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"

Authority & Experience, Part I

This sermon was preached on August 21, 2016 at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (13th Sunday after Trinity, 14th after Pentecost, and “Proper 16”). It represents a few preliminary thoughts I have on an old question that seems perennially relevant: the tension between “official” religion and its local expression; or, reduced even further, between authority and experience. This is a starting point, nothing more, with a lot of work still to be done!

Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, merciful God, that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 58:9-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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

One of the ways that archaeologists think about ancient religion is to mark a division: between official, institutional religion and the more common, everyday ways in which people live their lives of faith.  

One good example is the pyramids of Egypt and the tombs of the pharaohs, compared with the household shrines in individual people’s houses. The two are very different, both in scale and in style. The literature of the court is what has survived, and so when we think of Egyptian religion we think of the grand mythic cycles, monumental temples, and golden sarcophagi. But most people lived much simpler lives than that. They had small clay figurines in their homes representing their favorite gods, and perhaps also a few representing their ancestors. They made small sacrifices to them, and said their prayers as best they could manage. When trouble came, they may have gone to a temple to consult a highly educated priest, but they may also have gone to a wizened neighbor who specialized in folk remedies and who had known them their whole lives.

The official clergy weren’t always happy with this folk religion because it tended to water down the official message — usually some variation on the pharaoh himself being a god and the official state apparatus being the answer to all their problems. They did not approve of the kind of rough-hewn, messy, backlot religion that flourished in villages and neighborhoods all over Egypt, because it was so difficult to control, and because it was so unsophisticated.

Archaeologists see the difference between these two religions — the official, dogmatic line, and local folk variations, as being highly instructive for understanding all kinds of tensions present in ancient societies.

But archaeologists are not the only ones who notice this kind of division present in religions, nor are ancient societies the only ones who suffer them. Our Old Testament lesson today as well as the Gospel reveal that the same tension was present both in the ancient Israel of the Kings and Prophets, and in the Roman Judaea of Jesus’ day.

Isaiah and his fellow Israelites would have known two different kinds of prophets, roughly corresponding to the two sorts of religion. The first was a set of courtly advisers, well-educated scholars who made it their business to know all the goings-on both of the Temple and its priesthood, and the king and his court. They were the whisperers, masters of rumor and gossip, who delighted in dreams and visions and divine showings. (Something like a religious version of Lord Varys from Game of Thrones, if I can say so from the pulpit!)

Whenever a king wanted a word from God, these prophets were his first port of call. Many of them were very holy people, who served with faithfulness and distinction. One of the most famous was Nathan, who held King David accountable before God for his sins and trespasses, and who helped to crown his son Solomon king after he died. Ezekiel is another, and Ezra, both authors of their own books in our Bible.

Many others, though, were charlatans, plain and simple, who enjoyed their lives of ease and influence, disingenuously giving false advice and fabricating visions to suit what they thought the king and his people wanted to hear. Often it would happen that the king, in order to appease some new diplomatic partner, would install altars to their gods in the Temple of the Lord, and would worship them himself. More often than not, this set of prophets went along with it, and happily kept their jobs and their livings, usually with promotions to match the new wealth now coming into the country. These prophets were powerful people. Though most were not among the most righteous of Israelites, they were the spokespersons of the official religion.

The other group of prophets Isaiah would have known were people like himself. People a little on the edge, not as well-educated, who forged their reputations and their influence by their radical faithfulness to God, by speaking words which came true, and by performing miraculous signs which confirmed the truth of their message. These prophets were never very safe characters for the king or for the temple elite. They were full of criticism for the way things were, and often, from positions of loneliness and exile, they would cast a vision for a better way, a better world, in which the people turned back to God and lived according to his law, his promise, his generosity, rather than according to their own designs.

In today’s passage, Isaiah is a paragon of this type of prophet. More back-woods than polished, he represents the religion of the people rather than the official line, and calls the powers-that-be to account. Too long have they lived according to their own vision of success. Now he presents them with a better world, far above their own ability to scheme or devise, and locates that world not far off on some distant shore, but firmly within the realm of the people in their very midst whom they had so long ignored.  

Elijah is another famous example of this kind of prophet, with Amos and Jeremiah too. But not all of them are as altruistic as these. Plenty of these types of prophets were also charlatans, and led the people into ill-conceived rebellions and wars which devastated the countryside and decimated the population.

In the Gospel today, we see Jesus seemingly behaving as this second kind of prophet. He faces a scenario in which the local instrument of official religion, the synagogue, is so scrupulously enforcing its laws that a woman is criticized for presenting herself to be healed on the Sabbath. The officials have certainly read the law correctly, there can be no doubting their scholarship. In the Ten Commandments God does order the sabbath to be kept holy, and in dozens of further regulations both in Scripture and in other religious literature, complicated rules governed just how to do that. From the official point of view, the woman was clearly in the wrong. But just as Isaiah had done so many centuries before, Jesus takes her side against the institution.

It’s not that the official religion is wrong, but simply that it had lost the true object of its mission. What is that religion’s mission? Not to make people masters of its own ordinances and moral processes; certainly not to enrich or ingratiate the powerful who ran it; but rather to help people live into the vision of a kingdom where God rules and life is his supreme policy. So Jesus heals the woman, in direct contradiction to the official religion, and shames all their vaunted expertise by his mercy.

But before you start to think I’m advocating some kind of folk revolution in religion, let me make a further observation, from today’s Epistle. Archaeologists think of “Official” religion as being high and lofty, full of principle and abstraction, concerned with complicated matters of doctrine and eternity. “Folk” religion they think of as being low and gritty, concerned with the everyday worries of everyday people, and not very interested with philosophy or consistency. That distinction probably holds true very much of the time, all over the world and no doubt in Christianity too. Think of all the times you have heard about controversy between bishops and clergy, or clergy and lay people, or between mainline and charismatic churches. Today’s reading from Hebrews, however, inverts the whole dilemma: ‘you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, a mountain, darkness, a terrifying voice; but rather you have come to the city of the living God, to millions of angels, to the souls of the just now made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant and himself the final sacrifice.’ To Jesus! The author of Hebrews insists that this Jesus, whom we have just witnessed in the Gospel aacting as a hero of folk religion, breaking laws left and right in order to heal and restore; this Jesus, here in this passage from Hebrews and throughout the whole letter, is spoken of in transcendent language: the great high priest, and mediator of a new covenant. Here is official religion again, with a vengeance: high and lofty, higher than all the heavens. Here is Jesus, enthroned in eternity.

What to make of it all? What to make of Jesus, both folk hero and crown prince of heaven? Simply that, for us Christians, the criteria by which we adjudicate the tension between authority and experience; the standard according to which we discern between right and wrong; the bread and butter of our daily lives of faith as well as the great fulfillment of all our most poetic hopes; all of these things begin and end with one name, Jesus. Jesus meek and mild, Jesus in a manger; Jesus high and lifted up, judge both of the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. One and the same!

For us Christians, everything depends not on how well we master the metaphysical intricacies of our theology, nor on our cultural integrity as people of a certain type; but rather on Jesus himself, and his mission to free us from every bond, to make us citizens of his kingdom forever.

This is a new kind of religion, make no mistake about it! The altar to which we are about to come is both the altar of Jesus’ sacrifice, the place where the authorities executed him to eliminate the threat he posed, where he offered himself to his Father for our sakes; and it is also the table of his heavenly kingdom, where we share with saints and angels in the never-ending banquet of God. This altar is both the grittiest, most down-to-earth place we can imagine, as well as the throne from which the very stars are governed. The communion we are about to share, communion of his body and blood, is communion which brings together both kinds of religion and turns them on their head. Here heaven and earth come together: no longer mediated by impersonal ordinance, no longer constrained by local experience: but here we are visited by God himself and recognized for his very own.

Come to this altar and be forgiven of your sins.
Come to this table, and eat the bread of angels.
Meet Christ here and see him enthroned:
over all the starry host, 
and in your heart.

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

“Our Father…”

This sermon was preached on July 24, 2016, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George. I had just been with our mission team in Nicaragua over the past week — our 17th annual trip to the same place. The Gospel was the episode where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

Collect: O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy, that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 18:20-33, Colossians 1:21-29, Luke 11:1-13

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

Many of you know that I was away this past week, with our mission team in Nicaragua. They’re still there, they’ll be there for another week, but I was grateful for the chance to spend these few days with them, and to share with them the work that they’re doing. If you’ve never been on this mission trip, I strongly encourage you to consider going next year.  

It’s one of the most unusual mission trips I’ve ever participated in. First of all, our work is directly with the people who live there. Lots of mission teams seem to operate on an industrial model these days, where there are lots of intermediaries between the team participants and the people they serve. Not so with our team: we worked directly with a local organization that runs a school and a clinic. Unlike most mission teams, who stay off-site and get bused in, we stayed in the same neighborhood where we worked. We saw the same people every day, and our team has been seeing these same people for close to twenty years now. The number of happy reunions I witnessed was remarkable: residents of the neighborhood greeted members of our team as if they were old friends, and indeed they were. Because I was new to this mission trip, our people were constantly telling me stories as we carried out our work: stories about this or that building that wasn’t there ten years ago, or this or that family and their news, or a local church congregation with whom we had been worshiping, or various projects they had completed, or funny stories they had experienced.

Most mission teams go to a place, complete the tasks assigned, take lots of pictures, buy lots of souvenirs, and go home, where they start planning for somewhere different next year. Not ours. I have to say I was extremely impressed not merely by the accumulation of work we’ve accomplished over the last 18 years, but even more by the quality of the relationships we have built and the way the Nejapa neighborhood of Managua has become another home for St. Michael and St. George.

Why do I say all this to begin my sermon? First because you all ought to know just what a wonderful thing this is that we do every year at CSMSG, and how unusual in its quality. And second, because it’s a perfect analogy to begin talking about today’s readings. This morning we’ve heard a fairly systematic series of readings on prayer, and the various forms it takes. Abraham negotiates with God about the fate of Sodom & Gomorrah. The Pslamist reflects thankfully on receiving the help and mercy he had asked for. Jesus teaches his disciples the “Our Father,” and continues with his famous admonition to ask, seek, and knock, for the door to be opened. Paul highlights the importance of being focused on Christ himself, and not on law or status, as we are incorporated into His own life.

These lessons certainly seem to cover the bases: Abraham petitions God, and teaches us that we can approach God with our requests. The Psalmist gives thanks, and teaches us to do the same. Jesus teaches us that prayer is something like a relationship between father and son, parents and children. And Paul teaches us to reflect theologically on what it all means. Yet all this still seems insufficient really to say what prayer is all about. Because prayer is so much more than simply an outline of holiness, more than an index to Christian living.

As a priest sometimes people come to me who are dissatisfied with their prayer life. As we talk, it usually becomes clear that they are making one of a few different possible mistakes. One of the most common is that people feel they ought to pray for things that sound holy: things like peace on earth, or to have more patience with their families, or to get better at budgeting for charitable causes. These are all fine, and certainly worth aiming at. But prayer is not a divinely-sanctioned wishing well. And there’s no use asking God for something you think sounds holy if you haven’t done the work of preparing yourself to receive it. Because chances are, you won’t be able to recognize it when it comes. And so people get disappointed.

So what’s the answer? I remember once being scandalized by something my medieval theology professor said during the course of a lecture in seminary. (Imagine, being scandalized by the Middle Ages! But it might scandalize you too.). He said, “You should always pray for what you want, even if what you want is to steal your neighbor’s wife.” How does this make any sense? Because in prayer you are not placing orders with a cosmic amazon.com. I’m sorry to disappoint you! Rather you are lifting up your desires to God, you are offering yourself as a desiring person. Naming them in prayer surrenders those desires, and yourself, to God, to let him do with you what he will. If you want to steal your neighbor’s wife, God knows it already, naming it in prayer won’t surprise him in the least. It will not make it happen, God does not work that way. Be honest in prayer, even and especially about those things which we might want to hide or plaster over with a more holy veneer.

This is the starting point, hiding nothing from God. This is the only way we can begin to know the depths of his mercy, the only way we can begin to see another way forward, the only way we can begin to desire the higher things. On this model, prayer is less about getting what you ask for to change your world, and more about asking in the first place so that God might change you. On this model, prayer is less a religious means to my personal ends, and more the medium in which God draws me closer to himself, the occasions by which he clarifies his image in me.  

This is the kind of prayer to which all our lessons point this morning. In Genesis, Abraham’s prayer marks a transition point for him in his relationship with God. Before this, Abraham heard God’s call and obeyed, he offered sacrifice and made a covenant. But now God has visited his tent, they have haggled, and they have become friends. Jesus teaches the “Our Father” to his disciples, so that by their constant prayer, they might see they are no longer merely objects of grace, passive recipients of divine precept, but that they are God’s children now, whose life in the world will be radically different. Paul takes it a step even further, insisting that the whole thing is inescapably personal, as we abide in Christ himself, his body who is the Head.

Prayer is the place where we begin to see just what this means for the way we perceive the world and our own place in it. Prayer is the place where we begin to enjoy the communion of all God’s children one with another. Prayer is the place where we are changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, whose perfect act of prayer was to offer himself to his Father upon the cross.

So, what does all this have to do with our mission trip to Nicaragua? As with prayer, we might have started out thinking we were going to “help those in need,” or something similarly holy-sounding. But what I witnessed was a group of people who had been changed by the act of offering themselves in this way, who are there now, not because of any abstract desire to “help,” but because they have grown to love the people of Nejapa in a very real way: Norr, and Julio; Alex, Don Victor, and dozens of children, doctors, teachers, and laborers who work to make that place a home for so many.  

Put another way, the object of our team’s love has become their home, in a very beautiful way, over many years, and the people of Nejapa their extended family. May you and I find prayer to be the same for us: the place where we learn to love God with every fiber of our being, and find ourselves at home in him, with all those who also say, “Our Father.”

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