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"

Category: Uncategorized

Jesus and the Storm

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday June 21, 2015, at All Saints by-the-Sea, in Southport, Maine. This is a summer chapel, and I was there for two weeks serving as supply while enjoying some vacation time on the coast.

Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee, make us to have a perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name, for thou never failest to help and govern those whom thou hast set upon the sure foundation of thy loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

“A great windstorm arose and the waves beat into the boat so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Good morning again, it really is wonderful to be with you. I was saying to Aims yesterday: I’m just in the process of moving, from Providence Rhode Island to St. Louis Missouri, where I’ve just started in a new post. It’s a wonderful place and I’m very glad to be there, but moving is such a chaotic process: to decide you’re going in the first place, and then to say your goodbyes, not to mention packing everything in boxes and entrusting someone to load it on a truck and drive it across country — and then to unpack and get settled in a new place. It always takes longer than it seems, and even though I’ve moved a few dozen times in my life, it is always an experience of great displacement.

If you’ve moved recently you’ll know what I mean; and even if you haven’t, displacement is something that seems to going around. The news is full of one scandal after another, and election season is already bringing promises of “change for the better,” of one sort or another. Wars around the world and economic troubles have made the globe a less recognizable place than it once was. Even in church, we are inundated with statistics and forecasts describing how religious life is changing in this country and predicting how it will change further before it’s all over.

In a climate like this it’s very easy to feel areal sense of displacement. We know where we came from, and while we’re not there anymore, it’s hard to say where exactly it is we are. And it’s even more difficult to say where it is we’re going. As with all moments of uncertainty, there is a vague threat of danger: what if we don’t like the result? What if I regret the move? What if the displacement becomes so severe that all sense of home gets lost?

Today’s Gospel presents an extreme case of exactly this scenario. The disciples are mostly fishermen. They grew up near the Sea of Galilee, they are used to the water, they’ve been in and around boats their whole lives. Jesus has finished teaching — he’s been in a boat teaching from the sea to allow more room for people on the beach — and it’s time to cross to the other side of the water for tomorrow’s work. Now the Sea of Galilee is not large: about 8 miles wide at its widest point, and 13 miles long. At all points on its surface, you can see the other side. Your port of origin is visible for the whole journey to your port of destination, which has also been visible the whole time. The point is, the Sea of Galilee is not a threatening body of water, especially for experienced fishermen. It’s even fresh water, not salty!

And yet a storm arose there which seemed to shake the disciples to their core. Conditions were suddenly, unpredictably extreme: a strong wind, waves beating against the boat, and water swamping over the sides. Why were the disciples unable to cope? We don’t know. Maybe the boat was smaller than they were used to. Maybe with twelve people plus Jesus they were too heavy for the conditions. Maybe they were just taken by surprise. In any case, it’s an understatement to say that they were no longer at home in that boat in that storm. Everything familiar about the sea had gone, and their own expertise was no more use. In its place was a violent, raging tempest that threatened to destroy them.

And what about Jesus? Jesus was not a fisherman. He grew up in Nazareth, a town in Galilee, but a full day’s walk from the sea. He was a carpenter’s son, and now he worked as a rabbi. There was no reason he should have been comfortable in a boat to begin with, let alone in a raging storm. But where was he? In the back, asleep on a cushion. The disciples were panicking, fearing for their lives. But Jesus, their landlubber teacher, was so comfortable, so at home in this storm, that he was fast asleep.

I think the disciples were as surprised at this as you and I, and their surprise probably added to their panic as well as to the note of anger in their question to him when they wake him up: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I don’t think they say this because they want him to do something. What use would a carpenter-turned-rabbi be on a ship in a storm anyway? They simply cannot understand why he is so calm, why he is so at home.

We know the rest of the story. Jesus rebukes the wind, and tells the sea to be still. Calm returns, and they all get on with their voyage. The point I’m trying to emphasize here though is not that Jesus calmed the storm, but that he was so at home in the middle of it to begin with.

Jesus is at home in storms. It sounds counterintuitive for the prince of peace to be so comfortable in stormy weather. But Jesus’ peace, unlike our own so much of the time, is not dependent on outside conditions. Jesus’ peace results rather from who he is: the Son of God, by whom all things were made, and for whom all things exist.

Too often we think of our stormy lives as threats to peace, threats to whatever fragile serenity we’ve managed to acquire for ourselves. But today’s Gospel shows us that nothing on earth can threaten God’s peace in Jesus, who is at home even in a terrible storm. And Jesus’ whole desire is to share his own peace with each of us.

When we are in trouble, or confused, or “all at sea” with the changes and chances of life, all we have to do is bring our trouble to Jesus. “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” He might stand up and calm the storm for us, or he might call us out of the boat to walk across the waves to where he is walking by. But in any case he will certainly grant us his own peace, and call us closer to where he is,at home and perfectly at rest in whatever storms arise. In this way, our own personal storms and difficulties are transformed: from occasions of fear and dread to moments of grace, and special signs of God’s presence and care for us.

One of the ways St. Paul talks about being a Christian is by saying that Christians live “in Jesus” or “in Christ.” To live in Christ is to have our permanent home exactly where Jesus is. He is at home everywhere: not just in peace and happiness, but in storms and troubles too; for three days he made his home even in death. By his resurrection and ascension He made his home in heaven, and by his gift of the Holy Spirit He makes his home now in your heart and in mine. To be in Christ is for his peace to be our own. It is for us to know that deep down we really are at home in him, no matter how terrible the storms outside.

Whatever troubles may assail us, let us bring our cares to him. He will not disappoint: our anchor will hold “within the veil,” where he dwells eternally in heaven, and our hearts will find peace there forever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Realism & Naivety

The following sermon was preached at 8am, 10am, and 5:30pm on Sunday June 7, 2015, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. This was my first Sunday here at this parish. It was also the first Sunday of the summer choir schedule. The Mass Ordinary at 10am was Healey Willan’s “Missa Sancta Maria Magdalena.”

Collect: Keep, O Lord, we beseech thee, thy household the Church in thy steadfast faith and love, that by the help of thy grace we may proclaim thy truth with boldness, and minister thy justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

“We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:

“Come on, let’s be real. You don’t actually believe all that stuff, do you? You’re a nice guy, but you’ve got some naive ideas about the way the world works.” How many times have we heard something like this? From our friends, TV commentators, family, you name it. We Christians get a bad rap for being gullible, believing too readily every next smiling face claiming to speak for God. We get charged with mere “wishful thinking,” about death and crises and the afterlife; and to make matters worse, polls reveal that it is often Christians who are the most systemically unaware of the news and problems of the world.

But before we get too defensive, or pass off all these charges on Christians of other churches or traditions, let’s face it: there is something about Christian faith that is undeniably naive. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that God made the heavens and the earth, that everything consists somehow in the will of God, and that some day at the end of time, everything will be set right again. These are core doctrines of the faith, but you have to admit: from the perspective of your average unbeliever, they sound like fantasy, no more.

How do we answer these charges? We can’t abandon our hope, but we have to begin with an unrelenting realism, an unflinching honesty about ourselves and the way the world works. This kind of realism starts with careful observation. We have to take a hard look at our wants and desires, and what we claim as our goals and values. Are they really the best thing for me? How am I justifying them to myself? To what or to whom am I really holding myself accountable, in individual decisions and in the long arc of my moral life? Do the values I claim for myself match what I do with my life?

There are lots of answers to these questions, some better than others. But the point I want to make here is that whatever our answers, we must not lie to ourselves. Too often we Christians get away with using religious language to justify unhealthy, immoral, and frankly unchristian decisions. Our first task as religious people is to tell the truth. And if we’re not doing that with ourselves first, we can’t possibly hope to be believed in our families or in the world at large.

This requires a good dose of humility, and a readiness to take ourselves down a peg or two if need be; and sometimes to be kinder to ourselves than we’ve been in the past. But we have to tell the truth. No amount of religious language, no amount of superhuman devotion, no amount of good works, can relieve us of the requirement first and foremost to be honest with ourselves, and to tell the truth.

The more we learn about ourselves, the more we learn about our strengths and weaknesses, our moral successes and failures, the better we’re able to navigate the avenues where we can make real improvements. The more we learn about ourselves, the more prepared we are to fulfill our duties to our families, and to make contributions in the world. The more honest we are with ourselves, the more generous we can be with our friends and neighbors, knowing that we too have work to do.

There’s a funny thing about truth though. When we uncover something incontrovertible, something certain, no matter how much we poke or prod it, we can stop there, and make that thing the center of our lives. This is the real trouble with those who criticize Christians for our naivety and our seemingly fantastic claims. They are honest enough to see that the world is a rough place, and that human beings have done a lot to mess it up. But they stop there. They make that observation, true enough as far as it goes, the center of their approach to the world. And that’s why they have a hard time seeing how anything could be different.

You’ve probably heard the quote, favorite of teachers and scientists and politicians alike, that goes, “The more we learn, the less we know.” In other words, greater knowledge leads to a greater sense of what we still don’t know. It’s a truism, but it makes a good point. Truth, real truth, always opens into further possibility. The trouble with those who say, “The world is hopeless and there’s point in believing pie-in-the-sky religion,” is that it elevates one person’s view of the truth as the only possibility. It leads to tunnel vision, despair, and death. Real truth requires us to admit that we might be wrong, and that in any case there is more out there than we can predict.

Several years ago in another parish, a man came to me to talk about problems in his marriage. They say “It takes two to tango,” but in this case it really was mostly his fault, and he admitted it. He’d made a mess of things, in every possible way. He said he still loved his wife very deeply, but he was sure that there was no way she could forgive him. That was his error: he knew that he had made a mess, but he did not know that his wife would refuse forgiveness. It was certainly improbable. And there was no question that he didn’t deserve it. But he didn’t know. He had two options. Either he believe that she wouldn’t forgive him, and accept the death of that relationship. Or he could accept that forgiveness was a possibility despite the reality of what he had done.

In the end he chose to ask for forgiveness. It required real courage: to admit what he had done, and to surrender his control of events to the possibility of a different future than all the evidence suggested to him. His wife miraculously accepted his apology and offered her forgiveness; and the two of them began the long and serious work of repairing their relationship.

That restoration would not have been possible without both unflinching honesty and belief in the possibility of a different future than the truth of the situation, taken alone, might have suggested.

Unrelenting realism and a commitment to telling the truth is the first step in answering the charge of cynics and unbelievers. But the second, equally important step is to acknowledge that truth opens onto further possibility. Forgiveness is a possibility despite the reality of what we’ve done. The restoration of relationships can and does really happen, even when we’ve done a lot to tear them down. The choice each of us is left with is how we’re going to live, what we’re going to rely on as we go forward. Will we say that ruin and death is the only possible outcome for the world? Or will we live in hope that reality might ultimately be different than what all the evidence seems to suggest?

This last possibility is at the heart of Christian faith. Jesus is risen from the dead, and this means that life, not death, has claimed the last word. We live in hope: that even though everything around us seems decaying, dying, or dead, redemption is not only possible, but is the divinely appointed purpose of all creation.

What is it like to live out of that hopeful conviction? That is the real task of the Christian religion. To the rest of the world it looks like hopeless idealism, pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. But that is because the world does not understand our reason for hope. We are relentlessly honest with ourselves and with the world, because this opens the way for God’s grace to forgive where there had been sin, to raise up what had fallen, to give life where there had been death, and to make all things new in Jesus Christ. This kind of confidence is not naivety born of ignorance or denial. But it is a new and higher innocence born of truth-telling and the Spirit of God.

“Come on, let’s be real, you don’t actually believe all that stuff, do you?” There’s only one way for the Christian to answer this, and that’s by saying, “With all my heart, yes.” In effect this is what Paul is saying to the Corinthians today: we live in hope and its possibilities, not in the certainty of empiricism and its limitations. Though it seems madness to hear, the Gospel is nevertheless not only sane, but at the heart of everything that is, and of every person on earth. We live, not of ourselves alone, for that leads only to tunnel vision, despair, and death; but we live in him who died and rose again. And that gives us a new hope of new life: every day, forever.

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

Pentecost / Commencement / Memorial Day

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday May 24, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence. This was my last Sunday at S. Stephen’s before leaving for a new position in St. Louis, MO, at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, due to begin June 1. It was fitting for the day to be Pentecost, as well as Commencement Sunday at Brown. This year it was also Memorial Day Weekend. Music for the Solemn Mass included Lassus’ “Missa ‘Bella amfitrit’ altera'” and Tallis’ “Loquebantur variis linguis.”

Collect: O God, who on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people by sending to them the light of thy 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 the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Today is commencement at Brown, and it comes in the midst of commencement season: at RISD and the other nearby colleges, with high school graduations also right around the corner. Many of our college students are graduating this year, and many of our high school students too.

One of the things that’s in the air this time of year is advice: a lot of good advice gets thrown around, and a lot of bad advice, too. One of the worst pieces of advice is also sadly one of the most common: it’s the one that goes, “Always be true to yourself.”

Why is it bad advice? To begin with, it presumes that each of us always has a complete and perfect knowledge of ourselves, but experience tells us we don’t. Self-examination only goes so far. The people in our lives, whether family, friends, or neighbors, sometimes show us revealing truths about ourselves that we had missed. The people closest to us sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. How can we be true to ourselves without the helpful clarifying presence of those we love? We are not sufficient of ourselves to be true to ourselves.

Second of all, this advice presumes that our selves are ultimately reliable. But anyone who has ever fallen in love, or suffered depression, or experienced some great grief, can tell you that our selves are not ultimately reliable. We are pushed to and fro by all kinds of emotions, all kinds of dynamics within our psyches. To which of them should we decide always to be true? They can lead us down some very dark paths, and to follow them to their various conclusions would be to live in a prison of our own imaginations, hostage to our various fears and fantasies, a danger to ourselves or others.

We cannot “always be true to ourselves,” because we do not always know what our self is, and because when we do get some idea, it can lead us into trouble in pretty short order.

Enter Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In addition to commencement, today we also celebrate the revelation of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ on earth, constituted by the Holy Spirit and living in the fire of His love. When we are baptized, we are made a member of this Body, and find ourselves taken up by this Spirit, who now hides our lives with Christ in God. Any Christian therefore who would be “true to himself or herself” must consider the self as first and foremost the object of the love of God. As the objects of his love, God has given us some reliable means to grow into his purposes for us, and into our truest selves.

First, he has given us his own Spirit, who moves within us to pray; who, even when we do not know what to say, speaks through us to lift us and all our lives into the life of God. Second, He has given us his word, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to shape our hearts and give us a language in which to recognize the presence of God in the world, and to know his Son as our Savior and brother. Third, He has given us the Sacraments as direct occasions of grace, divine interventions in our lives, revelations of who God is and who we are in him, means by which we participate all the more fully in the real truth of the world.

There is a lot of darkness out there, and there is a lot of darkness in each of our hearts. This last year or two, none of us has been able to escape the headlines of violence all over the world. None of us has remained untouched by some personal pain or grief of one sort or another. And yet: every time we come to the altar, every time we open our Bibles, God asserts afresh that he has overcome it all; and furthermore, that he overcame it all in order to restore the world to its true self: a creation of goodness and joy, of wonder and thanksgiving, God’s own revelation of himself in form and matter, made for his own delight.

Everywhere grace is found, there darkness is kept at bay, and we see the Holy Spirit of God holding everything together in Jesus’ own offering of himself on the cross for us and all creation. This same Spirit is the one to whom we must always be true: He grants us God’s own victory over all the powers of darkness, and redeems us as the objects of his love.

By first being true to the Holy Spirit, we far surpass anything we might have accomplished by being true to ourselves alone. We are more truly ourselves than we ever could have been on our own. All our various emotions and conflicting commitments, all our talents and gifts and desires are put into proper perspective, within the long arc of God’s redemptive purposes. As we live and work in the Holy Spirit, we are put in touch with that divine life in whose Image we were created, and by whose grace we become who we were meant to be all along. To be true to the Holy Spirit is to align our own wills with the will of God, and to participate in his work in the world: as the ordination collect puts it, “Raising up things which were cast down, making new those things which had grown old, and bringing all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, His Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”

In our world today we don’t often think of Pentecost as one of the “catholic” holidays: instead it’s much easier to think of it as belonging to the Pentecostals, the mega-churches, and to those whose tradition focuses more explicitly on the continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But I think, more than any other feast of the Church, Pentecost is the catholic feast par excellence. Today the Disciples become the Apostles, and the Hoy Spirit descends with power on the Church, binding people of all nations in one by the preaching of the Gospel. What could be more catholic than people of every language, tribe, and nation hearing the Gospel together and receiving together the Sacrament of new birth? Today we see that our own Anglo-Catholic tradition, at least as much as the Charismatics, is at its heart a revival movement. We exist to transform lives by a real encounter with the living God. This is the power that is ours when we are true to the Spirit, “In whom we live and move and have our being.”

It’s fitting that this is commencement season, because Pentecost is in some ways the commencement day of the Church. Today we are commissioned not to be true to ourselves alone, but to be true to the Holy Spirit, who is our own life and the life of the world. Let us always be true to that Spirit, and be ourselves occasions for the world to be transformed by the knowledge of the love of Christ.

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

The Ascension

The following sermon was preached in the Lady Chapel at St. Stephen’s Church, during an evening celebration of the Ascension of the Lord at 5:30pm on Thursday, May 14. A small section of the S. Stephen’s Schola sang the plainchant “Missa VIII” (“De Angelis”) and Dulos Couillart’s “Viri Galilaei.”

Collect: O Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abideth with his Church on earth, even unto the end of the ages; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The feast of the Ascension has some extra significance for me personally: in 2011, I was ordained a deacon on the Saturday following the Ascension. I have often reflected that it’s an odd time to be thinking about deacons. Deacons exist for the nitty-gritty, the daily realities of life in this world. They are charged with a ministry of loving service, to interpret the world to the church and the church to the world. And the Ascension, for the disciples, is the exact opposite: it is Jesus’ departure from their daily lives and from the world. They are left with an odd few days to wait, as the Lord commanded them, for the Holy Spirit to descend on Pentecost — and only then do they get on with their lives as apostles.

But the longer I’m in ministry, the more I’m conscious of the diaconate at the foundation of priesthood, and the more I’m starting to see the importance of the Ascension — both for myself personally, and for all of us in the Church.

Think back to Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene has found the tomb empty, and she runs back to tell Peter and John. Peter and John run with her back to the tomb, and in their excitement, the two of them go back home. But Mary Magdalene is disconsolate in grief. Her Lord is gone, and she does not know where he is. She stays in the garden and weeps. The resurrected Jesus himself appears to her; she supposes he’s the gardener, and asks where he has laid Jesus’ body. But when he says her name, she recognizes him, and she moves to embrace him. Jesus, though, backs away, and says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

In art, this scene is often called, “Noli me tangere,” “Don’t touch me.” And it has always been somewhat cryptic to me. But the implication seems to be, that only after Jesus ascends are we really able to embrace him in the way we might want. Only after he is gone can we relate to him properly. This is extremely counterintuitive, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Married couples, for example, don’t grow closer with extended absence; friends can’t either; and families change, too, when their members are scattered or when one of them dies. Greater intimacy is never the direct result of separation. And yet this seems to be what Jesus is telling Mary Magdalene. There must be something more here.

Our collect today asserts that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” Something more is indeed going on here. When the Son of God took human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, he assumed the created order into himself. When he offered himself on the Cross, and descended into hell, he broke the power of death and carried its captives into life. Now, at his Ascension, He carries all of it with him into the presence of his Father. There is a sense in which Our Lord’s ascension is also our own ascension; and our Lady’s Assumption is the Type that, by God’s grace and her intercession, will be ours also.

We cannot trap Jesus on earth; he is not meant to stay here, but came to carry us with him into his Father’s presence, in whose glory is our eternal home.

Ministry, especially that of the diaconate but also of every baptized Christian, exists to order our common life on earth towards the heavenly Glory to which we belong. Our Lord’s Ascension teaches us that we cannot settle merely for earthly criteria of success; we cannot settle for merely a personal, possessive relationship to our faith. We love Jesus as we love any member of our family, even more, but we cannot hold onto him. His physical departure from us is not, in the end, our separation from one another. In leaving our physical presence, He draws us together into the nearer spiritual presence of his Father and ours, of his God and our God.

Our work here on earth must always be to love him; and it must always be to be witnesses to his glory, both in the world and in the church. The unity of the Church consists in the Glory of God — as deacons are the servants of that Glory, priests are its ministers, bishops are its icons, and as all Christians everywhere are its witnesses, workers, and members.

We serve a risen, ascended Lord. He is with us closer than ever in the life of his Church. In him we are closer than ever to the throne of God, and behold it day by day in our prayer and worship and work. Let us work always for his glory. Let us rejoice as we draw ever nearer together. And let us love him whose presence fills all things forever.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.

Easter 6 / Mother’s Day / Rogation Sunday

The following sermon was preached on May 10, 2015, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. This year the day was both Mother’s Day and Rogation Sunday. The liturgy began with an outdoor procession of Our Lady, an image on a plinth bedecked with flowers and carried by members of the parish; a brass band brought up the rear and led us in singing festal songs. Back inside, music for the day included Palestrina’s “Missa ‘Ave Maria'” setting of the Mass Ordinary, and Ockeghem’s setting of the Salve Regina.

Collect: O God, who hast prepared for those that love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards thee, that we, loving the in all things and above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee 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

If there’s one thing that the modern phenomenon of Mother’s Day proves, it’s that Love sells. We buy Mother’s Day cards, flowers, candy, and gifts, make reservations at restaurants and buy gift certificates, all to tell our mothers we love them. According to the National Retail Foundation, in 2014 Mother’s Day surpassed Valentine’s Day in total spending, making it the second largest commercial holiday of the year. At twenty billion dollars, it’s a far cry from the six hundred billion claimed by Christmas, but it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Before you think this is modern phenomenon though, recall that the same very same issue has attended Mother’s Day almost from the beginning. Anna Jarvis is in some ways the “mother of Mother’s Day.” Early in the twentieth century, she campaigned tirelessly for Mother’s Day to be proclaimed a holiday, which it was, by Woodrow Wilson, in 1914. Almost immediately, though, she regretted what she’d done. She saw Hallmark and other companies profiting on the new holiday, and began a new campaign, this time to stop its commercialization. (Jarvis even crashed a candy makers convention in Philadelphia in 1923.) When she realized this wasn’t working, she finally started fighting to have the holiday rescinded altogether. But the genie was already out of the bottle, and we haven’t turned back since. Mother’s Day has spread to 166 countries around the world. It is one of the few truly global holidays.

Despite its commercialization, however, I don’t think we need to feel guilty about observing Mother’s Day. Love sells for a reason, especially when it comes to our mothers, persons for whom many of us would be willing to do anything.

Still, we always find it difficult to pick out a card. For all their poetry these days, and their beautiful designs, none of them quite seems to say exactly what we mean. Love sells, and it animates our affections more than anything else on the planet, but it always seems to defy articulation. Today’s Gospel is another great example. Jesus tells his disciples he loves them. But Jesus, too, seems to have trouble saying hat he wants. He takes several attempts to articulate to his disciples what his love for them means.

First of all he says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Most of us have some sense of what we want from our various loves. Whether they be family, friends, or romances, we each have various kinds of desires, and needs. And most of the time, when we think about articulating our love, we think in terms of how these needs are met by the person we’re thinking of. Or, conversely, when we contemplate loneliness or love’s lack, we think in terms of desire, of how this or that missing relationship would help complete the picture we have of ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t speak in these terms. “So that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full.” He offers his disciples another set of criteria than need, desire, and expectation. Instead he gives them joy: gratuitous generosity, planted within us, that grows to encompass our whole selves.

Even so in each of our own loves. It’s not always what we expect or even want, and so our favorite words of fulfilled desire necessarily fall short. Instead, where love is genuine, there is always a gratuity to it, that grows beyond its original source and its original object to encompass them both, and begin something new.

In his second attempt to say just what he means Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is clearly talking about sacrificial love here, and is clearly foreshadowing his own death. But it’s also a further development of his command both to abide in his love, and to love one another. This is his second point: Love, if it is genuine, does not shrink from the cross; it is willing to be crucified. Mothers know a lot about this I think, probably more than most. What makes this even more difficult is that there is the real possibility of rejection here. What if the one for whom we sacrifice everything doesn’t seem to want our sacrifice? What happens when relationships break down to the point where this kind of sacrifice is no longer possible? What happens if death, or abuse, or betrayal amputates us from essential relationships which others take for granted? There is an immense degree of disintegration in our world — so much that sometimes, the greater love which lays down its life for its friendsappears as a foreign agent, a miracle, rather than the natural state of things. And yet this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Be willing to be crucified for one another. This requires serious resolution to be vulnerable; a willingness to be rejected even for our best qualities. And it requires a willingness not to let our current state of disintegration obscure our hope for what is possible. Self-giving, sacrificial love is the natural state of things, and the character of eternal life. Simeon told Our Lady in the temple that a sword would pierce her own soul too. We have to be prepared to accept the same sword.

The paradox, and this is the third point, is that in such vulnerability and sacrifice as this, even in the midst of disintegration all around, to abide in the love of Jesus and to love one another with his love, is to join an ever-widening family. Love, where it is genuine, is not just about you. It is not just about the one you love. It is about being called to greater communion with a particular person for the sake of a greater communion among the entire human family. Couples I have married sometimes tell me months later that one of things that surprises them is how differently they interact with the other people in their lives. They are now something of a stable point for others, a source of reliability, and of joy. There is a kind of holy fertility at work here, that grows and nurtures everyone in its orbit.

This isn’t limited to married people either, though it exists in a special way for them. “No longer do I call you servants; but I have called you friends.”

For all of us, and especially for those who bear particularly painful losses, to abide in the love of Jesus is to become a member of his own household. It is to receive a new family, and a new vocation to nurture and extend his family wherever we may be.

The fourth and final point Jesus makes about love in this passage I s about fruitfulness. “I have appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide.” Today is Rogation Sunday, the day in the Church Year when traditionally, fields are blessed in anticipation of the new growing season. We aren’t surrounded by fields anymore here on College Hill. But fertility is still an appropriate theme. We often think of love in the same terms as commodities: there’s only so much to go around, and we’d better get before we’re gotten or left behind — or so the thinking goes. But for Jesus, Love, when it is genuine, grows. There is always more to be given, more to be had. It is not a zero-sum game. There are always further heights to which the love of God carries us. There are always deeper mysteries which it reveals, there are always more persons to win to our fellowship. This is the love that abides: it does not stand still, it does not tolerate mere possession. It drives us ever onward “into the regions beyond.” The fruit it produces is its own perfection: our hearts, our souls, purified in holiness, made partakers of his divine life who humbled himself to share our humanity, having taken flesh from his Virgin Mother.

Joy is Love’s first and final criteria. It does not shrink from the cross, but dies there and rises again. Its resurrection creates an ever-widening family drawn into its life-giving Spirit. It carries us on, through this world in which we see as through a glass darkly, into that place where we shall see face to face, and know fully even as we are fully known. This is the love with which Jesus loves his disciples. This is the vocation of the blessed Mother who welcomes us into the family of her Son. This is our vocation as the Body of Christ: to love one another with an honest love, joyful and sacrificial and generous. May Christ who has given us his word of love, give us grace and power to live it forever. Amen.

“Doubting Thomas”

The following sermon was preached at S. Stephen’s Church, at 8am and 10am on April 12, 2015, the second Sunday of Easter.  Music for the 10am included the plainchant Missa Marialis, Liszt’s trombone/organ duet Hosanna for Baßposaune und Orgel, and Hans Hassler’s anthem Quia vidisti me, Thoma.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery hast 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 the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

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

Doubting Thomas.  Poor Thomas is one of those disciples we love to rag on a little bit, along with Simon Peter.  He appears a few other places in the Gospels, but today’s passage is the moment he really shines.  First of all we notice he wasn’t there on Easter Day: absent, unexcused, truant.  I imagine he gets poor marks from teachers for that.  Where was he?  We don’t know.  What could have been more important that kept him away?  We don’t know that either.

He gets poor marks from party-goers too: he wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared and ate and drank with his disciples.  And he’s a party-pooper to boot: when he finally does show up, a week late, he refuses to get swept up in all the excitement going around.  He seems to be something of a pessimist, even an Eeyore character, moping because he’s lost his tail.

The thing that’s always a little more troubling though, is Thomas’ over-reliance on his sight, on the ability of his physical senses to tell him the truth.  This is what Jesus gently criticizes him for. “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  In our world today there are plenty of people who would say that something cannot be true unless it can be observed by the senses and tested and repeated.  It sounds like a good and reliable policy, and good science is based on a similar procedure.  But if something cannot be true unless it can be scientifically observed and quantitatively measured, then we have to dispense with things like love, and beauty, and justice — and all the other intangible qualities that make human life a rich and fulfilling thing, and which give shape and voice to the aspirations we have for our lives, our society, and our world.  We make Thomas the poster child example of the foolishness of this idea.

But is this all that’s going on in this passage?  Is St. John just pointing out silly doubting Thomas for us to take heed?  I don’t think so.  John is an extremely clever writer, and his Gospel is one of the most artfully constructed books in the Bible.  He does not waste words, or characters.  Why does he tell the story about Thomas?  What is he trying to tell us?

First of all I think, John is making a point about recognition.  The other disciples have already seen Jesus.  He has already shown them his hands and his side; they already know it is the Lord.  How do we recognize Jesus?  For John, it is inseparable from seeing his wounds.  This is the Crucified one, who has risen from the dead; he whom the disciples had all forsaken and abandoned, he whom you and I sin against in all our many failures of love.  This man, with pierced hands and speared side, is the one who appears to us speaking,  “Peace be with you.”

Second of all, the way St. John tells the story, Thomas is actually the first disciple to understand one of Jesus’ most important points.  When Thomas hears Jesus speaking, and sees his hands and his side, he says, “My Lord and my God.”  St. John declared right away in the Prologue that Jesus is the Son of God, and all the disciples have referred to him as “the Lord” now and then.  But no one until Thomas had prefaced those titles with the possessive “my.”  It’s a touching moment, Thomas claiming the risen Lord for himself.

It is touching, and it is also a turning point for Thomas.  In saying what he does, “My Lord and my God,” he confesses his willingness to take ownership of who Jesus is for him, and to take responsibility for those beliefs and that devotion.  We don’t hear anything more about Thomas in the New Testament, but church tradition and other ancient sources tell us that after Pentecost, Thomas sailed for India, and preached the Gospel up and down that country.  He planted churches in the North and in the South, before finally facing martyrdom.  Today there are still Christian churches in India which trace their history back to Thomas.  He is the patron saint of India.

Sometimes I think it’s easy for us to think of the Resurrection as just a happy epilogue to the more difficult work of Holy Week; or worse, like a pleasant symbol which doesn’t really mean much but makes us feel good about Spring and helps us get over hard times.  But make no mistake: the resurrection is a disruption, an enormous disruption, of greater magnitude by far than Good Friday.  The one who was crucified has risen from the dead.  “The only things for certain in life are death and taxes,” we say, and all the more now that April 15 is around the corner.  But Jesus’ resurrection breaks the power of Death.  And the final authority of the State which sentenced him to die, with its power to count and to tax, is broken also.  The world is no longer as it appeared on Good Friday.  A human beachhead has been made in eternity, and a divine beachhead has been made on earth.  Neither one can ever be the same.

In our worship, you and I — with Thomas — claim Jesus as our Lord and our God.  We cannot get away with saying this all the time and then not doing anything about it.  We have to take ownership of the things we say and the faith we try to cultivate, and the kind of life we know to be God’s promise for us and for the world.  I don’t mean that we have to have all the answers.  But I do mean that we cannot just sit idle.  No one thinks taxes will file themselves, or credit cards bills will be paid of their own accord.  In order to survive in this world we have to take ownership of our finances or face the consequences.  Likewise we have to take ownership of our health, or reap the rewards of neglect.  Likewise in our jobs, in our politics, and even with our friends and families.  Love does not grow without our conscious decision to invest time and effort into those we care about.  We cannot say we love someone and then ignore them.  Even so, we cannot claim “My Lord and my God” and then do nothing.

Tourism is a wonderful thing.  We travel to new places, we see new things, we meet new people.  We take lots of pictures, we eat lots of good food.  And every time, whether the destination is far away or close by, we find our horizons broadened and our world enlarged.  But if you’ve ever moved to a new place, you know there comes a point when the initial surge of tourism wears off, and you begin the long, slow task of building a life wherever you are.  Once-exotic locations become familiar landmarks, and the strangers you once snagged to snap your picture on the corner become your neighbors and friends.  You get out of bed in the morning no longer to be a tourist, flitting through cities and neighborhoods crossing things off bucket lists, but now to build a life: to take ownership of the very places and relationships where once you were merely a guest.

Our Lord’s resurrection is an event that makes tourists of us all.  We see the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene, we walk with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we visit the upper room and watch Thomas see the nail wounds.  We stand amazed at the very idea of a dead man rising to life, and we wonder at his words of forgiveness.  The strangeness of the feast makes tourists of us all.

But the Crucified Jesus, who rose from the dead, claims us as his own.  We have been brought by baptism into his own family.  Likewise we claim him, day in and day out, as our Lord and God.  This second Sunday of Easter, as we hear again the story of doubting Thomas, I encourage us all to be like Thomas: he did not settle for being a tourist of his own faith, but took ownership of it and of the Lord and God he claimed for his own.  Put down the cameras and the sunglasses and the bucket lists, and live.  Own your conviction, own your hope, and live them from them both.

In short, with Thomas, let us build a life in the kingdom of God.  Learn its neighborhoods, love its citizens, follow its king.  He may lead you to India, or he may not.  But he will certainly make his earthly home with you, and finally welcome you to his in heaven.

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

The Great Vigil of Easter

Christ Harrowing Hell, Fra Angelico (15th c.). In the church of San Marco, Florence.

Christ Harrowing Hell, Fra Angelico (15th c.). In the church of San Marco, Florence.

The following sermon was preached at the Easter Vigil at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, on April 4th, 2015.  Music included Charpentier’s (1643-1704) Messe pour le Samedy de Pasques, and the anthem Gloria in excess Deo by Thomas Weelkes (c.1575-1623)

Collect: O God, who didst make this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in thy Church that spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship thee in sincerity and truth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Romans 6:3-11, Mark 16:1-8; (plus seven prophecies from the Old Testament at the beginning of the Great Vigil)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen:

One of the hardest things about being a priest is attending moments of pain and loss in people’s lives, and not having anything to say.  You can imagine the scenario: a person on their deathbed with a terrible disease, surrounded by their family, with a priest standing near.  The priest performs the last rites and stays to talk.  The family is grief-stricken and grateful for the visit.  But their questions aren’t answered.  They look to the priest and ask, either directly or indirectly, what do we make of all this?  How are we supposed to believe in a loving God now?  In those moments, there is really very little to say.

It’s not that there isn’t a huge body of theological reflection on suffering and healing.  Scripture is full of good advice and comforting words alike.  And of course the chief doctrines of our faith assert the resurrection of the dead, while not denying that death is still a force to be reckoned with.  The question of why a good God continues to allow suffering and death has produced more pages of writing, more philosophical and theological careers, more poetry and art, than probably any other question that human beings ask.

And yet in the moment itself, at that hospital bed, there are no words to say by way of explanation or meaning that will not sound hollow or disingenuous.  It is one of the hardest things about being a priest.

Why is this?  Why do words come up short?  Because usually, in those moments, families don’t want answers, even if they are asking questions.  What they want is the same thing you and I want in such moments: they and we both want our loved ones restored to us.  When we try to answer the strong yearning of love with mere words, they fail because they are only words; and they require more words to explain themselves; and more words about words, until there is nothing but meaningless noise.

In those moments words fail.   All that remains is the encounter with a dying person, and their suffering family.  There are no explanations.  There are no magic words.  There is only the act of the will, to stay near one another; only the will of our memory, to remember one another even when we depart this life.

But here’s the thing, and here’s what makes this an Easter sermon (in case you were worried!).  In that encounter, in that commitment to be near one another and to keep each other in our memories, there are the seeds of grace.  This is the stuff love is made of: resolute steadfastness, a refusal to forget one another even in the face of pain and loss; offering whatever we have to the one in need, from our financial support to our emotional reserve.  In the business of love we offer our whole selves to the person we love.  Couples married for decades sometimes tell me that just when they thought they knew everything about each other, their husband or wife does something that reveals untold depths still unplumbed.  In love, in this offering of one to another, there lies true knowledge: ever growing and ever deepening, until we hardly know ourselves apart from the ones we love; until we ourselves are constituted in the love of our family and friends; plumbing every deeper into this mystery of mutual self-giving.

Even so on Holy Saturday.  The paschal mystery of Our Lord’s sacrifice and death, of his resurrection and eternal life, is constituted precisely in this: that even on the cross, suffering as he was under the weight of untold sin and darkness, Jesus does not shrink from the encounter with his tormentors, or with death itself.  Even as they conspire to take his life, He freely offers it to his Father, and prays for their forgiveness.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do . . . Into your hands I commend my Spirit.”  Jesus refuses to leave the ones he loves, commending his Spirit to his Father in heaven even as he prepares to descend for our sake into Hades, to break the power of death and rescue those it holds captive.

Back in the hospital room, we often think of the person lying in bed as the one in need, and of course they are in many ways.  But it’s no coincidence that families are often reconciled while their mother or father or sister or brother is facing their last fight.  In those cases, it is often clear that the one who is dying is the one who is the minister and physician, not whomever shows up in a clerical collar or a doctor’s coat.  “Mom would have wanted it this way,” the family says, and long-standing grievances are forgiven.

On Holy Saturday, it is the same.  Yesterday, on Good Friday, we mourned the death of an innocent victim, and we engaged in some soul-searching to discern our complicity in his death.  Today, as we learn the news of his resurrection and hear the Angels’ greeting, we realize that we were the ones who were sick all along; and the Crucified Victim was the minister of reconciliation and healing.  Far from being chaplains and nurses at Christ’s cross, you and I are the dead and dying ones he came to visit, and by his visit raise us to share in his eternal life.  We are the objects of his will, the ones he refuses to abandon.  We are the ones whom he reconciles to one another and to God, even as he hung dying, and descended to the dead.

In the face of such love as this, words do fail.  But one word remains: that word is a name, and the name is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”  Here, at this Easter vigil, we celebrate that even death itself was not able to keep him from us. Tonight we celebrate that, by this victory, death itself is not able to keep us from him.

We have recalled our baptism, we have prayed the great Litany of the Saints, we have heard the great sweep of salvation across time and space.  Here in this place we are knit in one communion and fellowship with the resurrected Son of God.  Here in this moment, all are brought together in the beginning of eternal joy.  We are redeemed, death is put to flight, and creation is renewed.  Emmanuel, “God-with-us”; and, by his grace, Us-with-God forever.  Our Lord is risen from the dead, and there is now not a single place where God is not; not a single person consigned without hope to the silence of the grave.  All are caught up in that Word which was in the beginning with God: Emmanuel, God with us, us in God.

In a few moments we will come to the first mass of Easter.  Let this communion be for us the answer to the questions we ask, the fulfillment of our love’s yearning.  In it we will recall again Our Lord’s passion and death, his sacrifice of himself and his glorious resurrection.  But more than this, we are brought by the Holy Spirit to Our Lord’s table in heaven, and are constituted as his kingdom, his family, forever.  Here is the ground of our being, here is the beginning of all our knowledge, here is the kingdom of love, victorious over death.

Let us resolve to be near him as he is near to us, and let us resolve to love one another to the end.  So may we and all whom we love taste and see that the Lord is good, and know that his love abides forever.

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

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

This sermon was preached at the 12pm and 6pm masses on Ash Wednesday at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence.  Music for the day included a plainchant mass setting according to Tone VII, Allegri’s Miserere, Aaron Copland’s anthem Have mercy on us, O my Lord, and a J.S. Bach organ voluntary on the chorale O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross.  (Full disclosure: this sermon is a major revision of the sermon I preached for the same day in 2013, as curate at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado.)

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, amy 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.

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the great contributions of any civilization is its art.  From Michaelangelo’s David to Incan temples to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, there is something about the stunningly beautiful that gives us pause: that lets us glimpse an ultimate reality, that seems to prove beyond doubt that there is something more out there, something better, something pure and true.  And we think that if we could just find it, if we could just lay our hands on it, our world would make sense, our lives would have meaning and value and a beauty of their own.  So we hold up the ideal.  We look for the Davids, the shining marble statues, and we strive for them, to possess them for our own.

The same is true in that part of our lives we call spiritual.  We know what we ought to do, and we have patterns that show us how to ascend the dizzying heights of holiness: people like Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa; like the anonymous alcoholic who has turned his life around; and famous names from ages past, like Francis, and Julian of Norwich.  We recognize in them lives well-lived, full of wisdom and peace and goodness.  They show us what life can be, invested with the glory of God.  And we think that if we could just be a little more like them we would be all right.

Art’s great communication of human beauty, and the saints’ great communication of spiritual glory: both are treasures in any civilization.  But on Ash Wednesday, the ashes remind us that the image of the pristine marble statue is hollow; or if not hollow, then at least it’s only a part of the story.  Life is messy.  We screw up.  We hurt each other.  We hurt ourselves.  We do not live up to our own expectations.  We are embarrassed by the truth of our lives.  We are only too aware that there is a huge gap between the portrait of our lives and the portrait of the life of even the least of the saints.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  Today’s ashes remind us that the vast uninteresting sequence of uninteresting moments — fraught with small failures and the rotten fruits of human weakness — that this sequence is not some departure from a golden ideal which it is our task to recover.  But rather today’s ashes remind us that this sequence lies near to the foundation of human life, perhaps one of the few things each one of us has in common.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  The beauteous archetype may be out there somewhere, but even David grew old and died.  Even Bach was panned by his critics.  Even Francis was lonely and frustrated.  Life is not a pristine marble statue.  As this ash reminds us of our mortality, it also reminds us that the life we live is characterized by fits and starts, by confusion and injury and loss, and starting over again.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  Dust.  Into which God breathed to create human life.  It is dust of the earth, our dust, which is the connection between us and God.  Our dust.  Not our perfection.

Art is a treasure because it points towards the ultimate reality of the Beauty of God.  It points, but it does not plant that Beauty in us.  It is instead our weakness, our brokenness that leads us to God, and it is our dust in which God plants his beauty.  We follow Jesus, not to the heights of earthly splendor, but into the desert, where he faces the basest temptations of human nature.  We follow Jesus, not to the dizzying heights of personal sanctity, but to the cross, where he hangs the willing subject of death.

There is nothing pretty about this, nothing that sings of Greek proportion, no beautiful edifice of perfect harmony.  It is messy, and difficult, with a tangle of loose ends.  We are constantly tripping over each other and ourselves.  Yet this is the way of the cross.  This is the way of Jesus.  This is the way of God.  And the beauty of this Way of Dust is not that fallible human beings can succeed in painting portraits which resemble God.  But rather the beauty of this Way of Dust is that God interjects himself into our lives, into our dust: into our lowest embarrassments and most mundane failures, as well as into our best loves.  In this way, God himself becomes the artist, not we ourselves, and you and I become his self portrait.  Our lives become shot through with his glory, and the whole creation echoes back the song of the angels.

This Lent I hope we will take seriously this Way of Dust.  Its call on us is to take a close look at our lives, to repent of our sins and of all the ways in which we try to keep God out, the ways in which we try to keep our dust for ourselves like a greedy child taking over the sandbox.

“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  We are nothing more and nothing less than this pile of dust and the breath of God.  Let us welcome God’s breath as we live our messy lives.  Let us follow Jesus into the desert and be fashioned there into the image of his glory.

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

Do not stay on your sickbed.

The following sermon was preached at S. Stephen’s Providence, at 8am and 10am on Sunday February 8, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  The mass setting was the premier of a work by Steven Serpa, sometime member of the Schola at S. Stephen’s and currently a doctoral candidate at University of Texas, Austin.  He calls it his Missa Brevis ‘Eya martyr Stephane’ after the medieval carol which provides the musical inspiration for the work.

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

Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him of her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted he up, and the fever left her; and she began to serve them.”  In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Today’s Gospel gives us a rare peek into the domestic life of Jesus and his first disciples.  Simon Peter had a mother-in-law who lived in the same town just a short distance from his own house.  She was sick.  Simon and his brother Andrew, obviously fond of her, tell Jesus about her illness.  He goes to her immediately and performs his second miraculous healing in the Gospel of Mark.  Mark, in his characteristic style, is breathless to tell us what happened, piling clause on clause: “and this, and that, and then this.”  The whole thing is a touching scene of familial devotion.

What is really unique, however, is what Simon’s mother-in-law does after she is healed: she gets up and serves them.  In other healing, the person healed goes home, praises God, gives thanks, tells their neighbors, talks with the priests, or decides to follow Jesus.  But in this case Simon’s mother-in-law gets up from her sick bed and serves them.  How does she serve them?  The text tells us that evening is advancing.  Maybe she serves them dinner.  Maybe she washes their feet.  We don’t know.

What is certain is that it is her own particular response.  Just as Mary’s reply to Gabriel, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” is not mere passive assent but a supreme act of personal agency; just as Mary Magdalene, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair is to her credit through every generation; so also with Simon’s mother-in-law.  Her response to her healing is to get up and serve Jesus and his disciples.  It is a free act, the first choice of her new life, free of fever and sickness.

Her actions were typical for women of the period.  Keeping a household fed and in order would have been a familiar task, and a heroic one.  But getting up from her sickbed to serve Jesus and his disciples began a new thing.  By this act she enters into a new kind of relationship with the one who healed her, and with Peter and Andrew her family.  Jesus for her is no longer just someone her kids talk about.  Her sons-in-law are no longer just fishing industry drop-outs.  She has experienced healing firsthand, and by serving she makes herself part of the household of the one who healed her.

What about you and me?  Some of the most significant moments in our lives, some of the most powerful stories we tell about ourselves, are of times when we have experienced firsthand the forgiveness of God: Divine healing and restoration in parts of our lives we had long since consigned to hell, or to Judgement Day at the very least.  Some people today even continue to experience miraculous recoveries from illness.  Wherever we are in our lives, each of us can probably identify at least one or two moments when we have known firsthand the grace of God.

The magnitude of our healing is always clearly visible by comparison with the depths to which we had sunk.  Addicts in recovery know this better than most.  Like Simon’s mother-in-law bed-ridden with fever, so we can find ourselves dead in sin, unable to achieve even the smallest good by reason of our being mired in destructive habits and misaligned priorities.  In these moments, it takes a Savior to bring us to our senses, to give us the medicine of grace, and to lead us in a better way.

When this kind of healing happens, it is cause for rejoicing, and for response.  As a priest one of my most treasured privileges is to hear, occasionally, a first confession.  The pure, unmitigated joy that a penitent shows when his or her own specific sins have been absolved is nothing short of miraculous (and contagious!).  To me it always speaks volumes that their next impulse is to amend their lives with loving enthusiasm, out of thanks to Christ who gave himself up to death that they might live.  Our forgiveness, our healing, always demands a response to our Physician.

That response, whatever it is, is always an expression of liberation from death.  It puts us in a new relationship to the one who heals us.  Maybe you remember the show, “Rescue 9-1-1” narrated by William Shatner.  It documented 9-1-1 calls, and the stories of the patients and their families with the rescue team and health workers who nursed them back to health.  In every case, Patients and Rescuers both  expressed clear affection and familial devotion for these new people in their lives, in addition to the gratitude and satisfaction we might expect.  It is the same with us and Jesus.  Our healing brings us into a new relationship with him, and with everyone else whom he has also healed.

What is this new relationship?  For Simon’s mother-in-law, it meant being incorporated into a larger household than she had at first, the household of her healer and redeemer.  But more than this, she is sometimes regarded as the first Deacon.  The Greek word which we translate as “she served them” is diakonei the same root word which describes the first seven official “Deacons” at the beginning of Acts.  Simon’s mother-in-law is the prototype of the protomartyr, Stephen, our patron here and the patron of Deacons.  Our Lord healed her from a deadly illness, and she served them; Stephen served in the Lord’s name, and died for his sake, whereupon he received the martyr’s crown of eternal life.  They are mirror images of one another.

What about us? What do we become when Jesus heals us? Each of us is inclined, by personality and by gift of the Holy Spirit, to respond in different ways.  But what is common to us all is that we are brought into closer relationship with Jesus and with all the redeemed in the body of his Church. Closer, more in touch, more deeply bound to God and to one another, more responsible for each other’s welfare and integrity.

In a special way, Simon’s mother-in-law lived the words which Jesus will preach later in the Gospel of Mark: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant … For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  She makes no further appearance in the Gospels, and we are left to surmise that she lived the rest of her life in this pattern of response to the healing Word which Jesus spoke to her.  That Word formed the foundation of her life from then on.

It is the same with us.  The Word which speaks forgiveness and healing into our lives remains a constant companion our whole lives long.  At times comforting, at times unsettling, it continuously refreshes us even as it continuously calls us into a closer relationship with the One who speaks it, and with all who hear him speaking.  It does not leave us the same, but draws us ever on: to new heights of joy, to new depths of humility, to new deserts of repentance; to new gardens of higher innocence, to a new household of deeper love.

What do we take from all this?  Do not stay on your sick bed! The Word of life is spoken, the Son of God is risen from the dead.  Do not stay on your sick bed.  It is comfortable, its contours are familiar, it is a world in which we flatter ourselves to think we are sole kings and undisputed monarchs, masters of our own destiny, and deserving of all honor and indulgence. But the sickbed of sin leads only to death: to stay there is to be deaf to the Word, and to consign ourselves to silence, isolation, and the grave.

Instead, hear the Word of forgiveness and healing: “Take up your mat and walk.”  Get up from your bed, and serve the Lord who heals you.  Take hold of the new life his forgiveness brings.  See the great multitude who are now your brothers and sisters, who share in the joy of eternal life.  See them, and love them.  We are all members of the household of God, and therefore members of one another.  Let us love one another, serve one another, and so join our voices to all those everywhere who echo the Word of life: Speaking healing into the lives our neighbors, and living to the praise of his Name who makes us his own forever.

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

The Conversion of St. Paul

The Conversion of Paul, Michelangelo, 1545. Sistine Chapel.

The Conversion of Paul, Michelangelo, 1545. Sistine Chapel.

This Sermon was preached at 10am on Sunday, January 25, 2015, at S. Stephen’s Church, which was kept as the festal mass for the Conversion of St. Paul.  Today is also the third Sunday after the Epiphany, which propers were kept at 8am.  Music at the 10am was Herbert Howell’s Office of Holy Communion (Collegium Regale), with the Peter Philips anthem Beati estis.

Collect: O God, who by the preaching of thine apostle Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having his wonderful conversion remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 26:9-21, Galatians 1:11-24, Matthew 10:16-22

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

Today we keep the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.  It’s a day when we have a lot to be grateful for: apart from the events of Our Lord’s own life, death, and resurrection, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, today’s feast probably has more significance for church history and the development of western civilization than any other event in history. Paul’s letters and missionary journeys are simply amazing, the stuff real legends are made of: shipwrecks, imprisonments, dramatic miracles and mass baptisms, church councils, even an address to the Roman Emperor himself.  He is the great missionary apostle, and he laid the foundation for the Gospel in Europe – and by extension, to us too.

But today we keep the feast of his conversion specifically. We know the story — it’s one of those few Bible stories that still seems to have purchase in an age where many struggle to remember even such pivotal characters as Moses and John the Baptist.  Paul, then called Saul, was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians there, when all of a sudden a great light appeared to him on the road, and he fell from his horse struck blind.  A voice calls to him, and he learns it is Jesus, whom Saul is persecuting.  He continues to Damascus, but not to arrest anyone – rather to be baptized by Ananias whereupon he regains his sight, and then receives instruction in the faith for a period of several years.  The rest is history.

When we think of conversion these days, it’s easy to think of math, or of chemistry: something gets changed, from what it was before, to a different value or unit, or even to a different substance altogether.  It’s easy to think the same thing about faith, and there are plenty of televangelists and authors of so-called Christian books out there to sell you this idea, and line their own pockets in the process.  The conversion of Paul is often the poster child of this impulse: a “Damascus Road Experience” we sometimes hear people say, and even say ourselves.  But Christian conversion is not an instantaneous change into some other unit or substance.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  “I once was blind but now I see” — words by John Newton from Amazing Grace, and they are certainly true for Paul.  But neither Paul nor John Newton ceased to be Paul or John Newton.  Their sins were forgiven, and they were made members of Christ’s Body in baptism; but even if Paul had a new name, he didn’t cease to be who he was.  The same faith, the same righteousness, the same zeal which had characterized his whole life so far, remained undiminished.  And the very same faith, the very same righteousness, the very same zeal was put to use in spreading the Gospel all over the known world.

The Snake Oil Salesman seems to be a uniquely American weakness.  I’m sure it occurs everywhere around the world, but here it seems to have a special hold on us.  The Snake Oil phenomenon takes many forms, but it always boils down to getting something for nothing; taking a magic pill that fixes all your problems; changing lead into gold for nothing but the gold already in your pocket.  The Snake Oil Salesman always makes us poorer.  And yet so much of the time, we want religious conversion to be just like one of the Snake Oil Salesman’s magic bottles.  And like many people who have been bamboozled by magic ointments, we can go to great lengths to convince ourselves that it has worked.  How many stories do you hear about sudden and radical changes in someone’s life thanks to the direct intervention of God’s grace?  And how many stories do you read about influential people in that category who have been brought low by the revelation of their all-too-human weaknesses?  Reading Paul’s letters, it’s easy to see he was probably not any nicer of a person after meeting Jesus on the Damascus road than he was before.  It’s obvious that none of his personal qualities were altered in any way.  If anything, everything he was before was merely intensified, not reduced or changed into some other more palatable substance.  Why do we expect religious conversion to work any differently with ourselves?

And still we long for the possibility of being different, of being better people.  As much as Paul stayed the same person after his conversion as he was before, still it is incontrovertible that he did in fact change, in some clearly perceptible ways.  What made the difference for him?  What makes the difference for us?

Many of you know I was on retreat this last week, something I try to do annually but don’t always have the time to do.  I’m very grateful to have been given the time this year, and I’m very grateful for your prayers while I was away.  The place I go for this is a monastery called Christ in the Desert, high in the mountains of northern New Mexico.  It is a Benedictine community, following the Benedictine Rule according to “The Strict Observance.”  You may know that one of the chief hallmarks of monastic spirituality is a commitment to what they call “conversion of life.”  One of the things this means for them is that conversion is a lifelong process: not an instant transition from one category to another, but a daily decision to live for Christ over self, and to do the daily hard work of seeking him first over all.  It is a process of continual repentance, and therefore of continual humility.  They will be the first to tell you that they haven’t “arrived” yet, and nor will they until they see God face to face in heaven.  You and I have to go through a similarly long, similarly arduous process, of continually putting to death the old self, of continually admitting our faults, failings, and sins, and of continually accepting God’s grace to make us more and more like him: so that we are more and more able to recognize his will and to do it.

This is part of what makes Christian conversion different from so many Snake Oil ointments.  But what about Paul?  He actually did see Christ face to face on earth, and however disciplined and consistent he might have been, this was still a watershed moment.  What makes it a moment of conversion?

Certainly he changed his mind about Jesus, from thinking he was a false Messiah to owning him as the Incarnate Son of God. But there’s more to it than this.  On the Damascus Road, Paul has seen Jesus in glory, and now he knows the One who calls him.  For us the task is the same: to know the One who calls us.  This is conversion: not a magic pill to make us nice, or righteous, or whatever, but the opening of our eyes to see and know him who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. [1]  We do this by making choices to put Christ first above self, to seek him in all things, to believe his word, to accept the gifts he offers, to serve him in all the places where he himself has said he is to be found, taking responsibility for our sins and humbly asking forgiveness.  In making these choices (hard choices!) every day, year in and year out, we set ourselves about the task of conversion.  Far from becoming something we are not, it makes us more and more what we were created to be, in the image and likeness of God.

Does all this sound familiar? It might: Patience, humility, being focused on someone else, eschewing possessiveness, practicing generosity, credulousness, hopefulness; endurance to the end.  This is exactly the way Paul describes Love in the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, read at so many weddings and even funerals.  To work towards our conversion is to work towards knowing the One who calls us; but even more than this, it is to love him, and to dwell in his love for us, for our neighbors, and for the world.

Before the road to Damascus, Paul knew about righteousness.  He knew the Scriptures, he had great faith, and he was very zealous for the kingdom of God.  But what happened on that road, and what we celebrate today, is that he was given also to know the Love of God, and to see it face to face in our Lord Jesus Christ.  That made the difference to him, and that makes the difference to us.

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” [2]  At the beginning of this new year, at the beginning of a new term, let us commit ourselves to a continual conversion of life, becoming more and more proficient in the love of God.  So “our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments.” [3]  So may we finally come to our heavenly home, and behold Him face to face who is our Redeemer, Brother, and Friend.

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

[1] 1 Peter 2:9
[2] 1 Corinthians 13:13
[3] Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue. Translated by Abbot Justin McCann, OSB, 1951.