Monday, February 20, 2023

A Lenten Message to SGSB from Fr. Ethan

My dear siblings in Christ,

It is hard to believe that it has only been six weeks since we started our journey together as priest and parish at St. George St Barnabas. I have been overwhelmed by your kindness and generosity; and it has been so easy for me to feel comfortable and settled, even though there is still so much for me to learn. I am really grateful that we have had a bit of time together before the start of Lent to get to know and trust each other; because this season, perhaps more than any other, makes demands on us, both spiritually and physically, that require the bond of community. As that old Beatles' song goes, "I get by with a little help from my friends." Lent is an intense period of soul-searching and reflection that is made easier by the presence of companions walking the same road, propping each other up when we get weary and encouraging each other when we get discouraged.

Lent is not only a time of reflection, but also one of exploration and discovery. During Lent, we will walk with Jesus through his many struggles, listen as he teaches, and explore the mysteries of his Passion and death on the Cross. Our walk with Jesus will help us to know him and ourselves better. At the same time, we will continue to get to know one another better by exploring what we want our common life as a parish to look like going forward. In many ways, St. George St. Barnabas has been in a holding pattern for a few years, brought on by the pandemic and the pastoral transition. But now that a rector is in place, we can start to resume some of the normal features of a settled congregational life. This includes hosting weekly fellowship or coffee hour after Mass, a return to Christian formation for adults, and more robust community outreach. It is my hope that all of you will share your honest feedback on these and other aspects, as we live into them and make adjustments.

My immediate goal as your rector is to make sure that your cherished customs of worship and community are preserved, while also inviting you to experience some new things that might stretch and enrich us. I am excited, for instance, to restore the laying on of hands and anointing as a common feature of the Prayers of the People during the Sunday Mass and to introduce some of you to the transformative experience of Ashes-to-Go on Ash Wednesday. Most of all, though, I want to hear your stories, of your own lives, of your spiritual journeys, and of the high and low moments of your time at St. George St. Barnabas. I want to hear what you are excited or worried about, and what you would like  to see for the parish in the years ahead. Lent is a wonderful time for us to dig deep and share what is in our hearts as we look expectantly toward the hope and joy of Easter and the empty tomb.

May God lead us in the years ahead to boundless discoveries and moments of grace in our walk with each other.

Peace and blessings,

Ethan Alexander +
IV Rector SGSB

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Holy Trinity in the Wake of George Floyd's Death

"Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." These were the words printed on a homemade sign at last Saturday's Black Lives Matter demonstration that began in Federal Plaza in Chicago to protest the police killing of George Floyd. The sign was carried by a mom, dad, and their young son as we all milled about in the plaza before the marching and chanting began; and I wondered whether these parents had brought their child to the event in order to show him what democracy-in-action looked like. Perhaps that's just what they had done, I thought to myself, and I smiled broadly underneath my mask. But to invoke the prophet Micah's words as a fitting commentary on the values that we are supposed to embody, not only as people of faith, by as members of a civil society, that was truly extraordinary. Great work, Mom and Dad.

These three commands from Micah--act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God--are all about how human beings are meant to be in relationship with each other and with God. Trinity Sunday, which we will celebrate this week, explores the deep mystery of the Holy Trinity. That God should exist as three persons, and yet still be one God, boggles the mind when we try to think about it in our limited, compartmentalizing, human way. The Trinity expresses the dynamic of God's action in creation. God's loving, life-giving force is the product of the cooperation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which in theological terms we call, perichoresis, a Greek word that means "mutual indwelling." 

One of the reasons that I have been averse to referring to the persons of the Trinity with the non-gendered language of "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" is that to do so leads us into the heresy of either tritheism (three Gods) or modalism (describing God according to different aspects or modes). To reduce God to three of God's functions is to deprive God of God's fullness. To assign a specific function--say, redemption--to one of the three persons of the Trinity is to suggest that only the Son had any hand in redeeming humanity, because the Father only created and the Holy Spirit only sanctified. It's as if we distilled a human being's identity down to one salient characteristic, instead of acknowledging the richness of their personhood, with its infinite variety, complexity, and nuance. It's dehumanizing.

And yet, that is exactly how we act in our society, when we stop treating people like the full human beings they are and only as Black people, or trans people, or women, or immigrants. We sterotype and essentialize them according to one or a few characteristics, rather than honoring the vow we make in our Prayer Book's Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. To respect a person's dignity is to avoid lumping individuals into a convenient and yet sloppy category like Hispanic, or gay, or even Sanctifier. The society we create is not the product of one person, but the cumulative contributions we complex human beings make (or fail to make) to act justly, to love mercy, or to walk humbly with our God and each other. If we are made in God's image, then we cannot relegate responsibility to create, to redeem, or to sanctify to just one person. It must be the result of our mutual indwelling. The Holy Trinity is not just a theological brain-teaser, it is an image that we are expected to embody in our society's systems and in our daily lives.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Friday, November 1, 2019

For All the Saints

If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, all you have to do is open the Book of Common Prayer--or as it is more casually known, the Prayer Book or BCP. It takes some practice to know how to flip effortlessly back and forth between the different parts of the Eucharist service, as well as the BCP's other resources. The more you do, however, the deeper an understanding you will gain of the "faith once delivered to the saints," as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. The same could be said of the Hymnal 1982. It, too, is a good reflection of Episcopal belief, and on a day like All Saints' Day, when we sing so many classic favorites, our theology jumps out from the page.

In churches that only gather for worship on Sundays, it's difficult to differentiate between the two holy days of All Saints' Day (November 1) and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed (November 2). Parishes with a daily Mass are able to keep them distinct; but for parishes like ours, we have to make the most of that one day when we're all together at the Lord's Table. The hymn we're going to sing at the Gospel on Sunday begins, "I sing a song of the saints of God, patient, and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherd on the green: they were all of them saints of God--and I mean, God helping, to be one too." The saints comprise a dazzling variety of people, both the lofty and the humble.

All Saints' Day, strictly speaking, commemorates those that the Church over the centuries has seen fit to add to its official Calendar of Saints. As this Sunday's offertory hymn, "By all your saints still striving," notes, it includes "apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the noble throng who wear the spotless raiment and raise the ceaseless song." Yet it's not only the greats like the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Luke, St. Francis, or contemporary luminaries like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the unsung heroes who have done great things without official recognition. The verse of the offertory hymn fittingly ends, "for them and those whose witness is only known to you--we give you praise anew."

The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, on the other hand, remembers all who have died: my Grandma Kibby; my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Cortese, and so on. They may not have had a global impact like St. Joan of Arc or St. Thomas Becket--my patron saints--but they made a huge contribution to the person I am, and I am eternally grateful to them. So, it's wonderful that the Church offers a place in its calendar to commemorate them, too. One of the consistent messages of these two days is that we are called to remember both the Church's greats, and the people that were great for us, inspiring us to strive to become the best versions of ourselves, saints in our own way. And it is an expression of the Church's belief in the communion of saints, or as the Letter to the Hebrews calls it, "so great a cloud of witnesses." We pray for them as they reside with God in heaven, as we ask them to pray for us while we continue our earthly journey, hopeful that we will join them some day.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

This Sunday, in addition to observing the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we will commemorate the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Angels are a curious feature of Holy Scripture and the Church's tradition. The Greek word, angelos, means "messenger;" and indeed, the Bible usually depicts angels as holy couriers, bearing God's messages to humans. Angels are also described as doing God's bidding, such as fighting the Evil One, as St. Michael the Archangel is depicted here in a famous painting by Renaissance master, Guido Reni. But, of course, the angels' primary function, like ours, is to praise and worship God, "Holy, holy, holy Lord. God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!"

Whether you think that angels are flesh-and-blood heavenly beings or simply a metaphor for God's divine communications, angels express human beings' frequent experience of God as distant, inaccessible, and unknowable. Remember, that Moses could not look upon God's face directly, because it would have been too mindblowing to behold, and so could only look upon God's hindquarters, so to speak, as he passed by. Even after that, Moses' face shone with the light of God, which was so overpowering that Moses had to wear a veil whenever he descended the mountain, so that the other Israelites would not be blinded by the light.

In a similar fashion, angels serve as a kind of opaque veil between the unknowable God and our limited human understanding. They represent our need for the message to be tempered in some way, the light dimmed and the content simplified, so that we can process it. That's probably a key reason why God speaks to patriarchs and prophets in their dreams or at night. There are so many more possibilities when we don't limit ourselves to logic and literalisms. Angels and dreams make the barrier between God and humans a bit thinner, so that enough of the light can shine through without blinding us completely.

I think that many of us imagine an embodied, real messenger delivering the divine message, because the messages at times feel so personal to us. Angels transmit not only God's message, but the feeling of God's presence and care. It is as if angels amplify for us the emotional, relational content of God's speaking, not just the words or images themselves. And that gives me a certain joy, knowing that God not only wants me to understand, but to feel in my heart his reaching out to me in love.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Story of Belonging

Anniversaries are a good time to take stock of things. Whether it's a birthday, wedding anniversary, or the commemoration of some other major watershed moment, these days urge us to reflect on where we've come from and where we're going. St. Helena's turns 60 this month, and so I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the parish's long life and the path that lies ahead for us.

I spent some time yesterday at the Starbucks in Burr Ridge Village Center sipping an almond-milk decaf cappuccino and poring over some old dog-eared histories of the parish. I smiled at Peggy Anderson's reverence and wit as she recounted in her elegant, lyrical style some of the high points of the parish's history: the first meetings at Pleasantdale School and Fr. Soukup's study, the burning of the mortgage on September 12, 1976, and the various social and outreach events we hosted: pig roasts and salad luncheons and autumn festivals. Peggy also spends a lot of her history documenting the origin and meaning of many of the features and furnishings of the church building, for as Fr. Johnson put it, "the church has an opportunity, even a responsibility, to encourage beautiful artistic expression as a means of recognizing and experiencing the divine image in creation." It would seem that she and Fr. Johnson were of the same mind on such things. One only need look back at our Advent Service of Lessons and Carols last December to know that the aesthetics of worship have always been and continue to be an important current running through the parish's life.

But what was most compelling about Peggy's history were the affectionate vignettes of the people who have belonged to St. Helena's family over the years. And there were some characters! Fr. Johnson returning from Europe yet again with a statue or another set of gorgeous vestments to support the parish's high-church worship. The arrival of the Petraseks and the Oommens. The wedding of my fellow priest and friend, Mark Geisler. Fred Boskovich dressing up as a clown on the Fourth of July at Pleasantdale Park. A lot of life has unfolded within these walls. Peggy documents meticulously each priest who served the parish over the years, some with long, distinguished tenures and others for a short season, with never an kind word or uncharitable comment. As an historian, she is always professional and gracious. It's a rarity to experience such writing nowadays. What a privilege and a pleasure.

But both priests and parishioners came and went, and most of the people she talks about are no longer around. That should not make us sad. Churches shrink and grow. People are born and die. As I've said to many of you, Jesus started the Church with just twelve of his friends, and so similarly, we are no less St. Helena's because we are few. Most Episcopal churches are small, as it happens. As we cross the threshold of our 60th anniversary, I want to tell you that I think great things are ahead for us, even if we remain small and intimate. Great things lie ahead, because St. Helena's is stiil full of great people, you, who will continue our story of belonging.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Breaking the Law

In this Sunday's reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled and bent over by an evil spirit for 18 years. The leader of the synagogue gets quite indignant with Jesus, because he heals the woman on the Sabbath, when the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch--literally, five books) specifies quite clearly that no work is to be done. This provides yet another opportunity for Jesus to call out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who favor a legalistic reading of the Torah, rather than taking a common-sense or pastoral approach, as Jesus does. This story is meant to help us reflect on what it means to apply the rules of our faith to real life.

It is important to remember that the Torah that Jesus, the Pharisees, and ordinary Jewish people followed was not a legal code. We often translate that word, "Torah," as "Law," such as when we recite "the Summary of the Law" in the Book of Common Prayer, in which Jesus says that loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves are the greatest commandments, on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. Yet the word, "Torah," is more accurately translated as "teaching," "instruction," or "guidance." The longstanding practice of translating the word, "Torah," as "Law" in English is actually a translation of the Greek word, nomos, which was chosen when Jews first translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation, which we know as the Septuagint, rendered "Torah" as "Law," and so have we.

Fortunately, we know better now; and incidentally, so did the learned Jews of Jesus's day. The Torah was not just the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), "the Written Torah," but also the tradition of scholarly rabbinic interpretation of those five books that has been passed down through the generations and is now enshrined in the writings of the Talmud and Midrash, "the Oral Torah." Both the Written Torah and Oral Torah represent an attempt to apply holy wisdom to real-life situations. Jesus reminds the religious elite of his day that the Torah doesn't offer us a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to every situation. Real wisdom requires a person to apply the Torah's instruction and guidance creatively to each new situation, not just to offer a pat answer that will fly in the face of common sense and common decency.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

Monday, July 8, 2019

Bearing Fruit

In this week's reading from the Letter to the Colossians, the author says, "just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God." The gospel, as the author understands it, is the story of Jesus's redemption of humanity and his promise of a better future for all of us. Once we've heard this Good News, it begins to work on us and shape us into a new creation. But what does this new creation, this fruitfulness, look like?

Some would have us believe that God rewards dutiful Christians with financial prosperity and good fortune; but this week's readings suggest something very different. The story of the Good Samaritan, which will be our Gospel reading on Sunday, illustrates that true fruitfulness comes from an inner spiritual richness, because that richness fosters life in everything and everyone it touches, not just ourselves. The fact that a Samaritan, considered an outcast among the Jews of Jesus's day, offered such abundant mercy and generosity to a stranger affirms that it's the love within us that matters, rather than wealth, social status, or power. After all, a priest and a Levite both passed the wounded traveler by without so much as a glance; but the Samaritan is moved by compassion. He binds up the travelers wounds, conveys him to an inn, takes care of him, and instructs the innkeeper to spare no expense in looking after the injured man until he returns.

This story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus's answer to a lawyer's question, "who is my neighbor," after Jesus reminds him that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Church teaches that it is each Christian's duty to attend to both "spiritual works of mercy" and "corporal works of mercy." Corporal works of mercy attend to people's physical needs: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and bury the dead. The idea in Colossians is that we do good works, not because we feel guilty or pressured by others, but because we feel an overwhelming gratitude for God's care and nurturing of us. And maybe, like the robbed traveler, we too were saved unexpectedly by a stranger in our own moment of crisis. Similarly, the message in our Gospel reading is that we do works of mercy out of a sense of shared humanity and love for each other as neighbors. Love generates love. Our own experience of fruitfulness makes us eager to see others fruitful, too.

Even though we have entered a more leisurely season at St. Helena's, we will still need to be planting seeds this summer, so that the parish can bear new fruit. We already have a rich soil and a healthy climate to allow these seeds to flourish. So, we'll build on our spiritual richness, by learning to invite, to greet, to orient, and to incorporate newcomers better. We'll draw on our own experience of God's abundance so that others can be fruitful, too.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+