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: April, 2018

More than the sum of our parts

The following sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on April 29, 2018. It was the Fifth Sunday of Easter, but also fell on the Sunday immediately following April 25, St. Mark’s Day and our patronal feast. The day’s propers were for Easter 5, but we celebrated St. Mark in this homily, the prayers, and in the celebratory parish barbecue afterwards.

Collect: Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Many of you may know the story of St. Mark already, but for those who don’t, I just want to give you a few highlights. He doesn’t appear explicitly in any of the gospels, and he’s not one of the Twelve Disciples. But he was certainly among the others who followed Jesus. The Gospel that bears his name contains a tantalizing little clue: during the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is betrayed, there’s a weird little half verse that some scholars think reveal Mark himself. It occurs in no other Gospel, and it’s just the sort of unique clue that seems it could contain some bit of autobiographical detail: there’s a young man who runs away when Jesus is betrayed, who’s wearing only a linen cloth — his pajamas basically — and when he runs, the cloth catches on a tree and he escapes naked. A weird detail! Which makes some think, here’s Mark himself appearing in the scene. Or perhaps he wasn’t there in fact, but like the artist Michelangelo including a small self portrait in his fresco of the Last Judgement, maybe this is Mark’s way of simply assuming a little humility.

At any rate, the book of Acts and several of Paul’s epistles mention Mark, and we can piece together a little more. Somehow he ends up at Antioch, and gets sent out with Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. But he and Paul have a falling out, and Barnabas takes him on alone. Eventually he and Paul reconcile, and Mark goes to Rome — where he falls in with the apostle Peter, and learns from him. Some scholars even think Mark effectively served as both muse and scribe for Peter’s remembrances of Jesus, making his Gospel as much Peter’s as Mark’s. This would partly explain why it appeals so much to an action-oriented, even hotheaded personality like Peter’s.

Peter and Paul are both martyred in Rome, but Mark escapes, and by church tradition ends up in Alexandria, where he founded the church there and became the first Patriarch of that ancient, important see. Martyrdom finally catches up with Mark in Egypt, and he faces the same death as his teachers Peter and Paul, late in his life. For centuries his remains were venerated in Alexandria, but for the last few hundred years they have resided at San Marco in Venice. You can still visit him today if you go there.

Mark is an odd saint in that in art he is depicted both as a young man, and as an old man: in icons, the Christian East often depicts him as the wise and stately, gray-headed Patriarch of Alexandria, dressed in Episcopal regalia. But the Christian West often as the young, energetic Gospel author and student of Peter, Barnabas, and Paul.

Like I said at Wednesday’s midday service, both pictures are probably true, a good reminder that in God, individuals, and the church as a whole, are always more than the sum of their parts at any given moment in time. Though he could not have known it then, the young man who ran away naked from the scene of Jesus betrayal and arrest was the great founding Patriarch of Alexandria. The wise, stately martyr was the same man who had fallen out with Paul.

The Church contains within itself both the ignominy of its many sins and the glory of its final redemption; just as this parish contains within itself both the history of good and ill as well as the seeds of all its potential in the glory of God; just as you and I bear all the inherited inclinations and temptations of our families and forebears, as well as the incalculable splendor of the full, mature image of God in which we were made and to which we are continually being drawn by the Holy Spirit.

That’s an enormous comfort, helping us to weather the challenges and pains of the present. But it’s also an enormous challenge, preventing us from ever being too satisfied, keeping us always on tiptoes striving to catch a glimpse of what’s next, dependent on forgiveness and on renewal, looking finally for the completed vision coming just up over the horizon; while in the meantime we work to be ready for when it finally appears.

Yes the church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment. But how? Why? Because as persons baptized into the mystical body of Christ, we live first and foremost in him — and he exists from before the foundation of the world, and unto the fulfillment of all things. His perspective is the one into which we are adopted ourselves. As we carry on in our lives in this world, his is the mercy, the love, and the joy that we strive to imitate — and in so doing, we join in our own small way in the continuing work of reconciling all persons to God and to one another, revealing the unity-in-difference which God’s love continually creates.

Jesus’ perspective is the perspective in which we too live and move and have purpose. As we celebrate today both the fifth Sunday of Easter and our own patronal feast, we come face to face again with the work we are called to do: with St. Mark himself, to grow continually more mature in the life we are given to live: to take stock of where we have been, to note where we have fallen short, and to be encouraged always by the hope that is in us: the hope of sins forgiven, of life victorious over the grave, and of the fulfillment of God-given potential.

Meanwhile, we rejoice that we are always more than the sum of our parts, that we are supported by a patron saint who was more than the sum of his parts, and that together we bear witness to a joy that is greater than we can see at any given moment, into which one day we will finally be called to step fully.

We are not alone in celebrating today. There are countless parishes, cathedrals, and institutions dedicated to St. Mark all around the world, and they all celebrate with us: from San Marco in Venice to the Egyptian Coptic Church, to South America, Indonesia, and even Siberia, all are celebrating this week. We enjoy a special kinship with them and with all who celebrate St. Mark: a saint who bears witness over a long lifetime to the possibility of growth and learning, forgiveness, hard work, wisdom, and sacrifice.

Together we celebrate St. Mark’s example and ask his prayers for us. But even more we celebrate a God who makes room for human growth and development, who calls us always further into the person, the church, the creation we were intended to be. By God’s grace and St. Mark’s help, may we do just that.

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

The Good Shepherd

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

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

Yesterday I was watching some of the footage of the funeral for Barbara Bush, and I was struck by one or two of the readers as they read the passages from Scripture which had been chosen for the service. It often happens at funerals that I notice this same phenomenon: the readers aren’t necessarily professionals; they aren’t trained to within an inch of their lives (as ours are here at St. Mark’s!). And yet in most cases, at funerals, they seem to get the point across — no matter how nervous they are, no matter if they happen to stumble over a word or two. Something about the task at hand causes me to be able to hear something in their words that in other circumstances I can miss.

Noticing this again in the funeral footage yesterday reminded me of a story I treasure; though I admit, in advance of telling it, that it’s probably apocryphal, and undoubtedly too warm and fuzzy for words. But I love it, so I’ll tell it anyway.

There was once a funeral for a grandmother who was much loved by her family and had many friends in the community. Her ten-year-old grandson was asked to read the Psalm, the 23rd Psalm, the one we’ve just heard ourselves. He was so nervous about the task that he’d decide to memorize it. He began trembling, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But he gained steam as he went on, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters,” and so on. When he finished reading, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole congregation; everyone had fallen to pieces quietly weeping, while a gentle, holy quiet had settled over the church.

It just so happens there was an actor in the congregation, a friend of Grandma’s from a long time ago. He was amazed at the congregation’s response to this little boy’s reading. After the service at the reception he went up to him to offer a “Job Well Done.” But he couldn’t help himself, and went on about how dumbfounded he was: the actor said, “I must have read that Psalm a hundred different times over the years, and people never cried; they’d clap often enough, and once I got a standing ovation, but never tears, and never the silence I just experienced. How did that happen? What’s your secret?”

The little boy didn’t miss a beat and replied, “I don’t know, it sounds like you know the Psalm way better than I do, but I love my grandma, and I know the Shepherd.” The actor was duly humbled, and left him alone.

It’s a sweet story, but it makes a very good point. There is something about genuine love, both of God and of human persons, that manages to shine through despite whatever skill or professionalism we might possess or lack.

This same point was made at my own ordination to the priesthood. The Gospel reading was this same passage, Jesus the Good Shepherd. The preacher went to great lengths to communicate just how far Jesus was willing to pursue his people, and commended to us the same love as the chief task of any who were called to follow in his steps: Love the people of God, and whatever confidence or talent feels missing will be more than supplied by the Holy Spirit and the gift of grace.

But it’s an overwhelming task, both for clergy specifically and for all Christians. Love the People of God, love them to such a degree and with such a spirit that each can feel recognized and known as being of supreme worth to God and to one another, and that the life to which we are all called is one of peace and tranquility in the house of God forever.

It’s simple enough to express in the quiet of an office, obvious enough to say in the anxiety of a hospital room, and easy enough to claim in the anonymity of a newspaper or a facebook post, though such contexts have their challenges too. Much harder in the chance encounters of everyday life, and much harder still in the long, fraught relationships of family, friends, and colleagues in which our life consists: where betrayal often goes hand in hand with devotion, where we aren’t always clear about our own motivations let alone anyone else’s, and where we wind up wounding most the people we love best.

It seems that forgiveness has to go hand in hand with love, otherwise we’re all lost, stuck with high aspirations but no capacity to fulfill them, while we undermine ourselves at every turn.

This is where the Church as a whole starts to be aware of Jesus the Good Shepherd as fulfilling some basic need we all have: of clearing the way for us to return, of speaking the word of forgiveness which enables us to restore our relationships and continue moving forward. We say in the creeds, “He suffered death, he descended into hell” to seek and save the members of his flock even there. There is no place now on earth or in all creation where Jesus the Good Shepherd has not gone to find us, and that means there is no place now where we are alone, where either our own foolishness or the wickedness of others finally puts us beyond the reach of healing and restoration.

That sort of thing is fairly straightforward to say in a creed, or note down in a class; easy to affirm publicly and to celebrate: Jesus is the Church’s Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep and leads them all by name just as they hear and know his voice. What’s harder is to remember, the work of a Shepherd is personal, they go out to each lost sheep wherever it is; they can put only one lamb on their shoulders at a time, to bring them back to the fold.

What do I mean by that? Jesus the Good Shepherd comes for you and for me, and not just for sheep as a category of particularly wayward livestock. Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks your name, and mine finding us wherever it is we’ve managed to wander, whether or not we even realize we’ve wandered.

How do we recognize his voice when we hear it calling? It’s the voice of one who knows us better than we know ourselves, who leads us out of darkness into light and refreshment and peace.

But it’s never easy, and it’s always humbling. Being taken out of the brambles means having to notice the brambles in the first place, and more often than not admitting to the Shepherd that somehow I managed to get myself caught there. It means having to acknowledge, I was not on the right path after all, and despite how sure I was it only led me further away from everyone and everything I loved.

This is a vulnerable moment, and despite what we say and affirm publicly in the creeds or otherwise, it’s a scary one. What if I am punished or received harshly? What if I have to give up what I have dearly bought?

These kinds of fears, more than anything else, keep us from hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice, or if we do hear, keep us from responding. Because, too often, we simply do not place enough confidence in the mercy of God. We find it difficult to trust that being made vulnerable will be met with kindness and compassion. But while there may be consequences — the brambles may tear as we are lifted out of them — we will be free, and more than that we will be touched by a mercy that does not keep score or hold grudges, that meets us with knowing, and with love, reliably, every time.

Don’t get too distracted focusing on the brambles, and what they are or how to avoid them; there are enough of them to drive us mad if we let them. Instead just listen for the voice of Shepherd, listen for the voice who knows you better than you know yourself. Trust the kindly leading that wends through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and quiet waters, to the table of God set with the overflowing chalice of his mercy.

The Good Shepherd is your shepherd as much as mine, yours individually as much as that of the church as a whole. Listen for his voice, and let him lead you into life.

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

Peace which passes understanding

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48

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

“Peace be with you.” Jesus’ first greeting to the disciples after his resurrection is the same greeting we’ll share with one another in a few moments. But for many, it’s one of the most painful ironies and even shortfalls of the Christian faith. How can peace be so closely associated with the central mysteries of our faith, when the world we live in is anything but peaceful? When our own lives are anything but peaceful?

I’ve been enjoying these “Coffee & Conversation” gatherings very much, but one of the more challenging themes that’s come up is how difficult it is to own our Christian identities in public spaces. Part of the reason for that is the way other Christians — and if we’re honest we ourselves — have sometimes pursued peace at the cost of global and personal well being. And part of the reason for that is that a lot of us just aren’t sure we’re very good Christians in the first place. Our lives are full of chaos and confusion, competing loyalties, and feelings in tensions with one another. We do not feel the peace that Christ gives, and we do not hear it in the Christian voices which dominate the public square.

A woman came up to me recently who said, “You know I only really felt peace once. I don’t understand why it was then and not otherwise, my life was in shambles at the time and I was making a mess of things: my marriage was on the line, along with my job and my relationships with my relatives. One Sunday I was in church singing some random hymn, a little distracted because I was going over it all in my head again for the umpteenth time. And then suddenly I felt this peace arrive, so profoundly and so unmistakably present that it was almost tangible. I stopped my anxious catalogue and I spent the rest of the hymn transfixed; somehow I knew I was going to be okay, that I was being held in a way I didn’t know possible. I’ve never felt that way before or since but it’s a moment I return to sometimes when I’m feeling down. Why can’t there be more of that kind of peace in the world? And why did it happen when my life was such a mess?”

The only thing I could think of to say was that perhaps she needed it just then. God knows we need the peace Jesus gives all the time, but more than ever when we’re in trouble. Still that kind of profound feeling is a gift, an exception, not the rule. What is this peace that passes understanding, if it appears so rarely in a person’s life? And what is it worth if it makes Christians so reluctant to own the faith which promises such peace?

Part of the problem I think comes from misunderstanding the very beginning, this moment in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus says, peace be with you. Yes he gives them his peace, but it’s more than a comfort blanket or a placebo. Remember, it might only have been Judas who betrayed him, and Peter alone who denied him, but they all forsook him and fled when he was taken away in the Garden. When Jesus says, peace be with you, it’s a moment of forgiveness, of reconciliation, when the deeds and events which broke their fellowship are forgiven and their unity restored. Jesus’ gift, “Peace be with you” is fundamentally a moment of reconciliation. We who wish we had more of that peace ourselves could do worse than to set about reconciling with one other, forgiving both the great wrongs and little slights we’ve suffered, without expecting anything in return.

But there’s also an element of humor here, or at least I think so. “Peace be with you.” Jesus is risen from the dead, and he takes his disciples by surprise where they’re gathered in a locked upper room. “Peace be with you,” he says. It’s sort of formal and a little stilted, but then what else is he supposed to say? Imagine Jesus making his way from the tomb to the upper room, trying to figure out just what he’s going to say to these people, like the hapless bachelor practicing his charm in front of the mirror in a romantic comedy. “Peace be with you.” It’s a variation on the angelic greeting, “Fear Not,” Because the strangeness of the scenario would be too much for them to bear otherwise. He even escalates the whole scenario by insisting he eat with them right then and there, just to prove he’s not a ghost.

There’s humor here, no mistaking it. And the humor breaks the power of the intense seriousness which had prevailed among them from the moment of his arrest through the ensuing days. It puts them at ease, and they can be themselves again, together. On top of forgiving them, Jesus’ peace and particularly his humor restores them to themselves, breaking the power of anxiety and calling them to participate in the joy of his resurrected life.

As anyone who has struggled with depression can tell you, there can be something marvelous and healing about just being part of a group where everyone is laughing and having a good time, sharing old memories and making new ones; something restorative about simply feeling a part of things, a part of life again, with people who understand you and can tease you good-naturedly. The humor of Jesus’ peace accomplishes this for his disciples.

But this element of humor is more than simple lightheartedness. It reveals a deeper confidence about the world and all the crazy going on outside. For the resurrected Jesus and his disciples to laugh together despite all the challenges they face and the systemic injustice of the world they live in, injustice which condemned Jesus to death among other things, is to suggest that their confidence goes deeper than all the crazy surrounding them.

Jesus has come through death itself, and none of its minions no matter how great can have any power over him any longer, and no power over those with whom he shares his peace. They laugh and rejoice, and all the crazy is revealed to be powerless.

But what about the crazy that still besets us, and the sabotage and subterfuge that Christians continue to work against one another? What about the complete apathy and downright antipathy the rest of the world shows to people of faith? What about the mother who just watched her daughter, a twenty-year-old university athlete, fall twenty feet from the climbing wall to break both legs and now face the possibility she’ll never walk again? What is Jesus’ peace in the face of all this?

We tend to think of it as a fragile thing, small and easily broken; this is partly why we receive it as such a precious gift. But the Peace of Christ is not a small thing subtly given and easily lost. It is not a fragile vase for us to dust and polish, keep safe in a cabinet and protect from thieves. It is stronger than the pillars of the earth, and larger, more spacious than the whole created order. The Peace of Christ is that love in which we live and move and have our being, which has swallowed up death and hell and destroyed them forever. That peace continues to break into our world today like it did that first Easter Day in the Upper Room, making windows onto that larger reality which contains us more than we contain it; which keeps us more than we can keep it; that larger peace which holds us and sustains us in every uncertainty and injury, and is not threatened or diminished by them.

From now on, wherever we find death and hell we can be sure that peace is nearby: above, below, and all around. Christ’s Peace is large enough for us and all our misery, gentle enough to be kind with our confusion and fear long-suffering enough to bear all our anger and resentment and scorn. We have only to be still, to look up, to be aware that this peace is everywhere, and all that’s left for us is to notice, and to bear witness.

Nothing will make it easier for us to be faithful in the midst of challenge and pain. Nothing will make it easier for us to face challenge and pain period, faith or no faith. But if we find we lack peace, let’s take it as a cue to look up, out of our own limited range of vision, and behold Jesus offering forgiveness, humor, confidence, and an invitation further into his resurrected life.

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

Belief and Doubt

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the most endemic aspects of working with young people today is how seriously they take the question of belief. For better or for worse, my sense is that young Christians in ages past had fewer hang-ups about the specific tenets of the faith, and more about what it meant their life would look like.

Speaking at least from my own experience, younger generations today are more prepared than ever to relocate, to reorganize their economic priorities, to adopt new hobbies and habits, to create new community, all for the sake of the things they believe in. But belief itself is hard won; trust is hard earned and easily lost; loyalty is fiercely given but never blindly. Gone are the days when religious communities could sustain periods of stagnancy or scandal so long as they continued in the ancient steps and patterns; gone are the days when evangelism was merely a matter of convincing people how wonderful Christian life is.

For better or for worse, belief matters more than it ever has. First principles and vision are essential to articulate and to own for anyone considering first steps into the life of faith. Get those right, and life will follow.

In this context, our Gospel today is a perfect place to begin, especially because it invites us to consider just what “Doubting Thomas” actually doubted. We always get this Gospel on the second week of Easter. We’ve left the scene of the tomb, and we’re back up in the upper room with the disciples. Evidently the place they had kept the Passover with Jesus the night before he died had become a refuge to them in their grief and their confusion.

By this Sunday, all but Thomas have seen the risen Lord, and their sanctuary of grief has become the center of their rejoicing. They’ve told Thomas what happened, but he seems to doubt it. “Unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, and touch the spear wound in his side, I will not believe.” It’s the sort of statement that has made scientists all around the world love Thomas: here’s an empiricist, right in the gospels, a man after their own hearts! Without solid evidence, he won’t believe the good news his friends tell him. If you ask the scientists, it’s pretty obvious what it is that Thomas doubted: nothing less than the truth of the resurrection, and nothing less than Jesus present in the flesh would convince him otherwise.

But scientists aren’t the only ones with insight into Thomas’s strong reaction to the other disciples’ good news. Psychologists love Thomas too, because he’s such an early example of someone clearly in the stages of grief, specifically denial. Psychologists might respond to the empiricists, Thomas isn’t doubting the fact of the resurrection or the truth of it, rather he’s simply in denial. Remember Thomas was one of those disciples at the Last Supper most insistent about his devotion to Jesus, most willing to go to prison with him and even die with him. There’s a great deal of affection in Thomas for Jesus, and his reluctance to believe the good news might not be so much a rational thing as an emotional thing, having found it hard enough to come to terms with Jesus’ death, let alone the resurrection. It’s all happening so fast, and for someone who feels as deeply as Thomas does, the testimony of others is simply too much for him to process, he needs to see it for himself. If you ask the psychologists, it’s pretty obvious that Thomas doubts not the truth of the resurrection, but his own emotional capacity to bear yet more news, more rumors, more words about this person whom he loves.

But Psychologists don’t exhaust the possible explanations either. If you ask theologians what’s going on here, they’ll give you some variation on what biblical scholars might offer as well. In the context of John’s Gospel, eyewitness reporting composes an important theme: John says repeatedly that his Gospel is reliable because he was an eyewitness to the events he recounts; Jesus is condemned before Caiaphas because the council hears for itself Jesus’ own testimony, which, claiming to be the son of God, makes him a blasphemer in their eyes. Thomas is a perfect case-in-point of what John is trying to accomplish with us his readers. Thomas was a skeptic, and a staunch one, but whose position was immediately reversed upon seeing with his own eyes: the moment he sees Jesus alive and risen from the dead, he falls to his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God” — making one of the strongest proclamations of faith in the whole Gospel of John. St. John hopes that you and I, reading an eyewitness Gospel, might respond likewise, and recognize in Jesus the Son of God and Lord of all. If you ask theologians and biblical scholars, they might say that Thomas’ skepticism isn’t about Thomas at all, but about you and me, and the way we choose to respond both to the messaging and to the content of the faith.

No doubt there are more possible readings that these three, and multiple interpretations of just what it was that Thomas doubted, and what the message might be for you and me. Which reading is the correct one, and which interpretation? And what does it have to say about belief in a world like ours?

First of all, there is no single, exhaustive, “correct” reading: each of them and all the others add what they have to add, filling in the picture of Thomas the disciple, and the tensions and challenges of responding to that first Easter. But second of all, Thomas suggests to us that belief is personal — by which I don’t mean individual, but Personal, with a capital P — based in an encounter with Jesus Christ himself, not with words or reports about Jesus, or raw assertions about faith and morals. Thomas’s experience suggests that there is no substitute for face to face interaction with God.

For you and me, that possibility seems a little remote, but probably not more remote than for Thomas, having been present at Jesus’ death and burial. To us Thomas counsels patience: whatever else the risen Jesus might have to say to him, one thing I love is Jesus’ kind, even humorous tone. Jesus affirms Thomas’ very human reaction, and does not scold or punish, but invites further inquiry and deeper experience.

Jesus makes the same invitation to you and me, every day. You and I don’t have an upper room to go to, but we do have church, and we do have the various disciplines of prayer and mercy that Jesus both taught and lived. We cannot force belief, we cannot force an encounter with Jesus; but we can certainly put ourselves in situations where we know Jesus is likely to be: in prayer, in worship, in learning, with the poor, in the act of forgiveness, and caring for one another.

For me one of the most encouraging aspects of the “Doubting Thomas” episode is that, no matter what Thomas thought of his fellow disciples’ and their news that Jesus had risen from the dead, it did not change the way the risen Jesus interacted with him. Finally he appeared to Thomas as well, and spoke to him directly, by name. His skepticism did not finally leave him left out or left behind.

I once knew an old priest who loved to quip, “You might not believe in Jesus, but Jesus believes in you!” Not the way I might choose to put it, but the point is, for Christians, the object of our belief is out there, not only knowable, but personal; not facts in a vacuum, but a Person, continually making himself known to each of us and to all. The degree to which we believe, and the nature of the beliefs we hold, depend first and foremost on our encounter, on our relationship with Jesus, in which we are invited further and deeper into the mystery of his resurrection.

Whatever we might find difficult or even possible to believe; however left behind we may feel when it comes to other disciples, other Christians, may we too find ourselves there with Jesus in the upper room, and declare with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

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

Easter Day, 2018

Collect: Almighty God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 10:34-43, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8

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

Last summer, when I came St. Mark’s to interview with the Vestry, they took me on a tour of the church. One of the things I was most struck by was the series of Creation windows on the north side of the church: six windows in a wonderful style, expressing the six days of creation. They add a great deal of color and warmth to the church, and I appreciate the complementing contrast they offer with the other windows, especially the Tiffany windows opposite. We were all saddened a few weeks ago when news came of the artist’s death, Don Drury, at the age of 90.

Creation is not frequently the chosen theme for a series of church windows, but I think the choice in this case was an insightful one, especially because of what seems like an error: there are six creation windows, but there are seven days of creation. Where is the seventh window? The book of Genesis describes the first six days as the days God made the world; and on the seventh day, as much a part of creation as any other day, God rested. Where is the seventh window? Where is God’s rest?

I’m not sure if the artist intended it, but I have my own theory, and it begins today, on Easter Day. Today Christ has risen from the Dead. Easter Day is the conclusion, the epilogue to the previous week, during which we traced the last steps and experiences of his earthly life. Easter Day is a kind of extended coda on what came before: the whole experience of Jesus’ passion and death, the whole experience of the people of God across uncounted generations, and the whole experience of humanity from the very beginning. Easter Day is in some senses the end of that story: Jesus rises from the dead, and we know that Death, our ancient enemy, holds power over us no more.

But Easter Day is also the beginning of a whole new thing. In ancient times Sunday wasn’t the end of the weekend, but the beginning of the new week. It was a workday. And Christians met to worship in secret in the morning before they went off to the day’s tasks. For Jesus to rise from the dead on the first day of the week, with worship occurring then too, is a way of saying that in his resurrection, God is doing something entirely new.

The Church has taken that to heart, and over the course of the last twenty centuries or so, has built an unprecedented, all-pervading network of humane ethics and institutions, even as the faith spread all over the earth: all of it fired by the belief that the resurrection reveals every human being as of inestimable worth in God’s eyes, and lasting value; that not only am I forgiven, but that God is calling us all to something new, something higher, a new humanity, a restored earth, in which no one is left out or excluded from God’s healing, loving purposes, which no powers of death or hell itself can stop or defeat, and which has its proper end in the very heights of heavenly glory.

These days the narrative often takes a different tone, however. The Church, this denomination among them, has been in the throes of statistical decline. It has been difficult to connect the resurrection’s power and overwhelming mandate to the daily realities of shrinking endowments, crumbling buildings, and cultural changes that threaten the Church’s confidence in its core identity and mission.

The rest of the world is in the same boat: we all hear the news about eroding civic institutions, and we experience, every day, the increasing difficulty to understand what people On The Other Side are saying, let alone empathize or reconcile with them. Scandal and corruption strike at the heart of our ability to come together as a community, as a nation, as a world. Meanwhile, in a sardonic twist, the very scandals that threaten the integrity of our society seem to have become our favorite means of entertainment. We know all too well that the church does not stand apart from all this mess, and that we are merely one more institution among many with egg on our face.

In the midst of all this, Easter Day continues to insist, the end has come: the world as it is, as we’ve known it, is over. God has taken all of its hypocrisy and shame and borne it himself to an ignominious death. The world is over, and a new one has begun. As Christians the world we live in is a world where the innocent can get crucified, but where their innocence remains forever and death itself is revealed as passing away. As Christians the world we live in is a world where powers and authorities can be morally bankrupt, but where such bankruptcy leads only to its own demise, while the meek really do inherit the earth. As Christians the world we live in is a world where I screw up every day, and where I often can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but where mercy is personal, and where the kindness of God stoops down to touch our eyes and open them to the sunrise beaming through the darkness. As Christians the world we live in is a world where loved ones still die and loneliness still prevails; but where the Spirit of God unites us continually with all who have gone before in one communion and fellowship of abiding love.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of a new world. Our challenge — and our joy! — is to live in this world, as citizens of the new. So, while the church is certainly its own worst enemy, and the world seems bent on its own demise, you and I are in the right place. Here, today, on Easter Day, we assert unequivocally, with music and flowers and glad hymns and a big party, that Jesus is risen from the dead, and life has triumphed over the grave.

We will not see in our lifetimes the completion of God’s good purposes on earth. But here, in church, on Easter Day, we can identify with confidence just what it is that is passing away, we can name the evil and decry the wickedness, while we greet again with joy the victory of goodness and life.

So back to our Creation windows. Where is the seventh day? Where has Drury depicted the Sabbath rest of God? My own theory is that he meant for this church to be his seventh window; for all of us here to enter and to live the Sabbath rest of God, where every tear is wiped from every eye, death is no more, and we rest in joy.

My prayer for all of us on this Easter Day, is that we enjoy some glimpse, some taste, some participation in this new world that Jesus’s resurrection creates; and that as we do, we might rest, and be at peace.

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

The Easter Vigil 2018

Collect: O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in your Church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: [Vigil Readings], Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

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

Well, here we are. It’s been quite a journey over the last few days, not least for Brock, who was just baptized! We’re at the end of the Triduum, and you might expect a sermon that wraps up what I’ve said so far, and what we’ve all experienced; something which synthesizes the theme we’ve been exploring, that Holy Week is a “moment that does not pass away,” along with the events of Jesus’ last days.

And you’d be forgiven for thinking that, forgiven but ultimately disappointed: I have no last words for you tonight, only an assertion. The event we celebrate tonight, Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is an event which does away with last words altogether. Christ is risen from the dead, and there can be no more foregone conclusions. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no sin so foul that has not been forgiven. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no prison left standing that can keep us forever. Christ is risen from the dead, and to borrow the Recovery phrase, every today is the first day of the rest of our lives; every conversation is an opportunity to begin again, every person is a chance to learn and love afresh.

In school they tell kids to make a good beginning of their lives: “Study hard so you can get a good job and live a happy, fulfilled life.” In college they say the same thing: “This is the beginning, you are laying the foundation for what will come later.” When couples get married, they are sagely told, “This is just the beginning!” And when they have children they say the same thing, “This is only the beginning.” As human beings we love stories, and stories have beginnings and middles and ends. A dragon invades the kingdom. The noble hero goes out to slay it, and when the deed is done everyone lives happily ever after. With so many beginnings in our own stories, we might be forgiven for getting frustrated at times that we rarely get to the middle let alone to the end, while the happily-ever-after seems perpetually out of reach.

Tonight’s Easter Vigil, though, reveals that there is something deeply Christian about so many beginnings. When we reach the end of Jesus’ story, we find out, with an explosive surprise, that it was really just the beginning. The tomb was not the end; rather the resurrection was the beginning, and now Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, whose life continues in his Church both on earth and in heaven.

For that matter, the Vigil readings suggest the same thing: Israel’s captivity in Egypt was not the sad end of the story after all, but only the beginning, as they made their Exodus through the Red Sea to the Promised Land. The exile in Babylon so many centuries later was not the end either, only the beginning of the life of the people of God spread abroad throughout the whole earth. Or in baptism: we find our earthly lives, comparatively well ordered and planned, opening onto eternity, our own persons now the doorstep of heaven, inexhaustible in capacity for surprise, wonder, and love.

So many beginnings! What does that mean for our Christian life, then? Surely not that we just keep going in circles, starting over time after time. When do we get to the middle, and when can we enjoy the end?

The short answer is, those will come in time; the most we can do at the moment is make a good beginning. The most we can do tonight is to make a good celebration of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and of Brock’s baptism into his mystical Body. You’ll notice there is no Peace exchanged at the Liturgy tonight, and that’s to allow, for tonight only, our Eucharistic celebration to be the peace we both offer and receive; I invite you all to continue the celebration in Lion’s Hall afterwards at the reception which Betsy and Sterling have so graciously provided. The middle of the story will come in time, and the end too. But tonight we celebrate.

One of the stories that has moved me the most as a priest and a pastor, was one a man told me years ago. He had been married to his wife for some sixty years, and he was still very much in love with her. I said something like, “You must know her very well by now then!” He laughed and said, “Yes, I suppose I do. But you know, every day I still learn something new about her. You spend that long with someone and you think you’ve got them all figured out. But sometimes she comes up with something so completely out of left field that I wonder, who on earth is this person I’ve married? Over all these years I’ve had to realize again and again that I don’t have her all figured out. There’s more to her than I will ever know, and it’s just part of the fun to keep learning.”

This is the kind of beginning we continually make as Christians. The middle, and even the end, come and go; but it is the beginning that remains, as every day we continue to plumb the unknowable depths of God’s creative, redeeming love, and the echoing deeps of human persons made in that image.

Tonight, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, we begin afresh the great rejoicing which Easter initiates. Let it be for us another beginning, but more than a repetition. Let it be for us that new beginning which will carry us through all our middles and all our ends, the new beginning that pushes right through death itself into the far undiscovered country on the other side of the tomb.

At the altar tonight, as we come to make our communions, may we catch a glimpse of the same joy which sustains all who have gone before us, and all who will follow after. United with them in the Paschal Mystery, let us render eternal praise and glad thanksgiving to the God of heaven: whose Son has harrowed hell, and made the earth new.

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