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: March, 2017

“Rose” Sunday

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Rose” Sunday.

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

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

Maybe you noticed we’re wearing a different color today: Rose, instead of the usual unbleached linen for Lent. Why Rose? Today is the 4th Sunday of Lent, midway through a long period of fasting. The Church in its wisdom has simply had the humane tradition of relaxing a little on this Sunday. We wear rose vestments, the readings aren’t quite so penitential, even small elements of the Lenten fast can be relaxed. In England this is Mothering Sunday, their version of Mother’s Day; also called “Refreshment Sunday,” because we bend the rules a little bit to allow a brief respite, a breath of fresh air, a moment to catch a glimpse of Easter joy in the middle of Lent.

Maybe it’s fitting then that our readings are principally about vision: recognizing in unexpected people or events something new of God; seeing in a new way, horizons expanded. Samuel, with each successive introduction to one of Jesse’s sons, is sure the Lord’s anointed stands before him. You can just imagine the awkward silence when Samuel has to tell Jesse that none of the sons he’s seen have been the Lord’s anointed. So they go get the youngest, David, out tending the sheep, and lo and behold, This is the Lord’s anointed. God says to Samuel, “You look on the outward appearance, but I see the heart.”

It’s a good reminder of how much further you and I ought to look than we normally do, to see the truth of a situation. But more than this, God seems to be bending the rules a little here. As so often in Scripture, God chooses the youngest to inherit the kingdom. Not the oldest, not the strongest, not the most clever, as was usually the order in the ancient world; as was usually the order in ancient Israel for that matter, and in our world too. Here with Samuel and Jesse and his sons, God bends the rules, and David becomes king, as he was always meant to be.

In our Gospel, too, Jesus seems to bending the rules, and maybe even outright breaking them. Why is everyone so angry at him? Why are the parents so afraid? Jesus breaks the Sabbath in order to heal the man born blind: he makes mud with his spit, anoints the man, and heals him, all of it work, all of it in violation of the command not to work but to rest on the Sabbath. But the result is that a man who was blind can now see, while the Pharisees, who think they see so much, are shown to be blind when it comes to matters of God.

If you a parent of a high school student here at St. Michael & St. George, and if your son or daughter has been a member of our mission teams, you may have heard them talk about what they call “God-sightings.” Every day after work is done, students report moments where God has been real to them in a particularly strong way, and these moments are shared with the group. Maybe you have God-sightings of your own, moments in the course of a day, or your life, when God has been real to you in a powerful way.

As a priest people often tell me about these kinds of moments, and one of the most consistent things about them is that they tend to take us by surprise; or else they’re so quiet we might not notice unless we’re paying attention. And, almost every time, God seems to bend the rules to get the point across. 

One of my favorite “God-sightings” is probably also one of the strangest. St. Seraphim of Sarov was a hermit who lived deep in the forest. One day, as he was out gathering berries, he was set upon by a ferocious, hungry bear. But instead of running away or putting up a fight, Seraphim simply spoke to the bear, and invited him to his hut for lunch since he had more than enough berries for them both. The bear was just as startled by Seraphim’s politeness as Seraphim had been by the bear’s ferociousness. He humbly accepted the invitation, and over lunch the two of them became fast friends. In later years they would often be seen walking through the forest together, enjoying the sun and the singing birds.

Maybe you’ve never made friends with an angry bear. But I’ll venture a guess that there are moments in your life when it seems God has broken in, and has broken the rules to do so.

What do we make of all this? Do the rules not matter after all? When we relax the Lenten fast to wear rose, or to peek ahead a few pages in the story for a glimpse of Easter, are we devaluing our penitence, or this season of preparation? Does Samuel devalue normal governmental procedure by anointing David? Does Jesus devalue the Sabbath by healing the blind man on that day? Does God devalue nature by making friends between a predator and his potential prey?

No. Rather, in these occasions, as in all our other “God-sightings,” God is drawing us into a different way of seeing: where our assumptions about life, and the patterns by which the world carries on “business as usual” are revealed for what they really are: not the permanent, lasting, reliable things we think, but halfway measures and stop-gaps to make life manageable in an imperfect world. In such a world as this, where greed, violence, and self-preservation are the order of the day, God breaking in necessarily breaks the rules. And when he does, he draws our vision to his kingdom, his purposes, which created the world for his glory in the first place: his glory and our good, to be what we were always meant to be.

Easter of course is the great moment where God breaks the rules even of death itself to bring us to eternal life. But even our normal Lenten penitence does not leave us in the midst of sin and wrong, but is the occasion for God to break the rules again: to forgive us our sins, to set us in a place where we can see his kingdom stretching out before us, and we can take our first, halting steps in a Godward direction.

When God “breaks the rules” it is always to point us towards that world which is deeper and higher than ours, where as King David writes in our psalm, ‘mercy and loving kindness shall follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever;’ where the Lion will lie down with the Lamb, and every tear will be wiped from every eye.

So what? This is all a long way of saying, in this fourth week of Lent, as we turn the corner towards Holy Week and Easter, put on your Rose-Sunday-colored glasses! Do not deny the difficulty or challenge or wickedness of this world, least of all of all those things in yourself. But at the same time, in the midst of your penitence, as you begin to experience the grace of forgiveness afresh, be prepared for God to break in. Be ready to break the rules for God’s sake, and see his kingdom come.

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

“He’s not safe, but he is good.” Ash Wednesday

This sermon was preached at CSMSG at all the liturgies here on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Much of the content owes a great deal to Rowan Williams’ recent book on C.S. Lewis and Narnia, The Lion’s World. If you find value in what follows, you will find much more of value in that book!

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

If you’ve ever read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, you may remember a particularly strange scene at the beginning of The Silver Chair. Jill and Eustace, our heroine-hero duo, have just arrived in Narnia to rescue the lost prince, and Eustace has gone on ahead. Narnia is very new to Jill, and she hasn’t yet heard or understood about Aslan, the Great Lion, the son of the emperor-beyond-the-sea.  

For Lewis, Aslan functions as a kind of introduction to what God is like, for those who have never heard and especially for people like you and me who may have gotten so used to talking about God that we may have lost sight of how surprising it all is.

Jill has no idea about Aslan or about God, but the journey to Narnia has made her very thirsty, so naturally she goes looking for a stream of fresh water. When she finds one, she is surprised to see a ferocious looking Lion standing between her and the water’s edge. Of course the Lion is Alsan, but Jill doesn’t know it. He says, “If you’re thirsty you may drink.” But Jill is afraid and asks, “Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” The Lion replies, “I make no promises.”

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said. “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,’ said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it. “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill. “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion. “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

In his recent book on the world of Narnia, Rowan Williams remarks that this scene is one of the keys to understanding the whole series, and how Alsan (God) seems to interact with you and me. Today, Ash Wednesday, I want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about the two principal themes of the day: mortality, and grace.

First, mortality. One of the repeated phrases in Narnia is that Aslan is “not a tame lion.” Or, at other moments, characters reflect that “He’s not safe; but he is good.” This scene with Jill is a great example. She is thirsty, she needs a drink of water. But Aslan stands between her and what she needs.

If you’re like me, God can often seem to stand between you and what you need, between you and your life. And when that happens, God can appear like a threatening gatekeeper, who is just as likely to destroy you for daring to approach as to help you get where you’re trying to go. Aslan makes no promises to Jill as she approaches the water. He does not reassure her that everything will be all right. He makes it very clear that she is taking her life into her hands to approach him, and equally clear that she must take the risk, or else die of thirst.

How often God appears to us in the same way! In a few minutes we will approach the altar and receive the imposition of ashes: “From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return.” Why so grim? Why does the church insist on this ritual once a year? Why does we persist in thinking of God as a risky venture, potentially the source of our undoing?

Because for one thing, asserting our mortality is simply a true statement: each of us will die one day, sooner or later, and the church should never shrink from the truth about human nature, least of all from our universal susceptibility to death. And, more importantly, because the church believes that our mortality – like Jill’s thirst – is not just a sign of our weakness, but an invitation to a world where God meets our vulnerability, our need, and fills us so full to overflowing that weakness itself is undone and transfigured into strength; where death itself is undone and transfigured into life.

But it’s a risky venture. The world as we know it, our lives as we know them, are so thoroughly constructed around mitigating weakness — controlling it, ignoring it, sublimating it, manipulating it — that when we do meet God face to face, we risk destruction: destruction of all our favorite ways of hiding, of giving the right impression, of passing off blame, of thinking we’re just fine thank you very much and if God is going to play Gatekeeper at the river of the water of life, then I can very well find another.

On Ash Wednesday, the Church says, with Aslan, there is no other stream. You and I are going to have to risk losing some of the things that we hold most dear about ourselves if we are going to drink from that stream, from that Cup. We risk death itself, and receive ash on our foreheads, ash in the shape of a cross, to drive the point home.

Encountering God is dangerous because it brings us inescapably into touch with the weakest, darkest parts of our mortal nature even while it exposes us to the searing presence of God’s judgment and worse, his forgiveness –worse because it sets us on a path we cannot totally see or control.

But if meeting God is a terrible risk that brings us to the brink of death, then the same encounter reveals grace in an equally surprising way.

One of the New Testament’s principal images for Jesus is the great Liberator, breaking both the bonds of sin and the gates of death, leading his people into eternal life. When Jill finally drinks from the stream, she finds herself strengthened beyond any capacity or potential she could have imagined. The Lion gives her a special task and instructions to follow; she sets off to meet Eustace; they rescue the prince, and all grow very much in the process, as they witness both the depths of darkness and the power of resurrection even in the midst of corruption, death, old age, and grief.

Jill’s encounter with the dangerous Lion has been painful, but it has revealed new depths in herself, and, through her mission, it has delivered the whole country of Narnia from bondage to decay into new and fuller life.

Today, Ash Wednesday, Lent stretches out ahead of us, a dry and barren wildernesses in which we will encounter our sins and temptations afresh in many challenging ways. What will we do when we find God standing across our path, threatening death and destruction if we come near? Approach him, go nearer, as if your life depended on it, for so it does. With fear and trembling go nearer. You cannot control the outcome, you cannot predict what will happen. You may face a very painful moment when your favorite preconceptions, excuses, or fantasies are demolished; your ego will hurt, and your pride may not survive.

But one thing you can be sure of: our God may not be safe, but he is good. Whatever death you face in the encounter, whatever you become as a result, you can be sure that God will open doors you could not otherwise have known, and that life will be on the other side.

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