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"

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.

The Easter Vigil 2018

Collect: O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in your Church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: [Vigil Readings], Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

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

Well, here we are. It’s been quite a journey over the last few days, not least for Brock, who was just baptized! We’re at the end of the Triduum, and you might expect a sermon that wraps up what I’ve said so far, and what we’ve all experienced; something which synthesizes the theme we’ve been exploring, that Holy Week is a “moment that does not pass away,” along with the events of Jesus’ last days.

And you’d be forgiven for thinking that, forgiven but ultimately disappointed: I have no last words for you tonight, only an assertion. The event we celebrate tonight, Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is an event which does away with last words altogether. Christ is risen from the dead, and there can be no more foregone conclusions. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no sin so foul that has not been forgiven. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no prison left standing that can keep us forever. Christ is risen from the dead, and to borrow the Recovery phrase, every today is the first day of the rest of our lives; every conversation is an opportunity to begin again, every person is a chance to learn and love afresh.

In school they tell kids to make a good beginning of their lives: “Study hard so you can get a good job and live a happy, fulfilled life.” In college they say the same thing: “This is the beginning, you are laying the foundation for what will come later.” When couples get married, they are sagely told, “This is just the beginning!” And when they have children they say the same thing, “This is only the beginning.” As human beings we love stories, and stories have beginnings and middles and ends. A dragon invades the kingdom. The noble hero goes out to slay it, and when the deed is done everyone lives happily ever after. With so many beginnings in our own stories, we might be forgiven for getting frustrated at times that we rarely get to the middle let alone to the end, while the happily-ever-after seems perpetually out of reach.

Tonight’s Easter Vigil, though, reveals that there is something deeply Christian about so many beginnings. When we reach the end of Jesus’ story, we find out, with an explosive surprise, that it was really just the beginning. The tomb was not the end; rather the resurrection was the beginning, and now Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, whose life continues in his Church both on earth and in heaven.

For that matter, the Vigil readings suggest the same thing: Israel’s captivity in Egypt was not the sad end of the story after all, but only the beginning, as they made their Exodus through the Red Sea to the Promised Land. The exile in Babylon so many centuries later was not the end either, only the beginning of the life of the people of God spread abroad throughout the whole earth. Or in baptism: we find our earthly lives, comparatively well ordered and planned, opening onto eternity, our own persons now the doorstep of heaven, inexhaustible in capacity for surprise, wonder, and love.

So many beginnings! What does that mean for our Christian life, then? Surely not that we just keep going in circles, starting over time after time. When do we get to the middle, and when can we enjoy the end?

The short answer is, those will come in time; the most we can do at the moment is make a good beginning. The most we can do tonight is to make a good celebration of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and of Brock’s baptism into his mystical Body. You’ll notice there is no Peace exchanged at the Liturgy tonight, and that’s to allow, for tonight only, our Eucharistic celebration to be the peace we both offer and receive; I invite you all to continue the celebration in Lion’s Hall afterwards at the reception which Betsy and Sterling have so graciously provided. The middle of the story will come in time, and the end too. But tonight we celebrate.

One of the stories that has moved me the most as a priest and a pastor, was one a man told me years ago. He had been married to his wife for some sixty years, and he was still very much in love with her. I said something like, “You must know her very well by now then!” He laughed and said, “Yes, I suppose I do. But you know, every day I still learn something new about her. You spend that long with someone and you think you’ve got them all figured out. But sometimes she comes up with something so completely out of left field that I wonder, who on earth is this person I’ve married? Over all these years I’ve had to realize again and again that I don’t have her all figured out. There’s more to her than I will ever know, and it’s just part of the fun to keep learning.”

This is the kind of beginning we continually make as Christians. The middle, and even the end, come and go; but it is the beginning that remains, as every day we continue to plumb the unknowable depths of God’s creative, redeeming love, and the echoing deeps of human persons made in that image.

Tonight, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, we begin afresh the great rejoicing which Easter initiates. Let it be for us another beginning, but more than a repetition. Let it be for us that new beginning which will carry us through all our middles and all our ends, the new beginning that pushes right through death itself into the far undiscovered country on the other side of the tomb.

At the altar tonight, as we come to make our communions, may we catch a glimpse of the same joy which sustains all who have gone before us, and all who will follow after. United with them in the Paschal Mystery, let us render eternal praise and glad thanksgiving to the God of heaven: whose Son has harrowed hell, and made the earth new.

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

Maundy Thursday 2018

Collect: Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:10-17, 31-35

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

Maundy Thursday. Today we continue the same dramatic reenactment we began on Sunday with palms and the triumphal entry. We continue our reenactment, but we also increase its intensity: in a few moments we will wash one another’s feet, in imitation of Jesus at the Last Supper the night before he died. Later we will take the Sacrament from the Chancel to the Altar of Repose, echoing Jesus’ own departure from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane. We will keep vigil there after the service in partial response to his request to Peter, James, and John, “Remain here and pray with me,” while he goes to his own Agonizing prayer. We will strip the church of adornment, and wash the altars clean at Jesus’ betrayal and arrest.

In our liturgy tonight, as on Palm Sunday, there is a difficult emotional transition: we begin with celebration, giving thanks for Jesus’ triple gift on this night: first his example of humility, leading his disciples by washing their feet. Second his new command that they love one another as he has loved them. And third by another new command, “Do this in remembrance of me,” introducing them to the gift of the Eucharist by which he remains with his church from age to age, nourishing us continually with his own body and blood. But then a spirit of trouble and even desolation descends on the liturgy, and we leave in silence to face the starkness of tomorrow’s death in a bare, evacuated church.

On Palm Sunday in my sermon I observed that all this drama is a way not of adding or creating what is missing, but of revealing what is already present. Today I want to reflect a little on how this liturgical remembering also accomplishes a reversal of our vision. If this kind of revealing adds clarity about the events at the core of our faith, it also increases the murkiness about how we view the world and the rest of our lives.

If you remember the story I told about King Nebuchadnezzar, the fiery furnace, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Nebuchadnezzar could see clearly that God was present with the three young men in the midst of the king’s attempt at execution; the episode certainly added clarity on that point. But if you’re Nebuchadnezzar, now what? What kind of world is it, where flames in a fiery furnace refuse to do their jobs, where angelic visitors side with prisoners against royalty? Without trying to elicit undue pity for the king of Babylon, it must have been a disorienting experience to say the least. Simply put, the world is not what he thought it was, and its mysterious powers not all under his thumb.

How many times has something similar happened to you? A surprise cancer diagnosis, or a compliment you weren’t looking for; a friend or cousin cuts you off, or a piece of particularly bad news brings you to your breaking point. Maybe it’s a pleasant surprise, or maybe it’s an unpleasant accumulation of small but lethal slights, or maybe it’s a death. Whatever the case, it disorients us. The world is not what we thought it was, and the news we’re given makes us rethink our assumptions and forces us into a new posture, a new manner of approach, a new way of seeing and thinking and imagining. When we’re in the middle of it, all we want to do is to come out on the other side intact. But on the other side, we see we’re anything but intact. We may have the same spirit, we may be made of the same physical stuff, but we can never go back; something is fundamentally different now.

Okay, so far so good. The question is, what reversal does Maundy Thursday accomplish? What disorientation does it initiate in us as we remember it liturgically, publicly, and inwardly? We call it Maundy Thursday from the Latin “Mandatum” for “Commandment” and we remember that tonight Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another. But that’s not the only commandment he gives. Jesus gives at least three commandments tonight. The first is the famous “Love one another” which concluded our Gospel passage tonight, symbolized by Jesus’ example of humbly washing their feet. The reversal here might be obvious, but it’s worth stating directly: whatever kind of authority we might associate with God, whatever kind of majesty or dominion, God exercises it not by edict, fiat, or imposition, but by washing feet, by serving the basic needs of creatures, granting them the dignity of God’s own attention and care. Any earthly authority that would claim God’s blessing or approval must do likewise, or be revealed a fraud. That goes for parents as much as it does for presidents, for priests as much as for police. If we wish to claim God’s approval on whatever leadership we exercise, we must do it wearing the servant’s towel. The further irony is that only one who serves in this way is free; any who would coerce or impose is a slave to violence and fear. This is a strange world that Maundy Thursday begins to reveal.

The other two commands come in the other Gospel accounts of tonight’s events, but no doubt they’re familiar ones. The second command Jesus issues tonight is, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And so we do, every week, nearly every day, and tonight especially. Scholar Dom Gregory Dix once wrote poetically, “Was ever any other command so obeyed?” The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Mass, has come to define the contours of corporate Christian worship, and has done since the earliest days. But obedience to this command is more than a memorial. There is a reversal here too. We generally think of the bread and wine as symbols which convey a deeper meaning, a deeper presence. But the meaning, the Presence of Christ himself changes the nature of the symbols as well. So for those who partake of the Eucharist, all bread in every setting now points us to Jesus, the Eucharistic Lord, not only the bread consecrated here; all wine points us to his passion, not only this chalice. All eating, all drinking, all human fellowship is a sign of his once and future presence among us and the unity of all creation in him. In short, the symbols themselves become signposts of the kingdom of God, and the world we live in becomes suddenly planted thick with the seeds and occasions of forgiveness, faithfulness, and light, despite the darkness brooding everywhere.

Finally, the third command Jesus gives tonight is perhaps the most disorienting of all. He turns to Judas and says, “Go, do what you do quickly.” Judas gets up from the table and goes to betray Jesus to his death. Recently I heard someone observe, that throughout most of history, people were scandalized not by the resurrection — what else would you expect from the Son of God? — but by the crucifixion, by Jesus’ death in the first place. Death is not something we expect of a savior or a god, let alone betrayal by one who was so close. In our world today, the reverse is true: we expect Good Friday, we’re not surprised by injustice, it’s not shocking for trust to be broken or honor discarded for profit. It’s the resurrection that surprises us, the resurrection that we find difficult to defend or explain. However we react to it, Jesus’ command to Judas, “Go, do what you do quickly,” introduces another reversal: here is someone not afraid to face death head-on, who knows he goes to suffering and worse, who will agonize in the Garden over whether or not to go through with it; who yet, at almost the critical moment, encourages his betrayer to go, and get it over with already. It really is an intimate moment, quietly spoken; it’s unclear whether the rest of the disciples even hear what Jesus says to Judas. His tenderness towards his betrayer reveals the last great reversal of the evening: here is the same Jesus who will say to the thief on the cross tomorrow, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The stupendous gentleness of Jesus before all the forces of rack and ruin, destruction and dissolution: this gentleness of his person, a trait so often considered in this world as weak and easily taken advantage of, proves stronger and more enduring than death itself.

What does it mean for us? Find the gentlest person you know, and discover the invincible vanguard of heaven. Put aside the brash, the caustic, the pompous, and the self-promoting: they are nothing, a desert of ambition and vanity. Embrace the gentleness of Jesus and find an oasis of life.

In a few moments we will wash one another’s feet, share in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and before the end strip the altars and keep watch before we all depart in silence, while the shadow of death grows over the church and over our hearts. But as the drama continues, let the reversals which Jesus’ commands initiate, refocus our imaginations and recalibrate our expectations. The world we will discover is a strange one, bearing little resemblance to the powers that hold sway over the news, shareholder meetings, and geopolitics. But these days of remembering will help us put our feet on firmer ground and lift our heads above the fray, to see lasting joy springing from the mouth of despair, life emerging from the tomb, and love greeting betrayal with a kiss.

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

Palm Sunday, 2018

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018. (The Annunciation normally falls on March 25, but because of the weight of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Week, it will get pushed to Monday April 9. At St. Mark’s we will observe the Annunciation at Evensong on April 8, the second Sunday of Easter, though I know this bends the rules a little!) I have not announced a “theme” for my Holy Week sermons this year, but they are a continuation of the same ones begun earlier at St. Mark’s on worship and life with God. In hindsight, I might have titled these, “The moment that does not pass away,” borrowing an observation on the crucifixion by Br. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, in his book “A Monk’s Alphabet.” — the point is, the events of Holy Week and in particular the Triduum are the heart of Christian life and identity, the focal point around which everything else, including the cosmos, revolves. These sermons explore that conviction, and try to offer a few different points of entry.

Collect: Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the sample of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; 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: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47

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

After the Passion Gospel a sermon needs hardly to be preached; you’ve already heard most of what there is to say! But all the same I’d like to spend a few moments sketching out the territory for the week ahead.

We began this morning with one of the most ancient collects in our prayer book: “Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality.” The contemplation of those mighty acts. How do we accomplish this contemplation? In large part by dramatic reenactment.

We began this service out in the courtyard and sang the same Hosannas, waving the same palm branches as the crowds in the Gospel. We’ve just heard a dramatic retelling of the same episode. In my last parish we began out on the front lawn, even invited a local petting zoo to be a part of the day. The star visitor was a venerable donkey named Donatello, a fifteen year veteran of the festivities, who always proudly led the procession into church.

Over the course of this coming week we’ll undertake to wash one another’s feet, carry the Sacrament to the altar of repose, strip the altars, venerate the cross, and carry out a vigil as after a loved one’s death — all dramatic retellings of this series of events which is right at the heart of the church’s identity.

So, with God’s help, we enter the contemplation of these mighty acts. A big part of this is remembering what happened, and who were the players, and what were their motivations. We tell the story dramatically over the course of these days In part to jog our memories, and to give us the time we need to consider the scope of the drama and to offer us various points of entry into the unfolding narrative.

Remembering in this way, just like revisiting the story of the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving or Thomas Jefferson on July 4, helps to create a common set of reference points for who we are as a people, as a family of faith. It creates a baseline of shared memory: none of us were there ourselves all those years ago, and yet we are the common heirs of the memories all the same. Sharing them with one another creates and sustains the succession of generations for whom this holy week is their own inheritance, their own treasure.

It’s a remembrance, but it’s more than a remembrance. This past Wednesday, at the regular 12:10 service, the appointed first reading was from Daniel — that episode where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego get thrown into the fire for not worshiping the king’s golden image. You know the story: instead of burning up, they walk around in the flames together, saying prayers and singing hymns. Meanwhile, as they walk around, King Nebuchadnezzar is watching to make sure they burn up like they’re supposed to — but he notices it’s taking longer than usual, and also he notices a fourth person in the flames with them, who wasn’t there when they got thrown in: he looks like a son of God. The king is so confused he lets them all out, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are all unscathed — but no trace of the fourth person. The implication is, that, as the three of them said their prayers and sang their hymns, God himself appeared beside them.

We tell ourselves the same thing as a way of encouraging us to pray, and to come to church: especially this week! — when we remember together as a group the events of Jesus’ passion and death. As we pray together and sing, God appears among us, affirming our faith and leading us to the other side of whatever challenge we might be facing. Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is in the midst of them.

But it’s important to remember, praying is not a way of coercing God to show up. In the fiery furnace, the angelic visitor did not show up because he was impressed by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faith, or by their discipline, or their conviction. And for that matter on the cross: God does not decide to forgive our sins just because Jesus says, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” No, the thing about prayer, and the thing about remembering in the context of prayer, is that it does not coerce God into doing something that wouldn’t otherwise happen; rather, prayer reveals what is already true, shows what is already present, and enables us to recognize what was there all along but we couldn’t see or notice.

In the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar could finally see for himself that God was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego no matter how badly the king might try to isolate and shift their loyalties to himself alone. When a priest anoints the sick and prays for healing, it’s not magic for manipulating germs or enchanting the body’s powers of recovery. It’s merely to reveal that God the source of life is present even in the midst of illness, suffering, and death; and that the sight, the glimpse, the touch of God which anointing reveals allows for a more profound healing than any miraculous cure or magical incantation. On the cross when Jesus prays, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” he reveals to everyone present and to all of us that God’s mercy runs far deeper than any sin, violence, mockery, or injustice, and we can only be silent in awe before the mystery.

So it is with Holy Week, and with all our liturgical remembering — and for that matter with all our prayer in whatever context we offer it. We do not create what was not present already; we do not coerce the nearer presence of some reluctant or faraway deity. We merely open a window on what was there all along, and which will continue through endless ages, closer than the closest friend or brother, or even thought or feeling.

The events of Holy Week, its characters, and chief of all its God do not pass away. In remembering them together, we open a window onto a deeper reality than we can see most of the time.

In Holy Week, we see again as if for the first time a God whose chief characteristic is generosity, free and open and continuous to the world he has made, full of mercy and loving-kindness. We see a world gathered together around a death, uneasy with the wickedness that has been done, implicated in more ways than one, but powerless to stop it from carrying on. We see a Savior betrayed, but who in betrayal forges a way through death: that what was once an ending, the only ending, ending every story ever told, is now the continuation of my story and of every story in the further reaches of divine Love.

In Holy Week we see everything orchestrated together into a music which all creation sings. As we reenact, and remember, and pray, and sing together, we take up our parts and join the harmony of the whole. This year may God grant us a special glimpse of this music in which the whole world is caught up, along with life and death and all time. As we retrace the final steps of Jesus’ earthly life, may we see all the more clearly that pattern, that rhythm, to which the whole world moves. Seeing more clearly, may we love more truly; and loving more truly, may our joy overflow.

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

Good Friday 2018

Collect: Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

As many of you know, or may have discovered thanks to the suddenly eased traffic, this week is spring break at Cal. It’s the first time since I’ve come to St. Mark’s that class has not been in session, and I’m struck by the very noticeable quiet of it all. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a university community during spring break, but for some reason I’m particularly struck by it this year. It’s certainly not silent: buses continue their routes, HVAC units continue their hum, the construction project up the street carries on, and planes fly overhead like they always do. But the human bustle is much reduced: I notice far fewer random bits of conversation and general hilarity rising above the fray, while the groups of pedestrians walking past my office are gone, leaving only solitary, somewhat harried graduate students. The coffee shops are empty, and for the first time, I don’t have to wait in line when it comes time for lunch. It’s not an easy kind of silence, like summer break, but the gathering of a breath, a waiting kind of silence, for the press and stress of the last weeks of the year suddenly to descend.

For whatever reason, this silence has impressed itself on me this week, and has put me in mind of Good Friday all week long. There on the cross as Jesus hangs from noon until three, a darkness covers the whole land. The sun goes out, I imagine the birds have stopped singing, and the onlookers, frightened out of their mocking, have gone home. They leave only a dry hill with three dying men. The wind blows in the grass, and all creation waits for the last breath.

I post the texts of my sermons to a WordPress blog, which I’ve named, “Between Noon and Three.” The title is a phrase I’ve borrowed from W.H. Auden, who uses it repeatedly in a number of the poems in his series on the Divine Hours, the traditional offices of prayer throughout the day. Today here we are, literally “between noon and three” as we meditate on the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life, the period of time he hung upon the cross.

One of the things I like about Auden’s poem cycle is that every one of them seems to take place on Good Friday: it is a day that does not pass away, that remains forever. But despite the way the crucifixion pervades the poems as well as the poet’s consciousness, the narrator never quite manages to figure out what to make of it. To Auden, Jesus’ death is the sort of thing that seems inevitable and long-planned, as if the whole arc of human history has been leading up to the murder of God; and at the same time it seems the sort of thing that comes upon us from who knows where. Suddenly the deed is done and we’re left struggling to figure out just what it is that’s happened, let alone what it means.

Auden describes, near the end of the cycle, his dream that one day he might finally discover “Just what happened today between noon and three.” The Church locates the salvation of the world in these three hours, although it has never explicitly defined how, or satisfactorily explained why. Why this solution, of all solutions? To answer, we have to take stock of the silence which prevails from noon until three, silence that defies easy explanation or understanding, silence that seems eternal and yet stings as a sudden wound.

Like the silence here in Berkeley these last few days, but in a much more profound way, this silence at the cross is not an absence or a void, but a watchfulness, a waiting, a regard even, where God and creation are intensely aware of one another. Our collect for today reflects the same stillness, the same awareness: “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross.” We pray God simply to behold us; for God only to just look at us. It’s as much as we can muster on Good Friday. And the silence of the Cross is the surest sign we can point to that God is answering our prayer. “Just look at us,” we pray. And on the cross God does.

There is a dialogue here in the silence, a kind of speech that’s exchanged within this mutual regard, this mutual beholding. Dare we say that there is love here, somewhere, in the sight of God and in our own sight, as we behold one another? That, at any rate, is the conviction of the Church: that somehow, mysteriously, as Jesus is exposed to all the world and death itself; as we stand exposed to God for all our beauty, all our shabbiness, and all our sin, we are reconciled to one another. The silence enables us to know one another more profoundly than before: God is known to humanity in infinite compassion; and humanity is lifted up into the nearer presence of God.

It’s not really so hard to believe. Years ago, in one of my adult confirmation classes, there was a mother who had a son in college. His school was in the same town, and he would come home frequently, for laundry and all the rest. But she was missing him, and lamenting the fact that they didn’t talk much anymore. What would become of their relationship? She felt he was slipping away and that she was, too; that they were fast becoming strangers to one another. This caused her a lot of grief and worry.

One day she appeared in tears, having just received a diagnosis of breast cancer. But it wasn’t the cancer that had caused her tears. She had managed to corner her son because she wanted to share the news; she was afraid how he’d react, but instead he just looked at her: really looked, and she felt as if he’d actually seen her for the first time in a long time. He didn’t say much except “I love you, Mom.” But that look was all she needed. Her tears were from bittersweet happiness, from learning afresh that she really was seen and known and cared for, despite a terrifying diagnosis. She didn’t worry after that: about her health certainly, but not about her son.

This kind of love is what the silence of Good Friday enables. This is what we assemble together here today to remember, to encounter, and to venerate: to see, and hear, and say, and touch, what we cannot understand or communicate by words alone. We are here today to pray God “To just look at us,” and in the looking, to be known and reconciled and loved.

This is why Good Friday and the moment of Christ’s death is a moment that does not pass away but remains forever. The silence of mutual beholding, between God and creation, is the still point in a turning world, the seed of hope and an everlasting comfort. It is the moment where love reigns supreme despite all the forces of death arrayed against it.

Whenever we are tempted to think all is lost, or to throw up our hands in the face of chaos, or to despair at so much wickedness in the world and in our hearts: the cross is there, its silence is there, speaking loudly and clearly of God’s gracious beholding, calling us to new life in a Love that does not pass away.