Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Month: November, 2016

All Saints (and all votes)

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, November 6, 2016, when we kept the feast of All Saints. The evening’s offering of Evensong kept the propers for All Souls. This was also the Sunday immediately preceding Election Day. Given the acrimony of the presidential campaign, and the anxiety and stress so many of us are facing in anticipation of the possible futures the election may bring, I saw this as an opportunity to reflect pastorally: on both the feast of All Saints, and on the Christian hope to which it bears witness, even in the midst of trying times.

Collect: O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting.

Readings: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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

Well, Election Day is almost upon us.  One of the things this means is that, if your experience is anything like mine, you’ve probably been coming across more than the usual number of crazy people.  You know the kind I mean: glassy-eyed, totally convinced of the rightness of their cause, or the justice of their complaint, or the certainty of the doom they pronounce.  They stop us in the grocery line, or they troll our favorite news sites’ comments section, or we hear them spout some new enormity in a public square or around the water cooler.  

Maybe they’re members of your family.  Maybe you work with them.  Whoever they are, they all have this in common: they simply won’t listen to reason.  Nothing you say can convince them that they might have missed this or that part of the story.  Nothing you say can convince them that they might have it wrong.  So they carry on in their craziness, and you and I comfort ourselves with the thought that, since these nutters are basically irrational anyway, there’s nothing we can do to help them except ignore them and move on — and hope that come Election Day, there are more of us than there are of them.

G.K. Chesterton, the Edwardian social critic, once remarked that, contrary to expectations, the trouble with crazy people is not actually their fundamental irrationality but rather the reverse.  They’re stuck in a reasonable, logical loop: not that they’ve lost their reason, but that reason is the only thing they have left, while everything else has gone.  They’re stuck in one narrow rut of if/then, cause/effect, proposition/conclusion, conviction/manifesto, and they fail to see the world around them as it really is.

For Chesterton, what people in this scenario needed was not more reason — they already had too much of that.  What they needed was air: open the windows, feel the sunshine, smell the roses, enlarge the world.  Then reason becomes accountable to reality once again, rather than the other way around, and we can see ourselves and our problems in relation to the whole.  Don’t give the crazy person yet more reason.  Instead give them some good old fashioned fresh air.  Set them in a wide open space where the horizon can lend some perspective, and their malnourished imaginations can breathe again.

What does all this have to do with All Saints?  Simply that this holiday, maybe more than any other in our calendar (save the Lord’s resurrection), is an invitation for you and me to breathe some fresh air, to expand our vision.  All Saints asserts that the Church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment or in any given place, always more than meets the eye.

Are you discouraged by the state of the church, how much ground appears to have been lost in recent decades?  Remember Athanasius, almost entirely alone among his generation, Athanasius contra mundi.  The whole world had gone over to the deadly Arian heresy, and he himself languished through five different exiles from his home see.  And yet God was pleased to work his will through Athanasius such that not only did the world return to the life-giving faith of the Church, but it was also given a powerful new ally in the faith, monasteries from the Egyptian desert, which Athanasius did so much to promote in his day, and which have done so much since to preserve and enrich both Church and Society throughout the ages.

Are you concerned that politicians will sour the fount of faith?  Remember King Charles I, put to death by Cromwell for his refusal to go along with a radical reformist agenda.  Yet he was vindicated a scant few decades later by a glorious restoration of that church which he had defended with his life, and which had seemingly disappeared with his death.

Are you discouraged at the humdrum nature of daily life and the lack of heroic opportunity to live your devotion?  Remember Elizabeth of Hungary, who disobeyed royal policy to bring bread from the palace ovens to the poor outside its gates.  When caught in the act of carrying out this simple work of mercy, she was forced to turn out her apron: lo and behold, instead of loaves, it was miraculously filled with rose petals, which fluttered to her accusers’ feet, putting them to shame.

Perhaps you think you are in too low an estate, too terrible a circumstance, to offer anything of value to God.  Remember Mary, an unmarried peasant girl without a penny or a hope, surprised at her prayers one day by an angel, who announced to her she would be mother of the Son of God.  By God’s grace, this poor peasant girl became the Queen Mother of Heaven itself, witnessed in Revelation with even the stars at her feet.

The stories go on and on.  Whatever new problem you think you face, the feast of All Saints shows us that we have been there before.  And every time, God’s answer is to change what is possible, to point beyond reason, to a higher truth: that in the communion of saints, we share fellowship with those who are on the other side of judgement day and who enjoy the unmediated glory of God in the new heaven and the new earth.  In the life of the Church, that world breaks into this one, and commends itself to us as our own true home; that fellowship commends itself to us as our own true family.  Truly, the feast of All Saints gives us a breath of fresh air: it expands our vision, enables us to see through the confines of our own limited experience to the wide world of God’s loving, creative purposes, beyond all comprehension or limitation.

At the same time as it expands our vision, All Saints also focuses it.  It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith that the company of Saints, so diverse in their vocations and the details of their lives, are united across the ages in one chief way: together they all share a singular vision.  One character, one figure, looms large in their sight, and all of their varied and multifaceted works bear witness to that central figure, above all, filling all, perfecting all.

That figure of course is Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.  The paradox lies in that, far from limiting their vision, focusing so intently on this central figure expands it infinitely.   Likewise for you and I to place him at the center of our vision, to know him as the end of our yearning, to love him as the one who first loved us: is to see all whom he sees, is to know all whom he knows, is to love all whom he loves.  This takes us so far beyond our own limited capacity that we enter a new world, the world of his making and not ours: a world ruled by his promises, populated by his children, governed by his mercy; where around every corner lies some fresh unexplored grace, and over every hill lies some fresh valley of holy delight.

This feast of All Saints points us well beyond our current troubles, to the undiscovered, illimitable country of God’s grace.  Together with all the others it has created and transfigured, this feast points us to that wide world even while it draws our focused attention to the singular, towering figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose contemplation we breathe the fresh air of the Spirit of God, and the world is set to dazzling with the light of his countenance.

Which is all to reframe the question: Do you know a crazy person in your life?  Are you a crazy person?  Either way, get over it — your crazy neighbor, no matter how repugnant, is not the whole world.  Your causes, no matter how righteous, are not the whole world.  Get out more, out into God’s grace, and breathe some fresh air.  There is more there than whatever walls you feel closing in, always more; the kingdom of God is ever unfolding, leading us into ever further heights of love, as we obey his commandments to love God and neighbor.

Today the Saints invite you to consider a world in which new things are always possible, in which no work of God ever proves finally fruitless, whose horizons are limited only by his mercy, whose promises are new every morning.  Today the Saints invite you to join them in their contemplation of the face of God. Come to the altar of his sacrifice.  Come to the table he has set.  Come to the throne of grace, and there, join the throng of all his starry host.

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

Wrestling with God

The following sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, October 16, 2016, the 21st Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 22/Proper 24).

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

“And Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:

Our passage from Genesis this morning is one of my favorite episodes in the Old Testament, partly because it is so strange, and seems to come out of nowhere. (Maybe that says more about me than it does about Jacob, but still, it’s one of my favorites).

Jacob is returning home after fourteen years’ sojourn with his kinsman Laban. He has gotten married, twice, and amassed a large family and personal fortune. As he gets closer and closer to home, he gets more and more worried about his brother Esau. Remember Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright, and promptly ran away. This is his first return home since then, and naturally he’s worried about his reception. So he sends gifts to Esau ahead of the caravan, and then sends the family on ahead to spend the last night of the journey alone.  

Why does he send them on ahead? Is he cowardly, wanting to put as many bodies as possible between himself and his potentially murderous older brother? Is it somehow to protect them, with distance between himself and the people he cares about? We’re unsure, the text doesn’t say. At any rate, as soon as they’re gone and Jacob is settling down for the night, a stranger appears out of nowhere and attacks Jacob. They wrestle all night long, neither of them getting the upper hand, until morning — and as day is breaking, the stranger touches Jacob’s thigh and puts it out of joint so he can get away.

Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, and the stranger certainly plays it that way, giving Jacob a new name in the way that God seems prone to do now and then. “Your name shall now be Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” The dawn breaks, Jacob goes on his way, and finds his brother not murderous at all but overjoyed to see him again.

It is a strange episode. Is it a dream? Why did the stranger resort to these semi-miraculous means putting Jacob’s thigh out of joint in order to get away? If the stranger is indeed God himself, it certainly looks like God is prepared to cheat in order to win this wrestling match. As Genesis proceeds, we don’t really get any answers about this event. Jacob enters the Promised Land and follows in the steps of his forbears, becoming a great Patriarch, father to the twelve tribes of Israel; though he walks with a limp for the rest of his life.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt as though you were wrestling with God, or even that God seems to be cheating to get the better of you? At morning prayer over the last few weeks we’ve been reading through the book of Job. Now there is a man who has spent a long time wrestling with God: facing suffering he didn’t deserve, with friends whose easy answers tended to make things worse rather than better. Job doesn’t get any answers either, even worse for him since God himself shows up, unmistakably, and refuses point blank to answer the questions Job asks. Like Jacob, at the end he seems to come out better for having wrestled with God, but I have to think his life remained scarred for the losses and pains he endured.

Maybe you know what it feels like yourself: in the middle of life, politely minding your business, making your way as best you can, like Jacob maybe a shortcut here or there but on the whole trying hard to be conscious of God’s gifts, thankful for your blessings. And then out of nowhere, the stranger at the river Jabbok shows up and throws you off balance. You fight and you struggle, but it seems there is no way out. How is it fair? Loss, hardship, confusion, loss of confidence, all of it is difficult to endure. Is God responsible? Has God even cheated at the game, played dirty with fate or chance or Providence? Perhaps God even seems to you the unjust judge from Jesus’ parable today, and you or I like the widow, suffering some injustice and unable to get a fair ruling: coming day after day, night after night to God’s door begging for mercy and hearing only silence.

Albert Einstein, objecting to what he thought was the craziness of quantum physics, once remarked, “God does not play dice.” But all too often, our lives as we live them recall another quote, “Not only does God play dice, but the dice are loaded.” If God cheats with Jacob, if he refuses to answer Job’s cries, does that merely leave us to soldier on in the midst of whatever challenge we face? Are merely supposed to bear suffering like the ancient stoics, to bear loss of meaning or security by saying it must be God’s will and move on?

All of a sudden this strange story alone at night at the fords of the River Jabbok starts to sound more familiar, and all too common. What do we do when we are at our wits’ end, and the wrestling match takes a turn for the worse? What meaning are we supposed to make of it?

Consider for a moment that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we usually worry only about one side of the story, our own side. But I dare you, for just a moment, to consider the other side, God’s side of the story, the stranger stealing into Jacob’s camp at midnight.

Consider God’s own affair with the world from the first moments of creation: a world to love, and creatures to delight as they reflect his glory, persons made in his image, who are very good. But from our first disobedience in the Garden, the world fell from its first grace, and over the millennia God has been wrestling time after time to win us back to him, to redeem what was lost and restore it to glory.

Late in the match, long after Jacob and Job, He sent another stranger into the fray, his own Son, to wrestle the powers of sin and death which held the world in bondage. Not at night this time, but in broad daylight: as Jesus’ gave up his spirit on the cross, He cheats again, putting the whole world’s thigh out of joint.

The cross is where God puts the whole world’s thigh out of joint. And as he rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven, all who are touched by him receive a new name, his own Name. You and I are made members of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where sin and sorrow and death are no more.

Certainly the hardships and struggles and sorrows of our lives scar us, and we bear those marks forever, just as Jacob limped his whole life long and the risen Christ bears the marks of the nails. Jacob, like Job, like you and me, asked himself “Why me? What does it all mean?” at the thought of the dangers he had gone through and the dangers ahead of him. It was a dark night for him at the fords of the Jabbok, and he did not know what the next day would bring; his preparations, sending his family on ahead, make him seem paralyzed with fear or dread. Would God be faithful to the promise he made to Jacob? Would his brother forgive him?  

But God did not answer his questions, did not allay his fears. He he did not answer Job’s charges either, and neither does answer ours — save by showing up himself. God does not answer our questions in any other way than by showing up himself: in our darkest, loneliest hour, grappling with whatever suspicion or anger or violence or doubt we might want to throw at him.

God himself shows up and picks a fight with us to bear, himself, all our rage, and cheating, at the last minute, bringing us up short, wounding us with his grace, so that we might be reconciled to one another and enter the land he has prepared for us with a new name, the one he has prepared for us from the beginning, a name befitting his sons and daughters.

If God has put your thigh out of joint, do not worry, he has put the whole world’s thigh out of joint at the cross of his Son. He did not cause your suffering, he is not hiding in the darkness, he is not afraid of your frustration. But his answer is to be with you in the midst of it, to suffer the brunt of it himself, and, as with Jacob, to grant you the grace to see his face right beside you, and to receive his blessing.

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