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 Good Samaritan

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, July 10, 2016, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 10.” It was another hard week: the Requiem for Bp. Salmon and funerals for the previous week’s deaths, news of police killings in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, and the sniper attack in Dallas which killed five police officers and wounded several more. Sunday seemed to me a moment when we might all pause somewhat to take stock of things, and reflect on what sort of truths we really hold about the world at core.

Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers thy people who call upon thee, and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

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

The Good Samaritan.  This parable seems especially appropriate for us after the last week: in which yet more terrible events have been in the news, and death and mortality have been on all of our minds.

I think we usually read the Good Samaritan as if we were the young lawyer, asking who is our neighbor, looking for encouragement about how to go out and love them according to the commandment of God.  Jesus’ lesson remains as true for us as it did for that young man, ‘You, go and do likewise: care alike for friend and stranger, no matter what road you find them lying on.’

And yet after a week like this, full of funerals, violence, and unexpected bad news, we might justly start to read the parable as if we were the traveler: not that any of us have been victims of the week’s crimes, but simply that, as things fall apart, we begin to feel the weight of sagging hopes, and very real grief.  In times like these it might be easier to read the parable through the eyes of the traveler: walking alone down the road, minding his own business, and suddenly ambushed as if from nowhere; now lying in the gutter, world upside-down, possessions gone, badly wounded.  What does the parable say to us in that position?

We might be tempted to revisit all our favorite conundrums. Conundrums like, ‘How can this happen to me?  I’m a good person, shouldn’t justice say I deserve a better shake?’ Or, if we’re more philosophical, we might start asking how a good God could allow this kind of suffering and pain in the first place.  ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’  It’s a convenient moment to reopen the old can of worms which philosophers and theologians call, “The Problem of Evil.”  I won’t revisit the argument, because you probably know it already.  Principally, it asks the question, ‘How can a good God and real evil coexist in the world?’

Sometimes I imagine the traveler lying there, considering his plight as so many people walk by.  I think his thoughts would likely be similar to ours:  no doubt he took stock of his relationships and his various projects.  Perhaps he said a prayer or two for mercy, for ‘things done and left undone.’  Perhaps he railed at God for a while, trying to make sense of what had happened.  Or perhaps he was simply too badly injured to think at all, and lay there in a stupor waiting for death.  Whatever the specific content that ran through his head, I have to think most of it was concerned at least tangentially with this Problem of Evil, which occupies so much of your and my mental energy as well.

Is this it?  Is the Problem of Evil really the great Achilles heel of the world’s religions, and especially of Christianity?  It certainly seems to be wreaking havoc everywhere these days.  And yet I cannot think it will have the last word.

It certainly doesn’t in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  As we know, the Samaritan comes walking along and sees this poor man, cares for him, takes him to an inn, and makes sure to pay the bill himself.  At another time in life we might be able to guess better what went through the Samaritan’s mind, but for now consider the traveler’s.  He had given up hope, he was beaten and naked, lying in a ditch and waiting for death.  Who knows how long he lay there?  But then, just as much out of nowhere as the robbers who beat him, this Samaritan comes along to help.  He didn’t have to stop, he could have kept going, passed him by, just like all the others.  Justice would not have been bothered at any rate.  But he did stop, and so the traveler’s life is saved.

I recently read a book review by Rowan Williams in which he reviewed three different new collections of fairy tales.  At the beginning he observes that one of the distinguishing features of the genre is a kind of two-sided coin.  On one side of the coin, fairy tales very often feature scenarios where the normal relationships which society depends on have broken down.  Hansel and Gretel are sent away into the forest because their parents cannot afford to feed them any longer.  Cinderella is destitute because the family who adopted her are cruel and jealous.  Camelot falls because of treachery in the court, and Arthur sustains a wound which no doctor can properly heal.  And yet, at the same time, on the other side of the coin, the normal relationships which undergird the fabric of society may be frayed or broken, but the whole created world seems to conspire to help the lonely protagonists.

Narnia is frozen over, but a family of Beavers help the Pevensey children, unlooked for and unasked.  Hansel and Gretel kill the witch, and the trees and the birds lead them back home, where their father is overjoyed at their return.  Sir Galahad, who features in two of our stained glass windows here at St. Michael & St. George (believe it or not!); Sir Galahad has no shield.  But at just the moment he needs one, he stumbles across a monastery in a forest no one had ever seen before, which possesses an ancient, wondrous shield, that the community is pleased to give him.  Harry Potter is trapped at Number 4, Privet Drive, and despite all of Uncle Vernon’s protestations, it seems the house itself conspires with Hagrid to make sure Harry gets his acceptance letter to Hogwarts.

The point of this whole catalogue is, as Rowan Williams points out, that if we’re going to talk about The Problem of Evil — especially if we’re going to claim it’s some sort of Achilles Heel of religion — then we also have to admit there is at least an equal, if not more troubling, Problem of Good.  If there is a Problem of Evil out there, then there is also a Problem of Good.

There doesn’t have to be good in the world.  The Samaritan didn’t have to stop and help.  Jesus didn’t have to heal all those people, he didn’t have to offer himself to death on a cross, or rise from the dead.  And yet he did.  Why is there any good at all in the world?  Nature could get along just fine according to brutal survival instinct.  And yet, time after time in our lives, we see that the world simply refuses to work this way, the world refuses to fulfill our expectations of an all-encompassing, dog-eat-dog brutality.

The Samaritan didn’t have to stop, but he did.  And from the perspective of the Traveler, that must have made an enormous difference.  No longer could he get away with mere self-pity.  No longer could he surrender meekly to the forces which threatened to undo him, as some kind of fatal inevitability.  The gears of cruel fate were stopped by an act of gratuitous, unnecessary generosity.  And for the Traveler, life had victory over death.

It is no different for each of us.  Every time we might be tempted to throw up our hands and surrender to the Problem of Evil, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to recognize the even more significant Problem of Good.  However dark the world gets, there are always sparks and flashes of unnecessary, gratuitous good.  These flashes stop the gears of fate, and allow new possibilities of life and growth, beyond injury and death.

These flashes are windows into the purposes and nature of God, whose act of creating the world in the first place was gratuitous and unnecessary; whose gift of his Son was equally unnecessary, unbound, and free.  The God we worship and the redemption he promises are not founded on any kind of Newtonian law of action and reaction.  They are not subject to any Problem of Evil, no matter how systemic.  Our God is generous and free, sneaking up on us when we least expect it, shining brightest when life’s clouds conspire to block out even the sun, always allowing the possibility for new life to spring out of darkness.

So what does that mean for the Samaritan’s Traveler?  What does that mean for us?  Obviously the Problem of Good did not prevent the Traveler from getting mugged in the first place.  When we walk a dangerous road we ought to expect danger, and prepare for it accordingly.  Only, when you find yourself lying in a ditch, battered and preparing for death, do not despair.  Do not think that God has disappeared, or that the Almighty’s power has been bound by the evil you suffer.  Likewise, do not think that he is the one who has afflicted you, that your suffering is punishment for some unknown sin.  Rather put your trust in his generosity, in the profligacy of his grace and the freedom of his mercy.  Look for the new life he offers, and be, yourself, its signpost for others.

Evil and pain will not have the last word.  All the parables and the fairy tales are correct in this, that even when every system is broken and all relationships of trust are betrayed, Goodness is not extinguished yet.  Creation itself conspires to bear witness to the final victory, as the very stones cried out in the earthquake when Christ hung dying on the cross.  As Our Lord rose from the tomb and opened the gates of Paradise, so far we too may follow him.  As on the cross he offered himself in a Great Thanksgiving to his Father, so in our own time of trial we too may offer thanks for the Problem of Good, by which we live, and according to which death itself is conquered and put to flight.

In the meantime, may we always be prepared to be surprised by this goodness of God, overflowing everywhere, bubbling up in gratuitous generosity, unlooked for and unasked, which nourishes and builds up the kingdom of heaven.  Let this constant surprise lead us into lives of continuous delight, giving thanks always and everywhere for the goodness of God.

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

Home

This sermon was preached at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, on July 3, 2016: the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 9.” It was my first Sunday back from vacation, and Independence Day was the next day. The previous week’s news included the ISIS attack in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, the death of Bp. Edward Salmon, and several other deaths in the parish. It was a difficult week for many, especially here in our church community.

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, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

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

Home. It’s a powerful symbol for many of us.  It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and many of you are either going home or are welcoming family back home for the holiday.  I’ve just returned home from vacation, though it might be a little ironic that I left here in order to go home too, sort of: I was at a family reunion, something we do in my family once every ten years or so, where I saw lots of aunts and uncles and cousins in Colorado, a place I’ve often visited with my family.  The fact that this is an election year also has many of us thinking about the kind of home we want our country to be, and what hopes and fears we might carry about its future.  One way or another, home is something close to many of our minds at the moment.

And so it’s fitting that our readings today touch on home in many ways.  The prophet Isaiah reflects on Jerusalem as Israel’s home, even its mother.  St. Paul reflects on different domestic attitudes within the community of the church, how we ought to help one another, hold one another accountable, what criteria we ought to use to articulate our membership in this family in the first place.  And Jesus sends out the seventy to continue his work in the world, living as guests wherever they go, not counting their accomplishments as anything to stand on, but dwelling only in the mercy of God to have chosen them for their work.

What strikes me about each of these passages is that home — for Israel, for Paul, for Jesus, and for the disciples — home for all these people, the home they describe, is not there yet.  They do not yet experience it.  Isaiah writes to a people under threat of conquest and exile.  Paul writes to the Galatians that what matters for them is neither their beliefs nor their obedience, but their being made a new creation: begun in baptism, but not yet complete.  And Jesus tells his disciples, the things you might be tempted to rest in provide only a false confidence, a flimsy dwelling.  Rejoice only in your name being written in the book of life: a book that will not be opened until the end, when he returns to “judge both the quick and the dead.”

It may seem strange to hear Scripture refer to home — the one place at the beginning and end of every one of our earthly days — as something far off, yet to be established.  And yet to a degree, this is something whose effect we can all see in each of our lives.  “Home is where the heart is,” we say.  And we know the heart wanders where it will amid time and space.  Where is home when a beloved spouse dies, or a parent, or a child, as too often happens?  Where is home if we are under constant threat of danger, or when we live day by day with mental or physical ailments, which undermine our peace or security?  For that matter, where is home when things are good and everything is satisfactory?  I’ve lost count now of the number of people who have confided in me, that despite all the good things in their lives — a happy, healthy marriage, successful careers, confident, well-behaved children — that despite all these things, they are still lonely, their heart still longs for something more that it can never quite grasp.  Home may be where the heart is, but the heart is always at least a step or two beyond wherever it is we find ourselves at any given moment.  Isaiah knows this, and so does Paul, and so does Jesus.  They are all pointing beyond the present, trying to articulate for us to learn just what sort of home our heart is really pointing us towards.

And what sort of home is that?  For Isaiah, the home we seek goes well beyond any present sense of security or danger, and has more to do with the promises and purposes of God, to establish his people for ever, a people for his own, by whose prayer and praise the glory of God grows to encompass the whole earth, every living thing, and every stage of life and growth.  For Paul, the true home of faith is not a possession that any of us can acquire, no status or fortress we can fall back on.  Rather for Paul, the true home of faith is a posture, an attitude, starting first with receptiveness to God’s mercy: mercy for ourselves and for each other.  There is no pride in faith, no personal glory to be gained or exploited.  There is only glory in the cross of Christ, and his mercy to each one of us.  For Paul, home is not a place but a posture, of humility and gratitude for mercy; just as for Isaiah, home is not present security but a promise, the purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.

What about Jesus?  What sort of home does he suggest in his words to the seventy this morning?  The disciples obey his instructions, and they are astounded at the authority of his name, even to cast out demons.  And yet Jesus reminds them that even Satan himself once made his home in heaven.  Authority, residence in high places, great respect, is not enough of its own to make a home, not enough finally to belong somewhere.  Jesus tells these disciples not to let their enthusiasm or their pride get the better of them, not to let authority go to their heads.  He teaches them that their principle source of joy should rather be that the God in whose name they have done these things, that this God knows their names.  That he knows their names.  Great teaching, miracle working, casting out demons; none of these mighty works are shelters or foundations or homes, but rather simply that God knows their name.  God knows their name.

God knows your name too, and mine.  And this is the beginning of what it means for you and I finally to have a home in this world.  Isaiah teaches us to have confidence in the promises and purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.  Paul teaches us the posture of humility and gratitude as the way we respond to it.  And Jesus shows us that power and might do not avail for giving us peace or security at home, but only the confidence that God knows our name, and does not forget his kindness towards us.

So what about home?  How do we understand it in this world?  How do we build it, how do we give thanks for it, how do we protect it?  Our Scripture lessons this morning remind us that home is not something we can totally possess in this life.  If we seek it as a reward for good behavior, or the final end of all our work; if we want it to carry the freight of all our dearest emotions, or if we flee from it as the scene of trouble, we will always be disappointed.  Why?  Because for Christians, however we experience our homes in this world, they are finally not possessions or citadels in which we are safe from trouble or harm.  They are never as permanent as we’d like them to be, never as strong as we might need.  Rather they are the beginning of hope.

Our homes are what teach us to long for completion in the kingdom of God.  They are what give us glimpses of its perfection, its peace, always at the end of the long road which wends past the cross and through the grave, on its way up the mountain to the house of God.  That home takes root in this one, and by its own way it grows like Jack’s beanstalk up to the new Jerusalem, our “dear native land.”  So hope adorns our homes, making them shine with the light of that kingdom, growing now but not in flower yet.

And so, this weekend, as many of us go home or come home or celebrate home, let us thank God for our homes.  Let us live there in joyfulness.  And let us look forward in hope, all the more expectantly to our final, true, and lasting home, in the glory of God for ever.

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

“Catching” the Kingdom

A recent post of mine for The Living Church blog “Covenant.” It was written just at the end of May, as the “program” year here at CSMSG was winding down and our students and teachers at St. Michael’s School were preparing for the summer recesses. Full text is below:

From 1910-1931, Miles Farrow was the organist and choirmaster of the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  One of his signature accomplishments was developing the famous “Purple Tone,” which was the unique sound of his choir of men and boys. When asked how he taught the boys, many of them very young, how to achieve this sound, he would always reply that he did not teach them: the younger boys would simply “catch it” from the older boys, almost as they would catch a cold. The youngest choristers would sit with the choir and just listen, sometimes for a full year, before being allowed to sing. When they were finally allowed to add their voices to the choir, the “Purple Tone” would come naturally. They had indeed “caught” it.

Farrow’s practice wasn’t unique to him, there are plenty of choirs around the world that still ask their probationers to listen for a period of time before joining their voices with the others’.  But to “catch” something, rather than be taught, is a wonderful image. In that moment it is clear who is the student, but the teacher is hard to identify: certainly Farrow, but also each of the older choristers, and the gentlemen too. No doubt the organist bore much responsibility, as did the building with its acoustic and visual adornment, not to mention the liturgies themselves and the calendar of services. All are inseparable from the act of singing worship, and all worked together to produce the “Purple Tone” for which Farrow was famous and which the youngest choristers “caught” from the others. It was not merely a skill they were learning, but a whole spirit, a “germ,” which lodged in their imaginations and issued in this particularly beautiful way.

Extend the image further: for as many critics as praised this choir’s tone, how many more people must have been moved to pray by their music, how many visitors to the cathedral saw this choir singing and heard “the very stones crying out” in worship? How many vocations to ministry were nurtured by their daily offerings, how many evangelists strengthened, how many acts of justice encouraged by this community of prayer and praise? However these choristers “caught” the Purple Tone, there is always something deeply contagious about such an intentional, integrated, and public life of faith.

This is the time of year when many of our churches give thanks to God for their students and their teachers. This year so far has been a time in my own life when I have been especially mindful of my own teachers, whose student I have been.  Some have died, many are growing older, and I am increasingly grateful for the role they have played in my life.  Still, when asked what they taught me, I am always at something of a loss.  I have lost count of the facts I have learned from them, the skills honed at their guidance, and even the wisdom gleaned from their lives.  I find myself completely unable to condense their lessons into a pithy saying or a satisfying thesis. If “What have they taught you?” is an impossible question, then “What do they mean to you?” hits closer to the mark. But even this falls short.

We often presume that the relationship between teacher and student is chiefly one of exchange. The teacher has knowledge to impart, and the student receives it, digesting it according to their interest, need, and ability. Under this system, any teacher could stand in just as well for any other, provided the same command of the material. Wikipedia could just as easily stand in for any number of human beings, and we could all get on with more enticing concerns than learning.

But when I think of my own teachers, their lessons are neither the first thing I remember nor the chief thing I value.  Harry Potter and his friends value Hagrid as one of their favorite teachers at Hogwarts, even though his classes are far from ideal. Even so with my own teachers. At their best, they have not impressed me with the elegance of their presentation; rather they have introduced me to a new world I didn’t know existed before, even though it was always right under my nose.  They have fired my imagination with all the possibilities that world contains.  And by their patient guidance and friendship, they have made their world my own, by long sojourn inducting me into its mysteries, its challenges, its promises, and its joys.

Of course the world my teachers inhabit is this world, our plain old, one and only, planet Earth. But their teaching enables me to see farther, understand more deeply, act more maturely, and love more fully. I have been shaped their own peculiar character, and found myself in a company of fellow travelers who have scouted the way ahead.

It is hard to say exactly who taught Miles Farrow’s choristers the “Purple Tone” without accepting his own explanation that they simply “caught” it from each other. Likewise it is hard to say what I learned from my own teachers, apart from their being the touchstones by which I began to see the world afresh.  It is the same in each of our lives of faith.  Paul writes to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” (2 Timothy 1:6). John writes in his first epistle, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3). We “catch” our religion from one another, and, giving thanks for our teachers in the faith, we join them in their holy fellowship, the blessed company of all faithful people. In their steps we begin scouting the territory of the Kingdom of God, our prayers and praises inspiring the very stones to cry out in worship. Before long we find ourselves with students of our own, and so the Kingdom grows.

We live in an age where it is fashionable to be self-taught, self-made, self-fulfilled.  Meanwhile, teachers are not perfect. Miles Farrow finally suffered an alcohol-induced breakdown and died in an asylum. The fellowship of teachers and learners is a fragile one, requiring humility, sincerity, honesty, forbearance, and generosity, among other virtues. And yet to seek the kingdom of God by any other means amounts to the sin of Lucifer himself, who learned the hard way that heaven cannot be stormed by any amount of personal conviction, charisma, or force of arms. So, thanks be to God for all our teachers, and for all those from who we have caught glimpses of his kingdom. So let us, contagious with his praise and gentle with his love, guide others in the way that leads to eternal life.