not those who despised; those who cared, not those who turned away. It is not enough to say, “She was a nice person.” If she were not a person of faith there is a palpable emptiness about her life and about her memory. You and I are called not to give up on Christ because Christ does not given up on us.

When the man identified me as the priest who did not give up on him, I could not help but think, “But that is the call of the Church – to not give up on people.” That is why St. John‘s and St. Andrew’s are here in the middle of the city. It is not to give handouts, but to proclaim the Gospel message of repentance and forgiveness. Our message is (as Andrew Greeley has often pointed out in his novels) that Christianity is a religion of a second chance. In the midst of the secular city our message is one of hope and life. Life is more than the benefits of the world; it is to have a life, or as the KJV translates it, to have a soul which is at peace with God.

The man in the restaurant did not have to be told about bearing one’s cross. He bears his cross every day (and every night as well). So too do many of you. Mental illness in your own life or in that of another, physical illness, disappointments, setbacks, deaths, losses, crushing responsibilities and obligations  - these are some of the crosses which you and I bear as we come to the altar each Sunday. You are to be commended in the bearing of your crosses, and you are to be encouraged that Christ Jesus bears your cross with you. He does not give up on you. The constancy of His grace, the constancy of God’s grace never ends.

This Lent respond to the constancy of God’s grace with the constancy of your faithfulness. Review where the temptations are (where Satan beckons). Be blunt with yourself. Look where there is and isn’t appropriate sacrifice, discipline and charity. Where there is estrangement, review where you want to turn away from or give up on others, or even on yourself, and offer that realization up to God as a sacrifice. Ask Christ for His steadying presence in redemptive processes and solutions. As you come to the Eucharist today, listen to the assurance of the constancy of God’s grace in the words of The Great Thanksgiving. Know that in the sacrifice of Christ, in the raising up of the bread and wine, the body and blood, that you are assured that Christ does not give up on you.

Then, in the constancy of God’s grace, in the assurance that Christ does not give up on you, go out from this church into the secular world proclaiming the Good News of the God’s grace. Be empowered patiently and faithfully not to give up on those whose souls are restless until they find their rest in God (to paraphrase St. Augustine). Help those in need to receive the blessed assurance that Christ has not given up on them. Be not ashamed of Christ’s “words in this adulterous and sinful generation.” Help others to say with you and with St. Paul that, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(I Cor. 8:39) Brothers and sisters in Christ, never give up. – Amen. – Fr. Gage -