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"

You are the salt of the earth

This sermon was preached Sunday morning, February 5, 2017, at CSMSG, the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  Music at the 9:15 choral mass included the Charles Wood (1866-1926) anthem, Expectans expectavi (“The sanctuary of my soul”). Listen to a recording here, and see the words here.

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins and give us, we beseech thee, the liberty of that abundant life which thou hast manifested to us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of theHoly  Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

As I was preparing for this sermon today, I spent some time in a nearby coffee shop. One of the things I was doing there was reading through a commentary on what various ancient and medieval Christian authors had to say about salt and light.  

As I read, I started noticing the table next to me having a more and more heated conversation. Two men were talking about current events, and one of them was trying to convince the other of something controversial. The argument carried on, and finally one man said to his friend, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news!” That seemed to end the conversation, or at least the loud part of it, and I refocused on my reading.

I’m sure you’ve heard most of the symbolic meanings of salt already: it’s a preservative, a flavoring that makes food worth tasting in the first place, a cauterizing agent. But St. Jerome makes a very interesting, relatively uncommon reading: he recalls that armies carried salt on campaign with them. When they finally won the battle and had reduced their enemies’ cities to ruins, they would sow the ground with salt, so that nothing would ever grow there again, and the desolation of the place would be a reminder of the victor’s total conquest.

Of course St. Jerome meant that God in Christ has conquered the devil, and that you and I are the salt God sows in the devil’s territory to keep down the weeds of sin and wrong. But as I read all this I couldn’t help but remember the last word in the argument I’d overheard, “You wouldn’t understand, you watch the wrong news.” We are always tempted to sow salt of our own, not in the devil’s fields but in each other’s, especially from opposite sides of whatever great arguments have currency in our own day.

St. Jerome was certainly a great saint, but reading of the salt of the earth was a very sensitively human one, deeply aware of our obsession with scorched earth policies and winner-take-all kinds of games.

“You watch the wrong news.” It was Jerome’s belief, and just about everyone else’s up until the Enlightenment, that the senses were the windows of the soul. What we hear and see, smell, touch, and taste, enters the mind itself through our ears and eyes and all the rest, which function literally as windows and doors, allowing traffic between our inner life and the outside world. From the mind, the things our senses perceive enter the soul. And in the process they can be recognized, known, and, ultimately, loved.

It doesn’t make much sense scientifically, but the philosophy allows for a particularly beautiful kind of relationship between ourselves and the world: the more we see of the world, the more it is a part of us, and we of it. And likewise the more barriers we put up between ourselves and what’s out there, the more stunted and anemic we become, while the world, likewise, is also impoverished by our isolation.

This is the context in which some of Jesus’ other statements might make a little more sense: “Let those with eyes to see, see; and those with ears to hear, hear.” One of the ways of understanding the gifts of the Gospel is as a clarification of our sight, to see things as they are, and to love them as we ought.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a former parishioner at another parish, telling me about the wonderful things God had done in his life this past Thanksgiving. He and his daughter had been estranged for years, after many misunderstandings and mutually-inflicted injuries. They hadn’t spoken in no one remembered how long. Then out of the blue one afternoon in early November, he received a note from her, saying she and her family would be nearby for Thanksgiving, and would he join them? In his letter to me, this father said his first thought was, “I’d rather die, thank you very much.” But after some serious thought and honest self-examination, he decided he would say yes. He went to Thanksgiving expecting no great miracles or even civility. But in the event, after much talking, many tears, and forgiving all around, he found he had regained his daughter, and she her father. Truly it was an answer to prayer, and for that matter a prayer he hadn’t dared to make in years.

What does this have to do with the senses? If this father had decided to write off his daughter because she “watched the wrong news,” so to speak, because she had the wrong idea of him and would never change, healing could never have come. As it happened, her decision to invite him to Thanksgiving, and his decision to go, allowed that each of them, themselves, was for the other the only news they needed: this person who had become a stranger could again be known and loved if only they both agreed to drop the barriers of injury and suspicion which impeded their senses and closed their minds to further possibility, which closed the doors of the soul between a daughter and her father.

“You are the salt of the earth.” With all respect and great deference to St. Jerome, his image only goes so far. If we are sown by God to poison the devil’s fields, we only turn traitors and serve the devil if we poison each other’s instead. William Temple, one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury of the last few centuries, a prolific scholar and a saintly man, served only two years as Archbishop before his death, but they were perhaps two of the most crucial years in his century: 1942 to 1944, the deepest, darkest nadir of the Second World War. Among many other things, Temple is famous for his quote: “The Church is the only society in the history of the world which exists primarily for the benefit of people who are not its members.”

“You are the salt of the earth.” Temple would not have been comfortable recommending poisonous behavior of any kind. He had seen more than his share of poisonous activity in his life already, both by nations and by individuals. For him, the Church’s vocation to be “the salt of the earth” was not Jesus’ way of flattering his disciples into good behavior. Rather for Temple, for the Church to be “the salt of the earth” meant that the Church, we, you and I, had a responsibility not only to one another, but to the whole world as well: to be the sort of people with whom forgiveness is possible, despite whatever barriers might exist between us, be they never so real, painful, or arresting; to be the sort of people in whom a father and his daughter might be reconciled; to be the sort of people in whom enemies might become friends; the sort of people who refuse to close their senses to one another but keep the highways open between souls, that love may abound to the glory of God.

“You are the salt of the earth.” Back in that coffee shop, this means we ought to be people who aren’t afraid of the news; who aren’t afraid of it, and who also aren’t merely spectators. “You are the light of the world.” This isn’t flattery either, but the same vocation. Salt of the earth, light of the world. Jesus is calling us to be people who refuse to put our heads in the sand, who refuse to “sit this one out” (whatever “this one” may be for you), and who commit ourselves to making the world worth tasting to begin with, who make the world worth seeing in the first place.

We do this by our God-given freedom to know strangers, to forgive friends, and to love enemies, and thereby to create new possibilities for life and growth where before there had been only ignorance or despair. This is the beginning of the Kingdom of God. Because for us, Christ has taken the scales off our eyes: his Cross looms large in each of our senses. We see there the glory of God to transform sin, pain, injustice, estrangement, defeat, and even death itself into the bed of hope, the dawn of eternal life. There at his Cross we see tied the indissoluble bonds of holy affection which unite in one family those who formerly had no knowledge or need of one another. And this is the beginning of the Church.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Christians are people who taste and see, first and foremost, that the Lord is Good, and that this is what makes life worth living. Our vocation is no less for each other and for the whole human race. Salt and light: to make the earth worth tasting, the world worth seeing, and life worth living: that all may see and know; that knowing, we may also love; and that loving, we may all be saved.

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

Christmas Day 2016

Preached at 10am on Christmas Day, at CSMSG. A Sunday this year, the congregation was considerably larger than usual for Christmas Day in the morning!

Collect: Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end.  Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14

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

One Christmas not long ago, I was talking with one of my college students, who was preparing to be baptized in a few months’ time at the Easter Vigil. He grew up in a completely secular household, no religious experience whatsoever, and naturally he was curious about Christmas. “What’s it all about?” he asked. He already knew about the baby Jesus and the manger, it’s hard to grow up even as an atheist and remain in complete ignorance about things like that. But he wanted to know more. What did it mean? How did a *Christian* keep the feast?

Now you might think that a priest of all people would be ready with an answer for the question “What does Christmas mean?” But I confess, to God, to blessed Mary, to all the saints, and to you, that I froze. What does Christmas mean? For a priest, you might as well ask, ‘What do you think about the air you’re breathing?’ ‘Well I don’t know.’ It’s something that comes so naturally, that is such an integral, necessary part of daily life, that without conscious effort it’s hard to get the critical distance necessary even to think about it.

I mumbled some kind of answer about the Incarnation, and the plan of salvation, but that Christmas is also more than all those theological things… Somehow I couldn’t communicate the kind of imagination Christmas creates for the Christian believer, the way in which its events and promises seep into every part of our lives, the way they infuse every corner of life and creation with divine splendor and quiet grace, with the conviction that something more is possible, that there is always more than meets the eye; that no matter how dire or seemingly final, there is always new life beginning right here and just around the corner. But I couldn’t get all this out, and continued to play the idiot struggling for words.

Finally I gave up and recommended he just watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special: and if you get nothing else out of this sermon, hear me recommend Charlie Brown as a great introduction to a Christmas imagination!

My student went home and by all accounts had a wonderful first Christmas as a Christian believer. But I’ve been thinking about his question ever since. At risk of indulging in a little self-justification, this morning I want to offer just a few additional thoughts that might help us begin to have a “Christmas imagination” ourselves.

In Advent the central tension of the season was that there are really two Advents: the first Advent of Christ, when he was born today in a manger so many centuries ago; and his second Advent, when he shall come again in power and great glory to judge both the quick and the dead, when every tear shall be wiped from every eye and all shall be made new. In the season of Advent we looked forward to both Advents, and this is the central creative tension of the season.

You might think that this tension gets resolved at Christmas, as our waiting and God’s promise meet in the Christ Child in the manger. And you’d be right, to a point: Christmas resolves Advent’s waiting by the celebration of what is here, what we are faced with, now, in Bethlehem. But this isn’t all. The creative tension continues on another tack. This is indeed the feast of the Nativity of Christ. But there is more than one Nativity which we celebrate here.

There is a reason that by the most ancient Christian tradition there are always three masses celebrating the Lord’s Nativity: one in the evening on Christmas Eve, one late at night running into early Christmas Day, and one today, on Christmas Day in the morning. Three services, with three different sets of readings, and three different collects. Three services because there are really three Nativities. And this is the creative tension of Christmas.

Three nativities. What are they? The first Nativity is from the beginning of eternity, the Son of God eternally begotten from the bosom of the Father: we recall this Nativity every time we say the Creed, or for that matter, every time we sing O Come All Ye Faithful: “God of God, Light from Light eternal…Word of the Father…” “Not made, without whom nothing was made that was made.” This Child born in a manger is more than he seems: he is the ruler of all the starry host before whom angels bow in worship and even the devils bend the knee. This is part of what is so awe-inspiring about Christmas, that such a one as this should come to such a place as this stable, to seek and save such sinners as you and I.

The second Nativity is the one we might know better: Linus on the stage, reciting for Charlie Brown the Angelic chorus to the shepherds: 

This is the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown: ‘And lo, an angel of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy: Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly thee was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.’

This is the Nativity we celebrate with the artwork on so many Christmas cards, with the crèche in church and so many manger scenes on front lawns and village squares around the world. For that matter this is the Nativity we recall every single Sunday as begin our worship with the angels’ Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Here is the beginning of salvation in earnest: a savior, concrete and personal, who comes from God on high not to condemn but to save, through the slow, taxing, charming progress of personal love, through poverty, betrayal, death, and beyond.

Finally, the third Nativity is the one we celebrate this morning, at this third service of Christmas on Christmas Day, in the light of that “new and glorious morn” which the Christmas carols herald. What Nativity is this? The Nativity of our Lord, his birth afresh, in the heart of every Christian: wherein your heart and mine becomes another manger to receive him ourselves. The Savior’s birth is the beginning of new life for the whole world; but it is also the beginning of life for you too, and for me. No matter how rude the stable, no matter how crude the beasts which dwell there, no matter how dark the night of sin and wrong, Christ comes to be born in you and me too, shining the Light from light eternal on all our gloom and dis-ease. This is the greatest mystery of all, one we commemorate this morning especially, but also with every prayer we offer, every forgiveness we grant, every act of mercy made in his Name, and chief of all every time we come to the Eucharist, receiving him afresh under the signs of bread and wine. Christ born in our hearts, the third and greatest Nativity.

Three Nativities, three great celebrations over these holy days. But they are only the beginning. Christ eternally begotten of his Father, Christ born of Mary, Christ in you and me: this is the whole mystery which you and I explore our entire lives long as Christians. This is the mystery in which not just the meaning of Christmas but our own meaning is revealed as well. This is the mystery by which we are brought before the face of God. Let it be to us this year a new beginning, a refreshment, and a challenge: to live as Christmas people all through the year, imaginations alive to the Christ child.

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

Thanksgiving Day 2016

The following sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day (November 24, 2016) at CSMSG.  It is a substantially revised and further developed version of similar points I made first in a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day in 2012, at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver.

Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labor of those who harvest them.  Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

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

Today is Thanksgiving Day. The parade is over, football hasn’t quite started yet, the turkey is in the oven, and you brave souls who have come to church in the interim are now my captives! I’ll just offer a few brief reflections on Thanksgiving and Gratefulness, and then liberate us all for the work of our liturgy this morning.

First, I think Thanksgiving is really one of the best things we do as a society. I know the single most dreaded question at the Thanksgiving table (or, as is our custom, at a vestry meeting of St. Michael and St. George), is “What are you thankful for?” But really, the opportunity this question gives us to take stock of our own gratitude is immensely valuable. Things mentioned around tables all across the country are things like, family, friends, community, joy in creation, a new home, freedom from fear, healing from some ailment. Taking stock of our gratitude is valuable because it helps us to put names and faces to goodness and truth and beauty; and it reminds us that these ideals cannot exist in the mind only but must be based in real actions and real people.

The second thing is that gratitude is always directed to a person. When we give thanks, we do not toss our gratitude into the ether like leaves scattering in the wind. In the English language we are very specific about gratitude: we say, Thank You. Thank You. And even when we just say, “Thanks,” it is always short for “my thanks to you.” We are always grateful to a person, whether that person is a friend or a family member, a group of people like nurses and doctors, or God. We cannot be thankful in isolation from a person to whom our thankfulness is directed. CS Lewis once famously remarked, the worst moment for a committed atheist is when they are filled with gratitude but have no one to thank. Going around the table saying what we are thankful for helps us identify not just for what, but also to whom we are thankful. It builds relationship on top of the real, concrete goods and truths and beauties for which we are grateful.

Third, on the word “thanks” itself. As I was preparing for this sermon, I was curious where the word actually comes from, and what its roots mean. Apparently, “thanks” and “thoughts” actually come from the same root, by a rather long and twisted track through Latin and German and Anglo-Saxon. It signifies a sort of combination of thoughts, good will, and even grace. “My thanks to you” is the original, long-form construction of the phrase, and “Thank you” and “Thanks” are both short forms of that.  

My thanks to you: my thoughts, my good will, my grace, to you. What a wonderful phrase, to have written into the fabric of the language! It suggests that gratitude, paradoxically, has some dimension of gift as part of its definition. And think then of our response: “You’re welcome.” You’re welcome to what? You are welcome to me. Our words of gratitude establish a beautiful relationship of mutual self-gift between two people, the free exchange of good will and even grace. Being grateful is not just a passive, polite response to someone else’s action. It is an active giving of the self in response to another person’s gift, in which a relationship of love is established and affirmed and edified.

My last point this morning is that to live in Thanksgiving is to live in constant imitation of Christ: Christ who gave himself to be born a human, Christ who gave himself to death for our sakes, Christ who lives eternally begotten of the Father, who offers himself upon the cross, and forever, back to his Father, out of whose love proceeds the Holy Spirit. To live in Thanksgiving is to live in the same pattern of fellowship as the Holy Trinity, the ground of all that exists. To live in Thanksgiving is to follow our Lord’s footsteps, constantly bearing the fruit of love.

Soon we will come to the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving. At the altar we will rehearse all the things for which we as Christian people are most thankful. We will direct our thanks, and our praise, to God, whose gifts they are. We will join the unending song of all the angels and saints, and be brought near to the presence of God. We will receive the sacrament of Christ himself, and be established and edified in the communion that is both nourishment for our souls and the great final promise of our faith.

The truth is, this Thanksgiving morning, you are not my captives at all! We are all of us the people of God, and we are gathered here today to do the work of rendering our thanks — indeed our very selves — to God. Giving thanks, to God especially, is not a matter merely of being polite. Rather it is to be swept off your feet into a new world, into the free exchange of love at the heart of God himself, becoming free ourselves, and, once free, immediately bound up together in his life and in one another’s.

Today, on Thanksgiving Day, let us give thanks for every gift of goodness and beauty which we have received, to all those persons known and unknown who have given them. Let us also commit to giving thanks every day, with all that giving thanks entails, in order that we and all the created order may be knit ever more closely together in the grace and love of our eternal, Triune God.

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