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 Reliability of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baptism of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejecting Spiritual Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Andrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day, 2017

This sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day at St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors 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 8:7-18, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 17:11-19

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

This year, more than in previous years, I’ve been struck by the irony of our Thanksgiving Day service here at St. Michael & St. George. What’s the irony? Well, we’re the Episcopal Church, we were founded as the American colonial branch of the Church of England. We all learned in school that the Pilgrims, in Plymouth that first Thanksgiving, came across the sea to start a new life with the freedom to practice their religion. What exactly did they want freedom from? The Church of England! So here we are, celebrating Thanksgiving Day, when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by people who were only too happy to have escaped our company. Yes, our forebears in the faith were actually the bad guys in the Pilgrims’ story. And here we are celebrating their holiday.

Of course in the meantime we’ve made it just as much our own as it was theirs, and it wasn’t until President Lincoln came along, two hundred and fifty years (or so) after the Pilgrims, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the first place. But this year I find myself reflecting on the irony all the same, especially that we were the bad guys in that story; we were the ones demanding so much uniformity in religion that the pilgrims found it intolerable in England, and escaped to the New World.

Of course there are two sides to every story, and the good guy/bad guy dynamic is never monolithic. Still it occurs to me, there may be some value, even some virtue, in hearing stories in which you and I are the bad guys.

Now that was three hundred, four hundred years ago; none of us were responsible for the scenarios in play at the time. But if we want to be heirs of our ancestors’ legacies, we also have to own their mistakes. If we want to be good, honorable beneficiaries of their successes, we also have to be humble enough to admit where they got away with things they shouldn’t have.

When I preach about the Communion of Saints, I often point out that Death is not the divide it once was; since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ the living and the dead are knit together in profound and abiding ways. That’s a great comfort to families mourning a loved one. But it’s also a double-edged sword, especially today as we rehearse stories like the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving. In the Communion of Saints, we Episcopalians are implicit in the Pilgrims having fled their homeland.

So what does that mean? Does it change the way we celebrate this holiday? Does it mean our own offerings of Thanksgiving are somehow less acceptable? Not in the least. What it does do, is to point out for us that we do not always have to be in the right; we do not always have to be the underdog; we do not always have to be the heroes in the story in order to give thanks. And in fact, it might help us give better thanks if we considered the alternative once in a while.

We have this attitude sometimes I think, that giving thanks is like any other transaction of goods for services. You give me something, and I thank you for it. And if what you’ve given me isn’t any good, then I’m under no obligation to say Thanks, let alone to be grateful. So, when we find ourselves not in a position of being the hero in the story, or of playing a different role than we thought, a different role than we’d intended, we have no idea what there is to be grateful for anymore. We may even start to feel in debt, and that is no position for thanks, only a position of weakness and vulnerability. Who gives thanks for liabilities, or bad credit, or criminal records?

Why on earth should Episcopalians give thanks on Thanksgiving Day, when our forebears are the ones who kicked out the Puritans, the ones who lost the English Civil War, who lost the American Revolution, and found themselves continually at odds with prevailing national currents? Even today there are plenty of people who are keen to paint us as the bad guys both of history and of current events. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong; only that these are stories people tell, and it’s hard to be full of thanks when they are not the stories we’d want to tell about ourselves.

But if we find it difficult to give thanks in these circumstances, I suggest we might have the wrong attitude about Thanksgiving in the first place. It is NOT a transaction of goods for services. It is NOT a reward for good behavior. It is NOT about feeling blessed by my own good fortune. It is NOT about being the hero, or even the teller of my own story. Rather, for Christians — Christians of any stripe, whether Episcopalian, Pilgrim, or otherwise — Thanksgiving is the humility to recognize where we fall short, the humility to see the holes in our favorite stories about ourselves, to take stock of our failures, moral and otherwise; and Thanksgiving is the decision not to stand on my own ego but only on the forgiveness and the providence of God. Thanksgiving, for the Christian, is the humility to recognize our shortcomings, and the decision to stand only on God’s forgiveness and providence.

Every farmer knows the mistakes that get made every season, and every farmer knows the miracle of harvest regardless. The act of Thanksgiving teaches every Christian not to rely on my own wisdom, my own accomplishment, but only on God’s forgiveness, and on God’s providence, to provide for those whom he loves regardless of their deserving. Because the critical piece is not my success, my deserving, or my good fortune; not my good reputation, my bank account, my clear record, or my party platform, but only the love of God. The critical piece is only the love of God, love both for me, and for the one who thinks I’m the bad guy.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s you and I give thanks to God, that in his infinite sense of humor he puts Episcopalians and Pilgrims in the same country to figure it out, and muddle through together. And let’s give thanks, that despite the continuous ways we screw up, despite the stories we like and the stories we don’t, that God loves us still; that Christ offers himself for us still; and that in this way we are being brought beyond history, beyond its winners and losers, its story-tellers and its victims, to be remade in the image and glory of God, finally what we were meant to be: creatures of thanksgiving at all times, and in all places, for all persons, and in all love.

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

All Saints, 2017

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 5, 2017, at CSMSG. It was the Sunday after All Saints, and in the morning we kept this feast; in the evening we offered a requiem for All Souls, and Evensong in commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

Collect: Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give 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 the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Revelation 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

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

Recently I was talking with one of our college students, who was in the middle of what he described as some pretty intense “tunnel vision.” This is pressure time in schools, as deadlines begin to loom and students and faculty both start to run out of runway as far as the calendar is concerned. This student was telling me that all he could see at the moment was the next thing right in front of him. He didn’t have the time or the emotional energy for anything else. It was just, read this, write that, wake up and do it all over again.

I told him I admired his dedication, but he was quick to correct me — “I don’t,” he said. “I wish I could get out of this tunnel vision, I wish I had time to look around and notice what else is happening in my life. As it is my my cousin is getting married, my mother started a new job, my friends are planning their summer internships, and my roommate is an art major planning his senior show. I can’t keep up with any of it, I can’t go to the wedding, I don’t think I can even be there to support my roommate. It feels like it’s more than I can manage just to do my own work. How am I supposed to do everything else too?”

I tried to tell him there was light at the end of that tunnel, but I still felt duly chastened, as you might expect. We finished our meeting, and presumably at this moment somewhere he’s working away trying to finish everything on his plate.

But he got me thinking. How do we find a balance? How do we sustain the tension between small tasks and the big picture? Usually, it takes getting clear about the mission, doing what it takes to carry it forward, and convincing ourselves that it’s okay for the moment to let the other things slide. This is just part of emotional maturity, part of getting on in this world. It carries the added bonus of helping to shape the way each of us is unique, as we learn to offer certain talents and skills in specifically experienced and targeted ways.

Sometimes, though, and maybe more often that we’d like to admit, it’s easy to forget that we’ve adopted tunnel vision in the first place. It’s easy to start seeing our own lives, our own responsibilities, the tasks right in front of us demanding our attention, as the whole picture, in and of themselves. We forget there’s a world beyond our own responsibilities, a world beyond our own loyalties and relationships, a world beyond our own limited sense of what’s important right now.

The problem with this is twofold. First the obvious, if we mistake our own tunnel vision for the whole world, we can be hopelessly out of touch with the real needs and concerns of the world we ostensibly want to be a part of. Second, though, and more subtly, our tunnel vision can lead us into despair, like it was threatening to do with this student. “I can’t possibly do everything that I want to do. Which means I’m also prevented from living up to the vision I had for my life in the first place, prevented from engaging in all these life-giving relationships, prevented from participating in all that life promises.” And once this kind of thinking sets in, it can set itself against any kind of meaningful work at all. “If there’s no hope, then why bother in the first place? And if I can’t manage my own life, why should I bother putting any faith in institutions, or religions, or God? Surely they can’t be any better at navigating life than I am.” Which of course is simply more tunnel thinking, taken to its logical conclusion.

What this all reveals is that tunnel vision is extremely insidious. Its whole line of reasoning accomplishes nothing except to reduce, further and further, the horizons of possibility, creativity, and love, until all we’re left with is my own present moment, disconnected from everything except mere survival.

Enter the feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate one of the principal holidays of the Christian year. We don’t commemorate any particular saint, or make any special remembrances of individual lives. What we do is celebrate that, thanks be to God, the Church is anything but tunnel vision; that the Christian Church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment in time.

No tunnel vision here, the horizon is wide open, past the limits of knowledge, sense, and time. We celebrate today all the saints whom we will name in the litany, all those whom we don’t have time to name, and all those whose names no one knows except God alone. Today we celebrate the whole Church in Paradise and on earth, visible and invisible, from the dawn of time and at from its close, in every corner of the globe and every circle of heaven: all here, now, in this celebration. Are you suffering from tunnel vision? The feast of All Saints offers a strong wind of fresh air.

We don’t have the whole picture, none of us can in our lifetimes. We are always limited by our own experience, our own strengths, our own weaknesses. We are always afflicted by our own particular troubles and the troubles of our time. But the Church is bigger than our tunnels. God is bigger than my vision. And no matter how heavily populated or richly embellished my idea of heaven becomes, there is always more to it than I can see, further up and deeper into the glory of God.

So what does that mean? On the one hand, we must lay down the burden, the presumption, of needing to grasp the whole picture, or of needing to live the whole picture myself, of needing to be all things to all people. And on the other, remember that when we are caught in whatever tunnel dominates the moment — whether it be school or kids or performance or success or health or worthy causes or whatever — remember that this tunnel is not the whole world; that more is out there, more is waiting, more is unfolding all the time. And by our baptism, in Christ, we are made a part of it.

By our baptism, each of us has one foot on earth and one in heaven; one foot in the present, and one in eternity. One foot in church this morning at St. Michael & St. George, and the other with St. Francis in 12th century Assisi; with St. Theresa in the slums of 20th century Calcutta; with St. Anthony Abbot in the 3rd century Egyptian desert; and with Our Lady herself as she kneels at her prayers, surprised by the arrival of the archangel Gabriel.

This is not only a matter of retrospection, of us looking back; but from their perspective as they looked forward: they could not have imagined who we are, but as they lived their lives, we were there with them, not yet born but still a member of the same mystical communion, the Body of Christ. Here in church we are all bound up in one another; we continue to stand at the cross with Mary and John, even as we also walk alongside whatever unknown generations will follow us; even as all the saints and angels now in heaven stand with us here this morning.

The best illustration I know is in one of the novels of Charles Williams. A soldier, miserable in the trenches of World War I, looks up from his post to see an angel arriving to strengthen him — at the exact moment, 50 years later, that a little girl says a prayer to remember the grandfather she never knew, who was to die in the action to follow.

The nature of our lives here on earth means that we will always be navigating various tunnels. They are the condition of our mortality, and there is nothing we can do to avoid them. We will always be turning down opportunities and possibilities in favor of the present moment with its own needs and demands. We cannot always see the payoff of the work we do, the hopes we cherish, or the prayers we offer. We cannot always see how we remain connected to the whole, amid the pressures and challenges we face. And yet, in the economy of God, these tunnels are not traps, not prisons, any more than Jesus’ own tomb was a trap or a prison.

Rather for us they are an occasion, an invitation, when the walls begin to close in, to reach out beyond our present capacity, beyond our ability to see or know or do, and rest. Rest in the great company of saints united across all creation. Rest in the Holy Spirit who even now breaks into our world and feeds us with the Bread of Heaven. Rest in the simple prayer of a faithful heart to be led one step at a time.

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

Rendering to Caesar

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on October 22, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Trinity. It was the last week of hearing “Stewardship Testimonials,” parishioners offering a brief reflection of why they give, in advance of our “Pledge Sunday” when we receive pledges of support for the next year. This year the lectionary offered one of the most classic, and notorious, passages on giving – Jesus getting pigeonholed by the Pharisees about whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. My sermon tried to reframe the question around the larger matter of Duty, as contrasted with Generosity; which could just as easily have been preached on the similar passage, “A man cannot have two masters; you cannot serve both God and mammon.”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

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

Yesterday, October 21, marked the two hundred and twelfth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. If you know the story you’ll remember it was one of the most significant battles in western history. Napoleon was busy seizing control of Europe, and planned for his coup d’grace a massive invasion of Great Britain. He had assembled both the French and Spanish navies, and had given orders to his admirals to sail their ships north for the final moment. But just as the French and Spanish fleets had gathered, the English Admiral Lord Nelson, with his own officers and ships managed to catch them in port. Though he was outmanned and outgunned, he drew them out and defeated the entire combined fleet without losing a single ship of his own. The war continued on for the next decade, but Napoleon never again attempted an invasion of England, and for that matter could never again challenge England at sea. The British became the world’s dominant naval power (and consequently imperial power) for nearly the next one and a half centuries.

Part of the mystique and pathos of the battle was that Nelson himself was shot and killed in the action. His body was preserved in brandy and was returned to England months later, where it was received with great pomp and circumstance and laid to rest in the chief place of honor in the crypt beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His last words to the fleet came by signal up the mast of his flagship, in the final minutes before the battle began. He told them, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” It became a slogan of sorts, even a national motto, for the understated, dutiful, and noble disciple to do what is required in matters of great urgency and danger. “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

It’s a great story and a thrilling moment. But why do I tell it this morning? Because, for all his heroism and legend, I think Nelson might have sympathized somewhat with the question the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” What is our duty toward the state, given our other personal loyalties? It’s worth remembering, the Pharisees, for all their appearance as “The Bad Guys” in the Gospels, were actually keenly interested in doing their duty, both by God and by their fellow countrymen. They weren’t exactly happy paying homage to Caesar, but for the most part they did not support rebellion against the Romans; and for that matter they were happy even to make friends with them if it meant they could gain influence and authority. 

For the Pharisees there was something about Jesus’ preaching that seemed seditious to them, unpredictable, unstable, as if it aimed at subverting the status quo, or any productive way forward for religion and society. So they try to trap him in a question about duty. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It’s a carefully designed entrapment, so that whether Jesus replies “Yes,” or “No,” they can accuse him of not doing his duty, either to Caesar or to the God whom he calls Father.

But Jesus, typically, sees through the entrapment. The question is not really about taxes, or about the law. Rather it reveals an important underlying assumption about the people to whom Jesus is preaching, and presents him with a golden opportunity to articulate and correct their error. The question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” is fundamentally about duty. What ought we do in order to fulfill our obligations? The problem that Jesus identifies is with the notion that duty is what faith is about in the first place; with the idea that fulfilling our obligations is the end, the point of sufficiency, when we achieve what we owe and are rewarded with our just desert; and when we can get on with doing what we really want to do now that the box is checked and our duty is done. 

Jesus’ reply cuts them to the quick. It cuts because it forces them to think first, what is it exactly that Caesar claims? In the Roman world, Caesar claimed not only taxes but absolute loyalty as well, to himself, the son of a god. At Caesar’s behest the empire took land and life as it willed, and was not obligated to recognize either rights or even personhood of anyone who wasn’t Roman. In short, Caesar claims everything for his own. And yet faith asserts that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, “The sea and all that is in it,” and he demands much, much more than Caesar. If Caesar already gets everything, what’s left for God? In the question of parsing out duties, the Pharisees had come up with a vast series of pragmatic compromises to keep both Caesar and God happy. But Jesus’ reply articulates the tension between God and Caesar in its starkest possible terms, and makes it clear that duty simply cannot resolve all the demands placed upon it.

I can’t help but think that Jesus, in his reply, is also offering a little foreshadowing, a hint at things to come in his own life. In only a few short chapters, Jesus himself will render to Caesar exactly what Caesar demands: his own life, on top of his dignity. What could there be left to render to God on the cross? 

If Jesus were interested only in fulfilling his duty, Caesar would have everything, and there would be nothing left for God. But in rendering to Caesar all that Caesar demands, Jesus reveals that there is one thing Caesar cannot claim, and that is what Jesus renders to God. Caesar can take what Caesar wants. But he cannot steal what is freely given. He cannot conquer what is freely offered. He cannot rule what is freely delivered. Jesus goes to the cross at Caesar’s demand. But hanging there he offers his life to God, offers his forgiveness to his tormentors, offers his love to Mary and John and his compassion to the thief hanging next to him; and in the end he gives his spirit into the hands of his Father. Jesus goes to the cross to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But he conquers the cross by rendering to God what is God’s, even in the moment of his own death. And that free gift, indomitable, conquers the grave.

Caesar can demand what Caesar likes. But in his free gift of himself, Jesus establishes a new economy, a new kingdom, which reveals the insufficiency of mere duty, and invites you and me to do likewise: to give ourselves, in whatever circumstances we face, to the fullest extent we possibly can.

What does that mean? It means that duty is not sufficient. The minimum is not good enough. The requirements demanded by Caesar and by everything else in our lives will always be more than we can meet, no matter how many resources are at our disposal, no matter how small or great our capacity to obey. So what hope is there? How is Jesus’s witty reply Good News for us? Because the cross is where we see what it really means. And what it means is this: that no matter how small your gift, if freely given, in the moment of its giving, you will join with Christ in his victory over death: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” he says to the thief, and to you and me. Any gift given, whether time, talent, treasure, affection, or compassion, when given for the sake of giving and not for the satisfaction of fulfilling obligations, launches its giver into the priesthood of Christ himself — the central mystery of the cosmos, in which the gift of everything back to God results in the creation, the healing, and the fulfillment of all things.

“England expects that every man will do his duty.” But Nelson himself did much more: by putting his own ship in the front of the battle, and commanding his troops from the deck rather than from safety, he put himself in a position to pay for his extravagance with his life. He is remembered as one of the greatest heroes of this or any age. 

How you decide to give your own life is a question that only you can answer. You and I will probably not be remembered like Nelson. You and I will probably not be remembered at all, in the grand sweep of things. And yet, by giving ourselves away in the small and uncertain moments of our small and uncertain lives, we participate in the gift of Christ himself upon the cross, and we bear witness to the final, enduring freedom of the Kingdom of God — no matter the demands placed on us by duty or our ability to fulfill them.

The measure we give will be the measure we receive, not the measure we pay, not the measure we save. Let us therefore freely give and forgive, that in rendering to God what is God’s we might receive our own freedom, and our own life besides.

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

Why?

This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017, at CSMSG. This year every week seems to bring with it some new disaster, some new crisis of faith, and this week especially with the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. In this context it’s all the more natural to ask “Why?” especially of God – but one of the perennial troubles is that God is not always forthcoming with an answer. This sermon is an attempt to point the way towards a specifically Christian response to the matters at hand, as well as to the larger question of faith and suffering.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who live the and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

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

I’ll never forget, in the first weeks of being ordained a deacon (I wasn’t a priest yet) I went to the hospital with my father to see my grandmother. She had just undergone a complicated procedure for pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis which had taken her — and all of us — completely by surprise. Most of my dad’s four siblings were in Grandma’s room with us, and we were all talking quietly while she slept off the residue of the anesthesia. One of them asked me point blank, knowing I’d just been ordained, “So all right Blake, now tell us why this happened.” I confess I was at a total loss for words. I’m sure I mumbled something unsatisfying, and the conversation carried on.

Or another case, years before: a friend of mine committed suicide after graduating from college, after suffering through depression and various family issues for years. In his last email to me before jumping in front of a train, he said the one thing that troubled him the most, was “Why anything at all?” Not just, “Why is there bad in the world?” or, “Why is there good?” but, “Why is there anything at all?” He’d grown up a person of faith, but something about that particular moment in his life prevented him from seeing any reason at all behind any of the things he was facing. There was no satisfactory answer I could give.

The last time I preached, Houston was in the middle of historic flooding after Hurricane Harvey. In the few weeks since, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria have both hit, and we’ve just had yet another record-setting public shooting, this time in Las Vegas. “Why” is still the question on my mind, and I’m sure it’s an important question for many of you too — whether about these specific incidents or something else you might be facing. Are there any answers to be had from Christian faith? And if none are finally satisfying, why should we bother in the first place?

This is where the parables in the Gospel, and actually the whole Gospel itself, really begins to shift us out of our comfortable patterns of thought. In today’s parable about the vineyard and the wicked tenants, Jesus is telling a parable about himself, among other things. He is the son in the parable, who willingly goes to the tenants, and gets killed by them. Why on earth is this the way it works? We don’t know, though we’ve spent the last two thousand years coming up with one theory after another about why it has to be this way. The son gets killed by the tenants in the Gospel parable. The Son of God gets killed by those he comes to save in the Gospel. Why does it have to be this way?

You may know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian in the Second World War, who refused to collaborate with the Nazi state and found himself in a prison camp, where he was executed mere days before the Allies liberated it. In the letters he wrote from prion, he observed that asking why was always the wrong question, because it revealed two flawed assumptions. First, asking why is the wrong question because it assumes that knowledge will always fix things; and second, because it assumes the chief function of God is to satisfy our curiosity. The problem with this first is that knowledge simply doesn’t always fix things; more often than not it creates further problems of its own. And second of all, if God exists merely to satisfy our curiosity, then God can be dethroned in our hearts by anything that offers a more enticing or convincing explanation. This is the heart of all the so-called “Science and Religion” debates. If God exists to offer explanations, and if science offers a more detailed account of how atoms work (or whatever), what reason is there for holding the doctrine of creation?

But this is not what God is for, this is not what doctrine is about. God is not here just to offer explanations for thorny questions, questions about either the nature of reality or the painful experience of suffering. Jesus did not take on human flesh in order to answer our questions or to give us a satisfying “Why.” Instead, he came to cast a vision, and to live it out to its end: a vision where the Son of God shows up in our world not as the enforcer of some kind of divine fairness, or the all-knowing oracle who untangles all knots — in our parable today the son does not successfully demand anything out of those tenants, or convincingly explain to them their error. No. The Christian vision is where God himself shows up and gets murdered; where Jesus shows up in the world he made, and reveals himself not the enforcer but the victim; the Victim whose offering of himself on the cross breaks the whole economy of death and bridges the chasm between heaven and earth. For Jesus there is no answer to suffering, except to suffer it himself, and in so doing establish the victory of life over death, out of which victory he brings healing to the nations and to your heart and mine.

This is the paradox, the mystery at the heart of Christian belief: that in suffering, in loss, in pain, injustice, and unfairness, somehow God is present and heaven is near: not as the solution to a problem, not as the explanation, not as the cause, but as the victim, whose death breaks the power of death forever, and whose life is the source, the pattern, and the guarantor of all human flourishing and joy.

No, Christian faith does not answer any questions. It does however question us: do we really want to embrace the vision which Jesus casts? Do we really want to live in a world where the Son of God is the victim and not the cavalry; the suffering servant and not the righteous landowner? Do we really want to live in a world where the last are first, and I might not get what I have coming to me after all? Do we really want to live in a world where justice and righteousness and even law itself do not avail but only mercy, weakness, and love? Do we really want to live in a world where the meek inherit the earth, and where the rest of us will have to be content with a backseat when it comes to the priorities of God?

Make no mistake, this is not a satisfying answer, logically or rhetorically. And yet it is the answer which God offers, both in today’s parable and in the Cross. If the Cross is an answer at all, it is the answer to a question no one is asking. It doesn’t answer our “Why?” to Harvey or Irma or Maria. It doesn’t explain Stephen Paddock, pancreatic cancer, depression, suicide, or Bonhoeffer’s Nazi captors. But the God who is last, who puts himself into the breach and suffers the consequences he neither asked for nor deserved — this God is our God, whom we worship here this morning and whose table we will approach in a few moments.

No this is not a satisfying answer. But somehow I think we intuit that it might be the correct answer. We are always moved to see the photos of people shielding one another from bullets with their own bodies. We sense something deeply right about this, even while we know the cost is too much to pay; and it helps with sketching out the only response the Gospel offers. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is never to fight fire with fire; never to come up with reasons why it must have been the will of God; never finally even to pass or repeal legislation. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is to step into the breach with our own lives after the pattern of our Lord — and find, when the darkness closes in, that a Light shines there which the darkness cannot comprehend. In this way Heaven continually breaks into our world from within, not standing offering explanation or escape from without.

This is the only way the Gospel could be Good News to my grandmother. At that point there was no stopping the cancer. It could only be what it was, while the rest of us could only sit and watch in dismay. There was nothing anyone could do to fix it. Yet in her own quiet way, even as she slept in that hospital room, she gave the answer I could not offer. In her graceful dying, concerned only for the well-being of her family, she bore witness to Christ himself on the cross giving Mary and John into each other’s care; and, finding Jesus there in the midst of her dying, there is no question that he himself carried her home.

So, if you find the vision compelling and you really do want to be a part of the Christian response to the suffering in our world — don’t try to explain it, or offer some kind of half-baked solution that only makes yourself feel better and does no justice either to those who are suffering or to the God who claims them for his own. Rather, if you want to offer a specifically Christian response, put yourself in the way of heaven; put your own life into the breach. Let heaven break into the world, into your heart, from within; not reserving it to judgement or escape from without. Go where life is most threatened, most vulnerable, in the world and in your own soul. There, say with Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And find: that, embracing the God who is last and least, the victim of all earthly powers, his strength will transfigure your weakness, his death will transfigure your life into his own eternal love.

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

No time to waste

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 9, 2017 (13th after Pentecost) at CSMSG. It was Labor Day weekend, and Hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc in Houston and elsewhere as it made landfall. Meanwhile I’ve just started reading some of the works of the late Rev. Dr. John Hughes, an English priest and theologian, one of whose scholarly concerns was to articulate an Anglican “theology of work” as inseparable from worship, love, and joy. It’s a version of one of his theses that I offer as the resolution to this sermon.

Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

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

“There’s no time to lose!” There certainly isn’t in Houston. The Red Cross, Episcopal Relief and Development FEMA, and scores of other helping organizations are partnering with thousands of local churches, groups, and individuals to help with the flooding. The damage is enormous. There have been other disasters, but as crises always are, this one is immediate and life-threatening for many, and life-altering for countless more. In this moment of great need, there is no time to waste.

For St. Paul too this morning, there is no time to waste. I don’t know about you, but I’m breathless after reading the long “to-do list” he writes in today’s passage from Romans: no less than thirty commands give the Romans, and we ourselves, marching orders from Paul. There’s no time to waste: from “Let love be genuine,” to “weep with those who weep,” to “feed your enemies,” and everything in between. The scope of the work is overwhelming. Any one of these commands might take us an entire lifetime to achieve. We’d better get started, there’s not a moment to lose.

It’s not just the number of commands either, but the nature of what Paul tells us. The first on the list is hard enough: “Let love be genuine.” Who among us hasn’t ever said ‘Thank You,’ or ‘Have A Nice Day,’ through gritted teeth? And yet not just one, but thirty. I don’t know what’s on your to-do list, if it’s anything like mine you’ve got enough to do already to take you all the way through this life and well into the next. But the stakes here are high. “Overcome evil with good.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” 

If we allow these commands to govern our lives, we find ourselves on a completely different footing than the one we’re used to doing business on. The insult your mother-in-law shot your way; the way your friends or coworkers take advantage of you; even that rude driver in the other lane who can’t seem to merge at the right time; you’re just going to have to turn the other cheek. Because there is no time to waste. We are citizens of a higher country, a heavenly one. According to the rules of that country, turning the other cheek is not a sign of weakness but an offering of love, which refuses to demonize even the demons, and allows Life the final word — not death, corruption, or decay. We are not given enough time on this earth to waste it holding grudges or worshiping idols, whatever your favorite idols might be. There’s no time to waste. Get busy already!

And yet: If you’ve ever been in a position to volunteer in a crisis, whether for a natural disaster or a loved one’s illness or something else, you’ll have discovered an important truth — that even the most acute crises make for a lot of waiting around. The patient’s family waits for the surgeon to finish. The surgeon waits for the patient to emerge from anesthesia. The patient waits for the doctors and the body to do their work of healing. Volunteers wait for deliveries of sandbags. Delivery drivers wait for the next convoy. And so on. And the moment when you’re standing there feeling like you’re there, and you ought to be doing something already, is often the moment when most you are.

Sick people recall first not how busy the nurses were, but how attentive they were and how kind. Flood victims recall first not how efficient the relief agency was but the way they paid attention to them and their needs as if they were the only people on earth. Sure, work has to get done, and fast, no mistaking that. But in the final analysis, so often it’s the time spent waiting around, seemingly wasting time, that proves the most meaningful, the most restorative, on a personal level.

Love is a lot like that. Love doesn’t grow by tasks accomplished or any other kind of efficiency metric. It grows by two people wasting time with each other. Not treating the other as anything other than themselves: not as a means to an end, or a tool for my own gratification, but by simply wasting time with each other. Prayer is like that too: wasting time with God. So is the whole incarnation of Jesus Christ: the Son of God comes to earth in order to waste time with us lousy people, who were just as easily distracted then as we are today. 

By any metric, Jesus’s incarnation was neither busy nor efficient. He spent thirty-three years on earth and only three of those in ministry of any recognizable kind. The “converts” he made in his lifetime all either betrayed or abandoned him at the cross. Jesus came to earth to waste time with you and me, and in the process to consecrate time itself to his use, to his glory, forever. He went to the cross to consecrate even death to the purposes of Love, and ascended into heaven that you and I might waste time with him there too.

So we’re left with a problem. On the one hand, there’s no time to waste: we’d better get cracking if we’re going to live up to our identities as Christians, and accomplish all that that entails. That’s no joke. And yet on the other hand, not wasting time any time toward that end, will require us to be okay with wasting time.

Or, put it another way. We’re used to thinking of Work and Rest as being opposed to one another. But in the Kingdom of God, they are not opposed, they converge. Work and Rest converge in the worship of Almighty God, and in his kingdom’s economy of love. For Christians, Work and Rest converge in the worship of Almighty God, and in his kingdom’s economy of love.

The work we are called to is to waste time loving God, our neighbors, our enemies, and each other. The promise is that we will find the time we waste in this way drawing into eternity, opening windows on earth into heaven.

So, here we are. It’s a Sunday morning, we’re all in church. The world is falling down around our ears in different ways every week. So what’s new? There’s no time to waste, not a moment to lose. Let’s quit acting surprised by it all and do something already. Say your prayers. Come to the altar. Be fed with the bread of heaven. And get busy wasting time with God and one another, loving in whatever material, emotional, or spiritual way you can muster. Take up your cross, lose your life for Jesus’ sake — your reputation too, your influence, whatever you most like to hoard — and find those windows onto heaven have become your own home, and the work of God has become your own rest.

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

At the crossroads of silence and noise

A sketch of the Crucifixion, by St. John of the Cross, c. 1550.

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday morning, August 13, 2017, at 8am and 10am. It came at the end of an eventful week in our national public discourse, with tensions increasing in North Korea and a shockingly open display of racism and hate in Charlottesville VA — while for me in our own parish it was a week more than usually concerned with death and dying, and fallout from the breakdown of relationships. I did not write this sermon as a direct response to any of these concerns, but as a reflection on the nature of specifically Christian peace under the growing shadow of so much that seems to threaten it. Meanwhile, as the world continues to mark various WWI centenaries, war poet Wilfred Owen’s “At A Calvary Near the Ancre” keeps echoing in my head. This was one of those Sundays where the appointed lectionary texts were perfectly suited to this kind of timely reflection, and the music was very much in tune with the theme. The choir sang a recent setting of John Henry Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light,” while hymns included At The Name Of Jesus and How Firm A Foundation.

Collect: Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

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

“Can’t you just give me some peace and quiet?!” “It’ll be so nice to have the kids out of the house, we’ll have the place to ourselves again.” “I can’t wait to get back to back to school, I’ll finally have my parents out of my hair.” “I’ll miss my husband on his trip, but it sure will be nice to have some more quiet in the house.” “The neighbors are so noisy,” “The television is so noisy,” “Why can’t it ever be quiet?”

If you’re like me, or like most of the human race for that matter, you’ve probably said something like this before, at least to yourself or under your breath. Quiet is one of those things we long for, maybe now more than ever. The retreat industry is booming, monastic vocations are growing, as we all begin to see the health and spiritual benefits of shutting up for a little while.

And yet, even as Quiet starts to become big business, there seems to be less and less of it to go around. Everywhere noise fills the space. In a world of 24 hour news and social media, the only cardinal sin is to have nothing to say. In a world of 24 hour market cycles, the only mortal offense is not to be busy. And when we do manage to escape, we find ways to fill the silence on our own. 

The truth is we’re uncomfortable with quiet. At a public event, if the speaker pauses for too long shuffling papers, we all get nervous; if they take too long drinking from their water glass the audience breaks into a sweat. What if they lose their place? What if the words stop? Even when we’re alone, we put on music, or turn on the radio or tv, anything to avoid the silence we so desperately long for.

Why? Why are we so terrified of the silence, but so drawn to it all the same? My best guess is that silence, for all its prospect of relief, is also when the demons come out. Quietness presents us with nothing but ourselves for company. We are faced with all our worry, all our wounds, all the darkest parts of our natures, and it makes us feel vulnerable and afraid.

It’s easy to criticize someone who self-medicates with drugs or booze, especially if we don’t share the temptation. It’s much harder to see, much harder to admit when we self-medicate with constant noise, constant distraction. But self-medicating is exactly what we’re doing, protecting ourselves against the silence that both menaces and entices us.

The prophet Elijah knew something about both the enticement and the menace of silence. He flees to Sinai in today’s lesson, because he is afraid for his life: Ahab and Jezebel both want to kill him for exposing the prophets of Baal in their lies. Elijah flees their persecution, flees to the solitude and safety of Mt. Sinai, where God had visited his people centuries before, to speak with Moses and deliver the law. 

Elijah goes there to escape the chaos, to escape the threats on his life. But, truth be told, he goes to mope a little too: he goes to complain to God about how alone he feels and how overwhelming it all is, how “those people” he’s working with are just the worst. God’s answer is to send a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, each of them greater and more impressive than the last, while God himself does not appear in any of them. When Elijah hears a whisper, a still, small voice, then he knows, instinctively, to cover his face, for God is finally present.

Why does God go through all the trouble with the earthquake and the fire? As if to say, ‘Elijah, whatever you are going through, whatever chaos you face, there is something beyond it all, something unaffected by all the uncertainty and the fear, and that something is God.’ Go to Mt. Sinai, enter the quiet cleft in the rock, face the demons that come out, but press through to the silence that cannot be harmed by them, press through to the presence that refreshes even as it sends us back out into the fray. That silence, that presence is God, whose peace passeth understanding. When Elijah spends time with God listening to that still, small voice, he is encouraged and strengthened for the rest of his ministry. And such a remarkable ministry it is that when it concludes he is taken to heaven, bodily, in the chariot of fire.

Today’s Gospel offers another example. Jesus has been alone at prayer all evening, after dismissing the 5000 he’s just fed. The disciples have gone ahead in the boat, and Jesus prays in silence alone. (Enjoy the irony here! Jesus, the eternal Word of God, silent in prayer.) He looks up, sees down the hill across the water to his disciples, struggling in the boat against the wind and waves. He walks to them on the sea. When they see him coming they’re even more afraid, but he assures them he’s not a ghost. He bids Peter come to meet him, walking on the waves, and Peter does.

It’s a remarkable moment: Jesus, fresh from his moment of communion with the Father, extends that same peace, that same assurance even to Peter in the midst of the storm; and Peter is so encouraged by it that he walks on the sea to meet Jesus. 

But somehow the spell breaks. Peter looks down and sees the wind. He sees the rain, the waves, he loses his balance, he starts to sink, he cries out for help. Jesus himself of course is undisturbed by Peter’s trouble, but in the very moment Peter cries for help, Jesus grasps his hand. 

Then they’re in the boat, the wind stops, and the disciples are in awe. But pause for a moment on the sea, at the instant where Peter grasps Jesus’ hand. Poor Peter – of course he’s terrified, there is every reason to be: the wind is strong, the waves are tall, and suddenly he realizes, ‘Wait, I’m walking on the sea! Who thought this was a good idea? What am I doing? Help!’ Jesus grasps his hand.

Peter is in terror, quite rightly afraid for his life. And Jesus grasps his hand. There is no mistaking it, Peter is in immediate, grave, mortal peril. And yet, with Jesus grasping his hand, there is no place on earth or in heaven that is safer or stronger or more stable.

Peter goes out into the sea to meet Jesus and quickly realizes he’s facing all his worst fears and the very real possibility of failure and death, as the waves threaten to swallow him whole. But what he meets there in all the noise and chaos is the deep quiet of the wellspring of eternal life, which grabs hold of him and saves him.

There is another moment in the Gospel where all the demons of silence and noise duke it out. That moment is the cross, where Jesus himself faces all the weapons of death, all the storms of anguish and despair. As he gives up his spirit and descends to the dead, he carries with him the inexhaustible peace of God — which all hell cannot endeavor to shake, though all hell surely tries, and is undone in the process.

Here is one of the central paradoxes of the Gospel: Hell itself, Pandemonium with all its demons, is finally defeated, broken down, not by frontal assault; not by subterfuge, sanctions, or diplomacy; but by Peace itself, crucified and dressed in bloody rags, simply walking through its doors and out again, leading its captives free.

So what am I saying? When you or I feel overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of this life, turn off the TV. Look for the silence, for God, who is beyond it. But don’t be fooled: as Elijah discovered, there is no safety in hiding out. As Peter discovered, there are no guarantees even when we go to meet God. Whatever winds, waves, earthquakes, fires or demons we face in this world follow us into the silence, follow us wherever we try to escape, and we will face them there all the more directly, all the more fully. They will make us feel threatened and afraid, and with Peter we can’t be sure whether the waves won’t swallow us alive.

But whatever demons our silence or escape reveal, resist the temptation to self-medicate. Resist the temptation to turn the TV back on, to restore the flow of our favorite anesthetic chatter. Instead of reaching for the remote, reach for the Cross, where our anchor holds no matter the storms without or within. 

Let the one who hangs there be your still point in this turning world. He is the one we come to, waiting for us, at every crossroads we reach. He looks desolate and alone, but his cross is the seat of all majesty and power. Our way is non-linear. We get lost, we screw up, we disappoint, we don’t live up to our potential, we don’t know where to turn. But strangely, mysteriously, his cross is always near at hand. I cannot tell you what will happen when you approach it, what he will say to you, or what you will become. But I do know one thing for certain: as you look up, and your eyes meet, your whole world will shatter, and you will be made new.

As we wander amidst the noise, and fire, and fury of our lives, we face only one question. Will we stop, will we look up, to regard the one hanging at the crossroads? Will we let everything else fall away? Will we choose his peace over all the noise and distraction? Only then will we share his victory of life over death, only then will the demons retreat to their broken lairs.

“And mercy and truth will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other; and his glory will dwell in our land.”

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