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: December, 2017

Rejecting Spiritual Technology

This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, at St. Michael & St. George. This was a rare year when December 24 fell on a Sunday, and we were faced with the challenge of keeping two very different occasions on the same day. Writing this sermon I was very conscious of composing an “Advent” sermon, and not Christmas, though the temptation to blend the two was great – especially with the Gospel of the Annunciation. The opening is something of a gimmick — do a google search for “news December 17-24, 2017” to see the whole range of issues and events I could have been referencing!

Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son Jesus Christ cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Hosly Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

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

It was only a week or so ago, but already there’s been a massive response across the country and even around the world. The magnitude of this new spin on the old themes took nearly everyone by surprise; we’re still processing exactly what happened, and what it will mean, though already we know that life won’t be quite the same after this. Meanwhile no one except insiders know where we’re going next, and they’re certainly not telling. There are a lot of rumors of course, and a lot of theories, but really we’ll just have to buckle down to wait and see.

I’m talking of course about “The Last Jedi,” the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise. One of the things I appreciate most about this newest film was articulated by a friend of mine: “At least as far as the Jedi part is concerned, there’s a lot less emphasis on the technology, on the chemistry of how it works than we saw in the earlier films, and a lot more emphasis on the intangibles of imagination, and perspective, and relationships.” The result is a much more three-dimensional world that cannot be nailed down or exhausted as easily as in the past.

That got me thinking: Star Wars and the Christian Religion are not exactly comparable categories. But something analogous has been happening in our churches and in our culture for generations now. Somehow we have reduced the Christian religion to mere “spiritual technology.” Do X and you’ll be fine; swallow this or that far-fetched explanation and your life will improve. Come to church and you’ll go to heaven. Pray this prayer, vote this way, buy these books, or listen to that music, and somehow, magically, you’ll grow in faith and discover the meaning of life.

I can see why that’s tempting: human beings are solution-oriented after all. We have a problem and we want it fixed. We have a goal and we want to reach it. We have a project and we want to complete it. It’s completely natural for us to regard religion in the same way. So we accumulate bits of spiritual technology: phrases, theories, habits, products, to help us get what we want. It’s completely natural.

But just like previous iterations of Star Wars, the end result is a watered-down imagination, and an anemic sense of our relationship to the whole, let alone to God.

Why do I bring all this up this morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, right on the brink of Christmas Eve and the great feast of the Nativity? Because this is a time of year when the Church talks a lot about promises, about expectations, about the fulfillment of long-standing hopes for light and peace and goodness, in a world which we are constantly reminded is a dark and despairing place.

Of course it’s important for us to say all these things, to revisit the old prophecies, retell the old stories, and remember the promises. But how do we keep from letting all these things become for us just more bits of outdated spiritual technology that fail to get us what we want? How do we open ourselves to the larger mysteries, to the multi-dimensional world of faith and religion beyond transaction and exchange?

First of all, by remembering that Christianity is not actually about your spiritual life, or mine. It is about God. It’s worth remembering, from time to time, the immortal line from Evelyn Underhill: “God is the interesting thing about religion.” The Christian religion is not about you. It is about God, about the world God has made, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ which makes creation holy and renders it all a thank-offering to God the Father. If you and I are involved at all, it’s to participate in God’s larger project of forgiveness, healing, and renewal; it’s to get some sustaining glimpse of that eternal love “that moves the sun and the other stars,” until we are made fit to participate more fully, to enter into that divine life forever. It is emphatically not about me getting what I want.

Which finally brings us to the doorstep of that house in Nazareth where in today’s Gospel Mary sits at prayer, and where she is surprised by a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. If you and I are going to find Christmas to be Good News again for us, we have to follow Mary’s pattern and pray. That doesn’t mean filling our heads with lots of positive thoughts. That doesn’t mean compiling a catalogue of all our good wishes for various needs or people. It means we just have to stop. Stop all the noise. Put down all the technology, spiritual or otherwise, and listen. Listen to the clock ticking, listen to your heart beating, listen to your own breathing, whatever it takes, just listen.

Listen, and watch: watch for how quickly your mind goes to the cares which press on it, watch for how quickly the worries and the fears and the inadequacies and all the rest come rushing in. What is your conscience afraid of? What weakness or sickness or vulnerability in yourself presses particularly painfully? What hopes do you cherish, what grudges do you nourish, where do your affections lie, whose regard are you desperate to win? In the silence all these doors and passageways and countless more will open to you; you will begin to be aware of the dizzying moral and spiritual complexities of everyday life, and of the vast scope of your own involvement in the world.

Mary sits at prayer in her home in Nazareth, her spirit listening and watching in the silence at the heart of it all. And this is when the Archangel appears, this is the moment when Gabriel declares her “Full of grace.” This is the moment, right when she is most in touch with her own needs and vulnerabilities, that God appears and salvation enters the world.

It might sound counterintuitive, but so much the better. The more you and I are in touch with all those cares and anxieties which constantly threaten to swamp us, the better prepared we are to meet God. The more we admit of our weakness and vulnerability, the easier we will be able to receive the Christ Child. The more truthful we can be about our own doubts and fears and despair, the clearer we will be able to see the dawn of new life when it comes over the horizon tomorrow.

No, Christianity is not about your spiritual life. It is not about spiritual technology at all, not about doing the right thing, or saying things that sound holy or religious or whatever. It’s not about fulfilling expectations, or even about generosity. It is about God; about being quiet enough to listen, truthful enough to admit my own weakness, and sensitive enough to see God working even in ways that don’t make sense and in places we’d rather not notice. Christmas is Good News for us precisely because it enters the world at its quietest, most vulnerable point; because it enters us at our weakest, most fearful moments, when we are most conscious of our failures and our impotence. In this way God grants dignity and grace to the very lowest of the low, and makes his Divine Majesty resident in the humblest of places.

This Advent 4, as we race onward towards Christmas Eve, let us resolve afresh to reject the enticements of spiritual technology, put away the drive to get what I want out of God, and listen: listen and watch, in our hearts and our world, for the humiliation which silence reveals. And let us catch a glimpse of the worlds on worlds of new life and new love which God is calling forth from the empty, barren, and broken places of the earth.

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

St. Andrew

This sermon was preached on Friday, December 1, 2017, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. I was the guest preacher at an evening service for St. Andrew’s, transferred from the day before. This was my first introduction to the congregation at large, ahead of going to St. Mark’s as their Priest-in-Charge in January 2018. It was wonderful to see again so many new friends I’d met over the search process, and to meet so many more people of the parish. Thanks to Fr. Michael Hiller, the Interim Rector, for his invitation to preach, and to the vestry and congregation for such a warm welcome.

Collect: Almighty God, who didst give such grace to thine apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of thy Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give unto us, who are called by thy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Romans 10:8b-18, Matthew 4:18-22

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

Andrew the fisherman, brother of Simon Peter. As far as most of us are concerned, he often falls behind the shadow of his brother: Peter is the one who confesses Christ the Son of God; Peter the one to whom Jesus gives the power of the keys; Peter the one whom Jesus commissions to feed his sheep.

But there’s a lot to be said for Andrew too. In Matthew’s account which we just heard, Jesus calls Andrew and Peter together, and they leave their nets to follow. But in the Gospel of John, Andrew plays a much larger role. In John’s telling of the story, Andrew and Philip are already disciples of John the Baptist. When Jesus comes to be baptized at the start of his own ministry, Andrew and Philip are there. They hear John declaring, “Behold the lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world.” And they start to follow Jesus on their own — literally, they follow him, and Jesus has to turn around and ask them, “What do you want?” After they get to know each other, Andrew runs to his brother Peter to tell him he’s found the Messiah. And that’s when Peter starts to follow.

In John’s telling of the story, Andrew is really the first evangelist, whose first “convert” is his own brother Peter. By church tradition, after Pentecost Andrew and his friend Philip go out into the world preaching together, and he’s regarded as the founder of the church in the city of Byzantium, later Constantinople, now Istanbul. By that rendering, and according to the Christian East, Andrew is the first Patriarch of Constantinople, even as his brother was the first Bishop of Rome.

Like his brother, Andrew lost his life by crucifixion, but on an unusual cross, one shaped like an X. St. Andrew is the patron of Scotland (among other places), and that’s why the Scottish flag looks the way it does: a white X on a blue field, the cross of St. Andrew. Here in the Episcopal Church we owe something to Andrew too: the corner of our own shield features a variation of his cross from the Scottish mold, because of the role the Church of Scotland played in our own reorganization after the American Revolution. Today in art Andrew is associated most frequently with either his X-shaped cross, or else a fish: he and Peter the ones whom Jesus would teach to “fish for people,” and for that matter Andrew the one who found the boy with five loaves and two fish for the feeding of the five thousand.

This year in particular I’m struck by the great trust Andrew seemed to have, and the trust he seemed to elicit from others. In Matthew’s Gospel, he leaves his nets the moment he hears Jesus’ voice. While in John’s Gospel, he left his nets the moment he heard John the Baptist’s preaching. And he literally followed Jesus down the path the moment he heard John the Baptist declare him to be the the Lamb of God. And Peter so implicitly trusts Andrew that Peter leaves his own nets the moment he hears his brother say that he’s found the Messiah. So much trust all around!

Today, we live in an age of skepticism, of mistrusting information until we can find out for ourselves; or at least until we can check Wikipedia, or some other Authoritative and Impersonal Source (Capital “S”!) To confirm the truth of what someone says.

And on one level, that’s for the best: our age is a skeptical one because it is also an age filled with hucksters, who manipulate our instinct to trust and turn our genuine interests and affections into a means for their own ends, to enrich their wallets or their egos or their whatever. Meanwhile we are left wounded and impoverished in one way or another. We decide it would be safer to check our more generous instincts in favor of more defensive ones, and skeptics we become. Like I said, it’s probably for the best: in an age of hucksters, being on the defensive is necessary in order to maintain proper perspective, not to mention keeping our pearls from so many swine.

And yet Andrew is a saint, an apostle, a patriarch, and a martyr, one of the pillars of the Church in heaven and on earth, precisely because he allowed himself to trust before he found out the whole truth. None of the apostles would understand the truth until Jesus rose from the dead; none of them grasped the full significance of their commission until Pentecost. And yet somehow, Andrew first among them, they did it anyway, they trusted Jesus anyway.

These days it seems most people (or at least I speak for myself) seem to think of trust as something earned, something proven. But I think the life of St. Andrew invites us to consider what it might mean for trust to be something given, something offered. It’s a dangerous prospect, because it makes us vulnerable every time we do it. The trust we give may not be returned in kind, and in trusting we expose ourselves to real injury.

Consider the fates of other disciples of other ancient Messiahs: they were often killed, scattered, or otherwise discredited, while their communities were destroyed and their lives were ruined. St. Andrew did not make an easy or a painless choice when he gave up his nets to follow Jesus, and finally he too gave up his life, crucified on that X shaped cross. Yet he chose to continue trusting Jesus right up to the very end.

Was he just that gullible? Or was he onto something about Jesus, that you and I in our defensiveness can miss?

What would it be like for us, like Andrew, to give trust rather than to prove it? To offer trust before we know where it will take us? The question makes me think of an episode with myself and a friend: I won’t tell you how old we were because that would be embarrassing for both of us! Suffice it to say we should have known better. We were in the grocery store, and the two of us came across one of those bulk installations of wrapped candy chocolates. There was a bag you could fill and then weigh, maybe you know the sort of thing I mean. Well everyone knows the critical question about wrapped chocolates is, “What’s inside?” These chocolates didn’t say anywhere on either the store sign or the individual wrapper. So I said to my friend, in some diabolical combination of stroke-of-genius and complete-vacation-of-reason, “Squish it!”

Without even the fraction of an instant’s hesitation, she took one and squished it. Turns out they were full of caramel. We didn’t want caramel so we didn’t get any, and so we committed the cardinal sin of chocolate abuse. But what really took both of us by surprise was the instantaneous way my friend did what I suggested. It was stupid, it made no sense, either what I said or what she did. But at some basic level, I think she did it because in the course of our relationship, she had made a prior decision to give me her trust, as I had given mine to her.

On that occasion the only thing it got her was a messy hand full of mushed chocolate and caramel. Lesson learned! Don’t trust Sawicky, at least where chocolate is concerned! But it makes a larger point: as human beings, we place our trust in people, before we place our trust in facts or reason. And where people are concerned, our first criteria is not knowledge or expertise but love.

And this is the critical point, about St. Andrew’s trust and about our own. Love always makes decisions before it can see the whole picture. Love always steps forward in hope, never in mere reasonable assurance. Because in love the whole picture is not revealed until the day our love is finally complete, the day our trust is finally fulfilled — which will only be the Last Day, the Day when Forgiveness takes precedence over Justice, when all injuries are healed, and when all betrayals, cutoffs, and exiles shall end.

In the meantime though, our lives are full of endings, and today is one, the last major feast of the Church year before a new year begins on Advent I. For St. Mark’s the time is drawing near for a new priest in charge and a new season of life. For me I am ending my service in St. Louis, and looking forward to being here with you as we begin that new season together.

As Advent opens and Christmas approaches let it be a time for all of us to renew our trust in St. Andrew’s Messiah and ours; and to renew our trust in one another as we make our way forward together. The territory ahead is uncharted and invisible over the horizon, but the way is marked: marked by Jesus who has gone ahead, and leaves us signs of his Presence in the Sacraments of his Church and the lives of his Saints.

Let these waymarkers be invitations for us to trust without knowing how it will pan out, without knowing the whole picture, to lay aside our dearly-crafted defenses and accept the ministrations of divine Love — ministrations which make us vulnerable, which may hurt, which may confuse, which may lead into unknown valleys, but [which] will not betray, till finally they carry us home.

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