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"

The Good Samaritan

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, July 10, 2016, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 10.” It was another hard week: the Requiem for Bp. Salmon and funerals for the previous week’s deaths, news of police killings in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, and the sniper attack in Dallas which killed five police officers and wounded several more. Sunday seemed to me a moment when we might all pause somewhat to take stock of things, and reflect on what sort of truths we really hold about the world at core.

Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers thy people who call upon thee, and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

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

The Good Samaritan.  This parable seems especially appropriate for us after the last week: in which yet more terrible events have been in the news, and death and mortality have been on all of our minds.

I think we usually read the Good Samaritan as if we were the young lawyer, asking who is our neighbor, looking for encouragement about how to go out and love them according to the commandment of God.  Jesus’ lesson remains as true for us as it did for that young man, ‘You, go and do likewise: care alike for friend and stranger, no matter what road you find them lying on.’

And yet after a week like this, full of funerals, violence, and unexpected bad news, we might justly start to read the parable as if we were the traveler: not that any of us have been victims of the week’s crimes, but simply that, as things fall apart, we begin to feel the weight of sagging hopes, and very real grief.  In times like these it might be easier to read the parable through the eyes of the traveler: walking alone down the road, minding his own business, and suddenly ambushed as if from nowhere; now lying in the gutter, world upside-down, possessions gone, badly wounded.  What does the parable say to us in that position?

We might be tempted to revisit all our favorite conundrums. Conundrums like, ‘How can this happen to me?  I’m a good person, shouldn’t justice say I deserve a better shake?’ Or, if we’re more philosophical, we might start asking how a good God could allow this kind of suffering and pain in the first place.  ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’  It’s a convenient moment to reopen the old can of worms which philosophers and theologians call, “The Problem of Evil.”  I won’t revisit the argument, because you probably know it already.  Principally, it asks the question, ‘How can a good God and real evil coexist in the world?’

Sometimes I imagine the traveler lying there, considering his plight as so many people walk by.  I think his thoughts would likely be similar to ours:  no doubt he took stock of his relationships and his various projects.  Perhaps he said a prayer or two for mercy, for ‘things done and left undone.’  Perhaps he railed at God for a while, trying to make sense of what had happened.  Or perhaps he was simply too badly injured to think at all, and lay there in a stupor waiting for death.  Whatever the specific content that ran through his head, I have to think most of it was concerned at least tangentially with this Problem of Evil, which occupies so much of your and my mental energy as well.

Is this it?  Is the Problem of Evil really the great Achilles heel of the world’s religions, and especially of Christianity?  It certainly seems to be wreaking havoc everywhere these days.  And yet I cannot think it will have the last word.

It certainly doesn’t in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  As we know, the Samaritan comes walking along and sees this poor man, cares for him, takes him to an inn, and makes sure to pay the bill himself.  At another time in life we might be able to guess better what went through the Samaritan’s mind, but for now consider the traveler’s.  He had given up hope, he was beaten and naked, lying in a ditch and waiting for death.  Who knows how long he lay there?  But then, just as much out of nowhere as the robbers who beat him, this Samaritan comes along to help.  He didn’t have to stop, he could have kept going, passed him by, just like all the others.  Justice would not have been bothered at any rate.  But he did stop, and so the traveler’s life is saved.

I recently read a book review by Rowan Williams in which he reviewed three different new collections of fairy tales.  At the beginning he observes that one of the distinguishing features of the genre is a kind of two-sided coin.  On one side of the coin, fairy tales very often feature scenarios where the normal relationships which society depends on have broken down.  Hansel and Gretel are sent away into the forest because their parents cannot afford to feed them any longer.  Cinderella is destitute because the family who adopted her are cruel and jealous.  Camelot falls because of treachery in the court, and Arthur sustains a wound which no doctor can properly heal.  And yet, at the same time, on the other side of the coin, the normal relationships which undergird the fabric of society may be frayed or broken, but the whole created world seems to conspire to help the lonely protagonists.

Narnia is frozen over, but a family of Beavers help the Pevensey children, unlooked for and unasked.  Hansel and Gretel kill the witch, and the trees and the birds lead them back home, where their father is overjoyed at their return.  Sir Galahad, who features in two of our stained glass windows here at St. Michael & St. George (believe it or not!); Sir Galahad has no shield.  But at just the moment he needs one, he stumbles across a monastery in a forest no one had ever seen before, which possesses an ancient, wondrous shield, that the community is pleased to give him.  Harry Potter is trapped at Number 4, Privet Drive, and despite all of Uncle Vernon’s protestations, it seems the house itself conspires with Hagrid to make sure Harry gets his acceptance letter to Hogwarts.

The point of this whole catalogue is, as Rowan Williams points out, that if we’re going to talk about The Problem of Evil — especially if we’re going to claim it’s some sort of Achilles Heel of religion — then we also have to admit there is at least an equal, if not more troubling, Problem of Good.  If there is a Problem of Evil out there, then there is also a Problem of Good.

There doesn’t have to be good in the world.  The Samaritan didn’t have to stop and help.  Jesus didn’t have to heal all those people, he didn’t have to offer himself to death on a cross, or rise from the dead.  And yet he did.  Why is there any good at all in the world?  Nature could get along just fine according to brutal survival instinct.  And yet, time after time in our lives, we see that the world simply refuses to work this way, the world refuses to fulfill our expectations of an all-encompassing, dog-eat-dog brutality.

The Samaritan didn’t have to stop, but he did.  And from the perspective of the Traveler, that must have made an enormous difference.  No longer could he get away with mere self-pity.  No longer could he surrender meekly to the forces which threatened to undo him, as some kind of fatal inevitability.  The gears of cruel fate were stopped by an act of gratuitous, unnecessary generosity.  And for the Traveler, life had victory over death.

It is no different for each of us.  Every time we might be tempted to throw up our hands and surrender to the Problem of Evil, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to recognize the even more significant Problem of Good.  However dark the world gets, there are always sparks and flashes of unnecessary, gratuitous good.  These flashes stop the gears of fate, and allow new possibilities of life and growth, beyond injury and death.

These flashes are windows into the purposes and nature of God, whose act of creating the world in the first place was gratuitous and unnecessary; whose gift of his Son was equally unnecessary, unbound, and free.  The God we worship and the redemption he promises are not founded on any kind of Newtonian law of action and reaction.  They are not subject to any Problem of Evil, no matter how systemic.  Our God is generous and free, sneaking up on us when we least expect it, shining brightest when life’s clouds conspire to block out even the sun, always allowing the possibility for new life to spring out of darkness.

So what does that mean for the Samaritan’s Traveler?  What does that mean for us?  Obviously the Problem of Good did not prevent the Traveler from getting mugged in the first place.  When we walk a dangerous road we ought to expect danger, and prepare for it accordingly.  Only, when you find yourself lying in a ditch, battered and preparing for death, do not despair.  Do not think that God has disappeared, or that the Almighty’s power has been bound by the evil you suffer.  Likewise, do not think that he is the one who has afflicted you, that your suffering is punishment for some unknown sin.  Rather put your trust in his generosity, in the profligacy of his grace and the freedom of his mercy.  Look for the new life he offers, and be, yourself, its signpost for others.

Evil and pain will not have the last word.  All the parables and the fairy tales are correct in this, that even when every system is broken and all relationships of trust are betrayed, Goodness is not extinguished yet.  Creation itself conspires to bear witness to the final victory, as the very stones cried out in the earthquake when Christ hung dying on the cross.  As Our Lord rose from the tomb and opened the gates of Paradise, so far we too may follow him.  As on the cross he offered himself in a Great Thanksgiving to his Father, so in our own time of trial we too may offer thanks for the Problem of Good, by which we live, and according to which death itself is conquered and put to flight.

In the meantime, may we always be prepared to be surprised by this goodness of God, overflowing everywhere, bubbling up in gratuitous generosity, unlooked for and unasked, which nourishes and builds up the kingdom of heaven.  Let this constant surprise lead us into lives of continuous delight, giving thanks always and everywhere for the goodness of God.

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

Home

This sermon was preached at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, on July 3, 2016: the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 9.” It was my first Sunday back from vacation, and Independence Day was the next day. The previous week’s news included the ISIS attack in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, the death of Bp. Edward Salmon, and several other deaths in the parish. It was a difficult week for many, especially here in our church community.

Collect: O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

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

Home. It’s a powerful symbol for many of us.  It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and many of you are either going home or are welcoming family back home for the holiday.  I’ve just returned home from vacation, though it might be a little ironic that I left here in order to go home too, sort of: I was at a family reunion, something we do in my family once every ten years or so, where I saw lots of aunts and uncles and cousins in Colorado, a place I’ve often visited with my family.  The fact that this is an election year also has many of us thinking about the kind of home we want our country to be, and what hopes and fears we might carry about its future.  One way or another, home is something close to many of our minds at the moment.

And so it’s fitting that our readings today touch on home in many ways.  The prophet Isaiah reflects on Jerusalem as Israel’s home, even its mother.  St. Paul reflects on different domestic attitudes within the community of the church, how we ought to help one another, hold one another accountable, what criteria we ought to use to articulate our membership in this family in the first place.  And Jesus sends out the seventy to continue his work in the world, living as guests wherever they go, not counting their accomplishments as anything to stand on, but dwelling only in the mercy of God to have chosen them for their work.

What strikes me about each of these passages is that home — for Israel, for Paul, for Jesus, and for the disciples — home for all these people, the home they describe, is not there yet.  They do not yet experience it.  Isaiah writes to a people under threat of conquest and exile.  Paul writes to the Galatians that what matters for them is neither their beliefs nor their obedience, but their being made a new creation: begun in baptism, but not yet complete.  And Jesus tells his disciples, the things you might be tempted to rest in provide only a false confidence, a flimsy dwelling.  Rejoice only in your name being written in the book of life: a book that will not be opened until the end, when he returns to “judge both the quick and the dead.”

It may seem strange to hear Scripture refer to home — the one place at the beginning and end of every one of our earthly days — as something far off, yet to be established.  And yet to a degree, this is something whose effect we can all see in each of our lives.  “Home is where the heart is,” we say.  And we know the heart wanders where it will amid time and space.  Where is home when a beloved spouse dies, or a parent, or a child, as too often happens?  Where is home if we are under constant threat of danger, or when we live day by day with mental or physical ailments, which undermine our peace or security?  For that matter, where is home when things are good and everything is satisfactory?  I’ve lost count now of the number of people who have confided in me, that despite all the good things in their lives — a happy, healthy marriage, successful careers, confident, well-behaved children — that despite all these things, they are still lonely, their heart still longs for something more that it can never quite grasp.  Home may be where the heart is, but the heart is always at least a step or two beyond wherever it is we find ourselves at any given moment.  Isaiah knows this, and so does Paul, and so does Jesus.  They are all pointing beyond the present, trying to articulate for us to learn just what sort of home our heart is really pointing us towards.

And what sort of home is that?  For Isaiah, the home we seek goes well beyond any present sense of security or danger, and has more to do with the promises and purposes of God, to establish his people for ever, a people for his own, by whose prayer and praise the glory of God grows to encompass the whole earth, every living thing, and every stage of life and growth.  For Paul, the true home of faith is not a possession that any of us can acquire, no status or fortress we can fall back on.  Rather for Paul, the true home of faith is a posture, an attitude, starting first with receptiveness to God’s mercy: mercy for ourselves and for each other.  There is no pride in faith, no personal glory to be gained or exploited.  There is only glory in the cross of Christ, and his mercy to each one of us.  For Paul, home is not a place but a posture, of humility and gratitude for mercy; just as for Isaiah, home is not present security but a promise, the purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.

What about Jesus?  What sort of home does he suggest in his words to the seventy this morning?  The disciples obey his instructions, and they are astounded at the authority of his name, even to cast out demons.  And yet Jesus reminds them that even Satan himself once made his home in heaven.  Authority, residence in high places, great respect, is not enough of its own to make a home, not enough finally to belong somewhere.  Jesus tells these disciples not to let their enthusiasm or their pride get the better of them, not to let authority go to their heads.  He teaches them that their principle source of joy should rather be that the God in whose name they have done these things, that this God knows their names.  That he knows their names.  Great teaching, miracle working, casting out demons; none of these mighty works are shelters or foundations or homes, but rather simply that God knows their name.  God knows their name.

God knows your name too, and mine.  And this is the beginning of what it means for you and I finally to have a home in this world.  Isaiah teaches us to have confidence in the promises and purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.  Paul teaches us the posture of humility and gratitude as the way we respond to it.  And Jesus shows us that power and might do not avail for giving us peace or security at home, but only the confidence that God knows our name, and does not forget his kindness towards us.

So what about home?  How do we understand it in this world?  How do we build it, how do we give thanks for it, how do we protect it?  Our Scripture lessons this morning remind us that home is not something we can totally possess in this life.  If we seek it as a reward for good behavior, or the final end of all our work; if we want it to carry the freight of all our dearest emotions, or if we flee from it as the scene of trouble, we will always be disappointed.  Why?  Because for Christians, however we experience our homes in this world, they are finally not possessions or citadels in which we are safe from trouble or harm.  They are never as permanent as we’d like them to be, never as strong as we might need.  Rather they are the beginning of hope.

Our homes are what teach us to long for completion in the kingdom of God.  They are what give us glimpses of its perfection, its peace, always at the end of the long road which wends past the cross and through the grave, on its way up the mountain to the house of God.  That home takes root in this one, and by its own way it grows like Jack’s beanstalk up to the new Jerusalem, our “dear native land.”  So hope adorns our homes, making them shine with the light of that kingdom, growing now but not in flower yet.

And so, this weekend, as many of us go home or come home or celebrate home, let us thank God for our homes.  Let us live there in joyfulness.  And let us look forward in hope, all the more expectantly to our final, true, and lasting home, in the glory of God for ever.

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

“Catching” the Kingdom

A recent post of mine for The Living Church blog “Covenant.” It was written just at the end of May, as the “program” year here at CSMSG was winding down and our students and teachers at St. Michael’s School were preparing for the summer recesses. Full text is below:

From 1910-1931, Miles Farrow was the organist and choirmaster of the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  One of his signature accomplishments was developing the famous “Purple Tone,” which was the unique sound of his choir of men and boys. When asked how he taught the boys, many of them very young, how to achieve this sound, he would always reply that he did not teach them: the younger boys would simply “catch it” from the older boys, almost as they would catch a cold. The youngest choristers would sit with the choir and just listen, sometimes for a full year, before being allowed to sing. When they were finally allowed to add their voices to the choir, the “Purple Tone” would come naturally. They had indeed “caught” it.

Farrow’s practice wasn’t unique to him, there are plenty of choirs around the world that still ask their probationers to listen for a period of time before joining their voices with the others’.  But to “catch” something, rather than be taught, is a wonderful image. In that moment it is clear who is the student, but the teacher is hard to identify: certainly Farrow, but also each of the older choristers, and the gentlemen too. No doubt the organist bore much responsibility, as did the building with its acoustic and visual adornment, not to mention the liturgies themselves and the calendar of services. All are inseparable from the act of singing worship, and all worked together to produce the “Purple Tone” for which Farrow was famous and which the youngest choristers “caught” from the others. It was not merely a skill they were learning, but a whole spirit, a “germ,” which lodged in their imaginations and issued in this particularly beautiful way.

Extend the image further: for as many critics as praised this choir’s tone, how many more people must have been moved to pray by their music, how many visitors to the cathedral saw this choir singing and heard “the very stones crying out” in worship? How many vocations to ministry were nurtured by their daily offerings, how many evangelists strengthened, how many acts of justice encouraged by this community of prayer and praise? However these choristers “caught” the Purple Tone, there is always something deeply contagious about such an intentional, integrated, and public life of faith.

This is the time of year when many of our churches give thanks to God for their students and their teachers. This year so far has been a time in my own life when I have been especially mindful of my own teachers, whose student I have been.  Some have died, many are growing older, and I am increasingly grateful for the role they have played in my life.  Still, when asked what they taught me, I am always at something of a loss.  I have lost count of the facts I have learned from them, the skills honed at their guidance, and even the wisdom gleaned from their lives.  I find myself completely unable to condense their lessons into a pithy saying or a satisfying thesis. If “What have they taught you?” is an impossible question, then “What do they mean to you?” hits closer to the mark. But even this falls short.

We often presume that the relationship between teacher and student is chiefly one of exchange. The teacher has knowledge to impart, and the student receives it, digesting it according to their interest, need, and ability. Under this system, any teacher could stand in just as well for any other, provided the same command of the material. Wikipedia could just as easily stand in for any number of human beings, and we could all get on with more enticing concerns than learning.

But when I think of my own teachers, their lessons are neither the first thing I remember nor the chief thing I value.  Harry Potter and his friends value Hagrid as one of their favorite teachers at Hogwarts, even though his classes are far from ideal. Even so with my own teachers. At their best, they have not impressed me with the elegance of their presentation; rather they have introduced me to a new world I didn’t know existed before, even though it was always right under my nose.  They have fired my imagination with all the possibilities that world contains.  And by their patient guidance and friendship, they have made their world my own, by long sojourn inducting me into its mysteries, its challenges, its promises, and its joys.

Of course the world my teachers inhabit is this world, our plain old, one and only, planet Earth. But their teaching enables me to see farther, understand more deeply, act more maturely, and love more fully. I have been shaped their own peculiar character, and found myself in a company of fellow travelers who have scouted the way ahead.

It is hard to say exactly who taught Miles Farrow’s choristers the “Purple Tone” without accepting his own explanation that they simply “caught” it from each other. Likewise it is hard to say what I learned from my own teachers, apart from their being the touchstones by which I began to see the world afresh.  It is the same in each of our lives of faith.  Paul writes to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” (2 Timothy 1:6). John writes in his first epistle, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3). We “catch” our religion from one another, and, giving thanks for our teachers in the faith, we join them in their holy fellowship, the blessed company of all faithful people. In their steps we begin scouting the territory of the Kingdom of God, our prayers and praises inspiring the very stones to cry out in worship. Before long we find ourselves with students of our own, and so the Kingdom grows.

We live in an age where it is fashionable to be self-taught, self-made, self-fulfilled.  Meanwhile, teachers are not perfect. Miles Farrow finally suffered an alcohol-induced breakdown and died in an asylum. The fellowship of teachers and learners is a fragile one, requiring humility, sincerity, honesty, forbearance, and generosity, among other virtues. And yet to seek the kingdom of God by any other means amounts to the sin of Lucifer himself, who learned the hard way that heaven cannot be stormed by any amount of personal conviction, charisma, or force of arms. So, thanks be to God for all our teachers, and for all those from who we have caught glimpses of his kingdom. So let us, contagious with his praise and gentle with his love, guide others in the way that leads to eternal life.

Trinity Sunday at All Saints, Ashmont

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I was honored to be invited to preach Trinity Sunday this year at the Parish of All Saints in the Ashmont neighborhood of Dorchester, just outside of Boston. This sermon was preached at the Solemn High Mass, at 10am. Music for the day included Stanford’s Communion Service in B-flat and F, and his Te Deum in B-flat Major.  Thank you to Fr. Michael Godderz and to the whole parish for your warm hospitality!

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of thy Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see thee in thy one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, Revelation 4:1-11, John 16:5-15

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

“Why don’t you quit waffling, and take a stand already?”  How many of us have said this before, or have heard it said to us?  Take a stand: be for us, or be against us, but at least take a stand!  As a culture we don’t have much patience for people who can’t make up their minds.  And nothing is more frustrating than having to work with people who lack the courage to back up their convictions with deed as well as word.  Take a stand!

The Church makes its share of stands too, and today we make what is perhaps the chief of all Christian stands: Trinity Sunday, when we affirm unequivocally that the God we worship is one God in three Persons, whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All Christian prayer, all Christian doctrine, and all Christian hope depend in many ways on this stand most of all: God is one, and God is three, perfect Trinity in perfect Unity.

What is it like to make a stand for the Trinity?  What is it like to stand, and to build, on this great, monumental Doctrine?  The moment we try, a strange thing happens: we lose our balance, and end up facing a different direction than when we started!  What do I mean by that?  The moment we try to think of the Father, we are forced to consider his Son, his only Son, whom he loves above all else.  And the moment we turn to the Son, our eye is immediately turned to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit whom Jesus promised will lead us into all truth.  And the moment we consider the Holy Spirit, we are turned back to the Father, the one whose truth the Spirit reveals: which sends us right back to the Son.  To try and stand on the Trinity is like trying to step on a ride at the fair which is already moving: we get turned around from the moment we take our first step.  We can easily lose our balance, and if we’re not careful, or if we focus too long on any one point, we can catch a nasty case of vertigo and get thrown clean off.  If the Trinity is the firm ground where the Church makes its stand, then what are we to do when we discover it is continually moving around?

Take another example.  There comes a point in every person’s life when we hit “rock bottom.”  Maybe it has happened to you or to someone you know, or if it hasn’t yet, don’t worry, it will.  Maybe a cancer diagnosis.  Maybe you’ve failed an important test.  Maybe it’s getting fired, or getting caught, or declaring bankruptcy.  Maybe it’s a divorce, or maybe you’ve finally admitted to yourself that you’re an alcoholic.  One man in recovery once told me that, the moment he realized he had a problem was a moment in which suddenly found himself with an overpowering fear, fear that he was slowly killing himself, and that he was powerless to stop it.

Rock bottom.  Whatever it is for you, you know it when you’re there.  There is no lower that you can go.  “Rock bottom” sounds an awful lot like bedrock, like solid ground.  But the experience is always more like freefall, down an endless abyss into the void.  What do you do when you find yourself there?  How do you regain your balance?  How do you reorient yourself back towards life, and light?  It’s a very different scenario, but the question is the same as with the Trinity: how can you make a stand from a moving reference point?

Take another case.  Recently I met a woman who was totally in love.  The man in question was also totally in love with her.  He had proposed, but she was nervous about saying Yes.  She said, “Whenever I think about him, I think about how happy he makes me.  And whenever I think about my life, I think how glad I am that he’s in it.  I can’t imagine myself without him.”  “That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said.  She replied, “Yeah, but aren’t I supposed to be able to get along without him, if this is going to work?  As it is, I feel like I’m in a whole new world, and nothing is really recognizable anymore.  All my old hopes and goals suddenly look different with him, and I’m considering all sorts of new things that I never would have dreamed of before.”

I wanted to get to the bottom of this, so I arranged to meet with the man too.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised in any case, since he said almost the same thing that she did.  He said, “I want to be with her for the rest of my life, she’s always teaching me something new about myself.  And when she’s around, it’s like I am somebody I never knew I could be.  I don’t know why, but she loves me, and I like myself better because of it.  Life is richer somehow, there’s less pressure to be someone I’m not, and I feel like I’m discovering new things all the time.”

Of course they were both saying the same things.  Not that they had surrendered their identities to each other, but that, in love as they were, they found that something new and unknown was growing among them, leading them further into unknown territory, and they needed each other to figure out what that was and what it meant.  “All you need is love,” the Beatles sang.  But these two love birds prove that, like being at rock bottom, love is a difficult foundation too.  It’s hard to stand on love, because it’s constantly leading further on, opening onto new vistas, new possibilities, new depths of understanding and devotion.

So: It’s impossible to make a stand on love.  It’s impossible to make a stand at rock bottom.  And it’s impossible to nail down the Holy Trinity.  All of them move constantly out of focus, all of them are just beyond reach, all of them require some help from outside of ourselves to engage.  And yet, the Trinity is still where the Church takes its stand.  Our whole religion is bound up in this mystery.  What is this about?

The person at rock bottom, in freefall, has nowhere to stand, cannot climb out, cannot stop falling, cannot grab hold of anything.  And so, the Trinity does not present itself as merely some crutch to help us cope, some toehold for us to cling to.  Rather the Trinity reaches down to grab hold of us, never letting go, even in our darkest hour offering another vision, another possibility for life, cleansed from sin and free from death.

The couple in love find that love is not something they possess, but rather something that makes a new world for them, constantly unfolding with more delight, more challenge, more opportunity.  Likewise the Trinity is not something we can possess, but rather the very life of God himself, who claims us for his own, drawing us ever onward into his grace, feeding us with his own body and blood and infusing every day with more wonder, more joy, more gratitude.

Tracing a line from Father, to Son, to Holy Spirit, and back around again, can be dizzying, just like that ride at the fair.  If we try to master the contours of the doctrine, we will get thrown off.  Rather the point is, that the Holy Trinity is the constant invitation of God to be near him in all his saving and redeeming work.

Yes, the Church makes its stand on the Trinity, but not because it is the final and irreducible “this-far-and-no-further” of Christian doctrine or the culture wars or whatever.  The Church makes its stand on the Trinity because it is the starting point, and the source of all hope.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, takes hold of us wherever we are, lifts us out of our ruts, washes us from our sin, and places us in a new country, bright and green, filled with his own eternal life.

Take a stand on the Holy Trinity: come and worship, and let God sweep you away to who knows where.  You may not recognize where you end up, but you will have taken the surest route to the Kingdom of God.

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

The Good Shepherd

This sermon was preached at 8am, 11:15am, and 5:30pm, on the Fourth Sunday of Eater, at St. Michael & St. George, 17 April, 2016. At 9:15am, Bp. Smith made his annual visitation to the parish, and confirmed a class of youth and adult confirmands. A few were also received into the Episcopal Church.

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with the and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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

Election season seems to be drawing on towards fever pitch, and everywhere you turn there’s someone claiming that he or she will be the best candidate to lead this nation. In schools too, exam season is drawing near, and deadlines for college decisions loom. We try to prepare our young people to be leaders, leaders we ourselves might be willing to follow.

Likewise today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, and we reflect on just what kind of leader we have in Jesus Christ. Last week we heard him challenging us to follow him on the hard road which his resurrection opens. Today we hear him claiming the mantle of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd. What does that mean? If we were raised on children’s stories from the English countryside, it might evoke for us visions of Little Bo Peep, rolling green hills, and gurgling streams: a pastoral landscape, vibrant and peaceful, where shepherding is easy and flocks can graze to their heart’s content. The shepherds Jesus would have known, however, didn’t have it so easy. Good pasture is hard to come by in the Middle East, and requires constant wandering, constant exposure to the elements, constant danger of coming into conflict over watering holes and routes of passage.

The shepherds Jesus knew did not have an easy lot. He is the good shepherd. But that does not mean an easy life for the sheep, rather it does mean that they can trust their Shepherd to lead them through thick and thin, to be near them in all their wanderings, and to defend them with his life if need be.

But Jesus the Good shepherd was not simply a shepherd to his disciples only. He is your shepherd too, and my shepherd. And, like sheep in Middle Eastern flocks, perhaps the chief thing that means for us is that we can allow our trust to rest in him. We can give him our trust, and let it grow under his leadership. He will honor it, and lead us in the way he has for us: not to harm us or to destroy, but to lead us into life, to lead us into joy.

Plenty of people claim to speak for Jesus the Good Shepherd, and there are plenty who claim his mantle. But do they lead his flock to life, or to death? Jesus always leads his flock further into life, snatches them even from the jaws of death, lays down his own life so that you and I might no longer fear even the power of death. He seeks us out even in the dark places where we find ourselves, He seeks us out even in crevices where we try to hide. Once we place our trust in the Good Shepherd, he himself will honor that trust, and lead us into life.

Where is he leading you? Where is he leading me? We may as well ask, where do we most need the power of his resurrection in our life? That is where he is leading you. Let him lead you there. Turn over to him your fears, your failures, your doubts. He is faithful, forgiving, and leads you into life.

But why should we trust him in the first place? We might object, “It’s all very well and good for some priest to say, ‘Trust the Good Shepherd and it will all turn out all right, but why should I bother? It’s just a bunch of religious talk.” Friends, this is where our Good Shepherd shines most brightly of all. Our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who leads us into life, and offers his own resurrection power to us in all those areas where we are most deathly, most afraid, most rotten; this Good Shepherd is a good shepherd chiefly because he became for us a good sheep. He became for us the very lamb of God: a lamb to seek out all the lost sheep, and offer himself to death even for your sins and for mine. He is a good shepherd because he is a good sheep, because he is himself the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

His innocence and his goodness may seem strange to us who are so well acquainted with our own struggles, our own temptations, our own sins. Even if we can accept that he is the lamb of God who died in our stead, it can be hard to accept that such an innocent Lamb can regard sinners with anything less than contempt. And yet his innocence is exactly what gives him the strength and the power to regard us kindly, with compassion, to draw us ever onward towards “green pastures” and “quiet waters.” His innocence is exactly what gives him that strength and power.

Yes, Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, who is even my shepherd, my own, and yours too. He is a good shepherd because he is also the Lamb of God, full of tender compassion for all who have gone astray. This Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is who sits upon the throne of heaven, appearing gloriously as the victorious lamb, who was slain and rose again, and reigns for ever. He forgives our sin, he leads us over all the rough places and dark valleys of our lives, leading ever kindly on, further into his own eternal life.

Won’t you trust him? Trust his voice — His voice, the voice of the one who died for you and rose again, whose designs are for your life and your joy, always to share in his own. Trust him, and see what he can do with your heart. It will not always be easy, but it will always lead further into his heart; His heart — which is your home and mine.

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

The liturgy, the crucible of love

Lumen de lumine, 2009. Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

 

“Liturgical manuals are full of very specific instructions, and vergers with their maces can cast stern looks. Yet the task for us fallible humans is not simply to “get it right” but to move in such a way that puts us at the disposal of the Holy Spirit: to be aware of our own need for grace, to be aware of the location and intentions of our neighbors, and to surrender our egos, so that all might be offered to the glory of God.”

A recent post of mine for The Living Church’s blog, on praying during the liturgy.

Easter Evening, 2016

The following sermon was preached at 5:30pm on Easter Sunday, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Luke 24:13-49

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

The road to Emmaus. This has always been one of my favorite Easter episodes. It’s evening of Easter Sunday.  These two disciples have already heard the good news, reports going through their company that Jesus has risen from the dead.  There is uncertainty in the air.  Can it be true?  As they say on the road, they had hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel, and yet he was crucified in a public spectacle only three days ago.  They need some air, they need to get away, and so they decide to leave Jerusalem and walk to a familiar town, Emmaus, a day’s journey away.  Perhaps some distance will help them understand, perhaps a change of scenery will clear their heads.

On the way, Jesus meets them as they go.  As with Mary Magdalene earlier this morning, Jesus surprises his disciples by catching them unawares, absorbed as they are in the emotional demands of the moment.  Equally amazingly, these disciples don’t recognize him any faster than Mary did.  They find it unbelievable that he hasn’t heard about Jesus of Nazareth and his crucifixion, so they tell him.  He finds it unbelievable that they still don’t understand, so he explains the scriptures to them again, as he must have done a thousand times while he was with them: the Messiah was meant to suffer and die, and be raised up again.  They reach their destination, and they beg their new friend to stay with them, rather than going on as he seemed intent on doing.  So he does, and they eat together.  Finally, as he breaks the bread over supper, they recognize him as Jesus, and he suddenly departs.

It’s a story full of deeply human characters and emotion, entirely believable from a psychological perspective.  Grief, coping, encounter, journey, friendship, hospitality, there’s a lot here to relate to.  The specific observation I want to make tonight is that among the many familiar human aspects of the story, there is also a lot of explaining going on.  The disciples explain to Jesus the last few days in Jerusalem.  The risen Jesus explains to them the Scriptures.  The disciples explain to Jesus their plans to stay the night at Emmaus, and, in the course of agreeing to stay with them, and blessing and breaking the bread, Jesus explains his own priorities: namely, to be with them where they are, and to reveal himself as the bread of life, broken for the salvation of the world.  As if all these explanations aren’t enough, he disappears as soon as they recognize him, and they a left with more questions than answers.  So they rush all the way back to Jerusalem, no doubt arriving in the middle of the night – the same hour as the Resurrection by the way, early that morning 24 hours before – and tell their story to Peter and the other disciples.

More questions than answers.  Explanations leading onto further investigation, further investigation leading onto further experience, leading onto further life and love and beyond.  The point here is that, when it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.  When it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

Why?  Why is it that we can never quite seem fully to nail it down?  For the same reason the nails of the soldiers could not keep Jesus on the cross, or the stone keep him in the tomb.  This God of ours, who comes to earth from heaven, dies at our hand, and rises from the tomb, this God is always his own explanation, and his own final meaning.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge of himself, the personal knowledge of who he is — which is to say, the personal experience of his grace and love.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge and love of himself.  And as a Person, there is always more to him than we might see at any given moment, just as there is always more to the other people in our lives.

Thanks to Easter Sunday, the Christian life is a fundamentally adventurous one.  No explanation is finally sufficient of itself, for God himself is his own meaning and his own explanation.  No portrait can be complete for Jesus, who bursts through the tomb, through every limit and every convention.  There is no explaining the extent of his mercy or the wide breadth of his creativity.  There is no grasping the depth of the wellspring of his grace, or his capacity to forgive.  There is no telling where he might take us or what might be next.  This God is our God, and he is always one step ahead of us, calling us to follow him further up and further in, through the tomb, through the Garden, to Emmaus, his own Ascension, Pentecost, and beyond.  What’s next?  Where will he take us?  How will we recognize him in an hour, tomorrow, next year?  There is no telling.  His final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

And yet no matter where we are on our own roads to Emmaus, no matter what sense we’ve been able to make of the last few days, of our own lives, or the talk of his Gospel, Jesus Christ meets us on the road, listens to us explain to him whatever sense we’re able to make of him, and stays with us when we ask.  He stays with us, eats with us, shares himself with us – and then goes on ahead of us to draw us further on to where he is.  He has led the way through life and death, hell and heaven, and he calls us further we know not where.  And yet we know that where he is, there he longs for us to be also.

Will you ask Jesus to stay with you this Easter Sunday?  He comes to us on whatever road we walk, and offers himself at this Altar to be the true nourishment of our souls.  Will you ask him to stay with you?  Will you prepare a place for him in your heart?  Will you follow where he leads?  Will you trust he goes on ahead of you to prepare a place for you?  There is always more to him than we can grasp now, and yet his whole purpose is for us to know him forever, to dwell in his love till the ages of ages.  He stays with us; he goes beyond us.  Won’t you follow him on this unknown adventure?  Know that wherever he leads, his love will be our end, our support, our map; his resurrection our guarantee, our gate; and his glory our inheritance and our home.

The Lord is risen indeed! Come, let us worship. Come, let us live — in the surprising, beautiful, ever-widening world of his eternal life.

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

“Everything just feels right there.”

St. Louis Abbey

The following homily was preached on Sunday, March 6, 2016 (the fourth Sunday of Lent), at a service of Choral Evensong at the St. Louis Abbey, sung by the CSMSG choir as part of our continuing relationship with the monks of that Community.  I officiated and preached, and we were all the grateful recipients of warm hospitality from the Abbot and brothers. “A good time was had by all!” I think this is one of the best things we do here at CSMSG, and I pray this relationship continues a long and happy one!

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth live 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.

Lessons: Romans 8:11-25; John 6:27-40

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

A friend of mine is a parish priest in Denver, Colorado.  Just this weekend he returned from making a Lenten retreat at a nearby monastery.  In the course of telling me how it went, he praised the quiet, the mountains, the hiking, the other guests; but most of all he appreciated the community and the life they led.  He summed up his experience by saying, “I’m convinced it’s one of the most sacred and beautiful places on earth for me.  Everything just feels right there.”

Everything just feels right there.  His words resonate with me, and I suspect with a lot of people.  There are places we go in life where everything just feels right.  Monasteries seem especially able to communicate this.  There is something fundamentally right about the work of God which is carried out here, something deeply beautiful about a community’s life ordered as a school of the Lord’s service.  They are places which are resonant with the Spirit calling as deep to deep, where “the final revealing of the sons of God” often seems to be at the very brink.  The church, the grounds, and most of all the members of the community themselves, impress themselves on the visitor as icons of the way things ought to be.  I always find it remarkable how quickly visitors start to feel at home in a monastery, even on their very first visit; and I have to think that a large part of that is a response to the feeling that here, things are as they ought to be.

Of course, this side of heaven, things are rarely as they ought to be, even in a monastery.  And in fact, the more things appear to be just as they ought, the more vigilant we must be, not to let evil and vice creep in unnoticed.  Parishes are the same way, and families; cities and states and nations too.  It is often very easy for a generous visitor to see a new country as the portrait of its own ideals.  But its citizens can always tell a different story.

Why is it that visitors see the good, while citizens see all the rest?  Are they simply deluded?  I don’t think so.  I think rather that there is simply something about being a guest in a place, that clears the vision and allows the good to shine through.  Likewise, there is something about being a citizen of a place that highlights its weaknesses, its challenges, and the work that still has to be done.

Which of these aspects is the more true?  The grace witnessed and experienced by the guest, or the mundane, ordinary life of the citizen?  Probably a little of both.  The English spiritual author G.K. Chesterton once observed that our “spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like [our] physical sight: [we] see two different pictures at once, and yet see all the better for that.”

The world wants to see contradiction and hypocrisy in the Church because so far we do not yet exhibit the holiness and perfect unity in love which our Lord promised and for which he prayed the night before his death.  Likewise we can be dissatisfied with our vocations, wherever they may plant us, because it is much easier to see grace at work abroad than in the complicated and confusing humdrum of our own lives.  The place where everything is as it ought to be, where “everything just feels right,” is very frequently somewhere else, somewhere farther on ahead of us, which we may visit from time to time but cannot yet call our own.

What, then, are we to do?  How do we answer the world?  How do we resolve our own contradictions?  Where can we go to be finally and forever at home?  Our lessons tonight suggest that the best answer to these questions is to be always at prayer.

All may not be right with the world or with ourselves, but in prayer we are moved by the Spirit into the presence of our heavenly Father, who is our eternal home.  In prayer the two contradictory visions of our spiritual sight overlap, and we see in three dimensions. Our sin: not just our fall from glory, but also the occasion of our redemption.  Heaven: not just a promise for the end of time, but also our strength and nourishment even now as the Spirit moves within us.  Though the world about us fall to pieces; though we ourselves be racked by temptation, disquiet, and uncertainty; in prayer we are joined to Our Lord’s own eternal offering of himself to his Father, even as we are also joined to the Father’s gift of his Son for us and for all creation.

In prayer, we are always at home — even if we be thousands of miles away, even if we be separated from our families or broken from their fellowship.  In prayer, the groaning of whatever suffering we experience in this present life is joined to the agony of Our Lord and the birth pangs of the Spirit.  In prayer we begin to be made new.  All might not be right with this world, with ourselves, with whatever place it is we are.  Yet in prayer,  however agonizing it might be for us, in prayer we are at home: everything is as it ought to be, we are on the doorstep of heaven, and the One who dwells there recognizes us for his own.

As Lent draws on towards Holy Week and the Paschal Mystery, let us resolve to be people of prayer: which is to say, let us be guests of heaven.  Let us throw ourselves on Heaven’s hospitality.  And so heaven’s Host will wash our feet, bind our wounds by his own, give us his peace which passeth all understanding, and feed us with his own Body and Blood.  So we shall be both guests and citizens at once, heirs of his eternal life.

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

“Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

The following sermon was preached on Sunday, February 21, 2016 (the second Sunday of Lent), at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.  Services today, as all through Lent, begin with the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and Penitential Rite (Summary of the Law with Confession), in which each commandment is read aloud followed by the whole congregation saying together, “Lord have mercy and incline our hearts to keep thy law.” Following all the commandments we say the general confession and hear the words of pardon. This takes the place of the Confession later in the service.

Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 15:1-18Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

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

A few years ago I met a priest who had been a guest preacher at Eton College Chapel in England.  As you may know, Eton College is one of the world’s great boarding schools, where boys from 13 to 18 years old have been educated in the shadow of Windsor Castle since the reign of Henry VI, in 1440.  The school has sometimes been called “the nursemaid of the empire,” and it has been the alma mater of monarchs, statesmen, and churchmen alike (both the present Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury are alumni, to name two examples).  Since its founding, daily worship has been offered in the school chapel, according to all the seasonal changes and chances of the Book of Common Prayer.

This preacher whom I met had arrived at the chapel early, since he wanted to check a reference in his sermon against the Prayer Books in the chapel seats (which of course were then — and still are! —  the Book of Common Prayer of 1662).  He chose the nearest prayer book, and on opening it, the pages fell naturally to the “Table of Consanguinity,” the page that lists all the persons in a person’s family whom he or she is not permitted to marry.

This amused the preacher, and as he scanned the familiar list, he noted some writing in the margin: next to the line saying that a man may not marry his grandmother, some poor homesick boy had written, “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law!”

Of course the boy was making a wordplay on the lines we just spoke earlier this morning: they are part of our “Penitential Rite” which we use at the beginning of our services during Lent, and which are spoken with at least the same frequency in the English prayer book.  “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”  Whether reciting the Ten Commandments or steeling ourselves against the charms of Grandma, it’s a wonderful prayer to keep in our back pockets and at the tips of our tongues!

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is also engaging in a little wordplay.  First he calls Herod a fox, which is funny enough: this Herod was not his father: his father was the Herod who talked himself into a fruitful alliance with the Romans, who had engaged in massive building plans, negotiated with the three wise men, and left his kingdom far stronger than he found it.  This Herod, the son, was no great politician.  He had presided over the fracture of his father’s kingdom into much smaller bits, an outright takeover bid by new Roman Governors, and couldn’t manage to keep a lid on the intrigue in his own house let alone his kingdom.  Jesus is making fun of Herod by calling him a sly fox.  But then he continues, by referring to himself as a hen!  Foxes and henhouses, the implication is clear: Herod is out to get him.  Jesus reflects that as much of a fool as Herod might be, Jerusalem will still be his doom, even as it was the doom of all the prophets before him.

Jesus concludes his rueful reverie with yet another wordplay, this one a little more biting: “Behold, your house is forsaken, and I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

“Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  First of all Jesus is referring back to Psalm 118, one of the great liturgical psalms used in Jewish feasts, in which the whole people of God is summoned to praise the Lord, “whose mercy endureth forever.”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is one of the concluding verses of that Psalm, and serves to point the whole singing congregation towards the saving activity of God on behalf of his people.  It is one of the great summaries in Scripture of the whole purpose of the prophets.

Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.  By saying that people will not see him until they say this line, Jesus is identifying himself with that tradition of prophecy and praise.  But more than this, he is also foreshadowing his own triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In true prophetic fashion, his witty play on words serves a real predictive purpose: this is exactly the chorus that the crowds will shout on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Of course the irony, which Jesus knows all too well, is that the crowd will not crown him king except with a crown of thorns, and they will not set him on a throne but nail him to the cross.  The even deeper irony is that, though they do this to mock him, their coronation is a true one: the Lord of Glory, who comes in the Name of his Father, does reign from that tree: from that cross he works the salvation the prophets had promised, and truly is it said of him, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Jesus’ wordplay here is not just the tired and somewhat caustic commentary it initially appears to be.  His wit plays the whole prophetic and religious tradition of his people off of his own upcoming triumphal entry, passion, and crucifixion.  In a moment of sly humor, Jesus makes a wonderfully cheeky comment about his own future and the nature of his gospel.

What about you and me?  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” has some resonance for us too, just like the homesick Etonian and the line “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”  We repeat “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, whether quietly at a midweek service in the chapel, or to music at this choral mass on Sunday morning.  It comes immediately following the Sanctus, when we repeat Isaiah’s great vision of the Lord enthroned in glory with the three-times acclamation “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.”

When we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” in church we are doing two things: first, we recall the act which Jesus accomplished on our behalf upon the cross and give thanks for the salvation it works for us; and second, we also turn our attention towards the coming Eucharistic Prayer, and recognize Jesus’ presence among us under the sacramental signs of bread and wine.  In effect, we are saying,  “Thank you for what you did for us on the cross; and thank you for the nourishment we are about to receive, the fruit of that same redemption.”  Singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” locates us as recipients of God’s grace, and throws us on the Name of Jesus as the one through whom we receive it.

But this isn’t all.  There is more wordplay to offer.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  It is a witty remark by Jesus which reflects on prophetic tradition and predicts his own triumphal entry and crucifixion.  It is pithy line by which you and I remember his sacrifice and prepare to receive the ongoing nourishment of his body and blood.  But it’s not just a way of reflecting on the past and preparing for the present.  It is also an anticipation of the future.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  You and I, with all the baptized, have put on Christ as a garment by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Day by day, in Lent especially by our individual disciplines, we are being conformed to his image and growing into the fullness of his stature.  When God the Father looks at each of us on Judgement Day, He will see the likeness of his Son and the virtue of His sacrifice, not our own meager efforts.  On that day, as we enter into the joy of our Master, the whole chorus of angels will sing of each one of us, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord,” and all heaven will laugh at how well the wordplay fits for each of the redeemed.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  What am I trying to say with this whole wandering series of reflections on wordplay?  Only a very simple point, which some of you have been hearing me make all week long.  That is, that the Christian religion is not a sad or a depressing thing.  Sure we discipline our souls and bodies, especially in Lent, and of course we mourn our sins.  But the whole brilliant wonderful reason for doing all this is that, thanks to God, our sins do not have the last word, they cannot speak the last judgment against us.  The power of sin and death have been defeated by him who faced them on our behalf.  And all that’s left, he deepest truth about heaven and earth and each one of us, far deeper than our sin and failings, is the mirth, the good cheer, the laughter of God.

There’s a wonderful line in the classic film, “Becket.”  Richard Burton, playing Thomas Becket, the recently appointed new Archbishop of Canterbury (who did not go to Eton College, by the way) has just given away all his former possessions to the poor.  The Bishop of London, his more worldly friend, is scandalized by his profligacy, thinking it merely a clever political ploy to win favor with the crowds.  But Becket reassures him by laughing and saying he never felt better.  He says, “I’m simply enjoying all of this.  I’m beginning to believe he’s not a sad God after all.”

Friends, we do not serve a sad God, but one who delights in laughter and good cheer, whose abiding mirth is a far firmer foundation than anything sin and death can throw at us.  This Lent, let us rejoice to lay aside the sin that clings so close, to walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, to see all of heaven opening before us, and to say with prophets, saints, Angels, and all the redeemed, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

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

Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God…!

Collect: Almighty God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen:

This is a true story:

Once there was a very old monastery on top of a very tall mountain. It was so near the peak that some parts of the monastery had to be connected to each other by means of ancient, rickety, rope plank bridges over chasms dropping far below. The community had grown old, and they had also grown just a little bit too comfortable. One day their abbot died, and the head of their order sent a much younger replacement, a new abbot full of reforming zeal.

The young abbot worked hard to get everyone in shape, and he worked especially hard on one particular brother, who had, over the years, grown several cassock sizes larger than he had been before. This brother worked very hard, and enjoyed some success, but never enough to satisfy his new abbot.

One day, he was walking from the cloister to the chapel over one of their rope bridges, when suddenly the wood underneath his feet buckled and broke, and he fell through — only stopping from certain death by getting stuck around his middle. The monk cried out for help, and his brothers with their abbot all rushed to his aid.

When they had pulled him out of the hole and gotten to safety, the abbot said, predictably, “You see, brother! You could have lost your life, you’ve just got to get in better shape!”

The monk replied, “Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God I’m this big! Because if I were skinny like you, I’d have fallen straight through that hole!”

Everyone immediately fell to pieces laughing, and they were all much gentler with their brother from then on, the Abbot chief among them.

This is a true story, about one of the communities on Mt. Athos in Greece. I was totally charmed when I heard it, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to tell it ever since. But it’s not just a charming story: friends, I submit to you that this brother’s response is the entire fulfillment of the Law, and the heart of the Gospel. This is not some sort of fuzzy, “I’m okay, you’re okay” nonsense; gluttony is a sin after all, and this brother probably could have stood to lose a few more pounds. Rather it is about the entire orientation of our lives as the giving of thanks to God the Father, including our flaws, imperfections, and yes even our besetting sins.

In today’s Gospel, the people of Nazareth are about to toss Jesus over a cliff because they are offended at his teaching. First of all, they can’t figure out the source of his inspiration: “Where did this man get all this? Isn’t he Joseph’s son?” And second of all, what he is telling them about the prophets’ mission beyond Israel goes against the prevailing conventional wisdom of their day. They were expecting a wonder worker, since they’d heard the reports from his healings in Capernaum. They were prepared for that kind of dog and pony show. But they were not prepared to hear someone – a local, even – tell them they were all wrong, and that he would be the one to set them straight.

This scene in Nazareth, from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel is a microcosm and a foreshadowing of the rest of the Gospel, particularly as Jesus falls afoul of the Pharisees, and goes to be crucified. But if we leave it here, Jesus can look to us only like the zealous, reforming abbot, demanding more than his people are able or willing to bear. And we can see ourselves as this struggling brother, aware of his need but without much direct help except in moments of acute crisis.

In reality, you and I might very well be this poor monk, struggling with whatever it is we wish to leave behind. But Jesus is not just another reforming abbot. When the Son of God became human, he assumed all of human nature into himself, including its weaknesses and imperfections. As he went to the cross he bore the sins of the whole world. And as he died there, He completed an entire life which had consisted chiefly in giving thanks to his Heavenly Father: in his own private prayer, in his preaching, in raising Lazarus from the dead, the night before at supper and again in the garden; and then even on the cross itself he finally gave his life as a final thank-offering back to the Father. He bore an enormous burden, and yet he always gave thanks.

What about you and me? It’s awfully hard to give thanks in the midst of our various challenges. Thanking God is often the last thing that comes to mind in a particular crisis, and when it does, we often give thanks for whatever good things we can find, not for the trials themselves which we face. And yet one of the great Christian paradoxes suggests we might benefit from doing just that: “O Felix Culpa,” O Happy Fault — the Church has learned to give thanks even for the sin of Adam, because by it God has given us such a savior as to save us all from sin and death forever.

Forever. However dimly we can see ourselves now, however imperfectly we understand God’s work in our lives, however incomplete the work of grace remains in us, God in Christ has knit himself to us, and his Spirit is our life. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently remarked in an interview, “There is no competition for space between God and his creatures, no either/or. And the way for you and I to be godly is not to grasp at the perfection of Divinity but to rest in the humility of being creatures.” Jesus has shown us how, and by our baptism his righteousness becomes our own. The paradox continues: the Happy Fault leads to the Godly Creature.

When we rest in the humility of being creatures, giving thanks to God for every part of our lives, we can easily look like fools. Humility doesn’t pay out in this world, and neither does gratitude. Giving thanks and living humbly is not a recipe for fame and fortune. But it is a recipe for building relationships that encourage and sustain life. It is a recipe for living into what it means to be a human creature. And it is a recipe for catching glimpses, through the glass of our mortality, into the distant realms of God’s heavenly kingdom. We do not yet see clearly how it shall be when we get there. But we know that when it comes, we will be drawn into the perfection of His love who opened its gates once for all upon the cross.

Meanwhile, with those monks on Mount Athos, let us laugh and be gentle with one another, giving thanks to God in all things.

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

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