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"

You are the salt of the earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Day 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Saints (and all votes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrestling with God

The following sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, October 16, 2016, the 21st Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 22/Proper 24).

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 Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

“And Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:

Our passage from Genesis this morning is one of my favorite episodes in the Old Testament, partly because it is so strange, and seems to come out of nowhere. (Maybe that says more about me than it does about Jacob, but still, it’s one of my favorites).

Jacob is returning home after fourteen years’ sojourn with his kinsman Laban. He has gotten married, twice, and amassed a large family and personal fortune. As he gets closer and closer to home, he gets more and more worried about his brother Esau. Remember Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright, and promptly ran away. This is his first return home since then, and naturally he’s worried about his reception. So he sends gifts to Esau ahead of the caravan, and then sends the family on ahead to spend the last night of the journey alone.  

Why does he send them on ahead? Is he cowardly, wanting to put as many bodies as possible between himself and his potentially murderous older brother? Is it somehow to protect them, with distance between himself and the people he cares about? We’re unsure, the text doesn’t say. At any rate, as soon as they’re gone and Jacob is settling down for the night, a stranger appears out of nowhere and attacks Jacob. They wrestle all night long, neither of them getting the upper hand, until morning — and as day is breaking, the stranger touches Jacob’s thigh and puts it out of joint so he can get away.

Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, and the stranger certainly plays it that way, giving Jacob a new name in the way that God seems prone to do now and then. “Your name shall now be Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” The dawn breaks, Jacob goes on his way, and finds his brother not murderous at all but overjoyed to see him again.

It is a strange episode. Is it a dream? Why did the stranger resort to these semi-miraculous means putting Jacob’s thigh out of joint in order to get away? If the stranger is indeed God himself, it certainly looks like God is prepared to cheat in order to win this wrestling match. As Genesis proceeds, we don’t really get any answers about this event. Jacob enters the Promised Land and follows in the steps of his forbears, becoming a great Patriarch, father to the twelve tribes of Israel; though he walks with a limp for the rest of his life.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt as though you were wrestling with God, or even that God seems to be cheating to get the better of you? At morning prayer over the last few weeks we’ve been reading through the book of Job. Now there is a man who has spent a long time wrestling with God: facing suffering he didn’t deserve, with friends whose easy answers tended to make things worse rather than better. Job doesn’t get any answers either, even worse for him since God himself shows up, unmistakably, and refuses point blank to answer the questions Job asks. Like Jacob, at the end he seems to come out better for having wrestled with God, but I have to think his life remained scarred for the losses and pains he endured.

Maybe you know what it feels like yourself: in the middle of life, politely minding your business, making your way as best you can, like Jacob maybe a shortcut here or there but on the whole trying hard to be conscious of God’s gifts, thankful for your blessings. And then out of nowhere, the stranger at the river Jabbok shows up and throws you off balance. You fight and you struggle, but it seems there is no way out. How is it fair? Loss, hardship, confusion, loss of confidence, all of it is difficult to endure. Is God responsible? Has God even cheated at the game, played dirty with fate or chance or Providence? Perhaps God even seems to you the unjust judge from Jesus’ parable today, and you or I like the widow, suffering some injustice and unable to get a fair ruling: coming day after day, night after night to God’s door begging for mercy and hearing only silence.

Albert Einstein, objecting to what he thought was the craziness of quantum physics, once remarked, “God does not play dice.” But all too often, our lives as we live them recall another quote, “Not only does God play dice, but the dice are loaded.” If God cheats with Jacob, if he refuses to answer Job’s cries, does that merely leave us to soldier on in the midst of whatever challenge we face? Are merely supposed to bear suffering like the ancient stoics, to bear loss of meaning or security by saying it must be God’s will and move on?

All of a sudden this strange story alone at night at the fords of the River Jabbok starts to sound more familiar, and all too common. What do we do when we are at our wits’ end, and the wrestling match takes a turn for the worse? What meaning are we supposed to make of it?

Consider for a moment that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we usually worry only about one side of the story, our own side. But I dare you, for just a moment, to consider the other side, God’s side of the story, the stranger stealing into Jacob’s camp at midnight.

Consider God’s own affair with the world from the first moments of creation: a world to love, and creatures to delight as they reflect his glory, persons made in his image, who are very good. But from our first disobedience in the Garden, the world fell from its first grace, and over the millennia God has been wrestling time after time to win us back to him, to redeem what was lost and restore it to glory.

Late in the match, long after Jacob and Job, He sent another stranger into the fray, his own Son, to wrestle the powers of sin and death which held the world in bondage. Not at night this time, but in broad daylight: as Jesus’ gave up his spirit on the cross, He cheats again, putting the whole world’s thigh out of joint.

The cross is where God puts the whole world’s thigh out of joint. And as he rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven, all who are touched by him receive a new name, his own Name. You and I are made members of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where sin and sorrow and death are no more.

Certainly the hardships and struggles and sorrows of our lives scar us, and we bear those marks forever, just as Jacob limped his whole life long and the risen Christ bears the marks of the nails. Jacob, like Job, like you and me, asked himself “Why me? What does it all mean?” at the thought of the dangers he had gone through and the dangers ahead of him. It was a dark night for him at the fords of the Jabbok, and he did not know what the next day would bring; his preparations, sending his family on ahead, make him seem paralyzed with fear or dread. Would God be faithful to the promise he made to Jacob? Would his brother forgive him?  

But God did not answer his questions, did not allay his fears. He he did not answer Job’s charges either, and neither does answer ours — save by showing up himself. God does not answer our questions in any other way than by showing up himself: in our darkest, loneliest hour, grappling with whatever suspicion or anger or violence or doubt we might want to throw at him.

God himself shows up and picks a fight with us to bear, himself, all our rage, and cheating, at the last minute, bringing us up short, wounding us with his grace, so that we might be reconciled to one another and enter the land he has prepared for us with a new name, the one he has prepared for us from the beginning, a name befitting his sons and daughters.

If God has put your thigh out of joint, do not worry, he has put the whole world’s thigh out of joint at the cross of his Son. He did not cause your suffering, he is not hiding in the darkness, he is not afraid of your frustration. But his answer is to be with you in the midst of it, to suffer the brunt of it himself, and, as with Jacob, to grant you the grace to see his face right beside you, and to receive his blessing.

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

Sticks, Carrots, and the Cross

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on September 4, 2016, the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 16, Proper 18).

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

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

All sermons, in one way or another, are pieces of persuasive speech. And as such, each of them falls broadly into one of two categories: they are either a carrot, or a stick. Preachers have to be careful! Too many carrots and we can all grow complacent. Too many sticks, and it’s just so much abuse.

Today’s passage from the Gospel falls into this latter category: it is definitely a stick! Jesus says a number of hard things. First and worst, that we cannot be his disciples unless we first hate our fathers and mothers. And second, that we must each take up our crosses and follow him. He continues by reiterating the great cost of being his disciple, as a king goes to war and counts his troops compared to the opposing force; or as the builder of a tower counts his resources before beginning construction.

Like several other passages in the gospels, this is a sticking point, both for the disciples who heard it so long ago, and for us who hear it today. I confess I have neither the skill as a preacher nor the hutzpah to convince you that this stick is really a carrot after all. So what I will do is offer a few ways to think about this before we carry on with the Creed and the Great Thanksgiving.

“If anyone dos not hate his own family and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Is this really the same Jesus who said, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you?” Who said, “Love one another as I have loved you?” Aren’t we supposed to love our families first and best of all? Yes, yes, and yes. Then what is this about?

First of all, remember that for us today, the family is our fundamental emotional unit. It is usually our fundamental economic unit as well. But it Jesus’ day, not only was the family the fundamental economic unit, it was also the fundamental political unit. Jesus is making a point here about where we most fundamentally belong. And in Luke’s Gospel especially, that is the Kingdom of God before and above all else, before and above any other allegiance. The Kingdom of God is our true home. And while we may love our families in light of that kingdom, it is that kingdom and its Lord who has given them to us in the first place, not the other way around.

Jesus is also making a very practical point. While we may want to think of our families as the places of greatest emotional stability, personal security, and happiness, we know that this is not always the case. Or rather, that there is more to the story. Families are also the places where people most frequently experience abuse and the breakdown of relationships, which undermines trust and inhibits human flourishing.

There is an old Latin phrase, corruptio optimi pessima, which means “The corruption of the best is the worst.” Too many people know the pain of abandonment or betrayal within their families. Even in families which are otherwise the pictures of patience and support — perhaps even more in those cases — people are still capable of hurting one another in profound ways. Not always intentionally, but still it happens. We hurt more when the one who hurts us is one we love. In this context we can begin to see how it might make sense for Jesus to aim at a higher allegiance than our families; how it might make sense for him to point to a kingdom where whatever is lacking in our love for one another is finally perfected in the love of God, and every tear is wiped from every eye.

But what about the cost? More than anything else this Gospel passage is about the cost of following Jesus. A king counts his armies. Does he have enough troops to prevail against his enemy in war? Or would the cost be less to sue for peace before it comes to blows? A builder wants to build a tower. Is there enough money, enough organization, enough motivation to see it through to completion? In Chicago there is an enormous, abandoned hole in the ground, where a developer began construction on what would have been the new tallest building in The United States and one of the tallest in the world. But money ran out too soon and now it sits derelict on prime waterfront property, one of the most expensive ruins on the planet. The cost was too great.

What is the cost for you and me? What does Jesus ask of us in this Gospel? “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross. “We all have our crosses to bear,” or so we tell ourselves when life starts getting rough. But what about when life is good? What is the cross then? For some people the cross is obvious. A wayward son or daughter. Some great and terrible grief. A mental or spiritual ailment. Sins: the memory of past sins, or the anticipation of future sins.   

What is the cross you bear? For Christians in the Middle East today, the cross might actually be a cross, upon which they are murdered in the same way as our Lord. For many of the rest of us, I suspect, the cross is not always obvious. What if we are like the rich young ruler, who comes to Jesus and says he doesn’t have any particular sins, he has kept all the commandments from birth? What if our conscience is clear and we can point to no serious infraction? If you are one of these happy, probably deluded people, I suggest you broaden your vision. Whom have you not forgiven? For whom do you have no patience? Jesus went to the cross not for his own sins but for yours and mine, to work our forgiveness. The cross for you and me can be no less: even more than the cross of death to self, it is the cross of forgiveness and life. Whom do you have to forgive? To whom has it been given you to offer life? This is your cross, at least as much as any challenge or hardship or guilt you may bear, and probably more: to be an agent of forgiveness and life.

The cost of discipleship is always the cross. And the cross is always, every day, waiting for us to approach again, to make our choice to pick it up again, one more time. Every day we are called afresh to take up our cross and to follow Jesus. There is no other way. There is no shortcut, no buying or talking your way out of this. Spend some time in prayer, take an honest look at your life: your family, the projects you’re working on, the people you’re working with, all those who make demands of you. Where is your cross? It is there for you to bear, often where you least want to see it.

The Gospel lesson may be a stick, but there is also a carrot, which I’ve saved for last. If you or someone you know is in recovery, you may have heard the phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” At first it sounds like cheap advice, the kind of thing you’d find on an Internet meme or a greeting card. But it is both incredibly costly, and incredibly hopeful; it is the carrot for today’s stick. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

The cost of discipleship is always the cross, whether literally, as for Christian martyrs in Syria and Iraq, or figuratively, as for us in quieter places who nevertheless bear the responsibility to forgive, and to be agents of life in the world. The cost is the cross, and we must pay it every day as for the first time, afresh, anew. But just as recovery happens one day at a time, one moment at a time, with new life unfolding one painful step at a time, even so does our own procession with our cross. As we choose the cross of Christ yet again, in whatever temptation or difficulty we face, day by day, we find ourselves at the very brink of the kingdom of God. Pick up your cross, and see that kingdom stretching out before you in all its peaceful splendor, filled with the light of God’s glory, adorned with all the graces and populated with all the redeemed from every age. Every time we choose the cross we find ourselves on the brink of this kingdom, and our lives in the world reflect just a little bit more of its beauty.

It will cost us dearly, and before the end we will see ourselves poured out to death on our own crosses, in imitation of our Lord on his. And yet, like Moses on Mt. Nebo, today the promised land stretches out before us. We have only to choose it, again, today, to dwell there. Let us pay this cost gladly; let us take up our cross and follow Christ. So might we find this world, our families, and our lives, reflecting the glory of his kingdom: offered upon the cross, broken for our freedom, given to eternal love.

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

“Manners make the man” – or do they?

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on August 28, 2016, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 15/Proper 17).

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 God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Sirach 10:12-18, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

“Manners make the man,” or so they used to say. But manners have gotten a bad rap lately. They’ve fallen out of fashion in favor of “the honest truth” — by which we usually mean raw opinion, unfiltered by any kind of consideration or restraint. We don’t like manners because we don’t know if we can trust them. So often they are merely a pleasant veneer over an ugly core, or an elegant mask covering malicious intent. It is a truism of contemporary society that manners don’t matter: all things considered we’d rather have the unfiltered version, the director’s cut, uncensored. Maybe that will render us unfit for polite society, but then maybe polite society should just go fly a kite.

It’s a little bit troubling, then, that in today’s Gospel Jesus seems intent on teaching a lesson in manners. No matter your own personal rank or desert, when you are invited to a dinner party, take the lowest place. Yield to those who may be beneath you. Have some manners! If your host sees fit to raise you higher, then so be it. If they don’t, then don’t sweat it.

This has to be one of the most practical lessons Jesus ever taught. “You are the salt of the earth” can be hard to figure out; how do we do that? But “take the least honorable place at a dinner party” is pretty straightforward. And every one of us, at one moment or another, on a large scale or small, will have opportunity to practice this lesson.

“But there’s just one thing, Jesus,” we can hear the Pharisees saying. “What if we actually are the most honorable personage present at a particular gathering? Shouldn’t we by right take the place that belongs to us? Anything less would lower my own dignity; and even if I could surrender my own dignity, I must certainly look after the dignity of my office (whatever that might be.). No Jesus I’m sorry, I really ought to be the one sitting at your right hand at this dinner; I really ought to be the one honored here. And if I know I’m the most honorable present, then what good does it do to put myself in the lowest spot starting off? Doesn’t that call even more attention to myself when you inevitably ask me to sit up higher? No it really is best if I take the best spot to begin with, less trouble that way all around, really it is.”

The Pharisees in today’s Gospel seem to have taken a page out of our own 21st century book. They have no time for niceties, no time for manners. They insist on the honest truth, and getting on with the facts of social stratification as they know and live them. But Jesus insists, to them and to us, that there is another way, a better way.  

Manners: in this episode, Jesus sums up the whole project of manners in a word: yield the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous. Jesus teaches us this morning that manners mean yielding the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous.

Why? Why bother? Why does Jesus ask this of us? Doesn’t it mean, on occasion, that we will have to be less than truthful about how we’re actually feeling towards our neighbors or our fellow dinner guests? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. How does that square with the Gospel? Aren’t we always supposed to be truthful? At the very least, manners allow that our moral accountability rests in a higher law, a higher condition, a higher promise, than the sum total of our feelings at any given moment. Manners, together with its cousin Courtesy, assert that there is a higher world above this one, which it is our privilege to imitate on earth, and our chief hope finally one day to enter and dwell there.

A higher world: the kingdom of heaven — in which no one takes what is not first given freely, no one claims what is not first offered without cost, and the discipline of virtue does not limit our horizons but expands them continuously until we are brought face to face with the Sun of Righteousness himself, Jesus Christ, who surrendered all the trappings and deserving of divinity itself in order to seek and serve you and me. Manners belong to this higher world, and no matter how they might be abused or manipulated, their sheer existence bears witness to that heavenly kingdom.

What if we don’t feel like exercising virtue, or yielding right of way to those who might be clearly in the wrong? By behaving as if we did, we remind ourselves of this higher world, whose prince laid aside far more right, far more honor than we will ever earn no matter how high a place we reach. Furthermore, by behaving with manners, even in direct contradiction to our prevailing attitude or desire, we make small steps towards that world in which we will actually love and desire the Good above our own flawed self-interest.

I’ll never forget a sermon I heard in seminary, in which one of our crustiest and most lovable professors finally snapped a bit at our class. The year was dragging on and we were starting to feel tired, and maybe even a little bit sorry for ourselves about all the work we still had to do. He said, “I don’t care if you’re tired, I don’t care if you feel like it. I’ve heard one too many times that you all think you need “selfcare” more than you need to show up in church and pray. You don’t feel like it? So what? Fake it! Get on your damn knees, and fake it.”

It was a scolding, and a scolding we deserved, no doubt. But he made a very good, very Christian point: fake it! Your feelings are not the final arbiter of truth. In fact, they are the least reliable arbiter of truth out there. Faking it, in spite of our feelings, according the higher standard of the kingdom of God, is a lot more truthful than whatever unpleasant venom you might want to spit just now. Faking our way into the kingdom of heaven, is much more reliable than waiting for our feelings to change or for some kind of sudden, transformative religious experience.

When it comes to manners and our moral and ethical behavior, the same holds true. If you wait for your feelings to change before acting according to Christian conviction, you’ll be waiting a long time. Rather, start now, by giving way to those you think are lower than you, giving way to those you think are in the wrong. Take the lowest place yourself. The Son of God did no less, and quite a bit more, taking the form not even of a guest, though he was the host, but a servant. He did not take the form of vassal, though he was the King of all, but rather that of a criminal condemned to die. He did not claim his own righteousness or innocence before Pilate, Herod, the crowds, or anyone else, but suffered misunderstanding and death.  

His was an ignominious life, full of dishonor and injustice, which he could easily have avoided had he only spoken and acted according to his true status as the king of kings and lord of lords. And yet he didn’t. So great was Jesus’ courtesy, so genuine were his humble manners, that he suffered death rather than correct his accusers or prove his innocence. And what was the result? That the power of death is destroyed for ever; you and I are freed from the the bondage of sin; and we are made citizens of His kingdom forever.

No, manners really do make the man, even if they will never vindicate him before the world this side of death. Whether or not we feel particularly inclined, let us likewise exercise gentleness with one another, not claiming our due but giving it away at every occasion. Let us fake it if we have to, having confidence that our actions will speak louder than our feelings. So may we find that our feelings start following our wills rather than the other way around. So may we finally be fit for the place Jesus reserves for us at the table in his heavenly home.

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

Authority & Experience, Part I

This sermon was preached on August 21, 2016 at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (13th Sunday after Trinity, 14th after Pentecost, and “Proper 16”). It represents a few preliminary thoughts I have on an old question that seems perennially relevant: the tension between “official” religion and its local expression; or, reduced even further, between authority and experience. This is a starting point, nothing more, with a lot of work still to be done!

Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, merciful God, that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 58:9-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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

One of the ways that archaeologists think about ancient religion is to mark a division: between official, institutional religion and the more common, everyday ways in which people live their lives of faith.  

One good example is the pyramids of Egypt and the tombs of the pharaohs, compared with the household shrines in individual people’s houses. The two are very different, both in scale and in style. The literature of the court is what has survived, and so when we think of Egyptian religion we think of the grand mythic cycles, monumental temples, and golden sarcophagi. But most people lived much simpler lives than that. They had small clay figurines in their homes representing their favorite gods, and perhaps also a few representing their ancestors. They made small sacrifices to them, and said their prayers as best they could manage. When trouble came, they may have gone to a temple to consult a highly educated priest, but they may also have gone to a wizened neighbor who specialized in folk remedies and who had known them their whole lives.

The official clergy weren’t always happy with this folk religion because it tended to water down the official message — usually some variation on the pharaoh himself being a god and the official state apparatus being the answer to all their problems. They did not approve of the kind of rough-hewn, messy, backlot religion that flourished in villages and neighborhoods all over Egypt, because it was so difficult to control, and because it was so unsophisticated.

Archaeologists see the difference between these two religions — the official, dogmatic line, and local folk variations, as being highly instructive for understanding all kinds of tensions present in ancient societies.

But archaeologists are not the only ones who notice this kind of division present in religions, nor are ancient societies the only ones who suffer them. Our Old Testament lesson today as well as the Gospel reveal that the same tension was present both in the ancient Israel of the Kings and Prophets, and in the Roman Judaea of Jesus’ day.

Isaiah and his fellow Israelites would have known two different kinds of prophets, roughly corresponding to the two sorts of religion. The first was a set of courtly advisers, well-educated scholars who made it their business to know all the goings-on both of the Temple and its priesthood, and the king and his court. They were the whisperers, masters of rumor and gossip, who delighted in dreams and visions and divine showings. (Something like a religious version of Lord Varys from Game of Thrones, if I can say so from the pulpit!)

Whenever a king wanted a word from God, these prophets were his first port of call. Many of them were very holy people, who served with faithfulness and distinction. One of the most famous was Nathan, who held King David accountable before God for his sins and trespasses, and who helped to crown his son Solomon king after he died. Ezekiel is another, and Ezra, both authors of their own books in our Bible.

Many others, though, were charlatans, plain and simple, who enjoyed their lives of ease and influence, disingenuously giving false advice and fabricating visions to suit what they thought the king and his people wanted to hear. Often it would happen that the king, in order to appease some new diplomatic partner, would install altars to their gods in the Temple of the Lord, and would worship them himself. More often than not, this set of prophets went along with it, and happily kept their jobs and their livings, usually with promotions to match the new wealth now coming into the country. These prophets were powerful people. Though most were not among the most righteous of Israelites, they were the spokespersons of the official religion.

The other group of prophets Isaiah would have known were people like himself. People a little on the edge, not as well-educated, who forged their reputations and their influence by their radical faithfulness to God, by speaking words which came true, and by performing miraculous signs which confirmed the truth of their message. These prophets were never very safe characters for the king or for the temple elite. They were full of criticism for the way things were, and often, from positions of loneliness and exile, they would cast a vision for a better way, a better world, in which the people turned back to God and lived according to his law, his promise, his generosity, rather than according to their own designs.

In today’s passage, Isaiah is a paragon of this type of prophet. More back-woods than polished, he represents the religion of the people rather than the official line, and calls the powers-that-be to account. Too long have they lived according to their own vision of success. Now he presents them with a better world, far above their own ability to scheme or devise, and locates that world not far off on some distant shore, but firmly within the realm of the people in their very midst whom they had so long ignored.  

Elijah is another famous example of this kind of prophet, with Amos and Jeremiah too. But not all of them are as altruistic as these. Plenty of these types of prophets were also charlatans, and led the people into ill-conceived rebellions and wars which devastated the countryside and decimated the population.

In the Gospel today, we see Jesus seemingly behaving as this second kind of prophet. He faces a scenario in which the local instrument of official religion, the synagogue, is so scrupulously enforcing its laws that a woman is criticized for presenting herself to be healed on the Sabbath. The officials have certainly read the law correctly, there can be no doubting their scholarship. In the Ten Commandments God does order the sabbath to be kept holy, and in dozens of further regulations both in Scripture and in other religious literature, complicated rules governed just how to do that. From the official point of view, the woman was clearly in the wrong. But just as Isaiah had done so many centuries before, Jesus takes her side against the institution.

It’s not that the official religion is wrong, but simply that it had lost the true object of its mission. What is that religion’s mission? Not to make people masters of its own ordinances and moral processes; certainly not to enrich or ingratiate the powerful who ran it; but rather to help people live into the vision of a kingdom where God rules and life is his supreme policy. So Jesus heals the woman, in direct contradiction to the official religion, and shames all their vaunted expertise by his mercy.

But before you start to think I’m advocating some kind of folk revolution in religion, let me make a further observation, from today’s Epistle. Archaeologists think of “Official” religion as being high and lofty, full of principle and abstraction, concerned with complicated matters of doctrine and eternity. “Folk” religion they think of as being low and gritty, concerned with the everyday worries of everyday people, and not very interested with philosophy or consistency. That distinction probably holds true very much of the time, all over the world and no doubt in Christianity too. Think of all the times you have heard about controversy between bishops and clergy, or clergy and lay people, or between mainline and charismatic churches. Today’s reading from Hebrews, however, inverts the whole dilemma: ‘you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, a mountain, darkness, a terrifying voice; but rather you have come to the city of the living God, to millions of angels, to the souls of the just now made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant and himself the final sacrifice.’ To Jesus! The author of Hebrews insists that this Jesus, whom we have just witnessed in the Gospel aacting as a hero of folk religion, breaking laws left and right in order to heal and restore; this Jesus, here in this passage from Hebrews and throughout the whole letter, is spoken of in transcendent language: the great high priest, and mediator of a new covenant. Here is official religion again, with a vengeance: high and lofty, higher than all the heavens. Here is Jesus, enthroned in eternity.

What to make of it all? What to make of Jesus, both folk hero and crown prince of heaven? Simply that, for us Christians, the criteria by which we adjudicate the tension between authority and experience; the standard according to which we discern between right and wrong; the bread and butter of our daily lives of faith as well as the great fulfillment of all our most poetic hopes; all of these things begin and end with one name, Jesus. Jesus meek and mild, Jesus in a manger; Jesus high and lifted up, judge both of the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. One and the same!

For us Christians, everything depends not on how well we master the metaphysical intricacies of our theology, nor on our cultural integrity as people of a certain type; but rather on Jesus himself, and his mission to free us from every bond, to make us citizens of his kingdom forever.

This is a new kind of religion, make no mistake about it! The altar to which we are about to come is both the altar of Jesus’ sacrifice, the place where the authorities executed him to eliminate the threat he posed, where he offered himself to his Father for our sakes; and it is also the table of his heavenly kingdom, where we share with saints and angels in the never-ending banquet of God. This altar is both the grittiest, most down-to-earth place we can imagine, as well as the throne from which the very stars are governed. The communion we are about to share, communion of his body and blood, is communion which brings together both kinds of religion and turns them on their head. Here heaven and earth come together: no longer mediated by impersonal ordinance, no longer constrained by local experience: but here we are visited by God himself and recognized for his very own.

Come to this altar and be forgiven of your sins.
Come to this table, and eat the bread of angels.
Meet Christ here and see him enthroned:
over all the starry host, 
and in your heart.

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

“Our Father…”

This sermon was preached on July 24, 2016, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George. I had just been with our mission team in Nicaragua over the past week — our 17th annual trip to the same place. The Gospel was the episode where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

Collect: O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy, that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 18:20-33, Colossians 1:21-29, Luke 11:1-13

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

Many of you know that I was away this past week, with our mission team in Nicaragua. They’re still there, they’ll be there for another week, but I was grateful for the chance to spend these few days with them, and to share with them the work that they’re doing. If you’ve never been on this mission trip, I strongly encourage you to consider going next year.  

It’s one of the most unusual mission trips I’ve ever participated in. First of all, our work is directly with the people who live there. Lots of mission teams seem to operate on an industrial model these days, where there are lots of intermediaries between the team participants and the people they serve. Not so with our team: we worked directly with a local organization that runs a school and a clinic. Unlike most mission teams, who stay off-site and get bused in, we stayed in the same neighborhood where we worked. We saw the same people every day, and our team has been seeing these same people for close to twenty years now. The number of happy reunions I witnessed was remarkable: residents of the neighborhood greeted members of our team as if they were old friends, and indeed they were. Because I was new to this mission trip, our people were constantly telling me stories as we carried out our work: stories about this or that building that wasn’t there ten years ago, or this or that family and their news, or a local church congregation with whom we had been worshiping, or various projects they had completed, or funny stories they had experienced.

Most mission teams go to a place, complete the tasks assigned, take lots of pictures, buy lots of souvenirs, and go home, where they start planning for somewhere different next year. Not ours. I have to say I was extremely impressed not merely by the accumulation of work we’ve accomplished over the last 18 years, but even more by the quality of the relationships we have built and the way the Nejapa neighborhood of Managua has become another home for St. Michael and St. George.

Why do I say all this to begin my sermon? First because you all ought to know just what a wonderful thing this is that we do every year at CSMSG, and how unusual in its quality. And second, because it’s a perfect analogy to begin talking about today’s readings. This morning we’ve heard a fairly systematic series of readings on prayer, and the various forms it takes. Abraham negotiates with God about the fate of Sodom & Gomorrah. The Pslamist reflects thankfully on receiving the help and mercy he had asked for. Jesus teaches his disciples the “Our Father,” and continues with his famous admonition to ask, seek, and knock, for the door to be opened. Paul highlights the importance of being focused on Christ himself, and not on law or status, as we are incorporated into His own life.

These lessons certainly seem to cover the bases: Abraham petitions God, and teaches us that we can approach God with our requests. The Psalmist gives thanks, and teaches us to do the same. Jesus teaches us that prayer is something like a relationship between father and son, parents and children. And Paul teaches us to reflect theologically on what it all means. Yet all this still seems insufficient really to say what prayer is all about. Because prayer is so much more than simply an outline of holiness, more than an index to Christian living.

As a priest sometimes people come to me who are dissatisfied with their prayer life. As we talk, it usually becomes clear that they are making one of a few different possible mistakes. One of the most common is that people feel they ought to pray for things that sound holy: things like peace on earth, or to have more patience with their families, or to get better at budgeting for charitable causes. These are all fine, and certainly worth aiming at. But prayer is not a divinely-sanctioned wishing well. And there’s no use asking God for something you think sounds holy if you haven’t done the work of preparing yourself to receive it. Because chances are, you won’t be able to recognize it when it comes. And so people get disappointed.

So what’s the answer? I remember once being scandalized by something my medieval theology professor said during the course of a lecture in seminary. (Imagine, being scandalized by the Middle Ages! But it might scandalize you too.). He said, “You should always pray for what you want, even if what you want is to steal your neighbor’s wife.” How does this make any sense? Because in prayer you are not placing orders with a cosmic I’m sorry to disappoint you! Rather you are lifting up your desires to God, you are offering yourself as a desiring person. Naming them in prayer surrenders those desires, and yourself, to God, to let him do with you what he will. If you want to steal your neighbor’s wife, God knows it already, naming it in prayer won’t surprise him in the least. It will not make it happen, God does not work that way. Be honest in prayer, even and especially about those things which we might want to hide or plaster over with a more holy veneer.

This is the starting point, hiding nothing from God. This is the only way we can begin to know the depths of his mercy, the only way we can begin to see another way forward, the only way we can begin to desire the higher things. On this model, prayer is less about getting what you ask for to change your world, and more about asking in the first place so that God might change you. On this model, prayer is less a religious means to my personal ends, and more the medium in which God draws me closer to himself, the occasions by which he clarifies his image in me.  

This is the kind of prayer to which all our lessons point this morning. In Genesis, Abraham’s prayer marks a transition point for him in his relationship with God. Before this, Abraham heard God’s call and obeyed, he offered sacrifice and made a covenant. But now God has visited his tent, they have haggled, and they have become friends. Jesus teaches the “Our Father” to his disciples, so that by their constant prayer, they might see they are no longer merely objects of grace, passive recipients of divine precept, but that they are God’s children now, whose life in the world will be radically different. Paul takes it a step even further, insisting that the whole thing is inescapably personal, as we abide in Christ himself, his body who is the Head.

Prayer is the place where we begin to see just what this means for the way we perceive the world and our own place in it. Prayer is the place where we begin to enjoy the communion of all God’s children one with another. Prayer is the place where we are changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, whose perfect act of prayer was to offer himself to his Father upon the cross.

So, what does all this have to do with our mission trip to Nicaragua? As with prayer, we might have started out thinking we were going to “help those in need,” or something similarly holy-sounding. But what I witnessed was a group of people who had been changed by the act of offering themselves in this way, who are there now, not because of any abstract desire to “help,” but because they have grown to love the people of Nejapa in a very real way: Norr, and Julio; Alex, Don Victor, and dozens of children, doctors, teachers, and laborers who work to make that place a home for so many.  

Put another way, the object of our team’s love has become their home, in a very beautiful way, over many years, and the people of Nejapa their extended family. May you and I find prayer to be the same for us: the place where we learn to love God with every fiber of our being, and find ourselves at home in him, with all those who also say, “Our Father.”

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

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.