Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

“If these were silent, even the stones would cry out”

This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, 2020, April 5, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. This is the fourth Sunday of public services suspended due to Coronavirus; the recording of the service can be found on the St. Mark’s website, here. I realize I’m well behind in posting sermons, but hopefully this can serve as something of a fresh start; as time allows I’ll start filling in the (substantial!) gap.

Collect: Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66


In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

On Palm Sunday, I always find myself a little bit uneasy: we rejoice with the crowd in the Gospel, carry palm branches, and sing Hosanna to the Son of David. And then, not more than a few minutes later, we’re all shouting “Crucify.”

I’m not the first person to note the radical shift in tone in today’s liturgy, many have already commented that we’re taking a fairly extreme emotional journey today. In some corners of the church, the journey from palms and donkeys to scourging and the cross is so stark, the celebrant and sacred ministers even change vestments in the middle.

It’s not a new comment, but I do want to spend a moment here this morning. If we’re all shouting “crucify” just now, what were we so thrilled about before? What were the Hosannas for? There’s no question the crowds in both Gospel passages are made up of largely the same people. Why the sudden shift? Is it really so easy to adulate and adore in one breath, and then to shout murder in the next? Of course it is, as anyone knows who watches professional sports, or who follows politics. Someone will say, ‘Oh that’s different, we know better now.’ But I’m not so sure. Crowds have a mind of their own, and it’s amazing what a mob will perpetrate that individuals would recoil even from contemplating.

There were people who warned Jesus: in Luke’s account of the triumphal entry, there are Pharisees in the crowd, and they seem to know what kind of trouble gets stirred up when a mob starts forming. “Teacher,” they say, “tell your disciples to stop.” And Jesus replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, even the stones would cry out.”

This year of course the crowds are silent. There are no hosannas in the streets, there is no “crucify” coming from the square; only a small few here in church, and otherwise we are scattered across the many places where you’re watching from home. This year the crowds are silent, and so the stones take up their part. What do they cry?

Stones are perhaps wiser than the rest of us mere mortals. They have long memories. This road Jesus travels, from Jericho to Jerusalem, has seen its share of pain and suffering. These stones had seen desperate refugees fleeing the city’s destruction by the Babylonian army. They had seen David escaping Jerusalem after his son Absalom usurped the throne. They had seen the arrival of Joshua’s army, and before that they had seen Abraham leading his son Isaac to sacrifice. These stones have drunk blood, and no doubt they would again. Would this crowd be the next, if Rome’s hand fell hard? Or would it be this man on a donkey?

The long scale of geologic time helps make the perspective stones offer. Buildings which to us seem solid and everlasting, stones know are anything but. Even if the builders’ art is perfect, and every stone stacked upon another endures for an age, stones remember the quarry, and before that the hill, where for countless eons the earth has moved and shifted. Imperceptible to any lifespan, the shifting earth has introduced cracks and faults by the million deep within even the firmest rock. Stones know, the strongest building is no monolith, but a perpetual trapeze act of balance and motion, no less complex, no less tenuous, for taking longer to play out. The slightest shift in the earth, just as much as the strike of a ruthless, conquering army, will cause the whole thing to collapse. The stones on Jesus’ way didn’t need the fickleness of a crowd to remind them of the fragile impermanence of their lives.

It’s not only earthquakes and conquests they’re aware of, either, but the long slow drip of the elements, too: moisture, wind, even changes in temperature, all have their effect. Any stone must know it’s only a matter of time before the elements do their work, and a rock is reduced to soil. Oh they know it will take ages, but stones must be proud that the living things around them grow, draw their sustenance, and bear fruit from the residue of their long endurance.

Are there stones in your heart? I’m sure there are in mine. Some have been there forever, some are new. Many I have collected and piled there, many have been dropped in by others. A few I have polished smooth and bright and cherished as if they were gems, and a few others are sharp enough that brushing against them scrapes and cuts. But stones they all are, heavy, burdensome, impediments at best and obstructions at worst. Can anyone build from these stones? Can they ever be worn into soil? If they topple, could they take my soul with them?

Today the streets are silent, the crowds are all in their homes, and the stones finally have their chance to cry out. What do they cry? Do they recognize the one for whom the crowds would shout Hosanna? Can they hear his voice who called them into being? Do they join the crowd, shouting as if for a conquering hero? Or do they rather cry out their premonition that a death is coming?

In a week’s time, a soldier will dig a foundation pit among these stones, a small one, for a single post. A man will come, losing his footing on the gravel, carrying a wooden cross. And here where they have dug they will nail him to it and raise it up. The stones will have their fill of blood once again. This blood falls like Abel’s so long ago, unjustly killed by a jealous brother. But where it lands it does not sear, it does not salt with death, as Abel’s did and so many others since. This blood lands like rain, watering the earth, filling it with plenteousness. And where it touches stone, it cracks: the work of a thousand ages accomplished in a single moment; the stone of the tomb, of every tomb, broken forever and its door left wide: all the dead released from their prison, and where there was barren stone, there is now a heart of flesh, bearing fruit to eternal life.

Yes this is the death these stones have been waiting for, the death that will make them the very first witnesses to the resurrection of the Son of God, before even the angels, from inside the tomb. And this year, with the streets silent, they cry out: “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. . . He will wipe away every tear from your eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

In silent streets, in heavy hearts, hear the stones cry out. May their cry light a flame of hope in all of us, a flame growing to a blaze, which the darkness shall not comprehend, till the Sun of Righteousness rise with healing in its wings, and darkness shall be no more.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Where are you?

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on June 10, 2018, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. This week has seen several high profile suicides on the national scene, and a number of tragic young deaths on the local scene. Mortality has been very much on our minds, which, together with this Sunday’s reading from Genesis 3, created an occasion for me to reflect on the pain of separation which often lies so close to the human experience. Those who know Bach’s St. Matthew Passion will recognize the text of one of the final recitatives, Am Abend da es kühle war, underlying a passage towards the end of this sermon. For more on the specifically religious quality of the separation between God and humanity, I suggest Matthew Myer Boulton’s book, God Against Religion.

Collect: O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 3:8-15, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the worst phone calls I ever received was from a friend of mine, in the summer after we’d both finished college; he’d gone to New York to pursue a career in finance, and I was still getting ready to leave for my MA program starting that fall. Our group of mutual friends was aware he was having a hard time adjusting to his new life, we all were in our various ways, but no one could have foreseen the shape it would take for him. I remember vividly that desperate phone call late at night, my friend making no sense at all but clearly terrified and clearly in trouble. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to ask for clarification; and finally, in tears, he asked plaintively, “Where are you Blake, where are you?” Before hanging up. It was bad enough my friend was in trouble, it was even worse feeling totally helpless, and unable even to understand what was wrong. We later learned it was a schizophrenic breakdown. He was hospitalized, treated, and has long since recovered. But his plaintive cry still haunts my memories of that summer — “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” One of the reasons that question cuts so close to the quick is because of what it presupposes about the other person. It presupposes that they are already such an important part of our life that we feel they must be there for our life to be recognizably our own — meaningful, safe, full of warmth and love. It presupposes their presence, permanent and reliable, a part of the furniture of our lives. Whether dear friends, husbands and wives, or especially parents and their children, “Where are you?” is a cry almost guaranteed to bring the other person running without a second thought. And when that response is prevented, either by distance or by other obstacle, we don’t just feel disappointed, we grieve. We grieve the loss – or at least the absence – of something presupposed, something reliable: a presence sustaining and life-giving, without which we no longer know what to make of our lives, let alone the world we live in.

When we usually read Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent getting punished for their parts in the affair with the tree and its forbidden fruit, we most often concern ourselves with how to explain what they did wrong, how you and I continue to be implicated in their misbehavior so many countless generations later, the role of the serpent in the whole business, and what the set of curses God issues means for the subsequent history of the world and of religion as a whole.

Today though I want to start somewhere else. Genesis has been relatively light so far on giving specific details of dramatic setting. But here in chapter three, after Adam and Eve eat the fruit, suddenly it’s evening. And not just evening, but “the time of the evening breeze.” They hear the sound of God walking in the midst of the garden, and they hide themselves because they’re afraid. God says, “Where are you?” And Adam replies, “We heard you walking and I was afraid because we were naked, so we hid ourselves.”

“Where are you?” “We were afraid so we hid ourselves.” This is it, the whole tragedy in a nutshell. What’s remarkable to me is less the litany of curses and the subsequent dysfunction, and more the fact that God assumes that Adam and Eve are around in the first place, and available for conversation and fellowship. The implication seems to be, that “at the time of the evening breeze” God was accustomed to spending time with them, and they likewise. Somehow, Adam and Eve and God had enjoyed an easy, daily fellowship, a fellowship which, judging from God’s question, “Where are you?” Had grown into a communion of mutual confidence.

Forget the fruit, the pain here in Genesis 3 is that the communion between God and humanity’s first parents is broken — and broken to such a degree that Adam and Eve’s first impulse at hearing God’s approach is to be afraid, and to hide. “Where are you?” is now the defining question articulating the relationship between God and humanity. Gone are the days of easy, friendly intimacy; and by the third verse of the next chapter there have already begun the long eons of sacrifice, misunderstanding, murder, and estrangement.

The pain of separation, of estrangement, is real. There are lots of explanations for how it happens, whether we’re talking about Adam and Eve and God or the people in our own lives who were once very close but are no longer: time passes, life changes, people make different decisions, they prioritize different things, and a million other such theories. But none of them are ever satisfactory, because the simple truth is that human beings weren’t made for estrangement. We were made for communion, for an abiding fellowship of love with one another and with God. And the degree to which we are prevented or inhibited — whether by sin or injury or injustice or indifference, or the simple increase of distance or passage of time — is the degree to which we are dehumanized and the world reflects that much less of God. This is the way death crept into the world, and we have been paying the price ever since.

How do we fix it? How do we get it back? How do we restore the communion we lost, the grace from which we fell? First of all, treasure the loving relationships you have, thank God for them and let them be signs to you of what was intended at first and what will yet be fulfilled in the course of Providence. Treasure the ones you have lost as well, lost to death, time, or any of the other moths that fret away what is mortal, for the signs they were and remain of the same promise.

But second of all, and more than that, while we cannot erase or fix the terms of our estrangement, God is quietly but surely sewing back together the fragments of our shattered world. In Nazareth the Son of God joined himself to human nature, overcoming once and for all the separation between God and humanity. And while in the evening God asked Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” when he could not find them, on another evening the dove returned to Noah bearing an olive branch indicating the flood had lifted. And on still another evening, they laid Jesus in the tomb, whereupon he harrowed hell to seek and to find every lost soul and to carry them back to his Father’s home, where they shall be lost no longer forever.

Today God continues, “soul by soul and silently,” to restore the lost communion humanity was created to share: chiefly by the Sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, and the others, in which we participate most clearly and specifically in God’s own life; but also and more frequently by the simple decision of people every day to recognize love when it is being offered, and to reciprocate the gift likewise. We can’t always recognize it, and we can’t always give what is being asked. But by God’s grace we can begin to translate across the gulfs of separation, need, and capacity to requite the love with which we are surrounded, both human and divine. This will take much of our time, and all of our patience. We will need to practice forgiveness continually, and penitence too for the injuries we will inevitably cause. We will need to turn ourselves back to God time and time again, in order to catch the vision afresh, the vision of just how beautiful creation is as it is intended to be, how deeply it resonates in our spirits and how far it reverberates throughout the world. But such is the gift of the Holy Spirit, living and active within us to accomplish what we cannot even see by ourselves alone let alone achieve.

In the meantime, we cannot settle for a world where isolation and estrangement continue to bring death and destruction to so many. It is “the way the world works,” as cynics correctly identify; but it is not the way it was intended to work, and it is not the way it will finally conclude. “Where are you?” God’s chilling and heartbreaking question to Adam and Eve is answered by the gift of Emmanuel, “God with us,” sent from heaven to earth to reach out and find you and me beyond all the barriers of sin, fear, silence, and regret we’ve thrown up in the way.

Let’s you and I continue to reach out in his Name. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You and I are the connection required, the missing link, in order to begin right here in this place overcoming fear and shame to restore the communion we were made for. Do not settle for “the way things are,” but reach out, and let love be requited with love, to the glory of God, for the life of the world.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.


This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Pentecost, Sunday, May 20, 2018. Much of this homily was inspired by a recent re-discovery of a hymn text by Thomas a Kempis, “If there be that skills to reckon” reflecting on the glory of heaven and the character of its society. One of my favorite stanzas goes as follows: “There the gifts of each and single all in common might possess; there each member hath his portion in the Body’s blessedness; So that he, the least in merits, shares the guerdon nonetheless.”

Collect: O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Well this is it. The long period of waiting is over. What had been promised is now fulfilled, we can all celebrate and carry on our ways with a little extra spring in our step, with a delight that wasn’t there before, and with some newfound inspiration to boot.

I’m talking of course about the Royal Wedding, though the same could be said about today’s holiday of Pentecost. I wasn’t able to watch yesterday’s broadcast, but as I read the various reports and reviews, one thing I’m struck by is the common refrain. Everyone — whether on Twitter or Facebook, the New York Times, Esquire, or the BBC — is remarking on how the preacher took everyone to CHURCH.

The preacher was our own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, and somehow his remarks had such an effect that the commentators have largely left aside their focus on dresses and clothes and royal lines of succession, and have started talking about love: love as a force, a power, and desperately needed in our world right now. The Telegraph is estimating that as many as two billion people watched or heard the wedding yesterday, by television, radio, or internet. And by most accounts, nearly all two billion of them are now talking about love.

What happened that so many people heard the same message? Somehow the miracle of Pentecost has occurred again in our time: all the people gathered from every corner of the world heard Peter preaching in their own native language. All the two billion people watching the wedding have heard something told them about love.

The whole thing brings to mind another royal undertaking, many thousands of years ago deep in the misty reaches of the undefined past. You may remember the story of the Tower of Babel. In order to make a name for themselves, the leaders of the people decided to build a great city with a great tower reaching all the way up to heaven. Now at that time, as the book of Genesis renders it, there was only one people on earth, and they all had the same language. To foil their hubris, God confused their language, and they could no longer understand one another. They stopped building the city with its tower, and from then on they were scattered all over the face of the earth.

It’s difficult to underestimate the sadness of this story. It’s the last chapter in the prologue to the book of Genesis; Abraham appears immediately after, and from then on Genesis concerns itself chiefly with his perspective and that of his descendants, no longer with that of all and sundry. The confusion at Babel marks the last in a set of universal curses that punish human arrogance and explain the difficult conditions under which we go about our lives in this world.

Pentecost, which the Church celebrates today, is the reversal of that curse. All of a sudden, the world’s confusion of language is ended and they can all understand Peter speaking in their own native tongue. What does he say to them? That the love of God poured out on the whole human race in Jesus of Nazareth, that love is theirs too; God’s love is for them too. Forgiveness is not only possible, but it is freely offered. Life beyond death is not only possible, but it is the new order of the day. Even more, this love which God offers goes ahead of us to encompass all the human race, represented by every conceivable language, and binds us all together.

From Pentecost on, Christians believe that deep down at the heart of things it is impossible for there to be competing peoples and nations at enmities. All are one in the Holy Spirit of God, all are given the same language of love, no longer to make a name for themselves with a tower reaching to heaven, but to find their name already given them, as they give themselves to one another.

This is the truth which Pentecost reveals: the burden of translation, the fear of being misunderstood, are transfigured into occasions where words give way to actions, where argument makes allowances for affection, and where love is finally what we long most desperately to say, offer, prove, and achieve.

In short, Pentecost reveals that our own first language is love, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to speak it. Pentecost reveals that our own first inclination is towards the communion that love creates, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to identify it. This is why it’s so important that the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost not just as a power to reveal these things, but also as a gift, as a help, for us to live into them.

I remember one year in high school our school band director had signed us all up for a competition. We were going to go to Virginia with other school bands from all over the country to play for a combined audience and to be judged. The music he had chosen was difficult, and I remember one rehearsal where by that point we should have made more progress than we had done. We were frustrated with ourselves, and I’m sure our director was too. But instead of yelling at us, he was full of encouragement. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll get this. I know you can do it. I wouldn’t set you up to fail.”

I remember that phrase, “I wouldn’t set you up to fail,” because it was the first time I’d heard it. It took me a minute to understand what he meant, but it was a huge relief — that, at that moment, somebody in authority had more confidence in me than I did, had more knowledge of my own ability, had more excitement about our band’s potential for success than we could muster. And here he was doing everything he could to help us succeed.

You don’t have to be a musician — though it helps! — in order to understand or at least guess the (tongue-in-cheek) proximity between music directors and God. Which is only by way of offering, that God doesn’t set us up to fail either, and continually gives us the gifts and the resources to accomplish the work we are set; chief of all, his own self in the Holy Spirit.

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit of God shows up, not just to guide or to teach, but to be the gift, God’s own self the gift, revealing what was true all along: the love, the potential for good, the desire for common understanding and communion deep at the heart of human life; and not just revealing what is true, but healing the divisions which prevent its fulfillment, drawing us into a single Body nourished by God’s own self. That gift is the Gift of Gifts, and it remains a stupendous mystery for us to contemplate as well as a dynamic life for us to live.

No, God does not set us up to fail, but reverses all the curses with which we are afflicted, to enable love to flourish among us and within us. Let us allow that love to guide us into closer relationship with one another and with God. Let that love overcome our resistance to meet and know those who are different from us, and embolden our confidence to trust.

So may we find ourselves understanding one another in our own native language of love. So may the love of God grow within us to embrace our selves our communities, and our world.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

The Ascension

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on May 13, 2018: it was the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which we kept as the Ascension (in addition to a smaller celebration on the day itself the previous Thursday).

Collect: O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Deep in the County of Norfolk in the UK, there is a Church of England shrine in a village called Walsingham. If you want to know more about it just ask me at coffee hour and I’ll happily divulge! It’s a good and holy place, if also a little mad — as most good and holy things inevitably are.

But for the purpose of this morning, I only want to share that the Shrine church is ringed on the inside by a series of chapels, dedicated to various saints and events in Jesus’ life. One of them is dedicated to the Ascension, the feast we keep today. It’s a tiny chapel, and above the altar there is a lovely painting of Our Lady with the infant Christ. On the ceiling, however, directly over the altar, there is a gilded plaster sculpture of clouds, out of which poke two feet. Nothing is visible except two nail scars.

The suggestion is obvious: here at the altar we’ve caught a glimpse of Jesus himself in mid-whoosh on his way into heaven. It’s complete madness, but then it’s the chapel of the Ascension after all, and it does make a point! On one of my own visits there, the Shrine Administrator remarked to me that the really crazy thing is how many visitors see the chapel, and then rush upstairs to the gallery to see if the rest of Jesus is there waiting for them to say hello. They get disappointed and want to know, “Where’s the rest of him?” The Administrator has to tell them, “No, Jesus ascended into heaven, not into the balcony!”

I suppose it’s the obvious answer, Jesus has ascended into heaven and it’s useless to look for the rest of him. But is it so heartbreaking as that? Did Jesus just go away? Did he just leave his disciples to fend for themselves, while he got a one way ticket out of the mayhem and confusion? The calendar points us to Pentecost next Sunday as one answer: no, Jesus doesn’t just go away, he sends the Holy Spirit, which reveals the Church, and empowers the apostles to begin their ministry in the world, while leading them further into the knowledge and love of God.

But the Ascension does more than simply point downstream towards Pentecost. And while it is the occasion for Jesus to leave his disciples, it isn’t an escape route. When Jesus goes up to heaven, it’s Jesus who goes, body and all — resurrected and glorified, sure, but human nevertheless. The Jesus who sits at the right of God in heaven is the human Jesus, equally as much as he is the eternally begotten Son of God. And more, not just Jesus the human; but like the Ascension chapel at Walsingham points out, Jesus with scars in his feet, Jesus the wounded, Jesus the crucified and betrayed, as well as Jesus the resurrected.

In short, Jesus’ humanity goes with him into heaven, and in this way, Jesus does not escape this world in his Ascension but carries it with him. Jesus is not taken out of the world on his way to heaven; rather this world is taken with Jesus into heaven, where it is met with all the compassion, all the tenderness, all the beauty and majesty of God.

Which of course changes the way we view this world. If you and I ever find ourselves looking to heaven as the answer to our problems, then Jesus’ Ascension presents us with some very real difficulties. It is not an escape, but the occasion for a more profound encounter between God and humanity than ever before. It means, among other things, that people who feel far away from heaven whether by reason of injury, struggle, or sin, are actually the ones who are closest to God, because they are dearest to Jesus and share most profoundly in his own suffering. And it means also, that whatever transcendence the Christian religion offers, that transcendence begins here and now in the everyday muck and clutter of being human. And there is a lot of muck and clutter.

This is why the church continues to insist on its worship consisting of ordinary things: wine, bread, water, oil, words, voices. This is why the church continues to insist on sharing the peace, confessing and forgiving sins, reading the Scriptures, celebrating the same milestones and moments day after day in every successive life. Because in all of these mundane things and tasks the seeds of heaven are planted in us and among us. And not just in church either, but the small, humdrum moments of every day life, especially those moments that didn’t have to happen but did; moments where the gratuity of human interaction reveals something beautiful, something fitting about the world and our place in it. The seeds of heaven are planted there too, and begin to bear fruit.

The paradox is that the Ascension introduces us to an absolutely transcendent God, and a Savior who ascends far above all heavens but who carries the created order with him, and makes all the ordinary bits of life reflect the glory of heaven. The church’s job is to articulate and reveal just this paradox: that though Jesus has ascended far above all heavens, because of that ascension, heaven now fills all the earth. The chief marker of our mission is not primarily a concern for the faraway; not primarily a concern for abstractions of thought or doctrine or the esoterica of arcane subjects. No, the chief marker by which we know we’re on the same path as Jesus is a turning towards the ordinary, towards the things and people that are so much a part of the furniture of our lives that we’re usually tempted to ignore them or else take them for granted.

We’ll need help noticing they exist; it seems a human trait to be more conscious of our hopes and goals and even daydreams than we are of the very real people around us on whom we depend and in whom our life consists. But by recognizing them and caring for them, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven invites us to a happiness, a confidence, a fullness of life here and now, as both distinctly possible and distinctly Christian pursuits.

The ordinary and the necessary around us, even the pain and suffering, are revealed as seeds and mirrors of heaven and the scarred Savior who ascended there. This is a vision which transfigures life as we know it, while it also makes room for what cannot be seen or touched or possessed: an expanding universe, in which there is always more to uncover in the ordinary stuff of our lives, more to love in the people around us, more to forgive and more forgiveness to ask, more thanks to offer for beauties and joys no matter how small.

So on this Sunday of the Ascension, we celebrate together Jesus ascending into heaven where he takes his seat at the right hand of God. We also celebrate that what he carries with him is the whole range and matrix of our lives in this world, making them even now reflect the glory of heaven. And we pray for the grace to turn away from staring up into heaven looking for where Jesus has gone, to regarding our neighbors, the humdrum, and even the madness of our lives, with the same wonder and amazement: witnessing in them the splendor of heaven welcoming earth home.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Giving Time

Above: One of my photos from our “field trip” to Monterey, of the presidio chapel (now cathedral) in the city’s historic center, which I discuss in the the sermon below. This Sunday was the sixth after Easter, traditionally the beginning of “Rogationtide” and now a time when the Church is especially conscious of the human vocation to tend and nurture the fruits of the earth.

Collect: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

A friend of ours is in town this week, and on Saturday she and David and I drove down to Monterey for a brief field trip. Our first stop was the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Charles Borromeo, and the local history museum in the neighboring building.

You probably know better than I, that one of the things the rest of the country continually loves to criticize about California is that, “There is no history there,” meanwhile places like Boston are very proud of their Pilgrims. You also probably know better than I, that that’s hogwash. Monterey proves it — inhabited for centuries by Ohlone tribes, discovered in 1602 by the Spanish explorer Vizcaino, and finally settled in 1770, it significantly predates Washington D.C. as well as major swathes of the South, Midwest, and West. So do dozens of other sites in California including San Francisco and parts of the East Bay. There is plenty of history here, even too much history, if you ask those who have borne the brunt of it.

The cathedral we visited communicated nothing if not a continuing passage of time: its structure the long basilican form of Ancient Rome, its facade a perfect testament to classical Spanish mission, its materials the local wood and adobe hich characterize so many of the missions, while the interior decoration clearly reflects the liturgical reforms of the mid-twentieth century and the gardens our contemporary enthusiasm for succulents of all sorts. Meanwhile on the patio out front were marked the outlines of former associated buildings now gone, and inside there were cut gaps in the plaster to show off what was left of the original decoration. All the public educational signboards in town spoke of the rises and falls in the city’s fortunes over time, while the shiny modern tourist buildings of Cannery Row, built among the ruins of former sardine facilities, bear another profound witness to the continuing march of history.

And still the votive candles in the cathedral burned, every possible inch of available space taken up by these physical markers of people’s faith and prayers. Still the priest and altar guild were bustling through the sanctuary preparing for a wedding. Still a grandmother and her grandson stopped us in the aisle to say hello and make sure we felt welcome. I said to David afterwards how glad I was we started our visit to Monterey with the cathedral, and he replied by asking something to the effect, “Do you feel rooted now?” While I wouldn’t have described it that way myself, that’s exactly what it was, a feeling of being extremely moved by the whole thing: this whole orchestra of change, decay, recovery, shifting demographics, economics, politics, even liturgical priorities, and in the middle of it all, this physical testament both to the long passage of time with all its changes and to an abiding, enduring affection for the things and people and promises of God.

Why do I tell this story now this morning? Because for one thing today is Rogation Sunday, when we’re conscious afresh of our vocation to grow and to cultivate the fruits of the earth as well as the gifts we each possess as unique persons; but even more because, as our Gospel passage presents, love is both the first task and the last criteria by which we achieve our vocations. And love takes time.We’re confronted today by the need both to grow and to love, both of which simply take time.

I think a lot of times we’re tempted to think of time as a passive quality, merely the condition of our lives in which past, present, and future take shape, the long span of minutes or years which we have to endure before our tasks are complete or our lives are through. And it’s true time passes, more quickly or else more slowly than we’d like much of the time. But the candles burning in Monterey’s cathedral, or even in our own church here at St. Mark’s below the icon of Our Lady near the chapel, tell a different story. These candles are gifts of time: ours burn for six or eight hours or so, the ones they used in Monterey were larger, like the ones we use for the tabernacle, that burn for seven days. Eight hours or seven days, they are gifts of time. And they help to indicate that whatever prayer or faith we can muster in any given moment re-echoes for much longer in the presence of God.

When you work in a garden, there are certainly tasks to complete, but more than striking off a checklist of weeding or watering or pruning or whatever, you are giving the garden your time. And the result of your gift is that the garden flourishes long after you pull up the last weed or pack away the watering can to head inside.

Or if you’re a student, right now you might be in the final mad dash to finish papers and cram more facts into your head. But more than accomplishing a set of goals you are making a gift of time to the development of your self and your skills and abilities, a gift which will continue to bear fruit for years to come.

All the more so when we interact with one another. When we decide to give one another time, rather than simply spend time or guard against its being stolen or wasted, we are creating space both to be injured and to forgive, to injure and to be forgiven. When we give time, we are entering a relationship where we agree to sustain an experiment in coexistence, in cooperation, where our presence and unique personalities might exert some demands on one another, demands that may cause us to grow or develop in unexpected and maybe even painful ways — but which the gift of time ensures will not be subject to abandonment or neglect.

In short, in giving time, we are making a gift of ourselves to one another, which is why giving time is so often functionally synonymous with love. The challenge is, every new day, every new moment, is a new moment, and requires us to make a decision once again to give it away. The mystery is, that in giving it away, we find ourselves in possession of more than we thought we had in the first place.

This is also the mystery of that cathedral in Monterey, and I think of all our life of faith and love in this world. There are no things that remain the same, no monuments which can remain eternal unaffected by time, weather, or concern. There are no persons who are isolated completely from one another, no places which never change. What does remain, though, and what is finally the only thing that can, is the decision in the midst of it all to give away our time and our selves to the life we live and the people in whom it consists, across whatever days and years we find them drawing.

Let us be confident that giving it away, seemingly possessing nothing, is what roots us most firmly in the abiding love of God, is how the Holy Spirit presents us most overwhelmingly with all the riches of grace. So may our poverty be met with God’s abundance. So may our time be answered with God’s eternity. So may our gifts be multiplied in God’s love.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

More than the sum of our parts

The following sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on April 29, 2018. It was the Fifth Sunday of Easter, but also fell on the Sunday immediately following April 25, St. Mark’s Day and our patronal feast. The day’s propers were for Easter 5, but we celebrated St. Mark in this homily, the prayers, and in the celebratory parish barbecue afterwards.

Collect: Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Many of you may know the story of St. Mark already, but for those who don’t, I just want to give you a few highlights. He doesn’t appear explicitly in any of the gospels, and he’s not one of the Twelve Disciples. But he was certainly among the others who followed Jesus. The Gospel that bears his name contains a tantalizing little clue: during the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is betrayed, there’s a weird little half verse that some scholars think reveal Mark himself. It occurs in no other Gospel, and it’s just the sort of unique clue that seems it could contain some bit of autobiographical detail: there’s a young man who runs away when Jesus is betrayed, who’s wearing only a linen cloth — his pajamas basically — and when he runs, the cloth catches on a tree and he escapes naked. A weird detail! Which makes some think, here’s Mark himself appearing in the scene. Or perhaps he wasn’t there in fact, but like the artist Michelangelo including a small self portrait in his fresco of the Last Judgement, maybe this is Mark’s way of simply assuming a little humility.

At any rate, the book of Acts and several of Paul’s epistles mention Mark, and we can piece together a little more. Somehow he ends up at Antioch, and gets sent out with Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. But he and Paul have a falling out, and Barnabas takes him on alone. Eventually he and Paul reconcile, and Mark goes to Rome — where he falls in with the apostle Peter, and learns from him. Some scholars even think Mark effectively served as both muse and scribe for Peter’s remembrances of Jesus, making his Gospel as much Peter’s as Mark’s. This would partly explain why it appeals so much to an action-oriented, even hotheaded personality like Peter’s.

Peter and Paul are both martyred in Rome, but Mark escapes, and by church tradition ends up in Alexandria, where he founded the church there and became the first Patriarch of that ancient, important see. Martyrdom finally catches up with Mark in Egypt, and he faces the same death as his teachers Peter and Paul, late in his life. For centuries his remains were venerated in Alexandria, but for the last few hundred years they have resided at San Marco in Venice. You can still visit him today if you go there.

Mark is an odd saint in that in art he is depicted both as a young man, and as an old man: in icons, the Christian East often depicts him as the wise and stately, gray-headed Patriarch of Alexandria, dressed in Episcopal regalia. But the Christian West often as the young, energetic Gospel author and student of Peter, Barnabas, and Paul.

Like I said at Wednesday’s midday service, both pictures are probably true, a good reminder that in God, individuals, and the church as a whole, are always more than the sum of their parts at any given moment in time. Though he could not have known it then, the young man who ran away naked from the scene of Jesus betrayal and arrest was the great founding Patriarch of Alexandria. The wise, stately martyr was the same man who had fallen out with Paul.

The Church contains within itself both the ignominy of its many sins and the glory of its final redemption; just as this parish contains within itself both the history of good and ill as well as the seeds of all its potential in the glory of God; just as you and I bear all the inherited inclinations and temptations of our families and forebears, as well as the incalculable splendor of the full, mature image of God in which we were made and to which we are continually being drawn by the Holy Spirit.

That’s an enormous comfort, helping us to weather the challenges and pains of the present. But it’s also an enormous challenge, preventing us from ever being too satisfied, keeping us always on tiptoes striving to catch a glimpse of what’s next, dependent on forgiveness and on renewal, looking finally for the completed vision coming just up over the horizon; while in the meantime we work to be ready for when it finally appears.

Yes the church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment. But how? Why? Because as persons baptized into the mystical body of Christ, we live first and foremost in him — and he exists from before the foundation of the world, and unto the fulfillment of all things. His perspective is the one into which we are adopted ourselves. As we carry on in our lives in this world, his is the mercy, the love, and the joy that we strive to imitate — and in so doing, we join in our own small way in the continuing work of reconciling all persons to God and to one another, revealing the unity-in-difference which God’s love continually creates.

Jesus’ perspective is the perspective in which we too live and move and have purpose. As we celebrate today both the fifth Sunday of Easter and our own patronal feast, we come face to face again with the work we are called to do: with St. Mark himself, to grow continually more mature in the life we are given to live: to take stock of where we have been, to note where we have fallen short, and to be encouraged always by the hope that is in us: the hope of sins forgiven, of life victorious over the grave, and of the fulfillment of God-given potential.

Meanwhile, we rejoice that we are always more than the sum of our parts, that we are supported by a patron saint who was more than the sum of his parts, and that together we bear witness to a joy that is greater than we can see at any given moment, into which one day we will finally be called to step fully.

We are not alone in celebrating today. There are countless parishes, cathedrals, and institutions dedicated to St. Mark all around the world, and they all celebrate with us: from San Marco in Venice to the Egyptian Coptic Church, to South America, Indonesia, and even Siberia, all are celebrating this week. We enjoy a special kinship with them and with all who celebrate St. Mark: a saint who bears witness over a long lifetime to the possibility of growth and learning, forgiveness, hard work, wisdom, and sacrifice.

Together we celebrate St. Mark’s example and ask his prayers for us. But even more we celebrate a God who makes room for human growth and development, who calls us always further into the person, the church, the creation we were intended to be. By God’s grace and St. Mark’s help, may we do just that.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

The Good Shepherd

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Yesterday I was watching some of the footage of the funeral for Barbara Bush, and I was struck by one or two of the readers as they read the passages from Scripture which had been chosen for the service. It often happens at funerals that I notice this same phenomenon: the readers aren’t necessarily professionals; they aren’t trained to within an inch of their lives (as ours are here at St. Mark’s!). And yet in most cases, at funerals, they seem to get the point across — no matter how nervous they are, no matter if they happen to stumble over a word or two. Something about the task at hand causes me to be able to hear something in their words that in other circumstances I can miss.

Noticing this again in the funeral footage yesterday reminded me of a story I treasure; though I admit, in advance of telling it, that it’s probably apocryphal, and undoubtedly too warm and fuzzy for words. But I love it, so I’ll tell it anyway.

There was once a funeral for a grandmother who was much loved by her family and had many friends in the community. Her ten-year-old grandson was asked to read the Psalm, the 23rd Psalm, the one we’ve just heard ourselves. He was so nervous about the task that he’d decide to memorize it. He began trembling, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But he gained steam as he went on, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters,” and so on. When he finished reading, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole congregation; everyone had fallen to pieces quietly weeping, while a gentle, holy quiet had settled over the church.

It just so happens there was an actor in the congregation, a friend of Grandma’s from a long time ago. He was amazed at the congregation’s response to this little boy’s reading. After the service at the reception he went up to him to offer a “Job Well Done.” But he couldn’t help himself, and went on about how dumbfounded he was: the actor said, “I must have read that Psalm a hundred different times over the years, and people never cried; they’d clap often enough, and once I got a standing ovation, but never tears, and never the silence I just experienced. How did that happen? What’s your secret?”

The little boy didn’t miss a beat and replied, “I don’t know, it sounds like you know the Psalm way better than I do, but I love my grandma, and I know the Shepherd.” The actor was duly humbled, and left him alone.

It’s a sweet story, but it makes a very good point. There is something about genuine love, both of God and of human persons, that manages to shine through despite whatever skill or professionalism we might possess or lack.

This same point was made at my own ordination to the priesthood. The Gospel reading was this same passage, Jesus the Good Shepherd. The preacher went to great lengths to communicate just how far Jesus was willing to pursue his people, and commended to us the same love as the chief task of any who were called to follow in his steps: Love the people of God, and whatever confidence or talent feels missing will be more than supplied by the Holy Spirit and the gift of grace.

But it’s an overwhelming task, both for clergy specifically and for all Christians. Love the People of God, love them to such a degree and with such a spirit that each can feel recognized and known as being of supreme worth to God and to one another, and that the life to which we are all called is one of peace and tranquility in the house of God forever.

It’s simple enough to express in the quiet of an office, obvious enough to say in the anxiety of a hospital room, and easy enough to claim in the anonymity of a newspaper or a facebook post, though such contexts have their challenges too. Much harder in the chance encounters of everyday life, and much harder still in the long, fraught relationships of family, friends, and colleagues in which our life consists: where betrayal often goes hand in hand with devotion, where we aren’t always clear about our own motivations let alone anyone else’s, and where we wind up wounding most the people we love best.

It seems that forgiveness has to go hand in hand with love, otherwise we’re all lost, stuck with high aspirations but no capacity to fulfill them, while we undermine ourselves at every turn.

This is where the Church as a whole starts to be aware of Jesus the Good Shepherd as fulfilling some basic need we all have: of clearing the way for us to return, of speaking the word of forgiveness which enables us to restore our relationships and continue moving forward. We say in the creeds, “He suffered death, he descended into hell” to seek and save the members of his flock even there. There is no place now on earth or in all creation where Jesus the Good Shepherd has not gone to find us, and that means there is no place now where we are alone, where either our own foolishness or the wickedness of others finally puts us beyond the reach of healing and restoration.

That sort of thing is fairly straightforward to say in a creed, or note down in a class; easy to affirm publicly and to celebrate: Jesus is the Church’s Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep and leads them all by name just as they hear and know his voice. What’s harder is to remember, the work of a Shepherd is personal, they go out to each lost sheep wherever it is; they can put only one lamb on their shoulders at a time, to bring them back to the fold.

What do I mean by that? Jesus the Good Shepherd comes for you and for me, and not just for sheep as a category of particularly wayward livestock. Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks your name, and mine finding us wherever it is we’ve managed to wander, whether or not we even realize we’ve wandered.

How do we recognize his voice when we hear it calling? It’s the voice of one who knows us better than we know ourselves, who leads us out of darkness into light and refreshment and peace.

But it’s never easy, and it’s always humbling. Being taken out of the brambles means having to notice the brambles in the first place, and more often than not admitting to the Shepherd that somehow I managed to get myself caught there. It means having to acknowledge, I was not on the right path after all, and despite how sure I was it only led me further away from everyone and everything I loved.

This is a vulnerable moment, and despite what we say and affirm publicly in the creeds or otherwise, it’s a scary one. What if I am punished or received harshly? What if I have to give up what I have dearly bought?

These kinds of fears, more than anything else, keep us from hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice, or if we do hear, keep us from responding. Because, too often, we simply do not place enough confidence in the mercy of God. We find it difficult to trust that being made vulnerable will be met with kindness and compassion. But while there may be consequences — the brambles may tear as we are lifted out of them — we will be free, and more than that we will be touched by a mercy that does not keep score or hold grudges, that meets us with knowing, and with love, reliably, every time.

Don’t get too distracted focusing on the brambles, and what they are or how to avoid them; there are enough of them to drive us mad if we let them. Instead just listen for the voice of Shepherd, listen for the voice who knows you better than you know yourself. Trust the kindly leading that wends through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and quiet waters, to the table of God set with the overflowing chalice of his mercy.

The Good Shepherd is your shepherd as much as mine, yours individually as much as that of the church as a whole. Listen for his voice, and let him lead you into life.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Peace which passes understanding

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

“Peace be with you.” Jesus’ first greeting to the disciples after his resurrection is the same greeting we’ll share with one another in a few moments. But for many, it’s one of the most painful ironies and even shortfalls of the Christian faith. How can peace be so closely associated with the central mysteries of our faith, when the world we live in is anything but peaceful? When our own lives are anything but peaceful?

I’ve been enjoying these “Coffee & Conversation” gatherings very much, but one of the more challenging themes that’s come up is how difficult it is to own our Christian identities in public spaces. Part of the reason for that is the way other Christians — and if we’re honest we ourselves — have sometimes pursued peace at the cost of global and personal well being. And part of the reason for that is that a lot of us just aren’t sure we’re very good Christians in the first place. Our lives are full of chaos and confusion, competing loyalties, and feelings in tensions with one another. We do not feel the peace that Christ gives, and we do not hear it in the Christian voices which dominate the public square.

A woman came up to me recently who said, “You know I only really felt peace once. I don’t understand why it was then and not otherwise, my life was in shambles at the time and I was making a mess of things: my marriage was on the line, along with my job and my relationships with my relatives. One Sunday I was in church singing some random hymn, a little distracted because I was going over it all in my head again for the umpteenth time. And then suddenly I felt this peace arrive, so profoundly and so unmistakably present that it was almost tangible. I stopped my anxious catalogue and I spent the rest of the hymn transfixed; somehow I knew I was going to be okay, that I was being held in a way I didn’t know possible. I’ve never felt that way before or since but it’s a moment I return to sometimes when I’m feeling down. Why can’t there be more of that kind of peace in the world? And why did it happen when my life was such a mess?”

The only thing I could think of to say was that perhaps she needed it just then. God knows we need the peace Jesus gives all the time, but more than ever when we’re in trouble. Still that kind of profound feeling is a gift, an exception, not the rule. What is this peace that passes understanding, if it appears so rarely in a person’s life? And what is it worth if it makes Christians so reluctant to own the faith which promises such peace?

Part of the problem I think comes from misunderstanding the very beginning, this moment in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus says, peace be with you. Yes he gives them his peace, but it’s more than a comfort blanket or a placebo. Remember, it might only have been Judas who betrayed him, and Peter alone who denied him, but they all forsook him and fled when he was taken away in the Garden. When Jesus says, peace be with you, it’s a moment of forgiveness, of reconciliation, when the deeds and events which broke their fellowship are forgiven and their unity restored. Jesus’ gift, “Peace be with you” is fundamentally a moment of reconciliation. We who wish we had more of that peace ourselves could do worse than to set about reconciling with one other, forgiving both the great wrongs and little slights we’ve suffered, without expecting anything in return.

But there’s also an element of humor here, or at least I think so. “Peace be with you.” Jesus is risen from the dead, and he takes his disciples by surprise where they’re gathered in a locked upper room. “Peace be with you,” he says. It’s sort of formal and a little stilted, but then what else is he supposed to say? Imagine Jesus making his way from the tomb to the upper room, trying to figure out just what he’s going to say to these people, like the hapless bachelor practicing his charm in front of the mirror in a romantic comedy. “Peace be with you.” It’s a variation on the angelic greeting, “Fear Not,” Because the strangeness of the scenario would be too much for them to bear otherwise. He even escalates the whole scenario by insisting he eat with them right then and there, just to prove he’s not a ghost.

There’s humor here, no mistaking it. And the humor breaks the power of the intense seriousness which had prevailed among them from the moment of his arrest through the ensuing days. It puts them at ease, and they can be themselves again, together. On top of forgiving them, Jesus’ peace and particularly his humor restores them to themselves, breaking the power of anxiety and calling them to participate in the joy of his resurrected life.

As anyone who has struggled with depression can tell you, there can be something marvelous and healing about just being part of a group where everyone is laughing and having a good time, sharing old memories and making new ones; something restorative about simply feeling a part of things, a part of life again, with people who understand you and can tease you good-naturedly. The humor of Jesus’ peace accomplishes this for his disciples.

But this element of humor is more than simple lightheartedness. It reveals a deeper confidence about the world and all the crazy going on outside. For the resurrected Jesus and his disciples to laugh together despite all the challenges they face and the systemic injustice of the world they live in, injustice which condemned Jesus to death among other things, is to suggest that their confidence goes deeper than all the crazy surrounding them.

Jesus has come through death itself, and none of its minions no matter how great can have any power over him any longer, and no power over those with whom he shares his peace. They laugh and rejoice, and all the crazy is revealed to be powerless.

But what about the crazy that still besets us, and the sabotage and subterfuge that Christians continue to work against one another? What about the complete apathy and downright antipathy the rest of the world shows to people of faith? What about the mother who just watched her daughter, a twenty-year-old university athlete, fall twenty feet from the climbing wall to break both legs and now face the possibility she’ll never walk again? What is Jesus’ peace in the face of all this?

We tend to think of it as a fragile thing, small and easily broken; this is partly why we receive it as such a precious gift. But the Peace of Christ is not a small thing subtly given and easily lost. It is not a fragile vase for us to dust and polish, keep safe in a cabinet and protect from thieves. It is stronger than the pillars of the earth, and larger, more spacious than the whole created order. The Peace of Christ is that love in which we live and move and have our being, which has swallowed up death and hell and destroyed them forever. That peace continues to break into our world today like it did that first Easter Day in the Upper Room, making windows onto that larger reality which contains us more than we contain it; which keeps us more than we can keep it; that larger peace which holds us and sustains us in every uncertainty and injury, and is not threatened or diminished by them.

From now on, wherever we find death and hell we can be sure that peace is nearby: above, below, and all around. Christ’s Peace is large enough for us and all our misery, gentle enough to be kind with our confusion and fear long-suffering enough to bear all our anger and resentment and scorn. We have only to be still, to look up, to be aware that this peace is everywhere, and all that’s left for us is to notice, and to bear witness.

Nothing will make it easier for us to be faithful in the midst of challenge and pain. Nothing will make it easier for us to face challenge and pain period, faith or no faith. But if we find we lack peace, let’s take it as a cue to look up, out of our own limited range of vision, and behold Jesus offering forgiveness, humor, confidence, and an invitation further into his resurrected life.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Belief and Doubt

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the most endemic aspects of working with young people today is how seriously they take the question of belief. For better or for worse, my sense is that young Christians in ages past had fewer hang-ups about the specific tenets of the faith, and more about what it meant their life would look like.

Speaking at least from my own experience, younger generations today are more prepared than ever to relocate, to reorganize their economic priorities, to adopt new hobbies and habits, to create new community, all for the sake of the things they believe in. But belief itself is hard won; trust is hard earned and easily lost; loyalty is fiercely given but never blindly. Gone are the days when religious communities could sustain periods of stagnancy or scandal so long as they continued in the ancient steps and patterns; gone are the days when evangelism was merely a matter of convincing people how wonderful Christian life is.

For better or for worse, belief matters more than it ever has. First principles and vision are essential to articulate and to own for anyone considering first steps into the life of faith. Get those right, and life will follow.

In this context, our Gospel today is a perfect place to begin, especially because it invites us to consider just what “Doubting Thomas” actually doubted. We always get this Gospel on the second week of Easter. We’ve left the scene of the tomb, and we’re back up in the upper room with the disciples. Evidently the place they had kept the Passover with Jesus the night before he died had become a refuge to them in their grief and their confusion.

By this Sunday, all but Thomas have seen the risen Lord, and their sanctuary of grief has become the center of their rejoicing. They’ve told Thomas what happened, but he seems to doubt it. “Unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, and touch the spear wound in his side, I will not believe.” It’s the sort of statement that has made scientists all around the world love Thomas: here’s an empiricist, right in the gospels, a man after their own hearts! Without solid evidence, he won’t believe the good news his friends tell him. If you ask the scientists, it’s pretty obvious what it is that Thomas doubted: nothing less than the truth of the resurrection, and nothing less than Jesus present in the flesh would convince him otherwise.

But scientists aren’t the only ones with insight into Thomas’s strong reaction to the other disciples’ good news. Psychologists love Thomas too, because he’s such an early example of someone clearly in the stages of grief, specifically denial. Psychologists might respond to the empiricists, Thomas isn’t doubting the fact of the resurrection or the truth of it, rather he’s simply in denial. Remember Thomas was one of those disciples at the Last Supper most insistent about his devotion to Jesus, most willing to go to prison with him and even die with him. There’s a great deal of affection in Thomas for Jesus, and his reluctance to believe the good news might not be so much a rational thing as an emotional thing, having found it hard enough to come to terms with Jesus’ death, let alone the resurrection. It’s all happening so fast, and for someone who feels as deeply as Thomas does, the testimony of others is simply too much for him to process, he needs to see it for himself. If you ask the psychologists, it’s pretty obvious that Thomas doubts not the truth of the resurrection, but his own emotional capacity to bear yet more news, more rumors, more words about this person whom he loves.

But Psychologists don’t exhaust the possible explanations either. If you ask theologians what’s going on here, they’ll give you some variation on what biblical scholars might offer as well. In the context of John’s Gospel, eyewitness reporting composes an important theme: John says repeatedly that his Gospel is reliable because he was an eyewitness to the events he recounts; Jesus is condemned before Caiaphas because the council hears for itself Jesus’ own testimony, which, claiming to be the son of God, makes him a blasphemer in their eyes. Thomas is a perfect case-in-point of what John is trying to accomplish with us his readers. Thomas was a skeptic, and a staunch one, but whose position was immediately reversed upon seeing with his own eyes: the moment he sees Jesus alive and risen from the dead, he falls to his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God” — making one of the strongest proclamations of faith in the whole Gospel of John. St. John hopes that you and I, reading an eyewitness Gospel, might respond likewise, and recognize in Jesus the Son of God and Lord of all. If you ask theologians and biblical scholars, they might say that Thomas’ skepticism isn’t about Thomas at all, but about you and me, and the way we choose to respond both to the messaging and to the content of the faith.

No doubt there are more possible readings that these three, and multiple interpretations of just what it was that Thomas doubted, and what the message might be for you and me. Which reading is the correct one, and which interpretation? And what does it have to say about belief in a world like ours?

First of all, there is no single, exhaustive, “correct” reading: each of them and all the others add what they have to add, filling in the picture of Thomas the disciple, and the tensions and challenges of responding to that first Easter. But second of all, Thomas suggests to us that belief is personal — by which I don’t mean individual, but Personal, with a capital P — based in an encounter with Jesus Christ himself, not with words or reports about Jesus, or raw assertions about faith and morals. Thomas’s experience suggests that there is no substitute for face to face interaction with God.

For you and me, that possibility seems a little remote, but probably not more remote than for Thomas, having been present at Jesus’ death and burial. To us Thomas counsels patience: whatever else the risen Jesus might have to say to him, one thing I love is Jesus’ kind, even humorous tone. Jesus affirms Thomas’ very human reaction, and does not scold or punish, but invites further inquiry and deeper experience.

Jesus makes the same invitation to you and me, every day. You and I don’t have an upper room to go to, but we do have church, and we do have the various disciplines of prayer and mercy that Jesus both taught and lived. We cannot force belief, we cannot force an encounter with Jesus; but we can certainly put ourselves in situations where we know Jesus is likely to be: in prayer, in worship, in learning, with the poor, in the act of forgiveness, and caring for one another.

For me one of the most encouraging aspects of the “Doubting Thomas” episode is that, no matter what Thomas thought of his fellow disciples’ and their news that Jesus had risen from the dead, it did not change the way the risen Jesus interacted with him. Finally he appeared to Thomas as well, and spoke to him directly, by name. His skepticism did not finally leave him left out or left behind.

I once knew an old priest who loved to quip, “You might not believe in Jesus, but Jesus believes in you!” Not the way I might choose to put it, but the point is, for Christians, the object of our belief is out there, not only knowable, but personal; not facts in a vacuum, but a Person, continually making himself known to each of us and to all. The degree to which we believe, and the nature of the beliefs we hold, depend first and foremost on our encounter, on our relationship with Jesus, in which we are invited further and deeper into the mystery of his resurrection.

Whatever we might find difficult or even possible to believe; however left behind we may feel when it comes to other disciples, other Christians, may we too find ourselves there with Jesus in the upper room, and declare with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Easter Day, 2018

Collect: Almighty God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 10:34-43, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Last summer, when I came St. Mark’s to interview with the Vestry, they took me on a tour of the church. One of the things I was most struck by was the series of Creation windows on the north side of the church: six windows in a wonderful style, expressing the six days of creation. They add a great deal of color and warmth to the church, and I appreciate the complementing contrast they offer with the other windows, especially the Tiffany windows opposite. We were all saddened a few weeks ago when news came of the artist’s death, Don Drury, at the age of 90.

Creation is not frequently the chosen theme for a series of church windows, but I think the choice in this case was an insightful one, especially because of what seems like an error: there are six creation windows, but there are seven days of creation. Where is the seventh window? The book of Genesis describes the first six days as the days God made the world; and on the seventh day, as much a part of creation as any other day, God rested. Where is the seventh window? Where is God’s rest?

I’m not sure if the artist intended it, but I have my own theory, and it begins today, on Easter Day. Today Christ has risen from the Dead. Easter Day is the conclusion, the epilogue to the previous week, during which we traced the last steps and experiences of his earthly life. Easter Day is a kind of extended coda on what came before: the whole experience of Jesus’ passion and death, the whole experience of the people of God across uncounted generations, and the whole experience of humanity from the very beginning. Easter Day is in some senses the end of that story: Jesus rises from the dead, and we know that Death, our ancient enemy, holds power over us no more.

But Easter Day is also the beginning of a whole new thing. In ancient times Sunday wasn’t the end of the weekend, but the beginning of the new week. It was a workday. And Christians met to worship in secret in the morning before they went off to the day’s tasks. For Jesus to rise from the dead on the first day of the week, with worship occurring then too, is a way of saying that in his resurrection, God is doing something entirely new.

The Church has taken that to heart, and over the course of the last twenty centuries or so, has built an unprecedented, all-pervading network of humane ethics and institutions, even as the faith spread all over the earth: all of it fired by the belief that the resurrection reveals every human being as of inestimable worth in God’s eyes, and lasting value; that not only am I forgiven, but that God is calling us all to something new, something higher, a new humanity, a restored earth, in which no one is left out or excluded from God’s healing, loving purposes, which no powers of death or hell itself can stop or defeat, and which has its proper end in the very heights of heavenly glory.

These days the narrative often takes a different tone, however. The Church, this denomination among them, has been in the throes of statistical decline. It has been difficult to connect the resurrection’s power and overwhelming mandate to the daily realities of shrinking endowments, crumbling buildings, and cultural changes that threaten the Church’s confidence in its core identity and mission.

The rest of the world is in the same boat: we all hear the news about eroding civic institutions, and we experience, every day, the increasing difficulty to understand what people On The Other Side are saying, let alone empathize or reconcile with them. Scandal and corruption strike at the heart of our ability to come together as a community, as a nation, as a world. Meanwhile, in a sardonic twist, the very scandals that threaten the integrity of our society seem to have become our favorite means of entertainment. We know all too well that the church does not stand apart from all this mess, and that we are merely one more institution among many with egg on our face.

In the midst of all this, Easter Day continues to insist, the end has come: the world as it is, as we’ve known it, is over. God has taken all of its hypocrisy and shame and borne it himself to an ignominious death. The world is over, and a new one has begun. As Christians the world we live in is a world where the innocent can get crucified, but where their innocence remains forever and death itself is revealed as passing away. As Christians the world we live in is a world where powers and authorities can be morally bankrupt, but where such bankruptcy leads only to its own demise, while the meek really do inherit the earth. As Christians the world we live in is a world where I screw up every day, and where I often can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but where mercy is personal, and where the kindness of God stoops down to touch our eyes and open them to the sunrise beaming through the darkness. As Christians the world we live in is a world where loved ones still die and loneliness still prevails; but where the Spirit of God unites us continually with all who have gone before in one communion and fellowship of abiding love.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of a new world. Our challenge — and our joy! — is to live in this world, as citizens of the new. So, while the church is certainly its own worst enemy, and the world seems bent on its own demise, you and I are in the right place. Here, today, on Easter Day, we assert unequivocally, with music and flowers and glad hymns and a big party, that Jesus is risen from the dead, and life has triumphed over the grave.

We will not see in our lifetimes the completion of God’s good purposes on earth. But here, in church, on Easter Day, we can identify with confidence just what it is that is passing away, we can name the evil and decry the wickedness, while we greet again with joy the victory of goodness and life.

So back to our Creation windows. Where is the seventh day? Where has Drury depicted the Sabbath rest of God? My own theory is that he meant for this church to be his seventh window; for all of us here to enter and to live the Sabbath rest of God, where every tear is wiped from every eye, death is no more, and we rest in joy.

My prayer for all of us on this Easter Day, is that we enjoy some glimpse, some taste, some participation in this new world that Jesus’s resurrection creates; and that as we do, we might rest, and be at peace.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.