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"

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.

“One thing is needful”

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, July 30, 2017, the Eigth Sunday after Pentecost. The title I’ve given it here comes not from today’s readings but from the episode with Mary and Martha. They’re putting on a dinner party for Jesus, but Mary has left Martha to do all the work while she sits with Jesus. When Martha speaks up about this, Jesus tells her that “only one thing is needful” – and that what Mary has chosen will not be taken away from her. What is the “one thing” that is “needful”? Today’s sermon is in partial response to that question, within the context of the appointed readings and various events and occurences throughout the parish week.

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: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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

Well here we are, this week with the last section of Romans 8. We’ll continue hearing Romans on Sunday mornings for the next month or so. But this marks the end of our especially detailed consideration of these two central chapters, 7 and 8.

It’s one of those moments, when once the reader has said, “The Word of the Lord” and we all reply, “Thanks be to God,” apreacher hardly dares say anything at all; the lesson preaches itself. The final few verses are an especially magnificent cadenza read frequently at funerals: they are a manifesto of sorts, astronghold of hope, the banner of victory to wave in the face of death itself: ‘Neither life nor death, angels nor demons, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Cling to these verses, hold them close, because in a world as challenging and confusing as this one, they offer some very strong medicine against the temptation of despair. They throw our focus onto the cosmic dimension of the Gospel: that even though it appeals to each of us individually, the victory of the cross is the victory of life over death, light over darkness, good over evil. No matter what may afflict or confuse us, one thing remains true, one thing remains clear: that Jesus who died is Jesus who rose from the dead, and sits now at the right hand of God, where he rules over all creation, seeing to the government of even the stars and galaxies.

But manifestos notwithstanding, I get it, there’s still plenty to worry about, there’s still plenty to grieve. Day after day I hear about lives cut short, struggles with addiction, financial disaster, disease, unfaithfulness, estrangement, abuse, depression. Not just as a priest, but as a human person in this world, it’s impossible to escape the continuing litany of bad news, cold shoulders, grudges, selfishness, distraction, and refusal to take personal responsibility. Kids, young people, grown-ups, every one of us labors to one degree or another under an umbrella of possible doom — or at least it can feel like that a lot of the time.

And so we worry, and so we grieve: every disappointment becomes for us further evidence that hope is either out of reach or impossibly naive, every loss becomes for us further evidence that life is tenuous, fragile, and not to be taken for granted. St. Paul’s great cadenza can fall flat in such circumstances as these, a nice thought, but reality is cruel. We put aside our hope, our Gospel confidence, in favor of being so-called “realists.”

But why do we allow death to have so much power in the first place? I submit to you, that perhaps we ought to start taking life for granted more, and not less. Romans 8 presents a view of the universe in which Christ has conquered every power, every death, every demon, and has done so with the express purpose of uniting us to the Love of God forever, even planting the Spirit himself, “The Lord, the Giver of Life” as we say in the Creed, within each of us. 

If that’s really true, and not just a religious flavor of wishful thinking, we have to conclude, that most of the time we worry about the wrong things; we have to admit, we generally think life consists in all the wrong places: in safety, security, health, and knowledge; in reputation, regard, honor, and influence; in rank, or image, or grandeur; in civilization, law, normality, even sanity. And so, naturally, we become Very Serious People when we perceive any of these things are on the line. Obviously they are all good things and worth pursuing. But if we pursue them for their own sake, we hit a dead end. Life does not finally consist in any of these things, and so we will always be fighting for them, they will always be on the brink of disappearing. 

If you want a simple test, ask which of them successfully survived the cross: which of them did Jesus successfully take from the cross to the grave through the resurrection and into heaven? None of them survived intact, none of them made the journey without being surrendered, and then transformed. The only thing that did remain, the only secure place where life was unconquered by death, was the Son of God’s complete surrender to God the Father, in love for Him, for the human race, and for all creation. And because life consists in that one place, it also consists everywhere his rule touches — which is to say all creation, and especially the parts of it we might think most fragile.

So what if the stock market crashes? So what if I suffer some enormous betrayal? So what if I don’t get it right this time, or lose my last chance? Christ has taken every loss, every grief, every moment of suffering, into the grave, where it is transfigured by his resurrection and resides now with him in glory.

If any pain or loss or confusion troubles you in this life; if you find yourself the unwilling subject of any height or depth, power or principality, angel or demon, nakedness, peril, sword, or death, draw near to Jesus. Whether at rock bottom of the deepest dry well, or at the height of worldly splendor, draw near to Jesus, and find life shining fresh from every wound, every crack, and every heap of rubble.

I love our passage from the Gospel today, because it illustrates exactly the point: light-hearted affection, taking life for granted, winning out over worry about Very Serious Considerations. 

In addition to being the conclusion of our trek through Romans 7 and 8, it is also the end of a series of weeks for us considering a range of parables. And, just as we’ve been hearing them week after week on Sundays, they come one right after another in the Gospel of Matthew too.Remember, Matthew writes his Gospel based on five great sets of addresses Jesus gives to the people; Matthew wants us all to recognize in Jesus the new Moses, and greater than Moses because he lays his life down and takes it up again.

But all the same, the particular address we’ve been reading over the last few weeks is long. The disciples have tried their best at paying attention. They’ve asked several times now for Jesus to explain some of the more inscrutable parables to them. And now, towards the end of it all, they’re tired, they just want to go home.

Jesus gives a rapid-fire series of new parables, verse after verse, about mustard seeds, bread-making, pearls, fields; fishing, angles, and the end of the world. All of them no doubt very important, very meaningful; but right now they’ve got information overload, they’ve had as much as they can handle. Maybe they’ve lost their focus, maybe their eyes are glazing over a little. Jesus turns towards them as he carries on, and notices that their attention is flagging. Probably he’s a little annoyed, this is a brilliant speech, what’s the matter with them? So he teases them by saying “Have you understood all this?”

Of course they haven’t understood all this, it’s late, it’s been a long day and a long journey. They don’t want to be rude, but they do want to shut him up so they can go to supper already. So they say, “Yes!” to all of the above, like the tired students they are.

It probably catches Jesus a little off guard, just as his question caught them off guard. But he gets their point, and finishes the speech — not without a parting shot for good measure. “Therefore the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” And then they finally go home, at long last.

I love how human this is. “Yes Jesus, we hear what you’re saying, we love you, we’re sure it’s brilliant, we’ll make sense of our notes later; but right now we’re pretty tired, and we’re hungry. Please, let’s just go already.” What makes the difference in all this is not that they understand, it’s not that they’ve got it all figured out. Frankly, they probably have no better idea which of them are good fish or bad than you or I do about our own day; at this point they’d rather eat fish than think about them.

And so they go: to share a meal together, to take their rest, and to continue on their way the next day.

So it is with you and I. We are not somehow lesser disciples or beyond the pale if we are confused, tired, struggling or don’t have all the answers. The one thing that mattered for Mathew, Peter, John, and all the rest, was that they loved their friend. And they learned, firsthand, that all the powers of death and hell, betrayal, sin, and abandonment, could not finally keep him from them. That persistent love of Jesus, beyond all loss and logic, set them free from all that bound them, making them heirs with him of eternal life: life even in the midst of uncertainty, opposition, loss, and later their own deaths as martyrs.

Let that same Spirit dwell in us, setting us free from all our own bonds and worries, transfiguring our life and our vision to behold nothing but Love, reigning from the Cross, calling us into his marvelous Light.

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

Past vs Present

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday July 23, 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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

Two weeks ago in my sermon on Romans 7, I suggested you all go home and read Romans 8. I should have looked ahead in the lectionary, because I would have seen we’d go on to spend three weeks in Romans 8, last week, this week, and next, as the second reading these Sundays.

There’s a lot here, but first of all it makes me think of a close friend of mine. A few months ago now, she checked herself into rehab for alcoholism. It happened as it sometimes does: she reached a crisis point, which played itself out in a more public setting than anyone might have wished. This set in motion a series of events that led to her going to rehab. It’s uncertain now what will become of her job, her marriage, her housing. But it’s a good start that she’s finally getting the help she needs.

Why do I bring this up? Because as her friends, all of us had noticed that she liked to drink, but it simply didn’t occur to any of us that there was a problem until that final moment in the pattern. Then it was obvious, then we all felt stupid for not seeing it before and trying to do something that might have helped.

This scenario isn’t all that unusual. At some point or other we all ask ourselves, “How could I have been so blind? I didn’t see it until it was too late.” We hear it in the news all the time too. No one can see the pattern until the final tragedy, which always comes as a surprise. 

Crises are like that, it seems. The final event is what finally reveals the pattern that made it inevitable in the first place. How could we have seen? What could we have done to prevent it? The truth is that we couldn’t see, not until the final event made the pattern visible, and then it was too late.

It’s not just crises either that work this way. Positive events run the same kind of course. When we fall in love, get married, have children, discover our vocations, or any number of other major, joyful, life events, it causes us to stop and re-read our pasts. Suddenly it all makes sense, it all seems inevitable. While we slogged through a former, unhappy career, or kept trying and kept striking out on the dating scene, or shopped for churches until one “clicked,” in the middle of it all nothing made sense. And then when we found it, or him, or her, it all made sense. Everything before suddenly seemed to have prepared us for this exact moment.

These kinds of events, whether crises or joys, all cause us to re-read the past, whether our own or our society’s, to see how it led us here. Crises or joys both make it clear, that while the past is what got us to this moment, at least in our minds and hearts this present moment tends to recreate, reinterpret the past, and not the other way around. The present is what reveals the pattern that no amount of research, profiling, or soul-searching could have revealed while it was still unfolding.

So what then, is the past somehow subject to the present, with all of its “changes and chances”? Must we stop attempting to discern any kind of patterns whatever? No, that would be a pretty grim world if it were the case. Life would be governed by fate, by chance, and all we could achieve would be a stoic acceptance of whatever life happened to throw our way. Enthroning the present above the past makes for people with very strong characters, but not much sense of humor. Or the opposite, it creates people with such flippant attitudes towards everyone and everything that life becomes nothing more than a means to my own pleasure. Both approaches lead to narcissism, and a self-destructive nihilism.

There’s a problem then in the way we think about both past and present. The past cannot have final say because it’s always the present that finally reveals the pattern. But the present cannot have final say either, because it would make us prisoners to fate, to the uncontrollable march of time and events. 

What to do then about the past and the present, and the way they relate to each other? If you’ve watched, read, or listened to the news lately, you might say this exact question is the crisis point in American public discourse at the moment. But the same question was also one of the fault lines in ancient culture too, into which Jesus was born, exercised his ministry, was crucified, and rose again. And this is also the fault line that Paul is exploring here in Romans 8.

How to make sense of the Church’s Jewish past, of Paul’s own past, and the forgiveness and freedom from the Law that Christ brings? How to make sense of so many conflicting pressures both in tradition and in experience? How do you and I hold onto hope when friends take a stumble, family disappoints, or respected mentors fall from grace? For that matter how can each of us face the darkness in our own lives with grace and courage? Paul’s answer is Romans 8, an extended meditation on the Holy Spirit, and Love at the heart of God.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba, Father,” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”

There’s a lot of crying and groaning in this passage, and that’s true to life. We wish we had seen it sooner, been able to help before it got this bad. Mothers sometimes tell me about the fierce love they have for their children, which often surprises themselves in how instinctual and almost animal it is; it gives mothers’ prayers for their kids a solidness and a force hard to reckon with.

There’s a pressure in our spirits about these kinds of things, which surpasses words. And when we direct it towards God, the Spirit himself joins in and offers the whole thing, with our selves included, up to God. This prayer, this offering, this love, is the unfolding of the new creation begun in us at our baptism, begun in all the world at Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it liberates us from the impossible tensions both of past and present. This kind of prayer, this kind of beginning, is oriented not towards the past or even the present, but towards the future: towards its logical conclusion, towards the consummation of creation’s purpose, when all things are made new in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Don’t miss how revolutionary this is: the Gospel makes our primary reference point not the past, nor even the present, but the future. And the Good News of the Kingdom of God is that the future is breaking in all over the place. It’s great inauguration was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but it continues now: in the life of the Church, all over the world, in you and me when we pray, and in the Eucharist, when we are fed not just with bread and wine from the altar, but with the very life of God from heaven itself. All of these moments are the future Kingdom of God breaking in on us, and they reconfigure what we think of the present, as well as what we make of the past.

The Kingdom of God is always unfolding, not yet complete. And because of that, you and I have no need to be bound by our pasts. There is no blame to be assigned for missing the pattern the crisis revealed, there is no inescapable conclusion we must draw about our society or our world, no hand of fate inexorably dragging us to destruction, no sin which cannot be forgiven, no death without the possibility of resurrection. It means that every moment is pregnant with the opportunity to begin again, fresh, new, in the Kingdom of God, his children, the heirs of eternal life.

As we approach the communion rail this morning, may we remember the future. May we be nourished now in the present by the foretaste it offers of the culmination of all things, united by the Holy Spirit in the eternal offering and receiving of Love.

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

Prisoners of Hope

This sermon was preached at St. Michael & St. George on Sunday July 9, 2017, the 4th Sunday after Trinity/3rd after Pentecost. It was my first Sunday back from vacation in California and England. Among other things, the choir sang one of my favorite anthems, Howells’s “Mine eyes for beauty pine.” (Text by Robert Bridges: Mine eyes for beauty pine, My soul for Goddes grace: No other care nor hope is mine, To heaven I turn my face. / One splendor thence is shed, From all the stars above: ‘Tis named when God’s name is said, ‘Tis Love, ’tis heavenly Love. / And every gentle heart, That burns with true desire, Is lit from eyes that mirror part Of that celestial fire.)

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

Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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

Just before I left on vacation, a woman came to my office to share with me something important that had just happened in her life. She was very nervous: she had made a momentous decision that was the fruit of many long months of anxious thought. As she told me about it, it was clear that this was a decision for the best, but I also noticed that she was so overwhelmed she was visibly shaking. I didn’t want her to be embarrassed, I’ve been in that situation before too. Momentous decisions tend to have that effect on us: it’s hard for us to separate our selves from the matter at hand. And it’s the nature of the thing, decisions like these actually do a lot to shape who we are as people, and how we operate in the world. No doubt you have your own set of moments like this one, where so much of yourself is invested in the outcome that it becomes a part of you.

The prophet Zechariah seems to have something like this in mind today in our first lesson, when he addresses people whom he calls, “prisoners of hope.” “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” It’s the end of a passage we usually read in Advent, or Palm Sunday. But today, the 9th of July, it’s an invitation to consider our own moments as prisoners of hope: when we are so invested in a positive outcome we find it hard to separate our selves from our hope. Maybe that’s something as simple and good as a successful pregnancy, or maybe something more dire: hoping for relief from some kind of affliction, or help for someone else; hoping for Mom to stop drinking, or for Dad to fall in love again; or for Illinois to get its budget figured out. Whatever it is, we can find ourselves completely wrapped up in the pressures of the moment, prisoners of hope, or else prisoners of anxiety or fear.

St. Paul continues the same tack, in one of his most famously neurotic passages — and actually one of the earliest examples of writing of this kind: the passage we heard from his letter to the Romans is full of intense self-searching, self-doubt; a psychological exploration of the body’s complicity in sin, along with the will’s impotence to accomplish the good it desires. He concludes with one of the most despairing cries in Scripture, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Thankfully St. Paul follows this passage from Romans 7 with Romans 8, and if you want the end of the story go home and read Romans 8; copy it down, memorize it, take it with you everywhere, put it under your pillow at night. But for now, Romans 7 presents us with Paul himself as a prisoner of hope: full of hope for the good, but a prisoner to the anxiety of his mind.

One of the best analogies I can think of is digital and social media: Facebook, YouTube, television, email, all of them are what I call “infinity devices,” to which there is effectively no end: we keep scrolling, we keep watching, there’s always something more to see, to read, to “like.” Our minds are like that too: there’s always another pressure, another distraction, another task that needs doing, idea that needs exploring, event that needs unpacking, emotion that needs expressing. This constant “mindstream” can imprison us, keeping us from exploring the full range of the world around us, keeping us from doing the good we wish or loving as we ought. What to do?

In the midst of all this, the Gospel promises relief: Jesus gives us one of the most famous of his Comfortable Words, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

How is this? What is the relief that Jesus brings? How does he loose the bonds of us prisoners of hope?

As Christians we think a lot about the God who saves us, and how that’s accomplished. But we don’t as often think about who it is that God saves. That’s you and me. And if you’re like me, maybe sometimes you could do with a little more thought, a little more consideration for you, yourself, just you, whom God saves; not in a narrow self-centered way that makes ME the center of the universe; but in a way that frees us from our various anxieties and emotions, and places us on secure footing in the simple, unconditional love of God. Only the love of God frees us to engage all the more fully with our neighbors, freed from the pressure of our “mindstream” infinity device.

Be still for a moment. Stop. Just listen. Let the love of God drive a wedge between you and the constantly playing screen of stories and reactions and worries in your head. Let them be, but you just step aside for a moment without them, and consider that here, alone, in the quiet, just yourself, with nothing else, you are with God.

You are not merely the sum of your emotions, your opinions, even your convictions; you are not your failures, your talents, your sins, your virtues; I am not my anxiety, or my fortitude, or whatever. The Lord’s yoke that is easy, his burden that is light, is simply the knowledge that you in yourself, without anything else, in silence, the person that God made, is the person whom God loves, whom God saves.

All this might sound like pop psychology, but it is deeply rooted in the Gospel, and the hard work of Christian prayer. The better we know ourselves as creatures of God’s love, the better we can know God, as the one who loves us. The more we do that, the more we can love our neighbors and our world for God’s sake and theirs, selflessly, not needing them to answer our own worries or hopes, but allowing them to delight us with who they are as creatures of God’s love themselves.

We all have hard decisions to make, and I’m not advocating we ignore them or pass them off as mere distractions. But I am suggesting that the Gospel releases us from imprisonment to our mindstreams, and equips us to see the world for what it really is: a surprising, unnecessary creation which God made for the sheer delight of it, in which you and I may find our places as creatures of his love, of his forgiveness.

May we hear today Jesus’ voice calling through the fray, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road to Emmaus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Maundy Thursday Family Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Surprise!

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

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

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

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

Well, Surprise!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rose” Sunday

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

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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