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"


The following sermon was preached at 5:30pm on Friday August 7, 2015, at St. George’s Chapel of St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island. This was a service of Choral Evensong as part of the Royal School of Church Music summer course in Newport, for which I serve as chaplain with Fr. Dane Boston. Music for the evening included Responses by Craig Philips, Canticles from the Evening Service in E by Herbert Murrill, Bairstow’s setting of the medieval text “Blessed City, Heavenly Salem,” and Bainton’s setting of Revelation 21:1-4, “And I saw a new heaven.”

Collect: O God, whom saints and Angels delight to worship in heaven: be ever present with us your servants who seek through music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to us even now glimpses of your beauty, and make us worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: Acts 19:21-41; Mark 9:14-29

“Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.

Sometimes, heaven can sound a little disappointing. If you’re like me, you might be worried that all those angels might not turn out to be the most fun company, and that all those clouds might be just a little bit too plain. Even singing praise to God, while a lot of fun, can also be exhausting — and maybe, if that’s all we’ll be doing, maybe it might be just the tiniest bit boring.

Our theme for this year’s course is heaven, and you all have been singing beautiful psalms and hymns and spiritual songs about heaven. You’ve heard Canon Boston preach a sermon about the ways we can see heaven even now, at work among us. But all that notwithstanding, sometimes it really is hard to see just what all the fuss is about to begin with.

The father in this evening’s Gospel is a good example of what I’m talking about. His son is in need of healing. It’s not a complicated need, and Jesus has performed lots of similar healings. The father has every reason to believe that when he brings his Son to Jesus, he will be healed. But Jesus is away when he arrives, so he asks the disciples for their help instead. They have performed similar healings too. This one shouldn’t be difficult. But for some unknown reason, they can’t heal this man’s son.

Their failure causes an argument in the crowd, and this is when Jesus arrives on the scene. The father is sadly losing patience: his son is still sick, his hopes are disappointed, and on top of it all, he finds himself at the center of a very public scene. This is not what he wanted.

Most of us know what it’s like to have our hopes disappointed. It’s always a hard thing to experience. But it’s especially hard when our hopes are high, and when the thing we hope for is good and right. The father in our Gospel passage only wants his son to be made well. Maybe you have some examples of your own, of good hopes disappointed. This is why, when we’re talking about heaven, that it’s important to speak frankly about our desires, and about why the images of heaven we see in cartoons and greeting cards leave so much to be desired. (Hard as it may seem to believe, I’ve never met a single person who loves harp music so much they want to sit listening to Angels play it all day, every day, for all eternity!)

The things you and I desire are usually much more, well, down to earth than the popular portrayals of heaven. We want to live in peace with family and loved ones. We want to be free from the limitations of bodily life, we want to be able to do what’s right. These are all things we try to accomplish even while we’re still here on earth. And it always feels pretty crummy when we can’t manage to do it.

The father in our reading wants to take care of his son. He brings him to Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples can’t help. Jesus himself seems only to scold him: “All things are possible for the one who believes.” The father’s response is the hinge, the key to the whole episode. He says, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.”

It’s important because by saying this, the father surrenders the outcome to Jesus. No longer is he asking for a service to be performed for his son. Now he makes a prayer, that he himself be brought to greater faith, greater trust, greater peace. It’s a remarkable surrender, and no longer insists on any outcome but the one Jesus is willing to give. Jesus responds by healing his son. The crowd marvels, and father and son go on their way together, restored.

When you and I face disappointments and failed hopes, the Christian faith asks us to surrender them to Jesus. This is close to the heart of what prayer is all about to begin with: surrendering things, people, projects, goals, hopes, to Jesus; offering them to him, allowing him to do with them according to his own purpose. Only in this way do we get ourselves sufficiently out of the way to allow God to do his work in us.

The Christian faith doesn’t ask us to surrender only disappointments to Jesus either, but every part of our selves: every desire, every hope, every good wish and noble goal. This allows Jesus to work in us and in the world. And it gets us near to him by the act of surrender.

What does all this have to do with heaven, with clouds, and with Angels playing harps? If heaven is going to be more for us than merely a disappointing litany of unsatisfying images, we have to surrender it to Jesus too. Offer all our ideas, all our fondest hopes, all our nagging fears about the kingdom of heaven, to Jesus, to whom that kingdom belongs.

“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” Once we make that surrender, our Lord will make haste to help us. He will welcome us into his kingdom, and help us to see how its contours spread over the whole earth and encompass the heights of heaven. When we surrender what we want out of heaven, our Lord is free to give us what it really is and means: not a reward for good behavior, but eternal life in his nearer presence for ever, with Angels, archangels, apostles, prophets, martyrs, and all the faithful departed; where the mysteries of grace continually unfold, and we are brought to the fullness of the stature of Christ himself, our master and our friend.

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

The Good Shepherd

The following sermon was preached at 8am, 10am, and 5:30pm on Sunday July 19, at St. Michael & St. George.

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: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

“Woe to the shepherds, who scatter and destroy the sheep of my pasture!” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

In seminary many of us knew about Jeremiah 23, and frankly we were all just a little bit terrified. Jeremiah is talking about priests and prophets, religious leaders who in his day had sold out to the idols of Egypt, Phoenicia, and Aram. They had set up images of those gods in the towns and villages, even in the temple itself; and they took the people’s offerings and made sacrifices to these other gods. Whatever was left they kept for themselves.

Why did they do it? It’s hard to say for sure, but likely it was a combination of all sorts of things. Like all people at all times, they needed allies, and adopting foreign religious practices is an effective way to prove good faith to potential friends. The people themselves may have been enticed by the novelty of multiple deities, and no doubt there was a market for importing exotic religion into daily life.

By Jeremiah’s day, many centuries had passed since Moses had led the people out of Egypt, and it was even a few hundred years after David and Solomon. It would have been easy to forget the urgency of those shepherds’ devotion to God, and the significance of a whole people devoted to his service. What did it matter if the priests sacrificed to Asherah, if the royal prophets counseled alliances at any cost, if fraud and deceit and corruption were the order of the day rather than accountability to the Law?

However it all happened, Jeremiah holds the shepherds accountable. They are the ones to whom it had been given to look after the people, and keep them in the service and love of God. For anyone who is called “pastor,” or anyone else whose responsibilities include leading people, Jeremiah’s words today are very harsh. It’s a good thing the prophet offers an alternative, in one of the most famous and well-beloved images in the Bible. God says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock . . . and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” God declares himself his people’s shepherd.

It’s fitting we also heard the 23rd Psalm this morning, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We love this image, of the Lord being our shepherd. For my part, it’s a welcome relief to consider that even pastors have a pastor, the same One who is shepherd to us all. It’s no surprise that Jesus makes extensive use of the same image to describe his own ministry, and the Gospel writers continually make the same point.

In our Gospel today, Jesus looks with compassion on the crowd because they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” And even though he was on his way to escape the crowd for a bit, he tends to their needs instead. The theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd was so beloved by the early church that it was among the first things they painted in the Catacombs, an inspiring image even while they faced persecution.

But what does it mean for all of us to be under the care of the Good Shepherd? It’s not always as bucolic as it might seem. First of all it means our lives are fundamentally nomadic. No matter how much we might be at home in a particular pasture, we will always need to leave it before too long. Shepherds move their sheep constantly, in order to bring the flock to fresh pasture, and also in order not to overgraze the land.

On this earth you and I are always guests and sojourners, being led by our Shepherd finally to our true and lasting home in heaven. Heaven always stretches before us. And even when we depart this life for that one, we will continue in our pilgrimage, never stopping but traveling further into the mysteries of the grace of God.

Even our church services imitate this constant movement: along this long nave here at St. Michael and St. George, every week we start at the back and move forwards, towards the altar, finally receiving a foretaste of the heavenly banquet before returning to our lives in the world.

Second of all, following the Good Shepherd on our nomadic track means recognizing we do so with lots of other sheep. Sheep get a bad rap because they often blindly follow one another, which can get them into trouble. But another way to look at it is to see that sheep trust each other implicitly, and rely on each other to get where they need to go. When one makes an error, many others are affected — not because they are stupid (though why might be!) — but because they would rather be led into error than break the bonds of fellowship and trust which unite the flock.

If you and I are to be reliable guides for our fellow members in the flock of God, we must do everything in our power always to be listening for the voice of the Shepherd. Only when the whole flock listens for his voice with one accord will we be led in safety to the place where we are going. In other words, we have a responsibility to one another to listen carefully to Jesus’ voice, and to do everything in our power to remain within earshot. Come to the Daily Office and the weekday Eucharist; attend each other’s events, participate in our outreach ministries. Look after one another, and pray together. The whole church is strengthened by each individual’s devotion, and the integrity of the whole Body is built up by each member acting in concert with one another, under the Shepherd’s direction.

Finally, the third point I want to highlight about living under a common Shepherd: the metaphor is about sheep and their Shepherd, but it doesn’t stop there. Our Good Shepherd is not only a shepherd, but is also the perfect Lamb of God. What does that mean? He is himself the final sacrifice which takes away the sin of the world. And while he comes from the courts of heaven to all the dustbins of earth, to your heart and mine, he does not come as a condescending lord, but as a brother, a lamb among sheep, to make us members of his own household for ever.

There are very few things in religion more wonderful than considering the Good Shepherd, how he calls to each of us and how we might respond to his voice. But it is a risky life! There is no final security in homes or possessions, but a nomadic journey from earth to heaven. There is no striking out on our own paths, but accountability to the rest of our Shepherd’s flock, and a responsibility to be reliable guides for one another as we listen to his voice. We follow him not to fulfill our own designs but to be forgiven where we have gone astray from his designs, and to share his kingdom, his power, his glory, forever.

Let us be careful, then, of trying to be our own shepherds. Let us pay attention to the voice of Him who is the Good Shepherd of us all.

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

“The Scandal of Particularity”

The following sermon was preached at 8am, 10am, and 5:30pm at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, in St. Louis, Missouri. This was my first Sunday back from Maine, and was also the day after July 4. St. Louis’ Independence Day celebrations this year were held very close to church in Forest Park, owing to construction near the Gateway Arch.

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 reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

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

One of the characteristics of the Christian religion is something that’s often called, “The scandal of particularity.” Maybe you’ve heard the phrase before. Essentially, it means that our religion is fundamentally tied to the particular: not lost in abstract concepts, but deeply concerned with material things, and their spiritual import.

In our Bibles, God reveals himself to particular people at particular times, using a particular language and specific human beings. Why is this a scandal? Because many people are troubled by the task of having to translate through time and space. Others are troubled by the implication that God’s truth has not always been universally accessible. Still others think it’s unfair that certain people and nations throughout history have been considered special enough to receive God’s word. The scandal of particularity is a real scandal, and it’s worth spending time wrestling with it.

There are lots of positive implications too, though. Even if you or I don’t feel especially spiritual on any given day, we can still approach God through the spoken words of our common prayer; through our conscious decision to love our neighbors; even through the contemplation of creation, and all God’s many wonderful works.

Best of all, it means we can rely on the fact that God is really, actually interested in the hum-drum of our daily lives: because that’s the way he has chosen to reveal himself, through the small, unimportant actions of everyday individuals in everyday places. First with Adam and Eve, and Noah. Then with Abraham and David and the whole people of Israel. Then with Jesus’ incarnation, the apostles, and the whole church around the world.

Christianity begins with the particular, with each individual listening to God and obeying his voice in the nitty gritty of their own daily lives. And because it begins with the particular, our task as Christians is to love and obey God in the particular too. One of the great principles of Christian theological ethics is set forward by St. John, the beloved disciple: we cannot claim to love God whom we cannot see, unless we first love our brother whom we can see. We begin with our families, our neighborhoods, and then our cities, our states and nation. This is Independence Day weekend, and it is a good and Christian act to celebrate our country, and to give thanks for all the good things God has given us.

The realm of the particular is not always easy, though, and that’s why I suspect some people prefer their religion to be abstract, full of noble principles but divorced from day-to-day living. It’s not always easy to love your family, or your country. But in those moments we struggle to do it anyway, and that’s where we learn things like discipline, and long-suffering, and the need to ask for forgiveness.

The scandal of particularity, and the difficulty of loving one’s particular setting, are both in the background of today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has preached and cured the sick all around the Sea of Galilee, but now he returns to his home town, to Nazareth. He preaches in the synagogue there. His home congregation is less impressed than they are envious, and they are offended by him. In St. Luke’s telling of the same story, they are so enraged at him that they drive him to the edge of the ridge on which Nazareth is built, and try to cast him over the side. But Jesus escapes and goes on his way.

Here is the scandal of particularity in microcosm. Jesus himself is the incarnate Son of God: the second person of the Trinity, in human flesh, come to a specific people at a specific time and place. His healing miracles and his teaching, even in the particular setting of his hometown, are rejected. Later, he will be rejected by his home nation, as its chief priests and officials conspire to have him executed.

On the face of it, it looks like failure, and the end. But in today’s Gospel, fresh from defeat in Nazareth, Jesus sends out the disciples two by two, to do the same miracles that he was doing, in the same manner, with the same sermon. It’s almost as if Jesus’ rejection makes him double down on his whole project, and renew his efforts.

Why? Why is Jesus so unbothered by rejection and failure? Especially when the whole mission seems to be to these people, at this time? Partly because it was his mission to die for their sakes and ours, and not to convince them of any idea or policy. But also because, while Christianity begins with the particular, it does not stop there. It carries on, through the particular and earthly, to the heavenly and eternal.

Jesus preaches and heals in his own time and place, in first century Galilee and Judea. But he also inaugurates a kingdom which transcends it. All of us who are baptized into his death and resurrection are citizens of that kingdom, even while remain citizens of our own nation. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we are one people with persons of every language, tribe, and nation. We rejoice together in the victory of our God not over foreign states, but over sin and darkness, disease and death. We long for that kingdom’s final consummation, when God will wipe away every tear from every eye, and all shall be at rest in the perfect freedom of his service.

In the meantime, we are all dual citizens: of our own country, and of heaven. If sometimes we experience a little strain at the tension between them, well it’s no wonder. One belongs to the here and now, on an earthly timeline, with an earthly trajectory, and earthly agendas. The other belongs to the eternal glory of God, on a spiritual timeline, with a heavenly trajectory. What we are now is not yet what we shall become in the grace of God. But where we are now is where God meets us, and begins to draw us, with all our various duties of love to family and nation, into his kingdom.

In a few moments, we will come to the holy communion, to the Lord’s supper. In this Sacrament, earth and heaven meet: the scandal of particularity, and everything nitty and gritty about our lives; our families, our neighbors, even things as common as bread and wine. These are taken up in the prayer of the whole church and transformed by God into instruments of grace, emissaries of his heavenly kingdom to the here and now of our lives. Every time we make our communions heaven and earth are brought a little closer together, and the glory of God shines all the brighter in our lives, wherever it is we are.

What am I trying to say? First that, on this July 4th weekend, we should give thanks to God for our nation and for each of our communities, knowing that it is in the particular moments and duties of our daily lives that we know the love of God. Second, that God makes his love known to us in this way in order that we might be made citizens of his heavenly kingdom, even while we remain citizens of our earthly nations. And finally, that in God’s economy he has given us gifts of grace whereby heaven and earth are knit together, and we enjoy even now a foretaste of heavenly glory. May this taste strengthen us to do the work we are given to do, and become the people we are created to be, now on earth, as it is in heaven.

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

“The Messianic Secret”

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday June 28, 2015, at All Saints by-the-Sea, in Southport, Maine.

Collect: O Almighty God, who hast built thy Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made an holy temple acceptable unto thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

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

Some of you may have heard, at some point or other, that there’s a peculiar feature to the Gospel of Mark. It occurs many times throughout the course of the Gospel, and we’ve got it again today. Scholars call it, very dramatically, the “Messianic Secret.” The way it usually goes is that Jesus performs a miracle, and then promptly orders people not to tell anyone. Sometimes they listen and sometimes not. But it’s a curious phenomenon. Why is Jesus so secretive? Either he’s a master of reverse psychology as a marketing device, or he wants people to know who he is by some other means than his miracles alone.

As far as today’s Gospel goes, he’s kept the secret well enough that the major characters don’t quite seem to know who it is they’re dealing with. Jairus comes to Jesus and falls at his feet asking for his services. This is a posture reminiscent of the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha, both of whom performed many healing miracles. The woman with the hemorrhages must think of Jesus as some kind of wizard: she treats him like a sorcerer, full of innate power, and she says to herself that if she can only touch him, then she’ll be healed. Neither one is what Jesus is really about.

Mark states at the beginning of the Gospel that his whole point as an author is to show that Jesus is the Son of God. Prophet and sorcerer are interesting variations, but they don’t quite get it right.

From my perspective here this morning, the really interesting thing to me is that Jesus doesn’t really seem to care what these people think of him. He heals the woman of her hemorrhages, and he raises Jairus’ daughter, even though they don’t quite get who he really is.

What am I getting at? That Jesus is who he is regardless of what we know or don’t know about him. He is who he is regardless of what you or I think about him. Our opinion will not change him one way or another, cannot turn him into something more or less palatable as we desire.

In this day and age we can easily get caught in the trap of thinking about Jesus as if he were any other subject for public comment or opinion. We can easily get caught up in behaving as if he were simply another brand we buy or another candidate for whom we cast a vote. We can manipulate Jesus’ legacy, we can profit from his name. We can get distracted into thinking it’s our opinion of who Jesus is that matters. But nothing we do or think or say can change him one way or the other.

Jairus and the woman in today’s Gospel learn this in a profound way. Jesus responds to their needs, but what he doesn’t do is play by the rules they set down. Jesus goes to Jairus’ house, and raises his daughter from the dead. But unlike the prophets who had accomplished similar healings, he merely takes her by the hand, and says quietly, “Little girl, get up,” and she rises from what had been her deathbed. No complicated gestures, no long process, no back and forth with his disciples or with servants or with Jairus, unlike prophets like Elijah and Elisha. Only a word, and she gets up from her bed.

Likewise with the woman: she touches him and she is healed. But she gets more than she bargained for: Jesus stops, the crowd goes still, and he wants to identify the person he has just healed. This is no anonymous trip to a witch doctor: this woman is called out in public. She is understandably afraid, but Jesus isn’t angry. He calls her “Daughter” (even though it’s likely that she is much older than him) and tells her that her faith has made her well. Not the power of his robe, or any kind of magic, but faith.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus refuses the labels and expectations and opinions of even the people he heals. He is not Jairus’ prophet, he has no time for complicated intercessions or ceremonies of court. He is not the woman’s sorcerer, he is not interested in anonymous displays of power. Instead, by his manner in both of these scenarios, Jesus insists on relating directly with each of the people he heals, speaking to them in friendly, familiar terms, even giving his hand to help the little girl to get up. He is not bothered by the wrong ideas people have of him, but neither does he play by the rules they set up. He is playing his own game, working to fulfill his own mission. And whatever Jairus, or his daughter, or the woman with the hemorrhages thought of him — no matter what you or I might think of him — He is going to do it his way and in his time.

What do we learn from these episodes, about who Jesus is and what his mission is? For starters, the woman with the hemorrhages grasps furtively for Jesus in the midst of the crowd much as Eve might have grasped for the fruit in the midst of the Garden. But this woman is not after forbidden fruit, rather the wholeness she has spent 12 years seeking. Jesus calls her Daughter, and reverses the Garden’s drama from estrangement and mortality to restoration and healing. The servants laugh at Jesus for saying the little girl is only sleeping. But this comment foreshadows what he is about to accomplish by his own resurrection from the dead: transforming death itself from a shadowy abyss into the gate of Paradise.

Yes, Jesus is who he is no matter what we might think of him, no matter how we might treat him. He will accomplish his purposes regardless of whatever distractions we create or sins we commit. You and I might be better served if we stop trying so hard to figure out what Jesus is really about, what he means for each of us or for the world — and instead ask ourselves who are we to Jesus? How do we fit into his plan, and what is his purpose for us? If we search the Scriptures we will see that at every turn Jesus is less interested in people being right about who he is, and more interested in treating them as objects of love, the people he came to forgive and to restore.

All I have to offer by way of conclusion or commission is to suggest that you and I spend some time this week practicing. Offer to Jesus your heart, your whole self, just as it is. He made you, and he knows where you are most in need of healing and forgiveness. Let him do with you what he came to do, let him show you the way “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” You might be surprised. Your opinion of who he is might change. Or it might not. But if you let him be who he is, figuring out the “Messianic Secret” will no longer matter, and you will find yourself forgiven, healed, loved without condition or reserve, a member of the household of God.


Jesus and the Storm

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday June 21, 2015, at All Saints by-the-Sea, in Southport, Maine. This is a summer chapel, and I was there for two weeks serving as supply while enjoying some vacation time on the coast.

Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee, make us to have a perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name, for thou never failest to help and govern those whom thou hast set upon the sure foundation of thy loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

“A great windstorm arose and the waves beat into the boat so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Good morning again, it really is wonderful to be with you. I was saying to Aims yesterday: I’m just in the process of moving, from Providence Rhode Island to St. Louis Missouri, where I’ve just started in a new post. It’s a wonderful place and I’m very glad to be there, but moving is such a chaotic process: to decide you’re going in the first place, and then to say your goodbyes, not to mention packing everything in boxes and entrusting someone to load it on a truck and drive it across country — and then to unpack and get settled in a new place. It always takes longer than it seems, and even though I’ve moved a few dozen times in my life, it is always an experience of great displacement.

If you’ve moved recently you’ll know what I mean; and even if you haven’t, displacement is something that seems to going around. The news is full of one scandal after another, and election season is already bringing promises of “change for the better,” of one sort or another. Wars around the world and economic troubles have made the globe a less recognizable place than it once was. Even in church, we are inundated with statistics and forecasts describing how religious life is changing in this country and predicting how it will change further before it’s all over.

In a climate like this it’s very easy to feel areal sense of displacement. We know where we came from, and while we’re not there anymore, it’s hard to say where exactly it is we are. And it’s even more difficult to say where it is we’re going. As with all moments of uncertainty, there is a vague threat of danger: what if we don’t like the result? What if I regret the move? What if the displacement becomes so severe that all sense of home gets lost?

Today’s Gospel presents an extreme case of exactly this scenario. The disciples are mostly fishermen. They grew up near the Sea of Galilee, they are used to the water, they’ve been in and around boats their whole lives. Jesus has finished teaching — he’s been in a boat teaching from the sea to allow more room for people on the beach — and it’s time to cross to the other side of the water for tomorrow’s work. Now the Sea of Galilee is not large: about 8 miles wide at its widest point, and 13 miles long. At all points on its surface, you can see the other side. Your port of origin is visible for the whole journey to your port of destination, which has also been visible the whole time. The point is, the Sea of Galilee is not a threatening body of water, especially for experienced fishermen. It’s even fresh water, not salty!

And yet a storm arose there which seemed to shake the disciples to their core. Conditions were suddenly, unpredictably extreme: a strong wind, waves beating against the boat, and water swamping over the sides. Why were the disciples unable to cope? We don’t know. Maybe the boat was smaller than they were used to. Maybe with twelve people plus Jesus they were too heavy for the conditions. Maybe they were just taken by surprise. In any case, it’s an understatement to say that they were no longer at home in that boat in that storm. Everything familiar about the sea had gone, and their own expertise was no more use. In its place was a violent, raging tempest that threatened to destroy them.

And what about Jesus? Jesus was not a fisherman. He grew up in Nazareth, a town in Galilee, but a full day’s walk from the sea. He was a carpenter’s son, and now he worked as a rabbi. There was no reason he should have been comfortable in a boat to begin with, let alone in a raging storm. But where was he? In the back, asleep on a cushion. The disciples were panicking, fearing for their lives. But Jesus, their landlubber teacher, was so comfortable, so at home in this storm, that he was fast asleep.

I think the disciples were as surprised at this as you and I, and their surprise probably added to their panic as well as to the note of anger in their question to him when they wake him up: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I don’t think they say this because they want him to do something. What use would a carpenter-turned-rabbi be on a ship in a storm anyway? They simply cannot understand why he is so calm, why he is so at home.

We know the rest of the story. Jesus rebukes the wind, and tells the sea to be still. Calm returns, and they all get on with their voyage. The point I’m trying to emphasize here though is not that Jesus calmed the storm, but that he was so at home in the middle of it to begin with.

Jesus is at home in storms. It sounds counterintuitive for the prince of peace to be so comfortable in stormy weather. But Jesus’ peace, unlike our own so much of the time, is not dependent on outside conditions. Jesus’ peace results rather from who he is: the Son of God, by whom all things were made, and for whom all things exist.

Too often we think of our stormy lives as threats to peace, threats to whatever fragile serenity we’ve managed to acquire for ourselves. But today’s Gospel shows us that nothing on earth can threaten God’s peace in Jesus, who is at home even in a terrible storm. And Jesus’ whole desire is to share his own peace with each of us.

When we are in trouble, or confused, or “all at sea” with the changes and chances of life, all we have to do is bring our trouble to Jesus. “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” He might stand up and calm the storm for us, or he might call us out of the boat to walk across the waves to where he is walking by. But in any case he will certainly grant us his own peace, and call us closer to where he is,at home and perfectly at rest in whatever storms arise. In this way, our own personal storms and difficulties are transformed: from occasions of fear and dread to moments of grace, and special signs of God’s presence and care for us.

One of the ways St. Paul talks about being a Christian is by saying that Christians live “in Jesus” or “in Christ.” To live in Christ is to have our permanent home exactly where Jesus is. He is at home everywhere: not just in peace and happiness, but in storms and troubles too; for three days he made his home even in death. By his resurrection and ascension He made his home in heaven, and by his gift of the Holy Spirit He makes his home now in your heart and in mine. To be in Christ is for his peace to be our own. It is for us to know that deep down we really are at home in him, no matter how terrible the storms outside.

Whatever troubles may assail us, let us bring our cares to him. He will not disappoint: our anchor will hold “within the veil,” where he dwells eternally in heaven, and our hearts will find peace there forever.

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

Realism & Naivety

The following sermon was preached at 8am, 10am, and 5:30pm on Sunday June 7, 2015, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. This was my first Sunday here at this parish. It was also the first Sunday of the summer choir schedule. The Mass Ordinary at 10am was Healey Willan’s “Missa Sancta Maria Magdalena.”

Collect: Keep, O Lord, we beseech thee, thy household the Church in thy steadfast faith and love, that by the help of thy grace we may proclaim thy truth with boldness, and minister thy justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

“We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:

“Come on, let’s be real. You don’t actually believe all that stuff, do you? You’re a nice guy, but you’ve got some naive ideas about the way the world works.” How many times have we heard something like this? From our friends, TV commentators, family, you name it. We Christians get a bad rap for being gullible, believing too readily every next smiling face claiming to speak for God. We get charged with mere “wishful thinking,” about death and crises and the afterlife; and to make matters worse, polls reveal that it is often Christians who are the most systemically unaware of the news and problems of the world.

But before we get too defensive, or pass off all these charges on Christians of other churches or traditions, let’s face it: there is something about Christian faith that is undeniably naive. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that God made the heavens and the earth, that everything consists somehow in the will of God, and that some day at the end of time, everything will be set right again. These are core doctrines of the faith, but you have to admit: from the perspective of your average unbeliever, they sound like fantasy, no more.

How do we answer these charges? We can’t abandon our hope, but we have to begin with an unrelenting realism, an unflinching honesty about ourselves and the way the world works. This kind of realism starts with careful observation. We have to take a hard look at our wants and desires, and what we claim as our goals and values. Are they really the best thing for me? How am I justifying them to myself? To what or to whom am I really holding myself accountable, in individual decisions and in the long arc of my moral life? Do the values I claim for myself match what I do with my life?

There are lots of answers to these questions, some better than others. But the point I want to make here is that whatever our answers, we must not lie to ourselves. Too often we Christians get away with using religious language to justify unhealthy, immoral, and frankly unchristian decisions. Our first task as religious people is to tell the truth. And if we’re not doing that with ourselves first, we can’t possibly hope to be believed in our families or in the world at large.

This requires a good dose of humility, and a readiness to take ourselves down a peg or two if need be; and sometimes to be kinder to ourselves than we’ve been in the past. But we have to tell the truth. No amount of religious language, no amount of superhuman devotion, no amount of good works, can relieve us of the requirement first and foremost to be honest with ourselves, and to tell the truth.

The more we learn about ourselves, the more we learn about our strengths and weaknesses, our moral successes and failures, the better we’re able to navigate the avenues where we can make real improvements. The more we learn about ourselves, the more prepared we are to fulfill our duties to our families, and to make contributions in the world. The more honest we are with ourselves, the more generous we can be with our friends and neighbors, knowing that we too have work to do.

There’s a funny thing about truth though. When we uncover something incontrovertible, something certain, no matter how much we poke or prod it, we can stop there, and make that thing the center of our lives. This is the real trouble with those who criticize Christians for our naivety and our seemingly fantastic claims. They are honest enough to see that the world is a rough place, and that human beings have done a lot to mess it up. But they stop there. They make that observation, true enough as far as it goes, the center of their approach to the world. And that’s why they have a hard time seeing how anything could be different.

You’ve probably heard the quote, favorite of teachers and scientists and politicians alike, that goes, “The more we learn, the less we know.” In other words, greater knowledge leads to a greater sense of what we still don’t know. It’s a truism, but it makes a good point. Truth, real truth, always opens into further possibility. The trouble with those who say, “The world is hopeless and there’s point in believing pie-in-the-sky religion,” is that it elevates one person’s view of the truth as the only possibility. It leads to tunnel vision, despair, and death. Real truth requires us to admit that we might be wrong, and that in any case there is more out there than we can predict.

Several years ago in another parish, a man came to me to talk about problems in his marriage. They say “It takes two to tango,” but in this case it really was mostly his fault, and he admitted it. He’d made a mess of things, in every possible way. He said he still loved his wife very deeply, but he was sure that there was no way she could forgive him. That was his error: he knew that he had made a mess, but he did not know that his wife would refuse forgiveness. It was certainly improbable. And there was no question that he didn’t deserve it. But he didn’t know. He had two options. Either he believe that she wouldn’t forgive him, and accept the death of that relationship. Or he could accept that forgiveness was a possibility despite the reality of what he had done.

In the end he chose to ask for forgiveness. It required real courage: to admit what he had done, and to surrender his control of events to the possibility of a different future than all the evidence suggested to him. His wife miraculously accepted his apology and offered her forgiveness; and the two of them began the long and serious work of repairing their relationship.

That restoration would not have been possible without both unflinching honesty and belief in the possibility of a different future than the truth of the situation, taken alone, might have suggested.

Unrelenting realism and a commitment to telling the truth is the first step in answering the charge of cynics and unbelievers. But the second, equally important step is to acknowledge that truth opens onto further possibility. Forgiveness is a possibility despite the reality of what we’ve done. The restoration of relationships can and does really happen, even when we’ve done a lot to tear them down. The choice each of us is left with is how we’re going to live, what we’re going to rely on as we go forward. Will we say that ruin and death is the only possible outcome for the world? Or will we live in hope that reality might ultimately be different than what all the evidence seems to suggest?

This last possibility is at the heart of Christian faith. Jesus is risen from the dead, and this means that life, not death, has claimed the last word. We live in hope: that even though everything around us seems decaying, dying, or dead, redemption is not only possible, but is the divinely appointed purpose of all creation.

What is it like to live out of that hopeful conviction? That is the real task of the Christian religion. To the rest of the world it looks like hopeless idealism, pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. But that is because the world does not understand our reason for hope. We are relentlessly honest with ourselves and with the world, because this opens the way for God’s grace to forgive where there had been sin, to raise up what had fallen, to give life where there had been death, and to make all things new in Jesus Christ. This kind of confidence is not naivety born of ignorance or denial. But it is a new and higher innocence born of truth-telling and the Spirit of God.

“Come on, let’s be real, you don’t actually believe all that stuff, do you?” There’s only one way for the Christian to answer this, and that’s by saying, “With all my heart, yes.” In effect this is what Paul is saying to the Corinthians today: we live in hope and its possibilities, not in the certainty of empiricism and its limitations. Though it seems madness to hear, the Gospel is nevertheless not only sane, but at the heart of everything that is, and of every person on earth. We live, not of ourselves alone, for that leads only to tunnel vision, despair, and death; but we live in him who died and rose again. And that gives us a new hope of new life: every day, forever.

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

Pentecost / Commencement / Memorial Day

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday May 24, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence. This was my last Sunday at S. Stephen’s before leaving for a new position in St. Louis, MO, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, due to begin June 1. It was fitting for the day to be Pentecost, as well as Commencement Sunday at Brown. This year it was also Memorial Day Weekend. Music for the Solemn Mass included Lassus’ “Missa ‘Bella amfitrit’ altera'” and Tallis’ “Loquebantur variis linguis.”

Collect: O God, who on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Today is commencement at Brown, and it comes in the midst of commencement season: at RISD and the other nearby colleges, with high school graduations also right around the corner. Many of our college students are graduating this year, and many of our high school students too.

One of the things that’s in the air this time of year is advice: a lot of good advice gets thrown around, and a lot of bad advice, too. One of the worst pieces of advice is also sadly one of the most common: it’s the one that goes, “Always be true to yourself.”

Why is it bad advice? To begin with, it presumes that each of us always has a complete and perfect knowledge of ourselves, but experience tells us we don’t. Self-examination only goes so far. The people in our lives, whether family, friends, or neighbors, sometimes show us revealing truths about ourselves that we had missed. The people closest to us sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. How can we be true to ourselves without the helpful clarifying presence of those we love? We are not sufficient of ourselves to be true to ourselves.

Second of all, this advice presumes that our selves are ultimately reliable. But anyone who has ever fallen in love, or suffered depression, or experienced some great grief, can tell you that our selves are not ultimately reliable. We are pushed to and fro by all kinds of emotions, all kinds of dynamics within our psyches. To which of them should we decide always to be true? They can lead us down some very dark paths, and to follow them to their various conclusions would be to live in a prison of our own imaginations, hostage to our various fears and fantasies, a danger to ourselves or others.

We cannot “always be true to ourselves,” because we do not always know what our self is, and because when we do get some idea, it can lead us into trouble in pretty short order.

Enter Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In addition to commencement, today we also celebrate the revelation of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ on earth, constituted by the Holy Spirit and living in the fire of His love. When we are baptized, we are made a member of this Body, and find ourselves taken up by this Spirit, who now hides our lives with Christ in God. Any Christian therefore who would be “true to himself or herself” must consider the self as first and foremost the object of the love of God. As the objects of his love, God has given us some reliable means to grow into his purposes for us, and into our truest selves.

First, he has given us his own Spirit, who moves within us to pray; who, even when we do not know what to say, speaks through us to lift us and all our lives into the life of God. Second, He has given us his word, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to shape our hearts and give us a language in which to recognize the presence of God in the world, and to know his Son as our Savior and brother. Third, He has given us the Sacraments as direct occasions of grace, divine interventions in our lives, revelations of who God is and who we are in him, means by which we participate all the more fully in the real truth of the world.

There is a lot of darkness out there, and there is a lot of darkness in each of our hearts. This last year or two, none of us has been able to escape the headlines of violence all over the world. None of us has remained untouched by some personal pain or grief of one sort or another. And yet: every time we come to the altar, every time we open our Bibles, God asserts afresh that he has overcome it all; and furthermore, that he overcame it all in order to restore the world to its true self: a creation of goodness and joy, of wonder and thanksgiving, God’s own revelation of himself in form and matter, made for his own delight.

Everywhere grace is found, there darkness is kept at bay, and we see the Holy Spirit of God holding everything together in Jesus’ own offering of himself on the cross for us and all creation. This same Spirit is the one to whom we must always be true: He grants us God’s own victory over all the powers of darkness, and redeems us as the objects of his love.

By first being true to the Holy Spirit, we far surpass anything we might have accomplished by being true to ourselves alone. We are more truly ourselves than we ever could have been on our own. All our various emotions and conflicting commitments, all our talents and gifts and desires are put into proper perspective, within the long arc of God’s redemptive purposes. As we live and work in the Holy Spirit, we are put in touch with that divine life in whose Image we were created, and by whose grace we become who we were meant to be all along. To be true to the Holy Spirit is to align our own wills with the will of God, and to participate in his work in the world: as the ordination collect puts it, “Raising up things which were cast down, making new those things which had grown old, and bringing all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, His Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”

In our world today we don’t often think of Pentecost as one of the “catholic” holidays: instead it’s much easier to think of it as belonging to the Pentecostals, the mega-churches, and to those whose tradition focuses more explicitly on the continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But I think, more than any other feast of the Church, Pentecost is the catholic feast par excellence. Today the Disciples become the Apostles, and the Hoy Spirit descends with power on the Church, binding people of all nations in one by the preaching of the Gospel. What could be more catholic than people of every language, tribe, and nation hearing the Gospel together and receiving together the Sacrament of new birth? Today we see that our own Anglo-Catholic tradition, at least as much as the Charismatics, is at its heart a revival movement. We exist to transform lives by a real encounter with the living God. This is the power that is ours when we are true to the Spirit, “In whom we live and move and have our being.”

It’s fitting that this is commencement season, because Pentecost is in some ways the commencement day of the Church. Today we are commissioned not to be true to ourselves alone, but to be true to the Holy Spirit, who is our own life and the life of the world. Let us always be true to that Spirit, and be ourselves occasions for the world to be transformed by the knowledge of the love of Christ.

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

The Ascension

The following sermon was preached in the Lady Chapel at St. Stephen’s Church, during an evening celebration of the Ascension of the Lord at 5:30pm on Thursday, May 14. A small section of the S. Stephen’s Schola sang the plainchant “Missa VIII” (“De Angelis”) and Dulos Couillart’s “Viri Galilaei.”

Collect: O Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abideth with his Church on earth, even unto the end of the ages; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The feast of the Ascension has some extra significance for me personally: in 2011, I was ordained a deacon on the Saturday following the Ascension. I have often reflected that it’s an odd time to be thinking about deacons. Deacons exist for the nitty-gritty, the daily realities of life in this world. They are charged with a ministry of loving service, to interpret the world to the church and the church to the world. And the Ascension, for the disciples, is the exact opposite: it is Jesus’ departure from their daily lives and from the world. They are left with an odd few days to wait, as the Lord commanded them, for the Holy Spirit to descend on Pentecost — and only then do they get on with their lives as apostles.

But the longer I’m in ministry, the more I’m conscious of the diaconate at the foundation of priesthood, and the more I’m starting to see the importance of the Ascension — both for myself personally, and for all of us in the Church.

Think back to Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene has found the tomb empty, and she runs back to tell Peter and John. Peter and John run with her back to the tomb, and in their excitement, the two of them go back home. But Mary Magdalene is disconsolate in grief. Her Lord is gone, and she does not know where he is. She stays in the garden and weeps. The resurrected Jesus himself appears to her; she supposes he’s the gardener, and asks where he has laid Jesus’ body. But when he says her name, she recognizes him, and she moves to embrace him. Jesus, though, backs away, and says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

In art, this scene is often called, “Noli me tangere,” “Don’t touch me.” And it has always been somewhat cryptic to me. But the implication seems to be, that only after Jesus ascends are we really able to embrace him in the way we might want. Only after he is gone can we relate to him properly. This is extremely counterintuitive, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Married couples, for example, don’t grow closer with extended absence; friends can’t either; and families change, too, when their members are scattered or when one of them dies. Greater intimacy is never the direct result of separation. And yet this seems to be what Jesus is telling Mary Magdalene. There must be something more here.

Our collect today asserts that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” Something more is indeed going on here. When the Son of God took human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, he assumed the created order into himself. When he offered himself on the Cross, and descended into hell, he broke the power of death and carried its captives into life. Now, at his Ascension, He carries all of it with him into the presence of his Father. There is a sense in which Our Lord’s ascension is also our own ascension; and our Lady’s Assumption is the Type that, by God’s grace and her intercession, will be ours also.

We cannot trap Jesus on earth; he is not meant to stay here, but came to carry us with him into his Father’s presence, in whose glory is our eternal home.

Ministry, especially that of the diaconate but also of every baptized Christian, exists to order our common life on earth towards the heavenly Glory to which we belong. Our Lord’s Ascension teaches us that we cannot settle merely for earthly criteria of success; we cannot settle for merely a personal, possessive relationship to our faith. We love Jesus as we love any member of our family, even more, but we cannot hold onto him. His physical departure from us is not, in the end, our separation from one another. In leaving our physical presence, He draws us together into the nearer spiritual presence of his Father and ours, of his God and our God.

Our work here on earth must always be to love him; and it must always be to be witnesses to his glory, both in the world and in the church. The unity of the Church consists in the Glory of God — as deacons are the servants of that Glory, priests are its ministers, bishops are its icons, and as all Christians everywhere are its witnesses, workers, and members.

We serve a risen, ascended Lord. He is with us closer than ever in the life of his Church. In him we are closer than ever to the throne of God, and behold it day by day in our prayer and worship and work. Let us work always for his glory. Let us rejoice as we draw ever nearer together. And let us love him whose presence fills all things forever.

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

Easter 6 / Mother’s Day / Rogation Sunday

The following sermon was preached on May 10, 2015, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. This year the day was both Mother’s Day and Rogation Sunday. The liturgy began with an outdoor procession of Our Lady, an image on a plinth bedecked with flowers and carried by members of the parish; a brass band brought up the rear and led us in singing festal songs. Back inside, music for the day included Palestrina’s “Missa ‘Ave Maria'” setting of the Mass Ordinary, and Ockeghem’s setting of the Salve Regina.

Collect: O God, who hast prepared for those that love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards thee, that we, loving the in all things and above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

If there’s one thing that the modern phenomenon of Mother’s Day proves, it’s that Love sells. We buy Mother’s Day cards, flowers, candy, and gifts, make reservations at restaurants and buy gift certificates, all to tell our mothers we love them. According to the National Retail Foundation, in 2014 Mother’s Day surpassed Valentine’s Day in total spending, making it the second largest commercial holiday of the year. At twenty billion dollars, it’s a far cry from the six hundred billion claimed by Christmas, but it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Before you think this is modern phenomenon though, recall that the same very same issue has attended Mother’s Day almost from the beginning. Anna Jarvis is in some ways the “mother of Mother’s Day.” Early in the twentieth century, she campaigned tirelessly for Mother’s Day to be proclaimed a holiday, which it was, by Woodrow Wilson, in 1914. Almost immediately, though, she regretted what she’d done. She saw Hallmark and other companies profiting on the new holiday, and began a new campaign, this time to stop its commercialization. (Jarvis even crashed a candy makers convention in Philadelphia in 1923.) When she realized this wasn’t working, she finally started fighting to have the holiday rescinded altogether. But the genie was already out of the bottle, and we haven’t turned back since. Mother’s Day has spread to 166 countries around the world. It is one of the few truly global holidays.

Despite its commercialization, however, I don’t think we need to feel guilty about observing Mother’s Day. Love sells for a reason, especially when it comes to our mothers, persons for whom many of us would be willing to do anything.

Still, we always find it difficult to pick out a card. For all their poetry these days, and their beautiful designs, none of them quite seems to say exactly what we mean. Love sells, and it animates our affections more than anything else on the planet, but it always seems to defy articulation. Today’s Gospel is another great example. Jesus tells his disciples he loves them. But Jesus, too, seems to have trouble saying hat he wants. He takes several attempts to articulate to his disciples what his love for them means.

First of all he says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Most of us have some sense of what we want from our various loves. Whether they be family, friends, or romances, we each have various kinds of desires, and needs. And most of the time, when we think about articulating our love, we think in terms of how these needs are met by the person we’re thinking of. Or, conversely, when we contemplate loneliness or love’s lack, we think in terms of desire, of how this or that missing relationship would help complete the picture we have of ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t speak in these terms. “So that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full.” He offers his disciples another set of criteria than need, desire, and expectation. Instead he gives them joy: gratuitous generosity, planted within us, that grows to encompass our whole selves.

Even so in each of our own loves. It’s not always what we expect or even want, and so our favorite words of fulfilled desire necessarily fall short. Instead, where love is genuine, there is always a gratuity to it, that grows beyond its original source and its original object to encompass them both, and begin something new.

In his second attempt to say just what he means Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is clearly talking about sacrificial love here, and is clearly foreshadowing his own death. But it’s also a further development of his command both to abide in his love, and to love one another. This is his second point: Love, if it is genuine, does not shrink from the cross; it is willing to be crucified. Mothers know a lot about this I think, probably more than most. What makes this even more difficult is that there is the real possibility of rejection here. What if the one for whom we sacrifice everything doesn’t seem to want our sacrifice? What happens when relationships break down to the point where this kind of sacrifice is no longer possible? What happens if death, or abuse, or betrayal amputates us from essential relationships which others take for granted? There is an immense degree of disintegration in our world — so much that sometimes, the greater love which lays down its life for its friendsappears as a foreign agent, a miracle, rather than the natural state of things. And yet this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Be willing to be crucified for one another. This requires serious resolution to be vulnerable; a willingness to be rejected even for our best qualities. And it requires a willingness not to let our current state of disintegration obscure our hope for what is possible. Self-giving, sacrificial love is the natural state of things, and the character of eternal life. Simeon told Our Lady in the temple that a sword would pierce her own soul too. We have to be prepared to accept the same sword.

The paradox, and this is the third point, is that in such vulnerability and sacrifice as this, even in the midst of disintegration all around, to abide in the love of Jesus and to love one another with his love, is to join an ever-widening family. Love, where it is genuine, is not just about you. It is not just about the one you love. It is about being called to greater communion with a particular person for the sake of a greater communion among the entire human family. Couples I have married sometimes tell me months later that one of things that surprises them is how differently they interact with the other people in their lives. They are now something of a stable point for others, a source of reliability, and of joy. There is a kind of holy fertility at work here, that grows and nurtures everyone in its orbit.

This isn’t limited to married people either, though it exists in a special way for them. “No longer do I call you servants; but I have called you friends.”

For all of us, and especially for those who bear particularly painful losses, to abide in the love of Jesus is to become a member of his own household. It is to receive a new family, and a new vocation to nurture and extend his family wherever we may be.

The fourth and final point Jesus makes about love in this passage I s about fruitfulness. “I have appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide.” Today is Rogation Sunday, the day in the Church Year when traditionally, fields are blessed in anticipation of the new growing season. We aren’t surrounded by fields anymore here on College Hill. But fertility is still an appropriate theme. We often think of love in the same terms as commodities: there’s only so much to go around, and we’d better get before we’re gotten or left behind — or so the thinking goes. But for Jesus, Love, when it is genuine, grows. There is always more to be given, more to be had. It is not a zero-sum game. There are always further heights to which the love of God carries us. There are always deeper mysteries which it reveals, there are always more persons to win to our fellowship. This is the love that abides: it does not stand still, it does not tolerate mere possession. It drives us ever onward “into the regions beyond.” The fruit it produces is its own perfection: our hearts, our souls, purified in holiness, made partakers of his divine life who humbled himself to share our humanity, having taken flesh from his Virgin Mother.

Joy is Love’s first and final criteria. It does not shrink from the cross, but dies there and rises again. Its resurrection creates an ever-widening family drawn into its life-giving Spirit. It carries us on, through this world in which we see as through a glass darkly, into that place where we shall see face to face, and know fully even as we are fully known. This is the love with which Jesus loves his disciples. This is the vocation of the blessed Mother who welcomes us into the family of her Son. This is our vocation as the Body of Christ: to love one another with an honest love, joyful and sacrificial and generous. May Christ who has given us his word of love, give us grace and power to live it forever. Amen.