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: April, 2015

“Doubting Thomas”

The following sermon was preached at S. Stephen’s Church, at 8am and 10am on April 12, 2015, the second Sunday of Easter.  Music for the 10am included the plainchant Missa Marialis, Liszt’s trombone/organ duet Hosanna for Baßposaune und Orgel, and Hans Hassler’s anthem Quia vidisti me, Thoma.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery hast established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; 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: Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

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

Doubting Thomas.  Poor Thomas is one of those disciples we love to rag on a little bit, along with Simon Peter.  He appears a few other places in the Gospels, but today’s passage is the moment he really shines.  First of all we notice he wasn’t there on Easter Day: absent, unexcused, truant.  I imagine he gets poor marks from teachers for that.  Where was he?  We don’t know.  What could have been more important that kept him away?  We don’t know that either.

He gets poor marks from party-goers too: he wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared and ate and drank with his disciples.  And he’s a party-pooper to boot: when he finally does show up, a week late, he refuses to get swept up in all the excitement going around.  He seems to be something of a pessimist, even an Eeyore character, moping because he’s lost his tail.

The thing that’s always a little more troubling though, is Thomas’ over-reliance on his sight, on the ability of his physical senses to tell him the truth.  This is what Jesus gently criticizes him for. “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  In our world today there are plenty of people who would say that something cannot be true unless it can be observed by the senses and tested and repeated.  It sounds like a good and reliable policy, and good science is based on a similar procedure.  But if something cannot be true unless it can be scientifically observed and quantitatively measured, then we have to dispense with things like love, and beauty, and justice — and all the other intangible qualities that make human life a rich and fulfilling thing, and which give shape and voice to the aspirations we have for our lives, our society, and our world.  We make Thomas the poster child example of the foolishness of this idea.

But is this all that’s going on in this passage?  Is St. John just pointing out silly doubting Thomas for us to take heed?  I don’t think so.  John is an extremely clever writer, and his Gospel is one of the most artfully constructed books in the Bible.  He does not waste words, or characters.  Why does he tell the story about Thomas?  What is he trying to tell us?

First of all I think, John is making a point about recognition.  The other disciples have already seen Jesus.  He has already shown them his hands and his side; they already know it is the Lord.  How do we recognize Jesus?  For John, it is inseparable from seeing his wounds.  This is the Crucified one, who has risen from the dead; he whom the disciples had all forsaken and abandoned, he whom you and I sin against in all our many failures of love.  This man, with pierced hands and speared side, is the one who appears to us speaking,  “Peace be with you.”

Second of all, the way St. John tells the story, Thomas is actually the first disciple to understand one of Jesus’ most important points.  When Thomas hears Jesus speaking, and sees his hands and his side, he says, “My Lord and my God.”  St. John declared right away in the Prologue that Jesus is the Son of God, and all the disciples have referred to him as “the Lord” now and then.  But no one until Thomas had prefaced those titles with the possessive “my.”  It’s a touching moment, Thomas claiming the risen Lord for himself.

It is touching, and it is also a turning point for Thomas.  In saying what he does, “My Lord and my God,” he confesses his willingness to take ownership of who Jesus is for him, and to take responsibility for those beliefs and that devotion.  We don’t hear anything more about Thomas in the New Testament, but church tradition and other ancient sources tell us that after Pentecost, Thomas sailed for India, and preached the Gospel up and down that country.  He planted churches in the North and in the South, before finally facing martyrdom.  Today there are still Christian churches in India which trace their history back to Thomas.  He is the patron saint of India.

Sometimes I think it’s easy for us to think of the Resurrection as just a happy epilogue to the more difficult work of Holy Week; or worse, like a pleasant symbol which doesn’t really mean much but makes us feel good about Spring and helps us get over hard times.  But make no mistake: the resurrection is a disruption, an enormous disruption, of greater magnitude by far than Good Friday.  The one who was crucified has risen from the dead.  “The only things for certain in life are death and taxes,” we say, and all the more now that April 15 is around the corner.  But Jesus’ resurrection breaks the power of Death.  And the final authority of the State which sentenced him to die, with its power to count and to tax, is broken also.  The world is no longer as it appeared on Good Friday.  A human beachhead has been made in eternity, and a divine beachhead has been made on earth.  Neither one can ever be the same.

In our worship, you and I — with Thomas — claim Jesus as our Lord and our God.  We cannot get away with saying this all the time and then not doing anything about it.  We have to take ownership of the things we say and the faith we try to cultivate, and the kind of life we know to be God’s promise for us and for the world.  I don’t mean that we have to have all the answers.  But I do mean that we cannot just sit idle.  No one thinks taxes will file themselves, or credit cards bills will be paid of their own accord.  In order to survive in this world we have to take ownership of our finances or face the consequences.  Likewise we have to take ownership of our health, or reap the rewards of neglect.  Likewise in our jobs, in our politics, and even with our friends and families.  Love does not grow without our conscious decision to invest time and effort into those we care about.  We cannot say we love someone and then ignore them.  Even so, we cannot claim “My Lord and my God” and then do nothing.

Tourism is a wonderful thing.  We travel to new places, we see new things, we meet new people.  We take lots of pictures, we eat lots of good food.  And every time, whether the destination is far away or close by, we find our horizons broadened and our world enlarged.  But if you’ve ever moved to a new place, you know there comes a point when the initial surge of tourism wears off, and you begin the long, slow task of building a life wherever you are.  Once-exotic locations become familiar landmarks, and the strangers you once snagged to snap your picture on the corner become your neighbors and friends.  You get out of bed in the morning no longer to be a tourist, flitting through cities and neighborhoods crossing things off bucket lists, but now to build a life: to take ownership of the very places and relationships where once you were merely a guest.

Our Lord’s resurrection is an event that makes tourists of us all.  We see the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene, we walk with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we visit the upper room and watch Thomas see the nail wounds.  We stand amazed at the very idea of a dead man rising to life, and we wonder at his words of forgiveness.  The strangeness of the feast makes tourists of us all.

But the Crucified Jesus, who rose from the dead, claims us as his own.  We have been brought by baptism into his own family.  Likewise we claim him, day in and day out, as our Lord and God.  This second Sunday of Easter, as we hear again the story of doubting Thomas, I encourage us all to be like Thomas: he did not settle for being a tourist of his own faith, but took ownership of it and of the Lord and God he claimed for his own.  Put down the cameras and the sunglasses and the bucket lists, and live.  Own your conviction, own your hope, and live them from them both.

In short, with Thomas, let us build a life in the kingdom of God.  Learn its neighborhoods, love its citizens, follow its king.  He may lead you to India, or he may not.  But he will certainly make his earthly home with you, and finally welcome you to his in heaven.

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

The Great Vigil of Easter

Christ Harrowing Hell, Fra Angelico (15th c.). In the church of San Marco, Florence.

Christ Harrowing Hell, Fra Angelico (15th c.). In the church of San Marco, Florence.

The following sermon was preached at the Easter Vigil at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, on April 4th, 2015.  Music included Charpentier’s (1643-1704) Messe pour le Samedy de Pasques, and the anthem Gloria in excess Deo by Thomas Weelkes (c.1575-1623)

Collect: O God, who didst make this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in thy Church that spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship thee in sincerity and truth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Romans 6:3-11, Mark 16:1-8; (plus seven prophecies from the Old Testament at the beginning of the Great Vigil)

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

One of the hardest things about being a priest is attending moments of pain and loss in people’s lives, and not having anything to say.  You can imagine the scenario: a person on their deathbed with a terrible disease, surrounded by their family, with a priest standing near.  The priest performs the last rites and stays to talk.  The family is grief-stricken and grateful for the visit.  But their questions aren’t answered.  They look to the priest and ask, either directly or indirectly, what do we make of all this?  How are we supposed to believe in a loving God now?  In those moments, there is really very little to say.

It’s not that there isn’t a huge body of theological reflection on suffering and healing.  Scripture is full of good advice and comforting words alike.  And of course the chief doctrines of our faith assert the resurrection of the dead, while not denying that death is still a force to be reckoned with.  The question of why a good God continues to allow suffering and death has produced more pages of writing, more philosophical and theological careers, more poetry and art, than probably any other question that human beings ask.

And yet in the moment itself, at that hospital bed, there are no words to say by way of explanation or meaning that will not sound hollow or disingenuous.  It is one of the hardest things about being a priest.

Why is this?  Why do words come up short?  Because usually, in those moments, families don’t want answers, even if they are asking questions.  What they want is the same thing you and I want in such moments: they and we both want our loved ones restored to us.  When we try to answer the strong yearning of love with mere words, they fail because they are only words; and they require more words to explain themselves; and more words about words, until there is nothing but meaningless noise.

In those moments words fail.   All that remains is the encounter with a dying person, and their suffering family.  There are no explanations.  There are no magic words.  There is only the act of the will, to stay near one another; only the will of our memory, to remember one another even when we depart this life.

But here’s the thing, and here’s what makes this an Easter sermon (in case you were worried!).  In that encounter, in that commitment to be near one another and to keep each other in our memories, there are the seeds of grace.  This is the stuff love is made of: resolute steadfastness, a refusal to forget one another even in the face of pain and loss; offering whatever we have to the one in need, from our financial support to our emotional reserve.  In the business of love we offer our whole selves to the person we love.  Couples married for decades sometimes tell me that just when they thought they knew everything about each other, their husband or wife does something that reveals untold depths still unplumbed.  In love, in this offering of one to another, there lies true knowledge: ever growing and ever deepening, until we hardly know ourselves apart from the ones we love; until we ourselves are constituted in the love of our family and friends; plumbing every deeper into this mystery of mutual self-giving.

Even so on Holy Saturday.  The paschal mystery of Our Lord’s sacrifice and death, of his resurrection and eternal life, is constituted precisely in this: that even on the cross, suffering as he was under the weight of untold sin and darkness, Jesus does not shrink from the encounter with his tormentors, or with death itself.  Even as they conspire to take his life, He freely offers it to his Father, and prays for their forgiveness.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do . . . Into your hands I commend my Spirit.”  Jesus refuses to leave the ones he loves, commending his Spirit to his Father in heaven even as he prepares to descend for our sake into Hades, to break the power of death and rescue those it holds captive.

Back in the hospital room, we often think of the person lying in bed as the one in need, and of course they are in many ways.  But it’s no coincidence that families are often reconciled while their mother or father or sister or brother is facing their last fight.  In those cases, it is often clear that the one who is dying is the one who is the minister and physician, not whomever shows up in a clerical collar or a doctor’s coat.  “Mom would have wanted it this way,” the family says, and long-standing grievances are forgiven.

On Holy Saturday, it is the same.  Yesterday, on Good Friday, we mourned the death of an innocent victim, and we engaged in some soul-searching to discern our complicity in his death.  Today, as we learn the news of his resurrection and hear the Angels’ greeting, we realize that we were the ones who were sick all along; and the Crucified Victim was the minister of reconciliation and healing.  Far from being chaplains and nurses at Christ’s cross, you and I are the dead and dying ones he came to visit, and by his visit raise us to share in his eternal life.  We are the objects of his will, the ones he refuses to abandon.  We are the ones whom he reconciles to one another and to God, even as he hung dying, and descended to the dead.

In the face of such love as this, words do fail.  But one word remains: that word is a name, and the name is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”  Here, at this Easter vigil, we celebrate that even death itself was not able to keep him from us. Tonight we celebrate that, by this victory, death itself is not able to keep us from him.

We have recalled our baptism, we have prayed the great Litany of the Saints, we have heard the great sweep of salvation across time and space.  Here in this place we are knit in one communion and fellowship with the resurrected Son of God.  Here in this moment, all are brought together in the beginning of eternal joy.  We are redeemed, death is put to flight, and creation is renewed.  Emmanuel, “God-with-us”; and, by his grace, Us-with-God forever.  Our Lord is risen from the dead, and there is now not a single place where God is not; not a single person consigned without hope to the silence of the grave.  All are caught up in that Word which was in the beginning with God: Emmanuel, God with us, us in God.

In a few moments we will come to the first mass of Easter.  Let this communion be for us the answer to the questions we ask, the fulfillment of our love’s yearning.  In it we will recall again Our Lord’s passion and death, his sacrifice of himself and his glorious resurrection.  But more than this, we are brought by the Holy Spirit to Our Lord’s table in heaven, and are constituted as his kingdom, his family, forever.  Here is the ground of our being, here is the beginning of all our knowledge, here is the kingdom of love, victorious over death.

Let us resolve to be near him as he is near to us, and let us resolve to love one another to the end.  So may we and all whom we love taste and see that the Lord is good, and know that his love abides forever.

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