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"

Month: October, 2014

Caesar and the Kingdom of God

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 19 October 2014.  

Today’s solemn mass was adorned by the music of Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe and Benjamin Britten’s Jubilate Deo in C.  As a preacher, I felt further blessed by the happy coincidence in which the hymn choices wonderfully complemented the point I was trying to make in this sermon.  They were “Praise to the living God” (Leoni), “Sing praise to God who reigns above” (Mit Freuden zart), “Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face” (Nyack), and “Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun” (Duke Street).

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

Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

“Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen:

It’s fashionable these days for Christianity’s detractors to regard God as if he were just another Caesar: a tyrant making demands on all of our lives, demands oriented towards his own mysterious end rather than our good.  This is the idea that creates the audience for people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who rightly observe that such a notion of God is untenable.

But before we get too self-righteous about this, and congratulate ourselves for knowing that God is not in fact another Caesar, we need to stop and recognize that we Christians often get this wrong too.  We quibble with God about how much of ourselves we are willing to offer him.  We have a nagging suspicion that this isn’t quite the right question.  We have a feeling that whatever the answer, God wants more than we can manage.  It is easy to make our religious decisions based on the fear that might never have enough.  Enough of what?  We’re not quite sure, but we seem to think it’s limited, whatever it is.  And so we tend to operate with God according to the same principles of tribute and conquest which characterize the relationship between conquered peoples and Caesar: “I’ll give you this much but no more.”  “Look after my family and then I’ll fight for you.”  “I’ll do just enough to appear loyal but murmur against you in my heart.”

How many times have you and I treated God like Caesar? — offering tribute, currying favor, mounting impressive displays of religious patriotism, all while our heart is far from true?  We know God is not like Caesar, and yet sometimes we cannot help falling into the trap of treating him as if he were.  When we catch ourselves, we repent, and return to the commandment first to love Him.

But how is God actually different from Caesar?  We still speak of the Kingdom of God after all, and we use unapologetically imperial language about its expansiveness and its might.

Caesar, like the Kingdom of God, offers peace; but at a different cost, for a different purpose.  Caesar gives peace, so that he might then take more than peace.  Caesar gives peace, and takes wealth, takes authority, takes pride.  God gives peace, so that he might establish more than peace, forgiving sin, restoring us to wholeness, and reconciling heaven and earth.  The price of Caesar’s peace is blood and tears, to feed the ego of an emperor.  The price of God’s peace is his own blood and tears, to feed us.

Caesar, like the kingdom of God, offers justice; but in a different way and for a different end.  Caesar’s justice comes at the point of Caesar’s spear, and works to keep the spear in Caesar’s hand.  God’s justice too, comes at the point of Caesar’s spear, lodged in the side of his Son; it works to take the spears from every hand forever, and finally beat them into plough shares.

Caesar, like the Kingdom of God, offers glory.  Caesar’s glory is for Ceasar’s subjects, who honor themselves with crumbs from his table.  God’s glory is for God’s friends, whom He enrolls by baptism into the body of his Son.  We become co-heirs with him, and are given to eat from the royal table itself.

God indeed has a kingdom, but it is not like Caesar’s!

How then do we respond?  How do we render to God what is God’s?  How ought we to operate in relation to God?  First we have to recognize that the kingdom of God operates on an entirely different economy than the kingdom of Caesar.  With Caesar, the treasures of a people were surrendered to the legions as a token of defeat.  We read in the psalms that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart.  Where Caesar demands humiliation, God prizes humility.  When our Lord goes to the cross by Caesar’s order, the king of kings submits to the authority of a human tyrant.  His humility changes the nature of sacrifice.  As he goes to offer his life a ransom for many, He goes willingly, accepting the shame, meeting it head on.  His is not the sacrifice of a conquered people forced into submission.  His humility changes his sacrifice and death into a gift which he freely offers.  He gives his life, according to Caesar’s justice, but for God’s kingdom and glory.

As Our Lord’s humility changes the nature of sacrifice into gift, so does his resurrection change the nature of gift.  Caesar cannot give without requiring something in return.  In Caesar’s economy, you and I cannot receive without giving up something of our own: whether that be money, or freedom, or dignity.  The resurrection of Our Lord breaks the power of Caesar’s economy.  Christ gave up his life, was anointed for burial, and sealed in the tomb.  It appeared to the disciples, to the legions, to Pilate, and to everyone that his sacrifice, the gift of his life, cost him that life.  But on the third day, the Son of God took up his life again, without taking back the gift he gave in surrendering it.  His resurrection changes the nature of gift: no longer a loss to the one who gives, gift becomes a higher kind of possession.

Our Lord’s resurrection changes the nature of gift into a higher kind of possession.  In the same way, his attitude of thanks changes the nature of possession.  Caesar has no use for thanks, apart from an anemic kind of courtly politeness.  Caesar cannot defend a city with thanks, he cannot intimidate his enemies with gratitude.  He cannot even build monuments to his gods with thankful hearts alone, but requires the more substantive contributions of armies and gold and stone and expertise, the whole economy of this world marshaled to his service.  One of the most frequent things we see Our Lord doing in his earthly ministry is eliciting thanks to God from those he heals, and in giving thanks himself in teaching and in prayer.  Likewise in his resurrection appearances we see him constantly giving thanks at the breaking of bread.  In doing so he is orienting his own heart to the Father in heaven, and lifting the hearts of those around him to the God and Father of all.  Far from an anemic courtly gesture, in the Kingdom of God, thanks transforms possession into abiding joy in the very presence of God.

How ought we render to God what is God’s?  The outline here is that of Our Lord himself: humility, sacrifice, and gift, transformed by the Resurrection into a higher kind of possession, with thanksgiving, that joy may abound.  This the economy of Love, which renders everything to God, and receives everything back again, transfigured.

Our God is not another Caesar, no matter how easy or comfortable it is for us to relate to him as such.  We must not be afraid of answering God’s call, whatever it may be, offering our whole lives to his service.  It always requires sacrifice, even to the point of death.  Caesar’s kingdom cannot survive death.  But the kingdom of God is planted even in the gates of hell, and grows and flourishes according to the love of Him who gave himself for us.  Let us respond in kind, that our citizenship might be found in his kingdom, and we too become partakers of eternal life.

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

What are priests for?

The following sermon was preached on September 5, 2014, at Church of the Messiah in Glens Falls, NY, at the institution of the Rev’d Karl Griswold-Kuhn as rector of that parish.  It was the hottest day of the year, and the church felt like an oven — but everyone kept their cool, and celebrated the occasion with grace, enthusiasm, and clear affection.  It was an honor to be invited to preach.

Collect: Everliving God, strengthen and sustain Karl, that with patience and understanding he may love and care for your people; and grant that together they may follow Jesus Christ, offering to you their gifts and talents; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joshua 1:7-9, Psalm 43, Romans 12:1-8, John 15:9-16

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you . . . Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, amen:

Good evening, everyone.  It’s very good to be back in the Diocese of Albany, and to see so many familiar faces.

On these sorts of occasions I think it’s important for a preacher to take stock of what it is we are all doing.  Tonight, first and foremost, we are here — from Glens Falls, Albany, and beyond — to welcome Karl into his new ministry here at Church of the Messiah, and formally to enroll him as rector.  We pray for God’s grace on his life and work.  We are also here to celebrate a new stage in the life of this parish community, and to pray for a renewed outpouring of the holy spirit on its prayer and mission.  In these moments tonight we are reminded of the great beauty and value of the ministries which our Lord ordained, and we are led into a deeper reflection on what they mean for the church and for the world.

There are a lot of things which priests do, a lot of things which rectors are here for: from being the go-to person to say grace at meals, to working with budgets, to being the person who knows what to do when someone is dying, to being the face of the Church’s mission in the city.  These are all important and necessary.  But if you boil it all down, the ministry consists essentially in two things: sacrifice, and forgiveness.

We heard a lot about sacrifice in the Gospel reading tonight, chiefly as it is connected to love: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Jesus says this to his disciples the night before he himself goes to the cross.  Jesus lays down his life for his friends: gives up his body to be broken, sheds his blood, all for the sake of the ones he loves.  Namely, his disciples; but also you and me.

Priests exist always to be near this sacrifice.  They imitate it with their lives, giving up the best of themselves: their time, their minds, their loved ones, so that those in their care might come to know Jesus, whose sacrifice of his life is for the salvation of their souls.  But even more than imitating Jesus’ sacrifice, priests are nearest to that sacrifice when they preside at the altar.  There, with the whole congregation, they make Jesus’ sacrifice present now in the elements of bread and wine.  “This is my body, which is broken for thee . . . This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  “Whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  At this altar, Fr. Karl will preside for you at the Eucharistic sacrifice.  And Jesus’ promise is that grace will abound in this, just as it abounds on the Cross.  The grace of this sacrifice binds together all the people of God.  In baptism it makes them members of Christ’s own body; mystical members of that body which was crucified for all our sakes.

So that’s the first thing priestly ministry boils down to, sacrifice.  The second is the forgiveness of sins.  Before you start thinking of confessional booths and penance, let me first say, that a priest’s ministry in the forgiveness of sins is rooted first of all in the knowledge that he himself is a sinner, who has been forgiven; who is being forgiven; who finally will be forgiven.  Don’t assume that your new rector is somehow above the fray of human temptation and failing.  (He’s not – we went to seminary together, I can tell you some stories!)  But he does know that the One who sacrificed himself on the cross for you and me sacrificed himself for him too.

We are all common recipients of forgiveness.  But forgiveness is also a priest’s special task.  In the first moments of his resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples his own authority to forgive sins.  The ministry of forgiveness is part and parcel to the great commission, at the heart of the church’s mission in the world.  But what is forgiveness, really?  There’s a dangerous school of thought out there that makes forgiveness just another tool of pop psychology.  But it’s not there to make you feel better (even though very often it does).  Primarily, Christian forgiveness is there to restore us to right relationship with God and with each other, in the context of the mystical body of our crucified Lord.

When Fr. Karl pronounces forgiveness either publicly in church or privately in the context of confession, he is speaking with the authority of the risen Christ, making whole what was broken, restoring what had fallen into disrepair.  It is a comfort, no doubt.  But it is also a solemn charge: for you to live according to the commandment of our crucified and risen Lord, that you love one another as he has loved you.

Sacrifice and forgiveness.  These are the two great pillars of priestly ministry.  They lead into the whole complex world of human life.  If forgiveness is a solemn charge to live according to the commandment to love, and if the commandment to love is rooted in total sacrifice for one another as Jesus gave himself for us, then every single part of our lives — whether we are ordained or not — suddenly becomes priestly.  This is the “priesthood of all believers:” to live every moment of every day in anticipation of the kingdom of God, in anticipation of that moment when the work now begun shall finally be fulfilled, and we will be incorporated with all the blessed from every age in the eternal vision of God.

For Christians, we live every moment of every day anticipating that end.  The way we treat our families, our friends, colleagues, strangers; all our ethical decisions, all our mission, all our evangelism; even vestry meetings! — nothing is exempt from this requirement.  As author Robin Ward put it, we must order our entire lives according to this “anticipation of beatitude.”  No doubt this will drive us continually to seek forgiveness for the ways we fall, and be re-incorporated into the fellowship of the church from which our sins sever us.  No doubt this will drive us continually back to the communion rail, back to the saving death of Christ which makes us one body in God.

And so we return to worship.  You will invite Fr. Karl and Jen into your homes and into your lives.  He will be with you at sick beds, in new jobs, in loss, at the marriage of your children and loved ones, in foreclosures, and in retirement.  You will work with him, serve on committees with him, have fun with him, learn from him, be frustrated with him.  But on no other occasion is he more your priest than when he stands at the altar and leads you in the celebration of Holy Communion.

At the altar everything comes together: it is the chief ecclesiastical symbol of the saving death of Christ.  It is the place and source of absolution for sins.  It is also the throne of the Passover lamb of God, from which he reigns in heaven, and prays continually for us to the Father.  In the Celebration of Holy Communion, your new rector will lead you in worship, joining our Lord in offering himself to the Father, joining all the saints and angels in praising him.  In short, heaven will come to earth, earth will be lifted to heaven, and you will taste the beatitude towards which we strive our whole lives long.

Tonight you have a new rector.  In a few moments we will mark this formally with the exchange of symbolic tokens and with prayers.  In the days and years to come you will be led more and more deeply into the Christian mysteries of sacrifice and forgiveness by (and with!) Fr. Karl Griswold-Kuhn.  But for now we celebrate.  Thanks be to God for Karl and Jen.  Thanks be to God for the Church of the Messiah.  Thanks be to God for Bp. Love and the witness of the Church in this Diocese.  And thanks be to God for the gift of his Son, whose sacrifice of himself is the salvation of our souls, whose resurrection procures the forgiveness of our sins, and whose continuous grace carries us ever onward into his marvelous light.

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

The Mind and the Cross

A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 2 September 2014.  This Sunday also happened to fall on Labor Day weekend, and preceded the beginning of the Fall term at Brown.

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

Readings: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Matthew 16:21-28, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen:

This is move-in weekend at Brown (as many of you may have noticed if you tried to park on the street!).  Some of our young people here at S. Stephen’s are also returning to college.  Our youth have all gone back to school: some starting high school for the first time, others in middle school, and the younger ones in elementary school.  This is Labor Day weekend, and all of us are conscious of the impending close of summer and the start of a new “program year.”  It seems fitting this morning to reflect a little on the task and privilege of learning: what it is that we do when we study, and where it is that our learning leads us.

In the classic Western understanding of the life of the mind, there are three major categories into which all study falls.  All three are necessary in order to create a well-ordered person.  First is the world around us.  Mathematics springs immediately to mind, and the natural sciences: physics, astronomy, biology, geology, chemistry, and their “Applied” derivatives; also certain categories of philosophy, and others.  These are subjects which teach us the basic structures of our world.  Their methodologies lead their practitioners ever more deeply into the fabric of material existence, and their insights are invaluable.

This kind of learning is not the purview of experts alone.  Children learning to distinguish colors are equally engaged in this process.  So are youth learning the periodic table of the elements.  So are adults on their morning commutes, traversing and internalizing the geographic contours of their neighborhoods and cities.  We are all citizens of the world around us, and each of us is presented daily with opportunities to learn something about it, to grow in understanding of how this world works.

The second major category of inquiry in the classic Western conception of the mind is the human person.  This is where subjects like history come most clearly into play, and more of philosophy; art, music, and literature; also economics and ethics, questions of justice, and how people in states ought to live together with their fellow citizens and with their fellow states.  The life of the mind itself belongs in this category.  Questions like, ‘What makes up the human person?  What makes up myself?  What should my hopes and dreams be, and how do I account for things like conscience and guilt and moral aspiration?’  It might be obvious the kind of contribution these questions make to society: ideals to strive for, principles to live by, systems to govern our common life, so that the greatest benefit for the most people is achieved.

We usually think of liberal arts colleges here, and economists and book publishers.  But children learning to share their toys with their friends are engaged just as deeply in this kind of study (if not more so!).  The whole process of growing up and constructing our lives in this world is rife with questions of the human person.

The third major category of learning in the Western conception of the life of the mind is God.  So important is this category that great thinkers and professors from Augustine in the 4th century to Kierkegaard in the 19th understood God as the summit, the single necessary conclusion, to all other kinds of inquiry.  Not because science is unequipped to answer its own questions; not because a human being is incapable of determining his or her own course in life; but because each thing, in its own way, points ultimately away from itself towards its own appointed end.  As pattern points to order, as color points to splendor, as law points to justice, so does everything point to that which is beyond it towards that which gives it form and purpose.  In this way everything points to God: not to fulfill a lack of human ingenuity, but to point to what is creation’s natural fulfillment.

We may think that to know God is the solitary, heady purview of theologians and clergy.  But because of his own choice to reveal himself, we can all know God.  A friend of mine is a priest in Orlando, and has written an article in the latest Living Church describing a strange and beautiful experience.  It was a Sunday, and he was at the altar saying the Lord’s Prayer with the congregation.  In the midst of all the voices, he heard the voice of his two-year-old son saying the words along with everyone else.  He and his wife hadn’t taught him the words yet!  But this two-year old had so imbibed the saying of that prayer after repeated exposure, and had been so impressed with the spirit of everyone praying it together, that he was compelled to pray too.  My friend’s son seems to know something about God that maybe more clergy and theologians should learn.

The world around us, the human person, God — these are the three great categories of learning which undergird the whole structure and program of the Western intellectual project.  They are nested inside one another: studying the world leads us into a deeper engagement with the human person.  Studying the human person, and chief of all myself, leads us ever more deeply into an engagement with the God who made us and the whole world.  It is a beautiful, coherent system, which has undoubtedly contributed much to the welfare and peace of the world.  All who engage in learning should be proud of their task, and should go about it with patience and endurance and joy.

But this isn’t the end.  Knowledge of God, the summit of human learning, is exactly where we pick up in our Gospel reading today.  Just before the place we began, Jesus has asked all of his disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter famously replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  He gets the right answer, he passes the test, he gets an A, he is set for life.  Right?


Immediately following that episode — as today’s reading begins — Jesus teaches his disciples that as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” his purpose is to go to the cross and die.  Peter insists that surely this must not be the case.  Fresh from his triumphant right answer, he cannot allow that the Holy One of God, the one to save Israel, could possibly have to die.  Jesus rebukes him, and leads all the disciples further into the mystery: “If any would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me.  For he who would save his life will lose it.  And whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Jesus shows Peter in no uncertain terms that getting the right answer about who God is, is not enough.

It goes right on down the line, as it must in a coherent, interconnected system.  Getting the right answer about myself and the human community is not enough.  Getting the right answer about the way the world works is not enough.  It is not sufficient in the eyes of God to be right!

We’re used to thinking of Jesus’ admonition,  “Take up your cross and follow me” as a kind of pithy advice about our hardships, disadvantages, and frustrations.  “We all have our crosses to bear” we say to one another – alternatively in pity or in jest, and sometimes a little of both.  But this is not what Jesus means.  Jesus himself goes to the cross for being right about who he is.  He goes to the cross for being right about how he treats others.  The cross for Jesus is the place where the best of who he is, the highest good he ever achieves, the greatest love he ever offers — where all of that is rejected and crucified.

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  Be the best that you can be.  Learn the most that you possibly can.  Do the most good that is in you to do.  And then?  Give it up.  Be willing to be crucified upon it.  This is what is required, this is the last key piece of the Christian intellectual life.

Only in the darkness that follows, only in the tomb, does the light of the resurrection begin to dawn.  There, in the still dark of early morning, the project is finally complete.  There, where we have surrendered everything we might claim about the world and ourselves, there God makes himself known to us: not in words or images or senses, but in his very self, unmediated by any intervening thing or process.  God himself.  In the dark of the tomb, our great intellectual project is reversed: we find ourselves known, more fully than we could ever hope to know.  In that knowing, there is love, unmitigated and unending.  In such darkness as this, we finally see light.

“Take up your cross and follow me, for he who would find his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Let this be our prayer for the beginning of the school year: that each of us would so encourage the process of learning in ourselves and in our loved ones that we might come finally to the place where knowledge fails and where love begins.  In the meantime, let us be strengthened by our common work, our common prayer, and be built up together by the Sacrament we are about to celebrate — which is knowledge infused with grace.

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