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"

Rejecting Spiritual Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Andrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day, 2017

This sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day at St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 17:11-19

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

This year, more than in previous years, I’ve been struck by the irony of our Thanksgiving Day service here at St. Michael & St. George. What’s the irony? Well, we’re the Episcopal Church, we were founded as the American colonial branch of the Church of England. We all learned in school that the Pilgrims, in Plymouth that first Thanksgiving, came across the sea to start a new life with the freedom to practice their religion. What exactly did they want freedom from? The Church of England! So here we are, celebrating Thanksgiving Day, when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by people who were only too happy to have escaped our company. Yes, our forebears in the faith were actually the bad guys in the Pilgrims’ story. And here we are celebrating their holiday.

Of course in the meantime we’ve made it just as much our own as it was theirs, and it wasn’t until President Lincoln came along, two hundred and fifty years (or so) after the Pilgrims, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the first place. But this year I find myself reflecting on the irony all the same, especially that we were the bad guys in that story; we were the ones demanding so much uniformity in religion that the pilgrims found it intolerable in England, and escaped to the New World.

Of course there are two sides to every story, and the good guy/bad guy dynamic is never monolithic. Still it occurs to me, there may be some value, even some virtue, in hearing stories in which you and I are the bad guys.

Now that was three hundred, four hundred years ago; none of us were responsible for the scenarios in play at the time. But if we want to be heirs of our ancestors’ legacies, we also have to own their mistakes. If we want to be good, honorable beneficiaries of their successes, we also have to be humble enough to admit where they got away with things they shouldn’t have.

When I preach about the Communion of Saints, I often point out that Death is not the divide it once was; since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ the living and the dead are knit together in profound and abiding ways. That’s a great comfort to families mourning a loved one. But it’s also a double-edged sword, especially today as we rehearse stories like the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving. In the Communion of Saints, we Episcopalians are implicit in the Pilgrims having fled their homeland.

So what does that mean? Does it change the way we celebrate this holiday? Does it mean our own offerings of Thanksgiving are somehow less acceptable? Not in the least. What it does do, is to point out for us that we do not always have to be in the right; we do not always have to be the underdog; we do not always have to be the heroes in the story in order to give thanks. And in fact, it might help us give better thanks if we considered the alternative once in a while.

We have this attitude sometimes I think, that giving thanks is like any other transaction of goods for services. You give me something, and I thank you for it. And if what you’ve given me isn’t any good, then I’m under no obligation to say Thanks, let alone to be grateful. So, when we find ourselves not in a position of being the hero in the story, or of playing a different role than we thought, a different role than we’d intended, we have no idea what there is to be grateful for anymore. We may even start to feel in debt, and that is no position for thanks, only a position of weakness and vulnerability. Who gives thanks for liabilities, or bad credit, or criminal records?

Why on earth should Episcopalians give thanks on Thanksgiving Day, when our forebears are the ones who kicked out the Puritans, the ones who lost the English Civil War, who lost the American Revolution, and found themselves continually at odds with prevailing national currents? Even today there are plenty of people who are keen to paint us as the bad guys both of history and of current events. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong; only that these are stories people tell, and it’s hard to be full of thanks when they are not the stories we’d want to tell about ourselves.

But if we find it difficult to give thanks in these circumstances, I suggest we might have the wrong attitude about Thanksgiving in the first place. It is NOT a transaction of goods for services. It is NOT a reward for good behavior. It is NOT about feeling blessed by my own good fortune. It is NOT about being the hero, or even the teller of my own story. Rather, for Christians — Christians of any stripe, whether Episcopalian, Pilgrim, or otherwise — Thanksgiving is the humility to recognize where we fall short, the humility to see the holes in our favorite stories about ourselves, to take stock of our failures, moral and otherwise; and Thanksgiving is the decision not to stand on my own ego but only on the forgiveness and the providence of God. Thanksgiving, for the Christian, is the humility to recognize our shortcomings, and the decision to stand only on God’s forgiveness and providence.

Every farmer knows the mistakes that get made every season, and every farmer knows the miracle of harvest regardless. The act of Thanksgiving teaches every Christian not to rely on my own wisdom, my own accomplishment, but only on God’s forgiveness, and on God’s providence, to provide for those whom he loves regardless of their deserving. Because the critical piece is not my success, my deserving, or my good fortune; not my good reputation, my bank account, my clear record, or my party platform, but only the love of God. The critical piece is only the love of God, love both for me, and for the one who thinks I’m the bad guy.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s you and I give thanks to God, that in his infinite sense of humor he puts Episcopalians and Pilgrims in the same country to figure it out, and muddle through together. And let’s give thanks, that despite the continuous ways we screw up, despite the stories we like and the stories we don’t, that God loves us still; that Christ offers himself for us still; and that in this way we are being brought beyond history, beyond its winners and losers, its story-tellers and its victims, to be remade in the image and glory of God, finally what we were meant to be: creatures of thanksgiving at all times, and in all places, for all persons, and in all love.

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

All Saints, 2017

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 5, 2017, at CSMSG. It was the Sunday after All Saints, and in the morning we kept this feast; in the evening we offered a requiem for All Souls, and Evensong in commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

Collect: Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Revelation 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

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

Recently I was talking with one of our college students, who was in the middle of what he described as some pretty intense “tunnel vision.” This is pressure time in schools, as deadlines begin to loom and students and faculty both start to run out of runway as far as the calendar is concerned. This student was telling me that all he could see at the moment was the next thing right in front of him. He didn’t have the time or the emotional energy for anything else. It was just, read this, write that, wake up and do it all over again.

I told him I admired his dedication, but he was quick to correct me — “I don’t,” he said. “I wish I could get out of this tunnel vision, I wish I had time to look around and notice what else is happening in my life. As it is my my cousin is getting married, my mother started a new job, my friends are planning their summer internships, and my roommate is an art major planning his senior show. I can’t keep up with any of it, I can’t go to the wedding, I don’t think I can even be there to support my roommate. It feels like it’s more than I can manage just to do my own work. How am I supposed to do everything else too?”

I tried to tell him there was light at the end of that tunnel, but I still felt duly chastened, as you might expect. We finished our meeting, and presumably at this moment somewhere he’s working away trying to finish everything on his plate.

But he got me thinking. How do we find a balance? How do we sustain the tension between small tasks and the big picture? Usually, it takes getting clear about the mission, doing what it takes to carry it forward, and convincing ourselves that it’s okay for the moment to let the other things slide. This is just part of emotional maturity, part of getting on in this world. It carries the added bonus of helping to shape the way each of us is unique, as we learn to offer certain talents and skills in specifically experienced and targeted ways.

Sometimes, though, and maybe more often that we’d like to admit, it’s easy to forget that we’ve adopted tunnel vision in the first place. It’s easy to start seeing our own lives, our own responsibilities, the tasks right in front of us demanding our attention, as the whole picture, in and of themselves. We forget there’s a world beyond our own responsibilities, a world beyond our own loyalties and relationships, a world beyond our own limited sense of what’s important right now.

The problem with this is twofold. First the obvious, if we mistake our own tunnel vision for the whole world, we can be hopelessly out of touch with the real needs and concerns of the world we ostensibly want to be a part of. Second, though, and more subtly, our tunnel vision can lead us into despair, like it was threatening to do with this student. “I can’t possibly do everything that I want to do. Which means I’m also prevented from living up to the vision I had for my life in the first place, prevented from engaging in all these life-giving relationships, prevented from participating in all that life promises.” And once this kind of thinking sets in, it can set itself against any kind of meaningful work at all. “If there’s no hope, then why bother in the first place? And if I can’t manage my own life, why should I bother putting any faith in institutions, or religions, or God? Surely they can’t be any better at navigating life than I am.” Which of course is simply more tunnel thinking, taken to its logical conclusion.

What this all reveals is that tunnel vision is extremely insidious. Its whole line of reasoning accomplishes nothing except to reduce, further and further, the horizons of possibility, creativity, and love, until all we’re left with is my own present moment, disconnected from everything except mere survival.

Enter the feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate one of the principal holidays of the Christian year. We don’t commemorate any particular saint, or make any special remembrances of individual lives. What we do is celebrate that, thanks be to God, the Church is anything but tunnel vision; that the Christian Church is always more than the sum of its parts at any given moment in time.

No tunnel vision here, the horizon is wide open, past the limits of knowledge, sense, and time. We celebrate today all the saints whom we will name in the litany, all those whom we don’t have time to name, and all those whose names no one knows except God alone. Today we celebrate the whole Church in Paradise and on earth, visible and invisible, from the dawn of time and at from its close, in every corner of the globe and every circle of heaven: all here, now, in this celebration. Are you suffering from tunnel vision? The feast of All Saints offers a strong wind of fresh air.

We don’t have the whole picture, none of us can in our lifetimes. We are always limited by our own experience, our own strengths, our own weaknesses. We are always afflicted by our own particular troubles and the troubles of our time. But the Church is bigger than our tunnels. God is bigger than my vision. And no matter how heavily populated or richly embellished my idea of heaven becomes, there is always more to it than I can see, further up and deeper into the glory of God.

So what does that mean? On the one hand, we must lay down the burden, the presumption, of needing to grasp the whole picture, or of needing to live the whole picture myself, of needing to be all things to all people. And on the other, remember that when we are caught in whatever tunnel dominates the moment — whether it be school or kids or performance or success or health or worthy causes or whatever — remember that this tunnel is not the whole world; that more is out there, more is waiting, more is unfolding all the time. And by our baptism, in Christ, we are made a part of it.

By our baptism, each of us has one foot on earth and one in heaven; one foot in the present, and one in eternity. One foot in church this morning at St. Michael & St. George, and the other with St. Francis in 12th century Assisi; with St. Theresa in the slums of 20th century Calcutta; with St. Anthony Abbot in the 3rd century Egyptian desert; and with Our Lady herself as she kneels at her prayers, surprised by the arrival of the archangel Gabriel.

This is not only a matter of retrospection, of us looking back; but from their perspective as they looked forward: they could not have imagined who we are, but as they lived their lives, we were there with them, not yet born but still a member of the same mystical communion, the Body of Christ. Here in church we are all bound up in one another; we continue to stand at the cross with Mary and John, even as we also walk alongside whatever unknown generations will follow us; even as all the saints and angels now in heaven stand with us here this morning.

The best illustration I know is in one of the novels of Charles Williams. A soldier, miserable in the trenches of World War I, looks up from his post to see an angel arriving to strengthen him — at the exact moment, 50 years later, that a little girl says a prayer to remember the grandfather she never knew, who was to die in the action to follow.

The nature of our lives here on earth means that we will always be navigating various tunnels. They are the condition of our mortality, and there is nothing we can do to avoid them. We will always be turning down opportunities and possibilities in favor of the present moment with its own needs and demands. We cannot always see the payoff of the work we do, the hopes we cherish, or the prayers we offer. We cannot always see how we remain connected to the whole, amid the pressures and challenges we face. And yet, in the economy of God, these tunnels are not traps, not prisons, any more than Jesus’ own tomb was a trap or a prison.

Rather for us they are an occasion, an invitation, when the walls begin to close in, to reach out beyond our present capacity, beyond our ability to see or know or do, and rest. Rest in the great company of saints united across all creation. Rest in the Holy Spirit who even now breaks into our world and feeds us with the Bread of Heaven. Rest in the simple prayer of a faithful heart to be led one step at a time.

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

Rendering to Caesar

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on October 22, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Trinity. It was the last week of hearing “Stewardship Testimonials,” parishioners offering a brief reflection of why they give, in advance of our “Pledge Sunday” when we receive pledges of support for the next year. This year the lectionary offered one of the most classic, and notorious, passages on giving – Jesus getting pigeonholed by the Pharisees about whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. My sermon tried to reframe the question around the larger matter of Duty, as contrasted with Generosity; which could just as easily have been preached on the similar passage, “A man cannot have two masters; you cannot serve both God and mammon.”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; 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: Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

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

Yesterday, October 21, marked the two hundred and twelfth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. If you know the story you’ll remember it was one of the most significant battles in western history. Napoleon was busy seizing control of Europe, and planned for his coup d’grace a massive invasion of Great Britain. He had assembled both the French and Spanish navies, and had given orders to his admirals to sail their ships north for the final moment. But just as the French and Spanish fleets had gathered, the English Admiral Lord Nelson, with his own officers and ships managed to catch them in port. Though he was outmanned and outgunned, he drew them out and defeated the entire combined fleet without losing a single ship of his own. The war continued on for the next decade, but Napoleon never again attempted an invasion of England, and for that matter could never again challenge England at sea. The British became the world’s dominant naval power (and consequently imperial power) for nearly the next one and a half centuries.

Part of the mystique and pathos of the battle was that Nelson himself was shot and killed in the action. His body was preserved in brandy and was returned to England months later, where it was received with great pomp and circumstance and laid to rest in the chief place of honor in the crypt beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His last words to the fleet came by signal up the mast of his flagship, in the final minutes before the battle began. He told them, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” It became a slogan of sorts, even a national motto, for the understated, dutiful, and noble disciple to do what is required in matters of great urgency and danger. “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

It’s a great story and a thrilling moment. But why do I tell it this morning? Because, for all his heroism and legend, I think Nelson might have sympathized somewhat with the question the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” What is our duty toward the state, given our other personal loyalties? It’s worth remembering, the Pharisees, for all their appearance as “The Bad Guys” in the Gospels, were actually keenly interested in doing their duty, both by God and by their fellow countrymen. They weren’t exactly happy paying homage to Caesar, but for the most part they did not support rebellion against the Romans; and for that matter they were happy even to make friends with them if it meant they could gain influence and authority. 

For the Pharisees there was something about Jesus’ preaching that seemed seditious to them, unpredictable, unstable, as if it aimed at subverting the status quo, or any productive way forward for religion and society. So they try to trap him in a question about duty. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It’s a carefully designed entrapment, so that whether Jesus replies “Yes,” or “No,” they can accuse him of not doing his duty, either to Caesar or to the God whom he calls Father.

But Jesus, typically, sees through the entrapment. The question is not really about taxes, or about the law. Rather it reveals an important underlying assumption about the people to whom Jesus is preaching, and presents him with a golden opportunity to articulate and correct their error. The question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” is fundamentally about duty. What ought we do in order to fulfill our obligations? The problem that Jesus identifies is with the notion that duty is what faith is about in the first place; with the idea that fulfilling our obligations is the end, the point of sufficiency, when we achieve what we owe and are rewarded with our just desert; and when we can get on with doing what we really want to do now that the box is checked and our duty is done. 

Jesus’ reply cuts them to the quick. It cuts because it forces them to think first, what is it exactly that Caesar claims? In the Roman world, Caesar claimed not only taxes but absolute loyalty as well, to himself, the son of a god. At Caesar’s behest the empire took land and life as it willed, and was not obligated to recognize either rights or even personhood of anyone who wasn’t Roman. In short, Caesar claims everything for his own. And yet faith asserts that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, “The sea and all that is in it,” and he demands much, much more than Caesar. If Caesar already gets everything, what’s left for God? In the question of parsing out duties, the Pharisees had come up with a vast series of pragmatic compromises to keep both Caesar and God happy. But Jesus’ reply articulates the tension between God and Caesar in its starkest possible terms, and makes it clear that duty simply cannot resolve all the demands placed upon it.

I can’t help but think that Jesus, in his reply, is also offering a little foreshadowing, a hint at things to come in his own life. In only a few short chapters, Jesus himself will render to Caesar exactly what Caesar demands: his own life, on top of his dignity. What could there be left to render to God on the cross? 

If Jesus were interested only in fulfilling his duty, Caesar would have everything, and there would be nothing left for God. But in rendering to Caesar all that Caesar demands, Jesus reveals that there is one thing Caesar cannot claim, and that is what Jesus renders to God. Caesar can take what Caesar wants. But he cannot steal what is freely given. He cannot conquer what is freely offered. He cannot rule what is freely delivered. Jesus goes to the cross at Caesar’s demand. But hanging there he offers his life to God, offers his forgiveness to his tormentors, offers his love to Mary and John and his compassion to the thief hanging next to him; and in the end he gives his spirit into the hands of his Father. Jesus goes to the cross to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But he conquers the cross by rendering to God what is God’s, even in the moment of his own death. And that free gift, indomitable, conquers the grave.

Caesar can demand what Caesar likes. But in his free gift of himself, Jesus establishes a new economy, a new kingdom, which reveals the insufficiency of mere duty, and invites you and me to do likewise: to give ourselves, in whatever circumstances we face, to the fullest extent we possibly can.

What does that mean? It means that duty is not sufficient. The minimum is not good enough. The requirements demanded by Caesar and by everything else in our lives will always be more than we can meet, no matter how many resources are at our disposal, no matter how small or great our capacity to obey. So what hope is there? How is Jesus’s witty reply Good News for us? Because the cross is where we see what it really means. And what it means is this: that no matter how small your gift, if freely given, in the moment of its giving, you will join with Christ in his victory over death: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” he says to the thief, and to you and me. Any gift given, whether time, talent, treasure, affection, or compassion, when given for the sake of giving and not for the satisfaction of fulfilling obligations, launches its giver into the priesthood of Christ himself — the central mystery of the cosmos, in which the gift of everything back to God results in the creation, the healing, and the fulfillment of all things.

“England expects that every man will do his duty.” But Nelson himself did much more: by putting his own ship in the front of the battle, and commanding his troops from the deck rather than from safety, he put himself in a position to pay for his extravagance with his life. He is remembered as one of the greatest heroes of this or any age. 

How you decide to give your own life is a question that only you can answer. You and I will probably not be remembered like Nelson. You and I will probably not be remembered at all, in the grand sweep of things. And yet, by giving ourselves away in the small and uncertain moments of our small and uncertain lives, we participate in the gift of Christ himself upon the cross, and we bear witness to the final, enduring freedom of the Kingdom of God — no matter the demands placed on us by duty or our ability to fulfill them.

The measure we give will be the measure we receive, not the measure we pay, not the measure we save. Let us therefore freely give and forgive, that in rendering to God what is God’s we might receive our own freedom, and our own life besides.

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

Why?

This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017, at CSMSG. This year every week seems to bring with it some new disaster, some new crisis of faith, and this week especially with the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. In this context it’s all the more natural to ask “Why?” especially of God – but one of the perennial troubles is that God is not always forthcoming with an answer. This sermon is an attempt to point the way towards a specifically Christian response to the matters at hand, as well as to the larger question of faith and suffering.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who live the and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

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

I’ll never forget, in the first weeks of being ordained a deacon (I wasn’t a priest yet) I went to the hospital with my father to see my grandmother. She had just undergone a complicated procedure for pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis which had taken her — and all of us — completely by surprise. Most of my dad’s four siblings were in Grandma’s room with us, and we were all talking quietly while she slept off the residue of the anesthesia. One of them asked me point blank, knowing I’d just been ordained, “So all right Blake, now tell us why this happened.” I confess I was at a total loss for words. I’m sure I mumbled something unsatisfying, and the conversation carried on.

Or another case, years before: a friend of mine committed suicide after graduating from college, after suffering through depression and various family issues for years. In his last email to me before jumping in front of a train, he said the one thing that troubled him the most, was “Why anything at all?” Not just, “Why is there bad in the world?” or, “Why is there good?” but, “Why is there anything at all?” He’d grown up a person of faith, but something about that particular moment in his life prevented him from seeing any reason at all behind any of the things he was facing. There was no satisfactory answer I could give.

The last time I preached, Houston was in the middle of historic flooding after Hurricane Harvey. In the few weeks since, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria have both hit, and we’ve just had yet another record-setting public shooting, this time in Las Vegas. “Why” is still the question on my mind, and I’m sure it’s an important question for many of you too — whether about these specific incidents or something else you might be facing. Are there any answers to be had from Christian faith? And if none are finally satisfying, why should we bother in the first place?

This is where the parables in the Gospel, and actually the whole Gospel itself, really begins to shift us out of our comfortable patterns of thought. In today’s parable about the vineyard and the wicked tenants, Jesus is telling a parable about himself, among other things. He is the son in the parable, who willingly goes to the tenants, and gets killed by them. Why on earth is this the way it works? We don’t know, though we’ve spent the last two thousand years coming up with one theory after another about why it has to be this way. The son gets killed by the tenants in the Gospel parable. The Son of God gets killed by those he comes to save in the Gospel. Why does it have to be this way?

You may know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian in the Second World War, who refused to collaborate with the Nazi state and found himself in a prison camp, where he was executed mere days before the Allies liberated it. In the letters he wrote from prion, he observed that asking why was always the wrong question, because it revealed two flawed assumptions. First, asking why is the wrong question because it assumes that knowledge will always fix things; and second, because it assumes the chief function of God is to satisfy our curiosity. The problem with this first is that knowledge simply doesn’t always fix things; more often than not it creates further problems of its own. And second of all, if God exists merely to satisfy our curiosity, then God can be dethroned in our hearts by anything that offers a more enticing or convincing explanation. This is the heart of all the so-called “Science and Religion” debates. If God exists to offer explanations, and if science offers a more detailed account of how atoms work (or whatever), what reason is there for holding the doctrine of creation?

But this is not what God is for, this is not what doctrine is about. God is not here just to offer explanations for thorny questions, questions about either the nature of reality or the painful experience of suffering. Jesus did not take on human flesh in order to answer our questions or to give us a satisfying “Why.” Instead, he came to cast a vision, and to live it out to its end: a vision where the Son of God shows up in our world not as the enforcer of some kind of divine fairness, or the all-knowing oracle who untangles all knots — in our parable today the son does not successfully demand anything out of those tenants, or convincingly explain to them their error. No. The Christian vision is where God himself shows up and gets murdered; where Jesus shows up in the world he made, and reveals himself not the enforcer but the victim; the Victim whose offering of himself on the cross breaks the whole economy of death and bridges the chasm between heaven and earth. For Jesus there is no answer to suffering, except to suffer it himself, and in so doing establish the victory of life over death, out of which victory he brings healing to the nations and to your heart and mine.

This is the paradox, the mystery at the heart of Christian belief: that in suffering, in loss, in pain, injustice, and unfairness, somehow God is present and heaven is near: not as the solution to a problem, not as the explanation, not as the cause, but as the victim, whose death breaks the power of death forever, and whose life is the source, the pattern, and the guarantor of all human flourishing and joy.

No, Christian faith does not answer any questions. It does however question us: do we really want to embrace the vision which Jesus casts? Do we really want to live in a world where the Son of God is the victim and not the cavalry; the suffering servant and not the righteous landowner? Do we really want to live in a world where the last are first, and I might not get what I have coming to me after all? Do we really want to live in a world where justice and righteousness and even law itself do not avail but only mercy, weakness, and love? Do we really want to live in a world where the meek inherit the earth, and where the rest of us will have to be content with a backseat when it comes to the priorities of God?

Make no mistake, this is not a satisfying answer, logically or rhetorically. And yet it is the answer which God offers, both in today’s parable and in the Cross. If the Cross is an answer at all, it is the answer to a question no one is asking. It doesn’t answer our “Why?” to Harvey or Irma or Maria. It doesn’t explain Stephen Paddock, pancreatic cancer, depression, suicide, or Bonhoeffer’s Nazi captors. But the God who is last, who puts himself into the breach and suffers the consequences he neither asked for nor deserved — this God is our God, whom we worship here this morning and whose table we will approach in a few moments.

No this is not a satisfying answer. But somehow I think we intuit that it might be the correct answer. We are always moved to see the photos of people shielding one another from bullets with their own bodies. We sense something deeply right about this, even while we know the cost is too much to pay; and it helps with sketching out the only response the Gospel offers. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is never to fight fire with fire; never to come up with reasons why it must have been the will of God; never finally even to pass or repeal legislation. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is to step into the breach with our own lives after the pattern of our Lord — and find, when the darkness closes in, that a Light shines there which the darkness cannot comprehend. In this way Heaven continually breaks into our world from within, not standing offering explanation or escape from without.

This is the only way the Gospel could be Good News to my grandmother. At that point there was no stopping the cancer. It could only be what it was, while the rest of us could only sit and watch in dismay. There was nothing anyone could do to fix it. Yet in her own quiet way, even as she slept in that hospital room, she gave the answer I could not offer. In her graceful dying, concerned only for the well-being of her family, she bore witness to Christ himself on the cross giving Mary and John into each other’s care; and, finding Jesus there in the midst of her dying, there is no question that he himself carried her home.

So, if you find the vision compelling and you really do want to be a part of the Christian response to the suffering in our world — don’t try to explain it, or offer some kind of half-baked solution that only makes yourself feel better and does no justice either to those who are suffering or to the God who claims them for his own. Rather, if you want to offer a specifically Christian response, put yourself in the way of heaven; put your own life into the breach. Let heaven break into the world, into your heart, from within; not reserving it to judgement or escape from without. Go where life is most threatened, most vulnerable, in the world and in your own soul. There, say with Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And find: that, embracing the God who is last and least, the victim of all earthly powers, his strength will transfigure your weakness, his death will transfigure your life into his own eternal love.

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

No time to waste

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 9, 2017 (13th after Pentecost) at CSMSG. It was Labor Day weekend, and Hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc in Houston and elsewhere as it made landfall. Meanwhile I’ve just started reading some of the works of the late Rev. Dr. John Hughes, an English priest and theologian, one of whose scholarly concerns was to articulate an Anglican “theology of work” as inseparable from worship, love, and joy. It’s a version of one of his theses that I offer as the resolution to this sermon.

Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

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

“There’s no time to lose!” There certainly isn’t in Houston. The Red Cross, Episcopal Relief and Development FEMA, and scores of other helping organizations are partnering with thousands of local churches, groups, and individuals to help with the flooding. The damage is enormous. There have been other disasters, but as crises always are, this one is immediate and life-threatening for many, and life-altering for countless more. In this moment of great need, there is no time to waste.

For St. Paul too this morning, there is no time to waste. I don’t know about you, but I’m breathless after reading the long “to-do list” he writes in today’s passage from Romans: no less than thirty commands give the Romans, and we ourselves, marching orders from Paul. There’s no time to waste: from “Let love be genuine,” to “weep with those who weep,” to “feed your enemies,” and everything in between. The scope of the work is overwhelming. Any one of these commands might take us an entire lifetime to achieve. We’d better get started, there’s not a moment to lose.

It’s not just the number of commands either, but the nature of what Paul tells us. The first on the list is hard enough: “Let love be genuine.” Who among us hasn’t ever said ‘Thank You,’ or ‘Have A Nice Day,’ through gritted teeth? And yet not just one, but thirty. I don’t know what’s on your to-do list, if it’s anything like mine you’ve got enough to do already to take you all the way through this life and well into the next. But the stakes here are high. “Overcome evil with good.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” 

If we allow these commands to govern our lives, we find ourselves on a completely different footing than the one we’re used to doing business on. The insult your mother-in-law shot your way; the way your friends or coworkers take advantage of you; even that rude driver in the other lane who can’t seem to merge at the right time; you’re just going to have to turn the other cheek. Because there is no time to waste. We are citizens of a higher country, a heavenly one. According to the rules of that country, turning the other cheek is not a sign of weakness but an offering of love, which refuses to demonize even the demons, and allows Life the final word — not death, corruption, or decay. We are not given enough time on this earth to waste it holding grudges or worshiping idols, whatever your favorite idols might be. There’s no time to waste. Get busy already!

And yet: If you’ve ever been in a position to volunteer in a crisis, whether for a natural disaster or a loved one’s illness or something else, you’ll have discovered an important truth — that even the most acute crises make for a lot of waiting around. The patient’s family waits for the surgeon to finish. The surgeon waits for the patient to emerge from anesthesia. The patient waits for the doctors and the body to do their work of healing. Volunteers wait for deliveries of sandbags. Delivery drivers wait for the next convoy. And so on. And the moment when you’re standing there feeling like you’re there, and you ought to be doing something already, is often the moment when most you are.

Sick people recall first not how busy the nurses were, but how attentive they were and how kind. Flood victims recall first not how efficient the relief agency was but the way they paid attention to them and their needs as if they were the only people on earth. Sure, work has to get done, and fast, no mistaking that. But in the final analysis, so often it’s the time spent waiting around, seemingly wasting time, that proves the most meaningful, the most restorative, on a personal level.

Love is a lot like that. Love doesn’t grow by tasks accomplished or any other kind of efficiency metric. It grows by two people wasting time with each other. Not treating the other as anything other than themselves: not as a means to an end, or a tool for my own gratification, but by simply wasting time with each other. Prayer is like that too: wasting time with God. So is the whole incarnation of Jesus Christ: the Son of God comes to earth in order to waste time with us lousy people, who were just as easily distracted then as we are today. 

By any metric, Jesus’s incarnation was neither busy nor efficient. He spent thirty-three years on earth and only three of those in ministry of any recognizable kind. The “converts” he made in his lifetime all either betrayed or abandoned him at the cross. Jesus came to earth to waste time with you and me, and in the process to consecrate time itself to his use, to his glory, forever. He went to the cross to consecrate even death to the purposes of Love, and ascended into heaven that you and I might waste time with him there too.

So we’re left with a problem. On the one hand, there’s no time to waste: we’d better get cracking if we’re going to live up to our identities as Christians, and accomplish all that that entails. That’s no joke. And yet on the other hand, not wasting time any time toward that end, will require us to be okay with wasting time.

Or, put it another way. We’re used to thinking of Work and Rest as being opposed to one another. But in the Kingdom of God, they are not opposed, they converge. Work and Rest converge in the worship of Almighty God, and in his kingdom’s economy of love. For Christians, Work and Rest converge in the worship of Almighty God, and in his kingdom’s economy of love.

The work we are called to is to waste time loving God, our neighbors, our enemies, and each other. The promise is that we will find the time we waste in this way drawing into eternity, opening windows on earth into heaven.

So, here we are. It’s a Sunday morning, we’re all in church. The world is falling down around our ears in different ways every week. So what’s new? There’s no time to waste, not a moment to lose. Let’s quit acting surprised by it all and do something already. Say your prayers. Come to the altar. Be fed with the bread of heaven. And get busy wasting time with God and one another, loving in whatever material, emotional, or spiritual way you can muster. Take up your cross, lose your life for Jesus’ sake — your reputation too, your influence, whatever you most like to hoard — and find those windows onto heaven have become your own home, and the work of God has become your own rest.

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

At the crossroads of silence and noise

A sketch of the Crucifixion, by St. John of the Cross, c. 1550.

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday morning, August 13, 2017, at 8am and 10am. It came at the end of an eventful week in our national public discourse, with tensions increasing in North Korea and a shockingly open display of racism and hate in Charlottesville VA — while for me in our own parish it was a week more than usually concerned with death and dying, and fallout from the breakdown of relationships. I did not write this sermon as a direct response to any of these concerns, but as a reflection on the nature of specifically Christian peace under the growing shadow of so much that seems to threaten it. Meanwhile, as the world continues to mark various WWI centenaries, war poet Wilfred Owen’s “At A Calvary Near the Ancre” keeps echoing in my head. This was one of those Sundays where the appointed lectionary texts were perfectly suited to this kind of timely reflection, and the music was very much in tune with the theme. The choir sang a recent setting of John Henry Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light,” while hymns included At The Name Of Jesus and How Firm A Foundation.

Collect: Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

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

“Can’t you just give me some peace and quiet?!” “It’ll be so nice to have the kids out of the house, we’ll have the place to ourselves again.” “I can’t wait to get back to back to school, I’ll finally have my parents out of my hair.” “I’ll miss my husband on his trip, but it sure will be nice to have some more quiet in the house.” “The neighbors are so noisy,” “The television is so noisy,” “Why can’t it ever be quiet?”

If you’re like me, or like most of the human race for that matter, you’ve probably said something like this before, at least to yourself or under your breath. Quiet is one of those things we long for, maybe now more than ever. The retreat industry is booming, monastic vocations are growing, as we all begin to see the health and spiritual benefits of shutting up for a little while.

And yet, even as Quiet starts to become big business, there seems to be less and less of it to go around. Everywhere noise fills the space. In a world of 24 hour news and social media, the only cardinal sin is to have nothing to say. In a world of 24 hour market cycles, the only mortal offense is not to be busy. And when we do manage to escape, we find ways to fill the silence on our own. 

The truth is we’re uncomfortable with quiet. At a public event, if the speaker pauses for too long shuffling papers, we all get nervous; if they take too long drinking from their water glass the audience breaks into a sweat. What if they lose their place? What if the words stop? Even when we’re alone, we put on music, or turn on the radio or tv, anything to avoid the silence we so desperately long for.

Why? Why are we so terrified of the silence, but so drawn to it all the same? My best guess is that silence, for all its prospect of relief, is also when the demons come out. Quietness presents us with nothing but ourselves for company. We are faced with all our worry, all our wounds, all the darkest parts of our natures, and it makes us feel vulnerable and afraid.

It’s easy to criticize someone who self-medicates with drugs or booze, especially if we don’t share the temptation. It’s much harder to see, much harder to admit when we self-medicate with constant noise, constant distraction. But self-medicating is exactly what we’re doing, protecting ourselves against the silence that both menaces and entices us.

The prophet Elijah knew something about both the enticement and the menace of silence. He flees to Sinai in today’s lesson, because he is afraid for his life: Ahab and Jezebel both want to kill him for exposing the prophets of Baal in their lies. Elijah flees their persecution, flees to the solitude and safety of Mt. Sinai, where God had visited his people centuries before, to speak with Moses and deliver the law. 

Elijah goes there to escape the chaos, to escape the threats on his life. But, truth be told, he goes to mope a little too: he goes to complain to God about how alone he feels and how overwhelming it all is, how “those people” he’s working with are just the worst. God’s answer is to send a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, each of them greater and more impressive than the last, while God himself does not appear in any of them. When Elijah hears a whisper, a still, small voice, then he knows, instinctively, to cover his face, for God is finally present.

Why does God go through all the trouble with the earthquake and the fire? As if to say, ‘Elijah, whatever you are going through, whatever chaos you face, there is something beyond it all, something unaffected by all the uncertainty and the fear, and that something is God.’ Go to Mt. Sinai, enter the quiet cleft in the rock, face the demons that come out, but press through to the silence that cannot be harmed by them, press through to the presence that refreshes even as it sends us back out into the fray. That silence, that presence is God, whose peace passeth understanding. When Elijah spends time with God listening to that still, small voice, he is encouraged and strengthened for the rest of his ministry. And such a remarkable ministry it is that when it concludes he is taken to heaven, bodily, in the chariot of fire.

Today’s Gospel offers another example. Jesus has been alone at prayer all evening, after dismissing the 5000 he’s just fed. The disciples have gone ahead in the boat, and Jesus prays in silence alone. (Enjoy the irony here! Jesus, the eternal Word of God, silent in prayer.) He looks up, sees down the hill across the water to his disciples, struggling in the boat against the wind and waves. He walks to them on the sea. When they see him coming they’re even more afraid, but he assures them he’s not a ghost. He bids Peter come to meet him, walking on the waves, and Peter does.

It’s a remarkable moment: Jesus, fresh from his moment of communion with the Father, extends that same peace, that same assurance even to Peter in the midst of the storm; and Peter is so encouraged by it that he walks on the sea to meet Jesus. 

But somehow the spell breaks. Peter looks down and sees the wind. He sees the rain, the waves, he loses his balance, he starts to sink, he cries out for help. Jesus himself of course is undisturbed by Peter’s trouble, but in the very moment Peter cries for help, Jesus grasps his hand. 

Then they’re in the boat, the wind stops, and the disciples are in awe. But pause for a moment on the sea, at the instant where Peter grasps Jesus’ hand. Poor Peter – of course he’s terrified, there is every reason to be: the wind is strong, the waves are tall, and suddenly he realizes, ‘Wait, I’m walking on the sea! Who thought this was a good idea? What am I doing? Help!’ Jesus grasps his hand.

Peter is in terror, quite rightly afraid for his life. And Jesus grasps his hand. There is no mistaking it, Peter is in immediate, grave, mortal peril. And yet, with Jesus grasping his hand, there is no place on earth or in heaven that is safer or stronger or more stable.

Peter goes out into the sea to meet Jesus and quickly realizes he’s facing all his worst fears and the very real possibility of failure and death, as the waves threaten to swallow him whole. But what he meets there in all the noise and chaos is the deep quiet of the wellspring of eternal life, which grabs hold of him and saves him.

There is another moment in the Gospel where all the demons of silence and noise duke it out. That moment is the cross, where Jesus himself faces all the weapons of death, all the storms of anguish and despair. As he gives up his spirit and descends to the dead, he carries with him the inexhaustible peace of God — which all hell cannot endeavor to shake, though all hell surely tries, and is undone in the process.

Here is one of the central paradoxes of the Gospel: Hell itself, Pandemonium with all its demons, is finally defeated, broken down, not by frontal assault; not by subterfuge, sanctions, or diplomacy; but by Peace itself, crucified and dressed in bloody rags, simply walking through its doors and out again, leading its captives free.

So what am I saying? When you or I feel overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of this life, turn off the TV. Look for the silence, for God, who is beyond it. But don’t be fooled: as Elijah discovered, there is no safety in hiding out. As Peter discovered, there are no guarantees even when we go to meet God. Whatever winds, waves, earthquakes, fires or demons we face in this world follow us into the silence, follow us wherever we try to escape, and we will face them there all the more directly, all the more fully. They will make us feel threatened and afraid, and with Peter we can’t be sure whether the waves won’t swallow us alive.

But whatever demons our silence or escape reveal, resist the temptation to self-medicate. Resist the temptation to turn the TV back on, to restore the flow of our favorite anesthetic chatter. Instead of reaching for the remote, reach for the Cross, where our anchor holds no matter the storms without or within. 

Let the one who hangs there be your still point in this turning world. He is the one we come to, waiting for us, at every crossroads we reach. He looks desolate and alone, but his cross is the seat of all majesty and power. Our way is non-linear. We get lost, we screw up, we disappoint, we don’t live up to our potential, we don’t know where to turn. But strangely, mysteriously, his cross is always near at hand. I cannot tell you what will happen when you approach it, what he will say to you, or what you will become. But I do know one thing for certain: as you look up, and your eyes meet, your whole world will shatter, and you will be made new.

As we wander amidst the noise, and fire, and fury of our lives, we face only one question. Will we stop, will we look up, to regard the one hanging at the crossroads? Will we let everything else fall away? Will we choose his peace over all the noise and distraction? Only then will we share his victory of life over death, only then will the demons retreat to their broken lairs.

“And mercy and truth will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other; and his glory will dwell in our land.”

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

“One thing is needful”

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, July 30, 2017, the Eigth Sunday after Pentecost. The title I’ve given it here comes not from today’s readings but from the episode with Mary and Martha. They’re putting on a dinner party for Jesus, but Mary has left Martha to do all the work while she sits with Jesus. When Martha speaks up about this, Jesus tells her that “only one thing is needful” – and that what Mary has chosen will not be taken away from her. What is the “one thing” that is “needful”? Today’s sermon is in partial response to that question, within the context of the appointed readings and various events and occurences throughout the parish week.

Collect: O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy, that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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

Well here we are, this week with the last section of Romans 8. We’ll continue hearing Romans on Sunday mornings for the next month or so. But this marks the end of our especially detailed consideration of these two central chapters, 7 and 8.

It’s one of those moments, when once the reader has said, “The Word of the Lord” and we all reply, “Thanks be to God,” apreacher hardly dares say anything at all; the lesson preaches itself. The final few verses are an especially magnificent cadenza read frequently at funerals: they are a manifesto of sorts, astronghold of hope, the banner of victory to wave in the face of death itself: ‘Neither life nor death, angels nor demons, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Cling to these verses, hold them close, because in a world as challenging and confusing as this one, they offer some very strong medicine against the temptation of despair. They throw our focus onto the cosmic dimension of the Gospel: that even though it appeals to each of us individually, the victory of the cross is the victory of life over death, light over darkness, good over evil. No matter what may afflict or confuse us, one thing remains true, one thing remains clear: that Jesus who died is Jesus who rose from the dead, and sits now at the right hand of God, where he rules over all creation, seeing to the government of even the stars and galaxies.

But manifestos notwithstanding, I get it, there’s still plenty to worry about, there’s still plenty to grieve. Day after day I hear about lives cut short, struggles with addiction, financial disaster, disease, unfaithfulness, estrangement, abuse, depression. Not just as a priest, but as a human person in this world, it’s impossible to escape the continuing litany of bad news, cold shoulders, grudges, selfishness, distraction, and refusal to take personal responsibility. Kids, young people, grown-ups, every one of us labors to one degree or another under an umbrella of possible doom — or at least it can feel like that a lot of the time.

And so we worry, and so we grieve: every disappointment becomes for us further evidence that hope is either out of reach or impossibly naive, every loss becomes for us further evidence that life is tenuous, fragile, and not to be taken for granted. St. Paul’s great cadenza can fall flat in such circumstances as these, a nice thought, but reality is cruel. We put aside our hope, our Gospel confidence, in favor of being so-called “realists.”

But why do we allow death to have so much power in the first place? I submit to you, that perhaps we ought to start taking life for granted more, and not less. Romans 8 presents a view of the universe in which Christ has conquered every power, every death, every demon, and has done so with the express purpose of uniting us to the Love of God forever, even planting the Spirit himself, “The Lord, the Giver of Life” as we say in the Creed, within each of us. 

If that’s really true, and not just a religious flavor of wishful thinking, we have to conclude, that most of the time we worry about the wrong things; we have to admit, we generally think life consists in all the wrong places: in safety, security, health, and knowledge; in reputation, regard, honor, and influence; in rank, or image, or grandeur; in civilization, law, normality, even sanity. And so, naturally, we become Very Serious People when we perceive any of these things are on the line. Obviously they are all good things and worth pursuing. But if we pursue them for their own sake, we hit a dead end. Life does not finally consist in any of these things, and so we will always be fighting for them, they will always be on the brink of disappearing. 

If you want a simple test, ask which of them successfully survived the cross: which of them did Jesus successfully take from the cross to the grave through the resurrection and into heaven? None of them survived intact, none of them made the journey without being surrendered, and then transformed. The only thing that did remain, the only secure place where life was unconquered by death, was the Son of God’s complete surrender to God the Father, in love for Him, for the human race, and for all creation. And because life consists in that one place, it also consists everywhere his rule touches — which is to say all creation, and especially the parts of it we might think most fragile.

So what if the stock market crashes? So what if I suffer some enormous betrayal? So what if I don’t get it right this time, or lose my last chance? Christ has taken every loss, every grief, every moment of suffering, into the grave, where it is transfigured by his resurrection and resides now with him in glory.

If any pain or loss or confusion troubles you in this life; if you find yourself the unwilling subject of any height or depth, power or principality, angel or demon, nakedness, peril, sword, or death, draw near to Jesus. Whether at rock bottom of the deepest dry well, or at the height of worldly splendor, draw near to Jesus, and find life shining fresh from every wound, every crack, and every heap of rubble.

I love our passage from the Gospel today, because it illustrates exactly the point: light-hearted affection, taking life for granted, winning out over worry about Very Serious Considerations. 

In addition to being the conclusion of our trek through Romans 7 and 8, it is also the end of a series of weeks for us considering a range of parables. And, just as we’ve been hearing them week after week on Sundays, they come one right after another in the Gospel of Matthew too.Remember, Matthew writes his Gospel based on five great sets of addresses Jesus gives to the people; Matthew wants us all to recognize in Jesus the new Moses, and greater than Moses because he lays his life down and takes it up again.

But all the same, the particular address we’ve been reading over the last few weeks is long. The disciples have tried their best at paying attention. They’ve asked several times now for Jesus to explain some of the more inscrutable parables to them. And now, towards the end of it all, they’re tired, they just want to go home.

Jesus gives a rapid-fire series of new parables, verse after verse, about mustard seeds, bread-making, pearls, fields; fishing, angles, and the end of the world. All of them no doubt very important, very meaningful; but right now they’ve got information overload, they’ve had as much as they can handle. Maybe they’ve lost their focus, maybe their eyes are glazing over a little. Jesus turns towards them as he carries on, and notices that their attention is flagging. Probably he’s a little annoyed, this is a brilliant speech, what’s the matter with them? So he teases them by saying “Have you understood all this?”

Of course they haven’t understood all this, it’s late, it’s been a long day and a long journey. They don’t want to be rude, but they do want to shut him up so they can go to supper already. So they say, “Yes!” to all of the above, like the tired students they are.

It probably catches Jesus a little off guard, just as his question caught them off guard. But he gets their point, and finishes the speech — not without a parting shot for good measure. “Therefore the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” And then they finally go home, at long last.

I love how human this is. “Yes Jesus, we hear what you’re saying, we love you, we’re sure it’s brilliant, we’ll make sense of our notes later; but right now we’re pretty tired, and we’re hungry. Please, let’s just go already.” What makes the difference in all this is not that they understand, it’s not that they’ve got it all figured out. Frankly, they probably have no better idea which of them are good fish or bad than you or I do about our own day; at this point they’d rather eat fish than think about them.

And so they go: to share a meal together, to take their rest, and to continue on their way the next day.

So it is with you and I. We are not somehow lesser disciples or beyond the pale if we are confused, tired, struggling or don’t have all the answers. The one thing that mattered for Mathew, Peter, John, and all the rest, was that they loved their friend. And they learned, firsthand, that all the powers of death and hell, betrayal, sin, and abandonment, could not finally keep him from them. That persistent love of Jesus, beyond all loss and logic, set them free from all that bound them, making them heirs with him of eternal life: life even in the midst of uncertainty, opposition, loss, and later their own deaths as martyrs.

Let that same Spirit dwell in us, setting us free from all our own bonds and worries, transfiguring our life and our vision to behold nothing but Love, reigning from the Cross, calling us into his marvelous Light.

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

Past vs Present

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday July 23, 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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

Two weeks ago in my sermon on Romans 7, I suggested you all go home and read Romans 8. I should have looked ahead in the lectionary, because I would have seen we’d go on to spend three weeks in Romans 8, last week, this week, and next, as the second reading these Sundays.

There’s a lot here, but first of all it makes me think of a close friend of mine. A few months ago now, she checked herself into rehab for alcoholism. It happened as it sometimes does: she reached a crisis point, which played itself out in a more public setting than anyone might have wished. This set in motion a series of events that led to her going to rehab. It’s uncertain now what will become of her job, her marriage, her housing. But it’s a good start that she’s finally getting the help she needs.

Why do I bring this up? Because as her friends, all of us had noticed that she liked to drink, but it simply didn’t occur to any of us that there was a problem until that final moment in the pattern. Then it was obvious, then we all felt stupid for not seeing it before and trying to do something that might have helped.

This scenario isn’t all that unusual. At some point or other we all ask ourselves, “How could I have been so blind? I didn’t see it until it was too late.” We hear it in the news all the time too. No one can see the pattern until the final tragedy, which always comes as a surprise. 

Crises are like that, it seems. The final event is what finally reveals the pattern that made it inevitable in the first place. How could we have seen? What could we have done to prevent it? The truth is that we couldn’t see, not until the final event made the pattern visible, and then it was too late.

It’s not just crises either that work this way. Positive events run the same kind of course. When we fall in love, get married, have children, discover our vocations, or any number of other major, joyful, life events, it causes us to stop and re-read our pasts. Suddenly it all makes sense, it all seems inevitable. While we slogged through a former, unhappy career, or kept trying and kept striking out on the dating scene, or shopped for churches until one “clicked,” in the middle of it all nothing made sense. And then when we found it, or him, or her, it all made sense. Everything before suddenly seemed to have prepared us for this exact moment.

These kinds of events, whether crises or joys, all cause us to re-read the past, whether our own or our society’s, to see how it led us here. Crises or joys both make it clear, that while the past is what got us to this moment, at least in our minds and hearts this present moment tends to recreate, reinterpret the past, and not the other way around. The present is what reveals the pattern that no amount of research, profiling, or soul-searching could have revealed while it was still unfolding.

So what then, is the past somehow subject to the present, with all of its “changes and chances”? Must we stop attempting to discern any kind of patterns whatever? No, that would be a pretty grim world if it were the case. Life would be governed by fate, by chance, and all we could achieve would be a stoic acceptance of whatever life happened to throw our way. Enthroning the present above the past makes for people with very strong characters, but not much sense of humor. Or the opposite, it creates people with such flippant attitudes towards everyone and everything that life becomes nothing more than a means to my own pleasure. Both approaches lead to narcissism, and a self-destructive nihilism.

There’s a problem then in the way we think about both past and present. The past cannot have final say because it’s always the present that finally reveals the pattern. But the present cannot have final say either, because it would make us prisoners to fate, to the uncontrollable march of time and events. 

What to do then about the past and the present, and the way they relate to each other? If you’ve watched, read, or listened to the news lately, you might say this exact question is the crisis point in American public discourse at the moment. But the same question was also one of the fault lines in ancient culture too, into which Jesus was born, exercised his ministry, was crucified, and rose again. And this is also the fault line that Paul is exploring here in Romans 8.

How to make sense of the Church’s Jewish past, of Paul’s own past, and the forgiveness and freedom from the Law that Christ brings? How to make sense of so many conflicting pressures both in tradition and in experience? How do you and I hold onto hope when friends take a stumble, family disappoints, or respected mentors fall from grace? For that matter how can each of us face the darkness in our own lives with grace and courage? Paul’s answer is Romans 8, an extended meditation on the Holy Spirit, and Love at the heart of God.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba, Father,” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”

There’s a lot of crying and groaning in this passage, and that’s true to life. We wish we had seen it sooner, been able to help before it got this bad. Mothers sometimes tell me about the fierce love they have for their children, which often surprises themselves in how instinctual and almost animal it is; it gives mothers’ prayers for their kids a solidness and a force hard to reckon with.

There’s a pressure in our spirits about these kinds of things, which surpasses words. And when we direct it towards God, the Spirit himself joins in and offers the whole thing, with our selves included, up to God. This prayer, this offering, this love, is the unfolding of the new creation begun in us at our baptism, begun in all the world at Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it liberates us from the impossible tensions both of past and present. This kind of prayer, this kind of beginning, is oriented not towards the past or even the present, but towards the future: towards its logical conclusion, towards the consummation of creation’s purpose, when all things are made new in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Don’t miss how revolutionary this is: the Gospel makes our primary reference point not the past, nor even the present, but the future. And the Good News of the Kingdom of God is that the future is breaking in all over the place. It’s great inauguration was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but it continues now: in the life of the Church, all over the world, in you and me when we pray, and in the Eucharist, when we are fed not just with bread and wine from the altar, but with the very life of God from heaven itself. All of these moments are the future Kingdom of God breaking in on us, and they reconfigure what we think of the present, as well as what we make of the past.

The Kingdom of God is always unfolding, not yet complete. And because of that, you and I have no need to be bound by our pasts. There is no blame to be assigned for missing the pattern the crisis revealed, there is no inescapable conclusion we must draw about our society or our world, no hand of fate inexorably dragging us to destruction, no sin which cannot be forgiven, no death without the possibility of resurrection. It means that every moment is pregnant with the opportunity to begin again, fresh, new, in the Kingdom of God, his children, the heirs of eternal life.

As we approach the communion rail this morning, may we remember the future. May we be nourished now in the present by the foretaste it offers of the culmination of all things, united by the Holy Spirit in the eternal offering and receiving of Love.

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