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: May, 2018


This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Pentecost, Sunday, May 20, 2018. Much of this homily was inspired by a recent re-discovery of a hymn text by Thomas a Kempis, “If there be that skills to reckon” reflecting on the glory of heaven and the character of its society. One of my favorite stanzas goes as follows: “There the gifts of each and single all in common might possess; there each member hath his portion in the Body’s blessedness; So that he, the least in merits, shares the guerdon nonetheless.”

Collect: O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; 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 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

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

Well this is it. The long period of waiting is over. What had been promised is now fulfilled, we can all celebrate and carry on our ways with a little extra spring in our step, with a delight that wasn’t there before, and with some newfound inspiration to boot.

I’m talking of course about the Royal Wedding, though the same could be said about today’s holiday of Pentecost. I wasn’t able to watch yesterday’s broadcast, but as I read the various reports and reviews, one thing I’m struck by is the common refrain. Everyone — whether on Twitter or Facebook, the New York Times, Esquire, or the BBC — is remarking on how the preacher took everyone to CHURCH.

The preacher was our own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, and somehow his remarks had such an effect that the commentators have largely left aside their focus on dresses and clothes and royal lines of succession, and have started talking about love: love as a force, a power, and desperately needed in our world right now. The Telegraph is estimating that as many as two billion people watched or heard the wedding yesterday, by television, radio, or internet. And by most accounts, nearly all two billion of them are now talking about love.

What happened that so many people heard the same message? Somehow the miracle of Pentecost has occurred again in our time: all the people gathered from every corner of the world heard Peter preaching in their own native language. All the two billion people watching the wedding have heard something told them about love.

The whole thing brings to mind another royal undertaking, many thousands of years ago deep in the misty reaches of the undefined past. You may remember the story of the Tower of Babel. In order to make a name for themselves, the leaders of the people decided to build a great city with a great tower reaching all the way up to heaven. Now at that time, as the book of Genesis renders it, there was only one people on earth, and they all had the same language. To foil their hubris, God confused their language, and they could no longer understand one another. They stopped building the city with its tower, and from then on they were scattered all over the face of the earth.

It’s difficult to underestimate the sadness of this story. It’s the last chapter in the prologue to the book of Genesis; Abraham appears immediately after, and from then on Genesis concerns itself chiefly with his perspective and that of his descendants, no longer with that of all and sundry. The confusion at Babel marks the last in a set of universal curses that punish human arrogance and explain the difficult conditions under which we go about our lives in this world.

Pentecost, which the Church celebrates today, is the reversal of that curse. All of a sudden, the world’s confusion of language is ended and they can all understand Peter speaking in their own native tongue. What does he say to them? That the love of God poured out on the whole human race in Jesus of Nazareth, that love is theirs too; God’s love is for them too. Forgiveness is not only possible, but it is freely offered. Life beyond death is not only possible, but it is the new order of the day. Even more, this love which God offers goes ahead of us to encompass all the human race, represented by every conceivable language, and binds us all together.

From Pentecost on, Christians believe that deep down at the heart of things it is impossible for there to be competing peoples and nations at enmities. All are one in the Holy Spirit of God, all are given the same language of love, no longer to make a name for themselves with a tower reaching to heaven, but to find their name already given them, as they give themselves to one another.

This is the truth which Pentecost reveals: the burden of translation, the fear of being misunderstood, are transfigured into occasions where words give way to actions, where argument makes allowances for affection, and where love is finally what we long most desperately to say, offer, prove, and achieve.

In short, Pentecost reveals that our own first language is love, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to speak it. Pentecost reveals that our own first inclination is towards the communion that love creates, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to identify it. This is why it’s so important that the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost not just as a power to reveal these things, but also as a gift, as a help, for us to live into them.

I remember one year in high school our school band director had signed us all up for a competition. We were going to go to Virginia with other school bands from all over the country to play for a combined audience and to be judged. The music he had chosen was difficult, and I remember one rehearsal where by that point we should have made more progress than we had done. We were frustrated with ourselves, and I’m sure our director was too. But instead of yelling at us, he was full of encouragement. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll get this. I know you can do it. I wouldn’t set you up to fail.”

I remember that phrase, “I wouldn’t set you up to fail,” because it was the first time I’d heard it. It took me a minute to understand what he meant, but it was a huge relief — that, at that moment, somebody in authority had more confidence in me than I did, had more knowledge of my own ability, had more excitement about our band’s potential for success than we could muster. And here he was doing everything he could to help us succeed.

You don’t have to be a musician — though it helps! — in order to understand or at least guess the (tongue-in-cheek) proximity between music directors and God. Which is only by way of offering, that God doesn’t set us up to fail either, and continually gives us the gifts and the resources to accomplish the work we are set; chief of all, his own self in the Holy Spirit.

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit of God shows up, not just to guide or to teach, but to be the gift, God’s own self the gift, revealing what was true all along: the love, the potential for good, the desire for common understanding and communion deep at the heart of human life; and not just revealing what is true, but healing the divisions which prevent its fulfillment, drawing us into a single Body nourished by God’s own self. That gift is the Gift of Gifts, and it remains a stupendous mystery for us to contemplate as well as a dynamic life for us to live.

No, God does not set us up to fail, but reverses all the curses with which we are afflicted, to enable love to flourish among us and within us. Let us allow that love to guide us into closer relationship with one another and with God. Let that love overcome our resistance to meet and know those who are different from us, and embolden our confidence to trust.

So may we find ourselves understanding one another in our own native language of love. So may the love of God grow within us to embrace our selves our communities, and our world.

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

The Ascension

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on May 13, 2018: it was the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which we kept as the Ascension (in addition to a smaller celebration on the day itself the previous Thursday).

Collect: O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

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

Deep in the County of Norfolk in the UK, there is a Church of England shrine in a village called Walsingham. If you want to know more about it just ask me at coffee hour and I’ll happily divulge! It’s a good and holy place, if also a little mad — as most good and holy things inevitably are.

But for the purpose of this morning, I only want to share that the Shrine church is ringed on the inside by a series of chapels, dedicated to various saints and events in Jesus’ life. One of them is dedicated to the Ascension, the feast we keep today. It’s a tiny chapel, and above the altar there is a lovely painting of Our Lady with the infant Christ. On the ceiling, however, directly over the altar, there is a gilded plaster sculpture of clouds, out of which poke two feet. Nothing is visible except two nail scars.

The suggestion is obvious: here at the altar we’ve caught a glimpse of Jesus himself in mid-whoosh on his way into heaven. It’s complete madness, but then it’s the chapel of the Ascension after all, and it does make a point! On one of my own visits there, the Shrine Administrator remarked to me that the really crazy thing is how many visitors see the chapel, and then rush upstairs to the gallery to see if the rest of Jesus is there waiting for them to say hello. They get disappointed and want to know, “Where’s the rest of him?” The Administrator has to tell them, “No, Jesus ascended into heaven, not into the balcony!”

I suppose it’s the obvious answer, Jesus has ascended into heaven and it’s useless to look for the rest of him. But is it so heartbreaking as that? Did Jesus just go away? Did he just leave his disciples to fend for themselves, while he got a one way ticket out of the mayhem and confusion? The calendar points us to Pentecost next Sunday as one answer: no, Jesus doesn’t just go away, he sends the Holy Spirit, which reveals the Church, and empowers the apostles to begin their ministry in the world, while leading them further into the knowledge and love of God.

But the Ascension does more than simply point downstream towards Pentecost. And while it is the occasion for Jesus to leave his disciples, it isn’t an escape route. When Jesus goes up to heaven, it’s Jesus who goes, body and all — resurrected and glorified, sure, but human nevertheless. The Jesus who sits at the right of God in heaven is the human Jesus, equally as much as he is the eternally begotten Son of God. And more, not just Jesus the human; but like the Ascension chapel at Walsingham points out, Jesus with scars in his feet, Jesus the wounded, Jesus the crucified and betrayed, as well as Jesus the resurrected.

In short, Jesus’ humanity goes with him into heaven, and in this way, Jesus does not escape this world in his Ascension but carries it with him. Jesus is not taken out of the world on his way to heaven; rather this world is taken with Jesus into heaven, where it is met with all the compassion, all the tenderness, all the beauty and majesty of God.

Which of course changes the way we view this world. If you and I ever find ourselves looking to heaven as the answer to our problems, then Jesus’ Ascension presents us with some very real difficulties. It is not an escape, but the occasion for a more profound encounter between God and humanity than ever before. It means, among other things, that people who feel far away from heaven whether by reason of injury, struggle, or sin, are actually the ones who are closest to God, because they are dearest to Jesus and share most profoundly in his own suffering. And it means also, that whatever transcendence the Christian religion offers, that transcendence begins here and now in the everyday muck and clutter of being human. And there is a lot of muck and clutter.

This is why the church continues to insist on its worship consisting of ordinary things: wine, bread, water, oil, words, voices. This is why the church continues to insist on sharing the peace, confessing and forgiving sins, reading the Scriptures, celebrating the same milestones and moments day after day in every successive life. Because in all of these mundane things and tasks the seeds of heaven are planted in us and among us. And not just in church either, but the small, humdrum moments of every day life, especially those moments that didn’t have to happen but did; moments where the gratuity of human interaction reveals something beautiful, something fitting about the world and our place in it. The seeds of heaven are planted there too, and begin to bear fruit.

The paradox is that the Ascension introduces us to an absolutely transcendent God, and a Savior who ascends far above all heavens but who carries the created order with him, and makes all the ordinary bits of life reflect the glory of heaven. The church’s job is to articulate and reveal just this paradox: that though Jesus has ascended far above all heavens, because of that ascension, heaven now fills all the earth. The chief marker of our mission is not primarily a concern for the faraway; not primarily a concern for abstractions of thought or doctrine or the esoterica of arcane subjects. No, the chief marker by which we know we’re on the same path as Jesus is a turning towards the ordinary, towards the things and people that are so much a part of the furniture of our lives that we’re usually tempted to ignore them or else take them for granted.

We’ll need help noticing they exist; it seems a human trait to be more conscious of our hopes and goals and even daydreams than we are of the very real people around us on whom we depend and in whom our life consists. But by recognizing them and caring for them, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven invites us to a happiness, a confidence, a fullness of life here and now, as both distinctly possible and distinctly Christian pursuits.

The ordinary and the necessary around us, even the pain and suffering, are revealed as seeds and mirrors of heaven and the scarred Savior who ascended there. This is a vision which transfigures life as we know it, while it also makes room for what cannot be seen or touched or possessed: an expanding universe, in which there is always more to uncover in the ordinary stuff of our lives, more to love in the people around us, more to forgive and more forgiveness to ask, more thanks to offer for beauties and joys no matter how small.

So on this Sunday of the Ascension, we celebrate together Jesus ascending into heaven where he takes his seat at the right hand of God. We also celebrate that what he carries with him is the whole range and matrix of our lives in this world, making them even now reflect the glory of heaven. And we pray for the grace to turn away from staring up into heaven looking for where Jesus has gone, to regarding our neighbors, the humdrum, and even the madness of our lives, with the same wonder and amazement: witnessing in them the splendor of heaven welcoming earth home.

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

Giving Time

Above: One of my photos from our “field trip” to Monterey, of the presidio chapel (now cathedral) in the city’s historic center, which I discuss in the the sermon below. This Sunday was the sixth after Easter, traditionally the beginning of “Rogationtide” and now a time when the Church is especially conscious of the human vocation to tend and nurture the fruits of the earth.

Collect: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

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

A friend of ours is in town this week, and on Saturday she and David and I drove down to Monterey for a brief field trip. Our first stop was the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Charles Borromeo, and the local history museum in the neighboring building.

You probably know better than I, that one of the things the rest of the country continually loves to criticize about California is that, “There is no history there,” meanwhile places like Boston are very proud of their Pilgrims. You also probably know better than I, that that’s hogwash. Monterey proves it — inhabited for centuries by Ohlone tribes, discovered in 1602 by the Spanish explorer Vizcaino, and finally settled in 1770, it significantly predates Washington D.C. as well as major swathes of the South, Midwest, and West. So do dozens of other sites in California including San Francisco and parts of the East Bay. There is plenty of history here, even too much history, if you ask those who have borne the brunt of it.

The cathedral we visited communicated nothing if not a continuing passage of time: its structure the long basilican form of Ancient Rome, its facade a perfect testament to classical Spanish mission, its materials the local wood and adobe hich characterize so many of the missions, while the interior decoration clearly reflects the liturgical reforms of the mid-twentieth century and the gardens our contemporary enthusiasm for succulents of all sorts. Meanwhile on the patio out front were marked the outlines of former associated buildings now gone, and inside there were cut gaps in the plaster to show off what was left of the original decoration. All the public educational signboards in town spoke of the rises and falls in the city’s fortunes over time, while the shiny modern tourist buildings of Cannery Row, built among the ruins of former sardine facilities, bear another profound witness to the continuing march of history.

And still the votive candles in the cathedral burned, every possible inch of available space taken up by these physical markers of people’s faith and prayers. Still the priest and altar guild were bustling through the sanctuary preparing for a wedding. Still a grandmother and her grandson stopped us in the aisle to say hello and make sure we felt welcome. I said to David afterwards how glad I was we started our visit to Monterey with the cathedral, and he replied by asking something to the effect, “Do you feel rooted now?” While I wouldn’t have described it that way myself, that’s exactly what it was, a feeling of being extremely moved by the whole thing: this whole orchestra of change, decay, recovery, shifting demographics, economics, politics, even liturgical priorities, and in the middle of it all, this physical testament both to the long passage of time with all its changes and to an abiding, enduring affection for the things and people and promises of God.

Why do I tell this story now this morning? Because for one thing today is Rogation Sunday, when we’re conscious afresh of our vocation to grow and to cultivate the fruits of the earth as well as the gifts we each possess as unique persons; but even more because, as our Gospel passage presents, love is both the first task and the last criteria by which we achieve our vocations. And love takes time.We’re confronted today by the need both to grow and to love, both of which simply take time.

I think a lot of times we’re tempted to think of time as a passive quality, merely the condition of our lives in which past, present, and future take shape, the long span of minutes or years which we have to endure before our tasks are complete or our lives are through. And it’s true time passes, more quickly or else more slowly than we’d like much of the time. But the candles burning in Monterey’s cathedral, or even in our own church here at St. Mark’s below the icon of Our Lady near the chapel, tell a different story. These candles are gifts of time: ours burn for six or eight hours or so, the ones they used in Monterey were larger, like the ones we use for the tabernacle, that burn for seven days. Eight hours or seven days, they are gifts of time. And they help to indicate that whatever prayer or faith we can muster in any given moment re-echoes for much longer in the presence of God.

When you work in a garden, there are certainly tasks to complete, but more than striking off a checklist of weeding or watering or pruning or whatever, you are giving the garden your time. And the result of your gift is that the garden flourishes long after you pull up the last weed or pack away the watering can to head inside.

Or if you’re a student, right now you might be in the final mad dash to finish papers and cram more facts into your head. But more than accomplishing a set of goals you are making a gift of time to the development of your self and your skills and abilities, a gift which will continue to bear fruit for years to come.

All the more so when we interact with one another. When we decide to give one another time, rather than simply spend time or guard against its being stolen or wasted, we are creating space both to be injured and to forgive, to injure and to be forgiven. When we give time, we are entering a relationship where we agree to sustain an experiment in coexistence, in cooperation, where our presence and unique personalities might exert some demands on one another, demands that may cause us to grow or develop in unexpected and maybe even painful ways — but which the gift of time ensures will not be subject to abandonment or neglect.

In short, in giving time, we are making a gift of ourselves to one another, which is why giving time is so often functionally synonymous with love. The challenge is, every new day, every new moment, is a new moment, and requires us to make a decision once again to give it away. The mystery is, that in giving it away, we find ourselves in possession of more than we thought we had in the first place.

This is also the mystery of that cathedral in Monterey, and I think of all our life of faith and love in this world. There are no things that remain the same, no monuments which can remain eternal unaffected by time, weather, or concern. There are no persons who are isolated completely from one another, no places which never change. What does remain, though, and what is finally the only thing that can, is the decision in the midst of it all to give away our time and our selves to the life we live and the people in whom it consists, across whatever days and years we find them drawing.

Let us be confident that giving it away, seemingly possessing nothing, is what roots us most firmly in the abiding love of God, is how the Holy Spirit presents us most overwhelmingly with all the riches of grace. So may our poverty be met with God’s abundance. So may our time be answered with God’s eternity. So may our gifts be multiplied in God’s love.

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