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: February, 2015

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

This sermon was preached at the 12pm and 6pm masses on Ash Wednesday at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence.  Music for the day included a plainchant mass setting according to Tone VII, Allegri’s Miserere, Aaron Copland’s anthem Have mercy on us, O my Lord, and a J.S. Bach organ voluntary on the chorale O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross.  (Full disclosure: this sermon is a major revision of the sermon I preached for the same day in 2013, as curate at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado.)

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, amy 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.

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the great contributions of any civilization is its art.  From Michaelangelo’s David to Incan temples to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, there is something about the stunningly beautiful that gives us pause: that lets us glimpse an ultimate reality, that seems to prove beyond doubt that there is something more out there, something better, something pure and true.  And we think that if we could just find it, if we could just lay our hands on it, our world would make sense, our lives would have meaning and value and a beauty of their own.  So we hold up the ideal.  We look for the Davids, the shining marble statues, and we strive for them, to possess them for our own.

The same is true in that part of our lives we call spiritual.  We know what we ought to do, and we have patterns that show us how to ascend the dizzying heights of holiness: people like Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa; like the anonymous alcoholic who has turned his life around; and famous names from ages past, like Francis, and Julian of Norwich.  We recognize in them lives well-lived, full of wisdom and peace and goodness.  They show us what life can be, invested with the glory of God.  And we think that if we could just be a little more like them we would be all right.

Art’s great communication of human beauty, and the saints’ great communication of spiritual glory: both are treasures in any civilization.  But on Ash Wednesday, the ashes remind us that the image of the pristine marble statue is hollow; or if not hollow, then at least it’s only a part of the story.  Life is messy.  We screw up.  We hurt each other.  We hurt ourselves.  We do not live up to our own expectations.  We are embarrassed by the truth of our lives.  We are only too aware that there is a huge gap between the portrait of our lives and the portrait of the life of even the least of the saints.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  Today’s ashes remind us that the vast uninteresting sequence of uninteresting moments — fraught with small failures and the rotten fruits of human weakness — that this sequence is not some departure from a golden ideal which it is our task to recover.  But rather today’s ashes remind us that this sequence lies near to the foundation of human life, perhaps one of the few things each one of us has in common.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  The beauteous archetype may be out there somewhere, but even David grew old and died.  Even Bach was panned by his critics.  Even Francis was lonely and frustrated.  Life is not a pristine marble statue.  As this ash reminds us of our mortality, it also reminds us that the life we live is characterized by fits and starts, by confusion and injury and loss, and starting over again.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  Dust.  Into which God breathed to create human life.  It is dust of the earth, our dust, which is the connection between us and God.  Our dust.  Not our perfection.

Art is a treasure because it points towards the ultimate reality of the Beauty of God.  It points, but it does not plant that Beauty in us.  It is instead our weakness, our brokenness that leads us to God, and it is our dust in which God plants his beauty.  We follow Jesus, not to the heights of earthly splendor, but into the desert, where he faces the basest temptations of human nature.  We follow Jesus, not to the dizzying heights of personal sanctity, but to the cross, where he hangs the willing subject of death.

There is nothing pretty about this, nothing that sings of Greek proportion, no beautiful edifice of perfect harmony.  It is messy, and difficult, with a tangle of loose ends.  We are constantly tripping over each other and ourselves.  Yet this is the way of the cross.  This is the way of Jesus.  This is the way of God.  And the beauty of this Way of Dust is not that fallible human beings can succeed in painting portraits which resemble God.  But rather the beauty of this Way of Dust is that God interjects himself into our lives, into our dust: into our lowest embarrassments and most mundane failures, as well as into our best loves.  In this way, God himself becomes the artist, not we ourselves, and you and I become his self portrait.  Our lives become shot through with his glory, and the whole creation echoes back the song of the angels.

This Lent I hope we will take seriously this Way of Dust.  Its call on us is to take a close look at our lives, to repent of our sins and of all the ways in which we try to keep God out, the ways in which we try to keep our dust for ourselves like a greedy child taking over the sandbox.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  We are nothing more and nothing less than this pile of dust and the breath of God.  Let us welcome God’s breath as we live our messy lives.  Let us follow Jesus into the desert and be fashioned there into the image of his glory.

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

Do not stay on your sickbed.

The following sermon was preached at S. Stephen’s Providence, at 8am and 10am on Sunday February 8, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  The mass setting was the premier of a work by Steven Serpa, sometime member of the Schola at S. Stephen’s and currently a doctoral candidate at University of Texas, Austin.  He calls it his Missa Brevis ‘Eya martyr Stephane’ after the medieval carol which provides the musical inspiration for the work.

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

Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him of her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted he up, and the fever left her; and she began to serve them.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Today’s Gospel gives us a rare peek into the domestic life of Jesus and his first disciples.  Simon Peter had a mother-in-law who lived in the same town just a short distance from his own house.  She was sick.  Simon and his brother Andrew, obviously fond of her, tell Jesus about her illness.  He goes to her immediately and performs his second miraculous healing in the Gospel of Mark.  Mark, in his characteristic style, is breathless to tell us what happened, piling clause on clause: “and this, and that, and then this.”  The whole thing is a touching scene of familial devotion.

What is really unique, however, is what Simon’s mother-in-law does after she is healed: she gets up and serves them.  In other healing, the person healed goes home, praises God, gives thanks, tells their neighbors, talks with the priests, or decides to follow Jesus.  But in this case Simon’s mother-in-law gets up from her sick bed and serves them.  How does she serve them?  The text tells us that evening is advancing.  Maybe she serves them dinner.  Maybe she washes their feet.  We don’t know.

What is certain is that it is her own particular response.  Just as Mary’s reply to Gabriel, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” is not mere passive assent but a supreme act of personal agency; just as Mary Magdalene, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair is to her credit through every generation; so also with Simon’s mother-in-law.  Her response to her healing is to get up and serve Jesus and his disciples.  It is a free act, the first choice of her new life, free of fever and sickness.

Her actions were typical for women of the period.  Keeping a household fed and in order would have been a familiar task, and a heroic one.  But getting up from her sickbed to serve Jesus and his disciples began a new thing.  By this act she enters into a new kind of relationship with the one who healed her, and with Peter and Andrew her family.  Jesus for her is no longer just someone her kids talk about.  Her sons-in-law are no longer just fishing industry drop-outs.  She has experienced healing firsthand, and by serving she makes herself part of the household of the one who healed her.

What about you and me?  Some of the most significant moments in our lives, some of the most powerful stories we tell about ourselves, are of times when we have experienced firsthand the forgiveness of God: Divine healing and restoration in parts of our lives we had long since consigned to hell, or to Judgement Day at the very least.  Some people today even continue to experience miraculous recoveries from illness.  Wherever we are in our lives, each of us can probably identify at least one or two moments when we have known firsthand the grace of God.

The magnitude of our healing is always clearly visible by comparison with the depths to which we had sunk.  Addicts in recovery know this better than most.  Like Simon’s mother-in-law bed-ridden with fever, so we can find ourselves dead in sin, unable to achieve even the smallest good by reason of our being mired in destructive habits and misaligned priorities.  In these moments, it takes a Savior to bring us to our senses, to give us the medicine of grace, and to lead us in a better way.

When this kind of healing happens, it is cause for rejoicing, and for response.  As a priest one of my most treasured privileges is to hear, occasionally, a first confession.  The pure, unmitigated joy that a penitent shows when his or her own specific sins have been absolved is nothing short of miraculous (and contagious!).  To me it always speaks volumes that their next impulse is to amend their lives with loving enthusiasm, out of thanks to Christ who gave himself up to death that they might live.  Our forgiveness, our healing, always demands a response to our Physician.

That response, whatever it is, is always an expression of liberation from death.  It puts us in a new relationship to the one who heals us.  Maybe you remember the show, “Rescue 9-1-1” narrated by William Shatner.  It documented 9-1-1 calls, and the stories of the patients and their families with the rescue team and health workers who nursed them back to health.  In every case, Patients and Rescuers both  expressed clear affection and familial devotion for these new people in their lives, in addition to the gratitude and satisfaction we might expect.  It is the same with us and Jesus.  Our healing brings us into a new relationship with him, and with everyone else whom he has also healed.

What is this new relationship?  For Simon’s mother-in-law, it meant being incorporated into a larger household than she had at first, the household of her healer and redeemer.  But more than this, she is sometimes regarded as the first Deacon.  The Greek word which we translate as “she served them” is diakonei the same root word which describes the first seven official “Deacons” at the beginning of Acts.  Simon’s mother-in-law is the prototype of the protomartyr, Stephen, our patron here and the patron of Deacons.  Our Lord healed her from a deadly illness, and she served them; Stephen served in the Lord’s name, and died for his sake, whereupon he received the martyr’s crown of eternal life.  They are mirror images of one another.

What about us? What do we become when Jesus heals us? Each of us is inclined, by personality and by gift of the Holy Spirit, to respond in different ways.  But what is common to us all is that we are brought into closer relationship with Jesus and with all the redeemed in the body of his Church. Closer, more in touch, more deeply bound to God and to one another, more responsible for each other’s welfare and integrity.

In a special way, Simon’s mother-in-law lived the words which Jesus will preach later in the Gospel of Mark: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant … For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  She makes no further appearance in the Gospels, and we are left to surmise that she lived the rest of her life in this pattern of response to the healing Word which Jesus spoke to her.  That Word formed the foundation of her life from then on.

It is the same with us.  The Word which speaks forgiveness and healing into our lives remains a constant companion our whole lives long.  At times comforting, at times unsettling, it continuously refreshes us even as it continuously calls us into a closer relationship with the One who speaks it, and with all who hear him speaking.  It does not leave us the same, but draws us ever on: to new heights of joy, to new depths of humility, to new deserts of repentance; to new gardens of higher innocence, to a new household of deeper love.

What do we take from all this?  Do not stay on your sick bed! The Word of life is spoken, the Son of God is risen from the dead.  Do not stay on your sick bed.  It is comfortable, its contours are familiar, it is a world in which we flatter ourselves to think we are sole kings and undisputed monarchs, masters of our own destiny, and deserving of all honor and indulgence. But the sickbed of sin leads only to death: to stay there is to be deaf to the Word, and to consign ourselves to silence, isolation, and the grave.

Instead, hear the Word of forgiveness and healing: “Take up your mat and walk.”  Get up from your bed, and serve the Lord who heals you.  Take hold of the new life his forgiveness brings.  See the great multitude who are now your brothers and sisters, who share in the joy of eternal life.  See them, and love them.  We are all members of the household of God, and therefore members of one another.  Let us love one another, serve one another, and so join our voices to all those everywhere who echo the Word of life: Speaking healing into the lives our neighbors, and living to the praise of his Name who makes us his own forever.

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