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"

“That where I am, there you may be also.”

On Sunday, May 14, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, the Rev. John Hartnett, of St. Elizabeth’s in Ridgewood, NJ, was our guest preacher at the 9:15 service; his excellent sermon can be heard here. This sermon was preached at the others.

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

Readings: Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

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

“That where I am, there you may be also.”

This phrase is often overlooked as Christians meditate on the more famous sections of this passage: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” Or, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” But I am certain that there is no concept more central to the Gospel than this: “That where I am, there you may be also.”

We read this passage from John on this Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Easter, as we prepare to celebrate the Ascension in another week and a half. We’re getting ourselves ready to mark the day when Jesus ascended into heaven and left his disciples on their own, aided and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, to carry on the work of the Church. And this passage, from the Last Supper the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion helps prepare us just as it helped prepare the disciples for getting on with the work of the Gospel in a world where Jesus is not physically, personally present with his people anymore in the familiar way he had been.

“That where I am, there you may be also.” It’s a word of comfort to the disciples, as their Lord is about to be taken from them: first to Calvary, and then to the right hand of God in heaven, that he will take them to himself; that their life in this world, that our life in this world is not the end, that there is more for us beyond the veil of death, above the sphere of this mortal world, that our true home is with him in glory, and we will not be at home here on this earth our whole lives through; that we will not be at home until we meet God face to face in heaven.

It’s tempting to regard this world as the end, and even Christians get embroiled in it: we fight, we worry, we are desperately concerned with the success or failure of the mighty work with which we are entrusted, with the way the church seems to be going (whichever way you think that is), with the way our lives seem to be turning out. 

It’s tempting to regard this world as the end, because it’s what we’ve got to work with, because it’s hard to see past the all-consuming day-to-day tasks of managing our lives in this world. And yet Jesus here at the Last Supper tells his disciples that he goes to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. This place where Jesus goes is our home, and he goes so that “Where I am there you may be also.”

If we feel as though this world can’t continue, or that our lives can’t continue as they are; if we feel uneasy with “the way things work” or that we simply aren’t at rest, it’s because this world is not our home; and our home is where Jesus has gone. In large measure the greatest challenge of our lives as Christians is to behave here as if we were already at home there, to make this world, our lives, reflect as much of that world, of that life as we are given the strength and the grace to achieve; but at the same time, if the work never seems to be finished, not to despair, because this world is not the end. Christ goes on ahead of us, “so that where I am, there you may be also.”

At the same time, our first lesson from Acts recounts the martyrdom of Stephen: Stephen the Protomartyr he’s called, because he is the first and the prototype of all Christian martyrs after him. It’s always remarkable to me that Stephen’s death mimics so closely the events of Jesus’s own. Stephen faces a mock trial before the Sanhedrin, he speaks almost the same words Jesus did from the cross, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And finally he forgives his persecutors even as they stone him to death. Before he goes to his death he sees Heaven opened, and Christ himself standing at the right hand of God.

Jesus says to his disciples, that he leaves them in order “That where I am, there you may be also.” Stephen lives the promise more fully than nearly anyone else in Scripture. Christ is certainly enthroned in glory, and we worship him as King of Heaven. But in this life, in this world, he suffered injustice and crucifixion. That is where Stephen found him, and saw him most clearly: in Stephen’s own moment of suffering, in his own unjust execution, there he encounters Christ most profoundly, there he found him strong to save. 

Yes our Lord has gone ahead of us into heaven. But he goes in order that “Where I am, there you may be also.” It’s a promise and a challenge both. This world is not our home. And while we work to make it reflect what we know of heaven, the irony is that the clearest reflection of heaven can’t be found in the halls of power or glory, but rather in humiliation and defeat; in forgiveness rather than vindication; in death, in resurrection, rather than in any kind of earthly victory. These are the places where Christians will find Jesus most clearly present, most mighty to save. These are the places which are the seedbeds of the kingdom of God.

I don’t mean somehow to glorify suffering, or sin, or death, but only to point out that these are the places where Redemption happens, these are the places where we begin to see and know the goodness of God. If you know music at all, you’ll recognize that there is a dissonance at work here, whose resolution we will not hear in our lifetime. And yet the more we lean into that dissonance, the more we are people of prayer and mercy and love even in its midst, the sweeter the resolution will finally be, the more richly will the full vision be revealed to us, the more clearly we will know the love of God in our lives and in all things.

“That where I am, there you may be also.” Our challenge this Easter is to long for the fulfillment of our Easter hope with Jesus in his Father’s house in heaven. But even as we long for that world, we strive to live the life Jesus lived in this world: going to the places where he himself went, doing the kinds of things which he himself did, not being distracted by whatever difficulties we face, not being afraid of darkness or pain, but following him even to ignominy and death if need be.

Like Stephen, let our own moments of fear and struggle be occasions to offer forgiveness, unasked for and undeserved — so that, with Jesus in his cross and passion, we might share with him the glory of his resurrection.

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

The Road to Emmaus

This Sunday at the 9:15 service, Bp. Smith confirmed and received almost fifty of our youth and adults into the Episcopal Church. This sermon was preached at the other services, at 8am, 11:15am, and 5:30pm.

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

The road to Emmaus is one of my favorite of the resurrection stories, because it makes Jesus seem like he has such a good sense of humor. I can just imagine him grinning to himself as he walks along the road with these disciples: they haven’t gotten the joke yet, they don’t see yet that it’s him, risen from the dead, walking there with him. But it’s not a cruel joke: he takes time to explain to them what’s going on: he takes the whole journey in fact. And so warmly do these disciples feel towards this mysterious companion that they beg him to say with them that night.

It’s a wonderful portrait of Jesus’s light-heartedness, and the affection he elicits from people just in the course of conversation. At the same time, I think the road to Emmaus functions in a really important way for all of us, as we think about the task of Christian learning in the first place. April is almost over and May is coming: the end of the school year looms in front of us. At the 9:15 service today, the Bishop will confirm almost fifty students and adults in the next step of their journey into the life of the Church. Learning and its tasks are in the forefront at such a time as this.

When we think about learning, especially in the Church it seems, we think about learning things: facts, figures, stories, reference points, processes. How many eyes does a seraph have? Why do we have four Gospels? What does salvation mean? Why do different churches add or subtract certain books from their Bibles? What is heaven about? How about the Trinity? The Sacraments? 

We learn all these things in the course of our lives as Christians, and continuing to learn more and more is an essential component of growing in faith. But increasing the sheer quantity of information in our brains is emphatically not the point of Christian learning; I might argue it’s not the point of any other kind of learning either. The Road to Emmaus for me is the clearest illustration in Scripture of what learning is really about, of what growth as a disciple is really about.

When Jesus appears alongside them, he presents the question that cuts to the quick: what is this all about? It’s almost a test – tell me what you know, tell me what you make of all these events. And they tell him plainly, that they don’t know what to make of them all: they had believed Jesus to be the Messiah, they had been prepared to believe he would deliver Israel. But their grief is all the greater because they don’t understand how to make sense of his crucifixion.

So Jesus teaches them on the road. He opens the Scriptures to them, he goes through the whole thing, showing that from the Books of Moses on forward, all the prophets bear witness to himself. What always strikes me here, is that even after spending an entire day alone with Jesus, hearing all of these things explained to him, they still don’t recognize him. They know they’ve been affected, they say later their hearts burned within them, but they still cannot see what is there to be seen. 

Only when they beg him to stay with them, and they sit down to dinner, where he blesses the bread and breaks it; only then are their eyes opened and they see. This is the point of the whole operation. Only when the disciples invite Jesus to stay with them, only when they invite him to share this meal, this mundane but intimate encounter, only then are their eyes prepared to see what has been there all along.

This is the point that I want to make about Christian learning and growth in discipleship. All the doctrine in the world, all the most brilliant explanations and arguments, all the facts and figures, knowledge and data, finally do not avail. They cannot bridge the gap between earth and heaven. All that knowledge can do, all that learning can achieve, is to prepare us for the encounter with Christ: it can only ready the ground in our hearts to behold him alive for ourselves.

This is why, when it comes to faith, we cannot rely merely on books, why prayer is absolutely the central companion of Christian discipleship. Because knowledge is nothing without encounter, without the actual personal encounter with the risen Christ, who transforms our lives and our world.

The disciples dropped everything and ran all the way back to Jerusalem when they recognized Jesus. Knowledge alone cannot achieve that kind of transformation. It can only prepare us, as it prepared them, for encountering Christ himself, for recognizing him right in their midst, as, himself, the only explanation for all their wondering, all their confusion.

So it is with us: Christian life is meaningless, Christian learning is meaningless, if it is not ultimately oriented towards Christ himself as the final source of all meaning, all knowledge, all life. Seeing him, recognizing him, loving him.

This Easter, you and I are invited afresh to let all our learning, all our growing point us finally toward Christ himself, to let all our striving teach us not to be satisfied with mere facts about him, but to long for his presence, to love him more and more: in the bread that he breaks for you and me, the bread that is his body, which gives life to the world; and to love him in all the places where he himself has said he would be: in the Church, in our neighbors, in our enemies, in the needy.

This Easter let us look for him himself, and be satisfied not with any amount of facts or figures, but only with love. As we grow in love, let us see him more and more clearly; and as we see more and more clearly, let us love all the more, and find the world shining with his glory to the ages of ages.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday Family Service

I preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017. Our Holy Week Preacher this year was the Rt. Rev’d Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. His sermons for the week can be found here. This “Family Service,” geared towards children, took place before the principal Liturgy of the day.

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: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 21-32

Today is Maundy Thursday. This day is so special we have a special worship service to mark it. Today is the day when Jesus had the Last Supper, in the Upper Room with his disciples.

We do three things in order to mark today: First the Celebrant, Mtr. Ezgi will wash your feet. As we just heard in the Gospel, Maundy Thursday is the day when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, before they all sat down to supper.

Have your parents ever told you, “Go wash your hands, it’s time for supper?” My parents did that all the time: no matter where I was in the house, when I heard the shout, “Blake, time to wash up!” I knew that we were about to eat. I always dropped my homework, or stopped practicing the piano, or put down my book, or stopped playing my game, and went straight to the bathroom to wash my hands. Dinner was important in my family. We almost always ate together, and washing our hands beforehand was a way to make sure we were germ-free before eating — but it also became the way I prepared myself mentally for enjoying the meal I was about to eat with my family.

The same is true for Jesus and his disciples, and even more so. He doesn’t just send them to wash on their own, he washes them himself. And not their hands, but their feet – when you wear sandals all day every day in a dusty climate, your feet quickly become the dirtiest part of your body. Dirty and smelly! Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was a way of saying just how important they were to him, and just how much he was looking forward to this meal together. 

We wash each other’s feet to remind us of Jesus’ example, and to teach us that serving the people we love is one of the best ways we have to love them.

The next thing we do on Maundy Thursday is to have Holy Communion. We do this all the time in church, but on Maundy Thursday it’s especially meaningful because this is the night Jesus gave Communion to his disciples for the first time. 

After he washed their feet, they all sat down to supper. It wasn’t just any normal supper, it was the Passover supper, when they celebrated the people of Israel leaving Egypt, led by Moses out of slavery. Jesus at supper with his disciples is celebrating a holiday meal, a festive meal, recalling God’s power to rescue and to save his people. 

And when supper was over, Jesus told them all that this Passover meal wasn’t just about remembering something that happened long ago. He told them that he himself was going to his death, to be the Passover Lamb of God; and that every time his followers gathered around that table again, he would be with them in the Bread and the Wine. “This is my Body, This is my Blood.”

Tonight we celebrate that Jesus gave us this way to remember him, that Jesus gave us this way to be with him, long after he ascended into heaven.

The last thing we do tonight, after communion, is to strip to Altar. After that last supper, Jesus and his disciples stopped in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, before continuing on to where they were staying in Bethany. While he was there, Judas led the soldiers to arrest Jesus, and he was carried away to the High Priest and then to the Governor for trial. He was condemned to death, and the next day, tomorrow, he was crucified.

After communion tonight, we will strip the altar, we will take away all the decorations inside the church, to symbolize Jesus being taken away. It is a sad and somber moment: just as we are given the chief tokens of celebrating his presence, the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion, he is taken away from us in almost the same moment. And so we strip the altars bare.

Tomorrow we will remember his crucifixion, and Sunday we will celebrate his resurrection, when we will be glad that death itself cannot keep Jesus down.

But tonight, we do these three things for a very important reason: we wash feet, we celebrate communion, we strip the altar, to remember what Jesus did and what happened to him tonight so many years ago. But more than that, in doing these things we imitate his own life. We grow in his example. And most of all we learn that Jesus’s authority, the way Jesus is king, is not by force or by order, but by love.

Washing feet is an act of love. Sharing a meal is an act of love. Jesus goes to his death out of love for you and me. And so on this Maundy Thursday, we commit ourselves afresh to love one another as Jesus loves us: not counting the cost, not demanding our due, but loving as though nothing else in the world matters.

Because in truth, nothing else does matter but to love others as Jesus loves you. This Maundy Thursday, may you grow in his image, and find yourself more and more able to love, with his heart giving strength to your own.

Amen.

Surprise!

This was one of the most fun sermons I’ve ever preached: for a wedding (the couple’s names have been “redacted” to protect the innocent!), which for various reasons took place on April 8, 2017 — the night before Palm Sunday — usually verboten, I know, but it all makes sense in context. The wedding was a surprise: all the guests thought they were coming to an engagement party at a venue in the city, and all were enjoying the evening — when the bride sprung the announcement that a priest (me) was waiting in the next room along with a string quartet, and that the wedding would take place immediately. I had no idea whether the congregation would be happy or furious, hence my hesitation at the beginning of the homily, and my strategic decision to emphasize the element of “Surprise!” In the event, I needn’t have worried: the congregation couldn’t have been happier for the couple, and I couldn’t have been more honored to do this.

Collect: O gracious and everliving God, you have created us male and female in your image: Look mercifully upon this man and this woman who come to you seeking your blessing, and assist them with your grace, that with true fidelity and steadfast love they may honor and keep the promises and vows they make; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7; Colossians 3:12-17

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

Well, Surprise!

As N. and N. and I have been preparing for today, I’ve been threatening them that I’d preach a 6-hour homily, but just in case some of you don’t like surprises as much as these two, I’ll make this short before you start lobbing rotten tomatoes in this direction!

Surprises: At first glance nothing seems to be further from the kind of long-term faithfulness at the heart of marriage. When choosing a partner we weigh our options carefully, engage in serious soul-searching based on our own experience, our personalities, our priorities and needs and wants. Nearly every corner of the relationship market these days has completely sold out to the idea of analytical compatibility, which leaves very little room for any kind of real surprise. Surprises are not welcome by this kind of metric!

But I think surprise is one of the chief cornerstones of any good relationship, no matter how many years you’ve spent together or how well you know each other. One of the things at the heart of the Church’s conviction about who people are is that each is made in the image of God. As God is infinite, inexhaustible, so is any mirror put up to reflect his image. We spend our whole lives on this earth getting to know God and the things he has made.

Recently I was at a bedside giving last rites to a man many regarded as exceptionally wise, strong in faith over many decades of life’s many episodes. What was going through his mind as he lay there dying? Great thoughts of profound meaning about his life and the people he loved? Not by any measure — he was remembering the stories of his childhood, and the songs he learned in Sunday School. He went to his death croaking out the tune “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Here on his deathbed he was still full of the wonder of a child, ready for more mysteries to unfold, more surprises to be unveiled, just around the next corner.

Why do I tell this story at a wedding? Because just as this man was full of childlike wonder before entering the nearer presence of God, so in this life you and I are constantly brought face to face with persons who bear his image: whose depths we can never exhaust, who are always just one step ahead of us no matter how well we think we might know them.

This is the way it is with every person in our lives, and the degree to which we allow them to surprise us with who they are is the degree to which we learn to love as God loves.

In no relationship is this more profoundly the case than in marriage. Sometimes I’ll hear from someone married a long time, that they’ve lived with their husband or wife for forty, fifty, sixty years, and they still don’t understand them. It’s often meant as a quick quip, a light joke, but there’s a very deep truth there. The person whom you marry will always be one step beyond you, eluding your complete understanding, evading your complete grasp. 

As the poet in Song of Solomon calls his beloved from where she lies to where he is going, a husband or wife calls the other from out of the current moment into the beyond, into the realm of God’s love, where mercy is new every morning, and worlds on worlds are created for sheer joy. There is no exhausting that love, no possessing it, no controlling it. Here we are on the eve of Holy Week, when we remember chief of all that even death itself can have no lasting hold on God, and the more it tries the more it is undone.

Which is all a very long way of saying, N. and N., surprise one another! Be ready to be surprised. There is no telling how the years will unfold, or what you will have made of each other when you face your own last moments. But understand there will be many surprises along the way, many unforeseen moments, many chances to see afresh, to make anew, to forgive, to restore, to nurture, to flourish. Welcome the surprises, use them as occasions to learn something of God, and to grow in love. Easter is the surprise that remakes the world. Let your marriage be the occasion for God to remake you, as you love one another in his Name and in his power.

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

“Rose” Sunday

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Rose” Sunday.

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: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

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

Maybe you noticed we’re wearing a different color today: Rose, instead of the usual unbleached linen for Lent. Why Rose? Today is the 4th Sunday of Lent, midway through a long period of fasting. The Church in its wisdom has simply had the humane tradition of relaxing a little on this Sunday. We wear rose vestments, the readings aren’t quite so penitential, even small elements of the Lenten fast can be relaxed. In England this is Mothering Sunday, their version of Mother’s Day; also called “Refreshment Sunday,” because we bend the rules a little bit to allow a brief respite, a breath of fresh air, a moment to catch a glimpse of Easter joy in the middle of Lent.

Maybe it’s fitting then that our readings are principally about vision: recognizing in unexpected people or events something new of God; seeing in a new way, horizons expanded. Samuel, with each successive introduction to one of Jesse’s sons, is sure the Lord’s anointed stands before him. You can just imagine the awkward silence when Samuel has to tell Jesse that none of the sons he’s seen have been the Lord’s anointed. So they go get the youngest, David, out tending the sheep, and lo and behold, This is the Lord’s anointed. God says to Samuel, “You look on the outward appearance, but I see the heart.”

It’s a good reminder of how much further you and I ought to look than we normally do, to see the truth of a situation. But more than this, God seems to be bending the rules a little here. As so often in Scripture, God chooses the youngest to inherit the kingdom. Not the oldest, not the strongest, not the most clever, as was usually the order in the ancient world; as was usually the order in ancient Israel for that matter, and in our world too. Here with Samuel and Jesse and his sons, God bends the rules, and David becomes king, as he was always meant to be.

In our Gospel, too, Jesus seems to bending the rules, and maybe even outright breaking them. Why is everyone so angry at him? Why are the parents so afraid? Jesus breaks the Sabbath in order to heal the man born blind: he makes mud with his spit, anoints the man, and heals him, all of it work, all of it in violation of the command not to work but to rest on the Sabbath. But the result is that a man who was blind can now see, while the Pharisees, who think they see so much, are shown to be blind when it comes to matters of God.

If you a parent of a high school student here at St. Michael & St. George, and if your son or daughter has been a member of our mission teams, you may have heard them talk about what they call “God-sightings.” Every day after work is done, students report moments where God has been real to them in a particularly strong way, and these moments are shared with the group. Maybe you have God-sightings of your own, moments in the course of a day, or your life, when God has been real to you in a powerful way.

As a priest people often tell me about these kinds of moments, and one of the most consistent things about them is that they tend to take us by surprise; or else they’re so quiet we might not notice unless we’re paying attention. And, almost every time, God seems to bend the rules to get the point across. 

One of my favorite “God-sightings” is probably also one of the strangest. St. Seraphim of Sarov was a hermit who lived deep in the forest. One day, as he was out gathering berries, he was set upon by a ferocious, hungry bear. But instead of running away or putting up a fight, Seraphim simply spoke to the bear, and invited him to his hut for lunch since he had more than enough berries for them both. The bear was just as startled by Seraphim’s politeness as Seraphim had been by the bear’s ferociousness. He humbly accepted the invitation, and over lunch the two of them became fast friends. In later years they would often be seen walking through the forest together, enjoying the sun and the singing birds.

Maybe you’ve never made friends with an angry bear. But I’ll venture a guess that there are moments in your life when it seems God has broken in, and has broken the rules to do so.

What do we make of all this? Do the rules not matter after all? When we relax the Lenten fast to wear rose, or to peek ahead a few pages in the story for a glimpse of Easter, are we devaluing our penitence, or this season of preparation? Does Samuel devalue normal governmental procedure by anointing David? Does Jesus devalue the Sabbath by healing the blind man on that day? Does God devalue nature by making friends between a predator and his potential prey?

No. Rather, in these occasions, as in all our other “God-sightings,” God is drawing us into a different way of seeing: where our assumptions about life, and the patterns by which the world carries on “business as usual” are revealed for what they really are: not the permanent, lasting, reliable things we think, but halfway measures and stop-gaps to make life manageable in an imperfect world. In such a world as this, where greed, violence, and self-preservation are the order of the day, God breaking in necessarily breaks the rules. And when he does, he draws our vision to his kingdom, his purposes, which created the world for his glory in the first place: his glory and our good, to be what we were always meant to be.

Easter of course is the great moment where God breaks the rules even of death itself to bring us to eternal life. But even our normal Lenten penitence does not leave us in the midst of sin and wrong, but is the occasion for God to break the rules again: to forgive us our sins, to set us in a place where we can see his kingdom stretching out before us, and we can take our first, halting steps in a Godward direction.

When God “breaks the rules” it is always to point us towards that world which is deeper and higher than ours, where as King David writes in our psalm, ‘mercy and loving kindness shall follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever;’ where the Lion will lie down with the Lamb, and every tear will be wiped from every eye.

So what? This is all a long way of saying, in this fourth week of Lent, as we turn the corner towards Holy Week and Easter, put on your Rose-Sunday-colored glasses! Do not deny the difficulty or challenge or wickedness of this world, least of all of all those things in yourself. But at the same time, in the midst of your penitence, as you begin to experience the grace of forgiveness afresh, be prepared for God to break in. Be ready to break the rules for God’s sake, and see his kingdom come.

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

“He’s not safe, but he is good.” Ash Wednesday

This sermon was preached at CSMSG at all the liturgies here on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Much of the content owes a great deal to Rowan Williams’ recent book on C.S. Lewis and Narnia, The Lion’s World. If you find value in what follows, you will find much more of value in that book!

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:

If you’ve ever read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, you may remember a particularly strange scene at the beginning of The Silver Chair. Jill and Eustace, our heroine-hero duo, have just arrived in Narnia to rescue the lost prince, and Eustace has gone on ahead. Narnia is very new to Jill, and she hasn’t yet heard or understood about Aslan, the Great Lion, the son of the emperor-beyond-the-sea.  

For Lewis, Aslan functions as a kind of introduction to what God is like, for those who have never heard and especially for people like you and me who may have gotten so used to talking about God that we may have lost sight of how surprising it all is.

Jill has no idea about Aslan or about God, but the journey to Narnia has made her very thirsty, so naturally she goes looking for a stream of fresh water. When she finds one, she is surprised to see a ferocious looking Lion standing between her and the water’s edge. Of course the Lion is Alsan, but Jill doesn’t know it. He says, “If you’re thirsty you may drink.” But Jill is afraid and asks, “Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” The Lion replies, “I make no promises.”

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said. “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,’ said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it. “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill. “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion. “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

In his recent book on the world of Narnia, Rowan Williams remarks that this scene is one of the keys to understanding the whole series, and how Alsan (God) seems to interact with you and me. Today, Ash Wednesday, I want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about the two principal themes of the day: mortality, and grace.

First, mortality. One of the repeated phrases in Narnia is that Aslan is “not a tame lion.” Or, at other moments, characters reflect that “He’s not safe; but he is good.” This scene with Jill is a great example. She is thirsty, she needs a drink of water. But Aslan stands between her and what she needs.

If you’re like me, God can often seem to stand between you and what you need, between you and your life. And when that happens, God can appear like a threatening gatekeeper, who is just as likely to destroy you for daring to approach as to help you get where you’re trying to go. Aslan makes no promises to Jill as she approaches the water. He does not reassure her that everything will be all right. He makes it very clear that she is taking her life into her hands to approach him, and equally clear that she must take the risk, or else die of thirst.

How often God appears to us in the same way! In a few minutes we will approach the altar and receive the imposition of ashes: “From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return.” Why so grim? Why does the church insist on this ritual once a year? Why does we persist in thinking of God as a risky venture, potentially the source of our undoing?

Because for one thing, asserting our mortality is simply a true statement: each of us will die one day, sooner or later, and the church should never shrink from the truth about human nature, least of all from our universal susceptibility to death. And, more importantly, because the church believes that our mortality – like Jill’s thirst – is not just a sign of our weakness, but an invitation to a world where God meets our vulnerability, our need, and fills us so full to overflowing that weakness itself is undone and transfigured into strength; where death itself is undone and transfigured into life.

But it’s a risky venture. The world as we know it, our lives as we know them, are so thoroughly constructed around mitigating weakness — controlling it, ignoring it, sublimating it, manipulating it — that when we do meet God face to face, we risk destruction: destruction of all our favorite ways of hiding, of giving the right impression, of passing off blame, of thinking we’re just fine thank you very much and if God is going to play Gatekeeper at the river of the water of life, then I can very well find another.

On Ash Wednesday, the Church says, with Aslan, there is no other stream. You and I are going to have to risk losing some of the things that we hold most dear about ourselves if we are going to drink from that stream, from that Cup. We risk death itself, and receive ash on our foreheads, ash in the shape of a cross, to drive the point home.

Encountering God is dangerous because it brings us inescapably into touch with the weakest, darkest parts of our mortal nature even while it exposes us to the searing presence of God’s judgment and worse, his forgiveness –worse because it sets us on a path we cannot totally see or control.

But if meeting God is a terrible risk that brings us to the brink of death, then the same encounter reveals grace in an equally surprising way.

One of the New Testament’s principal images for Jesus is the great Liberator, breaking both the bonds of sin and the gates of death, leading his people into eternal life. When Jill finally drinks from the stream, she finds herself strengthened beyond any capacity or potential she could have imagined. The Lion gives her a special task and instructions to follow; she sets off to meet Eustace; they rescue the prince, and all grow very much in the process, as they witness both the depths of darkness and the power of resurrection even in the midst of corruption, death, old age, and grief.

Jill’s encounter with the dangerous Lion has been painful, but it has revealed new depths in herself, and, through her mission, it has delivered the whole country of Narnia from bondage to decay into new and fuller life.

Today, Ash Wednesday, Lent stretches out ahead of us, a dry and barren wildernesses in which we will encounter our sins and temptations afresh in many challenging ways. What will we do when we find God standing across our path, threatening death and destruction if we come near? Approach him, go nearer, as if your life depended on it, for so it does. With fear and trembling go nearer. You cannot control the outcome, you cannot predict what will happen. You may face a very painful moment when your favorite preconceptions, excuses, or fantasies are demolished; your ego will hurt, and your pride may not survive.

But one thing you can be sure of: our God may not be safe, but he is good. Whatever death you face in the encounter, whatever you become as a result, you can be sure that God will open doors you could not otherwise have known, and that life will be on the other side.

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

You are the salt of the earth

This sermon was preached Sunday morning, February 5, 2017, at CSMSG, the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  Music at the 9:15 choral mass included the Charles Wood (1866-1926) anthem, Expectans expectavi (“The sanctuary of my soul”). Listen to a recording here, and see the words here.

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins and give us, we beseech thee, the liberty of that abundant life which thou hast manifested to us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of theHoly  Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

As I was preparing for this sermon today, I spent some time in a nearby coffee shop. One of the things I was doing there was reading through a commentary on what various ancient and medieval Christian authors had to say about salt and light.  

As I read, I started noticing the table next to me having a more and more heated conversation. Two men were talking about current events, and one of them was trying to convince the other of something controversial. The argument carried on, and finally one man said to his friend, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news!” That seemed to end the conversation, or at least the loud part of it, and I refocused on my reading.

I’m sure you’ve heard most of the symbolic meanings of salt already: it’s a preservative, a flavoring that makes food worth tasting in the first place, a cauterizing agent. But St. Jerome makes a very interesting, relatively uncommon reading: he recalls that armies carried salt on campaign with them. When they finally won the battle and had reduced their enemies’ cities to ruins, they would sow the ground with salt, so that nothing would ever grow there again, and the desolation of the place would be a reminder of the victor’s total conquest.

Of course St. Jerome meant that God in Christ has conquered the devil, and that you and I are the salt God sows in the devil’s territory to keep down the weeds of sin and wrong. But as I read all this I couldn’t help but remember the last word in the argument I’d overheard, “You wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news.” We are always tempted to sow salt of our own, not in the devil’s fields but in each other’s, especially from opposite sides of whatever great arguments have currency in our own day.

St. Jerome was certainly a great saint, but reading of the salt of the earth was a very sensitively human one, deeply aware of our obsession with scorched earth policies and winner-take-all kinds of games.

“You watch the wrong news.” It was Jerome’s belief, and just about everyone else’s up until the Enlightenment, that the senses were the windows of the soul. What we hear and see, smell, touch, and taste, enters the mind itself through our ears and eyes and all the rest, which function literally as windows and doors, allowing traffic between our inner life and the outside world. From the mind, the things our senses perceive enter the soul. And in the process they can be recognized, known, and, ultimately, loved.

It doesn’t make much sense scientifically, but the philosophy allows for a particularly beautiful kind of relationship between ourselves and the world: the more we see of the world, the more it is a part of us, and we of it. And likewise the more barriers we put up between ourselves and what’s out there, the more stunted and anemic we become, while the world, likewise, is also impoverished by our isolation.

This is the context in which some of Jesus’ other statements might make a little more sense: “Let those with eyes to see, see; and those with ears to hear, hear.” One of the ways of understanding the gifts of the Gospel is as a clarification of our sight, to see things as they are, and to love them as we ought.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a former parishioner at another parish, telling me about the wonderful things God had done in his life this past Thanksgiving. He and his daughter had been estranged for years, after many misunderstandings and mutually-inflicted injuries. They hadn’t spoken in no one remembered how long. Then out of the blue one afternoon in early November, he received a note from her, saying she and her family would be nearby for Thanksgiving, and would he join them? In his letter to me, this father said his first thought was, “I’d rather die, thank you very much.” But after some serious thought and honest self-examination, he decided he would say yes. He went to Thanksgiving expecting no great miracles or even civility. But in the event, after much talking, many tears, and forgiving all around, he found he had regained his daughter, and she her father. Truly it was an answer to prayer, and for that matter a prayer he hadn’t dared to make in years.

What does this have to do with the senses? If this father had decided to write off his daughter because she “watched the wrong news,” so to speak, because she had the wrong idea of him and would never change, healing could never have come. As it happened, her decision to invite him to Thanksgiving, and his decision to go, allowed that each of them, themselves, was for the other the only news they needed: this person who had become a stranger could again be known and loved if only they both agreed to drop the barriers of injury and suspicion which impeded their senses and closed their minds to further possibility, which closed the doors of the soul between a daughter and her father.

“You are the salt of the earth.” With all respect and great deference to St. Jerome, his image only goes so far. If we are sown by God to poison the devil’s fields, we only turn traitors and serve the devil if we poison each other’s instead. William Temple, one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury of the last few centuries, a prolific scholar and a saintly man, served only two years as Archbishop before his death, but they were perhaps two of the most crucial years in his century: 1942 to 1944, the deepest, darkest nadir of the Second World War. Among many other things, Temple is famous for his quote: “The Church is the only society in the history of the world which exists primarily for the benefit of people who are not its members.”

“You are the salt of the earth.” Temple would not have been comfortable recommending poisonous behavior of any kind. He had seen more than his share of poisonous activity in his life already, both by nations and by individuals. For him, the Church’s vocation to be “the salt of the earth” was not Jesus’ way of flattering his disciples into good behavior. Rather for Temple, for the Church to be “the salt of the earth” meant that the Church, we, you and I, had a responsibility not only to one another, but to the whole world as well: to be the sort of people with whom forgiveness is possible, despite whatever barriers might exist between us, be they never so real, painful, or arresting; to be the sort of people in whom a father and his daughter might be reconciled; to be the sort of people in whom enemies might become friends; the sort of people who refuse to close their senses to one another but keep the highways open between souls, that love may abound to the glory of God.

“You are the salt of the earth.” Back in that coffee shop, this means we ought to be people who aren’t afraid of the news; who aren’t afraid of it, and who also aren’t merely spectators. “You are the light of the world.” This isn’t flattery either, but the same vocation. Salt of the earth, light of the world. Jesus is calling us to be people who refuse to put our heads in the sand, who refuse to “sit this one out” (whatever “this one” may be for you), and who commit ourselves to making the world worth tasting to begin with, who make the world worth seeing in the first place.

We do this by our God-given freedom to know strangers, to forgive friends, and to love enemies, and thereby to create new possibilities for life and growth where before there had been only ignorance or despair. This is the beginning of the Kingdom of God. Because for us, Christ has taken the scales off our eyes: his Cross looms large in each of our senses. We see there the glory of God to transform sin, pain, injustice, estrangement, defeat, and even death itself into the bed of hope, the dawn of eternal life. There at his Cross we see tied the indissoluble bonds of holy affection which unite in one family those who formerly had no knowledge or need of one another. And this is the beginning of the Church.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Christians are people who taste and see, first and foremost, that the Lord is Good, and that this is what makes life worth living. Our vocation is no less for each other and for the whole human race. Salt and light: to make the earth worth tasting, the world worth seeing, and life worth living: that all may see and know; that knowing, we may also love; and that loving, we may all be saved.

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

Christmas Day 2016

Preached at 10am on Christmas Day, at CSMSG. A Sunday this year, the congregation was considerably larger than usual for Christmas Day in the morning!

Collect: Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end.  Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14

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

One Christmas not long ago, I was talking with one of my college students, who was preparing to be baptized in a few months’ time at the Easter Vigil. He grew up in a completely secular household, no religious experience whatsoever, and naturally he was curious about Christmas. “What’s it all about?” he asked. He already knew about the baby Jesus and the manger, it’s hard to grow up even as an atheist and remain in complete ignorance about things like that. But he wanted to know more. What did it mean? How did a *Christian* keep the feast?

Now you might think that a priest of all people would be ready with an answer for the question “What does Christmas mean?” But I confess, to God, to blessed Mary, to all the saints, and to you, that I froze. What does Christmas mean? For a priest, you might as well ask, ‘What do you think about the air you’re breathing?’ ‘Well I don’t know.’ It’s something that comes so naturally, that is such an integral, necessary part of daily life, that without conscious effort it’s hard to get the critical distance necessary even to think about it.

I mumbled some kind of answer about the Incarnation, and the plan of salvation, but that Christmas is also more than all those theological things… Somehow I couldn’t communicate the kind of imagination Christmas creates for the Christian believer, the way in which its events and promises seep into every part of our lives, the way they infuse every corner of life and creation with divine splendor and quiet grace, with the conviction that something more is possible, that there is always more than meets the eye; that no matter how dire or seemingly final, there is always new life beginning right here and just around the corner. But I couldn’t get all this out, and continued to play the idiot struggling for words.

Finally I gave up and recommended he just watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special: and if you get nothing else out of this sermon, hear me recommend Charlie Brown as a great introduction to a Christmas imagination!

My student went home and by all accounts had a wonderful first Christmas as a Christian believer. But I’ve been thinking about his question ever since. At risk of indulging in a little self-justification, this morning I want to offer just a few additional thoughts that might help us begin to have a “Christmas imagination” ourselves.

In Advent the central tension of the season was that there are really two Advents: the first Advent of Christ, when he was born today in a manger so many centuries ago; and his second Advent, when he shall come again in power and great glory to judge both the quick and the dead, when every tear shall be wiped from every eye and all shall be made new. In the season of Advent we looked forward to both Advents, and this is the central creative tension of the season.

You might think that this tension gets resolved at Christmas, as our waiting and God’s promise meet in the Christ Child in the manger. And you’d be right, to a point: Christmas resolves Advent’s waiting by the celebration of what is here, what we are faced with, now, in Bethlehem. But this isn’t all. The creative tension continues on another tack. This is indeed the feast of the Nativity of Christ. But there is more than one Nativity which we celebrate here.

There is a reason that by the most ancient Christian tradition there are always three masses celebrating the Lord’s Nativity: one in the evening on Christmas Eve, one late at night running into early Christmas Day, and one today, on Christmas Day in the morning. Three services, with three different sets of readings, and three different collects. Three services because there are really three Nativities. And this is the creative tension of Christmas.

Three nativities. What are they? The first Nativity is from the beginning of eternity, the Son of God eternally begotten from the bosom of the Father: we recall this Nativity every time we say the Creed, or for that matter, every time we sing O Come All Ye Faithful: “God of God, Light from Light eternal…Word of the Father…” “Not made, without whom nothing was made that was made.” This Child born in a manger is more than he seems: he is the ruler of all the starry host before whom angels bow in worship and even the devils bend the knee. This is part of what is so awe-inspiring about Christmas, that such a one as this should come to such a place as this stable, to seek and save such sinners as you and I.

The second Nativity is the one we might know better: Linus on the stage, reciting for Charlie Brown the Angelic chorus to the shepherds: 

This is the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown: ‘And lo, an angel of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy: Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly thee was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.’

This is the Nativity we celebrate with the artwork on so many Christmas cards, with the crèche in church and so many manger scenes on front lawns and village squares around the world. For that matter this is the Nativity we recall every single Sunday as begin our worship with the angels’ Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Here is the beginning of salvation in earnest: a savior, concrete and personal, who comes from God on high not to condemn but to save, through the slow, taxing, charming progress of personal love, through poverty, betrayal, death, and beyond.

Finally, the third Nativity is the one we celebrate this morning, at this third service of Christmas on Christmas Day, in the light of that “new and glorious morn” which the Christmas carols herald. What Nativity is this? The Nativity of our Lord, his birth afresh, in the heart of every Christian: wherein your heart and mine becomes another manger to receive him ourselves. The Savior’s birth is the beginning of new life for the whole world; but it is also the beginning of life for you too, and for me. No matter how rude the stable, no matter how crude the beasts which dwell there, no matter how dark the night of sin and wrong, Christ comes to be born in you and me too, shining the Light from light eternal on all our gloom and dis-ease. This is the greatest mystery of all, one we commemorate this morning especially, but also with every prayer we offer, every forgiveness we grant, every act of mercy made in his Name, and chief of all every time we come to the Eucharist, receiving him afresh under the signs of bread and wine. Christ born in our hearts, the third and greatest Nativity.

Three Nativities, three great celebrations over these holy days. But they are only the beginning. Christ eternally begotten of his Father, Christ born of Mary, Christ in you and me: this is the whole mystery which you and I explore our entire lives long as Christians. This is the mystery in which not just the meaning of Christmas but our own meaning is revealed as well. This is the mystery by which we are brought before the face of God. Let it be to us this year a new beginning, a refreshment, and a challenge: to live as Christmas people all through the year, imaginations alive to the Christ child.

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

Thanksgiving Day 2016

The following sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day (November 24, 2016) at CSMSG.  It is a substantially revised and further developed version of similar points I made first in a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day in 2012, at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver.

Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labor of those who harvest them.  Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

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

Today is Thanksgiving Day. The parade is over, football hasn’t quite started yet, the turkey is in the oven, and you brave souls who have come to church in the interim are now my captives! I’ll just offer a few brief reflections on Thanksgiving and Gratefulness, and then liberate us all for the work of our liturgy this morning.

First, I think Thanksgiving is really one of the best things we do as a society. I know the single most dreaded question at the Thanksgiving table (or, as is our custom, at a vestry meeting of St. Michael and St. George), is “What are you thankful for?” But really, the opportunity this question gives us to take stock of our own gratitude is immensely valuable. Things mentioned around tables all across the country are things like, family, friends, community, joy in creation, a new home, freedom from fear, healing from some ailment. Taking stock of our gratitude is valuable because it helps us to put names and faces to goodness and truth and beauty; and it reminds us that these ideals cannot exist in the mind only but must be based in real actions and real people.

The second thing is that gratitude is always directed to a person. When we give thanks, we do not toss our gratitude into the ether like leaves scattering in the wind. In the English language we are very specific about gratitude: we say, Thank You. Thank You. And even when we just say, “Thanks,” it is always short for “my thanks to you.” We are always grateful to a person, whether that person is a friend or a family member, a group of people like nurses and doctors, or God. We cannot be thankful in isolation from a person to whom our thankfulness is directed. CS Lewis once famously remarked, the worst moment for a committed atheist is when they are filled with gratitude but have no one to thank. Going around the table saying what we are thankful for helps us identify not just for what, but also to whom we are thankful. It builds relationship on top of the real, concrete goods and truths and beauties for which we are grateful.

Third, on the word “thanks” itself. As I was preparing for this sermon, I was curious where the word actually comes from, and what its roots mean. Apparently, “thanks” and “thoughts” actually come from the same root, by a rather long and twisted track through Latin and German and Anglo-Saxon. It signifies a sort of combination of thoughts, good will, and even grace. “My thanks to you” is the original, long-form construction of the phrase, and “Thank you” and “Thanks” are both short forms of that.  

My thanks to you: my thoughts, my good will, my grace, to you. What a wonderful phrase, to have written into the fabric of the language! It suggests that gratitude, paradoxically, has some dimension of gift as part of its definition. And think then of our response: “You’re welcome.” You’re welcome to what? You are welcome to me. Our words of gratitude establish a beautiful relationship of mutual self-gift between two people, the free exchange of good will and even grace. Being grateful is not just a passive, polite response to someone else’s action. It is an active giving of the self in response to another person’s gift, in which a relationship of love is established and affirmed and edified.

My last point this morning is that to live in Thanksgiving is to live in constant imitation of Christ: Christ who gave himself to be born a human, Christ who gave himself to death for our sakes, Christ who lives eternally begotten of the Father, who offers himself upon the cross, and forever, back to his Father, out of whose love proceeds the Holy Spirit. To live in Thanksgiving is to live in the same pattern of fellowship as the Holy Trinity, the ground of all that exists. To live in Thanksgiving is to follow our Lord’s footsteps, constantly bearing the fruit of love.

Soon we will come to the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving. At the altar we will rehearse all the things for which we as Christian people are most thankful. We will direct our thanks, and our praise, to God, whose gifts they are. We will join the unending song of all the angels and saints, and be brought near to the presence of God. We will receive the sacrament of Christ himself, and be established and edified in the communion that is both nourishment for our souls and the great final promise of our faith.

The truth is, this Thanksgiving morning, you are not my captives at all! We are all of us the people of God, and we are gathered here today to do the work of rendering our thanks — indeed our very selves — to God. Giving thanks, to God especially, is not a matter merely of being polite. Rather it is to be swept off your feet into a new world, into the free exchange of love at the heart of God himself, becoming free ourselves, and, once free, immediately bound up together in his life and in one another’s.

Today, on Thanksgiving Day, let us give thanks for every gift of goodness and beauty which we have received, to all those persons known and unknown who have given them. Let us also commit to giving thanks every day, with all that giving thanks entails, in order that we and all the created order may be knit ever more closely together in the grace and love of our eternal, Triune God.

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

All Saints (and all votes)

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, November 6, 2016, when we kept the feast of All Saints. The evening’s offering of Evensong kept the propers for All Souls. This was also the Sunday immediately preceding Election Day. Given the acrimony of the presidential campaign, and the anxiety and stress so many of us are facing in anticipation of the possible futures the election may bring, I saw this as an opportunity to reflect pastorally: on both the feast of All Saints, and on the Christian hope to which it bears witness, even in the midst of trying times.

Collect: O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting.

Readings: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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

Well, Election Day is almost upon us.  One of the things this means is that, if your experience is anything like mine, you’ve probably been coming across more than the usual number of crazy people.  You know the kind I mean: glassy-eyed, totally convinced of the rightness of their cause, or the justice of their complaint, or the certainty of the doom they pronounce.  They stop us in the grocery line, or they troll our favorite news sites’ comments section, or we hear them spout some new enormity in a public square or around the water cooler.  

Maybe they’re members of your family.  Maybe you work with them.  Whoever they are, they all have this in common: they simply won’t listen to reason.  Nothing you say can convince them that they might have missed this or that part of the story.  Nothing you say can convince them that they might have it wrong.  So they carry on in their craziness, and you and I comfort ourselves with the thought that, since these nutters are basically irrational anyway, there’s nothing we can do to help them except ignore them and move on — and hope that come Election Day, there are more of us than there are of them.

G.K. Chesterton, the Edwardian social critic, once remarked that, contrary to expectations, the trouble with crazy people is not actually their fundamental irrationality but rather the reverse.  They’re stuck in a reasonable, logical loop: not that they’ve lost their reason, but that reason is the only thing they have left, while everything else has gone.  They’re stuck in one narrow rut of if/then, cause/effect, proposition/conclusion, conviction/manifesto, and they fail to see the world around them as it really is.

For Chesterton, what people in this scenario needed was not more reason — they already had too much of that.  What they needed was air: open the windows, feel the sunshine, smell the roses, enlarge the world.  Then reason becomes accountable to reality once again, rather than the other way around, and we can see ourselves and our problems in relation to the whole.  Don’t give the crazy person yet more reason.  Instead give them some good old fashioned fresh air.  Set them in a wide open space where the horizon can lend some perspective, and their malnourished imaginations can breathe again.

What does all this have to do with All Saints?  Simply that this holiday, maybe more than any other in our calendar (save the Lord’s resurrection), is an invitation for you and me to breathe some fresh air, to expand our vision.  All Saints asserts that the Church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment or in any given place, always more than meets the eye.

Are you discouraged by the state of the church, how much ground appears to have been lost in recent decades?  Remember Athanasius, almost entirely alone among his generation, Athanasius contra mundi.  The whole world had gone over to the deadly Arian heresy, and he himself languished through five different exiles from his home see.  And yet God was pleased to work his will through Athanasius such that not only did the world return to the life-giving faith of the Church, but it was also given a powerful new ally in the faith, monasteries from the Egyptian desert, which Athanasius did so much to promote in his day, and which have done so much since to preserve and enrich both Church and Society throughout the ages.

Are you concerned that politicians will sour the fount of faith?  Remember King Charles I, put to death by Cromwell for his refusal to go along with a radical reformist agenda.  Yet he was vindicated a scant few decades later by a glorious restoration of that church which he had defended with his life, and which had seemingly disappeared with his death.

Are you discouraged at the humdrum nature of daily life and the lack of heroic opportunity to live your devotion?  Remember Elizabeth of Hungary, who disobeyed royal policy to bring bread from the palace ovens to the poor outside its gates.  When caught in the act of carrying out this simple work of mercy, she was forced to turn out her apron: lo and behold, instead of loaves, it was miraculously filled with rose petals, which fluttered to her accusers’ feet, putting them to shame.

Perhaps you think you are in too low an estate, too terrible a circumstance, to offer anything of value to God.  Remember Mary, an unmarried peasant girl without a penny or a hope, surprised at her prayers one day by an angel, who announced to her she would be mother of the Son of God.  By God’s grace, this poor peasant girl became the Queen Mother of Heaven itself, witnessed in Revelation with even the stars at her feet.

The stories go on and on.  Whatever new problem you think you face, the feast of All Saints shows us that we have been there before.  And every time, God’s answer is to change what is possible, to point beyond reason, to a higher truth: that in the communion of saints, we share fellowship with those who are on the other side of judgement day and who enjoy the unmediated glory of God in the new heaven and the new earth.  In the life of the Church, that world breaks into this one, and commends itself to us as our own true home; that fellowship commends itself to us as our own true family.  Truly, the feast of All Saints gives us a breath of fresh air: it expands our vision, enables us to see through the confines of our own limited experience to the wide world of God’s loving, creative purposes, beyond all comprehension or limitation.

At the same time as it expands our vision, All Saints also focuses it.  It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith that the company of Saints, so diverse in their vocations and the details of their lives, are united across the ages in one chief way: together they all share a singular vision.  One character, one figure, looms large in their sight, and all of their varied and multifaceted works bear witness to that central figure, above all, filling all, perfecting all.

That figure of course is Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.  The paradox lies in that, far from limiting their vision, focusing so intently on this central figure expands it infinitely.   Likewise for you and I to place him at the center of our vision, to know him as the end of our yearning, to love him as the one who first loved us: is to see all whom he sees, is to know all whom he knows, is to love all whom he loves.  This takes us so far beyond our own limited capacity that we enter a new world, the world of his making and not ours: a world ruled by his promises, populated by his children, governed by his mercy; where around every corner lies some fresh unexplored grace, and over every hill lies some fresh valley of holy delight.

This feast of All Saints points us well beyond our current troubles, to the undiscovered, illimitable country of God’s grace.  Together with all the others it has created and transfigured, this feast points us to that wide world even while it draws our focused attention to the singular, towering figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose contemplation we breathe the fresh air of the Spirit of God, and the world is set to dazzling with the light of his countenance.

Which is all to reframe the question: Do you know a crazy person in your life?  Are you a crazy person?  Either way, get over it — your crazy neighbor, no matter how repugnant, is not the whole world.  Your causes, no matter how righteous, are not the whole world.  Get out more, out into God’s grace, and breathe some fresh air.  There is more there than whatever walls you feel closing in, always more; the kingdom of God is ever unfolding, leading us into ever further heights of love, as we obey his commandments to love God and neighbor.

Today the Saints invite you to consider a world in which new things are always possible, in which no work of God ever proves finally fruitless, whose horizons are limited only by his mercy, whose promises are new every morning.  Today the Saints invite you to join them in their contemplation of the face of God. Come to the altar of his sacrifice.  Come to the table he has set.  Come to the throne of grace, and there, join the throng of all his starry host.

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