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: November, 2014

We will remember them.

Newly mustered Brown students march through Soldier's Arch on their way to fight in World War II.  The arch is a memorial to their departed fellows from the First World War.

Newly mustered Brown students march through Soldiers Arch on their way to fight in World War II. The arch is a memorial to their departed fellows from the First World War.

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This sermon was preached at 10am on 9 November 2014 at S. Stephen’s Church.  There was a Solemn Requiem and Act of Remembrance in observance of Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday falling nearest to Armistice Day (November 11).  Music was a polyphonic setting of the plainchant Missa pro defunctis by Giovanni Francesco Anerio.  For more information on Brown during WWI, see this entry in the Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

Collect: O Almighty God, grant we beseech thee, that we, who here do honor to the memory of those who have died in the service of their country, may be so inspired by the spirit of their love and fortitude that, forgetting all selfish and unworthy motives, we may live only to thy glory, to the service of all mankind and in the interests of peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 8:31-39, John 15:9-17

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

Just around the corner from here, a few steps up Thayer Street, there is a monumental stone arch.  It doesn’t cry out what its purpose is, and you might be forgiven for passing by and not noticing.  But next time you’re there, look up.  You’ll see an eagle with outspread wings surmounting a plain pediment and a classical architrave.  The archway itself is flanked by wreaths.  Just above it, two angels bear this message: “To the men of Brown who in the world war gave their lives that freedom may endure.”

Even though the United States did not formally enter the War until 1917, students and faculty began volunteering for service as early as 1915.  In 1915 and 1916, the campus raised funds to send two ambulances to France, and a number of students volunteered to go over with them.  In 1917, Brown’s ROTC was reorganized as the Student Army Training Corps, and the whole University shifted course to prepare for war.  Campus buildings were transformed into barracks and mess halls and the academic calendar was reordered to carry on through the summer, giving training in tactics and engineering to continue the fight in Europe.

By the end of the war, some nineteen hundred students, alumni, faculty, and staff had served in the armed forces, forty-one of whom gave their lives.  It’s a chilling number, but small compared to larger universities in this country and to all sorts of schools and institutions in Europe.  Oxford University’s graduating class of 1913, for example, lost 31% of its members to death in combat.  If that number seems high, remember that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme — the first day! — England alone lost more than 60,000 soldiers.  The battle would eventually claim more than one million lives.  By some estimates, the Great War involved 65 million military participants, with military deaths approaching ten million.  That’s a rate of nearly one in six.

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday falling nearest to the signing of the armistice which ended the War, on November 11, 1918.  This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the war, and remembrance celebrations are marked with special significance.  But what is it that we remember?  And why do we do it?  The last remaining veteran of the War died in 2012.  Most of the nations involved are now allies or partners of one sort or another.  Is there any purpose left in continuing to remember?

Yes there is.  On Remembrance Day we remember first of all those who have died.  It is fitting that the Armistice occurred so close to All Souls Day, when we have the prayers of the dead already echoing in our minds, prayers which we repeat today.  They gave their lives for their countries.  Whether they were on the right side or the wrong side, whether we agree with their politics or not, they did give their lives in service to their country.  More than this, many of them gave their lives for their friends.  As many veterans remark, in foxholes, soldiers fight less for nations and more for the person crouching next to them.  In the face of such malice and destruction as war brings, memory of home and loved ones can fade.  In those moments, sometimes the only link a solider has with humanity and with the promise of goodness is his comrade in arms.  The rest of us are amazed to read stories of courage and valor in which a soldier rescues his fellows, or saves their lives by spending his own: for the sake of people whom he has known only a short while, and whom he would likely never have met otherwise.  We remember their sacrifice, and we give thanks: thanks for such clear examples as these, which echo the sacrifice Our Lord made for all of us.

We remember their sacrifice.  We remember also that it was nations that sent them to war, nations made of people just like us.  We are justly proud of their sacrifice.  But we must never forget that their blood is on the hands of those whom they were sworn to serve, just as much as it is on the hands of their enemies.  We remember them, so that as a nation we will never again allow ourselves to be dragged into carnage such as they faced.  We remember, so that we may repent, and commit ourselves anew to the work of building peace.

Sacrifice and repentance.  These are two reasons that we continue to remember, long after the last veterans are gone.  But more than their sacrifice, more even than our responsibility to build peace, we remember their names.  We remember that they were persons, like you and me: with the same fears and hopes, the same families, the same aspirations.  Why?  Why fixate on their humanity?  Because in remembering, especially remembering in prayer, we build a kind of communion with them.  We refuse to allow death and destruction to have the upper hand.  Though they felt alone and abandoned in the barbed wire fields and mustard gas, we refuse to leave them there.  We remember them.

A friend of mine once visited a war museum in Washington DC.  As he went through the rooms, he came upon a video with interviews of veterans.  One was asked how his faith played a role in his survival through the war.  He replied candidly, saying,  “It didn’t. I could not pray in that hell.”  My friend was moved by this, and went on to the next room.  There he saw a young lady clearly on a school field trip, pressed against the glass of a diorama of the trenches.  She was very quiet, and my friend noticed her hands together.  She was praying.  When she finished, my friend asked, “What are you doing?”  She replied, “That man said he could not pray in the trenches.  So I am praying here for him.”

To remember certainly means to recall information.  But more than this, there is a way in which remembering literally re-members, restores limbs which had been severed.  Today we remember all those who died outside the normal realm of human affection and society, who lost their lives in the horrible machine of war.  We remember them, and we pray for their peace, knowing that in their peace is also finally our own.

We remember their sacrifice, we remember in penitence, and we remember for the sake of knitting together the communion of the living and the dead.  There is also one more kind of remembrance we will engage in today.  As the music of the Sanctus concludes, and the celebrant carries on with the Great Thanksgiving, we will all remember the sacrifice of Our Lord’s own body and blood, made for the forgiveness of sins.  In continuing this perpetual memory, the Holy Spirit descends upon us, and we find present in our midst the Lord Jesus himself, under the signs of bread and wine.  We make our communions, and find that we are brought into communion with him, together with all the redeemed from every age.  This remembrance is the summit and culmination of all our remembering.  In this sacramental memory, we enjoy a foretaste of the coming kingdom: in which God shall be judge of all people, and we shall beat our swords into plow shares, and our spears into pruning hooks; where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall we learn war anymore.  The foretaste of that kingdom is sweet, and we long for its final consummation.

In the meantime, let us resolve to remember: that when that day comes, we may greet it as one people, united in prayer, restored by grace, ready at last for the peace of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


What do we make of death?

A sermon for the Feast of All Souls, 3 November 2014 (transferred)

This sermon was preached at the 6pm Solemn Requiem for All Souls Day.  The mass setting was the plainchant Missa pro defunctis, with minor propers.

Collect: O God, the Maker and Redeemer of all believers; Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of thy Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as thy children; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, John 5:24-27

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

In recent decades there seems to have been a groundswell of interest in remembering the dead.  Inspired perhaps by the Vietnam war memorial, nearly every subsequent monument to war or some other tragedy includes a list of names.  Annual celebrations at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier draw ever greater crowds.  In pop culture, the dead are decidedly in fashion: we are fixated on zombies, hauntings, and murder investigations, as any channel surfing will tell you.  In many corners of the church, remembrance of the faithful departed encroaches on All Saints’ Day, when in many parishes the celebrations for that feast include the lighting of candles, the reading of names, the giving of offerings, or some other token for remembering the departed.  Strangely, our society’s haste to remember the dead is accompanied by a parallel, almost cataclysmic drop in the offering of requiems for the departed, and in the celebration of the feast of All Souls.

There are probably lots of reasons for this, but somewhere in the mix I think there is a confusion of categories.  The feast of All Saints holds in special focus what is often called the Church Triumphant: those persons in whom the grace of God is so clearly and powerfully active that they have been brought to glory, and now contemplate “in full light God himself, triune and one, exactly as he is.”  You and I are members of the Church Militant, struggling daily against the powers of sin and darkness.  It is tempting for us to think about all who have died as having instantly received their reward, brought into the full light of God as new members of the Church Triumphant.  Part of this is out of compassion: we want the best things for our departed loved ones.  Part of this is out of self-interest: we want the best things for ourselves.  Part of this is out of fear: we are afraid of death, and of what life looks like beyond it.  Part of this is out of impatience, extending our culture of instant gratification even to the life of the world to come.  But whatever our temptations, this is not always the case.  There is a third category of the Church, by far the largest of the three: that is the Church Expectant, made up of the vast multitude of the dead who die in the Lord.  They rest from their labors on earth.  They await the final victory of the Lamb, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we will all see God.

What does the Church Expectant look like?  What happens when we die?  The honest truth is that none of us knows.  Or at least not with any great specificity or expertise.  Because of our lack of knowledge, we turn to all manner of coping mechanisms.  We can be defiant about death, or live in denial that it will come for us too.  We can be afraid of it, and take refuge in living a life of few risks.  We can be angry, and lash out against our friends and neighbors when death advances too closely.  We can also glorify death, and worship it if we so choose.  All of us, sooner or later, indulge in these and other ways to cope.  Yet none of them helps us to be reconciled to the reality of death; none of them helps us to survey its contours with any greater accuracy.

What is our response?  How does the Church Militant probe the darkness of the grave?  We turn to the Liturgy, to the place where Our Lord’s own death and resurrection are made manifest in our midst.  At funerals, and especially in this solemn requiem for All Souls, we contemplate the promises of God in Scripture, and sing the canticles of the Church.  We let them mold our imaginations, and give shape to our prayers.  We are not shy about our fear of death, our anguish at the loss of loved ones.  We are explicit about our desire for their good, and our hope that our love for them, and theirs for us, will not diminish with death, but rather grow. We name them at the altar, and with their names echoing in our ears and in our hearts, we receive the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, our foretaste on earth of triumph in heaven.

Yet even in the Liturgy there is darkness.  In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict remarks that, while incense is rightly associated with our prayers, with the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with the ongoing worship of God in heaven, it also functions in a darker way.  The cloud of incense obscures our vision.  It confuses our senses.  It reminds us that, while God comes to us in the Sacrament, we do not and cannot yet see him face to face.  It is significant that at mass we have to pass through the rood screen and into the cloud in order to make our communions; today, even more poignantly, we pass by the catafalque on the way.

What am I trying to say?  As this earthly life ebbs into another, as our senses fail and our powers of understanding weaken, as death looms large and makes its presence known in our lives and even in our worship, we are brought to a point where we can have no confidence in our own strength and courage.  All of our coping mechanisms fall short.  Even our fear subsides before the great immensity of death, and we are left with something like powerless astonishment.  When we are brought to such a point as this, we know we can do nothing of our own.  We can only lean on him who said, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the Age.”  And we have to entrust our departed loved ones to his care.

This is not to deny the hope of the resurrection, or to diminish our yearning for that Day when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised, judgement be given, and we join the angels in the eternal contemplation of the full glory of God.  But it is to say that, just as we make our communions within the cloud of incense, so does Our Lord meet us within the veil of death.  He is a trustworthy guide, and a faithful friend.  He has gone before us, and has marked the way.  He leads our departed loved ones across Death’s plains, through its valleys, and over its peaks.  He will lead us too in the way that we must go, to the place where his Father — our Father — waits above.

In the meantime, while we are still on this earth, we resolve not to run from death.  We see in it the shadowy foreboding of our own mortality, and we hear in it the distant song of the saints.  Above all we pray.  We pray for all the faithful departed.  We carry their names to the altar, we speak them in front of the earthly icon of the heavenly throne, we commend them to the care and keeping of the One who calls all of us out of darkness into his marvelous light.  In our prayer, the Spirit is living and active, binding the whole Church together: Triumphant in heaven, Expectant in death, and Militant here on earth.  In our prayer, we are strengthened for our duties in this life, and we enjoy in spirit that fellowship of unity and peace which on the Last Day we will enjoy face to face.

So let us pray, in Christ’s Name, and for his sake.  So let the living and the dead be forever united, bound together in faith, in hope, and in love.  So may we all, as one Body, come to our eternal rest in the endless splendor of our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


“Put on your mask!”

The following is a brief “homilette” preached at the Low Mass on Halloween in the Lady Chapel at S. Stephen’s Church.  31 October, 2014.  This was preached extemporaneously, and the following is a rough transcript from what I can remember.

Halloween is a holiday when, among other things, we have a good time putting on masks. (I have a Frankenstein mask somewhere that’s decades old but still gets satisfying looks when I put it on).  But we hear in pop psychology that masks are not all that helpful – “Take off your masks,” they say, and “Be the real you.”  This is good advice, as far as it goes.  But from the Church’s perspective, the unsettling thing about masks is not that they obscure the truth, rather that they enable it to come out in a way that it might not otherwise.  There’s nothing untruthful about Halloween and our delight in the silly or even the macabre.  In a lot of ways we are in fact the costumes we wear: son, daughter, student, priest.  These are very deep identities, in addition to being roles we play.  It can all get very confusing, as all of us know.  Which costume am I wearing today?  How do I know if there’s anything really there, underneath all the layers?  In Christ, the answer is Yes, there is a costume that goes far deeper than any others we’re accustomed to wearing.  At our baptism, we are clothed with Christ himself, the visible image of the invisible God, in whose image we are made and whose own character is the truest thing about each of us.  Our whole lives long we strive to grow into that costume, till at last it becomes our wedding garment, for the great wedding supper of the Lamb in heaven.  May this face, whose brow is scarred by thorns, be always the one that we see in the mirror, and always the one that others witness upon us.  May we find in it our truest selves and our strongest love.  Amen.

Religion and the Prophetic Critique

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 2 November 2014.

This sermon was preached at the 8am Low Mass at S. Stephen’s Church.  (We kept the Sunday after All Saints at the 10am, but the propers of the Sunday at 8am.)  It was fitting that these were the readings appointed for the Sunday before Election Day – though no part of this sermon is intended as a direct commentary on any particular race or campaign!

Collect: Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may run without stumbling to obtain thy heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

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

Every once in a while, the lectionary presents us with Sunday readings which might be characterized as having a skeptical view of political and religious institutions.  In truth, there would be more Sundays like this if the lectionary included more readings from the minor prophets, like today’s from Micah.  Throughout Holy Scripture, and especially in the prophets, there runs an iconoclastic strain critiquing the authorities of the day.  Reforming theologians and revolutionary politicians have taken hold of this strain, and make battle cries of its chief passages in their efforts to upset the status quo.

What are we to make of passages such as these?  Especially at a place like S. Stephen’s, where we invest great spiritual and material resources into maintaing Christian Tradition as we have received it?

First of all, the perspective of the prophet has to be taken into consideration.  Micah began as a prophet during the days of King Jotham, a good king.  He finished his days as a prophet during the reign of King Hezekiah, another good king.  Scripture lauds both of them for the integrity of their faith.  But their reigns were not universally positive. Scripture also notes that beither one of them tore down the high places across the countryside, where the people were making sacrifices to the minor deities of hill and forest.  This was fodder enough for Micah the prophet to rail against even good kings.  But in the middle of his prophetic career, Micah had a much worse king to deal with: Ahaz.

Ahaz did not merely tolerate his people’s idolatry in the high places, but joined them himself.  Worse than that, he sacrificed his own children by fire to the god Molech.  He provoked a fight with the kingdom of Damascus, and ended up losing a number of cities in the war that followed.  To save himself Ahaz went to the king of Assyria, Tiglath-Pileser III.  Assyria, gearing up for its own campaign of conquest, was only too happy to “help” Ahaz, and promptly conquered the kingdom of Damascus — from which vantage point he later launched campaigns against Samaria, and from which a later king of Assyria, Sargon II, would totally destroy Israel.  In exchange for its assistance, Assyria demanded a vast payment of treasure, which led Ahaz to despoil the Temple and send off its gold and bronze to Assyria.  Late in Ahaz’ reign, the King of Assyria himself visited Jerusalem, and as an act of courtly hospitality, Ahaz ordered a second altar to be installed in the temple for the gods of Assyria, and burnt sacrifices upon it.  He gave over part of the temple precincts to house the royal entourage.

Micah had a lot to be angry about.  But it wasn’t the institution of religion as such.  It was the betrayal perpetrated by those in authority against the sacred duties which were their charge.  They not only allowed the people to persist in idolatry, they committed it themselves; and not only this, they impoverished the nation with pointless conflicts and costly treaties.  They were Israelites, and their rhetoric was that of the patriarchs and the prophets.  But their actions were self-serving, self-deluded, and wicked.  Micah declares that the solution of God would be to destroy Jerusalem, and the lying prophets which contributed to its decadence.

This is the perspective of Micah the prophet.  He was not condemning priesthood or prophecy as such, but the wrong use of these offices toward selfish ends.  His words should be interpreted not as a call for the destruction of religious institutions, but a defense of their value as originally conceived, and a call to purify them for future generations.

Second of all, it’s important to remember how Micah’s prophecy ultimately bears fruit.  Shortly after Micah’s death, Sennacherib king of Assyria destroyed what was left of Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel, and made incursions deep into Judah, laying siege even to Jerusalem.  Several generations later, Nebuchadnezzar king of Bablyon destroyed Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah, razing the temple and taking the people into exile.  But even in exile, God was still with his people.  Their faith was tested, but their religion continued.  When they finally returned to Judah, they rebuilt the temple, and the line of the prophets was restored.

In the Gospel today we hear similar words of critique from Our Lord.  He warned his disciples against the pharisees and the sadducees.  He highlights the same issues from Micah’s day: their rhetoric is that of the patriarchs and the prophets, but their hearts are not true.  The Sadducees, colluding with the Romans, meant to enrich themselves at the cost of creating a permanent peasant class.  The Pharisees, ostensibly advocates of the people, nevertheless tied them in knots with hyper-sensitivity to every aspect of the Law, and many lesser ordinances which had accreted to it over the centuries.

From Our Lord’s perspective, religion was not a bad institution as such.  But its authorities had betrayed the charge God had given them.  His critique, together with Micah’s, suggests that true religion, far from being a heavy burden, is actually the means of liberation, equality, and justice for all people.

How did His critique ultimately bear fruit?  We know the story: he gave himself as the perfect Lamb of God, and fulfilled the old Law with all its demands.  His own sacrifice is the great sacrifice in which all true worship now consists; his own life the life which we all share; his own heart the source of the Love which is a greater defense than any military alliance could ever achieve.

Let us work to align our hearts with his, that we may speak not merely Christian-sounding rhetoric, but words of real freedom and release.  Let us always keep the feast of his victory, and worship him on earth, that we may at last enter his kingdom in heaven.

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