Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sermon reflections on St. Mike's

Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” From the Gospel according to St Luke, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

So far in Luke’s account of the gospel, Jesus has been inviting others to follow him. In today’s gospel (Luke 9:51-62), he reminds us all that for those who would follow, discipleship is a total commitment; there must be no turning back.

This is consistent with Jesus’ own sense of purpose, as hinted at by Luke. The evangelist tells us that Jesus “set his face” toward Jerusalem. That is to say, he was concentrated upon and dedicated to that mission to which his Father had called him.

This week, I served on the faculty of the St. Michael’s Youth Conference, Southwest. This is the first year in several that I’ve been able to attend, and I consider it one of the most important parts of my ministry. So I hope you’ll indulge me and allow me to reflect on my experience in light of the gospel message.

Of course, discipleship is what St. Mike’s is all about. At the Midwest conference, they call it “Anglo-Catholic boot-camp.” It an intensive formation experience, like an immersion language class. Every day begins with Matins and Solemn high mass, then three classes (this year, I taught Christian History, Survey of the Old Testament Apocrypha, and Unveiling Islam). Then comes fun time, Evensong and lecture, discussion groups, Compline and (on Wednesday) benediction.

Throughout the conference there is a focus on piety and spiritual growth, and holiness of life, which includes making your confession. About 83% of the attendees made their confession at the conference (which is typical . . . at least at St. Mike’s). That included myself, by the way.

In particular, three things stood out for me from that week: First were the liturgical osculations (a fancy Latin word for “kisses”).

Jesus once said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). This year, we tried to bring out a few more old liturgical customs like this.

It used to be that every time the deacon handed something to the priest (like the biretta, the incense, the paten, or the chalice) the deacon would first kiss the object itself, and then kiss the priest’s hand as he gave it to him. On Monday, I was the deacon. This was the first time I had ever done this. I probably missed at least half of these osculations, but I'm sure I'd do better the second and third time around.

The deacon is not just there to assist the priest at the altar, the deacon is there as his servant, ministering to him as he would to Christ. To kiss the priest’s hands is to kiss the hands of Jesus (in type/figure). It was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but became a very moving experience for me.

It is a gesture of love and reverence and piety and humility. It is a vivid reminder that we are to love Jesus above all. That means putting him first in all things—serving him, doting on him, loving him, adoring him. Which is to say, following him wherever he leads.

The second thing that stood out for me was the “dance battle.” And all the positive peer pressure that went along with it.

During free time, the students gathered in Iker Hall for a “battle dance.” They put on some music and formed a tight circle. One by one, individuals would jump in the center and bust a few moves. It was really a competition, but they cheered almost anything.

Of course, when I walked int, someone shouted, “Father Matkin’s turn!” I was tempted to back right out. But there was a roar of the crowd, filled with cheers of anticipation. When I got in the middle, they were shouting and urging me on. I deliberately went with the cheesiest move I could think of (rolling the dice). When that landed me some jeers, I quickly hit the gas on my planned move, spinning around and landing with a crowd-pleasing flair. The group when wild—shouting, and screaming, giving me “high fives.” A Franciscan tertiary followed me into the circle. As I made my way outside, I could hear the crowd continue to erupt inside the building.

On reflection, I noticed how they specialized in pressuring those who were reluctant to jump into the circle, motivating them with applause, encouragement, and praise. And I must say it was a bit intoxicating being in the circle. At that point, you would do almost anything to please the crowd.

When we talk about peer pressure, it’s usually in the bad sense. But we must remember that there is positive peer pressure too—when friends and strangers are encouraging us, cheering us on, and praising us for doing the right things. That’s what the Church ought to be—our circle of support and encouragement.

The third thing that stood out for me was the Friday night boy’s march. The first head boys counselor was a marine and he applied his skills to the conference. The tradition has become that on the last night, the boys at St. Mike’s march around the camp, to a military chant.

It reminded me that life is a pilgrimage to paradise. We’re marching to Zion, as the old hymn says. To do that, we need planning and strategy. We need order and direction to march like that. That’s the same thing we get through the church for our spiritual lives--planning and strategy, order and direction.

In “setting his face toward Jerusalem,” Jesus set his eyes upon the cross, and he refused to allow anything to distract or deter him from that path.

I left them that night by saying, “Gentlemen, it’s been a long week, a tough week, a good week. And you have earned my respect. But never forget this: You’ve earned nothing from the Lord. Everything you have from him is a precious gift—his grace, his mercy, his love. Let us put these gifts to good use with a thankful heart. Goodnight.” And I blessed them.

As we come before the Lord today, praising him for his grace, his mercy, and his love, with Jesus, let us set our faces toward Jerusalem and follow where he doth lead.

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