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"

Seen and unseen, said and unsaid

The following is more of a meditation than a sermon — occasioned in part by Jesus’ connection of the cross with Moses’ serpent of bronze in today’s Gospel, and in part by some of the responses to last week’s sermon — variously jubilant or concerned that I had downplayed the doctrine of the Atonement. My intention was not to downplay the doctrine, only to shift focus from the mechanisms of forgiveness to the God who forgives. The meditation below is an elaboration on that shift in focus, as well as a continuation of previous themes on worship in general. It was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment Sunday, 11 March 2018 at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. The choir sang a setting of the mass by Arvo Pärt. The photo is of the rood screen and chancel at Christ Church, New Haven, CT, by Lauren Larsen Photographs.

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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

One of my favorite churches is in New Haven, Connecticut, the parish where I served as a seminarian years ago. They have an old-fashioned rood screen like ours, an open, carved wood lattice placed at the juncture between the nave and the chancel. A great, almost life-sized cross stands at the summit, and all the carved work makes the screen feel like a sheer, breezy curtain into some Moorish walled garden in some desert palace long ago. It marks a transition from one place to another, one attitude to another, one world to another, as communicants pass beneath the cross on their way to the altar to make their communions with the One who hangs there.

As you walk under the cross, your eyes shift to the altar, and to the communion rail ahead. But behind you, up on the beam that supports the cross, there are words carved into the wood — facing backwards, facing back towards the altar. It’s a quote from John’s Gospel, a later repetition of one of the verses we heard just now: carved in the old King James,’ “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, plain for all to see on any given Sunday at the administration of communion. It’s also a reminder to the clergy, who is really the MC, the conductor of the Liturgy: Christ himself, more than any one or group of his ministers. It is his action, his love that orchestrates the whole celebration, his grace that calls us to the altar and that binds us to one another in these holy mysteries.

But as Jesus makes clear with Nicodemus in the Gospel today, the cross is also a direct reference back towards the episode in Numbers which we also heard today: the people of Israel have made their Exodus from Egypt, and they have wandered in the wilderness for years now. They’ve had a bit of bad diplomacy with the people of Edom, who did not permit them to cross their country on the way to the Promised Land, and so now they’re taking the long way around. They grumble, against Moses and against God, and they complain about the manna, the food from heaven which they’ve receiving miraculously every morning for nearly forty years now. God seems to be a bit bad tempered as well, because he responds to their grumbling by sending fiery serpents to bite and afflict the whole ungrateful bunch. God tells Moses to craft a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole — so that anyone suffering from snakebite can come to it and look at it and be healed.

It’s a weird story, no question about it, especially since the Ten Commandments are fairly explicit about making no images. The brazen serpent appears again in the book of Kings. Apparently the people had kept it and treasured it long after they had entered the Promised Land. It held a special place in the temple, and they would burn incense before it. King Hezekiah, one of the last great kings before the exile, undertook various religious reforms and finally destroyed the brazen serpent, fearing it had led the people to idolatry at last.

In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus it’s fairly clear that he’s referring to the healing properties of the snake: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There’s something refreshing about the connection, at least to my mind. All that the people of Israel had to do was look at the serpent and they would be healed. No elaborate public displays of penitence, no sacrifice required; not even an apology or an admission of guilt. Just look at the serpent and be healed. Somehow the action itself was enough, the action itself contained all that might have been said and more.

There is certainly dramatic irony in play, and a painful one at that — having to look at the image of the thing that caused injury in order to be healed. But such a task also reminds them that the snakes were not the primary cause of their unhappiness, rather their own all consuming regard for themselves and their appetites, much as in the Garden of Eden, the serpent was only the vehicle of temptation and not the agent of the fall. Looking up at the bronze snake to be healed, away from the ground and away from their navels, in a sense points out their narcissism and restores a proper sense of perspective. Likewise for us to behold Jesus on the cross is to be reminded that his lordship is as victim, not as tyrant, and if there is anything wrong with this picture it is with ourselves who are so slow to recognize the victimizing power of our own misdeeds. But all this and all the inexhaustible more that might be said about the cross and about what happens there and about what good it does us, is contained and communicated in the simple act of looking up at it. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Just as the people of Israel were healed by looking at the serpent, so are you and I, by beholding the cross.

It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, which mingles the sign with the signified and liberates final religious meaning from priests and scholars and poets and restores it to anyone with a beating heart, who with humility and love yearns to be forgiven, to be healed, to be free.

Just look up, behold the cross, from whatever vantage point you possess, whatever you are feeling and wherever you find yourself. And in that action, behold the axis mundi, the central hinge of the whole world, both healing and mystifying us, in relation to which our lives make sense as being drawn to the very brink of heaven — but which loses all meaning the minute we make it serve our own ends; and more, in that moment it stands in judgment against us, for it was just such a self-seeking appropriation that led Jesus to be condemned in the first place.

The difficult thing about architectural points is that they are made silently, without words to interpret. Buildings are their own interpretation, speaking themselves to us as whatever life they are built to enable is lived out within them. So it is with the Church, the Sacraments, the Bible, Prayer, Doctrine, and the Cross. They exist not to be explained or defended or appropriated, but to enable a life in touch with God. Let them touch you, let them populate the landscape of your imagination. Look up from wherever you are to behold these mysteries on the horizon, and find God close at hand to help and to save.

This morning as we come to the foot of the cross above our own rood screen, and at the altar make our communions, may we find ourselves refreshed by the simplicity of our task, beholding the source of our healing and transported across time and space to the antechambers of Paradise: to that walled but un-gated garden where the serpent finally is crushed and death is no more, and the dead wood of the cross bears fruit for the healing of the nations.

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

Faith and Folly

This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday of Lent, 4 March 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. In some ways it’s a reprise of themes from before Ash Wednesday, on worship as the exercise of love, but with a Lenten twist focusing on the love of God revealed in the cross.

Collect: Almighty God, who sees that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended form all adversities which may happen to the body, and all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17,1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

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

Do you ever wonder how Jesus himself would have processed some of the things he did? Like did he ever regret being so short with Simon Peter, when he said, “Get thee behind me Satan”? Later on did he think, “Huh, maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so hard on him”? Or in our Gospel reading today, clearly he’s very angry with the money changers in the temple, and I wouldn’t dare suggest that he wasn’t right to do what he did, driving them out. But I wonder how Jesus himself thought about it in the next few days. Did he think, “Hmm, maybe that was over the top, I’ll be a little less intense next time.” Or was he happy for it to have been such a public moment?

I confess I’m not much given to those kind of public losses of control very much, but sometimes it happens, and almost always regret it later. I don’t want to project myself too much on Jesus, but I have to think he at least wondered how his words and actions were affecting other people.

The thing is, we don’t actually know. All we know is how the disciples remembered what they saw and heard. And they saw and heard some pretty amazing things, including some pretty crazy and off-putting things, things which I at least, and probably a lot of you too, would regret having done pretty immediately afterwards.

Does it limit or otherwise sabotage shat we think of Jesus if all we have is the record of how he was received by others? — if it’s most colorful points are moments when he let his emotions or even his own foolishness get the better of him?

Maybe, but then perhaps it reveals something important too. As an introvert, for me the alarm bells start to go off internally if I notice I’m getting chatty or too talkative, because it’s not my natural inclination; my friends though seem to enjoy it, and say they’re glad to see this different side of my personality. It’s scary for me because talking too much makes me feel like I’ve lost control. But my friends don’t see a loss of control, they just see facets that were there all along. What feels like foolishness and even embarrassment to me can actually be received as warmth and openness to others, helping them to see and know more than they might otherwise.

St. Paul seems to think something similar is going on with Jesus: that in whatever folly he might have felt at his outbursts, the rest of us see something of God that we might not have seen otherwise; and chief of all, in the embarrassment and humiliation of the cross, we know something profound of the lengths to which love and grace can bring even God himself.

I once heard a wise priest use an illustration about eggs. If you put an egg into a pot of water and turn up the heat, and someone asks you, “What are you doing?” there are three ways to respond. First you can say, “Oh I’m boiling an egg.” Second you can say, “Oh I’m raising the temperature of the water, causing molecules to move faster and faster until a chemical change comes over the egg and it transitions from a liquid to a semi-solid state.” And third you can say, “Oh I’m making breakfast.” This priest went on to say, in the current state of the world, we are especially obsessed with the second way of answering, and sometimes with the first; but for the most part we’ve totally forgotten how to just make breakfast.

I don’t know about all that, but at least as far as Jesus and the Cross goes, he’s got a very good point. Too many people want to explain the Cross as merely the way God manages to bring himself to forgive us our sins. Or they take another tack and explain how such a sacrifice functions to expiate the indignation and wrath of a righteous judge. But Paul’s letter to the Corinthians seems to suggest that neither of these explanations quite hits the mark, and something both more simple and more difficult to explain might really be going on: simply that, as Jesus goes to the cross, he faces his final folly. He refuses to tell the truth about his mission and identity to Pilate. He refuses to correct the record for the high priest or perform tricks for the crowd to remind them they’d only just hailed him as the Messiah. And the result of his failure to correct the record is that he goes to the cross and dies.

What is he doing? Why doesn’t he try harder to save his own life? Why doesn’t he use the proper process of religious reform to clear the temple of the money changers? Why doesn’t he help Simon Peter see what’s really at stake, and instead just yell at him? Because he’s human first of all in addition to being the Son of God, and therefore given to limitations in judgement. But also and maybe more importantly, he’s heartbroken. He’s not “boiling an egg,” he’s not “increasing the speed of molecules” (although those are involved). What he is, is heartbroken. And heartbreak makes us do foolish things.

Why’s he heartbroken? Just turn on the news. He’s heartbroken that a world created for goodness has turned on itself such that it finds solace in murder rather than life, in manipulation rather than nurture, in networks rather than friends. And in the heartbreak of God, Jesus becomes human and goes to his own death.

Folly, plain and simple. It doesn’t fix anything, any more than a tub of ice cream or a long walk eliminates or resolves our own sadness or the works of our own foolishness. But what it does do, for Jesus’ disciples at least, is to reveal on Easter Day that love is stronger than death. The foolishness of God leads Jesus to a preventable and humiliating death. But the foolishness of God reveals also that death is not the end for those whose life is located in the love of God; that there is no last word sin or wickedness can claim over those who put their trust in God’s mercy.

Which brings up a very important question: how do we figure out what God is up to in the first place, and how do we measure our own success at following the mission we’ve been given? We’ve got to keep boiling eggs, and we’ve got to keep raising the temperature of the water in order to do that. But let’s not forget to make breakfast while we’re at it, and even more importantly, to eat it with relish.

By which I only mean, the foolishness we commit either from happiness or from heartbreak might be closer to the truth of things no matter how painfully it burns or how impossible it is to explain. It reveals something about the very deep love of God, and it sanctifies fools and victims of folly alike.

Whatever our favorite metric for personal or financial success, as far as God is concerned, the degree to which we are willing to let ourselves look foolish in the love of God, for better or for worse, is the degree to which we are aligned with God’s purposes. Do we have a particularly cherished image of ourselves? Are we pleased to be regarded as smart, or kind, or successful, or responsible, or popular, or dignified? Let the image go. Look a fool in your own eyes, and find yourself a friend in God’s.

As Lent carries on, then, let us have the courage to play the fool in love, so that we might grow all the closer to the heart of God.

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

Strangers to ourselves

This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Lent, 18 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. It was the Sunday following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and amid the national grief I wanted to explore ways toward what might constitute the beginning of a specifically “Christian” response — at least for myself and my own community — that did not rest on platitudes or attempt merely to soothe such grief and anger as cannot (and should not) be soothed.

Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

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

Well, here we are again. Another Lent, another school shooting, another weekend where we are all too aware of the fragility of human life amidst the forces that work to undo it. The pain in Florida is all the more acute as the stories come out that the policies and procedures designed to protect against someone like Nikolas Cruz broke down, and that those who were most worried could not get the help they needed before he started shooting.

Such things should not happen; such things continue to happen. One person with evil intent can ruin untold lives as easily as pulling a trigger or clicking a button. So we learn, and relearn, painfully, every time. Decades of love and support between parents and children, decades before that of growth and marriage and life, ended in the blink of an eye. Why is it so easy to ruin life, while it’s so difficult to nurture it?

Even deeper than the questions of gun control or public policy, why on earth does violence, killing, and death come so easily to so many, as a solution to problems or an outlet for emotions — or even, as in the case of Nikolas Cruz, as a pseudo-vocation?

In the face of such challenges as these, the world seems less and less familiar to us, and once-intimate places and confidences and relationships begin to break down, without a clear sense of where we’re going or how the tension can possibly be resolved.

As I’ve said before, our Religion doesn’t offer a convincing or even a reassuring answer to these questions. But it does give us a language for the grief, and Lent is as good a place as any to start. We began today with the Great Litany, as thorough an account of sin and suffering as there is, with dozens of petitions for forgiveness and deliverance. Today I at least am glad for the petition for God “Finally to beat down Satan under our feet” since at the moment Satan seems a good deal more in our faces than usual.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the personal nature of evil: not just impersonal forces at work in the world, but forces in which in my own small way I participate, and by which I affect others, individuals as well as communities. School parents in Florida are finding evil inescapably personal this weekend, just as you and I do in smaller ways every time we examine our conscience. Praying the Great Litany here at the beginning of Lent collects all our griefs and all our shortcomings into one cry to God, one cry which unites the seemingly disparate “Save us, else we perish,” and, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

And then we get in the Gospel Jesus being tempted by Satan. St. Mark doesn’t give us details, but you’re probably familiar with the longer telling from St. Matthew: Jesus makes his own 40 day fast, his own Lent in the desert just after his baptism by John in the Jordan, where Satan comes to tempt him. The three temptations he faces are the three which undergird every other temptation we might face: the temptation first to change stones into bread, and so to remove a deadly threat both from Jesus’ own immediate experience and by extension one of the chief threats to life throughout the world. Second the temptation to rule all the nations, and, presumably, then, by wisdom and grace to solve all the problems they face and institute peace and justice once for all, at the cost merely of bowing the knee to worship the devil. And finally the temptation to cast himself down from the temple, for the angels to save and so reveal who Jesus really is, the son of God, and make everyone respect him accordingly.

You know the story: Jesus resists every temptation, and then he goes about his ministry. But it’s hard to overstate just how clever the devil is. He tempts Jesus with all the things he already is, he tempts him with the truth about himself: Jesus is the bread of life, the one without whom nothing was made that was made, the true life of all; Jesus is, in Isaiah’s words, the king of kings, before whom nations rightly pay homage; and Jesus is the Son of God, who needs neither angels nor human respect to prove who he is. The irony is, that if Jesus were to fall to the devil’s tempting, he would be betraying the very identity to which the temptations appeal.

This is how temptation works: the devil appeals always to what is closest and best about ourselves, not so that we might give up those things, but so that we might turn them to the devil’s nefarious purposes, and so find death in the midst of life.

In this way, sin makes us strangers to ourselves. We think we know what we’re getting into, and we find suddenly we’re somewhere we didn’t intend. A friend or a loved one confronts us, shows us how what we said or did affected them, and in that mirror we don’t recognize the self that we see. It made so much sense when we said it; it seemed inevitable, and self-evident when we decided on that course of action. And yet somehow it took us to a place where we don’t recognize who we are.

I think this is why it’s so hard for us to admit our wrongdoing, because it doesn’t always look like wrongdoing to us, despite the way it results in real, observable harm. And if it’s hard for you and me, how much harder for a whole community, or a whole nation, to see that its own dearest-held ideals have led directly to suffering, loss, and death.

So what do we do? Do we jettison group or national ideals, or surrender the whole project of self-examination in the first place? No, but this is where our religion might start to offer practical aid after all, where its language of grief and petition offers a solid starting point.

If we are often strangers to ourselves, then so much the more is the world, our home, a strange and unfamiliar place, full of unexpected threats and injuries. Much of our religion exists to mark and articulate the pain and the longing which go along with such a state. In the Church, and especially in Lent, we are given permission as it were not to feel at home in our world, or in our lives. And we are given a language both to lament this state of things and to hope for something more, something better, something warm and familiar and secure, something full of life, with a future beyond the current horizon, even if it be something we’ve never seen or considered before.

Lent takes us right to the doorstep of Holy Week, and to Jesus’ passion and death. We know that our own Lenten wandering will take us, too, right to the gates of death and beyond. The promise is that when we feel most a stranger to ourselves and to our world, there God is near, there God is more familiar to us than we are to ourselves. There a different pathway begins beyond zero-sum games of mercy or justice, compassion or righteousness, life or death. There God’s love recreates us, into the people we were always meant to be. There God’s love refashions the world.

This Lent, as we give voice to our grief, and voice to our longing for a better world and a better heart, let us not shy away from feeling a stranger to ourselves or to our world. It’s okay, to feel that things are not all right, and that we are not at home. We don’t have to have all the answers. But we do have to articulate our grief, and we do have to place our hope beyond where we can see right now.

So God draws near: mysteriously, unseen, where we feel most estranged and confused, even angry and unbelieving. There God sheds whatever tears are left after ours have long dried up, and in the desert where they fall a new world begins.

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

Ash Wednesday, 2018

This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church. I did not see the news until after the evening liturgy, but it was the same day as the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

In one of the parishes I served previously, there was a parishioner who loved Ash Wednesday, but who always refused to receive the imposition of ashes. She delighted in pointing out the irony in the way we observe the day: Jesus says in the Gospel appointed for today, “Do not make an outward show of your piety,” while here we are today, imposing ashes on our foreheads as an outward sign of our piety.

She’s not making it up, the irony really is there. But here we are anyway, about to receive the imposition of ash. Is the church really just that hypocritical? Or is there something more going on in what we do today?

The short answer is, No, I don’t think we’re being hypocritical, or at least not necessarily; and, Yes, I think there is something more going on in what we do with the ash today, and what we do with the rest of our prayers, our penitence, and our Lenten fasting.

So what’s the long answer? We live in a world where it’s more obvious than ever that doing good is no guarantee of success or security, and that unscrupulousness and downright wickedness bets ahead, time after time. Ash is a fitting symbol for such a world as this: a world where peace and goodness are discarded in favor of personal ambition and selfish grasping at things — individual ego or social power or both — can only lead to its own destruction both morally and literally. Ash is a sign of recognition, even a sign of protest, that such a world is not God’s intention, that more is possible, bore is necessary, if we are all not to end in fire and ruin. Ash is a sign of things to come, in such a world as this.

But the ash on our foreheads today is also a sign of hope. I will mark the ash on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross indicates death, no mistaking that. But more specifically it indicates Jesus’ death, and carries with it the symbolism of his resurrection from death. Jesus met his death on the cross, and with him must go all this world with all its selfishness and greed. But with him the world also rises from death into a new life free of death, free of every cloying, corrupting, destroying thing. The cross is a sign of hope, that what we see in the life of Jesus is being wrought in all creation by the Holy Spirit making all things new.

The ash is a sign of protest and the cross a sign of hope for the whole world. But it’s also inescapably personal. It’s on your own forehead after all. It’s a reminder that though we rail against the corruption and disorder of this world, we are implicated too: by our own choices, in our own way, small or great, we too have some part in the ruination of the world and of our souls. Every choice for self above others, every smug glance, every snide comment, every lost temper, contributes to the impoverishment of humanity and of myself at least as much as bad policy, unjust laws, or rapacious economies. I will go to destruction along with the world of which I am a part, I am not separate, I am not uninvolved, I am not innocent; so the ash reminds us.

And at the same time, Ash in the sign of the cross on your forehead recalls the moment when the same pattern was traced in the same place, in holy oil at your baptism. Another inescapably personal moment: when the forgiveness for which Jesus prays from the cross washes over you and becomes yours; when his death becomes yours, and his resurrection too. Ash in the sign of the cross a reminder and harbinger of death; and yet full of confident hope, that death does not have the last word, and that I, along with all things, am being made new.

So the imposition of Ash on Ash Wednesday is more than simply an outward display of piety; or it ought to be, if it’s to mean for us all that it can, and if we’re to escape the charge that Jesus levels against the Pharisees of his own day. It’s a sign of protest against this world and all its wickedness, a prophetic act by which we declare it can only end in fire and ruin. It’s also a penitential act, by which we’re reminded that we are not innocent either, and that we have some part in the ruination we see. But it’s also a hopeful act, for our world and for ourselves, that just as Christ himself died and rose again, so is the promise of God for each one of us: though the world around us turn to ash, yet new life “springeth green” out of the tomb.

It may be ironic that Our Lord counsels us against public displays of piety. And yet in our world today, public displays of piety are a powerful symbol both to ourselves and to the world, that there is a larger picture to which all of us are accountable, and to which we hold ourselves accountable; a larger narrative beyond this election cycle and beyond even this modern and postmodern era of the world. By our piety — by our prayers, our penitence, our fasting, our ashes — in short by our faithful and affectionate religion we participate in that larger narrative, gain some glimpse even now of its final promise, and are strengthened to do our part to live as if that promise were already here in full.

So this Ash Wednesday, let’s be conscious that these ashes are a way for God to say something to us, as well as a way for us to say something of God to the world. Wear your ashes boldly, let them be a sign, of penitence and the promise of new life.

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

On behalf of the absurd

This sermon was preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 11 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. In some ways it is a continuation of the theme begun last week, on worship – where it is directed, how it is conducted, what it means to participate, and the kind of life it shapes in those who undertake it as a regular part of their routine.

Collect: O God, who before the passion of thy only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

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

I always think it’s remarkable, that all the gospel writers and especially Mark seem to make such a big deal of Peter at the Transfiguration, and how he comes off like a blathering idiot. Maybe it’s just self-deprecation — tradition holds that Mark is a student of Peter’s, and wrote his Gospel from Peter’s remembrances — but whatever the source they all seem to dwell on it. “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

And for that matter it’s not really so idiotic as all that: on one level it’s just good hospitality: if a couple of prophets show up, especially ones taken up to heaven before their death and now shining with the glory of God, it’s just good manners to try and make them comfortable. I always thought Peter got short shrift: he’s not being an idiot, he’s being practical. And anyway, what else are you supposed to say when the voice of God speaks from heaven like thunder?

In our first lesson Elisha is in the same boat: Elijah gets taken up to heaven in chariots of fire, and all he can stammer out is an amazed exclamation, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Like someone cheering on a sports team, or, like in old stories of besieged cities, where at the last moment reinforcements finally arrive, unexpected and unhoped-for. It’s a crazy exclamation — “The chariots of Israel, and its horsemen!” But then it’s a crazy sight — fiery chariots descending from heaven, and taking up his friend and mentor. What else is he supposed to say?

The church has interpreted both of these stories, and particularly the Transfiguration as a moment of great theological clarity. On the mount of Transfiguration, God reveals something particularly significant about Jesus: not only does it reveal him as the Son of God, but also the dazzling brightness suggests the final, twin end of darkness brought about by his ministry: Jesus brings about the end of the darkness of death as well as the end of the darkness of ignorance. This is why we always read the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday before Lent, because it encapsulates the themes of the Epiphany, while also pointing us clearly towards Holy Week and the Resurrection.

But too often we stop there. Too often we consider religion something that we think about, have opinions about, even beliefs about, something that we have to explain or systematize. And all that stuff is important. The imaginative system that results is rich and beautiful, full of insight and loveliness. But thinking is only the beginning, if it’s even that.

I remember a story about a recently deceased bishop, who loved to rail against what he described as “voting for God.” Just as there’s more to civic engagement than appearing at a ballot box every four years, so there is more to religion than just deciding God is all right, saying so at convenient opportunities, and otherwise going about your business. This bishop was once on an airplane, traveling to some conference and wearing his clericals. The person sitting next to him noticed what he was wearing, and said something to the effect, “Oh you’re a priest! I believe in God, too.” To which the bishop replied, in a mood probably more saucy than charitable, “Great. How’s that working out for you?”

The wonderful thing about Peter and Elisha in today’s readings is that they point out to us: even at the very brink of profound and clear revelation, even before the face of Christ himself shining brighter than the sun, even when we hear the very voice of God in heaven thundering into our waking ears; even there and maybe especially there words fail, reason can go no further, and Peter and Elisha are both reduced to wild exclamations, remembered more for their absurdity than for their eloquence or profundity.

In that absurdity there is the suggestion that there is something closer to the heart of religion than words, or ideas, or clarity of expression; and that something is love.

I pointed out this week in my greeting in the leaflet: that there is something wonderful about the Transfiguration occurring with just Peter and James and John and not all twelve of the disciples. It’s an intimate moment: Jesus revealing the truth of himself to his three closest friends, not even to the rest of the twelve. And it suggests that at least as far as Jesus was concerned, the knowledge worth having, the knowledge worth sharing, begins with love, and not the other way around.

Same thing with Elisha: he and Elijah have been talking and walking long upon the road. Elijah is his mentor, his boss, and his friend; and whether or not Elisha’s request is granted is contingent not on any of his behavior or performance, but merely on whether or not he sees Elijah in the moment of his departure. Despite the absurdity of his cry when the chariots of fire come to collect, there’s no denying that it’s an episode full of tenderness, Elisha not wanting to leave this person who has meant so much to him.

I’m sure Elijah taught him many things; but it’s not the teaching that Elisha will miss, rather the teacher. It’s not the end of the ideas that gives him grief, but the sundering of their bond of affection across whatever gulf was coming to separate them. Yes as far as religion is concerned, the knowledge worth having begins with love, and not love with knowledge.

So back to the bishop on the airplane. He was irritated that this fellow merely wanted to share his “vote for God.” The bishop’s somewhat caustic reply was aimed at asking the deeper question: how does your belief matter, how does it make a difference in your life, where does it begin, and where does it end? Most importantly, what about your heart? You believe in God; do you love God? Do you love God’s people, God’s world? Because without that, I’m afraid your vote for God doesn’t count for much.

So knowledge worth having starts with love, and not the other way around; and love always brings us to the brink of what can and cannot be said, of what can and cannot be put into words. By that accounting, Peter and Elisha both are pardoned for their absurdity, and much beloved.

This year I am particularly conscious myself, being in a new place, of the limits of my own skill and capacity; which has me thinking about the limits of our religion as a whole. It makes me wonder, too: what we do on Sundays, and throughout the week: all our worship, all our prayers, all our writing and our reading; speaking at least for myself, sometimes I think we flatter ourselves that it is our part to articulate the mysteries of God just as the voice from heaven proclaimed to Peter and James and John the truth of who Jesus is, and to clear up all the darkness by our own brilliance. But I think it might be nearer the case that all our words and all our learning and all our worship, when they’re at their best, are nearer to the crazed expostulations of Peter and of Elisha: “My Father, My Father! The Chariots of Israel and its Horsemen!” “Lord it is good that we are here, let us make three tents, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

These exclamations do not make sense on their own; no exegetical or scholarly acrobatics are sufficient to explain them satisfactorily. And yet, taken as part of a whole defined first by affectionate encounter between persons who love one another, we can both laugh at Peter and recognize in him something of our own deeply felt devotion and tenderness. So let our own worship, and prayer, and thought serve as faltering, imperfect, even absurd steps of love towards Peter’s God and ours.

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany and Lent is right around the corner. Today let’s resolve afresh to resist the temptation to explain or even understand before exercising our faculties of tenderness and of love. So may we find truth revealed for us: not as so many facts or laws or doctrines or even as so many convictions or beliefs; but rather as an encounter of love, with Christ who first loved us.

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

Now what?

This sermon preached was on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 4 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley, CA. It was the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, when we held a single combined service at 9am, and proceeded directly to the parish hall for a pot-luck lunch and proceedings.

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

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

One of the saddest stories I hear as a priest is a story I’ve heard many times. An alcoholic husband or wife checks into rehab, finds AA, and begins recovery. A happy story! But too often, the change creates new challenges which are too different, too difficult to bear, and the couple divorces. Totally apart from moral evaluation, sometimes it seems the system, with its relationships, roles, and expectations, had grown dependent on the sickness, and healing was too great a change to sustain.

Or in other cases during a long illness families will rally around the sick member, but when healing finally comes there is no energy left for living life. I remember one case specifically, first-time parents had a infant son born prematurely, with several medical complications. It was two years before he was strong enough to begin a normal childhood development. The family was thrilled at his recovery, but within a few months there was trouble. The mother finally came to me and said, “You know in some ways it was easier when he was sick, I knew what to do and what was expected of me. But now what? Every small accomplishment my son achieved before was a reminder to me that there was still hope. But now I just find myself annoyed all the time, and unsure what to do next, or even what to hope.” I didn’t know what to tell her, except to affirm the difficult message that healing is sometimes just as hard to manage as sickness.

Today’s Gospel lesson is no stranger to this kind of tension. Simon Peter’s mother in law is sick. We don’t know how long she was sick, but it seems long enough at any rate for Peter to have gone to his work fishing on the Sea of Galilee, met Jesus walking there, started following him, and brought him back to Capernaum. When Jesus heals her she gets up and begins to serve them. It’s the first time in the Gospel that the word we translate as “deacon” is used, and by some renderings that makes Peter’s mother-in-law the first Deacon. Talk about a change in relationship and expectations! And for that matter, she’s his mother-in-law — was Peter still married at the time he was called as a disciple? And what would that have done to his relationship with his wife? Or, as one church tradition holds, was Peter a widower taking care of his late wife’s mother? Either way, the healing that Jesus brings is a life-altering kind of healing. Nothing will ever be the same again, either for Peter or for his mother in law.

A lot of times I think we look for healing as a kind of answer to our problems, and certainly it resolves whatever presenting issue of illness or suffering we might be facing. But what then? Life was not the same for Peter or for his mother-in-law; and when you and I try to get back to life as usual, so often it fails so spectacularly that we find our relationships breaking down, to a place where they might not recover.

So what then? Is “life as usual” just a myth? Is healing not worth having after all? Our passage from Isaiah might be one of the most glorious in all of Scripture: “Those who wait for the Lord will rise up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” But is it just an illusion? I don’t think so.

Healing is certainly one of the things the Gospel promises, certainly one of the chief marks of Jesus’ ministry on earth and one of the chief marks of his Church’s mission. But the simple truth is that Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. One of my favorite examples is Blind Bartimaeus, sitting on the road to Jericho calling to the Son of David. Jesus restores his sight, and immediately Bartimaeus follows him on the road: the road that will lead directly to Jerusalem, Good Friday, and the tomb. No, Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. If anything it only clarifies our powers of sight, to enable us to face death more squarely; more squarely and with greater hope.

Forgiveness presents the same problem: it cuts off the memory of sin and wrong, dissolving it in the grace of God. As a priest it has been my privilege to hear many first confessions, as well as make my own, and every time the experience is similar: the penitent often feels awash in a sense of immediate and transcendent liberation, the weight gone which had become so familiar they’d forgotten it was something they were carrying. And yet, even in such a powerful moment as that, the problem remains: what now? The psalmist reflects, “Our sins are stronger than we are” – but what happens when they’re gone? What do we do with our newfound freedom? What do we do with what do we fill our time, and our memories?

Healing and forgiveness both present great blank walls to the Christian imagination. What came before is over. Now what? There can be no return to business as usual. Forgiveness and healing both reveal business as usual for what it is: a vast series of compromises and concessions, overfunctioning and underfunctioning, to compensate for the pain, difficulty, and disappointment which characterize so much of our life in this world. There can be no peace with anything that diminishes life, no return to patterns of corruption and decay.

So what do we do with that blank wall? What do we do with the vast unknown stretching out beyond the joy of healing, beyond the freedom of forgiveness? Simply put, that is where Christian life begins, the door from which the Kingdom of God opens onto unknown horizons. We make our first faltering steps through that door and find the blank emptiness resolving, into all the manifold splendors of God.

We cannot tell what each of us shall be on the other side, just as in Scripture we hear no more of Simon Peter’s mother in law, or indeed of almost anyone whom Jesus heals. But we know that our steps beyond will lead us finally to the truth of who we are, and to a fullness of life which nothing can diminish; an innocence, a naivety, which is not ignorance but a new delight in everything that is good, no matter how drab or shabby “Business as usual” becomes.

The challenge, of course, is to make these faltering steps into the unknown of healing and forgiveness even now, today, while we are still afflicted with everything that grieves us. This is part of why worship is so important: here in church, by the Holy Spirit, we are put in touch, literally in touch, with the food and furniture of heaven, even with the body and blood of Jesus.

The disorientation is strong, highlighted in church by the unfamiliar in architecture, language, music, and even occasionally incense; highlighted in life by the unfamiliar which healing and forgiveness reveal in our loved ones, the unplumbed depths of the mystery of human persons. And yet enter the tension we must, if Christian healing and forgiveness are to mean for us what they can, if we are to move through the disorientation towards a new sight: not just to face death, but to enter into life, and walk along its paths into the further undiscovered horizons of the all-abiding love of God.

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

The Reliability of God

This was my first sermon at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, CA, preached on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2018. This was three weeks after my last sermon at St. Michael & St. George, and in the meantime I was able both to take my annual retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, and to move to the Bay. Thanks to all for your patience these last few weeks especially, as I’ve been slow to respond to emails and even slower to update this site. Life is getting settled more and more now with every passing day, and I’ll be back in the swing of things before long.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

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

Good morning everyone! It is a pleasure long-awaited to be here with you this morning. I’m looking forward very much to getting to know you better, and to serving as your priest.

I promise it’s not usually my habit to begin a sermon by commenting on the lectionary itself, so it’s probably bad form to do so this morning, but at this point you’re stuck — so there it is.

Here we are on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan, he has called his disciples, and now he begins his ministry officially with a sermon and a healing in Capernaum. By pairing this Gospel with the passage from Deuteronomy we heard read, the lectionary framers are pointing out that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy: Jesus is the “second Moses,” the “prophet like Moses” which Moses prophesied to the people of Israel that God would send to fulfill the promises and usher in the messianic age.

It’s a connection rife with theological riches. But for myself, I’m stuck wondering, why on earth did it take so long? By most reckonings, that prophecy would have been made to Moses at the very least many, many centuries before Jesus came on the scene; and at the very most, potentially almost two full millennia before Jesus came on the scene. Why such a long wait?

It begs a lot of questions about what God was doing in the meantime, and Israel, and should make us stop to think — with such a long time between promise and fulfillment, how were people supposed to carry on? There were the prophets, and kings, and psalmists, and all the rest. But none of them were the final word.

So much waiting in their lives of faith, across so many generations. So much waiting in our own lives of faith, or our lives, period, for that matter. Isn’t there more to it than just so much waiting? As Christians we hold very dearly that God is faithful, and more than that, that God is reliable. How do we experience this reliability, how do we know it for ourselves, when so much of our lives are spent waiting for God to act, or for some other goal or occasion? Or worse, how can we trust the reliability of God when disappointment looms, and things don’t go as planned or hoped?

For the Israelites, in exile as in Egypt, they had to become people of prayer if they were going to keep going without the familiar places or rituals of land or temple. And in their prayer, they recalled the former days of God’s faithfulness: his faithfulness to Abraham and to Moses; to Ruth, David, Bathsheba, Esther, Daniel, and all the rest. There was something so central about remembering the past that it came to characterize prayer in the present: when Jesus first appears in the synagogue at Capernaum, Israelite religion had flourished in the long centuries of exile and subjugation, flourished with prayerful remembering of all those long centuries. When he gets up to preach he first reads from the scroll of the Torah, recalling to mind those events of ages past.

But more than remembering, their prayer included the offering of the present too. Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalmists, constantly offer all the anxieties and concerns — and joys and celebrations — of the present moment to God in prayer. Today in Capernaum Jesus, with the whole rabbinic tradition of which he was a member, directed his teaching at the present moment, helping the people to offer their daily lives to God, all their experiences and all their moments. Beyond the synagogues, in Jesus’ day whole schools of prayer flourished in which the faithful were trained to live the present moment as an offering to God; and all the vast system of rules and regulations, so often lampooned as merely “Pharisaical,” existed to help people mark all the moments and tasks of their daily lives with a prayerful attitude.

Furthermore, by Jesus’ day Israelite religion had grown oriented towards the future too, and their prayer followed suit. Not just remembering the past, not just marking the present; but standing on tiptoes as it were, looking forward both to the coming of the Messiah and finally to the end, when all the promises would be fulfilled. The Jewish mystical tradition comes out of this orientation towards the future, and many of their great hymns and sacred music as well, which Jesus and his disciples would have known and the early church would have sung. (Music which, incidentally, continues to shape the life of the Church in its later development as Gregorian chant.)

In the centuries and millennia between promise and fulfillment, then, the people of God carried on by becoming people of prayer: people whose prayer was characterized by a concern for remembering the past, marking the present, and orienting themselves towards the future.

I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better summary of what prayer is all about: what is prayer but sharing memories with God, painful, joyful, and otherwise? What is prayer but sharing the present moment with God, with its struggles and celebrations? What is prayer but sharing hopes with God, both for healing of griefs and for fulfillment of cherished dreams?

If you and I ever find ourselves in a position where the gap between promise and fulfillment seems too long to bear, or where the tension between what is right and what is actually happening is impossible to bridge; or simply where grief looms with no way out, offer it to God in prayer. Start with the present moment; recall the past with all its twists and turns, highs and lows; direct yourself towards the future in anticipation that God will finally prove faithful yet, that peace will finally come in all its splendor — and you will have covered the bases.

But more than covering the bases, you will find something mysterious going on. As you share all these moments and concerns with God, the present, the past, and the future all commingle together in the presence of the Holy Spirit; and as they commingle, by God’s grace a new thing is made. Our memories, our present, our futures, are transfigured and transformed, recast into a new thing beyond any of them. More than a backward glance, more than a glimpse far off, in prayer we find our lives the occasion of heaven itself breaking into the here and now, especially into hurt and grief, anguish and anxiety. A new thing happens, God himself appears, and we encounter him most personally right where we need it most.

This is certainly one of the points that St. Mark is making in this passage from his gospel this morning. It’s no wonder that Jesus’ first miracle, and his first official public appearance, occur together, in the context of the people of God at prayer, in the synagogue.

So here’s the kicker. When we take all our waiting, all our griefs, all our frustrations, hopes, and concerns to God in prayer, in public or in private, God’s answer is not necessarily to do what we ask, but to show up himself, just as Jesus showed up in that synagogue in Capernaum. When we are most sick of waiting, most frustrated by the promise of peace still lingering so far off, God shows up to teach and to heal; Jesus shows up, commending himself to our touch, our taste, our nourishment, and most of all, to our love.

Yes when God shows up, it is not to answer our questions to resolve our dilemmas or give us directions on what to do next; it is to commend himself to our love. When we are filled with perplexity, God is not in the business of giving satisfactory explanations for us to understand, but of revealing his face for us to love. And in that love our griefs are held and healed.

So what are we to do in the long gap between promises and fulfillment? Jesus came as Moses prophesied, but more than a thousand years later. Jesus has made promises to us too, about the peace that passeth understanding, and the fullness of his kingdom coming soon. In times and moments when that seems especially far off and grief and disappointment are still to near, let’s you and I turn to prayer. There may we find painful memory and uncertain hope, both of them, recast before the face of God, recast into the wide open embrace of his presence, his healing, and his peace. There may we find the courage to love even as Jesus loved, and find heaven itself breaking into our midst.

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

The Baptism of the Lord

This was my last sermon at St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, before moving to Berkeley, California, to take up the post of Priest-in-Charge at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was the first Sunday after the Epiphany, always the Baptism of the Lord, and despite my best intentions I couldn’t help trying to collect a large number of themes into one sermon. Whether or not it was successful the congregation is better equipped than I to say, but here it is regardless.

Collect: Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with thee and the same Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

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

Well here we are, it’s January 7. The drummers drumming have packed up their kit. The lords a leaping, ladies dancing, and maids a milking have all had their fun; and the Three Wise Men have come and gone. Christmastide is over, and we begin this new season of the Church’s year with the same sudden shift as we begin it every year: Jesus no longer a baby but suddenly thirty years old, presenting himself to John the Baptist to be baptized and begin his ministry. Why is this the way it begins? Why does Jesus, without sin, get baptized?

It’s the question I find myself asking, though I think it reveals a weakness in me, and probably in western Christianity — “If he’s without sin, why does Jesus need to get baptized? Jesus is without sin; no, he doesn’t need to get baptized. Why do we place the burden of proof on God? Better to ask ourselves, “Why do we assume things happen only because they need to?” Why do we assume religion is about meeting needs in the first place — or for that matter that God is in the business of creating needs, only for him miraculously to fulfill?

No, need has nothing to do with it for Jesus, and it has nothing to do with it for us either. Religion is not about fixing our problems, spiritual or otherwise. Jesus goes to John to get baptized in order to begin his ministry on earth; and by stepping into the water, he is saying something very important about what his ministry is going to be, and what it will entail. It’s not about getting “the sin problem” fixed, it is about making a statement: why God created life in the first place, and what it is intended to be.

Jesus enters the water, and when he comes up the heavens break open, but first he enters the water. When God shows up in our lives, it’s usually when we’re in over our heads and we don’t quite know it. When I was a grad student living in London many years ago, that winter was bleak and dark, and I was feeling the weather in more ways than one. That Easter, unlooked for and inexplicably, somehow Jesus’ resurrection felt like it was mine too, and not just his; I had come out of the tomb and the world was fresh.

Water means a lot in the Bible and in the ancient world, it’s never just background information. Remember Genesis 1, which we just heard read: “In the beginning the earth was formless and void, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep.” Water, the primeval element of chaos and disorder, over which the Voice first speaks, the first light of creation shines; water the source of Noah’s flood; the Red Sea through which Israel escapes Pharaoh; the Jordan which they cross to enter the promised land; water the moment of trial and the occasion of faith.

Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and enters all these moments simultaneously. Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and makes the domain of chaos and disorder the dwelling place of God. Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and defeats all the old powers, overthrows all the old fears, binds up all the old demons, sheds light on all the old darkness. And he does so as a human person like you and me. Wherever you and I find those darknesses in our hearts or our world, Jesus’ baptism puts him right there too, right there beside us.

This changes everything about the way we regard Jesus’ baptism, and our own, and for that matter the whole project of religion in our life and our world. It’s not about fixing anything, but about pointing to the single stupendous miracle that God is here with us making all things new: not in quiet and in peace, though they are his fruits; but in the work halls and the prisons and the sex trade, in depression and disability and disappointment; in disease and death, robbing them of their power and endowing their victims with his own eternal life and light.

I’m sure I’ve told you one of my favorite stories, about St. Seraphim of Sarov, a hermit who lived deep in the forest. One day a fierce bear set upon him, to eat him for lunch. But Seraphim spoke kindly to the bear, and invited him to his home instead. They became friends and were often seen walking and talking together in the woods. The story isn’t meant as a ridiculous break from reality, but as a lesson — that with God, dark and dangerous places are the first beachheads of grace, signposts of restored communion in the kingdom of God.

Yes, Jesus’ baptism offers a new vision for us and for the world. He comes up from the water and the heavens are opened. A voice proclaims, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” and a dove rests upon him. The vision is of a kind of world where this kind of thing happens, where our eyes are changed and we can see truly. Jesus will go to the cross to make the message complete, and rise from the grave to make the victory sure. Those who dare to follow, must dare to continue the work.

Because the work certainly goes on. Our part is to bear witness to the new life we have begun to see, to the possibility of new life in places we had thought dead or at least impossibly mundane. As Jesus entered the water, as he went to the cross and entered the tomb, so we go about our daily business: brushing teeth, driving cars, visiting mom, throwing a party, going to work — all the while aware that these are the moments God is breaking in creating new possibilities, new life beyond the immutable laws of Mondays, taxes, and parking tickets.

Why do you need any of this in your life? You don’t! It’s completely gratuitous. There is no reason that you or me or anyone needs this stuff in order to survive. But the vision Jesus offers is about so much more than what’s merely necessary. The vision is about putting us in touch with what’s truest and most lasting about the world and about God. The vision Jesus offers is of people healed by his touch, sins forgiven by his word, human life made holy just by his presence, and all creation brought to its completion by his sacrifice.

I remember a widow in Denver, whose husband of 70 years I buried. She didn’t come to church for a long time after the funeral, understandably so: it was something they’d done together for the better part of a century. Then, on Christmas Eve, I saw her at the rail and gave her communion for the first time in months. Afterwards she said to me, “You know, I didn’t come to church for so long because I thought I’d miss him here the most. But it’s strange, now I feel closer to him than I have in a long time.”

So what have I been driving at? At his baptism, Jesus enters the water of the Jordan, enters all the griefs and dark places of the world and of our hearts, and by his presence blesses it — water now the sign of forgiveness of sins and eternal life in him forever. By his presence Jesus turns the floods of death into the river of the heavenly city of God. You and I are charged to do likewise: wherever there is darkness to bless, not to curse, to enter and befriend it, because there we will find Jesus gone on ahead.

There’s a wonderful old story, maybe you’ve heard it: when Noah sends out the dove after the floods have destroyed the earth, it returns with an olive branch and then it doesn’t return at all. Where does it go, where is the solid perch it found to live? The story goes, it reappears today, here, at the Jordan River, making its home as it rests on Jesus. Whatever floods we’ve faced, whatever woes we may know, let you and I, with Noah’s dove, rest on Jesus in the midst of the water, and bear witness always to his eternal life.

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

Rejecting Spiritual Technology

This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, at St. Michael & St. George. This was a rare year when December 24 fell on a Sunday, and we were faced with the challenge of keeping two very different occasions on the same day. Writing this sermon I was very conscious of composing an “Advent” sermon, and not Christmas, though the temptation to blend the two was great – especially with the Gospel of the Annunciation. The opening is something of a gimmick — do a google search for “news December 17-24, 2017” to see the whole range of issues and events I could have been referencing!

Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son Jesus Christ cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Hosly Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

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

It was only a week or so ago, but already there’s been a massive response across the country and even around the world. The magnitude of this new spin on the old themes took nearly everyone by surprise; we’re still processing exactly what happened, and what it will mean, though already we know that life won’t be quite the same after this. Meanwhile no one except insiders know where we’re going next, and they’re certainly not telling. There are a lot of rumors of course, and a lot of theories, but really we’ll just have to buckle down to wait and see.

I’m talking of course about “The Last Jedi,” the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise. One of the things I appreciate most about this newest film was articulated by a friend of mine: “At least as far as the Jedi part is concerned, there’s a lot less emphasis on the technology, on the chemistry of how it works than we saw in the earlier films, and a lot more emphasis on the intangibles of imagination, and perspective, and relationships.” The result is a much more three-dimensional world that cannot be nailed down or exhausted as easily as in the past.

That got me thinking: Star Wars and the Christian Religion are not exactly comparable categories. But something analogous has been happening in our churches and in our culture for generations now. Somehow we have reduced the Christian religion to mere “spiritual technology.” Do X and you’ll be fine; swallow this or that far-fetched explanation and your life will improve. Come to church and you’ll go to heaven. Pray this prayer, vote this way, buy these books, or listen to that music, and somehow, magically, you’ll grow in faith and discover the meaning of life.

I can see why that’s tempting: human beings are solution-oriented after all. We have a problem and we want it fixed. We have a goal and we want to reach it. We have a project and we want to complete it. It’s completely natural for us to regard religion in the same way. So we accumulate bits of spiritual technology: phrases, theories, habits, products, to help us get what we want. It’s completely natural.

But just like previous iterations of Star Wars, the end result is a watered-down imagination, and an anemic sense of our relationship to the whole, let alone to God.

Why do I bring all this up this morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, right on the brink of Christmas Eve and the great feast of the Nativity? Because this is a time of year when the Church talks a lot about promises, about expectations, about the fulfillment of long-standing hopes for light and peace and goodness, in a world which we are constantly reminded is a dark and despairing place.

Of course it’s important for us to say all these things, to revisit the old prophecies, retell the old stories, and remember the promises. But how do we keep from letting all these things become for us just more bits of outdated spiritual technology that fail to get us what we want? How do we open ourselves to the larger mysteries, to the multi-dimensional world of faith and religion beyond transaction and exchange?

First of all, by remembering that Christianity is not actually about your spiritual life, or mine. It is about God. It’s worth remembering, from time to time, the immortal line from Evelyn Underhill: “God is the interesting thing about religion.” The Christian religion is not about you. It is about God, about the world God has made, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ which makes creation holy and renders it all a thank-offering to God the Father. If you and I are involved at all, it’s to participate in God’s larger project of forgiveness, healing, and renewal; it’s to get some sustaining glimpse of that eternal love “that moves the sun and the other stars,” until we are made fit to participate more fully, to enter into that divine life forever. It is emphatically not about me getting what I want.

Which finally brings us to the doorstep of that house in Nazareth where in today’s Gospel Mary sits at prayer, and where she is surprised by a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. If you and I are going to find Christmas to be Good News again for us, we have to follow Mary’s pattern and pray. That doesn’t mean filling our heads with lots of positive thoughts. That doesn’t mean compiling a catalogue of all our good wishes for various needs or people. It means we just have to stop. Stop all the noise. Put down all the technology, spiritual or otherwise, and listen. Listen to the clock ticking, listen to your heart beating, listen to your own breathing, whatever it takes, just listen.

Listen, and watch: watch for how quickly your mind goes to the cares which press on it, watch for how quickly the worries and the fears and the inadequacies and all the rest come rushing in. What is your conscience afraid of? What weakness or sickness or vulnerability in yourself presses particularly painfully? What hopes do you cherish, what grudges do you nourish, where do your affections lie, whose regard are you desperate to win? In the silence all these doors and passageways and countless more will open to you; you will begin to be aware of the dizzying moral and spiritual complexities of everyday life, and of the vast scope of your own involvement in the world.

Mary sits at prayer in her home in Nazareth, her spirit listening and watching in the silence at the heart of it all. And this is when the Archangel appears, this is the moment when Gabriel declares her “Full of grace.” This is the moment, right when she is most in touch with her own needs and vulnerabilities, that God appears and salvation enters the world.

It might sound counterintuitive, but so much the better. The more you and I are in touch with all those cares and anxieties which constantly threaten to swamp us, the better prepared we are to meet God. The more we admit of our weakness and vulnerability, the easier we will be able to receive the Christ Child. The more truthful we can be about our own doubts and fears and despair, the clearer we will be able to see the dawn of new life when it comes over the horizon tomorrow.

No, Christianity is not about your spiritual life. It is not about spiritual technology at all, not about doing the right thing, or saying things that sound holy or religious or whatever. It’s not about fulfilling expectations, or even about generosity. It is about God; about being quiet enough to listen, truthful enough to admit my own weakness, and sensitive enough to see God working even in ways that don’t make sense and in places we’d rather not notice. Christmas is Good News for us precisely because it enters the world at its quietest, most vulnerable point; because it enters us at our weakest, most fearful moments, when we are most conscious of our failures and our impotence. In this way God grants dignity and grace to the very lowest of the low, and makes his Divine Majesty resident in the humblest of places.

This Advent 4, as we race onward towards Christmas Eve, let us resolve afresh to reject the enticements of spiritual technology, put away the drive to get what I want out of God, and listen: listen and watch, in our hearts and our world, for the humiliation which silence reveals. And let us catch a glimpse of the worlds on worlds of new life and new love which God is calling forth from the empty, barren, and broken places of the earth.

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

St. Andrew

This sermon was preached on Friday, December 1, 2017, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. I was the guest preacher at an evening service for St. Andrew’s, transferred from the day before. This was my first introduction to the congregation at large, ahead of going to St. Mark’s as their Priest-in-Charge in January 2018. It was wonderful to see again so many new friends I’d met over the search process, and to meet so many more people of the parish. Thanks to Fr. Michael Hiller, the Interim Rector, for his invitation to preach, and to the vestry and congregation for such a warm welcome.

Collect: Almighty God, who didst give such grace to thine apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of thy Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give unto us, who are called by thy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Romans 10:8b-18, Matthew 4:18-22

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

Andrew the fisherman, brother of Simon Peter. As far as most of us are concerned, he often falls behind the shadow of his brother: Peter is the one who confesses Christ the Son of God; Peter the one to whom Jesus gives the power of the keys; Peter the one whom Jesus commissions to feed his sheep.

But there’s a lot to be said for Andrew too. In Matthew’s account which we just heard, Jesus calls Andrew and Peter together, and they leave their nets to follow. But in the Gospel of John, Andrew plays a much larger role. In John’s telling of the story, Andrew and Philip are already disciples of John the Baptist. When Jesus comes to be baptized at the start of his own ministry, Andrew and Philip are there. They hear John declaring, “Behold the lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world.” And they start to follow Jesus on their own — literally, they follow him, and Jesus has to turn around and ask them, “What do you want?” After they get to know each other, Andrew runs to his brother Peter to tell him he’s found the Messiah. And that’s when Peter starts to follow.

In John’s telling of the story, Andrew is really the first evangelist, whose first “convert” is his own brother Peter. By church tradition, after Pentecost Andrew and his friend Philip go out into the world preaching together, and he’s regarded as the founder of the church in the city of Byzantium, later Constantinople, now Istanbul. By that rendering, and according to the Christian East, Andrew is the first Patriarch of Constantinople, even as his brother was the first Bishop of Rome.

Like his brother, Andrew lost his life by crucifixion, but on an unusual cross, one shaped like an X. St. Andrew is the patron of Scotland (among other places), and that’s why the Scottish flag looks the way it does: a white X on a blue field, the cross of St. Andrew. Here in the Episcopal Church we owe something to Andrew too: the corner of our own shield features a variation of his cross from the Scottish mold, because of the role the Church of Scotland played in our own reorganization after the American Revolution. Today in art Andrew is associated most frequently with either his X-shaped cross, or else a fish: he and Peter the ones whom Jesus would teach to “fish for people,” and for that matter Andrew the one who found the boy with five loaves and two fish for the feeding of the five thousand.

This year in particular I’m struck by the great trust Andrew seemed to have, and the trust he seemed to elicit from others. In Matthew’s Gospel, he leaves his nets the moment he hears Jesus’ voice. While in John’s Gospel, he left his nets the moment he heard John the Baptist’s preaching. And he literally followed Jesus down the path the moment he heard John the Baptist declare him to be the the Lamb of God. And Peter so implicitly trusts Andrew that Peter leaves his own nets the moment he hears his brother say that he’s found the Messiah. So much trust all around!

Today, we live in an age of skepticism, of mistrusting information until we can find out for ourselves; or at least until we can check Wikipedia, or some other Authoritative and Impersonal Source (Capital “S”!) To confirm the truth of what someone says.

And on one level, that’s for the best: our age is a skeptical one because it is also an age filled with hucksters, who manipulate our instinct to trust and turn our genuine interests and affections into a means for their own ends, to enrich their wallets or their egos or their whatever. Meanwhile we are left wounded and impoverished in one way or another. We decide it would be safer to check our more generous instincts in favor of more defensive ones, and skeptics we become. Like I said, it’s probably for the best: in an age of hucksters, being on the defensive is necessary in order to maintain proper perspective, not to mention keeping our pearls from so many swine.

And yet Andrew is a saint, an apostle, a patriarch, and a martyr, one of the pillars of the Church in heaven and on earth, precisely because he allowed himself to trust before he found out the whole truth. None of the apostles would understand the truth until Jesus rose from the dead; none of them grasped the full significance of their commission until Pentecost. And yet somehow, Andrew first among them, they did it anyway, they trusted Jesus anyway.

These days it seems most people (or at least I speak for myself) seem to think of trust as something earned, something proven. But I think the life of St. Andrew invites us to consider what it might mean for trust to be something given, something offered. It’s a dangerous prospect, because it makes us vulnerable every time we do it. The trust we give may not be returned in kind, and in trusting we expose ourselves to real injury.

Consider the fates of other disciples of other ancient Messiahs: they were often killed, scattered, or otherwise discredited, while their communities were destroyed and their lives were ruined. St. Andrew did not make an easy or a painless choice when he gave up his nets to follow Jesus, and finally he too gave up his life, crucified on that X shaped cross. Yet he chose to continue trusting Jesus right up to the very end.

Was he just that gullible? Or was he onto something about Jesus, that you and I in our defensiveness can miss?

What would it be like for us, like Andrew, to give trust rather than to prove it? To offer trust before we know where it will take us? The question makes me think of an episode with myself and a friend: I won’t tell you how old we were because that would be embarrassing for both of us! Suffice it to say we should have known better. We were in the grocery store, and the two of us came across one of those bulk installations of wrapped candy chocolates. There was a bag you could fill and then weigh, maybe you know the sort of thing I mean. Well everyone knows the critical question about wrapped chocolates is, “What’s inside?” These chocolates didn’t say anywhere on either the store sign or the individual wrapper. So I said to my friend, in some diabolical combination of stroke-of-genius and complete-vacation-of-reason, “Squish it!”

Without even the fraction of an instant’s hesitation, she took one and squished it. Turns out they were full of caramel. We didn’t want caramel so we didn’t get any, and so we committed the cardinal sin of chocolate abuse. But what really took both of us by surprise was the instantaneous way my friend did what I suggested. It was stupid, it made no sense, either what I said or what she did. But at some basic level, I think she did it because in the course of our relationship, she had made a prior decision to give me her trust, as I had given mine to her.

On that occasion the only thing it got her was a messy hand full of mushed chocolate and caramel. Lesson learned! Don’t trust Sawicky, at least where chocolate is concerned! But it makes a larger point: as human beings, we place our trust in people, before we place our trust in facts or reason. And where people are concerned, our first criteria is not knowledge or expertise but love.

And this is the critical point, about St. Andrew’s trust and about our own. Love always makes decisions before it can see the whole picture. Love always steps forward in hope, never in mere reasonable assurance. Because in love the whole picture is not revealed until the day our love is finally complete, the day our trust is finally fulfilled — which will only be the Last Day, the Day when Forgiveness takes precedence over Justice, when all injuries are healed, and when all betrayals, cutoffs, and exiles shall end.

In the meantime though, our lives are full of endings, and today is one, the last major feast of the Church year before a new year begins on Advent I. For St. Mark’s the time is drawing near for a new priest in charge and a new season of life. For me I am ending my service in St. Louis, and looking forward to being here with you as we begin that new season together.

As Advent opens and Christmas approaches let it be a time for all of us to renew our trust in St. Andrew’s Messiah and ours; and to renew our trust in one another as we make our way forward together. The territory ahead is uncharted and invisible over the horizon, but the way is marked: marked by Jesus who has gone ahead, and leaves us signs of his Presence in the Sacraments of his Church and the lives of his Saints.

Let these waymarkers be invitations for us to trust without knowing how it will pan out, without knowing the whole picture, to lay aside our dearly-crafted defenses and accept the ministrations of divine Love — ministrations which make us vulnerable, which may hurt, which may confuse, which may lead into unknown valleys, but [which] will not betray, till finally they carry us home.

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